It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


Leave a comment

Reading diary 2018, #20

I won’t be able to squeeze in one more of these posts before the end of the year, which is, er, today, although I’ve read enough books for one. But that post can wait for 2019. I’ll have enough trouble trying to pick the best five books I read in 2018 – not to mention the best five films I watched…

Inside Moebius, Part 3, Moebius (2008 – 2010, France). This is the final two volumes, in a single volume, of Moebius’s exploration of his inability to give up marijuana. I’ve no idea why Dark Horse chose to double up the original French editions, but they’ve done an excellent job in presenting them – with a useful glossary which attempts to explain some of the more obscure reference Moebius makes, not to mention some of his impenetrable-to-non-Francophones puns (although many have been deliberately transliterated to be equally punnish in English). But, in essence, it’s more of the same. As in the first two volumes, Moebius explores Desert B, encountering younger versions of himself and versions of his best-known characters. On balance, I think the first volume was the best as more things seemed to happen in it. Part 3 contains more references to Moebius’s contemporaries, but that’s entirely lost on me as my knowledge of the field is pretty much limited to science fiction bandes dessinées and what’s been translated into English… Worth it if you’re a Moebius fan.

Matryoshka, Ricardo Pinto (2018, UK). This is the third of NewCon Press’s fourth quartet of novellas – and I believe there’s another quartet due out next year, also containing, as this quartet does, a novella by Adam Roberts (is there no end to his productivity?). But this novella is by Ricardo Pinto, who is best known for his Stone Dance of the Chameleon fantasy trilogy. I have all three books, but have only read the first two. They are excellent. The third book, The Third God, I’ve been reluctant to pick up because, well, because it’s too bloody big to pick up. I bought the hardback when it was launched at an Eastercon in Bradford, it is humongous. And yet I loved the first two books. I really ought to get round to reading it. Maybe I’ll get a chance during those dark Scandinavian winter nights… Anyway, Matryoshka is completely unrelated to the Stone Dance of the Chameleon, and is perhaps best described as either science fiction masquerading as fantasy or fantasy masquerading as science fiction. The protagonist, a young man drifting about Europe after WWI, meets an enigmatic young woman in Venice and accepts her invitation to… another dimension. Where time runs faster the further you are from the portal. She persuades him to accompany her on a sailing trip to rescue her brother from a distant island where he was lost years before. When they get there, the brother is no more than a few months older. And when they return to the city, everyone else has aged decades. The concept is handled well, but this is a story which privileges the imagery and, fortunately, Pinto has the writing chops to pull it off. It feels a little like an excerpt from a longer work, or at least the world certainly deserves further exploration. This quartet is shaping up to be quite a good one, it has to be said.

The Woman Who Loved The Moon, Elizabeth A Lynn (1981, USA). I bought this at Fantasticon in Copenhagen. Someone was selling a whole bunch of UK and US sf and fantasy paperbacks. These days, I seem to have more luck finding secondhand books at Nordic cons than I do at UK cons. Good job I’m moving there, then. Or maybe not – given I have a shitload of books to sort out before I flee the country… Lynn is not a well-known name on this side of the Atlantic – she doesn’t appear to have been published in the UK since the late 1970s. Not that she appears to have written much since then – pretty much nothing between 1990 and a new fantasy novel in 2004, and nothing since. Which is a shame, as there are worst writers with much healthier careers. But then fantasy has never been about the writing, which is why so many bad writers have proven so successful in the genre. As fnatasy collections go, this is a perfectly respectable one, with, as is typical, a couple of sf stories, such as ‘The Man Who Was Pregnant’. Each story has a brief introduction, and I admit I like author’s notes in collections. Lynn never made the big time, which seems unfair given how polished the stories in this collection are. But perhaps the fact I can remember little of them a few weeks after reading the book explains why she never made it a big. A good writer, but not, it seems, of especially memorable stories.

The Books of Earthsea, Ursula K Le Guin (1968 – 2001, USA). I’d been meaning to reread the Earthsea books for years, chiefly because I suspected I would get more out of Tehanu now than I had when I first read it back in the early 1990s. I’d been considering buying a copy of the Earthsea Quartet, as it’s normally sold here in the UK, but when I saw this new omnibus, containing all six Earthsea books – A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu, Tales From Earthsea and The Other Wind – plus some additional material, and illustrated as well, I decided to get myself a copy. The problem with ominbuses – omnibi? omnibodes? – however, for those of us who track our reading – and this is a vitally important question – is: does it count as a single book, or do you count the individual volumes it contains? So, is The Books of Earthsea one book read, or is it six books read? The Books of Earthsea makes it a little awkward as it contains material not previously collected, but the point is still valid. I chose to record each of the six volumes on my Goodreads reading challenge, if only so I could make my 140 books read target, which I have well overshot, but I’ve marked it as a single book in my own personal record of books read. As for the contents… do I really need to describe them? The first three books were more male-centric than I’d remembered – an issue Le Guin herself was aware of, and addressed in later books and stories, although the world-building required some retconning and twisting out of shape to make it work. The Tombs of Atuan was better than I had remembered and The Farthest Shore a bit duller. Tehanu I really liked this time around. Its plot felt a little uneven, with everything seemingly wrapped up in the last few pages of the book, but that seemed like a fault with all five of the novels in the series. Tales from Earthsea was entirely new to me, and the stories were good. The Other Wind was a little too obvious in places – I mean, who thought the king and princess would not end up together? And again, the plot seemed wrapped up a little too quickly and a little easily. But these are germinal works (not seminal, obvs), and read in sequence form an important dialogue with the fantasy genre. The individual books should certainly never be read in seclusion. Just reading A Wizard of Earthsea would be completely missing the point of Earthsea. On the other hand, this is a book for people with strong arms, as it’s not a comfortable weight to read easily. And the illustrations didn’t work at all for me. I’d sooner they hadn’t been there. But it’s definitely worth getting hold of a copy of this book.

