It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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Moving pictures, #21

And back to more films from the US than elsewhere. Given that only half the films described below are rentals, I can’t claim the vagaries of their service as an excuse. Oh well.

cindrelac2Cinderella, Kenneth Branagh (2015, USA). I bought a Blu-ray of the animated Disney Cinderella and the cheapest version available was a double Blu-ray box set with the 2015 live-action version of the film, because, probably, the live-action needs a bit of extra help to sell. I mean, whoever heard of a live-action Cinderella? Okay, it was directed by Branagh, and it’s got stars like Helena Bonham Carter and Cate Blanchett and Stellan Skarsgård and Derek Jacobi in it… but given the number of princess films Disney churns out, my expectations were understandably quite low. And yes, the film takes a few liberties with Perrault’s story, chiefly in order to give the characters more of a background. The two leads – Lily James and Richard Madden – are also a bit bland. But… there were some quite clever references to the Disney animated version, Bonham Carter’s absent-minded Fairy Godmother was fun, and Blanchett was on good form. However, the choreography during the ball scene just looked silly, and spoiled for me what had been up until then good family entertainment. A better film than I’d expected, but nowhere near as good as the animated version (although in its favour, its mice are considerably less annoying). [ABC]

rescuersThe Rescuers, John Lounsbery, Wolfgang Reitherman & Art Stevens (1977, USA). I have a vague memory of this film’s original theatrical release. I can’t remember if I went to see it at the cinema, or if on a trip to the cinema my sisters saw it and I watched some other film. Watching it this time, 38 years later, very little seemed all that familiar. The seagull I sort of remembered, and Madame Medusa I think I remembered… But nothing else. Apparently, The Rescuers was instrumental in turning around Disney’s fortunes – they had not a successful film since The Jungle Book in 1967. I’m not sure I understand why – I can’t think of a weirder pairing for the main characters as Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor. And the animation looked a little crude and not very crisp when compared to Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. I wasn’t that impressed. Amusingly, in 1999 Disney had to recall 3.4 million videocassettes of the second home video release because someone had spotted a photo of a topless women in the background of one of the shots.

hard_to_be_a_godHard to be a God, Aleksey German (2013, Russia). I’d heard a great deal about this film, and everything I’d heard led me to think I’d be much impressed by it. Not just that it was made by a Russian director, and made in that sort of very Russian style; or that it’s an adaptation of a novel by Boris & Arkady Strugatsky… Anyway, I bought the Blu-ray when it was released… and it sort of sat on the pile of films to be watched for six months or so before I finally decided to stick it in the player… An agent from Earth has infiltrated the society of another planet. The humans of the planet are anti-intellectual, and so are mired in the Middle Ages. The agent has taken the place of a local baron, and the local populace treat their nobles as god. On Blu-ray, the filth and squalour of the world German has created is visceral and obvious.  The film sort of meanders about, revelling in the awful conditions in which everyone lives, and the dumb laws under which they must survive (an old man is drowned upside down in shit, for example, for writing poetry – and being what the subtitles call a “smartypants”). It’s all very grim and very cheerless, but in a sort of weirdly unbelievable and implausible way. The cinematography is fantastic, the film’s commitment to its world is astonishing… but, even though I like slow cinema, this is not a film in which things happen at a particularly fast pace. I thought I’d like it more than I did, so in that respect it’s disappointing. But it’s definitely a film that stands numerous viewings, so I’m glad I bought a copy. [ABC]

black_godBlack God, White Devil*, Glauber Rocha (1964, Brazil). So I’d watched Rocha’s Entranced Earth – because it was on the 1001 Movies Must See Before You Die list, it was a rental, see here – and I really enjoyed it and I was a bit drunk, so I went and bought DVDs of Rocha’s three films, of which Entranced Earth forms the middle part of the trilogy. Black God, White Devil is the first of the three. Obviously, I was interested to see what I made of it. And… well, it’s not a very good transfer. I like that Mr Bongo are releasing hard-to-find non-Anglophone movies, but they don’t seem to put much effort into it. Happily, Black God, White Devil is a good film. A really good film. It has a bit of the Jodorowsky about it, and it works really well. A poor farmer has to flee when he kills his boss (after his boss insists the farmer carry the cost of the loss of the two cattle which died of snake bites en route to market). The farmer and his wife join St Sebastian, an apocalyptic preacher who suggests violence is necessary for redemption. Meanwhile, the government is getting worried about St Sebastian and his growing influence. So they hire bandit Antonio das Mortes to kill the preacher and his followers. Two are left alive to spread the word – yes, the farmer and his wife. And they in turn become bandits. I now want more of Rocha’s films, but the three I have appear to be the only ones that are available. Bah. [0]

nobodoy_knowsNobody Knows, Hirokazu Koreeda (2004, Japan). This was recommended to me by David Tallerman, who has previously recommended anime films, but this is live action… although “action” may not be the right word. It’s a dramatisation of a true story. A woman with a twelve-year-old son moves into a new apartment. However, she actually has four kids – two are very young and are smuggled into the building inside suitcases, the other is eleven and turns up later. The woman continues to pretend she only has the one kid to her landlord. One day, she heads off to work… and never returns. She has abandoned her children. The oldest boy tries to keep the other children safe and fed, although what little money the mother left soon runs out. Then the utilities are cut off since the bills haven’t been paid. When the youngest girl falls from a stool, hits her head and dies, the three children bury her in a field near the airport. The film is played very flat, like a documentary, which has the odd side-effect of making the mother appear merely flighty instead of criminally negligent. Apparently, the real-life case was somewhat more gruesome – there were five children, not four; the youngest died after being assaulted  by friends of the eldest; and all were badly malnourished when discovered by the authorities (after a tip-off from the landlord). Another of the children also died – Wikipedia does not give the cause – and the body was found with the three survivors. The mother gave herself up when the case hit the news. Astonishingly, after she’d served her three year jail sentence, the mother was given custody of the two surviving girls.

