Childhood Canon

CometmoominlandSometimes you hear a podcast episode and think wistfully how you’d like to have been on it. Recent Incomparable episodes about childhood canon and recent conversations with colleagues about learning to read had me thinking about the media that shaped my tastes. I’m less interested in film and television than I am in books.

I learned to read with Dr Seuss – Green Eggs and Ham, Hop on Pop, and The Cat in the Hat – but at a very early age started the exploration of science fiction that continues to this day. I’m going to credit Tove Jansson with this: Comet in Moominland (1951) was the first Moomin book I read (when I was off school with whooping cough, I think), and although it isn’t scientifically accurate, it would be churlish to hold that against it, given that most science fiction of the time was similarly inaccurate. The description of the approaching comet’s effects on the earth and the crossing of the dried up sea on stilts gave me an early taste of the apocalyptic strand of SF that remains popular to this day.

I moved from the Moomins onto Enid Blyton’s Adventure series and Arthur Ransome, but started to spend more than 50% of my time reading about space and time.

220px-Blast_Off_at_Woomera_front_coverThe first science fiction proper I read would have been Hugh Walters’ series of books that included Destination Mars, Nearly Neptune, and Blast Off at Woomera (1957), which features another implausible plot as a 17-year-old kid is sent off to photograph the moon because of a feared communist plot. Having devoured those books, I moved on to Arthur C. Clarke, and his Islands in the Sky (1952), which also featured a teenage boy going up into space.

I then switched to Clarke’s more adult-oriented books, the most memorable being Childhood’s End and Clarke_Rendezvous_With_RamaRendezvous with Rama (1973), which at the time was Clarke’s most recently published novel. It lacks a proper plot, as much of his stuff does, but does manage to convey a sense of wonder at the (alien) technological sublime, which is another ongoing theme. Most recently, I’ve enjoyed Robert Charles Wilson’s take on it, with books like The Chronoliths, Spin, and Blind Lake.

My Clarke obsession was long enough ago that his novel Imperial Earth (1975) was published while I was in the midst of it. I turned 13 that year. But that novel was disappointing, as was his novelisation of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which might have been better left as the short story “The Sentinel”, which I had in one of the many short story collections I had accrued by then. These included his classic Tales From the White Hart, a fun collection of tall tales which gave me a taste for the playful side of science fiction.

I tried, around this time, to read some Isaac Asimov, but it never took. I never could read Asimov and only managed Heinlein in small doses.

A side trip to Durham to visit relatives led to me scoring a pile of interesting, more grown up, SF books from a distant cousin. I’ll forever be grateful to him, whoever he was, because he let me choose a bunch of stuff from his shelves, which I never was to return.

1255867Two of the most important of these were Larry Niven collections: A Hole in Space and Inconstant Moon (1973). The title story of the latter collection was an echo of Comet in Moominland, as a too-bright moon signalled a catastrophic problem with the sun to people on the dark side of the Earth, who realise they have just one night to live. These harder SF collections exposed me to ideas such as ramjets, time dilation, teleportation booths, and flash mobs. Another book in that particular grab bag was the very first World’s Best Science Fiction collection edited by Terry Carr. This included the canonical Harlan Ellison story “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” but more importantly gave me a taste for these annual collections. I raided the library for every one I could find, and in later years, when Gardner Dozois picked up the torch, I have made a point of buying his annual collection every summer.

The final taste-forming book of my teens was a gift received during a hospital stay when I was 16 or 17. This was the all-time classic Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus, edited by Brian Aldiss. There were more good stories in that one book than in any number of annual Best ofs, and it remains the best introduction to Golden Age science fiction.

Besides all this, the importance of Doctor Who and Star Trek were comparatively minor. When it comes to film and TV science fiction, my support is grudging at best. Only Alien really cuts the mustard from that era, and I mainly watched Doctor Who for the companions.

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Annihilation / Jessica Jones season 2

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Either I’m getting jaded from Too Much TV, or both of these recently released Netflix properties were somewhat disappointing.

I’m not sure if I’ve ever read any of Jeff VanderMeer’s fiction. One of the oddest things about the science fiction field is that, even after 45 years or so of reading it, there are still a tremendous number of writers I’ve never read. It’s comforting, in a way.

