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2020 – the best of the year

And what a year it’s been.

I refer, of course, to the pandemic. And Brexit. And Trump.

Admittedly, the last didn’t impact me at all. And I was sensible enough to flee the UK before Brexit.

Then there’s Covid… When you look at the low number of deaths in Asian nations, it’s clear no Western nation has handled the pandemic well. While Covid has been the most documented pandemic in history, it’s also been the most politicised. The latter is never going to result in intelligent or useful commentary, especially during a time when so many Western nations are led by populist governments and the press actively lies and misinforms in order to serve its owners’ agendas.

But enough about Covid. I’m profoundly glad I didn’t have to experience it in the UK, but I have many relatives and friends there, so there’s scant relief in that. I deliberately fled the UK because of Brexit, and I do not for one single fucking minute regret that decision. BoJo’s mishandling of Brexit – an appalling decision, in the first place – has made my situation confusing at best, and difficult at worst. Don’t forget: Brexit hasn’t just affected everyone in the UK, but also every UK citizen currently resident, or who owns property, in EU member states. Not to mention all those who operate businesses across what is now the UK-EU border. It is a criminal enterprise, and everyone associated with it belongs in prison. There is no outcome which is better than remaining a member of the EU. And if you believe otherwise, then you are a fucking idiot.

But let’s not talk about 2020… Except, well, this post is all about 2020. Specifically, the books, films and music I enjoyed most during the year. I usually do two of these a year: one in June (see here) and one in December or January. Because, well, things change. Although perhaps not that much. The numbers in square brackets below are that item’s position in my June best of the half-year.

books
1 The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Tempest, Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill (2019, UK) [1]. Moore has spent a lot of time exploring the history of UK comics, and not just in this property, which originally set out to explore early fictional heroes. But here the commentary on UK comic history is explicit, and even though married with the Shakespeare play of the title, it still hangs impressively together and provides a coherent commentary and story. I find Moore a bit hit and miss, although I don’t doubt he’s the smartest writer currently working in comics. This book is the best he’s done for a long time. One day, I must read his prose novels. I’m told they’re difficult…

2 Still, Adam Thorpe (1995, UK) [-]. I stumbled across Thorpe’s debut, Ulverton, by accident several years ago and was impressed. I put him down as a name to look out for when I was browsing charity shops. And subsequently read a couple of books by him. But it wasn’t until reading Still I realised how singular a talent he is. The book is framed as a spoken narrative by a second-tier British film director, who nonetheless is present for many of the great cinematic moments of the twentieth century, or at least knows the names involved. It’s an impressively sustained narrative, and a clear indication that although Thorpe is not a popular writer he has a voice that will continue to impress in decades to come.

3 Joanna Russ, Gwyneth Jones (2019, UK) [2]. Gwyneth Jones is a favourite writer. Joanna Russ is a favourite writer. This is almost a dream pairing. I know Jones is a sharp critic, I’ve read her criticism. But I was not so sure how she would approach Russ’s fiction. Happily, I need not have worried. Jones’s treatment of Russ’s career is factual and sympathetic. And extremely informative. Jones discusses Russ’s stories in relation to her life and career and the general shifts in science fiction occurring at the time. True, her essay on Russ in Imagination/Space does a better job on The Two of Them than this book does, but Joanna Russ is more of a career overview. Good stuff. Especially for fans of Russ.

4 Unholy Land, Lavie Tidhar (2017, Israel) [3]. Tidhar either writes alternative histories of the Jewish people, often involving Hitler, or sometimes only involving Hitler, or novels about superpowers made manifest in actual recent history. And sometimes he writes other types of science fiction. In Unholy Land, the Jews were offered land in central Africa after WWI, and accepted it. They called their country Palestina. A Jewish pulp writer based in Berlin returns to Palestina, and as he explores the country’s capital, and his past, so the history of Palestina, and the story itself, begin to unravel. It’s territory Tidhar has explored before – I’m pretty sure there’s an early short story buried in part of this novel – but Unholy Land is a much more effective treatment. His best yet.

