Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Matters of life and death

In this month's ELLE (out today) is a really interesting arts piece that I helped to compile. It's called The Film That Changed My Life, and features 25 actors, writers, artists and directors describing the moment they saw a movie that opened their eyes to something, inspired them to get into a creative industry or simply became a lifelong favourite. It was really interesting requesting and gathering responses, and seeing what sort of films really affect people.

Some are art-house, some classics, some cult, and a few are pop culture hits that may not be cool, but they've stood out in people's minds. When we were putting it together, some of the ELLE editors were asked for their ideas, and it was actually much more of a thinker than you'd imagine. The thing our contributors found tricky was the 'changed my life' part - sometimes the films that we relate to the most are not favourites because they are profound or make any huge comment on life or relationships. Often they are just obscurely charming, brilliantly scripted or beautifully shot. Most of the responses we got (particularly from directors and film festival presidents) were cult films, groundbreaking or simply daring and quirky. I loved the honesty of those who just cited something more 'pop' that defined their youth, stood out in its mainstream genre, or that they could just watch over and over again. You'll have to buy the mag to see what I mean (it's a fab issue, Cheryl Cole's the cover star and it's a great interview.)

I had a think at the time about what my choice would be, but again, the life-changing criteria really stalled me. I don't know how many candidates from my DVD collection could really be considered revolutionary... Dirty Dancing, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Shakespeare in Love... (yes, I'm a total chick-flick whore.) But I thought of one after I read the feature in all its glory - and that is Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. I have such a connection with this film, as I've been watching it since childhood - every year, once a year, on Christmas Eve. A 1940s classic endlessly parodied and referenced, it is the definitive feelgood film. While the premise may seem corny, it's certainly more charm than cheese, and moments are really harrowing as well as uplifting. It was filmed just before my dad was born, and it seems a delightful little opener to the beginning of my immediate family's existence, as we cosy up together every 24th December and laugh and weep at exactly the same moments. You come away with a fresher view on the world, and that can't be said of many cinematic moments.

'Life-changing' seems an excessive label to apply, but I am one of life's cynics (well, more 50% hard cynic 50% hopeless romantic - a tough combination) and I really need a narrative like this to remind me of what's good now and again.The story of how George Bailey, an American average Joe, touches and alters the lives of everyone in his small community is heart-rending and glorious. The humour keeps the schmaltz at bay, the many charming characters make you wish you lived in Bedford Falls, and the not-quite-perfect courtship of Donna Reed's Mary by James Stewart's awkward George is my absolute favourite on-screen romance. I just wanted to be Donna Reed in that film, she's luminous in black and white and just looks incredible (even when they try to make her look like a spinster librarian in George's alternate reality, she's pretty hot.) I think maybe it's not so much the life-changing function of cinema that's important, but a changing of perspective on life. The small-town hero of George Bailey proves that no matter how much of a failure you think you are, or how bad things seem, there is always a bigger picture. The people you love and who love you are what define you in the end, not how much you've travelled, how rich you are or if you've changed the world.

Speaking of how bad things can get, I must just mention a really sad news story - Matt Lucas's ex-husband Kevin McGee was found hanged the other day after months of depression and drug abuse. The real modern tragedy of the story was the morbid facebook status he wrote hours before his suicide - 'Kevin McGee thinks that death is much better than life' - which will certainly haunt his friends and family. But can a passing post on a social networking site be relied on as a cry for help? It seems more tragic than anything that his depression was made this public. The saddest part of the story in my view, however, is the Daily Mail's choice to use quote marks in their front-page headline today. I could be wrong, but "The Little Britain star's 'husband'" seems like a snide comment on their gay marriage stance, in the poorest possible taste. Although they divorced last summer, the pair's civil partnership lasted for nearly two years (one of the most high- profile gay marriages and the first gay celebrity divorce since civil ceremonies became legal in 2005) and as their friends and spokesmen have referred to it as a marriage, I think it's a bit of a cheap shot by the Mail to demean the relationship when reporting an untimely death. 'Ex-husband' or even 'Ex-partner' would have sufficed. They should leave the politics out of it, and recognise it as a personal bereavement which should be reported in a dignified way.


  1. Loved the Elle article, particularly the people who were brave enough to choose things like Watership Down rather than the really arty or foreign films! I asked my housemates about the whole idea of a film being 'life-changing' and none of us could think of anything that has actually made such a revelationary impact.

    But if I had to choose a film... well I'd probably choose the ones I watch over and over again and talk about all the time, particularly Kidulthood and Sex and the City. Neither of them are going to promote cinematic revolutions and they don't have any ground-breaking philosophic content, but I love them and keep watching them because they are current. They make me laugh and cry and flinch and I think that's all I really want from a film, something I can engage with emotionally without too much thought.

    Freya xx

  2. I really enjoyed the article too, will definetly have to ask my housemates, particularly as one of them is doing film studies!I watched Memento last night and thats definetly a film that affected me a lot, its the first cool arty film I've really loved and I'm interested by the weird way its put together. However it's not a film I could watch all the time. I tend to think of My Best Friend's Wedding as a great because I think its great to have the comfort and humour of a chick flick with a sad ending and not everything working out perfectly. I also really love Juno for the same reasons, that mix between lighthearted and funny bits on teenage life and the sadder, serious side of teenage pregnancy. I also love Juno more everytime I watch it which I think is the mark of a great film.

    Also loved your example though, Its a Wonderful Life definetly a big one too.

    So sad about Kevin McGee and the papers are at it again with Stephen Gately, one paper was talking about the cost of his 'wedding' ring, whats more ridiculous is on the daily mail website people were complaining about them using the words at all, even with the patronising quote marks. I feel very sorry for Matt Lucas, I remember thinking when Heath Ledger died its worse in a way to be the ex wife/husband because youre not the treated like the grieving widow and people dont know how respond you even though you obviously loved the person.