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Reading diary, #56

After a run of male authors in my last Reading diary, it’s a run of female writers… including one novel I had never planned to read. These days, “Hugo Award winner” is more likely to make me put a book down than actually pick it up. Um, looking back over the history of the award, I can’t say I’ve ever really used it as a guide to my genre reading and have always felt it has picked far more duds than actual classics.

The Milkman, Michael Martineck (2014, USA). Michael is a friend of many years, around two decades in fact, although we only met for the first time in person at the Worldcon in Helsinki this August. And it’s just as well I know Michael as The Milkman posits a horrible corporatised world and does so with a completely straight face. But I know Michael does not believe the politics the book presents… because they really are quite nasty. The story is told from several viewpoints. A young woman is murdered outside a bar, but there are no clues to the crime. The corporate police officer tasked with solving the crime – assuming it can be done economically – finds himself hitting a brick wall. A film-maker is paid to make a documentary about the Milkman, a mysterious figure who analyses milk from corporate dairy farms and posts his results on an anonymous website. And then there’s the Milkman himself, who’s a low-level bureaucrat who, with his network of co-conspirators, tests milk as a hobby. The Milkman does a good job of presenting a world in which everything is owned by one of three corporations, and manages to use it effectively in a mystery/thriller plot. Personally, I’d have liked more commentary on the world – I mean, it’s a horrible place to be, and presenting arguments from the characters that it’s preferable to the “old world” made the novel sound approving. It’s a political novel, and when it comes to political novels the author needs to wear their politics on their sleeve. You can’t let the reader draw their own conclusions, because they might well draw the wrong ones. There’s enough right-wing sf out there – the entire genre is essentially right-wing – and commentary against it is sorely needed in science fiction. Much as I enjoyed The Milkman, it felt too ambivalent toward its world – despite the final scenes set among those who had opted out – and I’d liked it to have been a little more overt in its politics.

Lust, Elfriede Jelinek (1989, Austria). I’m a big fan of Michael Haneke’s films, and after seeing his The Piano Teacher, and learning that it was an adaptation of a novel by a Nobel laureate, I bought the book and read it and thought it very good. And then recently I thought it about time I read more Jelinek, so I picked up a copy of Lust, as it was quite short. It was perhaps not the wisest book to read on my daily commute, given the title. But never mind. The story is a brutal depiction of a marriage in wich the wife is treated as chattel by her husband. And when she eventually breaks free and finds herself a lover, he proves just as bad. What I had not remembered from The Piano Teacher, and perhaps that was down to the translator, but Lust was one long string of wordgames and puns and plays on words. It was relentless. Given its subject, it should come as no surprise the wordplay mostly focuses on sex, and especially on the male sex organ. I have no idea how this worked in German, or in the Austrian dialect in which Jelinek writes, but in English it felt to me like a dilution of the novel’s central point. The wife is entirely subject to the husband, she exists to satisfy his sexual desires, just as much as she is there to look after him and their spoilt son. Some of the expressions used, “shot his bolt”, for example, feel too… childish, schoolboyish, and while I get that the breadth and variety are what’s important, it does seem to detract from the brutality. This is an ugly book, about an ugly subject, so perhaps the wordplay is intended to add to that ugliness and it works much better in German. But this is definitely a book that provokes a reaction, and I’ll be reading more Jelinek.

Valerian & Laureline 19: At the Edge of the Great Void (2004, France). Cinebook are churning these out at a much faster rate after the Besson film, which is all to the good. At the Edge of the Great Void kicks off a new story-arc, which I think is the last for the duo. Valerian and Laureline are posing as itinerant traders on the edge of the Great Void because they feel the key to restoring Earth lies within it. But their plans are scuppered when Valerian is arrested. Fortunately, Laureline has made some friends, and with their help, she arranges an escape for Valerian, and the two of them join the crew of a ship heading into the Great Void. The story is mostly set-up – it introduces a new alien race, the Limboz, and drops hints about a plot by the Triumvirate, villains from an earlier story, and some sentient stones, the Woloch, who are clearly intended to provide the plot for the next few episodes. I’ve yet to see to Besson’s film, although I expect to be disappointed. The Valerian and Laureline series is massively inventive – there’s a good argument, although likely wrong, that it influenced Star Wars – and there’s a very dry wit in the interaction between the two main characters. But the stories are also very cut-down, so much so it often feels like bits of the plot have been left on the cutting-room floor. It’s like the opposite of decompression. Which, er, would be compression. I suspect it’s an artefact of the series’ original magazine appearances and limited page-count.

The Fifth Season, NK Jemisin (2015, USA). I had no plans to read this, for all that it won a raft of awards, and was shortlisted for many more (including, according to the back cover, the James Tiptree Jr Award, which, er, doesn’t have a shortlist – it has an honour list, and I should know as I’ve been on it). Anyway, there was no real buzz around The Fifth Season, as there had been for God’s War and Ancillary Justice, probably because The Fifth Season was Jemisin’s sixth novel – and, on top of that, it was fantasy, which is of zero interest to me. But some people said it was actually science fiction, not fantasy, and I heard some good things about it and, I admit it, the clincher was the fact it was going for £2 from a near-monopolitistic online retailer… So I bought it. And… It certainly smells like science fiction rather than fantasy; and if its sessapinae and orogeny is hand-wavy bullshit, it’s no more so than FTL, or indeed most of sf’s common tropes. It’s not worth summarising the plot, as much of it is linked to the world-building. The Fifth Season is set late in Earth’s history, when the planet is unstable, and “fifth seasons”, periods of intense seismic and/or volcanic activity, often bringing on nuclear winters, occur every few centuries. A new one has just kicked off as the book opens. There are three narratives, each following a female character – an orogene (ie, a person who can, among other things, control siesmic events) who has been in hiding for many years; a young girl with ability who is sold to an imperial order of trained orogenes; and a “four-ring” orogene of that order who is tasked with accompanying a “ten-ring” orogene to clear a town’s harbour of coral. The first narrative is written in the second person; the other two are more traditional. Initially, I thought the novel better than average – the prose was doing the job, but the world-building was interesting, if a little overdone (but we’ve all been there, nothing brings in the nerds like an excess of world-building detail). It was brutal in places – ho hum, it’s all that genre fiction does these days. So… enjoying it, but, on balance, unlikely to bother with the rest of the trilogy. And then I realised the book was using time-stacked narratives. Those three main characters were the same woman during different periods of her life. And things started to slot together like a piece of IKEA furniture. Now it was a much more interesting novel. Now, I might actually read the sequels. Did it deserve to win the Hugo? Given the shortlist… probably. I’ve read the Leckie, but the trilogy pretty much nose-dived after the first book. The other three shortlisted works do not appeal at all. If it hadn’t been for the £2 price point, I’d probably never have bothered reading The Fifth Season. Maybe if I’d stumbled across a copy in a charity shop, I might have given it a go. But I am glad I read it.

