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Moving pictures 2017, #51

Sometimes the desire to not to watch Hollywood films gets a bit ouf of hand… The first US film in this post – well, I kind of enjoyed the first Guardians of the Galaxy as it wasn’t an awful piece of crap like the other MCU films… One-Eyed Jacks, on the other hand, was just ticking another film off the list… or maybe not.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, James Gunn (2017, USA). I remember the Guardians of the Galaxy: there was StarHawk, who was a gestalt being comprising a man and a woman, and there was Charlie-27, who was short and squat and super-strong because he was born on Jupiter or something, and Martinex, who was made out of crystal because he was from an Outer Planet, and there was the blue-skinned guy who could direct his arrows with a whistle, and the ancient Earth astronaut, who was encased in a special skintight metallic suit that apparently left his mouth, nostrils and and eyeballs exposed, and who knows what other orifices, and who went by a variety of superhero names throughout his career, and… Well, none of that has anything to do with the reboot, which is what the film franchise is based on. Yondu, the blue-skinned guy with the arrow is there, but he’s not actually one of the Guardians, and the rest have been written out. Now it’s all about a wise-cracking half-alien guy from Earth and his daddy issues. Only, in this case, daddy is a planet. No, really. Okay, so he manifests as Kurt Russell, but he’s really a planet. Big round thing, with an angry looking brain in the middle. Just like, er, Earth. The first Guardians of the Galaxy was entertaining, if dumb, and I’d expected more of the same from the sequel. Except it seems to have dialled up the dumbness without doing the same for the entertainment. The characters are reduced to ciphers, the daddy-issues plot overwhelms everything, and there’s no forward direction presented for the franchise. It’s not a mis-step, it’s a step backwards. The first film made a lot of capital out of its soundtrack, and its justification for that soundtrack. That’s all the sequel has going for it. Avoid.

One-Eyed Jacks, Marlon Brando (1968, USA). I thought this was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list, but it turns out it’s on one of the iterations of the list but not the 2013 one I’ve been using. And, to be honest, the only notable thing about One-Eyed Jacks is that it’s the only film directed by Marlon Brando. Brando plays one of a group of three bank-robbers whose last job goes awry. He’s captured by Federales, but manages to break out of jail five years later. And goes hunting for his compadre (the third died in that last bad bank raid). Said compadre is now a sheriff in San Diego, with a nubile daughter and a position to protect. Cue yawn. The history of this film is more interesting than its story: it was originally going to be directed by Stanley Kubrick, from a script by Sam Peckinpah. That would have been a mouth-watering western. Instead, we have a Brando vanity project. Because that’s all it is. I’ve never really understood why he has the reputation he has. When I first heard his voice, I assumed it was put on for his character; but no, he really does sound whiny whatever character he plays. And at 141 minutes, One-Eyed Jacks overstays its welcome by a good 50 minutes. There’s nothing special about this western – and the copy I watched was a terrible transfer – and I’m mystified why it made any iteration of the 1001 Movies you Must See Before you Die list.

Vanishing Waves, Kristina Buožytė (2012, Lithuania). I think I saw a trailer for this on another rental DVD – probably the only other Lithuanian film I’ve watched so far – and it looked interesting and was science fiction, so… Comparisons with Ken Russell’s Altered States are, I suspect, inevitable, if only because both films use sensory deprivation tanks as plot enablers. But in Vanishing Waves, the plan is to put their volunteer in a sensory deprivation tank and synchronise his brain waves with those of a young woman in a coma. The plan is more successful than anticipated, as he enters a dreamlike state where he interacts in some strange dream world with a young woman. It’s only after several sessions that he realises he is communicating with the comatose woman, and that the sessions offer a chance of waking her. The scientists running the project are concerned, because they’re not getting the results they expected, and they’re sceptical of the volunteer’s claims – especially when both volunteer and comatose women go into cardiac arrest during one session. The project is presented in that sort of dry corporate way, with lots of visible money, that the movie world seems to think how science is done. The dreamstates, however, are completely different, and effectively done. Worth seeking out.

Carla’s Song, Ken Loach (1996, UK). Ken Loach is not, I think, a great director. But he has a great body of work, and a couple of his films aspire to greatness. Not this one sadly. But to produce such a consistently left-wing body of work over nearly five decades is certainly something worth celebrating. Ken Loach may not have directed the best British film of the last fifty years – and there’s a contentious topic! – but he has directed an oeuvre that is impossible to ignore, that is good for all the right reasons, and yet has had disappointingly little effect. I, Daniel Blake earned scorn from a couple of right wing journalists but since the right-wing press can’t muster a single functioning brain cell among the lot, that means nothing. True, it was a flawed film, but it presented a cogent argument and made an important point. Carla’s Song is from what feels like another era, a time when left wing protest meant supporting communist regimes against US-backed right-wing insurgents. It’s set in 1987 and Robert Carlyle plays a Glaswegian bus driver with an attitude problem, who falls in love with a Nicaraguan refugee. But she has a dark secret: a lover back home whose fate is unknown. So the pair travel to Central America, and Carla’s home town to find out what happened to him. And Carlyle discovers he can’t handle the constant violence, while Carla realises she has to stay. Carlyle’s character doesn’t come across well, either too belligerent or too whiny; and the contrats between commonplace aggressive acts in Glasgow and the war between the Sandinistas and the Contra feels a bit laboured. But Oyanka Cazebas plays the title role with quiet dignity, and the location shooting is effective. Loach’s films are usually worthing seeing, some more so than others.

