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2016, the best of the year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1001 progress

I’ve been using the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (2013 edition) to direct my film-viewing for a couple of years now, and I thought it might be worth having a look at how it’s been going… Before starting to use the list, I’d watched some 407 of the movies. My total is currently standing at 823 films seen, so I’ve watched slightly more as a result of following the list than I had before I even knew of it. What I find especially interesting, however, is the number of films I’ve subsequently bought on DVD or Blu-ray after watching them on rental only because they were on the list. Of course, there were films – by, for instance, Hitchcock, Tarkovsky, Kieślowski, Kubrick, the Archers – I already owned as I’ve been a fan of their work for many years…

sacrifice

After watching Lola and Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, I bought a Jaques Demy collection, which also included The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. On the other hand, much as I enjoyed Les vacances de M Hulot, it wasn’t until I’d seen Playtime, and loved it, that I decided to invest in a collection of Jacques Tati’s films. Carl Theodor Dreyer is another such director – I’d seen Ordet, I forget why I rented it, but not been especially taken with it; but after watching Gertrud I purchased everything by Dreyer currently available on DVD – which was, fortunately, pretty much his entire oeuvre (thank you, BFI). He became a favourite director. After buying a copy of James Benning’s Deseret – because it was on the list but wasn’t available for rental – I became a huge fan of his work, and bought every other DVD of his films released by Österechisches Filmmuseum. I am eagerly awaiting more being released. It also turned me into a fan of video installations, as I discovered recently when I visited the Hafnarhús branch of the Reykjavik Art Museum and saw Richard Mosse’s ‘The Enclave’ (I did like Örn Alexander Amundáson’s ‘A New Work’ too, although it’s not video, because it reminded me of my own approach to writing fiction).

There were also a number of movies I watched on rental because they were on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and then promptly bought copies of my own, like Le mépris, The Adventures of Robin Hood, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, F for FakeShane, Spring in a Small Town, Shock Corridor, Häxan and Lucía. I liked Cocteau’s Orphée so much, I tracked down a copy of the Criterion collection which included it, The Blood of a Poet and Testament of Orpheus (not to be confused with the Studiocanal box set, which only has the latter two films in it). I loved Glauber Rocha’s Earth Entranced so much, I bought it, Black God White Devil and Antonio das Mortes, the only films by Rocha available on DVD in the UK. And since the I couldn’t rent the third part of Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy, Naqoyqatsi, I bought the trilogy – although I still think the first film, Koyaanisqatsi, is easily the best.

black_god

There are also a number of films I’ve added to my wishlist because I might at some point buy them… or I might not. Such as Henry V, The Hired Hand, Easy Rider, Man with a Movie Camera, The Great Silence, Babette’s Feast… not to mention further films by directors who appear on the list… which is why I have picked up films by Guru Dutt,  Yasujiro Ozu, Ken Loach and Satyajit Ray…

There are also a number of films I only got to watch because I bought a DVD copy of my own – they just weren’t available for rental. Not all have been especially good. Stella Dallas is on the list, but is not available for rental, or indeed for purchase on DVD, in the UK. I ended up buying Spanish release… and the film proved to be entirely forgettable. There’s also streaming TV these days, and I found a few, surprisingly, streamed for free on Amazon Prime – like The Gospel According to St Matthew and Salt of the Earth. However, Amazon Prime has not been an especially good source of films from the list – either free, as previously mentioned, or for “rental”, such as Sergeant York and Housekeeping, both of which cost me £3.49 for 48 hours.

One very real consequence of using the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list has been that my film collection has become much more varied. Not only have I bought films previously unknown to me by Brazilian directors (Glauber Rocha and Nelson Pereira dos Santos), Cuban directors (Humberto Solás), Indian directors (Ritwik Ghatak, Guru Dutt), but I’ve also been encouraged to further explore the oeuvres of directors I had previously tried, such as Yasujiro Ozu, Federico Fellini or Jean-Luc Godard… and have since bought films by all three.