The Best of Leigh Brackett, Leigh Brackett (1986, USA). I’m no stranger to Brackett’s fiction, having been a fan for a number of years – ever since reading the collection, Sea-Kings of Mars, in the Fantasy Masterworks series, in fact. The stories in that collection are not fantasy, of course. But Sea-Kings of Mars was not the only book in the Fantasy Masterworks series that was actually science fiction. There are ten stories in The Best of Leigh Brackett, and they’re all, well, typical Brackett. Some I had read before. They’re set on planets and moons of the Solar System which share names with the planets and moons we know but otherwise bear no resemblance – Mars is a desert world, inhabited by ancient dying races; Venus is a jungle world, also, er, inhabited by dying ancient races; the moons of Jupiter are inhabited; as is Mercury… In fact, Brackett pretty much turned every planet and moon on the Solar System into the sort of exotic location used in a Humphrey Bogart movie. It’s always the same – a dying race, a dead culture, a degraded society, and a jaded hero from Earth – pretty much always the US – who overcomes local taboos and superstitions to win the prize. It’s pure Hollywood, so it’s no surprise Brackett worked extensively in movies, her best-known scripts being Rio Bravo (my favourite western) and The Empire Strikes Back. Leigh Brackett and CL Moore were female pioneers in sf – not the only ones, by any means, and it could be argued Gertrude Barrows Bennett was more of a pioneer – but Moore and Brackette were big names in the genre fiction back in the 1940s, and while their style of science fiction is no longer popular, there’s no doubt they were very good at what they did. Perhaps too good, in some respects – some of stories in The Best of Leigh Brackett are dismayingly misogynist. It’s nothing unusual when you compare it to, say, EE ‘Doc’ Smith (it continues to amuse me that ‘Doc’ is always presented in quotes), but I’d expected better of Bracket – and she has indeed done better in other stories. Despite the title, The Best of Leigh Brackett does not contain any of her more celebrated stories, except perhaps ‘The Jewel of Bas’ – but since those stories appear in plenty of other Brackett collections, that’s to its advantage. I’d also dispute the stories here were her best – I thought the aforementioned Sea-Kings of Mars a better selection. Nonetheless, Brackett is always worth reading.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131

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Moving pictures 2017, #57

Following the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list has proven an interesting experience. It’s introduced me to films and directors I might otherwise not have seen – although I’d already started exploring “world cinema” a long time before. And it’s not, to be honest, a great list – too much Woody Allen (one is too many), too many Hollywood classics whose time has passed (anyone who says the same is true of All That Heaven Allows will be punched, or at least roundly insulted), too many obvious picks as representatives of other nations’ cinemas… But it’s been worth using it to guide my viewing, even if the two movies from the list in this post were exactly the sort of films I have little time for…

Breaking Away*, Peter Yates (1979, USA). A coming-of-age film set in small-town USA, specifically Bloomington, Indiana, whose name I know but I’ve no idea where from. A bunch of townies, centred around cycle-mad Dennis Christopher, have various run-ins with university students, culminating in a university-only bicycle race in which a townie team is finally allowed to compete… and manages to win. It’s all thuddingly obvious, for all its attempts at depicting the real life of townies – “cutters” – in Bloomington. Small-town America is not a place that holds any interest for me, and the lives of the people who inhabit it strike me as poor fodder for stories. Okay, so there are universal themes that can be explored, and in the right hands, that of a literary author like Joyce Carol Oates, say, there might be something there I’d be interested in. But US cinema is a (chiefly) commercial medium, so there’s a demand for accessibility built-in, and the life depicted in this movie, well, that’s a wide swathe of the audience. And they’re welcome to it. Seriously, Breaking Away is dull and mind-numbingly predictable, and I’m completely mystified by its presence on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. It’s not even as if Yates is some sort of auteur – I mean, the only film he ever made that managed some sort of character was Krull. On the other hand, Breaking Away was apparently nominated for five Oscars, and actually won one (best original screenplay). Having said that, the gong that year went to Kramer vs Kramer (WTF?), despite the shortlist also including Apocalypse Now and All That Jazz. So, a fucked-up year for the Oscars, for sure. If you never ever see Breaking Away, you’ll have missed nothing.

La vie en rose, Olivier Dahan (2007, UK). This is a straight-up biopic of Edith Piaf, and it stands or falls on its depiction of its subject. Which was apparently good enough to get it nominated for a raft of awards. To be fair, I know nothing of Piaf or her music – I didn’t even know “piaf” meant “sparrow” until watching this film. And, well, it’s a biopic, it seems weird to comment on the story as it’s someone’s life. But you can comment on how it is presented, and this felt completely straightforward and, well, a bit dull. Piaf apparently started out busking during the interwar years, before being recruited by impresario Gérard Depardieu, and steadily growing in fame thereafter. The film leaps about chronologically, depicting scenes from later in her life in between the historical bits. Piaf was not, apparently, a very nice person. Earthy, I can understand, given her background; in fact I admire her for maintaining that element of her character. But she also became a bit of a diva, and did not respond well when crossed. But that that’s the gamble with “warts and all” biographies – does the subject survive the airing of their faults? Piaf clearly did – this film was hugely successful. I knew almost nothing about Edith Piaf before watching La vie en rose, and I know more having now seen it… but I’m still never going to buy one of her albums. Shrug.

Crimes and Misdemeanors*, Woody Allen (1989, USA). Why are there so many Woody Allen films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list? Not only do I dispute his alleged greatness, the man also abused his daughter and his existence, never mind career, should not be celebrated. I watched Crimes and Misdemeanors only so I could cross it off the list; I would not otherwise choose to watch an Allen film. I do not like them, I do not wish to support his career (this was a charity shop DVD, so happily he did not profit from my purchase). And yet, ignoring Allen’s presence, which pretty much renders this film nothing as he wrote and directed it, it’s just not all that interesting a movie. Martin Landau plays a wealthy and influential Jewish opthamologist, who has a grasping mistress murdered. Allen plays an unsuccessful documentary film-maker, who is hired to film his brother-in-law (Alan Alda), a highly successful TV producer, but Allen spends most of the film trying to get into Mia Farrow’s pants despite being married. It is creepy as fuck. Landau’s and Allen’s stories don’t really intersect – they have friends in common, and the whole point of the film is that they meet at the end and sort of confess their sins to each other and so give each other entirely unearned absolution. Except Landau hired a contract killer, and Allen is a grade-one shit. So not much resolution there for anyone with an ounce of morals. Of the Allen films on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, none of which belong in the list, this is the least worthy of inclusion. Avoid.

