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Best of the half-year, 2018

For the past several years, probably longer than I think and much longer than I’d care to know, I’ve been putting together a best of the year six months in. Partly it’s to document the good stuff I’ve read or watched or listened to during the first half of the year, but also I find it interesting to see how it changes over the following six months.

2018 has been an odd year so far. While the big project at work moved up a gear, my part in it sort of moved into cruise mode. So I started reviewing again for Interzone – three books so far, and the first book I reviewed made the top spot on my list below – and I also started up SF Mistressworks, although perhaps it’s not quite as regular as I’d like yet. On the film front, I continued to watch far too many movies, but at least it’s proven a pretty wide selection – including a number of films from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, plus movies from all over the world… and some surprising new favourites.

books
1 The Smoke, Simon Ings (2018, UK). I picked this to review for Interzone having very much liked Ings’s previous sf novel, Wolves. But The Smoke, I discovered, was considerably better. It’s sort of steampunk, sort of alt history, sort of high concept sf. It’s beautifully written, and does a lot of really interesting things really well. It is probably Ings’s best book to date. I would not be at all surprised if it appears on several award shortlists next year. On the other hand, I will not be at all surprised if it’s completely ignored, as UK sf awards don’t seem to be doing so well at the moment, as popular awards are pulled one way then another by in-groups on social media and juried awards try to make sense of a genre that is now so pervasive across all modes of writing that no one has any idea what is what anymore.

2 Pack My Bag, Henry Green (1940, UK). Green wrote this autobiography at the age of 35 convinced he would not survive WWII. He did (he spent the war as an ambulance driver). But this is an amazing piece of work, a warts and all depiction of upper class education in the 1920s, and a beautifully stated meditation on writing. I’ve been a fan of Green since the first book of his I read, but Pack My Bag intensified my love for his prose. Read all of his books. If only he weren’t so difficult to collect in first edition…

3 The Rift, Nina Allan (2017, UK). This won the BSFA Award a month or so ago, and while it was not my first choice I’m happy that it won as I think it’s a worthy winner. It is, to my mind, the most successful of Allan’s disconnected novel-length fictions. It not only occupies that area between science fiction and mainstream I find interesting, but also between narrative and… whimsy? I’m not sure what the correct term is. The Rift is a story that feels like it should add up but resolutely fails to do so – and makes a virtue of its failure. It’s easily one of the best genre books I’ve read so far this year.

4 The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry (2016, UK). I read this over Christmas so technically it was a 2017 read, but it didn’t feature in any of my posts for that year so I’m counting it as a 2018 read. It’s an odd book, almost impossible to summarise, chiefly because there’s so much going on in it. It’s set in late Victorian times. A recently-widowed young woman decide to indulge her interest in palaeontology and visits a family who are friends of her friends and who live in the Essex marshes. She finds herself drawn to the man of the family, the local vicar, while her autistic son is drawn to his consumptive wife. The titular serpent makes only a brief appearance, and even then its reality is doubtful, but the way in which its legend shapes the lives of those in the books is very real. Fascinating and beautifully written.

5 Four Freedoms, John Crowley (2009, USA). I’ve been a fan of Crowley’s fiction for a couple of decades or so, but it usually takes me a while to get around to reading his latest work… nine years in this case. I should have read it sooner because it’s bloody excellent. End it worked especially well for me because the story was based around the construction of an invented WWII bomber which to me was obviously the Convair B-36 (but, bizarrely, it was mostly coincidence as Crowley did not actually base it on the B-36). Essentially, it’s the story of the workforce building the aforementioned WWII bomber, focusing on several members, and telling their stories. It’s beautifully-written, of course; and the characterisation is top-notch.

Honourable mentions – Exit West, Mohsin Hamid (2017, Pakistan) mysterious doors leading to Western nations appear in the war-torn Middle East, a clever look at the refugee issue facing Europe but which sadly turns into an unsatisfactory love story; The Book of Strange New Things, Michel Faber (2014, UK) an Anglican priest is sent to an exoplanet to succour to aliens and becomes obsessed by them, while the UK, and his wife, slowly disintegrates, moving stuff and the sf element is well-handled; October Ferry to Gabriola, Malcolm Lowry (1970, Canada) more semi-autobiographical fiction from Lowry, in which a young lawyer and his wife head to the west coast of Canada to buy a house on an island, I just love Lowry’s prose; A Primer for Cadavers, Ed Atkins (2016, UK) a collection of braindumps and stream-of-consciousness narratives, some of which were written as accompaniment to Atkins’s video installations; Calling Major Tom, David Barnett (2017, UK) polished semi-comic novel about a misanthropic British astronaut en route to Mars who reconnects with humanity via a dysfunctional family in Wigan.

films – narrative
An unexpected top five in this category. One is by a director I normally don’t have that much time for, and the remaining four were by directors more or less unknown to me when I started watching the films.

