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On Guns and Breakfast and Getting Shot: Or, why there is a difference between encouraging imagination and actively fostering it.

I woke to the smell of bacon and coffee, familiar and pleasant and full of the promise of a new adventure. Rolling out of my sheet, I tossed my legs to the floor and dragged my boots towards me with my right foot. I slipped into the jeans draped over the foot of the bed and put the boots on. A crooked, bent white hat hung from the bed post, a red and white flannel draped beneath it. I slung the hat cockeyed onto my matted hair and quickly buttoned the shirt. The gun, a fully loaded white handled revolver, rested under my pillow. I retrieved it and fastened the gun belt around my waist, dropped the pistol into the holster, and yelled, “morning sunshine, let’s get a move on!”

The dining room was empty save for the cook, a 30-something lady with shoulder length hair and a generous smile. I leaned against the counter and ordered a plate of eggs scrambled, half a dozen slices of bacon, and whatever was strongest to wash it down. My companion – the aforementioned sunshine – did the same and we settled in for the kind of homemade breakfast a cowboy doesn’t find on the trail.

“Much obliged”, I said.

“Where to today boys?” she asked.

“Wherever the trail takes us” one of us said not wishing to give away any more information than was necessary. “Wherever the trail takes us.”

“Who you chasing this time?” she asked. She was nosy, but friendly and a good cook and so we conversed. “Could be we’re being chased this time.” My companion looked up from his breakfast and grinned. “Could be”, he agreed.

“It is that kind of world, ain’t it”, she said.

“Some days.”

“Well, boys, eat up and don’t forget to get something for lunch. I wouldn’t wish that dusty trail on any man, hungry or not, but might as well make sure the hungry part is out of the equation.”

I nodded.

“Okay, let’s go”, I said to my companion. “Let’s get the horses.”

My companion was not one to hurry through a breakfast as good as that one so I left first, slipping my arms into my vest as I walked. I retrieved my rifle and saddle bags from the bunkroom and went to the corral. The horses – one white, one brown – were antsy and eager to move on. I saddled the paint and climbed aboard and waited for my companion. Some time passed before he emerged from the hotel and he was rushing, his uncinched holster flapping against his leg as he ran. I had been growing annoyed at his tardiness and told him so. He muttered something back I couldn’t hear well as was his way when I grew overbearing.

“I s’pect they’ve gone that way,” I said pointing towards the mountains to the west and he said, “S’pect so” as he dropped his black carbine into the sheath settled against his saddle. “Let’s go.”

And we went, not yet ten years old and bouncing towards some unknown adventure. As we rode away, the cook looked out from the kitchen window and waved. We tipped our hats and I said, “we should have grabbed some cookies.”

“I wonder what’s for lunch,” he said, then yelled, “look out! There they are!” and fell from his horse.

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The Branches That Make The Flowers Bloom

There are certain moments that transcend existence. Or rather, there are certain moments that make existence transcendent, moments you identify years, maybe even decades, later as life-changing, where you look back in wonder that you were there, that you were a part of it, that you saw it and felt it and shook your head at the magic of seeing and feeling it, that you look back at grateful to have been there at that time in that place, to have been alive at a time that allowed you play a role in it, even if only to experience it as viewer. I’m talking about the kind of moments that you try to explain to others (but usually fail), that become stories you repeat again and again without ever having to embellish them or make them bigger than then they were because they were simply that great, moments that you remember with a grateful shake of the head and a grin even when othersdon’t, or can’t, understand.

Usually these are big moments: maybe the moment you said “I do” or the day your first child was born or the day you converted to…well, anything. But many of these moments are subtle, delicate waves on the ocean of a lifespan, moments that can barely be measured except for how they change you. You may be the only one who remembers them, who knows why they are meaningful. You might be the only person in existence who remembers the moment at all. You may be the last keeper of a moment that, whether it is remembered or not, will race on into eternity bearing with it meanings beyond the scope of human understanding. But you, at least you, if only you, have a glimmer of understanding, or recognition, and therefore also of appreciation. This is the kind of moment that can never be planned for or expected. You can hope for it, even pray for it, but until you have experienced it you can’t know what to pray for. Sometimes this is a moment you share with others and that you remember together with a knowing nod, the kind of moment borne only of corporate experience.

