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Moving pictures 2017, #61

I’m still not sure what to make of Ken Russell and his oeuvre – as a film-maker that is; his sf novel, Mike & Gaby’s Space Gospel, was fucking dreadful. Valentino was, at least, a very Russell film, but in good Russell ways rather than bad Russell ways. Welles, I am becoming something of a fan of (and there’s a construction us writers just love), and Puenzo too is proving a name to watch. Guzmán, on the other hand, just makes brilliant documentaries.

Valentino, Ken Russell (1977, USA). The title is the plot – it’s the life of Rudolph Valentino, silent movie star, played by Rudolf Nureyev. But it’s also a Ken Russell film. So it opens with Velentino’s funeral, and the invasion of the funeral parlour by the hordes of fans waiting outside. There’s a artificiality to the staging which spoils it a little, but when the mourners manage to barricade themselves in the parlour, and each tells their story about Valentino, it starts to make sense. Valentino started out as a dancer at a dance-hall, then toured the country in a dance act, before catching the eye of an actress out carousing with Fatty Arbuckle, and so being introduced to Hollywood. Valentino’s sexuality is addressed in the film – by all accounts, he was straight, but his dandiness (is that a word?) led people to suppose he was gay – in as much as Russell has others characterise Valentino as gay despite presenting ample evidence he wasn’t. Those who loomed large in Valentino’s life loom large in the film, especially his original Hollywood patron, over-played by Leslie Caron, and both the staging and acting give much of the film a sort of fevered intensity that makes the subject seem, well, pure fiction. Having read the Wikipedia article on Rudolph Valentino, he seems to have had a more interesting life and career than is laid out in Russell’s film, but I suspect Russell had other concerns. Of the films Valentino actually made, I’ve only seen The Eagle… and I couldn’t really see what all the fuss was about. As for Valentino the movie… I’d put it in Russell’s top ten, but then he only made twenty-one feature films…

Macbeth, Orson Welles (1948, USA). After my comments on Welles’s Othello (see here), I feel a little embarrassed because his Macbeth is pretty much a rehearsal for Othello. This is how Welles did Shakespeare and, it seems, Othello, rather than being a unique perspective on the play, is actually just a follow on from Macbeth. It has the same stark black and white cinematography, the same brutal scenery, the same use of intense close-ups… but it doesn’t do it quite as well as Othello, for all that Macbeth is, arguably, the more powerful play. Unfortunately, Macbeth does suffer from a cast putting on bad Scottish accents, and that’s a major distraction. (Welles blacking up as Othello is offensive, but not distracting per se.) I’ve never been a fan of “the Scottish play”, and I much prefer Shakespeare’s ludicrous comedies (and the occasional romance). But Macbeth has a presence in popular culture that Shakespeare’s other plays cannot match, and I can understand why Welles might have staged it. (But, let’s face it, Falstaff – Chimes at Midnight, a film whose narrative is a combination of Falstaff’s appearances in Shakespeare’s plays is a much more interesting idea. It’s also a great film (see here).) Welles’s Macbeth, crap accents aside, is a pretty good staging of the play. Although, to be honest, I’ve only seen it twice before – the BBC adaptation, and a school trip to the Crucible back in the late 1970s, about which the only things I remember are: everyone in the cast wore Edwardian uniforms. the sets consisted of giant grey sheets of metal with holes in them, it starred Cally (Jan Chappell) from Blake’s 7, and our headmaster fell asleep during the play and snored loudly.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Mamoru Hosoda (2006, Japan). Since I couldn’t find a copy of the original movie adaptation of the novel, I put the anime remake on my rental list and, in the way that sometimes you’re convinced rental firms like Cinema Paradiso take the piss, they sent it out the week after I’d watched the sequel (see here). And, after all, that it seems the anime film takes a few liberties with the source novel and isn’t much of a prequel to Time Traveller: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, despite their shared origin. For a start, the leaping through time bit here seems mostly accidental and unconscious. It starts when a teenage girl loses control of her bicycle and and is pitched in front of a train at a level crossing. Once she learns how to do it consciously, she uses it for small trivial things. It’s all down to a small device she found at school, and which prioves to be a time-travelling device from the future… which she is abusing. I really like Time Traveller: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, it was a fun poke at 1970s youth culture in Japan, but The Girl Who Leapt Through Time seemed more like bland anime fodder for the international market. The animation was high quality, but nothing stood out. And the story is hardly memorable. From the cover alone, comparisons with Studio Ghibli’s output are inevitable, but if you’ve seen all the Ghibli films you’d be better off checking out Makoto Shinkai than The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.

