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Moving pictures 2017, #11

An even odder selection than usual. Two US films that are on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, another film by a favourite director, and a film I knew nothing about but which blew me away when I came to watch it…

nemuritoriiNemuritorii, Sergui Nicolaescu (1974, Romania). I had thought this was a science fiction film, although I’ve no idea why. Perhaps it was the translation of the title, which means “The Immortals”. It is, in fact, an historical drama, set during the Middle Ages, and about a group of mercenaries who return to their homeland, Romania, and attempt to oust its current ruler. And, er, that’s it. There’s a running joke about a wooden chest which carries a great treasure, and which all their enemies are keen to possess… but the chest proves to be empty. In places, Nemuritorii reminded me of Verhoeven’s Flesh and Blood – it has that same earthy and violent approach to Middle Ages history – and Nicolaescu’s reputation as a good filmer of battle scenes is amply demonstrated. But Nicolaescu’s relationship with the Ceaușescu regime was problematic at best, and though he entered politics after the 1989 revolution, I’m told he’s not held in especially high regard by modern Romanians. I can’t say that Nemuritorii struck me as a great film, although it was entertaining enough and shot well enough. That earlier mention of Flesh and Blood was not entirely unwarranted – this film felt much the same: an entertaining Middle Ages adventure, with numerous battles, a cast of near-stereotypes, and a carry-through gimmick. I enjoyed it, but I’m not sure it’s a good film.

shes_gottShe’s Gotta Have It*, Spike Lee (1986, USA). I don’t think I’d actually watched any Spike Lee films until this watching this one, his debut, although I knew full well who he is and am aware of some of the films he has made. and while I can’t say the film appealed to me a great deal, I can see why it belonged on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – so I’m glad I saw it. It’s not just that’s it’s an entirely African-American film, made wholly within the African-American culture of the US, but that it also takes a nicely meta-cinematic approach to its story and plays around with cinematic narratives and conventions. For a debut film, that’s pretty ballsy. And it works. The title refers to Tracy Camilla Johns, a young African-American woman living in Brookyln. She has three suitors (all three of which she regularly has sex with), but she cannot decide which one would be best-suited as her permanent partner – and, to tell the truth, she likes having three boyfriends. Characters in the film frequently talk directly to camera, there’s plenty of character assassination, and the film ends on an ambiguous note. The acting is not great – John Canada Terrell is especially bad – and the artificiality of the narrative structure is occasionally pushed a bit too much in the viewer’s face… but for a debut piece of work this is an astonishingly ambitious movie and its success rate is amazingly high. On top of that, She’s Gotta Have It was also one of the films that led to the resurgence of US indie films in the 1990s. I suspect its narrative experiments have been overlooked because of its importance as an African-American film and an indie film (and Lee’s character’s later appearances in Nike adverts), but She’s Gotta Have It has a lot to recommended it. Worth seeing.

reasonReason, Debate and a Story, Ritwik Ghatak (1974, India). This was Ghatak’s last film – he died in 1976… although according to the University of California Press edition of A River Called Titash, Ghatak’s adaptation, A River Called Titas, an earlier film, was not released until after his death, although Wikipedia claims otherwise. Whatever the truth, Ghatak made only eight feature films, and I’ve now seen half of them. And though they’re black and white and mostly exist only in bad transfers or prints, and were probably produced and shot on tiny budgets, I find them fascinating. Not just because they depict life in India – or rather, Bengal, and now Bangladesh – in a fashion not commonly seen in Indian films… but also because they were as much political and sociological essays about Indian life as they were dramatic stories. A River Called Titash, the book, has been described as an ethnological account as much as it is a novel, and that’s equally true of the film. Reason, Debate and a Story is not an historical film, although it is in parts ethnographical, particularly when it documents the dances by Bengali villagers. Ghatak himself plays a drunkard writer who has been critical of the partition of Bengal – and I suspect he was pissed in several of the scenes (he was an acoholic, after all). His wife leaves him so he decides to leave Kolkata, and as he wanders out of the city he picks up assorted waifs and strays. There’s his brother-in-law, who is educated but cannot get a job; an extremely handsome young woman; and a teacher of Sanskirt teased as “mad” by his pupils. The woman is, I think, a metaphor for Bangladesh, which desires reunification with West Bengal (and later does one of the worst lip synchs of a playback singer I’ve seen in a film). The Sanskrit tracher is obviously the history of India. And later, when they meet up with a villager who makes masks for dances, you have literate suburban India versus uneducated rural India. Ghatak doesn’t disguise his arguments, and as avatars his characters are hardly subtle. But there is also some very nice landscape cinematography (badly served by the poor quality film stock used), and I will admit to having thought Bangladesh was chiefly delta and alluvial plain before seeing this film. The aforementioned dances, which appear to be based on mythology, with dancers in masks dressed as Hanuman, Durga, Ganesh, etc., are fascinating. Ghatak’s message on the reunification of Bengal gets a little lost, although I’m doubtless missing lots of references as my knowledge of the area is quite poor. Weirdly, the film opens with a trio of dancers in black zentai outfits dancing on a set meant to represent a desert. They reappear two-thirds of the way through the film, and at the end. I have no idea what they’re intended to signify. But I still think Ghatak is a genius director.

broadcast_newsBroadcast News*, James L Brooks (1987, USA). Nope, don’t get it. This is an average drama, well played by its cast – although with Hurt and Hunter, that’s a pretty high-powered cast – but I have no idea why it’s on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list. It’s just not that interesting. Hurt plays a sports anchor from a regional station who has landed a job as news anchor of a national station. (It’s probably worth pointing out that no other country has the US’s bizarre regional/national broadcasting set-up, and we non-USians have no fucking idea how it works.) Hunter is a top news producer, and Albert Brooks a gifted TV journalist. Hurt wants to pick Hunter’s brains to make himself a better anchor, but she won’t have it.  Brooks wants his try in front of the camera. It’s all completely boring and trivial, and Brooks’s career as an actor continues to mystify me. Hurt and Hunter are both good, but they’re in the top rank of Hollywood talent (not that they can draw salaries commensurate with their ability; that’s not how Hollywood works). But even so top talent needs a story more interesting than this. Broadcast News is a Sunday-afternoon film, or maybe a Saturday-afternoon-instrad-of-football film, it’s not 1001 of the top films ever made.

asthenic_syndromeThe Asthenic Syndrome*, Kira Muratova (1990, Russia). I’ve watched this twice now and I’m still not sure what it’s about, or indeed if it’s any good. It’s two films with unconnected stories. The first is black-and-white (well, more of a sepia colour) and opens at a funeral. The widow is grief-stricken, and, it seems, slightly unhinged. She attacks a man at a bus-stop, she bumps into people, she shouts and rants at no one in her flat, she drops wineglasses on the floor and breaks them… As if that weren’t baffling enough, the dialogue is completely bizarre. People shout at each other, and over each other’s voices, and what they say usually has no relevance to what’s happening in the story. Halfway through The Asthenic Syndrome‘s 153 minutes, the film appears to end, and the camera pulls back to reveal a man on a stage in front of a cinema screen in an auditorium. He introduces the actress who played the widow in the black-and-white film, but the audience are uninterested and file out noisily. One man remains after the others. He’s a teacher and the protagonist of the second film, which is in colour. The dialogue in this film is much like it is in the first. The teacher has narcolepsy – in fact, he fell asleep during the film-within-a-film (Wikipedia mistakenly implies the title refers to his narcolepsy, but asthenia is just a medical term for “weakness”). The Soviet Union depicted in the film is a grim and run-down place – I like the phrase someone used to describe The Asthenic Syndrome, “the last Soviet film and the first post-Soviet film” – but I  find it more interesting as a contrast to earlier optimistic Soviet films such as, say, Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, made only a decade earlier. The Asthenic Syndrome‘s avant-garde approach does wear a bit thin over two and a half hours, although there’s some quite arresting imagery, and there’s a lot of repetition, particularly in the dialogue. I’m going to have watch The Asthenic Syndrome again, I think, to get a proper handle on it, but I sort of fell on balance that it belongs in the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list. And I’d like to see more of Muratova’s films.

