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Moving pictures 2017, #65

Some lucky finds in this batch. I don’t know how many TV channels I get via Virgin Media, but there are so many repeats and so much crap on them it’s near impossible to find anything worthwhile to watch. So I don’t usually bother. The same is true of Amazon Prime, although I’ve managed to find an occasional gem. The advantage of Amazon Prime, or indeed any streaming service, is that when you find something worth watching, you can watch it whenever you want, you don’t have tune in at a specific time. Not all free-to-air channels have apps or players, after all.

The Perfume of the Lady in Black, Francesco Barilli (1974, Italy). As I’d enjoyed the gialli I’d seen, when I found this one on Amazon Prime, I stuck it on my watch list. It was more of a supernatural thriller than the others I’ve watched, but despite being cheap and cheerful was really quite effective. Mimsy Farmer plays an industrial chemist who has mysterious visions of a young girl, and it turns out they’re sort of flashbacks, or rather manifestations from her repressed memories, especially those surrounding her mother, who committed suicide in mysterious circumstances. Not all films made in the 1960s and 1970s in Italy are giallo, and although many of them take their inspirations from the cheap comics after which they’re named, some managed to rise above their genre. True, most of the ones I’ve seen have managed that, but I suspect I’m seeing the cream of the crop. The Perfume of the Lady in Black was another good one – not the cheap giallo its title promised, but an atmospheric supernatural thriller that even the Italian film industry’s cheap production values could not completely destroy. Worth seeing.

200 Pounds Beauty, Kim Yong-hwa (2006, South Korea). There was that Farrelly brothers film years ago, famous chiefly for Gwyneth Paltrow in a fat suit, in which Jack Black is hypnotised to see the “inner beauty” of people – well, women – and so sees Paltrow as really hot rather the fat-suited character she plays. And while there’s almost nothing to recommend the film, other than its overall message of not judging people by their appearances, it manages better than this recent and highly successful South Korean rom com. Hanna Kang is a ghost singer for pop star Ammy. She is also very overweight. But she fancies the svengali behind Ammy’s career, and mistakes his kindness for interest (human, rather than financial). When she learns the truth, she walks away. And undergoes extensive plastic surgery to reduce her weight. She auditions for her old job, pretending to be a Korean-American called Jenny, but is instead groomed as a pop star in her own right, so eclipsing Ammy and winning the heart of the man of her dreams… Of course, no rom com can end happily on false pretences, so Hanna comes clean but still gets her man and her career. The comedy is quite good, but I’m really not sure about the message of the film. The same actress plays Hanna and “Jenny”, and the make-up is extremely effective. But it all feels very old-fashioned and fat-shaming,

Captains Courageous* Victor Fleming (1937, USA). I watched this because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I wasn’t truthfully expecting all that much from it. An early Hollywood film, one of those mystifying choices they stuck on list because it’s so, well, Hollywood-centric, but never mind, I’ll watch it. And… it was actually a good film. Not at all what I expected. It’s based on a Rudyard Kipling novel, but there are significant changes from the book which, to me, make the film a great deal better. (Er, not, I hasten to add, that I’ve read the book. I’m going on the Wikipedia plot summary.) Harvey is the spoilt son of a billionaire, and if the film had been about his adventures at school it would have been irritating as shit… But, yes, while he’s painted as an annoying little manipulative prick, his last attempt goes awry and he’s rusticated. So his father – his mother had died years before – decides to take him to Europe on a business trip in an attempt to bond. But the lad falls off the cruise liner just off the US coast… and is picked up by a fisherman out of Massachusetts. But the fishing schooner will not return to port for another three months so Harvey is forced to work for his passage. And it makes a decent person of him. It’s typical Kipling, and the Hollywood treatment is manipulative as hell, but it’s actually quite affecting. Having Spencer Tracy play a Portugese fisherman with poor English is appalling casting. and if they’d wanted him that desperately in the role they could have rewritten it, or done the right thing and cast a Latino actor… But this was 1937, and Hollywood was busy making sure only white people got to do anything. As they are still doing today. I’ll be honest: I was expecting another forgettable Hollywood film from the 1930s for this entry in the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, but I actually thought Captains Courageous done quite well. Worth seeing.

Paisan*, Roberto Rossellini (1946, Italy). I’m not a big fan of Italian Neorealism, although I’ve seen plenty of films that qualify as it. I have, to date, watched three of Rossellini’s films, although plenty more by his contemporaries, such as Fellini, De Sica, Pasolini… Paisan, or Paisà, comprises six unrelated stories set during the Allied liberation of Italy. It’s done on the cheap – with a mostly non-professional cast – but it actually works quite well for the stories the movie tells. As the Germans move out, the Americans move in.  But only some of the Italians welcome them. The rest expect the Germans to return and defeat the Americans, and uphold the rule of fascism. Even though this film was made 70 years ago, immediately after a long war against fascists, there were still those who’d sooner follow Mussolini or Hitler. and yes, they were just as stupid back then as they are now. Because there’s nothing remotely intelligent in the right-wing world-view – but, as someone astutely pointed out on Twitter recently, common sense and/or logic is no antidote to thirty years of brainwashing that liberalism/socialism will destroy civilisation. Paisan is set, in effect, at the end of civilisation – ie, a country torn by a long global war… and for those who lived there it’s easy to imagine how liberators could be seen as invaders. Which is somewhat ironic, given that in the twenty-first centry invaders tend to be presented as liberators anyway… I’m not a big fan of Italian Neorealist films, nor of many of those made in Italy in the immediate aftermath of WWII (and let’s not forget, they were Axis), but Paisan was actally pretty damn good. It deserves its place on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

Come Drink With Me*, King Hu (1966, China). I’d had trouble finding a copy of this to watch as it seems it has never been released in the UK… and then it pops up on Amazon Prime. So there you go. It’s a Hong Kong historical martial arts/wu xia film, by the director of A Touch of Zen, and notable chiefly because its lead is female. And, er, that’s it. It’s a fun film, in much the same way wu xia films from the 1960s are fun films. The lead character, Golden Swallow, played by Cheng Pei-pei, is referred to as “sir” throughout, but I don’t know if that’s because others are meant to take her as male – and they profess to know the name Golden Swallow, and her reputation – or because treating her as male is a sign of respect. Which is odd. Other than that, Come Drink With Me‘s plot is pretty straightforward and little different to that of other films of its type and time, or indeed of other King Hu films. I enjoyed it, but then I do like a good wu xia… but I’m not convinced it belongs on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before you Die list. If its one claim to fame is having a female lead, then the film should be celebrated, but it seems a bit hypocritical to put it on the list for that for Hong Kong cinema and not do the same of Hollywood cinema. Call it a film that fans of martial arts or wu xia films should watch, and leave it at that.

