It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Moving pictures, #22

More films. No excuses or explanations. Deal with it. Or not.

captain_bloodCaptain Blood*, Michael Curtiz (1935, USA). An odd film, this. It starts out very German Expressionist, as Doctor Blood (Errol Flynn), is called out in the middle of the night to see to a wounded man. Who happens to be a rebel. So Blood is captured and sentenced to death, which is then commuted to slavery in the Caribbean. But he’s such a smiley charismatic bloke that even as a slave he gets it easy – medical skills help, of course, as does getting sassy with governor’s daughter, Olivia de Havilland. And then he escapes when the French attack, becomes the titular character, and plays the buccaneer against both English and French ships. All this part of the film is, of course, pure Hollywood. Flynn was much better a couple of years later, and in colour, as Robin Hood, although I don’t think he ever lost that shit-eating grin of his. I’m not entirely sure how Captain Blood qualifies for the 1001 Films list – perhaps it’s a seminal work or something, but had it stayed German Expressionist throughout, and less bloody clichéd, it might have been a much more interesting movie.

woman_influenceA Woman Under the Influence*, John Cassavetes (1974, USA). Some films are interesting because of how they were made rather than because of the footage that eventually appears on the screen. This one, for example, was such a difficult sell that Cassavetes ended up financing it himself, with the help of friends (including Peter Falk, who stars as the eponymous woman’s husband). And then he lucked out into a distribution deal, and the film went on to become a favourite of critics and cult film fans. So all’s well that ends well. The film stars Cassavetes’s wife of the time, Gena Rowlands, as a blue-collar mother who begins act increasingly strangely, so much so her husband has her committed. While she is being treated, he must cope with their three children, and learns it’s not as easy as he had imagined. When his wife is released, she’s clearly not been cured, but they decide to continue together anyway. When an industry has been churning out product for decades that is not only artificial but actually revels in that artificiality, as Hollywood does, I can understand why stripping things back to something closer to real life might appeal to many. But we have that here in the UK in our soaps – Coronation Street and Eastenders are not brainless glossy sagas of rich and powerful families like US soaps such as The Bold and the Beautiful and Santa Barbara. Kitchen-sink drama is popular entertainment here and has been for a long time, it doesn’t exist only in the theatres. All of which maybe an entirely unfair characterisation of Cassavetes’s work, but at least explains why I can’t celebrate blue-collar/working-class drama simply for the fact of existing – and I’ve yet to see anything in Cassavetes’s films so far which, for me, lift them above that. Still, he has four movies on the 1001 Movies list, and I’ve only seen three of them to date, so who knows…

man_escapedA Man Escaped*, Robert Bresson (1956, France). There are a number of movies by Bresson on the 1001 Movies list, and I’ve now watched a few of them. But I’m not sure I fully understand the appeal. He seems to like having his leads play their roles completely deadpan, almost expressionless, and it makes it hard to clue into how you’re meant to read their stories. In this one, a young man, a member of the French Resistance, is arrested by the Germans and taken to Montluc Prison. The film then follows the man as he settles into the prison routine and then plots to escape before he is executed by the Gestapo. Which he eventually does. That’s it. The plot. Wikipedia says, “The film is sometimes considered Bresson’s masterpiece”, which is an odd way to put it – it is sometimes, but at other times it’s not? It might well be Bresson’s masterpiece, although I would find it hard to judge, given that of the thirteen feature films Bresson made, I’ve only seen four  – and just now when checking how many, I learnt I’d seen Pickpocket twice… and had completely forgotten that first viewing. Which I suppose tells you as much as you need to know.

dontbothertoknockDon’t Bother to Knock, Cyril Frankel (1961, UK). A fluffy rom com which trades a little too much on star Richard Todd’s on-screen appeal. He plays a travel agent in Edinburgh with an eye for the ladies, which he shamelessly indulges while travelling about Europe checking out destinations for his company. The actual assignations are slyly hinted at but never explicitly described. After the trip, he returns home to his flat, and then a succession of people turn up, with keys he had given them, hoping to stay. His long-time girlfriend, naturally, is none too impressed. But it all works out in the end, because the visitors aren’t really after Todd – well, except for French femme fatale Nicole Maury, and she’s not really serious about it – in fact, she’d sooner Todd and his girlfriend patched things up. One of those slight but charmingly daft rom coms set in a world – despite its age – you don’t actually recognise or believe ever really existed.

hotel_terminusHôtel Terminus*, Marcel Ophüls (1988, France). As is clear from the DVD cover, this documentary is about Nazi Klaus Barbie and his (eventual) trial. Barbie spent much of WWII as the head of Gestapo in Lyons, where he beat, tortured and murdered locals because, well, Gestapo. After the war, he was recruited by the US intelligence services, those bastions of morality, where he instructed them in interrogation techniques and helped in the fight against the dastardly Reds. (As they were fond of saying about the Space Race, the Americans’ Germans were better than the Soviets’ Germans – but what they actually meant was, the Americans’ Nazis were better than the Soviets’ Nazis. Let’s be honest here: principles are the first things to be abandoned when there’s an end in sight. That’s what “expediency” means, after all. Ahem, digression over.) Barbie was a monster – a not unique state of affairs among the Nazis – and lived free and clear for forty years before the French managed to get him extradited from Bolivia in 1983 after a) a change of government, and b) Barbie’s involvement in an earlier military coup. If it’s a truism that the winning side of a war get to pick and choose what are defined as war crimes, and who is charged with them, then Barbie was living proof that principle was worth about as much as a politician’s sworn promise. Barbie should have been in prison serving a sentence for war crimes from 1945, not 1987. Ophüls’s documentary makes a somewhat confused case against Barbie, but it certainly reveals enough of his activities – and the US government’s complicity – to disgust anyone with an ounce of sense. To his credit, Ophüls tries to present a balanced argument, even door-stoppping several interviewees, much as Michael Moore does, and making them look foolish if not complicit. Definitely worth seeing.

