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Moving pictures, #49

How about that? A single Hollywood movie… and it was a rewatch (although, to be honest, I couldn’t tell you when I last watched Westworld – sometime during the early 1980s, I suspect). Meanwhile, we have just one film on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list too, and that was a rewatch as well (another Tarkovsky on Blu-ray, in fact). But, on the whole, it’s a pretty good half-dozen movies – and some of them are very good indeed.

kandaharKandahar, Mohsen Makhalbaf (2001, Iran). Although one of the first Iranian directors to come to international prominence, I know Makhalbaf best from his appearance in Kiarostami’s Close-Up. So Kandahar was sort of but not quite new territory for me in more ways than one, as it’s also set in Afghanistan (although I’ve seen Osama, also set in Afghanistan). I certainly had very little idea what to expect since it’s not a film that seems to be discussed, or mentioned, much in reference to “best of” lists. Which is a shame. It’s very well-made, has an appealing streak of black humour a mile wide, and makes a series of important points about the world in which it’s set. An Afghani expat now resident in Canada returns to Afghanistan to see her sister. She’s smuggled over the border in a Red Cross helicopter, but has to travel by foot to the titular city to find her sibling. En route she runs into Red Cross workers who deal with Afghanis injured by mines and who need prosthetic limbs… leading to a scene in which a horde of one-legged Afghanis chase after false legs dropped by parachute from Red Cross helicopters. There’s a simplicity to Makhalbaf’s direction that’s a refreshing change to Kiarostami’s films, although the black humour is of a different order too. (To be fair, I’m not sure why I’m comparing the two directors as their shared nationality is not enough to do so.) Kandahar is also noted for featuring Dawud Salahuddin, an American who converted to Islam and then murdered an Iranian dissident. I can’t quite figure how that it supposed to affect my viewing of this film, because I thought it very good, and I thought it him effective in his role. Recommended.

victoriaVictoria, Sebastian Schipper (2015, Germany). Let’s get the obvious thing out of the way first – Victoria was shot as a single take. The other famous single-take movie is Sokurov’s Russian Ark, and I am a huge fan of Sokurov’s films. In both, that single-take is a gimmick (and, it must be admitted, was considerably harder to accomplish in 2002 than in 2015), but… To be honest, it’s not actually all that noticeable in Victoria. I remember the first time I watched Russian Ark back in 2004 and I felt almost light-headed watching it, almost as if I could only breathe when there were cuts (of which, of course, there were none). And this despite having seen, several times, Hitchcock’s Rope, which famously he tried to film with as few cuts as possible. But I had none of that watching Victoria. Perhaps it was because the story flowed more organically than Russian Ark‘s – whatever the cause, Victoria‘s gimmick seemed much less of an issue. The title refers to a young woman from Spain who is working as a waitress in Berlin. At a Berlin night-club, she falls in with a quartet of young male Berliners and so is sucked into their plot to rob a bank to appease a ganglord who protected one of their number during a recent stint in prison. It’s a very good film and there are some blinding moments – such as when Berliner Sonne mucks about on the piano at the café where Victoria works and she responds by playing ten or so minutes of hideously difficult classical music (one of Liszt’s Mephisto Waltzes, apparently). Recommended.

pepePépé le Moko*, Julien Duvivier (1937, France). The title character is a gangster who lives in the Casbah in Algiers, and is wanted by the French police, who have sent an inspecteur from France to arrest him. But first, they have to entice him out of the Casbah. Which they do using his attraction for socialite Mireille Balin. I’ve said before I have a blind spot for early French cinema (actually, I think it spreads across quite a few decades…), and while I can see that Pépé le Moko presages noir film in many respects, I enjoyed it most for its depiction of the Casbah, a part of the world I know only from The Battle of Algiers. I can understand why the film was regarded so highly in its time, and perhaps for a decade or two afterwards, but there’s little enough there to wow a twenty-first century viewer. On the one hand, it feels like an historical document; on the other, its notability as a historical document is not immediately obvious. It’s a fun thriller, in French, set in Algiers. But it’s hard to see it as more than that because whatever importance it may have once had is no longer true. Worth seeing at least once, I suppose, but I’m not sure why it belongs on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list as its appeal doesn’t seem abiding.

aprilApril and the Extraordinary World, Christian Desmares & Franck Ekinci (2015, France). I know Tardi’s work, in fact I have all of the English translations of his bandes dessinées as published by Fantagraphics, and I’m keen to get more when they eventually appear. But I didn’t know about this film – although I did know about, and have watched (twice), Besson’s adaptation of Tardi’s The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec… So stumbling across this on Amazon Prime one weekend was a happy moment. And the film did not disappoint. The DVD’s cover art says it all: a pair of Eiffel Towers, serving as the main Paris station for a monorail to Berlin. Science-fiction-wise, the film is crude: a voice-over describes the world and how it came to be. In this case, WWI never happened, steam power was not replaced by internal combustion, and April grows up in a world denuded of trees. Her grandfather was trying to create an invincibility forum, and her parents continued the hunt – in a hidden laboratory, because scientists had been disappearing, and those remaining were being co-opted by the government. When the cops raid their lab, April manages to escape, and goes into hiding in Paris, where she continues parents’ researches. Years later, a street urchin hired by a disgraced police inspector tracks down April and so kicks off an adventure that sees her eventually reunited with her parents at a secret installation run by… well, that would be giving it away. Bits of the film, despite the Tardi graphics, reminded me of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, a film I really like, but April and the Extraordinary World had the advantage of a bande dessinée narrative rather than a pulp one. I shouldn’t have been suprised how good this was, but then even French cinema can screw up a property when adapting it for the screen sometimes (tries hard to think of an example; fails). Definitely worth seeing.

westworldWestworld, Michael Crichton (1973, USA). I was pretty sure I’d seen this before, but it was clearly so long ago that I’d long forgotten details and what I did remember may well have been from what I’d read about the film. In other words, I might actually have never seen it before and only known of it from writings about it. It’s possible. It may also be true of other sf films. But now I have a date against my viewing of the film, a date when I actually watched it from start to finish. Of course, I already knew what to expect: expensive and sophisticated theme-park with mostly android staff, one goes rogue and shoots all the guests. The same scenario was used in the sequel, Futureworld, which I’d seen a few weeks before. But Westworld was the first and, more than that, the first film directed by Michael Crichton. Many might not see the relevance of that, but Crichton was an odd figure – a right-wing anti-science polemicist who created a series of pro-science properties that continue to resonate, and a man who abused his privilege to convince political figures of complete bollocks. Obviously, there’s an anti-science message to Westworld – robots bad! – although, to be fair, the “capitalism will make money out of absolutely anything” message comes across a lot louder. I was surprised at the quality of the print Amazon Prime streamed, and although the reference to an ekranoplan as a “hovercraft” (seriously, how can anyone make mistake like that?) did not bode too well, it was all looking quite good… But it didn’t take long to fall apart. Okay, so Mediaeval World bore more resemblance to The Adventures of Robin Hood (a great film) than it did actual history, and even the dumbest ass knows the Romans did more than eat to excess and have orgies… And yet, perversely, the Hollywood version of the Wild West seemed perfectly acceptable (perhaps because it’s that version you’d expect tourists to want to visit). I actually enjoyed Westworld more than I thought I would, and it’s certainly a better film than Futureworld, but it was still no classic. I’ve seen it now, so no need to ever watch it again.

