It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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Reading diary, #41

An odd selection this time around. I normally like to plan my reading but the following were all pretty much random choices, grabbed when I needed a fresh book for my morning commute. Well, all except the last one, of course.

midnight_wellMidnight at the Well of Souls, Jack Chalker (1977). I’ve had this series on my bookshelves for several years and I’m not entirely sure why. I think Chalker was an awful writer, slapdash, fixated on a handful of not very original ideas, and content to pad out the thinnest of stories to trilogy, and longer, length. I don’t think he wrote a single good book, but he does have legions of fans. Which, I guess, makes him much like every other science fiction author. Anyway, Midnight at the Well of Souls is the first book in Chalker’s The Saga of the Well World series, which had reached seven books by the time Chalker died in 2005. A group of archaeological students studying a Markovian ruin on a dead world are murdered by their instructor after he has figured out how to access the Markovian world-computer. He, and the one surviving student, find themselves transported to the Well World. Some time later, spaceship captain Nathan Brazil is transporting a handful of passengers through space when he receives a distress call. It’s from that same world where the instructor murdered his students. And so Brazil and his passengers find themselves also in the Well World. Which is an artificial planet in another dimension or something, and is divided into 1,560 hexagons, each one 355 by 615 kms and containing a completely different ecosphere and associated alien races. Brazil and his passengers are scattered across different hexes, each transformed into a native of that hex. Well, except Brazil isn’t. Because it turns out he’s some sort of immortal, and he knows how to work the Well World’s controlling computer, which is just as well because the aforementioned instructor wants to use the controlling computer for his own ends (and which will in consequence destroy the real universe). So Brazil and allies must trek across half a dozen hexes, having adventures along the way, in order to reach the equatorial wall and the secret entrance to the control room. It’s science fiction by numbers, light on invention, characterisation, rigour and, er, substance. It has all the originality of a basement RPG session by a group of twentysomething nerds. I doubt I’ll be continuing with the rest of the series.

book_wordsThe Book of Words, Jenny Erpenbeck (2005). Words are powerful, though you’d not know it from the bulk of novels written. As the title of this short novel, perhaps even a novella, shows, its story is about words and their uses and the way in which they can create a world for a protagonist and hint to the reader at the context for that world. The narrator discusses words as she describes her childhood in an unnamed country suffering under an oppressive regime, and in which her father works. It’s a completely self-centre narrative, as every word in the book is about the narrator or her world. But what she writes does provide clues to the reality underlying the narrative. The mother is German, and had fled her country for political reasons – mostl likely because she was a Nazi. Though the Germans have contributed to the father’s country, they are not liked. The regime is brutal – the father talks openly about torture, and even describes atrocities committed by some unnamed Germans (one of which is clearly Mengele). The Book of the Words is closer to The Old Child than it is Visitation or The End of Days. It’s not an easy read – and in parts, it is quite gruesome – but it is very clever in the way it doles out information to the reader, aithout breaking the narrator’s character. Erpenbeck has to date published six books, although, I think, only four have been translated into English. My German is probably too rusty to fully appreciate her prose in that language. So can someone publish those other two books in English, please?

other_windThe Other Wind, Ursula K LeGuin (2001). I have a lot of time for LeGuin’s writing, although I can’t say I’ve enjoyed everything she’s written. I knew The Other Wind was a sequel of sorts to the Earthsea quartet, and I do think those books are very good. Nonetheless, my expectations for The Other Wind were middling, perhaps because I was under the impression it was YA. True, the Earthsea books were published for many years in the UK by Puffin, the children’s imprint of Penguin; but I’ve never really thought of them as YA. The Other Wind is set late in the lives of Ged and Tenar, Ged has long since retired as Arch-mage and no longer has any magic powers. He is visited by Alder, a village magician who has been dreaming about meeting his much-loved late wife at the wall between the land of the living and the land of the dead. Ged advises Alder to consult with Tenar, and their daughter Tehanu, currently on Havnor, advising King Lebannen on recent incursions by dragons. It turns out the dragons are upset because the humans of the archipelago do ont return to the world on dying, but instead gather in the land of the dead. Dragons are apparently trans-dimensional. And all those dead folk are cluttering up their private dimension. It’s a completely new view of the afterlife as presented in the Earthsea quartet, and yet it doesn’t contradict it. There’s a wonderfully elegiac, and yet matter-of-fact, tone to the prose, and a beautifully-drawn cast, from Alder through Tehanu to King Lebannen… but especially the princess from the Kargad Empire who has been sent to Havnor to marry the king. It feels like damning the book with faint praise, especially since the last LeGuin collection I read was a bit dull, but The Other Wind is a thoroughly charming novel. I loved it. It made me want to reread the Earthsea quartet, it made me want to read more LeGuin. Recommended.

borderlinersBorderliners, Peter Høeg (1995). Høeg’s 1992 novel Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow was an international sensation, and rightly so, and was made into a film directed by Bille August and starring Julia Ormond and Gabriel Byrne. Borderliners was Høeg’s next novel (he had published two before Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow), and it’s a very different novel. Peter, the narrator, and Katerina and August are all pupils at a private school in the 1970s. All three are orphans – Peter has spent most of his life in children’s homes, Katerina’s parents died shortly before she was sent to the school, and August is on licence after killing his abusive parents. Shortly after his arrival at the school, Peter realises that everything in it is governed by schedule – he thinks of it as governed by time – and he theorises that this generates a particular way of seeing the world, which is what leads to the school’s success (it boasts a prime minister among its alumni). Although the three are not supposed to mingle, and make a secret of their friendship, they pass notes back and forth, meet in odd corners, and generally try to upset the school’s effect on themselves. August proves a handful, as he erupts into violence when threatened. Readers going into Borderliners expecting something like Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow will be disappointed – even Wikipedia states that Høeg’s novels tend to defy easy categorisation. Fortunately, I already knew this going in, although it’s certainly true Borderliners doesn’t have the immediate appeal of the earlier novel. Nonetheless, Høeg is an author whose work is worth exploring, I think. And, thanks to my brother-in-law, I now know how to pronounce the author’s name correctly.

iron_tactnThe Iron Tactician, Alastair Reynolds (2016). There are few things as dependable in science fiction as an Alastair Reynolds novella. Even before you turn the first page, you know you’re going to get an entertaining story larded with eyeball kicks and laid on a substrate of some big idea or other. It’s almost the dictionary definition of twenty-first century sf… except, well, the genre now covers so much ground, and is so diverse, that Reynolds’s ur-sf is only one strand among many. Which is a good thing, I hasten to add. The Iron Tactician is about as dictiuonary-definition Reynolds sf as you can get, on the other hand. It’s a sequel of sorts to ‘Minla’s Flowers’ and ‘Merlin’s Gun’. Merlin stumbles across a cold swallowship and decides to see if it has a working syrinx (used to access a NAFAL network created by mysterious aliens). There’s one survivor aboard the derelicxt, and she reveals that the ship traded its syrinx centuries before to a nearby star system locked into a planetary war. So Merlin and Teal head for the planetary system, planning to trade back the syrinx. The locals ask them to perform a task in payment: recover the titular AI from a pirate band, because they need it to win the centuries-long war against their enemies. Of course, nothing is quite as it seems – not the Iron Tactician, nor the the prince who represents the owners of the syrinx, or indeed the syrinx itself. I enjoyed the novella, even though something slightly familiar about it nagged me as I read it. I’m not sure what it was, but something in it felt second-hand and I had not expected it. It’ll probably end up on a coyuple of award shortlists, because genre awards these days are totally corrupt, although I don’t think it deserves to. (No reflection on Alastair or his work, he’s very good at what he does – but I’d hate to think The Iron Tactician is one of the best novellas the genre has produced in 2016, and I know it’s not the best Alastair has written.)