I experienced a moment like this several years ago when I was living in Dubuque, Iowa in an old creaky house with an unfinished attic and a damp basement worthy of any good low-budget horror film. There were five of us, bundled against the frigid winter, a laptop our only source of light and half burnt tobacco products our meager source of warmth. Something played softly through the surround-sound my house mate had jerry-rigged, nothing I can recall specifically except that it was atmospheric ambient noise.I t was probably early Sigur Ros or Derek Webb or U2. One of the three is a good guess.

As we sat we talked about books, sort of, movies occasionally, how cold it was although we didn’t wish it to get warm. As I recall we wrote a bit and read some until the laptop died and we could only sit in the dark and wonder at how hot a bowl of half-smoked pipe tobacco can get. That in itself can make for a transcendent moment. Even in the smallest of things.

But as we sat there I was struck by the magnitude of such moments. Not that any specifically meaningful thing happened but rather that what happened was more meaningful in it’s simplicity than almost any other kind of thing could have been at that point in our collective existences. We were – or least I was – molded by simple moments such as these, moments of being together. I was changed, altered forever, made into something altogether new by the moments like this and on this night I began to see it happening, I began to know that I (dare I saw we) was being planted and growing, that I was, if I can take the metaphor another step, being fertilized.

Now, here’s the thing. Our live are made up of moments that change us. Our lives are an ebb and flow of inciting actions and climaxes, again and again and again. Just as our DNA consistently changes so do we as individual souls change. We are planted and fertilized over and over from the moment we are, well, planted at the outset to the moment we become fertilizer in the end. But what set this moment apart was my conscious realization that that moment would render me forever altered. That after that moment – and every moment like it – I could never be the same. And with that realization came another understanding.

This is what friendship does, I saw. This is what camaraderie does. This, I understood, is why we pursue relationship and we should pursue it and why when we find it (when we find relationships that help us grow in a healthy fashion) we feel honored to be, as CS Lewis’ put it, in the company of our betters. This is why we do – and should – pursue friendship. Even in the smallest, most commonplace moments we are changed by those with whom we are friends. And thus, I further realized, the who with whom I am friends matters more than the what. It matters what actions the players take if the players are worth being fertilized by (if you’ll continue to pardon the metaphor).

There are, I came to understand, few things more precious than friendship. And I’ve since come to see that those things that can be considered more precious than friendship – marriage, for example, parenthood, the church – are only variations on the relationships one finds in friendship.

So moments such as this and what they help me to understand are not commonplace at all but rather they are the kind of moments that are as transcendent, in their own way, as the day I said “I do” and the day I found out I would be a dad. These days are enormously influential and important days in my life, days I will remember joyously until I die. But perhaps simple moments like the one I experienced in that cold attic – and the realizations that accompanied it – are just as life changing in their own transcendent way. They are the kind of moments that make the larger moments possible. They are the branches that make the flowers bloom.

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The Art of Telling the Truth: Comparing Photography and Storytelling


My wife, Bethany, is a photographer, and a few weeks ago we were sitting out on our porch, enjoying the summer breeze when she said something that I found really profound. She told me how one of her college professors told her that, contrary to common belief, photography as an art form is much more closely related to storytelling than it is to, say, film (or even painting). I was struck by how meaningful – and true – this is.

