It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Kiitos, Helsinki

This year’s Worldcon took place in Helsinki, from Wednesday 9 August to Sunday 13 August. It was called Worldcon75 (not the most original name, it has to be said), and the guests of honour were John-Henri Holmberg, Nalo Hopkinson, Johanna Sinisalo, Claire Wendling (although she bowed out due to illness and did not attend) and Walter Jon Williams. It was my second Worldcon – my first was Interaction, in 2005 in Glasgow. I didn’t go to Loncon 3, in, er, London in 2014, because reasons.

The trip did not start well. A couple of days before my flight, my bank rang to inform me my debit card had been copied and they were going to cancel it and send me a new one. “Oh no you’re fucking not”, I told them. I explained I was about to visit Finland and would need my card. We reached a compromise, and my card remained valid throughout my stay in Helsinki. Yes, I want my bank to protect me from fraud, I want them to make sure no one steals my money, but… this is the same bank that had previously cancelled my card because they sent a marketing letter to the wrong address and it had been returned with “not known at this address”. So, you know, precautions.

I had planned to take some copies of my books to Finland, so if anyone wanted copies I’d have some on hand to sell. And perhaps I’d buy lots of books at the con. So I decided to take a suitcase to go in the hold (I normally travel only with cabin baggage). I’d already started packing it…

… when I thought to check my ticket. And discovered I had check-in baggage for the flight to Helsinki, but not for the flight from Helsinki. Oops. I suppose I could have contacted Finnair and asked them to add check-in baggage to my flight home, but I suspect they’d have charged for the privilege. And no, I wasn’t intending to smuggle Oscar into Finland. Anyway, I put the suitcase away, and took my usual cabin baggage. And it’s just as well – I saw someone tweet the day after Worldcon75 that they’d not had check-in baggae on a ticket to Copenhagen and had been charged €200 for their suitcases.

The trip to Helsinki was uneventful: train to Manchester Airport, a ninety-minute wait until I boarded the aircraft, a Finnair 100-seater Embraer 190. There was no one I knew on the flight, although two female passengers were clearly heading to Worldcon75 as one of them was wearing a T-shirt advertising the con. After two and a half hours in the air, I landed at Helsinki-Vantaa Airport, passed quickly through the electronic passport control gates – I must look a lot like my passport photo as the gate took less than a second to admit me – and then walked what felt like kilometres to find the railway station.

The train which runs from Helsinki-Vantaa to Helsinki päärautatieasema (central railway station) runs on a loop, so it’s impossible to catch the wrong train. And the train is a lovely modern one, with plenty of space, and very quiet. There are flat screens which announce each station, and display the route, in Finnish, Swedish and English. My hotel for the duration of the convention was the Sokos Vaakuna, which is sited just across the road from the central railway station. I’d picked it because of its location and because the website described it as having a “functional design”. This latter proved to be something that looked like it belonged in 1970s Soviet Russia. I loved it.

After checking in, and having a quick shower, I caught the train – the same one which ran to the airport and back – to Pasila, the first stop on the line. It took five minutes (and cost 5 euros). From the station, it was a short walk, across a dual carriageway and halfway down a block to the entrance to Messukeskus, the convention centre where Worldcon75 was taking place. Even though I had landed at 3 pm, I was at the convention for 5 pm.

After registering, I decided to look for the dealers room, but went downstairs instead of up the ramp… and immediately spotted Tony Ballantyne and Chris Beckett enjoying a coffee at the cafe on the downstairs concourse. So I joined them…

And that was sort of how it went for the entire con: bumping into people I knew, in between arranging to meet up with people I knew. I remember saying that if there 6,000 people at Worldcon75, and I could lay claim to knowing perhaps ten percent of them… I’d probably still keep on bumping into the same thirty or so people.

I later met up with Tobias Bodlund, who had his young son in tow, and the three of us headed into Helsinki for food. The convention pack included a restaurant guide, and from it we picked Zetor, which served Russian/Finnish agrarian food (or so said the guide). It was also apparently owned by a member of the Leningrad Cowboys. That no doubt explained the tractors and the stuffed cow. I recognised about a quarter of the people in the restaurant, which was a bit odd. I ordered the Karelian stew, which came with gherkins. It was very good. I also love gherkins. Afterward, I went straight back to my hotel and had an early night.

Members of Worldcon75 were given a travelcard for Helsinki, which meant the 5-minute train ride from the central station to Pasila cost me nothing. I don’t know if this is standard practice at worldcons, but it should be. I had one programme item on Thursday: Secrets in science fiction and fantasy. To be honest, I’ve no idea why I was picked for it. And after meeting my fellow panellists – Jane Anne McLachlan, Jennifer Udden, Kim ten Tusscher and J Sharp – I suspect the topic was someone’s suggestion and they put together a random selection of authors and agents. Jane Anne had prepared several questions, and we spent the panel answering them. I’m not overly keen on doing panels like that as it prevents a free-flowing discussion and can seem stilted. It seemed to go okay. Although someone did fall asleep in the front row. I bumped into Adrian Tchaikovsky, who had been in the audience, and he said he enjoyed it.

I spent the rest of the day sitting outside the Terra Nova Brasserie, which was the bar attached to the Holiday Inn, which was the hotel attached to the Messukeskus. I went for lunch to a nearby Nepalese restaurant, with Barbara, Tobias and his son, and we ran into Lennart there. The food was okay. That evening I headed into Helsinki with Will, Jen and a Finnish friend of theirs, and the Mexican restaurant we had planned to eat in was closed so we ended up in an Australian burger bar, which wasn’t bad. Eating in Helsinki was really good for me – I didn’t have to worry about menus, as they all featured lactose-free dishes. In fact, most menus featured meals that clearly had dairy in them, but were made with lactose-free versions of the dairy products. I’ve found you either eat well at conventions or eat badly. I usually eat badly. At Worldcon75, I ate well.

I stayed until 1:30 am, chatting to friends outside the Terra Nova or hanging out in the Winter Garden, where I met Shaun Duke and Paul Weimer in person for the first time. I ‘d been reliably informed trains to the central railway station ran all night. They don’t. During the week, that is. I got to Pasila station at 1:31 am. The last train left just as I walked up the ramp to the platform. The next train wasn’t until 4:18 am. So I walked back to Messukeskus, and jumped in a taxi. It cost me €18, which was less than I’d been expecting.

On the Friday, I met up with Berit Ellingsen, and we had a coffee in the Fazer Café on the Messukeskus concourse (it was the best of the food/drink venues in the centre). We’ve known each other for several years, but it was the first time we’d met up in person. There was another person at Worldcon75 who’d I only known online and never met IRL – but Michael Martineck and I have been friends for more than 20 years. We first met in an online writing workshop back in the 1990s. I’d gone for a sandwich in Fazer Café with Will Ellwood, while I tried to figure out how get Michael and myself both in the same place at the same time… when I turned round, and saw he was two places behind me in the queue. We spent most of the afternoon sitting outside the Terra Nova.

