A writer’s purpose

July 22, 2014

Finding your purpose in life can be complicated. It is also, in my experience, a journey often without end. Just when you think you have it, the meaning eludes your grasp.

When I entered university (“college”) at age 18, I thought that I wanted to be a famous novelist.  That’s what many of us wanted back then.  (Later it was famous film directors; then great IT entrepreneurs.)

In my first semester at university, I took an English literature course entitled, “Youth and Age in Love and War”.  Big mistake.  It was the best way to turn me away from literature, which I had, to that point, so loved.  It was dense, analytical, and certainly not fun.  Not just that course, really, but often the academic study of literature – guaranteed to stifle creativity.

So I ended up taking a different path (the subject of a separate post, another time).

But what of life’s meaning for those who write fiction for a living?  Many novelists have attuned with their times, somehow capturing and giving meaning to our age through their writing.  Think of George Orwell’s 1984, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 or many books by Kurt Vonnegut on the futility of war.  (Yes, these are all male; forgive this time.)  It may be about tapping into the “collective unconscious”.

But writing, that most solitary of occupations, can also be the antithesis of a meaningful life.  Think of all of those hours spent alone, scratching your imagination.  Is the writer engaging with the world and helping it, or just hiding out, avoiding the rest of us?

One of the latest additions to a meaningful life through fiction is John Green, self-described “nerdfighter”, successful video blogger and – most notably, young adult novelist of books including Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars, which has been adapted into a very popular movie (US$240+ million international box office).

It has two very appealing young stars in the lead roles:  Shailene Woodley is especially good as Hazel; her scenes with Ansel Elgort (Augustus – “Gus”) are both totally convincing and very effective.  The film may mostly appeal to young women, but the screening I was at seemed to be split 50-50 male/female.  And sure, almost all of the men in the film – save one – are sensitive, but it neatly balances the genders of the characters.

In the June 9, 2014 issue of The New Yorker, correspondent Margaret Talbot has written a fascinating profile of Green (“The Teen Whisperer”).  As Talbot writes, Green displays “a youthfully insatiable appetite for big questions:  What is an honorable life?  How do we wrest meaning from the unexpected death of someone close to us?  What do we do when we realize that we’re not as special as we thought we were?”

She quotes Green about teenagers:

I love the intensity teen-agers bring not just to first love but also to the first time you’re grappling with grief, at least as a sovereign being—the first time you’re taking on why people suffer and whether there’s meaning in life, and whether meaning is constructed or derived.  Teen-agers feel that what you conclude about those questions is going to matter.  And they’re dead right.  It matters for adults, too, but we’ve almost taken too much power away from ourselves.  We don’t acknowledge on a daily basis how much it matters.

Green has created connections with his fans in engaging ways that few contemporary writers do (actually, few in any age, now or in the past).  According to the Talbot article, when The Fault in Our Stars was first published, “Green did extra credit” in promotion:  he signed all 150,000 copies of the first (presumably American) edition of the book.  It “took ten weeks and necessitated physical therapy for his shoulder”.  Is this a first for author devotion in American publishing?  Or publishing anywhere?

A number of times each month, Green talks on the phone with young people with cancer.  And every few months he holds a Skype videoconference with sick young people.  Talbot’s description of observing his Skype session with the teens was eerily and oddly reminiscent of Hazel and Gus going to Amsterdam to ask the “big questions” of Peter van Houten (played by Willem Dafoe in the film):  what about the distances between sick and well people; did he consider a different ending?  But unlike the character of van Houten, Green answered the questions thoughtfully, honestly and delicately.  This is a man who on the inside is pretty much the same as the outside.

No disconnection with the audience here (just the opposite), and lots of meaning.  If you were a young person who had survived – or was going through cancer or any other big illness – I fully believe that this book and the film adaptation could easily become your lodestar.  Green “gets it”.  According to Talbot, at the conclusion of Green’s videoconference with young people with cancer, Green put his head down on the table and wept.  This is not manufactured meaning, but a form of reader engagement almost unparalleled in our time.  Worthy of note.

The fault in our stars film poster


Young women and the dystopian future on film: The Hunger Games – Catching Fire and How I Live Now

December 8, 2013

It seems to be some sort of obscure Hollywood law:  by some strange turn of our collective unconscious, two films with virtually identical themes are released at the same time.

The latest proof of this theorem is the almost simultaneous openings of “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” and “How I Live Now”, both of them futuristic dystopian films with reluctant female heroes.

This is not a case of shared screenwriter dreams, as I wrote a year ago, comparing “The Sessions” and “The Intouchables”, as well as eight other “paired” films. Both of these new films arise from popular books – “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins (published 2009), and “How I Live Now” by Meg Rosoff (published 2004).  Both are “young adult novels” and take a traditional male-style action story, turning it into one aimed at young women.

