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Moving pictures 2018, #53

I think I’m starting to suffer from Film Fatigue. I’ve watched so many movies so far this year, I find my attention wandering when I have one playing. So I tried watching television series instead. During August and September, I worked my way through all the past series of New Who, after finding them available on the BBC iPlayer. I was surprised to discover that of all the Doctors since the relaunch, I much preferred Matt Smith. I also tried watching the first season of Andromeda, but I’m not sure how much of it I can take. I like the central premise, and even one or two of the characters, but all the Nietschean bollocks is hugely annoying, not to mention the constant use of twentieth-century cultural references… But then it went and disappeared from Amazon Prime when I was only about ten episodes in. Oh well.

Anyway, here’s another half a dozen movies. I’m a bit behind on these posts, but once I’ve cleared the backlog, I think I’ll slow down a bit on them.

Oliver Twist, David Lean (1948, UK). Although this had been on my list to watch for many years, I’d made no effort to seek it out. So it was good it popped up on Amazon Prime. And an excellent transfer too. I don’t know the book – I’m not a Dickens fan and have read only Great Expectations – although, being English, I’m familiar with the story, as Dickens’s more popular novels are pretty much defining parts of English culture. Oliver Twist is set among the workhouses of Victorian England, and anyone who thinks we  should return to that is a total scumbag and I would quite happily knife. Just point me at them. (Quick note for the police and security services: that’s not an actual threat, although when you finally get around to criminalise thoughts I might have a few problems justifying it…). Anyway, Oliver’s mother dies in poverty and he’s given to a workhouse. After being persuaded to ask for more food – “Please, sir, I want some more.” – he’s apprenticed to a funeral director, where he’s not treated like a slave, but it’s not much better. But he attacks a fellow servant, is promptly whipped, and so runs away to London. Which is where he ends up in Fagin’s gang. The film was criticised on its release for Alec Guinness’s antisemitic portrayal of Fagin. Lean’s defence was that the make-up was intended to make Guinness resemble George Cruikshank’s illustrations from the story’s first appearance. But it doesn’t wash. Cruikshank’s illustrations may well have been antisemitic; Guinness’s portrayal certainly is. The story ends with Oliver being adopted by a family who turn out, amazingly coincidentally, to be the parents of his mother, who had run away from home after becoming pregnant. Oh, and Bill Sykes murders Nancy, but he then accidentally kills himself by falling off a roof trying to escape an enraged mob. The story relies too much on melodrama and coincidence, but Lean’s treatment of it is excellent. His Victorian London is every bit as scary as it would appear to a young boy, and deliberately so. The adult characters are caricatured, not just as written by Dickens, but also visually. I can understand why the film is so highly regarded, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it’s only the depiction of Fagin that kept it off the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, Karan Johar (2006, India). This Bollywood film was lent to me by my mother, who has a completely uncritical approach to film watching. Our family connection to Scandinavia means she now watches a lot of films and television from that region, and she’s not at all phased by watching anything with subtitles. I’ve also recommended so many foreign films to her she tends to looks at the story first and not the language. Which, to be honest, hardly applies to Bollywood films as they all have the same plot: boy meets girl, boy loses girls, boy gets girl back again. And Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna sort of follows the formula, except for being set in New York and being about adultery and two relationships that are consequently split apart. Shah Rukh Khan is a successful footballer in the US. He meets Rani Mukerji at her engagement party (his mother is doing the catering). Shortly after curing her of her last-minute nerves, he’s hit by a car and his football career is over. Four years later, Khan is a little league football coach, while his wife is a successful editor of a fashion magazine. Mukerji is a teacher, and her husband runs a successful PA agency. Meanwhile, his mother and her father have met up and started dating. Which brings Khan and Mukerji together, and their friendship soon turns into something else. There are many words you can use to describe Bollywood, but “bittersweet” is not a common one. But that’s what Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna feels like. It takes a while before the two leads finally get together, and they’re all too aware of the fact they’re married to other people. Khan and Mukerji make a good couple, and the supporting roles are well played. It’s a polished piece, more so than many of the Bollywood films I’ve seen. It would probably make a good introduction to Indian cinema to those wanting to try it.

Twelve Chairs, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea (1962, Cuba). I’ve a feeling there’s a British film which covers the same territory as this, but perhaps it’s just because it’s such a familiar story. The matriarch of a wealthy Cuban family hides the last of her wealth in one of twelve “English” antique chairs. The rest of the film follows her descendants’ attempts to track down the correct chair and so recover their fortune. It smells like an Ealing comedy. But it’s not presented like one. Mostly. It’s Alea, of course, who directed a number of Cuban comedies during the 1960s, although it’s clear here where his inspirations lay. At least it was to me. But perhaps that was because I’d watched a bad British farce starring Alfred Marks – and Bob Monkhouse! And Anna Karina! – only a few days earlier. In many respects, Twelve Chairs seemed of the same comedy tradition as that which led to the UK film (and both were released in the same year). Which is obviously why I’m almost half-convinced there’s a British film with a similar plot… I’ve seen several Alea movies, but this I thought lightweight stuff compared to them. It was only his second feature-length film, and I’ve not see his first, Stories of the Revolution. But he made Death of a Bureaucrat (see here) and Memories of Underdevelopment (see here) a few years later, and they’re both excellent.

Liquid Sky, Slava Tsukerman (1982, USA). I’d heard of this film years ago but never expected to see it. But then a copy popped up on Amazon Prime for free, and it was a good – no, an excellent – transfer… And you know what, it’s actually a bloody good film. Very eighties. Amazingly eighties. I had thought the most eighties film on the planet was Andrzej Żuławski’s L’amour bracque (see here), but I was wrong. Liquid Sky is as fucking eighties as it gets. Anne Carlisle, who plays both the male and female leads, is especially impressive. It’s not like the acting is good throughout, it is in fact mostly terrible, and the plot is total nonsense. There’s a tiny flying saucer, which looks really fake, and lots of parties where people sneer at each other in a very eighties way, and lots of drugs and arguments about drugs. None of it hangs together, but then it’d be a surprise if it did. Carlisle has considerable screen presence in both of her roles. And yet… it’s the 1980s as we see it depicted in film and television, but it’s not the 1980s I remember. I mean, I was there, I even remember a lot of the cultural moments – Duran Duran first appearing on Top of the Pops, Spandau Ballet with those ridiculous rugs over their shoulders, all the “greed is good” stuff, shoulder pads, Dynasty, Bowie, all that shit. I was there. And while Liquid Sky seems to capture the decade’s essence, it isn’t really an accurate portrayal. But that, I think, is the point, and much of the appeal. They say if you can remember the 1960s, you weren’t there; but I suspect if you remember the 1980s, it’s the later depictions of it you “remember”, not the actual decade. It’s been entirely confabulated. The same will likely happen to the current decade – because, seriously, the shit that’s going down now? You could not make it up.