50_cubanI Am Cuba, Mikhail Kalatozov (1964, Cuba). I bought the Mr Bongo 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution box set because it included Lucía and Memories of Underdevelopment, and I knew little or nothing of the other two films. Well, one was by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, who also directed Memories of Underdevelopment; but I knew nothing about I Am Cuba (AKA Soy Cuba). So late one night I stuck it in the player, expecting an earnest documentary of communist Cuba, likely something of a chore to watch… but I loved it. And I don’t understand why it’s not on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list. It’s one of the most technically innovative films I have ever seen. It is a documentary about Cuba, but it uses some of the most astonishing camera techniques I’ve seen since first watching Eisenstein or Vertov. Obviously, some of the shots are almost routine these days, and done using CGI, but back in the early 1960s, they didn’t have that – and there are several where you have to wonder how the hell Kalatozov managed it. There’s one where the camera swoops from the street up the side of a building, then from the rooftop through windows and down to the street, that is quite astonishing. I Am Cuba is not a documentary in the usual sense of the word – there’s no earnest voiceover explaining what’s shown on the screen, just people and events in Cuba being filmed almost fly-on-the-wall. Apparently, the film didn’t go down very well when it was made, and was pretty much forgotten for thirty years, and only rediscovered in the early 1990s – and championed by both Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. That 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution turned out to be an excellent buy – three excellent films and one very good one.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 853


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Moving pictures 2017, #10

Another good spread of films. The sole US one is actually a documentary about the making of a German film, and is included in the Werner Herzog Blu-ray collection.

herzogBurden of Dreams, Les Blank (1982, USA). There are several famously difficult pieces of film-making, and perhaps the two best-known are Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. Coppola’s film was documented in Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse by Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper and Eleanor Coppola (see here), so it should come as no surprise to learn there’s an equivalent documentary made during the filming of Fitzcarraldo. A comparison between the two documentaries in inevitable – both films were made in remote locations, with productions that spiralled out of control, a difficult marquee name, and a director with a far from firm grip on the production. Yet in Burden of Dreams Herzog comes across as jolly and mostly sanguine. There’s none of the expected despair. Kinski’s antics also don’t figure largely in the documentary, despite stories that the film crew offered to murder the star because of his outrageous demands and behaviour. Much of Burden of Dreams focuses on the logistics of the shoot, and the difficulties of dragging the riverboat up over the hill (they actually had three copies of the boat, by the way). Of course, there were also other problems – Fitzcarraldo originally starred Jason Robards in the title role, but he took ill and had to pull out. Watching him in the part, it’s clear it was better-suited to Kinski. Mick Jagger also played a supporting role, but when the shoot was delayed as they recast the title role, Jagger had to leave due to other commitments. They didn’t bother to recast, just wrote his part out of the film. Which was just as well as he was terrible. Of the two documentaries, I think Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse is better, but that may simply be because Apocalypse Now is a more epic movie than Fitzcarraldo.

signale1Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer, Gottfried Koldtiz (1970, Germany). Back in the 1960s and 1970s, DEFA, the East German national film studio, made four big budget science fiction films. Three were made available in the US in a DVD box set around a decade ago – Der Schweigende Stern, Im Staub der Sterne and Eolomea. I think the box set is deleted now, so it’s hard to find. But if you see a copy, snap it up. However, one of those four films, Signale – ein Weltraumabenteuer, often described as East Germany’s answer to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, has never been released on DVD (except perhaps in Germany… but the copy I watched was actually from a German television broadcast, so perhaps not). Anyway, a friend came round one  Saturday evening – a German, as it happens – to watch some films, and I put Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer on. I’d been expecting good things of the film, as I like the other DEFA sf films, especially Eolomea, although I’d been told Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer wasn’t that good… And, er, it wasn’t. The spacecraft Ikaros is exploring near Jupiter when it’s hit by meteorites and suffers catastrophic damage. The crew survive, but they have no radio. A search for their wreck is unsuccessful, and they are presumed dead. But Commander Veikko is convinced they’re still alive and wants to try using his spacecraft, Laika. But he’s forbidden from doing so, and so uses a routine mission to service some satellites or space probes (it wasn’t clear which) to surreptitiously hunt for the lost spacecraft. Which he finds. And they rescue the stranded crew in the nick of time. What little plot there is in the film occurs in the last thirty minutes, the rest of it is just over-extended set-up. Including several scenes on a beach. I think there must have been a rule in East German sf film-making that required at least one beach-scene. And if the cast were riding horses, that was even better. A future party scene is also mandatory – although the one aboard Laika, to celebrate a crewmember’s anniversary, is cut short and seems entirely pointless. Also, confusingly, during the party the blonde wears a brunette wig and the brunette wears a blonde wig. Oh, and also apparently de rigeur in Warsaw Pact sf movies is a crap robot. And the one in Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer is only beaten by the one in Через тернии к звёздам. Despite all that, I’m glad I found a copy of Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer, and I’m glad I watched it. I might even rewatch it one day.

nebo_zovyotНебо зовет, Mikhail Karyukov & Aleksandr Kozry (1959, Russia). And after Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer, we settled down to watch Небо зовет, a Soviet sf film I’d been wanting to see for ages, but had never managed to find a copy on DVD. And… It turned out to have an almost identical plot to Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer: one spacecraft has to rescue another. Even worse than that, I have a copy of Battle Beyond the Sun, which is pretty much an edit of Небо зовет dubbed into Engish and with additional monsters. So it made for an odd viewing experience. Небо зовет opens with a journalist being shown around an office where Soviet scientists are designing rockets and spacecraft. Inspired by the models he is shown in a museum at the office, he dreams of a future in which the USSR has an extensive space presence. And the screen goes all fuzzy… and we’re in that very future. The Soviets are about to send a spacecraft to Mars, but the Americans are determined to beat them (the US mission seems to be a private enterprise). The Americans steal a march on the Soviets, but come a cropper when their rocket encounters a meteorite storm. So the Soviets divert to rescue them, but this ends up with both crews being stranded on an asteroid, Icarus. An automated rescue mission is sent but spectacularly blows up. A second, crewed, is successful, but the crew die. However, the crew of the Soviet and the US rockets both survive, and are given a hero’s welcome when they return to Earth. The model work and production design in Небо зовет is excellent, and while the space station design, which resembles an aircraft carrier, seems a bit odd (their spacesuits have magnetic boots, so they won’t just float away), as do the giant clamps with which the rockets dock. But this is a 1959 film, and the Soviet space programme was very secretive (they didn’t even admit Korolyev’s existence until after glasnost). Небо зовет is fun in a dated sort of way, and certainly a great deal better than its butchered US edit, Battle Beyond the Stars.

broodThe Brood, David Cronenberg (1979, Canada). I’m not sure why I stuck this on my rental list. It’s not like I’m a big fan of Cronenberg’s work, although I’ve liked many of his films. But he does horror, mostly, and I don’t like horror films. I’m okay with older ones, before CGI, when the special effects are obviously special effects. As is the case with The Brood. The story in this film, on the other hand, is completely bonkers, and despite a good cast – Ollie Reed! – never really rises above the completely silly. Reed plays a psychiatrist whose treatment causes patients to physically manifest their mental pathologies. Yes, actually physically manifest them. Meanwhile, a husband suspects his ex-wife, who is a patient, of abusing their young daughter and he’s trying to win custody as a result. At which point, a weird child in a snowsuit appears and starts beating people to death with hammers. When the husband stumbles across the weird child hiding in his mother’s house and it attacks him, he kills it in self-defence. At the autopsy, the police discover the child has no belly button, no genitals, no teeth, and is not entirely human. It turns out there are lots of these weird children – a group of them later appear and beat a teacher to death with hammers in front of her class of young kids (yes, seriously – how on earth was Cronenberg allowed to film that?) – and they are all parthogenically generated by the ex-wife in response to her anger, and they go out and attack the objects of her anger. It doesn’t… really work. It’s all played with a straight face, and is pretty convincing in parts, but as it progesses the dafter it gets… until the whole edifice is moments way from collapsing into a heap… Which it doesn’t quite managed to do. Not a good film, but a better one than its plot suggests.

