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Moving pictures 2018, #19

Have I mentioned before that I occasionally surprise myself by the stuff I end up watching? And liking? It happens.

Sign of the Pagan, Douglas Sirk (1954, USA). Sirk made some blinding melodramas during the 1950s, but he was more often a director-for-hire, and not all of the films he made show the same subversive quality as his best work. Like this one. I mean, my love for All That Heaven Allows knows no bounds, but this straightforward historical drama about Attila the Hun and Roman emperors Valentian III and Theodosius is ordinary stuff. Palance, effectively blacked-up, plays Attila with the… relish he brought to all his roles. The remaining cast are forgettable, even Jeff Chandler, who plays a centurion who provides a through-line for the viewer. Much, if not all, of the film appears to have been shot in a studio, which gives everything a weirdly Shakespearean feel, although that’s somewhat offset by the typically Hollywood dialogue. I mean, there are touches to it that are pure Sirk – among other things, a tendency to write the women much better than is typical for the period; and some of the framing is clearly taking the piss. But Hollywood has never been good at historicals, especially ancient, and the 1950s weren’t exactly a high point for that genre. Sirk’s films have slowly been appearing on DVD, the ones he’s best known for first, of course, but it does seem a bit random which titles appear next. This isn’t really one they needed to rush out.

Guardians, Sarik Andreasyan (2017, Russia). I joked on Twitter than this might be Russia’s answer to the X-Men, the Ж-Men, but no one thought it was funny. Oh well. During the Cold War, a Soviet scientist experimented with giving people superhuman powers. He succeeded, but the programme was shut down. In the present day, the scientist – who had also experimented on himself, giving himself super-strength and the power to control machines – re-surfaces, takes control of some state-of-the-art Russian battle robots, kills all the generals and scarpers. So the Russian super-secret Patriot programme, a sort of Russian SHIELD, tracks down the original experimental subjects and persuades them to form a team to combat the rogue scientist. Who has stolen a TV tower, which he plans to erect in Moscow and use as a giant antenna to seize control of all technology through the world muahahaha. So the Patriot team – a woman who can turn invisible or into water, a man who can turn into a super-strong bear (super-strong compared to bears, that is), a man with super-speed and two very sharp swords, and a man who can control rocks and earth. The plot is pretty standard for the genre, even down to the nod at possible sequels at the end. The special effects are mostly effective, but the superheroes all look a bit off, a bit like CGI characters from late nineties or early twenty-first century films. Missable.

India Song*, Marguerite Duras (1975, France). You know when you come to a film totally cold, and you love it so much you want to watch everything by the director? It’s happened to me several times. And it has happened again. I really had no idea what to expect from India Song. It certainly wasn’t a film in which actors silently performed their roles to a voiceover narrative. The story is set in, er, India, and is about the wife of a French planter and her affairs. But it was actually filmed in Boulogne. It takes place in the 1930s, and consists mostly of the cast sitting around in the planter’s mansion and having the sort of conversation privileged people back in the 1930s in expatriate colonies had. The story is told entirely in voiceover. None of the cast speak – or rather, their voices are never heard on the soundtrack. It’s a bit like watching a play, a bit like a documentary, and a lot unlike most other films. I found it fascinating – so much so, I now want to see other films by Duras, to see if India Song was a one-off or most of her films were like it. Unfortunately, I’ve had trouble finding any.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Alison Klayman (2012, USA). I know Ai’s name, but not much about his art – other than his involvement in the design of the Birds Nest stadium for the Beijing Olympics – so this film was a good introduction to the man and his work. And while I’m not convinced by the latter – I look askance at any artist that runs an “atelier” and just signs the work, like James Patterson – there’s no denying the political work done by Ai. He spent years, for example, collecting the names of schoolchildren killed by the earthquake in Sichuan in 2008, despite official resistance. It’s true that his stature insulated him to some extent from the consequences of his views – although not entirely, as he was disappeared by the Chinese authorities for 88 days at the end of this film (it provides the end-note of the movie). Modern art is… well, it’s not art, it’s message – inasmuch as the message bypasses traditional art channels. Which is why people don’t understand it as art. Also, most people don’t understand the message of traditional art. This is hardly unsurprising, as the language is often specific the period in which the art was produced. All those Renaissance paintings? They’re coded. And so are Ai’s works. But there’s no commonly-accepted language for art these days, and hasn’t been for a long time, and so works need to be decoded in context. Some artists provide context, some don’t. Ai does for some of his pieces in this film. But without context, art can lose its meaning. But even context has weight, and Ai’s is among the heaviest – if that makes sense. He’s a dissident in the most repressive, and most successful, regime on the planet. He directly criticises his masters. His survival is not a consequence of his refusal to be silenced but their failure, for whatever reason, to take action. Which they eventually did, just before this film was released. They arrested him at Beijing airport, and held him incommunicado for three months. Vocal critics, even ones with international reputations, of repressive regimes have a tendency to disappear. But that’s the right wing for you: for all their talk about law and order and traditional values, they are quick to ignore the law when their power is threatened. The UK government, while by no means as repressive as the Chinese authorities, has been happy to overlook the illegal election spending of both the Conservative Party in the last election and Leave campaign in the EU referendum. A mandate generated by illegal actions is no mandate at all. In China, they don’t give a shit. The authorities are so desperate to maintain their wealthy lifestyles they’re happy to play fast and loose with their laws. We need supra-national institutions like the EU to prevent shit like that from happening in Europe. And the UK. Oh, wait…

I, Tonya, Craig Gillespie (2017, USA). A colleague at work likes war movies, and I mentioned in passing I’d watched I, Tonya, and he said, it’s good innit. So there you go, you can never tell what films people like or not. I, Tonya is a comedy-drama based on actual events, which sounds horrible when you think about it. Tonya Harding is best-known as a US Olympic ice-skater who was later banned from the sport because she had conspired to injure her chief rival Nancy Kerrigan. The film is made entirely from real quotes from the people involved. Harding comes across as driven but none too bright. Her husband likewise. But the man they employ as their bodyguard takes the biscuit as dumbest person on the planet. If he comes across as implausibly stupid in the film, interview footage with the real person in the end credits shows they characterised him quite accurately. To be fair, Harding comes across as unfairly punished. Kerrigan recovered, and took silver at the Olympics that same year. Harding finished eighth. But Harding was banned from competitive ice-skating for life, and ended up as a female boxer. If the movie has a flaw, it’s that Australian comedy actress Margo Robbie is too old for the role, particularly Harding’s early teen years.

Wavelength*, Michael Snow (1967, Canada). Here’s another one I came to cold. I guess I could have researched it before watching it, but why bother? I was going to watch it as it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Anyway, it proved to be avant garde cinema, the film that created the genre “structural film”, if such could be considered a genre. It basically consists of a camera locked off on a view of a room, in which things happen as a consequence of events outside the room. There is no plot, just the after-effects of events, the consequences, out-of-context drama, and even that last description is overstating it as it’s barely drama and the context remains a complete mystery. There are also sequences where the screen flashes and noise overwhelms the soundtrack. I loved it. Unfortunately, the copy I saw was a bad rip on Youtube, and it didn’t do the film any favours. I’d like to see a good quality version of this, but I don’t think it’s ever been released on DVD, despite being chosen for preservation by the Audio-Visual Preservation Trust of Canada. Hopefully, one will be made available.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 901

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Boxsets!