The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Irving Lerner (1969, UK). I found this in a charity shop and thought it might be worth a go. It wasn’t. It’s based on a play by Richard Shaffer. Christopher Plummer, who appeared in the play, swaps role to appear in the film. It’s about the meeting between Inca leader Atahualpa and conquistador Francisco Pizarro, who is played in the film by Robert Shaw. It starts with Pizarro trying to persuade the King of Spain to fund another expedition to the Americas, which he sort of agrees to do. There’s then a bit of exposition in which Pizarro explains in voiceover how he actually managed to put his expedition together… And then it leaps to South America and the conquistadors’ encounter with the locals and their plan to pillage the kingdom of Atahualpa by trickery. Pizarro claims godhood in order to get close to Atahualpa, who, as played by Plummer, is not all there. The conquistadors strike and Atahualpa is taken prisoner. But Pizarro comes to respect the man as he holds him prisoner, and when he insists the Inca should not be killed he argues against it. The film was shot on location, and it shows. Unfortunately, the script is too heavily based on the play, and the dialogue is far too stagey. On top of that, few of the actors convince in their roles – perhaps they might have done in a more obviously theatrical stage play, but in a movie shot on location they frequently over-act. There’s very little here worth watching, so it’s not worth going out of your way to find a copy.

JLG/JLG – Self-portrait in December, Jean-Luc Godard (1995, France). This is allegedly a documentary about Godard by Godard, but I’m not entirely convinced it is what it claims to be. Godard stars as sort of himself, inasmuch as he’s readily recognisable but the film refers to “JLG” in the third person. And yet it’s clearly presented as JLG, the voiceover is his train of thought, the topic of the piece his career and oeuvre… And the figure which appears in every shot is indeed Godard… but it seems odd that a director whose career is so focused – at least in its early days – on appearance should look so unkempt. Late in his career, Godard also seems to have discovered the usefulness, and the beauty, of static nature shots, and there are several very effective ones in JLG/JLG – Self-portrait in December. The end result is a film that seems late Godard in appearance but early to mid-Godard in content. True, that latter element is explicit – Godard listening interviews from earlier in his career, faux interviews throwing quotes from earlier in his career back at him. And then, in the middle, you have Godard reading from a French edition of AE Van Vogt’s The House That Stood Still, and I’m not sure what to make of it. Godard is a sf fan, that much is known. The House That Stood Still is the most noir of Van Vogt’s novels, and quite easily his best. In the right hands, it would make an amazing film. Is Godard the right hands?  He’s done US noir in the past, several times, and he’s done sf noir; but I can’t say I found the results especially convincing. Godard would certainly make an interesting adaptation of it, but I’m not convinced it would be a good one. None of which has anything to do with JLG/JLG – Self-portrait in December, which is a fascinating look more at Godard’s thought processes – at the time JLG/JLG – Self-portrait in December was shot – than his career, and nonetheless manages to some lovely cinematography, almost as if it were determined to demonstrate Godard could do it. Get this box set – if you’re a cineaste, it’s worth it.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 885


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Moving pictures 2017, #56

A good mix of films this post…

The Innocent, Luchino Visconti (1975, Italy). I have somehow managed to watch several Visconti films over the years without actually setting out to do so. First there was The Damned, which I thought okay, and then Death in Venice, which was pretty good (and I do like the Thomas Mann novella as well), and then The Leopard, which was very good indeed (so much so I read Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel, and thought it excellent). And now The Innocent, which was Visconti’s last film, and which is another historical piece, this time set during the nineteenth century and based on a 1892 novel by Gabriele d’Annunzio. Jennifer O’Neill plays the mistress of an Italian peer, whose interest in his wife is re-invigorated after she begins an affair with another man. And then becomes pregnant. But then the lover dies, but the husband cannot accept the baby. It’s by no means a pleasant story, nor is it intended to be. But O’Neill is astonishingly charismatic as the mistress, and the mise-en-scène throughout is extremely convincing. It doesn’t have the faded grandeur of The Leopard, and so it seems less historically grounded, if you know what I mean, but it succeeds pretty much in presenting its time and place. I liked it a great deal, and I don’t know how much of that is down to its presentation as anything else. I can spot good cinematography, well, especially good cinematography, but I’m more likely to notice landscape cinematography than I am artful cutting between two characters in a scene or clever zooms and pullbacks. In other words, YMMV. The Innocent gives me some of what I look for in films in the visual sense, while providing an intriguing story. Nothing in it stands out per se, whereas for Pasolini it often does, which is why I prefer his films; but this is nonetheless a very good film, and I’d like to rewatch it. I’ve meaning to pick up my own copy of The Leopard for a while – but which one? The Criterion edition? Or the BFI Blu-ray? But I wouldn’t say no to a copy of The Innocent as well – although there’s only a single edition of this available, in DVD or Blu-ray, both by Cult Films.

Judex, Georges Franju (1963, France). This is a remake of a 1910s serial od the same title, I think, or a remake of a remake of Fantômas, a 1910s serial based on a series of pulp novels published between 1911 and 1963, which was later adapted as a film; and I have another 1910s serial, Les vampires, by Louis Feuillade, the man who co-invented Judex, who is based on Fantômas, and who also made the 1910s Fantômas serial… Um, I think. Anyway. Judex, this film, is a 1960s remake of a 1910s-set mystery featuring the eponymous private detective, back in the day when villains had more personality than the heroes, and the good guys were just as often as contemptuous of the law as the bad guys. Judex featured some ridiculous plot about an evil banker who is kidnapped in order to force him to pay back the people he has ripped off – like that would ever happen. But there’s some evil lady crime boss also involved, and Judex, a masked defender of the downtrodden, with a gang of “ex-criminals and circus people”, although the only thing they have in common is the conjunction, who ends up rescuing the banker. Or something. It certainly looked all very 1910s, and was very pulp-ish. I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. It feels like a film that needs to be watched after watching the earlier films featuring the title character, but would likely feel superfluous having watched them. If you know what I mean.

Port of Call, Ingmar Bergman (1948, Sweden). A young woman begins a relationship with a sailor who has had enough of travelling the seven seas. But this doesn’t go down so well with the local men, leading to violence, much bickering, and the sort of marital drama Bergman made much meat of throughout his career. There’s not much that stands out in this, except perhaps the opening scene where the young woman jumps into the harbour and is rescued by the sailor. The story is an original one by Bergman, although may well have been influenced by Harry Martinson  – whose book, Resor utan mål, the ex-sailor is actually reading in one scene; and Bergman later staged Martinson’s play, Trei knivar från Wei… none of which is relevant but does remind me of Malcolm Lowry’s fascination with the works of Nordahl Grieg, also, like Martinson, a Scandinavian who served aboard a tramp steamer (although a Norwegian rather than a Swede), and whose The Ship Sails On Lowry felt a harbinger of his own fiction, particularly Ultramarine, and one of whose plays Lowry even translated into English but was unsuccessful in staging (I’ve been trying to locate a copy of The Ship Sails On for ages, but the only one I’ve found is $150). Which series of facts create a number of resonances with a writer whose fiction fascinates me… And while there is zero commonality between the subsequent careers of Lowry and Bergman, although both were notorious perfectionists, it does mean that Port of Call fits into a place in my mental map of Bergman’s career in a much richer way than any of his other films. Go figure.

