Time for some more retro-futurist eye candy in lieu of intellectual content, because, well, I don’t want to leave it too long between posts here and I can’t at this particular moment in time think of anything intelligent to write. (I’m reserving all that for writing Apollo Quartet 4; that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.) Anyway, pictures…
So I started writing Adrift on the Sea of Rains sometime in 2010, and then the film Apollo 18 was released in September 2011 – although I didn’t publish my book until April 2012. And then I wrote The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself about a mission to Mars, and published that in January 2013… by which point Andy Weir’s self-published novel The Martian was doing so well, it was bought by a publisher for six figures who then published it in January 2014, and now it’s being made into a movie by Ridley Scott. I decided to write about the Mercury 13 for Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, and so does Kelly Sue DeConnick in Captain Marvel, which was collected as In Pursuit of Flight in late 2013. And BBC Radio 4 broadcasts a documentary on the Mercury 13 in November 2014. And for the final book of the Apollo Quartet, I’m focusing on the wives of the Apollo astronauts, and among the books I’ve used for research is Lily Koppel’s The Astronaut Wives Club… which has been adapted for television by ABC and will be broadcast in spring 2015…
So it’s not just me writing about these things, but on the other hand it’s not like I’m getting any benefit from their appearances in popular culture. Clearly my marketing department is not doing its job properly…
More films seen recently, and it’s the usual mix. As if all that many of the films I’ve been watching this year could be described as “usual”…
Fast Times At Ridgemont High*, Amy Heckerling (1982, USA). Time has not been kind to this film. Pretty much everything in it has since been used in later high school films, so it now looks like a string of tired old clichés. Which is not to say much of it wasn’t clichéd to begin with. I’m not a fan of high school movies to start with, chiefly because I never went to an American high school – so such films mean pretty much nothing to me. I’ve no idea why this film was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. It was perhaps mildly amusing in 1982, but in 2014 it’ll make for an evening’s entertainment only if you’re easily please and if you’ve consumed several beers.
Au Hasard Balthazar*, Robert Bresson (1966, France). The title refers to a donkey, owned by the young daughter of a farmer. As she grows up, so the donkey changes hands, and undergoes a series of indignities and cruelties – it may be a beast of burden, but it’s not treated at all well. The farmer’s daughter also suffers abuse at the hands of the various people, although emotional rather than physical. In fact, the two lives broadly mirror one another, although the similarities seem to bounce between too obscure to be easily spotted, or glaringly signposted. But a good film, and worth seeing.
We Are The Best!, Lukas Moodysson (2013, Sweden). I’ve been a fan of Moodysson’s films since seeing Lilya 4-Ever several years ago, so anything new by him goes straight on the wish list. I did consider going to see this at the cinema earlier this year – it was on around the same time as Under The Skin – but in the event decided to hang on for the DVD. Which is what I did. The film is based on the graphic novel Aldrig Godnatt by Moodysson’s wife, Coco Moodysson. It’s about two early-teen punks in 1982 Stockholm – in the graphic novel, one is called Coco, so its plainly based on the author’s own childhood; but in the film, the character has been named Bobo. The two girls decide to form a band, and recruit a shy Christian girl as guitarist. They then link up with a boy punk band, which causes a few problems as two of the girls fancy the same boy. There’s a beautifully-handled scene in which one of the mothers lectures the girls on tolerance for Christianity, which is not something I ever thought I’d say about a film. We Are The Best! is effortlessly good, and the central trio play their parts superbly.
Journey To Italy*, Roberto Rossellini (1953, Italy). George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman are in Italy to sell a property they’ve inherited near Naples. Things happen. Sanders flirts with another woman, Bergman is jealous. Bergman goes off and does her own thing, Sanders assumes she has a man friend and is jealous. Then, just before the end, they reconcile. By all accounts the production was pretty chaotic, and it shows. Not the most captivating Italian realist film I’ve seen.
American Hustle, David O Russell (2013, USA). I’d seen the trailers for this back when it was out in the cinemas, and it looked like it might be enjoyable. Of course, you should never trust a trailer, it’s a marketing tool, and a good one can make a shit film appear to be worth shelling out £10+ to see it. And while I rented this on DVD, so it didn’t cost me anywhere near a tenner, it was still a waste of money as I didn’t like it very much at all. The characters were all horrible, the production design was garish – yes, it was set in the 1970s, but so was Life on Mars, which was a little bit of a spoof, and even that didn’t manage such horrible production design – but worst of all, American Hustle was boring. And while Robert De Niro was supposed to be speaking Arabic, it didn’t sound anything like it. But then he allegedly learnt the language while visiting his casinos in the Middle East – I think Abu Dhabi was mentioned – which is rubbish, as gambling is haram and no Islamic state would licence casinos. (At Nad -Al-Shiba racetrack, they used to offer a prize, usually a car or a racehorse, to anyone who guessed the winners of the night’s races correctly; it wasn’t gambling because it didn’t cost money to guess.)