5 The Pursuit of William Abbey, Claire North (2019, UK) [-]. North’s novel may sometimes wander a bit, but she shows an impressive degree of rigour in the treatment of her ideas and clearly puts a great deal of effort into her research. It pays off. Abbey is being chased by a shadow, after failing to save the life of a boy in late 19th-century Natal, and that shadow means he can now hear the truth in what people say. Unless the shadow catches him, in which case someone he loves dies. The British Empire have learnt to make use of people like Abbey, and he is co-opted into the Great Game. The premise is pure fantasy, but it’s treated like science fiction. North does an excellent job on its ramifications, and if the book tends to melodrama in places, it’s also an intelligent commentary on colonialism and imperialism.

Honourable mentions: Bridge 108, Anne Charnock (2020, UK) [5], set in a post-climate change UK where migrants and refugees are indentured labour, it’s technology-driven but smells uncannily like recent political changes; All I Ever Dreamed, Michael Blumlein (2018, USA), excellent collection by a writer I’ve admired for many years, who sadly died in 2019; Sorcerer to the Crown, Zen Cho (2015, Malaysia), Regency fantasy that makes a good fist of its setting but perhaps leaves a few too many bits of the plot unexplained; Skein Island, Aliya Whitely (2019, UK), women-only island retreat keeps one of the Greek fates in check, and so allows men the freedom to be themselves, but then the retreat is destroyed, resulting in a somewhat off-centre literary fantasy; Redemption in Indigo, Karen Lord (2010, Barbados), Senegalese-inspired fantasy that may not be hugely original but has bags of charm; The Green Man’s Silence, Juliet E McKenna (2020, UK), third instalment in an urban fantasy series, and probably the best yet; The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl, Theodora Goss (2019, USA), third and sadly final episode in the adventures of the Athena Club, a group of female Victorian fictional characters, and I like the fact the books are explicitly framed as the written-up adventures of the club, including commentary on the narrative by the characters.

films
1 Blue, Derek Jarman (1993, UK) [1]. It probably says something about the sort of year 2020 has been that my pick for best film is 79 minutes of a single unchanging shot of International Klein Blue accompanied by a voiceover by Nigel Terry. But I could listen to Terry’s voice for hours. And Blue is such a perfect endpoint to Jarman’s remarkable career, an encapsulation of the life of a man who was more than just a film-maker, whose art defined an aesthetic and possibly a country’s cinema (more so than Richard fucking Curtis does). The BFI have released two Blu-ray collections containing all of Jarman’s movies. I urge you to buy both box sets. He made some remarkable films and they’re worth watching.

2 Kaili Blues, Bi Gan (2015, China) [-]. Although this film is not unlike those made by Sixth Generation directors, as far as I know Bi does not belong to that group. Yet Kaili Blues has all the hallmarks – a simple and yet very personal story, told in a a very stripped-back way. The centre of the film is a 41-minute single take, which is not only a remarkable piece of film-making, but also makes extensive use of the stunning Chinese geography in the area. It is a less overtly political film than those made by most Sixth Generation directors, but its commentary remains effective all the same. A man tries to discover the fate of his nephew, and ends up in a village where past, present and future co-exist. But not in an obvious way. A beautiful-looking film.

3 Capernaum, Nadine Labaki (2018, Lebanon) [2]. A young Lebanese boy sues his parents for having him, which is merely the entry to a story of child brides, indentured labour, refugee abuse, and Western imperialism. Everything in Capernaum is true, everything in Capernaum is the consequence of the foreign policies of centre-right and right-wing Western nations, everything in Capernaum should be condemned by anyone with an ounce of humanity. I was surprised I’d not heard of this film, and I’m familiar with Labaki’s previous movies, but given its subject perhaps that’s not so surprising. Capitalism does not work, the current world order is broken. We need more films about its victims. Capernaum is a beautifully-made and important film.

4 The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Fred Schepisi (1978, Australia) [-]. If Capernaum suggests that things might change for the better, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith demonstrates they won’t. It’s a heart-breaking movie, set in late nineteenth-century Australia. Which is probably all that needs to be said. Australia’s history of race relations, especially with its indigenous people, has been far from exemplary. Jimmie Blacksmith, who is half-Aboriginal, accidentally kills a white woman after his white wife is persuaded to leave him, and subsequently goes on the run. The film show cases both Australia’s landscape and its systemic racism. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith may be set at the turn of the twentieth century, but more than 100 years later it often seems little has improved.

