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Moving pictures 2018, #51

Another eclectic bunch of movies in this post. Six films and six countries, two of which are Anglophone. I’ve seen films by four of the directors – Greengrass makes good action films, but they’re not my thing, and I’ve never been a fan of Bresson’s work, for all his critical acclaim. Anyway, see below…

United 93, Paul Greengrass (2006, USA). I was living in Abu Dhabi when the World Trade Center was attacked. From what I remember, I was at home – I’d finished work a couple of hours earlier – when I heard on the radio that a plane had hit one of the towers. I turned on CNN and watched as the second plane hit the South Tower. The world changed on that day – and not for the better. And now, seventeen years later, there’s little doubt who has done more damage in the years since: the US. The Middle East is pretty much fucked up completely, and even the Arab Spring seems to have failed to improve things. Which is not to say the UK does not deserve its fair share of the blame. Wars will continue to be fought as long as people are willing to sell the combatants weapons – and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that many of the ultra-rich are pretty much war criminals in that regard. Anyway, United 93 is the most celebrated film about the events of 9/11 (an event which has been treated surprisingly rarely in film and television, although it’s far from uncommon in literature). United 93 is named for the one flight of the four hijacked which failed to hits its target, and that was because the passengers aboard fought back against the hijackers and managed to overpower them, albeit too late to prevent them from crashing the aeroplane. United 93 uses a lot of the actual people who were part of events, and a cast of relatively unknown faces in other roles. I don’t have a problem with non-professional actors, particularly in films that are trying for a documentary feel, as this one is. In fact, often dramatisation through the use of actors robs the depicted events of their authenticity. Greengrass, however, successfully keeps everything very real. But what had not occurred to me before watching this film, and which surprised me, was quite how brutal it was. It’s not just the raw emotion of the scenes aboard the eponymous flight, but also the violence when the passengers take back control. United 93 is on one or the other of the 1001 Movies list, although I don’t recall offhand which one. I think it belongs on the list, and not just because of its subject matter. True, such an important event in world history should be represented, but United 93 does it in a way that successfully evokes the emotional turmoil of 9/11. Which is why it should be on the list.

Lancelot du Lac, Robert Bresson (1974, France). Bresson is a highly-regarded director – he’s a favourite of my favourite director Aleksandr Sokurov, for example – but even after seeing some of his most celebrated films I’m not entirely sure I “get” his work. And yet, he does things I like in other directors’ films. In Lancelot du Lac, for example, he uses a mostly non-professional cast. He’s not the first French director to do that  – I’ve a feeling Jacques Rivette did, but looking up his films apparently not – but I’m pretty sure some French director, beside Bresson, made extensive use of non-professional actors. Which is, to be fair, a comment more on my bad memory than it is this movie. The film covers the main points of the Lancelot / Arthur / Guinevere legend, focusing particularly on the Lancelot’s relationship with Guinevere. A bad thing, obviously, as she was Arthur’s wife at the time, and a part of the mythos that feels more invented than the rest of it, if only because an adulterous queen feels like imposed commentary (and misogynistic commentary at that, given Guinevere is just about the only woman mentioned in the mythos). The setting doesn’t really convince – if anything, they look more like Larpers in a French wood than actual knights of the Round Table. King Arthur also looks a little too saturnine, and more resembles a villain than Mordred. There have been plenty of films made about the Matter of Britain, from musicals to Roman re-imaginings to Guy Ritchie’s mockney mediaeval fantasy. I don’t think any of them have been any good, or presented interesting treatments of the mythos. I think perhaps the most interesting one that comes to mind is a book, and that’s Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. Maybe someday someone will make a good King Arthur film. This one certainly isn’t it.

Battle for Sevastopol, Sergey Mokritskiy (2015, Russia). I’d tried half a dozen films on Amazon Prime but given up on each after ten minutes as they were either really bad or I wasn’t in the mood to watch them. But Battle for Sevastopol pretty much dragged me in from the opening minutes, and I find it slightly worrying that I should find a war film more engrossing than the other films I tried watching. Although perhaps that says more about those other films… Anyway, Battle for Sevastopol is based on the true story of Lyudmila Pavlichenko, a Soviet army sniper who killed over 300 men and survived the siege of Sevastopol. The film opens in 1957, with Eleanor Roosevelt visiting the USSR and asking her minder to let he visit an old friend. The film then flashes back to 1942where Pavlichenko is being introduced to an audience in the US. She is there to drum up support (financial, of course; also armaments) for the USSR – this is after the siege, incidentally. Eleanor Roosevelt, on meeting Pavlichenko, takes a shine to her and invites her to stay in the White House. The film then flashes back again, this time to just before the war. Pavlichenko is studying history at university. Annoyed when some male friends are trying to show off on a rifle range, she insists on having a go herself. She proves to be a crack shot. She is sent off to sniper school – even though war has yet to break out. War breaks out. She serves on the Eastern Front as a sniper. The battle scenes are done extremely well. The film flips between Pavlichenko’s wartime experiences – including the loss of her lover, and the loss of a second lover – and her time in the US. I’m not a big fan of war films, although I’ve probably seen all the big WWII ones over the years – it was a popular subject in the 1950s  and 1960s… Not only is Battle for Sevastopol told from a perspective not often seen in Anglophone cinema – it at all – although it’s a little sanitised, after all Stalin killed more Russians than Hitler did, but it also tells its story from an interesting viewpoint: a female sniper. The special effects are pretty much what you would expect for a big budget of the second decade of the twenty-first century; and if the Americans in the film mostly have weird accents, that’s hardly a deal breaker. Worth seeing.

Bright Star, Jane Campion (2009, UK). I remember years ago – back in the 1980s some time – reading a Tim Powers novel and discovering that the Romantic poet were quite fascinating people. I certainly hadn’t learnt that at school when I’d studied Wordsworth’s Preludes for O Level. I’m not sure who led  the most interesting life of them, Byron probably, or the Shelleys perhaps. But Keats is a possibility, a doctor who was also a lauded poet, and who died young, at the age of 25 of tuberculosis. Literature, especially poetry, venerates creators who die young. I’ll admit I know little o Keats’s poetry – I vaguely remember ‘To Autumn’ from school – and what I read after seeing this film I thought pretty awful. I didn’t, to be honest, think much of the film either. It recounts Keats’s betrothal to Fanny Brawne, the daughter of his neighbours in Hampstead Heath. Unfortunately, Brawne is played by Abbie Cornish, who has a noticeable Australian accent. And Keats’s housemate, Charles Brown, is played by an American actor who puts on a Scottish accent, despite Brown apparently being from Lambeth. Keats, incidentally, is played by Ben Whishaw, who is of course the voice for Paddington. While Bright Star does a good job of presenting early nineteenth-century England, the cast aren’t entirely convincing, and the story is extremely dull. Meh.

French Cancan, Jean Renoir (1955, France). Jean Renoir, he made films like La grande illusion, Boudu saved from DrowningLa Règle du jeu… The last thing I’d have expected him to make is this over-colourised fluffy French mid-fifties musical. The title pretty much says it all. It’s 1890s Paris and a nightclub owner’s business is failing, and his main attraction, a belly dancer, is not pulling in the punters. But then he discovers that the cancan is still being performed in Montmartre, so he decides a cancan chorus is just what he needs. As is usually the case in these sorts of films, he manages to magic up the cash for a new nightclub – he calls it the Moulin Rouge – plus costumes and props for a chorus of cancan dancers. One of which proves to be a star and draws in the punters. It’s based on a true story, of course, but it does seem the bulk of the problems he encountered were emotional. I’m not even sure if this is one for fans of Renoir or French musicals. It’s definitely colourful, very colourful. Meh.

Letters from Baghdad, Sabine Krayenbühl (2016, UK). A few weeks ago I watched Werner Herzog’s biopic of Gertrude Bell, Queen of the Desert (see here), and was not impressed. I knew of Bell, but thought Herzog had been indulging in artistic licence when he showed Bell visiting Bedouin tribes in what is now Saudi Arabia. But, as I discovered in this documentary about Bell’s life, she did indeed go there. To Ha’il, a town in the Nejd, ruled by the House of Rashid (later deposed by ibn Saud). Letters from Baghdad has Tilda Swinton reading out Bell’s correspondence to her parents, interspersed with talking heads acting people who knew her and some archive footage of her or representative of what she experienced. It’s fascinating stuff, and a clever technique that prevents the film from being too dry. But then Bell led a fascinating life. She graduated from Oxford with a first in history, which was not awarded as women could not earn degrees, and was sent out to Baghdad to stay with her uncle, a British minister there. She fell in love with the country and travelled around it extensively. She learnt Arabic and made friends among the tribal leaders. She was not, however, the first foreign woman to visit Ha’il, as Lady Anne Blunt had done so a couple of decades earlier. Bell was one in a long line of British Arabists during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Many of them, like Bell, provided instrumental in creating the nations which now exist there. Letters from Baghdad is an excellent film about a fascinating person.

