Why the Oscars are ludicrous – and my own completely pointless opinions on the best films of the year

Any of you who have been on this blog in the last couple of months or have spoken to me during that time will know I’ve been going to the cinema a lot lately. A LOT. The only Best Picture nominated film I haven’t seen yet is Boyhood- and that’s because I’m annoyed with them for making it just about boys, when as far as I’m aware, the story follows a girl too. Because nothing happens to girls as they grow up. It’s all plain sailing.

I love this time of year when so many good films come out, and I like to see as many of them as I can. Then I enjoy hearing who won and deciding whether I agree – and usually getting annoyed when the one film I haven’t got round to seeing is the one I haven’t seen yet so I can’t really have an opinion. I’m glad Birdman won at the Oscars last night partly because at least I’ve seen it and can say, yeah, I liked it.

But I was also very annoyed with the nominations this year, like so many people, because they ignored David Oyelowo’s performance in Selma. And the more I thought about that, and about other aspects of the awards, the more I decided that they really mean very little. I’ll explain myself more as I go along, but the first thing I want to point out is who exactly is voting for these Academy Awards. (I’m going to stick mainly with the Oscars, partly because that’s the one I’ve got the statistic for, but you can probably extrapolate the points out to other award ceremonies.)

According to a recent survey conducted by The Los Angeles Times, Oscar voters are on average 63 years old. 76% of them are men, and 94% of them are white.

I don’t suppose that’s really a surprise to anyone. But it’s still ridiculous. It’s a shame we don’t have a statistic on how many are straight and how many are gay. That might be illuminating too.

So based on the fact that these awards are really pretty arbitrary, and decided by a bunch of old white men sitting around probably smoking cigars, I’m going to give you my own utterly pointless opinions on what the best films and best performances were. I don’t know much about films, although my brothers have been telling me I’m a film buff for years so perhaps I know more than I think I do. Either way, it might be an amusing read at least. Feel free to offer your own opinions and comments below!

Best Picture – Comedy

I’m notoriously indecisive so I’ll be picking my top three of everything, and I like the Golden Globes’ idea of having separate categories for drama and comedy – because how can you really compare a film that’s trying to make you laugh and one that’s trying to make you think? I believe Birdman falls into both of those categories, but I’ll judge it under this one.

Well, really, I think a special “wooden spoon” mention here has to go to Fifty Shades of Grey. Anyone who’s read my book review will know I was not impressed by this franchise, and I hear the filmmakers were forced to use the dialogue from the book, which would explain why it is laughably bad. And I mean literally, laughably. I have never laughed so much at a film that wasn’t supposed to be funny. It made me laugh more than any film has in ages. Just the way her mouth kept falling open every time he came near her, and the deadpan: ‘I want to fuck you into the middle of next week’ and the tearing apart of condom wrappers all the time: very, very funny. Good work, guys.

I really enjoyed Birdman, and thought it was a great comedy: particularly Edward Norton, who is just brilliant. I know a lot of people thought it was self-indulgent nonsense, but really, I enjoyed it. I don’t know that it took itself too seriously. I think it had a lot of honest points in there about what it’s like to grow older and not feel like you’ve achieved what you want to achieve.

One of the best films of the year for me was Pride. I’m surprised it didn’t get nominated for much – assuming it was in the right time frame, I can’t remember when they’re supposed to be out to qualify. But I thought this was a very funny, but also very touching film and I enjoyed it very much. I am waiting impatiently for it to be released on DVD (yes, I am not “down with the kids” and I still buy DVDs). I think it should have been out by now, there seems to have been a hold-up with it.

Top comedy for me was The Grand Budapest Hotel. Ralph Fiennes is so bloody funny in it, mostly because of his swearing, which comes out of nowhere in this beautiful, pastel-shaded world, and knocks you over the head. If you ever want a masterclass in how to swear effectively, watch this film.

Best Picture – Drama

Everyone who’s stood still long enough near me in the last couple of months will know how much I loved Whiplash. I’ve heard that people in the music industry are not happy with it, that it doesn’t portray what it’s really like and so on. I’m sure that must be annoying for those people, just as I sometimes find it difficult watching adaptations of books I’ve read where something isn’t how I think it should be. I don’t know a lot about being a professional musician, so no inaccuracies were going to bother me, and I think, in the film’s defence, it wasn’t trying to show a typical career: this is about one very specific relationship between a student and his teacher, and how much someone will try and chase a dream. I thought it was very affecting, with brilliant performances, and, of course, fabulous jazz music.

