It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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Maintaining a positive balance on the TBR

I try to read more books than I buy each month – or buy less books than I read, I guess it depends on how you look at it. Otherwise, the To Be Read pile would just continue to grow, and it’s already stupidly large. And this month, I’ve actually been quite good, and not bought a silly number of books.

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Four recent sf novels. They were actually published in 2016, but I only got around to buying them this year. Pirate Utopia is the first novel-length work from Sterling since 2009’s The Caryatids (which I liked a lot). The Corporation Wars 2: Insurgence is the, er, second book in a trilogy. Daughter of Eden is the third book of a trilogy. And Survival Game is the sequel to 2014’s Extinction Game.

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The more astute among you may remember a Sursum Corda appearing in a previous book haul post. That was Volume 1. This is, er, Volume 1 and Volume 2. Because someone on eBay was selling both volumes at a good price, and I’d been having trouble finding a copy of the second volume (I think the first was published in Canada and the UK, but the second only in Canada). Malcolm Lowry’s Poetics of Space is the fourth book in the University of Ottawa’s critical series on Lowry’s work.

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Some bandes dessinées. The World of Edena started out as an advert for Citroën, but Moebius expanded and expanded it over the years. I wrote about it here. The Living Weapons is the fourteenth episode in the long-running Valerian and Laureline series, which I also wrote about here. There is a film adaptation by Luc Besson due for release, I think, later this year. I’m looking forward to seeing it.

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The Silent City is for the Women’s Press SF collection. I was pleased at how good condition it proved to be in, because with some of these eBay sellers you never can tell. I thought Ouředník’s Europeana very good indeed when I read it back in 2006, and though I thought his next, Case Closed, not quite as good, I still liked it a lot. So it was about time I picked up third book by him, The Opportune Moment, 1855, published in English by Dalkey Archive. And… I’ve just discovered he’s written nineteen books, in Czech and French, but only the three I have have been translated into English – and both Case Closed and The Opportune Moment, 1855 were actually originally published in the same year.

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Moving pictures 2017, #4

I’m still keeping to my resolution to watch more non-US films than US ones, but I’m not doing so well with my plan to actually watch less films – only a month into 2017 and I’m already on my fourth Moving pictures post. Oh well.

embraceEmbrace of the Serpent, Ciro Guerra (2015, Colombia). I found this free to view on Amazon Prime and put it on my watchlist. About a week later, it was recommended to me, so I moved it up my To Be Watched list… And I’m glad I did as it is very good indeed. In fact, it’s a serious contender for an updated version of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and would almost certainly make my own version of such a list. The film follows a split narrative, one set in 1909 and one in 1940. Their stories – indeed, the routes taken by the characters – are almost identical. The two are linked by one man, Karamakate, the sole survivor of an Amazonian tribe and a shaman. In 1909, he reluctantly helps a German ethnographer to find a sample of the semi-mythical sacred plant yakruna so that it might cure him of his illness. In 1940, an older Karamakate guides an American botanist to the location of the last surviving yakruna plant. The American claims he is only following in the German’s footsteps, but he actually wants to steal a sample of yakruna as it reputedly keeps rubber trees free of disease and the US is losing its access to sources of rubber thanks to Japanese successes in WWII’s Pacific theatre. Embrace of the Serpent is shot entirely in black-and-white, except for a colour sequence near the end which depicts the American’s drug trip after being fed some yakruna. It’s a very… Herzogian film. And I mean that as a compliment, a very great compliment. It looks fantastic, the cast are totally convincing, as indeed are the atrocities they witness – in both timelines – during their travels. Well, okay, maybe not so much the Brazilian self-styled messiah. But in telling its story, the film makes a number of important points – so much so, in fact, that the somewhat weak ending is entirely forgivable. Go watch it.

ducklingDon’t Torture a Duckling, Lucio Fulci (1972, Italy). I’ve watched a few of these giallos by now, although I still think of the genre as more thriller than horror, and Don’t Torture a Duckling falls more toward the latter than the former. A journalist covering the disappearance of a local boy in a small village notices the presence of an attractive and modish young woman, clearly not a villager, played by Barbara Bouchet, and learns she is the daughter of wealthy man who owns a house in the village, which he never uses, and to which she has been exiled after some scandal in the city. Then more boys in their early teens go missing, the two investigate, suspecting that something other than the witchcraft claimed by some villagers is the cause. Even when a woman claims responsibility for the disappearances (murders, that is, once the bodies are found), it turns out she thought she was guilty because she had stuck pins in voodoo dolls representing the victims… But the actual cause of their deaths is far more mundane and physical. Like all giallo, Don’t Torture a Duckling (I don’t actually recall the reason for the title) is all a bit fraught and over-emphatic. Even the gore – and this is apparently the first film in which Fulci used gory effects – is over-done, with the blood on the murder victims resemble scarlet nail polish more than it does actual blood. There are a few nods at an actual genre plot, with a number of suspects dragged in front of the viewer as the actual murderer, only for them to be almost immediately proven innocent. Even if you like giallo, or the films of, say, Dario Argento or Mario Bava, Don’t Torture a Duckling is not an especially memorable example. In fact, you’d be better off sticking to the films of Argento or Bava. Forgettable.

moniqueMonique, John Bown (1970, UK). I’m not sure how this found its way onto my rental list – I mean, “slap & tickle”? A 1970s British sex comedy? The concept alone makes me cringe. And yet, for all that, Monique proved to be pretty low-key and played more like a kitchen-sink drama than a Carry On film. I’m not saying it was a good film by any means – it was, after all, somewhat predictable, a bit dull, and quite dated. A dull and ordinary lower middle class family with two kids hires a French au pair to take care of said kids. As is the way in such films, the au pair is attractive and “sexually-liberated” (not that the phrase actually means anything – it’s really no more than code used by men who are afraid of independent women), and ends up in bed with the husband and the wife… and it all seems to work quite happily. To be honest, I don’t remember all that much: the eponymous au pair was good with the kids, kept both husband and wife happy and together, and it all looked very much a product of its time, without being sneering, prudish or prurient. If anything, Monique probably suffers because it’s lumped in with other films that have also been badged “slap & tickle”. It is, in the end, a somewhat dated but relatively sensitive domestic drama of middling quality.

two_daysTwo Days, One Night, Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne (2014, Belgium). I know the name Dardenne, although I had not thought I’d seen any films by the two brothers… until I checked by records and discovered I’d watched their The Kid with a Bike back in 2013, and had thought it pretty good. Despite that, I don’t remember why I added Two Days, One Night to my rental list as it’s not on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, although it is plainly a good film and worth seeing. Marion Cotillard’s character works for a small company which makes solar panels. When it comes time to return to work after suffering a nervous breakdown, she discovers that a manager had held a ballot in her absence and the workforce voted to accept a bonus rather than Cotillard returning to work, since Cotillard’s work had been picked up by others. But she needs her job, so she persuades the company to hold a second ballot, giving her the eponymous timeframe to persuade the other employees to vote to keep her. This is capitalism at work. A one-off bonus versus an employee’s salary? Of course the company will push for the former. And accepting the bonus is so short-sighted as well. Unless Cotillard had been completely useless – and it’s implied she was not – I would’nt have voted for her to lose her job myself, no matter what my circumstances or the size of the bonus. The film is predicated on the other workers voting against her – but its attempt to present good reasons for doing so do not convince. “We need the money” is not an excuse for shafting a fellow employee. Because, of course, the next such victim might well be yourself. And, quite frankly, I find it hard to believe a bonus of €1000 would be so persuasive to employees of a successful small firm in Belgium in 2014. None of which is to say that Two Days, One Night is a bad film. It’s put together very well, and Cotillard is especially good in the lead. The one brief moment of violence is shocking, if not entirely plausible; but it’s later offset by the humanity shown by one of the firm’s immigrant workers. I stumble over the movie’s premise, so I don’t think it belongs on any list of films you must see, but it’s certainly worth seeing.