5 Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series (2017, USA) [4]. I loved Twin Peaks. It started out as a perfect pastiche of US daytime soap operas, before heading off into some very strange territory – which was not entirely unexpected, as I’d followed David Lynch’s career for several years. For all that, the last thing I thought the series needed was a third season, especially one made 27 years after the last season. But… it not only worked, it was brilliant. It recapitulated the strangeness of the original, it advanced the plot, it remained just as fucking strange. It also looked gorgeous. It didn’t answer any of the questions left over from the  original two seasons, but it was clearly never intended to. It was, as the UK branding makes abundantly clear, a “limited event”. I think this may be a good strategy for TV series.

Honourable mentions: Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai, Miike Takashi (2011, Japan), a remake of a 1960s film about a samurai forced to commit hara-kiri and the man who avenges his death; Run Waiter, Run!, Ladislav Smoljak (1981, Czechia), amusing comedy in which a man supplements his income by posing as a waiter in various restaurants and taking diners’ money, and gets so good at he becomes a folk hero; Sami Blood, Amanda Kernell (2016, Sweden), dramatic treatment of a Sami teenage girl turning her back on her culture, and encountering prejudice and racism as she tries to fit into 1930s mainstream Swedish society; Rift, Erlingur Thoroddsen (2017, Iceland), a man goes to stay with an ex-boyfriend who is holed up in a secluded cabin, but someone has been prowling around the cabin, and then things start to get really strange; Dodsworth, William Wyler (1936, USA), classic Hollywood melodrama of the period, with a razor-sharp script. Heckle, Robbie Moffatt (2013, UK), extremely low-budget UK film, set in Selby, about a woman who shows promise as a comedian; The Gardener, Mohsen Makhmalbaf (2012, Iran), beautifully-shot documentary about the Baha’i religion, especially in regards to a man who tends a Baha’i garden in Israel.

television
I’ve been doing a lot of box-set bingeing this year, so I decided to introduce this category. And, to be fair, the music category has been somewhat moribund these last few years.

Two of the series I watched this year were structured around the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. If it takes nigh on 100 years to comment on these horrible events in our popular culture, then perhaps we need to look again at our popular culture. Drama series about the Windrush scandal are not going to cut it in 2115. Get that shit out now, put it in front of as many people as possible, show them that the Tories are Nazis. Fascists shouldn’t have to storm the Capitol for people to take notice, especially when the evidence is there all along.

But, I digress. Or rant. One or the other. TV is a a more immediate medium than books or films. I suspect it’s also a more demotic medium than cinema or books, and so punches above its weight. It’s a medium that’s interrupted by what’s allegedly called news. Not if you box-set binge or stream, of course. But even so, we’re still at the point where a significant portion of the electorate have trouble accepting anything beyond the terrestrial channels… Which might not be so bad if the terrestrial channels had remained true to their charters, but they plainly have not.

1 Watchmen (2019, USA). I am perhaps in a minority in thinking the ending to the movie adaptation of Watchmen superior to the original comic book ending. And Watchmen, the TV series, was written by Damon Lindelof, best-known for Lost – which, when it wasn’t doing “backstory of the week” wasn’t all that bad, although it clearly wasn’t planned – and Prometheus, which is an appalling piece of writing. And yet, Watchmen is… seriously clever, both fitting within the world built by Moore and Gibbons and also extending it. Watchmen starts with police officers hiding their identities in order to protect themselves from Neo-nazi militias and then folds that into the universe of the graphic novel – which had much to say about fascist violence – before eventually dragging it back, as all things Watchmen-related must do, to Dr Manhattan. Smart television.

2 Lovecraft Country (2020, USA). I’d heard good things about this, but it didn’t sound like it would appeal as I’m not a fan of horror and, let’s face it, Lovecraft was a horrible fucking racist so it would take some fancy footwork to re-imagine him for a twenty-first century audience. Happily, Lovecraft Country sidesteps that problem by only referencing Lovecraft obliquely and – more controversially, for US TV at least – by basing it on black history. The end result is a mini-series that feels complete after two episodes, but still manages to keep the plot going for a further eight episodes. Nigerian/British actress Wunmi Mosaku stands out as Ruby Baptiste, and not just because her character comes across as the most rounded of them all. I didn’t expect to like Lovecraft Country, but I thought it excellent.