After all, the same elements that make a photograph good are some of the same elements that make a story or novel good: a keen eye for detail, an empathy with subject matter, an understanding that there is great, deep meaning even in the simplest of things. Certainly, each art form is differentiated by very specific elements, or skills. But even those differing elements function the same way within their respective art forms. For example, a photographer’s use of light and shadow to accentuate an object in such a way that creates specific meaning, or mood, functions in much the same way that a beautifully scripted sentence does. A phrase wonderfully turned is to the novel or short story what light cast through lens is to photography. They are the practical “objective correlatives” to their forms. That is, they are elements through which meaning is created – and depicted, understood.

And consider the way that a wonderful photograph can capture your emotions, your imagination, your heart. Why do we stand in museums and galleries for hours, taking in photo after photo, or perhaps standing in front of a single photograph until it releases us from its spell? I would suggest it’s because such works of art are telling a story that, for one reason or another, attaches itself to some synapse inside us, some emotional magnet from which, like a novel whose pages we turn and turn, chapter after chapter, we simply cannot detach ourselves.

The creation of a photograph, like the creation of a story, demands from an artist a certain measure of dedication to the way things are, to reality, to the world as it is, or could be. People are a certain way, they do certain things, they must do certain things. People make certain faces, or gestures; they stand in strange ways, or unique ways; they stare or eat or kiss or run or sleep or work in ways that only a human being can. And it is the job, the duty, of the photographer to capture this law of nature in all its grand, beautiful singularity.

Of course, it is the job of the filmmaker, the painter, or the sculptor to do this too. But artists in each of these fields are allowed a certain space for invention. That is, they can alter the natural order of things. The filmmaker can change the world in which the story exists and the painter can alter the way color interacts with canvas. Even the sculptor can change the way the human body bends or twists. But the photographer has only one moment, only a single opportunity to capture the world as it is. And to do so he or she must have a storyteller’s eye, she must see the way a storyteller does, with a dual perspective: with an eye for the way things are as well as an eye for what the way things are means (which is closely related to empathy).

Like the storyteller who understands that the detail of each description and the structure of each sentence is crucial to capturing and depicting meaning, the photographer must see each speck of pixel, each inch of light and shadow, as crucial to the depiction of meaning. And, for that matter, both sorts of artists must understand – and act upon – the truth that anything (any shadow, any misplaced word) can alter completely the meaning portrayed in their work.

The stakes are high.

Naturally, therefore, necessarily even, the artist assumes a certain level of responsibility. Both to his work and his own intentions, but also to the truth of reality. What the photographer photographs is, so to speak. That is, it exists. The artist can never escape this fact. It will haunt every pixel of every shot, every shadow, every line and face and pose.Walker Percy wrote that good art “discovers and knows and tells, tells the [viewer/experiencer] how things are, how we are, in a way that the reader can confirm with as much certitude as a scientist taking a pointer reading.” So the role of the photographer – and his duty – is to display the truth of (a) reality. To do otherwise is to create from a fundamentally relativistic perspective; it is essentially to assert that reality is meaningless, that it isn’t good enough, that the things that make up the human experience lack drama and color. It is to suggest that the things that capture our imaginations and our emotions are worthless.

Indeed, may I go so far as to argue that such art suggests that the handiwork of God is incomplete?

I don’t mean to diminish the fantastic role that imagination can and should and must play in art – and even faith. The imagination can flourish even in a world where the laws of nature reign, even in a world that operates according to the truth of reality.

The most obvious way a fictional world can be planted firmly in the ground of reality? True depictions of the relationships between good and evil, love and hate, redemption and damnation. Each is meaningless without the other, as Flannery O’Connor wrote, and so it is the job of the artist to truthfully depict each.

The photographer has just a single moment to capture a snapshot of reality. Each shot, no matter how rapidly taken, captures a new moment, a new piece of truth, a new story.

The storyteller has a different set of tools, but his job is the same. For Truth is Truth, and no man can make otherwise.