satyajit_ray_3Deliverance, Satyajit Ray (1981, India). I discovered shortly after watching this that its star, Om Puri, had died a week into 2017. Watching Deliverance, made thirty-six years ago, Puri was very recognisable – he doesn’t seem to have changed much over the years. In Deliverance, he plays a humble shoemaker. He asks the village brahmin to set a propitious date for his daughter’s wedding, but the brahmin sets him a number of tasks to complete before giving his answer. Which essentially means Puri is performing unpaid labour. And that’s pretty much it for 75 minutes. (The short running time is because it was originally filmed for television.) Of the two great directors – or, at least, internationally-renowned directors – that Bengal produced, I still much Ritwik Ghatak’s work, even though that’s based on a smaller sample – three films, or a third of his oeuvre; compared to ten films out of 36… um, which works out at roughly a third for both, but never mind. And the two collections of Ray’s films that I’ve now watched… well, the most successful films in them have been historical, and typically either adaptations of novels or plays, which gives them something of a Bergman-esque sort of feel. And when that works, it works very well indeed. But when it’s lacking, the resulting film is not always entirely successful – much like Deliverance. Which, to me, felt like it tried to be several things at once but never quite succeeded at any. It wasn’t funny enough to be a comedy, its depiction of village life wasn’t entirely convincing, and its acting was dialled too high to convince as a Satyajit Ray film but not high enough to be a Bollywood film. I shall continue to explore Ray’s oeuvre – he was an important director, and fortunately much of his oeuvre is available to explore. Much as I enjoyed The Home and the World and The Public Enemy in this Ray collection, I think the films in the Satyajit Ray Collection Volume 1 were better. But get both, or indeed all three, just in case I’m wrong, anyway…

knight_of_cupsKnight of Cups, Terrence Malick (2015, USA). I have no idea whay I continue to watch Malick’s films. Okay, this was another free to view on Amazon Prime, but, seriously, life’s too short to sit through two hours of what pretty much resembles a perfume commercial with a breathless voiceover quoting from a variety of literary sources. It’s not as if it’s all in service to a plot, either. True, some of the cinematography is lovely, but Malick has developed a habit of swinging his camera right in close to a person’s face and then back out again, and it gets annoying fast. Christian Bale plays a successful Hollywood script writer who wanders around listlessly through several vignettes very loosely based on cards from the Tarot deck. He meets and has sex with several women, he gets into an argument with his father, he meets up with his brother and the two tell each other how their relationship works… And it’s all really dull and pretentious twaddle, and I continue to be mystified by the high regard in which Hollywood, and actors, holds Malick. Films are about more than pretty cinematography, and while I’m certainly a tart for it, I do ask for more that pretty pictures in the movies I appreciate and/or love. Hence my characterisation of Malick’s films as perfume adverts. It’s pretty people behaving in ways that do not make sense while living a lifestyle unavailable to 99% of the planet’s population. It is, to be honest, tosh. I think it’s time to swear off Malick. After The New World, I was prepared to give him a chance, but with To The Wonder and Knight of Cups, life is far too short to waste time watching such vacuous and pretentious twaddle.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 843


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Moving pictures 2017, #3

Why do I do it? I know superhero films are rubbish, and I know that watching them just irritates the shit out of me… but I still end up sticking them on my rental list. I suppose they’re easy films to watch drunk, and shouting at the screen can be reasonably entertaining when in that state – yes, yes, old man shouts at clouds, I know. But at least I’m doing it in the privacy of my own home…

xmen_apocalypseX-Men: Apocalypse, Bryan Singer (2016, USA). So Bryan Singer kicks off the X-Men franchise, with the smartest superhero movie seen up to that time and, to be fair, I think it still stands as one of the best examples of the genre even today. As does the sequel. But not the third; no, the third was shit. Then Singer tries to reboot Superman, but that doesn’t go too well. So he goes back and reboots the superhero franchise he kicked off in the first place: the X-Men. And I guess X-Men: First Class was sorta fun inasmuch as it spoofed the 1960s and the earlier X-Men movies, and the new cast, it must be said, were pretty good picks across the board. But the retconning of the X-Men universe was a bit weird, and the final showdown over the Cuban Missile Crisis was just plain stupid. That was followed by – oh dear – X-Men: Days of Future Past, which pretty much made recent human history, never mind the future, a by-product of a grudge match between Magneto and Professor X. And so we come to X-Men: Apocalypse… which has nothing to do with an apocalypse per se, although one is plainly on the cards, but is so called because Apocalypse is the name of a supervillain. Because if you’re a supervillain, you pick a name that’s as fucking world-ending as you can possibly get. Apocalypse is from Ancient Egypt, and we know this because that’s where the film opens. Inside a pyramid. Which is a temple. Except, as any fucking fule kno, the pyramids were tombs not temples. Apocalypse is having his mind transferred into the body of a mutant who, like Wolverine, can self-heal even fatal injuries. But it goes wrong, and Apocalypse and his supergoons are buried beneath the pyramid. Cut to present-day Cairo, and a CIA agent has tracked a member of an apocalyptic cult to a secret underground temple… Apparently, in some five thousand years, Apocalypse’s pyramid has become buried under tens of metres of bedrock, not that any pyramids were actually built on land that Cairo now covers… Never mind that Cairo in the 1980s, which is when this movie is set, was a pretty secular city and resembled a busy Western city way more than it did a North African shanty town. But there are prejudices to be reinforced here, and a peaceful and secular Middle East is not one of them. And after that, I pretty much lost the plot. Apocalypse is revived and tries to end the world, as you would if you had chosen that word as your supervillan moniker. The X-Men fight him. The X-Men’s mansion is completely destroyed. But they rebuild it later, brick for brick, using their superpowers. See, that’s what they should have done: the X-Builders. They’d have proven way more use to society as builders than prancing around in Spandex and levelling cities as collateral damage in some sort of superhero pissing contest.

