It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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Moving pictures, #12

Time to catch up on films again…

carnalCarnal Knowledge, Mike Nichols (1971, USA). According to imdb.com, this is a sexual satire but I couldn’t see much that was satirical in a film that unironically treats women like objects. At one point, Jack Nicholson even gives a slide show of his girlfriends, giving a running commentary on each woman’s appearance and sexual prowess. You see Nicholson and Art Garfunkel were at college together, and they both fell in love with Candice Bergen, but Nicholson ended up marrying Ann-Margret… and years later both men treat the women in their lives like shit, and I seriously have to wonder why this is classified as entertainment. There are a lot of classic films that have never been released on DVD, there are a lot of foreign films that have never been released in English-language editions on DVD… So you have to wonder why they bothered to waste non-biodegradable plastic on crap like Carnal Knowledge.

sokurov_earlyWhispering Pages, Aleksandr Sokurov (1994, Russia). And speaking of foreign languages films not release in– ah wait, I’ve said this before about Sokurov. Whispering Pages is only available as part of a US-only release, Early Masterworks, on Blu-ray and DVD. The films opens with a distorted image of a riverside block of flats in St Petersburg, before eventually focusing on a series of pillars which distortion have rendered almost two-dimensional, and then a man sitting on some steps at the side of the river. He wanders through a series of buildings, a sort of enclosed city, on some sort of quest. I’ve watched the film three times now I’m no clearer as to what’s going on. I’m guessing it’s Limbo or Purgatory, existence as a struggle with some lesson to be learnt, but Sokurov is so allusive and the references so opaque – according to The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov: Figures of Paradox, the film borrows from both Dostoevsky and Gogol, the works of neither of whom I’m familiar with (although I should be grateful for small mercies in that I didn’t wake up the morning after watching the film and learn I’d ordered their books from Amazon…). But all this, of course, is part of the appeal. The film defies easy understanding, and the beauty and strangeness of the cinematography – it’s weird shifts from sepia-tinted to washed out blues and greys to black and white – sucks you into a world in which there is clearly a pattern but it requires work to discern. I will be watching this again; eventually, I will figure out what it’s about.

guysanddollsGuys and Dolls*, Joseph L Mankiewicz (1955, USA). If I added up all my pet hates, I’d have a respectable zoo. Well, a small petting one. Probably full of hamsters. And maybe a goat or two. But one of my pet hates is surely that stupid formalised language like that what is used by the writer Damon Runyan in the speech of his gangster characters in the stories that he wrote. Which is what’s used in Guys and Dolls – likely because the stage show, and so the film, were both based on a pair of stories by Runyan. As it is, Sinatra seems peculiarly charisma-free, Marlon Brando is actually less annoying than usual (although not at first), and Jean Simmons provides a surprisingly common-sensical romantic lead. I didn’t think the songs especially memorable, although one or two of the set-pieces were amusingly done. I am not, it has to be admitted, a fan of musical films, and though I have watched many of them – for reasons I have yet to figure out – I thought this one middling at best.

sonataviolaSonata For Viola, Aleksandr Sokurov (1981, Russia). And here’s another film that features music, that is actually about music – or rather, a composer. I know very little about classical music, it just isn’t my thing; so the appeal here is likely to be limited. And so it proves. Sokurov puts together a documentary on Dmitri Shostakovich based on archive footage. It’s an early work, so the voice-over tends to be more factual and less philosophical than later documentaries; and while it does a good job of laying out Shostakovich’s life, and setting it in context, it’s not likely to attract viewers unless they’re interested in the topic or the director. One for the collection, without a doubt. But no, not a favourite in Sokurov’s oeuvre.

pickpocketPickpocket*, Robert Bresson (1959, France). Bresson is a highly regarded director, and several of his films appear on various lists of great or top 100 or films to see before you die lists. Which is why I’ve seen several… despite not actually taking to any of them. Such as Pickpocket. Non-professional actor Martin LaSalle plays a young man who drifts into thievery, initially for kicks but later as a means to make a living. He meets various other pickpockets and thieves, learns the tricks of the trade, has metaphysical discussions with assorted people, finds himself in a battle of wits with a police inspector… but it’s all played so flat, so affect-less, that’s it’s hard to give much of a shit. LaSalle is a cipher, the remainder of the cast are mouth-pieces, and the story’s only saving grace is its irony. But for irony to really bite, you have to care about its victims. And Bresson does a piss-poor job of making LaSalle, or indeed anyone in the film, sympathetic. He can do it for a donkey, but apparently not for a criminal. Disappointing.

