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Reading diary 2018, #12

This stinking weather. It has, however, meant I’ve been reading more than usual because it’s too hot to do anything else. Which is weird, because when I lived in the UAE, where it gets way hotter than this during the summer, I used to read loads – and everywhere out there had really effective air-conditioning. Every other Thursday, I’d take taxi out to the Daly Community Library – a room in a church centre attached to the Al-Khubairat English-speaking school – and check out four books. I’d usually finish one by the end of the day. Admittedly, there wasn’t much to do there. The TV was rubbish, I didn’t have the internet at home, the selection of DVDs for sale was poor (even the ones unapproved by the Ministry of Information I used to buy under the counter)… On the other hand, my commute to work was a 500-metre walk.

The 7th Function of Language, Laurent Binet (2017, France). In 1980, Roland Barthes was hit by a van, and died a month later from injuries sustained in the accident. Binet supposes that Barthes was carrying a document wanted by several groups of powerful people – including the government of President Giscard d’Estaing. And some Bulgarian assassins. Who may or may not have been working for the Russians. A superintendent from the Renseignements Généraux, Bayard, is tasked with investigating the accident, and recruits a young semiologist professor, Herzog, to help him. The two discover the existence of the Logos Club, where members debate each other for advancement, and challengers lose a finger if their challenges are unsuccessful. Bayard and Herzog bounce around literary theory and semiotics, through a series of clever set-pieces and in-jokes, and it’s all to do with Roman Jakobson’s theory of language and its six functions – or, in this case, a mythical seventh one which allows the speaker to coerce the listener – which may have been in Barthes’ possession, and which politicians are keen to discover, especially French ones… Not only is The 7th Function of Language a fun and clever mystery novel, but it’s also a fascinating exploration of semiotics and the theories of Barthes, Foucault, Jakobson and others. A lot of the characters who appear are real people, and a number of the events in which Bayard and Herzog find themselves involved also happened in real history. As in his earlier HHhH (see here), Binet frequently breaks the fourth wall, although the process of writing the novel does not feature here as it does in the previous novel. I picked up a signed hardback of this book in a Waterstone’s promotion, but hadn’t planned on hanging onto the book once I’d read it. But I think I will. It’s an entertaining read and it’s made me want to read up on Barthes and Foucault and semiotics.

Moon Face, Alejandro Jodorowsky & François Boucq (2018, France). Jodorowsky seems to be on a roll. While he continues to contribute to a number of long-running properties – and in the case of the Metabarons appears to have licensed the property to others – he’s also churning out new stuff. Like Moon Face. On an island under a repressive regime, which regularly experiences tsunamis, there appears a man with somewhat undefined features, the Moon Face of the title, who can control the tidal waves. His appearance triggers a whole series of events, which eventually leads to the downfall of the island’s autocratic and arrogant rulers. At one point Moon Face prompts the rebuilding of a destroyed cathedral, and when a false messiah, tricked into appearing by a rebellious faction, destroys the cathedral Moon Face triggers a second rebuild and… Well, this isn’t an easy book to summarise. It’s thick with religious references and allusions, and while Jodorowsky pretty much always does that in his works, it’s far more in-your-face here than in other books. It doesn’t help that the villains are all a bit pantomime, which makes it all somewhat one-sided. Boucq’s artwork is lovely, however. And if Jodorowsky’s scripts feels a bit obvious in places with its religious – well, Roman Catholic – references and allusions, it doesn’t detract from the story as drawn.

Beatniks, Toby Litt (1997, UK). Litt began has career by stating that each of his novels would be titled alphabetically. so, obviously, Beatniks is his second book (but actually the fifth book by him I’ve read). He’s currently at “N”, and he started in 1996, so he’s not managing one a year. I first came across Litt with Journey into Space (2009), a generation starship novel. I seem to remember it wasn’t bad – the prose was better than most sf novels, but the science fiction itself was a bit old-fashioned. But I liked the idea of publishing books with alphabetical titles, so I kept an eye open for his books. He’s been a bit of a gadfly, as no two books have been the same. Beatniks is not atypical for UK lit fic. It’s set in Bedford, Litt’s hometown. A young woman is invited to a party, where she meets three people – two bloke and a woman – who refuse to acknowledge anything that happened after Dylan went electric. She can’t decide if they’re complete poseurs, but she fancies one of them so she tries to get them better. It all ends up with a trip to Brighton, where they learn a bit more about each other than they perhaps wanted to. It was hard to sympathise with the three “Beats” as they seemed to behave in a wilfully ridiculous manner. The narrator at least was sympathetic. But it all hung together entertainingly. A fast read, and enjoyable, and perhaps a little more memorable than some of Litt’s other books I’ve read.

The True Deceiver, Tove Jansson (1982, Finland). Jansson is of course best-known for the Moomins, but she also wrote a number of novels for adults, and in recent years they’ve been translated into English. In The True Deceiver, a young woman in a remote Finnish village – but Swedish-speaking, I think – organises her way into the life of an older woman who illustrates children’s books. Katri is something of an outsider in the village, partly due to her colouring, partly due to her independence and unwillingness to compromise that independence. She has a younger brother, who seems to have a learning disability, and works unpaid at a boat-builders. Katri persuades Anna, who lives in the “rabbit house”, named because she paints rabbits for children’s books, and who is also the richest person in the village, to allow her to help her, and then slowly takes over her affairs. She moves in, at Anna’s invitation, with her brother, but her plan is to stay on in the rabbit house after Anna has died, and provide for her brother. But Katri is scrupulously honest, and she ensures Anna is not being cheated by local merchants, especially the shop-owner. She is so honest, and so good at maths, that her advice is sought by people, even those who dislike her. There are levels of deception here, which is what the title refers to. Katri: to herself, the villagers, most of all Anna. Even Anna herself, although the victim of her deception is… herself. The prose is clean and clear, although it has a tendency to drift into a sort of story-telling mode, as if the author were directly addressing the reader. Given that the story is framed as if it were a fable, it seems appropriate, even if the contents are not especially fable-like. Worth reading.

Emprise (Trigon Disunity 1), Michael P Kube-McDowell (1985, USA). I don’t remember where and when I bought this trilogy, but I suspect it wasn’t long after they were published (these Legend editions were all published in 1988). I think it may have been at a convention, given that the third book, Empery, has “£1” pencilled inside the cover. Anyway, I’m pretty sure they went into storage when my parents returned to the Middle East in the early 1990s, and I didn’t see them again until I moved into my current address in 2004. So I’ve had them for around twenty-eight years, and they’ve sat on my book-shelves here for fourteen years before I’ve finally got around to reading them. And… Emprise was Kube-McDowell’s debut novel. And so too for the sequels, Enigma (below) and Emprey. I’ve read other novels by Kube-McDowell – The Quiet Pools (1990) and Exile (1992) – but Emprise is not very good. It opens with a history lesson, which is never a good sign. Apparently, in the 1980s a secret group of scientists discovered a way to render all fission weapons inert. And they used it. This led to a series of short wars, and a total backlash against science. Both of which we’ve managed during the past 30 years anyway, without rendering nuclear weapons useless. In a regressive US, a lone secret radio astronomer discovers a signal. From a spacecraft approaching the Earth at near light-speed. He passes the news onto a British colleague… and within a few short years, there’s an international organisation, led by the prime minister of India, set up to build a  spacecraft to meet the alien before it gets too close to the Solar system. When news of the alien breaks, it leads to a Church of the Second Coming, which believes the spacecraft contains angels. Anyway, the Earth spacecraft gets built and intercepts the alien… And its crew are human. From a colony apparently founded from Earth. By a technological civilisation which was wiped out by the last Ice Age. Publishing has changed in the thirty-plus years since Emprise was published, and debut novels these days are way ore polished than this one. A lot of the story is massively Americocentric, despitr not being set in the US. That church, for example: it becomes so powerful, it threatens to shut down the building of the spacecraft. There is no mention of any other religion. Indeed, the Indian PM’s religion is never actually named. If I had had all three books on my bookshelves, and felt slightly guilty for owning them so long without reading them, I doubt I’d have bothered with the sequels. Avoid.