Be therefore,
Show, therefore,
Create, therefore

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Viewing Journal: SUMMER HOURS, SIN NOMBRE, & PHOEBE IN WONDERLAND

It’s been far too long since my last post, due in part to a hectic end of fall and busy, albeit fabulous, holiday. In the near coming week or so I intend to post my favorite albums of year, as well as my choices for the decade. Also, as I like to do, I will be posting my “favorite things” of 2009. I’ll reveal my favorite album art, music videos, book, etc. Then, probably sometime in early February, I will post my favorite films of the year.

Personally, I find it a bit silly that all the list hoopla goes on so early when there are so many films and albums yet to come out. Seems problematic when the average i-tunes shopper or movie-goer will have long forgotten what Paste or Rolling Stone said way back in December, or even November. The lists should kick off the new year, not conclude the past year. In my opinion.

That said, here are some quick thoughts on three films I’ve seen recently which are worthwhile, and which are, wonderfully, available via Netflix’s miraculous invention: the instant viewer.

1. SUMMER HOURS.
French director Olivier Assayas’ remarkable film about a group of grown siblings who must deal with the fall-out of their matriarchal mother’s death is sure to be near the top of my ’09 list, whenever that list finally makes its appearance. The film is breathtaking in it’s subtleties, in the poetic way that it approaches the nuances of family and of loss. As a friend of mind recently suggested, it’s a film about what happens when people want different things, but are also cognizant of the needs and desires of their loved ones. When dealing with issues of family, American cinema tends to fall into broad, incomplete archetypes, into melodrama. Summer Hours avoids both, instead depicting the problematic, but always meaningful, ways people interact with those they love when faced with crisis. At times, Assayas film is a masterpiece of mood and tone, at others it’s a heartbreaking example of how beautiful lyrically minded filmmaking can be, how even the simplest images, even the most mundane things, can hold within them the deepest meaning. Juliette Binoce, Charles Berling, and Jeremie Renoir star.


2. SIN NOMBRE.
Cary Fukunaga’s debut feature film follows a young Honduran gang member named El Casper and a girl named Sayra as they ride atop the famed “train of death” over the Honduran border, through Mexico, and over U.S. borders. They seek new opportunities, fresh starts, to achieve the same dreams that so many immigrants before them managed to attain, to corral the “American dream.” To El Casper, known as Willy outside of the gang, and Sayra, who El Casper hopes to convey safely into the States, America is bigger than life, almost mythical. Yet, El Casper is in serious danger. He has abandoned his gang, and they are angry and out for blood. At every train station and in every village, gang members wait to ambush and kill him. But he makes it his mission to safeguard Sayra, it is his penance – the opportunity for his redemption. Sayra sees El Casper as a mysterious “devil,” but, after he saves her from being raped, she comes to trust him and hopes even to help him make a new life.

Sin Nombre is a thrilling, tense, and moving film, part crime film, part immigrant tale, part love story. But it doesn’t fall into stereotypical formulas that often define such genre films. In many ways, Sin Nombre reminds me of Malick’s classic Days of Heaven, particular the final scenes that take place in a river and the scenes that take place atop a moving train. If you’ve seen that fine film, you might be clued into how this film concludes.


3. PHOEBE IN WONDERLAND
Another film written and directed by a first-timer (Daniel Barnz) Phoebe In Wonderland features the remarkable supporting cast of Felicity Huffman, Patricia Clarkson, Bull Pullman, and Campbell Scott. But, as an imaginative but troubled young girl, the true star of the film is young Elle Fanning, the younger sister of the now famous Dakota Fanning. She turns in a performance as haunting and strong as any that her older sister has given. And, despite a so-so last half hour, the film is remarkable as well.

Fanning plays a young girl named Phoebe who battles a mysterious mental illness and accompanying personal demons by diving into her own fantasy world, especially Wonderland, where she fancies herself Alice. And so when her school’s new drama teacher casts her as Alice in the school’s performance of Lewis Carroll’s book, she is overjoyed. Soon she finds herself fully immersed in the tale, surrounded, within her imagination, by the book’s many strange characters, many of whom give her advice. After all, they understand her better than her bullying classmates and her mystified teachers and principal. And she identifies more with their “not so fixed” ways much more than the legalistic and socially complicated mores of the school yard.

