I’ve not done one of these for ages, so I thought it was about time for another one. More retro-future eye-candy for your delight and delectation…
I’ve not done one of these for ages, so I thought it was about time for another one. More retro-future eye-candy for your delight and delectation…
I might have mentioned once or twice I have a new space opera out, A Prospect of War. And since books apparently don’t market or sell themselves – big publishers have whole departments to do that, or so I’ve been told – I felt I’d better wibble on about it a bit. A Prospect of War will be officially launched as a signed limited hardback at Edge-Lit in Derby in July, but if you pre-order now you get a free ebook edition. Or you can buy the ebook straightaway, if you’d sooner have in that format. (ETA: The publisher has moved the book to Kindle: UK and US.)
So, a space opera. That’s like with an empire. In space. With an, er, emperor. But A Prospect of War is not your typical space opera. Despite taking place in an empire that occupies some ten thousand worlds, it’s all a bit low tech. I was going for a sort of Edwardian aesthetic when I wrote it, steel plates and polished wood, but these days I suspect it’ll just be read as steampunk-ish. Which is not necessarily a bad thing.
The reason I designed such a universe was because I didn’t want it to feel dated, no matter when a person read it. I wanted it to be hermetic, with no references to anything recognisable in the real world, or that could have been extrapolated from “current” science or technology. So all the computers are mechanical, and even artificial lighting is generated using the piezoelectric effect. And then there are the five handwavey devices which have made this an interstellar empire – topologic drive (FTL), charger (anti-gravity), directed-energy cannon (big shooty plasma-beamy things), power toroid (cheap energy), and force-curtain (useful for making sure your air doesn’t escape in space). There’s a back-story explaining how a relatively low-tech planet-bound civilisation ended up with these, and one day I may write a novella about it.
Then there’s the narrative of A Prospect of War, which was partly modelled on that of an epic fantasy. Or at least, that was the original plan. There’d be a peasant hero, who’d find himself embroiled in an empire-wide plot bent on… hell, let’s go for the obvious one: a plot to take the throne from the emperor. Your basic consolatory fantasy story. Why not? Except… what makes the peasant hero the, er, hero? If he’s a nobody, what is it about him that results in him leading the fight to save the throne? There’s no magic in A Prospect of War – I mean, that would be like polluting space opera…
Okay, perhaps a suitably science-fictional “magic” power might be okay. Like prescience. It worked for Paul Atreides, after all. True, he was also the son of a powerful noble, but you know what I mean. However, I wanted something a bit more original, and I think I managed it. In fact, this later proved only one of many serendipitous choices I made while I was writing – you know, where you write something because it seems like a neat idea at the time, and then later on in the narrative you realise you’d inadvertently foreshadowed something really cool.
In most epic fantasies, the narrative follows the peasant hero, getting to know him (it’s pretty much always a “him”) first, then showing how he picks up the various members of his gang, which he subsequently uses to defend the noble emperor. Or something. I decided to mix this up a little – the peasant hero would be your typical ingenu but he’d also be pushed and pulled by a couple of conspiracies. Which meant introducing some additional points of view as quickly as possible. This may have been a mistake. The opening chapters of A Prospect of War bounce around among four main characters, rather than focusing on the peasant hero. This means the novel has a somewhat steep learning curve – a situation not helped by my decision to try and avoid big fat lumps of exposition (although, to some extent, exposition was unavoidable, but I hope I kept it to a reasonable level).
The narrative of A Prospect of War, if it were plotted out, would look a bit like a map of a railway network. Sort of. The separate “tracks” of the story meet and cross and bounce off each other as the novel progresses, before eventually meeting up for the transition to the second book. Sometimes they’re chasing a mystery, other times the direction is dictated by the answer to a mystery.
Just to make things a little more interesting, when I was designing the universe I decided that topologic travel would be measured in weeks, but time would have passed more slowly in the real universe – a “time-lag”. On a logarithmic scale. So one week in the toposphere (the sort of hyperspace used by the topologic drive) equals eight days in the real universe; two weeks equals thirty-two days. And so on. A word of advice: never do this. It made working out the internal chronology of A Prospect of War, and its sequels, a complete nightmare. Especially when you have different groups of characters gallivanting about space.
