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Best of the half-year, 2018

For the past several years, probably longer than I think and much longer than I’d care to know, I’ve been putting together a best of the year six months in. Partly it’s to document the good stuff I’ve read or watched or listened to during the first half of the year, but also I find it interesting to see how it changes over the following six months.

2018 has been an odd year so far. While the big project at work moved up a gear, my part in it sort of moved into cruise mode. So I started reviewing again for Interzone – three books so far, and the first book I reviewed made the top spot on my list below – and I also started up SF Mistressworks, although perhaps it’s not quite as regular as I’d like yet. On the film front, I continued to watch far too many movies, but at least it’s proven a pretty wide selection – including a number of films from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, plus movies from all over the world… and some surprising new favourites.

books
1 The Smoke, Simon Ings (2018, UK). I picked this to review for Interzone having very much liked Ings’s previous sf novel, Wolves. But The Smoke, I discovered, was considerably better. It’s sort of steampunk, sort of alt history, sort of high concept sf. It’s beautifully written, and does a lot of really interesting things really well. It is probably Ings’s best book to date. I would not be at all surprised if it appears on several award shortlists next year. On the other hand, I will not be at all surprised if it’s completely ignored, as UK sf awards don’t seem to be doing so well at the moment, as popular awards are pulled one way then another by in-groups on social media and juried awards try to make sense of a genre that is now so pervasive across all modes of writing that no one has any idea what is what anymore.

2 Pack My Bag, Henry Green (1940, UK). Green wrote this autobiography at the age of 35 convinced he would not survive WWII. He did (he spent the war as an ambulance driver). But this is an amazing piece of work, a warts and all depiction of upper class education in the 1920s, and a beautifully stated meditation on writing. I’ve been a fan of Green since the first book of his I read, but Pack My Bag intensified my love for his prose. Read all of his books. If only he weren’t so difficult to collect in first edition…

3 The Rift, Nina Allan (2017, UK). This won the BSFA Award a month or so ago, and while it was not my first choice I’m happy that it won as I think it’s a worthy winner. It is, to my mind, the most successful of Allan’s disconnected novel-length fictions. It not only occupies that area between science fiction and mainstream I find interesting, but also between narrative and… whimsy? I’m not sure what the correct term is. The Rift is a story that feels like it should add up but resolutely fails to do so – and makes a virtue of its failure. It’s easily one of the best genre books I’ve read so far this year.

4 The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry (2016, UK). I read this over Christmas so technically it was a 2017 read, but it didn’t feature in any of my posts for that year so I’m counting it as a 2018 read. It’s an odd book, almost impossible to summarise, chiefly because there’s so much going on in it. It’s set in late Victorian times. A recently-widowed young woman decide to indulge her interest in palaeontology and visits a family who are friends of her friends and who live in the Essex marshes. She finds herself drawn to the man of the family, the local vicar, while her autistic son is drawn to his consumptive wife. The titular serpent makes only a brief appearance, and even then its reality is doubtful, but the way in which its legend shapes the lives of those in the books is very real. Fascinating and beautifully written.

5 Four Freedoms, John Crowley (2009, USA). I’ve been a fan of Crowley’s fiction for a couple of decades or so, but it usually takes me a while to get around to reading his latest work… nine years in this case. I should have read it sooner because it’s bloody excellent. End it worked especially well for me because the story was based around the construction of an invented WWII bomber which to me was obviously the Convair B-36 (but, bizarrely, it was mostly coincidence as Crowley did not actually base it on the B-36). Essentially, it’s the story of the workforce building the aforementioned WWII bomber, focusing on several members, and telling their stories. It’s beautifully-written, of course; and the characterisation is top-notch.