1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 931

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The megalodon in the room

A couple of nights ago, I watched The Meg, a big-budget Warner Bros attempt to cash in on the type of film normally made by The Asylum. In it, Jason Statham plays a submersible driver persuaded out of self-imposed retirement when the submersible containing his wife and two scientists is trapped at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Well, below the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Because the trench’s bottom is actually a thermocline, a layer of near-freezing hydrogen sulphide, and beneath it is a veritable deep sea paradise, cut off from the rest of the ocean for millions of years. Which is why it contains a megalodon, a giant shark, which went extinct 2.3 million years ago.

It’s the megalodon which trashed the submersible and, after the crew is rescued, the megalodon escapes into the Pacific Ocean. Where it wreaks further carnage. Until stopped by Statham.

This is not a film that is intended to be plausible. It’s not just the existence of the megalodon… or the underwater Shangri-la beneath the thermocline… or Statham’s various encounters with the megalodon…

The Meg is, essentially, one of those films ostensibly set in the present day but the tech is much better. Like 007. It could be a few years from now, but everything looks pretty much as it does in 2018. Except for the fancy tech. You expect this in Hollywood films. And even in television series. CSI was notorious for showcasing tech which didn’t actually exist. So the research submersibles in The Meg are better than the current state of the art. Fine. At least they mostly resemble current deep-diving research submersibles. Just better. Suspension of disbelief doesn’t even blip from neutral. Okay, the “glider”, which has a clear bubble for the pilot and can apparently reach the bottom of the Mariana Trench… well, maybe materials science is way better than, er, now… although that does beg the question: why not have clear bubbles on the research submersibles?

But the problems here all fall from a single mistake by the film-makers. The Mariana Trench is 11,000 metres deep. The pressure at the bottom is about 1100 atmospheres. That’s around 7.5 tons per square inch. Only three people have ever been that deep – Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh in 1960, and James Cameron in 2012. At that depth, 100 kg of water, which is 100 litres of water at sea level, actually has a volume of 95.27 litres. Because of the pressure. When the USS Thresher, the US Navy’s first nuclear-powered attack submarine, sank in 1963 in 2,600 metres of water, it’s estimated when she imploded the two sides of her pressure hull met at a combined speed of around 75,000 kph.

The pressure in the hadal zone cannot be stressed enough (no pun intended). The effect of increasing pressure with increasing depth cannot be stressed enough. The current record – simulated on land – for a human being with saturation diving gear is 701 metres. The current freediving depth record is 253.2 metres. Nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines and attack submarines generally do not go deeper than 300 metres. The deepest diving whale, Cuvier’s beaked whale, has been recorded reaching 2,992 metres. The sperm whale, perhaps the most impressive mammal on the planet (a personal opinion), can reach around 2,250 metres.

So when The Meg opens with Statham involved in a rescue of a downed USN fleet submarine on the floor of the Philippine Trench, 10,000 metres below the surface… Well, I was not impressed. Unfortunately this rescue – and Statham’s failure to save two of his colleagues – is important to the film’s plot. Because he failed to save his two colleagues, he retired. Because he’s the only person to have rescued some people from 10,000 metres, he’s the first choice to rescue the research submersible below the thermocline in the Mariana Trench…

But… but… but… That first rescue, the movie’s opening scene, is complete nonsense. An intact fleet submarine at 10,000 metres? The USS Thresher sank in a quarter of that depth and its wreckage was scattered over 13.4 hectares. But, I hear you cry, maybe this future sub – 55 years after the USS Thresher after all! – was made of much stronger materials. Given how expensive fleet submarines are – the USS Colorado, SSN-788, launched December 2016, allegedly cost $2.6 billion, and has a test depth of probably 250 to 300 metres – well, building a fleet submarine with a crew of 134 capable of reaching depths forty times deeper… would probably cost more than President Trump’s opinion of his own worth as a human being.

And yet… this is, I hear you say, completely irrelevant. It’s a film about a giant fucking prehistoric shark. Which reached lengths of 18 metres (bigger in the this film). Why cavil about submarines and submersibles and depths and pressures when the film is about a giant fucking prehistoric shark? All those facts quoted above, they mean nothing because it’s a film about a giant fucking prehistoric shark!

This is where we part company – myself, that is, and my imaginary critic(s) – because the megalodon, as the title of this post indicates, that’s the central conceit. The story is its scaffolding. Science fiction tropes work the same way. They’re either bolstered by the plot, or by exposition, or by the entire corpus of science fiction. Such as FTL. Or AI. Complete nonsense, both of them. But no one quibbles when they appear in a science fiction because the scaffolding for them has been built up over a century or more of genre publishing. There’s no willing suspension of disbelief required – it’s entirely unconscious. And yet it’s instructional what readers will willingly disbelieve. As Joe Abercrombie once tweeted (and I paraphrase as I don’t have the exact tweet to hand): “giant flying lizards who breathe fire? No problem. Female blacksmiths? INCONCEIVABLE!”. I had a similar response to my space opera, A Prospect of War. I decided my universe would not have gunpowder. Giant plasma cannons, yes; but all personal combat would be using swords. FTL? No problem. Giant plasma cannons? No problem. No gunpowder, not even bows and arrows? UNBELIEVABLE.

In every science fiction, we have a megalodon in the room. Sometimes it’s the central conceit, sometimes it’s what we have to tastefully ignore in order for the conceit not to destroy the reading experience. But that science fiction, that conceit, is embedded in a world, either of the author’s invention or recognisably the reader’s own. While space battleships can flit from star to star using FTL, stars are still stars, planets are still planets, and yes, okay, the vast distances between stars might be compressed in order for the space opera to better follow its eighteenth-century adventure template… but space is still space and vacuum is still vacuum.

So why isn’t the hadal zone still the hadal zone?

The megalodon: that’s the conceit, and the willing suspension of disbelief comes wrapped around it. Reject that and you reject the story. The rest, that’s world-building. That’s the setting for the conceit. So it requires some sparkly tech that doesn’t yet exist? Shrug. No problem. That’s what – in a movie – production design is for. And they generally do an excellent job. But that doesn’t mean the laws of physics, for example, which pertain in the world, and which are not bent out of shape in the presence of the conceit, should be flouted. It’s not trainspotting. It’s not even expecting the science in a science fiction to be accurate. (I mean, when a science fiction novel which sells itself on its absolutely correct science gets it wrong in the first chapter, who would be foolish enough to expect science fiction as a whole to get the science right?)

It’s an expectation of rigour; it’s an expectation of craft. Sometimes, these faux pas are either easily avoidable or easily justified within the text. Take the most egregious example to have occurred recently: dropping bombs in space in The Last Jedi? WTF? Bombs? In space? Did the director of the film not understand what zero gravity is? I mean, bombs? WTF? It’s just so fucking stupid. And yet… and yet…

All it took was one line: “Are we in the Star Destroyer’s gravity field yet?”

One line and… Woah! It actually makes sense.

To me, leaving out that line, failing to even think viewers would like an explanation… that smacks of contempt from the creators. They think viewers are too dumb to notice.

When failures of rigour or world-building could be explained in the story, and the creator does not do so, that’s a failure of craft. Of course, it could be deliberate. A lack of rigour could be a deliberate characteristic of the narrative. But when that’s the case, it’s generally obvious. It’s not the same as having a fleet sub survive at forty times its test depth. There are things a reader or viewer expects to have to disbelieve and things they don’t expect to have to disbelieve. And unless indicated otherwise, by signals in the text, convention dictates which is which.

There’s room to manoeuvre there, of course. Sufficient room, in fact, for some writers to have built careers in that space. But The Meg is not high literature, there’s nothing liminal or slipstream about it. It is a somewhat obvious attempt to cash in on a film genre previously occupied by mockbusters and low-budget B-movies. It does everything it needs to in order to meet the expectations which might accrue to it, given what it is and what it purports to be.

But if criticism means anything, if the study literature, or cinema, is of any worth, then no text should be considered as just “what it is” or “what it purports to be”.

 

 

 


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Travelling down memory lane

I’m not sure what prompted it, but I decided recently to complete my collection of The Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society, the in-house magazine for the Traveller role-playing game. Back in the 1980s, I’d subscribed to the magazine from issue seven until its demise with issue twenty-four. But in 1986 I’d lent my copies to a friend… and never saw them again. I’d picked up a few replacements here and there, but it had always annoyed me I’d never fully replaced what I’d lost.

