Long live the blog!
Now that’s out of the way, let us move on to more pressing matters. On Wednesday 4th November, Leeds International Film Festival went underway for the 23rd year in a row – now extended by a week, enabling it to run all the way up to 22nd Nov – ready to showcase some of the finest contemporary world cinema. Real films, for real cinema enthusiasts.
Opening night saw the premieres of two highly anticipated UK-funded features, the first of which being The Men Who Stare at Goats (Grant Heslov, 2009), a war comedy based on the book of the same title by Jon Ronson. Lucky for us, the man himself happened to be in attendance and he treated us with a Q&A session after the screening. The book and film both revolve around the real-life misadventures of Ronson, a journalist who heads to the warzone with nothing to lose, his lover having left him for a one-armed man. (Yeah.) Soon enough, he’s in over his head, learning a thing or two about psychic powers, running through walls and, of course, staring at goats. Ewan McGregor portrays Ronson, despite them looking nothing alike (but who’s to know?), and the rest of the all-star cast is filled out by the ever-reliable talents of George Clooney, Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges.
Something didn’t quite sit well with me during this film. For one thing, there was the typical feelgood moral message stamped onto the end to give some sense of forced closure despite an ambigious and deeply mysterious subject matter. The film itself wasn’t as wildly satirical as one would imagine, with most of the humour simply revolving around people falling over, crashing their car or getting run over by a car. A few chuckles were to be had, but unfortunately a good proportion of the jokes fell flat.
I initially felt uneasy, and resisted the urge to come to a definitive conclusion until after the man of the hour, Jon Ronson, had taken to the stage and had his say. Rather than dispel my qualms, Ronson more or less confirmed them and gave me no reason to give the film a second consideration. Freely admitting that 70% of the film came from his book with the rest being completely made up (including Spacey’s character and the existence of the one-armed man), I once again felt that familiar pang of disappointment that runs through me whenever someone’s artistic vision is compromised by the pressures of commercial interests. Only on this occasion, Ronson didn’t seem to mind, or at least he didn’t want us to think he had a problem. He praised the film for essentially existing as ‘feelgood’ fluff and wished it great success, then went on to tell us about how the book’s version of events took a darker, insightful tone; how his writings really got to the heart of some of the issues that we saw on screen, yet were never fully explored cinematically. Once again, Hollywood scuppers another great opportunity.
To wipe the bitter taste of Goats from my mouth, I needed a full, uncompromised, untainted realisation of an artistic vision. There was no disappointment to be found in the next premiere.
New Zealand filmmaker Jane Campion has spent the last few years studying the life, love and untimely death of the poet John Keats and, in disbelief that his life story had yet to be adapted, set about working on her own cinematic version of events. Biopics aren’t to everyone’s liking, especially not my own, purely because, more often than not, above-average filmmakers take the helm and tend to commit rather pedestrian, uninspired accounts of one person’s life from beginning to end, reducing complex lives and personalities into myopic, broad assessments owing more to dramatic narrative drive than actual insight into the individual. In Keats’ case, such a situation can surely be avoided as the man tragically passed away aged 25; with this knowledge, Campion chose to document what are undoubtedly the finest moments of his life, namely his romance with Miss Fanny Brawne. The result is Bright Star (Campion, 2009), a wonderfully poetic, beautifully realised vision of love, tragedy and sacrifice.
Both Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish excel in their roles, gifting us with a convincing portrayal of a meaningful romance, bringing complexity and honesty to each of their characters. Special mention goes to Paul Schneider, who takes his acting skills to a new level as Keats’ oafish best friend, Charles Brown. These performances compliment well the superb set and costume design, in addition to great use of naturalistic lighting and framing to produce one of the most exquisite cinematic experiences of the year. There are no manipulations to be found in this film; all events are presented objectively, subdued and with no typical romantic cliches or motifs. Words are spoken in eloquent English, and images are elegantly captured in the changings of the seasons; in the leaves, the rain and the snow.
To sum up perfectly the experience of this film, here is a line that Keats speaks to Brawne midway through the film:
“A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving in a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore; it’s to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out. It is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery.”
A profound statement, applicable to not just poetry but also films that share the sophisticated mood and atmosphere of Bright Star. Films that beckon the audience to refrain from semiotics, instead basking in the poetry and lyricism present on screen, as with Campion’s presentation of love as an existential, life-affirming encounter. Bright Star achieves a poignant resonance that stays long after its end; as such it is an experience to be relished, as Keats’ metaphor of the lake attests.