zhao_liangPetition: The Court of Complainants, Zhao Liang (2009, China). In China, those who feel they have been abused by local government and the local justice system can petition the government in Beijing. But it’s a long drawn-out process and riddled with corruption. The petitioners live in a shanty town outside the city, and can spend years, even decades, there. Starting in 1996, Zhao filmed some of these petitioners as they tried to get justice from a government that plainly didn’t care about them. Some of the stories, you wonder why the government has not stepped in – a tax collector who demands more grain from some farmers, and less from others. One petitioner is killed by a train after running from “retrievers”, goons hired to force the petitioners to return home, and the camera shows the bits of her body strewn along the track. In the end, everything is razed – “Petition City” is completely demolished, as is the local train station, in order to make room for facilities for the 2008 Olympics. I’ll admit to being surprised Zhao has been able to make his films – although by all accounts it was far from easy – and if they’re not overtly critical of the current Chinese regime, they certainly are by implication. It is horrifying what the people in the film have had to put up with in order to redress injustices, and even scarier that by the time the Olympics opened – and there is a deeply corrupt institution, if ever there was one – any trace of Petition City and the people who lived there had vanished. Zhao’s Crime and Punishment is set in a provincial town and the authorities it depicts seem more incompetent than anything else – or, at least, corrupt in small and human ways. But Petition is set in Beijing, the seat of government, and the people interviewed by Zhao in the film are all from the provinces, showing just how little the government cares about its people. This is, of course, not unique to China. Every capital gets the lion’s share of finance and resources. And as wealth gravitates to the capital to take advantage of that fact, so the equity gap widens and those in the provinces find them increasingly poorer and increasingly powerless… Until they end up in a similar situation to those depicted in this film. There is apparently a five-hour director’s cut of Petition: The Court of Complainants, but I’m not sure I could have sat through it. The box set I bought includes the 120 minute cut. If I’ve not said it before, Zhao Liang is definitely a name to add to your list of directors to watch – Behemoth first, then this one.

ek_din_achanakEk Din Achanak, Mrinal Sen (1989, India). Three names usually crop up in articles on Bengali cinema: Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. I’ve seen a number of films by the first and plan to watch more, I’m already a fan of the second, but I’ve never seen anything by the third. Until now. And Sen’s movies are even harder to find than Ghatak’s. In fact, Ek Din Achanak is the only one available from a large online retailer of books and films and other stuff. There’s another one, Antareen, I’ve managed to track down… Both were released by NFDC Cinemas of India, who have also released two 20-DVD box sets of restored films from various parts of India. WANT WANT WANT. They’re bloody expensive, though, and I’ve yet to find a UK-based seller. Anyway, Ek Din Achanak was a well-played drama about a family whose father, a university professor, disappears one day. They try to carry on without him, and eventually become so accepting of their situation that they blame their present troubles of their own making on him. Despite the plot, and the focus on the family, Ek Din Achanak doesn’t feel as theatrical as Ray’s films. It feels like a movie. Which does sort of feed into my glib description of Ray as India’s “Ingmar Bergman”, although I haven’t quite figured who that makes Mrinal Sen… as if I could do that anyway after watching a single Sen film… But in Ek Din Achanak I found a well-played drama about a situation that felt real, but also unreal enough to be the sort of story you would expect in a literary-style drama. I’d like to see more by Mrinal Sen; I suspect I might have trouble finding more to do so.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 850


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Moving pictures 2017, #9

A mix of the usual suspects this time around, and it sounds good to say that and mean cinema from countries such as Russia, Germany, Japan and China. It seems I’m actually sticking to one of my New Year resolutions.

man_movie_cameraEnthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass, Dziga Vertov (1931, Russia). If there are two words which are likely make me buy something I had not otherwise considered purchasing, they are “limited edition”. I’d seen Vertov’s astonishing Man With a Movie Camera a couple of years ago, but hadn’t been that bothered about owning a copy… and then Eureka! decided to release a limited edition dual-format box set of Man With a Movie Camera plus some of Vertov’s other works. So, of course, I had to buy it. On the other hand, it’s also true I treasure the sort of films in this box set, ie, documentaries of other times and other places… and yes, that’s probably a consequence of my love of Sokurov’s films. But I’m also fascinated by films which see cinema as more than just brainless spectacle, and Vertov was a vocal proponent of cinema as a social tool. And of the films in this box set, Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donblass is a prime example of the type. It’s pure Stakhanovism – a coal mine in the Don region is determined to beat its quota, and Vertov is there to film them doing it. And, er, that’s it. It’s not a silent film, although the others in the set are. It’s also quite astonishing how crude coal-mining techniques were back in 1930s USSR. Men wielded picks against the coal face, ponies pulled carts of coal from the face to the pit-head. I come from a mining background – my grandfathers all worked down the pit, and although my father joined the Electricity Board when he left school, my uncles all went to work for the NCB. Despite all that, I know little about the actual work of extracting coal from underground, and what little I know of early twentieth-century UK coal-mining comes from, er, DH Lawrence. I suspect Soviet techniques were not all that different, and it’s interesting actually seeing them on the screen. All told, this limited edition box set has proven to be a wise purchase.

lisbon_storyLisbon Story, Wim Wenders (1994, Germany). I stuck this one my rental list thinking it was by Manoel de Oliveira, but it’s actually by Wim Wenders, whose films I’m also happy to watch (although I’ve seen considerably more by Wenders than de Oliveira). But de Oliveira does appear in the film, so blame Amazon rental’s search facility… Although, having said all that, I did enjoy the film. Wenders I find a bit variable, but this was one of his better ones. A German director – the same one, in fact, from Wender’s The State of Things (1982) – asks the sound man from that film to make his way to Lisbon. Which he promptly does. But the director is not there. So the sound man wanders about the city, recording ambient sounds, making friends with the director’s friends (a bunch of kids, mostly, and a string group with a female singer). The philosophy underlying the film, as proposed by the missing director, when he appears, is bollocks… but the film is a mostly sympathetic portrait of its titular city and the characters it finds there, and for that reason it’s watchable and sort of successful. I like many of Wenders’s films, and I’d certainly put him in a list of “100 most interesting directors of the twentieth century”, but… The Million Dollar Hotel? Really? It was so bad. Having said that, it’s a bit unfair to write Wenders off on the basis of one film – and I see from Wikipedia, he’s made nearly 20 films since the aforementioned, none of which I’ve seen. So perhaps it’s time I rectified that. Because Lisbon Story, despite being rented under false pretences, is an enjoyable film.

chungking_expressChungking Express*, Wong Kar-wai (1994, China). This was Wong Kar-wai’s breakthrough film, and, according to Wikipedia was shot in six weeks as if it were a student film. And it shows. Admittedly, I say that having come to Wong’s films first through In the Mood for Love and loving it, and so I can’t help but compare Chungking Express to it. And while I found it a good film, I did wonder why it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You die list. Wong deserves to be represented but this isn’t his best film. It’s important in as much as it signals his new direction and aesthetic, but then why not pick a film that is a better representantive of that new aesthetic, such as In the Mood for Love? Chungking Express comprises two stories, both of which revolve around unnamed Hong Kong police officers and their lack of a love life – or rather, the consequences of their lack of a partner and the efforts they go to in order to find one. In the first story, a cop buys a tin of expired pineapple chunks, as you do, on the anniversary of his break-up with his girlfriend, and falls in with a mule for a drug lord. In the second, a cop falls for a young woman who temporarily takes over the fast food outlet from which he buys a “chef’s salad” every night. The film looks like a mix of rushed shots and carefully-framed shots, an aesthetic Wong honed to excellent effect in his later films. The oblique approach to plotting also stood him in good stead in his later films – compare it with Ashes of Time (or even Ashes of Time Redux). Wong is a singular talent, and as such belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but you sometimes have to wonder at the choices from a director’s oeuvre they’ve picked for the list.

