Several films I wouldn’t normally watch…

I work on the basic principle that novels and films are always valid if the person or people for whom they were created enjoy them. I’m not a fan of self-indulgence on the part of writers but I try never to criticise a genre because it isn’t for me, because there may be others who derive much more pleasure than I do from a film or a book and I’m simply not target audience.

My own taste in films is fairly broad. My favourite films range from Everything is Illuminated to In Bruges, from Withnail and I to Stuart: A Life Backwards, from Jean de Florette to Korkoro. I wouldn’t expect others to like the same films as I do. But, partly because I’m a writer and partly because I’m inquisitive, I like to watch things from other genres I might not necessarily like myself in order to expand how I view the world, although I do try to approach them positively and supportively.

Recently, because it was raining and I was on a running machine for a long time, I watched a few daytime romance films on television. I’m not sure what I expected but I was struck by the sameness of them all. The main protagonists were all women, mostly in their twenties, although one character was approaching forty and a single mum. The women were all modern, long haired, attractive, middle-class slim Caucasians, all heterosexual, with mostly professional jobs: actor, writer, film maker, editor, business woman, model, PhD, wedding planner, cup-cake maker. They had few defining characteristics either in terms of their personalities or their appearances: no-one had bright red hair, spectacles, Asperger’s Syndrome, a wheelchair, OCD, shyness. They all dressed uniformly smartly, drove tidy cars, lived in nice houses and had friends. None of them was, in fact, like me or anyone I know. The one thing the women had in common was a failed romance and the thrust of the storyline was, generally, that they weren’t looking for love so, clearly, the viewer expected them to find it by the end of the film.

The ‘male interest’ was invariably of a similar age, usually a bit older, Caucasian, professional, middle class, smart, etc etc. There were a couple of traits the men had which the women didn’t: a tendency to conceal their emotions, not to admit their feelings, or to be stubborn (in an attractively needy way…) There were no awkward men, thin men, unintelligent men, myopic men, stutterers. Mostly they had thick hair, cleanly parted, and square jaws. There wasn’t a bald man although one had a beard but that was because he was the outdoor type! They were all physically strong, with clearly defined leadership qualities. I found all of them boring.

To accompany the above minimal character differences, the story lines were very similar. The couple met, they didn’t get on well, then they pretended they didn’t get on well to cover their attraction to each other, then they fell out over a mistake or a misunderstanding, then in the final five minutes they admitted that they had feelings for each other. The final shot in every film was a kiss – on a boat, up a mountain, on a veranda, at a wedding – but it was always the final shot. This left me wondering what happened next, after the film: their lives would probably be happily predictable and bland. There was a tangible lack of passion, lust or genuinely deep feelings. It was as if life has to be sanitised within the boundaries of an underexplored romance story. It wasn’t for me.

So my most recent film exploration has been a foray into (sort of) action movies, ones with a bit of bloodshed and violence, which is, I suppose, the other side of the romance coin. Many of the storylines are equally predictable. Male heroes in this broad genre are invariably in charge, fearless Alpha males, all demanding a high status, strong and brave in the face of all types of danger. Women’s roles range from the kick-ass sidekick to the needy damsel or the corpse.

To a certain extent, the success of the movie depends on main character and plot. Based on this, for me, all films featuring Steven Seagal aren’t worth pursuing, due to the egocentricity of his roles and the marginalisation of all female characters.

One film I enjoyed was Kingsman: The Golden Circle, which is one of those rare second films that is as good as the first one. Due to a lively script, clever humour and a sparky character played by Taron Egerton, it is saved from being simply a parody, and some of the action scenes are well staged and funny. The cameo from Elton John is hilarious.

Even better is Spike Lee’s BlacKKKlansman, which has a clearly political motive and achieves everything it intends to spectacularly and in a very moving way. It is violent, intelligent, scary in places, but based on real people in the real world and it is very cleverly contrived.

