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Moving pictures, #25

I catch up… then I get behind. But I’m staying reasonably on top of these posts for now… possibly because I’ve been rewatching Battlestar Galactica so I’ve not been watching movies all the time.

le_trouLe trou*, Jacques Becker (1960, France). As I was watching this, I kept on thinking I was watching a Robert Bresson film, because it could just as easily have made by him – in many ways, Le trou reminds me a lot of A Man Escaped, at least more than just “man escapes from French prison”. Which is pretty much the plot. A group of prisoners in a cell dig a hole in the floor, which leads them into the prison’s cellars. From there, they find their way into the sewers… except the sewer tunnel is blocked, so they must dig around the concrete plug blocking it. The story is based on a real prison escape and, in fact, one of the original escapees plays himself in the film (well, sort of, the names are all changed, although I’m not sure why). There’s a matter of factness to Becker’s direction, despite which the film remains too… personal, too readily creates a narrative from its cast’s back-stories… to come across as a documentary. It makes for an odd disconnect. True, Le trou can be watched as a work of fiction and, in fact, that’s probably the easiest way to watch it, and the way most people are likely to watch it. (I can’t remember if the film opens with text explaining it’s a dramatisation of real events.) It’s the opposite, I suppose, of the 1980s penchant for dramatising documentaries, making something with a fictional format of them.

city_girlCity Girl, FW Murnau (1930, USA). It’s the age-old story: farmer’s son goes to the big city to sell the corn harvest, meets a young woman, falls in love, marries her, doesn’t get the expected price for the corn, goes back home with new bride, but farmer is not happy – at the reduced price for the corn or the new wife. Things get worse. But then they realise the errors of their ways, and everyone lives happily ever after. While the cinematography and direction are up to Murnau’s usual standard, where this film really scores is in depicting life on a US farm in the late 1920s. The harvesting scenes are especially fascinating, because the technology used is sort of halfway between how you imagine it was done in the nineteenth century or earlier and how it’s done now. I do like Murnau’s films – they’re straightforward, the characters are well-drawn, if somewhat broadly so, and for their time they’re cutting-edge, which makes them interesting as historical documents. Murnau is also a good example of those German directors who crossed over to Hollywood and, you would like to think, caused Hollywood to up its game and produce serious films instead of endless variations on the Keystone Cops. It’s not as if Murnau was on his own – Lang, Lubitsch, Wilder, von Stroheim, Sirk, even Hitchcock, who cut his teeth in the German film industry. Not all of them stayed, of course. Lang’s last films were made in Germany (well, India – but they were German films), and von Stroheim retired to France. City Girl is by no means Murnau’s best – that would have to be Nosferatu or Tabu – but it’s still worth seeing. [dual]

faithThrough a Glass Darkly*, Ingmar Bergman (1961, Sweden). Two couples – father, son, daughter and son-in-law – are holidaying on Fårö, a Swedish island in the Baltic (which Bergman loved so much, he ended up moving there). Father is a novelist and has just returned from working abroad. Daughter has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, but refuses treatment. Son-in-law is a doctor and is having trouble persuading father of the severity of his wife’s condition. And son is not happy about his father’s absences. If films were books, then Bergman’s movies would be literary fiction. And watching one of his films is like reading a polished literary short story, the sort that fifty years later is studied in schools. Even the stark black and white cinematography of Through a Glass Darkly feels like a deliberate choice to create a precise atmosphere, much as a writer crafts sentences. Bergman’s use of ensemble acting and a stable of actors only heightens the likeness: three of the actors in Through a Glass Darkly – von Sydow, Andersson and Björnstrand – were all part of Bergman’s stock company at some point in their careers. [0]

lauraLaura*, Otto Preminger (1944, USA). I had high hopes for this famous noir film – not just because of the genre or director, but also because it starred Gene Tierney, who appeared in several classic noir films. But… the film opens after Laura’s murder, with a detective trying to find out who the killer is. He interviews Laura’s patron, an effete newspaper columnist, and Laura’s boyfriend, a louche playboy. The detective learns so much about Laura that he begins to obsess over her… so he’s somewhat flabbergasted when he falls asleep in her apartment and she walks through the door. Turns out it wasn’t Laura who was killed, but one of her models (the body’s face had been destroyed by a shotgun blast, but since it happened Laura’s apartment they assumed it was her). Preminger directed some killer noir films, and Tierney was the epitome of a 1940s Hollywood femme fatale – no matter the role, she seemed to take into herself all the baggage associated with the character. I suspect this was due to the fact she wasn’t actually a very good actress. She had screen presence, certainly; but she never seemed especially convincing – not that it was a requirement at the time, cf Ava Gardner’s career – and the same is true in Laura. Tierney is more of a centre around which the story revolves, in which position she does quite a good job. But Laura the character is about as convincing as a unicorn, and the story of the film is not much better. Had I been putting together the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list myself, I would have chosen a different Preminger noir film – Whirlpool, perhaps, or Fallen Angel. Not this lacklustre affair.

love+one+another+coverLove One Another, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1922, Germany). What an odd film. I say that having seen – and even liking – any number of odd films. I am, I admit, a fan of Dreyer’s films, and the more of his films I watch, and the more times I watch each of them, the more my admiration grows – but, let’s face it, most probably know of him only from his three Danish films of the 1940s, Day of Wrath, Ordet and Gertrud. But they’re products of the end of his career, and his earlier stuff is also very good (to be fair, The Passion of Joan of Arc is also pretty well known) but even so, the BFI aside, Dreyer’s entire oeuvre is not that readily available. He bounced around in his early years – working in Denmark, Norway and Germany… and it is the last country where this film was made. It’s based on a novel – Elsker hverandre by Aage Madelung from 1918 – and is set in Russia in the late nineteenth century.  The central character is a Jewish girl who experiences anti-semitism on a daily basis but falls in love with a Gentile, Sasha. When news of the affair surfaces, she is expelled from school and flees to St Petersburg to stay with her brother, who converted to Christianity. She becomes involved with underground revolutionaries and, against the backdrop of the Tsar’s pogroms against the Jews, she manages to get back together with Sasha, and they join the Jew fleeing Russia. Although set in Russia, Love One Another was filmed entirely in Germany. It is, in its way, as important an historical record as Eisenstein’s October: Ten Days That Shook the World, even though it’s fictional. (Apparently, some of the extras in the films were actual survivors of the Jewish pogroms in Tsarist Russia.) Worth seeing. [0]

manf_westMan of the West*, Anthony Mann (1958, USA). I can’t help comparing this film with Shane, released five years earlier, and not to Man of the West‘s advantage. Gary Cooper plays a retired outlaw who, en route to Fort Worth by train to find a teacher for his small town’s new school, finds himself caught up with the outlaw gang to which he once belonged. He has a saloon singer and a con artist in tow, and tries to protect the two from the outlaws (led by his uncle), but only manages by reluctantly agreeing to help them rob a bank in Lassoo. But when he gets to Lassoo, it’s a ghost town and the bank has long since closed. Cue shoot-out. To be honest, Cooper makes a more convincing cowboy than Ladd did in Shane, and even though it’s been a dozen years since he hung up his black hat, at 57 he was probably a little too old for the part. But that’s a minor niggle. The photography is not as impressivas in Stevens’s film, but the story is at least not quite so… melodramatic. It feels like a Western from a later period. After watching Shane on rental DVD, I bought myself a copy of the Master of Cinema edition Blu-ray. I don’t think I’ll be doing the same for Man of the West, although a Masters of Cinema edition has been released.