Enigma (Trigon Disunity 2), Michael P Kube-McDowell (1986, USA). And avoid is not something I did, because I sort of felt I ought to complete the trilogy. Admittedly, they were fast reads – two days per book, pretty much – but they were also poor books. In this second one, the Earth has FTL ships searching for further colonies by those Ice Age Founders. And they’ve discovered a few, some now extinct. The novel is Merritt Thackeray’s story. He starts out as a student at a Government Service school, transfers to a Technical School, and ends up as a contact linguist on a survey ship. He’s an unlikable protagonist, and even Kube-McDowell’s attempts to make him sympathetic never really make him less annoying. At one colony, he disobeys orders and discovers the colony’s secret – that they were visited by the alien D’Shanna, who convinced them there was no point in existing any longer. Thackeray spends the rest of the novel hunting down the D’shanna… only to discover they’re not the villains. They’re energy beings from an alternate energy dimension, and one of them shows him the fate of the Ice Age Founders – they were wiped out by another alien race because one of the Founder’s colony ships had invaded their space. Enigma is better-written than Emprise, but not by much. However, it also introduces the trilogy’s big flaw: shit aliens. Who does energy-being aliens these days? They were a shit idea back in the days of the original Star Trek. The Trigon Disunity triogy is essentially a future history with Star Trek super-powerful aliens, and even for the 1980s it’s poor stuff. Especially for the late 1980s. New Space Opera was just starting to kick off, you had authors like Paul McAuley writing solid hard sf, not to mention the likes of CJ Cherryh, SN Lewitt or Susan Shwartz, among others…

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131

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Moving pictures 2018, #43

I’ve been a bit lazy with my choices of viewing of late. I blame the weather. Although I have an air-conditioner, it’s not very effective, and it’s often too hot in the evenings to sit and concentrate on a movie. Not that any of the below could be described as moving wallpaper… But you know what I mean.

Love Me Tonight*, Rouben Mamoulian (1932, USA). Given the power of Hollywood, it’s often easy to forget – in the Anglophone world, that is – that Hollywood was not the only place where films were being made during the medium’s first few decades. Germany had a strong film industry in the 1920s – Alfred Hitchcock learnt much of his trade there. Then there’s the UK: during the same decade, HG Wells wrote three short silent films especially for Elsa Lanchester, as I recently learnt. And France, where Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer made some of his best films; not to mention local directors such as Abel Gance or Georges Méliès. And China, which produced The Goddess (see here) and Song at Midnight in the 1930s. And the USSR… In fact, the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list contains 83 films from the 1930s. Fifty-seven are from the US! France is next highest with 12, then Germany with 5, the UK with 3, and then China with 2. The remaining nations are Brazil, Spain, Japan and the USSR. But 57 from the US! Okay, so it’s easier for the US-based list makers to find early US films than early films from other nations, but that shows a piss-poor effort to track down non-US examples. One of which, Limite (see here), from Brazil, wasn’t even available at the time the list was first made, and its reputation existed mostly as hearsay (bolstered by Orson Welles declaring himself a fan after a private showing back in 1942!). All of which is a rather long-winded way of saying I cannot honestly see why Love Me Tonight made the list. It’s basically a fairy-tale recast as an early Gene Kelly musical, but with Maurice Chevalier in the lead role. You know what I mean – there’s something fairy-tale about all of Gene Kelly’s musicals, whether it’s the plots or the dream-like dance sequences or the character Kelly usually plays. Chevalier is a tailor, who is owed a great deal of money by an aristocrat (this is a recurring motif in Western European history and fiction, you’d think we’d fucking learn not to trust the nobs), so he sets off to demand what he is owed. He bumps into a princess, declares his undying love, is presented as a baron at the chateau because his debtor doesn’t want to embarrass himself… and, well, it’s a story which should end with a tumbril and not with the two lovers re-united. And I really can’t understand the appeal of Chevalier, who galumphs about like a Cary Grant cast in ‘Allo ‘Allo, and whose singing voice was nothing to, er, shout about. I have enjoyed, and even admired, some of the 1930s US films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but I’ve been baffled by the inclusion of most of them. This definitely falls into that latter group.

The Odyssey, Jérôme Salle (2016, France). The more sharp-eyed among you will have noticed that the three actors on the cover of the DVD have the wrong names underneath. Which seems like a pretty dumb mistake to let through on the packaging. Anyway, The Odyssey is a biopic of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, as played by Lambert Wilson. I remember Cousteau from my own childhood. His films seemed to always be on television, although whether that was UK television or UAE television, I can’t remember. But I certainly remember his ship Calypso, the diving saucer, and the divers with their distinctive streamlined yellow scuba gear. I’m not young enough to remember his Conshelf underwater habitats, although I’ve read up on them in the last few years, and even have a  copy of the film made about Conshelf II, World Without Sun (see here). So Cousteau was not a figure that was unfamiliar to me, and I was aware of many of his achievements. Having said that, I knew little about his career, just the highlights really. I hadn’t known he was partly funded by the French Ministry of Petroleum, and was responsible for discovering a number of oilfields in the Middle East. Or that his business was in debt to the tune of millions of dollars during the 1980s. Unfortunately, The Odyssey wants to be about JYC’s (as his friends called him) relationship with his youngest son, Phillippe, who initially turned his back on his father and his career, but later joined him and became Cousteau’s lead cinematographer. He also died in a seaplane crash in 1979 – this is no spoiler, as the film opens with the crash. On the one hand, The Odyssey wants to be a biopic of JYC; on the other, it wants to be a father-son drama (because apparently the French think that’s what cinema should be about too); and on the other hand, you have Audrey Tatou as the put-upon wife who acts as “mother” and “shepherdess” (her nickname) to the crew of Calypso… The end-result is a film which has plenty of drama but none of the wonder of Cousteau’s own films about the oceans. The leads are good in their roles, but the focus feels too… land-bound. It comes as no surprise that Cousteau was a bad businessman, or that he was bad at picking business partners. He was a dreamer, and his films get that across much better than The Odyssey does. I enjoyed it, and I find Cousteau an interesting person, but I’d sooner watch one of JYC’s own films, if I’m honest.

The Jungle Book, Jon Favreau (2016, USA). Disney has been on a mission this century to remake all its classic animation feature films as live-action. I’ve no idea why. Earlier attempts, like 1996’s 101 Dalmations, were hardly successful. Having said that, Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella from 2015 (see here) isn’t half bad, and Sleeping Beauty (see here; the greatest Disney film ever made) was not so much remade as, er, sequelised with Maleficent. But The Jungle Book is not a film you’d expect to be given the live-action treatment. Chiefly because all of its character but one are, well, talking animals. And while WC Fields may have said, “never work with animals or children”, animals can’t actually, er, talk, which pretty much fucks up the entire story of The Jungle Book. So Jon Favreau uses CGI animals. And they look very realistic. But, of course, each animal character – Baloo, Arkela, Shere Khan, Bagheera, King Louie, and so on – needs a human actor to provide their voice. And that’s where Favreau screwed it up. It’s a good cast, an excellent cast, But so hugely miscast. Idris Elbas as Shere Khan? WTF? Bill Murray as Baloo? What the actual fuck? Disney’s original The Jungle Book is a film from my childhood. I remember seeing it in the gym at the Doha English Speaking School in the early 1970s. We also had a LP of songs from Disney films, which featured the best-known song from The Jungle Book abd other films, and which we played relentlessly when we lived in Rumeilah (an area of Doha). So, on the one hand, it’s “mess with my childhood icons at your own peril”, but, on the other, some previous attempts had actually been quite good. I wish I could say The Jungle Book fell into the latter category. The CGI animals are, unsurprisingly, fantastic to look at – even if their voices are so badly chosen. And the story sticks mostly to the Disney animated film. The musical cues make use of the songs from the animated film, without actually being, well, sung. Which feels sort of half-hearted and is disappointing. King Louis is converted into a Gigantopithecus (which allegedly existed from the late Miocene to the mid-Pleistocene), which is no more plausible than the animated film’s orang-utan but does, I have to admit, look pretty cool. But, despite all that, The Jungle Book feels mostly like a showreel for CGI. It’s like an advert for the state-of-the-art. Kipling’s collection of short stories has been well and truly buried. Instead of making a “better” The Jungle Book, Favreau should have gone back to the source. Instead, he’s produced a photo-realistic version of Disney’s 1967 animated film, but taken all the fun out of it. I admit The Jungle Book is not a Disney animated film I hold in especially high regard, but it deserved a better remake than this.

