It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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Behind the Iron Screen

It all started quite innocently enough. Shaun Duke posted a list of something or other on his blog, The World in the Satin Bag. I pointed out he was wrongheaded. He challenged me to produce a rival list, which I did. I challenged him to produce a list… and by this point I’ve forgotten whether we were originally discussing books or films. I’ve a feeling we started off with books but somehow drifted onto films. Anyway, he responded to my challenge and issued one of his one own, which I met. And then I challenged him to produce – and I think this is the point we’re at now – a list of five Cold War-related genre films that most people would not have heard of. Which he did. And now he has demanded that I do the same, but from the other side of the Iron Curtain. So, five Warsaw Pact Cold War-related genre films, of which at least three must be from the USSR/Russia…

Happily, I immediately thought of several possible movies. The only question was whether they qualified as Cold War-related. Or as genre. And having to choose three of the five from the Soviet Union did somewhat limit my choices. So it was more a matter of picking which five to put on my list than it was actually finding five. And here they are, in no particular order…

Sacrifice_Offret (The Sacrifice), Andrei Tarkovsky (1986, Sweden). The absolutely obvious choice. It’s about a nuclear war, so you can’t get more Cold War than that. Okay, it was filmed in Sweden with a Swedish cast, but Tarkovsky is arguably the most famous film director to have come out of Russia, so in my mind it counts as a Russian film. So there. An ex-actor, played by Bergman regular Erland Josephson, lives in a nice house on a remote Swedish island with his wife. After admitting he no longer believes in God, news reaches Josephson of all-out nuclear war. He vows to sacrifice all he owns and loves if God will undo the nuclear holocaust. Unsurprisingly, this is quite a harrowing film, but it is also Tarkovsky… and you cannot call yourself a cineaste if you do not love Tarkovsky’s movies.

starsbyhardwaysЧерез тернии к звёздам (To the Stars by Hard Ways), Richard Viktorov (1981, USSR). The Cold War link is less obvious in this famous Russian sf film, but given that it concerns an ecological war between two groups on an alien world – and in which humans become involved after rescuing the bizarre-looking Yelena Metyolkina – there’s clearly a parallel. Admittedly, the rescue mission is multi-national, but then socialist films liked to show the world’s nations working together, even if the West has always been resistant to the idea (US films, for example, always show the US doing everything) . Ruscico currently sell a copy of this on DVD. It’s completely bonkers but worth getting. I’ve heard the director’s son has released a director’s cut of the film, but to my knowledge it’s only available in Russian and my knowledge of that language is limited to a handful of pleasantries and swear words.

testpilotpirxДознание пилота Пиркса (Inquest of Pilot Pirx), Marek Piestrak (1978, USSR/Poland). Pirx was created by Polish sf writer Stanisław Lem, so there’s no doubting this film’s genre credentials; and while it’s a joint production between studios in Poland, Ukraine and Estonia, the latter two were in the USSR when the movie was made, so it counts. It’s another socialist film which presents an international crew, but there are still two sides engaged in a form of Cold War: humans and androids. Pirx must captain a ship on a space flight Saturn. One of his crew is an android, but he doesn’t know which one – and once at their destination, it tries to seize control. A weird mix of Cold War thriller, with an amazing seventies aesthetic, and hard sf, this is another DVD worth getting. Again, it’s available from Ruscico.

noendBez końca (No End), Krzysztof Kieślowski (1985, Poland). This is in no way science fiction, and it’s only Cold War-related inasmuch as its story takes place during the years of martial law in Poland after Solidarność was banned. A translator, whose lawyer husband died recently, struggles to make ends meet and bring up her son, while the ghost of her dead husband watches over her. But it’s Kieślowski, that’s all you need to know. You cannot call yourself a cineaste if you do not love Kieślowski’s movies.

in_the_dust_of_the_starsIm Staub der Sterne (In the Dust of the Stars), Gottfried Kolditz (1976, East Germany). During the 1960s and 1970s, East Germany’s Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft, DEFA, made four big budget science fiction films: Signale – ein Weltraumabenteuer (1970), Der Schweigende Stern (1960), Im Staub der Sterne and Eolomea (1972). The last three are available in an English-language DVD box set, but I’ve yet to find the first in an English edition (and my German is a bit rusty – I struggled when watching Raumpatrouille Orion). In Im Staub der Sterne, a spaceship lands on a rescue mission on the world of TEM 4, only for the inhabitants to deny sending a distress call. Except there are two groups on TEM 4 in a sort of Eloi / Morlock relationship, as the crew discover, and it’s not hard to read it as an Eastern Bloc versus decadent West sort of thing. The film is also astonishingly kitsch, with some of the most bonkers seventies production design ever consigned to celluloid. Hunt down that DEFA collection box set, it’s totally worth it.

