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Moving pictures 2018, #33

Some long sought-after films here, and some random stuff that happened to catch my eye at the time. So to speak.

The Brain that Wouldn’t Die, Joseph Green (1962, USA). One of my favourite actresses of the 1950s is Virginia Leith, who made only a handful of films, and The Brain That Wouldn’t Die is her last. She plays the fiancée of an arrogant surgeon who thinks he knows better than the entire medical profession. Of course. But then he’s in car crash and his girlfriend is killed, except he saves her head and keeps it alive in his lab at home. But she’s no good to him as a disembodied head, so he goes hunting for a suitable body for her, visiting a nightclub, and then an artist’s model. It’s not like the first time he’s done this, as there’s a monster he created behind a locked door in his laboratory, and his assistant lost an arm and he performed and arm transplant on him. Leith’s character, however, would sooner die, so she persuades the monster to attack her husband. Despite the schlock plot, and the B-movie sensibilities, this wasn’t as bad as I had expected. In fact, it reminded me of Sam Fuller’s films, it had that same sort of underbelly of society feel to it, although the scenes set in the lab with Leith’s head were an odd contrast. A superior B-movie.

Dykket, Tristan DeVere Cole (1989, Norway). One of my “enthusiasms” over the past few years has been deep sea diving, particularly deep sea habitats and saturation diving. But there aren’t that many films based around saturation diving, and the few that do use it in passing – Sphere, I’m looking at you – tend to get it laughably wrong. But Dykket, AKA The Dive, a Norwegian/British production, is actually about divers on a saturation dive. After four months at sea, a diving support ship with three divers aboard – one of whom is Michael Kitchen! – is due to return to port for a refit. But one of Scanoil’s (a stand-in for Norway’s Statoil) sea-bed valves nearby has been turned off by a trawler’s net. The divers are due to return by helicopter to dry land, but since it’s a “bounce dive”, ie, they won’t spend long enough on the sea-bottom at 100 metres (that’s 300 feet, approx, or 10 atmospheres) to require decompression, they decide to give it a try. Of course, it all goes horribly wrong. First, one of the divers is caught in the trawler net, then the bell gets tangled up. So they’re trapped, the ship is running out of gas, and the bell’s reserves have all but gone… The version of this I watched was unfortunately lacking subtitles, and about a third of the dialogue is in Norwegian. But I knew enough about saturation diving to follow what was going on. The underwater scenes are done well, although the incidental music throughout felt more like it belonged to a Euro soap opera than a feature film. But it wasn’t bad. I’m surprised it’s never been release on DVD, not even even in this country – given it stars Michael Kitchen.

Europa ‘51*, Roberto Rossellini (1952, Italy). Ingrid Bergman plays the wife of a wealthy man in post-war Italy. One night, during a dinner party, her young son, desperate for attention, tries to commit suicide by jumping down the apartment building’s stairwell. He ends up paralysed from the waist down. Unfortunately, he dies in hospital a few days later. Stricken by grief, Bergman gets involved with poor people, and helps them out, even taking one woman’s place in a factory for a day. But her husband objects to her activities, and has her consigned to a mental hospital, because when men don’t get what they want from their women they lock them up. The film was apparently inspired by the life of St Francis of Assisi, and Bergman certainly plays her role like a martyr. It’s an odd film, because it’s usually described as Neorealist, and for the first thirty or so minutes it doesn’t at all seem like one. But then Bergman does her ministering angel among the poor bit, many of whom are plainly non-professional actors, and it very much resembles an Italian Neorealist movie. Of the directors associated with the movement, I’ve never really been a big fan of Rossellini’s films, and there’s nothing here to persuade me otherwise, despite it being on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

Sitcom, François Ozon (2000, France). Ozon’s films are readily available in the UK on DVD. Except this one. For some reason. There’s nothing in it I could see which would prohibit a sell-through release in the UK. And certainly nothing in it that is so unlike the rest of Ozon’s oeuvre it would preclude a release on that basis. The film concerns a family whose behaviour changes after the father brings home a lab rat as a pet. First, the son announces he is gay and completely changes his lifestyle. Then the daughter throws herself out of a window, is paralysed below the waist, and then begins exploring sado-masochism. The Spanish maid begins to act more like a member of the family than a paid servant, and her black husband, a sports teacher, starts sleeping with the gay son. The mother has sex with her son in order to “cure” him of his homosexuality. And the father eats the pet rat and turns into a giant rat. And, er, that’s it. I think the film is supposed to comment on the hermetic families which feature in US sitcoms, not to mention the anodyne humour and narrow-minded sensibilities. Unfortunately, the end result that comes across more like an exercise in trying to shock than any type of pointed commentary. And much of it is too silly to be taken seriously, anyway. I find Ozon a bit hit-and-miss, to be honest – I love some of his films, but others have struggled to keep my interest. This one falls in the latter camp.

The Shamer’s Daughter, Kenneth Krainz (2015, Denmark). The king of Dunark, his wife, youngest son and unborn child are found murdered. His oldest son, Nicodemus, is found drunk and covered in blood nearby. So the Master of Law calls in a shamer, a type of witch who can see everything of which a person is ashamed, but she can’t “see” evidence of Nicodemus’s, guilt. So they fetch her young daughter… who discovers that the son is innocent and his half-brother, Drakan, is the real culprit. So then Drakan seizes power, by throwing the Master of Law down a well – and no one thinks, well, if this is how he starts out, he’s not going to be a good ruler, is he? Of course not, this is fantasy. But the shamer’s daughter, and Nicodemus, manage to escape. The daughter is quickly caught, despite disguising herself as a boy. Because fantasy is all about the girls being rescued by the boys. Sigh. However, the Master of Arms begins to understand that Drakan is a bad sort, so he helps puts together a plot with Nicodemus to rescue the daughter and their mother as they’re thrown to the dragons. (despite being Danish, this film features mountains… and dragons.) The shamer’s daughter cannot get Drakan to admit his guilt – he’s not ashamed of murdering the king and his family – so she turns her gaze on the crowd, and gets them all to realise Drakan is a baddy. In the ensuing confusion, the good guys escape. Interestingly, though Nicodemus has Drakan under his sword at one point, and could end it all with one thrust, he chooses not to, and they all run away. To a nicer place, where the shamer and her daughter are reunited with the rest of their family. The world-building wasn’t bad, and the concept of shaming was a pretty good idea, but… Drakan was a pantomime villain, and it beggared belief that everyone would happily go along with his evil plans… and the title character had virtually no agency despite being the star of the story. Disappointing.

