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Moving pictures 2016, #5

Still catching up on these…

tere_nammTere Naam, Satish Kaushik (2003, India). After watching Deewaar, I stuck a bunch of Bollywood films on my rental list and the first to arrive was Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, which I really enjoyed… but the next one, Tere Naam, turned out to be something altogether different. The title means “in your name”, and the story is roughly based on that of Romeo and Juliet. Which makes it pretty dark for for what I’d expected of Bollywood – although the songs are still there, of course. Radhe is a “college rowdy” and head of the Student Union. Nirjara is the daughter of a priest, poor but a Brahmin. Radhe falls in love with Nirjara, but she doesn’t return his feelings. So he kidnaps her and forces her to fall in love with him. But then gangsters beat up Radhe, including repeatedly bashing his head against a railway locomotive’s buffer plate and giving him brain damage. He is consigned to hospital and then an ashram. In one of his infrequent moments of lucidity, he tries to escape but badly injures himself. Nirjara visits him but he is in a coma. So she goes home and commits suicide. Meanwhile, Radhe recovers – the coma has somehow fixed his brain damage – and escapes in order to see Nirjara… but, of course, she is dead. In amongst all this, we have typical Bollywood song and dance routines, the sorts of songs that rush through half a dozen musical genres in five or so minutes. There’s also lots of over-the-top fight scenes, with over-the-top sound effects. I’ve said before that Bollywood is “Hollywood turned up to eleven”, and this is as good an example of that as Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. It was dark, surprisingly dark, but still fun.

ashes_diamondsAshes & Diamonds*, Andrzej Wajda (1958, Poland). Wajda is one of Poland’s best-known directors but I seem to have missed out on most of his films – although I’ve watched a quite number of Polish directors; and have been a fan of Kieślowski’s work for a decade or more. Ashes & Diamonds is not Wajda’s only film to appear on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, both Man of Marble and Man of Iron are on there – both of which I’ve seen, and both of which I rate highly. But then the topic of those two films – a Stakhanovite worker, socialism, and the failures of Stalinism – appeals to me, but Ashes & Diamonds is set shortly after WWII and is about the war and its immediate aftermath, a subject I find less interesting. A group of resistance fighters, formed during the war to fight the Russians but still fighting into the 1950s – plan to assassinate a minor government official. The first attempt fails, when they gun down the two occupants of the wrong jeep. so they plan an attack during a celebratory dinner for the official. But one of the assassins falls in love with the barmaid at the hotel where he is staying, and has second thoughts. The other assassin gets pissed with a report, gatecrashes the dinner and causes havoc. The first assassin – who wears sunglasses because he ruined his eyesight during the Warsaw Uprising by spending so much time in the city’s sewers – manages to kill the target but is then chased and gunned down by soldiers. The film is shot in black and white and the damage the war caused is plain to see in every frame. Ashes & Diamonds is generally reckoned to be one of the best films to come out of Poland but, to be honest, I preferred the other two Wajda movies I’ve seen. It all felt a bit too obvious and self-conscious, a bit too similar to the US films which inspired it. But it probably still belongs on the list.

howtoHow To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, David Swift (1967, USA). You know when they take a Broadway musical and put it on the silver screen and use the original cast and the film sinks without trace because no one knows who the stars are… well, that’s probably what happened to this particular film. Who remembers Robert Morse and Rudy Vallee? Admittedly, the female roles were recast for the movie, although it doesn’t appear to have been a springboard to fame for any of them either. The plot follows a window cleaner who uses the advice in the eponymous self-help book to rise up the corporate ladder at the Worldwide Wicket Company (“wicket”, of course, means something completely different outside the US, so was a piss-poor choice of word). The film is meant to be humourous, but it’s hard to find the laughs in a story that not only encourages, but actually celebrates, back-stabbing, character assassination and workplace deception. Even if it does feature songs. None of which are memorable. I’m not sure why I rented this, it’s not like I’m a fan of musical films – although there several I like quite a bit – so perhaps it was because it looked like it might be one of those stylised 1960s technicolour films which can be fun. It wasn’t. Avoid.

wake_in_frightWake in Fright*, Ted Kotcheff (1971, Australia). With a title like Wake in Fright, and that somewhat lurid artwork on the eureka! edition DVD, I think can be forgiven for letting this film slip down the rental list. But eventually it arrived… and proved to be not at all what I’d expected. And very good indeed. A teacher at some godforsaken Outback station heads for Sydney for the Christmas holiday. This requires taking the train to Bundanyabba, a small town, and catching a flight from there. But in Bundanyabba, he falls in with the locals, spends all his money gambling – a game called “two-up”, which entails flipping two coins up in the air from a small wooden paddle – and then goes on a drunken binge which ends up with a group of them haring around the Outback in a ute, pissed as farts, shooting kangaroos. As a chronicle of one man’s descent into drunken depravity and degradation, this is pretty scary stuff. Donald Pleasance plays a good part as the alcoholic doctor the teacher falls in with, and even Chips Rafferty as the jocular local constable successfully exudes macho menace while ostensibly helping the teacher. A good film, worth seeing.