szulkinO-Bi, O-Ba. Koniec cywilizacji (O-Bi, O-Ba. The End of Civilisation), Piotr Szulkin (1985, Poland). Just because I can, I’m going to make my list six films. Mostly because this movie is so on point, it didn’t deserve to be an also ran – and yet I also wanted to include the ones I’d already chosen. O-Bi, O-Ba. Koniec cywilizacji is set entirely in an underground fallout shelter after some sort of nuclear holocaust – except there’s more going on than there initially seems. The shelter is not the shiny clean antiseptic complex you’d expect of a US Cold War movie, but a dirty ill-lit dungeon, a sort of confined post-apocalyptic wasteland in its own right. There’s a very black joke about the currency used in the shelter (Szulkin’s films all possess an amazingly dark humour). Telewizja Kinopolska have released a DVD box set containing O-Bi, O-Ba. Koniec cywilizacji, Wojna światów – następne stulecie (War of the Worlds – The Next Century, 1981), and Ga, Ga. Chwała bohaterom (Ga, Ga. Glory to Heroes, 1984), as well one of my favourite films, a 1993 short titled Mięso (Ironica), about the political history of Poland during the twentieth century and, er, meat products.

The also-rans? There’s Béla Tarr’s 2000 movie Werckmeister Harmonies from Hungary, which is about the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe, but the film might have been a little hard to justify on genre grounds. Andrzej’s Żuławski’s Na srebrnym globie (On the Silver Globe, 1988) is definitely science fiction, but given that it’s adapted from a 1903 novel its Cold War credentials are a little harder to see – but Żuławski adapted the story so it read as a criticism of the Polish authorities… which they managed to spot and so shut down the production (the film was eventually completed ten years later, using stock footage and voice-over narration). Кин-дза-дза! (Kin-dza-dza!, 1986) by Georgiy Daneliya is a 1986 sf film in which a pair of Soviet innocents are dumped on a desert world in which two societies, the Chatlanians and the Patsaks, exist in near-conflict (which seems to be a common trope in Soviet sf cinema). And finally, there’s Pane, vy jste vdova! (You are a Widow, Sir!, 1971) by Czech director Václav Vorlíček, which is a sort of madcap and very silly sf comedy, involving assassins and brain transplants in an invented country, but it might be stretching the point to call it a Cold War film.


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Moving pictures, #10

I think I maintain a good spread of films in my viewing – current movies, classic movies and art house movies. Working my way through the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list has introduced me to some good films I might otherwise have never seen, as well as some right crap I’d have been better off avoiding. Either way, I recommend using the list to supplement your own viewing. However, one thing has been readily apparent over the past few years, and it’s that I find current Hollywood product less and less appealing. I used to watch US films, as most people do, it was pretty much all I knew. But movies from other countries do exist, other nations do have cinematic traditions… and many of them are, well, actually much better than Hollywood. You can’t call yourself a film fan if you only watch Hollywood films. That’s like describing yourself as a gourmet despite only eating burgers.

So here is some haute cuisine (with a little fastfood thrown in):

vampyrVampyr*, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1932, Germany). Subtitled “The Strange Adventure of Allan Gray”. This eureka! edition is actually the German print, although, as was common at the time, multiple language versions were filmed – in this case, German, French and English. Gray is a somewhat saturnine-looking young man, who visits the village of Courtempierre and rents a room at the local inn. Vampyr uses both intertitles and spoken dialogue to tell its story – which in terms of vampire mythology is relatively straightforward. The lord of the manor’s oldest daughter is ill, and it transpires it’s from the bite of a vampire. Gray tries to help, gets sucked into events as they unfold… but it all ends well. Dreyer is especially good on atmosphere in this, and even though the pace is somewhat slow he manages to lay it on thick. The ending, in which the vampire’s servant is drowned in flour, is also pretty effective. On balance, I much prefer Dreyer’s later work – his three Danish films are superb – but this one, on the cusp of his early German silent work and later Danish films with sound, is still very good.

Boudu-PosterBoudu Saved From Drowning*, Jean Renoir (1932, France). There are films which clearly belong on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but there are also other movies on there, by directors of films which deservedly belong on the list, whose presence is, quite frankly, a bit of a puzzle. La Règle du jeu and La Grande illusion are stone-cold classic movies… but Boudu Saved From Drowning? Really? It’s mildly amusing, and even though the social commentary is biting, it’s still somewhat obvious. Technically, it’s clearly ahead of its time – at no point while watching it does it seem like a film made in 1932. But its story of a tramp rescued from, er, drowning, who his saviours then try to turn into a useful member of society, is a little too broadly comical to be pointed – if that’s not a contradiction. It didn’t help that Boudu with a beard bore an uncanny resemblance to Stephen Fry. Whatever – a diverting film even if not one that clearly belonged on the list.

