Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


Feeling It – Prose versus Film


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.


Giving Thanks

Today my daughters dragged me to church. I have religious beliefs, but they are private ones, and I don’t feel the need to worship communally. I also have a suspicion of organised religion that stems from the days when my family used to go to church with another family whose mother my father ran off with. That didn’t seem like very Christian behaviour to me. I’m also not keen on the concept of a Christian God who presides over a Christian Heaven to the exclusion of everyone else, and neither do I like being lectured to. However, D had received an invitation to an Erntedank or Harvest Festival service at the Evangelical church (that’s the Protestant one) here in the Burg and with, the fervour of a new schoolgoer, believed that it was compulsory not optional. L likes singing and “being in God’s house”, so we went, the two girls with joy in their hearts and mother sulkily kicking at lamp-posts along the way, saying “Do I have to go?” in a whiny voice.

Of course, when I got there, I enjoyed it. The reverend, or whatever Anglicans call their leaders, is young and kind of vibey and didn’t lecture. The church was filled with people I know. I sat next to a woman whose kid was in the same kindergarten class as L, and who has a voice like an angel, so I enjoyed listening to her sing. Since it was a children’s service, the hymns were easy and rousing, and although I didn’t know most of them, I managed to sing along. The church was prettily decorated with pumpkins, apples and other produce from neighbouring farms, and with bread baked by local bakers, while the sun streamed in through the stained-glass windows. Apart from the moment when D spoke loudly to me during a prayer, it was a pleasant hour and a half.

Later, I delivered D to a birthday party. All the attendees were little girls with whom she was first at kindergarten and with whom she has started the big adventure of school. We went to scout a local restaurant as a party venue for our fortieth at the end of the year, where the manageress is a friend of our babysitter. Later I went for a run, passing a family I know flying kites in a field, and towards the end, coming across the partygoers hunting for treasure at one of the playgrounds. After my shower I went to fetch her, but the party was running late, so I went upstairs to another friend for a cup of tea while we waited for it to come to an end. As D and I were trying to leave, the parents were flooding in to collect their kids and three of them stopped me to arrange play-dates.

Today in the church, we gave thanks for the harvest, for having enough food to eat, clothes to wear and roofs over our heads.

I also want to give thanks. I am grateful for community. However much I might see myself as a foreigner, alien to the Burg and various German habits that I find touchingly odd, it turns out I belong.

We have made friends, a place and a life for ourselves right here in this little Burg, and I give thanks for that. I am also grateful for my wider community in Germany, my community of expats and past and present work colleagues whose broad world-views I inhale eagerly. I am grateful for my friends and family around the globe, in South Africa, England, Dubai, the USA, Canada, Scotland and Ireland, who provide a backbone of support and the knowledge that while we may be far away, we are still loved. I am grateful for my online friends, some of whom I have already met and others whom I am about to meet, who are just as real and just as wonderful.

Today as we came away from the restaurant, L said, “You want to have a party for 120 people? You have a lot of friends.” I said to her, “Well, we are nearly 40, so we have had a long time to make friends. We have also lived in lots of countries, where we have met lots of people. And we like having friends.”

It’s true. I love my friends. Thanks to each and every one of you, near and far, who make my life so special.


Let’s Talk About Food, Baby

It’s clearly autumn. I’ve got visiting owls and the bakery’s got Zwiebelkuechen. When I walked past yesterday and smelt the delicious scent of baked onion, creme fraiche and bacon, I had a vision of all the festivals and seasonal foods that lie ahead of us – the Zwiebelkuechen of harvest time, followed by the pumpkins that may or may not mean Halloween, the November Laternefest and its cakes, and then all the delicious smells and spices of Christmas. In about three seconds’ time, I’m going to be sipping Gluehwein at a Christmas market, wondering what the hell happened to the year. Wasn’t I in Tuscany on the beach, like, yesterday?

Now it’s harvest time and the German new wines will be appearing soon. These are bottled – with screwtop caps – as soon as they reach 4% alcohol, but continue to ferment inside the bottle up to 11%, so they are deceptively strong. Germans serve their Neue Wein with a good hearty Zwiebelkuechen in order to counteract the unknowable amount of alcohol in the wine. We have to be cautious, you know? It’s apparently a very good pairing, if you like Neue Wein, which I don’t. It’s far sweet for me and brings on an instant headache (not the the fun kind that you earn after hours of drinking, but the depressing kind when everyone else is having a blast and you have to go home at 9.15pm).

When I started working in Germany, the first team after-hours get-together I attended was trumpetted as a “Neue Wein und Zwiebelkuechen Party“. The guy who organised it got quite excited about his party theme. You could have sworn he was going to be serving Moet and Beluga caviar, he was so thrilled. (Have you noticed that it’s always the same people who organise parties? Some people are party helpers, other people are party goers, and then there are the special souls who like to organise parties. They don’t seem to spend much time actually enjoying the parties; they are not usually the ones seducing the intern on the dance-floor or arranging group down-down sessions. Instead, they are restocking the drinks fridge, making sure there are enough knives and forks on the table and doing the music. I love party organisers. They provide the excuse for me to make desserts and then do a lot of dancing.) So after all the Neue Wein and Zwiebelkuechen PR from the party organising guy, I got quite excited about these exotic new foodstuffs and was looking forward to trying them. Sadly, they were not great. Zwiebelkuechen turned out not to be some fascinating kind of cake, but Quiche Lorraine (easily found in South Africa) and the wine was sweet, feathery and gave me an instant headache. I was underwhelmed.

However, the Zwiebelkuechen, with its crumbly crust and salty-sweet combination of bacon and onion, has grown on me. Today, passing the bakery, I was lured by its siren smell:

Zwiebelkuechen with feta and pepper salad

Now I don’t drink alone and I seldom drink at lunch-time, even at weekends, but somehow it was not possible to eat Zwiebelkuechen without drinking wine. I’m not so German that it had to be Neue Wein, so instead it was a tiny little glass – really, a tiny, tiny little glass – of rose.

I needed something to help soak up all that Zwiebelkuechen, after all.

And I wasn’t alone. I had three children with me.