Monday, 17 December 2012

christmas capra, film and firearm crime

It’s the crazy season, the one where we all embrace tradition with an affliction of heartfelt fondness and encourage one another to hug family and friends with the intensity that a year of neglect can demand.  And all the while we are engaging in social gatherings and relaxing into pastimes that allow us to assume an imagined life that provides us with the opportunity to question the people we have become and afford us a wee chance, should we choose to accept it, to do something different.

We curl up with our children, our friends or our lovers, and our books and DVDs and life is actually different, and for a little while at least, meaningful and significant. Increasingly, one of the tools we use to capture that sense of worth is by watching poignant films, movies with a tell-tell message. 

Screenings of old black and white movies, like Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, are sold out in cinemas and in a unified emotional slumber we engage in an uplifting, inspirational experience that teaches us (with more than a little finger wagging!) that to be good is to be right and clever and kind.

But what of the broader meaning of these old films, especially in the period of their actual place in time?

In 1930 America, of a population of 120 million, 100 million made a weekly visit to the movies (60 million went to Church on a weekly basis...). Some of the most popular films were those of the man  mentioned, Italian immigrant Frank Capra whose movies frequently represented the sub-text of his own life, the achievement and consequence of realising and living ‘The American Dream’.

Capra’s journey from poor immigrant to national figure, through sheer determination and hard work, overcoming significant hardship along the way was text book material, symbolic of the ethos of American society, and as such fuelled an interest in his character and his films. Capra and his language represented the aspired ‘real’ world, which for most had only ever been imagined. The vocabulary of Capra’s movies demonstrated an overwhelming command of film and common language that depicted America as its people held it to be. For the American population his films resolutely asserted a number of familiar elements that were representative of the American way of life whether by actuality or perhaps more tellingly, by aspiration.

Remarkably, Capra’s movies extend even further beyond that. His movies are useful, especially now, in helping us to gain an understanding of the cultural history of America. If you are watching this Christmas, you will be able to see how as the narrative cleverly unfolds onscreen.
Capra, often referred to as a utopian populist, offered a fairytale alternative to the grim reality of the Depression whilst at the same time providing a grounding of a familiar world, reaffirming experiences culturally reflected and understood from the inside out by his audiences.  Capra has been quoted as being ‘the most insistently American of all directors’ – that is, he was obsessively concerned with scrutinizing American myths and American states of consciousness. In undertaking an in-depth examination of the language of Capra, as expressed via the figurative technique of his characters and storylines which respond to issues of gender, repression, politics, idealism and nationalism, a unique insight into how the population lived, or perceived to live their lives, in 1930s cultural American society is represented and revealed.
Capra explores a number of constituents of American cultural life through his use of idiosyncratic language and in doing so he creates characters, in the period they reflected, that are successful in providing upbeat entertainment which the Depression audiences were anxiously looking for. This shift towards unity and individual success is a recurring theme in Capra’s work and represents yet another element of this constant commitment to fulfilling, for his audience, the ‘American Dream’. 

In Mr Deeds Goes to Town, in the language and character of Deeds, Capra engages his audience in his attempt to reflect American society by creating a dramatic social circumstance that forces his character to speak symbolically, not just for himself, but for all Americans afflicted by the power of the institution over the weak.

For Capra the association between the metaphorical character and reality of life was evident in his analogy that each of his characters ‘are human and do the things human beings do – or would do if they had the courage and opportunity.’ His use of family values, a location for the populace to embody a fundamental and valuable feature of American culture, makes his audience comfortable with the material. This wasn’t particularly representative of the way in which Americans lived their lives but it is certainly systematic of the way in which, via the aptitude of the ‘American Dream’, they have been shaped to understand their lives. In embodying this technique the audience is at home with the analogy generated by the film’s methodology.
The audience now, here in the UK too, engages in Capra films like It’s A Wonderful Life in a similar way. The reaction of us, its 21st century audience, and our willingness to accept the story is symbolic of our understanding of the message which reflects a familiar or aspired pattern of life. The reaction and interaction with the plot and its story is demonstrated in two strands, fantasy or reality.
Regardless of which, the language is successful in constructing an equitable representation of the cultural desires, nuances and understanding of its audience. We want to be somewhere else and for some that desire to escape is entirely understandable.
Capra reaffirms that the dream is permissible, but only if the good challenge the bad and the political tyrants are succumbed by the power of collective justice.

In the wake of the unthinkable violence in Newtown, collective justice is all the people of America have if they are to break the cycle of firearm atrocity.
If you’re escaping this Christmas, think about the different ways in which you can come to understand that escape, and remember that collective justice is the route to a reality that at the moment only looks as if it can be imagined.





Sunday, 2 December 2012

'all there is for now', gaelic and telling stories

I'm going to start with the last first.

Telling stories is integral to everything that I engage in personally and professionally, whether it is in conversation, making television, articulating an idea, writing a creative proposal or indulging in writing my own fiction.

And yet people don't really do it any more, not in the traditional sense of huddling around the fire and making elaborate conversation into the wee small hours with a wee story that is as embellished as the day is long.

I feel very blessed to have grown up, and into, an environment where talking was king, be it about football or ghost stories or the good old days of the past, my childhood was often spent amidst adult conversation, lost in endearing and often raucous chat that was the principal source of our evening's entertainment.

