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Best of the half-year, 2018

For the past several years, probably longer than I think and much longer than I’d care to know, I’ve been putting together a best of the year six months in. Partly it’s to document the good stuff I’ve read or watched or listened to during the first half of the year, but also I find it interesting to see how it changes over the following six months.

2018 has been an odd year so far. While the big project at work moved up a gear, my part in it sort of moved into cruise mode. So I started reviewing again for Interzone – three books so far, and the first book I reviewed made the top spot on my list below – and I also started up SF Mistressworks, although perhaps it’s not quite as regular as I’d like yet. On the film front, I continued to watch far too many movies, but at least it’s proven a pretty wide selection – including a number of films from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, plus movies from all over the world… and some surprising new favourites.

books
1 The Smoke, Simon Ings (2018, UK). I picked this to review for Interzone having very much liked Ings’s previous sf novel, Wolves. But The Smoke, I discovered, was considerably better. It’s sort of steampunk, sort of alt history, sort of high concept sf. It’s beautifully written, and does a lot of really interesting things really well. It is probably Ings’s best book to date. I would not be at all surprised if it appears on several award shortlists next year. On the other hand, I will not be at all surprised if it’s completely ignored, as UK sf awards don’t seem to be doing so well at the moment, as popular awards are pulled one way then another by in-groups on social media and juried awards try to make sense of a genre that is now so pervasive across all modes of writing that no one has any idea what is what anymore.

2 Pack My Bag, Henry Green (1940, UK). Green wrote this autobiography at the age of 35 convinced he would not survive WWII. He did (he spent the war as an ambulance driver). But this is an amazing piece of work, a warts and all depiction of upper class education in the 1920s, and a beautifully stated meditation on writing. I’ve been a fan of Green since the first book of his I read, but Pack My Bag intensified my love for his prose. Read all of his books. If only he weren’t so difficult to collect in first edition…

3 The Rift, Nina Allan (2017, UK). This won the BSFA Award a month or so ago, and while it was not my first choice I’m happy that it won as I think it’s a worthy winner. It is, to my mind, the most successful of Allan’s disconnected novel-length fictions. It not only occupies that area between science fiction and mainstream I find interesting, but also between narrative and… whimsy? I’m not sure what the correct term is. The Rift is a story that feels like it should add up but resolutely fails to do so – and makes a virtue of its failure. It’s easily one of the best genre books I’ve read so far this year.

4 The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry (2016, UK). I read this over Christmas so technically it was a 2017 read, but it didn’t feature in any of my posts for that year so I’m counting it as a 2018 read. It’s an odd book, almost impossible to summarise, chiefly because there’s so much going on in it. It’s set in late Victorian times. A recently-widowed young woman decide to indulge her interest in palaeontology and visits a family who are friends of her friends and who live in the Essex marshes. She finds herself drawn to the man of the family, the local vicar, while her autistic son is drawn to his consumptive wife. The titular serpent makes only a brief appearance, and even then its reality is doubtful, but the way in which its legend shapes the lives of those in the books is very real. Fascinating and beautifully written.

5 Four Freedoms, John Crowley (2009, USA). I’ve been a fan of Crowley’s fiction for a couple of decades or so, but it usually takes me a while to get around to reading his latest work… nine years in this case. I should have read it sooner because it’s bloody excellent. End it worked especially well for me because the story was based around the construction of an invented WWII bomber which to me was obviously the Convair B-36 (but, bizarrely, it was mostly coincidence as Crowley did not actually base it on the B-36). Essentially, it’s the story of the workforce building the aforementioned WWII bomber, focusing on several members, and telling their stories. It’s beautifully-written, of course; and the characterisation is top-notch.

Honourable mentions – Exit West, Mohsin Hamid (2017, Pakistan) mysterious doors leading to Western nations appear in the war-torn Middle East, a clever look at the refugee issue facing Europe but which sadly turns into an unsatisfactory love story; The Book of Strange New Things, Michel Faber (2014, UK) an Anglican priest is sent to an exoplanet to succour to aliens and becomes obsessed by them, while the UK, and his wife, slowly disintegrates, moving stuff and the sf element is well-handled; October Ferry to Gabriola, Malcolm Lowry (1970, Canada) more semi-autobiographical fiction from Lowry, in which a young lawyer and his wife head to the west coast of Canada to buy a house on an island, I just love Lowry’s prose; A Primer for Cadavers, Ed Atkins (2016, UK) a collection of braindumps and stream-of-consciousness narratives, some of which were written as accompaniment to Atkins’s video installations; Calling Major Tom, David Barnett (2017, UK) polished semi-comic novel about a misanthropic British astronaut en route to Mars who reconnects with humanity via a dysfunctional family in Wigan.

films – narrative
An unexpected top five in this category. One is by a director I normally don’t have that much time for, and the remaining four were by directors more or less unknown to me when I started watching the films.

