Life sentence

Subject, verb, predicate – what makes one group of words sound better than another, have more resonance, greater meaning or deeper impact? This post explores the sentences that sustain us.

Every year the cultural cognoscenti gather to award the literary arts’ most prestigious baubles: the Nobel, the Man Booker, the Miles Franklin.

There is criteria by which the awarded tomes are judged, but also intangibles. No one can say definitively what made one book prove more alluring, dazzling or intriguing than another. Yet a consensus is reached, somehow.

It’s certainly not judged solely on technical merit – on the quality, say, of individual sentences. And that makes sense. Sentences are writing’s basic building blocks, and you don’t assess the quality of a skyscraper merely on the impressiveness of its stone, steel and glass.

Also, what metric or index could be applied to assess sentence quality? Trying to explain what makes one group of words more memorable, meaningful or powerful than any other is incredibly elusive. Most people when asked can’t say why something sticks in their mind, or why it sounds “nicer” to them. They just know.

“I’m not sure how to describe what makes a good sentence for me,” says graphic designer Frank Ameneiro, a prolific reader. “I just feel it.”

Frank really likes this quote from Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead:

“We cross our bridges as we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and the presumption that once our eyes watered”.

There is considerable restraint in that group of words, and as much power in what’s left unwritten as what’s penned. It’s also skillful in the manner in which it evokes smells and sensations and a sense of wanton destruction. Why were they burning bridges? Why only a guess as to lachrymose eyes?

Still working the Bard angle (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are side characters in Hamlet that Tom Stoppard put centre stage) Jonathan Irwin, a senior sub-editor at The Sunday Times, references a line from Shakespeare, a snippet from The Tempest spoken by Prospero:

“We are such stuff/As dreams are made on, and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep.”

Jonathan says, “For me it sums up the beauty, wonder and sadness of human existence, whilst inspiring by its genius and eloquence. I find the thought of sleep being our before and after very comforting too. It also implies an atheism that reflects my own.”

Sentences, Jonathan says, are good for different reasons. Text needs context. A group of words in isolation, however appealing, often won’t have resonance.

“My favourite sentence is wonderful on its own,” he says. “But seen in the context of the whole speech by Prospero, it becomes more powerful … as it does seen in the context of the whole play … as it does seen in the context of Shakespeare’s whole oeuvre. The Tempest is about a magician who creates characters, and was written near the end of Shakespeare’s career and life, so the poignant parallels with him as a writer are clear.”

Without explanation, Sophie Patrick put forward two nominations for this prosaic pantheon. They are two more from “Capital L” literature.

The first is from Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

“This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman’s sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rose water; her hand pulling close the bed curtain, the discreet sigh of flesh against flesh.”

The second is from Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections.

“The correction, when it finally came, was not an overnight bursting of a bubble but a much more gentle let-down, a year-long leakage of value from key financial markets, a contraction too gradual to generate headlines and too predictable to seriously hurt anybody but fools and the working poor.”

Although neither of these offerings are what could be described as pithy – compare “Jesus wept”, and “Call me Ishmael” ― they both offer astonishingly perceptive observations on the human condition in just a few simple lines.

They both have a certain something: cadence, flow, rhythm; call it what you will, both of these examples “sing” for want of a better expression. Sure, the sentiment they express could be conveyed more simply. But these are not sentences extracted from news stories, and their aim is not simply to pass on facts.

To return to the building analogy again: a nice sentence must have form as well as function. And while the former serves the latter, they both do matter.

Publisher James Weston has always liked this:

“Fame is fleeting, money has wings, popularity is yesterday’s child. The only thing that endures is strength of character.”

“Honestly, I have no idea where I read it,” James says. “It was in the front pages of a book – probably sport – that I read long ago, and it stuck with me.”

He has since discovered it was a derivation from a quote from Horace Greeley (1811–1872), editor of the New-York Tribune in the mid-1800s: “Fame is vapour, popularity an accident; riches take wings; those who cheer today will curse tomorrow, only one thing endures, and that is character.”

A couple of respondents to this article chose two samples of writing: one, like JW’s example, that means something to them, and inspires in moments when required – some words of wisdom. A maxim.

The other is an example of pretty prose that affects them in a way they can’t necessarily explain, in the same manner that great design might work its magic, even when you might not notice how.

Digital producer Finn Bradshaw provided two excellent examples, name-checking the great Dr J, non-fiction maestro David Halberstam, and the original gonzo scribe along the way.

“There’s a great quote by Julius Irving that went, ‘Being a professional is doing the things you love to do, on the days you don’t feel like doing them’,”says Finn, quoting Halberstam on the high-flying hoopster’s work ethic.

From a purely “I like the sound of it” point of view, Finn gives us this from Hunter S. Thompson: “And that, I think, was the handle ― that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting ― on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave …
“So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark ―that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

Perhaps it’s best not to try to analyse or deconstruct Thompson; one could go crazy attempting this. And you’d be ill-advised to attempt to mimic it. Thompson took his craft seriously (at least as seriously as his pharmacological experiments).

Yet his was an approach that was as self-styled as it was perspicacious. Your regular scribes should no more attempt imitation than a local ‘baller try to copy the balletic grace of Dr J on the hardwood. Best advice: master the basic moves first.

Like Finn, writer and owner of Resonance Communications Diana Elliott also puts forward two samples.

“From the time I visited Abu Simbel I’ve forever thought about the quote I heard there: ‘For you, the one for whom the sun rises every morning.’ It was the dedication by the egomaniac Ramesses I to his wife – well one of them – whom he loved the most, Nefertiti,” Diana recalls. “I always thought it was beautiful, and still do.”

The second sentence Diana nominates – “Planes are ships on borrowed time” –  is from her favourite book, Still, by Adam Thorpe.

“It’s a funny quote,” Diana says, “and one that I often think about when I board a plane!”

Sometimes a compelling word combination will stick in one’s consciousness in a way you can’t explain properly. It doesn’t need context; it might not even make much sense. But there it is.

Writer Melinda Sweetnam likes Top Gun’s “I feel the need, the need for speed.” It gets her going.

I encountered this while reading Murray Bail’s The Pages: “Hemmed in countries produce all manner of limps and missing limbs in their men.” There is a whole anthropology in that sentence, and yet it is offered with no further explanation or qualification. It is what it is. You deal with it as you will.

After much prompting, musician and teacher Angus Grant offered this, from liner notes by Julian Budden from The Operas of Verdi, vol 1.

“The instrumental palette is calculated to bring out all the velvet depths of the baritone voice-clarinets, horns, bassoons and pizzicato cellos. Flute, oboe and violins give an added sense of plangency to Gilda. The mood is cathartic, one of grief purged by weeping and transfigured into serene melody.”

Someone, somewhere must have done a collection of the best record liner notes. The combination of (usually) journalists writing about subject matter about which they’re passionate is often irresistible.

This quote from a recent newspaper article (Caroline James, The Age, April 16) about how life is changing for Australian circus families jumped out at me. It quotes Anna Gasser from Silvers Circus: “There were a few operators here in the 70s. It was tough. We only had our eldest son, three donkeys, two ponies and a midget, and did everything ourselves.”

You wonder how the midget and the Gasser boy like being including among the circus inventory. Still, I love the incongruous inclusion.

If you keep your eyes and ears open, there are wonderful sentences everywhere.

Using the examples of Finn and Diana, I’m offering two examples too.

For my “wise words” sample I like this from Seneca: “Count each day a separate life.”  When I’ve struggled to reconcile mistakes I’ve made, sometimes huge life-changing blunders, or if I fret about what’s coming, I come back to these words, or try to. What if today is all that there is? No past, no tomorrow, but only this moment?

As for word combinations that appeal, I could have chosen one of many from Stephen Marlowe, or Peter Robb, or Evelyn Waugh, or Elmore Leonard, but I went for this from Colin Harrison’s Manhattan Nocturne:

“I sell mayhem, scandal, murder, and doom. Oh, Jesus I do, I sell tragedy, vengeance, chaos, and fate. I sell the sufferings of the poor and the vanities of the rich. Children falling from windows, subway trains afire, rapists fleeing into the dark. I sell anger and redemption. I sell the muscled heroism of firemen and the wheezing greed of mob bosses. The stench of garbage, the rattle of gold. I sell black to white, white to black. To Democrats and Republicans and Libertarians and Muslims and transvestites and squatters on the Lower East Side. I sold John Gotti and O.J. Simpson and the bombers of the World Trade Center, and I’ll sell whoever else comes along next. I sell falsehood and what passes for truth and every gradation in between. I sell the newborn and the dead. I sell the wretched, magnificent city of New York back to its people. I sell newspapers.”

It’s more than one sentence, of course. Indeed, it’s longer than a standard paragraph, but I like Harrison’s playful use of language, and his obvious reverence of it. I like its craft and heft, its rhythm and tone, its authority and acuity. I get drawn in by its sweep and scope, its roiling images and evocation of time and place. New York City as a character? It’s right there. And the idea that the narrator may not be upstanding and sincere; that’s there too.

The quest for a choice combination of words is one that doesn’t have to cease. I’ll keep looking and adding so long as I’m above ground, I suspect. By noticing what’s good in others’ writing, I hope I can improve my own.