La captive, Chantal Akerman (2000, France). I need to watch more Akerman. I’m not really sure what to make of her. I mean, Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, is a particular type of film and an excellent one too. But it’s almost plotless and just recounts the life of its titular character. La captive, on the other hand, is narrative cinema, with a plot… although that may be too strong a word. A young man lives with his grandmother and his girlfriend, and he is totally controlling. He follows his girlfriend, making sure she is doing what she tells him she is doing, and he is only capable of having sex with her when she is pretending to be asleep. I will admit I was not concentrating all that much as this film – a rental DVD – was playing, and so I came away from it with an impression of a movie that was much like other French dramas of its time, such as those by Godard – a personal drama, shot cheaply on a single camera, without any expansive, or expensive, shots, just the two main characters talking to, or at, each other as they performed everyday actions. In fact, now I think back on it, there was a lot that reminded me of Godard’s twenty-first century films, although perhaps not so experimental – although Akerman was certainly experimental during her career, cf the aforementioned film by her. I need to watch more Akerman. She directed around thirty feature films, but only La captive seems to have been released on DVD in the UK (Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is a UK edition of the US Criterion release). I suspect she is another director, like Marguerite Duras, who, despite their reputations, have seen only limited sell-through release in the UK because of their gender. That really needs to change.

The Adventures of Juan Quin Quin, Julio García Espinosa (1967, Cuba). If there’s one thing that’s become clear about Cuban cinema from the dozen or so Cuban films I’ve watched over the last year or so, it’s that they don’t think kindly of their pre-revolutionary days and yet made numerous movies set during those times. Especially historical ones. Amada, for example, (see here) is based on a 1929 novel; two of the three sections of a favourite film, Lucía (see here), are set in the 1890s and the 1930s; and Cecilia (see here) is adapted from a novel published in 1839… On the other hand, Death of a Bureaucrat (see here) pokes fun at the apparatchiks created by the Revolution. The Adventures of Juan Quin Quin, however, is set before the Revolution, but it’s not clear exactly when. The title character is a bit of a chancer who tries a variety of ways to make money, but is eventually declared a bandit by the authorities. Although I may have that wrong. The film opens with Juan Quin Quin cornered in a wheat field by the army. They set fire to the field in order to either smoke him out or kill him. He survives and evades capture. The rest of the film may be flashback, I’m not entirely sure. Because Quin (or perhaps Quin Quin) is next at a cock fight and is inspired to open a bullring. He approaches a circus owner for a bull, ends up working for him, and steals his lion. He then bounces from career to career, at one point ending up playing Jesus Christ in a circus (and the presence of two go go dancers in this section suggest at least one reason why films set in pre-revolutionary Cuba might have been popular in post-revolutionary Cuba…). And, of course, film, especially comedy, was a perfect vehicle for political allegory. At one point during the circus section, a fakir (played by Quin) lies down on a bed of broken glass. The ringmaster asks for volunteers to stand on the fakir’s torso. A large man in military uniform volunteers himself and seems determined to jump onto the fakir’s chest. It’s not the most subtle of metaphors… Quin ends up running a plantation, which brings him into conflict with the owner, and so the authorities, leading to his final career as a bandit, which circles back to the opening sequence… The Adventures of Juan Quin Quin was apparently entered into competition at the 5th Moscow International Film Festival, but lost out to a tie between The Journalist by Sergei Gerasimov and Father by István Szabó. Also entered, incidentally, from the UK was A Man For All Seasons.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 931

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2016, the best of the year

It’s been a funny old year. Not only have we hit that time when the icons of our youth are in their (late) sixties, seventies and eighties, and so coming to the end of their lives… but some of the British people had a fit of madness and voted to leave the EU in the dumbest referendum in British political history… And then the US went one better, as it always has to, and voted in as president Donald Trump, an orange-skinned baboon, a man who makes Nigel Farage look like a mostly-harmless over-educated clown. Trump doesn’t even have his arse officially in the Oval Office yet, and he’s already abusing his powers. We’ve had ten years of damaging and unnecessary austerity here in the UK, and we’re looking down the barrel of a deeper recession, thanks to the morons and racists who voted Leave. But I think the next four years in the US might well be worse than anything we experience…

On the personal front, the day job got really busy around March, when a colleague left the company and a major project he was working on was dumped on my desk. As a result, I’ve not had much energy or enthusiasm for anything other than just consuming culture… which has meant lots of blog posts on films I’ve watched, books I’ve read, and, er, films I’ve watched. I did manage to publish a whole four stories in 2016, however; ‘Geologic’ appeared in Interzone in January; ‘Red Desert’ and ‘Our Glorious Socialist Future Among the Stars!’ appeared in Dreams of the Space Age, a collection of my alt space stories; and Coda: A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum I published as a pendant to the Apollo Quartet… but only the last was actually written in 2016. I also worked on the third book in my space opera trilogy, A Want of Reason, in fits and starts. So, overall, not a very productive year.

Fortunately, some of the films I watched and some of the books I read made up for it. A new favourite writer and two new favourite films is not bad going for a single year. And a number of other “discoveries”, both writers and directors new to me in 2016, I thought so good I will be further exploring their oeuvres. But. There can only be, er, five. In each category. Yes, it’s that time of the year – ie, pretty close to the end – when I look back over the aforementioned consumed culture – of which there has been quite a bit, particularly on the movie front – and pick my top five in books, films and albums. And they look something like this…

books
Not a very good year for genre fiction, it seems. Not a single category science fiction novel makes it into my top five. And one gets bumped from the half-year top five (those are the numbers in square brackets) to the honourable mentions. Four other genre writers also make my honourable mentions – Charnock, Whiteley, Duchamp and Park – although I’ve been a fan of Duchamp’s and Park’s writing for many years.

end_days1 The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck (2012) [1]. Erpenbeck was my discovery of the year. I forget who recommended The End of Days, but I loved it… and then later bought everything else by Erpenbeck translated into English (she’s German). The End of Days re-imagines the life of a Jewish woman born in the early years of the twentieth century in Galicia, and follows her through several variations on her life, as she variously moves to Vienna, becomes a communist, moves to Austria, then settles in East Germany. Erpenbeck’s prose is distant and factual, a style that appeals greatly to me, and I especially like the “facticity” of her protagonist’s many lives. The End of Days is not as readable, or as immersive, a novel as Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, a book it resembles in broad conceit, but I much prefer Erpenbeck’s novel because I love the authority of its reportage-like prose, and I find the life of its protagonist much more interesting than that of Atkinson’s. I think The End of Days is a superb novel – I’ve already bought everything by Erpenbeck published in the UK, and I eagerly await whatever new works might appear.