late_springLate Spring, Yasujiro Ozu (1949, Japan). Ozu gets to you slowly. You watch one film and then you start watching another, and before you know it you watch more and you become a fan. And yet each film follows a similar plot: a daughter who must be married, and then a slow parade of the reasons why this cannot happen or must happen. And the beauty of Ozu’s films, of the way they are constructed, is that the viewer sympathises with each and every viewpoint. Perhaps it’s just that he builds strong characters on screen, to such an extent you realise how many characters in commercial cinema are little more than ciphers or tags. There’s no point in describing the plot of Late Spring, or indeed any Ozu film, because that’s not the point. They’re not just domestic dramas, they are ur-domestic dramas. They are so rich with detail, they actually transcend drama. Getting lost in an Ozu film is not getting lost in the story but getting lost in the lives of the characters. And that’s not something you can say about many movies. I came to Ozu late, but I’ve come to love his ability to generate drama from the prosaic, the quotidian. The differences between UK society and Japanese society become irrelevant, because Ozu manages to make the viewer care about the situation from the Japanese point of view. And that makes these rare films. I’m collecting all the BFI releases, why aren’t you?

robin_hoodRobin Hood, Wolfgang Reitherman (1973, USA). I’ve seen this named as one of the best, if not the best, of Disney’s animated feature films. So my hopes were high when I slid it into the player. And the opening credits are really quite well done. But I much prefer the Disney films with the clean lines, rather than the more sketched sort of lines of the 1960s and later. But even with that, Robin Hood just seemed… so small a story, with Nottingham depicted as a village, and everything just too small scale for the story as it purported to be. There was some impressive voice talent – or rather, well-known names – in some of the parts, such as Peter Ustinov and Terry-Thomas, and they were good. But it all felt a bit like an unrelated story that had borrowed the trappings of the Robin Hood legend, without bothering to be all that faithful. So far – and I’ve not seen all of the Disney animated feature films yet – I’d rate them as follows: 1 Sleeping Beauty, 2 Cinderella, 3 101 Dalmatians… and er, I need to watch, or rewatch, more Disney animated features to build up that top five. And no, I don’t count the Pixar films. I’ve still got a number of the classics to watch (or re-watch, albeit the last time I saw them was decades ago as a kid), before I can produce a definitive list. All the same, I’m not expecting Robin Hood to score as highly for me as it does for others. Did I mention that I was born in a town that used to be part of Sherwood Forest, so this legend has always felt like part of my heritage? No? Well, it does. Although that’s only a minor part of the problem. I liked the animal characters, even if it was a little worrying that both Robin and Maid Marion were both foxes (no trans-species love affairs in Disney), and some of the non-native species present in the film didn’t really have much reason for being present. And framing the over-arching narrative as some sort of good-ole-boy southern-USA story felt like appropriation. Not one of Walt’s best.

zhao_liangCrime and Punishment, Zhao Liang (2007, China). I loved Zhao’s Behemoth, which is an astonishing documentary that deserves to be seen by everyone. And, one night, having imbibed a certain amount, I decided I wanted to see more by Zhao but the only films available I could find were in a French-released box set. It had English subtitles, so I bought it. And… it’s pretty grim stuff. There are three films, and none of them makes for cheerful viewing. Crime and Punishment follows a small group of police officers in an impoverished town in north-east China. The people they deal with are poor, often not especially smart, and several are habitual criminals. The police officers are, by turns, arrogant, corrupt, violent, naive and not very smart. There’s a lot of shouting in this film, and several instances where the police openly beat up a suspect they’ve apprehended. But it’s the opening sequence to the film which sticks most in memory, a silent sequence in which the police officers fold up their bedding with military precision until each bed contains only a perfectly-formed cube of duvet. With all the guff you see in the press about China’s powerhouse economy and industrial and technological might, it’s worth remembering that the bulk of the country’s population live in poverty – as is amply displayed in Crime and Punishment – and those who don’t are pretty much indentured labour – as seen in Jia Zhangke’s 24 City and A Touch of Sin (which are, admittedly, not documentaries). I may not have been entirely sober when I clicked “buy” for the Zhao Liang box set, but it proved a worthwhile purchase. Which neatly brings my words on this last film in this post back to my words on the first film…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 850


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Reading diary, #45

The reading further afield thing hasn’t quite kicked into gear yet, with an almost entirely UK set of books in this post – and a lone bande dessinée from Belgium (which is, ironically, about a British writer: William Shakespeare…).

blake_24The Adventures of Blake & Mortimer 24: The Testament of William S., Yves Sente & André Juillard (2016, Belgium). I’ve been picking these up as Cinebook publish the English translations, and if that’s not a testament to their quality, then I don’t know what is. Perversely, they’ve improved considerably since the series creator, Edgar P Jacobs, died. In most cases, the originator does it best – Hergé refused to let anyone continue the Tintin series after him; but the Asterix and Obelix series is generally considered to have declined now that both Goscinny and Uderzo are dead. But Jacobs’s stories for Blake and Mortimer were very much of their time – even offensively so: the villains for several stories is the “Yellow Empire”, ffs – and the science fiction elements were complete bollocks. Since the Edgar P Jacobs Studio has been producing the books, they’ve turned into clever alternate history conspiracy thrillers – such as this one. The William S. of the title is the Bard himself, and the story revolves around two societies who have been feuding for decades over who actually wrote the plays and sonnets. One believes it was indeed Shakespeare; the other believes it was the Earl of Oxford. But a clue hinting at vital evidence proving the claim of one of the societies is unexpectedly discovered in Venice, and, since there’s a huge bequeathed fortune tied up in the answer, the race is on to puzzle out the hidden location of the evidence, and either publish it or destroy it. Good stuff.

a_romantic_heroA Romantic Hero, Olivia Manning (1967, UK). I’m a big fan of Manning’s Balkan and Levant trilogies, and always pick up her books when I spot copies in charity shops… which is where I bought this collection of her short stories (her second collection, apparently). I’d not read her short fiction before, only her novels, so I was interested to see how it compared. And, initially, not so good… the two opening stories, written in the 1930s feature two children of impoverished middle class parents (in a collapsing marriage) who live on the coast of Ireland. Fortunately, things pick up quite dramatically, and some of the following stories are excellent, with some lovely prose and sharply drawn characters. One features the semi-autobiographical characters from the Balkan Trilogy; another is set in Cairo during WW2, but I’m not sure if the characters appear in the Levant Trilogy. The stories in A Romantic Hero stretch from the 1930s to the 1960s (and a couple from the 1930s were re-written in the 1960s), but there’s no discernible change in Manning’s writing with each decade. Perhaps some of the earlier ones seem less individual, more like other fiction of the time; but still well-written. A good collection. Worth reading. Although, annoyingly, the book doesn’t have a table of contents.

cover_truth_largeA Thread of Truth, Nina Allan (2006, UK). I’m still in two minds about Allan’s work. I think that what she does is very interesting, I just don’t think it succeeds that often. On a prose level, she is an excellent writer, one of the best currently writing in UK genre fiction, and her ability to blur the lines between genres, narratives and even characters is both a clever and worthwhile schtick. A Thread of Truth is an early collection – her first, in fact – and is a nicely-produced hardback by Eibonvale Press (who do very nice books, it must be said). I found the stories… mixed. Allan’s prose is very good, but I’m not always convinced by her research. Some of the settings she describes are clearly based on personal experience – she knows these places and does an excellent job in conveying to the reader. But in the title story, the narrator enrolls on a Surveying and Land Management course at university because he wants to be a quantity surveyor. Er, that’s not what quantity surveying is. Every now and again in Allan’s fiction I stumble across things like that, and they spoil the story for me. Two of the stories in A Thread of Truth are actual science fiction, although neither to my mind pull it off especially well. ‘Birdsongs at Eventide’ is set on an alien planet, where a team are studying a troop of local creatures which resembles dragons. And ‘The Vicar with Seven Rigs’ reads like mimetic fiction, until the penultimate page where it’s revealed it takes place in a future UK where travel between planets is routine, as if the narrator had sideslipped into an alternate reality. Neither worked for me.

