It’s an old, familiar tale, grief, one that has been told in so many different ways, with so many angles of it examined and laid bare in cinema and literature. Michael Winterbottom’s treatment of loss is a subtle one, with much of the sadness left for the audience to uncover for themselves.

The film opens with ten year old Mary (Perla Haney-Jardine) and her sixteen year old sister, Kelly (Willa Holland), playing a game in the car as their mother (Hope Davis) drives. Mary, caught up in the game, unthinkingly covers her mother’s eyes and they crash into an oncoming car. And then we’re at the funeral. We’re in the awkward conversations, the stifling sadness. We’re with Joe (Colin Firth) as he graciously accepts people’s offers of sorrow with that mute shock that follows a sudden tragedy. Seemingly looking for a change, or to simply escape, Joe accepts a position teaching at a university in Genova and relocates his children from New York to an apartment down one of the Italian city’s many winding alleys. There they individually struggle with their pain and in Mary’s case, their guilt. Joe flirts with a romance with one of his students, as his relationship with an old college friend, Barbara (Catherine Keener) struggles to realise itself; Kelly finds herself a boyfriend as insolently pretty as she is, to assist her in her dual voyage of escapism and self discovery, and Mary wanders the streets lighting candles and getting lost knowing her mother is never far away to lead her home.

The film is unconventional in technique and structure. The use of handheld camera and long, continual shots mish mashed with short, sharp scenes, drags you in and puts you inside the mourning family and inside the gritty, hot bustle of Genova. The absence of conventional plot is also vaguely disorienting; there’s nothing to hold on to, no markers to map where you’ve been and where you’ll likely go as the film proceeds. Thus we are not merely observing Joe and his two daughters as they navigate a new life in a new country without their wife and mother, we are joining them and their uncertainty.

The performances are all strong and utterly believable, largely because they are without the heaviness of overt sentimentality. In fact the film is largely without sentimentality in general, which makes it such an intensely life like experience as opposed to a cinematic one. We aren’t sad because all the filmic indications are telling us we should be – we’re sad because we can see exactly, no we can feel exactly, what is going on beneath the surface as the family try to pick up the pieces. Because that is exactly where grief so often lies – beneath the surface.

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Dolce Vita

Half an hour out of Siena, in the South Siena region, lies Tocchi, a tiny four-house village. It is home to a castle, one restaurant that may or may not be closed down, and a greater population of geese than people. The sun bakes the earth, the horses swat flies and look disinterested in fawning tourists (of which there are few) and every hour or so, a car trundles down the dusty main street. Not much happens in sleepy Tocchi and that’s what makes it so endearing and, after the whirl and wonder of the bigger Italian cities, such a blessed relief.

We were nearly four months into a non-stop rollercoaster around-the-world-trip when everything came to a standstill in Siena. It had to. We needed to slow down for a while. By the time we reached Tocchi, we had already travelled through the USA, Canada, Germany, France, Spain and parts of Italy. And, as brilliant and intoxicating as non-stop, worldwide frolicking is, you get tired – tired of trains and planes, airports and busses, and of brushes with less than hygienic accommodation. By the time the little car carrying the three of us, and 80kg of luggage rolled to a stop, at the end of a long and dusty road, we were ready to just stop and smell the roses for a while. Or the sunflowers, which blanket vast areas of the Tuscan landscape in yellow and green.

The farm house was what dreams, novels and movies are made of. A rough tiled floor, lemon walls and a sun filled kitchen. It had the prerequisite bay windows (for sitting and reading in, of course) loft bed and a big scrubbed pine table, around which we gathered to sample our attempts at Italian cooking. Emphasis on the word attempts. It also came with a pet dog, Mose, a pet horse, Mari Lou and a coop of chickens to which we fed our scraps every morning. There are few things more romantic than prancing about in a coloured sundress, throwing the scraps of your hearty cooking to clucking hens.