olvidadosLos Olvidados*, Luis Buñuel (1950, Mexico). The title refers to the forgotten kids and teenagers who live on the streets of Mexico City – although this is not a documentary. The teenage leader of a street gang escapes from juvenile jail, tracks down the kid who supposedly grassed him up, then beats him to death with a rock. A younger kid is witness but promises to say nothing. His mother persuades the kid to go straight and he gets a job as a blacksmith’s apprentice. But then the gang leader turns up and steals a knife. The kid is accused of the theft and sent to a progressive rehabilitation centre where, after a dodgy start, he seems to settle down. But then up pops the gang leader again, and he steals some money from the kid. They fight. During the fight, the kid tells everyone the gang leader is a murderer. The gang leader runs away. Later, he tracks down the kid and kills him. But the police are now after him – and they find him and gun him down. Shot in black and white, and in a social realist style, this is anything but a cheerful film. In fact, it’s really grim. To be honest, it didn’t much feel like a Buñuel movie, despite a bizarre dream sequence. To date, I’ve seen eight of Buñuel’s thirty-two films and only really liked two of them – The Exterminating Angel and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, neither of which have that much in common. Much is made of Buñuel’s surrealism, or the surrealist elements of his films, and certainly the surrealism of the two I like is their major draw. But then I don’t see where Tristana, Belle du jour or Viridiana are especially surreal – and Un chien andalou and L’age d’or felt more like experimental films than anything else. An important director, undoubtedly, and one whose movies I will continue to watch – but I can’t say he’d make my top ten, or even top twenty…

kidThe Kid, Charlie Chaplin (1921, USA). I thought this was on the 1001 Movies Must See Before You Die list, I can’t think why I put it on my rental list otherwise, but it’s not. Strange. Anyway, I watched it. The Kid is one of Chaplin’s most famous movies, and probably because of the title character. A woman has her baby stolen, it’s then left in an alleyway, where Chaplin finds it. He tries to get rid of the child, but fails… and so takes it home with him. The film then jumps forward five years, and the baby has grown into a little gamin, whom Chaplin’s tramp uses in his various cons. The kid throws rocks through windows, then Chaplin turns up with a pane of glass and is paid to replace the broken pane. There’s a scene where Chaplin is beaten up by a tough who’s wearing a bizarrely-padded jumper, and lots of Chaplin-like visual jokes… and a frankly bizarre dream sequence in which Chaplin imagines himself as an angel, the kid too, and everyone else who has appeared in the film, and the two of them fly along the street set… and then Chaplin wakes up.  He decides to track down the kid’s mother, and return him to his rightful home. Which he does suspiciously easily – mother and son are re-united as if it had been five weeks and not five years, and everyone lives happily ever after. I actually prefer the other Chaplin films I’ve seen to this one, yes, even Monsieur Verdoux.

african_queenThe African Queen*, John Huston (1951, USA). Katherine Hepburn is the sister of a British missionary (Robert Morley) in German East Africa in 1914. Humph is the captain of the eponymous steam-powered river boat which regularly delivers supplies. WWI breaks out, the Germans burn down the missionaries’ village, Morley is killed, so Hepburn and Humph escape on the African Queen. They plan to follow the river to the lake at its end, and there destroy the German gunboat which is preventing the British from attacking. Along the way, they fall in love, sneak past a German fort which commands an excellent view of the river, fix a broken propellor, survive a trip through some fierce rapids… It’s all very adventuresome – but then it is adapted from a CS Forester novel. Hepburn and Bogart forever hover on the edge of parody; and half the time they feel like impressionists playing the actors playing their roles. It’s all very silly, and amazingly lightweight for a film that’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You die list. In fact, I’m surprised it actually made the list. Huston is on there eight times, and some of the choices are baffling – Prizzi’s Honour? WTF? After early classics like The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierre Madre (both also starring Humph), you have to wonder what happened…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 761

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Moving pictures, #20

A nice geographical spread this time, although only two films are from the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list.

entranced_earthEntranced Earth*, Glauber Rocha (1967, Brazil). I watched this while drinking wine, as you do, and liked it so much I drunkenly went and bought it on Amazon, along with the other two films with which it forms a trilogy – Black God, White Devil and Antonio das Mortes. Oh well, these things happen. I’ve since watched it again – sober, of course – and… I still loved it. It’s a very political film, set in the invented country of Eldorado during an election, in which a journalist tries to decide between a conservative candidate and a populist candidate, both of which are corrupt. The narrative skips back and forth in time and place – it opens at the governor’s palace, but there are also scenes with one of candidates out meeting the public, as well as scenes of the other candidate ranting about the natural superiority of the upper classes. The journalist is also a poet, so we get to see some of his poetry as well. And there’s an astonishing series of shots from high up on a radio mast beside a villa built on the top of a mountain. Plus a hot jazz score. And I hate jazz. It’s clearly influenced by France’s New Wave, but not to its detriment. I loved it. A damn good film. A plot that’s all politics, a non-linear narrative… Great stuff. As I said earlier. Obvs. [0]

late_autumnLate Autumn, Yasujirō Ozu (1960, Japan). And speaking of buying films from Amazon, I’m pretty sure I was sober when I purchased this but I’d actually meant to buy An Autumn Afternoon, which is on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, and not Late Autumn, which isn’t. Still, it’s Ozu and you can’t really go wrong with his films. Admittedly, I wasn’t all that taken with Tokyo Story, his most famous film, but I did like Floating Weeds, a later film, a great deal. And, having now watched Late Autumn, which I also liked a great deal, I think I ought to watch more of his films. Such as, er, An Autumn Afternoon. In tihs one, four middle-aged men turn up to the memorial service of a friend of theirs from college days, and decide to find a husband for the attractive daughter of their dead friend. It does not go well. Partly because the young woman does not want to leave her widowed mother alone, but also because the four blokes bungle their attempt at match-making. Late Autumn is a beautifully understated study of professional Japanese life. There are no theatrics, no histrionics, no need for special effects, just people going about their lives… and filmed with no pretensions by Ozu. [dual]