andrei_rublevAndrei Rublev*, Andrei Tarkovsky (1966, Russia). Andrei Rublev is a series of excellent short films that are, ostensibly, episodes from the life of a famous painter of ikons strung into one 205-minute movie. Except a lot if it is invented because little is actually known about Rublev’s life. So what we have is, essentially, a drama anthology, comprising a series of high-quality vignettes – and high-quality not only in terms of cinematography, such as, for example, the balloon ride prologue, which does something pretty clever with a camera pointing down from the gondola. Then there’s the sequence about bell-making, which actually ends the film, and has nothing to do with Rublev’s life but is still astonishing. In fact, all things considered, Andrei Rublev is a hard film to write about, because it consists of multiple episodes. I’ve said before that part of Tarkovsky’s genius was the ability to lend coherence to disparate incidents – and while the life of the title character is about as concrete a link as you can get, Tarkovsky takes it more as a guideline than a plot in Andrei Rublev. There are eight chapters, not all of which feature Rublev, each of which illustrates some characteristic Tarkovsky has chosen to apply to Rublev. Some are amusing, such as when the Tatars mock the Christian paintings in a chruch; some are horrible, like when the Grand Prince has his men waylay the masons who worked on his palace and has them blinded. (This is one thing about history I’ve never understood – given how easy it was to kill people, why did such brutal rulers ever last more than five minutes?). Watching Andrei Rublev is an ordeal – it’s three hours long and your brain is fully engaged for the entire length (okay, yes, I have fallen asleep watching it on at least one occasion), and while it’s not my favourite Tarkovsky film I certainly consider a film that belongs in any self-respecting cineaste’s collection.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 805


Made from books

Nerds of a feather have been running a series of posts by its members on “books that shaped me”, and I wondered what books I’d choose myself for such a post. And I started out doing just that but then it stopped being a listicle and more of a narrative, so I just went with it…

These will not be recent books – or, at least, the bulk of them won’t be. Because while people’s attitudes, sensibilities and tastes evolve over the years, some of the books I read back when I was a young teen obviously had more of an impact on me than a book I read, say, last week. Some of the following have in part shaped my taste in fiction, while some have inspired and shaped my writing. Some I read because they seemed a natural progression in my reading, some were books I read because they covered a subject that interest me, some I read because they were out of my comfort zone and I felt I needed to broaden my horizons…

Early explorations in sf
I read my first actual science fiction novel around 1976. Prior to that I’d been reading Dr Who novelisations, but a lad in my class at school lent me a copy of Robert Heinlein’s Starman Jones. After that, another boy lent me some EE ‘Doc’ Smith, the Lensman books, I seem to recall (and probably some Asimov, although I don’t actually remember which ones). But during my early years exploring the genre I cottoned onto three particular authors: AE Van Vogt, James Blish and Clifford Simak. And the first books by those authors I recall reading were The Universe Maker, Jack of Eagles and Why Call Them Back From Heaven?. Actually, I may have read The Voyage of the Space Beagle before The Universe Maker, but something about the latter appealed to me more. Sadly, no women writers. A few years later I started reading Cherryh and Tiptree (and yes, I’ve always known Tiptree was a woman), but I suspect my choices were more a matter of availability – Cherryh was pretty much ubiquitous in UK book shops during the early 1980s.


Growing up the sf way
I remember a lad in the year below me at school reading Dune – that would be in 1978, I think – and it looked interesting, but it wasn’t until a few years later that I read it for myself. And immediately loved it. These days, my thoughts on Dune are somewhat different – it’s not Frank Herbert’s best novel, it’s not even the best novel in the Dune series (and we won’t mention the execrable sequels by his son and Kevin J Anderson)… but what Dune is, is probably the best piece of world-building the science fiction genre has ever produced. And then there’s Dhalgren, which I still love and is probably the sf novel I’ve reread the most times. It wasn’t my first Delany, but it remains my favourite. I still see it as a beacon of literary sensibilities in science fiction. Another discovery of this period was John Varley, whose stories pushed a lot of my buttons. His The Barbie Murders remains a favourite collection, and the title story is still a favourite story. Around this time one of the most important books to come into my hands was The Complete Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy Lists by Malcolm Edwards and Maxim Jakubowski. It’s exactly what the title says – lists of sf and fantasy books and stories. But it was also a map to exploring the genre and, in an effort to find books and stories it mentioned, I started actively hunting down specific things I wanted to read. I was no longer browsing in WH Smith (back in the day when it was a major book seller) and grabbing something off the shelf that looked appealing. This was directed reading, and it’s pretty much how I’ve approached my reading ever since.

Explorations outside science fiction
The school I went to had a book shop that opened every Wednesday afternoon, and I bought loads of sf novels there (well, my parents bought them, as they were the ones paying the bills). But when I was on holiday, especially out in the Middle East, I was limited to reading what was available – which included the likes of Nelson De Mille, Eric Van Lustbader, Judith Krantz and Shirley Conran. I think it was my mother who’d been reading Sara Paretsky and it was from her I borrowed Guardian Angel, and so became a lifelong fan of Paretsky’s books. And after graduating from university and going to work in Abu Dhabi, the Daly Community Library, the subscription library I joined within a month or two of arriving, had I poor sf selection so I had to widen my reading. One of the books I borrowed was Anthony Burgess’s A Dead Man in Deptford, and that turned me into a fan of his writing (although, to be honest, while my admiration of his writing remains undimmed, I’m no longer so keen on his novels… although I still have most of them in first edition). I also borrowed Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet from the Daly Community Library, but had it take back before I’d even started it. So I bought paperbacks copies of the four books during a trip to Dubai, and subsequently fell in love with Durrell’s writing. So much so that I began collecting his works – and now I have pretty much everything he wrote. Perversely, his lush prose has stopped me from trying it for myself – possibly because I know I couldn’t pull it off. Much as I treasure Durrell’s prose, it’s not what I write… but his occasional simple turns of phrase I find inspiring. Finally, two non-fiction works which have helped define my taste in non-fiction. While I was in Abu Dhabi, I borrowed Milton O Thompson’s At the Edge of Space from the Abu Dhabi Men’s College library. It’s a dry recitation of the various flights flown by the North American X-15 – and yes, I now own my own copy – but I found it fascinating. It wasn’t, however, until I read Andrew Smith’s Moondust, in which he tracks down and interviews the surviving nine people who walked on the Moon, that I really started collecting books about the Space Race. And then I decided it would be interesting to write fiction about it…

Ingredients for a writing life
When I originally started writing sf short stories, they were pretty well, er, generic. I’d read plenty of short fiction, and so I turned what I thought were neat ideas into neat little stories. None of them sold. So I spent several years having a bash at novels – A Prospect of War and A Conflict of Orders are products of those years, as well as a couple of trunk novels – and didn’t return to writing short fiction until 2008. It took a few goes before I found the kind of short fiction that worked for me, but it wasn’t until I wrote ‘The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams’ (see here) that I realised I’d found a, er, space I wanted to explore further in ficiton. I’d been partly inspired by Jed Mercurio’s Ascent, because its obsessive attention to detail really appealed to me – and when I started working on Adrift on the Sea of Rains, I wanted it to be like that. But I’d also read some Cormac McCarthy – The Road and All The Pretty Horses – and that gave me a handle for the prose style. I’ve jokingly referred to Adrift on the Sea of Rains as “Cormac McCarthy on the Moon” but that was always in my mind while I was writing it. And for the flashback sequences, I wanted a more discursive and roundabout style, so I turned to a book I’d recently read, Austerlitz by WG Sebald, and used that as my inspiration. And finally, there’s a point in astronaut Thomas Stafford’s autobiography, We Have Capture, in which he discusses the deaths of the three cosmonauts in the Soyuz 11 mission – Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov and Viktor Patsayev – and he mentions the 19 turns needed to manually close the valve which evacuated the air from their spacecraft, and that figure became sort of emblematic of my approach to writing Adrift on the Sea of Rains. It’s odd DNA for a science fiction novella – Stafford, Mercurio, McCarthy and Sebald – but there you go…