1 The Lure, Agnieszka Smoczyńska (2015, Poland). I saw a description of this somewhere that said it was about carnivorous mermaids in a Polish nightclub during the 1980s. And it was a musical. That was enough for me to add it to my rental list. And it proved to be exactly as advertised. I loved it so much, I bought my own copy on Blu-ray. And loved it just as much on re-watch. It’s a film that revels in its premise and dedicates its entire mise en scène to it. The music is kitschy, and not really very 1980s – and one of the bands in the film is a punk band… that isn’t really 1980s punk either. But those are minor quibbles.

2 Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan (2017, UK). I find Nolan’s films generally unsatisfying so I didn’t bother going to see this when it was on at the cinema. Plus, the film’s subject was not one that appealed, especially in these days of Brexit and and various attempts in popular culture to spin it as a good thing because history. Not that Dunkirk was an especially proud moment in British history. Although you’d be surprised at the number of people who think, or insist, it was. It was, as this film mentions, “a colossal military blunder”. But I found myself watching Dunkirk one evening… and I loved it. It’s a beautifully shot film and completely plotless. It presents the events of Dunkirk by focusing on several different groups of people. It does not offer commentary; it is in fact almost a fly-on-the-wall documentary. And did I mention that it looks gorgeous? I ended up buying my own Blu-ray copy.

3 Thelma, Joachim Trier (2017, Norway). A young woman from a religious family moves to Oslo to study at university. One day in the library, she suffers an epileptic fit – but subsequent study by doctors cannot find evidence of epilepsy. She also finds herself drawn to a fellow student, but her upbringing makes the relationship difficult. Then odd things began to happen around her… and flashbacks reveal why these occur. Comparisons with Carrie are inevitable, but Thelma is so much better than that film. Elli Harboe is brilliant in the title role, and totally carries the film. I might even buy my own Blu-ray copy.

4 Vampir Cuadecuc, Pere Portabella (1970, Spain). I’ve no idea why I stuck this film on my rental list, but I knew nothing about it when I slid it into my player. It proved to be an experimental film, shot during the filming of Jesse Franco’s Count Dracula, but in stark black and white and with only atonal music for a soundtrack. And, er, that’s it. I loved it. I loved it so much I hunted down a Spanish release of a box set of 22 of Portabella’s films and bought it. The imagery is beautiful in the way only transformed imagery can be, and the fact it piggybacks on an existing production, and steals from its plot, not to mention its casts’ performances, only adds to the film’s appeal. I’ve been slowly working my way through the Portabella box set since I bought it. It was a good purchase..

5 India Song*, Marguerite Duras (1975, France). I watched this because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but the director’s name was unfamiliar to me, and I didn’t bother looking the film up before watching it. So what I found myself watching came as a surprise… which seems to be a recurrent theme to this year’s Best of the half-year… Duras was a French novelist, playwright and film-maker, who is perhaps best-known outside France for writing the screenplay for Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima, mon amour. But she made almost twenty films herself, and India Song is one of the better known. It is an experimental film, although it tells a relatively straightforward story in a relatively straightforward manner – that of the wife of an ambassador in India in the 1930s who affair with multiple men to alleviate the boredom of her life. But the film has no dialogue – everything is narrated by voiceover. It’s a bit like watching a bunch of people act out a short story as it is read. I found it fascinating, and would love to watch more of Duras’s films. But they are, of course, extremely hard to find in English-language releases. I really should improve my French one of these days.

Honourable mentions – Baahubali 1 & 2, SS Rajmouli (2017, India) absolutely bonkers and OTT Telugu-language historical epic, has to be seen to be believed; A Question of Silence*, Marleen Gorris (1982, Netherlands) one of the most feminist films I’ve ever watched: three women are charged with the murder of a male shop assistant; Penda’s Fen, Alan Clarke (1974, UK) there’s an England which exists in art which I do not recognise, and this is one of the best presentations of it in narrative cinema I’ve seen; WR: Mysteries of the Organism*, Dušan Makavejev (1971, Serbia) a paean to the ideas of Wilhelm Reich and his orgone energy, told through interviews and an invented narrative about a woman in Yugoslavia who has an affair with an People’s Artist ice skater; A Silent Voice, Naoko Yamada (2016, Japan) a lovely piece of animation about a teenager who bullies a deaf student at his school and comes to regret his actions; The Red Turtle, Michaël Dudok de Wit (2016, France) dialogue-free animated film about a man stranded on an island, with some beautiful animation; Secret Défense, Jacques Rivette (1998, France) baggy thriller from Rivette which hangs together successfully over its 170-minute length; Still Life, Jia Zhangke (2006, China) a man hunts for his wife and daughter in the Three Gorges, more documentary-style drama from a favourite director, plus gorgeous scenery; Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters*, Paul Schrader (1985, USA) fascinating, sometimes almost hallucinogenic, dramatisation of the life of famous writer.

