Friday, September 11, 2009

Against Irony: The Many Virtues of Jane Campion's Bright Star

In Jane Campion's Bright Star, the viewer experiences breath and air as markers of the passage of time in the lives of John Keats and Fanny Brawne, star-crossed lovers destined to leave more to history than to their own happiness. The film, shot entirely in natural and candle-light, is punctuated by two long stretches of period choral music sung a capella. Long close-ups on women's hands doing domestic work - sewing, cooking, and packing - return again and again. Several shots feature one of the lovers lying on their back dreamily or looking with apprehension towards an open window. Like a painting by Hammershøi or Hopper, these images suspend the viewer, drawing out the moment into a filmic statement about the fleeting nature of human existence.

That's Hammershøi's Interior With Young Woman from Behind and Hopper's Morning Sun, in order, above.

Like my other favorite films of recent memory - Silent Light and Jeanne Dielman (which I reviewed together here) - Bright Star dignifies the period women's work that a more glamorous film would sweep aside. Fanny Brawne, played in the film by the excellent Abbie Cornish, is constantly seen with needle and thread, creating the colorful outfits that bloom on her like another variety of the Hampstead flowers she and Keats spend afternoons collecting. Fanny is one of the better heroines of recent memory, a stubborn, exuberant, youthful and ultimately authentic lover. She is both more outspoken than we expect of a woman of her period and more believable. The kisses Fanny and Keats share are chaster than any I've seen onscreen, and more passionate for it. The film's subversion of the audience's expectations of a period film make it, like Sally Potter's Orlando, a more authentic experience.

It's a testament to Campion's script that Fanny's story comes to eclipse Keats himself; the film dignifies her longer life and less glamorous fate. Keats's Wikipedia entry refers to her as "rather promiscuous," which says a lot about the enduring legacy of misogyny embodied in the film by the poet Charles Armitage Brown, who believes that Fanny and Keats's relationship will ultimately destroy him. We all know how this story ends - Keats died of tuberculosis in 1821, at age 25 - and so the story leaves it to us to answer the question of whether passion killed the poet or inspired the work he left behind.

This film boasts many pleasures: the remarkable performance of Edie Martin as Toots Brawne, Fanny's younger sister; the transporting images of the Hampstead countryside; the intelligent and moving discussions of poetry; and the phenomenal lighting. I'll level with you. I was in tears the whole time. This is the best film of 2009, hands down. I love Bright Star especially because of its refusal to bow to the vast hunger for cynicism, a stylistic tendency in all modern art that has become lazy and predictable. With none of the tired shiny tricks like those on display in Tarantino's unfocused and bloated Inglourious Basterds,, this film captures the exhausting length of life with elegance and wit.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Menstrual blood, dandruff, garlic, Stella McCartney perfume, and shampoo, I'd wager

I was listening to some lovely songs on Orenda Fink's MySpace when, I shit you not, this advertisement popped up:

It'd be easy to join the bandwagon of Twilight hatred, but I'm not going to. I'll level with you guys. I think Twilight is pretty awesome. I'm no fan of the retrograde gender/sex politics of the series - although, having read none of the books and seen only the first movie, I don't really know that I'm qualified to comment; I'm just following the lead of other writers I admire and respect - but I can't help a deep intrinsic affinity for Twilight and its fans, the titular Twihards. I've always adored vampires, to the point where I enjoy pretty much any pop culture product that involves them, even if, as with True Blood, I often wish it were better than it actually is. Frankly, Twilight as a delivery service of sexual tension and questions to preteen girls - even if it does go on to answer those questions with the bludgeon of abstinence - doesn't seem like an overwhelmingly negative thing to me. Especially if it leads them to the work of other vampire writers, like the ones I enjoyed as a preteen, Poppy Z. Brite foremost among them. Although Brite has since moved onto excellent culinary fiction (and seems to be taking a sabbatical from writing in the wake of Hurricane Katrina), her splatterpunk vamp novels Lost Souls and Drawing Blood were my bread and butter in the late 90s and early 00s.

I will revisit Brite's work at length in this space, but I'll close here by saying that Stephenie Meyer is damn lucky that so much deeply sexual vampire literature has laid the groundwork for her truly chaste vamp fable. We want Edward because we know he'd be killer in bed if we could just get him there.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Racial Politics of District 9

Warning: Definite spoilers ahead.

As I watched Winkus Van De Merwe, the titular anti-hero of Neil Blomkamp's feature District 9, grow a conscience along with his new "Prawn" body parts, I couldn't help wondering how the film would have been received if the Other in the film had been brown people instead of large insectile aliens. Winkus's character arc is familiar from well-intentioned old-fashioned narratives where the interloping white man infiltrates an othered culture, either of purpose or by accident, comes to understand the gentle natives and eventually turns tail on his own kind to help them escape their oppressors. It's an old story, the White Man's Burden, one where only the outsider can appropriately organize the pure-hearted but disorganized othered mass and lead them to freedom.

I don't think a full indictment of Blomkamp's movie is in order - it's a fresh take on the science fiction epic, and compellingly explores several themes that are ripe for inclusion in pop culture discourse, foremost among them the issue of displaced and refugee communities. Still, setting the film in Johannesburg and involving another refugee population - that of the Nigerians who also live in the slums and scam the alien population - gave Blomkamp the opportunity to make a more considered inquiry into the issues of race and culture present in his fictional situation. I can't say I was too impressed with the garden-variety witchdoctor-employing African warlord Obesandjo, who had the capacity to be expanded into a pivotal player but remained a stereotype of a ca-razy African primitive. Also of interest / frustrating: the fact that military contractors have joined the ranks of Nazis and, well, giant insectile aliens in that rarified class of villains who can be killed with impunity. And I have to agree with Rich at Fourfour's complaint about the film's inexplicable switch from straightforward fake-documentary to first-person narrative film.

Still, I enjoyed District 9 and found myself moved by most of its emotional tricks: the kind and humane alien, Christopher Johnson, and his paternal relationship with his son, as well as Winkus's enduring love for his wife Tanya. It's also one of the most uncannily unsettling movies I've seen in a long time, making the most of its odd marriage of faux-documentary style to the constant threat of Cronenberg-level body violence. The film's greatest strength is Winkus himself, a weird Michael Scott of alien management who we manage to root both for and against. I will be interested to see the sequel, currently known as District 10, and see how much further Blomkamp can take his allegory.


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* My story "Park Rats" was featured on Joyland Chicago

* My food writing appeared on One For The Table. Check out the short essays: "Fried Fish" and Cafe Orlin.