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Reading diary, #59

This is the last of 2017’s reading. I’m going to restart the numbering for 2018. I don’t remember why I didn’t for 2017, but never mind.

The Metabaron Book 1: The Techno-Admiral & the Anti-Baron, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Jerry Frissen & Valentin Secher and The Metabaron Book 2: The Techno-Cardinal and the Transhuman, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Jerry Frissen & Niko Henrichon (2016/2017, France). As far as I can work out, Jodorowsky’s name only appears on the covers of these two graphic novels because the Metabarons are his characters (they were originally spin-offs from The Incal). The actual story of this trilogy – the third book is due out this year, I think – is by Jerry Frissen. The Techno-Techno Empire has control of Marmola, the planet that is the only source of the Epiphyte, used to fuel all starships. When they learn the last Metabaron is on his way to the planet, they assume he is going to wrest it from them. So they assign the Techno-Admiral, their cruellest warlord to to stop him. In the second book, the Techno-pope’s closest advisor is promoted to Techno-cardinal and then sent to Marmola to take over production, as the Eipiphyte stocks are dwindling. With him, he takes the Transhuman, an engineered assassin who has all sorts of built-in weapons. But the Metabaron is still out there, causing problems… Frissen manages a good pastiche of Jodorowsky’s bonkers storytelling – not just the bizarre ideas; but also the male gaze and whiff of misogyny (something happily missing from The Incal, but sadly not from its spin-offs). The artwork in the first volume is very -CG-like and really quite gorgeous. In the second, however, it’s more sketchy, more like the penciller’s work has been coloured. I didn’t think it as effective. On the whole, I suspect it’s a series for fans only, as there’s little here to attract a new audience or those unfamiliar with the universe or Jodo’s work.

Ways of Worldmaking, Ben Rivers (2017, UK). A compilation of notes by Rivers on his films, and essays by critics, some of which are about Rivers’s art/films while others are about the man himself. The book is copiously illustrated with stills, photographs and strips of film. It’s also a handsomely put together volume, a solid hardback (and stitched, not glued!), of the sort you seldom see these days in bookshops. Obviously, it’s only going to appeal to someone who appreciates Rivers’s films. I’ve seen only a handful of them – his three feature-length pieces and a couple of short films (included as extras on the DVDs of the former) – but I’m definitely a fan. So Ways of Worldmaking certainly gave me an insight into the man and his works. The title, incidentally, is deliberately taken from Nelson Goodman’s 1978 book, which was a seminal influence on Rivers at college. Goodman argued that “art, philosophy, and the various sciences all make statements about the nature of reality through the creation of ‘worlds’,” as one of the essays in Rivers’s Ways of Worldmaking explains. As someone who reads and writes science fiction, that’s an idea which resonates for me, although in sf the act of worldmaking is not so much overt as it is a fundamental tenet of the genre.

Holidays in Soviet Sanatoriums, Maryam Omidi (2017, UK). Titles don’t get more descriptive of a book’s contents than this one. Apparently, back in the day, Soviet workers were encouraged to go on holidays to places that were a combination of holiday resort and health spa (and surely the plural is sanatoria?). Many were on the Caspian Sea, but there were also plenty in the mountains, particularly the Urals and Caucasians. With the fall of the USSR, most of them fell into disrepair and closed down. But some kept on going, and some have since been re-opened by private consortiums (or even consortia). Architectually, most of the sanatoriums were good examples of Early Soviet Modernist, and several of them are attractive buildings. The holidays offered varied by region and sanatorium, with many having specialist treatments, such as crude oil baths, mineral waters, or just sun, sea and sand. There are plenty of photographs in Holidays in Soviet Sanatoriums, but it’s not a deep study of its subject and the text is quite light. But I just wanted the pictures anyway.

Bodies of Summer, Martín Felipe Castagnet (2012, Argentina). I saw mention of this on someone’s blog, and the central premise sounded interesting so I picked up a copy. In the near-ish future of this short novel – it might even be a novella – the minds of dead people can be downloaded into reanimated corpses. But those who keep their own corpses for their life after death are shunned as pariahs. The narrator occupies the body of an old and overweight woman – he was male when alive – and lives with his grandson. The older the reanimated corpse when it died, the more power it needs to remain whole; otherwise, it starts to fall apart. The science in all this, incidentally, is complete bollocks, but never mind. Some people choose not be reanimated, but stay as virtual personalities on the Web. On the one hand, there’s a Catholic country (the author’s own) and a world in which there is demonstrably no afterlife. But the reanimation thing is also economic, and the quality of the body being occupied is dependent upon the price. The narrative mentions in passing rich people who deliberately kill themselves in order to inhabit better, or different, bodies; as well as those who indulge in dangerous pasttimes with no fear of really losing their lives. For the narrator, however, it’s more a case of reconnecting with his family, both alive and dead, and navigating a world that has changed considerably since he died. Much as I enjoyed Bodies of Summer, I didn’t find it an especially convincing story, but it was clearly not intended to be. I don’t mean that old thing about literary writers “slumming it” in genre, because that’s complete bollocks. It’s not just a matter of approach, or perspective, or even focus; but also how the writer chooses to use the tools available in genre. And there’s enough variation in those among writers who self-identify as genre, never mind among those who don’t. Worth reading.

