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Moving pictures 2017, #1

The first film post of 2017. I’m not planning on watching as many films this year as last, since I’m hoping Ill be spending that time doing other things, like writing. I’m also going to try and watch two non-US films for every US one. I sort of managed it in this post – two US films, although admittedly one was a short, and the rest from the UK, Sweden, Italy and Russia.

meet_john_doeMeet John Doe, Frank Capra (1941, USA). The world was not a nicer place when Capra was making his films, but the solutions to its problems did seem so much easier to implement. And, of course, the same obstacles to those solutions existed then as now – greed, and the need for the rich to keep the poor in a place where they can control them and keep them poor. Meet John Doe is typical in that regard, so typical its story pretty much iterates that entire philosophy. A newspaper reporter, played by Barbara Stanwyck, is fired when a new owner takes over her newspaper. She retaliates by publishing a suicide letter in her last column, in which a “John Doe” promises to leap from the newspaper building because of man’s greed and inhumanity to man. The new owner likes the letter, so much so it prompts a hunt for a real John Doe. And Garry Cooper, a homeless ex-baseball player, is cast in the part. Cooper’s homespun neighbourliness strikes a chord, and people form John Doe clubs… and next thing you know there’s an entire political movement wrapped around it. Except the John Doe Clubs refuse to allow politicians as members. But then the newspaper owner who backed the campaign reveals he had planned to use it all along to create a third political party under his control. And when Cooper objects, they monster him in front of  his followers at a rally in a stadium – because, well, they’re scumbags, because that’s what rich people do when they don’t get their way. The whole grassroots movement then falls apart, and Cooper is driven into hiding. But the sheep-like people eventually see the error of their ways and the John Doe clubs start reforming… There’s a lot in Meet John Doe that maps onto twenty-first politics, proving only, I guess, that twenty-first century politics is not all that much different to twentieth-century politics. The homespun neighbourliness Cooper sells doesn’t play in the present day, what with assorted demagogues whipping up xenophobic and racist hate for their own ends – stand up, Mr Farage, Mr Trump.  Of course, this is a Capra movie, and he was a master at leaving the viewer feeling good about life. Which is where, I suppose, his films differ from real life…

masters_of_venusMasters of Venus (1962, UK). I remember the Children’s Film Foundation films you used to see at the cinema before the main feature, although this one predates me by quite a bit and was apparently shown on telly anyway. But it sounded worth a punt, so I stuck it on my rental list… and so it arrived and… it was pretty much completely as expected: the sort of science fiction film and television churned out until the late 1960s, and which never really convinced but then no one ever expected it to. A teenage boy and girl often visit their father’s work – he’s a rocket scientist, in charge of the first flight to Venus. On one particular visit, two sinister agents of an unknown power – they have six fingers on their hands, so it’s clearly not the Soviets – try to sabotage the rocket. They succeed in sabotaging the control centre, but the rocket – with two of its crew and the two teenagers – launches prematurely and sends the four off to Venus. Once they reach Venus, something seizes control of the rocket and prevents them from returning to Earth. The two astronauts investigate, and are captured by Venusians. So it’s up to the two kids to rescue them. Venus was apparently colonised by people from Atlantis and they’re afraid of conquest by Earth. There are two factions, Men of Action and Men of Science, and the former plan to destroy Earth to safeguard Venus. The latter would sooner reach an accommodation. Once on Venus, the story pretty much runs along well-established rails – captured, escape, captured again, find allies among Venusians, escape, turn tables, save the day, etc, etc. It’s fun, in a very dated sort of way, and does sort of make you pine for the simpler days of science fiction and story-telling. I mean, watching it fifty-plus years later as an adult, you’re going to get a different experience, and nostalgia is going to be ninety-nine parts of it. Which sounds a little like damning with faint praise as, like most of the Children’s Film Foundation’s output, Masters of Venus is well-made, pacey, and ticks (for the time) most of the right boxes. It’s an historical document, no denying that, but given that perspective it’s worth seeing.

maya_derenAt Land, Maya Deren (1944, USA). After watching Meshes of the Afternoon by Deren and Alexander Hammid, I had a look round on Youtube and it seems most of Deren’s output is on there. There’s been some controversy over who exactly contributed the most to Meshes of the Afternoon, with it generally being seen as chiefly Deren’s work, but Stan Brakhage claiming that Hammid was mostly responsible for it. But given that Deren went on to make nearly a dozen further films, and Hammid only made two more, and she spent decades lecturing on film-making, she’s clearly the more important figure of the two in American avant-garde cinema. And At Land, which has only her name attached, is not dissimilar to Meshes of the Afternoon in approach. It opens with reversed film of Deren emerging from the sea, but then she finds herself at a dinner party. There’s a chess game between two women on the beach, and lots of rolling around in the sand. It’s all completely silent – as was, in fact, Meshes of the Afternoon, until a soundtrack by Teiji Ito, who was married to Deren at the time, was added in 1959. I’m enjoying my delves into avant-garde cinema, although, to be honest, I’m not big on symbolic story-telling in the medium. I guess in that respect it’s little different to my taste for plain prose – prose claire, if you will – inasmuch as I’m all for evoking strangeness, but through the use of clear imagery. And, while Deren’s films are striking, I’m not sure I agree with obfuscation of story by telling it through symbolic imagery. It should be a value-add, not the be-all and end-all. Nonetheless, I plan to watch more of Deren’s films. If I can find them…