hauntingThe Haunting*, Robert Wise (1963, UK). I found this in a local charity shop. It’s not a film I’d normally bother watching, but 1001 Movies list. I mean, I’m a bit squeamish and I really can’t watch all those torture porn franchises like Saw and Hostel and so on. Many years ago, a friend lent me several seasons of The X-Files on DVD and over a period of several months I watched two to three episodes a night. I was paranoid as fuck for a month or two afterwards. Anyway, The Haunting… which is a cult horror film from fifty years ago, and which was apparently a bit of a flop on release but has subsequently been re-evaluated and found very good indeed. It’s based on a novel by Shirley Jackson, and was shot in the UK – but set in the US, with British actors putting on bad American accents – because no US studio would finance it. The end result is a peculiar film that manages its scares effectively, presents a group of interesting characters – including the first openly lesbian character in a mainstream feature film – but never really convinces in terms of setting (it feels too British to be American, in other words). I wasn’t expecting much of The Haunting and was pleasantly surprised by how it went. I think I’ll be hanging onto the DVD to watch it again. I didn’t think it was great, but I think it deserves another watch or two before I form a final opinion. Which certainly puts it ahead of many films I’ve seen on the 1001 Movies list.

viyViy*, Konstanin Ershov & Georgi Kropyachov (1967, USSR). I have seen Ruscico films before, I even have a couple in my own DVD collection. And I think they’re very good, an excellent resource. Viy was a film completely new to me, though I’ve browsed the Ruscico site countless times this one had passed me by… until I spotted it on the 1001 Movies list. It was, apparently, made by a group of students from a film school and is generally considered to be the first horror film released in the USSR. The plot is deceptively simple, well, not really deceptively. A seminary student encounters a witch but escapes. Soon after he is asked to sit vigil for three nights with the dead daughter of a local grandee. Each night, the dead young woman comes back to life and tries to kill him, but he is protected by the holy circle he has drawn about himself. On the final night, she revelas herself as the witch of earlier and calls all the monsters of hell to her aid. It’s all a bit too silly to be proper scary or horrifying, but it’s effectively done all the same, especially for the time. The humour is a bit broad-brush, and though the special effects are crude, they’re ingeniously done and more than suffice. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 621


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Breaking the wall, breaking the wall

There comes a moment in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997) when Paul, one of the two young men who has invaded the holiday home of a middle-class Austrian couple, turns to the camera and winks at the audience. Breaking the fourth wall is shocking because the compact between film-maker and viewer, or writer and reader, is suddenly revealed as completely artificial and based wholly on trust. Yet that compact exists only as a matter of expectation, because that’s the way stories are. We know the book we are reading, the movie we are watching, is an invention, a fabrication. There might be elements of fact to it – that street in New York really does look like that, for example – but the people whose story we are following, they aren’t real, if we visit New York we’re not going to bump into them, we’re not going to reminisce with them about the events of this story which they experienced and we witnessed… That’s how fiction works.

Kim Stanley Robinson has said that he considers exposition to be “just another narrative tool”. Exposition is important to science fiction and fantasy. Genre stories may take place in entirely invented worlds, ones in which the reader has no actual knowledge or experience, no built-in map to help navigate it and its societies or technologies… And so the author must explain those fabricated details. Otherwise elements of the story may not make sense, or may in fact be completely impossible to parse.

Of course, in most cases, this information is already known to the story’s characters – they know how to navigate their world. This is why the “As you know” conversation, where one character explains something to a second who already knows it because the reader needs to be informed, is the most egregious form of exposition. No one actually does this: “I’m just off to the supermarket, which, as you know, is a large store that sells a variety of foodstuffs at competitive prices.” Even successful authors still use “As you know”. They shouldn’t. It’s a failure of craft. It is also, when you think about it, breaking the fourth wall.

If a narrative is tightly limited, constrained the POV of the protagonist, why should the author need to explain anything? The character already knows it, or has come to terms with the fact they do not need to know. Not everyone who travels by air in 2015 understands how jet engines work, so why should everyone who travels between stars need to understand how FTL works? The problem with exposition is that it can only work by breaking point-of-view. In other words, exposition breaks the fourth wall.

teenager-Berlin-Wall-007

Not an issue, of course, if the narrative is written in third person omniscient, but that voice is much less popular now than it once was, and almost non-existent at the more commercial end of popular fiction. It might also be argued that omniscient POVs pretty much straddles the fourth wall anyway – and there are certainly examples in literary fiction where an omniscient POV is used to make explicit the fictive nature of a story.

And yet… immersion requires a level of knowledge about the world of the story to work, and without a narrative angel sitting on the reader’s shoulder whispering exposition, how is the reader to truly immerse themselves in an invented world?