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 129


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Moving pictures, #67

An entirely world cinema Moving pictures: six films, six different countries… and not a single Anglophone one among the lot. Admittedly, as the DVD cover art below indicates, three of the films were from a single box set, the Criterion Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project 1, which is definitely worth getting. (No volume 2 has appeared yet, however.)

world_cinemaDry Summer, Metin Erksan (1964, Turkey). During a drought, the tobacco farmer on whose land the local spring can be found decides to keep all the water for his own crops. So he blocks off the irrigation ditches – it all looks like some sort of falaj system – to the other farmers’ fields. Obviously, they’re not happy about this. Nor is the farmer’s younger brother. There are fights, the farmers without water kill the dog of the farmer with water, the falaj is repeatedly attacked and its sluices broken. For all that the film repeats its simple story, and the story is clearly a metaphor for greater struggles, it works well and doesn’t feel stretched or over-long at ninety minutes. Dry Summer apparently won awards at both Berlin and Venice film festivals, and was submitted to the Oscars but not nominated. (Vittorio De Sica’s Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow won.) I’ve seen a few recent Turkish art house films, but this was my first experience of mid-twentieth century Turkish cinema – although not, I suspect, popular Turkish cinema of the time. Worth seeing.

xlXL, Marteinn Thorsson (2013, Iceland). This doesn’t appear to have been released on DVD – I saw it on Amazon Prime – which is a shame, as it’s a pretty good film and worth seeing. Leifur is a member of the Icelandic parliament. He’s also an alcoholic and a womaniser, with a history of public drunken incidents. After his last escapade, starting a fight at a performance art thing, the prime minister tells him he must go into rehab. Leifur resists. The film is told in non-chronological order, with flashbacks and montages, which sort of mimic Leifur’s own drunken memories of his adventures. Because Leifur is a MP, there are several scenes filmed in the area around Reykjavik’s Parliament House… which is a couple of hundred metres away from the Icecon 2016 venue, and the hotel where I stayed… So that was cool, seeing a bit of Reykjavik I actually knew. XL is pretty brutal in depicting Leifur’s antics and their effect on his family and friends. He’s completely in denial, which only makes matters worse. The jump cuts and montages don’t make for easy viewing, and occasionally feel a little overdone, but they certainly help embed the film in Leifur’s POV – and, in fact, there are several scenes, including the opening, which are actually shot from Leifur’s POV. Worth seeing.

onibabaOnibaba*, Kaneto Shindo (1964, Japan). In forteenth-century Japan, two women live alone in a hut in a meadow of thick reeds. Two soldiers fleeing a battle make their way among the reeds. The women kill them, take their arms and armour, and then throw the bodies into a deep hole in the meadow. The women’s neighbour returns from fighting and admits that the husband of the younger of the two women did not survive. Some samurai enter the reeds, and are killed and robbed by the women. The neighbour and the young woman start a secret sexual relationship. A samurai in a demon mask appears. The older woman kills him. The woman wears the mask to scare her daughter away from the neighbour. After being caught out in a downpour, the woman cannot remove the mask. She reveals herself to her daughter, and the two of them try to remove the mask. Eventually, they succeed, but the older woman’s face is covered in weeping sores… The simplicity of the setting – reeds, rude huts, deep hole – works well with the stark black and white photography. The demon’s appearances (whichn it’s the old woman) are staged well, if a little over-theatrical. A good film, worth seeing.

goodbye_southGoodbye South, Goodbye, Hou Hsiao Hsien (1996, Taiwan). I’ve mentioned Hou’s soundtracks before, but this has the best one I’ve heard so far. It’s a mix of techno and rock, and there’s probably more music in this film than there is dialogue. Not that the film needs much in the way of dialogue anyway. A pair of Taiwanese low-lifes get involved with gangsters when they set up a gambling den in Pingxi. This is only first in a series of schemes of dubious legality intended to make the pair money, all of which fail to do so. There are several performances by the nightclub singer girlfriend of one of the pair, and a number of dialogue scenes set in cars as the pair drive about Taipei. There’s not much in the way of plot here – not that there was in Hou’s The Boys from Fengkuei – just a string of incidents that blur one into the other. As mentioned earlier, the soundtrack is excellent, and the cinematography is very much like that in Hou’s other films, with lots of static long shots, often with odd choices for camera placement. I now want more of Hou’s films on DVD.

world_cinemaTrances, Ahmed El Maamouni (1981, Morocco). Apparently, the Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project began when Scorsese was working on one of his films in 1981 and he saw Trances on TV. He loved it so much, he tracked down the distributor and director, and arranged for the film to remastered… and here it is, on DVD and Blu-ray (US-only, sadly), in a box set with five other films. And unlike those other films, it’s a documentary. It’s about a Moroccan band called Nass el Ghiwane, which started life in avant garde political theatre, but, at the time of filming, tours the country playing Moroccan folk music (chaabi), and apparently kicked off a new social movement. The film mixes concert footage, interviews with band members and fly-on-the-wall documentary. It’s a film that fascinates due to its topic rather than the way it was put together, although I suspect that’s an occupational hazard for all documentary films. I can understand why Scorsese was attracted to it, as it’s especially good at capturing a moment, and a movement, encapsulated and defined by the music of Nass el Ghiwane. A good film.

world_cinemaTouki Bouki, Djibril Diop Mambéty (1973, Senegal). And another from the Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, this time from Senegal. I’ve seen Ousmane Sembène’s Mooladé, another Senegalese film, which is excellent, but Touki Bouki is a very different film. It’s about men, for a start, and not women – in particular, one young man, and his girlfriend, who dream of a better life, but have neither the money nor the ambition to better their lot. Eventually, they steal some money from a rich man, and use it to buy passage to France. But the man finds he can’t leave, and his girlfriend goes on without him. This is a very brightly-coloured film, especially in the scenes which show animals being slaughtered for food, and which makes them particularly gruesome. I had to look away, they’re far more graphic than you’d see depicted in a film these days. Despite that, it’s a good film and I’ll probably be watching it again in 2017.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 838


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Unwrapped

Christmas is now over and, as he does every year, Santa brought me some books. But I’d also bought some for myself in the weeks leading up to the festivities and since my last book haul post…

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I managed to find a couple more of the Newcastle Forgotten Fantasy books on eBay – The Haunted Woman, Aladore and The Roots of the Mountain – which are numbers 4, 5 and 19 respectively. Still got a way to go yet, however…

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A trio of secondhand sf novels. I’m currently reading Heart of Stone for SF Mistressworks. I have the sequel, Wayward Moon, somewhere as well. Soldier of Another Fortune finally completes my Destiny Makers quintet. I used to correspond with Shupp back in the 1990s, but we lost touch. And The Princes of the Air is a book I’ve often heard spoken of approvingly, but it’s been hard to find.

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From the Christmas holiday: Santa brought me Elizabeth Taylor’s Complete Short Stories (no, not that Elizabeth Taylor; the writer, not the actress) and the second book of My Struggle, A Man in Love. I bought Starlight and Saga Volume 1 in Faraos Cigarer, the former because it looked interesting and the latter because lots of people have praised it.

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Three collectibles… The copy of Whipping Star is the first UK hardback edition, but it wasn’t published until 1979, nine years after the US first edition (the first UK edition was a paperback in 1972). Hogg I’d wanted for a while but first editions are hard to find. One eventually popped up on eBay. The Iron Tactician is a new signed and numbered novella from NewCon Press.

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Some new books, just to prove I do read them. Having been impressed by Europe in Autumn and Europe at Midnight, I was certainly going to get a copy of Europe in Winter. Golden Hill I stumbled across in Waterstone’s while purchasing Sebastian Faulks’s latest, Where My Heart Used to Beat (not pictured, because I read it over Christmas and left it with my sister for her to read).