vertigo2 Vertigo, WG Sebald (1990) [2]. Sebald is a genre all to himself, and his novels defy easy summary. They also – particularly in this case – tread that fine line between fact and fiction which I find so appealing, even more so when the fact is autobiography. (In hindsight, I could have included Vertigo as an inspiration for Coda: A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum, but then Austerlitz had partly inspired Adrift on the Sea of Rains, so…) The novel is divided into four parts, all first person narratives – the first is by Stendahl and describes his entry into Italy with Napoleon’s army, the second is by an unnamed narrator presumed to be Sebald and covers two trips he makes to a village in the Alps, the third is about Kafka, and the final section recounts the narrator’s return to his home village and his reflections on the changes, and lack of change, he sees there. Despite its discursive nature, there’s a deceptive simplicity to Sebald’s prose, which tricks the reader into thinking the story carries a smaller intellectual payload than it actually does. I don’t know of another author who writes at such length, and so indirectly, on a topic and yet still manages to make it all about the topic. Sebald did not write many novels – only four, in fact – but I suspect by the end of 2017 I will have read all of them.

nocilla3 Nocilla Dream, Agustín Fernández Mallo (2006). I’m pretty sure it was David Hebblethwaite who mentioned this, and the description sounded intriguing enough I decided to give it a go. It was almost as if it had been written for me – a fractured narrative, split into 113 sections, some of which are factual, some of which hint at further stories. There’s a sense the novel is a work in progress, inasmuch as it’s an approach to narrative that has not been tried and tested – indeed, it led to a “Nocilla Generation” of writers in Spain. I suspect Mallo is guilty of over-selling his concept, but then narrative structure is one of my interests and I should think most writers – including myself, of course! – often think they’re being much cleverer than they actually are… What Mallo has created here may not be wholly new, but it is different enough to be worth keeping an eye on. And yes, I still find it a little disappointing that “Nocilla” is just a Spanish brand-name for a Nutella-like spread. It’s like when I thought Nirvana’s ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ was a really poetic title until I learnt Teen Spirit is just the brand name of a deodorant…

rites_of_passage4 Rites of Passage, William Golding (1980). I found this in a local charity shop and bought it on the strength of Golding’s reputation and a half-remembered reading of Lord of the Flies from my school days… In other words, I went into Rites of Passage pretty much blind. I will happily admit I’m not over-fond of journal narratives, and the early nineteenth century is not a period that really interests me (especially in British history), but… this novel was so superbly put together, its control of voice, its management of story, so stunningly good, that after reading it I immediately decided I’d like to read not only the rest of the trilogy, of which this book is the first, the others are Close Quarters and Fire Down Below, but also anything else by Golding. Fortunately, I’d also bought The Inheritors and The Spire when I bought Rites of Passage, so I have those two books on the TBR to look forward to…

golden_notebook5 The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing (1962). I’d bought this a couple of years ago on the strength of its reputation – and having read several Lessing novels… but it sat there on my bookshelves unread for quite a while because, well, partly because of its reputation, but also because of its size… But I took it with me on a train journey to Scarborough… and discovered it was a great deal less polemical than I’d expected, hugely readable, and fascinating in its depiction of the life of protagonist Anna Wulf (and her fictional/meta-fictional counterparts). The nested fictional/meta-fictional narratives are no longer as excitingly experimental as they were in 1962, so in one respect the book’s impact has been somewhat blunted by time – although, to be honest, I much prefer literature which plays such narrative tricks. Having said that, this diminution in shock factor solely from structure shows how readable and coherent the various narratives actually are. It is slightly sad and frightening that The Golden Notebook enjoys the reputation it does when you think what a reader must be like, and believe, in order to be shocked and horrified by the novel’s content. Even more worryingly, I suspect more people these days will reject the novel due to its politics – Wulf is a member of the Communist Party – and so completely miss its commentary on sexual politics. But I thought it was bloody great.

Honourable mentions: Europe at Midnight, Dave Hutchinson (2015) [3]; A God in Ruins, Kate Atkinson (2015) [4]; Abandoned in Place, Roland Miller (2016) [5]; Visitation, Jenny Erpenbeck (2008); Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, Anne Charnock (2015); The Arrival of Missives, Aliya Whiteley (2015); Never at Home, L Timmel Duchamp (2011); Cockfosters, Helen Simpson (2015); Blindness, Henry Green (1926); and Other Stories, Paul Park (2015).

Quite a few books from my best of the half-year got bumped down to honourable mentions, but I suspect their authors will not be too upset given what replaced them. Three of the honourable mentions are from small presses – Unsung Stories, Aqueduct Press and PS Publishing – and it’s about fifty-fifty category sf versus mainstream. The gender balance is 2:3 in the top five for female:male, but 8:7 including the honourable mentions. That’s not too shabby. All books mentioned above are, of course, recommended.

films
A bit of a change in this list from July, but then I’ve watched a lot of films this year. Some of the ones in the top five below have even become favourites, which makes 2016 an especially good year in that respect. Of course, my taste in movies has changed a lot over the last couple of years, but even so…

river_titas1 A River Called Titas, Ritwik Ghatak (1973, India). I watched Ghatak’s A Cloud-Capped Star back in 2014, after, I think, seeing it mentioned in Sight & Sound, but it wasn’t until this year I saw the only other film by him available on DVD in the UK, A River Called Titas. (Ghatak’s Subarnarekha is on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, but I had to source a copy via alternative means in order to see it.) I have no idea why I love A River Called Titas as much as I do. It tells the story of a young woman during the 1930s in a village on the bank of the eponymous river, who is married against her will, then kidnapped, rescued by strangers, and subsequently builds a life for herself and her new child in another village not knowing who her husband ever was… until she one day stumbles across him. But he has lost his mind. Then they die, and the film follows their son and the woman who adopted him. It’s based on a novel by Adwaita Mallabarman, which I now really want to read. The BFI DVD is not a brilliant transfer, which is a shame as the composition of some of the shots is beautiful. I’ve watched this film five times already this year – and the final watch was of the Criterion remastered edition, which is such a huge improvement over the BFI print – so much so that it was almost like watching a new, and much better, movie.

lucia2 Lucía, Humberto Solás (1968, Cuba). I watched this because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (something of a familiar refrain, I admit), and I knew nothing about it when I put it in the DVD player – indeed, I knew nothing about Cuban cinema. But I loved it. It tells the stories of three women, all called Lucía – the first in the 1860s, the second in the 1930s and the third in the 1960s. It’s a long film and it covers a lot of ground, but it’s a wonderfully human movie. The Mr Bongo transfer is pretty poor – but it’s the only DVD of the film I can find, so can someone please remaster it?  – and the film is black-and-white, so the poor quality is not as noticeable as it might otherwise be… The acting feels appropriate to each of the historical periods, although it does tend to drift into melodrama at times… but when I started watching this I’d never have guessed I’d love it, so much so that Lucía has, like A River Called Titas, become a favourite film.