classic_bergmanSawdust and Tinsel, Ingmar Bergman (1953, Sweden). The title is a bit of a clue – and the DVD cover art would be even more of one, but my copy was part of the box set depicted – but this movie is set in a circus. But it’s not a happy movie. Well, it is a Bergman movie. Yes, yes, I know, he made some light-hearted comedies as well as his usual dour Nordic tragedies, but Sawdust and Tinsel falls firmly into the latter camp. A circus arrives in town, and the owner tries to patch things up with his ex-wife who lives in the town. But it goes badly, resulting in the man his current lover is having a fling with challenging the circus-owner and subsequently getting badly beaten up by him. There’s a certain flavour to Bergman’s films, no matter where they are set – a circus, a maternity ward, a holiday home – that tends to overpower any story he might tell. It’s not just the stark black and white cinematography, which is only true for about two-thirds of his oeuvre; or the “staginess” of many of his films, which give them the feel of theatre plays or literary short stories (although in a different fashion to, say, Orson Welles’s adaptation of Karen Blixen’s The Immortal Story). I’m not sure I’m a fan of Bergman’s work, although I’ve managed to collect quite a bit of it. Some of his films are blindingly good, and he amassed a hugely impressive body of work… but I’m not sure yet how much value I put on many of his works. I think I need to know him better, I need to rewatch some of the films I’ve watched, perhaps with some sort of structure or purpose. I think he deserves it, and I think it would be rewarding doing so. And, to be fair, there are not that many directors you could say that about.

saloSalò, or the 120 Days of Sodom*, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1975, Italy). I didn’t go into this film completely ignorant of what it would be like, which was just as well, as it’s a brutal and horrible film, and while it certainly makes some important points, it nonetheless makes for very uncomfortable viewing. During World War II, Salò, a town on Lake Garda, became the centre of Mussolini’s last fascist state, from 1943 to 1945. Then there’s the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom, which the title references, although the film takes place over three days. It all seems relatively innocuous at first. Four men, referred to only by their titles, take a group of teenagers, and then pretty much treat them and all those about them with a complete lack of morals. During a meal, for example, one of the soldiers starts to rape a waitress. There are repeated scenes of a woman telling stories of her past to an audience of the teenagers; sometimes she sings. It’s the end of the film which is most brutal. I’m squeamish, I freely admit it, and I dislike watching horrific scenes in films – in fact, I deal with them best when they’re obviously special effects (ie, pre-CGI). But even Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom tested by tolerance for squeam, particularly toward the end when many of the teenagers are physically tortured. Having now seen Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, I’m in two minds about the film. It’s a horrible film to watch, but it makes important points. Pasolini was an important director, and his work should be treated accordingly. Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom is also on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, amongst many others, so it’s clearly a film regarded highly by many… I’m glad I watched it, but I’m not so sure I could watch it again. And yet I find myself conflicted over buying the shiny new BFI Blu-ray release…

banishmentThe Banishment, Andrey Zvyagintsev (2007, Russia). This is the third Zvyagintsev film I’ve seen, after the earlier The Return and the later Leviathan. So I knew what to expect: glacial pacing, long static takes, close-ups on actors who barely change expression… And I like that sort of stuff, I really do. But for some reason The Banishment seemed like more of a watching ordeal than the other two films by Zvyagintsev I’ve seen. A family travel out into the country to spend time at his childhood home. The wife reveals she is pregnant, but the husband does not believe the baby is his. He forces his wife to have an abortion, but she deliberately overdoses on pain medication afterwards and dies. A flashback reveals that the baby was the husband’s, after all. There’s a subplot involving the husband’s brother, who is a gangster of some sort, and who turns up and then promptly has a heart attack – but there’s not much to it. The cinematography is gorgeous, with some beautiful shots of the Russian countryside (actually, not entirely Russian – The Banishment was filmed in France, Belgium, Moldova and Russia; in fact, the countryside home was built from scratch in Moldova. But never mind: we all know movie geography does not map onto the real world, and that an exterior shot of a building in movieland is not necessarily the location of the following interior shots…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 843


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Reading diary, #42

Well, the promised catch-up with female authors didn’t exactly happen, so 2016 ended with male authors just slightly ahead of female authors. Women will probably take back the lead in 2017. That seems to be the way it works…

where_my_heartWhere My Heart Used to Beat, Sebastian Faulks (2015). I’ve read each of Faulks’s novels as they’ve hit paperback, and I’ve never really worked out why I fastened onto him as a modern author to read. I think he’s much better than McEwan, who managed a couple of stonkers early in his career, but then Faulks’s career has never really matched Birdsong… although I thought the story of Human Traces danced about a pretty interesting idea… And that same idea sort of crops up in Where My Heart Used to Beat. Faulks has… odd ideas about consciousness, and the historical origin of human awareness. In a science fiction writer, they’d be understandable, if not even defensible. But Faulks writes lit fic. In Where My Heart Used to Beat, which is set in the 1980s, a UK doctor is invited to a small French island to meet a famous neurologist at the end of his life and career. The neurologist wants the doctor to be his literary executor, partly because he commanded his father during WWI and holds a secret about that, and partly because the doctor’s career hints that he might be receptible to the neurologist’s Big Idea. The narrative dips in and out of the doctor’s life, mostly focusing on WWII, when he was involved in the Allied invasion of Italy. During that time, he met a young Italian woman and weas convinced she was the love of his life; but she turned out to be married, and he never really recovered. And it’s the concept of love, and Faulks’s previously trotted-out theory on inter-brain communication, that provides the substrate for Where My Heart Used to Beat. It’s a very readable novel – Faulks’s prose is never less than readable – and a more coherent one that his last couple… but it doesn’t have the… weight of Human Traces, and so its central premise dosn’t in the slightest convince. Faulks produces polished middle-brow material, and he does it well, much better than McEwan – but every time I read one of his novels I find myself wondering why I continue to read him. I still don’t know.