Houseboat, Melville Shavelson (1958, USA). I had it in my head this was a Rock Hudson film, although I’ve no idea why as it clearly stars Cary Grant. And Sophia Loren. It’s a pretty uninteresting spin on a common model from the time. Hollywood made shitloads of films like it, some were better than others, some were actually good films. This is neither. Grant is a widower with two young children he is determined to look after himself, despite being equipped for a bachelor lifestyle – ie, he lives in a small city apartment. One of his young sons sneaks out and makes friends with Loren, the daughter of a prominent Italian composer touring the US. She takes the boy home when he keels over, and is mistaken for a homeless person by Grant. So he offers her a job as the kids’ nanny. Which she accepts. For reasons. And they move out of the city and are forced to live on a ricketty old houseboat near the home of the sister of Grant’s late wife, who has her own designs on Grant. Except Loren too has fallen for him, but he takes no notice of her… until the country club dance when realises what was under his nose all along. Loren is good, the kids are good, but Grant feels a bit too sarcastically dismissive to be much of a catch. I used to think of Grant as the epitome of the 1950s male romantic lead, but I’m coming to the conclusion he was better in earlier decades. Certainly by the late 1950s, he was starting to more resemble the preserved presenter of an antiques show than a romantic lead. I’m almost starting to prefer the lolloping and puppyish Grant from his early 1930s films. Rock Hudson is clearly the better romantic male lead of the 1950s. So there.

Monsoon Wedding, Mira Nair (2001, India). I remember this film being celebrated at the time of its release, one of those rare Hindi-language films which cross over to the English-language market. Except that’s not so rare for non-Bollywood films, and this wasn’t a Bollywood film. It was an international co-production, filmed in India with an Indian cast and some Indian money, but also a lot of US money – Nair is a US director – and UK money. So while it’s fair to describe Monsoon Wedding as an Indian film, it’s not a Bollywood film. And it shows. There’s a fly-on-the-wall tone to much of the film that feels almost antithetical to the Bollywood film-making process. As too does the anthology-style story-telling, with its intertwined narratives, and its ensemble cast. And its Romeo and Juliet plot. Which is a bit weird. As I had expected a Bollywood film, and got something that clearly wasn’t one but was in a Bollywood setting… And I have yet to work out if that means I liked it or not. Some of the characters seemed too broadly drawn, which would be a weird criticism to make of a Bollywood film but is appropriate here, and some of the minor story arcs were a little predictable and, well, ditto. Monsoon Wedding wasn’t bad, but I can’t figure out if that is because it was actually good or because it just wasn’t what it looked like it should be.

Patema Inverted, Yasuhiro Yoshiura (2013, Japan). I forget who recommended this, it may not even have been David Tallerman. In fact, I seem to remember it coming out of a conversation on Twitter. Anyway, with no expectations – because I have learnt that it’s best not have expectations for anime – I bunged it on my rental list, and so it arrived. Patema lives underground in a world whose gravity is inverted – ie, the surface of the world is down to her, even though she lives underground. She finds a shaft to the surface, and accidentally falls up it, and so finds herself on the surface. Upside down. She is helped by the son of a big wig on the surface world, who hides her because otherwise she would be killed or something. But her presence is discovered by the authorities, and during her interrogation, and subsequent, some surprising truths about her world come to light. The central premise of the film is, to be honest, hard to swallow, but the film goes totally with it and it actually starts to make a bizarre sort of sense by about two-thirds of the ways through. But then the final twist doesn’t really come as a surprise, despute all the narrative left turns designed to hide it. I quite enjoyed this – it looked fantastic, and it sold me on its daft premise. Sometimes that’s enough,

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 883


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Loyal friends

Ernest Hemingway apparently once said, “there is no friend as loyal as a book”, which is one of those pithy aphorisms that doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. I’ve certainly been abandoned by books, mid-read, on planes and trains – most recently, on my flight back home from the Worldcon in Helsinki. It wasn’t a very good book anyway. Here are a few books – some good, some I have yet to find out – that have joined the collection. Now that we have an IKEA store in Sheffield, I must see about buying some more bookshelves… assuming I can find a free wall in the flat to stand them against…

Several years ago, I bought loads of books about space, but the last couple of years I’ve bought few. I was tempted by Chris Hadfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth when it was published, but didn’t bother. Which is just as well, as I have now found myself a signed copy, and it was cheap. Haynes have done quite a few space-related Owner’s Workshop Manuals. Some of them have been pretty good. I haven’t read Astronaut yet, however. Midland Publishing published a whole range of Secret Projects books, and I have several of them. They’ve started reprinting them recently, but with redesigned cover art. And they’re numbering the volumes as well, although they don’t seem to be publishing them in order. Luftwaffe Secret Projects: Strategic Bombers 1939 – 1945 is the first of two volumes of Luftwaffe aircraft that never made it beyond prototype or even off the drawing-board.

These four rulebooks were a reward for signing up to The Great Rift kickstarter. Very nice-looking, they are too.

I keep an eye open on eBay for copies of the Phoenix Editions of DH Lawrence’s books – they were published from the 1950s to 1970s – but some are easier to find than others. I now have The Complete Short Stories Volume Two and Volume Three, but not yet Volume One. You Must Remember Us… was a lucky find.

Some lucky first edition finds on eBay. Urgent Copy is a collection of essays by Burgess, One Hand Clapping is one of half a dozen or so novels Burgess wrote under the name Joseph Kells. Yes, that is a first edition of Lawrence Durrell’s hard-to-find fourth novel, Cefalû. With dust jacket too. A rewritten version was later published as The Dark Labyrinth. And High Tide for Hanging is one of half a dozen crime novels DG Compton wrote under the name Guy Compton before turning to science fiction. The book was apparently in the library of the Windhoek Hotel in South Africa.

The Fifth Season was only £2 from a large online retailer, so I thought it worth a go. At the Edge of the Great Void is the nineteenth volume in the Valerian and Laureline series. I have yet to see the film. Emergence is the third and final book of The Corporation Wars. The Incomer is another one for my The Women’s Press SF collection. And I loved Girl Reading when I read it a couple of years ago, but I had a tatty copy bought from a charity shop. I now have a signed copy.