I don’t think the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list is perfect. Far from it. It includes way too many US films, and some nations’ cinemas are almost totally ignored. Albania, for example, apparently has a thriving film industry but, to be fair, I can’t find any films from the country readily available on DVD with English subtitles. And yet Greenland, with almost no film industry to speak of… there are DVDs of Greenlandic films with multiple-language subtitles, like Nuummioq, which is very good.

nuummioq

Having said that using the list has resulted in me owning a much more varied collection of films – most of the Hollywood blockbusters went to local charity shops, and I no longer buy them – it has also shown me that some particular cinemas, not just present-day Hollywood, don’t work for me. I’m not especially taken with French films, although I like some of them a great deal. Godard, mentioned earlier, is a good example – some of his films I like a lot, some of them I just can’t understand the appeal. I like the movies of Renoir and Vigo, but not Bresson or Carné or Malle or Chabron. And Buñuel I find a bit hit and miss.

When it comes to movie genres… Well, there are remarkably few classic sf films. Given the number of sf films produced since the beginning of cinema – and one of the earliest classics, La voyage dans le lune, is an actual sf movie based on an actual sf novel – the genre’s hit-rate has been pretty low. There are a lot of westerns on 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, and I will admit that I don’t see the appeal of the genre. It’s a peculiarly American mythology, I get that, but too many of the westerns on the list seemed ordinary, and it was only the ones which broke the mould, or bent the formula, like The Hired Hand, which for me stood out. Speaking of US films, there are a number of movies by American indie directors also on the list, and those too I failed to see why they should make the list.

Part of the problem, of course, has to do with whether a film can be considered seminal or germinal in some way. It’s evident enough with a silent movie. Watch Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, and you can’t help but understand how historically important it is. And some silent movies, which normally I’d never bother to seek out, and I’ve seen solely because they’re on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, they’ve proven to be excellent entertainment – not just Storm Over Asia from Russia, but even early Hollywood works like The Phantom of the Opera.

storm_over_asia

The 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list is a deeply-flawed list, but it has still enriched my film-watching. I don’t agree with many of the choices made for the list, but it has at least prompted me to watch those films. And then seek out other films similar to those I liked. My DVD collection is, I like to think, much more diverse as a result. I’ve still some way to go before I complete the list – in fact, some of the movies are so hard to find I may never get to see everything on it. And, of course, the list is updated each year, although I’m more likely to have seen recent additions. But there is still the cinematic traditions of a huge number of nations, USA not included, to explore…

 


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Best of the half-year, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Moving pictures, #24

Onward with the movie posts…

christinaQueen Christina*, Rouben Mamoulian (1933, USA). You know that thing about “Garbo laughs” and they used it as the tagline for Ninotchka, which was released six years after this one, but Garbo, who plays the title role in Queen Christina, does quite a good impression of laughter on a couple of occasions in this film. The title character is a real historical figure, queen of Sweden from 1632 to 1654, and she did indeed abdicate and convert to Roman Catholicism. But not, as the film would have it, for love. In the film, she’s out hunting one day when she comes across the Spanish envoy, whose carriage is stuck in a snow drift. She gives his servants advice on how to extricate the coach. Since she dresses as a man, the envoy mistakes her for one. And does the same later, when they meet at a nearby inn. Queen Christina, who is now actively pretending to be male, has taken the last room. The envoy demands “he” vacate it. They end up sharing and the queen reveals her gender – but not her identity. She saves that little surprise for when the envoy is officially introduced to her at the royal palace. The real Queen Christina was raised as a boy and was in a long-term lesbian relationship. She’d also been fascinated with the Roman Catholic Church from a young age. But when has Hollywood ever let history get in the way of a good story? Or their marketing, for that matter. I’m not entirely sure why this film is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I didn’t see anything that was technicially or cinematically ahead of its time, and though it was enormously successful and popular in 1933, it doesn’t seem like anything particularly special these days.