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Moving pictures, #66

A mostly far eastern Moving pictures post this time, with films from China, Taiwan and South Korea. Plus some Italian melodrama, a classic piece of Disney, and a recent Hollywood blockbuster which generated a ridiculous amount of stupidity on release.

center_stageCenter Stage*, Stanley Kwan (1992, China). I couldn’t find any copies of this film for sale in the UK, and while it had apparently been released in the US at some point, it had also long since been deleted. So I bought a copy from Hong Kong… on Blu-ray. Bizarrely, Hong Kong is region A, because it counts as a “dependency” of, I assume, the US, despite being a British Crown Colony from 1842 to 1997 (region B) and before that part of Imperial China (there were, of course no Blu-ray regions then), and since 1997 a Special Administrative Region of China (region C). Fortunately, I have a multi-region Blu-ray player. As for the actual film… All I knew about Center Stage, AKA Actress, was that it starred Maggie Cheung and was a biopic of a famous actress in the 1930s Chinese film industry. What I hadn’t expected was that the film includes a framing narrative, to which it occasionally breaks, in which Cheung and the director discuss how she will approach the role of the actress, Ruan Lingyu, in the film which is Center Stage. So you have Cheung as Lingyu and Cheung as Cheung. It’s surprisingly effective. Especially since Kwan has made an effort to make the 1930s part of his film as convincing as possible. The end result is a character study of a tragic figure from China’s cinematic history as well as a commentary on that character study, and it’s all carried magnificently by Cheung, who deservedly won a best actress award at the Berlin International Film Festival (surprisingly, the film was not entered for Cannes or the Oscars). The film looks exceedingly good, Cheung looks exceedingly good, and I’m surprised the only edition currently available is a Hong Kong Blu-ray. This really is a film which deserves to be seen more widely.

before_revolutionBefore the Revolution*, Bernardo Bertolucci (1964, Italy). Another film I watched solely because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must Watch Before You Die list although, to be fair, Bertolucci’s name was known to me – ever since seeing The Last Emperor at a cinema in Nottingham back in 1987, in fact. But the year, the country, the black-and-white film stock… led me to think Before the Revolution was an Italian Neorealist film – about which I have mixed feelings, inasmuch as I take the films as I find them rather than liking the genre – but Before the Revolution proved to be more Nouvelle Vague than anything else. A pair of young men, carefree to the extent you only see in New Wave films, but one drowns in a swimming accident and the other finds himself attracted to an older woman, an aunt, although I don’t think a blood relative, and it all seemed very Nouvelle Vague… I especially remember one scene, shot through the window of a car which was quite effective, but had more in common with Godard than it did, say, De Sica or Rossellini. Which is not to say that Before the Revolution was a bad film – just that it reminded me of Godard or Antonioni, and not any Italian Neorealist director, and while I much prefer the first two names, I found this a bit of a lacklustre copy. Given Bertolucci’s oeuvre, I suspect him of being a gifted copyist – The Sheltering Sky is a lovely-looking film, albeit not a great adaptation of the novel, but what is it that makes it a Bertolucci film? I wonder if 1900 was as close as Bertolucci got to a personal film, and even that felt like it borrowed from many sourcres. I can’t say Bertolucci has ever impressed me that much – he doesn’t seem to have an individual vision, and those of his films I’ve liked I’ve done so because of the films themselves. I suspect Before the Revolution deserves more attention than I gave it, but after watching a whole bunch of Italian Neorealist films it did seem a bit of a capitulation to the commercial forces they had set out to resist.

lady_trampLady and the Tramp, Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson & Hamilton Luske (1955, USA). I know I saw this once as a kid, but when I came to watch it again I realised I’d forgotten a couple of important things about it. One, it was released in 1955, at a time when Disney were on a roll with their feature films; and two, it’s set in 1909. I also keep on thinking it should be called “The Lady and the Tramp”. Which it shouldn’t. Because “Lady” is the name of a female cocker spaniel pup given to the wife in a middle-class US family. All goes well until the wife becomes pregnant, and Lady subsequently comes second in the family’s affections. The Tramp, on the other hand, is a mongrel who lives on the street, and he explains to Lady that when a baby arrives, the dog is no longer wanted. And so it proves. Lady and the Tramp spend time together, a sort of doggy romance. But one of their escapades goes wrong and she’s caught by the local, er, dogcatcher (even though she’s wearing a collar). In the pound, she learns about the Tramp’s other “girlfriends”, and so spurns him on her release. But then a rat sneaks into the house and threatens the new baby, and the two dogs’ successful attempt to kill the rat is misinterpreted by Lady’s owners… although they soon learn their mistake. And the Tramp becomes a member of the family and breeds with Lady. Happy ending. The animation is, as you would expect from 1950s Disney, and Geronimi and Luske, really very nice. The dog’s eye view is also done effectively. But the story suffers because it doesn’t have the fairy-tale quality that Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, for example, both possess. And, to be honest, I’m not all that taken with animals as protagonists. Lady and the Tramp was better than I was expecting, but I’d class it as an also-ran in the Disney classics category.

boys_fengkueiThe Boys from Fengkuei, Hou Hsiao Hsien (1983, Taiwan). This is the second film from the Hou “box set”, and much as I was impressed by The Puppetmaster I find this film much more to my taste if not quite as obviously classic film material. If that makes sense. A group of youths in a fishing village leave school with little in the way of education or prospects. They spend of their time gambling and fighting. Three of them head for Kaohsiung, a major city, to look for work. One of the three falls in love with a young woman living in a nearby flat. Nothing quite works out. Like the other Hou films I’ve seen, The Boys from Fengkuei makes extensive use of static camera placement and long shots, which is, I admit, a style of cinematography I like. I like that distance, that sense of the screen as a window on the story… and while I can also appreciate the effectiveness of a close-up, I’ve only really seen it used all that effectively in Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste – in other films, you just don’t notice it, which makes you wonder why they bothered to use it. Hou seems to like static viewpoints, usually carefully-chosen, and while it’s not as obvious, or stagey, a technique as that used by, say Peter Greenaway, it does impact the film. There is a scene, for example, where the “boys” fight, and the fight spills off-screen, so all the viewer sees is an empty alleyway with the noise of a violent fist-fight on the soundtrack. Hou also – and this I admit surprised me – does great soundtracks. I should have guessed from the first film of his that I’d seen, The Assassin, and its really quite wonderful closing credits music. But all of the films I’ve seen by Hou so far have excellent incidental music. Stick him on your list of directors worth seeing, because he surely belongs there. I think he’s becoming one of my favourite directors…

ghostbustersGhostbusters, Paul Feig (2016, USA). And so we come to the explosion of stupidity that was the remake of Ghostbusters. It seemed quite simple – remake Ghostbusters, a mildly amusing 1984 Hollywood comedy with something of a cult following, for the twenty-first century. Put a comedy dream-team on it. Solved. Except the dream-team picked was that responsible for Bridesmaids, a successful twenty-first century comedy… which meant the Ghostbusters central cast would be female. Normal people went, okay, cool, go for it. A handful of right-wing dickheads decided they didn’t like this, and they kicked up a stink. The level of stupidity in their complaints was hard to believe. Especially when you consider that the film about which they were complaining was pretty much fan service from start to finish. The thing about Ghostbusters (3) is that it’s a pretty ordinary film of its type. It has a handful of good jokes, but, as many twenty-first century comedies seem to do, it also relies overmuch on the characters developed by its cast in other films. In other words, if Melissa McCarthy plays the most sensible role in your film, then you have a problem. But when every Ghostbuster-related joke is a fan service, and everything around it is a stable of actresses playing their best-known characters… you don’t have an especially good film. It entertained. Just. But the one thing the film certainly didn’t deserve was the moronic criticism by right-wingers who objected to a female Ghostbusters. It’s such a feeble complaint, you have to wonder at the intelligence of those who supported it. (To be honest, I don’t wonder: I consider them all quite stupid.) If you enjoy the sort of comedies which have been released in the last five or six years, you will enjoy Ghostbusters. If you enjoyed the original Ghostbusters you will probably get added value from the fan service and references. It’s not an especially good film – but to criticise it solely because the central cast are female just makes you a complete fucking idiot.