hoddHodd, Adam Thorpe (2009). I have made a habit of picking up Thorpe’s novels when I see them in charity shops and I’m not entirely sure why. True, Ulverton was very good indeed – an English village’s history described through a variety of narrative forms – but the collection Shifts was, to be honest, a bit dull. But I have three or four of his books, and I grabbed this one to read over Christmas. Which I did. I knew it was about Robin Hood, a legendary figure I feel somewhat protective toward, given that I was born in Mansfield, which was once within the precincts of Sherwood Forest (in fact, there’s a plaque in Mansfield which declares the “dead centre” of Sherwood Forest was once at that spot). On the other hand, I’m well aware that Robin Hood is as real an historical figure as Jesus Christ. And, much as I love the 1938 Technicolor movie The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn in the title role, I know it has as much connection to real actual history as the Bible does – ie, none. Hodd is fiction, and clearly presented as fiction… but it’s also yet another version of Robin Hood. In this case, he’s a heretic who lives in the woods north of Doncaster, and his story is told as a manuscript, found by a British officer in a bombed-out church in Belgium during WWII, written by a ninety-year-old monk who was once “Much the Miller’s son” in Hodd’s band. It’s very cleverly done. There are footnotes by the officer who translated the manuscript, which explain some of the lesser known facts about mediaeval life (and also feature some editorial comments by him). The plot will come as no surprise to those who know the Hood legend, even if it’s only from the Flynn movie, and while Thorpe’s recasting of Hood as Hodd doesn’t seem to asdd all that much to the story, the way the story is presented definitely does. It put Thorpe back in my, so to speak, good books. Hodd is a clever and convincing historical palimpsest of a novel, and it’s a joy to see how well it is put together. Recommended.

starlightStarlight, Mark Millar & Goran Parlov (2014). So many English-language graphic novels and trade paperback collections involve over-entitled fascists in Spandex costumes. And if it’s not superheroes, it’s noir. Like that’s a new thing. I wanted science fiction. But I spent a good while perusing the English-language shelves of Faraos Cigarer in Copenhagen, and there was very little that appealed. Starlight looked like it might – a test pilot is pulled to another dimension, defeats a planet’s tyrant, Flash-Gordon-fashion, and returns to Earth… only to be disbelieved by all and sundry, and so treated as something of a joke by friends and family. Forty years later, his help is required again, this time to overthrow invaders who have enslaved the world. So back he goes, only to discover his legend has grown to a level he couldn’t possibly match it, especially now he’s four decades older. The brutal occupiers also consider him something of a joke, and the populace too weak to rise up under his leadership. The art has a nice pulp sf sensibility to it, although the story seems unable to decide if its hero is pulp sf hero or a superhero. In fact, that’s not the only thing that’s a little confused, as Starlight tries to gives its story a modern spin while at the same time throwing in references to early sf serials. So, tonally, it’s a bit all over the place. Good in parts, though.

beautiful_indifferenceThe Beautiful Indifference, Sarah Hall (2011). Unlike some people I know, I’m not a fan of Hall’s writing – but then, her writing is very tied to her region – Cumbria – so much so that many of the stories in this collection are written in local dialect, or use local dialect terms. They’re good stories, they’re polished stories. There are seven of them in The Beautiful Indifference, some of which are set in Cumbria, one of which is set in Finland. They’re worth reading, although fans of her writing will get more from them than I did. I found this book in a charity shop, and I’ll continue to keep an eye open for her works, but I do find her prose a bit too much in your face for my taste. I like my fiction distant and bolstered by fact, and I find it hard to accept a facility with local dialect as a substitute for fact. Or rather, I appreciate fiction that includes elements which can be looked up on Wikipedia, and while Hall’s use of Cumbrian dialect is, as far as I know, accurate, it adds only a thin wash of colour to the stories, where a reference to a real event or thing defined in Wikipedia would add depth. But that’s a personal thing. Certainly, Hall is a good writer, and these are some polished pieces of work. Worth reading.

sagaSaga Volume 1, Brian K Vaughan & Fiona Staples (2012). Many people, many many people, have recommended this, and so I had initially avoided it. But there I was in Faraos Cigarer in Copenhagen, and I picked out Starlight as worth a read and all the graphic novels I really wanted were upstairs and by Moebius and in Danish… so I eventually succumbed and bought the first volume of Saga. I could have bought the Danish bandes dessinées by Moebius, of course, or even the hardback volumes of Valerian and Laureline, also in Danish, but it would mean learning a new language to read them, which seems daft when they’re originally French and that’s a language I can actually read (with a dictionary at hand, admittedly). Anyway, Saga… I didn’t like it. I really didn’t. It is allegedly a space opera, but there’s zero rigour to the setting, one side uses magic, there are a race of robots who have human bodies but TVs for heads, and people actually use mobile phones and apps. See, you have a man and a woman, from each side of a generational war – one lot have wings, the others have horns – and they have a child. Er, so why do you need science fiction to tell this story? I guess calling a race war story a “space opera” makes it more palatable to readers. And, of course, it means the story is not “politicized”. FFS. So there you have it: weak title, paper-thin allegory, paper-thin setting, and a total lack of rigour. Nice art, though.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 129


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Moving pictures, #69

The last Moving pictures post of 2016 (although it’s appearing in 2017), and I’m still slightly boggled by the fact I wrote 69 of these bloody things in twelve months. While I didn’t write about every film I watched, at 6 films on average per post, that’s still a big whole pile of movies. Some of them were good, some of them were bad, and some of them became favourites. Most of them I’m at least glad I watched. Let’s hope the same can be said during 2017.

