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2017, the best of the year: books

2017 has been a bit of a parson’s nose of a year – or do I mean a curate’s egg? One or the other. Both the UK and the US continued their downward spiral into fascism and economic ruin, and as a result social media became really quite depressing at times. But it’s not like I have alternative sources to find out what’s going on – I gave up on newspapers years ago, and I’ve not knowingly watched a news broadcast since the 1990s.

I made a few attempts at starting writing again, but they came to nothing. I stopped reviewing too – so SF Mistressworks went on hiatus; and I’ve not had a review in Interzone since early 2016. That was down to the day job. Things have improved there over the last few months, so I hope to start reviewing again in 2018.

On the other hand, during 2017 I attended three Nordic conventions – in Uppsala, Helsinki and Copenhagen. One of them was even a Worldcon. I had a great time at all three. I plan to attend more next year.

One area in which 2017 was much like 2016 was in the culture I consumed. More films, but less books – in fact, this blog pretty much turned into a series of Moving picture film posts during the year (68 of them to date). As in previous years, I signed up to the Goodreads challenge, but I lowered my target by ten books to 140… and it looks unlikely I’ll make it. Ah well. However, I did read some very good books and watched some very good films, and discovered a few excellent writers and directors new to me.

This year I’ve decided to split my best of the year into three parts: books first, then films, and finally music. So, moving on…

books
As of the time of writing, I’ve read 123 books, down on last year’s 149. I’ll blog the actual stats on the books I read in a later post, as this post is about the best books I read during the year. Two are science fiction, and four are by female writers. There are also five nations represented – I think that might be a first for me. The figure in square brackets is the book’s position in my best of the half-year post here.

1 Chernobyl Prayer, Svetlana Alexievich (1997, Belarus) [1]. During a discussion on Twitter early this year about female literature Nobel laureates, I realised I’d read very few. So I decided to pick up books by a couple. Alexievich, who was awarded the Nobel in 2015, writes non-fiction composed from interviews with those affected by the topic she is writing about. As the title indicates, in this book it’s the Chernobyl disaster. Alexievich spoke to those who lived in the area, and those who stayed, as well as people who worked at the power station, or were involved in fighting the disaster or cleaning up afterwards. Despite its subject, Chernobyl Prayer is a very poetic book. It’s also frightening, heart-breaking and affirming. It”s not without its detractors, people who claim Alexievich has not been entirely accurate in representing her interviewees, although I have to wonder how many of those critics only spoke up after she was awarded the Nobel. I’ve since picked up a copy of Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time, but I’ve yet to read it; and I certainly plan to read more by her.

2 Go, Went, Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck (2015, Germany) [-]. Erpenbeck has been a favourite since I read her The End of Days last year (and that book took my number one spot in 2016’s best of the year). Go, Went, Gone is not genre, as that one was, but straight-up mainstream (or literary fiction, whatever label you prefer). It’s about a retired professor in Berlin, who decides to interview some refugees being housed near him and so gets dragged into their lives and stories. It’s a subject important to our time – there are refugees flooding into Europe from the Middle East and Africa, many from situations in their homelands we Western nations have created with our warmongering and economic plundering, and the least we can do is treat them like human beings, with dignity and compassion, and show that we have built societies that welcome all. While Go, Went, Gone documents Berlin’s failings in this regard, Germany still manages a fuck load better than the UK, which puts immigrants in detention centres and treats them worse than criminals. What I love about Erpenbeck’s fiction is her distant and yet clinically sharp prose, and it’s on fine form here. An important topic, beautifully written.

3 A River Called Titash, Adwaita Mallabarman (1956, Bangladesh) [2]. Ritwak Ghatak’s A River Called Titas is one of my favourite films, so I was keen to read the novel from which it was adapted. And it’s every bit as good. However, unlike the film, it tells several stories about the Malo fisher folk of the Titas river (in what is now Bangladesh). The movie follows one particular story, that of Kishore, whose young bride is kidnapped the day after their wedding. She washes ashore at another village, but cannot remember the name of her husband’s village. Many years later, with son in tow, she tracks down her husband – only to discover he had gone mad as a result of her kidnap. The novel weaves this story in and around many others, from several villages along the Titas, a tributary of the Meghna River, one of the three rivers which forms the Ganges delta. A River Called Titash is also an ethnographic document – Mallabarman was born on the Titas, although he worked as a literary editor in Kolkata, so he knew what he was writing about. The book is as good as the film – and that’s high praise from me.

