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Reading diary, #44

Having found myself no longer enjoying genre fiction as much as I once did, I went and read a load of it – four science fiction books and one fantasy novel. The lone mainstream is by a Norwegian writer, and I doubt I’ll be bothering with any more books by him.

memoirs_spacewomanMemoirs of a Spacewoman, Naomi Mitchison (1962, UK). One from my Women’s Press SF collection and read for review on SF Mistressworks – see here. It felt more fabulist than science-fictional, with a chatty narrator and an almost childish approach to genre trope, although the book is anything but childish. The prose is a good deal sharper than is typical of the genre, but not, it must admitted, of the novels published under the Women’s Press SF imprint. I’d like to read more Mitchison, I think, and her The Corn King and the Spring Queen (1931) is, according to Wikipedia, “regarded by some as the best historical novel of the 20th century”.

rimrunnersRimrunners, CJ Cherryh (1989, USA). Also read for SF Mistressworks, although the review has yet to appear there. I’ve always been a fan of Cherryh’s writing, and have been reading her books since first stumbling across them in the early 1980s. She used to be ubiquitous in the UK back then, you’d see a dozen or so titles in your local WH Smith, back when WH Smith was better known for selling books than selling stationery. I’ve got quite a few Cherryh first editions, some of them signed. When I lived in the UAE, I used to order her books from Amazon as soon as they appeared, and I’ve been half-heartedly collecting her ever since. I really ought to see about completing the collection – but the science fiction only, I’m not interested in the fantasy novels.

marauderMarauder, Gary Gibson (2013, UK). I’ve known Gary for a couple of decades now, and I’ve been buying his books and reading them right from the start. Marauder is a return to the universe of Stealing Light (2007), Nova War (2009) and Empire of Light (2010), and is in part an extension of that trilogy’s plot. Gary does some things very well, sometimes a little too well, and that can result in him over-doing it. And the thing he does well is: scale. These are stories that cover thousands of light years, that throw out mentions of histories going back millions of years. But this sense of scale is also one of the things that really annoyed me about Marauder… and which also fed into some thoughts I’ve been having recently about science fiction in general. The title refers to a vast starship from a machine civilisation – so we’re in Fred Saberhagen, Greg Benford and Alastair Reynolds territory here – which once aided a civilisation hundreds of thousands of years before and raised its tech level substantially in a short period of time. Meanwhile, in the recent past, the Three Star Alliance has had to hand over its FTL starships to the Accord, a much larger and more powerful human polity, because the FTL nova drive is also the deadliest weapon known to humanity, the nova mine. This seriously pisses off the plutocrats who run the TSA and they decided to try and negotiate with the Marauder, having figured out where it is, for some of that ancient high tech. The pilot on their mission is Megan, a machine-head (ie, she has implants), and the leader of the expedition uses her best friend as a conduit to speak to the Marauder, burning out his brain in the process. The mission is a failure and the Marauder destroys their starship. Megan manages to escape. Some years later, her new ship is hijacked by the same people (who, it seems, were eventually rescued), because they’re determined to try again. Meanwhile, there’s Gabrielle, who has been born for a specific purpose and now, aged twenty-one, it has come upon her: she must go to the Magi (another ancient alien race with FTL, now extinct) starship which crashed on her planet, Redstone, and try to eke more technological goodies out of its AI’s databanks for her theocratic regime. This is all good stuff, and the two plots not only slot together pleasingly but there’s a nice twist that serves to tighten the links between them. It’s all good space opera, but sometimes the vast distances feel a bit too much and the sense of scale sort of fades from 3D to 2D, if you know what I mean. But that over-egging of scale is also what spoiled the novel for me, as mentioned earlier. Gabrielle, it transpires, is important to the TSA’s return visit to the Marauder. But they can’t just invite her along, because of her role in the theocracy. So they kidnap her. But they don’t just send in a special forces team and abduct her. No, they arrange for something – a huge starship carrying antimatter – to crash into the planet and cause a tsunami which kills tens of millions of people, just so they can kidnap Gabrielle in the confusion and hope everyone assumes she died in the disaster. This is one of the things that pissed me off about Leviathan Wakes, and why I’ve never read further in the series. Seriously, killing tens of millions of innocent people just to kidnap one? WTF? I find it hard to believe someone would consider that a defensible plan. I get that the leaders of the TSA are desperate (and, from their later actions, it must be said, also unbelievably psychopathic; but even with the Accord running things, they’d still be rich and powerful, so why behave like monsters?), but when your story covers millions of years and thousands of light years there’s a tendency to upscale the villains too. And I think that’s not only wrong, it also feeds into the whole right-wing mindset of science fiction. Good sf is not about extraordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, it’s about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances – and that includes the villains too. Science fiction needs to scale back on the bodycounts and fascism, otherwise it’s just one of the many things in popular culture normalising such behaviour.

rubiconRubicon, Agnar Mykle (1965, Norway). My mother found this in a charity shop somewhere, and asked me if I’d be interested, I said go on then, so she bought it and gave it to me. And… Well, after going on a rant about normalising fascism, Mykle sets a quarter of his novel in your actual Nazi Germany of 1939 and doesn’t manage more than a handful of back-handed criticisms. True, the book is more about the narrator’s home circumstances, from which he is fleeing, and his romantic ideas about Paris, and clearly positioned as comedy – there’s even a scene in which he encounters a French toilet for the first time. The narrator is painted as part-naïf part-idiot part-bumpkin, and while his romantic misconceptions provide a good base for some of the humour, some of it is also a bit too, well, adolescent, male adolescent. Mykle died in 1994, and his last novel was… Rubicon – chiefly, it seems, because of the controversy caused by an earlier novel, 1957’s The Song of Red Ruby (which resulted in an obscenity trial in Norway). I’m tempted to have a go at that controversial novel – secondhand copies in English seem to be readily available – but I can’t say that Rubicon motivates me to track down a copy. Rubicon is a well-crafted novel, with a good control of voice, but it all felt a bit meh to me. Incidentally, inside the book I found an Air France boarding card dated January 1978. It’s not the oldest bookmark I’ve found in a book. I found one once dated 1945…

elegy_angelsThe Graveyard Heart / Elegy for Angels and Dogs, Roger Zelazny / Walter Jon Williams (1964/1990, USA). I have almost a complete set of the Tor doubles, which I started collecting after finding half a dozen of the early ones in a remainder book shop in Abu Dhabi. I’m not convinced there’s been a consistent editorial agenda with this series – which topped out at 36 books in two years – given that earlier volumes were just two novellas back-to-back (tête-bêche, to be precise), but that was dropped in favour of printing both the same way up, as if it were an anthology of two stories. Some of the later ones also featured classic novellas with modern sequels by another hand, as this one does. ‘The Graveyard Heart’ by Roger Zelazny is from 1964. ‘Elegy for Angels and Dogs’, a direct sequel, is from 1990. To be honest, I’ve never really understood the appeal of Zelazny’s fiction. He’s reckoned to be one of science fiction’s great wordsmiths, and while he may be a great deal better at stringing a sentence together than many of his peers, I’ve never really understood why his prose is held in such high regard. It’s… okay. And in ‘The Graveyard Heart’, some of it is actively bad. In the novella, a subset of the jet set, a group of rich young party animals sleep in cryogenic suspension for most of the year, and only appear for exclusive and expensive social events. They are the Party Set. So while they live the sort of life capitalist society continues to valourise, they also travel forward through time, experiencing years in subjective weeks. But then one of them is murdered and… yawn. Dull murder-mystery in totally unconvincing setting ensues. Williams’s sequel moves the action forward a couple of centuries, tries to show the changes in Earth society the Party Set are missing (and that does, in fact, drive part of the plot), but also throws in a couple of murders for good measure. The result is something which isn’t sure how direct a sequel it should be. It’s more inventive than its inspiration, the language is plainer and better for it, but its lack of focus tells against it. Both are no more than average.