demyPeau d’âne, Jacques Demy (1970, France). Imagine a muscial version of Cinderella with Catherine Deneuve in the title role, only it’s not Cinderella it’s a story that’s a lot like it but a bit weird in places and, well, very Demy. But pretty much the same. Sort of. Deneuve plays a beautiful princess, whose father shows an un-paternal level of interest in her after her mother’s death. So she runs way to the woods, and with the help of magic appears as a poor and dirty servant girl when wearing the eponymous donkey skin. But the prince of a neighbouring country meets her (all his courtiers are red, whereas hers are blue), and wants to marry her. He has her ring – Cinderella’s slipper, in other words – and calls for every woman in the country to try on the ring so he can identify his one true love. Although the plot is pretty generic, the film is very Demy – the courtiers are completely coloured according to their court, so Deneuve’s retainers even wear blue face make-up; and, of course, there are songs, written by Michel Legrand, so if you’ve seen other Demy films you shold know what to expect. Mildly diverting. [2]

dancing_hawkDancing Hawk, Grzegorz Królikiewicz (1978, Poland). I really do like Polish cinema, butr I’m not entirely sure what to make of this one. Ostensibly, it’s the sotry of a self-made apparatchik, who rises high, only to lose it all in the end. But the opening shots depict his childhood during WWII, through much use of Dutch angles, weird shots and strange colour filters. And there’s an abrupt change to Polish realistic cinema, in that sort of TV drama style they do so well – I’m reminded of Wajda’s Man of Iron and Piestrak’s Test Pilota Pirxa – although that may just be the 1970s vibe. I should really wait until I’d rewatched this film before rewatching, but I’m getting a bit behind on my moving pictures posts… but perhaps I’ll write about it again after a rewatch. I will, however, note that I fancy getting that Królikiewicz box set… [0]

palefaceThe Paleface*, Norman Z MacLeod (1948, USA). There have been a number of films whose presence on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list I have found baffling, and none more so than this Bob Hope vehicle which manages to be mildly amusing and… well, that’s about all. My own list would include films others might find surprising, but I’d at least defend them; but there’s no documentation on the 1001 web site, so short of buying the actual book I’ve no way of knowing why this film makes the list. It certainly doesn’t deserve to – in fact, every other film in this post not on the list has a better claim to a place than The Paleface. Which may be slightly unfair, as there are plenty of films on the list which don’t belong on it. Bob Hope plays a dentist, and not a very sucessful one, whom Jane Russell decides to use as cover in her mission to travel eadt and discover who is running guns to the nasty Native Americans (who are, after all, trying to prevent their lands from being occupied by an invader; oh wait, the film doesn’t mention that).

strangerThe Stranger, Orson Welles (1946, USA). A war criminal is released so he can lead a war crimes investigator to a bigger fish. He’s followed to a small US town, where the investigator becomes suspicious of one of the local pillars of the community (played by Welles himself). Apparently, te film is notable for a number of reasons – that Welles wasn’t the first choice of director, and that the film incorporates newsreel footage of the Nazi death camps (because the Americans of the time didn’t really think they ever existed; some still don’t). My admiration for Welles’s work has grown over the past couple of years, and although it’s all too easy to forget quite how ground-breaking Citizen Kane was when it was made, so it’s easy to forget that many of his later films weren’t as straightforward as they initially appeared. The Stranger is by no means a highlight of his oeuvre, it is in most respects a relatively straightforward thriller of its time, but there’s lots to like in the less obvious details – such as the characterisation of some of the cast. Welles was never as clever cinematically as Hitchcock, but he was cleverer in other ways. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 758


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An honest vote is a wasted vote

It’s Hugo season once again. We’ve had the nominations and now we’re waiting for the shortlists to be revealed (which they will be on 26 April). This year, apparently, the award received over 4,000 nominating ballots, almost double last year’s 2,122 ballots (which was the highest number that had been seen since the award began in 1955). Of course, the big question is, how successful have the puppies been this year? They did well last year because the actual number of nominations needed to get a work onto a shortlist is surprisingly low. The short story category in 2015, for example, had 1,174 ballots spread across 728 works, and those on the shortlist received only between 132 and 230 nominations…

None of this should come as a surprise. The field is now far, far larger than it was when the award was created. There are so many novels and short fiction works being published in any one year it’s impossible to keep up. The Hugo awards claim to be for the “best” works, but voters can only nominate the best amongst those works they’ve actually read. And, of course, the term “best” has as many definitions as there are voters…

1953hugo.astounding.n4

Since I’m a member of next year’s Worldcon (in Helsinki), I was eligible to nominate works for this year’s Hugo Award. I didn’t, however. When the works I consider the best published in 2015, that I’d read, are likely to get no more than a dozen votes, there’s not much point in nominating. And I can be fairly sure of that as I nominated them for the BSFA Award, which has a much smaller pool of voters, and they didn’t make it onto the shortlists. But then, I know my tastes in genre fiction are out of step with most of the Hugo electorate’s – for example, while Kim Stanley Robinson is a writer I admire and whose novels I enjoy, I thought Aurora a weak book… but I appear to be in a minority on that. As for the authors who regularly make it onto Hugo shortlists (seriously, wtf? Redshirts was a better novel than 2312?).

Assuming most voters have only read a small portion of the eligible works, and that portion is likely different for everyone, then lots of works will get only a handful of votes each (this is more the case with short fiction categories rather than novels, of course). Which does sort of render the whole award pointless.

Assume instead that people vote for works not simply because – perhaps not even because – it was the work they thought best of those published in the preceding year. Perhaps they vote for a work because:

  • people they trust have told them the work is award-worthy
  • they’ve liked other things written by the person, if not this particular work
  • they like the writer (or their blog, etc)
  • they think the writer deserves an award (for any number of reasons)
  • the writer is a friend
  • the writer has helped them in their own writing career

Perhaps I’m being unfair, perhaps people really do vote for the story or book they think the best of the year (seriously, wtf? Redshirts was a better novel than 2312?). But I think people vote tactically, either consciously or unconsciously. If they’re part of a writer’s informal support network or fandom, then they’ll likely vote for that writer. If they hear lots of buzz about a particular work, they might well vote for that if they’re short on their ballot.

The Hugo Award is a popular vote award, it rewards popularity. It does not reward quality. Most voters probably don’t consciously vote tactically. Not unless they’re puppies. By definition, the puppy campaigns are overt tactical voting campaigns. And there’s not much difference between them and writers who mobilise their fanbases by writing eligiblity posts. It’s worth noting that John Scalzi has had to categorically state that he does not want to be considered eligible for a Hugo this year. When a writer has to do that, then you know your award is fucked.