1 The Lure, Agnieszka Smoczyńska (2015, Poland). I saw a description of this somewhere that said it was about carnivorous mermaids in a Polish nightclub during the 1980s. And it was a musical. That was enough for me to add it to my rental list. And it proved to be exactly as advertised. I loved it so much, I bought my own copy on Blu-ray. And loved it just as much on re-watch. It’s a film that revels in its premise and dedicates its entire mise en scène to it. The music is kitschy, and not really very 1980s – and one of the bands in the film is a punk band… that isn’t really 1980s punk either. But those are minor quibbles.

2 Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan (2017, UK). I find Nolan’s films generally unsatisfying so I didn’t bother going to see this when it was on at the cinema. Plus, the film’s subject was not one that appealed, especially in these days of Brexit and and various attempts in popular culture to spin it as a good thing because history. Not that Dunkirk was an especially proud moment in British history. Although you’d be surprised at the number of people who think, or insist, it was. It was, as this film mentions, “a colossal military blunder”. But I found myself watching Dunkirk one evening… and I loved it. It’s a beautifully shot film and completely plotless. It presents the events of Dunkirk by focusing on several different groups of people. It does not offer commentary; it is in fact almost a fly-on-the-wall documentary. And did I mention that it looks gorgeous? I ended up buying my own Blu-ray copy.

3 Thelma, Joachim Trier (2017, Norway). A young woman from a religious family moves to Oslo to study at university. One day in the library, she suffers an epileptic fit – but subsequent study by doctors cannot find evidence of epilepsy. She also finds herself drawn to a fellow student, but her upbringing makes the relationship difficult. Then odd things began to happen around her… and flashbacks reveal why these occur. Comparisons with Carrie are inevitable, but Thelma is so much better than that film. Elli Harboe is brilliant in the title role, and totally carries the film. I might even buy my own Blu-ray copy.

4 Vampir Cuadecuc, Pere Portabella (1970, Spain). I’ve no idea why I stuck this film on my rental list, but I knew nothing about it when I slid it into my player. It proved to be an experimental film, shot during the filming of Jesse Franco’s Count Dracula, but in stark black and white and with only atonal music for a soundtrack. And, er, that’s it. I loved it. I loved it so much I hunted down a Spanish release of a box set of 22 of Portabella’s films and bought it. The imagery is beautiful in the way only transformed imagery can be, and the fact it piggybacks on an existing production, and steals from its plot, not to mention its casts’ performances, only adds to the film’s appeal. I’ve been slowly working my way through the Portabella box set since I bought it. It was a good purchase..

5 India Song*, Marguerite Duras (1975, France). I watched this because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but the director’s name was unfamiliar to me, and I didn’t bother looking the film up before watching it. So what I found myself watching came as a surprise… which seems to be a recurrent theme to this year’s Best of the half-year… Duras was a French novelist, playwright and film-maker, who is perhaps best-known outside France for writing the screenplay for Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima, mon amour. But she made almost twenty films herself, and India Song is one of the better known. It is an experimental film, although it tells a relatively straightforward story in a relatively straightforward manner – that of the wife of an ambassador in India in the 1930s who affair with multiple men to alleviate the boredom of her life. But the film has no dialogue – everything is narrated by voiceover. It’s a bit like watching a bunch of people act out a short story as it is read. I found it fascinating, and would love to watch more of Duras’s films. But they are, of course, extremely hard to find in English-language releases. I really should improve my French one of these days.