The point here is not that exposition is necessary, but that it is crude. It is not the techniques used for exposition that are crude – “As you know” conversations, wodges of explanatory text aimed directly at the reader… Exposition itself is crude. It breaks the fourth wall, it exists only because the reader is aware, consciously or subconsciously, of the reader-writer compact. Without the reader’s acceptance of the fictive nature of the story, exposition could not exist. It would make no sense.

That compact, however, is a real thing. And it is possible to make use of it in ways that fiction normally does not. In Apollo Quartet 2, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, for example, I set out the clues to a puzzle which I knew the protagonist of the story could not solve. But the reader could. I did so by using a a device which is so blatantly expositional it can only exist outside the story: the glossary.

In Apollo Quartet 4, All That Outer Space Allows, on the other hand, I decided to do things differently. I had originally intended to write it firmly within Ginny’s point of view, and rely on a general air of familiarity – ie, the USA in the 1960s – to allow the reader to accept those aspects new to them. But I also made some artistic decisions specific to my story – such as naming Ginny’s husband Walden, because All That Outer Space Allows was partly inspired by Douglas Sirk’s 1955 movie, All That Heaven Allows, in which Thoreau’s polemic is prominently mentioned – and it occurred to me that there was no need to rely on the reader’s extra-textual knowledge to spot that connection… Because I could break the fourth wall and make the link explicitly. So I did.

And once I’d done that, it occurred to me there were other aspects of my novel that could be “enhanced” by the sort of commentary open only to the author or a critic. Not to explain the purpose of a scene – that surely should be obvious – but to give some indication of why a particular scene might exist, or indeed provide what would normally be extra-textual knowledge in order to strengthen the novel’s argument.

There is, it has to be said, a fine line to be trod here. Particularly with science fiction. How… porous should the fourth wall be? If well-handled exposition allows the world of the story to leak out into the narrative, and badly-handled exposition is akin to a series of windows in the wall… I chose to build doors in my fourth wall. All That Outer Space Allows is a novel about writing science fiction, and so it seemed especially apposite to draw attention to the fictive nature of the story by breaking the fourth wall and commenting directly on the narrative. And doing so in, and as part of, the narrative.


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Reading diary, #12

Recent reads. I think I need to up my game, I don’t seem to be reading at my previous speeds. Admittedly, quite a bit of my reading has been somewhat heavier than is usual…

ghost_countryGhost Country, Sara Paretsky (1998). One of Paretsky’s two non-Warshawski novels, although this one is set in present-day Chicago like the VI books. There’s a world-famous opera singer, who is an alcoholic and slowly losing her grip on reality. Her career is already in the toilet. There’s a doctor who wants to practice psychiatry at a prestigious Chicago hospital, but the highly-respected consultant in charge of the department is more concerned with cutting costs so would sooner give patients drugs. There’s the granddaughter of the cost-cutting consultant, who can’t compete with her older sister, a high-flying lawyer, and runs away from home. And there’s a homeless woman who thinks the rusty water leaking from a broken pipe inside the outside wall of a top hotel’s garage is the blood of Mary, and she worships at a small shrine she has built there. Their stories all, of course, interact, and Paretsky uses them to deliver a stinging indictment of US private healthcare, hypocritical middle-class Christians, and the move to a more right-wing neocon Christian society. None of the men in the novel, with the exception of the psychiatrist, are sympathetic; but neither are they unconvincing. This is not a book to read if you’re looking for mind candy or comfort reading – it will make you angry. True, everyone gets what they deserve, and though the story is bleak the ending isn’t; but it’s still a very angry novel. Worth reading, nonetheless.

The-Sense-of-an-EndingThe Sense of an Ending*, Julian Barnes (2011). Three lads at school in the 1960s are joined by a fourth, a clever outsider called Adrian. The first half of The Sense of an Ending describes those halcyon days, as narrated by one of the three, Tony. After school, the four go their separate ways – Adrian to Cambridge, Tony to Bristol uni. At Bristol, Tony meets a young woman, Veronica, and the two enter into a relationship. She invites him home one weekend to meet her parents. But Veronica is, to put it mildly, hard-going, and Tony and her split. He later hears that Veronica has taken up with Adrian. Tony writes the pair of them a shitty letter. Some months later, Adrian commits suicide. The novel then jumps forward forty years to the present day. A solicitor contacts Tony – who is divorced but on good terms with his ex-wife, and has a grown-up daughter – and tells him he has been left £500 by Veronica’s mother. Also bequeathed to him is Adrian’s diary. But the solicitor does not have this as it’s currently in the possession of Veronica, who is reluctant to give it up. So Tony embarks on a campaign of flattery, cajolery and stubborn persistence, via email, in order get the diary from Veronica. She is enigmatic, arrogant and clearly contemptuous of Tony – repeatedly telling him he “doesn’t get it”. Through Veronica, he meets a group of mentally-disabled people, and then over the course of several weeks insinuates himself into their world… and so discovers that one of them is Veronica’s brother and Adrian’s son. The end. Throughout the second half of The Sense of an Ending, Tony is sneered at by Veronica for not getting something he could never have known about. That he figures it out in the end still makes Veronica’s actions senseless and completely undermines the plot. The Sense of an Ending won the Man Booker in 2011, but to be honest I can’t see why. It reads like a more polished Iain Banks novel, and while it’s good, the doggedness of its narrator and Veronica’s behaviour are not well-grounded, which makes it all feel a bit unsupported plot-wise.

