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Moving pictures 2018, #10

I’m trying to get up to date with these. Despite spending a couple of weeks watching mostly television series – including Agent Carter, Star Trek: Discovery, The Expanse and, er, Silent Witness – I still seem to have built up a backlog.

Diary of a Chambermaid, Luis Buñuel (1964, France). This film saw a change in pace for Buñuel, and a change in fortunes. It was his most realistic film to date, and based on a popular 1900 novel of the same title by Octave Mirbeau, which had been adapted in Hollywood in 1946 by, of all people, Jean Renoir, and before that in Russia in 1916. The Mexican star of Buñuel’s Viridiana, Silvia Pinal, was originally intended for the title role, and even learnt French to play it, but the part went to Jeanne Moreau. Who plays a young woman who is hired as a maid at a country house in the 1930s that seems to be populated by oddballs and eccentrics. Her name is Célestine but they all call her Marie. The groom is an anti-semitic right-winger, the husband chases anything in skirts and takes out his frustrations on small game, the father-in-law is a shoe fetishist with a cabinet full of women’s shoes, and the next-door neighbour is fond of throwing rubbish over the fence. But then the father is found dead in bed, and a young girl who visited the house is found raped and murdered. The chambermaid suspects the groom, and promises to marry him in an effort to make him confess… The film plays like a farce set in an upper-class home, with a mix of belowstairs and abovestairs scenes and characters from several classes. For Buñuel, it’s also played straight. Moreau is precisely what her character seems to be, a chambermaid, although as the focus of the film she displays more character than the rest of the cast. Having said that, this is closer to La Règle du jeu than it is Downton Abbey (hack spit), and not just because of the language. There’s a slightly mocking tone to it all and, watching it, it’s easy to see how Buñuel, and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, began re-introducing surreal elements into “straight” dramas, as in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Phantom of Liberty. I will admit to preferring the latter films, but this is still excellent stuff. A box set worth owning.

Die Finanzen des Großherzogs, FW Murnau (1924, Germany). I still think David Tallerman is being unfair in his characterisation of Murnau as an uninteresting director, although to be honest I’ve yet to get a handle on what makes a good director of silent films. True, Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is really quite astonishing, but I don’t see much difference between the silent films of Murnau, Lubitsch or Lang, since all three were working in the same country around the same time. And yet… Murnau’s Die Finanzen des GroßherzogsThe Finances of the Grand Duke – was mostly filmed on location in Montenegro and Croatia – whch is not typical of German silent films. And it’s a gentle comedy too, where other silent comedies from Germany I’ve seen have tended to be broad – although certainly not like slapstick like Hollywood silent comedies. Die Finanzen des Großherzogs is set in an invented Mediterranean duchy, whose finances have pretty much given up the ghost. A US industrialist offers a large payment to mine the island’s sulphur deposits, but the grand duke turns it down as he rightly thinks it will affect the quality of life of his subjects… And that’s pretty much the plot: impoverished grand duke in danger of losing duchy to predatory capitalist interests because of lack of cash, but is saved at last minute through unlikely series of events. These events are in the person of a loaded Russian princess whom the grand duke doesn’t want to marry, but she ends up pretending to be the wife of a travelling salesman, or something, and gets to meet the grand duke in that guise, and they fall in love, and everyone lives happily ever after. The end. There’s a few other bits and pieces going on in there, like the finance minister aiming to seize the duchy for himself. It’s all very, well, Ruritanian. Fun.

Le Pont du Nord, Jacques Rivette (1981, France). I’m not quite sure what to make of Rivette, as he tells fantastical stories in real-life settings, but the fantasy is all in the minds of the characters – with the occasional bit of help from the director. In other words, he finds games and conspiracies and quests in the ordinary, in such a way that the games and conspiracies and quests seems perfectly real without in any way upsetting the ordinary. And so too in Le Pont du Nord, in which two two young women meet up and follow a quest involving several different men called Max, which leads to a dragon, which is actually a playground slide, which one of them then defeats by loudly challenging it. Everything happens in and around Paris, in the quotidian world, and some of it you suspect was guerilla-filmed, even though the two women plainly don’t entirely occupy it, and there is enough strangeness in the events which befall them to suggest something other than the ordinary world. And yet the bulk of the strangeness is supplied by the two main characters, who seem to be operating in a world that doesn’t entirely exist on screen. Rivette has form in this: Merry-Go-Round is a conspiracy story with no real conspiracy in sight; Noroît is a fantasy presented with such a light touch, it might as well be mainstream. I’m not entirely sure what to make of it all, and the lack of reviews seems to suggest others feel the same way. At 129 minutes, it’s short for a Rivette film. (And no, I still have not tackled Out 1, all 760 minutes of it, despite owning a copy for two years.) I came to Rivette through La belle noiseuse, which is on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before you Die list (2013 edition), and that inspired me to seek out more of his work. At which point I found myself watching films that were not like the one that had inspired me to seek out that director’s films… And yet, I find myself drawn to Rivette’s films, that are unlike La belle noiseuse, and more inclined to put in the time to watch the really long ones… Which I really must do, one of these days.

The Neon Demon, Nicolas Winding Refn (2016, France). Refn is lauded as a talent in Hollywood, although apparently not so much after all, since he needed French money to make this film. His movies certainly look very pretty, and this one is no exception. But the stories he tells really aren’t very nice. In this one, an ingenue moves to LA, is picked up by an agency, and becomes a a successful model. Which does not go down with the two models she spends her time with. One has had a number of cosmetic surgeries to improve her looks and career, but is castigated for it. For all that it’s about a beautiful woman, this is not a film that treats women well. They are pretty much all victims. Even the young model who is the central character – she has zero agency, and her only act is to walk away from it all at the end. The other models are driven by their obsession to be admired by men, even though the men in the film are just as much ciphers as the women are. The Neon Demon is a film that’s all about how it looks, which seems apposite given it’s about the modelling industry… but it also seems to be based on misconceptions and clichés about modelling. It has its central cast of three models, including the ingenue, and it uses them to tell a story of excess, and the cannibalistic nature of the industry, making the latter real rather than metaphorical, to no good end. A film best avoided.

Cemetery of Splendour, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (2015, Thailand). I have no idea what these films are about, but I really like them. They’re sort of slow cinema, in as much as very little happens in them. But they also exhibit little in the way of plot – and nothing in the way of a three-act structure (hack spit) – and yet… things happen. Weerasethakul also has a tendency to use the same stable of actors, so the more of these you watch the more faces you recognise. And there are other commonalities: the military seems to always play a major part, as do hospitals or clinics; some of the cast are disabled; there’s always mention of Isan province, usually self-deprecratingly; and there’s always an element of the strange, or supernatural. Weerasethaskul has a shtick. Which does not detract from his films, I hasten to add. There is an oddness to his movies that I don’t think any other director quite manages, a sort of New Weird sensibility I’m not sure any other director is currently using. In Cemetery of Splendour, a sickness is causing soldiers to suddenly fall asleep, and there is a clinic with a ward full of sleeping soldiers, all lying in beds under weird blue lights. But then one soldier wakes, but can remember nothing of the time he was asleep. There’s also the cemetery of the title, which is a wood in which people have left mythic objects… It’s one of those films that, when it’s finished, you’re not entirely sure what you’ve watched. I’ve now seen five of Weerasethakul’s and I’m no closer to understanding them. He’s a singular talent and his movies, for all their glacial pace and enigmatic stories, are fascinating. If someone released a Weerasethakul box set, I’d buy it like a shot. I only own a copy of his first film, Mysterious Object at Noon, but all of them bear, if not demand, rewatching.

