It took me a little while to find my direction this month. Truth be told, I felt compelled to select a theme, to tie it to the month. February had set a thematic precedent and my brain didn’t want to let go of it. Even now, after several drafting attempts, I’m still struggling to bridge that gap, ease the transition. And so - welcome to March.
Sideways, do I love the film Sideways! I dream of perching on a bar stool beside Paul Giamatti’s Miles, accepting a glass of his choice of red, watching the bartender, relieved of the expectation that eye contact is a social imperative and just passing the evening by. Two mildly depressive souls floating along in the introverted stream of life...where mistakes, frustrations and shrewd insight comingle and the dust of some dry misanthropic vibe settles over us.
I mean, what a film! It doesn’t bother me that Miles is a middle-aged man with a paunch and beard. My mind pole vaults right over that fact and lands slap bang in the midst of his emotional disenchantment. I splash around merrily, always eagerly anticipating the awesome scene where Sandra Oh’s Stephanie goes what can only be termed batshit (just watch it). Watching Oh fiercely swing that motorcycle helmet makes me want to trade high fives with her!
I’ve always been a large fan of watching explosive emotions. Take, for instance, August: Osage County, adapted from his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play by the dramatist Tracy Letts. Set during a baking hot Oklahoma summer, a family gathers, angst agitates at the surface, tensions simmer, tempers boil over. I’ve definitely got a thing for watching arguments on screen.
I first encountered the term catharsis aged 15. There was a school trip to see Willy Russell’s magnificent Blood Brothers; for homework we had to prepare a review to read in class. I can’t remember exactly how, but during an undoubtedly intense and excited conversation with my mum, the dictionary was consulted and this strange and beautiful word was matched to the feelings I had experienced: ca-thar-sis - an absolute humdinger of a word!
Of course, if you take a moment to consider what catharsis is it clearly requires – how best to phrase this - a degree of emotional literacy. When I reflect on my life so far, I see that the childhood bookworm has segued into a grown-up who seeks refuge in films. I understand how, when the challenge posed by university got too much, I utterly rejected all I had held dear – literature – and pursued linguistics, the science of language, horribly determined to make sense of social interactions that I struggled to participate in. Yet now, I appreciate I have gone full circle: when life’s challenges are too much, my preferred choice is solitary retreat into the world of film - artfully constructed make-believe - in order to escape the confusions of reality and live vicariously through the characters whose lives invite me in.
However, I’m not exclusively a negative feelings fangirl. Let’s take Clueless: inspired by Jane Austen’s Emma, writer-director Amy Heckerling created a truly trailblazing, sunshine-splashed, box office-seizing classic of a film. I have always adored Clueless for its warmth and wit, for the way Paul Rudd’s ever youthful face questions, with affection and wry humour, the strange ways Alicia Silverstone’s Cher approaches the myriad complexities of teen life. Yet my appreciation intensified when I learnt a little more of Heckerling’s intentions: a self-professed ‘loner and weirdo’, she has always been aware of her own otherness, and constructed a hyper-optimistic microcosm where she could play with the opposites of her own emotional life. Words cannot express the admiration I have for that. Confessing to envy is the only decent course of action.
And of course, there’s Amelie. The chocolate-eyed, gamine beauty of Audrey Tautou complete with her rather clompy choice in footwear represents the perfect image of a lifelong oddball loner, absorbed within the hustle-bustle of storybook Paris, taking pleasure in secretive little tasks to surprise and please neighbours (albeit resting alongside slightly morally askew amusements) which are, in a way, a foreshadowing of the current trend for random moments of kindness. Amelie doesn’t appear to have friends, she works as a waitress where her preferred pastime appears to be people watching, and yet…yet, she finds love, with Mathieu Kassovitz’s Nino (which strikes me as the most superlative casting - here is the man who, six years earlier, had written and directed La Haine, and now voila, the perfect romantic lead).
So it is that films are very literal escapism for me, existing so that I can pause reality. The combination of moving image, dialogue, music, acts as a welcoming wave of sensory intervention. As I physically rest, my mind’s focus is distracted by the narrative on screen, it keenly feels the anger, the joy, the passion, the heartbreak. Yet, I am safe from it…I do not need to respond to these feelings, my role is purely to observe. Thus, at the most challenging times, when mental exhaustion has set in, I know the duration of a decent film will act as an emotional purge, sweeping up and expelling the unprocessed remnants which clutter my mind, a mental re-boot. As the credits roll, I begin to step tentatively back towards reality, meeting once more the challenges put on hold, but with greater energy and clarity.
The book should ideally be read before the film. On several significant occasions I have flouted my own strict rule, most notably: 1) The Dancer Upstairs by Nicholas Shakespeare (it was accidental!) 2) Persuasion by Jane Austen, which was entirely intentional. At one point my feelings for Austen were lukewarm, but my enthusiasm for the pairing of Sally Hawkins and Rupert Penry Jones was decidedly warmer.
As a general rule, I cannot do Marvel stuff. My mind constantly calls out: but that’s not real! How did they do that? The incessant curiosity about the SFX does not stop. It’s a similar story for Lord of the Rings – I want to enjoy it, I enjoyed the prose, yet…my mind demands: how did they create all those teeny tiny marauding armies? None of it’s real…! Ultimately, it’s a tiring distraction.
Lastly, as a child I was that child that read all the credits aloud. It was compulsive reading material.
Zoe Vail Smith
Zoe is Mainspring Arts' resident monthly blogger. She hails from London and was diagnosed with Asperger's in 2014.