It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Moving pictures, #7

More catching up on my viewing. Despite the death of the DVD-player, and a few hiccups from the Blu-ray player, I’ve still managed to watch around two films a night for the past few weeks. Actually, quite a few of the ones mentioned below are rewatches…

elegy_voyageElegy of a Voyage, Aleksandr Sokurov (2001, Russia). It should be obvious by now I’m a complete Sokurov fanboi, but it’s films like Elegy of a Voyage I admire most from his oeuvre. The imdb plot summary is is a model of unhelpfulness: “From a misty night into the dark exposition rooms of a museum to ponder philosophically at paintings by Pieter Jansz Saenredam, Hercules Pieterszoon Seghers, Hendrikus van de Sande Bakhuyzen, Andreas Schelfhout, Vincent van Gogh, Pieter Bruegel, Charles Henri Joseph Leickert” – and quite possibly misinformation (I also think they mean “exhibition” and not “exposition”, but never mind.) . Because while Elegy of a Voyage – a documentary, with a voice-over by Sokurov himself – does indeed describe a voyage from a Russian city to a German city and then onto a museum where, among other paintings, the narrator muses on Bruegel’s ‘The “Little” Tower of Babel’, there’s so much more to the film than that. It is, as you’d expect from Sokurov, beautifully photographed, and some of the cinematography is quite breathtaking. The voice-over is also both literate and philosophical – if watching Ingmar Bergman is like watching literary fiction adapted for the cinema, watching Sokurov is like watching the cinematic equivalent of literary fiction. I think this is another film that hovers between ten to twenty in my list of favourite films – which gives Sokurov three spots in my top twenty… And yet many of his films are still not available with English subtitles. I think the BFI should do something about that. They did an excellent job with Carl Theodor Dreyer’s films, so why not for Aleksandr Sokurov’s?

savingprivateryanSaving Private Ryan*, Steven Spielberg (1998, USA). I’d never actually seen this, and being a Spielberg film I probably would never have bothered… but it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and it’s actually held in reasonably high regard… So when I saw a copy in a charity shop for 99p, I bought it. And, to be fair, if I were going to put together a top ten list of WWII films only – and I’m not much of a fan of WWII films – then, yes, I think I’d put Saving Private Ryan in that top ten. The opening scenes depicting the Normandy landings are worth the price of entry alone. The story which follows, in which Tom Hanks tries to find the eponymous private because his three brothers have been killed in combat (in different theatres) and he needs to be shipped home before he enjoys the same fate and leaves the Ryan family with no male heirs… is both faintly ridiculous and a bit dull. Worse than that, however, is the film’s suggestion that WWII was fought entirely by the US. The Germans and Japanese are mentioned as the enemy, but watching this film you’d never know the Allies included a whole raft of nations beside the USA, many of which had been fighting the Nazis for several years before the Americans deigned to get involved. I firmly believe if you teach people lies, they’ll start to treat them like the truth – and Hollywood is one of the greatest liars on the planet. For all its strengths as a war film, it’s astonishing how Saving Private Ryan manages to incorporate something that might offend or upset every other nationality on the planet.

alexandra-lst062587Alexandra, Aleksandr Sokurov (2007, Russia). This was a rewatch – I think I originally watched it on a rental, but having started building up my own collection of Sokurov DVDs, I rewatched it. The title refers to the grandmother of a Russian army officer currently stationed in Chechnya. She goes to visit him, travelling by troop train, and stays in his camp. He, however, is sent away on a mission shortly after her arrival, so she has to look after herself. She wanders about the camp, making friends with the soldiers – they’re all conscripts – and even visits the local market… where she meets some of the local Chechens, and strikes up an acquaintance with a local woman of her own age. Alexandra comments on the Russian invasion of Chechnya simply by documenting it. You see the conscripts in the camp, and it’s clear they don’t really understand what they’re doing; you see the damage the war has wrought on the town. And there’s the commentary of the grandson of Alexandra, who has to maintain discipline using violence (in an incident he explains to his grandmother). Yet what Sokurov depicts is the aftermath and cost of war – the soldiers are innocents, the Chechnyans have survived in spite of the war, Alexandra’s grandson treats his military service like a job… Sokurov apparently is not a believer in plot: “If the film is based on the principle of the story, the narrative, it is not art.” This probably explains my love of his work.

spacebattleship2dSpace Battleship Yamato, Takashi Yamazaki (2010, Japan). This is a live action version of a long-running anime property and, while I’ve been aware of the anime version, anime’s not really my thing so I’ve not made an effort to watch it. But the cover art to the live action version’s DVD sort of appealed to me (I like battleships), so I picked up a copy to watch. And… Well, it starts out like Battlestar Galactica and finishes up like Starship Troopers. The surface of the Earth has been rendered uninhabitable during a war with aliens, but when the hero stumbles across a beacon from crashed alien spaceship it proves to include blueprints for a new intergalactic drive, a powerful weapon, and a set of coordinates in another galaxy. So they fit the Yamato with the drive and a “wave gun” and send it off to the Andromeda Galaxy where, according to the beacon, there is a world which has the technology to return the Earth to its previous state, before it became a radiation-blasted wasteland. It’s not enough that the first two-thirds feel like Battlestar Galactica distilled down until it’s no more than a string of clichés, stereotypes and archetypes, the film then turns into the sort of Vietnam War in Spaaace film, with a bit of Iwo Jima thrown in, as typified by Starship Troopers and Aliens. There’s a vague hand-wave in the direction of a twist, when it transpires the good aliens are just another facet of the bad aliens… but it’s too little too late. The viewer’s brain has already been pummelled into mush by the constant battering of clichés. The CGI is very pretty, though.