poseidons_wakePoseidon’s Wake, Alastair Reynolds (2015, UK). If there’s one thing that really annoys me, it’s when publishers completely redesign the covers of a trilogy for the last book. As Gollancz did for the Poseidon’s Children trilogy. Now the design for Poseidon’s Wake is a very attractive design, but it’s not the same as the two earlier books, Blue Remembered Earth and On the Steel Breeze. Argh. And after all that… Poseidon’s Wake proved a disappointing end to what had promised to be a good sf trilogy. The story picks up several decades after the events of On the Steel Breeze. the holoship Zanzibar is now just a belt of rocks orbiting Crucible, the settled planet orbiting 61 Virginis (I think). And then the world receives a message from Gliese 163, a star system some seventy light-years distant, which reads only “Send Ndege”, Ndege being the woman who was responsible for turning the Zanzibar into rubble by playing around with the Mandala and accidentally triggering it. So Crucible sends a mission to Gliese 163, which includes not Ndege but her daughter, Goma, and several others. En route, Goma’s uncle, Mposi, the head of the mission, is murdered, and the evidence points to a Second Chancer (ie, religious extremist) in the team. The ship arrives at Gliese 163 and discovers… that the three taken by the Watchkeepers are still alive – well, two of them are, Eunice Akinya and the uplifted elephant, or Tantor, Dakota – and Eunice was the source of the message. Because she’s fallen out with Dakota. Who now rules a colony of thousands of Tantors in Zanzibar, which was not apparently destroyed but sent on a near-lightspeed journey to Gliese 163. Oh, and there’s a waterworld superearth whose oceans is dotted with thousands of two-hundred-kilometre-diameter metal hoops, whose apexes are almost out of the atmosphere – and the world is protected by a belt of hundreds of artificial moons in complex orbits. This was all built by the Mandala-builders, and is perhaps a clue to their history and technology… so obviously everyone is keen to go and have a look at it. Including the Watchkeepers. But the moons will only let organic intelligences through… I remember enjoying Blue Remembered Earth and On the Steel Breeze (read in 2012 and 2014, respectively), but this was all a bit meh. The characters were mostly unlikeable, and it was hard to figure out if they were meant to be likeable. One character is set up as a possible murderer, but he’s paper-thin and not at all convincing. Even Dakota, the uplifted elephant – and since uplifted even further by the Watchkeepers – doesn’t really come across as an alien intelligence. The prose is sketchy, with very little description (except of planets and stars and suchlike), which I didn’t like. And the book’s big takeaway is that apparently the universe doesn’t offer meaning, life has no meaning – and I’m sorry and everything, but I pretty much figured that out when I was about eight years old. There’s an interesting discussion about intelligence without consciousness, made in reference to the Watchkeepers, who apparently are no longer conscious. Because a feed-forward intelligence is not conscious, and a feedback intelligence, given enough resources, can simulate a feed-forward intelligence… except if A is superior to B, why use more resources to simulate B than A requires? It is, in somewhat apposite words, completely illogical. I didn’t take to Poseidon’s Wake, but no doubt others will.

book_enclaveThe Enclave, Anne Charnock (2017, UK). So I bought The Iron Tactician by Alastair Reynolds (see here), which was the first of four sf novellas from NewCon Press. And when I saw who had written the other three, I decided I wanted them too. The Enclave is actually the third, but I’ve not read the second yet. I read Charnock’s Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind last year (see here) and thought it very good. In fact, it reminded me of Katie Ward’s Girl Reading, which is one of the best novels I’ve read in the last five years or so. Despite that, I hadn’t really known what to expect on opening The Enclave. Happily, it is good, although I’ve yet to decide if it’s good enough to be nominated for an award (although given how few novellas I read in their year of publication… On the other hand, I wouldn’t nominate an unworthy novella just because it was the only one I’d read that year). The title refers to a ghetto in, or near, a UK city, in which live migrants and UK citizens who have refused to be chipped. (It’s not entirely clear what this chipping entails or means in the story, but given The Enclave is set in the same world as Charnock’s novel A Calculated Life, I imagine it’s explained there.) Caleb is a twelve-year-old boy who walked from Spain to the UK with his mother, hoping to find his father who had left earlier. But somewhere in England, he lost his mother, was picked up by Skylark and sold into indentured labour under Ma Lexie. So now he lives in a shack on a rooftop in an enclave. Ma Lexie sells “remade clothes” at a street market, and has three boys to do the sewing for her. But Caleb has an eye for fashion and so Ma Lexie boots out her old overseer and puts Caleb in charge. The story is told first-person, initially from Caleb’s point of view, then from Ma Lexie’s, and finally again from Caleb’s. The characters are convincing, the setting is an all-too-frighteningly-likely consequence of Brexit and the rise in institutional racism in the UK, which means the whole chipping thing does tend to dilute the politics. I’ve never really taken to first-person narrative – it’s always struck me as the weakest, and the one writers with poor imaginations most frequently employ. A first-person narrator who is a Mary Sue (of any gender) is a complete waste of time. Happily, neither Caleb nor Ma Lexie can be accused of that, and the use of first-person here allows Charnock to confine the narrative only to what the narrators know. Although well-written, I’ve a feeling The Enclave could have been stronger, made more of a meal of its setting, said something trenchant about UK politics of the last twelve months. Other than that, bits of The Enclave reminded me, of all things, of Kes, especially the end. And there’s a slight hint of Keith Roberts to it, which is, of course, a plus. I think I probably will end up nominating it next year.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 129


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All the awards that’s fit to print

I found myself completely uninterested in genre awards this year, despite being nominated for two last year (and it’s not like I had anything eligible for any of this year’s awards anyway – well, my one published piece was a spoof coda to the Apollo Quartet, but it was probably unreadable unless you’d actually read the quartet). I suppose my indifference is partly a result of the lacklustre shortlists generated by the various awards last year. But there’s also the increasing disconnect between what the awards mean and the works they’re rewarding. Yes, yes, popular choice wins popularity contest, news at ten and all that. And, true, there’s always been a bit of personality cult about the popular vote awards, which is why so few people keep on winning so many awards, and currently it’s a different set of faces to those of ten or even twenty years ago. A more diverse set of faces, which is good, but given the size of the field these days it would not be unreasonable to expect more variety.

And then there’s the way social media has completely fucked up awards, not to mention the cutting back on promotion by publishers which has normalised the sort of grasping self-promotion bullshit, as epitomised by elegibility posts, that is now common. There may have been an element of awards going to people not to works in the past, but now it’s pretty much nakedly out there.

I suspect I’m not alone in my apathy. I saw almost no conversation about the BSFA Award longlist, and last year’s Clarke Award was notable for its lack of commentary…

Which neatly leads into a recent development which plans to address that last: the Clarke Award Shadow Jury, put together by Nina Allan and hosted online by the Anglia Rusking University’s Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy. Shadow juries are nothing new – hell, we even have a Shadow Cabinet in our government – although I think this is the first time it’s been done for a genre award. And it’s a really strong shadow jury – I actually know more people on it than I do on the actual Clarke Award jury – and I’m looking forward to seeing their thoughts on the books that have been submitted (there’s a list of submissions here).

A quick scan down that submission list, and I can see a number of interesting books… but I can also see a lot of commercial crap that I hope gets nowhere near the shortlist.