fantastic4Fantastic Four, Josh Trank (2015, USA). Given the success of the MCU films, it can hardly be a surprise that Hollywood is rebooting every superhero franchise it can in a desperate effort to keep the rights and find a moneyspinner. Spider-Man is about to see its fourth incarnation, and here’s the Fantastic Four, another iconic Marvel property, on its third incarnation (although the first was never actually released). Like the Spider-Man reboot, they’ve rolled back the ages of the heroes to high school, because twentysomething heroes were apparently fine for twentieth-century kids but in the twenty-first century it’s got to be totally about the kids. And if that wasn’t enough of a change, this film has completely rewritten the Fantastic Four’s origin story. True, the original, er, origin story – four rich twentysomethings build a rocket, go into space, get bombarded by cosmic rays and develop superpowers – was pretty daft, but try naming an origin story that isn’t completely ridiculous. In this new version, Reed Richards spends years developing a teleportation machine, is then recruited by the Baxter Foundation, and with the help of studly Latverian genius Victor von Doom, builds a full-scale model… except it’s not a teleporter, it’s a portal to another dimension. And it’s on a drunken trip there that the four get their fantastic powers… and Doom is left behind and turns into a metal man with awesome mental powers. The military weaponizes the four – except for Richards, who goes on the run. But eventually he is brought into the fold. This is a completely charmless affair, with a charisma-free cast. And where previously the Fantastic Four spent most of their time saving the world, here they’re just “military assets”, tools of US imperialism – and while superheroes are often just as destructive as the supervillains they fight, that change in mission is just downright offensive. Marvel adopts manifest destiny. If superheroes had always seemed a little fascist before, with this film they’ve openly embraced it. Happily, Fantastic Four tanked at the box office. Avoid.

antonio_mortesAntonio das Mortes, Glauber Rocha (1969, Brazil). This is the third of Rocha’s Anotonio das Mortes trilogy (its origin title is actually O Dragão da Maldade contra o Santo Guerriro, “The Dragon of Evil against the Saint Warrior”), following on from Black God, White Devil (see here) and Entranced Earth (see here). Unlike the preceding film, this one is set in Brazil and not an invented country. The north-east of the country was once controlled by bandits called cangaceiros, the greatest of whom was Lampião, who died in 1938. But a new cangaceiro has appeared, accompanied by a young woman believed to be a saint, and a host of peasants. The blind coronel, the landowner of the town of Jardim de Piranhas, sends for Antonio das Mortes to kill the cangaceiro. Antonio fatally wounds the cangaceiro in a duel, but then suffers a change of heart and demands the coronel hand out his food reserves to the poor. The coronel refuses and orders Antonio killed… Antonio das Mortes is the only film of the three in colour, and Mr Bongo have done another slipshod job on it – the print is far from perfect, and the many folk songs on the soundtrack have French translations of their lyrics burned in. It’s also a less declamatory film than Entranced Earth, although not by much – the cangaceiro, for example, introduces himself by speaking in rhyme to the camera. And even much of Antonio’s dialogue is self-reflective. A lot of the violence is staged almost like a dance, which works well with the local folk songs on the soundtrack. The landscape appears much stranger in colour than it does in black and white, with some effective landscape photography that demonstrates just how huge and featurless is the region. I’ll admit I bought these films while under the influence after watching Entranced Earth, but I don’t regret the purchase. Not only are they very political films – the coronel in Antonio das Mortes is portrayed as over-entitled and completely lacking in compassion, and the stories of all three films centre on the common people fighting the ruling classes – but the tactic of playing the political elements flat and affectless and the cultural elements full of sound and colour is especially effective. Not to mention the over-the-top and hammed up violence. These films are very much folk-tales, but they’re colourful and political folk-tales. And I really like movies like that. Recommended. It’s a shame more of Rocha’s films aren’t available on DVD. [0]