Emperor (Time’s Tapestry 1), Stephen Baxter (2006, UK). I’m not really sure what to make of Baxter’s novels. He’s frighteningly prolific, and keeping up with his books is almost a career in itself. Some of his novels I’ve enjoyed and thought quite good. And then the next one I pick up is weak and juvenile. And there doesn’t seem to be any pattern to it. For example, I liked the first book of the Destiny’s Children quartet, Coalescent, but was bitterly disappointed by the second, Exultant, and I really must read last two some day… Emperor I quite enjoyed, although it was ridiculously contrived. A woman in pre-Roman Britain begins speaking in tongues while in labour. Someone recognises it as Latin and writes it down. She dies in childbirth, but the son survives. And the Latin becomes the family prophecy… It is supposedly the words of the “Weaver”, a mysterious someone from the future. At least, this is the interpretation by several of the characters, as the prophecty is passed down, and mangled, through generations, and elements of it come true. The novel paints an interesting portrait of Roman Britain, mostly in the region around Hadrian’s Wall – the building of which comprises one section, and a visit to it a couple of centuries later forms another. The whole Weaver thing, however, feels too modern a conceit for the novel’s setting, but since it’s the link which ties the four novels of the quartet together – or so I’m guessing – then I suppose the novel is stuck with it. As Baxter novels go, this is a thin one, a mere 302 pages in hardback. I’m hoping I’ll find the second book as enjoyable a read, unlike the Destiny’s Children quartet.

Murder Take Three, Eric Brown (2017, UK). Despite the title, this is the fourth book in Brown’s Langham and Dupré series of crime novels. They’re set in the 1950s, Donald Langham is a midlist crime writer who works part-time for a private investigation agency with a wartime buddy, and French emigrée Maria Dupré is Langham’s agent and fiancée. A Hollywood starlet, filming at a country house, employs Langham to snoop around the set as she thinks there’s something fishy going on. Langham duly heads up there for the weekend, with Maria in tow, and they get to meet the cast (there is, curiously, not much of a crew on this film). It transpires that Langham knows the scriptwriter, a crime novelist like himself. The cast of the film are a mostly unpleasant lot, and there’s definitely an odd atmosphere to the place, but nothing especially peculiar seems to be going on… Until the starlet is found shot to death in the director’s trailer… They’re easy reads these books, and setting them in the 1950s means all the old murder-mystery tips and tricks and tools can still be used. The two leads are engaging characters, and if the supporting cast tend to drift into caricature territory, it’s no big deal. I think on balance I preferred the volume prior to this, Murder at the Loch, as its plot revolved around an interesting historical mystery. This one feels more like a pastiche of a 1940s Hollywood take on an English countryhouse murder, which gives it more of an air of unreality than it deserved.

The Chrysalids, John Wyndham (1955, UK). I may have read a Wyndham novel when I was at school, but I’m not entirely sure. I do remember reading one of his collections a few years later – if only because the cover art was a blurry photo of an Airfix model of a Colonial Viper from Battlestar Galactica. From what I recall, the stories were pretty bad. But Wyndham occupies a peculiar position in British sf – considered an important writer in the history of the genre by many, but also widely accepted by the mainstream. Some elements of his novels have even entered British culture, such as the Triffids. The Chrysalids, however, is set in Canada, although it might as well be set in Kent. The Earth has been depopulated by nuclear war, and much of it lies in ruins. In Labrador, in a small farming community, the narrator and seven other kids can all talk to each other telepathically. But they keep it secret, because mutations are ruthlessly culled (if animal) or exiled (if human), although the latter do sometimes have a tendency to turn up dead. Unfortunately, the secret gets out when the narrator is in his late teens/early twenties, Chiefly thanks to his very young sister, who is an extremely powerful telepath, so powerful in fact that she can just about hear the thoughts of people in New Zealand… which comes in useful as New Zealand is apparently a near-utopia for telepaths, and they’re sending a mission to Labrador to rescue the mutant teenagers. But not before the teenagers have been chased into the badlands and have witnessed a battle between the farmers and the mutants. Of course, radiation doesn’t cause hereditary mutation, we know that now, although perhaps they didn’t in the 1950s. The whole “keeping the genome pure” thing is also policed using religion, leading to some all too plausible – and sadly common, even now – Bible-backed bigotry. The narrator’s father is an especially big arsehole in that regard. And yet… it all feels very Home counties. For all the regard in which Wyndham is held, he’s never been an important figure in my map of science fiction, UK-only or Anglophone; and I’ve yet to be convinced he should be considered as important as he is.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131

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2017, the best of the year: films

A couple of years ago, I thought it might be a good idea to try and watch all the films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (the 2013 edition). This year I also decided to try and watch a film from as many countries as I could. Both challenges have been going quite well: I’ve watched 897 of the 1001 so far, 56 of them seen for the first time this year; and I’ve watched movies from 53 countries… although only Thailand, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Venezuela, Mongolia, Georgia, Vietnam, Peru, Singapore, Jordan, Jamaica, Estonia, Cuba and Romania were new to me in 2017.

It also occurred to me in 2017 that most of the films I watched were directed by men. So I started to track the genders of the directors whose films I watch in an effort to see more films by female directors. Unfortunately, female directors are hugely outnumbered by men, especially in Hollywood, and I managed only 43 films by women during the year. Having said that, a couple of those female directors became names I plan to keep an eye on, such as Claudia Llosa and Lucía Puenzo.

films
I watched 602 films in 2017, although only 532 were new to me this year. I also decided in 2017 to watch more documentaries, and ended up watching so many that I thought it best to split my film best of the year lists into two, one for documentaries and one for “fictional” films… except I’m not sure what to call the latter, but I think “narrative cinema” is the preferred term.

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1 I am Cuba, Mikhail Kalatozov (1964, Cuba) [1]. I loved Humberto Solás’s Lucía after watching it, and I wanted to see Tomáz Guttiérez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment a second time, and there was this box set from Mr Bongo that included both, as well as I am Cuba and Strawberry and Chocolate. So I bought the box set… and was blown away when I watched I am Cuba, a documentary commissioned by the Soviets to promote Cuba, but which was so innovative it was never actually released. Kalatozov reportedly strung cameras on wires, but even knowing that it’s hard to work out how he achieved some of his shots. And this was in 1964, when there was no CGI. I am Cuba also presents the island as a near-utopia, and while the USSR and its satellite nations were never that, they at least aspired to it – which is more than can be said of the West. The American Dream isn’t utopia, it’s a deeply mendacious justification for the success of the few at the expense of the many. Even now, 53 years after I am Cuba was made, Cuba remains poor, but has one of the best free healthcare systems on the planet, and the US is rich and its healthcare system is unaffordable by the bulk of its population. Some things are more important than giving a handful of people the wherewithal to buy their own Caribbean island.