4 Dreams Before the Start of Time, Anne Charnock (2017, UK) [-]. I’ve been impressed by what I’ve read by Charnock, but this one, despite its unwieldy title (yes, I know), I thought especially good. It follows a family through the next century or so as they each decide how to have children and treat their offspring. It’s not the most dramatic of plots, but I’m frankly fucked off with science fiction insisting brutality, genocide and mega-violence are necessary in every story. It’s possible to write dramatic genre fiction that doesn’t have a high body-count, or normalise fascism or villanise certain ethnic groups… And this novel is the perfect example of how to do it. It’s not even as if it’s optimistic, although I’m not sure such an adjective applies. It just is. It’s not only that I thought Dreams Before the Start of Time a very good book, but also that it’s a type of science fiction I think we need more of. Why not tell stories that do not create false enemies of the Other, or slaughter the Other, or in any way demonise the Other? Instead, let’s have stories like Dreams Before the Start of Time. Oh, and make them as well-written as it too.

5 Necessary Ill, Deb Taber (2013, USA) [3]. Friends had recommended this a couple of years previously, and I’d added it to an order from publisher Aqueduct Press not too long afterward. But it took me until 2017 to get around to reading it, and then when I opened it I was hooked. Okay, it posits a post-catastrophe world and it advocates genocide – per se – for certain groups, which does seem to contradict my comments above. But in Necessary Ill, Taber creates a group of villains – the neuts – who are way more sympathetic than the people they target – ie, American men prone to, or capable of, violence. On the other hand. the novel is clear that the plan is flawed and that those who prosecute it are also flawed. The society of the neuts is really well drawn, and while the prose in Necessary Ill is no more than slightly above average for genre fiction, the world-building is cleverly done. Despite its premise it proved to be one of the most optimistic sf novels I read in 2017. More, please.

Honourable mentions: The Opportune Moment, 1855, Patrik Ouředník (2006, Czech Republic) [4] off-kilter story of an anarachist utopia founded in Brazil, and its failure; Europe in Winter, Dave Hutchinson (2016, UK) [5], third book in the sf/spy thriller trilogy that isn’t a trilogy anymore, won the BSFA Award this year; Proof of Concept, Gwyneth Jones (2017, UK) a piece of characteristically smart but grim sf from a favourite author; The Possibility of Life’s Survival on the Planet, Patrick Keiller (2012, UK) an accompanying text for an exhibition related to Keiller’s documentary, Robinson in Ruins; Lila, Marilynne Robinson (2014, USA) the third of Robinson’s Gilead novels, following the wife of the narrator of GileadParty Going, Henry Green (1939, UK) a party heading for the South of France are trapped in a London railway hotel by the weather, characteristically sharp prose from Green; Angel, Elizabeth Taylor (1957, UK) the story of  a young woman who becomes a best-selling romantic novelist but never manages to live in the real world; This Brutal World, Peter Chadwick (2016, UK) excellent book of photographs of Brutalist buildings; The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon (2000, USA) epic history of comics told through the lives of a US Jew and a Czech Jew who escapes to the US prior to WWII; Nocilla Experience, Agustín Fernández Mallo (2008, Spain), the second book in Mallo’s trilogy of fiction cleverly mixed with fact.

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Moving pictures 2017, #68

Not an especially interesting spread of films in this post, although I did enjoy some of them.