Anyway, I read nothing about Annihilation before settling down to watch it, on the recommendation of two different people. It’s based on a novel by VanderMeer.

I have until now totally ignored Netflix’s one-off/movie offerings. Not a single one of them has appealed to me. I know a lot about movies and I know what I like, and I generally don’t like things made in the last 15-20 years. If I invest two hours in something, I generally want more of it (TV style), because I’d have made a choice, usually, to watch a second episode. But a two-hour film can steal two hours of your time and then leave you with a shitty/lame ending, either because they didn’t know how to end it, or because they intended to make a sequel. A case in point: the movie Life, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, has a trick ending that’s a total swizz, based on cheeky editing.

Annihilation started slowly, with a framing device that already put me on guard, because it revealed that the protagonist was the sole survivor of something. This meant that I didn’t emotionally invest or care about any of the other characters because I knew they were going to die. Neither did I invest in the flashbacks, which struck me as lacking in affect and underplayed, and not really illuminating the main plot. A lot of the reviews of this film make the case that it’s somehow doing something different, but if you’ve been reading science fiction for 45 years, it’s really not.

Once the premise was revealed, I was reminded of something I had read, which is Ian McDonald’s Chaga series of stories and novels, about a slowly unfolding singularity event borne to Earth on a meteor, and spreading across Africa like a slow motion version of the “Genesis Effect” in that Star Trek movie.

Like much science fiction, you’d consider these kinds of books unfilmable. You could do it with CGI, of course, but it would be mostly animation, which I tend to find uninvolving. Actors staring at tennis balls on poles in front of green screens are rarely convincing. Anyway, VanderMeer’s books are slightly different, it turns out, but there was still a lot of CGI animation in this film, and my reaction wasn’t wow, as some critics’ seems to have been.

Five women, supposedly scientists, head into a mysterious area that has been colonised by some kind of  possibly alien organism. I say “supposedly” scientists, because they’re dressed in military fatigues and carrying automatic weapons, and they don’t really do much science. In fact, most of the time they act exactly like the space marine grunts in Aliens.

They make a series of illogical and dumb decisions, upon which the whole flimsy plot rests. Science fiction is good at creating Big Ideas and Wonder, but it often doesn’t translate to film very well. I’m kind of dreading Amazon’s attempt at Ringworld, if it ever appears. Once you’ve done the worldbuilding, you’ve basically got a giant ring around a star and it takes forever to get anywhere. (One SF writer who does do interesting things with human stories is Robert Charles Wilson. TV execs take note: you could film The Chronoliths, Spin, or Last Year and you could do better than this.)

Jennifer Jason Leigh is present in Annihilation, in a distant and affectless way. Natalie Portman has a bit more to do, but not much, and you always know how it will end.

There are some interesting ideas: lost time, for example, but not much is done with these ideas. There’s a bunch of CGI and some nice photography. Dialogue is strained and peremptory.

A trick ending. I might have a go with the books, to see if they’re better.

Jessica Jones is back for Season 2, and I found myself similarly uninvolved. The problem, I think, is the same one that afflicts a lot of these Netflix/Marvel shows. They make 13 episodes, but they only have 8–10 episodes of story. So it drifts a bit, and you stop paying attention, and then you wonder what’s happening, and then you don’t care.

Thoughts on Coco

bc19074249108112759e67a814c9bda2Weird to see some reviews of Pixar’s Coco today, with its official release date tomorrow, because it has of course been in UK cinemas for a week already. I saw it last weekend with my 17 yo kid (who paid, much to my delight).

I can’t really review films without reviewing the audience. In this case, we were (having foolishly booked a 4:15 pm screening) largely surrounded by families with very young children, and it was, to be honest, a bit of a shitshow. The knee-high kiddies were bad enough: bored, restless, running around, whining and crying — and that’s before we get to a film which is, at best, “made for everyone” rather than a kids’ film. But I reserve special ire for their parents who were making more noise, getting up for food more often, and bringing in those hideous, smelly trays of nachos etc. (many of which were left, half-eaten, with orange cheese dripping everywhere, on the seats at the end). Which is not to mention the actual food throwing that a couple of the fathers indulged in.