lord_slaughterLord of Slaughter, MD Lachlan (2012, UK). I bought the first book of this series, Wolfsangel (2010), at a convention after meeting the author, and got it signed. But I’ve been continuing with the series, despite my general apathy toward fantasy, and especially urban fantasy, because they’re actually bloody good. They’re more like historical novels, but based on Norse mythology and featuring werewolves. This one is set in Constantinople during the reign of, I think, Basileios II, 953 – 1025 BCE, certainly an  emperor of that name appears in the book. A wolfman sneaks into the emperor’s tent just after a battle and asks the emperor to kill him. Instead, he takes him prisoner, and throws him into the Numera, Constantinople’s chief prison. Somewhere in the caves under the Numera is the well of knowledge, from which Odin drank, and for the privilege he paid with an eye. And that’s how the story plays out. Aspects of Odin, hidden in two of the characters, along with aspects of the three Norns, all descend on the well, while chaos rages in Constantinople. Because the Norns want Fenrir released so he will kill Odin, but Odin is not ready to die just yet and is happy for his aspects to be reborn throughout history, all with a vague desire to cause death and destruction. The story’s told from a variety of viewpoints, some of which are instrumental in the final showdown, some of which are just enablers. The setting is convincing, and if the characters have a tendency to blur into one another a little, it doesn’t detract from the story. This is superior fantasy, assuming you can define historical novels with werewolves and Norse gods as fantasy. And why not. There’s a fourth book available in the series, Valkyrie’s Song, which I plan to buy and read. Good stuff.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 129


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Moving pictures 2017, #6

This was going to be a post without a US film… But I had to do a bit of juggling after realising that  I’m going to have watch The Name of a River again, which is a sort of drama-documentary about Ritwik Ghatak’s films, before I can write about it. So I bounced that film into my next post, and pulled Midnight Special into this one… and spoiled my entirely non-US run. Oh well.

baaxzBaaz, Guru Dutt (1953, India). I do like me some Dutt, but I wish there were decent transfers of his films available. Yes, they’re over sixty years old, and Bollywood has not been as assiduous in preserving old films as Hollywood has – and Hollywood has been far from perfect in that regard anyway. In fact, no one has, to be fair: just think of all those TV series from the 1940s and 1950s the BBC went and erased… But Dutt’s works are definitely worth restoring, although as far as I know none of his work has been earmarked for restoration. True, I’d sooner Ritwik Ghatak’s entire oeuvre was restored and made available first, but Dutt would be my second choice for such a project. Having said that, Baaz is perhaps the most disappointing of Dutt’s films I’ve seen so far, and that’s chiefly because it’s an historical movie. It’s set in the sixteenth century, when the Portugese had conquered parts of India, and is in most respects a swashbuckling tale recast locally. Yes, I know, not an entirely fair description as it’s based on the real history of India. But Dutt’s genius lay in his ability to reshape Western movie templates to suit an Indian audience. And that’s what he has done here. The local Portugese potentate is a nasty piece of work who cracks down on local traders. A handsome prince, played by Dutt himself, is sent to Portugal for tutoring, but is captured en route by a local firebrand turned pirate, the daughter of an imprisoned merchant, the two fall in love, and the story falls out precisely as you would expect. This is not a brilliant print, although that’s unsurprising for an Indian film more than sixty years old. And the production is occasionally of its time – in one scene, Dutt and his lover ride a horse along a beach… over the tyre tracks left by the film crew’s vehicle. This is not Dutt’s best film, probably one for completists, but I’ve yet to find any evidence to contradict his label as “India’s Orson Welles”…

marketa_lazarovaMarketa Lazarová*, František Vláčil (1967, Czech Republic). I watched this twice before sending it back to LoveFilm, and now I’m tempted to buy the Second Run František Vláčil box set because I think it’s a film that bears, if not requires, rewatching. The film is set in the Middle Ages, and opens with a group of bandits attacking a caravan travelling through the countryside in winter, in deep snow, in fact. They slaughter most of the caravan but take one hostage, the son of the Bishop of Hennau (not a Catholic bishop, then), although the bishop himself escapes. The plot then dives off into an attempt by a troop from the king to wipe out the bandits, and it’s not until half an hour into the film before the title character appears. She’s the daughter of a local, and the son of the bandit chief falls in love with her. It’s not worth giving a plot summary, not because it’s especially complicated but because the bits don’t quite join up – you can get a full summary on Wikipedia. The fact the story seems more like a group of characters blundering from one plot to another doesn’t actually detract from the film, and, if anything, adds to the chaotic nature of the time and place it depicts. The movie is brutal, in the way that many films about the Middle Ages are, and uncomprising in its depiction of greed, corruption and all the baser instincts of humanity. In parts, it reminds me of similar films I’ve seen, including Vláčil’s own The Valley of the Bees, but also in some weird way Aleksei German’s Hard to be a God. Marketa Lazarová‘s stark black and white cinematography, like in the other two films, suits the material well, especially given it takes place entirely in winter, with deep snow on the ground. And now I’ve been thinking about this film as I write this, I’m even more inclined to get that box set…

hometownPickpocket, Jia Zhangke (1997, China). The second film in the Hometown trilogy box set and, I have to admit, these films are proving a little disappointing after Jia’s A Touch of Sin and 24 City. Like Unknown Pleasures – and, I later found, PlatformPickpocket follows a group of disaffected young people in an industrial town in north China. In this case, it’s mostly the title character, who ran with a gang of pickpockets as a teen but now just drifts aimlessly about while his peers are all settling down (such as the one who gets married, but doesn’t invite Xiao Wu, the title character, and the film’s alternative title, to the wedding celebration; and Xiao Wu is incensed when he finds out). Xiao Wu enters into a half-hearted relationship with a prostitute, but she soon drops him for someone with more of a future. Eventually, Xiao Wu, who has refused to change his ways, is arrested for theft, and it seems his punishment will be especially harsh. Pickpocket is Jia’s first feature-length movie, shot on 16mm, and with an amateur cast. None of that can be held against it, even though it lacks the crisp cinematography, and the more expansive eye, of his later films. But its biggest flaw is, I think, the fact it’s a glum film. That didn’t seem quite so bad when watching Unknown Pleasures, perhaps because that film had a bit life to it, if only from the Mongolian King beer marketing events with the singing and dancing, and some of its characters felt a little more lively. Jia is definitely a name worth watching, and I’m keen to see his latest, 2015’s Mountains May Depart, which, because this country is so shit, is not yet available here…