The next two books of the Apollo Quartet were driven by the their plots, inasmuch as their inspirations were plot-related, and the only books which fed into them were the books I read for research. But I should definitely mention Malcolm Lowry, who I’d started reading around the time I launched Adrift on the Sea of Rains, and the titles of some of his books – Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid – inspired the titles of books two and three of the Apollo Quartet. But when it comes to book four, All That Outer Space Allows, well, obviously, Sirk’s movie All That Heaven Allows was a major influence, but so too was Laurent Binet’s HHhH, which showed me that breaking the fourth wall was a really interesting narrative technique to explore. But there’s also Michael Haneke’s film Funny Games, which inspired the whole breaking the fourth wall thing in the first place, and which led to me using art house films as inspiration for short stories, so that ‘Red Desert’ in Dreams of the Space Age and Space – Houston We Have A Problem was inspired by François Ozon’s Under the Sand, and I’m currently working on a story inspired by Lars von Trier’s Melancholia titled, er, ‘Melancholia’, and in which I take great pleasure in destroying the Earth.

Reading for pleasure
Despite all that above, there are authors whose works I read purely because I enjoy doing so. It’s true there might be a bit of DH Lawrence in All That Outer Space Allows, but if I had to pick a favourite Lawrence novel out of those I’ve read I’d be hard pressed to do so. I’ve mentioned Lowry already – for him, the one work I treasure is his novella ‘Through the Panama’ which appears in his collection Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place. And with Karen Blixen, AKA Isak Dinesen, a new discovery for me and becoming a favourite, it’s her novella ‘Tempest’. But I don’t think she’s going to influence my writing much. Neither do I think the writings of Helen Simpson or Marilynne Robinson will do so either, although Simpson has paddled in genre. And much as I admire the writings of Gwyneth Jones, Paul Park and DG Compton, their writing is so unlike my own, their books are just a pure reading pleasure. Jenny Erpenbeck, on the other hand, I think might influence my writing, as I love her distant tone. And while I love the deep personal focus of Hanan al-Shaykh’s novels, she’s reading for pleasure.


To some extent, I think, I treat books like movies. There are the disposable ones – commercial sf, in other words; and you can find many examples on the SF Masterwork list, which is more a reflection on the genre as a whole than it is on the SF Masterwork list. But I much prefer movies from other cultures, and while science fiction scratched that itch to some extent, even though its cultures were invented… the level of such invention wasn’t especially deep – and if I get more of a sense of estrangment out of a novel by Erpenbeck, a German woman, than I do from any random US sf writer, I see that as more a flaw of the genre than of its practitioners. Happily, things are changing, and a wider spectrum of voices are being heard in genre fiction. Not all of them will appeal to me, not all of them will earn my admiration. But I wholeheartedly support the fact of their existence. I do enjoy reading books like that but in the past I’ve had to read mainstream fiction – Mariama Bâ, Abdelrahman Munif, Magda Szabó, Elfriede Jelineck, Leila Aboulela, Chyngyz Aitmatov… as well as those mentioned previously. These are the books and movies which join my collection, and for which I am forever struggling to find shelf space.

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Moving pictures, #48

Only two out of the six are US movies this time, so I’m definitely getting better at this… Although a recent check through which countries’ cinema I’ve watched revealed there are a number of gaps in my viewing. Which I plan to rectify. For now, it’s two French, two Russian and two American. Two were also rewatches.

live_becomeLive and Become, Radu Mihǎleanu (2005, France). I found this on an alternative 1001 Movies list and it looked interesting enough to add to my rental list. And I’m glad I did. In 1984, some 12,000 Ethiopian Jews walked to refugee camps in Sudan, where the 8,000 who had survived the march were airlifted to Israel. Live and Become follows a Christian Ethiopian boy whose mother persuades him to pretend to be a Jewish woman’s son so that he might have a chance at a new life. His new mother dies soon after arrival in Israel, and the boy proves too difficult for the orphanage to manage. He’s a adopted by a French Jewish family who have settled in Israel, and the film then follows him through his teen years into his early twenties, as he masquerades as Jewish, tries to find out what happened to his birth mother, and becomes a victim of a racial backlash against the Ethiopian Jews. Although the film implies the 1984 airlift – Operation Moses – was a one-off and well-planned coup by the Israelis, it was actually one of several attempts to patriate African Jews to Israel, beginning in 1961 and culminating with Operation Solomon in 1991. But that’s a minor quibble – it’s a heart-breaking piece of history and deserves to be better-known. Mihǎleanu uses different actors for his lead character at different stages of his life but keeps the continuity strong between them. I had not expected to find Live and Become as gripping as I did. Recommended.

faustFaust, Aleksandr Sokurov (2011, Russia). Sokurov’s films are hardly easy viewing, but I find this one among the more difficult of his – possibly because it seems at first to be relatively straightforward. Faust, a doctor in a mediaeval town in what is now Germany, is studying human anatomy, trying to find the seat of the “soul”; but his clandestine researches means he has little or no money. While trying to pawn something, he meets a moneylender called Mauricius, who seems not quite human. They spend time together and, in a large bathhouse/laundry, Faust spots a young woman and begins to obsess about her. She refuses his blandishments, a situation not helped when Faust accidentally kills her brother in a pub brawl. This is when Mauricius offers Faust a, er, Faustian bargain – his soul for a night with the young woman. Faust signs. However, he fails to act on his desires, and so Mauricius leads him to a strange land of stone and geysers where, in a rage, Faust kills Mauricius by burying him under rocks. But now Faust cannot find his way home. For a Sokurov film, Faust is played almost straight – there are occasional moments of distorted picture, much like he does in Mother and Son, but if there was a logic to them I didn’t spot it. The colours are pale and washed out, but that only gives the setting a more mediaeval feel. Even the occasional oddness – Faust’s assistant drops a bottle containing a foetus in formaldehyde and it proves to still be alive, for instance – only seem to amplify quite how strange Mauricius is… And he is odd – in the bathhouse scene, when he strips to bathe, all the women remark he “has nothing in front” and yet he appears to have something at his rear… which is far stranger than the earlier scene where he drinks a vial of poison and appears to enjoy it. I’ve seen Faust described as a German story told with Russian sensibilities, and there’s certainly a Sokurovian feel to the story – I’m tempted to describe it as having a certain identifiable philosophy, but then isn’t the Faust story itself a philosophical story? I’m unsure where I’d place Faust in Sokurov’s oeuvre. It has considerably higher production values than much of his output, and it’s evident in every frame… And the story is less elliptical than many of his other films… But it’s also less personal – the relationship between Faust and Mauricius, or Faust and Gretchen, is in no way as close as that between mother and son or father and son or grandmother and grandson… But then the relationship between body and soul is either the closest relationship of all, or no relationship at all… and that’s what Faust opens the film exploring…