Devil Girl from Mars, David MacDonald (1954, UK). There are a lot of sf B-movies available on Amazon Prime, probably because they’re all out of copyright and watchable copies have been digitised at some point somewhere. Whether they should have been is an entirely different matter. I’d argue that Devil Girl from Mars, which is British rather than American, is one that deserved being better known, even if it’s not that good a film and was roundly panned on its release. Perversely, it is its failures to abide by sf B-movie clichés which makes it interesting. It is, sort of, an Alien precursor. A group of people are trapped at a remote Scottish hotel when a flying saucer lands nearby. They are terrorised by the UFO’s crew, the so-called “Devil Girl”, and her crap-looking robot. They plot among themselves to save the Earth from the threat represented by the Devil Girl – she is, apparently, the scout for an invading force from Mars. The plot is enlivened by the trapped guests’ dynamics. One is an escaped murderer under an assumed name. Another is a scientist sceptical of UFOs. True, the story is somewhat formulaic – N’yah, the Martian, appears in the hotel, tells the trapped guests what they can and cannot do, and leaves. They then discuss what she has said. But the focus is on the characters trapped in the hotel, in response to the threat posed by N’yah, than it is in the N’yah and the threat she poses. In the end, the scientist figures out a way for N’yah’s flying saucer to be destroyed… but only by someone willing to sacrifice themselves. Which leads to, well, a competition among the men to decide who should be the one to blow up the UFO. The acting is not especially good, the special effects are risible (especially the robot), and the studio sets aren’t very convincing. N’yah’s fetish wear doesn’t much resemble what you’d expect the captain of spaceship from Mars to be wearing. This is by no means a great film, but for all its faults it’s not a bad B-movie.

By the Bluest of Seas, Boris Barnet (1936, Russia). I mentioned films from the 1930s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, sand that there was only one from the USSR – it’s Zemlya by Aleksandr Dovzhenko (see here). Which is an excellent film. But Boris Barnet also made some excellent films during the 1930s. Not just By the Bluest of Seas, but also Outskirts (see here). Not to mention Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (see here). Eisenstein does appear on the list – several times, in fact. But not Barnet. Which is a surprise. This film has been accused – by Western critics – of being propaganda, which shows a remarkable lack of self-consciousness, if not honesty, on the part of those critics, as Western, especially Hollywood, movies have been propaganda for, variously, the American Dream, capitalism or consumerism since the early days of cinema. And in these times of overt product placement and merchandising, they’re even more propaganda tools. But, of course, when it applies to capitalism, it’s not propaganda. Because propaganda is political but capitalism is not. If you think that, I suggest you go back to kindergarten as you’ve entirely missed the point of the modern fucking world. Anyway, in By the Bluest of Seas, two sailors are washed ashore a Caspian Sea island during a storm, and join the collective farm located there. Both of them are attracted to the leader of the kolkhoz – that’s her on the DVD cover – and so vie for her attentions. But, after various attempts to win her favour, including a fishing trip during which she is washed overboard and believed lost, but then washes ashore later, they learn she has a fiancé off fighting in the Pacific. It’s not the most original of stories, and its depiction of kolkhoz life probably understates the hardships, but Barnet’s cinematography is really quite good, especially the scenes set on boats during storms. And, for all that, nothing in it felt like propaganda. I could argue that not only is all cinema propaganda, but that it should be more overtly propaganda. And sf should be didactic. But I like my propaganda honest about its intentions – which is more than can be said for Hollywood’s product placement deals, etc – so that at least I can decide how to take it. If, as stated earlier, By the Bluest of Seas presents an overly rosy view of life in a kolkhoz, not to mention the benefits of such a system, then what’s the problem? By the Bluest of Seas is an extremely well-shot, if somewhat hackneyed, romantic triangle set in 1930s USSR. This film should certainly have been considered for the 1001 Movies  You Must See Before You Die list; all of Barnet’s film probably should have been.

Desert Ark, Mohamed Chouikh (1997, Algeria). I now have all four of these Great African Films DVDs. ArtMattan are continuing to release DVDs, but the fourth volume seems to be the last in this series. Their DVDs are also really hard to find – ie, expensive – on this side of the Atlantic, and their website is so 1990s you can only order on it and pay by “check”. Sigh. A big shame, because Africa – which is a continent – has a rich tradition of film-making, some African nations perhaps more than others, but pretty much all of which are hard to find in the UK. This particular volume of Great African Films also includes Daratt by Mahamat Saleh Haroun, a Chadian director, whose movies are released on DVD in the UK (and for good reason – they are excellent) The other film in this set is Desert Ark, by Algerian director Mohamed Chouikh (that’s French orthography, so in English orthography it would probably be Shwaykh). The story pits two tribes, one nominally Berber, against each other over an illicit love affair between a young man from one and a young woman from the other. On the one hand, it’s all intended to be figurative; on the other, artificial tribal affiliations aside, this is something that happens in real life and, despite the attempts of reconciliation by a local mullah, it quickly escalates to violence and outright war. Chouikh’s film is clearly meant to be cautionary, but in the twenty years since it was made the world has become much more violent and intolerant. Which means that Chouikh’s flights of fancy – casting the film as an allegory of life aboard Noah’s Ark – actually mean less than the narrative as presented. The final scenes, in which the two lovers stumble across a ship becalmed in the desert, feel like whimsy rather than the culmination of an allegorical commentary. There is, of course, nothing allegorical about a bullet. Or indeed metaphorical. If anything, bullets are items that are usually turned into metaphors. But when you have two tribes using guns to protect something as nebulous and worthless as “honour” – even worse than that, male honour as embodied in women as chattel – then you have a conflict that is never really going to be resolved until all the men involved have been re-educated as human beings. Desert Ark tells a story specific to its country of origin, but its themes are universal. It really deserves a wider release than it received.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 927


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Summer bounty 2

I couldn’t think of a fresh title for this book haul post, so I just stuck a “2” on the title of my previous book haul post. Blame the weather. Anyway, here are the additions to my ever-expanding library…

I bought and read the first quartet of NewCon novellas, and then the Martian novellas (see here), but didn’t bother with the second set as they were horror/dark fantasy, which isn’t really my bag. But then I thought, why not? And since there were copies still available… I’ve yet to read any of the above, and the only two authors I’ve read previously are Simon Clark and Sarah Lotz.


The Melissa Scott Roads of Heaven trilogy – Five-Twelfths of Heaven, Silence in Solitude and The Empress of Earth – I got for a quid on eBay (along with a fourth book, The Kindly Ones, which I already have a copy of, and which I’ve given away). They’re actually ex-library, but I don’t plan to keep them once I’ve read them. Brideshead Revisited I bought in a charity shop for twice as much – a whole 50p.