I guess we’ll find out next week just what the future holds in store for the Hugo Award. It’s been useless as an indicator of quality for genre novels, or even as a barometer of the current state of the genre, for decades. On the other hand, there has never been so many people nominating for the award before. How many of those 4,000 are puppies? Or are they fans who have mobilised in order to combat the puppies? While it’s certainly true that the puppies have opened up the award such that the taste of the electorate has widened (the narrowness resulting from the success of the rabid puppies last year notwithstanding), having a couple of thousand new voters parachute in to  “save” the award from them is hardly going to shift the Hugo from the same old pool of favourites and writers du jour.

There is only one role in which the Hugo is still useful: it is a very public magnet for all the bad practices in which eligible nominees, their fanbases, or voting blocs might indulge. Similar stuff happens in local awards, of course – just look at the list of winners of any random provincial US sf award – but no one cares. They’re like those awards web sites invent so they can promote someone or other (who might have well paid for the privilege). Certainly the Hugo Award is run as fairly as a popular vote award can be run. Which doesn’t mean it’s not open to abuse. As was proven last year by the rabid puppies. But the infrastructure is not corrupt, and if the award results in any one year appear corrupt, it’s because the system is open to gaming… and, perversely, preventing that might well make the award more open to corruption.

I gave this piece a contentious title, but I have to wonder if it’s the only way voters can approach popular vote awards in the twenty-first century. If one of the great truths of our time is that the internet has allowed people to openly display their stupidity, it has also given “tribes” and “special interest groups” much more power in the domains in which they operate. The Hugo Award is a good example of this. It claims to be a world award, but has always been awarded by an electorate that is predominantly US-based, and the works it considers have been almost entirely published only in the US (eligibility rules for non-US works notwithstanding). Prior to the invention of the Web, its claim to world relevance was little more than a vainglorious boast, but since the award was chiefly limited to its country of origin it didn’t matter so much. Now its reach truly is global… yet it remains resolutely parochial in terms of the works and people it rewards. True, the Hugo electorate is self-selecting inasmuch as it costs money to vote (you have to buy a supporting or attending membership in the Worldcon, which gives you three years of eligibility), which at least means there’s nothing in the rules limiting votes to US residents… But that’s also a weakness, in that groups can “buy” votes. There’s an online “best science fiction list” somewhere in which several of L Ron Hubbard’s novels appear in the top ten – clearly the work of cultists, since Hubbard was a shit writer (and not even a very good inventor of religions). Even for a popular vote list, that’s pretty obvious vote-fixing.

I’m not going to make a call on what I expect to see in this year’s Hugo shortlists. I know which works I would have nominated, and I’ll be very surprised if any of them appear. I’m not even convinced Aurora. which I wouldn’t have nominated anyway, will make the grade. However, the one thing I can say with certainty about the Hugo Award is that it won’t bring to my attention works I had missed and would likely enjoy – something I’m happy to say the Arthur C Clarke Award and the Kitschies do quite successfully…

 


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Reading diary, #27

Although I’ve been appending a count of books read from the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list to these reading diary posts, I’ve not been making much of an effort to work my way through that list – certainly not to the extent I’ve been doing with the 1001 Films You See Before You Die list. Of course, reading a book requires more of an investment in time than watching a film, and I suspect there are fewer books on the book list of the sort I’d enjoy than there are films on the film list. Anyway, there are no books from the list in this post, although I do have about a dozen somewhere on the TBR. Just thought I should mention that.

bleeding_kansasBleeding Kansas, Sara Paretsky (2008). I am a big fan of Paretsky’s Warshaski novels – my mother took me to see Paretsky being interviewed by Val McDermid at the Harrogate Crime Festival last year – although it’s taken me a while to get round to reading her non-Warshawski novels. I read Ghost Country while at Bloodstock, a metal festival, last year, and thought it very good. Bleeding Kansas is… less good. It’s apparently based in part on Paretsky’s own teen years in Kansas, before she moved to Chicago; and, I suspect, although I rather hope not, based on the people she knew from that time. Because they are pretty much all mean-minded and prejudiced Bible bashers (is there any other sort?). Especially one family, who use their faith to justify all manner of bigotry and nastiness. The story focuses on Lara Grellier, the teenage daughter of one of the farming families in the Kaw River Valley. Her mother Susan is fascinated by a Grellier ancestor, who helped slaves during the Civil War, and survived several attacks by Quantrill and other pro-slavery “Border Ruffians” (the title of the novel refers to that period), but has a mental breakdown after the death of her son in Iraq. A lesbian Wiccan from Chicago has just taken over the dilapidated mansion of the local, deceased, gentry; and the Schapen family, mean-spirited relious types to a person, have accidentally bred a pure-red heifer which an apocalyptic Jewish sect from Chicago want in order to to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. Meanwhile, everyone else tries to get by, without being too hateful – at which they don’t always succeed – or too liberal, which would of course see them tarred and feathered and driven out of the county. I really don’t have any sympathy for people who think their religion excuses their appalling behaviour (I’m looking at you, North Carolina), and I’m really not interested in reading about such people. It’s to Paretsky’s credit that she’s even-handed in her treatment of her caste of bigots and idiots, but that does make you wonder why she wrote the book in the first place. Yes, Warshawski is a champion and plays a champion’s role, and that’s part of the character’s appeal – so it seems self-evident that to go against type would result in characters most of Paretsky’s readers are going find unlikeable, and so create a novel most would find a less-than-enjoyable read. The Amazon reviews, interestingly, seem evenly split among the stars ratings, on both UK and US sites.

