Sunday, December 29, 2019

Review of 'Playback'

A very small Chandler novel, with an unusually upbeat ending - but nicely formed and plotted, with good characters and atmospheric settings. The usual crop of corrupt rich people, bent coppers, and so on.

Review of 'The Long Goodbye'

Possibly the best Chandler ever...complex plot (which I'm not sure I entirely followed...), great characters and settings, and an atmosphere of dank, over-ripe corruption that pervades everything. Written in another time and world, but feels very appropriate for our time.

Review of 'Smallpox Hill'

Unusual crime thriller with a GP protagonist, good characters and a rural West Country setting - not the chocolate-box version of the Cotswolds, but the gritty reality of the western side in the shadow of Bristol. This isn't by any means a rural idyll, but the author has a good feel for the landscape, and I also like the descriptions of buildings and interiors.

Nice, taut writing, a tense plot and believable bad guys - and some additional medical details that make the action more interesting and more believable.

Review of 'Funny Cow'

Maxine Peake plays a comedian on the Northern working men's club circuit, with a narrative that flits back and forth during her life and career. It's not a happy or feelgood film, and it depicts well the environment of male violence and abuse that she grown up in. She's ultimately successful as a comic (not really a spoiler as we see this in more or less the opening sequence, in which she returns to look back at her child self) but she does so by participating in the racist, sexist, homophobic culture of the clubs - anything else would have been an ahistorical fantasy, of course. A really good film but not an entirely enjoyable one. The poster makes it look much lighter and funnier than it really is - I can't remember laughing at all.

Netflix - quite a good one, for once.

Review of 'City of Dreamers'

Not very interesting film about a young Irish woman who moves to Brighton after the break-up of a relationship, moves into a house with a nice but weird young man and then meets a succession of other nice young people with whom she builds meaningful friendships. She's a singer-songwriter, and has one bad night singing in an open mike night, busks on the street and makes loads of money because she's really very good (apparently - it's not obvious to me, though she has a nice voice) and then has a good spot at a party.

Inexplicably this film has wonderful reviews, though it's just slightly better than boring. One useful insight though; note to singer-songwriters - do at least two cover versions for every one of your own songs that you sing, and people will love you for it.

One odd thing - the Irish woman doesn't have a mobile phone and spends a lot of her time in phone boxes, calling her mum and making fruitless job-seeking phone calls. This is not explained. Everyone else in the film has phones, so why doesn't she?

Watched on Netflix. Are there any good films on Netflix?

Review of 'Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker'

I keep promising myself that I won't go to another of these, and then I do. This was dreadful, boring, noisy, incomprehensible, and not even much fun to look at. It was murky, the interiors were dull and uninteresting, the worlds weren't very enjoyable (though I did quite like the one with the big waves).

The only saving graces were Alan Driver doing his favourite expression, and Daisy Ridley, who has a nice bone structure and a really nice accent. But that wasn't worth two and a half hours of my life that I will never get back - I couldn't even doze because it was so noisy.

Watched at Everyman in Muswell Hill - very comfy seats but a bit chilly.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Review of 'Gloria Bell

Julianne Moore is a sad, lonely, middle-aged divorced woman. Things are not going too well for her, and the camera lingers on the things that are part of her sadness. But it's not entirely obvious why she's so miserable. She has a good job, which includes health care - this will turn out to be important when she gets a condition later in the film that is non-life-threatening but requires continuing treatment. She has a nice apartment, albeit with noisy neighbours and an annoying ugly cat that keeps finding its way in even though she doesn't like it. She has a good relationship with her grown-up children, and with her ex and his new wife. She goes out dancing with friends, and she picks up men and has good sex with them, though she is looking for a relationship.

For a while I thought the film was heading in to 'Looking for Mr Goodbar' territory. The man she meets is a little bit creepy and might turn out to be a stalker or violent...but he doesn't, he's just a bit inept and still involved with his ex and his daughters - in what actually seems to be quite a responsible way, though he's a bit insenstive to the impact this is having on Gloria.

Ultimately a long, boring, empty film, with lots of long shots that are supposed to be poignant but are actually almost mystifying. I'm not sure whether the things that I took to be signs of the emptiness of American life would be seen thus by an I've noted before, the interior shots of what is supposed to denote luxury just look vile to me. At one point in the film Gloria and the bloke go on a make-up break to Las Vegas...why would anyone with a shred of sensibility go there?

Watched on Netflix via Chromecast.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Review of A Marriage Story

Really sad film about the break-up of a marriage, and a talented and civilized couple (Scarlett Johanssen and Alan Driver, both acting really well) starting out trying to do the right thing in their separation, but gradually being dragged into a horrible adversarial lawyer-led divorce. Interesting to note that I thought, for most of it, that they were equally to blame, but Ruth saw it much more from the woman's perspective and thought that the man was less sympathetic as a character. Though he does turn out quite rotten as it goes on...

Netflix and Chromecast.