The Milky Way, Luis Buñuel (1969, France). And speaking of shtick, I sort of feel like I have a handle on Buñuel’s, except… have I really? I mean, he was making films way back in the 1930s, all the way through to the 1970s, in a number of countries, and in a variety of styles. That’s one hell of a career. But The Milky Way feels like a Buñuel film. Even based on my limited exposure to his oeuvre. The title refers to the route taken by pilgrims from France to the Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the Wat of St James. Two travellers follow the route and, en route, witness events which map onto the history of Christianity, especially its so-called heresies. It is very much the product of a Catholic mind, and I say that inasmuch as Catholicism is much more embedded in its followers’ lives that Protestantism, which is what I was nominally brought up as, but I’m completely atheist, and neither hold a candle to the integration of Islam in daily life… All of which means that not only do I not have a dog in this fight but I have a dog-free worldview (which pleases me, as a cat owner), and I suspect Buñuel, for all his mockery, was considerably more religious than I am, as it takes a certain degree of familiarity with the material to mock as much as is the case in The Milky Way. But for all that, religion is, to me, a soft target. I don’t believe a single bit of it. It’s also a completely pointless target. We l;ive in a world in which truth and facts and experts are routinely attacked because they don’t match the narrative of the authorities. There is no such thing as “fake news”. There is propaganda, which is unsupported by facts; and there is news, which is supported by facts. And the least trustworthy sources are those who are quickest to label something as “fake news”. Religion, and all the fucking tragedy it’s caused over the centuries, feels lightweight in comparison. Although, to be fair, The Milky Way does a good job in pointing out how shortsighted that view is. It’s not the best film in the box set, but, like Diary of a Chambermaid (see above), its presence is welcome. The box set doesn’t include some of Buñuel’s best films, but what it does include is bloody good. Worth getting.

1001 Movies you Must See Before you Die count: 895

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Reading diary 2018, #3

Another half a dozen books read. So far, I’m staying on track with my reading challenge.

Calling Major Tom, David M Barnett (2017, UK). I know the author and had previously enjoyed his popCult! (see here), and Calling Major Tom sounded like it might appeal and was getting a big push from its publisher… And, okay, “feel-good” is not a term likely to draw me to a book, nor is “quirky” for that matter. But I trusted Barnett not to be horribly sentimental… and I’m glad I did. Major Tom is a British astronaut on his way to Mars. He wasn’t the original choice for the mission, he was actually a chemist working at the British Space Agency, who had been tasked with looking after the real astronaut. But the real astronaut keeled over and died of a heart attack – no one said this novel was especially plausible; it has a UK with a space programme instead of one on a headlong rush to economic catastrophe, after all – and Thomas Major, a complete misanthrope, took his place. But when his spacecraft’s communications gear goes offline after something strikes the antenna, he has to use a mobile phone to contact Earth. And he decides to use it to contact his ex-wife. Except the number now belongs to a dysfunctional family in Wigan, the Ormerods: Gladys (Nan), teenager Ellie and eight-year-old James. Their father is in prison, their mother died years before, Gladys is suffering from the onset of dementia, Ellie is holding down two jobs to bring money into the household after Nan was 419’d, and James is being bullied at school. And somehow, Major Tom, a complete curmudgeon, who wants nothing to do with people anymore, helps them turn their lives around. Calling Major Tom is, scarily, clearly “feel-good”. But it’s also funny… and I was surprised to find myself enjoying it. Frankly, I’m not surprised it’s doing so well because it ticks a lot of the boxes that successful commercial fiction – that isn’t thriller fiction with plots generated by a very small shell script – ticks. Worth reading. (And yes, the central premise of a lone astronaut travelling away from Earth did remind me a little of a short story which appeared in Postscripts, but never mind…)

Love’s Body, Dancing in Time, L Timmel Duchamp (2004, USA). Duchamp is possibly best-known as the owner of Aqueduct Press, an excellent US small press which focuses on feminist genre fiction, but she is also an accomplished science fiction and fantasy writer in her own right. In fact, her ‘The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.’ I would count as one of the ten best science fiction stories ever written and her Marq’ssan Cycle one of the best sf series about first contact. Love’s Body, Dancing in Time is her first collection, and contains a short story, two novelettes and two novellas. ‘Dance at the Edge’ takes place on a world where some people – or so the narrator believes – can see a border into another world, but they lose the facility when they turn adult. In ‘The Gift’, a travel writer returns to a world famous for its culture, falls in love with a famous singer, but then discovers the price he paid for his voice (think The Alteration). ‘The Apprenticeship of Isabetta di Pietro Cavazzi’ is something Duchamp has done before – a well-researched, and convincing, historical story that slowly drifts into genre territory. In this case, the title character is a young woman confined to a convent to keep her away from a young man whose father wants him to marry well. This is very much a story which takes place in the world of women. The shortest peice in the collection is ‘Lord Enoch’s Revels’, which describes a party hosted by the eponymous peer, during some indefinable period, which may or may not be supernatural. The last story in Love’s Body, Dancing in Time is also the longest: ‘The Héloïse Archive’. It is worth the price of entry alone. A framing narrative describes the main text as a series of undiscovered letters between famous historical romance lovers Héloïse and Abelard, but as the letters progress so things begin to diverge from known history. It’s hardly an original idea, although showing the effects of time travellers’ interference in this secondary manner is quite original – the only other example I can think of is Mary Gentle’s Ash: A Secret History. And like that humungous novel, Duchamp’s novella displays an impressive amount of research. The story of Héloïse and Abelard is fascinating in its own right – the real story, that is, as it unfolds here, before gradually swerving off the rails. Every time I read something by Duchamp, I’m surprised she’s not better known. I suspect the fact that much of her output these days is published through Aqueduct Press, her own press – and that’s not a criticism, by any means – which is a proudly feminist genre press, and Duchamp herself is a very feminist writer… and I’m all too sadly aware how many Neanderthals there are in sf fandom who think “feminism” is a dirty word… Love’s Body, Dancing in Time is not an especially strong collection – although that last novella is a killer – but there are works I would demand be read in Duchamp’s oeuvre – both mentioned earlier (and I’m not the only one to think so about ‘The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.’ as it opens Sisters of the Revolution, an excellent anthology of feminist sf). Seek out her work – especially the Marq’ssan Cycle or a more recent collection, Never at Home (see here).

The Smoke, Simon Ings (2018, UK). I’m trying to get things back on track in 2018 that I’d let slide in 2016 and 2017. Such as SF Mistressworks, which now has two new reviews up after a nine-month hiatus – Emma Bull’s Falcon (see here) and Sydney J Van Scyoc’s Darkchild (see here). And reviewing books for Interzone. The last book I reviewed for the magazine was The Sand Men, which appeared in the Jan/Feb 2016 issue (and the author was extremely unhappy with the review, but so fucking what). Anyway, it had always been my intention to return to reviewing for the magazine, and when I saw Simon Ings’s latest, The Smoke, was available, I thought it the perfect book to get me back into it. I’m not going to say too much about the novel here – you’ll have to buy the copy of Interzone for that – but I’ll admit I’m not really sure what to make of it. It’s either bloody brilliant, or merely very good. It does so many things I’ve not seen a category sf novel do before, and it does them very effectively. I really liked Ings’s Wolves (see here) and it made my best of the year list. I suspect The Smoke will too.

The Taborin Scale, Lucius Shepard (2010, USA). I probably have this novella in The Dragon Griaule collection, but since I bought Shepard novellas as they were published (mostly by Subterranean Press, who these days seem happier publishing limited editions of best-selling genre novels – like Andy Weir’s Artemis, WTF?), so I also have The Taborin Scale as a standalone. In fact, I might well have all of the contents of The Dragon Griaule as either standalone novellas or in other collections, unless there was a story original to the collection, of course. Anyway, The Taborin Scale… A numismatist, George Taborin, comes across a dragon scale in among a collection he bought, and travels to Teocinte, the town that has grown up beside the vast corpse of Griaule. There he consorts with a prostitute, to whom he gives the name Sylvia (not her real name). But something happens, and the two find themselves transported to another time, where Teocinte does not exist and Griaule is young and active and seems to have some purpose in drawing people to that time, although what it is remains unknowable. Taborin rescues a young girl from a group of transportees who had been abusing her, and the three eke out a precarious existence. But then Griaule dies – following the events of The Man Who Painted The Dragon Griaule – and Taborin and Sylvia and the girl find themselves abruptly back in Teocinte… And, to be honest, I’m not entirely sure where this novella was intended to go. It felt like a story in search of a plot, spiced up by the use of footnotes, and carried on the back of earlier Griaule stories. Shepard was a bloody good writer, but he was often sloppy and some of his work often felt half-baked. He was widely-admired, and notoriously cranky, which may be why publishers accepted his stuff when it really needed another go around. And yet, having said that, Shepard’s prose was usually top-notch. It was a bit magpie-like, with a tendency to borrow styles, but it was always put together well. Which is why The Taborin Scale feels so much like a curate’s egg: a well-established prose style, a milieu Shepard had explored in other works (all based around a humungous metaphor)… but then there are the footnotes… and the general vagueness of the story. The Taborin Scale reads like a cross between an experiment and a contractual obligation. I guess I shall have to read the collection to see how it all fits together…