Honestly, I’ve seen so much bad parenting of late that I am sorry to be the one to tell you that we are all fucking doomed. Forget Brexit: the upbringing of the next generation is in the hands of imbeciles.

I personally don’t think Coco is suitable for children so young. Sure, there’s a zany dog and some skeletons falling apart and coming back together, but the truth is that none of these kids are going to remember seeing this film. It’s a bit like the Baby’s First Christmas thing. Parents are wasting their money if they think a two-hour movie about Día de Muertos is going to entertain a child before the age of reason. I mean, I was a precocious kid, but I think I was four before I got my first cinema trip — which I do remember.

Coco has a story similar to any number of Pixar films: a quest for a lost something. With Inside Out it was a memory; with Coco, the kid tries to steal something and ends up in the Land of the Dead, needing to find his long-lost great grandfather in order to get back home before he dies for real. The central metaphor is that being forced to live without pursuing his true calling (music) is a kind of death. But his family hate music and musicians (for reasons) and want him to make shoes. So he goes on his quest, and discovers many things along the way.

The film is beautiful to look at. Maybe overly saturated (I suspect this is a side effect of the 3D version and its inevitable dimming of colour), but full of delightful detail and flights of fancy. It also has a sweet soundtrack that pulls so hard at the heartstrings that your eyes start watering by the end. One laugh-out-loud sequence features Frida Kahlo choreographing a musical revue. When I say laugh-out-loud: I think it was only me (and 17 yo) laughing.

The key concept here, upon which the whole story hinges, is the idea of the “final death”, the one that sees you vanish even from the Land of the Dead if there is nobody left alive who remembers you. It’s a great way of explaining the significance of the festival and a hook for the B plot.

Anyway, notwithstanding the disgusting behaviour of the food-throwing dads in the Odeon audience, Coco is pretty great.

A few reviews

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Lady Mary in the Wild West

Bit of a general round up, because one can’t consume anything these days without reviewing it.

Star Wars: Rogue 1 (iTunes)

Seemed like a pointless cash grab to me.

Tim McGraw and Faith Hill: The Rest of Our Life (iTunes)

An album of duets from Country music’s First Couple. There have been a number of collaborations on each other’s records over the years, but this is the first time a whole album has been released. This is okay: a couple of naff tracks (e.g. “Roll the Dice”) and a couple of corkers (e.g. “Telluride”). Most of all, it’s a pleasure to hear Faith Hill’s voice on new material. She hasn’t released an album of her own since 2005.

Sar Trek: Discovery (Netflix)

The new Star Trek turned out not to be about graphic designers in space, but was instead a fascinating and morally ambiguous exploration of cutting edge tech development at a time of war. The first two episodes were a bit dull (too much Klingon), but once the series proper kicked in, each successive episode seemed to be better than the last, and more and more like Star Trek. Produced by team that is clearly steeped in Trek lore, the whackadoodle episode titles are evidence enough that this new Trek is in good hands.

Godless (Netflix)

A seven-episode limited series, this Western didn’t really add much to the oldest film genre, but was quite well done. A town in which most of the men had been killed in a mining disaster finds itself the focus of interest from speculators and bad guys when an injured outlaw shows up at the ranch of a woman who has survived a terrible ordeal. There are several interweaving plot-lines, and the storytelling is slow-paced, but reaches a satisfying (if a little OTT) climax. Mind, there are too many endings, a bit like Lord of the Snores. The Daily Mail got a little overexcited by Michelle Dockery’s all-too-brief love scene, but then who didn’t watch Downton Abbey living in constant hope that Lady Mary would get her boobs out?