Well, not really. Only two box sets. And these days the word tends to be used more in reference to seasons/series of television dramas. My box sets are collections of films, and in this post, it’s the two by Godard…

Both the 10-DVD collection (French-published, but with English subtitles) and the 14-DVD collection were purchased from third party sellers on a large online retailer’s website. I’m currently working my way through the 10-DVD set. And I’m starting to really appreciate Godard’s movies.

Three Blu-rays. Nosferatu and Hawks & Sparrows / Pigsty I bought from eureka! during a recent sale. I also pre-ordered the new edition of Metropolis, but that has yet to arrive. Privilege I bought after watching it on rental because I wanted my own copy (see here).

Actually, there’s another box set in this post: Japanese Masters, bought on eBay, which contains two films by Yasujiro Ozu – Floating Weeds and The End of Summer – and two by Kenji Mizoguchi – The Life of Oharu and The Lady of Musashino. I already have Floating Weeds, but The End of Summer is no longer available. Container is Lukas Moodysson’s experimental film. I watched it several years ago, but decided it needed a second try – so I bought a cheap copy off eBay. Joi Baba Felunath popped up on eBay and I thought it was a hard-to-find film but it turns out it’s in the Satyajit Ray Collection Volume 2. Oh well. And Footprints on the Moon I watched on rental, but I liked it so much I bought my own copy (see here).

A bunch of out-of-copyright films bought on eBay, of varying quality, both of the transfer and the film itself. I forget why I bought most of them, but they are: Sleep, My Love (forgettable Sirk thriller, see here), Black Tights (anthology film of ballet routines, terrible transfer), Beneath the 12-mile Reef (unmemorable Robert Wagner drama about sponge divers), The One-Eyed Soldiers (bad Euro-thriller set in invented Balkan country) and Long John SilverThe Secret of My Success (terrible sixties British comedy), and Criminal Affair (dreadful Italian thriller, directed by and starring one of the stars of South Pacific, another poor transfer too).


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Moving pictures 2017, #41

It has occurred to me I should perhaps start a separate blogs for films, but then this blog would be be tumbleweeds all the time, so I don’t think I will. For the time-being, it’s likely to be mostly movies, but as the year progresses I’m hoping that will change. Meanwhile, more, er, films…

Gimme Shelter*, Albert & David Maylses (1970, USA). There’s that meme, back before the days of internet memes, and it asks: Asterix or Tintin? Dogs or cats? The Beatles or the Rolling Stones? As if it’s a handy way to categorise people… For the record, I prefer Tintin to Asterix, cats to dogs… and I’m not really a fan of either The Beatles or the Rolling Stones. But Gimme Shelter is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, so watch it I must… The Maylses’s schtick was that they just filmed stuff, edited it, and then presented it without commentary (totally disingenuously, of course, as the editing itself created narrative out of the raw footage and so implied commentary). Gimme Shelter plays at fly-on-the-wall, and was originally intended to be simply a documentary in the putting together of a free concert. But the murder at Altamont during the Stones’ set obviously bent that out of shape, and so Gimme Shelter becomes a documentary about that, created from footage shot for other reasons. The end result is a powerful and interesting documentary, but also a somewhat disingenuous one, so much so it makes you wonder about the “truth” of all documentaries. To be fair, documentaries suffer from having to impose narrative on topics that have no natural narrative (narrative is an instrument of bias, by definition; a story teller chooses the story they tell), but in this particular case, the post-facto narrative proved more compelling than that which had prompted the project in the first place. Which is not to say that Gimme Shelter is a bad film, it’s a good one, but it does misrepresent itself… and indeed misrepresents the event it ostensibly documents. There is truth, there are documentaries that strive for truth, and there are documentaries that, well, appear on lists like 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die… I enjoyed Gimme Shelter, despite not liking the music of the Rolling Stones, but it’s more an entertaining film than it is a valid witness to the events of the time it depicts.

A Short Film About Killing, Krzysztof Kieślowski (1988, Poland). Kieślowski is an excellent entry point to cinephilia. There, I said it. But he’s also the “director’s director” most cinephiles have moved on from, and his work, to them, to us, seems in hindsight somewhat middle-brow. He was undoubtedly an excellent film-maker, and his notorious perfectionism is evident in every frame of every work that bears his name. But his mix of stark realism and whimsical fantasy has not aged especially well, and for all the beauty of his framing, and the excellence of the performances he elicited from his casts, it all these days seems a bit past-it. Which is doubly unfair, when applied to A Short Film About Killing, which is entirely realist, but also shot entirely in a way that emphasises its realism. And which, sadly, ultimately undoes its intent. The story is simple: a listless drifter brutally murders a taxi-cab driver, is caught, tried, sentenced to death and hanged. That’s it. Kieślowski dwells on the murder, showing it as a brutal, drawn-out affair, as if it bolster the credentials of his villain – and it’s true that an argument against capital punishment needs to show an acceptable victim because it would otherwise be compromised… But to then display the moral scaffolding put in place to justify capital punishment by those who execute it does undermine the argument. True, it would be cowardice to have someone whose crime, or circumstance, might mitigate, or who might even be innocent – something most anti-capital punishment films seem to do. Kieślowski’s films is all the more powerful because the crime committed is so heinous. But he also shows that the system is fixed, reprieve is impossible, and the flat, affectless way the story unfolds fails to reinforce the logic of the film’s message because Kieślowski invests too much in the circumstances of his three main characters – the murderer, his victim, and the advocate who defends the murderer. He connects them. And that makes it personal – but the film’s argument against capital punishment remains impersonal. Kieślowski was once among my top ten directors, but he has since fallen from that list. I will almost certainly watch his films again some day, so I’m glad I own good copies. Speaking of which, the three Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema have proven an excellent purchase, and I’m really glad I took the plunge, even if they were quite expensive…

Sleep, My Love, Douglas Sirk (1948, USA). I can’t find UK DVD cover art for this, because it’s never been released on DVD here. The copy I watched was a legal out-of-copyright rip bought on eBay, of pretty good quality, way better than VHS, but by no means official. And, to be fair, it’s not a film that deserves all that much to be remembered. Sirk was one of several German, or Teutonophone, directors who had successful careers in Hollywood during the 1940s to 1960s, and his All That Heaven Allows is my all-time favourite film (and the so-called women’s melodramas he made during the late 1950s are among Hollywood’s best films), but for much of his career he churned out Hollywood potboilers… and this is one of them. It’s pretty much Gaslight by another name and with a slightly different plot. Claudette Colbert is an heiress married to a wastrel, Don Amerche, and Ameche has been using drugs and hypnosis to try and set her up to murder someone and so be sent to prison, allowing him, and his mistress, to abscond with her money. So he gaslights her, and when the murder plot fails, he tries to hypnotise her into jumping from her bedroom window. But that fails too… thanks to the lucky appearance of a China-based US businessman, Robert Cummings, on leave back home, whom befriends Colbert, and then becomes the love interest. Ameche and his co-conspirators are pretty inept, and only really get as far as they do because Colbert can’t see what’s going on (despite the gaslighting). Even then, it’s only because the conspirators fall out that their plot eventually falls apart. Not one of Sirk’s best; not even a good noir film, to be honest.

