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Moving pictures 2019, #13

Once again, I’ve managed to get a bit behind with these posts. In fact, I’ve not been blogging much since moving to Sweden. Starting a new job. New town. New country. All that. I also moved apartments a couple of weeks ago, and now have a five kilometre walk every day. And I’ve started Swedish lessons, two days a week after work. But I really need to get on top of my blogging. I was hoping the move would help me kick off the writing again but, naturally, there’s an adjustment period… although I do have to keep reminding myself that I’ve only been here for two months. It feels like a lot longer. In a good way, of course.

Jashnn – The Music Within, Raksha Mistry & Hasnain S Hyderabadwala (2009, India). The title refers to a wannabe rock god, who dreams of stardom but doesn’t seem to have much of a clue how to go about it, even though he has a band and write songs. He doesn’t, for one thing, even know what a demo is. He lives with his sister, who is the mistress of a rich businessman. One day in a cafe, he chats up a beautiful young woman, and they start seeing each other. But it turns out she’s the sister of the businessman, and he doesn’t want Jashnn dating his sister – so much so, he threatens to cut Jashnn’s sister off without a cent. Jashnn’s girlfriend is so incensed, she moves in with Jashnn, who is now living in the place where the band rehearse. And she becomes their manager, introduces them to the concept of a demo, and takes them round the various record labels. But the businessman owns the record company, so he gets them thrown out. And it all comes down to a talent contest – as it always does in films of this sort. Jashnn has dropped out of his band, so they enter without him. But his girlfriend convinces him to perform as a last-minute contestant. Which he does. But the businessman has the judges in his pocket. Except… he gives a long impassioned speech explaining that Jashnn’s song really moved him and now he’s completely changed his mind and won’t be the evil bastard he had been previously and Jashnn can keep on seeing his sister, he won’t throw Jashnn’s sister out of her house, and everyone can live happily ever after. A polished piece of Bollywood, but romantic tosh from start to finish.

The Lego Batman Movie, Chris McKay (2017, USA). It was free to watch on Amazon Prime. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking with it. The original The Lego Movie (see here) was sort of fun, except for the horribly intrusive daddy issue swerve in the story toward the end. The Lego Batman Movie is, well, more of the same, but instead focuses on the titular superhero. The film is a relentless sequence of jokes, most of which manage to be funny. The Joker turns the tables on Batman by surrendering – along with all his fellow super-villains – so giving Batman no reason to exist. But it’s all a cunning plot, because Batman steals Superman’s Phantom Zone Projector to send the Joker to the Phantom Zone, which is what the Joker was hoping, because he promptly escapes and brings with him all manner of villains from assorted intellectual properties. There’s a running joke about Bruce Wayne accidentally adopting Dick Grayson, which a is bit uncomfortable in places, but then Batman decides to turn him into Robin (resulting in one of the films better comedy sequences). Still, it’s a Lego movie and you get what it says on the tin. I’m not entirely sure who these films are aimed at – the jokes are a bit too knowing for kids, but Lego is a child’s toy. I guess Lego have done well with these films, then, to position them for such a wide audience.

Dastak, Mahesh Bhatt (1996, India). This was Sushmita Sen’s first film. She was crowned Miss Universe in 1994, and in Dastak she plays herself, a winner of the Miss Universe contest, who is being stalked by a killer. The policeman assigned to look after her turns out to be an old schoolmate, and romance soon blossoms between the two. Which the stalker does not like. And, er, that’s pretty much it.  Although released in 1996, the film feels like it’s a decade or two older. The violence is all a bit pantomime, and I can’t honestly remember any of the musical numbers. But Sen is good in her first film role – not that it seemed to require much acting – and the stalker plot follows the usual story beats, with the stalker escalating each time he feels Sen’s behaviour doesn’t meet with his approval. Meanwhile, the police have no clue to the stalker’s identity. But at least moustachioed cop gets to kindle a romance with his charge. For all its by-the-numbers plotting, and despite the fact it was clearly a star vehicle for Sen, I quite enjoyed Dastak. Perhaps it was because it was a Bollywood film but it felt more dramatic than is usually the case for a Bollywood film of that time. I mean, I’ve seen some excellent Indian thrillers, like Thadam and Kahaani (see here), but they were twenty-first century films. Anyway, not a bad film.

The Getting of Wisdom, Bruce Beresford (1977, Australia). A friend told me that prior to the 1980s pretty much every internationally-recognised film made in Australia was shot by one of two directors. I’m guessing Breresford was one of the two. The Getting of Wisdom was his fifth film and is adapted from a 1910 novel by Henry Handel Richardson (despite the name, a female Australian author), which has apparently been in print continuously since then – so, quite highly regarded, then. Laura Tweedel Rambotham is a provincial naif from a small village who is sent to a boarding-school in Melbourne. The other girls are all snobs, so she finds it hard to fit it. But she’s a gifted pianist and makes friends through her talent. She also invents a romance with the school’s visiting priest, engineering encounters with him in such a way the other girls believe the relationship is real. Until it’s abruptly revealed to be a lie. I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of The Getting of Wisdom. It seemed a bit cobbled together in parts. It probably didn’t help that the source novel is more a series of escapades than an actual straight-through plot, and the film reflected that. I’m glad I saw it, but I can’t say I’d recommend it.

Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi, Krish & Kangana Ranaut (2019, India). Apparently Amazon bought the distribution rights to this film immediately after its theatrical release in India. Which is why it’s on Amazon Prime. Although not why it’s free to Prime members. I’ve seen a few recent Indian films available on Amazon Prime, and I think the same deal applied to them. Just to confuse matters, Amazon are releasing them in different language versions – Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and sometimes Malayalam. Anyway, Jhansi is famous for its queen, who fought against East India Company at a time when it pretty much had all the various kingdoms, sultanates and principalities sewn up, and was busy robbing them blind in the name of English commerce and good Queen Vic. Manikarnika was having none of that, and refused to submit. So the British threw an army at her. Strangely, all the British characters in this film had South African accents, although apparently it was just Americans doing bad British accents. Other than that, the film is a long sequence of battle scenes, which are rendered extremely well, with much CGI, or courtly intrigue, most of which involves the British being perfidious or Manikarnika being heroic. It’s good stuff, but no one could accuse it of being subtle. And it’s a definitely a piece of history British people would benefit from learning about, especially all those arseholes who think the British Empire was some sort of noble endeavour that brought all the good things to most of the planet. Was it bollocks. It was a shameful period of British history, and movies like Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi give an excellent indication why. Worth seeing.