last_tangoLast Tango in Paris*, Bernardo Bertolucci (1972, France). I’m still convinced Bertolucci is just a gifted copyist, and Last Tango in Paris is just Bertolucci doing Nouvelle Vague, but with some very dodgy sex scenes. Okay, so the first clue is Marlon Brando as the male lead, an actor whose appeal continues to mystify me and whose adoption by Hollywood is quite baffling. The only thing to be said in his favour is he has shown a little more critical acumen than his colleagues in choosing the projects he worked on… But Last Tango in Paris is a blot on his copybook. It’s an “erotic drama”, which means there’s lots of simulated sex – and all involved have repeatedly insisted it was simulated – but lots of dodgy sexual politics. Even for 1972. Brando plays an American in Paris who owns a run-down hotel and whose wife has just committed suicide. He falls in with Maria Schneider, a carefree twentysomething Parisian. They have hot sex. Brando sets the rules and gets unreasonably angry when Schneider breaks them – sexual politics, 1972-style. There are lots of intense close-ups, New Wave style, and even that bit where Brando taps Schneider on one shoulder then pops around the other, doesn’t Azanvour do that in Tirez sur le pianiste or am I misremembering? The film sparked controversy on its release, but was a critical and commercial success. I’ve always known of it, of course, it’s like the first big mainstream “dirty” film that everyone of my generation knows about; the second is 9½ Weeks, which I saw back in the 1980s and I’m sure would be a major disappointment if I ever rewatched it. Of course, whatever reputation might have attached to Last Tango in Paris as far as a callow youth was concerned, that no longer holds true for me, and I took the film as I found it. And having seen it, and read up on the actual controversy regarding its making – it pretty much destroyed Schneider, those simulated sex scenes were as near as dammit to rape… it’s hard to consider it worthy of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. To be honest, Andrzej Żuławski does it much better with l’amour fou as a theme, and at least manages such stories in a style all his own… Bertolucci, on the other hand, is a bit of chameleon, and while he certainly has an excellent eye – I’m thinking of both The Last Emperor and The Sheltering Sky, but there are many good shots in Last Tango in Paris – I’m not convinced the sum of Last Tango in Paris‘s good bits outweigh the extensive and less than salubrious baggage it carries.

flowers_shanghaiFlowers of Shanghai, Hou Hsiao Hsien (1998, Taiwan). So I bought this “box set” – it was five DVDs in a cardboard box – because I wanted to see two of the films in it. But having now watched four of them, I’ve become a bit of a Hou fan, because he really is very good. Flowers of Shanghai is the most gorgeous-looking for Hou films I’ve seen so far, with perhaps the exception of The Assassin. The film takes place in four late nineteenth century brothels in Shanghai, and is divided into four sections, each named for the central courtesan of that section: Crimson, Pearl, Jasmine and Jade. The film chiefly consists of a static camera focusing on a group of people, courtesans and their most frequent patrons, and so telling the story of their lives and the realtionships between them, some of which are defined by those patrons. Plot-wise, it’s perhaps not the most gripping of stories, but if there’s one thing my travels in Hou territory have taught me it’s that he prefers to lay out his story in the incidentals. The dialogue defines the relationships between the characters, the mide en scène defines the setting, and the story comes out of the interplay between the two. So it’s just as well that Hou scores so highly on presenting his mise en scène, it is in fact one of his strengths as a director. He frames gorgeous shots because he has set up gorgeous shots – and Flowers of Shanghai shows that off to an impressive extent. I’m still not entirely sure why I bought the Hou “boxed set”, given that I’d only seen one of Hou’s films before, but it was a wise purchase. I now count myself a fan of his work and plan to purchase everything else he made – because, of course, only two or three are actually available for rental in the UK…

the_pastThe Past, Asghar Farhadi (2013, France). And from a new director I now admire to… well, Farhadi’s About Elly is a brilliant film, a clever drama/thriller and wholly Iranian. I loved it the moment I saw it back in 2013. His Fireworks Wednesday and A Separation were also very good. But The Past is, well, it’s not an Iranian film. It’s a French film. And it suffers as a result. It’s about Iranian immigrants in France, but their concerns, the plot, is all the sort of stuff that would drive a French film. I know the immigrant experience is important, and that documenting it is not only worthwhile but important… But, to a non-native eye I freely admit, The Past did seem to resemble more the experiences of non-immigrants than immigrants. If that makes sense. Perhaps it was a sense that the, er, sensibility seemed suited to the language and setting, when the nationality of the director and cast suggested it should have been otherwise. I firmly believe cinema is a powerful tool for documenting life across the planet, in all its manifest forms, in all its various societies and communities. That’s why I treasure world cinema. It provides an insider’s view. I’m not interested in a French-style drama that just happens to be made by an Iranian director and happens to feature a cast of Iranian extraction, because I’m more interested in seeing life as experienced by Iranians, yes, even Iranians living in France. Perhaps I’m doing The Past a great disservice, perhaps I’m completely missing a huge part of this film, but I’ve seen a number of Iranian films and I’ve seen a number of French films and to my eye this smelt like a French film. Which is not to it was a bad film – Farhadi is bloody good, after all – but I do prefer Iranian cinema to French cinema, and would rather this film had tended to the former than the latter…

meshesMeshes of the Afternoon*, Maya Deren & Alexander Hammid (1943, USA). Most discussions of avant garde cinema often focus on US avant garde cinema, possibly because most European avante garde film-makers went on to become commercially successful, such as Luis Buñuel. And of those US avant garde films, Meshes of the Afternoon from 1943 is generally noted as one of the most seminal. While on the one hand the experimental films of Bruce Baillie and Stan Brakhage might fit into the commonly-held view of the history of cinema – it was the 1960s! everyone experimented! – but no one really expects the same of two decades earlier. Common sense dictates there must have been people experimenting with film in the 1940s just as much as there were in the 1960s (for the all the latter decades reputation for experimentation, etc.), but popular history tends to elide such experiments. Meshes of the Afternoon, which is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, is one such experiment whose reputation has withstood the test of time. I found a decent copy of Youtube and watched it there. And watching it, well, there’s a lot of Lynch in there, or rather, Lynch was clearly influenced by this film, if not others by Deren. A woman dreams about a hooded figure with a mirror for a face. She follows it along a path, but loses it. She returns home and finds a key. The key morphs into a knife. There are several versions of her sitting at a table. She sees the hooded figure in her bedroom. Some of this is a dream, some of this seems to be a re-enactment of something she dreamed. Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about avant garde cinema, and its history, in order to understand why Meshes of the Afternoon is considered so important. It’s good, certainly; but I’ve no way of judging its historical importance. Given the year… although Buñuel’s Un chien Andalou was released in 1929… there’s clearly some early importance there, and Deren went on to make more films and lecture extensively in film-making. Some of Deren’s other films are available on Youtube – I’ve watched one, At Land, already – and I think she has an oeuvre worth exploring… But with Benning, Bailie, Brakhage and now Deren & Hammid, this is obviously an area of cinema I need to spend a bit more time on…