demyModel Shop, Jacques Demy (1969, France). I bought the Intègrale Jacques Demy box set just so I could see films like Model Shop, which weren’t available in UK editions. And while the DVDs in the set are well-presented, I’ve yet to be convinced Demy’s oeuvre was, in total, especially good. He was certainly variable. Model Shop is set in California, with a US cast. and filmed in English, and feels like the product of a US director. A young architect is called up for the Vietnam draft, goes to a model shop (a photographic studio specialising in erotica), spends a night with one of its models, only to find the next morning that his girlfriend has left him and his car has been repossessed. Model Shop is considered one of Demy’s most-underrated movies but to be honest all I can remember of it was that it felt very Californian and surprisingly not much like the Demy films I’d seen up to that point. Still, I have the boxed set so I can always rewatch it…

killing_fieldsThe Killing Fields*, Roland Joffé (1984, UK). I’ve had a copy of the soundtrack of this movies for, well, since its release, as it was composed and performed by Mike Oldfield and I was a Mike Oldfield fan (I suppose I still am, just not to the same level). So I knew the music, but not the film. But I knew mostly what the film was about – which was the Khmer Rouge’s seizure of power in Cambodia in the early 1970s. It focuses on a US journalist covering the civil war – played by Sam Waterson of Law & Order fame – and his Cambodian translator/guide/assistant, played by Haing S Ngor. When Khmer Rouge win the war and take power, Pol Pot begins his Year Zero policy. Waterson escapes back to the US, as does Ngor’s family, but Ngor himself is sent to a labour camp – and though Waterson tries to find him, he fails to do so. Fortunately, Ngor escapes and treks through the jungle to the border with Thailand, and is eventually re-united with his family. There’s not much you can say about Pol Pot’s regime – it was brutal, resulted in the death of a quarter of the country’s population, and so corrupted the high ideals which prompted it that those ideals themselves have been tainted by association. Joffé’s film is an efficient telling of the story, but I have to say Oldfield’s soundtrack is really intrusive. I used to like the album, but it felt completely out-of-place as I watched the film. A film that belongs on the list, I think, but not because it’s a great film.

chronicleChronicle of a Summer*, Edgar Morin & Jean Rouch (1961 France). An odd beast, this one. Two film-makers sent out a bunch of students to interview working people about their happiness. Later, they showed the interviewees the film and asked their opinion. And that’s pretty much it. Filmed in black and white, with a 16 mm camera and a prototype portable tape recorder, it’s little more than a series of conversations between people, some prompted by questions – which range from the banal to the pretentious – while those answering try not to appear too stupid but instead come across as pretty typical for the time and place. I can see why it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but it reminds me of Godard films like Masculin féminin and Une femme mariée, which I didn’t especially like or enjoy; and the banality of some of the encounters in Chronicle of a Summer make you wonder why you’re watching it. Meh.

demyLa baie des anges, Jacques Demy (1963, France). I said earlier that Demy’s output was variable – it’s not just the spoken-word versus sung-word films, more that some seem iconic whereas others feel anything but. Lola is an iconic film, with spoken dialogue; Les demoiselles de Rochefort is an iconic film, with sung dialogue. La baie des anges (The Bay of Angels) is just like Lola, a black and white film, starring Jeanne Moreau, which manages to perfectly capture a particular emotion of the time. A young man holidays in Nice, where he spends time gambling in the casinos. There, he meets Moreau, who looks and acts about as early-1960s French cinema as is humanly possible, a gambling addict who hangs around the casino. The two enter into a relationship. She tells him gambling will always come first for her. And so it does. This is a movie that relies style and presentation as much as it does story and, as mentioned earlier, comparisons with Lola are inevitable. And it compares favourably. Lola is on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, but it’s probably a toss-up between it and La baie des anges as to which should have made the cut.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 717


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Moving pictures 2016, #4

Yet more movies, some from the list, some not. I’m not entirely sure what criteria I use when picking non-list films, but it seems to work as often as not. I’ve got a bit behind with these posts, so there’ll be a several of these appearing on the blog in quick succession.

gambitGambit, Ronald Neame (1966, USA). A 1960s thriller with a twist in the tail, starring Michael Caine and Shirley Maclaine. Caine plays a shady type who plans to rob reclusive zillionaire Herbert Lom, and to do so he recruits Maclaine, a Hong Kong nightclub hostess who’s the spitting image of Lom’s dead wife. The plan is, the two travel to the Arab city of Dammuz, Lom’s home, as an English baronet and wife, Lom’s goons spot Maclaine’s resemblance, and so she and Caine are invited to dine with Lom in his private apartment… and then Caine steals Lom’s priceless Chinese statuette. Except things don’t go quite as smoothly as planned. Maclaine, for a start, proves more of a hindrance than a help, Lom quickly sees through Caine’s disguise, and the eventual robbery only succeeds more by luck than anything else. Not that any of it really matters, as that wasn’t the point of it all… Sadly, an interesting structure – a flawless run-through (ie, Caine’s explanation of the plan) followed by what actually happens – isn’t really enough to make this mostly charmless thriller stand out. There were a number of similar movies made in the 1960s and set in North Africa – Our Man in Marrakesh and Maroc 7 spring to mind – which also blithely trampled over local sensibilities in a bid for “local colour”, but they were more fun than this one. Caine’s po-face pretty much echoed my own as I watched this – but he at least was paid for his.