52-pickup52 Pick-up, John Frankenheimer (1986, USA). A charity shop find this one, which I bought as I have soft spot for bad 1970s and early 1980s thrillers. Except this one turned out to be okay, if a little sweary and with somewhat too much gratuitous nudity. Roy Scheider plays a successful businessman – he owns a foundry which makes some special patented alloy for NASA. He has an affair, but is then blackmailed by three hooded men (the young woman proves to have been in on it). Initially, Scheider plays ball, but then he decides to get his own back on the blackmailers – he tracks them down, one by one, and confronts them. But this doesn’t go well. In that respect, the plot is almost text-book. The NASA connection adds a little flavour, and wife Ann-Margret’s incipient political career is a nice touch; but in most other respects this is a standard victim-turns-tables thriller, and Hollywood churned out an uncountable number of those during the 1970s and early 1980s. There must have been something in the water at the time…

molochMoloch, Aleksandr Sokurov (1999, Russia). From what I’ve read, Sokurov’s Mother and Son (1997) was extremely well received (and it is indeed excellent), but Sokurov’s following film, Moloch, completely flummoxed his admirers. And it’s easy to see why. It’s not just that its subject is Hitler, but also its deliberate flouting of historical record. The Berghof of Moloch is not the airy Bavarian chalet of history but a Gothic mountain-top castle. But it’s the ahistoricity of Moloch which makes it more interesting. It’s not, like Downfall, an attempt at an accurate record of an incident during WWII, it’s more of an allegory told using Hitler’s relationship with Eva Braun. He visits Eva at the Berghof, with the Goebbels and Martin Borman. There are several dinners, Hitler watches some newsreels, and even pretends to conduct an orchestra shown on a film. The party go for a picnic – and here the cinematography resembles the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich and the like, and though the party act about like children – there’s a very infantile cast to much of their behaviour throughout the film – it makes for an affecting juxtaposition against the scenery. (Which is only made more so when Hitler goes for a shit among the rocks.) Moloch is plainly a more ambitious film than Mother and Son, and it has a lot more going on under the surface. The visuals are not so striking, and the casting of the Berghof as some sort of castle from a cheap horror film is initially off-putting. But as the film progresses and Sokurov’s take on Hitler is built up layer by layer, so Moloch becomes a stronger film than Mother and Son (although it is never as emotionally affecting as that earlier film). Sokurov made three movies about men and power – the first was Moloch, the third was The Sun (2004), about Emperor Hirohito. The second, Taurus (2001), was about Lenin… and it has never been made available in an edition with English subtitles. Argh.

mortal_instrumentsThe Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, Harald Zwart (2013, USA). I started watching this thinking it was Divergent, another derivative but highly successful YA property adapted for film, which explains my initial confusion, not to mention my complete puzzlement, as to why the studio would open the DVD with an extended trailer for the film of the DVD… To make it clear, there is nothing odd about opening a DVD of The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones with an extended trailer for Divergent, but there is – as I thought was the case – in opening a DVD of Divergent with an extended trailer for Divergent. Anyway, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones… Young woman witnesses mother attacked by demon, and subsequently falls in with Goth type at some Goth type night club. This really was shite, badly acted, badly scripted, and it managed to hit every cliché in the genre, with an astonishing lack of charm. I ended up taking the piss out of the film on Twitter as I watched it because actually watching it was making my brain hurt.

harold_lloydThe Kid Brother*, Ted Wilde (1927, USA). I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the Harold Lloyd which features that iconic image of him hanging from the clock-face – as shown on the DVD cover left – but I’ve seen nothing else by him. This one is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, which is why I rented it. Lloyd plays the youngest son of a sheriff, a real man’s man, with a pair of older manly brothers. Lloyd is ineffectual, clumsy, and usually gets it wrong. He’s mucking about at home and pretending to be sheriff, when a travelling fair passes by. Taken with the fair’s dancing girl, he gives them permission to set up in the town. But his father, the real sheriff, is not impressed and tells Lloyd he must go and tell the fair to pack up and leave. In the ensuing chaos, thieves from the fair steal the money the town has collected to build a dam, and which was being held for safe-keeping at the sheriff’s house. Lloyd decides to prove himself – and win the girl – by retrieving the money… It may be a pretty well-worn story, but you don’t watch Harold Lloyd for insights or human truths, you watch it for the slapstick. And there’s plenty of excellent slapstick in The Kid Brother. Worth seeing.

element_of_crimeEpidemic, Lars von Trier (1987, Denmark). The second film in the E-Trilogy set, but the last one I watched – chiefly because the plot summary didn’t much appeal. It is, like the other films in the set, somewhat experimental in form. It documents a pair of scriptwriters’ attempt to make a film titled The Policeman and the Whore (one of the scriptwriters is von Trier himself), but instead decide to write a script about an outbreak of a plague-like disease. And then real life starts to mimic their script, as people are taken ill in an actual epidemic. Then it all goes a bit weird. I’m in no doubt that von Trier is an important film-maker (strange that Denmark, such a small country, should have produced two: Dreyer and von Trier; but the UK has, er, Hitchock, the Archers*…), but I find many of his films problematic. I like the black box theatre of Dogville, but the story eventually descends into misogynism and OTT violence. Melancholia looked beautiful but was wildly implausible. Breaking the Waves only succeeded because its cast managed to make their roles seem believable. I like that von Trier pushes the boundaries of cinema, I admire him for it, and he is clearly superb technically, but I also think his choice of material never quite fits. There is, for me, something a little bit off about each of von Trier’s films, but I’ve yet to decide if that is a weakness or a strength.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 573

* I’m being disingenous, of course. The UK has produced a number of important directors, although who would appear on that list is no doubt debatable. But given Denmark’s 5 million population, you’d expect the UK to have, proportionally, at least two dozen important directors… and I don’t think that’s the case.


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Reading diary, #4

I need to catch up on documenting my reading, before this blog turns into a movie blog. So even though most of the books I’ve read recently have been for review elsewhere, I’m posting this. (And also, I promised the Hook Quartet to a friend and I want to get my thoughts on it written down before I mail the books to him.)