femme_publiqueLa femme publique, Andrzej Żuławski (1984, France). I am, I admit, slightly puzzled by Żuławski’s success. After fleeing Poland in the early 1980s, the only place he could go and still make films was France. It’s unlikely he’d have fitted in to the film traditions of any other country. Because his films really are quite strange. Even La femme publique, which is an adaption of an autobiography by Dominique Garnier, in which she describes her arrival in Paris and attempt to break into cinema acting, and her subsequent domination by the director who hires her. In most hands, this would be enough for a story, but Żuławski, with Garnier’s help, decided to add in a subplot about plot to assassinate a Lithuanian archbishop… The end result is an intense drama that might or might not be a somewhat bonkers thriller, which manages not to lose sight of its story. Valérie Kaprisky plays the young actress who, despite having no experience, is cast by enfant terrible Czech director Francis Huster in his adaptation of Dostoevsky’s Demons. Through Huster, Kaprisky meets fellow Czech emigré Lambert Wilson, whose wife has recently disappeared (and proves to have been murdered). Kaprisky is convinced Wilson is the murderer, so she pretends to be his wife (his grasp on reality is shaky to begin with, and visibly deteriorates). Huster meanwhile seems to be involved in some sort of plot to brainwash Wilson into assassinating the archbishop. It sort of makes sense when laid out so baldly, but this is a Żuławski movie so the reality is somewhat different. The performances are intense to a degree that’s rarely seen in Hollywood films, and the story’s focus on the psychology of the major characters is also something not often seen in plot-driven Hollywood movies (never mind Hollywood’s mindless adherence to various screenwriting techniques, such as the three-act structure, McKee’s Story or Snyder’s Save the Cat!). I don’t know that I’d call La femme publique Żuławski’s best film as I still like Na srebrnym globie a lot – but it’s certainly the best-presented film on DVD. This Mondo Vision Signature edition comes in a fancy box, with a soundtrack CD, publicity photos and a booklet. Recommended. [1]

khartoumKhartoum, Basil Dearden (1966, UK). Remember when they used to open films with ten minutes of music, so you had time to buy your ice cream from the usher down at the front, and then they’d have an intermission so you could buy another ice cream or a box of Treets Poppets… or was that just in the UK? As the title of this film no doubt makes clear, it’s about the siege of Khartoum in 1884, when the forces of the Mahdi tried to capture the city from General Gordon, who’d been sent there by the British to evacuate the British and Egyptian population before the Mahdi attacked. The film is a typical historical epic of the period – not just that ten-minute entr’acte and a ten-minute intermission, but also a cast of thousands and big names playing the major roles no matter how inappropriately cast. I mean, Charlton Heston as Gordon is one thing (although apparently it was meant to be Burt Lancaster), and he at least attempts a British accent (albeit not very well); but Laurence Olivier as the Mahdi is just blackface. Khartoum was apparently filmed in Egypt and makes much of its locations – this is big-screen entertainment, and it makes sure you get what you paid for. And yet… it’s all a bit bland and unexciting – despite the battle scenes. Gordon was, by all accounts, an odd bloke – a drunkard, possibly queer, but also a gifted leader and tactician. He actually sounds quite interesting. He was lionised following his death in Khartoum, and it wasn’t until several decades later that his actions, or indeed his character, were questioned. Khartoum is pretty much the dictionary definition of a Sunday afternoon film – at least it was a decade or two ago – and that’s about its level. As history, it’s perhaps a little more reliable than the typical Hollywood movie; and as entertainment it’s very much of its time.

fires_were_startedFires Were Started*, Humphrey Jennings (1943, UK). This is the only Jennings film on the 1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die list, despite him being called one of Britain’s greatest film-makers. And he made thirty-two films, although most were documentary shorts. The BFI DVD case shown here contains five films, all from 1941 or 1943. Fires Were Started is about a London fire brigade, beginning with a new arrival to the watch, and following the watch members as they go about their duties. Although some of the film is reconstruction, and filmed at Pinewood Studios, it all looks very real (the fires, I think, are real fires – certainly the cast were actual firemen and not actors). I do remember that the firemen had their own bar and drank beer… until called out by an alarm. The technology also seemed surprisingly crude, especially when compared to the military technology of the time. But Jennings had a really good eye, and was especially effective at making his subjects seem likeable and sympathetic. The new member of the watch, for example, is university-educated, whereas the the current members are all working-class… but Jennings shows how accomodating both are toward each other and how well they work together. Fires Were Started is one of three collections of Jennings film released by the BFI. I quite fancy getting all three – um, maybe I should just wait until I’ve had some wine and do as I did for Glauber Rocha…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 764