The Pearl Button, Patricio Guzmán (2015, Chile). If you’ve not seen a Guzmán documentary, then you really should. And The Pearl Button is as good a place as any to start. In the UK, we know Chile chiefly because Maggie Thatcher was chummy with its dictator, Pinochet, and we knew Pinochet was a Bad Sort. But then, that’s the sort of fingers-in-ears la-la-la we’re so very good at in the so-called Western world. Pinochet was a monster and his regime was appalling. And yet he was not unique in the history of Chile. Guzmán riffs on water, its ubiquity, its presence in the universe, its uses on Earth, to tell a story about Pinochet’s regime, what happened to supporters of Salvador Allende, and Chile’s shameful history when it comes to the indigenous peoples of Patagonia. The Disappeared, the politicial prisoners who were tortured to death and their bodies dropped in the ocean from helicopters… these are horrible but not entirely unexpected given Pinochet’s regime. But the way the Chilean government of the nineteenth century treated the peoples of Patagonia… They “Christianised” them and gave them disease-ridden clothing… and if that didn’t kill them, they put a bounty on their heads: so much for a man’s genitals, a woman’s breast, a child’s scalp… Of the four peoples mentioned in the film, only one survives, and that only in a handful of old people in a reservation. And yet the photographs of all four from the eighteenth century, before they were killed off, show vibrant and fascinating peoples, with abilities, in navigation especially, that merited study. The Pearl Button is a fascinating meditation on Chile and its history and a horrific condemnation of certain aspects of the country’s past. There are, I suppose, two types of documentary: those which make you a fan of the human race, with good reason; and those which make you wish for an asteroid strike, with good reason. The Pearl Button definitely falls in the latter category, but it is nonentheless required viewing.

The Fish Child, Lucía Puenzo (2009, Argentina). I first came across Puenzo several years ago when I watched XXY, but it wasn’t until I watched Wakolda (see here) and thought it very good that I decided to explore her oeuvre… And now I’ve seen The Fish Child, which means I’ve seen all of her feature films, and which I didn’t enjoy as much as the other two. A young woman from a well-off family in Argentina is having a love affair with the young woman who has worked as a maid for the family since her early teens. The two plan to run away to the maid’s home in Paraguay. So they steal some jewellery, but the maid is caught and imprisoned. The other woman goes to Paraguay, and meets the maid’s father, a television star, and learns of the legend of the Fish Child in the lake near their home. The climax of the film is a prison-break, but there’s plenty going on in and around that. The narrative jumps backwards and forwards in time – using that old trick of signalling different time periods through hairstyles – and it takes a bit of getting used to. It felt a bit cnbfused in places, which undermined its thrillerish plot. But Puenzo is definitely a director worth watching, and I hope she has something new out soon.

The Idealist, Christina Rosendahl (2015, Denmark). My mother lent me this one; she found it in a charity shop – and she’s keen on anything Danish as we have family there. The Idealist is dramatisation of a true story, about a journalist who investigated the high incidences of cancer among men who had worked at the Thule USAF base during the 1960s… and ended up uncovering an abuse of government power by the then prime minister. In the late 1950s, the Danes had voted to refuse nuclear weapons on their territory, and HC Hansen’s government had been voted into power on that platform. In 1968, a USAF B-52 carrying four hydrogen bombs crashed. The US and Denmark instituted a clean-up operation, and it is cancer among the Danish men involved in this that journalist Poul Brink investigates. The Danish government refuses to acknowledge the crash site was contaminated enough to cause the cancer, despite evidence to the contrary. But while looking into the events of 1968, including clues that one of the bombs did not break apart on impact but fell through the ice and still lies on the ocean floor, Brink learns that Hansen secretly allowed the US to store nuclear weapons on Danish territory in Greenland. When the Danish government threatens him with jail if he reports what he has learned, he goes ahead and reports it – and spends several months in prison. It’s an interesting story, but when you consider what journalism was like then – the film is set in the 1980s – compared to what it is now… Newspapers stopped being fit for purpose several years ago – and the term “investigative journalism” is now starting to sound like an oxymoron. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 885

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2016, the best of the year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Best of the half-year, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Moving pictures, #29

