If humanity can lay claim to any powers beyond those of the other species that swarm this frail planet, then it is the power to create. The Greeks referred to this process of creation as poiesis. In the contemporary world, we might refer to this process as poetry.
There are many things that humans can create, from technologies to buildings to works of art. And while perhaps all machines transform our world and thus help us to see not just the world anew, but to realise that the world is only ever progressing into the new as the machines themselves both emerge from the constituent matter with which our universe is built and reconfigure that matter by bringing the machines’ products into existence, perhaps art nonetheless has a special place in and with the world, since art does not just bring beautiful new objects into the world (so-called works of art), but art also makes us see that beauty lies everywhere in the world.
Set Fire to the Stars was shot in 18 days in early 2014 on a relatively small budget. It tells the story of Dylan Thomas (co-writer Celyn Jones) on the verge of his first American tour in 1950. However, rather than concentrate uniquely on Thomas, the story is also about would-be poet John Malcolm Brinnin (Elijah Wood), a New York poetry professor who has brought Thomas to the USA, and who struggles to keep a leash on his guest, who otherwise is raising alcohol-pumping hell.
At one point Thomas catches Brinnin correcting his students’ poems in the Connecticut retreat to which the latter has brought the former in a bid to dry him out. Thomas reads the poem – and with gusto. Why, Thomas asks, does Brinnin have to write all over this work? He is a professor, replies Brinnin, which only prompts Thomas to suggest, in so many words, that creation must be encouraged, not stifled. And we can imagine Thomas’ thoughts: that with only the courage to write, all of the respect for technique will follow, but if one only learns technique and no courage, then one’s poetry will be an empty exercise.
Set Fire to the Stars is a technically accomplished film; it has a nostalgic quality that is brought forth by the film’s black and white cinematography, suggesting a speakeasy States populated by hearts that pump blood and soar with spirit like anywhere else. Maybe the film could go further in exploring just what it is that a human can think, feel and do on this cold rock, in the sense that maybe there could be even more laying bare of the souls that we see in the film. But Set Fire to the Stars is, after all, a film with a lot of heart. A film with a lot of poetry.
For, few are the films that feel as though they had to have been made by its makers before they try and fail to outscream the screaming devil that is death. And yet, in Set Fire to the Stars, one gets a sense that Goddard and in particular Jones could not have led a life that did not at some point in time feature a version of this film. We are, after all, equally human and as such, we all have a duty to try to pocket the moon if that is what we wish to accomplish. That is, if we dream it, then we must have the courage to make it.
And this is what one feels watching Set Fire to the Stars: that everything has been put into this that the filmmakers could muster within and without themselves. To create is tread fearlessly into the world of crisis, where critics uphold themselves as the gatekeepers between what is supposedly good and bad. And yet to create takes courage and should thus be both encouraging and encouraged. Good and bad can drown themselves in jealous rivalry under the surface of Lake Film Reviews. What is great, alone, is that the film is done, and its courage is what shines through.
To confirm the poetry of the film, one happily is transported to America’s New England for its duration, even though the film is shot in and around Thomas’ native Swansea. What more affirmation of magic can there be than such alchemy of place, whereby we find America in Wales and, while at times we may notice, we do not really care? This is not to be hung up on rules and wherefores, but it is lead a life of play, make-believe and joy.
Maybe the film should be more angry, more ugly. But Set Fire to the Stars is nonetheless a defiant film that like all creations is born out of love. Being now in and with the world, there is no need to scrawl all over its margins, but instead simply to admire it, the Thomas that it give us, and to learn courage from it to lead a life of creation ourselves.