world_cinemaThe Housemaid*, Kim Ki-young (1960, South Korea). I bought the Criterion box set of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project because it included a remastered version of A River Called Titas (on both DVD and Blu-ray). But there are a further five films in the set, including The Housemaid, a film on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and which I’d not been able to find a copy elsewhere. (Eureka! released a UK edition of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project in 2013, but their version only includes three films – none of which are The Housemaid or A River Called Titas; they also called their edition volume 1 but there doesn’t appear to have ever been a volume 2. Bah.) Anyway, The Housemaid, AKA Hanyo… a Korean family hire a housemaid, but over time she gets a little too friendly with the husband. And then next thing you know, she’s pregnant with his child. As is his wife. Which puts him in something of a quandary. Well, at least that sort of quandary experienced by men with zero or low morals. Upset that her child will not be treated in the same way as that of the wife, the housemaid threatens one of the children with poison. and so the housemaid and the wife engage in a downward spiral of threats while the husband makes all the wrong decisions and so makes the situation worse. The Housemaid has been described as horror and erotic horror, although to me it played out like a drama, albeit a somewhat dark one. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 837


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Moving pictures, #65

In this post, a new nation joins the roster of countries from which I’ve now seen films: Burkina Faso. I really need to get more of those Great African Films DVDs, as I do like films from African countries – as much for the variety as for what they reveal of life in the various nations on the continent. Other than the Burkina Faso movie, only the two US directors were unknown to me (and one of them turned out to be a Brit, anyway).

preciousPrecious, Lee Daniels (2009, USA). This is on another list, rather than the one I’ve been using for the past two years. And it wouldn’t otherwise be the sort of film that would interest me. The title refers to the central character, an overweight black teenage girl with learning difficulties, a physically abusive mother, and a child with Down Syndrome (who actually lives with the girl’s grandmother) fathered by her own father. The film is adaptation of a novel, Push, by Sapphire, and it’s pretty grim stuff. The mother is especially horrible, subjecting Precious to a litany of verbal and mental abuse, and the occasional moment of violence, throughout the film. Precious herself is an innocent, completely unable to see a way out of her circumstances. But then she’s given a place at an alternative school, and she begins to open up… in the process revealing her mother’s behaviour toward her and that her child is the product of incest (oh, and she’s pregnant once again, also incestuous, when the movie opens). The book’s prose apparently reflects Precious’s improved command of language as she attends the alternative school, but the voiceover narrative doesn’t make this especially clear. The film has been accused of throwing a bit too much at the protagonist, and although there’s a clear arc toward some sort of happy ending, it is pretty heavy-handed. Still, that’s what drama does…

american_history_xAmerican History X, Tony Kaye (2009, USA). Another film that’s on another list, but this one was also free to watch on Amazon Prime so… To be honest, the story of the making of the film is more interesting than the story of the film. In American History X, Edward Norton plays a neo-Nazi who goes to prison after viciously murdering two black guys, sees the errors of his ways after being sexually assaulted by another neo-Nazi in the showers and spending time working alongside a black guy who was imprisoned for six years for stealing a TV. On his release, Norton tries to prevent his younger brother, who has fallen under the spell of the same neo-Nazi guru Norton had, from following in his footsteps. These days, neo-Nazis get upset when they’re called neo-Nazis, or even just straight Nazis, but fuck ’em. They’re neo-Nazis. “Alt-right” is just as much a bullshit right-wing propaganda term as “political correctness”. Ignore anyone who uses either. But, American History X… Apparently, the studio were unhappy with Kaye’s first cut. And his second cut.’Then Norton hired an editor to cut the film to his taste. So Kaye played the prima donna, famously hiring a rabbi, a RC priest and a Buddhist monk to sit in on a meeting with studio bosses. Um, yes. The film has its moments, but Norton is too weedy to convince in his role (just compare him to the meatheads Nazis he meets in prison), and the whole thing over-inflates the success of neo-Nazism so much it dangerously normalises it. I’m all for rehabilitation narratives, but they need to be stronger than this to justify their existence. It doesn’t help that every black character in American History X is a gang banger, except for Avery Brooks’s mentor, which only just feeds into the whole neo-Nazi white supremacy thing. Seriously, films about Nazism and neo-Nazism should make the politics so unpalatable – as they are in real life – that no one would want to have anything to do with them; they should not leave enough wiggle room for an intellectually-challenged viewer to start giving brainspace to the toxic shit they peddle. We all know the dangers of “post-truth”, which is another word for “lie” or “fiction”. After all, 52% of Republicans believe Trump won the popular vote even though the actual facts show Clinton won it by nearly three million votes. And don’t get me started on the lies put out by the Leave campaign…

sons_roomThe Son’s Room, Nanni Moretti (2001, Italy). And from the “look at my award-winning turn playing a toxic character in a toxic film” American History X to a drama that has a cast of human beings and deals with a very real situation. Moretti himself plays the father in a middle-class Italian family. Teenage boy and teenage girl cause the usual familial disruptions. Moretti’s job as a practicing psychiatrist means he has his patients’ problems as well as his family’s to deal with. Nonetheless, the family are generally easy-going, centred, good-natured, although attractive in a sort of lifestyle magazine advert way. And then the son dies in a diving accident, and the surviving three members of the family have trouble dealing with their grief. Moretti’s character replays over and over his last day with his son, when he cried off from the promised jog together because a patient had called him and asked for his help (the patient had just been diagnosed with cancer, it transpired). My only previous experience to Moretti’s films was his Caro diario, which I thought pretty good. That was a more personal film, although The Son’s Room covers such an emotive topic it feels a much more personal movie. I should probably watch more Moretti – he’s very good. Recommended.

great_african_1Haramuya, Drissa Toure (1995, Burkina Faso). As mentioned earlier, and evident from the DVD cover art, this is the second film in the Great African Films Volume 1 DVD I bought on eBay. This is pretty much a slice-of-life drama set in Ougadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. A teenager gets a job in a shop, but worried that his parents cannot affort to eat, he steals some flip-flops to sell, but is caught and fired. There’s a long-running plot-thread about stolen mopeds. And also a police investigation into drug dealing – which one dealer manages to evade by feeding his marijuana to an uncle’s goats… who promptly start butting each other and everything in sight. Haramuya is light on plot, but it’s also an excellent window onto a world I would not otherwise be likely to see. Toure’s direction is effective, but workmanlike more than anything else. The film comes across as a social drama, but structured as a series of interlinked narratives. The cast are natural, with only one or two moments where it feels a little amateur. Of the two films in Great African Films Volume 1, Faraw! is clearly the better, but Haramuya is still worth seeing. There are, to date, a further three volumes – 2 Tasuma and Sia, The Dream of the Python (both Burkina Faso), 3 Daratt and Desert Ark (Chad and Algeria), and 4 The Pirogue, Colobane Express and The Silent Monologue (all three Senegal). I plan to buy them (although I’ve already seen Daratt).

sonatineSonatine, Kitano Takeshi (1993, Japan). I stumbled across this in a local charity shop, and since I know Takeshi’s name, it was an obvious decision to buy it. Only later did I discover it’s the film which brought him international attention. And having now seen it, I can understand why. A Yakuza enforcer and his team are sent to Okinawa to sort out a dispute between two gangster plans but the enforcer realises it is all a plot to remove him. So he hides out with his team at a beach house, where they play games and tricks on each other… before it all comes to a violent end when the Yakuza boss turns up looking to resolve the situation. And, er, that’s sort of it. When the enforcers are hiding out at the beach, they act like kids. Takeshi, who plays the lead role, plays it totally deadpan, so the humnour is even funnier because it bounces off him completely. Of course, being a Takeshi, it’s also pretty violent, with lots of gun battles and violent murders. But there’s also a strong thread of black humour running throughout the film. For example, when the enforcers first arrive in Okinawa, they’re taken to an office building used by the clan. They’ve not been there five minutes when someone shoots at a window. What’s that? asks one of the Okinawa team. That’s just the other clan, they’re always shooting at us… This DVD only cost me a quid, and I fully expected to drop it off in a random charity shop after I’d watched it… But I think I’ll be keeping it. Worth seeing.