Blindfold, Philip Dunne (1966, USA). I could watch Rock Hudson in pretty much anything, but he pushes your level of tolerance sometimes. He made some outright weird stuff, and some stuff that seemed odd at the time but later turned into a classic, and some some thrillers that might have passed muster back then but really haven’t aged well. Like this one. Hudson’s performances are always watchable, and I now find him far better than Cary Grant, who seem to go from galumph to tea-bag tanned louche overnight in the mid-1950s. Hudson plays a psychiatrist who is recruited by the military to analyse a Soviet defector who refuses  to talk. He is blindfolded and taken from New York to a house in the Louisiana swamps. Then someone else turns up and convinces him the general who recruited him is a fake, and he needs to rescue the defector. But Hudson has no idea where they’re keeping the defector because blindfold. It all gets a bit confusing, and ends up with Hudson on the run, with the female lead, Claudia Cardinale, a nightclub dancer, of course, and the sister of the defector… They’re chased through the Louisiana swamps at night, and even though it’s done in a studio, it’s quite effective. But this is a pretty ordinary mid-sixties thriller, and not even its stars can do much with the material. Disappointing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 916

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Moving pictures, #57

Managed to tick a few off the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list this time.

down_by_lawDown by Law*, Jim Jarmusch (1986, USA). I don’t get Jarmusch. I don’t get why his films are so highly regarded. A bit like Hartley, then. Both are US independent directors with substantial careers, and I have no idea why anything they’ve made appears on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Having said that, I can see why Down by Law might appeal to some. It stars Tom Waits, John Lurie and Roberto Benigni as three hapless convicts, all of whom have been imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit. They manage to escape, andmake their way through a swamp, before stumbling across an isolated diner run by a young Italian woman. The film runs on the dynamics between the three leads, and it is, I admit, well-handled. The black-and-white photography also looks pretty good, and the soundtrack isn’t bad either. But the story is just a bit, well, tired. Three semi-lowlifes thrown together into a cell (well, Lurie’s character is a pimp, but the other two are a disc jockey and a tourist), and the rest of the story rests on the setting, New Orleans. It’s entertaining enough, but I’m not convinced it belongs on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

red_sorghumRed Sorghum*, Zhang Yimou (1987, China). Jiu’er is given in marriage to a much older, and leprous, man who owns a sorghum farm and distillery. During the trip to the distillery a bandit attacks the wedding party, but is fought off by one of the sedan chair carriers. Later, on a visit to her parents, the man who killed the bandit abducts and rapes Jiu’er. On her arrival at the distillery, she discovers her husband has died under mysterious circumstances. She takes over the failing business and tries to make a go of it. But when her rapist re-appears, tries to claim her but is rebuffed, he responds by peeing in the jars of liquor. It turns out this actually improves the taste of the liquor, and the business flourishes. I’m not making this up. Years later, after Jiu’er has given birth to a son, the Japanese invade China, and eventually arrive in the region. They take the distillery workers prisoner, and force one of them to flay another alive. When he kills the prisoner instead, they get another distillery worker to skin him. The workers then set an ambush for the Japanese soldiers but it goes wrong. The story is narrated by Jiu’er’s grandson, who frames it as the history of his grandmother. I’m not sure the narration adds anything to the film, because it works pretty well without it. It’s beautifully shot, and looks absolutely gorgeous – something the West seemed to discover big time about Chinese historical and wu xia films after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Red Sorghum won a shedload of awards at film festivals around the world, although that year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film featured entries from Denmark, France, Spain, Italy and Norway – and was won by Denmark’s Babette’s Feast, which is, admittedly, excellent. In fact, a Chinese film wasn’t nominated until 1990, and that was also by Zhang Yimou. But, anyway, Red Sorghum, a good film, and it definitely belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

the_deadThe Dead*, John Huston (1987, UK). I couldn’t find a copy of this to rent anywhere, nor were there any for sale on Amazon. So I ended up buying one on eBay (admittedly for much cheapness), but I now see a seller on Amazon has apparently found a load somewhere… although, to be honest, I wasn’t all that taken with it. Huston was eighty when he directed this film, mostly from a wheelchair, and was on oxygen for much of the time. Certainly, The Dead is not your usual Huston film, although his age at the time is completely irrelevant. The Dead is based on a short story by James Joyce, and while I’ve not read the source text, the film at least possesses the virtues of beginning, middle and end. But, for all that, I wasn’t especially taken with it. It is set in Dublin in 1904 at a party on the Feast of the Epiphany hosted by three unmarried sisters. The great and good of their social circle turn up, eat, drink, dance, listen to recitals and genereally do the sort of things people did at posh parties in Ireland at that time. The story apparently focuses on the memories of Anjelica Huston’s character of an ex-lover, when quizzed by her husband on her sombre mood, but the film seems mostly interested in exploring the social dynamics of the people at the party. There’s no doubt it’s a well-made film, and there’s an economy of technique which evidences a long and illustrious career in cinema… but it’s a film that, for me, seems to mostly appeal to those who like the type of film it is – whether that’s drawing-room dramas or Jocycean adaptations. Not for me, I’m afraid.

sergeant_yorkSergeant York*, Howard Hawks (1941, USA). The only copy of this I’d found was on Amazon Prime, but it wasn’t one of its free movies. I had to pay £3.49 to see it – for a “48 hour rental” – which was a bit steep, I thought. I have since learnt that new Hollywood blockbusters cost up to £9.99 to view by streaming. Oof. I get 12 rental DVDs a month for that. Anyway, Sergeant York is based on a true story. A Tennessee hillbilly volunteers to fight in WWI (not the 1917-1918 War, which is a really insulting way of referring to it), and becomes a war hero when he captures 132 Germans. I have a lot of time for the Silver Fox, he made some great films. But this is not one of them – despite being the only one for which Hawks was ever nominated for the best director Oscar. Gary Cooper is too old for the title role, and the scenes set on the Front clearly show Californian hills in the background. But. The scenes set in Tennesse are all studio sets, and they’re really fake and strange and quite weirdly beautiful. It’s all deeply unconvincing – but where that works against the film in the scenes set during WWI, it actually improves the scenes set in the valleys of Tennessee. There’s one particular scene where Cooper is trying to plough a patch of stony ground when the preacher appears and lectures him, pointing to a distant tree in illustration of the point he is making. And it’s like Hawks used tilt-shift on a bonsai tree, it looks so strange and unwordly and quite peculiarly lovely. Sadly, the story is hampered by an over-reliance on sterotypes, Cooper’s miscasting in the title role, and a failure to convince in either of the two chief worlds it presents. It was entertaining, and I’m really taken by some of the cinematography, but, to be honest, Hawks made better films, and the success of this one when it was released feels mostly a consequence of pro-war propaganda.