phantom_libertyThe Phantom of Liberty, Luis Buñuel (1970, France). I rented this to test if my Theory of Godard could be applied to Buñuel, even though it had already failed several times. I have this theory, you see, that Godard’s films in colour are better than those in black and white – at least, the Godard fims I’ve seen which I like have all been in colour. But that’s not strictly true for Buñuel – I liked The Exterminating Angel a lot (black and white), but not Tristana or Belle du jour so much (both colour). I did like Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (colour)… but did that mean I’d like The Phantom of Liberty… especially since it’s considered amongst his most surreal films (or rather, most experimental plot-wise)? The easy answer is… yes, I liked it; and no, it seems the theory only really applies to Godard. The Phantom of Liberty does not have a plot, it’s just a series of vignettes linked by characters, none of which are actually resolved. Some feel like failed comedy sketches – the Carmelite monks who play poker using holy relics as chips, Michael Lonsdale throwing an impromptu room party and then his wife dresses up in her dominatrix outfit and whips him on the arse, the dinner party where the guests sit on toilets at the table and shit but go to a private room to eat; others are not remotely comedic, such as the sniper in the Tour Montparnasse, or the police chief who gets a phone call from his dead sister. They are all, however, mostly surreal – like the emu that wanders through a man’s bedroom as he tries to sleep. On balance, I think The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie the better film, but I did enjoy The Phantom of Liberty, and I plan to watch more of Buñuel’s films.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 768


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Moving pictures, #18

More of a geographic spread this time around, with only two of the six from Hollywood – and both of those I only watched because they’re on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Some of you may have noticed that I had a go at putting together my own version of the list, but so far only managed about 300 films. It’s a work in progress, of course; and will undoubtedly change as I watch more films, or change my minds about films I’ve already listed. It has so far proven difficult not to put too many films on my list by directors I rate highly – such as Dreyer below – but even then I seem to have included half a dozen by one favourite director but only two by another. So it’s not like I’ve been all that consistent. Ah well. We’ll see how it goes. Meanwhile, more films from the actual 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and a few others, what I have viewed recently…

once_uponOnce Upon a Time, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1922, Denmark). As is no doubt obvious from the title, this is a fairy tale. It’s adapted from a play of the same title by Holger Drachmann, first performed in 1885. The film isn’t complete, however, as about half has been lost – but the Danske Filminstitut have managed to salvage a narrative using still photos and new intertitles based on original sources. It’s a less engaging film than Dreyer’s The Bride of Glomdal, although the staging is often impressive – as can be seen from the still on the DVD cover. I seem to recall the story dragging somewhat – and that there were a lot of intertitles, although whether that was a result of the fact half the footage has been lost, I’m not sure. I seem to recall other films by Dreyer from the same period featuring more intertitles than I’d expected. On the other hand, you’d expect a silent movie adaptation of a stage play to be quite talky… I do like Dreyer’s films – I’d certainly put him in my top ten directors list… (For the record, they would be, at this particular time, in no particular order, Sokurov, Tarkovsky, Suleiman, Antonioni, Haneke, Hitchcock, Dreyer, Benning, Kieślowski and Kaurismäki.)

goodbyeGoodbye to Language, Jean-Luc Godard (2014, France). Some things I like the idea of more than I like the actual thing. One of those things is experimental cinema. I like that some film-makers explore how the medium can be used to tell stories, film-makers like James Benning, for example. But not every experiment film works for me. I remember watching and not liking Lukas Moodysson’s Container, although I do like Moodysson’s other movies. Godard was a director who certainly experimented, and one or two of his experiments I do indeed like – such as Two or Three Things I Know About Her or Weekend. Goodbye to Language experiments with both 3D filming techniques – entirely lost on me as I watched a 2D version – and cinematic narrative… and it’s not an easy film to watch. There are scenes which look and feel more like documentary footage, there are scenes in which characters lecture at each other (not unusual in a Godard film), there are strange camera tricks and photographic effects. The story has to be puzzled out from what’s shown on the screen, and it’s not at all obvious. Watching Goodbye to Language was a bit of a chore, but, as mentioned earlier, I like the idea of the movie – and might well give it another go sometime. Sometimes it happens you don’t take to something immediately, but leave it a while, return to it, give it another go… and it becomes a favourite. I suspect that won’t happen here, but perhaps I might decide I do actually like it…

A_Simple_DeathA Simple Death, Aleksandr Kaidanovsky (1985, Russia). Kaidanovsky is perhaps better known as an actor – he played the lead in Tarkovsky’s Stalker, and one of Pirx’s crew in Test Pilota Pirxa – but he also directed three feature films: Гость (an adaptation of a Jorge Luis Borges story), Жена Керосинщика, and Простая смерть. The last, A Simple Death, is an adaptation of Tolstoy’s novella, ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’, and pretty faithfully follows its plot: a magistrate who has led a mostly good and successful life falls while hanging curtains one day and hurts his side, the pain grows each day until he is bedridden and his codition is terminal, where he reflects on his mortality, his life and the injustice of his current predicament. Although made in 1985, A Simple Death is black and white, and parts of the film reminded me strongly of Sokurov’s Stone, in which Chekhov returns to the present day and surprises the young man who is caretaker of his house. There’s a similar aesthetic at work, although Kaidanovsky’s film and camera work is not as experimental as Sokurov’s. Good stuff.

winchesterWinchester ’73*, Anthony Mann (1950, USA). The title refers to a model of rifle, the Winchester 1873, which was a superior repeating rifle and much prized. Even more prized, however, was the “one in a thousand”, which was is a particular instance of the Winchester ’73 which was so well-made – more by accident than by design – that it shot so much truer than the other 999 rifles made in that batch. Winchester ’73 opens with a crowd gathering in Dodge City to either witness or take part in a shooting competition, the prize for which is a “one in a thousand”. The contestants are whittled down to two: Jimmy Stewart and Stephen McNally. And there’s plainly bad blood between the two. Stewart wins, but McNally later ambushes him, steals the prize rifle, and gets the hell out of Dodge. Stewart and buddy chase after him. Meanwhile McNally has lost the rifle in card game with a gunrunner, who then sells it to a Native American chief (Rock Hudson) on the warpath. Who then attacks a cavalry detachment, but Stewart and buddy turn up and help them cavalry win the day. Hudson is killed and a young Tony Curtis finds the prize rifle. The sergeant gives it Charkes Drake, as Stewart has already left. Drake, and fiancée Shelley Winters (who had met Stewart back in Dodge), continue with their journey, but come a cropper with a member of McNally’s gang, and so the rifle ends up back in McNally’s hands. At which point Stewart turns up and the two shoot at each other for the gun. Throughout the film, they’ve been depicted as superlative shots, but this last scene has them repeatedly missing each other. Guess they weren’t so good, after all. As mid-centiury Westerns go, Winchester ’73 isn’t a bad one – and it’s certainly refreshing to see Stewart acting tougher than he usually does. But I’m not really sure why it needs to be on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

strictlyStrictly Ballroom*, Baz Luhrmann (1992, Australia). I should think most of the populations of Australia and the UK, amd a goodly-sized proportion of the US, have already seen this film, but somehow or other I’d never managed to do so. Of course, I only watched it because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. And now I have. It was… okay. It’s a spoof set around a regional ballroom dancing championship in Australia. The son of a dancing school instructor is the local star, and tipped to do well in the competition. But his partner leaves him for another dancer since he has a tendency to stray from “proper dance steps” – and, against his parents wishes, and with some persuasion, he decides to take as his partner a young woman who hangs around the dancing school but is not a dancer. They practice secretly, she develops into an excellent dancer, and he even learns some useful life lessons – and how to dance the pasodoble correctly – from her immigrant parents. Apparently, the film was adapted from an earlier play written by Luhrmann when he was  a student. It’s also one of the most successful Australian films of all time. It has now been made into a stage musical, which I guess means it’s now as mainstream as you could possibly get.

