30 January 2010

Travels in the land of my imagination: the forests and mountains

I live in the city, but I'm not writing about city or suburban life -- I'm writing about a land that's been partially terraformed by humans and is essentially a medieval-type landscape and society. My characters are riding around on horseback, through forests, on beaches; they live in castles and in underground homes. In my imagination, I dwell in these places while I'm writing, but it helps to remind me of what that means by researching, by visiting places that are as close to the ones in my novel as I can find.

Perhaps one of the most famous writers maxims is to "write what you know". To me that doesn't mean I have to write about suburban life, but that I must try to capture emotional truths. I know what it is to be frightened, to feel horror and loathing and joy and love and embarrassment. Frustration is often a parrot on my shoulder. I know these things, and I try to give them to my characters: I try to write my characters from the inside out.

Visiting forests, walking through the leaf-litter and hearing the soft pad underfoot (not so much the crackle of leaves because of the dampness), feeling the cool air lace fingers through my hair, smelling the dankness, experiencing the quiet, the sense of being alone in the world, in a world that could be medieval helps me to know my setting too, to bring it to life (I hope) for my readers.

We've just come back from a family holiday in Tasmania, where I got to inhabit quite different forests to the Victorian ones I'm more used to. Below are a few of my holiday shots, all of which could be part of my novel. They remind me of what it was like to be there, what it's like for my characters, and help me enter that place in my imagination where I do know what it's like to be a soldier or a king or any other thing I want my characters to be.

Freycinet National Park
Looking across to Freycinet
near Strahan
Dove Lake & Cradle Mountain
Enchanted Walk, Cradle Mountain National Park
En route to Cradle Mountain
En route to Cradle Mountain

23 January 2010

Contemplating the holidays' end . . .

It's that funny thing when you work in teaching that half of me wants the holidays to go on forever (who doesn't, right?), and yet the other half is excited about starting new classes with new students, wants to see how many students we'll get at enrolment, who will be in my classes.

Our course is more hands-on between year's end and beginning because we do so much work on student selection. Oh, in some ways, I envy the courses that just look at TER (Tertiary Entrance Rank). This is the least of our concerns; we do consider TERs, but only as part of a much larger package. We also get a statement of why students want to do the course, a folio of work, which we have to read and appraise, we get them in for an interview, we get them to do writing on the day, which we read and appraise, and we give them a short grammar skills test, which we then have to mark. Only when we've done all of this can we make our selections. The extra work is worth it because it helps us weed out those who won't be able to cope with the course.

But back to the end of the holidays -- the thing I love best is not having to live my life by a timetable: not having to get kids off to school, not having to be at work early to make sure I get a car spot, the more relaxed atmosphere in the house (ie not having to nag kids about homework, which I know doesn't work, but I find I can't help myself), not having to work and think when it's stinking hot. I'm less social and more family orientated in the holidays, and we do so much more. This holidays the theme has been Avatar, which I'm sure you've noticed! Last year it was "Spooks" -- we watched the first six seasons, averaging two or three episodes a day. We also do a lot of swimming. The kids play computer games, and I write. And read. I have this funny relationship with reading because I love doing it -- and really I read all the time, but not in extended bursts like I do over the holidays -- and I know I need to read lots as a writer, but I feel guilty if I sit down to read a book. It must be my mother's voice in my ear, telling me to clean up, or the writer telling me I should be writing! But in the holidays there's time to do both. (Note, I didn't say all three. My mother's voice is still in my ear!)

17 January 2010

The last post on Avatar -- I promise (I think)

A recent article I've read on Avatar is all about how some people have become depressed and suicidal after seeing the movie because the real world now seems dull in comparison. Someone even wants people to get together and start our own Na'vi tribe. Does that mean we all have to grow a metre and a half and turn blue? How bizarre. (I do note the attractiveness of the Na'vi though -- tall, slender to the extreme, muscular, large eyes . . .)