And learning from wise words can’t hurt either. I love this simple philosophy found in The Sea, The Sea, from Iris Murdoch: “One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats, and if some of them can be inexpensive and quickly procured, so much the better.”

And one more from Seneca: “As long as you are alive, keep learning how to live.” That’s a good one.

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Eat, drink, watch movie

Culinary films are not simply about what’s served on the plate. The relationship between cuisine, love and life, they tell us, is a somewhat complex one.

 

Films such as Like Water for Chocolate (Alfonso Arau, 1992) and Eat Drink Man Woman (Ang Lee, 1994) do not simply evoke the old chestnuts that if oysters are served one may get lucky, or that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.

Rather these movies often tell us that the relationship between cuisine – especially fine cuisine – sex, love and life is far more complex and more pervasive.

As old man Chu says, “Eat, drink, man, woman are basic human desires you can’t live without.”

From Babette’s Feast (Gabriel Axel, 1987) through to Chocolat (Lasse Hallstrom, 2000) we’re informed that food can be a substitute for sex, an aphrodisiac or analogous with lovemaking.

In Big Night (Stanley Tucci & Campbell Scott, 1995) the links between food, music and love are shown to be an intrinsic, inevitable and sometimes combative one in life.

Two Italian immigrant brothers, Primo (Tony Shaloub) and Secondo (Stanley Tucci), are partners in a New Jersey restaurant in the 1950s. Primo is a purist. A gastronome. He takes care with exquisite food he prepares, buying only the best ingredients that are transformed adroitly into works of art.

Yet while he’s a virtuoso in the kitchen, without his apron he’s often bereft of his formidable powers. He’s shy, unsure, and awkward around women. And compounded by the fact he’s speaking a second language, Primo is tongue-tired.

Secondo is something of an impresario, emcee and front-of-house man, a sharply dressed lothario who desperately wants his piece of the American dream to come true.

Unfortunately, the brothers’ restaurant is failing miserably. Few customers show up, and those that do either have no appreciation for authentic Italian cuisine, such as the couple who smoke over their meal, demand excessive amounts of flavour-masking cheese, and want a side order of pasta with risotto.

Meanwhile, down the street impresario Pascal’s (Ian Holm) restaurant jumps every night of the week.

Despite the fact he serves at best pedestrian food, the locals can’t get enough of it. There are waiters gliding all about and flaming meals presented to chockfull tables. Pascquale is everywhere, greeting guests, giving directions to staff, dispensing advice.

When Secondo asks Pasquale for money to keep his own modest restaurant going, the wealthy owner knocks him back, offering this nugget of wisdom: “Bite your teeth into the arse of life.”

It’s as if to say life itself is a meal that we prepare for ourselves and then consume as we like.

We can eat daintily, sparingly, blandly or suck the marrow from it every day.

But for Primo, food is life.

When describing a dish he is preparing for a feast, Primo says, “Timpano is pasta shaped liked a drum … and inside only the most important things.”

The use of the word “things” is key, bestowing upon the contents of his dishes far more significance than mere “ingredients”.

It’s when talking about food that Primo becomes most animated and most passionate.

After it is revealed to him that it is Pasquale who has organised for famous musician Louis Prima to attend a party at the restaurant, the big night of the title, he is incensed.

“Do you know what goes on in that man’s restaurant every night? Rape! Rape! The rape of cuisine!”

To a man for whom food is all, its mistreatment is akin to the most heinous, intrusive and violent of crimes.

As it becomes increasingly obvious that Louis Prima will not show up, the focus for the evening shifts to the food itself.

Indeed, one of the implications of the gradual transformation of things culinary-related into gastro porn has been the fetishising of the preparation, presentation and consumption of food.

Because the serving of food has been delayed by Prima’s no-show, the guests drink and dance up a storm, and the soiree becomes increasingly unruly.

Yet once the decision to eat is made, dish after succulent dish is paraded out and then presented to the guests.

The feast is so fantastic and tastes so good that it elicits tears and groans of pleasure and satisfaction from the restaurants occupants.

In the moments after the meal is concluded, the camera pans across a restaurant where the guests are too spent from the gorging of food to begin to speak to one another, almost as if it was an orgy that had just wound up and not a dinner.

“It was the best ever,” one guest says.

By serving food into which he has poured all his skill, devotion, and indeed life, Primo has communicated his credo: “To eat good food is to know God.”

By juxtaposing Primo’s preparation of food with that of the hastily prepared fare served by Pasquale, we can see the most glaring difference between the two.

To be sure, Primo takes care with his cooking – he’s an artist – and uses only the freshest of ingredients.

But by far the most important component of his cooking is love. He loves to cook, he’s passionate about food, and that emotion is evident in the meals he prepares.

The idea that food can somehow be a medium for love to be expressed is a powerful recurring theme in culinary-themed films.

So potent is the love Tita (Lumi Cavazos) feels for Pedro (Marco Leonardi) in Like Water for Chocolate that through some magical-realist alchemy, it actually physically passes into the food she’s preparing.

According to family tradition, Tita, one of three sisters, is forbidden to marry, and is slated to spend her life attending to the needs of her mother.

When she meets Pedro, however, it’s love at first sight for both. Not permitted to marry his true love, Pedro agrees to wed Tita’s disagreeable sister Rosaura (Yareli Arizmendi) simply so he can be close to Tita.

Tita, who has spent most of life mastering cooking skills at the side of old cook Nacha (Nada Carrassco) in the kitchen, is assigned to prepare the wedding feast.

As she slaves over the wedding cake, a lachrymose Tita cries tears of heartbreak into the dish.

When the guests at the wedding consume the cake they become overwhelmed with sorrow.

On another occasion Tita prepares a dish of quail cooked in rose petals prepared from flowers given to her by Pedro.

Tita cuts herself on one of the rose thorns and bleeds into the dish, which consequently infuses the intense passion she feels for Pedro into the meal.

Middle sister Gertrudis (Claudette Maille) consumes the food, which is so full of the ardour Tita feels for Pedro that it actually causes her to catch aflame.

Alive with passion, she absconds naked onto the waiting horse of a mounted guerrilla.

In Eat Drink Man Woman, restaurant master chef Chu (Sihung Lung) is a widower and head of a household of three headstrong daughters whose respective love lives are in varying degrees of tumult.

The film opens with Chu preparing his family’s traditional Sunday meal.

Though they spend little time together, the family gathers once a week for a lavish banquet-sized meal that Chu spends hours preparing.

With painstaking precision he rolls dumplings, boils soups and plucks and smokes chickens until an oriental cornucopia is on hand.

Just as it is in the west, fast food is the flavour of the month in Taipei. In fact, Chu’s youngest daughter Jia-Ning (Yu-Wen Wang) actually has a mcjob flipping burgers and frying chips in a greasy spoon.

Yet the food that Chu prepares isn’t mere fuel but a way for him to express both his creativity to the outside world and his love for his daughters, from whom he’s becoming increasingly estranged.

Like Primo, Chu isn’t a great communicator. In fact, he’s gruff with his daughters, short of temper, and judgemental – so food is the medium through which he connects with them.

As one of the daughters says of the karaoke-addicted family next door: “We communicate by eating and they communicate by singing.”

Meanwhile, life seems to be becoming increasingly complex for Chu and his clan.

The oldest daughter, Jia-Jen (Kuei-Mei Yang) claims to be heartbroken from a romance that went sour a decade before. Jia-Chen (Chien-Lien Wu), the modern thinking middle daughter, is a frustrated chef who was forbidden from a life in the kitchen by Chu and instead has embarked on a career as a fast paced executive.

Jia-Ning spends most of her times thinking about boys.

Chu himself is frustrated by the fact he is losing his sense of taste, a serious affliction for a chef.

By the end of the film all the central characters’ lives are spun in different directions, each one using the occasion of the Sunday meal to make important announcements regarding decisions they’ve made about the path they will take.

When Chu ultimately stands to make a speech of his own, he says life is not like cooking. That is, in cooking all the ingredients are on hand and all necessary tools are at ready disposal. With the right skills and a good recipe, a successful meal can be made.

Life on the hand is unpredictable, whimsical, changeable, and that’s the way it should be. Food is not like life and it is not life. But good food is a part of life.

As the film moves towards its conclusion, Chu announces he’s going to sell the family home and move elsewhere with his new young fiancé and her daughter.

One final gourmet meal will be consumed in the house, only this time it’s prepared by Jia-Chen.

Just like the elaborate meals created by her father, Jia-Chen’s banquet is one that demonstrates consummate skill in the kitchen at the same time as being filled with the love she has of the art itself and for her father.

As Chu sips at soup, he suggests it has too much ginger, instantly realising he’s regained his sense of taste.

Through her love and her food, Jia-Chen has given her father what is for him the most precious of gifts.

Chocolat continues the tradition established in earlier foody films of pitting the sensuous pleasures of food against the restrictive and ascetic practices of religious zealotry.

In this sense it revisits themes explored in Babette’s Feast, which is set in a strict Calvinist community on an isolated and tempest-swept coast of Denmark in the 19th century.

The religious leader of the sect is a charismatic and stern minister, who is also the father of two beautiful daughters: Martina (Vibeke Hastrup) and Philippa (Hanne Stebsgaard).