Utopia, James Benning (1998, USA). I’m pretty sure my favourite form of art is the video installation – and I’ve explored these in a number of  cities’ museums – but such installations generally comprise looped films of no more than 30 minutes in length. Benning’s films are often long – this one is nearly 90 minutes. And yet, they’re not non-narrative cinema either, as that would be Koyaanisqatsi or Baraka. Benning’s films are art. But they’re a moving picture, and, unlike video installations, the installation itself is the same as that of narrative cinema. (Mostly, although some of Benning’s works are actual installations.) The really interesting thing about Benning’s films, or at least many of them, is that they resemble non-narrative films but present a narrative in non-traditional ways. In Casting a Glance, it’s a recreation of the water levels throughout the lifetime of Spiral Jetty; in El Valley Centro, it’s the position of the horizon in each 2.5 minute shot; in Deseret, it’s excerpts from the New York Times, read out over short static footage of the state of Utah; and so on… I like the fact some of these “narratives” are extra-textual; I like that they are not obvious; and I certainly like that they require work by the viewer to make sense. In Utopia, a female voice describes the life of Che Guevera, while the camera shows static shots – I’m not sure of the exact length, or if it is indeed exact, but it seems to be about two minutes each – of desert countryside from the southern US, including some industrial landscapes. It is a story told through voices, in which the pictures extend that story, a reverse if you will of the common approach to cinematic narrative. As a creator of video installations, Benning would reign supreme, but his films are too long. He is a unique talent, and his films are amazing works of art. But his works are difficult to see, with only half a dozen or so released on DVD and assorted other ones appearing every now and again on Youtube. And yet… when I consider a painting, a reproduction of it gives me access to that painting, but I would often still like to see its original, in a museum or gallery. Video installations are very much a product of their, well, installation, and so must be seen in situ to appreciate best. But Benning’s films? Is watching one at a film festival any different to watching it at home on DVD or Youtube app? Given that the presentation of video installations is an element of the art, but for Benning’s films that’s not true, I suspect not. Where you watch Benning is unimportant. Given that, I’d urge him to make all of his works freely available. These are important works, they need to be as visible as prints of famous artworks.

1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die count: 888

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Moving pictures, #63

Still trying to to catch up… Half of the films in this post’s half-dozen are from the US, but only one of them is an actual feature film per se. Both Benning’s and Baillie’s work are better considered art, or video installations – a form of art I especially like. The remaining films are an odd mix – one I expected to like but didn’t, one turned out to be a lot better than expected, and one wasn’t quite as interesting as I’d hope although still quite good.

gangs_new_yorkGangs of New York*, Martin Scorsese (2002, USA). If Terrence Malick is the nearest Hollywood has produced to an actual auteur, then Scorsese, although a resolutely commercial director, is perhaps closest in Hollywood to him. Personally, I find Scorsese’s films well-made but over-rated; but he has the advantage of a career pretty much explicitly laid out in the films he’s directed, all of which are still readily available in a format of your choice. Gangs of New York was a commercial success, and a critical one too – not just appearing on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but also nominated for a shedload of Oscars, BAFTAs, Gold Globes and assorted other film awards (although it won no Oscars, Day-Lewis got best actor BAFTA, and Scorsese won best director Golden Globe). The story is set in New York during the 1840s to the 1860s. The film opens with a pitched – and gory – battle between the Irish immigrants and the native New Yorkers (of course, they’re all immigrants, the so-called “natives” arrived a couple of generations earlier). The movie then follows Amsterdam, son of the murdered leader of the Irish faction, and played by Leonardo di Caprio, as he returns to New York as a young man and goes to work for leader of the natives, Cutting, played by Daniel Day-Lewis. The film is apparently historically accurate, even down to the accent used by Day-Lewis and others, and it’s pretty gruesome stuff. Quite how the US built a reputation as the Land of the Free and the Land of Opportunity when its biggest city was a cesspit of violence and corruption is a mystery. But then you have the myth of the wide open spaces of the Wild West, when it was all land stolen from the Native Americans, and those who stole it were mostly as violent and venal as the worst criminals. That was all pretty much around the same time. And not so long ago. Mind you, Dickens’s England was no less grim a place. Although it does seem a little like the new governments of both the UK and USA are determined to return us to those days…

holy_motorsHoly Motors, Leos Carax (2012, France). This film had all the ingredients which should have led to me loving it, but for some reason it never quite worked for me. The story is enigmatic, very little is explained, in fact it’s more of an anthology than a single plot, the cinematography is excellent, and the cast are very good too… But the whole thing felt like a film-making exercise to me, and only more so when I learnt that one of the longest segments is based on a short film made by Carax four years earlier. I’ve heard Holy Motors described as an anthology film, deliberately broken down into more easily-digestible chunks to prove a point about art house cinema, but I’m not sure I buy it. The celebrity cameos seem to suggest a personal project from a director with more of a reputation than his oeuvre suggests. Eve Mendes, for example, plays a model abudcted by Mr Merde and says nothing during her part in the film. Kylie Minogue plays a colleague of the main character, and ends up singing a really quite awful song that can’t decide if it belongs in a Broadway musical or a rock jukebox musical. The framing narrative doesn’t explain the individual segments, only links them. And while the cinematography is excellent, as is the cast, the story is enigmatic to the point of nonsense – the segment in which the protagonist – well, a cleverly-disguised stunt double – does a motion-capture sequence for an ugly CGI sequence of two great wyrms mating is entirely meaningless. That this is later followed by a sequence in which a father picks up his teenage daughter from a party, only to learn she hid in the bathroom because she’s afraid of not being popular… it shows only that the guiding principle here is directorial whim. There’s no pattern, no story-arc, no point. There’s only a director who feels like he’s not in control of his creative process – and, though I’m only going on the one film I’ve seen by Carax, he strikes me as someone who may one day make a great movie… but Holy Motors is not it.

travelling_playersThe Travelling Players*, Theodoros Angelopoulos (1975, Greece). I’ve been aware of Angelopoulos for a couple of years, although I’ve never previously seen any of his films nor had much of an idea what his films were like. But The Travelling Players eventually worked its way to the top of the rental list and was duly sent to me and… One thing I hadn’t known about Angelopoulos is that his films tick a lot of my boxes: long static shots, declamatory dialogue, plots that cover decades… This is stuff that I love in films, and apparently The Travelling Players is not unique in Angelopoulos’s oeuvre in doing so. The Travelling Players is currently available as a part of a box set, so I think I’ll be getting the box set. But, The Travelling Players… It’s about a troupe of actors, who travel the country with a play about Golfo the Shepherdess, between 1939 and 1952. As well as the covering the events in Greece during that time – the invasion by the Nazis, the war between the fascists and the communists, the British and US occupations, the Regime of the Colonels… – but the troupe’s internal dynamics are all based on the story of the House of Atreus. There are parts of the the film where a character talks directly to camera. There are some frankly bizarre scenes, like the British platoon forcing the troupe to perform on a beach, only to end up dancing with each other, or the dance hall where the fascists and communists clash like the Jets and the Sharks… The Travelling Players is also a very long film, clocking in at 230 minutes; but it’s fascinating throughout. Angelopoulos’s name was not unknown to me, but until now I’d not seen any of his films. Having seen The Travelling Players, I plan to explore his oeuvre. Recommended.

baillieVolume 1: Five Collected Films by Bruce Baillie (1964-1968, USA). I stumbled across mention of Baillie’s All My Life on a list of best films somewhere, and found a copy of it on Youtube (it’s only 2 minutes and 45 seconds long, but it is quite excellent – see here). So I did a little more research, and learnt that Baillie is best-remembered for Castro Street, a short film from 1966. Canyon Cinema, a collective he helped found, released some of his films on DVD, but they appear to have sold out. Fortunately, they’re available on Youtube in HD, including this collection, which contains Tung, Mass (for the Lakota Sioux), Valentin de las Sierras, Castro Street and All My Life. The first three are experimental/avant garde cinema, and middling successful, but Castro Street, a montage of industrial plants on the titular street, is fully deserving of its high reputation; and even In My Life, which is 3 minutes of Ella Fitzgerald singing as Baillie pans a camera along a fence, hs a beauty all its own. I discovered Baillie by accident, but it turns out to have been a happy one. I won’t be forgetting him.

