Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Bright Star: The Body of Poetry

Jane Campion has succeeded in making a hyper-physical movie about a Romantic poet whose body is failing him and a woman whose art consists in sewing elaborate garments to cover nearly every inch of the human form. That she has done so is testament to her intelligent filmmaking and to the consistency of her vision for Bright Star, the story of John Keats’ relationship with Fanny Brawne. Every aspect of the film—from its opening hyper-close-up of a needle piercing fabric, to the astounding performance of Abbie Cornish—works to convey the idea, or rather the feeling, of poetry. Campion has made a movie about poetry that unwinds Wordsworth’s famous definition. If poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility, Campion takes us back through the poetry to the raw emotions that produced it. (read an interview with Campion here)

Those emotions find their superb voice in Cornish. There is nothing histrionic about her performance. In fact, she carries herself with a stillness that somehow manages to focus the viewer’s attention all the more on her physical presence. She has the ability of the best actors to register subtle shifts of feeling with tiny changes in expression. But more than that, she presents love, sadness, grief as physical sensations so palpable that we can’t help but share them. Since it’s common knowledge that Keats died at twenty-five, it isn’t spoiling the plot to refer to the scene in which Cornish’s Fanny learns of his death. This scene alone, which includes some lovely acting by Kerry Fox, would be enough to make Bright Star worth seeing.

In writing the screenplay, Campion had the challenge of how to represent the writing of poetry, and how to work the text of that poetry into the film without making it seem artificial. Unlike the scenes of Shakespeare’s mad writing frenzies in Shakespeare in Love, or Jane Austen’s ecstatic all-nighter in Becoming Jane, Campion gives us images of Ben Whishaw as Keats doing a variety of things that actually resemble acts of writing. Sometimes with the supervision of his protector Charles Armitage Brown, Whishaw’s Keats sits and stares, he jots notes, he composes aloud, he pores over scraps on which parts of a poem are scrawled out of order, and he recites a new poem from memory, seeming to form it even as he recollects it.

As naturally as the poetry is created, so too is it spoken—either within the narrative of the film or as voice-over (notably with the film’s final credits, which it is worth staying for). When Keats and Brawne take turns reciting lines from La Belle Dame Sans Merci, it isn’t as if they’re reciting at all. They’re taking the poetry back to the passion that lies beneath it.

Though Bright Star finishes with the sound of Whishaw’s voice reciting a poem over the credits, the film opens with an image that signals its central concern. We see an extended shot of a needle and thread filmed in such tight close-up that the needle looks like a pike and the thread like a hawser. This is Fanny Brawne’s art—fashion—and while she creates distinctive and intricate garments for herself, there is nothing delicate about her or her art. Assertive and confident, she makes no apologies for her dedication to what she herself calls the superficial things (along with flirting and dancing). She is an innovator, proudly announcing that hers is the first dress in two counties to feature a mushroom collar. A lesser film-maker might have allowed this story to become a quasi-feminist equation between the famous poet and the unsung designer. In Campion’s hands, Bright Star is instead an exploration of Fanny Brawne’s experience of making, quite literally, her place in the world—through her clothes, her curiosity, and her emotions.

If there is one weakness in Campion’s film, it is in the puzzling absence of artist’s errors. We never see Fanny’s scissors waver; we never see her tear out a hem. Nor do we ever see Keats labor for a word as we certainly see him (and later Fanny) labor for breath. It’s an odd depiction, actually: artists for whom art seems to come easily, whose ideas all seem to make creative sense. With her camera’s emphasis on the concrete materials of her protagonists’ arts—fabric and paper filmed in extreme close-up—it’s as if Campion wants to insist that art is nothing more than the diligent execution of a fluently conceived idea.

Then again, this is what Keats was describing when he coined the term "negative capability," the ability to reside in uncertainty, to forego "any irritable reaching after fact or reason." An artist experiencing this state of mind is content simply with beauty and with what Keats called half-knowledge. Could it be, then, that Campion's film is true to Keats not only in evoking his life's great love, but also by replicating the conditions in which he wrote his greatest poetry?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

When is a Book not a Book?

Yesterday’s New York Times ran a photograph that made me stop and stare. It wasn’t, thankfully, an image of war’s horrors or a natural disaster. It was a photograph of the young Walter Cronkite, a pipe in his mouth, reading a book. I glanced at the picture, scanned the article, which explained that Cronkite had bequeathed his papers to his alma mater, and then began to turn the page. But Cronkite’s pose was so startling that I turned the paper back, and stared.

There was such contentment in the way he sat, legs propped up on a desk, holding the book loosely in his lap—a sense that his mind was firmly on the words written on the page before him. Now, when we see people reading in public, they are usually negotiating between competing information sources all contained on one screen. There are plenty of readers out there—even readers of actual physical books—but our image of what it looks like to be reading has changed. It’s the ready-for-anything one-handed hold on a smartphone.

