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Moving pictures, #10

And 2014 continues to be the year of the films and I continue to get my money’s worth out of Amazon film rentals. Seriously, would you find the movies I’ve been watching on Netflix? I think not. Annoyingly, this month I discovered that my “region-free” Blu-ray player isn’t actually region-free – well, not for Blu-ray discs, only for DVDs. And apparently unlocking them is a lot more difficult than it is for DVDs. So it looks like I’ll have to buy myself a new properly region-free Blu-ray player… But on with this instalment of films seen…

Again, films from 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die are asterisked, although I’ve since found a rival list which actually has more films on it I’ve seen and which I think belong on such a list. And I’ve just checked the list the above links to, which is where I got the list I’m using from in the first place – and the bastards keep on changing it. They’ve added more 2013 films – and so must have dropped others to make room for them. So how exactly are you supposed to see all the films on the list if they keep on changing it? Argh.

Dogville, Lars von Trier (20036, Denmark) Notable chiefly for being the film in which von Trier used black box theatre staging – ie, no scenery, just chalk lines with labels, and only a handful of props. Nicole Kidman plays the girlfriend of a mobster who runs away, seeks sanctuary in the titular small mountain town, where she performs everyday task as payment for sanctuary. But the tasks get more and more onerous, until she’s treated like a slave and then actually assaulted. I enjoyed the film up until the point where the violence started and Kidman was abused. It seemed… unnecessary. Von Trier had already made his point.

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Whisky Galore!*, Alexander Mackendrick (1949, UK). This was based on a novel by Compton MacKenzie, who also wrote the screenplay, which was in turn based upon a real incident. In 1941, the SS Politician was wrecked off the coast of the Outer Hebridean island of Erisday, and the islanders looted it of its cargo of whiskey. In the film, the SS Politican becomes the SS Cabinet Minister, and Eriskay becomes Todday. There are a couple of sub-plots, including a romance, but the bulk of the film is concerned with the battle of wits between the islanders and the authorities over the missing whiskey. Mildly amusing. There is apparently a sequel, Rockets Galore! (1957), which sounds much more kind of thing (but at £145 for the DVD, I’ll not be buying it any time soon…).

The Blair Witch Project*, Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez (1999, USA) I’d managed to avoid seeing this for fifteen years, and would happily have done so for another fifteen… if it hadn’t been on the 1001 Films list and if I hadn’t found a copy for £1 in a charity shop. But at least I can now say I’ve seen it. The found footage concept might well have been fresh and exciting back in 1999, but it’s been used, if not over-used, so much since that you end up treating the film as if it were filmed normally. And in that regard The Blair Witch Project does not score well. It is mostly dull, the scares are driven chiefly by the reaction of the cast rather than the situation they’re in, and the ending falls completely flat. There were apparently nine million sequels, but I shall not be bothering with them.

The Man Who Loved Redheads, Harold French (1955, UK) This popped up on one of those “people who bought this also bought…” things when I was buying a DVD and it was very cheap and looked mildly interesting, so I bunged it on my order… It’s based on a Terrence Rattigan play and is very silly for much of its length, but there’s a surprising and quite interesting twist at the end. A man spends his entire life seeking a lost love – a young woman he met as a teenager – and encounters women who look like her at various points in his life, all played by Moira Shearer. It’s all very terribly terribly – he’s in the Civil Service and a baronet or something – although one of Shearer’s incarnations is a shop girl and it’s played smartly.

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The Gleaners and I*, Agnès Varda (2000, France), is one of those documentaries where the film-maker slowly inserts herself into the subject being filmed. It begins by studying people who hunt for edible vegetables among those rejected by farmers, such as potatoes that are too small, or too oddly-shaped to sell to their corporate masters… but it soon moves on to film homeless people in and around French cities. And as Varda involves herself with these people, so she begins to sympathise with them and their attitudes. I had not expected to like this, but I thought it really good. I think I’d like to see more films made by Varda.

The Great White Silence*, Herbert G Ponting (1924, UK) Scott took Ponting with him on his ill-fated expedition to the South Pole in 1910 as the expedition’s photographer, and this documentary was put together from the footage Ponting shot with a cinematograph. There is straight footage of Scott and his fellows as they leave New Zealand and sail to Antarctica, set up camp, and explore the surroundings. The footage of Scott’s fatal attempt on the pole itself is done using stand-ins as Ponting remained at the main camp with the rest of the expedition. There is also some quite effective model work. The whole is a fascinating, and quite affecting, record of Scott’s expedition. Apparently, it was not a commercial success at the time and Ponting died a pauper, but it has been subsequently re-evaluated and has taken its place as one of the great documentaries of all time. Recommended.

