Memory of a Bright Starby Sarah Dawson / 15.02.2010
I like the term “passage of time”. It lends a spatial element to an abstraction that mostly lives in the mind as a linear axis. The movement of time seems to us to be inflexible and unstoppable, and indeed it is, within the limits of the construct’s definition, which is ultimately all it is – it’s intrinsic to time to be unwavering.
But there are other ways of conceptualising the movement of sensual experience in and out of present consciousness: on the axis of memory.
I have always had a fantasy that if I had a perfectly photographic memory, that if I were capable of recalling in vivid detail every moment that has passed in my life, even those peripheral things that I didn’t consciously note in my actual experience thereof, that I would be able to mentally transport myself into those moments in a kind of perceptual time travel.
Of course, memory doesn’t work this way. We remember pieces of things: seemingly random fragmented pictures of a past that may have ‘passed’ in the physical sense, but which remains very much with us in our present consciousnesses, imaginatively tangible and three dimensional. We collect and keep all these loose fragments and travel forward with them in our pockets.
Quite often these are things we decide to take with us in one way or another, by constructing for the future what significance such a moment will have in the narratives of our lives, consciously or not. The things that we notice are the things we view as noteworthy in some way: The colour of the light, the smell in the air, the low hum of cars outside the window, all of which we build into what we foresee the quality of that memory to be, constantly creating a legacy, a story.
Think of lomography, or Polaroid photography. Is the mass desire for a Holga or Diana camera just an aesthetic trend or an upswing in hobbyist interest? Perhaps, rather, the appeal lies in the way in which the lo-fi feel of over, or under-saturated colour and primitive lens aberration works to shift the experience of one’s captured moments out of the crisp aesthetic of now, to prematurely age them, and to lend them a certain distance that transforms banal experience by framing it so that it comes to exist in a kind of mythical, narrativised parallel universe.
You live outside of yourself in anticipation of the memory.
The way in which we create, shade and contextualise our stories is influenced by the narratives of the present cultural environment. The conventions that saturate our civilisation contribute to expectations of certain narrative patterns and trajectories in our own lives. Think, for example, on the idea of ‘childhood’. Our memories, especially of early childhood, are at best vague, and often even fictionalised extensions of photographs we’ve seen, or stories we’ve been told. But we nevertheless create a fairly complete sense of our own childhood past according to the narrative function we assume childhood to perform in life. This is largely informed by its nature in culture: from the way it’s depicted in film and TV, to the parenting self-help books that tell moms what a treasured and blissful time it is, to the fantastical children’s books we like to feel nostalgic about. The mythology is not necessarily uniformly true to every individual’s experience, but we nevertheless wholeheartedly embrace the given role and nature of childhood, and continue to act it out amongst ourselves.
These narrative patterns are many and diverse, but undoubtedly the most prominent and treasured of all our tales, are those about love. Jane Campion has created a beautiful gem of a film on the “trembling happiness” that embodies and explores this notion of memory in both form and subject.
Based on the tragically brief life of Romantic poet John Keats, Bright Star tells the tale of his doomed affair with Fanny Brawne. Only just in his twenties, Keats produced poetry that would outlast him by hundreds of years. During his life, he was dismissed by his peers, but is now celebrated as one of the greatest English language poets ever to live. He met Fanny in the midst of a creative crisis, having been shunned by his literary peers following the publication of “Endymion”, when her family moved next door to the home he was renting over a summer. He initially describes her in letters as a “minx”, “silly” and “stylish”, but ultimately developed a deep and pivotal admiration for the charming teenager.
She became a source of inspiration for much of his poetry, seemingly a catalyst for his poetic maturity. His letters to her are regarded as some of the most beautiful ever written in the English language. After a concentrated and rapturous romance, they became engaged against the recommendation of society, given their mutual financial limitations. But tragedy struck when Keats was beset by tuberculosis, and tragically died at the age of twenty five, before having achieved literary success, and cutting short the love affair.
Keats’ life has seen a number of biographical renderings, spanning more than a century. But Campion’s is especially unique and impressive in its intimate representation of the immense and quiet magnitude of first love, as experienced first-hand by first lovers. We hear their footsteps fall in and out of synch as they walk along a country lane, we feel the wind blowing through the curtains of Miss Brawne’s modest room as she indulges in her affections.
Keats and Brawne were both living and writing their experience of great love simultaneously, the two activities mistaken as one. They self-consciously lived their narrative as it happened, they lived inside their legacy. The film, as a present experience for the viewer, manages to feel like the memory they carefully created, as fragmented hallucinations of their lives edited together into a kind of lucid, present dream.
In that sense, it does not feel like most “period pieces”, which often foreground difference from contemporary culture above anything else. It feels cinematographically modern (and even “lomographic” at times). But in a soft, humble, fluttering way, rather than the self-consciously postmodern way of Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. It’s intensely personal and we identify with the characters almost as though they were memories of ourselves.
However, the film finds in this passionate self-reflexivity its greatest tragedy. Keats’ demonstrated his sense of failure to solidify his memory, both in his poetry and his romance, (which were ultimately the same thing) by instructing his friends to inscribe upon his gravestone “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water”. To live inside the narratives of the Romantic era is also to become what it prescribes – the fleeting, the temporary and the inherent melancholy of the enjoyment of beauty.
This can’t be felt more truly than in the words of Keats himself in his famous sonnet to Fanny, from which the film draws its name, which painfully foretells the fate of its own subject and its conflicted desire to both feel its beauty by confirming its impossibility, and the will to deny the inevitability of a narrative that is at once both deeply their own and externally prescribed by the story they are living:
“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.”