Before Essie Fox turned her hand to writing, she worked as an illustrator, designing cards, wrapping paper and decorative ceramics. Always keen on the quirks of the past, her first three novels were Victorian Gothic, but her fourth, The Last Days of Leda Grey, steps into the Edwardian era and the world of silent film. She also explores the ‘facts, fancies and fabrications’ of history on her blogs The Virtual Victorian and The Eclectic Edwardian. The research for her latest novel has informed her choice of a filmic alter ego. Eithne Farry
Having just come up for air after writing my latest novel set during the dawn of cinema, I know at once who I would choose as my flickering alter ego on screen – and that is Theda Bara.
Caroline Smailes is an Open University tutor, an editor and the author of six novels. Described by The Observer as ‘an arch experimentalist’, she has used sign language, short chapters, white spaces and 11 possible endings to one novel as a way of telling the story. She writes the first 10,000 words without plan or structure ‘to establish a voice’, next the first draft is composed at top speed, then it’s ‘redraft, redraft, redraft, edit, edit, edit’. Her urban fairytale The Drowning of Arthur Braxton has just been re-issued by Fourth Estate, and will be released as a film in spring 2017. As her filmic Alter Ego, Caroline has choosen Andie Walsh from Pretty in Pink. Eithne Farry
If there’s one character I would love to have as my screen alter ego, it’s Andie Walsh: she’s a strong woman, she’s self-assured, she’s unapologetic, she likes herself, she doesn’t care what others think about her and she wears amazing clothes.
Added to that, Andie is brimming in contradiction. Being plain yet striking, self-assured yet self-doubting and astute yet reckless, sees her dismissed as a typical teenager, yet, for me, it is those characteristics that make Andie exceptional.
She’s a high school senior from the wrong side of the tracks who falls for rich-kid Blane McDonough, but it’s her empathy and her ability to speak from the heart that are worthy of praise. It’s Andie’s capacity for compassion, creativity and personal growth that appeals. She clasps her eccentricities and who she truly is; she refuses to change to fit in and, on top of all that, she actually likes herself.
Indeed, Andie is a role model and friend for anyone who doesn’t quite belong. Her dottiness, her uniqueness, her magnificent mix of both maturity and immaturity, and determination not to let people ’break’ her, are entirely refreshing. She tells us that it’s okay to be different. Actually, more than that, she tells us that there’s something rather remarkable and splendid in being true to who you are.
Andie displays what I wasn’t able to achieve in my teens. She made teen me want to be braver, but I lacked her conviction. My school life was about survival, in both physical and mental senses. Somehow in amongst all the bullying and abuse, I lost who I truly was and I stopped liking myself. I didn’t embrace being an outsider.
I guess that outsider feeling is something many of us experience. Be it not fitting in at school, at work, in families, in a crowded room. I don’t live a life of regrets, but I wish I’d been a little less afraid to display my difference when I was younger. I wish I’d been more like Andie Walsh. She didn’t choose the easiest path to take, but I think she selected the braver one. I wish more people were that honest, and that bold.
Daisy Johnson is 24 and currently lives in Oxford. She has a degree in English from Lancaster University and an MA in Creative Writing from Oxford. She travelled around a lot as a child, but it was the landscape of the Fens that haunted her – ‘it’s an unquiet land land that dreams of being the coast’ – and it became the setting for her debut short story collection, Fen (Jonathan Cape). The startling stories are all about women and girls and are full of myth, dark magic and odd metamorphoses. Fittingly, as her filmic Alter Ego, she has chosen Leeloo from The Fifth Element. Eithne Farry
When left to my own devices I imagine my alter ego would be a Luc Besson character: Jacques from The Big Blue who dives without air, tries to have a normal life but cannot, dreams of water rising up the walls; Mathilda, who is only twelve but is already cut from cool: a sharp fringe, round glasses. ‘How old were you when you made your first hit?’ she asks Leon, listens to his reply, says: ‘Beat you!’
There is something though, isn’t there, about The Fifth Element’s Leeloo. Clad in some kind of bondage tape, falling through the roof of Bruce Willis’s taxi, very strong on issues of consent, keen on roast chicken.