catsmeowThe Cat’s Meow, Peter Bogdanovich (2001, USA). This is apparently based on a true story. In 1924, a group of people spent the weekend aboard William Randolph Hearst’s luxury yacht, ostensibly to celebrate the birthday of Thomas H Ince, a cinema pioneer who owned one of the first movie studios. Other guests included Charlie Chaplin, gossip columnist Louella Parsons, writer Elinor Glyn, and Hearst’s mistress, actress Marion Davies. Allegedly, Ince died of a heart attack but rumour has it he was shot by Hearst over Marion Davies. The film suggests his death was an accident – Hearst thought he was firing at Chaplin, who had been trying to persuade Davies to leave Hearst and marry him. The film is a well-played period piece, although Eddie Izzard as Chaplin is actually pretty bad. The story is the sort of ultra-rich privileged crap that all too often gets accepted as the natural order of things, which is just offensive bollocks. Entertaining but forgettable.

chineserouletteChinese Roulette, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1976, Germany). Fassbinder, I think – and I say this having only seen eight of his films – did better when the plots of his films were more tightly constrained, either by their literary origin, as in Effi Briest, or the need to present an historical period, as in The Marriage Of Maria Braun, or by, as in this case, the tight focus of the story. An affluent husband and wife make arrangements for separate trips away, only to turn up together with their lovers at the family holiday home in a piece of really bad planning. But never mind, they all get along fine, and so behave as two couples – even if they’re not quite coupled as their marriage certificate defines it. At which point the crippled young daughter and her mute nanny arrive, and events take an odd turn… culminating in a parlour game among them all, in which each asks a speculative question demanding an honest answer from everyone. It’s a living-room drama, with some externally-filmed scene-setting, but it does a beautifully-paced job of setting up its situation and characters, and as a piece of writing probably betters the two Fassbinder films mentioned earlier. If the final frame of the truth or dare game feels a bit seventies television drama, with the cast walking about too much while speaking their lines, Chinese Roulette is certainly a masterclass in defining a dramatic situation. Definitely one of the good ones in the box set.

InWhichWeServeIn Which We Serve, Noël Coward and David Lean (1942, UK). Allegedly, this was based on the wartime exploits of Lord Mountbatten. Noël Coward plays the captain of a RN destroyer during the first two years of WWII. It’s careful to show life both for the ratings and the officers of the ship – the film was made with the assistance of the Ministry of Information. The model-work is a bit naff – the UK film industry never did quite manage to make model warships look like the real thing – and Coward is far too fruity to be a steadfast navy officer, no matter how plummy his background. The film is at its best when it’s belowdecks, and John Mills puts in a good turn as an ordinary seaman. But, to be honest, In Which We Serve is not even a wartime curiosity, just one in a long line of not very good war films the UK churned out during the 1940s, mostly for propaganda purposes. Not even Lean directing the “action scenes” is a saving grace (although, to be fair, I can never make up my mind about Lean – he made a handful of excellent films, but a number of very ordinary ones too). If you’re interested in UK wartime cinema, you’re probably better off checking out a few “quota quickies”.

FromUpOnPoppyHillFrom Up On Poppy Hill, Goro Miyazaki (2011, Japan). I’ve enjoyed the Ghibli films the most when they are not genre – such as this one is. Er, isn’t. I mean, it’s not genre. It’s a relatively straightforward – and genre-free – story about a pair of students in early 1960s Yokohama, who are attracted to one another and then learn they may in fact be brother and sister. Wrapped around this is a student protest to prevent a building used by the various student clubs, called the Latin Quarter, from being demolished by a Tokyo businessman. From Up On Poppy Hill is at its best when it’s about the relationship between the two leads, Umi and Shun, but the comedy antics as the students clean and refurbish the Latin Quarter feel like they detract from the real story. Enjoyable, but I don’t think anyone will be calling this their favourite from Studio Ghibli.

edgeoftomorrowEdge of Tomorrow, Doug Liman (2014, USA). Confused. I saw this film advertised on theatrical release as Edge of Tomorrow, but it seems to have been retitled Live Die Repeat for the sell-through (which is the name of the Japanese source text), so obviously it’s such a good film it can’t even decide what its title is. And, okay, perhaps it was a little facile to describe it as Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers, but that’s pretty much the plot in a nutshell. Nasty aliens invade Earth, obviously the only way to defeat them is to throw human cannon fodder at them, although strangely enough this strategy doesn’t appear to be working. As Tom Cruise repeatedly discovers because he keeps on waking up back on his first day of basic training (although no training actually takes place) and all because he was covered in a particular type of alien’s blood on the battlefield. But that’s okay, since it allows him to figure out there is a hidden mega-alien thing somewhere running the whole show and if he kills that then humanity wins – stop me if you’ve heard this before. Oh, you have? Lots of times? Seriously, if Edge of Tomorrow is being held up as a good sf film, then that says a lot about the piss-poor state of sf cinema – oh, wait, Interstellar was supposed to be the best sf film of last year, so yes, it looks like sf cinema is in a piss-poor state…