films – documentary
1 Notfilm, Ross Lipman (2015, USA). A fascinating study of Samuel Beckett’s only foray into cinema, Film, and how it impacted Beckett’s career. The BFI release which includes the documentary also includes a copy of Beckett’s film, plus a 1979 British remake, which sticks closer to the original script. It’s fascinating stuff, not least Notfilm‘s study of Beckett’s career, including interviews with long-time collaborators, such as Billie Whitelaw. I can’t say the documentary persuaded me to search out DVDs of Beckett’s plays – he wrote a lot for television, so some must exist – although I would like to give one of his novels a try.

2 A Man Vanishes, Shohei Imamura (1967, Japan). A salaryman leaves the office for home one night and never arrives. A Man Vanishes sets out to discover what became of him, but turns into a meditation on the role of the documentary maker and the impossibility of really documenting what was going through someone’s mind. Particularly during their last moments. The last scene, in which the crew appear and dismantle the set  around the actors, is especially effective.

3 Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman (2008, Israel). An animated documentary, partly autobiographical partly fictional, in which Folman tracks down and interviews members of his platoon in the IDF and discovers he was complicit in an atrocity which he had completely blanked. The animation allows Folman to present past events, and it’s an effective technique, even if it doesn’t work quite so well when it’s Folman in deep discussion with friends or platoon-mates in the present day. However, after a while, the animation stops being so obtrusive, and Folman’s unburdening starts to overwhelm the narrative.

4 Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, Alexandra Dean (2017, USA). I suspect it’s a toss-up these days as to whether Lamarr is better known for her acting or her link to Bluetooth (given that the latter has been heavily publicised for the last few years). She was a remarkable woman, who took up inventing to stave off boredom while pursuing a career in Hollywood, and among her inventions was frequency-hopping, now used in everything from military secure comms to GPS to wi-fi to Bluetooth… After watching this documentary, I really wanted to track down a copy of her self-financed and -produced historical epic, Loves of Three Queens, but good copies are hard to find.

5 Kate Plays Christine, Robert Greene (2014, USA). An actress, Kate, prepares for her role as a real-life person, Christine, who committed suicide on air back in the 1970s. The length of time that has passed since Christine Chubbuck, a news anchor, shot herself while the camera has live has meant there is little evidence remaining about her or her life. Kate interviews those who knew her, but even then she remains very much an enigma – there’s even a hint she might have been trans. Despite the details of Chubbuck’s death, this documentary is very much not salacious or in bad taste. It navigates its way very carefully, and it’s very well put together. The DVD I bought I bought came bundled with Actress, which is also a very good documentary.

Honourable mentions – Where to Invade Next, Michael Moore (2015, USA) the title’s joke wears thin very quickly, but Moore’s survey of six European nations’ civilised social policies stands in stark contrast to the regressive society of the US, despite Moore’s claims many of the policies are embedded in the Declaration of Independence; Becoming Bond, Josh Greenbaum (2017, USA) a tongue-in-cheek look at the career of George Lazenby, who played the best Bond (yes, he did), but then torpedoed his own film career; The Oath, Laura Poitras (2010, USA) two men were part of al-Qa’eda, one was a non-combatant driver, the other was a member of bin Laden’s bodyguard, the former was captured and held in Gitmo and tried as a terrorist, while the latter gave himself up to the Yemeni authorities, served a brief prison sentence and not lectures against both al-Qa’eda and the US; Dispossession, Paul Sng (2017, UK) a damning indictment of the decades-long Tory policy of neglecting social housing, so that the land can be sold off to developers… resulting in our present-day housing crisis. Fuck the Tories; The Farthest, Emer Reynolds (2017, Ireland) fascinating look at the two Voyager space probes, with interviews of those involved and some excellent CGI footage of the probes themselves; Colobane Express, Khady Sylla (2008, Senegal) set aboard a privately-operated bus in Dakar, using actors to tell the stories of the passenger’s lives, excellent stuff.

albums
1 The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness I and II, Panopticon (2018) Panopticon is a one-man band, and plays a mix of bluegrass and black metal. It works surprising well. The two albums here, released together as one as they were intended to be, are according to the artist: “the first half of the album is atmospheric metal, the second half is more americana focused”. The acoustic “americana” sections are actually more atmospheric than the black metal sections, but it all hangs together extremely well.

2 Currents, In Vain (2018). In Vain are from Norway, and also a one-man band. They play a metal that veers from black to death to prog, and sometimes features a few other musical genres, like country. Currents is their fourth full-length album, after 2013’s Ænigma, which I think made my top five albums for that year. I’m not sure Currents is as good as that album, but it’s still bloody good stuff.

