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Moving pictures 2018, #56

Another eccentric half dozen movies – well, okay, maybe Ant-Man and the Wasp isn’t eccentric. And one of these days I’ll figure out why I  still bother to watch MCU movies, although to be fair to it, Ant-Man and the Wasp was far less annoying than most of its ilk. The rest are… two directors whose films I like, an interesting documentary, some meh Oscar bait, and the third in a trilogy of Swedish films I have yet to really get a handle on…

Star 80, Bob Fosse (1983, USA). I’m a big fan of Fosse’s All That Jazz, which is why I decided to work my way through his oeuvre. He’s also a difficult director to get handle on – not a crowd-pleaser, despite the big dance numbers; with a willingness to push the boundaries of cinematic narrative. Which he certainly does in this, his last film (he died in 1987). It’s a dramatisation of the life and death of Dorothy Stratten, a Playboy model, who was murdered by her husband at the height of her fame. Sf fans may known Stratten from her role as the title character in Galaxina (a dreadful low-budget sf film) or as the “most genetically perfect woman in the galaxy” in an episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Or perhaps even from Playboy – well, the magazine did publish science fiction stories by some very well-known names. The film jumps about chronologically, with the narrative mostly being driven by the husband’s self-aggrandising account of events. He’s played by Eric Roberts, who should have been nominated for an Oscar but the character was such a creep it likely turned the Academy off. Plot-wise, there’s little to tell. Cliff Robertson seems a little too charming as Hugh Hefner – I’ve seen footage of the real man and he comes across as a bit creepy, to be honest. Mariel Hemingway is a bit vacuous as Dorothy Stratten – but then it’s clear Fosse was in love with the character played by Roberts. The fractured chronology works well, and while there’s nothing stand-out about the cinematography – and no trademark choreography either – Star 80 does look more like a feature film than a made-for-TV movie, which is what the material suggests. Not his best, although Roberts’s turn is worth seeing.

A Successful Man, Humberto Solás (1985, Cuba). I really need to find a way to explore more of Solás’s oeuvre as the few films I’ve seen by him have been very good – and, in fact, his Lucía I count among my top ten favourite films. But all I have by him is Lucía from the 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution DVD box set and the three films in this box set – which I am profoundly glad I managed to find for a reasonable price as it’s now going for silly money; the transfers are not great, but every serious cineaste should own a copy of it. Anyway, A Successful Man is about two brothers over thirty years of Cuban history, from 1932 to the revolution in 1959. To be honest, I found this a little confusing initially – it wasn’t entirely clear which of the two brothers, Darío or Javier, was the successful one, at least not until around an hour in when their father makes it clear which of the two he considers the black sheep of the family. And yet, Javier, the rebel, didn’t appear to have done all that much that was rebellious. Granted, the film seems to be more about the two brothers’ relationships than it is manning the barricades or anything; but even so while Darío reaps the rewards of his adaptability to the winds of political change, Javier’s situation doesn’t seem all that deprived. Having said that, A Successful Man does well what Solás has done well in his other films (that I’ve seen). The period setting is excellently presented and, while the cinematography would have benefited from a better transfer, it was clearly good. Solás likes his close-ups, especially of women’s faces, and he gets performances out of his cast that justify such close-ups. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the musical cues – there was an electric bass clearly audible in background music played during a scene set in the 1930s… Of course, it all comes down to politics – the film covers Cuba’s turbulent history from Machado in 1932 to Torrado in 1959… And I admit I know only the very broad strokes of Cuban history. But movies are a good way to learn more, and Cuban movies are, I have found, both excellent films in their own right and also very informative on the history of the island – either that or they send you down a rabbit-hole of Wikipedia research… Which is, it must be admitted, more than can be said of Hollywood movies. But that’s by the bye. I’ve now seen four films by Solás and I’ve liked what I’ve seen. He made 24 films between 1958 and 2005 (he died in 2008). And those films by him I’ve seen are quality stuff. One is even a favourite. He’s an excellent candidate for a box set of restored movies.