Honourable mentions – Baahubali 1 & 2, SS Rajmouli (2017, India) absolutely bonkers and OTT Telugu-language historical epic, has to be seen to be believed; A Question of Silence*, Marleen Gorris (1982, Netherlands) one of the most feminist films I’ve ever watched: three women are charged with the murder of a male shop assistant; Penda’s Fen, Alan Clarke (1974, UK) there’s an England which exists in art which I do not recognise, and this is one of the best presentations of it in narrative cinema I’ve seen; WR: Mysteries of the Organism*, Dušan Makavejev (1971, Serbia) a paean to the ideas of Wilhelm Reich and his orgone energy, told through interviews and an invented narrative about a woman in Yugoslavia who has an affair with an People’s Artist ice skater; A Silent Voice, Naoko Yamada (2016, Japan) a lovely piece of animation about a teenager who bullies a deaf student at his school and comes to regret his actions; The Red Turtle, Michaël Dudok de Wit (2016, France) dialogue-free animated film about a man stranded on an island, with some beautiful animation; Secret Défense, Jacques Rivette (1998, France) baggy thriller from Rivette which hangs together successfully over its 170-minute length; Still Life, Jia Zhangke (2006, China) a man hunts for his wife and daughter in the Three Gorges, more documentary-style drama from a favourite director, plus gorgeous scenery; Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters*, Paul Schrader (1985, USA) fascinating, sometimes almost hallucinogenic, dramatisation of the life of famous writer.

films – documentary
1 Notfilm, Ross Lipman (2015, USA). A fascinating study of Samuel Beckett’s only foray into cinema, Film, and how it impacted Beckett’s career. The BFI release which includes the documentary also includes a copy of Beckett’s film, plus a 1979 British remake, which sticks closer to the original script. It’s fascinating stuff, not least Notfilm‘s study of Beckett’s career, including interviews with long-time collaborators, such as Billie Whitelaw. I can’t say the documentary persuaded me to search out DVDs of Beckett’s plays – he wrote a lot for television, so some must exist – although I would like to give one of his novels a try.

2 A Man Vanishes, Shohei Imamura (1967, Japan). A salaryman leaves the office for home one night and never arrives. A Man Vanishes sets out to discover what became of him, but turns into a meditation on the role of the documentary maker and the impossibility of really documenting what was going through someone’s mind. Particularly during their last moments. The last scene, in which the crew appear and dismantle the set  around the actors, is especially effective.

3 Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman (2008, Israel). An animated documentary, partly autobiographical partly fictional, in which Folman tracks down and interviews members of his platoon in the IDF and discovers he was complicit in an atrocity which he had completely blanked. The animation allows Folman to present past events, and it’s an effective technique, even if it doesn’t work quite so well when it’s Folman in deep discussion with friends or platoon-mates in the present day. However, after a while, the animation stops being so obtrusive, and Folman’s unburdening starts to overwhelm the narrative.

4 Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, Alexandra Dean (2017, USA). I suspect it’s a toss-up these days as to whether Lamarr is better known for her acting or her link to Bluetooth (given that the latter has been heavily publicised for the last few years). She was a remarkable woman, who took up inventing to stave off boredom while pursuing a career in Hollywood, and among her inventions was frequency-hopping, now used in everything from military secure comms to GPS to wi-fi to Bluetooth… After watching this documentary, I really wanted to track down a copy of her self-financed and -produced historical epic, Loves of Three Queens, but good copies are hard to find.

5 Kate Plays Christine, Robert Greene (2014, USA). An actress, Kate, prepares for her role as a real-life person, Christine, who committed suicide on air back in the 1970s. The length of time that has passed since Christine Chubbuck, a news anchor, shot herself while the camera has live has meant there is little evidence remaining about her or her life. Kate interviews those who knew her, but even then she remains very much an enigma – there’s even a hint she might have been trans. Despite the details of Chubbuck’s death, this documentary is very much not salacious or in bad taste. It navigates its way very carefully, and it’s very well put together. The DVD I bought I bought came bundled with Actress, which is also a very good documentary.

Honourable mentions – Where to Invade Next, Michael Moore (2015, USA) the title’s joke wears thin very quickly, but Moore’s survey of six European nations’ civilised social policies stands in stark contrast to the regressive society of the US, despite Moore’s claims many of the policies are embedded in the Declaration of Independence; Becoming Bond, Josh Greenbaum (2017, USA) a tongue-in-cheek look at the career of George Lazenby, who played the best Bond (yes, he did), but then torpedoed his own film career; The Oath, Laura Poitras (2010, USA) two men were part of al-Qa’eda, one was a non-combatant driver, the other was a member of bin Laden’s bodyguard, the former was captured and held in Gitmo and tried as a terrorist, while the latter gave himself up to the Yemeni authorities, served a brief prison sentence and not lectures against both al-Qa’eda and the US; Dispossession, Paul Sng (2017, UK) a damning indictment of the decades-long Tory policy of neglecting social housing, so that the land can be sold off to developers… resulting in our present-day housing crisis. Fuck the Tories; The Farthest, Emer Reynolds (2017, Ireland) fascinating look at the two Voyager space probes, with interviews of those involved and some excellent CGI footage of the probes themselves; Colobane Express, Khady Sylla (2008, Senegal) set aboard a privately-operated bus in Dakar, using actors to tell the stories of the passenger’s lives, excellent stuff.

albums
1 The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness I and II, Panopticon (2018) Panopticon is a one-man band, and plays a mix of bluegrass and black metal. It works surprising well. The two albums here, released together as one as they were intended to be, are according to the artist: “the first half of the album is atmospheric metal, the second half is more americana focused”. The acoustic “americana” sections are actually more atmospheric than the black metal sections, but it all hangs together extremely well.