Though they each attract suitors – a distinguished army officer and an opera singer most notably – the sisters eschew earthly love, which their father preaches is an illusion and not worth very much.

Years pass and the sisters remain as pillars of the community, spinsters who spend their time attending to the needs of others.

One stormy night a cloaked figure knocks on the door of the sisters’ cottage.

After escaping from a suddenly violent and dangerous Paris, Babette becomes a volunteer housekeeper for the sisters, preparing the boiled fish and ale bread that constitutes their bland daily diet.

Babette has been in the service of the two sisters for 14 years when she suddenly announces she’s won a Paris lottery and wishes to use some of the proceeds to host a celebratory dinner.

The meal is supposed to be a modest repast to acknowledge the anniversary of the birth of the sisters’ father and religious leader of the community.

Babette, however, asks the sisters if the dinner can be a “proper” French meal, and in her hands it becomes a feast in honour of the art and potency of cuisine itself.

The sisters agree to Babette’s request but then become increasingly aghast at the exotic ingredients brought to the house in preparation for the meal. There’s a giant turtle for soup, plenty of wine, cages of quail, champagne.

As the date for the dinner approaches, the guests, who are local villagers, become concerned that the high style of the meal will detract from its original meaning.

Even worse, its elaborateness is so far removed from their normal simple, Spartan meals and abstemious lifestyle they feel it might be ungodly to actually enjoy what will be a feast for the senses. Eating the meal might even mean committing the sin of gluttony. They pledge not to utter a sound of appreciation.

On the day of the feast the aforementioned army officer, now a distinguished general, returns as a guest. Though everyone at the table obviously is enraptured by the food, he’s the only one who offers any praise.

So enamoured is he of the food that he compares it to a meal he long ago enjoyed at the famous Parisian eatery Cafe Anglais, whose renowned chef (a woman!) was said to have the extraordinary power of filling her dishes with the power of love.

Of course, it is revealed that Babette and this maestro are one in the same. And rather than regarding her cooking ability as a sin, the guests realise that she’s been accorded God-given artistic talents to produce sumptuous meals.

The townsfolk guests, who had been tetchy and argumentative before the feast, conclude it by holding hands and singing hymns.

Babette then reveals she spent her entire lottery windfall on the feast both as an expression of gratitude but also from a need to create artistically.

Chocolat opens with two cloaked figures battling a forbidding wind on their way to a rural French town, thus echoing the manner in which Babette entered into her frigid environment.

Vianne (Juliette Binoche), a peripatetic bohemian confectionary maker who combines an earthy sensualism with a plucky entrepreneurial spirit, has come to town to open a chocolaterie. Her daughter Anouk (Victoire Thivisol) is in tow.

Just like its culinary predecessors, Chocolat’s gaze dwells voyeuristically on the food Vianne mixes up in her shop. And like Primo, Chu and Babette she’s a genius in the kitchen, whipping up chocolate in various forms: biscuits, sweets, brownies, desserts, hot chocolate and more.

Unfortunately, just as it was for Babette, Vianne operates in a tough environment. The town is presided over by the rigidly sanctimonious Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina), who writes sermons for the local priest, and considers a store that profits from the sale of pleasure – even culinary pleasure – a blasphemy. This is especially the case for a shop that dares operate in Lent.

And yes, because Vianne has an intriguing lineage, her mother being a member of a rare South American indigenous race that possessed much arcane knowledge, her recipes have a special aphrodisiacal property.

So in a similar manner to Like Water For Chocolate’s Tita, Vianne has the ability, through her cooking, to transform lives.

Yet unlike Primo or Chu, Vianne combines her wonderful cooking skills with a warm personality. Yes, she can whip up chocolate masterpieces, but her cooking isn’t the only manner in which she engages the outside world.

In fact, Vianne’s shop is something of a beacon for lost causes and lonely souls. There’s a kleptomaniac battered wife (Lena Olin), a diabetic termagant (Judi Dench), who is estranged from her icy daughter (Carrie-Anne Moss) and grandson, and of course a whole raft of townsfolk who need matchmaking.

Vianne also does a line in divining customers’ favourite sweet treats.

There is of course the problem of the mayor and his strict ways, but Chocolat being a fairy-tale, there are no insurmountable impediments to a Hollywood ending.

The diabetic dies, but goes out with a party (shot in slomo!), Vianne finds love with a charismatic river rat (Johnny Depp) and even the stubborn mayor succumbs to the lure of the chocolate temptation.

Happy ever after indeed.

Of course most mainstream films conclude in this manner, with obstacles overcome and closure achieved. Like Water for Chocolate and Babette’s Feast are other examples.

Yet the ultimate fairy tale might just be the kinds of gastronomic TV shows served up by Jamie Oliver, Rachel Khoo, or Nigella Lawson, outrageously camera flirts all.

Nothing ever gets burnt or works out badly. No one ever fails to show up. Everyone is strikingly beautiful, and at the centre of the lifestyle is the magnificent food.

It’s just too perfect.

Far more satisfying is the conclusion of Big Night.

In the final scene, Primo and Secondo meet in the kitchen. They have fought the night before. The restaurant is finished.

Secondo makes an omelette for his brother and their waiter. They hug. Not a word is exchanged.

Throughout the film we have always seen Primo communicating through cooking.

This time it’s Secondo expressing himself through his simple culinary skills, and the emotion he’s communicating is love.

 

Many culinary-themed films have appeared since this article was first written. Burnt, No Reservations, Chef, and Ratatouille come quickly to mind. Interestingly, they are all about sublimely gifted cooks, but not just about food.

This article first appeared in issue 26/27 of Australian Screen Education.

The League of Couth and Shevelled Gentlemen, a manifesto

A new society calls for a redefining of masculinity and gentlemanly behaviour.

The renowned essayist Michel de Montaigne once wrote that he liked the kind of manly friendship that rejoices in sharp, vigorous exchanges, “just as love rejoices in scratches and bites which draw blood”.
“If I am sparring with a strong and solid opponent he will attack me on the flanks, stick his lance in me right and left,” Montaigne wrote. “His ideas send mine soaring.”
One wonders just what sort of friends the Frenchman cultivated if literal and/or figurative scars were the metrics by which he assessed the value of the bond.
Not ease of company or allied sense of humour. Not a chum who’ll be there when the chips are down, not a confrere with whom to shoot the breeze or to share a comfortable silence, not a trusted pal with whom to watch a game or roll a few frames, but rather a conversational sparing partner. A bête noire. A debating opponent. A protagonist rather than bosom buddy.
Yet he is not alone I don’t think. We men are not always the best at friendship with our fellow hombres.
There are reasons for this, of course, and we all have other priorities. Work intrudes.
“One of the devastating consequences of the constant and hectic froth of the activity in our lives is that we have less contact with our friends,” says Meditations for Men Who Do Next to Nothing (and Would Like to Do Even Less).
“Friendship is a time for letting our hair down, for revelling in the differences and similarities that have drawn and kept us together. Friendship is a time to remember common histories and to be young bucks frolicking in fields once more.”
For reasons unknown, we men just don’t seem to be as good as maintaining friendship groups as women are. We forget birthdays, and let too long go by without making a call out of the blue for no other reason than to say hello.
There are, however, consequences for not maintaining friendships. The number of quality connections we have can have a profound impact on our mental health; there is evidence that random contacts from friends can boost feelings of connectedness and wellness. Lose those connections (without finding adequate replacements) and you lose the very tangible benefits they provide.
“Of all the means which are procured by wisdom to ensure happiness throughout the whole of life,” wrote the philosopher Epicurus, “by far the most important is the acquisition of friends.”
Our friends know us best; their company makes life more pleasant.
As George Santayana put it, one’s friends are that part of the human race with which one can be human.
Surely there can’t be too many opportunities for this state to arise. That is why I have formed the League of Couth and Shevelled Gentlemen.
Our mission statement is a simple one: to several times a year provide a convivial atmosphere for a bunch of friends – new and old – to catch up.
The League is up and running.
We are couth. We are shevelled.

Common goal, common vision

Back when things were still being made in Australia, Ford developed its four-wheel-drive vehicle, the Territory. At the time, it was the most market-researched car in this country’s automotive history. This article is a historical piece, written when it looked manufacturing might have a future here, and when we might still keep making our own cars.

If we can believe the stories, breakthroughs often occur either through happy accidents or epiphanies. Yet that’s not how Ford vehicle line director Russell Christophers conceived the Territory.

There were no eureka moments. The concept for the sports utility vehicle (SUV) didn’t come to him fully formed in a dream. The basis for the Territory didn’t begin in idle doodling, or come in a blinding flash of inspiration.

“The idea for Territory began – as all great cars do – by recognising a customer need,” Christophers says.

In practice that means the concept for the Territory was actually inspired by its potential customers, and was exposed to an unprecedented level of market research.

“We researched appearance, we researched function, we researched interior flexibility, we researched everything,” Christophers says. “So the final product we had we knew was what the customer wanted. The Territory was simply about having a really disciplined, detailed market research process to find out what the customer wanted, and then building it.”

Christophers took the lead in developing and researching the Territory concept in 1999, five years before it came to market; that’s how long it takes for a car to be researched, designed, tested and built.

