It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Awards, rewards and self-publishing

Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time won the Clarke Award, which was a surprise – but a pleasant one. At least the book I’d expected to win didn’t take the prize; but, sadly, neither did the book I wanted to win. I had Children of Time pegged more as a BSFA Award book than a Clarke Award, but when I wrote about it in August last year I predicted good things would happen to it. And I’m happy for Adrian, who is a thoroughly good bloke (and scarily prolific). Children of Time is one of the very few books I started reading on the day of purchase – and it was completely by accident. I’d bought the book at Edge-Lit 4, but during the journey home I finished the novel I’d brought to read on the train and so turned to Children of Time. I wonder if it’s repeatable…

I’ve written about the Clarke Award shortlist elsewhere, and about the individual books on it in scattered Reading diary posts on this blog. It was – and I’m not the only person to use this word – a lacklustre shortlist. The Clarke has always been a boundary-pushing sort of literary award, but the last few years it seems to have been circling its metaphorical wagons. There has been surprisingly little commentary about the books on the shortlist this year, despite it being the award’s thirtieth anniversary, despite the extended period between the announcement of the shortlist and the announcement of the winner. But when most commentary on sf these days seems to consist of brainless hyperbole on social media, having all the criticial insight of marketing copy, it’s plainly a problem much wider than an award shortlist. In today’s genre conversation, books receive either five stars or one star. It’s a piss-poor excuse for a conversation, and it’s poisoning the genre. Not only is sf blanding out, we seem to be actively encouraging it to do so…

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Which makes the award’s decision to allow self-published works to submit baffling. The vast majority of self-published books are derivative commercial sf, space opera or military science fiction. It’s precisely the sort of sf you’d hope the Clarke Award would avoid. Of course, there are also self-published works which are anything but commercial – and may well have been self-published for that very reason. But the award director cites the examples of Becky Chambers’s The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and Jeff Noon’s Channel Skin (which I’ve not read) as good reasons for including self-published works. Of course, the Chambers was already eligible because it had been picked up and published by Hodder. I’m a bit annoyed the award bent the rules to allow me to submit All That Outer Space Allows – which was also selected for the Tiptree Award’s honour list – but then hasn’t seen fit to hold it up as an example of a self-published novel that was worthy of submission.

I deliberately set out when writing each book of the Apollo Quartet to upset the expectations of readers, something I had the freedom to do because I was self-publishing. And while that has seen the books win one award, be nominated for a further two, and appear on the honour list of another… I’ve sold only 3700 copies since April 2012. And Dreams of the Space Age, a collection of short stories set in the same, er, space as the Apollo Quartet, published in April of this year… well, I can barely give them way – 86 copies sold since its launch. However, I don’t have the marketing clout or the distribution channels of a major publishing imprint, so this was hardly unexpected. To be honest, I’d actually expected Adrift on the Sea of Rains to sink without trace.

Because I self-published, because I had no expectations of commercial success, so I was free to write something challenging. The fact that some people appreciated that enough to nominate the books for awards was a huge surprise. And I saw that as grounds to write even more challenging sf. Which at least might have stood me in good stead for some awards. Except now the Clarke Award appears to prefer more commercial works, and by opening itself up to self-published books, is likely to become yet more commercial. I’m guessing, of course; but you can’t get more commercial than the Firefly fanfic that is The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

It’s an inevitable conclusion, and one that has plainly occurred to Adam Roberts, who has gone on record as saying he will no longer write challenging science fiction novels as he would sooner not have his books ignored. And I think to myself I would sooner write more difficult sf. On the other hand, success brings its own acclaim, and it’s astonishing how popular books become “awesome” and “amazeballs” and “the best book ever written”. Which is not to say challenging works can never be popular, nor commercial works possess literary quality, nor literary works enjoy commercial success… But we’re in danger of losing what’s best about science fiction if the only game in town is “most popular kid in the playground”… And I was going to write something about lone voices in the wilderness being the only ones to carry the flame, but that really is a mixed metaphor too far… But it’s not unrealistic to expect, to hope, that the Clarke Award is skewed toward challenging science fiction novels, and not the dull, and often juvenile, meat-and-potatoes/bread-and-butter sf which sells by the yard (and is likely written by the yard too), and which appears to comprise the vast undifferentiated mass of self-published science fiction.

But I’m speculating – and we shall see next year how the Clarke Award implements its expanded remit. A juried award at least has the advantage of not being bent out of shape by eligibility posts, or fan and tribe affiliations; and for that reason I look to the Clarke as a truer picture of what the word “best” means in science fiction in any given year. I would hate to lose that…

 


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Moving pictures, #42

More films. So it goes.

fanThe Fan, Otto Preminger (1949, USA). I have a fondness for Preminger’s films, although that may well be simply because he was a name I fastened onto when I started tracking my film watching… but I started out watching his movies so I may as well carry on and complete his oeuvre. Of which this is not a good example. It is an especially unwitty adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’, which inadvertently has the advantage of making the story much simpler to parse – although, to be fair, I’ve not seen Wilde’s play, so the loss of his dialogue is not one I’d notice. (There are, of course, more faithful adaptations of the play, but I’ve not seen any of those either.) It opens shortly after WWII, when an old woman in an auction room objects that the fan which is for sale, found in the ruins of a bombed house and unclaimed, is hers. The auction house tells her that if she can verify her claim, they’ll hand it over. So she goes looking for Lord Darlington, a friend from many years before… And after a bit of banter (very little of which is Wildean), we’re in flashback territory, and it’s the last decade of the nineteenth century and the “adventuress” Mrs Erlynne has arrived in London and attached herself to the company of Lord Darlington and the young Windermeres. And when Arthur Windermere puts up for a London residence for Mrs Erlynne, and is often seen her company, tongues begin to wag, and a nasty rumour eventually reaches Margaret Windermere. It all comes to a head at a fancy party at the Windermeres, to which Erlynne is invited, and at which she reveals her secret (she’s Margaret Windermere’s black sheep mother, who ran away decades before). As historical drama, this is a pretty solid, if unadventurous, movie, but you expect more from Wilde and the bowdlerisation of his lines has done it few favours. One for Preminger completists, I think.