chrysanthemumsThe Story of the Last Chrysanthemums*, Kenji Mizoguchi (1939, Japan). Mizoguchi is one of the big Japanese film names, like Ozu and Kurosawa, and while I’ve seen some of his films I’ve never really managed to work out what makes him distinctive. Admittedly, I’ve never really cottoned to Japanese historical films, and though I now find them more enjoyable than I once did, I’ve yet to figure out why, say, I enjoyed Floating Weeds (Ozu) but not Sansho Dayu (Mizoguchi). Of the four films I’ve now seen by Mizoguchi – and I suspect at some point I’ll watch more, whether or not they’re on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – the one I liked best was Gion Bayashi, which I didn’t actually rent but came with Sansho Dayu as part of a double-DVD set. But The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums… The copy I saw, the Artificial Eye edition, was not an especially good transfer – no doubt due to the lack of a good print to transfer. The story concerns a man, the son of a famous Kabuki actor, who fails to meet his father’s expectations. After becoming involved with a wet nurse at his father’s house, the nurse is dismissed and the son leaves to make his own fortune elesewhere. The son tracks down the wet nurse, and the two live as husband and wife. But times are hard, and he turns nasty. Throughout, the son is presented with a stark choice several times: his wife or his career. When he chooses his wife, he turns bitter; when he chooses his career, his wife dies. It’s hardly a subtle dilemma, and though Mizoguchi wraps it all up in the traditions of Kabuki in the 1930s, this is not a film that treats its characters nicely or seeks to convince the viewer that people are intrinsically nice. It was interesting enough, although I’m doubtful as to the reason for its presence on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list; but then I much prefer Ozu.

criminal_loversCriminal Lovers, François Ozon (1999, France). I don’t think there’s another director whose films are, for me, so widely variable in quality. Some of Ozon’s movies are bona fide classics, some are totally forgettable; but most are somewhere in between. Having thought about it, while considering what to write about Criminal Lovers, I’ve come to the conclusion that Ozon is most interesting when he’s not trying not be someone else. And in Criminal Lovers, I think, he was trying to be Lars von Trier. A young woman and a young man at a Lycée murder another pupil (an Arab), after the woman claims to her boyfriend she had been raped. They go on a crime spree, before eventually finding a wood some distance from their town in which to bury their victim’s body. But they get lost in the woods while returning to their car after burying the body, and stumble across the home of a poacher. He takes them prisoner, uses the young man for sex, and threatens to eat the pair of them. This is not a cheerful movie. If it fails, it’s because the villain never seems really menacing enough, the two leads never quite charismatic enough, and the cinematography nowhere near  as lovely as that of von Trier’s Antichrist. It feels, in other words, like a second-string work from a director who has produced much better. To be fair, it’s an early work, and so I suppose it’s unfair to compare it with later films, but even so comparisons are inevitable. One for Ozon fans, I suspect.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 817


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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, #28

I was under the impression I’d knocked a few more off the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list recently, but apparently not. Two of the directors in this post I’m a fan of, and one of them I’m becoming a fan of…

i_want_to_liveI Want to Live!, Robert Wise (1958, USA). Not only was this film based on a real-life murder case, but the movie makes a right meal of its origin, opening with a screen of text that insists how true it is – it’s even signed by the journalist who broke the story in the first place. So it’s a little off-putting to then learn that the story takes some major liberties with the truth. Like presenting the central character as innocent when she was actually guilty. Bah, Hollywood. The story goes as follows: Barbara Graham is a habitual criminal, whose marriage to a drug addict proves the last straw… so she leaves him and joins up with his associates, only to be arrested for the murder they had committed of a rich old woman, Graham is sentenced to death and then executed. The film presents Graham as a pawn in the actual murderers’ plot to commute their death sentences to life. But in reality, she was just as guilty. Susan Hayward plays Graham in an Osar-winning turn, but when all’s said and done I Want to Live! is a boringly ordinary moral drama. Samuel Fuller did it much better in both Shock Corridor (see here) and The Naked Kiss (see here), on a lower budget and without an Oscar-bait star. Meh.

sunset_songSunset Song, Terence Davies (2015, UK). I stumbled across this on Amazon Prime, and having been impressed by Davies’s Distant Voices, Still Lives (although I thought the film much older than it was), I decided to give this one a go. It took several goes. It is grim. Majorly grim. Scottish grim. Beautifully shot, but as grim as the grimmest thing in a list of grim things. It looks beautiful – far too beautiful for Scotland, it seems, as part of it was shot in New Zealand. It’s based on a classic Scottish novel by Lewis Gibbon of the same title, and tells the story of a young woman, and farmer’s daughter, in the years up to and including the First World War. Peter Mullan plays family patriarch, and he’s a nasty piece of work. I’m tempted to say it’s like DH Lawrence but with the boinking taken out, but that’s the not the only thing missing. Lawrence was hardly an optimist but his novels are generally more cheerful than Sunset Song. When it wasn’t people growling at each other in Scottish accents, they were either shouting or wailing. It made for a gruelling viewing experience. I think this is a good film, and really quite beautifully shot at times, but its unremitting grimness made it difficult viewing, and some times your appetite for punishment is not quite as high as at other times. You need to be in the right mood to watch this. Recommended, but with caveats.

kagaazKagaaz Ke Phool, Guru Dutt (1959, India). Exploring Bollywood films has been fun, but most of those I’ve seen have been pretty forgettable. A good night’s entertainment, but basically just a Hollywood family blockbuster turned up to eleven. With singing and dancing. So Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa came as something of a surprise… although now I’ve seen him described as “India’s Orson Welles”, his films begin to make more sense. They are clever and well-shot, and make excellent use of Bollywood conventions to tell a story that doesn’t really map onto Bollywood story templates. And this is just as true of Kagaaz Ke Phool, Dutt’s last film. Annoyingly, there don’t seem to be any good transfers of his films – you’d think he’d be a director ripe for a set of remastered editions by Criterion or the BFI (for one thing, he only directed eight films, between 1951 and 1959). Given the lovely job the BFI has done for Dreyer, I’d like to see them do the same for Dutt. And I say that having seen only two of his films. In Kagaaz Ke Phool, Dutt plays a Bollywood director whose career is declining. His wife and her family have always seen his career as beneath them, and he now has no access to his daughter. While secretly visiting his daughter at her boarding school, Dutt bumps into a young woman and gives her his coat to protect her from the rain. Later, she visits his studio to return the coat and he realises she has star quality. She becomes a big Bollywood star, and romantically attached to Dutt; but the daughter would sooner her mother and father got back together again, so the star gives up her career and becomes a teacher in a village. This is well-made stuff, and while it feels somewhat back-handed, and not a little insulting, to describe Dutt as “India’s Orson Welles”, it is a label that fits. After watching Pyaasa, I decided to buy this – and despite being disappointed at the quality of the transfer, I think I’ll be buying more of Dutt’s film. But can the BFI please step up and remaster them all, please?