October Ferry to Gabriola, Malcolm Lowry (1970, Canada). I came to Lowry’s fiction sort of accidentally. I knew of him, of course, and of his most famous novel, Under the Volcano; but I’d never read him, nor had any real desire to do so. But after my father died, my mother was clearing out some stuff, including a collection of Penguin paperbacks my dad had bought in the late 1960s (the receipts were still in the books), and which included, among many other authors, three books by Lowry. I took about two dozen of the paperbacks, including the Lowrys, and the first of the Lowrys I read was his collection, Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place. I was hugely impressed by the novella, ‘Through the Panama’. So I read the other two paperbacks, Ultramarine (see here) and Under the Volcano (see here). And then I wanted to read more… So I started collecting first editions of his books. And I have now read them all. October Ferry to Gabriola was his last, not published until thirteen years after his death. (In fact, only Ultramarine and Under the Volcano, and some of the contents of his collection, were published during his lifetime.) Ethan Llewellyn and his wife, Jacqueline, have been evicted from their shack on the Eridanus river and, after some time spent in Vancouver, have chosen to head for the small island of Gabriola to buy an advertised property. The novel opens on the bus to the seaside town where they will catch the ferry, but pretty much heads straight into flashback, beginning with their home in Niagara-on-the-lake. But their home there burns down in a freak lightning strike. Leading to their move to Eridanus. October Ferry to Gabriola is a hit of the pure Lowry – from the plot recycling parts of Lowry’s own life, never mind parts of his other works (their neighbours in Eridanus are Sigbjørn and Primrose Wilderness, Lowry analogues in Dark is the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid, ‘Through the Panama’ and a handful of stories), the long discursive sentences, the detailed self-reflective and self-analytical prose, the self-deprecating humour, and, of course, the copious amount of alcohol. This is great stuff, it’s just so good. I went slightly mad when I decided to collect Lowry, but I’ve yet to read anything by him that has caused me to question that madness. I’m only sorry I’ve run out of novels by him to read. I guess I’ll just have to start re-reading them…

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, Mackenzi Lee (2017, USA). At Sledge-Lit last year, I was talking to Jeannette Ng, author of Under the Pendulum Sun, and we were discussing the novels of Georgette Heyer, and Jeannette recommended The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue (she was clearly a fan as she’d decorated her nails in homage to the book). When I got home that evening, sat watching telly and having a drink or two, as you do, I found myself visiting the website of a well-known online retailer and ordering myself a copy of the book, as you, er, do… And now I have read it. Well, I complained earlier in this post that “feel-good” and “quirky” are not descriptors that draw me to a book, and there’s a lot in The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue that would normally mean I wouldn’t touch it with a bargepole. For one, it’s YA. The narrator, Monty, is a bisexual teenager, the son of an earl. In eighteenth century England. In a novel written by an American woman. His sister, Felicity, is a bluestocking who wants to study medicine, and Percy, his best friend (for whom he’s burning a torch), is the adopted mixed parentage son of a family of Quality. The two guys are off on a Grand Tour, delivering the sister to a finishing school en route in Marseilles. In Paris, they’re invited to a party at Versailles, where Monty, who is a complete rake, upsets the the king’s ex-PM, the Duke of Bourbon, steals something from him, and then makes a complete tool of himself by running around the famous garden stark bollock naked after being caught in flagrante delicto… Except the item he stole proves to be important, especially to the Duke of Bourbon. It’s a box with a combination lock, and it contains a key to a tomb in which can be found an alchemical pancea. So Monty, Percy and Felicity are forced to go undercover and travel incognito to Barcelona to find the original owner of the box… The novel is told entirely from Monty’s point of view and he’s not at all convincing as an eighteenth-century teenager – and did they allow children out of the schoolroom before the age of twenty-one in the 1700s? The prose tries for British, but a quarter of the way in gives up, then it’s all “goddamn” this  and “goddamn” that. But pretty much everything Monty does or says results in a lecture from the other characters. Percy lectures him on his white privilege; Felicity lectures him on his male privilege; yet’s he’s bisexual and there’s little discussion of that, other than a generic condemnation by society (the author says in an afterword she researched “mollies”, but Monty doesn’t feel like a person who would be part of molly culture). The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue reads like contemporary characters in an historical setting. Lee is quite good at plotting, and she is generally good at setting the scene. But the characters do not convince. And the frequent lectures feel contemporary. When I compare a book like this to, say, William Golding’s Rites of Passage, then there’s no comparison. Golding’s novel does more, and more convincingly, in half the pages than The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue. True, it doesn’t include the lectures on privilege, and there’s certainly a place for that, and I rue that fiction has to include such explicit lectures – but that says more about modern society and fandom than it does an individual novel. All told, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue was not for me. The lessons it was teaching, I have been taught elsewhere (not that it isn’t an ongoing process)… which meant I looked at other elements of the story. And there, it failed. I can’t fault its objectives, but I wasn’t impressed.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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Moving pictures 2018, #9

Only five films this time, for some reason. Two of them are recent Hollywood blockbusters – one I thought over-rated, the other was terrible. You can probably guess which is which…

The Song of Bernadette, Henry King (1943, USA). I found this in a charity shop, and thought: classic Hollywood, probably worth a punt. It wasn’t. It’s an adaptation of a novel by Franz Werfel, which tells the story of the woman who “discovered” the “miraculous” spring at Lourdes. In the late 1850s, Bernadette, a schoolgirl, reported eighteen visions of the Madonna, and discovered a spring, following the instructions in one of those visions, which subsequently proved to have healing properties. Put that in a work of fiction and you’d find yourself on the sf and fantasy shelves. I mean, seriously? Lourdes is big business now, of course, with over 200 million visitors since 1860, despite the waters being repeatedly examined by scientists and displaying no unusual characteristics whatsoever. The Song of Bernadette comes across as a star vehicle for Jennifer Jones, who was married to producer David O Selznick, although she did win an Oscar for her role in this film…. despite playing a fourteen-year-old even though she was a decade older. (Another Jennifer Jones vehicle, Indiscretion of an American Wife – see here – is, despite the awful title, much much better.) The Song of Bernadette is all played very earnestly, with the sort of gravitas that suggests it’s based on historical sources, when it’s actually adapted from a novel which took a number of liberties with the life of the real St Bernadette. It’s all so fucking po-faced and serious despite the ridiculousness of its premise. The Song of Bernadette actually won four Oscars – best actress, best art direction, best cinematography, best music – but then it’s not like the Academy Awards have displayed all that much critical acumen over the decades… Not worth hunting down.

Inversion, Behnam Behzadi (2016, Iran). I have to date seen twenty-two films from Iran, a number of them by Abbas Kiarostami and Asghar Farhadi, two excellent directors. Iran has a strong film-making tradition and a number of brilliant films have come out of the country. Pretty much all of them have been deeply-rooted in Iranian society and the situation as it pertains in Iran. Inversion is a case in point. Niloofar lives with her mother and helps look after her. But when her mother collapses and is taken to hospital, and the only cure is to move her out of Tehran and its polluted air… Her brother assumes Niloofar will give up her life and move to the north with their mother. Niloofar doesn’t want to go – she has a successful business and she’s just started seeing an old flame who has returned to Tehran and is single once again. But her brother says he can’t go, and he’s not willing to shoulder part of the burden – why should he? He’s male. Since he owns the lease on Niloofar’s busines premises, he sells it under her so she’s forced to find new premises, and generally makes life difficult for her until she agrees to give up her life and move north to look after their mother. But she won’t budge. Even though it means refusing the role Iranian society expects her to play. All of the Iranian films I’ve seen have, to some degree, been critical of Iranian society, and mostly in regard to the role of women. In some it has been explicit, as it is in Inversion; in others, it is less obvious, such as in Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us. When your cinema is overwhelmingly negative, you have to wonder if there’s something about your country you need to change. So… how has the UK film industry reacted to Brexit? With fucking propaganda. Films about Churchill and Dunkirk. FFS. The man was not the greatest Briton who ever lived, he was a war criminal many times over, responsible for millions of deaths around the world. His leadership during WWII does not excuse his crimes, although it would not be fair to judge him without taking it into account. But. Iran under the shah was a repressive regime propped up by the West, Iran as an Islamic state is no utopia and the films it produces show as much – although the fact they exist shows an openness to criticism the shah was unlikely to allow. Inversion is definitely worth seeing. I will not be watching the Churchill ones.