As chief program engineer he was the CEO of the program, the owner of the total business, and responsible for making sure team members were on the same page.

Traditionally, the Ford of choice among Australians has been the Falcon, which generates most of Ford Australia’s profits.

When time came to invest in the latest Falcon (the BA, launched in 2002) Christophers and his team began to wonder if doing the BA Falcon made sense, if the large car business was going to continue to be sustainable, and if there was a market beyond the Falcon.

“Good questions,” Christophers says. “And we certainly weren’t going to ask for half a billion dollars to execute the BA Falcon without knowing the market need was going to continue to be there towards the end of the decade.”

So in order to validate the development of the BA Falcon, Christophers decided to do extensive market research, talking to those buying large cars and finding out what their future buying intentions were. Realising that four-wheel drives were being bought as substitutes for passenger cars, they spoke to those drivers as well.

“And that started to ring alarm bells with us,” Christophers says. “Going forward, the large car business had been in decline slowly over time. The market research told us that that decline was likely to continue. Large cars would still be a very important market segment, but there was risk in the rate of decline. Large car passenger owners said, ‘Yeah, we’ll probably buy another large car, but we’ll certainly look at four-wheel drives. We like the image of them. It says I lead an active lifestyle, I do things in my life. And I’ve thought about it, but the thing that’s stopping me from going there is that I know they’re expensive to buy, they’re expensive to run and they drive like a truck’.”

Four-wheel drive owners confessed their switch from cars was prompted by imagery; they wanted to do things with their weekend and get away. But of course, they’d never driven it beyond the local mall or school.

Christophers and his research team found that interesting.

“So four-wheel drives aren’t totally meeting the needs of the customer; large cars aren’t totally meeting the needs of the customer,” he explains. “And then we decided to validate where people-mover owners had come from. And we found they were life-stage people – they had large families and needed this vehicle to carry the kids around – they hated the car in terms of what it said about them as a person. It says, ‘I’m a boring person, I cart a lot of kids around. And they all said, ‘As soon as my kids grow up, I’m going to get out of this vehicle and buy something that suits my ego a bit better’.”

Christophers said Ford created a triangle with a family sedan at the apex, a people mover in one corner and a traditional SUV in the other.

“Somewhere in the middle was a product that combined: ‘I don’t look like a truck, I look like a futuristic four-wheel drive, with its smart styling. I’m nimble and agile around town, because of these people drive their vehicle in an urban environment. I’m still fun to drive, I don’t drive like a truck. And I’ve got a lot more interior flexibility; I can do things with my life on the weekends’,” Christophers says. “So we started to research what this vehicle might be.”

There was also a business need: Ford’s manufacturing plant in Cambellfield in Melbourne’s northern suburbs has had many millions of dollars of investment pumped into it so that it can make cars – large cars. Another plant in Geelong makes engines, also for large cars. At the same time, the large-car market was and continues going into decline. Question: is there a way to use the assets that are already in a place to make something Australian customers want to buy?

Searching for the answer led the team back to the triangle, and the possibility that in the middle of it lay a “sweet spot”: a hybrid vehicle that could be made using the assets in place.

“In life, if you can get a customer need and a business need aligned,” Christophers says, “you’ve really got a strong thing going for you.”

One of the early difficulties Christophers had was selling the Ford Australia high brass on the idea. After all, there were already plenty of SUVs in the local market. Ford even had its own, the Explorer.

“A lot of people were really sceptical,” Christophers says. “To give the customer what they wanted was going to cost a lot of money, close to half a billion dollars. Not to give the customer what they wanted was going to be compromise and in my belief it wouldn’t deliver the volume and wouldn’t justify the investment. But if you got it right, you hit the sweet spot, the customers would come and you’d get return. If you tried to do the thing by half measures, you would fail, and that was really difficult.”

As might be expected from a large-cost and sophisticated piece of machinery manufactured from parts sourced globally, automobiles have a very clearly delineated, detailed production process.

In the Ford system, each point of the journey is marked by a milestone, with Job One when the first car rolls off the assembly line.

After research reveals a program might have merit, it’s given kick-off, or KO, and approval is given to start spending engineering money, say $50 million. A design is developed, its feasibility tested and detailed costing completed.

An early design version based on the Fairlane was deemed too big by respondents, who wanted a city-friendly car that was agile, nimble and easy to park as well as versatile for weekend use.

A shorter version based on the Falcon platform was developed.

“And we kept on going to market research events asking the customer what they wanted, going away and analysing the data and then going back again,” Christophers says. “We never said, ‘We know what the customer wants’. We said, ‘We think this is what you told us, so we’ll go back again with a new proposition or a new property’.

“And each time we did this – and we did it 12 or 13 times – we got closer and closer to what it was.”

This is not standard operating procedure. Christophers needed compelling data to convince the local and international Ford management that the Territory was the right thing to do. The market research data had to stand up to close scrutiny; there needed to be a lot of it and it needed to be statistically valid.

Every car attribute that could be researched was, and then it was prioritised according to customer rating. Appearance, safety, dynamics and performance were all considered in this process.

“If you’ve only got a finite amount of money to spend, you want to spend most of the money on the area of the car the customer says is the most important to him or her, and then you cascade down through the priority process,” Christophers says.

Then followed benchmarking against the best in the market, the Lexus RX300 and the BMW X5.

“We go through a detailed benchmarking process,” Christophers says. “Who is the competitor we are competing against? Get their vehicle. Tear it down, drive it, understand it, benchmark it. Then we have objective measures. If we want to be ‘as good as’, we know what it’s going to be … if we want it to be ‘better than’, we know what we have to do.”

About 18 months into the Territory program, Christophers and Ford Australia president Geoff Polites went to the parent company’s US headquarters in Dearborn outside of Detroit, seeking approval.

A hierarchical company, Ford has a monthly forum attended by senior vice- presidents called product matter meeting (PMM) at which all major investments are discussed and accorded a yay or nay.

Polites handled the overall pitch, Christophers talked the powers that be through the specifics of the Territory, using a 40 per cent scale model and virtual animations that showed the workings of the car’s interiors.

“But it wasn’t just about getting Territory approved, it was about the ongoing viability of Ford Australia,” Christophers says.

Following the “show and tell” the Australians were grilled about the program’s business specifics. How many are you going to sell? How do you know you’re going to sell that many? How much is it going to cost to make? What are you going to sell it for? How much money are you going to make? Does the business structure make sense – will you get appropriate returns?

“Ford is a global company, we make and sell cars everywhere in the world,” Christophers says. “Everybody has an idea to make money. So your proposal needs to stand up to scrutiny because not all the proposals that go forward to PMM get through. It came under very close and detailed scrutiny.”

But of course, the Territory was approved.

As chief program engineer Christophers was held personally accountable for delivering a flawless product when it was launched, on cost, and capable of generating the profits he’d committed to make.

He estimates there were 500 lifetime heads (500 people working for a year) on the Territory program, with about 120 personnel dedicated to the project in the peak year.

Christophers met weekly with the senior heads of project development, engineering, sales and marketing and supplier quality assurance for about three hours.

Known as the Program Steering Team meeting, the forum was a chance for Christophers to assess how each department was tracking towards its targets.

“In each milestone there are very specific deliverables, things that must be achieved before you can say, ‘I passed that milestone and I’m ready to move on to the next milestone’,” Christophers says.

“And it’s very detailed. It’s about confirming that I have secured the resources to do the work. It’s about confirming that design has got to a point where it needs to be at. It’s about confirming that I’ve done all the test work that I need to do to verify the design will meet the intent, meet the target – the part won’t break, it won’t vibrate, it won’t malfunction, it will do what’s required.”

And as much as each department understands it’s working as part of a team, sometimes there are conflicts.

“You never know what you need to know at the start,’ Christophers says. “You find out a lot of things along the way.”

There might be conflict over the use of geographical location, two different teams wanting to use the same place for a different component. There are trade-offs, usually between attributes – handling and ride, for instance – but very often cost.

In these instances it was Christophers’ job to arbitrate.

“On the journey from program approval to Job One there are a number of trade-offs that the chief program engineer has got to make to get there,” he says. “And he’s continuing to make those trade-offs all along the journey.”

Yes, there are egos involved in the manufacture of cars, disagreements from time to time, and the inability to compromise. At the same time, there is an incredible amount at stake each time a new vehicle is developed, which only serves to underline how crucial it is each part of a unit is performing its function.

“The most important part of working as a team is alignment: common goal, common vision,” Christophers says. “In a car program that’s really complex, keeping everybody aligned as things change and things move.”

With the Territory, though, maintaining team focus was no arduous assignment, and Christophers has described it as the best car ever to roll off a Ford assembly line.

“One of the great things about the Territory program was that the people who have worked in this business for a long time in Australia, this was the first time we’d ever got to design a car from the ground up,” Christophers says. “So it really wasn’t difficult to engender and develop passion and commitment from the team. It was something everybody wanted to do; it was a product everybody could relate to.”

Kind of a dream, really, even if the project didn’t begin that way.

 

A version of this article originally appeared in INTHEBLACK magazine.