As a child I learnt most of my vocabulary from books, which means that, sometimes, when I’m speaking, words come out wrong. This happens to Leeloo too, though it bothers her less. The world is under attack and only she can save the day. She isn’t entirely convinced, though, that she wants to. She says: ‘What’s the use in saving life when you see what you do with it?’ She is sparing with her words, speaks her mind, gathers material to her in a writer-like manner. In the end she is a hopeless romantic. Something, perhaps, about Bruce Willis’s bright orange vest.
If she was brought where we are, I think she would miss the bright colours and over-exaggerated emotions. She would become melancholic, binge on microwave food, get a couple of cats. She would – to remind her of the old days – prey on muggers, litterers, those with late library books. She would, for lack of use, slowly lose the language she’d learnt. I do not think she would miss it much.
Jenni Fagan is a Scottish author and a poet (her collection The Dead Queen of Bohemia is out now), who has adapted her debut novel, The Panopticon for the screen. Her recently published second novel, The Sunlight Pilgrims (William Heinemann) is a wonderfully odd tale of winter, love and cinema. She says of the process of writing: ‘I enjoy that magpie way of storing and stashing little bits of things that glitter, that turn up later in prose or poems.’ Her filmic alter ego is Agent Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks. Eithne Farry
It’s really hard to pick a single film alter ego, I love so many characters.
Coffy (Coffy), Mallory (Natural Born Killers), Frida (Frida Kahlo), Elizabeth Bishop (Fly Me to the Moon), Clarice Lispector (Silence of the Lambs), Ofelia (Pan’s Labyrinth), Alice Wakefield (Lost Highway), Mia Wallace (Pulp Fiction), or Sugar Kane Kowalczyk (Some Like it Hot) –perhaps an amalgamation of all of them might work best.
For the sake of committing to one alter ego for now I will pick Agent Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks.
Special Agent Dale Cooper has a coffee addiction and he fetishes apple pie. He often runs in opposition to the FBI with unorthodox methods that get him uncanny results. He’s always taking notes and trying to figure out the mystery, which pretty much sums up most writers’ lives. He’s full of geekery and highly uncool (to the point where he is kind of cool) and he’s grappling with strange forces in this world and the next (again correlates with a writing life). Also, he walks around to an Angelo Badalamenti soundtrack, quotes like a sage and hangs upside down so he can think better. He’s extremely introspective and while other film detectives use logic to fix a case, much of Agent Dale Cooper’s approach is based on intuition and dreams.
Three years before Twin Peaks he sees a Tibetan truth in a dream and is so struck by it that his work methodology is based on that dream alone. He meets his evil doppelgänger in the Black Lodge and he is willing to give his soul to save someone else, so he’s brave as well.
Agent Dale Cooper ends the film in the mysterious Red Room with his hand resting on Laura Palmer’s shoulder. You could read it that, to be present with her on the other side like that, he must have never made it out of the Black Lodge. He is a mystery in his own right and he has a fierce sense of what is right even although he’s flawed and has seen too much tragedy in life.
Saying all that, I’m not sure I could wear a suit and be so clean cut, even if I were a special Agent.
Actually now I think about it perhaps I’d just be Gertrude Stein in Paris Was a Woman – imagine having all those artists and great paintings around every day, utterly divine!
Anna Smaill was born in Auckland in 1979. She became entranced by the violin when she was seven and decided to become a musician. She headed off to university to study performance art, but chose to concentrate on literature instead. Her love of music feeds her creative writing – her book of poems is called The Violinist in Spring and her Man Booker Prize long-listed debut novel The Chimes (published in Feb 2015) is full of melody, inspired by Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, Vladmir Gavreau’s theories on infrasound and Anna’s own memories of living in Tokyo. Below she explains why she picked Kiki from Kiki’s Delivery Service as her filmic alter ego. Eithne Farry
One of the benefits of taking filmic pleasure alongside a pre-schooler, as I chiefly do at present, is a steadily growing intimacy with the oeuvre of Hayao Miyazaki. I loved Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away and others long before becoming a parent, but I only recently watched, and discovered, my aspirational alter ego in Kiki’s Delivery Service. It’s a strange Ghibli film in many ways, more slowly paced and less lyrical than most of the others and, for a film about a young witch, emphatically down to earth. Kiki’s relentless difficulties form the grain and texture of the film. Kiki just can’t catch a break. In her training year as a witch, she’s intensely homesick; she struggles to make new friends; she falters in her work due to demanding customers and meteorological forces; she becomes sick. Just as things seem to improve, Kiki loses the very things that define her: her powers of flight and the connection to her talking cat, Jiji. What makes Kiki so wonderful and memorable as a character is how very brave she is in the face of this experience. I’m continually moved by how Studio Ghibli renders her face, the openness of her eyes, the inward complexity expressed in the flush along her cheeks, her halting and then hectic speech. There is a moral quality to her cheerfulness, and to her sadness.