Honourable mentions – Exit West, Mohsin Hamid (2017, Pakistan) mysterious doors leading to Western nations appear in the war-torn Middle East, a clever look at the refugee issue facing Europe but which sadly turns into an unsatisfactory love story; The Book of Strange New Things, Michel Faber (2014, UK) an Anglican priest is sent to an exoplanet to succour to aliens and becomes obsessed by them, while the UK, and his wife, slowly disintegrates, moving stuff and the sf element is well-handled; October Ferry to Gabriola, Malcolm Lowry (1970, Canada) more semi-autobiographical fiction from Lowry, in which a young lawyer and his wife head to the west coast of Canada to buy a house on an island, I just love Lowry’s prose; A Primer for Cadavers, Ed Atkins (2016, UK) a collection of braindumps and stream-of-consciousness narratives, some of which were written as accompaniment to Atkins’s video installations; Calling Major Tom, David Barnett (2017, UK) polished semi-comic novel about a misanthropic British astronaut en route to Mars who reconnects with humanity via a dysfunctional family in Wigan.

films – narrative
An unexpected top five in this category. One is by a director I normally don’t have that much time for, and the remaining four were by directors more or less unknown to me when I started watching the films.

1 The Lure, Agnieszka Smoczyńska (2015, Poland). I saw a description of this somewhere that said it was about carnivorous mermaids in a Polish nightclub during the 1980s. And it was a musical. That was enough for me to add it to my rental list. And it proved to be exactly as advertised. I loved it so much, I bought my own copy on Blu-ray. And loved it just as much on re-watch. It’s a film that revels in its premise and dedicates its entire mise en scène to it. The music is kitschy, and not really very 1980s – and one of the bands in the film is a punk band… that isn’t really 1980s punk either. But those are minor quibbles.

2 Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan (2017, UK). I find Nolan’s films generally unsatisfying so I didn’t bother going to see this when it was on at the cinema. Plus, the film’s subject was not one that appealed, especially in these days of Brexit and and various attempts in popular culture to spin it as a good thing because history. Not that Dunkirk was an especially proud moment in British history. Although you’d be surprised at the number of people who think, or insist, it was. It was, as this film mentions, “a colossal military blunder”. But I found myself watching Dunkirk one evening… and I loved it. It’s a beautifully shot film and completely plotless. It presents the events of Dunkirk by focusing on several different groups of people. It does not offer commentary; it is in fact almost a fly-on-the-wall documentary. And did I mention that it looks gorgeous? I ended up buying my own Blu-ray copy.

3 Thelma, Joachim Trier (2017, Norway). A young woman from a religious family moves to Oslo to study at university. One day in the library, she suffers an epileptic fit – but subsequent study by doctors cannot find evidence of epilepsy. She also finds herself drawn to a fellow student, but her upbringing makes the relationship difficult. Then odd things began to happen around her… and flashbacks reveal why these occur. Comparisons with Carrie are inevitable, but Thelma is so much better than that film. Elli Harboe is brilliant in the title role, and totally carries the film. I might even buy my own Blu-ray copy.

4 Vampir Cuadecuc, Pere Portabella (1970, Spain). I’ve no idea why I stuck this film on my rental list, but I knew nothing about it when I slid it into my player. It proved to be an experimental film, shot during the filming of Jesse Franco’s Count Dracula, but in stark black and white and with only atonal music for a soundtrack. And, er, that’s it. I loved it. I loved it so much I hunted down a Spanish release of a box set of 22 of Portabella’s films and bought it. The imagery is beautiful in the way only transformed imagery can be, and the fact it piggybacks on an existing production, and steals from its plot, not to mention its casts’ performances, only adds to the film’s appeal. I’ve been slowly working my way through the Portabella box set since I bought it. It was a good purchase..

5 India Song*, Marguerite Duras (1975, France). I watched this because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but the director’s name was unfamiliar to me, and I didn’t bother looking the film up before watching it. So what I found myself watching came as a surprise… which seems to be a recurrent theme to this year’s Best of the half-year… Duras was a French novelist, playwright and film-maker, who is perhaps best-known outside France for writing the screenplay for Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima, mon amour. But she made almost twenty films herself, and India Song is one of the better known. It is an experimental film, although it tells a relatively straightforward story in a relatively straightforward manner – that of the wife of an ambassador in India in the 1930s who affair with multiple men to alleviate the boredom of her life. But the film has no dialogue – everything is narrated by voiceover. It’s a bit like watching a bunch of people act out a short story as it is read. I found it fascinating, and would love to watch more of Duras’s films. But they are, of course, extremely hard to find in English-language releases. I really should improve my French one of these days.

