I’ve seen three movies in the past week or so, and I learned something about myself and writing.
I’ve had a fairly long stretch of vacation this holiday season. Work normally closes down for the week between Christmas and New Year’s, and this year, since both holidays fell on a Wednesday, we were off from Dec. 20 to Jan. 2. Add a couple of days of vacation on both sides, and it comes close to about three weeks. Although, these days, in 21st century America, the idea of vacation is better described as “work-release program.”
We’ve done some fun things. We watched a fireworks display in our local suburb. We went to the “Garden Glow” at the Missouri Botanical Gardens, some 18 displays of lights around very familiar parts of the gardens. And we watched three movies, with one more to go (The Hobbit, Part 2).
We saw Philomena, starring Judi Dench as a woman in her 70s who some 50 years before had been forced to give up her child for adoption. And she wants to find him. So she enlists the help of an unemployed journalist (played by Steve Coogan), and through the story of finding a son we learn much about what motivates her and what motivates the journalist, and how both are trying to make sense of their lives. It’s based on a true story.
As I watched it, and considered it afterward, I realized that’s often what we writers do – write to make sense of something – our lives, our childhood, a traumatic event.
And then we saw the critically acclaimed Inside Llewyn Davis, by the critically acclaimed Coen Brothers. Yes, I used “critically acclaimed” twice. I found it a depressing movie. I understand why the critics like it. Set in the Greenwich Village folk music scene of the early 1960s, it’s loosely based on a true story, and it’s a story of how a folk singer fails. He keeps doing the same things over and over again, and he’s generally unaware that he’s doing that.
As depressing as I found it, I did learn something from it, and that is that how you treat people is a manifestation of your personality and perhaps your history. I also learned that repeating the same mistakes over and over will not result in success.
And then we saw Saving Mr. Banks, the story of how Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) convinced the writer P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to let him produce Mary Poppins (also based on a true story). Mixing flashbacks in her life in rural Australia from 50 years before with the trials and tribulations of writing the movie script, we gradually come to understand why she wrote the books, and why it was so difficult for her to allow the filming.
One key line is a scene with the writers, when Travers says that Mary Poppins “didn’t come to save the children.” By that time, we suspect who it was that Mary Poppins actually came to save, and it wasn’t Mr. Banks. Not really. It was the writer herself.
I don’t know if it’s a theme in movies this year or not, or if these are the movies I’m attracted to, but all three are based on true stories, all three are about the act of creation, and all three are about redemption and forgiveness (or the lack of it). All three reminded me of what I do in my own writing.
Something unexpected happened for me. It wasn’t until I saw Saving Mr. Banks that I understood why I’ve written two novels, and a slew of related manuscripts behind them. I understood the “how” of writing them, how they came to be, and I’ve talked about that quite a bit on this blog and in several interviews. But it was the movie that helped me see the why.
Those two novels, with stories and characters so completely unlike my own experience, are me making sense of my childhood and young adult life. They’re about the people I grew up with. They’re about what failed and what succeeded. And they’re about seeking redemption and forgiveness.
It’s not a completely comfortable understanding. But it is a good one to begin a new year with.
Photograph: A scene from the movie Saving Mr. Banks.