Spring Snow*, Yukio Mishima (1968, Japan). After watching Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (see here), I decided to give some of Mishima’s fiction a go, and since the Sea of Fertility was his most famous work, I bought the first book of it: Spring Snow. It’s… good. Very good. The story is set in the second decade of the twentieth century, and concerns the relationship between the son of a wealthy family and the daughter of an impoverished aristocratic family. They grew up together and their eventual pairing was considered inevitable. But he, for whatever reasons, pretends he has no feelings for her. And so she ends up affianced to a prince of the Imperial family. As a result, the two conduct an illicit affair in the weeks leading up to her marriage. Also in the story are a Thai prince and his companion, who attend the son’s school and live in his family’s guest-house. I knew nothing about Mishima’s fiction – I was aware of how he had died, however – when I started this book, and I still know little other than what I read in Spring Snow. But it’s an excellent piece of writing, and the period, and lives, it depicts are fascinating. I’m almost certain I’ll read the rest of the quartet. Recommended.

Scienceville & Other Lost Worlds, Gary Gibson (2017, UK). Gary is a friend of many years, although I see him only rarely as he lives on the other side of the planet. But I’ve bought each of his his books in hardback as they were published – except for one, I think, which was a freebie at a Fantasycon; sorry, Gary – and enjoyed those I’ve read (complaints about excessive bodycount notwithstanding). Scienceville & Other Lost Worlds is a short self-published collection, containing six stories, some of which are close to novella length. The title story refers to an invented utopia that seems to exist for many people. The other stories are mostly light science fiction – a story about prisoners in some future dystopian UK who have one of their senses removed, a story about travellers to alternate universes and a mission that nearly comes a cropper, a story about a rock star who agrees to a deal with a steep price in order to revitalise his career… It’s all polished stuff, although none stand out as much as Gary’s recent novella for NewCon Press. Having said that, there are few stories which hang around so much you remember them months later… which does sort of make it difficult to pick the best of the year. Or it would if awards were actually about the stories and not the writers, who helpfully provide “eligible works” posts and so bend everything totally out of shape. True, the field is now so big it’s impossible for a reader to make an informed decision on the “best” story of a particular year. But, FFS, voting for your pals and favourites only makes it more of a mockery. Are there no truly memorable stories during any one year? Gibson does not provide exact publication details for the stories in Scienceville & Other Lost Worlds – which he ought to have done – and not all of the contents are eligible for awards in 2019 and, much as I like Gary, I don’t think they’re especially deserving either. Good solid sf, yes; but when “good solid sf” wins awards then awards are even more broken than they are now…

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 133

Advertisements


8 Comments

Moving pictures 2018, #65

Cor, look at that: no Extruded Hollywood Product. Two new British films – one that most people will think is American, and another in that long line of recent films celebrating British pluck during WWII, as if that has fucking anything to do with Brexit. Sigh. Plus two very different French films, an excellent Swedish comedy (I think I’m starting to get their sense of humour), and another from the master Sembène.

The 100 Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, Felix Herngren (2018, Sweden). I’d had this on my Amazon watch list for a while but had put off watching it, perhaps because I expected it to be similar to Roy Andersson’s movies, which are a bit odd. Well, more than a bit. But good nonetheless. However, you do need to be in the right sort of mood to appreciate them. But The 100 Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared (Amazon can’t seem to decide on the exact wording of the title and varies it between DVD, Prime video, Blu-ray and source novel) proved to be a brilliantly dry comedy about a Swedish man who managed to stumble into a number of historic moments in, er, twentieth-century history, all told as flashbacks after he escapes from his old people’s home on his one-hundredth birthday and ends up on the run from gangsters after a mix-up involving a suitcase containing millions of kroner. The flashback scenes involve, among others, Stalin, Einstein, Roosevelt, Oppenheimer, and I forget the other historical persons who appear. The present day plot thread is just as funny, with the eponymous character surviving through a combination of luck and ineptitude. I really enjoyed this. Recommended.

Le Crime de Monsieur Lange, Jean Renoir (1936, France). I’m not sure what to make of Renoir’s films. A couple of his films are extremely highly regarded by cinephiles, and I can see how they’re well-made and espouse politics which roughly align with my own… But his movies don’t seem very interesting, and cinematographically they don’t really stack up well against those by some of his contemporaries, such as Max Ophüls. In other words, he’s a director whose films I want to like much more than I find myself doing so. Le Crime de Monsieur Lange is a case in point. In it, a pulp publisher takes advantage of his misreported death only to discover that his publishing company is doing much better without him. He reappears, and is shot dead by the company’s most successful author. A response many in publishing could probably understand. The story is told in flashback by the fleeing author as he is about to cross into Belgium. Where he is arrested, but as he tells his story so his audience begins to sympathise with him. As, I suppose, the cinematic audience was also intended to. It’s a neat narrative trick, but I can’t say it worked on me. For all that I sympathised with M Lange’s plight, the film never really got me invested in his story. Meh.

Another Mother’s Son, Christopher Menaul (2017, UK). All this dwelling on plucky British spirit during WWII is definitely unhealthy. In the years immediately following the war, it made sense: it was a way to deal with the trauma and ever-present evidence of destruction created by an event that was within living memory. But those days are long past, and if there’s any lesson to be learned from WWII, it’s that Nazis deserve to die. Oh, and that the British would never have survived without outside help, and were so deeply incompetent in the opening stages of the war it’s a miracle we weren’t immediately wiped out. But, instead, we get stories of British heroes and heroines who stood up to the Nazi menace, as if they need to show the same stiff upper lip and fortitude in order to survive Brexit. But Brexit is not about survival because it’s destructive. Self-destructive. Staying in the EU is survival. And while the true story told in Another Mother’s Son is certainly uplifting, and the principals deserve to have their story told to a wider audience, this new-found fascination for WWII dramas is neither applicable to the present day and deeply misrepresents what actually happened over seventy years ago. Here, we have a principled woman who hides a Russian POW (the Soviets were allies at this point, obvs) from the Nazi occupiers on Jersey. And, er, that’s it. She gets found out, and her and her family are shipped off to the death camps. She does not survive, and is posthumously awarded a medal for her actions. It’s all heart-warming stuff, and actually manages to paint the Nazis as evil scum, which is a bonus in this day and age. Not a badly-made film, but let’s have some films showing what the Europeans did for us for a change.

