Category Archives: Writing

Everything is Illuminated

And then my sister. She was pregnant. They put the gun to her pregnant belly. They said they would kill the baby inside her if my father did not spit. He could not… He did not spit.

Directed by Liev Schreiber, and based on (part of)  Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel of the same name, this film takes a cheerfully anarchic tour through a few different genres and forms; it’s an autobiography- comedy- road movie- Holocaust movie (or something.) And despite all this (presumably) ironic self-awareness (which is actually much more a feature of the book than the film) the film does manage to make moving, serious points about the Holocaust. It’s not entirely successful, but it’s never less than engaging.

It details Foer’s (played by Elijah Wood) efforts to trace his own Jewish-Russian roots in the Ukraine, and focuses around a journey he makes with his Russian guide Alex and Alex’s grandfather, a mad old anti-Semitic driver who thinks he’s blind, thus necessitating the use of a ‘seeing eye bitch’ called Sammy Davis Jr Jr. Eugene Hutz as Alex just about steals the show, particularly with his mangled English (‘…my friends dub me Alex, because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my legal name..’) which is a delight to listen to. There ‘s a lot to like about the film. It has a distinct aesthetic, with some lovely, comic cinematography, and the performances are all strong. The Russian actors get all the best lines, though; Wood, as the nerdish Foer (‘ anaemic straight-man caricature’, according to Michael Atkinson) is very much in the shade.

in the car

But despite strong cinematography and performances and everything else, this a writer’s film, unsurprisingly given the source material. It is ambitious in its handling of genre; to use comedy to attempt to address themes around the Holocaust is, obviously, fraught with difficulty (not entirely unprecedented though – Robert Benigni’s superb Life is Beautiful did something similar in 1997, although Roger Ebert points out that even that film received criticism for apparently making light of the Holocaust.) The comedy in Schreiber’s film is joyous; Alex’s obsession with and clumsy appropriation of all things American and pop-culture (hip-hop, Michael Jackson, ‘negroes’ – they are ‘premium people’ apparently – and so on) is obviously rooted in a familiar representation of Russian youth, whilst Foer’s nerdish, obsessive, vegetarian, dog-phobic writer is just as rooted in another stereotype, but despite this familiarity, the characters are wonderfully sympathetic and engaging.

The narrative gives the film its backbone, though. It is essentially a road movie – the three main characters are off to find a lady who helped Foer’s grandfather survive the Holocaust. She lives in a village called Trachimbrod, and the hunt for this village – and the ‘finding’ of it – are what ultimately turns the story away from comedy. This is actually not entirely successful; it’s a fiendishly difficult tonal shift to handle (Stella Papamichael writes that ‘Schreiber’s most difficult task comes at this halfway point when he switches gears from comedy to drama’) and although it is handled well, the film’s engagement with Holocaust themes never provokes the reaction that it could, simply because the first half of the film hasn’t been doing the work of building up to such a reaction. As such, we get a smaller, less ambitious pay-off, but that’s fine; it’s moving and effective, albeit somewhat too ‘tidy’ at the end.

Typically of the road movie, the real journey is internal, and this is where the actual surprise of the movie is. The journey at the heart of the road movie is always a metaphor for the change and development of one or more of the characters, and obviously the most obvious example of this is in Foer himself, who learns about his own roots and who seems to open up a little (he is friendlier with Alex at the end and has somehow overcome his fear of dogs, giving Sammy Davis Jr Jr an affectionate kiss at the end.) But he, it turns out, is not the main character. Foer’s extreme uptightness, for all his quirkiness (he collects things as he goes along, sealing things like potatoes and handfuls of soil in plastic bags to add to his ‘collection’), makes him hard to penetrate, and Wood’s performance, strangely reminiscent of his portrayal of Kevin, the psychotic cannibal from Sin City (yes, I know that seems an unlikely comparison) doesn’t help. Likewise, we might expect Alex to be the central character, the one who makes the all-important change reflected by the journey at the heart of the movie. After all, he is the one who delivers the voice-over which controls the delivery of the plot; it is he, it turns out, who writes the book upon which the film is based (there’s some postmodern self-aware jiggery-pokery here, of course.) But he is the character who changes the least, and as such he is more caricature than character; an absolutely delightful caricature, but not developed or rounded beyond that.