Lee Ann Womack: The Lonely, The Lonesome & The Gone

51w4uGcJHkL._SS500This new album from one of the most talented female vocalists in country music is her first for three years (which is better than the previous album’s 6-year gap). Womack co-wrote half of the 14 tracks, and there are a couple of interesting covers. Musicians include several members of the Nashville A-Team (Paul Franklin, Glen Worf etc.), but the vibe of the record is meant to be East Texas and soul, whatever that means. There are a couple of gospel-tinged numbers, and the whole record sounds great. The fact that this peaked at #37 on the Country charts with sales of just 3,200 in its first week tells you all you need to know about the perilous state of the music industry today, which increasingly relies on big-hitters like Taylor Swift (1.05 million sales in 4 days) while everybody else scrambles for scraps. The only way to make a living as a musician is to tour constantly. And it’s not even just about sales. Of the three “Official Audio” videos released on YouTube to promote the album, only one has more than 20,000 views. The fact is that the music press is in a dismal state, there are virtually no music shows on TV, and (of course) Country radio doesn’t play women. So there is no real promotional push for artists like Lee Ann Womack, and Chris Stapleton-like miracles are black swans.

Blade Runner 2049

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I’m very familiar with the original Blade Runner, because I used to teach it as an exam text to my students. And, along with two or three other films (including The Exorcist, The Shining, and The Conformist), it’s a film I grew to love more every time I went through it. So I’d probably rank it among the top ten films ever made. It took Vertigo forty years (or four polls) to crawl its way to the top of the BFI 100 list, and though I can’t see Blade Runner getting there as soon as 2022, it’s a better film, for me, than 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was at number 69 in 2012, while 2001 was at number 6.

So there was no pressure on Denis Villeneuve in making this sequel.

My four five-year social media blackout meant that I didn’t even know Villeneuve was directing. I managed to avoid knowing anything about this film, including its title, until about two weeks ago. I have no idea why Ridley Scott chose not to direct.

I know I’m not alone in adopting this blackout policy. It’s a reaction to the oversaturated media landscape, and a content industry that prioritises clicks above everything else. If you genuinely care about something, it’s painful to hear even the most uninformed speculation about it. Back in the 90s, a “spoiler” was somebody telling you plot details; now, it’s just a feeling of being overexposed to something, so that you feel as if it has been watched for you. You’re overtaken by a feeling of enervation and simply can’t be arsed. I was looking at the iTunes movie store for something to rent last night, and there was nothing I felt like watching. I haven’t seen the most recent Star Trek film, for example, but the thought of sitting through it just made me feel tired. Anyway, here’s what I think all good internet citizens should do: don’t “review” or “preview” or speculate about anything until it’s out.

You can have the Deckard-is-a-replicant or Deckard-is-Gaff discussion as much as you like: but after everybody’s had a chance to see something. Looking at the production history section of the Wikipedia article now, I’m struck by how fucking repetitive and boring all of the reports are. The frenzy of question-and-answer simply revolved around whether Harrison Ford would be in it, and you just wonder why people obsess on such details.

I got something of that feeling sitting through the trailers “specially selected” to play before BR 2049. What a load of old shit. The intelligent and thought-provoking big ideas of Blade Runner wadded up like snotty tissue with the loud nonsense of barrel scraping superhero franchises. Urgh.

The relatively new Odeon at Milton Keynes Stadium is a decent enough venue. It never seems to be horribly crowded, and doesn’t smell of rancid fat, which is a bonus. BR 2049 was playing on multiple screens: you could see it in IMAX (no thanks), or 3D (no ta), or 2D. Sitting in the 2D theatre before the showing, the loud rumbling from the IMAX theatre next door was unpleasantly gut-twisting, that almost below hearing threshold bass making me feel a bit sick.

And because the showings were out of synch, you could still hear the theatre next door during the quieter sections of my showing, which was a bit of a bummer. Some sound leakage might be inevitable, but it’s a complete certainty given the sheer volume at which the film was being played.

I’ve never understood the volume people. I suppose they must be extroverts who are afraid of quiet. The audio volume in the theatre I was in was so extreme that the sound was obviously being distorted. This was a real shame, as one of the key marvels of the Blade Runner film(s) is the soundscape. But here it was being rammed so violently into my ears that its subtleties were being lost. I’m not counting that a black mark against the film, but against the exhibitor, in this case the Odeon.

Anyway, I’m pretty sure the BR 2049 soundtrack is a marvel, but can’t really be sure. The production design, lighting, and cinematography was brilliant, and I appreciated the world-building, which did not patronise or “as you know” the audience. Needless to say, shit had gone down between 2019 and 2049.