3 The Weight of Things, Entransient (2018). Entransient play something halfway between prog rock and prog metal, although one of the tracks on this album features harmony vocals that don’t really belong to either genre. It’s probably the best song on the album, in fact. This is only their second album after their eponymous debut in 205, but it’s a much better album, and I’m looking forward to hearing more from them.

I’ve actually bought more than three albums during the last six months, but not that much more. The last few years I’ve not listened to as much music as I used to, nor seen as many bands perform live. In fact, I’ve only been to one gig so far this year, to see Therion, who were really good (even though I’ve not kept up with them for at least seven or eight years).

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Moving pictures 2018, #32

A return to usual, with only two of the six films from an Anglophone country. I’m still trying to reduce the percentage of US films in my overall films seen list, and now rent two foreign-language films for every English-language one.

The Super Inframan, Hua Shan (1975, China). I was looking at new releases on DVD/Blu-ray on the Cinema Paradiso website and spotted this, and it looked totally worth a go, a Hong Kong action film done like a Japanese tokusatsu that ripped off Superman. Sadly, it sounded better on, er, paper than it actually was on the screen. I mean, it was exactly what the description promised – a ridiculous plot that confused science-fictional aliens and mythological demons, lots of balletic fight scenes, monsters that could only have been dreamt up by someone whose brain has turned into cheese, cheap costumes that visibly fell apart during the fights, risible dialogue, and jeopardy that was so fake it killed suspense. I had expected to be a lot more entertaining – and bits of it were quite amusing. But unlike some films which are so bad they go out through the other side and become good, The Super Inframan never even made it halfway. The transfer – it’s a new Blu-ray release – however was very good, and as brainless colourful moving pictures to watch while consuming alcohol go, it’s as a good a candidate as any other.

The Freethinker, Peter Watkins (1994 Sweden). I have no idea what to make of Watkins. His use of faux documentary is second to none, but his move toward a mix of drama and documentary, on obscure subjects, probably explains why his films are now financed by television companies in other countries, like Sweden. They are also long. It feels like he’s given up his chance to make a difference to focus on the stories he want to tell. And while I can’t begrudge him that, I have to begrudge the loss of 1990s and 21st century equivalents to War Games, Privilege and Punishment Park. Instead we have La Commune (Paris, 1871), all 345 minutes of it, and The Freethinker, all 276 minutes of it, and The Journey… all 873 minutes of it! The title of this film, which is split across two DVD discs, refers to Swedish playwright August Strindberg, who lived from 1849 to 1912, and wrote “over sixty plays and more than thirty works of fiction, autobiography, history, cultural analysis, and politics” (Wikipedia). ‘The Freethinker’ is also the name of Strindberg’s first play, which he apparently had trouble staging. In fact, Strindberg seems to have struggled for acceptance at first. I wonder if this is true of all art that withstands the test of time. It could be said art is the present in conversation with the past, and art that argues with, criticises, disputes or even refutes the ways of the past is art that tends to last longer. Of course, access also helps – either by popularity or patronage – and obscurity has consigned much great art to the dustbin of history. Watkins’s films are not especially accessible – 276 minutes! – and have become increasingly less visible. And yet they’re clever stuff. They’re inventive in the way they use their format – mixing dramatisation and documentary, breaking the fourth wall, having the cast comment on the historical personages they are playing… a technique also used in La Commune (Paris, 1871). However, unlike La Commune (Paris, 1871), The Freethinker reminded me in places of Sokurov’s films, especially his “elegies”. But where Sokurov talks over his found footage, meditating on a variety of topics inspired by the pictures on the screen, Watkins treats his documentary elements more traditionally, albeit as part of a far from traditional whole. Of course, Strindberg is, for Watkins, just a jumping off point to discuss the role of the artist and critic in society, much as in some of his other films – Privilege, for example, is commentary on the intersection of popular culture, commercialism and authority. At the moment, I’m in two minds whether I should replace my DVD copies of Culloden, The War Game and Punishment Park – part of a French-released box set which also contains La Commune and The Gladiators – with the eureka! and BFI Blu-ray releases… although I suspect I probably won’t. But I’ll continue to hunt down his other films, which, I must admit, are not especially easy to find.

Nowhere in Moravia, Miroslav Krobot (2014, Czechia). Krobot is apparently a highly-respected theatre director and this is his first feature film. Which might go some way to explaining why it is so slow and so dull. Which is totally unfair, as I know nothing about his plays. In this film, an ex-teacher of German now runs a small bar in a backwater Moravian village. Basically, very little happens for much of the film. It introduces the various oddball characters – the woman who lives with two men, the vagrant who drops into the bar every night to buy booze, the mayor who spends most of his time hunting a stag at night… Someone dies, and a relative from Germany comes to the village for the funeral. The bar owner’s sister goes back with him to Munich, she is many years his junior, for a better life. Then the woman with the two lovers is murdered by them. They’re caught very quickly, and taken away by the police. And, er, that’s it. Disappointing.