heart_hunterThe Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers (1940). This is one of a pile of Penguin paperbacks from the 1960s I inherited from my father. Some of his collection I wasn’t interested in, but I kept many – including four by Carson MCullers: The Member of the Wedding I read a while ago but wasn’t that impressed; The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is her first full-length novel and probably her best-known work, and I liked it a great deal more; still to come are Clock Without Hands and a collection, The Mortgaged Heart. A pair of deaf and dumb men (referred to throughout as “mutes”; actually, one is only deaf, but speaks so infrequently everyone assumes he is unable to do so), live in a small town somewhere in Georgia in the 1930s. One of the two men becomes mentally ill and is sent away to an asylum. The other, Singer, moves into a boarding-house and becomes a sort of listening post for a variety of characters, who come to talk at him and relax in his company. There’s something obviously Christ-like about Singer, although McCullers never quite makes it explicit. The novel actually focuses on four of Singer’s “friends”: a teenage girl who loves music, a drunken labour activist, the widowed owner of a local café, and a black doctor who is a communist and preaches Marxism to his family at Christmas. I enjoyed this a great deal more, and thought it much better, than the earlier MCullers novel I’d read. There was apparently a film made of it, which changed the setting to the 1960s. Not sure how that would work…

bsg_final_fiveBattlestar Galactica: The Final Five, Seamus Kevin, Fahey, David Reed & Nigel Raynor (2009) I bought this to read while rewatching Battlestar Galactia from the beginning, because it professed to tell the back-story of its titular characters (the five of the Twelve Cylon “skin jobs” whose identities were not revealed until very late in the series). As is the case with most such tie-in graphic novels, the art is pretty awful. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t make much sense either. Perhaps I should have waited until I’d finished my rewatch before reading it, maybe then it would have made more sense. I can’t remember from my previous viewing of Battlestar Galactica if Earth was supposed to have an ancient technological society which then disappeared (leaving no evidence of its existence; strange, that…), or not. From what I do remember, the Galactica arrived at Earth in its prehistory – although there was another Earth-like world in there somewhere, although that planet destroyed itself in a nuclear war. Anyway, I was put off a bit by the generally bad art, and since my comics reading these days seems to be limited to translated bandes dessinée (I’m no longer interested in reading about fascists in tights), so I’ve probably lost the knack of reading US graphic novels. But maybe if I give The Final Five a go after I’ve watched all of Battlestar Galactica again… (I bought the Blu-ray ultimate collection, £100 off, in a recent Amazon Prime Day – it includes everything… the pilot mini-series, the webisodes, Caprica, the whole lot. Totally worth what I paid for it – and yes, I still consider Battlestar Galactica the best television sf series ever made, and among the best television series ever made of any genre.)

metabaronsThe Metabarons: 40th Anniversary Edition, Alejandro Jodorowsky & Juan Giménez (2015). The Metabaron bandes dessinée originally appeared between 1992 and 2003, and while the original Metabaron character appeared in The Incal in 1981, I’m still not sure how that works out to a “40th anniversary edition” in 2015. Anyway, it’s a nice hardback omnibus of all the Metabaron stories, so who cares? The story is framed as a story told by the robot Tonto to the robot Lothar, both of whom look after the Metabunker, the home of the last Metabaron, No-Name. The Metabunker is located in a deserted city-shaft on a deserted world, and No-Name is absent for much of the length of The Metabarons. There’s a reason for this framing narrative, but explaining it would constitute a spoiler, so… Tonto explains how the first Metabaron, owner of a marble planet, was forced to reveal the existence of the epiphyte, a substance which counteracted gravity, to the Emperor and Empress, and so became fabulously wealthy, and was given the title Metabaron. He was also a superlative warrior, and with his new-found enormous wealth set out to improve his skills and his killing technology. And also institute the various traditions which were carried down through five generations to No-Name: that there can only be one Metabaron, so the son (or daughter) must kill the father, and that part of the training involves some form of mutilation and replacement prostheses. Jodorowsky wrote The Incal after the failure of his Dune project, and some of his work on Herbert’s novel ended up in that bande dessinée. But there’s also a lot of Dune in The Metabarons – there’s a Bene Gesserit analogue, a pain test that copies the one undergone by Paul Atreides (but involves real physical damage), and even mentat-like advisors to the Emperor and Empress. There’s also stuff that’s pure Jodorowsky – such as the Emperor and Empress being succeeded by a pair of conjoined twins of different genders, the Emperoress. Some of it is a bit silly. The third Metabaron, for example, is Steelhead, so called because his father shoots off his head as a baby, but his mother manages to fashion a robotic one in time to save his life. Um, right. The artwork throughout is gorgeous, and the story is pretty much pure-strain space opera. Totally worth buying.

murphys_gambitMurphy’s Gambit, Syne Mitchell (2000). I read for review on SF Mistressworks. I forget where I stumbled across mention of this novel, and with a publication year of 2000 it only just sneaks into SF Mistressworks’s remit, but it looked intriguing enough for me to buy a cheap copy on eBay… which proved to be a bit tattier than expected. Ah well. Not a keeper anyway. As should be clear from my review here.

murder_lochMurder at the Loch, Eric Brown (2016). Eric is a friend of many years, although I wouldn’t read these books – Murder at the Loch is the third in the series – if I didn’t enjoy them. True, they won’t set the crime genre alight, and they might even be described as a bit “cosy”, but they’re fun undemanding reads, and it’s clear the author’s heart is in the right place. The stars are Donald Langham, a crime novelist, and his fiancée, Maria Dupré, a French immigrant, who works for his literary agent. The stories are set in the 1950s, which means the author doesn’t have to worry about mobile phones and the like generating so many plot contortions the story falls apart (in fact, part of the plot of Murder at the Loch involves the cast being cut off for several days at a Scottish castle, with no way to telephone for help). While the back-story makes mention of WWII – in fact, it triggers the plot in in this book – and there are number of small details which anchor the novel to its time and place, it does sometimes read a little like it takes place in a political and historical vacuum. But that’s a minor quibble. Langham and ex-army pal and now PI, Ryland, are called up to Scotland by their old CO, Major Gordon, who now runs a posh hotel in a renovated castle. Someone took potshots at him and a guest a couple of days previously, and he’s understandably worried. What follows is a fairly typical country house mystery plot, with a few twists. Sunk in the loch is a Dornier Do 217 from early 1945, and its presence is a mystery as the Germans had stopped bombing the UK by then. It was while attempting to salvage this that Gordon and his Dutch engineer were shot at. Also resident in the hotel, or turn up shortly after Langham and Ryland arrive, are Gordon’s Byroneseque layabout son, an aloof Hungarian countess, a German aircraft enthusiast, a retired academic investigating the castle’s ghosts, and the three staff, including a young woman who is more of a family friend. A snow storm cuts off the castle, the Dutch engineer is brutally murdered, and you can’t really get a more faithful implementation of the country house murder template than that. But if the identity of the killer isn’t all that hard to figure out, and the clues dropped along the way make the motive as plain as day, it’s all handled with a nice light touch and very readable prose. I pretty much read Murder at the Loch in an afternoon, and sometimes that’s the sort of book you want to read.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 122