I’d arrange to go for dinner that evening with Gillian Pollack. Tobias was up for it too, so I went off to find Gillian. She was sitting outside Fazer Café, talking to… Michael. “I didn’t know you two knew each other,” I said. They’d apparently met at a programme item, my name had come up in conversation, and they realised they both knew me. So the four of us took the tram into the centre of Helsinki, for dinner at Stone’s Gastro Pub. Which was very good. At one point during the tram ride, a guy came up to us and asked if he could sit with us and listen to our conversation. We said sure. I assumed he was just some random nutter on the bus. Later, I saw him at Worldcon75 – he was an attending member of the con.

Back at Messukeskus, I stayed until 3 am, caught the train back to the central railway station (they run throughout the night on Friday and Saturday night), and crossed the road to my hotel.

My second panel of the con was at noon on the Saturday, Mighty space fleets of war. When I’d registered at the con, I’d discovered I was moderating the panel, which I hadn’t known. I checked back over the emails I’d been sent by the con’s programming team. Oops. I was the moderator. The other two panellists were Jack Campbell and Chris Gerrib. As we took our seats on the stage, Mary Robinette Kowal was gathering her stuff from the previous panel. I jokingly asked if she wanted to join our panel. And then asked if she’d moderate it. She said she was happy to moderate if we wanted her to, but we decided to muddle through ourselves. The panel went quite well, I thought. We got a bit of disagreement going – well, me versus the other two, both of whom admitted to having been USN in the past. I got a wave of applause for a crack about Brexit, and we managed to stay on topic – realistic space combat – for the entire time. I’d prepared a bunch of notes, but by fifteen minutes in, I’d used up all my points. In future, I’ll take in paper and pencil so I can jot stuff down as other members of the panel speak. After the panel, I met up with Eric Choi, a Canadian sf writer who contributed to Rocket Science back in 2012, and we had a quick chat.

Last year, when I bought my membership to Worldcon75, a friend who lived in Helsinki suggested we meet up for drinks or food. I used to work with Melody Jane about ten years ago. I left the company, she left the country. On the Saturday evening, I returned to my hotel, to meet Melody Jane. No sooner did she arrive, then the heavens opened. Thunder, lightning, the lot. Even strong winds, which caused enough damage to close one of the train lines. We waited inside the hotel for about twenty minutes, but it obviously wasn’t going to stop. So we borrowed umbrellas from the hotel reception, and walked to Farang, an Asian fusion restaurant located in the Kunsthalle Helsinki. The food was excellent, and I had a really good time. After the meal, I headed back to the Messukeskus, and stayed until 3 am. After a thirty minute wait at the station, I returned to my hotel.

I’d been getting into breakfast around 8 am each morning, at the restaurant on the Sokos Vaakuna’s top floor. But for the Sunday, I decided to miss breakfast and have a lie-in. Around lunch-time, I went looking for some modern art museums. Happily, the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art was just around the corner from my hotel. Also happily, its collection features lots of video installations. I like video installations. Not all of them worked for me – one or two, the CGI was a bit crude, and they felt no better than Youtube videos. But the ones by Ed Atkins and Cécile B Evans were impressive. I also thought the one by Tuomas A Laitinen was very good. Coincidentally, it was all very science-fictional, with most of the pieces actually either based on science-fictional ideas or set in the future.

For lunch, I popped into the 24-hour supermarket in the basement of my hotel and bought myself a sandwich. After spending ten minutes puzzling out the ingredients in Swedish, I spotted it said lactose-free in both Finnish and Swedish on the front label. And then it was back to the con for last day…

… which ended with the Dead Dog Party. This is a tradition at cons: those staying for another night gather in the hotel bar and have an informal party. Because so many attendees had flown into Helsinki for Worldcon75, a lot of them – myself included – weren’t flying out until the following day. A group of us had planned to head into town for food, but that plan didn’t come together. Then we heard the Dead Dog Party was laying on a tex-mex buffet. We also heard it was packed and people were being turned away. We decided to give it a try, but unfortunately took a wrong turning and it took us three times as long to get the Sokos Pasila, where the party was taking place. So I was not in the best of moods when we arrived. And saw the queue for the bar. And the queue for food. But we joined the line for the buffet anyway. Tobias and I had just reached it – tortillas and taco meat – when it finished. We waited. The chef brought out something that looked a bit like chicken fajita. It was the “vegetarian option”. Quorn or tofu or something. It was vile. I went and asked for my money back. I also persuaded the others – Tobias, Michael and Ian McDonald – to try the bar we’d spotted opposite the hotel, the Ravintola Windsor. Ian bowed out, but we were joined by Stephen Vessels. We went there, it was quiet, we got beer, and we got food (I had kebab and chips, it was very nice).

After we’d finished our food, Michael and Stephen left. Then Tobias left, so I headed back to the Dead Dog Party. I chatted to Liam Proven for a bit, and the people he was with – one told me they’d overheard an American complain during the Closing Ceremony that the con had been “too Eurocentric”. By midnight, I was ready to head back to my hotel – the last train was at 12:30. But then I bumped into Sanna Bo Claumarch, a Danish fan, and joined her and Fia Karlsson and some young Swedish and Finnish fans, and ended up staying until 2 am. To get back to my hotel, I shared a taxi with Liam and a Finnish fan.

Will and Jenny were on the same flight as me back to Manchester, so we agreed to catch the train to the airport together. But by the time I’d checked out of my hotel, I couldn’t be bothered to hang around for another couple of hours, so I caught the train on my own, checked in, and waited in the airport for them. And for Tobias, whose flight to Stockholm was around the same time as our flight to the UK. And then, when I boarded the plane – another Finnair Embraer 190 – I discovered I was sitting next to Fran and John Dowd.

The trip to Finland finished in a nicely surreal fashion on the train from Manchester Airport, when the PA first insisted the train was heading to Manchester Airport, where it would terminate, and then repeatedly told us the next stop was Batley, despite the train going nowhere near Batley.

I had a great time at Worldcon75, met some really nice interesting people – not all of which I’ve named here, but also includes John-Henri, Daniel, Bellis, Edward, Jo Lindsay, Hal (Al), Ian W (there was a plan on the Sunday to get the four Ian writers together for a photo, but it never happened – perhaps it’s just as well as it may have caused a singularity or something), Hanna, (the) Anders, Johan, Brian, Jukka, Luke, Emil, Thomas, Christina, Jeremy, Kristin and Erik, and apologies if I’ve forgotten anyone – from a variety of countries (mostly Sweden, the UK and Finland, but also the US, Canada, France, Austria, Ireland, Australia, Poland…). True, I spent most of the four and a bit days sitting outside the Terra Nova, drinking beer and socialising with friends (in fact, the con drank the bar dry of beer several times.) As is usual for me, I went to no programme items – not even the Hugo Awards, and I couldn’t get into the Closing Ceremony – but I did wander around the dealers room a number of times. In the end, I bought a single book – a first edition of John Varley’s Titan for 10 euros (bargain!) – so I wouldn’t have needed my suitcase, after all.

Jukke Halme and his team can definitely be proud of the convention they put together. There were a few problems initially, as twice as many people had turned up as had been originally planned for, but the issues were quickly resolved. I’d certainly put Worldcon75 in my top five cons I’ve attended – and I’ve been going to science fiction conventions since 1989. And I loved Helsinki, it’s a great city. I wish I’d seen more of it, but I’d had to limit my time in Finland because dayjob. I want to go back.

And that was my worldcon.