Two English Girls, François Truffaut (1971, France). I think Truffaut is great… I don’t think Truffaut is great… I think Truffaut is great… I don’t think Truffaut is great… I’m not really sure what to make of him. Some of his films I think are brilliant and I love them. Others, it’s hard to believe the same guy made them. True, no one loves all the films a particular director has made – I mean, no director is that good. Although one or two might come close. I love Sirk’s melodramas, for example, but his other films I find eminently forgettable. So, liking and admiring some of Truffaut films but not others, well, I’m unlikely to be alone in that. But to go from pretty much complete indifference to multiple watches of some of his movies, that’s not so common. Although I wonder if Two English Girls, AKA Anna & Muriel, a title that appears only on the Blu-ray packaging, which is a bit random, will be one of the latter. It’s a very Truffaut film, inasmuch as it’s seamlessly put together. But it’s also slightly odd in some respects. There are, for instance, a lot of long shots, and landscape shots, neither of which Truffaut normally uses. And there are the anachronisms. Two English Girls is a period piece set at the start of the twentieth-century and yet in one shot, quite deliberately, the two sisters are on the beach and plain on the horizon are – oil platforms? electricity pylons? I’m not sure. But whatever they are, they definitely didn’t exist in 1902. And in the opening scene, one of the young girls on the swing has quite visible orthodontic braces. And yet… the eponymous characters are well-drawn, and if Jean-Pierre Léaud, who plays the young Frenchman who becomes a de facto brother, and then lover of one, seems to act his role somewhat stiffly and with little visible emotion, his voice-over – text from the novel from which the film was adapted? – helps chart his character. It all felt very DH Lawrentian, which is no bad thing to my mind, but with an undercurrent of stiffness that is entirely foreign to Lawrence’s stories and prose… You know, I think Two English Girls might be one of the Truffauts I watch several times…

Endless Poetry, Alejandro Jodorowsky (2016, Chile). This film follows on directly from The Dance of Reality (see here), as it covers Jodorowsky’s early twenties, when he moved to Santiago and became part of a group of artists and poets. Jodorowsky is played one of his sons. Another son plays his father, as he did in the previous film,, which no doubt says all sorts of Freudian things, especially given that Jodorowsky himself makes several appearances, as himself, to give his young self advice– but what am I saying? Any Freudian who read any of Jodorowsky’s bandes dessinées would probably wet themselves at the stuff he puts in them. Endless Poetry is, like the earlier film, a succession of incidents in Jodorowsky’s life, centred as it was at that time on poetry. But after his parents’ shop burns down, and they lose everything, Jodorowsky consults Nicanor Parra (an important Latin American poet, now 102 years old!), but dissatisfied with his advice, Jodorowosky decides to leave Chile for France, in order to “save surrealism”. Leading to one of the film’s most powerful scenes, where Jodorowsky’s father confronts him on the jetty, the two argue, and separate unreconciled… only for Jodorowsky himself to appear and have the two play out how, in hindsight, he wished the encounter had gone… which involves twentysomething Jodorowsky shaving his father’s beard and head, so he resembles one of the male/female characters which appear in several of his comics. Jodorowsky then steps onto a boat, which backs out to sea – although it’s obviously heading towards the camera but the film is running in reverse, and which seems an entirely fitting end to a pair of movies which have charted Jodorowsky’s beginnings, as a child and as a poet, while also recapitulating his entire career. I’ll admit I had previously considered Jodorowsky a director notable more for the weirdness of his vision than as a maker of good films. (And I’m a fan of his sf bandes dessinées too.) But The Dance of Reality and Endless Poetry really are very good films, and it’s a shame Jodorowsky had to resort ot crowdfunding to finance them. Hopefully, he won’t need to for his next one. Perhaps he might even try making a sf film…

The Lesson, Kristina Grozeva & Petar Valchanov (2014, Bulgaria). I think I saw a trailer for this on another rental, and it looked worth watching. Which, happily, proved to be the case. A teacher in a town in Bulgaria translates documents on the side to make ends meet. Her husband has a camper van he is trying to sell, but he can’t get it working. One day, someone in her class steals some money, but no one will admit to the deed, or return the money when given the opportunity to do so anonymously. Then a repossession agent turns up at the teacher’s home and tells her they’re in arrears and the bank will auction off the house in three days – because the husband spent the mortgage payment money on a gearbox for his crappy caravanette. Then the translation company, which owes the teacher money, starts dragging its feet on paying her… and so she’s forced to go to a loan shark for the money to pay off the bank. (And then, after she’s made payment and returned to the school, the repossession agent rings to tell her he miscalculated and she owes a further 1.37 lev… which she has to borrow from a bus conductor on her way to the bank… but even that’s not enough because there’s a bank fee on top for the additional payment… and so she’s forced to scoop out coins from a good luck fountain.) At which point, the translation company declares bankruptcy, and the owner runs off with the money, so now the teacher can’t pay off the loan shark… The ending comes as no real surprise, but the build-up is cleverly done. Nor is the behaviour of the bankers and the loan shark all that much of a surprise, although they are disappointingly too much bastards. In fact, the teacher’s situation is pretty much created by the actions of total bastards – her husband, the owner of the translation company, the bank, the loan shark… Nevertheless, worth seeing.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 876


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Made from books

Nerds of a feather have been running a series of posts by its members on “books that shaped me”, and I wondered what books I’d choose myself for such a post. And I started out doing just that but then it stopped being a listicle and more of a narrative, so I just went with it…

These will not be recent books – or, at least, the bulk of them won’t be. Because while people’s attitudes, sensibilities and tastes evolve over the years, some of the books I read back when I was a young teen obviously had more of an impact on me than a book I read, say, last week. Some of the following have in part shaped my taste in fiction, while some have inspired and shaped my writing. Some I read because they seemed a natural progression in my reading, some were books I read because they covered a subject that interest me, some I read because they were out of my comfort zone and I felt I needed to broaden my horizons…

Early explorations in sf
I read my first actual science fiction novel around 1976. Prior to that I’d been reading Dr Who novelisations, but a lad in my class at school lent me a copy of Robert Heinlein’s Starman Jones. After that, another boy lent me some EE ‘Doc’ Smith, the Lensman books, I seem to recall (and probably some Asimov, although I don’t actually remember which ones). But during my early years exploring the genre I cottoned onto three particular authors: AE Van Vogt, James Blish and Clifford Simak. And the first books by those authors I recall reading were The Universe Maker, Jack of Eagles and Why Call Them Back From Heaven?. Actually, I may have read The Voyage of the Space Beagle before The Universe Maker, but something about the latter appealed to me more. Sadly, no women writers. A few years later I started reading Cherryh and Tiptree (and yes, I’ve always known Tiptree was a woman), but I suspect my choices were more a matter of availability – Cherryh was pretty much ubiquitous in UK book shops during the early 1980s.

starmanjones

Growing up the sf way
I remember a lad in the year below me at school reading Dune – that would be in 1978, I think – and it looked interesting, but it wasn’t until a few years later that I read it for myself. And immediately loved it. These days, my thoughts on Dune are somewhat different – it’s not Frank Herbert’s best novel, it’s not even the best novel in the Dune series (and we won’t mention the execrable sequels by his son and Kevin J Anderson)… but what Dune is, is probably the best piece of world-building the science fiction genre has ever produced. And then there’s Dhalgren, which I still love and is probably the sf novel I’ve reread the most times. It wasn’t my first Delany, but it remains my favourite. I still see it as a beacon of literary sensibilities in science fiction. Another discovery of this period was John Varley, whose stories pushed a lot of my buttons. His The Barbie Murders remains a favourite collection, and the title story is still a favourite story. Around this time one of the most important books to come into my hands was The Complete Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy Lists by Malcolm Edwards and Maxim Jakubowski. It’s exactly what the title says – lists of sf and fantasy books and stories. But it was also a map to exploring the genre and, in an effort to find books and stories it mentioned, I started actively hunting down specific things I wanted to read. I was no longer browsing in WH Smith (back in the day when it was a major book seller) and grabbing something off the shelf that looked appealing. This was directed reading, and it’s pretty much how I’ve approached my reading ever since.