2 Currents, In Vain (2018). In Vain are from Norway, and also a one-man band. They play a metal that veers from black to death to prog, and sometimes features a few other musical genres, like country. Currents is their fourth full-length album, after 2013’s Ænigma, which I think made my top five albums for that year. I’m not sure Currents is as good as that album, but it’s still bloody good stuff.

3 The Weight of Things, Entransient (2018). Entransient play something halfway between prog rock and prog metal, although one of the tracks on this album features harmony vocals that don’t really belong to either genre. It’s probably the best song on the album, in fact. This is only their second album after their eponymous debut in 205, but it’s a much better album, and I’m looking forward to hearing more from them.

I’ve actually bought more than three albums during the last six months, but not that much more. The last few years I’ve not listened to as much music as I used to, nor seen as many bands perform live. In fact, I’ve only been to one gig so far this year, to see Therion, who were really good (even though I’ve not kept up with them for at least seven or eight years).

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Moving pictures 2018, #19

Have I mentioned before that I occasionally surprise myself by the stuff I end up watching? And liking? It happens.

Sign of the Pagan, Douglas Sirk (1954, USA). Sirk made some blinding melodramas during the 1950s, but he was more often a director-for-hire, and not all of the films he made show the same subversive quality as his best work. Like this one. I mean, my love for All That Heaven Allows knows no bounds, but this straightforward historical drama about Attila the Hun and Roman emperors Valentian III and Theodosius is ordinary stuff. Palance, effectively blacked-up, plays Attila with the… relish he brought to all his roles. The remaining cast are forgettable, even Jeff Chandler, who plays a centurion who provides a through-line for the viewer. Much, if not all, of the film appears to have been shot in a studio, which gives everything a weirdly Shakespearean feel, although that’s somewhat offset by the typically Hollywood dialogue. I mean, there are touches to it that are pure Sirk – among other things, a tendency to write the women much better than is typical for the period; and some of the framing is clearly taking the piss. But Hollywood has never been good at historicals, especially ancient, and the 1950s weren’t exactly a high point for that genre. Sirk’s films have slowly been appearing on DVD, the ones he’s best known for first, of course, but it does seem a bit random which titles appear next. This isn’t really one they needed to rush out.

Guardians, Sarik Andreasyan (2017, Russia). I joked on Twitter than this might be Russia’s answer to the X-Men, the Ж-Men, but no one thought it was funny. Oh well. During the Cold War, a Soviet scientist experimented with giving people superhuman powers. He succeeded, but the programme was shut down. In the present day, the scientist – who had also experimented on himself, giving himself super-strength and the power to control machines – re-surfaces, takes control of some state-of-the-art Russian battle robots, kills all the generals and scarpers. So the Russian super-secret Patriot programme, a sort of Russian SHIELD, tracks down the original experimental subjects and persuades them to form a team to combat the rogue scientist. Who has stolen a TV tower, which he plans to erect in Moscow and use as a giant antenna to seize control of all technology through the world muahahaha. So the Patriot team – a woman who can turn invisible or into water, a man who can turn into a super-strong bear (super-strong compared to bears, that is), a man with super-speed and two very sharp swords, and a man who can control rocks and earth. The plot is pretty standard for the genre, even down to the nod at possible sequels at the end. The special effects are mostly effective, but the superheroes all look a bit off, a bit like CGI characters from late nineties or early twenty-first century films. Missable.