Osaka Elegy, Kenji Mizoguchi (1936, Japan). I told David Tallerman, who gave me this box set, that I preferred Japanese films set in the twentieth century to historical films, and he pointed out that half of the films in this Mizoguchi collection are actually set in the twentieth century. Including this one. It’s an early film – released in 1936 – and its story is contemporary. I’ve seen enough films by Yasujiro Ozu (well, I’ve seen pretty much all his feature films from the 1950s onwards), so I think I have a good handle on the shape of his movies. Like Mizoguchi, he tended to use a stable of actors, and his films were very similar in the stories they tell. But I haven’t got to that stage with Mizoguchi yet, although I do find myself appreciating his films much more than I did when I first started watching them. In Osaka Elegy, a young woman is pressured into becoming the mistress of her employer. But hat affair ends when the wife finds out. She finds herself in a position where she needs money, and borrows it from her new sugar daddy. But when he demands it back, she has no one to turn to, not even her boyfriend, who had asked her to marry him. You would think, given the plot and my love of 1950s melodramas, Osaka Elegy would be right up my street, And it’s true that most of the Mizoguchi films I’ve seen so far have told women’s stories – The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums, Sansho Dayu and Utamaro and His Five Women being exceptions – but Osaka Elegy didn’t feel as centred on its female lead as, say, The Life of Oharu or The Lady of Musashino. But it’s not just that. Ozu’s films are really good illustrations of uchi-soto, inside-outside, but I don’t get that same feeling from Mizoguchi’s films. Yes, they’re more melodramatic, and the stories are based around the trials and tribulations of the central character – in this case, it’s telephone operator Ayako – and as such provide a dramatic commentary on Japanese society, and women’s role in it… But… I don’t know; perhaps they have too much plot for a melodrama. These are good films – although I could wish for better transfers – but so far they’ve yet to grab me the way Ozu’s films have done, or keep me entertained the way classic Hollywood melodramas have done. But they’re at least good for rewatches, so we shall see…

Atomic Blonde, David Leitch (2017, USA). This is based on a graphic novel, which I have not read; and I do wonder at the recent popularity of graphic novels as sources for movies. Okay, cinema is not an especially sophisticated form of entertainment – in story-telling terms, that is, rather than technically – and neither is the graphic novel, and their stories map out at around the same sort of time-lengths… But if you take a medium that has a tendency to simplify, which is partly baked in, and adapt it to another medium that has a tendency to simplify, which is also baked in… It’s not going to do much for your original story, is it? And when said story is a twisty-turny Cold War thriller that likes to think it can match Le Carré or Deighton for, er, twisty-turniness… Put it this way: there’s a cunning plot twist in Atomic Blonde and it was blindingly fucking obvious about ten minutes in. Charlize Theron, in what smells overpoweringly like a star vehicle or vanity project, plays an MI5 agent sent to Berlin in 1989 to clean up a failed attempt to hand over a stolen Stasi list of all foreign operatives in East Berlin. It’s supposed to be an easy job. But Berlin resident (the technical term for a spy undercover in a city) James MacAvoy seems to be playing his own game. So there’s lots of shooting, lots of fist fights, lots of bloody violence, in which Theron gives as good as she gets, and a plot that thinks it’s a hell of a lot clever than it actually is. And a film that looks really quite nice. The DVD cover should tell you that much, that this is a film which revels in its look. And in that respect, it succeeds really well. It looks great. But the story is pants, and has that blithe disregard to killing off characters graphic novels so often exhibit (because graphic novels don’t do characterisation), but which can be a real flaw in a movie. Even a Cold War thriller. Atomic Blonde looked very nice, but it really wasn’t very good. A shame.

Justice League, Zack Snyder (2017, USA). When the current generation of superhero films first appeared, I quite liked them. Even the bad ones. I liked that CGI had reached the point where it could show superpowers onscreen and they actually looked, well, real. At the time, of course, I still read comics – or rather, I read the trade paperback omnibuses of various superhero titles. So I was sort of into fascist violence enacted via Spandex-clad goons. But in an ironic way, of course. (Who am I kidding? I would read superhero comics like a thirteen-year-old, and watched the films with the same sensibilities; it could never last.) After all, for all that Superman is called “the last boy scout”, like that’s an insult, he’s still judge, jury and executioner much of the time. And he’s one of the least objectionable ones. But it’s not the concept of superheroes which makes Justice League a bad film. It’s not even Zack Snyder, who does some things really well – and there a lot of those sort of things in Justice League. To be honest, I can’t think of another director who could have done anything with Justice League that would not have been unrecognisable. And yet, it’s a shit film. It has to pull together six superheroes, while also presenting the origin story of three of them. Although one of them had an origin story in a TV series but they decided to retcon that. We know Superman and Batman, although both have been rebooted that many times it’s hard to be sure which is which; and of course we know Wonder Woman from last year’s successful film. But the Flash is not the Flash of the television series – more than one, IIRC – and Aquaman and Cyborg are complete unknowns. Of course, when you have superheroes, you can’t have them beating up muggers and bank robbers – well, not unless they’re Batman – which means you need a global threat that only superpowered dudes can fight, and then only if certain things happen, including them actually agreeing to work together. Because when the planet is in peril, superhero egos need to be tamed first. But never mind. Apparently, evil supervillain Steppenwolf – the only supervillain named after a novel, unless I’ve missed one called Oliver Twist – failed to gain control of four Mother Boxes on a previous visit to Earth because the Amazons, gods and Atlanteans all managed to fight him off. But the death of Superman has made Earth an easy target, so he’s back. And there are no gods anymore, so the Mother Boxes safeguarded by the Amazons and Atlanteans are easy grabs. So much for that cunning defence plan then. The problem with writing stories based around Mother Boxes – sorry, plot tokens – is that the story totally depends on them being picked up one by one, and as soon as the enemy has one, well, there’s your conflict and your conflict’s resolution all in one easy-to-understand package. Except real fiction – real life – is not like that, not that fiction has any requirement to be like real life. I’m not a fan of story templates or three-act structures and the like, and I’ve seen many excellent films which make a point of not using them, but if it’s going to be used it needs to be done so with rigour and consistency. And Justice League doesn’t. It flails all over the place. Introducing heroes, only to have them write themselves out of the story, but then re-appear and help save the day. The Flash is completely re-invented as a twentysomethihg nerd so Joss Whedon has a character he can actually write dialogue for, because if there’s one thing his career since Buffy has prove it’s that he’s a one-trick pony. Amd then there’s Affleck’s Batman and Cavill’s Superman… And Affleck is actually not bad as Batman, probably slightly better than his precursors. Which sounds like heresy. Maybe it’s the grey hair at the temples that does it. Cavill just looks too chiselled to be Superman – an actual human being who looks to be good to play a superhero, who would have believed it? Wonder Woman is underused; the other three superheroes are paper-thin, perhaps because they have no origin film of their own. The end result is a movie that has a threat and a defence to that threat which don’t stand up to a second’s scrutiny. But it has lots of nice visuals, most of which are implausible, and some character beats that don’t seem to follow the same rhythm track as the main plot. One day, superhero films will grow up; Justice League suggests there’s a way to go yet.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 895


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Moving pictures 2018, #8

A nice geographic spread of films, which is the sort of viewing I’d like to be normal for me.

Salyut-7, Klim Shipenko (2017, Russia). At the time I watched this, Salyut-7 had not been released on sell-through and was only available for streaming – I watched it on Amazon Prime, inexplicably as a three-episode series: they split the feature film in two, and then added a making of featurette as a “third episode”. Which is bonkers. Happily, Salyut-7 – stupidly marketed as “the Soviet ‘Apollo 13′” – is excellent. The previous mission to Salyut – the USSR’s space station during the 1980s – had had a few problems, but when the space station completely shut down after its solar panels were hit by micrometeoroids, and resisted efforts to be restarted from the ground, the only solution was to send up a pair of cosmonauts to fix it. The mission is generally considered one of the toughtest ever attempted – although, of course, the West knew nothing of it publicly until after glasnost. In some respects, Salyut-7 is clearly a Russian attempt to outdo Gravity – at which it happily succeeds. The bulk of the action is set aboard Salyut 7, and the presentation of micro-gravity is just as convincing, if not more so, than in Gravity. True, there’s not much in the way of drama – I mean, even though the mission’s details were kept from the public, the death of the cosmonauts could never have been covered up. So it’s obvious they succeeded – well, to anyone who knows anything about the Space Race. But it was far from easy, and the film makes a meal of the difficulty. But it is, above all, really convincing in its presentation of microgravity and the hardware involved, Soyuz and Salyut. Much as I’m fascinated by the Apollo programme, I do find the Soyuz spacecraft an interesting piece of hardware, and it was good to see it in detail on the big screen (so to speak). If Salyut-7 set out to beat Gravity at its own game, then it succeeded admirably: the effects were as good, if not better; but it was also a true story. I can’t wait for it to be released on Blu-ray. Recommended.

Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman (2008, Israel). Do I classify this is a documentary or an animated film, because, well, it’s both. And it’s not like there are that many animated documentaries they can form a genre of their own. Folman served in the Israeli Defense Force (hah) during the invasion of Lebanon, but it’s not until he’s contacted by a friend from those days that he realises his own memories of his army service are suspiciously free of trauma. So he investigates, and discovers that he was present during a massacre of Lebanese prisoners of war by Falangists but had wiped it from his memory. The film implies the IDF was not complicit in the massacre but allowed it to happen – not because it had been unaware of what might occur, but because the consequences suited them. Years later, Folman has to make sense of memories he has suppressed for nearly thirty years. He travels to the Netherlands to talk to another survivor from his tank squadron, who has made a comfortable living from selling falafel. His friend too has been happy to forget what occurred during the war, although he has not actually blocked the memories. As Folman talks to people who were involved in the circumstances which led to the massacre, so he starts to remember himself what happened. Because the film is animated – it’s a sort of Rotascoped animation, unique to Waltz with Bashir – so it’s easy to tell the flashbacks and present day narratives apart. The film pulls no punches, it depicts the IDF conscripts as ill-trained and clueless, happier having barbecues on the beach than fighting… and completely unprepared for the brutality they encounter. This is not news… but it was suppressed by the Israeli authorities. Not that any other country would not have done the same. All nations did it repeatedly during WWII. The UK and US continues to do it in regard to the Middle East. I remember reading once about a first-hand account by an Israeli soldier in Lebanon and because he described soldiers stealing cars it was not published in Western newspapers as that would undermine the the reputation of Israel. Wars happen; but wars would not continue without a continual supply of weapons… and the same nations who publicly condemn those wars are happy to sell weapons to the combatants. To my mind, that makes them war criminals. They need to be prosecuted. And yes, if that means people like Folman are tried for war crimes – because they were certainly involved in them, whether they remember it or not – then so be it. I would hope the sentencing would reflect their level of involvement and culpability. That’s the proper way to do it.

Wittgenstein, Derek Jarman (1993, UK). I have, over the years, watched several of Jarman’s films, and have often wondered why his reputation was so high in certain circles. I remember thinking Caravaggio was quite good, but The Tempest felt a bit amateur-ish, and Blue was pretty much unwatchable. So I’m not sure what prompted me to put Wittgenstein on my rental list – perhaps a desire to give Jarman a more serious look? If so, I picked a good one for it. Because I actually thought Wittgenstein pretty good. The entire film is filmed against a black background. It’s not black box theatre staging because it doesn’t even make an effort to suggest scenery. It’s actors in front of a black screen. And it works really well. Wittgenstein is shown as a young boy and as a young man, played by two different actors. I know very little about philosophy, I never studied it at school and certainly not at university. And, to be honest, I’ve never felt inspired to explore the subject in the decades since I left full-time education. But Jarman’s Wittgenstein had some choice dialogue on philosophy, like “philosophy is just a by-product of misunderstanding language” and “Professor Wittgenstein, I recommend you read more Hegel”. The script was actually written by Terry Eagleton, although Jarman apparently heavily rewrote it. I’m not especially interested in how films are made, at least not as much as I’m interested in the final product. Sometimes, the genesis of a film can be as interesting as the film itself, but in most cases… Movie-making is a collaborative venture in which various creative types apply their vision to the project… and it’s a toss-up as to which vision finally makes it to the released product. At least with auteur cinema you can be fairly sure it’s the director’s vision. But in Wittgenstein alone, there’s that gap between script and film, between what Eagleton wrote and what Jarman has his cast say. As a film, I liked Wittgenstein – I found it informative and enjoyable. The black background totally worked. If I had wondered about Jarman’s reputation before seeing it, the film at least suggested he deserved his reputation. I plan to watch more Jarman, although I suspect I may have seen the best… (Gah, I now see the BFI are releasing a limited edition box set of his first six films on Blu-ray next month.)

Sumurun, Ernst Lubitsch (1920, Germany). Described as an “Oriental pantomime in six acts”, and also known as One Arabian Night, Sumurun is actually based on a play by Friedrich Freksa (do they have pantomimes in Germany?). A travelling group of performers arrive at an unnamed city. A slave trader wants to sell the troupe’s dancer to the sheikh for his harem. Meanwhile, the sheikh’s favourite from his harem, Sumurun, has fallen in love with a cloth merchant. The sheikh wants the dancer, Sumurun wants the cloth merchant. And then it turns out the dancer falls in love with the sheikh’s son. It’s all very tangled and frenetic and, er, tinted. I’ve no idea why they tinted early films. It doesn’t seem to add anything to the experience. Nor does there seem to be any reason for the tint – sometimes it’s blue, sometimes yellow, sometimes red… Sumurun was apparently filmed entirely in Berlin, using sets, which makes the external shots of the city an impressive achievement – and the desert even more so. Pola Negri is good as the dancer, and Paul Wegener makes a menacing sheikh, but the rest of the cast gurn at the camera like, er, championship gurners. Lubitsch himself, who plays the hunchbacked member of the troupe, is one of the worst. He was apparently so disappointed by his performance he swore never to act again. I’ve now seen four of the six films in this box set, and I must admit the first two were easily the best. Still, there are two films to go – Anna Boleyn and Die Bergkatze– so we shall see…

Mammon (2014, Norway). My mother, who is a big Nordic Noir fan, lent me this. She’d found it in a charity shop. It’s one of those television series where you’re not sure where it’s going for much of its length, which can be an advantage, inasmuch as it promises much. But, of course, it has to make good on that mystery in the finale. And Mammon didn’t quite pull that off. A newspaper publishes allegations of fiscal malfeasance at an investment company, and the CFO resigns under a cloud. It turns out he’s the brother of the journalist who broke the story. A few days later, the CFO commits suicide. The narrative jumps ahead five years. The journalist has dug deeper, with the help of a police officer from the financial crimes unit (they were together for a while during those five years but it’s over now). Their research leads them to a conspiracy centred around a class at a prestigious business school in Bergen twenty years earlier. Then two more important businessmen commit suicide when their finances are questioned… It’s all to do with that group at the business school – and the journalist’s brother was the leader – who decided to use insider trading to create fortunes and so beat the old boy network. And when one of their number decided to grass them up, they murdered him by tying him to a chair and setting fire to his house, also killing the man’s young son in the process… And so creating the creating the defining philosophy of the group – that they would not, like Abraham, sacrifice their sons but would sooner commit suicide. Helping the journalist is a billionaire who gained his wealth suspiciously, and he’s trailed several times before the viewer as a possible villain. But. And it’s why Mammon ultimately dissatisfied – there’s a good conspiracy at the heart of the story, and an excellent mystery… but it over-eggs the cake. We never learn the source of the billionaire’s fortune, for example – and then turns implausibly violent in the final episodes, with men in black SUVs murdering people with impunity. For four of its six episodes, Mammon was good telly. Then it threw it away. There is a second series, broadcast in 2016, and the show has been renewed for a third series.