new_worldThe New World, Terrence Malick (2005, UK). I don’t know what to make of Malick. His films are beautifully shot but also complete nonsense. There is, for example, a brilliant idea at the heart of The New World, but for some reason it doesn’t quite work. It may be that Malick’s use of Hollywood stars, and their highly-promoted identities, works against what he is trying to achieve… The New World tells the story of Pocahontas, although focusing mostly on the English men with which she had relationships. Malick has gone for a completely authentic look and feel to his story – even going as far as getting a professor of linguistics to reconstruct the extinct Powahatan language spoken by the Native Americans of the period and location the film takes place. But the real genius of The New World – or rather, what could have been the real genius – is that the bulk of the dialogue is actually voiceover and is the characters, all of whom are real historical figures, speaking the text from their own diaries and journals. But. It doesn’t quite work because this is not a documentary and the real historical figures are played by recognisable Hollywood actors such as Colin Farrell, Christopher Plummer, David Thewlis or Christian Bale. True, the pivotal role of Pocahontas is played by an unknown, Q’orianka Kilcher, a German actress, in her first major role. And she’s very good in it too. It goes without saying that The New World is mostly gorgeous to watch, and it looks and sounds exactly how you would expect a English colony in North America in the early seventeenth century to look and sound (well, except for the drama school kids, but we won’t mention them)… I remain conflicted about Malick and his films. They look lovely, he’s probably the closest the Hollywood system has come to slow cinema, but… there’s always something slightly off about them. Perhaps it’s simply that his style of film-making doesn’t work in Hollywood, is fatally compromised by Hollywood’s use of familar names and faces in roles where the baggage they bring undermines their parts. It doesn’t help that Malick’s reputation in the US as “auteur supreme” likely gives him the freedom to be self-indulgent, and a little self-indulgence goes a long way. But whatever it is, there’s something about Malick’s films that rubs the wrong way, and I wonder if it’s the friction between the Hollywood system and the sort of films Malick’s movies try to present themselves as being.

city_of_womenCity of Women, Federico Fellini (1980, Italy). As male writers get older, they enter a Dirty Old Man phase – cf John Fowles’s Mantissa, or anything by Robert Heinlein after the mid-1960s… – and creators in situations which give them more than the usual artistic freedom are especially susceptible. True, Fellini has been self-indulgent since day one, but I do love that self-indulgence in his colour films – or, at least, I loved those I’d seen… But Fellini has made many films, and bizarre as Satyricon is, or Casanova… others would no doubt fall either side of that indulgence divide (to coin a phrase). I had very little idea of what to expect from La città della donne, except perhaps something like a cross between Giuglietta della spiriti and something created by a middle-aged Italian male… And, er, that’s a bit what it’s like. It feels like it can’t decide if it’s an attack on feminism or a celebration of it, and the fact it sends mixed messages is clearly not to its credit. There are things to like in City of Women – and they’re the same sort of things to like in Fellini’s career – but there’s also that weird undercurrent that feels like a, well, MRA attack on feminism. Which is like watching a comedian whose every other joke falls flat, but you’re never entirely sure if that’s deliberate. Things have changed in the four decades since the film was made, and it renders some of its complaints weirdly old-fashioned, others weirdly trivial, and some even more relevant now than they were then. A man on a train (Marcello Mastroianni playing, well, Marcello Mastroianni) flirts with a woman, and when the train stops in the middle of nowhere and she disembarks, he follows her… through some woods to a sort of isolated hotel where a conference on feminism, attended entirely by women, is taking place. And, er, that’s it. This is Second Wave Feminism as the butt of an extended joke… except, there’s a sense throughout that the joke is on those who see the feminism as the joke. I don’t know. Given Fellini’s career I’m inclined to think he was having fun at the expense of anti-feminists (while not subscribing to feminism himself), but parts of City of Women are so bonkers – the final third of it, pretty much – that it’s hard to be sure what he meant. Given his previous films, I’d give him the benefit of the doubt, I think; but City of Women still remains the least satisfactory of his colour films I have seen so far.

septemberCome September, Robert Mulligan (1961, USA). I do love me some Rock Hudson rom com, and he was at his best in these during the 1960s. And, let’s face it, how can you go wrong with Gina Lollobrigida as the female lead? And Italian locations? (Although apparently Lollobrigida was not keen on returning to Italy.) Anyway, Hudson plays a successful industrialist who, each year, spends the month of September in his large villa on the Genoese coast. But one year he decides to go in July instead… which promptly screws up a few things. For a start, his girlfriend, Lollobrigida, is about to get married to some English wet, but breaks it off when she gets his call. And his butler, played superbly by Walter Slezak, has been runnnig the villa as a hotel for eleven months of the year. And, en route to his villa, Hudson has a run-in with a bunch of American rowdies led by Bobby Darin. So Hudson finds his girlfriend wavering, his house occupied by a group of young American women and their chaperone, and he has Darin’s rowdies camped outside on the road because Darin fancies one of the guests of the “hotel”, Sandra Dee (Darin and Dee actually married after the film)… Aside from Hudson’s massive sense of entitlement, this is a pretty straightforward 1960s rom com. It has its charms, and some of its jokes are quite good, but it’s hamstrung by the fact that Hudson’s character is actually a nasty piece of work. It’s watchable because Hudson is eminently watchable – and there are probably only a handful of actors of the time who could have got away with playing such a role – but not even Lollobrigida’s screen presence and charm, Darin’s cinematic surliness, or even Dee’s all-American bland chirpiness, can make this more than a middling rom com of the period, even for Rock Hudson.

phoenixPhoenix, Christian Petzold (2014, Germany). I don’t chose my viewing entirely from lists of best films. Sometimes it’s stuff I stumble across that takes my fancy, and sometimes it’s movies recommended by friends. As this one was. By David Tallerman. Who has recommended good films to me in the past (some, it must be said, better than others). In fact, Phoenix had not pinged on my radar at all, and having now watched it I’m glad David recommended it. A Jewish woman who survived the camps returns to Berlin to discover what happened to her Gentile husband. She had been badly wounded in the face, and she requires plastic surgery, which results in her appearance changing. So when she tracks down her husband, he does not recognise her. But he does think she looks enough like his “missing” wife that she could impersonate her and so claim the inheritance left to her. The woman does not reveal her true identity and plays along with this subterfuge, partly to disprove the lie of a friend who insists the husband was the one who gave up the woman to the Gestapo. Phoenix is based on a 1961 French novel, Le retour des cendres, but, to be honest, to my mind it seems to work better with a German setting – it certainly gives the central premise a bigger emotional payload. A good film and definitely worth seeing. It might well make a future 1001 Movies list, if it hasn’t already.

lessonA Lesson in Love, Ingmar Bergman (1954, Sweden). Bergman made a lot of films and some of them are bona fide classics of the medium. Others are little more than cinematic adaptations of middling stage plays – or, at least, that’s how they come across, even if they’d been written directly for film. As far as I know, A Lesson in Love was conceived of and produced purely as a film. But it’s not that easy to tell with Bergman. A Lesson in Love is also minor Bergman, inasmuch as it’s entertaining and has something to say, but when all’s said and done, it sort of fades into that middle Bergman ground where so many of his films reside and where it’s hard to tell one of them from the other. I could put together a list of a dozen top-notch Bergman films, and even for a director who made over sixty films, that’s an enviably large list. Sadly, A Lesson in Love would not be on that list. It’s a 1950s Swedish comedy about a gynecologist and his patients and marriage and affairs, and to be honest it all sort of blurs into one after a bit. There’s some good witty dialogue and some on-target points, but nothing in it really stands out. It probably needs a rewatxch, to be fair, but if there’s one thing about Bergman’s oeuvre that is true it’s that it can stand multiple rewatches. And not many directors can say that.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list: 793