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Moving pictures, #19

Odd how these films fall out. Most of the ones I watch are rentals, so it depends on what gets sent to me – and sometimes they just happen to send me US films. Although, to be fair, Fellini’s Casanova was a rental. But Beware of the Holy Whore was from the Rainer Werner Fassbinder box set I bought last September.

high_plains_drifterHigh Plains Drifter*, Clint Eastwood (1973, USA). As I’ve said before, some films you like the idea of more than you like the actual implementation. But perhaps that’s unfair to High Plains Drifter – I sort of like the central conceit, and how it’s realised – mostly – but it’s a Western, a genre I’m not overly fond of, and it suffers somewhat because it’s a Western. A sheriff is whipped to death by bandits while the people of the town look on and do nothing. Some time later, a stranger arrives in town, violently takes it over, and then promises to defend it against the aforementioned bandits. But he’s really the spirit of the dead sheriff and he’s having his revenge on all parties. So he makes the townsfolk do odd things, like paint all the buildings bloody red, set up a feast in the town’s one street… and then it all turns, well, violent. The film was shot in a purpose-built town on the shores of a lake, which perversely made it seem more like a film set, further adding it to the movie’s general air of strangeness. I can’t decide if its failure to convince works for or against it, but I think on balance I prefer other Westerns directed by Eastwood.

casanovaFellini’s Casanova, Federico Fellini (1976, Italy). After the way Fellini’s Satyricon (an earlier film) had slowly won me over as I watched it, I was sort of hoping Fellini’s Casanova would do the same. And early scenes certainly intrigued… if not so much because of what was going on but because the production design looked like an obvious inspiration for David Lynch’s Dune. It wasn’t just the set or costumes, or the fact Casanova’s forehead was shaved much like those of Lynch’s Bene Gesserit; but even the mechanical owl seemed like a piece of set dressing that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Paul Atreides’s bedroom. The plot, thankfully, is entirely different… although “plot” might be too strong a word. The film opens in Venice during Carnival. After one of the weirdest PG-rated sex scenes ever filmed, Casanova is arrested and imprisoned. He later escapes, and then travels about Europe having various debauched adventures. The title role is played by Donald Sutherland, who is dubbed into Italian (Fellini did this quite a bit, using Hollywood stars and dubbing them into Italian; seems an odd practice). Fellini’s Satyricon was wildly self-indulgent but, in a very bonkers way, sort of appealed; Fellini’s Casanova may actually be EVEN MOAR self-indulgent, but while I was watching I didn’t find myself taking to it to the extent I had the earlier film… But thinking about it now, as I write about it, I do wonder if another watch is needed in order to fully experience its self-indulgent weirdness.

fassbinder1Beware of a Holy Whore, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1971, Germany). That’s the last of the Fassbinders now watched, from both of the commemorative box sets; and with this first set it’s been a more variable experience than the second. But of the films included in volume 1, Beware of a Holy Whore, despite the unwieldy, and I’m-not-entirely-sure-what-it’s-referencing, title, this is one of the better ones. It’s set almost entirely in the foyer and bar of a hotel in Spain, where the cast and crew of a movie are waiting for a production to restart because the financing has run dry. Fassbinder plays the producer, and spends a lot of the film shouting at people. Various members engage in sexual pairings, others wander around pontificating. Then the director arrives in a helicopter, is less than impressed with the hotel as a location, but the shooting goes ahead anyway… And then the same old arguments as before take place. It feels very much like a play, and reminds me a little of Chinese Roulette, in which the guests at a country house party play truth or dare. Apparently, the film is semi-autobiographical as it was inspired by Fassbinder’s filming of Whity in Spain earlier that year.

holiday_innHoliday Inn, Mark Sandrich (1942, USA). This is such a famous film – well, it’s the origin of the song ‘White Christmas’ – that I felt sure it must be on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list. But it isn’t. And I don’t remember why I put it on my rental list. It’s not like I’m a big fan of Bing Crosby, or Fred Astaire, or Irving Berlin (there are no big star female leads in the film, which is a shame – it probably needed Ginger Rogers, or someone like her; have I said how great Ginger Rogers is?). Anyway, Crosby and Astaire are a singing and dancing act with Virginia Dale, Crosby thinks he’s going to marry her and retire to a farm he’s bought, but Astaire marries her instead. Crosby retires to his farm, it does not go well. He decides to re-invent his farm as a hotel open only on public holidays, with full-on musical entertainment. Marjorie Reynolds gets sort of accidentally hired as a star turn. Astaire turns up, decides Reynolds should be his next partner as she’s a complete star (Dale ran off with someone else), but by this point Crosby has decided he wants to marry her. In most respects, this is a fairly typical 1940s musical with a pair of big-name draws. But… one musical number is done entirely in blackface, and that had never been not offensive. Perhaps that’s why it’s not on the list.

philadelphiaPhiladelphia*, Jonathan Demme (1993, USA). A few days after watching this, I was browsing through my spreadsheet of films watched (yes, I track them on a spreadsheet; stop sniggering at the back) and learnt I’d seen this film back in July 2003. My memory is usually quite good for remembering the plots of stories – either literary or cinematic – but I had zero memory of my previous watch of Philadelphia. It obviously made that much of an impression. And having now rewatched it, I can understand why. Writing this a week or so after watching it, and I’m having trouble recalling much of what happened in the movie. High-flying lawyer Tom Hanks has AIDS but doesn’t tell his employer. One of the partners spots a lesion on his face and correctly guesses Hanks’s condition. So they manufacture an incident and fire him for incompetence. Hanks decides to take them to court, and eventually ends up hiring ambulance-chaser Denzel Washington. Despite most of the cast of Philadelphia being homophobic, the word itself is never mentioned. And it’s a level of overt and constant homophobia that actually works against the point the film is trying to make, as if it’s Hanks’s lifestyle which led to his situation, not his disease. Watching the film is also like having a conversation with your grandad where you abruptly realise that his views and opinions haven’t changed with the times. Of course, a movie can’t evolve (well, it could be “rebooted”), so Philadelphia is a snapshot of attitudes in early-nineties USA. And whatever qualities that existed then which led to Hanks winning the Oscar, and the screenplay being nominated for an Oscar, it no longer feels like a film that belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list.

