Bright Star, An Education, and the cult of the book

"As Garry Trudeau (who is not on Twitter) has his Washington “journotwit” Roland Hedley tweet at the end of “My Shorts R Bunching. Thoughts?,” “The time you spend reading this tweet is gone, lost forever, carrying you closer to death. Am trying not to abuse the privilege.”

---George Packer

1) One of the main things that struck me while watching Jane Campion's excellent Bright Star is just how undistracted the characters are in 1818 England. To occupy their time, Keats (Ben Whishaw), Fanny (Abbie Cornish), and Charles Brown (Paul Schneider) have books, letters, and nature to read (Fanny also has a strong interest in fashion). When they talk, no one is checking his or her cell phone, no screens call them away, and when they go buy a book, it is hard bound and carefully wrapped with paper and string. I never entirely believed that Ben Whishaw was really writing Keats' poetry, but I liked the technology-free milieu enhanced by Greig Fraser's impressive cinematography. The characters appear unencumbered, focused, and more aware as a result.

2) Then I watched An Education, and again I was surprised by the way the film ultimately privileged a bookish education. Even as Jenny (Carey Mulligan) enjoys breaking free from her prep school to experience night clubs, Paris, dog racing, and such with David (Peter Sarsgaard) and his gang of rogues, she ultimately (minor spoiler alert) returns to books and her English major interests. She criticizes her educators for being boring (she could also characterize the world of Bright Star as boring), but later she embraces Oxford. Does An Education ultimately pander to the conservative instincts of its audience after treating it to a fun subversive ride earlier on? Doesn't the cinematic form privilege the night life and adult transgressions even as it snaps back to the safe virtues of a bookish restraint?

3) Both films left me wondering about this increasing nostalgia for a former culture that celebrates longer texts amidst all of our fragmented technologically scattered forms of communication, a split nicely exemplified in Julie and Julia where Julie Powell's blog looks pitiful compared to the gravitas of Julia Child's book Mastering the Art of French Cooking. With the proliferation of Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc. competing for my attention and splitting my concentration, I notice how I might link instead of write, skim instead of read, and absorb images instead of think. How much are the fetishizing of books in Bright Star and An Education symptomatic of this trend?


Sam Juliano said…
Thrilled, thrilled, thrilled to hear your judgement on BRIGHT STAR, Film Doctor!!! It's my #1 film of 2009 in fact, and a recent DVD viewing just cemented that sentiment. I do think Mr. Schneider was as supberb and Ms. Cornish, but there are so many other ravishing components and aspects here.
Thanks, Sam. I'm glad that we largely agree on this one. I plan on posting a more complete review of the film soon.
Jane- 2 of 7 said…
I, too, am a reader though I just started a movie blog with a friend of mine as I am also a fan of movies. I saw An Education today and truly enjoyed it. Also enjoyed Julie and Julia. I generally try to read the book first when a movie is adapted. But, more to your point, yes we are more distracted by technology. I believe this is something that we allow to happen. Technology is there for our use, not for it to use us.
I agree. I found it amusing to think of the crew of Bright Star checking their cell phones behind the scenes as Campion so skillfully conveyed a period when there was nothing to distract her characters at all. And the carefully wrapped hard bound books get treated with so much respect.

When in comes to An Education, I was also struck by the way Helen, the ditsy blonde, prefers magazines to books. Perhaps the first sign of John's problem was when he falsely signed a book by C. S. Lewis. I guess the thing to do now is read Lynn Barber's memoir that the film was adapted from.
Andrew K. said…
"Perhaps the first sign of John's problem was when he falsely signed a book by C. S. Lewis." You mean David right? But I'm chuckling, why (of all names) John.

Lovely writeup (how have I never come across this lovely blog?). An Education is a favourite of mine, and having just seen Bright Star it is lovely. The atmosphere is lovely in both, but I wonder if that's because I'm a sucker for British (especially British period).
Thanks for the correction. Yes, I meant David. In general, I was impressed by Peter Sarsgaard's performance. He has the right smarmy smile for the role, and his phony British accent seems appropriate.

An Education is enjoyable, but I was struck by its traditional morality tale ending. The film seems to entertain and then retreat from Jenny's more radical critiques of "boring" 1961 British society.
Richard Bellamy said…
This is superb. You certainly point out a wonderful trend - the veneration of books. And this trend continues with The Book of Eli.

As for letters, the recent Dear John venerates old-fashioned letter writing in a time of e-mailing and texting. As a soldier separated from his true love, at a time when most soldiers were e-mailing, John (Tatum Channing) writes scads of real letters to Savannah (Amanda Seyfried)and he accumulates a whole ammo-box-full from her. This is one of the best aspects of the film - one of the few good aspects.

I really enjoyed Bright Star for its cinematography, for the performances, and for the portrayal of Fanny and John's innocent courtship. As for their letter-writing - I loved the things they did with paper: folding it in a certain way to reveal the message. That made me want to go out and buy some nice heavy stationery. In fact, inspired by the film, all the many prop letters in my stage production of Les Miserables were folded over as in the film - with one side sealed and the other side bearing the address. When you have time, check out my post on Bright Star back in September.
Thanks, Hokahey. I will look at your post concerning Bright Star. I still wonder if all of this book veneration business in cinema is the result of fewer people reading them very well. Books and letters gradually become quaint nostalgic props like horse-drawn carriages and parasols. I've also been questioning how new media like Twitter affect how one uses words. All of this ready availability of mass amounts of data can lead to glib breezy communication.
Joel Bocko said…
Yes, I think you're on to something. I wonder too if some of the guilt isn't economic at the time of a downturn. Heck, I know hard times have made me look at my cable bill differently.

Of course there's definitely something aesthetic going on too. Look at the current cult of the polaroid!
Good points, Movieman. I could always just walk away from my computer more often. The T. S. Eliot line comes to mind "Distracted from distraction by distraction...." I wonder when people will be as nostalgic for movies as they are now for book culture.