I guess there is something in my own experience with music – the seeming failure of a formerly self-defining gift – that draws me to Kiki. I find the phenomenon of performance anxiety both horrifying and fascinating. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, Malamud’s The Natural – these are the plots of inescapable nightmare. How do you sustain the thing that used to come naturally, the thing of pure fun, when it has become a profession? How do you step clear of hamstringing self-consciousness? David Foster Wallace’s essay ‘The Nature of the Fun’ essentially follows Kiki’s exact arc. But the answers in this film are radically simple in contrast to those Wallace provides. And they’re not insular but communal – those of friendship, artistic generosity and kindness. I still have much to learn from this 13-year-old witch.
The award-winning author of The Girl with Glass Feet and The Man who Rained picks his filmic alter ego.
Novelist Ali Shaw grew up in Dorset and studied English literature and creative writing at Lancaster University. He’s written for BBC Radio 4, and worked as a bookseller and in the Bodleian Library. His latest novel The Trees (Bloomsbury), out in March 2016, hauntingly describes what happens when the trapping of civilization are taken over by nature, when a dense forest appears overnight, replacing houses and buildings with trees. Eithne Farry
The heroes are always the boring ones. As much as I adore Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, its hero Ashitaka is as straight-laced and earnest as they come. ‘So you say you’re under a curse,’ Jigo, the mischievous monk tells him. ‘So what? So is the whole damned world.’ A fairy tale such as this one needs, of course, its serious prince. Yet it’s Ashitaka’s red elk steed Yakul who steals his scenes, often far more expressively than his rider. Since those scenes are all hand-drawn, I can’t help but think that’s deliberate.
I reckon I’d make a passable Yakul. I’m not as brave as Ashitaka, and I can’t hit running headshots with a bow and arrow. But I certainly can huff like a red elk, and run away from things as fast as I can. Galloping through Studio Ghibli’s exquisitely painted landscapes would be my idea of heaven, as would be hopping over their glimmering celluloid streams. I think I would feel just as out of place among the crowds and bowed oxen of Irontown, because the point about Yakul is that he’s not a beast of burden. He’s Ashitaka’s comrade, occupying a position of neutrality in the film’s central conflict between humanity and nature. Yakul and Ashitaka are living proof that the two sides really can get along. Crucially, they respect and honour not only the luminously antlered forest god and the cutesy bobble-headed kodamas, but the stark rage of nature as well. I hope that, whenever I’m next faced with a squirming nest of worms on legs that’s bound itself to the body of a fallen boar god, I too will have the courage to be so clairvoyant.
There is no such thing as a red elk. Miyazaki made them up. Yakul is more like a species of African marsh antelope called a lechwe than he is an elk. That’s just one more thing I love about him, because made-up animals are one of the best means we humans have for talking about ourselves. We have to make ourselves up all the time, and animal qualities can sometimes be the ideal components. So I will aspire to be bolder and more gracious and quicker-hooved, and to keep my eyes and ears alert for those who would blast the world apart just to scrape more iron out of the soil. I will be hand-drawn, frame by frame, and all the better for it. Skipping through the story with a huff and a snort, just like Yakul.
Nell Zink was born in California in 1964 and now lives in Bad Belzig, just south of Berlin. An avid, but secretive writer, she published her debut novel The Wallcreeper when she was 50, which she wrote in three weeks and sold for $300 to a small American publishing house, Dorothy, which focuses on books about or by women. She’s the author or the irreverent comic novel Mislaid (4th Estate) and is working on a new novel, Nicotine, which will be published next year. Below, Nell Zink picks God as her filmic alter ego. Eithne Farry
What film character would I be? This is a trick question, given that God has appeared in several films. Clearly I’d like to be God. At the same time, I’d prefer that people think of me as a heartbroken Anouk Aimée or Juliette Binoche. I’m certain the latter has appeared opposite God, notably in Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Blue. As God, I would passively watch her suffer – just as viewers do while watching the film, come to think of it – feeling pleasure even at the sight of her blood. Then, being God, I would be mistaken for her when I went out in public. ‘You’re a goddess!’ my fans would cry out.