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Expanding bookiverse

Things got a bit stressful a few weeks ago, so I coped by doing what I usually do in such situations: I buy more books. Also, there were a few authors with new books out that I wanted. So the collection has grown quite a bit this month…

I have absolute no idea why I bought Forever Amber. I recently watched the film adaptation by Otto Preminger (see here) and was not especially impressed. But when I looked up the book on Wikipedia and saw the lines, “The fifth draft of Winsor’s first manuscript of Forever Amber was accepted for publication, but the publishers edited the book down to one-fifth of its original size. The resulting novel was 972 pages long”, I was intrigued enough to look for a copy on eBay. Where I found a hardback for £2. The Unburied was a lucky find – a signed first edition for a reasonable price. I’ve been a fan of Palliser’s books for years but only recently started collecting them.

Some new books: The 7th Function of Language, The Essex Serpent and The Power (not shown) I bought in Waterstone’s a few Saturdays ago, before meeting up with friends for the Sheffield SF & Fantasy Social. I took The Power with me to Helsinki to read during the trip, and gave it away when I’d finished it. Lust was from a large online retailer. I decided it was time to read another book by Elfriede Jelinek – I read her The Piano Teacher a couple of years ago, and thought it very good.

I signed up for The Blaft Anthology Tamil Pulp Fiction Vol 3 on indiegogo back in June 2015. It only arrived last month. The rewards I signed up for included volumes 1 and 2, but reprints of Vol 1 have apparently been delayed so the publishers included Kumari Loves a  Monster as a “sorry, and please be patient”.

Xeelee: Endurance is a collection of stories originally published in 2015. This is the PS Publishing slipcased version, which was published only this year. The Massacre of Mankind, also by Baxter, is an official sequel to Wells’s The War of the Worlds. I’ve read several of Goss’s stories over the last few years, and was especially impressed by her ‘Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology’ in 2014, so much so I nominated it for the BSFA Award… but it didn’t make the shortlist. The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter sounds like more of the same.

New paperbacks by authors whose books I like and admire: John Crowley’s Totalitopia is more a collection of essays than anything else, The Rift is Nina Allan’s second novel (although I didn’t bother with the updated Titan Books version of The Race), Calling Major Tom is by a friend and has been getting good reviews, and The Switch, well, I’ve been buying and reading Justina Robson’s books right from the start, after being in a writing orbiter with her back in the 1990s.

The Gulag Archipelago – it’s only volume one, although it doesn’t say so – I found in a local charity shop. Cosmic Encounter I bought on eBay – it was very cheap, but the seller was a little optimistic in their description of its condition.

And last but not least, a pair of bandes dessinée: Orphan of the Stars is the seventeenth volume of the Valerian and Laureline series (I was surprised to discover recently they’re publishing a novelisation of Luc Besson’s film adaptation; er, what?), and Fog over Tolbiac Bridge is the latest by Jacques Tardi to be published by Fantagraphics. I wrote about both of them here.


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Moving pictures 2017, #43

One of these days I should do a themed week in my movie-watching – films from one country, perhaps, or by a single director. Well, maybe, not an entire week, maybe just six movies in a row. Since I’ve just purchased a Jean-Luc Godard collection, I could do it with his films, pick half a dozen straight out of the box. Some would be rewatches, but I’ve been wanting to rewatch some of his movies anyway. It’s an idea. Meanwhile, another mixed bag…

Medea, Pier Paulo Pasolini (1969, Italy). This is what I know Pasolini for, and why I bought this box set – an historical, well, almost fantasy, film like Fellini at his most self-indulgent. I mean, given that I love Fellini’s Satyricon (see here) and Casanova (see here), it should come as no surprise that Pasolini’s Arabian Nights (see here) and Medea also press my buttons. The story – which is based loosely on the Ancient Greek character of the same name – is more or less incidental. It’s the visuals which count. And Pasolini goes full out on those – much of the movie was filmed on historical sites, such as the Göreme Open Air Museum in Turkey. It looks fantastic, and even convincingly accurate – although I suspect it bears little resemblance to actual Ancient Greek society. But Medea is one of those films where you can just bask in the wonderful mise-en-scène, and perhaps feel a little smug for consuming some Ancient Greek culture, without caring over much about the story. Maria Callas, in her only movie role, makes for a striking Medea, but to be honest it doesn’t really matter who plays who. This a film that just looks great. In fact, Arabian Nights and Medea alone would justify the purchase of the the Six Films 1968 – 1975 Blu-ray box set, but, as below indicates, Theorem is also another film in the set that presses a lot of my buttons. And, let’s face it, the other three films are no slouches either.

Up in Smoke*, Lou Adler (1978, USA). This is a film I would normally go nowhere near, but it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and so I guess I gotta watch it… It’s credited with being the first stoner comedy, which is not a genre I find appealing. Or amusing. Which was pretty much the case here. Up in Smoke is the first film appearance of dope-head comedy duo Cheech and Chong, who went on to make a further six films, seven if you include an animated feature released in 2013, twenty-eight years after their last movie. Cheech and Chong play a couple of stoner Angelinos, who meet when Chong’s car breaks down on a highway and Cheech gives him a lift in his lowrider. Chong admits he’s a drummer, and Cheech invites him to join his band. They then spend the rest of the movie driving around parts of LA on the hunt for marijuana, inadvertently managing to avoid being arrested by inept cop Stacy Keach at every turn. At one point, the pair are deported to Mexico (it’s deliberate) and offer to drive a van back to the US, not knowing that the van’s bodywork is made entirely out of marjuana. The film ends with a battle of the bands, which Cheech & Chong do not win, but by then everyone is so high from the burning van no one really cares. Including the viewer. Jack Nicholson apparently thought the film was hilarious, perhaps he was under the influence. I don’t recall a single chuckle in it. True, my sense of humour is more of the Confucian variety – as Confucius said, the funniest sight in the whole world is watching an old friend fall off a high roof. Slapstick, in other words. This is not slapstick. Still, at least I can now cross it off the list. I very much doubt I’ll be bothering with the six/seven sequels…

The Soft Skin, François Truffaut (1964, France). A well-known literary critic and editor catches a plane to Lisbon to give a talk at a conference. In the hotel where he’s staying, he meets a beautiful flight attendant he remembers from his flight. They ride up in the lift, but to her floor not his… and when he reaches his own room, he telephones her and apologises for not helping her with her bags and asks her for a drink. She refuses, but then rings back and accepts… And so begins an affair between the two. Some time later, the critic accepts an invite to a film festival in Reims, and takes the flight attendant, his mistress, with him. But the trip doesn’t go very well – he has difficulty getting away from the festival organisers – and on the way back to Paris they stop off at a country pension. The critic’s wife later discovers photographs of this weekend tryst, and subsequently demands a divorce…  I’m finding myself increasingly a fan of Truffaut’s films, but I also find myself having trouble getting a handle on his film-making. He doesn’t have an identifiable style – or rather, he has many. And his chameleon nature, which is never less than skilfully done, makes it hard to think of Truffaut’s films as a single body of work. The Soft Skin is a well-drawn character study of its two leads, well-shot, and with some nice observations. But it doesn’t seem of an ilk with Two English Girls or Fahrenheit 451. Perhaps that’s why it’s taken me until now to appreciate Truffaut’s excellence, the fact his films seem to undermine auteur theory, despite the fact Truffaut is a Nouvelle Vague director, and in fact it’s Truffaut himself who invented the concept in his 1954 essay, ‘Une certain tendance du cinéma français’. The Soft Skin seemed like a polished French adultery movie of the 1960s, which is almost a genre itself, and so its appeal is limited to the appeal of its type. I enjoyed it, but I couldn’t see that it was an explicitly Truffaut film.

