Sunday, April 27, 2008

“Mediocrities everywhere... I absolve you.” - Amadeus

I rewatched "Amadeus" again and I've got to say, it is still in my short list of all time great films. So much of the movie works so well, not only to convey an interesting story, but to create such a great character as Salieri and to delve into so many different themes. In addition, the DVD version contains the director's cut, which adds a couple new scenes and fleshes a few more out. Most of the added footage actually enhances the movies and it's themes. This is the way a director's cut should be (for another great director's cut, check out Ridley Scott's "Kingdom of Heaven").

One of the themes of this film deals with mediocrity, something that Salieri is striving to avoid. He's a good composer, but he never seems to be able to achieve anything "great". Instead of accepting his limitations, or working to improve them, he lets his jealousy of a musical genius, Mozart, drive him to become a despicable nasty human being.

This is something I think all artists struggle with. As a writer I can admire the skills and success of Stephen King, J.K. Rowling or Neil Gaiman. I can dream of becoming as big a hit as they are. I can set them up as my goal, or at least learn from their stories. What I don't want to do is become Salieri. But in the back of my mind I might wonder, "Why do I have this desire to be great, if I don't have that level of talent?"

Of course Salieri is also convinced that a higher power is attempting to stifle his pursuit of happiness. I know a lot of writers who believe in the power of luck and feel that being in the right place at the right time has a lot more power then actual talent. I guess that if you are bent on success in the publishing industry, that could be a solid observation. But personal success, or at least feeling good about your writing should be something we strive for as well. Can we be happy with being the best writer we can be? Do we have to be the most successful writer we can be? Are they tied?

Maybe the key is to accept your skills, hone them, keep trying and enjoy your life and your writing. This is one of the main things that Salieri never grasps. He's so jealous and bitter he doesn't enjoy the riches he has, the fame he obtains, and the admiration of others. He is a popular composer, one who has the ear of the Austrian Emperor - but he doesn't care. He wants to be something he can not and it destroys him.

Do you think mediocrity is a demon to be feared? Is there line between admiring a famous artist and coveting their skill? What did you think of "Amadeus"?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Just how epic is an epic? - World Without End

I first read Ken Follett's "Pillars of the Earth" back in the early 90's. I enjoy historical fiction and I was very interested in medieval history, so the book was right up my alley. I found the stories of the Kingsbridge priory and the surrounding village fascinating. I loved the way Follett wove the lives of his fictional characters with the lives of historical figures. In addition Follett's interest in medieval architecture was very apparent and the book provided insight into how cathedrals were built back in the 1100's. I found the book to be a great read and i was one of the first epic novels I actually finished.

When I heard that Follett was returning toe Kingsbridge in his next book "World Without End" I was excited. He jumps ahead to the 1300's, famous for the 100 years war and the black plague. In this book Follett focuses more on his fictional characters, pulling the reader into their world, their strife, and their triumphs. At times some of the plot twists seem a bit over the top (how many times can that many horrible things happen to one person), but it works to keep you reading just to see how these resourceful characters will get out of it. With a story spanning about 30 years in the lives of at least four main characters, you've got a rich mine of plot, tragedy and triumph to dig through. I enjoyed it as much as I did the previous book.

While I was reading this book I studied the structure of it. How did Follett weave these stories together and keep them moving and the reader reading at the same time? There were constant perils in medieval England and this offers Follett plenty of obstacles to throw in front of his characters. He uses natural forces, human weakness, politics, superstition and just plain bad luck to keep the story moving. In addition he creates characters that are interesting and keeps them interesting as the story goes along. Sometimes you know just how a character will react to a situation, but Follett's keeps you off balance by introducing an element you didn't suspect.

One of the most interesting parts of the book from a writers stand point is the first section dealing with our main characters as children at the fleece fair. This mini adventure introduces all our lead characters, puts them under stress so you get to see their true colors and introduces a plot point that will have ramifications throughout the novel. In a way it seems obvious to start with the characters when they are children, but this also feeds into plotting. Follett's first section gives you enough information to be interested in the characters, have an idea of what life in the 1300s in England was like and plant the seed of a mystery that will continue to pop up in the novel. A very solid start to an epic.

What are your favorite epic novels? How did they begin? Are they steady page turners or slower and more immersive? Have you read "Pillars of the Earth" and/or "World Without End"?

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Struggling to find the words - Mishima

I recently watched a fascinating film about a famous Japanese author: Mishima. Fans of films that are more on the artistic side and that are subtitled should seek this movie out. it’s got great acting, superb camera work and an interesting story.

The movie attempts to show you a full picture of this writer, by showing you his biography (shot in black and white), scenes from his stories (in a vivid surreal color) and the final day of his life (shot documentary style). These elements are interwoven and set into four pieces each dealing with a different theme: beauty, art, action and the combination of the three.

One element of the movie struck me. Mishima was obsessed with words and using the correct words to express himself in the purest way possible. For him beauty was purity. Beauty could be represented in art. Therefore art had to be pure, and the more pure the art the more beautiful it was. Unfortunately he began to struggle with his writing, finding it harder and harder to achieve his goal of purity.

Now Mishima comes across like a writer who wants to create art. Most of us just want to tell stories and have people read them. However, I also think that each writer has a bit inside that wants to create something lasting. Maybe for something to last, it has to be beautiful and pure.

In the current world of publishing, writing is a business. There is little room for art and beauty. Most of the time, something is beautiful because it is different and new. Different and new doesn’t sell books. However most writers still feel the thrill of creation, the action of writing to make a story come to life. That gives us the thrill.

What do you think of art and beauty in writing? Is it something that writers should aspire to, or is it something that can only be done in personal writing? Or is telling stories an art that is not as appreciated as it could be?