shock_aweNymphomaniac, Volume I and II, Lars von Trier (2013, Denmark). I remember seeing posters for this all over Copenhagen when I was there for Christmas in 2013. And since catching a film at the cinema is an sort on-and-off family tradition over the holiday, I did briefly consider this as a possible contender… But it’s 241 minutes long in total, and I suspected it wasn’t really suitable family viewing… Both facts I can now confirm, having watched it on Blu-ray – although I saw the version bundled in the Shock & Awe von Trier box set, which is not the 325 minute director’s cut. So beware. Stellan Skarsgård finds a badly-beaten Charlotte Gainsbourg one night, takes her home and sees to her injuries. Once recovered, she explains she is a nymphomaniac and tells him her life-story – which is shown in flashback, with Stacy Martin playing the young Gainsbourg. It begins with teenage sexual games, moves onto unhealthy relationships, and finally a marriage which slowly disintegrates, in part because Martin is now visiting sadist Jamie Bell on a regular basis. Skarsgård tries to explain Gainsbourg’s stories by relating them to fly-fishing, as he later admits to having never experienced sex himself. Both parts of Nymphomaniac are pretty much typical von Trier, that unhappy mix of beautiful cinematography, keen observation of the banal, and an almost schoolboyish desire to shock. He also does that thing where a line of genuine insight is often followed by a banal cliché – because he’s at his best when he’s observing and at his worst when he fails to resist the temptation to let his story jump the rails. I still think von Trier is an important director, and the Shock & Awe box set was certainly worth purchasing… but of the von Trier films I’ve seen so far I think Antichrist is the best in this collection – it’s the most emblematic of his later work, not to mention the least misogynistic. It often feels as though von Trier considers himself the enfant terrible of cinema – and tries just a little bit too hard to live up to the label.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 589


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Reading diary, #6

Reading catch-up time, before It Doesn’t Have To Be Right… turns into a film blog. Now that A Prospect of War and All That Outer Space Allows are both out, I’m hoping I’ll get more reading done. I’ve managed to reduce the TBR slightly over the past couple of months, although chiefly by not buying as many books as usual. There are still way too many books for comfort sitting on my bookshelves (or piled on the floor) that I want to read.

Synners, Pat Cadigan (1991). From the SF Masterwork series. I reviewed it on SF Mistressworks here.

spidermoonSpider Moon, John Shirley (2002). I seem to have rather a lot of John Shirley novels, many of which are signed first editions from small presses, and I’m not entirely sure why. It’s not like he’s an amazing writer, or I’m a huge horror fan. I suspect he’s got lumped together in my mind with Lewis Shiner and Lucius Shepard, who also have had many books published by small presses, and that one or two of Shirley’s books at some point I actually did quite admire – Heatseeker, perhaps, or A Splendid Chaos. But, Spider Moon… which is not actually horror, but crime, noir possibly. The narrator is an editor for a San Francisco-based publisher, which is bought out by a big New York publishing house… and which plans to make a few changes. Another member of the firm goes postal, the narrator finds himself with the gun is his hand, and is forced to make a run for it. His son died only a few days before from a drug overdose and, determined to get revenge on the dealer, the narrator hooks up with a pair of lowlifes and the threesome go on a bit of a mini-crime spree. A quick read, and by no means a bad one… and I still don’t know why I have so many books by John Shirley.

touchTouch, Claire North (2015). I bought this because I thought The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was pretty good, and the central premise of this new novel – a being who can jump from body to body by touch and while in possession control them – sounded intriguing. Having now read it, I don’t think it’s quite as successful as North’s first novel. It’s certainly a polished piece of writing, the narrator Kepler is well-drawn, and the central conceit is well-handled… but the plot sort of gets lost along the way and eventually peters out. I reviewed the book for Interzone.