TO 2001 Nights, Fumihiko Sori (2009, Japan). It’s an anime film, so guess who recommended it… Although at least this one was recommended in conversation, rather than snuck onto my rental list. And David Tallerman (for it was he, of course) did point out it looked good but was pretty naff. Which turned out to be more or less spot-on. It’s not actually a feature-length movie, but two stories from a manga series. The first, ‘Ellpitical Orbit’, has a spacecraft returning from an exoplanet colony stop off at a space station in, I think, LEO. The captain of the spacecraft is the ex-wife of the station commander, although interstellar travel now means they have aged at different rates. And then space pirates attack and… I was too busy wincing at the awful dialogue, so I’m not entirely sure how it all panned out. The second story, ‘Symbiotic Planet’ is about a colony on an exoplanet, or rather several colonies, each of which seem to recapitulate 1980s Cold War tensions. The exoplanet is notable for its fungi, and when a member of the staff is infected with the fungi, it proves beneficial rather than fatal… TO 2001 Nights looks lovely, albeit not always entirely plausible in the way media sf never really does, but its stories are a bit crap. David called it right. Worth seeing, perhaps, but eminently forgettable.

Theorem, Pier Paulo Pasolini (1968, Italy). I was expecting something much like the other Pasolini films I’d watched when I put this in the player. What I got was something that reminded me much more of Antonioni’s films. It opens with journalists interviewing workers from a factory that has just become a collective. The film then flashes back to the house of an affluent Italian family. Ninetto Davoli – a familiar face in Pasolini’s films – plays a dancing postman who heralds the arrival of Terence Stamp, an enigmatic stranger, who moves into the house, and then sleeps with each of the family members, including the maid. All of them are healed in some way after sex with Stamp. And when he leaves, they each do something their previous view of their lives had prevented them from doing – the father giving his factory to his workers, for example, as in the opening shots. It’s all very late sixties, and apart from Davolini doing his arm-flapping dancing about, much more like Antonioni than Pasolini, except… while it’s certainly enigmatic, like Antonioni, it doesn’t have his glacial pace, nor his focus on his characters – Stamp is, after all, a cipher. And I’m pretty sure Antonioni would never have included a shot of a naked man running around on the slopes of a volcano – Zabriskie Point notwithstanding. I considered Six Films 1968 – 1975 worth buying for Arabian Nights and Salò, or 120 Days of Sodom alone, but having now seen both Medea and Theorem I’m even more glad I bought it. And I really ought to watch more of Pasolini’s works.

Queen, Vikas Bahl (2014, India). I suspect people who don’t watch Bollywood films underestimate the range of movies produced by the Hindi film industry. It’s true many are boy meets girl boy loses girl boy gets girl back, with singing and dancing, but a lot of the more recent, and very successful, Bollywood films I’ve watched have been anything but that. Like Queen. The title character, Rani, is about to get married, but her fiancé dumps her two days before the wedding. So she decides to go on the honeymoon on her own, to Paris and then onto Amsterdam. In Paris, she is befriended by a Franco-Indian maid, who’s a party girl and takes Rani to various night spots, introduces to her friends and generally shows her how to have a good time and how to be an independent woman. Rani then moves onto Amsterdam, where she finds herself staying in a hostel and sharing a room with three guys, a Russian, a man from Japan, and a Frenchman. They soon become friends, and explore the city together – including a trip to visit a friend of the Parisian maid, who is a sexworker in the red light district. While there were plenty of songs in Queen, unlike in other Bollywood films I’ve seen the action didn’t stop for a dance routine. The more Bollywood films I watch, the more surprised I am that people in this country don’t watch them as often they would watch, say, French or Japanese films. True, they’re in Hindi, and rarely dubbed, although the cast do code-switch a hell of a lot, and even more so in Queen, but refusing to watch a film because it has subtitles is just wilful ignorance. (I should check my own collection one of these days, to see what percentage are non-Anglophone.) A lot of the Bollywood films I’ve watched were fun, but Queen was charming too. It was entirely carried by Kangana Ranaut in the title role, although Lisa Haydon was also good as the Franco-Indian maid. It’s rare you reach the end of a Bollywood film without feeling cheered, and Queen made you feel good about enjoying it too. Recommended.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 878


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Hello Helsinki

Next week, I’ll be attending the 75th Worldcon, taking place in Helsinki, Finland. It’ll be my first visit to Helsinki, but my second to Finland – I was at Archipelacon in Mariehamn, in 2015 – see here. I’m looking forward to it. Not just visiting the city, or attending the convention, but also meeting up with friends, some of whom I’ve never actually met in IRL. I’ll be on two panels at Worldcon75:

Thursday 10 Aug @ 15:00 (101d)
The Role of Secrets in Speculative Fiction, with JA MacLachlan, Jennifer Udden, Kim ten Usscher and J Sharpe
Obviously, I can’t tell you what this one is about…

Saturday 12 Aug @ 12:00 (101a&b)
Mighty Space Fleets of War, with Jack Campbell and Chris Gerrib
The title says it all.

Other than that, I’ll be knocking about the venue, the Messukeskus, or in one of the con bars (which I think are in the Holiday Inn, the on-site hotel). Or maybe off wandering somewhere.

The last – and only – Worldcon I attended was in 2005 in Glasgow. It used a “voodoo board”, where people could pin up messages arranging meet-ups. It was not especially effective. Happily, these days we have smartphones, free wifi and social media. So I’ll be extremely disappointed if I don’t manage to catch up with the people I know who are also going.


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Reading diary, #52

I’m still trying to pick up the pace of my reading, but I’ve not had all that much success so far. I’m managing to keep ahead of my TBR – ie, I’m reading more books each month than I buy, although I’m not buying as many as I have done in the past – but I’m still more than a dozen books behind in my Goodreads reading challenge of 140 books by the end of the year.

Valerian and Laureline 17: Orphan of the Stars (1998, France). The volumes in the Valerian and Laureline series have been forming an extended narrative for a while now. Initially, each was an unconnected story, then there were a couple of two-volume stories, but since the disappearance of Galaxity after the past was changed, the duo’s narrative has been more serial than series. The volume prior to this one, Hostages of Ultralum (see here), saw Valerian and Laureline rescue the Caliphon, the brattish young son of the Caliph of Iksaladam, a fabulously wealthy planet, from kidnappers, and in this book he’s still with them, and they’re still being pursued by the kidnappers. The three are now in the Asteroids of Shimballil, a belt close enough to the star system’s sun for the asteroids, each with their own atmosphere, to be habitable. The duo are trying to find a treatment for the Caliphon’s behavioural dificulties, but they need money… and after meeting a producer of popular entertainments, Laureline agrees to act for him for the money. Like many of the other tomes in the series, Orphan of the Stars takes satirical pokes at various things – in this case, the aforementioned entertainments industry (ie, the film industry), but also academia. I’ve yet to see Besson’s film, and I think I’ve missed its run at the cinemas, but from the reviews I’ve seen it seems to mangle an important aspect of the series, the relationship between Valerian and Laureline. Given that the relationship has developed and changed over 22 volumes, it’s no surprise the film fails to get a handle on it. But, more importantly, it also seems to me, the movie fluffs the books’ humour. It’s not just satire and piss-takes of contemporary culture which feature in the series, but also the banter between the two principals. Laureline is definitely the competent one, and has been since around volume three or four, and the two are in a relationship, but there’s a give and take between the two, between Valerian’s misplaced protectiveness and Laureline’s competence, it sounds like the movie has bungled. But I guess I’ll know that for sure when I finally get to watch it.