illuminated house

As it turns out, our attention should have been on the grandfather, the supposedly blind driver of the knackered Trabant which takes them to Trachimbrod (based on the real-life Trochenbrod.) As the story progresses, and we start to investigate the grandfather’s character with flashbacks to the scene of an execution of Jewish prisoners by Nazi soldiers, we realise that the story of Everything is Illuminated is actually his story; the journey into the past, a past which Alex is more or less ignorant of, and which Foer is only tangenitally connected to. The grandfather, however, lived it and is directly connected to what happened at Trachimbrod, and the audience is soon wondering about the nature of that connection; bluntly, which end of the gun was he on? His blatant anti-semitism (he is horrified to learn that Sammy Davis Jr, his favourite singer and, obviously, the inspiration for his beloved dog’s name, was Jewish) lead us to conclusions which are, of course, not necessarily correct. As Stella Papamichael goes on to point out, the grandfather ‘… takes the story into more wistful territory and ultimately provides the heart’ and at the end, it is his exit from the story which provides the actual emotional kick of the film.


A lovely film, then, and thank you to my ever-helpful student Adrian for recommending it (other students: what else should I be watching?) It offers a small-scale look at the effect of the Holocaust on people both directly involved and those born generations later; it is both very moving and extremely funny (it’s certainly the most quotable film I’ve seen in a while) and it provides an interesting comparison to more traditional Holocaust films like Schindler’s List.


Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is currently breaking records (most successful October opening ever in the US) and attracting rave reviews (Metacritic calculates that 96% of reviews are extremely positive.) By these measures, it’s an enormous success for Cuarón and Warner and especially, perhaps, for Sandra Bullock, whose performance as Dr Ryan Stone is already being tipped for an Oscar nomination.

The film concerns a shuttle crew who are caught out by a storm of debris from another exploded ship. Two survivors – medical specialist Ryan Stone and veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) – try to reach the safety of another ship but find themselves struggling against a lack of oxygen and an excess of space to cover.

Gravity is, unarguably, stunning to watch. James Cameron has credited it with ‘the best space photography ever done,’ and he is not known for flinging compliments around lightly (or ever.) Like many people, I don’t care much about 3D effects , since they seem to add little to most films except an irritating tendency towards throwing things at the camera. In Gravity, however, the 3D is integral to the aesthetic and the beauty of the film. There’s one remarkable shot where it looks like there is rain falling on the lens as we watch Stone grieve for her daughter. Then we realise these are actually tears, falling from her face and floating away; symbolic, perhaps, of the necessity of getting her grief out and putting it far from her. Whatever, it’s a beautiful, wholly filmic moment. Kowalsky frequently draws Stone’s and the audience’s  attention to the beauty of space, so obviously the pressure was on Cuarón to make the landscapes stunning, and he did; for a film which is basically set in darkness, the location shots of the Earth are superbly realised, with the position of the two actors used to create perspective, depth and a powerfully unsettling sense of the vast emptiness all around. Not a good film to watch if you’re agoraphobic.


The writing, however, is not up to the same standard as the cinematography and CGI. Clooney’s character in particular is a caricature. He has no depth at all; it’s just George Clooney being his usual twinkly self. Even when in just-about-deadly danger, he is utterly and unbelievably good humoured and upbeat. Bullock gets more to work with – she has a history, problems, weaknesses, an actual character. That character is motivated by guilt over the death of her young daughter and it soon becomes clear that her trip into space is more to do with running away from life on Earth than any desire to explore the universe. There is some schmaltz around this and, possibly unsurprisingly for a Hollywood movie, a positive, life-enhancing moral is squeezed out of it by the end. This seems to cheapen the film, somewhat – as Chris Sawin writes, this need for cheery positivity ‘debunks the whole thing and throws it into lame territory.’ The film had the potential to explore the same questions about identity and desire as Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey or Tarkovsky in Solaris, and it does borrow ideas and images from those films, but it never comes close to the same philosophical weight or thematic depth.

But it is in the same tradition as those films. Although there are some very good action sequences – the debris raining down on the ship is absolutely shocking –  the real power of the movie, like Space Odyssey, is in the quiet parts. It tries to explore ideas familiar to fans of Tarkovsky, themes like rebirth and identity. We see Dr Stone float in the womb of her spaceship, for example, as she begins the process of realising who she really is, and of rebooting her life:

Womb gravity

Later, we’ll see her emerge from water, like she’s the origin of a new species. All these ideas and images – birth and rebirth, water, fractured identities, space as a metaphor for the future, are firmly rooted in Tarkovsky’s work, particularly in films like Stalker. But they are much more challenging in Tarkovsky’s hands, the questions are harder and the answers more ambiguous and more universally applicable. Tarkovsky manages to suggest, as does Kubrick, that the future of the human race, our very conception of what ‘humanity’ is or can be,  may well depend upon the nature of our contact with the rest of the universe. Gravity, for all its beauty, shies away from all of this and delivers a theme no more complex or unfamiliar than a Disney movie. A wasted opportunity, perhaps, but not every director can be Tarkovsky or Kubrick.

