Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Hollywood's Grecian Urn Problem

When Kim Novak stepped onto the Oscar stage Sunday night, I was among the legions who collectively gasped. Sadly, Novak bore no resemblance to the siren she plays in Vertigo. Hollywood and, to a lesser extent, society treats aging women cruelly. And the snark-net seemed not to care that Novak has bravely survived cancer and other challenges to her health.

While discussing Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" with a student yesterday and while reading an article in Salon in the wee hours this morning, it struck me: Hollywood has a Grecian urn mentality and problem. Simply, Hollywood movies are to the actors representing the beautiful people in them what the Grecian urn in Keats's poem is to the lovers frozen in time and place on its surface.

In Keats's poem, the lovers, you may recall, stay eternally beautiful: The female lover is the "unravish'd bride." The couple, like the tree that never loses its leaves, remain "fair youth." While time and the seasons pass, Keats reminds readers of the enduring beauty and truth of art: "She cannot fade."

As with Keats's ekphrasis, his representation of art in the poem, Hollywood movies remain frozen in time and place. The John Travolta who mauled Idina Menzel's  name Sunday night bears little resemblance to the character he plays in Saturday Night Fever. In some ways Travolta's mispronouncing Menzel's name is a fitting metaphor for his and other iconic movie stars' attempts to live frozen in time. They do to their visages what Travolta did to Idina Menzel's name. As time passes, they come to have more in common with Keats' final stanza than with the young lovers: O Atic shape! Fair attitude! with brede / Of marble men and maidens overwrought, / With forest branches and trodden weed."

Thus, like the lovers who run toward each other but never meet, who can never kiss but can remain forever young, aging Hollywood stars who "with old age this generation doth waste" and who "remain in midst of other woe / Than ours" run toward what they can never reach: eternal youth.

It's as though Kim Novak, John Travolta, and many others whose physical beauty has faded with time get only the first part of Keats' epiphany, the fragment that reads, "Beauty is truth." The real gem follows: "truth beauty." When stars and society understand that, perhaps we'll arrive at the lovers' elusive goal and realize, "--that is all / ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

"Ode on a Grecian Urn" by John Keats

Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness,
       Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
       A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring'd legend haunts about thy shape
       Of deities or mortals, or of both,
               In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
       What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
               What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
       Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,
       Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
       Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
               Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
       She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
               For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
         Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
         For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
         For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd,
                For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
         That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd,
                A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
         To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
         And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
         Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
                Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
         Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
                Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
         Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
         Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
         When old age shall this generation waste,
                Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
         "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
                Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."