Thursday, June 10, 2010

Day 63: Snowmen

Sometimes, I get so excited about what I want to write about that I get in front of myself as I “hen and peck” at the keyboard (I stole that description of typing from the screenplay of Seven), thoughts tumbling out of my noggin too quickly. This is one of those occasions.

The night before last, I attended a Sydney Film Festival screening of the documentary, The Snowman. Rather than me tell you what I think the film is about, I’ll leave it to the mini synopsis of the filmmakers:

“In 1978, Jimmy Graham went to Antarctica with Operation Deepfreeze to train scientists in survival skills on the ice. He left in December of that year. Three months later he arrived back agitated and paranoid. He said that he had stumbled onto an illegal American nuclear site and that the CIA had given him a chemical lobotomy. He descended into madness. Unable to cope with his frightening behaviour, his wife fled with their two children. Now, thirty years later, his daughter Juliet will try to uncover the truth and reconnect with what’s left of the man she called her father.”

Let me confess up front that I know Juliet (Lamont), who is not only the part of the subject matter of this film but also the director of the movie.

I’m not here to review the film, that’s not my schtick, but I’ll certainly praise it and recommend that you keep an eye out for it when it hits a festival or gets a general release near wherever you are. It’s an unflinching film, the director who, in my screenwriters’ opinion, is also the protagonist of this story doesn’t blink but stares down the subject matter, which, at times is excruciatingly hard to watch (I mean that in the context of admiration).

Walking home from the film - it’s winter here in Sydney - I couldn’t help but reflect on another film called The Snowman, something completely different, but in many respects similar: both have children as the protagonist and ephemeral men as the object of their love and curiosity.

Raymond Briggs wrote his children’s book, The Snowman, in 1978, four years later it was turned into a 26-minute animated movie by Dianne Jackson and was famously screened on Christmas Eve of that year on the newly minted, irreverent and iconoclastic British TV station, Channel 4 (it was a very different and very inspiring channel back then). The film was nominated for an Academy Award in the Short Film category of the same year and has been part of the UK’s Christmas culture ever since. It’s delightful.

In that version of the snowman story, a young boy - James - builds a snowman one winter’s day, who comes to life on the stroke of midnight and takes the child flying, hand-in-hand over the snowy fields of the countryside and even out over Brighton seafront. They journey on to the aurora borealis and to a forest where they meet Father Christmas. James is given a scarf with a snowman pattern on it, before returning home. When the sun rises the next day, the boy discovers that his friend has melted and, wondering if it were all but a dream, finds the scarf to know that it wasn’t.

Another child looking for a man who is and isn’t there. One has a scarf, the other, photographs and memories but are either enough to suffice when the chill of the north wind blows? I hope so.

Day #63 Tip: “Boldness has genius power and magic in it.”
My tales today, seem more about the temporary nature of things and life, which is more pertinent to the medium of the theatre than film. Apart from celluloid disintegration, film is more or less permanent. If there’s something that I really like about the theatre, it’s the empty space (with a nod to Peter Brook) that is transformed by performers and a text/play/plan /blueprint or some catalyst that is the piece to be performed. My idea of directing a play these days would be to pick a great text - something by Chekhov, Ibsen or Arthur Miller maybe - cast it well, throw seven or eight copies of the play into the rehearsal room with the actors and come back four weeks later.

But, thinking back to Juliet’s documentary, the lasting memory that I have, and it’s an incredibly visceral memory at that, is of her fearlessness to place herself in the roller coaster car that went hurtling into the sacred cow (or elephant in the room) material at the heart of her family. There’s a biography of The Doors and Jim Morrison called No One Gets Outta Here Alive and in the final scene of The Snowman which brings her estranged family together, it felt like a very personal version of that.

I like courage and bravery, I like people who face a challenge and stare it down; I once heard that described as the very essence of being Australian, perhaps that’s why I ended up here?

At the very moment of writing this, a siren has been singing me a sweet song, wooing me back to the world of business and it’s monetary rewards (not without a great deal of creativity being involved) and it’s tempting, very tempting to entertain the idea. At the same time, I and the director of The Snowman (I hope that she [sorry, "she's" the cat’s mother] doesn’t mind me mentioning this here) are in the early stages of collaboration on a project that I’ve been sitting on for nearly twenty years, a project that was always going to need the courage of a lion to get up. Goethe, who coined the quote about “boldness” also had this to say: “be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid”.

For us and snowmen, life is fleeting and impermanent. The storytellers I love are bold and brave enough to tell what they are impelled to tell, come what may.

As I write this a friend just called me from a correctional centre out in Western NSW where he's being held captive at Her Majesty's pleasure; he shivered as he spoke and told me that there was a light snowfall where he was....another man bravely trying to piece his life back together.

“They say a snow year’s a good year.”

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