grafittiAmerican Graffiti*, George Lucas (1973, USA). After THX-1138, Lucas decided to make something more commercial, and so chose a story based on his own memories of growing up in Modesto, California. Although audience response to the film was good, and he had a number of big names batting for him, the studio first wanted their own re-edit of it and then to release it as a TV movie. However, saner heads prevailed, and the film was given a theatrical release, and went on to make a pretty good profit. All of which may be interesting, but is of no consequence when considering American Graffiti as a film. And it’s a Californian coming-of-age movie, a duller subject I can’t imagine. Obnoxious teenagers with over-inflated senses of self-worth driving around small town USA and getting up to drunken antics. Richard Dreyfus spends much of the movie chasing after a young woman he saw fleetingly in a car. Paul Le Mat cruises around with a teenybopper, before ending up in a road race against Harrison Ford. Charles Martin Smith chats up a young woman, mostly by telling lies, and then cruises around with her. And so on… Yawn. I have no idea why this film is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die count: 753


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Moving pictures, #16

If I was an organised sort of person, I’d write these as I watch the movies, and then all I’d have to do is gather them together after, say, half a dozen films to make a post. But while my book shelves are all organised alphabetically by author, and chronologically within author, and I, er, pile my DVDs by director, and I have lists of pretty much everything, including lists of lists… I’m a bit crap at organising work. Because it’s work. Well, yes, it’s writing – reviews, fiction, blog posts, etc, but that’s still work, even if it’s not for money. At least it feels like work. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it. So there.

oklahomaOklahoma!*, Fred Zinneman (1955, USA). Since I’ve been working my way through the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list I have watched films I would never have even thought of bothering to watch… and enjoyed them and found them very good. But there are also those that were no more than ticking off an item on a list. Musicals are not films I normally bother to watch, although there are a few I really like. And yes, they’re from the 1950s (except for All That Jazz, from 1979, which I also like a lot; and Les demoiselles de Rochefort, from 1966 and, er, French). But Oklahoma! – a musical from the 1950s. It is also a Western. Although, to be honest, it didn’t really need to be, it could have been set in an inner city, given that it’s the old love triangle plot. With songs. The leads were likeable enough, the songs were mostly memorable, and Rod Steiger was impressively villainous. But it all felt a bit artificial (and I don’t mean the fact it was filmed in Arizona and not Oklahoma), and contrived. As the only film adaptation of the first musical written by Rodgers and Hammerstein, I understand the need to put it on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but I wouldn’t call it an especially notable example of the Hollywood musical.

sinatraTony Rome, Gordon Douglas (1967, USA). Sinatra and Douglas made three neo-noir films in the late 1960s, in two of which Sinatra played the title character of this movie. Not that Sinatra was ever much of a character actor. And in the three films his hair always seems a step or two behind him in the script (if it was a hair-piece, it was not a good one). In this movie, Rome is asked to take home a young woman who has passed out from drink in a hotel room, in order to prevent the hotel from any accusation of impropriety. When the young woman – who’s from a wealthy family, of course – wakes, she discovers a diamond pin is missing, and hires Rome to find it. Cue the sort of convoluted plot you only ever found in noir books and films. The movie scores well on ambience – it’s hard to imagine a more late-sixties USA film – although Sinatra plays his role with all the depth of a petri dish and the plot seems to think an overly-complex story counts for depth. Good for a lazy Sunday afternoon, but that’s about it.

five_easy_piecesFive Easy Pieces*, Bob Rafelson (1970, USA). All this time and I’d thought Five Easy Pieces was some counter-culture film like Easy Rider, and I’ve no idea where I got that idea from (I hope it isn’t something as dumb as the fact they both have the word “easy” in their titles)… because, well, it isn’t. Not at all. Jack Nicholson plays a middle-class classical pianist slumming it as a wildcat oil worker after a falling out with his family. He even puts on the accent. He also has a girlfriend, a waitress, played by Karen Black. And a friend, who introduced him to wildcatting. But when said friend is arrested for a petrol station hold-up a year earlier, and Nicholson learns his father has suffered a stroke, he heads home, taking Black with him. The title refers to five pieces of music played by classical pianists, and which are heard during the film. Nicholson chews the scenery, as per usual, and the only real notable thing about the movie is the swap from working class to affluent middle class, and the all-too-obvious deduction that Nicholson’s character is play-acting in his working class life, which is hardly something to be celebrated. I’ve yet to actually work out the numbers but I’d guess that at least two or three out of every five films from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list have, to me, felt like they didn’t belong – and this is another of them. Meh.

sinatraThe Detective, Gordon Douglas (1968, USA). Unlike the other two films in this box set, this film is not a Tony Rome movie. But Sinatra does play, well, a detective. But not a private one, a police force one. In New York, not Miami. A man is found murdered in his apartment and his body mutilated. Various leads point to New York’s underground gay scene. Then a man commits suicide by jumping from the roof of a racetrack pavilion. And this somehow links back to the first murder, through some convoluted plot involving land sales by corrupt councillors. Sinatra’s investigation is enlivened by help from Jacqueline Bisset, wife of the suicide, who appears completely out-of-place. Compared to the two Tony Rome movies, this one is a bit grim and cheerless. The plot is just as daft as those, however, and Sinatra plays, well, Sinatra (with hair-piece); but this is more of a wet and miserable Sunday afternoon film. Apparently, a sequel was made many years later, and the makers were contractually obligated to offer the role to Sinatra. However, he was seventy years old, so he passed on it… and it went to Bruce Willis. The sequel was released under the title… Die Hard.

mocckingbirdTo Kill a Mockingbird*, Robert Mulligan (1962, USA). It’s been hard to avoid mention over the past year or so of the novel from which this film was adapted – first because of the “prequel” and the controversy surrounding its publication, and then because of the death of the author. I have actually somehow not managed to read the book for fifty years, or indeed see the movie. And I have now rectified the latter. And… really? Precocious kids, homespun philosophy, simple living a product of poverty not choice, and paternalism as a response to racism? Not to mention a muddled plot that can’t decide if its focus lies with the court case or with Boo Radley. True, this is a movie, not the novel, and perhaps the latter doesn’t seem so confused given that novels typically cover more ground. I’d always been under the impression To Kill a Mockingbird was about race relations in the US south, and that the court case formed the centre-piece of the story. But it isn’t. And it doesn’t. It’s just part of Scout’s childhood, and like many of the incidents, seems structured to teach her a life lesson. I wasn’t really sure what to expect from this film, but it was certainly something a lot more critical and insightful than this. Disappointing.