You Were Never Really Here, Lynne Ramsay (2017, UK). I’ve seen a lot of love for this film in the last month or so, from friends and from total strangers. And yet… I prefer Andrea Arnold’s work to Lynne Ramsay’s, although it may well be unfair to compare the two. But You Were Never Really Here is a brutal US thriller with an arthouse touch, and reminded me a bit of Pete Travis while still being very US. Joaquin Phoenix plays a man who rescues kidnapped girls for a fee. He’s approached by a senator whose young daughter has been kidnapped and is being abused in a paedophile brothel. He rescues the girl, but finds himself up against a well-organised opposition, seemingly centred around the man most likely to be elected New York mayor, who is at the heart of it all. To be honest, it felt like an ordinary thriller, with the odd moment that lifted it way above that, but in the end it’s one of those pointless the-powerful-people-always-win stories that makes you wonder why everyone doesn’t just rise up and shoot the fucking lot of them – after all, isn’t that why the right to bear arms is enshrined in the US constitution? Except, of course, these days firearms are only used for spree killing, and that’s no reason to ban them… Pointing out that the US is fucked-up is so banal, I’m surprised people bother to make films about it still. But Lynne Ramsay apparently did. Meh.

Faat Kiné, Ousmane Sembène (2000, Senegal). The title is the name of an unmarried mother of two children who now runs a successful petrol station in downtown Dakar. Being unmarried and in possession of a profitable business – as Jane Austen famously might have said – she is an obvious target for suitors. Which, had Jane Austen said something like this, would have completely changed her novels. Perhaps for the better. Who knows. I do love Sembène’s films, and while this one doesn’t have a plot as robust as, say, Mandabi or Moolaadé, it still exhibits all his trademark themes – ie, women doing a better job at navigating life than men. Venus Seye is good in the title role, although there’s a cheerful amateurishness to much of the acting – also true of other films by Sembène. The copy I watched wasn’t a very good transfer, and I suspect good transfers of it are pretty much impossible to find. Which is a shame. Someone really needs to put together a remastered box set of Sembène’s films. He didn’t make that many, only eleven (of which I’ve seen seven), and his movies really are very good. He’s an excellent candidate – BFI? Curzon Artificial Eye? Please.

The Lady and the Duke, Éric Rohmer (2001, France). After complaining that the French couldn’t do historical films – and in reference to a Rohmer film too – I’ve only gone and been proven wrong. By Rohmer. Because The Lady and the Duke is set during the Terror, ie, the late eighteenth century, and it’s really very good, perhaps even among my favourites of the films by Rohmer I’ve seen to date. It is, to be honest, all a bit Greenaway, which is no bad thing, in as much as the scenery is CGI and presented to mimic paintings of the time. Everything looks fake – and deliberately so. The interior scenes have walls like theatre flats, where everything is painted to look 3D but isn’t. The exterior scenes have the actors perform in front of what are plainly matted-in during post-production paintings of scenes from eighteenth-century France. I loved it. I’m a big fan of that deliberately artificial presentation of narrative used by some films, where the presentation itself is a tool used by the narrative. The story is about an English woman who has settled in France and is a friend of certain high-placed aristocrats. Which subsequently lands her in trouble post-Revolution. She is arrested and interrogated, but proves to have well-respected pro-Revolution friends. Even so, she seems more concerned with her friend the Duke of Orléans than is healthy. The film is based on the memoirs of Grace Elliott, a Scottish courtesan who was the mistress of the Duke of Orléans and, later, King George IV of Britain. She’s played by Lucy Russell, who demonstrates an impressive facility with both English and French. I’d been going off Rohmer a bit, I must admit, but this film has rekindled my interest in his oeuvre.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 933


5 Comments

Moving pictures 2018, #64

I’m working my way through the backlog of these. And it’s time to start thinking about what films to pick for my best of the year – and o god, I’ve watched so many films this year…

First Man, Damien Chazelle (2018, USA). Well, I couldn’t not see this, could I? Back in 2009, for the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, I read the (auto-)biographies of the three crew: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. Collins’s Carrying the Fire is probably the best of astronaut auto-biographies. Aldrin has written a number of books but his first, Return to Earth, is remarkably frank. Armstrong, however, never wrote about himself, and it is the (official) biography of him by James R Hansen from which Chazelle’s movie was adapted. (For that fortieth anniversary, I also wrote a flash fiction piece, ‘The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams’, about an invented Apollo mission… and from which the Apollo Quartet grew.) Armstrong was the first human being to set foot on an alien world, but he was only the point man in a remarkable achievement which employed tens of thousands of people, cost billions of dollars and took several decades. In all other respects, he was a pretty dull chap. Which presents a problem for a commercial Hollywood movie. It’s one thing reading about a boring man who achieved something remarkable in a dry biography – the book is going to appeal to a particular audience. But a Hollywood film has to appeal much more widely. Chazelle tries hard to make Armstrong interesting, but he is only as interesting as things he does. Which means opening First Man with one of Armstrong’s flights in the X-15, and making the whole thing come across as something that was forever seconds away from disaster. Yes, it was dangerous, and several pilots died. But Armstrong was notoriously cool. To increase the sense of the jeopardy, Chazelle takes a leaf out of Christopher Nolan’s book and ups the ambient sounds to ear-splitting levels. It worked superbly in Dunkirk, and it does work quite well here. But the characterisation of Armstrong doesn’t tally with the source material, and the tacked-on human drama feels like it diminishes the achievements of the Apollo programme. The Moon landings are an excellent subject for a blockbuster movie; Neil Armstrong as a person is not. First Man does some things really well – it’s very… visceral in places, but lacks the sheer presence of Dunkirk – but ultimately I was disappointed.