All this focus on plot and the shape of the narrative doesn’t mean I skimped on my cast. It was important to me the characters were as well-rounded as I could make them. The peasant hero, Casimir Ormuz, might be typical of the breed – although he’s no special snowflake (well, perhaps a little bit) – but I hung the rest of the narrative on another four characters. Who, er, all happen to be women. Ormuz is a member of the crew of a tramp data-freighter. The ship’s captain, Murily Plessant, represents one of the story’s factions. Then there’s the Admiral, who is secretly building up a force to defend the throne. Her lieutenant of intelligence, Rizbeka Rinharte, is instrumental in bringing Ormuz and the Admiral together. And finally there’s Sliva Finesz, an inspector investigating financial irregularities high up in the government, who gets dragged into the whole thing. None of these, by the way, are precisely good or bad; it doesn’t fall out into two neat little camps like that. And it gets especially mixed up in the second book, A Conflict of Orders.
The other element of the space opera I spent time developing was my empire’s history. I wanted that sense of deep history you get in the best science fiction. I didn’t quite go so far as putting together a family tree covering 1200 years of the empire’s ruling dynasty… Well, okay, I started one, but I never finished it. But I did write notes covering some six or seven thousand years of history, most of which would never actually appear in the books. I actually made a start on an encyclopaedia, which I thought might eventually make a companion volume…
Next time, I might write about feudalism… in spaaaace.
It looks like this film challenge thing I’m doing with Shaun Duke is becoming a regular, er, thing. After he met my last challenge of five films which complement my Apollo Quartet – see here – he tasked me with coming up with a list of “5 science fiction films which are basically fantasies in space, but which are not Star Wars“. Ugh. That are “in your opinion and by your own criteria, good movies“. I suspect this is not possible – in fact, I know it’s not – so I’m going to cheat a little and pick films that are either good within the confines of their genre, or enjoyable irrespective of their quality. Because you’re not going to get some cheesy space fantasy that stands up there with anything by Tarkovsky or Bergman or Haneke or Kaurismäki or Sokurov or… Well, you get the, er, picture.
As for “fantasies in space”… yes, well, if not Star Wars is part of the definition then it must mean dumb space operas. And I can think of many examples, but they are almost universally pretty bad. There are no doubt lots of Japanese anime examples, and some of them may even be very good, but I’m not that familiar with anime.
Anyway, after much scratching of head and rootling through my DVD collection, I came up with following five. A couple may be obvious, one or two may invoke cries of shocked disbelief, and for a few I had to take “space fantasy” to mean “complete science fiction bollocks”.
John Carter, Andrew Stanton (2012). The obvious choice, and one that will no doubt have a few of you choking on your doughnuts. I loved this film from the moment I saw it in IMAX 3D, and I’ve watched it several times since on DVD. The production design is gorgeous, the CGI is seamless (the Tharks actually look almost real!), and the script is polished, with a structure which is far more sophisticated than the material deserved. It’s a crying shame Disney decided to sink it because it could have been the start of a bloody good franchise. But instead we’re going to get endless shit superhero movies, a vast cinematic retconning of the Star Wars universe, and increasingly dumber Star Trek sequels. Yay for tentpole sci-fi blockbuster movies…
Flash Gordon, Mike Hodges (1980). There’s much that cringe-worthy in this film, from the Queen soundtrack (there, I said it) to the cheesy dialogue to half the cast clearly belonging in a much superior film to completely non-entity Sam Jones in the title role. Having said that, you won’t find more sci-fic pomp and silliness in any other movie. Von Sydow, Wyngarde and Dalton plainly belong in a much better film; Topol, Muti and Blessed seem to have found their level. Melody Anderson actually makes a good Dale Arden. It is, in fact, hard to fault Flash Gordon as a piece of cheesy sf camp, but it’s a mistake to consider it anything more than that (and unlike some people, I ask more of my movies and books than they be mere entertainment).
La planète sauvage, René Laloux (1973). No film list put together by myself would be complete without at least one non-Hollywood film. While this is not usually difficult to achieve, for “fantasies in space” it’s proven something of a hurdle. I mean, only the US makes cheesy space operas. But I believe La planète sauvage qualifies because, while it initially describes an alien world in which primitive humans exist only in the wild, it soon turns weird and philosophical and all sort of wishy-washy and bonkers. The animation and production design throughout is distinctive and strange – it’s by Roland Topor – but it suits the story. Laloux’s later animated films were a bit Métal Hurlant, but La planète sauvage displays a unique vision. Definitely worth getting hold of a copy.