Shame*, Steve McQueen (2011, UK). I picked this up in a charity shop, which is where it’s going now that I’ve watched it. Michael Fassbender plays a self-centred, er, executive of some sort, in New York who is addicted to sex – he downloads porn at work, he sneaks off to the bogs for a wank, he frequents prostitutes… Then his sister comes to stay with him, and she has a history of suicide attempts. Although beautifully shot, the characters were so unlikeable, the pace so glacial, and the story so uninteresting that I’m mystified by the high regard in which the film is held.
The Cabin In The Woods*, Drew Goddard (2011, USA). I might not think every film on the 1001 Movies To See Before You Die list belongs there, but for some of them it’s possible to make a case. But not this one. It’s a piss-take horror full of the usual allegedly witty Whedon banter, with some silly explanatory story driving the plot. This is a film better-suited to a midnight showing on some cable channel, to be watched after copious beers and a doner kebab.
Hiroshima Mon Amour*, Alain Resnais (1959, France). Resnais is one of those directors whose films I want to like, but every time I watch one I can’t bring myself to do so. He does interesting things, he pushes the boundaries of cinematic narrative. This one is a case in point – the central relationship between the two unnamed characters is handled beautifully, but the documentary footage of Hiroshima is disturbing and I’m far too squeamish to enjoy watching it . It’s too visceral to be likeable as a movie – I might have found it easier to appreciate as a book – but then, that was probably the whole point. Though I didn’t enjoy it, I can understand why Hiroshima Mon Amour is on the 1001 Movies To See Before You Die list.
Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes (2002, USA). This was a rewatch, as I’ve had the DVD for a couple of years. I originally bought it because it is, of course, famously inspired by Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows – in fact, the film sort of follows the basic plot of Sirk’s film, and its cinematography is clearly inspired by it. Like other Haynes films I’ve seen, I love some things about it and dislike others. Haynes’ 1950s small-town America is beautifully coloured and shot, but I’m not really convinced by Julianne Moore in the lead role. And while her relationship with her gardener works really well, I’m not sure about her husband’s homosexuality – it feels like Haynes has thrown in two scandals for the price of one.
The Monuments Men, George Clooney (2014, USA). It’s WWII and Clooney recruits a bunch of art experts to hunt through Europe during the latter weeks of the war to hunt for art stolen by the Nazis. Each of them has a piece they obsess over, and would even die for – it certainly leads them to take risks, and results in at least one death. We all know the Nazis were very naughty boys, but stealing art is pretty low down on the list of their crimes. And, to be honest, I think we might have been better off if much of it had never been recovered. Great art should be there for the world to see, not changing hands for ridiculous amounts of money and then hidden away in private collections. That’s just turning paintings into substitute penises, which pretty much misses the whole point of Art. Films like this don’t help.
Violent Saturday, Richard Fleischer (1955, USA). I didn’t have high expectations for this film, it looked like it might be a minor piece of 1950s noir, something to do with a riot in a small town on the titular day of the week. But when it opened with a car driving down into a working copper mine, and then an explosion to bring down a section of cliff-face, it was obvious this was not going to be your average noir. In fact, Violent Saturday is 1950s melodrama meets thriller, with a trio of bank robbers planning a heist on the day in question, while about them various dramas in the lives of the townsfolk take place, including but not limited to: the wastrel son of the mine owner failing to hold his marriage together, the mine’s manager trying to keep his son’s respect despite not fighting in the war, a bank clerk trying to work up courage to ask out the mine’s nurse… And all shot in beautiful widescreen Technicolor. Loved it.
The Cloud Capped Star (Meghe Dhaka Tara)*, Ritwik Ghatak (1960, India). This was a bit grim. A young woman, a refugee from East Pakistan, lives with her family in a camp outside Kolkata. Her brother is a wastrel and wants to be a singer – he sings frequently throughout the film, and he’s good. Her fiancé is forever borrowing money off her so he can complete his studies. She is having trouble completing her own studies, with so many demands on her time and finances. And then things start to get worse. Filmed in a very stark black and white, intensely realist, and with an interesting and effective use of close-in mise-en-scène and much wider vistas, particularly across the Hooghly River, this is an excellent film, although perhaps a little long. Definitely a film that deserves repeated watches. And I might have a go at something else by Ghatak.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 528
So Shaun Duke says Interstellar is one of the best sf films of this century and I’m like no way and he’s like way and so he challenges me to produce my own list of top ten sf films of the last fourteen years… And it’s actually quite difficult as I can think of two dozen off the top of my head that are better than Interstellar, but I have to whittle it down to only ten. Which I did. And here they are…
1 Cargo, Ivan Engler & Ralph Etter (2009) I’m surprised this film isn’t better known. Perhaps it makes a little too free and easy with some well-known tropes, but this Schweitzer Deutsch production puts them to excellent use, and still manages to ring some changes.
