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Books in May

It’s a shame the York and Sheffield pub meets have packed in as it was a good way for me to get rid of books I didn’t want. After all, I’m not going to dump first editons in excellent condition I no longer want in charity shops. I’d much prefer them to go to a good home. Selling them on eBay is a faff, and no one will buy them on Amazon if you price them what they’re actually worth… Perhaps, instead of a book haul post, I should put up a book sale post here…

These books, however, are ones that have just arrived… although one or two I may be getting rid of once I’ve read them.

I was a bit behind on my Eric Brown books, so I ordered a bunch of them: Salvage, Jani & the Great Pursuit, Murder Takes a Turn and Satan’s Reach. Two are sequels, and I’ve yet to read the previous books. But I’ve been reading, and enjoying, the Langham and Dupree crime novels as they’re published.

I remember just before Loncon 3 seeing mention of a signed limited edition of a book of art by Chris Foss, Hardware, but had assumed they’d all been sold back then. But recently I discovered the Titan Books’ online shop still has copies. So, of course, I ordered one. I ordered The Art of Edena several weeks ago from a large online retailer, but they told me a month later the book was unavailable. A week later, it was in stock. Go figure. Years ago, I had the Dragons Dream book of Syd Mead art, but I gave it to a friend in payment for some cover art. I’ve always regretted that, but now I have The Movie Art of Syd Mead instead. And I’ve been a fan of Dan Dare since I was kid. I’m not old enough to have read him in the Eagle; my introduction was via a 1974 Hamlyn annual containing two stories. Over the years, various attempts have been made at re-imagining him, mostly unsuccessfully. Dan Dare: He Who Dares is the latest such try.

I was very sad to hear of Philip Kerr’s death earlier this year as I’ve been a fan of his books for a long time, especially the Bernie Gunther ones. Greeks Bearing Gifts is the latest, but not, I think, the last. I seem to remember hearing there is one more to come. And then that’s it. A very big shame. Someone tweeted about Pascal Garnier a few weeks ago, and his books sounded interesting so I thought I’d give one a try: The A26. I already have a copy of Hot Wireless Sets, Aspirin Tablets, The Sandpaper Sides of Used Matchboxes & Something That Might Have Been Castor Oil (a sure winner for the most unwieldy title of a sf novel evah), AKA Chronocules, but this one a) is in much much better condition than mine, and b) was really cheap. I’ve been after a hardback copy of In Search of Wonder for several years, most of those for sale on eBay are from US sellers. This copy – the third edition from 1996 – was from a UK seller. And it’s in mint condition. Result.

They announced the shortlist for this year’s Clarke Award a week or so ago, and I must admit it’s a more interesting shortlist than we’ve had for a number of years. I certainly agree that Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before the Start of Time should be there – I’ve been championing it since I read it last year. But the others? Spaceman of Bohemia I’ve heard some good things about. American War, Gather the Daughters and Sea of Rust were completely off my radar, although I vaguely recall hearing mention of the last. Anyway, I’ll give them all a go. And yes, there is a sixth novel, Borne by Jeff Vandermeer. I didn’t take to his Annihilation when I read it so I’m not going to bother with Borne.


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Moving pictures 2018, #24

After the last post’s diversity, it’s swung the opposite way here, with a mostly Anglophone half dozen films…

Supersonic Saucer, Kadoyng, The Glitterball, Guy Fergusson, Ian Shand, Harley Cokeliss (1956, 1972, 1977, UK). These three films were packaged as “Outer Space”, which is a  bit of a phiz as they all take place on Earth. In the south of England, in fact. In the first, an inhabitant of Venus, all of whom can transform themselves into flying saucers, is a bit of a late starter, and when he – or perhaps it – finally transforms, he makes his way to Earth, where he is befriended by two girls spending half-term at their school in the care of the headmaster’s know-it-all son. Since said alien has the power to make things vanish and then re-appear, much typical 1950s moralising then ensues, with a raid on the local cake shop reluctantly undone before the pesky kids, and alien/flying saucer, foil a bank robbery by some comedy villains. Very much of its time. Kadoyng, on the other hand, is the name of a comedy alien who lands on Earth and is befriended by a group of kids. He looks like a human, however, except for the stalking growing from the top of his head. So they give him a top hat to hide it. Meanwhile, a bypass is about to be run through the village, and the kids are on the nimby side… and there are a bunch of kids who bully them on the other side. Naturally, the alien helps save the village from the march of progress, through the use of alien, er, advanced science. The Glitterball is is also an alien, which a pair of kids find and, er, befriend. But some others want the alien ball once they realise its powers. And like the other two films on this disc, it’s all about kids standing up for something else, and perhaps some noble cause, as catalysed by the arrival of an alien, human-looking or otherwise. I thought it might be fun watching these CFF films, but I can’t really say that it has been. I doubt I’ll bother with the rest.