3 His Dark Materials (2019 – 2020, UK). An adaptation of Philip Pullman’s trilogy, which I read back in the 1990s – and the first book was adapted for the cinema back in 2007, but no sequels appeared after underwhelming US box office performance and public criticism of the movie from the Catholic Church… But I had fond memories of the books, and occasional rumours of adaptations kept me hopeful we’d see it gain eventually on big or small screen. This British TV adaptation, however, has proven really good – despite not having a $180 million budget – and the second season, which aired this year, is even better than the first.

4 Morden i Sandhamn (2010 – 2020, Sweden) This is a police drama set in a small village in the Stockholm archipelago, about 60 km east of the city centre. It’s all a bit chocolate-box, which is what I call TV designed to showcase the appeal of places, even if the stories involve murder. They are… comfortable. Sufficiently fictional not to upset prospective tourists who like the look of what they see. Like Midsomer Murders, which features murder but nothing so upsetting as brown people. Morden i Sandhamn wins hands-down on the scenery front, and it did have a tendency to reach for cliché at moments of high drama. But it had a likeable cast – that were not exemplary, it must be said – and it took some effort over its plots.

5 Murder Call (1997 – 2000, Australia). A police drama set in Sydney. It is… extraordinarily ordinary. If that makes sense. Its gimmick is that its chief detective, Tessa Vance, would subconsciously solve the case three-quarters of the way into the episode’s 45-minute slot. While the crimes the homicide squad investigated ranged from the banal to the bizarre, it was Vance’s epiphany that pretty much defined each episode. I’ve always had a soft spot for female detectives – my favourite crime writers are Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton – and I’ve always much preferred police procedural TV series which feature female leads. Murder Call was very much a product of its time, but I quite liked the fact it made its central premise seem entirely reasonable and plausible.

Honourable mentions: Star Trek: Picard (2020, USA), Patrick Stewart is dragged out of dotage for one last mission, and it’s probably the smartest bit of writing set in the Star Trek universe ever put on screen; Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated (2010 – 2013, USA), the eleventh incarnation of the series, but the smartest yet, filled with clever references and in-jokes, including spoofs of David Lynch’s work: Beck (1997 – 2018, Sweden), definitive Swedish cop show, entertaining to see how it changed – and the genre changed – over a decade; The Mandalorian (2019 – 2020, USA), Star Wars fanfic TV series, never very convincing but it did have its moments; For All Mankind (2019, USA), alternate Space Race which, unsurprisingly, reminded me a great deal of a quartet of novellas by someone or other…


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Wait, fantasies in space? How does that work?

It looks like this film challenge thing I’m doing with Shaun Duke is becoming a regular, er, thing. After he met my last challenge of five films which complement my Apollo Quartet – see here – he tasked me with coming up with a list of “5 science fiction films which are basically fantasies in space, but which are not Star Wars. Ugh. That are “in your opinion and by your own criteria, good movies“. I suspect this is not possible – in fact, I know it’s not – so I’m going to cheat a little and pick films that are either good within the confines of their genre, or enjoyable irrespective of their quality. Because you’re not going to get some cheesy space fantasy that stands up there with anything by Tarkovsky or Bergman or Haneke or Kaurismäki or Sokurov or… Well, you get the, er, picture.

As for “fantasies in space”… yes, well, if not Star Wars is part of the definition then it must mean dumb space operas. And I can think of many examples, but they are almost universally pretty bad. There are no doubt lots of Japanese anime examples, and some of them may even be very good, but I’m not that familiar with anime.