love+one+another+coverThe Bride of Glomdal, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1926, Norway). Dreyer started his movie career as a writer of intertitles for Nordisk Films. Six years later, he directed his first film, Præsidenten, a convoluted adaptation of an 1884 Austrian novel of the same title. Glomsdalbruden (The Bride of Glomdal) was Dreyer’s eighth film, and the last he made before leaving Denmark for France, where he made The Passion of Joan of Arc. Despite the dour-sounding title, The Bride of Glomdal is a love story – poor man loves rich woman, woman’s father is against the match, etc. It was filmed in Norway, mostly outdoors, and the clarity of the picture is really quite astonishing given its age. There’s also an impressive sequence in which the hero is swept downriver and through some rapids. The plot is based on a pair of stories by Norwegian author Jacob Breda Bull – as far as I can determine, he has never been translated into English. Dreyer’s films are never less than fascinating, and if this one can’t compete with The Passion of Joan of Arc for emotional power, it still remains a superior silent movie.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 748


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Moving pictures, #9

Eighty percent of this post’s films are from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, although that was more by accident than design. The Exorcist, for example, was a charity shop find; and the rest were just the ones the rental services sent me.

price_achmedThe Adventures of Prince Achmed*, Lotte Reiniger (1926, Germany). Another film on the list that would otherwise have never pinged on my radar – and not just because of its age, since I do, after all, like quite a few silent films (particularly those by Murnau, Dreyer and Lang). But The Adventures of Prince Achmed is also an animated film, done using a silhouette puppetry technique like the shadow theatre of Indonesia. It’s also apparently the oldest surviving animated film. The story is based on one from 1001 Nights, in which a prince visits a strange land on a flying horse, falls in love with the beautiful ruler, fights off an attack by demons, but she’s kidnapped by an evil magician, who traps Achmed under a boulder, but a witch rescues him, and then Achmed rescues Aladdin who is being attacked by a monster – cue 1001 Nights style flashback giving Aladdin’s back-story – and then the witch and the magician fight and the witch wins, so Achmed and Aladdin can rescue the princess, which involves fighting a hydra, but eventually Achmed wins that too, with the witch’s help, and they all live happily ever after… At 65 minutes, this does tend to drag a bit, even though there’s a lot of story to get through. The copy I watched had English narration and English intertitles, although only the intertitles were really necessary. The narration did emphasise the 1001 Nights nature of the story, however. I’m glad I’ve seen it, and can cross it off the list, but I’ll not be adding it to the wants list.

exorcistThe Exorcist*, William Friedkin (1973, USA). Back when I was at school, I worked my way through the first three of the Omen novelizations, although it was many years before I actually saw the films. The Exorcist, however, is an adaptation of a novel, which, despite reading the Omen books, despite, at that time, reading novels by James Herbert and Guy N Smith, I’ve never read. Nor did I ever see the film. But then I was never much of a horror fan, and even less so for films than books. And I’m far too squeamish to watch torture porn. But, The Exorcist… I knew the story, of course; and I’d heard about some of its more famous scenes. But it still came as a surprise when I started watching it that a) it begins at an archaeological dig in Iraq, and b) the lead character at that point is played by Max von Sydow. Also surprising is that The Exorcist is very much a 1970s film, in fact, it’s more a 1970s film than it is a horror film. If that makes sense. I’d relied on the film’s age meaning it was unlikely to trigger my squeam, if only because horror effects were so much more cinematic and less realistic back in the day; but in the event I wasn’t in the slightest bothered by even the most gruesome parts of the film – the projectile vomiting, the 360 head-turning thing – and even then they didn’t make an appearance until well near the end of the movie. I can see how the film has become iconic, although there’s not much in it that actually stands out. It is in all respects a typical 1970s movie adaptation of a novel, with a cast of vaguely familiar faces, a story that crams in far more of the book than is really needed, and solid directing and cinematography. I’m not sure it belongs on the list, however – and that’s not just because of my prejudice against horror films.

presidentThe President, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1919, Denmark). I count Dreyer’s Gertrud among my favourite films, and think extremely highly of his Day Of Wrath and The Passion of Joan of Arc (not that his other films are far behind). But Dreyer spent the first part of his career making silent films in Denmark and Sweden, few of which were especially successful, before heading to France to make The Passion of Joan of Arc. The Danske Filminstitut has released several of Dreyer’s early films on DVD and Blu-ray (his later movies are available in excellent editions from the Bfi), and Præsidenten (The President), Dreyer’s first feature film, is one of them. And having now seen it, I think I understand why it may not have hugely successful. It’s very, well, talky. There are pages and pages of intertitles. And the story, based on the novel Der Präsident by Austrian writer Karl Emil Franzos, is pretty complex for a silent film of 75 minutes. It’s also pretty grim. A Danish aristocrat returns to his home town as the president of the local judiciary, and one of his cases he’s due to see turns out to be a charge of infanticide against his daughter. He’d had an affair with his uncle’s governess, but refused to marry her because his father had advised him to never marry a commoner. He recuses himself and pleads for clemency – but the woman is sentenced to death. The aristocrat is assigned to another town, but before leaving he arranges for his daughter’s escape. Years later, he bumps into her and learns she is affianced to a plantation owner from Java. He returns to his home town to confess he organised her escape but is told that to do so would undermine the judiciary – and if he insists on confessing, then they will track down his daughter and see that her sentence is passed. All those intertitles, and the film even starts with a flashback… it makes for a confusing story.

apuThe World of Apu*, Satyajit Ray (1959, India). This is third and final film of Ray’s Apu trilogy, following on from Pather Panchali (Song of the Road) and Aparajito (The Unvanquished) – um, I should really be consistent and use the Bengali titles for all three, so this third film is Apur Sansa. Anyway, I saw the first of these back in 2009 and the second in 2014, but in the last year or so – after seeing Jalsaghar (The Music Room) – I’ve come to a new appreciation of Ray’s films and am determined to see more of them. Anyway, Apur Sansa is the third film to feature the titular character, but unlike the other two is not based on a novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay. Apu is a young man, unable to enter university because of lack of money, and struggling to find a job. He fancies himself a writer and is working on a novel. He accompanies a friend back to his home village for a cousin’s wedding. But on the wedding day, the groom has a mental breakdown. Another groom is desperately sought, since the wedding date is auspicious and to not marry off the bride would blight her life forever. After some persuading, Apu reluctantly agrees to take the groom’s place. He and his new wife return to Kolkata, and soon settle into a loving relationship. But when the wife, Aparna, returns to her home village, she dies giving birth to their first child. Apu blames the child for his wife’s death, and leaves his job and his home. He travels about India, taking odd jobs, and is only reunited with his son five years later when his friend comes looking for him and persuades him the boy needs him. The final scene, as had been long recognised, is a killer. There’s a starkness to Ray’s cinematography and staging, not to mention the social realism of the poverty he unapologetically documents, that gives Ray’s films a solid foundation of emotional power. Certainly a film that belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I plan to watch more Ray.