Review of Matador

Another Almodovar, and this one was not just trying to shock, but really quite repulsive...lots of sex-and-death stuff, so that it verges on the snuff movie. Starts out with a woman having sex with a man while killing him, and though at first this seems like a dream sequence, we later learn that this has really happened. Not as much humour as others, and some unexplained/inexplicable plot elements.

Watched at Jane's shop, having been obtained via informal distribution.

Review of 'How Do You Know'

A romcom, and one that got dreadful reviews and bombed at the box office. I quite liked it though...I particularly liked that none of the characters were very likeable, and that it actually intersected the romantic dimension with a reasonable depiction of the world of work and the way people get stitched up there.

Watched on Netflix via Chromecast - interesting to note that the quality was dreadful for reasons I don't understand.

Monday, December 09, 2019

Review of 'Fast Color'

I wanted to like this. It's atmospheric, it's dystopian fiction about climate change, all the main characters are Black women...but after a promising start it began to drag. There wasn't enough happening, either in the plot or the character or scenario development. And then it's all resolved by a lot happening all at once, which felt like a disappointment too. As is often the case, the denouement is less interesting than the set-up.

Watched on Netflix on the smart TV.

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Review of 'Belle'

Sort of the decolonised version of Jane Austen - young women in the marriage market of the country gentry, but with added issues of race, slavery and illegitimacy. Not bad, but a bit long and occasionally plodding. It felt to me that it rather overstated the significance of the 'Zong' case in ending slavery and the slave trade, but I'm not expert in this.

Oddly no-one mentions that the young woman is never actually called Belle, but usually Dido, presumably after the Queen of Carthage, who I guess they thought of as a noble black person.

Watched via Netflix and Chromecast.

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Review of 'The Little Sister'

Possibly the best Raymond Chandler novel ever, and one I hadn't heard of. I found it in an omnibus along with The Long Goodbye and Playback. Really stylish, well-written, with heaps of good characters and a great, complex plot. Everything you want in a Chandler novel, and then some. I must say that I was sometimes confused by the plot, but I think that's part of the attraction.

Review of 'I have lost my body'

A moving French animated film, about a young man and his journey through a life that's sad. There's a surreal element, because we know that he has lost his hand, and the hand is trying to find its way back to him. Usually an animated severed hand is a terrifying thing, but here our sympathies are with the hand as it makes its own journey across a city that might be Paris.

There are some parts that didn't entirely make sense to me - that might be because I missed something, or it might be that the film isn't supposed to be an entirely realistic narrative. What was the place where the hand starts out? There's a fridge full of body parts and eyeballs, but we don't know where it is or ever find out.

But it's a beautiful, poignant and clever film, and I didn't look away or lose engagement for a second.

I note in passing that the young man is Muslim, and that this isn't the point of the story or even a central element. In a British film if a character is Jewish, or Muslim, that has to be the main thing about them; in a French film, not so much, which is great.

Watched on Netflix via phone and Chromecast.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Review of 'Everyman'

Depressing but well-written book about men's ageing and mortality - specifically a man, who is an advertising executive and serial marriage cheater. He's really quite hard to like, but the story is told from his perspective most of the time, so all of his infidelities and bad behaviour seem like natural responses to his life situation rather than choices.

Because he's rich, and his loving health-filled brother even more so, none of the consequences of his failing body are financial...for most people in the US his string of conditions would be devastating and impoverishing, but he's left wondering whether to sell his condo on the Jersey Shore and move back to Manhattan.

There's one memorable speech given to his decent wife that he cheats on with his secretary and then with a Danish fashion model (who subsequently and regretfully marries) that is so good it's worth quoting at length:

"You can weather anything, even if the trust is violated, if it's owned up to. Then you become life partners in a different way, but it's still possible to remain partners. But lying - lying is cheap, and contemptible control over the other person. It's watching the other person acting on incomplete information - in other words, humiliating herself. Lying is so commonplace and yet, if you're on the receiving end, it's such an astonishing thing. The people you liars are betraying put up with a growing list of insults until you really can't help but think less of them, can you? I'm sure that liars as skillful and persistent and devious as you reach the point where it's the one you're lying to, and not you, who seems like the one with the serious limitations."

Incidentally, the 'Everyman' of the title is not because the central character is representative of every man, but the name of his father's watch shop - chosen because it didn't sound too Jewish.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Review of 'Libertarias'

A good historical film about anarchists - especially the 'Free Women' - in the Spanish Civil War. It rather plays down the conflict between the different factions on the Republican side in favour of conflicts within the anarchists - over whether the militia should be fully militarized into an army with ranks, over the role of women (whether they should be fighting on the front line or only in support roles). It's really good on the latter, and I think it handles the extent to which the revolution did and didn't address these issues well.

It's quite gory, and I think a little ambivalent on the strong anti-clerical element on the Republican side. The Spanish left really, really hated the Church, seeing it as both an exploiter in its own right and a key ideological and institutional supporter of the rich and the ruling class. During the early phase of the Civil War there was lots of burning of relics, religious art, and church property. This is well depicted in the film, but it wasn't clear to me how the film wanted us to feel about it. The fact that we see much of this through the eyes of a young nun who is sort-of rescued by anarchist militiawomen increases the ambivalence. At one point we see the summary execution of a bishop, and the nun's revulsion.