The narrative plot was a little bit thin, I thought, but then the plot of the original was also quite slight. What I did find interesting this time was the way in which the atmosphere and ambiguity of the original book was baked-in. The fucked climate and environment of the future was foregrounded, and the rarity and luxury of natural substances like wood, like real animals, was crucially important. So there are moments in this film that go unexplained, just like in the original, which I really appreciate. Ultimately, a film is only great if it rewards further viewings. There’s also a strong similarity between Ryan Gosling’s “K” and the original cop of the novel: his desire to fulfil his “wife’s” every desire, for example. And then there’s that feeling, far more foregrounded than in the original, that literally anybody could be a replicant. A nice reference to the unicorn sequence, too.

So, this was great, I think. It’s almost a shame that there was no shitty voice-over that can be subsequently removed, but at least we can hope that there might be missing sequences that can be put back in. My favourite scene was the bit in the waves, which reminded me a lot of the ending of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora: the feeling that, no matter how much humanity tries to destroy this planet, nature has the power to overwhelm and wash over us.

This was a film that made me not want to reach a verdict or a conclusion, which means I want to watch it a few more times: which is as it should be.

Alien: Covenant

Social-media-blackoutMy media blackout on Alien: Covenant was so effective that its release and reception almost completely passed me by. I only remembered it was there when it showed up on iTunes and was available for rental.

I’m a little aggrieved that the rental price was hiked up for £5.49 — for this of all films, as if the franchise still carried some kind of ‘brand premium’ after the crushing (but not if you run the other way) disappointment of Prometheus.

So, anyway, I rented it last weekend and sat down to watch with low expectations.

And, because my expectations were so low, I wasn’t disappointed.

I’ve got no issues with details like the production design, the cast, the cinematography, or the performances.

I just have an issue with the whole thing.

What, really, is the point of this franchise?

  • People waking from frozen sleep.
  • A space ship.
  • A signal.
  • A planet (or planetoid, or planet-like moon).
  • A robot, who may be good, or may be evil.
  • An alien or aliens.
  • People who act in an irresponsible or bizarre way.
  • A main female character who survives.
  • Returning to frozen sleep.

This is the mix-and-match plot line for most of the Alien films. And it was brilliant in the first film. The second ramped up the budget and the numbers along with the action. The third made it all a bit claustrophobic and intense in a different way. The fourth tried our patience and stretched our credulity.

There may be eight plots in literature, but there’s only one plot in Alien films. These prequels are adding nothing, telling us nothing new, but are simply repeating the same old plot beats (see above) and annihilating logic. If aliens can grow from spores, why are the face huggers deemed necessary? And how can there be baby face huggers outside of the eggs, which until now have been deemed necessary for their production? And why does nobody, ever, say, “Don’t come near me, I’m contaminated”?

Director Ridley Scott is said to be leading up to the origin of the Space Jockey of the first film, but he’s taking his time. And the only reason for taking that time, or that these films seem to exist is not because they have a compelling or new story to tell, but because people keep buying tickets/downloads. Its as cynical a marketing exercise as splitting popular novels into two or more films. Like the fucking Hobbit needed to be as many films as Lord of the Rings. If they were making Lord of the Rings today, it would be nine films, wouldn’t it? And still shit.

So Alien: Covenant passed the time, and if I hadn’t seen all the other films, it would have been all right, though frustrating in not having a proper ending. But I have seen all the other films, and there wasn’t a single unpredictable element. It followed the well-worn path and left me longing for another plot.

Blade Runner beckons.

Swallows and Amazons (2016)

photoThis 2016 adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s first S&A book sank without trace as far as I was concerned. I remember reading about the pointless name change from Titty to Tatty, which smacked of the kind of asinine decision that gets made when there are six separate production companies involved. How anything gets made with so many captains on deck, I don’t know.