Explorations outside science fiction
The school I went to had a book shop that opened every Wednesday afternoon, and I bought loads of sf novels there (well, my parents bought them, as they were the ones paying the bills). But when I was on holiday, especially out in the Middle East, I was limited to reading what was available – which included the likes of Nelson De Mille, Eric Van Lustbader, Judith Krantz and Shirley Conran. I think it was my mother who’d been reading Sara Paretsky and it was from her I borrowed Guardian Angel, and so became a lifelong fan of Paretsky’s books. And after graduating from university and going to work in Abu Dhabi, the Daly Community Library, the subscription library I joined within a month or two of arriving, had I poor sf selection so I had to widen my reading. One of the books I borrowed was Anthony Burgess’s A Dead Man in Deptford, and that turned me into a fan of his writing (although, to be honest, while my admiration of his writing remains undimmed, I’m no longer so keen on his novels… although I still have most of them in first edition). I also borrowed Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet from the Daly Community Library, but had it take back before I’d even started it. So I bought paperbacks copies of the four books during a trip to Dubai, and subsequently fell in love with Durrell’s writing. So much so that I began collecting his works – and now I have pretty much everything he wrote. Perversely, his lush prose has stopped me from trying it for myself – possibly because I know I couldn’t pull it off. Much as I treasure Durrell’s prose, it’s not what I write… but his occasional simple turns of phrase I find inspiring. Finally, two non-fiction works which have helped define my taste in non-fiction. While I was in Abu Dhabi, I borrowed Milton O Thompson’s At the Edge of Space from the Abu Dhabi Men’s College library. It’s a dry recitation of the various flights flown by the North American X-15 – and yes, I now own my own copy – but I found it fascinating. It wasn’t, however, until I read Andrew Smith’s Moondust, in which he tracks down and interviews the surviving nine people who walked on the Moon, that I really started collecting books about the Space Race. And then I decided it would be interesting to write fiction about it…

Ingredients for a writing life
When I originally started writing sf short stories, they were pretty well, er, generic. I’d read plenty of short fiction, and so I turned what I thought were neat ideas into neat little stories. None of them sold. So I spent several years having a bash at novels – A Prospect of War and A Conflict of Orders are products of those years, as well as a couple of trunk novels – and didn’t return to writing short fiction until 2008. It took a few goes before I found the kind of short fiction that worked for me, but it wasn’t until I wrote ‘The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams’ (see here) that I realised I’d found a, er, space I wanted to explore further in ficiton. I’d been partly inspired by Jed Mercurio’s Ascent, because its obsessive attention to detail really appealed to me – and when I started working on Adrift on the Sea of Rains, I wanted it to be like that. But I’d also read some Cormac McCarthy – The Road and All The Pretty Horses – and that gave me a handle for the prose style. I’ve jokingly referred to Adrift on the Sea of Rains as “Cormac McCarthy on the Moon” but that was always in my mind while I was writing it. And for the flashback sequences, I wanted a more discursive and roundabout style, so I turned to a book I’d recently read, Austerlitz by WG Sebald, and used that as my inspiration. And finally, there’s a point in astronaut Thomas Stafford’s autobiography, We Have Capture, in which he discusses the deaths of the three cosmonauts in the Soyuz 11 mission – Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov and Viktor Patsayev – and he mentions the 19 turns needed to manually close the valve which evacuated the air from their spacecraft, and that figure became sort of emblematic of my approach to writing Adrift on the Sea of Rains. It’s odd DNA for a science fiction novella – Stafford, Mercurio, McCarthy and Sebald – but there you go…

capture

The next two books of the Apollo Quartet were driven by the their plots, inasmuch as their inspirations were plot-related, and the only books which fed into them were the books I read for research. But I should definitely mention Malcolm Lowry, who I’d started reading around the time I launched Adrift on the Sea of Rains, and the titles of some of his books – Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid – inspired the titles of books two and three of the Apollo Quartet. But when it comes to book four, All That Outer Space Allows, well, obviously, Sirk’s movie All That Heaven Allows was a major influence, but so too was Laurent Binet’s HHhH, which showed me that breaking the fourth wall was a really interesting narrative technique to explore. But there’s also Michael Haneke’s film Funny Games, which inspired the whole breaking the fourth wall thing in the first place, and which led to me using art house films as inspiration for short stories, so that ‘Red Desert’ in Dreams of the Space Age and Space – Houston We Have A Problem was inspired by François Ozon’s Under the Sand, and I’m currently working on a story inspired by Lars von Trier’s Melancholia titled, er, ‘Melancholia’, and in which I take great pleasure in destroying the Earth.

Reading for pleasure
Despite all that above, there are authors whose works I read purely because I enjoy doing so. It’s true there might be a bit of DH Lawrence in All That Outer Space Allows, but if I had to pick a favourite Lawrence novel out of those I’ve read I’d be hard pressed to do so. I’ve mentioned Lowry already – for him, the one work I treasure is his novella ‘Through the Panama’ which appears in his collection Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place. And with Karen Blixen, AKA Isak Dinesen, a new discovery for me and becoming a favourite, it’s her novella ‘Tempest’. But I don’t think she’s going to influence my writing much. Neither do I think the writings of Helen Simpson or Marilynne Robinson will do so either, although Simpson has paddled in genre. And much as I admire the writings of Gwyneth Jones, Paul Park and DG Compton, their writing is so unlike my own, their books are just a pure reading pleasure. Jenny Erpenbeck, on the other hand, I think might influence my writing, as I love her distant tone. And while I love the deep personal focus of Hanan al-Shaykh’s novels, she’s reading for pleasure.

hear_us

To some extent, I think, I treat books like movies. There are the disposable ones – commercial sf, in other words; and you can find many examples on the SF Masterwork list, which is more a reflection on the genre as a whole than it is on the SF Masterwork list. But I much prefer movies from other cultures, and while science fiction scratched that itch to some extent, even though its cultures were invented… the level of such invention wasn’t especially deep – and if I get more of a sense of estrangment out of a novel by Erpenbeck, a German woman, than I do from any random US sf writer, I see that as more a flaw of the genre than of its practitioners. Happily, things are changing, and a wider spectrum of voices are being heard in genre fiction. Not all of them will appeal to me, not all of them will earn my admiration. But I wholeheartedly support the fact of their existence. I do enjoy reading books like that but in the past I’ve had to read mainstream fiction – Mariama Bâ, Abdelrahman Munif, Magda Szabó, Elfriede Jelineck, Leila Aboulela, Chyngyz Aitmatov… as well as those mentioned previously. These are the books and movies which join my collection, and for which I am forever struggling to find shelf space.