Dark Victory, Edmund Goulding (1939, USA). My mother found a box set of four Bette David films in a charity shop and lent it to me after she’d watched them. I’m not a Bette Davis fan – there are other actresses from that period I’d sooner watch. And it turned out I’d seen two of the films in the box set before – Now, Voyager and The Letter (see here) – but I’m happy to rewatch classic Hollywood films, so no bother. Dark Victory is a film adaptation of a well-known play, in which Davis’s role is that of a young socialite with bad habits who learns she has a brain tumour, marries her doctor, who then tells her that her condition is operable, which it is not. Despite being a play before it was a film this still comes across as a Bette Davis star vehicle – although, to be honest, pretty much every Bette Davis film does. Humphrey Bogart plays a minor role as an Irish horse trainer, but the film is all about Davis and her illness-induced deterioration. Meh.

Jubilee, Derek Jarman (1978, UK). A new box set of Derek Jarman films on Blu-ray? I’ll have me a copy of that… No, wait. I’ve seen a few of his films over the years, but I’d hardly call myself a fan. I never quite plugged into his slightly amateurish aesthetic, and his choice of subjects was not one designed to appeal to me… But then I watched his Wittgenstein earlier this year (see here) and was really quite impressed. Clearly, I had misjudged Jarman. And since this new box set included Jubilee, perhaps his most famous film, and one I’d never actually seen, then maybe it was worth a punt…  So I bought it. And a very nice object it is too. The BFI have done him proud. Obvs, the first film I chose to watch from it was Jubilee. And it was not at all like I had imagined. I had thought it was some punk aesthetic celebration of the time, starring some well-known names from the scene and some of its defining music. Except, it wasn’t. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic UK after the death of Queen Elizabeth II (although even back in 1978 that was an unlikely outcome for her death). Queen Elizabeth I is transported forward in time to the 1970s by John Dee (played by Richard O’Brien. With hair! And a beard!), and then it’s sort of her hanging around with a bunch of punk misfits. The music is not at all punk, and surprisingly good. Some of the cast aren’t great, but the whole thing hangs together much more effectively than I’d expected. I thought it pretty good. And I’m glad I bought the box set.

Herostratus, Don Levy (1967, UK). I stumbled across this on the website of a certain online retailer whose owner is so desperate to spend his fortune he’s throwing it at a private space programme but apparently won’t even considered giving his employees a living wage. Anyway, I spotted it in my recommendations, before they went and changed how that works so now it’s next to sodding useless, and I bunged it onto an order. I suppose I was expecting something either like Penda’s Fen (see here) or Privilege (see here). What it is, is like neither. If anything, it reminded me of Nicolas Roeg’s Performance (see here). A young man, sick of the world and its failure to cater to his sensibilities, decides to commit suicide, and tries to turn it into a media event. He approaches an advertising mogul, and they try to make a media event out of it all. Every so often, the film flashes up images of a woman in black, or a woman in a red. There’s also a scene where a young Helen Mirren, in bustier and fishnets, performs an erotic dance. Herostratus is very much a film of its time. I think it’s trying to make a similar point to Watkins’s Privilege, but it’s not as biting, or as entertaining, a satire as that one is. But I did enjoy it more than Performance.

Red Sparrow, Francis Lawrence (2018, USA). It’s 2018, FFS, should we still be making movies in which Russians are played by Anglophones sporting silly accents? (Although not entirely, as one of the Russians is played by a Belgian, and another is Dutch.) And the entire plot relies on copying data on 3.5″ floppy disks. In 2018. Good luck on finding a computer with a floppy disk drive, even in Russia. Jennifer Lawrence, who may be a very good actress but seems to have the usual Hollywood problem of being unable to pick good projects, plays a ballerina who is injured onstage and then blackmailed by her uncle into becoming a sex operative, or “sparrow”, for the KGB, er, FSB. This is a film that wants its Cold War and is determined to ignore the last thirty years of actual history to get it. After demonstrating she is not going to obey the rules at sparrow school, the viewer is repeatedly told she is something special, not that this is especially evident onscreen. She’s sent on a mission to Budapest to seduce a CIA agent. Because he runs a mole in the KGB, er, FSB, and naturally they want to know who it is. She goes about it in her own way, which means blackmailing anyone who thinks she’s behaving like a double agent for the CIA. There really is nothing good to say about this film. It feels like it’s set 30 years ago and not in the present day. Jennifer Lawrence is a complete blank. And the plot doesn’t even make sense as a spy story plot. One to avoid.