Jodorowsky seems to be churning out even more stuff than ever before – new additions to the Metabarons series (not actually written by him, to be fair), new stories like Moon Face, and even a pair of autobiographic films (see here and here). The Inside Moebius trilogy – this is part two – however, is new to English, as it originally appeared in French, in six volumes, between 2000 and 2010. And Moebius, of course, died in 2012.

I am eternally grateful to Gollancz for deciding not to number their re-launched SF Masterwork series, because it means I only have to buy the ones I want. I’m not a big fan of Heinlein, although I read many of his books when I was in my teens – and those I’ve read in recent years have been pretty bad, but were ones I expected to be bad. The Door into Summer is one I’ve not read, but I seem to recall it has a mostly positive reputation – and not from the people who like the appalling Starship Troopers or The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Always Coming Home is, well, it’s Le Guin. Uppsala Woods is by a writer from the Nocilla Generation, a group of writers in Spain who were inspired by Agustín Fernández Mallo’s excellent Nocilla trilogy (see here and here; the third book has yet to be published in English). Angels’ Falls is the last unpublished Frank Herbert manuscript published by Kevin J Anderson’s WordFire Press. Books are usually left unpublished for good reason, although Herbert apparently started out attempting to carve out a career as a thriller writer so perhaps he kept these back because they were incompatible with his career as a science fiction writer.

I pledged to the Mother of Invention kickstarter last year, which makes it one of the quickest kickstarter campaigns to deliver I’ve contributed to. Haynes now cover all sorts of stuff with their Owners’ Workshop Manual series. I’ts not like I’m ever going to own a North American X-15 – I think the only complete example remaining is in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum – and so will ever need to fix it… but I’ve always found the aircraft fascinating and already have several books on it.

If you like the fiction of early genre writers, such as Leigh Brackett and CL Moore, then Haffner Press publish some lovely collections of their stories – such as Lorelei of the Red Mist and Stark and the Star-Kings. (I already own Martian Quest: the Early Brackett, but I still need to get myself a copy of Shannach–the Last: Farewell to Mars.) Michael Moorcock: Death is no Obstacle is a hard-to-find critical work/book-length interview of/with Moorcock by Colin Greenland.


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Moving pictures 2018, #42

An almost entirely Anglophone group of films this time around, although one of them isn’t actually Anglophone as it takes place in Zambia and the dialogue is almost entirely in Chichewa (a member of the Bantu language family)… but the director emigrated to the UK when she was nine and the film was mostly funded by UK film production companies, so I’ve marked it as a British film.

Transfer, From the Drain, Stereo, Crimes of the Future, David Cronenberg (1966 – 1970, Canada) The four films in this box set were originally included as extra features on the special edition release of Videodrome, but have since been released as David Cronenberg’s Early Works. I am not an especially big fan of Cronenberg’s works – I’ll happily watch them, and some of them I think are very good – but I’m not the sort to track down all his films, especially the ones that are hard to find, and buy them… although if they’re readily available, I’ll happily stick them on my rental list. I knew that Cronenberg’s first film was Shivers, followed by Rabid, which I’ve seen (see here), although I first came across his work when I watched Scanners some time back in the 1980s. The four films here, two of which are technically feature films as they’re over 40 minutes in length, predate Shivers, but since Cronenberg’s career is generally considered to have started with ShiversTransfer has a psychiatrist and his patient sitting at a table in a snowy field and, to be honest, it’s a curiosity in the director’s oeuvre. Perhaps there are hints of the themes Cronenberg explores throughout his career, but it’s also one of those portentous films made by students who don’t realising they’re  both re-inventing the wheel and producing something that isn’t round in shape. The same is true of From the Drain, which also features two characters in conversation, in this case, veterans of some future war. One for fans. But then there’s Stereo, which is worth the price of admission alone. It’s the usual student over-emphatic nonsense, ostensibly about an experiment to boost telepathic powers, as far as the script is concerned – or rather, voice-over, as apparently no sound was recorded as the Bolex camera too noisy. However, it was filmed entirely on the Scarborough campus of the University of Toronto and features some wonderful Brutalist and Modernist architecture, made all the more visually appealing for having been filmed in black and white. Crimes of the Future treads similar ground – thematically and literally, since it’s also filmed in Scarborough – but it also harkens back to those earlier films, albeit using voiceover again, and tried to be clever with its dialogue. Stereo is a little gem, a great piece of black and white Brutalism. The earlier two films feel like ingredients that fed into it; and the last film seems like a failed attempt to remake it. They’re for fans of Cronenberg, obviously, but I’m glad I watched them.

I am not a Witch, Rungano Nyoni (2017, UK). As mentioned above, this film is set in Zambia, using a local cast, with dialogue mostly in Chichewa, but the director moved to Wales when she was nine, and the film has been mostly funded by UK production companies. But really, it’s Zambian in all but its funding. It’s Nyoni’s first feature film too, although two of her earlier short films are also included on the disc – Mwansa the Great and Listen. A young girl is accused of being a witch and taken away to a camp where witches are imprisoned. The women there are loaned to local business as manual labour. Each one is attached to a long ribbon on a large bobbin. They cannot remove the ribbon, or they are punished. The girl proves to have a talent for spotting wrongdoers. When presented with a line-up of suspects for a crime, she can pick out the guilty one. This makes her useful to the bureaucrat responsible for the  witches’ camp, and he uses her talent to better himself. It’s patently obvious that men have been using accusations of witchcraft to punish women who have rejected them – it’s even explicitly said, at one point. Of course, the young girl soon realises the power she has, especially the life that could be hers if she marries her protector, and so naturally she rebels. And, well, let’s just say the films does not have a happy ending. I thought this an excellent film. I’m not into film-making technique all that much, so the director’s inexperience, as outlined in other reviews, did not spoil my enjoyment. More interestingly, there were two shorts by Nyoni on the disc. The first, Mwansa the Great is a mildly amusing vignette set in a Zambian village, which shows a nice touch of the fantastic in realising the imagination of its child cast. Listen on the other hand, co-directed with Finnish/Iranian director Hamy Ramezan, is a much more powerful piece of work. An Arab woman in Denmark is being interviewed by two cops. She claims her husband will kill her if she is sent home. The cops do not understand Arabic, and the translator is wilfully playing down the woman’s situation. So they call in the son, who can speak Danish. He lies and tells the cops everything is fine at home because, he tells his mother, “I can protect you now”. It’s frightening how the woman’s communications are corrupted by others, so much so that the Danish cops respond differently to a woman who is quite clearly a victim. The commentary in Listen is obviously no different to that in I am not a Witch, even if the situations and settings are very different. Nyoni is clearly a name to watch, with a definite message that needs to be told.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Stanley Donen (1954, USA). I’m not a big fan of musicals, I think I’ve said that before. But I found this on Amazon Prime, so watching it wasn’t going to cost me anything, and it was a hot Sunday afternoon, and you know how it goes… I think the film also appears on one of the iterations of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, although not the one I’m using. A “backwoodsman”, Howard Keel, visits town looking for a wife. Jane Powell is sick of being treated like a drudge, so she accepts Keel’s offer despite only having met him an hour or two earlier. She goes home with him… and discovers he has six brothers. All of whom also want wives. So she basically knocks off their rough edges, teaches them how to treat women properly… and then they end up pretty much kidnapping six women to be their brides. Up until that last part, I was surprised to find myself enjoying Seven Brides for Brothers. Okay, so the songs aren’t exactly memorable, and a lot of the scenery is actually studio backdrops, but there’s plenty of humour, the dance-off at the barn-building is good, and the cast all play their parts well. It was a fun film. True, I expect to walk away from a musical remembering at least one of the tunes – if not with an earworm it takes me weeks to dislodge – but if I can remember one of the dance scenes then I suppose that’s a close second. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers will never be a favourite musical – and I’m slightly worried that such a concept should even occur to me – but I enjoyed watching it.