I feel sorry for the makers of The Imitation Game. I think that in many other years it would have swept the board. I thought it was fantastic and I don’t think I’ve met anyone else who didn’t like it. It’s a fascinating but completely heartbreaking story: I came out feeling quietly devastated, and I don’t think I spoke to anyone for the rest of the day. That’s got to mean it’s good.

I’m going to cheat, because these are my awards, and stick another two in here before I go for my number one. My number three is Love is Strange. While I think sometimes the emotion in the film was kept a little too flat, there were many deeply moving moments and it was a very honest look at love and family relationships. The scene when Alfred Molina comes round unannounced to see John Lithgow is just lovely.

My number two for best drama is Ida, a Polish film about a girl who believes she’s an orphan and is about to become a nun when she finds out she has an aunt, and that she’s Jewish. I think it’s won all the Best Foreign Film awards this year. I was thinking about that, and I wondered: why isn’t it just one of the best films? Why does there have to be a special category? Do people think a film can’t possibly be as good if it’s not in English? Is it because the budgets are smaller? The actors aren’t well-known? I don’t understand. I loved Ida. It’s quiet, deeply sad, and a story about a girl working out who she is when her world is turned upside down. I think a lot of people could relate to it.

My top film is Selma. This may partly because it’s the one I’ve seen most recently (apart from 50 Shades) but I don’t think I’ll change my mind. I have been thinking about it constantly since I walked out of the cinema and that’s always the best sign. I was shocked to find out that it’s the first film about Martin Luther King where he is the protagonist, the centre of the film’s story, without, as David Oyelowo has put it, a white man to hold his hand. I will never forget the scene when the protestors are chased back across the bridge by the police. The cinema audience was audibly distressed, and I was sobbing uncontrollably. If you haven’t seen it, please do so – if you can find a showing. I’m afraid it seems to have been given a remarkably limited run here.

Wow this is really long. I’ll just do best actors and actresses or we’ll be here all night. I have no idea how you judge Best Directors anyway.

Best Actor

I think Eddie Redmayne’s performance in The Theory of Everything is astonishing. Even before we know he is ill, I was looking at him thinking: ‘That’s Stephen Hawking’ not ‘oh there’s Eddie Redmayne.’ He is completely convincing throughout and I can completely see why he’s been given so many awards. But I think there are two performances this year I preferred.

One is Benedict Cumberbatch. I think in a year without Eddie Redmayne, he would have gone home with more. As my mum always says, it’s a lot easier to act a role which is loud, or eccentric, or requires some big change to your character and your physicality, than it is to play an ordinary person. Alan Turing was not an ordinary person, but obviously it’s a totally different role to Stephen Hawking. In many ways, it’s utterly ridiculous to compare them at all. I found Cumberbatch utterly heartbreaking as Turing, and although the story is sad enough by itself, I think it was his performance that made it quite so moving.

So my best actor, as you may have guessed, is David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King. You might think, oh, well that’s another easy role to play because he was such a charming man, such a good orator – it must be easy to play that well. And he is excellent in those bits, but he’s even better in the quiet moments, the doubting moments, and the painful moments. I am very sad and annoyed that he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar. It is difficult not to think that race played a part in it. His own opinion on it is that black actors are recognised more easily for roles in which they are subservient, and that people still have trouble recognising black people in roles where they are shaping their own futures. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s a compelling argument. You can see the interview where he argues this here.

Best Actress

I’ve struggled with this category, because although I’ve seen nearly all the big Hollywood films that have been nominated for lots of awards, only The Theory of Everything and Wild have leading actress roles. And you could argue that Wild has been largely ignored too, so really it’s just one. There are so few. I wanted to find a statistic on how many films there are with lead actress roles but the internet is not being helpful. Of the Lead Actress nominations, I’ve only seen The Theory of Everything and Wild – Still Alice isn’t out yet, and I missed Two Days, One Night and Gone Girl – the former because by the time I realised it was out, it wasn’t showing anywhere, and the latter because I tried to read the book and got too annoyed with the characters to continue. So this is rather an arbitrary “award.” I’m trying to think of what else has been out in the last year with a lead actress in it, but I can only think of The Hunger Games, and I didn’t see that either (because they had the effrontery to split it into two films when there isn’t enough plot).