So over the past few weeks, I’ve been tracking missing issues on eBay and buying them. I was using a checklist I’d made years ago but I really should have dug out my copies and seen for myself what I was missing. Because it led to this…

Obviously, I’d fallen into the same trap before. Oh well. Having said that, one Traveller supplement I’d always wanted was DGP’s Grand Survey… They’d published three supplements for Traveller in the mid-1980s, and it was the only one I didn’t own. But copies these days go for around $100, which is more than I’m prepared to pay. However, when I took all my Traveller materials down from the bookshelves, I discovered I already had a copy…

I decided I’d better catalogue all my Traveller-related books, so I wouldn’t go buying duplicates. Again. And as I did that, I was reminded how I’d got into role-playing games.

(See what I did with the title of this post now?)

I was first introduced to rpgs in my first year at college – that’s a UK public school, not a US university, so I’d have been thirteen – when a friend showed me this new game he had: Dungeons & Dragons. It was definitely in my first year there, because he showed the game to me in a classroom next to the junior common room; in the second year, four of us Removes in the house were given a study – a singular honour as only fifth formers and above had studies –  and he’d have shown me his D&D in my study had it been that year. Anyway, my friend Andrew de Salis showed me this boxed set of rulebooks he had bought, or received as a present, Basic D&D, the one with the all-blue artwork. I’ve a feeling this happened during the winter term, and it was that Christmas – ie, 1979 – I asked for and received the basic Traveller box set as a present. The following year, I received books 4 and 5, Mercenary and High Guard, as Christmas presents. On the other hand, I might have received the set and the two supplements all at once at Christmas 1980 (High Guard wasn’t published until 1980); but I don’t think so.

Wednesday afternoons at college were given over to “ASH” – Activities, Societies, Hobbies – and not being a sporty type, I’d joined the chess society. But having discovered role-playing games, de Salis and I decided to resurrect the games society. We were given a room near the kitchens. I’ve no idea what the room was originally used for – it was pretty grim, it was tiled and the tiles had been crudely painted over with red paint, it looked out over the courtyard which held the kitchen bins, and it was unheated. There was an old cupboard filled with games from the society’s former incarnation, including a couple of wargames. We were also given a small budget. We never managed to attract more than half a dozen members, and, often as not, we’d be in that room on weekends too, playing games. I remember running a Traveller campaign, mostly written by myself. We also played AD&D, Tunnels & Trolls, RuneQuest, Champions, Star Frontiers, Call of Cthulhu; wargames like Godsfire, Dune, Third Reich, Squad Leader; and boardgames such as Risk and Diplomacy. Oh, and football. We set a chair at either end of the room as goals, and used a small plastic head from some incomplete game we found in the cupboard. It got quite brutal, especially as most people wore cowboy boots at the time, and bruised shins were pretty common.

I began buying Traveller products during the holidays and half-terms when I was at home (or staying with relatives). This meant visiting the Games Workshop shop in the Broadmarsh Centre in Nottingham (yes, they used to sell games by other manufacturers back then). I focused mostly on supplements and adventures – and GDW, Traveller’s publisher, produced plenty of them – but didn’t bother with the more expensive items, such as the Traveller boardgames. I don’t recall buying Traveller products through mail order back then. We both read White Dwarf avidly, which had a regular Traveller column, Starbase, edited by Bob McWilliams (although this may not have appeared in the magazine until a few years later); but the magazine certainly published regular articles and adventures about, and for, Traveller. (Among many other role-playing games, of course.)

It was around this time I started subscribing to The Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society, as mentioned earlier. Issue seven was published in the latter half of 1980.

I think it was in the Lower VI that de Salis and I decided to try for one of the school’s prizes by publishing a role-playing games fanzine. As far as I remember, the prize only required some project associated with a hobby, invigilated by an outside examiner. We called our fanzine TINNYORO Fanzine (This Is Not Necessarily Your Ordinary Rip-Off Fanzine; it seemed funny in 1983) and sent a copy to White Dwarf for review. I don’t remember if we won the prize. I seem to recall we won some money, chiefly because the White Dwarf reviewer had been kinder than he should have been (the review was not published in the magazine, but sent to us privately, since we’d explained it was a for a school prize). The contents of TINNYORO Fanzine were… mostly rubbish. The artwork, done entirely by myself, was worse. I’m still a little proud of the title of my expanded combat rules for Traveller, “Hit 2 Hurt”. I think we sold about a dozen copies of the zine via mail order. We never produced a second issue.

I left school and spent a year at a college in Nottingham re-taking my A levels. I bought Traveller products from Games Workshop. I scraped good enough grades to get me into Coventry Polytechnic, studying Information Systems Engineering. I joined the poly’s role-playing games society, and once a week we’d spend an evening in a classroom playing a variety of rpgs. I don’t actually remember what we played, although I suspect I had a go at running a self-penned Traveller campaign. (It was a waste of time running the published adventures, as players had usually read them.) At the end of the year, I screwed up my exams and decided to return home and spend a few years working, so I could qualify as an independent student. My Local Education Authority had decided they didn’t need to pay my fees, never mind a grant, because my parents lived abroad – even though my parents owned a house in the UK, paid rates, and lived in the house every summer.

I joined a local gaming group, which met every Sunday in a community centre in Ravenshead. I ran a Traveller campaign, and I remember playing in both a Pendragon and a RuneQuest campaign. One Sunday, two blokes turned up and told us they’d approached the parish council, who owned the community centre, concerned about our “spiritual wellbeing”. Since we played Dungeons & Dragons, we were obviously no different to practicing Satanists. Or maybe not. On the day in question, half of us were playing a WWI dogfighting wargame, with small model aircraft on sticks, which we were moving about on a ping pong table. The concerned parishioners had turned up expecting to find a group of teenagers summoning demons, not a group of twentysomethings – the average age of the group was 25 – playing with tiddly little aeroplanes on sticks. They still got the club banned from using the centre, however. I started at Coventry Polytechnic, soon to be Coventry University, a couple of months later – this time as an independent student, on a full grant – and later heard the club had pretty much disbanded.

During those years back home working for a living, I had two goes at publishing my own Traveller fanzine. The first was titled Imperial Flight (see below), and I produced a full mock-up, with artwork by someone I’d met during  my one year at Coventry Polytechnic, Nigel Dobbs. We lost touch soon after, but I believe he went on to illustrate for 2000 AD. I may have the name slightly wrong. I still have the contents for Imperial Flight #1. It includes a terrible spoof story I’d written set in the Traveller universe about a bunch of incompetents called The Zee-Team. I seem to remember writing a second instalment, but I’ve no idea what happened to it. This is probably a good thing.

Imperial Flight #1 never saw the light of day, and I cannibalised its contents a year or so later for another Traveller fanzine, Signal GK (see above, next to TINNYORO Fanzine). Which was also never published. But at least it didn’t include The Zee-Team. The name Signal GK, the title of an official adventure published by GDW, of course, was later used by another Traveller magazine, but hyphenated as Signal-GK, based in Hebden Bridge, which published thirteen issues between 1991 and 1995.

In 1987, Traveller morphed into MegaTraveller, a redesign of the game driven by DGP, a Traveller licensee who had published the three supplements mentioned earlier, and also published their own Traveller magazine, The Travellers’ Digest. This was originally the same size as GDW’s Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society, but from issue 9 onward was produced at normal magazine size. I began buying it from issue 9. After twenty-one issues, it became The MegaTraveller Journal, which only lasted for four issues.

The Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society also ceased around this time, and GDW instead published a normal-sized magazine called Challenge. It continued the numbering scheme from the Journal, and was initially Traveller-only, but soon branched out to feature other GDW games, and rpgs by other companies.

While at university, I’d been buying my Traveller products by mail from a gaming shop in north London – I forget its name – and by this point, they were sending me notices when anything new came out. So I bought each MegaTraveller supplement, and each issue of Challenge, pretty much as it was published.

MegaTraveller became Traveller: The New Era in 1993, and though I didn’t like the new direction I continued to buy the rulebooks and supplements and adventures. GDW closed its doors in 1996, deciding to bow out before it went bust. They’d had problems after taking on Gary Gygax and publishing his Dangerous Journeys rpg, a move that had brought them into conflict with TSR. Collectable Card Games, particularly Magic: The Gathering, had also hit the rpg industry hard. And, of course, Traveller: The New Era had been unpopular with fans.

During my university years, I’d become involved with the History of the Imperium Working Group, HIWG, a transatlantic group of Traveller fans who were keen to produce more material for the game. Although they had a newsletter, Tiffany Star, produced by one of the US members, I don’t believe they actually published anything. Some of the members were associated with the aforementioned Signal-GK. I remember spending a weekend in Hebden Bridge with some of them, but I felt like a bit of a fraud as they were all far more into the game than I was.