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Moving pictures, #21

And back to more films from the US than elsewhere. Given that only half the films described below are rentals, I can’t claim the vagaries of their service as an excuse. Oh well.

cindrelac2Cinderella, Kenneth Branagh (2015, USA). I bought a Blu-ray of the animated Disney Cinderella and the cheapest version available was a double Blu-ray box set with the 2015 live-action version of the film, because, probably, the live-action needs a bit of extra help to sell. I mean, whoever heard of a live-action Cinderella? Okay, it was directed by Branagh, and it’s got stars like Helena Bonham Carter and Cate Blanchett and Stellan Skarsgård and Derek Jacobi in it… but given the number of princess films Disney churns out, my expectations were understandably quite low. And yes, the film takes a few liberties with Perrault’s story, chiefly in order to give the characters more of a background. The two leads – Lily James and Richard Madden – are also a bit bland. But… there were some quite clever references to the Disney animated version, Bonham Carter’s absent-minded Fairy Godmother was fun, and Blanchett was on good form. However, the choreography during the ball scene just looked silly, and spoiled for me what had been up until then good family entertainment. A better film than I’d expected, but nowhere near as good as the animated version (although in its favour, its mice are considerably less annoying). [ABC]

rescuersThe Rescuers, John Lounsbery, Wolfgang Reitherman & Art Stevens (1977, USA). I have a vague memory of this film’s original theatrical release. I can’t remember if I went to see it at the cinema, or if on a trip to the cinema my sisters saw it and I watched some other film. Watching it this time, 38 years later, very little seemed all that familiar. The seagull I sort of remembered, and Madame Medusa I think I remembered… But nothing else. Apparently, The Rescuers was instrumental in turning around Disney’s fortunes – they had not a successful film since The Jungle Book in 1967. I’m not sure I understand why – I can’t think of a weirder pairing for the main characters as Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor. And the animation looked a little crude and not very crisp when compared to Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. I wasn’t that impressed. Amusingly, in 1999 Disney had to recall 3.4 million videocassettes of the second home video release because someone had spotted a photo of a topless women in the background of one of the shots.

hard_to_be_a_godHard to be a God, Aleksey German (2013, Russia). I’d heard a great deal about this film, and everything I’d heard led me to think I’d be much impressed by it. Not just that it was made by a Russian director, and made in that sort of very Russian style; or that it’s an adaptation of a novel by Boris & Arkady Strugatsky… Anyway, I bought the Blu-ray when it was released… and it sort of sat on the pile of films to be watched for six months or so before I finally decided to stick it in the player… An agent from Earth has infiltrated the society of another planet. The humans of the planet are anti-intellectual, and so are mired in the Middle Ages. The agent has taken the place of a local baron, and the local populace treat their nobles as god. On Blu-ray, the filth and squalour of the world German has created is visceral and obvious.  The film sort of meanders about, revelling in the awful conditions in which everyone lives, and the dumb laws under which they must survive (an old man is drowned upside down in shit, for example, for writing poetry – and being what the subtitles call a “smartypants”). It’s all very grim and very cheerless, but in a sort of weirdly unbelievable and implausible way. The cinematography is fantastic, the film’s commitment to its world is astonishing… but, even though I like slow cinema, this is not a film in which things happen at a particularly fast pace. I thought I’d like it more than I did, so in that respect it’s disappointing. But it’s definitely a film that stands numerous viewings, so I’m glad I bought a copy. [ABC]