Dune, David Lynch (1985). Heresy! Dune as a “fantasy in space”? I mean, I’ve always considered Dune science fiction, in space or otherwise, and I see no good reason to change that since it meets my definition of the genre. But since I also consider Star Wars science fiction, I feel this makes Dune allowable under Shaun’s somewhat baggy definition. And yes, Dune is a good film, and only fails at being a great film because the director couldn’t match his vision. But there are clues there if you watch the “television version” (which includes around an additional 45 minutes). It’s not so much the additional story that’s on the screen, and it’s certainly not the horrible prologue with its awful artwork. But the extended scenes set in the Imperial Court display an overly mannered presentation that works at the lengths shown in the television version much better than it does in the theatrical release. Plus, of course, the production design is superb. In fact, I’ll even forgive Lynch the “weirding module” and the rain at the end because everything looks so much like Dune should look. I currently own five DVD editions of Dune, so it’s probably about time I got it on Blu-ray. But which is the best Blu-ray version…?
Battle Beyond the Stars, Jimmy T Murakami (1980). Space operas – sorry, “fantasies in space” – don’t come cheesier than this rip-off of Star Wars. But it does possess a certain charm all its own, whether it’s because its plot is a beat-by-beat copy of The Magnificent Seven, or that the hero’s spaceship looks like a pair of breasts, or Sybil Danning’s double entendres, or the fact George Peppard was clearly pissed throughout the film, or that the entire thing looks like a series of episodes from a bad sf television series. But as low budget space operas go, it’s an enjoyable example. And Richard Thomas actually displays some impressive acting chops. The fact the script is by John Sayles also helps.
There are a number of other films I could have chosen, but it would have been stretching a point beyond breaking to describe them as “good” – such as… The Humanoid, Aldo Lado (1979), in which Richard Kiel plays the title role in an Italian Star Wars rip-off with production design that’s a weird mashup of 1970s near-future science fiction, Star Wars and Flash Gordon… Or Starcrash, Luigi Cozzi (1978), which manages to make zero sense but does include the immortal line, “Imperial battleship, halt the flow of time!”… Or Barbarella, Roger Vadim (1968), which has not aged well despite being based on a French bande dessinée… Or even Andrzej’s Żuławski’s Na srebrnym globie (On the Silver Globe)… Or spaghetti sci-fi Star Pilot, Pietro Francisci (1966), which apparently inspired some elements of Star Trek…
ETA: After much thought, I’ve decided on Shaun’s challenge. Five non-English language films featuring space travel, not including Solaris. Oh, and no more than two of them from Japan.
I was looking at my film-watching records – yes, I have a spreadsheet of which films I’ve watched, and when – and I noticed in 2013 I watched on average around 16 DVDs a month. Last year, that almost doubled to 30 DVDs a month. This year, I expect it will be much higher. I have yet to figure out why…
Darling, John Schlesinger (1965, UK). Julie Christie plays a model in Swinging Sixties London, with a nice but dim husband at home, who has various affairs before eventually marrying an Italian count who proves mostly uninterested in her once they’ve tied the knot. The parallels with Grace Kelly’s life are left there for the the viewer to spot. Dirk Bogarde plays Christie’s manager, and he also has an affair with her. Mostly, however, the film is an acid commentary on the more affluent sectors of London society – an expensive dinner to raise money for famine victims, for example; and, oh look, things like that still happen, it’s as if the notion is irony-free, although of course Darling deliberately plays on it. The film starts a little slow, but Christie is good in her role, and things start to pick up as the career of Christie’s character does. A hippie party in Paris is quite amusing, if a little broad in its humour. I stuck the film on my rental list on a whim, and it proved to be a good call.