The Pianist, Roman Polanski (2002, France). I know, I shouldn’t watch Polanski films, no matter how celebrated; and to be honest, I hadn’t known The Pianist was by him when I started watching it. I only knew it was yet another in that long line of Holocaust porn movies Hollywood churns out every so often in order to bolster its liberal credentials. And, as in this case, they’re usually adapted from books. The Pianist is based on the autobiography by the same name by Władysław Szpilman. He was a pianist for Polish Radio who, with the rest of his family, was consigned to the Warsaw Ghetto by the Nazis. When they came to round everyone up and send them to the death camps, he managed to escape. He eked out an existence in Warsaw, staying in bombed-out buildings, and relying on friends and, eventually, a sympathetic Wehrmacht officer who appreciated his piano-playing. When you watch films like this, and know that what they depict absolutely fucking really happened, then it makes you want to punch Nazis all the more. Because the Nazis murdered six million Jews. That’s a stone cold historical fact. It is not “up for debate”. Condemning the Holocaust is not a view that requires “balance”. And if we had a press that actually did its job in such matters, we’d not be in the situation we are now. Polanski may be a rapist shitbag, but Szpilman’s experiences are as important now as they have ever been. Perhaps turning them into “entertainment” – well, Oscar bait – does them a disservice and cheapens them, makes light of the atrocities committed by the Nazis. Except, well, you’d have to be spectacularly stupid, or shallow, to consider light of a systematic effort by one nation to wipe out an entire race. So go ahead, punch a Nazi; and if you can’t find a handy one, punch a Trump supporter or a Brexiteer instead, it’s the next best thing.

Ice and the Sky, Luc Jacquet (2015, France). The Anglophone world, and some other parts of the Western world, and maybe a few other places like India, are all a bit of a dumpster fire at the moment. The right wingers are taking over, and where they’re not the press is bigging them up as if they were. How we treat refugees is the defining characteristic of our age, and we are all mostly failing. The call for stricter border controls is based on a complete fallacy – there is no need for border controls in the first place, they are a late Victorian invention. So with all that going on, is global warming such a bad thing? I mean, wouldn’t the world be a better place if nature culled the population a bit? Of course, any natural disasters brought on by global warming would disproportionately hit those parts of the world who have done the least to cause it, and/or the least deserve its effects… And I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. This is relevant because… Ice and the Sky is a documentary about polar scientist Claude Lorius, who was the first person to raise concerns about global warming. That was back in 1965. It’s said the oil companies knew of its likely effects by the 1970s, but chose to pursue profits instead. In fact, the bulk of global warming has been caused by around a dozen companies – and they’re the usual suspects: Chevron, BP, Aramco, Gazprom, Royal Dutch Shell… Future centuries – assuming we survive – will wonder why we didn’t prosecute corporations or people for crimes against the environment (not to mention crimes against the economy). Ice and the Sky is interesting inasmuch as it covers the career of Lorius, as well as because he spent a lot of time in the Antarctic. And this was back in the 1950s and 1960s, when it was considerably more dangerous than it is now. In one memorable sequence, two Lockheed C-130s crash, one after the other, on attempting take-off, and it is only because the third is successful that the scientists manage to escape. Fascinating stuff.