Around nine months after graduating from Coventry University, unable to find a job in the UK, I moved to the UAE to start work at the Higher Colleges of Technology in Abu Dhabi. I left HIWG and soon lost touch with its members. I also stopped buying Traveller: The New Era products, as it was too expensive to ship them out to the Middle East. I didn’t consider it much of a loss. In the early 1990s, I’d drifted into science fiction fandom, had attended several conventions, published my own fanzine, reviewed books for genre fanzines and small press magazines, and even co-edited a small press genre magazine. I also had ambitions of writing short stories, and saw a couple of them published. I wrote a science fiction novel, Bound by Blood, in 1993, and submitted it to Tor. I never heard back from them. It wasn’t very good.

After the collapse of GDW in 1996, the Traveller licence reverted to the game’s creator, Marc Miller, and, under the name Imperium Games, Miller published a fourth edition of Traveller. The books looked very handsome – they all had Chris Foss cover art – but they were rushed and full of typos. And not very good. I only learnt of the game when I returned to the UK in 2002.

Once back in the UK, it didn’t take me long before I discovered eBay… and all the people selling off the junk in their closets and attics. Including role-playing games. So I set about filling in the gaps in my Traveller collection – those Traveller: The New Era books I’d not bought while I was out in the UAE, the twenty books of the Imperium Games’ edition of Traveller… I also found and bought mint condition copies of classic Traveller supplements and adventures published during the late 1970s and early 1980s, by licensees such as Judges Guild and Group One. They’d probably been sitting in warehouses ever since publication – and with good reason: they were terrible. I bought the Traveller-related boardgames I hadn’t bought back in the 1980s. Some of them were even shrink-wrapped. I even started buying the GURPS Traveller books, published by Steve Jackson Games under licence but using the company’s own GURPS rules…

By this point, there were several different licensed versions of Traveller knocking about. Miller had always been relaxed about licensing, and classic Traveller had been supported by supplements and adventures from a raft of companies, such as DGP, Paranoia Press, Seeker Gaming Systems, Cargonaut Press, FASA, Judges Guild, Gamelords, Group One… Some of these I had bought at the time, mostly those published under licence in the UK by Games Workshop. But those companies had supported GDW’s game; now there were different versions of the game. Traveller 20 was based on a rule system which used only D20s. Miller himself was busy developing a fifth edition of Traveller, initially published only on CD-ROM, then in a ring binder, and finally in a massive hardback book. (I saw a copy of this last recently on eBay for £399.99.) There is a set of starship deck plans, but no adventures or supplements have to date been published for Traveller5.

A British company, Mongoose, created their own version of Traveller, based on a different rules system. They published a series of rulebooks, similar in design to GDW’s original Traveller, plus a range of adventures and supplements under the title The Third Imperium. In 2016, Mongoose published a second edition of their version of Traveller. Which is where I sort of came back into the game. Mongoose ran a couple of Kickstarter campaigns for new Traveller material, and I stumbled across mention of one. It was a box set titled The Great Rift, and it looked like it would be a quality piece of work. They wanted £10,000. They received £113,782 in pledges! The average pledge must have been about £100. It is indeed a very impressive box set. Mongoose followed up with another Kickstarter, the Element Class Cruiser box set, which managed £43,749 of a £10,000 target… It’s due some time this month or next.

Some time during all this, there was an attempt to create a setting in the Traveller universe a couple of centuries after the published setting, called Traveller 1248. I’ve seen copies of the two sourcebooks published for on eBay for £79.95. Fortunately, I bought my copies when they were published, for the much more affordable price of £15 each.

There are still gaps in my Traveller collection – the classic version, that is; I’m not overly bothered about the post-GDW versions of the game – and my collection of Traveller-related magazines. Early issues of The Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society and The Travellers’ Digest are extremely rare and correspondingly expensive. It’s unlikely I’ll ever manage a full run of either magazine. My copies of High Passage’s five issues, and both issues of Far Traveller, Traveller magazines published by a licensee called FASA, some I bought back in the 1980s and the rest more than a decade ago. Which is fortunate as copies now vary from $20 to $60 each.

The game was also supported during the 1980s by a number of fanzines. I have all eight issues of a UK-based one, Alien Star. I even contributed to one of the early issues. And back in 1984, myself and de Salis travelled to London to attend a Games Day, and met up with one of Alien Star’s editors. But most of the fanzines were, of course, from the US, and hard to source at the time – and there was no easy way to pay overseas sellers back then. I’ve picked up a few issues here and there during the past decade or so, but fanzines are harder to find than official supplements by licensed games companies. And, to be honest, their contents were never up to much… although probably better than the contents of the two Traveller zines I put together, and almost certainly better than the contents of TINNYORO Fanzine.


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Reading diary 2018, #15

I try to alternate my fiction reading between male and female authors, but I seem to be doing badly at that in 2018. Only two female authors in this batch of six books.

If Then, Matthew de Abaitua (2015, UK). I bought this at the Eastercon last year – actually, I bought this and The Destructives, both signed, chiefly, I seem to recall, on the strength of Nina Allen’s review of this one. Despite that, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. What I got reminded me a little of Simon Ings and a little of Marcel Theroux, while being entirely its own thing. I don’t recall If Then being discussed much – other than by Allen, of course – but then it’s that sort of sf, like Ings, like Theroux, that the social media genre chatterers don’t seem to read or be interested in searching out. In the near-future, the UK economy has collapsed and bits of the country, including its people, have been sold off to various interests. This may well happen after Brexit. In the town of Lewes (it’s near Brighton, apparently), the inhabitants have been saved by the “Process”, which is some sort of algorithm which orders the activities of the town according to an undivulged rule-set, based on input from the people in the town, all of whom have been given implants. For all that this is supposed to be an optimally efficient way to run a society, everyone lives pretty much in poverty, and whatever their economic output is, they don’t see the benefits. (It’s implied the UK is in such a parlous state their output just about ensures their survival.) The main character is the town’s bailiff, James – he has a more intrusive implant, which he uses to operate the armour, a sort of steampunk mecha. This he uses when he has to evict people that the Process has decided are no longer required in Lewes. The first half of the book “IF”, details the set-up and shows James exploring his role and the whys and wherefores of the Process (qalthough his wife, the local teacher, is more questioning), all triggered by the appearance of a simulacrum, a Process-created copy of a human being, an actual historical human, John Hector, who served as a stretcher bearer non-combatant during World War I. Eventually, James rebels and the role is given to another man. The novel then shifts, in a second section titled, er, “THEN”, to the First World War and Gallipolli. James find himself serving as a stretcher bearer in a squad commanded by Sergeant Hector. Except this isn’t the real Gallipolli campaign, or indeed the real WWI. It’s a vast re-enactment created on the south coast of England, designed to recreate the conditions which resulted in… and this is where things get really interesting, although some research is required to stitch it all together… the creation of an Odd John-like figure (cf Olaf Stapledon), called Omega John, who was John Hector. The real Omega John was created during the real WWI, and eventually invented the Process. But he has decided more like himself are needed, so he has re-enacted the Gallipolli campaign in order to “forge” a new Omega John from the simulacrum Hector. And this is all tied in with the ideas of Noel Huxley, who in the real world committed suicide in 1914 but in the novel served as a padre in Gallipolli, and nurtured Hector and helped his transformation into Omega John… If Then is a novel where it’s hard to tell where it’s going, and that disjoint in the middle as it switches from IF to THEN makes you wonder how de Abaitua is going to stitch it all together… but as the narrative circles back round on itself, and begins throwing out the ideas which underpin its story, it makes the journey there very much worthwhile. It’s a shame science fiction such as this seems to be mostly ignored, as it’s a damn sight more interesting, better written, and much more intellectually challenging than juvenile space operas with over-written prose which over-privileges “feels”. It’s If Then‘s sort of sf which should be appearing on shortlists.

Apollo, Matt Finch, Chris Baker & Mike Collins (2018, UK). Next year is the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, so expect shitloads of books and TV programmes and documentaries on the subject. There were more than enough for the fortieth anniversary back in 2009. And given how extensively documented Apollo 11, and the entire Apollo programme, was, and has been, documented, you wouldn’t think more books on it were needed… Except when Neil Armstrong died six years ago it was pretty obvious most millennials hadn’t a fucking clue he was. (I suspect this year’s biopic, First Man, will change that, however.) Among all the books we can expect for next year, I would not have thought a graphic novel depiction of the mission was, er, missing. But that’s what Apollo is. And, to be fair, they do a good job. Where necessary they stick to the technical dialogue, but there are a couple of flights of fancy thrown in as well, just to keep it from being dull. I didn’t detect any errors, so Finch, the author, and Baker, the artist, have clearly done their research. (And surely a colourist called Mike Collins can’t be a coincidence?) All things considered, this is not a bad addition to the huge body of work about Apollo 11.