diaryDiary of a Country Priest*, Robert Bresson (1951, France). There are five films by Robert Bresson on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I’ve now seen them all… and everyone one of them has left me cold. The huge regard in which he’s held, I just can’t see it. And this one, Diary of a Country Priest, apparently Claude Laydu’s performance in the title role is, according to Wikipedia, considered “one of the greatest in the history of cinema”. Um, right. Now, I like that Bresson treats his material with a straight face – even a stone-face, perhaps – and the deadpan delivery is presented with remarkable clarity and economy. But I still don’t get why Bresson is so revered – and I say that knowing that my favourite director, Aleksandr Sokurov, is a fan of Bresson’s films. Furthermore, I cannot for the life of me see why Laydu’s performance in this film should attract such accolades. He plays a priest whose performance of his duties draws the criticism of his parishioners, and who also happens to be quite ill. There’s no thematic link between his illness and his actions – although not being a Catholic – or, indeed, the slightest bit religious – perhaps that’s a distinction lost on me. I have mentioned in the past that one of my apparent blindspots is French cinema prior to the Nouvelle Vague (bar the odd exception, such as Renoir’s films), and if so then Bresson sits squarely in it. I’m loath to say that Diary of a Country Priest does not belong on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but I’d be hard-pressed to explain why it does belong on the list.

mirrorMirror*, Andrei Tarkovsky (1975, Russia). If you’d asked me a year ago what my favourite Tarkovsky film was, I’d probably have said Mirror. Having now watched it one more time – on Blu-ray this time – I found myself…conflicted. It frequently looks gorgeous – there’s a lambent quality to the cinematography in the scenes set on the farm that is absolutely stunning. And the black-and-white sections have that sort of concreteness which makes the space station in Solaris looks so much like a real place. But despite having watched the film several times, I’m still no clearer as to its actual story, and at times it seems like little more than fantastic moving wallpaper. It feels like a hot mess, but one that hovers on the edge of understanding. Tarkovsky’s genius was, in part, that he could make something feel like a coherent whole despite the lack of overt links between sections – as in Andrei Rublev. Mirror is supposed to present the memories of a dying poet, and indeed it has a stream-of-consciousness look and feel (the slow motion bath falling through the ceiling? WTF?), but while there’s a plain sense of thematic unity I’m not convinced the narrative hangs together in any real meaningful sense. But the genius of Tarkovsky is also that his films are eminently rewatchable, and each rewatch will reveal something new to appreciate and admire. There are films I admire hugely, and directors I admire hugely although none of their films make the first list… but Tarkovsky plainly belongs on both. I don’t know that anyone has ever equalled him, and much as I love Sokurov’s films it’s as much for his contradictions, whereas Tarkovsky is a director with remarkably few contradictions. If that makes sense. I opened this “review” wondering which of Tarkovsky’s film I liked best… At the moment, I’m tending toward The Sacrifice… but I have yet to rewatch it as the Blu-ray version has not yet been released. However, there’s still Ivan’s Childhood, Stalker and Nostalgia to rewatch; and probably further rewatches of Andrei Rublev, Solaris and Mirror… and the fact I can even consider watching these films again and again is one reason why I consider Tarkovsky a hugely important and favourite director.

wolf_manThe Wolf Man*, George Waggner (1941, USA). An American, Lon Chaney Jr, learns of the death of his brother and so returns to the ancestral home in, er, Wales, to patch it up with his father, Claude Rains. The people in the Welsh village speak with English or American accents – among the former is the young woman who runs a local antiqiue shop, and among the latter is the local chief constable. While out walking in a swampy wood with the young lady, Chaney saves a woman being attacked by a wolf, but the wolf manages to bite him. Later, the police find a dead man, but no wolf’s corpse. Then there are the gypsies, who all dress like flamenco dancers or something, not to mention Chaney as a werewolf looks more like Puppyman, about to advertise Andrex, than he does a fearsome creatures from horror’s bag of fearsome tropes… and it all feels a bit risible. It’s an early Hollywood horror movie, and while it may have done something new, seventy-five years later it’s hard to spot exactly what. It feels like one of those films that are only on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list because the listmaker has fond memories of it from late-night showings on obscure cable channels or in seedy fleapit cinemas. I don’t see that appeal myself. Meh.

wonderTo the Wonder, Terrence Malick (2012, USA). I’ve no idea why I rented this. Perhaps it was in the vain hope that Malick might at some point produce a great film instead of ones that bounce between occasional moments of great beauty and the much longer moments of pretentious self-indulgent twaddle. The first third of this film, for example, resembles nothing so much as perfume commercial. And the stream-of-consciousness voice-over, which in The New World felt like an idea that could have worked really well, here only heightens the likeness to that sort of bullshit world in which perfume adverts make sense and are legitimate tools for selling a product. Ben Affleck plays an American in Paris who falls in love with Ukrainian divorcée Olga Kurylenko (who has a young daughter), marries her and takes her back to Oklahoma. But she doesn’t fit in there, and returns to Paris. Malick reportedly told his cast to keep on moving while he was shooting them, and their endlessly spinning and jumping about wears thin very quickly (and heightens the likeness to the aforementioned commercials). I have now watched most of Malick’s oeuvre and can happily admit I don’t get him. I don’t understand why he is so admired. His cinematography is frequently absolutely gorgeous, this is true; but there is more to movie-making than a stunning sunset caught just right. He also has a well-documented tendency to basically recreate his films in editing, such that half the cast end up on the cutting-room floor. In To the Wonder, that means Jessica Chastain, Rachel Weisz, Amanda Peet, Barry Pepper and Michael Sheen all had their parts cut completely from the film. (Why would you work with someone who did that to you? For the money? Is there some sort of weird Hollywood prestige in ending up on the floor of Malick’s editing suite?) Malick feels like a director with a lot of interesting ideas but whose slightest whim is happily indulged by Hollywood. Some people need reining in, some people only produce good work when limited. I’m increasingly starting to think Malick is one such person.

1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die count: 804

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Moving pictures, #47

At least half of my movie-watching is not from the US, but I still need to increase the number of non-Anglophone films I watch. (To be fair, the bulk of those I actually purchase these days are non-Anglophone; in fact, it’s been a couple of years since I last bought a Hollywood film on DVD or Blu-ray… at least to keep, rather than a £1 purchase from a charity shop to watch and then take back afterwards…). Anyway, a typical mix this time around: three from the US (although one is silent), and one apiece from Argentine, Germany and Japan.