Ant-Man and the Wasp, Peyton Reed (2018, USA). I’m not a fan of superhero movies and I’m certainly not a fan of the MCU. But it has produced the occasional entertaining movie and Ant-Man was borderline that. While Ant-Man and the Wasp ups the silliness, and cuts down the improv (thank fuck), it is also a marginally more entertaining and better film. Scott Lang, Ant-Man, is nearing the end of two years of house arrest, his punishment for the events of Captain America: Civil War, when he has a weird dream about Janet van Dyne, the original Wasp, the scientist wife of scientist Hank Pym, the original Ant-Man, who has been lost in the “quantum realm” for thirty years. When he lets Pym, and his daughter Hope, know about the message, they kidnap him… and the race is on to rescue Janet from the quantum realm, while prevent matter-phasing villain Ghost from stealing their quantum technology, not to mention a black market dealer from also stealing the tech… So you have Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly (which was a bit weird as I’ve only just started watching Lost for the first time) and Michael Douglas running around San Francisco, trying to outwit a bunch of several different groups of not very smart people who nonetheless manage to outsmart them, all the while trying to visit the realm of mad CGI in order to rescue Michelle Pfeiffer who has been lost there for thirty fucking years but still remembers who everyone is. It’s all complete nonsense and entirely risible, but it manages a lightness of tone that mitigates the nonsense which other MCU movies don’t. I enjoyed it, I freely admit it. But it’s not a good film, and it only counts as “well-made” when judged against other MCU movies. If one day someone were to put together a list of top ten MCU films… then they really should fucking watch some other movies.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, Roy Andersson (2014, Sweden). This is the third of  a trilogy, which includes Songs from the Second Floor and You, the Living, and which are not especially easy to describe. They all share a unique approach to film-making, as they comprise a series of vignettes, some linked and some not, in which the production design and the cast are deliberately made to look more depressing than they actually are. If that makes sense. Usually, there is a linking mechanism. In this film, it is a pair of lugubrious salesmen who are trying to sell Halloween masks to reluctant buyers. Andersson films are hard to describe, if not just because they don’t have a plot per se. It’s more about the bits that stand out. And in this film it’s a sequence in which a mediaeval king of Sweden, and his army, stop off in a modern-day coffee shop on their way to a battle. The king expects to be treated like, well, a king, despite the fact the meaning of royalty has changed considerably in the centuries since. And yet, when he needs to go to the toilet, he goes off to the loo as if it were perfectly normal. It’s in that impedance mismatch between the present day and the world Andersson presents that much of Andersson’s black humour lies, but in this film you have an extra layer inasmuch as Andersson imposes historical events on the present day. It is surprisingly effective and, bizarrely, actually quite funny. I don’t know how well Andersson reflects Swedish humour, and given the few Swedes I personally know, I suspect he’s not entirely typical, and yet still seen by most Swedes as funny; which one might well say of a lot of Brits and British humour. Andersson’s trilogy is definitely worth seeing, even if its humour is more likely to raise eyebrows than it is guffaws.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 932

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Moving pictures 2018, #48

Some good directors in this post, ones I should watch more films by… although I’ve seen all of Martel’s movies except her most recent, and Solás, who made twenty-four films… well, few of his are available on DVD in the UK – and I think I have all the ones that are.

The Fallen Idol, Carol Reed (1948, UK). Reed, of course, is best known for The Third Man, but he made 29 feature films, and won the Oscar for Best Director for Oliver! in 1968. The Fallen Idol is an accomplished late 1940s thriller, more so because it is told chiefly from the point of view of a young boy. Philippe is the young son of the French ambassador to London. He adores his father’s butler, played by Ralph Richardson, who tells him stories of his adventures in Africa. But when Philippe accidentally witnesses a meeting between Richardson and his mistress – identified to the boy as Richardson’s niece – and then starts spending time with them, and the news filters back to Richardson’s wife… Richardson and his wife quarrel and she falls down the stairs and dies. Philippe witnessed the start of the fight, but not the all-important part where Richardson walked away and the wife slipped and fell. Philippe’s refusal to speak ill of Richardson actually hampers the police investigation, who begin to suspect Richardson of murder. It’s all very cleverly done, but the fact the viewer sees the accident happen does make it all feel a bit like an episode of Columbo. The boy who plays Philippe is especially good, although the career promised by the film never materialised. The Fallen Idol doesn’t have the bite of other Reed films (um, well, not including Oliver!), but is a good example of a tightly-plotted well-made thriller. If only good films were ever made, it would be considered a mediocre effort; but compared against the crap that’s usually produced in any given year, it stands out as a solid piece of work. Worth seeing.