Anyway, after much scratching of head and rootling through my DVD collection, I came up with following five. A couple may be obvious, one or two may invoke cries of shocked disbelief, and for a few I had to take “space fantasy” to mean “complete science fiction bollocks”.

johncarterJohn Carter, Andrew Stanton (2012). The obvious choice, and one that will no doubt have a few of you choking on your doughnuts. I loved this film from the moment I saw it in IMAX 3D, and I’ve watched it several times since on DVD. The production design is gorgeous, the CGI is seamless (the Tharks actually look almost real!), and the script is polished, with a structure which is far more sophisticated than the material deserved. It’s a crying shame Disney decided to sink it because it could have been the start of a bloody good franchise. But instead we’re going to get endless shit superhero movies, a vast cinematic retconning of the Star Wars universe, and increasingly dumber Star Trek sequels. Yay for tentpole sci-fi blockbuster movies…

flashFlash Gordon, Mike Hodges (1980). There’s much that cringe-worthy in this film, from the Queen soundtrack (there, I said it) to the cheesy dialogue to half the cast clearly belonging in a much superior film to completely non-entity Sam Jones in the title role. Having said that, you won’t find more sci-fic pomp and silliness in any other movie. Von Sydow, Wyngarde and Dalton plainly belong in a much better film; Topol, Muti and Blessed seem to have found their level. Melody Anderson actually makes a good Dale Arden. It is, in fact, hard to fault Flash Gordon as a piece of cheesy sf camp, but it’s a mistake to consider it anything more than that (and unlike some people, I ask more of my movies and books than they be mere entertainment).

planete_sauavageLa planète sauvage, René Laloux (1973). No film list put together by myself would be complete without at least one non-Hollywood film. While this is not usually difficult to achieve, for “fantasies in space” it’s proven something of a hurdle. I mean, only the US makes cheesy space operas. But I believe La planète sauvage qualifies because, while it initially describes an alien world in which primitive humans exist only in the wild, it soon turns weird and philosophical and all sort of wishy-washy and bonkers. The animation and production design throughout is distinctive and strange – it’s by Roland Topor – but it suits the story. Laloux’s later animated films were a bit Métal Hurlant, but La planète sauvage displays a unique vision. Definitely worth getting hold of a copy.

duneDune, David Lynch (1985). Heresy! Dune as a “fantasy in space”? I mean, I’ve always considered Dune science fiction, in space or otherwise, and I see no good reason to change that since it meets my definition of the genre. But since I also consider Star Wars science fiction, I feel this makes Dune allowable under Shaun’s somewhat baggy definition. And yes, Dune is a good film, and only fails at being a great film because the director couldn’t match his vision. But there are clues there if you watch the “television version” (which includes around an additional 45 minutes). It’s not so much the additional story that’s on the screen, and it’s certainly not the horrible prologue with its awful artwork. But the extended scenes set in the Imperial Court display an overly mannered presentation that works at the lengths shown in the television version much better than it does in the theatrical release. Plus, of course, the production design is superb. In fact, I’ll even forgive Lynch the “weirding module” and the rain at the end because everything looks so much like Dune should look. I currently own five DVD editions of Dune, so it’s probably about time I got it on Blu-ray. But which is the best Blu-ray version…?

battleBattle Beyond the Stars, Jimmy T Murakami (1980). Space operas – sorry, “fantasies in space” – don’t come cheesier than this rip-off of Star Wars. But it does possess a certain charm all its own, whether it’s because its plot is a beat-by-beat copy of The Magnificent Seven, or that the hero’s spaceship looks like a pair of breasts, or Sybil Danning’s double entendres, or the fact George Peppard was clearly pissed throughout the film, or that the entire thing looks like a series of episodes from a bad sf television series. But as low budget space operas go, it’s an enjoyable example. And Richard Thomas actually displays some impressive acting chops. The fact the script is by John Sayles also helps.

There are a number of other films I could have chosen, but it would have been stretching a point beyond breaking to describe them as “good” – such as… The Humanoid, Aldo Lado (1979), in which Richard Kiel plays the title role in an Italian Star Wars rip-off with production design that’s a weird mashup of 1970s near-future science fiction, Star Wars and Flash Gordon… Or Starcrash, Luigi Cozzi (1978), which manages to make zero sense but does include the immortal line, “Imperial battleship, halt the flow of time!”… Or Barbarella, Roger Vadim (1968), which has not aged well despite being based on a French bande dessinée… Or even Andrzej’s Żuławski’s Na srebrnym globie (On the Silver Globe)… Or spaghetti sci-fi Star Pilot, Pietro Francisci (1966), which apparently inspired some elements of Star Trek…

ETA: After much thought, I’ve decided on Shaun’s challenge. Five non-English language films featuring space travel, not including Solaris. Oh, and no more than two of them from Japan.