The Fabulous Baron Munchausen, Karel Zeman (1961, Czech Republic). I consider myself suitably embarrassed for not having this on my rental list until David Tallerman recommended it, although I really should have done. It is, so to speak, right up my street. But… Baron Munchausen… like the world really needs a another run at the story. When, in fact, it should have made do with this one. It opens with an astronaut landing on the Moon, only to be greeted by three men in old-fashioned dress: characters from Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon. They’re then joined by Bran Munchausen. Who takes the astronaut with him to visit the Sultan in eighteenth century Turkey, where they both fall in love with his daughter and take her with them… A series of mad adventures then follow, including the three stuck on a ship swallowed by a whale, Munchausen riding a cannonball to spy on enemy troops during a siege, the astronaut building a steamship, only for it to explode… But it’s the animation and effects which make this film so good. It’s well, it’s Czech animation.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 880

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Reading diary, #54

I’m slowly picking up on my reading, partly I think because I really enjoyed a recent reread of Gwyneth Jones’s Aleutian trilogy. I mean, I’d remembered the books as good, but I’d been starting to forget what reading good intelligent sf was like. Although not all of the sf I’ve read recently would qualify as that…

The Dancers of Noyo, Margaret St Clair (1973, USA). Okay, I admit it: I bought this because of the cover art. It was at the Eastercon, and it was like a quid. And I knew I could review it for SF Mistressworks (when I resurrect the blog, that is). I’d previously read a collection by St Clair, and some of her other stories in various women-only anthologies, but I think this was by first novel by her… And it wasn’t at all what I expected. In fact, it read more like Doris Piserchia than the St Clair I’d expected. The story is set after a plague – world-wide possibly, US-wide certainly; it’s hard to tell with US sf novels – in a California which has returned to a tribal agrarian culture. Sort of. The protagonist, Sam McGregor, is a bit of a rebel and doesn’t understand why the young men of the tribe must always dance under the instruction of the android Dancer. So he’s sent on a Grail Quest, which means driving down the coast in search of some sort of epiphany. Instead, he begins to relive the lives of people from earlier times, including a dead young woman being autopsied, and the inventor of the androids. To be honest, not a single bit of this novel made the slightest fucking sense. McGregor meets up with the daughter of the android inventor, who also appears to have something to do with “bone melt”, the disease which basically depopulated California, or the US, or the world. St Clair seems to have no clear idea of her story or what she wants to say. The result is a novel that doesn’t read so much as if St Clair made it up as she went along but more like a novel she couldn’t be bothered to turn into sense. It was her last.

Valerian and Laureline 18: In Uncertain Times, Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin (2001, France). Our two heroes are still wandering the galaxy after the loss of Galaxity and, well… When a graphic novel opens with a plot diagram that makes Primer look like a straightforward narrative… Because Galaxity’s disappearance was caused by God, who lives on Hypsis with His layabout son and Whose fortunes have been declining because humans no longer worship Him… But making Galaxity never exist means Earth will now be destroyed in the 27th Century, which is even worse. So God has to go back in time and sort of undo things, along the way preventing a multinational corporation from building for themselves a godlike creature. And this somehow involves Valerian and Laureline, because Laureline’s origin (revealed in the very first book in the series) is pivotal. Or something. One of these days I’m going to have read this series in one long binge – or at least the story arc that began with Galaxity’s disappearance in volume 11, The Ghosts of Inverloch. It’s good stuff, and fascinating sf, but I’m starting to lose track of the story-arc… And there’s no way Besson could have adapted these last few volumes.

Phoenix Café, Gwyneth Jones (1997, UK).. This is the final book of Jones’s Aleutian trilogy, after White Queen and North Wind (see here), and, as can be seen, just as well-served as those books by Gollancz’s art department. The story is set a century after the events of North Wind, and the Aleutians are preparing to return to the home world. They have the Buonarotti Device, and they’ve fitted it to their worldship. Unfortunately, it seems the Device doesn’t really work for humans – they can certainly travel somewhere else instantaneously, but their time at their destination has all the concreteness of a dream. Fortunately, it works perfectly well on Aleutians. (By the time of Spirit, Jones’s last published novel, and also set in the same universe, the problem seems to have been solved for humans.) The Gender Wars have pretty mcuh split humanity into two antoginstic blocs: Women (Reformers) and Traditionalists (Men). Men believe in traditional gender roles, and keep their women veiled. The Reformist agenda is less clear. The protagonist is Catherine, a “descendant” of Clavel (the Aleutians are serial reincarnators) engineered before birth to be human. Which presents a problem: because the serial reincarnation is partly learned and requires the total immersion in the Aleutian chemical communication medium, and Catherine obviously lacks the biology to read or generate such communication. In North Wind, Clavel was Bella a half-Aleutian/half-human hybrid, but as Catherine, who is fully human, Clavel can finally atone for the rape of Johnny Guglioli in White Queen, which kicked off three hundred years of Aleutian rule, and arguably led to the Gender Wars and the destruction of the environment. Like the other two books in the trilogy, Phoenix Café is a darker novel than I remembered it. There’s a hardness, almost a brutality, to the way the characters treat each other and themselves, and in places it makes the book a difficult read. And yet, there’s a fierce intelligence in the novel too, a sense that there’s far more going on than appears on the page. Gwyneth Jones is my favourite science fiction writer, and I consider her one of the best this country has produced, but it’s good to remind myself of that at times by rereading her books.