It’s also a trick question because good movies center on intractable conflict, guaranteeing that most characters will suffer truly bad times right up until the end. Happy characters tend to be crazed ecstatic sprites like Miyazaki’s Ponyo or sociopaths who thrive on conflict à la James Bond. But being James Bond, or even Ponyo, would mean putting up with situations that would break Juliette Binoche’s heart and injuries that dwarf her lightly scraped knuckles in Blue (I like watching people who can sit calmly through splatter movies wince when that happens), such as drowning.
In any case I know for a fact what character I already am. Fred and I went to see the Mike Leigh movie Happy-Go-Lucky when it came out. I emerged feeling very depressed, certain I was virtually indistinguishable from the lonely, cynical, deluded, horrible driving teacher Scott.
‘Niemals!’ Fred said. ‘Du bist Poppy!’ He went on to detail my resemblance to the film’s gratingly bubbly, fun-loving, imperturbable, helpful and quite defiantly alcoholic kindergarten teacher. I was so relieved. Scott is arguably a lot closer to being a heartbroken Juliette Binoche. But Poppy is very nearly God.
Dan Richards was born in Wales, grew up in Bristol and studied creative writing at UEA. His latest book The Beechwood Airship Interviews (The Friday Project) heads out into the British cultural landscape and explores what it means to make art for art’s sake in a climate that is increasingly driven by cash rather that craft through interviews with the likes of Judi Dench, Bill Drummond, Jenny Saville, Manic Street Preachers, and Stewart Lee. Below, Dan Richards picks Cecil B. Demented as his filmic alter ego. Eithne Farry
A misunderstood auteur with an uncompromising creative vision, dragooning collaborators with his strange, hypnotic, slightly crazed charisma, a quasi-religious figure with his gang of tattooed film fetishists – a kind of Baader-Meinhof Ed Wood
What a guy!
John Waters said he created Cecil B. after being branded a lunatic version of Cecil B. DeMille – father of the US film industry, bastion of Hollywood – in an early review. Eternally the opportunist magpie, Waters logged and hid the shiny epithet away to polish it up in 2000 for this black comedy about the kidnap and subsequent conversion of spoilt diva A-lister Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith) by Cecil B. Demented for his underground opus.
Played by Stephen Dorff with the kind of dead-eyed commitment Johnny Rotten embodied in the protean Sex Pistols (They mean it, man!), Cecil B. needs a star, so he and his crack-prom posse take one at gunpoint.
The film that follows (a mess of school play scripting, shoddy sets, seedy porn glamour, kamikaze trash polemics, teenage pouting, and situationist violence) looks more like an early Manic Street Preachers promo than a major film release (the Manics, another band of brothers named after a critical brickbat):
‘The slash and burn of the white-hot metal will brand you forever with the logo of Cecil B. Demented. Wear the privileged scar of cinema sainthood with pride and horniness.’
‘We’ve all taken a vow of celibacy for celluloid. No one gets laid until we finish our movie. We’re horny, but our film comes first.’
At heart it’s a mad film about making mad films, a childish dream of mayhem – What if we exploded the movie world? What ifLost Boys channelled Challenge Anneka to make a shoestring La Femme Nikita with real guns!?
Limos are trashed, the Baltimore Film Commission, Hollywood, The Man, The Mainstream, Forrest fuckin’ Gump, Patch prick Adams, the real-life careers and reputation of the cast, Waters himself; everyone gets a pasting; thoroughly rained on with gratuitous scattershot gonzo shonk.
And through it all, at the heart of the film, the film within the film, sits Cecil B. Demented, horny, armed to the teeth, wired, barking orders, plotting his gaga Dada ascension to the pantheon of Preminger, Lynch and Anger.
A beautiful Baader-Meinhof Ed Wood dressed by Vivienne Westwood.
What a guy!
