|JANE CAMPION’S RAVISHING MASTERPIECE OF CHASTITY WOULD BE A BRIGHT STAR FOR CONSERVATIVES, IF ONLY THEY WOULD SEE IT.|
|Written by John Marks - Author/Producer|
|Thursday, 15 October 2009 15:05|
Next week, at the Landmark theater chain in Indianapolis, Jane Campion’s extraordinary new movie Bright Star opens, and all of those conservative Indiana families who loathe and deplore the latest depravities from Hollywood should flock with their teenage children to see it, but they won’t, because Bright Star is mostly playing the art house circuit, and as most everyone knows, art house cinemas tend to be found in the urban and politically Democratic comfort zone where the vast majority of fans of independent cinema choose to live.
Socially conservative families, hesitant to venture into enemy territory, or perhaps turned off by other fare on the marquee–Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story or The Baader-Meinhof Complex, a tale about German terrorism’s finest hour—will almost certainly stay away, even though, if there were ever a mainstream movie for them, this is it.
It’s shame, really, another symptom of what journalist Bill Bishop calls the Big Sort, the clustering of like-minded Americans into their own homogenous communities. Art house cinemas are a key marker of the politics of the Big Sort. If you regularly go out to see independent films in the theaters, chances are you’re in a voting district won by Barack Obama in 2008.
Landmark Theatres, for instance, which describes itself as the only national theater chain devoted exclusively to the distribution of independent films, has 57 venues in 23 markets, all of them in the nation’s big cities, from the Sunshine Cinema in downtown Manhattan to the beautifully restored Inwood Theater in Dallas, Texas, to the Keystone Art Cinema in Indianapolis.
Bright Star is a quintessential Landmark Theatres offering. It may play at a few multiplexes, but for the most part, it will be deemed too delicate a flower for the mass audiences who want to seeTransformers sequels. Art house would seem to be its natural home. If you’re in Boise, it’s playing at an independent operation known as The Flicks. If you’re in Omaha, it’s in the Film Streams at the Ruth Sokolof Theater.
And yet, this movie implicitly challenges the logic of the art house ghetto, and the politics that now surround our vision of the larger culture.
Bright Star tells the true story of the brief courtship between the English poet John Keats and the seamstress Fanny Brawne. Keats was in his early twenties and already ailing when the pair met on Hampstead Heath. They wrote a series of now infamous letters to one another, revealing the extent of their passion. Keats ordered her letters to be destroyed upon his death, but his survived. Later, other Brawne letters were discovered. The love appears never to have been physically consummated. The story charts the evolution of the affair from its inception until the poet’s death.
From this material, director Jane Campion has fashioned one of the great movies of the last decade, a piece of visual music as irresistable and accessible as the blues, a song on film.Bright Star, a portrayal of a lost world by turns gorgeous and drab, resists most of the usual cliches of recent period pieces, the Masterpiece Theatre effect, but finds a new expressiveness in the form, a lyrical and disciplined vision of the natural world worthy of Terence Malick. It’s a masterpiece, and surely one of the finest period movies ever made.
Bright Star also happens to be a cinematic hymn to the ecstasies of abstinence and the virtues of a world in which a few lines of the exquisitely turned English can occasion rapture or change a life. John Keats may not quote the Bible to his beloved, but his verse has nothing of the prurient or the puerile. He is reciting lines in the language that is an immediate heir to that in the King James version, and it transports the girl–and the audience.
This isn’t to say that Campion is an advocate of sexual abstinence. She’s not. In The Piano and her overlooked but flawed gem Holy Smoke, the eroticism is explicit, and she makes no apologies. At the same time, in interviews, the director made clear that she wanted to stay true to the known details of the relationship between Brawne, played with a witty soulfulness by Abby Cornish, and Keats, depicted as a bedragged emo boy by Ben Whishaw. The result is a home schooler’s dream, an account of a corseted life of the mind that makes restraint seem sexy and a meeting of the minds orgasmic.
No one curses. No one gets naked. No one seems to exemplify an agenda.
When Keats dies young–I’m not giving anything away, I hope—we don’t sense a vindication of his decision to refuse his lover’s body when she offers it on grounds of conscience. We don’t feel an argument. We feel the sorrow of an untimely death and the end of the possibility of joy, and we grasp the power of language to help us endure both. Keats doesn’t leave Brawne with child; he leaves her pregnant with his poetry, and when she speaks it as she walks, we feel the magnitude not only of her inheritance, but of our own.
“Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art–
Maybe I’m wrong to think that people who feel that their own world has been swept away by the forces of modernity might find solace and encouragement in Campion’s vision of chaste love and ravishing language, but they owe it to themselves, the conservatives in our midst, to seek out this movie.
For my part, I found Bright Star almost overwhelming, not because of my politics or my beliefs or anything else that I can easily name,but because its invocation of the timelessness and grief in human yearning moved me to tears. Do our ideologies make us different? Or do they merely hide the fact that, after everything, after centuries of war and progress, conquest and loss, we are all unbearably and exquisitely the same under the stars?