Party Going, Henry Green (1939, UK). The novel opens with a middle-aged woman entering a London railway station (I don’t think it’s named) and finding a dead pigeon. She picks up the corpse, takes it into the ladies’ toilets, washes it, and then wraps it in brown paper. She’s not entirely sure why. And after she bumps into the young woman she is there to meet (she was in service with her family as a nanny), she throws away the dead pigeon. But then she goes and retrieves it from the bin. The young woman is there to meet up with a bunch of friends who are all heading for the south of France on the boat-train. However, thick fog has closed down the station, and no trains are running. So after the party has gathered, they head into the station hotel to wait for the fog to lift. At which point, the ex-nanny is taken ill (it’s not clear if she’s just had too much to drink or is genuinely ill). Meanwhile, the party settles down in a suite, and the banter begins – mostly focusing on two women and their relationship with the young playboy who’s funding the trip to the Riviera. The fog still hasn’t lifted by five o’clock, and all the commuters have turned up to find their trains home aren’t running. So the management seal off the hotel while the station concourse fills up with angry workers. Green’s prose is beautifully done. There’s very little in the way of exposition, and what there is comes naturally from the characters. The prose is sparse and clear, and often dispenses with definite articles or pronouns in a Modernist style. The characterisation comes purely from the characters’ words and deeds. Green neither shows nor tells. It’s up to the reader to plot what’s going on, to figure out the relationships between the characters, to work out the story-arc (and, to be fair, there usually isn’t one), and to make sense of the situations Green documents. I stumbled across this omnibus of three of Green’s novels in a charity shop and was intrigued by the description of him as “the best English novelist alive” (by WH Auden, in 1952). His prose is indeed superb, and I greatly admire its clarity and its refusal to compromise. The Modernism reads a little quaint these days, and I’d sooner novelists experimented with structure rather than grammar, but every writer worth their salt should try a Green novel at least once.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon (2000, USA). According to my records, I received this book as a Christmas present back in 2008. I’d read Chabon’s multi-award-winning The Yiddish Policemen’s Union that year, and thought it good. So I’m a little surprised it’s taken me nearly nine years to get around to The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Maybe I was put off by its size – 643 pages in this paperback edition. And, to be honest, the history of comics, or fiction about early comics history, doesn’t really interest me. Which is a shame, because The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is actually really good, much better in fact than The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. The eponymous duo are not comicbook superheroes but the creators of a comicbook superhero, The Escapist, who is as successful as Superman during the 1930s and 1940s. But The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is also about Jews in New York – particularly when Europe was fighting WWII – and American Nazis, and Kavalier’s family back in Prague after the country was invaded by Germany… It’s also about stage magic – Kavalier is an amateur magician and escapologist – and real magic – the story opens with a plot to move the Golem from Prague – and broken dreams – Clay’s great love is the actor who plays The Escapist first on radio then in a film serial, but Clay chooses a “normal” life instead. I’m not entirely convinced by Chabon’s prose. There are occasions when it seems over-egged – actually, most of the time it seems over-egged. Although it’s always very readable. A prose stylist, he is not. But the story he tells is completely engrossing (okay, the whole Golem plot-thread was completely unnecessary). Such as Kavalier’s war service in Antarctica – a completely bizarre detour, but entertaining and interesting. I don’t get the comicbook history elements – or rather, while they come across as convincing, they don’t seem like plausible precursors of the comics I read as a child in the 1970s. But then, back then, I read US comics infrequently, and UK comics followed the anthology model – either WWII-set, or comical (as in Beano and Dandy). Do you know how weird it was for a British kid of the 1970s to read a comic that contained only a single strip and it wasn’t even complete? Which I guess seems like an odd aspect to notice, given the other elements in the novel. But I have no equivalent experience in those areas and am more than willing to accept the authority of Chabon’s narrative. Which all sounds a bit like cavilling, when I don’t mean it to. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay was really very good indeed, and any infelicities in the prose style were offset by the novel’s breadth and depth. Recommended.

Solar, Ian McEwan (2010, UK). You know that old story about the bloke who buys some biscuits in a cafe, then sits at a table with a complete stranger. He eats one of his biscuits, and then is shocked when the other man takes one of the biscuits? McEwan turns that old chestnut into six-pages of over-baked prose in Solar. He later admits it’s a variation on an urban legend, the Unwitting Thief; but then so many parts of this books feel like variations on urban legends. McEwan also thinks airlines serve food on flights between London and Berlin – I didn’t think they bothered anymore for journeys of less than three or four hours, but perhaps I’m wrong. The protagonist is a womanising scientist who has been trading on his Nobel laureate for much of his career. He’s not so much a product of his time as a product of McEwan’s time, because he reads like a lecherous and sexist pig. His marriage is failing, his current job feels like a waste of time, and then he accidentally causes the death of his wife’s lover and frames his wife’s ex-lover for it, and uses it as a springboard to boost his own career. There’s some solid argument for anthropogenic global warming and against all the dumb climate change deniers, but everything esle in the novel is sadly quite bad. The protagonist is unlikeable, the female characters are badly drawn, elements of the plot seem to have been lifted from snopes.com, and there are assorted rants against “postmodernism” – which it is not: McEwan is just ranting against critics of male white privilege. I was much impressed by McEwan’s earlier novels when I read them back in the 1990s, but this century I’ve found them increasingly disappointing. Saturday, in fact, I thought awful. I only continued to read him out of a misplaced sense of loyalty. But after Solar, I purged my TBR of McEwan’s novels and I’ll no longer bother reading him. Life is too short.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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Moving pictures 2017, #50

Not so much of a geographical spread this time, with two films from the US. One of the US films is especially timely, despite being more than seventy years old.

Keeper of the Flame, George Cukor (1943, USA). An American hero, Robert Forrest, is killed in a car crash, and the nation mourns. Journalist Spencer Tracy is intrigued by the response of the family, especially widow Katherine Hepburn, and decides to dig deeper… only to discover the dead man had been using his wealth to build a fascist organisation bent on seizing control of the country. Sound familiar? This is not a great film: Tracey is coasting, Hepburn was desperate after a couple of duds, and the final act is muddled and relies too much on a massive infodump. But the idea of a populist leader courting fascists to gain power – I’m talking about Trump, just in case you’re too dim to spot the resemblance – is certainly something that resonates now. Forrest’s death is initially presented as an accident – he died when a bridge on his estate gave way during a fierce storm… but was the bridge sabotaged? The focus on the truth behind Forrest’s death pretty much dictates the plot for much of the film’s length, but it’s a red herring – he was killed because of his plans, and that’s where the film’s focus should have been. Disappointing.