black_godBlack God, White Devil*, Glauber Rocha (1964, Brazil). So I’d watched Rocha’s Entranced Earth – because it was on the 1001 Movies Must See Before You Die list, it was a rental, see here – and I really enjoyed it and I was a bit drunk, so I went and bought DVDs of Rocha’s three films, of which Entranced Earth forms the middle part of the trilogy. Black God, White Devil is the first of the three. Obviously, I was interested to see what I made of it. And… well, it’s not a very good transfer. I like that Mr Bongo are releasing hard-to-find non-Anglophone movies, but they don’t seem to put much effort into it. Happily, Black God, White Devil is a good film. A really good film. It has a bit of the Jodorowsky about it, and it works really well. A poor farmer has to flee when he kills his boss (after his boss insists the farmer carry the cost of the loss of the two cattle which died of snake bites en route to market). The farmer and his wife join St Sebastian, an apocalyptic preacher who suggests violence is necessary for redemption. Meanwhile, the government is getting worried about St Sebastian and his growing influence. So they hire bandit Antonio das Mortes to kill the preacher and his followers. Two are left alive to spread the word – yes, the farmer and his wife. And they in turn become bandits. I now want more of Rocha’s films, but the three I have appear to be the only ones that are available. Bah. [0]

nobodoy_knowsNobody Knows, Hirokazu Koreeda (2004, Japan). This was recommended to me by David Tallerman, who has previously recommended anime films, but this is live action… although “action” may not be the right word. It’s a dramatisation of a true story. A woman with a twelve-year-old son moves into a new apartment. However, she actually has four kids – two are very young and are smuggled into the building inside suitcases, the other is eleven and turns up later. The woman continues to pretend she only has the one kid to her landlord. One day, she heads off to work… and never returns. She has abandoned her children. The oldest boy tries to keep the other children safe and fed, although what little money the mother left soon runs out. Then the utilities are cut off since the bills haven’t been paid. When the youngest girl falls from a stool, hits her head and dies, the three children bury her in a field near the airport. The film is played very flat, like a documentary, which has the odd side-effect of making the mother appear merely flighty instead of criminally negligent. Apparently, the real-life case was somewhat more gruesome – there were five children, not four; the youngest died after being assaulted  by friends of the eldest; and all were badly malnourished when discovered by the authorities (after a tip-off from the landlord). Another of the children also died – Wikipedia does not give the cause – and the body was found with the three survivors. The mother gave herself up when the case hit the news. Astonishingly, after she’d served her three year jail sentence, the mother was given custody of the two surviving girls.

olvidadosLos Olvidados*, Luis Buñuel (1950, Mexico). The title refers to the forgotten kids and teenagers who live on the streets of Mexico City – although this is not a documentary. The teenage leader of a street gang escapes from juvenile jail, tracks down the kid who supposedly grassed him up, then beats him to death with a rock. A younger kid is witness but promises to say nothing. His mother persuades the kid to go straight and he gets a job as a blacksmith’s apprentice. But then the gang leader turns up and steals a knife. The kid is accused of the theft and sent to a progressive rehabilitation centre where, after a dodgy start, he seems to settle down. But then up pops the gang leader again, and he steals some money from the kid. They fight. During the fight, the kid tells everyone the gang leader is a murderer. The gang leader runs away. Later, he tracks down the kid and kills him. But the police are now after him – and they find him and gun him down. Shot in black and white, and in a social realist style, this is anything but a cheerful film. In fact, it’s really grim. To be honest, it didn’t much feel like a Buñuel movie, despite a bizarre dream sequence. To date, I’ve seen eight of Buñuel’s thirty-two films and only really liked two of them – The Exterminating Angel and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, neither of which have that much in common. Much is made of Buñuel’s surrealism, or the surrealist elements of his films, and certainly the surrealism of the two I like is their major draw. But then I don’t see where Tristana, Belle du jour or Viridiana are especially surreal – and Un chien andalou and L’age d’or felt more like experimental films than anything else. An important director, undoubtedly, and one whose movies I will continue to watch – but I can’t say he’d make my top ten, or even top twenty…