hometownUnknown Pleasures, Jia Zhangke (2002, China). Jia became a name I planned to watch after seeing his 2013 film, A Touch of Sin. Happily, he has a back-catalague that is mostly available in the UK on DVD, including the three films in this Hometown trilogy DVD box set – Pickpocket, Platform and Unknown Pleasures. The last is set in Datong, an industrial city in north China, near the border with Inner Mongolia. Two young men have been doing nothing since they graduated from school. Bin Bin spends his time watching television with his girlfriend, Xiao Ji rides his motorbike around town. Then they meet Qiao Qiao, the singer/model spokesperson for Mongolian King Beer, and Xiao Ji enters into a relationship with her – which gets him into trouble with her gangster boyfriend. Bin Bin tries to join the army but fails the medical. In desperation, the two decide to rob a bank, but it goes badly wrong. Jia was apparently inspired by Datong’s many derelict buildings and factories, but then realised the streets were filled with people who were just as much victims and relics of faded past glories. It is not, to be brutally honest, an original concept in the slightest, and there are no doubt hundreds, if not more, films which have similar stories. But Jia’s film has a rawness – a consequence of shooting it on digital video in nineteen days – which US movies, independent or Hollywood, typically lack. (Plus, I like watching films set in other parts of the world.) Despite the speed with which it was put together, Unknown Pleasures is a tight story, with an escalating plot, that opens by documenting the aimlessness of Bin Bin and Xiao Jia, ramps up when an explosion partly destroys a local textile mill, and then deepens the two characters’ troubles when Qiao Qiao’s boyfriend has Xiao Ji beaten up. The final scenes of the film, with the bank robbery and its aftermath, just oozes despair. A good film, but not a cheery one.

everest_silenceThe Epic of Everest, JBL Noel (1924, UK). George Mallory made two attempts to reach the summit of Everest, the first in 1922, the second in 1924 – which forms the subject of this film – and, during this later attempt, he disappeared while trying for the peak. Not that the film makes a secret of it, mentioning on an intertitle 35 minutes in that he and fellow climber Irvine “were to meet their deaths”. Mallory’s body was found in 1999, but it’s still not known whether he made it to the summit. He might well have done, beating Edmund Hilary and Sherpa Tenzing by twenty-eight years. It seems unlikely, however, as The Epic of Everest bluntly explains that the pair simply disappeared from sight while being watched from 4,000 feet below. What is undoubtedly remarkable is that Mallory’s expedition was filmed – although the cameras could not be taken higher than 23,000 feet. The cinematography, despite being black-and-white, despite, you imagine, the crudity of the equipment, is astonishing. Even the first twenty minutes, in which the expedition travels to Everest, visiting several Tibetan villages en route, is beautifully photographed. Once the expedition reaches the mountains and climbs above the snowline, it’s mostly shots of people standing around in front of tents pitched at the feet of great slopes of snow and ice, while tiny figures in the background trudge up a white incline. True, it’s the scenery which impresses more than anything else… until you remember it all took place ninety-three years ago, when motion pictures were only a couple of decades old, television would not appear for another decade, and even human flight had been first achieved only a quarter of a century earlier. This is your actual history, it’s like real time travel. Get yourself a copy – fittingly, it comes bundled with The Great White Silence, Ponting’s film of Scott’s failed attempt to reach the South Pole…

world_cinemaRedes, Emilio Gómez Muriel & Fred Zinneman (1936, Mexico). This is the last of the films in the Martin Scorcese World Cinema Project Volume 1 box set – can we have a volume 2, please? Anyway, Redes… The title apparently means “fishing nets”, but the English title is given as “The Waves”. It’s a documentary-style semi-fictional story of a Mexican fishing village in the 1930s, and for the time it was made it’s an astonishingly accomplished piece of work. Watching Redes, it’s hard not to be reminded of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and the same sense of futility underlies the movie’s story, as the fishermen’s livelihood is threatened by a capitalist entrepreneur who owns the boat and sets the prices for the fish. When one fisherman’s son dies because he cannot afford healthcare (and this is in 1936, remember, not 2017), the fisherman persuades his fellows to revolt. Apparently, this is not a story that goes down well in some quarters in the US, much like the excellent Salt of the Earth from 1954 didn’t (especially with Pauline Kael), and I’ve seen an online review of Redes which accuses it of being Communist propaganda and then looks for faults to pick in the film-making and acting… It’s true Redes shares many characteristics with Italian neorealism, although it predates it by a number of years, but it seems the height of hypocrisy to praise those characteristics in an Italian neorealist film but condemn them in Redes. Bah. This is an excellent film, watch it. More, it’s only one of the films in a truly excellent box set, which any self-respecting cineaste should own.

garden_of_wordsThe Garden of Words, Makoto Shinkai (2013, Japan). David Tallerman told me to stick this on my rental list, but he’d neglected to mention it was anime. Although, to be fair, I should have known anyway, as I’ve seen Shinkai’s earlier Voices of a Distant Star. And while I tend to associate anime with alien invasion- and mecha-type stories, such as the excellent Neon Evangelion series, which is, er, both, I should know that it’s not always sf, it’s not always about giant robots or aliens… Especially since it’s the ones that are not genre, like Only Yesterday, Ocean Waves and From Up On Poppy Hill, that I like best of Studio Ghibli’s output. The animation in The Garden of Words is really quite gorgeous – it doesn’t have that painterly element that so drew me to Only Yesterday, but instead an almost photo-realist aspect that, at times, seemed to improve on nature. A schoolboy ducks his lessons to draw shoes, as he plans to be a shoe designer, at a park in Tokyo. In the pagoda he normally frequents, he meets a woman in her twenties, and the two become friends. He learns she was a teacher at his school, but had resigned after being bullied. The pair’s friendship is helpful to each of them, but it comes to an acrimonious end.  They forgive each other, but go their separate ways. This was better than I had expected, and way better than I had expected once I realised it was anime. I will be exploring more of Shinkai’s oeuvre, I think.

eye_in_the_skyEye in the Sky, Gavin Hood (2015, UK). I remember seeing this advertised on the sides of buses a year or two ago, and I vaguely recall hearing goodish things about it, so when it popped up free to view on Amazon Prime, I took the oportunity to watch it. And yes, it’s… mostly good. It takes a a difficult topic and tries to give an objective take on it. The only problem is, it tries to make a moral grey area out of something that is pretty much black and white. The British have tracked half a dozen Al-Shabaab (a real Jihadist group) leaders to a house in an Al-Shabaab-controlled suburb of Nairobi. Some of the leaders are Brits, one is an American. The UK government plans to take them out, by firing a Hellfire missile from a Reaper drone, piloted by a crew in Nevada. But then a young girl from a neighbouring house sets up a table to sell bread within the blast radius of the Hellfire and… Pretty much the entire movie is arguments for and against the legality of killing a small brown girl in an attack on known and wanted terrorists – and just to make sure everyone knows they’re terrorists, two of them are filmed preparing suicide bomber vests by a tiny camera drone disguised as a beetle… As far as the US government is concerned: hell, what’s one little brown girl to them? They’ve killed plenty already. (To be fair, it’s the US drone pilot who derails the mission when he demands a second “collateral damage assessment” because of the presence of the girl.) The Brits are considerably less eager to cause her death, I mean, kill her, and look for ways to save her, even if it jeopardises the mission’s objectives. Of course, what the film glosses over is the entire edifice on which the film rests: the law. They are looking for legal ways to murder people. The UK is not at war. Kenya is certainly not an enemy country. Terrorists may well be “the enemy”, but given that they’re not combatants of a nation against which the UK has declared war, it’s hard to see how they can be legally declared enemy combatants. Especially since a) any atrocity they have provenly committed would make them liable for arrest and due judicial process, but not summary execution, and b) anything they might have planned has not yet occurred and so is not an actual crime. But, you know, no one cares about logic or morality or legality when it comes to terrorists, or even brown people. Well, most white people don’t. They’re just scared. And racist. Having said that Eye in the Sky‘s story was built on shaky ground, it handled its plot points well… up to the bit where a government minister has a go at the Army general in charge of the operation, played by Alan Rickman, who responds with, “Never tell a soldier about the cost of war”, which is just self-serving bullshit, because if soldiers really cared about the cost of war they’d be trying to find ways to avoid them instead of finding enemies under every rock.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 843