Paris, je t’aime, various (2006, France). This was lent me by David Tallerman. It’s an anthology film of eighteen short films by well-known directors, a mix of French and American, set in the city referenced in the title. And, well, there are too many Americans in it. The segments vary in length but all are shorter than ten minutes. I liked ‘Quais de Seine’ by Paul Mayeda Burges and Gurinder Chadha, in which a young Frenchman walks away from his sexist mates and becomes friends with a young Muslim woman; and ‘Place des fêtes’ by Oliver Schmitz, in which a Nigerian man is attacked by racists and connects with the immigrant paramedic who attends him. Most of the other segments didn’t seem to fit in with French cinema, such as Vincenzo Natali’s segment in which Elijah Wood meets a beautiful vampire, or the Coen brothers’ one where Steve Buscemi is beaten up by a young Frenchman. Of the segments which treated Paris as a destination for tourists, rather than a city with its own natives, probably the best was ‘Quartier Latin’ by Frédéric Auburtin and Gérard Depardieu, written by Gena Rowlands, starring Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara and Gérard Depardieu. Out of the eighteen segments, the hit rate was too low to call the film a success. Only a couple were actively bad, but the whole project just seemed to have too heavy a US hand on it and that spoiled it. There is apparently a complimentary film set in New York, which seems more fitting, and less interesting to me, and several more planned: in Rio de Janeiro, Shanghai and Jerusalem. If they are equally aimed at the US market, I dread to think how they’ll turn out. Paris, je t’aime is not a film that celebrates the culture of Paris, it’s a film that uses it as a location to present a handful of Parisian stereotypes.

Sleuth*, Joseph L Mankiewicz (1972, UK). I was pretty sure I’d seen this many years ago, but then realised I was confusing with a spoof Sherlock film, whose title escapes me, in which Watson was the clever one and Holmes a bumbling idiot. But that’s an entirely different film, and almost certainly doesn’t belong on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Unlike Sleuth. Which having now seen, I suspect I may well have seen many years ago. But I’m not sure. Olivier plays a successful writer of traditional crime novels. Caine is his wife’s lover, a hairdresser. Olivier invites Caine to his mansion and explains his cunning plan. He approves of their relationship and wants to give them a head-start. So they will fake a robbery, Olivier will claim the insurance, and Caine and ex-wife can keep whatever a fence will give them for the stolen jewellery. But Olivier, of course, has something else in mind – and shoots Caine as an intruder. The following day, an inspector turns up to investigate Caine’s disappearance, but Olivier insists it was all a joke and he only scared Caine by firing blanks. And… anymore would constitute serious spoilers. This is a film that relies entirely on the quality of its cast, and while Olivier is on top form, Caine also rises to the occasion. It doesn’t feel like a play, despite the use of pretty much a single location – the film widens it out a little, opening the film in a maze in the grounds of Olivier’s mansion, and making good use of movement throughout the interior of the house. Having said that, what really stands out about this film is the cleverness of its script, which was a play by Anthony Shaffer, so it seems a bit of a cheat to stick it on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. It’s an excellent film, but that’s because it’s a good adaptation of an excellent play. It feels like a cheat, like it’s being rewarded for being something it isn’t. Worth seeing, definitely, but does it belong on the list?

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 926


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Moving pictures 2018, #41

I have seen other films by all the directors in the post, except for the last. Some, of course, more than others – Lang is my 8th most-watched director, with 25 movies. (Alfred Hitchcock, unsurprisingly, occupies the top spot.)

House by the River, Fritz Lang (1950, USA) Unsuccessful author Louis Hayward is left on his own with attractive maid Dorothy Patrick. Enraged by his latest rejection, and drunk, he sexually assaults Patrick, and strangles her when she resists. His brother, Lee Bowman, then turns up, and Hayward persuades him to help him dispose of the body – in the river by, er, the house. Hayward then puts it about that Patrick has run away with clothing and jewellery belonging to Hayward’s wife. But then Bowman learns that the meal sack in which they hid the body had his name on it. And the body has re-appeared. Hayward claims Bowman was the murderer. And it looks like he might go down for it. Lang made some classic noir films during the 1940s and 1950s, but this isn’t generally reckoned one of them. It apparently flopped on its release, but time has been kind to it: the starkly-lit studio sets, indoors and outdoors, look really quite effective, and if the script and acting is perhaps a bit overwrought there are some really effective scenes. The scene where Hayward tries to recover Patrick’s body from the river is especially good. Despite that, it’s probably one for fans – of Lang or noir.

Space Amoeba, Ishiro Honda (1970, Japan). The original Japanese title of this film translates as “Gezora, Ganimes, and Kamoebas: Decisive Battle! Giant Monsters of the South Seas”, which, er, pretty much describes the entire plot. Admittedly, it doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as readily as Space Amoeba, or the film’s US title, Yog-Monster from Space (although what a “yog-monster” is, is anybody’s guess). Anyway, space probe on its way to Jupiter encounters a strange energy alien, which takes over the probe and sends it back to Earth. It crashes in the Pacific, and the alien takes over the body of a cuttlefish and grows it to giant-size. Meanwhile, a group of photographers and developers have travelled to Selgio Island to explore the sight of a future resort. The giant cuttlefish attacks them, and when they defeat it, the alien turns into a giant stone crab, and then a giant mata mata. So, lots of monster fights. And, er, that’s about it. There are a few character arcs and stuff, but let’s not get carried away – kaiju films are all about the monsters, after all. Strangely, the lead characters seemed to have been dubbed by Australian actors.

Ali and Nino, Asif Kapadia (2016, UK). I learnt of this story watching a documentary about Baku (see here), but at the time thought it was only a 1937 novel. But it was apparently adapted two years ago by a British director, with a Palestinian playing the Azerbaijani and a Spaniard playing the Georgian. Oh well. Casting aside, the film makes a good fist of the story and even manages to present Baku as it was in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Both Ali and Nino are from well-off families, aristocracy if not minor royalty. A rival for Nino’s affections kidnaps her, but Ali rescues her. But the rival dies during the rescue, so Ali has to hide out in the hills. Meanwhile, WWI breaks out. A friend re-unites the two and they marry in the hills. The Russian Revolution takes place. Post-WWI, Azerbaijan becomes independent. The couple return to Baku and Ali is made a government minister. But then the Russians invade and Azerbaijan becomes a vassal state. Ali and Nino flee. Ali and Nino is all a bit, well, Dr Zhivago, with a bit of Lawrence of Arabia mixed in. It’s clear where Kapadia’s inspirations lay – and it’s no bad thing, as those are both excellent films. The two leads are, perhaps, a little bland, although Mandy Patinkin, one of only two faces I recognised in the cast, makes a good Grand Duke Kipiani, Nino’s father. Kapadia at least does a better job of making his locations look like Baku of the 1930s than Lean did making Spain look like Russia (athough both are good-looking films). Kapadia is probably better-known for documentaries made from found footage, but if this, his feature film, is any indication he has a good career ahead of him in that area too.