atrocityexhibitionThe Atrocity Exhibition (Annotated), JG Ballard (1969/1990). Wanting to read more Ballard is hardly a contentious ambition, and I’ve read plenty of Ballard already. The 4th Estate editions also made a nice set with their distinctive cover designs, so it was worth picking up copies. Which is what I did. I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about Ballard, perhaps preferring the idea of his fiction more than I did his actual fiction – which is itself quite a Ballardian attitude. He was never a great prose stylist, and he was often a better commentator on twentieth-century life than he was a novelist – what his books said was often more interesting than the stories he chose to tell. The Atrocity Exhibition (Annotated) is a case in point. Half the time, Ballard zeroes in quite effectively on some weird public compulsion, turns it on its head, and the result is a biting comment on the cultural landscape. But just as often, it’s word salad, and he piles the words one upon the other and it reads like an academic work that completely misses the point of its topic. And then, over all this, like giant flashing lights and deafening klaxons, is all the “controversial stuff”, story titles like ‘Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan’ and ‘Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy’. The problem with sacred cows is that no one will admit they make steaks that taste just like normal steaks. Of course, there’s also the bits and pieces of The Atrocity Exhibition (Annotated) that went on to become and/or inspire Crash, which is much the better work. But still, Ballard: always worth a read.

questThe Quest For Christa T., Christa Wolf (1968). I stumbled across this in a charity shop, and since Wolf was a name I’d come across in my search for postwar British women writers (even though she’s German), I decide to buy it. Besides, you just don’t see enough of those green Virago paperbacks in charity shops. The title character and the narrator meet while at school during World War II. They go their separate ways, but meet up again at university in the early nineteen-fifties. The book then follow them through to the nineteen-sixties. It all takes place in East Germany. The story is phrased as a commentary on Christa T by the narrator, almost as if she’s telling it to someone. It’s a style that takes some getting used to, especially in these times of immersive prose; and although it’s considered “experimental” I have to wonder if it’s not how stories were originally told before the advent of the realist novel. I can’t say I’ll be hunting down any more of Wolf’s work – although I’ll keep an eye open for green Virago paperbacks, of course – but I’m glad I read The Quest For Christa T..

Philip-Kerr-PrayerPrayer, Philip Kerr (2013). This novel reads like an idea Kerr pitched to a US network, but was turned down. There’s some solid work in it, but it’s a thin piece stretched out to novel-length. Gil Martin is a FBI agent in Houston, involved in investigating domestic terrorism. When he admits to his wife that he no longer believes in God, she leaves him and takes their young son. Meanwhile Martin is investigating a series of strange deaths of prominent atheists – all four seem like freak accidents or bizarre medical catastrophes. But the fact they’re hated by the religious right makes their deaths suspicious. Martin eventually discovers that a charismatic preacher has discovered “directed prayer” actually works, because God exists, and he’s the Old Testament God who demands unquestioning obedience, not Jesus’s wishy-washy God of love. And this preacher’s secret prayer group has been sending the fallen angel Azrael to kill their opponents. It’s all a bit flimsy, and the plot isn’t exactly twisty-turny. Kerr generally writes clever thrillers, but some of them are propped up by well-handled research rather than clever plotting, and Prayer falls into that category.

shadowdanceShadow Dance, Angela Carter (1966). This was Carter’s debut novel, and there’s effusive praise for it on the cover of my edition from Anthony Burgess. And having now read the book, Burgess’s comments don’t surprise me in the least. It’s just like a Burgess novel in many respects. The narrator Morris runs a junk shop with flighty none-too-legit Honeybuzzard (which I kept on wanting to read as Honeybadger), who is a bit of a knob. Rumour has it that the recent scar disfiguring Ghislaine’s face is Honeybuzzard’s handiwork, although he claims otherwise. Besides, Honeybuzzard now has Emily, who seems to be made of much sterner stuff. And, er, that’s about it. The prose is somewhat overwrought, and far too quick to reach for cliché, especially when Carter emphasises a point by adding on descriptive clause after descriptive clause. From what I remember of her later novels, she soon rid herself of the habit. Fortunately. But lines like “The lines of his ribs showed through the flesh like an elegant bird-cage where his trapped heart flapped its wings regularly, one, two, on the beat” should have been excised. And there are far too many mentions of rape too. Not a great novel, though Carter went on to write some great stuff.