Kon-tiki 1: Dislocations, Eric Brown & Keith Brooke (2018, UK). Brooke and Brown have collaborated a number of times over the years, although mostly at lengths shorter than novella. I think the Kon-tiki Quartet might also be their first series together, rather than loosely-linked stories in the same universe. The quartet title refers to the first human expedition to another star, which will be crewed not by astronauts but by copies of them – ie, clones with their originals’ memories downloaded into them shortly before launch. Sean Williams & Shane Dix used a similar idea in their Orphans of Earth trilogy, although their avatars were initially software only. The chief character of Dislocations is a mainstay of British sf, although no longer as common as he once was: a self-pitying white male who is in love with someone unattainable, unhappy in his own marriage and unfulfilled in his career, despite being involved in something important, and who nonetheless manages to have a major impact on events. In this case, it’s the kidnap of the object of the protagonist’s desire, the project’s chief psychologist, by eco-terrorists. But the project’s security team don’t seem to be making much of an effort to find her, despite her kidnappers stating they will kill her if their demands are not met. Fortunately, the protagonist does their job for them. And it transpires the kidnapping was intended to hide sabotage within the project. No convincing explanation is given for the security team’s lack of action, however. It goes without saying the prose is polished and the characters well drawn. But it does all feel a bit, well, tired. The story takes place mostly at Lakenheath base, and despite a passing reference to events there last century, you’d have to be in your forties at least for it to mean anything. True, the Allianz, the eco-terrorists’ organisation, appears to have been inspired by Antifa, which makes them sort of relevant, and the earth itself is on the edge of a climate crash, which is certainly relevant… I enjoyed Dislocations, and I thought it a well-written novella, but it felt a little like a retread of older material, and in places actually reminded me of 1970s sf by the likes of Cowper and Coney – which can be considered both a compliment and a complaint. The second book of the quartet, Parasites, is already available, and I will of course be picking myself up a copy.

Uppsala Woods, Álvaro Colomer (2009, Spain). A friend’s blog persuaded me to give Agustín Fernández Mallo’s Nocilla Dream (see here) a go, and I thought the novel excellent – and was intrigued by the fact it had inspired a “Nocilla generation” of writers in Spain. So I decided to see how this had manifested, and Colomer’s Uppsala Woods looked like the most interesting of the novels labelled as “Nocilla” I could find. Having now read it… I’m not entirely sure what Mallo brought to it, other than perhaps a circumspect prose style which uses excessive detail; and while I like that, I like detail, I write it myself, the story of Uppsala Woods proved to be something of a let-down. The narrator is an entomologist and his wife has been suffering from depression. He comes home from work one day and discovers she has tried to commit suicide by swallowing pills. This reminds him of an actual suicide he witnessed as a boy – a neighbour jumped off a seventh-floor balcony while he watched – and which traumatised him so badly he grew up into the weak-willed and indecisive human being he is now. There’s a lot of reflection on his self-perceived failings, and how it feeds into his response to his wife’s attempted suicide. It doesn’t help that the marriage had been failing, and he’s incapable of making the concessions needed to rescue it. In fact, he’s not a very nice person at all. And there’s a whiff of misogyny to the narrative which is unpleasant, not to mention a definitely old-fashioned view of suicide as a form of “lunacy”. I liked the prose style and thought it effective, but found the story disappointing and its sensibilities a little old-fashioned for me. I’d like to further explore the Nocilla generation, but I hope they’re better than Uppsala Woods. Incidentally, the English translation of the third book of Mallo’s trilogy, Nocilla Lab, is due in January next year, and I’m looking forward to it. Mallo has written other novels and I’d like to read them – but they’ve yet to be translated into English. Perhaps I should learn Spanish… I mean, there are those Cuban authors I’d like to read too…

Spin Control, Chris Moriarty (2006, USA). This is a loose sequel to Spin State, features many of the same characters, but its plot doesn’t follow exactly on from the earlier plot. There are references to earlier events, but Spin Control can be read without having read Spin State. That, however, is the least of its problems. And, to be fair, its major problem is hardly its fault, it’s something that recent events have made problematical. Because Spin Control is set mostly in Israel. And this is an Israel that’s back at war with the Palestinians. The treatment of the Palestinians is certainly sympathetic (if not overly lionised) – and the treatment of Americans, Moriarty’s nationality, certainly not – but there’s still that whiff of admiration for Israel that is endemic in US culture. Which is a shame, because there’s a pure science-fiction thread to the narrative that seems mostly wasted. On the one hand, you have a defector from the Syndicates (genetically-engineered sort of communist clones) who is taken to Jerusalem to sell his secrets to the highest bidder – Mossad, its Palestinian equivalent, or the Americans – and which drags in some of the surviving cast of Spin State. But it’s all a plot, of sorts, to uncover a Palestinian mole, called Absalom, within Mossad. On the other hand, told in flashback, there’s the story of that same defector as one of the survivors of a Syndicate survey mission to a terraformed world. But there’s something weird about what they find – not just the fact it has been terraformed, since most terraforming attempts by humanity have failed, but also because there are weird things happening in the DNA of the flora and fauna. And when the survey team all come down with a fever, they work out that it’s caused by a virus which is using biology as a “Turing soup”, a sort of computational engine seeking an optimal terraforming solution. However, there’s a side-effect to the fever… and when this is revealed… well, Absalom’s identity seems pretty trivial. The survey mission narrative is nicely done, even if first contact puzzle stories are a genre staple; and marrying it with a near-future spy thriller is a nice touch. The setting of the latter is handled well, and each side is treated sensitively, but time, and geopolitics, has imparted something of a whiff to the Israeli-set sections and it’s hard to read them in light of recent events, or indeed the reader’s existing sympathies in the situation. Moriarty has shown she’s not afraid of tackling difficult subjects, both sfnal and real-world, and she’s good at it. It’s a shame she’s not better known.

Possession, AS Byatt (1990, UK). I’m not sure how long I’ve had this book. I’ve a feeling my parents gave it me when they lived in the Middle East, and they moved back to the UK in the late 1990s… (Ah. I just checked and they gave it me in 2002… so after we’d all returned to the UK. See, keeping records is a good thing.) Anyway, it’s been hanging around in my book collection for over a decade. I watched the film adaptation several years ago – featuring two US actors, Gwyneth Paltrow playing a Brit and Aaron Eckhart playing a Brit character that had been rewritten as an American (but Trevor Eve plays the novel’s only American character) – and remember being unimpressed. There are films that are better than the novels they’re adapted from – such as, Marnie, The Commitments, and, er, All That Heaven Allows – but they’re rare. Possession isn’t one of them. The book is much superior, even if it dies “reproduce” much of its subject’s poetry, which is really quite bad. An academic, Roland Michell, studying the Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash comes across mention of a woman encountered by Ash, Christabel LaMotte, and decides to look her up. This brings him into contact with Maud Bailey, an academic specialising in the poetry of LaMotte. Together, they track down a series of letters between the two, which suggest not only that Ash and LaMotte had an affair, but that some of Ash’s later poetry was directly inspired by LaMotte, and uncovers consequences which impact Bailey and Michell themselves. The book is structured as a straight narrative in the present day, interspersed with correspondence and journal entries from various of the Victorian characters, and even poetry from Ash and LaMotte. Although published in 1990, the present-day narrative reads like it’s set in the early 1980s, which feels odd, and the only year mentioned, 1988, is implied to be some time in the future, The prose is by turns fussy and glib – and Byatt seems to enjoy describing domestic bathrooms in excessive detail – and while the historical bits appear extremely well-researched, something about the correspondence between Ash and LaMotte smells a little too coy and arch to really convince. It doesn’t help that Ash’s poetry, as reproduced, is pretty awful. LaMotte’s is not much better. True, I’m no expert on Victorian poetry – I much prefer poetry from the 1930s and 1940s – but the excerpts from Ash’s epic poetry are not impressive. Possession was widely lauded on publication and won the Booker Prize. Even now, it is held in high regard. It’s undoubtedly a clever novel, and makes an excellent fist of its conceit. The meta-fiction/palimpsest nature of the narrative is something that appeals to me, although such narratives run the risk of being boring in parts and Possession unfortunately fails to avoid that. I suspect it’s a consequence of the structure – over-dramatising such narrative inserts would probably impact their verisimilitude. As a literary fiction novel, I’ve read better; as an historical meta-fictional novel, I’ve read better. But it’s still very good. Recommended.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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Moving pictures 2018, #50

Work has been very busy the past few weeks, and likely to remain so for at least another month. Hence the paucity of content here other than Moving pictures posts – and the occasional Reading diary post – since they’re a) pretty easy to write, b) it doesn’t take long to watch a movie, and c) I watch two films a night on average…

I’ve never claimed these are full-on reviews, and half the time I’m just trying to string a series of vague impressions into a description that’s somewhat recognisable and, er, informative. But most of them sort of turn into mini-rants. Oh well.