Meanwhile, at home, Phoebe’s parents are work-aholic writers who struggle with how to approach and help their daughter through her troubles as they struggle through their own marital and work-related issues. As her distraught but caring mother, Huffman is particularly strong, perhaps turning in her finest performance yet. And her little sister, played by the hilarious young Bailee Madison, is tired “of being the normal one.”

Phoebe in Wonderland is a wonderfully strange celebration of the power of imagination and fantasy, but unfortunately is beings to fall apart in it’s latter stages as it takes a swan dive into a mystifying and ultimately unnecessary song and dance number that feels oddly out of place. See it anyway. It’s worth your time.

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Further Up & Further In…

As many of you know, I work for a small non-profit organization called the CiRCE Institute. Simply put, our focus is to provide vision, tools, and encouragement to Christian and classical educators worldwide. We work closely with heads-of-schools and principals, with teachers and curriculum developers, with home-schoolers and parents, with authors and journalists, with professors and artists. We help educators, in the home setting or otherwise, develop their curricula, train their teachers, develop and fulfill their own goals and visions. We provide books, curricula, and other resources. We believe that education is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue by nourishing the soul on truth, goodness, and beauty. We exist to help teachers and schools instill in their children that wisdom and virtue.

If you want more information on CiRCE or on classical Christian education head over to our website.

But as is true of many non-profit organizations in this current economic climate, 2009 has been a rough financial year. Private schools, especially the smaller Christian schools with which we are so intimately linked, lack the funds to invest in teacher training or in new resources and, therefore, many of our most popular and helpful endeavors are suffering. For example, each year we host a conference on a theme in education. In 2009 the theme was Nature, as in the nature of things (i.e., human nature, etc.). It was our most successful, best reviewed conference to date. But we lost money on it and we aren’t sure whether or not we will be able to put on a conference next year.

Recently, CiRCE released this notice on their website:

———
Like many not-for-profit organizations, the CiRCE Institute depends upon the generosity and kindness of individuals who believe, as we do, in the mission and vision of Classical Christian education.

Today, we are launching our 2009 fundraising campaign:

FURTHER UP & FURTHER IN.
If you are in a position to donate even a little, please consider doing so. Your generosity will go a long way towards enabling us to fulfill our mission and accomplish our goals.

In return, we promise to continue teaching, training, and researching. We promise to keep on spreading the word. We promise to continue providing inspiration. We promise that, if you will stand by our side, we will continue to stand by yours. Together we’ll take this mission, this vision, this calling further up and further in!

As thanks for your generosity, we are offering downloadable materials for anyone who makes even the smallest donation. No gift is too small. No gift is too large. Whether you donate $1 or $100 or $1000 there is a gift waiting for you.

In return for your help, you will be able to download talks like Debbie Harris’s popular talk Understanding and Instilling a Love of Beauty, and Andrew Pudewa’s useful and inspiring, Teaching Boys and Other Kids Who Would Rather Be Playing In Forts. You can also download Ken Myers’ talk on how to Re-educate Oneself As An Adult, or Laura Berquist’s insightful talk about Assessing Student Performance.

To get these talks, and others like them, just go here and make a donation of whatever amount you feel comfortable giving. For even $1 these talks are yours.

We appreciate all of your support so far—everyone who’s come to a workshop or the conference, given a gift a gift in the past, or ever read an article or blog online. Your partnership has enabled us to succeed thus far. Now, we humbly ask you to consider helping out a little more.

While you’re at it, please let us know how we can improve. What should we do (or do better) to help you fulfill your goals as educators? In what ways can we help you cultivate wisdom and virtue in your students?

