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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

entry arrow1:19 PM | Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Jane Campion's Bright Star (2009)

I started this film looking for one thing, but like with many experiences in pursuit of something, I found  another thing.

A film about the romance between John Keats and Fanny Brawne invites a certain reading, a writerly one. Of these films, we ask the hoary questions: how does one live a poetic life, what exactly goes into the making of poetry, and what inspires it? But capturing the dynamism of a writerly life in film has always been an exercise fraught with near-misses, although one can argue about a strong tradition of literary biographies and fictionalised renderings of real lives in celluloid, from Henry & June to Agatha to The Basketball Diaries to Capote to The Hours to The Last Station, as well as well-meaning mishaps like Becoming Jane and Anonymous. The writer as a character in film has always been a fascinating subject. In this trope, we are presented the life of the mind via a creative person,  someone also bedevilled by neuroses that feed that creativity. Drama ensues. When the writer happens to be real, the fascination becomes even deeper.

But how does one exactly convey the life of the mind? Being a writer is primarily that -- an existence of solitary grappling with the word, locked in an imagined tango with the quest to craft the perfectly turned out phrase. Sometimes a film about a writer is successful only in conveying the more dramatic environment of being a writer in the world -- consider, for example, the wild jaunts of Leonardo Di Caprio's brash and young poet in Total Eclipse, or the confining interior world of Michael Douglas' troubled novelist in Wonder Boys -- but not the act of writing itself. Understandably so: there is nothing cinematic in capturing the act of scribbling or writing or typing on a keyboard. Filmmakers employ techniques, of course, to cheat some cinematic drama into the act of writing -- for example, using emotive voice overs reading well-known lines from a literary text while the camera gracefully captures a writer's penmanship -- but the visual shorthand has become a cliche, and a hollow one. Perhaps the best cinematic attempt in capturing the writer and his work-in-progress is Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein's Howl (2010), their fascinating if imperfect dramatisation of Allen Ginsburg's celebrated poem and the scandal that followed the wake of its publication. It is a miraculous film in that it managed to cinematically render authorship, craft, and literary criticism -- a worthy experiment in film narrative that did not quite become a success, but can be lauded for its bravery for trying to capture a veritable lighting in a bottle.

And then here comes Jane Campion's Bright Star. It is perhaps the most accessible of all of her films, after the enigmatic feminism of The Piano, Portrait of a Lady, In the Cut, and her television show Top of the Lake. Part of the reason for its accessibility is the consuming richness of its cinematography: almost every scene in it is an act of careful composition done in weathered beauty, but nothing too contrived to make the look lifeless. There is, in fact, an organic feel to the beauty of the film's images -- and I think it is an aesthetic choice Ms. Campion made to underline the thing she wants to explore in this story about the Romantic poet and his muse.

I was tempted to scour this movie for images that would help me mark it as a worthy exercise in showing us the cinematic possibilities in the literary life. And for sure, there are instances of that...

Like this frame of a solitary Keats writing a poem in the middle of an orchard, which for me is the perfect picture of writerly contemplation, his uncomfortable position in that chair a shorthand for the hardship of crafting...

Then there is this shot of Fanny Brawne writing a letter to the poet, the very act of writing interposed on the image to give us an idea that this is a film, after all, about writing and inspiration...

But this thought struck me suddenly: don't look at this film as a literary biography, or an examination of literary life. Look at it for the emotions it trumpets. And then I realised that the titular character may be Fanny Brawne, fashionista and muse, but it is not her that the film fusses over. She is not its object of affection. She is not the receiver of our gaze, the object of all that longing the film revels in. The movie may be about poets and poetry and the love lives they often figure in, but it is ultimately about longing and pining. Fanny Brawne is the ultimate actor of these tendencies. The film is about her...

... looking at him, Keats, with the pure adoration of the besotted.

How the film lingers on the poet's face. Lovingly, like a caress. This is my best shot. Here is Ben Whishaw's John Keats receiving his own loving, lingering Joseph Fiennes moment in Shakespeare in Love -- the object of a tender female gaze.

Like Abbie Cornish's Brawne, Gwyneth Paltrow's Viola De Lesseps in John Madden's comic 1998 masterpiece about Shakespeare's loves and torments may have been offered as the muse from which our literary genius had wrought great works. But the two films subtly make the case that these men, too, are muses for the women.

These shots -- from the muses' points of view -- eagerly ask us to partake of Fanny and Viola's gazes. Look at them, they dare us. Swoon.

This post is part of Nathaniel Rogers' Hit Me With Your Best Shot series over at The Film Experience blog.

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