bela_tarr_collectionDamnation, Béla Tarr (1988, Hungary). I think I’m going to have to withhold judgement on Tarr’s films for now. I’ve now seen all three in the pictured box set – and while Tarr is noted for the glacial pace of his movies, and I actually like films that take time to tell their stories, I’ve not yet plugged into Tarr’s languorous way of movie-making. Damnation is, I suppose, the most straightforward of the three films, but there are long stretches where no one speaks, there is only music… And then characters speak dialogue that feels more like it should be… declaimed, like in a Jancsó film. Their naturalistic speech is… odd, perhaps even a little off-putting. Having grown up reading science fiction, I’m all too familiar with mouthpiece characters – but where Jancsó’s are overt, Tarr appears to sneak his into the story in the guise of ordinary people engaged in ordinary activities. Tarr’s films will not only bear rewatching, I strongly suspect they demand it. Meanwhile, I shall sort of hover on the edge of liking and admiring them.

nightcrawlerNightcrawler, Dan Gilroy (2014, USA). Watching this film prompted an interesting discussion on Twitter. Since thrillers depend upon violence and fear to drive their plots and maintain viewer interest, I suggested they were morally bankrupt, if not morally corrupt. In order to generate “story”, they over-state the incidence of violence and harm in the real world. And while the protagonist of Nightcrawler – played by a frankly creepy Jake Gyllenhall – does cover road traffic accidents, it’s his relationship with violent crime which comprises the plot of the film. He’s a freelance cameraman – or rather, he starts on a career as one after witnessing Bill Paxton at work – who forms a business, and increasingly poisonous and misogynistic, relationship with news channel producer Rene Russo. When Gyllenhall gets too close to his subjects, and starts crossing the line between reportage and incitement… it all goes horribly wrong. Yawn. This sort of moral conundrum is completely banal, and has been covered repeatedly in both books and films. Perhaps Nightcrawler‘s take on it rings a few trivial changes, but all we’ve really got here is a creepy update of His Girl Friday. Without the wit.

spiritualvoicesSpiritual Voices, Aleksandr Sokurov (1995, Russia). I have no idea how to write about this. I was lucky enough to find a copy on eBay going for a reasonable price – it typically goes for $95 or more, but at 327 minutes split over five episodes, I suppose that’s not bad value for money (I paid less than half that). Spiritual Voices is a documentary filmed at a Russian army dugout in northern Afghanistan – but its opening episode consists of forty minutes of time-lapse photography of a village in Siberia, as night falls and dawn breaks, while Sokurov talks about Mozart and then Beethoven. The second, and following, episodes are hand-held documentary footage of Russian soldiers going about their duties night and day, sometimes interacting with the camera, but usually ignoring its presence. The soldiers, of course, are conscripts; they are also young men. And though they wear the uniform, and spend their days following orders, there is something not quite real about their situation. Sokurov also films the landscape surrounding them, and he’s extremely good at using landscape to paint a moral picture of the story he’s telling. Spiritual Voices is a long film, a very long film, and after a single viewing I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. That first episode is an amazing work of art – I’ve now watched it three times – but I’ve yet to determine how it fits in with the piece as a whole… This is just one of the reasons why I find Sokurov one of the most fascinating directors currently working, and why I’ve tracked down as much of his oeuvre on DVD I can find.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 584


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More for the shelves

I have dialled back on the book-buying this year, and have so far managed to actually reduce the TBR each month – and it’s been a number of years since I last did that. So, not so many books in this post, and it’s been nearly two months since I last put up a book haul post too.

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Some first editions. The Explorer and The Echo are both signed (people who follow me on Twitter may remember my tweet to James regarding his signature), and cost me, er, nothing. They were actually prizes at the SFS Social where I read an excerpt from All That Outer Space Allows. I didn’t win the two books, but the person who won them gave them to me. For which, very many thanks. A Fine and Handsome Captain is by a pen-name of DG Compton, and was cheap on eBay. Annoyingly, the jacket is a bit damaged. Lila was also reasonably priced on eBay, and it is also signed.

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Some genre first editions. Sacrifice on Spica III is the second book of Brown’s Telemass Quartet. I wrote about it here. I heard Justina Robson read an excerpt from Glorious Angels at the York pubmeet in November last year. I really enjoyed North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, and Touch sounds just as appealing (if not more so).

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A few charity shop finds. Well, Boneland and The Three were. Snail I bought from eBay, although I can no longer remember why.

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My mother found these for me in various charity shops. I’d mentioned I was collecting these particular editions, so she’s been keeping an eye out for them. I now have 17 out of, I think, 24 books. I read Lady Chatterley’s Lover years ago, but a different edition. Apocalypse is a posthumous collection of essays. Mornings in Mexico / Etruscan Places is an omnibus of two short travel books. And The Plumed Serpent is set in Mexico and was written when Lawrence was living in Taos.

