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readings & watchings 2011 #5

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Time for another journey through the cultural landscape as navigated by Your Somewhat Whimsical Cartographer. Bit of a marathon journey, I’m afraid – other projects have meant this has been delayed a week or two, and so grown a little larger than usual.

Books
The Arctic Marauder, Jacques Tardi (1974), I bought because Warren Ellis had raved about these on his blog. Tardi is a famous bande desinée writer/artist in France but isn’t well-known in English. Fantagraphics are translating all of his best-known works , and publishing them as handsome hardback volumes. I admit, it was the cover art which caused me to pick this one – and it was a good choice. The story is like Jules Verne on, well, on drugs. A young man survives a mysterious attack which sinks the ship he is travelling on in the Arctic. Later, he returns to solve the mystery, and discovers a pair of mad scientists in a floating fort disguised as an iceberg. Tardi’s style is very distinctive, but the story is very quick. I’m glad I bought it, though. I think I’ll buy some of the other volumes…

A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole (1980), is apparently one of the great American comic novels of the twentieth century. Or so I was told. By many people. Perhaps they over-sold it. Because I didn’t like it all that much. I’m a firm believer in the Confucian maxim that “the funniest sight on the whole world is watching an old friend fall off a high roof”. In other words, slapstick makes me laugh. A great fat over-educated arrogant and self-deluded idiot like Ignatius J Reilly doesn’t. There is some wit in A Confederacy of Dunces, notably in the dialogue of the black characters, but too often the story is asking the reader to laugh at Reilly and not with him. Disappointing.

The Female Man, Joanna Russ (1975), I read to honour Russ after her recent death, and I was surprised at how well the book has aged. It’s set chiefly in 1969, although it was published in 1975, and reads very much like a book set in the late 1960s – so it didn’t feel at all dated. But even the overtly sfnal sections have aged quite well. I’d remembered the book as an angry one, but I’d forgotten that as the story progresses, so does the book’s anger. Towards the end, it reaches quite astonishing levels. One chapter seemed more familiar to me than the rest of the book – which I’ve read only the once before during the 1980s. It didn’t take me long to figure out why – I’d read it as a short story titled ‘An Old Fashioned Girl’ in the anthology Final Stage: The Ultimate Science Fiction Anthology when I was about twelve years old. That anthology was one of the first sf books I ever read, and its stories have stuck with me over the decades (yes, even the Harlan Ellison one). I still have that original copy on my book-shelves. But The Female Man: I have the SF Masterworks edition, and it’s a worthy addition to the series – it’s one of those remarkably few sf novels which can change the way you view the world. This is a book I think I will be reading again. Regularly.

The Secret History Omnibus Vol 2, Jean-Pierre Pécau (2005), is, as the, er, title suggests, the second collected volume in English of a bande desinée.  In prehistoric times, four “archons” were each gifted with immortality and a rune of power. In the centuries since, they have fought each other, independently and in temporary alliances. During the early years of the Holy Roman Empire, an experiment went awry, resulting in the birth of William of Lecce, a monstrous boy who is committed to bending the world to his evil ends. Three of the four archons have battled William ever since. Volume 2 takes the story from 1918 to 1945, opening with St John Philby in the Empty Quarter hunting for the fabled city from which the Queen of Sheba ruled, and continuing on through both world wars to Hitler’s defeat. The Secret History cleverly stitches real historical events into its plot, and it’s especially obvious in this second volume. The Tarot as the story’s inspiration is also clearer. The story is not yet complete, and I believe it continues in another series under a different title. I’ll be buying them, then.

Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy (1985), got an honourable mention in my Best of the Half-Year post recently. It should probably have made the top five (especially since I only actually picked four), but, well, it’s such a bleak and monstrous story, and its cast behave like animals, that I can’t really love or admire it that much. I guess I’m just a big softy at heart. True, Blood Meridian is beautifully written, and McCarthy’s descriptive prose is often as breathtaking as the scenery he describes. A troop of Indian hunters in Mexico during the 1850s ride around the area, attacking both innocent and guilty Indians and Mexicans and collecting their scalps for a bounty. The characters have no redeeming qualities whatsoever and you can only wonder why they were permitted their depredations for so long. Turning cowboys into monsters may have been a novel approach to the western, but I can’t see that it adds much to the genre.

