Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Fear, Films & Fiona

I have a way of seeing connections between things which some think odd.  But it’s not my issue if people’s brains work differently.

The last two movies I’ve seen at the cinema have reminded me hugely of two dear friends called Fiona and of our experiences around fear.  Your loved ones don’t often know when you are thinking of them and missing them on the other side of the world – ‘little Fiona’ in Brisbane and ‘the other Fiona’ in LA – so I figure I may as well write a blog about them as anyone else.

The films I’m referring to were superbly made and highly recommended: Rush directed by Ron Howard, and Captain Phillips directed by Paul Greengrass.  Both these craftsmen know how to make a great movie which girls as well as guys love, because they have human nuance and compelling narrative as well as thrilling action and speed.  I don’t even like Formula One and I was engaged by Rush from the earliest frames.  And anyone connected with the making of the brilliant Bourne Trilogy and I’m hooked. So Howard and Greengrass: in your enormous fields of achievement these were exceptional efforts.  Thank you!

As it happens I’ve never taken speed.  Apart from health or legal concerns I have absolutely no need.  It’d be like giving uppers to the Eveready Bunny.  But these films made my blood pump.  Glued to the seat, all other realities evaporated as I utterly suspended my disbelief and sank into the drama.  At the end I felt like I’d been running a marathon and was desperate to get outside into London’s chilly Autumn air, walking home with wind blowing in my face and image after image replaying in my head.  I dreamt about them too – Tom Hanks’ final scenes exquisitely moving.

So what is it about fear which is so simultaneously frightening and compelling?  I’ve sky-dived, scuba-dived, heli-skied and fallen out of a white-water raft in a most inconvenient rocky river… but I wouldn’t class myself as a high-risk sportsperson.  I never go to horror films.  Yet these movies frightened the hell out of me and I loved it.  Perhaps the characters and story-telling won me over to the extent I endured the fear as an inescapable bi-product?  Yet I suspect Howard and Greengrass are so clever they understand how to take an audience to the brink of their coping threshold - dangling us in a metaphorical bungee-jump, where a collective addiction to narrative unites with a carnal hunger for wildness and beyond-our-boundaries experiences. 

The element which really made my heart pound in Captain Phillips is the lifeboat.  That small capsule with a lid was far more frightening to me than the pirates or the prospect of a bullet.  I could intensely feel the heat and lack of air, to the point that I had to repeatedly concentrate on slowing my own breathing.  How can one survive such a long journey so confined?  It was torture.  How do people in prison cope with four close walls, especially those thrown into dark dungeons without trial or justice?  All through the film I kept thanking God for Amnesty International and promising I’d give them some more money. (Can someone please hold me to that so I don’t forget?) 

Of course, Hanks’ brilliant performance and the director’s intense building of tension are sufficient provocateurs, but my projected fears enlarged the experience.  I am a little claustrophobic.  For years I’ve had a recurring dream I am trapped in a box or a cupboard.  And time and again I’ve woken up banging the wall behind the bed trying to get out. 

In life I do whatever I can to avoid peak-hour public transport, especially undergrounds.  On planes it isn’t crashing which freaks me out, but rather waking up in an overheated cabin with insufficient oxygen.  Occasionally this has threatened a mini panic-attack, but thankfully it only seems to happen in economy; which is great incentive to fly at the front of the bus. 

Anyway thoughts about “facing one’s fears” brings me to my friend, Fiona.

When we flatted together in Bondi in our fun-filled, wonderfully courageous, it’s-all-ahead-of-you 20s, Fiona would confront any hesitance or fear she felt, by saying “there’s nothing to fear except fear itself”.  I’m inclined to forget Franklin D. Roosevelt and attribute this phrase to Fiona, for I never hear it without thinking fondly of her.

Now fast-forward to the Mediterranean in 2009 when I’m showing ‘little Fiona’ around the Cinque Terre.  Setting out on the coastal walk from Monterosso al Mare to Vernazza, I call out: “Walk at your own pace, Fifi, you can’t get lost, there’s only one path… I’ll wait for you somewhere on a rock”.   The wind is whistling, a delightful breeze tickles the pre-midday leaves, and hundreds of metres below steep cliffs I find the sound of crashing waves utterly invigorating.  Various parts of the path are infamously narrow and rocky but I’m in my element – out in the world, fit and free, luxuriating in the sights and smells of my beloved Italy. 