Living, Henry Green (1929, UK). What to say about Henry Green? At one point, he was considered by some as “the best English novelist” and – a phrase I quite like – as the “writer’s writer’s writer”. According to Wikipedia, he was always more popular among other writers than the reading public and “none of his books sold more than 10,000 copies”. From the 1950s onwards, his star faded – he died in 1973 – and by the 1980s, he was mostly forgotten… only to be rediscovered in the early 1990s, and omnibuses of his nine novels (three per omnibus) have been in print ever since. And yes, he is every bit as good as his admirers have/had it. Living, his second novel, is set in and around a Birmingham iron foundry in the 1920s – Green actually worked as the managing director of his family’s engineering firm in Birmingham – and focuses on a handful of its employees, including the London-based son of the company’s owner. The prose is modernist, and uses definite and indefinite articles sparingly. It takes a bit of getting used to, but Green’s writing is so good it’s highly effective. The dialogue is also written in dialect – although I could never quite make it sound Brummie in my head – which also takes a while to get used to. In terms of plot, there’s not a great deal, just the lives of its central characters, and how they cope with changes to the company’s fortunes. But reading Green just makes me want to push the envelope of my own writing. I don’t want to come up with cleverer plots, or more engaging stories, I want to sharpen my narratives, improve my word-choices, write the best damn prose I can, so that I too can be as lucid, as economical, and yet as lyrical, as Henry Green. Highly recommended.

Angel, Elizabeth Taylor (1957, UK). This book was, in a roundabout fashion, my introduction to the fiction of Elizabeth Taylor – or rather, I learnt of her writing thanks to this book. Well, thanks to François Ozon’s adaptation of it, starring Romola Garai, which I reviewed many years ago for videovista.net. I liked the film so much, I kept an eye open in charity shops for books by Taylor… and it’s taken till now before I finally stumbled across a copy of Angel (after first finding and reading Blaming and A Wreath of Roses). And the first thing I noted about Angel the novel was its differences to the film adaptation. The plots are pretty much identical – opening in the last years of Queen Victoria’s reign, working-class teeenager Angelica Devereux, Angel, writes a florid romance novel, publisher takes a chance on it, book is a success, Angel goes onto become a successful – if critically mocked – writer, falls in love with Esmé, an impoverished upper-class painter, who marries her for her money but cheats on her, he is wounded in WWI and dies in an accident soon after, her books are by then no longer popular, and she lingers on in poverty… The film has Esmé’s work re-evaluated after his death, so he becomes critically lauded, while Angel’s books continue to be seen as trashy potboilers. The film also makes Angel more of a figure of fun, and so more sympathetic, than the novel, although they make use of the same events. In that respect, in that Angel is an unsympathetic character, and not played for light laughs, the book is a tougher read than the film is a viewing. But Taylor’s prose is so very good, reading it is never a hardship (which is not say Ozon’s direction is bad, although he does film it in a very artificial, almost pantomime, style, which suits his treatment of the material). I’ve now read Angel, but I’ll continue to keep an eye open for Taylor’s novels – and I have her Complete Short Stories on the TBR…

Home Fires, Gene Wolfe (2011, USA). I picked up a copy of the signed and numbered PS Publishing edition of this novel for much cheapness a couple of years ago, although not being an especially big fan of Wolfe’s fiction I’ve no real idea why I did so. His The Fifth Head of Cerberus is a classic work of sf, The Book of the New Sun is a remarkable work but its sensibilities have not aged well, and everything else he has written I’ve found more or less meh. Except his short fiction – that I really don’t like at all, bar one or two stories. But Wolfe has a reputation for tricksiness and cleverness, as if the two things are the same, and his profile within genre remains extremely high, even if few people seem to read him these days. Home Fires does nothing to change my current opinion of Wolfe. It’s set a century or so hence. Skip Grison is a wealthy lawyer in his fifties. Twenty-something years before, he contracted (civil partnership) with Chelle Sea Blue (yes, really), who then left Earth to fight the Os. She is due to return home. Although she has been away decades, it has only been a handful of years for her. He is worried for their partnership, although he still loves her dearly. As a present for her return, Skip arranges for Chelle’s mother to be resurrected – ie, a brain scan of her is imprinted onto the mind of a volunteer. Skip and Chelle then go on a cruise on a sailing ship (the cover art depicts a motor cruise liner with masts and sails badly photoshopped on top, which is annoying). Things happen aboard the sailing ship – hijackers seize it, attempts are made on the life of Shelle’s mother, Wolfe plays his usual wordgames with the reader… But it all seems a bit, well, a bit feeble. Some of the puzzles presented in the narrative are easy enough to solve, and are indeed explained, but don’t seem to add much to the story. Those which are left unexplained, add even less. I can live with the mix-n-match worldbuilding, and while the old-fashioned sexual politics are uncomfortable they don’t actually overwhelm the narrative, but… it all feels like a pointless exercise. It doesn’t feel like a story, it feels like half a puzzle with no reward for solving it. I had expected some intellectual gratification from identifying the puzzles and then solving them, or failing to solve them, but to be honest I didn’t really care. Home Fires reads like a forgettable sf novel with a heavy reputation it doesn’t deserve hanging over it. Avoidable.

Fog Over Tolbiac Bridge, Jacques Tardi (2017, France). The first Tardi I read was The Arctic Marauder, and I liked its Verne-esque steampunk-ish flavour very much. So I continued to read his bandes dessinées – or rather, the Fantagraphics English translations of them. He’s probably best known for his The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, made into a film by Luc Besson, or perhaps for providing the production design, and the actual style of the art and animation, of the steampunk April and the Extraordinary World (see here). But Tardi’s graphic novels actually cover a variety of genres, from war to thriller to crime. And Fog Over Tolbiac is this last, an adaptation first published in French in 1982 of a noir novel by Léo Malet. (Tardi has adapted nine of Malet’s Nestor Burma novels to date, but Fog Over Tolbiac Bridge is the first to appear in English.) Burma is a private detective, who receives a letter one day from a man he knew twenty-five years before when both were anarchists. But the man has been murdered, and Burma finds himself trying to puzzle out the murder, its link to an unsolved robbery in 1936 on the eponymous bridge, and Burma’s old friends from his anarchist days at the “vegan hostel”. It’s a bit thin as a mystery, to be honest, though I suspect that’s an artefact of adaptation, but Tardi’s art is eminently suited to the material, both the story and the less-than-competent Burma. To date Tardi has published thirty-one bandes dessinées, of which around fourteen or fifteen have so far been published in English by Fantagraphics. After a hiatus of several years, brought about by illness, Fantagraphic seem to be back translating Tardi’s work… and I’ll continue to buy them.