China Mountain Zhang, Maureen F McHugh (1992), was May’s book for this year’s reading challenge, and I wrote about it here. I also cross-posted the review on the SF Mistressworks blog here.

The Styx Complex, Russell Rhodes (1977). Dear me, I’d forgotten how badly written most airport-bestseller books are. This one was published in the mid-1970s but I suspect there’s been very little increase in quality in the decades since. It’s probably got worse. Ava Bardoff is the mysterious, and beautiful, head of a global cosmetics empire which seems to have discovered the secret of eternal youth, and which appears to control a great many important people around the world. Philanthropist billionaire Hugo Montcrief has been trying to break Bardoff’s conspiracy for years but never succeeded. Along comes Bardoff’s god-daughter, Sarah, a trust-fund babe, who has decided to settle down. The billionaire recruits playboy athlete Michael, whose estranged father is a senior executive in Bardoff’s cosmetics company, to use Sarah to infiltrate and investigate Bardoff’s chateau headquarters near Cannes. The prose is eye-stabbingly bad, the plot is ludicrous, the characters are wildly implausible, and I can only wonder why I bothered to read it. Ah well.

The Horse and His Boy, CS Lewis (1954), is the fifth book by publication of the Chronicles of Narnia. And Lewis is at his most hectoring so far in this one. It doesn’t help that it’s not set in Narnia but in Calormen, which is full of nasty foreigners of a 1001 Nights persuasion. They even smell a bit too. Not to mention practicing slavery. One such young slave is rescued by a horse which reveals it can talk – because it’s a Narnian horse. So the two try to escape across the desert to Narnia, with the help of a young princess fleeing an arranged marriage and her talking horse, and en route they foil a fiendish plot by the Calormen to attack and conquer Narnia’s nearest neighbour. Even more so than the other Narnia books, The Horse and His Boy suffers from outdated sensibilities that really shouldn’t be taught to children in the twenty-first century. There isn’t enough charm in this book to offset that.

The Legend of False Dreaming, Toiya Kristen Finley (2011). Finley had one of the more inventive stories in the anthology Text: Ur (an anthology I recommend reading), and I liked it enough to track down some of her other fiction online. Her stories are strange and elliptical, and not always told in a straightforward fashion. Unfortunately, The Legend of False Dreaming is much more conventional narrative-wise. A young woman, fleeing her family, arrives in a town in which the inhabitants refuse to acknowledge the presence of the town’s transient population, who are themselves trapped by a strange magical fog which won’t permit them to leave. Not a bad story, but not as good as other ones by Finley I’ve read.

The Fifth Child, Doris Lessing (1988), is about a young middle-class liberal couple who buy a big house they can’t really afford because they want to fill it with children and live like bohemians. They get a bit of help from well-off parents and out plop a succession of kids. The relatives all come and stay for the holidays and a jolly good time is had by all. But then another little sperm slips through and the titular sprog appears. Only this one is different. Physically, he resembles a Neanderthal. Temperamentally, he resembles… well, some sort of cunning animal. As a result, the happy home is no longer a happy home. Though a light read, this book packs quite a punch. Lessing’s deceptively simple prose style lets the story slip down, though it’s an unpleasant one. Perversely, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the fifth child, and I wondered if that was Lessing’s intent – clues in the story sort of suggested it was the mother’s moral strength which was the point of the story.

Heat of Fusion & Other Stories, John M Ford (2004), is a collection of short stories and poems from a much under-rated sf author. These are cleverly done, though some are more involving than others. ‘Erase/Record/Play: A Drama for Print’ is especially good – a powerful story that refuses to tackle its subject head-on but works all the better for not doing so. Can’t say I was overly fond of the epic poems, which often felt more like clever word-play than actual poems. All the same, it’s worth tracking down a copy of this and reading it, if you can.