The Bridge, Pamela Frankau (1957). I read this as part of my informal project to read some postwar British women writers and I wrote about it here.

flowersFlowers in the Minefield, John Jarmain (2012). I forget where I stumbled across John Jarmain’s poetry – it was probably through his connection to the Cairo poets during WWII (Lawrence Durrell was also one, and the group are mentioned in Olivia Manning’s The Levant Trilogy). Wherever it was, I liked the samples I read enough to hunt down a copy of his posthumous collection, Poems – Jarmain was killed in 1944 – and even a copy of his one novel, Priddy Barrows, which I wrote about here. While Flowers in the Minefield claims to offer more than just Jarmain’s poetry – which is reason enough to buy it, of course – the ancillary material is not up to much. There’s a brief biography, and a few reminiscences by people who knew him. But the poems are the real content, and they’re as good now as they were in 1945 when they first saw print. Jarmain is not as well known, nor was he as prolific, as Keith Douglas, but I find his poetry better-tuned to my tastes. It was, in fact, Jarmain who led me to explore WWII poetry – where previously I had read only WWI poetry, and then mostly that by Wilfred Owen – and I now own several volumes on the topic. Recommended.

secret-history-omnibus-volume-3-9781608864423_hrThe Secret History Omnibus Volume 1, Volume 2 and Volume 3, Jean-Pierre Pécau and Igor Kordey (2005 – 2010, trans. 2010 – 2014). Back in prehistory, twin sisters Reka and Aker, and their brothers Dyo and Erlin, are each given a rune by the tribe’s shaman to safeguard the runes from an attack by a tribe of… Neanderthals? The Secret History follows the four, who are now immortal, through human history, their various struggles, between themselves and against others, and their attempts to direct human history toward their own ends. During the fourteenth century, William of Lecce is born, and proves to have similar powers… and becomes their enemy (although Dyo occasionally fights on his side). Later, the  mythical city of Kor, located either in the Empty Quarter or another dimension, begins to influence human affairs. Pécau has done an extremely clever job of tying his story of secret magical combat by immortals into real history, but unfortunately the story skips about so much it’s often hard to figure out the actual narrative. This is not helped by Archaia’s decision to only translate and publish The Secret History and not the two pendant bandes dessinées, Arcanes majeur and Arcanes. They’re also some way behind – Volume 3, published last year, covers albums 15 to 20, but the series is actually currently up to 32. (Volume 3 was a recent purchase, incidentally, but I had to reread 1 and 2 before tackling it.) I suppose if I’m going to keep on reading bandes dessinées there’s little point in doing so in English – I should get the original French editions instead. Anyway, for all its faults I like The Secret History and plan to keep on reading it.

hook4Hook: Virility Gene, Tully Zetford (1975). I suspect Bulmer was hoping he’d be able to churn these out forever – the book is dedicated to Ted Tubb’s Dumarest, and that series managed 31 novels before DAW stopped buying them (and then only because Donald A Wollheim passed away). Fortunately for us, Virility Gene was the last we saw of Ryder Hook, and the novel’s open ending will remain forever open. Deciding which is the worst of the Hook quartet is a difficult call, but this one is possibly the frontrunner. Hook, and friends Shaeel and Karg, are travelling on a liner when they become embroiled in a plot to find the semi-mythical world where the Virility Gene can be found. It all goes a bit wrong, and Hook comes to in a lifepod, accompanied by Brett, an alien, and a dwindling supply of, er, supplies. Fortunately, they’re rescued in time. Hook gets a message to Shaeel – who gives “ver” destination as… Shyle, the planet where the Virility Gene is harvested (Shaeel is a Hermaphrodite, with pronouns to suit). On Shyle, there are lots of prospectors, but no one seems to know how or where the Virility Gene is harvested or manufactured or what – and the native Shylao guard the secret zealously. Zetford doesn’t even reveal what the Virility Gene actually is until around page 69 (of a 111pp novel). Apparently it’s an extremely potent aphrodisiac. Or something. Anyway, after various adventures, Hook finds himself in the secret compound where the Virility Gene is bought and sold to wealthy buyers. The point of Hook is that he’s a prototype Boosted Man, although he fell out with the programme and is now hunted by them (and the Boosted Men are a thoroughly bad lot). While Hook’s various implants (detectors, stuff to eavesdrop on comms, etc) work all the time, his super-strength and super-speed are only activated when he’s in the vicinity of an actual Boosted Man. But this time, his powers are, er, boosted to a degree he has never before experienced. He also meets a woman and it’s love at first sight between the two… And you can see where this is going, can’t you? Yup, to THE END… with Hook chasing after the love of his life, a Boosted Woman, and a story arc never to be resolved. And I almost forgot to mention the two inept thugs who set upon Hook called… Line and Synker (and from the description they promise to be regular characters); or indeed one of Synker’s lines of dialogue, which gives a pretty accurate flavour of the book’s prose – read it and weep:

“Oxymoron, Line! He’s only an eczema-sniffing spirochaete sap! You should be able to rubberise him before your first tutorial!”

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, Becky Chambers (2014). I read this for review for Strange Horizons. It’s been getting quite a bit of press this, a self-published novel which has been shortlisted for the Kitschies and has also been picked up by Hodder. Of course, self-published works on genre awards shortlists are not exactly a new thing. I seem to vaguely recall one winning the BSFA Award a couple of years ago…

Chanur’s Homecoming, CJ Cherryh (1986). The final book of the original Chanur saga – the actual final book, Chanur’s Legacy, didn’t appear until 1992. I read this for SF Mistressworks. A review will appear there in a week or two.


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The Bridge, Pamela Frankau

All too often, male authors are praised for their depiction of female characters, even though female writers often write male characters – especially in science fiction, in which it seems nearly 80% of protagonists are men. (And there are women sf authors whose most famous creations are male characters.) Yet no one praises female writers for their depiction of men. So let’s get that out of the way first – Pamela Frankau’s The Bridge (1957) is about a man called David Nielson, and he is drawn sensitively and plausibly.

thebridge

Pamela Frankau was published between 1927 and 1968. Her first novel, Marriage of Harlequin, saw print when she was only nineteen. She also seems to have led a somewhat… complicated life. She apparently had a long, and I’m assuming, public affair with a married man, the poet Humbert Wolfe, which ended with his death in 1940. She served in the ATS during World War II, where she had a lesbian affair with a fellow officer. After the war, she married an American Navy officer and decamped with him to the US. They divorced in 1951, and she returned to the UK and picked up her writing career, and proved even more successful than before. During the mid-1950s, she entered in a long relationship with theatre director Margaret Webster. Frankau died of cancer in 1967. Wikipedia lists 37 books by her, including three collections, an autobiography, and several works that appear to be non-fiction. Her best known novel is A Wreath For The Enemy (1954), which is still in print – it, The Winged Horse (1953) and The Willow Cabin (1949) are still available in Virago Modern Classics editions.