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Moving pictures, #41

Despite a weekend away at Bloodstock, I managed to keep to my somewhat heavy schedule of film-watching; although, once again, most of the movies below are not from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (only one is, in fact). But that’s chiefly due to the vagaries of the DVD rental services I use. Anyway, avanti…

surfwiseSurfwise, Doug Pray (2007, USA). Dorian Paskowitz graduated from Stanford Medical School in 1946, ended up in Hawaii, and became enamoured of surfing. This led to your typical surfer dude philosophy of diet and lifestyle, albeit several decades before it came to prominence… Paskowitz went on to introduce surfing to Israel, and many years later to Palestine. But Surfwise is more about Paskowitz and his family than it is his accomplishments. Initially, the film clearly admires the man, but the interviews with his eleven children paint a somewhat different picture: of a man who was harsh, if not abusive, and left his children with a completely different legacy to that painted by the opening third of the documentary. Paskowitz himself seems unrepentant – he led an interesting life and knows it, and he stands by pretty much every idea he has ever had, no matter how unpopular or crackpot. Certainly, Paskowitz is an interesting individual, with a story to tell; and it’s quite clever how Surfwise uses that to hide the fact he isn’t half as nice as protrayed, and then slowly shifts the sympathy of the viewer away from him. But when all’s said and done, Surfwise is a well-made documentary about a not-especially-interesting topic.

three_coloursThree Colours: White, Krzysztof Kieślowski (1994, France). I’m prepared to accept that Kieślowski belongs on a list of the greatest directors, and I’ll happily agree he’s created several superior examples of a particular type of film. But… These rewatches – prompted by upgrading my DVD copies to Blu-ray – have proven an interesting exercise, if somewhat disappointing, inasmuch as the movies haven’t quite matched up to what memory, and the weight of critical opinion, has insisted they’re worth. True, White is generally considered the weakest of the trilogy, although having now watched it again I’m not sure why. The story is more obvious, and the driving emotion of the story more… primal; and there are a few bits which are implausible… But the plot has more drive than Blue and the characters’ motivations more obvious (except, perhaps, for Juliette Delpy’s character, who comes across more like a motivation for the lead character, played by Zbigniew Zamachowski, than a character in her own right). Delpy and Zamachowski, both hairdressers, were married, but the film opens with their divorce. In Paris. Where Zamachowski is at a disadvantage as he doesn’t speak French. He ends up with nothing, but a chance encounter with another Pole sees him smuggled back to Poland, by air, in a suitcase (even in 1994, this was implausible). Through a combination of contacts and clever dealing, Zamachowski becomes a millionaire… and promptly fakes his own death and frames Delpy for his murder. The “white” apparently refers to “equality” in the three political ideals of the French Revolution, and I guess that applies to Zamachowski’s revenge on his wife, although revenge seems a curious means of applying equality. It goes without saying that White is beautifully shot and arranged, and that the cast put in spotless performances, but it still feels like a movie of a type rather than a movie per se. Kieślowski was very good at what he did, and Piesiewicz wrote scripts perfectly suited to Kieślowski’s approach to film-making… But a little goes a long way, and while my tastes have turned more toward slow cinema than they had been before, it does seem a little like Kieślowski’s reputation is a little over-stated… Nonetheless, an excellent film, an certainly more deserving of a place on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list than many that are actually on it.

corvetteCorvette K-225, Richard Rosson (1943, USA). I had thought this was a Howard Hawks film, which is why I added it to my rental list; but he apparently only produced it. Oh well. Still, I enjoy WWII naval films, almost as much as I enjoy Cold War USAF films, and considerably more than I enjoy WWII infantry films. The title of the movie refers to a Flower-class corvette, built in Canada and operated by the Royal Canadian Navy. The ships were originally designed for near-shore operations, but ended up as escorts for convoys across the Atlantic. Lead Randolph Scott returns to Halifax after losing his corvette, and most of his crew,  to a U-Boat. He’s a given a new ship – the titular ship – currently on the slipway being built. They build the ship, Scott gets his crew, they go out on escort duty, accompanying a convoy to Southhampton. There’s a romantic triangle, of course – well, sort of: Scott starts seeing the sister of an officer who died on his previous ship, and, to make matters worse, her young brother joins the new corvette as a junior officer, fresh out of the academy. The convoy goes as you’d expect – from a dramatic standpoint rather than an actual WWII standpoint – and even results in an encounter with the U-Boat which sank Scott’s previous corvette. This is solid wartime drama, good for the folks at home, good for those fighting; and interesting because it gives an accurate idea of life aboard a corvette on a trans-Atlantic convoy. Better than I expected.

badgeBadge of Fury, Wong Tsz-ming (2013, China). Some confusion over the title of this, since the DVD seems to be Badge of Fury but the streamed version I watched on Amazon Prime was titled Badges of Fury. No matter. Anyway, I stumbled across it on Amazon Prime, didn’t up to watching something too weighty and this seemed like it’d be worth a go. And so it was. The beginning wasn’t too auspicious – three bumbling cops who mess up a sting to catch a gangster at a posh party when one of the cops recognises an entirely different gangster and attempts to arrest him instead (although Jet Li can never be “bumbling”, so his character is just lazy and a clock-watcher). In fact – title aside – the film doesn’t initially come across as a comedy and it’s only when you twig that it’s getting increasingly silly that you realise. As a Hong Kong comedy/action movie, Badge of Fury is perhaps more polished than most, although the repartee is somewhat repetitive. But when you start spotting references to other Hong Kong action films, well… it gains a whole other dimension. Not only are there direct references, including to some of Li’s own films, but the final fight scene riffs off climactic fights from at least four films that I counted, of which Once Upon A Time in China was only the most obvious. I hadn’t expected much of Badge of Fury, and initially it seemed to promise very little, but as it progressed it showed itself to be a clever piece of work, and even a halfway decent comedy. Worth seeing.