 

In search of ‘Snowy on the tram’

Years ago, not long after I started my first full-time job as a journalist, my boss dropped an expression into the conversation that I’d never heard before: “Snowy on the tram”.

He used it in the sense of “even Snowy on the tram” has heard that, or knows that. I imagined Snowy as a not particularly well informed individual, spending most of his time, as he did, in transit. He’s kind of an average fella, and not especially bright or curious.

In this sense he’s a bit like Blind Freddy, Fred Nerk, Joe Blow, Joe Bloggs, Joe Average, or John Citizen. He doesn’t ask many questions. So for Snowy on the Tram to know something, it must be pretty damn obvious, or have been widely promulgated.

Recently I asked the Macquarie Dictionary whether there was any reference to Snowy in their records.

The answer was affirmative: researcher Susan Butler found some evidence that Snowy on the Tram is (or was) a Melbourne term for “the average bloke”.

There was this reference from the Sporting Globe (Melbourne, Vic. : 1922–1954) Wednesday May 4, 1949 p.12 article:

“Those who won the distance events at Stawell this year, also had to survive the fight. Everyone, except ‘Snowy’ on the Ballarat tram, saw one runner deliberately punch another man and effectively ruin the victim’s chances of winning a Stawell mile. The crudity of the act must have blinded officials. There was a time when scientific elbowing in packed distance fields was an accepted fact. It was cleverly done and …”

And this from the Sporting Globe (Melbourne, Vic. : 1922–1954) Saturday, January 6, 1951 p.10 article:

“But when the Austral comes around even ‘Snowy’ on the trams knows there’s something big going on. Public interest responds to that magical name – Austral. There’s a wealth of tradition behind the race. Inaugurated in 1886 as an amateur event it become a professional event in 1890.”

In 1984 there was a horse called Snowy on the Tram that enjoyed a measure of success.

But since then, nothing.

On this most Australian of days I’m calling on my fellow Melburnians to bring back into use this charming expression. Next time the conversation takes a turn where you feel the need to reference Blind Freddy or Joe Blow, name-check old Snowy on the tram instead.

Thanks to Macquarie Dictionary for the generous help in researching the term, and to Andrew Johnstone for introducing me to it in 1994.

Happy ever after

“The miracle of the cinema is how rarely the convention of the happy ending is broken. The bigger miracle is that the convention of the ending is never broken at all.” – Zadie Smith

I’m not sure where writer Zadie Smith (The Autograph Man) is going with the second part of her assertion. Surely it’s not all that surprising that most films we see tend to conclude rather than simply stop. Finish rather than break off mid-sentence, or mid-scene.

But she is certainly right in her contention that the majority of the films produced, particularly studio films, end happily ever after.

There’s even a name for it: A Hollywood ending. As opposed to, say, a Bollywood ending, where cast members are inclined to break out into a final elaborate song-and-dance sequence, or an English “kitchen sink” drama finish, where the camera might pan from a grim housing estate to an ash-grey sky.

In a Hollywood ending, boy and girl from opposite sides of the tracks, who might not even have liked each other at first, end up together, in love. The racecar driver and the fetching brain surgeon (Days of Thunder, Tony Scott, 1990). The baker and the accountant (Moonstruck, Norman Jewison, 1987). The kickboxer and the class brain (Say Anything, Cameron Crowe, 1989).

In Hollywood endings differences are straightened out, crimes solved, villains (psychopaths, aliens, etc.) apprehended or eliminated.

Wrongs are righted, epiphanies experienced, virginity lost, championships won.

Sometimes there are casualties en route to the happy denouement. Sacrifices are made for the greater good. For mankind.

If for instance, as in Armageddon (Michael Bay, 1998), an asteroid is hurtling towards Earth and something goes wrong (something always goes wrong) when a crack team of drillers ventures forth to obliterate it, then someone – Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis) perhaps – has to stay behind to set off the bomb by hand.

If anything, here is the Hollywood ending writ large. Tears, laughter and joy (sob) tempered – nay, enriched – by loss. Cue Aerosmith with a big corporate power ballad and our heroes returning to the waiting arms of their loving ladies.

Change the spaceship to a special vehicle made from Unobtainium and the asteroid to puzzling meteorological problems and you’ve got The Core (Jon Amiel, 2003).

In Hollywood scriptwriting manuals, a killer ending features as a key component.

A spectacular film can fail the audience in the last 10 minutes. Yet a decent conclusion – not easy to write and even more difficult to film – can make viewers forgive a lot in an otherwise so-so film.

In Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002) Charlie Kaufman (Nic Cage), seeks advice from screenwriting guru Robert McKee (Brian Cox) when he experiences enormous difficulty turning Susan Orlean’s work of non-fiction, The Orchid Thief, into a workable script.

The advice?

“Wow them with the ending, and make your characters change.”

This is what Kaufman, who has written himself into the script, proceeds to do, providing a final implausible and incongruous reel that includes sex, drugs, guns and alligators. It’s the ultimate spoof on silly, inappropriate Hollywood endings.

Is it a miracle, though, that the practice of happy endings has become a standard part of the mainstream movie formula?

The high brass of studios now presides over companies that are part of massive multinational, multimedia, multi-industry conglomerations. These studio heads are answerable to not only a board, but also a raft of shareholders.

It’s little wonder that in a sphere that revolves through the domains of both art and commerce, it’s the latter category that seems to more frequently influence the manner in which films are made.

The bottom line is the bottom line in the film business. That’s why risks are so seldom taken when vast budgets are at stake. It’s why so many films adhere to a cookie cutter formula, including the fairy-tale ending.

There are, of course, some exceptions to the happy ending rule. Made for TV “disease of the week” films generally are not likely to end well.

Historical dramas such as Braveheart (Mel Gibson, 1995) or Malcolm X (Spike Lee, 1992) usually play out with a certain fidelity to the facts as they are popularly known.

And the middle films of trilogies are known for being a touch darker than the other instalments.

Consider, for instance, that in both The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980) and Matrix Reloaded (Larry {now Lana} and Andy {now Lilly} Wachowski, 2003) our heroes are out for the count, and the bad guys seemingly on top, poised for victory.

It’s interesting that films such as Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974), The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978), Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Milos Forman, 1975), are so different to most contemporary films.Lately I’ve been returning to a few films made in what many consider to be the highpoint of creative studio filmmaking, the 1970s.

The pacing is slower, scenes are longer, the editing is less intrusive, characters are more fleshed out, stories are more complex. Also, the soundtracks are more evocative, and none of the four have what could be construed as standard plots, or indeed endings.

Why?

Some critics have suggested that America’s involvement in the Vietnam War and the exposure of government shenanigans in the Watergate scandal made audiences cynical of previously respected institutions. Film watchers were open to art that explored themes of corruption, betrayal and power.

Yet conflicts are taking place now as much as ever, and most of the films that show in multiplexes are pretty much made to standard specs.

Perhaps, in the intervening 40 years, governments acting improperly, dastardly or deceitfully has simply become standard operating practice.

Maybe now audiences predominantly seek escapism in the cinema, not engagement.

You could argue that there are a few unhappy ends in more modern Hollywood films such as The Hours (Stephen Daldry, 2002) or Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002). While critically acclaimed, neither was very popular with mass audiences.

Yet even a popular film from the 1970s such as Rocky (John Avildsen, 1976) does not depict the punchy eponymous champ winning the bout and holding aloft the title belt, as it almost certainly would if made today.

Could there be something fundamental and inherent within us that needs happy endings in our texts, to fuel our optimism? To keep us going.I read recently there are certain things that are hardwired into us as humans to ensure the survival of the race. For instance, and this could well be apocryphal, female brains are hardwired so that their pupils dilate involuntarily at the sight of babies.

I asked my friend Clare O’Farrell, a lecturer in Cultural Studies at the Queensland University of Technology, whether she thought the concept of the happy ending was something influenced by cultural factors.

Clare wrote back and said there’s a whole discussion in France about the Hollywood happy ending.

In fact, the words for happy end in French are “la happy end”, which indicates how alien it is to the culture.

“In French film of the 30s, 40s and 50s the convention was a tragic end,” Clare explains. “And in some films I have seen this is just as arbitrary as the Hollywood happy end. A film I really like with Erich von Stroheim called Macao Gaming Hell – has a warplane bomb the hero and heroine out of the water in their boat just as they have discovered their love for each other. That’s it – the end!

“The concept of the happy end is definitely both a cultural and historical thing. I’ve noticed the French idea of the perfect romance is when people die so that the perfection of the short moment can be preserved – such intensity cannot survive the attrition of the everyday.

“The Hollywood end is marriage and happily ever after, which in my view reflects the USA’s history of pioneers and the utter reliance on socially isolated family groups. It’s the pioneer idea of paradise – the eternal middle-class family with the white picket fence who take up arms to kill anybody who poses a threat to the family.

“There is also the American ideology of ‘making it’, always winning, the land of opportunity and success, and leaving behind the old unhappy decadent European ways.”

Clare also pointed me to an article by Edgar Morin called “La Happy End”, which unfortunately was in French.

Basically, Clare explained he argues that the all-pervasive happy end in contemporary times breaks with an age-old tradition that dates back to Greek tragedies and includes Elizabethan drama and the novels of Balzac, Stendhal and Zola.