Jab We Met, Imtiaz Ali (2007, India). A young man walks away from his ex-girlfriend’s wedding to another man, leaves all his worldly possessions behind and wanders off… eventually finding himself at the railway station, where he jumps on the first train to… wherever. He ends up sharing a sleeper with a garrulous young woman from the Punjab, on her way home to see family. She prevents him from throwing himself from the train to his death. At the next stop, he disembarks, but she is worried about him and follows. And misses the train. So they catch a taxi to the next stop. But they miss it a second time. And so it goes. The scenes showing the taxi hurtling along the roads, or the train hurtling along the tracks, are sort of stylised model shots, like something out of Gerry Anderson by way of Michael Bentine’s Potty Time. Which is odd – but works well. The female lead, Kareena Kapoor, is good, but male lead Shahid Kapoor is a bit bland. The scenes with the woman’s family are a definite highlight, especially the musical number. Of course, the two are mistaken for lovers, and so eventually become lovers. It’s a fairly standard Bollywood plot. But Jab We Met has bags of charm, and if it’s a bit of a downer to start – and that’s a Bollywood staple too – then it quickly warms up and proves lots of fun.

Manji, Yasuzô Masumura (1964, Japan). Apparently this film also had an international release under the name Swastika. I suspect it would do much better now with that title than it did back in the mid-1960s, what with press barons in the English-speaking world happily promoting Nazi ideology. Burn the press to the ground, it’s no longer fit for purpose and, if anything, is the enemy of society. None of which, sadly has anything to do with this film, and its story in no way explains its title. Because manji is apparently Japanese for ‘swastika’. The story is about the wife of a lawyer who falls in love with a model at her life-drawing class. The two women reject their men, then re-introduce one… and it all ends in a bizarre suicide pact. Except… the story is told entirely as flashback, with an opening scene in which the wife tells her husband’s boss (I think) how she came to be obsessed with the model. So clearly she survives the suicide pact – although she doesn’t know why the other two switched her dose of poison with something harmless. Manji has apparently been remade several times since, and while the tragic romantic triangle is a popular plot – sort of like Rome and Juliet but with a, er, third person – I couldn’t honestly see why this story has proven so appealing it had been remade. Meh.

Matilda, Alexey Uchitel (2017, Russia). The Russians have been churning out expensive commercial movies for a couple of decades now, but few of them make it out of the Russo-speaking world. Of course, they have a film tradition going back as long as the US’s, and have had their fair share of world-class directors, even under the Soviets… But go into HMV and all you’ll find are a handful of twenty-first century Russian movies, as curated by labels such as Artificial Eye. For example, Pavel Lungin’s The Island (AKA Ostrov) is readily available, but not his later Tsar (see here), which is arguably better. But now we have streaming, and curated streaming services such as Mubi and Curzon, for those of us who dislike Extruded Hollywood Product. But I found Matilda (AKA Mathilde AKA Матильда) on Amazon Prime, which has some pretty good stuff hidden away. But you have to look for it. Matilda was the mistress of Prince Nicholas Romanov, who became Tsar Nicholas II. The film opens with her about to disrupt Prince Nicholas’s wedding to Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt, with whom he probably shared most of his chromosomes anyway, as European royalty at that time was all as inbred as fuck. The film then flashes back to Nicholas spotting Matilda in the ballet, stealing her from her ducal boyfriend, and basically behaving like Prince Super-Entitled, so sort of like a nineteenth-century One-Percenter but without the arms-dealing and money-laundering and secret bank accounts in the Cayman Islands. The film is all very glossy, with visibly high production values, and some quite lovely visuals – a nicely-done commercial cinema treatment in other words. It’s not the most fascinating piece of history – who gives a fuck about inbred royals? – but it was good drama and presented well.

The Lilac Dusk, Yuri Konopkin (2000, Russia). I also found The Lilac Dusk (AKA Lilac Twilight AKA Сиреневые сумерки) on Amazon Prime, although I will admit I had no idea what it was when I started watching it. The black and white poster led me to think it was an older film, perhaps mid-twentieth century, but actually the film is in colour and less than two decades old – certainly well after glasnost. Having said that, I’ve no idea what the film is about. I think I can work out what it thinks it’s about, but for much of its length it felt like a poor Russian attempt at a Peter Greenaway film. A young man is sent to a strange sanatorium on an island. There don’t seem to be many patients, and the staff are as odd as the patients – if they are patients, it wasn’t entirely clear. The male lead isn’t always the lead in scenes, or indeed always on screen, although when he does appear he’s clearly the viewpoint character. It made for a confusing story, that wasn’t helped by its resemblance to a Greenaway film without actually feeling like it was deliberately trying to be a Greenaway film. More a similarity in approach than a deliberate homage. Parts of the film also reminded me of the work of Wojciech Has, but, well, cheaper. I know nothing about Konopkin’s career or oeuvre, but on the strength of this film I suspect his influences were not altogether homegrown…

War and Peace, Part 3: 1812, Sergei Bondarchuk (1967, Russia). War and Peace 2, Natasha Rostova (see here) ends with a cut to the Imperial Russian forces gathering outside a village called Borodino. This is where they meet Napoleon’s armies in the, er, Battle of Borodino. And the entire 84 minutes of this third film in the series is taken up wholly with the battle. From the thick of it. It’s brilliant. Oh, it’s not visceral and gruesome like we do it these days, in Atonement or Saving Private Ryan, to name two recent films famous for their depictions of WWII. It’s very much old school, with physical effects and clever camera work. And for that reason it looks a little dated, if the viewer has the imagination to picture how it might be staged today… But for its time, it’s an amazing achievement, sort of like complaining that 2001: A Space Odyssey doesn’t have the twenty-first special effects, when what it does have are effects that still work today given a suspension of their limitations (to coin a phrase). These Bondarchuk War and Peace movies are bona fide classics of cinema and it’s a fucking tragedy there are no decent copies of the original print left. If there were any justice, some would be found in some ex-CSSR state, and the four films can take their rightful position in the history of cinema.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 933


1 Comment

Moving pictures 2018, #63

I’m a bit behind on these, chiefly because I’ve been busy with other things during the last couple of weeks. Such as getting a new job. In Sweden. So those few nights when I’ve been at home, and not celebrating, I’ve been mostly watching TV series, such as season two of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, season three of Lost, and the first season of Dollhouse. I’ve got three or four of these posts to get out before the end of the year. Not to mention picking the best five movies – I’m dropping the documentary split I used in my best of the half-year post (see here) – out of the 600+ films I watched in 2018…

Anyway, aside from the last two films here, and they’re hardly twenty-first century commercial Hollywood extruded movie product, this post goes on a bit of a global tour, with a film from Europe, two from Asia and one from Africa.

