Things I learned in Atlanta

A couple of weeks ago I travelled to America in the company of some friends of mine to attend Filmapalooza, the annual gathering of the winners of the 48 Hour Film Project (which we won last year in Edinburgh and Glasgow). It was held in Atlanta, Georgia, not a place I knew much about, but I was excited, particularly as I’d never been to America before.

The experience was a bit overwhelming and hard to summarise, so I’ve written a bunch of fairly unconnected paragraphs in the hope that together they’ll convey the whole chaotic experience better than a linear blog post could. Here goes!

airport3

I kinda hate airports. For a person with social anxiety, an airport is an obstacle course of awkwardness. There are even forfeits: if you fail to understand the instructions being barked at you at the security checkpoint, your punishment is to be felt up by some guy you don’t know. And if I didn’t have two well-travelled friends with me, the whole thing would have been much worse, as nothing about the process of checking in / checking bags / passport control / boarding is at all self-explanatory, and there is the constant sense that if you do something wrong you’ll find yourself in a lot more trouble than if you, say, knock a Fruit Corner off a shelf at Sainsbury’s.

The actual flying part is okay, except when it’s not, but most of the time it is. I don’t understand how anyone ever has the nerve to put their seat back though. I think there should be some sort of prize — maybe a cash reimbursement — for getting through the whole flight without putting your seat back, especially if the person in front of you has. Also, sometimes the plane is way too hot and they only bring round tiny cups of water every hour or so, probably to stop everyone needing to use the toilet. And whenever there’s any turbulence I quickly think back over the last day or so of my life and convince myself that this would be a dramatically appropriate point for the plane to crash and kill me. And one time I noticed this bit of the wing that was flapping up and down as if it was about to come loose. Actually, maybe flying isn’t okay.

Atlanta is pretty. Just the right amount of sleek modern city centre surrounded by picturesque suburbs sprawling off into the forest. It feels nice and, considering the high crime rate, unexpectedly not scary. I didn’t think much about the fact that anyone passing me on the street could be carrying a gun, or that there’s no universal healthcare, or that they still execute people, or that they’re considering electing a billionaire cartoon villain who frequently makes misogynistic comments and has suggested banning an entire religion from entering the country on the basis that he thinks they’re up to something. I suppose the niceness is what allows the people living there to forget these things most of the time too.

atlanta1

American people are also nice. Nice enough that I am now baffled as to where the stereotype of British politeness came from. The people I encountered in America were infinitely more polite than the grumps you meet in Britain – with the notable exception of the border control guy to whom I had to justify my existence at Atlanta airport, and who managed to make me feel like I shouldn’t be there as soon as I arrived. But border control guys aren’t technically people, so I won’t count him.

America may be nice, but here’s one thing it is not: it is NOT an enchanted land that causes me to shed all my social inhibitions the minute I set foot on its soil. As is my habit, I’d sort of fooled myself into thinking it might be, but the disappointing truth is that I am the same person even when I’m on a different continent. This meant a certain amount of standing around awkwardly at the social events I attended, particularly during the ice-breaker. And after that, a certain amount of staring out the window of a revolving restaurant rather than talking to the people I was with, and then a certain amount of staying in my room while my friends were off partying, talking to myself and trying to come to terms with the fact that this trip might not be quite the personality transplant I’d been hoping for. (That all sounds bad, but if you know me it’s actually pretty normal.)

Staying in a reasonably fancy hotel is a cool experience. If you ever get the chance to stand in front of a floor-to-ceiling window high above a nocturnal cityscape of twinkling lights, holding a drink and wearing an actual shirt with buttons and everything, you may experience the strong sense that you have finally “made it”. However, this sensation is fleeting and untrustworthy, and when you retire to the nice room you are only staying in thanks to a hefty discount, you may find yourself terrified to touch anything in case it costs you hundreds of dollars you don’t have. Seriously, they had a bottle of water with a cardboard thing around it saying “enjoy”, and it was only if you looked closely you could see it also said “$5”. After that I started looking for prices on everything. It took us several days of tentative experimentation before we discovered the Wi-Fi was actually free after all. Awkward unemployed Scots are not made for such surroundings.

Despite all that, the film festival was fun. The screenings — of ours and other people’s films — were very enjoyable, and the people I did talk to were nice and often quite complimentary about our films, which was double nice. If you’re lucky, I might do another blog post soon about my favourites of the other teams’ films, because there were too many good ones to cram in here.

cocacola1Coca-Cola World is a little pocket of brightly-coloured dystopia where any staff member who doesn’t show appropriate enthusiasm for the ubiquitous fizzy concoction is presumably taken to a back room and dissolved in a vat of it like an unfortunate tooth in a school science project. But it’s quite fun, and all the propaganda did help me remember how much I love Coke.