A good film and worth the two hours spent on it - some great music and crowd scenes too.

Watched in the middle floor at Springhill with the Stroud Red Band after a rehearsal - film obtained by informal distribution.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Review of 'Underground to Palestine' by I F Stone

Well, this is a book of its time if ever there was! I F Stone, a Jewish-American left-wing journalist travels to Europe to see for himself the Aliyah Bet, the illegal Jewish immigration network that stretches from the DP camps  across the Mediterranean to British-controlled Palestine.

It's interesting partly because it fits into another narrative from the one that we're used to be about Zionism and the establishment of Israel. Lots of the displaced Jews are not really Zionists but are heading for Palestine because they see no alternative, and certainly don't want to stay in their countries of origin where antisemitism is still rife. There's no anti-Communism to Stone's story either - quite a few of the displaced Jews fought with the Red Army, and in a number of places the Communists are willing and sympathetic helpers to the would-be emigrants.

The book includes a much-later essay about Stone's position as a pro-peace, pro-Palestinian supporter of Israel, which by the late 1970s he was finding increasingly uncomfortable. Again, very much a piece of its time; Stone wants to reclaim the history of 'the other Zionism', from Brit Shalom to Hashomer Hatzair. I did too, once.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Review of 'The Power' by Naomi Alderman

Well, so much for the suggestion that satire is always conservative (see earlier review of The Twelve Chairs). This is a really powerful, thought-provoking dark book. It's mainly a satire on male power, and has made me feel ashamed at just how much brutality against women that I ignore because it's 'nothing to do with me' - rape, genital mutilation, gang rape in war...all thrown in to relief by making women who are perpetrating the violence against men. In the first few pages I thought 'Oh, I get this...' and wondered how it was going to carry on for a book-length. But it keeps developing, and there are also good characters and plot elements.

There's also more, in the depiction of refugee camps, borderlands, organised crime and trafficking...lots of other cruelties that we just don't think about all that often. And the age of new media, and spin politics. Actually this turned out to be too dark to read at night, because it kept me up.

A really great book. Everyone (but especially men) should read it.

Thursday, November 07, 2019

Review of 'The Twelve Chairs' by Ilf and Petrov

I saw the Mel Brooks film years ago, and remember it as quite funny - enjoyable to watch as a socialist, not horribly anti-Soviet and with some jokes that appealled to someone who knew a bit about the history. So I have meant to read the book but never got round to it until I came across a copy on someone's shelf.

It's also quite funny, and quite surprising too. It's set in the late 1920s, which I think is the period of the NEP, so the economic and political situation feels quite fluid, open and a bit unresolved. I read in the afternote that Ilf and Petrov wrote political humour and satire, and never had any trouble from the authorities, and it's not hard to see why - there's really nothing at all anti-Soviet in the book at all. The targets of the humour are a venial priest, a grasping ex-noble, a grifter...all people that the Soviet authorities would be pleased to see ridiculed, as long as it was OK to acknowledge their existence. There's a ridiculous group of anti-Communist conspirators too. I wonder if all satire ends up being small-c conservative, so that in a Communist country it's also pro-regime.

That said, it really is quite enjoyable, well-written, and funny.

Review of 'Dark Habits' (Entre tinieblas)

Another early Almodovar, and was probably quite shocking to a Spanish audience when it first came out, but now seems quite contrived and even a bit annoying. Set in a nunnery where several of the nuns are taken Class A drugs - the Mother Superior is on heroin, one of the others takes acid, and so on. Oh, and there's a tiger in the convent. There's a trashy nightclub singer who takes refuge there and eventually does an inappropriate big number before a visiting clerical dignitary (that bit is actually quite funny) but otherwise it's a bit pointless and shapeless.

Watched via laptop and projector at The Old Co-Op on Horns Road, Stroud - part of Jane's Almodovar season.

Review of Saint Judy

Film about a lawyer who moves to LA so that her divorced husband can have access to their son, becomes involved with a firm that does migration tribunals, and becomes a hero to clients that the firm has more or less abandoned in favour of procedural compliance. It's a true story and provides some insight into the cruelty of the US migration, though there are lots of quite nice people in the system that she meets on the way.

Watched via Netflix app and Chromecast.

Review of 'Catch the Wind'

French film in which a woman whose factory is closed to be relocated to Morocco decides to take up the statutorily-defined offer that she can relocate. Interesting premise, not so well done - actually, the woman has to be pretty dopey to want to turn down redundancy money and do this instead, despite the advice of the shocked HR woman and her co-workers. And she is - she seems to manage life in Morocco fairly badly, not noticing that all the other women on the workplace bus are wearing headscarfs, going off to walk on her own in dodgy parts of town where she gets robbed, and so on. She learns that people in factories in Morocco are treated quite badly, and that women have a hard time in Islamic countries, but eventually finds true friendship because...