kidThe Kid, Charlie Chaplin (1921, USA). I thought this was on the 1001 Movies Must See Before You Die list, I can’t think why I put it on my rental list otherwise, but it’s not. Strange. Anyway, I watched it. The Kid is one of Chaplin’s most famous movies, and probably because of the title character. A woman has her baby stolen, it’s then left in an alleyway, where Chaplin finds it. He tries to get rid of the child, but fails… and so takes it home with him. The film then jumps forward five years, and the baby has grown into a little gamin, whom Chaplin’s tramp uses in his various cons. The kid throws rocks through windows, then Chaplin turns up with a pane of glass and is paid to replace the broken pane. There’s a scene where Chaplin is beaten up by a tough who’s wearing a bizarrely-padded jumper, and lots of Chaplin-like visual jokes… and a frankly bizarre dream sequence in which Chaplin imagines himself as an angel, the kid too, and everyone else who has appeared in the film, and the two of them fly along the street set… and then Chaplin wakes up.  He decides to track down the kid’s mother, and return him to his rightful home. Which he does suspiciously easily – mother and son are re-united as if it had been five weeks and not five years, and everyone lives happily ever after. I actually prefer the other Chaplin films I’ve seen to this one, yes, even Monsieur Verdoux.

african_queenThe African Queen*, John Huston (1951, USA). Katherine Hepburn is the sister of a British missionary (Robert Morley) in German East Africa in 1914. Humph is the captain of the eponymous steam-powered river boat which regularly delivers supplies. WWI breaks out, the Germans burn down the missionaries’ village, Morley is killed, so Hepburn and Humph escape on the African Queen. They plan to follow the river to the lake at its end, and there destroy the German gunboat which is preventing the British from attacking. Along the way, they fall in love, sneak past a German fort which commands an excellent view of the river, fix a broken propellor, survive a trip through some fierce rapids… It’s all very adventuresome – but then it is adapted from a CS Forester novel. Hepburn and Bogart forever hover on the edge of parody; and half the time they feel like impressionists playing the actors playing their roles. It’s all very silly, and amazingly lightweight for a film that’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You die list. In fact, I’m surprised it actually made the list. Huston is on there eight times, and some of the choices are baffling – Prizzi’s Honour? WTF? After early classics like The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierre Madre (both also starring Humph), you have to wonder what happened…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 761


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Moving pictures, #20

A nice geographical spread this time, although only two films are from the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list.

entranced_earthEntranced Earth*, Glauber Rocha (1967, Brazil). I watched this while drinking wine, as you do, and liked it so much I drunkenly went and bought it on Amazon, along with the other two films with which it forms a trilogy – Black God, White Devil and Antonio das Mortes. Oh well, these things happen. I’ve since watched it again – sober, of course – and… I still loved it. It’s a very political film, set in the invented country of Eldorado during an election, in which a journalist tries to decide between a conservative candidate and a populist candidate, both of which are corrupt. The narrative skips back and forth in time and place – it opens at the governor’s palace, but there are also scenes with one of candidates out meeting the public, as well as scenes of the other candidate ranting about the natural superiority of the upper classes. The journalist is also a poet, so we get to see some of his poetry as well. And there’s an astonishing series of shots from high up on a radio mast beside a villa built on the top of a mountain. Plus a hot jazz score. And I hate jazz. It’s clearly influenced by France’s New Wave, but not to its detriment. I loved it. A damn good film. A plot that’s all politics, a non-linear narrative… Great stuff. As I said earlier. Obvs. [0]

late_autumnLate Autumn, Yasujirō Ozu (1960, Japan). And speaking of buying films from Amazon, I’m pretty sure I was sober when I purchased this but I’d actually meant to buy An Autumn Afternoon, which is on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, and not Late Autumn, which isn’t. Still, it’s Ozu and you can’t really go wrong with his films. Admittedly, I wasn’t all that taken with Tokyo Story, his most famous film, but I did like Floating Weeds, a later film, a great deal. And, having now watched Late Autumn, which I also liked a great deal, I think I ought to watch more of his films. Such as, er, An Autumn Afternoon. In tihs one, four middle-aged men turn up to the memorial service of a friend of theirs from college days, and decide to find a husband for the attractive daughter of their dead friend. It does not go well. Partly because the young woman does not want to leave her widowed mother alone, but also because the four blokes bungle their attempt at match-making. Late Autumn is a beautifully understated study of professional Japanese life. There are no theatrics, no histrionics, no need for special effects, just people going about their lives… and filmed with no pretensions by Ozu. [dual]