Gold Diggers in Paris, Ray Enright & Busby Berkeley (1938, USA). The Gold Digger series had legs, at least during the 1930s. The first two installments in the series are apparently lost, but it managed a number of films before vanishing into obscurity – although I’m not sure if the series was a casualty of declining audiences or the imposition of the Hays Code. But some of the Gold Diggers films are better than others, and the fact this one is in the second of the Busby Berkeley Collections at least gives a clue as to which it might be… Which is sadly not wrong. France is putting on an exposition and decides to invite ballet companies from several countries. So they send a comedy incompetent to the US, who is tricked into inviting a dance troupe from a nightclub instead of an actual ballet troupe. And, er, that’s it. The US academy of ballet learns they were robbed of the invite and set out to fix things. Meanwhile, the manager of the nightclub dance troupe – and the lead singer of its routines – has to keep the French authorities unaware of his his dancers’ true nature. It’s mildly amusing, and not at all probable, and some of the dance routines in the final act are okay. And the Schnickelfritz Band, who perform several numbers, are actually pretty good. I do like these Busby Berkeley musicals, but some of them are so much better than the others. I’d love to see them in colour. But you take what you can get, and what you can get is worth seeing at least once.

Festival Express, Bob Smeaton, (2003, UK). I don’t really know enough about documentaries to put together a rental list of ones I should watch, so I picked a bunch whose subjects sounded like they might be interesting. And one of the subjects I like is music of the 1960s and 1970s. The title of this film refers to a train hired by a concert promoter in 1970 to transport several bands across Canada to appear at gigs in Toronto, Winnipeg and Calgary. The promoter provided a carriage with all the equipment for jam sessions, and the idea was the various bands would play music as they travelled. Which they did. They also drank a lot. A lot. And it was all filmed. But the film was held up for years by rights disputes, and then lost, before resurfacing early this century, and all the parts put in place to release the 1970 footage as part of Festival Express. The documentary consists of interviews from 2003 with those who were on the train and are still alive, as well as film shot at the time of the jam sessions, events on the train and at the gigs at the various cities. If you like the music of the time – Janis Joplin, Buddy Guy, Grateful Dead, The Band, and so on – it’s a pretty good documentary. There’s some good concert footage – and more in the special features – and some of the jam sessions are especially good. The “let’s put a groupie’s chest on the cover” art is less good. But don’t let that put you off. Worth seeing.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Luc Besson (2017, France). I’ve been reading Jean-Claude Mézière and Pierre Christin’s Valerian and Laureline series since the 1990s – one or two in French initially, but then in English as Cinebook began publishing translations of each volume. So when I heard Luc Besson was making a film featuring the two characters – it could hardly be described as an “adaptation” of a 21-volume science fiction bande dessinée – I was pretty stoked. Besson may be a bit and miss as a director, and, to be honest, more miss than hit, but his previous attempt at space opera, The Fifth Element, had been lots of fun. But then the reviews of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets began to roll in and… oh dear. It sounded like he’d made a right pig’s ear of it. But I was famliar with the source material, and most reviewers apparently were not, so I decided to reserve judgement until I’d seen Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets for myself. And… oh dear. Let me say straightaway, it looks gorgeous. It’s a total CGI-fest, and shows a great deal of imagination in the CGI creatures and aliens it presents. But. The Valerian and Laureline series is about, well, Valerian and Laureline. And that’s where Besson’s movie mostly falls flat. In the bande dessinée, Valerian mostly resembles Belmondo (with maybe a soupçon of Lazenby thrown in) and Laureline is basically Bardot with red hair. So the casting of DeHaan and Delevingne is absolutely mystifying. The two characters’ relationship also develops over the course of the series, with Valerian the competent Galaxity agent and Laureline the unsophisticated young woman he rescues from Earth’s past… only for Laureline to turn out to be much more competent of the two, and her use of Valerian as “muscle” becomes a running joke. There are flashes of that relationship in Besson’s movie, but mostly it seems to be Valerian as a hormonal fifteen-year-old boy and Laureline as a seventeen-year-old girl who has already seen it all. And both played by actors that are plainly in their twenties. There are other weird bits. Like the bizarre appearance of an Apollo CSM in the final sequence – but it’s not a real Apollo CSM, as it has a glass cockpit. So what’s that about? And the actual plot, where an area in the centre of Galaxity, sorry Alpha Station, is impervious to sensors, but turns out to hide the Pearls who survived genocide in the opening sequence… Well, it’s all a bit confused and the timelines don’t really add up. But then French films, and especially Besson’s films, are infamous for leaving important elements of the plot on the cutting-room floor. Pace, apparently, is everything in France. The band dessinée series, on the other hand, is very very big on common sense and narrative logic. It is one of its virtues. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets has lots of pace. It is indeed headlong. It does not have much continuity or common sense. I can only hope this film persuades the film-making world that Mézière’s and Christin’s series is a good property for adaptation. And that whoever attempts it next does a better job.