good_menGood Men, Good Women, Hou Hsiao Hsien (1995, Taiwan). That’s the last of the “box set”, so now I’ll have to get me some more Hou DVDs. This is the third film in Hou’s Taiwanese History trilogy, which also includes A City of Sadness (not seen) and The Puppetmaster (see here). Like the second, and possibly the first, it’s a biopic, this time about Chiang Bi-Yu, who left Taiwan in the 1940s to fight the Japanese in mainland China, and after WWII returns to Taiwan, becomes a communist and so comes into conflict with the Kuomintang regime. The film depicts Chiang’s life in black-and-white, but is interspersed with sections in colour documenting the life of the actress who plays Chiang in the film that is Good Men, Good Women… And I have to wonder if this is where Stanley Kwan got the idea for the structure of Center Stage (see here). Both are great films, of course; and it’s no surprise that China, and other areas speaking languages of the Chinese family, should produce movies that are more than kung fu actioners or gorgeous wu xia spectacles, but we rarely get to learn that over here in the UK… So mark both those films down on your list as superior films – even if, er, they’re not actually available in the UK or US.

ride_lonesomeRide Lonesome*, Budd Boeticher (1959, USA). I couldn’t find a copy of this in the UK or US, so ended up buying a rip from someone on eBay because the film had passed out of copyright. Fortunately, it proved to be a good transfer – to be fair, most these days for sale on eBay are pretty good transfers. And as I started watching Ride Lonesome I sort of understood why it had made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but then the further into the film I got the less I understood why it had earned its place on the list. Partly that was down to Randolph Scott, the star, who seems a pretty solid centre around which to plot a Western story, but he does, well, have an unfeasibly big head, in fact, he looks a bit like a puppet. Some actors make great Western heroes – Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart… Randolph Scott just seems proportioned wrong. As for the story… He plays a bounty hunter, taking a killer to Santa Cruz, Arizona, to be hung. They stop off en route at a desert rest-stop – and the scenes set in and around that are lovely to look at and well played – and pick up a pair of freebooters, and the rest-stop’s widowed female owner, as companions. All of which leads to complications later. The story is not much, but this is a Western. The desert scene cinematography is very good, and I’d love to have seen it in full-on restored Technicolor. Later scenes, in landscape more familiar from Western television series, were less impressive. And the story’s final twist was not quite as unexpected as the story had suggested it might be. A good Western, I suspect, although I’m not so sure it deserves a place on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 842


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2016 in watching

I’ve posted my stats for my reading in 2016 – see here – so now it’s time for my film-viewing statistics… And yet again, I watched a huge number of movies over the twelve-months, partly because I was chasing the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and partly because the dayjob gave me mlittle energy or enthusiasm for much else of an evening. (For my best of the year movies, see here.)

In 2016, I watched 647 films, up by more than 100 from 2015’s total of 544. Of those 647, I saw 574 for the first time, and 140 of them were from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. That’s… more than I’d expected. But I did watch a lot of short films, I must admit. Some of the one hundred or so rewatches were films I watched more than once during 2016, for a variety of reasons… Some, such as Tirez le pianiste, a rental film, I felt I hadn’t given a fair viewing so I watched the DVD a second time before returning it. Others, like Lucía, I’d watched on rental and liked so much I bought my own copy, which I then rewatched. And one or two films, I’d stick on and watch over again when I’d had a bit too much wine – so that would be, er, A River Called Titas, which I managed to watch six times between June and December 2016…

In terms of where I found the films I watched, it appears to be a pretty even split between DVDs/Blu-rays I bought myself and DVDs I rented from LoveFilm and Cinema Paradiso:

2016_films_by_source

Given the number of cable channels I have access to, TV’s showing is piss-poor; but Amazon Prime, the only streaming service to which I currently subscribe, did pretty well (the “Streaming” figure does also include a dozen films watched on Youtube; most of those were avant-garde short films).

2016_films_by_genre

I’ve never been that big a fan of science fiction cinema, so the fact it comprises 4% of my total viewing comes as no suprise. On the other hand, I do tend to label most films as “drama”, which is probably why it accounts for around 40% of my viewing. There’s also a significant percentage of short films in there – no doubt a consequence of watching those three DVD collections of Humphrey Jennings’s films.

2016_films_by_decade

Despite never actually meaning to, I always seem to end up watching more movies from the current decade than any other… although the 1960s almost matches it. That came as a surprise – I hadn’t realised I’d watched so many films from that decade. The remaining movies are spread somewhat erratically across the decades, although the graph does show I’m watching more classic movies than current ones.

2016_films_by_country

I made an effort in 2016 to watch more movies from countries whose cinemas I had not seen before. And I managed it. But putting them all on a pie chart would make it unreadable, so I had to group a lot of countries into regions/continents. Happily, the US only accounts for 42% of the movies I watched, which is less than the previous year. I plan to reduce it further in 2017. Next highest is the UK, followed by France, Italy, India, Germany, Russia and Japan.

As for the directors I watched most in 2016… the top five looks like this:

  1. Humphrey Jennings – 27 (all those short films in the three DVD collections I bought)
  2. Jacques Demy – 19 (I worked my way through a box set of all his films)
  3. Werner Herzog – 11 (I replaced my two DVD box sets with a single Blu-ray collection, and then worked my way through it)
  4. Ingmar Bergman and Aleksandr Sokurov – 8 each (the Bergmans were all new to me, the Sokurovs were a mix of rewatches and new films)
  5. Jean-Luc Godard, James Benning, Howard Hawks – 7 each (Godard and Hawks were all new to me, the Bennings were a mix of rewatches and new films)

So that’s a Brit, two French, a German, a Swede, a Russian and two Americans. Not a bad mix. Sadly, no women directors. Unhappily, I’ve watched very few films by women directors, and I really should make an effort to watch more – non-US ones, of course (unless they’re avant-garde film-makers, that is).