autumn_avo3 An Autumn Afternoon, Yasujiro Ozu (1962, Japan) [1]. I’d seen Ozu’s Tokyo Story back in 2009, but it wasn’t until this year that I really started to explore Ozu’s oeuvre. I admit it, I bought An Autumn Afternoon because the cover of the Criterion edition (although I actually bought the BFI edition pictured) reminded me of Antonioni’s Red Desert, a favourite film. And while An Autumn Afternoon was nothing like Red Desert, it is a beautifully observed domestic drama. Ozu had a tendency to use the same actors in different roles, which did intially confuse – Chishu Ryu is playing the patriarch of which family in this film? – but I also think An Autumn Afternoon has the clearest illustration of inside and outside in Japanese culture of all of Ozu’s films I’ve so far seen. There’s a lovely matter-of-fact courtesy among the characters, despite the fact it’s obvious they know each so well they’re extremely comfortable in each other’s company; and it’s the interactions between the characters which are the true joy of Ozu’s movies. The plot, when you think about it, is almost incidental. There’s an effective scene in An Autumn Afternoon, in which Ryu encounters a petty officer from a ship he captained during WWII. It is not, in and of itself, a particularly shocking discovery about Ryu’s character, but it is a powerful reminder that for much of the twentieth century WWII defined a great many peoples’ lives, on both sides of the conflict… and that is something we should not forget.

robinson4 Robinson in Ruins, Patrick Keiller (2010, UK). I forget who mentioned Keiller to me, but I received his London as a Christmas present last year and, having thought it was very good, bought myself Robinson in Ruins, a belated sequel, in 2016. The central conceit, that the films are narrated by a friend of the titular Robinson as secondhand reportage, still occurs in Robinson in Ruins – the original narrator, Paul Scofield, died in 2008, and Vanessa Redgrave takes his place in Robinson in Ruins, and, I thought, she actually worked better. The idea that Robinson had spent the intervening years in prison gave the film a freshness, because we’re seeing what it depicts through Robinson’s eyes. But, more than that, its commentary on Tory politics and finances, at an almost Adam-Curtis-like level of detail and interconnectedness, gave the film an added bite Keiller’s earlier films had lacked. This is not the bite of a Great White, it must be admitted, more the savaging of a tenacious spaniel, but the fact it exists only illustrates how much more of this type of cinema we need. Having said that, Redgrave’s narration is erudite, interesting and perfectly played; and Keiller’s imagery is often beautifully shot. More, please.

entranced_earth5 Entranced Earth, Glauber Rocha (1967, Brazil) [2]. I watched this because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (where have we heard that before?), although I knew nothing about Rocha’s movies – or indeed about Brazilian cinema. I loved it. So much so I bought all three of Rocha’s films available on DVD in the UK – Entranced Earth, Black God White Devil and Antonio das Mortes. Rocha was a leading light of Brazil’s Cinema Novo movement, which sought to bring realism and social conscience into Brazilian films. Entranced Earth has bags of the latter, but not so much of the former. It’s an often hallucinogenic account of an election in an invented South American country, between an established candidate and a populist candidate (back when “populist” didn’t mean orange-faced fascist or goose-stepping Mr Blobby), but neither candidate is ideal – as an investigating journalist discovers. The narrative is non-linear, some of the photography is brilliant (a shot from the top of a TV aerial stands out), and the films wears its politics proudly on its sleeve. Kudos to Mr Bongo for distributing these films in the UK – even if the transfers are not of the best quality – but Rocha made four feature films and five documentaries, so it would be nice to see those too… not to mention actual UK releases of films by another Brazilian Cinema Novo director, Nelson Pereira dos Santos… or indeed any other Cinema Novo director…

Honourable mentions: Koyaanisqatsi, Godfrey Reggio (1982, USA) [3]; Nostalgia for the Light, Patricio Guzmán (2010, Chile) [4]; Pyaasa, Guru Dutt (1957, India) [5]; Timbuktu, Abderrahmane Sissako (2014, Mauritania); Nuummioq, Otto Rosing & Torben Bech (2009, Greenland); A Touch of Sin, Jia Zhangke (2013, China); 12:08 East of Bucharest, Corneliu Porumboiu (2006, Romania); A Flickering Truth, Pietra Brettkelly (2015, New Zealand); Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, Chantal Akerman (1975, France); and Charulata, Satyajit Ray (1964, India).

Only a single US film in the lot, which I consider an achievement – although I’ve been accused of “going too far in the opposite direction”. But I do like classic Hollywood movies, and I love me some 1950s Rock Hudson melodramas, but… that doesn’t necessarily mean I think they’re good films. The above is a pretty eclectic mix, from 13 different countries, of which India manages three entries (which came as a surprise, although I do really like the work of those three Indian directors). If anything, I’m hoping 2017 will be even more of a world cinema year, and I’ll find interesting films from countries whose cinemas I have yet to explore.

Oh, and for the record, my top ten favourite films, as of this post, currently looks like this: 1 All That Heaven Allows, Douglas Sirk (1955, USA) 2 A River Called Titas, Ritwik Ghatak (1973, India); 3 Alien, Ridley Scott (1979, UK/USA); 4 Red Desert, Michelangelo Antonioni (1964, Italy); 5 Lucía, Humbert Solás (1968, Cuba); 6 The Second Circle, Aleksandr Sokurov (1990, Russia); 7 Mięso (Ironica), Piotr Szulkin (1993, Poland); 8 The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke (2009, Austria/Germany); 9 Divine Intervention, Elia Suleiman (2002, Palestine); 10 Fahrenheit 451, François Truffaut (1966, USA).

music
It’s been a, er, quiet year for music for me. I went to Bloodstock Open Air, as I have done since 2007 (minus 2009 and 2010), and enjoyed it a great deal. It was excellent to see Akercocke back together again (and I saw them a second time a couple of months later in Sheffield), but I think the stand-out performance of the weekend for me was Shining, who I’d never even heard of until I saw them at Bloodstock in 2014. That was pretty much it, gig-wise, for 2016. I also saw Arch Enemy, who I’d last seen at Bloodstock in 2007, but their set felt a bit lacklustre. Akercocke were better second time around, playing a small nightclub rather than a giant field in Derbyshire. And then there was a one-off gig by Anathema in Holmfirth, and they were as bloody good as they ever are (and yes, they played my two favourite songs, ‘Closer’ and ‘Fragile Dreams’).

