Sunday, 1 February 2015

The Attraction of Transformation

The film award season is upon us again. Rather typically, this year there are a disparate collection of films under consideration by the relevant academies, associations and members that will culminate in acceptance speeches that range from the touching and inspiring to those that make you shake your head and reach for the remote.

Despite the eclectic range of films, most if not all follow the tropes of Joseph Campbell’s archetypal storytelling structure. The protagonist (hero or anti-hero) is confronted with an obstacle (whether real or imagined, in human form or circumstance) that they struggle to at first accept before moving past the point of no return headlong into the story. Add a three-act structure, applicable tension and subsequent reprieves, culminating in a fitting climax and denouement and you have the skeleton of a universal story on your hands.

Movie-buffs, or really, anyone who possesses even a smidge of situational awareness, also picks up on another award season trend that at times proves even more obvious than Campbell’s aforementioned structure. When it comes to awarding artists in the categories of Best Actor/Actress in lead and supportive roles, (convincingly) portraying a character that requires a transformation – the more blatantly physical the metamorphosis the better, seems to be a lock in receiving a nomination if not an outright win (Hollywood politics and machinations notwithstanding). Cast your mind back over the last decade and try to recall all the weight loss/weight gain; prosthetics; uglifying/beautifying, and ‘against type’ roles. Chances are you’ll easily manage to find a whole bunch of them.

So why do we tend to salute these characterizations?

Is it because such roles overtly display what is usually more nuanced in other less ‘flashy’ roles – that is, it heavily showcases the individual artist’s skill? Do such roles come with a neon sign that says: Quiet! Serious thespian at work: for the consideration of the Academy. Or conversely, is the portrayal so quietly riveting, uncanny, haunting, etc., that the viewer plum forgets that they’re watching a film and a person who is at the end of the day just ‘playing pretend?’

Perhaps the answer is one, none, or a combination of the above. What is certain is that the ability to successfully take a viewer (or reader) on a journey – and to make them feel, think or simply escape whilst they’re in the middle of the applicable medium, is a potent one, which seems to hold us in its thrall.

Campbell’s storytelling arc can only truly resonate when the characters that play out the drama are as fully fleshed, idiosyncratic and complex as we ourselves are. It’s most definitely something to keep in mind for those who feel compelled to create.

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Fan Mail #2

Another year has begun, and being a tennis fan – and an Australian, I am in the midst of tennis TV overload as the first Grand Slam tournament is underway in Melbourne.

When I am asked on the odd occasion who I admired growing up, most people expect me to rattle off names of famous writers and are a therefore a little surprised that the person I most admired in my formative teenage years was a tennis player – Monica Seles. Although I never once wanted to play professionally and I always wanted to be a writer, the choice may seem odd to the uninitiated.

I suppose I could write a long dissertation as to why she inspired me, but I shall keep it short. When someone only a few years older than I (she was 16 at the time – I was 12), bursts onto the hitherto genteel tennis scene, plays the game in an extremely unorthodox way – with two hands off both sides, grunting in exertion, and attacks with such fierce and precise power off both wings, I couldn't help but notice.

Here was someone who understood the rules of the game and then subverted them just enough so she could be true to who she was. Yet what always impressed me more that the physical aspect of her compelling game was her unsurpassed mental approach. Never before had I seen someone respond to pressure by being more aggressive, by aiming for the lines, by not playing safe. When the chips were down, she would become even more dangerous. Who does that?! For most, this is counterintuitive. Watching the tennis players of today, those who share this trait with Seles are extremely rare. Mental fragility seems abundant in its stead.

As a writer, I suppose you could build the analogy - of practicing and performing, continually improving the craft with the hopeful goal of making it to the professional stage – and then on to the glory of book deals, decent sales, solid reviews – with that of a tennis player or any professional athlete in general. They say the mental part of sport is the most important – especially when athletes are comparable in their physical prowess. For us creative types, it’s all mental!

So as I sit myself down, working assiduously on my writing, I sometimes think of Seles’s indomitable spirit and tenacity and it spurs me on. It provides the kick-in-the-pants I need to forge ahead and to never give up.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Alpine Adventure

This last May, I fulfilled a lifelong dream of visiting Switzerland. Ever since I was in high school, I have been fascinated with the small alpine country that is split into its four distinct (Swiss-German, Italian, French and Romansh) dialects, across its many cantons. Coming from a sun-chasing, beach-loving, flat country of Australia, Switzerland was its total opposite, and that intrigued me. As a lover of the great outdoors, I knew that I would love the breathtaking vistas of the Swiss countryside, but even I lost count of number of times my mouth was agape. For many years my wish of traveling there was kyboshed for many number of reasons; financial, career, health, the stars not aligning, etc. So it was doubly exciting to be able to go after I had built it up in my own mind. I almost thought that there was no way it could match my high expectations. I needn’t have worried.

I was treated to incredible weather that ranged from 77 degrees Fahrenheit (25 degrees Celsius) in the Italian speaking southern Lugano (I crossed the border a few times to Italy to visit Milan and to glide over Lake Como, to see for myself what George Clooney loves about the place. And for the record, I completely get it). And then I would ascend into the alpine towns of Zermatt and Wengen, where the temperatures would plummet to 7 degrees Fahrenheit (-14 degrees Celsius), complete with snowfall, and soul-warming (gut expanding) delights of cheese fondue and raclette, washed down with wine and finished off with swiss chocolate or apple strudel. Speaking of desserts, as one of my absolute favorite treats in the world is Tiramisu, I would seek it out and wolf it down. It surprised me that the best one I tasted was at the Armani Café in Milan. Yep, you can stay at the Armani hotel, eat at his café and shop in his stores, all within the same block. Armani even has its own bookstore. Who knew?

One of the most awe-inspiring sights was the Matterhorn – Switzerland ’s most famous mountain. I was fortunate enough to be in a hotel room with a direct view. I would continually step out just to keep looking at it, amazed that I was finally seeing it with my very own eyes. I took the train up to the Gornergrat (viewing station) at over 10, 000ft above sea level, and was lucky enough to enjoy clear views, not to mention fortunate enough to cuddle up to three St. Bernard dogs. As I traveled to Interlaken and Wengen, the impeccable train journeys were punctuated by countless waterfalls as the snow and glaciers would melt and pour themselves into the deep and lush valleys below.

As a writer of magical realism I cannot begin to tell you how inspired I was by this trip. It was the culmination of decades of planning and wishing – just like the journey to publication. Switzerland proved symbolic for many reasons, and now I feel excited about bringing other dreams I have to fruition. Persistence and passion does pay off, I can tell you.

Thanks for the memories, Switzerland. I’m looking forward to returning one day.  

Matterhorn pic that I took from the Gornergrat train
Lauterbrunnen Valley from the train station in Wengen