Continuing my theme of putting foreign language films in with the English films, my first best actress is Agata Trzebuchowska for Ida. She doesn’t speak much, but conveys a lot of emotion and feeling with her looks and her body language. Somehow, even though she does so little, you know exactly what she’s thinking. These are my favourite pieces of acting: I’m still annoyed that Gary Oldman didn’t get the Best Actor Oscar for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The man just turned his head slightly and you knew what he was thinking. But no, give it to that French chap in The Artist. Tsk.

I loved Felicity Jones’s performance in The Theory of Everything. She has this burning, fierce anger that carries her through most of the film, through all the tough moments and the horrible dilemmas. I thought she was completely believable.

My best actress is Reese Witherspoon in Wild. She takes a fairly unsympathetic character, and makes you root for her and understand what she’s been going through. Carrying so much of the film alone, as I doubt anyone else has enough time to even be a supporting role, she does an incredible job and it’s a film that has stayed with me in the weeks since I saw it. She avoids being cheesy or melodramatic, which would have been very easy. I thought it was a wonderful performance.

I’m disappointed not to be able to ‘mix it up’ more from the films and awards that have been picked out by all the award ceremonies already. I just had a look at what else I’ve seen in the last year, and most of them weren’t really in the same field: while X-Men: Days of Future Past is clearly a classic, I’m not sure it beats any of these. It’s a shame there aren’t more award ceremonies which can see anything and everyone on an equal footing: I’m still irritated by the ratios of sex, colour and age in the people deciding these awards: it’s silly that they’re so highly regarded when the decision is so arbitrary. What were your favourite films? What have I forgotten?

NB: This post is subject to editing when I remember a film I loved and forgot to put in, or I see a new film and it changes my mind about everything.

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Regrets // Wild

“What’s your biggest regret?” It’s always one of those million-dollar questions in interviews, or in magazines, or on the Humans of New York facebook page (if you don’t follow that, you should – it’s amazing). If any of you are anything like me, you get caught up sometimes thinking about what might have been, or whether things would be different if you’d just, or feeling bad about the time you wasted when. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that things that seem bad when we look back at them were total mistakes, or that something we’re enjoying now we should have started earlier.I sometimes regret staying in publishing for four years, and not starting my Masters sooner. I wonder if I regret staying in a relationship for three years when I was younger, when the guy was clearly an idiot and no good for me. I wish I’d started dancing when I first came to London, because by now I’d be really really good.

I went to see the film Wild recently, which is about a woman who has made mistakes and done lots of things that she thinks she regrets. But in the end, she says to herself: If I could go back, I wouldn’t do a single thing differently. Because everything I did brought me to this place. What if I forgive myself? This sounds cheesy and like something out of Psychologies magazine. But really, it’s true. If I hadn’t done those jobs in publishing, I wouldn’t have met some great people who I still see regularly several years later. I might not yet have discovered the author Patrick Rothfuss, or indeed have EVER discovered Patrick Rothfuss (and that is terrifying). I started my Masters at the time when I felt ready to do it – I needed time out from university after my degree, and if I’d started it at any other time, I wouldn’t have met the people I did meet, and am meeting, and that would be a loss. If I’d tried to go dancing when I first came to London, I might have been too intimidated after one or two classes (considering that walking down the street in London was frightening for me at the time) and I might have got put off and never gone back.

That early relationship is a more difficult thing not to regret, because it’s harder to pinpoint what I gained from it. Often the one thing I can palpably take away from relationships is new music, which sounds trite but actually often has a big influence on me. I wouldn’t have got heavily into Pink Floyd without this boyfriend. I might never have listened to King Crimson. I wouldn’t have applied for, and won, Live 8 tickets. A recent abortive non-relationship may look from the outside like a total waste of time, but I found a couple of new bands through it, and was introduced to a film I liked so much I bought it for my Dad for his birthday.