Watched on smart TV via Netflix app.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Review of 'Same Kind of Different as Me'

Another awful liberal film about race and class in contemporary. Very wealthy couple have a troubled relationship (he's having an affair) but acheive redemption through volunteering at a downtown mission, where they gradually befriend a troubled older black man who has suffered as a result of terrible racist persecution (KKK violence, among other things). They redeem him, he redeems them, and then she gets cancer and dies but everyone is redeemed (including the husband's racist alcoholic father) through her two-dimensional saintliness. Reminded of the Brecht poem "A Bed for the Night".

Watched on Netflix via Chromecast.

Review of 'Seventeen'

Well-made Spanish film about a disturbed young man and his relationships - with his peers (awful), his grandmother (in a home, near-vegetative), his older brother (troubled), and a dog to which the staff at the juvenile facility introduce him (redemptive). Really thoughtful, some unexpected plot twists, and beautiful to look at too.

Watched on Netflix via Chromecast.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Review of 'My Days of Mercy'

Wanted to watch a feel-good cheerful film, and ended up watching this - about the children of a man on death row who attend anti-death penalty execution vigils while hoping that the case against their dad (convicted of stabbing their mum to death) will somehow be overturned by new evidence. Not feel-good at all, despite the Lesbian sex scenes, because the younger of the two daughters strikes up a relationship with a young woman who is a pro-death-penalty campaigner and also attends the vigils to support the executions.

It's a good well-made film, with good acting and a straightforward but well-told story. My overwhelming impression was how awful America is.

How did I end up watching this? The Netflix trailer abstracted a tiny unrepresentative segment of dialogue that implied this was a snappy small-town comedy of manners, and the trailer itself was inserted into a load of others for comedies. Ho hum.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Review of 'Professor Marston and the Wonder Women'

A slow start but a good film about academic psychology, sexual relationships and jealousy, and bondage. Lots of bondage. Professor Marston is a Harvard academic and his wife is a much cleverer but less celebrated Radcliffe academic who can't be given a PhD because she's a woman. They do good work together, including inventing the polygraph, but they lose their jobs because of a scandal involving a threesome with a young woman student.

The prof then explores the nature of dominance and submission in sexual relationships, first in theory and then in practice. He discovers the bondage scene, and then starts to write a comic book that eventually becomes the celebrated Wonder Woman series - I had no idea that there was so much bondage in the original comic. I'd been dimly aware of what I thought was a pornographic parody called 'Blunder Broad' by the filthy comic artist Eric Stanton - I didn't realise that the 'parody' was so close in spirit to the original.

Review of 'Unsheltered' by Barbara Kingsolver

I don't think Barbara Kingsolver has written any bad books - this certainly isn't one. It's a sometimes gruelling story about a family of professional Americans tipped into poverty by entirely normal economic circumstances. The father loses his tenured faculty position when the university he works for shuts down, and ends up at the bottom of the ladder in another, worse-paying college. The mother loses her full-time journalist job on a magazine and has to make do on crumbs of badly-paid freelance work. And suddenly they are living in New Jersey in a crappy old house that is literally falling down, and impossible to heat. The man's old racist Greek-immigrant father lives with them, and is dying slowly and very expensively from a constellation of conditions, and the woman who doesn't like him at all has to manage his illnesses and his treatments, and spend huge amounts of time and energy negotiating with American healthcare.

It's a split narrative novel, so there's a parallel story set in the same neighborhood (with similar crumbling houses) in the mid-nineteenth century, which features a progressive teacher trying to engage his pupils with science despite the opposition of the principal and the town's gangster-boss patron.

And it's all the more poignant in that none of the modern families woes come from the familiar 'villains' of the economic apocalypse. There jobs haven't been offshored, they haven't been replaced by robots or immigrants - they are just the victims of middle-class precariousness. It could happen to anybody, and it does.

There's lots of family dynamics, including the golden-prince son who is a Harvard Business School graduate but has no job and heaps of debt, and the less celebrated 'spiky' daughter who has been living in Cuba, and whose smarts from their and from living at the bottom of society have actually prepared her much better for the world that is coming.

No more without the risk of spoilers, but this is really great - just get it and read it.

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Review of Julieta

One of Almodovar's more recent films, and really good - very poignant, almost painful to watch, about the relationship between a mother and daughter, its deterioration, and the effect on the mother of the daughter's disappearance. Unlike many of Almodovar's films this is totally devoid of camp or quirkiness, just great acting and directing. Amazing how well actors Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte managed to look like older and younger versions of the same person - I actually thought it was done with make-up!

Based on three stories by Alice Munro, which I must now read.

Watched on BBC4 in real time, as it was broadcast - can't remember the last time I did that!

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Review of 'The Black Jacobins' by C L R James

One of those book that I'm amazed that I hadn't already read - it's been around me for years and years, and somehow I'd begun to imagine that I'd read it. But I hadn't, though I had read a novelisation of the life of Henri Christophe, which covered some of the same material.