The Pirogue, Moussa Touré (2012, Senegal). The title refers to a type of open boat used by the Senagalese to travel up the west coast of Africa to land illegally in Spain, and so make a better life for themselves in Europe. Some are realistic about their chances, some imagine Europe as a land of gold. The captain of the pirogue knows he is responsible for all those on the boat – about thirty people all told. He had initially refused the job, but he needed the money. At first, all goes well during the journey. They come across another pirogue whose engines (main and spare) have both failed, but decide they cannot stop to render assistance without jeopardising their own survival. But then there’s a big storm, and one of the men is swept into the sea. Unfortunately, he had the GPS on him. So they continue on, navigating by blind reckoning… but they’re as likely to be heading for Brazil as they are Spain. Fortunately, they’re picked up by the Spanish coast guard a day or so after their water runs out. After a couple of weeks in a camp in Spain, they’re repatriated to Senegal, none the worse for their ordeal. Except for the two who died, that is. The bulk of the film takes place in the boat, and it does an excellent job of setting out the characters, their reasons for being in the pirogue and their hopes for the future. There’s a tribal element to it, with the passengers coming from two tribes, one of which seems predominantly muslim, but it doesn’t generate conflict. There’s also a stowaway, a young woman, who causes some tension when she’s discovered – there is only so much food and water, after all. For all that The Pirogue is set on a boat in the open sea, it’s convincingly done. And the storm is especially convincing. I’m surprised this film isn’t better know, it’s a solid piece of drama and it is hugely relevant as an antidote to the racist scaremongering over immigration and refugees put out by the right. (A country without immigrants is a stagnant country. Easiest way to stop the refugee problem? Stop bombing the shit out of their homes. It’s very simple. Refutations that “it’s complex” are just excuses to not do anything.) Anyway, The Pirogue is very good, and there are two more films on this Great African Films Volume 4 DVD. It’s a shame the series is so hard to find, as it contains some excellent films (only one, Daratt, from Chad, was independently released on DVD in the UK). More films like this should be released in the UK.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 895


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The BSFA Award

I’ve been a member of the British Science Fiction Association since the late 1980s, and attending Eastercons, on and off, since 1990. So the BSFA Award is the one genre award I’ve been most involved with as a voter. They’ve changed its workings over the years and, to be honest, I’ve yet to be convinced the current system works all that well. But then I’m not convinced popular vote awards are especially useful. I think the British Fantasy Society has it almost right – a popular vote to pick the shortlists, and then a jury to decide on the winner (and they can pull in an extra nominee if they feel a work deserves it). On the other hand, The BFS Awards have way too many categories. At least the BSFA Award keeps it nice and simple: best novel (published in the UK), best “shorter fiction” (novellas to flash fiction, published anywhere), best non-fiction (from blog posts to academic tomes, published anywhere) and best artwork (no geographic restriction either). This year, the shortlists look as follows:

Best Novel

I’ve read the first two, and in fact nominated them for the longlist. The Charnock was initially ruled ineligible as 47North is Amazon’s publishing imprint, but I argued the point on Twitter and the committee decided 47North was actually transatlantic and so the book qualified after all. I’m pleased about that. I’m in no rush to read the Leckie, as it’s apparently more of the same. The Hamid is a surprise. It’s also been shortlisted for the Man Booker, and I’ve not heard anyone in sf circles talking about it on social media. I guesss I’ll have to get me a copy.

Best Shorter Fiction

I’ve read the Charnock, and I thought it very good. There’s nothing from Interzone here, which is a surprise… Or maybe not. The most active voters these days seem to be those who use social media, and both Strange Horizons and tor.com are popular among them – but not Interzone, which is old school tech, ie paper. The Thompson I’ve seen praised a lot. The others I’ve heard nothing about.

Best Non-Fiction

I like the grab-bag nature of this category, but it can end up a bit of a dog’s breakfast at times. Here we have a book of criticism, two series of blog posts, a critical article in a book and a review in an online magazine. I’ve read the Banks book, and it’s very good (I might well have nominated it for the long list; I don’t remember). Adam Roberts is a frighteningly intelligent and witty critic (and writer), but to be honest I really couldn’t give a shit about HG Wells and all the books he wrote. I followed the Shadow Clarke (and was much amused at US fans’ mystification at the concept of a shadow jury), and I plan to follow it again this year. The final nominee… well, the only article published by Strange Horizons that I’ve seen mentioned several times is ‘Freshly Remember’d: Kirk Drift’ by Erin Horáková, so I’d have thought that more likely to have been chosen. I’ve not read the Ghosh book reviewed by Singh – my mother is a big fan of Ghosh’s fiction, but the only novel by him I’ve read is his 1996 Clarke Award winner The Calcutta Chromosome – but Singh’s review does look like an excellent piece of criticism.

Best Artwork

  • Geneva Benton: Sundown Towns (cover for Fiyah Magazine #3)
  • Jim Burns: cover for The Ion Raider by Ian Whates (NewCon Press)
  • Galen Dara: illustration for ‘These Constellations Will Be Yours’ by Elaine Cuyegkeng (Strange Horizons)
  • Chris Moore: cover for The Memoirist by Neil Williamson (NewCon Press)
  • Victo Ngai: illustration for ‘Waiting on a Bright Moon’ by JY Yang (Tor.com)
  • Marcin Wolski: cover for 2084 edited by George Sandison (Unsung Stories)

There’s not much you can say about Best Artwork – you either like the nominated piece, or you don’t. But another Jim Burns cover for an Ian Whates novel? Really? Burns does great work, he’s one of the best genre cover artists this country has produced, but I’d sooner see more adventurous art in this category. We also have a short story, and the art illustrating it, on two shortlists. It’s a lovely piece of art, but… I have a lot of trouble myself thinking of candidates to nominate for this category, so I guess it’s unsurprising the people who voted for a story would also vote for its accompanying art. And voting on the long list requires hunting down each piece in order to decide whether or not it’s worth a vote… Perhaps in future, the BSFA can provide a page with thumbnails of all the longlisted art?

So there you have it… Four shortlists, the winners to be decided at Follycon in Harrogate at the beginning of April. I’m going to have a go at calling the winners. I think The Rift will take best novel, Greg Egan best short fiction, the Shadow Clarke jury best non-fiction, and… okay, I’ve no idea who’ll win Best Artwork. Probably Jim Burns. Again.


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Moving pictures 2018, #7

Things don’t change overnight, much as we’d want them to. Okay, so I did manage to post a rant about science fiction on this blog recently… but I’m still watching – more or less – a movie a night, and most of those I think worth documenting. So the Moving pictures posts haven’t quite dialled back as much as I’d expected. And I’m still a little behind with getting them up on the blog. But I hope to be in a position to basically post one a week, with content covering other topics either side. But, like everything, it’s a work in progress…

Black Jack, Ken Loach (1979, UK). I have Loach all over my rental list because I think he’s a director whose oeuvre is worth exploring, even if not every film he made is actually any good (also true of many directors, to be fair). But then David Tallerman texted me, “Have you seen Black Jack?”, and I hadn’t so I moved it up my rental list. And lo, it appeared in the next set of discs. Which happens sometimes. Black Jack is based on a 1968 children’s novel of the same title by Leon Garfield, although I’m not sure the film was aimed at children per se. It’s set in 1750 in Yorkshire. A well-off couple, Quality in other words, hand their daughter over to a pair of doctors who run a sanatorium, because the daughter is unmanageable – there are hints it’s mental illness, but in other parts of the film it seems to be behavioural. Meanwhile, a lad is paid to look after the corpse of the title character by a “Tyburn widow”, a woman who bribed the men who fetched the bodies of criminals from the gallows so she could display the dead men in her front-room and charge money for the privilege of viewing it. But Black Jack is not dead. And he escapes, taking the boy with him. After helping a stuck coach, Black Jack conceives the idea of boobytrapping a ford so travellers would require his help. For a fee. And the first coach he waylays is the one carrying the two doctors and the daughter… The boy and the daughter escape and join a travelling medicine show. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast search for the missing daughter… This is low-budget film-making at its best. Although set nearly 230 years before it was made, Loach manages to present a convincing eighteenth-century England. The main actors, who are all teenagers, are uniformly good in their roles, although none of them went on to greater fame. And yet it all feels a bit like a Children’s Film Foundation movie – no bad thing, it must be said – although I don’t believe it was made as one. It has that sort of sophisticated approach to telling a story through film coupled with a really low budget that characterised a lot of CFF films. I thought it really good – and I hope that was why David texted to me to ask if I’d seen it…