The Idol, Hany Abu-Assad (2015, Palestine). A young boy in Gaza forms a band with his sister and two friends. They play at weddings, that sort of thing. Then his sister dies of kidney failure. The story jumps ahead a decade or so, and the boy is now a young man, paying his way through university by driving a taxi. But he’s desperate to escape Gaza, and singing is his only possible means of escape. But, of course, Israel has Gaza locked up, and its inhabitants do not have freedom of movement. The young man – his name is Muhammad Assaf – arranges to audition for a Palestinian talent show, but he has to Skype his audition as he can’t leave Gaza and the studio is in Ramallah (on the West Bank). But just before the audition, the Israelis cut off power to Gaza… but Muhammad manages to source a generator; but it catches fire during the song… The “success” of the audition persuades Muhammad he needs to audition for Arab Idol, but it takes place in Cairo and he can’t get a visa to attend. He uses his contacts to get himself a forged visa, but then breaks down and admits it’s forged when he gets to the border post. When asked why he’s travelling to Cairo, he tells the border officer that he’s going to a Qur’an recital competition, and recites so beautifully when asked that the officer approves his fake visa. But when Muhammad gets to the auditions, he discovers all the tickets have gone. He breaks into the building and hides out in the toilet. In desperation, he starts singing when he hears someone else enter. The guy who hears him is so impressed by his singing that he gifts him the ticket he had queued for – he’d only applied “for the experience”. So Muhammad gets to sing in front of the judges. And he impresses them so much, he shoots up through the various stages of the competition… And all it seemed a bit too good to be true. Not the Gaza bits – they rang all too sadly true (it looks like a bombsite, basically; and at one point, a Palestinian parkour team go past, jumping from one wrecked building to another). Muhammad had, against all odds, made it to Arab Idol, but he seemed to do so well so easily in it – he was even nicknamed “the Gaza rocket”. And then it’s the Arab Idol final and there are three contestants remaining… but Muhammad Assaf looks, well, different. It’s not the same guy as earlier in the film. Because The Idol, it turns out, is a true story, and the final stages of the film show the real Assaf’s victory on Arab Idol. A postscript explains that Assaf became a UN Goodwill Ambassador and was given a diplomatic passport. But he can only visit family and friends in Gaza with special permission from the Israeli authorities, who still occupy the territory despite it being mandated to the Palestinians. What is it with right-wing governments, that they’re not happy until they’ve burnt everything down to the ground? At the rate they’re going, they’ll bring on the apocalypse before the climate or the economy crashes – both of which, of course, they’ve been happily bringing about sooner…

Death of a Bureaucrat, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea (1966, Cuba). There is a sensibility, I have found, common to those Cuban films I’ve seen, and it is mostly critical of the regime while also acknowledging its social and political ambitions, all in a blackly comic way. And Death of a Bureaucrat is a pretty explicit presentation of that sensibility. A well-respected worker is killed by a piece of experimental apparatus he has been building, and is buried with his labour card as a mark of respect. Unfortunately, it seems his widow needs the card to claim the pension she is now owed. So the son tries to get it all sorted out. But the authorities won’t allow an exhumation unless the body has been interred for more than two years without special dispensation. He digs up the body himself and retrieves the card, but now he can’t re-bury it… because it hasn’t been officially exhumed. So he still needs that special dispensation, but this time so he can bury his father. He fails to get it because the bureaucracy just sends him round in circles. Even breaking into the offices one night to steal the necessary form only results in him being chased by the police because he climbed out of a window and was thought to be a suicide. Eventually he fakes the paperwork, but the cemetery refuses to let him bury his father because he has the body with him even though he has a permit for exhumation. This results in a fight in the graveyard, and they fail to complete the funeral… The bureaucratic comedy of errors is a well-established subgenre, and it’s not just found in the cinemas of communist regimes. There have been several made in the UK, where the civil service has often been an object of fun; and possibly even a few in the US, although none spring immediately to mind (corporate versions are, I suspect, much more common in US cinema). Death of a Bureaucrat judges its absurdities well, and if one or two people are overly officious – particularly those at the cemetery – most are victims of the system as much as everyone else. I’ve seen three films by Alea now, and thought them all good. Must try and track down some more.

Ocean’s 8, Gary Ross (2018, USA). This was an idea just waiting to happen – an all-female heist movie – and in the hands of a less-than-stellar director, it could have been fucking awful. Oh wait, it was fucking awful. The sister of Danny Ocean (star of Ocean’s 11 and sequels) is released from prison and is determined to get her revenge on the crooked art dealer who put her there. This involves persuading a dimwitted actress (Anne Hathaway) to wear the most expensive Cartier necklace ever to one of those stupidly expensive charity dos, that cost more money than they raise, at a museum, where the sister (Sandra Bullock) plans to steal the necklace. So she recruits a bunch of people, as you do, to pull off this majorly implausible sting. Which only works because – surprise, surprise – one of the principles is a ringer. Gosh. Never saw that coming. Other than that, it’s a showcase of the sort of ridiculous meaningless affluence that makes you want to stick the heads of the ultra-rich on pikes and let off a string of EMPs over Panama. Bullock doesn’t even look human, Blanchett is completely wasted in her role, Hathaway is too smart to play dumb although she plays dumb well, and the others are a hair short of stereotypes. In all other respects, it’s your usual glossy heist flick, and while it’s good to see a female-fronted version, it would have been better if it hadn’t relied on them being used as clothes horses. It’s one of those films where it looks like the cast had a lot more fun making it than viewers have watching it – although with Bullock it’s hard to be sure. With Bullock, it’s hard to be sure of anything she’s feeling. Me, I’d have just machine-gunned everyone at the charity gala and sod the necklace.

Salvatore Giuliano, Francesco Rosi (1962, Italy). The title refers to a bandit in Sicily in the latter half of  the 1940s. He started out selling food on the black market, the only way Sicilians could obtain food during and after WWII, but soon became leader of a powerful gang. He was seen as something of a Robin Hood figure, despite being wanted for killing the police officers sent to apprehend him, and being implicated in the Portella della Ginestra massacre, in which 11 people were killed and 27 injured during May Day celebrations. He was also a contributor to Sicily’s independence movement, which resulted in the island gaining autonomous status, and which won four seats in the 1946 general election but lost them in the 1948 general election. The film, however, opens with Giuliano’s death – considered suspicious even now – and then jumps back and forth in time, covering the court proceedings against the surviving members of Giuliano’s gang and the events leading up to Giuliano’s death. First, it’s worth noting that the restoration of this film has been done well – the transfer is lovely, and I can’t think of any other 55-year-old black-and-white Italian films that look as good on Blu-ray. But its a good film and worthy of the treatment it’s been given. It’s Italian Neorealist – not my favourite film movement, it must be said – but it’s also semi-documentary and uses a fractured timeline to tell its story. It keeps Giuliano something of an enigma – his character is built up from hearsay – and yet is also deeply critical of Italy’s treatment of Sicily, especially during the courtroom sequences (in which American actor Frank Wolff rants angrily in dubbed Italian). I must admit, when I stuck the film on my rental list I was expecting another giallo or poliziottesco, like Milano Calibro 9, but it’s nothing like either of them. Worth seeing.