The Holy Girl, Lucrecia Martel (2004, Argentina). Martel has to date made only four feature films, and I have so far seen all but her most recent, last year’s Zama. I would put her in the top twenty-five directors working in film today. The Holy Girl, or La niña santa, is perhaps not the best of her films, but it’s certainly the one that’s most characteristically hers in terms of technique. Martel likes to film as if she were a voyeur, through doorways and windows, more fly-on-the-wall than actually staged, and in this film there is plenty of that in evidence. The story concerns an Argentine schoolgirl who, after being frottaged by a doctor staying at her mother’s hotel for a medical conference, decides it is her holy mission to save him. But all that happens in and around the interaction of the main characters – the girl, her friends, her mother, the doctors at the conference… To say any more would be a spoiler. Martel has a singular approach to drama, and while it’s tempting to compare her to Claudia Llosa (a Peruvian), it’s an unfair comparison: Martel is the more technically accomplished film-maker, but Llosa’s films just have the edge for me (though Llosa’s films are harder to find in the UK). Despite that, Martel seems to have more of a career – Llosa’s last film was 2014, and there’s no news of anything new from her – and she’s an excellent director, definitely one whose career is worth following. Recommended.

Beloved, Humberto Solás (1985, Cuba). I foolishly didn’t buy this box set of seven Cuban films when it was available, and once it was deleted the price shot up to around the £75 mark (and I see there’s a copy on Amazon going for £150 now). Fortunately, I stumbled across a much cheaper copy on eBay, and when it arrived it was still shrinkwrapped. Result. The first film I chose to watch from the set was Cecelia… but the disc labelled that proved to actually contain Beloved. And vice versa. Oops. All the others could be mixed up too, I’ve not checked. But at least the films are there.  I’m not the first to remark on the similarity between Solás’s films and Visconti’s. Both have made lush period dramas, with mostly static cameras, but with lots of close-ups and reaction shots, and the occasional painterly mid-range shot. In Beloved (AKA Amada), which is set in 1914, a woman, Amada, and her husband, live with her blind mother. He has a mistress, and is about to embark on a career in local politics (which the first scene of the film describes as extremely corrupt). Amada is in love with her cousin, and he is in love with her. But she refuses to leave her husband because she would be branded an adulteress. Meanwhile, the husband has been working on the maid to get her to persuade the mother to sell the house and other properties. As the title indicates, the film is about Amada, a prisoner in her marriage, increasingly held prisoner by the maid, who won’t let her see her mother… The dialogue is pretty intense, with characters often lecturing each other, but that’s hardly unexpected in a film adapted from an early twentieth-century novel – in this case Miguel de Carrión’s 1929 novel La esfinge (The Sphinx). It’s all pretty glum stuff, as Amada’s situation deteriorates and echoes that of the country. I suspect this film would look very nice indeed if restored, but the transfer in the box set is not brilliant. The dark areas frequently overwhelm the screen and the muted colour palette doesn’t work so well on a television screen – even if it does successfully evoke the period. Still, a good film, especially if you like period dramas.

Cecilia, Humberto Solás (1982, Cuba). An adaptation of an extremely important Cuban novel, Cecilia Valdés by Cirilo Villaverde, published in 1839, and apparently released as a six-hour TV mini-series, a four-hour domestic feature film, and a two-hour international feature film. It’s the last which appears in the Viva Cuba box set. In many ways, I mentioned above that Solás’s work reminds me of Visconti’s, and Cecilia certainly put me very much in mind of The Innocent. It’s also an historical piece, about an important part of Cuban history, but also about the role of women – and slaves, and mixed-race people – in Cuban society, at a time between the Haiti revolution and Cuban independence. I tried to think of a film that covered a similarly shameful period in UK history… and failed. There are shameful episodes aplenty in British history, but the British public is more likely to get in an uproar when a US film completely ignores the British contribution to something historically important. I suppose the same is equally true of the US, which still has plenty to be shameful about. Having said that, Hollywood has been so creative with history over the decades that most people probably think historical films aren’t necessarily true. Fake history! As the brainless orange-faced incumbent in the White House would no doubt say. On the other hand, Cecilia is adapted from a nineteenth-century novel, so some element of artistic licence is baked in. And Solás apparently took some liberties with the plot. Anyway, like Amada, this is an excellent period drama, and reportedly the most expensive film made at that time.