going_my_wayGoing My Way, Leo McCarey (1944, USA). This was the biggest grossing film of its year, and was nominated for ten Oscars, winning seven of them, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor. And yet it’s not on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list. Strange. Or, at least, I thought so… But now that I’ve seen it… It’s, well, it’s sentimental tosh. Bing Crosby plays a young priest sent to the New York parish of St Dominic’s to get it sorted out. The incumbent is old, the church is mortgaged, and both need fresh new management. Which is what Bing does. And he sings too. He turns the local boys’ gang into a choir, sorts out a young woman who has left home, and generally spreads common sense and happiness with his trademark smile and “ba ba ba bum”. He also tries to raise money for the church by selling one of the songs he’s written – performed by an old friend who is now an opera diva. The music publisher doesn’t like the song, but when Bing and choir start singing ‘Swing on a Star’, he likes that one. There’s a relentless cheeriness to Going My Way that fails to offset the schamltzy plot and awful songs. I can perhaps see how in wartime it proved so popular, but its charm has long since dissipated. True, Oscar-winner Barry Fitzgerald isn’t bad as old Father Fitzgibbon, even if his character is a total stereotype. I’ve no idea why I stuck this on my rental list. Meh.

bossThe Boss of It All, Lars von Trier (2006, Denmark). There’s nothing especially original about the plot of this film – it is, I guess, a variation on La cage aux folles. Or maybe something else. A man wants to sell his successful IT firm, but for the ten years it’s been in operation he’s pretended he’s not the actual boss. So he hires a friend actor to play “the boss of it all” in negotiations with the Icelandic buyers of the company. And, subsequently, with the employees. Of course, it gets very complicated, very quickly. It doesn’t help that the actor is a bit of a twit, and completely out of his depth. But von Trier does an excellent job of characterising his cast – in fact, in many respects The Boss of It All is a masterclass in small-cast drama. But that’s not good enough for von Trier, so he decides to present the movie explicitly as a piece of cinematic comedy, by introducing it in voice-over, explaining its aims, and even some of its story elements. The end-result is a post-modern cinematic approach to a post-modern story. I wasn’t entirely sure I was going to like it – but like most von Trier films, it ends up making you wonder: is this rubbish… or genius? And the fact he can elicit that response makes me tend toward the latter. Von Trier is experimenting with the medium, and that should be celebrated. If not every experiment is successful, that doesn’t invalidate the attempt… And it still makes him a damn sight more interesting a director than most of the other directors on this planet.

in_the_houseIn the House, François Ozon (2012, France). The near-sociopathic inveigling of a person into another family in this film reminds me of another movie, but I’ve yet to figure out which. Probably because the details are different enough to make comparison difficult. Anyway, I like Ozon’s films – well, I’ve not liked or admired every film he’s made, but I admire him as a director and he’s built up an inpressive oeuvre. In the House is one of the better ones, if not an especially characteristically Ozon film – this is not 8 femmes or Angel or Ricky; but perhaps it’s not so far from 5 x 2 or Jeune et jolie. Perhaps that variety is as much an Ozon trademark as the sensibility which created 8 femmes, Potiche or Le refuge… Whatever; Ozon is certainly one of my favourite directors, so I’m always keen to see his latest. In the House is one of his domestic thrillers, played straight, but with that unsettling edge he does so well. A pupil at a school writes an essay about his weekend for an assignment, and in it describes how he befriended a fellow pupil, went to his house to tutor him in maths, and so ingratiated himself in to the family. The essay ends “à suivre”. The teacher is a failed writer (one novel twenty years ago, nothing since), and encourages the pupil to continue his “story”… And so the pupil becomes more and more involved with the family… until it all goes horribly wrong. A good and unsettling film, with some good performances. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 773


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Moving pictures 2016, #3

Continuing the, er, continuing series of blog posts on my movie-watching. Once againm a nother varied selection, not all of which were from the list.

texas_chainsawThe Texas Chainsaw Massacre*, Tobe Hooper (1974, USA). Not a film I’d normally choose to watch, but it was on the list so… And no, I don’t know why it made the list. I don’t know enough about horror films to know if The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was seminal or heralded a sea change in the genre or anything like that. I can only judge it as the movie I watched. And in that respect, it did not fare well. It looked cheap – not necessarily a bad thing, it has to be said, as cheap and amateurish is what drove the whole found-footage craze of the late nineties, and, in most cases, it actually worked quite well (more so, it must be said, for the earlier films, such as The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, than for Hollywood’s jumps on the bandwagon like Cloverfield). But, anyway. Young hippies travelling across the US run into a bunch of psychotic freaks living in a farmhouse, murderous mayhem ensues. Involving chainsaws. Not being a fan of the genre, I saw nothing to admire or like in this film. I suspect fans of the genre would be hard-pressed too – other than perhaps its position in the history of horror films. Still, at least I can say I’ve now seen it and so can cross it off the list.

lesgirlsLes Girls, George Cukor (1957, USA). Three dancers accompany Gene Kelly (well, his character) on a tour of Europe: a Brit, an American and a French woman. The Brit later marries a member of the aristocracy and writes a kiss-and-tell memoir of the tour. The other two sue her because some of the details are less than accurate. So what we get is the same story, more or less, told from the point of view of the characters played by Kay Kendall, Mitzi Gaynor and Taina Elg, none of which actually agree. This film is, by most accounts, minor Cukor, although it boasts a score by Cole Porter and choreography by Jack Cole. This is a shame. The slightly unusual structure actually adds interest to a relatively straightforward story. The leads are all on top form – especially Kendall – and the musical numbers are quite good, as are the costumes. I’m surprised this film is not better known – I certainly enjoyed it more than, say, Guys and Dolls, which appeared only two years earlier.

wooden_clogsThe Tree Of Wooden Clogs*, Ermanno Olmi (1978, Italy). If I had to choose a list of favourite film genres – although perhaps “movements” would be a better word – then Italian Neorealism would be somewhere in the top ten, and likely higher than France’s Nouvelle Vague. But this is a film that really strains my liking for that genre. It is, on paper, a movie that should appeal – the life of a peasant family in 1898 in the province of Bergamo, a communist tries to drum up support but is ignored, a young couple are married, and a family is booted from their tenancy by their landlord. Life was brutish and short, although not for those who lived off the labour of the peasantry – a situation the current political class seem determined to return to – and this film simply documents it in a way which cannot fail to garner the viewers’ sympathy. Despite all that, The Tree Of Wooden Clogs was a bit of a, er, slog. It wasn’t that it was slow-paced, as I quite like “slow cinema”, nor that it was unremittingly bleak – I seem to be more tuned to that than I am to mindless optimism, anyway – but that the film seemed to lack focus or movement. I’ll try some more Olmi, but this is supposed to be his masterpiece.