kesKes*, Ken Loach (1969, UK). I’m surprised I’ve managed to fail to see this over the past couple of decades, although it’s not like I’ve made an effort to avoid it. But it’s a well-known and highly-regarded British film – probably one of the best-known from this country, in fact (second only to, shudder, Four Weddings and a Funeral, I suspect). It’s also pretty much a local film – not so much for where I’m from but where I now live (although my home town is not that far from my current city of residence). Anyway, it’s set in Barnsley. A young boy who is bullied by his older brother and at school, steals a kestrel chick from a nest and raises it following the advice given in a book he stole from the local library. I’ve no idea if Kes prompted the media characterisation of “it’s Grim Up North”, but it certainly must have fed into it. Because Kes paints a bleak picture of Barnsley (not undeservedly; I’ve been there); although, of course, one depressed area is not all depressed areas – and I say that as someone whose relatives’ background is not dissimilar to that of the characters in Kes (although not my own personally as my parents moved to the Middle East when I was two). But the life depicted in Kes was not unfamiliar. Although I did struggle once or twice with the dialect. Yet, when all’s said and done, the film deserves its plaudits. Loach’s documentary-style approach made the story emotionally powerful – helped by a good cast, including Brian Glover with actual hair (in his first ever role). I’ve now seen two Loach films in quick succession, and been inmpressed by both. Those Loach box sets are looking more attractive every day…

lets_make_loveLet’s Make Love, George Cukor (1960, USA). I like 1950s films, even musical ones, although not as much as melodramas, and at least one 1950s musical by Cukor I’ve seen I like a lot – that would be Les Girls – but I’m not a huge Marilyn Monroe fan (I’d sooner watch, say, Ginger Rogers)… But anyway it seems I stuck this on my rental list, and so it dropped through the letter-box and I watched it and… Meh. Yves Montaud plays a billionaire playboy who learns an off-Broadway revue intends to take the piss out of him in one of their musical numbers. So he decides to check it out himself, walks into the rehearsal… and spots Marilyn Monroe rehearsing a musical number. He immediately falls in love, auditions for and wins the part of a lookalike of himself, with the intent of wooing Monroe incognito. It’s a hoary old plot, and I’m pretty sure Hollywood trots it out at least once a decade. Monroe provides a couple of iconic moments, Frankie Vaughn is a bit whiny as the male star of the revue, and Montaud can’t seem to decide if he should play it stiff or charmant and so manages some weird state in between the two. There’s a bit of fun in Milton Berle, Gene Killy and Bing Crosby appearing as themselves, each hired to teach Montaud, respectively, comedy, dancing and singing – all in order to increase his appeal to Monroe. But the film’s biggest fault is that it all seems a bit drab, and the sets and costumes for the musical numbers are weird and cheap-looking. Not the best film in either Monroe’s or Cukor’s oeuvres, although apparently it provided Hollywood with plenty of gossip about Monroe and Montaud…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 793


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Summer harvest

I have been mostly very good of late and have managed not to add more books to the TBR than I read per month, so it is slowly – very slowly – dwindling. This doesn’t however, prevent me from buying better editions of books I’ve already read – because, of course, they don’t count. There have also been a couple of lucky finds in local charity shops since my last book haul post.

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The aforementioned charity shop finds: Rites of Passage and The Inheritors I’ve always fancied reading, but had never come across copies before. And the Sword of Honour trilogy was another on my wants list that I’d never expected to find. (Yes, yes, I know; I could have bought the books new from a bookshop, but there are some books you fancy reading but not enough to buy them new.) I stopped reading Gibson after Virtual Light, but I really ought to read him again, so The Peripheral was a fortunate find. Tor double No. 24 Elegy for Angels and Dogs / The Graveyeard Heart was, unlike the others, an eBay purchase. Four more and I’ll have all 36 of the series.

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And speaking of series… Now that I have The Submarine Alliance, I only need one more and I’ll have all of the Anatomy of the Ship books (all, that is, of the twentieth century ships; I’ve not bothered with the sailing ship ones). The University of Toronto Press collected all of Malcolm Lowry’s letters in two volumes, under the title Sursum Corda! (it means “lift up your hearts”, but I don’t know – yet – what the Lowry link is). This is volume 1, found on eBay. Both books are pretty scarce, so I’m still trying to track down a copy of the second volume. Science Fiction is an actual new book, bought at whatever price it was the (online) retailer had set. I’m mentioned in it too! It’s only in passing and in reference to SF Mistressworks, but it’s my first appearance in an actual critical work on science fiction in book format.

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A pair of bandes dessinées from series I’ve been reading: The Wrath of Hypsis is the twelfth volume in the Valerian and Laureline series (there are 23 in print so far in French). Antares Episode 6, however, is the latest volume in both French and English in the Antares series. I wrote about both of these here.

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Mention of Delany somewhere recently reminded me that I wanted a copy of Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, which I’d negelcted to buy when it was published… and wow, copies are dear now. I eventually found one on eBay for a reasonable price. It’s a surprisingly fat book. A couple of weeks ago, I was chatting on Twitter with Steve Savile about collecting books, and mentioned I had all of Banks’s in first edition (some signed) except his debut, The Wasp Factory, which had always been too expensive. To prove the point, I searched on eBay… and found a copy going for much less than I’d expected (roughly half of what it had been the last time I checked). Reader, I bought it. The Caryatids I reviewed for Interzone – and interviewed Sterling as well – back in 2009, so I only had an ARC. But I always fancied a proper first edition, and when a signed one popped up on eBay for $15, I snapped it up. I also wanted the slipcased edition of Globalhead… and when a copy popped up on eBay for $30, I snapped it up. It’s even shrinkwrapped! Results all round.


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Reading diary, #34

I stuck to my plan to read only non-fiction in July, but unfortunately I’d not considered one consequence: it usually takes longer to read non-fiction than fiction. So I’ve still not finished The Third Reich: A New History, I’m only three-quarters of the way through The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov: Figures of Paradox, and I barely got started on Imagination/Space. However… I did manage to sneak in a few fiction books…

visitationVisitation, Jenny Erpenbeck (2008). Erpenbeck’s The End of Days was the best book I read during the first half of this year, and is likely set to take the top spot come December… which I guess implies that I didn’t think Visitation as good. And, well, fair enough, it’s not as good as The End of Days… but it’s still an excellent novel. It’s written in a similar distanced sort of present tense without direct speech or speech tags. It’s also similarly episodic, although rather than the episodes being based around a person they’re based around a place. Which, in this case, is a patch of land beside a lake in what became East Germany. The story opens in the late nineteenth century (and it really does have a The White Ribbon atmosphere), when the land was covered by a wood. But the owner is forced to sell it after the First World War, and a succession of holiday homes are built on it. There’s some continuity in the form of the “Gardener”, a man who lived in the wood and who never speaks in the novel. At one point, the holiday home is owned by a Jewish family, but is then seized by the Nazis. It comes into the hands of a professional couple from East Berlin, and an old woman who has returned home after several decades living and working in Moscow… The land endures; the people, and the systems they create, do not. Erpenbeck is definitely my discovery of the year, and if Visitation doesn’t quite have the breadth or audacity of The End of Days, it’s likely only because it’s a much thinner book, little more than novella length. But in its approach to its material, it certainly presages The End of Days, although it runs as serial history rather than parallel or alternate history. I can’t recommend Erpenbeck enough. She has one more book available in English. I will be buying it and reading it before the year is out.