In a way, I think it’s impossible to regret anything because so many things are hinged on the tiniest movements of fate, or chance, or whatever you want to call it. My favourite story to illustrate this is: I would not be sitting here if I hadn’t watched The Pianist in the summer between GCSEs and A Levels. The sixth form college I was going to had three history programs, Medieval, Tudor, and Modern, and for some reason I was down to do Tudor. But I watched The Pianist, and it changed my mind. Somehow I’d got to the age of 16 in the British education system without ever being taught about the Nazis, so although I knew the basic facts (I still remember in year 2, aged about 6, in a game about numbers, the number on the wall ‘6 million’ as the number of Jews killed by the Nazis, and not getting my head around it at all – I still haven’t) I’d never been taught why they hated the Jews so much. The particular scene which struck me like a hammer was when the Nazis go into a Jewish house, and order everyone around the table to stand. But there’s an old man in a wheelchair that physically can’t. So they tip him out of the window. All I could think was “WHY?”. So I switched my course to Modern history, which was about the Nazis and then the Russians. I had a teacher who showed me what learning history is supposed to be like: not dry and dull and difficult, but invigorating and intriguing and endlessly, endlessly interesting. I was down to do English Literature at university but after I got a decent AS level in history I switched. Without watching that film I probably wouldn’t have known how bottomless-ly fascinating I find history, studied it at university, and gone on to study it at Masters level. It’s very odd to think how much of my life twists on the decision to rent The Pianist from the local library (don’t close the libraries!!).

So really, how can I regret any of the things that, in retrospect, seem like mistakes? Something tiny that happened because of one of those people, times or places might have triggered something else which is now something I enjoy, or led me to meet somebody who is now very important to me. Like Cheryl Strayed in Wild, I wouldn’t do anything differently – because who knows where I would be if I had? Of course, if I had done English at university, maybe I would have met the love of my life by now, and maybe I’d have worked out what career I’m supposed to be doing and be cracking on with it. But it’s pointless to speculate, because it’s all a fiction. And, quite likely, I wouldn’t. Possibly I’d have dropped out of university because literary criticism makes me want to kill people, and I’d still be living with my parents to the point where even they get tired of the sight of me, and I would have no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but be in a much worse place to view it from.

I haven’t the slightest idea what I’m going to be doing or where I’m going to be a year from today. I had hoped that doing this Masters for two years would have given me time to work out what I want to be doing with myself. Apparently it’s not long enough. To some people that makes it seem like a waste of time – people are always asking me what I’ll do afterwards and are shocked that I don’t know, that I’ve spent two years and too much money on this course without a plan for what to do with it. But I can’t regret doing the Masters (and it ain’t over yet) because of the people I’ve met, and the job I’m doing now, and the place I’m living, and that I’m going dancing, and that I’m writing this blog – because it’s very likely that none of those things would have happened if I hadn’t done the Masters. So although I’m terrified that I only have five weeks of classes left, and then just the dissertation, and that the time out I bought myself from life is nearly over, I can’t regret it. And I refuse to think that I’ve wasted it. As one very wise person said, ‘time you have enjoyed is never time wasted.’ As long as whatever you’ve done is what, at the time, you wanted to do, you shouldn’t regret a moment of it.

Insomnia // Lost in Translation

I first saw Lost in Translation when I was fifteen. I didn’t like it at the time. I didn’t understand why a young woman would find a much older man attractive, and I don’t think I liked that these grown-ups still didn’t know what they wanted and were still struggling through life. As time has gone on, I’ve come to relate to it more and more. It’s now a film I watch over and over again (and, I now completely get why Scarlett Johansson fancies Bill Murray).

I relate to Charlotte, Scarlet Johansson’s character, more than most other characters I’ve seen in film. So many of her lines feel like they’re from my own life:

‘What do you do?’ ‘I’m not sure yet, actually.’

‘I’m stuck.’

‘I just don’t know what I’m supposed to be.’

‘I’m so mean.’

But the bit that gets me more than any other is when she can’t sleep. I’ve struggled with insomnia on and off since I was a child. I remember having a particularly bad few weeks when I never wanted to go to bed, because I was so frightened of not sleeping, and then lying there awake for one hour, two hours, before getting up and telling my parents tearfully that yes, I was still awake. My dad would take me back to bed, and try and persuade me that even just lying there and resting would help, even if I didn’t get to sleep. It worked a little, but I would still get that panicky feeling when no matter what, I just couldn’t go to sleep.