Evans wanted a happy ending while Polanski insisted that this would rob the film of all its meaning. Polanski prevailed.Another European, Roman Polanski, argued with producer Robert Evans over the end of Chinatown.

Perhaps film conclusions in the 1970s were affected by the influence of the European narrative traditions and ways of seeing as much as what was happening in the geo-political sphere.

Several of the defining studio films of the 70s, like Chinatown or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, were directed by Europeans.

Others were helmed by the first wave of film school graduates such as Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, who were greatly influenced by European films of the 50s and 60s.

The films of the French New Wave, like their progenitors from pre-war times, often concluded in an ambiguous or decidedly downbeat manner.

By the end of the 1970s, however, it seems that the trend for films to potentially have audiences leaving the cinema melancholy, or even contemplative, had all but evaporated.

As the 1980s progressed, the decade became increasingly to be associated both with materialism and American cultural imperialism.

Having put the disgrace of Nixon well behind and elected gung-ho Ronald Reagan to office, it was poor form, for the most part, to be disenchanted with such a kick-ass president.

As a young B-grade studio film actor, Reagan had helped institutionalise a particular form of Hollywood end: the classic weepy.

In the 1950s he’d starred in Knute Rockne All-American. (Lloyd Bacon, 1940). The plot concerned a champion sportsman George Gipp, who, knowing he was not long for this world, extolled his teammates to “win just one for the Gipper” when their backs were against the wall.

With Reagan in the Whitehouse at the height of the Cold War, it was Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone who were blowing or clubbing celluloid commies and/or nefarious types away at an astonishing rate.

Luke Skywalker et al were meanwhile dispatching Imperial scum.

In a variety of guises Harrison Ford took care of business. A range of humourously mismatched (young/old, black/white, dog/man) teams solved crimes and dealt summarily with wrongdoers.

Thus a template was born and nearly without exception involved a “happy” ending.

These successful films spawned franchises.

Increasingly, mainstream Hollywood fare became less bohemian, less experimental, and with more sophisticated special effects, costlier.

Marketing campaigns for films required enormous budgets and often involved synergistic tie-ins with fast food and merchandising.

By the start of the 1990s Hollywood studios could no longer afford to take major gambles with “the product”.

Hence the standard three-act formula, and the remorseless quest for safe, sure-fire hits: remakes, comic book and computer game adaptations, sequels.

There is a school of thought that turns its collective nose up at happy endings.Is a happy end – a Hollywood end – a copout? Is it, as Adaptation’s Robert McKee suggests, a facile and formulaic way to impress an audience? Is it a method of giving us what we want and sending us on our way out of the multiplexes so that we continue being happy little consumers?

Vladimir Nabokov wrote in PNIN: “There are people – amongst whom I would include myself – who detest happy endings.”

The implication is that somehow a happy ending is lowbrow, that its lack of verisimilitude is unliterary, unintellectual even.

There is an argument that a happy ending lack edge.

Certainly that was the case mounted by Quentin Tarantino during the production of True Romance (Tony Scott, 1993).

Tarantino, who wrote the script but didn’t direct, wanted the film to conclude with its hero, Clarence (Christian Slater) being gunned down in a sanguinary hail of bullets.

Scott’s preference (and no doubt the studio’s as well) was for something a little more upbeat.

Indeed, the final scenes of the film are of an eye-patch-wearing Clarence frolicking on the beach with his young son. Voiceover is provided by his new bride Alabama (Patricia Arquette). Not only has he survived the cross-country flight from scary gangster Vincenzo Coccotti (Christopher Walken), a good and fulfilling life ahead is a possibility.

It’s the classic feel-good finish. But is it a cliché?

Scott’s argument was that so often in lovers-on-the-lam movies such as Breathless (Jean-Luc Goddard 1965), the convention is for the hero to meet his (usually it’s a he) maker before the credits role. Tarantino’s preference would have in fact meant adhering to a well-worn, even hoary, generic convention.

By allowing Clarence to live, Scott has actually defied expectation and provided something of an unusual denouement for the genre: an upbeat one.

“I have nothing against happy endings as such,” he replied via email. “Happy is just as valid as unhappy. Unhappy endings can also be cliché, trite; ‘bleak’ and ‘dark’ do not necessarily mean more serious, more authentic.I asked film critic Adrian Martin his thoughts about Hollywood endings.

“What I really dislike is what I call the ‘unearned happy ending’ – where the grounds for the happiness have not really been prepared, where it feels imposed, contrived, strictly obligatory.”

But Martin also pointed out the theory of the positive “unhappy happy ending”, which is ironic and suggests the opposite of what it literally shows. The melodramas of Douglas Sirk are an example of this.

“I believe every film should be given the ‘first shot/last shot’ test,” Martin said. “Does it start well, does it end well?

“The problem with many contemporary films (especially Australian ones) is that they do not end with a bang, they ‘dribble out’: the kind of ending where people embrace or frolic or walk away into the city crowd, as the camera soars into the sky and a song plays: usually simply a cue that says to the average moviegoer: OK, the film’s over, now you can head for the back door of the cinema! These are often ‘coda’ endings (‘six months later…’), the scourge of modern cinema.”

Here I have to admit a guilty fondness for this form of conclusion, but can certainly see Martin’s point. Consider, for instance the conclusion of Minority Report (Steven Spielberg, 2001), an otherwise engaging film that has a tacked on “sometime later” conclusion described by one magazine as one of the 50 cheesiest of all time.

“I like DEFINITE endings that are either thrilling or ‘visionary’, where the film builds to a revelation or a definite moment of closure,” Martin said.

“Iranian cinema is brilliant at endings: look at (Abbas) Kiarostami classics like Through the Olive Trees (Abbas Kiarostami, 1994), or the freeze-frame smile that ends Once Upon a Time in America (Leone, 1984).

As Martin sees it, endings are all about how film makers “handle” the spectator in his or her passage from the film back out into reality, and modern commercial films try to make that transition too smooth, easy, indistinct, and non-demanding.

Says Martin: “I like an ending that implicitly says: OK, you have been within the special fantasy that is cinema, bang, the lights are now up, now you have to work out what there is to take with you into the street, into your life!”

When I think about the kinds of film endings I like, there’s certainly a place for the happy conclusion. I didn’t want to see Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) jump into a vat of molten metal at the end of Aliens 3 (David Fincher, 1992).

Dinner Rush (Bob Giraldi 2000) is one of those movies where the last 30 minutes does much to overcome some lapses in the first part of the film.

A good balance is when an ending can match the tone of the rest of the film and still surprise, confront, or at least leave me thinking.

I’ve come to really dislike the “and then I woke up” end of films such as Vanilla Sky (Cameron Crowe, 2001), or films that just don’t know when to end, such as Artificial Intelligence: AI (Steven Spielberg, 2001).

Most of the time I prefer to see movies with other people, and I am fond of the kinds of films where the ending can prompt discussion about the fate of the protagonists well after the credits roll.

Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003) is a classic example.

It’s the type of ending that is really another kind of beginning.

 

This article first appeared in issue 35 of Australian Screen Education.

Working titles

Is a rose by another name still a rose?

How important is a film’s title to its success at the box office? Often the name of a film can be determined relatively late in the movie-making process. While the movie is in production, and sometimes even while it’s being shot, an entirely different name, called a working title, is used.

No doubt many films have benefited from a change away from their respective working titles.

Among other targets, Team America: World Police satirises US arrogance and military aggression. Yet the working title American Heroes sounds a touch earnest for a comedy and doesn’t give a sense of the film’s scope.

Snatch is more dynamic than its working title Diamonds.

You really have to see the film, though, to explain how the working title for Adaptation could be The Orchid Thief.

Everybody Comes to Rick’s just does not have the same ineffable cachet as Casablanca, and Discoland: Where the Music Never Ends is not as punchy as Can’t Stop the Music.

American Pie is more effective than East Great Falls High, while I was a Teenage Teenager (Clueless), is rather, er, clueless.

And Scream Again and Scream Louder (Scream 2) sound more like unfunny comedies (Look Who’s Talking Too, anyone?), than slasher flicks.

While writing a review of Danny Deckchair quite some time ago, I discovered that its working title was Larry Lawnchair.

Neither name is very good. The latter lacks an Australian touch and the former is so ordinary that I was dreading sitting down to watch it.

So when eventually I did see the film, I was relieved it wasn’t too bad at all.

I asked around and elicited some alternative titles that might have made the film more alluring.

Barry Bananalounge sounds as Australian as lamingtons. Paddy Pouffe, Alby Armchair, and Bernie Barstool also emerged from the brainstorming session. Clearly though, writer/director Jeff Balsmeyer missed gold by not opting for Jason Recliner.

In some instances it’s obvious why a working title was discarded.

You can understand why Cameron Crowe opted for Almost Famous over Something Real, Stillwater or The Uncool.

The former is much more inviting to an audience, more open-ended and is more evocative of the film’s engaging plot (based on Crowe’s own experiences), which deals with a teenager’s adventures on the road – and brush with celebrity – as a young music reporter.

It also becomes apparent why writer/director Todd Solendz’s grim opus was ultimately called Welcome to the Dollhouse.

It’s hard to imagine too many people excited at the prospect of seeing Faggots and Retards, as accurate as the film’s working title might be.