ten _commandmentsThe Ten Commandments*, Cecil B DeMille (1956, USA). You know the story of Moses from the Bible, right? As a baby sent down a river in a basket, rescued by Egyptian royals, who raised him as one of their own, but he sided with the Hebrew slaves (being Hebrew himself), and led them to safety by parting the Red Sea. and then there was something about a burning bush – WTF? I mean, I AM GOD AND I SHALL APPEAR IN A FORM WHICH WILL STRIKE AWE INTO MOSES, I SHALL APPEAR AS… A SHRUB ON FIRE! – and, of course, the Ten Commandments, zapped by God onto a giant piece of rock which proves handily portable. It’s a story so over-the-top it could only exist in a religious text or a Hollywood film. And here we have both. Super-entitled white man NRA spokesman Charlton Heston plays Moses, a Jew; Yul Brynner, a Russian, plays Rameses II, Moses’s Egyptian “brother” and later enemy. The story is blithering nonsense from start to finish and the characters are drawn with all the subtlety of a kids’ cartoon – but the sets are pretty impressive. Back when I was kid at school in Qatar, I was sent to Sunday School. It took place in the gym at the Doha English Speaking School, where I was a pupil. As far as I remember, all we did was colour in pictures depicting scenes from the Bible – my bright orange Jesus looked quite fetching. The Ten Commandments, well, it’s that. Pretty much.

la_roueLa roue*, Abel Gance (1923, France). Gance is perhaps best known for his 5½ hour epic movie about Napoleon – soon to be made available on DVD/Blu-ray by the BFI… and yes, it’s on my wants list. At 273 minutes, La roue is also an exercise in viewing endurance. The wheel of the title is that of a train, and while the story – told in a variety of silent movie presentations, with differently-shaped views, dissolves and even colour washes – is a fairly standard family melodrama set on and about the French railways, what’s most notable is the number of cinematic techniques Gance makes use of which subsequently became part of cinema’s common language. Like many of the more sophisticated silent movies of the period – the films of Carl Theodor Dreyer, for example – La roue is very talky, or, rather, there are a lot of intertitles, and a lot of story to get across in narrative text. Hollywood, at least, knew to minimise the text and let the moving pictures tell as much of the story as possible – and if that led to films consisting of little more than crudely-linked sight gags, they were at least entertaining. Which is not to say La roue is not – but European silent cinema, from my somewhat limited viewing experience, seemed to focus on narratives rather than pictures (although European cinema also had a strong tradition of strikingly designed sets, unlike Hollywood). Perhaps that’s unfair, perhaps it was simply a different approach to film-making – certainly the visuals in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc are impressive and arresting; but watching La roue is very much like watching someone create a new cinematic language, much of which you know will become universal. I had to buy a US import of this as no UK edition exists. A shame. Mind you, the same could be said of many of the more interesting films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list…

black_bellyThe Black Belly of the Tarantula, Paolo Cavara (1971, Italy). A serial killer injects his victims with the venom of the tarantula, paralysing them before he cuts out their heart. The tarantula is indeed venomous, but its venom causes hallucinations or muscle spasms (hence the tarantella), not paralysis. But never mind. The film basically comprises a series of murders of beautiful young women (of course), all by the same man, while a harried detective tries to figure out what’s going on. Eventually he finds a suspect… which leads to a chase up onto the roof of a quite impressive Brutalist office block. It’s all tied into a blackmail conspiracy based around a massage parlour, and a murderer who so obviously can’t be the murderer that he has to be the murderer. If that makes sense. Italian giallo can be fun, but they’re also usually rampantly sexist.

redsReds*, Warren Beatty (1981, USA). When actors direct films they’re usually vanity projects. True, there are actors who have gone on to have distinguished directorial careers, such as Ida Lupino. But most actor-directed films are usually pretty bad. Except Reds isn’t. The film is a biopic of John Reed, the US author who wrote Ten Days That Shook the World, about the Russian Revolution (adapted shortly afterwards by Sergei Eisenstein). Beatty plays Reed, and Diane Keaton is his long-suffering partner, Louise Bryant, who he charms away from her marriage, fails to encourag in her writing career, and then mostly neglects. Bryant ends up in an affair with Eugene O’Neill (played by Jack Nicholson at his most oleaginous), and then leaves for Europe to become a correspondent during WWI. Reed follows, the two rekindle their relationship and head to Russia, where they join in the revolution. After returning to the US, Reed writes his book and tries to build up the communist movement. But the various communists groups are all locked in internecine fighting – leading to a frankly bizarre party meeting which leads to a schism, and further inter-party fighting. Throughout the film, Beatty breaks away from his narrative to interview talking heads, real-life friends and acquaintances of Reed and Bryant, not all of whom thought highly of the pair or their relationship. I’ll admit I knew of the film prior to renting it, but had never seen it – it is, to be fair, 194 minutes long – and I wasn’t expecting much (see earlier comment re actors who direct). While the direction was efficient more than anything else, the story didn’t feel as though it were longer than it needed to be, and the use of the talking heads was inspired. I hadn’t expected Reds to be a movie that belonged on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, even though I knew it was generally well-regarded by critics. But, you know what, it does belong there. Worth seeing.