hangmanTor double 21: Home is the Hangman / We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line, Roger Zelazny / Samuel R Delany (1968/1975). A bunch of these Tor doubles appeared in the Isam Bookshop in Abu Dhabi back in the 1990s when I lived in the city. They’d obviously been remaindered as that was all the shop sold: remaindered books from the US and UK. (A colleague I ran into once in the shop told me in all seriousness that the books had been “rejected because they contain spelling mistakes”.) Every now and again, when I can find copies, I add to my collection. Tor published 36 doubles in total between 1989 and 1991; some, like this one, are a pair of older reprints, some an older work and a newer one (which was often a sequel or prequel by another hand to the earlier work). The two stories in this double, however, are completely unrelated – if there’s a thematic link, I missed it. According to the cover of Home is the Hangman, “He’s back from the stars – and he isn’t happy”, which tells you two things about the title character and manages to get both wrong. A nine-word blurb that is 100% wrong. Quite an achievement. The novella is narrated by a private investigator / security specialist type, who manages to live under the radar because he was a programmer on a project to computerise everyone’s personal details and ensured his own data was not recorded (this may have seemed like a plausible idea in 1968, but in 2016 it makes no sense). This, however, adds almost nothing to the story… which is about an AI which had been built to explore the moons of the outer planets, and has now returned to Earth for reasons unknown. Four people had been involved in “training” the AI and now, a couple of decades later, one runs a store, one is a psychiatrist, one is an engineer and one is a wealthy industrialist. The store-owner is brutally killed and the industrialist thinks the AI was responsible because of something horrible that happened in the past. Think Original Sin. This novella won the Hugo and Nebula and came second in the Locus Award. Zelazny is a well-known name, and a famous genre prose stylist… so I was surprised at how rubbish this was. The prose was bland, the plot obvious, and time had has not been kind to the world-building… But turn the book upside down and flip it about and you get… We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line, which is a pure hit of the pure Delany… and yes, it’s dated quite a bit but it doesn’t matter because with Delany it’s always the late 1960s/early 1970s… and yes, the central premise – giant crawler factories which lay electricity cable, free of charge, to every household on the globe – is bizarrely old-fashioned and weird for 1975… But but but. There are Hells Angels living in an abandoned house in the mountains, and they ride flying bikes. And when one of the crawling factories offers to lay cable to the house (what was wrong with the original utilities infrastructure? Delany never tells us), it breaks apart the biker gang. It’s pretty much nonsense from start to finish but it’s also what a real prose stylist looks like. Reading these two novellas is a bit like reading some sort of writing match between a pair of big names from the late 1960s. Delany wins hands-down, no doubt there; especially since Delany’s novella reads like a product of its time but the Zelazny reads like a story that could have been written at any time but does a piss-poor job of its world-building. So, Delany 1 – Zelazny 0.

agentAgent of the Imperium, Marc Miller (2015). The Traveller RPG was first published in 1977, and has been through several incarnations in the decades since. And during those years, there have been a handful of tie-in novels published – two by the game’s original publishers, GDW; one by a major imprint; but most by fans. Miller was the inventor of the game, and has been seen as its authority ever since – much as Gary Gygax was for Dungeons & Dragons – but until Agent of the Imperium, Miller had never published fiction (unlike Gygax). Agent of the Imperium was published by Miller’s company, Far Future Enterprises, but was financed via Kickstarter. Despite not think highly of other Traveller novels I’ve read, I decided it might be worth reading Miller’s go at one. And… there’s some interesting ideas in the novel, and the way it covers so much of the Third Imperium’s history is cleverly done… But it reads like a series of unconnected episodes, which eventually lead up to the seizing of the Iriridum Throne by Arbellatra, the founder of the Alkhalikoi dynasty (which was still in power five hundred or so years later, at the time the setting of Traveller “began”). The narrator of the novel is the agent of the title, and he works for the Imperial Quarantine Agency, which is charged with preventing epidemics on individual worlds from spreading across the Imperium. Of course, it takes something especially virulent to put the Imperium in danger, and the opening incident describes a world where a species of parasite has taken mental control of the population. The Agent, however, is not a real person. He was a high-level bureaucrat during the early years of the Imperium, but his personality was encoded on a wafer (a fatal process), and now, in certain circumstances, the commanders of Imperial Navy vessels or fleets are instructed to insert a copy of the wafer into a suitable officer equipped with a jack, and so invoke the Agent, who can then advise on the situation. These situations usually result in the Agent advising the fleet to destroy the world. After several such incidents, the Agent (there is a system in place to keep his memories updated and in synch) assists Arbellatra onto the Iridium Throne. I’m a big fan of Traveller and the universe its designers have created and yes, it’s a good playground for fiction… But most of the fiction set in the universe has never quite managed to grasp the flavour of it. Unsurprisingly, Miller manages that really well – despite throwing in virtual personalities and wafers and jacks, none of which, as far as I remember, appeared in any of the incarnations of the RPG. However… Miller is no prose stylist; in fact, he makes Asimov look like a prose stylist. This is commercial sf prose stripped down to its most basic, and the best that can be said of it is that it’s serviceable (although an editor should have spotted that “flang” is not the past tense of “fling”). The story is also far too episodic, and the links between the episodes too minor, to give the whole a feeling of a plot. Fans of the RPG will enjoy it – because it’s by Miller, because it’s set in the RPG’s universe – but if it had been a non-Traveller work it would be a poor one.

Vendetta, MS Murdock (1987). I stumbled across this at Fantastika 2016 in Stockholm, looked it up online and decided it was eligible for review on SF Mistressworks. Which I have now done. It wasn’t… very good. See here.

coming_up_for airComing Up for Air, George Orwell (1939). George Bowling is in his forties, fat, works as in insurance inspector for the Flying Salamander, and ives in the suburbs with a wife and two kids. He is, in pretty much every respect, an ordinary lower-middle-class Londoner of the thirties. He wasn’t always, of course. He was born and grew up in a small Thames Valley village, the son of a seed merchant whose business is failing. He leaves school early and goes to work for a local grocer. And then war is declared, and George signs up. He finishes the war as a commissioned officer, which is enough to lift his ambitions above a grocer’s shop. He is, he admits, one of many men who survived the Great War and whose experiences were enough to lift them from working class to the lower rungs of middle class. All this is told to the reader by George in evocative and surprisingly chatty prose – his childhood in Lower Binfield, his aspirations, his current mid-life crisis… And it’s the latter which persuades him to return to Lower Binfield for a visit after twenty-five years away. Naturally, what he finds is not the bucolic village of the turn of the century that he remembers. I took this book with me to Bloodstock, something to read when I needed an occasional time-out from the metal and the beer, and when I started it I wondered if I’d picked a wrong ‘un. The only Orwell I’d read previously was Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, his two most famous works – and Coming Up for Air‘s chatty first-person narrative is nothing like those. But the more I read, the more I found myself fascinated by George Bowling and his life. Orwell paints a picture of a life that is as foreign to me because of the time it’s set as it is because Bowling grew up in a small agricultural village in southern England (ie, not the industrial north). I enjoyed Coming Up for Air a lot more than I’d expected to, and found it a much better book than I’d anticipated. Worth reading.

