You all know it…the old adage that “it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”. Whether this is true or not is, I believe, a purely personal decision. Two films I’ve watched in the last week explore the topic from different vantage points in the timeline.
The first film might as well have been titled For the Love of God, Courtney, Why Do You Do This to Yourself? Instead it was titled Bright Star. This movie was…oh, my sweet Jesus. So wonderful. But if you are thinking of watching it, get ready to ache. Ache first for the bittersweet beginnings of love, when people are young and enraptured; then set this against a 19th-century backdrop of class issues.
Bright Star is the real-life love story of penniless poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne, a young woman of means and considerable spunk. Oh, and Fanny had quite the flair for fashion design and other frivolities which at first confused poor Keats, who of course later on saw her considerable charms as well.
At the beginning of their romance, they are living in either end of a side-by-side duplex sort of thing. The 19th-century version of one, anyway. John Keats lives with his friend Charles Armitage Brown, a poorer poet but richer man, while Fanny lives with her widowed mother, siblings, and staff on the other side of the common wall. This provides the opportunity for some of the lovelier moments of yearning in the film; their bedrooms on either side of that common wall, the star-crossed lovers press against it wishing to push right through. To reach through the physical wall and, I think more critically, the invisible wall that class and status built.
I did not specialize in 19th-century anything in my English degree, let alone poetry, so I didn’t know much of the real-life story. I did know that Keats died at a very young age in Rome, because when I was there I saw the house where he lived his last days. But I had not prepared myself properly for the utter and inevitable sadness that was this movie. I don’t consider this a spoiler since it’s a true story and any of you could go read about Keats before watching the film if you didn’t know of his untimely demise already. I just consider it a friendly courtesy; I implore you to watch it, but be prepared for the heartbreak. And be prepared to be enamored of Keats’ poetry, if you weren’t already. In my advanced age I find I am entirely smitten with the cadence of this proper English wordsmithery.
Bright star, would I were stedfast 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 stedfast, 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.
(The poem “Bright Star” by John Keats)
And as someone who never “got” poetry, I could appreciate Fanny’s struggle to understand (or to “work it out” as she said). I appreciated in equal measure this response John Keats gave her in the film:
A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving into a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore but to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out, it is a experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept the mystery.
The next movie I watched was the unwieldy-titled Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing and Charm School. I’m sorry, but any title necessitating an s-apostrophe deserves to be called unwieldy. However, like the ballroom dance aficionados, the story moved more gracefully than the title.
With a totally insane cast (The guy from “The Full Monty”? The black Ghostbuster? Mary Steenburgen? John Goodman? Sean Astin a.k.a Sam Gamgee? New Kid on the Block Donnie Wahlberg in a role too fabulous for words? Marisa Tomei, who gets lovelier all the time? And then at the end you go and throw Danny DeVito in there for a scene?) I was surprised I’d never before heard of this film. It was a sweet look at love, loss, and the possibility of love again.
There are two stories interwoven, and I’m not sure it works completely, but both stories are enjoyable. I didn’t find myself wishing for the other when one was having its screen time, so I guess that’s a testament to the interest they both held for me. This difference between this and Bright Star is that here we look at lost love from the perspective of the aftermath, instead of all that leads up to the loss. And where Bright Star left me feeling so sad and hopeless about loving until death, this movie had a more hopeful message of love as an unexpendable resource, which is something I’ve found to be true in the continuum of life. Though you may feel emptied out by loss, the capacity for love is never gone.
I’m clearly drawn to these kinds of stories, probably because I can identify so much with this theme. How many nights did I spend gazing out a window into the summer evening, wishing for loves to come around? Pressing up against the glass pane, pressing up against the ways our world wants to set limits on love? How many times have I found myself in a ballroom, unprepared to dance but called upon to do so nonetheless? And always, always surprised by the unstoppable force of love.