finziThe Garden of the Finzi-Continis*, Vittorio de Sica (1970, Italy). And speaking of Italian Neorealism, de Sica was a leading director in the movement but The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is not a movie that qualifies as one (and no, I don’t know why the Arrow DVD cover singularises the family and removes their hyphen). It’s based on a novel by Giorgio Bassani, about a wealthy Jewish family who become victims of the Nazis. It opens in the 1930s, with a group of bright young things, some Jewish, some not, who meet in the titular locale to play tennis and be idle rich (although not all are rich). The film follows Giorgio, a middle-class Jew, who is friends – but hopes to be closer – with the Finzi-Contini daughter. But she has an affair with a man she admits she despises, and then leaves to stay with relatives in Venice. When she eventually returns, most of the Jews of the town have been sent to the death camps by the Nazis. Only the fate of the Gentile characters is shown. While it would be unfair to say the upper classes routinely collaborated with the Nazis, many of them did just that, partly because they shared their views but also as a means of protecting themselves (as if they deserved it…). Not that it was always successful. As The Garden of the Finzi-Continis shows. I much preferred this film to The Tree Of Wooden Clogs, for all that it was an historical drama set during a period for whch the entire human race should be ashamed, and not Italian Neorealism.

new_girlfriendThe New Girlfriend, François Ozon (2014, France). I admire Ozon as a director, although I’ve not liked or admired every film he has made. Nonetheless, when a new one is released, I stick it on the rental list. Although, for some reason, I actually bought this one on DVD. I hadn’t realised it was an adaptation of a Ruth Rendell short story of the same title, which I read many years ago in a  collection, also of the same title. But once I’d spotted that, I also realised that Ozon’s script doesn’t follow Rendell’s story all that faithfully. The basic premise is the same – a woman enters into a relationship with a man who is a transvestite. But from what I remember, the original story ends badly, whereas the film gives us a relatively happy ending. In pretty much all other respects, this is a typical Ozon film – it’s colourful, although not quite saturated, the characters are handled sensitively, and there is a plenty of wit in the script. I can’t say it’s my favourite Ozon, but it’s definitely one of his better ones.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 709


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Moving pictures, #13

I was looking at my film-watching records – yes, I have a spreadsheet of which films I’ve watched, and when – and I noticed in 2013 I watched on average around 16 DVDs a month. Last year, that almost doubled to 30 DVDs a month. This year, I expect it will be much higher. I have yet to figure out why…

darlingDarling, John Schlesinger (1965, UK). Julie Christie plays a model in Swinging Sixties London, with a nice but dim husband at home, who has various affairs before eventually marrying an Italian count who proves mostly uninterested in her once they’ve tied the knot. The parallels with Grace Kelly’s life are left there for the the viewer to spot. Dirk Bogarde plays Christie’s manager, and he also has an affair with her. Mostly, however, the film is an acid commentary on the more affluent sectors of London society – an expensive dinner to raise money for famine victims, for example; and, oh look, things like that still happen, it’s as if the notion is irony-free, although of course Darling deliberately plays on it. The film starts a little slow, but Christie is good in her role, and things start to pick up as the career of Christie’s character does. A hippie party in Paris is quite amusing, if a little broad in its humour. I stuck the film on my rental list on a whim, and it proved to be a good call.

demoisellesLes Demoiselles de Rochefort*, Jacques Demy (1967, France). Demy’s The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg is a much better-known, and better-regarded, film than this but, to be honest, I enjoyed this one much more. The title to refers to a pair of sisters, played by real-life sisters Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac, who are looking for love in the eponymous town. A fair comes to Rochefort, one of the exhibitors at which is led by George Chakiris and Grover Dale. When their female stars abscond, they recruit Deneuve and Dorléac. Meanwhile, the sisters’ mother runs a café in the town square and pines for a lost love… who has actually returned to the town after many years and is helping Dorléac with her music (and also promises to introduce her to a famous friend of his, played by Gene Kelly). And then there’s the sailor who’s about to be demobbed, who’s friends with the sisters and their mother. Unlike The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, the dialogue is not entirely sung – which may be one reason I much preferred this film – but they do break into song pretty much every five minutes. And then there are the big dance numbers. It’s a musical, but it doesn’t really feel like one. Which may be one reason for its charm. After watching this film, yes, I’d like to see more Demy. Again.

deepseaJames Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge, John Bruno, Ray Quint & Andrew Wight (2014, USA). I had to order this from the US as it’s yet to be released in the UK. And on Blu-ray too – in fact, wanting this documentary is one of the reasons I purchased a multi-region Blu-ray player. Anyway, I’ve been fascinated with the bathyscaphe Trieste’s 1960 descent to Challenger Deep, the deepest part of the oceans, for several years. I wrote a story set in Challenger Deep, and it was published in Where Are We Going?, an anthology from Eibonvale Press; and I used the Trieste in the third book of my Apollo Quartet, Then Will The Great Wash Deep Above. No one else had visited Challenger Deep – 7.5 miles down, where the pressure is 7 tons per square inch – since 1960s… until 2012, when film director James Cameron did it in the specially-built submersible Deepsea Challenger. This is the film of that expedition. It also includes a re-enactment of the Trieste dive. It’s a polished, well-presented documentary, and I found it fascinating. There is, it must be said, very little to be seen on the ocean floor at Challenger Deep, but Cameron and his directors make a very watchable film out of it. If there’s one downside it’s that we’ll have to put up with an Avatar 2 so that Cameron has the money to make another documentary like this…

sokurovSave and Protect, Aleksander Sokurov (1989, Russia). This was a rewatch as I first watched Save and Protect shortly after getting The Alexander Sokurov Collection box set for Christmas. I remember it being very slow and somwhat impenetrable. I have now watched it again. More than once. It’s loosely based on the life of Madame Bovary (and no, I didn’t discover the following morning I’d gone and ordered a copy of the book), but only in as much as it presents the sexual freedom of the title character as the foremost aspect of her character. What makes Save and Protect interesting, however, is Sokurov’s deliberate flouting of the fact it’s a period drama. Some of the cast wear more modern clothing, a car even makes an appearance later. This breaking from the carefully-constructed historical world in which the story is set is neither intrusive, nor does it necessarily break the suspension of disbelief the medium relies upon. In fact, it’s very similar in effect to Haneke’s breaking of the fourth wall in Funny Games. The lead role in Save and Protect – ie, Emma, although never named as such – is played by French ethno-linguist Cécile Zervoudacki, who brings a remarkable earthiness to the part (Sokurov likes using non-professional actors, mostly to good effect). According to The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov: Figures of Paradox, “Save and Protect has never been intended as an enjoyable cinematic experience, except perhaps in the frame of masochistic self-infliction” (p 85), which I think is a bit harsh. The book does describe the film is a work of art, and perhaps it is in some respects Sokurov’s least successful movie; but to me this is only further evidence that what Sokurov is doing in cinema is both fascinating and hugely important.