13_lakes13 Lakes, small roads and Easy Rider, James Benning (2004/2011/2012, USA). I’ve made no secret of my admiration for James Benning’s work, and while I have everything he has so far released on DVD through the Österreichesches Filmmuseum, one of his best-known works, 13 Lakes, is still unavailable from them. Fortunately, someone has loaded it up onto Youtube, although it’s not a brilliant transfer. And since I’d figured out how to watch Youtube using the app on on my telly via Amazon Prime, I used it to watch 13 Lakes. Benning’s titles tend to the literal, so 13 Lakes is indeed about thirteen lakes, each of which is filmed from a static position for ten minutes. That’s it. The shots are framed such that water fills the bottom half of the screen and sky the top half. Whatever happens while the camera is running, is captured; and the soundtrack is entirely ambient sound. I happen to think Benning is a genius, and while he does really interesting things with narrative in Deseret, American Dreams (lost and found) and Landscape Suicide, other films such as RR and the California Trilogy are more in the nature of video installations. As is 13 Lakes. So he presses lots of buttons for me. Small roads is more of the same, static shots of minor roads in the US, each shot a couple of minutes long and the soundtrack composed entirely of ambient sound. Unlike in 13 Lakes, the screen is not split in two, in fact the proportion of land to sky increases as the film progresses. It is mesmerising, despite the lack of narrative. Easy Rider, however, is something different. Benning retraced the route taken by the actors in Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, but focused his camera on the landscape. He uses the soundtrack of the film – some music, some dialogue – but other times relies on ambient sound. What I especially like about Benning is that he’s mythologizing the landscape of the North American continent using the artefacts of its current colonising culture. Not entirely, of course – Four Corners covers Native American cave art, after all. But Deseret explicitly charts the impact of people on the Utah landscape, and while 13 Lakes shows the transient nature of the marks humanity makes on a body of water (the wake of a boat or jetski, soon erased), small roads documents a more permanent marker on the landscape: tarmac. And Easy Rider ties the landscape directly to a cultural object, the story of a feature film, a fiction. I would dearly love to have copies of all of Benning’s films, but sadly only a few have been released on DVD. Equally sadly, I do not live in a city with a world-renowned modern art museum that is likely to exhibit his work. (I do, however, live in a city with Curzon cinema, but even that means nothing – as Curzon, in all their wisdom, have so far chosen not to show Sokurov’s Francofonia here, but only in their London venues. Bah.)

rogopagLet’s Wash Our Brains: RoGoPaG, Rossellini, Godard, Pasolini, Gregoretti (1963, Italy). Alfredo Bini apparently had the bright idea of putting together an anthology film comprising four shorts from well-known directors, although I’ve no idea if the concept was as commerically viable back then as it is now – ie, not at all. It’s not like this was the only example – there’s films such as Le Bambole from 1965, for example. Certainly RoGoPaG had a better line-up of directors… but given how little your average audience cares about who directs a film – many lists of best films don’t even name the director, for instance – it’s arguable how relevant that is. In the event, we get four short films that are emblematic – perhaps too much so – of the four directors’ works, without being their best work. Roberto Rossellini provides a story about an air stewardess who attracts the unwelcome attentions of an American who flies her route – to Bangkok – and who she decides to repel by acting more seucally-liberated than she actually is. It’s a thin piece, and it hard to work out what the point of it all is. Godard provides the second part, a five-finger exercise based on the thinnest of plots: a nuclear bomb has exploded near Paris, and two young actors get to practice acting exercises as a response to the explosion. The third film is by Pier Paolo Pasolini and is easily the best of the four. Orson Welles is making afilm about the Crucifixion, although he actually appears to be re-staging in real life famous paintings of the Crucifuxion. One of the extras has not eaten for a while and spends the entire film trying to find something to eat – to his eventual detriment. The humour is broad, the acting broader, Welles looks the part but is dubbed so he doesn’t sound it, and the re-enactments of the Crucifixion are quite astonishingly effective. The final film is the most traditional, and tells a straightforward story of a middle-class Italian family looking to upgrade their home by buying a plot of land on a future development. The kids spout advertising slogans, the family are clearly victims of consumer culture, and their final realisation of their situation is rewarded with an undeserved death. Despite the names attached to RoGoPaG, I suspect Bini thought he had something weightier on his hands than he actually had. The Pasolini apparently caused a bit of a fuss on release, though it seems tame stuff these days to non-Catholic eyes. I’m still not entirely sure what purpose anthology films served, or why anyone ever bothered to make them. I suspect they were mostly vanity projects for producers – “hey, I got to work with Rossellini, Godard, Pasolini and, er, Gregoretti!” – but they’re certainly an odd fit in the world of twenty-first century cinema.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 831


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Reading diary, #25

I suppose you could say I’ve recently become disenchanted with modern genre fiction. I haven’t really, it’s been an ongoing thing. I suspect this comes to us all at some time. It’s not so much “putting away childish things” because I don’t consider genre a childish thing (not all of it, anyway). My tastes have changed, and most genre no longer meets those tastes. So I have to look harder to find stuff that does – I have to look harder anyway because the genre is now so much bigger, and I have access to so much more of it; but you know what I mean. I still have my favourite genre writers, of course, and I continue to read, and enjoy, their output; but unless something new really is out of the ordinary I usually find myself blithely uninterested in it.

Fortunately, there is more to literature than just genre fiction. And I’ve found that some mainstream/literary fiction does offer me what I look for in my reading. Plus, there is tons of it to explore – an entire history, in fact. I’ve learnt I really like, for example, DH Lawrence’s writing, so there’s an extensive oeuvre to work through right there. And Malcolm Lowry. And the works of recent discoveries Karen Blixen and Jenny Erpenbeck I want explore. I also have a bad habit of jotting down the titles of books that sound interesting when I come across mention of them, particularly twentieth-century ones that are hard to find… which is how I ended up with a copy of Johannes V Jensen’s The Long Journey (originally published in Danish in six volumes between 1908 and 1922; first published in English in three volumes in 1924), and I’m still looking for a copy of Nordahl Grieg’s The Ship Sails On (1924)… oh, and I’d like to read Jerzy Żuławski’s Lunar Trilogy but I don’t think it’s ever been translated into English…

Despite all that, there’s still a lot of twentieth-century science fiction I’ve not read, and I’m not about to write off the genre completely. It may well be projection on my part, but there seemed to be more of a distinction between science fiction and fantasy last century and I like that. I also like that there are a lot of well-written science fiction novels from the twentieth-century which have been pretty much ignored – mostly written by women, yes – and discovering them for SF Mistressworks does add an extra dimension to reading them.

So, anyway, reading… I did some. It is here. See below.

windows_sea_smallWindows in the Sea, Marion Clayton Link (1973). Ed Link made his fortune inventing the aircraft simulator, but he put a lot of time, effort and money into underwater exploration. He invented the SPID (Submersible Portable Inflatable Dwelling), which set a record when two divers stayed in it for 49 hours at a depth of 432 feet. He also invented a submersible with a lock-out chamber for divers, so they could be carried to their working depth, compressed en route, and begin their decompression while returning to the surface. And he invented the Johnson Sea Link submersible, in which the pilot and passenger sit inside a transparent acrylic sphere. Perhaps he didn’t advertise his adventures to the extent Jacques Cousteau did – in fact, this is the only book specifically about Link’s underwater exploits; other books are about people who worked for him – but he pioneered a number of important underwater technologies. Windows in the Sea thankfully sticks to more of a reportage style, rather than being hagiographic, and it’s fascinating stuff. Of course, not everything went according to plan – in an early test of the SDC (Submersible Decompression Chamber), it was catapulted out of the water with Link inside. Later, Link’s son died in a tragic accident in the Johnson Sea Link. But in a topic poorly served by non-fiction works, this book deserves to be better known.

end_daysThe End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck (2014). I think it was David Hebblethwaite who recommended this novel – and while people recommend books pretty much all the time, something about this one sounded like it might appeal. So I bunged it on my Amazon wishlist, and was subsequently given it as a Christmas present. The back-cover blurb makes explicit comparisons to Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (a book I very much liked, and, in fact, nominated for a Hugo, during my one and only attempt at nominating for the Hugo), but the novel The End of Days reminds me of the most is Katie Ward’s Girl Reading, another book unknown to me until someone recommended it… and which turned out to the best book I read that year. Plotwise, Atkinson’s novel is certainly a closer match, given that The End of Days describes the life of a woman born in Galicia in the latter days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and her life throughout the twentieth century as she survives WWI, joins the Communist Party in Vienna, moves to Moscow, and then Berlin, and becomes a famous East German writer. As in, that’s it in the final section in which she lives a long and eventful life. Earlier sections cut it short at various junctures. The writing throughout is stunningly good, the structure is very carefully built up, and this is one of the most impressive books I’ve read so far this year. I fully expect it to make my best five of the half-year, if not the year. I also want to read more by Erpenbeck.

bibblingsBibblings, Barbara Paul (1979). I consider myself reasonably well-informed on women sf writers of last century, particularly novelists, but Barbara Paul was one that had completely slipped by me. She had five novels published between 1978 and 1980, and one Star Trek novelisation in 1988. Only her first novel, An Exercise for Madmen, and this one, Bibblings, were published in the UK – and the first was in hardcover only by Robert Hale (whose books are notoriously hard to find). Paul also wrote crime novels; the last was published in 1997. She has an extensive website here. My review of Bibblings is on SF Mistressworks here.

decoding_fearJames Benning: Decoding Fear, Peter Pakesch & Bettina Steinbrügge, eds. (2014). I Love Benning’s films, at least those I’ve seen so far, which is only a small portion of his oeuvre as that is all that’s to date been released on DVD (happily, he donated his archives to the Östereichisches Filmmuseum, so hopefully they will release more). James Benning: Decoding Fear was produced to accompany an exhibition of Benning’s work, and comprises a series of essays in German and English, photographs of the exhibits, and an interview, in both German and English, about one element of the exhibition – his Two Cabins, the cabins in question being those by Henry David Thoreau (of Walden fame) and Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber). It’s an interesting insight into an artist whose work I much admire, although to be honest I had expected something a little more analytical than what is essentially a companion-piece to an exhibition.

blue_geminiBlue Gemini, Mike Jenne (2015). How could I resist this? A thriller about a secret militarised Gemini programme – that’s right up my street. True, it was published by an independent publisher, and it’s not being sold as genre fiction… but I thought it worth a go. And, unsurprisingly, the book’s prose has all the style and grace of, well, a technothriller. The topic is indeed something that interests me – a Soviet plan to orbit nuclear warheads persuades the US to develop a secret USAF programme of satellite killer Gemini spacecraft, something that was actually considered in the real world. A group of sterotypically technothrillerish characters become involved in said programme and, er, well, that’s it. The research is good, and Jenne writes the technical aspect of his story with authority. But the characters are pretty much what you’d expect, the prose rarely rises above clunky, and there are a lot of pages here for the story. There are some nice set pieces – particularly those involving a black USAF airman and the racism he encounters – but there’s also a lot of ignorance shown about the rest of the world, and it’s not always clear if Jenne is trying portray the ignorance of Americans of the 1960s or if it’s twenty-first century ignorance. There are two sequels to this book – Blue Darker Than Black, published earlier this year, and Pale Blue, due in June this year. To be honest, I don’t think I’ll be bothering with them.

1001 Books You Must Read Before you Die count: 122


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The year in moving pictures

In 2015, I decided to try and watch as many films as I could on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, started subscribing to a second DVD rental library, and bought myself an Amazon Fire TV Stick. As a result, I watched 571 films during the year, of which 115 were rewatches (some more than once). In among those were 170 from the aforementioned list.

The bulk of the movies I watched were DVDs or Blu-rays I’d purchased myself. (I bought a multi-region Blu-ray player so I could watch Region A Blu-rays.) But I also watched quite a number from Amazon’s Lovefilm by Post. See below.

2015_films_by_source

Kinopalæst is the cinema in Denmark where I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and The Light is the cinema in Leeds where I saw SPECTRE. Yes, they were the only two films I saw at the cinema. I did quite well on my Amazon Fire TV Stick – 48 movies, all of which were included free with Amazon Prime.

In terms of genre, drama seems to have done especially well, although admittedly it’s a broad term and perhaps some of the films I’ve categorised as drama might better be labelled something else. Anyway, see below.

2015_films_by_genre

The two Bollywood films were from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – or rather, one of them was: the other, Deewaar, proved to be a 2004 film of that title and not the 1975 one on the list (although both starred Amitabh Bachchan). Although last year I rented several of the plays from the BBC’s Shakespeare Collection from the late 1970s/early 1980s, the one Shakespeare movie this year was Laurence Olivier’s Henry V, which I thought very good.

By decade, the films I watched pretty much follows the same graph for books read: the current decade is the most popular (surprisingly), and there’s a steady increase through the decades which peaks at the 1960s. See below.

2015_films_by_decade

The late nineteenth-century/early twentieth-century were a result of watching some early Dreyer silent movies and a DVD collection, Early Cinema – Primitives and Pioneers, because one of the films on it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

By nation makes for an interesting graph. Although I’ve been working my way through the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, which includes movies from many different nations (but over half are from the US, sadly), I’ve been a fan of world cinema for years and many of my favourite directors work in non-Anglophone cinema. See below.

films_by_country

The high number from Russia is no doubt due mostly to Aleksandr Sokurov, a favourite director; for Denmark because of Carl Theodor Dreyer, and for Germany it’s probably Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Only two from Sweden – I obviously need to watch more Bergman…

Speaking of favourite directors, Sokurov comes out top for 2015 with 33 (most, it has to be said, were rewatches). Second is Jacques Tati, a 2015 “discovery”, at 15, then James Benning, another 2015 “discovery”, at 13. The remaining top ten goes as follows: Rainer Werner Fassbinder (12), Alfred Hitchcock (11), Carl Theodor Dreyer (10), Lars von Trier (8), Sergei Eisenstein (6), and lastly George Stevens, Michael Curtiz, Leni Riefenstahl, Jean-Luc Goddard and Jean Cocteau (5).

I finished the year having seen 703 movies on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and a quite large pile of DVDs and Blu-rays on my To Be Watched list. I plan to keep on with the list in 2015, although I think I’ll take it a bit slower, perhaps spend some evenings each week reading rather than film-watching. Plus, it’s getting to the stage now where I have to purchase titles in order to watch them as they’re not available for rental. We’ll see how it goes.


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2015, the best of the year

On balance, 2015 wasn’t a bad year for me. Things improved in $dayjob, goodish things happened in my little corner of genre, and I read a number of excellent books and watched lots of excellent films. Music-wise, it was both successful and not so successful: I discovered some more new bands on Bandcamp, and this year we went VIP for Bloodstock and it really was worth the extra money; but I saw fewer bands live than in previous years, and none of my favourite ones toured the UK – and if they did, it was only in the big cities, like London, Birmingham or Glasgow. But, like I said, some excellent books and films – so much so, I had trouble picking my top five in each. But I did finally manage it.

Oh, and I got a new cat. Oscar. He’s two years old, and I’d forgotten how much of a pain young cats can be.

books
A strange year of reading, on reflection, and I’m not entirely sure why. I read some books as research for All That Outer Space Allows (which was published this year), I read some other non-fiction books (on space and aircraft and submersibles, mostly), I read some sf novels for SF Mistressworks and some more recent genre works… And I decided to widen my reading to include more classic literature. While I like to think of myself primarily as a science fiction fan, of late I’ve found it hard to generate much enthusiasm for recent sf. In part, that’s due to the way fandom is changing as a result of social media and online promotion, but also because a lot of current sf seems to me more interested in style rather than content. I like sf ideas and sense of wonder, but I also like good writing, sophisticated themes and a willingness to experiment with form and structure. While some works which meet those criteria were indeed published in 2015, those I came across didn’t feel especially progressive. Which is why you’ll notice a few notable titles missing from my top five below (and I have only one, in fact, that was actually published in 2015).

loving1 Loving, Henry Green (1945).
An author new to me in 2015, and despite being about a subject – life belowstairs in the Irish country house of an English nob during WWII – that doesn’t interest me in the slightest, Green’s writing was wonderful and his narrative technique amazing. I will be reading more by him – hell, I plan to read everything he ever wrote.

wolves2 Wolves, Simon Ings (2014).
There was some small fuss when this appeared in early 2014, but by the time awards came around it had been forgotten. Which was a shame. And I wished I’d read it in time to nominate it last year – because this is plainly one of the best sf novels of 2014. The focus of his novel tends to drift a little as the story progresses, but Ings has still managed to produce one of the smartest works of sf – if not the smartest work of sf – of the last few years.

grasshopperschild3 The Grasshopper’s Child, Gwyneth Jones (2014).
A new Gwyneth Jones novel is cause for celebration, even if it’s a YA addendum to the non-YA Bold as Love quintet. But there’s a reason Jones is my favourite science fiction writer, and they’re all evident in this short novel. On the one hand, this is a smart YA novel and I’m no fan of YA fiction; on the other, it’s Gwyneth Jones and her Bold as Love world. But it’s also self-published, so it needs to be on as many best-of lists as possible so that Jones keeps on writing. (And why was it self-published? Do the major UK genre imprints not want to publish new work by the country’s best sf writer?)

darkoribt4 Dark Orbit, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2015).
I’ve been saying for years that Gilman is a name to watch, and she has at last been given the opportunity to demonstrate it to a wider audience. (She amply demonstrated it with her fantasy diptych from ChiZine Publications back in 2011/2012, but genre commentators can only apparently see what appears from major imprints – which is, if you’ll forgive me, fucking short-sighted). Anyway, Dark Orbit deservedly received a lot of positive reviews, and though to me it didn’t quite feel like Gilman firing on all cylinders, it showed great promise. More from her, please.

bone_clocks5 The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell (2014).
Friends have been singing the praises of Mitchell for years, but I’ve never really understood why. I mean, I enjoyed Cloud Atlas, and I thought it was clever… but it did seem a little over-praised. But The Bone Clocks is the novel that all the praise had led me to believe Cloud Atlas was. It’s his most insightful yet – and also his most genre.

Honourable mentions: a few titles got bumped from best of the half-year top five, although they were excellent books and probably didn’t deserve to be demoted – namely, The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958), a classic of Italian twentieth-century literature (a bloody good film too); A Division Of The Spoils, Paul Scott (1975), the final book of the Raj Quartet and as beautifully written as the other three; and What the Doctor Ordered, Michael Blumlein (2013), wich showcases why he remains one of my favourite genre short story writers. Also read and noteworthy were: Strange Bodies, Marcel Theroux (2013), a literate mystery based on an interestingly odd premise; Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov (1962), my first by him and, though perhaps overly prissy, excellent; One Thousand and One Nights, Hanan Al-Shaykh (2011), a bawdy, and multiply-nested retelling of some of its title’s stories; Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson (1981), her beautifully-written debut novel; and Galactic Suburbia, Lisa Yaszek (2008), used for research and a fascinating read.

films
I went all-out on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list in 2015. So much so, in fact, that I signed up with a second DVD rental service, Cinema Paradiso, because they had some films from the list that weren’t available on Amazon’s Lovefilm by Post. And I bought an Amazon Fire TV Stick too, which gave me access to even more movies. Meanwhile, I purged my DVD collection of all the superhero films (why did I buy them in the first place?) and the shit sf movies (why did I buy them in the first place?), not to mention lots of other films I’d bought over the years. My collection is now looking very different, much more of cineaste’s collection (even though I say so myself), with lots of works by Sokurov, Dreyer, Murnau and Benning – and from earlier years, Bergman, Tarkovsky, Kieslowski and Haneke, among many others.