Fahrenheit 451, Ramin Bahrani (2018, USA). One would imagine in these days of fake news or YouTube slipping Nazi propaganda to children that Fahrenheit 451 would be ripe for a remake – despite the title referencing an ancient temperature scale only the US continues to use, and the actual temperature actually having fuck all to do with paper burning as Bradbury got it completely wrong… And yes, you’d be right about the need for a new Fahrenheit 451. Especially given Bradbury’s original intent for the novel – not a commentary against censorship but against the pervasiveness of popular culture fed through television… But this is not that Fahrenheit 451. This is a reboot of the original film adaptation but with added emojis and reality-TV gloss. And, er, that’s it. Montag is a firemen, he burns books. He comes to doubt his mission, and eventually joins those who seek to preserve books. Except culture is not just books, and in this day and age what were books can now be served in a variety of ways. This new Fahrenheit 451 has the firemen destroy computers because of ebooks (er, haven’t they heard of backups? the cloud?), and it’s pretty much stated that people are mostly illiterate (which suggests an easy test for “criminals” who own books – see if they can read). There is a lot of pointed commentary, on a variety of related subjects, that can be made using a story like Fahrenheit 451. Adding a 2018 gloss to Truffaut’s 1966 adaptation – and they didn’t even use Truffaut’s genius move of casting the same actress as both Montag’s wife and mistress! – is the dumbest possible way to use the story. What next? Nineteen eighty-four with VR goggles? Avoid.

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters*, Paul Schrader (1985, USA). To be honest, I had thought this was a Japanese film, not an American one. After all Yukio Mishima was a famous Japanese writer, if chiefly famous for publicly committing seppuku – although many seem to forget he was also a right-wing nutjob, and even ran his own government-approved militia. He does, to be fair, come across as a fascinating character, more so at least than Strindberg, see above. and like Watkins’s The Freethinker, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is ostensibly a documentary about the man’s life, but uses non-traditional means of doing that. The film not only dramatises parts of Mishima’s life, but also excerpts from his books; and some of the latter are almost hallucinogenic. (I might even have a go at reading one.) I had not expected to like Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, and even less so when I learnt it was a US film – although filmed in Japanese, with a Japanese cast – but I was surprised to discover that I liked it a great deal. In fact, I’m thinking of getting myself a copy…

My American Uncle, Alain Resnais (1980, France). Gérard Depardieu plays the technical director of a textile firm that’s merging with a competitor. He’s not offered the role of technical director in the new merged film, but a more important position as managing director of a subsidiary. But this requires a move several hundred kilometres from Paris, and is a job well out of his comfort zone. He makes a hash of it. And it affects his marriage. All this is to apparently illustrate the theories of philosopher Henri Laborit, who appears at intervals during the film, explaining his theories on evolutionary psychology (a lot of “evo psych” is now, of course, completely discredited). There are many characters in this film that have affairs with other characters, but given how prevalent that is in French dramas it didn’t really feel like it fed into Laborit’s thesis. So what you have is a long convoluted drama interspersed by lectures to camera by Laborit. Which makes for an odd viewing experience. Both Resnais and Jacques Rivette seemed to like making knotty elliptical dramas based on really quite subtle points, but both also seemed to have difficulty with pace. You can get away with that if you have the cinematography – and while Rivette clearly did, I’ve yet to be convinced Resnais had it. They’re both directors who each produced a fascinating body of work, neither which can be easily described. And it’s that refusal to follow expected narrative forms in narrative cinema – much as Michael Haneke does this century – that’s why I’m interested in their films… but sometimes it doesn’t quite work…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 915


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Moving pictures 2018, #31

Fifty-fifty this time around – three Anglophone films, and three non-Anglophone. Plus two from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

In the Year of the Pig*, Emilio de Antonio (1968, USA). There are several war documentaries on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, although I think this is the only anti-war documentary on it. It is ostensibly about the Vietnam War – which is sort of like the American equivalent of the British Empire: if you meet someone who approves of it, then they’re a right-wing fascist moron and best avoided. In the Year of the Pig is both experimental and a traditional documentary. It features a lot of archival footage and talking heads; but that’s juxtaposed with poetic imagery and loud atonal music. But it succeeds in doing what it sets out to do: which is demonstrate that the US should not have been in Viet Nam. Nor indeed should the French have been. It is, despite its reliance on found footage, a good-looking film, although shots of French troops in pith helmets marching past and in which the faces have been blurred out looks weirder than was probably intended. I don’t necessarily agree with the film – it’s Western commentators on an Eastern country, and for all their claims of expertise they’re not Vietnamese. On the other hand, many of the interviewees discuss the US’s failure to treat Ho Chi Minh as “the George Washington of his country”. In other words, the US’s orientalists (for lack of a better term) all felt Ho Chi Minh should be accorded the same respect as any other national leader. But the French had already fucked up, so the US stepped in to “help”. Ha. It would be interesting to see a poll asking if people in the US thought the US won the Vietnam War. I suspect these day the majority might think they did. Fake news! One commentator states that “colonialism created communism”, which is an interesting, if ahistorical, opinion. Communism was already over 100 years old by 1968, and when you have empire looming over you and no prospect of independent local rule, then subsidised communism looks like an attractive alternative… but that’s not a bad take for 1968. Recommended.