spivetThe Young and Prodigious TS Spivet, Jean-Pierre Jeunet (2013, France/Canada). Delicatessen remains one of my favourite films, and I’ve always rued Caro and Jeunet going their separate ways since neither has produced anything individually as good as the work they did together. Jeunet has been the more successful, of course, with a string of well-received movies, such as Amelie, A Very Long Engagement , Micmacs, and now The Young and Prodigious TS Spivet. Which is plainly a Jeunet film through and through. The title character is a young boy who’s a genius and an inventor. He lives on a farm in Montana, with an entomologist mother (played by Helena Bonham-Carter) and a taciturn cowboy father (a badly miscast Callum Keith Rennie). Young TS Spivet wins the Baird Prize, awarded by the Smithsonian Institute, for his design for a perpetual motion machine, but he had neglected to tell them his age. Nonetheless, he decides to attend the prize-giving ceremony in Washington. So he runs away from home and travels across the US and… Jeunet does whimsy with a master’s eye. But I do find it somewhat thin an ingredient on which to hang an entire movie. There’s only so much CGI-enhanced scenery you can take in, so much borderline slapstick, so many characters bent out of shape until they’re grotesques… Not a bad film for a Saturday night and a bottle of wine, but I’m glad it was a rental and not a purchase.

thiefofbagdadThe Thief of Bagdad*, Raoul Walsh (1924, USA). Douglas Fairbanks plays the title role in this Arabian Nights-style silent movie. By my calculation, he was forty when the movie was made, but he plays the title role like a teenager, with lots of gurning at the camera, throwing his arms wide, and standing with his hands on his hips, his waxed chest pushed out. It’s almost a parody of silent movie acting. And somewhat off-putting. Otherwise, the film is a classic of its time, with some clever special effects and a story which, although somewhat long, manages an enviable pace. The production design, however, is… odd. While the sets did sort of resemble an Arabic city of the Caliphate era, the various pieces of writing on the sets were gibberish, not Arabic letters at all. It seemed to me like a weird mistake to make – to go all that trouble to create a believable Arabian Nights setting, and then not bother using an actual real alphabet. Ah well.

jeuneJeune & Jolie, François Ozon (2013, France). I’m a fan of Ozon’s films, although I do find him a bit hit and miss. I loved Angel, I thought Under The Sand very good indeed, and his film of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s unfilmed script, Water Drops On Burning Rocks, was close to inspired. There are a few duff movies in his oeuvre, but it’s a generally excellent body of work; and he’s certainly a director whose career I follow. So I had reasonably high expectations of Jeune & Jolie, but… what a cold film. A teenage girl conspires to lose her virginity while on a family holiday, and on their return to Paris becomes an call girl, having sex with older men for money. Marine Vacth (who was twenty-two at the time of filming) plays the lead character with a quite disturbing lack of affect. When one of her clients dies in flagrante delicto, she briefly panics, tries to give him CPR, then runs away. But the police track her down – which is how her parents come to learn of her activities. Despite all this, she seems mostly unconcerned at what happened, or indeed at being caught. Not a pleasant film, though clearly it wasn’t intended to be. In some respect, it felt a bit like something from Haneke, but missing his signature oblique eye.

1001 Films You Must See Before You Die count: 591


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Best of the year 2012

It’s that time of year again when I go back through my spreadsheets of books read, films seen and albums bought, and try to decide which are the best five of each. And yes, I do keep spreadsheets of them. I even have one where I record the bands I’ve seen perform live. And no, it’s not weird. It is organised.

Back in June, I did a half-year round-up – see here. Some of the books, films, albums I picked then have made it through to the end of the year, some haven’t. This time, for a change, I’m going to actually order my choices, from best to, er, least-best.

BOOKS
girl_reading1 Girl Reading, Katie Ward (2011)
This is probably the most impressive debut novel I’ve read for a long time. It could almost have been written to appeal directly to me. I like books that do something interesting with structure; it does something interesting with structure. I like books whose prose is immediate and detailed; its prose is immediate (present tense) and detailed. I like books that are broad in subject; it covers a number of different historical periods. And it all makes sense in the end. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye open for further books by Ward. I read this book in the second half of the year, so it didn’t make my half-year best. I wrote more about Girl Reading here.

23122 2312, Kim Stanley Robinson (2012)
This year, I’ve actually read eleven genre novels first published during the twelve months, which I think may be a personal record. Having said that, it’s been a good year for genre fiction for me, as a number of my favourite authors have had books out. Sadly not all of them impressed (The Hydrogen Sonata, I’m looking at you). 2312 was everything I expected it to be and nothing like I’d imagined it would be. The plot is almost incidental, which is just as well as the resolution is feeble at best. But the journey there is definitely worth it. It is a novel, I think, that will linger for many years. Again, I read 2312 during the latter half of the year, so it didn’t make my half-year list. I wrote more about it here.

universe-cvr-lr-1003 The Universe of Things, Gwyneth Jones (2011)
Some collections aim for inclusiveness, some collections try for excellence. I’m not sure why Aqueduct Press chose the stories in this collection – it’s by no means all of Jones’ short fiction – but as a representative selection, The Universe of Things does an excellent job. I reviewed it for Daughters of Prometheus here, and I opened my review with the line: “Gwyneth Jones does not write many short stories – forty-one in thirty-seven years – but when she does, by God they’re worth reading.” This book did make my half-year list. Now I just have to read PS Publishing’s larger Jones collection, Grazing the Long Acre

intrusion-ken-macleod4 Intrusion, Ken MacLeod (2012)
The endings of Ken’s last few novels I have not found particularly convincing. It’s that final swerve from near-future high-tech thriller into heartland sf. Though the groundwork is usually carefully done, it too often feels like a leap too far. But not in Intrusion. The world-building here is cleverly done – I love the pastiche of Labour, with its “free and social market” – the thriller plot works like clockwork, and the final step sideways into pure genre slots straight in like the last piece in a jigsaw puzzle. Intrusion is another book I read in the second half of 2012, so it didn’t make my half-year list. I reviewed Intrusion for SFF Chronicles here.

sheltering5 The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles (1949)
Curiously, I’d always liked the film adaptation by Bernardo Bertolucci, which inspired me to read the novel, but after finishing the book, I tried rewatching the film and found myself hating it. Mostly it was because the Lyalls, who are creepy and villainous in the novel, had been turned into comic caricatures. A lot had also been left out – though that’s not unusual, given the nature of the medium. The Arabic in the novel used French orthography, which meant I had to translate it twice to work out what it meant. And it looks like four out of the five books in this list I read after June, so the Jones collection is the only one from my half-year list that made it through to the end of the year one.