The Cloverfield Paradox, Julius Onah (2018, USA). I don’t know what possessed me to watch this, a crappy sf film badly shoe-horned into the Cloverfield trilogy, which is not actually a trilogy just a dumb JJ Abrams dumb marketing gimmick… but I suppose the cast – and it’s a generally good cast – might have suggested it couldn’t be as bad as most reviews claimed. Sadly, those reviews – and I find most film reviews suspiciously positive about the even shittiest output of Hollywood – were closer to the mark. The Cloverfield Paradox is a perfect example of why I have a low opinion of sf cinema. There have been only a handful of sf films made in the last 100 years which are any good, and that’s a much lower hit-rate than pretty much every other cinematic genre (except maybe the American coming-of-age movie, which has yet to produce a single good film). In The Cloverfield Paradox, an international team of astronauts are experimenting with a particle accelerator aboard a purpose-built space station. Because apparently accelerating a particle will solve the Earth’s energy crisis. Or something. Given the space station apparently has artificial gravity, you’d have thought solving that problem would probably help with the energy crisis. Unfortunately, it seems accelerating a particle actually shifts the space station into an alternate reality. (Which explains much of recent history post-CERN here on Earth.) The astronauts figure this out because they realise they are upside-down, and so they must be on the opposite side of the Sun to the Earth. WTF. Hollywood science: like science, but complete bullshit. Meanwhile, giant monsters have been appearing on Earth. Because. It’s all completely meaningless bollocks, which is a shame because it has a good cast – not just Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who was unknown to me, but also Daniel Brühl, Chris O’Dowd, Elizabeth Debicki and Ziyi Zhang. Avoid.

The Go Master, Tian Zhuangzhuang (2006, China). This is pretty much a straight-up biopic of famous Chinese Go master Wu Qingyuan, famous in Japan as Go Seigen. Born in China, Wu moves to Japan as a teenager in order to pursue a career playing Go. But when the Sino-Japanese War breaks out in the 1930s, he decides to remain. At intervals, displays text explaining the events which lead to the life-changing decisions Wu makes, but the text starts in third-person before abruptly shifting to first-person, which is a little odd. The film also makes little effort to introduce the game of Go, and after watching it I’m no clearer about how the game is played than I was before. It does make Wu’s skill – he’s reckoned the greatest twentieth-century player of the game – something you have to take on faith. Like other of Tian’s films, the cinematography is excellent, and the acting top-notch. The pace is slow, but at 104 minutes this is not a long film. I suspect it will appeal more to those who understand, or are interested in, Go. I’ve yet to be convinced by Tian’s films yet. They look gorgeous, but there never seems to be much going on in them. I’ve to date seen four, including this one, of his eleven feature films. I’d like to see more, but there are plenty of Fifth and Sixth Generation directors whose films are available in the UK, so perhaps I should work my way through those first…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 931


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2016, the best of the year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Moving pictures, #56

A right proper mix this time around. I have recently simplified my lists on LoveFilm. Previously, I was running three lists – one for Hollywood blockbusters, one for classic movies, and one for world cinema. I’ve now combined them into one for English-language films and one for non-Anglophone movies. I am not in the slightest bit desperate to see the latest films released by Hollywood as soon as I can and am happy to wait before eventually watching them. Besides, there’s always Amazon Prime if I want to watch crap US films…