hateful_eightThe Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino (2015, USA). Tarantino is a bit of a Hollywood darling, not to mention completely full of himself. His films are hardly typical Hollywood product – although their stories are very much set in those spaces colonised by Hollywood stories – but they still get major releases, with massive marketing campaigns and countless column-inches of approving reviews. The Hateful Eight is apparently a “revisionist Western”, although whether that means revisionist in respect to actual history or Hollywood’s depiction of the Wild West I’ve no idea. Because, let’s face it, Shane or Rio Bravo can hardly be considered historically accurate, much as I love them. The Hateful Eight is basically Tarantino showing off about Westerns – all of his films are about him showing off in some respect – which in this case means a bunch of people trapped at a remote trading post during a fierce Wyoming winter, some years after the American Civil War, while en route to a nearby town. Two are bounty hunters, one is a prisoner of one of the bounty hunters, another is a newbie sheriff on his way to take up his silver star, one is an old Confederate general, one is a gruff cowboy, one is an English hangman, and the last is the Mexican assistant who has been left in charge of the trading post by its owner (he claims…). There then follows lots of dialogue, a deal of which is expositional, a minor mystery which is quickly disposed of, and a good deal of gory gunfighting. For a movie that’s 168 minutes long and mostly in a single indoor set, The Hateful Eight proved surprisingly gripping. Some of the photography was also very nice indeed, which is just as well since the characters are mostly stereotypes, and the story goes into this lengthy narrated flashback sequence to explain the entire plot of the movie which is dumb. Tarantino carries his films with wit, which is just as well as he can’t plot for shit and he’s just about capable of handling archetypes rather than real characters. But archetypes are very Hollywood – more than that, they’re classy Hollywood (stereotypes are just commercial Hollywood). A Tarantino film is never less than entertaining; and as Hollywood auteurs go (it should be an oxymoron, to be fair), he’s among the top rank. I just wish everything he did wasn’t polluted by that air of insufferable smugness he carries around with him.

official_storyThe Official Story*, Luis Puenzo (1985, Argentina). One of the joys of having your viewing directed by a list is sitting down to watch a film you know nothing about it and discovering it’s really good. And, it has to be said, of late I’ve found myself more drawn to documentary dramas than I have sfx-heavy fantastical bullshit. The Official Story hints at, but does not plainly state, its topic, although the country of origin and year should be some clue. It’s about the Disappeared. (For an excellent documentary on a similar topic, I recommend Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia for the Light.) A well-off couple – he’s something high up in the junta’s government, she’s a teacher – welcome a friend who fled the country shortly after the military seized power. She e’plains why she left – an ex-boyfriend was considered anti-junta and, although she’d not seen him for two or more years, she was arrested and tortured – but the teacher seems unconvinced, while the husband has his own cross to bear in the form of the deals he’s made to prosper during an oppressive regime. There’s a classic scene where the wives – all well-off, all untouched by the regime’s excesses – meet for lunch and the returned woman lays into one of them with an impressive savagery. Driving the plot is the dawning realisation that the teacher’s adopted daughter may be the child of a Disappeared woman, and when she starts looking into it she somes across a woman who may be the grandmother of the adopted daughter. The husband is far from happy when the wife tries to introduce the woman to the daughter, because the guilt of having another woman’s child, of having prospered, child-wise, at the expense of the real mother, and of the mothers’ movement to which the biological mother and grandmother belonged is anathema to him but is also… something new and uncomfortable for her, as mediated partly through her experiences in the classroom as a history teacher for rebellious teen boys, and also informed by the history of her friend who has recently returned. While this is an excellent film, and tells a story that needs to be told, the astonishing thing about it is that it was planned while the junta was in power – but the junta fell just as the screenplay was completed. Nonetheless, to plan a film so critical during the regime… Recommended.

scream_stoneScream of Stone, Werner Herzog (1991, Germany). Apparently Herzog himself disowns this one, and it’s certainly true that it doesn’t feel 100% like a Herzog film. Which is weird, because he directed it, he just didn’t write the script. Which, to be honest, seems to sit pretty much in the same space as most of Herzog’s films. There’s a mountain in Patagonia called Cerro Torre which is notoriously difficult to climb because it is both needle-shaped and its top features a mushroom of ice. A mountain climber challenges a championship indoor climber to accompany him on a climb to the top of Cerro Torre. And, er, that’s pretty much the plot. Donald Sutherland plays a television producer who kicks off the rivalry, and then cynically feeds it, in order to get something he can make a TV programme about. The script isn’t great, much of the story is a bit cliché, but there’s some lovely photography… and while it’s easy enough to declare it second-string Herzog, it’s still Herzog and so superior to many other directors’ output. So, not a great film, and not one for the Herzog collection, but, I think, still worth seeing.

queen_earthQueen of Earth, Alex Ross Perry (2015, USA). I must have seen a positive mention of this somewhere, which is why, I assume, I added it to my rental list. In the event… there’s a type of American independent movie which seems to rub me up the wrong way. Uusually, they’re talky, and trying to be clever, and mostly reliant on the acting chops of the central cast. I’ve seen a number of films which fit this description and can think of only a handful which make the grade (and most of those starred Brit Marling, who’s definitely going to be something big one day). But. Queen of Earth. Which stars Elisabeth Moss, who I know chiefly from Mad Men. I watched it from start to finish, and there were lots of close-ups in cars; and Wikipedia describes it as a “psychological thriller” but I’m buggered if I can remember an actual story never mind anything as crass as a plot. It’s one of those films where the dullness of the script is not enlivened by some nice landscape cinematography because remains tightly focused on the cast and the no doubt bon mots they are so artfully enuniciating. The movie was, unfortunately, a rental, so I can’t watch it again and re-evaluate it; but on the one showing, I was less than impressed- although that, I suspect, may be due to it more being a type of film I don’t like rather than the film itself. (It’s an entirely different matter, for example, when a film covers a type of story I like but does it badly – it so much easier to a) see that it’s bad and b) that I don’t like it.) So, when all’s said and done, there’s a definite element of YMMV to Queen of Earth

good_morningGood Morning, Yasujiro Ozu (1959, Japan). And speaking of YMMV, I do like these Ozu films and I’d never really expected too. Perhaps it’s that his stories seem to work for me in colour so much more than they do in black and white. I don’t know; I’ll have to re-watch Tokyo Story, or some other early film, to find out. And I probably will… since I seem to be in the habit of buying these excellent BFI editions of Ozu’s films. Good Morning is, like the other Ozus I’ve enjoyed, a domestic drama, and in this case centres around a neighbourhood club in which some funds have apparently gone missing. But it’s just as much about the Hatashi family, who are sort of at the centre of the missing funds mystery and have problematic relationships with their neighbours for a number of different reasons. It is, I suspect, pointless to relate the plot of an Ozu film, because they’re chiefly a series of domestic observations strung together and ostensibly applied to a single family, And that’s just as much the case here, especially the whole sequence in which the two young boys spend time at their neighbour’s house because they have a television. But there’ a clarity to Ozu’s framing and a stark simplicity to his blocking which reminds me more of Hergé’s ligne claire style of artwork than it does any cinema movement. It works beautifully well and, as I’ve said before, it frames uchi and soto in such a clear an unambiguous way that when it re-styles one as the other, it actually suggests an additional dimension to the scene which is not stated but still subtley changes its import (I’m thinking of the framing of the street shots as interior shots in An Autumn Afternoon here, which manages to beautifully define the character dynamics despite the dialogue only baldly stating the relationships). I’ve never been a big fan of Far Eastern cinema, although I’ve watched and enjoyed lots of Hong Kong action movies over the years. But – despite not liking Tokyo Story when I watched it several years ago – I’ve found myself becoming a bit of an Ozu convert. More, please.