The 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die challenge has been… interesting. It introduced me to the works of James Benning. I’ve also seen a lot of not very good films that really didn’t belong on the list (mostly from Hollywood, it has to be said). And I’ve seen a lot of early cinema, most of which proved quite interesting. Only one of the five films in my top five was not a “discovery” from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

playtime1 Playtime, Jacques Tati (1967)
How could this not be my number one choice? It certainly was halfway back in June, and it remains so now at the end of the year. I loved its Brutalist production design, its situational humour, its wit… it is a work of cinematic genius. I’d watched a rental DVD but I loved it so much I bought a Blu-ray copy for myself… and then bought a boxed set of Blu-rays of Tati’s entire oeuvre. A film that went straight into my personal top ten best films of all time.

deseret2 Deseret, James Benning (1995)
Ever loved a film so much you went out and bought every DVD you could find by that director? Oh wait, I did that for Tati. But I also did it for Benning. Fortunately, Östereichesichen Filmmuseum have been releasing Benning’s films on DVDs the last couple of years, so there were a few for me to get. And yet… Deseret is static shots of Utah landscape, and later cityscape, while a voice reads out stories from the New York Times from 1895 to the present day. It is cinema as art installation. And I loved it. I am now a huge Benning fan. And I have all of the DVDs that Östereichesichen Filmmuseum have released. And am eagerly awaiting more.

shepitko3 Wings, Larisa Shepitko (1966)
Shepitko’s Ascent is on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but the only copy of it I could find was a Criterion double with Wings. I bought it. I watched Ascent. It was good. But then I watched Wings. And it was so much better. A female fighter pilot of the Great Patriotic War, and Hero of the Soviet Union, is now the principal of a school. It’s an artful juxtaposition, more so because the protagonist is female. And it was Shepitko’s debut film. War films, like Ascent, strike me as too easy as choices for assorted lists, but the social drama versus war of Wings is much more interesting. This film should have been on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I’d also like to see more by Shepitko.

elegy_voyage4 Elegy of a Voyage, Aleksandr Sokurov (2001)
Come on, you didn’t expect me not to have a Sokurov film on this list, did you? I’m being nice by not putting five on it. Well, okay, five maybe could have made it, but one was a rewatch from previous years and so didn’t count. But four could have done. (Yes, the other three are in my honourable mentions below.) Elegy of a Voyage is one of Sokurov’s documentaries, but it’s more of a meditation than an informational film, in which Sokurov muses on journeys and art, particularly ‘The Tower of Babel’ by Bruegel.

cleo5 Cleo from 5 to 7, Agnès Varda (1962). I have found the Nouvelle Vague to be something of a mixed bag – in fact, I’ve found the oeuvres of Nouvelle Vague directors to be something of a mixed bag. But the only Varda I’d seen prior to Cleo from 5 to 7 was a documentary from 2000. Cleo from 5 to 7 may have covered similar ground to some of Godard’s 1960s films, but it does it so much better. Loved it.

Honourable mentions: two films were dropped from my best of the half year list, one a Sokurov, one a documentary: Jodorowskys Dune (2013) is a fascinating look at a major sf film that never happened, but still left its fingerprints all over sf cinema; Stone (1992) is a typically enigmatic drama from Sokurov… but I could just as easily mention Whispering Pages (1994; which he knocked together after his financing fell apart, but it still manages to hit all those Sokurovian notes), or Spiritual Voices (1995; a documentary about Russian soldiers on the Afghanistan border whose first 40 minutes are a static shot of a Siberian wood). But there’s also Tati’s Mon oncle (1958), nearly as good as Playtime; James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge (2014), an excellent documentary on his visit to Challenger Deep, only the third person to do so; American Dreams (lost and found) (1984), another Benning piece with an unconventional narrative; Salt of the Earth, Herbert J Biberman (1954), an astonishing piece of social realism drama that deserves to be better known; Sleeping Beauty, Clyde Geronimi (1959), easily the best of the Disney feature films. Day Of Wrath (1943) was another excellent film from Dreyer, Effi Briest (1974) was I thought the best of the Rainer Werner Fassbinder box set I watched, and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967) was a Jean-Luc Godard that I was surprised to find I liked very much.

albums
I spent much of the year further exploring Bandcamp, and so stumbled across yet more excellent music. I did not, however, see much music live this year – Sólstafir were excellent back in February, Voices and Winterfylleth were very good in September, and highlights of this year’s Bloodstock included Ne Obliviscaris, Sumer, Opeth and Agalloch.

1 Sidereus Nuncius, Apocynthion (2013)
Spanish progressive death metal, not unlike NahemaH (also Spanish, and a favourite band… although they disbanded last year). It seems a little unfair to describe a group’s sound by how much like another band’s it is, but metal these days is such a wide and diverse genre labels are often next to useless. Apocynthion play prgressive metal with clean and growl vocals, some death metal song structures, sound effects and samples, a heavy post-metal influence and a great deal of technical ability.

panopticon2 Autumn Eternal, Panopticon (2015)
Panopticon’s Kentucky from 2013, with its mix of black metal and bluegrass, is an astonishing album… but I picked it for my best of last year. Their new album (I say “their” but it’s a one-man show) mixes folky acoustic parts with intense black metal, and it works really well.

3 Ghostwood, Navigator (2013)
This is polished progressive rock with a little bit of djent thrown into the mix, with solid riffs and some catchy hooks. They described themselves as “for fans of Porcupine Tree”, although I think this album is better than most of that band’s albums.

grorr4 Anthill, Grorr (2012)
A relatively recent discovery this one, Grorr play progressive death metal, but more like Gojira than, say, Opeth. There’s all sorts in here – bagpipes, sitar, various types of drums. It’s a wonderfully varied album, but still coherent.

5 An Act of Name Giving, Butterfly Trajectory (2015)
Anothe rrecent discovery. Butterfly Trajectory also play progressive death metal – there seems to be a common theme to this top five… They’re from Poland, and while their sound is quite Opeth-ish, they’re a good deal better than fellow countrymen Gwynbleidd who play similar material. Butterfly Trajectory seem to like their progressive bits a tad more than their death metal bits, which works really well.

Honourable mentions: Worst Case Scenario, Synesthesia (2015), French progessive death metal with plenty of other musical styles thrown in, excellent stuff; Kyrr, Kontinuum (2015), Icelandic post-metal, a little more commercial than fellow countrymen Sólstafir… whose Ótta (2015) and Svartir Sandar (2011) are excellent heavy post-metal albums; Cold and the Silence, Martriden (2015), yet more shredding from excellent medlodic death metal group, who seem to have gone a bit funkily progressive with this new album, and it works really well; and finally, RAMA, RAMA (2015), which is a weird mix of doom, stoner, psychedelic and desert rock all in a three-song EP.