It's been interesting looking at the criticisms levelled at this film. One said they hated the film because the theme was, basically, as long as you have one US soldier with you, you'll be right. ?Another said they hated the film because it was fundamentally just another attack on the US military. Did they both see the same film?

The Vatican has given the film the thumbs down because it says Avatar turns environmentalism into neo-paganism.

The Russians (or at least a few of them) are saying that Cameron took his ideas from Russian writer Strugatsky, who came up with the planet name Pandora and a race called the Nave (Cameron of course has the Na'vi). Hmm, I have a Hell's Gate Woods in my novel, which will feature a lot in the third book, but I came up with that all on my own. I note that Hell's Gate is the main human camp in Avatar, but that doesn't mean I drew on the film. I had this name years ago. I mean, Pandora's box -- hello? Sound familiar. I did like the rather hilarious adaptation of the summary of Pocahontas though, to make it sound like Avatar. Yes, lots of similarities in the premise but the delivery is quite different. There are only so many stories around (though the number varies -- sometimes it's as few as three, sometimes in the twenties).

A science fiction site says the film is an allegory for the fight between science fiction and fantasy, and fantasy always wins because people prefer utopias over dystopias, and in the end we have our utopian happy ending. On the other hand, in the article I read about the Russians, the film was described as being anti-utopian.

The racist comments -- that the Na'vi have to be saved by a white American male, I think are silly. I mean couldn't you also argue that the white "American" male can't become heroic until he gives up his white American ways -- until he abandons what most of his people stand for? (It's not black and white enough to say "his people" because the scientists do not embrace the corporate greed but the quest for knowledge.) And it wouldn't be "racist" as much as "speciesist" -- we are not the same race as the Na'vi. (And, remember, all of humanity is one race.)

One thing I've loved reading is a comparison of the original script and the final script. In the original, Tsu'tey lives but has had his queue cut off so can't commune with nature anymore, ride any beasts, or even mate. He begs Jake to kill him, and Jake does. I'm rather glad this was cut -- I'm not sure about the message behind that: that man who has escaped (rather than overcome, I suppose) his disability kills one who has become disabled because he understands the frustrations? Hasn't Jake found something worthwhile to do with his life? Mightn't Tsu'tey? I hope they do bring him back. I thought he was a great character -- he delivered one of the most moving moments for me, when he finally agrees to fly with his long-standing adversary who has now exceeded anything he (Tsu'tey) has ever dreamed of achieving. I could imagine all sorts of potential conflicts about leadership if he's around. Also, if he were to have broken his back or suffered the loss of his queue, there's lots of conflict potential there too, both for him or Jake. (But please don't have Jake kill him! Jake might stop other clan members from doing this or fail to stop them and then have to deal with his own demons.)

Having seen it multiple times, I can't tell you how many people I've overheard saying, "That is the best film I have ever seen!". It was about my third go when I decided that. People can criticise the plot and characters all that they are like: the bottom line is that this film is moving a lot of people. Part of it may be the special effects, but I think it's more than that -- I think that this is a film that has a great heart beating beneath the spectacle. It has great heart.

11 January 2010

A short one on Avatar

Yeah, enough already, I hear you say.

Just a quick thought -- I've been following the box office success of Avatar and noted in the lists of SF movies, District 9, which I saw earlier this year. I saw this movie twice -- because it was interesting, and I wanted to think more about it. But it was so ugly -- perhaps the ugliest movie I have ever seen. Twice was enough. Not sure I'll buy it on DVD. Maybe, when it's cheap. In comparison, Avatar is probably the most beautiful movie I have ever seen. I've told The Gadget Man that once it's out on DVD we're buying a home theatre system. (Similarly, when Gladiator came out, I bought the DVD even though we didn't have a player. When TGM pointed that out, I said that, yeah, we'd have to do something about that.)