Winter Sleep, Nuri Bilge Ceylan (2014, Turkey). It took me a couple of goes to get into this, but once I was twenty or so minutes into it, something clicked and I found myself engrossed – for all of its 196 minutes. True, I’ve seen films by Ceylan before, and I know he’s an excellent director. His cinematography distinguishes him, but I’ve found the tone of each of his films very different. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, for example, is almost Tarantino-esque. And Winter Sleep very definitely isn’t. Aydın, once a famous actor, now owns a cave hotel in Cappadoccia and several properties in the town. The film opens with Aydın accompanying his agent to collect rent from a tenant… who has no job and no money, and reacts angrily to threats of more of his possessions being taken by bailiffs. But not as angrily as his young son, who throws a rock through the window Aydın’s Land Rover. That starts off an ongoing feud, in which Aydın cannot understand why the tenant is so angry and so uncooperative. Meanwhile, his relationship with his wife is deteriorating, to the extent that he muscles in and rubbishes her charity campaign to fund local schools. So he decides to head to Istanbul, to work on his pet project, a history of Turkish theatre. But he gets sidetracked because one of his friends has been badmouthing him… And this is one of those films where things follow on naturally from one to the other but there’s no real story as such, except perhaps some form of realisation by Aydın over how badly he’s treated his friends and family. And tenants. A slow-mover, but definitely worth watching.

Prison, Ingmar Bergman (1949, Sweden). Bergman made a shitload of films – some for the cinema, some for television, some released on both media. Prison is Bergman’s first film both directed and solely written by him, and it’s notable because of its film-within-a-film narrative structure. Bergman apparently later disowned Prison, although there’s no good reason I could see while watching it why he should have done. It’s an early work, sure, and he used similar techniques, and covered similar topics, much better in later films. But Prison is still a good piece of drama, and if its story feels a bit belaboured at times that’s likely a consequence of Bergman’s lack of experience, although he had directed five films before this one. A film director is approached by an old teacher who tries to sell him a very obvious and very belaboured story of good and evil. The director has his co-workers discuss the story, but they pass on it… only to find real life sort of illustrating the old teacher’s story. But there’s another level of film-within-a-film, and that’s an explicit take on an early silent comedy, with people jumping in and out of windows and closets, all at faster-than-normal speed. Though its subject matter is as weighty as anything Bergman made, Prison didn’t feel especially grim or humourless. Perhaps that was why Bergman disowned it…

Let’s Make Laugh, Alfred Cheung (1983, China). This was apparently the most successful film in Hong Kong in 1983, and one of the most successful comedies in China for that decade. Shame then that it’s not at all funny. And I don’t think it’s an 1980s thing, or a Hong Kong thing. I mean, I’ve seen enough Hong Kong films to get the gurning thing, and the physical comedy, but while there’s plenty of the former there’s very little of the latter and much of the movie seems more focused on its romantic subplot. Idiot security guard is asked to guard a house because its owner has substantial debts, not knowing that owner has abandoned his wife and she’s still living in the property. But then the woman’s parents turn up, and she asks the guard to pretend to be her husband… The problem is the guard is such an idiot, and so useless, that he ever seems to achieve anything. And the wife is completely self-centred. Which means the romantic sub-plot, er, isn’t. I’ve seen some successful and very funny Hong Kong comedies – anything by Jackie Chan, for example – so the success of this one as a comedy is baffling.

Mandabi, Ousmane Sembène (1968, Senegal). I’ve now seen six films by Sembène, and have a seventh yet to watch, and I really do think his films are bloody brilliant. I’m astonished they’re so hard to find. He made eleven films, and only three are available in the UK, two on a single dual release. And if there’s one thing I’ve noticed from the films I’ve watched, a theme that unites them, it’s that, in Sembène’s world, when men run things it’s absolute chaos, and it’s only when the women take over that things run smoothly. I can go for that. In Mandabi, a postman approaches the two wives of Ibrahima Dieng, who has been unemployed for several years, and tells them there is a money order for 250 Francs waiting for him at the post office. So he heads off to collect it. But the post office won’t give it to him without ID. And when he goes to the police station to get himself an ID, he needs another piece of paper… Meanwhile, his friends and family all want a piece of the money, and have started spending it. None of them realising, because none of them have read the letter accompanying the money order, that 30 Francs of the Fr 250 is for the nephew’s mother, Fr 200 to kept for the nephew, and only Fr 20 for Ibrahima… So on the one hand you have everyone spending money that isn’t theirs, while on the other Ibrahima gets himself further into debt in his efforts to persuade the post office to hand over the money order. The sight of Ibrahima, in his shining boubou, strutting down the street, convinced his fortunes have finally turned is one of the great comedy visuals.