FIGURESThe Cinema of Alexander Sokurov: Figures of Paradox, Jeremi Szaniawski (2014). Though I’ve been subscribing to Sight & Sound for nearly two decades, I’ve never read any actual academic film criticism. Until now. But I’m a huge a fan of Sokurov’s films, and I felt I needed a little help to parse some of them. And Figures of Paradox has been very useful in that regard, but… The language used throughout is that sort of obfuscatory academic bollocks that gives academic criticism a bad name. Having said that, Szaniawski knows his subject well, and there is plenty of information about the production of Sokurov’s films which I found both fascinating and helpful in deciphering them. However, the more I read the book, the more it becamse clear that Szaniawski had A Theory, and he was determined to prove it. There is, it cannot be denied, a certain amount of homoeroticism in Sokurov’s films, and Sokurov himself is famously celibate. Although Sokurov has denied being gay, Szaniawski is convinced he is, and the evidence for it is there in his films. I can see in part what Szaniawski claims, but there’s as much evidence in Sokurov’s filmography to “prove” he is gay as there was in Ken Russell’s – and Russell wasn’t gay. Not, of course, that it makes the slight bit of difference. It just seems a peculiar drum to bang. Reading the book, I put it down to an academic’s need to add some new angle to justify their research. (Szaniawski’s book is not the only critical work on Sokurov, but the others are all spread across a variety of magazines.) In all, I found Figures of Paradox something of a curate’s egg – a useful work in helping to parse Sokurov’s films, and better appreciate them; but it also displayed some of the worst aspects of academic film criticism. But Sokurov is still an amazing director, though.


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Moving pictures, #40

This is the second Moving pictures post in which I’ve not watched a film from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Oh well. I have, on the other hand, now watched all of the Sokurov films I now own. But there are still a couple more I’m after before I have everything he has made. And two US films out of six isn’t bad, I can live with that.

dialoguesDialogues with Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr Sokurov (1998, Russia). I was dead chuffed at getting hold of this. The only copy I’d seen available was priced around £180, which was way too much for me (it’s now £220, I see). But then I realised Sokurov was spelt Sokourov by the French, so I googled that… and found a copy of Dialogues avec Soljenitsyne for €30 on Amazon.fr – and all the packaging was French/English, and the DVD included English subtitles. Result. I tried watching it earlier this year, but decided to leave it until I’d read some Solzhenitsyn… and having now read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, I can quite categorically say it made bugger-all difference. The DVD contains two made-for-TV short films – ‘The Knot’ and ‘Dialogues’, both of which involve Sokurov interviewing Solzhenitsyn. ‘The Knot’ opens as a documentary about the writer, using archive footage and voice-over – typically Sokurovian in other words. But then it becomes Sokurov and Solzhenitsyn talking as they walk through a wood near the writer’s home – also typically Sokurovian. To be honest, there’s not much in either film which suggests why Solzhenitsyn is a Nobel laureate author – of course, the proof of that lies in his written works. As mentioned earlier, I’ve read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, and I thought it interesting but not world-shattering literature. While Solzhenitsyn comes across as a very clever bloke, and well-informed on the history and literature of Russia, at times his position as an icon of contemporary Russian culture doesn’t seem entirely clear. This may well be because only a fraction of his works have made it out of Russian – despite his much-publicised flight to the West and subsequent career at US universities (I was horribly reminded of Nabokov’s Pale Fire while watching this part of the documentary about Solzhenitsyn’s past). Having said that, watching the two films did make me want to read Solzhnetisyn’s Red Wheel series… but only two of the books, August 1914 and November 1916, have so far been published in English; and it doesn’t look like the rest will ever be translated. Bah. But I think I’ll try some more Solzhenitsyn.

moonwalkersMoonwalkers, Antoine Bardou-Jacquet (2015, France). What I knew: a comedy about an attempt to fake the Apollo 11 Moon landing in case it failed. What I didn’t know: a French comedy set in Swinging Sixties UK, with Ron Perlman as some sort of CIA über-agent and the ginger guy from Harry Potter as the star. What I found out: it’s not very funny. Perlman is tasked with persuading Stanley Kubrick to film a fake Moon landing just in case Apollo 11 doesn’t make it. But his paperwork gets damaged en route to the UK, so he has no way of identifying Kubrick. Which proves less than helpful after bumping into prog rock group manager Rupert Grint, who promises him he can hire Kubrick. Of course, it’s not Kubrick, it’s his whacked-out mate. End result: random German Warhol-ish director is tasked with making Moon landing footage, prog rock band (especially egotistical lead singer) think it’s a promo video for their music, falsetto gangster is after Grint because he owes him money, and Perlman is slowly unravelling from a combination of Vietnam PTSD and accidental weed and acid intake. So much laughs. You’d think. But this film seems to be more interested in slo-mo violence and gore. It doesn’t help that Grint acts like he’s in a school play and Perlman does his Perlman thing. The supporting cast at least manage their bits well. But the whole is definitely not better than the sum of its parts. An entirely forgettable comedy, which struggles for humour.

el_doradoEl Dorado, Howard Hawks (1966, USA). Hawks made a lot of Westerns – unlike Preminger, who only made one – and they do have a tendency to blur into one, possibly because he kept on remaking the same bloody story. After all, Rio Lobo is pretty much Rio Bravo (much as I love the latter); and even this one, El Dorado, follows the same story beats as those two. John Wayne: check. Drunken sheriff: check. Who sobers up for the showdown: check. Evil cattle baron: check. Feisty female character: check. Hawks does ring a few changes on his formula in El Dorado, however. Wayne plays a gun-for-hire who turns down an offer of work from cattle baron Ed Asner after learning of his true plans from local sheriff and old friend Robert Mitchum. An unfortunate encounter results in Wayne receiving a rifle bullet which lodges by his spine and occasionally paralyses him. Later, in a saloon, Wayne steps in when James Caan avenges his mentor’s death – so introducing McLeod, another gunslinger, who has signed up with Asner. When Wayne learns that Mitchum has turned into a useless drunk, thanks to a woman running out on him, Wayne and Caan decide to prevent Asner and McLeod from succeeding. The rest pretty much works itself out as this sort of story does. I have probably seen more Westerns than I ever wanted, or expected to, and some of them have been actually quite impressive. This one wasn’t. Even for fans of Hawks or Wayne, or both, it’s still probably considered a by-the-numbers entry. Entirely forgettable.