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Wadjda, Haifaa al-Mansour (2012, Saudi Arabia) Not only is this the first film made in Saudi Arabia to be entered for international competition, but it was also written and directed by a woman, a Saudi national woman. That’s quite an achievement. The story, about a girl who rebels against societal expectations by demanding a bicycle, is perhaps nothing new but it’s handled well, the cast are uniformly good – especially Waad Mohammed in the title role – and it makes some pointed observations about Saudi society (so much so, in fact, I’m a little surprised the Saudi authorities allowed it – they’re not exactly known for their liberal tendencies).

Star Trek Voyager – Season 1 (1995) Having worked my way through all seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, it was more or less inevitable I’d eventually find myself doing the same for Star Trek: Voyager. Initially, DS9 was considered the best of the franchises, but it seems time has been kinder to Voyager than it has to the other two. While Voyager’s set-up was just a reboot of the original Star Trek series, and its central casting all come out of, er, Central Casting, with their “back-stories” and “character conflicts”… But it actually hangs together quite well, and the format does give the series a lot more freedom in terms of story-of-the-week. But, of course, this is 1990s television drama, so there has to be at least one story arc… And Voyager falls back on the Trek staple of the omniscient aliens who, well, they’re only omniscient as far as the plot dictates, and then they’re not. Still, you don’t watch Trek for rigour, scientific or dramatic. Actually, I’m not sure what you do watch it for…

Women Without Men, Shirin Neshat & Shoja Azari (2009, Iran), is set in Iran but was actually filmed in Morocco, as director Shirin Neshat has been banned from visiting Iran since 1996. It takes place in 1953, during the US-led coup which put the shah back in power – which the Americans engineered because prime minister Mosaddegh has nationalised the Iranian oil industry. The film follows four women during this period, a prostitute, the wife of a general (ie, part of the secular elite), and an unmarried woman  and her religious friend. It’s been likened to Haneke’s The White Ribbon, but I can’t see it myself. Yes, Women Without Men is an excellent film, although a recurring image of the women walking along a road in the open country seems more The Discreet Charm of Bourgeoisie than it does Haneke to me.

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Suspiria*, Dario Argento (1977, Italy) I am not much of an Argento fan, I prefer Brava – though I’ve only seen a small handful of movies by either director. On the strength of this film, I see little reason to change my mind. It has its moments, and the mise en scène is… interesting, all Dutch angles and saturated colours and ersatz Expressionist set designs. A young woman joins a strange ballet school, but it appears to be haunted and lots of strange events occur, including a rain of maggots while the pupils are readying themselves for bed, a few gruesome deaths, and the frequent appearances of a mysterious heavy-breather. It was a fun film, but I’m a bit baffled as why it should be on the 1001 films list.

Festen*, Thomas Vinterberg (1998, Denmark). This is not a film to watch if you’re feeling misanthropic. A large and affluent Danish film gather at the country hotel they own to celebrate the sixtieth birthday of the patriarch. During the celebratory dinner, one of the sons accuses his father of sexually abusing him as a child, and of abusing his twin sister – who has committed suicide in the hotel shortly before the celebration. The family try to laugh off the son’s accusation, but as the weekend progresses the family begins to fall apart. This was the first film made according to the Dogme 95 rules, so it’s made entirely with hand-held cameras and natural lighting, which gives the picture a somewhat grainy look throughout. An excellent film.

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song*, Melvin van Peebles (1971, USA) I may have an incorrect number of s’s in the title of this film, but I’m pretty sure I’ve got the right number of a’s. A young African American, Sweet Sweetback, working in a brothel is “volunteered” to be arrested as a suspect in a murder – they know he’s innocent, but the police need to arrest someone to appease the community, and plan to release Sweet a few days later for “lack of evidence”. But the police also arrest a Black Panther, who the police beat up, but he’s defended by Sweet and the two manage to escape. Sweet goes on the run, heading for Mexico, and en route has several adventures, including a run-in with a gang of Hells Angels. There’s a definite amateur feel to the film, but the use of montage was done extremely well – and not something you saw in films of that period.

Punishment Park, Peter Watkins (1971, USA) Watkins is a documentary maker, and while Punishment Park is both fictional and more than forty years old, it could easily be a documentary of twenty-first century USA. Hippies, draft-dodgers and other political undesirables are taken out into the desert, charged and sentenced at a kangaroo court in a marquee tent, and then given a choice – a full sentence served in a federal prison, or three days in “punishment park”. This later requires them to cross 53 miles of California desert without food or water in three days, while being chased by armed police and National Guard. If they make it, they can go free. Despite, or perhaps because of, it’s faux-documentary presentation, this was a brutal film. A bit too talky in places, and some of the dialogue felt a little too… not staged, but not natural either, but the sort of dialogue where characters explain their thoughts and feelings and attempt to do the same for others – the sort of dialogue that only appears in fiction, in other words. Nonetheless, an excellent film, and was that really ought to be on the 1001 films list.