Chanur’s Legacy, CJ Cherryh (1992). I read this to review on SF Mistressworks. It’s the final book of the Compact Space quintet, and its story is more of a pendant to the plot of the earlier four books that it is a continuation or closure. Still, I liked it – see here.

all_that_heaven_allowsAll That Heaven Allows, Edna Lee & Harry Lee (1952). The novel from which my favourite film was adapted – and it wasn’t easy to find a copy. Initially, the film seems to follow the novel quite faithfully: Cary’s friend cries off from a lunch engagement, so Cary invites Ron Kirby, the man maintaining her garden, to join her instead. Later, Cary accompanies Harvey to the country club for a dinner party, and there one of her late husband’s friends makes a drunken attempt to kiss her. Cary’s two grown-up kids, Ned and Kay, are pretty much the same in both book and film. Ned is a stuffed-shirt, a Princeton conservative who will no doubt grow up become an arsehole; Kay is more nuanced in the novel, her head still full of juvenile sociology and politics, but sympathetic to her mother’s situation. Ron, however, is more or less a cipher in the novel. He doesn’t have Rock Hudson’s easy charm, and it’s not altogether obvious what Cary sees in him. One thing the novel does show, however, is how cleverly the party scene in the film introduces Ron’s bohemian friends and lifestyle. There is no mention of Walden or Thoreau in the book. And the old mill building Ron restores to make a home for Cary and himself is in the book an old barn. All That Heaven Allows, although it made a great film, is not great literature. It’s by no means pulp fiction, nor some tawdry May-December romance novel; but I’m not really surprised it’s vanished into obscurity and that copies are extremely hard to find. Ignore the book, watch the film.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 116


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Moving pictures, #21

Another diary entry from my road trip along the celluloid highway. Which is a particularly crap image, but never mind. Yet more movies, anyway. A few from the 1001 Movies list, a few from favourite directors, and a crap anime from Amazon Prime. I also joined a new rental DVD service recently, Cinema Paradiso. Impending changes to Amazon’s services don’t look too good, so I may have to look for an alternative. Cinema Paradiso boasts a library of 80,000 DVDs, which is impressive. I’ve also found several films on their site I want to see that Amazon don’t have. We’ll see how it goes for a couple of months.

madeleineMadeleine, David Lean (1950, UK). This was apparently based on a real story, about the murder of a French emigré draper’s assistant by his lover, Madeleine Smith, the daughter of a wealthy Glasgow businessman, in 1857. Lean apparently made the film as a “wedding present” to his wife, Ann Todd, who had played the title role on stage. I’ve never really been convinced Lean was a great director – he made a couple of great films, however – and Madeleine is usually considered his slightest work. And so it is. The cinematography makes effective use of angles and shadows to give the film a sinister aspect, but Todd doesn’t really come across as flighty enough, or calculating enough, as Madeleine. And the final part of the film, covering her trial, is mostly dull. The film may be notable because Madeleine was found “not proven”, a verdict unique to the Scottish justice system, but any Brit with two brain cells to rub together knows of “not proven” anyway. A mildly entertaining but mostly forgettable Sunday afternoon film.

carmen_jonesCarmen Jones*, Otto Preminger (1954, USA). The title is adapted from the work on which the film is based, Bizet’s opera Carmen, although this is no opera but a 1950s musical. With an all-POC cast. I am not, it must be said, a huge fan of musicals, and there’s only a handful I’ll actually watch and enjoy. Carmen Jones was, I admit, better than many I’ve seen, but I didn’t think keeping Bizet’s original score but using contemporary lyrics, by Oscar Hammerstein, and vocals worked all that well. The story takes place during WWII and opens at a parachute factory in North Carolina where the title character works. She is arrested for fighting and sent to a nearby town to be jailed, escorted by a young soldier. It all goes downhill from there – she absconds, he is sent to the stockade. Later he’s released and tracks her down, but gets into fight with his sergeant and ends up fleeing with her to Chicago where he hides out while Carmen is seen out and about with a champion boxer. It all ends badly. None of the musical numbers really stood out, and the story was certainly grim enough to qualify as a tragedy; and I can sort of see why it might have made the 1001 Movies list.

ladies_manThe Ladies Man*, Jerry Lewis (1961, USA). I’d a feeling I’d seen this before, and as soon as the camera pulled back and revealed the house interior was one giant set like a doll’s house, I knew I had. But I’m not surprised I’d forgotten pretty much everything else about the film: Jerry Lewis is so annoying throughout, his antics simply don’t stick in memory. In The Ladies Man, he plays the houseboy in a huge house filled with young women boarders. And, er, that’s about it. There are one two slapstick routines that are mildly funny. A running joke about Baby, the owner’s pet, which terrorises everyone with its loud lion-like roar, but proves to be a small basset, is feeble at best. A reality TV show then asks to shoot an episode from inside the house, and Lewis of course manages to ruin everything. The doll house thing is clever and done well, but that’s not enough reason for this film to appear on the 1001 Movies list.

targetsTargets*, Peter Bogdanovich (1968, USA). I know Bogdanovich chiefly for the two films he made for Roger Corman using bits of Soviet sf film Планета бурь, Voyage To The Prehistoric Planet and Voyage To The Planet of Prehistoric Women. Oh, and I’ve heard of The Last Picture Show, of course. But Targets was completely new to me… and having now seen it, I can’t say I really understand why it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. It was Boris Karloff’s last film, and he’s reasonably good in it – but he was pretty much playing himself, an actor near retirement chiefly known for horror movies who has been asked to make one last film. Bogdanovich plays the director who has persuaded Karloff to work for him. And then there’s a sniper who goes on a killing spree. It’s all a bit B-movie, even without the presence of Karloff, or the final showdown in, of course, a drive-in movie theatre.