Kurotokage, Kinji Fukasaku (1968, Japan). When I saw this film was based on a story by Edogawa Rampo, I thought the name was a Japanisation of Edgar Allen Poe. But it turns out there really was a Japanese writer called Edogawa Rampo, although, yes, it was a pen name and it is indeed a rendering of Poe’s name. Rampo was a seminal writer in Japan’s mystery genre, and the story of Kurotokage (AKA Black Lizard) is one of his. The title refers to the head of a criminal organisation, played in the film by female impersonator Akihiro Maruyama, who kidnaps a jeweler’s daughter as part of a plan to steal the jeweler’s most famous piece. It’s the sort of 1960s thriller tosh the Italians churned out by the yard and the Americans managed to avoid because New Hollywood got in the way – none of which means it’s not entertaining. Isao Kimura as the detective Akechi is smooth and perhaps too much of a stereotype, but Maruyama plays a good villain; and the improbable convolutions of the plot manage to stay just the right side of sense. And it all looks very 1960s, Japanese-style, which is a plus. Wikipedia claims the film is not available on DVD, and it certainly took me several years before I found a copy – but yes, there is a DVD release, Japanese but with English subtitles, it just takes a bit of searching to find. Not a great film, but one worth seeing.

Melody Time, Jack Kinney, Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske & Wilfred Jackson (1948, USA). During WWII, Disney trotted out a series of anthology films designed chiefly to keep its studio of animators in work. Which is not to say that every segment in this particular film feels like makework. It’s all very dated and of its time, true, and some of the animation is not as good as other works from Disney’s heyday. But a lot of it is very good, even if it’s sometimes unsure of what register it should be in – so the story about the two lovers who go ice-skating can’t decide on melodrama or comedy; and it’s not the only one. The animation is mostly of the same sort of design as that of Sleeping Beauty, probably my favourite Disney film… but the last segment of Melody Time‘s seven sequences is a mix of live action and animation, featuring Roy Rogers and his horse Trigger. It comes across like the sort of kids’ programme you’d expect 1040s American television to have produced – albeit in colour – with an earnest adult celebrity earnestly patronising a group of credulous kids that were clearly cast for their looks and their ability to look and sound credulous. I actually enjoyed the film, and took it for what it was, an historical document,

A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, Ben Rivers & Ben Russell (2013, UK). So, after watching The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes are not Brothers, I went and bought everything else Rivers had done that was available on DVD. A Spell to Ward off the Darkness is actually a collaboration with American film-maker Ben Russell – and the DVD includes Russell’s 2013 short, Let Us Persevere in What We Have Resolved Before We Forget. A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness follows musician Lichens on an island off the Estonian coast, in a forest in northern Finland, and as vocalist at a gig in Norway for a black metal band created for the film. The print is crisper than Rivers’s earlier Two Years at Sea – I’m guessing he didn’t use the same production technique and develop it at home – although there’s a similar love of static shots of steaming forests. This is another film where the landscape plays an important role, and I am a big fan of films that make effective use of landscape. I said in an earlier Moving pictures post that in a Rivers film plot was treated as an “emergent phenomenon”, and while A Spell to Ward off the Darkness was clearly and consciously constructed to tell a story – it has three parts! – it displays that same plotlessness. So there’s that dichotomy between a deliberately-designed narrative and the appearance of no narrative – and I like that narrative design can include the possiblility of no narrative, that some people actively seek to tell stories in ways that seem to disobey most rules of narrative. With someone like Rivers, I find I value his work for its cinematography – often excellent, but occasionally clichéd – and for its refusal to follow cinematic narratives.  I’m interested in narrative structures, both in film and fiction, which probably explains why I find Godard so fascinating and commercial fiction so dull. Rivers is that odd beast, an artist working in narrative cinema – which presents its own set of problems and its own reasons for appeal. I shall certainly be following his career from now on.

Splendid Float, Zero Chou (2004, Taiwan). Not sure where I came across mention of this film, but I had to buy a Chinese DVD from eBay in order to see it. And… yes, it was worth it. A young man spends his days as a Taoist priest and his nights as a drag queen on a travelling float. One night, he meets a fisherman and the two fall in love. He later learns the fisherman has died in mysterious circumstances, and determines to discover the truth of his death. But this isn’t a murder-mystery, it’s more a study of the priest’s grief. It would feel like a Taiwanese version of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – an over-rated film, I think – if it focused chiefly on the eponymous, er, float. But it doesn’t. While it presents a mystery regarding the fisherman’s death, it doesn’t make a serious attempt to resolve it. As a Taoist priest, the young man is asked to officiate at a ceremony to pacify the young man’s spirit – and it’s there where the heart of the film lies. For the ceremony to be effective, it needs an article of clothing worn by the deceased. The mother and grandmother have forgotten to bring something; the priest happens to be wearing a T-shirt given to him by the fisherman when last he saw him. There’s a slight weirdness in that the Taoist priest is presented a bit like an ambulance chaser, ie, occupying an office, with a manager, and having to chase up business in order to ensure everyone’s wages are paid. Chou is highly-regarded as a documentary film-maker, although she has also made nine feature films. There’s a joy to Splendid Float, despite its subject, which many films of its like fail to achieve. I might start looking for more of Chou’s films…