eagleThe Eagle*, Clarence Brown (1925, USA). I have in other posts about my movie watching remarked that following the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list has introduced me to excellent films I might otherwise have missed – and not just silent films since I already had a few in my collection… But it’s not an area of cinema I’d choose to explore without prompting… Although having done so, I’ve seen some excellent movies made before sound… Sadly, this is not one of them. I’m not sure what The Eagle‘s actual claim to fame is. It’s not Rudolph Valentino’s most popular film, because that would The Son of the Sheik (and it’s pronounced shay-kh, with a “kh” like a softer version of the “ch” in loch; and not sheek, which is an entirely different word from another language altogether). Anyway, Valentino plays a lieutentant in Czarina Catherine the Great’s Imperial Guard. After rescuing a runaway coach – inadvertently taking the empress’s horse in the process – he comes to the czarina’s notice. She offers him a general’s rank, but he’s not willing to pay the price (sexual favours, basically). So he runs away with a price on his head. And ends up as a Robin Hood-type outlaw, the Black Eagle of the, er, title… and he bumps into the nubile young woman from the runaway carriage earlier, who it is the daughter of the local grandee who tricked Valentino’s father out of his estate, and so he pretends to be a French tutor in order to get close to her and win her love as well as conduct his Robin-Hood-ish campaign against her father… Yes, only in a silent film, but it sort of works… even if California makes a piss-poor stand-in for central Russia, and assorted Hollywood mansions make for unconvincing Russian castles. There are silent films that are still astonishingly good even now in 2016, but this isn’t one of them. It may well be the first appearance of a number of heavily-soiled tropes and clichés, but that’s not enough in my book to make the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list… especially when it doesn’t appear to be genuinely new at the time it was made. Missable.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 802

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Reading diary, #36

My reading seems to have slowed a little, perhaps because I’m choosing books which aren’t quite such easy reads. On the other hand, it could just be that I’ve been quite busy. Anyway, an odd mix this time: two category genre books, one borderline and two classic twentieth century literature; three women, two men; two novels, three collections; three Americans, one Brit and a Dane. I really need to address that latter category a little more – I have a number of translated works on my bookshelves that I plan to tackle, such as Bolaño, Munif, Høeg, Myckle, Vargas Llosa, Gogol, Mallo… All I have to do is schedule them in. It’s easy to read diversely if you plan your reading, after all. Anyway, the five books in this post were all bloody good ones, so perhaps avoiding “easy reads” was worth it. Duchamp and Park are probably two of the best US writers currently working in genre and very much under-appreciated; Green and Dinesen may be from the first half of last century, but they wrote some bloody good stuff; and while LeGui many not always click with me, there’s no denying her importance or the fact she has writing chops we lesser mortals can only dream to possess. In all, a highly recommended handful of books.

laviniaLavinia, Ursula K LeGuin (2008). Who doesn’t love LeGuin’s fiction? It’s almost impossible not to, because it’s so wide-ranging, so clever and so beautifully written. Personally, I prefer her science fiction, and while I’ve enjoyed her high fantasies I’m not so enamoured of her literary fantasies like Orsinian Tales or Searoad. Lavinia, however, is more of an historical fantasy, and falls somewhere between the two stools of genre fantasy and literary fantasy. I have no especial interest in the period it covers, pre-Roman Italy, although a good book would, you’d hope, make me interested (after reading George Mackay Brown’s Beside the Ocean of Time, for example, I spent several hours looking up brochs online, and nearly even bought a book on the topic). Nor am I trained classicist and so familiar with the sources texts uses in Lavinia – chiefly Virgil’s Aeneid. In fact, to be honest, I know very little about Bronze Age Europe – it’s not an era I’ve read much about. The title character is mentioned in passing in the Aeneid as the wife of Aeneas, a Trojan hero who survived the fall of Troy. LeGuin takes Lavinia’s brief mention and runs with it, opening with Lavinia’s childhood, then there’s arrival of Aeneas and his Trojans, their marriage, the founding of Lavinium, war… Throughout, Lavinia visits a sacred grove, where she talks to the ghost of “the poet”, who is clearly Virgil (who lived over a thousand years later – some of the references by him to “the future” do initially suggest something a little more science-fictional, but no). I know some people were very taken with the novel, but it never quite clicked with, although there was no denying its quality.

never_at_homeNever at Home, L Timmel Duchamp (2011). I bought this a couple of years ago after being much impressed by Duchamp’s Marq’ssan Cycle – which, incidentally, is one of the best sf series about first contact ever written – but had never got around to reading it for some reason. Which I have now rectified. Partly, I admit, prompted by the superb story by Duchamp which opens the VanderMeers’ feminist sf anthology, Sisters of the Revolution. That story is not in Never at Home, but those that are range from the merely good to the bloody excellent. It’s been a while since I’ve come across a genre collection as strong as this one, and yet looking at the stories I’m not entirely sure why. They’re not bursting with ideas or “eyeball kicks” – that’s not what Duchamp does – but they’re certainly fascinating, and extremely well-written, explorations of very carefully explored ideas. In ‘A Question of Grammar’, for example, a woman taken from her family (who, it is implied, are considered unpersons by the galactic authorities) is bonded chemically to an alien to act as interpreter. I’m tempted to describe the story as “very”Gwyneth Jones”, high praise indeed from me, but I think that’s probably unfair to Duchamp. Either way, this was the best story in the collection and deserves to be much more widely known. ‘The Nones of Quintilis, Somewhere on the Southwest Slope of Monte Albano’ manages that very difficult balancing trick of being genre but not reading like genre. ‘Sadness Ineffable, Desire Ineluctable’ (Duchamp’s strong point clearly doesn’t lie in titling her short fiction) manages to evoke something like Area X half a decade before VanderMeer’s novels, and do so with more mystery and less fungi (both, it must be said, pluses in my book). This is a superior collection, probably the best genre collection I’m likely to read this year (yes, I think it just edges out Other Stories below). Not only do I recommend it, but I think everyone should also read Duchamp’s Marq’ssan Cycle; and, of course, Duchamp’s Aqueduct Press does sterling work and has published some blinding works of fiction since its founding in 2004.

blindnessBlindness, Henry Green (1926). The authors you love, I’ve found, do not come about due to wide or deep reading of their oeuvre, but from a single piece of work, usually in the first half dozen or so by that author you’ve read. It blows you away… and it colours all your other encounters with that author’s works. With Lowry, it was his novella ‘Through the Panama’, with Durrell it was The Alexandria Quartet, with Blixen it was her story ‘Tempest’… and with Green it was the first novel by him I read, Loving. A pitch-perfect control of voice, a refusal to tell the story using normal narrative techniques, and an excellent eye for detail… what’s not to love? Blindness is Green’s first novel, and concerns a public schoolboy whose bright future is snatched from him in an accident which blinds him (a kid throws a stone at a passing train, smashing a window through which the protagonist is looking). The story is told firstly through letters, then through semi-stream-of-consciousness narratives by the young man and his mother and the young woman (of an unsuitable family) whose company he enjoys… It’s very much a story of privilege and deprivation – the main character is the scion of a wealthy family, with a country seat boasting a large staff (members of which which the mother complains about repeatedly); but the young woman is the daughter of an alcoholic vicar fallen on hard times and, if anything, reads more like a DH Lawrence character (on his good days, that is) than a fit companion for the blind boy. Green had a reputation as “a writer’s writer”, which is generally taken to mean he was much admired but sold few copies. It’s true that there’s a dazzling level of technique on display in Blindness, a facility with prose no writer can fail to admire. And it’s Green’s writing prowess I certainly admire, rather than his choice of subjects or the stories he chooses to tell. But there’s a profound pleasure to be found in reading prose that is just put together so well, and that’s why I treasure Green’s writing.