Little Caesar*, Mervyn LeRoy (1930, USA). This was apparently Edward G Robinson’s first appearance on film as a gangster, a role he would occupy for much of his career. Which is, I guess, mildly interesting, but not a good reason for the film to be on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list. Because as far as I could tell, that seemed to be the only thing about Little Caesar that was notable. Especially when you compare it to contemporary gangster films like Scarface. Robinson is keen to claimb the gangster ladder, which is what he does. He works his way up to top dog, but then things start to go wrong and he goeson the run and ends up a drubk living in a doss house. Until the DA starts making public statements calling him a coward, and because these sorts of characters are so one-dimensional all it takes is threatening their manhood to force them out of hiding, so Robinson makes an attempt on the DA’s life and is defeated. Yawn. There are some seminal gangster movies from the 1930s, but I fail to understand why this is considered one.

Le château de mère, Yves Robert (1990, France). This is the sequel to Robert’s La gloire de mon père and, like that film, is also based on an autobiographical novel by Marcel Pagnol, and is in fact the adaptation of Pagnol’s sequel to La gloire de mon père. So, the same characters, the same general situation, roughly the same period, certainly the same place… and a slightly different plot. The boy, who’s the narrator of the films, is put forward as the school’s representative in some sort of academic competition, and so needs to study hard. Meanwhile, the family decide to return to their holiday home, but this entails a 3-hour walk from the railway station. Until, one day, they’re surprised by a canal guard, who has access to all the gardens through which the canal runs and so provides a shortcut which makes it a 30-minute walk. So the family start using the shortcut. They’re accosted by one of the property owners, but he’s happy for them to trespass. A guard on another property is less forgiving and reports them. La chaâteau de ma mère is more of the same, pretty much. A rose-tinted version of Provence during the 1920s, a soupçon of social commentary, lots of nostalgia, and lots of shots of Provençal landscape. It was every bit as dull as La gloire de mon père, although some of the humorous scenes were better. Not being French, I don’t understand the appeal of these films – but then I don’t understand the appeal of Heartbeat or Last of the Summer Wine and I live in Yorkshire…

You’ll Never Be Alone, Álex Anwandter (2016, Chile). I’ve no idea where I came across mention of this film. I suspect I added it my list because it was a recent drama from Chile and available for rental. Given that my previous experience of Chilean cinema is Patricio Guzmán’s documentaries (and if you’ve not seen them, you must), I had no real idea what to expect. What I got was… surprisingly brutal. A man is the manager of a factory that makes shop window dummies. He has worked there for 25 years and feels he should be a partner in the business, and so has been persuaded by the owner to invest some of his own money in order to buy partnership. His son is openly gay. One night, his son is attacked by some local youths who know him – including one who has been fucking him – and put into a coma. The man has to spend the money he planned to invest in the company on his son’s medical bills. And then, the factory owner sells the mannequin factory to a rival company. His son is racking up expensive medical bills – millions of pesos – and his twenty-five years of loyalty are apparently worth shit. So he does something about it. This is a grim film, and the gaybashing which is its most dramatic moment is horrible and brutal. And, of cource, because that’s how these things go, the perpetrators are not even charged as there are no other witnesses than the victim, even though everyone knows who did it. When the father confronts one later in the film, the youth seems more scaredof being caught than ashamed of what he has done, even though he took advantage of the gay son by having sex with him. You’ll Never Be Alone is worth seeing, but for god’s sake, watch something cheerful after seeing it.