rainbowThe Rainbow, Ken Russell (1989, UK). Russell did quite a few Lawrence adaptations during his career, but this one is generally overlooked. Probably because it’s not very good. It’s only the final third of the novel for a start, which follows the Brangwen family through three generations. Russell focuses only on the last, in the person of Ursula Brangwen, who, in the early 1900s, has an affair with a teacher at her school, meets a young man but turns out his offer of marriage, goes off to the city to teach at a school, and then turns her back on everything to go her own way. The film hits the highpoints, but glosses over much of the novel’s internalising, which flattens Ursula as a character and makes her considerably less interesting. The Rainbow was also shot in Cumbria, which is not Derbyshire – and it showed. I liked the book a great deal, I can’t say the same of the film.

kingdomThe Kingdom*, Lars von Trier (1994, Denmark). I’v been steadily working my way through von Trier’s oeuvre, in no particular order, and while some of his films I really don’t like at all – such as Dogville – he’s never less than interesting. The Kingdom, a supernatural television mini-series set at Rigshospitalet, one of the largest hospitals in Denmark. Shot entirely on grainy video using handicams, it initially has the feel of a cinema verité documentary, but the cast are clearly acting, which sort of undoes that. And then the plot gets stranger and stranger… leading to a brilliantly weird sequence in which the hotel director and health minister visit the neurology department, where much of the story takes place, and witness first a patient, a porter and the senior registrar bricking up a hole in a wall in a basement corridor, a surgical team implanting a tumourous liver into one of the hospital’s pathologists, and a woman giving birth in a neurology consulting room. And, of course, there’s the visiting Swedish consultant, played by Ernst-Hugo Järegård, who ends each episode on the building’s roof, bellowing “Danskjävlar!” (an insult) into the night sky. There’s a special edition box set containing both the first and second series of The Kingdom. I think I’ll get myself a copy.

sky_blueSky Blue, Moon-saeng Kim (2003, South Korea). I found this on Amazon Prime and it looked like it might be worth watching. It wasn’t. Set next century, after the Earth has been turned into a toxic wasteland, there’s a high-tech city in which everything is wonderful, and all the workers live out in the wasteland, mining “carbonite” [sic] to power the city’s systems. And then there’s a romantic triangle between nasty city guy, enigmatic wasteland guy (who fled the city years before), and good city woman. During its 86 minutes, Sky Blue manages to hit every cliché going, which is quite an achievement. Bits of it, however, looked very pretty – the backgrounds are all CGI but the characters are cel animation. Nonetheless, best avoided.

founding_of_a_repblicThe Founding of a Republic, Sanping Han & Jianxin Huang (2009, China). Found this in a charity shop and it looked interesting. The DVD cover art is also deeply misleading – I spotted Jet Li, and I think I saw Donnie Yen, but I don’t recall seeing Jackie Chan. And I find it very annoying they have Li’s name above Yen’s face, and vice versa. As the title suggests, the film tells of the founding of the modern Chinese state, opening with the Double Tenth Agreement in 1945 between Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek. But the agreement doesn’t hold for long, war kicks off once more, and eventually the Communists triumph. The films jumps from historical character to historical character, returning only to Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek at intervals. I suspect the characterisation of Mao Zedong is not entirely accurate, he seems altogether too jolly. Still, despite feeling like a flick through a history book at a speed a little too quick to really understand what’s going on, this wasn’t too bad. Some impressive set-pieces, anyway.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 615


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The future we used to have, part 28

Time for another one of these posts, because it is. Some are real, some never made it off the drawing-board.

air

BAC/Aerospatiale Concorde

BAC/Aerospatiale Concorde (sadly, I never got to fly in one of these)

Tupolev Tu-144

Tupolev Tu-144

Boeing 2707 SST

Boeing 2707 SST

Lockheed L-2000 SST

Lockheed L-2000 SST

sea

hovercraft_srn3

SR.N3

hovercraft_srn4

SR.N4

hovercraft_srn6

SR.N6 (I nearly had the chance to ride in one of these when I was a kid)

hivercraft_ladybird

I think I used to have a copy of this

land

LR Alvis Stalwart

Alvis Stalwart (I rode in one of these on a visit to SEME at Bordon when I was in the Upper VI)

alvis_saladin

Alvis Saladin (I went to uni in Coventry and lived for a year on Fletchamstead Highway, where Alvis would test-drive their tanks at night)

scammell_heavy_haulage

Scammell heavy haulage tractor and trailer (a relatively common sight on British roads in the 1970s)

landrovercounty110

Land Rover County 110 (back in the 1980s my boss had one of these, and I drove it quite often)

space

USAF's Manned Orbiting Laboratory

USAF’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory

Controlled touchdown, probably at Edwards, fpr Gemini spacecraft

Controlled touchdown, probably at Edwards, for Gemini spacecraft

Landing on the Moon using a Gemini spacecraft

Landing on the Moon using a Gemini spacecraft

"Big G" - a proposed 12-man Gemini spacecraft

“Big G” – a proposed 12-man Gemini spacecraft


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Moving pictures, #20

Bit of an epic Moving pictures post this time as I try to get up to date with my recent viewing. The usual mixture of movies, of course, although perhaps a few too many American ones. Never mind.

