Monday, October 26, 2009
Laboring to be beautiful
"I said, 'A line will take us hours maybe; / Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought, / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught." It was impossible not to think of these lines of Yeats while watching Bright Star. The film's very first shot is a close-up of a needle being pulled through cloth. Fanny Brawne, all of 18, is an artist with her needle as Keats is with his pen; and her work has a lushness and inventiveness that echos his. It doesn't take long for her to become an admirer of his verse, despite her initial skepticism. She's no marble-eyed muse - she's as inspired by him as he is by her.
Naturally, it delighted me to see poetry being batted around in the movie theater. I sighed happily when Keats compared poetry to diving into a lake and just floating in the luxury of it. "You're not trying to 'work it out.'" And I got a charge from hearing bits of Keats' letters, along with entire poems. Yet this is not really a film about art. Fanny's triple-pleated collars and Keats' highly-wrought sonnets are only frames for life - the setting, not the jewel. It's about love, real and true and strong enough to create a world within a world. The lovers have a courageous ease with beautiful artifice - he writes "Bright Star" and "Ode to a Nightingale"; she fills her bedroom with live butterflies - but they are only underlining the inherent artistry of all romantic love. A kiss, after all, is as artificial as a poem - as artificial as language - as eccentric as being human when you could have been a cat or a seraph. This film shows the wonder and surprise of just being in love - something that tends to get trampled over in most movies in the hurry to get to the sex scene. Bright Star shows much less, and much more.
And John and Fanny's first kiss is one of the loveliest cinematic kisses ever. There are so many beautiful images that it seems wrong to single out just one - fields of blue flowers, fields of daffodils, changing seasons, light reflecting from open books, knocks exchanged through a wall, Keats and his friends forming a human orchestra and singing Mozart. (The "Serenade for Winds" has been stuck in my head... it took me back to middle school when I first saw Amadeus. Which reminds me: I thought Keats' friend Brown came off as a little too Salieri.) And I can't go without mentioning Fanny's little sister Toots, whom Keats accuses of eating rosebuds:
The romance is pretty much the entire plot, and as long as it continues, the movie has just enough structure to absorb you. It all feels very unaffected and true to life, so much so that I scarcely feel the need to see it again.
There's no artistry to death though; at least not to Keats' death. That medieval title you sometimes come across in Catholic bookstores, The Art of Dying, is a little beyond most of us. Keats' poverty isn't insurmountable: by the end of the film his books are selling a little better and Fanny's mother has totally accepted him and welcomed him into the family. It's nothing more than the bacteria in his lungs that's keeping him from starting a life, as they say, with Fanny. His death ends the film with a leaden and inartistic thud - which is perfectly appropriate. This isn't a tragedy in the Greek sense. There's no dramatic satisfaction. The final minutes of the film are raw and hard to watch. The whole experience raises more questions than it can answer, and that's really a good thing. Before Keats leaves for Italy he has to say goodbye to Fanny, and she bursts out, "Shall I awake and find all this a dream? We cannot be created for this sort of suffering." She's right. It's all wrong. In the past, I have sometimes wondered at the vehemence of the grief that some people still feel for Keats. What makes him so special? And I myself have stood in the little room where he died, spellbound with sadness, and taken the metro down to the cemetery so I could pray by his grave. He was so good at communicating the sensuous joy of being alive and the sadness of living in death's shadow that we have learned to mourn with him; and I feel grateful to him for that. Bright Star does the work of his poetry in making you feel the weight of love and the horror and wrongness of death. If we could always see that clearly, we would always be in tears like Tolkien's Nienna. (It's a good thing we can't; how would we drive or cook or keep our mascara on?)
Near the end of the film, Keats offers that "poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery." Mystery is what he was left with, as all of us are. The poem that Ben Wishaw recites over the credits works as well as any. Poetry may be frail, but sometimes it's just enough: a patch or splice or bit of silken string that holds us together.