ray_1Charulata, Satyajit Ray (1964, India). This is the second film in the Satyajit Ray collection I bought, but unlike the first it is an historical piece. The title is the name of a young woman in 1870s Kolkata, whose husband asks a friend to keep her company. It’s based on a novella by Rabindranath Tagore. Her husband is rich and publishes a newspaper called The Sentinel. Determined not to be a member of the “idle rich”, he involves himself in every aspect of running his newspaper. To keep his wife company, he invites his cousin to stay. The cousin, Amal, is a bit of a waster but claims to be a writer, and Bhupati hopes Amal will help Charu with her stated intention to write. But the two’s relationship soon moves beyond mentor and pupil – especially after the pupil demonstrates more talent than the master. The film takes place almost entirely within the large house occupied by Bhupati and Charu, and even features a couple of musical numbers. There’s a scene set on s beach which features some nice photography, although Ray is not above using clichés (a camera moving from the foot of a table up to its surface to reveal a letter, for example). Madhabi Mukherjee totally shines in the title role, outdoing many a Hollywood star. It’s an odd film in that it feels complete ahistorical, despite its carefully presented period – not just the set dressing and costumes, but also several mentions that India is still governed by Britain. It’s the first film I’ve seen that has persuaded me Ray is as good as Ghatak, although they each had a very different approach to cinema. For most of its length,  Charulata feels like a cross between a light social comedy and drawing-room farce, with a strong thread of rom com and social drama, but there’s an astonishing daydream sequence in the middle, in which Charu has a blinding moment of inspiration and writes a story which is then published in a magazine. Good stuff.

herzogStroszek, Werner Herzog (1977, Germany). Herzog had stumbled across Bruno S and cast him in the lead in The Enigma of Kaspar Hausar, but was so taken with the busker, that he wrote this film specifially with Bruno S in mind as the title character. Of course, there are other of Herzog’s interests paraded before the camera, such as a livestock auctioneer, as in How Much Wood Would A Woodchuck Chuck, auctioning off the title character’s possessions toward the end of the film. Stroszek is a Berlin street performer who has fled Germany with his girlfriend after running afoul of gangsters, They decide to settle in “Railroad Flats”, a dead-end town in middle America. Things initially go well, but their natures will out and the pair end up badly in debt. she does a runner and he turns to drink. A friend persuades him to help in a bank robbery. It goes badly wrong. It’s hard to know what to make of Stroszek. It is, on the surface, a straightforward drama about a hard-luck protagonist. But, on the one had, it’s so clearly tailored to Bruno S that it wouldn’t work without him; but on the other hand, some of the elements of the plot simply don’t ring true as something Bruno S would do. But then Herzog was always more about the philosophy than he was such bourgeois ideas as narrative, plot and structure. Stroszek is not a film about a man who makes a fresh start only to see it turn to shit, it’s about an implacable universe and the way stories too often manipulate that indifference in order to provide the ending the audience desires. Most movies are commercial constructs and so formalising their design – creating a “formula” – helps the industry maximise their effectiveness. But there’s no truth in that, and art is about truth. Hollywood delivers product, Herzog can never be accused of doing the same. He has built a career out of presenting naivety, but doing it in such a way that it not only entertains but also reveals truth. Stroszek is big on naivety – it’s Bruno S’s biggest selling-point – but low on truth. And while the film is entertaining, I can’t help thinking Herzog’s instincts led him astray. There is nothing new in Stroszek, and the film suffers as a result.

loreleiThe Lorelei, Mol Smith (2016, UK). I found this on Amazon Prime, and was sufficiently misled by the description to watch it. The Lorelei is a British independent film, which means it has production values on a par with a double-glazing advert. A young woman hires a private investigator to investigate the death of her step-father in Oxford under mysterious circumstances. He involves his house-mate, a student who moonlights as an escort. The police then become involved when some of the escorts run by the same woman who runs the student are found dead in mysterious circumstances. We’re meant to believe the deaths are the work of a lorelei, a creature living in the Isis who takes the form of a young woman. Who pours water into their mouth from her own mouth and so drowns them. But The Lorelei is not framed as a horror film, but as a mystery. And as a mystery it fails because it can’t keep its central idea secret until the third act. There’s one twist in the story, but it’s a weak one – because it doesn’t really matter, the story has focused so much on other things that the mystery it resolves is secondary. I’ve no idea why I bothered watching this all the way to the end, it was pretty bad.