Not so long ago, I decried this cultural slide into what I saw as a devaluing of literature. How can you immerse yourself in someone else’s imagination—and sink into your own imagination—if you can’t sit quietly with just the story in front of you, printed on actual paper? Surely there’s something about the technology of ink on paper that shapes the way our brains interact with stories. (See the Times' Room for Debate blog post on the subject.) Now I know that there are numerous reasons to see the explosion of electronic books—and, before them, audiobooks—as not a threat to literature but an expansion of it, a blossoming of the art form to embrace multiple technologies. And who better to spur my thoughts on all of this than Walter Cronkite, a man famous for his role in what was once the new and misunderstood technology of our time? (How many households had televisions in the first years of the Sixties? How many don’t have at least one now?)

Still, old habits die hard. Note that I was turning the actual page of a physical copy of the New York Times. And know that just last week, after finishing my fourth reading of Tom Drury’s fine novel The End of Vandalism, I held the book in my hands for a moment, and—I confess—caressed the cover before setting it carefully down in my pile. The book as loved object is a powerful thing. I suspect I am not alone in viewing my library as a treasured chronicle of my intellectual and emotional history.

And here is where things become complicated. Barnes & Noble has announced their new e-reader, the Nook, and it is a thing of beauty. On the Nook website today, I was dazzled by the object itself as much as by its abilities. I began to muster reasons why I should own one. The technology creates the use and then the need, doesn’t it? I even clicked on the accessories page to see which cover I might purchase for my very own Nook. Among the selections was one cover so meta that it would make post-structuralist theorists weep with joy: in “100% cotton canvas with painted polyurethane coating,” the cover is designed to look just like the first page of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (whose title they get wrong). It’s the equivalent of a brown-paper wrapper, giving the Nook the legitimacy of ink and paper.

The tongue-in-cheek of this cover appeals to me. It’s a kind of anti-Magritte. He painted a pipe and captioned it “ceci n’est pas une pipe”. Barnes & Noble makes an electronic device and effectively captions it with “yes this is a book”. But my bookstore-haunting, book-buying, book-hoarding self retorts: it isn’t a book. And it's name even says so (or else what's the N there for?) The Nook is the same object whether you’ve purchased and are reading Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next, G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, or Tuesdays with Morrie. The Nook doesn't know, doesn't care. Oh, sure, you can see the cover art in a kind of iTunes-y cover flow screen, but all three of these books will feel the same, smell the same, weigh the same. I think this a bad thing. Or is it?

I was just at the point of determining to resist the blandishments of the Nook and of electronic readers in general when a thought from the other part of my life—the rowing part of my life—rushed into my mind. Every February, Boston holds the World Indoor Rowing Championships, a regatta conducted entirely on rowing machines (ergometers). When I first saw the ranks upon ranks of ergometers at the 1996 CRASH-Bs, as they are called colloquially (for Charles River All Star Has-Beens), I knew I was witnessing a truly post-modern moment. But at no point did I worry that all this virtual rowing would damage the sport of actual rowing on actual water.

The inaugural CRASH-Bs took place in 1982, with ergometers made of bicycle wheels and odometers. The digital revolution that would bring in the Nook was already on its way.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Verb Tenses: A Revelation

For a few years now, I’ve had a running disagreement with my writer friend Randy Susan Meyers.* I’ve learned a great deal from her: the importance of adding misery to your characters’ lives, the need to keep the plot moving through a series of “little wants”. But I confess to mostly ignoring Randy’s comments about my verb tenses. The problem? She finds fault with what she calls my overuse of the word “was”—as in “she was sitting,” “the wind was blowing”. Change them to simple past, she says. She sat. The wind blew.

I do see how cutting out “was” after “was” can streamline a narrative. It’s like a sprinter tweaking some small element of posture to cut milliseconds off his stride. Add all those saved milliseconds up, and you’ve gained some speed (and brought down your word count). Still, I resisted making this change in my style because I could never see why it was wrong. How could you start a paragraph, or a chapter, by saying “she sat”? You needed a verb form that implied a more general state of being, a pre-existing condition, in a way. Hence, “she was sitting”. If you said “she sat,” that was like saying she had decided to take a seat in a chair at that very moment.

Then it hit me. All this time—years and years—I have been writing in English but thinking in Greek, which is, in fact, my first language. In Greek, to say “she sat” (E-ka-tse) is to describe a specific and finite event: the moment the woman takes a seat. If we Greeks want to describe a condition (to explain, for instance, a woman’s location in a room), we use a different verb form—one that says, in effect, “she was sitting” (ka-THO-ta-ne). English takes the all-you-can-eat approach. One verb tense to accomplish two things. All this time, I could have been using the Swiss Army knife of verb tenses and having that woman just sit. Instead, I kept hearing the English words through a Greek filter. In a languorous Mediterranean way, the woman was sitting, and sitting, and sitting.

Randy, I concede partial defeat. I won’t change them all, but I’ll change the ones I really should change.

It would be nice to think of myself as in the company of Stoppard or Nabokov—writers who have made lasting marks on the literature of a language not their own. I bet if I looked again at Speak, Memory, I’d find some extra verb forms, or some Latinate diction where none is needed. And doesn’t all of Stoppard’s incredible oeuvre prove his foreignness? Who but an acquirer of English could wield it with such delight and precision?

But who am I kidding? Nabokov and Stoppard produced masterpieces and I just keep getting idioms wrong. It’s the elephant in my closet.

*Randy's novel The Murderer's Daughters out in January 2010 (St. Martin's Press)