The novel opens with a man on a bridge. He doesn’t know where the bridge is, how he got there, what he’s doing there, or even who he is. It’s explained to him that he will witness a series of events, because there is something he must either learn or decide. The first such event takes place in 1913. A young boy in Cornwall is friends with the sons of a holidaying family. But when one of the sons decides the two of them should go swimming on their own – to prove they have courage after the holidaying father mocked them for not going into a rough seas- one of the boys slips on the rocks and is injured. The other boy, the one who lives in Cornwall, with his mother, Aunt Rachel, is David. And though he heard his friend scream as he fell, he ignored it.

In 1929, David is now living in London. He meets a young America woman, Linda, and invites her back to his digs. Aunt Rachel, who also lives in London, comes calling while David is trying to charm Linda. So he pretends to be out. The story skips ahead to 1939. David and Linda are now married, and live on a farm with Ricky and Madeleine. David is a reasonably successful writer and playwright (as is Ricky). After a trip into London, David stops off in the local pub to unwind, and gets into an argument with the racist barman. Then, after the war, in 1950, David and Linda, and their teenage daughter Anne, are living in southern France, in a cottage they owned before WWII. One night David wins big at roulette. A couple of days later, Anne is killed in a car crash. David and Linda move to California, where, in 1955, both teach at university. But Linda is cold and distant with David, and he has not written anything since Anne died. Linda walks out on him, and he runs away to rural New England, and begins writing again. Linda finds herself in New York, is “cured” by some sort of self-help guru and goes to work with him. She is supported by Ricky, who has divorced Madeleine, and is now a very rich and successful author.  In 1956, David and Linda begin to circle back toward each other… but it does not end well.

Interspersed between these various excerpts from David’s life (some are written from Linda’s point of view, but the story is mostly David’s) are more scenes set on the bridge. It quickly becomes clear it is a sort of limbo, and that David must do something if he is to “move on”. Although these scenes provide the novel’s title, and a framework of sorts, they actually get in the way of what is a readable, engaging and well-written story about David Nielson, his life, marriage and career. There’s some very nice writing in the book, and although a little slow to start, the story does draw the reader in. One of the novel’s strengths is that it’s never quite clear where it’s going, or what it’s actually about. If anything, the scenes on the bridge tend to obscure this aspect of the story, hinting either that some moral is waiting to be revealed or that the whole thing is just one long shaggy allegory. In point of fact, it’s neither, and the bridge scenes serve only to underscore one particular element of the story before and after – when there’s actually lots more worth noting in those sections.

Prior to embarking on this “project”, I’d never heard of Pamela Frankau. These days, she’s all but forgotten, despite having three books still in print (they’re dated 2008, so you’re unlikely to find them in your local Waterstone’s, however). But then I did embark on this project to find writers new to me. When I started The Bridge, I didn’t find it all that impressive, but it slowly won me over. David and Linda Nielson are both well-drawn characters, and if some of the details ring a little false (that self-help guru, for example), there’s still much to like in the book. I’m glad I read it and, yes, I think I’ll track down something else by Frankau to read.


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Moving pictures, #6

I’m trying to get caught up on these, since I’ve been watching so many films recently – all that bloody sportsing on television. Damn sportsing. Have never understood its appeal.

murderMurder, My Sweet*, Edward Dmytryk (1944, USA). Despite the title, this is pretty much a faithful adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely. Dick Powell plays Marlowe and he doesn’t look quite rumpled enough to pull it off. Apparently, the studio changed the title from that of the book because they thought audiences might otherwise think it was a musical. Um, yes. The only other adaptation stars Robert Mitchum as Marlowe, and I seem to remember that being a better version than this. Incidentally, I have a lot of time for Chandler’s fiction – and yes, I’ve read this one – but I’ve found most of the movie adaptations disappointing in some way, even the Humph ones.

largo-winchLargo Winch, Jérôme Salle (2008, France). This is what we used to call a “Euro-thriller” – ie, lots of different locations around the world, very glossy production design, plenty of action… and a plot that doesn’t make much sense. It’s adapted from a bande dessinée by Philippe Francq and Jean van Hamme (the latter, incidentally, has written several of the Blake and Mortimer bandes dessinées). The title character is an orphan secretly adopted by billionaire Nerio Winch. Some twenty-eight years later, Nerio is murdered and it triggers a fight for control of his Hong Kong-based company. Largo, meanwhile, has been bumming around the world. He’s arrested in Brazil but manages to escape, and heads to Hong Kong, where he declares himself to the board of directors. Some of them, however, don’t believe him. Handily, Nerio invested his stocks in some sort of bearer bonds, which he then hid. If Largo presents these to the board, then the company is his. Of course, the same is true if anyone else does. And the rival for Largo’s position turns out to be his adoptive brother. Plus there’s a shady rival who wants to buy the Winch corporation… and Largo makes a deal with him to secure his position. It’s all very cosmopolitan, with lots of action and exotic locales, and a plot that sort of lurches about in search of a coherent narrative. But it was also reasonably entertaining, and it didn’t take a pair of steel toe-capped boots to your intelligence, as Hollywood is wont to do.

umbrellasThe Umbrellas Of Cherbourg*, Jacques Demy (1964, France). I really liked Demy’s Lola, and despite knowing that this was a musical – even more, the dialogue is sung throughout – I sort of thought I might like this too. But I didn’t. Oh, it’s French and it’s 1960s and it looks mostly lovely and Catherine Deneuve is eminently watchable in one of the lead roles, but… Maybe it was because I’d watched Les Misérables only a week or so before, but the sung dialogue turned irritating quite quickly, and though the visuals were often quite eye-catching, I sort of lost interest. I think it deserves a rewatch, and given how much I liked Demy’s Lola, there’s a Demy DVD collection that looks quite tempting… except it’s bloody expensive. I shall stick some more Demy on the rental list, and see how I get on with them.