jfkJFK*, Oliver Stone (1991, USA). I can remember when Stone could seemingly do no wrong, and even though each project he worked on seemed, frankly, a bizarre choice, he still managed to impress both audiences and critics. But his career has long since waned. JFK was possibly his high point – fourteen award nominations and five wins. There’s not much point in giving the plot of the film – is there anyone on this planet that doesn’t know about the Kennedy assassination? Or indeed the various conspiracies which have sprung up to explain it? Stone takes Jim Garrison, a Louisiana DA, who obsessed over the case, and was the only person to ever bring a case related to the assassination to court (he lost, of course), as played by Kevin Costner. Over 3 hours, Stone goes through many of the inconsistencies ignored by the Warren Commission, and presents considerable evidence that contradicts the Commission’s findings… But I’m not quite convinced by his solution. Nor by James Ellroy’s, for that matter. The government;s preferred solution, lone gunman, is obviously complete bollocks. And certainly those Cubans who lost everything when Castro took over had motive… but assassinating a president, and getting away with it, requires help from the very highest levels of US government, industry and military. Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex” makes for a handy villain – and certain the loss of future profits seems a viable motive… But such people can generate conflict whenever they want, wherever they want, and the president of the US is unlikely to have much impact on that – Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Isis, notwithstanding. Any way you look at it, there were – and probably still are – a group of powerful people in the US who are so arrogant they believe they can effect a regime change simply in order to better their own situation. It’s tempting to think a group of right-wing industrialists and technocrats arranged Kennedy’s death, and while subsequent history has given them more than they could have possibly wished for, it’s hard to believe they were that forward-thinking, or prescient, back in 1963. I can believe a small group of people in the intelligence services and military, for whatever reason, set it all up – but why? Afraid of budget cuts? Frightened the Cold War might come to an end? They’re not… visceral enough motives. It takes real hate, and a perception of real benefit, to plan something like the assassination of a president. We may well find out fifty years from now that it was all to do with something completely different, some other power group JFK had attacked… Or we may never find out. Still, it hasn’t stopped endless speculations.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 728


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The year in moving pictures

In 2015, I decided to try and watch as many films as I could on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, started subscribing to a second DVD rental library, and bought myself an Amazon Fire TV Stick. As a result, I watched 571 films during the year, of which 115 were rewatches (some more than once). In among those were 170 from the aforementioned list.

The bulk of the movies I watched were DVDs or Blu-rays I’d purchased myself. (I bought a multi-region Blu-ray player so I could watch Region A Blu-rays.) But I also watched quite a number from Amazon’s Lovefilm by Post. See below.

2015_films_by_source

Kinopalæst is the cinema in Denmark where I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and The Light is the cinema in Leeds where I saw SPECTRE. Yes, they were the only two films I saw at the cinema. I did quite well on my Amazon Fire TV Stick – 48 movies, all of which were included free with Amazon Prime.

In terms of genre, drama seems to have done especially well, although admittedly it’s a broad term and perhaps some of the films I’ve categorised as drama might better be labelled something else. Anyway, see below.

2015_films_by_genre

The two Bollywood films were from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – or rather, one of them was: the other, Deewaar, proved to be a 2004 film of that title and not the 1975 one on the list (although both starred Amitabh Bachchan). Although last year I rented several of the plays from the BBC’s Shakespeare Collection from the late 1970s/early 1980s, the one Shakespeare movie this year was Laurence Olivier’s Henry V, which I thought very good.

By decade, the films I watched pretty much follows the same graph for books read: the current decade is the most popular (surprisingly), and there’s a steady increase through the decades which peaks at the 1960s. See below.

2015_films_by_decade

The late nineteenth-century/early twentieth-century were a result of watching some early Dreyer silent movies and a DVD collection, Early Cinema – Primitives and Pioneers, because one of the films on it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

By nation makes for an interesting graph. Although I’ve been working my way through the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, which includes movies from many different nations (but over half are from the US, sadly), I’ve been a fan of world cinema for years and many of my favourite directors work in non-Anglophone cinema. See below.

films_by_country

The high number from Russia is no doubt due mostly to Aleksandr Sokurov, a favourite director; for Denmark because of Carl Theodor Dreyer, and for Germany it’s probably Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Only two from Sweden – I obviously need to watch more Bergman…

Speaking of favourite directors, Sokurov comes out top for 2015 with 33 (most, it has to be said, were rewatches). Second is Jacques Tati, a 2015 “discovery”, at 15, then James Benning, another 2015 “discovery”, at 13. The remaining top ten goes as follows: Rainer Werner Fassbinder (12), Alfred Hitchcock (11), Carl Theodor Dreyer (10), Lars von Trier (8), Sergei Eisenstein (6), and lastly George Stevens, Michael Curtiz, Leni Riefenstahl, Jean-Luc Goddard and Jean Cocteau (5).

I finished the year having seen 703 movies on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and a quite large pile of DVDs and Blu-rays on my To Be Watched list. I plan to keep on with the list in 2015, although I think I’ll take it a bit slower, perhaps spend some evenings each week reading rather than film-watching. Plus, it’s getting to the stage now where I have to purchase titles in order to watch them as they’re not available for rental. We’ll see how it goes.


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2015, the best of the year

On balance, 2015 wasn’t a bad year for me. Things improved in $dayjob, goodish things happened in my little corner of genre, and I read a number of excellent books and watched lots of excellent films. Music-wise, it was both successful and not so successful: I discovered some more new bands on Bandcamp, and this year we went VIP for Bloodstock and it really was worth the extra money; but I saw fewer bands live than in previous years, and none of my favourite ones toured the UK – and if they did, it was only in the big cities, like London, Birmingham or Glasgow. But, like I said, some excellent books and films – so much so, I had trouble picking my top five in each. But I did finally manage it.

Oh, and I got a new cat. Oscar. He’s two years old, and I’d forgotten how much of a pain young cats can be.

books
A strange year of reading, on reflection, and I’m not entirely sure why. I read some books as research for All That Outer Space Allows (which was published this year), I read some other non-fiction books (on space and aircraft and submersibles, mostly), I read some sf novels for SF Mistressworks and some more recent genre works… And I decided to widen my reading to include more classic literature. While I like to think of myself primarily as a science fiction fan, of late I’ve found it hard to generate much enthusiasm for recent sf. In part, that’s due to the way fandom is changing as a result of social media and online promotion, but also because a lot of current sf seems to me more interested in style rather than content. I like sf ideas and sense of wonder, but I also like good writing, sophisticated themes and a willingness to experiment with form and structure. While some works which meet those criteria were indeed published in 2015, those I came across didn’t feel especially progressive. Which is why you’ll notice a few notable titles missing from my top five below (and I have only one, in fact, that was actually published in 2015).

loving1 Loving, Henry Green (1945).
An author new to me in 2015, and despite being about a subject – life belowstairs in the Irish country house of an English nob during WWII – that doesn’t interest me in the slightest, Green’s writing was wonderful and his narrative technique amazing. I will be reading more by him – hell, I plan to read everything he ever wrote.

wolves2 Wolves, Simon Ings (2014).
There was some small fuss when this appeared in early 2014, but by the time awards came around it had been forgotten. Which was a shame. And I wished I’d read it in time to nominate it last year – because this is plainly one of the best sf novels of 2014. The focus of his novel tends to drift a little as the story progresses, but Ings has still managed to produce one of the smartest works of sf – if not the smartest work of sf – of the last few years.

grasshopperschild3 The Grasshopper’s Child, Gwyneth Jones (2014).
A new Gwyneth Jones novel is cause for celebration, even if it’s a YA addendum to the non-YA Bold as Love quintet. But there’s a reason Jones is my favourite science fiction writer, and they’re all evident in this short novel. On the one hand, this is a smart YA novel and I’m no fan of YA fiction; on the other, it’s Gwyneth Jones and her Bold as Love world. But it’s also self-published, so it needs to be on as many best-of lists as possible so that Jones keeps on writing. (And why was it self-published? Do the major UK genre imprints not want to publish new work by the country’s best sf writer?)

darkoribt4 Dark Orbit, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2015).
I’ve been saying for years that Gilman is a name to watch, and she has at last been given the opportunity to demonstrate it to a wider audience. (She amply demonstrated it with her fantasy diptych from ChiZine Publications back in 2011/2012, but genre commentators can only apparently see what appears from major imprints – which is, if you’ll forgive me, fucking short-sighted). Anyway, Dark Orbit deservedly received a lot of positive reviews, and though to me it didn’t quite feel like Gilman firing on all cylinders, it showed great promise. More from her, please.

bone_clocks5 The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell (2014).
Friends have been singing the praises of Mitchell for years, but I’ve never really understood why. I mean, I enjoyed Cloud Atlas, and I thought it was clever… but it did seem a little over-praised. But The Bone Clocks is the novel that all the praise had led me to believe Cloud Atlas was. It’s his most insightful yet – and also his most genre.