India Song*, Marguerite Duras (1975, France). You know when you come to a film totally cold, and you love it so much you want to watch everything by the director? It’s happened to me several times. And it has happened again. I really had no idea what to expect from India Song. It certainly wasn’t a film in which actors silently performed their roles to a voiceover narrative. The story is set in, er, India, and is about the wife of a French planter and her affairs. But it was actually filmed in Boulogne. It takes place in the 1930s, and consists mostly of the cast sitting around in the planter’s mansion and having the sort of conversation privileged people back in the 1930s in expatriate colonies had. The story is told entirely in voiceover. None of the cast speak – or rather, their voices are never heard on the soundtrack. It’s a bit like watching a play, a bit like a documentary, and a lot unlike most other films. I found it fascinating – so much so, I now want to see other films by Duras, to see if India Song was a one-off or most of her films were like it. Unfortunately, I’ve had trouble finding any.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Alison Klayman (2012, USA). I know Ai’s name, but not much about his art – other than his involvement in the design of the Birds Nest stadium for the Beijing Olympics – so this film was a good introduction to the man and his work. And while I’m not convinced by the latter – I look askance at any artist that runs an “atelier” and just signs the work, like James Patterson – there’s no denying the political work done by Ai. He spent years, for example, collecting the names of schoolchildren killed by the earthquake in Sichuan in 2008, despite official resistance. It’s true that his stature insulated him to some extent from the consequences of his views – although not entirely, as he was disappeared by the Chinese authorities for 88 days at the end of this film (it provides the end-note of the movie). Modern art is… well, it’s not art, it’s message – inasmuch as the message bypasses traditional art channels. Which is why people don’t understand it as art. Also, most people don’t understand the message of traditional art. This is hardly unsurprising, as the language is often specific the period in which the art was produced. All those Renaissance paintings? They’re coded. And so are Ai’s works. But there’s no commonly-accepted language for art these days, and hasn’t been for a long time, and so works need to be decoded in context. Some artists provide context, some don’t. Ai does for some of his pieces in this film. But without context, art can lose its meaning. But even context has weight, and Ai’s is among the heaviest – if that makes sense. He’s a dissident in the most repressive, and most successful, regime on the planet. He directly criticises his masters. His survival is not a consequence of his refusal to be silenced but their failure, for whatever reason, to take action. Which they eventually did, just before this film was released. They arrested him at Beijing airport, and held him incommunicado for three months. Vocal critics, even ones with international reputations, of repressive regimes have a tendency to disappear. But that’s the right wing for you: for all their talk about law and order and traditional values, they are quick to ignore the law when their power is threatened. The UK government, while by no means as repressive as the Chinese authorities, has been happy to overlook the illegal election spending of both the Conservative Party in the last election and Leave campaign in the EU referendum. A mandate generated by illegal actions is no mandate at all. In China, they don’t give a shit. The authorities are so desperate to maintain their wealthy lifestyles they’re happy to play fast and loose with their laws. We need supra-national institutions like the EU to prevent shit like that from happening in Europe. And the UK. Oh, wait…

I, Tonya, Craig Gillespie (2017, USA). A colleague at work likes war movies, and I mentioned in passing I’d watched I, Tonya, and he said, it’s good innit. So there you go, you can never tell what films people like or not. I, Tonya is a comedy-drama based on actual events, which sounds horrible when you think about it. Tonya Harding is best-known as a US Olympic ice-skater who was later banned from the sport because she had conspired to injure her chief rival Nancy Kerrigan. The film is made entirely from real quotes from the people involved. Harding comes across as driven but none too bright. Her husband likewise. But the man they employ as their bodyguard takes the biscuit as dumbest person on the planet. If he comes across as implausibly stupid in the film, interview footage with the real person in the end credits shows they characterised him quite accurately. To be fair, Harding comes across as unfairly punished. Kerrigan recovered, and took silver at the Olympics that same year. Harding finished eighth. But Harding was banned from competitive ice-skating for life, and ended up as a female boxer. If the movie has a flaw, it’s that Australian comedy actress Margo Robbie is too old for the role, particularly Harding’s early teen years.

Wavelength*, Michael Snow (1967, Canada). Here’s another one I came to cold. I guess I could have researched it before watching it, but why bother? I was going to watch it as it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Anyway, it proved to be avant garde cinema, the film that created the genre “structural film”, if such could be considered a genre. It basically consists of a camera locked off on a view of a room, in which things happen as a consequence of events outside the room. There is no plot, just the after-effects of events, the consequences, out-of-context drama, and even that last description is overstating it as it’s barely drama and the context remains a complete mystery. There are also sequences where the screen flashes and noise overwhelms the soundtrack. I loved it. Unfortunately, the copy I saw was a bad rip on Youtube, and it didn’t do the film any favours. I’d like to see a good quality version of this, but I don’t think it’s ever been released on DVD, despite being chosen for preservation by the Audio-Visual Preservation Trust of Canada. Hopefully, one will be made available.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 901