31 Dec 2016

'Best Films of 2016'

The inverted commas are because this isn't going to be that at all.
When I had a blog before, like a lot of people I would present my own lists of the year's best films and music though I don't think I ever got round to doing a books lists as well. I hope I never pretended to be demonstrating any kind of definitive judgement. For one thing, who except for a professional critic can claim to have seen/listened to/read enough of a year's output to be qualified to cite the 'best'?
This year in particular has been thin for me as regards new films or records. I've only been out to see a handful of films, and I only bought two or three records. As for books, oddly enough there are encouraging signs of a revival of my reading, but not of new books - I find it really hard to get interested in the marketing of the publishing world, even more than in the music industry.

However, I'm not impervious to pop culture around the movie industry. I regret this, because it's an aspect of the way that Hollywood production and distribution has marginalised almost all of the more interesting examples of film making. It's not that critics don't try and talk up the better non-Hollywood films, but even if you listen to them, you'll still find it hard to go and see one. So, here are a few remarks about films I have seen, or at least, the ones I can actually remember.

I saw Room last January, in fact it was really a 2015 film. I was, as they say, blown away. I thought it was an astonishing piece of film making and it's still affecting to think back on it now. I reckoned that I wouldn't see a better film all year, and indeed I didn't. I've already commented on Jason Bourne, and that was a good example of my feelings about 'franchise' films this year. I hate that word, but it does underline the nature of that kind of cinema as product. I had similar reactions to the latest Star Trek film, and the new Star Wars effort which outdid the others in unashamedly retreading the same plot of previous films. What else? Oh I dunno, but it hardly matters. Let's be honest, I could have made more effort to see better films. My biggest miss was Arrival, which from the sound of it I'd have loved, being an actual proper science fiction film. But December has too much else going on, for me.

The half dozen records I bought were decently good; worth mentioning were Scandinavian Music Group's Baabel and a collection from Vibravoid who I saw down in Exeter. I think I should also give a shout out to estimable bluesy rock and rollers the Sugar Shakers. Being related to one of the band is neither here nor there - I can say that their disc One Lump or Two? is the only new record of mine this year which has had an unprompted "Hey this is good Mark" comment from someone. But my music experiences this year really amount to a handful of live concerts - the most memorable being the David Bowie Tribute concert I attended in Helsinki - and my listening, which mostly takes place in my car. And more than anything else I listened to Jenni Vartiainen - any of her three albums - and SMG, especially Manner and Baabel.

I've already posted about the book which made most impact on me this year, The Citadel of the Autarch. I'm currently reading another long effort, very different in genre, but unfortunately shelved during this hectic end of December. I'll write about it in due course, because it's turned out to be much more involving than I expected, and it's made me very cross at times...
That's it, and quite enough considering I was claiming not to have done much culturally. But I've a lot to look forward to in 2017, in films and music and books, so let's hope that post is much more productive and interesting :)

11 Nov 2016

Jason Bourne

I enjoyed this, but felt at the same time that it was a standard Bourne-by-the-numbers plot. Maybe the swerve away from the usual style of title in this film series, to simply stating his name, underlines that. I found the Bourne series addictive from the beginning, but with this film I wondered if I'd rather they'd let it lie. Oh, if they make another (ha ha - that's the first spoiler, isn't it - Bourne doesn't die in this film!) I'll definitely go and see it, but hoping against hope that they can come up with something more surprising than this one. Let's pick at a few points.

First, I'm supremely unimpressed by yet another girlfriend being bumped off (2nd spoiler, sorry), purely to give Bourne some motivation. Just as I liked Franke Potente's Maria, so I liked Julia Stiles as Nicky Parsons. Both of them great actresses, who made their characters interesting. There's a point in the film where it looks like Alicia Vikander as Heather Lee is becoming drawn to Bourne in a personal manner all too familiar; you'll probably tell me that the story's outcome subverts that expectation, but I'll say, wait and see what happens with any further episode. So: for me, the Bourne series seems unable to make anything of its apparent desire to throw some feminist light on proceedings.