Honourable mentions: a few titles got bumped from best of the half-year top five, although they were excellent books and probably didn’t deserve to be demoted – namely, The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958), a classic of Italian twentieth-century literature (a bloody good film too); A Division Of The Spoils, Paul Scott (1975), the final book of the Raj Quartet and as beautifully written as the other three; and What the Doctor Ordered, Michael Blumlein (2013), wich showcases why he remains one of my favourite genre short story writers. Also read and noteworthy were: Strange Bodies, Marcel Theroux (2013), a literate mystery based on an interestingly odd premise; Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov (1962), my first by him and, though perhaps overly prissy, excellent; One Thousand and One Nights, Hanan Al-Shaykh (2011), a bawdy, and multiply-nested retelling of some of its title’s stories; Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson (1981), her beautifully-written debut novel; and Galactic Suburbia, Lisa Yaszek (2008), used for research and a fascinating read.

films
I went all-out on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list in 2015. So much so, in fact, that I signed up with a second DVD rental service, Cinema Paradiso, because they had some films from the list that weren’t available on Amazon’s Lovefilm by Post. And I bought an Amazon Fire TV Stick too, which gave me access to even more movies. Meanwhile, I purged my DVD collection of all the superhero films (why did I buy them in the first place?) and the shit sf movies (why did I buy them in the first place?), not to mention lots of other films I’d bought over the years. My collection is now looking very different, much more of cineaste’s collection (even though I say so myself), with lots of works by Sokurov, Dreyer, Murnau and Benning – and from earlier years, Bergman, Tarkovsky, Kieslowski and Haneke, among many others.

The 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die challenge has been… interesting. It introduced me to the works of James Benning. I’ve also seen a lot of not very good films that really didn’t belong on the list (mostly from Hollywood, it has to be said). And I’ve seen a lot of early cinema, most of which proved quite interesting. Only one of the five films in my top five was not a “discovery” from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

playtime1 Playtime, Jacques Tati (1967)
How could this not be my number one choice? It certainly was halfway back in June, and it remains so now at the end of the year. I loved its Brutalist production design, its situational humour, its wit… it is a work of cinematic genius. I’d watched a rental DVD but I loved it so much I bought a Blu-ray copy for myself… and then bought a boxed set of Blu-rays of Tati’s entire oeuvre. A film that went straight into my personal top ten best films of all time.

deseret2 Deseret, James Benning (1995)
Ever loved a film so much you went out and bought every DVD you could find by that director? Oh wait, I did that for Tati. But I also did it for Benning. Fortunately, Östereichesichen Filmmuseum have been releasing Benning’s films on DVDs the last couple of years, so there were a few for me to get. And yet… Deseret is static shots of Utah landscape, and later cityscape, while a voice reads out stories from the New York Times from 1895 to the present day. It is cinema as art installation. And I loved it. I am now a huge Benning fan. And I have all of the DVDs that Östereichesichen Filmmuseum have released. And am eagerly awaiting more.

shepitko3 Wings, Larisa Shepitko (1966)
Shepitko’s Ascent is on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but the only copy of it I could find was a Criterion double with Wings. I bought it. I watched Ascent. It was good. But then I watched Wings. And it was so much better. A female fighter pilot of the Great Patriotic War, and Hero of the Soviet Union, is now the principal of a school. It’s an artful juxtaposition, more so because the protagonist is female. And it was Shepitko’s debut film. War films, like Ascent, strike me as too easy as choices for assorted lists, but the social drama versus war of Wings is much more interesting. This film should have been on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I’d also like to see more by Shepitko.

elegy_voyage4 Elegy of a Voyage, Aleksandr Sokurov (2001)
Come on, you didn’t expect me not to have a Sokurov film on this list, did you? I’m being nice by not putting five on it. Well, okay, five maybe could have made it, but one was a rewatch from previous years and so didn’t count. But four could have done. (Yes, the other three are in my honourable mentions below.) Elegy of a Voyage is one of Sokurov’s documentaries, but it’s more of a meditation than an informational film, in which Sokurov muses on journeys and art, particularly ‘The Tower of Babel’ by Bruegel.

cleo5 Cleo from 5 to 7, Agnès Varda (1962). I have found the Nouvelle Vague to be something of a mixed bag – in fact, I’ve found the oeuvres of Nouvelle Vague directors to be something of a mixed bag. But the only Varda I’d seen prior to Cleo from 5 to 7 was a documentary from 2000. Cleo from 5 to 7 may have covered similar ground to some of Godard’s 1960s films, but it does it so much better. Loved it.

Honourable mentions: two films were dropped from my best of the half year list, one a Sokurov, one a documentary: Jodorowskys Dune (2013) is a fascinating look at a major sf film that never happened, but still left its fingerprints all over sf cinema; Stone (1992) is a typically enigmatic drama from Sokurov… but I could just as easily mention Whispering Pages (1994; which he knocked together after his financing fell apart, but it still manages to hit all those Sokurovian notes), or Spiritual Voices (1995; a documentary about Russian soldiers on the Afghanistan border whose first 40 minutes are a static shot of a Siberian wood). But there’s also Tati’s Mon oncle (1958), nearly as good as Playtime; James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge (2014), an excellent documentary on his visit to Challenger Deep, only the third person to do so; American Dreams (lost and found) (1984), another Benning piece with an unconventional narrative; Salt of the Earth, Herbert J Biberman (1954), an astonishing piece of social realism drama that deserves to be better known; Sleeping Beauty, Clyde Geronimi (1959), easily the best of the Disney feature films. Day Of Wrath (1943) was another excellent film from Dreyer, Effi Briest (1974) was I thought the best of the Rainer Werner Fassbinder box set I watched, and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967) was a Jean-Luc Godard that I was surprised to find I liked very much.

albums
I spent much of the year further exploring Bandcamp, and so stumbled across yet more excellent music. I did not, however, see much music live this year – Sólstafir were excellent back in February, Voices and Winterfylleth were very good in September, and highlights of this year’s Bloodstock included Ne Obliviscaris, Sumer, Opeth and Agalloch.

1 Sidereus Nuncius, Apocynthion (2013)
Spanish progressive death metal, not unlike NahemaH (also Spanish, and a favourite band… although they disbanded last year). It seems a little unfair to describe a group’s sound by how much like another band’s it is, but metal these days is such a wide and diverse genre labels are often next to useless. Apocynthion play prgressive metal with clean and growl vocals, some death metal song structures, sound effects and samples, a heavy post-metal influence and a great deal of technical ability.

panopticon2 Autumn Eternal, Panopticon (2015)
Panopticon’s Kentucky from 2013, with its mix of black metal and bluegrass, is an astonishing album… but I picked it for my best of last year. Their new album (I say “their” but it’s a one-man show) mixes folky acoustic parts with intense black metal, and it works really well.