Manderlay, Lars von Trier (2005, Denmark). I really didn’t like von Trier’s Dogville, and Manderlay is the sequel to it, so why, I hear you ask, would I want to watch this film? Okay, I picked it up for 99p for a charity shop, so it was worth a punt… But… I have a lot of time for von Trier as a film-maker, even if I really don’t like some of his films. He has a very interesting oeuvre. And while I didn’t like the rape and violence in Dogville, I thought the use of black box theatre staging a fascinating way to present the story. The good news is that Manderlay uses the same black box theatre staging. The bad news is that the story is possibly even worse. Grace Mulligan, played in Dogville by Nicole Kidman but now by Bryce Dallas Howard, passes by the eponymous Alabama plantation on her way home from Dogville. A woman approaches them and tells them a man is about to be whipped for stealing a bottle of wine. They enter the plantation and discover that slavery still seems to pertain within its borders. Except not really. The owner’s ancestor had emancipated his slaves, but they chose to continuing living as slaves because… well, because… I don’t know. Is von Trier trying to say they were so unsophisticated they had no idea what emancipation meant, or that they could be hoodwinked into believing they were better off unemancipated? And that it need a crusading young female like Grace Mulligan to teach them the error of their ways? Which she fails to do, because they seem bizarrely sceptical of freedom, as if the institution of slavery were no more than the Stanford Experiment writ large, which is, quite frankly, deeply offensive. As I said earlier, von Trier is an interesting film-maker, and the staging of Manderlay as black box theatre is certainly interesting… but the story is such a bad take on slavery it’s almost impossible to watch… and you have to wonder if that was deliberate, and if so, why would someone make a film that was difficult to watch? Unless von Trier was daft enough to think that black box theatre was the only “difficult” element of the film… It’s not like Manderlay could be categorised as a noble failure. It’s an awful film, made in an interesting way – and I can’t think of a phrase that might make that description palatable, or any reason why I should think of a phrase to make it palatable. It’s a film best avoided, but you shouldn’t write off von Trier because of it.

That Obscure Object of Desire, Luis Buñuel (1977, France). I’m not a big Buñuel fan, although I’ve watched a number of his films. Um… checks records, discovers it’s actually ten Buñuel movies… A few of them I thought really good. But my finger sort of slipped on a near-monopolistic online retailer just after Christmas, and I ended up buying the Buñuel: The Essential Collection because some of the movies in it I’d not seen, and some of them I wanted to see again. The most recent film in the box set – it was actually Buñuel’s final film – is That Obscure Object of Desire, which was one I’d not seen. Initially, it appeared much like his other films from the 1970s – the same actors, the same presentation, the same sort of story… But like those other 1970s films it had that, well, genius twist that made it much more than the sum of its parts. That Obscure Object of Desire opens with Fernando Rey leaving Seville by train. A young woman tries to join the train, but he throws a bucket of water over her. He explains to the passengers in his compartment that he had been seduced by a woman called Conchita. The genius element of That Obscure Object of Desire is that Conchita is played by two actresses – Caroline Bouquet and Angela Molina, who play the character entirely differently – at different random times during the film. Rey is an unreconstructed 1970s male, and the film is presented from his viewpoint, but the use of two actresses as Conchita highlights their side of the story and so demonstrates the one-sidedness of Rey’s narrative. These films by Buñuel are not especially striking in the way they are filmed – the staging seems fairly unexemplary, to be honest – but the stories Buñuel chose to tell using cinema are excellent. Some are even pure genius. Not this one, perhaps; although it makes a series of pointed observations because of its peculiar presentation. I had bought this box set on a bit of a whim, having liked some of the films in it. But now I own it, and have seen more of its contents, I’m starting to realise it’s a bloody good collection to own. These are fascinating films and worth seeing.

Die Austernprinzessin, Ernst Lubitsch (1919, Germany). I bought this collection during Eureka’s Boxing Day sale, and it seemed like a good idea at the time. Okay, so I am interested in early European silent cinema – which pretty much means early silent German cinema, and directors like Lubitsch, Lang. Murnau, and even Dreyer, who was Danish but made several silent films in Germany. The princess of the title – it translates as “The Oyster Princess” – is the heiress to a millionaire who built his fortune on oysters, and she is deeply unhappy that a rival will be married before her. So her father promises to find her a more impressive husband, and employs a matchmaker to do just that. And he finds an impoverished prince who is more than happy to marry a millionaire’s daughter… The film is apparently a comedy, although other than an element of slapstick to some of the action sequences, it’s hard to see why. True, it’s taking the piss out of the rich, and the American rich in particular, as the characters are all American – but that makes it new money which is the object of derision, as is explicitly shown in the fact an impoverished prince is seen as suitable marriage material. It feels like the film’s targets are just too obvious and over-used. I suspect even in 1919, they were obvious and over-used. The excessive consumption of the US, and its desire for validation by old world aristocracy, is lampooned to a ridiculous extent – there’s a scene, for example, in which a small carriage is pulled by ten horses, nine of which have liveried riders. The daughter is played by Ossi Oswalda, who is even more peremptory than she was in Ich möchte kein Mann sein, but it’s clear why she was such a popular star at the time – both the humour and drama are broad, and she plays them broad. But she is good on the screen, and looks to be having a great deal of fun, which is infectious. Die Austernprinzessin is probably the least satisfactory of the films I’ve watched so far from the collection – its humour felt too obvious, and there was nothing in its staging whcih made it stand out, other than a propensity to play every joke to the hilt. Watchable, certainly; but not especially memorable.

Colossal, Nacho Vigalondo (2016, Canada). I really liked Vigalondo’s Timecrimes, but I’d heard mixed reports about this one, his first film made outside Spain. And, let’s face it, the story didn’t sound like all that prepossessing – woman with a drink problem who works in a bar discovers when she walks through a playground the morning after finishing work, a monster appears in Seoul and apes her movements. I mean, how does that work? What does it mean? The answer to the first is: bizarre lightning strike. The answer to the second is: well, I suspect the only metaphor in action here is so obvious that most viewers would discount it: woman destroys Seoul like she destroys her own life. I mean, really? None of this is helped by having Anne Hathaway, a well-known actress, in the lead role. She is good, no doubt about that; but the rest of the cast are nobodies (so to speak) so she stands out. Things get complicated when the bar owner, and old friend, discovers that he materialises in Seoul as a giant robot. And he’s less concerned about hurting Koreans. So where Hathaway’s monster apologises for her actions, his robot goes on a rampage – and she is forced to fight him to stop him. To some extent, Colossal feels like an extended comedy sketch without a punchline. The fact that it’s well-played and the sections set in Seoul look really good seem immaterial. Meh.

Border, Alessio Cremonini (2013, Italy). I forget how I stumbled across this film, but it sounded like it might be interesting, so I rented it. A woman in Syria learns her husband has deserted the Syrian army and joined the rebels, meaning she is now in danger from the Secret Service and the Shahiba. So she and her sister hire a man to take them across the border into Turkey, where they hope to meet up with her husband. The man they hired introduces them to a driver, Bilal, a fugitive in his own right. But en route they are forced to abandoned their pickup truck after being followed by an army patrol. And then the two sisters are separated… Bilal and one of the sisters stumble across a village that was slaughtered by rebels. The only survivor is a young girl, who they take with them. But things do not go well for them… I’veseen a review of the film online that complains it fails “to adhere to clasic story structures”, which tells me more about the critic, and what’s wrong with the Hollywood film-making, than it does the film. The review also complains that because the two sisters wear the niqab for much of the film, and so only their eyes are visible, it makes it difficult for the viewer to identify with them. But it seems to me that’s actually one of the points Border is making, that’s it’s easier to dehumanise those suffering in wars in the Middle East, which in turn makes it easier for Westerners to ignore their complicity in creating, and fuelling, those wars in the first place. Border tell a straightforward story, in as much as the three characters head for the Turkish border and have random encounters along the way, but that reflects the arbitrary nature of survival in a war zone. I thought Border a good film.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 895


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Moving pictures 2018, #6

I don’t seem to have been making much traction with the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list recently. True, there’s a film from the list – Alphaville – in this half-dozen, but it was a rewatch as I first saw the film many years ago.