Sleepovers were not aptly named for me. I didn’t sleep a single wink at friend’s houses or when people stayed over at my house. You might think I’m being silly, and I must have slept a little, but I can promise you I didn’t. The next day I would fall asleep in the afternoon, no matter what was going on. Once a friend was round and I just fell asleep anyway (Sorry, Kirsty!).

More than anything else, I hate the desperate loneliness of being awake surrounded by people who are asleep. It’s an awful feeling, and you can see that Charlotte has that too, lying next to her husband for hours, waiting for sleep that never comes, eventually prodding him awake in hope of solace. But then he’s asleep again within seconds, and the frustration is palpable. I know that frustration. Insomnia is all made up of frustration, and that desperate panic you get when you realise how little time is left until morning and that you’ll have to spend another day on half-power.

Sometimes I can fall asleep quite easily – nowhere near as fast as other people, I think if I fall asleep within half an hour I’ve done well – but then I wake up in the early hours. It’s very, very rare for me to sleep all the way through the night. A bit like a newborn baby. I write down most days how I slept and it would make very odd reading to anyone with a normal sleeping pattern: ‘Okayish sleep. Woke up around 4 or 5, and at 6.30.’ ‘Good sleep – woke up at half 5, 8, 9.’ What that means is I’ve woken up feeling fairly rested. Other times it’s not so good: ‘Crap sleep. Took over two hours to drop off, woke up at 5, woke up at 7.30.’ ‘Woke up at 3.30, couldn’t sleep for ages for no reason.’ The worst of this is that I’m a naturally early riser. Yes, I know, I’m a freak of nature. It is not cool to be a lark instead of an owl. It doesn’t mean I don’t like lie-ins – I do. I just function a lot better if I get up early. It does mean though that if I’ve been waking up half the night, I can only occasionally sleep in to catch up (apart from the days when I have to be up for work, when obviously I can’t sleep in anyway). The latest I’ve slept to in years is 10am. People gape at me when I tell them I like getting up early. One of these days I’ll find someone else who likes it too. So far the only other early risers I know are my dad and my brother, so maybe it’s genetic.

I don’t know exactly what causes the awful sleeping. I tried giving up alcohol to see if it helped but it made no difference. It may well be some kind of stress but it doesn’t matter what’s going on, sometimes I’ll sleep and sometimes I won’t. I do have a habit of rehearsing angry arguments in my head before I go to bed, and obviously that isn’t going to help. When that happens, I listen to ‘Stay Awake’ from Mary Poppins, the song when she’s trying to get the children to go to bed with reverse psychology. Just thinking about it makes me yawn.

I still struggle enormously sleeping at other people’s houses, not least because the years of bad sleeping mean I am now a fussy sleeper. I have a before bed routine, and I don’t feel right if I haven’t done it. It’s nothing weird, just doing everything in roughly the same order and making sure I have water and so on and so forth, but sometimes staying away from home means there are things missing and I hate that. I put on bed socks when I get into bed even if my feet are already hot, just so I can push them off. So if I don’t have the bed socks, it’s annoying.

I also still find it difficult being around other people when I sleep, mainly because of sleep envy when they fall asleep so damn quickly. A friend stayed over recently and I could have smothered her – she fell asleep in seconds! Seconds! How do people do it?! It works the other way too, though: I was in a relationship for a long time, and then I couldn’t sleep when he wasn’t there.

I’m hopeful that as I get older I’ll come up with better methods of sleeping. I don’t want to be like Bill Murray, awake all night even in middle age. (Although if I get to talk to Scarlett Johansson instead, I might stay awake on purpose.) I haven’t tried getting up and doing other stuff when I can’t sleep, because it feels like giving in and I know I won’t sleep if I’m in the kitchen reading a book. It’s such a shame that I’m so bad at something I love so very much. Perhaps one day I’ll learn the secret, and sleep through to some really wild time – maybe even as late as half-past ten.