Bad Times at the El Royale was a strange film, a little Noir and very violent in the Tarantino style. At the beginning, I found it slow, but it developed into a more interesting film and by the end I thought I’d enjoyed it, as it was explosive and surprising. It was an example of a film you have to embrace from the outset, to make excuses for tropes and stereotypes as it goes along and invest in the characters and storyline: in short, I had to cut it some slack. It is long and indulgent but, by sticking with it, I managed to get something positive from watching it.

Another film in the category of ‘move the boundaries of your expectations before you start to watch’ is Venom. The film would have been silly but for Tom Hardy who managed to create the title role with sensitivity and quirky humour. He made it watchable in the sense that the viewer sympathised with his vulnerable and fair-minded character and therefore tolerated the screeching cartoon figure who yelled in his ear. I’m not sure if I’d watch a sequel, though.

Finally, I branched into fantasy/ action and watched Aquaman. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it was interesting. The film had a thin storyline with strong female roles who stood persuasively behind their hero. Aquaman himself was a hybrid between Atlantan demi-god and American goofball. Tenuous links to Camelot were a bit obvious – his name was Arthur; he pulled out the trident that no-one had managed to pull before. Multilingual, with a classical home-education derived from his human father the lighthouse keeper, the character of Aquaman didn’t quite work for me, although the ‘save the planet’ references were very pertinent. The greatest success of this film was the huge number of people who must have been employed to create the impressive CGI. I’m a sucker for all that clever animation stuff and, watched in the cinema, the fragmented story line and token characters wouldn’t matter: the film was a spectacular triumph of scenery, colour and action.

It’s an interesting exercise, trying different genres one mightn’t be normally inclined to watch. I’ve done this with war films, Hitchcock, horror, western, Noir, old movies, fantasy and epics. I’m not sure where to go next. Science Fiction is often beyond my comprehension and I can’t sit through a whole film of Chicago or Wayne’s World. Right: historical it is then.

Some of the great books I’ve read this summer…

I’ve read several good books over the summer months. Choosing from a wide range of genres and topics, here are seven books I’ve really enjoyed for a variety of reasons and I recommend them all. The list is random – there is no rank order implied. J

 

  1. Le Vieux, Biographie d’un Youyou. Azzedine Grimbou / Michel Kokoreff.

 

I was given this little novel for my birthday and I love it. What a character – what a life he led! It’s in French so it’s really helped me learn a lot of interesting new expressions…

 

  1. Nervous Conditions,. Tsitsi Dangarembga.

 

I love everything by this novelist. She writes with a beautiful voice about woman’s issues and coming of age. A very introspective, informative story.

 

  1. How Not to Die. Michael Greger, MD.

 

This book underpins my own philosophy on eating cleanly. It is a wonderful idea, that we might be able to eat ourselves fitter or at least avoid certain complaints by eating certain foods! The writer has a nutritional science background, so it’s a useful lifestyle handbook. His style is colloquial and easy to read.

 

  1. The Marble Collector. Cecelia Ahearn

 

A friend of mine gave me this book, saying she ‘couldn’t get on with it.’ For me, this  demonstrates perfectly how negative reviews often don’t mean anything more than a mismatch between writer and reader. It’s a great story and so well written. I love it.

 

  1. The Summer of Second Chances. Maddie Please / The Drowned Village. Kath McGurl

 

Two books by two novelists I know and respect as writers. One story is bubbly, light-hearted and a fun summer read – the other is haunting and beautifully crafted.

 

  1. What Blest Genius? Andrew McConnell Stott.

 

This is a witty, well-researched and clever account of the 1769 Stratford-upon-Avon Shakespeare Jubilee that brought Shakespeare to the foreground. It has an exciting cast of characters, including David Garrick and the ghost of Will himself.

Autumn is here – what will it bring, though?