gabbehGabbeh*, Mohsen Makhmalbaf (1996, Iran). Iran, despite its theocratic regime, perhaps even in spite of it, has a strong presence internationally in the cinema world, and has produced a number of excellent directors and films. Some have worked within the system, some have worked around it. I’m not sure which group Makhmalbaf belongs to, although the fact his name is important to the plot of Kiarostami’s Close-up suggests he has the approval of the authorities. And, to be fair, there’s nothing in Gabbeh that might offend them. It’s an Iranian fairy-tale, based around the style of rug from which the film takes its name. An old couple make their way to a stream to wash their gabbeh, and a young woman, who answers to the name of Gabbeh, magically appears out of the picture wiven into the rug. Gabbeh’s story is also depicted in the rug, which changes as the film progresses. She is betrothed to a young man, but each time they try to set a wedding date something happens to put it off. She tells this story to the old couple. As should be evident from the DVD cover, this is a gorgeous-looking movie. Recommended. And no, I didn’t pay the price show on Amazon, I bought my copy on eBay for considerably less.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 834


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Moving pictures, #64

Another mixed bag of films. I seem to be sticking to my plan of seeing more world cinema than Hollywood cinema, however…

the_bowThe Bow, Kim Ki-duk (2005, South Korea). David Tallerman had recommended Ki-duk’s 3-Iron and it was very good, but he also pointed out that not all of Ki-duk’s movies would be to my taste… although this one might be. Yes, it was to my taste; no, it wasn’t as good as 3-Iron. An old man and a teenage girl live on a boat, which they hire out to people wanting to deep sea fish. The old man plans to marry the girl when she is seventeen. He also has a bow, which he sometimes uses to keep unruly cusotmers in line. The girl says nothing. She also helps him with his party trick, in which she sits on a swing before a target painted on the hull of their boat, while he stands on another boat and shoots arrows at the target. And, er, that’s about it. Well, there’s a romance plot, when a student falls in love with the girl. And the old man sometimes turns his bow into a musical instrument and plays it. But this is not a film which makes an effort to ensure the viewer knows what’s going on. But then, the film works mostly because Ki-duk keeps things enigmatic. Worth seeing.

4a-dog-star-man-preludePrelude: Dog Star Man*, Stan Brakhage (1961, USA). Avant garde cinema has been around as along as, well, cinema, and yet the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list features only a handful of examples – early Buñuel, who probably doesn’t count anyway, Meshes of the Afternoon from the 1940s, Baillie and Brakhage from the 1960s, Benning from the 1990s… and all but Buñuel from the US, as if no one but Americans made experimental or avant garde films. Which is nonsense. (Not that I know enough about avant garde film to name directors from other countries, but there are plenty of books on the subject available from a large online retailer…) Having said that, Dog Star Man is apparently highly regarded and considered a watershed work in American avant garde cinema. It’s a sequence of six short films made between 1961 and 1964, but only the first, Prelude, is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I found a copy of it on Youtube, I think the entire series is on there. Prelude: Dog Man Star is a montage of soundless moving images, many superimposed: prominences on the sun, clouds, a  city at night, trees, washes of colour, scratches, even some bubble-bath. It’s not as mesmerising as the static shots in Benning’s films, but there’s definitely a poetry to the play of images. I guess I should watch the rest of the sequence sometime.

i_clownsI Clowns, Federico Fellini (1970, Italy). I have become a fan of Fellini’s films after many years of only knowing La Dolce Vita and, later, . It was Satyricon and Casanova that did it, of course. They’re so bonkers, how could I not want to see more films by their director? And Roma was good too. But it’s not like I rushed out and bought every Fellini film available on DVD or Blu-ray, and, in fact, I only bought I Clowns because it was going cheap in a Black Friday sale. (I did have it on my rental list, however.) The title is not a veiled reference to Graves or Asimov but simply the Italian for The Clowns. And the title pretty much describes the film. It opens with an extended performance of a group of clowns in a circus, before showing those clowns out and about out of costume. It’s part documentary and part fiction. Wikipedia claims it was “incorrectly referred as the first mockumentary”, although, to be honest, it doesn’t come across as a mockumentary. Clowns are strange creatures, their personas and appearance deliberately designed to generate laughter, but they can also be creepy as fuck. The ones in I Clowns are pretty typical in that regard.

beyondStar Trek Beyond, Justin Lin (2016, USA). The original Star Trek movies were pretty bland, and turned blander as the series progressed, but at least they weren’t stupid films. And if there’s one thing the rebooted Trek films are, it’s stupid. The first two films made no sense and had plot holes you could fly the Enterprise through. Star Trek Beyond is slightly better than the previous two, but that’s a pretty low bar to clear. It opens with Kirk bored after three years of his five-year mission and applying for a promotion to vice-admiral. This is the cadet who failed to graduate from Starfleet Academy, but they put him in command of their best ship anyway, and now he expects to make vice-admiral three years after not graduating? WTF? Anyway, before Kirk can be leapfrogged over all those Starfleet officers with the decades of experience necessary for the job, the Enterprise is sent to retrieve an escape pod, which results in them trying to rescue a lost crew on a world hidden behind one of those asteroid belts you only ever see in bad sf, you know, the ones where the rocks are metres apart instead thousands of kilometres. And then a villain makes mincemeat of the Enterprise, and I sort of lost the plot around then, or probably the film did, as it turned into the usual bollocks with the hardy upright folk of Starfleet completely out of their depth against a super-powerful alien but they still manage to win the day anyway. Not that the asteroid belt was the only bollocks in the film. I noted at one point that the Enterprise’s artificial gravity worked fine except when it looked cool if everyone was thrown about the ship when it crashed. Other than that, villain Idris Elba was under so much much alien make-up you have to wonder why they bothered casting a marquee name, the Enterprise’s crash totally ripped off the same thing from the previous franchise, Karl Urban still does a mean Bones but the rest of the cast are rubbish, and the whole thing feels like an over-extended episode from a crap TV show.

puppetmasterThe Puppetmaster*, Hou Hsiao Hsien (1993, Taiwan). One thing that following the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list has shown me is how piss-poor the UK is at making films available on DVD. The latest Hollywood shit, no problem; but world cinema, or even classic Hollywood, and it’s absolutely useless. Most of Satyajit Ray’s oeuvre is available – no doubt because he was championed by Merchant Ivory – but only two of Ritwik Ghatak’s films (and the remastered edition of one is available in the US but not here). There’s plenty of wu xia and Chinese historical epics available on DVD in the UK, but only a handful by Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao Hsien… so I ended up buying a box set of five Hou films on eBay from South Korea (and the “box set” proved to be five DVDs in the cardboard box in which they were sent…). The Puppetmaster is one of Hou’s best-known films, and is essentially a sort of dramatised reminiscence by a, er, puppeteer who was forced to propagandize for the Japanese during their occupation of the country in World War II. The film opens with the puppetmaster discussing his birth, and how he came to be registered twice under two names. At intervals, as an old man, he talks directly to camera, as if being interviewed. Hou has two films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list I’m using, although others by him regularly crop up on other lists. The Puppetmaster certainly belongs on the list, and I’m now looking forward to watching the rest of my “box set”.