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Moving pictures, #23

Another mixed bag, country-wise, this time. Four were rentals, two I bought. Two are also sequels. And one is silent, while another has only a music soundtrack.

storm_over_asiaStorm over Asia*, Vsevelod Pudovkin (1928, Russia). Although cinema was in its infancy back before “talkies”, what a lot of people seem to forget – or don’t know – is that a lot of the cinematography of that time is often astonishingly good. Anyone who has seen Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc can’t fail to be impressed by the beauty of the Dreyer’s imagery. Storm over Asia, an early Russian film, is not one that was known to me – Eisenstein, yes; even Aelita, yes; but not this one… Which is a shame as it’s quite an amazing piece of work. It’s set in Mongolia in 1918. A Mongolian trapper is ripped off by a European trader, and runs to the hills after fighting the trader. He becomes a Soviet partisan, fighting against the British occupiers. They catch him and shoot him, but then discover he is a direct descendant of Genghis Khan. Fortunately, he’s still alive, so they patch him up and plan to use him as a ruler under their control. Of course, he turns on them. Hang on, I hear you saying, the British never invaded Mongolia; yes, they invaded lots of places over the centuries, but Mongolia wasn’t one of them. But this is a Russian film, and they were hardly likely to paint themselves as the villains (plus, the British had the advantage of being “capitalists”, which the villains of any Soviet film had to be, of course). Definitely worth seeing.

45_years45 Years, Andrew Haigh (2015, UK). It’ll be interesting to see how this film does on sell-through. Hollywood, indeed most Anglophone cinema, seems locked into chasing that young male demographic, as if they’re the only people who go to the cinema. But when you make films aimed at one group, you can’t be surprised when other groups stay away. But then I suspect older viewers are more likely to watch a new movie on sell-through than they are in the cinema. But are they going to bother doing that for shitty tentpole blockbusters like the MCU films? And are they going to spend money on all the merchandising crap, which isn’t there to sell the fillm as much as it is to convince fans that’s okay really to like such rubbish since the property is so ubiquitous they can’t be considered weird for liking it… Which at least can’t be said of 45 Years, which is about a married couple, and the title refers to the time they’ve been married. But a few days before a planned celebration of the event, the husband receives news that the body of an ex-girlfriend, who fell into a crevasse in a glacier back in the 1960s, has just been discovered… While this all happened before he married, he hasn’t been completely honest about what happened with his wife. This is a nice, understated piece, well-played by a high-powered cast. It’s already garnered a fistful of award nominations and wins, and deservedly so.

qatsiNaqoyqatsi, Godfrey Reggio (2002, USA). This is the third of the Qatsi trilogy, made some twenty years after the previous two films, Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi. Ironically, it’s the one that’s dated the most. That’s chiefly because at the time it was made CGI was not as high-quality as it is now, and it shows. Not just in the resolution or range of colours of the computer-generated graphics, but also in the imagination on display. Those earlier two films were pure cinematography – of places and people, with no special effects. And they remain as effective today as they did when they were shot. Also to Naqoyqatsi‘s disadvantage is its subject: technology and war. There’s a big emphasis on computer code, modelling and simulations, and virtual reality, which would have felt cyberpunk… if only the film had been released a decade earlier. While the concerns, and subjects, of the first two remain true to this day, much of the technology celebrated, and reviled, in Naqoyqatsi no longer exists. In parts, Naqoyqatsi reminded me of David Blair’s Wax, or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees from 1991 (I have a signed copy of the film on VHS somewhere), and in other parts of its two predecessors. I’m glad I picked up the set and so now have all three films… but going for the Blu-rays was probably a bit much. [A]

look_of_silenceThe Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer (2014, Denmark). This is the follow-up to Oppenheimer’s earlier The Act of Killing, and covers pretty much the same topic: the Indonesian slaughter of “communists” during the mid-1960s after the military seized control. The conceit here is that the brother of a man who disappeared during those murders visits some of the killers as an optician examining their eyesight, and quizzing them about it while he does so. There’s a telling remark made to camera by one of the men who committed those murders, “Thanks to the Americans for teaching us to hate communists”. The fact that most of those killed weren’t actually communists is apparently irrelevant. The US made it plain that communists were legitimate targets, and it’s not like anyone was going to look too closely when the so-called authorities labelled someone a communist. After all, the US had done exactly the same itself back in the days of HUAC, albeit without the machetes and assault rifles and death toll. Later in The Look of Silence, there’s a clip from US network news show from the 1960s, and it pretty much approves of the death and mutilation of the so-called communists. It goes without saying that the events discussed in this film are horrible; and that it’s enraging the perpetrators not only survived, but prospered and continue to do so. It’s heartbreaking that one survivor’s only way to live with it is to consider it all past and gone, life has moved on. Because clearly justice has not prevailed. And it’s unlikely to ever do so. It would be all too easy to blame it entirely on the Indonesians, except that would not be strictly true. The West creates these situations and should take responsibility for them – except that would mean admitting they’d done wrong, that the corporations are no longer under control, or that capitalism doesn’t actually work.

evangelion_2Evangelion 2.22: You Can (Not) Advance, Hideaki Anno (2009, Japan). It would not be untrue to describe the plot of the Evangelion series as: giant alien creatures called Angels invade Earth (individually) and are fought off by giant cyborg creatures piloted by high school kids. Because, of course, there’s so much more than just that going on in there – that would be the Hollywood version. The Angels are these bizarre creatures, looking partly like something drawn by Moebius and partly like some nightmare doll. In Evangelion 2.22, there is now a squad of Evangelions, and the pilot of one is possibly the most irritating American character ever to appear in a film (which is quite an achievement). In fact, the existence of the squad means Evangelion 2.22 is a more action-packed film than Evangelion 1.11: You Are (Not) Alone, although like the first it’s parsimonious with the details of its setting, leaving much of the world-building a mystery. For example, it’s only on a visit to an aquatic research centre that the film explains that the seas really are red, and why. It’s a movie that requires several watchings – although that may simply because I have yet to learn the Way Of Watching Anime. One thing worth noting, however, is Evangelion 2.22‘s frankly bizarre score, which at times sounds like 1970s jazz/rock fusion – and seems weirdly anachronistic but is actually pretty good. Evangelion 3.33: You Can (Not) Redo is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray, and I’ll be picking up a copy. The final film was due for theatrical release in late 2015 but has been delayed. I can wait. [ABC]

thunderThunder on the Hill, Douglas Sirk (1951, USA). My favourite film was directed by Sirk, and the handful of melodramas he made between 1953 and 1959, such as Magnificient Obsession, Written on the Wind and Imitation of Life, I rate very highly. But he also made a lot of quite frankly ordinary thrillers and dramas for Hollywood throughout the 1940s and 1950s. Thunder on the Hill is one of these. Shot in black and white and set in, of all places, Norfolk, it sees a group of people descend on a convent during a fierce storm. One of these is a convicted murderer, with rescort, on her way to prison, except, of course, she’s really innocent. However, the victim’s doctor – the murderer’s brother – is now doctor at the convent. Guess what happens. Claudette Colbert plays the lead and doesn’t make much of an effort toward a British accent; neither, for that matter, does Ann Blyth. Most of the supporting staff are actually British – so you get that odd disconnect where some of the cast clearly can’t be the characters they play because they have the wrong accents. This is pretty ordinary and forgettable stuff, and you’d be much better off watching one of Sirk’s melodramas.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 762


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Moving pictures, #11

Here’s more of those silvery round things with the moving pictures cunningly encoded on them. To date, I’ve watched 520 of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, although many of them I’d seen before I came across the list and decided to make an effort to complete it. (Again, asterisked ones are on the list.)

amourAmour*, Michael Haneke (2012, France) I bought this the moment it was released since I think Haneke is one of the most interesting directors currently making films, but I never actually got around to watching it until recently. I’m not sure why. I think it was perhaps because I’d bounced out of Funny Games the first time I tried to watch it and was afraid I’d do the same with this. I needn’t have worried. A retired couple in Paris, the wife suffers a stroke, and then surgery for a blocked artery goes wrong and leaves her semi-paralysed and confined to a wheelchair, the husband finds it increasingly harder to cope. Haneke doesn’t do cheerful films, but this is a completely cheerless one. Good, but not his best.