jaujaJauja, Lisandro Alonso (2014, Argentina). I saw a trailer for this on a rental DVD and stuck it on my list as it looked like it might be interesting. And so it was. It’s an Argentine/Danish co-production, and stars Viggo Mortensen as a Danish cartographer in Patagonia in the 1880s. He is there with his teenage daughter, and the lieutenant of the local Argentine army detachment has designs on her. But she’s already in love with a soldier. She runs off with him into the desert because the soldier has been dared to provide proof that a missing officer, Zuluaga, is now leading a troop of bandits. Mortensen heads off in pursuit to rescue his daughter. Eventually he meets an old woman living in a cave, and it seems she is his daughter. As can undoubtedly be seen from the DVD cover art, Jauja looks very distinctive. The aspect ration is almost square, with rounded-off corners, and the colour palette has been clearly heightened. There’s also an odd theatrical aspect to the staging of each scene, even though almost all of the film takes place out in the country, either in the Patagonian desert or among the rocks by the shore of… a lake? the ocean? I enjoyed this. It was nicely weird and had some lovely photography. Worth seeing.

fedoraFedora, Billy Wilder (1978, Germany). I bought this as a Christmas present for my mother since Sunset Boulevard is one of her favourite films and this is a belated sequel to it. And even then, despite the similar topic, and the shared presence of both Wilder and William Holden, there isn’t all that much in Fedora that’s an actual sequel of Sunset Boulevard, if anything it’s more of a reboot that shares a similar plot. For a start, it’s set in Europe, rather than Hollywood… although that may well have unintended. Hollywood wasn’t too keen on financing the film, so it was made with Germany money and a pan-European cast… and has pretty much been forgotten since its release. There’s also the fact it’s not all that good. The title refers not to a hat but to a Garbo-esque movie star who inexplicably retired some years before, after a long and illustrious career in which she never apparently aged, and who now lives in seclusion on a Greek island. Fedora opens with news reports of her death – she had thrown herself in front of a train. The film then goes straight into extended flashback, as William Holden, a film producer desperate for a break, tries to arrange a meeting with Fedora so he can persuade her to sign up to his new film project. The two had briefly been lovers back in the 1940s. Holden beards Fedora in the local town. She seems distracted, almost skittish, and tells him she is a virtual prisoner of the Countess Sobryanski, an old woman confined to a wheelchair. The secret to Fedora’s agelessness is not hard to guess, although the fact the plot hinges on Fedora’s affair with Michael York, played by himself, feels more like it belongs in a comedy than a serious drama. I enjoyed the film, but it seems one hell of a come-down for Billy Wilder.

midnight_specialMidnight Special, Jeff Nichols (2016, USA). Annoyingly, I can’t find a copy of the UK DVD cover art for this anywhere online, and even Amazon has the Blu-ray cover art on its DVD page. I’ve seen mixed reviews of the film online, either 1-star or 5-stars, no inbetween, and that’s from film critics in newspapers not your average punter on Amazon. And I can see why it’s polarised opinion, because it’s an essentially daft story that actually looks pretty compelling. And yes, that final reveal is impressive, although it did remind me a bit too much of Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland: A World Beyond. Basically, a young boy is being chased across the US by the members of an evangelical cult and the FBI. He is with his father, and a friend of his father, a state trooper. The cultists want him because they think he can see the future, and the FBI want him because he apparently has access to secret spy satellites. This is because he has magical – perhaps even alien – powers and he can shine blue light out of his eyes. He can also make satellites crash to earth. For much of its length, Midnight Special is a taut thriller with some neat, if not entirely comprehensible, special effects. As the film progresses, the boy reveals he isn’t human and is a member of a race who live “elsewhere” and have been watching humanity for a very long time. (I don’t recall an explanation for why he has a human father, though.) As each group of chasers closes in on the boy – there’s a FBI agent who goes rogue, as well – and at one point the cultists manage kidnap the boy, but the father soon get him back… As they all converge, everything all comes to a head. And, well, I won’t say “everything is revealed”, although it is, sort of, but the resolution does very little to explain the world of the film. I don’t think Midnight Special deserves much of the praise heaped upon it, but I think it’s an above-average film of its type.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 847


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Moving pictures 2017, #5

I’d say this time it was an odd mix of movies, but I’m pretty sure that applies to most of the film posts I’ve been sticking up here…

4_months4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Cristian Mungiu (2007, Romania). After being embarrassed by a Romanian friend at not having seen any films from his country, I’ve now seen three in the space of a couple of months. And I’d be hard-pressed to pick the best of those three. It’s not only that all three are excellent films – the other two, for the record, were 12:08 East of Bucharest and The Death of Mr Lazarescu – but they all tell stories of importance: about the collapse of the Ceauşescu regime, the pressure the Romanian public health system finds itself under, and, in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the Ceauşescu regime’s handling of abortion. (And no, I don’t consider abortion a sensitive or offensive topic, I consider the choice a right all women should have; on the day I can grow a foetus inside me, then I’ll be qualified to decide whether it is a good thing or a bad thing.) 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is set in the 1980s. A student at university is pregnant and needs to have an abortion. But it is illegal in Romania. She enlists the help of her room-mate, and the two track down someone who is willing to do it secretly for money. He gives them a series of instructions. They manage to screw them up – they book a room in the wrong hotel, they don’t have enough money, they lie about how long the woman has been pregnant… However, while the abortionist’s increasingly offensive demands on the two young women are, well, offensive, what is also scary about 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is the invasive control the Ceauşescu regime had on the daily lives of Romanians. The Ceauşescus were overthrown in 1989 – I was in my early twenties then, and remember it on the news. But I’ve never asked my Romanian friends what they remember of it – they’re younger than me, true, but not too young; and they lived it. Movies like 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days are important in that they are a window on bad times, and keep the horror of them alive in the hope that no one is daft enough to bring them back. A decade or from now, I suspect there will be a fuckton of films made about the Trump years in the US.