Je vous salue, Marie, Jean-Luc Godard (1985, France). After damning Godard with faint praise in a previous Moving pictures post, I found the cinematography in Je vous salue, Marie really very fetching. In fact, I think it might be one of my favourite Godard films – after Le mépris and Two or Three Things I Know About Her (and no, I don’t know why I keep on using the translated title for the latter). The story is a pretty blunt retelling of the Virgin Birth, with college dropout boyfriend Joseph and Uncle Gabriel, a rich uncle who jets in and tells Marie she will become pregnant. The film was unpopular with the religious lobby, chiefly because of full-frontal nudity in such an obvious Biblical retelling. One irate viewer at Cannes apparently threw a shaving cream pie at Godard. There’s some lovely nature photography in the film, much more noticeably than in any other Godard film I’ve seen, and although it’s a terrible cliché to use nature’s variety as illustrative of God’s purpose, Godard frames the epiphany entirely from the title character’s viewpoint. I’ve now watched Je vous salue, Marie several times and I’m still trying to work out if it’s Godard’s masterpiece. Le mépris is an obviously excellent piece of film-making, and it’s plain from the first frame. Two or Three Things I Know About Her I admire because it breaks so many of the rules of narrative cinema. But Je vous salue, Marie… I tweeted while watching it that Godard had done more to expand the language of cinema than any other director, and, okay, the comment was prompted by watching this film after a glass or two of wine… But, ignoring those directors from the very early days of film-making who basically wrote the language of narrative cinema, then, yes, I think Godard has done more to expand narrative cinema than any other director of narrative cinema. US experimental and avant-garde cinema, such as that by Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren or Bruce Baillie, doesn’t seem to have impacted commercial cinema much, if at all; European avant-garde directors tended to get subsumed into the mainstream. Of course, these days, there are also artists who use video, or video installations (the distinction is important), as their medium, such as Richard Mosse, Ed Atkins or Cécile B Evans, all of whose work I’ve recently found fascinating. Je vous salue, Marie is Godard doing commercial narrative cinema after many years away from it, and I’m still not sure what to make of it – its use of the female experience, its Biblical story-line, its nudity, its nature photography, its classical music soundtrack, its topic… There’s too much in there I’ve seen explored by other directors I admire, and while I don’t believe one or the other is an homage to one or the other, or a reference, or even a straight borrowing, it intrigues me they’ve all pulled the same tools out of the toolbox to tell different stories. Je vous salue, Marie is not one of Godard’s best-regarded films: I think that might be wrong.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 880


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The future we used to have, part 31

The Cold War may have ended when the Berlin Wall fell, but the Orange Baboon in the White House seems set on bringing us closer to nuclear armageddon than at any time during the twentieth century. But what can you expect from a man with no morals and no brains? Once upon a time, however, the future was a bright and shining place, full of jetpacks and holidays on the Moon. Things will get better, they said; and so they have, but as William Gibson famously put it, it’s just not evenly distributed. And getting progressively unequal with each passing year as the oligarchs drive us into indentured servitude. I used to mock the cyberpunks for their simplistic corporatised futures, and I won’t say they were in any way prophetic, but sometimes the news these days does feel like it comes from one of their novels. (Now, of course, I just mock them for their misunderstanding of technology.)

To be honest, the future wasn’t evenly distributed back in those days either. I wanted this post to show how people saw their lives in their futures, but it’s a very one-sided view. The Golden Age of American Futurism was 1958 to 1963, but all the futures it imagined were 100% white. And women were usually shown in supporting roles – as wives and mothers, or computer programmers (in those days, it was considered equivalent to secretary). Not every picture below is from that Golden Age – the earliest is 1939, the latest from 1973; and there’s a Japanese piece of art and two from the USSR. For future posts, I plan to look further afield: even if the future is unevenly distributed, dreams of it should not be.

A view of the Trylon at the 1939 World’s Fair, New York

1960s “House of the Future” ad from Motorola, art by Charlie Scridde

Computopia: a 1960s Japanese vision of a future classroom by Shigeru Komatsuzaki (notice kids getting bludgeoned by robots)

Closer Than We Think: computerised home learning, from an early 1960s series by Arthur Radeburgh

The cosmonauts have landed! From a 1960s USSR vision of 2017

A nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer from the 1960s

Western Electric advert, 1960s

Socialist Space Workers, 1973


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Moving pictures 2017, #49

Six films, six different countries. Much as I try to spread my viewing, it doesn’t always work out so well. A good mix of films too. And some pretty good films too.

Les rendez-vous de Paris, Éric Rohmer (1995, France). I’m still slowly working my way through Rohmer’s oeuvre, although I’ve no plans to “accidentally” buy a collection of his films one night after a glass or two of wine – and there are several available… although I have been tempted. But, while Rohmer’s films are very well made, none – except perhaps Love in the Afternoon – has especially taken my fancy. Les rendez-vous de Paris – one day I will have to decided on a standard for non-Anglophone films, either using the English translated title or the original language title – contains three stories based on the title. In one, a young woman arranges to meet a stranger, who she thinks might be the pickpocket who robbed her at a streetmarket, at a brasserie, only to discover her boyfriend there with another woman. In another, a woman meets with her literature teacher in a park. And in the third, an artist meets a young woman and pursues her, abandoning his date. The first story is most memorable, perhaps because of its ludicrous coincidences, but none of it really adds up to a memorable movie. One for Rohmer fans.