Tsotsi*, Gavin Hood (2005, South Africa). The title character is a young hoodlum in Soweto who steals a woman’s car, only to discover her baby in the back. He strips the car but keeps the baby, but soon realises he doesn’t know how to look after it. So he terrorises a young woman he sees at a public water pump into helping him. Meanwhile, the police are hunting for the car thief, and Tsoti’s friends have taken up with the local gangster. No one is really likeable in this film, they’re mostly thugs; but Hood manages to make the title character sympathetic. There’s an especially telling scene where he attacks a disabled ex-miner, but then realises that preying on the weak and helpless is no way to live. Worth seeing.

Stachka*, Sergei Eisenstein (1925, Russia). AKA Strike. This is Eisenstein’s first full-length film, made the same year, but before, Battleship Potemkin. It’s pure propaganda, but I was surprised to see how many modern film techniques, such as jump cuts and montages, that Eisenstein uses. The film depicts a strike in a factory in pre-revolutionary Russia, and its suppression by the capitalist owners and tsarist authorities. It’s pretty brutal in places and, sadly, less than a century later, its premise is not one we can consign to the dustbin of history.

Taza, Son Of Cochise, Douglas Sirk (1954, USA). Sirk made a handful of brilliant films, but he also made a lot of crap ones. This is one of the latter although, to be fair, it was slightly better than I expected – and it is subversive for a western as it’s told entirely from the Native American side and it shows them trying to seek peace with the US. Well, not all of them. The title character, played by Rock Hudson, certainly is, he’s trying to stick to the treaty his father signed, and he even becomes the first officer of the “Indian police”. But one of the other members of the tribe is not so willing to bend over backwards – the Americans have forced the tribe to move onto a reservation, for example – and kicks off a rebellion. The film’s heart may be in the right place, but it’s hard to ignore that so many of the cast are whites playing Native Americans.

zero_theoremThe Zero Theorem, Terry Gilliam (2013, UK). It’s been a while since Gilliam made a film that blew me away – in fact the last few have been pretty lacklustre, and I think his most interesting piece in the last two decades has been a documentary on his failed attempt to make a film about Don Quixote. The Zero Theorem has been called a return to form, a phrase which always make me suspicious. I’ve seen mostly positive reviews of the film, which, unfairly, had led me to expect something as good as his earlier masterpieces. It’s not. The metaphor used for the “entity crunching” doesn’t make much sense and Bainsley feels like the sort of character only a dirty old man would think is necessary. But David Thewlis plays his part well, and Matt Damon’s wardrobe is quite amusing.

The Discreet Charm of Bourgeoisie*, Luis Buñuel (1972, France). This is one of the those films that slowly sucks you into its somewhat off-kilter world. It starts unremarkably enough: two couples turn up to another couple’s house for a planned dinner party, only to discover they’ve got the wrong day and the husband is away that night. So they take the wife to a nearby auberge with a good reputation, but it’s closed. They persuade the maître d to let them – only to learn the proprietor died that day, which is why the restaurant is closed. The film then follows the three couples as they arrange other dinner parties, including one with a contingent of military officers, a party that turns into a play on a stage… and it all becomes increasingly surreal as the film progresses. I had not expected to like this film as much as I did.

Lady For A Day, Frank Capra (1933, USA). Capra later remade this in 1961 as Pocketful Of Miracles, with Bette Davis and Glenn Ford – that was, in fact, Capra’s last feature film. An old woman who sells apples on the street to make ends meet has a daughter she gave away when young and who is now living in Spain. And who now wants her aristocratic Spanish fiancé to meet her mother who, she believes, is well-to-do and lives in a posh hotel. Fortunately, a local gangster considers the old woman is his good luck charm and is happy to help out. So they turn the old woman into the “lady” her daughter believes her to be, rent a big penthouse and organise a big bash… but it doesn’t go quite according to plan. Fortunately, everything works out… The very definition of a feel-good film.

Ponyo, Hiyao Miyazaki (2008, Japan). I find many of the Studio Ghibli films unbearably twee and this one is little different. The title character is a magical fish, who falls in love with a young boy who captures her and so returns to land as a young girl. So it’s basically The Little Mermaid. But Ponyo’s father is not happy, not just with her betrayal but with the humans’ pollution of the ocean. Happily Ponyo’s mother, the Goddess of Mercy, saves the day.

Sansho_Dayu_DVDSansho Dayu*, Kenji Mizoguchi (1954, Japan). Feudal Japan, and a manorial estate managed by the titular character has a slave labour force, among which are the children of a disgraced governor. Once the children reach adulthood, they manage to escape – at least the man does, the woman gives herself up to distract their pursuers. The young man goes looking for his mother, who was sold into slavery elsewhere. En route, he runs into his old mentor, who gives him a letter to prove his identity as he wants to appeal to the Chief Advisor. After proving his bona fides, the young man is made governor of the province containing the manor which Sansho manages. The young man tells Sansho he is outlawing slavery, Sansho retaliates, but the young governor’s soldiers prevail. Slow, but affecting.

Brüno, Larry Charles (2009, USA). If I thought Sacha Baron Cohen playing Borat in redneck country, USA, was stupidly dangerous, then playing Brüno, a camp and very dim fashionista, in Jerusalem is, well, I’m surprised he got out alive. And I certainly hope the interview with the terrorist group leader was faked. Other parts clearly weren’t – especially those where he interviews celebrities after moving to LA. Much like the earlier film, there were some moments of comic genius – the velcro suit was classic; some of the cinema verité parts were scary; and other bits weren’t so good. Although I did think it held together better overall than Borat.

The Lost Weekend*, Billy Wilder (1945, USA). Ray Milland is such an alkie he hangs his bottles of whisky out of the window on a piece of string so his brother doesn’t find them. Or his girlfriend, Jane Wyman, for that matter. Milland claims to be a writer but he’s not written a word. When his brother leaves him alone in the flat for a weekend, he finds the money left to pay the housekeeper, and goes on a binge. I’m completely mystified as to why this is considered a classic, it was pure temperance propaganda, and so overwrought I’m surprised Milland’s liver didn’t spontaneously explode. I don’t think Lowry need have worried about this movie, his novel is hugely superior.

imposterThe Imposter, Bart Layton (2012, UK). In 1994, a thirteen-year-old boy disappeared from a Texas town. Three years later, a teenager in Spain claimed to be that boy, and the family flew him to the US and welcomed him into their home as their missing son – even though this teenager spoke with a French accent, was seven years older than the missing boy, and had brown eyes and dark hair instead of blue eyes and blond hair. It took a suspicious private investigator to realise something was wrong. The teenager turned out to be a con man, who had been impersonating other children for years. A very odd documentary, it’s quite astonishing the family were blind to the differences – although, as a few in the film suggest, they might have been keen to welcome the imposter to hide the fact they murdered the missing boy.