Through the Olive Trees*, Abbas Kiarostami (194, Iran). This is probably Kiarostami’s most highly-regarded film and yet, despite the fact pretty much his entire oeuvre is available on DVD, this one film isn’t. Every other film he made: available on DVD, probably soon to appear on Blu-ray. Through the Olive Trees: nope. I can only hope that when that long outstanding Kiarostami collection appears on Blu-ray, it includes this. Through the Olive Trees is about a director making a film in a village in Iran that recently suffered a bad earthquake. I can’t think of another film director whose movies were so consistently meta – whether it was the pull back to the crew at the end of Taste of Cherry, or the plot of Close-Up (see here), which consists of a man pretending to be rival director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. In Through the Olive Trees, two of the locals the director has cast have a bad relationship: he asked for her hand in marriage but was rejected by her mother. Acting in the film has brought the two together, and while he still burns a torch for her and is incensed by his rejection, she doesn’t seem especially concerned and is happy to accept her mother’s decision. But the two start to confuse the parts they’re playing and their real lives – I believe most of the cast were amateurs from the area where the film was made, and many of the events in the film happened in real life. In and around this, the director has to cope with making a film far from Tehran, with only local support, living in tents and using a much-reduced crew. This hasn’t overtaken Where the Wind Will Carry Us as my favourite Kiarostami, and I think I like Close-up slightly more as well, but it’s certainly in the top five. Excellent stuff.

The Warrior and the Wolf, Tian Zhuangzhuang (2009, China). I watched this twice before returning it to Cinema Paradiso and I’m still not sure sure what it’s about. I think I know what it thinks it’s about, but that’s not the same as what appears on the screen. It receive some stick because it’s a Chinese historical film starring a Japanese man and a Hawaiian woman in the lead roles – cf Zhang Yimou for casting Matt Damon in The Great Wall. The Warrior and the Wolf opens with on-screen text explaining that General Zhang guards the northern border, but during the winter months his army returns home. When Zhang is captured by barbarians, a new recruit, Lu, frees him. Zhang leaves Lu in charge and heads home. Winter arrives and Lu leads the garrison home, but they end up trapped in a village by a snowstorm. Lu takes a village woman for himself, She tells him that sex with outsiders turns the villagers into wolves. When the soldiers leave, they are attacked by wolves. This is definitely a film that’s all about the visuals, not to mention the sex scenes between Lu and the village woman. Occasional screen-fulls of narrative text, however, fail to bed the story into the visuals, so the end result is a film that looks gorgeous but is as dull as dishwater. I’ve now seen three films by Tian, and he definitely seems stronger on cinematography than narrative. The Horse Thief (see here) had the most interesting setting, but The Warrior and the Wolf doesn’t seem all that much different to the current crop of wu xia and historical epic films flooding out of China.

A Fantastic Woman, Sebastián Lelio (2017, Chile) This is one of those films where the plot is easy to describe. That, however, is the only thing that’s “easy” about it. A man in a relationship with a transgender woman, Marina, has a seizure one night. She manages to get him to the hospital, although not without him falling downstairs at one point. Due to the injuries sustained from the fall, the police are called. The man dies of an aneurysm. The police seemed happy Marina was not responsible for the death, but they are afraid she might have been a victim herself in the relationship. So while trying to manage her grief, she’s having to deal with an officious police officer intent on digging into her private life. Then her late lover’s transphobic ex-wife turns up. And she wants everything back. Like the car. The son moves into the flat and throws Marina out. He even keeps the dog, which was given to Marina. And the family refuses to allow her to mourn her lover’s death – they ban her from the funeral, and the son and his mates physically assault her when she turns up. The one thing I don’t understand is why the ex-wife has such powers. Her relationship with the deceased ended when she divorced him. It’s implied Marina’s relationship was relatively recent, but even so she lived with him, they were a couple. A Fantastic Woman won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and it’s certainly a good film. Its star, Daniela Vega, is excellent in the title role. But it’s also a film that makes you angry with the injustices heaped on its title character. Obviously, they’re making a point – and the success of the movie shows the point is getting across to some people. But the fact it has to be made in the first place… and the treatment meted out by transphobes… It’s disgusting, makes you ashamed to be human. An excellent film, definitely worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 925


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Moving pictures 2018, #40

Bit of an odd mix this time.

Avalon: Beyond the Abyss, Philip Sgriccia (1999, USA). A while ago I put together a list of all films that featured deep sea diving, and this was on it. I knew nothing about it, other than that. I didn’t know it was a private project by a star of Baywatch, Parker Stevenson. I didn’t know it was released straight-to-video. I didn’t know it was pretty bad. Stevenson plays an oceanographer who is called in when an island mysteriously explodes and creates a “black tide – a “harmful algae bloom” or “HAB”, because, of course, world-killing events always have acronyms. But apparently it’s all to do with a Mayan god, who threatens extinction every 5,000 years… or is it? A diver disappears in the deeps, and when he reappears he’s different, like alternate world version of himself different. Oh, and there’s a big hole, with an “intense magnetic field”, in the ocean bed. So maybe not Mayan gods after all. Surprisingly, Stevenson managed to get use of some pretty state-of-the-art diving hardware for his film – not just a diving support ship and a ROV, but also an actual DSV (which never gets used) and an atmospheric diving suit (which does). This film apparently never made of it off VHS, which is a bit of a shame given much worse films have had DVD, and even Blu-ray, releases. It is perhaps a bit too much of a cut-price The Abyss, and Stevenson probably found his level when he appeared in Baywatch… but there’s some nice hardware on display and some pretty good underwater photography (but also some bad CGI).

The Steamroller and the Violin, Andrei Tarkovsky (1966, Russia). Prior to the release of his first feature film, Andrei Tarkovsky made four short films, the last of which, The Steamroller and the Violin, was his diploma film at VGIK. It’s a simple enough story: a seven-year-old music student is bullied by the other boys in his apaprtment block, and is one day saved by the driver of a steamroller working on the road outside. The two become friends. They spend the day wandering around Moscow, and agree to meet up to see a film that afternoon. But the boy’s mother won’t let him out because she doesn’t know the steamroller driver. Who insteads goes to the cinema with his female driver colleague who has completely by coincidence of course turned up. The one thing that’s noticeable about The Steamroller and the Violin is all the camera tricks Tarkovsky managed to squeeze into it. On his way to music school, the boy looks at the mirrors in a shop window, and we’re treated to a montage of split-screen fractured moving images, as if reflected in multiple mirrors. When the boy and the driver watch a house being demolished, the camera follows the path of the wrecking ball. And when the boy plays his violen for the driver, the camera is placed near the floor looking up at the boy as he plays. Given it was a diploma film – it was awared “excellent”, apparently – then I suppose it’s good to display technical proficiency, but it all does seem a bit… imposed, a bit too much for the story to carry. Worth seeing, however.

Interlude, Douglas Sirk (1957, USA). My admiration for Sirk’s 1950s “women’s pictures” know no bounds, and not only is All That Heaven Allows my absolute favourite film but I also love Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life. But not every film made during that period by Sirk worked quite so well. On paper, Interlude should have done. A young American woman, hungry for adventure, gets a job in post-war Germany with a cultural organisation. Through her job, she meets a tortured genius German conductor, whose wife is mentally ill. She has an affair with him. But eventually realises the error of her ways and returns to the US. It has all the ingredients, and the cast were certainly up to the job – June Allyson and Rossano Brazzi. It even had European locations. And yet… I note that the three films I like had Russell Metty as cinematographer, but Interlude has William H Daniels. Is that all it is? The cinematography? Because Interlude has its moments, but doesn’t enthral to same extent as those other films. Perhaps it’s because Allyson’s character is too nice – Wyman in All That Heaven Allows at least stands up for herself – or perhaps it’s that Brazzi never quite convinces as the tortured maestro, although he does make a good romantic lead. Interlude feels like a film that could have been a pure slice of Americana, with an entirely US cast, but was made in Europe for no other reason than to show American audiences that such a place existed. It’s by no means the worst film Sirk ever made – some of his early Hollywood films are clearly “work for hire” – but it lacks something that lifts up among the best of his “women’s pictures”.