2 The Pearl Button, Patricio Guzmán (2015, Chile). If you’ve not watched a film by Guzmán, why not? The Pearl Button is a meditation on the universe, water, the history of Chile, especially the Pinochet dictatorship, and the genocide of the country’s indigenous people. It’s a mix of stock footage and gorgeously-shot film, all tied together by the calm voice of Guzmán. He describes how Pinochet’s goons would torture people and then dump their bodies offshore from helicopters. He interviews supporters of Salazar, president before Pinochet’s coup, who were put in concentration camps. He speaks to the handful of survivors of the Alacalufe and Yaghan tribes of Patagonia, which in the late 1880s were infected with Western diseases, and the survivors hunted for bounty, by settlers. He discusses Jeremy Button, a a Yaghan tribesman taken back to Britain on the HMS Beagle in 1830 (it was when returning Jeremy Button to Patagonia a year later that Darwin first travelled aboard the HMS Beagle). The Pearl Button is not only an important film because of what it covers, but a beautifully-shot one too. You should watch it.

3 Behemoth, Zhao Liang (2015, China) [2]. This year I went on something of a China/Taiwan cinema kick. I forget what started it off, but I discovered lots of new names to watch and lots of excellent films. Zhao Liang I had, I think, put on my rental list because his films sounded like Jia Zhangke’s , who was already a favourite. But Zhao makes documentaries, and Behemoth is about coal in China, the mines and those who live on their periphery and survive by gleaning. Zhao’s earlier work has been very critical of the Chinese authorities – meaning his films are not wholly official – but they are also beautifully framed. And in Behemoth, he goes one further and uses split-screen, but also arranging his screens in such a way they’re not initially obvious as split-screen and then suddenly turn kaleidoscopic. It’s not a technique I’ve seen before, and it probably wouldn’t work in most situations, but it’s absolutely brilliant here. Zhao Liang is a name to watch.

4 Francofonia, Aleksandr Sokurov (2015, France) [4]. I’ve been a fan of Sokurov’s films for many years and own copies of much of what he’s directed during his long career. I’d heard about Francofonia some time in 2014, but it wasn’t until 2015 it appeared, and not until 2017 it was released in the UK – and only at Curzon cinemas, but, annoyingly, only the Curzon cinemas in London. FFS. I’d liked to have seen it on a big screen. But I had to console myself with the Blu-ray. Which was pretty much as I expected – a typical Sokurovian mix of documentary, meditation, narrative cinema and autobiography – although the production values were a distinct cut above his previous work. It’s a good entry in Sokurov’s oeuvre, if not one of his best ones, but even merely good Sokurov is still so much better than most film-makers can manage. It’s also been heartening seeing how well it has been received… because that means we might see more films from Sokurov. Because I want more, lots more.

5 Samsara, Ron Fricke (2011, USA). I loved Koyaanisqatsi when I watched it last year, and I later learned that its director of photography, Ron Fricke, had made a pair of similar non-narrative films himself: Baraka and Samsara. They’re basically footage of various parts of the planet, with only the most tenuous of links and no over-arching story. The emphasis is entirely on the imagery, which is uniformly gorgeous. Of the two, I thought the second, Samsara, much the better one.The footage is beautiful, the parts of the world it covers fascinating, and it’s one of the few films out there which gives you faith in humanity. I quite fancy having my own copy of this.

Honourable mentions: The Epic of Everest, JBL Noel (1924, UK) astonishing silent documentary of an early attempt to climb Everest; Baraka, Ron Fricke (1992, USA) gorgeous non-narrative cinema from around the world; Festival Express, Bob Smeaton (2003, UK) 1970 tour across Canada aboard a train featuring Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and others; Cameraperson, Kirsten Johnson (2016, USA) Johnson’s life stitched together from outtakes from her documentaries and privately-shot footage; Sofia’s Last Ambulance, Ilian Metev (2012, Bulgaria) affecting fly-on-the-wall film of an ambulance crew in Sofia’s beleagured healthcare system; Petition: The Court of Appeals, Zhao Liang (2009, China) filmed in the shanty town outside Beijing where petitioners lived while waiting the years it took for their appeals to be heard, if ever.

narrative
1 The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers, Ben Rivers (2015, UK). I loved this film – it’s perhaps a stretch to call it narrative cinema as it’s also partly a documentary. Anyway, I loved this film… so much I went and bought everything by Ben Rivers that was available (no surprise, then, that his two other feature-length films get honourable mentions below). The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers – the title is taken from a Paul Bowles story, which partly inspires it – opens as a documentary of Olivier Laxe filming Mimosas. But then Bowles’s story intrudes, and Laxe, a real person, and his film is indeed real and has been released… Laxe’s story morphs into the plot of Bowles’s short story. This is brilliant cinema, an unholy mix of documentary, fiction, literary reference, art installation and narrative cinema.

2 Privilege, Peter Watkins (1967, UK). I knew Watkins from The War Game and Punishment Park, both mock documentaries about very real horrors; so when I watched Privilege it came as something of a surprise. True, it’s similar, in as much as it’s a mock documentary, set a few years ahead of when it was made; but it also seems a more tongue-in-cheek film, and plays up the ridiculousness of its premise. The segment where the star is filming a government commercial for apples, for example, is hilarious. In the movie, Watkins posits a fascist UK in which a pop star is used as a symbol to make unpleasant government policies more palatable. We’ve yet to see that happen here, if only because politicians foolishly believe they have media presence. They don’t. They’re as personable as a block of rancid butter. And often as intelligent (BoJo, I’m looking at you; but also Gove, Hammond, Davies, Rudd…) We should be thankful, I suppose, because if they ever did decide to use a media star with actual charisma, we’d be totally lost. On the other hand, satire apparently died sometime around 2015, so perhaps Watkins may prove more prophetic than he knew…

3 Embrace of the Serpent, Ciro Guerra (2015, Colombia) [3]. I stumbled across this on Amazon Prime and stuck it on my watch list. It was later recommended to me, so I sat down and watched it, and… it was excellent. It’s set in the Amazonian jungle, and covers a pair of expeditions for a legendary plant, one in 1909 and the other in 1940. There’s a bit of Herzog in it, and probably some Rocha too, and the cinematography is often amazing. I wrote about it here.