Les Demoiselles de Rochefort*, Jacques Demy (1967, France). Demy’s The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg is a much better-known, and better-regarded, film than this but, to be honest, I enjoyed this one much more. The title to refers to a pair of sisters, played by real-life sisters Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac, who are looking for love in the eponymous town. A fair comes to Rochefort, one of the exhibitors at which is led by George Chakiris and Grover Dale. When their female stars abscond, they recruit Deneuve and Dorléac. Meanwhile, the sisters’ mother runs a café in the town square and pines for a lost love… who has actually returned to the town after many years and is helping Dorléac with her music (and also promises to introduce her to a famous friend of his, played by Gene Kelly). And then there’s the sailor who’s about to be demobbed, who’s friends with the sisters and their mother. Unlike The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, the dialogue is not entirely sung – which may be one reason I much preferred this film – but they do break into song pretty much every five minutes. And then there are the big dance numbers. It’s a musical, but it doesn’t really feel like one. Which may be one reason for its charm. After watching this film, yes, I’d like to see more Demy. Again.
James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge, John Bruno, Ray Quint & Andrew Wight (2014, USA). I had to order this from the US as it’s yet to be released in the UK. And on Blu-ray too – in fact, wanting this documentary is one of the reasons I purchased a multi-region Blu-ray player. Anyway, I’ve been fascinated with the bathyscaphe Trieste’s 1960 descent to Challenger Deep, the deepest part of the oceans, for several years. I wrote a story set in Challenger Deep, and it was published in Where Are We Going?, an anthology from Eibonvale Press; and I used the Trieste in the third book of my Apollo Quartet, Then Will The Great Wash Deep Above. No one else had visited Challenger Deep – 7.5 miles down, where the pressure is 7 tons per square inch – since 1960s… until 2012, when film director James Cameron did it in the specially-built submersible Deepsea Challenger. This is the film of that expedition. It also includes a re-enactment of the Trieste dive. It’s a polished, well-presented documentary, and I found it fascinating. There is, it must be said, very little to be seen on the ocean floor at Challenger Deep, but Cameron and his directors make a very watchable film out of it. If there’s one downside it’s that we’ll have to put up with an Avatar 2 so that Cameron has the money to make another documentary like this…
Save and Protect, Aleksander Sokurov (1989, Russia). This was a rewatch as I first watched Save and Protect shortly after getting The Alexander Sokurov Collection box set for Christmas. I remember it being very slow and somwhat impenetrable. I have now watched it again. More than once. It’s loosely based on the life of Madame Bovary (and no, I didn’t discover the following morning I’d gone and ordered a copy of the book), but only in as much as it presents the sexual freedom of the title character as the foremost aspect of her character. What makes Save and Protect interesting, however, is Sokurov’s deliberate flouting of the fact it’s a period drama. Some of the cast wear more modern clothing, a car even makes an appearance later. This breaking from the carefully-constructed historical world in which the story is set is neither intrusive, nor does it necessarily break the suspension of disbelief the medium relies upon. In fact, it’s very similar in effect to Haneke’s breaking of the fourth wall in Funny Games. The lead role in Save and Protect – ie, Emma, although never named as such – is played by French ethno-linguist Cécile Zervoudacki, who brings a remarkable earthiness to the part (Sokurov likes using non-professional actors, mostly to good effect). According to The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov: Figures of Paradox, “Save and Protect has never been intended as an enjoyable cinematic experience, except perhaps in the frame of masochistic self-infliction” (p 85), which I think is a bit harsh. The book does describe the film is a work of art, and perhaps it is in some respects Sokurov’s least successful movie; but to me this is only further evidence that what Sokurov is doing in cinema is both fascinating and hugely important.
The Young and Prodigious TS Spivet, Jean-Pierre Jeunet (2013, France/Canada). Delicatessen remains one of my favourite films, and I’ve always rued Caro and Jeunet going their separate ways since neither has produced anything individually as good as the work they did together. Jeunet has been the more successful, of course, with a string of well-received movies, such as Amelie, A Very Long Engagement , Micmacs, and now The Young and Prodigious TS Spivet. Which is plainly a Jeunet film through and through. The title character is a young boy who’s a genius and an inventor. He lives on a farm in Montana, with an entomologist mother (played by Helena Bonham-Carter) and a taciturn cowboy father (a badly miscast Callum Keith Rennie). Young TS Spivet wins the Baird Prize, awarded by the Smithsonian Institute, for his design for a perpetual motion machine, but he had neglected to tell them his age. Nonetheless, he decides to attend the prize-giving ceremony in Washington. So he runs away from home and travels across the US and… Jeunet does whimsy with a master’s eye. But I do find it somewhat thin an ingredient on which to hang an entire movie. There’s only so much CGI-enhanced scenery you can take in, so much borderline slapstick, so many characters bent out of shape until they’re grotesques… Not a bad film for a Saturday night and a bottle of wine, but I’m glad it was a rental and not a purchase.