And speaking of shortlists… the BSFA Award shortlist has now been announced. And there are some… odd choices. (And they still haven’t sorted out whether it’s named for the year of elegibility or the year the award ceremony takes place. It’s fucked up at least two year’s worth of trophies in the past. It’s not difficult. Fix it.) I understand the BSFA has around 800 members (yes, I’m one of them), and few of them actually bother nominating or voting. I mean, I’m sure Adam Roberts: Critical Essays is an excellent book, but I doubt more than a handful of people have read it – and yet two of the essays in it have made the non-fiction shortlist. And I count six appearances of NewCon Press across the four shortlists.

But the big one is the novel shortlist, and it looks like this:

The Beckett is the third book of a trilogy, the first of which won the Clarke Award in 2013, and both books one and two were also shortlisted for the BSFA Award. The Chambers is also a sequel, and the first book seemed to make every English-language genre award shortlist in existence… except the BSFA Award. Europe in Winter is the third book of a trilogy, and both books one and two were previously shortlisted for the BSFA Award (and the Clarke Award). Sullivan has made the BSFA Award twice previously, in 2004 and 2011, and Occupy Me is her first sf novel since that 2011 nomination. Azanian Bridges is Wood’s first novel.

Quality of the various books aside, that’s an unadventurous shortlist. Seriously, two book threes from trilogies, of which all the previous installments were also shortlisted? True, some of those earlier volumes have also been picked by Clarke Award juries. Yes, I know, small pool of voters, large field, familiar names – and even faces, as half of the shortlist regularly attend the Eastercon (members of the convention also get to vote on the shortlist). And yes, the nominees are good people (and some of them are friends of mine). But I’m not voting for them, I’m voting for the work.

bsfa2012

The BSFA Award is a popular vote award, so I shouldn’t be all that surprised that the same old names keep on cropping up. I look to juried awards to give a better indication of what’s good in the genre in a particular year. But I also remember when the BSFA Award actually used to be a pretty good barometer of what was good in the British sf field in a year. Not so much for the short fiction category, that was always a bit of a crapshoot, but certainly the novel category. And now I find myself wondering: when did that stop being true? I don’t doubt the books shortlisted this year are good books – well, except for the Chambers, as I wasn’t at all impressed by A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet – since I’ve read and enjoyed those earlier installments by Beckett and Hutchinson, and have heard good things about the Sullivan and Wood. But I can also see several novels on the longlist (see here) that were more than good enough to make the shortlist. Even then, only thirty-five novels were longlisted. Thirty-five! The Clarke Award submission list is eighty-six novels. (And only twenty-seven nominations in the BSFA Award short fiction category!).

I honestly don’t see the point of awards for short fiction anymore – I wrote as much in an editorial for Interzone back in 2015. I get that awards are a celebration, but what exactly are we celebrating? Back in the day, sf was a ghetto, and it was all reverse snobbery elitism. Awards were an affirmation of that. But it’s been open season on sf tropes now for several decades, and science fiction is still playing the same old game. And this during a period when the field has exploded, not only all over the internet, with way more fiction venues out there now than there were twenty or thirty years ago, but also serious efforts to bring non-Anglophone sf to Anglophone audiences. It’s almost becoming axiomatic that the only people reading genre short fiction these days are other writers of genre short fiction. Sf has always been self-fertilising, it’s one of the genre’s strengths, but that’s ridiculous.

They’ve tried revamping the BSFA Award a couple of times over the last few years, but I’m not convinced their changes have had much impact. For what it’s worth, I think they should drop the short fiction and non-fiction categories, institute a new award for non-fiction/criticism separate from the BSFA Awards, and limit the BSFA Award to best sf novel published in print in the UK and best piece of sf artwork to appear in print in the UK. But leave the definitions of genre up to the voters. No longlist or two-stage nomination process. Just keep it simple. December and the following January each year to nominate five novels and five pieces of artwork each. Top five in either category makes it to the shortlist. Then it’s business as usual: voting and an awards ceremony at the Eastercon. Let’s not just celebrate science fiction, let’s celebrate science fiction in the UK. And with the most visible forms of it – novels, which appear in book shops; and art, which can be plastered all over the internet. That sounds horribly Brexit-ish, which is not my intention at all – I voted Remain, and am hugely pissed off by all this Brexit shit – but the fact remains that when you’re addressing a parochial electorate it’s best to keep it parochial. And let’s not forget that authors from many other nations get published in the UK (although perhaps not as many non-Anglophone ones as we’d like).

I started out this post documenting my apathy toward genre awards, and ended up getting a bit excited about what they could be. And I guess it’s that disconnect, that sense of disillusionment, that fuels my annual awards annoyance. But in the world we have today, and all the shit that’s going to go down in 2017, praying for an asteroid strike is too much of a long shot. And, short of causing every Nazi newsaper in the UK to spontaneously combust, or Corbett and May to give the finger to the Nazi cabal pulling all the strings, we can at least do something positive in the world of science fiction and make a proper job of this celebration-type thing we call an award.


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Moving pictures 2017, #8

This seems to be a mostly classic film post, except for a recent Swedish TV series. One movie is a rewatch (the Herzog), the rest proved not as expected…

adviseAdvise & Consent, Otto Preminger (1962, USA). In the week in which a White Supremacist installed himself in the White House, and his meat puppet president signed whatever Executive Order was put in front of him, well, that probably wasn’t a good week to watch this film, which shows how US democracy works, or doesn’t work. The president has put forward a candidate for secretary of state, Henry Fonda, but it’s an unpopular pick with some of the senators, especially good old boy the senator for North Carolina, Charles Laughton. So Laughton sets out to sabotage Fonda’s acceptance by the Senate. The Party Whip, on the other hand, wants to push it through. So they convene a subcommittee of friendly faces to lightly grill Fonda before accepting his apointment. But Laughton pulls a fast one and introduces a witness who claims Fonda was a communist when at college. Fonda denies it and makes the witness look like a lying fool. He later admits to the president it was true. One of Fonda’s allies subsequently turns on him because Fonda lied under oath, but he’s already being blackmailed over a homosexual affair when in the army. Winston Churchill reputedly said that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other ones”, and there’s also that famous poll run by sf editor Donald A wollheim back in the 1960s in which the government of choice of sf fans was “benevolent dictatorship”. In other words, after more than ten thousand years of civilisation we humans still have no fucking idea how to run a society fairly. And despite repeated attempts at utopia – and I consider there to be two great historical attempts at utopia, neither of which remained utopian beyond a single generation – such experiments only work with small communities. Maybe that’s the answer, maybe total devolution to the lowest possible level, say a couple of hundred people, is the answer. There are those, after all who swear by Athenian democracy, as practised in small village town halls across the US during the first half of the twentieth century. But, Advise and Consent… I watched it because I’m trying to work my way through Preminger’s films, but I wouldn’t otherwise recommend it unless you’re interested in historical treatments of Washington politics.

herzogCobra Verde, Werner Herzog (1987, Germany). If I had to pick the most bonkers of Herzog’s feature films, I’d be hard-pressed to settle on just one. Cobra Verde has its moments, but despite having Klaus Kinski in the lead role, is saner than many of Herzog’s other movies. Cobra Verde is, however, a bigger spectacle than many of Herzog’s other movies. Kinski plays a rancher in nineteenth-century Brazil who loses his property to drought, works at a silver mine but murders his boss when he discovers the workers are being exploited, goes on the run as the eponymous bandit (Green Cobra! Sounds like a superhero), before eventually becoming the slave overseer of a sympathetic sugar baron. When Kinski gets all three of the sugar baron’s daughters pregnant, the baron decides as punishment to send Kinski to west Africa to re-open the slave route (and hoping, of course, that he’ll get killed in the process). But Kinski manages to persuade the king of Dahomey to accept rifles for slaves, sets himself up in a local abandoned castle, and all I can pretty much remember is Kinski doing his thing (apparently to such an extent the cinematographer quit, and Kinski and Herzog’s friendship finally bit the dust). There are massive set-pieces, with what appears to be the populations of small towns running around or dancing or fighting. Despite Kinski’s presence, and the over-the-top staging of some of the scenes, Cobra Verde does feel more sane than many of Herzog’s other films. Not dialled back, by any means, just less insane than what Herzog actually went through to realise some of his other movies. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about Cobra Verde, and I suspect Herzog’s films are immune to criticism to some degree. Cobra Verde is a good one, but perhaps not a great one, and I’d rate some of his documentaries above it. But if you call yourself a film fan, you should have all of his movies and documentaries anyway.