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Moving pictures 2017, #55

The Godard box set has proven an excellent purchase. I’ve watched the films in it a couple of times each, and I suspect I’ll be watching them several more times as well. And I have another Godard box set to watch after this one as well. I guess I’m turning into a Godard fan. I don’t think every one of his films work – and the one here was especially mauled by critics – but sometimes it really does come together exceedingly well; and his continual experimentation, and facility with the language of cinema, to my mind makes him one of the most important European directors of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, not everything he made is currently available on DVD or Blu-ray – and he made a lot of films…

For Ever Mozart, Jean-Luc Godard (1996, Switzerland). I think I can safely say that drunkenly buying this box set has proven one of my smarter film purchasing decisions of 2017. It’s taken me a couple of watches of each film to get a handle on them, but I’ve liked what I’ve seen and I know I’ll watch them again. The films are also obscure, defy easy categorisation, and are the product of someone who has spent their entire career experimenting in the medium, and may well have contributed more to cinema narrative forms than any other living director. Having said all that, For Ever Mozart – apparently a phonetic pun as it sounds like faut rêver, Mozart, “dream, Mozart” – acually feels more like a Jacques Rivette film at times than it does a Godard one. But perhaps that’s because so many Rivette films are about rehearsal and narrative, and For Ever Mozart is about a theatre group who stage a play in Sarajevo during the years of ethnic cleansing. It’s a piece which revels in its tone-deafness, because the the whole point of the piece is that it’s tone-deaf. Unfortunately, one of Godard’s weaknesses appears to be the people-running-through-a-wood-in-fear-of-their-lives scenario, and that happens here. A little too often. Fortunately, there is also a lot more going on. Not least of which ties back to the title and the use of Mozart’s music as a theme. Godard is probably best known among non-Francophobe cinephiles for his work during the 1960s, especially that associated with the Nouvelle Vague. But I must admit I find his later stuff far more interesting. I still have the other Godard collection to watch, and it contains many of his better-known films, but I’ve very much enjoyed seeing the lesser-known films in this particular box set. Definitely worth getting.

Highly Dangerous, Roy Ward Baker (1950, UK). After sending me one Margaret Lockwood film, LoveFilm went and sent me another the following week. This one was a British thriller, written by Eric Ambler, which nonetheless managed to be quite dull. Lockwood plays an entomologist sent to an invented Balkan state to discover if their rumoured biological beetle-based weapon is real. But she’s an amateur and inept at spycraft. She screws up meeting her contact at the railway station, and later is immediately spotted as a ringer by a US journalist. Whose help she enlists in in breaking into the secret laboratory to steal samples of the potentially lethal beetles. It’s all very earnest, and very British, and if the invented Balkan country fails to convince it’s because, well, they weren’t very good at that sort of stuff in those days – and I’m not entirely sure why they bothered to invent countries to stand in for, well, actual enemies of the West (of the time). Who knows. Maybe some Yugoslavian trade deal might have been jeopardised. Lockwood is, well, Lockwood, although it’s good to see a female lead in a thriller, and though she has to occasionally defer to her male colleague, she’s very much presented as an expert, which is something you still don’t see that often these days. Given Lockwood is just about the only female character in the film, it’s not going to pass a Bechdel Test… but a female heroine who doesn’t have superpowers who nonetheless drives the film? Um, I seem to remember Lockwood was a lead with agency in the last film by her I watched, The Wicked Lady (see here). I knew there was a reason I put that Lockwood DVD collection on my rental list…

Jackie, Pablo Larraín (2016, USA). I really wanted to like this – it seemed like an interesting subject, and I’d been much impressed by Larraín’s No (see here), enough to want to watch more of his films… Although, to be fair, I would not have expected Larraín to have made Jackie… But… It’s Jackie Kennedy, of course. In the years just before, during, and immediately after, JFK’s assassination. Not being American, I have never understood the fascination with JFK, or the bizarre insistence that he was the best president the US “never had”. True, he created the political will to put a human being on the Moon, and his presidency did much for women’s rights… but he was also responsible for the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Jackie, however, is about his wife, and JFK only makes occasional appearances. Natalie Portman is really quite astonishing in the role. Jackie Kennedy comes across as a not very nice person at all, and her fixed grin and wide-mouthed way of speaking feels more like a caricature than an actual character study. “Feels”, because I can’t judge its accuracy. Larraín’s direction seemed as good as that I’d noted in No, and even the back-and-forth-chronological structure seemed to work quite well, although there seemed ample opportunity to ramp up the emotional payload through clever cutting and that didn’t happen… The biggest problem I had was that I’d expected Jackie Kennedy to be a sympathetic subject, and she wasn’t. I should probably watch the film again.

Revenge, Yermek Shinarbayev (1989, Kazakhstan). Beware of films with bland uninformative titles. Further, beware of films with bland uninformative titles from other languages where the film is generally known by its bland uninformative English title. Like Revenge. Because that’s not a title to encourage interest. And yet, Revenge is actually a lovely piece of film-making, a Kazakhstani film about the Korean disapora throughout east Asia, and which ends up on Sakhalin Island. It opens with a prologue set in seventeenth-century Korea, then jumps to 1915 and a Korean village. A schoolteacher murders one of the young girls in his class, and the father vows vengeance on him. He almost has it, but is thwarted at the last minute. So he takes a second wife, has a son, and raises the son to be the instrument of his revenge. The story moves through the decades of the first half of the twentieth century, as the murdering teacher, and the son, now a man, follows him – into China and then the USSR, to Siberia and Sakhalin Island. As the film progresses, so the protagonist and antagonist develop a relationship which is never quite consummated, and each in turn lives out the experience of Koreans in the areas into which they move. The acting is, it must be said, a bit hammy in places, but the mise-en-scène is thoroughly convincing in each of the periods it depicts, and the cinematography is mostly good but occasionally great. Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 2 has a number of excellent films in it, but I did like this one a lot. It’s a movie that bears, perhaps even demands, repeated watches. Recommended.

Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson (2014, USA). I hadn’t realised until I started watching this that it was an adaptation of a Pynchon novel. I know who Pynchon is, of course, and I’ve heard no end of praise about his fiction – but I’ve never actually read any of it. I have Gravity’s Rainbow on the TBR, and I will tackle it one day, buy Pynchon is pretty much unknown territory to me… Whereas Paul Thomas Anderson is not and, well, I’m not a fan of his films. Oh, they’re well-made films; but they’re entirely steeped in the American idiom and that doesn’t interest me in the slightest. Which might well explain why I found Inherent Vice a bit dull and uninvolving. I’m supposed to care about a dopehead American who manages to hold together a career as a private detective? Jaoquim Phoenix plays the aforementioned dopehead, who is asked to investigate an ex-girlfriend’s disappearance, only to get sucked into a state-wide conspiracy. I really didn’t get this. The dopehead lifestyle was presented as comical, without actually being funny, which rendered Pynchon’s worldview – something I have not experienced myself as I’ve not read any of his books yet – as weird and incomplete rather than just off-kilter. Pynchon is, I am reliably informed, famous for his erudition, but there was no evidence of that here. The whole thing came across as a gonzo thriller featuring potheads, and while Hunter S Thompson cuold be very funny indeed with his tales of excessive drug-taking, the humour here didn’t amuse me at all. Meh.