Forbidden Kingdom, Oleg Stepchenko (2014, Russia). It wasn’t until I was about thirty minutes into this film that I realised it was a remake if Viy (see here). It didn’t help that the opening was completely different – Jason Flemyng is a cartographer in eighteenth-century England, who is a caught in flagrante delicto with Charles Dance’s nubile daughter, and so forced to flee the country. He heads east in his steampunk carriage, and so finds himself in the Ukraine… Which is where he ends up in a village currently being haunted by a young woman who died at the hands of a demon. Her body is lying in state in the local churchm and people who spend the night in the church witness all manner of demonic activity. But then it begins to spread into the village. Flemyng is at a dinner where all the other guests turn into monsters. There are sightings of a horned demon. It’s all very OTT and CGI, and while bits of it certainly reminded of Viy there was so much more of it. It didn’t help that the actors who dubbed into English all sounded like they were acting in a bad TV advert. In the end, it all turns out to be some sort of weird mass hallucination, and then there’s a rational explanation for everything, although I must have blinked and missed the point where the film turned from fantastical horror to historical drama. There’s also a framing narrative, in which Flemyng writes to Dance’s daughter – the implication being that the story is told through his letters, which might at least explain the change from horror to drama, but is spoiled by the fact we see it visually on-screen. It was an entertaining enough film, but the original is much better.

The Green, Green Grass of Home, Hou Hsiao-Hsien (1982, Taiwan). This is the second film Hou prefers not to remember, and also a vehicle for Taiwanese pop star Kenny Bee. In this film, Bee plays a substitute teacher sent to a provincial town, who falls in love with a fellow teacher. It’s not all smooth-sailing, as his girlfriend form Taipei turns up and he’s too much of a coward to tell her his attentions now lie elsewhere. He also has to get permission from the woman’s father. And then there’s the class he’s teaching, particularly three young lads he refers to as the “Three Musketeers” (or at least the subtitles do, and I have to wonder what cultural referent the actual dialogue uses). The Green, Green Grass of Home at least doesn’t have the horrible ear-wormy song of Cute Girl, although it does have a song which is repeated throughout the film – on several occasions it’s even sung by the schoolkids. But it’s still lightweight stuff, and it’s easy to see why Hou would sooner it was forgotten.

Cairo Station*, Youssef Chahine (1958, Egypt). The Egyptian film industry is, more or less, the Hollywood of the Arabic-speaking world. It churns out endless dramas, almost none of which – or perhaps even none – ever get released in the Anglophone film world. The only Egyptian film I’d seen prior to this one was The Yacoubian Building, which was also a best-selling novel in the UK. Cairo Station, AKA Bab al-hadid or The Iron Gate (a literal translation of the Arabic title), is an early neorealist film in an industry which hasn’t much gone in for neorealism. The story is straightforward enough – it’s a day in the life among the workers at Cairo’s railway station, focusing particularly on the porters and the women who sell soft drinks to passengers. The porters are attempting to unionise because they’re sick of the gang master who controls all the porter jobs. And the soft-drink sellers don’t have a licence and so are continually running away from the police. Also living at the station is Qinawi, a disabled man who does odd jobs and is nominally looked after by the newspaper seller. But he fancies Hannuma, but she is betrothed to the man trying to unionise the porters. And it all comes to a violent head. All of the action takes place in the station, and mostly on the tracks. The plot didn’t hold any real surprises, but I was surprised at how well the film hung together. The cast were variable, but the lead characters were well-drawn and sympathetic, and the story managed to keep its different threads running along together. I think I’d have to see more Egyptian films to decide whether or not it should represents the country’s cinema in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but it’s certainly a good film.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 924


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Reading diary 2018, #11

Several years ago, I came up with a cunning plan. I had so many books, I found it hard to choose what to read next. So I put together a reading plan: a list of ten books I would read each month. But ten proved a bit too optimistic, so after a couple of years I reduced it to eight a month. And then again to six… So, obviously, it’s not exactly worked out in practice. Chiefly because the book you pick up next depends as much on what you feel like reading as it does what you want to read. I mean, there are loads of books I want to read, like Remembrance of things past, but usually Swann’s Way feels like it’s going to be too much like hard work, so I never pick it up… So all five books been languishing on my bookshelves for years. Oh well.

The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro (2015, UK). Ishiguro is one of the UK’s literary treasures – and I’m not the only one who thinks so: last year he was awarded the Nobel, and this year he was knighted. Ishiguro has never been afraid to explore genre territory, indeed his best-known novel these days is probably Never Let Me Go, which has an explicitly science-fictional idea at its core. And The Buried Giant is, by any definition of the term, fantasy. It’s sort of ninth century historical fiction, but it’s also about the Matter of Britain and it makes reference to a number of fantasy tropes. I had forgotten the commentary which came out after the book first appeared three years ago, so I pretty much came to it cold (although I’m entirely familiar with Ishiguro’s oeuvre, having read all of the books prior to this one). Anyway, I’d forgotten the genre complaints against the book, but sort of know what to expect given the other Ishiguro books I’d read. And in the latter respect, it did not disappoint. Axl and Beatrice are Britons, old Britons, seeing out the last of their years in a small Briton village, when they decide to go visit their son in a nearby village. They can’t remember exactly which village, but suppose they’ll figure it out as they travel. In fact, they’ve noticed an increasing forgetfulness on everyone’s part, and they don’t like how it has changed things. Of course, it’s not just the forgetfulness brought on my old age, it’s something endemic to everyone in post-Arthurian Britain. En route, they are joined by a Saxon warrior and a Briton boy believed to have been “infected” after being abducted by ogres and who has been rejected by his village. They also bump into Sir Gawain several times. It’s all very cleverly done. The forgetfulness is real, a magic spell laid on the land by a dragon, and it’s a consequence of the last great battle between the Britons, led by Arthur, and the Saxons. Unfortunately, Ishiguro takes his time getting to the core of the novel, and the first third, in which Axl and Beatrice eventually decided to travel, and then walk several miles to the nearest Saxon village, drag badly. But once Gawain appears on the scene, and the central premise begins to be revealed in hints and clues and glimpses, then things begin to pick up. I finished The Buried Giant a great deal more than I had done halfway in. And, to be honest, I couldn’t really give a fuck about whether it was genre or not. It was beautifully-written and cleverly done, and if it felt a little old-fashioned genre-wise in places that suited the material. I wasn’t so sure on the authorial interventions – or rather, the conceit which presented the narrative as told to the reader by Ishiguro, even though I’m a fan of breaking the fourth wall, as it felt unnecessary and added nothing to the story. Everything in a novel should be part of the story. I thought The Buried Giant, despite its longeurs, a better work than Never Let Me Go.

C, Tom McCarthy (2010, UK). I forget why I bought this, I think it might have been recommended by Jonathan McCalmont, but it sat on my bookshelves for several years, until I decided to take it with me to Sweden to read during Swecon. In the event, I finished The Buried Giant on the Saturday of the con, but didn’t finish C until I’d returned to the UK on the Monday. Chiefly because I found its opening section a bit hard-going. But by the time I was settled on the plane from Arlanda to Manchester, I’d got past that and remained engrossed for the entirety of the flight from Sweden to the UK. The story concerns a young man, Serge Carrefax, who is obsessed with signals. The opening section of the novel details his childhood, with his inventor father, who is working on wireless communication, and his deaf mother, and it was, to be honest, somewhat over-detailed and dull. I like detailed fiction, but the early chapters of C seemed to be sacrificing readability for detail. But then Carrefax’s brilliant sister dies – and, to be honest, I could see no reason why this needed to happen narratively – and the story begins to pick up. Carrefax spends several months at an Austrian spa. He then enlists as an observer in the Royal Flying Corps during WWI – and this section is especially good. And finally, he is sent out to Egypt to help set up a secret British wireless system. It’s when Carrefax is doing things, rather than reacting to things, that C is at its most interesting. There are some parts of the story which seem to serve no narrative purpose – not just the tragic death of Carrefax’s sister, but also his affair with a masseuse in… um, I no longer have the book and I can’t find a single review online which mentions the town, although I do remember that it was Central European and later had links to the Nazi regime. Much, incidentally, in those reviews is made of McCarthy’s cleverness in covering such a wide range of subjects in such detail. Er, that’s what research is for. I like a lot of detail myself, but the cleverness lies in making it palatable not in its presence. And if there’s one thing about C, much as I enjoyed it, that argued against cleverness, it was the lack of narrative cohesion. That is, it must be said a philosophy all its own, but C presented no evidence it adhered to it, no argument that it followed it. But then one of the advantages of not imposing a pattern is that people will find one anyway. I thought C a well-written novel on a prose level, and fascinating, but for me it failed at everything it claimed to want to do.

