It was nice to be asked to pitch an idea for the Royal Literary Fund COLLECTED strand this month: a weekly series of articles posted online for the large number of writers, some working in universities and others who have done so in the past, with whom the RLF is in touch. The RLF doesn't take up the cudgels on behalf of writers - the way the Writers Guild does, which is a TUC-affiliated union; it isn't hunting for income streams that can benefit writers the way that the ALCS does. The RLF does, though, offer support to writers in adverse circumstances and it has created the wonderful Fellowship scheme as a valuable source of well-paid work. The resulting article WHAT IS SCREENWRITING is now published.
WAITING FOR YOU was in another film festival this month: Borderlines, which uses a number of venues on the English/Welsh border. The film, screened in the arts centre in Ludlow, looked great on a lovely big screen and received a 86% positive rating from a good-sized audience.
I reach 70 this year so I feel happy to see one or two instances of my films from way back being revived. THE TRESPASSER was screened in 2015, so a little early – but there's a hope it will be screened again during 2017, in the place, what's more, where it was shot: the Isle of Wight, the setting for the novel by D.H.Lawrence on which it is based.
Another is REMEMBRANCE, to be screened in Plymouth (again, where it was shot) later this year.
My very first film, BEGGING THE RING, has been scanned and so brought back into our modern digital world: I've not even viewed it myself for probably 20 years at least. HARD TRAVELLING exists on my shelves only as a poor off-TV VHS tape, so that's another candidate for rescue, if I can afford it.
And so finally to BREXIT (disaster movie?) set in motion this month. It's a denial of everything that I am about, as a screenwriter. Characters are prone to crossing borders in my work, being in one place but belonging in another... I like exploring issues around identity. I think of myself as a European, working in an international industry. English hostility to the E.U has always been there: a dangerous element rooted in a sense of superiority and fed by nostalgia. I doubt more than a third of the country feel that way these days, but millions of pounds and a load of lies enabled the "leavers", supported by the non-voting "apathetics", to carry the day. Along with many other people, I'm horrified.
The first public screening of WAITING FOR YOU was on February 24 in Nîmes, where it opened a film festival. Wonderfully appropriate: most of the film is not merely set in France but actually was shot not that far from the town, in countryside to the north. Nîmes itself is famous for its stunning Roman architecture, with an amphitheatre still in use.
Ecrans Britanniques / British Screen, a festival focused on British film, has been running for 20 years there, and this has been achieved with unpaid volunteers whose enthusiasm and hard work sustain the whole thing. Francis Rousselet has been the driving force as artistic director: he's written several books about British cinema and his passion for his subject is like a heat source that spreads through the whole affair. Warmth is the overall feeling! This is doubtless why all manner of starry directors and actors have accepted invitations to attend. This year they are featuring Timothy Spall and Michael Winterbottom.
And Don Kent, documentary film maker. He has lived much of his life in France and brings a bright inquisitive eye to the country he left behind. I enjoyed both BALLADE POUR UNE REINE, which explored the British obsession with monarchy, and GOODBYE BRITAIN? Both were feature-length but easily held my interest. He made the latter film last year, and looked at the "Brexit" referendum during the months leading up to that event, revealing the gulfs separating different attitudes and conflicting opinions as to what the consequences would be. Personally, I've removed that question mark; I'm waving goodbye to a country I'm still living in.
I also watched THE ONES BELOW. It was a creepily effective thriller, by David Farr (SPOOKS, THE NIGHT MANAGER) but I confess it wasn't really my kind of thing. I also watched, and the contrast could hardly be greater, Terence Davies' A QUIET PASSION, a study of the life and poetry of Emily Dickinson. It was as uncompromising as anyone would expect, knowing his work; beautiful to look at but with enough anguish to last anyone a lifetime. Catherine Bailey (who attended the screening) plays Vryling Buffam who tries, with wit and affection, to lure Emily from the depths.
There was an error in my blog for DEC/JAN saying Borderlines Festival would be the next chance to view WAITING FOR YOU. Nîmes was not then confirmed. The Borderlines screening is at the beginning of March next month and the one during Belfast Film Festival at the beginning of April.
I came across a novel by Willa Cather recently on my shelves: LUCY GAYHEART. I no longer recall why I bought it and it's one of the few novels I have that I've never got around to reading. So I read it. It's rather dated, a story of thwarted love. It's a tragic story, in fact - which is a genre of writing that seems to have largely disappeared. It's a Virago issue from the 1980s and I found it a compelling read, not of course in the way a thriller might be but because Cather's portrayal of emotion, of attraction and repulsion between people is so acute. It's set in Nebraska, where Cather lived herself and her preferred location for most of her novels, I believe. She refers to small town life thus, "In little towns, lives roll along so close to one another; loves and hates beat about, their wings almost touching."
"Small town America" is a term much used by film critics, and mostly recently to describe MANCHESTER BY THE SEA. I've never seen it used for any other country, including the UK; perhaps there's need to contrast with the dominant imagery we associate with the USA – spectacular landscape, or big cities. I recall a film journalist commenting on the fondness shown by U.S. film directors for such "small towns" - where few of them live. It equates perhaps to "suburbia" - a place of some fascination if not horror to British literati, who similarly avoid living there.
In MANCHESTER, though, the reality of a small community is convincing, where family and locality often link together. It's a memorable film, and very moving; it focuses with almost unbearable proximity on a small number of characters whose lives have been and will always be deeply affected by loss. The director, Kenneth Lonergan, is more known as a writer, which interests me: he's currently adapting HOWARDS END for a BBC production. It's a long film and shows the signs, I'm fairly sure, of improvisation, which interests me too, as I'm wary of it! Mainly I think it can lead to a lot of repetition and scenes going for longer than they need - which is I think occasionally the case with this film. There are also quite a few scenes with people talking (more often shouting) all at once. This contrasts with the convention that characters should not overlap in order to prevent editing problems - mostly, film is shot that way. But with these scenes, no cut is possible - the scene is shot in one take and if the director's not happy, it's shot again. But clearly this is an artistic choice: there's a lot of anger in the film, it explodes out of people; Lonergan wants that loss of control to come across. And it does.
But to return to where I started, it doesn't feel a tragedy quite. There's a tragic story contained in the film, and a lot of sadness, but true tragedy is built round inevitability: in the case of Willa Cather's central character, there is a sense of doom awaiting. In tragedy someone carries the seeds of their doom within them - as in Macbeth, or Othello. In these days of therapy on the one hand and on the other, the idea that being negative is inherently wrong, we no longer accept that inevitability. In MANCHESTER the central character is unable to overcome the effects of a tragic event but a deep affection has been built between him and his nephew which gives us a positive feeling at the end.