In an earlier post, I suggested that the success of directors like Tim Burton and Quentin Tarantino lay in taking ideas from the avant-garde and making them commercially acceptable. Cuarón’s done much the same here; he has tapped into that particular vein of philosophical sci-fi and removed all the difficult parts, adopting the narrative and generic codes to suit Hollywood. In so doing, he has made a stunningly beautiful film which lacks much of a core; well worth seeing, but a little bit empty. So, go see it, enjoy it, then watch Tarkovsky’s Stalker and have your mind blown a little bit instead.

More storytelling: Mystery Boxes

What’s Die Hard about? Divorce.

What’s ET about? Also divorce.

What’s Jaws about? A man’s struggle with masculinity.

So says JJ Abrams, writer of Lost, producer of Cloverfield, director of Star Trek and composer of themes for various films and TV shows. He obviously knows his way around a story. The most important thing he says here is that writing is, basically, character creation; everything else comes second to that. So, the best bit of Jaws is not the big scary shark but the scene between the protagonist and his son; it’s the characters that draw us in. Why would we care who gets eaten if we’re not interested in the people? ET works because we know how troubled Elliott is and thus we understand why he clings to the alien so much. When we make short films, it’s often tempting to skimp on the character development, on those scenes where maybe not much happens except the audience gets to know the characters a bit better. Abrams calls those scenes ‘investment in character’, and that’s exactly what they are. If successful, they pay back much more than they cost.

This continues the thought from yesterday’s post; the plot is often just a means to convey the emotion, and the success of the film depends on whether we can believe that those characters are experiencing that emotion. ‘Character is plot, plot is character,’ said F Scott Fitzgerald – he meant, I guess, that the plot and the character grow out of each other, and that they are at least as important as each other.

A fantastic talk, full of good stuff, including tips about Tom Cruise’s nose. Oh, and one last thing, the advice probably all creative people need to hear now and again:

Go make your movie. There’s nothing stopping you.

JJ Abrams


TED talks for filmmakers

Thanks to Indiewire for the starting point for this post.

One of the most difficult things to teach for me is what a story is.  What makes a good one? What’s the best way to go about making them? These seem like stupidly simple questions, at least to anyone who has never spent much time trying to write stories.  But beyond the absolute mechanical basics – beginnings, middles and ends, or ‘drama is conflict’ –  ideas about narratology and story can become very abstract, and students often switch off at that point. After all, there’s nothing abstract about stories themselves – actual stuff happens, and it feels like real stuff happening to real people, if the storyteller knows what he’s doing. So, any attempt to theorise about them can feel phoney and artificial and the theories don’t generally result in very good stories.

The students who construct the best stories are those who have some personal investment in what they’re doing; who understand that, at its best, storytelling is always about the storyteller. This personal weight, if they can find it and tap into it,  lends emotion, commitment, authenticity, interest to stories. ‘Write what you know’ is old, hackneyed advice, and it’s been pointed out many times that if writers only wrote what they knew, very little would get written. I’ve never understood it like that, though; I think the idea is that writers should write the emotion they know, not necessarily the plot.  Taking details from your own life is fine, and often a good idea, but taking the emotional weight of your own experience is absolutely fundamental. Perhaps like any art worth the trouble, there needs to be a little suffering in it…

It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader. If you do not believe in the characters or the story you are doing at that moment with all your mind, strength, and will, if you don’t feel joy and excitement while writing it, then you’re wasting good white paper, even if it sells, because there are other ways in which a writer can bring in the rent money besides writing bad or phoney stories. (Paul Gallico, Confessions of a Story Writer)

Anyway, Andrew Stanton – the guy who wrote Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Wall-E and others – explains it better than I can. There are some wonderful tips in his TED Talk (where would teachers be without them?) but perhaps the best piece of advice is the simplest – ‘just make me care.’ (Oh – there’s some swearing at the start of this.)