Winter of Discontent, Ibrahim El Batout (2012, Egypt). This is a dramatisation of events during Arab Spring, featuring actors playing real people. One of the major characters is the female anchor of a current affairs show, who quits after being bollocked for asking dumb questions on air and decides to investigate the events ongoing in Tahrir Square for herself. The film shows both sides – and not just those fighting the authorities, but also those who are trying to shut down the insurrection. And even those who are caught up in it by accident. One such man was arrested by the secret police simply because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and then beaten and tortured as a “rebel” despite his protestations of innocence. Arab regimes have been, traditionally, autocratic, and even democratic Arab nations have often devolved into autocracy. The West is happy to support such regimes, either to protect strategic resources – look up the history of BP, if you don’t believe me – or to keep active a ready market for armaments exports. And dropping bombs on such nations will not “fix” them. And yet, in most cases, these authoritarian regimes are so well-entrenched that not even an Arab Spring can unseat them, especially not when they’re being propped up by the West. Let’s not forget that Gaddafi may have been Public Enemy No. 1 but he was left in power for precisely as long as the West was happy to let him be in power. And now that’s he gone, Libya is a disaster area. And for all that we boast of our freedoms, they’re being eroded daily – only this month, voters were turned away from polling stations because they did not have ID for the first time in British history. Demanding ID to vote is not a solution to electoral fraud because it’s a trivial problem – in 2017, there were 28 allegations from 45 million votes, and only one conviction. It’s a way to disenfranchise people. And if the government is going to tackler electoral fraud, they would do well to address the illegal campaign spending perpetrated by their own party in the last general election… None of which is especially relevant to Winter of Discontent, which provides a good overview of the events of the January 25 Revolution of 2011 but does very little reaffirm a person’s faith in humanity…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 907


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Moving pictures 2018, #23

Six films, six countries. It’s been a while since I managed that.

Oliver & Company, George Scribner (1988, USA). I have a vague ambition to work my way through all the Disney films – that’s vague, as in I’m not putting much effort into meeting it. So I added some Disney films I’d not seen to my rental list, and I watch them when they pop through my letter-box. But, to be honest, I’m not much of a fan. Sleeping Beauty I consider one of the most gorgeous animated films ever made, but that doesn’t make me a Disney fan. And Oliver & Company is a good example why. I’ve no idea who the DVD cover art is  meant to represent as the art is a great deal better than that in the film. Which is a rip-off of Dickens’s Oliver Twist, but with a kitten in the title role, and dogs playing most of the other roles. Although Fagin is a human. It’s not a bad spin on Dickens’s tale, to be fair, but Disney animated feature films live or die on the quality of animation and the songs. This one has one good song, sung by a lead character voiced by Billy Joel, but piss-poor animation. I was not impressed.

Prospero’s Books, Peter Greenaway (1991, UK). So many willies! I’m familiar with Greenaway’s oeuvre – in fact, I’ve been more or less following his career since first seeing one of his films back in the mid-1980s. I let it slide for a while, but caught up recently via rental DVDs. This particular film has been hard to find, but when I did track down a copy… there was lots and lots of full-frontal male nudity. Now, I hasten to add, I have nothing against male nudity, much as I have nothing against female nudity. I am not remarking on its presences, only its excessive presence. Although, I must admit, against what standard I have no idea. Apart from that, the most striking thing about Prospero’s Books is how much like his later films it is. It’s almost as if he were trying out a new way of telling stories on film, one that he went on to use in Nightwatching and Goltzius and the Pelican Company – but not, I seem to remember, in The Pillow Book or 8½ Women, which were made after Prospero’s Books but precede the other films. Prospero’s Books stars John Gielgud in the title role, the sorcerer from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The other characters from the play also appear, but the film is very much about Prospero. And his library. As each book of his is introduced, so CGI brings it to life, both the writing and the subject. In between these are tableaux, over which Gielgud narrates, some of which are static, while others illustrate scenes from the books or allude to scenes from the play. It is a very clever film, and the CGI is very effective. I’ve never really been a fan of Greenaway’s most-celebrated film, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (although perhaps The Draughtsman’s Contract is better known), but I’ve always thought he was a singular talent and I’m glad I returned to his films after a decade or more gap. It’s a shame there’s no handy box set of his works, but I expect that would be difficult to arrange given the multi-national financing of most of his films since The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover

Padmaavat, Sanjay Leela Bansali (2018, India). In thirteenth-century India, the nephew of the sultan of Delhi murders his uncle and seizes the throne and determine to be next Alexander the Great. Meanwhile, in Sri Lanka, a local princess accidentally shoots a visiting Rajput prince with an arrow and wounds him. She nurses him back to health, the two fall in love, as you do, and get married. Then the new Delhi sultan’s plans for expansion send him up against Rajput, and the two kingdoms fight to the death. Padmavati, the Sri Lankan princess, leads the defence of Rajput capital Chittor with an army of women after her husband has fallen to the cheating sultan in single combat. And this is Indian history so it’s all hideously complicated and not really open to easy summary. But Padmaavat is, like Baahubali, one of the new breed of epic movies coming out of India that are CGI’d up to the eyeballs. Padmaavat looks fantastic. It is nowhere near as bonkers as Baahubali, and its battle scenes are somewhat more believable. But everything is giant, the castles are huge, the forests are humungous, and the armies number in the millions. It’s all completely OTT, but also hugely entertaining. Having said all that… I recently tried watching Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, which is another CGI-heavy retelling of, well, not history exactly, but the Matter of Britain, which I do know a little about. And Ritchie’s film is complete fucking nonsense. Giant elephants and dragon skeletons in tenth-century Britain? WTF? I don’t know the history of India – it’s an enormous country, I suspect no one really does it all – so I can’t say if Padmaavat, an allegedly historical film, annoyed Indian viewers as much as King Arthur: Legend of the Sword annoyed me. But perhaps I should have just gone with the flow – it’s a movie, not a history lesson – and accepted it as entertainment, which is likely what it was intended to be. Certainly, Padmaavat was entertaining. And if you have to watch two Bollywood films this year, then I recommend this one and Baahubali.

No Fear, No Die*, Claire Denis (1990, France). I knew this was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list but I had not known it was by Claire Denis until I started watching it. And, I suspect, there are other Denis films that deserve a place on the list more. Like Beau Travail. Which is, I think, a better film than this one. It doesn’t help that the story of No Fear, No Die revolves around cock-fighting, which is barbaric – no, it’s not a “sport” – and indeed the title is the name of one of the character’s favourite cockerel. Two guys from the Caribbean travel to France, and persuade a contact there that they can make money running cock fights. He provides the venue, they provide and train the birds. But it does not go as well as planned. The situation is further complicated by the attraction one of the two guys feels toward the French guy’s wife. In most respects, this is a typical French film of tangled relationships. The cock-fighting gives it an unusual edge, and metaphor, but it’s not something you really want to watch. The cast are excellent. But I can’t help thinking Denis’s Beau Travail looked better and was a more effective movie. It deserved to be on the 100 Movies you Must See Before You Die list. Not this one, which is clearly held in such high regard it’s almost impossible to find on DVD…

No compteu amb el dits, Nocturn 29, Lectura Brossa, Pere Portabella (1967, 1968, 2003, Spain). There are 22 films in this box set, and I don’t think I could write intelligent reviews of each one so I’ll lump them together. I had hoped the films would be presented on the discs in the box set in chronological order, but apparently not. Anyway, I watched all three films on the first disc in the box set and… I have no real idea what I watched. Lectura Brossa is the least puzzling of them. An actress stands on a stage in front of a screen. A script is projected on the screen, which she reads. On the right side of the stage, a woman translates the words spoken into sign language (I don’t know which one, sorry). The story involves two characters identified only as “the boy” and the “the girl”, but then introduces “the wife” and “the husband”. It is by Joan Brossa, what also provided the scripts for the previous two films, and who is then interviewed in a short follow-on piece. Both No compteu amb el dits and Nocturn 29 are black and white. The first has a fake documentary/infomercial voiceover, the second uses strange electronic cracklings or discordant piano playing as its soundtrack. Things happen, with no seeming logic – a man takes a shower, a woman removes her make-up, a man visits a post office… these could have come from either film. There is something fascinating in the way a narrative forms out of the connections between the disparate scenes – although “scene” may be too strong a word, as many are simply short sequences in which, for example, a man exits a car, climbs some stairs, enters an apartment, and then sits down. The second of the two is clearly about Franco’s rule, with its film of military parades. The first attempts to mock consumption, and the fact the two films are so similar in presentation and technique, and were made within a year of each other, makes the wide gap between the subjects seem odd. This is good stuff. And I’ve still got another 19 films to go…

Haunting Me, Poj Arnon (2007, Thailand). Four drag queens run a boarding-house for young men. A young woman dies when she falls and bashes her head on a toilet. So she haunts the boarding-house. There’s another ghost too, another young woman, who fell from the roof while running from an attempted gang rape. The drag queens initially cover up the deaths, and employ a number of methods to try and exorcise the ghosts. None of which work. Gradually they realise they need to avenge the ghosts if they’re going to get rid of them. There’s not much to say about this film. It was fun, even funny in places. Annoyingly, the quality of transfer varied throughout the film – some scenes were really high resolution, others were blocky and pixellated. Ah well.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 907