It seems honesty in a film title is desirable only to the point that it puts backsides on cinema seats.

This article first appeared in J-Mag.

Adapting novels for the screen

 

Books are an enduring source of material for filmmakers, but what makes for a successful transition to film?

It’s doubtful author Raymond Chandler had actor Humphrey Bogart in mind when he envisaged the character of gumshoe Philip Marlowe. If he had, Chandler would have described the private dick as a short, funny-looking guy with stilted delivery and a toupee. As it was, Chandler wrote of his sleuth hero in novels such as The Big Sleep, as a tall, slender, potentially menacing presence.

Nevertheless, when asked what he thought Hollywood had done to his novels, Chandler replied that Hollywood had done nothing to his novels.

“Look,” he said, “they’re sitting right over there on the shelf.”

In language as precise and economical as dialogue he placed in the mouth of his characters (assuming the story isn’t apocryphal), Chandler managed to convey what should be a simple message: novels and film are different media. We negotiate and interpret them differently. They offer different pleasures, require the use of different senses, affect us in different ways.

And yet we persist in comparing and contrasting the adaptation of a book into film, usually unfavourably.

We rate how faithful has been the rendering of the tome, list the important episodes that are absent in the big-screen version, and whether the actors are worthy or appropriate to deliver the lines that were originally written for paper, not multiplex. Writing in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, William Arnold clearly considered the film version of Snow Falling on Cedars inferior to the novel.

“The book’s poetically precise prose, bold structural devices, riveting delineation of character and heartbreaking tale of anti-Japanese prejudice in 1940s Washington state established (David) Guterson as a major novelist. The film version … goes after these qualities. (It) is visually poetic, non-linear in structure and relatively uncompromising. Even though it’s a big-budget studio release, it’s very much an ‘art’ film. At the same time, it has – perhaps inevitably – lost much of the novel’s drive and originality, and its characters have, to a large extent, been reduced to movie stereotypes. As good as it is many ways, the film is not as emotionally gripping as it should be, and comes off as rather a predictable liberal statement.”

Not content to view a film adapted from a novel as a text in and of itself, we feel compelled to contrast it with the book with which it shares its name – even though the reading of each renders its own, separate rewards.

Consider the example of Alfonso Cuarón’s Great Expectations. In the film starring Ethan Hawke, Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert De Niro, the story had been shifted from 19th century England to modern-day Florida and New York. Several of the characters’ names had been changed, including that of the main protagonist from Pip to Finn. In fact, it could be argued that so little did some elements resemble the 19th century novel, including the ending, that Charles Dickens would have a tough time connecting the film with his work.

John Updike has written of experiencing just that when he struggled to recognise any similarity between the film called The Witches of Eastwick and the novel he wrote of the same name.

Similarly, were Philip K. Dick still alive, he might have marvelled at the spectacular visuals of the movie Blade Runner, but apart from a few characters whose names he created, would have struggled to connect it to the novel he wrote called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Obviously readers of books are going to make a connection when a film is made of a particular work, which might explain why John Irving insisted the adaptation of his book, A Prayer for Owen Meaney, alter its name after the makers of the movie departed radically from the plot in his novel.

Consequently Simon Birch was released, more or less without fanfare.

Irving subsequently wrote the screenplay for the recently released film version of his novel The Cider House Rules himself.

US-based film reviewer Paul Tatara says films based on Irving’s books “often feel like two or three different stories sewn together like Frankenstein’s monster,” regardless of who writes the screenplay. Which is not to say that Irving lacks talent, but is a phenomenon that is more a reflection on the nature of his writing, which often weaves wildly disparate parts into a cohesive whole. In his novels, and other books, such a style doesn’t seem out of place. When we’re reading books, we expect them to be meandering, descriptive and elliptical. But in film, story is all, and things that often work on the page seem incongruous or unnecessary in a script.

So what makes a film a commendable adaptation, and is such an occurrence desirable, or even possible? Perhaps the adaptation of The Name of the Rose gives us the most helpful example of a way to understand the relationship between book and film.

The writer of the novel, historian and academic Umberto Eco, said there was no relationship at all. None. One was a book, one was a movie that happened to share the same name. Indeed, the two texts are rather different and after an attempt at Eco’s dense, labyrinthine work, one might wonder how anyone could even contemplate filming it. No such attempt was made. Rather, director Jean-Jacques Annaud made what he called a “palimpsest” of Eco’s book. Kind of like a medieval etch-o-sketch, a palimpsest was a piece of parchment used over and over again.

What Annaud meant was his film offered resonance, lines, traces, characters and plot elements of the novel, but was by no means an attempt to film exactly what Eco had written. Given the scope of Eco’s novel, and the sophisticated ideas and language, such an exercise would simply have been impossible.

In the case of Dickens, one of the complications in an adaptation for modern audiences is the episodic nature and arch style of the writing. Dickens was writing for an audience that was bereft of television, radio and internet. His novels were originally penned in serial form for newspapers, with intricate plots and characterisations. And while Dickens was a prodigious writer and prolific in the extreme, his style, like that of many 18th and 19th century novelists, is not readily converted to big-screen dialogue.

For example, in once describing a character grinning from ear to ear in The Pickwick Papers, Dickens wrote he “exhibited a grin that agitated his countenance from one auricular organ to the other.”

Like Irving, the very nature of Dickens’ writing – its “writerliness” and its convoluted, episodic form – makes conversion to film problematic.

Jane Campion was criticised for her film version of Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady for the most part, it seemed, because she dared, like Cuarón, to attempt (not altogether successfully) to make a film that was relevant to contemporary audiences. Reading James can provide a rewarding experience but it’s not easy-going. He uses long sentences, contrived plots and dense passages replete with internal dialogue. In short, like Eco, he’s a writer who wouldn’t appear to be a natural for film.

Like Annaud, Campion didn’t even try to “adapt” James for the screen. Rather, she presented something of a palimpsest of her own, featuring elements such as contemporary Australian schoolgirls talking about relationships at the start of the film. It was if to say, right from the beginning, “This is not a faithful adaptation.”

And where James was notoriously circumspect when writing about his characters’ sexual exploits (he refrained from writing about the topic altogether), Campion shows Isabel Archer’s (Nicole Kidman) inability to choose between two lovers by having her sharing a bed with both of them.

The best indication of whether a film adaptation has succeeded might therefore be if the film contains something of the “spirit” of the novel, and whether it has entertained, engaged or provoked – rather than how closely it resembles its source material.

Decent films have been made of relatively ordinary books (Gone with the Wind) and vice versa (Catch 22, and many more). Also, adaptations of some novels, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather and James Ellroy’s LA Confidential, for instance, have made excellent films only partly because they were based on decent books. Mostly they appeared to work because excellent directors (Francis Ford Coppola and Curtis Hanson, respectively) worked with fine writers, actors, cinematographers, technicians, editors and so on to produce highly regarded movies.

What Puzo, and Irving and others must have discovered preparing novels for the screen is the vastly different roles writers of novels and scripts have. In penning a book, the novelist is screenwriter, cameraman, director, costumier and musician.

But in writing a script the writer is but one contributor in what is a decidedly collaborative process. Further, a scriptwriter provides just enough for actors and directors to work with, not an elaborate set of instructions. And when scriptwriters consider a novel something of a holy text that must be adhered to as much as possible, the final product often doesn’t work.

Speaking at the Melbourne Film Festival following a screening of his film Brown’s Requiem, director Jamie Freeman described the process of turning James Ellroy’s considerably flawed debut novel into a film script. The first step was to go through book and highlight all the parts (passages, characters, plot devices, dialogue) that initially appealed to him. As he fashioned these elements into a workable film script, he cut out the pieces – part by unwieldy part – that couldn’t, or wouldn’t be made to fit in. Characters were lost, plot modified, chunks of dialogue discarded.

Then as the financial constraints really started to kick in (probably about the time he decided to use a significant portion of the budget on an early 60s convertible), Freeland decided he’d ditch one of lead character Fritz Brown’s defining characteristics: his love of classical music.

Yet in attempting to include too many scenes and characters, Freeland made a movie that was both sluggish and confusing. Sure, the lowly budget can’t have helped, but ultimately the result of Freeland’s approach was a film that didn’t come across as particularly Ellroy-esque, nor engaging.

It’s to be expected some fans of certain novelists are going to have their noses put out of joint by films that don’t live up to their expectations of how so-called great literary works should be represented. When Canadian director Patricia Rozena’s film version of Mansfield Park was criticised by fans of the Jane Austen book for making the heroine Fanny Price (Frances O’Connor) somewhat raunchier, Rozena responded thus: “I enjoy Jane Austen very much as an author, but it all felt vaguely twee to me.”

It’s the flipside to Chandler’s comment. What Rozena is basically saying is, if you want to read Austen’s novels, they’re sitting over there on the shelf. A film is something else altogether. Deal with it.

This article originally appeared over at The Urban Cinefile.

 

This avuncular life

There is a lot of upside to being an uncle.

Written by author George Vaillant, Ageing Well, as the title suggests, explores the process of getting older with dignity, health and happiness.