We look forward to working alongside you in the coming years as, together, we go further up & further in. Sometimes the journey is long and the climb is steep, but with every step we’re closer to fulfilling our goals.

With our sincerest thanks,

The CiRCE Institute

—–end——-

I highly recommend each of these talks, and now also available is a book excerpt from Dr. Vigen Guroian’s wonderful and challenging book, Rallying the Really Human Things. The specific excerpt examines the the work of Chesteron, O’Connor, and Russell Kirk and the role they played in the Christian humanist tradition. You can read more about the book at the CiRCE blog, Quiddity.

I hope you’ll consider making a small donation to CiRCE. As the copy above notes, for just $1.00 these talks and the excerpt can be yours and each of them are full to the brim with inspiration and wisdom.

If you want to donate, simply click here.

Feel free to email me any time for more information: david@intothehill.com or david@circeinstitute.org

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Viewing Journal: Where the Wild Things Are

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3 THINGS I LIKED:

1. Spike Jonze’s creative – and seemingly effortless – direction.

Jonze has a precise, subtle way with a camera, and in Where the Wild Things Are, his direction is as good as ever. Without ever drawing attention to itself, it is wonderfully effective at creating meaning through the standard filmic elements.

In one particularly moving and creative sequence, the main character, Max, races into the secret hiding place of one of the wild things, Carol, hoping to find him there. Max enters the place – a cave – excitedly, hopefully, with the intention of mending their friendship. But he quickly discovers that Carol is not there, and that all is not well. The place is a disaster. Carol has destroyed his favorite place. Of course, we see the disappointment and the confusion on Max’s face, but Jonze also allows us to enter into the psyche of his main character through the camera, as all good directors do. As in other places throughout the film, Jonze uses a bouncy hand-held to represent Max’s inner turmoil, his anger, his fear, his lack of understanding. But he also employs some really fantastic static shots to create moments of pathos. In this particular scene, we see Max’s confusion through the hand-held, but then we see his sense of loss, his sadness, we understand that he is mourning, through a quiet, still, wide shot. The calm after the storm, if you will. He is on his knees, surrounded by rock and water and light, completely alone, utterly confounded, full of regret and remorse. And Jonze wide shot reveals the drama of this moment wonderfully. But it would have been less meaningful were it not juxtaposed with the more harsh hand-held shots. Such are the decisions of filmmaking.

2. The portrayal of the mother.

Sadly, Hollywood parents are often portrayed as dull and overbearing, incompetent and dimwitted. Parents are often one dimensional caricatures while, on the other hand, children are often portrayed as the intelligent, understanding ones, the multi-dimensional, complicated characters. Certainly, children are each of those things. But so are parents and Hollywood has, in my opinion, done a great disservice in setting forth parents as such flimsy characters.

It would have been easy – and perhaps more financially profitable too – for Where the Wild Things Are to follow suit. Yet, to their credit, Jonze and co. didn’t take that approach. Instead, they created a more true, more real, dynamic between mother and son.

Max is not a hero. He’s troubled and disobedient and angry. Like all children, he is fully capable of doing terrible, horrible things. But he’s also creative and has the potential to be kind and do much good. He wants people to be happy but doesn’t know how to make that happen. He doesn’t even know how to make himself happy.

Meanwhile, the mother is not some dumb grinch. No, she’s a loving but frustrated mother. She’s intrigued and inspired by her son’s creativity and generally good heart, but she’s at her wits end with his sometimes “out of control” behavior. Like many single parents, she doesn’t know how to raise this kid. The scenes between the two are some of the film’s best (despite taking place in our world!). I very much appreciate, and was moved by, this dynamic, by the way Jonze carefully and lovingly developed the relationship between Max and his mom.

3. The terror.

As my good friend Tyler pointed out, WTWTA contains some moments of very real terror, horrifying scenes in many ways. But they are terrifying not because of some flimic manipulation, or because of blood and guts, but because of the pure human drama of the moments, the kind of drama we all know and experience.

