Archive for the ‘films’ Category

Over Christmas, in the normal lazy Christmas traditions, I was lolling around in my pyjamas watching wonderful films and drinking excessive amounts of wine, as one does. About halfway through When Harry Met Sally, during the scene where Harry and Sally are singing ‘Surrey with a Fringe on Top’ into a karaoke machine, I had a minor revelation:

Nothing happens in a vacuum.

I am probably stating something really obvious, but if it’s obvious to others, it’s not something I’ve thought about extensively before. There’s the scene with the karaoke machine, when Harry bumps into his ex-wife and her new partner. The purpose of this scene is to show the audience that Harry isn’t over his ex-wife, and that he’s embarrassed to be seen with Sally in this situation.

This scene could have taken place at any time and in any place: Harry could have been walking down the street, alone, on any nondescript evening. But, no: he’s having  a great day with his best friend, and he’s doing something which is a lot of fun, until he sees himself through his ex’s eyes and shrivels up with embarrassment. What’s more, the sheer contrast between the mood at the beginning of the scene and at the end is striking.

The writers have put the characters in a situation which is doing as much work to push the story forward as possible: we learn so much about Harry’s feelings for Sally, his feelings for Helen (and Ira), and the friendship between Sally and Harry, all because the scene takes place within a situation which can draw out these revelations, and showing not telling the audience.

At no point does Harry need to say ‘Gosh, I feel so awkward that Helen has a new partner and I am still messing about on karaoke machines with my mates.’  He doesn’t need to say this because the audience see it perfectly, mainly because of the choices made by the writers.

I think that’s very clever, and I hope to use this little lesson in my writing. Any other examples you can think of?

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After a couple of years of listening to people moan about how terrible The Twilight Saga was, I caved last year and borrowed my sister’s copy of the first novel. I read it within 24 hours, ostensibly to that nobody needed to see me reading it in public. I was interested in why it was so popular, when people said the writing was so bad.

So, I read it cover-to-cover in a very short space of time, and yes, it’s full of cliché and awkward sentences, the protagonist is irritatingly self-obsessed, completely stupid, moany and selfish… and most of the criticism you’ve heard about the books is probably true.

BUT… I read the second book. And then I watched the first two films. And I read the online pdf of Midnight Sun. And, next time I go home, I will probably borrow the third book from my sister. And I know exactly why.

Stephanie Meyer has demonstrated a couple of things to me. One is that a fantastic idea sometimes trumps excellent writing. Another is that people absolutely relish a story of forbidden love. As an example, here is a little summary of why I enjoyed the first two books:

Bella and Edward love each other but aren’t able to act upon it (unrequited love – tick, unresolved sexual tension – triple tick). When they’re finally able to start a relationship, things happen which get in the way (barriers to love – tick). Edward spends a lot of time trying to resist temptation, and eventually abandons Bella, so they’re both unhappy (more unrequited love). Jacob comes along (yet more unrequited love, AND a liberal dash of will-they-won’t-they). At the same time as all this is happening, Bella keeps getting herself into stupid situations, and Edward has to come and rescue her (damsel in distress, heroic Byronic hero unashamedly inspired by Mr Darcy).

I mean… come on! Meyer’s a genius. If I want something mindless, romantic and comforting to read or watch, I would probably consider The Twilight Saga.  She’s cornered the market on modern romance novels by putting everything we could possibly dream of into the books.

And although people are still criticising the books (often rightfully), there is a slow trickle of articles heading the other way. An article in the Guardian today suggests that some of the criticism of the novels is unfounded, and one of my favourite writing websites, The Blood-Red Pencil, has a blog post about how we can learn from techniques in Meyer’s writing, and which says everything I’ve tried to say here a little bit clearer.

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The Case for Fathers

“That fathers not only kill adventure but also stand in the way of self expression in a child is something that children’s writers have always understood.”

Really? According to Andrew Martin, a novelist who wrote and presented “Disappearing Dads: the curious case of absent fathers in fiction”. He wrote an accompanying blog post on the subject, which can be found here.