The Captive Mind, Czesław Miłosz (1952, Poland). I bought this last year in an effort to widen my reading. I hadn’t realised when I purchased it that it wasn’t fiction. It’s a political diatribe written by someone who survived both WWII and the Soviet takeover of Poland, but managed to resist the blandishments of both the Underground during WWII and the Soviet occupiers afterwards. As a writer, an intellectual, with acceptable political credentials, he ended up as cultural attaché in Washington but, disgusted by the responses of his peers to the new regime, he chose to exile himself. Miłosz first points out that intellectuals were a peculiar class of their own in Central and East European countries, and this particularly applied to writers, one that had no equivalent in Western European – or American – societies. After discussing “ketman”, which seems to be a a misunderstanding of an historical Islamic term (now known as “taqiya”), Miłosz describes four writers of his acquaintance and their response to Soviet occupation – and this is where The Captive Mind comes into its own. I’ve no idea who the writers are he describes, although it probably isn’t difficult to figure out, but his dissection of their character and ambitions in light of Polish history during and after WWII is fascinating stuff. I don’t think for an instant that The Captive Mind is a warning against “totalitarian culture” as the book is often described. It is specific to a time and place, and I suspect some of the tactics described by Miłosz are triggered more by an institutional drive for survival than by an y kind of coherent political thought. The Captive Mind was intended to make for scary reading, but its teeth have long since been pulled – first by Solidarność, then by glasnost, although both of course were the end result of long and dangerous campaigns. On the other hand, in 2018 we seem to be staring down the throat of full-blown fascism, despite everything our parents and grandparents fought against last century, despite the clear benefits to all and sundry that progressivism and regulated economies bring… The Captive Mind is an important historical document, but its remit is too narrow, its lessons are too focused, and the passage of time has rendered its general sense of alarm both moot and badly aimed. However. Worth reading, if you’re interested in the subject.

Author’s Choice Monthly 8: Swatting at the Cosmos, James Morrow (1990, USA). I think I read a novel by Morrow back in the late 1980s or early 1990s, but I can’t be sure – actually I can: I record everything I read, FFS, and have done since 1991: I read his City of Truth on 10 December 1992 and The Wine of Violence on 29 March 1995 (at least, that’s the dates I finished reading those books). He’s certainly a name I’ve been aware of, but not one I’ve made an effort to read his books. I’m not sure why. From the material in this collection, I think I’d like his fiction – most of the stories in this short collection interrogate religion in a way which I wholly approve. The opening story, ‘The Assemblage of Kristin’, is especially  good, in which the recipients of body parts from the deceased Kristin meet up once a year to indulge in Kristin’s fancies, although the so-called science in this science fiction is almost non-existent. Other stories in the collection recast Biblical stories – the Deluge, the Tower, the Covenant – with varying degrees of success (I seem to remember that least as the most successful). The whole point of the Author’s Choice Monthly series, as I understand it, is that the chosen authors selected what they felt were their best material. That’s  almost impossible; and probably changes on a daily basis. Some tried to game the choice by selecting stories to a theme. This is the best of those themed selection collections I’ve so far come across in the series. so perhaps I should read more by Morrow. A short story collection, perhaps.

Fantasy Masterwork 31: Black Gods and Scarlet Dreams, CL Moore (2002, USA). I know more about Moore than I know of her fiction, which has to date meant only a couple of short stories and her novel Judgment Night. Now, I rate Judgment Night highly, it is a superior space opera, especially for its time. This Fantasy Masterwork, however, gathers together all the Jirel of Joiry stories and all the Northwest Smith stories… and they do not present well in such close proximity. The first Jirel story, ‘Jirel of Joiry’, and also Moore’s first professional sale, is a great piece of work, but her follow-ups are somewhat formulaic and not to Jirel’s benefit. The same is true of Northwest Smith – ‘Shambleau’ has real mythic overtones, but the other NWS stories are just the same thing over and over again. And the thing that stands out the most is that the heroes have little or no agency: they get themselves into scrapes and they have to be rescued, sometimes by men, sometimes by women, but they never win through because of their own actions. Or, at least, not entirely. There are a couple of NWS stories where his ineluctable masculine cussedness sees him overcome the evil god of the week, but there’s usually a henchman (or woman) or ally who is instrumental in his escape. Jirel needs help often as not, which is not true in the story in which she first appears. Partly this is because both characters’ antagonists are super-powerful gods from other dimensions, and there’s no way either could plausibly defeat them without some help. But when hero/heroine finds themselves in Yet Another Evil Dimension and they are Powerless, then having someone give them a close, or appear at the last minute with a flame-pistol, does tarnish their appeal. It’s not like they’re intended to be straight-up heroes. Northwest Smith is after all a villain – although he’s never presented as such, it’s told to the reader. Moore clearly found a formula that worked, and stuck to it. It’s not like there’s a huge amount of invention in the world-building either – this is the Solar System as imagined by way of Leigh Brackett and Robert Howard. It feels like a common playground. Moore was an important writer in the early days of genre, and she wrote some important historical works, but I have to wonder if she’s being remembered for the wrong things because the stories in this volume position as no better than an average pulp writer, and I know she was better that that from Judgment Night.

Murder Takes a Turn, Eric Brown (2018, UK). This is the fifth book in Brown’s 1950s-set crime novels featuring thriller writer/private detective Don Langham, and his fiancée now wife and literary agent Maria Dupré. Setting these novels in the 1950s was a cunning move, as it means all the modern technology that “breaks” crime fiction does not exist, like mobile phones or the internet. This is old school crime fiction, and deliberately so. And yet, Brown manages to give Langham and Dupré sensibilities that would not be out of place in twenty-first century Britain (well, the Remain part of twenty-first century Britain, that is). In this instalment, a critically-acclaimed writer invites half a dozen people he had wronged in the past to his Cornish pile with a promise of making amends. One of those is Dupré’s partner in the literary agency, Charles Elder, and he persuades Dupré and Langham to accompany him. Which is quite handy as Langham has been hired by the writer’s daughter to investigate the writer’s new business manager. Needless to say, once all are on site, the writer is murdered… but everyone apparently has an alibi… I had thought the writer, and his travel-writer brother, were based on the Durrells, but Eric tells me the writer figure was actually inspired by John Fowles. Murder Takes a Turn – and the title is a bit of a spoiler – is much like the previous books in the series, although it does have a tendency to reveal information to the reader before it’s revealed to the principles, so you wonder why they’re so slow to spot clues… But the two leads are likeable and well-drawn, and the supporting cast are equally well-drawn, and if sometimes it doesn’t always feel quite like the 1950s (which I say only having read fiction written then), it does at least avoid sensibilities which would offend in the twenty-first century. These books are quick reads, but they’re fun with it, and they’re as satisfying as murder mysteries as they are 1950s-set fiction.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131