For example, early in the film, Max gets buried under a pile of snow that used to be his igloo. His sister’s friend jumped on it while he was in it and it collapsed on top of him. Jonze shoots the scene so that the viewer is under the snow with him, buried and struggling to breathe. Most everybody knows what it’s like to be a kid and be buried under a pile of snow, or people, and to have to struggle to breathe. It’s truly terrifying at first. The same effect is used when Max is buried under all the wild things, who clearly don’t know their own collective weight. It’s scary to be a kid and have no control, to not be able to breathe and to be too small to make sure you can.

It’s possible that such scenes, and others like them, will be too much to handle for young kids. If so, then who cares? Take your kids when they’re ready. Why do we need to force them to see a movie because some ad campaign said it was good for kids? At the same time, like the much more terrifying Grimm’s Fairy Tales, this is the kind of story that kids need to see and hear. It’s the job of the storyteller to tell good stories and the parents and adults to help kids understand and appreciate them. And this is one good story.

Ultimately it’s about learning to cope without control, about learning to control oneself when you can’t control anything else. Where the Wild Things Are is about, I think, learning to behave gracefully when everything around you is a crazy mess. That, I think, is a lesson that kids and adults alike need to hear.

Where the Wild Things Are reminds me of a famous poem by Kipling that most people know but is worth a fresh encounter:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with wornout tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on”;

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run –
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man my son!

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Film Review: Bright Star

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In 1920, poet/critic T.S. Eliot published a now infamous famous essay called Hamlet and His Problems, in which he suggested that the play is actually an “artistic failure.” In the essay, Eliot defends his thesis by introducing a literary term that has since become famous: the objective correlative. To Eliot, Hamlet didn’t work because the play contained no so-called correlative for Prince Hamlet’s strange behavior, especially towards his mother, the Queen Gertrude. He argued that Hamlet’s responses “exceeded the facts” of the play. That is, Eliot believed that Shakespeare failed to provide a reasonable and balanced reason – either syntactically, structurally or thematically – for Hamlet to do as he does, and therefore for the audience to identify, or not identify, with the Prince. The audience, he argues, is left mystified.

Naturally, Eliot’s paper drew a fair bit of rather scathing criticism and a confused frown or two, to say the least. His thesis was not a popular one and today seems to have taken on the mystique of some crude, quaint, ancient relic. Oh, it was just Eliot being Eliot, today’s critics and scholars will say.

Yet, his idea of the objective correlative has lasted and remains an important and effective term for examining not only literature but all art. All art, one way or another, no matter the medium, evokes some kind of response from the audience. All art inherently contains a series of circumstances, of relationships (between people, colors, sounds, etc.), of settings, which necessarily evoke a response. Together with what Eliot called “the external facts,” these circumstances, relationships, and/or settings combine to create the objective correlative that leads to that response. If they fail to combine in such a way that a right, natural response is evoked, as Eliot suggests Hamlet does, the correlative mechanism has failed to work properly and the work of art itself suffers.

As I watched Jane Campion’s new film, Bright Star, I was struck by the way in which all of the filmic elements combined to create a unique and unified whole that acted as an extraordinarily effective objective correlative for the action of the story and the emotions of the characters. I was immediately drawn in and was held tightly.

This lush, literary period piece tells the story of famous poet John Keats’ love affair with his young neighbor, Miss Fanny Brawne. Of course, history tells us that Keats died at the tragically young age of twenty-five and so a sense of impending doom seems to hang over the film. Yet, it remains a tender, beautiful, true love story about sacrifice, the poetry of falling in love, and the beauty and tragedy of love’s many pains.