4 Arabian Nights, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1974, Italy). 2017 was a bit of a Pasolini year for me. I bought a boxed set of his films on Blu-ray, and worked my way through them – although a number I’d seen before. Arabian Nights feels like an ur-Pasolini film, in that it does so well some of the things some of his films were notable for – a non-professional cast acting out elements of a story cycle in remote locations. The title gives the source material, but the look of the movie is pure Pasolini – although much of it comes down to his choice of locations in North Africa. Of all the Pasolini films I’ve seen, this is by far the prettiest; and if its treatment of its material is somewhat idiosyncratic, 1001 Nights is far too complex a source for honest adaptation.

5 The World, Jia Zhangke (2004, China) [5]. I “discovered” Jia in 2016, but it was obvious he was a director to keep on eye on, and so I sought out his other works. Including this one. Which I thought worked especially well – not that this other films are bad, on the contrary they’re excellent. But something about this one especially appealed to me. It’s set at a theme park containing famous buildings from around the world. The movie follows two workers there, one a dancer and the other a security guard. The film is a sort of laid-back thriller, in which the cast move around the artificial world of the theme park, trying to make ends meet, and trying to keep their relationship together. The World has a documentary feel to it, and often seems more fly-on-the-wall than narrative drama. But I think it’s its literalisation of the term “microcosm” that really makes the film.

Honourable mentions: Marketa Lazarová, František Vlačíl (1967, Czech Republic) grim mediaeval drama, something the Czechs seem to do well; Elena, Andrey Zvyagintsev (2011, Russia)  languidly-paced character study of a rich man’s wife as she attempts to provide for her son from an earlier marriage, beautifully shot; Reason, Debate and a Story, Ritwik Ghatak (1974, India) more ethnographical film-making and political debate from a favourite director; Shanghai Dreams, Wang Xiaoshuai (2005, China) grim semi-autobiographical drama from a Sixth Generation director; Suzhou River, Lou Ye (2000, China) cleverly-structured mystery from another Sixth Generation director; Madeinusa, Claudia Llosa (2006, Peru) affecting story of a young woman in a remote village in the Andes; The Case of Hana and Alice, Shunji Iwai (2015, Japan) a lovely piece of Japanese animation; Je vous salue, Marie, Jean-Luc Godard (1985, France) a thinly-veiled retelling of the Virgin Mary Godard turns into a compelling drama; Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (2010, Thailand) the best of Weerasethakul’s atypical fractured-narrative films I’ve seen so far, mysterious and beautifully shot; O Pagador de Promessas, Anselmo Duarte (1962, Brazil) the only Brazilian film to win the Palme d’or, an excellent piece of Cinema Novo;  Muriel, Alain Resnais (1963, France) enigmatic meditation on memory presented as a laid-back domestic drama; The Love Witch, Anna Biller (2016, USA) pitch-perfect spoof of a 1970s B-movie supernatural thriller that also manages to be feminist; Two Years at Sea, Ben Rivers (2011, UK) and A Spell to Ward off the Darkness, Ben Rivers & Ben Russell (2013, UK) see above.

 


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Films do furnish a room

In these days of streaming, and obsessive de-cluttering, DVDs probably no longer furnish a room – which I guess means the days of judging a person from their collection of VHS cassettes, DVDs or Blu-rays has passed. Judging someone by their book collection, on the other hand, was never especially useful – if they had more than a dozen books, then they were a reader and that was good. But even then, back in the 1970s and 1980s, people used to have several coffee table books on their wall-units (remember those?) – but they’d probably been given as gifts and never read. Most of the people I knew who collected VHS cassettes collected episodes of television sf series – Dr Who, Stargate, Star Trek, etc. Films never really felt like they were worth keeping. So why do I have nearly 1000 of them? Oh well. Here are a few more that have recently joined the collection…

I still consider Alien one of the greatest sf films ever made, and if the franchise has been on a downward slide ever since I can always hope it might one day match the brilliance of that first film. Sadly, Alien: Covenant doesn’t. It’s even worse than Prometheus. And yet it was given mostly approving reviews. John Carter, on the other hand, was a genuinely good film, one of the best sf films of the past five years, and yet reviewers slagged it off. It has its faults – name a sf film that doesn’t – but it’s both a gorgeous piece of cinema and a really clever script. I decided it was time to upgrade my DVD copy to a Blu-ray. Othello is possibly Welles’s nearly best film – it has some of his most striking cinematography, but it was filmed in bits and pieces over three years and that tells against it. Personal Shopper (see here) is another idiosyncratic movie from Assayas, a director worth following, and a charity shop find.

After watching The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes are not Brothers (see here), which I had rented, I went and bought everything available by the director, Ben Rivers. Which is A Spell to Ward off the Darkness (co-directed with Ben Russell; see here) and Two Years at Sea. Totally worth it. A director whose career I will be following from now on.

An international bunch here. Splendid Float is Tawianese (see here), Kurotoage is Japanese (see here) and Se Eu Fosse Você 1 and Se Eu Fosse Você 2 are so-so Brazilian comedies (see here).