esisensteinAlexander Nevsky, Sergei Eisenstein (1938, USSR). I seem to have ended up with quite a few Eisenstein films, despite not being especially a fan. Several years ago, The Guardian gave away a free DVD each weekend – remember when newspapers used to do that? – and one of them was Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. Which is considered a classic of cinema. And I picked up a copy of Stachka (AKA Strike) because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list… and now I have a box set containing Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible parts 1 and 2. (It’s volume 2, and volume 1 appears to almost impossible to find. Argh.) Anyway, Alexander Nevsky… It’s about the eponymous prince, who led the Russians of Novgorod to victory against the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of the Ice (which takes place on a frozen lake). It’s a good solid historical epic, with a few more personal story arcs thrown in, but I couldn’t help comparing it to Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, and it didn’t wear the comparison especially well. Worth seeing, but I’m a little puzzled by the extremely high regard in which it’s held.

fearoffearFear Of Fear, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1975, Germany). This was a made-for-tv film, and having now seen three or four Fassbinder films I don’t think I could have mistaken it for anything but a Fassbinder film. Fassbinder regular Margit Carstensen plays a housewife who becomes addicted to Valium and alcohol following a series of increasingly stronger anxiety attacks. Her husband’s family, who live in the same apartment block, treat her as though she’s not good enough, which only worsens her condition. Eventually, she is committed, whereupon she seemingly recovers. A good, solid family drama, without much that struck me as essentially Fassbinder; but I enjoyed it and I thought Carstensen was especially good in the lead.

jour-de-feteJour de fête, Jacques Tati (1949, France). I have now seen all of Tati’s feature films, and of course I left his first until last. In this one he plays a postman in rural France and the film is a series of set-pieces in which first Tati does his usual round, and then, in the second half, he tries to introduce “American” methods in order to deliver letters faster. There are some excellent gags – in that respect, Jour de fête scores higher than Mon Oncle or Playtime, although it does not have the visual genius of those films – but a number of the set-pieces were recycled from the short L’école des facteurs (1947). Anyway, the Tati box set was an excellent buy, and despite never having watched any Tati before August last year, I can now happily call myself a fan.

giantGiant*, George Stevens (1956, USA). This is one of those films I always thought I’d seen but when I came to watch it very little of it actually proved familiar. It’s the sort of nonsense dynastic family saga the US – and especially Hollywood – likes to tell itself is proper art… especially when it involves oil. It’s not, of course, It’s not even melodrama. They try to throw in some social commentary – in this particular case, a Texan rancher turned oilman (Rock Hudson) discovers all his fellow whites are racist after his son marries a Latina woman. This, of course, comes as no particular surprise to, well, the rest of the planet. Hudson I could watch all night, and I do like films from the fifties, but this was long and not very inventive and all a bit thuddingly obvious from the start. James Dean was a bit rubbish in it, and not at all convincing – but then he’s another actor, like Brando, whose reputation mystifies me.

unbelievableThe Unbelievable Truth*, Hal Hartley (1989, USA). There are several Hal Hartley films in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I’m not sure why. There are more interesting independent directors – such as John Waters, or John Sayles – but I guess the list-makers are fans of Hartley’s movies. I can’t say I am. I’ve seen two now, and they’ve both been pretty forgettable, certainly not something that’s worthy of the 1001 list. In this one, a man returns home after years in prison for manslaughter. He takes up with a local girl, while rumours after his “crime” grow ever wilder, but his putative girlfriend goes off to be a model in New York. There’s a family crisis, and relationship difficulties and… yawn. Not very interesting.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 571


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Ten space operas, not your usual suspects

Writer Gareth Powell posted a list of Top Ten Essential Space Operas earlier this week, and since I like posting me some lists of books (and I have a space opera all of my own due out in July from Tickety Boo Press), I thought I would put together a list of ten space operas myself. But not “essential” ones, or even “top ten” or “best”. Just ten space operas you won’t usually find in lists of space operas. And which, yes, I do also happen to think are pretty good.

A few notes before the list. Much as I admire books like Light, Against A Dark Background (or any Banks, but that would be my choice) and Ancillary Justice, as picks they’re just too obvious. And when it comes to the definition of space opera, I wanted to choose books that no one could argue with – so, stories that stretched across several worlds, near-magical technology, alien races, the galaxy at stake, etc, etc…

In chronological order:

judgment_night1 Judgment Night, CL Moore (1952). Those were the days, when alien hordes descended on imperial capitals and the only thing preventing the sacking of the empire was the hawk-like princess, and she’s not going compromise with anyone, no matter if the imperial forces are out-numbered and out-gunned. I reviewed this short novel for SF Mistressworks, and though it sounds about as cheesy as space opera can possibly get, the character of Princess Juille is actually surprisingly well-drawn and interestingly played. And the Ancients are pretty neat too. My review is here.

2 Empire Star, Samuel R Delany (1966). I first read this as one half of a double with Delany’s The Ballad of Beta-2, and I’m pretty sure it was during a family holiday in Paris in the very early 1980s. I loved the Moebius Loop narrative, and the rich language. These days I think Dhalgren is Delany’s best piece of work, but this short novel runs it a close second.

Valerian-Vol-3-Cover3 Valérian and Laureline, Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières (1967 – present). Valérian, Agent Spatio-Temporel, and his partner Laureline, have been operating as troubleshooters for the Terran Galactic Empire since their first appearance in Pilote magazine through, to date, twenty-two bandes dessinées. Four were translated into English back in the 1980s, which is how I stumbled across the galaxy- and time-hopping pair. Happily, Cinebook began publishing the series in English a few years ago – they’re now up to volume 8.