In fact, there are a number of things I’d like to do in my film watching in 2017. For a start, I plan to watch more foreign-language films, and have already adjusted my rental lists accordingly. I also intend to continue working my way through the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – and why not, since it’s introduced me to several films and directors who subsequently became favourites. I doubt I’ll ever really finish it, but when it gets too difficult to complete, there are plenty of other such lists I could try – They Shoot Pictures Don’t They have one with 2,000 movies on it (and at first sight, it looks like a more varied list than the one I’ve been using).

Having said all that… if I manage to get some writing done in 2017, then something will have to give, and I’m quite happy for it to be my film-watching. Much as I love movies, 647 in twelve months is a fuck of a lot. If that drops to around 300 this year, I won’t be at all upset… providing I have some actual written fiction to show for it. At the very least, I don’t expect the figure to rise during 2017…


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2016 in reading

I’ve already done my best of the year post – see here – but until the year is actually over I never know how I’ve been reading – total number of books, by genre, by decade, by gender, etc… Well, 2016 is well and truly over, and I’ve been doing some number-crunching.

I read 144 books in 2016, just missing my Goodreads Challenge target of 150, and down from last year’s total of 152. I put this down to the fact I picked several weighty books to read during the year, although, to be fair, I don’t think I was reading as much as I did in 2015 anyway. Of those 144 books, the bulk were published this decade – 63, in fact, so slightly less than half. The rest were scattered across every decade from the 1920s onwards. The graph looks like this:

2016_books_by_decade

It doesn’t look much different to 2015, to be honest, although the 1970s scored a little higher then.

For the last couple of years, I’ve been trying to keep my fiction reading split evenly between male and female writers. In 2016, men just pipped women at 34% to 32%. The remainder were anthologies, graphic novels and non-fiction:

2016_books_by_gender

And subject-wise, science fiction still forms the majority of my reading, although it’s less than half at 40% (down from 47% last year). Mainstream takes second place at 27% (up from 23% last year). The single Young Adult title was from my reading of the underwhelming 2016 Clarke Award shortlist.

2016_books_by_subject

At the end of 2015, I’d planned to read more mainstream and less sf in 2016, so that was one target met. But I also wanted to read more non-fiction, particularly criticism, space exploration and deep-sea exploration – but that I failed to do.

I also worked out my reading by nationality of the writer. I discounted anthologies, because while their contents could be from a single nation, many are not. I had expected the US to be the source for much of what I’d read, but it turned out to be the UK – 40% to the US’s 35%. I seem to recall the same happening last year. Next highest was Germany, with 4% (that’ll be those Jenny Erpenbeck books, then). Other nations include: Argentina, Canada, China, Denmark, Norway and Spain, among others.

2016_books_by_country

Compared to 2015’s reading, this is a distinct improvement – not only a few more more countries, but also more titles that weren’t from the UK or US. I plan to read more translated fiction in 2017, so I expect this chart will look very different this time next year.

Reading books, however, is only, er, half the story. Books, after all, do not magically appear out of thin air – well, I guess ebooks do, but I much prefer hardbacks and paperbacks. I didn’t keep every book I purchased in 2016, however – some of those I picked up from charity shops, I donated back after I’d read them. In total, during 2016 I bought 150 books I’d not previously read… which means the To Be Read pile increased by six books, except… I got rid of a few books I’d never got around to reading, and likely never would, so the TBR actually shrank by twenty-two books. (At that rate, it’d take me about 50 years to completely read my TBR.) Of the books I purchased, it’s about a 50:50 split between bought new and bought secondhand, but only 21 were actually first published in 2016. I’ve no plans to change that in 2017 – I certainly don’t choose my reading based on the shiny new, and, to be honest, and a lot of the currently popular genre stuff doesn’t take my fancy at all. So I shall continue explore the oeuvres of those writers I like and seek out books by writers new to me, from whatever decade, whose works are more tuned to my tastes. And, hopefully, I’ll make a bigger dent in the TBR over the next twelve months…


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Moving pictures, #68

Half of the films in this post are from the US, but then one of them I did actually see at the cinema. It’s become a bit of a tradition over the last decade to go see something at the cinema during the Christmas holiday, and that usually means something genre and very commercial… like Star Wars. And this year, it was Rogue One.

20462046, Wong Kar-Wai (2004, China). I bought this years ago, along with In the Mood for Love, when they were originally released in the UK on DVD – both as special editions in cardboard sleeves. I’ve no idea why. Somewhere I’d come across the director’s name, possibly in Sight & Sound, and picked up his two latest films… and while I’d clearly liked them enough to hang onto the DVDs, I’d not rewatched them until recently. And… my, 2046 is gloriously self-indulgent, isn’t it? It rehashes the plot of In the Mood for Love, with the same actors, but set in the titular year. Kar-Wai sets his scene through the use of neon-soaked montages, a combination of special effects and live photography, and it’s very effective. The actual set dressing is a little dated, although clearly not meant as an entirely serious attempt to present a real 2046 CE. Certainly 2046 is one of those films that doesn’t so much tell a story as provide a feast for the eyes. I’ll be hanging onto my copies of In the Mood for Love and 2046, I think. I also need to watch more Wong Kar-Wai, I think.