Drawing upon an extensive Harvard study that examined the lives of 800 or so individuals over a 50-year span, the book attempts to unlock the secrets to ensuring a good and meaningful life into the twilight years.

One of the questions Vaillant asks those who participated in the study is, “What have you learned from your children?”

Some people don’t get it, thinking the question should be phrased around the other way.

Vaillant was writing about adults learning from their grown up children, but in applying the theory to my two-year-old niece Billee, I can see where he’s coming from.

Billee is usually in a good mood, and loves to laugh.

She’s very curious, with almost everything in her life an adventure.

In two years she’s learned the rudiments of a language, and is constantly improving her vocabulary.

“Bye Baz,” she said to her grandad recently. “See you tomorrow.” It was the first time she’d strung so many words together in a sentence.

That’s one of the remarkable things about Billee: every time you see her she’s grown and changed from the time before. Literally of course, she’s adding kilos and centimetres at an astonishing rate.

Indeed, in the first few months of her life all Billee seemed to be doing was eating (well, you know, absorbing sustenance), sleeping and soiling nappies. All her energy, it appeared, was dedicated to growing physically and intellectually.

Then at about the four or five-month mark it all started to happen. Suddenly here was a little person, who had her own personality and foibles. Well, with visits separated by one or two-week intervals, it certainly seemed a very sudden change.

When, at about nine months Billee started walking, there was no stopping her. There was so much to discover.

No wonder little kids take naps so often.

There’s all that activity to recover from; all that roving, playing, and mental inventory taking must really exact a toll.

Billee doesn’t have regrets, or rue lost opportunities, or fret about the future. All her energy is focused on getting the most out of the present moment, or the fun things tomorrow might bring.

She likes to sing and dance – in public or private, it doesn’t really matter. She’s not self-conscious and hasn’t learned to be embarrassed. Haven’t got the lyrics quite right? No worries.

Making friends is easy for Billee, and she’s fond of public displays of affection for those she’s closest to.

Billee is very change-ready. Sure, she has her routines, her rituals and favourite things, but she also readily learns and takes on new skills and adjusts to changing circumstances.

Past failures don’t faze her or hold her back. It’s as though she’s forgotten them completely!

There’s a regular flow of fresh stuff to be learned about, played with, observed, or admittedly in some instances, destroyed.

She’s in touch with her playful inner child.

Now I’m aware that I’m taking somewhat of an idealistic approach here. I usually see my niece when she’s at her best, and I’m not required to discipline her, deal with her teething, or change nappies.

Young parents would also no doubt say that the average two-year-old has plenty to teach about throwing a tantrum, staying awake when they should be asleep, or wandering into places they shouldn’t.

As an uncle, it’s all upside. There’s play and hugs, maybe a little book reading, and then you get to say goodbye and take a breather.

It’s hardly her fault, but Billee has also stoked my competitive avuncular instincts.

When I see a toddler these days, I can’t help but think my niece is cuter, bigger, more advanced, healthier, smarter, happier or just an all round better little kid.

Yet such trifling and petty things matter little to Billee, she’s got so much else going on.

There’s playgroup, swimming lessons, dolls, handbags (she LOVES handbags), vegemite (MITE!), mini maestros, the backyard and beyond.

Little brother Ned, for instance, is a whole new source of amusement, potential play companion and partner in crime.

But he’s another story.

 

I originally wrote this piece 12 years ago. It’s hard to account for time passing so quickly. Billee and Ned are now both in high school, and are turning into delightful young adults.

The write stuff

Many successful writers have a trait in common: tenacious productivity.

 

In the forward to Charlie Martz and Other Stories: the Unpublished Stories of Elmore Leonard, Peter Leonard recalls his renowned father’s writing routine.

This was in the time before Elmore was able to devote himself to novel-writing full-time. Rising at 5am, Elmore set a rule for himself: fill two pages of writing before going to work at his day job producing copy at a Detroit advertising agency.

Astonishingly, the writer of Rum Punch (Jackie Brown), Get Shorty, and Out of Sight – which were all adapted into screenplays – kept up this stringent quotidian routine for almost 10 years.

So disciplined was Leonard during his morning ritual that he didn’t permit himself to turn on the water for his coffee until he had filled a page with his hand-written script.

I have been thinking somewhat about writers and their routines lately.

When I started blogging earlier this year I did so with the aim of producing one post per week. Alas, I’ve fallen short of that modest aspiration.

So how do writers – real writers – do it? By what elusive alchemy, what kind of graft enables productive, successful writers to link words into phrases, paragraphs, chapters and books that touch emotions, transport, engage, or at least entertain?

With some it obviously comes very naturally. JK Rowling has no problem cranking out sentence after virtuoso sentence. (I haven’t read the Harry Potter series, but have found the Robert Galbraith books to be enormously addictive).

Other writers overcome formidable hurdles to tell their stories.

Consider the example of Jean-Dominique Bauby. The French magazine editor wrote a single, slender novel, but it’s a masterpiece.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was written after Bauby suffered a massive stroke. Following his emergence from a three-week coma, Bauby was left with “Locked-in” syndrome. Speechless, immobile and bed-ridden, the only part of his body he had control over was his left eyelid.

Yet using a convoluted and laborious system, Bauby was able to communicate with the outside world, and write his book. With the help of an assistant reciting the alphabet while taking dictation, Bauby would blink when the letter he wished to use was uttered.

Imagine the force of will required to write a sentence or paragraph – let alone a whole novel – in this style. It must have taken incredible concentration, fortitude and rigour, as well as skill, for Bauby to persist in this manner.

The result, though, is a treasure – an amazing story beautifully told, every sentence a lovely bagatelle.

Fact: I am not going to reach that standard (even with most of my faculties intact) – few do, including scribes such as Leonard, whose stock-in-trade was meticulously structured plots, well-drawn characters, and snappy dialogue.

There is a useful lesson for us workaday bob-a-job writers to keep in mind: don’t let perfection – or the pursuit of it – get in the way of tapping out a good yarn.

“If we make writing mystical, we place it out of our control, we give ourselves another reason not to do it,” says novelist Laura Lippman.

“If we hold our ideas to the standard of blinding love at first sight, then they will be few and far between.”

Ideas, she means.

It’s advice that nicely complements that given by Dr Nick Baylis, a specialist in positive psychology from Cambridge University.

Baylis says that to combat the paralysing effects of perfectionism, a powerful principle to keep in mind is that the more fully formed attempts we make at any task (not just writing), then the greater the probability of scoring a recognised success.

In basketball parlance: you miss 100 per cent of the shots you don’t take.

The idea is not so much that quantity trumps quality; it’s more that quantity could, and just might (and probably will) – inevitably, inexorably, or simply hopefully – lead to quality of some sort.

Theorising about, studying, discussing, benchmarking – these are no substitute for actually making, for doing.

Baylis quotes Dean Keith Simonton from the University of California, whose analysis of accomplished lives demonstrates that the basic rule is consistent across all disciplines, and applies at any age of life.

Simonton provides the example of William Shakespeare, who penned Hamlet one year, Troilus and Cressida the next, and close to 40 major works in all. About a quarter of these are celebrated as part of the Western Canon of great works; others have slipped into obscurity and are rarely performed.

The Bard didn’t know which of his plays would succeed and which would eventually fade, and it wasn’t a concern; productivity was king. The Globe Theatre required material, and he was the content provider. So he sat his backside down, pulled out his quill and filled parchment on demand. 1

“History shows how every high achiever relies on this same brand of tenacious productivity to eventually make progress,” Baylis says. “Their most prized accomplishments are invariably surrounded by a vast number of missed shots.”

To overcome perfectionism’s pernicious influence, we should aim to be as productive as possible, not as perfect as possible. 2

Think: by producing a lot of stuff, you might just come up with the occasional pearl.

“Productivity,” says Baylis, the author of Learning from Wonderful Lives, “brings a profound pleasure.”

One has a sense that this was certainly the case with Leonard, who according to his son, could get lost in his writing regardless of what was going on around him.

His was a writing style that evolved over time, and with considerable practice.

By the time he’d earned the title of “master crime writer” – at least a few decades into his career – Leonard had developed his famous “10 rules of writing”. 3

It took trial and error for him to hone these, and to find his self-styled voice.

When he was ready to make run into full-time novel writing, Leonard had accumulated about 7,300 hours of practice in his early-morning sessions alone.

Old “Dutch” Leonard didn’t have truck with flowery prose. He didn’t sit around waiting for the writing muses to visit; he just got it done. And in at least one major category Leonard even out-Shakespeared the Bard: 45 major works to 37.

 

Notes

  1. Interestingly, Shakespeare didn’t often get distracted by his Twitter feed, and wasn’t overly concerned with how his productions trended on Facebook. His Instagram regularly went neglected, and his LinkedIn profile was an afterthought at best.
  2. Perhaps there is a corollary between Baylis’s “Shakespeare principle” and Malcolm Gladwell’s assertion that success at the highest levels of anything requires 10,000 hours of practice.
  3. According to Leonard, writers should never start their stories with descriptions of the weather, only use the verb “said” to carry dialogue, and stay away from adverbs to modify “said”. He didn’t like exclamation marks, and advised against detailed descriptions of characters. His most important rule: If it sounded like writing, Leonard rewrote it.