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Moving pictures, #11

I seem to have gone on a bit of a Russian film binge in this one – a Sokurov box set I’d ordered arrived, and I decided I’d better finish off the Eisenstein box set.

facesFaces*, John Cassavetes (1968, USA). I think this is the second Cassavetes films I’ve seen, it would appear he’s one of those highly-praised US independent directors, like Hal Hartley, whose appeal completely passes me by. Faces is shot in black and white, in a cinéma verité style, and seems to consist chiefly of a group of small people at various times, whose constituents change, being drunk and either talking crap, larking about or treating women badly. Buried somewhere among these scenes is a narrative, which apparently describes the slow disintegration of a marriage. But, to be honest, I didn’t much care. Most of the cast were pretty reprehensible, and their drunken boasting was hardly edifying or particularly entertaining. I’m afraid the high regard in which Faces is held is completely beyond me.

elegylandMaria, Aleksandr Sokurov (1978 to 1988, Russia). Sokurov’s films are not easy to find, and many of them have yet to be released on DVD. Elegy of the Land, on which this film appears, is fortunately relatively easy to find. Sokurov began his career making television documentaries, often from found footage, but Maria is original footage about the eponymous farmer, first filmed in 1978, and then added to ten years later. It’s a propaganda piece, but it’s also typically Sokurovian, although some of the cinematography is not as sophisticated as that displayed in later films. There are, for example, no distortions of the image, as used in later films, and the narrative is relatively straightforward. The film is also vibrantly-coloured – albeit only in the first half, the 1978 segment which last some 18 minutes and 30 seconds. The only dialogue is that spoken by the women farmers (only one or two men actually appear in this part of the film). Ten years later, Sokurov returned to film Maria, opening this half of the film with a typically Sokurovian long take shot from a vehicle driving along a road. The inhabitants of Maria’s village are invited to a showing of the first half of the film, and Sokurov films them (in black and white), and provides a voice-over. Maria dies, and he takes stills of the funeral, while commenting on her career and what she represented to those who knew and loved her. Maria is an odd piece – those first 18½ minutes seem very typical of Soviet propaganda – a colourful cinematographic essay on Soviet agriculture, although without the usual self-aggrandizing commentary. But the second half of the film is much more like one of Sokurov’s elegies, a meditation on its subject visualised using a variety of cinematic techniques. The more Sokurov I watch, the more he climbs in my estimation.

sokurov_earlyStone, Aleksandr Sokurov (1992, Russia). This is available on the Early Masterworks box set, which has only a US release (and includes a Region A Blu-ray), so it’s a little harder to find. But it’s worth taking the trouble to track down a copy. And I say that having now seen Stone three times and still being no wiser as to what it is actually about. In fact, the second time I watched it was after spending the afternoon on a bit of a pub crawl, so I fell asleep about ten minutes in. I then decided to rewatch it straight away, while reading the essay on the film in The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov: Figures of Paradox… And the following morning I discovered I’d ordered two paperbacks by Anton Chekhov from Amazon… But then I find Sokurov’s films – both fiction and documentary – endlessly fascinating not only because he distorts his cinematography to generate a specific visual look and feel – something I would like to be able to do in fiction – but also because he builds his narratives from allusion, metaphor and references, and there is so much going on in his films that every other director’s oeuvre seems almost juvenile by comparison. As far as I can determine, Stone is about Chekhov, returning to his house after his death, I think – but it shares a look and feel, and a thematic similarity with my favourite Sokurov film The Second Circle, although in this one the picture is distorted rather than just filtered. It’s another film with those long takes which suck you in, until you find yourself focusing on every aspect of the film with a degree of concentration it’s impossible to give to a nanosecond jump-cut Hollywood tentpole blockbuster…