ice_stormThe Ice Storm*, Ang Lee (1997, USA). There is a type of domestic drama which appears on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list a number of times and whose appeal I cannot fathom. Perhaps it speaks to the experience of being white, affluent and American. I am not American. I am not affluent. So it usually means zilch to me. The Ice Storm is based on a novel by Rick Moody; I have never read anything by Rick Moody. It takes place over the Thanksgiving weekend in 1973, in a well-off Connecticut suburb. There’s a wife-swapping party, which some husbands seem to enjoy, and some wives are very much set against. There are some weird and kooky college-age kids, who do weird and kooky things. Kevin Kline looks like he’s wearing parodies of 1970s clothes throughout, and Sigourney Weaver appears far too intense to be a bored housewife. And I really didn’t care about any of the characters, or any of their antics. Apparently, the film won best screenplay at Cannes, and Weaver won a BAFTA for best supporting actress. Meh.

1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die count: 756


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Dark Orbit, Carolyn Ives Gilman

darkoribtInterstellar polities without Faster-Than-Light travel are not especially common in science fiction. Four examples spring to mind: Ursula K LeGuin’s Ekumen novels and stories, William Barton’s Dark Sky Legion, Chris Moriarty’s Spin State and sequels, and Alastair Reynolds’s Revelation Space series. And now Carolyn Ives Gilman’s Twenty Planets, in which people and materials are sent as beams of light from world to world and so experience time dilation from travelling at lightspeed. Scientists and explorers who regularly do this form “a strange sodality out of time”, and are known as “Wasters”.

Saraswati Callicot is one such Waster, an exoethnologist. Returning to Capella at the end of a five-year mission – but twenty-three years have passed on Capella – she is promptly recruited by an old mentor to join a team studying a newly-discovered planet fifty-eight light years away. The world is crystalline, so unlikely to be habitable; but it is also in a region of space containing “an odd concentration of dark matter”. Ostensibly a part of the team to research its new management techniques, Sara will actually be keeping an eye on a relative of her mentor, a woman called Thora who has only recently recovered from traumatic events on another world.

A handful of days after Sara’s arrival, one of the security guards aboard the scientists’ ship is murdered, and then Thora disappears during a trip to the planet’s surface. She has been taken by humans who live underground in lightless caves and are entirely blind. They also perceive their world – including the waves of dark matter which frequently pass through it – in a unique way. The natives speak a slightly archaic form of English, evidence they have been cut off from the mainstream of human history for a considerable time. Unfortunately, the presentation of this argot is not entirely successful, and makes it somewhat hard to take them seriously. However, life in the cave, and the solutions its inhabitants have put in place to in response to the absence of light, are ingenious and well-described. Gilman captures the claustrophobia of Thora’s stay there very effectively.

As Thora explores Torobe, the cavern village in which she is staying, she realises the villagers possess strange abilities which seem to contradict known science. The Torobians talk of visiting other settlements, yet their talk suggests they travel to other worlds and meet other races. It is through Thora’s friendship with Moth, a teenage girl from Torobe, that the central conceit of Dark Orbit is eventually revealed. In part, Thora’s ability to understand this premise is a consequence of the trauma she had experienced previously. This we learn from Thora’s journal, which forms a second narrative interwoven with Sara’s.

Thora’s discovery that the universe and its laws are a consequence of perception – albeit not a solipsistic universe per se – and that the Torobians’ blindness allows them to “manipulate” their reality, initially seems a bit wobbly for suspension of disbelief. But while attempting to duplicate the Torobians’ ability to “wend”, or travel instantaneously, even across interstellar distances, Thora realises, “Maybe it can’t be observed, because if you observe, you prevent it”. The Observer Effect, in other words. In quantum mechanics, the act of observation causes a wave function to collapse – so it seems plausible an absence of observation would suggest the laws of physics are a consequence of perception.

The scientists are obviously sceptical of Thora’s report on the Torobians’ abilities. She in turn is scared what use Capella’s corporations would make of the knowledge. But when a dark matter event damages a vital component in the lightbeam equipment aboard the scientists’ ship, Thora successfully wends to Capella to fetch a replacement.

One other aspect of Dark Orbit deserves mention: the Twenty Planets are multi-racial and multi-cultural, and relations between these are handled with sensitivity and nuance. There is none of the white monolithic universes of last century’s science fiction.

Dark Orbit is a fast read, but a substantial one. The central conceit may at times feel like borderline nonsense, but Gilman manages to keep suspension of disbelief in place for the length of the novel. This is a novel that would not look out of place on an award shortlist or two next this year.

This review originally appeared in Interzone #259, July-August 2015.


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Moving pictures, #18

More of a geographic spread this time around, with only two of the six from Hollywood – and both of those I only watched because they’re on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Some of you may have noticed that I had a go at putting together my own version of the list, but so far only managed about 300 films. It’s a work in progress, of course; and will undoubtedly change as I watch more films, or change my minds about films I’ve already listed. It has so far proven difficult not to put too many films on my list by directors I rate highly – such as Dreyer below – but even then I seem to have included half a dozen by one favourite director but only two by another. So it’s not like I’ve been all that consistent. Ah well. We’ll see how it goes. Meanwhile, more films from the actual 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and a few others, what I have viewed recently…

once_uponOnce Upon a Time, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1922, Denmark). As is no doubt obvious from the title, this is a fairy tale. It’s adapted from a play of the same title by Holger Drachmann, first performed in 1885. The film isn’t complete, however, as about half has been lost – but the Danske Filminstitut have managed to salvage a narrative using still photos and new intertitles based on original sources. It’s a less engaging film than Dreyer’s The Bride of Glomdal, although the staging is often impressive – as can be seen from the still on the DVD cover. I seem to recall the story dragging somewhat – and that there were a lot of intertitles, although whether that was a result of the fact half the footage has been lost, I’m not sure. I seem to recall other films by Dreyer from the same period featuring more intertitles than I’d expected. On the other hand, you’d expect a silent movie adaptation of a stage play to be quite talky… I do like Dreyer’s films – I’d certainly put him in my top ten directors list… (For the record, they would be, at this particular time, in no particular order, Sokurov, Tarkovsky, Suleiman, Antonioni, Haneke, Hitchcock, Dreyer, Benning, Kieślowski and Kaurismäki.)