Second, there is a lot of car chasing in this film, which is no surprise. But all the frenetic action is being driven to excess, and one thing I used to like about the Bourne films were the quieter moments. Sometimes, moments of relative safety, which would throw Bourne's tortured persona into relief, his fractured human edges exposed. Alternately, moments of extreme tension, invisible for anyone unconnected to this drama, walking through that square or that cafe, all apparent calm on the surface, but for Bourne, scenes full of meaningful, even threatening detail. However, too much was just noise in Jason Bourne. There's a humongous car chase scene near the end, set in Las Vegas, which seemed to me to be an attempt to break The Blues Brothers's famous record for the most cars smashed up in a movie. But I actually found my attention wandering as it went on and on. Was it possible, that such a spectacular car chase, littered with so many amazing stunts, could become - I hesitate to say this - tedious?

My next reservation is about something which really came to the fore in the third film, and is amply on show here, namely Bourne's near supernatural powers of recovery. In The Bourne Ultimatum, there's a moment which some might like to call 'jumping the shark', when Bourne reverses off the roof of a car park, hits the ground, and yet somehow walks away. In Jason Bourne, our hero takes a lot of damage but not only does he survive but he carries on and more than once that includes chasing and beating up an enemy. In fact, he gets shot and manages that. I've never been shot, but I've heard it convincingly explained that no matter who you are, a bullet is a massive shock to the body. It definitely slows you down for a while.

Lastly, there's the language of the script, and the film's ideas, and I suspect that with both the film's weakness derives from the same thing, the absence of scriptwriter Tony Gilroy whose hand can be seen in the script for all four previous Bourne films. There's something lacking in the dialogue, which was always grating in its perpetual use of alpha-male corporate speak, and now comes across as just one dimensional. You could say that corporate types do talk like this, but the CIA would cease to function if this was all there was. They are, unfortunately, very smart people, but Tommy Lee Jones et al don't seem that way as they bluster and glare - their motivations merely look thoroughly unclever. And in my view for the same reason of a weak script, the film strives, but fails to inject the necessary complexity into the film's supposed major theme of the post-Snowden connected world. The portrayal of what I guess is the film's Facebook surrogate is thin and doesn't convince. All the discussion of that and the internet in general sounds like a poorly understood cobbling together of buzzwords.

Yes, I enjoyed it, mainly seeing a fantastic cast in action, even if they could and should have been given better quality meat to chew on. I guess it's too much to hope that the series could ever hit the heights of The Bourne Supremacy again.

28 Oct 2016

The Citadel of the Autarch

I've just read this, and it's a case of 'at long last' to put it mildly. It's the 4th and final volume of Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun, which started appearing in the Eighties and it was then that I read the first two volumes. I bought them as they came out in paperback, and they've yellowed over the years, waiting on various bookshelves in the course of several house moves, until last year when I picked up the 3rd volume, The Sword of the Lictor, found I still had a taste for it, and so duly finished the series with this.

I fully accept this is a ridiculous way to go about reading, especially in this case, when the four volumes are very much four consecutive parts of one long book. I gather that it could very easily have been published as one volume. But it seems I've been inclined to complete things in recent times. Perhaps it's just my OCD instincts. Now I'll reveal that I've written down every book I've ever read, in a little red accounts book. You may doubt that I could have, but I began that when I was 12 or 13 and in a position to scour the family home and check the books I'd read at school. I'd already been writing dates in childish pencil in the front of books. My guess is that if any book is left out, it's not that significant, and the list is substantially complete. Yes, all very OCD as I say, but I'm okay with this habit, and it's kind of an interesting slant on life's changes, to me at least. I'm very aware of authors I've read, and aspects like particular book series I've dipped into. No, I'm absolutely not going to hunt out and complete every series or set of author's works. Life is too short. But certain examples glare back at me from the pages of the little red book. Examples of books which I knew had something about them, which I knew would repay further exploration. So, what made The Book of the New Sun one of them?

It's the writing.
Some time after reading the first two volumes, I virtually gave up reading science fiction, whether due to 'growing up' or because I'd come to appreciate that for all the fascinating ideas, most science fiction wasn't very well written.
The Book of the New Sun is different, very different. Some friends noticed me reading this old paperback and wondered why it was worth picking up after such a long gap. But I knew that even if some plot details were now hazy, some names or events inscrutable - well actually, that was always the case. And the densely textured writing would still be there, to be relished in all its rich exotic flavours. One discovers that whereas so much science fiction and naturally, fantasy, is filled with bizarre and generally silly names, Gene Wolfe's language which at first sight seems much the same, employs names and terms which while arcane and obscure, are still to be found in the far recesses of dusty old dictionaries. The obscurity doesn't help understanding, but the fact that it's rooted in real if ancient language does firm up the foundations of the extraordinary world he builds.