Honourable mentions – Baahubali 1 & 2, SS Rajmouli (2017, India) absolutely bonkers and OTT Telugu-language historical epic, has to be seen to be believed; A Question of Silence*, Marleen Gorris (1982, Netherlands) one of the most feminist films I’ve ever watched: three women are charged with the murder of a male shop assistant; Penda’s Fen, Alan Clarke (1974, UK) there’s an England which exists in art which I do not recognise, and this is one of the best presentations of it in narrative cinema I’ve seen; WR: Mysteries of the Organism*, Dušan Makavejev (1971, Serbia) a paean to the ideas of Wilhelm Reich and his orgone energy, told through interviews and an invented narrative about a woman in Yugoslavia who has an affair with an People’s Artist ice skater; A Silent Voice, Naoko Yamada (2016, Japan) a lovely piece of animation about a teenager who bullies a deaf student at his school and comes to regret his actions; The Red Turtle, Michaël Dudok de Wit (2016, France) dialogue-free animated film about a man stranded on an island, with some beautiful animation; Secret Défense, Jacques Rivette (1998, France) baggy thriller from Rivette which hangs together successfully over its 170-minute length; Still Life, Jia Zhangke (2006, China) a man hunts for his wife and daughter in the Three Gorges, more documentary-style drama from a favourite director, plus gorgeous scenery; Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters*, Paul Schrader (1985, USA) fascinating, sometimes almost hallucinogenic, dramatisation of the life of famous writer.

films – documentary
1 Notfilm, Ross Lipman (2015, USA). A fascinating study of Samuel Beckett’s only foray into cinema, Film, and how it impacted Beckett’s career. The BFI release which includes the documentary also includes a copy of Beckett’s film, plus a 1979 British remake, which sticks closer to the original script. It’s fascinating stuff, not least Notfilm‘s study of Beckett’s career, including interviews with long-time collaborators, such as Billie Whitelaw. I can’t say the documentary persuaded me to search out DVDs of Beckett’s plays – he wrote a lot for television, so some must exist – although I would like to give one of his novels a try.

2 A Man Vanishes, Shohei Imamura (1967, Japan). A salaryman leaves the office for home one night and never arrives. A Man Vanishes sets out to discover what became of him, but turns into a meditation on the role of the documentary maker and the impossibility of really documenting what was going through someone’s mind. Particularly during their last moments. The last scene, in which the crew appear and dismantle the set  around the actors, is especially effective.

3 Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman (2008, Israel). An animated documentary, partly autobiographical partly fictional, in which Folman tracks down and interviews members of his platoon in the IDF and discovers he was complicit in an atrocity which he had completely blanked. The animation allows Folman to present past events, and it’s an effective technique, even if it doesn’t work quite so well when it’s Folman in deep discussion with friends or platoon-mates in the present day. However, after a while, the animation stops being so obtrusive, and Folman’s unburdening starts to overwhelm the narrative.

4 Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, Alexandra Dean (2017, USA). I suspect it’s a toss-up these days as to whether Lamarr is better known for her acting or her link to Bluetooth (given that the latter has been heavily publicised for the last few years). She was a remarkable woman, who took up inventing to stave off boredom while pursuing a career in Hollywood, and among her inventions was frequency-hopping, now used in everything from military secure comms to GPS to wi-fi to Bluetooth… After watching this documentary, I really wanted to track down a copy of her self-financed and -produced historical epic, Loves of Three Queens, but good copies are hard to find.