goodbyeGoodbye to Language, Jean-Luc Godard (2014, France). Some things I like the idea of more than I like the actual thing. One of those things is experimental cinema. I like that some film-makers explore how the medium can be used to tell stories, film-makers like James Benning, for example. But not every experiment film works for me. I remember watching and not liking Lukas Moodysson’s Container, although I do like Moodysson’s other movies. Godard was a director who certainly experimented, and one or two of his experiments I do indeed like – such as Two or Three Things I Know About Her or Weekend. Goodbye to Language experiments with both 3D filming techniques – entirely lost on me as I watched a 2D version – and cinematic narrative… and it’s not an easy film to watch. There are scenes which look and feel more like documentary footage, there are scenes in which characters lecture at each other (not unusual in a Godard film), there are strange camera tricks and photographic effects. The story has to be puzzled out from what’s shown on the screen, and it’s not at all obvious. Watching Goodbye to Language was a bit of a chore, but, as mentioned earlier, I like the idea of the movie – and might well give it another go sometime. Sometimes it happens you don’t take to something immediately, but leave it a while, return to it, give it another go… and it becomes a favourite. I suspect that won’t happen here, but perhaps I might decide I do actually like it…

A_Simple_DeathA Simple Death, Aleksandr Kaidanovsky (1985, Russia). Kaidanovsky is perhaps better known as an actor – he played the lead in Tarkovsky’s Stalker, and one of Pirx’s crew in Test Pilota Pirxa – but he also directed three feature films: Гость (an adaptation of a Jorge Luis Borges story), Жена Керосинщика, and Простая смерть. The last, A Simple Death, is an adaptation of Tolstoy’s novella, ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’, and pretty faithfully follows its plot: a magistrate who has led a mostly good and successful life falls while hanging curtains one day and hurts his side, the pain grows each day until he is bedridden and his codition is terminal, where he reflects on his mortality, his life and the injustice of his current predicament. Although made in 1985, A Simple Death is black and white, and parts of the film reminded me strongly of Sokurov’s Stone, in which Chekhov returns to the present day and surprises the young man who is caretaker of his house. There’s a similar aesthetic at work, although Kaidanovsky’s film and camera work is not as experimental as Sokurov’s. Good stuff.

winchesterWinchester ’73*, Anthony Mann (1950, USA). The title refers to a model of rifle, the Winchester 1873, which was a superior repeating rifle and much prized. Even more prized, however, was the “one in a thousand”, which was is a particular instance of the Winchester ’73 which was so well-made – more by accident than by design – that it shot so much truer than the other 999 rifles made in that batch. Winchester ’73 opens with a crowd gathering in Dodge City to either witness or take part in a shooting competition, the prize for which is a “one in a thousand”. The contestants are whittled down to two: Jimmy Stewart and Stephen McNally. And there’s plainly bad blood between the two. Stewart wins, but McNally later ambushes him, steals the prize rifle, and gets the hell out of Dodge. Stewart and buddy chase after him. Meanwhile McNally has lost the rifle in card game with a gunrunner, who then sells it to a Native American chief (Rock Hudson) on the warpath. Who then attacks a cavalry detachment, but Stewart and buddy turn up and help them cavalry win the day. Hudson is killed and a young Tony Curtis finds the prize rifle. The sergeant gives it Charkes Drake, as Stewart has already left. Drake, and fiancée Shelley Winters (who had met Stewart back in Dodge), continue with their journey, but come a cropper with a member of McNally’s gang, and so the rifle ends up back in McNally’s hands. At which point Stewart turns up and the two shoot at each other for the gun. Throughout the film, they’ve been depicted as superlative shots, but this last scene has them repeatedly missing each other. Guess they weren’t so good, after all. As mid-centiury Westerns go, Winchester ’73 isn’t a bad one – and it’s certainly refreshing to see Stewart acting tougher than he usually does. But I’m not really sure why it needs to be on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

strictlyStrictly Ballroom*, Baz Luhrmann (1992, Australia). I should think most of the populations of Australia and the UK, amd a goodly-sized proportion of the US, have already seen this film, but somehow or other I’d never managed to do so. Of course, I only watched it because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. And now I have. It was… okay. It’s a spoof set around a regional ballroom dancing championship in Australia. The son of a dancing school instructor is the local star, and tipped to do well in the competition. But his partner leaves him for another dancer since he has a tendency to stray from “proper dance steps” – and, against his parents wishes, and with some persuasion, he decides to take as his partner a young woman who hangs around the dancing school but is not a dancer. They practice secretly, she develops into an excellent dancer, and he even learns some useful life lessons – and how to dance the pasodoble correctly – from her immigrant parents. Apparently, the film was adapted from an earlier play written by Luhrmann when he was  a student. It’s also one of the most successful Australian films of all time. It has now been made into a stage musical, which I guess means it’s now as mainstream as you could possibly get.

grafittiAmerican Graffiti*, George Lucas (1973, USA). After THX-1138, Lucas decided to make something more commercial, and so chose a story based on his own memories of growing up in Modesto, California. Although audience response to the film was good, and he had a number of big names batting for him, the studio first wanted their own re-edit of it and then to release it as a TV movie. However, saner heads prevailed, and the film was given a theatrical release, and went on to make a pretty good profit. All of which may be interesting, but is of no consequence when considering American Graffiti as a film. And it’s a Californian coming-of-age movie, a duller subject I can’t imagine. Obnoxious teenagers with over-inflated senses of self-worth driving around small town USA and getting up to drunken antics. Richard Dreyfus spends much of the movie chasing after a young woman he saw fleetingly in a car. Paul Le Mat cruises around with a teenybopper, before ending up in a road race against Harrison Ford. Charles Martin Smith chats up a young woman, mostly by telling lies, and then cruises around with her. And so on… Yawn. I have no idea why this film is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die count: 753