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Reading diary, #43

For reasons that probably made sense when I made the decision, I’m keeping the reading diary numbering scheme going, even though it’s a new year. Not that I posted 42 reading posts in 2016, anyway. This year, I’m also going to document the country of origin of the books I read, as I plan to read geographically more widely in 2017 than I have done in previous years. This will likely mean less science fiction, although the percentage of my reading that can be categorised as genre has been steadily dropping for a long time. I still call myself a sf fan, and the genre usually offers me something as a reader I don’t get from other modes of fiction, or even non-fiction. But. There’s also a lot that sf is mostly very, very bad at, and I want to read books where those things are done well. And, I’d like to hope, that feeds into my own writing – which is, of course, predominantly science fiction…

heart_of_stoneHeart of Stone, Denny DeMartino (2001, USA). And speaking of things that sf does badly… I read this book for SF Mistressworks, and its protagonist and narrator is, quite frankly, the most ineptly-drawn British character I have ever come across in fiction. See my review on SF Mistressworks here for some choice quotes. I forget where I stumbled across mention of the book, and its sequel Wayward Moon, but the cover art looked quite appealing… A cheap copy of Wayward Moon in good condition appeared on eBay, I bought it… but no good condition copy of Heart of Stone followed and so I ended up buying a tatty one just so I could read the book. And having now read that tatty paperback, I think I would have been overcharged if it had cost me a penny. I will probably one day read Wayward Moon just to complete the pair on SF Mistressworks, but I can’t say I’m looking forward to it…

princes_of_airThe Princes of the Air, John M Ford (1982, USA). Ford is one of those sf authors whose books are held in high regard by a small number of discerning people. He’s perhaps best remembered for his Trek novelisations, but everyone who has read his non-Trek output has only good words to say of it. True, his alternate history/fantasy The Dragon Waiting was in the original Fantasy Masterwork series, but pretty much everything he wrote is long out of print and most of it was never even published in the UK. Having read Ford’s collection, Heat of Fusion, several years ago and thought it very good, I’d kept a weather eye open for his other non-tie-in novels, and The Princes of the Air popped up on eBay for a reasonable price some time last year, so I bought it. And I’m glad I did. This is well put-together stuff, even if it does borrow overmuch from the models it uses. But, to Ford’s credit, those models are plucked from more high-brow sources than your average science fiction novel. The title refers to three young men who decide to make the most of themselves. One is indentured to become a diplomat, if he passes all his training; the other two are so practiced on battle simulation VR games, one as a tactician, the other as a pilot, that they soon find work for themselves in those roles. But then there’s a plot to seize the throne from the queen, and the three work together to foil it. The chess references are a bit heavy-handed, but there was something else the book kept on reminding me of as I read it, and for the life of me I can no longer remember what it was. The plot of one of Shakespeare’s plays? Something like that. The world-building is put together well but feels a little dated. Ford’s prose is cut above the average, and he’s clever in subtle ways – the diplomatic language, for example, is rendered as iambic pentameter. The Princes of the Air has a sort of Tron-ish feel about it: good for its time, but very much the product of an earlier decade. If you stumble across a copy, it’s worth giving it a go.

valerian_14Valerian and Laureline 14: The Living Weapons, Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin (1990). I’ve been buying these translations of Valérian et Laureline since Cinebook started publishing them, although I really should get the original French ones… But Cinebook are now up to volume 14 (originally published in 1990) of the current twenty-two books. This is good stuff although, to be fair, the shortness of each individual episode does mean the quality of the story can be a little variable. This is one of the less good ones… Valerian and Laureline land on a planet, not entirely in control, and hook up with a circus, each of whose four members have talents that make them closer to weapons than entertainers. There’s an ongoing war on the planet, and one war leader hopes to use the circus to “end war” – by winning it comprehensively of course, the sort of solution that Trump and Putin and your usual right-wing morons cannot see beyond – but Valerian has another plan… and, er, so he does it. Ironically, the “living weapons” eventually end up joining the Moscow State Circus. If only Gorbachev had known they were there, maybe he could have made glasnst actually work. On the other hand, I’m not sure this is what is meant when science fiction is described as an “ironic” mode of fiction…

peripheralThe Peripheral, William Gibson (2014). The last Gibson novel I read before tackling this one was Virtual Light back in 1994, although I’d read the Sprawl trilogy and Burning Chrome prior to that. I then sort of lost interest in what he was writing, and it’s only in recent years that I decided to give his novels another go… So when I spotted The Peripheral in a charity shop, I bought it and it sat on my bookshelves for about six months before I picked it up and started reading it… I believe The Peripheral is more science-fictional than the novels Gibson has been writing since the late 1990s, given he’s no longer published as genre – not, of course, that The Peripheral was published as category science fiction anyway – but this novel’s story is, I believe, more overtly sfnal than the rest of Gibson’s output of the last decade or so. There’s a really cool idea at its core, although the mechanics of it are left unexplained: a mysterious server on the Internet (there’s a running joke it’s located in China) in the early twenty-second century allows people to communicate with the past. But only just less than a century into their past. And any intereference in that past causes it to branch off, and form a “stub”. Meanwhile, in near-future small-town USA, a young woman substitutes for her brother in what she thinks is an online game… but she’s actually flying a drone in twenty-second century London, working security for the sister of a famous performance artist. And she witnesses that sister being murdered by nanobots. Which kicks off a police investigation in London, a symptom of a struggle for power between two immensely wealthy factions, and which then leads to heavy interference in the near-future USA in order to protect the witness (like making her and her family the richest people in the country). (The title, incidentally, refers to the android avatar the young woman uses when visiting the future (to her) London.) About halfway through the novel, it’s revealed – although there are some pretty heavy hints – that eighty percent of the world’s population had died during the latter half of the twenty-first century, thanks to climate crash, economy crashes, epidemics, etc. You’d think with all this going on, I’d have been more impressed with The Peripheral. But… Everyone in the novel is near-superhuman – in the US, they’re ex-special forces or something; in London, nanotechnology gives everyone something like superpowers. No one in the book comes across as a human character. And then there’s callousness with which people are treated – this a book with a high bodycount. There’s even mention that in the twenty-third century, interfering in “stubs” is a hobby. In other words, those people enjoy fucking up the lives, often fatally, of more than six billion people. Which, I guess, makes them little different to the immensely rich today. But I don’t want to read novels in which stuff like that is treated casually, novels which set their stories in worlds which operate with all the morality of a computer game. Science fiction has always been a genre which seems happy to dehumanise every one except the protagonist and his, or her, band of hardy chums. That’s one way in which science fiction seriously needs to grow up. But it’s disappointing to see a writer of Gibson’s stature seemingly subscribing to that view.