The Shop Around the Corner, Ernst Lubitsch (1940, USA). This appears on one or another Movies You Must See Before You Die list, or maybe a They Shoot Picture Don’t They list – although not the 1001 Movies You Must Before You Die list from 2013 that I’m using – and so it seemed like it was worth seeing. Also, Jimmy Stewart. The story is set in Budapest in, er, the 1920s? the 1930s? It’s certainly not 1939, as there’s no mention of war, and it’s unlikely to be a few years before that as there’s no mention of the likelihood of war. Having said that, it’s a US film… Anyway, Jimmy Stewart is chief salesman at a prestigious leather goods store in Budapest. A young woman, Margaret Sullavan, approaches him and asks for a job. He tells her he can’t offer her one, so she goes above his head and persuades the shop’s owner to employ her. Christmas comes around and a private detective tells the shop’s owner that his wife is having an affair with one of his employees. So the shop owner fires Stewart, believing him to be the culprit. Meanwhile, Stewart has been conducting a postal relationship with a woman he met through a newspaper advert, and they’ve finally agreed to meet IRL. Guess who she turns out to be. Yes. Yawn. And of course it wasn’t Stewart boinking the shop owner’s wife after all, it was the oily creepy shop assistant. Unfortunately, discovering this prompts the shop owner to commit suicide, but he is saved by the delivery boy. Jimmy Stewart gets his job back, and gets to publicly fire oily shop assistant. And he turns up to a date with Sullavan but does not reveal he is the man she has been corresponding with. But the two get chatting and… fade to black. As rom coms of the period go, this is quite a good one, but then it has a good cast and a slightly-off-the-wall setting  – leather goods shop on Budapest? WTF? – but that setting also slightly works against it as you have to wonder why they bothered setting the story there and then. I mean, I’m all for introducing parochial US audiences to the concept that there are other nations on this planet and they’re inhabited by people very much like them (biologically at least, although it would be nice if US culture acknowledged they were different culturally), but sometimes it feels like the setting is a hangover from a previous iteration of the story and is rendered pretty much meaningless by the Hollywood treatment. Hungarians you would expect to behave like Hungarians, and only an idiot, or an American (#notallamericans), would expect their sensibilities to be exactly the same. Of course, this is a Hollywood movie aimed at a US audience… but that does again beggar the question, why set it in Budapest? I suspect  the only answer that will ever make sense is: because. The Shop Around the Corner is a fun rom com for its time, not one of Jimmy Stewart’s best pieces of work, but it will entertain.

Youth, Feng Xiaogang (2017, China). The only place the subtitle of this film “Medal of Courage” seems to appear is on the Blu-ray artwork. The film is known as Youth, and in Chinese territories as 芳华 (fang hua), which apparently can be translated as “young/blooming flowers/young women”. So, Youth is sort of relevant, but Medal of Courage is completely irrelevant. So the dumb wargame subtitle is a shame, as this is a film is nothing like that might suggest but is actually totally worth seeing. The film opens in the mid-1970s when a young woman, He Xiaoping, joins an army entertainment troupe as a dancer. The first act introduces the main characters – He, who is bullied by the members of the troupe; Liu Feng, who repeatedly turns down military academy as he prefers to be a dancer than an officer or commissar; Lin Dingding, the sweetheart of the troupe, and she knows it; and Xiao Suizi, who narrates the film, and seems to often act as mediator. Liu injures his back and can no longer dance, and eventually becomes a military doctor. He Xiaoping is bullied out of the troupe and joins a military nursing unit. Both end up on the frontline in the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979. This is act two. It is pretty brutal (and possibly the justification for the film’s subtitle), with graphic depictions of battlefield injuries. For example, a soldier is shot, but the bullet hits one of the grenades on his belt. Seconds later, he explodes messily and blood and guts rain down on all those around him. Both Liu and He survive, although Liu loses an arm to a Vietnamese bullet. He is given a medal for her work, including the care of a soldier suffering severe burns from a flamethrower (he did not survive). The third act takes place years later, in Reform-era China. Everyone has gone their own separate way. Lin married a Chinese-Australian and moved to that country. Liu is now an impoverished haulage contractor. Xiao works in a bookshop. She witnesses Liu being extorted by the local branch of commissars, who have impounded his truck and are demanding an expensive fine to to release it. Admittedly, the film sort of peters away, as Xiao then explains how Liu and He later met up and recognised they had both been damaged by their war experiences, and so sort of drifted together. But the first act is a fascinating portrait – and yes, it’s pure propaganda – of life in a military entertainment troupe, including a visit to a division in the mountains, where the performers suffered from altitude sickness (as, apparently, did some of the film’s cast). If you like war films, and the gorier the better, then act two will appeal. I’ve seen reviews that declare act three unnecessary but I don’t think it is. The thing far too many war films forget is that war heroes do not prosper: medals one day, homeless sufferers of PTSD five years later. That’s the true reality of war. But then the sort of people who lionise war are the same fucking idiots who have neither fought in one nor actually expended much thought in anything other than what to shoot next in their FPS game. Cinema, like any artform, can address truths, but that doesn’t mean viewers will necessarily understand or assimilate what they have to say. Youth makes it explicit – and still idiots complain the third act ruins the movie. FFS. Maybe they should stick to cartoons.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 931


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Books fall

To Brits, the American English for autumn, fall, doesn’t really capture the season – “of mists and mellow fruitfulness” and all that – which is silly as it’s a contraction of “leaf fall”, which was the more common name for autumn in sixteenth-century England. Also, it should be pointed out that dropping books is likely to damage them, and I would never do that (if someone broke the spine of a book I’d lent them, I would break their fingers). Anyway, the following books metaphorically fell into my collection…

The Day of the Triffids was given to me by a friend, Ole. He told me he’d accidentally bought a second copy. I know the feeling. Author’s Choice Monthly 15 and Author’s Choice Monthly 16 makes the complete set a little bit nearer.

Some new hardbacks and, er, Oscar, who was determined to be involved. Obelisk is a collection from last year, and Xeelee Redemption is the latest book in the extended and drawn-out series which, I think, made its first appearance back in the late 1980s in an issue of Dream Magazine (a UK small press magazine from that period). Spring Tide is a collection, and America City is a novel. I don’t actually know anything about either of them, but Chris Beckett is an excellent writer and I’ve known him for a decade or more. I enjoyed Goss’s The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter (see here), and European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, which is a bit of an unwieldy title, is the sequel.

Three favourite writers and a review copy from Interzone. Guess which is which… Duchamp’s Marq’ssan Cycle is an excellent series about first contact, and her ‘The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.’ is one of the best short stories the genre has produced. I’m looking forward to reading Chercher La Femme. Varley was one of those writers whose novels and stories I loved back in my late teens. I still have a lot of fondness for The Ophiuchi Hotline. He returned to his Eight Worlds universe for two novels in the 1990s. Irontown Blues, a second return to that universe, has been promised for years, so it’s good to see it finally appear. Thoreau’s Microscope is a collection in PM Press’s Outspoken Authors series (see here). And Liminal, I reviewed for Interzone.

I’ve been working my way – slowly – through Snow’s Strangers and Brothers eleven-book series. Corridors of Power is the ninth book, and Last Things the eleventh. I’ve yet to find a copy of the tenth novel, The Sleep of Reason – or rather, I’ve yet to find a Penguin paperback copy of the novel that matches the ones I own. Bah. As I Lay Dying I bought after being hugely impressed by The Sound and the Fury, my first Faulkner, which I read a few months ago (see here). And yes, it matches the two Penguin Faulkner paperbacks I own (cover art by André François; he apparently designed six of them).

In hindsight, I should have put Without a Summer up with the Duchamp, Varley and Lewis as it’s more genre than Blumlein’s Thoreau’s Microscope, but never mind. It’s the third book in the series and I enjoyed the previous two. Irma Voth I added to my wishlist after watching, and being impressed by, Silent Light (see here). Toews starred in that film and the novel is a fictional adaptation of her experiences. Spring Snow I also bought after watching a film: Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. An excellent film (see here).

Oscar had to get into the act again. He’s standing on Apollo, a graphic novel adaptation of the Apollo 11 mission by three Brits. I, Rene Tardi, Prisoner of War in Stalag IIB is the latest Tardi release by Fantagraphics. I’ve been collecting them as they’re published. I really ought to get the original French ones, of course.


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Moving pictures 2018, #49

Another weird mix of films, most of which I stumbled across on Amazon Prime. Which really does have some astonishing stuff hidden away. Only recently I found two films on there by Pavel Lungin that I’d not seen. His Ostrov is excellent (I bought it on DVD years ago). This post is also, surprisingly one-third women. It is much harder to watch films by female directors than it is to read books by female authors, as there are far fewer women directing films.

Avalanche, Corey Allen (1978, USA). Until I found this on Amazon Prime, I’d not known Rock Hudson had appeared in a film produced by Roger Corman. True, given Hudson’s career in the decade leading up to his death – Embryo, anyone? – this probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise. His wife in this film, however, was played by Mia Farrow, so perhaps New World Pictures actually spent some real money on their cast. The title pretty much describes the plot. Hudson has built a posh skiing resort in the, er, mountains, snowy mountains in the US somewhere. He invites a bunch of people to the opening, including his ex-wife, Farrow. There’s a big avalanche, everything gets buried under tons of snow, lots of people die. I think this film holds the record for the most number of characters on-screen wearing polo-neck jumpers. I have never seen so many polo-necks at once as I saw in this film. I suspect it was made to cash in on the late 1970s craze for disaster films, but even the bald use of stock footage doesn’t make it any worse than the disaster films churned out by the major studios. Entertaining enough for a lazy Sunday, more so if you find 1970s design and fashion appealing.