I adored this second film of “The Hunger Games” (Jennifer Lawrence is a true star and I look forward to following her career for years to come), although “Catching Fire” did not have the same elements of surprise that the first film had.  It’s a crowd-pleaser and I am not surprised at its worldwide success (see below).

Of the two books, Rosoff’s is much better literature (it won a swag of awards).  But in many ways, the film version of “How I Live Now” is actually a superior movie to Hunger Games 2.  Dramatically, it is understated, and use of “off-screen action” makes for a chilling drama.

The plot in brief: Daisy, a young American woman (played by Saoirse Ronan) travels to Britain to spend the summer with her aunt and first cousins.  Her mother is dead, and she is increasingly estranged from her father, who has remarried and has a new child.  Her arrival at the British airport is filled with scenes of high security – a bit like all major airports now, but just more so, more tense, more guns.  Young Daisy seems unaware of all of this, and is picked up by one of her young cousins, who parks illegally outside the airport (an indication of things to come).  When she arrives are the country house, she finds her cousins living a carefree life while their mother (the aunt) is mostly away travelling on what appears to be international relations peace business.  Many small things foreshadow something big coming, but Daisy – slowly falling in love with her oldest cousin (George Mackay) – misses all the cues.

One day, when the cousins are all swimming while their mother/aunt is travelling, they experience what turns out to be a nuclear blast at London many miles away.  And here is where the film truly comes into its own – we do not see the devastation of “tens or hundreds of thousands”, but we see the fierce wind, hear the dull but immense blast and then watch the gray dust.  After a short delay, despite their mother’s absence, the cousins regain their good humour … until the electricity fails and the army comes to round them up and move them out, as battles are soon to be fought in the area.  Who is the enemy?  What is the war about?  We never know.  Remember, it’s all from Daisy’s 17 year old point of view, so what is missing is equally important as what is there.

And a note to fans of the book: the film does not include the final scenes of the book, which does change the dramatic arc, leaving it much more fluid and much less settled.  Probably a good narrative choice, but I was looking forward to the epilogue.

At its best, “How I Live Now” approaches the intensity of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece “The Road”. (Even now, almost four years later, both the book and the film – directed by John Hillcoat – still haunt me.)  It is alternately creepy, scary and thrilling.  What a shame that fewer than 3600 people have seen “How I Live Now” here in Australia – compared to almost 2.5 million who have seen “Hunger Games 2”.

In Australia, after two weeks of release, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” had grossed a whopping Aus$24,814,266 and was still sitting in the number one box office position, playing in 578 cinemas.  By contrast, in its first week of Australian release, “How I Live Now” did not even crack the top 20 in box office – meaning that it grossed less than Aus$36,000 that week.  As of Monday 9 December, it was only playing in a few scattered cinemas around Australia at odd hours.  I could have predicted that result:  the evening session I attended at Event Cinemas Macquarie Centre had five (yes, five) patrons, including me.  By contrast, “Hunger Games” was packed.

Internationally, “The Hunger Games” set a new Thanksgiving weekend box office record in North America, and has already grossed almost US$600 million worldwide.  “How I Live Now” has grossed $60,000 in North America, and a modest – but much better – $746,000 in the United Kingdom.

There is no simple explanation for why “Hunger Games” is so popular and “How I Live Now” so forgotten.  Part of it is production budgets (sure Hunger Games is much bigger), part marketing budgets, part stardom (Lawrence), part Hollywood film versus British film, and part what is sometimes called “The Matthew Effect” – the rich get richer, and the differences between “good” and “great” can be enormous (also see my favourite author Malcolm Gladwell).

It’s a popular culture mystery not easily explained.  Seek out the film of “How I Live Now” and see what you think.  Here’s the official trailer (viewed by at least ten times more people than who have seen the film):

And an image from The Hunger Games – Catching Fire:

Hunger Games catching fire


“This is the End” film review

July 19, 2013

This film review of “This is the End” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 18 July 2013.

(Written and directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg)

The thing you have to know about the new film “This is the End” is that it’s made by twentysomething guys for twentysomething guys.  The further you fall outside this demographic, the less appealing “This is the End” is likely to be.

The set-up is part of the fun – and yes, the film is very funny, in a cerebral, gross-out, post-adolescent take-it-to-the-max kind of way.  It goes like this:  actor Jay Baruchel arrives at Los Angeles to hang out with his old friend Seth Rogen.  We realise early on that these guys are playing versions of themselves, when someone walking past asks, ”Hey, Seth Rogen, what up, man?” and another says, “You always play the same guy in every movie.  When are you going to do some acting?”