The Other Side of the Wind, Orson Welles (2018, USA). This is one of those movies which has a more interesting production history than it does a plot. Welles, of course, was a true Hollywood maverick, and would finance his films himself, shooting them in parts over an extended period as he worked to raise the money to continue filming. And yet, in most cases, the films that resulted are pretty damn seamless. I came to Welles late, but I became a fan after seeing his later films rather than because of his more famous earlier ones. The Other Side of the Wind was not Welles’s last film, but it was locked in legal limbo for so long it’s only just finally been re-edited and released, thirty-three years after Welles died. And, in fact, pretty much the entire cast of The Other Side of the Wind are also now dead. It’s a mockumentary about a great director, played by John Huston, and the film he is working on, which appears to be the worst sort of New Hollywood soft porn director-as-auteur excess. It doesn’t help that the supporting cast – which comprises a number of familiar faces – all play pretty horrible Hollywood stereotypes. Movie industry stereotypes, that is, rather than the usual simplistic Hollywood characterisation. The end result is… an interesting historical document. But not a good film. Thee are good bits, of course – Welles was one of the best directors the US has produced – but this doesn’t feel like Welles at his best, and this version here – edited by Peter Bogdanovich, who plays Huston assistant – does its best but it’s not Welles’s vision and you can’t help but wonder how Welles would have put together the footage, especially when you remember other of his films, such as Mr Arkadin

After the Thin Man, WS Van Dyke (1936, USA). The thin man of The Thin Man was actually the villain of that original movie, but it proved so successful a film, and the characters played by Myrna Loy and William Powell so popular, that a sequel was made, with the perfectly understandable title of After the Thin Man (as in “following the previous film” or “following on from the villain of the previous film”), but which served only to confuse audiences into thinking Powell’s character, a semi-retired PI, was the Thin Man. And so the moniker sort of became his as the film series progressed. Otherwise, there’s no link between the story of After the Thin Man and The Thin Man. Loy and Powell are returning to their San Francisco home after a holiday away when they’re contacted by Loy’s tearful sister, whose playboy husband has vanished. He proves remarkably easy to find. Unfortunately, he’s involved in an extortion scam, and gets murdered for his pains. And the chief suspect is Loy’s tearful sister… Watching this film, you have to wonder how much of the boozing was acted, because while the dialogue between the two leads was certainly witty and snappy, and occasionally sounded ad-libbed although it may not have been, Powell did seem to have a shit-eating grin on his face for much of the film. The Thin Man was popular enough to spawn a series, but this follow-up felt weak, perhaps because it spent more time exploring Powell’s and Loy’s relationship than it did its mystery plot. Still, worth seeing if you like 1930s Hollywood movies…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 933


4 Comments

Moving pictures 2018, #62

At least two of the films in this half-dozen I thought were on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but aren’t. And I’m not sure why Bondarchuk’s War and Peace – at least one, if not all four, of the films – never made the grade.

Conversation Piece, Luchino Visconti (1974, Italy). Visconti seems to have a thing about veils, as at least one woman in his films appears wearing one. In this film it’s a flashback to the mother of the character played by Burt Lancaster, as the movie itself is set in the 1970s. You can tell from the fashions. Boy, can you tell. Lancaster plays a wealthy professor who lives in a Roman palazzo with large collection of books and “conversation pieces” (a type of informal group portrait, typically British and typically eighteenth-century). He is pressured into renting the top floor of is palazzo to an overbearing jet-setting marchesa, ostensibly for her daughter and her daughter’s fiancé, but actually for her own lover. Things go wrong from the start. The lover, under the impression the apartment has been purchased for him, starts knocking down walls… But despite getting off to a bad start, he and the professor become unlikely friends. The professor tries to hide the shady things going on in the lover’s life – at one point even hiding him from the marchesa, at another providing him with an alibi for the police. As he does, so he becomes less of a recluse and, surprisingly, less attached to his books and conversation pieces. I’m not entirely sure what to make of the film, given it didn’t have much in the way of a plot, or indeed a cast, which was small but high-powered. Lancaster was especially good, better I think than in The Leopard, and Helmut Berger managed a remarkable transition from dislikable to sympathetic. But the film suffered somewhat from having too small a story – evident in the fact it was shot entirely indoors.

Cold Skin, Xavier Gens (2017, France). Not sure what prompted me to add this to my rental list. Perhaps it was something in the description. Certainly neither the director nor any member of the cast was known to me. And while I’ve identified the film as French – although these days few films are the product of a single nation – Cold Skin is actually a French-Spanish production, adapted from a 2002 Spanish novel, but filmed as English language. An Irishman during WWI hitches a ride to a remote South Atlantic island to work as its meteorologist. There is only one other person on the island: a lighthouse keeper. And he doesn’t seem all there. The reason for that the Irishman discovers during his first night on the island when his hut is attacked by a horde of fish-people. He manages to survive and moves into the fortified lighthouse. Where he discovers the keeper has a fish-people woman as a sex slave. And, er, that’s about it. The Irishman learns the fish-people are not monsters (but the keeper is), even though the lighthouse is attacked nightly by swarms of them. It felt a bit like a less-commercial del Toro film, to be honest, and I’m not a del Toro fan. The fish-people were done well, and the two actors were of the type where you know their faces but you can’t think of their names and you can’t remember what you’ve seen them in before. Meh.

The Scarlet Empress, Josef von Sternberg (1934, USA). The empress in question is Princess Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg (a principality in Prussia), but she is better known as Catherine the Great. She’s played by Marlene Dietrich in what is pretty much a straight-up Hollywood biopic. She’s taken to Russia to marry the Imperial heir, Peter, but he turns out to be a half-wit, so she finds her pleasures elsewhere, all the while trying not to offend the actual Empress of Russia, and eventually seizes power six months after Peter is crowned. And goes on to rule Russia for thirty-four years. Despite not being Russian. Neither was Peter. He was born in Kiel, in Schleswig-Holstein, was at one point declared the King of Finland and at another the heir presumptive to the Swedish throne. His mother, however, was Russian, as was his aunt, the Empress of Russia was his aunt. However, despite the manglings and mischaracterisations, The Scarlet Empress proved surprisingly entertaining because of the production design. I don’t know who was responsible – von Sternberg obviously, in some part – but the sets were completely bonkers. Giant doors with Lovecraftian marquetry on them. All the walls designed to resemble the logs of a wooden fort. And the chairs! All designed to look like gargoyles from some deranged hell. It’s a shame it was in black and white. It must have looked like Hope Hodgson on acid in colour. Perhaps one day someone will colourise it. I hope so: it would certainly rival Mughal-E-Azam (see here) for eye-curdling visuals.