05 January 2010

And another one . . . hype

My mother won't see Avatar. She hates that kind of movie, she says. I know this is true, but I'm trying to convince her to see it anyway. I think it's worth it -- I think the three-D is done so well it's a game-changing movie, much as the first talkies must have been, the first colour movies. I think it's that good. However, I've heard a few people, including a girl we took the other day, say that it gave them headaches, which is a shame. Maybe it won't be game-changing if that's the case. If they can iron that problem out, which is what I think they tried to do with the new 3D-camera, then it will be game changing. Absolutely.

As for my mother, she steadfastly refuses, and I know I'm not going to win this one. I often wonder how she can be my mother when she hates SF and I am so into it -- and Avatar conflates my two loves: science fiction that includes space ships (I love space opera) and fantasy. Yeah, there's no magic in this, but I'm talking about the feel of it, and all the bits with the Na'vi, apart from the battles with the humans, feel like fantasy.

I have other friends whose responses to this movie perplex me more than my mother's -- my friends who love science fiction, but refuse to see this one, who say it looks stupid or cartoonish. Now, to me, those Na'vi were completely real. I'm not that into animation either, but I didn't see any in this film. I was there, on Pandora: those people were as real to me as the humans in the film. I wonder if my friends' responses have anything to do with the hype. This film is getting lots of hype, even from me! I can't stop talking about it.

I've read that way back in the 1970s, James Cameron went to see Star Wars and was seriously pissed off. This was the film he should've made. And so off he went and made movies and wrote a script for his Star Wars (yes, Avatar), but which he had to shelve until a time that technology could reasonably cope with it. I too went to see Star Wars, but a bit reluctantly -- because of all the hype! My brother had seen it and said it wasn't that good, and I remember going with a few friends and warning them about what my brother had said. They all said they'd heard it was fantastic. Somewhere in the movie, probably in the first thirty seconds, I went from doubting to loving it, and they went the other way. They were all lukewarm when they came out, whereas I was raving. I went back to my brother and said, "What about this . . . ?" and "What about that . . . ?" and he kept saying, yeah, that he'd forgotten that had happened. By the time I'd finished, he was as convinced (or almost as convinced) as I was that it was the best movie ever. I couldn't get enough of it and saw it more than thirty times in the cinema. (Admittedly, in those days, films weren't on in as many cinemas and had longer runs. Star Wars ran for over a year, something impossible to imagine for any contemporary movie.) The hype had put me off initially, but once I'd seen it I was on the bandwagon. Star Wars was unlike anything I had ever seen, and the battle to destroy the Death Star had me on the edge of my seat, in a way very few movies have (in fact the only other movie that did this to me was Gladiator, in Maximus's first contest at the Coliseum.)

There have been several other movies along the way that I've seen many many times, though none quite that many. There's finally a movie I could see that many times, if time allows. For me, Cameron's quest to make his own Star Wars has been a success. This is the first movie that has excited me to the same degree. (These days, however, I prefer The empire strikes back to what is now known as A new hope. But I didn't at the time. I like that there's a lot more character development in Empire, but at the time, notwithstanding that blood-chilling moment when I first discovered Darth Vader was Luke's father, I was disappointed in the ending as it felt unfinished. Because it was. It was much more part of a trilogy than stand-alone, whereas Star Wars did stand alone.

