Determining why I loved a film is usually much harder than itemising everything I hated about one. With Yesterday I left the screening with some fairly solid clues about my fervour.
I’ve never liked The Beatles. While intellectually I recognise their cultural significance — even if, I’ve had many stoushes questioning whether it’s all been a tad excessive — and while I can objectively see songwriting and production prowess, it’s never been music I’d choose to listen to. Not being a fan meant that not only did I enter the cinema with subterranean expectations, but no emotional attachments to the songs or the stories behind them.
While I can praise Yesterday as an example of a romcom —a genre I usually avoid —that’s been done distinctively charmingly, I mostly appreciated it as a sweet and insightful treatise on creative inspiration. On its source, of its use, on its ownership.
Before the screening I’d been sitting in a café working on an article. In a lull between sentences, I watched two men enter and hover near the counter. Eventually they caught the attention of the phone-diddling barista. The barista brightened quickly, seemingly finding their simultaneous arrival both coincidental and serendipitous. So much so, in fact, that she introduced the two newcomers: “Because you’re both writers,” she explained, “you’ll have loads to talk about.”
Years ago I’d been working at a University in the US. Not too far, in fact, from the one where I’m working at the moment. The head of my department there had been super enthused for me to meet “the other Australian” who was working elsewhere on campus. (A meeting I spent six months successfully avoiding).
The idea of being put in a room with someone purely because they came from the same country as me has always seemed bizarre. What would such a conversation consist of? Back then—while I was never going to meet the fellow Australian, I did, neurotically, ponder our conversation several times — my thoughts always went to Homer Simpson putting the cat and the dog in the bag and shaking it. My new imaginings borrow from a disproportionately lauded (and hideously overpriced) comedy show I attended in Melbourne earlier this year. The comedian had recently moved from Australia to the US: a move that apparently exposed her to many “hilarious” differences between the two countries. No one in America has any idea what a doona is! Hysterical! (Are we really still doing such material? In 2019? I digress).
So what do two random writers have to talk about? Two random writers, incidentally, who presumably just came to the café to work? If you actually write — rather than talk endlessly about wanting to write — eventually words have to hit the page, unfettered by conversations with randoms.
I, of course, eavesdropped enough to find out.
The taller man, dressed in a red tracksuit, had apparently recently read Stephen King’s On Writing. He proceeded to present a detailed book report. The shorter, balder man, dressed in shorts and thongs, kept hesitantly interjecting to say that he’d already read the book. While Red Man rabbited, Thong Man quietly went about his business of setting up his caffeinated workstation. The start-up chime of his laptop did nothing to thwart Red Man’s lecture.
The bit of the book that Red Man seemed fixated on — one anecdote he kept telling over and over again in a variety of convoluted ways — was how so many of the books King is most famous for (he named Cujo and Carrie) were written under the influence of drugs. From what I could ascertain — Red Man was, afterall, talking super fast, in circles, and with much wild gesticulating — was that he’d stumbled onto a foolproof template for creative success that he was keen to action.
I was watching the scene unfold, both wanting to finish my article but also keen to see how Thong Man extricated himself. As it turned out, there wasn’t so much of an ending as a modern era ghosting: Thong Man just did one of those polite final nods, inserted his earphones and zoned out. And Red Man, unperturbed, continued the conversation by subbing in the reluctant barista.
Intellectually, I’m with Thong Man, and on the necessity to just get the work done. While I’m not sure I agree with the division of labour in the oft-quoted inspiration/perspiration equation, writing is predominantly work. I can get an idea, spend 40 minutes pouring it out as an article — only lowering the pen when a full draft appears before me — but the real work takes place after that first purge. Not only work in deciphering my lacklustre handwriting, but in the editing, in the finessing, in turning awkward phrases into something occasionally zingy. It’s work.
And yet, there’s also part of me — the part, for example, that doesn’t think I could write as well if I were too sane or too happy — who thinks that Crazy Red Man has a point.
I’ve never written anything — and I say this as someone who’s objectively written quite a lot — and not finished it and wholeheartedly believed that that’s the end of it; that that’s the very last time I’ll be able to do it. Writing is thoroughly enjoyable for me and I’m nearly always in my pleasant place if there’s a pen in my hand or my fingers are clacking across a keyboard. But every time I click ‘send’ or ‘publish’, without exception I suspect it’ll be the last time. The last time I have a good idea. The last time I construct a coherent sentence. The last time I finish something worth publishing.
I don’t have too much professional self-doubt and the whole ‘imposter syndrome’ thing is something I shook off long ago. But there’s definitely a part that hasn’t fully taken ownership of my own ideas, of my own process. (Even talking about a ‘process’ seems like a level of wankery that continues to bristle). And there’s apparently part of me that believes, not in divine inspiration and certainly not in a King-ian coke-fuelled writing frenzy, but that there’s nonetheless something “magical” that ignites the process each time. While logically I know it’s not really like that, and that each epiphany is actually just a logical culmination of all the work — all the reading and writing and thinking — apparently I’m also a little convinced of the idea of spark, of romance. Of inspiration being somehow ephemeral.
Yesterday takes the messy ideas of creative inspiration and perspiration, of imposter syndrome, of vague notions of muses, and weaves them around a happy little story of the only man on earth who remembers The Beatles in the aftermath of a global blackout.
I’m trying very hard not to overthink my love of the film. To not dissect why I cried so much during the last half. In no small part though, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable exposition on what it means to produce art, and a lovely, gentle pondering about the point were you feel comfortable claiming creativity as your own.
Lauren Rosewarne is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Melbourne and currently a Visiting Professor at Wesleyan University. Her tenth book Sex and Sexuality in Modern Screen Remakes will be published later in 2019.