The Mizoguchi Collection was a gift from David Tallerman. I am not as enamoured of early Japanese cinema as he is – except perhaps for Ozu – but I certainly recognise the quality of the films. Possession was the first of the Mondo Vision re-releases of Żułwaski’s films, and proved quite difficult to find. I now have five of the Mondo Vision limited edition DVDs. A sixth, La Note Bleue, was released earlier this year – it’s on order. Żułwaski is an aquired taste, but Mondo Vision have done a sterling job on their releases of his films. Finally, Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project is an excellent film,er, project, and its first volume included a beautifully-restored version of one of my favourite films, A River Called Titas. So no matter what Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 2 included, I was going to buy it because it was likely to include important films – and so it does, by: Lino Brocka, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Yermek Shinarbayev, Mário Peixoto, Edward Yang and Ömer Lütfi Akad.

 


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Moving pictures 2017, #50

Not so much of a geographical spread this time, with two films from the US. One of the US films is especially timely, despite being more than seventy years old.

Keeper of the Flame, George Cukor (1943, USA). An American hero, Robert Forrest, is killed in a car crash, and the nation mourns. Journalist Spencer Tracy is intrigued by the response of the family, especially widow Katherine Hepburn, and decides to dig deeper… only to discover the dead man had been using his wealth to build a fascist organisation bent on seizing control of the country. Sound familiar? This is not a great film: Tracey is coasting, Hepburn was desperate after a couple of duds, and the final act is muddled and relies too much on a massive infodump. But the idea of a populist leader courting fascists to gain power – I’m talking about Trump, just in case you’re too dim to spot the resemblance – is certainly something that resonates now. Forrest’s death is initially presented as an accident – he died when a bridge on his estate gave way during a fierce storm… but was the bridge sabotaged? The focus on the truth behind Forrest’s death pretty much dictates the plot for much of the film’s length, but it’s a red herring – he was killed because of his plans, and that’s where the film’s focus should have been. Disappointing.

Kurotokage, Kinji Fukasaku (1968, Japan). When I saw this film was based on a story by Edogawa Rampo, I thought the name was a Japanisation of Edgar Allen Poe. But it turns out there really was a Japanese writer called Edogawa Rampo, although, yes, it was a pen name and it is indeed a rendering of Poe’s name. Rampo was a seminal writer in Japan’s mystery genre, and the story of Kurotokage (AKA Black Lizard) is one of his. The title refers to the head of a criminal organisation, played in the film by female impersonator Akihiro Maruyama, who kidnaps a jeweler’s daughter as part of a plan to steal the jeweler’s most famous piece. It’s the sort of 1960s thriller tosh the Italians churned out by the yard and the Americans managed to avoid because New Hollywood got in the way – none of which means it’s not entertaining. Isao Kimura as the detective Akechi is smooth and perhaps too much of a stereotype, but Maruyama plays a good villain; and the improbable convolutions of the plot manage to stay just the right side of sense. And it all looks very 1960s, Japanese-style, which is a plus. Wikipedia claims the film is not available on DVD, and it certainly took me several years before I found a copy – but yes, there is a DVD release, Japanese but with English subtitles, it just takes a bit of searching to find. Not a great film, but one worth seeing.

Melody Time, Jack Kinney, Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske & Wilfred Jackson (1948, USA). During WWII, Disney trotted out a series of anthology films designed chiefly to keep its studio of animators in work. Which is not to say that every segment in this particular film feels like makework. It’s all very dated and of its time, true, and some of the animation is not as good as other works from Disney’s heyday. But a lot of it is very good, even if it’s sometimes unsure of what register it should be in – so the story about the two lovers who go ice-skating can’t decide on melodrama or comedy; and it’s not the only one. The animation is mostly of the same sort of design as that of Sleeping Beauty, probably my favourite Disney film… but the last segment of Melody Time‘s seven sequences is a mix of live action and animation, featuring Roy Rogers and his horse Trigger. It comes across like the sort of kids’ programme you’d expect 1040s American television to have produced – albeit in colour – with an earnest adult celebrity earnestly patronising a group of credulous kids that were clearly cast for their looks and their ability to look and sound credulous. I actually enjoyed the film, and took it for what it was, an historical document,

A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, Ben Rivers & Ben Russell (2013, UK). So, after watching The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes are not Brothers, I went and bought everything else Rivers had done that was available on DVD. A Spell to Ward off the Darkness is actually a collaboration with American film-maker Ben Russell – and the DVD includes Russell’s 2013 short, Let Us Persevere in What We Have Resolved Before We Forget. A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness follows musician Lichens on an island off the Estonian coast, in a forest in northern Finland, and as vocalist at a gig in Norway for a black metal band created for the film. The print is crisper than Rivers’s earlier Two Years at Sea – I’m guessing he didn’t use the same production technique and develop it at home – although there’s a similar love of static shots of steaming forests. This is another film where the landscape plays an important role, and I am a big fan of films that make effective use of landscape. I said in an earlier Moving pictures post that in a Rivers film plot was treated as an “emergent phenomenon”, and while A Spell to Ward off the Darkness was clearly and consciously constructed to tell a story – it has three parts! – it displays that same plotlessness. So there’s that dichotomy between a deliberately-designed narrative and the appearance of no narrative – and I like that narrative design can include the possiblility of no narrative, that some people actively seek to tell stories in ways that seem to disobey most rules of narrative. With someone like Rivers, I find I value his work for its cinematography – often excellent, but occasionally clichéd – and for its refusal to follow cinematic narratives.  I’m interested in narrative structures, both in film and fiction, which probably explains why I find Godard so fascinating and commercial fiction so dull. Rivers is that odd beast, an artist working in narrative cinema – which presents its own set of problems and its own reasons for appeal. I shall certainly be following his career from now on.