alfredo_garciaBring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia*, Sam Peckinpah (1974, USA). This was apparently a critical and commercial failure on its release, but has since become a cult favourite, so much so it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – but I’m not convinced any “critical re-appraisal” in the years since 1974 justifies a place on the list. The title character is – off-stage – the preferred heir of a Mexican jefe, but he deflowers the jefe’s daughter and flees when her pregnancy is discovered. The jefe issues the titular order. A pair of, it must be said, somewhat effete US goons stumble across ex-GI bar-piano-player Warren Oates, who happens to know Garcia. Oates decides to try for the reward on Garcia’s head himself, a task made easier when he discovers that Garcia died in a car crash and is now buried in a country graveyard. So, with girlfriend in tow, he heads off to find Garcia’s grave, intending to dig him up, cut off his head, and take it to the jefe to claim the reward. Needless to say, it does not go as smoothly as planned. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is, quite frankly, a B-movie – it looks like a B-movie, it plays like a B-movie. True, I’ve yet to be convinced of the genius of Peckinpah, but I can see why Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia flopped on release. In many respects, it feels like a made-for-TV movie, with its stock footage and stock villains, although it is considerably more graphically violent than any US television network would allow. I think you have to be a fan of a particular type of film, which I am not, as should be blindingly evident from the movies I document in these Moving picture posts, to appreciate something like Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, or even to hold it in any kind of positive regard. I have watched films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die which I have subsequently purchased for my own collection, and even some where I’ve purchased everything by the director for my own collection. I won’t be doing that for Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Even if Arrow have recently released a remastered limited edition Blu-ray of the film…

naked_spurThe Naked Spur*, Anthony Mann (1953, USA). This film isn’t available on DVD in the UK, not for rent or for sale, but fortunately, one evening, while flicking through cable channels I found it playing on TCM… So I watched it. Jimmy Stewart plays a bounty hunter determined to capture murderer Robert Ryan and bring him to justice in Abilene, Kansas. He misrepresents himself as a sheriff to an old prospector and an ex-Cavalry soldier, and the three succeed in capturing Ryan. The four, plus Janet Leigh, the daughter of an old friend of Ryan, who had been with Ryan, set off for Abilene. En route, Ryan does his best to undermine Stewart, break up the group and so engineer his escape. And that’s pretty much it – a bunch of cowboys bitching at each other for 91 minutes. Well, except for the last act, where Ryan does escape but dies crossing a river swollen by floods. There are a lot of Westerns on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I can understand that they’re the closest the US gets to a homegrown mythology, and a handful of Western films are bona fide cinema classics but… I’m not convinced this is one of them. There are Western films which mythologise the landscape, there are Western films which have had their story patterns followed by many other Westerns… And while The Naked Spur certainly puts a novel spin on your average Western story, I don’t think that’s enough – despite the presence of Jimmy Stewart – to make this more than just above average. Perhaps a fan of Western films could explain to me why The Naked Spur is one of the 1001 films a person must see.

satyajit_ray_3The Home and the World, Satyajit Ray (1984, India). And that’s The Satyajit Ray Collection volume 3 box set completed, and while I consider fellow Bengali Ritwik Ghatak a genius film-maker, I’m still unconvinced Satyajit Ray is no more than a very, very good one – albeit considerably more prolific. He is, I suppose, an Ingmar Bergman rather than an Andrei Tarkovsky. Which is not to say that neither Bergman nor Ray did not make superior films. But there is more than just their respective positions in my own mental map of world cinema that the two have in common. Like Bergman, many of Ray’s films are theatrical. This is one of them. It is set almost entirely in the home of a Bengali noble in 1907, just after the 1905 Partition of Bengal. A UK-educated noble tries to introduce Western ideas into his home, and into his dealings with his wife, on his return home. But this opens her up to the fiery independence rhetoric of the nobleman’s best friend… which leads to a romantic triangle between the three. Since the marriage was arranged, the noble allows his wife her emotional freedom… which, of course, because this is how such stories pan out, pushes her back toward her husband. The film is based on a novel by Rabindranath Tagore, a prolific Bengali writer, who Ray adapted on a number of occasions. I really need to try reading some Tagore. As for the film, it sets up a fascinating situation, but it slowly settles out into a somewhat stereotypical romantic triangle. On the whole, I don’t think this volume 3 has been of as high quality as volume 1… which does make me wonder what volume 2 will be like and why I bought volume 3 before I bought volume 2…

memoriesMemories of Underdevelopment*, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea (1968, Cuba). I rented this film from Cinema Paradiso, but a week after sending it back, and when it came to write this post, I decided I needed to watch it again. So I had a look on Amazon and discovered it was one of four films in Mr Bongo’s 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution box set. The box set also included Lucía, which I already own, but that was no problem, I could give my copy away. So I ordered 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution… The following morning, I remembered I had 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution on my LoveFilm (ie, Amazon) rental list. Oops. I’d better remove it. Too late! As luck would have it, they’d dispatched a film from the box set with my next set of rental DVDs. And it just happened to be… Memories of Underdevelopment. Oh well. Both copies of the film arrived on the same day, but I watched the one I’d bought. And… on second viewing I thought it much better than I had first time around. This has happened before with some of the movies I’ve watched – the appreciating it more on second viewing thing, not the buying only to be sent it on rental as well thing, although to be honest the latter has happened once or twice before too. Anyway, Memories of Undevelopment follows an intellectual, a writer, as he tries to survive and make sense of the new Cuba post-revolution. It does this by focusing on his relationships with women – interspersed with some historical commentary and a long sub-plot about a friend who inherited a furniture store. As the film opens, Sergio’s wife has left him and fled to Miami to escape the revolution. Sergio has stayed. He is, to put it bluntly, something if a lecherous pig. He flirts with his young housekeeper, Hanna, and has a sexual fantasy about her adult baptism. He then meets aspiring actress Elena and seduces her. But her family are far from happy about this, especially since Elena is only sixteen (or seventeen). Sergio promises to marry her, but doesn’t so, he is arrested and charged with rape. I’m still not sure if Sergio’s relationships are intended to be allegories – Alea was apparently pro-revolution, and Memories of Underdevelopment is certainly critical of Cuba’s Spanish occupiers. Which does mean it’s a little hard to tell where the film’s sympathies lie. A negative stand seems too obvious a reading, but then a broadly positive critical reading doesn’t seem to fit either – in terms of the film’s response to the Cuban revolution, that is. Perhaps it needs another rewatch…

classic_bergmanDreams, Ingmar Bergman (1955, Sweden). Havng now seen four of the five films in this “Classic Bergman” box set I’m starting to wonder what “classic Bergman” actually is. After all, his most-celebrated film is The Seventh Seal, and that was made only two years after this one. And Bergman’s first film appeared in 1946 (he did not direct 1944’s Torment, only wrote the screenplay), and the earliest film in this box set is… well, 1946’s It Rains on Our Love, but the latest is 1958’s So Close to Life… Anyway, in Dreams, the owner of a model agency travels from Stockholm to Gothenburg for a commission with her most popular model, Doris. The model finds herself a sugar daddy in Gothenburg, while the agency owner has hooked up with an ex-lover (who turns out to be married). The film has all the ingredients of a typical Bergman film, and manages them all in a typically Bergman-esque fashion. I’ve said in the past that watching a Bergman film is like reading a story by a classic literary author. It’s a good story, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to be thinking about it for weeks afterwards. And this is one of Bergman’s films like that – which is why, I guess, it’s in a “Classic Bergman” box set, and not given a premier release, like Smiles of a Summer Night, also released the same year. True, an also-ran from Bergman is always going to be worth seeing, but this entire box sert has shown itself to be more for Bergman fans than cineastes.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 846