Of course, Italians love their food and the Tuscans (proud inhabitants of the 5th largest region in Italy) are no different. They’re known for their simple and hearty take on cooking, no drizzling of jus over a seared coin of salmon fillet, in sight. One of the main specialties this region is known for is game such as rabbit and hedgehog, which we didn’t sample (namely because none of us were game enough ourselves, to go and catch a hedgehog). We were, however, treated to the culinary delights of a local, something our tastebuds will always remember. On our first night in Tocchi, Costanza, who rented out the little farm house in which we stayed ( cooked the weary travellers dinner. In a kitchen that overlooked miles of rolling khaki paddocks dotted with horses and snow white geese living, as everything seems to do in Tocchi, in harmony, we shared an antipasto course of eggplant and zucchini with goats cheese, a primo of pasta in olive oil and sea salt with fresh vegetables (from the vegetable garden)  and for dolce, a platter of rockmelon. Later that night, stuffed and unable to move, there was a knock on the door as we prepared for bed. Costanza with a little basket of breakfast things, complete with a cloth covered jam jar. Of course.

Getting into the town centre from Tocchi involved comical scenes of three brightly dressed travellers waiting roadside, in the middle of nowhere for a bus that could very well decide not to turn up. And, when it did, we invariably didn’t know how to purchase or validate a ticket (depending on where you are, that system changes) and so the ride in was tense as we waited for a conductor to jump aboard at the next, usually deserted, stop. Siena itself is, after the big cities of Italy, wonderfully quiet and quaint and probably sick of people writing books about being beneath its sun. Quaint cobbled streets hide cafes and seem to wind on forever. We happened to be there for Palio, a traditional medieval horse race Siena is famous for, and so the town was bustling with a competitive energy and festooned with each Contrade’s flag. When not getting swept up in the infectious crowds, we gorged on garlicky pizza and café lattes in between doing our week’s grocery shopping and soaking up that famous Tuscan sun.

And so, for a week, we whiled away the days lazing about with Mose, trialling Italian recipes but never quite succeeding with the nonchalance Costanza did, and once or twice venturing into the tiny, silent centre of Tocchi. There were no people in sight, save for those peering out from behind their curtains, and we were mainly the subject of many an inquisitive glare from the bustling geese. We were in the middle of a long, hot Mediterranean summer and beneath the oh so famous Tuscan sun, to boot. And, it has ot be said, had I spent any more time under its literature-beloved rays, I can guarantee I could have bashed out yet another saccharine novel. You just can’t help it. Tuscany casts a spell that lingers long after you leave it.

Male vs Female Writing

Unisex door symbolA friend of mine brought this article to my attention today. It’s a great article. Succinctly written, it highlights a familiar and sad plight faced by too many women. The subject matter is incredibly significant and it’s something we all need to know about – but that’s not what I really want to talk about today. See, as said friend and I discussed, there seems to be something missing from the article, something that stops the reader from pumping their fist at the end and rushing out to try and change the world – which is something the nature of the issue should instill in those who learn about it through the power of words. 

The problem with the article, we decided, was the language. It wasn’t impassioned enough, it wasn’t emotive enough. It was enlightening, absolutely, and it made clear the importance of the issue – but it didn’t hammer it home. It was … too male?

The idea of male and female language is one that really took off in the 70s, thanks largely to the poetic, hyperbolic writings of Helene Cixous. She called for women to adopt their own language in order to write about their own experiences – instead of replying on and perpetuating language that privileged men over women, something she termed phallogocentrism. Cixous famously asserted that, because women are more strongly tied to our physicality, so must our use of language be and we therefore must learn to ‘write the body.’

To borrow from a recent university essay of my own …

We use language without even realising how all-powerful it is in perpetuating ideas and concepts and truths. Without realising how inherently it favours one gender over the other. Without realising the role it plays in creating meaning. I believe this was at the heart of Helene Cixous’s passionate The Laugh of the Medusa, when she called for women to start writing the body. The creation of a new language that doesn’t privilege one gender over the other, that attempts to circumvent a binary logic that has long marginalised women; and before any of this could take place, a localizing of female sexuality.

We see examples of phallogoenctrism and attempts at l’ectriture feminine (female writing) all the time in fiction and academic essays, but reading the Paul Sheehan article today made me realize both these notions exists in the everyday journalism which brings us our news and serves up opinions and dictates our attitudes. And so, to borrow a Carrie-ism, I can’t help but wonder what effect could this have on reinforcing social ideals of gender? Is the language of journalism a male domain and, if so, is there room for female writing?