The Collector, William Wyler (1965, UK). This is an adaptation of John Fowles’s first novel. I have mixed feelings about Fowles – I consider him a middlebrow writer all too often mistaken for highbrow, and yet he wrote a handful of classic novels. The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a bona fide classic, A Maggot is a novel of notable ambition that only just doesn’t quite make the grade… the rest are middlebrow books du jour whose moments have passed, or even Dirty Old Man books. The Collector is a polished thriller novel, which was adapted by a US director and turned into an attractive, if implausible, UK thriller movie. This is not always the case.  Robert Wise shot The Haunting in the UK and it’s a classic piece of cinema. Terence Stamp plays a bullied young man who wins the pools and ends up buying an isolated house in the country. He is also a lepidopterist. And a stalker. He stalks Samantha Eggar, kidnaps her, and imprisons her in his basement. He hopes to make her love him. Which, of course, isn’t going to happen. None of it ever quite adds up, it all feels like it takes place in movie-land, where common sense doesn’t apply, and it’s not as if the cinematography lifts it above the usual as it feels mostly like an extended episode of Hammer House of Horror (worth getting; they were of their time but surprisingly entertaining). There’s not much in the way of surprises, and the local colour resembles no UK known to a Brit, even in 1965, but it manages to be entertaining.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 883


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Reading diary, #55

It might look I had a run of books by male authors, but in amongst these were several sf novels by female writers, which I plan to review on SF Mistressworks soon-ish. As it is, there are two books by a single writer, Eric Brown, who’s a friend of many years: a novella and a short collection.

Exalted on Bellatrix 1, Eric Brown (2017, UK). This is the final book in the Telemass Quartet, in which obsessive father Hendrick chases after the body of his young daughter, who has been put in stasis until a cure for her condition can be found, and who has been kidnapped by Hendrick’s ex-wife. And she is apparently just as warped as she’s been subjecting her daughter to increasingly desperate remedies, none of which have worked. But this is the fourth novella of a quartet, and Brown rarely fails to deliver some sort of uplifting closure to the agonies through which he puts his protagonists. In this one, Brown uses a setting he’s used many times in the past, an artists’ colony. Hendrick’s ex-wife has taken their daughter to the eponymous planet, where they’re hoping the reclusive, but advanced, alien inhabitants, the Vhey, will cure her. The end result is something in which the quartet’s story arc feels almost incidental. The novella focuses on the head of the colony, who is a nasty piece of work, and whose wife died in mysterious circumstances, and who plans to make use of the secret of the Vhey. Although not in the way Hendrick’s ex-wife is expecting, and not in a way that will save the daughter. Of the four novellas, this was probably the least satisfying, chiefly because it feels a bit warmed-over in places. Also, annoyingly, the previous three books used Roman numerals in their titles, but this one uses an Arabic number 1.

Revenger, Alastair Reynolds (2016, UK). This is, I think, supposed to be a YA novel – or at least YA-ish. The narrator is a teenage girl, in a planetary system populated by billions of space habitats, and which as been colonised in waves over billions of years. It is, it must be said, a pretty cool piece of world-building. Except… it’s all a bit steampunk. The spacecraft use light-sails to travel around the system, the technology is all brass and clockwork, except for magical tech artefacts left behind by aliens from earlier waves of colonisation… One of which are the skulls. Although the alien race whose skulls they were has long since vanished, and all that remains of them are bones, the technology inside their skulls remains active, and they’re all plugged into some sort of FTL comms network. Some teenagers can eavesdrop on this network, and send signals. Both Fura Ness and her sister Adrana have this knack. Adrana, the older of the two, persuades her sister to join her in running away from their financially-ruined father and making their fortune as skull readers. They join the crew of a ship that raids “baubles”, abandoned repositories of ancient alien tech (perhaps the baubles were habitats in the distant past, it’s never entirely clear). The baubles are usually secure behind impenetrable shields, but the shields occasionally drop for short periods, and some people are able to predict when these windows of opportunity will occur and how long they will last (again, it’s never made entirely clear why the shields should do this; because plot, I guess). Unfortunately, at their first bauble, the ship is attacked by a semi-legendary pirate, Bosa Sennen, who takes Adrana to be her skull-reader, and kills everyone else. But Fura hid, and survives. She vows revenge on the pirate, but her plans are derailed when her father has her brought back home and has a doctor halt her ageing so she will remain under-age and under his control. To me, that was the most horrifying part of the whole novel – Fura imprisoned by her age and society. Of course, Fura breaks free, joins the crew of a ship, engineers an encounter with Bosa Sennen and, well, there are no real surprises at the climax. As I said, the world-building is cool, but it’s never really convincing – and the baubles reminded me of something, A Deepness in the Sky perhaps? – and I didn’t really like the faux Victoriana. Fura makes for a good protagonist, but I thought the violence over-done. There is, I believe, a sequel called Revealer, due next year or the year after. I’ll buy it, of course.

The Paperchase, Marcel Theroux (2001, UK). I stumbled across this in a charity shop, and having been impressed by the last Theroux novel I read, Strange Bodies, I bought it. It’s not science fiction in the slightest, more of a family drama slash mystery. The narrator is a UK-based American, who is surprised to discover he’s been left his uncle’s house on a New England island in a will. The uncle was a celebrated writer, who faded away and became a recluse. The narrator leaves his job at the BBC and goes to live in the house – it’s a condition of the will: he only gets to keep it if he lives in it. And something about the papers left by his uncle, and the stories, and histories, of his neighbours, persuades the narrator there is a deeper story here – a mytsery about his uncle’s death, or his life. From a variety of unrelated facts, and assorted residents of the island, and friends of the late uncle, the narrator figures out the secret at the heart of the family. The problem is the prose, and the narrator, is so laid-back the revelation doesn’t really have the impact it should. True, it’s not especially earth-shattering, and very personal, but it’s the point of the novel so I’d expected something with more consequence. There’s a nicely digressive tone to the narrative, and the characters are well-drawn (and mostly likeable), but I polished this off about as quickly as I would a commericial crime novel and I had expected more of it.