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Stinking, outworn, spaceship yarns

These last couple of days I’ve started working again on my space opera, A Want of Reason, the third book of my An Age of Discord trilogy. (Preceded by A Prospect of War and A Conflict of Orders.) Real life sort of got in the way throughout most of 2016, but now that 2017 is turning out so shit, writing space opera seems a good way to tune it out. Except…

When I originally started writing An Age of Discord, I’d planned to write a space opera using the narrative structure of an epic fantasy. But that wasn’t enough for me, so I started turning space opera tropes upside down to see how they played out. And I also completely buggered up the typical structure of an epic fantasy trilogy – by, for example, putting the Final Battle (TM) in the middle of book two… When I finished A Conflict of Orders back in 2007, I had A Want of Reason plotted out, but after failing to sell the trilogy, I put the project on the backburner.

But then I sold it. In late 2014. And I only had two books of the trilogy written.

In the seven years the trilogy has sat in my bottom drawer, I’d had plenty of time to think about that third book I’d never got around to writing. And the first thing I did on returning to it in 2015 was throw away the plot I’d worked out eight years before. I put together an entirely fresh synopsis for A Want of Reason, and started work on it. A lot had changed in the intervening years; I had changed, as had my tastes in fiction. Previously, the third book had simply uncovered the historical conspiracy underlying the events of the first two books, and explained its genesis. But that no longer interested me – or rather, I didn’t feel it was the core of my story. Now I wanted it to be about the inequalities baked into the typical space opera universe, and I wanted to burn them down and build something new. And that’s what I started writing…

This was back in 2015. I’d done some clean-up work on A Prospect of War and it was published in July 2015. I’d done the same to A Conflict of Orders, and it was published in October 2015. The plan was to write A Want of Reason – all 200,000 words of it – and publish it in March 2016. That didn’t happen. But I started work on the novel, before real life got in the way… And coming back to it this last week… It’s a little frightening how much of it predicts what’s happening in the US. When I wrote this 18 to 24 months ago, my intent was to make my space opera empire swing further to the right in response to a perceived threat (which remained unknown to most of the population). It’s an understandable response: when the bandits ride into town, everyone shutters their windows.

Bit the perception of that threat is an important element of such a response. In a space opera empire, typically feudal in nature, the bulk of the population get no choice in perception or response. But what I could do in my space opera was change the nature of the threat. Yes, it would bring the empire crashing down, but it would replace it with something much more equitable. I’d already presented that argument in A Conflict of Orders when I showed that the villain of the piece was motivated in his attempt to seize the empire’s throne by a desire to improve the lot of the empire’s serfs, or, as I called them, proletarians.

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But when you write about a centre-right government cracking down, even if it’s a space opera empire, you end up writing about the sort of crap that Trump has pulled over the last week. I care about politics – of course I do, it affects me in every fucking way – and I like to stay informed… but I was writing space opera and trying to make it more realistic politcially, it never occurred to me this shit would turn real.

Had things gone according to plan, A Want of Reason would have been published last year and everyone would be saying how prescient I was. That didn’t happen, so you only have my word for it that recent events in the real world have uncomfortably reflected events in the plot of A Want of Reason. And had I a recently finished book to sell, then this post might well be considered just another piece of self-promoting bollocks. But A want of Reason is not finished – far from it, in fact. I may have returned to it in the last couple of weeks, but there is still a lot of work to do before it’s ready. And, let’s face it, who’s going to remember this post a week from now, never mind nine to twelve months from now.

I suppose that if I have a point to make, it might as well be this: if you look to science fiction writers for predictions, and those so-called predictions come true, then we are all well and truly fucked. Science fiction has never been futurism, and every sf novel is more about the time it was written than the time it was published or set. When sf novels become just as much about the time they were published…it’s pretty much accident. But a scary accident. Okay, so Random Space Opera Agency in Jackboots doesn’t map precisely onto a real world analogue, so plot points don’t map onto Trump’s Executive Orders… but it doesn’t take a genius see where things are going, and the one thing you can say about sf authors is that they know their invented world better than anyone else on the planet (note: does not apply to shared world universes in which sad nerds are likely to have encyclopædic knowledge, such as SWEU).

If there is a upside to this it’s that space opera can be a useful commentary on the real world. Which is, I guess, a first. Perhaps it just has to wait for the right conditions in real life to pertain. Which is a bit of a fucker. After all, let’s not forget the role science fiction, or “fantastika”, played in the USSR. To put it bluntly, if space opera has become samizdat, then we are well and truly screwed.

And all this, I hasten to add, is post facto. The popularity of dystopias in, for example, YA fiction has bugger all to do with real world political situations, although it might well be predicated on generational feelings of powerlessness. But to claim that The Hunger Games is a “blueprint for resistance” is the act of an idiot.

I didn’t intend for An Age of Discord to reflect the real world as much as it has. It’s a space opera, FFS. The fact that is has done is extremingly worrying.

But it’s also one of those things where you fix the real world, not the space opera.

Remember that.


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Maintaining a positive balance on the TBR

I try to read more books than I buy each month – or buy less books than I read, I guess it depends on how you look at it. Otherwise, the To Be Read pile would just continue to grow, and it’s already stupidly large. And this month, I’ve actually been quite good, and not bought a silly number of books.

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Four recent sf novels. They were actually published in 2016, but I only got around to buying them this year. Pirate Utopia is the first novel-length work from Sterling since 2009’s The Caryatids (which I liked a lot). The Corporation Wars 2: Insurgence is the, er, second book in a trilogy. Daughter of Eden is the third book of a trilogy. And Survival Game is the sequel to 2014’s Extinction Game.

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The more astute among you may remember a Sursum Corda appearing in a previous book haul post. That was Volume 1. This is, er, Volume 1 and Volume 2. Because someone on eBay was selling both volumes at a good price, and I’d been having trouble finding a copy of the second volume (I think the first was published in Canada and the UK, but the second only in Canada). Malcolm Lowry’s Poetics of Space is the fourth book in the University of Ottawa’s critical series on Lowry’s work.

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Some bandes dessinées. The World of Edena started out as an advert for Citroën, but Moebius expanded and expanded it over the years. I wrote about it here. The Living Weapons is the fourteenth episode in the long-running Valerian and Laureline series, which I also wrote about here. There is a film adaptation by Luc Besson due for release, I think, later this year. I’m looking forward to seeing it.