* Anyone wanting to learn more about Cixous and her contemporaries and/or the notion of l’ectriture feminine for academic purposes or general interest, send me an email, I have books and essays galore to recommend.

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Against College Policy – or Simply College Culture?

Sydney University must be so proud. In 2009, two months out of the next decade of the millennium, they’re still managing to actively foster a misogynistic sex culture on campus. How wonderfully progressive, particularly seeing as their latest stand against sexual morality has taken place on Facebook – they might be archaic in their social beliefs, but at least they’re perpetuating them with technology. It’s a step. Progress. Go you good things.

The latest embarrassment to befall a university that has long prided itself on both its age in a young country, and its academic standing, is a Facebook page titled ‘Define Statutory’ created by the bright young sparks at St Paul’s College. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, these luminaries of Australia’s future define themselves as ‘Anti-consent’ which is always a bit of a laugh, isn’t it.

The Reverend Canon Ivan Head, warden of the all-male St Paul’s College, as well as labelling the site as ‘directly contrary to stated college policies’  issued a satement saying, ‘college officers … endeavour to listen to gender based conflict or complaint(s) with compassion, insight and the capacity to refer to relevant legal authorities.’  However the outgoing master of Wesley College, a co-ed college on campus, the Reverend David Russell, ‘this is a story that has to be told. There is no question in my mind that women are seen as meat. That is the awful ugly truth of it.’ Sounds like there are some communication problems happening here.

Bloated by self importance, money and elitism, Sydney University has got to take a long, hard look at what seedy cultures they are allowing to exist within their sandstone walls. Perhaps it is time for Australia’s oldest university to simply grow up and stop seeing progress as a threat to their privileged standing. The uni, like the city it is named for, can no longer rest on a pretty face and reputation.

I know. Spoken like a true Macquarie University girl. Or, you know, like a girl who can define statutory and is pro consent. Either way.

How to be (very) Good

n58547I recently saw An Education (splendid) and walked away in awe of how the British so deftly handle subtext. Of course I walked away in awe of several other things – Carey Mulligan’s performance and inordinately expressive mouth, and the thread of excitement that pulsed through the 1960s, but the subtext was equally as awe inspiring. I also walked away with firm resolve to actually read a Nick Hornby book as, hitherto, my Hornby literary experience was limited to snatched chapters whilst babysitting (you know, you always go for the same book and re-read the same first two chapters between when the child goes to bed and the parents get home).

The book I chose was 2001’s How to be Good and it is beyond good. It’s terrific. Excellent. Incredibly funny, razor sharp, bitingly clever – everything the back cover said it would be. Forget the actual premise of the novel; it was a lesson in how to be a good writer. It’s the kind of book that seems so effortlessly insightful, you want to stick your nose into the middle of it and snort, in the desperate hope you’ll inhale some of the author’s brilliance.

How to be Good is told through the voice of Katie Carr; doctor, mother, all round conventionally good person. Except her marriage is on the way out and she’s been having an affair and the book opens with her telling her husband, David, aspiring novelist and columnist (‘The Angriest Man in Holloway) she wants a divorce. Soon after, her husband meets DJ GoodNews, a spiritual healer who cures David of his general bitterness, and together they set out to change the world one homeless  person at a time.

Good and bad, moral codes and first world guilt, idealism and reality – bit by bit, Hornby attempts to tease the strands of this almost irreparably tangled web and find, if not some sort of solution then a level of understanding. And he does it with wit and a painful incisiveness that is as uncomfortably honest as it is relatable. No preaching, no black and white versions of good and bad; just an artfully explored question that forms an innate part of the human condition.

Welcome …

… to my humble abode.

I’ll keep this short and sweet. Having spent the past year editing and nurturing Trespass Magazine and loving absolutely every second of it, this blog is a chance for me to work on something more personal, something a little more stripped back. In other words, I can write about nothing but perfume, Greece and Adrian Mole and not force the poor Trespass readership to enjoy what I do.

Why A Big Life? You can find that out here. Let’s just say it’s something I am in search of, not something I can claim to have. Yet. What’s this little blog all about? Take a look at the categories to your right.

But most of all, read and then talk to me. We can all try for A Big Life together.