Splendid Float, Zero Chou (2004, Taiwan). Not sure where I came across mention of this film, but I had to buy a Chinese DVD from eBay in order to see it. And… yes, it was worth it. A young man spends his days as a Taoist priest and his nights as a drag queen on a travelling float. One night, he meets a fisherman and the two fall in love. He later learns the fisherman has died in mysterious circumstances, and determines to discover the truth of his death. But this isn’t a murder-mystery, it’s more a study of the priest’s grief. It would feel like a Taiwanese version of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – an over-rated film, I think – if it focused chiefly on the eponymous, er, float. But it doesn’t. While it presents a mystery regarding the fisherman’s death, it doesn’t make a serious attempt to resolve it. As a Taoist priest, the young man is asked to officiate at a ceremony to pacify the young man’s spirit – and it’s there where the heart of the film lies. For the ceremony to be effective, it needs an article of clothing worn by the deceased. The mother and grandmother have forgotten to bring something; the priest happens to be wearing a T-shirt given to him by the fisherman when last he saw him. There’s a slight weirdness in that the Taoist priest is presented a bit like an ambulance chaser, ie, occupying an office, with a manager, and having to chase up business in order to ensure everyone’s wages are paid. Chou is highly-regarded as a documentary film-maker, although she has also made nine feature films. There’s a joy to Splendid Float, despite its subject, which many films of its like fail to achieve. I might start looking for more of Chou’s films…

Je vous salue, Marie, Jean-Luc Godard (1985, France). After damning Godard with faint praise in a previous Moving pictures post, I found the cinematography in Je vous salue, Marie really very fetching. In fact, I think it might be one of my favourite Godard films – after Le mépris and Two or Three Things I Know About Her (and no, I don’t know why I keep on using the translated title for the latter). The story is a pretty blunt retelling of the Virgin Birth, with college dropout boyfriend Joseph and Uncle Gabriel, a rich uncle who jets in and tells Marie she will become pregnant. The film was unpopular with the religious lobby, chiefly because of full-frontal nudity in such an obvious Biblical retelling. One irate viewer at Cannes apparently threw a shaving cream pie at Godard. There’s some lovely nature photography in the film, much more noticeably than in any other Godard film I’ve seen, and although it’s a terrible cliché to use nature’s variety as illustrative of God’s purpose, Godard frames the epiphany entirely from the title character’s viewpoint. I’ve now watched Je vous salue, Marie several times and I’m still trying to work out if it’s Godard’s masterpiece. Le mépris is an obviously excellent piece of film-making, and it’s plain from the first frame. Two or Three Things I Know About Her I admire because it breaks so many of the rules of narrative cinema. But Je vous salue, Marie… I tweeted while watching it that Godard had done more to expand the language of cinema than any other director, and, okay, the comment was prompted by watching this film after a glass or two of wine… But, ignoring those directors from the very early days of film-making who basically wrote the language of narrative cinema, then, yes, I think Godard has done more to expand narrative cinema than any other director of narrative cinema. US experimental and avant-garde cinema, such as that by Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren or Bruce Baillie, doesn’t seem to have impacted commercial cinema much, if at all; European avant-garde directors tended to get subsumed into the mainstream. Of course, these days, there are also artists who use video, or video installations (the distinction is important), as their medium, such as Richard Mosse, Ed Atkins or Cécile B Evans, all of whose work I’ve recently found fascinating. Je vous salue, Marie is Godard doing commercial narrative cinema after many years away from it, and I’m still not sure what to make of it – its use of the female experience, its Biblical story-line, its nudity, its nature photography, its classical music soundtrack, its topic… There’s too much in there I’ve seen explored by other directors I admire, and while I don’t believe one or the other is an homage to one or the other, or a reference, or even a straight borrowing, it intrigues me they’ve all pulled the same tools out of the toolbox to tell different stories. Je vous salue, Marie is not one of Godard’s best-regarded films: I think that might be wrong.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 880


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A kind of library

So I did the usual and went and bought me more books – mostly for the collection, but a favourite author also had a new novel out, and I went a little mad one evening after watching a film and purchased everything I could find by that film-maker…

… which was Ben Rivers. The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes are not Brothers (that’s the red one) was published to accompany the film of the same title. Ways of Worldmaking is about Rivers’s works. And then, on another night, fuelled by wine and Rivers’s Two Years at Sea, as I was writing about it for a Moving pictures post and comparing it with video art installations… and I remembered the excellent one I’d seen by Richard Mosse in the Hafnarhús site of the Reykjavik Art Museum last October… So I went looking online and found four books by Mosse. Both Richard Mosse  and Incoming were published to accompany a solo exhibition in the Barbican’s Curve gallery from February to April this year; the first was published by the Barbican, the second is signed. The other two books by him I found… well, Infra is $900 ($1000 for the collector’s edition), and The Enclave is $1050 ($2000 for the box set edition). A bit out of my range…

Some sf hardbacks for the collection. The Quality of Mercy was a lucky find on eBay. It’s really difficult to find a good copy, and I got it for a very reasonable price. I already have a copy of The Missionaries, but this was one was going cheap and in much better condition. Titan I bought for 10 euros from SF Bokhandeln’s stall at Worldcon75. It usually costs considerably more. Heavy Time is signed. Cuckoo’s Egg is signed and numbered – and the seller threw in Forty Thousand in Gehenna for free as he was trying to reduce stock (sadly, it’s not signed).

Some new hardbacks. Jenny Erpenbeck is a favourite writer, so I’ve been looking forward to Go, Went, Gone. The last Baxter novels I read were Proxima and Ultima and I thought them, to be honest, a bit juvenile. But he’s a hard habit to give up. Hence, Xeelee: Vengeance. If only he weren’t so fucking prolific… Exalted on Bellatrix 1 is, despite the title, the final book of Brown’s Telemass Quartet. They’re actually numbered in reverse, with the number referring to a planet of each novella’s eponymous star. Annoyingly, the other three use Roman numerals but this one doesn’t. Solid science fiction and typically Brownian – although the protagonist does come across as a bit creepily obsessive.