I rented it on iTunes, and watched with a kind of fascinated horror – mixed with tearful nostalgia for the books I read as a boy and the 1974 film adaptation (which, for the record, had one production company and one distributor). That version featured my schoolboy crush, Kit Seymour, as the “Ruthless” Nancy Blackett, an actress who appears to have been plucked from obscurity, immortalised on celluloid, and then forgotten by posterity. The children in the 1974 film were, for the most part, cast for their ability to handle a boat rather than their training at some stage school. They were clearly non-actors and yet, for all that, were natural enough in their parts. The magic of film is that you only have to capture that one good take.

To be fair to 2016 Swallows and Amazons, then, it couldn’t hope to compare to that slice of my childhood, even if it had stuck to the fucking plot. But these charlatans, these bunglers, couldn’t even do that. Alarm bells begin to ring almost immediately, in the sequence featuring the children travelling up to the Lake District. There’s some nonsense involving men chasing each other around on the train. It’s as if a drunk editor was editing this film and The 39 Steps at the same time, and got mixed up.

Sure, Arthur Ransome was a spy and adventurer who witnessed the Russian Revolution, but we don’t need that biographical nonsense in the film. Its presence is a clear sign that the producers had nothing but contempt for the material and the audience: what could we do to make this shit interesting? The spy crap continues throughout, taking up valuable screen time that should be devoted to the children and their story, which at times seems so neglected it’s reduced to the status of a sub-plot.

And after all this indulgent espionage peril is spooned into the film, like so much thin gruel, it doesn’t manage to whet the appetite. As one reviewer pointed out, the sequence in which the kids lose their picnic hamper overboard is more gripping, by far, than the attempted kidnap by Russian spies of the Captain Flint character – who could so easily have been left as grumpy uncle novelist trying to finish a book instead of indulging his nieces’ pirate fantasies. The food the children manage to procure, in the hungry 1930s, is such an important part of the story that the loss of the picnic hamper is as devastatingly dramatic as this film manages to be.

Still, there are moments. Or, there is one moment. The discovery of the Swallow in the boathouse had an emotional impact that was squandered by the lack of attention that the film paid to the actual sailing. The shame of it all is that, what you really want out of this is the chance to make some of the other books into films: Swallowdale, Winter Holiday, We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea, Pigeon Post, The Picts and the Martyrs… there are some really good storylines to be had, and all of the books had really strong female characters baked in, with no retrofitting required.

And it’s with the female characters that this film falls tragically short. Nancy and Peggy get precious little screen time, about which I have mixed feelings. The actress cast as Nancy just seemed completely wrong to me. Wrong colouring, wrong age (in year 11 doing GCSE drama, when picked). In a way, it was a mercy, but Nancy is supposed to be the heart and soul of the stories, so it really matters that they go it so wrong. I don’t blame the actors at all. This was clearly a scrambled mess of a production, made by people with no feel for the stories and no understanding of their appeal.

All I want to do now is watch the ’74, to restore my memories.

 

Ghostbusters

ghostbusters_cI queued up around the block to watch the original Ghostbusters in the winter of 1984. Those were the days, eh? I think in my life there have been no more than five occasions when the queue for the cinema tailed down the street and around the corner. If you’re somewhere near the back, you’d be thinking, no way we’re getting in, but you would persevere and be surprised. Cinema auditoria were big in those days.

I remain convinced that the version of Ghostbusters I saw back then was different to the version that has survived to this day. I’m convinced it was a 15 certificate at first but was then cut down to a PG version due to its popularity. And then the 15 version was lost forever. See, when I watched it again, later, it seemed to me that the comic timing was off, that the film was less coherent, that this artefact that had lost its power to move me had been bowdlerised.

Anyway, I’m probably delusional. Probably the film wasn’t that great after all, and I was just caught up in the excitement and atmosphere generated by queueing around the block.

Which brings us to Ghostbusters, the reboot, or 2016 version. As to the manufactured controversy about the casting: not going to dignify it with any more comment than this: the Saturday Night Live school of comedy produces comedians of a very similar bent. Doesn’t matter if they’re male or female, they’re all pretty much the same. I think the SNL comedy style is a bit laboured, a bit forced – the kind of thing that’s funnier in the telling than it is in the watching. Tina Fey excepted.

