Wednesday, November 6, 2013

"The Writer's Dilemma"

The most nagging question for a writer is what story do you tell?  A substantial part of the answer is, “It depends where you’re from.”

(Note:  I am about to talk about four movies.  I do not remember the names of three of them.  This deficiency, however, in no way detracts from what I am trying to say.  Though it admittedly makes it harder, if any of these movies interest you, for you to track them down and watch them.  For which I apologize.  If I had known I’d be writing about them some day, I’d have written down their names.  Lack of foresight – it can really eat you up down the line.  End of “Note.”)

I remember once seeing an Italian movie where this beleaguered middle aged wife and mother is sent by the Italian government to a kind of adult camp in the country for a rest.  There, she makes friends, learns new skills, upgrades her self-image, fully enjoying a much needed break from the soul-crushing stresses of her everyday life.

In the end, she goes home to the same life that made her need the vacation in the first place.
I remember seeing a Mongolian movie where the entire plot involves a man’s efforts to purchase, convey (on horseback) and install a small television set in his yurt.
I saw a Chinese movie in which, desperate to save face, a rural substitute teacher braves the chaos of the Big City to retrieve a student dropout so that the class will be its original size when the regular teacher, away on Maternity Leave, returns.
I saw an English movie, The Queen, whose tension revolves around the Prime Minister’s struggles to convince Her Royal Highness to bend.
There are two common denominators to these movies:


None of these movies were made in the United States. 

And two,

None of them – or anything like them – ever would be.


Because their stories are not American stories. 

In what way?
Too small.  Too subtle.  Disqualifyingly devoid of any “We Are The Champions” ending.

I used to wonder why works of landscape art rendered by painters from other countries included skies that bore little resemblance to the skies I was familiar with in Canada.  Years later, when I visited some of those countries, I looked up, and there were those skies, exactly as they were represented in the paintings.  (Then I saw “Group of Seven” paintings by artists like Tom Thompson, and went “I know that sky!” because it was identifiably Canadian.)

Like sky, like movie ideas.  They come with the territory.

American movies are invariably upbeat.  Correction.  American movies are obligatorily upbeat.  There’s an unwritten addendum to the “tired and your poor” proclamation on the Statue of Liberty: 

“‘Downers’ Unwelcome.”

Happy endings.  Triumph over adversity.  That, apparently, is what the American movie audiences – as reflected in their ticket purchasing – appear to require.  (Note:  International audiences seem to appreciate such optimistic messages as well.  That’s what they expect from American movies.  If they wanted a night out with some verisimilitude “slice of life” entertainment, they could patronize a movie produced at home.  American movies are ice cream.  Movies from other countries, especially Eastern European countries, are soup.  Nourishing, perhaps, but not fun.)

Why are American movies the way they are?  Because Americans are the way they are.  Generically hopeful.  Believing to their core that they are one lucky break or chance meeting away from a fortune or everlasting love.  European countries – and consequently their movies – do not reflect such boundless Pollyannaism.  (World War II might have something to do with that.)

Closer to home, even Canadians, who I once defined as “Americans who aren’t good at it”, can never replicate American “The sky’s the limit, Baby” optimism in their art.  The most positive Canadian prediction is somewhere around, “Let’s see how it works out, eh?”

That’s why – and this entire post can be viewed as an excuse for my personal failure as a movie writer – it is hard for me to write an American movie.  My heart, nurtured under often murderous-looking skies, is only partially sold on America’s sunshiny rosiness.  This prevents me from convincingly committing to their stories.  (That and the fact that my internal rebellious streak recoils at the instruction that there is only one possible way of doing things.)

Where I’m left then is in an imaginatorial “Limbo.”  Making me not that dissimilar to my country of origin, which also seems to lack a mythological Fairy Tale, or direction, other than “If the road gets icy, put salt on it.”

You want to say something original and illuminating, but, because of an “even keel” cultural predisposition, you cannot for the life of you think of what it is.

Other countries have stories to tell that are generically different from American stories.

What’s ours?

What’s mine?

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