Saturday, July 9, 2011

Learning From the Movies: Another Year

I love movies and make a point of ‘seeing’ my story unfolding before my eyes as I write. I pretend my book is a film. Will the reader see, hear, feel, and notice everything that I experience as I write? So, that takes me to the next point. If movies can be thought of as ‘moving pictures’ or books come alive, what can we learn from them in terms of plot and character development? Inspired in part by Jami Gold’s wonderful character and plot analysis of The Green Lantern, I thought more deeply about a film I saw recently. A film that didn’t say much; it didn’t really go anywhere … so why did it hold me and my friend absolutely enthralled?

Another Year, by director Mike Leigh, follows a year in the life of a sixty-something couple, Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen). He’s a commercial geologist; she’s an NHS therapist. The director is known for weaving stories around fictional ordinary folk. In Another Year we find Tom and Gerri (only one reference to the obvious in the movie) who live in a quiet street, somewhere in suburbia, and who are passionate about their allotment where they grow a variety of vegetables. They seem to spend a lot of their free time madly digging and planting; sometimes joined by their son Joe (Oliver Maltman), to whom they are devoted. Their smooth uncomplicated lives are punctuated by socializing with their son, and several friends with various troubled lives and personal problems. Nothing seems to shake Tom and Gerri. They reach out to communicate with their loved ones and then slide back into the comfortable, maybe even complacent shell that cocoons and protects them. In a way they are a sounding board to highlight the weaknesses and worries of the people around them. Their serenity only makes their friends’ lives seem even more chaotic.

So what is the captivating aspect of this film that quite simply moves through the four seasons in a quiet reflection of how times slips by? As I said, nothing really happens; or rather nothing happens directly to them. Tom’s brother Ronnie loses his wife and the terrible grief of these scenes is positively palpable. Again, sitting in the movie theater I asked myself what was so compelling about this film. With virtually no plot—no action, no real drama, no special effects, no computer generated gizmos, no car chases, no car crashes … we only hear about their neurotic friend Mary’s car troubles, we don’t see them—it can only be said that character, real living people drive this film.

The acting is sublime with characters such as their old friend Ken (Peter Wight), who visits from the North during the summer and masks an unhappy personal life with ample smoking, drinking and eating. His drunken behavior is totally cringe-worthy because we realize that we’ve all got friends like these. It is a tribute to the director that I felt as if I was watching real people; that somehow I had wandered into their lives by accident. I know and admire Jim Broadbent’s acting skills, but as Tom he was somehow not Jim Broadbent playing the part of Tom. He was Tom. From the moment I saw the opening scene of Tom and Gerri running through the rain from their front door to the car, with boxes of seedling and garden implements, I was hooked. I truly believed in the person called Tom and his wife called Gerri. Ditto for the remaining characters. The exquisite craftsmanship of the director draws the viewer into the situation so that by the time Mary (superbly played by Lesley Manville), their problematic friend, throws yet another tantrum related to her anxieties about ageing, you just want to throw her and her neuroses through the front door.

The film is made in unforgiving close-up, something I deeply admire the British acting fraternity for accepting as ‘part of the job.’ Most British films are characterized by a dearth of silicone and other cosmetic enhancements, minimal make-up, and plenty of real acting. The close-ups also reveal the inner soul of the characters and quite honestly, the internal life and drama of each person portrayed is so interesting, so much a raging tempest of emotional turmoil that one can do without the apparent lack of plot. Aren’t most of our lives like that? Fiction generally takes us into some unreal, often outrageous places and situations. It’s as if we need it to escape the dull humdrum existence that is life. Yet, somehow Another Year is like peering into a microscope at some seemingly insignificant leaf or drop of water, and seeing life teeming there. It seems that we are so blind to the beautiful simplicity of life as it really is that we need high drama and roller-coaster action to make a dent in our consciousness.

Writers, alas, have to work harder than directors or filmmakers. The human eye sees more in one image than we can say in a single word. Isn't a picture worth a thousand words? We have to work harder to ignite the imagination of the reader. Yet the joy and beauty of the printed page is that each reader will create a different image in their mind of what they just read. Each moment of the book will be unique to the people who turn those pages. Now that's creativity!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Book Review:The 19th Element

A murder, a suspect, a nuclear plant with a spent fuel reactor that no one wants to discuss, potassium, a terrorist plot and two stolen truckloads of fertilizer … plus a couple of Mongolian goons makes for a thrilling race-against-time plot. The man to tie up the loose ends and resolve the case is none other than James “Beck” Becker, a former elite U.S. government intelligence operative who has retired to his childhood hometown of Red Wing, Minnesota, just six miles down the Mississippi from the Prairie River nuclear facility. The 19th Element makes for a thrilling read.

When the body of a University professor of agronomy turns up on the Mississippi River bank, Beck suspects foul play of a terrorist kind. His instinct tells him there is a connection between the victim and his missing lab assistant Farris Ahmed, an international cell phone call and a stolen fertilizer truck, but no one believes him. After all, who could take seriously his suspicions of a potassium bomb attack on a nuclear plant facility? The local police, the FBI and the nuclear plant security scoff at his ideas until things start rolling and it looks as if there is only one way things will end … in disaster. In fact Beck is not wrong. Al Qaeda plans to attack Minnesota’s Prairie River Power Plant as a means to restore the organization’s fading reputation to international prominence. It is indeed a motley crew that Beck finds himself up against: Al Qaeda has struggled to get Arab operatives into the nuclear facility and has resorted to using homegrown anarchists and a Three Mile Island survivor with a pathological vendetta against the nuclear establishment.

The author has established a likeable character in James Becker, one who has appeared in a previous novel and will no doubt feature in future political thrillers. By handling much of the narration, Beck’s character imbues the novel with his own style and personality. Beck is laid-back, with a dry sense of humor and an unerring instinct for danger. He trusts his gut and so do his friends, namely Ottawa County’s Chief Deputy Sheriff, Doug Gunderson, aka “Gunner” and Terry Red Feather, a full-blooded Mdewakanton Dakota American Indian, aka “Bull.” This book is an excellent read, with the author managing to steer the untutored reader through a maze of technical details about nuclear power and potassium bombs without losing attention. My one criticism would be that the story slows down in the middle with the author “telling” rather than “showing” but speeds up to a satisfying and thrilling climax. An interesting snippet is the fact that potassium is the chemical element with the symbol K (Neo-Latin kalium) and atomic number 19, hence the title of this book.

First reviewed for