winters_talesWinter’s Tales, Isak Dinesen (1942). As mentioned earlier, Blixen impressed me with her story ‘Tempests’ in Anecdotes of Destiny (AKA Babette’s Feast and Other Stories), and so resolved to read more by her. (I’d also enjoyed the three films made of her works: Out of Africa, Babette’s Feast and The Immortal Story.) Winter’s Tales contains 11 stories, some of which are better than others, but all of which are good and all of which have an almost mythical feel to them. In some it’s quite overt – ‘The Fish’, for example, reads like mannered high fantasy but is about an actual king of Denmark. Most of the stories are historical, typically set in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. Some are twist-in-the-tale type stories, such as ‘The Young Man with the Carnation’, in which a young husband reconsiders the future of his marriage after the eponymous person appears in the middle of the night at the door of the hotel room he is sharing with his wife. Only later, does the young husband realise he had been in the wrong room (whoops, spoiler). ‘The Heroine’ is a cautionary tale in which a French woman saves a group of travellers from being shot by Prussian soldiers (during the Franco-Prussian War) by refusing the Prussian commander’s offer. There was something quite DH Lawrence about the story. ‘The Pearls’ reminded me of Blixen’s own ‘The Immortal Story’, although its plot was very different. A woman marries a fearless man and her own sense of adventure is abruptly threatened when she realises the two of them skirt much too closely to danger – a realisation embodied in a  string of pearls he gives her and which she inadvertently breaks… There is, as I’ve said, a near-mythical to these stories, almost as if they’re parables. It’s a type of story that seems to have mostly fallen out of favour; and while that does make the contents seem of their time, there’s also a timelessness to them because they’re set in earlier decades and centuries. I’ll be reading more Dinesen/Blixen.

other_storiesOther Stories, Paul Park (2015). I’ve been a fan of Park’s fiction since reading Coelestis back in the mid-1990s, and I still think it’s one of the best sf novels ever written. Like LeGuin, Park’s career has been somewhat varied, albeit considerably less prolific, and his last novel, a metafictional piece that straddles science fiction, fantasy, alternate history and autobiography, All Those Vanished Engines, was for me one of the best novels of 2014. (It didn’t win any awards, of course.) So when PS Publishing announced they were publishing a collection of Parks stories, I was keen to get my hands on it… and it took a while to appear. But it was totally worth it. Some of the stories I’d read before – ‘No Traveller Returns’ was originally published as a signed limited novella by PS Publishing and, yes, I own a copy; ‘Three Visits to a Nursing Home’ forms part of Park’s excellent novel, All Those Vanished Engines. Two stories appeared in Postscripts anthologies in which I also had stories – one of which, I – kof kof – provided the title story (#20/21 Edison’s Frankenstein and #32/33 Far Voyager). As for the rest… they’re slippery things, sliding between fantasy, alternate history and mimetic fiction, and even, in some cases, autobiography. ‘A Family History’ posits an alternate history in which the French Revolution fails and parts of North America remain in French control in the late nineteenth centiry… and the deconstructs the concept of alternate history. ‘Watchers at the Living Gate’ is straight-up fantasy, and while it owes more to Hope Hodgson than Tolkein, it still presents a singular vision. ‘Ragnarok’ is posta-apocalyspe fiction presented as epic poetry (not, to my mind, an experiment that works especially well). ‘Abduction’ is a frankly baffling story about what might, or might not be, alien abductions. But everything in the book is beautifully-written. Park and Duchamp are both massively under-rated US genre writers, and should be much more widely-read.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 126

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A critical bookshelf, part 2

I did one of these a while ago – see here – but I’ve bought more critical works since then… and here they are.


Five books on women science fiction writers, most of which I used as a research for All That Outer Space Allows. Galactic Suburbia discusses pre-feminist sf and demonstrates that it was in fact feminist. Daughters of Earth is an anthology, in which each of the female-authored stories is discussed in a following critical essay. The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction is about, well, the title pretty much says it all. Partners in Wonder is a history of women writing in genre magazines from 1926 to 1965. The Feminine Eye I found on eBay and contains nine critical essays on authors such as CJ Cherryh, CL Moore, Suzette Haden Elgin and Suzy McKee Charnas.


Three critical works by some British chap who, I believe, also writes fiction. Sibilant Fricative was shortlisted for the BFS Award, but Rave & Let Die won the BSFA Award. Science Fiction (Roberts) I bought in Stockholm at Fantastika 2016. There is a second edition now available. Science Fiction (Baker) I bought from Amazon. I’m mentioned in two of these critical works.


Uranian Worlds is an annotated list of genre works which feature LGBT themes or characters. My copy is an ex-library one I bought cheap from a reseller on Amazon. Red Planets is, as the title explains, about “Marxism and”Science Fiction”. I’ve yet to read it, though I’m interested in left-wing sf. My Fair Ladies discusses the depiction of artificial women in genre, although it seems to focus more on media genre than written.


Some critical works by writers: Starcombing I reviewed for Interzone (I later posted the review on my blog here). In Other Worlds was a lucky find in a remainder shop. The Country You Have Never Seen is apparently now as rare as rocking horse shit, so I was lucky to pick a copy up when I did (there’s a secondhand copy on Amazon for £693.49!). Magic Mommas. Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts I found on eBay. The Issue at Hand and More Issues at Hand I bought from Cold Tonnage. William Atheling, Jr, was, of course, James Blish.


Every now and again, science fiction throws up these annotated listicle books, ususally with contentious titles like 100 Must Read Science Fiction Novels. I wrote a blog post after reading this, which morphed into a correspondence with the author – see here and here. Anatomy of Wonder is currently in its fifth edition and costs £55 new, so I bought an earlier edition for consierably less. Call and Response is Paul Kincaid’s second collection of essays and reviews. And In The Chinks of the World Machine was one of two non-fiction works published under The Women’s Press sf imprint (the other was LeGuin’s The Language of the Night, and I’ve yet to find a copy).


Moving pictures, #46

Yet more movies… All but one are from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but two of them I’d seen previously.

solarisSolaris*, Andrei Tarkovsky (1972, Russia). I first saw Solaris back in the early 1980s when I was at school. It was a Sunday afternoon and it was on, I think, BBC2, and the junior common room had a single television set but I somehow managed to persuade a half a dozen of my fourteen-year-old peers to sit and watch three hours of Russian sf film. Whatever leadership qualities I had then which allowed me to manage that have long since gone. But I’ve treasured Solaris ever since. In fact, it was one of a handful of films I was determined to own once DVDs appeared on the market (I never liked VHS, and refused to buy videocassettes). I’ve watched it few times since buying it on DVD back in 2002, but this most recent rewatch was triggered by upgrading my copy to Blu-ray. And I still love the film, although it’s not my favourite Tarkovsky. Despite the odd moment which is wildly implausible – such as when Kelvin’s launches Hari in an escape rocket from the station, and Kelvin survives being in the same chamber as the launch – the entire film looks astonishingly believable. There’s something about the production design (rocket launch notwithstanding) that makes the space station look like a real place. The story is loosely based on Lem’s novel of the same title, so loosely Lem was apparently unhappy with the adaptation; but, to be frank, when having someone of the calibre of Tarkovsky adapting a work it seems churlish to complain it’s not especially faithful. And it’s true the film does mostly ignore the Solaris organism, which is the focus of the book, and instead spends its time documenting the effects of the organisms on the scientists aboard the space station. But it looks gorgeous, and even the moments of black and white – Tarkovsky ran out of colour film stock – seem to fit in with the overall look and feel of the movie. Solaris works so well because it doesn’t do the science-ficiton thing and focus on the novum, the Solaris organism, as the book does, but focuses instead on Kelvin’s relationship with Hari. In the book, the Solaris organism manifests fantastical cathedral-like islands; in the film, it manifests a single enigmatic woman from Kelvin’s past. I know which story I prefer.

