Thursday, 3 December 2009

Things we noticed watching tv this week - whilst still sitting on a plane

How much does our own subjectivity effect our reactions to a film, and if this is of a significant degree, are we all screwed in trying to write universal stories?

On the plane home my wife and I both watched Julie and Julia. It was useful to watch it as it reminded me just how visually exciting food can be in film. Like the wonderful Chocolate etc, there is just something so visceral about it you get an immediate, instinctive reaction. And I'm not exactly giving anything away that by working on a film called Dough that features a Jewish baker, there is of course a big food element. And I want to make as much use of that as possible.

I know absolutely nothing about Julia Child but apparently she was a bit useful in the kitchen and was probably the first celebrity chef. My wife tells me that she led a really interesting life, and would've preferred a straight biopic about her. I on the other hand, as a struggling writer and blogger, could relate to the present day, real life story of Julie Powell, a wannabe writer who decided to cook all 524 recipes in Child's book in a year... and blog about it. Both Meryl Streep and Amy Adams do a good job in making their characters as likeable as possible (although it never quite explains why American born Child sounded like someone doing a Maggie Thatcher impression!). The trouble is, their husbands, played by Stanley Tucci and Chris Messina, are such good blokes, and love their wives so unconditionally (apart from one little tiff the modern day couple has,) that there is zero conflict whatsoever. Certainly admirable in real life. I'm sure there are many people reading this whose partners support them unconditionally in achieving what sometimes seems like an impossible dream. But in a film narrative, it's a disaster. The result is that the film is episodic, just tracing the lives of these women from one event to the next (or from one recipe to the next,) with very little at stake. If Julia doesn't get her recipe book published, it will be a disappointment, but no more. If Julie fails in her challenge, she'll just look a bit silly to herself, in front of her friends, and blog readers. (But as we all know they are a pretty supportive bunch, apart from the one's that slag you off!) As I've been thinking a lot about narrative drive recently, it was all the more apparent that this didn't really have any, and as a result really lagged in the middle. Then, when we got to the end, there was no climax, and the film kind of just stopped. Julie and Julia never met, even though Child was apparently aware of Powell's blog before she died and allegedly made a disparaging remark about it to a reporter. But we only see Julia Child the saint? Did she turn into a cranky old bitch in her old age? If so, why? Unfortunately, it meant the narrative fell a bit flat.

The same could not be said about District 9. Essentially a sci-fi action adventure, it's concept is that aliens have arrived, become stranded on earth, and we shepherd them into refugee camps for 'our own safety.' Set in South Africa, there are obvious parallels with the Apartheid era, and you are just waiting for a unlikely hero to liberate them. He comes in the form of slower than average bureaucrat, Wikus Van De Merwe. In attempting to issue eviction orders to the aliens, he gets squirted with some sort of alien juice - which of course begins to turn him into an alien. I'm not going to get into details about the plot, you can read about that elsewhere or just see the movie. The important thing is that the key elements, like what is at stake, and therefore what is driving the story forward, are so clear, that it creates a momentum and excitement that leaves you on the edge of your seat (not hard on a plane but still.) It even manages to generate an emotional investment in the story, which is not always the case is this genre when special effects are relied upon rather than story. You very rarely go wrong by taking an average Joe schlub, throwing all sorts of crap at him, and get us to root for the underdog.

Which is pretty much how The Men Who Stare at Goats and A Serious Man work. And being a rather bad tourist, instead of visiting the usual nonsense, I took in a couple of trips to the cinema instead. So I'll be looking at these two movies next week.

Have a good weekend!


Lost Wanderer said...

Essentially working to be a novel writer, I am going to try my hand at a script for an experiment, so I enjoy reading your blog. And besides, I do like watching TV so it's good to think about how these stories come alive on screen. Thanks for posting this.

Jez Freedman said...

Hi LW, thanks very much for your kind words. Glad you enjoyed it and good luck with the script experiment. If you want feedback on it don't hesitate to get in touch. Is that crass of me to tout myself? Hmm, perhaps. But me and Lucy V are the best readers around. Fact. So if not me, try her!