Area Q, Gerson Sanginitto (2015, Brazil). Stop me if you’ve heard this before. There’s a place where several people have gone missing, and then returned claiming to have been abducted by aliens. For reasons never made entirely clear, an award-winning journalist is sent to that place to look into the matter. The journalist is currently trying to find his young son, who disappeared some months previously. The journalist interviews some of the abductees, and they seem to have been genuinely changed by the experience. Then he is abducted himself, and learns that his son was also abducted. This is all being told to another journalist after the events, because the original journalist’s career bombed after he came back claiming to be an abductee. Area Q differs slightly in its presentation of this over-used and somewhat dated premise because it’s Brazilian. The journalist is an American from LA, but the abductions (except for the son) all take place near a mountain in Brazil. It adds a strange gloss to what is a bog-standard plot strung together from unbelievable clichés. It doesn’t help that the acting is not very good, and the script pretty terrible. Definitely one to avoid.

1001 Movies You Mist See Before You Die count: 939

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Fools like us

So a well-respected literary author goes and writes a novel that everyone knows is science fiction, and that everyone knows he probably knows his science fiction, but he decides to claim that not only is his novel not science fiction it actually covers ground not covered by science fiction and perhaps this is a ripe area for exploration by literary authors…

Do I really need to say who, what book and the specifics of his argument?

Naturally, he was roundly condemned by science fiction writers, critics and readers – some more than others – but, just as naturally, their condemnation was as damaging and misguided as said literary author’s misguided, but likely entirely self-serving, remarks had been.

As genre fans, we’ve been there before, perhaps too often to count:

The literary author who uses a science fiction trope but claims it is not science fiction:
I don’t have a problem with this. I don’t even think of them as “tourists”, as some do. They’re approaching genre tropes from an entirely different direction, they don’t have the history, they don’t have the context; and, sometimes, that’s exactly what the trope needs to shine new light on it, to view it from a fresh perspective.

The literary author who uses a science fiction trope but claims it is entirely their own invention:
This one is pretty much indefensible. Who these days would write a story without bothering to research it? “Hey, I’ve just written a novel about artificial people and no one else has ever done that before” is just so lacking in self-awareness, it makes its utterer a perfectly legitimate target of every critic and pundit in existence.

True, literary authors sometimes make a complete fucking hash of their science fiction tropes – see Spaceman of Bohemia on last year’s Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist. On the other hand, some novels published as sf make a complete fucking hash of their sf tropes – see Sea of Rust on last year’s Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist.

It could be argued any such complaints about either of the above points are invalid unless the critic has read the book in question. Which is bollocks. It’s not the work itself being criticised, it’s the trope’s origin or history, as given by the literary author, that’s under discussion. And you don’t need to read through 100,000 words of jewel-like, or whatever, prose to know that.

I actually like it when literary authors make use of genre tropes in their fiction. They have a tendency to deconstruct the trope because they’re not invested in its history and prior usage. Sometimes, that manifests as “re-inventing the wheel”, but even so they frequently bring a new approach to something that has probably been deployed uncritically in genre circles for decades. And most genre tropes need a critical re-appraisal. All those fucking robots… I mean, it’s the twenty-first century and we’re still writing uncritically about a metaphor for slavery?

Which neatly brings us back to the not-so-cunningly disguised novel which kicked off this blog post. I freely admit I’ve not read Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Us, and have no plans to do so. I gave up on his fiction after 2005’s Saturday, although I did mistakenly read Solar (2010) some years later. I probably should have given up on his fiction back in 1997 or 1998. I don’t need to read Machines Like Us. There’s been an extensive publicity machine promoting the book. Because McEwan is a writer who gets that treatment, whether or not his books deserve it. A cynic might even suggest the whole “I’ve done AI better than the entire corpus of science fiction” thing is just part of the marketing strategy.

I have also read other genre works by literary authors who claimed not to write genre, or were reluctant to accept the label when called out on it, and I admire their books: Lawrence Durrell’s Tunc and Nunquam, John Fowles’s A Maggot, Jed Mercurio’s Ascent, Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Katie Ward’s Girl Reading, David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks… But then it’s not like I need to reel off titles as there are no end of highly-regarded novels which make use of genre tropes but are never identified with the genre.

As I said, I don’t have a problem with that.

It’s nice when they give the nod to genre – as Michael Chabon has done, as Margaret Atwood eventually did, as Doris Lessing has done, as Michel Faber has done… There are some blindingly good genre works available from those four names alone, none of which were published as genre. Genre is not a private club, it just has some members who are a little more… invested in it than others, and they can be somewhat over-protective.

But then the publicity machine for Machines Like Us comes along, and it’s like we’re back in the 1950s or 1960s. It’s like genre is still a ghetto of its own making, but this time it’s someone outside who’s shoring up the walls. It feels like a step backwards because it is a step backwards. Genre writers are forever handicapped by being seen as genre writers.

But literary fiction is just a genre, I hear you cry. Except, well, it’s not. No one really sees it as that. True, it often doesn’t sell as well as actual genre fiction – science fiction and fantasy. It has the prestige genre fiction lacks (and any claims that genre fiction doesn’t need that prestige are just reverse snobbery), and occasionally there’s a break-out literary fiction novel which knocks an author up a level, like McEwan’s Atonement, not that advocates of literary fiction would use anything as crass as units sold as a metric of quality…

There is genre fiction, there is category genre fiction, there is fiction written within the tradition that is genre. There is also fiction that might look like any one of those three, but has only a passing knowledge of them. That neither invalidates it nor makes it inferior. It is what is in the fiction which defines it. But it is also the ur-text which defines it. And ur-text has as much loyalty to genre as any individual trope does.

Having been so in the past does not make it so now or in the future. Which is a horribly vague way of saying that some tropes have actually been handled better by non-genre writers. Alternate history is an excellent example. Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days is a superior example. But even populist novels, such as Len Deighton’s SS-GB, often seem more exemplary of the sub-genre than alternate history novels published as category science fiction.

We should be applauding how genre tropes are used, not where they are used. Had McEwan written something truly groundbreaking with Machines Like Us, then yes, fold it into the genre conversation. It seems he hasn’t, so that’s pretty much academic. But when the genre can co-opt, for example, The Underground Railroad, and even include it on genre award shortlists, what’s the problem with the genre conversation incorporating non-category genre works?

Fault them for their quality, as you would a genre work. Not for their choice to use genre tropes.


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Top five science fiction films

I saw someone recently tweet for requests for people’s top five science fiction films and I thought, I can do that. Then it occurred to me I’ve watched around 3000 movies in the past few years, and many of them were science fiction. So those films I think of as my favourites… well, surely I’d seen something that might lead to a new top five? Even if nothing sprung immediately to mind… True, I’m not that big a fan of science fiction cinema, and most of my favourite movies are dramas. And most of the sf films I have seen were commercial tentpole US movies, a genre I like even less…

I went back over my records, and pulled together a rough list of about fifteen films – it seems most of the sf films I’ve seen didn’t impress me very much – and then whittled that down to five. And they were pretty much old favourites. Which sort of rendered the whole exercise a bit pointless.

Or was it?