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The Silent City is for the Women’s Press SF collection. I was pleased at how good condition it proved to be in, because with some of these eBay sellers you never can tell. I thought Ouředník’s Europeana very good indeed when I read it back in 2006, and though I thought his next, Case Closed, not quite as good, I still liked it a lot. So it was about time I picked up third book by him, The Opportune Moment, 1855, published in English by Dalkey Archive. And… I’ve just discovered he’s written nineteen books, in Czech and French, but only the three I have have been translated into English – and both Case Closed and The Opportune Moment, 1855 were actually originally published in the same year.


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Moving pictures 2017, #4

I’m still keeping to my resolution to watch more non-US films than US ones, but I’m not doing so well with my plan to actually watch less films – only a month into 2017 and I’m already on my fourth Moving pictures post. Oh well.

embraceEmbrace of the Serpent, Ciro Guerra (2015, Colombia). I found this free to view on Amazon Prime and put it on my watchlist. About a week later, it was recommended to me, so I moved it up my To Be Watched list… And I’m glad I did as it is very good indeed. In fact, it’s a serious contender for an updated version of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and would almost certainly make my own version of such a list. The film follows a split narrative, one set in 1909 and one in 1940. Their stories – indeed, the routes taken by the characters – are almost identical. The two are linked by one man, Karamakate, the sole survivor of an Amazonian tribe and a shaman. In 1909, he reluctantly helps a German ethnographer to find a sample of the semi-mythical sacred plant yakruna so that it might cure him of his illness. In 1940, an older Karamakate guides an American botanist to the location of the last surviving yakruna plant. The American claims he is only following in the German’s footsteps, but he actually wants to steal a sample of yakruna as it reputedly keeps rubber trees free of disease and the US is losing its access to sources of rubber thanks to Japanese successes in WWII’s Pacific theatre. Embrace of the Serpent is shot entirely in black-and-white, except for a colour sequence near the end which depicts the American’s drug trip after being fed some yakruna. It’s a very… Herzogian film. And I mean that as a compliment, a very great compliment. It looks fantastic, the cast are totally convincing, as indeed are the atrocities they witness – in both timelines – during their travels. Well, okay, maybe not so much the Brazilian self-styled messiah. But in telling its story, the film makes a number of important points – so much so, in fact, that the somewhat weak ending is entirely forgivable. Go watch it.

ducklingDon’t Torture a Duckling, Lucio Fulci (1972, Italy). I’ve watched a few of these giallos by now, although I still think of the genre as more thriller than horror, and Don’t Torture a Duckling falls more toward the latter than the former. A journalist covering the disappearance of a local boy in a small village notices the presence of an attractive and modish young woman, clearly not a villager, played by Barbara Bouchet, and learns she is the daughter of wealthy man who owns a house in the village, which he never uses, and to which she has been exiled after some scandal in the city. Then more boys in their early teens go missing, the two investigate, suspecting that something other than the witchcraft claimed by some villagers is the cause. Even when a woman claims responsibility for the disappearances (murders, that is, once the bodies are found), it turns out she thought she was guilty because she had stuck pins in voodoo dolls representing the victims… But the actual cause of their deaths is far more mundane and physical. Like all giallo, Don’t Torture a Duckling (I don’t actually recall the reason for the title) is all a bit fraught and over-emphatic. Even the gore – and this is apparently the first film in which Fulci used gory effects – is over-done, with the blood on the murder victims resemble scarlet nail polish more than it does actual blood. There are a few nods at an actual genre plot, with a number of suspects dragged in front of the viewer as the actual murderer, only for them to be almost immediately proven innocent. Even if you like giallo, or the films of, say, Dario Argento or Mario Bava, Don’t Torture a Duckling is not an especially memorable example. In fact, you’d be better off sticking to the films of Argento or Bava. Forgettable.

moniqueMonique, John Bown (1970, UK). I’m not sure how this found its way onto my rental list – I mean, “slap & tickle”? A 1970s British sex comedy? The concept alone makes me cringe. And yet, for all that, Monique proved to be pretty low-key and played more like a kitchen-sink drama than a Carry On film. I’m not saying it was a good film by any means – it was, after all, somewhat predictable, a bit dull, and quite dated. A dull and ordinary lower middle class family with two kids hires a French au pair to take care of said kids. As is the way in such films, the au pair is attractive and “sexually-liberated” (not that the phrase actually means anything – it’s really no more than code used by men who are afraid of independent women), and ends up in bed with the husband and the wife… and it all seems to work quite happily. To be honest, I don’t remember all that much: the eponymous au pair was good with the kids, kept both husband and wife happy and together, and it all looked very much a product of its time, without being sneering, prudish or prurient. If anything, Monique probably suffers because it’s lumped in with other films that have also been badged “slap & tickle”. It is, in the end, a somewhat dated but relatively sensitive domestic drama of middling quality.

two_daysTwo Days, One Night, Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne (2014, Belgium). I know the name Dardenne, although I had not thought I’d seen any films by the two brothers… until I checked by records and discovered I’d watched their The Kid with a Bike back in 2013, and had thought it pretty good. Despite that, I don’t remember why I added Two Days, One Night to my rental list as it’s not on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, although it is plainly a good film and worth seeing. Marion Cotillard’s character works for a small company which makes solar panels. When it comes time to return to work after suffering a nervous breakdown, she discovers that a manager had held a ballot in her absence and the workforce voted to accept a bonus rather than Cotillard returning to work, since Cotillard’s work had been picked up by others. But she needs her job, so she persuades the company to hold a second ballot, giving her the eponymous timeframe to persuade the other employees to vote to keep her. This is capitalism at work. A one-off bonus versus an employee’s salary? Of course the company will push for the former. And accepting the bonus is so short-sighted as well. Unless Cotillard had been completely useless – and it’s implied she was not – I would’nt have voted for her to lose her job myself, no matter what my circumstances or the size of the bonus. The film is predicated on the other workers voting against her – but its attempt to present good reasons for doing so do not convince. “We need the money” is not an excuse for shafting a fellow employee. Because, of course, the next such victim might well be yourself. And, quite frankly, I find it hard to believe a bonus of €1000 would be so persuasive to employees of a successful small firm in Belgium in 2014. None of which is to say that Two Days, One Night is a bad film. It’s put together very well, and Cotillard is especially good in the lead. The one brief moment of violence is shocking, if not entirely plausible; but it’s later offset by the humanity shown by one of the firm’s immigrant workers. I stumble over the movie’s premise, so I don’t think it belongs on any list of films you must see, but it’s certainly worth seeing.