The Thief of Bagdad*, Raoul Walsh (1924, USA). Douglas Fairbanks plays the title role in this Arabian Nights-style silent movie. By my calculation, he was forty when the movie was made, but he plays the title role like a teenager, with lots of gurning at the camera, throwing his arms wide, and standing with his hands on his hips, his waxed chest pushed out. It’s almost a parody of silent movie acting. And somewhat off-putting. Otherwise, the film is a classic of its time, with some clever special effects and a story which, although somewhat long, manages an enviable pace. The production design, however, is… odd. While the sets did sort of resemble an Arabic city of the Caliphate era, the various pieces of writing on the sets were gibberish, not Arabic letters at all. It seemed to me like a weird mistake to make – to go all that trouble to create a believable Arabian Nights setting, and then not bother using an actual real alphabet. Ah well.
Jeune & Jolie, François Ozon (2013, France). I’m a fan of Ozon’s films, although I do find him a bit hit and miss. I loved Angel, I thought Under The Sand very good indeed, and his film of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s unfilmed script, Water Drops On Burning Rocks, was close to inspired. There are a few duff movies in his oeuvre, but it’s a generally excellent body of work; and he’s certainly a director whose career I follow. So I had reasonably high expectations of Jeune & Jolie, but… what a cold film. A teenage girl conspires to lose her virginity while on a family holiday, and on their return to Paris becomes an call girl, having sex with older men for money. Marine Vacth (who was twenty-two at the time of filming) plays the lead character with a quite disturbing lack of affect. When one of her clients dies in flagrante delicto, she briefly panics, tries to give him CPR, then runs away. But the police track her down – which is how her parents come to learn of her activities. Despite all this, she seems mostly unconcerned at what happened, or indeed at being caught. Not a pleasant film, though clearly it wasn’t intended to be. In some respect, it felt a bit like something from Haneke, but missing his signature oblique eye.
1001 Films You Must See Before You Die count: 591
I have actually been very good this year. So far, at least. The TBR has been decreasing. Sadly, this is not not because I’m reading more – unfortunately, I seem to be actually reading less. But I have been buying fewer books. And I’ve also given away loads of unread books – that I was never going to get around to reading – at the BFS/BSFA York pub meets and SFSF Socials.
Having said all that, I can’t not buy books for an entire year. Especially when there are ones by authors whose works I like that are being published, or when books I’ve been looking for pop up on eBay for a reasonable price, or when there are sets to be completed.
But at least I’m starting to take control of the collection. I think.
Some fantasy. Which I don’t read all that much, but never mind. Breed and The Red Knight I won in the raffle at the York pub meet last weekend. Which was cool as Karen was one of the authors giving a reading. (Usually, I never win anything decent in raffles.) The Glittering Plain is the first book in Newcastle Forgotten Fantasy Library series, which looks like it might make a good series to collect. And Beautiful Blood is Lucius Shepard’s last book for Subterranean Press. It’s a novel set in the world of the Dragon Griaule.
Some science fiction. I found a dozen or so of the Tor doubles in a remaindered book shop in Abu Dhabi when I lived there, and I’ve been picking up others in the series whenever I find them, such as The Longest Voyage / Slow Lightning. They published 36 books in total, and most of them aren’t that good. Meh. The Carhullan Army I bought in Oxfam while in York for the aforementioned pub meet. Dark Orbit I’m reviewing for Interzone. I’m a fan of Gilman’s fiction, but I’m still trying to figure out what I think to this one.
Some mainstream. About Love and Other Stories and Five Plays I bought late one night after a bit too much wine and having watched Aleksandr Sokurov’s Stone, which is apparently about Chekhov. These things happen. I read Farrell’s The Siege Of Krishnapur a couple of years ago and was much impressed, so I keep an eye open in charity shops for his books. A Girl in the Head I bought in the aforementioned Oxfam shop. Bit of a dodgy cover, though. The Rainbow is one for the DH Lawrence collection. My mother found me this copy. I now have eighteen Lawrence paperbacks with that particular cover design.