Rififi, Jules Dassin (1955, France). There’s a famous scene in Rififi, where the thieves have taken over the flat above a jewellery shop and cut a hole in the floor and lower themselves into the shop. While this was playing, I was convinced I’d seen it before. But in colour. I’m thinking maybe it was pastiche of the scene in something by Buñuel but I’m not sure. Rififi is a well-known film, and highly-regarded in French cinema, so it’s likely it inspired a similar scene in another movie. Dassin, despite the name, was American, and after being outed as a Communist and blacklisted in the USA (Land of the Free kof kof), fled to France, where he continued to direct movies. Rififi was apparently a rush-job, based on a novel that no one thought any good – Truffaut said of it, “Out of the worst crime novel I ever read, Jules Dassin has made the best crime film I’ve ever seen”. The plot is pretty basic. A jewel thief finishes a five-year sentence, recruits a gang, and robs a jewellery store under cover of night. Then it all falls apart. Because one of the gang gives a stolen diamond ring to his girlfriend, a singer at a gangster’s club, and the gangster subsequently figures out who was responsible for the robbery. Cue shoot outs. Rififi is straight-up American noir, but set in France and with a French cast. But then the French were quick to adopt film noir – the Cahiers du Cinéma were big fans of the genre, and Godard, for one, pastiched it several times during his career. And that, I think, is one of the problems with Rififi. It’s film noir, and the French made better film noir when they were making knowing take-offs of it. The fact the only thing that stands out about Rififi is its inventive robbery probably tells you all you need to know. Worth seeing, but fans of film noir will appreciate it more than others.

Kin, Jonathan & Josh Baker (2018, USA). A young adopted black boy with a white father is helping a gang he was fallen in with steal old wiring from a derelict factory when he gets caught in the middle of a firefight between two groups of armoured aliens who appear through some sort of portal. As you do. He manages to escape, but returns later and discovers one of the high-tech blasters carried by one of  the aliens. Meanwhile, his stepbrother has returned home having finished his sentence. But his dad doesn’t want him around. And with good reason. It turns out he owes money to a gangster who protected him in prison, and the only way he can arrange to pay it off is to help the gangster rob his father’s construction office. But they’re caught in the act, the father is shot and killed, as is the gangster’s brother. So the step-brothers go on the run. Along with the alien blaster. Kin suffers because it doesn’t know if it’s a science fiction film or a gangster film. The latter are ten a penny, and need to be really special to stand out. Kin isn’t. The former, well… there isn’t enough there for the film to get a good grip on its science-fictional ideas, not even given the film’s final twist. For all that, it’s a reasonably accomplished piece of movie-making. The cast are generally good, although James Franco’s gangster joins a long line of clichéd psycho movie gangsters, Dennis Quaid’s blue-collar honest Joe dad is no less a stereotype, and and as for Zoë Kravitz’s kind-hearted lapdancer… Meh.

War and Peace, Part 2: Natasha Rostova, Sergei Bondarchuk (1966, Russia). Two films in and I think these are actually quite brilliant. They were massive technical achievements for Soviet cinema at the time, and every rouble spent, every technical ambition realised, is up there plain to see on the screen. Not to mention the cast of thousands. I believe Ilya Muromets holds the records for the most number of extras – I’ve heard figures ranging from 100,000 to 250,000 – although a lot of sources claim Gandhi had 300,000 extras. But the Ilya Muromets extras were costumed, which makes it a more impressive achievement. Some of these War and Peace movies must have casts numbering tens of thousands, again all in period costume (well, uniform). Anyway, this second film focuses on the eponymous heroine, and her burgeoning relationship with Prince Bolkonski. There are lavish balls – and they are lavish. But we see much of its from Rostova’s point of view, although the POV does jump about a bit, with swathes of cloth sweeping across the screen, which is odd. Also odd is the inclusion of occasional scenes where the dialogue is in Russian, since the rest of the film has  been dubbed into English (well, except for the French and German dialogue, which isn’t dubbed at all. This is apparently because the original 70mm masters have degraded beyond restoration, so an edited version was used for the DVD release, but with some scenes – the ones that aren’t dubbed – added from other surviving copies. It’s plain the full film, all 431 minutes, in 70mm – albeit on apparently awful Soviet film stock – must have been amazing. And there isn’t a single copy in good enough condition remaining to capture that – although some DVD editions are apparently better than others. That’s a shame. Perhaps we’ll be lucky and someone will find a well-preserved copy in some fleapit in a former SSR. Something similar happened to Metropolis. And to Limite. Although both are still incomplete. But they’re also much older films. Anyway, War and Peace, Part 2: Natasha Rostova finishes with the opening shots in the Battle of Borodino, and it lokos fantastic. I can’t wait to watch War and Peace, Part 3: 1812.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 933


Leave a comment

Must. Stop. Buying. Books…

Maybe I should make it a New Year’s Resolution or something. I did recently go chasing down my teen years by buying role-playing magazines and supplements from the 1980s that I remembered fondly, which at least are not books… But that’s no solution. And actually a little bit depressing, when you think about it. Anyway, the following book-shaped objects containing many thousands of words landed chez moi during the past month or so.

I’m so shallow I’ll buy anything if you make it look like a set. And get unreasonably enraged when you stop making it a set – like publishers who completely change the cover design of a trilogy when they publish the last book. Argh. I shall be forever grateful to Gollancz for not numbering their relaunched SF Masterworks series. Because if they were numbered, I would have to buy them, even the ones I already have in the old series. OTOH, Gollancz: Alastair Reynolds’s Poseidon’s Children trilogy. Argh. This is perfectly normal behaviour, of course. Anyway, NewCon Press, an excellent small press, have over the last couple of years been publishing quartets of novellas which share a single piece of cover art split across the four books. This is the fourth such quartet, subtitled “Strange Tales” – The Land of Somewhere Safe, Matryoshka, The Lake Boy and Ghost Frequencies – and I’ve enjoyed those I’ve read so far.