Half of this post’s films are American, so I seem to be slipping a little. Having said that, movies from countries other than the US (or UK) are surprisingly difficult to find on DVD or as rentals – especially old films. For example, I’d really like to see Vidas Secas, an early Brazilian Cinema Novo movie, by Nelson Pereiros dos Santos… but I can’t find a copy. There are also a number of directors whose oeuvres I’d like to explore, even ones that are really well-known (albeit not Anglophone), but not all of their films are available – Godard, for instance… Ah well. I guess I should have more mainstream tastes… Or learn some more languages…

twilightThe Twilight Samurai, Yoji Yamada (2002, Japan). I am not a huge fan of Japanese historical dramas; I’ve seen several of Kurosawa’s films, for example, but I like Dersu Uzala – which is set in, er, Russia – best. And while Ozu’s are historical in that they’re set in the past, they’re set in the twentieth century, so, er, not really historical then. (Slight digression here on what defines “historical”. The general consensus is that historical fiction is fiction set before the liftetime of the author and written from research not personal experience. So just because a novel, or film, is set in the 1970s, forty years ago, that doesn’t make it historical (unless the author is in their twenties, but, seriously, why would they try writing a novel set four decades ago knowing there are people still alive who remember the decade quite well?).) Anyway, The Twilight Samurai is set a few years before the Meiji Restoration of 1868. A widower samurai spends his money on ensuring his daughters are fed and clothed, and so gains a reputation for being unkempt and a bit smelly. Then a childhood friend turns up after a quick divorce from her abusive husband, and begins spending time with the samurai and his two daughters. The ex-husband appears, very drunk, and challenges the woman’s brother, Twilight’s friend, and so Twilight jumps in and accepts the challenge. He surprises everyone by beating the ex-husband, even though armed only with a stick… Although slow to start, this film began to pick up as the title character became less the butt of jokes and more the protagonist of the story. Turned out better than I thought it would. Worth seeing.

nostalgiaNostalgia for the Light, Patricio Guzmán (2010, Chile). I’m surprised this didn’t make the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list. Perhaps the makers didn’t think its topic as worthy as that of… Senna, or a film about a female serial killer. But then Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing didn’t make the list either, so perhaps the list-makers aren’t interested in films on state-run massacres. It might remind them of their own nation’s complicity in several such… (Not that the UK is innocent – and Margaret Thatcher was very chummy with Pinochet, and for that, among many other things, deserves our deepest contempt.) Nostalgia for the Light contrasts the search for stars by the astronomers of the Atacama Desert with the search for the bodies of the Disappeared by a group of Chilean women who sift the sand for the remains of their husbands and sons and brothers… The film features Guzmán in voice-over describing how the events shown relate to Chile’s history and character. There’s a telling moment when Guzmán says of one old couple, survivors of Pincohet’s regime, that they represent Chile for him: the man cannot forget anything that happened to him, the woman has dementia and cannot remember anything. A fascinating, but heart-breaking, documentary that both destroys your faith in humanity but also reaffirms (okay, it destroys any faith you might have had in the rich and powerful – but then you’d have to be daft as a brush to have any faith in them in the first place). I’d put this on my own 1001 Movies list.

gatheringA Gathering of Eagles, Delbert Mann (1963, USA). My mother told me there was a Rock Hudson film on Drama one afternoon, and when I learnt it was A Gathering of Eagles, I had two reasons for wanting to catch it: Rock Hudson and SAC. (The actual conversation went like this: Mother: “There’s a Rock Hudson film on Drama this afternoon. Gathering something…” Me: “A Gathering of Eagles?” Mother: “That’s it.” Me: “I keep on thinking today is Saturday.” Mother: “That film is on tomorrow afternoon.”) I like Hudson’s films, he was an excellent leading man during a period whose films I enjoy; and I’m fascinated by the military hardware, especially aerospace hardware, built and used by the US – especially the USAF’s Strategic Air Command – during the Cold War. Rock Hudson and B-52 bombers. Cool. I wasn’t expecting great cinema, but as long as there was some good aerial photography and lots of interior shots of the B-52s, then I’d be happy. I love stuff like that. Strategic Air Command, starring Jimmy Stewart, some B-36s and some B-47s, is one of my favourite films; but it’s a fairly routine drama. And Toward the Unknown showcases the XB-51, which makes it quite interesting. A Gathering of Eagles has plenty of aerial photography of B-52s refueling from KC-135 tankers, but is mostly concerned with Hudson pissing off everyone in the wing he’s been given command of. The movie has its moments, but if you want to see B-52s on-screen you’d be better off watching Bombers B-52.