2 Avalon, Mamoru Oshii (2001) A Japanese film made in Poland with a Polish cast. It looks amazing, and the VR game with its layers of realities seriously messes with your head.
3 Primer, Shane Carruth (2004) Probably the best time travel film ever made. And it’s impossible to work out the plot.
4 Under The Skin, Jonathan Glazer (2013) An improvement on the book. Shot guerilla-style in Glasgow, with Scarlett Johansson as an enigmatic alien.
5 John Carter, Andrew Stanton (2012) Commercially a flop, but there’s much to like in this tentpole blockbuster – it looks gorgeous, the script is far smarter than the material had any right to expect, and the cast all play good turns.
6 Sky Captain and the World Of Tomorrow, Kerry Conran (2004) A CGI-fest which makes perhaps too much of a feast of its source material – while the pulp production design looks wonderful, the pulp narrative didn’t sit well with modern audiences.
7 Dredd, Pete Travis (2012) Who knew an art house version of the Mega City One lawmaker would work so well?
9 Timecrimes, Nacho Vigalondo (2007) More time paradoxes than you can shake a reasonably large Moebius loop at.
10 Sound of My Voice, Zal Batmanglij (2011) A clever study of the cult mentality, with Brit Marling as a “prophet” from the future.
Honourable mentions: Apollo 18 (2011), amazingly accurate rendition of an Apollo mission, with monsters; Gravity (2013), not quite as accurate, no monsters either; Possible Worlds (2000), odd and under-stated many worlds thriller; Natural City (2003), frenetic Korean cyberpunk actioner; Time Of The Wolf (2003), Haneke does post-apocalypse.
You won’t find any of Susan Ertz’s books in print these days – in fact, a quick search on Amazon returns only secondhand copies, the most recent of which was published in 1985. She was actively writing between 1923 and 1976, which is an impressively long career, and one of her books was adapted for the cinema, In The Cool of the Day, in 1960, starring Peter Finch and Jane Fonda. She also wrote a science fiction novel in 1935, Woman Alive, but I’m not aware of it being claimed by the genre. I’ve yet to find a full bibliography online – the one on Ertz’s entry on Wikipedia lists twenty-two books but doesn’t include the one I read, Devices & Desires, which was published in 1972.
To be honest, on the strength of Devices & Desires, I doubt I’ll be exploring Ertz’s oeuvre any further. While I had a positive experience with my first Storm Jameson (see here), I can’t say the same for my first Susan Ertz. It’s not that Devices & Desires is a bad book, or a badly-written book. But it’s set in the early 1970s – there’s even a mention of the Apollo 11 lunar landing – and feels like it’s set in the 1930s. It makes for a disconnect that completely spoils the reading experience.
The Gorlans – Professor, his mother, young nanny Stephanie, and three young boys – are travelling from the US to the UK for a well-earned holiday. They are travelling by ship – did people still do that in 1970? And they will be staying in a rented country house near Oxford. Also aboard the same liner is John Van Bolen, the young son of an American millionaire whose estranged British wife owns the house the Gorlands have rented. John is accompanied by Robinson, Van Bolen’s African-American chauffeur. The two groups become aware of each other during the voyage, and once ensconced in their holiday home the Gorlands continue to seem more of the Van Bolens. John’s mother, Rachel, is in a relationship with French expat architect Marcel, but the two cannot marry because Rachel’s husband won’t give her a divorce. Also, young John doesn’t like Marcel and refuses to be the son of divorced parents. Stephanie has fallen in love with Professor Gorland, but he doesn’t return the sentiment – in fact, he’s attracted to Rachel. And Robinson has fallen in love with Oriana, the West Indian maid of the local vicar and his wife.
Then, as usually seems the case in such stories, tragedy strikes. John and the oldest Gorlan boy plot a swimming race across the lake. Since they’ve been told not to do this, they drug Robinson, who is minding them. But the youngest Gorlan boy escapes his grandmother’s care, wanders down to the lake and falls in. And nearly drowns. But Robinson, knowing that John will be blamed for the near-death as it was John who drugged Robinson, commits suicide in order to take the blame himself.