You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet!, Alain Resnais (2012, France). It had never occurred to me the director of Last Year at Marienbad and Hiroshima mon amour had made films into the twenty-first century, but after stumbling across Muriel (see here), I looked further, discovered Resnais’s last film was released in 2014… and added a bunch of those available to my rental list. And the first to be sent proved to his last-but-one film, Vous n’avez encore rien vu, with its dumb Bachman Turner Overdrive title. Happily, the title is the only dumb thing about it. A famous playwright invites a dozen or so actors with whom he has worked during his career to his funeral. The actors are all billed as themselves. On arrival at the late man’s house, they are sat in front of a screen and asked to watch a performance of the playwright’s most famous play, Eurydice, put on by a young theatre collective. And as the collective act out the play, so those at the wake begin to act out the parts they took in past celebrated stagings of the play. For some of these scenes, Resnais lays in CGI scenery, intended I think to represent the scenery of the play when those actors were in it. The play-within-a-play has been around for a long time – Shakespeare even used it in Hamlet – but making the cast of the main play complicit in the staging of the embedded play is a new twist. And it’s cleverly done. Resnais apparently had another person direct the version of Eurydice watched by the cast, so that it would be different in style to his own direction. Having only seen three films by Resnais prior to this one, the distinction was lost on me. But never mind. A good film, worth seeing.

Level Five, Chris Marker (1997, France). Marker these days is probably best known for La jetée, an experimental film from 1962 which was freely adapted as Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys in 1995. Marker actually made a shitload of films, most of them short and most of them experimental. Level Five is feature-length, at 106 minutes, but very much experimental. It has a single cast member, Catherine Belkhodja, who views the world through a variety of computer screens. The Wikipedia plot summary refers to these last as “virtual reality”, but they’re not. And even for 1997, the computer graphics are crude. If anything, they remind me a little of Wim Wender’s Until the End of the World from 1991, which I first saw in 1992 or 1993 and thought a good presentation of the future at the time. Viewed from the twenty-first century, it’s not, of course. And Level Five feels somewhat similar in that regard. It’s not just the software or the hardware on display, but also the geopolitics, the social concerns… For all that it’s trying to be prophetic – deliberately so, it makes a feature of its analyses – Level Five seems to miss far more often than it hits. And having the film consist solely of either close-ups on Belkhodja or the computer graphics she is either watching or discussing doesn’t exactly make for gripping drama. I suspect this film needed another watch or two, but unfortunately it wasa rental and it’s gone back. Ah well.

McLintock!, Andrew V McLaglen (1963, USA). Yes, that really is John Wayne spanking Maureen O’Hara on the cover art. And while art like that, and the offensive tagline, “He tamed the Wild West… but could he tame her?” might have been acceptable in 1963 (in some parts of society), they are no longer (Presidents Club notwithstanding). Even worse, a quick google shows that the film posters of the time used the same image, along with equally offensive taglines like “He’s a tender loving guy!” and “Wallops the daylight out of every Western you’ve ever seen!”. The sad thing is, is that for half of its length, McLintock! is actually an amusing comedy Western. McLintock! was a Wayne project, the first of many movies he used to promote his conservative Republicans values – although present-day Republicans may consider those values dangerously liberal in some respects. Wayne developed the script, he hand-picked the director, one of his sons played the young male lead, another son produced, and he insisted on a supporting role for Yvonne De Carlo because her husband had been injured filming How The West Was Won. The film is set in the town of McLintock, named for Wayne’s character, a local cattle baron, who owns pretty much everything in sight. His wife, Maureen O’Hara, left him two years earlier to live in New York, but now she is back – because their daughter, Stefanie Powers, is about to return from college. Meanwhile, homesteaders have arrived in McLintock, ready to settle land they’ve been given on nearby Mesa Verde. The US government has also released the chiefs of the local Comanche tribe, only for a locally-held commission to tell the tribe they must leave their land. All this is good drama, and Wayne’s character is even-handed, if overly paternalistic, and keen to see everyone is treated equally, Comanche or homesteader. But not the women. Twice in McLintock! women are spanked using coal scuttles, and on both occasions such disciplining is seen as both normal and required. In fact, Wayne and O’Hara are at loggerheads for much of the film, until he spanks her. And then she turns all loving and decides not to return to New York. Bah.

Alphaville*, Jean-Luc Godard (1963, France). Although I’d seen ten of the thirteen films in this collection before, for some reason I saved Alphaville to watch last – despite working my way through the others chronologically. I think perhaps it was because I’d last seen it nearly  a decade ago and perhaps felt I’d not appreciated it as much as I should have done… I don’t know. But I do know, however, that I liked it a great deal more this time. Eddie Constantine plays a secret agent posing as a jurnalist who visits Alphaville from the “Outer Countries”. It takes a while before his purpose there is clear, but he has been sent to bring back Professor Nosferatu, now known as Professor von Braun, the inventor of Alphaville and the Alpha-60 computer which rules it (it was not unusual in 1950s and early 1960s sf to assign AI-like capabilities to very large computers). Constantine meets up with Anna Karenina, von Braun’s daughter, and she gives him entry to the sections of Alphaville society his (fake) journalistic credentials cannot provide. None of Alphaville is filmed on sets. Godard made no effort to build a future city – and Alphaville‘s universe is implied to be galactic and not just planetary. Contemporary Paris provides the backdrop. At the time, some of the buildings used may have appeared futuristic, but now they appear mostly otherworldly, which has more or less the same effect. Some parts of the film haven’t aged so well. The seductresses, for example. Or the execution scene in the swimming pool with the sycnchronised swimmers. But there’s a lot that remains impressive. I especially liked a tracking shot following Constantine and Karenina as they travelled down in a lift, which continued in one take from them entering the lift cabin until they exited the hotel. An excellent film.

Tartuffe, FW Murnau (1925, Germany). I don’t know how many silent films I’ve watched, but I learn something new about cinematic narrative each time I watch one. I suppose I expected silent dramas to be completely different to films with sound, as if the use of intertitles laid a constraint on cinematic narrative which sound had removed from movie-making. And perhaps that’s true to some extent. But it didn’t mean silent cinema was completely unadventurous narratively. As Tartuffe demonstrates. It opens with a venal housekeeper gaslighting her employer so that he leaves his fortune to her and not to his actor grandson. Which the grandson learns on a visit to his grandfather. After being thrown out of the house, the grandson addresses the camera and insists he is not giving up. He returns to the house disguised as an impresario and puts on a private cinema screening for his grandfather and the housekeeper of… Tartuffe, the play by Molière. It’s a simplified version of the play, but the cut-down story is more than adequate to make the grandson’s point. In the film-within-a-film (explicitly so, unlike the Resnais above), Orgon returns from a trip and brings with him a religious man whom he greatly admires: Tartuffe. In fact, he admires him so much he changes every aspect of his life to accommodate Tartuffe. Orgon’s wife, Elmire, however, suspects Tartuffe is a fraud, and sets out to entrap him by seducing him. And she succeeds… I’ve seen several of Murnau’s films, and liked them, so this box set of his early works was a good buy. And a bargain too, as it was cheaper than the individual versions of the films in it.

Thor: Ragnarok, Taika Waititi (2017, USA). I am not a fan of superhero movies. The ones everyone praises, I generally think are terrible. I mean, I’d always liked the Guardians of the Galaxy since first reading them in an Marvel anthology comic back in the 1970s, but the movie wasn’t even based on those Guardians of the Galaxy but a later reboot, and, for all its hype, it was pants. And the sequel was worse. So I had pretty low expectations for Thor: Ragnarok, especially given how forgettable the two previous Thor films were… And yes, I was aware Thor: Ragnarok had been directed by Taika Waititi, a leftfield choice for a MCU film, but I wasn’t convinced the addition of Kiwi humour to MCU bombast would work. But. I was actually entertained. Which was unexpected. Thor: Ragnarok is not a great film by any means, and it’s not entirely sure what it should have been. You have the pure Kirby-vision of the Asgard sections, but the part set on Sakaar feels more like a reject from a Star wars prequel. But the film has a number of good lines and some entertaining comic set-pieces. For example, when Thor is about to leave Dr Strange’s mansion and puts out his hand for Mjolnir and you hear the sound of glass breaking, I laughed out loud. I wasn’t convinced Waititi’s rock-creature deadpan humour worked all the time, but Cate Blanchett did make an excellent villain. I could live without most of the plot, and the final battle on Bifrost went on far too long. I’d certainly describe Thor: Ragnarok as one of the better films in the MCU, although that’s not a hard bar to clear. Perhaps its success might lead Disney to experiment a little more with who they choose to direct their films… What am I thinking? It’s Disney. They’re as corporate as you can get. They’ll either flog their new formula to death, or strangle whatever creativity their chosen director tries to put into their film…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 895