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Man of Marble*, Andrzej Wajda (1976, Poland) I saw the sequel to this, Man of Iron, before I was aware of this film. But when Second Run – who I heartily recommend, they have released some amazing DVDs – released Man of Marble, I immediately bought a copy. I like Polish cinema, some of my favourite films are from Poland, and a number of directors I greatly admire are Polish… but Wajda was one I’d mostly missed out, for some unknown reason. I’m now rectifying that. The title of this film refers to a statue of a worker who became a national hero after breaking a record for laying the most bricks in a working day during the building of a new socialist town. A film student is making a documentary about him for her thesis two decades later, but what she discovers – that it was all created and managed as propaganda; and what prompted the hero’s later fall from grace – means it becomes increasingly difficult for her to make her film. Man of Marble follows both the film student and the brick-layer, swapping effortlessly between the two decades. Like Man of Iron, it felt like a television series edited into a single long episode, but with high production values; but that worked in its favour. I really liked this film. And I can’t disagree with its presence on the 1001 Films list.


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2014, best of the half-year

We’re halfway through 2014, which is a year, I believe, of no prior literary, cinematic or even science-fictional significance. No matter, I have certainly consumed some significant literature, cinema and music for the first time during 2014, or at least during this first half of the twelve-month. As usual, there’s a top five and a paragraph of honourable mentions for each.

Et voilà!

BOOKS
1 Life After Life, Kate Atkinson (2013) I nominated this for the Hugo, but since it features no spaceships or dragons it was always going to be a long shot. And, what a surprise, it didn’t get a look-in. I’d never read Atkinson before – my only exposure to her work was the BBC Jackson Brody adaptations with Jason Isaacs – so I was surprised at just how effortlessly good this book was.

2 Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance, Paul Park (2013) I also put this novella on my ballot, and it too never made the shortlist. The title refers to a painting, painted by one of Park’s relatives, which may or may not show an encounter with extraterrestrials. This is an astonishingly clever piece of meta-fiction, in which Park explores his own family tree and fiction, and creates something strange and interesting. And beautifully written too.

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3 The Machine, James Smythe (2013) And a third book I read for the Hugo. And also nominated. And – yup, you guessed it – it didn’t appear on the shortlist either. Ah well, my first – and last – attempt at involving myself in the Hugo awards… I won’t make that mistake again. The Machine, however, did make it onto the Clarke Award shortlist, and was even considered by many the favourite to win. A Ballardian near-future with some sharp prose.

4 Busy About the Tree of Life, Pamela Zoline (1988) I read this for SF Mistressworks, but my review has yet to appear there. Zoline is best-known for her 1967 short story ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’, and she didn’t write much else – a further four stories, in fact. All are collected here. Unsurprisingly, this is one of the strongest sf collections around. It really should be back in print.

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5 Europe in Autumn, Dave Hutchinson (2014) This is a surprise – a book in my best of the year in its actual year of publication. I’m pretty sure that’s a first for me. Europe in Autumn is a pleasingly cosmopolitan near-future thriller that takes an interesting twist reminiscent of Ken MacLeod’s novels… but very different all the same. Sure to be on some shortlists next year.

Honourable mentions: Two books from my Hugo reading made it onto my top five – even if they didn’t make the award shortlist (as if) – and I’m going to give another one a mention here: Anne Carson’s Red Doc> (2013), a narrative poem which managed more art in its 176pp than all fourteen volumes of The Wheel of Time; also very good was Olivia Manning’s last novel, The Rain Forest (1974), a somewhat Lowry-esque farce set on a small island in the Indian Ocean; from reading for SF Mistressworks, Joanna Russ’s collection Extra(ordinary) People (1984, my review here), her novel We Who are About To… (1977, my review here) and Josephine Saxton’s Queen of the States (1986, my review here); and finally Laurent Binet’s HHhH (2013), which offers a fascinating perspective on literature, history and writing about history as fiction.

Two women and three men in the top five, and five women and one man in the honourable mentions. I have made an effort in 2014 so far to maintain gender parity in my fiction reading – and, as can be seen, it does make a difference. On the other hand, there seems to be more genre fiction in my picks this year than is normally the case – over half were published explicitly as genre, and a further three published as mainstream but make use of genre conceits. Which makes a top five that is entirely genre – which I think is a first for me for a good many years.

FILMS
1 Beau Travail, Claire Denis (1999, France) Beautifully photographed – and if that seems common to my choices, cinema is a visual medium – but also sharply observed. However, what knocks this film from merely good to excellent is the final scene – and if you’ve seen it, you’ll know what I mean.