Nomansland, DG Compton (1993, UK). Compton is a science fiction writer I admire a great deal. I think his prose is far far better than 99% of genre writers, living or dead, and his relatively low profile is not only due to the quality of his prose (many sf readers consider such prose either irrelevant or a hindrance), nor the fact his last novel was published in 1996 and only the SF Gateway has any of his books currently in print (as ebooks and omnibuses), although he does have one novel in the SF Masterworks series… but chiefly because the bulk of his fiction has a very British flavour and a lot of it is really quite miserable. Nomansland displays both these last two qualities, despite being set in an invented, and unnamed, European country, and because the world of the novel is forty years into the “Attrition”, an epidemic which causes pregant women to reject male embryos. In other words, only female babies have been born for nearly half a century. Nomansland also uses another common Compton technique – the double unsynchronised narrative, which is probably not the best way to describe it, but refers to paired narratives which differ in ways other than just POV. In Nomansland, one narrative is loosely-coupled third-person, set forty years after the Attrition, and focusing on scientist Dr Harriet Ryder-Kahn, who has just discovered a cure for MERS, Male Embryo Rejection Syndrome, but is being blocked from publication by her bosses at the Ministry of Science. The second narrative begins some ten years after the start of the Attrition, when Harriet is a young girl, and is first-person. It traces her history up to the 40-years-after narrative. There’s an elephant in the room in this story, and it takes two-thirds of the novel before anyone even mentions it: the world is a much nicer place now there are so few men (they’re still in charge, but they’re hugely outnumbered by women, and dying out). So the question becomes, is it worth actually curing MERS? Isn’t it better to leave the population as it is? Of course, the men – and few of them in this novel are painted in a flattering light – would like their own kind to be back in charge, but… I’m entirely sympathetic to the view a massively-majority, or entirely, female population would turn the planet into a much more pleasant place; and I can think of no good reason why men should be re-introduced, given a solution to reproductive needs. For all the crap we’re fed in the right-wing press about vile behaviour by other cultures, most of it is more a product of toxic masculinity than it is actual culture. In Nomansland, Compton is also clearly sympathetic, but he tries to present a balanced view and often undermines his point. MRA types will object to the characterisation of the male characters, but fuck ’em, they have no opinions worth treating seriously. If there is a problem, it’s that Compton is, if his fiction is any indication, somewhat misanthropic, and so even his female characters are far from sympathetic. Ryder-Kahn, for example, is fixated on publication, and does not seem to understand the impact of her cure. Nomansland is by no means one of Compton’s best, although my admiration for his writing remains undimmed.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 130


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Moving pictures 2017, #42

More hop-skip-and-jumping about the world through movies, including my first Mongolian one.  Only a single film from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, however, and it’s a Hollywood one, albeit from the 1940s. Noir, too.

Three Strange Loves, Ingmar Bergman (1949, Sweden). This is the second of a batch of Bergman DVDs I bought recently. It is, like many, perhaps most, of Bergman’s films, about marriage. In this one, Rut and Bertil are heading back to Sweden by train after visiting Italy. There are lots of flashbacks, recalling Rut’s affair with an army officer, who is probably the only character in a Bergman film to boast a moustache, and Bertil’s affair with a widow. The army officer forces Rut to have an abortion; the widow is in thrall to a sadistic psychiatrist, and then commits suicide. Perhaps Bermgan should have titled this one To Joy as well. Eventually, Bertil kills Rut during a fight… but it was only a dream. Scared by the dream, the two decide to try and save their marriage. I don’t actually remember much from this film – it was over a week ago I watched it – except one scene where Bertil and Rut’s train pulls into a station, and the train in the next track is travelling from Sweden, and the couple in the compartment alongside theirs is… the military officer and his wife. Which is just a little too coincidental to be believable. The film’s original title is Törst, which means “thirst”. Three Strange Loves, on the other hand, is a weirdly literal title, something for which Bergman’s films are, frankly, not known.

Joy, Chinguun Balkhjav (2016, Mongolia). I found this on Amazon Prime, which has, to be fair, on rare occasions thrown up some excellent new films from out-of-the-way places. Despite having found Ingmar Bergman’s To Joy (see here) far from joyful, I thought it worth chancing a movie with “joy” in the title – as the title, in fact – because I wanted to watch a film from Mongolia… And, what a surprise, it proved to be a complete downer as well. The film opens in the present, with a young woman called Az deciding it is time to return to her home village to lay some ghosts. The film slips in and out of the present and Az’s childhood, as it tells her story. Her father and mother were very happy, but then her mother died giving birth to her younger sister. Her father goes into business with a friend, selling local dairy products in the nearest town (which is several hours away from the village). But then he’s killed in an accident on a return trip. The family helping to look after the two young daughters delay telling Az, so she runs away to the town with her sister, to look for her father. While wandering around, they’re taken in by a man, who feeds them and puts them up – but Az leaves her sister in his care, while she continues to search. When she returns days later, the man has gone, and Az’s sister with him… (There’s nothing iffy here, he was simply being kind-hearted but knew nothing about the kids, as Az had not given her, or her sister’s, name.) Joy somehow manages to claw back a happy ending, which is quite an achievement given the litany of woe preceding it. Nevertheless, worth seeing.

The Postman Always Rings Twice*, Tay Garnett (1946, USA). This is another of the classic noir films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I thought it more deserving of its place than the last one I watched, Kiss Me Deadly (see here). John Garfield plays a drifter who ends up at a diner on the outskirts of LA, working as a short-order cook – not because he wants to settle down, or because the job is especially well-paid, but because the owner’s much younger wife is Lana Turner. It doesn’t take long before the two are doing the rumpy-pumpy behind the husband’s back. Garfield persuades Turner to run away with him, but they don’t get very far. So they plot to kill the husband – which becomes urgent when the husband reveals he is going to sell the diner, and move to northern Canada to look after his paralysed sister. Unfortunately, the lovers’ first attempt – knocking the husband out when he’s having a shower, fails after a cat jumps on exposed wiring and shorts the electricity (probably the least plausible bit of the entire film). A later attempt, faking a car accident by pushing the car over a cliff, does the trick. The local DA suspects the two of murder, but cannot prove it. Shortly afterwards, Garfield and Turner are in  a car accident (not a staged one). Garfield survives; Turner doesn’t. And he’s promptly charged, and found guilty, of her murder. The film ends with him on Death Row, which is where the title comes in – and it’s a pretty tenuous justification for it, but never mind. I quite liked this one. The two leads were good, the plot did not rely on people behaving weirdly or unbelievable coincidences, and the whole was told with an economy that many films would do well to emulate.