Love // Blue Valentine and The Theory of Everything

I read a letter to an agony aunt recently from a woman with two children who’d been single for a long time. She’d built up her career, moved house and raised her children to an age where they were fairly self-sufficient. And now she said she wanted love. She wanted a new partner in life. The response from the agony aunt, after congratulating her on how successful she already was, encouraged her to think of love not just in terms of finding a new romantic partner – in her words, if this woman ‘lowered her standards enough, she could find someone in a week’ – but to seek fulfilment in other kinds of love too, through meeting new people and getting involved in new projects, giving something back to the community, and so on. It is easy to be cynical about this kind of response. Most of us want to find a romantic partner in life, and there is a lot of pressure in society to do so. But there are many different kinds of love, and a couple of films I’ve seen recently have made me think about how love changes over time, and about the different bonds people carry through their lives. One is The Theory of Everything, which I found touching and uplifting because although the love between Stephen and Jane changes, it doesn’t disappear. The other is Blue Valentine, another film about a couple whose love changes, but sadly it twists into something unrecognisable, making the whole thing remarkably bleak.

Both films show these young couples on their wedding days, the moment when Disney films would stop rolling the camera. We all expect this one great love will last forever, partly because of all these cultural examples we’re given from such a young age. Blue Valentine is so painful because you can almost see where the cracks in their relationship come from – the pressures of money, and of very different careers, creating a path of broken dreams which chips away at what was so beautiful and genuine. It is summed up best for me in the lyrics of Coming Up Easy by Paolo Nutini: ‘It’s a shame -the way it seems to go / Because now my best friend, my partner in crime / I’m afraid it looks like we’re gonna have to go our separate ways / You see the thing is I love you, I love you, but you see I resent you all the same / And all my other friends they’re just saying you’re slowing me down.’ Sometimes life changes people too much, and changes the dynamic in a relationship more than people can cope with, without it being anybody’s fault.

Both films are difficult to watch because these couples get together in difficult circumstances, surmounting the odds, and then you watch how life gets in the way of what was so hopeful. But it doesn’t have to end with such bitterness and anger as in Blue Valentine. I really liked how The Theory of Everything was marketed as a love story, even though they aren’t still together. It is still a love story – at the end of the film they do still love each other, just in a different way. Even though a relationship which looked so picture perfect at the start, despite all the problems they faced, didn’t end up lasting until the end, their relationship didn’t die. It’s the saddest thing when you see couples who have been together for years begin to hate the person that they shared so much with.

The most painful bit for me of ending relationships has been not just losing a partner, but losing a best friend. Someone you’ve spoken to every day for years is suddenly cut off from you, for months at least, or forever if you can’t manage to change into a friendship. If you can achieve that change, it must produce some wonderful love. Often the love between friends is the strongest, I think – it doesn’t have any of the extra pressures of family love or romantic love, which is probably why it lasts so long in many people’s lives. I have a friend today I’ve had my entire life, and although our lives have gone in wildly different directions, seeing each other is the same as it’s always been. I have other friends from university who, true to the cliché that you make best friends at university, I am very close to – again, sometimes without seeing them for months at a time. In the last year or so, I’ve had the enormous joy of making a lot of brand new friends, either from being back at university, or from dancing, or from the sheer luck of moving in with strangers who turn out to feel like new brothers and sisters (without the constant piss-taking I actually get from my brothers whenever I see them). Making friends as you get older is like getting unexpected presents. Unlike with trying to find a partner in life, you don’t go out seeking new friends. Text and email conversations are tears-of-relief-inducing in their uncomplicatedness, and getting to know people is just sheer enjoyment. And suddenly you find that you have a whole extra batch of people sending you messages of support when they know you’re having a tough time, and to plan trips and fun and games with. I love it.

To borrow from a third film I’ve seen recently, Birdman: What do we talk about, when we talk about love? I think in some ways it’s silly that we only have one word covering such a range of emotions and connections, particularly as it is so often hijacked to only mean romance and Valentines’ Day (FYI, email distribution lists, I am going to start unsubscribing from all of you who keep trying to peddle expensive Valentines’ Day crap at me three times a day. LEAVE ME ALONE). Of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to find a partner, and it is something I want too, being a bit of a romantic – albeit one becoming steadily more cynical at the bizarreness of dating. But what those two films, Blue Valentine and The Theory of Everything, made me realise is that love isn’t static, it changes and adapts and sometimes there’s nothing you can do to keep it the way it was at the beginning – and that doesn’t have to be as depressing as it sounds. And through it all, keep those friends who know you well enough to give you the things you want and need without you having to ask, and the people who you’re still as close to after months apart as you are when you see each other every week. I will leave you with some excellent advice I read recently (yes, on Pinterest. It’s a gold mine of inspirational life quotes): “If you gotta force it, just leave it alone. Relationships, friendships, ponytails… Just leave it.” Thank you, Reyna Biddy, whoever you are.