Strange Visitors, Eric Brown (2014, UK). This is the eighth volume in NewCon Press’s Imaginings series of short collections. The contents in this one were originally published in a variety of venues, but, as is usually the case with collections, one story is original. It is not, to be brutally honest, Brown’s strongest collection. ‘Life Beyond…’, a piece of Simakiana, hews so closely to Simak’s patterns the plot is obvious from the first page. ‘Steps Along the Way’ is a post-human story about a twentieth-century human reincarnated thirty thousand years later… just to set up a surprise reveal ending (I suppose I should have liked this one, given its plot, but I thought it weak). ‘Myths of the Martian Future’ is one of those sf stories where every character in it is an alien of some form. It felt lighter than its tone suggested. ‘The Scribe of Betelgeuse V’ felt more like Dr Who story than an Eric Brown one. But without Dr Who. Its tone suited its lightness. ‘The Rest is Speculation’ is set during the last days of planet Earth, and reads more like a travelogue than a story (and the header in the book is incorrect as it gives the title of the following story). Which is ‘The Tragic Affair of the Martian Ambassador’, a HG Wells / Sherlock Holmes mash-up, and succeeds as that if not entirely as a Holmes mystery. ‘Bukowski on Mars, With Beer’ was written for “bizarro fiction” anthology Vivisepulture (which also contained my Nazi occult flying saucer story, ‘Wunderwaffe’). I don’t know enough about Bukowski to feel qualified to comment on this story. ‘People of Planet Earth’ is one of those stories based on one of those silly ideas that wants to be both shocking and humorous, but fails at both. Finally, I was prepared to be disappointed by the collection’s only original story, ‘P.O.O.C.H.’, if only because of its terrible title. And prepared to hate it when I read that P.O.O.C.H. was an acronym for “Personal Omni-Operational Correctional Hound”, but… The premise is daft – giving convicted felons robot dogs programmed for bad behaviour in order to make them better people – but Brown draws his protagonists well and does a good job navigating the emotional landscape of the story. And yes, I also got to feel smug about being a cat person. It’s easily the best story in the collection.

The Quarry, Iain Banks (2013, UK). This was Banks’s last novel and is about a man dying of cancer, so questions about art and life were inevitable after Banks announced he had terminal cancer. The novel is actually narrated from the point of view of the dying man’s son, who has, I think, Asperger’s Syndrome. It is, like most of Banks’s non-M novels, a story based around a family secret, but the secret in this case is actually pretty irrelevant. A group of people who shared a house during their student days have returned to the house, where the oldest of their number now lives, and is in the end stages of terminal cancer. There is mention of a videocassette – the group fancied themselves as avant garde film-makers at university – which none of them want to see the light of day, but neither dying Guy nor his son Kit, know what’s happened to the tape. Meanwhile, a few home truths are aired, a few minor secrets from the past are let out of the bag, and the mystery of the identity of Kit’s mother is occasionally floated past the reader, only for it to be dealt with in passing at the end. The scene where the group view the sought-after videocassette is also pretty much a damp squib. The novel is narrated by Kit, and I don’t know enough about Asperger’s or autism to just how accurately or effectively he is portrayed. Other than that, Banks always wore his politics on his sleeve, and they’re out in full force in The Quarry. It’s far from his best novel, mainstream, science fiction or both, although it does come across as an angrier novel than his earlier ones (except perhaps for Complicity) – but that’s hardly surprising given what the Tories have been doing to the UK since 2010. Banks’s death makes The Quarry a more uncomfortable read than it would have been otherwise – the politics were clearly intended to make for uncomfortable reading for some, but the cancer aspect of the plot, sadly, overshadows it. Still, it’s a Bank novel, so it’s a given that it’s worth reading.

Go, Went, Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck (2015, Germany). After reading The End of Days, I knew Erpenbeck was a name to watch. So I tracked down her previous books and read them, and they were good. And now we have her latest, actually published In Germany in 2015, but the English translation is new this year. A retired professor in Berlin, and who grew up in East Germany, one day stumbles across a camp of African refugees in Alexanderplatz. He follows their story in the press as they are moved to a tent city in another square, and then split up and placed in temporary accommodation – mothballed schools and sanatoria – while the Berlin senate makes a decision on their fate. The professor decides to document the plight of these refugee men – from Libya, Ghana, and Niger, chiefly. There is a group of them in an old nursing home near his house, and he is allowed to interview them. As he gets to know them and their stories, so he realises that the narrative written by European governments and press about the refugees is both inaccurate and incomplete, in much the same way the powerful in Germany fostered a desire for unity and imposed their own narrative on the union of East and West. There are contrasts also – the initial easy acceptance of East Germans by West Germans, which soon soured, not to mention the expectations of the East Germans based on myths of the West propagated through Western culture. This is a book that properly interrogates its topic, and it pulls no punches. Right wing press and governments have traded on people’s racism and xenophobia to whip up anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment that has no basis in fact – because people scared of strangers are easier to control and are less likely to notice when their rights and property are taken from them just so some oligarch can earn more money than he could possibly spend in a thousand lifetimes. They’re the ones we should be scared of, the oligarchs; they’re the ones we should hate – not the poor sods driven out of their homes by wars created by inept US foreign policy and British arms sales, or the economic depredations of Western corporations chasing profits, and organising violent regime changes, in the developing world to offset their decreasing margins in the developed world…

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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Moving pictures 2017, #54

A couple more posts and I’ll be caught up with my viewing.

Othello, Orson Welles (1951, Italy). I’ve always felt a bit ambivalent about Welles – he was a true Hollywood innovator (and, later, a Hollywood outsider), who made some notable movies and some that were less notable… But then I saw his Falstaff – Chimes at Midnight, and was much impressed. Enough to want to see more of his Shakespeare adaptations – his thrillers suffer from over-complication, but his simplifications of Shakespeare to make the material fit his runtime actually seem make them more powerful. Othello is… probably the best adaptation of the play ever put on celluloid. Er, that I’ve seen. I did wonder if it was Welles’s best film… but I think its troubled production tells against it. It contains some of Welles’s most striking cinematography, but it never quite hangs together as a single vision. It was famously a difficult production – begun in 1948, but Welles ran out of money and used his salary from acting jobs to fund more filming, so it went in fits and starts over a three-year period… And yet, the end-result is… really quite astonishing. For the record, I profoundly disagree with blacking up, and no matter that Othello has been played since Shakespearean times by countless white actors in black make-up, or that Welles cast himself in the title role – one of Shakespeare’s juiciest, by all accounts – it still seems off to deny the part to an actor of colour. Even in 1951. But as director, Welles has put together an impressive film, making astounding use of the constraints he encountered while filming. The stark black and white silhouettes of the opening scenes are among the most arresting images I’ve seen in a movie’s opening minutes. And Welles’s use of lighting and shadow in subsequent scenes is borderline genius. I suspect Welles is the closest Hollywood ever came to a true auteur, and even then he was forced to make films outside the system, and even outside the country. He produced an enviable body of work – not just in cinema – and I’m surprised no one has ever thought to collect it: perhaps the wide spread of financing and production companies prevents it, but from Citizen Kane to F for Fake, that’s an oeuvre ripe for celebration.