jeanne_dielmanJeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles*, Chantal Akerman (1975, France). This was my first Akerman. It was her first too. And, I have to admit, a hugely impressive debut. The film is three days in the life of Dielman and shows her, in unadorned detail, going about her daily activites. The camera remains mostly static, there is very little dialogue, and no incidental music. And yet it’s compelling viewing. There is a story there, but it comes out of Dielman’s actions, not from a narrative stringing together events or cause and effect. I bought the Criterion DVD of this, which is the only edition available. That’s surprising – you’d think it’d be available here. Admittedly, it took me a while before I got round to watching it… But I’ll be trying more of Akerman’s films, that’s for sure.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 713


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Moving pictures 2016, #3

Continuing the, er, continuing series of blog posts on my movie-watching. Once againm a nother varied selection, not all of which were from the list.

texas_chainsawThe Texas Chainsaw Massacre*, Tobe Hooper (1974, USA). Not a film I’d normally choose to watch, but it was on the list so… And no, I don’t know why it made the list. I don’t know enough about horror films to know if The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was seminal or heralded a sea change in the genre or anything like that. I can only judge it as the movie I watched. And in that respect, it did not fare well. It looked cheap – not necessarily a bad thing, it has to be said, as cheap and amateurish is what drove the whole found-footage craze of the late nineties, and, in most cases, it actually worked quite well (more so, it must be said, for the earlier films, such as The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, than for Hollywood’s jumps on the bandwagon like Cloverfield). But, anyway. Young hippies travelling across the US run into a bunch of psychotic freaks living in a farmhouse, murderous mayhem ensues. Involving chainsaws. Not being a fan of the genre, I saw nothing to admire or like in this film. I suspect fans of the genre would be hard-pressed too – other than perhaps its position in the history of horror films. Still, at least I can say I’ve now seen it and so can cross it off the list.

lesgirlsLes Girls, George Cukor (1957, USA). Three dancers accompany Gene Kelly (well, his character) on a tour of Europe: a Brit, an American and a French woman. The Brit later marries a member of the aristocracy and writes a kiss-and-tell memoir of the tour. The other two sue her because some of the details are less than accurate. So what we get is the same story, more or less, told from the point of view of the characters played by Kay Kendall, Mitzi Gaynor and Taina Elg, none of which actually agree. This film is, by most accounts, minor Cukor, although it boasts a score by Cole Porter and choreography by Jack Cole. This is a shame. The slightly unusual structure actually adds interest to a relatively straightforward story. The leads are all on top form – especially Kendall – and the musical numbers are quite good, as are the costumes. I’m surprised this film is not better known – I certainly enjoyed it more than, say, Guys and Dolls, which appeared only two years earlier.

wooden_clogsThe Tree Of Wooden Clogs*, Ermanno Olmi (1978, Italy). If I had to choose a list of favourite film genres – although perhaps “movements” would be a better word – then Italian Neorealism would be somewhere in the top ten, and likely higher than France’s Nouvelle Vague. But this is a film that really strains my liking for that genre. It is, on paper, a movie that should appeal – the life of a peasant family in 1898 in the province of Bergamo, a communist tries to drum up support but is ignored, a young couple are married, and a family is booted from their tenancy by their landlord. Life was brutish and short, although not for those who lived off the labour of the peasantry – a situation the current political class seem determined to return to – and this film simply documents it in a way which cannot fail to garner the viewers’ sympathy. Despite all that, The Tree Of Wooden Clogs was a bit of a, er, slog. It wasn’t that it was slow-paced, as I quite like “slow cinema”, nor that it was unremittingly bleak – I seem to be more tuned to that than I am to mindless optimism, anyway – but that the film seemed to lack focus or movement. I’ll try some more Olmi, but this is supposed to be his masterpiece.

finziThe Garden of the Finzi-Continis*, Vittorio de Sica (1970, Italy). And speaking of Italian Neorealism, de Sica was a leading director in the movement but The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is not a movie that qualifies as one (and no, I don’t know why the Arrow DVD cover singularises the family and removes their hyphen). It’s based on a novel by Giorgio Bassani, about a wealthy Jewish family who become victims of the Nazis. It opens in the 1930s, with a group of bright young things, some Jewish, some not, who meet in the titular locale to play tennis and be idle rich (although not all are rich). The film follows Giorgio, a middle-class Jew, who is friends – but hopes to be closer – with the Finzi-Contini daughter. But she has an affair with a man she admits she despises, and then leaves to stay with relatives in Venice. When she eventually returns, most of the Jews of the town have been sent to the death camps by the Nazis. Only the fate of the Gentile characters is shown. While it would be unfair to say the upper classes routinely collaborated with the Nazis, many of them did just that, partly because they shared their views but also as a means of protecting themselves (as if they deserved it…). Not that it was always successful. As The Garden of the Finzi-Continis shows. I much preferred this film to The Tree Of Wooden Clogs, for all that it was an historical drama set during a period for whch the entire human race should be ashamed, and not Italian Neorealism.

new_girlfriendThe New Girlfriend, François Ozon (2014, France). I admire Ozon as a director, although I’ve not liked or admired every film he has made. Nonetheless, when a new one is released, I stick it on the rental list. Although, for some reason, I actually bought this one on DVD. I hadn’t realised it was an adaptation of a Ruth Rendell short story of the same title, which I read many years ago in a  collection, also of the same title. But once I’d spotted that, I also realised that Ozon’s script doesn’t follow Rendell’s story all that faithfully. The basic premise is the same – a woman enters into a relationship with a man who is a transvestite. But from what I remember, the original story ends badly, whereas the film gives us a relatively happy ending. In pretty much all other respects, this is a typical Ozon film – it’s colourful, although not quite saturated, the characters are handled sensitively, and there is a plenty of wit in the script. I can’t say it’s my favourite Ozon, but it’s definitely one of his better ones.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 709