I’ve not bought that many albums this year, either as MP3 downloads or olde stylee silver discs, although a couple of my favourite bands have had new releases out. Partly because I used to listen to music a lot at work, but I’ve been so busy there I’ve sort of got out of the habit. I’ve also been carded once too often by couriers because I didn’t hear the doorbell over the music when I’ve been at home. But the year has not been a total dead loss, because I did actually buy some music, and a lot of it was very good indeed. And, amazingly, my top five are all 2016 albums…

no_summer1 A Year with No Summer, Obsidian Kingdom (2016) [1]. I discovered this group when I saw them play live at Bloodstock in 2014, and I enjoyed their set so much I bought their album. This second album has been long-awaited, and it’s particularly good because it’s not more of the same. It is, if anything, even more progressive than the band’s debut, Mantiis. There must be something about the Spanish metal scene that leads to bands which generate these complex soundscapes from drums, bass, guitars and synth, more so than the metal of any other nation – not just Obsidian Kingdom, at the progressive end of the scale, but NahemaH, a favourite and now sadly defunct band, from the death metal end of the scale, not to mention Apocynthion somewhere in between. Whatever it is, I welcome it: A Year with No Summer is a listening adventure from start to finish, and never gets tiring.

on_strange_loops2 On Strange Loops, Mithras (2016). And speaking of long-awaited albums… Mithras’s last album, Behind the Shadows Lie Madness, was released in 2007. There was an EP, Time Never Lasts, in 2011, but it’s been a long wait for a new album-length work from this favourite band. This is pretty much down to the band’s perfectionism, a trait with which I can certainly empathise – and releasing on your own label, or self-publishing, as least gives you the freedom to release when and only when you feel the work is fit for release. Happily, and after all this time, On Strange Loops is definitely worth the wait. It is, of course, more of the same – massively intense and intricate death metal with ambient interludes. It works because of the contrasts and because the muscianship is of such a high level. Mithras toured this year, but I didn’t get the chance to see them perform, which I regret. Maybe next year.

rooms3 Rooms, Todtgelichter (2016) [3]. A friend had this on their wishlist on Bandcamp, so I gave it a listen as we often like a lot of the same stuff. I liked it. A lot. Back in June, I described Todtgelichter’s music as “a sort of guitar-heavy post-black metal”, and I still think that’s the best description because, well, it doesn’t sound at all like black metal but it does sound like the band were at some point a black metal band. If that makes sense. I don’t know; perhaps it’s the sensibility with which they construct their songs. It’s not particularly heavy, inasmuch as the guitar sound is more like heavy rock turned up to eleven than your actual metal guitar, but the whole is metal. Frank Zappa once said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture (Googles quickly, discover Zappa didn’t coin it, oh well). But the point remains – there is something in Todtgelichter’s music which appeals to me, and I can’t quite identify what it is. But they made my top five for the year.

belakor-vessels4 Vessels, Be’lakor (2016). I’ve been a fan of Australian melodic death metallers Be’lakor since first hearing their 2012 album Of Breath and Bone. It taken four years for a sequel – happily not so long for me, as I found their earlier works, The Frail Tide (2007) and Stone’s Reach (2009) during the years in-between – but Vessels is easily as good as, if not better than, Of Breath and Bone. It’s not just that Be’lakor create polished melodic death metal, as there as many varieties of that as there are bands who profess to play it (not to mention bands who profess not to play it but do), but more that they create layered songs with intricate but melodic guitar parts, with strong melody lines carried by the vocals. It’s a winning combination.

atoma5 Atoma, Dark Tranquillity (2016). A new album by a favourite band, so it’s no surprise to find it here – but it’s at number five because it’s a recent release and I’ve not listened to it as much I’d have liked to. It sounds very much like a Dark Tranquillity album, of course, although nothing on the few listens I’ve had struck me as “anthemicly” stand-out in the way tracks on earlier albums have done, like ‘The Wonders At Your Feet’, ‘Lost to Apathy’, or ‘Shadow in Our Blood’, but, still, this is Dark Tranquillity. They’ve been creating excellent death metal since 1989, and they’ve never stood still, which is one reason why I treasure them so much. Dark Tranquillity are the moving line which defines melodic death metal.

Honourable mentions: Afterglow, In Mourning (2016) [2]; Eidos, Kingcrow (2015) [4]; Changing Tides, Trauma Field (2016) [5]; Departe, Clouds (2016); and Pure, In the Woods (2016).

An odd year for music. A few favourite bands released new albums, not all of which I bought. I went to very few gigs – ten years of Austerity has noticeably reduced the number of bands I’d like to see performing in Sheffield, now they just play Leeds or Manchester. Even the local metal scene seems to have been affected: some of the bigger bands have called it a day, others have not performed as often as in previous years. I’ve certainly listened to less music, and less new music, and bought less music, in 2016 than in previous years. Partly that’s because I’ve spent less time exploring metal on Bandcamp and other sites, but also because I’ve spent less time listening to music than in other years. And partly because fewer bands I want to see have performed locally. Let’s hope 2017 proves a better year musically…


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Best of the half-year, 2016

A lot of people do best of the year posts, but I also like doing these best of the half-year ones, as I find it interesting to see how they change as the year progresses. The two sets of lists are rarely the same, of course – new works make each top five that I hadn’t read, watched or listened to in the first half of the year. But sometimes, works from the honourable mentions get promoted to the top five as my opinion changes of them.

books
Every time I write one of these best of posts, I seem to start them with: it’s been an odd year for reading but I’m not sure why… Which I guess means they haven’t really been odd since they’ve pretty much been the same. It could mean, I suppose, that the last few years have felt like my reading lacks shape or direction because it’s not in step with the genre commentary I see online. After all, while science fiction still forms the bulk of my reading at forty percent, with mainstream fiction a distant second at 26%, I don’t generally read the genre books which are getting the buzz… And when I do, as I did with this year’s Clarke Award shortlist, then I have no idea why those books are receiving so much praise… Which is no doubt why only one category sf novel makes my top five – and only two genre titles appear in my honourable mentions… And yes, the one sf novel in my top five is on the Clarke Award shortlist (because it’s an exception to my earlier comments, of course).

end_days1 The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck (2012). I knew the moment I finished this book it would make my top five for the half-year, and I’ve not read anything since (I read it back in March) that has impressed me as much. I plan to read more by Erpenbeck – although not all of her books have been translated into English. Although not published as genre, either here or in Germany, its central conceit is certainly genre – a young woman, who is born in the latter days of the Austro-Hungarian empire, lives out her life during the turbulent years of the early twentieth century. Sometimes, she dies; other times, she survives. It’s a similar premise to Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life; it’s also beautifully written and feels like a much more substantial read. The historical side is handled with skill, and the view it gives on elements of European history during the period in question is fascinating. I wrote about it here.

vertigo2 Vertigo, WG Sebald (1990). Sebald is in a class of his own, so his presence in this list is probably no surprise. Vertigo is a collection of stories which have no overt link, but because of Sebald’s voice they read as a seamless whole. I’ve no idea how much of the novel is fact or fiction – it is, like Austerlitz, very autobiographical I suspect, but I’m not familiar enough with Sebald’s life and career to determine if parts of this novel – especially the section in which the narrator returns to his childhood village of W., notes the changes and reminisces about his time living in the village – although does not lessen my admiration of the book in the slightest (and learning the truth may well increase it). I’ve only read two Sebald books so far, and both made my best of the year lists. I still have one more, The Rings of Saturn, on the TBR. I think I should save it until next year. Anyway, I covered Vertigo in a blog post here.