The Virgin Spring, Ingmar Bergman (1960, Sweden). And I’m still slowly working my way through Bergman’s oeuvre, although unlike Rohmer I’m buying Bergman’s films rather than renting them. It has got to the point now, however, as a friend pointed out, that each new Bergman film I watch is starting feel like a Bergman pastiche. In The Virgin Spring, a man in  mediæval Sweden sends his beautiful daughter to the nearest church with candles, accompanied by the daughter’s pregnant servant. En route, the two are separated, and the servant witnesses three herdsmen rape and kill the daughter but does nothing. The herdsmen then seek shelter, unknowingly, in the father’s house, but their crime is revealed when they try to sell the daughter’s clothes to the mother. This is grim stiff, and nods at Norse mythology do little to justify the grimness. Bergman favourites Max von Sydow, Birgitta Valberg and Gunnel Lindblom all appear – as father, mother and servant girl – and the scenes set in the Swedish forests – ie, the ride to the church – look more like the sort of woods you’d expect in a Shakespearean play on stage. Bergman has a body of work second-to-none, and it’s certainly worth working your way through it; but there are only a few stand-outs, and the rest do have a tendency to blur into a cheerless morass of Nordic grimness. One for Bergman fans.

Moana, Ron Clements & John Musker (2016, USA). I’ve no desire to completely ignore Hollywood, although I do ignore much of its output – and I often wonder why I don’t ignore more. But Moana seemed to have generally positive reviews, and despite being a kids’ animated film, the story appeared to be a little bit different. So I bunged it on the rental list, and in due time it popped through the letter box. And… well, I enjoyed it. The story is based on Polynesian mythology. Apparently, there was a period of about a thousand years when they stopped sailing across the sea. According to the film, this is because demigod Maui stole the heart of goddess Te Fiti, creating demon Te Ka in the process. But one thousand years later, chieftain’s daughter Moana is drawn to the ocean, and feels a need to sail beyond the reef. Which is how she ends up tracking down Maui and enlisting his help to find and return Te Fiti’s heart. Everyone who provided voices for the film is of Polynesian extraction – except for Alan Tudyk, who played the, er, chicken – and efforts were made to be as sensitive as possible to Polynesian culture. Moana still came under fire, however, for basing its ship designs on those of an existing island culture. I think the fact Disney made an effort, which would have been unthinkable ten years ago, is laudable. It seems churlish to criticise them for not getting it 100% right, but since I’m not one of the affected parties I guess it’s not my call. I did find the film entertaining, and the animation well done. Major animated films in the twenty-first century so far have proven a bit of a mixed bag, but Moana is definitely one of the better ones.

Accused, Jacob Thuesen (2005, Denmark). So the night before flying out to Copenhagen for Fantasticon, I decided to watch a Danish film. I could perhaps have chosen a more cheerful one. Er, had I more cheerful one on hand, that is. Although the DVD cover prominently features the phrase “Nordic noir”, Accused, well, isn’t. A happily-married couple have a troubled teenage daughter. Who claims her father sexually abused her several years before. He’s arrested and his daughter’s claims are investigated. But they can find no proof, and the daughter’s past history of lying tells against her. Of course, this is an area fraught with moral conundrums. Do you believe the victim, despite the lack of evidence, because of the power dynamics in the relationship? Or should there be a rigorous requirement for proof, and innocence assumed if it doesn’t exist? Because these are not crimes – especially when committed years before – that are likely to generate anything more than the most circumstantial of evidence, and much of that is going to be the psychological damage of the victims. Accused never makes it clear whether the father is guilty or not – the court returns a verdict of innocent because of insufficient evidence. But even that too exacts a toll no one can walk away from such an accusation unscathed even if they are completely innocent. Accused sits in the shadow of Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt, and comes close to it, despite having more the feel of a teleplay than a feature film.

Syndromes and a Century, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (2006, Thailand). This was the second Weerasethakul film I’ve watched – I’d previously seen Tropical Malady (see here), and had been in two minds about it. But I’d forgotten I had Syndromes and a Century on my rental list… at least I did until it arrived. Tropical Malady hadn’t quite worked for me – its two stories didn’t quite join up. Syndromes and a Century is more traditional narrative, although even then it’s not entirely traditional as it doesn’t have much in the way of a plot, if indeed any. The film is split into two parts – the first takes place in a rural clinic, the second in a Bangkok medical centre. Someone recently described Weerasethakul’s films to me as “very you”, and I assume they were referring to the fact they’re “slow cinema” and often light on plot. I’m not sure I’m entirely in tune with Weerasethakul’s artistic sensibilities yet, although I do find what I’ve seen so far intriguing. There’s a documentary feel to Syndromes and a Century, making it one of those movies that blurs the distinction between fact and fiction (much like Ben Rivers’s The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes are not Brothers, which actually depicts Oliver Laxe making a film that was later released as Mimosas). Of course, I’ve done the same in my own fiction, which is why it’s a boundary that interests me  – crossing fiction genre boundaries is boring, and people these days do it so uncritically, they’ve no fucking idea where the boundaries lie. But facts, everyone knows what facts are. Or at least, they used to. Until Trump and Brexit and moronic right-wingers with all the critical faculties of sea slugs, which breath through their anuses, not to mention the right-wing press… We need a better appreciation of facts, and fiction, ironically, is a good place to develop that appreciation.

Hera Pheri, Priyadarshan (2000, India). The DVD cover art is a bit misleading, although the film does revolve around three people – but it doesn’t involve them singing and dancing while playing a bizarre game of Twister. Although there were some very bizarre musical numbers… . Shyam has moved to the city to join a bank – he feels they owe him a job since his father died in a fire while working at the bank. But the job instead goes to a female candidate, Anuradha. Shyam goes to look for somewhere to live, has his pocket picked, and chases the man he thinks is responsible… Which he wasn’t. Later, he discovers that same man, Raju, a con man, is staying in the same house in which Shyam rents a room. Shyam tries various schemes to get the bank job, while Raju tells Anuradhu he will make sure she keeps it. Then the trio, plus landlord Baburao, stumble across a kidnapping plot when they get a wrong number. So they decide to insert themselves as middlemen, bump up the demanded ransom, and so make themselves millions of rupees. It does not go well. I’ve been doing quite well with my Bollywood choices so far, and while Hera Pheri was certainly entertaining, it wasn’t all that good – the comedy was too broad and repetitive, the whole kidnapping thing was ridiculous – and the fight scenes when the trio battle the kidnappers completely jumped the shark – and the two main male characters weren’t especially nice: boorishly entitled and whiny Shyam and lazy dishonest Raju. One for fans, I suspect.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 880


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Moving pictures 2017, #48

I’ve managed to knock the percentage of films I’ve watched since 2001 that are from the US down to 50.9%, but I’m still trying to get it below half. So far in 2017 alone, the percentage is much lower – only 26%, with the UK at 12%, China at 8%, France at 7% and so on… I’ve also watched movies from 52 different countries to date in 2017.

