We must’ve seen a different film

This speaks to the heart of all criticism, all reviews, all opinions, but I’m really only saying it because I was narked. Angela and I saw Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation last weekend and on our drive home, a review of it happened to be on the radio. We listened for a moment and Angela concluded: “We must’ve seen a different film”.

I like the Mission: Impossible movies – with the contractual, mandatory, must-tell-you proviso that the first one is the best, the second is the worst, the third is okay and these last two are pretty good – but I wouldn’t have claimed they were superb pieces of cinema. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to consider thinking of maybe claiming or not claiming that: I really enjoyed Rogue Nation and that’s a great thing.

Except for this reviewer. I won’t name her partly because we came in late and I’ve no idea what her name is. But she said at one point she’d been begging Tom Cruise to not do a particular thing in the story, the implication being that it was a preposterous take-you-out-of-the-story moment. (Have you seen the movie? She’s talking about the flute.) What she didn’t want to happen and was so adamant should not have happened, that it shouldn’t have been in the film, that was a ridiculous moment, is a moment that was coming for a good six minutes. We knew this, we watched it happen, it was going to happen, so the fact that it did happen didn’t feel all that preposterous a moment.

Plus, I’ll tell you this: I love thrillers (and romances but that’s another story) and there are sometimes moments in them I wish I’d written. What happens next with that flute is one of them. Your lead character is faced with a supremely clear and obvious dilemma to which there is no right answer, no good way to choose between two urgent options. So he finds a third way. A third way that leaves you blinking yet is then instantly supremely clearly the right and sole solution. It’s a tiny moment and I’ve already over-egged it too much. But where this reviewer was taken out of the movie for what she thought were silly reasons, I was taken out of it a heartbeat later for the writer in me applauding.

Only.

This is a bit rubbish of me, picking on a reviewer I don’t name and you can’t listen to unless I do. I’m going to live with that because her second criticism led me to realise there is something genuinely very praiseworthy about this latest Mission: Impossible. There’s a new character Ilsa, played by Rebecca Ferguson. My unnamed reviewer dismissed her, saying her character wafts in and out of the movie occasionally.

Bollocks.

This is a female guest lead character in an action series and she is superb. She’s not there to sleep with the hero. She’s not there just to be rescued by him. She is a storm. You want to trust her but you know, correctly, that you shouldn’t. She makes surprising choices that work completely in retrospect, she is a dangerous storm and is riveting.

My unnamed reviewer didn’t like the movie and I did. Ultimately any review comes down to that but I’m struck by how much I want to defend a film I had nothing to do with. I’m thinking this is cutting deep into what I feel about criticism, having been a film and TV reviewer, I’m thinking that a reviewer who isn’t paying attention might as well be watching a different film.

I’m also thinking that I might watch this again and that writer/director Christopher McQuarrie did a good job.

Just my opinion.

It’s my job, it’s what I do

Quick aside? I love the line “It’s my job, it’s what I do” because to me it is the archetypal ridiculous line you used to get from so many cop shows. I say it with earnest dry seriousness and I am of course kidding. Unfortunately, it turns out that not everyone knows that TV cop show trope and one day I found out I had been seriously, seriously, seriously annoying an entire newsroom.

I’d like to say that I stopped using it but there are times when it still springs into my head unbidden. Such as now. I was just thinking about this thing I want to discuss with you and there it was, there was this old line. And I rather mean it this time.

Follow. A friend, Mary Ellen Flynn, said this to me recently after a tearoom natter:

I like your perspective since you are businesslike about writing but you still love it.

My lights, it has actually become true: this is my job, this is what I do.

I’m split now. She meant it as a compliment and I take it as one, but it’s sent me spiralling off into pondering the differences and the similarities and the Venn Diagrams of writing vs business, of art vs work. Then, okay, that’s further sent me off pondering how I have the nerve to call what I do art but fortunately I don’t. One dilemma at a time, please.

I think the reason I’m mithered over this is that her line reminded me of how I’ve previously been accused of being a commercial writer. It was not a compliment. Whoever it was – and I’m genuinely blanking on their name – pointed out that I write Doctor Who radio dramas and that every idea I was telling them was out-and-out commercial. Every idea was a thriller, a romance or both.

Oh, grief. I’ve just had a thought. If it were who I now think it might have been, she was writing literary fiction and it was bad. God in heaven, it was bad. One of the single most creative pieces of writing I’ve ever done is the way I answered her about what I thought of a certain chapter without telling her what I thought of a certain chapter. You’re asked your opinion in order to give your opinion but sometimes, no, the truth is best left out there.

Anyway. I like literary fiction but my best definition of it is a book that doesn’t fit into any other genre. Equally I suppose you can argue that the definition of a commercial text is that it is written to make money. It amuses me that she failed totally at being literary and I’m doing a good job at failing to make money.

Yet for all that I am supposedly commercial and for all that I agree I am businesslike, the fact is that I write romances and thrillers because I love them.

They excite me, they totally compel me and maybe I can’t do them well yet but I’m trying.

There is the part of my brain that recognises the existence of a mortgage and how nice it is to eat around three times a day. There is the part of my brain that knows deadlines and understands a brief and can copywrite and can build a structure, build an event. That’s the businesslike bit that is very easy for me; frankly because anything is easier than writing.

I said that all this pondering and noodling came from that friend’s line about my being businesslike. I was doing a talk last week and trying to convey a point about writing as a career, as a job. You know how you don’t know something until you say it?

This is what I think, this is what I do, this is what I said:

I write for a living – but I really write for a life.