deer_hunterThe Deer Hunter*, Michael Cimino (1978, USA). I’d seen this many years ago, but other than it being about Vietnam, and containing a scene featuring Russian roulette, remembered pretty much nothing of it. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. Because, to be honest, I thought The Deer Hunter merely okay. Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken are two of a group of steel workers who regularly go hunting in the mountains and generally behave like swaggering macho working-class Americans. And then they sign up to fight in Vietnam and, well, there are a million films about that, in fact until 9/11 it pretty much defined a big part of the US psyche… But things don’t go well in Vietnam and they’re captured together – in one of those coincidences that plots require – and tortured by the Viet Cong… before escaping. But all of them have been damaged by their Vietnam experiences. Well, all except De Niro. Although perhaps he is, as he can no longer no shoot defenceless deers when hunting. Christopher Walken forgets who he is and begins playing Russian roulette for money… and winning. John Savage loses both legs and the use of an arm, and ends up in a VA hospital. I can see how at the time this movie took a number of chances, and they paid off. But from forty years later, there’s little in it to impress all that much. It concerns a topic which is the hangup of a nation that is not my own and a generation which is not my own. I have to judge it as a film and only that. There is no baggage. And in that respect, it has its moments – Cimino’s ambition is plain, and it mostly pays off; but the characters are thinly-drawn and there’s too much reliance on the cast to bring them to life (some, notoriously, weren’t even scripted but had to improvise). It’s a good cast, of course, and they mostly went on to greater things – but this is early in their careers. The Vietnam scenes do not compare well with those in other films (my only comparison, of course), and there’s little subtlety in the war’s effects on the characters. I’m in two minds whether this belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. There are better Vietnam War films, there are better war films… but it captures something – even if it’s only its director’s ambition – that might be worth preserving.

all_quietAll Quiet on the Western Front*, Lewis Milestone (1930, USA). The most surprising thing about this film, I guess, is that it’s a US film with US actors who play Germans fighting for Germany during World War I. Has Hollywood ever made a movie about Wehrmacht or Waffen-SS soldiers? I don’t think so – at least not where they’re playing the heroes (and we’ll nip the “good Nazi” discussion in the bud right now, thank you very much). All Quiet on the Western Front is essentially a “war is hell” story, and it happens to be written by a German and set during WWI. Which clearly wasn’t seen as a commercial obstacle by Hollywood – although, to be fair, Hitler didn’t seize control of Germany until 1931, but surely it was obvious what was going on in Germany at the time (for a start, half of Britain’s aristocracy were supporting Hitler by then). Despite all that, All Quiet on the Western Front is a fairly unexciting war film, if that doesn’t sound odd. What I mean is, it doesn’t offer any astonishing insights – perhaps it did in 1930, although I find it hard to believe; perhaps it did in 1928 when Remarque’s novel was first published in the Vossische Zeitung, although given the effects of WWI on the German population away from the Front (especially given the blockade by the British Grand Fleet), so maybe not… True, it humanises the enemy of WWI, and that may have been something new to US audiences, which I guess makes it anti-propaganda and not something which Hollywood normally does. And, after all that, the trench warfare it depicts seems a little sanitised compared to the reality as documented, or indeed in later films set during the war.

rivetteDuelle, Jacques Rivette (1976, France). I’ve watched this twice now and I’m still no clearer as to what it’s about. There are apparently two women, the Queen of the Night and the Queen of the Sun, and they fight a magical battle in mid-1970s Paris over a magical diamond. I tweeted while watching this that in most films there’s always a sense the director is playing to the gallery, but that sense was completely absent from Duelle (as indeed it was in Rivette’s Merry-Go-Round too). You feel like a Peeping Tom, watching something without knowing the context. I was, I admit, beguiled by the “limited edition” status of the collection in which this appears, and having been impressed by La belle noiseuse; but two films in and I’m beginning to question my purchase. It’s not that Duelle is a bad film – it’s not, it’s well-shot and well-acted… but, well, it’s a bit like watching someone’s home movie (with extremely high production values, that is). If the synopsis given on Wikipedia is the story Rivette thought he was telling, the film is a little too confused for it to stand as a description of its plot. I quite liked Merry-Go-Round‘s inability to resolve itself – it was very L’Avventura, and I admire Antonioni’s film, and indeed his oeuvre. But Duelle often feels like assorted episodes from an incomplete series. I’m going to have to watch it again, I think; but I’m convinced I’ll never make real sense of it.

gospelThe Gospel According to Matthew*, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1964, Italy). I was looking for something on Amazon Prime to watch on a Sunday afternoon, and stumbled across this, which is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. It wasn’t quite the easy watching I was hoping for, but never mind. It’s a pretty much straight-up telling of the eponymous gospel, its southern Italy locations making a good fist of standing in for Biblical Palestine. I’m not entirely sure why the film exists, to be honest. It’s not a new spin on the gospel, and as commentary it’s remarkably thin. The neorealist style works well with the material, but we’re still talking about a 2000-year-old fantasy that a substantial portion of the world’s population think is historical fact. Here are a few facts: Jesus was Jewish; he spoke Aramaic; Jesus is not an Aramaic name, so he can’t have been called that; he probably wasn’t born in Nazareth either, because there’s no archaeological evidence the town existed before the third century CE. But then Pasolini’s film tells it as it’s presented in Matthew’s gospel, which was written at least two generations after the Crucifixion, and has undoubtedly been rewritten many times since. But that’s the source material, this is the film. And it, well, it tells a story, and it does it well. But the source material is always going to overshadow it, and while I salute Pasolini’s bravery in tackling it, and I admire the understated way he told the story, it does all feel a bit unnecessary. Does it belong on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list? I honestly don’t know.

haxanHäxan*, Benjamin Christensen (1922, Sweden). Um, I could perhaps have better planned my viewing… to go from saying I have no interest in a movie about Christ straight into one about Satan and witchcraft… Especially when Häxan proved well-made and fascinating. I’ve no idea what prompted Christensen to make it – surely Sweden in the 1920s wasn’t that bad a place? Häxan opens with a history of witchcraft, before then illustrating that history with a series of re-enactments. One part involves the trial of an old woman for witchcraft, and the final part of the film attempts to give modern explanations to behaviour classed in less enlightened times as witchcraft. And this is in a film made in the 1920s. Though it may be difficult for some to believe, I was not around at the beginnings of cinema. Silent movies were very much a thing of the past when I was born. And, I suppose, I inherited the general response to them that my generation had – sound was better, so why bother watching silent films? Of course, I’ve seen quite a number of them since then. Indeed, I’ve become a fan of Murnau’s films, and Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is a bona fide classic, as is Pudovkin’s Storm Over Asia, not to mention Ponting’s The Great White Silence, Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera or Dovzhenko’s Zemlya. Okay, I’m not a big fan of the Keystone Cops, and while I’ll happily watch Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd or early Laurel & Hardy, they’re pretty much watch-once-and-enjoy experiences; and that’s even true of early Hitchcock… but there are silent films – and I don’t just mean Metropolis – that every cinephile should have in their collection… and yes, Häxan is probably one of them. Happily, there’s a good edition from Tartan readily available in the UK.