3 Ghostwood, Navigator (2013)
This is polished progressive rock with a little bit of djent thrown into the mix, with solid riffs and some catchy hooks. They described themselves as “for fans of Porcupine Tree”, although I think this album is better than most of that band’s albums.

grorr4 Anthill, Grorr (2012)
A relatively recent discovery this one, Grorr play progressive death metal, but more like Gojira than, say, Opeth. There’s all sorts in here – bagpipes, sitar, various types of drums. It’s a wonderfully varied album, but still coherent.

5 An Act of Name Giving, Butterfly Trajectory (2015)
Anothe rrecent discovery. Butterfly Trajectory also play progressive death metal – there seems to be a common theme to this top five… They’re from Poland, and while their sound is quite Opeth-ish, they’re a good deal better than fellow countrymen Gwynbleidd who play similar material. Butterfly Trajectory seem to like their progressive bits a tad more than their death metal bits, which works really well.

Honourable mentions: Worst Case Scenario, Synesthesia (2015), French progessive death metal with plenty of other musical styles thrown in, excellent stuff; Kyrr, Kontinuum (2015), Icelandic post-metal, a little more commercial than fellow countrymen Sólstafir… whose Ótta (2015) and Svartir Sandar (2011) are excellent heavy post-metal albums; Cold and the Silence, Martriden (2015), yet more shredding from excellent medlodic death metal group, who seem to have gone a bit funkily progressive with this new album, and it works really well; and finally, RAMA, RAMA (2015), which is a weird mix of doom, stoner, psychedelic and desert rock all in a three-song EP.


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Best of the half year, 2015

It’s that time of the year again, time to look back at the books I’ve read, the films I’ve watched, and the albums I’ve listened to, and decide which five earn a place on the much-coveted best of the half-year lists. To put these lists into perspective, I have – by 20 June – bought twelve albums (all from bandcamp), watched 234 films (which does include a number of rewatches), and read 74 books (which includes half a dozen previously read books). I’ve also been documenting my reading in a series of Reading diary posts (currently at #7, with #8 to be posted shortly), and my film-watching in a series of Moving pictures posts (fifteen so far this year).

So far, 2014 has felt like quite a good year. To date I’ve read 74 books, which is a slight dip from this time last year but up on the year before. And in both years I comfortably managed to read 150 books (which is just as well as I’ve entered 150 books for my GoodReads 2015 Book Challenge). On the film front, I have as usual failed to make it to the cinema even once, so most of my movie-watching has been on DVD – and I’ve started buying Blu-rays more often now too. Most of those DVDs were rentals, which has helped so far knock sixty titles of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, not all of which, incidentally, I’m convinced belonged on the list. I’ve also spent the year so far tracking down copies of films on DVD by my favourite directors, especially Aleksandr Sokurov. I now own all but one of his DVDs, but since the only copies of it I’ve found are priced around £200 to £250 I might have to use – kof kof – “alternative” sources. Anyway, I’ve been watching a lot of films – 238 to date. Some of them I’ve watched more than once. Finally, music… which has not been as successful this year as books or films. I’ve spent most of my time listening to groups on bandcamp, and have consequently discovered a number of excellent bands – in fact, all of the ones mentioned in this post were purchased there. I’ve only been to two gigs this year – one was Sólstafir, who were excellent; the second was half a dozen bands at a gig sponsored by Femetalism. None of my favourite bands have released new albums so far this year, although one or two have releases planned later in the year.

Anyway, here are the lists, with the usual honourable mentions as well.

books
whatdoctororderedspread0What the Doctor Ordered, Michael Blumlein (2013). Blumlein has been a favourite writer for many years, but his short fiction has always been more impressive than his novels. And this new collection – only his second since 1990’s The Brains of Rats – amply demonstrates why Blumlein is such a brilliant short story writer. A much undersung writer who deserves to be better known. Incidentally, Centipede Press have done a lovely job with the book.

grasshopperschildThe Grasshopper’s Child, Gwyneth Jones (2014). A new novel from a favourite author. It’s actually a YA novel set in the universe of the not-YA Bold as Love quintet. There is a fierce intelligence to Jones’s books which shines through her prose, and it’s one of the reasons I consider her the UK’s best science fiction writer currently being published – except she isn’t these days, as The Grasshopper’s Child was self-published. Seriously, that shouldn’t be happening.

raj4A Division Of The Spoils, Paul Scott (1975). The final book of the Raj Quartet, and what a piece of work the quartet is. Scott is superb at handling voices, and in Barbie Batchelor has created one of fiction’s great characters – although this book belongs more to Guy Perron, a gentleman NCO keen to return to the UK now the war is over, but who comes into the orbit of the Layton family (who have been a constant presence running through all four books). I’m already looking forward to rereading the quartet.

the_leopardgThe Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958). I watched the film of this and that persuaded me to read the book. And I’m glad I did. There are Lawrentian elements to it, although a story which valorises the aristocracy and (mostly) presents the lower classes as venal in order to demonstrate the coming of a new world order… would not be my first choice of reading. But Tomasi di Lampedusa manages to give his fading nobles an air of tragedy as their time passes, even if the Salina family’s paternalism feels like a relic of a much earlier age.

darkoribtDark Orbit, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2015). Another favourite author. This novel is set in the same universe as Gilman’s excellent novellas ‘The Ice Owl’ and ‘Arkfall’, and while some elements of the novel are not entirely successful, it does make use of some heavy concepts and it handles them really well. A science fiction novel that makes you think – and we really could do with more of them these days.

Honourable mentions. A pair of polished collections – The Lady of Situations, Stephen Dedman (1999), and Adam Robots, Adam Roberts (2013), not every story in them worked, but the good ones were very good indeed. Strange Bodies, Marcel Theroux (2013), which surprisingly seems to have been missed by much of sf fandom, which is a shame. A Man Lies Dreaming, Lavie Tidhar (2014), a pulp detective tale with a failed Hitler as the hero shouldn’t work, but this blackly comic take on it definitely does. Touch, Claire North (2015), is perhaps not as successful as last year’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, as its fascinating premise is married to a weak plot; but never mind.

As usual, I’ve been collecting stats on my reading. And it breaks down as follows…

decade2015

I hadn’t realised I’d read so many recent books, and I’ve no idea why the 1980s is the next most popular decade – perhaps it’s due to the books I picked to review for SF Mistressworks. The one nineteenth century book was HG Wells, the two 1920s ones were DH Lawrence.

gender2015

I alternate genders when choosing fiction books to read, but I seem to have slipped up somewhere, and women writers currently outnumber men in my reading.

genre2015

It never feels like I read a lot of science fiction, but at almost half of my reading I guess I must be doing so. Mainstream is the next highest genre, but only twenty percent. To be fair, it seems the mainstream books are often more memorable than the genre ones. But at least the numbers explain the good showing by genre in my top five and honourable mentions.

films
playtimePlaytime, Jacques Tati (1967, France). I’d never actually seen a Tati film until I rented Les Vacances de M Hulot last August. I enjoyed it, but something I read somewhere persuaded me to add his Playtime to my rental list. And I watched it for the first time early this year. And loved it so much, I bought a Blu-ray of it. And then I spotted that a Tati Blu-ray collection was on offer on Amazon, so I bought that too. But none of Tati’s other films blew me away as much as Playtime, although Mon Oncle comes a close second (and so makes my honourable mentions below).