5 Kate Plays Christine, Robert Greene (2014, USA). An actress, Kate, prepares for her role as a real-life person, Christine, who committed suicide on air back in the 1970s. The length of time that has passed since Christine Chubbuck, a news anchor, shot herself while the camera has live has meant there is little evidence remaining about her or her life. Kate interviews those who knew her, but even then she remains very much an enigma – there’s even a hint she might have been trans. Despite the details of Chubbuck’s death, this documentary is very much not salacious or in bad taste. It navigates its way very carefully, and it’s very well put together. The DVD I bought I bought came bundled with Actress, which is also a very good documentary.

Honourable mentions – Where to Invade Next, Michael Moore (2015, USA) the title’s joke wears thin very quickly, but Moore’s survey of six European nations’ civilised social policies stands in stark contrast to the regressive society of the US, despite Moore’s claims many of the policies are embedded in the Declaration of Independence; Becoming Bond, Josh Greenbaum (2017, USA) a tongue-in-cheek look at the career of George Lazenby, who played the best Bond (yes, he did), but then torpedoed his own film career; The Oath, Laura Poitras (2010, USA) two men were part of al-Qa’eda, one was a non-combatant driver, the other was a member of bin Laden’s bodyguard, the former was captured and held in Gitmo and tried as a terrorist, while the latter gave himself up to the Yemeni authorities, served a brief prison sentence and not lectures against both al-Qa’eda and the US; Dispossession, Paul Sng (2017, UK) a damning indictment of the decades-long Tory policy of neglecting social housing, so that the land can be sold off to developers… resulting in our present-day housing crisis. Fuck the Tories; The Farthest, Emer Reynolds (2017, Ireland) fascinating look at the two Voyager space probes, with interviews of those involved and some excellent CGI footage of the probes themselves; Colobane Express, Khady Sylla (2008, Senegal) set aboard a privately-operated bus in Dakar, using actors to tell the stories of the passenger’s lives, excellent stuff.

albums
1 The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness I and II, Panopticon (2018) Panopticon is a one-man band, and plays a mix of bluegrass and black metal. It works surprising well. The two albums here, released together as one as they were intended to be, are according to the artist: “the first half of the album is atmospheric metal, the second half is more americana focused”. The acoustic “americana” sections are actually more atmospheric than the black metal sections, but it all hangs together extremely well.

2 Currents, In Vain (2018). In Vain are from Norway, and also a one-man band. They play a metal that veers from black to death to prog, and sometimes features a few other musical genres, like country. Currents is their fourth full-length album, after 2013’s Ænigma, which I think made my top five albums for that year. I’m not sure Currents is as good as that album, but it’s still bloody good stuff.

3 The Weight of Things, Entransient (2018). Entransient play something halfway between prog rock and prog metal, although one of the tracks on this album features harmony vocals that don’t really belong to either genre. It’s probably the best song on the album, in fact. This is only their second album after their eponymous debut in 205, but it’s a much better album, and I’m looking forward to hearing more from them.

I’ve actually bought more than three albums during the last six months, but not that much more. The last few years I’ve not listened to as much music as I used to, nor seen as many bands perform live. In fact, I’ve only been to one gig so far this year, to see Therion, who were really good (even though I’ve not kept up with them for at least seven or eight years).

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Moving pictures 2018, #29

Ha. For all my promises this blog would not continue as just movie post after movie post, it’s more or less gone and turned into that. And we’re not even halfway through the year. Not, I must admit, that I’ve posted anything else of any real interest during the last five months – the usual reading diary and book haul posts… oh, and a con report back in early April, and a bit on the BSFA Award and a general rant about sf in February and a more recent rant on sensibilities embedded in fction, and… Er, that’s about it. Oh well.  And it’s an entirely Anglophone bunch of films this time around. Oh well.

