Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jun 12, 2015 7:50 am 
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Wet Welsh poet Dylan Thomas' first tour of America, dramatized in a new film

If it has a value, this new movie about the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas' first reading tour of the US, three months in 1950, it's to inspire new readers of Thomas' poetry (and prose), new listeners to his melliflous recorded readings, and old readers to go deeper into the work. The English scholar John Goodby has published a recent study of Dylan Thomas, Under the Spelling Wall (2013). Thomas has been called "the last of the rock star poets." His resonant, mellifluous voice is to die for, for anyone aspiring to read or recite poetry before an audience. It moves and enchants. The criticism is that he was too much a showman. The legend is that he was a drunkard and a womanizer. And he was. He died, actually of pneumonia, the result of a misdiagnosis, in 1953, on his third triumphant (but for his health disastrous) sojourn in America. He was at the time staying at the fabled Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan (which is about to be converted into a colorlessly charming boutique hotel, its days of legend finally over). But all these things, which are partly true, have overshadowed Dylan Thomas' importance as one of the most gifted of 20th-century poets in English, a writer whose command of metaphor and vowel puts his contemporaries to shame and makes their productions sound colorless and flat.

Dylan Thomas is due for a reassessment and reappreciation. His status has been as a poet popular among common readers whose knowledge of his work tends to be restricted to a handful of the most famous poems. He has been downgraded by critics and schools as valuing sound over sense. Gooby explains the fate of Thomas' reputation. For twenty years after his tragic early death at 39 there was a huge upsurge of interest, which burned itself out and faded thereafter. Then the dominance of the dry, prosy, declarative English school of poetry symbolized by W.H. Auden's poetry caused Thomas to be virtually "airbrushed out" of literary history, like a figure in a Soviet encyclopedia. In the house where I grew up however, we had the first of the three magnificent Caedmon records (debut of an influential series) with him reading "Fern Hill," "Do Not Go Gentle into That GoodNight," "In the White Giant's Thigh," "Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait," and " Ceremony After A Fire Raid," and we used to listen to his flip side reading of the classic short story "A Child's Christmas in Wales" whenever Yuletide rolled round. I liked to listen to T.S. Eliot's dry readings for Harvard Vocarium (also a series first) of "The Hollow Men" and "Gerontion" just as well, maybe more. Admittedly, they made more sense to me. But Dylan Thomas was more like W.B. Yeats: that Welsh voice gives you a sense of the oracular, incantatory power of verse that maybe the bards of The Odyssey and Beowulf had.


Well, what of this film? It shows well what a whirlwind of drunken carousing Dylan Thomas was when delivered up to the frustrations and temptations of a foreign tour, and what a hopeless combination he and the uptight academic were. Celyn Jones and Elijah Wood (setting aside Frodo-hood) are fine and there is a stream of poetic, philosophical, mad conversation in the script, cowritten by the director and the Welsh-born Jones. The velvety black and white photography is pretty and the 1950 look of clothes, cars, tiny TV, deluxe diner are done right, though phrases like "I'm on top of this," "freebie," "this guy" (for a chess piece), "in the loop" and "whatever" show writing by people who weren't alive at this time. The focus is on a couple of incidents. Dylan Thomas in New York is a disaster and a medical emergency -- perhaps intentionally foreshadowing the third visit that did Thomas in. So Brinnin takes Thomas to his family's Connecticut summer cottage, but the oddball Hymans invite themselves for dinner, and more drunkenness, to Brinnin's horror, naturally ensues. As this couple Shirley Henderson and Kevin Eldon may be more colorful than convincing, but they provide one of the films's liveliest, most fun moments.

Jones is confident, perhaps a tad too much so, since he's too harsh at times. It would feel more right to see him more often helpless and desperate, not leave all of that to Brinnin's character with the burden of Elijah Wood's perpetual trapped deer vulnerability. When in the rowboat Dylan tells him "Kiss me!" is he trying to tempt him out of his closet? Kelly Reilly appears later, briefly and powerfully, as Thomas's bitter, codependent English wife Caitlin. Her appearance to Thomas awakens jealousy in John expressed, it appears, by a choral recitation of his poem, "Love In The Asylum," ending with the film title. Later Brinnin and Caitlin were to capitalize on their roles post mortem by publishing two bestsellers, Dylan Thomas in America from him and Leftover Life to Kill from her. What would his version have been? Perhaps this is better anyway than the even more brutally reviewed The Edge of Love (2008), a film by John Maybury about Thomas and the two chief women in his life, Vera Phillips and Caitlin.

All in all, Set Fire to the Stars, whose director is an accomplished BBC TV director with some "Downton Abbey" episodes to his credit, is a smooth, entertaining biopic slice-of-life in the tortured artist/overburdened handler mode. But given the immensity of its subject, the treatment isn't complete. Since this is about a reading tour, should we not get more of a look at the readings? Why do we hear so little of the poetry? Couldn't the magnificent voice and the wonderful poetry this tour was all about not be a bit more fully evoked? It winds up feeling too skimpy. It also seems from what we know now that Brinnin was a more ambiguous figure than shown. But, no matter. The thing is, this movie takes newcomers to a life and a poet it's really important to know about. Next, it would be nice to see a movie about the Sitwell family and Edith, a mentor and supporter of Dylan. Edith's wonderfully eccentric recitations of "Façade," her rap-precursor poem suite elegantly scored by William Walton, were another of the poetry records I loved to listen to in my youth, over and over till I knew their verbal wizardry by heart.

Set Fire to the Stars, 97 mins., like The Edge of Love, debuted at Edinburgh June 2014, entering UK cinemas 7 November 2014; other festival showings. US theatrical distribution by Strand Releasing begins 12 June 2015. (Los Angeles 19 June at Laemmle Noho 7.)​

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