dersuDersu Uzala*, Akira Kurosawa (1975, Japan/USSR). This is the first film Kurosawa made after attempting suicide following the commercial and critical failure of Dodes’kaden, and apparently he had known of the book of the same title by Vladimir Arsenyev since the 1930s. Whatever the provenance, I have to admit this is the Kurosawa film I’ve enjoyed and admired the most – but how much of that is due to my favouring of Russian cinema over Japanese? The title character is a hunter of the Goldi (Nanai), one of the Tungusic peoples of the Russian Far East, who Arsenyev runs into while on an army expedition to survey the Sikhote-Alin region. Uzala is a wily old man of the woods, and though the Russian soldiers initially consider him a primitive, he quickly earns their respect. So far so good. Kurosawa handles his wilderness filming with his usual excellence, and makes particular use of his fondness for placing the camera at odd angles. There is a weird spiritual interlude, which feels like pure Kurosawa, but which I felt didn’t quite gel with the other parts of the film. And then there’s the bit where Arsenyev attempts to “tame the savage” by offering Uzala his home when the hunter finds he can no longer live in the wilds as he once did. But he soon begins to long for his previous life. I thought Dersu Uzala very good – and while I may be starting to appreciate Kurosawa’s films more, I suspect it’s the story which is responsible for my liking it so much.

esisensteinIvan the Terrible, part 1*, Sergei Eisenstein (1944, USSR). No, I don’t understand why the first part of this is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but the second isn’t. Especially since I preferred part 2 to part 1. The film tells the story of, er, Tsar Ivan IV, who ruled all the Russias from 1547 until his death in 1584. It’s all very in your face, with much gurning, and some quite fantastic costumes. In many respects, it feels and looks like Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky, although some 300 years separates the two films (their subjects, not their filming). This first part deals with Ivan’s ascension to the throne, with much politcking from the boyars, many of whom had their own candidates for tsar. Then there’s a mob scene – Eisenstein likes his mob scenes – and there’s also his marriage to Anastasia Romanovna, which doesn’t go all that well… The spectacle and melodrama tend to overwhelm the story, and disguise the fact Ivan the Terrible was a pretty fascinating historical figure – this is in many respects  an historical biopic turned up to 11.

esisensteinIvan the Terrible, part 2, Sergei Eisenstein (1958, USSR). Apparently, Stalin banned this part, which is why it didn’t appear until fourteen years after the first. It was also filmed partly in colour, unlike the black and white of part 1. And I found myself enjoying it more. Again, you have those fantastic costumes, and a lot of scenes set in Ivan’s throne room. And in some of those scenes, a dance springs to mind especially, Eisenstein actually turns it up to twelve – which is quite an achievement.  In other words, this film is more of the same, with the emphasis on more. Incidentally, I’m still a little annoyed I’ve yet to find a copy of Tartan’s Sergei Eisenstein Collection Volume 1 (containing Strike, Battleship Potemkin and October) for a reasonable price… although I see the Sergei Eisenstein Collection Volume 2 is now going for silly money… so I’m glad I bought my copy when I did.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 587


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Launch days

Well, April was an interesting month, last week was an interesting week. It’s not everyone who has two novels published within three days of each other, and sees the end of one series and the start of another. Two very different novels too – and not just in size, 45,000 words versus 190,000 words…

Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 3.46.35 PMFirst, the final book of the Apollo Quartet, All That Outer Space Allows, was launched on 27 April – on Kindle and paperback only. The signed limited hardback edition will follow later this month. Some time over the next couple of days I’ll be putting up a page on the Whippleshield Books web site to pre-order copies – and yes, I’m happy to reserve specific numbers (but it has to be less than 75, of course), although people who have purchased specific numbers of the other books of the quartet will of course get first call. All That Outer Space Allows, which is a novel and not a novella, was a hard book to write – as indeed have been all four books of the Apollo Quartet. But I think they’re good work and they occupy a space in the genre I’d plan to explore further… even if I have to self-publish again.

apowThen, on 30 April, Tickety Boo Press soft-launched the first book of An Age of Discord, my big fat space opera trilogy, A Prospect of War. It’s ebook only at present. There’ll be a paperback and a signed limited hardback launched at Edge-Lit 4 in July. A Prospect of War couldn’t be a more different book to All That Outer Space Allows. It’s my attempt at a commercial science fiction subgenre. I kept the prose plain, and limited the complexity to the plot (which is, er, quite complex). There are no fancy literary tricks in A Prospect of War, I just rang a few changes on your standard space opera tropes. A Prospect of War will be followed in October by A Conflict of Orders, and in March 2016 by A Want of Reason. I also have plans for a couple of novellas set in the same universe, but we’ll see how things go…

Ebook copies of both books are available for review. Drop me a line if you’d like one. Or, er, both.