Limite*, Mário Peixoto (1931, Brazil). This is on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, and I’d pretty much come to the conclusion I’d never get to see it as no copies were available on DVD, nor any other format. According to Wikipedia, the single nitrate print of the film had degraded so badly it could no longer screened. So I did wonder how the makers of the list had managed to see it. But then Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project picked it as one of their films to restore – although some parts of the print were too badly damaged to fully restore, and one scene was missing altogether. But it did mean I got to see it. And… It’s an interesting film, but not especially strong on narrative. It opens with a couple lost in a boat, which is then interrupted by a series of flashbacks. Parts of it reminded me of Maya Deren’s work (which it predates), other parts of some of the early French silent films. Much of the scenery appeared very similar to that in Vidas Secas, which was made thirty years later, so not much had changed during the intervening years. I’m not sure how much of Limite‘s reputation rests on its rarity – it was only shown publicly three times, but was privately screened for Orson Welles in 1942, who greatly admired it. It was certainly worth seeing, but there are films which impressed me more in this collection.

Music in Darkness, Ingmar Bergman (1948, Sweden). Bergman directed this, but the screenplay by Dagmar Edqvist is based on his novel of the same title. A classically trained pianist is blinded after being shot by accident at a shooting range during military manoeuvres. The only person who treats him like a human being is the servant girl in his parents’ house. But any sort of liaison is very much discouraged. The blind pianist decides to train as a church organist – it’s a better career than piano tuner, or piano player in a restaurant, for a person of his training – but even then is discouraged. He bumps into the servant girl, who is now training to be a teacher, and must win back her love. None of this is especially subtle, and while the actor who played the blind pianist – Birger Malmsten, who appears in many of Bergman’s early films – was never entirely convincing as a blind person, he was certainly convincing enough as an upper class Swede to handle that aspect of the plot.

Attenberg, Athina Rachel Tsangari (2010, Greece). I found this on Amazon Prime, which has thrown up the odd gem every now and again, and I admit I hadn’t realised it was Greek until I started watching it. And it’s a bit odd Greek, like a Yorgos Lanthimos film rather than a Theo Angelopoulos film – which is hardly a fair comparison as they’re the only two Greek directors I’ve seen recently, and the latter may be from an older tradition of Greek cinema. But, to be honest, I plan to explore Angelopoulos’s oeuvre further, and if Lanthimos and Tsangari are examples of twenty-first century Greek cinema, then I’m happy to explore that too. Providing, of course, such films are available in editions I can watch. (I studied Ancient Greek as a thirteen-year-old, but my command of modern Greek is non-existent, and I don’t remember what I learnt back then anyway.) There’s not much in the way of plot in Attenberg – a young woman’s father is dying, she enters into a relationship with a stranger who visits the small town where they live, her best friend has sex with her father. The characters are… a bit strange. The film opens, as shown in the DVD cover art, with the young woman and her best-friend ineptly teaching each other how to French kiss. And then sort of ambled along from there. I think I sort of liked it.

The End of Summer, Yasujiro Ozu (1961, Japan). For some reason, this film – Ozu’s penultimate movie – has not been released  by the BFI in one of their nice dual edition releases… although now I’ve hunted down a copy, they’ll probably go and do so. The End of Summer is, like every other Ozu film I’ve seen, an ensemble piece, about family, about business, about marriagable daughters who need husbands. It strikes me as a more Westernised film than his others, in as much as some of the characters are quite Westernised, and their Westernisation is part of the tapestry of family life Ozu weaves. A patriarch has an unmarried daughter and a widowed daughter-in-law and wants to finds husbands for them both. He runs a sake brewery which is starting to fail. The daughter-in-law – Ozu favourite Setsuko Hara – has no real desire to remarry; the young daughter would sooner marry a young man she knows who recently moved to Sapporo. But in the travelling back and forth between his offspring, from Kyoto to Osaka and back, the old man strains his his heart and is stricken with a heart attack. He survives the first, but not the second. And all his match-making counts for nothing. There’s a a sense in Ozu’s films of one generation ensuring the next is well settled for their life, so they too can ensure the same for their children. Mostly this comes across as patriarchs trying to find husbands for their daughters. In mid-twentieth-century Japan. Most fathers’ minds, it seems, when not filled with business deals, were exercised with ensuring their children were well settled for their own journeys into retirement. The idea that the previous generation has sufficient “float” to get the next generation started – either in social capital or financial capital – seems quaint at best these days. None of which invalidates Ozu’s movies. They’re well shot ensembles pieces – his technqiue of cutting from speaker to speaker during a conversation may be crude but remains effective – and his choice of domestic plots that illustrate elements if Japanese life of the time of shooting still resonate today. I still maintain Ozu is better than Mizogushi, and maybe one day I’ll convince David Tallerman of that too.

Alien: Covenant, Ridley Scott (2017, USA). Back in the 1970s, you used to be able to buy LPs of chart hits, usually published by K-Tel, which featured recent hits but performed by artists who only sounded like the original artists. Alien: Covenant should have been named Alien: K-Tel. It’s like a run-through of all the best bits of the previous Alien films, but done with less quality. And, following firmly in the footsteps of Prometheus, it doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense or go any way to building a logical narrative out of the franchise. And yet, according to Wikipedia, most film critics in the press were mildly approving. Really? Have they forgotten what a good film looks like? Because this isn’t one. The plot is cobbled together from bits and pieces of earlier Alien movies, it introduces fifteen characters and makes no effort to let the viewer get to know them – compare and contrast with the cast of Alien – and said cast also behave completely unprofessionally and fall to pieces at the first opportunity. There’s so many things wrong with this film it seems churlish to list them. That the eponymous ship is caught in a neutrino storm which is detected shortly before it hits (handily ignoring that neutrinos pass through everything without effect – so they’re fucking difficult to detect – and also wouldn’t actually cause any damage) and yet you can’t detect a storm of light-speed particles before it hits because by definition the first evidence of it is when the storm hits… Or the character who intercepts a radio message from a planet in his spacesuit because he is at the time “outside the communication buffers” of the Covenant, which is not what “buffer” means at all. Then there’s that really annoyingly stupid mistake perpetrated by all the Alien films, in which craft drop from the mothership while it is in orbit. It doesn’t work like that. Everything is in microgravity. Sadly, it’s also a major part of the plot in Alien: Covenant – because that’s how they manage to finally kill the alien. Oops. Spoiler. And a plot which blithely skates over genocide, with no apparent moral consequences, well, that’s no good either. This is the dumbest film in a franchise which has grown increasingly dumb with each new instalment. Avoid.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 883