europe3 Europe at Midnight, Dave Hutchinson (2015). It’s been a good year for this book, with appearances on various award shortlists. And rightly so. It’s not quite a sequel to the earlier Europe in Autumn, but it’s better for not being one. And thanks to the rank irresponsibility of our government in calling this stupid referendum, Europe at Midnight has become unfortunately topical. I say “unfortunately” because it’s obviously not the book’s fault, and although its creation of a pocket universe England might map onto the wishes of assorted Brexit fuckwits, I know the author’s sympathies don’t lie there and the novel’s Gedankenexperiment is in no way an endorsement of them. Of course, no one ever accused Le Carré of being pro-Soviet but then his novels presented the USSR as the enemy… And I’m digging myself into a bit of a hole here as Hutchinson’s Community is also presented as the enemy. But never mind. I wrote about this book here.

agodinruins4 A Gods in Ruins, Kate Atkinson (2015). Like the Hutchinson, this is a sequel of sorts to an earlier novel, Life After Life, although it neither continues the plot, nor uses the same cast, as its predecessor. I thought Life After Life good – an immensely readable novel – and even nominated for the Hugo (of course, it didn’t make the shortlist). A God in Ruins is, I think, slightly better. Its central conceit is dialled back more in the narrative, but it’s just as hugely readable as Life After Life. A God in Ruins is the story of the life of a man who fought during WWII and so tries to live a blameless live afterwards. It is, sort of, a variation on A Matter of Life and Death; but in a way that is neither obvious nor intrusive. For much of its length, it’s a lovely piece of historical writing, of personal history stretching much of the length of the twentieth century; but there’s an added dimension which is only hinted at. I wrote about it here.

abandoned5 Abandoned in Place, Roland Miller (2016). It’s all very well celebrating the achievements of past years, but often all we have as evidence are words in books. True, there is evidence aplenty on the surface of the Moon to prove that twelve men once walked there (assorted fuckwits who insist it was all faked aside), but in order to view that evidence we would have to, er, visit the surface of the Moon. There is, however, a lot of evidence remaining on Earth that something involving trips to the Moon took place – launch platforms, rocket test stands, etc – and it’s hard to imagine anything with such concrete (in both senses of the word) physicality being part of a great confidence trick. Is there a word which means the opposite of “paleo-archaeology”? Hunting through the abandoned remains of great engineering projects from last century, which either failed or have long since run their course? Neo-archaeology? This book celebrates one particular engineering project that ended over forty years ago – and it’s one that’s fascinated me for years. I wrote about Abandoned in Place in a post here.

Honourable mentions: Sisters of the Revolution, Ann & Jeff VanderMeer, eds. (2015), an excellent reprint anthology of feminist sf, containing a couple of old favourites, and much that was new to me – some of which became new favourites; Soviet Ghosts, Rebecca Litchfield (2014), another photographic essay, this time of abandoned buildings and plants in what was the USSR and its satellites; Wylding Hall, Elizabeth Hand (2015), strange goings-on when a 1970s UK folk band record at a haunted manor, handled with a lovely elegiac tone; Cockfosters, Helen Simpson (2015), a new collection by a favourite writer, so of course it gets a mention; In Ballast to the White Sea: A Scholarly Edition, Malcolm Lowry (2014), a “lost” novel and never before published, it’s certainly not among his best but the copious annotations make for a fascinating read; Women in Love, DH Lawrence (1920), his best-known novel after Lady Chatterley’s Lover and just as notorious back in the day for its rumpy-pumpy, but I love Lawrence’s prose… and if the philosophy and politics in this are somewhat dubious, I still have that; and The Robber Bride, Margaret Atwood (1993), not since Alias Grace have I read an Atwood novel I enjoyed so much on a prose level, so for me this is currently her “second-best” book.

films
My project to watch all the films in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list is now in its second year and has continued to introduce me to new directors I might otherwise never have discovered. Two films in my top five certainly qualify as such, and a third I’d long been aware of but would probably never bothered watching if it hadn’t been on the list. Of the remaining two, one was on the list but I’d seen at least one film by the director before; and the other movie was on a version of the list different to the one I’ve been using…

autumn_avo1 An Autumn Afternoon, Yasujiro Ozu (1962, Japan). My introduction to Ozu’s work was Tokyo Story which, at the time, I didn’t really take to. But he has been repeatedly recommended to me, and Floating Weeds was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, so I rented it… and liked it quite a lot. But the (I think) Criterion edition DVD cover art of An Autumn Afternoon reminded me a great deal of Michelangelo’s Antonioni’s Red Desert, a film I love, so I wanted to watch that. And after a false start, buying Late Autumn by mistake, but loving it all the same, I eventually got myself a copy of An Autumn Afternoon… And that convoluted route to it totally worked in its favour. Late Autumn I thought really good, but An Autumn Afternoon struck me as a somewhat satirical take on similar subject matter – and so perversely reminded me of my favourite Douglas Sirk movies – but it also seemed a distillation of all those elements of Ozu’s cinema I had noted in Tokyo Story and loved so much in Late Autumn. I have now added the rest of the BFI editions of Ozu’s films to my wants list.

entranced_earth2 Entranced Earth, Glauber Rocha (1967, Brazil). This wasn’t quite a “Benning moment”, where I loved a film so much I immediately went and bought everything I could find by the director… although I did indeed love this film and immediately went and bought everything I could find by Rocha. But, I must confess, wine was involved in the Rocha purchase, whereas it wasn’t in the Benning one. Not that I regret buying Black God White Devil, Entranced Earth or Antonio das Mortes, as all three are fascinating films – but Entranced Earth remains my favourite of the three. Not only is the Brazilian landscape unfamiliar enough I find it strangely compelling, but the film also features scene of political declamatory dialogue, which I love. The film is part of Brazil’s Cinema Novo movement, which seems to be like France’s Nouvelle Vague in parts but Italy’s Neorealism in others. There’s a crudity in production which, perversely, seems a consequence of, as well as an enabler for, a film closer to the director’s vision than might otherwise have been the case. And I really like that, I really like that movies like this are closer to the creative process than is typical in our commodified homogenised product-placement Hollywoodised cinema world. There are those directors who muster sufficient clout in their nation’s cinema industry they can make whatever they like, but there are also those who make great films because of their total lack of influence… and it’s the latter who often produce the more lasting work. Like this one.

qatsi3 Koyaanisqatsi, Godfrey Reggio (1982, USA). I’ve no idea how many years I’ve known about this film, but I’d never actually bothered watching it. Something about what I’d heard about it persuaded me I wouldn’t enjoy it – and while that may have been true twenty years ago, it could hardly be true now given my love of Benning’s work. But it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, so I stuck it on the rental list, it duly arrived… and I was capitivated. The score and cinematography worked perfectly together – and while it’s a more obvious approach to its material than anything by Benning, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a beautifully-shot piece of work. I ended up buying the Criterion Blu-ray edition of all three Qatsi films, which, in hindsight, was a mistake, as the transfers of the first two don’t really do the format justice. The sequel, Powaqqatsi, is very good, although not as good as Koyyanisqatsi; but the third film, Naqoyqatsi, sadly suffers because its use of CGI (in 2002) makes it appear a little dated. All three are worth getting. But not on Blu-ray.

