I don’t spend much time thinking about Italian Neorealism. When it comes to filmic styles, I’m more of a classic realism, three-act structure kind of girl. I like my narratives to make sense. Life, for me, bears an inherent search for meaning; I am determined to make sense of the world – even if it refuses to make sense of me. A man named Cesare Zavattini wrote in 1953 that stories were “simply a technique of superimposing dead formulas over living social facts”. Neorealism, on the other hand, focuses on the facts themselves. It can turn a two-minute exchange between a woman and a shopkeeper into a two-hour film, by focusing on every facet of the ‘reality’ at hand.
As I left the gym this evening, Zavattini popped into my mind. I disagree that stories are simply dead formulas, and that the way for art to be true-to-life is for it to find value in the mundanity of human existence. If anything, I believe fiction contains more truths about the human condition than fact ever could. Fiction is a reflection of the human subconscious, and of the social zeitgeist of the time. It is not formulaic, or inferior to fact. More than that, I disagree that Neorealist cinema does not have a story superimposed upon it. Why? Because there will always be somebody who decides when to film, and when to cut. At the very least, every story has a beginning and an end.
During my 25-minute walk home from the gym, I thought about my time at university, and the various fictions I have lived through. I could never call my life realism – I am far too convinced I’m a fictional character. Ideally, I would be a character in a romantic comedy. Rom-com heroines have my ideal life: they are usually writers (and actually earn a living from it!), they have nice homes (very unrealistic on a writer’s salary), and they fall in love with someone who loves them back, and live happily ever after.
The thing about romantic comedies, is that the genre can only be attributed after the film has ended. Take Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing as an example. If Beatrice and Benedick did not reconcile their differences and get together, the play could easily be a tragedy. If my life ever was a rom-com, someone switched the film off before it had a chance to reach its climax. Without a happy ending, the genre becomes debatable.
I could read through my diaries from the past few months—or the past few years—and easily attribute a genre to it. I forget just how selective I have become about what I write. Roland Barthes was wrong: the author is not dead. And this author very much has an agenda. I spent most of my life feeling like I only existed on the side lines, as if I was a born narrator with no protagonist potential. I don’t know when it changed – I don’t look too far back into the past, these days. When I returned from Estonia in September, I gave myself as much of a clean slate as I could. I had found a strength of character that I hadn’t known existed. I finally had protagonist potential, and I was not going to let it pass me by.
I’ve spent most of my time at university convinced my life was a TV show. The genre flipped back and forth between soap opera and telenovela. My life was a collection of ridiculous coincidences and dramatic exchanges. In retrospect, I can see that most of this was a result of my own poor decisions, rather than divine intervention by a spiteful deity. There are still fateful occurrences—opportunities for current storylines to follow me to my post-grad plans—but I have more faith in free will than I used to. This is not Grey’s Anatomy, with 16 seasons and counting. My time at university is a four-act play, and I am now in the final act.
I knew 4th year would go by quickly, but I was not prepared for it to go by this quickly. For most of this year, graduation felt like the apocalypse, and life didn’t slow down just because I wished it to. I graduate on the 2nd of July, and life as I know it will end. But life is a fluid, moving thing. It rushes forwards, with little care for external deadlines. I entered 4th year knowing it would soon be over, but that didn’t stop me forming new connections – or rekindling old ones. I had hopes, and dreams, and yearnings, and time flew by in spite of that. Soon it will be over, and most of the things I wished for this year will never be more than wasted potential – a small blip in time that was meaningful and precious and over before it began.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about 4th year, it’s that it’s not a time for new beginnings (there have been many, in spite of this). It’s a time for closure (as if such a thing exists!). This is a year weighed down by legacy; the past three years are breathing down my neck, praying I’ll give them meaning. I don’t want to make sense of the past, I don’t want closure. I don’t want to run around in circles, chasing my own tail, piecing together a jigsaw puzzle that doesn’t matter anyway.
I like to focus on the details. I am an analytical person by nature. I look for patterns, purpose, systems to follow. From the outside, it may look like I view life as a scientific experiment, a puzzle to be solved. In reality, I don’t trust myself to adapt to new environments quickly, so I look for clues to help me understand my surroundings. But there’s a difference between preparing for an exam, and looking at grades you’ve already received and telling yourself “THIS is how I could have done better”. The future is a puzzle for me to solve, but the past is not. I look at old photographs where hands are held, or eyes sparkle, or I glow with a vibrant happiness that is almost unrecognisable to me, and I glue them together in a mental scrapbook like they have something to say. Nostalgia is like bindweed, and no matter how often I prune it back, it will always try to strangle me.
My brand of weed killer is discipline. There is a collection of entities that converge on the tip of my tongue before I speak, that fall under the umbrella term of “Eliza”. You may know me as a dramatic hopeless romantic, an affectionate attention-seeker who can’t hold her drink, a teacher’s pet, a witty intelligent woman who always has something to say, an actress, an improvisor, a writer, a mum friend, a passionate feminist, a person who inexplicably always wears purple… I am all of these things, and I often get lost in them. I forget there is this other side to me: I am ambitious, determined, resilient. More than that, I am capable of committing to things and seeing them through. Admittedly, I am selective about what I commit to. But I spent seven years writing and rewriting my novel The Purest Form of Chaos, I have been vegan for almost four years, I have travelled to Estonia every year for three years. When something is important to me, I work hard for it. If I keep coming back to something time and time again, it means I’ve found something more powerful than my boredom. I have deep reserves of discipline, because I use it so sparingly.
As the final act of this play draws to a close, it’s time to be selective about what stories I tell. I still have a chance to choose which character I want to be. I don’t want to spend the next few months trying to spot the generic conventions in my life and convince myself the plot will all add up in the end. That story is over. I am the writer and director and actor, and I am steering this ship.
I don’t know which connections will stay with me after graduation; I take nothing for granted. Instead of spending the next few months focused on movies with no endings and songs paused before my favourite line, I want to focus on what’s real. This is not a time for “what if?”s, it’s a time for creativity and friendship and making memories.
Earlier today, I sat in my Film & Cosmopolitanism lecture, with my head tilted to one side, looking at the red-and-black walls of the Gilmorehill cinema, and it occurred to me that one day soon, I will sit in that room for the last time. I had similar thoughts when I went into Partick Morrison’s to buy frozen blueberries tonight. There are so many things in my day-to-day life that I take for granted, and before I know it, they’ll be gone.
I will always be the first to defend fantasy – fantasy made me who I am (whether I’m referring to the fiction genre or my own delusions, that’s for you to figure out). But right now, I want what’s real. I don’t mean Zavattini, Italian Neorealism, let’s-spend-two-hours-focusing-on-someone-buying-shoes real, but I want my last months at university to be grounded in reality. I don’t want to reach the end of the final act, and wake up to find out it was all a dream.