1001 Movies You Must See You Die count: 894


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Moving pictures 2017, #67

I seem to have built up another backlog of these again. Cracking on…

Passion, Jean-Luc Godard (1982, Switzerland). Some people consider this one of Godard’s best, although he seems fixed in the minds of the general cinema-going public only as the Nouvelle Vague director of films such as À bout de souffle, Bande à part and Une femme est une femme. Of course, he’s made many more films than that, and is still making them. Passion marked Godard’s return to mainstream cinema after a period making experimental pictures. A Polish film-maker in Switzerland is exasperating his backers by staging huge, and expensive, tableaux based on famous paintings, none of which suggest a commercial narrative movie. Meanwhile, Isabelle Huppert is fired from her job at a local factory, and subsequently tries to organise a strike. The film-maker, played by Jerzy Radziwilowicz, is in a relationship with Huppert; he’s also in a relationship with the wife, played by Fassbinder favourite Hanna Schygulla, of the owner of the hotel where he is staying. It’s an odd mix of a film. The Huppert narrative is very much realist social drama, but the Schygulla elements feel a bit like a bedroom farce and the tableaux scenes are more Peter Greenaway than anything Godard has done previously. It works, because Godard is good at this stuff. And he also has an excellent cast – Huppert, probably the best actor currently making films, is on top form, even with the stutter with which her character is lumbered. The tableaux are… odd. As I said, more Greenaway than Godard. But unlike Greenaway, Passion shows how they are constructed – their existence is part of the narrative, rather than them actually being the narrative. I rate other films by Godard higher than Passion (although I’m not that much of a fan of his Nouvelle Vague movies). Um, thinking about my favourite Godard films, they’d probably look like this: 1. Le mépris, 2. 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, 3. Je vous salue, Marie, 4. Week End, and 5. either Passion, Détective or Film Socialisme.

The Mortal Storm*, Frank Borzage (1940, USA). A write-up of this film somewhere – Wikipedia? imdb? – states that it rarely mentions the country in which it was set in order not to offend German audiences. Except that’s completely untrue. It makes it abundantly clear it’s about Germany and the average Germans’ complicity with Hitler and the Nazis. The whole point of the film is a relationship between a non-Nazi and the daughter of a Jewish intellectual. No effort is made to disguise this. Jimmy Stewart is friendly with the daughter of college professor Frank Morgan, who is Jewish. She’s already engaged to a Nazi party member, but when her step-brothers start spouting the party line, she realise her mistake. This is a good film because it’s totally not subtle. It’s not a great film – some of the opening shots have that sort of artificial grandeur Hollywood managed every so often with its studio shots… but once the plot gets into gear they disappear. Given its subject – even more timely now than it has ever been – The Mortal Storm probably deserves its spot on 1001 Movies you Must See Before Die list, even though technically there’s nothing that’s special or important about it.

Gold Diggers of 1937, Lloyd Bacon (1936, USA). A theatre owner wants to put on a new show but his partners have spent all on his money on the stock market. So they get his life insured, planning to bump him off and then collect to make good on their debts. But the insurance salesman – Gold Diggers regular Dick Powell – who sold him the policy is keen on him staying alive. So the corrupt partners try to kill the theatre owner, but Powell has to keep him alive in order to earn his commission. Cue hilarity. There are some entertaining set-pieces, but the humour is all a bit obvious and some of the acting closer to mugging. There’s one of Berkeley’s big routines at the end, but the way the final act gives everyone the happy – or not, in the villains’ case – ending does feel over contrived. I don’t know if the Gold Diggers series was killed by the Hays Code or the declining quality of the films, but they’re not bad examples of their time and type, and they’re usually entertaining. If you find copies of these two Busby Berkeley collections, they’re worth having, although volume one much more so than volume two.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (2010, Thailand). I’d known Weerasethakul’s name originally as the director of The Adventures of Iron Pussy, a film I’ve never seen, but a spoof of 1970s Thai action films and musicals didn’t sound like it would appeal. But then earlier this year I came across mention of the film he made after that, Tropical Malady, and it seemed much more like the sort of movie I enjoy watching. So I stuck it on my rental list (see here). And followed it with Syndromes and a Century (see here). And then it turned out Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 2 included Weerasethakul’s first film, Mysterious Objects at Noon… So I’ve now seen four films by Weerasethakul, and they’re very good. They’re slow and elliptical and often beautifully shot. Sort of my thing, really. Okay, so sometimes the parts don’t quite fit together, but I really like the fact Weerasethakul ignores the three-act structure. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives consists of six linked stories about the title character. They’re odd, but odd in a way that is presented as completely normal. The dead  sister of Uncle Boonmee’s wife joins them for dinner and they treat her appearance as completely unremarkable. A nephew who disappeared returns as a forest spirit – covered head to toe in fur and with red eyes that glow in the dark – and they treat him as if he were just a lost nephew. It’s beautifully laid-back. True, not much, if anything, happens; but Weerasethakul presents worlds in which strange things take place and they are treated as completely ordinary. And the slow dead-pan delivery not only makes their ordinariness within the world of the film more believable but also makes them even more extraordinary to the viewer. I think I’m becoming a bit of a Weerasethakul fan. And yes, now I want to see The Adventures of Iron Pussy.