nostalgia4 Nostalgia for the Light, Patricio Guzmán (2010, Chile). The problem – if that’s the right word – with documentary films, is that no matter how beautifully-shot they might be, if the subject does not appeal then you’re not going to like the film. But then it’s not really fair to say the subject of Nostalgia for the Light “appeals”, because it’s an unpleasant subject and no one’s world is a better place for knowing about it. Nostalgia for the Light contrasts the hunt for stars by astronomers at an observatory in Chile’s Atacama Desert with the search for the remains of the Disappeared, the thousands of victims Pinochet’s brutal regime massacred for… whatever feeble-minded self-serving reasons such fascist regimes use. It’s a heart-breaking film, all the more so because it interviews those who survived the regime; but Guzmán’s intelligent commentary also gives context and commentary to the interviews. I now want to see more films by Guzmán – and oh look, there’s a boxed set of his documentaries available on…

pyaasa5 Pyaasa, Guru Dutt (1957, India). There are a couple of Bollywood films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and so I rented them and enjoyed them; and while they may be superior examples of the genre (if “Bollywood” could be called a genre) and great fun to watch, to be honest they struck me as no more worthy of inclusion than a great many of the US films on the same list. But then I stumbled across a list of Bollywood classic films, and decided to try a few more than the two or three on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list… Which is how I discovered Guru Dutt. He’s been described as “India’s Orson Welles”, which I think is a somewhat unfair label as it suggests he’s an imitator; but while Dutt’s films certainly follow the forms of Bollywood movies, they’re also well-constructed, cleverly-written dramas. After seeing Pyaasa, I bought a copy of his Kagaaz Ke Phool, which I also thought very good; and I have his Aar Paar on the To Be Watched pile (as well as the 1985 film of the same title, because the seller buggered up my order). I think Dutt would be a perfect candidate for the BFI to release on DVD/Blu-ray.

Honourable mentions: Yeelen, Souleymane Cissé (1987, Mali), an old Malian fantasy tale told in a straightforward way that only highlights its strangeness; Come and See, Elem Klimov (1985, Russia), the banal title hides a quite brutal look at WWII in Russia; Shock Corridor, Samuel Fuller (1963, USA), a low budget thriller that rises above its production values, but then Fuller was good at that; Falstaff – Chimes at Midnight, Orson Welles (1966, Spain), a mishmash of Shakespeare’s various depictions of the title character, but it works really well and after watching it my admiration of Welles moved up a notch; Story of Women, Claude Chabrol (1988, France), a heart-breaking story of France’s mistreatment of its women during WWII, played strongly by the ever-excellent Isabelle Huppert; Osama, Siddiq Barmak (2003, Afghanistan), an even more heart-breaking film about the mistreatment of women by the Taliban; A Simple Death, Aleksandr Kaidanovsky (1985, Russia), a stark and beautifully-shot adaptation of Tolstoy’s ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’; Evangelion 1.11 and 2.22, Hideaki Anno (2007/2009, Japan), giant mecha piloted by high school kids battle giant alien “angels”, which as a précis does very little to describe these bonkers animes; Storm over Asia, Vsevelod Pudovkin (1928, Russia), a beautifully-shot silent film set in Mongolia; Fires Were Started, Humphrey Jennings (1943, UK), firemen during the Blitz by one of Britain’s best directors, but I probably need to rewatch his films to decide if this is his best; London, Patrick Keiller (1994, UK), it reminds me a little of Benning, but the arch commentary by Paul Scofield is hugely appealing; and Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, Chantal Akerman (1975, France), a mostly-silent, almost entirely unadorned depiction of three days in the life of the title character, which makes for fascinating viewing despite its lack of action or, er, plot.

albums
You’d think that given the amount of music I listen to that this would be the easiest category to fill in each year. But, perversely, it usually proves the hardest. Probably because I don’t document my music purchases and I rarely write about music. I also don’t purchase albums in anything like the number of films I watch or even books I read. Having said all that, I managed to pick five albums I first listened to in the first half of 2016, and they are…

no_summer 1 A Year With No Summer, Obsidian Kingdom (2016). I saw this band perform at Bloodstock in 2014 and thought them so good I bought their album as soon as I got home. And now, after four years, a second album finally appears. In some respects, Obsidian Kingdom remind me of fellow countrymates NahemaH and Apocynthion, although they’re not as heavy as those two bands. They’re progressive metal, of a sort, and they build up a wall of sound with guitars and drums, not to mention the odd electronic effect, that’s extremely effective. The songs are complex, often very melodic, and move from dreamy to aggressive and back again very cleverly.

afterglow 2 Afterglow, In Mourning (2016). I’ve been a fan of In Mourning since first hearing the monumental The Weight of Oceans, which remains one of the best progressive death metal albums of recent years. Afterglow doesn’t start as strongly as that earlier albums, but a couple of tracks in it turns more progessive and the melodic hooks which characterise the band begin to appear. By the time the last song fades away, you know it’s another excellent album.

rooms 3 Rooms, Todtgelichter (2016). The name of a band isn’t always a clue to its origin, but yes, Todtgelichter are German. And they play a sort of guitar-heavy post-black metal that works really well. Most post-black bands – I’m thinking of Solefald as much as I am Arcturus – tend to incorporate all sorts of musical influences; but Todtgelichter keep it simple and heavy and hard-hitting, and it works extremely well.

eidos 4 Eidos, Kingcrow (2015). It’s an entirely international line-up this top five, with Spain, Sweden, Germany, and now Italy. Kingcrow play progressive metal, although this is no Dream Theatre. They sound in parts very like Porcupine Tree – which is a perfectly good band to sound like – and on one track, ‘Adrift’, the main guitar part is almost pure Opeth. As influences go, you can’t really do better than that.

changing_tides 5 Changing Tides, Trauma Field (2016). I stumbled across Trauma Field a year or two ago when I found their 2013 album Harvest on bandcamp. It seem to me there were bits of fellow Finns Sentenced in there – although Sentenced never used a female vocalist that I can recall – but also a more progressive element than that band had ever incorporated. This new album feels a little lighter in tone, much more atmospheric, and is definitely less Sentenced-like… which is, of course, good.

Unfortunately, there are no honourable mentions so far this year. I’ve just not been listening to enough new music. I do most of my listening at work, and I’ve been so busy there I’ve not had a chance.