And speaking of Sokurov… The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov and The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov: Figures of Paradox are the only two books on the director I can find. Annoyingly, both discuss both The Lonely Voice of Man, Days of Eclipse and Taurus, three films which have never been released on DVD with English subtitles. Otherwise, very interesting books on a fascinating director.
Time to catch up on films again…
Carnal Knowledge, Mike Nichols (1971, USA). According to imdb.com, this is a sexual satire but I couldn’t see much that was satirical in a film that unironically treats women like objects. At one point, Jack Nicholson even gives a slide show of his girlfriends, giving a running commentary on each woman’s appearance and sexual prowess. You see Nicholson and Art Garfunkel were at college together, and they both fell in love with Candice Bergen, but Nicholson ended up marrying Ann-Margret… and years later both men treat the women in their lives like shit, and I seriously have to wonder why this is classified as entertainment. There are a lot of classic films that have never been released on DVD, there are a lot of foreign films that have never been released in English-language editions on DVD… So you have to wonder why they bothered to waste non-biodegradable plastic on crap like Carnal Knowledge.
Whispering Pages, Aleksandr Sokurov (1994, Russia). And speaking of foreign languages films not release in– ah wait, I’ve said this before about Sokurov. Whispering Pages is only available as part of a US-only release, Early Masterworks, on Blu-ray and DVD. The films opens with a distorted image of a riverside block of flats in St Petersburg, before eventually focusing on a series of pillars which distortion have rendered almost two-dimensional, and then a man sitting on some steps at the side of the river. He wanders through a series of buildings, a sort of enclosed city, on some sort of quest. I’ve watched the film three times now I’m no clearer as to what’s going on. I’m guessing it’s Limbo or Purgatory, existence as a struggle with some lesson to be learnt, but Sokurov is so allusive and the references so opaque – according to The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov: Figures of Paradox, the film borrows from both Dostoevsky and Gogol, the works of neither of whom I’m familiar with (although I should be grateful for small mercies in that I didn’t wake up the morning after watching the film and learn I’d ordered their books from Amazon…). But all this, of course, is part of the appeal. The film defies easy understanding, and the beauty and strangeness of the cinematography – it’s weird shifts from sepia-tinted to washed out blues and greys to black and white – sucks you into a world in which there is clearly a pattern but it requires work to discern. I will be watching this again; eventually, I will figure out what it’s about.
Guys and Dolls*, Joseph L Mankiewicz (1955, USA). If I added up all my pet hates, I’d have a respectable zoo. Well, a small petting one. Probably full of hamsters. And maybe a goat or two. But one of my pet hates is surely that stupid formalised language like that what is used by the writer Damon Runyan in the speech of his gangster characters in the stories that he wrote. Which is what’s used in Guys and Dolls – likely because the stage show, and so the film, were both based on a pair of stories by Runyan. As it is, Sinatra seems peculiarly charisma-free, Marlon Brando is actually less annoying than usual (although not at first), and Jean Simmons provides a surprisingly common-sensical romantic lead. I didn’t think the songs especially memorable, although one or two of the set-pieces were amusingly done. I am not, it has to be admitted, a fan of musical films, and though I have watched many of them – for reasons I have yet to figure out – I thought this one middling at best.
Sonata For Viola, Aleksandr Sokurov (1981, Russia). And here’s another film that features music, that is actually about music – or rather, a composer. I know very little about classical music, it just isn’t my thing; so the appeal here is likely to be limited. And so it proves. Sokurov puts together a documentary on Dmitri Shostakovich based on archive footage. It’s an early work, so the voice-over tends to be more factual and less philosophical than later documentaries; and while it does a good job of laying out Shostakovich’s life, and setting it in context, it’s not likely to attract viewers unless they’re interested in the topic or the director. One for the collection, without a doubt. But no, not a favourite in Sokurov’s oeuvre.
