“Don’t run after poetry. It penetrates unaided through the joins.”
– Robert Bresson (1)
Throughout human history from Euripides to J. K. Rowling the discomfort experienced from the fear of the unknown, an inability to embrace rather than choose between opposites has been grappled with in storytelling. Interestingly, in traversing this very dilemma in a letter to his brothers dated 22 December 1817, the English Romantic poet John Keats committed to writing what he believed to be the origin and nature of artistic creativity.
At once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. (2)
Keats’ concept of Negative Capability as a pathway to the uncharted and unexplored is an important principle that is engaged by Jane Campion in the film Bright Star, an intimate ballad of the doomed romance between Keats and his muse Fanny Brawne. In the direction of the performances during the rehearsal period, in particular, and in the spirit of experimentation, a dialogue was entered into between Campion and the film’s actors with Negative Capability acting as a guide and philosophical anchor. Campion strove for a “humanness”, an authenticity and presence, in the nature of the performances, mindfully discouraging any interpretation that would act to plaster a veneer over the “being” of the actor to achieve a preconceived generalisation of a period type.
The actors were encouraged, when in doubt, to follow and trust in their own instincts and to feel comfortable in their own character and in what they felt was true for them in any given situation. This liberty was not confined to rigid continuity or the repetition of a specific performance for each take, and actors were allowed to simply be, remaining receptive and open to the experience unfolding before them.
Acutely aware of the inherent power of the raw image, and trusting in the material prior to its contextualisation, Campion artistically reveals the importance of sensation in the “unadorned image” (3). This is evident in numerous moments in the film: such as the evocative nuzzling of the Brawne family cat who turns the page of Keats’ book of poetry while Fanny is reading it; Keats climbing barefoot to soak up the warmth of the sun’s morning rays aloft a tree in spring flower; and Fanny dropping to her knees completely absorbed in a letter from Keats in a field abloom with purple wild flowers.
What Keats wrote about negative capability was very helpful – it explained the way I work, staying in the mystery, not intellectualising. That’s where I found the answer; he said he wanted a life of sensations, not thoughts, and I understood that I was trying to photograph sensations. (4)
In a moving scene brimming with a playful youthful innocence and animated with magnetic affection, which wins the viewer’s heart and contagiously spills over like the spring flowers in Campion’s mural – following the blossoming of first love after having shared their first kiss – Fanny and Keats are playing freeze tag with Fanny’s little sister. The landscape is a composition in deep focus, a countryside in spring pulsating with life and heightened by a transition – the transformative juxtaposition of the figures moving and then becoming frozen, then moving again, the camera capturing within the spontaneity of play the revelation of a human’s being. These brief moments convey the purity and simplicity of the characters’ tender attachment and the exhilaration of being in the world beyond the mere appearances of representation.
The scene serves as a reminder, as in Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, of the brevity and holiness of such moments of joyful connection in the continual flow of life. “I was thinking of Monet’s haystacks”, said Campion. “They’re just lumps, but they have the sun inside them, they vibrate. Images like that can’t help but be moving; they’re pictures of life and you can feel it palpitating!” (5)
Refraining from indulging the temptation to manufacture sensation artificially by manipulating the viewer, Campion shot simply using deep focus and a locked frame which, rather than directing the spectator’s eye, allows the viewer to receive the full dimensions of the image and trust in their own emotional response.
Balancing form with the sanctity of the content (the life, poetry, correspondence and, in particular, surviving love letters and notes which Keats had written to Brawne), Campion concentrated on refining and developing the interplay of conflicting elements that had fuelled the emotional intensity of their relationship. The threads of an unconsummated love, the restrictions they encountered and which were placed around them, paradoxically heightened the ardour between them. Keats’ lack of means with which to marry and, ultimately, his tragic illness, drew so many lines around their feelings that those feelings became all the more erotically consecrated, beautiful and pure in the mind of the viewer.
Campion’s directorial approach when filming Bright Star, her responsiveness to that which is becoming and attuned to changing sensations in the creative process, invited a dialogue with the spectator and “reality” that echoes André Bazin’s conception of the “world in its own image” (6). Campion worked in terms of polar opposites and from a desire for unity, and with an acknowledgement of the incompatible co-existence of two contraries the ambiguity of which need not be resolved but which can be better understood through Negative Capability.
- Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer, trans. Jonathan Griffin, Quartet Books, London, 1986, p. 27.
- John Keats, The Letters of John Keats, 3rd ed., ed. Maurice Buxton Forman, Oxford University Press, London, 1947, p. 72.
- Dudley Andrew, The Major Film Theories: An Introduction, Oxford University Press, London, 1976, p. 169.
- Andrew Fenton, “Campion Champions Case for Poetry”, The Advertiser 16 December 2009: http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/campion-champions-case-for-poetry/story-e6frec8c-1225810682526.
- André Bazin, What is Cinema? Vol. 1, trans. Hugh Gray, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1967, p. 12.