danishThe Danish Girl, Tom Hooper, (2015, UK). This film has taken quite a bit of stick for taking liberties with a novel which itself takes liberties with the real life of its subject: Lili Elbe, one of the first people to undergo gender reassignment surgery. For a start, her name wasn’t Lili Elbe – that was invented by a journalist. Her name was actually Lili Ilse Elvenes. Eddie Redmayne plays Einar Wegener/Lili Elvenes, and while the film tries to show Wegener coming to the realisation she is the wrong gender, Redmayne spoils the effect somewhat with his smirking. The movie never manages to convince, despite showing a reasonably good depiction of 1920s Copenhagen – possibly because it squeezes the events of nearly two decades into what feels like a handful of years. There are plenty of other inaccuracies too – so many, you have to wonder at the point of making a film about a real person that seems happy to ignore what actually happened. Of course, Hollywood has never let facts get in the way of a good story (although this is a British film), and actually has a well-known history of rewriting, er, history… But then the UK film industry does that too – like The Imitation Game turning Alan Turing into a spy-catcher… I don’t know; The Danish Girl felt like a ham-fisted attempt to tell a story that served its subject badly… and its viewers too. Meh.

martianThe Martian, Ridley Scott (2015, USA). But you didn’t like the book, I hear you cry, so why watch the film? Well, it’s not unknown for bad books to make good films – in fact, I can think of several off the top of my head. And, to be fair, The Martian may have been badly-written but its story read as though it lent itself quite well to a cinematic treatment. Or so I thought. Unfortunately, while Scott’s The Martian looks very pretty – and at times, even resembles the Martian surface – the adaptation only highlights the flaws in Weir’s story. The storm looks very effective, but is complete nonsense – given Mar’s extremely low surface pressure, a hurricane would feel as powerful as a faint breeze. Also, Watney appears to have plenty of food, but still spends all that time and effort growing potatoes. And the final rescue scene is risible – the NASA spacecraft deliberately slows itself down while on a free-return trajectory about Mars… thus ensuring it will never get back to Earth. I was also amused they’d completely toned down the swearing from the book. The script demonstrated how pointless were the scenes set on Earth (badly-inserted in the novel for its publication by a publishing house), especially since they did little more than obfuscate the science. The success of the book was baffling, but the Hollywood marketing machine was there to ensure the movie adaptation was no flop – especially with marquee names like Ridley Scott and Matt Damon attached. So it seems churlish to complain about the quality of the film – since no one seems to give a shit. I mean, this is commercial fiction, and a commercial movie adaption thereof, actual quality is not relevant… but I do object to a story being sold on its science credentials when those credentials are paper-thin (Weir is now being invited to talk to Congress about space exploration!). The Martian is an entertaining, but not especially convincing, film about a man marooned on Mars. I still think Apollo 18 – rock monsters aside – is one of the most realistic sf films ever made.

jazz_singerThe Jazz Singer*, Alan Crosland (1927, USA). This film is famously the first “talkie”, and its commercial (albeit not critical) success pretty much killed silent films – although not entirely: Dreyer’s mostly-silent Vampyr was released in 1932, and Murnau released two silent films after The Jazz Singer, City Girl in 1930 and Tabu and 1931; not to mention a silent film, The Artist, winning the Oscar in 2012… But clearly the moment The Jazz Singer appeared, silent films were obsolete, so it sort of doesn’t really matter what The Jazz Singer was like as a film per se, except… Jolson plays the son of a cantor who would rather sing in music halls, and so is disowned by his orthodox Jewish father. Eventually, of course, they reconcile… but that’s after a good sixty or so minutes of each posturing to defend their own  point of view. The film is not without its problems – chief among which is that Jolson’s career was based upon performing in blackface, and so he does several times in the movie. By all accounts, when singing live he was accomplished at creating an emotional connection with the audience, but this doesn’t really transfer to film. In other words, he doesn’t much look like a leading man, and the various songs he performs don’t really explain it either. There’s no denying the historical impact of The Jazz Singer, but being first at something doesn’t automatically confer quality. Dreyer’s Vampyr, mentioned earlier, would have been a much better “first talkie”… but The Jazz Singer is what we have. I’m tempted to include it on my own 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list because it was the first kind, but reluctant to do so because it’s not a very good film…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 774