Pickpocket*, Robert Bresson (1959, France). Bresson is a highly regarded director, and several of his films appear on various lists of great or top 100 or films to see before you die lists. Which is why I’ve seen several… despite not actually taking to any of them. Such as Pickpocket. Non-professional actor Martin LaSalle plays a young man who drifts into thievery, initially for kicks but later as a means to make a living. He meets various other pickpockets and thieves, learns the tricks of the trade, has metaphysical discussions with assorted people, finds himself in a battle of wits with a police inspector… but it’s all played so flat, so affect-less, that’s it’s hard to give much of a shit. LaSalle is a cipher, the remainder of the cast are mouth-pieces, and the story’s only saving grace is its irony. But for irony to really bite, you have to care about its victims. And Bresson does a piss-poor job of making LaSalle, or indeed anyone in the film, sympathetic. He can do it for a donkey, but apparently not for a criminal. Disappointing.
Nymphomaniac, Volume I and II, Lars von Trier (2013, Denmark). I remember seeing posters for this all over Copenhagen when I was there for Christmas in 2013. And since catching a film at the cinema is an sort on-and-off family tradition over the holiday, I did briefly consider this as a possible contender… But it’s 241 minutes long in total, and I suspected it wasn’t really suitable family viewing… Both facts I can now confirm, having watched it on Blu-ray – although I saw the version bundled in the Shock & Awe von Trier box set, which is not the 325 minute director’s cut. So beware. Stellan Skarsgård finds a badly-beaten Charlotte Gainsbourg one night, takes her home and sees to her injuries. Once recovered, she explains she is a nymphomaniac and tells him her life-story – which is shown in flashback, with Stacy Martin playing the young Gainsbourg. It begins with teenage sexual games, moves onto unhealthy relationships, and finally a marriage which slowly disintegrates, in part because Martin is now visiting sadist Jamie Bell on a regular basis. Skarsgård tries to explain Gainsbourg’s stories by relating them to fly-fishing, as he later admits to having never experienced sex himself. Both parts of Nymphomaniac are pretty much typical von Trier, that unhappy mix of beautiful cinematography, keen observation of the banal, and an almost schoolboyish desire to shock. He also does that thing where a line of genuine insight is often followed by a banal cliché – because he’s at his best when he’s observing and at his worst when he fails to resist the temptation to let his story jump the rails. I still think von Trier is an important director, and the Shock & Awe box set was certainly worth purchasing… but of the von Trier films I’ve seen so far I think Antichrist is the best in this collection – it’s the most emblematic of his later work, not to mention the least misogynistic. It often feels as though von Trier considers himself the enfant terrible of cinema – and tries just a little bit too hard to live up to the label.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 589
Reading catch-up time, before It Doesn’t Have To Be Right… turns into a film blog. Now that A Prospect of War and All That Outer Space Allows are both out, I’m hoping I’ll get more reading done. I’ve managed to reduce the TBR slightly over the past couple of months, although chiefly by not buying as many books as usual. There are still way too many books for comfort sitting on my bookshelves (or piled on the floor) that I want to read.
Spider Moon, John Shirley (2002). I seem to have rather a lot of John Shirley novels, many of which are signed first editions from small presses, and I’m not entirely sure why. It’s not like he’s an amazing writer, or I’m a huge horror fan. I suspect he’s got lumped together in my mind with Lewis Shiner and Lucius Shepard, who also have had many books published by small presses, and that one or two of Shirley’s books at some point I actually did quite admire – Heatseeker, perhaps, or A Splendid Chaos. But, Spider Moon… which is not actually horror, but crime, noir possibly. The narrator is an editor for a San Francisco-based publisher, which is bought out by a big New York publishing house… and which plans to make a few changes. Another member of the firm goes postal, the narrator finds himself with the gun is his hand, and is forced to make a run for it. His son died only a few days before from a drug overdose and, determined to get revenge on the dealer, the narrator hooks up with a pair of lowlifes and the threesome go on a bit of a mini-crime spree. A quick read, and by no means a bad one… and I still don’t know why I have so many books by John Shirley.
Touch, Claire North (2015). I bought this because I thought The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was pretty good, and the central premise of this new novel – a being who can jump from body to body by touch and while in possession control them – sounded intriguing. Having now read it, I don’t think it’s quite as successful as North’s first novel. It’s certainly a polished piece of writing, the narrator Kepler is well-drawn, and the central conceit is well-handled… but the plot sort of gets lost along the way and eventually peters out. I reviewed the book for Interzone.