The Wind that Shakes the Barley, Ken Loach (2006, Ireland). It’s a toss-up which was more entertaining: this film, or the reviews of it I looked at afterwards. Because The Wind that Shakes the Barley is about the the Irish War of Independence, and the English behaved like monsters during it. And it’s a Ken Loach film, and only an idiot would watch a Loach film not expecting it to take a political position. Which led to a lot of complaints the film was “anti-Brit”. Which means, what exactly? “My country, right or wrong”? Because that’s pernicious bullshit. Especially given the current foolishness about the British Empire – no, it was not a good thing, it pillaged and subjugated sovereign nations and that is never defensible; and no, it won’t suddenly spring into being in some woke form post-Brexit, not that those who think the empire was a good thing even fucking know what “woke” means, or even how to be progessive… But that’s a rant for another day. The Wind that Shakes the Barley follows two brothers, but mainly the one played by Cilian Murphy, who join the Irish Republican Army and end up fighting the Black and Tans and the Auxies, both of which groups, composed of WWI veterans desperate for work recruited in mainland UK, committed a series of atrocities against Irish civilians throughout the war. None of this is defensible – not their actions, nor their aim. So if the film comes across as anti-Brit, it’s perfectly justified. True, the film shows the war from the point of view of those who fought it, and suffered most during it, and the politicians behind the scenes were trying to desperately hard to reach a peaceful solution that kept most people happy. Well, except perhaps for Winston Churchill, who is such a hero in the UK he’s on the new £5 note, and yet he invented the Black and Tans, and many of his decisions throughout his career would have branded him a war criminal had they taken place in later decades of the twentieth century. Plus, he was establishment through and through. But, The Wind that Shakes the Barley… not the best Loach film I’ve seen so far – I thought Land and Freedom better, to be honest – but still worth seeing. Especially by people who think the British Empire was a good thing.

The Headless Woman, Lucrecia Martel (2008, Argentina). And here’s another film that many critics apparently had trouble with. The plot is relatively straightforward. A woman driving home from a friend’s hits something with her car. She stops, but doesn’t go and see what it was, seemingly in shock. Instead, she drives to hospital and has herself X-rayed. She spends a night in a nearby hotel. Then she carries on with her life as if nothing had happened. Her husband tries to persuade she must have run over a dog, but she suspects it may have been a child. Later, she visits the hospital, but they have no record of her being X-rayed. Nor does the hotel have her name down as a guest. There is no link between her and whatever happened on the road. However, what makes this film interesting, and which apparently turned off some critics, is that Martel chose not to film it as a fast-paced thriller, but as a slow, mostly plotless, drama, focusing chiefly on the main character’s daily life, with a small mystery wrapped around it. I actually think this approach made it a better movie. It made the opening incident more of a mystery, and the fact it was left unresolved only made it more interesting. The resolutely domestic focus of the film also made its mystery more intriguing. A good film, worth seeing.

Mai Mai Miracle, Sunao Katabuchi (2009, Japan). I pulled this out of the rental envelope, took one look at it, and immediately texted David Tallerman to ask if he’d stuck it on my rental list the last time we were at the pub. Because, while I like anime, I prefer the more realistic style, and the cartoon-ish-looking kids on the cover art of this DVD would not have prompted me to add it to my list myself. And then the film opened with a young girl in a field trying to imagine what the countryside looked like a thousand years before as her grandfather describes it to her, with that sort of over-compensating US schoolkid voice-over that cheerily and breezily explains the girl’s situation anf family… Oh, and the music on the soundtrack was really irritating… So I wasn’t all that impressed. But as I watched it, I found it growing on me. The central conceit – the little girl, Shinko, can see the past, ie, the area as it was 1000 years before, when it was the site of the capital of the province of Suō – didn’t really appeal, but once the film began to focus on Shinko’s friends, and her adventures with them, such as Kiiko, the new girl who’d just moved from the city, or the pond Shinko and her friends build for a goldfish… well, then, things started to really improve. David later admitted he’d thought I might enjoy the film because it resembled Studio Ghibli’s Only Yesterday, which is probably my favourite Ghibli… And yes, there are resemblances. But the things I like about Only Yesterday aren’t in Mai Mai Miracle, so it’s no surprise it took me a while to get into the film. There’s an earnestness to it that I find a bit off-putting, a sort of pushiness to the childhood it depicts… but that disappears within the first half hour and, if anything, the film gets pretty grim toward the end. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 877


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Moving pictures 2017, #41

It has occurred to me I should perhaps start a separate blogs for films, but then this blog would be be tumbleweeds all the time, so I don’t think I will. For the time-being, it’s likely to be mostly movies, but as the year progresses I’m hoping that will change. Meanwhile, more, er, films…

Gimme Shelter*, Albert & David Maylses (1970, USA). There’s that meme, back before the days of internet memes, and it asks: Asterix or Tintin? Dogs or cats? The Beatles or the Rolling Stones? As if it’s a handy way to categorise people… For the record, I prefer Tintin to Asterix, cats to dogs… and I’m not really a fan of either The Beatles or the Rolling Stones. But Gimme Shelter is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, so watch it I must… The Maylses’s schtick was that they just filmed stuff, edited it, and then presented it without commentary (totally disingenuously, of course, as the editing itself created narrative out of the raw footage and so implied commentary). Gimme Shelter plays at fly-on-the-wall, and was originally intended to be simply a documentary in the putting together of a free concert. But the murder at Altamont during the Stones’ set obviously bent that out of shape, and so Gimme Shelter becomes a documentary about that, created from footage shot for other reasons. The end result is a powerful and interesting documentary, but also a somewhat disingenuous one, so much so it makes you wonder about the “truth” of all documentaries. To be fair, documentaries suffer from having to impose narrative on topics that have no natural narrative (narrative is an instrument of bias, by definition; a story teller chooses the story they tell), but in this particular case, the post-facto narrative proved more compelling than that which had prompted the project in the first place. Which is not to say that Gimme Shelter is a bad film, it’s a good one, but it does misrepresent itself… and indeed misrepresents the event it ostensibly documents. There is truth, there are documentaries that strive for truth, and there are documentaries that, well, appear on lists like 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die… I enjoyed Gimme Shelter, despite not liking the music of the Rolling Stones, but it’s more an entertaining film than it is a valid witness to the events of the time it depicts.

A Short Film About Killing, Krzysztof Kieślowski (1988, Poland). Kieślowski is an excellent entry point to cinephilia. There, I said it. But he’s also the “director’s director” most cinephiles have moved on from, and his work, to them, to us, seems in hindsight somewhat middle-brow. He was undoubtedly an excellent film-maker, and his notorious perfectionism is evident in every frame of every work that bears his name. But his mix of stark realism and whimsical fantasy has not aged especially well, and for all the beauty of his framing, and the excellence of the performances he elicited from his casts, it all these days seems a bit past-it. Which is doubly unfair, when applied to A Short Film About Killing, which is entirely realist, but also shot entirely in a way that emphasises its realism. And which, sadly, ultimately undoes its intent. The story is simple: a listless drifter brutally murders a taxi-cab driver, is caught, tried, sentenced to death and hanged. That’s it. Kieślowski dwells on the murder, showing it as a brutal, drawn-out affair, as if it bolster the credentials of his villain – and it’s true that an argument against capital punishment needs to show an acceptable victim because it would otherwise be compromised… But to then display the moral scaffolding put in place to justify capital punishment by those who execute it does undermine the argument. True, it would be cowardice to have someone whose crime, or circumstance, might mitigate, or who might even be innocent – something most anti-capital punishment films seem to do. Kieślowski’s films is all the more powerful because the crime committed is so heinous. But he also shows that the system is fixed, reprieve is impossible, and the flat, affectless way the story unfolds fails to reinforce the logic of the film’s message because Kieślowski invests too much in the circumstances of his three main characters – the murderer, his victim, and the advocate who defends the murderer. He connects them. And that makes it personal – but the film’s argument against capital punishment remains impersonal. Kieślowski was once among my top ten directors, but he has since fallen from that list. I will almost certainly watch his films again some day, so I’m glad I own good copies. Speaking of which, the three Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema have proven an excellent purchase, and I’m really glad I took the plunge, even if they were quite expensive…