Top of my list is Alien, directed by Ridley Scott and released in 1979. Although distributed by 20th Century Fox, I’ve always counted it as a British film, as it was an entirely UK-based production, and in fact used many of the UK-based talent that had been working on Alejandro Jodorowsky’s aborted Dune movie. I’ve always loved Alien, pretty much since its theatrical release. Which is a bit weird as it was given an X-certificate, and I would have just turned thirteen when it was released. But I read the novelisation by Alan Dean Foster; I had the collectable magazines and books, even Giger’s Alien (published by Big O according to my copy, but by Morpheus International according to the internet). I fell in love with the world of Alien, with the grimy lived-in appearance of the Nostromo, with the weirdness of the boomerang spaceship, with the look of the alien creature itself. Which doubtless explains why I’ve never really rated any of the sequels. Alien did it first, Alien kept it simple, Alien did it best. The less said about the prequels, the better…

But if we’re talking science fiction cinema worldbuilding, there are plenty of other movies which might qualify. I love the production design of David Lynch’s Dune: the uniforms, the spaceships, the sets… It’s just a shame Lynch’s vision was so badly mangled by the studio, and that Lynch himself made quite a few questionable choices when adapting the novel. Other prime examples include Metropolis, Forbidden Planet, Blade Runner, Starship Troopers, Brazil, The Fifth Element, the various Star Trek films, the Star Wars movies… Or perhaps something more recent, such as Mortal Engines, anything from the MCU, Jupiter Ascending, Prospect, Science Fiction Volume 1: The Osiris Child, The Lure… Except the only film out of that lot I especially rate is The Lure, and I’d classify it as horror rather than science fiction. (Oh, Metropolis is good too, of course.)

Of course, those are films that required new worlds built out of whole cloth – there’s even a book about it: Building Sci-Fi Moviescapes (my copy, of course, is in storage). There are those that made do with the real world, making clever, or innovative use, of existing buildings and landscape. Examples include Alphaville, Crimes of the Future, Rollerball, even Interstellar (mostly). One of the most imaginative uses of location for a sf film I’ve seen is Footprints on the Moon, which manages to create a plausible invented country out of a pair of Turkish seaside resorts. Sadly, though I like the film a great deal, it’s not quite good enough to make my top five.

A film which also creates a new world out of clever location shooting makes the second slot on my list: François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451. I’m not a fan of the book, but I’m a big fan of Brutalist architecture and there’s plenty of that in the Fahrenheit 451 film. Plus a monorail. And Montag’s A-frame house in its leafy suburb with the silver birches and G-Plan furniture. It doesn’t look in the slightest bit futuristic – especially not now – but I love the film’s look and feel. (Except maybe the fire engine; not so keen on that.) But it’s not just the visuals, you also have Julie Christie playing two roles, the story’s focus on censorship (not television), the fact it ditched the stupid robot dog from the book, and Truffaut’s elegiac ending.

Science fiction films are not all set in the future or invented worlds. Some are set at the time the film was made. Girls Lost, set in early twenty-first century Sweden, might well have made my top five, but its central premise is just too fantastical. And Thelma, set in early twenty-first century Norway… well, telekinetic powers are a science fiction staple. At least they are in written science fiction. They’re more of a horror trope in cinema, and Thelma would also have made my list but it’s clearly a horror film.

An older film, one which depicts a 1980s Sweden, albeit far from any centre of civilisation, is Andrei Tarkovsky’s Offret, AKA The Sacrifice. Like Girls Lost and Thelma, its genre credentials are somewhat wobbly, but the fact it’s about a nuclear apocalypse, a very real concern during the Cold War and one much used by science fiction, pretty much since the genre’s early twentieth century origins, just about clinches it as science fiction for me. Okay, so Erland Josephson makes a deal with a higher power to put everything back and that’s hardly science-fictional, but never mind. Watching Offret is a harrowing experience, and science fiction cinema rarely manages that.

Most people, if they had to pick a Tarkovsky movie – and why wouldn’t they pick one? – would probably plump for either Solaris or Stalker. But the latter’s urban wasteland setting might suit its story but can hardly be called worldbuilding. And I’ve seen too many Soviet bloc sf films from the 1960s and 1970s to find anything special in Solaris‘s production design. They’re both great sf films, but I much prefer the look and feel of Herrmann Zschoche’s Eolomea to Solaris, although the latter is the better movie.

It’s not just actual Soviet and East German films, however. There are also the US ones from the 1960s which New World Pictures cobbled together from Soviet special effects footage, the best of which is Curtis Harrington’s Queen of Blood (containing footage from Небо зовет).

Offret takes slot number three.

When I wrote about building whole new worlds for science fiction movies, I very carefully didn’t mention one particular film, which takes place on another planet ruled by an entirely invented civilisation… but is actually a very old genre property. 2012’s John Carter. My number four choice. It did badly at the box office and its cast is hardly top-drawer. But it’s a gorgeous-looking piece of cinema, and its script makes some very adventurous decisions about its story-telling which, to my mind, totally paid off (longeurs notwithstanding). I’m not a fan of the books – they’re very much historical documents, and the tropes they introduced have been so extensively used and reworked in the decades since it would be impossible to make them fresh. But the basic story possesses a primal appeal, and although John Carter does complicate its plot with its nested endings, I think it gives the film a contemporary narrative sensibility. John Carter is a seriously under-rated movie, and it’s a pity corporate politics pretty much killed it.

That’s four movies, and the final slot was, as is usually the case, the hardest to fill. I could think of a number of films which almost made the grade. There’s Dredd from 2012, a bona fide, and ultra-violent, science fiction art-house movie, but it’s too thin on plot. Or Cargo, a Schweitzer-Deutsch film from 2009, which is a bit of a hodge-podge of genre tropes, some of which border on cliché, but looks pretty good and is about as science-fictional as you can get. Going a bit further back, there’s Peter Watkins’s Privilege from 1967, which is a clever, and quite funny, dystopian satire. Or Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, in which an alien in the person of Scarlet Johansson drives around Glasgow in 2013 picking up men to provide meat for her home world.

However… I decided to go for a completely left-field choice for movie number five: The Untamed, a Mexican film directed by Amat Escalante, released in 2016. It’s a good example of a type of cinema I especially like, slow cinema. It is enigmatic. It has a documentary feel. And yet you have no idea where it’s going for pretty much its entire length. It also shows that science fiction can be used to illuminate the lives of people in the real world, it doesn’t always need fancy worldbuilding, expensive CGI or imaginative location shooting. Sometimes it just needs the introduction of something strange into the mundane.

So that’s my top five science fiction films. As of 2019. Ask me again in a year or two and it will probably be different.

I’ve no doubt missed out a huge number of eligible movies: I  either because I’ve not watched them, don’t think they’re any good, or just simply didn’t remember (despite trawling back through my film-watching records). I’ve also not mentioned any anime films, although many of them might well qualify. I’ve watched some excellent ones – anything by Makoto Shinkai, for example; or the Neon Evangelion movies – but I don’t love anime as much as I do live-action, and besides they probably deserve a list of their own. Another day, perhaps.