The Atrocity Exhibition (Annotated), JG Ballard (1969/1990). Wanting to read more Ballard is hardly a contentious ambition, and I’ve read plenty of Ballard already. The 4th Estate editions also made a nice set with their distinctive cover designs, so it was worth picking up copies. Which is what I did. I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about Ballard, perhaps preferring the idea of his fiction more than I did his actual fiction – which is itself quite a Ballardian attitude. He was never a great prose stylist, and he was often a better commentator on twentieth-century life than he was a novelist – what his books said was often more interesting than the stories he chose to tell. The Atrocity Exhibition (Annotated) is a case in point. Half the time, Ballard zeroes in quite effectively on some weird public compulsion, turns it on its head, and the result is a biting comment on the cultural landscape. But just as often, it’s word salad, and he piles the words one upon the other and it reads like an academic work that completely misses the point of its topic. And then, over all this, like giant flashing lights and deafening klaxons, is all the “controversial stuff”, story titles like ‘Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan’ and ‘Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy’. The problem with sacred cows is that no one will admit they make steaks that taste just like normal steaks. Of course, there’s also the bits and pieces of The Atrocity Exhibition (Annotated) that went on to become and/or inspire Crash, which is much the better work. But still, Ballard: always worth a read.
The Quest For Christa T., Christa Wolf (1968). I stumbled across this in a charity shop, and since Wolf was a name I’d come across in my search for postwar British women writers (even though she’s German), I decide to buy it. Besides, you just don’t see enough of those green Virago paperbacks in charity shops. The title character and the narrator meet while at school during World War II. They go their separate ways, but meet up again at university in the early nineteen-fifties. The book then follow them through to the nineteen-sixties. It all takes place in East Germany. The story is phrased as a commentary on Christa T by the narrator, almost as if she’s telling it to someone. It’s a style that takes some getting used to, especially in these times of immersive prose; and although it’s considered “experimental” I have to wonder if it’s not how stories were originally told before the advent of the realist novel. I can’t say I’ll be hunting down any more of Wolf’s work – although I’ll keep an eye open for green Virago paperbacks, of course – but I’m glad I read The Quest For Christa T..
Prayer, Philip Kerr (2013). This novel reads like an idea Kerr pitched to a US network, but was turned down. There’s some solid work in it, but it’s a thin piece stretched out to novel-length. Gil Martin is a FBI agent in Houston, involved in investigating domestic terrorism. When he admits to his wife that he no longer believes in God, she leaves him and takes their young son. Meanwhile Martin is investigating a series of strange deaths of prominent atheists – all four seem like freak accidents or bizarre medical catastrophes. But the fact they’re hated by the religious right makes their deaths suspicious. Martin eventually discovers that a charismatic preacher has discovered “directed prayer” actually works, because God exists, and he’s the Old Testament God who demands unquestioning obedience, not Jesus’s wishy-washy God of love. And this preacher’s secret prayer group has been sending the fallen angel Azrael to kill their opponents. It’s all a bit flimsy, and the plot isn’t exactly twisty-turny. Kerr generally writes clever thrillers, but some of them are propped up by well-handled research rather than clever plotting, and Prayer falls into that category.
Shadow Dance, Angela Carter (1966). This was Carter’s debut novel, and there’s effusive praise for it on the cover of my edition from Anthony Burgess. And having now read the book, Burgess’s comments don’t surprise me in the least. It’s just like a Burgess novel in many respects. The narrator Morris runs a junk shop with flighty none-too-legit Honeybuzzard (which I kept on wanting to read as Honeybadger), who is a bit of a knob. Rumour has it that the recent scar disfiguring Ghislaine’s face is Honeybuzzard’s handiwork, although he claims otherwise. Besides, Honeybuzzard now has Emily, who seems to be made of much sterner stuff. And, er, that’s about it. The prose is somewhat overwrought, and far too quick to reach for cliché, especially when Carter emphasises a point by adding on descriptive clause after descriptive clause. From what I remember of her later novels, she soon rid herself of the habit. Fortunately. But lines like “The lines of his ribs showed through the flesh like an elegant bird-cage where his trapped heart flapped its wings regularly, one, two, on the beat” should have been excised. And there are far too many mentions of rape too. Not a great novel, though Carter went on to write some great stuff.