After Rogen and Baruchel go to Rogen’s house to spend the afternoon getting stoned and horsing around, Rogen convinces Baruchel to come with him to a party at James Franco’s house.  There a “who’s who” cast of the current Hollywood “brat pack” (all playing themselves) dance, take drugs and have casual sexual encounters – just the sort of thing you would expect of a Hollywood party filled with the beautiful, young, rich and famous.

Aside from Franco, proud of his fortress-like house with its modern art collection, we see African-American comic Craig Robinson, Jonah Hill, Emma Watson, Michael Cera, Rihanna, Jason Segel, David Krumholtz, Paul Rudd, Mindy Kaling, Martin Starr, Kevin Hart, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Aziz Ansari and Evan Goldberg.  We are also introduced to a number of (presumably fictional) “in-jokes”:  youthful innocent Cera is, in reality, horny, sexually aggressive and nasty; Baruchel and Rogen, childhood Canadian friends, are attempting to re-kindle their “bromance” friendship; and all of the party-goers are, without exception, fabulously self-absorbed in a “Seinfeld” type of way.

Hollywood actors are easily satirised, and “This is the End” finds many different ways to do so.  Everyone unashamedly keeps referring to their own movies:  when Jonah Hill decides to pray, he says, “Dear God, this is Jonah Hill, from ‘Moneyball’”.

After the comic introduction comes the turn to horror:  something like the apocalypse takes place, with some people beamed up to heaven in blue light, others falling into massive sinkholes and Los Angeles exploding into fire.  Only Rogen, Baruchel, Franco, Hill and Robinson remain marooned in Franco’s house, joined by comedian Danny McBride, who steadfastly refuses to play any games of being nice.

“This is the End” falls squarely into the “comedy-horror” genre with many influences, from “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Exorcist” to “Zombieland”, “Ghostbusters” and “Shaun of the Dead”, with dashes of the apocalyptic end of the world:  think “2012” and “Earthquake”.  But “This is the End” goes one step further, introducing themes from the “Book of Revelations” (the last book in New Testament), complete with horned fiery beasts; along with elements of the Christian concept of “Rapture”, as commonly used by Christian fundamentalists, especially in the USA.

These Christian themes appear odd, given that “This is the End” was co-written and co-directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, both of them Jewish – and that at least half the major characters, including Hill (born Feldstein) and Franco, are also Jewish (and in fact even Baruchel’s paternal grandfather was Jewish).  It’s hard to tell what religious points “This is the End” is trying to make.  Despite the funny monsters, the film seems to take the Christian concept of self-sacrifice seriously (it’s how you get to heaven).  There’s probably no deeper meaning in these religious symbols; they are really more of an excuse to introduce the “end of the world” action.  But I wondered.

Despite the presence of so many well-known stars, the real acting honours in “This is the End” go to Danny McBride and Craig Robinson, who both seem to inhabit their roles (such as they are) with good dramatic effect.  Rogen plays Rogen, Franco is uncharacteristically subdued and Jonah Hill is given a ridiculous “zombie possessed” scene.  Perhaps I expected too much?  If you like this sort of movie, then “This is the End” is a must-see; young people seem to love it, and it’s even funnier with a large audience.  If this genre is not your thing, give it a miss.

Rogen, Goldberg and Baruchel had apparently been thinking about “This is the End” for many years, and in 2007 they shot and released a one and a half minute trailer on YouTube entitled “Jay and Seth vs. The Apocalypse”.  The trailer is still there, with more than 655,000 views.

This is the End Franco Roget Baruchel

(Footnote:  I was asked to rate this film for the Jewish News publication, and found that terribly difficult.  I gave it 4 stars – out of 5 – for young people, but only 2 stars for the older demographic.  Thus an average of 3/5.)


MoneySmart Rookie financial literacy resources for young people go live

June 9, 2013

For the past year, I have been the project manager for ASIC’s “MoneySmart Rookie – financial literacy for young people” project and educational initiative.  A few days ago, the first of these resources went live on ASIC’s MoneySmart website, including twenty different videos and coverage of seven different topics (credit and debt, mobile phones, moving out of home, first job, first car, shopping & banking online and study).

Have a look here and find the educator resources on the MoneySmart Teaching website.

MoneySmart Rookie banner

Postscript on 19 June:

– The project was launched yesterday (18 June 2013) here in Sydney at the UTS function centre.  You read the ASIC media release here, Deputy Chair Peter Kell’s launch speech here and a news.com.au article here.

And here are the poster images of the “rookie errors” campaign aimed at young people aged (16 to 25) that accompanies the MoneySmart Rookie education initiative:

Rookie errors phone Rookie errors car Rookie errors credit Rookie errors job Rookie errors moving out Rookie errors online