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Jenn Bennett is an artist and author who writes books for adults and teens. Born in Germany, she’s lived and travelled extensively throughout Europe, the US and the Far East. She currently lives near Atlanta with one husband and two evil pugs. Her debut YA novel, Night Owls (Simon and Schuster), which was published this month, is already receiving wide critical acclaim. Set in San Francisco, the title is taken from the name of the night bus service, and heads into the world of graffiti and anatomical art, and involved some gruesome research at the Willed Bodies Lab. Eithne Farry
With her bobbed hair, vivid imagination, and romantic heart, Amélie Poulain is my cinematic alter ego – my Parisian ultra-fantasy in surreal red, green and gold.
In Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s fanciful romantic comedy, Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain, better known simply as Amélie, the titular protagonist is a shy waitress (played pitch-perfectly by famously private French actress Audrey Tautou) who finds a box of childhood memorabilia hidden in her Paris apartment and decides to track down the owner, now an adult. If she finds him and it brings him joy, she’ll devote her life to making others happy. (‘Life’s funny. To a kid, time always drags. Suddenly you’re fifty. All that’s left of your childhood fits in a rusty little box.’)
Her mission a success, Amélie’s wheels spin in other directions. She decides to help two other lonely people get together, a tobacconist at the café where she works and a brooding regular customer. In her apartment building, she befriends an elderly painter whose bones are like glass. She persuades her father to follow his dream of travelling the world by kidnapping his favourite garden gnome and having a flight attendant take photos of it posed with landmarks around the world.
Part of the joy of this film is that it’s just plain enchanting – the eccentric supporting characters, Amélie, her attempts to help people, and all of her silly pranks. There’s also sublime magic in the way Jeunet and the cinematographer paint the City of Light, which isn’t really Paris at all, of course. It’s hyper-Paris. More Paris than Paris. It’s moonstruck and nouveau, the Paris of your dreams…if your dreams are a little surreal and lighthearted.
Amélie wouldn’t be a romantic comedy without the romance, which comes in the form of a mysterious young man, Nino, who collects the discarded pictures from passport photo booths. When Amélie tracks Nino down, she finds he’s just as odd and lonely as she is, and falls in love with him, playing one final game of cat-and-mouse to win his heart. ‘Times are hard for dreamers,’ says the owner of a porn shop where Nino works. That may be true, but I’d gladly fall into Amélie’s hope-filled dreams many times over.
A Devil Under the Skin is the latest of Anya Lipska’s (a pseudonym for a British writer) noir-ish crime thrillers set in East London, featuring Janusz Kiszka, the go-to guy and fixer to London’s Poles – and a man with a Trabant-load of baggage from his youth in Communist-era Poland. Asked about Polish crime fiction Lipska told the Independent that it was marked by ‘a big anti-authoritarian streak, a satirical sense of humour, a romantic enjoyment of melancholy, and a preoccupation with the past’. As her cinematic alter ego she chooses Jake Gittes, in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. Eithne Farry
Like most writers, I don’t have much of a clue where my characters come from, but now and again I recognise someone or something that has left a lasting thumbprint on my writing. One of them is Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of Jake Gittes in Chinatown: it burrowed under my skin and ultimately found its way into the DNA of my own fictional detective.
Jake is the kind of hero I can identify with. An ex-cop who drags round a guilty conscience from a case that went wrong, apparently leading to an innocent woman’s death, he’s now a sleazy private eye specialising in ‘matrimonial’ cases. He’s cynical and crude, and doesn’t hesitate to dish out violence to men and women who stand in his way. Yet Jake’s flaws make him as battered and appealing as an old leather suitcase.
Jake never becomes a cardboard cut-out hero. As he’s drawn into investigating a fishy business involving water rights and high-level corruption in Orange County, we sense that he’s in way over his head. Just like real people, he is by turn funny and determined, smart and fallible. For me it was a directorial stroke of genius to have Jake spend several scenes, after he gets slashed by one of the bad guys, wearing a comedy nose bandage – it’s a powerful symbol of wounded yet defiant masculinity.
If Chinatown were the standard-issue blockbuster, Jake would ultimately conquer the forces of evil: he’d nail the bad guy and get the girl. Polanski had to fight for his much darker vision – the tragic denouement that turned Chinatown from a good movie into a masterpiece. Jake fails. He hasn’t dispelled the past – he has only repeated it.
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews