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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.

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.

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.

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, #30

Only one US film in this lot? I must be slipping. Lots of British films though – more, in fact, than it appears, since the two Jennings collections contain 14 and 8 films respectively. They were a damn sight more interesting than the one US movie, too.

faithThe Silence, Ingmar Bergman (1963, Sweden). This is the third film in Tartan DVD’s The Faith Trilogy by Bergman (the other two in the set are Through A Glass Darkly and Winter Light), but I’ve not been watching them in order. The Silence is set in an invented Central European country. Two sisters, one with her young son, are travelling by train through the country, and stop to spend some time in one of the towns. The older of the two sisters is a translator; she is also ill. They take an apartment in a run-down, but grandiose, hotel. While the son wanders around the hotel – at one point acting about with a troupe of dwarfs from a Spanish travelling show – his mother wanders about the town, visiting a theatre, sitting in a bar, before returning to the hotel with a man. In an introduction, Bergman explains that he’s always liked The Silence, but was convinced it would be a flop. In fact, it proved one of his more successful films internationally. It’s filmed in stark black and white, with very little dialogue (only 38 lines, claims Bergman), and the faded grandeur of hotel and town is evident in every film. I’ve said before that watching a Bergman film is like reading a literary fiction short story… and that’s especially true of this one – but one of those slightly-fabulist European stories where a deep reading is needed to figure out what’s going on. I liked this film much more than Through A Glass Darkly, although only the latter is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

jennings_1The Humphrey Jennings Collection Volume 1: The First Days (2011, UK). After renting The Humphrey Jennings Collection Volume 2: Fires Were Started because the title film was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list, I decided to buy all three of the BFI collections of Jennings’s short documentaries. There are fourteen films in this set, from 1934 to 1940. The early ones cover subjects such as the history of the post office, steam locomotives, chalk barges in Cornwall, fashion, a postcard’s journey and the GPO’s telephone link with the US via shortwave (the films were made by the GPO Film Unit). Later films show Britain during WWII – not just of the Blitz, but also showing how the government and farmers worked together to raise crops on land left fallow. Given that the later films are actual propaganda, it’s hardly surprising they’re all patriotic and jolly-old-Britain-look-how-wonderful-we-are, although as historical documents they’re quite fascinating. But even the pre-war ones hav ea certain terribly English quality about them, not just because of the BBC accents, but also thanks to their slightly patronising listen-with-mother air. Some were mucy more interesting than others – while the post office ones were a bit dull, and 1934 documentary on locomotives had its moments, I did find ‘Speaking from America’ (1938), with its description of shortwave translantic communications, fascinating. Worth seeing.

baby_janeWhat Ever Happened to Baby Jane?*, Robert Aldrich (1962, USA). It would seem the most notable thing about this movie is that its two stars – Joan Crawford and Bette Davis – loathed each other, and that hatred fed into their portrayals of washed-up acting sisters. Because there’s nothing else in the film to warrant its appearance on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Davis plays a successful child star (well, not her, obvs, a child plays her) who didn’t make the grade as an adult actress; while her sister, Crawford, proved a star as an adult. Until, that is, an attempt by one sister to run over the other – they didn’t get on, even back then – resulted in Crawford being paralysed from the waist down and so killed her career. Who actually ran over who is not revealed, and left to provide a twist at the end… and it’s a pretty feeble twist. The film quickly sets up the sisters’ back-history, and cleverly uses clips from early films by Crawford and Davis, before leaping ahead to the early 1960s. Crawford is bed-ridden, and cared for by Davis, who resents her sister’s fame and the fact she now has to care for her. And then, afraid Crawford is going to sell the house, Davis begins to mistreat her – and impersonates her over the phone to hide her mistreatment… It’s a hard film to take seriously. The plot telegraphs every twist and turn with all the subtlety of a brick in the face, Davis plays her role like a wild-eyed loon, and Crawford couldn’t play a convincing doe-eyed victim to save her life. The final twist in the tale is, as mentioned earlier, neither a surprise nor dramatic. Meh.