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2 Under The Skin, Jonathan Glazer (2014, UK) Scarlett Johansson guerilla-filming in Glasgow, playing the part of an alien harvesting men for some unexplained reason (in the film, that is; in the book it’s for meat). It’s the film’s refusal to annotate or explain that makes it.

3 Blow-Up, Michelangelo Antonioni (1966, UK) After you’ve finished marvelling how young both David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave look in this film, you begin to realise how beautifully each shot is framed. It’s perhaps not as painterly a film as Antonioni’s stunning Red Desert, and perhaps its plot boasts too many echoes of that of L’Avventura… but this is excellent stuff.

4 Call Girl, Mikael Marcimain (2012, Sweden) A political thriller based on a real scandal during the 1970s, known as the Bordelhärvan scandal, involving senior politicians and under-age prostitutes. Filmed with that sort of stark Scandinavian realism that is its own commentary.

5 The Burmese Harp, Kon Ichikawa (1956, Japan) A Japanese soldier in Burma just after WWII chooses to stay in the country as a travelling Buddhist monk, with the intention of providing a proper burial for all the soldiers killed during the fighting and whose bodies have been left to rot. What really makes this film, however, is that the rest of his company use choral singing to maintain their morale, and throughout the film they put on impromptu performances.

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Honourable mentions: Upstream Colour Shane Carruth (2013, USA), is an elliptical, often beautiful, film and the complete antithesis to Hollywood mind-candy; Kin-Dza-Dza!, Georgiy Daneliya (1986, Russia), is completely bonkers but somehow manages to make its more ludicrous aspects seem completely normal in its world; Head-on Fatih Akın (2004, Germany), an intense drama about a Turkish-German couple and a marriage of convenience; Man of Iron, Andrzej Wajda (1981, Poland), is based on the strikes in the Gdańsk Shipyard during the 1970s, and mixes real fact and fiction – Lech Wałęsa appears himself and is also played by an actor; The Best of Everything, Jean Negulesco (1959, USA), its first half is the sort of well-photographed 1950s melodrama that really appeals to me, but it’s a shame about the film’s second half; Like Someone in Love Abbas Kiarostami (2012, France), displays Kiarostami’s typically elliptical approach to story-telling which, coupled with its realness, makes for beautiful cinema; and finally, a pair of films by Piotr Szulkin: Ga, Ga. Chwała Bohaterom (1986, Poland), the blackest of comedies, takes a hero astronaut and subjects him to a litany of inexplicable indignities; and Wojna Swiatów – Następne Stulecie (1981, Poland), even blacker and more cynical, in which a popular TV presenter becomes first a tool of the oppressors, then a rebel, but will be remembered ever after as a collaborator.

And once again I have failed to pick a single Hollywood film – well, okay, the Negulesco is a Hollywood film, but it’s also 55 years old. So perhaps I should have said a recent Hollywood film. This doesn’t mean I haven’t watched any, just that none of them were any good.

ALBUMS
1 Shadows Of The Dying Sun, Insomnium (2014) A new album by Insomnium on this list is hardly a surprise, but this band really is bloody good. As I’ve said before, if you look up “Finnish death/doom metal” in the dictionary, all it says is “Insomnium”.

2 Valonielu, Oranssi Pazuzu (2013) I actually purchased this in 2013, but too late to make that year’s best of. It’s… well, it’s a recipe that doesn’t deserve to work, but actually does so brilliantly – space rock plus black metal. Weird and intense and very very strange. It should come as no surprise to learn the band are from Finland.

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3 From a Whisper, Oak Pantheon (2012) A US band that plays a similar black/folk/atmospheric metal as Agalloch, but seems a little more… metal in places. This is their first full-length album after a debut EP, and I’m looking forward to whatever they produce next.

4 The Frail Tide, Be’lakor (2007) This Australian band’s latest album made last year’s Top 5, so why not their debut this year? Their complex melodic death is enlivened with some nice acoustic passages in this. Excellent stuff.

5 Earth Diver, Cormorant (2014) Another self-release by a band that refuses to be pigeon-holed and quite happily shifts through a number of metal genres during each epic track. And they do write epic tracks.

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Honourable mentions: 25th Anniversary of Emptiness, Demilich (2014) is a compilation of unreleased and rerecorded material from classic Finnish vocal fry register death metal band, an important document; Stone’s Reach, Be’lakor (2007), the band’s sophomore release and every bit as good as their other two, but their debut’s acoustic sections gave it the edge; The Void, Oak Pantheon (2011), is the band’s debut EP and an excellent harbinger of their later material; Restoration, Amiensus (2013), any band that manages to mix Agalloch and Woods of Ypres gets my vote; Older than History, Master of Persia (2011), Iranian death metal which makes good use of Iranian music traditions to produce something excellent.

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