elegy_voyageElegy of a Voyage, Aleksandr Sokurov (2001, Russia). I’ve watched this three times since I bought it, as part of my 2015 love affair with Sokurov’s films. As the title suggests, the film is a meditation on travel, and art, with Sokurov in voiceover describing a journey he takes which ends up at a museum in, I think, a German city. Elegy of a Voyage is everything that Sokurov does so well, that makes a film a Sokurov film. Not to mention the somewhat idiosyncratic artistic choices Sokurov makes, such as using a 4:3 aspect ratio, distorting the image so it almost resembles a painting, and the use of colour filters to further distance the viewer from the picture. The beauty of Sokurov’s films is not that they bear repeated viewings, but that they require it.

dayofwrathDay Of Wrath, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1943, Denmark). This year I also became a fan of Dreyer’s films – his Gertrud had been a favourite for a couple of years – but in 2015 I bought DVDs of all his available movies. And worked my way through them. The silent films are astonishingly modern – especially The Passion of Joan of Arc – but I do prefer the later films, and after Gertrud, Day Of Wrath is I think his next best – and like Gertrud, it’s about women and women’s roles in society, but this time set in 1623 and describing how a young woman saves her mother from a charge of witchcraft by marrying the local pastor. And then it all goes horribly wrong.

jodosduneJodorowsky’s Dune, Frank Pavich (2013, USA). One of the reasons I bought a Blu-ray player capable of playing multi-region Blu-rays was because I wanted to see this film – to date it has not been released in the UK. Jodorowsky’s Dune is a documentary about the unmade film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel, which only exists in concept art by Chris Foss, Moebius and HR Giger… and a complete storyboard “bible” which Jodorowsky’s producers sent to a number of US studios. A fascinating look at what could have been a fascinating film.

sokurov_earlyStone, Aleksandr Sokurov (1992, Russia). A young man looks after the house Chekhov once lived in, and then one night a man who might be Chekhov mysteriously appears… Filmed in black and white, elliptical and, in the second half, featuring Sokurov’s trademark timelapse photography of a snowy landscape. While Elegy of a Voyage is a documentary, this is fiction, but deeply allusive fiction – which is why I woke up the morning after watching this and discovered I’d gone and ordered a pair of Chekhov books from Amazon…

Honourable mentions. Fear Eats The Soul, Effi Briest and The Marriage of Maria Braun, all by Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1974, 1974 and 1979, Germany), and all from a DVD box set I received for Christmas, these were I felt the best three. The Big Red One, Samuel Fuller (1980, USA), I’m not a big fan of WWII films but this is a good one, and even manages to rise above what is obviously a smaller budget than most such films get. Mon Oncle, Jacques Tati (1958, France), more modernist low-key humour, which may not be as cinematically beautiful as Playtime, but comes a close second. James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge, John Bruno, Ray Quint & Andrew White (2014, USA), another Blu-ray not available in the UK which motivated my purchase of a multi-region Blu-ray player, this documentary covers Cameron’s descent to Challenger Deep in 2012. Two or Three Things I Know About Her, Jean-Luc Godard (1967, France), although not a Godard fan I do love some of his films, such as this one, a study of a bored housewife who works on the side as a prostitute; I’ve already bunged the Criterion DVD on my wishlist. Whispering Pages and Spiritual Voices, Aleksandr Sokurov (1994 and 1995, Russia), a completely opaque drama and a deeply philosophical documentary (about Russian soldiers), yet more evidence of my admiration for Sokurov’s works. Moscow does not Believe in Tears, Vladimir Menshov (1980, USSR), an odd drama about three women in Moscow in the 1950s and the 1970s, which makes a pleasing antidote to US “evil empire” propaganda. Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Aditya Chopra (1995, India), a superior Bollywood film about UK-based NRIs and arranged marriages, with amusingly broad comedy, well-staged musical numbers and a pair of likeable leads. The Man from London, Béla Tarr (2007, Hungary), my first Tarr and probably the most plot-full of his films, and while I’m still not quite plugged into his brand of slow cinema, it’s definitely the sort of cinema that appeals to me.

As with books, I’ve been collecting stats on the films I’ve watched…

filmnation

I still seem to be watching mostly American films, but that’s likely because so many on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list are American – or, at the very least, the US ones are easier to find (ie, readily available for rental). The good showing for Russia is, of course, Sokurov – several of his films I’ve watched two or three times already this year.

films decade

A reasonable spread across the decades, although I would have expected the fifties and sixties to do better than the seventies, as I much prefer films from those earlier two decades. The first decade of this millennium doesn’t seem to have done very well either, which is odd.

albums
ghostwoodGhostwood, Navigator (2013). A US prog rock band I stumbled across on Bandcamp, and then began listening to repeatedly. In parts they remind me of Australia’s Chaos Divine, and though they describe themselves as “for fans of: Porcupine Tree”, I think I prefer this album to those by Steven Wilson’s band. There are a few bits of electronica in there somewhere, but also plenty of heavy riffing- the title tracks boasts especially good riffage. And very catchy melodies. Good stuff.

sidereusSidereus Nuncius, Apocynthion (2013). A Spanish death metal band with a death metal / post-metal sound not unlike NahemaH’s – who were also from Spain, but have sadly disbanded after only three albums. I hope Apocynthion stay together and produce many more albums. The opening track with its insistent drumbeat is especially good.

secretyouthSecret Youth, Callisto (2015). I bought a Callisto album several years ago, and though I enjoyed their brand of heavy post-metal I never bothered with any of their subsequent albums. But then Zero Tolerance magazine streamed this, their latest, I gave it a listen, discovered it was very different to their earlier album… and liked it so much I bought it. It’s still post-metal, but the growls have been mostly replaced by clean vocals, and in places there’s almost an early Anathema-ish sound to it.

worstcaseWorst Case Scenario, Synesthesia (2015). This was very much a lucky discovery and while at first they reminded me quite heavily of The Old Dead Tree – who, like Synesthesia, are also from France – repeated listens proved they definitely had their own thing going. Like The Old Dead Tree, they drift between death and goth metal, but they also throw quite a bit of prog into it, and it’s a mix that works well, even if in places they sound a bit Muse-ish.

ottaÓtta, Sólstafir (2014). These Icelanders were excellent live, so I bought their last two albums (the only ones available on Bandcamp), and it’s hard to say which is the better of the two. There are a couple of cracking tracks on 2011’s Svartir Sandar, but I decided Ótta was just a little bit the better of the two, if only for the banjo-accompanied title track.

Honourable mentions. Doliu, Clouds (2014), a UK doom band, and the track ‘if these walls could speak’ is absolutely brilliant. Entransient, Entransient (2015), a US prog metal band with a bit of post-rock thrown in for good measure. Good stuff. The Malkuth Grimoire, Alkaloid (2015), a German progressive death metal supergroup, containing (ex-)members of Necrophagist, Obscura, Spawn of Possession, Aborted, Dark Fortress, God Dethroned, Blotted Science and Noneuclid, this is quality stuff, in the same area as Barren Earth but a very Germanic version. Svartir Sandar, Sólstafir (2011), see above. Half Blood, Horseback (2012), as the album’s Bandcamp page puts it, “shifts from Americana twang to fiercely evil buzzing guitars to hypnotically meditative kraut-drone”, which is as good a description as any; file alongside Ultraphallus.