too_late_bluesToo Late Blues, John Cassavetes (1961, USA). A Cassavetes film I actually quite liked! That must be cause for celebration. And yet the music which forms the heart of this film – instrumental jazz – is so bland and inoffensive, it might as well be elevator music. Getting Stella Stevens to croon wordlessly over the top of it – which is pretty much the film’s plot – doesn’t improve it one jot. Bobby Darin plays a jazz musician and composer, who is happy to play bland lite instrumental jazz, although his band are hungry for success. He meets Stevens and decides to add her to the act. They try to cut a record. In a bar, Darin refuses to defend himself when a drunk tries it on with Stevens… and so the two split. He plays lite jazz for hire, she becomes a prostitute. It’s not a pretty picture. The film works because Cassavetes manages to get the viewer invested in the characters. Darin was inspired casting – he looks so innocuous, and yet he dresses and acts like he’s some kind of stud (I don’t know if that’s Darin being a star when the film was made, or just acting – hard to tell with a lot of US “actors”). Stevens, who always had more acting chops than most of her roles required, shows what she’s capable of, although in the singing department she’s hardly memorable. But the two stand-outs are Everett Chambers as Darin’s oleaginous agent and Cliff Carnell as the band’s bluff saxophonist. I’m a long way from becoming a fan of Cassavetes’s films – although I seem to have watched enough of them – but I thought this one more impressive than the others.

lamourL’amour braque, Andrzej Żuławski (1985, France). This may well be the most 1980s film ever made. And it’s not like there isn’t strong competition – like, er, Bruce Willis’s entire career pre-The Sixth Sense. True, it’s a French film, and that’s not something that immediately comes to mind when you think of 1980s films. But the over-acting Żuławski appears to demand of his cast, when married to a 1980s soundtrack and lots of shoulderpads, seems so 1980s it’s almost painful. The story, on the other hand, is the usual Żuławski tosh. Tchéky Karyo leads a gang of bank-robbers, and after the successful heist which opens the film, they stumble across Frances Huster, the somewhat bland lead of Jacques Demy’s Parking, and sort of adopt him. Huster then falls for Karyo’s girlfriend, Sophie Marceau… and there you have the romantic triangle Żuławski loves to structure his movies around. Like most Żuławski films, it’s all very intense, and the cast clearly give it their all, although the story is not quite as interesting as his other films. In fact, it all feels very much like a fairly ordinary 1980s French thriller given the Żuławski treatment, much like Subway felt like a fairly ordinary 1980s French thriller given the Besson treatment… back when “the Besson treatment” meant something. Having said all that, Mondo Vision have been doing an amazing job on these Żuławski re-releases. I missed the first two – L’important c’est d’aimer and Possession – but I’m definitely keeping track of them from now on…

3-iron3-Iron, Kim Ki-duk (2004, Korea). I was somewhat puzzled when the rental service sent this as I knew nothing about the film and couldn’t think why I’d added to my list. But it turned out to be one recommended by David Tallerman, and his suggestions have generally proven quite good – although this was definitely the best to date. A homeless drifter tapes take-away menus over the keyholes of houses and flats, so he can tell if the places are occupied. Once he has ascertained they are empty, he breaks in and stays there – and while he’s there, he fixes broken appliances and does the residents’ laundry. But one such property proves to be still occupied: by the wife of an abusive husband. The wife leaves the husband and joins the drifter, but when they occupy an apartment owned by an old man who has died of lung cancer, the drifter is charged with his murder. While in prison, the drifter hones his skill at “invisibility”. Reviews have apparently focused on the fact that neither of the two leads actually speak during the film, but the true genius of 3-Iron is that it makes the drifter’s invisibility entirely plausible. It’s not authorial fiat, as in Christopher Priest’s The Glamour, but a carefully-practiced skill, with a narrative history… and that’s what makes it work. It helps that the film looks pretty good too, and the cast do an excellent job with a script that has no lines for them to speak. I really liked this. An excellent film that took an interesting approach to interesting material. Recommended.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 792


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Moving pictures, #39

Well, slightly less than half of this post are US films, although I’d prefer it to be no more than one or two per post. But we’re getting there, as our national railway famously once said only to be privatised and then completely fail to get anywhere…

only_live_onceYou Only Live Once, Fritz Lang (1937, USA). This was a cheerful movie. Henry Fonda plays a habitual criminal who decides to go straight – mostly thanks to the love of a good woman, in this case Sylvia Sidney, the secretary of the local public defender. But not everyone is so forgiving. Although the public defender (who is secretly in love with his secretary) gets Fonda a job at a delivery company, he’s fired when he takes time out to look over a new house with his new wife. And no one else will employ him because he’s an ex-con. Absolutely no one. And then someone robs an armoured car, and a hat is left at the scene which points to Fonda as the culprit. He’s found guilty (the trial is off-screen, probably because it sounds so much a travesty of justice Lang was too embarrassed to show it), and Fonda ends up on Death Row. But an opportunity for escape presents itself, he takes it, but accidentally kills the prison priest… seconds after the warden has received news that Fonda is innocent and has been pardoned. Too late! Fonda collects his wife, and the two go on the lam. To be honest, I’d expected more from Lang. I’ve seen a fair number of his noir movies, and I expected this to be as good as they were. And certainly the scene where Fonda escapes from prison is very atmospherically staged and shot. But everyone is so horrible to Fonda, and the odds are stacked against him so strongly, the set-up to justify Fonda’s abrupt shift from optimism to desperation feels forced and completely implausible. So, not one of Lang’s better films.

zabriskieZabriskie Point*, Michelangelo Antonioni (1970, USA). I’m a big fan of Antonioni’s films, and his Red Desert is one of my all-time favourite movies; but I also like late 1960s/early 1970s hippy films – or, at least, ones that comment on the hippy condition. It’s not just the direct rebellion, nor the questioning of society, but also that so many of these types of films throw in an additional dimension – which might well be typical hippy occult bullshit, but at least adds something a little more interesting to the story. And so to Zabriskie Point, which opens with semi-documentary footage of a protest at a California university. But when the police turn up, the protest takes a violent approach and several people are killed. Including a policeman. The film then abruptly switches to two characters: a young woman who is looking for a man in the Mojave Desert who works with emotionally disturbed children. Meanwhile, a young male student from the university protest, and a prime suspect in the death of the cop, steals a plane and flies off to Arizona… where he meets the young woman. And they go to Zabriskie Point, a real place just east of Death Valley, Nevada, where they have sex – well, actually, a full-blown orgy kicks off… and this isn’t really a film where you can describe the plot, or where such a précis would do the film any favours. But it is by Antonioni so it looks absolute fantastic and, to be fair, he makes just as good a fist of depicting the culture he’s filming as Demy does in Model Shop – they’re neither part of the culture, but their outsider status allows them see more than might be visible from inside. Antonioni made several excellent movies – I’d put Zabriskie Point in the top five of those; in fact I think I’d call it my third favourite after Red Desert and Blow-Up.