My other really major movies:
  • Alien -- I saw the opening session in Melbourne and was completely freaked out. I have never been more frightened than I was seeing that movie, and seeing it over and over in no way diminished the fear.
  • Battlestar Galactica -- yes, it had a cinema release, and I went about seven times, then had to content myself with seeing it on TV. While it wasn't quite a Star Wars in terms of movie experiences it still held me captive.
  • Excalibur -- the film that turned me from science fiction geek to fantasy geek. I have loved everything Arthurian ever since, though these days have moved away from wanting to write my own King Arthur novel, maybe because I'm addressing aspects of this story in my own -- just things like the triangle of lovers, which is a stalwart in fiction, anyway.
  • The right stuff -- my goodness this was an amusing movie (even though many others didn't seem to notice). Very, very clever. And tapped right into my love of rocketry. Yeah, rockets make me go all gooey. Nothing phallic in that, I assure you.
  • Capricorn One -- did I say that rockets make me go all gooey? Yeah, so does all that NASA chatter -- "We have Outboard Engine cut off." "Roger that, OBECO at ten minutes after the hour . . ." (It's cool to be a nerd these days, right?)
  • Gladiator -- completely swept me up, the politics, the unfairness of it all. And, as I've said, the first film since Star Wars to have me literally on the edge of my seat. (Alien had me jumping out of it!)
  • Lord of the rings trilogy (especially The Two Towers). I'm not sure I needed all the endings in the last film, and there could never be too much Aragorn, but these were beautifully realised films, and I loved them. Love them.
  • Avatar -- yeah, but I think you've gathered that already.
Which brings me back to my mum. When Star Wars came out, I argued and argued to get her to see it and eventually succeeded. She slept through the first half. Was asleep (it was a hot day, and we were on holidays) before the movie even started -- though how anyone can sleep through all those explosions is beyond me. By the time she woke up, she had no idea what was going on and so declared the movie stupid. I tried to get her to see it again, but failed. And so not even Star Wars was able to change her mind. I know if I get her to Avatar she'll hate it, but I still think she should see it and see if we can maybe expand her boundaries a little bit. Maybe I'm just crazy?

01 January 2010

More on Avatar: three similarities to Titanic

Yes, I know I've already done a post on Avatar, but it's still very much in my mind at the moment (probably because I keep going to see it), so you might just have to put up with this for a while.

I know that Avatar has more in common with Aliens than it does with Titanic, but there are three notable similarities between Cameron's last two blockbusters, aside from the one piece of music that always sets me to thinking that the ship's about to hit an iceberg (it's in "Scorched earth" for anyone who has the soundtrack).

(i) the defining image. Both films have one image, above all for me, that encapsulates the unfolding disaster and that will forever remain in my memory. Both images do not include any of the main characters from the film, but are absolutely striking and absolutely beautiful, yet convey a real sense of horror. In Titanic, it is the image of a drowned girl or woman, splayed out underwater, her dress moving gently about her. In Avatar, it is the image of a pa'li (or direhorse if you prefer the English) on fire and galloping through the burning forest. Neytiri is observing this, but she's not in the frame. This is a nightmare image, yet slow-mo turns it into one of strange and compelling beauty. Beautiful and terrible at once.

(ii) in both movies, one of the main characters (two in Avatar) is (are) bound and trapped as the disaster unfolds all around. In both cases, neither really deserves to be there. Jack is handcuffed below decks for stealing a necklace, when in fact he has been framed. Jake is tied up -- for what exactly? I think it has more to do with Eytucan's being angry that Jake has distressed his daughter, and a general anger at the skypeople than anything Jake has done personally. Unless it is just a case of wanting to shoot the messenger? Or because he has withheld information that he wouldn't have been allowed to deliver and wouldn't have been believed? He has, in fact, betrayed them through his reports, but they don't know that. (And for him it wasn't a deliberate betrayal. I imagine he had forgotten, if he were ever aware, that Quaritch was looking at these as well has his official reports, which had become a lot more guarded.) In both movies, someone has to rescue the main character rather than their being able to get themselves out of trouble.

(iii) something big falls! Yeah, this is kind of obvious, I know, but it still leapt out at me -- hometree almost trembling in the air, as did Titanic, then canting sideways and going down -- both achieving the same kind of "splash". Maybe it's just the cinematography -- not sure -- maybe it's just that it is the same type of event!

Post script: For the record I'm an Alien (Ridley Scott) rather than Aliens (James Cameron) girl -- much prefer the suspense than the action-shoot-'em-up kinda thing in those two, and yet here I am absolutely loving Avatar . . .