Devices & Desires really is horribly old-fashioned. Robinson reads like a stereotypical African-American from the first half of the twentieth century. The American characters come across as somewhat less-wealthy Rockefellers, and the English characters are all terribly upper class. They talk about “fetching the car”, everyone has servants, and one character even has a small flat filled with expensive paintings in a chic area of London. You could move the entire story forward in time fifty years and the only thing that would need changing is the reference to men landing on the Moon.
Devices & Desires‘s prose is by no means bad. On the contrary, it’s a good deal better than you’ll find in most twenty-first century commercial fiction. And it’s clearly the product of an established writer with a decades-long career. But it also seems to be the product of a writer who is decades out of touch. And that, for me, completely ruined my enjoyment of the book.
So I went to see Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, which some have been saying is the best sf film ever made. But, of course, they always say that about a new film, probably because they’re just shills for the Hollywood marketing machine. But if you wait a bit – or a week, as I did – then a few more honest voices begin to appear… And they gave mixed reviews. Thing is, just because Hollywood decides to have a go at near-future sf, just as they had a go at a space movie last year, there’s no need to scream about how good it is… Having said that, I’ve now seen the trailer for the Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending twice and it looks proper awful.
But Interstellar. It is supposed to be a rigorous and accurate vision of interstellar space travel – handwavy vastly superior aliens who create the wormhole notwithstanding. Matthew McConaughey plays NASA test pilot turned farmer Coop, since a global famine has resulted in anything remotely scientific being shut down. As one person puts it, “We’re a caretaker generation, we don’t need engineers, we need farmers”. Except the farming on display is some sort of pastiche of early twentieth century farming, with a small wooden house in the middle of a sea of maize. There are no equipment sheds, no garages, no silos, no storage. Just a house. And even though various events in the film take place at different times of the year, the maize is always just about ready to be harvested – in fact, it is being harvested by robot combine harvesters on a number of different occasions. Makes you wonder why there’s a famine if they can grow maize so quickly 365 days a year…
A “ghost” in the bedroom of Coop’s ten-year-old daughter, Murphy, causes books to fly off the shelf, but Murph works out there is a pattern to it. It proves to be binary, a set of coordinates. Murph, incidentally, was named for Murphy’s Law, “What can happen, will happen”. Except that’s wrong – Murphy’s Law, as popularised by John Paul Stapp, is “anything that can go wrong, will go wrong”. This is not the only little “joke” in Interstellar. At a parent-teacher meeting, Coop is told the Apollo missions were faked in order to bankrupt the USSR, which they did successfully. No mention of the arms race. Or the fact the Apollo missions ended twenty years before the USSR economy crashed. Or that by the second decade of the twenty-first century, the Russian space programme was the only one flying human-rated spacecraft.
Anyway, the coordinates lead Coop and Murph to a secret NASA facility, where kindly professor Brand, Michael Caine, helpfully explains the whole plot. I should note that it’s taken an hour to get to this point – Interstellar is a film in which very little happens for the first third. Thirty years earlier, NASA discovered a wormhole near Saturn, which leads to twelve habitable worlds in another galaxy. Ten years ago, they sent a crew of twelve to explore three of those worlds. Now they want to send a supply mission. And Coop just happens to have test-piloted the spacecraft they’re readying for the mission. So even though he has literally just walked in out of the fields, he’s the best man for the job. Murph doesn’t want him to go, because she thinks he won’t come back. Coop, of course, hates farming and immediately signs up. Also on the mission is Brand’s daughter, played by Anne Hathaway, and two spear carriers, Wes Bentley and David Gyasi. Oh, and a pair of AI robots that look like tourist information kiosks.
The spacecraft launches, rendezvouses with the Endurance, NASA’s last remaining interplanetary spacecraft, which has been parked in orbit. The crew go into hibernation for the two-year trip to Saturn – in a room which is apparently tiled like a bathroom, something I’d have thought too expensive weight-wise for a spacecraft. The shuttle craft too was unfeasibly large – not to mention a strange and not very aerodynamic shape. At Saturn, the crew wake up, the Endurance enters the wormhole (cue demonstration of how a wormhole works with a folded piece of paper; sigh). On the other side, they discover a planetary system orbiting a supermassive black hole, with three habitable worlds. The previous mission sent teams to all three of these planets. One world orbits inside the event horizon of the black hole, so that time dilation means seven years will pass for every hour spent on its surface. Which is just… WTF. Any such planet would have long been swallowed by the black hole, and radiation would fry everything on it anyway. The planet proves to be completely covered in about half a metre of water, and the previous mission did not survive an encounter with a giant wave – and, in fact, Coop’s mission only just makes it out alive. But they do stay far too long on the planet, and when they return to the Endurance, twenty-three years have passed. The chief effect of this, of course, has been to estrange Coop even more from his daughter… who is now Brand Sr’s protegé and helping him to complete the equations which will marry the theory of relativity with quantum mechanics and somehow or other lift a giant concrete spacestation built on the ground into orbit.