heroesHeroes, Samir Karnik (2008, India). Bollywood is not all 3-hour-long rom coms with songs and dances, it tackles other genres and subjects too. In fact, but for the inclusion of song and dance routines, it pretty much covers the same bases as Hollywood. In Hollywood, Heroes would be a serious drama, with a po-faced cast all gunning for an award. In Bollywood, it’s just as serious, but it also features broad comedy and dance routines. A war reporter interviews three soldiers in the Indian Army fighting in, I think, the Kargil War. The soldiers each give the reporter a letter to post on his return to civilisation, but the reporter later learns all three were killed in action. Three years later, a pair of slacker student fail to graduate from film school and need to make a graduation film. A friend in the army prompts them to make their topic “why you shouldn’t join the armed forces”, and the girlfriend of one of the pair puts them in touch with someone who could help… the war reporter from earlier. He gives them the three letters he was given by the dead soldiers – throughout the film they’re referred to as “martyred”, which is just… odd – and suggests they deliver them by hand and make that the subject of their graduation film. So the two load up their motorcycle, and head off to the Punjab to deliver the first letter, written by a Sikh soldier. They discover that the widow and young son are extremely proud of the soldier, as indeed is the whole village. The second letter, they deliver to the wheelchair-using brother of the dead soldier, who used to be a fighter pilot. The ex-pilot now teaches kids to stand up for themselves, but is proud of his brother’s sacrifice. There’s also a jaw-dropping action sequence in a bar when the ex-pilot takes on a gang of rowdies and beats the crap out of them, and pretty much demolishes the bar, first from his wheelchair, and then from the floor after they’ve managed to tip him over. The final letter is addressed to the dead soldier’s colonel and proves to be a request for leave. There’s an unposted card in the soldier’s file, so the colonel gives it to the film students for them to deliver to the family. But the family don’t seem especially bothered, and one of the film students accuses the dead soldier of cowardice for wanting leave during the height of the war. The dead soldier’s mother plays them a tape of her son, proving he was a hero. Heroes is all a bit jingoistic, deliberately so, but it’s palatable because the film is based on the Bollywood model, with songs and dances and daft comedy. Entertaining, but it did lay its “love your country” message on a bit thick.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 833


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2016, the best of the year

It’s been a funny old year. Not only have we hit that time when the icons of our youth are in their (late) sixties, seventies and eighties, and so coming to the end of their lives… but some of the British people had a fit of madness and voted to leave the EU in the dumbest referendum in British political history… And then the US went one better, as it always has to, and voted in as president Donald Trump, an orange-skinned baboon, a man who makes Nigel Farage look like a mostly-harmless over-educated clown. Trump doesn’t even have his arse officially in the Oval Office yet, and he’s already abusing his powers. We’ve had ten years of damaging and unnecessary austerity here in the UK, and we’re looking down the barrel of a deeper recession, thanks to the morons and racists who voted Leave. But I think the next four years in the US might well be worse than anything we experience…

On the personal front, the day job got really busy around March, when a colleague left the company and a major project he was working on was dumped on my desk. As a result, I’ve not had much energy or enthusiasm for anything other than just consuming culture… which has meant lots of blog posts on films I’ve watched, books I’ve read, and, er, films I’ve watched. I did manage to publish a whole four stories in 2016, however; ‘Geologic’ appeared in Interzone in January; ‘Red Desert’ and ‘Our Glorious Socialist Future Among the Stars!’ appeared in Dreams of the Space Age, a collection of my alt space stories; and Coda: A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum I published as a pendant to the Apollo Quartet… but only the last was actually written in 2016. I also worked on the third book in my space opera trilogy, A Want of Reason, in fits and starts. So, overall, not a very productive year.

Fortunately, some of the films I watched and some of the books I read made up for it. A new favourite writer and two new favourite films is not bad going for a single year. And a number of other “discoveries”, both writers and directors new to me in 2016, I thought so good I will be further exploring their oeuvres. But. There can only be, er, five. In each category. Yes, it’s that time of the year – ie, pretty close to the end – when I look back over the aforementioned consumed culture – of which there has been quite a bit, particularly on the movie front – and pick my top five in books, films and albums. And they look something like this…

books
Not a very good year for genre fiction, it seems. Not a single category science fiction novel makes it into my top five. And one gets bumped from the half-year top five (those are the numbers in square brackets) to the honourable mentions. Four other genre writers also make my honourable mentions – Charnock, Whiteley, Duchamp and Park – although I’ve been a fan of Duchamp’s and Park’s writing for many years.

end_days1 The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck (2012) [1]. Erpenbeck was my discovery of the year. I forget who recommended The End of Days, but I loved it… and then later bought everything else by Erpenbeck translated into English (she’s German). The End of Days re-imagines the life of a Jewish woman born in the early years of the twentieth century in Galicia, and follows her through several variations on her life, as she variously moves to Vienna, becomes a communist, moves to Austria, then settles in East Germany. Erpenbeck’s prose is distant and factual, a style that appeals greatly to me, and I especially like the “facticity” of her protagonist’s many lives. The End of Days is not as readable, or as immersive, a novel as Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, a book it resembles in broad conceit, but I much prefer Erpenbeck’s novel because I love the authority of its reportage-like prose, and I find the life of its protagonist much more interesting than that of Atkinson’s. I think The End of Days is a superb novel – I’ve already bought everything by Erpenbeck published in the UK, and I eagerly await whatever new works might appear.

vertigo2 Vertigo, WG Sebald (1990) [2]. Sebald is a genre all to himself, and his novels defy easy summary. They also – particularly in this case – tread that fine line between fact and fiction which I find so appealing, even more so when the fact is autobiography. (In hindsight, I could have included Vertigo as an inspiration for Coda: A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum, but then Austerlitz had partly inspired Adrift on the Sea of Rains, so…) The novel is divided into four parts, all first person narratives – the first is by Stendahl and describes his entry into Italy with Napoleon’s army, the second is by an unnamed narrator presumed to be Sebald and covers two trips he makes to a village in the Alps, the third is about Kafka, and the final section recounts the narrator’s return to his home village and his reflections on the changes, and lack of change, he sees there. Despite its discursive nature, there’s a deceptive simplicity to Sebald’s prose, which tricks the reader into thinking the story carries a smaller intellectual payload than it actually does. I don’t know of another author who writes at such length, and so indirectly, on a topic and yet still manages to make it all about the topic. Sebald did not write many novels – only four, in fact – but I suspect by the end of 2017 I will have read all of them.

nocilla3 Nocilla Dream, Agustín Fernández Mallo (2006). I’m pretty sure it was David Hebblethwaite who mentioned this, and the description sounded intriguing enough I decided to give it a go. It was almost as if it had been written for me – a fractured narrative, split into 113 sections, some of which are factual, some of which hint at further stories. There’s a sense the novel is a work in progress, inasmuch as it’s an approach to narrative that has not been tried and tested – indeed, it led to a “Nocilla Generation” of writers in Spain. I suspect Mallo is guilty of over-selling his concept, but then narrative structure is one of my interests and I should think most writers – including myself, of course! – often think they’re being much cleverer than they actually are… What Mallo has created here may not be wholly new, but it is different enough to be worth keeping an eye on. And yes, I still find it a little disappointing that “Nocilla” is just a Spanish brand-name for a Nutella-like spread. It’s like when I thought Nirvana’s ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ was a really poetic title until I learnt Teen Spirit is just the brand name of a deodorant…

rites_of_passage4 Rites of Passage, William Golding (1980). I found this in a local charity shop and bought it on the strength of Golding’s reputation and a half-remembered reading of Lord of the Flies from my school days… In other words, I went into Rites of Passage pretty much blind. I will happily admit I’m not over-fond of journal narratives, and the early nineteenth century is not a period that really interests me (especially in British history), but… this novel was so superbly put together, its control of voice, its management of story, so stunningly good, that after reading it I immediately decided I’d like to read not only the rest of the trilogy, of which this book is the first, the others are Close Quarters and Fire Down Below, but also anything else by Golding. Fortunately, I’d also bought The Inheritors and The Spire when I bought Rites of Passage, so I have those two books on the TBR to look forward to…

