Earlier this year I went through a weirdly despondent stage in regard to my writing. It’s probably due to a handful of factors, the main ones being that I was unemployed, bored, lonely and generally just feeling a bit hopeless about life in general. Somehow, this bled into my writing and I started to feel like I had lost something. On top of this, I was struggling with a lot of the concepts I was learning at film school and trying to reconcile what seemed to be hard and fast rules with my own feelings and experiences as a writer.
The funny thing was, while I was terrified that I had lost the ability to write, I was still writing. During this period I wrote two plays, and both are pretty reflective of my state of mind. The first, Beyond Babylon is a brutal and nihilistic piece of work about the worth of human beings who contribute nothing to society. The second, We Can Work it Out, is about the Beatles. On first glance they couldn’t be further apart, but both scripts deeply explored what I was feeling at the time. Midway through We Can Work It Out, John Lennon delivers a monologue about being terrified that he has lost a certain thrill and excitement in his art, that he no longer has what made it so magical to him. It’s probably one of the most personal and best pieces of writing I’ve ever done, and it’s in the middle of a comedy about the Beatles getting drunk and squabbling.
Lately I’ve been feeling a lot better about things, and my output of work has hardly slowed down, but I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about art, and in particular writing. What is it that makes it so special? When I sit down to watch a play/movie/TV series or read a book, what do I look for? What makes these fictional stories so important to us?
I think art serves four distinct purposes to people. The first is to be relatable; to portray feelings or situations that we as the audience recognise. There is a thrill to seeing characters on screen experiencing the same things we have, and I believe this thrill is the knowledge that we are not alone, the same feeling you get when you talk about your problems with a friend and realise you both have the same concerns. It’s knowing that there are people in the world going through exactly what you are going through, and that can make you feel safe.
The second purpose is to entertain, and this is best summed up in Martin McDonagh’s quote that a play ‘should be like a roller coaster’. This is the sole purpose of films like The Avengers, or TV shows like Banshee; to take you on a ride, to distract you and remove you from the real world. Escapism is important, I believe, which is why fiction of this nature is so popular. The third purpose, and possibly the most vague and nebulous, is to simply be beautiful. In other words, art for art’s sake. I think this applies more to paintings and music than anything, but it can also be extended to sequences I remember in movies, moments where the music and visuals and everything come together to create something breathtaking. In cinema, this is the purpose that is least likely to stand alone, although certain art-house mood piece films often attempt it. I hate those kinds of movies.
The fourth purpose is to challenge, to tell you something about the world or present a counter argument to a held belief. These are the films that make you think, the ones that are designed to leave you with a whole lot of uncomfortable questions, the films you discuss heavily when you go for a drink afterwards. For those familiar with the theatre of Bertholt Brecht, this was what he loved to do. Consequently, I think Bertholt Brecht is a painfully dull, obvious and didactic writer who dressed up political lecturing in theatre in a feeble attempt to make it more palatable to the audience. Personally, if I suspect a film only exists to tell me something, I turn it off. I don’t like people trying to wrap up an agenda in things I want to be entertained by.
The best art does all four.
Mad Men is a series in which I relate to the characters, I think about what it says about them, I marvel at the beauty of its composition and aesthetics, I am gripped by the plot and want to know what happens next. Hannibal, my favourite current TV series, does everything except give me people I really relate to, but I don’t mind because it does the other three so well. Same as something like Skins, which has nothing interesting to say about the world, yet when I was 17 it meant so much to me because I not only related to the characters, but I wanted to live their lives. Plus it was aesthetically and musically beautiful. Three out of four ain’t bad. And for the record, I’m only referring to the first couple of seasons. The rest never happened, y’hear?
So, coming back to We Can Work It Out, the closest I have ever come to writing a play about writing and what it means to me and now that is exactly what it will be. I am currently working on a new draft, one that assigns each member of the Beatles a strong belief in one of the four purposes of art. John wants to send a message, Paul wants to write music people can relate to, Ringo wants to have fun and provide distractions (the man wrote Octopus’ Garden for gods sake) and George just wants to create something beautiful. Suddenly, this script has more shape and purpose than its rather vague first draft. The conflict is more clearly defined, and just to make it really fun, we’re putting it in the hands and hearts of four of the most brilliant and interesting men who ever created art. I can’t wait to put this together. It’s going to be a great way to really explore these concepts, plus, we get to see the Beatles in a full on drunk punch up as well.
And just in case anyone had any doubts, I’ve got dibs on playing George Harrison. I’ve got the eyebrows.
Writing words about writing words.