edenaThe World of Edena, Moebius (2016). I’m a big fan of The Incal, although I’ve never really made an effort to track down Moebius’s solo work, possibly because it’s so hard to find in English-language editions. I’ve mentioned before, for example, the beautiful collections published in Danish I saw in Faraos Cigarer in Copenhagen (and, I discovered last Christmas while showing them to one of my nephews, actually published by Faraos Cigarer’s own imprint). Which is a bit of a long-winded way of getting around to the fact that last year Dark Horse collected all of Moebius’s Stel/Atana bandes dessinées and published them in a 350-page collection under the title The World of Edena, and I spotted it on Amazon but they had run out of stock so I ended up buying it from an eBay seller and saving myself a fiver… The original Stel/Atana story was written for Citroën for an advert in 1983, but Moebius expanded it a great deal over the years following. Basically, Sten and Atan visit a friend on an asteroid community, but it crashes onto the giant featureless planet it orbits… where Stel and Atan discover a giant pyramid, around which is a city 700,000 years old containing members of all the intelligent races in the galaxy, living and extinct. It transpires the pyramid is a giant spaceship and Stel is the pilot it has been waiting for. It transports everyone to the paradise planet of Edena… Once forced to live off the land, Stel and Atan develop secondary sexual characteristics and Atan proves to be Atana, a woman. The two are separated and the rest of the story describes their attempts to find each other, which are prevented by the masked inhabitants of the Nest, who are a particularly cool invention, and especially their semi-godlike creator, the Paternum. The action takes place both in dreams and on Edena itself, and it sometimes gets a little confusing. And even the final twist, with its deliberate attempts to leave everything unresolved, doesn’t quite work… But the artwork is gorgeous throughout, the Nesters are brilliant, and it’s clear from page one this is high-quality bandes dessinées which any self-respecting fan should own.

chernobyl_prayerChernobyl Prayer, Svetlana Alexievich (1997). So, one evening on Twitter I was chatting with some friends about female Nobel laureates for literature and I decided to put my money where my mouth was and read some – other than those I’d already read, Lessing and, er, Jelinek… And so I bought myself copies of Herta Müller’s The Appointment (see here) and Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer. I knew nothing about either writer, other than the fact they had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Chernobyl Prayer is… probably going to be one of my top five reads of the year come December. Yes, it is that good. Read it now. Alexievich has made a career out of publishing the stories told to her by people regarding certain events, and in Chernobyl Prayers she interviewed lots of people in Belarus and Ukraine about the nuclear reactor meltdown in that town, and used their accounts to build a narrative of events and the effects of the accident. I remember Chernobyl being on the news and, like most people in Western Europe, I never really understood the damage wrought by the disaster. It was severely downplayed by governments and the media throughout the world – but nowhere quite as extensively as it was in the USSR, especially in the areas most affected by Chernobyl. Chernobyl Prayers is not only eye-witness accounts of the disaster and its immediate aftermath, but every account editorialises on the incident, on the USSR and Russian character, and so provides a rich and deep portrait. I’ve heard it said Alexievich “embellishes” the testimonies she collects, but I was under the impression going in that Chernobyl Prayers was on the borderline between fact and fiction, and that’s an area I enjoy exploring in literature. So I consider that a value-add, not a criticism. I’ve since added Alexievich’s next book, Second-Hand Time, to my wishlist.

1001 Books you Must Read Before You Die count: 129


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Moving pictures 2017, #2

The resolutions for film-watching seem to be working. There’s only one US film in this lot and, while it wasn’t on the list I’m using, it is on some other ones. And it wasn’t that bad either.

man_movie_cameraKino-Eye, Dziga Vertov (1924, USSR). Vertov is best-known for his Man with a Movie Camera, an astonishing piece of silent meta-cinema made in 1929. Eureka! recently released a new edition of that film, dual format, featuring some of the Vertov’s other works. Vertov apparently had… strong ideas about cinema and its uses, using it to document “film truth”, which, as Wikipedia has it, has “fragments of actuality which, when organized together, have a deeper truth that cannot be seen with a naked eye”. It perhaps appears an obvious truth these days, no matter what media, but in 1920s Soviet Russia it seems somewhat ironic, especially given some of the “embellishments” of actual events Eisenstein reputedly incorporated into his films. But the idea of making films with an agenda, with more than just an aim “to entertain”, I certainly find appealing. Art is a powerful tool, even if it’s chiefly used for the most trivial of purposes. In Kino-Eye, Vertov perhaps set his sights a little high – Wikipedia again: he believed “his concept of Kino-Glaz would help contemporary ‘man’ evolve from a flawed creature to a higher, more precise form”. Which, to me, smacks of Fyodorovism, or at least a form of it stripped of its spiritual dimension. No matter what his motives, in Kino-Eye, Vertov gives us a silent documentary of life in the USSR in the early 1920s, featuring a number of, for the time, novel cinematic techniques, such as montages and, er, running the film backwards. I’m not entirely sure what message the latter is intended to convey, especially the sequence where a bull is slaughtered… which is then run in reverse and so shows the butcher stuffing the bull’s organs into its body and the bull miraculously coming to life. Nonetheless, Kino-Eye is a fascinating slice of life of a time and place that has long since passed, and it is somewhat scary to realise that the lives of the Russian poor have not substantially changed, despite a century of progress, despite eighty years of socialism… And, of course, extremely disheartening.

women_in_loveWomen in Love, Ken Russell (1969, UK). I’d been meaning to watch this after reading the book, so when I learned the BFI had put out a new edition on Blu-ray, I picked myself up a copy. I have yet to get a handle on Russell’s oeuvre – some of his films show a singular vision, some of them seem no more than polished examples of their type. And it’s saddening to think that some people think Russell’s vision was defined by films such as The Lair of the White Worm or The Fall of the Louse of Usher, especially when you consider films such as The Devils, Billion Dollar Brain and Crimes of Passion. And, of course, Women in Love. But there’s also Women in Love as an adaptation of a DH Lawrence novel. And it is not a novel that would be easy to adapt for cinema. Happily, Russell avoids the book’s bitterness, although Oliver Reed’s stiffness as Gerald Crich hints at some dissatisfaction somewhere, without making it clear whether it is Lawrence’s or the film-maker’s. Of course, Russell’s film is best-known for the nude wrestling scene between the aforementioned Reed and Alan Bates, who plays Lawrence stand-in Rupert Birkin, and it’s certainly a… striking scene. In a nutshell, Bates plays Lawrence, Jennie Linden plays his wife, Frieda, Glenda Jackson plays Katherine Mansfield, and Alan Bates her husband, John Middleton Murry. Bates is a wealthy mine-owner in Derbyshire, Jackson and Linden are sisters and schoolteachers, and Bates is a school inspector. At this point in Lawrence’s career, his admiration for the working class had turned sour, as indeed had his appreciation of the upper classes, after London society had turned its back on him. It’s obvious in the book, but it’s not even evident in the film. Russell does an excellent shop with the story he has been given, and if Lawrence’s acerbic prose has been diluted in its move to the screen, it doesn’t spoil Women in Love as a film qua film. It is, without a doubt, one of Russell’s best films, and it deserves the accolades it received, including: four Oscar nominations, one win; three golden Globe nominations, one win; and eleven BAFTA nominations. As an adaptation, its refusal to engage completely with its source material actually works in its favour. I am a big fan of DH Lawrence’s writing, and would of course recommend reading the novel. But Russell’s film is also very much worth seeing, just as much for what it adapts well as for what it doesn’t.