Hellzapoppin’, HC Potter (1941, USA). Sometimes you stumble across a film, and even though it’s not the sort of thing you normally watch, it sounds interesting enough to bung it on your rental list. Actually, now I think about it, I do that a lot. Anyway, Hellzapoppin’ was described as a “ground-breaking comedy classic” and “Way ahead of its time, it’s been described as ‘Pythonesque’ and has influenced generations of comedians”. That’ll do for me, I thought. Okay, it was made in 1941, so we’re looking more at Abbott and Costello, or the Three Stooges, than we are Monty Python, but I can live with that. And… it was fun. It was clever, snappy, meta, had some memorable set-pieces, some real groaner lines, and actually reminded me more of the Busby Berkeley musicals from the decade prior than it did Python. It opens in a version of hell, but then the camera pulls back to reveal it’s a set. The director approaches the two comic leads and tells them he has a problem with a movie he’s working on, and they sit down in front of a screen… which begins to display the main narrative of the film, with commentary from the director, but then opens out to fill the frame. A rich family are staging a musical in the gardens of their mansion, because their daughter fancies a playwright but he won’t offer until he is a success. Midway through the play, the two comic leads discover the play should not succeed, so they sabotage it, only for it to become a comic hit. If this sounds familiar, stop me. It’s fun, it’s very much of its time, and to be honest I had no idea who any of the stars in it were.

The Machine, Caradog James (2013,UK). One day, a film-maker will, er, make a film about AI which a) treats the subject intelligently, and b) does not depend on a sexy female robot. But that day has yet to come – and may indeed never come. I tweeted not so long ago that I rarely watch sf television series as I’m not the target audience, and I suspect that is also true of sf films. Although there are a handful of sf films I love dearly. But, let’s face it, most of them are shit. As in, really shit. The Machine tries hard not to be Ex Machina, which it actually predates by a year, which is a point in its favour; and both Toby Stephens and Caity Lotz are quite good in their roles. But there’s a lot going on in The Machine and the director chose foolishly to tell the wrong story. Stephens plays a scientists working for the MoD on advanced prostheses for wounded soldiers, including brain implants to repair brain damage. But the implants haven’t been entirely successful. He brings on board Lotz, an AI researcher, in order to push forward on producing a robot soldier. But she is murdered by a Chinese agent – the UK and China are at war, btw – and then becomes the model for the first AI soldier. Of course. The Machine did well with its low budget, but it’s a story we’ve seen countless times before – Metropolis, anyone? – and it’s time the film world really came up with a fresh spin on it. On the other hand, it was less annoying than Ex Machina. Which, from me, the director should take as praise.

Three Lives and One Death*, Raùl Ruiz (1996, France). Some films make it onto the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list because they are bona fide classics, and it’s obvious as soon as you watch them. Others are seminal works. Some had fascinating production histories, and the fact they exist at all is likely what’s being celebrated. And some of them… I’ve no fucking idea why the 70 film critics and commentators who put together the list chose some of the titles. Three Lives and One Death is not an obvious one – it’s French, although Ruiz is Chilean… but is probably best-known in France, where he settled in 1973 after Pinochet (you know, Margaret Thatcher’s favourite fascist dictator) seized power in Chile. Ruiz’s works are not easy to find in English-language releases, and he made over 100 films. He directed the only film adaptation of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which I really must read one of these days, Time Regained, which I have seen. Anyway, Trois vies et une seule mort has Marcello Mastroianni trapped in an apartment for decades by fairies – he’s allowed out, but he cannot leave unless he finds a replacement. And one day, he does: the husband of the woman he left years before when he became trapped in the apartment. I’m not entirely sure what this film is about, which I suspect is par for the course for films by Ruiz, and I’m not especially convinced everyone else is. It may well have made the list because of the scene where Mastroianni buries a hammer in the head of the other man. Which would be a shame. I suspect Ruiz belongs on the list, but I don’t know enough about his oeuvre to determine whether this film is the best representative. It’s certainly slightly off-the-wall, and Mastroianni is always watchable.