I saw it at the still-new Odeon at Milton Keynes Stadium. This place never seems that busy. It was a Wednesday, I was in the 2D screening, it was quiet. Which is disappointing, because at least it would be something if people were queuing around the block. I genuinely think a lot of people aren’t aware of the new Odeon. The facilities aren’t bad. The place is clean, and doesn’t smell of rancid fat like the one in the Xscape in MK.

The film was OK. Moderately entertaining, one good jump scare. A couple of laugh-out-loud lines, some winning performances. But as a film, kind of instantly forgettable. Some new twists on the theme, but it’s basically Ghostbusters, so a recycled story from our zombie culture, our stuck culture, as Adam Curtis puts it.

I thought it was too loud, and I felt our seats were slightly too close to the screen. The Odeon chooses to charge extra for the plum (“Premium”) seats. Very few people occupy them. It’s a terrible waste, but fuck ’em.

The other technical issue I have is with digital projection and jitter. Static shots are fine, but as soon as the camera moves, especially if people are moving, it just jitters. With film, of course, you get analogue blurring, which is fine. But digital jitter gets on my nerves. And once I see it, I can’t stop seeing it.

So: an entertaining popcorn distraction, instantly forgettable, but enjoyable (technical issues aside) for the most part. That feels like three stars to me.

 

Medusa’s Web by Tim Powers – Review

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Valentino and Rambova

My favourite author* Tim Powers has released a new novel just four years after the last one (has it been so long, Tim?), which is very exciting. A new Powers is an event to savour, and you want to force yourself to read slowly so as not to use it all up.

My copy is a hard back with deckle edges (uncut pages), which is a design choice you come to understand when you reach about halfway through the novel.

Like the Fault Lines series (1992-1996) and Three Days to Never (2006), Medusa’s Web is largely set in contemporary Los Angeles, and like Three Days to Never it features spooky links to Old Hollywood.

Three Days to Never featured the handprints of Charlie Chaplin, whereas Medusa’s Web visits silent heartthrob Rudolph Valentino; set- and costume-designer Natacha Rambova (aka Winifred Kimball Shaughnessy from Utah); and star of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé Alla Nazimova (which was co-written by Rambova, who was also married to Valentino and rumoured to have had an affair with Nazimova).

Your grasp of Old Hollywood may stretch to Valentino, but Rambova and Nazimova call for more rarified  knowledge – or, like me, you go scurrying to Wikipedia to find out how much of this is true. In Hollywood, of course, everybody was somebody else, and every building (as Raymond Chandler so often noted) was a simulacrum. Rambova was Shaughnessy (a surname that makes me think of The Maltese Falcon); Valentino was  Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguolla; Nazimova was actually Russian, but was born Adelaida Yakovlevna Leventon. The Garden of Allah was a mansion, was a hotel, was levelled and paved over along with all the rest of ‘the Hollywood village’ and the orange groves and Bunker Hill.

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The Garden of Allah site, then and now-ish

So it goes with Tim Powers. His stock-in-trade is history with a twist of mystery. He clearly buries himself in the lore until he finds something odd, and then weaves a novel around it. This has worked successfully for romantic poets, pirates, cold war spies and Vegas mobsters.

While this novel pales in comparison with my all-time-favourite Declare (his 2001 masterpiece), it’s still entertaining and fascinating, if not as disturbing and/or gripping as some of his best work. If you have an interest, Declare is essential, The Stress of Her Regard should probably next in line – and then you’ll want to read the sort-of sequel, Hide Me Among the Graves. By which time you’ll be hooked, or not.

Right now, after the first reading, Medusa’s Web ranks quite low for me, but then I’d have said that about Three Days To Never until I read it for the second time a while ago. There’s usually enough here to require more than one reading. Even sitting here, writing this review and perusing images of Old Hollywood, I’m starting to like it better.

Rambova, the exotic pseudonym of a woman from Salt Lake City, is intriguing. The Wikipedia article includes this nugget about her later life:

She published articles on healing and astrology, and helped decipher ancient scarabs and tomb inscriptions, which led her to edit a series titled Egyptian Texts and Religious Representations. She also conducted classes in her apartment about myths, symbolism and comparative religion.

