Friday, 2 July 2010

The W Word

Last night I saw Bright Star on DVD. For anyone who hasn't seen it, it's a film about Keats and Fanny Brawne, and the only thing I can say is: don't bother. I couldn't work out whether it was badly acted - Ben Whishaw, strangely, is a wonderful actor who doesn't seem to have been in a single good film - or only so, so badly written that the actors froze and just concentrated on trying to say the words without making them sound stupider than they already were. As an actor (a Trained Actor, darling) I know what that's like, and I can forgive them for it. But the script - oh, dear God, the script... What can I say?

Does anyone really imagine that Keats and Fanny Brawne sat around looking soulfully into each other's eyes while they recited La Belle Dame Sans Merci together? Or that she - soulfully - quoted the first lines of Endymion to him at a dance? Or that he recited When I Have Fears That I May Cease To Be after Christmas dinner, while looking at Fanny Brawne? (Soulfully, of course.) Honestly. You'd think poets did nothing but quote their own works and look soulful. Incidentally, my mother, who is a poet, pointed out that the other poet character was much more convincing, because all he did was sleep around and be obnoxious...

As the film said, the poet is (in fact) the most unpoetical of creatures. That's a good line, I admit, but Keats actually did say that, so I can't give the scriptwriter much credit. And it's true. Poets are not poetical. Writers don't sit around quoting their own work, as a general rule, and if they did it would be rather embarrassing. (Especially if it's Keats. Try saying, 'O, what ails thee, kinght-at-arms, alone and palely loitering?' in a conversational tone. It's hilarious.) Writers and their work are not synonymous: writing, or having written, interesting books (etc.) does not make you interesting. Writers can and do have interesting lives (or so I'm told... sigh...) but that's separate from, in addition to, their writing. So if you want to make a film about a writer's life, you have to find (or, yes, make up, why not?) something interesting - wait for it - in their life. Yes, Keats' poems are very good (even if they're recited very badly). Yes, he was a great poet, and it's very sad that he died. And I have no doubt that there really is a good and heartbreaking film to be made about him. But forget the poetry. The poetry isn't the story. They're good - but they don't do anything, dramatically speaking. And if all Keats ever does is sit around quoting his own poems, or listening to Fanny quoting them, it just makes him look like an arse.

OK, I'm exaggerating a little bit. But there's this strange sort of perception that "being a writer" is something in itself that is different from, and better than, just "writing". And it's not simply to do with earning a living, or getting published, or all the real (and laudable) ambitions that writers have. Has anyone seen Julie and Julia? Another film where nothing happens, give or take, and one where the blogging character puts this strange, fetishistic emphasis on "being a writer". "I'm a writer!" she squeals at the end. "Yes, you're a writer!" her husband squeals back. She's been writing all the way through the film. But it's only at the end that she gets that shot of self-congratulation, that sort of self-promotion from just writing to (ohmigod!) being a writer. She's attained a new level. Now she is a new, better, more important human being. Soon she will be sitting listening to her husband soulfully quoting her blog at her.

And this, in turn, reminds me of the "writer" character, Jenny, in the American soap The L Word, to whom all things are forgiven and excused because she's a writer. "It's different for her," one of the other characters says. "She's a writer. She needs to experience life." Well, no, sorry. That's not being a writer, it's being a wanker. If you need to kill someone in order to write Crime and Punishment, or (going back to Keats) bury a decapitated head in a basil pot to write Isabella, your career prospects as an author are looking a little limited. You might, I suppose, end up as an insane genius. But that's the point: you would be insane.

Writing itself, the process of actually writing, is interesting only for the person who does it. Think about it: typing, handwriting, whatever, for hours on end, with breaks for the loo and cups of tea. Reading is interesting too, but, again, only for the person who does it. No one would want to see a film of someone doing either. And so what we end up with is films that can't show actual reading or actual writing, but want, somehow, to create the inherent glamour, the excitement and wonderfulness of them. Hence the "being a writer". But "being a writer" is meaningless. What matters is the writing you do. All you are, in the gaps when you're not actually writing, is a person.

But that, at least, is interesting.

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