4 The Children of Anthi and Requiem for Anthi, Jay D Blakeney (1985 – 1990). I bought these in a remainder book shop in Abu Dhabi back in the mid-1990s, and I’ve always liked the strange alien world Blakeney created in Anthi. The two books are a bit wobbly in places, while in other places she does tend to dial everything up to eleven. The protagonist is also a bit of wet blanket at times, but it all hangs together quite cleverly. I reviewed both books on SF Mistressworks here and here.

5 Master of Paxwax and The Fall of the Families, Phillip Mann (1986 – 1987). I’ve been a fan of Mann’s fiction since reading his debut, The Eye of the Queen, back in the late 1980s. I really must reread his books – especially these two, The Story of the Gardener, as I remember them being a smart and literate space opera – and sadly that’s not a pair of adjectives you normally associate with space opera.

take_back_plenty6 Take Back Plenty, Colin Greenland (1990). Iain M Banks is chiefly credited with kicking off New British Space Opera, but I’ve always considered this a seminal work – even if no one else bothered to pastiche old pulp space opera in the same fashion as Greenland. I remember the buzz when the book came out, and happily it is now in the SF Masterworks series. Take Back Plenty spawned a pair of belated sequels, Seasons of Plenty (1995) and Mother of Plenty (1998). I reviewed Take Back Plenty here.

7 An Exchange of Hostages, Prisoner of Conscience and Hour of Judgement, Susan R Matthews (1997 – 1999). Matthews’ Jurisdiction novels probably bend the definition of space opera furthest from true on this list. Yes, they’re set in an interstellar polity – it’s a lexocracy, ruled by judges – and there’s plenty of drama and conflict… But Andrej Kosciusko is a torturer for the Bench, and the stories are relatively small scale. They are also very, very good. I reviewed the first of the trilogy on SF Mistressworks here.

The_Prodigal_Sun8 The Prodigal Sun, The Dying Light and A Dark Imbalance, Sean Williams & Shane Dix (1999 – 2001). In many respects, these are the dictionary definition of space opera – plots and counter-plots, a sophisticated starship piloted by a cyborg mind, aliens, galactic war, a heroine who must transport an AI across a turbulent galaxy… Williams and Dix deploy every space opera trope in the Milky Way, but they do it in service to an action-packed fun read that’s about as emblematic of space operas as you can get.

9 The Risen Empire and The Killing of Worlds, Scott Westerfeld (2003). I think I read the first of these books as an ARC, but I forget where I picked it up. I liked it so much, I bought both books in hardback. They were published in the UK as a single volume, with the same title as the first book. Unlike many of the other books on this list, the Succession duology rings a few changes on the space opera template – the aristocracy are all dead, for a start. The two books are also quite deceptive in terms of scale – they feel widescreen, but are actually quite focused.

spirit10 Spirit, or the Princess of Bois Dormant, Gwyneth Jones (2008). Who knew the sequel to the Aleutian novels, a superior first contact trilogy, would be a space opera? Based roughly on the story of The Count of Monte Cristo? But given that the action in Spirit takes place on three different worlds, two of which are alien, as well as in a space station shared by all the races in the story, the book certainly qualifies as space opera. I wrote about Spirit here.

The list said ten, so I had to draw a line after that number. But there were a a few I’d liked to have included but they didn’t quite make the cut. Such as Angel At Apogee, SN Lewitt; Search for the Sun!, The Lost Worlds of Cronus, The Tyrant of Hades and Star Search, Colin Kapp; The Snow Queen, Joan D Vinge; or even the Coyote Jones series, Suzette Haden Elgin.

Some people may spot there are a couple of obvious choices not mentioned in this post – such as Peter F Hamilton or James SA Corey – and that’s because, well, I don’t think they’re very good. Nonetheless, I’ve probably missed off some space operas I ought to have mentioned… so feel free to make suggestions. However, if you find yourself about to suggest a list of ten books by male writers only, or indeed by white male US authors only, you probably need to go away and rethink your list – or maybe even reconsider the books you’re reading…

ETA: A redditor pointed out that the most recent book mentioned in my list is from 2008. Given that I wanted the list to show a reasonable spread across the decades, this is not unexpected. Nor did I want to post just another list of the shiny new. This doesn’t mean my knowledge of space opera stops at 2008, however. I can recommend both Mike Cobley’s Humanity’s Fire trilogy (2009 – 2011) and Gary Gibson’s Shoal Sequence (2007 – 2013). I tried the first book of Rachel Bach’s Paradox trilogy (2013 – 2014), but didn’t rate it. I did rate Kameron Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha (2011 – 2012), but I wouldn’t classify it as space opera. I mentioned Ann Leckie in the opening paragraphs of this post. I wouldn’t use Kevin J Anderson’s books as toilet paper, never mind suggest people read them; and I don’t really consider Alistair Reynolds’ novels as space opera (no, not even House of Suns), though I do think they’re very good. As for the bazillions of space operas self-published every month on Kindle… Since almost all of them are derivative and badly-written, I see no good reason to keep up with them.


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All That Outer Space Allows teaser

Back on the 1 March, I read out a piece of Apollo Quartet 4 All That Outer Space Allows at the second SFSF Social. It seemed to go down quite well. And since the release of the book has been a little bit, er, delayed, I thought I’d post the text from my reading as a taster. So here you are. It’s from chapter two. Enjoy.

Walden says nothing about the physical at Brooks AFB or, months later, the interviews at the Rice Hotel in Houston; but for a week after his last trip to Texas he swaggers more than usual. Ginny knows this unshakeable confidence is as much a coping mechanism as will be, should he fail, his subsequent realisation he doesn’t really want it anyway. But she hopes he succeeds, she wishes she could go into space herself. But she knows that, at this time, it’s an occupation reserved for men— no, more than that: reserved for men of Walden’s particular stripe, jet fighter pilots and test pilots. She calls him “my spaceman” one night, it just slips out she is reading the latest issue of If, there’s a good novella in it by Miriam Allen deFord, and Ginny’s head is full of spaceships and spaceship captains; but Walden turns suddenly cold and gives her his thousand-yard stare. He starts to explain the competition is fierce, he won’t know how he’s done until he hears from NASA… but he breaks off, scrambles out of bed and stalks from the room.