Wished, Dayyan Eng (2017, China). Another “stumbled across on Amazon Prime” film. I found it while looking for some Chinese films. There are a lot on there, but not really ones by Fifth or Sixth Generation directors. In fact, most seem to be low-budget-but-polished commercial rom coms, although I have found a few classics, like Song at Midnight (but it’s an awful transfer) and The Red Detachment of Women (see below). Anyway, Wished… An Earth goddess decides, for fun, to award nineteen wishes to a hapless noob, Ma Fendou, who works for his parents as an insurance salesman (mostly unsuccessful) and has just broken up with his girlfriend, Ren Shanshan. But the wishes will be chosen by the Earth goddess from those Ma has made over the years, including the ones he made as a small kid. And the first one manifests when he goes to shower, but there’s no water. And when he pours water from a jug over his head, it pours down either side of him without touching him. Because when he was little, he hated baths and wished he’d never have to have one again. Being unable to wash obviously has consequences, and as each wish manifests so Ma has to deal with its effects. The only person who seems sympathetic to his cause – beside his slobbish flatmate – is his ex-girlfriend, who’s getting married in a few days. Wished is a straight-up rom com – I read somewhere that Hollywood no longer produces these, and hasn’t done since Bridesmaids, but China is clearly still making money from them – in which Ma tries to cope with his wishes, realises he still loves Shanshan, and tries to win her back. Some of the set-pieces are excellent – in one, he spontaneously grows a mullet, because a star he idolised as a teen had one; in another, he finds himself the owner of a Transformer sportscar. Worth seeking out.

City of Tiny Lights, Pete Travis (2016, UK). “British crime thriller” are not words which would normally encourage me to watch, or in this case rent and watch, a movie. Most of the best British crime drama of the last twenty or thirty years has been television series. In the cinema, it’s all Mockney gangsters or period pieces set decades ago about nasty people who are best forgotten. Or it’s just an old film, with Jack Hawkins as a gentleman bank robber. But City of Tiny Lights was directed by Pete Travis, who directed the excellent Dredd a few years ago. So I gave it a go. And it was worth it. Riz Ahmed plays private detective in North Kensington (Trellick Tower features prominently in many establishing shots). A woman hires him to look for her missing flatmate, Natasha. Both are sexworkers. He finds Natasha’s last client, a Pakistani businessman, dead in a hotel room. Ahmed’s investigations lead to him childhood friend James Floyd, now a wealthy property developer, and the Islamic Youth League, which is under covert investigation by SO15. And somehow or other an old flame – well, a girl he fancied when they were teens – Billie Piper gets dragged into the story, along with associated back-story flashbacks. It all turns out to be a property scam, and the terrorism angle is only a bit of misdirection. As thriller films go, the plot of City of Tiny Lights is nothing special. It’s based on a novel, with the same title, by Patrick Neate, and adapted by him; but it does feel in places like the author was determined to keep some of the subplots in despite the fact there wasn’t enough room to do them justice and they actually detracted from the main plot. Ahmed is excellent in the lead role, and most of the supporting cast are pretty good – although I’ve never really understood the appeal of Billie Piper and she feels completely superfluous in this. But the film looks great, and if it’s more arthouse than noir that’s no bad thing. City of Tiny Lights wasn’t apparently well-received by critics, and I’m pretty sure my opinion of it is in a minority. But it did, for me, things that Dredd well – and Dredd‘s plot wasn’t exactly ground-breaking either – and it displayed a distinctive vision.

In Between, Maysaloun Hamoud (2016, Israel). Three young Israeli Arab women share a flat in Tel Aviv. Leila is a secular Muslim who works as a lawyer and enjoys partying at night. Salma is a Christian Arab, who DJs but holds down a series of bar-tending jobs, and is lesbian. And Nour is Muslim and religious, in her final year of a computer science degree at university, and affianced to a controlling man who is not happy with her living in Tel Aviv. The story kicks off when Nour moves in, taking the place vacated by her cousin (I can’t remember if the film explained the reason for her departure). While Nour is religious, she is tolerant of the others’ lifestyles, but her fiancé is not (but then, he’s a totally controlling arsehole, which is sadly not uncommon among men). This culminates in a sexual assault, and Nour breaks off with him. Meanwhile, Salma takes her girlfriend to meet her parents, although they do not know she is lesbian. In fact, the dinner is for Salma to meet a prospective husband. When her parents find out Salma is lesbian, they go completely batshit intolerant, and threaten to lock her up in an asylum if she doesn’t move out of her flat and back in with them, and marry a man of their choosing. So she sneaks away after they’ve gone to bed. Leila’s story is the least dramatic – she’s starting to realise she needs to slow-down, but that’s about it. She enters into a relationship with a man, but just when she’s starting to think he could be the one… she discovers him in bed with another woman. (Very few of the men in the film are especially nice, but I don’t have a problem with that – men are generally shits, especially when it comes to their treatment of women.) The film ends with the three of them reconciled to their changed circumstances – the events shown during the film have altered them, and made them closer friends. A good film, worth seeing.

The Red Detachment of Women, Jin Xie (1961, China). As mentioned above, I found this while hunting for Chinese films to watch on Amazon Prime that weren’t low-budget rom coms. It’s generally acknowledged to be a classic of Chinese cinema. The unwieldy title refers to the first women’s army formed by the communists in 1930s China. The film takes place on Hainan Island, a Kuomintang stronghold. Wu Qionghua, a housemaid for the local warlord, runs away after several failed attempts, joins the titular group, becomes its leader and helps liberate Hainan for the communists. It’s a solid piece of cinema, well-made and well-acted, but with nothing especially exciting about its cinematography or staging. Watching it, I couldn’t help thinking how Western – especially US – viewers would probably disparage the film as propaganda. And it is, it’s pure communist propaganda. But then so is the output of Hollywood. Propaganda, that is; not communist, obviously. Every Hollywood film is an advert for the so-called American Dream, every US film showcases the American lifestyle and its worship of consumer products. How is that different? Especially given many visitors to the US are now finding the country much less advanced than claimed (I was surprised on visiting Los Angeles in 2006 to see mobile phone networks advertising themselves using the claim they “dropped fewer calls” than their rivals. Dropped calls? Mobile providers haven’t done that in Europe since the 1980s.) Anyway, I would expect a communist film to extol the virtues of a communist life, just as I expect a US film to extol the virtues of a capitalist life (but let’s not forget the US has some of the least progressive employment legislation in the world, so capitalism not so good after all). Having said all that, The Red Detachment of Women is not about how wonderful life is under communism (a difficult sell, at the best of times), but about the struggle to create a communist state. Which might well apply to the struggle to create any type of state. Except, to be fair, it’s probably only a communist state that would put together a women-only army, which is a point in their favour. The Red Detachment of Women is not great cinema, but I think it is important cinema, and for that reason definitely worth seeing.

Ausma, Laila Pakalniņa (2015, Latvia). After some diligent searching on Amazon Prime, I managed to find a Latvian film. I’ve seen Estonian and Lithuanian films, but not Latvian. (I did find a recent Albanian one, but it turned out to a be a US production by Albanian immigrants.) Ausma, AKA Dawn, was Latvia’s entry for Best Foreign Film in 2016 Oscars but was not even nominated. It is… odd. Shot in black-and-white and set in the 1930s. It’s set on the eponymous collective farm and, according to Wikipedia, the plot is based on the story of Pavlik Morozov, a thirteen-year-old boy who denounced his father, the chairman of the village soviet, for selling forged documents. The father was sentenced to ten years in a labour camp and later executed. The boy was subsequently murdered by his male relatives. And while that may seem straightforward enough a story – Wikipedia points that there’s little evidence for it, despite the wealth of treatments of it, and it survives only as hearsay – that’s not exactly what I saw when I watched the film. As mentioned, it’s shot in a very crisp black-and-white, frequently from cameras placed in odd positions. The movie’s opening shot, for eamaple, is from the ground, looking up past a large snail centre-screen at a chicken. A later scene has the camera suspended vertically over the table, looking down, around which the actors are sitting. There are a lot shots like these. Young Morozov is readily identifiable, but I wasn’t entirely clear who was his father. I think it was the man the other men described as insane, and who then proved the point by pretending to gun down the rest of the soviet with a broom, before using the broom smash everything on the table. And… It all looks very, well, interesting, but I can understand why it failed to get a nomination. Parts of it looked gorgeous, some scenes were very funny (in a blackly comic sort of way), but the story seemed to jump around so much I had trouble following it. I will likely watch it again, and may well appreciated much more on a second viewing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 931