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Reading diary 2019, #4

The first book in this post I read before leaving the UK, but I’m not sure why I didn’t include it in an earlier Reading diary. Two of the books I read on my Kindle (well, one was a reread), and the remaining three I brought with me in my 26 kg suitcase.

I’ve been avoiding the English Bookshop here because I don’t want to buy new books just yet. Once I’ve read most of the two dozen I brought with me, then I’ll start buying some more. Although there are a couple of new books I want in hardback… like the last Bernie Gunther novel… and the new one from Nina Allan…

The Adventures of Blake & Mortimer 25: The Valley of the Immortals, Part 1, Yves Sente, Peter Van Dongen & Teun Berserik (2018, Belgium). Unlike the Adventures of Tintin, with which the Adventures of Blake and Mortimer are closely linked, Blake and Mortimer survived the death of their creator. Edgar P Jacobs set up a studio to continue the series, and it’s been churning them out ever since. And, to be honest, the studio’s stories have been better than Jacobs’s ever were. Until, it seems, this one. Sort of. The Adventures of Blake & Mortimer 25: The Valley of the Immortals is a sequel to one of Jacobs’s most famous stories, The Secret of the Swordfish, which was pretty much a Yellow Peril narrative. To be fair, The Adventures of Blake & Mortimer 25: The Valley of the Immortals soon leaves Jacobs’s invented Asian evil empire – actually called the Yellow Empire – behind, and focuses on real Chinese history, specifically the Communists and Kuomintang, both of which are after a recently discovered artefact from third-century BCE China. As is a warlord who plans to use it to declare himself emperor. Mostly, this is all good stuff, but while dragging in the Yellow Empire slots the story into the Blake and Mortimer universe, and gives continuity to the characters, it leaves a bad taste and the book would have been better for ignoring it. One of the good things about the series has been that it has changed with the times. Tintin’s earlier adventures are racist as shit, and because The Adventures of Tintin ended with Hergé’s death, there are no new stories to offset those early works. Because Jacobs founded a studio to continue the Adventures of Blake and Mortimer, we have new stories – more, I think, than Jacobs actually wrote – which have kept pace with sensibilities (and have also become increasingly sophisticated in their stories). If you like Tintin, then you should be reading the Adventures of Blake and Mortimer. There are twenty-five of them, so you’ve got some catching up to do.

To Play the Lady, Naomi Lane (2011, USA). Someone recommended this to me a long time ago, but it was only available on Kindle and at that time I didn’t own one. But now I have one. And To Play the Lady was cheap. So I bought it and, er, read it. And I wish I could remember who recommended it. Because it wasn’t very good. The background is a bit identikit, and there’s doesn’t seem to have been much thought put into it. The protagonist is a complete Mary Sue, and accrues powers as the story progresses. Which is not to say the story doesn’t have its good points. Provincial aristocrat’s daughter is sent to the palace to be a maid of the queen, but she’s a bit of a tomboy and has been taught all sorts of unfeminine things. Her origin brings her into conflict with the other maids – all the daughters of peers of the realm – and her abilities at riding and archery cause problems because they’re not exactly ladylike. And it also turns out she has a rare magical talent and has to be individually tutored by the royal sorcerer… Sigh. There’s a breezy tone to the narrative, which is fun, and having a queen’s maid as the focus of a story gives an interesting perspective, but… Jenna Mallory, the protagonist, is so Mary Sue-ish it gets annoying quite quickly. The book is the first in a series, and the second book, To Serve the King, appeared in 2016. So if this is a trilogy, the final book is not likely to appear until 2021. I may well give the second book a  go, but I’m in no great rush to do so.

Dune, Frank Herbert (1965, USA). It probably doesn’t need to be said that this was a reread. I last read Dune in 2007 and blogged about it here. But I didn’t bother with the sequels on that reread, and since the Gateway ebook collection of all six Dune books was only 99p, I decided to buy it and work my way through all of them. Starting with, er Dune. It’s a book I know well, so I was more interested on this reread in how it compared to what I remembered. And yes, the writing is still pretty terrible for much of its length – especially in sentences that contain the phrase “terrible purpose” – but the worldbuilding is still among the best the genre has produced. However, my reading was focused on the scenes. And… the ones I remember liking rang a bit false, such as the time Duke Leto and Paul fly out to see a spice harvester in action. But other scenes I hadn’t liked, like the banquet scene, I much preferred this time around. What I hadn’t forgotten was the casual misogyny and homophobia, which very much made the book a product of the 1960s. I’d also forgotten how slipshod was Herbert’s worldbuilding: some things he’d made an effort to disguise, but in other places he’d simply slotted the Arabic word straight in. There didn’t seem to be much logic to it. Fifty-five years after it was published, Dune remains popular – Denis Villeneuve, movie flavour of the month in some genre circles – is currently filming an adaptation. In two parts, if rumour is to be believed. And there may well be a television series following on from the movies. But while there is a certain timelessness to the universe of Dune, Dune the novel is very much a book of its time. Had it been re-invented each decade, perhaps it would be an even bigger property that it is. Although I suppose the awful Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson sequels and prequels could be considered “re-inventions” but they’re pretty shite. If I had a Swedish crown for every time I’ve heard someone say they’d read Dune but not its sequels, or that Dune is the best of the series and the rest are not worth reading, well, I’d be living in a Swedish palace. A small one. And yet it’s completely untrue. Frank Herbert conceived the first three books as a single story, so all three really need to be read in order to understand the point Herbert was trying to make. And I’ve always maintained the writing improved, at the sentence level, as the series progressed. This is hardly controversial – the more Herbert wrote, the better he got at it. I’m hoping that particular conviction will survive my reread. We shall see. But the take-away from this reread: the best-loved scenes disappointed, but the scenes I’d not liked as much previously read much better than I’d expected.

Forcible Entry, Stewart Farrar (1986, UK). I’d been after this books for years, although I forget why, when a copy popped up on eBay. The book was only ever published in hardback, and the hardback was published by Robert Hale, which no doubt explains why it had proven so hard to find. Unfortunately, I lost the auction on eBay for the book… but found a copy for less on abebooks.co.uk from a seller in Australia. (I see there’s now a copy on Amazon going for £590. I paid nowhere near that.) And, after all that, was it worth it? I understand most of Farrar’s fiction revolves around witchcraft and Wicca – I believe he practiced it himself – and certainly a coven of witches makes an appearance in Forcible Entry. But the story is mostly about parapsychology research, particularly telepathy and astral projection. Matthew is a professional photographer and dying of cancer. He also volunteers as a test subject at a parapsychology study run by the university. Which is where Sheila, an attractive young woman, works as an office manager. The two prove to be gifted at astral projection. On one such trip Matthew, knowing he is dying, steals Sheila’s body. So while his real body dies of cancer in hospital, Matthew takes over Sheila’s body and feigns amnesia to cover any mistakes he might make in his impersonation (he had been studying her for weeks beforehand). However, Sheila had been an unwitting agent of the CIA investigating an organisation that wants to use people with parapsychological abilities for nefarious reasons. But not everyone is convinced by Matthew’s impersonation of Sheila – especially her American boyfriend, who involves a coven of witches to undo the possession – and when Matthew is forced to kill to defend his secret… It’a an interesting premise, and Farrar’s prose is readable and unremarkable. I’m surprised the book is not better-known – or rather, surprised it never made it to paperback, because there’s certainly a market for it. But then, I don’t think many of Farrar’s novels made it to paperback, so it seems his chief readership was library borrowings. There were a couple of other Farrar novels offered by the seller on eBay who was selling Forcible Entry, and one or two of them looked interesting. But I’m not going to go out of my way to track down his books, although if I see one going cheap I might give it a go.