goddessThe Goddess*, Wu Yonggang (1934, China). This was a lucky find on eBay. Doubly so. I’d ordered one copy I found there, only to be sent a CD of background music for Chinese restaurants. I complained, they sent me a freepost address label to return it, and gave me a full refund. Fortunately, a second copy popped up on eBay for sale, for two-thirds of the price I’d paid before. So I bought it. Annoyingly, the BFI now plan to release a new restoration in April ths year. Argh. It’s a conspiracy, I tell you. The Goddess is a well-regarded silent film from the early decades of China’s film industry. Wikipedia refers to that period as “China’s cinematic golden age”, but I’m pretty sure the country has been having another golden age for the last couple of decades – see Jia Zhangke, Zhao Liang, Wang Xiaoshuai and Diao Yinan, among many others. The Goddess is also known as one of the last films by Ruan Lingyu, one of the most popular actresses of her day (and who committed suicide at the age of 24 in 1935). I tracked down a copy of The Goddess because it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, although I do like many silent films… but The Goddess, to be honest, felt much like the other silent films I’d seen. The setting and cast were, of course, Chinese, but the story itself was one that transcends nations. And the treatment of the story, and the way it was framed, seemed much in line with other silent dramas from other countries. There was no sense of vision, such as you’d get from directors like Carl Theodor Dreyer or FW Murnau – see The Passion of Joan of Arc or Nosferatu – although Ruan Lingyu’s talent was plain to see. I don’t know where The Goddess sits in the history of Chinese cinema – Ruan made over two dozen films before The Goddess, and Wu directed a further eleven films (his last in 1980) after The Goddess, his debut. I suspect there are more important films than The Goddess, but I also suspect  any better candidates have either been lost or are unknown in the US. Which is a shame.

seventh_victimThe Seventh Victim*, Mark Robson (1943, USA). There are some odd choices on the 1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die list, and not just because they’re films I don’t care for, or, while good, don’t seem good enough to be one of the 1001 best films ever. But there are also those films which just aren’t all that good or innovative or important, so why are they on the list? Like The Seventh Victim. Which is a B-movie. A young woman at a residential school is told that her fees have not been paid for several months, and attempts to her contact her older sister, her guardian, in New York have failed. So the woman goes looking for her sister herself – and encounters a mystery. No one has seen her sister for weeks, her cosmetics business is now owned by an other woman, and the sister apparently rented a room above an Italian restaurant which she never used… and which contains only a noose hanging from the ceiling and a chair. It turns out that the sister had been recruited into a Satanic cult – although they’re presented more like Freemasons than the Hellfire Club – but told her husband about them and so broke one of the cult’s laws. Which is punishable by death. So she’s been hiding out, with the help of her psychiatrist. And that’s about it. It’s all very intense and earnest, but the Satanists aren’t in the slightest menacing. The sister’s disappearance adds a noir feel, but that collapses once the actual plot is revealed. There are a couple of earnest monologues on the sort of psychological claptrap Hollywood B-movies loved to lard their films with back in the 1940s and 1950s, but none of it is convincing or insightful. The Seventh Victim is entertaining enough, but it’s no more than a B-movie, and it certainly doesn’t belong on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

jordskottJordskott (2015, Sweden). I found this in a charity shop, misread its price tag and thought it an excellent bargain, but could hardly refuse to buy it when I got to the till. It was still cheap, however. And I’m glad I bought it, because it proved to be pretty good. It starts off as a Nordic crime series, and then turns into something more like Grimm. Eva is a crisis negotiator with the Piketen special operations police task force in Stockholm – in fact, the first episode opens with her trying to persuade a man armed with a shotgun to give up his hostage, his wife. Afterwards, she learns that her father has died, and so takes a leave of absence and heads to her home town of Silverhöjd. She has not returned there since her daughter, Josefina, disappeared in the forest surrounding the town seven years before. Eva was also estranged from her father. Shortly after her arrival, a young boy goes missing, and she sees a link between his disappearance and that of her daughter. Then another young child goes missing. Eva is heir to Thörnblad Cellulosa, a logging and mining company, which owns much of the forested land around Silverhöjd, and it is the company’s operations in the forests which has led to the kidnappings. It’s all to do with a pact signed in the eighteenth century between Eva’s ancestor and the mysteroious race which lived in the forest. But, Eva’s father, and now the acting CEO, want to mine the area because silver has been discovered underneath it. Eva’s daughter mysteriously returns, but has been infected with a parasite which is slowly taking over her body. It’s this parasite the title refers to – and when “fed” properly, it gives its host heightened senses and much greater strength and endurance. Because it seems there are group of people with this parasite who help protect the various creatures from Swedish folklore which live among humans. The plot lost it a bit toward the end, when a single character starts pushing everyone toward the worst possible end, and Eva’s decision to turn her back on it all felt out of character. I’d also liked to have learnt more about the secret society with the parasite, but perhaps they’re saving that for a sequel (although none has been made so far). The unexpected mix of Nordic crime and Swedish folklore went well together, despite the odd bit that was a little too hard to swallow. Good stuff. And if you see a copy going in a charity shop near you, it’s definitely worth shelling out for.

50_cubanStrawberry and Chocolate, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea & Juan Carlos Tabío (1994, Cuba). This is the second of two films on the 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution box set by Gutiérrez, and the last-but-one film he made. Ill health forced him to enlist the help of a friend as co-director. Although released 1994, Strawberry and Chocolate is set in 1979. The lead character, David, is a student. He stops for an ice cream at a café, and is approached by a gay man, Diego, who tries to chat him up. When Diego reveals he has some hard-to-find foreign books at his apartment, David agrees to accompany him home. Diego is hoping for more, and the two become friends – but nothing more – and David learns about life after the revolution, as seen by someone on the fringes of society. David’s homophobic room-mate, on the other hand, sees the friendship as a chance to investigate Diego and his circle of anti-revolutionary friends, and so denounce them. There’s something astonishingly cheerful about this film, although it does quite emotional in places. The two main leads – and the female lead, Nancy, one of Diego’s neightbour, and who David ends up in a relationship with – are all likeable and well-played. Gutiérrez, known to his friends as Titón, was a film-maker in the New Latin American Cinema, which I think is a sort of umbrella term which includes Brazil’s Cinema Novo. New Latin American Cinema was, as Wikipedia put it, “largely concerned with the problems of neocolonialism and cultural identity”, and put the social usefulness of cinema ahead of artistic considerations such as cinematography or three-act stories or storybeats. It’s certainly true that cinema is a powerful tool in that respect; it’s equally true that most Western audiences appear to prefer brainless spectacle. But even then, there are ways of effecting social change without writing in-your-face social drama. Strawberry and Chocolate is a charming drama, and, to be fair, some of its social concerns are over my head as I’m unfamiliar with Cuban history and society – but it makes an effort. And so few Hollywood movies do. They just re-iterate and valourise and normalise the same old right-wing bullshit that has turned the second decade of the twenty-first century into a copy of the fourth decade of the twentieth century. Art has meaning and cinema is an art. And on the strength of Strawberry and Chocolate, and Guttiérrez’s earlier Memories of Underdevelopment, I’m going to try and see more of his films.