The Unconsoled, Kazuo Ishiguro (1995). I like Ishiguro’s novels, though I find them a bit variable and often insipid. And now that I’ve read The Unconsoled, I’ve read all of them – but I wish I hadn’t bothered. Ryder is a world-famous concert pianist, come to an unnamed East European city to perform. But there’s something strange about the city, about the people who live there, and about what he is supposed to do. Everything is dream-like: he is driven for miles out into the country to visit someone, then steps through a door in their house and is back in his hotel. The city constantly changes, Ryder finds himself rushing around from one errand to another, suddenly recognising the people he meets and remembering things about them… And the people, when they speak to him: they waffle, they repeat themselves, they go on and on and on… I was expecting all this to be explained when I reached the end of the novel – it’s clearly fabulist, but in service to what? Not Ryder’s role, because that’s never explained – it’s repeatedly hinted that it involves more than simply playing the piano. I expected answers. There are none. The Unconsoled just finishes. Bah. Rubbish book.

How Spacecraft Fly, Graham Swinerd (2008), I reviewed on my Space Books blog here.

Metropolis, Thea von Harbou (1927), I reviewed on the SF Mistressworks blog here.

The Noise Within (2010) and The Noise Revealed (2011), Ian Whates, I read for review for Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association. I know a lot of people like these books, but I found them a little too old-fashioned and slapdash for my taste.

God’s War, Kameron Hurley (2011), was the novel Niall Harrison persuaded a whole bunch of us on Twitter to buy. It was all ready on my radar – as any sf novel which makes use of Arab culture would be – and I’d read the first chapter online, but that hadn’t been enough to persuade me to actually order a copy. But when Niall raved about it – describing it as a cross between Gwyneth Jones and Richard Morgan – I thought it worth a go, and… I’m currently working on a piece about it which I’ll post up here when it’s done.

The Third Eagle, RA MacAvoy (1989), I reviewed on the SF Mistressworks blog here.

Robopocalypse, Daniel H Wilson (2011), I read for review for Interzone. It appears to be this year’s mega-hyped genre title from the US. Wilson has a PhD in Robotics, and is television’s go-to guy on the subject. He’s previously written other books about robots, some of which, like Robopocalypse, have been optioned for movies. So there’s plenty of money behind him. But, like all such books, there’s not much in the way of substance. The story is presented as a series of vignettes from a future war with robots. Some are better than others. The structure is actually quite annoying, and I’m not very convinced by some of the robotics used in the book either.

Films
Summertime, David Lean (1955). I’m not a major fan of Lean’s work, although Lawrence of Arabia is a favourite film. Summertime surprised me in two ways: I actually really liked it, and star Katherine Hepburn didn’t annoy me. Hepburn plays a spinster who is visiting Venice. It’s her first time abroad, and this holiday has been a lifetime dream. She meets a smooth Italian lothario who runs an “antique” shop, and the two enter into a relationship. The photography of Venice is excellent, which is perhaps the film’s chief attraction. The story is not especially ground-breaking, although Hepburn’s strength of will – she walks away from her lover at the end of the film – is surprising for a film of the period.

Millennium season 3 (1998), was the last of the series, although a final cross-over episode with The X-Files was used to tie up the last few loose ends. For a series that promised so much in its first series, Millennium did go out with a bit of a wet fart. Most of the episodes in this season were mythology-related, and over the previous two seasons that mythology had gone from vague protestations of biblical millennial doom! doom! doom! to some weird underground apocalyptic cult which began back in the Crusades and was now planning on bringing about the end of the world itself. Naturally, this pisses off FBI profiler Frank Black – who is now back in the fold of the Bureau – and he maintains a consistent petulance on the topic throughout this season’s twenty-two episodes. And speaking of which, a couple of the episodes in season three were good – the one set at Los Alamos in the 1940s was especially good. The one featuring KISS, however, was embarrassingly bad.

High Noon, Fred Zinnemann (1952), is a classic Western, though I will confess I watched it chiefly because it stars Grace Kelly. But then I’m not a big fan of Westerns, and have found only a handful over the years that I actually like – and only one, Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, that comes close to being a favourite film. But, after all that, Kelly was a bit insipid as the marshal’s wife, though Cooper as the marshal projected an impressively steely competence. Parts of High Noon felt like a checklist of genre clichés, but it picked up towards the end. Not a bad film, then; but I doubt I’ll be returning to it.