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Reading diary, #22

Yes, I know it’s confusing that I’m continuing the numbering scheme from, er, when I started it. But never mind. It would be a bit weird to change it a handful of weeks into the year, so I seem to be stuck with it. Anyway, a mix of books this time round…

aventineAventine, Lee Killough (1981). I reviewed this collection of short stories for SF Mistressworks – see here. I like Killough’s fiction, it’s very readable and likeable, even – dare I say it – undemanding. This collection’s premise may well have been more original, for science fiction, in 1981 than it is now, but it’s stood the test of time reasonably well. It remains memorable, which is more than can be said of the works of many of Killough’s peers in genre. I shall continue to hunt down copies of her books.

soc_modRoman Bezjak: Socialist Modernism, Inka Schube (2011). Bezjak, a lecturer at a German university, often travelled around East Europe, and he took photographs of socialist architecture – or rather, architecture that seemed designed to foster socialist ideals. The result is a series of photographs from a number of cities of exactly the sort of architecture I find hugely appealing… because I too believe there’s a utopian dimension to architecture – and that’s despite living in a city in which one of the great such experiments failed and sits prominently on a hill above the city centre…

soviet_ghostsSoviet Ghosts, Rebecca Litchfield (2014). And this book makes makes real the dreams of the former book… We’re all too quick to judge one group of people for their failures and yet admire others for their aspirations. For all its manifold faults and endemic corruption, the Soviet Union had many admirable ideals – and a great many of those are embodied in the buildings, now ruined, which appear in Soviet Ghosts. Perhaps most emblematic is the Buzludzha Monument in Bulgaria, intended as a celebration of a secret assembly of socialists in 1890, opened in 1981, but since fallen into extensive disrepair. Other photographs feature abandoned sheds of locomotives, military bases, hospitals, even entire towns which have been left to rot. As the previous book no doubt demonstrates, I find socialist architecture interesting, and it’s just as interesting in decay as it is in rude life – perhaps even more so, because it embodies a dream that died rather than one corrupted by compromise, greed and corruption.

agodinruinsA God in Ruins, Kate Atkinson (2015). I’d heard good things about this semi-demi-hemi-sequel to Life After Life, which was a book I’d enjoyed a great deal and thought good enough to nominate for the Hugo (as I was a Worldcon member, briefly, that year). In that earlier novel, Ursula Todd repeatedly died and was reborn, and so got to live out alternate versions of her life, of history itself since much of the story took place during World War 2. Teddy is Ursula’s younger brother. He enlists in the RAF, becomes the pilot of a Handley Page Halifax heavy bomber, flies three tours (ie, ninety missions), before being downed and captured. After the war, he marries his childhood sweetheart, Nancy, who worked as a decoder at Bletchley Park, the two become teachers, have a daughter Viola, who bounces around UK counter-culture, and has two children of her own, Sunny and Bertie. A God in Ruins is Teddy’s life, told in non-chronological order. He is an ordinary man in extraordinary times, who promises himself that if he survives the war he will strive to always be kind – and so he does. It’s a lovely piece of writing, deeply affecting, with an impressive control of the story’s emotional landscape. I suspect it will prove one of the best books I read this year. The big question, however, is: is A God in Ruins genre? For ninety-five percent of its length, most certainly not – it is a well-researched piece of historical fiction (Connie Willis should take notes). But the ending casts an entirely different light on what has gone before. It’s either genre or metafiction, although I tend to the former, given its link to Life After Life and the way the ending is  actually handled. But read it for yourself and make up your own mind. Because you really should read it.

after_funeralAfter the Funeral, Paul Scott (1979). The only edition of this short story available is a chapbook published shortly after Scott’s death, illustrated by his daughter and with a preface by his friend and collaborator Roland Gant. Copies are hard to find and expensive, but I found a reasonably-priced one on eBay. The story is typical Scott – a retelling of Cinderella which turns the entire tale on its head without losing sight of the original or sacrificing detail. The illustrations are lovely and appropriate. It is, in all, a very nice limited edition slipcased hardcover chapbook, and a fitting tribute to its author.

vertigoVertigo*, WG Sebald (1990). If you want to confuse someone, ask them to explain the plot of a Sebald novel.  Better yet, ask them if his novels actually are novels. Because I’m not entirely sure they are – and yet I’m pretty sure they’re fictional. Vertigo describes the arrival in Italy of Stendahl in the early 1800s as part of Napoleon’s army, and then covers his life somewhat swiftly. The next section recounts two visits by the narrator to Venice, and other towns in Italy, as in 1987 he retraces some of his travels of 1980. The third section describes an incident during Franz Kafka’s life, when he was supposed to give a talk in an Italian town in his professional capacity. In the final section, the narrator returns to his childhood village and notes the changes since he left decades before. It’s clear the narrator is Sebald himself, but not clear how much of what he recounts is invention. Certainly Venice, which he visits, is a real place, and the places he mentions in the city are real and the histories he gives them are real; but is the village of W., where the narrator spent his childhood, an actual place? Does it matter? I am, as should be clear from my own writing, interested in that liminal area between true fact and invented fiction – that is, essentially, what the glossary to Adrift on the Sea of Rains is. (And I admit it, Sebald’s Austerlitz was one of the inspirations behind my novella.) Reading Sebald is unlike reading any other author, and it’s for that reason – and the sheer quality of his prose – that I treasure his books. I plan to work my way through his entire oeuvre.