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Moving pictures, #35

Your usual selection of classics and obscurities. I’m going to have to find something new to post about when I’ve finished these– oh wait, I’m supposed to be a science fiction writer, I can always post about that, you know, science fiction and writing and, er, books…

camilleCamille*, George Cukor (1936, USA). This is the film in which Garbo apparently laughs– no, wait, that one was another one. This is the one in which she plays the consumptive mistress of a wealthy aristocrat, but falls in love with a younger, better-looking and poorer man, and so has to choose between love and security. Set in mid-nineteenth century France. She chooses the older man, but there’s that consumption, you see, so she dies. This is one of those films that proved entertaining enough, and despite its age made a good fist of its period, but it’s hard to see why it made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Meh.

two_laneTwo-Lane Blacktop*, Monte Hellman (1971, USA). I had low expectations for this – an alleged cult classic, starring musician James Taylor and the drummer from the Beach Boys, about a pair of beatniks who race across the US in their souped-up ’57 Chevy. But you know what? It was actually pretty damn good. The main characters’ taciturnity worked well, as did rival Warren Oates’ constant line in bullshit. Despite containing mostly footage of cars driving along empty roads, with the occasional moment of drama and/or action… and despite the characters being little more than ciphers, with no appreciable arcs… and despite being very much a film of its time (with a pretty good, and thankfully not intrusive, soundtrack)… I really enjoyed this. I’d even consider buying my own copy. Definitely a film that belongs on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list.

angels_dirtyAngels with Dirty Faces*, Michael Curtiz (1938, USA). The title of this film may well be iconic but the movie itself was a big disappointment. Cagney plays a gangster (yawn), who returns to the old neighbourhood after a stretch and meets up with his old childhood friend, who is now the parish priest. There’s a gang of youths the priest is trying to keep on the straight and narrow, but Cagney gets them involved in all sorts of illegal shenanigans. There’s something to do with corrupt city officials, and a couple of shootouts, and then Cagney is on Death Row and his friend asks him to set an example to the youths and kick and scream on his way to the electric chair (so that the youths will no longer idolise him). So Cagney does just that. There are a lot of noir films on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, far more, I think, than the genre merits. And there are way more Hollywood movies on the list than are warranted. It could stand to lose a few of both… and Angels with Dirty Faces would be a good candidate.

ruhrRuhr / Natural History, James Benning (2009/2014, Germany/Austria). These are the last two Benning films available on DVD (at least until the Österreicheschen Filmmuseum release some more), and one of them was a special commissions by the Natural History Museum of Vienna. Ruhr is a series of six static shots of industrial landscape in the Ruhr district:a road tunnel, a steelworks, an airport, a mosque, a street, and the chimney from a coking plant. In fact, that last shot, the chimney, accounts for 60 minutes of the film’s 122 minutes running time. Apparently, Ruhr caused something of a stir – it was one of Benning’s first films using a digital camera, and he was accused of “digital manipulation”. All that actually happens is he gradually darkens the image of the chimney as the film progresses, so that by the end of the hour-long shot, it’s almost entirely black. That’s all. Natural History, on the other hand, is a series of static shots of rooms and corridors in Vienna’s Natural History Museum, mostly behind-the-scenes places. While the chimney shot in Ruhr is weirdly compelling (nothing actually happens, just steam billowing out of it at intervals), and although Natural History does feature the occasional person wandering past (and voices on the ambient sound soundtrack), the latter film is more a chore to watch. Benning has made some twenty-five feature-length films, but only eleven of them are currently available on DVD. I hope more appear soon.

little_bigLittle Big Man*, Arthur Penn (1970, USA). This film is chiefly notable for Dustin Hoffman playing a centenarian under layers of prosthetic make-up (not especially convincing make-up either, by current standards) and apparently screaming for an hour before each take in order to speak with a hoarse voice like a really old person. Hoffman’s titular character starts out as a young boy adopted by the Cheyenne after the members of his wagon train are killed by Pawnee. Then when the Cheyenne are attacked by the US Cavalry, he reveals he’s really white and is taken in by the soldiers. He then bounces around among the settlers, along the way selling snake-oil, getting married, running a trading post… before signing on with Custer (who is portrayed as a moronic oaf) as a scout… only to end up living once again with the Cheyenne. Where he gets married again… only for Custer to attack the village and kill almost everyone. It all ends with the Battle of the Little Bighorn, which Hoffman’s character witnesses. The novel on which the film is based was by Thomas Berger (whose Regiment of Women, by the way, is fucking dreadful), and if it’s anything like the movie I’ve no desire to read it. I have no idea why this film is considered suitable for the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list – when it wasn’t patronising, it was annoying; and when it was trying to be funny, it, well, it just wasn’t. Avoid.

orphicThe Blood of a Poet, Jean Cocteau (1932, France). It took me a while, but I tracked down a copy of the Crtierion DVD release of Cocteau’s Orphic Trilogy, containing The Blood of a Poet, Orpheus (Orphée) and Testament of Orpheus. As is usually the case with these sorts of purchases, two weeks after I bought my copy, I saw another copy going for a fifth of the price I paid. Bah. Anyway, I really like Orpheus, and I wanted to see Testament of Orpheus, but I knew nothing about The Blood of a Poet and was not especially bothered about it. Nonetheless, I watched it and, oh dear, it’s another one of those 1930s French surrealist films. And I’m really not a fan of them. Mostly, it seems to be an excuse to display a bunch of cinema tricks, which ,to be fair, are actually pretty effective (one or two, I seem to recall, also make an appearance in Orpheus). Nevertheless, it’s worth tracking down a copy of the Criterion Orphic Trilogy set, although given it’s a) a US-only release, and b) deleted, it won’t be that easy to find (copies on Amazon marketplace start around £60). Don’t be fooled by the Studiocanal Jean Cocteau Collection, which contains only The Blood of a Poet and Testament of Orpheus, and not the best of the three, Orpheus.

shepitkoWings, Larisa Shepitko (1966, USSR). In order to see Shepitko’s Ascent, which appears on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, I had to buy a two-film Criterion box set, which was the only DVD I could find of Ascent. The second film in the set was Wings. And having now seen both, I think Wings belongs on the list more than Ascent does. Nedezhda Petrukhina is a highly-decorated World War II (Great Patriotic War) fighter pilot, who now, twenty years later, is the principal of a school. While still something of a minor local celebrity for her wartime exploits, she is also seen as little more than her role at the school. She has to deal with unruly male students, apparatchiks, all the bureaucracy of her position, while dreaming of the freedom and excitement of her time during the war. There are perhaps elements of Wings which aren’t exactly subtle – contrasting a (mostly) domestic character study with aerial shots of Petrukhina flying through clouds, for example – but I think I much prefer the ordinariness, and its violence-free nature, of this film to Ascent.

I must admit, I thought I knew my taste in films before I started watching the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I like science fiction films, I even liked bad science fiction films. And I sort of liked superhero films. And I liked some world cinema. While the list I’ve been using is not especially diverse – more than half of the films on it are from the USA – it has introduced me to a much wider variety of movies, and I’ve found I much prefer films on the edge rather than typical mainstream cinema. In fact, I’ve purged my DVD collection several times since starting the list, dumping a lot of the recent Hollywood titles (I still like the old classics from the 1950s and 1960s) at local charity shops, but then also hunting around online for copies of DVDs by some of the more obscure directors I’ve been introduced to.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 674


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Moving pictures, #32

The films I watch, and document in these moving pictures posts, are pretty much dictated by the rental services I use. While I might set the priorities for the various movies on my rental lists, it’s still random what actually gets sent to me. But then, of course, there are those DVDs and Blu-rays I’ve actually purchased for myself (usually because I want to see them and they’re not available for rental, like the, er, Benning DVDs). So, anyway, more films, of varying degrees of obscurity and/or classic status.