jeuxJeux interdits*, René Cléments (1952, France). During WWII, a young girl’s parents are killed in an attack by a German Stuka, and she seeks refuge at a nearby farm. The family take her in, especially since she is of an age with their youngest son. When one of the older sons dies of his illness, the two kids begin a “game” of their own – they create a cemetery for the dead animals they find, and steal crosses from, first, the older son’s hearse and later the graveyard, for the graves of their creatures. When the boy’s father finds out, he is furious… eventually leading to the young girl being taken away to a refugee camp by the Red Cross. I like the films of Jean Renoir – some more than others, it has to be said – and Jean Cocteau; but I can’t say I’ve ever really got on with other French films made before, say, the mid-1950s. Actually, I did like À nous la liberté (1931), and Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) doesn’t count as the film may be French but he’s Danish… I’ve no idea what it is, I just find them a little dull, and often longer than they need to be. And so it was with this one. Meh.

jennings_3The Humphrey Jennings Collection Volume 3: A Diary for Timothy (2013, UK). There are only eight films in this final set, but they’re mostly longer than those in the first volume. They’re from 1944 to 1950 (Jennings died in a fall from a cliff in Greece in 1950, while scouting locations), and are mostly work done by the Crown Film Unit (originally the GPO Film Unit) during WWII. The opener, for example, explains how British troops took the German song ‘Lili Marlene’ as their own after finding copies of it in over-run German positions. ‘A Defeated People’ (1946), on the other hand, shows the Germans trying to rebuild their shattered cities – and no film of London during the Blitz can ever compare with what Hamburg looked like by the end of the war. I don’t think you could accuse Jennings’s war films of being jingoistic, despite the fact they were propaganda. Most seem designed to bolster the spirits of the Brits – yes, there’s a note of “they deserved it” in ‘A Defeated People’, but the film is bluntly honest about the state the allies left the country in (and it does rightly point a finger at some of the plutocrats, the Krupp family in this case, whose industrial empire is still going… and you’d be surprised at the number of global brands still in existence which actively supported the Nazi regime…). Anyway, like the first and second volumes, this is worth seeing.

billBill, Richard Bracewell (2015, UK). I stumbled across this on Amazon Prime, and initial indications were not especially good… Bill Shakespeare is thrown out of his lute band after doing a blinding solo in a song during a gig. So he writes a play and decides to head to London to seek fame and fortune… Where he gets embroiled in a plot by the Earl of Croydon and King Philip II of Spain to kill Queen Elizabeth at a peace summit between the two. The story fits in Shakespeare’s “lost years”, between his departure from Stratford and appearance on the London stage. But I’m pretty sure it don’t go as this film claimed. I wasn’t that impressed initially – the humour was mostly based on anachronisms, and that’s a hard trick to pull off. But as it progressed, the jokes got funnier, the humour sharper, and the plot, er, thicker. The film was put together by the central cast from the Horrible Histories series, and is the second project they’ve worked together on (the first was Yonderland). They each play multiple roles, and they’re good in them (some, in fact, it took me a while to notice they were the same actors). There are some good lines and running gags, and it’s all a good deal funnier than Ben Elton’s lacklustre Upstart Crow.

trentTrent’s Last Case, Herbert Wilcox (1952, UK). I found this in a local charity shop and thought it worth a go. It wasn’t. It’s apparently the third film version of a 1913 novel by EC Bentley, which is considered by many to be the first send-up novel of the crime genre. Bentley also invented the clerihew (it is, in fact, his middle name). Despite the title, Trent’s Last Case was actually the first novel by Bentley featuring journalist/detective Philip Trent – and was intended as a standalone, but proved so popular Bentley wrote a sequel in 1936, Trent’s Own Case (and a short story collection, Trent Intervenes, in 1938). Wealthy businessman Sigsbee Manderson is found dead in the garden of his home, apparently a suicide. Trent, covering the death for his newspaper, investigates and decides it was murder. Initially, he believes the widow to be the guilty party, but then fastens on the tycoon’s personal assistant. But when he accuses the PA, and explains how the crime went down, he’s told he has some parts right – moving the body, impersonating the dead man, falsifying an alibi – but the tycoon did apparently kill himself. At which point, the widow’s uncle reveals that he actually killed the tycoon, accidentally, in a wrestle over a gun. Trent also falls in love with the widow, and asks her to marry him. Michael Wilding was awful as Trent, Orson Welles wore bizarre prosthetic eyebrows and a prosthetic nose which made him look like Parker from Thunderbirds, and Margaret Lockwood only reminded me of better actresses from the period. The film may have been a piss-take of crime novel conventions, but it came across as just a badly-plotted film. Oh well.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 776