1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 849


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Moving pictures, #7

For all my efforts to watch films from different countries, there seem to be a handful that appear more often than others – and they’re all in this one: India, China, Sweden, Germany and the US. And the UK too, of course, although there’s no British film in this post. Having said that, Poland might be turning up in quite a few Moving pictures posts over the next few weeks…

herzogFitzcarraldo*, Werner Herzog (1982, Germany). The thing with special effects is that none of it is real. With physical effects, it’s faked by physical means. These days, with CGI and digital effects, none of it exists outside a computer. But sometimes, film-makers do exactly what they show on the screen. And one of the famous things about Fitzcarraldo is the central portion of the film, where the cast drag a steamship over a mountain ridge from one river to another. And that’s what they actually did. The story of the film seems almost incidental to that one achievement. Basically, the title character – his name is a Hispanisation of “Fitzgerald” – is an opera lover and plans to bring Caruso to the Amazonian town he calls home. In order to do that, he needs money. So he buys a tract of land that cannot be reached by river – or rather, it can, but the river in question is blocked by fierce rapids. So Fitzcarraldo plans to drag his boat over the ridge between the navigable river and the unnavigable one. And he enlists the help of a local Amazonian tribe to do so. Of course, this is a Herzog film, so nothing goes as well as planned. By all accounts, the filming was as difficult as that of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now – there is even an equivalent “making of” documentary, Burden of Dreams (due to appear in a Moving pictures post later). And so the film itself is more or less incidental in the face of that central event – which is every bit as astonishing as you would think. They physically drag a steamship of three hundred tons up and over a mountain ridge a good three or four hundred metres high. The whole film screams difficult shoot right from the start, and the fact the film works, is even successful, is probably more due to the insane ambition of Herzog in attempting it and the unforgiving landscape in which he chose to shoot. It’s one of those cases where everyone suffered for their art, but their act of suffering produced art over and above the norm. And it shows. And that’s without Kinski going completely off the rails during the film – so much so, the crew offered to kill him for Herzog. Definitely in the top five of Herzog films.

hometownPlatform, Jia Zhangke (2000, China). The final film in the Hometown trilogy, although, to be fair, I’ve not watched them in the order in which they were released. In fact, the order goes Pickpocket (1997), Platform (2000) and Unknown Pleasures (2002). Having said that, all three films share a common story: disaffected youth being disaffected youth in different circumstances. In Platform, the cast are a theatre troupe, and they travel about the province putting on state-sanctioned plays. One member forms a relationship with a man, who stays behind when the troupe goes on tour. As China changes, so does the material the troupe performs, until they end up performing rock songs. There’s a definite consistency of vision and approach to the three films in the trilogy, and seeing them in quick succession can feel like too much of a thing in too short a time. Jia has an excellent eye, and his use of mostly amateur cast members and real locations gives the films a documentary feel he has managed to maintain throughout his career so far (both 24 City and A Touch of Sin possess it). I have in recent months found myself becoming a fan of the new cinema coming out of China – not just Jia, but also Zhao Liang, and films like Black Coal, Thin Ice, rather than Hong Kong art house directors like Wong Kar-wai, who I do still like. According to Wikipedia, Jia is a member of the “sixth generation” of Chinese directors, so I guess I should try films by other members of that group…

pat_mikePat and Mike, George Cukor (1952, USA). In classic Hollywood films, there are great screen partnerships, and there are those that occasionally achieved greatness… Tracy and Hepburn made nine films together, and one or two are judged classics, like Adam’s Rib (1949), although I do have soft spot for the one where Hepburn is in charge of a GIANT COMPUTER BRAIN,  Desk Set (1957). Pat and Mike follows a similar pattern to the other films in which the pair appeared – and pretty much to any screwball comedy / rom com of the period. Hepburn plays a natural athlete who wins lots of competitions… providing her husband is not present. As soon as he appears, she slices the ball, hits the net, etc, etc. And so along comes sports agent Tracy, who spots this and needs to keep the two apart in order to profit from Hepburn’s sporting skill. Naturally, the two fall in love. Naturally, this results in snappy dialogue. I’ve watched a lot of George Cukor films, and a lot of them have been very good… but I can’t say I’ve spotted a George Cukor vision, which is not something I’d say of many directors whose careers I’ve been following. Given his oeuvre, I’d have expected something more consistent from Cukor – he has, after all, made some bloody good films, and you’d expect more of them to be of that quality. Pat and Mike, sadly, is pretty forgettable, not a film you’d be reccommending should you find yourself putting together a list of George Cukor films worth seeing. One for fans of screwball comedies.

classic_bergmanA Ship Bound for India, Ingmar Bergman (1947, Sweden). Apparently, “Classic Bergman” means minor Bergman films you will forget ten minutes after watching them. Now, by definition, any Bergman film is worth watching – he’s one of the best directors the twentieth century produced, and that’s a fucking large field in which to excel – but this box set hasn’t really showcased Bergman’s best. “Classic” then, in this case, means “for completists”. And while I’d happily count myself in that category, I’m not so much a fanboy I can actually remember much of this film despite watching it. The main character was a sailor, or wanted to be a sailor, and had a bad relationship with his parents… and okay, I may not have been entirely sober when I watched this film but at least I own the box set so I can watch it again. But from what I remember nothing in it particularly engaged me, so I’m guessing it’s much liked the other films in the box set, ie, a polished theatrical piece shot in stark black and white, starring some of Bergman’s usual stable of actors. I’ll probablyh have to watch it again.

name_riverThe Name of a River, Anup Singh (2003, India). I’m not entirely sure what to make of this. I’ve watched it three times now, and I’m no wiser. I had thought it was a documentary on Ritwik Ghatak and his works, but instead it appears to be a somewhat plotless actual feature film, and a nicely shot one it is too, which was inspired by Ghatak’s movies. Parts of it are sort of restagings of some of the scenes in the movies – the ones set on the distinctive fishing boats of the Titas River, for example, I recognised immediately. There are also interviews, staged more like conversations, between members of the films’ casts – such as the two female leads from A River Called Titas. I’ve only seen three of Ghatak’s eight films – although I do have a fourth to be watched now – which is not enough to spot all the references in The Name of a River. But from the section based on A River Called Titas, and the conversation between its two female leads, there’s a lot in here to unpack. I’ve made my opinion on Ghatak more than clear on this blog in other posts, and I admit I was looking for a little more insight into his career than The Name of a River offers – in fact, now I think about it, it didn’t seem to offer any insight at all. I did enjoy it and it is pretty good – it sucessfully replicates Ghatak’s visuals, and makes clear his politics, and there’s some interesting anecdotal stuff from actors who worked with him. But I guess if I want insight, I ought to read Ghatak’s own writings on cinema.

kahaaniKahaani, Sujoy Ghosh (2012, India). This was a surprise, and a very pleasant one. I’ve no idea why I stuck it on my rental list, but when I shoved it in the player I was expecting three hours of typical Bollywood entertainment. And then it opened with a gas attack on the Kolkata Metro in which a carriage full of people died. Well, that was pretty dark. Not Bollywood at all. The story then jumps forward two years, and a pregnant woman flies into Kolkata from London and makes her way to a district police station. Her husband had been sent to the National Data Centre on assignment, and then vanished. She has come to look for him. She enlists the help of Rana, one of the police officer, but their investigation goes nowhere. But then the HR manager of the National Data Centre remembers another employee, Milan Damji, who resembled the pregnant woman’s husband. So they start looking for him. But it all spirals out of control – the HR manager is murdered, an Intelligence Bureau officer turns up and starts ordering people about, and then it turns out Damji’s was responsible for the gas attack two years earlier… Kahaani turned out to be a good film, a solid thriller which made excellent use of ts location, and had an especially good lead in Vidya Balan, who plays the pregnant heroine. There’s neat twist at the end, which, to be honest, wasn’t all that hard to spot. Apparently, there’s a sequel, Kahaani 2: Durga Rani Singh, released late last year, so it’s not available for rental yet. But when it is, I’ll be sticking it on my list.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 847