There are, however, a ton of honourable mentions – it’s turned out to be quite a good year, book-wise. They are: The Bender, Paul Scott (1963), which read like a sophisticated 1960s comedy starring Dirk Bogarde; The Door, Magda Szabó (1987), the best of my world fiction reading challenge (which I really must catch up on and finish); Betrayals, Charles Palliser (1994), a very clever novel built up from several stories, including a fun spoof of Taggart and a brilliant piss-take of Jeffrey Archer; How to Suppress Women’s Writing, Joanna Russ (1983), which should be required reading for all writers and critics; Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, Malcolm Lowry (1961), which introduced me to the genius that is Lowry; Ison of the Isles, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2012), successfully brings to a close the best fantasy of recent years; Omega, Christopher Evans (2008), a long overdue novel from a favourite writer, and a clever and pleasingly rigorous alternate history / dimension slip work; and Blue Remembered Earth, Alastair Reynolds (2012), the start of a near-future trilogy, which is very good indeed but also stands out because it’s not regressive or dystopian.

FILMS
red_psalm1 Red Psalm, Miklós Jancsó (1972)
It’s about the Peasant Uprising in nineteenth-century Hungary, and consists of hippy-ish actors wandering around an declaiming to the camera. Occasionally, they sing folk songs. Then some soldiers arrive and some of the peasants get shot. But they’re not really dead, or injured. Then the landowners turn up and start espousing the virtues of capitalism. But the peasants shout them down. A priest tries to explain the “natural order of things”, but the peasants aren’t having it. Then more soldiers arrive and round up all the peasants. The ending is very clever indeed. It’s a hard film to really describe well, but it’s fascinating and weird and beautifully shot. I wrote about it here.

red_desert2 Red Desert, Michelangelo Antonioni (1964)
This was Antonioni’s first film shot in colour and it looks absolutely beautiful. In terms of story, it is much like his earlier masterpieces, L’Avventura, La Notte and L’Eclisse, and, like them, stars Monica Vitti. But also a (weirdly) dubbed Richard Harris. It’s a surprisingly bleak film – although perhaps not “surprisingly”, given that earlier trilogy – but it’s hard not to marvel at the painterly photography and mise-en-scène – who else would have the fruit on a barrow painted in shades of grey in order to fit in with the colouring of the surroundings? I wrote about it here. And I really must write more on my blog about the films I watch.

circle3 The Circle, Jafar Panahi (2000)
This is one of those films where one story hands off to another one and so on, and in which there is no real story arc, just a journey through episodes from the lives of the characters. Each of which is a woman living in Tehran, and all of whom have just recently been released from prison. They were not, however, imprisoned for doing things that would be criminal in other nations. As the title indicates, the stories come full circle, and the film’s message is far from happy or pleasing, but there is still room for hope. This film won several awards, though the Iranian authorities were apparently very unhappy with it.

persiancats4 No One Knows About Persian Cats, Bahman Ghobadi (2009)
It’s not about cats, it’s about two musicians in Tehran who have been invited to perform at a music festival in London. But first they need to find some more musicians for their band, and they also need the necessary paperwork to leave Iran. But western-style music, which is what they play, is illegal in Iran, and there’s no way they’ll be able to get the visas they need legally. So they visit all the musicians they know, hoping some of them will be willing to go to London with them, and they also pay a well-known underground figure for the papers they require to travel. It’s an affirming film, but also a deeply depressing one.

Dredd5 Dredd, Pete Travis (2012)
I was badgered into going to see this at the cinema by Tim Maugham on Twitter. I hadn’t really thought it would appeal to me. Even the fact it was touted as being more faithful to the 2000 AD character didn’t mean I’d like it. Although I grew up reading 2000 AD, Judge Dredd was far from my favourite character, and I’ve not bothered buying any of the omnibus trade paperbacks that are now available. But I went… and was surprised to find it was a bloody good film. It’s sort of like a weird munging together of an art house film and a Dirty Harry film, and strangely the combination works really well. It’s violent and horrible and grim and panders to all the worst qualities in people, but it all makes sense and fits together, and despite its simple plot is cleverly done. I plan to buy the DVD when it is available.

Iranian cinema did well this year for me. Not only did The Circle and No One Knows About Persian Cats make it into my top five, but two more Iranian films get honourable mentions: A Separation, Asghar Fahadi (2011), and The Wind Will Carry Us, Abbas Kiarostami (1999). Kiarostami I rate as one of the most interesting directors currently making films. Other honourable mentions go to: John Carter, Andrew Stanton (2012), which was undeservedly declared a flop, and is a much cleverer and more sophisticated piece of film-making than its intended audience deserved; Monkey Business, Howard Hawks (1952), is perhaps the screwball comedy par excellence; On the Silver Globe, Andrzej Żuławski (1988), is bonkers and unfinished, and yet works really well; there is a type of film I particularly like, but it wasn’t until I saw Sergei Parajanov’s The Colour of Pomegranates that I discovered it was called “poetic cinema”, and his Shadows Of Forgotten Ancestors (1965) is more of the same – weird and beautiful and compelling; and finally, François Ozon’s films are always worth watching and Potiche (2010) is one of his best, a gentle comedy with Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu in fine form.

ALBUMS
mourningweight1 The Weight Of Oceans, In Mourning (2012)
I saw a review of this album somewhere which made it seem as though I might like it. So I ordered a copy from Finland – which is where the band and the label are from. And I’ve been playing it almost constantly since. It’s Finnish death/doom metal mixed with progressive metal, which makes it the best of both worlds – heavy and intricate, with melodic proggy bits. The Finns, of course, know how to do death/doom better than anyone, but it’s been a surprise in recent years to discover they can do really interesting prog metal just as well – not just In Mourning, but also Barren Earth (see my honourable mentions below).

aquilus2 Griseus, Aquilus (2011)
A friend introduced me to this one. It’s an Australian one-man band, and the music is a weirdly compelling mix of black metal and… orchestral symphonic music. It sounds like the worst kind of mash-up, but it works amazing well. In the wrong hands, I suspect it could prove very bad indeed. Happily, Waldorf (AKA Horace Rosenqvist) knows what he’s doing, and the transitions between the two modes are both seamless and completely in keeping with the atmosphere the album generates. The album is available from Aquilus’s page on bandcamp, so you can give it a listen.

dwellings3 Dwellings, Cormorant (2011)
The same friend also introduced me to this band, who self-released Dwellings. It’s extreme metal, but extreme metal that borrows from a variety of sub-genres. I’ve seen one review which describes them as a mix of Ulver, Opeth, Slough Feg and Mithras, which really is an unholy mix (and two of those bands I count among my favourites). Most of the reviews I’ve seen find it difficult to describe the album, but they’re unanimous in their liking for it. And it’s true, it is very hard to describe – there’s plenty of heavy riffing, some folky interludes, some proggy bits, and it all sort of melds together into a complex whole which is much greater than the sum of its parts. This album is also available from the band’s page on bandcamp, and you can listen to it there. (You’ve probably noticed by now that I’m terrible at writing about music. I can’t dance about architecture either.)