nightwatchingNightwatching, Peter Greenaway (2007, UK). This is the first of Greenaway’s “Dutch masters” trilogy – I actually saw the second one first, Goltzius and the Pelican Company– and this time is about the life of Rembrandt van Rijn. Played by, of all people, Martin Freeman. This is very much the Greenway I remember from the 1980s and early 1990s, although it was the sets, rather than the staging and camera work, that made it feel more like a play than a film. I’d not really enjoyed Goltzius and the Pelican Company, and when I started watching Nightwatching I didn’t initially think Freeman was very convincing as Rembrandt, but he won me over and the movie definitely turned more interesting as it progressed. Not bad.

before_i_go_to_sleepBefore I Go To Sleep, Rowan Joffe (2014, UK). So I got my Fire TV Stick, and went looking on it for a movie to watch, and this looked like a recent thriller that might do the job and… oof. What a nasty film. I’m sorry, but when your plot is predicated on violence toward women, then perhaps you need to rethink your story. Nicole Kidman plays an amnesiac who wakes every day not knowing what has happened to her over the past decade. Her husband, Colin Firth, explains that she was in a car accident, and suffered brain damage. Except that’s not true. As she slowly discovers, partly as a result of documenting each day secretly, something therapist Mark Strong has suggested to her. The final twist is, to be honest, a bit obvious. Despite the cast and the polished production, this leaves a horrible taste in the mouth. Best avoided.

leviathanLeviathan, Andrey Zvyagintsev (2014, Russia). Perhaps Russian films such as Night Watch and Black Lightning might have got all the box office, but Russia has churned out some quality drama too (and not just by my beloved Aleksandr Sokurov). Kolya is a car mechanic, whose land has been compulsory-purchased by the town council, allegedly for a transmitter; but Kolya is pretty sure the corrupt mayer just wants to build himself a house there. He’s tried the local court, but they’re in the pocket of the mayor. As are the police. And the purchase price is far from what the land is worth. The more Kolya struggles, the worst his situation becomes. So he rants and raves and hits the vodka, but none of it helps. Beautifully-photographed, intensely and depressingly realistic. Definitely worth seeing.

natural_born_killersNatural Born Killers*, Oliver Stone (1994, USA). As indicated by the asterisk, this is one from 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list, and I very much doubt I would have otherwise watched it. Or re-watched it. Sort of. Back in the 1990s I bought the CD of the sountrack by Trent Reznor (I was a fan of Nine Inch Nails in those days) and listened to it quite a lot. Unlike other OSTs, the Natural Born Killers one featured dialogue from the film between songs. And there was enough of it to actually peice together the plot of the film. As I discovered when I watched it. Otherwise, the movie seemed to be trying too hard to become a cult film, failing dismally, but in its failure actually getting closer to that status than it did by design. If that makes sense.

A-Place-In-The-Sun-1951-Front-Cover-38596A Place in the Sun*, George Stevens (1951, USA). Hollywood churned out a lot of worthy but dull films during the 1950s and 1960s, usually based on highly-regarded novels – in this case, Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel, An American Tragedy. This is definitely one of them. Montgomery Clift plays the scion of a poor branch of the family who visits his rich industrialist uncle and asks for a job. He’s given a lowly position, despite being a relative, and is supposed to work his way up the corporate ladder. Because hard work. Because American Dream. Unfortunately, there’s a nubile fly in the ointment in the shape of Elizabeth Taylor and… you know how it goes. Ambitions thwarted by actual situation – personified by women, of course – leading to foolish plan to get rise to top back on track, usually results in someone’s death, hero ends up in prison. The book should have been called An American Cliché. Not worth the effort. Meh.

strange_bedfellowsStrange Bedfellows, Melvin Frank (1965, USA). This film is nothing to do with the sf anthology I recently read (see here). This is a Rock Hudson / Gina Lollobridigida vehicle, in which they play divorcees who temporarily get back together because he needs to show he’s happily married to land a job. The film is actually set in London, though clearly only the stock footage was shot there and neither of the stars actually visited the city. It gave the whole film a bit of a soap opera feel. The Technicolor wasn’t up to its usual gorgeousness, the banter felt a bit lacklustre (although Gig Young was excellent), and it all felt even more inconsequential that most movies of this type do. I enjoyed it, but there are better Rock Hudson rom coms / melodramas out there.

aileenAileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer / Aileen: Life And Death Of A Serial Killer*, Nick Broomfield (1992/2003, UK). I added the latter to my rental list (because asterisk), but the disc also included the former, so I watched both. Aileen Wuornos was the US’s first serial killer – or at least the first one ever caught. She killed seven men in Florida in 1989 and 1990, claiming self-defence after she’d been arrested. But over the course of her trial and her time on death row, she changed her story several times. Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer documents how the media exploited Wuornos and her trial – some of the police officers involved were paid large sums by Hollywood producers for film rights, for example, and later were made to resign. In Aileen: Life And Death Of A Serial Killer, Broomfield interviews Wuornos shortly before she is executed. If the first film painted her as the victim of a system determined to see her executed because she was a woman serial killer, ten years in prison had clearly unbalanced her. Definitely worth seeing.