You Can’t Take It with You, Frank Capra (1938). Every Capra film I watch I find appealing is a sort of happy, fluffy way – and this one is no exception. An anarchic bohemian family become embroiled in capitalist shenanigans when their refusal to sell their house prevents a nasty industrialist from buying up an entire city block for a project. This is not helped by the industrialist’s son being affianced to the daughter of the bohemians. It’s all very jolly and overtly liberal in an unchallenging way. The characters are appealingly eccentric, the dialogue has wit, and the story romps along with all the charm and geniality of a favourite uncle – the nice one, not the creepy one. I still intend to work my way through Capra’s oeuvre – I don’t think he’s as consistently entertaining, or as technically innovative, as Hitchcock, but I do enjoy his films.

Dark and Stormy Night, Larry Blamire (2009), I reviewed for VideoVista and you can see my review here.

The Bed Sitting Room, Richard Lester (1969), felt mostly like a play that had escaped from some 1960’s Brit comedian’s bottom drawer. It seemed to chiefly comprise a bunch of British comedy stalwarts wandering around a disused quarry in search of a plot. Some bits were good. I liked Ralph Richardson as Lord Fortnum, who was convinced he was going to turn into the titular chamber. And, in fact. did. The sections involving Harry Secombe in his fallout shelter I also liked. The Bed Sitting Room felt a bit like a very English “nice” version of a film by Alejandro Jodorowsky – although unlike one of Jodorowsky’s films, it wouldn’t need several beers to make sense of. Just a cup of tea; or a small sherry.

Journey to Promethea, Dan Garcia (2009), was another VideoVista review – see here – and also quite possibly the worst film ever made.

Container, Lukas Moodysson (2006). I have the Lukas Moodysson Presents box set (which contains Show Me Love, Together, Lilya 4-Ever and A Hole in My Heart), and I like the films in it. So I expected to like Container. Except, well, I’m not that big a fan of experimental cinema. Some of it I like and admire. But not this one. It’s seventy-two black-and-white minutes set in a shipping container, showing things sort of happening, with a stream-of-conscious narrative track. No amount of wine could improve it. And I tried.

Night And The City, Jules Dassin (1950), was one of the oddest noir films I’ve seen because, while it met the forms of the genre pretty much spot on, it was a) set in London, and b) had US stars. Richard Widmark runs around a night-time London, sweating profusely, playing a Yank wide-boy on the make who gets himself on the wrong side of a gangster who has the local wrestling scene tied up. I like noir, but I couldn’t get excited about this one – maybe because, to me, it has to be set in the US because part of it is the perversion of the American Dream. After World War 2, the US was prosperous and optimistic, and it’s the conflict with that which makes gives noir its sting. The UK, on the other hand, was grim, struggling to recover from the war, and still in rationing. It doesn’t make for much of a contrast with the typical noir worldview.

Star Trek (The Original Series) season 1 (1966), I borrowed from a friend because, while I remember watching these back in the 1970s when I was a kid, and I’d never been that big a fan of the original series, I thought it might be interesting to see what I’d think to them now. And the answer is… not much. Even Harlan Ellison’s much-celebrated episode ‘The City on the Edge of the Forever’ failed to impress – chiefly because it has a logical flaw in the plot: McCoy travels back in time and creates a paradox, except the original situation only occurs because they went back to fix the paradox… Despite the occasional mildly entertaining episode, there’s much to moan about. For all its vaunted sexual equality, all the women are pretty, have roles defined by their relationships to the male cast, and are always filmed in soft focus. The captain’s log voice-over is inconsistent throughout, being either a real-time commentary or an after-the-fact summation, and often both in the same episode. But then that’s on a par with the nonsense dating system used. This may be ground-breaking sf telly, but that’s not all that much to brag about really, is it?

They Met In The Dark, Carl Lamac (1943), is a quota quickie I reviewed for VideoVista, and a review of it should be up there soon.