Ambition // Whiplash

I’ve recently seen the film Whiplash, about a young man who has a dream of becoming one of the great jazz drummers of the age. He is tutored by a teacher who pushes his students to, and sometimes past, their mental and physical limits. The teacher’s argument is that if you don’t push people beyond their own expectations, they will only ever be mediocre. These ideas tie in with a book I’m reading at the moment called Mastery: the author’s main argument is that to become a Master, a true great at something, isn’t just talent and luck but years and years of practice and hard work.

I find ambition an intriguing concept, being someone who often hasn’t felt particularly ambitious. For whatever reasons, it’s only quite recently that I’ve started believing I might be capable of doing what I want to do in life. For a long time I felt that I just wasn’t one of those people, that most things I just wouldn’t be able to do and I shouldn’t try because I’d make a fool of myself trying – and if there’s one things I’ve always hated, it’s making a fool of myself. I expect something happened to me when I was very young that set that in motion, but I can’t remember now what it was. I do remember being forced to sing the Calgon advert theme tune in front of a science class in high school, which was truly desperately embarrassing. Thank you, Mr. Davis, you total and utter [insert expletive here].

Anyway. One way or another, I got into a mindset that made me think even if I was trained to do something – like fly a plane – I just wouldn’t be able to do it. I’m getting a lot better rejecting this negative thinking now, and am a lot less worried about making mistakes and more willing to try at the things I want to be good at. But it’s difficult sometimes not being one of these people who has a burning something that they always wanted to do, deciding that they’re going to work and work and put themselves through hell to get to it. I’m wondering at the moment if that is the only way to get what you want, and to get to where you want to go. In which case, I need to decide exactly what it is I want to do pretty soon. I need to do that anyway, as if one more person asks me what I’m going to do after this Masters I’m going to kill them. But I’m worried that even if I do pick what I want, if there are too many issues then I’ll just change my mind.

In Whiplash, the boy meets a girl who has no direction in life. They don’t understand each other because they have such totally different outlooks on their future. I wonder, who would end up happiest? Someone who is happy to drift, and see what comes up, or someone who has a very set goal which they aim for every minute? One thing this Mastery book is suggesting is that getting the pleasure in life only from things outside life is depressing and a waste of all the time you spend working. Well, maybe so. But it’s difficult for everyone to do their dream job their entire lives. We still need people to work in McDonald’s, but whose dream job is it? (It actually was the dream job of a penfriend of mine when I was younger. Even at the time, aged about ten, I thought it was a bizarre thing to want to do in life. But then again, in China young people want to work in fast food restaurants because they’re often seen as signs of modernity and being culturally up-to-date. I’ve done an anthropology course on this, I’m not just making it up.) As someone who gets a lot of pleasure from hobbies, I think it’s harsh to tell people that opting for this way of life is wasting their time.

All this also throws up interesting questions for me about how important our psychological make-up is in creating our ambitions, and achieving our ambitions. There are many reasons why someone would decide not to set goals so that, by not achieving them, they feel more in control of their own life. Most of them are psychological obstacles. If you think you’re going to fail, you’ll probably fail. And if you think you’ll probably fail, you won’t even try. I think it’s extraordinary how people can train themselves psychologically to remove those obstacles, and achieve things that they never believed that they could. I think that’s the point of this film Whiplash. The boy shows enormous mental strength to keep pushing himself when he’s being pushed harder than he can stand. It seems that his unfaltering ambition makes him believe you should be able to take anything because that’s what’s required to get where you are going. I understood why he did it, but I marvelled at it. Sometimes it doesn’t work because in pushing yourself harder and harder towards your goal your mind breaks, especially if you’re being pushed as aggressively by someone as this man is. That’s what scares me about a burning ambition like that. What if you do break, and can’t get back up again? Then you’d need a new mental strength to change paths and not regret the path that didn’t work. I haven’t yet finished this Mastery book, but I will be interested to see if he offers any advice for what happens if you try and try and it doesn’t work out. Or maybe that’s not the point: that if you’re ambitious enough, and you work hard enough, you will get there – short of a physical issue that stops you, if it’s something physical you want to achieve. I suppose it’s all about how much you love the thing that you’re trying to do. Sooner or later, you’ll find out if you love it enough – you’ll either keep getting up or you’ll go down a different road. I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with either option, as long as it’s not an invisible psychological obstacle that makes you turn away. That’s the scariest thing.