With Fate Conspire, Mike Shupp (1985, USA). Back in the 1990s, I corresponded online with Mike Shupp. We were members of an online sf novel writing group, although both of us were using the group chiefly as motivation. Anyway, Shupp had published a five-book series, The Destiny Makers, between 1985 and 1991, but nothing else. And nothing since that online sf novel writing group – he was working on something new, and it looked good, but it hasn’t appeared in the years since. To be honest, I suspect With Fate Conspire is not a book that would see publication today. Not because it’s bad – it isn’t, it’s actually quite good. But it makes zero concessions to its readers, and it’s often a struggle to figure out what’s going on. Partly that’s because the plot is about time travel, and partly because it’s set on an Earth 90,000 years from now which is very different. But Shupp further complicates matters by fracturing his narrative. Tim Harper is a Vietnam vet physics student who gets caught in the field of a time machine sent from the future. He figures out how to use it, and travels back to the time it was sent, 90,000 years from the present-day. It’s a world in which some ten percent of the population are telepaths and they are strictly apolitical after two world wars caused by their interference in national affairs. But where Harper ends up is in the last stand-out against a world-state, and they decide to use the time travel technology to change the past and maintain their independence. With Fate Conspire does not make this easy. The narrative jumps about, and does not even mention some of the more important plot elements, and reading the book is a struggle to figure out what’s going on. I don’t have a problem with this, but I suspect present-day editors would. With Fate Conspire is definitely a book a written by an engineer. Happily, I have all five of the series and I brought them with me to Sweden. The next book is titled Morning of Creation. Expect it to appear in a blog post sometime in the next month or so.

Black Mischief, Evelyn Waugh (1932, UK). This was one of a bunch of Evelyn Waugh novels my mother found me in charity shops. In Harrogate. Where they obviously have a somewhat different class of customer to Sheffield. Although, to be fair, it’s a rare charity shop that will keep 1950s Penguin paperbacks on their shelves. And they were pretty tatty copies too. Black Mischief is set in the invented African island-nation of Azania. There are two African language-groups, one native to the island, the other invaders several centuries earlier. Plus Arabs, legations from assorted European nations, churches from the major religions, and a variety of hangers-on and chancers. The current ruler dies and his son, only just down from Oxford, takes the throne. And is determined to drag his country into the twentieth century (the fourth decade of it, at least). Waugh lays out the history of his invented country with impressive clarity. The story then shifts to London and Basil Seal, a character from Waugh’s earlier novels, a dissolute upper class wastrel, who happens to know the new emperor of Azania and fancies getting out of London. So he travels to Azania, hooks up with emperor, and is made Minister of Modernization. He’s in it for what he can get, of course, but he’s out-matched by pretty much everyone else in the country. Had Black Mischief been written a few decades later, it might have aged better. Because it’s horribly racist. It’s not just the language, it’s the treatment of races other than English. Waugh mocks the English quite heavily; and the French too. Especially their legations. But his treatment of the Sakuyu and Wanda relies on racial caricatures, as does his characterisation of Youkoumian, an Armenian Jew. Perversely, the one non-English character who isn’t treated racistly is the new emperor, who comes across as woefully naive, if well-intentioned, and the sort of over-educated naif so beloved of Oxbridge comedies. Not one of Waugh’s best.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 134


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Moving pictures 2019, #12

More Amazon Prime viewing. The Blu-rays I brought with me are still in their shrinkwrap, sitting on a shelf across the room and mocking me. Currently, my viewing comprises assorted series from Swedish TV, such as Midsomer Murders (it’s worse than I thought), Antiques Road Trip, Murder She Wrote (known here as Mord och inga visor, Murder without evidence) and NCIS: New Orleans (which is even less believable than all the other NCIS franchises put together). On Amazon Prime, I’ve been watching Andromeda, which is a bit like a TV adaptation of a campaign for a space opera role-playing game played by fourteen-year-olds…

Fortunately, I’ve managed to find some halfway decent – and some quite excellent – movies to watch to keep me sane. And, of course, I’ve been reading books… although I’ve no idea why I decided to reread the Wheel of Time just because I have the whole series on my Kindle (courtesy of Worldcon75) and The Eye of the World is so bad it’s doing my head in…

The Eagle Huntress, Otto Bell (2016, Kazakhstan). The Mongolian nomads in the Altai Mountains use eagles to hunt, particularly foxes, as hunting eagles is now considered more of a traditional sport than a survival skill. Aisholpan is thirteen years old, and she wants to be an eagle hunter. But it has always been the preserve of men. Her father is happy to train her because he thinks she has a real gift for it. Together, they capture an eaglet, which she then trains to hunt with her. She enters the annual eagle hunting competition at Ulgii… and wins. But her critics refuse to consider her a real hunter until she has caught a fox in the mountains. Which she then does. It’s a well-travelled narrative – girl wants to follow traditionally male occupation, demonstrates gender barrier is entirely arbitrary, and even excels at it… But it’s a story that bears telling over and over again. Because some men just do not get it. Women can do everything men can do. And when any man says that some thing is not for women, whether it’s hunting with eagles or programming computers or flying jet fighters, then that’s nothing more than sexism. The fact Aisholpan wins the eagle hunting competition – and okay, the judges might have cut her some slack on some of the events because of her age and gender, but her eagle actually broke competition records in other events – only demonstrates that any gender bar to the sport is complete nonsense. Anyway, The Eagle Huntress is beautifully shot, does an excellent job of presenting the people it documents, and tells a heart-warming story that should be better known. Recommended.