ghost_mrs_muirThe Ghost and Mrs Muir, Joseph L Mankiewicz (1947, USA). Gene Tierney is a widow, desperate to get out of her mother-in-law’s house and control, and so moves to the south coast to look for suitable accommodation for herself and her young daughter. But she doesn’t have much money, and when she spots a house going cheap in the book of the estate agent she has engaged, but he insists it is unsuitable for her… well, that only makes her determined to check it out. And the reason the house is cheap, it transpires, is because it is haunted by its previous owner, a retired sea captain played by Rex Harrison. But Tierney is determined to take no shit, least of all from a ghost, so she and Harrison come to an accommodation, she moves in, and everything goes, er, swimmingly. But money is tight, and tighter still when Tierney’s pension from her late husband’s share of a gold mine dries up completely. So Harrison suggests she write his memoirs. And that’s what they do. And a publisher buys them. And the book is best-seller. At the publisher’s office, Tierney meets George Sanders, an oleaginous writer of children’s books, who charms her. Harrison thinks he’s a wrong ‘un, but she thinks he will ask for her hand in marriage. Then she learns he’s already married… Whatever charm The Ghost and Mrs Muir possesses comes entirely out of its story. Tierney, always a face worth following on the screen, is never entirely convincing in her role but still manages to keep the viewer’s interest and sympathies. Harrison is gruff and old-fashioned, and perhaps a little too debonair for his role, but it’s all forgivable. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen this film on a list of great films somewhere – if not the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, then perhaps the They Shoot Pictures Don’t They one… and I can’t honestly see why it was there. It’s a charming story, played well and shot well, but it’s by no more than an above-average example of of its type.

satyajit_ray_3An Enemy of the People, Satyajit Ray (1990, India). I was impressed with Ray’s percipience in making this film, only to discover it’s an adaptation of a Henrik Ibsen play from 1882 – despite, frighteningly, being still relevant today, never mind in 1990 or 1882. In Ibsen’s original, a doctor discovers that the waters of the town’s bath are contaminated, but when he makes this known, those who stand to profit from the trade brought to the town by visitors to the bath set out to rubbish his findings. Ray adds religion to the mix, inasmuch as the contaminated water is in a temple, and bolsters the story with a little of science – drinking the water from the temple could give a person hepatitis. But the story pretty much remains the same. The doctor – Dr Gupta in Ray’s film – tries to publish his findings in the local newspaper, but his brother, head of the local municipality, brings pressure to bear to prevent it. In desperation, Dr Gupta arranges a talk at a local university… but his brother fills the audience with his stooges and manages to turn public opinion against Dr Gupta. After all, how can water provided by a god make people ill? (Don’t get me started.) Ray’s treatment of his material is very low-key. The film consists almost entirely of interiors, and the camera placement is more suitable to that of a TV series than a feature film. But the material is certainly deliberately infuriating, especially the debate in front of the students, and it’s all too easy to extrapolate An Enemy of the People‘s story to the present day. In fact, it’s scarily prescient. Even more so, when you consider Ibsen wrote it in 1882.  Ray doesn’t have the sense of the mythic about his films that Ghatak does, but his films are more personal and more, well, theatrical.

une_femmeUne femme est une femme, Jean-Luc Godard (1961, France). One day I will have a theory about Godard’s oeuvre that works, but for now my present theory is plainly nonsense. This is a colour Godard film, it’s also one clearly prompted more by his relationship with star Anna Karina than it is anything else, and yet it still manages to hang together and work reasonably well. Okay, so it’s pretty much Godard taking the piss throughout with musical cues – in fact, the entire film is a lesson in how to annoy the viewer using only musical cues. There’s a silly argument at one point, which is what most people seem to remember from the film, in which boyfriend and girlfriend Jean-Claude Brialy and Karina continue an argument by showing each other words from the titles of the books they own. Karina and Brialy are an item, she wants children, he insists only once they’re married but doesn’t ask her to marry him. It’s a silly, and constrained, personal drama, whose fame chiefly seems to rest on Godard making such a to-do about Karina, his girlfriend of the time (they married after the film had completed). Plot-wise, Une femme est une femme is as thin as you can get and still manage 85 minutes of running time. It pretty much relies entirely on the charm of its cast. Karina is, strangely, variable. Brialy is good throughout. And Belmondo wins every scene he appears in. As Godard films go, this feels more like a five-finger exercise, and whatever boundaries it pushes seem more accidental than part of the reason why Godard made the film in the first place. I suspect my new Theory of Godard looks something like: when Godard is making a point, it’s likely to be a good film; but when Godard is more interested in his cast, or one member of the cast, then it’s not…

behemothBehemoth, Zhao Liang (2015, China). I forget where I stumbled across Zhao’s name, perhaps linked with Jia Zhankge’s, but I stuck one of his films on my rental list, and it duly arrived and… this is bloody good stuff. In fact, I thought it was Zhangke when I started watching it, but it looked so unlike his movies that I was briefly confused. But. For a start, Zhao Liang chiefly makes documentaries, whereas Jia Zhangke’s films only resemble documentaries. In Behemoth, Zhao Liang documents China’s open-cast coal mining and those whose survive by pirating coal from the edges. Zhao does this odd thing where he splits the screen but in such a way that the splits are not immediately obvious, as if the screen is a triptych of linked scenes. It is weird, but effective. He also has a naked male figure who appears in many scenes and quotes from classical Chinese literature… and that description sounds completely different to how it actually appears in the film. I put Behemoth in the DVD player expecting something like A Touch of Sin, but  I found myself watching something very different and, if not better than that film, certainly as good as it. I immediately put Zhao Liang on my list of directors to watch. You should too.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 843


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Moving pictures 2017, #1

The first film post of 2017. I’m not planning on watching as many films this year as last, since I’m hoping Ill be spending that time doing other things, like writing. I’m also going to try and watch two non-US films for every US one. I sort of managed it in this post – two US films, although admittedly one was a short, and the rest from the UK, Sweden, Italy and Russia.

meet_john_doeMeet John Doe, Frank Capra (1941, USA). The world was not a nicer place when Capra was making his films, but the solutions to its problems did seem so much easier to implement. And, of course, the same obstacles to those solutions existed then as now – greed, and the need for the rich to keep the poor in a place where they can control them and keep them poor. Meet John Doe is typical in that regard, so typical its story pretty much iterates that entire philosophy. A newspaper reporter, played by Barbara Stanwyck, is fired when a new owner takes over her newspaper. She retaliates by publishing a suicide letter in her last column, in which a “John Doe” promises to leap from the newspaper building because of man’s greed and inhumanity to man. The new owner likes the letter, so much so it prompts a hunt for a real John Doe. And Garry Cooper, a homeless ex-baseball player, is cast in the part. Cooper’s homespun neighbourliness strikes a chord, and people form John Doe clubs… and next thing you know there’s an entire political movement wrapped around it. Except the John Doe Clubs refuse to allow politicians as members. But then the newspaper owner who backed the campaign reveals he had planned to use it all along to create a third political party under his control. And when Cooper objects, they monster him in front of  his followers at a rally in a stadium – because, well, they’re scumbags, because that’s what rich people do when they don’t get their way. The whole grassroots movement then falls apart, and Cooper is driven into hiding. But the sheep-like people eventually see the error of their ways and the John Doe clubs start reforming… There’s a lot in Meet John Doe that maps onto twenty-first politics, proving only, I guess, that twenty-first century politics is not all that much different to twentieth-century politics. The homespun neighbourliness Cooper sells doesn’t play in the present day, what with assorted demagogues whipping up xenophobic and racist hate for their own ends – stand up, Mr Farage, Mr Trump.  Of course, this is a Capra movie, and he was a master at leaving the viewer feeling good about life. Which is where, I suppose, his films differ from real life…