It's absolutely brilliant history, with a great understanding of the balance between individual heroes (and villains) and social forces. James also has a really good grasp of the limitations of the heroes too, especially Toussaint L'Overture, who is the central character of the Haitian revolution. The writing is beautiful - even the production of the book, with detailed numbered footnotes at the foot of each page (not in some unfindable section at the back) is a pleasure.

I must admit that there were some parts where I got a bit confused. Suddenly there seemed to be too many characters on stage, and I rather lost track of who was who - some character cards would have helped here, I think. And the twists and turns of the wars and battles, especially during the revolutionary period, are really confusing - the role of the British, and the Americans, is well set out but even so it's hard to follow.

But the narrative takes off again during the final round, when Napoleon sends a French army to reconquer the island and reimpose slavery. I must say that I hadn't appreciated what a nasty, reactionary, racist Bonaparte was. The atrocities committed by the planters and the French soldiers, often with the express intention of creating terror and despair in the revolting ex-slaves, were appalling. I know comparisons with the Nazis are always invidious, but I couldn't help thinking that German civilians didn't ever turn up to watch mass executions as a form of entertainment.

Anyway, this is a great book, and I'm sorry it took me so long to get round to it. I understand it was also turned into a play, which would be interesting to see.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Review of Pepi Luci Bom

Almodovar's first film, and obviously intended to be shocking and obscene. It's a bit shapeless, with some scenes and characters that appear to have been spliced in without any connection to the main plot or the rest of the characters. The story is about three women, one (Pepi) youngish and sort of glamorous, one (Luci) middle-aged, petite bourgeois and repressed (her husband is a sleazy policeman), and one (Bom) a 15-year old singer in a punk band.

The middle-aged one is a sexual masochist and longs for her husband to beat and abuse her, but he treats her with respect 'like I'm his mother' - though he's happy to rape Pepi when he finds that she has marijuana plants in her apartment. The rape is treated very lightly in the film, as are the various degradation to which the other two women eventually come to subject Luci - of course, she wants to be degraded, so it's all right. Early on Bom pisses on Luci, and later she beats her. Eventually Luci is reconciled to her husband, after he subjects her to a savage beating when he finds that she's been living with the other two.

See what I mean?

It rather reminded me of Jubilee, though the S&M sex in that was much sexier. Olvido Gara as Bom even looks like a bit like Toyah Wilcox as Mad.

Watched via laptop, projector and informal distribution at Jane's front room in The Old Co-op on Horns Road, Stroud.

Review of 'In Red and Black: Marxian Explorations in Southern and Afro-American History'

I've had this knocking around for years, but never quite got round to actually reading. But lately I've been thinking a lot about slavery and the anti-slavery movement - there are resonances with climate change, and also with Brexit (I've never quite got round to putting my thoughts down about that...must do so soon).

Well, not reading it wasn't such a bad idea. There's not all that much Marxian exploration. There is a lot of polemical stuff against opponents who are surely now dead, or defunct, or forgotten - student radicals who want to take over the universities (which Genovese defends as disinterested communities of scholars), Black separatists who wanted an autonomous region of four Black-ruled states in the USA, dogmatic CP-USA Marxists who weren't as good at Marxist history as their English counterparts, and people who had the wrong criticism of pro-Confederate southern historians.

Much of this can only be of interest to scholars of...historiography? The sectarian left? (He's rather soft on Maoism, and even has a jarringly nice thing to say about Stalin at one point: " Comrade Stalin, who remains dear to some of us for the genuine accomplishments that accompanied his crimes, clearly understood..." (p371). Perhaps this is ironic, though there isn't much humour anywhere else in the book.

He's really down on what Marx and Engels said about the US Civil War (which he insists on calling the War for Southern Independence), describing it as polemical and based on poor analysis. Yeah, maybe, but working out what he really thinks about slavery, or the Civil War, is really hard - unlike Marx, he doesn't seem to me to be unequivocally on the side of the North.

The book does end with a rather nice potted version of what Gramsci says and why it's important, reminding me that it's about time I had another look at that. Curiously he seems to express Gramsci's ideas rather better than Gramsci did himself...though it's spoilt a bit by the way that he doesn't really address the issue of class - he gets it that 'the working class' isn't a useful analytical or political term, but he offers only not very useful add-ins like 'ghetto dwellers' and 'the New Middle Class'. Oh well, can't blame him for that, who else does any better?

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Review of 'Ridley Walker' by Russell Hoban

Blimey this was a remarkable book - an indication is that I really hated it for the first 80 pages but persevered with it. I hated it because it's written in a weird dialect/orthography with idiosyncratic spelling and grammar, which makes it very hard to read - often you have to read the words out loud to work out what they are.

It's a post-apocalyptic dystopian fantasy, set in Kent thousands of years after some sort of catastrophe, and part of the point is trying to understand what memory of that event has remained in culture. The civilisation has retained puppet shows as a means of communication and transmission of ideas, and a garbled version of the story of St Eustace from a commentary on a wall painting.