Since water planet was a bust, and it took so long for them to learn this, the Endurance only has enough fuel remaining to visit one of the other two worlds. Brand Jr admits she is in love with the leader of one of the missions – leading to a cringe-worthy monologue in which she declares “love is the only thing which transcends time and space”. But Coop over-rules her and they head for the other world instead. Where they find Dr Mann, Matt Damon. On a world of frozen clouds. Which is just as silly as it sounds – although it does look quite impressive…
Damon admits that Brand Sr solved his equations years before and there is no solution possible without “quantum data” from inside a black hole. So the supply mission is actually a blind – the real plan is to seed the most suitable of the three worlds with the frozen gametes carried aboard Endurance. But ice-cloud world isn’t really fit for colonisation. Cue fisticuffs between Coop and Mann. Coop loses, and is in danger of asphyxiating in the ammonia-heavy atmosphere. Fortunately, he finds the doodad from his helmet that Mann removed which allows him to radio Brand Jr for help. Why he has a little thing on his helmet for long-range comms makes no sense. Brand Jr jumps into the lander and flies to his rescue. Despite Coop and Mann only spending about ten minutes walking away from the base, it takes the lander over five minutes to fly to where Coop is. Mann meanwhile steals the shuttle and heads for the Endurance.
But Coop remotely locks the Endurance, and Mann tries a manual docking but cocks it up – destroying himself and part of the Endurance. Which spins away. So Coop pilots the lander manually into a docking with the Endurance by rotating the lander to match. I’m not sure why he and Brand Jr were shown spinning with their heads pulled to the sides when it had already been established that their seats pivot so their heads would in fact have been toward the centre of rotation. Unfortunately, they’re now too close to the supermassive black hole, and the Endurance on its own can’t pull free. It needs the engines on the lander and the remaining shuttle too. But because plot reasons those spacecraft have to be piloted manually. One is taken by the surviving robot and the other by Coop. Both manfully sacrifice themselves so Brand Jr can head for her lover and take him the frozen gametes to found a new human race. However, the robot is going to try and get the “quantum data” from inside the black hole and transmit it out, so who knows? Maybe Murph will be able to solve Brand Sr’s equations after all…
I’m not entirely sure what to make of Interstellar. The world-building is terrible, despite its claim of scientific accuracy science is sacrificed to drama numerous times, as is plausibility, and its central message about love is the sort of puerile twaddle that Hollywood all too often mistakes for metaphysics. There are some neat ideas, and on several occasions the plot took turns I wasn’t expecting. Although the spacecraft look weird, the film-makers have made a serious attempt at presenting technology that looks plausible and fit for purpose.
But the pacing of the film is awful – that first third is apparently an entirely separate movie that Nolan bolted onto the front of his… and it shows. Some of the concepts are simplified to the extent they come across as handwavy nonsense. And the ending is a complete let down. Part of the problem is, I think, that the movie bounces from the personal to the bigger picture without any kind of logic or pattern. I suspect it’s an attempt to humanise the big concepts, but it doesn’t work. It just shows how badly shored-up they are by the world of the story. In parts, Interstellar also feels like too much was crammed in, so much that it no longer knows where its focus lies. Clearly it’s meant to be Murph’s story, as we see her entire life through the eyes of her father, Coop. But Coop spends the most time on-screen, as if he were the star of an adventure film. The two stories don’t quite fit – you can certainly have a short linear narrative looping in and out of an episodic story spread over decades, it’s an interesting narrative structure; but for it work you need something to anchor the crossover points. Interstellar tries for this – but the ones that make emotional sense are too few and so Murph’s narrative ends up having to fill in too much story in between breaks from Coop’s adventures. It makes for a third act that is badly unbalanced… which is one reason why the ending has so little impact.
I like that Nolan made an attempt at a serious near-future sf film. And visually, Interstellar is quite impressive. But it’s certainly not the greatest sf film ever made – nowhere close to it, in fact. I’m reluctant to even classify it as a “superior” sf film, as scoring highly on visuals is hardly difficult these days. It has some interesting ideas, but it handles them badly, throws in a helping of philosophical twaddle, and badly mangles what could have been a clever narrative structure. Disappointing.