Monthly Archives: October 2009

A Bright Star Among Films

There is really only one way to describe the recent film Bright Star: It is exactly like the poetry of one of its central characters, John Keates. This movie is painfully beautiful and heart-wrenchingly tragic, ceaselessly Romantic, lyrical and slow-moving. And on top of all that, like all the best poetry of the past and present, it presents a world of beauty and heartbreak to which all can relate on one level or another.

Bright Star tells the story of the tragic romance between poet John Keates and his sometimes-neighbor Fanny Brawne. When the movie opens, Brawne is a seamstress whose success seems to be growing. The bankrupt Keates is staying next door with his friend and fellow poet Charles Brown, struggling to eke out a living writing poetry with little success. Keates and Brawne at first seem to inhabit different worlds, Fanny’s one of the practical and down-to-earth, and Keates’ a much more immaterial world of poetry and words. But as they begin to spend time together, they realize that they connect on a deeper level, and a tentative romance blossoms. Soon they are madly in love. When they are apart, they write long, heartfelt letters, and when tragedy finally strikes and Keates dies, young and yet unknown by the literary world, Fanny’s life is torn asunder.

Now, one might think that after the 2005 Pride and Prejudice, we would have had quite enough of the period film about the spunky heroine who finds herself falling for the man she at first thought she hated. But the romance between Fanny and John is refreshingly un-gimmicky, their progression from mild dislike, to tentative flirtation, to heart-stopping romance surprisingly natural. Throughout the film, the pair seem to be engaging in a just-below-the-surface intellectual debate about the nature of beauty and the importance of poetry in a practical world. But Fanny never loses her practical edge, and Keates never gets his head out of clouds. Instead they learn to balance each other, appreciating, if never entirely understanding, the beauty that each of them brings into the world: Keates through his poetry and Brawne through her sense of design. Somewhat ironically, considering the melodrama usually associated with the Romantics, this romance is refreshingly subtle. Plus, as many reviewers have pointed out, the film is possibly one of the sexiest I’ve seen in quite a while, despite the fact that there is no actual sex in it.

Bright Star is full of complex and fascinating characters, but my favorite, without a doubt, is Fanny. Not much seems to be known about her historically, though letters exist that detail her life and relationship with the famous poet she almost married. She is portrayed as an unselfconscious and independent woman. She is a practical soul who enjoys people and enjoys life. Though a unique and complex character who might have easily been turned into one of those spunky ahead-of-her-time heroines, the film sees no need to trumpet her independence. She is merely Fanny, and that is what makes her feel so real in any time period.

Best of all, Bright Star has one of the most unselfconscious historical settings I have seen in some time. The 19th century England of Bright Star lacks that perfect-Hollywood-period-film sheen common in films like Pride and Prejudice and Atonement. Shot with a stark sort of beauty, it is instead something earthier and messier, something that feels much more real. In my own blog, I have already spoken of the film’s down-to-earth costuming decisions. Not every shot is beautiful and flawless, either. Bright Star contains a scene in a terribly unromantic hospital and any number of harsh winter landscapes. Details like small spaces in which characters sometimes seem to live on top of each other and clothing worn over and over add to the feeling of realistic “historicalness” often missing from period films.

The two best words used to describe Bright Star are two words you usually don’t see together: unselfconscious and Romantic. The film not only paints an image of a faraway era and of a poet who is now a firm member of the poetic canon, but also, succeeds in creating something immediate, real, and emotionally raw that connects the present to the past and the everyday to the poetic. It is, dare I say it, one of the best period films I have seen in a very long time.



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Filed under film, history

Emigrants, Exiles, and Electric Guitars

I have a confession to make: I’m not really a music person. This is the sort of statement that raises eyebrows of confusion among my peers. No, I don’t really need a pandora and a blip and a account. I appreciate the ambiance created by live music, but don’t really see the need to seek out full-blown concerts of either the popular of classical variety. For me, music is best when it’s being used to present or prop up something else: a story, a dance, a mood. Music is powerful, but rarely does a musician or band grab me all on its own.

But there’s one band that rises above all others and gives me everything I could want in music and more, a band that produces songs with narrative, songs that make you want to get out on a scuffed wood floor and dance (and I’m talking real swing-your-partner-until-she’s-dizzy, breathless, stylized partner dancing that fell out of popularity somewhere in the 1950s, not the bump-and-grind of the modern club), song that combine acoustic and electric and old and new seamlessly. And best of all, if you know what to listen for, their lyrics are really, really nerdy.

I’m talking about Flogging Molly.

For the non-folk music (and/or non-punk music) nerds among us, Flogging Molly is an American Celtic punk band founded in Los Angeles, California by Dave King, Ted Hutt, Jeff Peters, and Bridget Regan, who first began fusing traditional Irish music and contemporary punk sounds in the early ’90s playing in a Los Angeles pub, Molly Molone’s. They eventually signed onto a record deal with SideOneDummy Records. To quote the all-knowing source known as Wikipedia, “Flogging Molly has released an independent (26f Records) live album titled Alive Behind the Green Door, as well as four studio albums: Swagger, Drunken Lullabies, Within a Mile of Home, and Float; and an acoustic/live DVD/cd combo Whiskey on a Sunday. They have toured with the Warped Tour, Larry Kirwan’s American FlĂ©adh Festival and contributed to the Rock Against Bush project. They have sold in excess of a million and a half copies of recorded output as of December 6, 2006.”

Best of all, even within the history-heavy Irish music genre, Flogging Molly this ability to invoke historical images and historical narrative better than any other band or musical group I have ever heard. More than the Dropkick Murpheys, or the Pogues (yes, even more than the Pogues), or even more traditional-sounding bands like Great Big Sea and Gaelic Storm, they are attuned not only to the celtic folk musical tradition they are following in, but to the complicated, muddy history of Ireland itself.

And let’s face it, guys. That’s my kind of nerdy.

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Filed under history, music, Pop Culture