Silver Lode*, Allan Dwan (1954, USA). That’s some cover art. Silver Lode is actually a relatively ordinary 1950s Western, and that cover art looks more like some twenty-first century Western romance, with its artfully-designed typeface and artfully-placed lens flare. A US marshal and three marshal deputies ride into the eponymous town with a warrant for the arrest of John Payne, a pillar of the local community. The marshal tells everyone that Payne killed his brother – shot him in the back during a poker game – and stole the pot of $20,000 dollars. At first, the people of Silver Lode are on Payne’s side and are keen to ensure he is conveyed safely to California, where the warrant was issued, in order for his innocence to be proven. But then one of the marshal’s deputies admits to Payne that it’s all a fake – the marshal is no marshal and the warrant is forged – and it’s all for revenge… but the marshal kills the deputy and pins it on Payne… Public opinion turns and Payne finds himself hiding from the mrshal and his deputies and the townsfolk. It’s an interesting spin on your usual Western story, and it’s handled well – Payne’s actual guilt is left in the air until the very end – but in terms of presentation there’s nothing special about Silver Lode. I’d sooner its position on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list went to a better non-Hollywood film.

O Pagador de Promessas*, Anselmo Duarte (1962, Brazil). Another highly-regarded film that doesn’t seem to have ever had a DVD release – at least not in the UK – so I ended up having to buy a rip on eBay from a US seller. O Pagador de Promessas, variously translated as Keeper of Promises and The Given Word, is the only Brazilian film to win the Palme d’Or. Like some of the other Brazilian films I’ve seen, it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I do wonder if I’m seeing the cream of the crop – Vidas Secas, the films of Glauber Rocha… These are excellent films and it’s criminal they’re not better known in the Anglophone world. But O Pagador de Promessas… A poor farmer promises to carry a crucifix from his farm to a church in Salvador (like those other excellent Brazilian films, O Pagador de Promessas is set in Bahia) if his donkey survives its illness. But the church are unhappy with the farmer’s “pagan” promises, and various other groups try to use him to promote their own anti-Catholic causes. From my limited exposure to Brazilian culture, Bahia seems to be fertile ground – Vidas Secas is set there (see here), as are Rocha’s Black God, White Devil and Antonio das Mortes (see here and here), not to mention Mario Vargas Llosa’s excellent novel, The War of the End of the World (see here). It’s not all carnivals and football. Duarte made half a dozen feature films between 1947 and 1967 – I’d like to see them all. And watch the rest of Glauber Rocha’s oeuvre, of course. I should make more of an effort to track these films down.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 893


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Moving pictures 2017, #66

I managed to knock a few off the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and despite them both being US films – one Hollywood, one independent – I thought they earned their place on it.