demyPeau d’âne, Jacques Demy (1970, France). Imagine a muscial version of Cinderella with Catherine Deneuve in the title role, only it’s not Cinderella it’s a story that’s a lot like it but a bit weird in places and, well, very Demy. But pretty much the same. Sort of. Deneuve plays a beautiful princess, whose father shows an un-paternal level of interest in her after her mother’s death. So she runs way to the woods, and with the help of magic appears as a poor and dirty servant girl when wearing the eponymous donkey skin. But the prince of a neighbouring country meets her (all his courtiers are red, whereas hers are blue), and wants to marry her. He has her ring – Cinderella’s slipper, in other words – and calls for every woman in the country to try on the ring so he can identify his one true love. Although the plot is pretty generic, the film is very Demy – the courtiers are completely coloured according to their court, so Deneuve’s retainers even wear blue face make-up; and, of course, there are songs, written by Michel Legrand, so if you’ve seen other Demy films you shold know what to expect. Mildly diverting. [2]

dancing_hawkDancing Hawk, Grzegorz Królikiewicz (1978, Poland). I really do like Polish cinema, butr I’m not entirely sure what to make of this one. Ostensibly, it’s the sotry of a self-made apparatchik, who rises high, only to lose it all in the end. But the opening shots depict his childhood during WWII, through much use of Dutch angles, weird shots and strange colour filters. And there’s an abrupt change to Polish realistic cinema, in that sort of TV drama style they do so well – I’m reminded of Wajda’s Man of Iron and Piestrak’s Test Pilota Pirxa – although that may just be the 1970s vibe. I should really wait until I’d rewatched this film before rewatching, but I’m getting a bit behind on my moving pictures posts… but perhaps I’ll write about it again after a rewatch. I will, however, note that I fancy getting that Królikiewicz box set… [0]

palefaceThe Paleface*, Norman Z MacLeod (1948, USA). There have been a number of films whose presence on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list I have found baffling, and none more so than this Bob Hope vehicle which manages to be mildly amusing and… well, that’s about all. My own list would include films others might find surprising, but I’d at least defend them; but there’s no documentation on the 1001 web site, so short of buying the actual book I’ve no way of knowing why this film makes the list. It certainly doesn’t deserve to – in fact, every other film in this post not on the list has a better claim to a place than The Paleface. Which may be slightly unfair, as there are plenty of films on the list which don’t belong on it. Bob Hope plays a dentist, and not a very sucessful one, whom Jane Russell decides to use as cover in her mission to travel eadt and discover who is running guns to the nasty Native Americans (who are, after all, trying to prevent their lands from being occupied by an invader; oh wait, the film doesn’t mention that).

strangerThe Stranger, Orson Welles (1946, USA). A war criminal is released so he can lead a war crimes investigator to a bigger fish. He’s followed to a small US town, where the investigator becomes suspicious of one of the local pillars of the community (played by Welles himself). Apparently, te film is notable for a number of reasons – that Welles wasn’t the first choice of director, and that the film incorporates newsreel footage of the Nazi death camps (because the Americans of the time didn’t really think they ever existed; some still don’t). My admiration for Welles’s work has grown over the past couple of years, and although it’s all too easy to forget quite how ground-breaking Citizen Kane was when it was made, so it’s easy to forget that many of his later films weren’t as straightforward as they initially appeared. The Stranger is by no means a highlight of his oeuvre, it is in most respects a relatively straightforward thriller of its time, but there’s lots to like in the less obvious details – such as the characterisation of some of the cast. Welles was never as clever cinematically as Hitchcock, but he was cleverer in other ways. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 758