I have to admit, I’m a summer person and the warmer months always seem to pass too quickly. It’s good to be outside in the sunshine, walking in the countryside, travelling to new places in the van, enjoying the open space on the beach. I love to cross the channel, go to France and beyond to favourite places. In spring and autumn, it’s still possible to do all these things, ignoring the extra layer of clothing you have to wear against the cooler weather, or just braving the elements. In winter, of course, it requires a mind-set change to enjoy walking in the cold and damp, but it’s possible to find joy in squelching mud and wet hair. I think that’s a good metaphor for life, trying to adjust to the climate, to external conditions and learning to celebrate them.

But September brings the autumn months and with it, Brexit. It is difficult to accept changes that almost half of us didn’t vote for, with the prognosis of food shortages, prescription shortages, higher prices, possible job losses and a great deal of uncertainty. A no-deal Brexit looms as a possibility. As a firm Remainer, I fear for the stability of my European friends in this country, for the stability of us all. I have enjoyed the right to be European for a long time. Those who voted Leave had no idea what quitting the EU would entail when they made a choice and there must be so many regrets from those voters now, since many people chose to leave Europe based on misinformation, lies and empty promises. We are living in difficult times where division of opinion, whatever party you support, is becoming the norm. There is anger, confusion and bitterness.

So, as winter approaches, I feel the need to search for positives. Cold weather, incessant rain and dark evenings don’t necessarily bring optimism. Open fires, crumpets, brandy and hot chocolate are temporary fixes, although those of us who have homes are ever fortunate to be warm, dry and under shelter. A good book will always lift the mood for a while, an engrossing film or an evening spent with good friends.

Winter months can also bring loneliness and solitude. Hallowe’en, Bonfire Night and Christmas festivities are family times and it is a pleasure to share and celebrate with loved ones. A huge family, a tribe, is something special and belonging to an extended family is a privilege and a joy. Having parents, children, a circle of relatives, people who welcome each other into their houses, to their tables and into their clan is a priceless thing – ask anyone who doesn’t to belong to such a group. Families and friends are like a blanket protecting us from being alone and without them we are diminished. Winter is a cold time to be alone.

The cooler months are for me a time to write prolifically and I am blessed on that journey. I have several books in the pipeline, several finished, a great deal with a brilliant team and two new books ready to go next year. I am lucky that, when it’s cold and damp outside, I can sit at the computer and create new characters, new worlds, and to write stories that I hope will entertain others. I am lucky to have something positive to occupy me.

It’s a long time from now until the spring and it’s easy to be demoralised by the grey skies and bitter winds. But each month brings its compensations. I love the mists of autumn, the blackberries to be picked, and then the sloes. I love it when the skies hang heavy with snow and we can go out in scarves and gloves. I love sitting outside, warming hands in front of an open bonfire, gazing at stars. Christmas lights always do it for me too; although the words commercial and artificial may echo in my ears, I’m a sucker for the bright twinkling colours and the simple songs about winter wonderlands and merry little Christmases. Nowadays, I’m at the point where Christmas needs redefining; gone are the times when we enjoyed family fun around the table, the kids pulling open presents and laughing. But something else will take its place – life has to be celebrated while we can, every moment of it.

Then a new year will arrive, with much to look forward to, more to celebrate – a new spring, then summer. It’s important to believe that we are on the verge of exciting new beginnings over which we have some control or choice, even if there are changes afoot that we can’t predict or prevent. It is easy to see the end of summer as the end of warmth and freedom and the arrival of winter as something cold and sad as the year comes to an end. But, even in these worrying times where precious institutions such as the health service may be under threat, where supermarket shelves may become emptier and the everyday things we took for granted may become less affordable, we have to remain positive. We can write letters to leaders, sign petitions and demonstrate in our cities, and we can vote – that in itself is a positive.

Hope and joy will keep us alive. The summer may be fading, but each season brings its own gift, however cold the weather. Whatever we may feel about the end of an era and the prospect of uncertainty and changes we cannot prevent, we still have each other and we can still retain friendship, solidarity and humanity. Whatever may come, we must insist that there will be good times and laughter, happiness and opportunity. A new chapter may be beginning, but we can write our own story within the confines of a blank page.