Mr Arkadin, Orson Welles (1955, Spain). After making Macbeth, most of Welles’s remaining films were made in Europe with international financing. It’s perhaps a bit of a cheat to describe Mr Arkadin as a Spanish film, given it was English language, had an American director, and featured a cast including Americans, Italians, Germans, Brits and Spaniards, among others… but it was shot mostly in Spain, and Welles was resident there at the time, so… The story opens with a private plane flying into Spain with no one aboard and presents it newsreel-fashion as a mystery, which the film will then solve… by telling the story leading up to that moment. Robert Arden is an American knocking about in Spain, who inveigles himself into the affections of the daughter of reclusive billionaire Arkadin, played by Welles in a bad wig and beard. When Arden finally meets Arkadin, he’s offered a job – Arkadin cannot remember his life before 1927, and wants Arden to research it for him (the reason given is so that no nasty surprises turn up when Arkadin bids for military contracts). So Arden tracks down past associates of Arkadin, ending up in Mexico, where he discovers the truth about the man. And the truth about why he was asked to research the man’s past. Arden heads back to Spain to tell the daughter, Arkadin charters a plane in an effort to stop him. He fails. Apparently, there are several cuts of the film knocking about, some better than others, and none what Welles really intended. The end result is something that tries to be The Third Man, with bits of Shakespeare thrown in, all shot in Welles’s inimitable style, and then edited so it teeters on the edge of sense. Welles overplays his role, Arden is not a sympathetic hero, and the supporting cast  are more like circus performers than actors. But it’s Welles, so it’s worth seeing.

Roger & Me*, Michael Moore (1989, USA). I know of Michael Moore, of course, and the career he has carved out for himself. I’ve seen seen a couple of his films. But I’d never seen the one that started his career, and since it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list… So I bunged it on the rental list. I wasn’t expecting much of it – Moore has tackled much more contentious subjects in later films, and given that this was his first too, I expected it to be crude and simplistic. And while it was certainly the latter, it was never the former. It’s a surprisingly polished piece of work. Unfortunately, recent events have pretty much underminded it. Flint, Michigan, was the town where the automobile production line was invented, and it has relied heavily on car manufacturing ever since. But in the 1980s, the automobile corporations decided to cut costs by closing down plants in the USA and opening them in much cheaper countries. This is known as “making the product cheaper while taking away the spending power of the market which buys it so your business eventually collapses and oh look guess what happened…” Around a third of Flint’s carworkers found themselves out of a job. This is painted as devastating to the community, well, some parts of the community, the country club set are completely oblivious of course… which is why Moore wants to beard GM chairmain Roger Smith and ask him to defend his decision. In the film, the workforce is cut from 80,000 to 50,000 over slightly more than a decade. True, this is bad for any community which relies on a single industry. But as of 2015, GM has 7,000 workers in Flint. And, of course, the city is better known now for its poisoned water supply. A city in the US without fit drinking water for much of its population the three years and counting. And the US still think it’s a world leader. Ha.

Zardoz, John Boorman (1974, Ireland). I think I last saw this back in the 1980s, but it’s one of those sf films you tend to know a lot about if you’re into sf without actually having to have seen it all that often. I mean, you either absorb the plot – or major points of it – through osmosis, or it’s extremely memorable. I’m noty entirely which is the case. Okay, so Sean Connery in a Zapata moustache and red nappie is pretty memorable. And so is the flying head which appears on the Blu-ray cover-art. Connery is Zed, an Exterminator, whose job it is to, well, exterminate Brutals, who are the debased remnants of the population after some catastrophe (although they seem to wear 1970s clothing). Meanwhile, there are the Vortexes, safeguarded by forcefields and in which live the Eternals, the immortal descendants of a group of scientists who chose to safeguard all human knowledge. Zed hides away in the floatibng head and is taken to one of the Vortexes. During the flight, he kills Arthur Frayn, the Eternal who controlled the floating head and looked after the Exterminator/Brutal programme. In the Vortex, Zed is studied, and discovered the be more intelligent than the Eternals. Because they’re sort of Eloi, they’re weak and decadent and many of them have drifted into catatonia. But Zed shakes them up. And they needed it, because they were going nowhere. I know plenty of sf fans count this as a favourite, and it has sort of dippy 1970s charm to it – and I’m a fan of many things from the 1970s – but it’s hard not to reach the conclusion Zardoz is more style than substance. Bits of it are borrowed from all over, not least the book/film it directly references. And asking the viewer to believe Sean Connery is more intelligent than Charlotte Rampling or John Alderton… Well, suspension of disbelief only stretches so far. On the other hand, some of the shots of the Irish countryside are really impressive, and the production design does a lot with very little – although does a look bit like a BBC production at times. I’m glad I watched it again – and can do so whenever I want, as I bought the Blu-ray in the eureka! sale – and it’s certainly true there are shitloads of worst sf films. But there are also a lot of better ones, and it’s never going to make it into my top ten.