It made me think a lot, about imminent catastrophe but also about how much of our culture, and our technological civilisation is both inter-dependent and cumulative. The eponymous hero at one point learns how many years have passed since the disaster (several thousand) and is struck by how little his civilisation seems to have advanced compared to the knowledge that the ancients had before. Is it because they are just stupider, that their brains don't work so well, as a result of the disaster? He isn't sure, but it seems to me that the people described - even though they have some metal-working skills - for the most part are living like palaeolithic people. They are just inventing settled agriculture, although they elsewhere the author says they are an Iron Age civilisation. On the other hand they seem to have remained literate and can even read such documents as they have (the St Eustace story) from before the disaster.

Well, not everything has to make sense. But I am very glad I did carry on, and almost want to read it again.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Review of 'Some Remarks' by Neal Stephenson

This is so not 'a definitive collection of Stephenson's writing' - it's a rag-bag of old journalism and short fiction, some of it really good, some of it almost embarrassing. I love Stephenson's work, especially the Baroque Cycle, but some of the essays here make me wonder whether I've projected a deeper understanding into it than is there in his head - a sort of fictional ink-blot thing. A lot of his unexamined political assumptions about America, and Capitalism, seem not all that clever and insightful to me, and that does come out in some of his contemporary-set books like The Cobweb.

I bought this for £1 at a remainder shop - it had been marked down from £9.99 to £4, then marked down again. I'm glad I didn't pay either of the higher prices. Still, he's a great, clever, elegant writer, and the insights into his process of writing make this worth reading.

Review of 'Popco' by Scarlett Thomas

An intriguing mystery book set in the world of multinational toy corporations, with lots of clever insights into marketing and demographics. Nicely written, with a good central character who's a bit on the spectrum but no less interesting or sympathetic for that. There are a number of nested narratives, including a rather good C17th bit, and - for me the best part - a portrait of the awkwardness and misery of secondary school life. As is often the case the denoument of the mystery is less interesting than the mystery itself; I actually wrote my first ever fan letter to the author before I was finished with the book, on the understanding that MI might not feel like doing it when I'd got to the end. But still a very enjoyable read, slightly enhanced by the somewhat odd physical characteristics of the paperback.

I actually picked this up from one of those 'little free libraries' in someone's front garden, which feels entirely appropriate - almost as if the book found its way to me.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Climate change and the abolition of slavery

The comparison is often made between the struggle to abolish slavery, and the climate change movement...and other progressive movements, too. The comparison often includes the argument that slavery was once legal and seemed normal, and that the people who successfully fought to abolish it sometimes broke the law, which now seems fine.

But there is another aspect of the history of emancipation which might shed some light on the climate movement, and on one particular aspect of the resistance to climate action. It's not an entirely pleasant lesson from history, though.

It's not well understood that in most countries where slaves were emancipated, the slave owners were compensated by the government. That happened in Britain, where the amounts involved were huge, and where the debts that the government acquired as a result have only just been paid off. It happened in the French empire, the Spanish colonies, in Brazil, and in the little-known Danish Caribbean colonies. It was tried in the United States too, though only actually implemented in the District of Columbia - other states failed to pass the required legislation.

The USA was an outlier as a country that abolished slavery without compensating the slave owners. Instead, emancipation happened as the culmination of a very bloody civil war - the bloodiest war in the country's history.

Perhaps this helps to explain what might be seen as a puzzle; why do the rich and powerful, or at least some of them, fund climate change denial? After all, if failure to act on climate change really does mean that we, and most other life on the planet, are heading for extinction, then their money won't be much good to them. They - or their children - will die like everyone else.

As far as I can see there's only three possible explanations as to why rich people might want to promote delay on climate action:
  • They really don't believe climate change is happening
  • They think it's happening but it won't affect them
  • They are promoting denial and delay as a deliberate strategy aimed at maximising compensation
It's easy to see that the first two of these apply to some extent. Some rich people are aware that climate change is real but promote denial to the masses, but others might actually believe the bullshit that they spread. Despite what they say, the rich aren't cleverer than everybody else, and even clever or educated people can be stupid about particular subjects.

And it's not surprising if rich people think they can escape the consequences of climate disaster. Much of their experience of other disasters teaches them that money can insulate you from the consequences. Some of the fantasies about escape from a dying earth (nicely illustrated in the film Elysium) play to this belief, and as David Wallace Wells points out in The Uninhabitable Earth, belief in this is quite common among wealthy Silicon Valley folk. Even if they don't think that they can escape off-world, there are plenty of rich people preparing, in a survivalist sort of way, to save themselves from climate catastrophe.

But I think the third explanation is the most important. If the political system ever really does deliver on action to prevent runaway climate change then a huge part of the world's capital will become 'stranded assets' - "assets that have suffered from unanticipated or premature write-downs, devaluations or conversion to liabilities". That's not just all the unburnable fossil fuel that is still in the ground, but also all the infrastructure associated with it - pipelines, refineries, tanker fleets, etc. It's possible that the financial system wouldn't survive such a write-down; at the very least it would be a major impact, and would hit some asset-holders much harder than others - though as the 2008 crash showed, the complexity of the financial system may mean that simply everything would crash.