Ginny puts the magazine on the bedside table, but her hand is shaking. She sits silently, her hands in her lap, and waits. He does not return. Fifteen minutes later and he’s still not back, so she rearranges her pillows, makes herself comfortable beneath the sheets, and reaches out and turns off the bedside lamp. She has no idea what time it is when he eventually slides into bed beside her, waking her, and whispers, Sorry, hon. She rolls over, closes her eyes and tries to re-enter the vale of sleep, where marriages are blissful, life itself is blissful, and she is as famous as Catherine Moore or Leigh Brackett.

They wake at 0430, the shrill ring of the alarm dragging them both from sleep. While Walden goes for a shower, she wraps herself in a housecoat and heads for the kitchen. There is breakfast to prepare—coffee to roast, bread to toast, eggs to fry, bacon, beans and hash browns. She does this every day, sees off her man with a full stomach and a steady heart. Here he is now, crisp and freshly-laundered in his tan uniform, hungry for the day ahead. He takes his seat, she pours him juice and coffee, slides his plate before him, and then sits across the table and watches him eat as she sips from a cup of coffee. She should be getting up before him, making herself ready, dressed and made up, to greet him when he awakes—but countless past arguments have won her the right to make his breakfast and see him off to work without having to do so. The housecoat is enough.

They kiss goodbye at the door, and he strides off to the Chevrolet Impala Coupe in the carport. Though she wants to go back to bed, there is too much to do, there is always too much to do.

After clearing up the breakfast things, she makes herself another coffee and settles down to catch up with her magazines, she is a couple of issues behind with Fantastic, and this issue, the last of 1965, features a novella by Zenna Henderson and stories by Doris Pitkin Buck, Kate Wilhelm and Josephine Saxton.

Later, she will get dressed—and she will dress for comfort, not for appearance’s sake—and she will get out the Hermes Baby and she will work on her latest story. She made the decision years before to incorporate elements of her own life—and, suitably disguised, Walden’s—into her science fiction, so she feels no need to visit libraries or book stores for research. She has a stack of issues of Fantastic Universe, If, Amazing Stories, Galaxy, World of Tomorrow in a closet—they are all the research material she needs. Galaxy, for example, runs a science column by astronomer Cecelia Payne-Gaposchkin; Amazing Stories has featured science columns by June Lurie and Faye Beslow since the 1940s. Walden, of course, has a library of aeronautics and engineering texts in the bedroom he uses as a den, and Ginny has on occasion paged through them—not that Walden knows: his den is for him alone and she allows him the illusion of its sanctity; naturally, it never occurs to him to wonder how the room remains clean.

Ginny is feeling lazy today. She likes to think she has an excellent work ethic when it comes to her writing, but some days she finds it hard to muster the enthusiasm to bang on the keys of her typewriter. Especially when she has just read something she thinks she can never approach in quality—and that, she sadly realises, is true of the Saxton story in the magazine she is holding. Josephine Saxton is a new writer, from England, and this is her debut in print. Ginny only wishes her first published story, just four years ago in Fantastic, had been as good.

The blow to her confidence decides her: she will leave her current work in progress until tomorrow; today she will catch up on her correspondence, she owes letters to Ursula, Judith and Doris, and she really ought to fire off a missive to Cele with her thoughts on the issue she has just read…

After she has showered and dressed in slacks and shirt, she finds herself outside on the patio, gazing east across the roofs of Wherry Housing toward the Air Force Base and Rogers Dry Lake, and beyond it the high desert stretching to the horizon, where the Calico Mountains dance in the pastel haze of distance. As she watches, a jet fighter powers up from one of the runways and though it is more than a mile and a half from her, she can tell from its delta wing it is a F-102 or F-106. Its throaty roar crowds the cloisonné sky, there’s a quick flash of mirror-bright aluminum as the aircraft banks, and then the fighter seems to fade from view as it flies away from her. She wonders if it is Walden in the cockpit, she has no idea what he does from day to day once he enters the base; officially, he is a research test pilot in the Fighter Test Group, but she does not know what he researches, which fighters he test pilots. Not the North American X-15, she knows that much, an aircraft which intrigues her because it is also a spaceship—it has flown more than fifty miles above the Earth, right at the edge of space, at over 4,000 miles per hour. And it even looks like a spaceship, like a rocket, as much at home in vacuum as it is in atmosphere. She would like to know more about the X-15 but it’s a sensitive subject in the house. Walden has tried to get on the program but has been refused, and he wears the refusal badly. Perhaps that’s why he was so keen to apply to become an astronaut.

Ginny is a California girl, a real one, born and bred in San Diego in Southern California, not one of those “dolls by a palm tree in the sand” from that song on the radio. She has history in this landscape of deserts and canyons and mesas, though she grew up beside the limitless plain of the Pacific. Here in the Mojave she is hemmed in by mountains, they encircle her world, her flat and arid world, where the small towns are so far apart they might as well belong to their own individual Earths. Standing here, gazing in the direction of Arizona, she finds it easy to believe Edwards is the only human place in the world, a lonely oasis of civilisation—and she knows her husband thinks of it as a technological haven in a world held back from the best science and engineering can offer by the short-sightedness of others. To some degree, she thinks he may be right. But she is also a housewife, and she lives in a world in which bed linen must be changed, clothes laundered, meals cooked and checkbooks balanced. She envies Walden his freedom to ignore all that—he can have his “life in the woods”, but only because she manages his world.