Some time later I am perched in shade admiring the infamous blues of this great sea, and I hear footsteps approach.  Turning around with my lemonade (a treat offered by neighbours on route made from delicious local lemons) my sweet but somewhat pale-looking friend walks slowly toward me.  “What’s the matter?” I ask, bewildered.  “It’s really high, Julie” she says with more shock than malice.  She then adds quietly: “I think you’ve forgotten I’m afraid of heights.”  OMG, I had COMPLETELY FORGOTTEN.  What a dreadful friend – a most awful thing to do to someone who has travelled half way across the world to visit you!

“I’m sorry.  I’m sorry” followed, but the girl with the most generous nature in the world would hear none of it: “But I did it” she said humbly.  “I was scared.  Especially the difficult parts when I thought I was going to slip off the edge.  But I did it.  I took my time and I was fine”   What can you do but hug a girl like that?!  I love her to bits, then and now.  And after a refreshing glass of lemonade we continued the walk to Vernazza, wandering quietly and contentedly together – the making of a very precious memory.

Now I’m thinking of ‘the other Fiona’, which is how I distinguished my L.A. friend from ‘little Fiona’ who my Tuscan mates had met and taken to their hearts.  I am sitting on a bar stool near San Gimignano recounting an extraordinary adventure to the Ice Hotel in Sweden with ‘the other Fiona’.  I have the whole room’s attention for this story, something I clearly enjoy, and the audience should be praised for accepting its meagre delivery in a mix of English and hand-waving Italian with conspicuously dodgy grammar.  I’m making my point anyway, sometimes jumping off the high-stool to act out various parts. But this Ferrari-loving race is hooked.  I skim over the details of meeting the chiefs of Audi while swigging vodka in the Ice Bar – a compulsory part of the Ice Hotel experience – and I’m up to the part where this divine group of ‘strangers’ have taken Fiona and I, and assorted journalists, out into the middle of a frozen lake in Lapland for the launch of a new Audi Sports Car.  (Don’t ask me which model. Not my thing.)  The sun is setting and in the far distance six spotlights cut through the haze.  Lights race toward us across a wide expanse of ice, until we recognise there are three pairs - three very fast pairs on bright red cars.  Audi has arranged for their European Racing Team to arrive… and arrive they do like James Bond or Jason Bourne… pulsing hot-rods soon inches from our twitching toes.  You’ll have to buy my book to get a full description, but suffice it to say the experience was nothing short of spectacular. 

The point about fear is this: Fiona and I were taken by each of these hot, racing-car drivers out for a spin on the enormous lake.  Scream?  Are you kidding – it’s a wonder you didn’t hear us in London!  These guys were out to give us the ride of our lives and the more we spun, the more we screamed, the faster they went… with an ocean of slippery ice between us and the nearest tree they played those cars like a Stradivarius… the little sports-steering-wheel so small yet powerful in the hands of truly great drivers.

Adrenalin pumped.  Curiosity peaked.  So much so I had to stop screaming and ask questions – while still the car spun, sped, reversed and raced while the driver calmly informed me about things I previously never thought interesting.  In love with everything Audi, everything fast, and everything stimulating, we returned to the Ice Bar for more vodka.  The anecdote has followed me around the world never failing to amuse.  And this fond and familiar sensation tugged at my heart during every scene of Ron Howard’s brilliantly rendered, Rush. 

OK, my thrilling European Rally Car had a proper roof.  I am still terrified of the risk Formula One drivers face with burns and injuries and the sheer insane noise of it.  But if my racing-car story is not about overcoming fear, it is certainly about embracing it. 

Rewards are all the richer, whatever the activity or goal, if we face the risks and do it anyway.  So thank God for friends, for my pals Fiona, and for films and experiences which take us out and beyond ourselves.


            Captain Phillips: