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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, #16

Sometimes, when I come to write these Moving pictures post, I wonder why the hell I chose to watch the films I did. True, some are rentals, and so it pretty much depends on what Cinema Paradiso happen to send me (and, of course, what was going through my head when I put them on my rental list). Which is certainly true of two of the films in this batch. But some of the others… It’s not so much that I choose to watch these films, just the weird variety of them within the half dozen. And this lot are a little stranger in that regard than most of my Moving pictures posts…

Skidoo, Otto Preminger (1968, USA). Preminger is not generally known for his comedies, and there’s a reason for that. At least, there is if Skidoo is any indication. Jackie Gleason plays a retired mobster, married to Carol Channing. He’s asked to perform one last hit for mob boss Groucho Marx, on his old pal Mickey Rooney, currently in Alcatraz. Gleason is also worried about his daughter, who has dropped out, turned on and tuned in with John Philip Law amd his tribe of hippies. Meanwhile , a pair of Marx’s enforcers put pressure on Gleason, and Channing tries to lift this by seducing one of them, Frankie Avalon. While in Alcatraz, Gleason uses the high tech provided by an imprisoned hippy to contact Rooney, but then decides he can’t kill him. There’s a particular type of comedy film which sets up completely implausible situations – a mobster in prison to kill a confederate – and then fails to deliver on them due to a change of heart by the principle. It’s almost a law of comedy. Which does not necessarily make it funny. And if there’s one thing Skidoo is, that’s… not very funny. I mean, Preminger knew his stuff, he’d been making films since the 1930s, and he had a star-studded cast in Skidoo – not just those already mentioned, but also Frank Gorshin, George Raft, Peter Lawford, Burgess Meredith, Cesar Romero and Slim Pickens (but no female stars, other than Channing, which is disappointing, especially for 1968). The whole thing is so horribly dated – in its targets, its sensibilities, its comedy… I’m frankly not surprised Skidoo is not readily available on sell-through in the US or UK. Eminently missable.

I am not Madame Bovary, Feng Xiaogang (2016, China). A husband and wife in China divorce so that they can purchase a second property – as couples can only own a single property – but instead of remarrying as planned, the husband marries another woman. Incensed, the ex-wife reports him to the authorities and demands they nullify the divorce so she can properly divorce. Um, yes. They point out she is already divorced. The ex-husband meanwhile has been spreading lies about her sexual history. The ex-wife keeps after the authorites over the years, being bounced from one official to another, gradually working her way up the ladder. Her campaign is fruitless, and sees her briefly sent to a “re-education camp”. After her husband dies, she settles in Beijing and opens a noodle shop. Eventually, she reveals the divorce had been concocted to get around the one-child policy and had nothing to do with buying property. But during the divorce proceedings, she miscarried. This is a long film, 137 minutes, and bizarrely presented in a variety of formats, most often a circular aperture in the centre of the screen. I’ve no idea why Feng chose to present his film like that, it doesn’t add anything to it. I’m a big fan of contemporary Chinese cinema – although perhaps not so much the CGI-heavy historical epics they’ve been churning out for the past dozen years, but certainly the scaled-back, often documentary-like, dramas of the Sixth Generation directors. Feng is not Sixth Generation, but has been making films since the mid-1990s, and very successfully. I am not Madame Bovary is a film made by a film-maker who knows his craft – I’ve seen his earlier The Banquet (see here) and thought it good – so despite being slightly disappointed with this one, I think I’ll stick some of his other films on my rental list.

Film, Alan Schneider (1965, USA) / Film, David Rayner Clark (1979, UK) / Notfilm, Ross Lipman (2015, USA). Film is Samuel Beckett’s first and only foray into cinema. It’s 24 minutes long, shot in black and white, has little or no dialogue, and stars Buster Keaton. It opens with a shot of a wall somewhere in New York. A figure, keeping its face from the camera, scurries alongside the wall, eventually entering a tenement and then a sparsely-furnished room. He performs a series of actions, then sits down in a chair, looks at some photographs, tears up the photographs, and then reveals his face to the camera. I’m not actually familiar with Beckett’s oeuvre – I know of Waiting for Godot, but I’ve never seen it – or of his career, to be honest. I know he wrote several novels, and I’ve been meaning to try one for years, but I came to Film completely cold. And… I like experimental/avant garde cinema. I’ve seen works by Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, Bruce Baillie, Ernie Gehr; I’m love the films of James Benning and Ben Rivers; I’m currently exploring the oeuvre of Pere Portabella; and the modern artform which appeals to me most is the video installation, and I’m a fan of works by Ed Atkins, Richard Mosse, Cécile B Evans and Tuomas A Laitinen… But Film does come across more as a laboured exercise in re-inventing the wheel. Beckett had no experience at film-making, nor was he that well-versed in the medium. He was a playwright, who later adopted television as his preferred medium. The core of Film is the relationship between O (the object, Keaton) and E (the eye; ie, the camera), and it’s all about what they can see. So Keaton spends his time in his room covering items which might “see” him, such as a painting, or the window. And when the screen projects what O sees, it does it through a gauze filter so it looks different to E. It’s hardly sophisticated stuff, and Beckett’s plodding working through of the concept is slightly painful to watch. But. As Beckett’s first and only attempt at cinema, it’s a fascinating experiment. Even more so when watching the BFI’s 1979 version, which was based on Beckett’s original script (and not the heavily-revised one used for the 1965 original), and starred Max Wall, a well-known comedic figure in the UK at the time… Having said that, Ross Lipman’s two-hour documentary on Beckett and his Film, Notfilm, is worth the price of admission alone. Lipman digs into Beckett’s career, the origin of Film, and Beckett’s production of it. It’s fascinating stuff, especially since Film is so unsuccessful a work from so successful a creator. I’m tempted to pick up a copy of this for myself.

The Millionairess, Anthony Asquith (1960, UK). My mother found this in a charity shop, and passed it onto me after she’d watched it. A comedy with Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren, directed by Anthony Asquith. Sounded like solid entertainment from the sixties. But… oh dear. If I said the song ‘Goodness Gracious Me’ was spun out of this film – the two stars performed it, in character, although it doesn’t appear in the actual film – then that should tell you all you need to know. Sellers plays an Indian doctor, and it’s the sort of offensive caricature that was once considered amusing and that Benny Hill more or less built a career upon. But Benny Hill was considered passé and offensive back in the late 1980s – one of the UK’s biggest comedy exports at that time and no one would show him on British TV. And rightly so. Loren plays a wealthy widow, who cannot remarry unless her prospective husband can turn £500 into £15,000 in three months, which I would have thought in 1960 ruled out pretty much everything except crime. But never mind. After various unsuitable suitors, she happens upon Sellers, a selfless Indian doctor. She decides he’s the one for her. But he tries to get ot of it by claiming his mother set a challenge that his bride-to-be must survive for three months on 35 shillings (that’s 420p, or 7 crowns or £1 and 15 shillings, or 1 and two-thirds guineas… all of which is about £37 in 2017 money). Loren bullies a pasta factory owner into letting her take over, modernises it and turns it highly profitable by replacing all the staff with machines. Sellers, meanwhile, can’t even give away his £500. But never mind, they get together in the end. The Millionairess was a massive hit on its release, but it really doesn’t play well today. To a twenty-first century viewer, it’s tasteless and not at all funny. And, to be honest, I never really understood Sellers’s appeal. Missable.

Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-ho (2013, South Korea). People raved about this when it was released five years ago, but since it’s never had a UK release on sell-through I’d never managed to see it. Until now. And I can’t honestly see what the fuss was all about. Some fifteen years in the future, the earth is uninhabitable, frozen solid from pole to pole after failed climate engineering to combat global warming (huh, I had a story published in 2010 based on that premise). The remnants of humanity live aboard a train which circles the globe, although I’m not sure how they cross the oceans – I assume they’re completely frozen over and so safe to lay a track upon. Anyway, the train’s society is a microcosm of the sort of neoliberal libertarian capitalist bullshit societies so beloved of science fiction. At the front end of the train are the elite, who live in comfort with all their needs met. And at the rear of the train are the “scum”, the proletarians, who are treated worse than slaves, fed on protein blocks made from insects, and brutally punished for the most minor of offences. When Chris Evans realises that the elite’s guards ran out of bullets years before, he leads a rebellion, and he and his fellow scum fight their way toward the front of the train, eventually confronting the train’s designer and leader of its society, Wilford, played by Ed Harris. Who reveals that the rebellion was engineered in order to cull the scum population as resources aboard the train are limited. Wilford asks Evans to replace him as leader, but Evans then discovers that scum kids are being used as replacement trains parts, so he kills Wilford. Oh, and it turns out the earth is thawing, so the train won’t even be needed soon. Snowpiercer looks very impressive, and the performances throughout are very good. But the tired old bollocks story just completely turned me off. In a closed environment like the train, survival is so precarious that any set-up which might lead to the environment being damaged, as in, for example, a rebellion, is just dumb. So wildyl unjust stories are just disasters waiting to happen. They’re clearly unsustainable. And only an idiot, or a sf writer, would consider building one. If Snowpiercer was trying to make a point about capitalism and capitalist societies, I didn’t care. I live in an unjust society, and while I’m no means near the bottom of it, I don’t need heavy-handed fables like Snowpiercer to tell me it’s unjust. By all means use fiction – written or cinematic – to depict such societies, but violent overthrow, followed by a deus ex machina, make for boring, and pointless, stories. Snowpiercer looked very nice – as well it might, given the amount spent on it – but I really wasn’t interested in its story.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 896