And now she really must get on with her letter-writing… although the lawn looks like it needs mowing and the end of the yard is beginning to look a little untidy…

And here’s the cover art…

Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 3.46.35 PM


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Moving pictures, #5

And now it seems the Blu-ray player is starting to act up. Bugger. Annoyingly, I recently discovered it’s also region-locked for DVDs, although I was sure it was region-free when I bought it. I definitely need to get myself a new one – region-free for both formats. Sigh.

allthatjazzAll That Jazz*, Bob Fosse (1979, USA). There are some movies I’d never have come to watch if they hadn’t been on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and not just because I’d otherwise never have known about them. On first pass, All That Jazz doesn’t really seem to be my sort of film. It’s a semi-autobiographical musical, based on Fosse’s own experiences staging a big Broadway musical and editing a feature film, a work-load which led to health problems and hospitalisation. I am not much of a musicals-type person – in fact, there’s only one I actually rate, High Society – and if I were I think I’d prefer ones from the 1950s… But All That Jazz is also one of those films in which an unexpected dance sequence makes something very interesting of it. And “unexpected” is not a word associated with dance sequences you’d think would apply to All That Jazz. But there it is. As Roy Scheider lies in his hospital death, he hallucinates a big dance production number featuring the Angel of Death, and it’s cleverly and affectingly done. I found myself really liking All That Jazz, and I hadn’t expected to.

onthewaterfrontOn the Waterfront*, Elia Kazan (1954, USA). Marlon Brando is apparently one of the great actors, but I’ve seen him now in two of his most famous roles – in A Streetcar Named Desire and this one – and, well, he’s just annoying. That stupid voice. I guess that must be Method Acting. Brando plays a dim-witted ex-boxer whom circumstances force into going up against his chapter of the longshoremen union and its corrupt chief. It’s the sort of story which is, I guess, meant to celebrate a good man, but all it does to me is demonstrate that the capitalist model is corrupt, open to abuse and a piss-poor end-result after ten thousand years of civilisation. Seriously, we’re meant to just accept the injustice and violent coercion which was apparently standard operating procedure on the docks of New York some sixty years ago? We shouldn’t be cheering on Terry Malloy as he battles the union, we should be asking why the US government is apparently so inept, corrupt or just plain evil to have allowed the situation to arise in the first place. Either way, this doesn’t really meet my criteria for a good movie.

paradeParade, Jacques Tati (1974, France). I’ve almost finished the Tati box set, and it was definitely one of my better purchases – even if this isn’t one of Tati’s better films. It’s a made-for-TV piece, set in a circus, in which Tati himself occasionally appears as a clown. It is also a film chock-a-block with dungarees. I’ve never seen so many pairs in a single movie before. There are some amusing set-pieces, but if this weren’t Tati it would be just another fly-on-the-ringside documentary, albeit a very 1970s one. Worth seeing, but buy the Tati box set for the other films.

motherkustersMother Küsters Goes To Heaven, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1975, Germany). And I’m about halfway through the Fassbinder box set. I like box sets. (I received a Bergman one for my birthday, only a week or so ago, incidentally). One thing I’m coming to realise from watching these Fassbinder films is that he definitely made use of a stable of actors. Brigitte Mira, who played the female lead in Fear Eats the Soul, plays the title character, a working-class widow who loses everything when her husband kills his supervisor and commits suicide at the factory. She and her family are interviewed by the press, who then libellously paint the dead man as a drunk who was violent toward his wife and a bully to his children. A pair of middle-class communists offer to help Mother Küsters clear her husband’s name, although her family are suspicious of the communists’ motives. But they prove too slow for Mother Küsters and she falls in instead with some anarchists… who invade the local office of the newspaper which published the libellous article. This isn’t exactly the most subtle Fassbinder film I’ve watched so far – he sets out to show the perfidy of the press and the way they monster people, and does precisely that. Interestingly, the film has two endings. One is represented by stills, while a voice-over reads the script, but the other was actually filmed. The latter apparently was written especially for the US market (it’s the happier ending), but I do wonder why the first ending was never actually put on film.

White_HeatWhite Heat*, Raoul Walsh (1949, USA). “Look at me, ma! I’m on top of the world!” Yup, this is where that line comes from. It’s a classic gangster film, in which Cagney plays a complete psychopath – albeit a somewhat tame one by today’s standards, in fact superheroes in twenty-first century films show about as much remorse as Cagney’s character does after killing someone. That’s progress for you. Anyway, Cagney gives himself up for a crime he didn’t commit because it provides an alibi for one he did, a particularly brutal train robbery. A cop goes undercover in the prison, breaks out with Cagney and joins his gang. The film ends with an attempt to rob the payroll from a refinery, and Cagney ends up stuck on the top of a storage tank, starts of a gun battle… which causes the storage tank to blow. KABOOM. A good bit of classic noir.

lesmisLes Misérables*, Tom Hooper (2012, USA/UK). Here’s another film that I’d have otherwise assiduously avoided if it hadn’t been for the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but unlike All That Jazz I can’t really say I’m glad I watched it. I knew going in it wasn’t going to be the sort of film I like and, lo and behold, I really didn’t like it. The singing was terrible, the songs were awful – even that brain-burning one popularised by Susan Boyle – the characters were unredeemable, and the CGI was so over the top it might as well have taken place in some fantasy world. Rubbish.

labelleLa Belle et la Bête*, Jean Cocteau (1946, France). I thought Cocteau’s Orphée really good, but this retelling of ‘The Beauty and the Beast’ fairy tale was a bit dull. While the staging was cleverly done, particularly for the time, the production design did resemble some amateur dramatic pantomime production (although the Beast’s make-up was good). Perhaps it deserves a second watch – but it was a rental disc and it’s gone back. On the other hand, I’m only just over halfway through the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list… although I would like to see more films by Cocteau.

mother-and-sonMother And Son, Aleksandr Sokurov (1997, Russia). I’ve watched this a couple of times now, and I continue to find it completely mesmerising. A young man cares for his mother as she lies on her death-bed. He reads to her, he carries her outside and shows her the surrounding countryside, he feeds her and nurses her. There is a dream-like quality to the visuals, so much so that some of the landscape shots actually resemble oil paintings. This is a beautiful film, one of the most beautiful I’ve ever watched. I’d place it a close second after The Second Circle as my favourite Sokurov, and while it doesn’t quite make my top ten it certainly makes my top twenty. But I also suspect that more often I watch it, the more my opinion of it will rise. I’ve been watching a lot of Sokurov recently, and have even tracked down copies of some of his hard-to-find DVDs. I think he’s one of the most interesting directors currently making films. There’s something very… literary about his movies. Watching them is like reading a beautifully-written short story.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 567

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