Into the Sea, Marion Poizeau (2016, UK). I found this on Amazon Prime, an hour-long documentary about an Irish surfboarder’s attempt to introduce the sport to Iran, specifically to Baluchistan, and, being female, using female contacts in Iran. I’ve watched a bunch of Iranian films, I’ve even visited the country (although it was back in the days of the Shah), so I have some knowledge of the country. And many of the obstacles met by Easkey as she tries to surf on the Baluchistani coast, with the help of snowboarder Mona and diver Shalha – and okay, I’d always thought Baluchistan was a part of Pakistan not Iran – came as no real surprise. However, the way the three women won over the local male authorities was a done really well, and the scenes of them teaching some of the area’s male youth to surf promised a brighter future. (Much as the young women of the local villages would have liked to surf, their families would not let them.) Surfing is not a sport, or a pasttime, I find interesting – like many sports, it’s more fun to do than to watch – and while Easkey’s mission may have been born out of a selfish desire to surf a coast no one has surfed before, what she actually achieved is so much more. In these days of normalised fascism and overt racism by world leaders, it’s nice to know that some people still believe in, and are successful in creating, bridges between different cultures. No matter what prompted it, or what the “bridge” is made from.

The Life of Oharu, Kenji Mizoguchi (1952, Japan). I found this box set on eBay and bought it because it includes an Ozu film that is not otherwise available. It classifies only two directors as “Japanese masters” – Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi… and while it’s hard to deny them their master status, it’s surely a title that should apply to more directors. The Ozu I couldn’t otherwise find is The End of Summer, which the BFI doesn’t appear to have released yet in the lovely dual format editions they have of Ozu’s other films (of course, now I’ve tracked down a copy, they’ll go and release it…). But The Life of Oharu is Mizoguchi, a director I do not esteem as I do Ozu, although David Tallerman repeatedly tells me he is very good and insists I watch his films… And having now seen The Life of Oharu (or O-haru), I can sort of see what he means. This wasn’t an especially good print, far too dark in places, and with a muddy soundtrack. One of the things I like most about Ozu’s films is that they’re ensemble pieces, where as Mizoguchi’s, if the titles are any indication, are not. And that’s certainly true of The Life of Oharu, which tells the story of its title character from the moment she’s exiled from her liege lord’s land for falling in love with a man of a much lower class (he gets beheaded). She’s then chosen to be the mother of another lord’s heir, but is sent home afterwards with a pittance. Her father had run up debts in expectation of her reward, and so sells her to a house of courtesans. But she fails at that too. There’s a heartbreaking scene near the end where Oharu is taken to meet her son, who has now taken over as lord on the death of his father. But all she’s allowed to do is watch him as he walks past with his entourage, and she’s told in no uncertain terms that her history is too embarrassing for him to ever acknowledge her as his mother. A depressingly grim film in places, but a good one.

The Hustler*, Robert Rossen (1961, USA). I’m not a Paul Newman fan, I’d much sooner watch Rock Hudson or Cary Grant or William Hurt, but The Hustler is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and there was a box set of four Newman films going for a couple of quid in an Amazon Prime Day or something a few months ago… so I bought it. And… meh. US critics seem to like films about working class types who try to better themselves, appear to succeed, but walk away with nothing more than their dignity battered. Because, of course, actually prospering would show up the American Dream for the hollow lie that it is. Newman plays the title role, a pool shark who meets his match in Jackie Gleason, but then goes away to improve his game and… well, the path to riches can never run smooth in the American Dream. Because it only really exists in cultural artefacts whose sole purpose seems to be to prove its existence by documenting its failures. If that makes sense. In a way, it helps mythologise those who do succeed in the real world – all the while helpfully obscuring just how much of an evil shit, or how bafflingly lucky, they were to succeed in the first place. None of which is especially relevant. Newman is beaten, he goes way, gets better, comes back, and humiliates Gleason. Along the way, some shit happens. There was apparently a Tom Cruise vehicle sequel a couple of decades later. I won’t be watching it.

Joi Baba Felunath, Satyajit Ray (1979, India). I mistakenly bought this thinking it was unavailable in the UK, only to then discover it’s in Artificial Eye’s Satyajit Ray Collection Volume 2, which is readily available. Oh well. I hope that version is a better transfer than this one. It didn’t help that the subtitles were often out of synch with the dialogue – and disappeared altogether in some parts of the film – so I was never really sure who was saying what (in one scene, you have to remember the subtitles from a dialogue-free scene some thirty seconds earlier to figure out what’s going on). And the movie had been encoded onto the disc as two films, one of 82 minutes and another of 23 minutes that began immediately after the first. Which was confusing. Joi Baba Felunath is an adaptation of a novel of the same title by Ray featuring his private investigator character Feluda. In Joi Baba Felunath, he is asked while visiting Benares to look into the theft of a valuable Ganesha figurine made of gold and jewels. The owner has a good idea who the thief is – a wealthy merchant who has asked several times to buy it – but he’s not sure. Feluda, with his cousin and a friend who writes detective novels, investigates. It’s not a convoluted mystery, and there’s no real urgency to Feluda’s quest – although a showdown with the villain does get threatening, and a murder later follows. It’s also a wholly male film, and there’s no soundtrack – although there are a couple of musical set-pieces. Joi Baba Felunath seems to be quite well-regarded in Ray’s oeuvre, but I thought it played more like a drama than the thriller its plot demanded.