What looks like fantasy is in reality a story of the far distant future. It's the 'Book of the New Sun' because the theme is the search and the hope for it, in a world lit by the slowly dying Old Sun. And I probably did latch on to it initially because as the title of the first part - The Shadow of the Torturer - suggests, its protagonist and narrator is an apprentice to the Seekers After Truth and Penitence, otherwise known as the Guild of Torturers. It's a horribly fascinating prospect, but I don't recall any detailed scenes of 'excruciation'. I'll go further and spoil it a little bit, and tell you that well before the end Severian has been in trouble more than once for declining to torture or execute, and has resolved to end the practice of torture.

It's a demanding read throughout. Wolfe makes few concessions to the reader and our imagination has to work overtime. It's not just the language that is opaque, but almost every feature of this strange future world, which seems to have reverted to something medieval, but which also is filled with mysterious examples of future technology, occasionally even alien. For aliens have indeed visited Earth in the past, some are still here, and we're told that once upon a time we ourselves headed out into space. Humanity is now exhausted, just like Earth's sun. And there is genius in this depiction, in the skill with which Wolfe shows us people who are in some ways recognisably human in nature but in others unknowably different. There are so many beings who are alien or otherwise monstrous - amongst all the other technologies that have been exercised over the centuries, genetic manipulation has clearly been prominent - but certain ordinary human beings are sometimes the most monstrous of all.

The story is superficially a journey of maturity for Severian; that is, it takes us, with his picaresque travels and strange experiences, tested in love and in war, up to the point where he has become Autarch of the Commonwealth, and due to face a test which will determine whether he can bring the New Sun to the Earth. And ends. It's such an odd ending - and in fact a later book tells the story of that test, but it's not part of this one - that the reader realises that it wasn't the point of the story at all. I reserve comment on that. I've found some reviews today, and agreed with none of them, and yet in part with all. Especially that this is a supreme example of a book which needs to be read again. A bitter irony for me, when I thought I'd actually finished something for once. Will I? Maybe. The writing will remain just as intoxicating, the world of Severian will be just as bizarrely engrossing, and for me, it's the characters most of all which demand to be met with again.

I hope the book doesn't get forgotten in time. I can't see it being filmed; not because you couldn't do it these days, with amazing special effects, but because it'd be somewhat pointless to present it that way. It's been called a 'masterwork' of science fiction. I know it to be literature as well.

27 Oct 2016


Something to kick this off.
It's hard to justify yet another personal blog, but I'm content to see if this evolves.
If I'm honest, this is the same species of thing as the home pages which littered the World Wide Web in the early days. It may turn out that the only difference here is that I won't be talking about my pet cat.

I did use to have a website, created in Dreamweaver no less, which will have its life support switched off some time in the next year. After a gap of several years I've just written another front page post; but I won't be adding to the content, which is mainly about music and random eccentric interests of mine. You can see it here if you want, at Mark's Lists. For now. Having set up a couple of blogs on Blogspot this year, it seems to me this is entirely sufficient for what I want, which is mainly an outlet for writing. I'll say more about writing another time, and maybe more about the other blogs. At the moment I only want to say that they're subject specific, while here I'd like to cover diverse interests.

This won't get very personal. I'd never criticise someone who wants to use a blog like that, but most such blogs are only really for the writer themselves to read, to use as a sounding board I guess. I'm too British and not young enough to be that open. On the downside, I predict that there'll be a lot of pop culture talked about, even if the actual pop culture I talk about is pretty obscure. There are some things I miss from that old Mark's Lists web site, and one is writing an essay about a film now and again. Never fear, I won't do this very often, but now and again I see a film which I so badly want to engage with in writing. Whether or not I've done the usual thing of arguing the toss about it with friends afterwards. Books, too. I developed poor reading habits a while ago - skimming, jumping to the end, just not reading proper books - and this blog might encourage me to get more out of reading.

That's almost it. If you wondered about the name of that previous website, it was a kind of a dig at the way the content of the Web seemed entirely taken up with lists, of Top Tens and such. I would still say that Lists are the dominant native writing form of the Internet. However, I did produce a few Lists on that site, mostly very peculiar and obscurely ironic. Some lists may appear on this blog, for which I apologise in advance.