Gion Bayashi, Kenji Mizoguchi (1953, Japan). I hadn’t planned on watching this, as I hadn’t actually put it on my rental list. But it was part of a double set with Sansho Dayu, and I only discovered this when I received the disc and thought, hang on, I don’t remember this one… And, after all that, I enjoyed it more than I did Sansho Dayu. A teenage girl has left her uncle, who was supposed to look after her but instead tried abusing her, and instead up at an okiya and asks the geisha, a friend of her late mother, to take her on as an apprentice. The geisha initially refuses, but then agrees after getting a loan for the cost of tuition from her old tutor. But when the teenager, shortly after graduating from geisha school, fights off a client, it jeopardises an important business deal and she and the geisha are ostracised. Set just after WW2, the Japan depicted is on the cusp of change – the okiya and the geishas are traditional, but most of the men wear Western clothing and are involved in engineering. Really enjoyed this one.

failsafeFail-Safe, Sidney Lumet (1964, USA). This film was adapted from the novel of the same title, which also inspired Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, and was released in the same year as Kubrick’s film. An unidentified plane crosses the DEW line, fighters are sent to intercept – these are the days of SAGE, by the way – and squadrons of “Vindicator” bombers head off to their rendezvous points to await the order to attack the USSR with their nuclear bombs. The UFO proves to be an off-course airliner, but the stand-down message gets garbled when sent to one of the Vindicator squadrons. Which promptly heads for Soviet airspace at supersonic speeds to drop an atom bomb on Moscow. The US president is understandably upset at this, and the USSR premier is understandably sceptical that this is actually a horrible accident. WW3 must be averted. The film was all a bit intense, Walter Matthau’s hawkish political advisor character was annoying, the Vindicator bombers were actually B-58 Hustlers… which meant the interior shots of their cockpits was all wrong… And, well, I can understand why Dr Strangelove was more successful.


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Moving pictures, #8

2014 seems to be turning into the year of films. According to my records, I’d watched more films by the end of June 2014 than I had during all twelve months of 2013. Which is unfortunate, as I’m supposed to be a writer and a book reviewer, not a film critic. Oh well. Normal service will resume… soon, I hope.

johnny_guitarJohnny Guitar, Nicholas Ray (1954, USA) Sterling Hayden plays the title character, a gunslinger who has swapped his revolvers for a guitar. He drifts into town and poles up at a saloon owned by Joan Crawford, who proves to be an ex-lover. But it’s Crawford’s character who’s the focus of this film, not the eponymous musician. She’s banking on a planned railroad making her very rich. The town worthies aren’t happy with this – they think they should profit. So they drum up some citizen outrage on a pretext (the blatantly-wrong accusation that a regular of the saloon had held up the stagecoach), and good old Wild West “justice” subsequently ensues. This is one of those films where the plot is driven by a bunch of people behaving like complete shits for no good reason, particularly the character played by Mercedes McCambridge. An interesting twist on the Western genre, and Crawford plays a good part – but it’s still very Hollywood.

breakingBreaking The Waves, Lars von Trier (1996, Denmark) I think this is only the second film by von Trier I’ve seen – and the first was Melancholia (2011), which looked beautiful but the climax was complete tosh. Like Melancholia, Breaking The Waves centres on a young woman, here played by Emily Watson. She marries a Norwegian oil rig worker, played by Swede Stellan Skarsgård, despite the reservations of her close-knit strictly Calvinist Highlands community. Soon after, Skarsgård is paralysed in an accident on the rig. Confined to a hospital bed, he persuades Watson to have sex with other men and then recount the details to him. Eventually, the village finds out about this… Watson is good, managing to convey a child-like simplicity and devotion to God which pretty much makes the story. The film is split into chapters, each of which opens with a well-known song from the 1970s, the decade in which the film is set… but there was something a little off about them, as if they were played by cover artists trying hard to sound like the original artists. It was slightly weird. Nonetheless, I think I’ll add some more von Trier to the rental list.

hirokinHirokin : The Last Samurai, Alejo Mo-Sun (2012, USA) There was a trailer for this on a rental DVD I watched and it looked sort of interesting. So I checked it out, discovered it was a couple of quid on Amazon and bunged it on the end of an order. I was robbed. It really is truly dreadful. I should have guessed – it’s a sf film and it has Julian Sands in it. Though Sands has appeared in a number of good films, none of them were genre. In fact, his presence in a genre film is a good indication it will be shite. As this one was. The writer/director had obviously seen Dune and decided it needed more Star Wars in it. Sort of. On a desert world conquered by humans and ruled by evil dictator Sands, Wes Bentley plays a rogue human who takes up with one of the indigenous aliens – who look just like humans, except when they hold their hands up and you can see black veins on their palms. Anyway, Sands’ stormtroopers are searching for the aliens’ rebel leader and take Bentley’s partner prisoner. He has to fight to the death for her, but fails (she dies, not him). He sort of joins the rebels, learns how to fight samurai-style in the most ineptly-choreographed fight scenes I’ve ever seen, and then goes off to overthrow Sands. Or something, Watching this film, I could only wonder who’d been daft enough to invest it – people with far too much money… and either an appalling taste in films or a complete inability to recognise shite, obviously.

martycdcoversccfrontMarty, Delbert Mann (1955, USA) Ernest Borgnine plays a butcher who lives with his mother, but he’s getting on a bit and everyone tells him it’s time to get married. And I mean everyone. But he’s not had much luck with the ladies. One night at a local dance hall while on the pull, he bumps into shy schoolteacher Betsy Blair, whose date has dumped her after running into a much prettier friend. The two spend time together, and discover a mutual attraction. But afterwards, his mother tells Borgnine that Blair is not good enough and his friends tell him that Blair isn’t pretty enough. So even though he promised to call her the next day, he doesn’t. But then he changes his mind, and decides he liked her very much so it’s up to him and not his mother or friends. He calls her. (And they all lived happily ever after.) Marty won the Oscar for Best Film in 1955, and it’s a nice enough film, a well-observed drama with a good cast. Interestingly, Blair had been blacklisted for Communist sympathies, but her husband Gene Kelly lobbied for her to get the role, and he had enough clout in Hollywood to swing it.

hulotLes Vacances de M. Hulot, Jacques Tati (1953, France) My first Tati. The title character goes on, er, holiday. To the seaside. It’s sort of like Mr Bean, but the humour is more gentle and Hulot himself is a normal – if clumsy – human being. The plot is a series of set-pieces set in the town Hulot is visiting, most involving the other residents of the hotel in which he is staying. There’s an extended sequence with a horse and another with a shed full of fireworks… In fact, the more I think about the film, the more it strikes me how much of a rip-off of it that Mr Bean was. Although perhaps Mr Bean’s makers would claim it was an homage. Anyway, Tati’s is a good film and definitely worth seeing.