Now, consider that fossil-based assets are not by any means worthless (and read this paper from Schroders if you fancy a chill as to how 'the markets' think about fossil-based assets). That means that 'the markets' don't think we're going to simply leave them in the ground - exactly what we must do if we are to avoid climate catastrophe.

So my hypothesis is that the asset owners expect that at some point they'll be compensated for their holdings, just like the slave owners were. And promoting division and delay on climate action is their way of driving the price up for when the negotiations begin.

The movement for climate justice is partly about making sure that the poorest don't suffer most from climate change, and don't have to pay disproportionately for measures taken to prevent or mitigate it - for example, through fuel or carbon taxes where the burden falls most heavily on the poorest. But what if the price of getting the asset-owners to call off their denial-promoting dogs is that governments have to pay them compensation? Either that compensation is paid for out of austerity-squeezed goverment budgets, or it's paid via some sort of quantitative easing. Either way it's a recipe for more climate injustice.

Recognising this rather concentrates the mind and ought to inform political strategy for the climate action movement. If the asset-owners are playing chicken with the climate, then it's important for them to create the sense that they are prepared to not swerve. If the alternative, and the price of confronting this strategy, is preparing for a conflict on the scale of the American Civil War, then strategies that we have pursued to date will be insufficient. Just saying.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Review of Animals

I intended to like this film; the trailer had made it look like a film about what happens when one of two friends grows up into a more mature adult while the other wants to remain in extended adolescence. But it wasn't really like that; both the women were actually pretty wedded to a dissolute post-teen lifestyle of booze, drugs and parties, though one of them (the pretty one, played by Holliday Grainger) seems to be drifting ever-so-slowly away from casual sex towards a monogamous relationship. Nothing really developed with either of them, and their back-stories didn't become much clearer either.

I note in passing that though they are both supposed to be in precarious low-paid jobs (one works in a warehouse, the other is a barista) they never seem short of cash, and there is absolutely no sign that their work makes any demands on their time. Every frame of the film has at least one large glass of white wine in it, to the point that I was beginning to think about going teetotal. I also note that the place they live, in a beautiful Georgian house in central Dublin, would have been gentrified in any British city, while the bourgeois suburban house that the one girl's parents live in would have been an outer-city working class suburb.

Watched at the Phoenix cinema.

Friday, August 09, 2019

Review of 'Red Mars'

I wish I'd liked this more. It's very long, and while some of it is great - especially the political discussions, and the dynamics between the characters - there's huge swathes that I found unreadable, about Mars geology, or descriptions about technical solutions to problems. I'm sure other people have exactly the opposite reaction, loving the detail and bored by the politics. I'm sure that, as in The Martian, the point of the technical detail is to make the whole thing convincing, but as there, it doesn't work for me.

I note in passing that KSR (who is great, by the way - I heard him talk a few years ago and he's marvellous on climate change and politics) can imagine people moving to Mars without either nation-states or capitalism coming to an end...lots of the stuff on Mars is supplied by familiar corporations, though the big names that dominate our lives now - Google, Amazon, etc are of course not there. Prediction is hard, especially about the future.

Review of 'The Photograph'

A rather odd film, directed by Ritesh Batra, who made The Lunchbox. It's billed as a 'romantic drama', and it has all the elements of a romcom but without any comedy, or indeed much drama - and yet it's compelling, though a bit too long.

I don't want to spoil the plot, but the main impression I had was of being teased, because all the scenes that were flagged up as plot points - are either not shown or not dwelt on at all. The girl agrees to pretend to be a girlfriend for the photographer she doesn't really know, but we don't see the discussion where she agrees. Later, he manages to obtain, at considerable effort, a bottle of a long-existinct soft drink that she remembers from her childhood, but we don't actually see him giving it to her, or her response. It's almost like watching the out-takes from a romcom, or the bits that happen in the narrative that don't make it into the film - and for this I liked it.

It also avoids almost all of the cliches of cinematic India, and touches on issues of class. He's not nearly as wealthy as her, but she's not super-rich and he's not super-poor - not a slum-dweller or a beggar, just a street hustler sharing an attic with several other men from the countryside. Mumbai was such an awful, terrible shock to me, as was the behaviour of middle-class Indians to the poor and street people, and this film brought a lot of that back even though it didn't show it.

Watched at The Phoenix in East Finchley.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

Review of 'The Blind Assassin' by Margaret Attwood

I read this a couple of weeks ago, and loved it, and decided not to write a review straight away because I wanted a bit of time to process it. At the time I felt quite emotionally churned up by it - there was death, and betrayal, and sibling relations...but now, a few weeks later, I'm surprised that I don't remember all that much about it. There's a story within a story, which is the eponymous 'blind assassin', a fantasy tale that the narrator's pulp-writing lover tells her during their occasional assignations. It's meant to be pulpish, but this is Margaret Atwood, so it's actually very good - a sort of parody of bad fantasy that can't help becoming ever-more literary. There's a lot about high society in Canada, and political and labour unrest in the 1930s Canada, most of which I didn't know about.