the_swiss_conspiracyThe Swiss Conspiracy, Jack Arnold (1976, US/Germany). There’s probably a very good reason why I bought this DVD but I’m buggered if I can remember what it was. The film is a pretty run-of-the-mill thriller starring Ray Milland and David Janssen, and notable only for being shot entirely in Zürich. It’s about, of course, a Swiss bank. Senta Berger and Elke Sommer are watchable, but Janssen is a bit too gravelly for his allegedly louche character, and John Saxon hams it up like a slab of gammon as a mobster. There’s a passable chase scene, but this doesn’t really even pass muster as a Sunday afternoon film.

a_touch_of_zenA Touch Of Zen*, King Hu (1971, Taiwan). This is apparently an important early wu xia film, but I can certainly verify it is a long and dull one. A painter in a small town becomes embroiled with a fugitive from imperial justice, a young woman who’d tried to warn the emperor of his eunuch’s corruption. Although the film is about the woman, Yang, it’s the painter, Ku, who is the centre of the story. I remember that the film was so long it was pslit into two, and Ku seemed mostly a bumbling oaf. Some of the fight scenes looked a little clumsy given the current state of the wu xia art. But mostly I remember that it dragged on and on and on. But I’ve seen it now. Huh.

A-christmas-Story-DVDA Christmas Story*, Bob Clark (1983, USA). If this hadn’t been on the 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die list, I’d never have bothered renting it. Certainly there’s nothing in its description which would recommend it to me – a boy’s Christmas, loosely based on a series of nostalgic columns from a US newspaper. And having now seen it, I can thoroughly not recommend it. The writer of the column narrates the film, which is set in the mid-1940s – and bizarrely, there is no mention of WWII, it’s almost as if the US were not at war – and focuses chiefly on the narrator’s boyhood self and his determination to get an air rifle for Christmas – which, of course, no one thinks he should have. I really didn’t like this film. Cloying manufactured nostalgia, which works by elevating the absolutely trivial to emotional life-or-death. Avoid.

hitchcock2The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock (1963, USA). During the recent Prime day on Amazon, I spotted the two Hitchcock collections on Blu-ray going for less than half price. I already had them on DVD – in fact, they were among the first DVDs I ever purchased – but at that price it was worth “upgrading”. And the first one I watched from my new Blu-ray collection was The Birds from Vol 2, probably because it was a Hitchcock film I’d not rewatched for a long time. As I soon discovered, because I’d completely forgotten the framing story, in which a socialite played by Tippi Hedren flirts with po-faced attorney Rod Taylor in a pet shop, and then drives up the coast to backend-of-nowhere town Bodega Bay where he’s gone to spend the weekend with his widowed mother and much younger sister. She ingratiates herself into the family, and even ends up spending the night Taylor’s ex-girlfriend, who is the local school teacher. And then the birds attack. It’s all a bit random. And the special effects show their age in a number of ways. But Hitch maintains an impressive level of creepiness throughout, and successfully ups the peril as the attacks progress. A bona fide classic.

1001 Films You Must See Before You Die count: 611


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Reading diary, #11

There are a couple of books in this post which likely deserve full-on reviews, but I don’t do that any more (not unless they’re associated with a “reading project” or something, or for a venue such as Interzone or SF Mistressworks), so you’ll have to make do with this. I’ve also decided to institute a new feature and, as I do in my Moving pictures posts, asterisk those books which can be found on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list (I’m using the 2013 list, as that was the first one I found). To date, I’ve read 115 books on the list, including the one asterisked below, and to be honest there are a number I don’t think I’ll ever bother reading… But others look they might be worth a go – as indeed was Henry Green…

children_of_timeChildren of Time, Adrian Tchaikovsky (2015). I sort of read this by accident. I bought it at Edge-Lit 4, and on the train ride home I finished the book I’d taken to read during the journey there and back, so I started Children of Time. And since I’d started it, I decided to continue reading it. Which I think makes it one of the very few books I’ve actually bought and then started on the same day. The elevator pitch for this novel didn’t sound all that appealing, and the author is better known for a ten-book fantasy series, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I found was a polished sf novel with several neat twists on the generation starship story (it seems to be the generation starship’s year, with this and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora). The world the ship plans to colonise, and the only possible candidate its crew have found, unfortunately turns out to have been terraformed and colonised millennia earlier. By spiders (the result of a human seeding programme that went wrong). The novel alternates between events on the ship and the development of the spider civilisation – and the latter narrative is absolutely fascinating. Tchaikovsky puts a few spins on his generation ship tropes, although it soon devolves into a well-visited territory. Which was a little disappointing – but on balance the spiders more than make up for it. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this on the BSFA Awards shortlist next year.

Skin, Ilka Tampke (2015). I reviewed this for Interzone. I picked the book as one of my choices based on the one-line description in the email sent out to reviewers. It turned out to completely different to what I had expected. It’s a Celtic historical fantasy that sort of hovers on the border of YA and adult fantasy. Bits of it worked really well, but the narrator was such a special snowflake it sort of spoiled things for me.

lovingLoving*, Henry Green (1945). According to the back cover of the Picador omnibus paperback I own which contains Loving, Green is “the most neglected writer of our century”. The book was first published in 1978, and that may well have been true then, but he has apparently seen something of a revival in recent years – there’s a 2005 edition of the same book, but with an introduction by Sebastian Faulks rather than John Updike; and Green has a number of other novels in print. Which is all, I suppose, beside the point; suffice it to say I knew only Green’s name and nothing about his oeuvre when I started Loving. Perhaps I’d expected something not unlike Olivia Manning’s novels, she was after all a contemporary, and I do like Manning’s fiction. Loving, however, proved to be entirely different; and excellent for reasons that make it nothing like Manning’s books. It’s set belowstairs in a large house in rural Ireland during World War II. Not only are the staff worried about the war, but also about their own situation in an neutral country should the Germans invade. And, of course, there’s the house to manage, and their employers to wait upon. The novel opens with the death of the butler, and chiefly follows Raunce’s efforts to get himself promoted into the vacant position. Green makes no concessions to his readers, the characters and their relationships have to be inferred from the narrative, much of which is dialogue. Science fiction may over-rely on dialogue to carry its stories, but it never does it with the skill and control of voice Green manages. I’ll definitely be reading more of his novels.