Some recent, and not so recent, genre fiction. Europe at Dawn is the fourth book of the excellent Fractured Europe series. I don’t know if this is the last book. I hope not. Kim Stanley Robinson is an author whose books I buy in hardback; hence, Red Moon. A desire to reread Le Guin’s Earthsea books came over me when I saw The Books of Earthsea advertised, so I got myself a copy. It’s a humongous book, and not a comfortable size to read, but the contents are definitely worth it. Yaszek’s name I already know from Galactic Suburbia, which I read as research for All That Outer Space Allows. Recently, she’s been involved in a couple of projects to signal-boost early sf by women writers, much as SF Mistressworks has done, and Sisters of Tomorrow, an anthology, is one of them. Ignore the copy of Without A Summer, which sneaked its way into the photo. I thought I’d bought it recently, but I actually purchased it about three months ago. The Quantum Magician I have to review for Interzone.

Here we have a couple of bandes dessinées. Distant Worlds Episode 1 is another, er, episode in Léo’s long-running science fiction story which began with Aldebaran (see here). I admit I’m not entirely sure on the chronology of Léo’s series, given there are half a dozen or so separate stories, and no real indication of which follows which. But this one appears to have been written by someone else, Icar, although I still think it’s set in the same universe. Inside Moebius, Part 3 is, er, the third volume of Inside Moebius, containing books 5 and 6 of the original French edition. It’s one for fans of Moebius – and who isn’t one? – and not much use without the two earlier volumes.

I’ve been a fan of Shariann Lewitt’s fiction since finding a copy of her debut novel, Angel at Apogee, in a remainder book shop in Abu Dhabi. I subsequently hunted down copies of her other novels. Initially, she was SN Lewitt (see what I did there?), but with Memento Mori, her fifth novel, she became Shariann Lewitt. I bought a paperback copy back when it was published in 1995, but always fancied upgrading it to a hardback. Sadly, her seventh novel, Rebel Sutra, published in 2000, appears to have been her last. Cherryh is another author I’ve upgraded to hardback– Actually, no, that’s not strictly true. I read a lot of Cherryh during the 1980s, back when she was pretty much ubiquitous on the sf shelves of UK high street book shops. And then in the 1990s, when I was living in the UAE, I started buying her books in hardback as soon as they appeared. But when I returned to the UK, I stopped doing that… And then I discovered eBay, and started picked up hardback copies of her back-catalogue. Some of which were published in signed limited editions by Phantasia Press, like this one: Forty Thousand in Gehenna.

A copy of The History of American Deep Submersible Operations popped up on eBay for kof kof £95. And even though I fancied it, that was too much. But then I discovered that all the other copies I could find were £400+ and, well, then it suddenly turned into a bargain. So I, er, bought it. Owner’s Workshop Manual: NASA Mercury is one of a range of excellent books on spacecraft by Haynes, who have branched out from cars to covering everything from the Death Star to Pies. Yes, honestly. I admire Delany a great deal. He’s probably one of the cleverest writers and critics the genre has produced, and while I probably like the idea of his fiction more than I actually like his fiction – although Dhalgren remains a favourite novel – I suspect I also like the idea of Delany more than I do reading his non-fiction. But I’m determined to give it a go. Hence, In Search of Silence: The Journals of Samuel R. Delany Volume 1 1957 – 1969. Which had sat on my wishlist for over a year before finally shaming me into putting it into my basket. I’ve no idea when volume 2 will appear, or if indeed it ever will (Delany is not very good at producing sequels). And yes, I’ve read The Motion of Light in Water. And I have a copy Times Square Red, Times Square Blue on its way to me…

Some secondhand books. The Lung is not an easy book to find – or, at least, those few copies that can be found are not cheap, especially not for a 1970s paperback. But this one was more reasonably-priced than other copies I’ve seen. And in really good condition. A Trick of the Light, which is Faulks’s first novel, on the other hand… I’ve seen copies on eBay priced between £300 and £400, which is way more than I’d pay for a book I’m not desperate to own. So I was pretty chuffed when I found this copy for £35 from a US-based seller on abebooks.co.uk. Bargain. How to be Both and A Handful of Dust were charity shop finds. (The part of the city where I live, by the way, has around a dozen charity shops. In fact, my local high street is charity shops, discount food shops and cash converters. Welcome to Tory Britain.)

I asked my mother, who is a regular browser in charity shops, to keep an eye open for books by William Golding or Evelyn Waugh. The only Golding she could find was Lord of the Flies, which I already have. But she did find a bunch of Waugh: The Loved One, Vile Bodies, Scoop, Put Out More Flags, Work Suspended and Black Mischief. I should ask her to look for some female writers for me, like Manning, Taylor, Lehman, West, Bowen, Ertz, Frankau and so on.

On my way back from Leeds last week, I caught a black cab home from the station. The route goes along Shalesmoor, a road I’ve travelled along hundreds of times – and walked it many times too on my way from the tram stop to the Shakespeare pub. This time I noticed a new shop, the Kelham Island Bookshop. So the next day I went and checked it out. And found Decline and Fall and When the Going was Good, and The Pyramid and Pincher Martin. The shop has an excellent selection of secondhand books. And they sell vinyl too. I asked how long they’d been open. Since last July I was told. I’ve been along that road I don’t know how many times in the past five months, and never spotted the shop. Shows how observant I am. Sigh.

I nearly forgot. Three more of the Heinmann Phoenix Edition DH Lawrence Books: The Complete Short Stories Volume 1, Volume 2 and Volume 3. I already had two of them, but these came as a set and the two I already owned aren’t in as good condition as these. That means I now have twenty-one of, I think, twenty-six books. Why collect these when I have a full set of the white Penguin paperbacks? Well, aside from the fact it’s a set, the Phoenix Edition does include some books not in the white Penguiun editions, and vice versa.