hired_handThe Hired Hand*, Peter Fonda (1971, USA). Sigh. Another 1970s Western on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. But… well, this is a surprise. I’m not a fan of the Western, and have only three in my DVD collection – and I’ve probably seen more than I ever really wanted to because they’re on the 1001 Movies list… Certainly I’d never have considered watching this one: an early seventies Western, directed by Peter Fonda… (Even though I liked Easy Rider a lot.) But in fact it turned out to be pretty damn good. For exactly the same reasons why it flopped on release back in 1970. It’s slow, its cinematography is poetic, and it has a great soundtrack. Its story, to be fair, is not very interesting, and its characters are not very strong… but the whole works because the pictures and story go together exceedingly well. Fonda plays a drifter who decides to return to the wife who kicked him out years before, and asks only that he be taken on as a “hired hand” in order to prove he has changed. But a stop-off en route had made enemies of some nasty sorts and they track him down, and your typical Wild West showdown ensues. Where The Hired Hand really scores, however, is in its opening third: the cinematograhpy goes mad for dissolves and montages, and it works wonderfully well. The bluegrass score by Bruce Langhorne is also really well done – and I’m not a person who really notices incidental music (I have, like, three original soundtracks in my music collection… er, except for all those ones by Andrzej Korzyñski). Altogether, this is good stuff, and I’m tempted to pick up a copy for myself.

24_city24 City, Jia Zhangke (2008, China). I had been seriously impressed by Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin, so of course I added the rest of Zhangke’s oeuvre to my rental list… and this was the first sent to me. And, I’m happy to report, I did not choose wrong. Zhangke is a name to watch and a new director to join my favourites. The title refers to a new suburb built on the site of an aircraft factory. The film covers several decades in a semi-documentary style, first interviewing workers in the aircraft factory (whose location and purpose is a state secret because the aircraft are military). The film is divided into three sections: one during the days of the plant’s operations, another after it has closed and the plant has been mothballed, and one after the site has been redeveloped and a dormitory suburb now occupies the location. The mix of staged interviews, informal interviews (one scene consists entirely of a man at a bar reminiscing about his career at the factory), and small family dramas which illustrate the personal histories affected by the history of the factory and the town which springs up in its place, is extremely effective; and I especially like the factualness of it. 24 City is, apparently, a real place, and the story of the film is no doubt based upon, or inspired by, real events; but the mix of fact and fiction I find quite compelling – much as I did in A Touch of Sin. Excellent stuff.

mournfulMournful Unconcern, Aleksandr Sokurov (1983, Russia). This was another work by Sokurov that remained underground for many years – it was banned by the Soviet authorities – before finally being publicly screened after glasnost… and was promptly nominated for a Golden Bear. It’s based on George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House, but is intercut with documentary footage. The cinematography is, surprisingly, straightforward, but the whole thing feels ike an unholy mix of David Lynch and Peter Greenaway, albeit put together in an entirely Sokurovian way. That documentary footage, for example – it’s contemporary with the setting, the 1920s, and features Shaw himself, a zeppelin, World War I, an Antarctic expedition, the River Ganges, and various places in Africa. The choices of incidental music is also typically Sokurovian, and often anachronistic. Heartbreak House, subtitled “A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes”, which is apparently a reference to Chekhov, whose plays inspired Shaw’s, is set in the home of Captain Shotover – played by Ramaz Chkhikvadze as half Falstaff and half Lear – and is partly a drawing-room farce and partly an Edwardian sex comedy. Gunfire and explosions can be heard on the soundtrack throughout the entire film, which ends with a zeppelin dropping a bomb and blowing up the house. It’s… an odd beast. The story seems well-suited to Sokurov’s feelings about the Soviet Union. The use of documentary stock footage is perhaps more intrusive than in the other films in which Sokurov uses it, but it works really well (some of the inserts provide clever and amusing commentary on the main story). I’m not so sure about the story itself, however – I don’t know what changes Sokurov made to Shaw’s play, though the setting seems to be as described. Still, like all of Sokurov’s films, it’s one that will require repeated viewings.

brooklynBrooklyn, John Crowley (2015, Ireland). This was one of those films of the last year or so which received lots of positive buzz and reviews, and didn’t involve superheroes, so I thought might be worth watching. It’s also an adaptation of a novel (winner of the Costa Novel Award, but only longlisted for the Man Booker) by Colm Tóibin, who, I admit, I’ve never read. The story is relatively simple – a fact stressed by several of the reviews: young Irish woman in the 1950s travels to New York in order to build a new life. She lives in a boarding-house and works in a department store, but she is shy and unassuming and very homesick. Then she meets a young man, of American-Italian extraction, and the two enter into a relationship. She is is now much happier and more settled. But then her sister in Ireland dies unexpectedly, so she returns to succour her mother. And now life back in Ireland seems much more attractive than it did when she left for New York. That is until the town gossip reveals something the young woman had been sort of trying to forget… and so she returns to New York. It’s a very pretty film, the cinematography is quite lovely, and the cast are uniformly good. Julie Walters as the landlady of the Brooklyn boarding-house, however, is a scream. But the story all feels a bit drab and low-key and devoid of any real insight, which makes the movie feel more like well-shot wallpaper than actual drama. I enjoyed it, but I think it was over-praised.

land_freedomLand and Freedom, Ken Loach (1995, UK). I thought this was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but not apparently the edition of it I’m using. Still it’s by Ken Loach and the subject matter – the Spanish Civil War – made it seem worth renting. And so it proved. An old working-class man in Liverpool collapses in his council flat, the ambulance comes, but he dies en route. Later, going through his things, his granddaughter discovers he had sailed to Spain in the 1930s to fight for the Republicans against the fascists. She reads his letters… and these are dramatised, with Ian Hart playing the young Scouser. On arrival on Spain, it all seems a bit haphazard, but Hart joins POUM’s milita and is soon out fighting (which basically seems to involve taking potshots from the POUM trenches at fascist soldiers in their trenches). At one point, the militia oust a troop of fascist troops from a village, and the villagers then conduct a fierce discussion on private ownership and collectivisation. After Hart is injured training new recruits – a rifle explodes when he fires it – things take a turn for the worse as the various left factions begin fighting amongst themselves, and even start killing those whose idealogies are not approved. It hardly comes as a surprise the fascists win (even for those who don’t know their history). The right always will… because the left seems happier fighting among itself than showing a united front to the enemy – just look what’s happing in the UK now. You look at Trump, and it’s 1930s Germany all over again; you look at the UK, and it’s 1930s Spain. Neither, of course, bode well… I’ve watched the occasional Ken Loach film over the years and enjoyed them, but have never really made an effort to seek them out. However, I find myself appreciating social realism in movies much more these days than I used to (and consequently despising fascistic sfx-heavy tentpole movies). I see there are three box sets of Loach’s films available – Volume 1, Volume 2 and At the BBC. I might well avail myself of them…

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 792

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