Godsfire, Cynthia Felice (1978). This is one of several paperbacks I bought from Alvarfonden at Archipelacon, with the intention of reviewing them on SF Mistressworks. Which is what I did – see here. I liked it.

auroraAurora, Kim Stanley Robinson (2015). I’ve been a fan of Robinson’s work for many years, and, so I was told, this was one of his best, even better than 2312. So, of course, being completely contrary, I enjoyed it, thought it quite good, but… not as successful as 2312. The story follows the arrival of a generation starship at Tau Ceti after 170 years in flight, and is told by the vessel’s AI as a study in narratology and a sort of experiment in making the AI more human. The narrative focuses on Freya and first follows her as she goes on a wanderjahr through the twelve biomes which make up the ship. Then there’s the attempt to colonise a moon of one of Tau Ceti’s exoplanets. But that goes horribly wrong, and leads to a civil war on board between those who want to terraform another moon and those who think they should return to Earth. Freya is the de facto leader of the latter faction, and the final section of the book details the ship’s return to Earth and Freya’s experiences once there (those who flew back hibernated for the trip, using a technique in the feed beamed to them from Earth). As a thought experiment on how some elements of a generation starship might operate, Aurora makes for a fascinating read. There’s some handwavey stuff – not least the narrating AI – and many of the mechanical issues are glossed over. However, where the book fails for me is in its human side. Although a number of different cultures are present on the ship, everyone acts like twenty-first century Californians, displaying the sort of liberal individualistic sensibilities more likely to be found on the western seaboard of the US than in the seventh generation of a generation starship’s passengers. For example, there are complaints people are not free to have children as and when they want, but you’d think something like that would have long been accepted. And then there’s the violence between the “stayers” and the “backers”, which for a group of 1200 people who have known only the biomes, didn’t ring true. I was, however, amused that Freya and the others clearly returned to the Earth of 2015 – there were a few backhanded digs at social media and an indirect mention of hipsters. I’m still in two minds about Aurora. The setting is very clever, but the characters are thin and unconvincing; and like 2312, it’s all about making the Earth a fit place to live – because there’s nowhere else in the universe we can do so.

her-smoke-rose-up-foreverHer Smoke Rose Up Forever, James Tiptree Jr (1990). When I first started reading Tiptree back in the late 1970s – it was Ten Thousand Light-Years from Home, originally published in 1973 but my edition was the 1978 paperback – I knew “he” was a woman, but from what I’d read somewhere I thought the pseudonym was in order to protect the author’s career with the CIA. It never occurred to me Ali Sheldon used it because she was a woman. Now I know better, of course. In the early 1980s I bounced out of Tiptree’s Brightness Falls From the Air, and never quite got back into reading her. Well, at least not with the same fervour as before. I’ve reread Ten Thousand Light-Years from Home over the years several times, not to mention the odd story in various anthologies, but it wasn’t until Her Smoke Rose Up Forever appeared in the SF Masterworks series – deservedly so, I might add – that I really decided to give her a reread in earnest. I would normally review this book for SF Mistressworks, but I’ve already got a review lined up by someone else; and besides, I’ve probably reviewed half of the contents in reviews of other anthologies anyway. For the record, not every story in here shines, but a number of them so do very brightly – ‘The Screwfly Solution’, personal favourite ‘And I Awoke And Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side’, ‘The Women Men Don’t See’, even ‘The Man Who Walked Home’ (a story which has haunted me since I first read it decades ago). There are stronger collections in science fiction out there, but not many.

the_danger_gameThe Danger Game, DHF Webster (1978). The author joined the Royal Navy in the nineteen-fifties as a diver, then ran a salvage operation for a while, but that eventually folded due to a lack of contracts. He was employed as a manager for a booze merchant in his home town of Bradford, when an old Navy buddy contacted him and asked him if he’d be interested in working in the North Sea, as the industry was desperate for qualified divers. The Danger Game is about Webster’s years as a commercial diver, and given some of the things he describes the title seems apt. During the early sixties, things were very different, and a lot of deep dives were done on air – 200 feet deep, that’s about seven atmospheres, on air. Nitrogen narcosis, “rapture of the deep”, was not only common, it was expected, and divers frequently surfaced with little or no memory of the final tasks they’d performed. The same was true of the bends, pretty much everyone suffered from it several times, usually because of mistakes with the air supply requiring a quick trip to the surface, or because the wrong tables were used. But they had decompression chambers on deck, so a few hours sealed in one of them and they were right as rain. Although lots of divers perished, it seems a miracle the entire industry wasn’t shut down it was so dangerous. But, of course, because oil. Anyway, a short and reasonably informative read, although likely of worth only to those interested in the subject.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 115

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