1001 Books You Must Read Before you Die count: 122


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Acquisitions

… and unlike a company which specialises in student accommodation which “aquired” some land locally a few years ago, I know there’s a “c” before”the “q”. Yes, I can hold spelling grudges for years. I can also keep books for years on my shelves… before either reading them or giving them away because I’m never going to read them and whatever possessed me to buy them in the first place has long since evaporated… But some of the following may well become members of the Ian Sales Permanent Book Collection – which does not necessarily result in an eventual state of “having been read”. I really need to get the TBR down to manageable levels. I think my current record is eleven years between buying a book and actually reading it – and, perversely, it turned out to be my favourite book of that year…

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Flesh & Wires, Elysium, Necessary Ill, The XY Conspiracy and A Day in Deep Freeze were all ordered from Aqueduct Press. The second and third I’d heard good things about, and that prompted the order – the rest were thrown in to make it worthwhile… and Shapter’s novella I immediately nominated for the BSFA Award. I wrote about Flesh & Wires here.

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Europe at Midnight was sent to me by the author, who is a good friend, and excellent it is too – see here. It was on my BSFA Award ballot. I hung on for the signed limited hardback of Slow Bullets, only to discover WSFA had given it the same ISBN as one of their previous books. You would not believe how many things that fucks up. Argh. I wrote about it here. And Mike Cobley is a friend of many decades, so I only buy his books out of a sense of duty – hence Ancestral Machines. (Only kidding, Mike’s space operas are smart twenty-first century examples of the subgenre, and worth reading.) Other Stories is a long-awaited collection from a favourite writer – and it’s another lovely job from PS Publishing.

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Borderliners is by one of those authors whose books I pick up when I see them in charity shops. I’ve been a big fan of Helen Simpson’s short stories for many years, so a new collection by her – which is what Cockfosters is – is worth celebrating. And I’ve always been meaning to complete my Radix Tetrad by picking up a copy of Attanasio’s Arc of the Dream, but completely failed to do so until now – but I’d sooner have one in better condition than this one.

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Spin Control, The End of Days, The Adjacent and The Last Pilot were all Christmas presents. My family obviously know my tastes in books – or have access to my Amazon wishlist… So far I have read only The Last Pilot – see here.

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Caliban and Lady Killer are a pair of graphic novels I bought in Faraos Cigarer in Copenhagen over Christmas, and wrote about here.

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Atoms Afloat I’ve been after for a while. I think the NS Savannah, the first commercial nuclear-powered ship, is a beautiful vessel. DH Lawrence: The Story of a Marriage came from my mother, who found it in a charity shop, I think. And I love me some photographs of Soviet/East European modernist architecture (second only to Niemeyer’s designs for Brasilia), so Roman Bezjak: Socialist Modernism was a must-purchase.

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Gypsy was recommended to me by a number of people, and the title novella is indeed very good – sadly it wasn’t longlisted for the BSFA Award, although I think it was eligible. Happily, Wylding Hall, also recommended to me by, er, the same people, was longlisted, is very good, and it took one of my nominations. The Buried Giant didn’t make it to the longlist, but A God in Ruins did… so I read it, thought it very good indeed , and promptly nominated it for the BSFA Award. Gypsy and Wylding Hall I wrote about here.


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Moving pictures 2016, #2

More films watched by Yours Truly, some of which might have been from a certain list, some of which might not.

amores_perrosAmores Perros*, Alejandro González Iñárritu (2000, Mexico). I hadn’t realised this was the movie which brought Gael García Bernal to fame (admittedly, I’d thought Bernal Spanish, not Mexican), but having now seen it I can understand why so much notice was taken of him. Like another South American film on the list, Meireilles & Lund’s City of God from Brazil, Amores Perros is a series of interconnected stories, in this case three, all springing from a car crash. Bernal plays a young man who discovers that his brother’s dog is an excellent fighter. So he enters it in dog fights, and it wins repeatedly (the film-makers make it clear no dogs were actually harmed during the making of the movie). But then he accepts a private fight with a local gangster, and when his dog wins, the gangster shoots it. Bernal stabs the gangster and flees, with his friend and his wounded dog… which is when the crash happens. The driver of the other car in the crash was a model, the lover of a wealthy magazine publisher. Her leg is severely broken. While recovering in the new flat she shares with her lover, her yappy dog disappears down a hole in the floor, and searching for it she injures her broken leg, which then has to be amputated. The third section centres on a homeless man who appears briefly in the previous two stories. He rescues Bernal’s dog, but it is killed after he agrees to murder a man… Like most such films, the plot is complicated and somewhat convoluted. It is also, however, well-played by its cast, and well-shot. A deserving entry on the list.

