The romance and the mystery of writing

Japan is a funny place. In many ways life here carries on as if it were always and forever the 1990s, and the nineties were not an altogether good decade for Japan. So it is that I still, in this day and age, walk down to my local video store to rent DVDs when I want to watch a movie (in some ways I admit that this is also a lifestyle choice as both Netflix and Hulu have recently become available in the country). On that, Japan is funny in another way too as sometimes very off-the-beaten-path movies will become available to rent but only years after they have initially been released. This makes for potential points of interest though, for if you allow yourself to remain largely ignorant of what is happening in the world of film and then rent titles based on intuitive appeal you can be surprised at times with happy accidents, happy discoveries. Paper Man was one for me this past week, and in looking it up I found that it was made way back in 2009. Remember then?

The movie’s story is fairly clichéd, and the critics don’t seem to have made much of it (Rotten Tomatoes has it at 32%), but for my part I really enjoyed it. Jeff Daniels is great in it – as he is in everything – and Emma Stone puts in what must have been an early stellar performance for her, as well as Ryan Reynolds in his much appreciated comedic turn as Daniels’ character’s childhood superhero imaginary friend. The plot revolves around Daniels’ character’s travails as a novelist under pressure to produce his second book, which he has yet to start, in just three months. He and his acclaimed surgeon and inventor wife (also played well by Lisa Kudrow) rent a house in Long Island, New York, and while his wife is doing a stint at a local hospital he is to get down to the business of writing. Except of course that he can’t, and the romantic tropes of writing are trod out for their usual but fun effects. Daniels’ character refuses to write on the new laptop he is given and lugs his faithful old electric typewriter out of its hard-shelled case, sets it up on the desk, poises his fingers over the keyboard, and naturally that is as far as he gets. He has the general plot worked out (which he drunkenly relates to much acclaim during a visit to the local pub), but he doesn’t have the main character’s name, and it is that point that stubs his vigor and prevents from typing even the first sentence. Instead he spends his days cycling back and forth between the house and town, where he befriends Stone’s character and the two gradually open up about the tragedies and the loss in their pasts and presents.

Daniels the writer is proffered as a man tortured by self-doubt and internal malaise, and although the image of the writer as a lonely and eternally depressed would-be artist is a staple of mainstream romanticism about the work it is not an altogether wrong one. We writers are, more often than not, unsmiling loners who would much rather spend time in our own company than engaged in the very social world which concerns our creations. It is one of the central mysteries of the task and the burden of writing that those who bend their thought and effort towards expressing the world in which we live are barely present in that very world. We instead inhabit our own heads and our flailing attempts at being with others are awkward, truncated, and erratic. Sit down across from a writer and you never know what you’re going to get. Daniels expresses this well, and in watching him I enjoyed the switch to a view from the outside of that which is usually for me an internal one. There is a particularly poignant moment between Daniels’ character and Kudrow’s, where he asks if their marital and general unhappiness isn’t something more of their own making than a real reflection of their situations given that they have plenty of money and their lives are “embarrassingly easy” (as Daniels’ character puts it); Kudrow’s character answers in the negative, that no, her unhappiness is real enough. It’s a question though that is worth asking of ourselves, I think, for as much as the stereotype of the suffering and odd writer is accurate surely there is a large dose of perspective involved as well. Are we really, deep down, how we are presented to be?

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