Sunday, July 17, 2011

Changes and capers

As some of you may know, I am out of a job. The company where I worked for the last five years has been swallowed whole by the big player in the field and our offices are being closed.
This is sad for several reasons. First, because anyone could have told you it was coming from a long time back, and those of us who continued to work there were fully aware that we cut fairly pitiful figures in the modern world, shaking our pitchforks at the waves. Second, because the way the job market is at the moment, we don't even feel as though we can relax for a while and enjoy a summer of being unemployed. No, you can't do that, because now your job is looking for a job. Because recruiters now not only want all the unreasonable qualifications and the years of experience that will guarantee any job you take below Chairman of the World will bore you rigid inside six months (once you've figured out the coffee machines and how to disentangle yourself from the unwise alliances you made in your first two weeks, basically), but now they want no gaps in your CV.
This means that every second of your life that is not filled with actually working in paid employment, however menial, must be spent in upskilling or other generally improving activities. You must take courses, go to seminars and job fairs, show willing.
Guess how bothered I could be with any of that?
Instead, for the first time in my life, I took a look about me and realised that I am really very comfortable and content. I have a nice house. Two, in fact, although one of them isn't really all that nice. My husband is an excellent human who is a) gainfully employed in a successful company and b) for some reason best known only to himself, exceedingly fond of me and willing to more or less do whatever I want. We have enough money, even without my salary coming in. Sure, we'll have to pull in our nets a bit now with things like travel and presents and camera equipment, but we're in a good place.
So I'm going to write some books. Not one book, some books. But here's the problem: the books that I have decided to write are kind of thrillery, kind of romantic, kind of comedy. Capers, is what I would call them. Filled with incident and movement. The problem with this is that I'm not very good at that kind of writing. My natural instincts as a writer tend towards the one-room story where everyone sits around talking and nobody leaves or does anything except maybe fall in love and smoke cigarettes and make bitter jokes about how their life is not turning out the way they expected. You know, like plays. But you can really only get away with that kind of thing if you're Gustave Flaubert (why yes, I did recently read Madame Bovary, how can you tell?), even if it is how you spent most of your student days.
For the purposes of research, then, and because they were on the telly, Mrmonkey and I sat down this weekend and watched two recent starry caper movies to see how it's done. All they really had in common is that they are proof that it's very hard to write a good caper, and that neither of them is very good. First up is Knight and Day, in which Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz caper around Boston and a series of extravagant locations (or rather, a very cheap set of green-screen sets pretending to be Boston and a series of extravagant locations) in order to keep hold of an everlasting gobstopper. Sorry, battery. An everlasting battery. It's got a lot of the elements of the traditional caper: mistaken identities, the old switcheroo (as Mrmonkey points out, surely there was a time when this was the new switcheroo? How far back would you have to go for that to be the case? Maybe the original switcheroo was the apple in the Garden of Eden? It would explain a lot),  and lot of running around and fighting.
In the good corner: the plot was fairly simple. A guy invents an everlasting power source. Some bad people want it. Some other people are trying to protect him and it from the bad people. Cameron Diaz gets caught in the middle. I liked her character's hook of being a car restorer who was flying to Kansas to pick up a load of car parts. Tom Cruise is always convincing as an action hero, bless him. He does good running about and dangling off buildings, which are essential if you're going to caper.
In the bad corner: for the first part of the film Cameron Diaz was treated very badly. She was dragged around the place, drugged, undressed while unconscious, (this was turned into a joke, but I didn't think it was very funny), shot at, manipulated, and drugged some more. She did later turn into a pretty convincing and capable participant in the capering, but she was basically underused. Tom Cruise has no chemistry with anyone and may not even be human any more, so the idea that anyone would fall in love with him and put themselves in danger for him was just laughable. This is a big deal in such movies. The whole thing just felt kind of cheap, like an episode of Chuck. There were also too many coincidences, and for me there was just too much shooting and killing.
This is a big problem in the thriller business now, just like the presence of mobile phones is a big problem in the area of young people's books (I heard a radio programme about that, I didn't observe it for myself). The first thing you have to do in order to make a young adult book interesting is figure out a way to get rid of the mobile phones and communication devices, otherwise it's too hard to generate a perilous situation that requires resourcefulness to escape. Similarly, in the real world everyone with a grudge has a gun nowadays, so there's no more talking your way out of bad situations or taking a beating. You just shoot or get shot, and dramatically that's pretty boring. So you either end up with a very high body count or you have to figure out a way to get rid of the guns.
The Tourist got around that quite nicely by going for the big money option. You can't shoot the protagonists because they might know where the massive payoff is hidden, so everyone ends up stalking Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp around the former James Bond sets of Europe to see if they lead either Scotland Yard (Paul Bettany in one of those "hi, my wife is pregnant I'd like a bit of easy cash please" roles; also Timothy Dalton) or evil oligarch (Steven Berkoff in of those "hi, I'm putting together a one-man stage show and I'd like a bit of easy cash please" roles) to several billion dollars, and to see whether Johnny Depp is really a tourist, as he claims, or is the bloke who stole the several billion dollars from Steven Berkoff. Have you guessed it yet? Of course you have.
In the good corner: Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie, Paul Bettany, Timothy Dalton, Steven Berkoff, and Rufus Sewell all hang around Paris and Venice (the real Paris and Venice, unless I miss my guess, not just green screens) in lovely clothes and fancy hotels and motor launches and so on. What's not to like? It is sumptuous. There are a couple of really solid laughs in it, the gunplay is kept to a minimum, there is some rooftop dangling, a foiled copper, a baddy strangling one of his own useless henchmen with a measuring tape, a deadly game of cat and mouse, if you will. Plus all the leads have so much chemistry with just about everyone that it's a wonder they didn't just form one giant molecule of Superglamoron, causing the entire production to grind to a halt while someone figured out a way to separate them. Plus at no point does anyone try to pretend that Angelina Jolie is a mousey housewife who is struggling to get by in the real world. The plot's fine, there's no real feeling that anyone has forgotten anything or left anything to chance.
In the bad corner: the whole film appears to have taken a sedative. Boat chases through the canals of Venice turn out to be intensely boring and slow. Johnny Depp does not play action well, I don't care what you say. In fact, the people in this film who we know do play action well: Angelina Jolie, Timothy Dalton, and to a lesser extent Paul Bettany, barely move at all. Which brings me to the biggest question about this film: why would you hire Angelina Jolie for a caper movie and just have her stand there? She is the most ass-kicking person in western cinema (except maybe Jason Statham) and you're having her walk around in outfits that make her look like she's in a back brace? Meanwhile fat Johnny Depp is puffing his way through set pieces like Joe Don Baker in Mitchell? Nonsense.
So, capering. Like dancing, it's very, very hard to make it look easy. You can't just throw together a few big names and a simple objective and hope it'll write itself. That's bad news for someone like me. Hoping for the best is really all I have.


MrMonkey said...

I always thought it was "Mitchum", I'm amazed I had that wrong all the time. On the plus side, now I know that it was written by Troy Kennedy Martin's brother Ian.

Let me reiterate here that "Salt" is a pretty good thriller with proper Jolie ass-kicking.

Damien said...

Tom Cruise is Burt Reynolds waiting to happen.

Queenie said...

The tourist was pretty dreadful yes, I watched it the other day just agape at johnny's ineptitude. I suppose switched identies is the way to go though.

Archel said...

I look forward to reading a blockbusting series of accentmonkey capers very soon!

Gerry Watt said...

The first thing you have to do in order to make a young adult book interesting is figure out a way to get rid of the mobile phones and communication devices, otherwise it's too hard to generate a perilous situation that requires resourcefulness to escape.

While I agree that this is the case it can't possibly help but be contrived. I swore out loud at the telly when watching Englishmen abroad caper "Mad Dogs" when they had a bet about not using their mobile phones for 24 hours and had a guy put them in a safe then proceed to get himself killed without leaving the combination.

Maybe you could do period capers?

Good luck with the new venture anyway. It's horrible to lose a job but it's great you have the space and time (and great husband!) to write