ryans_daughterRyan’s Daughter, David Lean (1970, UK). I’ve always been conflicted about Lean – I mean, I love Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia, but for all his plaudits I’ve never really thought of Lean as a particularly good director. And Ryan’s Daughter appears to be an attempt at making another epic movie like the two previously mentioned, except, well,… Mind you, it has to be said the cinematography is frequently gorgeous. But Robert Mitchum makes an unconvincing Irish school teacher, although he does give it a good go. John Mills’s Oscar-winning village idiot feels like an invader from a much older, and less sophisticated, film, and the story’s leisurely pace means its moments of high drama often fade away to nothing. And there are several moments of high drama, perhaps the most notable of which is when the villagers help the Irish Republican Brotherhood recover arms and munitions during a fierce storm from the German ship which attempted to deliver them but foundered. It’s a movie that feels like it lacks focus because it has so many things going on in it, and in such a short narrative time-frame and constrained to such a small geographical location. And, to be honest, the whole introduction, intermission and entracte thing, with incidental music, just feels pretentious. Yes, I know Lean did it in the other two aforementioned films, but sticking up “INTERMISSION” in big letters on the screen does not make it an epic (I’m old enough – just – to remember when cinema showings did have intermissions), and I’ve yet to be convinced it serves any good purpose.

londonLondon, Patrick Keiller (1994, UK). Given my admiration of James Benning’s films, this was recommended to me as something similar I might like, and I ended up with a copy as a Christmas present and… Yes, good call. It has more of an overt narrative than Benning’s films – here provided by Paul Scofield’s narration – although the cinematography does indeed consist of static shots. Of, er, London. As the camera focuses on various parts of the city, the narrator recounts anecdotes and aphorisms by his friend Robinson, not always as they relate to the part of London on-screen. It’s fascinating, although there’s less work required to piece together the story as the voice-over pretty much does that for you. But the Scofield’s somewhat circuitous explanation of events is its own reward, and the anecdotes are entertaining, irrespective of their relevance to the view on the screen. I plan to watch more films by Keiller – and he’s made quite a few.

man_from_uncleThe Man from UNCLE, Guy Ritchie (2015, USA). Having just worked my way through eight of Solo’s and Kuryakin’s theatrical adventures, I thought it worth giving this twenty-first century reboot a go. True, the director’s name didn’t bode well, although I didn’t actually know it was a Ritchie film when I bunged it on the rental list. But, it arrived in its little envelope, I stuck it in the player and… the title sequence is actually really good. And the film’s commitment to period detail is impressive. The only problem was the two leads – Henry Cavill and Arnie Hammer – have zero on-screen charisma. Cavill has a chin you could chisel granite with, and you feel he ought to light up the screen when he appears, but… he just doesn’t. His urbanity felt like a thin veneer, and not bone-deep as it did with Robert Vaughan, and his suave something he put on only when the camera was on him. Kuryakin, on the other hand, has been re-imagined as some sort of Soviet super-strong thug, and Hammer plays him like a block of Soviet wood. I can’t actually remember the plot, and I’m pretty sure there was one somewhere.

ohenryO Henry’s Full House*, various (1952, USA). I stuck this on the rental list not realising it was an anthology film, with each segment directed by a different person. It starts off strangely, with a man in a jailhouse making notes on what the other prisoners are saying. This, we are then told by John Steinbeck, who is sitting behind a desk in a book-lined study, was O Henry, a journalist who used the people he encountered during his career as fodder for his stories… and each of the short films in O Henry’s Full House is in some way a result of this. Unsurprisingly, given the age of Henry’s stories, the sting in each one’s title comes as no real surprise. Charles Laughton plays a gentleman vagrant, who is chivalrous to Marilyn Monroe in an early role. Richard Widmark plays a hugely irritating villain who gets his just desserts in a nicely ironic fashion. A young woman is convinced her pneumonia will kill her when the last leaf falls from the ivy outside her window – but the leaf never falls. Two men kidnap an annoying kid for ransom, and it pretty much goes as you’d expect. And finally, a poor married couple each make a sacrifice in order to afford a decent Christmas present for the other – with ironic results. The directors involved were Henry Koster, Henry Hathaway, Jean Negulesco, Howard Hawks and Henry King. I’m guessing they couldn’t find five directors called Henry, although both Hawks were Negulesco are both excellent film-makers.

avengers_ultronAvengers: Age of Ultron, Joss Whedon (2015, USA). I’m not a big fan of the MCU films (and now even less of a fan of Marvel given its CEO’s financial support of Trump) and I really didn’t like The Avengers (despite being a Brit, and despite “the Avengers” referring to the far superior group led by John Steed, I think Avengers Assemble a stupid compromise title – we’re smart enough to figure out the difference between a bunch of US near-fascist goons in Spandex and the sarcastically urbane umbrella-wielding Steed; and I also note the Lycra’d loons have lost their definite article for this sequel). Anyway, Avengers: Age of Ultron: I didn’t like this either. Awful film. A stupid movie carried by the personalities of its cast – not the personalities of its characters, but of the actors who played them. With a stupidly confusing plot plastered over the top. One of the problems with Q in Star Trek: The Next Generation was that when you have a villain so powerful, how can you realistically have dramatic conflict? Marvel’s universe suffers from the same problem – something the comics themselves often side-step by randomly ramping up heroes’ superpowers from one story to the next – and Avengers: Age of Ultron falls into the same trap. The only way the Avengers can actually beat Ultron is by Plot Hole. But, to be honest, by that point of the film I was long past giving a shit about any of them, as they came across more like a team of parodies than a serious attempt at recasting comic-book stories for the cinema. Avoid.