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Some non-fiction. Pursued by Furies is a humongous biography of Malcolm Lowry. I have Bowker’s biography of Lawrence Durrell, Through the Dark Labyrinth, somewhere. And The NASA Mission Reports: Gemini 4 is another for the space books collection.


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Moving pictures, #9

Yet more films wot I have watched of late. This brings the moving pictures posts pretty much up to date, so I won’t need to spam my blog with them quite so much from now on. Although I’m still watching rather a lot of movies, due to a lack of anything interesting on terrestrial or cable television. Perhaps I should turn the damn thing off some evenings and read a book or something…

aharddatsnightA Hard Day’s Night*, Richard Lester (1964, UK). I think I must have seen this, perhaps back in the 1970s or something, because it seems an unlikely film to have missed. Having said that, I could remember almost nothing about it – and even now, a couple of weeks after watching it, I’m having trouble recalling the actual plot. Not, it has to be said, that there was much of one. The Fab Four travel to London with Paul McCartney’s grandfather (played by Wilfred Brambell), their manager and their road manager. The band are due to perform on a television programme. It was pretty clear the cast had fun making the film, and there was definitely a manic energy to it – but Lennon’s snidery palled quite quickly, a couple of long-running jokes ran too long, and the music was, well, frankly not that great.

dulwaleDilwale Dulhania le Jayenge*, Aditya Chopra (1995, India). This one was a surprise. I’ve seen bits and pieces of Bollywood films over the years, but I don’t think I’ve sat all the way through one. Nonetheless, I thought I knew what to expect and I suspected watching this film was going to be a chore… but I really enjoyed it, it was actually really good. Wastrel son of a wealthy NRI in London decides to go Interrailing before joining the family firm. Meanwhile, eldest daughter of a hard-working NRI who manages a petrol station will soon be married to the son of her father’s best friend back in Kashmir… so she too decides to go Interrailing first. The two bump into each other as they travel about Europe, fall in love, with much singing and dancing and comedy. Afterwards, she has to go to Kashmir for the wedding, there’s no getting out of it, but he follows and tries to win over her family (the two pretend not to know each other). A smart well-made rom com, with some fun song and dance routines, a well-handled plot and a pair of likeable leads. If you fancy trying a Bollywood film, put this one at the top of your list.

thesunThe Sun, Aleksandr Sokurov (2005, Russia). This is the second of Sokurov’s quartet of films about men in power, and the subject of it is Emperor Shōwa of Japan. (While we in the West know him as Emperor Hirohito, that was his personal name and he’s now actually referred to using his posthumous name, Shōwa.) The Sun concerns the days immediately following Japan’s surrender and the emperor’s meetings with General MacArthur. Apparently, the film caused a bit of a fuss on release, perhaps because it suggests the emperor is almost an innocent, a mild-mannered educated man who tinkers with marine biology and lives in a hermetically-sealed world in which he is considered divine by all about him. That is, until he meets MacArthur. It’s considered likely he was actually a war criminal, and very much responsible for Japan’s conduct of the war – but he seemed to escape justice. Sokurov, however, is not concerned with the truth, or as in Moloch, an historically accurate portrayal. The Imperial Palace depicted in The Sun, for example, is simply a large 1920s villa and bears no resemblance to the actual Tokyo Imperial Palace. The film depicts the emperor’s descent from divine to human – not an actual change, of course, but a matter of perception. I’m not convinced it’s as successful as Moloch, perhaps because it follows a more considered approach, which tends to flatten the story’s affect, whereas Moloch‘s manic infantilism suited its topic perfectly. I still want to know why Taurus isn’t available in an English-language edition, however.

satansbrewSatan’s Brew, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1976, Germany). Not the most successful Fassbinder film I’ve seen so far. A previously-successful poet, now suffering from writer’s block, shoots his mistress, and then sort of runs around manically, demanding sex from Ingrid Caven, who is married someone else, visiting his own wife and intellectually disabled brother? brother-in-law?, and charging around various places demanding money. The Wikipedia plot summary, which is not very long, concludes with, “Some more obscure things happen but in the end everyone is back on stage”. Which is as good a way of describing it as any. The contents of this Fassbinder box set have been somewhat variable, but I’m glad I’ve seen the films.