When we are first introduced to the young poet (played remarkably by Ben Wishaw, also from Brideshead Revisited and I’m Not There) we learn that he has been caring for his ailing brother, who is sick with tuberculosis, a disease that ravaged the Keats family. We discover that both his parents have died, that some of his siblings have also passed away, and that this brother is likely to also slip away soon. And yes, it is the disease that we know will one day take his life as well. The scent of death, the very real possibility of it, permeates the film, like a dark cloud, or a pin about to pop a bubble. Bright Star is a love story, but it is one that is essentially told against the backdrop of tragedy.

The melancholy, bohemian Keats is a poet through and through, ever consumed by images and pictures and words and sounds. Like many artists he is eccentric. But he is no flake, not some stereotypical Romantic poet waxing eloquent at grandiose parties or on some wooden bridge near a rippling brook. He works hard to make a living as a writer, is his own hardest critic, and believes strongly in the power of the form at which he works. He is friendly and polite, and he is charming too, in his own way. And when he takes up residency in the English countryside with his friend and writing partner, Mr. Brown, the locals are taken with him, especially the equally eccentric Miss Brawne.

An artist in her own right, Fanny designs colorful, unique clothes that often ruffle the feathers of the more traditional women of the town. Raised eyebrows follow her train as she floats about at dances. Like the poet, she is a free spirit, inspired by the colors and images of the natural world. But she is no poet, she doesn’t “get” poetry. When she meets Keats she is fascinated by him, by his reserved yet charming personality, his intellectual demeanor, and his mastery of language. She seeks out his help in understanding poetry and soon they are engaged in weekly lessons. It doesn’t take long before these two spirits fall deeply, hopelessly, in love, to the chagrin of Mrs. Brawne who wishes her daughter to “marry up.” It’s not so much that she dislikes her daughter’s choice personally as she finds him quite likable, rather she is worried about her daughter’s future should Fanny attempt to marry the poor poet.

This all sounds relatively standard. It’s a fairly common plot in period pieces of the kind in which class plays such a prominent role. But Bright Star manages to separate itself as a unique work of art through the inspired way in which Campion and co. turn commonplace things into moving elements of the dramatic narrative.

The narrative of the love story is driven by an attention to existential, transcendent, meaning, by the potential for meaning in things like nature or a long walk or a shared secret. These are the elements that serve as the objective correlatives for the film’s action. Campion never feels the need to bombard the viewer with sentimentalized dialogue, passionate sexual scenes, or divisive yelling matches. These are two people deeply, richly in love with one another, failures and weaknesses included, and therefore there will naturally, and rightly, be eloquent dialogue, deep passion, and a disagreement or two.

But Campion doesn’t need to resort to typical filmic tripe or common manipulative tricks. This romance is told through the passing of the seasons, through the whisper of the wind, through the softness of the grass. It is told through the poetry of flowers and snow and rain. These are things all people know, even people who have never been in love, and so they are things with which all people can identify. As such, therefore, they can serve as effective metaphors for the process of falling in love, can saturate the screen with picturesque meaning that even the most hardhearted or inexperienced viewer can understand.

At one point, Keats tells Brawne that “…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.”

Jane Campion doesn’t force us to “work out” the film, or to “work out” the emotion of falling in love or enduring in love or hating the fact that one is in love. Rather she provides a mystery, a poem, a window or icon for those experiences. She provides the viewer with an utterly beautiful and true objective correlative for the tragic love story in her hands.

And indeed, Bright Star also stands out for this inevitably tragic ending. This is a relationship that, history constantly reminds, is doomed, a truth that, before long, both parties realize. And when Keat’s dies in a faraway country and the audience is left with Fanny, in her lonely English environment, we share in her pain, in the tragedy and the longing and the tears. We are wrapped in the tragedy of possibilities not met, of a beautiful relationship so quickly ended, in the tragedy of a talent so richly endowed but so suddenly buried. The lasting hope, the lasting piece of optimism comes in the form of Keat’s own, now famous, canon and the sweet words of the sonnet he wrote for his beloved in the months before his passing:

Bright star! would I were steadfast as thou art—
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night,
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like Nature’s patient sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No—yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

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