satyajit_ray_3Deliverance, Satyajit Ray (1981, India). I discovered shortly after watching this that its star, Om Puri, had died a week into 2017. Watching Deliverance, made thirty-six years ago, Puri was very recognisable – he doesn’t seem to have changed much over the years. In Deliverance, he plays a humble shoemaker. He asks the village brahmin to set a propitious date for his daughter’s wedding, but the brahmin sets him a number of tasks to complete before giving his answer. Which essentially means Puri is performing unpaid labour. And that’s pretty much it for 75 minutes. (The short running time is because it was originally filmed for television.) Of the two great directors – or, at least, internationally-renowned directors – that Bengal produced, I still much Ritwik Ghatak’s work, even though that’s based on a smaller sample – three films, or a third of his oeuvre; compared to ten films out of 36… um, which works out at roughly a third for both, but never mind. And the two collections of Ray’s films that I’ve now watched… well, the most successful films in them have been historical, and typically either adaptations of novels or plays, which gives them something of a Bergman-esque sort of feel. And when that works, it works very well indeed. But when it’s lacking, the resulting film is not always entirely successful – much like Deliverance. Which, to me, felt like it tried to be several things at once but never quite succeeded at any. It wasn’t funny enough to be a comedy, its depiction of village life wasn’t entirely convincing, and its acting was dialled too high to convince as a Satyajit Ray film but not high enough to be a Bollywood film. I shall continue to explore Ray’s oeuvre – he was an important director, and fortunately much of his oeuvre is available to explore. Much as I enjoyed The Home and the World and The Public Enemy in this Ray collection, I think the films in the Satyajit Ray Collection Volume 1 were better. But get both, or indeed all three, just in case I’m wrong, anyway…

knight_of_cupsKnight of Cups, Terrence Malick (2015, USA). I have no idea whay I continue to watch Malick’s films. Okay, this was another free to view on Amazon Prime, but, seriously, life’s too short to sit through two hours of what pretty much resembles a perfume commercial with a breathless voiceover quoting from a variety of literary sources. It’s not as if it’s all in service to a plot, either. True, some of the cinematography is lovely, but Malick has developed a habit of swinging his camera right in close to a person’s face and then back out again, and it gets annoying fast. Christian Bale plays a successful Hollywood script writer who wanders around listlessly through several vignettes very loosely based on cards from the Tarot deck. He meets and has sex with several women, he gets into an argument with his father, he meets up with his brother and the two tell each other how their relationship works… And it’s all really dull and pretentious twaddle, and I continue to be mystified by the high regard in which Hollywood, and actors, holds Malick. Films are about more than pretty cinematography, and while I’m certainly a tart for it, I do ask for more that pretty pictures in the movies I appreciate and/or love. Hence my characterisation of Malick’s films as perfume adverts. It’s pretty people behaving in ways that do not make sense while living a lifestyle unavailable to 99% of the planet’s population. It is, to be honest, tosh. I think it’s time to swear off Malick. After The New World, I was prepared to give him a chance, but with To The Wonder and Knight of Cups, life is far too short to waste time watching such vacuous and pretentious twaddle.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 843


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Moving pictures 2017, #3

Why do I do it? I know superhero films are rubbish, and I know that watching them just irritates the shit out of me… but I still end up sticking them on my rental list. I suppose they’re easy films to watch drunk, and shouting at the screen can be reasonably entertaining when in that state – yes, yes, old man shouts at clouds, I know. But at least I’m doing it in the privacy of my own home…

xmen_apocalypseX-Men: Apocalypse, Bryan Singer (2016, USA). So Bryan Singer kicks off the X-Men franchise, with the smartest superhero movie seen up to that time and, to be fair, I think it still stands as one of the best examples of the genre even today. As does the sequel. But not the third; no, the third was shit. Then Singer tries to reboot Superman, but that doesn’t go too well. So he goes back and reboots the superhero franchise he kicked off in the first place: the X-Men. And I guess X-Men: First Class was sorta fun inasmuch as it spoofed the 1960s and the earlier X-Men movies, and the new cast, it must be said, were pretty good picks across the board. But the retconning of the X-Men universe was a bit weird, and the final showdown over the Cuban Missile Crisis was just plain stupid. That was followed by – oh dear – X-Men: Days of Future Past, which pretty much made recent human history, never mind the future, a by-product of a grudge match between Magneto and Professor X. And so we come to X-Men: Apocalypse… which has nothing to do with an apocalypse per se, although one is plainly on the cards, but is so called because Apocalypse is the name of a supervillain. Because if you’re a supervillain, you pick a name that’s as fucking world-ending as you can possibly get. Apocalypse is from Ancient Egypt, and we know this because that’s where the film opens. Inside a pyramid. Which is a temple. Except, as any fucking fule kno, the pyramids were tombs not temples. Apocalypse is having his mind transferred into the body of a mutant who, like Wolverine, can self-heal even fatal injuries. But it goes wrong, and Apocalypse and his supergoons are buried beneath the pyramid. Cut to present-day Cairo, and a CIA agent has tracked a member of an apocalyptic cult to a secret underground temple… Apparently, in some five thousand years, Apocalypse’s pyramid has become buried under tens of metres of bedrock, not that any pyramids were actually built on land that Cairo now covers… Never mind that Cairo in the 1980s, which is when this movie is set, was a pretty secular city and resembled a busy Western city way more than it did a North African shanty town. But there are prejudices to be reinforced here, and a peaceful and secular Middle East is not one of them. And after that, I pretty much lost the plot. Apocalypse is revived and tries to end the world, as you would if you had chosen that word as your supervillan moniker. The X-Men fight him. The X-Men’s mansion is completely destroyed. But they rebuild it later, brick for brick, using their superpowers. See, that’s what they should have done: the X-Builders. They’d have proven way more use to society as builders than prancing around in Spandex and levelling cities as collateral damage in some sort of superhero pissing contest.

hometownUnknown Pleasures, Jia Zhangke (2002, China). Jia became a name I planned to watch after seeing his 2013 film, A Touch of Sin. Happily, he has a back-catalague that is mostly available in the UK on DVD, including the three films in this Hometown trilogy DVD box set – Pickpocket, Platform and Unknown Pleasures. The last is set in Datong, an industrial city in north China, near the border with Inner Mongolia. Two young men have been doing nothing since they graduated from school. Bin Bin spends his time watching television with his girlfriend, Xiao Ji rides his motorbike around town. Then they meet Qiao Qiao, the singer/model spokesperson for Mongolian King Beer, and Xiao Ji enters into a relationship with her – which gets him into trouble with her gangster boyfriend. Bin Bin tries to join the army but fails the medical. In desperation, the two decide to rob a bank, but it goes badly wrong. Jia was apparently inspired by Datong’s many derelict buildings and factories, but then realised the streets were filled with people who were just as much victims and relics of faded past glories. It is not, to be brutally honest, an original concept in the slightest, and there are no doubt hundreds, if not more, films which have similar stories. But Jia’s film has a rawness – a consequence of shooting it on digital video in nineteen days – which US movies, independent or Hollywood, typically lack. (Plus, I like watching films set in other parts of the world.) Despite the speed with which it was put together, Unknown Pleasures is a tight story, with an escalating plot, that opens by documenting the aimlessness of Bin Bin and Xiao Jia, ramps up when an explosion partly destroys a local textile mill, and then deepens the two characters’ troubles when Qiao Qiao’s boyfriend has Xiao Ji beaten up. The final scenes of the film, with the bank robbery and its aftermath, just oozes despair. A good film, but not a cheery one.