rrRR / casting a glance, James Benning (2007/2007, USA). RR stands for “railroad” and that’s pretty much what you get – 77 minutes of middle-distance shots of US locomotives travelling across the screen, some on urban railways (not “railroad”, because I am British) and some on tracks passing through some amazing landscapes. There is no voiceover, no scrolling text, just ambient noise. I now have some experience with Benning’s films, and while I can certainly sympathise with his desire not to compromise in art, RR is much harder film to watch than others by Benning I’ve seen. It follows in broad form his other works, but its lack of concessions to the viewer can make for difficult viewing. It is, like his other films, often mesmerising (I keep on using that word, I must find another one), and the landscape of the North American continent is in places absolutely stunning (yes, even with a railway track running through it). Benning’s films are an acquired taste, but totally worth it. And yet… casting a glance even manages to test a fan’s endurance. It is a series of shots over two years of Robert Smithson’s artwork ‘Spiral Jetty’. Which is exactly as its name says – a jetty made of stone, in spiral form, in the Great Salt Lake in Utah. What makes this film especially interesting is that although Bennig filmed the artwork over a two year period, he actually documents its lifetime since its creation in 1970 – as the sixteen shots of it depict “the historical water levels (mathematically reconstructed)”. The end result is more like a screensaver than any other Benning film I’ve seen, but still manages to keep interest. Narrative does intrude at one point, when the ambient noise is replaced by the song ‘Love Hurts’, a film released in the same year that Smithson died. I totally agree with making the viewer work to understand a film – culture is not babyfood, it should not be spoonfed – but Benning’s extra-textual references are often just too… extra. I still love his films – and the more about them I learn, the more I love them. But like Sokurov’s movies, there is a story taking place outside of the story on the screen, and knowledge of that totally changes the viewer’s perspective. I have maintained for years that X-Factor is a cross-platform event – the television show makes little sense unless you’ve been following the various dramas in the gutter press. I love the idea of cross-platform and extra-textual intellectual properties – a sort of implementation of Frank Zappa’s “interconnectedness of all things” – but it all needs to be available. Without the booklets in these Österreichisches Filmmuseum DVDs, I’m pretty sure I’d miss a lot of the commentary Benning embeds in his films. Which is a shame.

The-Blue-Angel-1930-Front-Cover-95283The Blue Angel*, Josef von Sternberg (1930, Germany). This is the film from which Marlene Dietrich’s public persona likely depends. It’s certainly the source of the most iconic presentation of her. The title refers to a nightclub in Weimar Republic Berlin, at which Dietrich’s character performs. However, the actual focus of the story is the schoolteacher who falls under Dietrich’s spell. Initially, he goes to the club to remonstrate with its star because naughty postcards of her (which she sells as souvenirs) are distracting his students. But he falls under her spell, and returns to watch her so often that he marries her, loses his job and ends up working as a clown in her show. The film was banned by the Nazis, which is obviously a point in its favour – but for all that it seems a fairly unexceptional film. I’ve no way of judging if it was more titillating than was the norm in the 1930, but there’s little enough in it that clearly signals it as belonging on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I’ve seen a number of films from the same era that were clearly innovative, if not seminal, for the period, or that simply stood out for a variety of reasons. The Blue Angel, sadly, is not one of them.

labellenoiseuseLa belle noiseuse*, Jacques Rivette (1991, France). I suspect I may like the idea of Rivette’s films more than I like Rivette’s films – although that’s hardly fair as La belle noiseuse is the first film by Rivette I’ve ever seen, But it is also 237 minutes long – and not that much actually happens during it. A young artist and his girlfriend turn up at the rural retreat of a famous artist who has not produced any new work in years. The girlfriend is asked to model for the famous artist. We see the artist make lots of sketches of the girlfriend, as well as start but not finish a number of paintings. Eventually he does finish one, and everyone assures him it’s a masterpiece, but the viewer doesn’t get to see it. I liked the film, it is very French, and like many of the best French films it subjects its characters’ relationships to much intense analysis. But it did test my patience at times – we see each of the sketches the artist draws, line by line, and it’s not exactly exciting viewing. But I liked that Rivette chose to show us that, I liked that he decided this was the way his film would proceed. As has no doubt become obvious over these Moving pictures posts, I like films by those who do things differently… I see there’s a Rivette Blu-ray box set now available, and it’s definitely tempting me…

ex_machinaEx Machina, Alex Garland (2015, UK). I’d seen this film highly praised, and while I may be perverse, I’m not so perverse I’ll dislike a movie because it is popular – although certainly what I value in a film is not what most film audiences seem to. But ten minutes into Ex Machina, a movie I was expecting to be about AI, and all it appeared to be about was some ultra-rich knob who lived in the middle of nowhere (how did they supply his house?) and I was already thinking bad thoughts… only for it be pointed out on Twitter that this was the desired response. The person behind Ava, the AI robot (as seen on the DVD cover, because of course you’d give an AI a human face and a chicken-wire body), is meant to be an entitled prick. Because that then pushes the viewer’s emtional engagement onto Ava. The poor old programmer, Caleb, invited by Nathan to his billionaire hideway – and who has to be asked, “Do you know what the Turing Test is?” Of course, he does, he’s a programmer – finds himself a patsy for both Nathan and Ava by turns, and the fact he is emotionally engaged with the AI only makes you wonder why Garland chose to stack the deck so heavily in Ava’s favour. And having done that, the end of the film can hardly come as a surprise. I really didn’t like Ex Machina. I found it annoying, crude and a not very intelligent study of its premise. I much preferred the far less pretentious Chappie.

eisenstein_1October* Sergei Eisenstein (1927, Russia). I picked up a copy of Sergei Eisenstein Volume 2 at the end of last year – it contains Alexander Nevsky, Ivan the Terrible Part 1 and Ivan the Terrible Part 2 – but volume 1 proved much harder to find (since it had been deleted several years ago). Admittedly, I already owned a copy Battleship Potemkin and Strike, and October wasn’t exactly hard to find on DVD… but I wanted Volume 1 to go with my Volume 2, so I hung on until one popped up on eBay. Which it did. For a reasonable price. So I bought it. And I’ve now watched October twice and I’m still not sure what to make of it. For a start, it’s unashamed propaganda, a cinematic reconstruction of the October 1917 revolution, featuring many of the people who were involved in the actual event itself. Also, Eisenstein uses a surprisingly large number of modern cinematic techniques – or rather, techniques that have become standards in film-makers’ lexicons and are now used so unthinkingly that their origin is ignored. Anyone looking to put together a DVD collection of important films really should include both the Eisenstein collections (assuming they can find copies, that is).

sennaSenna*, Asif Kapadia (2010, UK). This was available on Amazon Prime and since it was on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, I watched it, despite motor racing being a sport in which I have zero interest. (Not that there is in fact any sport in which I have a more-than-zero interest.) Unsurprisingly, I found much of Senna not especially interesting, although I’d known almost nothing about Ayrton Senna prior to watching the film and he at least did come across as an interesting person – although chiefly through his work to improve the safety of F1 Racing – a sport in which a handful of rich pricks risk the lives of drivers in order to further line their own pockets, which is frankly disgusting. In fact, F1 comes across as little more than a playset for billionaire regressives. It’s telling that since Senna died and the increased safety he campaigned for came into effect, there has been only a single death during a race – and that was last year, ten years after Senna’s death. Having said all that… I’m not really sure why this film is on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 658