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Moving pictures 2016, #4

Yet more movies, some from the list, some not. I’m not entirely sure what criteria I use when picking non-list films, but it seems to work as often as not. I’ve got a bit behind with these posts, so there’ll be a several of these appearing on the blog in quick succession.

gambitGambit, Ronald Neame (1966, USA). A 1960s thriller with a twist in the tail, starring Michael Caine and Shirley Maclaine. Caine plays a shady type who plans to rob reclusive zillionaire Herbert Lom, and to do so he recruits Maclaine, a Hong Kong nightclub hostess who’s the spitting image of Lom’s dead wife. The plan is, the two travel to the Arab city of Dammuz, Lom’s home, as an English baronet and wife, Lom’s goons spot Maclaine’s resemblance, and so she and Caine are invited to dine with Lom in his private apartment… and then Caine steals Lom’s priceless Chinese statuette. Except things don’t go quite as smoothly as planned. Maclaine, for a start, proves more of a hindrance than a help, Lom quickly sees through Caine’s disguise, and the eventual robbery only succeeds more by luck than anything else. Not that any of it really matters, as that wasn’t the point of it all… Sadly, an interesting structure – a flawless run-through (ie, Caine’s explanation of the plan) followed by what actually happens – isn’t really enough to make this mostly charmless thriller stand out. There were a number of similar movies made in the 1960s and set in North Africa – Our Man in Marrakesh and Maroc 7 spring to mind – which also blithely trampled over local sensibilities in a bid for “local colour”, but they were more fun than this one. Caine’s po-face pretty much echoed my own as I watched this – but he at least was paid for his.

ten _commandmentsThe Ten Commandments*, Cecil B DeMille (1956, USA). You know the story of Moses from the Bible, right? As a baby sent down a river in a basket, rescued by Egyptian royals, who raised him as one of their own, but he sided with the Hebrew slaves (being Hebrew himself), and led them to safety by parting the Red Sea. and then there was something about a burning bush – WTF? I mean, I AM GOD AND I SHALL APPEAR IN A FORM WHICH WILL STRIKE AWE INTO MOSES, I SHALL APPEAR AS… A SHRUB ON FIRE! – and, of course, the Ten Commandments, zapped by God onto a giant piece of rock which proves handily portable. It’s a story so over-the-top it could only exist in a religious text or a Hollywood film. And here we have both. Super-entitled white man NRA spokesman Charlton Heston plays Moses, a Jew; Yul Brynner, a Russian, plays Rameses II, Moses’s Egyptian “brother” and later enemy. The story is blithering nonsense from start to finish and the characters are drawn with all the subtlety of a kids’ cartoon – but the sets are pretty impressive. Back when I was kid at school in Qatar, I was sent to Sunday School. It took place in the gym at the Doha English Speaking School, where I was a pupil. As far as I remember, all we did was colour in pictures depicting scenes from the Bible – my bright orange Jesus looked quite fetching. The Ten Commandments, well, it’s that. Pretty much.

la_roueLa roue*, Abel Gance (1923, France). Gance is perhaps best known for his 5½ hour epic movie about Napoleon – soon to be made available on DVD/Blu-ray by the BFI… and yes, it’s on my wants list. At 273 minutes, La roue is also an exercise in viewing endurance. The wheel of the title is that of a train, and while the story – told in a variety of silent movie presentations, with differently-shaped views, dissolves and even colour washes – is a fairly standard family melodrama set on and about the French railways, what’s most notable is the number of cinematic techniques Gance makes use of which subsequently became part of cinema’s common language. Like many of the more sophisticated silent movies of the period – the films of Carl Theodor Dreyer, for example – La roue is very talky, or, rather, there are a lot of intertitles, and a lot of story to get across in narrative text. Hollywood, at least, knew to minimise the text and let the moving pictures tell as much of the story as possible – and if that led to films consisting of little more than crudely-linked sight gags, they were at least entertaining. Which is not to say La roue is not – but European silent cinema, from my somewhat limited viewing experience, seemed to focus on narratives rather than pictures (although European cinema also had a strong tradition of strikingly designed sets, unlike Hollywood). Perhaps that’s unfair, perhaps it was simply a different approach to film-making – certainly the visuals in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc are impressive and arresting; but watching La roue is very much like watching someone create a new cinematic language, much of which you know will become universal. I had to buy a US import of this as no UK edition exists. A shame. Mind you, the same could be said of many of the more interesting films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list…

black_bellyThe Black Belly of the Tarantula, Paolo Cavara (1971, Italy). A serial killer injects his victims with the venom of the tarantula, paralysing them before he cuts out their heart. The tarantula is indeed venomous, but its venom causes hallucinations or muscle spasms (hence the tarantella), not paralysis. But never mind. The film basically comprises a series of murders of beautiful young women (of course), all by the same man, while a harried detective tries to figure out what’s going on. Eventually he finds a suspect… which leads to a chase up onto the roof of a quite impressive Brutalist office block. It’s all tied into a blackmail conspiracy based around a massage parlour, and a murderer who so obviously can’t be the murderer that he has to be the murderer. If that makes sense. Italian giallo can be fun, but they’re also usually rampantly sexist.

redsReds*, Warren Beatty (1981, USA). When actors direct films they’re usually vanity projects. True, there are actors who have gone on to have distinguished directorial careers, such as Ida Lupino. But most actor-directed films are usually pretty bad. Except Reds isn’t. The film is a biopic of John Reed, the US author who wrote Ten Days That Shook the World, about the Russian Revolution (adapted shortly afterwards by Sergei Eisenstein). Beatty plays Reed, and Diane Keaton is his long-suffering partner, Louise Bryant, who he charms away from her marriage, fails to encourag in her writing career, and then mostly neglects. Bryant ends up in an affair with Eugene O’Neill (played by Jack Nicholson at his most oleaginous), and then leaves for Europe to become a correspondent during WWI. Reed follows, the two rekindle their relationship and head to Russia, where they join in the revolution. After returning to the US, Reed writes his book and tries to build up the communist movement. But the various communists groups are all locked in internecine fighting – leading to a frankly bizarre party meeting which leads to a schism, and further inter-party fighting. Throughout the film, Beatty breaks away from his narrative to interview talking heads, real-life friends and acquaintances of Reed and Bryant, not all of whom thought highly of the pair or their relationship. I’ll admit I knew of the film prior to renting it, but had never seen it – it is, to be fair, 194 minutes long – and I wasn’t expecting much (see earlier comment re actors who direct). While the direction was efficient more than anything else, the story didn’t feel as though it were longer than it needed to be, and the use of the talking heads was inspired. I hadn’t expected Reds to be a movie that belonged on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, even though I knew it was generally well-regarded by critics. But, you know what, it does belong there. Worth seeing.

jeanne_dielmanJeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles*, Chantal Akerman (1975, France). This was my first Akerman. It was her first too. And, I have to admit, a hugely impressive debut. The film is three days in the life of Dielman and shows her, in unadorned detail, going about her daily activites. The camera remains mostly static, there is very little dialogue, and no incidental music. And yet it’s compelling viewing. There is a story there, but it comes out of Dielman’s actions, not from a narrative stringing together events or cause and effect. I bought the Criterion DVD of this, which is the only edition available. That’s surprising – you’d think it’d be available here. Admittedly, it took me a while before I got round to watching it… But I’ll be trying more of Akerman’s films, that’s for sure.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 713