Sleep, My Love, Douglas Sirk (1948, USA). I can’t find UK DVD cover art for this, because it’s never been released on DVD here. The copy I watched was a legal out-of-copyright rip bought on eBay, of pretty good quality, way better than VHS, but by no means official. And, to be fair, it’s not a film that deserves all that much to be remembered. Sirk was one of several German, or Teutonophone, directors who had successful careers in Hollywood during the 1940s to 1960s, and his All That Heaven Allows is my all-time favourite film (and the so-called women’s melodramas he made during the late 1950s are among Hollywood’s best films), but for much of his career he churned out Hollywood potboilers… and this is one of them. It’s pretty much Gaslight by another name and with a slightly different plot. Claudette Colbert is an heiress married to a wastrel, Don Amerche, and Ameche has been using drugs and hypnosis to try and set her up to murder someone and so be sent to prison, allowing him, and his mistress, to abscond with her money. So he gaslights her, and when the murder plot fails, he tries to hypnotise her into jumping from her bedroom window. But that fails too… thanks to the lucky appearance of a China-based US businessman, Robert Cummings, on leave back home, whom befriends Colbert, and then becomes the love interest. Ameche and his co-conspirators are pretty inept, and only really get as far as they do because Colbert can’t see what’s going on (despite the gaslighting). Even then, it’s only because the conspirators fall out that their plot eventually falls apart. Not one of Sirk’s best; not even a good noir film, to be honest.

Two English Girls, François Truffaut (1971, France). I think Truffaut is great… I don’t think Truffaut is great… I think Truffaut is great… I don’t think Truffaut is great… I’m not really sure what to make of him. Some of his films I think are brilliant and I love them. Others, it’s hard to believe the same guy made them. True, no one loves all the films a particular director has made – I mean, no director is that good. Although one or two might come close. I love Sirk’s melodramas, for example, but his other films I find eminently forgettable. So, liking and admiring some of Truffaut films but not others, well, I’m unlikely to be alone in that. But to go from pretty much complete indifference to multiple watches of some of his movies, that’s not so common. Although I wonder if Two English Girls, AKA Anna & Muriel, a title that appears only on the Blu-ray packaging, which is a bit random, will be one of the latter. It’s a very Truffaut film, inasmuch as it’s seamlessly put together. But it’s also slightly odd in some respects. There are, for instance, a lot of long shots, and landscape shots, neither of which Truffaut normally uses. And there are the anachronisms. Two English Girls is a period piece set at the start of the twentieth-century and yet in one shot, quite deliberately, the two sisters are on the beach and plain on the horizon are – oil platforms? electricity pylons? I’m not sure. But whatever they are, they definitely didn’t exist in 1902. And in the opening scene, one of the young girls on the swing has quite visible orthodontic braces. And yet… the eponymous characters are well-drawn, and if Jean-Pierre Léaud, who plays the young Frenchman who becomes a de facto brother, and then lover of one, seems to act his role somewhat stiffly and with little visible emotion, his voice-over – text from the novel from which the film was adapted? – helps chart his character. It all felt very DH Lawrentian, which is no bad thing to my mind, but with an undercurrent of stiffness that is entirely foreign to Lawrence’s stories and prose… You know, I think Two English Girls might be one of the Truffauts I watch several times…

Endless Poetry, Alejandro Jodorowsky (2016, Chile). This film follows on directly from The Dance of Reality (see here), as it covers Jodorowsky’s early twenties, when he moved to Santiago and became part of a group of artists and poets. Jodorowsky is played one of his sons. Another son plays his father, as he did in the previous film,, which no doubt says all sorts of Freudian things, especially given that Jodorowsky himself makes several appearances, as himself, to give his young self advice– but what am I saying? Any Freudian who read any of Jodorowsky’s bandes dessinées would probably wet themselves at the stuff he puts in them. Endless Poetry is, like the earlier film, a succession of incidents in Jodorowsky’s life, centred as it was at that time on poetry. But after his parents’ shop burns down, and they lose everything, Jodorowsky consults Nicanor Parra (an important Latin American poet, now 102 years old!), but dissatisfied with his advice, Jodorowosky decides to leave Chile for France, in order to “save surrealism”. Leading to one of the film’s most powerful scenes, where Jodorowsky’s father confronts him on the jetty, the two argue, and separate unreconciled… only for Jodorowsky himself to appear and have the two play out how, in hindsight, he wished the encounter had gone… which involves twentysomething Jodorowsky shaving his father’s beard and head, so he resembles one of the male/female characters which appear in several of his comics. Jodorowsky then steps onto a boat, which backs out to sea – although it’s obviously heading towards the camera but the film is running in reverse, and which seems an entirely fitting end to a pair of movies which have charted Jodorowsky’s beginnings, as a child and as a poet, while also recapitulating his entire career. I’ll admit I had previously considered Jodorowsky a director notable more for the weirdness of his vision than as a maker of good films. (And I’m a fan of his sf bandes dessinées too.) But The Dance of Reality and Endless Poetry really are very good films, and it’s a shame Jodorowsky had to resort ot crowdfunding to finance them. Hopefully, he won’t need to for his next one. Perhaps he might even try making a sf film…

The Lesson, Kristina Grozeva & Petar Valchanov (2014, Bulgaria). I think I saw a trailer for this on another rental, and it looked worth watching. Which, happily, proved to be the case. A teacher in a town in Bulgaria translates documents on the side to make ends meet. Her husband has a camper van he is trying to sell, but he can’t get it working. One day, someone in her class steals some money, but no one will admit to the deed, or return the money when given the opportunity to do so anonymously. Then a repossession agent turns up at the teacher’s home and tells her they’re in arrears and the bank will auction off the house in three days – because the husband spent the mortgage payment money on a gearbox for his crappy caravanette. Then the translation company, which owes the teacher money, starts dragging its feet on paying her… and so she’s forced to go to a loan shark for the money to pay off the bank. (And then, after she’s made payment and returned to the school, the repossession agent rings to tell her he miscalculated and she owes a further 1.37 lev… which she has to borrow from a bus conductor on her way to the bank… but even that’s not enough because there’s a bank fee on top for the additional payment… and so she’s forced to scoop out coins from a good luck fountain.) At which point, the translation company declares bankruptcy, and the owner runs off with the money, so now the teacher can’t pay off the loan shark… The ending comes as no real surprise, but the build-up is cleverly done. Nor is the behaviour of the bankers and the loan shark all that much of a surprise, although they are disappointingly too much bastards. In fact, the teacher’s situation is pretty much created by the actions of total bastards – her husband, the owner of the translation company, the bank, the loan shark… Nevertheless, worth seeing.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 876