Zaxby’s is not a great restaurant for vegetarians. And by not great, I mean not only does it offer no substantial vegetarian options, but it also has slogans on the walls making fun of us for being sissies. The rebellious side of me felt that they’d initiated hostilities towards us, and that it would be quite within the rules for me to perform some minor act of vandalism in their restaurant that they wouldn’t discover until after I’d left. But then I found their drinks machine had raspberry Coke, so I decided they were okay. Coke is great.

Zaxby’s aside, finding vegetarian food in America wasn’t as hard as I expected – most burger places have a veggie option, and even the fried chicken place we ended up at on the last day offered the welcome option of ordering four sides in place of a main course. I won’t claim to have gained any real insight into American cuisine, since my diet both there and here consists almost entirely of bread, cheese, meat substitutes and sugar in various configurations, but I did discover that working out how much to tip is not quite the ordeal I’d been dreading. Oh, and non-alcoholic drinks aren’t an issue either, because literally everywhere has Coke. And why not? Everyone loves Coke.

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The museum at the Center for Puppetry Arts will make you happy if you like the Muppets. If you don’t like the Muppets you don’t deserve to be happy, so you should go there either way.

Six Flags Over Georgia, which we had planned as a treat for our last full day in America, turned out to still be closed for the winter. This was a bit of a downer, but on the plus side, we went to the Amazing Escape Room instead! I knew I’d like escape rooms, as they appeal to my unfulfilled childhood ambition to be a contestant on The Crystal Maze or Knightmare. And now I’ve done one (and we did escape, with over ten minutes to go, which is basically like getting over 100 gold credits after deductions in the Crystal Dome – shut up, it is!) I kinda want to do all of them. In the world. While swigging from a hip flask of Coke. I heard somewhere that Coke increases your brain power. Now where did I hear that?

Inside Out: subtlety, sadness and empathy

It’s been a few weeks since I saw Inside Out, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. This is generally a sign that it’s time to arrange my thoughts into something resembling a coherent blog post.

First off I should confess that I don’t really get films. I mean: I watch them, I (usually) understand their storylines, I recognise the hard work that goes into making them, but I just don’t have the reverence some people seem to have for the medium. As a rule I don’t sit in the cinema as the credits roll and think “now that was a great film”. But in the past, Pixar has been responsible for at least two notable exceptions to this rule (namely Finding Nemo and Wall-E – though I also liked Brave enough to write a blog about it), so I was very interested to see what they would do with the idea of personified emotions, a premise so far up my street that I practically live in it.

There will be spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the film, see it as soon as possible (assuming it’s still playing) and then come back and read this. Or just see it and don’t bother reading this, since it is a perfectly self-contained work of art, to which my blabbering will probably add very little.

Major Spoilers barks: “MAJOR SPOILERS BEGIN HERE!”

At the core of Inside Out is a question not many stories tend to ask, despite the fact that it seems fairly central to the experience of being human: what is the point of sadness? The question is posed very early on, but it’s phrased as a joke so like an idiot I didn’t notice it was actually the set-up to some of the more profound and emotional moments in the latter half of the film, where we finally realise that Joy and Sadness do not have to be enemies.

I don't know much about fair use law, but I think I'm more likely to be allowed to use this image if I say something about it. So … um, I like it. It's a good image.

I don’t know much about fair use law, but I think I’m more likely to be allowed to use this image if I say something about it. So … um, I like it. It’s a good image. Like how the film is good, only the film is even better.

This is where I think Pixar did things differently from other filmmakers who might have tried to make a film with this basic premise. Because the most obvious route, if you want to put the main character in a bad psychological place, would be to remove Joy from the control room and leave Sadness there to take the reins. But instead, Joy tries too hard to retain control and as a result both she and Sadness are exiled. In many ways this is a much better representation of what actually happens when a person is emotionally damaged, when they shut out other people, when they get depressed — whatever you want to call it. And it allows for a resolution much more complex and meaningful than in the parallel universe version of the film, where the evil Queen Sadness is finally defeated by wise and incorruptible Joy.

