All is Lost – The Chain Reaction Film Club

The Rules

My chum Tim and I watch a film every week, taking it in turns to pick. The only catch? Each film has to be linked to the previous one by a shared actor. We’re on the hunt for classics we’ve missed, hidden gems and films to reappraise now we’re, uh, getting older.

Previously On…

We watched Sneakers. There was sneaking.

The Choice

There’s almost a dogged resignedness hitting us now. We’re 6 films into our Redford season, and have tackled 11 in CRFC in total. There are still more Redford films we want to watch, but the fatigue is starting to set in. Fatigue and the niggling thought that actually… we don’t like Redford that much. Don’t get me wrong, he’s in some very good films but is Redford what’s good about them? I’m not certain it always is. So bearing that in mind I chose a film with no-one in but Redford – All Is Lost

All is lost 01

All Is Lost and me

I meant to see this at the cinema. It feels to me like it came out last year, but somehow it’s almost 5 years old already… Anyway, all I know is that it is Redford, alone, on a boat. And things don’t go well. And it’s proper “alone on a boat”, not with a few supporting actors turning up at the beginning and end. 100% Redford. And I seem to remember it being very favourably reviewed at the time, so I had some hopes. Would they be dashed on the rocks, or will All Is Lost sail into the top tier? Let’s find out…

IMDB says

All Is Lost (2013): After a collision with a shipping container at sea, a resourceful sailor finds himself, despite all efforts to the contrary, staring his mortality in the face. 6.9 stars.

I says

I’ve been convinced for a little while that if you really boil storytelling down to a very basic concept you’ll still be able to get something engaging. All I think you need is a character overcoming obstacles. There’s a lot of stuff you can (and probably should) add on top, but I’m pretty convinced that an audience will root for a character if we see them being smart or plucky enough to overcome some obstacles. Particularly where those obstacles are big obvious things like the sea trying to kill you.

So this film was a bit of a disappointment. On the surface, it is purely a character overcoming obstacles. There are some hints of backstory, but not really much. There’s no goal other than survival. There is simply a man on an increasingly rickety boat and a hostile sea. And yet…

All is lost 03

Man. Rickety boat. Hostile sea. Tick, tick and tick.

Perhaps it’s that the obstacles were too big, the overcoming almost always being a putting-off rather than an actual overcoming? Perhaps it was that Tim and I came up with a series of brilliant inventions that would have saved the day that surely any sailor would always carry on board… and then it turned out they do all actually exist and, indeed, sailors do all carry them. Just not this ‘resourceful’ one.

Perhaps I’m just not fussed by boats?

Perhaps I’m wrong and we do need something more than just character and obstacles being overcome?

All is lost 02

“Go on, give us a wave!”

I prayed for the ocean to swallow this foolish man up… SPOILER COMING…

When finally he sank into the briny depths I rejoiced. Until he was rescued.

The Verdict

Mopey dick.

Coming Attractions

Well, the fatigue may have set in but as there were no other actors in All is Lost it looks like we’ve got at least one more Redford film to go!

@BornToPootle

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Finding an Ancient Manuscript

This week I’ve come to understand how all those Victorian explorers must have felt plundering Egyptian tombs and ancient temples. And not because I’ve started taking laudanum.

I posted recently about just fucking doing it, and in that spirit I dove back into planning a novel that I was working up a year or two ago. But at the same time I remembered that I had a whole manuscript sitting in a box that, upon completion, I’d never read. And so I read it.

And so I read it.

When I first started trying to write a novel I entered NaNoWriMo 2009 and ended up with my first ever beginning-middle-end longform story. It was called Hello Summertime and stretched to about 50,000 words (on the short side for something that might actually get published). And it was, of course, a right old mess. At that point I was a dedicated pantser, someone who thought planning a novel would kill the fun of writing. These days I’m quite the opposite because frankly, the plot was godawful.

Anyway, I wrote a few other short bits and bobs, and the first drafts of a couple of other novels. Along the way I did more research about how to plan a novel, plot structure and all that good stuff. So when I was letting a draft of a different novel sit, I started planning and then comprehensively rewrote the whole of Hello Summertime from scratch. The (sort of) second draft was 95,000 words. And then I put it to one side. That was in 2013 or thereabouts.

I’ve just finished rereading the manuscript and that’s where the explorer analogy comes in. Some of it I remember, some not at all. It’s like delving through the mind of me from 5 years ago and looking at what was occupying my thoughts, what themes were on my mind…. and what words I was overusing (anything involving walking/moving/stepping/heading and looking/staring/gazing fyi).

There’s a lot in there that’s reminiscent of themes in other stuff I’m working on. I once heard an interview with Emma Thompson about her dad, the Magic Roundabout creator. In it she said that people often write where they need healing, which is something I think about a lot. Is that why Stephen King often has alcoholic father figures in his books? I’m pretty sure that’s why my themes go the way they do (which I may talk about in a different post, but I’m not drunk enough today).

Anyway, like those Victorian explorers (or Indiana Jones, just to mix it up a bit) I must now decide whether the manuscript belongs in a museum, or whether I should try and flog it to the highest bidder. And it’s tricky. The novel is in rough shape in places, but seems pretty fixable. The language is very basic and full of repetition, but polishing the language is a job for further down the line. It’s the flow of the plot and characterisation that is more pressing.