Two paperbacks and a graphic novel. Back in the 1970s, Newcastle Publishing issued a line of fantasy reprints, the Forgotten Fantasy Library. I’ve been picking them when I find them. She and Allan is the sixth book in the series. A recent Twitter exchange persuaded me to give Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories – or “lamourist histories”, as the spine has it – another go. Glamour in Glass is the second book in the series. Well, I do like Georgette Heyer’s novels… And In Uncertain Times is the eighteenth volume in the Valerian and Laureline series, and I see Cinebook are pushing them out at a much faster rate now, after the relelase of Besson’s film (which has apparently not done all that well, anyway).


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Moving pictures 2017, #47

It happened again. I watched a film by a director, knowing nothing about him or his work when I put the disc in the player, and afterward went and bought everything by him I could find. The last time that happened, it was James Benning, an experimental film-maker (and very little of his extensive oeuvre is actually available on DVD). This time, it was Ben Rivers, an experimental film-maker… and he’s made only a handful of films.

Fatherland, Ken Loach (1986, UK). This is not an adaptation of Robert Harris’s novel of the same title, which was anyway published in 1992, and when that was adapted for the screen by HBO, they did a terrible job of it (see here). Not that I can really see Ken Loach adapting Harris’s novel in the first place. This Fatherland is about an East German singer/songwriter who escapes to the West and tries to forge out a career on the other side of the Wall. It’s been called Loach’s “least-popular film” according to Wikipedia, and part of the blame has been laid at the fact much of the dialogue is spoken in German. To be honest, I thought its biggest fault was that it was dull, and the central character was not especially interesting. Some of his music, particularly towards the end, wasn’t too bad, a very German style of rock, which reminded me a bit of my time spent studying in Germany back in the early 1990s. You could never describe Loach’s movies as films in search of a point to make, if anything they’re more likely to be obvious points somewhat bluntly encoded in the form of narrative cinema. In this one, it’s the lack of artistic freedom in East Berlin brought about by political constraints versus the lack of artistic freedom in West Berlin created by capitalist constraints. It’s a tired argument, and a little ironic coming from a committed socialist iconoclast like Loach – after all, clearly neither politics nor capitalism has prevented him from making films like Fatherland. It is nonetheless a point worth making: capitalism does not equal freedom. And it’s even more true today, thirty years later. Sadly, lowering the cost of entry to content creation to next to nothing has not resulted in a great flowering of iconoclastic art but a near endless deluge of identikit extruded commercial product of low quality. No one wants acclaim, they want dollars. The first mistake these creators are making is in assuming art is not political. Art is politics. Their second mistake is in assuming that what the world needs is another piece of derivative shit put together badly by an amateur. Most professionals may produce derivative shit, but they know exactly how to package it. The sound of jackboots echoing from MCU and tentpole sf blockbuster franchises has drowned out the voices of political film-makers like Loach. A right-wing press which seeks to trivialise him hasn’t helped either. Loach is by no means perfect, but his consistency is certainly admirable.

The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers, Ben Rivers (2015, UK). All I knew about this film when I stuck it on my rental list was the unwieldy title, and that it was about a film-maker and a little bit meta. It sounded intriguing, although I didn’t have especially high expectations – that title, for one thing, it sounds like something you might find on one of those straight-to-streaming genre films you find buried deep down in Amazon Prime’s free movies… But it turns out the title is from a short story by Paul Bowles, author of the excellent The Sheltering Sky – and I really must read more Bowles, I have his The Spider’s House on the TBR – and indeed five minutes into this film, the protagonist, a film-maker, reads out the relevant section of Bowles’s story. The film then shifts to a (mostly) context-free documentary about the film-maker filming in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains with a cast of locals. As he becomes increasingly outrageous in his demands… Well, this is not a film in which things are explained, it’s almost as if plot is treated as an emergent phenomenon (um, I like that idea; it might be worth exploring…). In one sequence, the film-maker drives his Landrover through several villages while post-metal plays. There is no dialogue, there is no explanation. The sequence is several minutes long. It’s a narrative film which plays like a documentary for much of its length, in parts reminding me Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, Pasolini’s Arabian Nights and Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky. But it’s also a movie about the film-making process, and how the film-making process changes the people involved, particularly those co-opted from the location.  The cinematograhpy is mostly excellent , with occasional shots that approach the beauty of Pasolini’s aforementioned film, and a few that drop into cliché. But there’s a distance to the whole, an almost clinical eye on the proceedings, which signals this is not narrative cinema designed to make money from ticket sales. I’ve said before on this blog that I really like video installations, and though their quality is wildly variable, I find something fascinating in the way they’re so defiantly unlike commercial narrative cinema, despite being the same medium, using the same tools, and making use of many of the same narrative techniques… The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers is much closer to narrative cinema than it is to video installation, but it manages to suggest it is something much closer to the latter. That’s one of the reasons why, after watching it, I bought everything by Rivers that was available on a certain humungous online retailer’s website.

Se Eu Fosse Você and Se Eu Foss Você 2, Daniel Filho (2006 and 2009, Brazil). The body-swap comedy is almost a subgenre in its own right, there have been that many films made with the premise. There are two main variations – husband/wife and parent/child. Se Eu Fosse Você – the title means “If I was you” – is a pretty straightforward Brazilian attempt at the former. Claudio and Helena are a happily-married and comfortably well-off couple, with a teenage daughter. He runs a small but critically successful, but now in danger of commercially failing, ad agency, she teaches a choir. A series of unlikely planetological events line up, lightning strikes, and the following morning the two have apparently exchanged bodies. Cue effeminate-acting man and butch-acting woman. Not to mention total confusion over their respective careers. Which, of course, all comes good in the end: he (ie, Helena) lands a major contract for a difficult lingerie client because “he” can put together a campaign that will appeal to women; she (ie, Claudio), on the other hand, finds the chosen choral music boring and livens it up a bit, to great success. Naturally, their rocky marriage is steadied, and Claudio’s business is saved. The sequel is set a couple of years later, and the marriage is once again wobbling, especially when Claudio decides a second honeymoon to Italy is out of the question as his business needs him. She throws him out, and he goes to stay with a friend, who is single and has less than progressive ideas about women. Which eventually results in one of those situations so beloved of marital drama films – he is standinging outside a nightclub, perfectly innocently, with a drunken female friend of his mate, when his wife spots him and assumes the worst. And then their daughter tells them she is pregnant. The father-to-be is a good catch, a millionaire’s son, but the family are very Catholic… so a wedding must be arranged quickly. And lo, the planets align once again, and bodies are swapped. She (ie, Claudio) is against the marriage, she (ie, Helena) is for it… The first film wasn’t great, and this one is much weaker. There is apparently a third film in the series. I won’t be bothering with it.