Another ingenious element of the film — and I’ll admit this is something that films, especially Pixar films, can do very well — is the way it creates a vocabulary, a visual language all of its own, around the concept of the memory sphere thingies. From the beginning we are taught what these look like, how they are created and stored, and what the different colours mean. Not only does this provide a lot of intelligent laughs along the way, but by the end we are primed to understand exactly and implicitly what the new, multicoloured core memory means, without the characters needing to say a word. The visual vocabulary that has been established over the course of the film is subverted in a way that conveys a new meaning, a meaning that never has to be explained in conventional terms. It’s all there in the imagery, so it bypasses the linguistic circuits of your brain and just grasps you by the heart.

But on reflection, I think the best and cleverest thing about Inside Out is how mundane the Out part is. Again, Pixar did not take the obvious route: it would have been so easy to cook up a melodramatic real world story to trigger all the fireworks in Riley’s head. But no, they keep it subtle and restrained — just a few little nudges which begin the process of her inner world absolutely falling apart.

To me, this only adds to the story’s power, because it demonstrates how seemingly trivial things can have a serious impact on a person’s psychology. Especially in fiction, people are often expected to display superhuman emotional strength, or be criticised as weak. If we didn’t see Riley’s inner world, I have no doubt that a portion of the audience would go: “oh for god’s sake, the spoilt little brat’s sulking and running away and crying just because she had to move to San Francisco?” But because of the metaphorical world so lovingly crafted by Pixar, we understand. We feel what she is feeling. The everyday trials of growing up, so easy for cynical adults to scoff at, are portrayed as heartbreaking, world-destroying — which is great, because that’s exactly how they feel to the person going through them.

So not only is Inside Out a beautiful, funny, inspiring experience from beginning to end, it has caused me to think long and hard about the purpose and potential of storytelling. I certainly can’t think of another film that creates empathy in such a unique, vivid and powerful way. And in an age that sometimes feels characterised by a horrifying lack of empathy for other human beings (see pretty much every newspaper currently being printed in the UK, the comments section of every online article and video, etc.), perhaps that’s something art should aspire to more often.

Brave new worlds

June was a bit of a slow reading month for me, so instead of doing another one of these posts, I’ll do a rollover June-July one later. For now, let’s talk about the film I saw on Saturday at the Edinburgh International Film Festival: Brave. I don’t want to be a Spoiling Sebastian, so I will talk about it in the same annoyingly abstract way I talk about my own projects.

Brave poster

This poster puts me right in the mood for further devolution from the United Kingdom!

I love Pixar but I’m always slightly scared of them. Something about their style of film – superficially kid-friendly but with themes that can penetrate all the emotional defences of their adult audiences – makes me think that at some point they’re going to snap and go really dark, killing off the entire cast of a film just to make everyone cry. (If you’ve seen Toy Story 3 you might know one of the bits that made me think that.) Did they kill off the entire cast in Brave? I’m not saying.

What I am saying is I really like it. Mostly I like it because it’s an original fairytale. This is something filmy people seem to have trouble with. I don’t know if it’s down to lack of imagination or lack of faith in ideas that haven’t been doing the rounds forever, but almost all fairytale movies seem to be based off an existing tale – whether they’re trying to subvert it in some way or playing it straight. Of course this is good sometimes; our knowledge of and attachment to existing stories can mean we’re more invested in them. But isn’t it nice to take a holiday from what we know from time to time so we can explore new stories, worlds and characters?

Up poster

Apart from anything else, Up is a great example of how Pixar can even do wacky talking animals in a clever and original way.

It’s not just fairytales of course; in every genre it’s a problem, particularly for movies. Sequels, prequels, remakes, reboots and reimaginings are so dominant that you could be forgiven for thinking every story that can ever exist has already been written, and they can only be rehashed in various forms with minor variations here and there.

Of course, it’s hard to write an entirely original story, but we can at least try. At least look like we’re trying, by not using the same exact characters with the same names, the same settings, the same plot devices. Try inventing some new characters, shuffling the tropes around a bit, adding a few wildcards. That’s what Brave does, and I appreciate it very much. It may not be as quirkily beautiful as Wall-E or as emotionally gut-punching as Up, but not much is.

On another note, I’ve heard vague mutterings that the SNP (Scottish National Party) are trying to position Brave as a sort of propaganda film for Scottish independence from the UK. As someone who paradoxically likes the SNP but hates nationalism in general, this seems a bit stupid. I enjoyed it a great deal as a story, and seeing so much Scottishness – even exaggerated Pixar-ified Scottishness – on a cinema screen was a fun novelty, but I don’t see how anyone could sensibly make the leap to thinking it’s indicative of some great Scottish spirit waiting to be freed, it being made by an American studio and all. I think people can tell the difference between fiction and reality.

But maybe I’m giving us too much credit, especially when it comes to Pixar films. I mean, the first ten minutes of Up. Jeezo.