The History of Time Travel, Ricky Kennedy (2014, USA). It seems like an obvious conceit, and the most obvious example of it is the Back to the Future movies, but I don’t think time travel has been given the mockumentary treatment before, particularly time travel that keeps on changing its own history. The History of Time Travel opens with a factual account of the discovery of time travel – it only works to the past, not to the future – by a scientist and a wound-down WWII research project sometime during the 1960s. But the invention proves of little use. There’s some discussion of the Grandfather Paradox, and the ethics of interfering in the past… exemplified by the inventor travelling back in time to save his mother from dying when she gave birth to him… And the mockumentary then continues on from a point where two brothers invented time travel in the 1980s… and one of the went back in time to prevent their mother from dying in a car crash… And with each attempt to change the past, a new present is formed, their effects mostly confined to those associated with the inventors but occasionally spreading out further – leading in one timeline to the event depicted on the poster. And even to a time war between the US and USSR. The History of Time Travel is a shoestring affair, but they’ve taken care over making sure the script is consistent and logical, and that does them credit. Some of the “archive footage” is effectively done, even if the acting isn’t brilliant, and the continual rewriting of history as one or the other or both of the brothers goes back in time to save their mother or father actually works quite well. To be honest, I’d sooner see films like The History of Time Travel – made on the cheap, by people who were clearly invested in it and in science fiction – on the Hugo Award shortlist than some multi-zillion dollar semi-fascist Hollywood MCU tripe. But then the Hugo Award’s dramatic presentation categories have always been both a complete waste of time and a trash fire.

I Remember You, Óskar Thór Axelsson (2017, Iceland). This opens like a fairly typical Nordic noir, with a body found in a church, hanged, with crosses carved into her back. The policewoman investigating the case links it to the disappearance of a boy decades earlier. She finds a photo showing him with eight of his classmates, six of whom have since died in mysterious accidents. And all with crosses carved into their backs. The policewoman is being helped a by a doctor, whose own young son disappeared a few years earlier during a game of hide and seek with friends. Meanwhile, a man and two women – one is his pregnant wife, but he’s having an affair with the other – are trying to turn an abandoned building in an abandoned whaling station on a small island into a B&B. Half of the films made on planet Earth… well, if they’re not about sons having father issues, they’re about fathers trying to deal with the loss – permanent or temporary – of their sons. And 99.9999% of the time it’s supremely uninteresting. I Remember You, however, actually folds the disappearance of the doctor’s son into its plot, it’s not just “motivation” or back-story. Because solving the disappearance from decades before eventually leads to the doctor learning what happened to his son. Despite all that, I Remember You is not straight-up Nordic noir, as many of those involved in the story at intervals, and not entirely clearly, see the first missing boy. The supernatural aspect adds to the noir, making the story even more tense and leaving some things unexplained. I Remember You took a while to get started, but it was definitely worth the wait. Recommended.

Kaashmora, Gokul (2016, India). This is not a Bollywood film, but a Tamil-language movie, so Kollywood. I’ve definitely seen Tollywood films (both Bengali and Telugu-language), but I don’t think I’ve seen any Kollywood films before. Anyway, Kaashmora is from Chennai and Wikipedia describes it as a “supernatural action comedy”, which isn’t far off the mark. The title refers to a TV celebrity ghost-hunter, who is actually a complete fake. A young woman wants to study him for her doctoral thesis. The two of them, plus a handful of relatives, all of whom, it transpires, were born under the same star sign, end up in a haunted palace – where centuries before a princess ran away with her lover, a prince of a rival kingdom, but was brought back by the king’s war hero general… who then murders the king, seizes the throne and takes the princess as his wife. But she kills him, but is killed by him. The two of them, plus twelve henchmen, have been haunting the palace ever since. And now Kaashamora, the doctoral student and assorted relatives, all born under the sing, are present ad the general can use them to lift the curse. Kaashmora starts out as a comedy, but the flashback explaining the back-story is a complete CGI action fest, and when all the principals are in the haunted palace, there’s CGI flying around all over the place, and it’s all quite gruesome but also very funny. Perhaps the film is over-long, but then Indian films do run longer than Western ones. I enjoyed it. Worth seeing.

Icebreaker, Nikolay Khomeriki (2017, Russia). Yes, I know, the DVD cover says The Icebreaker, but I’m pretty sure the credits of the version I watched simply called it Icebreaker. But then Russian doesn’t have articles anyway, so it doesn’t make any difference. The film is set in the 1980s, during the last years of the USSR. A Soviet icebreaker in the Antarctic (although I’m pretty sure at least one subtitle mistakenly referred to it as the Arctic) finds itself trapped after a close encounter with a huge iceberg. The captain is demoted, and a replacement sent out by helicopter. But the helicopter breaks down on landing, so now they’re all completely trapped. And the fuel is running out. The Soviet authorities promise a rescue mission, but they’re dragging their feet because someone in the ministry delayed the ship’s departure and that’s what ultimately created the current situation. You wouldn’t think there’d be all that much drama there – and certainly very little action – but Icebreaker manages to find plenty. I’ve no idea where they filmed it, but it looked very convincing. And it has a happy end, which actually comes as something of a surprise. The Russians have been churning out well-made commercial blockbusters for a number of years now – although, to be fair, even some of the older Soviet big budget commercial movies were worth seeing – and it’s a shame their distribution is so patchy outside the Russo-speaking world. But for Amazon Prime, I’d never have seen Icebreaker, or a number of other films like it, and even then I stumbled across it more by accident than by design. Worth seeing.

The Tundra Book, Aleksei Vakhrushev (2011, Russia). I’m not sure why I ended up watching two documentaries set in areas that were once part of the former Soviet Union. It just sort of worked out that way. Unlike The Eagle Huntress, however, The Tundra Book is set on the Chukchi Peninsula, in the far east of Russia and still part of the country. It’s a desolate place, and the most sparsely-inhabited region of Russia. The Tundra Book is about Vukvukai, a native of the region, who is in his seventies and leads an extended family that manages a herd of some fifteen thousand reindeer. And, er, that’s what the film is about. The cinematography is impressive, but the story isn’t very dramatic. Interesting, yes, but not dramatic. It’s a fascinating look at a way of life that’s about as far from my own as it is possible to imagine, but at 105 minutes it’s perhaps a longer than the subject matter needed. But still good.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 939

ETA: I have it on good (Swedish) authority than “Murder without evidence” is a mis-translation of Mord och inga visor, which literally means “murder and no songs”, and is actually a pun on a Swedish expression ord och inga visor, “words and no songs”, which means “a harsh criticism”. Tack, Johan.


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Moving pictures 2019, #11

This is the first post of films watched after my move to Sweden. I brought my Blu-ray player and my Amazon FireStick with me, but unfortunately the television in the hotel apartment I’m renting has no HDMI slot, so I can’t use them. I’ve been watching films on Amazon Prime on my laptop. Which has somewhat limited my ability to write blog posts or, well, fiction. Both of which I planned to do more often when I got here. Ah well. Perhaps when I find somewhere more permanent to live…

The Quatermass Xperiment, Val Guest (1955, UK). I’m pretty sure I saw this many years ago. If so, it was before I started documenting the movies I watched. Certain scenes felt very familiar… but there are number of British films from the same period which are quite similar… so maybe I have seen it before, maybe I haven’t. The Quatermass Xperiment is a film adaptation of a television series, originally broadcast in 1953 by the BBC. A British scientist, played in the film by an American, with no attempt at sounding British, but played by Brits on television, sends three astronauts on an experimental rocket into space. They lose contact… and the rocket later crashes in a field in the country. Only one astronaut has survived – in fact, there’s no trace of the other two. But that one astronaut seems to have caught some sort of space germ, which slowly turns him into a monster and sends him on a murdering spree. The film ends with Quatermass and flunkeys cornering the monster in Westminster Abbey, which has been closed for renovations. I’d like to see the TV series on which this film was based, because the film is a straight up monster movie and though it tries hard to be thoughtful its story is just too B-movie. Meh.