bela_tarr_collectionWerckmeister Harmonies, Béla Tarr (2000, Hungary). I’ve yet to decide what to make of Tarr’s films. That they’re slow, with very long takes, and filmed in stark black-and-white, and that sort of film-making appeal to me far more than the frenetic jump-cuts of your present-day Hollywood tentpole franchise movies. (But I also like Technicolor movies, too.) Tarr’s films are also allusive, which again is something I appreciate, in both film and literature. But I think what’s preventing me from really falling for this movie, or the other Tarr I have seen, The Man from London, is that there’s something very play-like about the way they’re put together. And for some reason the mismatch between theatrical presentation and cinematic technique never quite  works for me. In Werckmeister Harmonies, a travelling circus, whose chief attraction is a stuffed whale, appears in a Hungarian town, and triggers a wave of violence. I’m going to have to watch this film again, I think, as while some bits of it seemed to work really well, the allegorical skeleton on which the plot was hung didn’t articulate quite as well for me as it was likely intended to. But at least I bought the box set, so I can rewatch the films at my leisure. Incidentally, I also bought mysql a copy of Sátántangó, so I’ll be able to watch all seven hours of that at my leisure…

foxFox and his Friends*, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1975, Germany). A young gay man, played by Fassbinder himself, is obsessed with winning the lottery. Which he does, shortly after entering into a relationship with an older man, an antiques dealer. When the antique dealer’s friends discover that the oick they’re looking down their nose at is worth half a million DMs, they set about swindling him out of his money, seducing him and persuading him to pay their way out of their financial difficulties. Which he happily does, wrongly impugning more than just mercenary motives to their treatment of him. Prior to receiving this Fassbinder box set for Christmas, I had never seen one of his films. And I’ve now seen seven (of the eight films in the box set), and there have been some good ones and some not so good ones. I’ve yet to decide whether I want to explore more of Fassbinder’s oeuvre – and he made a lot of films – probably because so many of the contemporary ones seem very similar in tone and presentation. Perhaps I just watched too many of his films in too short a period – like the time I watched three seasons of The X-Files back-to-back, three or four episodes a night, and could hardly sleep afterwards I felt so paranoid…

dawnofdeadDawn of the Dead*, George A Romero (1978, USA). No, I’ve never actually seen this before, and no, I probably would never have bothered if it hadn’t been on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (and how many films on the list have I said that about?), and I’ve never been a fan of zombies, a trope that’s been used intelligently perhaps a handful of times since it first appeared. And, to be brutally honest, this isn’t one of them. Something has caused the dead of the US to rise as flesh-eating zombies – your basic zombie trope, in other words – and a group of people escape various encounters with them, including an extended sequence set in a shopping mall. The film was made of the cheap, and looks it; and the some of the special effects, while gruesome, look cheap and stagey. Apparently, I watched a director’s cut but there’s some confusion over which particular one. All I remember is that it was long, and while there was plenty of action there wasn’t much plot. I’ll admit I’m not a fan of horror films – I’m far too squeamish – and I can perhaps understand how Dawn of the Dead might be seen as a “classic”… But there wasn’t a fat lot there to appeal to me, and I’m happy to just cross it off the list.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 582


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I haz the award sad

Back in 2012, I self-published a science fiction novella, Adrift on the Sea of Rains. I had expected it to disappear without trace, so I was surprised and delighted when it was nominated for the BSFA Award. And it won!

Wow.

AQ2_2nd_edn_coverAdrift on the Sea of Rains was the first book of the Apollo Quartet, it said so on the cover. The second novella of the quartet, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, was actually published a couple of months before Adrift on the Sea of Rains won the BSFA Award. Some people liked it better than the first novella. The third novella, Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, was published in November 2013. Like the other two books, it received some really good reviews. Even Adam Roberts, an extremely sharp and insightful critic, wrote of Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, “excellence is here”.

A number of people I knew online told me they were nominating The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself or Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, or both, for the Hugo. I did myself too (in hindsight, not the smartest thing I could have done).

Then the Hugo shortlists were announced. I wasn’t on any of them. I was disappointed.

But what I did not do was go home and start up a Sad Ian campaign to get myself nominated the following year. Oh, I wouldn’t have framed it as a “get Ian nominated for the Hugo” campaign. I’d have said there weren’t enough self-published works getting nominated: Sad Indies. Or perhaps I’d have complained there weren’t enough Brits on the shortlists, despite the Worldcon taking place in the UK that year: Sad Brits.

AQ3_2nd_edn_coverAnd then I would have got a bunch of people who like my fiction, or believed my lies, and persuaded them to nominate me and a few other random members of my clique. But I’d have made sure everyone knew it wasn’t about me or my inability to get nominated. It’s about indie writers! Or, it’s about Brit writers! And if the stats didn’t back up my position, well, I’d just lie, or point fingers at someone popular I could recast as the villain of the piece.

I spent half an hour this morning tallying up the gender balance of the Hugo Award fiction categories since 1959. It doesn’t make for pretty reading. In 1962, 1965, 1966, 1967 and 1971 zero women were nominated. Typically the percentage hovered around 85% male to 15% female, although in 1992, male writers were in the minority for the first time (48% male, 52% female). In 2010, things started to change. The percentage of women on the shortlists doubled to 39%. And in 2011, 2012 and 2013, women outnumbered men.

hugomf

But then the Sad Larries happened. And last year, the percentage dropped to 62% male and 38% female. And this year, they managed to drop it even further to 80% male and 20% female. And yet they claim they ran their slate to increase diversity! On what planet does more white men on the shortlists than before mean increased diversity?

Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 3.46.35 PMThis year, I have three novels published – the final book of the Apollo Quartet, All That Outer Space Allows, from Whippleshield Books; and the first two volumes my space opera trilogy An Age of Discord, A Prospect of War in July and A Conflict of Orders in October (the final book, A Want of Reason, will appear next year). I don’t want to be sad next year because none of them were nominated.

VOTE FOR SAD IAN!

A VOTE FOR SAD IAN IS A VOTE FOR MORE IAN!*

(* For the record, I’m taking the piss. You know, just in case certain people decide to use this post as more ammunition for their sealioning.)


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Reading diary, #5

So far this year I’ve read 37 books, which, judging by previous years, should see me read 150 books by the end of the year. This is just as well as I’ve joined the 150 books reading challenge on GoodReads, although it’s currently telling me I’m 2 books behind schedule. Oh well.

sacrificeSacrifice on Spica III, Eric Brown (2014). This is the second of Brown’s Telemass quartet, published by PS Publishing, and set in the same universe as some of his earlier fiction, such as the Starship Seasons quartet (see here). Retired Dutch police officer Hendrick is trying to track down his ex-wife, who has stolen their terminally ill but in medical stasis daughter, and their trail leads him to the titular planet. Spica III has a highly eccentric orbit and is due to go into five years of severe winter – so severe all travel to and from the planet will be suspended. Hendrick has to find his wife and daughter before that happens. En route, he runs into an old colleague, who explains he is hunting for his superior officer’s estranged wife, who is wanted for murder. Hendrick remembers the wife, he had an affair with her years before, and he doubts she’s guilty, but he agrees to help. The plot of Sacrifice on Spica III concerns that investigation, not Hendrick’s wife and daughter. It includes a typical Brown touch, a death cult whose members commit suicide by entering a sort of liquidizer, which then squirts them up into the air and their liquid remains freeze instantly in Spica III’s sub-zero climate. It’s pretty gruesome. Otherwise, a polished piece, although it does seem to depend a little too much on coincidence, back-shadowing and serendipity.

shortnovels2St Mawr, DH Lawrence (1925). The title is the name of a horse, bought by American heiress Lou for her husband, Australian and baronial heir, Rico. But this is DH Lawrence, so a horse is not just a horse of course of course. After a stay in London, with much riding in Hyde Park, the couple decamp with Lou’s acerbic mother to the wilds of Wales, where Rico seems to be more interested in a female friend who lives nearby. When St Mawr, who is very spirited, throws Rico, he ends up bed-ridden, and Lou decides she’s had enough. She follows her mother to London, and then across the Atlantic to the US. Where she eventually buys a run-down ranch somewhere in New Mexico. There are also a pair of grooms, a taciturn Welshman who came with St Mawr, and the mother’s, who is a Native American. In between the manly charms of the grooms, and the metaphor galloping through the text, Lawrence seems to have forgotten his plot. Still, it’s a lot more disciplined than, say, Sons and Lovers, although that’s much the better novel.

ancillaryswordAncillary Sword, Ann Leckie (2014). This won the BSFA Award last weekend, and I’ll admit to being disappointed. There were better books on the shortlist, and it’s likely this sequel was trading on the massive success of its predecessor. Now I liked Ancillary Justice and I liked this book too. But where the first felt like a much-needed return to progressive space opera, something that had been sadly lacking for several years, Ancillary Sword doesn’t so much feel like more of the same as it does a fellow traveller on previously-trod ground. And if Ancillary Justice let out a slight whiff of Susan R Matthews’ novels, Ancillary Sword reeks of it. This is no bad thing – I’m a big fan of Matthews’ books, and it’s a crying shame she was dropped by her publisher more than ten years ago (and her second publisher went under after publishing just one of her books). But Ancillary Sword… Breq has been given command of a warship and sent to a planetary system that appears to have been cut off. There she discovers inequality and near-slavery, not to mention some nasty little conspiracies, which she resolves. The main plot of the trilogy – the war between the two factions of Anaander Miaanai – is pretty much parked to one side for the bulk of the story. Which also introduces a fresh mystery toward the end. If this is going to be a trilogy, I can’t honestly see any shape to it, and two-thirds of the way in you’d expect one to be visible.