The A-Team, Joe Carnahan (2010). Discussing books with Justina Robson at alt.fiction, I remarked that when I read a novel I like to come away with the impression the author is cleverer than me. Which means I certainly don’t enjoy watching films which make me feel like I’ve lost IQ points. Even if I do have several beers inside me at the time. And that’s what The A-Team is like. It’s like having a conversation with someone who thinks some really dumb stuff, which wouldn’t stand up to a nanosecond’s scrutiny, is totally cool. In other words, The A-Team is monumentally stupid. Even worse, it thinks being monumentally stupid is cool. The television series was risible, but this movie takes that to an entirely new level. The stunt with the helicopter was jaw-droppingly implausible, and you had to wonder why the film-makers didn’t at least be honest about it all and put the cast in skin-tight spandex. And then there was the set-piece with the tank in the transport aeroplane… After that, I was using more neurons drinking my beer than I was watching the film.

The Apple, Samira Makhmalbaf (1998), is perhaps the least successful of the Iranian films I’ve seen this year. A near-blind old man and his blind wife have kept their two young daughters locked up indoors for years – though not like that bloke in Austria. The neighbours complain to the authorities, who send round a social worker. The social worker persuades the old man to let his daughters out of the house, which he does. With the help of a neighbouring boy, they discover something of the world around them. It’s filmed like a documentary, is quite poignant in places, but I kept on waiting for something approaching a plot to kick off. But it never did.

Don’t Ever Leave Me, Arthur Crabtree (1949), I reviewed for VideoVista, and a review of it should be up there soon.

Iron Man 2, Jon Favreau (2010), I can actually remember very little about even though it’s not that long since I watched it. There’s this bloke in a metal suit. No, two blokes. And lots of robots. And Mickey Rourke, who looks like he’s been chewed up and spat out by a Great White. Although apparently he normally looks like that. And Robert Downey Jr wisecracks his way through a plot that’s even thinner than the first Iron Man film without actually making much of an impression on the viewer. I like superhero films, and I think they’re ideal material for blockbuster movies – but I’m beginning to wonder if the genre has reached the point of diminishing returns. No one really gives a shit about any multi-film story-arc, so why bother with sequels? A fresh new hero will pull in the punters, so all the director has to do is throw two hours’ worth of flash-bang-wallop at them, and everyone goes home happy. Anything else is like putting Smarties on a cheesecake.

The Warrior’s Way, Sngmoo Lee (2010), I reviewed for VideoVista, and a review of it should be up there soon. I was quite impressed with this – it’s the best attempt at using comicbook story-telling I’ve seen in a film.

Red, Robert Schwentke (2010), I rented because it’s based on a graphic novel written by Warren Ellis. The title is actually an acronym – RED: Retired, Extremely Dangerous. Which refers to ex-CIA hitman Bruce Willis, who has been chatting up on the telephone a woman who works at the federal office which issues his pension checks. Then one day, assassins come to call on him. Convinced the woman will be their next target, he sort of abducts her… and then introduces her to his old buddies – Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich and Helen Mirren, all of whom are also retired. The first half of the film is fun, with some entertaining stunts and mayhem. But then it all turns drearily predictable in the second half, and whatever charm the film had built up soon dissipates. Worth seeing, though.

The Reckless Moment, Max Ophüls (1949), is almost proper noir. It’s set in California, it’s black and white, and it has the American middle class being rudely accosted by society’s criminal underbelly. Unfortunately, said underbelly is in the person of James Mason who, despite an Irish brogue, is far too urbane to convince as a gangster loan shark / blackmailer. Joan Bennett plays the mum of a teenage daughter at art school who has taken up with a sleazy art dealer twice her age. When the art dealer tries to extort money from the daughter, she hits him and runs away, not realising he has subsequently stumbled and fallen onto an anchor, and died. Mum discovers this next morning (it happened at the family’s boathouse), panics, and hides the body in a nearby swamp. Mason then turns up with love letters from the daughter to the “murdered” art dealer, demanding money or he’ll send them to the police. Except Mason isn’t really cut out to be a blackmailer, and begins to fall for Bennett. Nicely played throughout, and nicely shot, but it didn’t quite have the edge real noir demands.