400_days400 Days, Matt Osterman (2015, USA). Some films look good on paper, but fail to live up to their promise. This is a classic example – although it tries hard. Four astronauts are consigned to a simulated space mission for the eponymous period of time in an underground replica of a spacecraft. Rather than build a simulator in a nice controllable environment, like an aircraft hangar, which is what most actual experiments of this type do, in the film they bury their fake spacecraft in a field in the middle of nowhere… Despite this, it all goes well for about 200 days. Then they start to turn psychotic, but that turns out to be caused by a fault in the environmental system. Then someone breaks into the “spacecraft”, and they lose touch with “mission control”. So they climb out of their simulator… and discover a post-apocalyptic world. Apparently, while they were on their mission, an asteroid hit the moon, and a vast quantity of pulverised moon dust dropped into earth’s atmosphere, causing a nuclear winter. However, two of the astronauts think this is all part of the simulation. The other two are not so sure. The film doesn’t resolve itself either way. 400 Days tries hard, but never quite convinces. The simulator in no way resembles a realistic spacecraft, and burying it in a field is just daft. The final scenes try so hard not to resolve the set-up, they end up setting a completely different tone to what’s gone before. This is a film that wants its cake and to eat it too, but manages neither. Avoidable.

death_lazarescuThe Death of Mr Lazarescu, Cristin Puiu (2005, Romania). Some films, on the other hand, don’t work on paper, and should not work on the screen – but somehow manage to. This is a classic example. An old man with a drink problem and past medical problems needs to go to hospital because he feels ill, but gets taken from hospital to hospital – in Bucharest – by the ambulance, because none of the hospitals will accept him. This is a black comedy. Ten years from now, it could be reality. In the UK. Thanks to scumbag Tories. Lazarescu complains of an upset stomach, and blames it on a prior condition. It gets more serious, his neighbours get involved, an ambulance is called for. And then the ambulance, and the paramedic who is taking care of Lazarescu, is bounced from hospital to hospital. Because he drinks, he is seen as less deserving of medical care – and since when did lifestyle become a barrier to healthcare? What next? Skin colour? Nationality? True, drinkers are more likely to suffer from certain conditions – but that doesn’t make drinking the cause of everything they might suffer. And healthcare for all is healthcare for all. Romania was, nominally, a socialist nation, but seriously who thinks the Ceaucescus were an actual socialist regime? Which is not in the slightest bit relevant, as Romania has an apparently quite efficient health service, it just failed the title character in this case – and more for effect, I hope, than an actual representation of the current state of affairs. Despite that, a good film and definitely worth seeing.

rogue_oneStar Wars: Rogue One, Gareth Edwards (2016, USA). Unlike The Force Awakens, I went into Rogue One with no particular preconceptions – this was not a prequel or sequel or midquel, it was a story set in the same universe as the two Star Wars trilogies. Except, of course, it turned out to be a midquel – although it retconned details I hadn’t even known, given that I’m supremely uninterested in EU Star Wars… Anyway, I took Rogue One as I found it, and I even sort of ignored the various moment of fan service as the sort of dumb frills the story didn’t need but the marketing department had insisted on including. And, as a result… it wasn’t bad. It wasn’t great, by any means. But it wasn’t bad. A science officer who walked away from the empire is tracked down and forced back to work – building the Death Star. Because, of course, the Death Star could only be designed by one man. But his daughter escaped and has become a bit of a freebooter. But now the rebels want her because she’s a link with an extremist group led by Forrest Whitaker and he has an Imperial pilot who has defected and wants to deliver a message to the Rebel Alliance. The message is from the science officer. Cue reluctant hero, lots of heavy-handed Imperial enforcement, and some eye-popping visuals. But, as with all of the Star Wars films, the story logic falls down in several places. We’re supposed to believe the science officer deliberately built a flaw into the Death Star (you know, that bit at the end of the first ever Star Wars film), but, well, couldn’t he have made it a bit fucking easier? And then there’s the Empire’s love of “master switches”, which are usually sited in some totally random place because of course where else would you put it? And an archive of technical plans that isn’t accessible over the network? What use is it, then? It’s like something out of an IBM catalogue from 1988. And how come the rebels could talk to the ships in orbit through the shield, but they couldn’t beam the data out? How does that work? Oh wait, made-up bollocks. Of course. In hindsight, The Force Awakens feels like a canny way to open Disney’s management of the franchise – a giant cheese-fest of fan service with a plot that reiterates the original, and parades all those beloved favourites in all their aged glory across the screen – because, hey, cultural icons turn wrinkly too, or rather, that actors who play them, and get paid to do so, turn wrinkly and, sadly, die. Which, also sadly, ties back into Rogue One and its two turns by CGI actors – Peter Cushing, who died in 1994, and a young Carrie Fisher, who even more sadly died only last month. Neither looked quite real – close enough to be very creepy, anyway. I suspect Rogue One is a good example of what we can expect from Disney in the Star Wars universe: feature-film-length episodes of a long-running series, with a story arc that retcons itself and tangles itself up so completely as it progresses that by 2050 it’s not going to make the slightest bit of sense to even the most ardent of Star Wars nerd. Still, who knows, by then we could have moved past post-truth to a post-narrative world…

red_queenThe Red Queen Kills Seven Times, Emilio Miraglia (1972, Italy). Is this a giallo? I think this is a giallo. Although it’s more like supernatural horror than a detective story. Two sisters, one blonde and one brunette, do not get on. The blonde accidentally kills the brunette, as you do, when they’re teenagers. Many years later, the father dies and his will is held in probate for a year. Because there’s a family legend that the Red Queen will return and kill seven family members, and look!, people are getting murdered in horrible ways. All the clues seem to point to the brunette sister, who everyone has insisted is living somewhere in the US, but yup, her body is still down in the cellar, where the two surviving sisters hid it. There’s a twist, of course, maybe even two or three. To be honest, I only watched this a couple of days ago as I write this and I’m having trouble remembering the details. Barbara Bouchet, as the blonde sister, is very watchable, but it must have been about two-thirds into the film before I even noticed it was set in Germany (everyone speaks Italian, of course). It’s all very silly, one of those films pretty much defined by the bright-red fake blood they use on, er, films of this type. The final scene, in which Bouchet is trapped in a room in the cellars which begins to fill with water – deliberately, it’s a trap – is a cleare reference to The Phantom of the Opera, or perhaps to one of the zillions of films which ripped off the idea from The Phantom of the Opera, but it does make you wonder why they built a room in the cellars of the castle that could be filled with water… A fun night in, providing alcohol is involved.