Quatermass II, Val Guest (1957, UK). It doesn’t take a genius like, er, Quatermass, to spot that this movie is a sequel to the one above. And like The Quatermass Xperiment, it was also adapted from a television series from 1955. Quatermass is once again played by American Brian Donlevy (although two different British actors had played the role in the two TV series). This time, small missile-shaped meteorites have been landing in Essex, and nearby is a secret government project researching new sources of food. Except it’s not researching that. Not anymore. As Quatermass soon discovers. The meteorites contain some sort of organism, which takes people, leaving them with a telltale scar, and these alien-inhabited people are using the government project as a bridgehead to take over the Earth. By growing a giant alien inside an oil tank. Or something. Apparently, The Quatermass Xperiment was extremely successful, so makers Hammer Film were keen to capitalise on it. Unfortunately, Quatermass II was outperformed at the box office by another Hammer movie, The Curse of Frankenstein, and so Hammer decided to focus on making horror movies. (They returned to Quatermass in 1967, with Quatermass played by Andrew Keir, a Scot.) Quatermass II is a much better film than its predecessor, although like the earlier film it climaxes with a giant monster. Both are very much films of their time, and while they resemble B-movies they’re generally better thought-through and smarter than US B-movies. But I’d still like to see the original TV series. Incidentally, when searching on Amazon Prime for these films, be careful. There are free versions available and pay-to-play versions. I’ve seen that a few times on Amazon Prime. Streaming, eh?

Mahler, Ken Russell (1974, UK). You’re never entirely sure what you’re going to get when you sit down to watch a Ken Russell film. Some of them are really quite bad, and yet others are absolutely brilliant. Mahler falls somewhere between the two. It looks cheap – despite being set in Mahler’s native Austria, it was clearly filmed in the UK – but there are some impressively-staged scenes. And some outright bonkers ones. It is not, after all, every day that you watch a movie featuring a dream sequence in which a dominatrix in SS uniform whips the protagonist on a mountain-top while he is tied to a giant sword… Robert Powell plays the title role, and the film opens with Mahler returning to Austria on a train, a famous composer and conductor – “I live to compose, I conduct to live,” he tells a reporter. His life story is told in a series of flashbacks – the antisemitism he experienced as a child, his later conversion to Catholicism (for, it is suggested, chiefly professional reasons), the death of his daughter… I know nothing of Mahler’s music and, to be honest, the film has not made me a fan of it. But I am a fan of Russell’s films – well, many of them – and while Mahler apparently, according to Wikipedia, “by 1985 the film had recorded a net loss of £14,000”, I actually liked it a lot. It’s bonkers, but in a good way. Powell is okay, but Georgina Hale as Mahler’s wife is better. There is some lovely photography of the Lake District – okay, it’s supposed to be Austria, but it’s still very nicely shot. I’d been in two minds about Russell’s films about composers, since they’re not people that really interest me, but if the others are like Mahler then I’m quite keen to see them.

Tycoon, Pavel Lungin (2002, Russia). The first film by Lungin I watched was The Island, AKA Остров, which was released on DVD in the UK by Artificial Eye. That was back in 2015. Since then, I’ve watched Tsar (see here), a later film, and now Tycoon, AKA Олигарх, an earlier film. And, to be honest, they don’t much feel like all three were made by the same director. True, those first two are both about faith, although the stories they tell are very different – although Tsar is a lavish historical re-enactment. Tycoon, however, feels like a made-for-TV movie, and it’s somewhat surprising it was allowed to be made, given how critical it is of Russian oligarchs and the government corruption which created, fostered and profited from them. And still does. The film opens with the police seizing the offices of Infocar, the holding company of billionaire oligarch Platon Makovski. On his way home, Makovski is killed by a rocket attack on his car. The film then jumps back to 1985, when four childhood friends attended an economic symposium.. Shortly afterwards, they decide to go into business together, selling jeans they’ve stonewashed. And from there, it’s one business scheme after another, until a Georgian who manages a Lada factory joins then and they become automobile dealers. The film doesn’t really explain how Makovski and his friends became so powerful and rich. The business deals they do on-screen, often put together with the help of underworld contacts, or abetted by the Kremlin, don’t seem the sort to lead to a personal wealth of $5 billion, as mentioned at the start of the film. Through a series of flashbacks, Tycoon shows Makovski’s rise through its flashbacks, while the present-day narrative continues after his death as some of the old guard in the Kremlin move in on the company, with the help of one of the friends. It’s apparently based on a true story, but some of the details are too vague to convince, and the present-day events are a little too byzantine to be realistic. Still worth seeing, however.

Just Another Love Story, Ole Bornedal (2007, Denmark). There are not many films that start with the protagonist lying dead on the street, while he explains that he’s dead. It’s been used plenty of times in written fiction, but I’m fairly sure it’s not all that common in cinema – although I’ve a vague feeling I’ve seen a 1940s noir film that used something similar. Anyway, protagonist Jonas is married with two kids and a life that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. On the road one day with his family, he narrowly avoids an accident – but the woman in the other car was not so lucky and is seriously injured. Jonas goes to see her in the hospital, where he learns she has lost her memory. They won’t let him see her, so he lies and says he is the woman’s boyfriend, Sebastian. But all her family are there in her hospital room, and they’ve never met Sebastian – the woman met him while on holiday in Thailand, and had only just returned to Denmark. They take Jonas at his word. So he begins a double-life: Jonas with his family, Sebastian with the injured woman. But then Sebastian turns up… And it seems he’s being chased by Chinese gangsters because he stole some diamonds from them. Just Another Love Story is a feeble title, but this is a smart modern thriller, with a contemporary twist on a noir-ish story. Worth seeing.