bombersBombers B-52, Gordon Douglas (1957, USA) I bet you can’t guess what this film is about. Go on, try. Yup, it’s about Boeing B-52 Stratofortress jet bombers. They first flew in 1955, and are still bombing the shit out of brown people even today. However, they’re complicated aircraft, and USAF clearly felt they might need more technical ground staff to keep them flying – hence Bombers B-52, starring Karl Malden, Efrem Zimbalist Jr and Natalie Wood. Zimbalist is an officer and a pilot, Malden is a tech sergeant and he hates Zimbalist. So when Zimbalist starts dating Malden’s daughter, Wood, Malden is understandably peeved. He decides to resign from USAF. But they’re getting these hot new B-52 bombers in and Zimbalist, who can’t understand why Malden hates him (neither, to be honest, do we), wants Malden to stay on. They go on a test flight, some fancy new equipment bursts into flames – bit of a design flaw there – and fills the B-52 with smoke. Everyone bales out, except Zimbalist, who’s piloting the aircraft. He brings it in to a safe landing. Meanwhile, rescue helicopters have found all of the crew except Malden. So Zimbalist steals a chopper and goes looking for him. And finds him. The two have to survive overnight in the wilds of California and become best buddies, and so Zimbalist is free to marry Wood. The end. There’s some good aerial photography in the film, though.

madamedeMadame De…, Max Ophüls (1953, France) This is around the third or fourth film by Ophüls I’ve seen and, I think, the best of them. The title character, whose surname is never given, is the wife of a French general and has a busy social calendar. To fund her activities, she sells a pair of diamond earrings given to her by her husband. She pretends to have lost them, but the jeweller to whom she sold them tells the general and he buys them back… and gives them to his mistress. But the mistress then sells them to pay off some debts, and they’re bought by an Italian count, played by director Vittorio De Sica, who then meets Madame de…, enters into a relationship with her, and gives her the earrings as a token of his love… The film is set, I think, around the turn of last century, and it’s the focus on appearances which drives the plot – and leads to its resolution. Apparently, Ophüls originally planned to shoot the entire film through reflective surfaces, such as mirrors, which would have been cool but the producers nixed the idea – which is not to say the end result is a disappointment. I’ve yet to fully appreciate Ophül’s films (unlike those of other directors mentioned in this blog post), but Madame De… is the first of his films I’ve watched which persuades me it’s worth seeing more of his movies.

PIONEER_DVDPioneer, Erik Skjordbærg (2013, Norway) I’d been keen to see this film since first learning of it last year. But it had a stupidly limited release in the UK – my nearest showing was 8 pm on a single Friday night in Leeds, an hour away by train. The film is set in the early 1980s in Norway, just as the country is starting to develop its oil and gas resources. The Norwegians have accepted US help in putting together the saturation systems needed for divers to work at depth. But something goes wrong on a test dive, a Norwegian diver dies, and his brother, also a diver and present when the accident occurred, tries to figure out what’s going on… I was really looking forward to this movie since saturation diving is not a topic often covered in films. And the underwater photography in Pioneer is actually quite stunning… But the rest of the film felt like a routine thriller – Bentley glowers menacingly, Aksel Hennie bounces from mysterious scientist to mendacious politician to grieving sister-in-law… While the film certainly has that stark realism the Scandinavians do so well – and Hollywood does so badly – the plot does seem disappointingly ordinary. On the other hand, as far as I could tell its subject was handled accurately.

palmbeachThe Palm Beach Story, Preston Sturges (1942, USA) This has to be one of the silliest films I’ve ever seen. It definitely puts the “screwball” in “screwball comedy”. The film opens with a quick montage of shots which shows a man and a woman overpowering their twin brother and sister, who are about to get married, and taking their places at the wedding. Some time later, life isn’t so rosy, so hubby Joel McCrea decides to head south to look for work and be less of a burden on wife Claudette Colbert. She goes looking for him and manages to wangle a free ride on a train with a bunch of drunken hunting lodge-members… before being rescued by eccentric millionaire Rudy Vallée, who is very taken with her. McCrea then turns up, so Colbert pretends he is her brother… prompting Vallée to propose to Colbert – and Vallée’s ex-wife Mary Astor to propose to McCrea… Happily, there are those twins from the opening montage. While there’s plenty of fast-paced wit and snappy one-liners in The Palm Beach Story, the story is so ridiculous it spoils it all.

gertrud-dvdGertrud, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1964, Denmark) This was a rewatch – I’d originally seen the film on rental DVD, but was later bought a copy of it and Ordet for my birthday. The film is based on a play from 1906 and Dreyer gives it a very theatrical staging. It’s his last movie, and on the strength of it I’m keen to see more. Nina Pens Rode, in the title role, is the wife of a prominent lawyer who is about to be given a position in government. But she wants a divorce – she even has a lover, composer and pianist Baard Owe. But the pianist has made another women pregnant and so cannot go with Gertrud. There’s a luminous quality to this film, one that’s emphasised by its staginess. Rode is especially good in the title role, dominating every scene she’s in with a quiet strength… as is clearly evident in the coda in which Gertrud looks back on the events of the film from thirty years later and sees no cause to regret her actions all those years earlier. A film that’s just bubbling under my top ten movies.

cap_americaCaptain America: The Winter Soldier, Anthony & Joe Russo (2014, USA) I’ve no idea why I continue to watch MCU movies, perhaps it’s just foolishness – I see the hype and promotion and stupidly believe it. Or something. To be fair, I did quite enjoy Captain America: The First Avenger, with its weird Nazi science and silly spoof of the title character. But this sequel is set in the present day, and despite the massive hype and the many positive murmurings I’ve heard, is just complete bobbins. It turns out that SHIELD has been controlled by Hydra, the Red Skull’s organisation from the first film, ever since Operation Paper Clip shortly after WWII. And no one ever noticed. In fact, the only reason Cap discovers this is because SHIELD tries to kill him. Even Nick Fury doesn’t know – and he created SHIELD! The Red Skull, of course, died at the end of the first film, but his chief scientist, played by Toby Jones, survived, and he’s now the brains behind Hydra. Well, not “brains”, as he’s uploaded himself into a load of 1960s mainframe computers. Which are located in a seemingly-abandoned underground computer centre at an old SHIELD base, an underground computer-centre that appears to have no security. Not very clever that. The rest of the film is some nonsense about an unkillable assassin, there’s more explosions and fight scenes than you can shake a very large stick at, and as the movie progresses you can actually feel your brain cells dying off one by one.

allthatheavenAll That Heaven Allows, Douglas Sirk (1955, USA) My high opinion of this film is no secret. I love it so much, in fact, I bought the Criterion blu-ray edition, despite already owning it on DVD. So I was bit fucked off to discover that the blu-ray is region-locked. And unlocking my blu-ray player is going to involve some faffing around with firmware or something. Argh. So I watched the DVD edition packaged with the blu-ray instead. And… it really is a beautiful film. The more I watch it, the more I love it. It’s not just that it looks so good, but also that it’s a pitch-perfect satire of middle-class American society. The grown-up kids, who behave like actual kids, are spot-on – although the daughter’s beau, played by David Janssen, seems somewhat out of his depth – and the part where they buy their mother Jane Wyman a television set, as if that’s all she needs now she’s a widow, is pure genius. I’ve watched All That Heaven Allows two or three times in recent months – partly for research for Apollo Quartet 4, of course – and my appreciation remains undimmed. Even the hokey bits – the deer! – don’t turn me off. I love the film so much, I even tracked down a copy of the novel it’s based on – and it wasn’t easy to find.