Thanks to Mourner for the pic
One of my favourite writer-bloggers, Roz Morris, often talks about how watching and unpicking well-made films can be instructive for writers who are serious about their craft. Roz says in this post that film does have advantages over prose. There can be lots of characters in one scene without it becoming confusing for the viewer, choppy action scenes work well to layer up tension and, most powerfully, the camera acts as a narrator, telling us, as the passive audience, things that the characters might not know.
She also says that prose has its own advantages:
Novels go deeper than films; they are less literal too. A novel about scientists trying to control the weather, for example, can also make you feel it’s about humanity wrestling with randomness in their lives. Novels set the story going inside you rather than show it to you finished. This makes prose an incredibly powerful medium. Novels can take you right inside what people are feeling in a way that movies can’t.
While I have seen films that have completely swept me away and left me gasping, I agree with Roz that fiction can take you deeper into a story.
This weekend I went to see La Vida de los Peces, the Chilean film that is headlining the Mannheim/Heidelberg International Film Festival. The Life of Fish is the fifth film by director Matias Bize. It was rapturously received in Chile and was shown to great acclaim at the Venice film festival. Bize said in the public interview session afterwards that he believes it is his best film because it is the most personal and the most intimate. The compere who spoke before the showing said it was an incredibly emotional film and we were all guaranteed to cry.
The Life of Fish tells the story of Andres (Santiago Cabrera) who is trying to leave a birthday party in Chile to catch a plane back to Berlin where he lives and works as a tour guide. However, Andres’ old life keeps hooking him and he spends the 83 minutes of the film failing to leave, as old friends and their wives and children catch him in their nets of conversation. The person he most wants to see is his old girlfriend Beatriz (Blanca Lewin) whom he still loves but who is now married with two children. In the last third of the film, Andres persuades Bea that their love is still real and that she should leave with him that night. She agrees, but at the door, changes her mind.
It is a beautiful film and Bize has acheived his desire to make it intimate, poetic, minimalist. The entire film is shot inside the party and is made up mostly of head and shoulder shots. It is all about faces and glances and words. Andres is shown up as a tourist in his own life, someone who chooses to make his emotional commitment when it is already far too late.
But here’s the problem: I didn’t feel it. I’m speaking as someone who is totally susceptible to emotional cues. I cry in beer adverts, in Sex and the City, when I’m reading to my children, but for some reason Bize’s intimate portrayal didn’t move me. By choosing never to move out of the party, to keep it intimate and claustrophobic, Bize chose not to show how deep Andres and Bea’s connection was. As the audience we have to believe from what they and other people say about their emotional connection.
There are two things missing in The Life of Fish that are essential to a novelist’s craft: showing and back story. A novelist would have shown how much they loved each other – perhaps by including a scene from their past, or Andres in Berlin fingering Bea’s photo while one of his lovers brushed her teeth in his bathroom, or Bea walking along the beach with her daughters, her heart full of memories of her teenage love. The back story of their love would have shown us how momentous the moment was when Bea chose not to follow him back to Berlin, and Andres’ tears might have been our tears.
I think that Bize was too in love with his set-up (everything must take place at the party) to pay full attention to his story and the universal story form (the audience must believe in Andres’ and Bea’s love for the climax to have meaning). He forgot to kill his darling and, in so doing, made a film that is beautiful but cold.
As writers, we have the amazing opportunity to evoke emotions in others and we must use all the tools we have – cleverly, subtly – to do so.