onceOnce, John Carney (2007, Ireland). This is not my usual viewing, as you no doubt have realised, but Once is on one of the other 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die lists and it was free to watch on Amazon Prime and it was a Sunday afternoon, so… Sadly, Once has a more interesting genesis than it does a plot. A busker in Dublin becomes friends with a young Czech woman, the two perform together, eventually record a demo of his songs, before returning to their separate loves. Initially, Cillian Murphy was going to play the lead role, but he pulled out and the part was taken by Glen Hansard, who had written the songs, and who is probably best-known for playing Outspan in The Commitments. The initial financing for the film pretty much collapsed, and it was eventually made on the cheap for $150,000, only to earn considerably more than that at the box office. That I find heartening. The story itself is packed full of clichés from start to finish, but happily is carried by the charm of its cast and the verisimilitude of its musical performances. It’s not precisely a feelgood movie, although it definitely heads in that direction – but no one is going to walk away from seeing it depressed. I can’t call myself a fan, but I sort of enjoyed it.

black_catThe Black Cat*, Edward G Ulmer (1934, USA). I’ve noticed that some film critics seem to revere monster movies out of all proportion to their quality. They even talk of a “Golden Age”. I’m not sure that The Black Cat fits in that period, but it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, so clearly the makers of the list held it in’some regard. I have no idea why. A young married couple are travelling through Hungary when their train breaks down. They have made the acqauntaince of Béla Lugosi, who is returning to the area after many years away (most of which were spent in a POW camp). There’s a bus accident, and they all end up at the home of Boris Karloff, a renowned Austrian architect, whose house in built on the ruins of a castle whose garrison he betrayed during the war. Lugosi was at that garrison and he’s out for vengeance. Karloff also collects the corpses of young women, er, because. One of which is Lugosi’s wife. There’s also Lugosi’s daughter, who is being kept by Karloff. And it’s all to do with some secret Satanic cult which Karloff leads. The sets aren’t bad, although Lang did much better, and the film generally looks quite good for a movie of its period and genre. But Lugosi is absolutely terrible, he gurns and grimaces like a prime hock of ham. The Black Cat is one of those films whose presence on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list I find completely baffling.

luciaLucía*, Humberto Solás (1968, Cuba). I watched this film purely because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list. I knew nothing about it before putting it into the DVD player. But having now seen it… I’m reminded of my response to Black God White Devil. I watched it… and then went and bought all three films available on DVD by Glauber Rocha. Coincidentally, also released by Mr Bongo. And also piss-poor transfers. While I didn’t dash out and buy all of Solás’s films after seeing Lucía, I did buy myself a copy of Lucía. Because it’s a film that is just so good. Which came as a surprise to me as, much like the Rocha one, I had not expecting to find myself so taken by it. It tells the story of three women called Lucía, in 1895, 1933 and 196-. The first is an historical conflict piece, the second a doomed romance, and the third more of a cinema verité movie. Lucía in 1895 elopes with a dashing young man, only to learn she has been used to discover the location of the nationalists’ headquarters. It’s all completely over-the-top, but in a gloriously historical way. Lucía 1933 is a more sedate affair, in which the eponymous young woman leaves her middle-class family to live with a young revolutionary, and ends up working in a cigar factory. The section marks a cusp between the first and last sections, and contrasts the two social classes. The final section shows Lucía living in a hearty communist utopia, which is couched in terms of her relationship with her new husband. It’s handled with a light, even comedic, touch, and the cast are uniformly good – in fact they are in all three sections. Something about Lucía immediately appealed to me, so I went and bought myself a copy. I shall no doubt now discover there’s a much better, and correspondingly expensive, transfer of the film available from Criterion… Recommended.

1001 Movies you Must See Before you Die count: 812