bad_dayBad Day at Black Rock*, John Sturges (1955, USA). This is apparently not available on DVD in the UK or US, which is a surprise. Fortunately, someone on eBay was selling a Korean copy they’d bought for a cheap price – not that I realised it was a Korean release until I received it. But it was an excellent transfer – and it need to be, because this is Technicolor in all its, er, technicolour glory. The film is set in 1946. Spencer Tracy plays a stranger who appears at titular town, looking for a Japanese man. The locals don’t take kindly to his questions. But that’s because they killed the Japanese man during the war, because he was Japanese and they are racist. Parts of the plot of Bad Day at Black Rock were very reminiscent of Rio Bravo from 1959, although that would require a temporal paradox, and, to be fair, the plot of Rio Bravo was so good Howard Hawks used it at least three times himself. However, the film that Bad Day at Black Rock most reminded me of was Violent Saturday, another Technicolor thriller and absolutely gorgeous to see, although Bad Day at Black Rock‘s desert scenery didn’t really lend itself to the format. But it’s a good thriller, sort of noir without being noir, and looks great, even if some of its performances are a bit over-egged (Ernest Borgnine, for example). Some of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die I’ve had to buy legal rips or foreign-language DVDs because they’re not available in the UK or US… and most, I’ve no desire to keep. But this one is a keeper. A good film.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 839


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Resolutions

At the beginning of every year, it is traditional to document a number of promises you will prove incapable of keeping throughout the following twelve months. But at least you mean well, or you wouldn’t be making such promises. They are, after all, meant to be improving. This is not a bad word, as some seem to think. We should improve ourselves. All the time. And New Year Resolutions (I apologise for the caps) are a good tool for doing so. But. They work better when they’re achievable, when they’re in your own gift, so to speak. It’s true, “I will sell a novel in 2017” could happen, but it’s someone else who makes the purchasing decision, no matter how much you network or self-promote…

And it’s precisely those sorts of personal target I’ve decided to set for my own resolutions in 2017:

  1. I will write more fiction. 2016 was not a productive year for me, thanks to the dayjob. That situation hasn’t changed – if anything, it’s likely to be worse. But I still want to make more time to write fiction. And finish off the third book of my space opera trilogy. I have plenty of ideas for stories, I just need to start putting pen to paper…
  2. I will watch more non-Anglophone movies than English-language ones. This one is relatively easy to implement – I’ve already changed my Amazon rental list so I get sent two world cinema films for every one Hollywood film. I just need to stick to it. I will, of course, continue to write about the films I’ve seen on my blog.
  3. I will read more widely in terms of geography. A few years ago I tried a “world fiction” reading challenge, and read a novel from a different country each month. I managed six months before it fell apart. In 2016, I read Erpenbeck, Mallo, Borges, Calvino, Müller, Blixen, Liu, Knausgård… all translated works. I’d like to read more books from more countries. I have a bunch of Arabic translated fiction sitting on my bookshelves, and a list of authors from various nations I’d like to try – most, sadly, non-genre. So I plan to go for it in 2017. I might even tackle some fiction written in another language (with a dictionary to hand). I’ll still maintain a gender balance in my reading, of course.
  4. I will write more non-fiction. I have… thoughts about science fiction. Some of them I’ve documented on this blog. I have also seen the genre change in the decades since I first started reading it. And those changes have been both good and bad. The “genre conversation” at present is a weak and feeble thing, partly propped up by the marketing departments of assorted genre imprints – I recently saw a small press magazine tweeting requests for support for authors published by a major genre imprint, WTF. The genre is in serious needs of its conversations, and it also needs to hold off on all those five-star reviews… I cannot change this, I do not have that power. But I can start writing about science fiction in a way that I think science fiction should be written about. This, I freely admit, is going to be the hardest resolution to keep.
  5. I will start reviewing again. Thanks to the dayjob I sort of dropped out of reviewing books for both Interzone and Vector. In fact, I sort of dropped out of contributing to pretty much anything. I shouldn’t have let that slide, and promise to get the two reviews I owe done as soon as I can.
  6. I’ll figure out what I’m going to do with Whippleshield Books. I set up Whippleshield Books so I could publish the Apollo Quartet, but I’d always planned to publish material by other writers. Unfortunately, my one attempt to do so – the anthology Aphrodite Terra – was pretty much ignored by everyone. Even the collection I rushed out for the Eastercon in 2016, Dreams of the Space Age, has sold only a handful of copies. Selling, and promoting, books required far more energy and time than I could devote to it last year, and much as I’d like to keep Whippleshield Books running in 2017 I’m not convinced I can give it that time and energy. I certainly don’t want to use it to publish only my own stuff – I have a collection of stories I’d like to see print, for example, but I’d sooner someone else published them.

I think that’s enough for now. I don’t want to get too ambitious. I didn’t even bother with any resolutions for 2016 – oh, except for one, the Reader Harder Challenge. But I promptly forgot about it, and seem to have read 13 of the 24 types of books in the challenge more by accident than by design. Anyway, the above half-dozen above are vague enough I should be able to a) remember them, and b) make a serious attempt at following them.

vintage-library

Of course, no one knows yet what 2017 will throw at us, although Brexit and Trump will certainly have major impacts. And not for the good. But there’s not a fat lot we can do about those since in the twenty-first century democracy apparently no loger means rule by the majority. We are in the hands of the Super Greedy, and they will take it all, even if it kills people, even if it crashes the global economy or the climate. If we survive 2017 more or less intact, it will be in spite of Trump and May, not because of them… And on that cheery note, I need to go finish off my last two Moving pictures posts of 2016…