Micmacs, Jean-Pierre Jeunet (2009). Delicatessen is one of my favourite films, and I like The City of Lost Children a great deal. but since splitting up, Jeunet and Caro have never quite individually managed to produce films as good as those two. Caro’s single solo effort, Dante 01, had its moments but seemed to fumble its way to a derivative ending. Jeunet’s career has been much more successful, though the overwhelming treacly whimsicality of his films has meant I’ve not greatly enjoyed them. Micmacs is perhaps not as cloyingly sweet as Amélie, or as twee as A Very Long Engagement, but is for much of its length surprisingly dull. A video-store clerk, Bazil, is an accidental victim of a drive-by shooting, and the bullet lodges in his brain. The surgeon decides to leave it in there, though there’s the possibility it may result in a sudden fatal aneurism. Bazil leaves hospital to discover he has been thrown out of his apartment and has lost his job. After living on the street for a couple of months, Bazil is adopted by a clan of lovable eccentrics who live underneath a rubbish heap. Meanwhile, Bazil has decided to have his revenge on two arms dealers – one who made the bullet which currently resides in his brain, the other who made the mine which killed his army bomb-disposal father thirty years before. So Bazil uses the peculiar talents of his friends to set up a con to bring both arms manufacturers down. There are a couple of clever set-pieces, but they’re not enough to carry the story over its 105 minutes. Disappointing.

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2 thoughts on “readings & watchings 2011 #5

  1. I like the refreshing bluntness of your reviews. No apologies for standing apart.
    Best western for my money, watching Grace Kelly notwithstanding, is Eastwood’s UNFORGIVEN.
    I love Star Trek. Always had a weakness and fondness for it. And yet, I can’t disagree with one word you wrote.

  2. Just caught up with this post. I have a few westerns in my film collection, including High Noon; it’s very much a gimmick picture, with the device of it being filmed in (or rather, cut into) real time, and that driving Dmitri Tiomkin sondtrack: the run-up to the train arriving is something of a tour de force. I enjoy looking out for minor actors – or sometimes major ones – in supporting roles in older films, so it’s a pleasure to see Harry Morgan – one of the base commanders in the tv version of M*A*S*H – in a supporting role. And it’s in luminous black and white…

    I, too, have just been re-watching the first season of classic Trek. I mainly agree with you, though the plot of ‘City on the edge of forever’ isn’t quite as inconsistent as you think – but you have to look pretty hard to spot it. (You must excuse the slight excursion into Trekkie-dom here – normal service will be resumed shortly…) McCoy goes back in time and changes the past. The Guardian [the big doughnutty thing, not the newspaper] shows Kirk and Spock the changed timestream. They go back in time to try to undo whatever McCoy does. We can only assume that the changed timeline comes about because McCoy inspires the Joan Collins character to believe in a better future; the plot hole is that in the original history she dies in a road accident, which it is true she wouldn’t necessarily have had if Kirk hadn’t been there to be on the wrong side of the road with her. In fact, in the real world it’s most likely that her opinions and her philanthropy wouldn’t have made a ha’porth of difference to Depression era America without her mentor from the future. Having her death reported in the newspapers for Spock to see was a simple plot device to make the episode work. It’s far from the worst offence the series commits. (Trekkie bit over.)

    The impression I got was how inconsistent the setup of the show was, compared with the rigidity of back story and Starfleet operations and protocol imposed in later series. Back story is a pretty flexible thing in the early episodes; and Jim Kirk reguarly gives orders to Spock that are meant for other crew. His treatment of other crew members can be pretty appalling at times, and his treatment of Spock, far from being the friendship that the show likes to suggest, or indeed the homoerotic relationship that some fans revel in, looks pretty shaky to me. All in all, the first season of Star Trek shows up two things: how poor the standard of scriptwriting was, and how bad the rest of tv must have been if this is now looked back upon as some sort of high spot.

    (The new DVD reworking with updated fx is nonetheless rather nice. I suspect that at some point in the future, when all the principals of the show are safely tucked up in their graves, someone will digitally re-work the whole of classic Trek to match the rest of the franchise in terms of visual design, back story, scripting and characters.)

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