Varsity Show, William Keighley (1937, USA). So  I tracked down a copy of the Busby Berkeley Collection Volume 2 on eBay, and it was cheap – and, when it came, it has to be said, a bit battered, but never mind. It’s also not as good as the first collection. But I knew that going in. In Varsity Show, Dick Powell is a washed-up Broadway writer who is co-opted into helping out his alma mater with their annual variety show. He’s doing it because he needs the money, and they want him to running things because the fuddy-duddy in charge is sure to produce a piss-poor show. Powell is on form, and some 0f the female cast shine, but it’s also one of those films where twenty-somethings are referred to as “kids” and the musical numbers aren’t especially memorable. The “kids” rebel, of course, and end up occupying a theatre in New York in order to put on their show. Which is where it turns into your typical Busby Berkeley number. And they really were astonishing. Okay, there’s a leap of imagination required when a dozen dancers on a tuny stage suddenly turns into hundreds of dancers on a massive soundstage… but the way it does that kaleidoscope thing with the dancers is often mind-boggling. Equally mind-boggling is the final scene, in which the theatre’s owners send the police, who sit down to listen to the show, and then the National Guard, who takes seats to watch the show, and, well, you can guess the rest. Varsity Show has a weak story but it manages a good Busby Berkeley extravaganza at the end.

The Phenix City Story*, Phil Karlson (1955, USA). This was a hard film to track down. Despite being on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, it doesn’t appear to have ever been released on DVD, and certainly not in this country. But I found a copy on eBay, from one of those sellers who sell DVD rips of out-of-copyright movies, and it proved to be a pretty good transfer. And a pretty good film. There are two cities either side of a river: Columbus, Georgia, and Phenix City, Alabama. There is a street in Phenix Citty lined with casinos and brothels, and the gangs who run them pretty much control the town. That is, until they inadvertently convince a popular lawyer to run for state attorney general on a ticket to clean them out. And when they kill him, his warhero son takes them on instead. Interestingly, the film opens as a documentary, with a journalist interviewing people involved in the clean-up of Phenix City. It’s only about 15 minutes in that it becomes a traditional narrative cinema film. The gangsters aren’t very convincing, and it’s all a bit Wild West in places – although apparently it’s based ona true story. It’s also pretty brutal, far more than you’d expect from a mid-1950s movie. That aside, and despite a somewhat sensationalist tone, The Phenix City Story proved a lot better than expected, and might just about deserve its slot on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

Scenes from a Marriage, Ingmar Bergman (1973, Sweden). I bought the Criterion edition of this a while ago, which includes both the international movie release and the original Swedish television series. And it was the latter I watched. Of course. Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson are a happily-married couple. He’s an academic, she’s a family lawyer. At least, they’re happy when the series opens. They’re being interviewed by a magazine and they discuss their marriage openly. And later, when friends comes round for dinner, the friends’ unhappy marriage is contrasted with that of Ullmann and Josephson. Except, as the following five episodes show, it’s not all sweetness and light. There are several shocking incidences of violence, which really should not have been acceptable even in 1974. Josephson leaves Ullmann for another woman, but then tries to rekindle his marriage – and he’s really quite horrible about his girlfriend. Eventually, the two separate, and then meet up years both married to other partners… and they have an affair. Josephson’s character is quite a nasty piece of work, and Ullmann seems far too accepting of his actions – although she does use them to advantage when they agree to divorce. Scenes from a Marriage was apparently blamed for the rise in divorce rates in Europe, although it was most likely coincidence. The film/series is highly regarded, and it does seem in places like the epitome of Bergman, but I can’t really say I liked it. It looked bland – perhaps deliberately so – but neither of the main characters were pleasant, or sympathetic, enough to hang a 281-minute TV miniseries on. There were some good bits, true, and it times the marriage did actually feel genuine. But it was a bit like a gory autopsy, and unpleasant to watch more than it was intertaining.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 890