1001 Films You Must See Before You Die count: 706


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My BSFA ballot

I’ve now posted my votes for the BSFA Award – the deadline is midnight 31 January. And only works on the longlists here can be nominated.

In previous years, members of the BSFA simply nominated works in each of the categories they felt deserving of an award – initially as many as they wanted, but then restricted to four choices – and the final shortlist comprised those works with the most nominations. This year, a first round of nominations (again, four per person per category) produced the longlists linked to above, and now the second round of nominations will lead to the shortlists. Which will then be voted on at the Eastercon at the end of March. It’ll be interesting to see what effect this new process has on the award. Certainly, anyone that didn’t get their act together in December last year, and so didn’t get their chosen works onto the longlists, has now missed their chance. I suspect a few works that might have proven popular with the BSFA membership have missed out as a result. I’m pretty sure, for example, that Carter Scholz’s ‘Gypsy’ – the novella, not the collection – was eligible, but no one nominated it for a longlist (I didn’t read it until after the longlists were published, or I might have done).

Anyway, there are longlists. And I have selected my four choices for each category which I think deserve to be on the shortlist. The novel category wasn’t too difficult, although I was determined to avoid easy picks. I suspect, for example, that Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora might make the final cut, although I didn’t think it his best. The longlist certainly helped when it came to the art category – instead of trawling across the internet for suitable works, I had only to look at the longlist (and yes, I did nominate four pieces for it myself, so it’s not like I didn’t do some trawling across the internet). My non-fiction candidates are exactly those I nominated for the longlist. The short fiction category… Well, I worked my way through all those that were available to me, and even went so far as to buy a copy of Wylding Hall from PS Publishing – which was certainly worth it as it has made my ballot.

So, for what it’s worth, here are my nominations from the longlists for the BSFA Award shortlists (in alphabetical order):

novel
1 A God in Ruins, Kate Atkinson (Doubleday)
2 Europe at Midnight, Dave Hutchinson (Solaris)
3 Glorious Angels, Justina Robson (Gollancz)
4 Children of Time, Adrian Tchaikovsky (Tor)

I expect the Hutchinson to make the shortlist as there’s been a bit of buzz about it – and deservedly so. The Robson might make it on name recognition – she’s been shortlised four times before – and I think Glorious Angels is less polarising than her Quantum Gravity quintet might have been. The Tchaikvosky will, I think, lose out to KSR, which would be a shame. The Atkinson is a long shot – a few people have recommended it, but despite Life After Life I don’t think she has much traction among BSFA members.

short fiction
1 Wylding Hall, Elizabeth Hand (PS Publishing)
2 ‘Islands off the Coast of Capitola, 1978’, David Herter (tor.com)
3 ‘Manifesto of the Committee to Abolish Space’,’ Sammy Kriss (The New Inquiry)
4 A Day in Deep Freeze, Lisa Shapter (Aqueduct Press)

The Hand was recommended and proved a good call – but it’s a PS novella, so not free to read. That might count against it. The Shapter is my own nomination for the longlist – but again, it’s from a small press and can’t be read for free online. A shame as it’s really very good (so is the Hand too, of course). Both the Herter and the Kriss are free to read online. I’ve been a fan of Herter’s fiction for many years, and only wish he were more prolific. The Kriss is… a beautifully judged piece of trolling, and award-worthy for that reason.

non-fiction
1 ‘What Price, Your Critical Agency?’, Jonathan McCalmont (Ruthless Culture)
2 Rave and Let Die, Adam Roberts (Steel Quill Press)
3 ‘{and then} a writing life beyond reviews’, Maureen Kincaid Speller (Paper Knife)
4 My Fair Ladies, Julie Wosk (Rutgers University Press)

Maureen Kincaid Speller and Jonathan McCalmont are some of the best fan-writers we have in the UK (even if both would dispute the label). (And I see no good reason to nominate a piece of US fan-writing for this UK-based award.) The two pieces above are important elements in a conversation which I think deserves to be read by more people in genre. Adam Roberts is one of our best genre critics, and I don’t want him to pack it in. The Wosk caught my fancy on a certain very large online retailer one day, and it’s a fascinating piece of work, if focused more on media sf rather than written sf.

art
1 cover of Hannu Rajaniemi: Collected Fiction, Luis Lasahido (Tachyon)
2 cover of Wolfhound Century (2015 edition), Jeffrey Alan Love (Gollancz)
3 cover of All That Outer Space Allows, Kay Sales (Whippleshield Books)
4 illustration for ‘Songbird’, Vincent Sammy (Interzone # 257)

Four lovely pieces of design, covering a variety of styles. If the cover of a certain self-published novel appears in my list of four, it’s because I think all four quartet covers are excellent but it’s only this last which is eligible – and all four covers are brilliantly done, relevant to each book, and yet each one a simple but highly effective design. But then I do like that sort of stuff a lot – as does my sister, of course – and was fascinated by a visit at Christmas to Finn Juhl’s House at the Ordrupgaard Museum.

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