25640_woods_of_ypres_woods_iv_the_green_album4 Woods 4: The Green Album, Woods of Ypres (2009)
Woods of Ypres was a band new to me in 2012. I first heard their final album, Woods 5: Grey Skies & Electric Light, but at Bloodstock I picked up a copy of the preceding album and I think, on balance, I like the earlier one better. The music is a bit like Type O Negative meets black metal, with oboes. Sort of. The opening track ‘Shards of Love’ is, unusually for black metal, about a relationship, and it starts off not like metal at all and then abruptly becomes very metal indeed. An excellent album, with some strong riffs and some nicely quiet reflective moments. (It’s pure coincidence that I chose it as No 4 in my list, incidentally.)

obliterate5 Obliterate EP, Siphon the Mammon (2012)
I have no idea how I stumbled across this Swedish progressive death metal band. It was probably the name that caught my attention. And it is a silly name. But never mind. Anyway, I downloaded the EP from their bandcamp page… and discovered it was bloody good. It’s technical and accomplished, with some excellent riffs and song structures. I particularly like ‘The Construct of Plagues’, which features an excellent bass-line, but the final track ‘End of Time’ is also nicely progressive. And… this is the third album in my top five which is available from the band’s bandcamp page, which surely must say something about the music industry and the relevance of labels… or my taste in music…

This year’s honourable mentions go to: (Psychoparalysis), for a trio of EPs I bought direct from the band, and which are good strong Finnish progressive death metal; Anathema’s latest, Weather Systems, which I liked much more than the three or four albums which preceded, and they were bloody good live too; Hypnos 69’s Legacy, which I finally got around to buying and was, pleasingly, more of the same (this is good, of course); Barren Earth’s The Devil’s Resolve, which is definitely heavier than their debut album, but still very proggy and weird; A Forest of Stars, which is steampunk meets black metal, and it works surprisingly well (check out this video here); Nostalgia by Gwynbleidd, who, despite the name, are Poles resident in New York, and sound a little like a cross between Opeth and Northern Oak; Headspace, I Am Anonymous, another Damian Wilson prog rock project, but I think I prefer it on balance to Threshold’s new album; and Alcest, another band new to me in 2012, who play shoegazer black metal, which, unfortunately, works much better on an album than it does live.

IN CONCLUSION
And there you have – that was the year that was. On balance, I think it’s been a good year in terms of the literature, cinema and music I have consumed. There’s been some quality stuff, and some very interesting stuff too. Which is not to say there hasn’t been some crap as well, but it seemed less numerous this year. This may be because I chose to ignore what the genre, and popular culture, value and focus more on the sort of stuff that appeals directly to me – I’ve cut down on the number of Hollywood blockbusters I watch, I no longer read as much heartland genre fiction. There’s always a pressure to stay “current”, but the more I watch genre and comment on it, the more I see that it does not value the same things I do. It’s not just “exhaustion”, as identified by Paul Kincaid in his excellent review of two Year’s Best anthologies here, but from my perspective also a parting of the ways in terms of objectives, methods and effects. I want stuff – books, stories, etc – that is fresh and relevant, that does interesting things and says something interesting. I don’t want the usual crap that just blithely and unquestioningly recycles tropes and worldviews, stories about drug dealers on Mars in some USian libertarian near-future, space opera novels in which an analogue of the US gets to replay its military adventures and this time get the result it feels it deserved…

I mentioned in a post last week that I don’t read as much genre short fiction as I feel I should. After all, my views outlined above are taken from the little I’ve read on awards shortlists and in year’s best anthologies. Just because that’s what the genre values doesn’t mean the sort of stuff I value doesn’t exist. I just need to find it. So by including a short fiction best of list in 2013, I’ll be motivated to track down those good stories, to seek out those authors who are writing interesting stories.

All of this, of course, will I hope help with my own writing. I had both a very good year, and a not so good year, in that respect in 2012. Rocket Science, an anthology I edited, and quite obviously the best hard sf anthology of the year, was published in April. As was the first book of my Apollo Quartet, Adrift on the Sea of Rains. The Guardian described Rocket Science as “superb”, which was very pleasing. And Adrift on the Sea of Rains has had a number of very positive reviews see here. Unfortunately, as a result of those two publications, I haven’t been very productive. I spent most of the year after the Eastercon working on the second book of the Apollo Quartet, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself. Those few who have read it say it’s as good as Adrift on the Sea of Rains, which is a relief. Everyone else will get to find out in January, when it’s published. But I really should have worked on some short fiction as well. I’m not the quickest of writers – I marvel at those people who can bang out a short story in a week – but each story you have published, irrespective of quality, widens your audience a little more, adds a little more weight to your name. And that’s what it’s all about. No matter how good people say Adrift on the Sea of Rains is, I’ve only sold just over 200 copies – add in review copies… and that means perhaps between 250 and 300 people have read it. Some semi-literate self-published fantasy novels available on Kindle sell more copies than that in a week…

But that’s all by the by. This post is about 2012, not 2013. Sadly, I didn’t manage to reread much Durrell to celebrate his centenary. I’ve had The Alexandria Quartet by the side of the bed for about nine months, and I dip into it every now and again, but then I have to put it to one side as I have to read a book for Interzone or SF Mistressworks… Speaking of which, I had to drop to a single review a week on SF Mistressworks, but I still plan to keep it going. During 2012, I read 41 books by women writers, compared to 63 by male writers, which is about 40% of my reading (this doesn’t include graphic novels, non-fiction or anthologies). I also reviewed a handful of books for Daughters of Prometheus, although I haven’t posted one there for several months. (I’ve no plans to drop either responsibility in 2013.) Just over a third of my reading was science fiction, and a quarter was mainstream – so sf is still my genre of choice. Numbers-wise, I’ve not managed as many books as last year – only 146 by the middle of December, whereas last year I’d managed 165 by the end of the year. But I think I’ve read some more substantial books this year, and I did “discover” some excellent writers, such as Malcolm Lowry, Katie Ward and Paul Bowles. It’s a shame I never managed to complete my world fiction reading challenge. I still have half of the books on the TBR, so I will work my way through them, though I may not blog about it.

But, for now, it’s Christmas – bah humbug – in a week. And then the start of 2013 follows a week after that. Here’s hoping that next year is better for everyone, that the good outweighs the bad, and that every surprise is a pleasant one.