Actress, Robert Greene (2014, USA). This came bundled with Kate Plays Christine, as, er, indicated by the DVD cover art. It’s an earlier documentary by Greene, documenting a period during the life of actress Brandy Burre, who was in The Wire, as she tries to get an acting job after several years away raising a family. I believe the technical term is “resting”. It plays like a documentary, it also plays like a social drama. We see Burre at home dealing with family matters, we see her preparing for auditions. She’s very forthright about her intentions, and indeed her feelings. Greene has said that Burre took to the “role” so much that the line between acting and her real life became blurred. Greene’s decision to film fly-on-the-wall but to also direct the progress of event no doubt also contributed to this. I admit, I’ve never seen The Wire, so Burre was completely unknown to me. I suspect I would have viewed Actress slightly different had she been familiar to me, the actress who played an important character in a TV series I loved a great deal. Because of my unfamiliarity with Burre, Actress in parts seemed little more than a straightforward documentary about an unsuccessful actor. And the film industry is notoriously incestuous, even more so than a literature, and more than overly fond of making movies about making movies. But Burre in this film is such a real presence – which seems somewhat daft to have to say – that she not only carries it but lifts it above what it ostensibly is. It’s perhaps not as technically interesting as Kate Plays Christine, but Burre is a much more interesting character than either Shiel or Chubbock. Another 5 stars from me, then.

In the Shadow of the Sun, Derek Jarman (1981, UK). And with each film I watch by Jarman, so my understanding of his career changes. I had always thought of him as someone like McLaren or Westwood, someone whose aesthetic or ethos had been embraced by the punk movement, chiefly I suspect because Jubilee had been labelled a punk film and I hadn’t seen it. But I’d seen some of Jarman’s other films and they didn’t contradict this impression I had. But then I watched Jubilee – from this very box set – and discovered it wasn’t really a punk film. And having now seen several more films from the collection, including In the Shadow of the Sun, I can see I got Jarman pretty much all wrong. In the Shadow of the Sun was edited together from Jarman’s earliest films, shot between 1972 and 1975 on Super *, and then given a Throbbing Gristle soundtrack. The end result is a series of distorted and colourised images that have little or no narrative, but demonstrate an eye more tuned to the visual than the cinematic. If that makes sense. In effect, In the Shadow of a Sun is a video installation, and in that format – multiple screens in a darkened room, Throbbing Gristle soundtrack turned up loud – I imagine it would be very effective. It succeeds as it is because Jarman has a good eye – what he’s actually filming has been done since the 1940s, perhaps even the 1930s – and a willingness to please himself above his audience. It is proving interesting exploring Jarman’s cinematic oeuvre – I’ve not mentioned in any of these posts the short films by him provided as extras on the discs that I’ve watched – and a fascinating lesson in the use of cinema.

To Be or Not to Be*, Ernst Lubitsch (1942, USA). Having watched a bunch of Lubitsch silent comedies, I wasn’t entirely what to expect of this film. The fact it is set in Poland also briefly confused me. But it stars Carole Lombard and Jack Benny, so it’s pure Hollywood. They are the stars of a theatrical troupe in Warsaw in 1939. The film opens with them rehearsing a play which takes the piss out of Hitler. The imminent German invasion puts a stop to that, and they turn to fare more palatable to Nazi tastes, like, er, Hamlet. A Polish air force pilot fancies Lombard, and they agree to meet in her dressing-room whenever Benny begins Hamlet’s soliloquy – hence, the film’s title. Then the Germans invade, and the pilot escapes to London and joins the RAF. Some time later, he meets a Polish intellectual who is returning to Poland to deliver some messages to the underground. The pilot mentions Lombard, a famous actress, but the intellectual has never heard of her. The pilot smells a rat. The intellectual is a Nazi spy! Which leads to the pilot back in Warsaw undercover, while members of Benny and Lombard’s troupe impersonate the Nazi hierarchy to the intellectual, and the intellectual (whom they accidentally kill) to the Nazi hierarchy… It’s all very cleverly done, and there’s some excellent snappy dialogue. But I’m not sure why it made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. There’s nothing brave about Hollywood making a film during WWII which pokes fun at the Nazis, and the film does suggest the Nazi occupation of Poland was less brutal than it actually was. It’s an entertaining film, but it feels a bit like it’s treating a serious subject a little too lightly.