masters_of_venusMasters of Venus (1962, UK). I remember the Children’s Film Foundation films you used to see at the cinema before the main feature, although this one predates me by quite a bit and was apparently shown on telly anyway. But it sounded worth a punt, so I stuck it on my rental list… and so it arrived and… it was pretty much completely as expected: the sort of science fiction film and television churned out until the late 1960s, and which never really convinced but then no one ever expected it to. A teenage boy and girl often visit their father’s work – he’s a rocket scientist, in charge of the first flight to Venus. On one particular visit, two sinister agents of an unknown power – they have six fingers on their hands, so it’s clearly not the Soviets – try to sabotage the rocket. They succeed in sabotaging the control centre, but the rocket – with two of its crew and the two teenagers – launches prematurely and sends the four off to Venus. Once they reach Venus, something seizes control of the rocket and prevents them from returning to Earth. The two astronauts investigate, and are captured by Venusians. So it’s up to the two kids to rescue them. Venus was apparently colonised by people from Atlantis and they’re afraid of conquest by Earth. There are two factions, Men of Action and Men of Science, and the former plan to destroy Earth to safeguard Venus. The latter would sooner reach an accommodation. Once on Venus, the story pretty much runs along well-established rails – captured, escape, captured again, find allies among Venusians, escape, turn tables, save the day, etc, etc. It’s fun, in a very dated sort of way, and does sort of make you pine for the simpler days of science fiction and story-telling. I mean, watching it fifty-plus years later as an adult, you’re going to get a different experience, and nostalgia is going to be ninety-nine parts of it. Which sounds a little like damning with faint praise as, like most of the Children’s Film Foundation’s output, Masters of Venus is well-made, pacey, and ticks (for the time) most of the right boxes. It’s an historical document, no denying that, but given that perspective it’s worth seeing.

maya_derenAt Land, Maya Deren (1944, USA). After watching Meshes of the Afternoon by Deren and Alexander Hammid, I had a look round on Youtube and it seems most of Deren’s output is on there. There’s been some controversy over who exactly contributed the most to Meshes of the Afternoon, with it generally being seen as chiefly Deren’s work, but Stan Brakhage claiming that Hammid was mostly responsible for it. But given that Deren went on to make nearly a dozen further films, and Hammid only made two more, and she spent decades lecturing on film-making, she’s clearly the more important figure of the two in American avant-garde cinema. And At Land, which has only her name attached, is not dissimilar to Meshes of the Afternoon in approach. It opens with reversed film of Deren emerging from the sea, but then she finds herself at a dinner party. There’s a chess game between two women on the beach, and lots of rolling around in the sand. It’s all completely silent – as was, in fact, Meshes of the Afternoon, until a soundtrack by Teiji Ito, who was married to Deren at the time, was added in 1959. I’m enjoying my delves into avant-garde cinema, although, to be honest, I’m not big on symbolic story-telling in the medium. I guess in that respect it’s little different to my taste for plain prose – prose claire, if you will – inasmuch as I’m all for evoking strangeness, but through the use of clear imagery. And, while Deren’s films are striking, I’m not sure I agree with obfuscation of story by telling it through symbolic imagery. It should be a value-add, not the be-all and end-all. Nonetheless, I plan to watch more of Deren’s films. If I can find them…

classic_bergmanSawdust and Tinsel, Ingmar Bergman (1953, Sweden). The title is a bit of a clue – and the DVD cover art would be even more of one, but my copy was part of the box set depicted – but this movie is set in a circus. But it’s not a happy movie. Well, it is a Bergman movie. Yes, yes, I know, he made some light-hearted comedies as well as his usual dour Nordic tragedies, but Sawdust and Tinsel falls firmly into the latter camp. A circus arrives in town, and the owner tries to patch things up with his ex-wife who lives in the town. But it goes badly, resulting in the man his current lover is having a fling with challenging the circus-owner and subsequently getting badly beaten up by him. There’s a certain flavour to Bergman’s films, no matter where they are set – a circus, a maternity ward, a holiday home – that tends to overpower any story he might tell. It’s not just the stark black and white cinematography, which is only true for about two-thirds of his oeuvre; or the “staginess” of many of his films, which give them the feel of theatre plays or literary short stories (although in a different fashion to, say, Orson Welles’s adaptation of Karen Blixen’s The Immortal Story). I’m not sure I’m a fan of Bergman’s work, although I’ve managed to collect quite a bit of it. Some of his films are blindingly good, and he amassed a hugely impressive body of work… but I’m not sure yet how much value I put on many of his works. I think I need to know him better, I need to rewatch some of the films I’ve watched, perhaps with some sort of structure or purpose. I think he deserves it, and I think it would be rewarding doing so. And, to be fair, there are not that many directors you could say that about.

saloSalò, or the 120 Days of Sodom*, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1975, Italy). I didn’t go into this film completely ignorant of what it would be like, which was just as well, as it’s a brutal and horrible film, and while it certainly makes some important points, it nonetheless makes for very uncomfortable viewing. During World War II, Salò, a town on Lake Garda, became the centre of Mussolini’s last fascist state, from 1943 to 1945. Then there’s the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom, which the title references, although the film takes place over three days. It all seems relatively innocuous at first. Four men, referred to only by their titles, take a group of teenagers, and then pretty much treat them and all those about them with a complete lack of morals. During a meal, for example, one of the soldiers starts to rape a waitress. There are repeated scenes of a woman telling stories of her past to an audience of the teenagers; sometimes she sings. It’s the end of the film which is most brutal. I’m squeamish, I freely admit it, and I dislike watching horrific scenes in films – in fact, I deal with them best when they’re obviously special effects (ie, pre-CGI). But even Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom tested by tolerance for squeam, particularly toward the end when many of the teenagers are physically tortured. Having now seen Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, I’m in two minds about the film. It’s a horrible film to watch, but it makes important points. Pasolini was an important director, and his work should be treated accordingly. Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom is also on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, amongst many others, so it’s clearly a film regarded highly by many… I’m glad I watched it, but I’m not so sure I could watch it again. And yet I find myself conflicted over buying the shiny new BFI Blu-ray release…

banishmentThe Banishment, Andrey Zvyagintsev (2007, Russia). This is the third Zvyagintsev film I’ve seen, after the earlier The Return and the later Leviathan. So I knew what to expect: glacial pacing, long static takes, close-ups on actors who barely change expression… And I like that sort of stuff, I really do. But for some reason The Banishment seemed like more of a watching ordeal than the other two films by Zvyagintsev I’ve seen. A family travel out into the country to spend time at his childhood home. The wife reveals she is pregnant, but the husband does not believe the baby is his. He forces his wife to have an abortion, but she deliberately overdoses on pain medication afterwards and dies. A flashback reveals that the baby was the husband’s, after all. There’s a subplot involving the husband’s brother, who is a gangster of some sort, and who turns up and then promptly has a heart attack – but there’s not much to it. The cinematography is gorgeous, with some beautiful shots of the Russian countryside (actually, not entirely Russian – The Banishment was filmed in France, Belgium, Moldova and Russia; in fact, the countryside home was built from scratch in Moldova. But never mind: we all know movie geography does not map onto the real world, and that an exterior shot of a building in movieland is not necessarily the location of the following interior shots…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 843