Families // Foxcatcher

The end of 2014 and 2015 so far has been an emotional rollercoaster for me. There have been two deaths, my Grandad and the mother of a close friend, and two births amongst people I know well; on top of my Grandma being diagnosed with cancer (she already has dementia). I’m feeling a lot stronger than I would have if all this had happened this time last year, and definitely this time the year before, but it’s obviously still very emotional.

I’m not close to my grandparents; they’ve always lived quite a long way away and are very keen on spending most of the year on cruises (good for them), but it’s still strange when one of them dies or when they become very ill. They’re both my mother’s parents, which makes it worse as it’s so much for her to cope with all at once. I feel like I should have made more of an effort to see my Grandad, but it’s difficult with relatives who don’t seem that interested – should you invite yourself to stay with people who are essentially strangers? With my Grandma it’s tougher because I see her a few times a year. Her second husband (her and my Grandad broke up when my mum was about 20) died several years ago and as the dementia has got worse she’s become much more lonely. It’s heartbreaking. Her and my Mum have never really got on so times when she comes to stay have always been tense. It’s like most situations with your own parents: I can never really see what the problem is, but to Mum so many of the things Grandma says are tiny barbs, or cloaked insults. I normally go home when Grandma is visiting not just to see her, but to help Mum to cope and to help Dad cope with Mum. I realised this Christmas for the first time that I also need someone to help me, but that’s me again (by taking myself for a walk mainly).

Family is such a strange thing. We see these people, often out of obligation rather than pleasure, to avoid feeling guilty the rest of the year. A study of people travelling home for the holidays in America found that for a large proportion the reason they were bumping themselves up to First Class for the trip was to make themselves feel good before they had to see their relatives. Why do we keep seeing these people if they don’t make us happy? Why do we keep striving to impress people, because they’re our relatives, even though they make us feel small? I’ve been thinking about this particularly after watching Foxcatcher yesterday, which has some very complex relationships between a mother and a son, and between two brothers. I haven’t fully worked through what I think about it all yet but these are initial thoughts. The difficulty of having a parent who is disappointed in you, and doesn’t try to hide it even when you’ve done your best, must be one of the most destructive things for a person psychologically. Competing with a sibling and always feeling second best must be almost as bad. The love that continues between the two brothers in the film, despite everything, is something else. I suppose that’s the best side of family love: supporting someone even when all they’re throwing at you is hurt and hate, because you know them well enough and you love them enough to stay, to know where it’s coming from and that it’s not you they’re trying to hit, but the pain that’s inside themselves.

Although OBVIOUSLY people having babies is wonderful news, and I’m so happy for my friends who are new parents – or parents again (congratulations Lucy and Emily!) the news of new babies is also emotional for me. There’s a little bit of me that panics every time, making me feel a step closer to deciding if it’s something I want – even though it is by no means a pressing question at the moment. I genuinely don’t know if I want to have children at all. To a lot of people that will be very strange; I know a lot of people don’t need to think about it, that it’s a given for them that they want to be a mother or a father. I really haven’t made my mind up, so every time someone else is pregnant or has a baby, I panic both that it isn’t me and that it might be me someday. It isn’t helped by watching Call the Midwife with my Grandma (most depressing programme ever! I cried about five times without even knowing who all the characters were) and watching someone give birth. She started talking about how awful it was and how she had to do it four times, which was all pretty awkward, and then she asked me if I was looking forward to it. I told her I was hoping to avoid it, but she didn’t hear me so I just said yes so that I wouldn’t get a questionnaire on whether I want children or not.

These beginnings and endings are always difficult to cope with, especially when there are so many in such a short space of time. It’s a time when you start asking yourself a lot of questions too, even though it’s probably not a good time to do so when you’re in a heightened emotional state. I hope you’ve all had a good start to 2015- congratulations to anyone with new babies, and my sympathies to anyone who has lost somebody. To the rest of you, I hope you got through the break without murdering a relative who you only see because of the pressures of social convention, even though they tell you how to boil the kettle every time you walk into the kitchen. All families are weird – you aren’t alone.