golden_notebook5 The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing (1962). I’d bought this a couple of years ago on the strength of its reputation – and having read several Lessing novels… but it sat there on my bookshelves unread for quite a while because, well, partly because of its reputation, but also because of its size… But I took it with me on a train journey to Scarborough… and discovered it was a great deal less polemical than I’d expected, hugely readable, and fascinating in its depiction of the life of protagonist Anna Wulf (and her fictional/meta-fictional counterparts). The nested fictional/meta-fictional narratives are no longer as excitingly experimental as they were in 1962, so in one respect the book’s impact has been somewhat blunted by time – although, to be honest, I much prefer literature which plays such narrative tricks. Having said that, this diminution in shock factor solely from structure shows how readable and coherent the various narratives actually are. It is slightly sad and frightening that The Golden Notebook enjoys the reputation it does when you think what a reader must be like, and believe, in order to be shocked and horrified by the novel’s content. Even more worryingly, I suspect more people these days will reject the novel due to its politics – Wulf is a member of the Communist Party – and so completely miss its commentary on sexual politics. But I thought it was bloody great.

Honourable mentions: Europe at Midnight, Dave Hutchinson (2015) [3]; A God in Ruins, Kate Atkinson (2015) [4]; Abandoned in Place, Roland Miller (2016) [5]; Visitation, Jenny Erpenbeck (2008); Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, Anne Charnock (2015); The Arrival of Missives, Aliya Whiteley (2015); Never at Home, L Timmel Duchamp (2011); Cockfosters, Helen Simpson (2015); Blindness, Henry Green (1926); and Other Stories, Paul Park (2015).

Quite a few books from my best of the half-year got bumped down to honourable mentions, but I suspect their authors will not be too upset given what replaced them. Three of the honourable mentions are from small presses – Unsung Stories, Aqueduct Press and PS Publishing – and it’s about fifty-fifty category sf versus mainstream. The gender balance is 2:3 in the top five for female:male, but 8:7 including the honourable mentions. That’s not too shabby. All books mentioned above are, of course, recommended.

films
A bit of a change in this list from July, but then I’ve watched a lot of films this year. Some of the ones in the top five below have even become favourites, which makes 2016 an especially good year in that respect. Of course, my taste in movies has changed a lot over the last couple of years, but even so…

river_titas1 A River Called Titas, Ritwik Ghatak (1973, India). I watched Ghatak’s A Cloud-Capped Star back in 2014, after, I think, seeing it mentioned in Sight & Sound, but it wasn’t until this year I saw the only other film by him available on DVD in the UK, A River Called Titas. (Ghatak’s Subarnarekha is on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, but I had to source a copy via alternative means in order to see it.) I have no idea why I love A River Called Titas as much as I do. It tells the story of a young woman during the 1930s in a village on the bank of the eponymous river, who is married against her will, then kidnapped, rescued by strangers, and subsequently builds a life for herself and her new child in another village not knowing who her husband ever was… until she one day stumbles across him. But he has lost his mind. Then they die, and the film follows their son and the woman who adopted him. It’s based on a novel by Adwaita Mallabarman, which I now really want to read. The BFI DVD is not a brilliant transfer, which is a shame as the composition of some of the shots is beautiful. I’ve watched this film five times already this year – and the final watch was of the Criterion remastered edition, which is such a huge improvement over the BFI print – so much so that it was almost like watching a new, and much better, movie.

lucia2 Lucía, Humberto Solás (1968, Cuba). I watched this because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (something of a familiar refrain, I admit), and I knew nothing about it when I put it in the DVD player – indeed, I knew nothing about Cuban cinema. But I loved it. It tells the stories of three women, all called Lucía – the first in the 1860s, the second in the 1930s and the third in the 1960s. It’s a long film and it covers a lot of ground, but it’s a wonderfully human movie. The Mr Bongo transfer is pretty poor – but it’s the only DVD of the film I can find, so can someone please remaster it?  – and the film is black-and-white, so the poor quality is not as noticeable as it might otherwise be… The acting feels appropriate to each of the historical periods, although it does tend to drift into melodrama at times… but when I started watching this I’d never have guessed I’d love it, so much so that Lucía has, like A River Called Titas, become a favourite film.

autumn_avo3 An Autumn Afternoon, Yasujiro Ozu (1962, Japan) [1]. I’d seen Ozu’s Tokyo Story back in 2009, but it wasn’t until this year that I really started to explore Ozu’s oeuvre. I admit it, I bought An Autumn Afternoon because the cover of the Criterion edition (although I actually bought the BFI edition pictured) reminded me of Antonioni’s Red Desert, a favourite film. And while An Autumn Afternoon was nothing like Red Desert, it is a beautifully observed domestic drama. Ozu had a tendency to use the same actors in different roles, which did intially confuse – Chishu Ryu is playing the patriarch of which family in this film? – but I also think An Autumn Afternoon has the clearest illustration of inside and outside in Japanese culture of all of Ozu’s films I’ve so far seen. There’s a lovely matter-of-fact courtesy among the characters, despite the fact it’s obvious they know each so well they’re extremely comfortable in each other’s company; and it’s the interactions between the characters which are the true joy of Ozu’s movies. The plot, when you think about it, is almost incidental. There’s an effective scene in An Autumn Afternoon, in which Ryu encounters a petty officer from a ship he captained during WWII. It is not, in and of itself, a particularly shocking discovery about Ryu’s character, but it is a powerful reminder that for much of the twentieth century WWII defined a great many peoples’ lives, on both sides of the conflict… and that is something we should not forget.

robinson4 Robinson in Ruins, Patrick Keiller (2010, UK). I forget who mentioned Keiller to me, but I received his London as a Christmas present last year and, having thought it was very good, bought myself Robinson in Ruins, a belated sequel, in 2016. The central conceit, that the films are narrated by a friend of the titular Robinson as secondhand reportage, still occurs in Robinson in Ruins – the original narrator, Paul Scofield, died in 2008, and Vanessa Redgrave takes his place in Robinson in Ruins, and, I thought, she actually worked better. The idea that Robinson had spent the intervening years in prison gave the film a freshness, because we’re seeing what it depicts through Robinson’s eyes. But, more than that, its commentary on Tory politics and finances, at an almost Adam-Curtis-like level of detail and interconnectedness, gave the film an added bite Keiller’s earlier films had lacked. This is not the bite of a Great White, it must be admitted, more the savaging of a tenacious spaniel, but the fact it exists only illustrates how much more of this type of cinema we need. Having said that, Redgrave’s narration is erudite, interesting and perfectly played; and Keiller’s imagery is often beautifully shot. More, please.

entranced_earth5 Entranced Earth, Glauber Rocha (1967, Brazil) [2]. I watched this because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (where have we heard that before?), although I knew nothing about Rocha’s movies – or indeed about Brazilian cinema. I loved it. So much so I bought all three of Rocha’s films available on DVD in the UK – Entranced Earth, Black God White Devil and Antonio das Mortes. Rocha was a leading light of Brazil’s Cinema Novo movement, which sought to bring realism and social conscience into Brazilian films. Entranced Earth has bags of the latter, but not so much of the former. It’s an often hallucinogenic account of an election in an invented South American country, between an established candidate and a populist candidate (back when “populist” didn’t mean orange-faced fascist or goose-stepping Mr Blobby), but neither candidate is ideal – as an investigating journalist discovers. The narrative is non-linear, some of the photography is brilliant (a shot from the top of a TV aerial stands out), and the films wears its politics proudly on its sleeve. Kudos to Mr Bongo for distributing these films in the UK – even if the transfers are not of the best quality – but Rocha made four feature films and five documentaries, so it would be nice to see those too… not to mention actual UK releases of films by another Brazilian Cinema Novo director, Nelson Pereira dos Santos… or indeed any other Cinema Novo director…

Honourable mentions: Koyaanisqatsi, Godfrey Reggio (1982, USA) [3]; Nostalgia for the Light, Patricio Guzmán (2010, Chile) [4]; Pyaasa, Guru Dutt (1957, India) [5]; Timbuktu, Abderrahmane Sissako (2014, Mauritania); Nuummioq, Otto Rosing & Torben Bech (2009, Greenland); A Touch of Sin, Jia Zhangke (2013, China); 12:08 East of Bucharest, Corneliu Porumboiu (2006, Romania); A Flickering Truth, Pietra Brettkelly (2015, New Zealand); Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, Chantal Akerman (1975, France); and Charulata, Satyajit Ray (1964, India).