It makes my heart heavy when I watch people's eyes roll and sink at the prospect of listening attentively as an older person recounts a narrative which has connotations of some personal importance. It is often part of who they are; its arc the residue of everything that has constituted their very being. Yes, in traditional storytelling it is often exaggerated and its truth diminished as it is adapted to suit its audience, but it makes my heart jump with joy to watch a narrator pass on a skill that quite tantalisingly allows us to grow and develop and push on with some aplomb because we know how to structure a story arc and deliver a beginning, a middle and sometimes even an end.

Everyone should take a minute, or an hour, or even an evening when they get the chance and embrace a story delivered from the heart. It strengthens families and communities and explodes in time in the form of a burst of creativity in others, and goodness me where on earth would we be without that.

Like storytelling language is important, in its vernacular and in its various colloquialisms that allow people to engage with one another in words that build bridges and promote a kindred spirit of shared experience and togetherness. But we don't have to be part of the 'gang' to embrace language and culture that isn't deemed as our ‘own’.

I read with some disappointment recently a comment accusing an agency of "ghettoising" something because it was going to be delivered in the Gaelic language. It's an incredibly naive assessment to make. Gaelic is a beautiful language and it is available to everyone to enjoy. The language is expressive and poetic and hugely integral to the art of storytelling.

The fact that Gaelic is being showcased on its own channel on television and delivered in artistic ways means it is incredibly easy for a viewer to access, engage and should they so wish, understand the language. It is genius. Take football or rugby for example...

In this medium Gaelic can be celebrated and, for those with a desire to learn, comprehended. Watching football, a big rectangle space with familiar words and phrases repeated in easily identifiable areas of the 'painting by numbers' pitch is just lovely. How lucky are we to be able to pull two creative things together - football and Scotland's national language - and present it in an engaging and entertaining way.

I'm not a Gael but I'm embracing the language because it's bold and it's creative and its part and parcel of Scotland's heritage. I'm not fluent, I understand a wee bit, and sometimes to my amusement I find myself using Gaelic words in my head instead of the English equivalent. It's lovely. You can love it too. Come and join the Ceilidh. There’s a nice introduction to using the language on the Learn Gaelic website.

I'm writing a new novel, 'all there is for now' and wee tiny snippet - a whole 75 words - was published by paragraph planet recently. It's a creative website that publishes short fiction of exactly 75 words. It's not as easy as it sounds. Give it a try.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

the next big thing...

"The Next Big Thing, authors tagged, questions answered..."

Does the concept sound pompous, slightly up itself perhaps? Well it's not at all; it's a thing of real beauty, a chain that brings together wonderful writers and books in a circle of creativity that is so vibrant it creaks in celebration.

The very lovely Elizabeth Reeder tagged me and in turn I'm going to answer the questions posed and introduce you to some incredibly strong writers who are dedicated to storytelling.

 Here goes!

What is the working title of your next book?

The Dandelion Clock

Where did the idea come from for the book?

When my children were very young they called themselves Mary and Joseph, because as they explained, the Virgin Mary (yeah, that one...) would call in and see them during the night. It got me thinking, in religion people believe the most incredible things with absolute conviction so why not take it a stage further and illustrate that the VM can pop down from heaven and get herself into a bit of an emotional tangle. She was also a good tool to use to illustrate some of Elizabeth's pain. It is Elizabeth’s story and she comes from all of us.

What genre does your book fall under?

Literary fiction

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Oh good question. I would love Shirley Manson to play the Virgin Mary, Kathleen McDermott to play Elizabeth and Sadie would have to be a young and very brash Tilda Swinton. There's a couple of very mean boys in my novel, but I would hate to tarnish anyone's reputation by suggesting that they would fit the part...

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

When teenage mum Elizabeth is plotting to avenge her girlfriend's death she becomes mixed up in drugs, murder and hard-assed Glasgow gangsters, as well as becoming entangled with the (actual...)Virgin Mary who comes to question her own life and her feelings for Elizabeth.

It's 'aw go as they say.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Hopefully published and represented, fingers crossed on that one at the moment...
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Well, there's a wee story to that. If we ignore the fact that The Dandelion Clock emerged from the roots of another novel then I would say around 12 months. If we add in the previous work, which has mostly been consigned to the dustbin, then it's a lot, lot, longer.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

This is a difficult question to answer but maybe for the language, the raw humour and the stark bite of reality something Des Dillon or Irvine Welsh.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

The need to write a story that narrates Elizabeth's journey. Her road is a road so many travel along. Life is actually like that and we should embrace it and give not always getting it right a voice. It’s okay not to be brilliant. Normal is good.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

It's a story that challenges how we respond to the choices we make, or have made by others for us, and it represents the notion that there isn't a big 'we shall overcome' agenda in life, it's about getting on with it and constantly picking up pieces and slicing up and over the next bit. The story is sad and that's sad because there is always sadness of some degree in a person's life. But there are tiny snippets of hope too and they don't have to be 'happy ever after' paths, they're just there to embrace for the moment and that's the kind of thing that makes life what it is.

This is a story for so many people. It will make you laugh and maybe make you cry too. Key emotions that make us strong and convincing and remind us who we are. It's for you all really.