The Dawns Here Are Quiet, Stanislav Rototsky (1972, Russia). During WWII, a detachment of Soviets soldiers who man an anti-aircraft gun in Karelia are spending too much drinking and womanising, and the sergeant in charge complains to his superior officer. So the troop are re-assigned and the sergeant is sent an all-female platoon. Things go well for a while, until early one morning one of the soldiers spots a pair of German paratroopers. So the sergeant picks five of the female soldiers, and they go out to kill the Germans. Except, it turns out there’s a whole platoon of them. But they still have to stopped. And while reinforcements have been sent for, it’s going to be a while be they reach Karelia. The bulk of the film is the cat and mouse game, shot entirely from the Soviet point of view, as the sergeant and five young women try to get themselves into a position where they can ambush the paratroopers, which involves taking a path through a swamp known only to the sergeant, and eventually ends up with a running firefight in which the Soviets are badly out-numbered. For some reason, The Dawns Here Are Quiet has been presented on Amazon Prime as a two-parter, which proved confusing as I hadn’t noticed and the film ended up very abruptly. But it was definitely worth hunting down the second part as this is an excellent film. It was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1972, but lost out to Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and I’m not entirely sure that film is actually better, or not so much better it would not be a difficult decision to choose between the two. Recommended.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 939


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Moving pictures 2019, #10

This is the last post of movies I watched in the UK, which is why it’s only four films instead of the usual six.

Ten, Abbas Kiarostami (2002, Iran). To anyone who has never seen an Iranian film, I say go out and watch one. Now. Iran has one of the best cinematic traditions on the planet, and a number of excellent directors. Not just Kiarostami, but also Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Asghar Fahadi, Jafar Panahi, Majid, Majidi, Babak Payami, Samira Makhmalbaf, Bahman Ghobadi… But if you were going to watch an Iranian film for the first time, I wouldn’t, er, recommend Ten. It’s good. And a good example of Iranian cinematic narrative techniques – especially Kiarostami’s. But it’s also nothing like Western cinema, and some might find that too much of a hurdle. The film is structured around ten scenes which take place in a car, mostly with the camera focused on the person in the front passenger seat. Who is in conversation with the driver, a woman. The passengers include her son, her sister, and various people to whom she is giving lifts. Sometimes the camera focuses on her. The conversations gradually reveal the driver’s life – such as the fact she is divorcing her husband. If I were to suggest a Kiarostami film to someone who had never seen one before, I’d probably pick Close-Up or Through the Olive Trees, or perhaps, because it’s my favourite of his, The Wind Will Carry Us (but be prepared to struggle finding his films in the UK as only some have been released on sell-through or rental). Kiarostami certainly had a singular vision, even among Iranian directors, and I do find faux-documentary narrative films of the sort he often made very appealing. However, the confined nature of Ten means a lot rests on the words and the actors, and I prefer movies that are, well, cinematic, ie, there’s very much a visual narrative to the story. Ten, like black box theatre, more or less dispenses with that. It is, as I said earlier, a good film, and perhaps quite emblematic of Kiarostami’s oeuvre, but it’s not what I’d call entry-level.

Sherman’s March*, Ross McElwee (1986, USA). So McElwee wanted to make about General Sherman’s march through  George and North and South Carolina during the American Civil War, and the impact his army had on the country through which it passed. But McElwee was originally from that area, and when he turns up with his camera, relatives and old friends are more concerned with match-making because his last relationship has just ended. So the documentary makes a half-hearted attempt to discuss the effects of Sherman’s scorched earth policy, but gets quickly, and often, derailed by McElwee’s pursuit of various women, which usually fail, for a variety of reasons. And then McElwee moves onto the next spot on Sherman’s route. And it sort of happens all over again. Surprisingly, it proved quite interesting viewing, perhaps because it’s a documentary. McElwee does also tackle his subject, and on occasion ties it into his own childhood in the area. I hadn’t expected to enjoy Sherman’s March, and some of the films on the 1001 Movies You  Must See Before You Die list have indeed been chores to watch, but I really did like this one. Recommended.

The Housemaid, Si Si (2014, China). This is available on Amazon Prime in the UK, although not apparently in Sweden – and that seems to apply to a whole bunch of Chinese films that had been dumped on Amazon Prime. Which is a shame. Not, I hasten to add, that The Housemaid, AKA Desire Nanny or Sex Babysitter, is the soft porn the poster suggests. It is in fact not unlike Secretary. Which is, I guess, er, borderline. Anyway, a young woman moves to the big city but has trouble finding work She signs up with a domestic agency, and her first job is to clean the house of a minor gangster. He takes a shine to her, and repeatedly asks the agency to send her. At which point, he starts ordering her to wear particular outfits when cleaning house. And it all snowballs from there. A second narrative covers the gangster’s son and his girlfriend, and their plan to steal money his father. The three parts of the film – social drama, sexual shenanigans with the gangster, and the plans of the gangster’s son – don’t sit together especially well, particularly those first two, where you have something that resembles a film by a Sixth Generation director which turns into some sort of light porn Youtube video. Ah well.

Sleeping Dogs*, Stephen Donaldson (1977, New Zealand). Another film from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list but, surprisingly, as indicated above, it’s not a US film. New Zealand cinema is not especially well-known, although considerably better-known after Peter Jackson made the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Of course, there have been a number of films from the country which have international reputation, and Sleeping Dogs must be one of them – although, to be honest, I’d not heard of it before deciding to work my way through the list… Sam Neill, sporting a hairstyle that looks uncannily like a bad wig, is thrown out by his wife and finds his way to the coast, where he rents an abandoned house on a small island. Meanwhile, New Zealand is descending into chaos after the 1973 oil crisis leads to a general strike, civil unrest, the imposition of ever more draconian laws and the formation of a “special police”. Leavers who want a no deal Brexit should take note. A squad of special police turn up one day, bundle Neill into a boat and cart him off to headquarters. He’s thrown into a cellar and left, with no explanation. Some days later, a senior officer, whom Neill knew from school, tells him that a cache of arms, for use by insurgents, had been on found on the island where Neill was living alone. He’s offered the choice of confessing to be a member of the resistance and deportation, or maintaining his innocence, which will lead to his execution. His choice is framed as “upholding democracy or supporting the resistance”, apparently without irony – no democratic society arrests and executes people without due process of law. Neill manages to escape police custody, and goes on the run. He is helped by the resistance, and ends up a handyman at a rural motel. Which is then taken over by a mixed squad of special police and US Army soldiers, led by Warren Oates. The man for whom Neill’s wife left him then appears and proves to be a member of the resistance. He wants Neill to trigger a trap to kill Oates’s men… The film is based on a novel called Smith’s Dream by CK Stead, and it’s tempting to suspect that dream was merely the desire to be left alone. Throughout the film, Neill refuses to choose sides, but is repeatedly dragged into the resistance’s plots. As a result he becomes something a folk hero, although at second-hand. Plot aside, Sleeping Dogs was clearly made with a small budget – despite the appearance of three Royal New Zealand Air Force helicopters and jet fighters – and the acting is pretty bad, even by Neill. But the camera does make good use of the famous New Zealand scenery. I can see why it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – as a New Zealand film. Its story might well be more relevant now than it was in 1977, and, while the film has dated, it’s so obviously a seventies film it comes across pretty much as an historical document. But it still looks noticeably cheap in the more dramatic scenes, and that does weaken it. Nonetheless, worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 939