Thursday, March 4, 2010

Swoon to death

A few posts ago, I wrote about a cluster of films with writers as the central characters. Writers in movies can be tough to dramatize, and poets even tougher. Many of their most critical struggles are internal. What do you do--show a guy staring at a piece of paper? Best dramatization of the writer's dilemma is in 1776: Jefferson is trying to write the Declaration of Independence. He scribbles something, reads it and crumples the paper. Stares into space. Writes something. Crumples the paper. Stares into space. Without writing anything else, he crumples the paper. Even his unwritten thoughts are unacceptable!

Bright Star (2009) concerns the romance between poet John Keats and his young neighbor, Fanny Brawne, with whom Keats was emotionally intimate. The obstacles are not the usual: parental opposition or social-cultural differences, but poverty and disease. Problem is for a storyteller--the story is over at the moment it begins. They cannot marry, they will not marry because he is too poor and sick. In time he dies of being poor and sick. How to keep the ball in the air for 119 minutes? There is a bit of fooling around with an emotional triangle, between Keats, Fanny and Charles Brown, Keats friend and sponsor, who appears to be jealous of Fanny. Ultimately, this thread leads nowhere, but to Keats early death, foretold at the outset.

Unfortunately, Keats's poetry, unlike dramatic verse, is difficult to comprehend aurally the first time around. Only the poem "Bright Star" which is repeated a few times, and slowly makes an impact. But I cannot say that the film "cracked" the problem of dramatizing the life of a poet.

The good news about Bright Star is that it brought Jane Campion back to theaters, as Amelia (2009) brings back Mira Nair. But Amelia demonstrates that while we may think of a life as being packed with dramatic events, that does not in itself provide a dramatic shape for those events. And drama, especially on film, is about structure. Amelia Earhart's life follows a strangely straight line. She emerges as the result of a publicity search for a woman pilot to stand alongside Lindbergh in the public eye. That she is actually a competent pilot is just a bonus. The film pursues this angle strongly in the first two acts and then drops it without exploring its significance.

Anyway, the story arc is that Earhart becomes famous, first for being famous, then for flying. She (and her publicist-husband) set her higher and higher tasks for a flyer and she develops a wider and wider circle of celebrity acquaintances. As determinedly played by Hillary Swank, she is intent on furthering aviation as a viable pursuit for women. Then one day, she flies away and never comes back. And as pleasant as the movie is up to this point, its failure to come to grips with the central enigma of Earhart's life--her disappearance--makes one wonder why the filmmakers embarked on the project at all. At first, I think it might be an interesting take on publicity and celebrity, in the mode of Coppolla's Tucker, which remains a spectacularly underrated film. It might have been about Earhart's strange marriage to Putnam, which seems to begin as a business arrangement, threatens to become more than that, and at the end, is simply unclear. Was Putnam grief-stricken at her loss? We don't know from this movie.

I think it is fair to say that, even if it is just out to amuse and distract for 90 minutes, every movie needs to know what it's about and make that clear to the audience. Mira Nair has not been doing well in that department lately.

One last observation--the film continues to mark the progress of digital special effects for the simple reason that no attention ever was called to them. And in a film like this, which has to be filled wall-to-wall with such effects in order to conjure up the world of the late 20s to the late 30s, it is only helpful to the narrative illusion that one has become unaware of such things.

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