everest_silenceThe Epic of Everest, JBL Noel (1924, UK). George Mallory made two attempts to reach the summit of Everest, the first in 1922, the second in 1924 – which forms the subject of this film – and, during this later attempt, he disappeared while trying for the peak. Not that the film makes a secret of it, mentioning on an intertitle 35 minutes in that he and fellow climber Irvine “were to meet their deaths”. Mallory’s body was found in 1999, but it’s still not known whether he made it to the summit. He might well have done, beating Edmund Hilary and Sherpa Tenzing by twenty-eight years. It seems unlikely, however, as The Epic of Everest bluntly explains that the pair simply disappeared from sight while being watched from 4,000 feet below. What is undoubtedly remarkable is that Mallory’s expedition was filmed – although the cameras could not be taken higher than 23,000 feet. The cinematography, despite being black-and-white, despite, you imagine, the crudity of the equipment, is astonishing. Even the first twenty minutes, in which the expedition travels to Everest, visiting several Tibetan villages en route, is beautifully photographed. Once the expedition reaches the mountains and climbs above the snowline, it’s mostly shots of people standing around in front of tents pitched at the feet of great slopes of snow and ice, while tiny figures in the background trudge up a white incline. True, it’s the scenery which impresses more than anything else… until you remember it all took place ninety-three years ago, when motion pictures were only a couple of decades old, television would not appear for another decade, and even human flight had been first achieved only a quarter of a century earlier. This is your actual history, it’s like real time travel. Get yourself a copy – fittingly, it comes bundled with The Great White Silence, Ponting’s film of Scott’s failed attempt to reach the South Pole…

world_cinemaRedes, Emilio Gómez Muriel & Fred Zinneman (1936, Mexico). This is the last of the films in the Martin Scorcese World Cinema Project Volume 1 box set – can we have a volume 2, please? Anyway, Redes… The title apparently means “fishing nets”, but the English title is given as “The Waves”. It’s a documentary-style semi-fictional story of a Mexican fishing village in the 1930s, and for the time it was made it’s an astonishingly accomplished piece of work. Watching Redes, it’s hard not to be reminded of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and the same sense of futility underlies the movie’s story, as the fishermen’s livelihood is threatened by a capitalist entrepreneur who owns the boat and sets the prices for the fish. When one fisherman’s son dies because he cannot afford healthcare (and this is in 1936, remember, not 2017), the fisherman persuades his fellows to revolt. Apparently, this is not a story that goes down well in some quarters in the US, much like the excellent Salt of the Earth from 1954 didn’t (especially with Pauline Kael), and I’ve seen an online review of Redes which accuses it of being Communist propaganda and then looks for faults to pick in the film-making and acting… It’s true Redes shares many characteristics with Italian neorealism, although it predates it by a number of years, but it seems the height of hypocrisy to praise those characteristics in an Italian neorealist film but condemn them in Redes. Bah. This is an excellent film, watch it. More, it’s only one of the films in a truly excellent box set, which any self-respecting cineaste should own.

garden_of_wordsThe Garden of Words, Makoto Shinkai (2013, Japan). David Tallerman told me to stick this on my rental list, but he’d neglected to mention it was anime. Although, to be fair, I should have known anyway, as I’ve seen Shinkai’s earlier Voices of a Distant Star. And while I tend to associate anime with alien invasion- and mecha-type stories, such as the excellent Neon Evangelion series, which is, er, both, I should know that it’s not always sf, it’s not always about giant robots or aliens… Especially since it’s the ones that are not genre, like Only Yesterday, Ocean Waves and From Up On Poppy Hill, that I like best of Studio Ghibli’s output. The animation in The Garden of Words is really quite gorgeous – it doesn’t have that painterly element that so drew me to Only Yesterday, but instead an almost photo-realist aspect that, at times, seemed to improve on nature. A schoolboy ducks his lessons to draw shoes, as he plans to be a shoe designer, at a park in Tokyo. In the pagoda he normally frequents, he meets a woman in her twenties, and the two become friends. He learns she was a teacher at his school, but had resigned after being bullied. The pair’s friendship is helpful to each of them, but it comes to an acrimonious end.  They forgive each other, but go their separate ways. This was better than I had expected, and way better than I had expected once I realised it was anime. I will be exploring more of Shinkai’s oeuvre, I think.

eye_in_the_skyEye in the Sky, Gavin Hood (2015, UK). I remember seeing this advertised on the sides of buses a year or two ago, and I vaguely recall hearing goodish things about it, so when it popped up free to view on Amazon Prime, I took the oportunity to watch it. And yes, it’s… mostly good. It takes a a difficult topic and tries to give an objective take on it. The only problem is, it tries to make a moral grey area out of something that is pretty much black and white. The British have tracked half a dozen Al-Shabaab (a real Jihadist group) leaders to a house in an Al-Shabaab-controlled suburb of Nairobi. Some of the leaders are Brits, one is an American. The UK government plans to take them out, by firing a Hellfire missile from a Reaper drone, piloted by a crew in Nevada. But then a young girl from a neighbouring house sets up a table to sell bread within the blast radius of the Hellfire and… Pretty much the entire movie is arguments for and against the legality of killing a small brown girl in an attack on known and wanted terrorists – and just to make sure everyone knows they’re terrorists, two of them are filmed preparing suicide bomber vests by a tiny camera drone disguised as a beetle… As far as the US government is concerned: hell, what’s one little brown girl to them? They’ve killed plenty already. (To be fair, it’s the US drone pilot who derails the mission when he demands a second “collateral damage assessment” because of the presence of the girl.) The Brits are considerably less eager to cause her death, I mean, kill her, and look for ways to save her, even if it jeopardises the mission’s objectives. Of course, what the film glosses over is the entire edifice on which the film rests: the law. They are looking for legal ways to murder people. The UK is not at war. Kenya is certainly not an enemy country. Terrorists may well be “the enemy”, but given that they’re not combatants of a nation against which the UK has declared war, it’s hard to see how they can be legally declared enemy combatants. Especially since a) any atrocity they have provenly committed would make them liable for arrest and due judicial process, but not summary execution, and b) anything they might have planned has not yet occurred and so is not an actual crime. But, you know, no one cares about logic or morality or legality when it comes to terrorists, or even brown people. Well, most white people don’t. They’re just scared. And racist. Having said that Eye in the Sky‘s story was built on shaky ground, it handled its plot points well… up to the bit where a government minister has a go at the Army general in charge of the operation, played by Alan Rickman, who responds with, “Never tell a soldier about the cost of war”, which is just self-serving bullshit, because if soldiers really cared about the cost of war they’d be trying to find ways to avoid them instead of finding enemies under every rock.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 843