Dr Strange, Scott Derrickson (2016, USA). I don’t know why I continue to subject myself to MCU films. I think they’re awful, badly-made populist trash, and even the high-powered cast they hire can do little redeem them. Not that Benchmark Cummerbund is a good actor. But Tilda Swinton normally does better work than this. So, for that matter, does Mads Mikkelson. An arrogant womanising surgeon has his brilliant career cut short when he badly damages his hands in a crash in his supercar. In desperation, he turns to– I don’t know, for some reason, against all sense, he ends up in an invented Himalayan nation, where he’s taken under the wing of an Eastern mystic played by a white woman, and so becomes an occult agent of her organisation, but based in New York. There are some scenes that were ripped straight from Inception, there’s a lot of mumbo-jumbo that’s hard to swallow even in a MCU film, and Strange’s journey from arrogant shit to good person is actually closer to a journey from arrogant shit who is a neurosurgeon to arrogant shit who is a magician. There are also some effective special effects – see earlier mention of Inception – but it would be a poor MCU film that didn’t have zillions spent on its sfx (and yet, the one MCU film I think is halfway okay, Captain America, has probably the least overt sfx on screen of them all; perhaps that means something). Now that Amazon are closing down LoveFilm, I’ll no longer have access to as many rental films, and I used to bung populist crap on there to watch on a weekend night with a glass of wine or two… But since I never really liked them, I’m not entirely sure why I bothered. Now at least I won’t have to. (Incidentally, I see Amazon have listed this movie as “Marvel’s Dr Strange“, which is obvs to distinguish it from, er, Marvel’s other Dr Strange…)

Utolsó vacsora az Arabs Szürkénél, Miklós Jancsó (2001, Hungary). And so the third of Jancsó’s Kapa & Pepe films, and I’m even more confused than I was before. The film opens with the two characters waking up on a statue on top of the Millennium Monument in Budapest’s Heroes’ Square after a heavy night of drinking. There are some scenes set in an abandoned half-built building, including several shoot-outs between the two main characters and various gangsters. There’s a punk band in silly costumes, and a woman being pleasured by several young men. There’s a troupe of dancers who perform a traditional Hungarian folk dance (judging by the costumes). And then Kapa and Pepe are in the USA, visiting Niagara Falls, where they bump into… Miklós Jancsó. And they’re surprised to see him because they thought he was dead – although I seem to remember he did re-appear in the first film, Nekem lámpást adott kezembe az Úr Pesten (see here), after he had died in that film… And I have no fucking clue what is going on in these films. There’s definitely an argument against the trappings of capitalist society, and its attendant ruthlessness and fascination with symbols of success, not to mention several discussions about death. The dialogue is thick with swearwords and the musical interludes bonkers. Lots of scenes are also set on high places – Jancsó obviously liked his crane shots – and some are just a little too high for my comfort. The second time I came to watch this film, the transfer seemed much lower quality than I remembered it. It’s definitely lower quality than the previous two films. Weird. I’m going to have to watch it again some time, though, that’s for sure. Um, in a previous Moving pictures post I wondered about doing a themed post… I usually write about six films per post; there are six films in the Kapa & Pepe series… There’s an idea. Although I may end up a gibbering wreck afterwards.

Two Years at Sea, Ben Rivers (2011, UK). Part of Rivers’s creative process is developing his 16mm film himself, in less than laboratory-like conditions. It makes the medium of his movies an artefact of the narrative, in much the same way that Aleksandr Sokurov, a favourite director, often distorts the picture of his movies, as in Mother and Son (see here) or Whispering Pages (see here). But while Sokurov deliberately distorts the image to produce a specific effect, Rivers allows the development process which turns the images captured by the camera into a record which can be viewed by anyone, to apply its own distortions. They are not, it has to be said, as overt – a graininess to the picture, the odd blink-and-miss-it flaw in the film… But the way Rivers shoots, or has shot certainly in this film, which is entirely black and white, also results in a slight flattening of the image, giving Two Years at Sea a look close to that of a photograph from the first half of the twentieth century. He also lets his camera linger for long moments on static scenes – although not to the extent James Benning does – which also reminds me of several Sokurov films (but I don’t think it’s a direct reference, more a commonality of approach). As for the plot… well, there isn’t one. Two Years at Sea documents a period in the life of Jake Williams, who lives in a beat-up house in the countryside in Scotland. The film makes much of his surroundings, watching clouds drift across hills, steam rise from forests, without telling us anything about Williams or his life. It is art, not narrative cinema. But, at 127 minutes, it’s too long to be a video installation. And besides, it’s partly fictional anyway, because it’s not an actual documentary of Williams and his life, never mind the sequence where his caravan floats up into the air… Which makes you wonder what Two Years at Sea is intended to be – for a video installation endlessly looped, well, 20 minutes is probably long enough, although I’ve a feeling Richard Mosse’s ‘Infra’ may be much longer… But over two hours is too long for a video installation, that’s cinema. But not cinema as it is commonly understood. I love this sort of stuff, so buying all of Rivers’s available output was a totally good call for me – and Two Years at Sea totally justified it. I will be following Rivers’s career from now on. And I thnk I might dig a bit deeper into video installations, instead of just relying on random visits to contemporary art museums during random visits to Nordic capital cities…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 879