The Laundryman, Lee Chung (2015, Taiwan). This was another of the films, most starring Regina Wan, a Taiwanese distributor seems to have dumped on Amazon Prime. Not that I’m complaining, as the ones I’ve seen – The Village of No Return (see here), this one and Threads of Time (confusingly uploaded under the title Contact of Time) – were all pretty good. The latter is an historical epic about the life of Ming dynasty concubine Liu Rushi, although it seems to miss out many of the events of her life. But The Laundryman is set in the present-day and is about a hit man who is haunted by the victims of his hits – to the extent that it is interfering with his work. His boss gives him the name of a medium to consult – the boss is not entirely convinced by his problem – but with the medium’s help he discovers that the haunting is a consequence of his own background. Which involves his upbringing in a care home in which a doctor experimented on the violent tendencies of the children consigned to it. This was a good-looking film, and surprisingly good. I’ve seen comments complaining that the fight scenes weren’t so good, given they used slo-mo and repeated the same actions from different viewpoints. It’s true they slowed the pace, but I wasn’t expecting an action film so I wasn’t that upset by them. Fun.

Thelma, Joachim Trier (2017, Norway). The title character is a young woman from a strict religious background who moves to Oslo to attend university. One day in the university library, she has what appears to be a grand mal seizure. She undergoes a variety of tests – including an induced epileptic fit – but no cause can be found. Meanwhile, she falls in love with a fellow student, but it conflicts with her upbringing (the student is female). The film then cleverly reveals through flashbacks to Thelma’s childhood that she has the ability make whatever she wants happen – just like in ‘It’s a Good Life’. Sometimes with fatal consequences for others. Some critics have suggested Thelma is little more than a carbon copy of Carrie, and there are indeed similarities. But I think Thelma treat its premise with much more subtlety than the film of King’s novel. It is, for one thing, not overtly horrific. There are some quite horrible bits in it, but no buckets of blood, no torture porn. And it is so much better for their lack. Elli Harboe in the title role is really very good, an award-winning performance in a fairer world. I loved this film. I want my own copy.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 914


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Reading diary 2018, #9

I try to alternate my reading between male and female authors – or, at the very least, ensure that by the end of the year I’ll have read roughly the same numbers of each. But it doesn’t always work out 50:50 on a monthly basis, so here we have four male authors and only one female. But two of the books were short collections, squeezed in and around my Clarke Award reading (see here).

The Massacre of Mankind, Stephen Baxter (2017, UK). Baxter, of course, wrote the official sequel to Wells’s The Time Machine, The Time Ships, back in 1995, so I guess and official sequel to The War of the Worlds was always on the cards… even if shitloads of other people have had a bash at an unofficial sequel – of which the best is probably the graphic novel Scarlet Traces by Ian Edginton and D’israeli. The Massacre of Mankind is set decades after the events of the original book, and is narrated by Julie – the character played, I think, by Julie Covington in Jeff Wayne’s version. She’s a journalist and suffragette, and when she’s contacted by the narrator of Wells’s novel, now a recluse in Italy, she gets dragged into preparations for a fresh invasion from Mars, a much bigger invasion. The Martians target Britain and create a zone fifty miles across in the Home Counties, and those caught within it are left to struggle without technology… so the Martians can harvest them as and when needed (they’ve already imported two slave races from Mars). The British build a massive trench around the Martian zone, but every attack is thwarted. Then a third invasion arrives, targetted at major cities around the globe (Baxter focuses on New York so he can do a Great Gatsby type thing). This time germs are not going to do the trick. To defeat the Martians, Earth needs something else. Something, or someone, perhaps from another planet… On the one hand, Baxter took Wells’s story in a direction I had not expected and the early twentieth century ambience did not feel, er, paper-thin. On the other, the prose is functional at best, and some parts do read a bit juvenile. I’m not sure how it reads as a sequel to Wells’s novel, given I’m more familiar with Baxter’s work than I am Wells’s. It did all feel a bit in places like it wanted to have its cake and eat it too, but given it kept me reasonably entertained for a couple of days – although a part of me thinks a sequel to a Wells novel should do more – I can’t complain over much.

