Home Video Hovel: Set Fire to the Stars, by Craig Schroeder
Every writer I’ve ever idolized is, without fail, a drunken malcontent. Tennessee Williams. Ernest Hemingway. Charles Bukowski. All of them geniuses and all of them disastrously self-destructive. Hunter S. Thompson was my favorite. A drug addict who got his ass kicked by the Hell’s Angels and once gave Jack Nicholson an elk heart as a birthday “gift,” Thompson is the main purveyor of a theory that haunts every creative mind: greatness comes only through disastrous levels of personal despair. It’s an insidious line of thinking and one I’ve (mostly) overcome in my creative pursuits, that is until I’m introduced to the works of a supremely fucked-up genius I was not yet aware of. Dylan Thomas, the Welsh writer whose poetry dominated literary circles in the mid-twentieth century, is one of those fucked-up geniuses. And Set Fire to the Stars, the new film from director Andy Goddard, is a beautiful film that seeks to define the grey areas between the beauty of Thomas’ poems and the ugliness of his drunken despair.
Though biographical, I’d hesitate to describe Set Fire to the Stars as a traditional biopic. The film takes place over the span of a few short days in the 50s, when Dylan Thomas (Celyn Jones, who also co-wrote the film with Goddard), at his drunkest, embarks on a reading tour across the United States. In fact, the film isn’t even Thomas’ story, it’s the story of John M. Brinnin (Elijah Wood) the poet, academic and Thomas acolyte tasked with maintaining order in Thomas’ bouts of drunken anarchy.
Set Fire to the Stars joins the likes of Grand Piano, Maniac, Wilfred, Sin City and nearly a half dozen other post-Lord of the Rings endeavors that serve as constant reminders that Elijah Wood is one of the most daring actors working and shouldn’t be remembered only as Frodo Baggins. Dylan Thomas—at least at this stage in his life—is a tragic character, still sharp but horribly dependent on alcohol and feeding off of his own regret. And for his part, Celyn Jones is a bulwart, taking a character built from drunken affectations (if the film is to be scolded for anything it’s occasionally brushing with too broad of a stroke) and adding depth, sadness and humor. Together, Wood and Jones are brilliant, exploring every angle and nuance of the dynamic between a fucked-up genius and a more conservative creative mind.
And though Jones and Wood are wonderful, the film’s biggest stand-out is behind the camera. Cinematographer Chris Seager (who, like Andy Goddard, has spent the better part of the last decade building a prolific resume in television) has turned Set Fire to the Stars into the gold standard for what black and white photography should look like in film. Chris Seager’s work isn’t just beautiful, it’s integral to the film’s milieu and sense of time and place. Much like Bruno Delbonnel’s work in Inside Llewyn Davis, Seager makes the audience feel every snowflake and gust of wind in the film’s bitter New York winter, turning a snow storm in a visceral sensation. And when the winter backdrop becomes oppressively cold, Seager’s touch becomes more subdued and hauntingly bare, turning Minion’s modest lake house (a frequent halfway home for Dylan Thomas) into a scene of lush beauty. All of Seager’s shots feel, at once, meticulously composed and effortlessly beautiful. Some may complain that Set Fire to the Stars is overwritten and I wouldn’t balk (there are a few stale one-liners that could be found on a Quote-A-Day desk calendar). But Seager’s cinematography affords the film an immense amount of latitude, and the occasional clever quip that may have cooked a minute too long is easily forgiven.
There are a few hiccups in Set Fire to the Stars, but they’re sparse and almost all are inconsequential. And while one could tire of the film’s navel gazing soliloquies, there is just too much beauty in the film. And though the film introduced me to Dylan Thomas (other than Thomas’ greatest hits, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and “And Death Shall Have No Dominion”, I’ve somehow missed most of his oeuvre) and thus reinforced my fear that my life is not enough of a disaster to create something great. Set Fire to the Stars is a film that deftly defines the no man’s land between a modest creative brain and a mind of self-destructive illustriousness, and in doing so, is a film almost as beautiful as the poems themselves.