Only a single US film in the lot, which I consider an achievement – although I’ve been accused of “going too far in the opposite direction”. But I do like classic Hollywood movies, and I love me some 1950s Rock Hudson melodramas, but… that doesn’t necessarily mean I think they’re good films. The above is a pretty eclectic mix, from 13 different countries, of which India manages three entries (which came as a surprise, although I do really like the work of those three Indian directors). If anything, I’m hoping 2017 will be even more of a world cinema year, and I’ll find interesting films from countries whose cinemas I have yet to explore.

Oh, and for the record, my top ten favourite films, as of this post, currently looks like this: 1 All That Heaven Allows, Douglas Sirk (1955, USA) 2 A River Called Titas, Ritwik Ghatak (1973, India); 3 Alien, Ridley Scott (1979, UK/USA); 4 Red Desert, Michelangelo Antonioni (1964, Italy); 5 Lucía, Humbert Solás (1968, Cuba); 6 The Second Circle, Aleksandr Sokurov (1990, Russia); 7 Mięso (Ironica), Piotr Szulkin (1993, Poland); 8 The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke (2009, Austria/Germany); 9 Divine Intervention, Elia Suleiman (2002, Palestine); 10 Fahrenheit 451, François Truffaut (1966, USA).

music
It’s been a, er, quiet year for music for me. I went to Bloodstock Open Air, as I have done since 2007 (minus 2009 and 2010), and enjoyed it a great deal. It was excellent to see Akercocke back together again (and I saw them a second time a couple of months later in Sheffield), but I think the stand-out performance of the weekend for me was Shining, who I’d never even heard of until I saw them at Bloodstock in 2014. That was pretty much it, gig-wise, for 2016. I also saw Arch Enemy, who I’d last seen at Bloodstock in 2007, but their set felt a bit lacklustre. Akercocke were better second time around, playing a small nightclub rather than a giant field in Derbyshire. And then there was a one-off gig by Anathema in Holmfirth, and they were as bloody good as they ever are (and yes, they played my two favourite songs, ‘Closer’ and ‘Fragile Dreams’).

I’ve not bought that many albums this year, either as MP3 downloads or olde stylee silver discs, although a couple of my favourite bands have had new releases out. Partly because I used to listen to music a lot at work, but I’ve been so busy there I’ve sort of got out of the habit. I’ve also been carded once too often by couriers because I didn’t hear the doorbell over the music when I’ve been at home. But the year has not been a total dead loss, because I did actually buy some music, and a lot of it was very good indeed. And, amazingly, my top five are all 2016 albums…

no_summer1 A Year with No Summer, Obsidian Kingdom (2016) [1]. I discovered this group when I saw them play live at Bloodstock in 2014, and I enjoyed their set so much I bought their album. This second album has been long-awaited, and it’s particularly good because it’s not more of the same. It is, if anything, even more progressive than the band’s debut, Mantiis. There must be something about the Spanish metal scene that leads to bands which generate these complex soundscapes from drums, bass, guitars and synth, more so than the metal of any other nation – not just Obsidian Kingdom, at the progressive end of the scale, but NahemaH, a favourite and now sadly defunct band, from the death metal end of the scale, not to mention Apocynthion somewhere in between. Whatever it is, I welcome it: A Year with No Summer is a listening adventure from start to finish, and never gets tiring.

on_strange_loops2 On Strange Loops, Mithras (2016). And speaking of long-awaited albums… Mithras’s last album, Behind the Shadows Lie Madness, was released in 2007. There was an EP, Time Never Lasts, in 2011, but it’s been a long wait for a new album-length work from this favourite band. This is pretty much down to the band’s perfectionism, a trait with which I can certainly empathise – and releasing on your own label, or self-publishing, as least gives you the freedom to release when and only when you feel the work is fit for release. Happily, and after all this time, On Strange Loops is definitely worth the wait. It is, of course, more of the same – massively intense and intricate death metal with ambient interludes. It works because of the contrasts and because the muscianship is of such a high level. Mithras toured this year, but I didn’t get the chance to see them perform, which I regret. Maybe next year.

rooms3 Rooms, Todtgelichter (2016) [3]. A friend had this on their wishlist on Bandcamp, so I gave it a listen as we often like a lot of the same stuff. I liked it. A lot. Back in June, I described Todtgelichter’s music as “a sort of guitar-heavy post-black metal”, and I still think that’s the best description because, well, it doesn’t sound at all like black metal but it does sound like the band were at some point a black metal band. If that makes sense. I don’t know; perhaps it’s the sensibility with which they construct their songs. It’s not particularly heavy, inasmuch as the guitar sound is more like heavy rock turned up to eleven than your actual metal guitar, but the whole is metal. Frank Zappa once said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture (Googles quickly, discover Zappa didn’t coin it, oh well). But the point remains – there is something in Todtgelichter’s music which appeals to me, and I can’t quite identify what it is. But they made my top five for the year.

belakor-vessels4 Vessels, Be’lakor (2016). I’ve been a fan of Australian melodic death metallers Be’lakor since first hearing their 2012 album Of Breath and Bone. It taken four years for a sequel – happily not so long for me, as I found their earlier works, The Frail Tide (2007) and Stone’s Reach (2009) during the years in-between – but Vessels is easily as good as, if not better than, Of Breath and Bone. It’s not just that Be’lakor create polished melodic death metal, as there as many varieties of that as there are bands who profess to play it (not to mention bands who profess not to play it but do), but more that they create layered songs with intricate but melodic guitar parts, with strong melody lines carried by the vocals. It’s a winning combination.

atoma5 Atoma, Dark Tranquillity (2016). A new album by a favourite band, so it’s no surprise to find it here – but it’s at number five because it’s a recent release and I’ve not listened to it as much I’d have liked to. It sounds very much like a Dark Tranquillity album, of course, although nothing on the few listens I’ve had struck me as “anthemicly” stand-out in the way tracks on earlier albums have done, like ‘The Wonders At Your Feet’, ‘Lost to Apathy’, or ‘Shadow in Our Blood’, but, still, this is Dark Tranquillity. They’ve been creating excellent death metal since 1989, and they’ve never stood still, which is one reason why I treasure them so much. Dark Tranquillity are the moving line which defines melodic death metal.

Honourable mentions: Afterglow, In Mourning (2016) [2]; Eidos, Kingcrow (2015) [4]; Changing Tides, Trauma Field (2016) [5]; Departe, Clouds (2016); and Pure, In the Woods (2016).

An odd year for music. A few favourite bands released new albums, not all of which I bought. I went to very few gigs – ten years of Austerity has noticeably reduced the number of bands I’d like to see performing in Sheffield, now they just play Leeds or Manchester. Even the local metal scene seems to have been affected: some of the bigger bands have called it a day, others have not performed as often as in previous years. I’ve certainly listened to less music, and less new music, and bought less music, in 2016 than in previous years. Partly that’s because I’ve spent less time exploring metal on Bandcamp and other sites, but also because I’ve spent less time listening to music than in other years. And partly because fewer bands I want to see have performed locally. Let’s hope 2017 proves a better year musically…