Nuggets like this are surely a magnet for an author like Powers. What if…?

In this case, we have some kind of multi-dimensional beings whose manifestation in this world takes a peculiar form, which becomes a fad among the Hollywood élite, and a dangerous addiction for some.

Returning home after the death of the aunt who raised them, Scott and his sister Madeleine reconnect with their estranged and odd cousins Claimayne and Ariel, who live together in a falling-apart Hollywood mansion and bear no little hostility towards them. Claimayne is nasty and Ariel is angry, and both of them have been addicted to the ‘spiders’ that allow them to travel in time – sort of. Scott and Madeleine are pulled back into the family psychodrama and find themselves caught up in events they barely understand.

Scott is your typical Powers hero, even down to the hand injury he sustains partway through (a trope Powers has used repeatedly since his first two novels); and his sister is also a familiar female character. There are no talking heads in boxes, another common Powers trope, but there is a clattering keyboard and a telephone that rings even though it’s not there.

My main criticism I think is that these characters do seem like shorthand by now: if you’ve read this author before you don’t need them fleshed out, but they are on the thin side and I can’t escape the feeling that this novel has had 150 pages or so edited out of it.

The greatest pleasures here are the glimpses of Old Hollywood, and the feeling that those black and white days of glamour and debauchery are almost tangible. Of course, almost none of it survives today, mainly because it was built of chipboard and stucco, like a movie set.

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*Give or take Robert Charles Wilson.

IMAX – not believing

imax-theatreBeen meaning to say something about IMAX since I went to see Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak a few weeks ago. It was playing on the IMAX screens in the new Odeon in Bletchley/Milton Keynes. Given that there were no other screen options, and given that I’d never experienced IMAX, I booked tickets.

First of all, the film: not all that impressed. Seemed like a mashup of his other films, but I’ll wait till I see it again in a non-IMAX format, because my whole experience was affected by the screening.

hated the IMAX screen. Its curve meant that people got weirdly distorted when they moved across to the side. I don’t see how a curved screen is any use for anyone other than the very few who can sit bang centre and far enough back (which in the Odeon, of course, are the “premium” seats). Movement seemed jittery, too, like on your 1080p TV screen, lacking the smooth blur that traditional 24-frame-per-second film stock gives.

I’ve seen those curved screen TVs in shops, and I think they look shit. Again, no good for anyone who is not sitting dead centre. Which I guess is fine in our lonely, single-person household society. But not for me.

Apart from the annoying curve and the jitter (both of which are deal breakers for me), which are distorting the screen image and distracting me, leaving me unable to suspend disbelief, I hated the height of the IMAX screen. IMAX talk on their web site of the “cropped” image of 1953-era Cinemascope anamorphic screens:

When a film is presented in CinemaScope it is cropped and uses only part of the image the movie camera captures. This is the reason most ordinary screens are very wide but not particularly high – like looking at the world through a narrow slit.

Which demonstrates the visual equivalent of a musical tin ear. They’re saying it as if it’s a bad thing. It’s like saying, ‘When you hear “Strawberry Fields Forever,” you’re only hearing the result of editing together the best parts of several different takes. The IMAX version of “Strawberry Fields Forever” gives you all the shit that The Beatles cut out because it was rubbish.’

The genius of film and photography is that it puts the world in a frame. The frame of cinemascope is the highest expression of that genius. A cinemascope landscape or close-up has an incredible visual impact: so much so that watching cinemascope films on an un-letterboxed 16:9 screen is disappointing. Great directors use the framing/cropping of Cinemascope as part of the art of filmmaking. Given the ‘uncropped’ option, where’s the art? You see more, so what? Fucking less is fucking more, you morons.

Watching IMAX felt like watching a giant 4:3 ratio (but curved) TV. The image didn’t even look like it was a high enough resolution to warrant the size of the screen. People looked odd, like you could detect the artifice behind the make-up. There was nothing happening in my peripheral vision other than distortion of the image. As to the sound: too fucking loud, man. Like an amplifier that goes up to 11: better, because louder? Fuck off.

IMAX is the Spinal Tap of movie projection. Never again.