As an aside, one of the reasons I let it sit originally is that it’s on a topic that was suddenly pretty overwhelmed a few years ago. The first draft was about a zombie apocalypse, though in the rewrite I got rid of the zombies. My heart wasn’t in it, so to speak. I was (and am) more interested in the emptiness of the world after a plague or similar rather than the shambling hordes. And it’s always people who are the real baddies in zombie stuff anyway.

But do you know what else is interesting? The new novel I’m planning full of ghosts and psychedelic cults. So I’ve come up with what I think is an alright plan… I’m going to spend the next couple of months doing a mild redraft of Hello Summertime to fix some of the glaringly obvious stuff. I’ve put together a bit of a writing schedule for myself as well as a deadline, as otherwise nothing will happen. I’m also going to dedicate a few spots of writing time to working up a one page synopsis of my new project. Then I’m going to send both off for a pro critique, see what the feedback and let that help me decide where to spend my time.

So I’ve come up with what I think is an alright plan… I’m going to spend the next couple of months doing a mild redraft of Hello Summertime to fix some of the glaringly obvious stuff. I’ve put together a bit of a writing schedule for myself as well as a deadline, as otherwise nothing will happen. I’m also going to dedicate a few spots of writing time to working up a one page synopsis of my new project. Then I’m going to send both off for a pro critique, see what the feedback and let that help me decide where to spend my time.

I want to be done with the redraft by the end of April at the latest, so hopefully I’ll have a better idea of how I want to spend the rest of my writing year in May.

The only fly in the ointment is that I’ve had an idea for turning the first part of Hello Summertime into a one man stage show and am Quite Excited about it. But that can wait until May, right?

Conflict-averse protagonists

It’s been a little while since I wrote about my own writing – sadly that’s because I haven’t been doing a huge amount of it. I’ll get back in the saddle soon I’m sure.

One of the problems is that I’m a little stuck in all of my usual go-to projects, and I don’t want to start something new as I’ve got so many juicy (albeit stalled) things under way already.

I can’t remember what I last posted about my novel A Calling-on Song so I’ll do a quick catch-up: I had it all nice and finished, sent it off to agents with no luck; I paid for a professional critique from one of the market leaders in such things; feedback was very useful and identified a few things which I’d been sort-of aware of and hoped had been buried beneath awesomeness.

The main issue highlighted was my main character, Robin. He still came across as too passive or stand-off-ish. One of the things this meant was that it’s unbelievable that the people who tag along with him and lend assistance would actually bother. This stems from the very initial draft and, rather than pluck the problem out and solve it, I wrote around it. I came up with motivations and reasons to excuse it all that fitted neatly into the narrative. Four drafts on and it’s much more daunting to tackle!

In the mornings before work I watch 20 minutes of a TV show. Over the years its been everything from an episode of The Simpsons or Friends to a smidge of The Wire to a variety of costume dramas. Right now I’m part way through a rewatch of Pushing Daisies, half-episode at a time. If you haven’t seen it I can’t recommend it highly enough – it’s not a big commitment as there were only 2 relatively short series. Just like Firefly it left me wanting much more, and just like Firefly it’s excellent.

The general premise is that the MC, a piemaker by trade, has the power to bring anything back to life with a touch. A second touch will permanently kill what was brought back. If something or someone is brought back for more than 60 seconds then something else close by will die in its place. He uses the power to help a private detective solve murders (obviously). The whole tone borrows very heavily from Amelie and it’s a lovely, romantic, funny and touching confection.

Anyway, the reason I bring it up is that the MC is very risk-averse, both physically and emotionally. He is stand-off-ish and often reactive rather than proactive. He wants, by and large, a normal life and to be left alone. And it works very well. This desire for a smooth ride causes tension among the other characters and, due to his use of his power, leads to secrets and intrigue. The characters that surround him are all very proactive, from the private detective starting new cases to the MC’s brought-back-to-life childhood sweetheart who wants to make the most of her new lease of life.

I’ve tried for a similar set up – my MC keeps the causes of some of his strange behaviour to himself, hoping his life will return to normal. Around him friends and colleagues poke and prod and investigate and suppose as they try to help or further their own agendas (or both). 

So why isn’t it working for me? 

A couple of considerations: maybe the critiquer is ‘wrong’. This is a dangerous door to open – disregarding what someone thinks of my novel is not something I intend to do, particularly if they’re a professional in the field! And it’s something I was deep down aware of to boot!

Perhaps its down to likeability? Despite his stand-off-ishness The Piemaker is very likeable thanks to a combination of both the script and performance. I may need to work on my MC, as I don’t have a top actor to rely on…

Another consideration is that the viewer doesn’t solely follow the Piemaker in Pushing Daisies. My novel is 3rd person, but we only follow the MC. Is this too much of a halfway house? Maybe committing to 1st person or pulling the ‘camera’ back to follow other characters would bring the dynamic that I’m lacking.

The Piemaker is pulled into scrapes partially because of his work with the detective. And he is only useful to the detective because of his power. My MC doesn’t really have a power or useful quality that his friends are lacking. So maybe that’s a key. They should need him for something as much as he ends up needing them…

There’s always the possibilty that it doesn’t work in Pushing Daisies. I mean, I love it of course. But it was cancelled after 2 short seasons so can’t have been wildly popular at the time. Could it be that I have a predilection for these kinds of characters, but popular appeal isn’t there?

And one final thought – maybe these kinds of characters are better suited to a visual medium. Characters who are ‘numb’ generally work better in film than on the page. Perhaps it’s the same for the risk-averse.

If you’ve got any suggestions of books featuring stand-off-ish characters trying desperately to cling to a normal life do let me know.

@BornToPootle