The essential message in both the programme and the blog is that fathers in fiction are often absent, and those who are present are either ineffectual layabouts or aggressive tyrants. There is a concentration on children’s literature and Dickens, with a vague mention of Mr Bennett in Pride and Prejudice.

This programme really makes me sad. I don’t agree with a lot of what he says: Mr Bennett is not a terrible father, he just knows the futility of engaging with his wife and younger children, but if needed he will step in immediately, as he does when Mrs Bennett threatens not to speak to Lizzie if she doesn’t marry Mr Collins.

Strong father figures do exist in fiction, although they are admittedly less common than the previously mentioned types of fathers. Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess (although he does go to war, he is strong and loving when he is present). I have tried desperately not to mention The Railway Children because just thinking about it makes me cry! But that’s all about a lovely Dad, who isn’t weak, and who is present throughout (if not in person, in the characters’ thoughts and deeds), as mentioned by DaveG in the comments on  the BBC blog. But Martin says: “[The children in The Railway Children] miss their father, but not much. His absence is compared to what happens when you stick your finger into dough: it made a deep impression but the impression does not last long.” He goes on to say, “With father back on the scene, the fun is over.”

And Martin’s programme seems unclear about the distinction between real-life fathers and fathers in fiction, which are very different things. Just because Dickens only wrote one novel with a present father (Dombey and Son), doesn’t mean that fathers in real life Victorian London weren’t present or fatherly. Martin fails to mention Joe Gargery of Great Expectations, a substitute father figure who really should be included if we’re talking about Dickens and fathers.

In the comments of the article, two people have mentioned Phillip Pullman, saying: “Mothers are also absent from most books. Was it Philip Pullman who said you first have to get rid of the parents?” And here is the key to the puzzle. Children’s literature, even examples cited by Martin himself, often relies on absent parents, not absent fathers. Adventures are constrained by parents, so frequently a protagonist is an orphan: Harry Potter, Oliver Twist, Pip… even James Bond is an orphan! The Pevensey children are evacuated in the Narnia books, and the Famous Five are always being independent in a lighthouse or similar. Removing the parents (or parent) is a device used by some writers to push the story along, to add some tension and adventure. But this is fiction, there are many, many exceptions, and it doesn’t and shouldn’t reflect on real life understanding of the role of fathers now or in the past.

So back to the quote (it’s about 19 minutes into the programme): “That fathers not only kill adventure but also stand in the way of self expression in a child is something that children’s writers have always understood.”

If he’s talking about real life, Martin cites no real life examples. If he’s talking about fiction, Martin should probably substitute the term ‘father’ with ‘parents’ for many books.

At the end, Martin says: “Fathers in fiction stifle a child’s inner life. But fathers in real life can help promote it.” I wish he’d said that throughout the programme.

What does everyone else think?

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Like a lot of people, I really enjoy a good cry at a film or book. Sit me in front of The Railway Children, and I’m a quivering mess before the VHS counter (yes, I still have a video machine) says 00.06mins. I have to arrange to watch it – alone -, ensuring that nothing is scheduled for the full hour after the film finishes, because I cry so much in the final scene (“Daddy, my Daddy!”) that my face goes so puffy and red that I look actually ill.

But one thing which I have noticed in the past couple of months is that, when I cry at films (and TV programmes, and books…), it’s no longer as cathartic and comforting as it once was.

Where once I would welcome the tears, and heave a sigh of release as the credits roll, now I find myself still crying after the film has ended.

I watched Robert DeNiro in Everybody’s Fine last weekend, and spent the entire film saying “I hate this film. I really hate it.” And crying – genuinely crying – at the unfairness of it all.

A couple of months ago, Channel 4 broadcast a programme called Confessions of a Traffic Warden. Sounds terrible, I know, but it was an absolutely fantastic documentary about racism and prejudice in London, and about the image the UK presents to people from other countries (before they arrive, and after). Ask me to say more about the poor man who moved to Britain believing everyone was nice and kind and refined, only to become a traffic warden…. and I can’t say any more. I would actually start crying. I was inconsolable.

So I still enjoy a good cry, but mainly when happy things happen (see above: The Railway Children). Sad things just make me sad, in real life.

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