Friday, 11 February 2011

Creative Restrictions

Children's writers are a sensitive bunch, especially when it comes to criticism from the more high-and-mighty elements of the cultural world. The recent furore regarding Martin Amis's inflammatory comments is proof of that. What interested me most was not the cheap jibes that Amis was bandying around, but this statement:
"The idea of being conscious of who you're directing the story to is anathema to me, because, in my view, fiction is freedom and any restraints on that are intolerable."
The implication was clear. By imposing restrictions on themselves, children's writers are diluting their art. Unlike the poor, starving, visionary artist that is Martin Amis, we are prostrating ourselves at the altar of commerce. I don't need to point out the steaming pile of hypocrisy here - you can smell it from halfway across the internet.

But are restrictions really such a bad thing? My go-to guy for this particular discussion is Lars von Trier, the Danish filmmaker who has made a career of working with one arm tied behind his back (metaphorically speaking - though if you suggested he make a movie with one arm actually tied behind his back, he'd probably do it.)

Von Trier's work includes such films as Dancer in the Dark, Breaking the Waves, Dogville and the amazing TV hospital horror series The Kingdom. His work divides critics and audiences. Everything he does is in some way brilliant, and sometimes brilliantly unwatchable. I have, for instance, had an unopened Blu-ray copy of his recent uber-horror Antichrist on my shelf for about six months, and just the thought of watching it kind of scares me.

In 1995, von Trier joined with three other Danish directors to form the Dogme 95 Collective, which was a movement intended to purify film through the removal of artifice. The Dogme directors believed (or claimed to believe) that great films were only possible by removing all of the special effects and post-production trickery that was endemic in the industry, allowing audiences to concentrate on a naturalistic story and performances. Each film made under the collective's banner had to conform to ten specific rules, or the "Vow of Chastity," which is reproduced below:

  1. Filming must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in. If a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found.

  2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. Music must not be used unless it occurs within the scene being filmed.

  3. The camera must be a hand-held camera. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted. The film must not take place where the camera is standing; filming must take place where the action takes place.

  4. The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable (if there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera).

  5. Optical work and filters are forbidden.

  6. The film must not contain superficial action (murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)

  7. Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden (that is to say that the film takes place here and now).

  8. Genre movies are not acceptable.

  9. The film format must be Academy 35 mm.

  10. The director must not be credited.

You can instantly see how restrictive this was, yet many more filmmakers from around the world flocked to be included in the project. To date, 38 films have been made that conform to the Vow of Chastity. Apart from Festen (which was the very first), none of them have been out-and-out classics, but all were produced on tiny budgets and are full of fascinating ideas. Von Trier himself only made one Dogme film (The Idiots) but the styles of filmmaking he explored have coloured his work ever since.

In 2003, von Trier made perhaps his most provocative and interesting film, the little seen The Five Obstructions. It's nominally a documentary, but like everything von Trier touches, fact and fiction blur, and the whole film is filled with a joyous playful anarchy. The premise is simple: von Trier challenges his mentor Jørgan Leth to remake his 1967 short film The Perfect Human five separate times. Each time, von Trier will specify one rule (or obstruction) that Leth will have to follow. The first version, for instance, has to be made in Cuba with no shot allowed to be longer than 12 frames (half a second). As the documentary goes on, von Trier's demands become more and more outrageous, and Leth produces more and more dazzling work. As well as being very funny, it's a great demonstration of how severe restrictions can produce great art.

Leth has to keep an audience in mind at all times, that audience being his friend and nemesis Lars von Trier. My belief is that to create something brilliant, we all need an audience to work towards. A prospective audience spurs us on to produce writing accessible to at least one person other than ourselves, and gives us an expectation of approval. Without that goal in mind, it can sometimes be hard to keep going or to shape the work via subsequent drafts. Our choice of audience sets restrictions on a piece of writing from the very first page.

Something that Martin Amis seems unwilling to admit is that he too – consciously or unconsciously – operates under a whole set of restrictions. Such as only writing for smug, middle-aged, middle-class men.



  1. You know what I'm finding curious about all this is has anyone actually challenged Amis face to face about what he said. I mean, why did he say it, was it really his intention to be offensive, was it perhaps some kind of throwaway remark, is he perhas simply not cognisant of the reality of children's literature?
    People have been really angered by his remarks, and understandably so, but two things strike me, the man is entitled to his opinions (it is after all only an opinion, not the truth), and I can't help but wonder what's on the other side of the coin and what prompted him to say what he did. That's something I'd like to understand first, before forming a view on the subject.

  2. Do Children's authors feel free to write like Amis?

  3. Perhaps Amis is just out of touch - I believe that once upon a time it was thought by some people that writing for children was inferior - perhaps because they believed children themselves to be inferior to adults?

    Lesley M

  4. Perhaps it is by actually self-imposing restrictions that there there comes a freedom to concentrate on other things.

  5. The freedom to disregard the reader and write what you like can only be enjoyed by a very, very few hyper-successful literary stars. Amis makes it sound like something all writers should aspire to, rather than an attitude that will sink most authorial careers before they even get off the ground.

    I watched and enjoyed the episode in question. Amis's 'brain damage' comment came out of the blue and had little bearing on the subject of heroe's in literature. I can't help wondering if the BBC left it in in the hopes of a little controversy.

    Mostly though I think we can just ignore what martin Amis thinks. He obviously knows nothing about contemporary children's literature.