Author’s Choice Monthly 5: Into the Eighth Decade, Jack Williamson (1990, USA). Williamson had an enviable career – I’m not sure what that “eighth decade” refers to since he was 82 when the book was published, which would put him in his ninth decade; and his first story was published in 1928, which would put his publishing history in its seventh decade… But never mind. This collection features his most famous story, ‘With Folded Hands’, and it hasn’t aged well. It starts off reading like it’s set in the 1940s – men in fucking hats sf, in other words – before abruptly revealing there are hundreds, possibly thousands, of other worlds populated by humanity. The premise of robots so keen to help humans they effectively nanny them into uselessness could be read as a juvenile right-wing commentary on the welfare state, but only by idiots. Sadly, there are many of them about it. The remaining stories are… forgettable. ‘Jamboree’ has no plot, it’s a squib about an out-of-control AI that kills kids when they reach a certain age. More nanny state commentary. Sigh. In ‘The Mental Man’, a man interfaces with a computer and becomes god. And in ‘The Happiest Creature’, a criminal is rescued by a flying saucer, but they can’t keep him so they return him after extracting a promise not to murder again which they know all too well he has no intention of keeping. The ending comes as no real surprise. Given that Williamson was being published for pretty close on a century – well, eighty years, his last stories were published in 2008, two years after his death – I’m surprised he chose the weak ones on display here. Okay, so ‘With Folded Hands’ is perhaps his most famous – and likely his most anthologised, so why repeat it? – but the others are hardly a good testament for a career, at that time, 62 years long. Still, it’s part of a set.

Author’s Choice Monthly 11: Skyrocket Steele Conquers the Universe, Ron Goulart (1990, USA). As is this one – part of a set, I mean. I read a Goulart novel once, it was one of his Chameleon Corps ones, I think. It was shit. And the five stories in this collection are probably worse. Goulart describes himself in the introduction as a hack – he made the choice many years ago to churn out crap to make a living, and it shows in the five stories in this collection. The protagonists are mostly hack writers. One is consumed with jealousy over the success of a writer he considers less talented – and he’s been forced to write pulp to pay the bills – but then he meets a time-travelling lit student from the late twenty-first century who tells him his novels are considered classic in the future. The twist ending is easy to guess. The title story refers to a plot by the Nazis in the early 1940s to replace FDR with a robot replica when he visits Hollywood. The plot is foiled by a screenwriter. To call this fluff would be doing fluff a disservice. The others are little better. There’s a strong thread of piss-take running through the stories, but it’s spoiled by an equally powerful whiff of “my pulp fiction is as good as your high-falutin’ litrachur yah boo sucks”, which is a bad smell in any decade and a sadly prevalent one in science fiction.

The A26, Pascale Garnier (1999, France). Mention of Garnier popped up on Twitter – I don’t remember who it was who RT’d it into my TL – but the description sounded interesting and I liked the look of the Gallic Editions paperbacks (there are eight, including The A26). So I bought one. It was… not what I expected. And sort of good. An aged brother and sister live alone in a house that is a dump – the sister hoards, and refuses to leave the house, after an event during WWII. The brother has been diagnosed with a fatal illness – cancer, I think – and has months to live. He retires from his job at the local railway station. And murders some people. Sort of accidentally, certainly unpremeditated. Meanwhile, the titular road is mentioned in passing as it is being built nearby. That original tweet described Garnier’s fiction as Ballardian, and I can sort of see the resemblance, but it reminded me more of some of the French noir Jacques Tardi has adapted. I wasn’t blown away, but I might try some more.

The Exchange, Gwyneth Jones (1979, UK). I’ve had this for years, decades in fact, but only recently realised I’d never actually read it. I remember someone – Brian Ameringen of Porcupine Books, I think – tracking down copies of Jones’s three YA novels from the late 1970s for me after I mentioned them at Mexicon 4 in Harrogate in 1991. And then later that same year, I met Gwyneth Jones at Wincon 2 in, er, Winchester, and she sent me signed copies… so I have two of each. Oh well. And embarrassingly it’s taken me all this time to read this one. Debbie and Claire are sixteen years old and best friends. Except Debbie fancies Michael Grey but is too shy to admit as much, and her friendship with Claire beings to suffer. Which is badly timed as the two are going to spend the summer in Paris with a French family. At the airport – I’m not sure where the story opens; Manchester, I think, as Jones is originally from there – they miss their flight after hiding out when all their friends come to see them off – including one or two unwelcome friends. So they decide to hitchhike to the South Coast and catch the ferry across. They spend a week in Nottingham, working as chambermaids for next-to-nothing at a “hotel” that is little more than an old folks’ home, before doing a runner. When they reach Brighton, after several adventures on the road – and considerably less had they made the same trip today – they get work as cooks in a girls’ riding school for overseas students… before eventually coming clean to their parents over the phone, and finally leaving for France. The novel is told entirely from Debbie’s POV is pretty much about her friendship with Claire, the way it began to unravel at the start of the summer, how it hung together precariously as they made their way south, and the eventual confessions which healed it just before the left for France. I’m not really sure what to make of it. It’s a very late-1970s novel, and some of its sensibilities have not aged well. But Debbie is drawn with impressive detail, and nothing in the plot seems in the remotest implausible. I was, to be honest, expect it to be fantasy, as I seem to remember Jones’s other YA titles from the late 1970s are fantasies: The Influence of Ironwood, Dear Hill and Water in the Air. Although I may be misremembering the first two.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131