This Happy Breed, David Lean (1944, UK). Lean is generally considered one of the premier British directors of the last century, perhaps because he had several big hits, certainly much bigger than any of the Archers… and I can’t think of a UK director from the middle of last century who had the same level of success as Lean, other than, of course, Hitchcock. Anyway, Lean was a very British director and this between-wars drama, which covers several generations, and two World Wars, is a very British film. It’s set in London among the working class, a sort of well-spoken historical Eastenders, if you will, and follows the Gibbons family from their arrival in the new home in Clapham through to 1939 and the uotbreak of World War II. It’s an adaptation of the play by Noël Coward of the same title. I’m not really a fan of Lean’s films – I like Lawrence of Arabia a lot, but that’s as much because of its subject as it is the movie itself. I find the Archers – Powell and Pressburger – much more to my taste, perhaps because they’re more idiosyncratic. And, to be honest, I’m not especially interested in films, or indeed plays, which whitewash the British national character – all that plucky Englanders muddling through bollocks. They can rewrite WWII to pretend the UK won it – but without the US’s industrial backing at first, and direct involvement later, the Allies would have lost. Not to mention the USSR, who probably contributed more to the Nazis’ defeat than any other nation. True, all nations, all peoples, have a rose-tinted view of their own history, and the arts are as likely to celebrate the lie as they are to comment on the truth. But it’s harder to see where the merit lies in the former…

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, Alexandra Dean (2017, USA). These days Hedy Lamarr is more likely to be known as the “inventor” of Bluetooth as she is as a famous Hollywood actress of the 1930s and 1940s. And that chiefly because the idea of a Hollywood actress actually inventing something seems incredible to most people. But why should it? In actual fact, Lamarr did not invent Bluetooth. She invented, and patented, frequency-hopping, which is used these days in everything from secure military communications to GPS to Bluetooth. However, it was not picked up and developed until after her patent had expired in 1959. So she received nothing for it. Anyway, Lamarr led a fascinating life. She was born in Vienna to a well-off Jewish family, and was a precocious child. In her late teens, she became an actress, and in 1933 starred in Ecstasy, a film famous for its controversial scene in which she seemingly orgasms. The film was later banned in Germany by Hitler. She retired from films when she married a munitions manufacturer, the third-richest man in Austria. Who had ties to the fascists and Nazis. He was very controlling and treated her like a trophy wife (he was 15 years older). She escaped and fled to London. She auditioned for Louis B Mayer, but turned down his offer as too low. Afraid she’d made a mistake, she booked passage on the ship Mayer was returning to the US aboard, and so charmed everyone on the liner that Mayer offered her more than double what he had in London. She accepted. Her film career was nothing to really boast about. Her most famous role was as a “seductive native girl” in White Cargo (1942). Bored with being cast in such roles, she decided to finance her own film, and in the early 1950s she made an historical epic, Loves of Three Queens, in Italy. It flopped, possibly because no one would distribute it in the US. It sounds like a remarkable film – copies are really hard to find these days, the only one available appears to be a bad transfer of an unsympathetic edit – a schlocky historical epic and yet astonishingly feminist for its time. Lamarr had no idea how to run a production, and she lost her entire fortune on it. Back in the US, her career in ruins, she retreated into seclusion, and by the time of her death in 2000, her only link to the outside world for the last couple of decades had been the telephone. She was also a pioneer in plastic surgery – as a patient – making demands of surgeons that helped develop several procedures now common. In her later years, some of these surgeries went badly, leading to further surgeries to correct them… Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story is based around a taped interview with Lamarr from, I think, the 1980s, by a magazine and that had been lost for years. But there’s also lots of archive footage and interviews with her family and those who knew her. She was a remarkable woman who led a fascinating life, and while I must have seen her in one film or another of the years I can’t actually bring one to mind. I guess I’ll have to add a couple to my rental list. Anyway, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story is an excellent documentary about a fascinating woman. Recommended.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 911