girlsofriyadhGirls of Riyadh, Rajaa Alsanea (2007). This was apparently a bit of a phenomenon when it was published, a Sex & the City take on Saudi society by a young Saudi woman studying in the US. It’s a shame then that it’s all a bit juvenile. It’s presented as a serial told via email by the author, who prefaces each chapter with an email “answering” some of the responses she’s received to the previous chapter. The story itself is about four young women – Lamees, Michelle, Gamrah and Sadeem. Gamrah marries Rashid, and travels with him to the US, where he is studying. But he seems more interested in a prior US girlfriend, and Gamrah finds it hard to cope with life in the West. She returns to Riyadh, pregnant. Sadeem falls in love, arrangements are made, contracts exchanged, but a couple of days before the ceremony she succumbs to his blandishments and lets him take it too far… so he divorces her. Michelle falls for a young man from a good family, but his mother won’t hear of her son marrying beneath him, so he breaks it off. And Lamees is a bit of wild thing, making friends with Shi’ites, visiting chat rooms, and getting arrested for meeting a young man in a café. And other things happen too. While it shows the appalling treatment of women in Saudi well, and I realise English is not the writer’s first language, but it is the translator’s, this could really have done with a lot of a polish. The novel is structured to look like the titillating adventures of an amateur writer, and the prose reads like it was written by an amateur too.

strangebodiesStrange Bodies, Marcel Theroux (2013). Theroux’s 2009 novel Far North was shortlisted for the Clarke Award, so I read it… and I wasn’t much impressed. So I’m not sure what possessed me to give Strange Bodies a go – yes, people recommended it, and the premise sounded interesting, but… Anyway, I’m glad I did. If the plot doesn’t quite match the striking opening, the journey to the end is at least a damn sight better than you’d get from a typical genre novel. A man who apparently died a couple of years before, and in fact in no way resembles the dead man, contacts an old friend, who is persuaded of his claimed identity. Later she finds a thumb drive, containing the document which forms the bulk of the novel – which proves to be the history of a man, a Samuel Johnson scholar, who was asked by a media mogul to authenticate some letters and finds himself caught up in a secret Soviet experiment based on the Common Task (I’ve read up on Fedorov for a WIP, so I knew exactly what this referred to). The scientific scaffolding for the central premise was a little hard to swallow, but all the stuff wrapped around it was very good indeed. I thought the Johnson scholarship very clever, and the way Theroux handled the premise good. Despite my feelings about Far North, I am, much like several other people, surprised this never made any award shortlists.


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Cyberpunk film challenge

Shaun Duke challenged me on Twitter to name “5 great cyberpunk movies that most people have never heard of” and while no great fan of cyberpunk – books or films – I decided to take up the challenge. Although, to be fair, I can’t in all honesty describe any of the following films as “great”… And their categorisation as cyberpunk might be a bit wobbly too. But I’m pretty confident Shaun hasn’t heard of them…

The Ugliest Woman In The World, Miguel Bardem (1999, Spain). Aka La mujer más fea del mundo. A near-future thriller, but set in a world which would be familiar to cyberpunk fans. A young woman undergoes experimental gene therapy, which makes her beautiful, she then murders a contestant in a beauty pageant in order to take her place… and then proceeds to kill the other contestants. It’s not a cyberpunk plot, true enough, but the technology used by the detective sort of qualifies.

avalonAvalon, Mamoru Oshii (2001, Japan/Poland). In a sepia-tinted Poland, a woman jacks into VR to play a combat game, and which rumour has it contains a special level. Which she eventually reaches. The look of this film is absolutely gorgeous – not just the parts set in the “real world”, but also those in the VR combat game. It’s one of my favourite movies.

Natural City, Byung-chun Min (2003, South Korea). It’s been a while since I last watched this – I lent my copy to a friend and never saw it again. I remember it as being a polished sf film set some sixty years in the future, with visuals reminiscent of Blade Runner but a way more action-packed story.

renaissanceRenaissance, Christian Volckman (2006, France/UK). A black-and-white animated film which was definitely going for a noir look, although the story and Paris of 2054 is pure cyberpunk. A genius young scientist is kidnapped and a hard-boiled police captain looks into the matter for the scientist’s corporate masters.

Black Heaven, Gilles Marchand (2010, France) AKA L’autre mond. A young man obsesses over a young woman, and discovers she is a frequent visitor to an on-line VR world. So he buys himself a copy of the game, and goes hunting for her. A reasonably stylish French thriller sadly let down by somewhat clunky CGI for the VR world.

I did think of a few more films, even though Shaun only asked for five. While Demonlover, Olivier Assayas (2002, France), probably qualifies – and Assayas has made many good films – the copy I bought proved to have Italian audio and Italian subtitles… so I’ve not seen it. Until The End Of The World, Wim Wenders (1991, Germany), AKA Bis ans Ende der Welt, is a film I like a lot but it may be stretching a point to describe it as cyberpunk. But back when it was released, the near-future it depicted was pretty cyberpunk-ish. As for Memory Run, Allan A Goldstein (1995, Canada), its corporate-controlled world probably qualifies as cyberpunk, even if its plot doesn’t (it’s apparently loosely based on Jean Stine’s novel of sex-change judicial punishment, Season Of The Witch).

So, Shaun, how did I do?

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