12 October 2009

Tempus Dilectionis, Tempus Belli

Mackie (left) and Renner in The Hurt Locker
Apart from excellent critical reception, English-language dialogues, and the fact that both were directed by women, The Hurt Locker and Bright Star could hardly be more different — so I herewith renounce any attempt to link them. I saw both pictures this weekend.

Few movies have ever made me so uncomfortable as Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker: while I admired the film and was caught up in it, I couldn’t wait for it to end. The plus-que-vérité style — with busy, hand-held camerawork and transparent, hyper-realistic performances — makes viewing even more excruciating, because it becomes harder to say to yourself, “Oh, it’s only a movie.” (Perhaps the wiliest device Bigelow uses to unsettle a viewer is to upend expectations: without giving anything away, let me say merely that star actors are not safer or more likely to survive than the unknowns who take other roles.*) A portrait of an Army bomb squad in Iraq, shot in Jordan, The Hurt Locker manages to avoid the pious preachiness of most other recent films about the war, yet a viewer does wind up asking the Big Questions of Iraq: how the hell did we get here, and what do we do about it now? Just as the central characters must wonder, each time they set out to defuse a bomb.

Bigelow’s moviemaking is wonderfully assured, and she elicits completely convincing performances from her trio of leading men: Brian Geraghty as Eldridge, more vulnerable than he appears; Jeremy Renner as the hotshot, thrill-addicted William James**; and most impressive, Anthony Mackie as the sane, sensible Sanborn. Sanborn has only a few more days remaining in this tour of duty — but if you expect a Lethal Weapon dynamic of crazy white guy partnered with reasonable (and doomed) black guy, Bigelow has a few more surprises for you. I’ll be on the lookout for all three actors in future.

Jane Campion’s Bright Star is an even more conventional film, and afterward I struggled to identify what theme or purpose the picture might serve, beyond simple biography. I confess that I came up short, and doubtless great numbers of Masterpiece Theatre-loving, dreamy-eyed audiences will enjoy the movie tremendously just because it’s a romance about a tony poet whose work they can read at home to their own lovers (or to their cats, depending). Which is fine by me.

But Campion is a smart filmmaker, and her work typically offers a pronounced feminist perspective. The Piano and The Portrait of a Lady, for example, were complex moral dramas with exceptionally strong female protagonists. I have a hard time believing that she meant for any part of Bright Star to be taken at face value, no matter how lovely the face. (It’s a strikingly beautiful film.)

Campion does present us with a bit of role-reversal here, toying with our expectations of a big-screen love story, though she doesn’t carry it very far. Yes, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) is smart, talented, and outspoken, and it’s she who pursues the frail, timid man. Indeed, Cornish’s Brawne is brawny, so much more hale and hearty than Ben Whishaw (who plays the tubercular John Keats), that she looks as if she could knock him down with the bat of an eyelash. Her fashion sense is another sign of her power: in any given scene, Cornish’s costumes are by far the most vivid colors onscreen, while Whishaw wears only one tatty suit, as subdued in color as his surroundings. Thus the one who’s raring to burst out isn’t the superstar Keats, it’s Brawne — yet somehow these elements don’t add up to much. They’re only dressing.

Hot, hot, hot: Whishaw and Cornish

But they’re not un-dressing. In an era when even Pride and Prejudice becomes a vehicle for bodice-ripping, Bright Star differs most from other period romances in its utter chastity***. As the characters remind each other, Keats has no money and cannot honorably propose himself to Brawne. Yet their passion cannot be denied, and it expresses itself not physically (they kiss perhaps five times) but poetically. In the movie’s most telling scene, Keats and Brawne recite poetry to each other, alternating verses, ratcheting up the rhythms, in an ecstasy of shared language — and it’s like really good sex.

The wild card in these proceedings is Paul Schneider’s performance as Charles Armitage Brown, a fellow writer who lodges Keats and who, in his desire to protect his friend, effectively becomes Fanny’s rival. The trouble is that Schneider’s characterization and much of his dialogue are so loud, bold, and over-the-top, that he seems to have arrived from some other movie. The contrast he provides is more extreme than Campion can have intended, and it’s a relief whenever he goes away. Far more effective are Kerry Fox, as the cliché-busting Mrs. Brawne, who probably deserves some kind of posthumous medal for not opposing her daughter’s unsuitable attachment; and Thomas Sangster and Edie Martin as Fanny’s kid brother and baby sister.

Perhaps Hurt Locker and Bright Star do have this in common: Bigelow and Campion take two conventional genres and tweak them: building suspense and surprise; making us think, without ever telling us what to think.

Incredibly safe sex:
Edward and Bella could learn from these two.

*Hurt Locker is like a Star Trek picture in which the red shirts are in less danger than Kirk and Spock are.

**I failed to detect any correlation to the American philosopher and brother of Henry James. But I know Henry’s work better than William’s, so if any of you see a resemblance, please speak up!

***Also in its intelligence. How I wished Becoming Jane had been as thoughtful as Bright Star! Physically, the movies are similar — but I’m still insulted on Jane Austen’s behalf, you know, and smarting from the wounds inflicted on her.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The parallel with the philosopher William James would be clear if you read his essay "What Is Emotion?", which argues that physiological reactions, i.e. sweating or crying out in terror, are not the end product of fear and other emotions, but are part and parcel of those emotions. If you refuse to run away from a deadly situation, or to exhibit the common symptoms of fear, it doesn't mean that you are controlling your fear, but that certain psychological mechanisms have overridden that emotion altogether. Renner's character's astonishing ability to perform highly complex technical operations without becoming frazzled, even while knowing that death has a high chance of coming at any second, suggests that he has on some level grappled with and perhaps mastered the dichotomy suggested in James's essay. Also consider the following statement of William James: "The stronghold of the determinist argument is the antipathy to the idea of chance...This notion of alternative possibility, this admission that any one of several things may come to pass is, after all, only a roundabout name for chance." The experiences of Renner's character and others exemplify the workings of chance rather vividly. James might have applauded the film's realism.

-- Rick