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Reading diary, #42

Well, the promised catch-up with female authors didn’t exactly happen, so 2016 ended with male authors just slightly ahead of female authors. Women will probably take back the lead in 2017. That seems to be the way it works…

where_my_heartWhere My Heart Used to Beat, Sebastian Faulks (2015). I’ve read each of Faulks’s novels as they’ve hit paperback, and I’ve never really worked out why I fastened onto him as a modern author to read. I think he’s much better than McEwan, who managed a couple of stonkers early in his career, but then Faulks’s career has never really matched Birdsong… although I thought the story of Human Traces danced about a pretty interesting idea… And that same idea sort of crops up in Where My Heart Used to Beat. Faulks has… odd ideas about consciousness, and the historical origin of human awareness. In a science fiction writer, they’d be understandable, if not even defensible. But Faulks writes lit fic. In Where My Heart Used to Beat, which is set in the 1980s, a UK doctor is invited to a small French island to meet a famous neurologist at the end of his life and career. The neurologist wants the doctor to be his literary executor, partly because he commanded his father during WWI and holds a secret about that, and partly because the doctor’s career hints that he might be receptible to the neurologist’s Big Idea. The narrative dips in and out of the doctor’s life, mostly focusing on WWII, when he was involved in the Allied invasion of Italy. During that time, he met a young Italian woman and weas convinced she was the love of his life; but she turned out to be married, and he never really recovered. And it’s the concept of love, and Faulks’s previously trotted-out theory on inter-brain communication, that provides the substrate for Where My Heart Used to Beat. It’s a very readable novel – Faulks’s prose is never less than readable – and a more coherent one that his last couple… but it doesn’t have the… weight of Human Traces, and so its central premise dosn’t in the slightest convince. Faulks produces polished middle-brow material, and he does it well, much better than McEwan – but every time I read one of his novels I find myself wondering why I continue to read him. I still don’t know.

hoddHodd, Adam Thorpe (2009). I have made a habit of picking up Thorpe’s novels when I see them in charity shops and I’m not entirely sure why. True, Ulverton was very good indeed – an English village’s history described through a variety of narrative forms – but the collection Shifts was, to be honest, a bit dull. But I have three or four of his books, and I grabbed this one to read over Christmas. Which I did. I knew it was about Robin Hood, a legendary figure I feel somewhat protective toward, given that I was born in Mansfield, which was once within the precincts of Sherwood Forest (in fact, there’s a plaque in Mansfield which declares the “dead centre” of Sherwood Forest was once at that spot). On the other hand, I’m well aware that Robin Hood is as real an historical figure as Jesus Christ. And, much as I love the 1938 Technicolor movie The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn in the title role, I know it has as much connection to real actual history as the Bible does – ie, none. Hodd is fiction, and clearly presented as fiction… but it’s also yet another version of Robin Hood. In this case, he’s a heretic who lives in the woods north of Doncaster, and his story is told as a manuscript, found by a British officer in a bombed-out church in Belgium during WWII, written by a ninety-year-old monk who was once “Much the Miller’s son” in Hodd’s band. It’s very cleverly done. There are footnotes by the officer who translated the manuscript, which explain some of the lesser known facts about mediaeval life (and also feature some editorial comments by him). The plot will come as no surprise to those who know the Hood legend, even if it’s only from the Flynn movie, and while Thorpe’s recasting of Hood as Hodd doesn’t seem to asdd all that much to the story, the way the story is presented definitely does. It put Thorpe back in my, so to speak, good books. Hodd is a clever and convincing historical palimpsest of a novel, and it’s a joy to see how well it is put together. Recommended.

starlightStarlight, Mark Millar & Goran Parlov (2014). So many English-language graphic novels and trade paperback collections involve over-entitled fascists in Spandex costumes. And if it’s not superheroes, it’s noir. Like that’s a new thing. I wanted science fiction. But I spent a good while perusing the English-language shelves of Faraos Cigarer in Copenhagen, and there was very little that appealed. Starlight looked like it might – a test pilot is pulled to another dimension, defeats a planet’s tyrant, Flash-Gordon-fashion, and returns to Earth… only to be disbelieved by all and sundry, and so treated as something of a joke by friends and family. Forty years later, his help is required again, this time to overthrow invaders who have enslaved the world. So back he goes, only to discover his legend has grown to a level he couldn’t possibly match it, especially now he’s four decades older. The brutal occupiers also consider him something of a joke, and the populace too weak to rise up under his leadership. The art has a nice pulp sf sensibility to it, although the story seems unable to decide if its hero is pulp sf hero or a superhero. In fact, that’s not the only thing that’s a little confused, as Starlight tries to gives its story a modern spin while at the same time throwing in references to early sf serials. So, tonally, it’s a bit all over the place. Good in parts, though.

beautiful_indifferenceThe Beautiful Indifference, Sarah Hall (2011). Unlike some people I know, I’m not a fan of Hall’s writing – but then, her writing is very tied to her region – Cumbria – so much so that many of the stories in this collection are written in local dialect, or use local dialect terms. They’re good stories, they’re polished stories. There are seven of them in The Beautiful Indifference, some of which are set in Cumbria, one of which is set in Finland. They’re worth reading, although fans of her writing will get more from them than I did. I found this book in a charity shop, and I’ll continue to keep an eye open for her works, but I do find her prose a bit too much in your face for my taste. I like my fiction distant and bolstered by fact, and I find it hard to accept a facility with local dialect as a substitute for fact. Or rather, I appreciate fiction that includes elements which can be looked up on Wikipedia, and while Hall’s use of Cumbrian dialect is, as far as I know, accurate, it adds only a thin wash of colour to the stories, where a reference to a real event or thing defined in Wikipedia would add depth. But that’s a personal thing. Certainly, Hall is a good writer, and these are some polished pieces of work. Worth reading.

sagaSaga Volume 1, Brian K Vaughan & Fiona Staples (2012). Many people, many many people, have recommended this, and so I had initially avoided it. But there I was in Faraos Cigarer in Copenhagen, and I picked out Starlight as worth a read and all the graphic novels I really wanted were upstairs and by Moebius and in Danish… so I eventually succumbed and bought the first volume of Saga. I could have bought the Danish bandes dessinées by Moebius, of course, or even the hardback volumes of Valerian and Laureline, also in Danish, but it would mean learning a new language to read them, which seems daft when they’re originally French and that’s a language I can actually read (with a dictionary at hand, admittedly). Anyway, Saga… I didn’t like it. I really didn’t. It is allegedly a space opera, but there’s zero rigour to the setting, one side uses magic, there are a race of robots who have human bodies but TVs for heads, and people actually use mobile phones and apps. See, you have a man and a woman, from each side of a generational war – one lot have wings, the others have horns – and they have a child. Er, so why do you need science fiction to tell this story? I guess calling a race war story a “space opera” makes it more palatable to readers. And, of course, it means the story is not “politicized”. FFS. So there you have it: weak title, paper-thin allegory, paper-thin setting, and a total lack of rigour. Nice art, though.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 129