Oh! What a Lovely War, Richard Attenborough (1969, UK). The title rang a vague bell, and I stumbled across this in a charity shop so it was doubtless worth a punt… The title refers to WWI and the film is an anti-war musical that tries to make palatable its points but instead makes light of them. The dialogue is, a pre-credit title card helpfully informs, taken entirely from published commentary by the historical characters depicted. Hindsight renders this somewhat less than shocking – we know WWI was a clusterfuck, and we know it was because of the clueless generals. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp tackles the same subject but far better. Oh! What a Lovely War, however, does have a fascinating cast list – pretty much everyone who was anyone in UK acting circles in 1969. And quite a few whose stars would not rise for several years, such as Ian Holm. It’s a typical Attenborough movie: big bold statement, colourfully presented, top-drawer cast, sentiments the audience have long since assimilated, and just enough whimsy in the staging to be eligible for an award… It was entertaining enough, but horror stories about WWI no longer have the shock value they did half a century ago, and frankly if anyone these days is shocked by Oh! What a Lovely War they must be a fucking idiot. Not a bad film, by any means, just one whose time has come and gone.

The Tenth Victim, Elio Petri (1965, Italy). I must admit, these Shameless releases are actually quite good. Well, perhaps “good” is not exactly the right word… But, you can’t go wrong with a well-made giallo, and the Italians certainly made enough of them for one or two to stand out. I was so taken with Footsteps on the Moon, also released on DVD by Shameless, that I bought my own copy. The Tenth Victim is famously based on a short story by Robert Sheckley, ‘The Ninth Victim’, and he later went and wrote two sequels to the film titled Victim Prime and Hunter/Victim. Ursula Andress and Marcello Mastroianni are contestants in a televised game in which the contestants try to stalk and kill each other. The hunter and victim are picked by computer. Andress has come up with an interesting spin: she will kill her victim on live television during a commercial by her sponsor. Which means it all has to be just right, and the repeated opportunities to kill Mastronianni which she fails to take persuade him she is not his hunter… It’s all complete tosh, of course, but it’s one of those movies which tries to project the future by filming in Brutalist/Modernist buildings of the time. It doesn’t always get it right – or even get it remotely close sometimes. But the misses are pretty cool, anyway. Mastroianni sleepwalks through his role, Andress is Andress. There’s not much in the way of surprises in the plot. This is a film that’s all about the look and the setting. And in that it’s pretty entertaining. I might try a few more of these Shameless releases…

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 880


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A kind of library

So I did the usual and went and bought me more books – mostly for the collection, but a favourite author also had a new novel out, and I went a little mad one evening after watching a film and purchased everything I could find by that film-maker…

… which was Ben Rivers. The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes are not Brothers (that’s the red one) was published to accompany the film of the same title. Ways of Worldmaking is about Rivers’s works. And then, on another night, fuelled by wine and Rivers’s Two Years at Sea, as I was writing about it for a Moving pictures post and comparing it with video art installations… and I remembered the excellent one I’d seen by Richard Mosse in the Hafnarhús site of the Reykjavik Art Museum last October… So I went looking online and found four books by Mosse. Both Richard Mosse  and Incoming were published to accompany a solo exhibition in the Barbican’s Curve gallery from February to April this year; the first was published by the Barbican, the second is signed. The other two books by him I found… well, Infra is $900 ($1000 for the collector’s edition), and The Enclave is $1050 ($2000 for the box set edition). A bit out of my range…

Some sf hardbacks for the collection. The Quality of Mercy was a lucky find on eBay. It’s really difficult to find a good copy, and I got it for a very reasonable price. I already have a copy of The Missionaries, but this was one was going cheap and in much better condition. Titan I bought for 10 euros from SF Bokhandeln’s stall at Worldcon75. It usually costs considerably more. Heavy Time is signed. Cuckoo’s Egg is signed and numbered – and the seller threw in Forty Thousand in Gehenna for free as he was trying to reduce stock (sadly, it’s not signed).

Some new hardbacks. Jenny Erpenbeck is a favourite writer, so I’ve been looking forward to Go, Went, Gone. The last Baxter novels I read were Proxima and Ultima and I thought them, to be honest, a bit juvenile. But he’s a hard habit to give up. Hence, Xeelee: Vengeance. If only he weren’t so fucking prolific… Exalted on Bellatrix 1 is, despite the title, the final book of Brown’s Telemass Quartet. They’re actually numbered in reverse, with the number referring to a planet of each novella’s eponymous star. Annoyingly, the other three use Roman numerals but this one doesn’t. Solid science fiction and typically Brownian – although the protagonist does come across as a bit creepily obsessive.

Two paperbacks and a graphic novel. Back in the 1970s, Newcastle Publishing issued a line of fantasy reprints, the Forgotten Fantasy Library. I’ve been picking them when I find them. She and Allan is the sixth book in the series. A recent Twitter exchange persuaded me to give Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories – or “lamourist histories”, as the spine has it – another go. Glamour in Glass is the second book in the series. Well, I do like Georgette Heyer’s novels… And In Uncertain Times is the eighteenth volume in the Valerian and Laureline series, and I see Cinebook are pushing them out at a much faster rate now, after the relelase of Besson’s film (which has apparently not done all that well, anyway).