Anyway, despite my failing memory it's good and well worth the long time it took to read.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Review of 'Resonance and Revolt' by Rosanne Rabinowitz

I just loved this collection of stories. Overall I think they count as 'weird fiction', but I'd say they stay well clear of the 'horror' genre to which that often tends. Instead they are sort of politically engaged urban realism. They are funny, and sexy, and the people are real characters rather than the two-dimensional stereotypes that often turn up in short fiction.

They're from different stages of life too - some coming-of-age, some from other stages - which is great, though I don't remember one about older cis het white blokes who are out the other side of middle age...I guess I will just have to wait for that one. But the politics, and the sexual politics, are well done - not heavy-handed, but not just layered on for colour.

And there's a bit of a psychogeography dimension too, which I really liked - a feeling for 'liminal spaces' and the way that the city changes under our feet.

I won't discuss the individual stories, except to say that the collection is worth buying just for 'The Matter of Meroz' (which I had read before, in the Jews Versus Aliens collection) - kind of like Isaac Babel on acid.

Review of 'Excursion'

A time travel film, and one that reminds me why I generally don't like the genre. Very confusing, and I'm not sure whether my confusion was because I'm a dope and couldn't follow it, or because the film-makers weren't very good at story-telling.

Surprisingly the scientists who have discovered the secret of time travel are in the Soviet Union (in 1986) so there's a lot about the end of Communism, which does make it more interesting. It's unfortunate that the Soviet institute is quite so nasty, and run by a sinister professor and a uniformed thuggish general who quickly resorts to torture with a hammer - surely they could have been more subtle, even on a low budget.

In the end I resented the time I spent on this, although there were some good touches. I don't understand how it seems to have won so many awards, though it will make me more wary of awards in the future.

Watched on Amazon Prime, one of the first to be watched via Chromecast, which Prime now supports.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Review of 'The Upside'

An American remake of a French film with dodgy racial politics, that was an unexpected and somewhat inexplicable success. A rich white guy who is quadiplegic after a paragliding accident takes on an unsuitable Black ex-con as his carer, partly to annoy his business assistant and perhaps also to ensure that he doesn't survive long due to the Black guy's incompetence. But in a familiar trope from the movies, the poor guy turns out to know a lot about life and revives the rich guy's sense of joy through experience.

Despite the thinness of the plot and the dodginess of the premise it's quite enjoyable to watch.

Watched on Amazon Prime.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Review of 'The Anubis Gates' by Tim Powers

Not read any Tim Powers before, and I ended up really liking this. It's a bit of a romp, with touches of horror too (and I try to never read horror) but it's clever, and well-written too. There's plenty of action and suspense, but good characters and emotional depth - even the bad guys have their own inner life and problems.

I don't know that much about the Romantic poets, but I have the feeling that Powers did his research here - Byron and Coleridge are both characters in the plot, and they feel right to me. So does his early nineteenth century London, which includes lots of streets and neighborhoods that have now disappeared.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Review of 'The War in the Air' by H G Wells

Re-read after many years, and not as much fun as I remember it having been. Desperate to gratify my craving for steampunk, but it's hard to find anything that's much good. Perhaps I've muddled it up with Michael Moorcock's 'Laughter of Carthage' series.

I remembered this as having lots of airship combat and ornithopters, but there isn't all that much; and the dialogue - Wells' pechant for transliterating working-class speech so that the characters who use it seem rather stupid - really grates.

Review of 'Going Underground' by Phil Brett

A worthy successor to 'Comrades Come Rally', Phil Brett's sequel is set in the same post-revolutionary Britain. Our hero Pete Kalder is recovering from trauma in a sort of therapeutic community, but is soon pulled out of convalescence to help unravel another plot to reverse the gains of the revolution. It's tightly plotted, with lots of twists, good characters and vivid descriptions of locations and settings - plenty of long meetings, which made it all feel sadly rather true to life...that's probably what a post-revolutionary Britain would be like. Kalder is a great wise-cracking, sharp-dressing lead, with an encyclopedic knowledge of mid-C20th music and a trust-nobody attitude that gets him into trouble with the party and the remnants of the police. An enjoyable read, and I hope there's more to come.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Review of 'I, Tonya'

I enjoyed this way more than I expected to...I'm not very interested in sport, and less so in figure skating. I have only the dimmest recollection of the events it describes.

But this was very much the antithesis of the conventional sport film in which an underprivileged outsider triumphs over adversity through will power and determination. Here adversity triumphs over the underprivileged outsider, who very obviously has plenty of talent but nothing else - no contacts, no network, no social graces, and none of the insight that she might have needed to work out how to get by without those things.

It's well acted and shot in a way that seems to recall the nastier, shinier period it depicts.

From the film's narrative Tonya Harding actually got a rough deal - she doesn't seem to have done all that much wrong apart from choosing the wrong mother, and then the wrong husband who chose the wrong friends and associates. She seems to have been punished harder than she deserved for not dobbing her vile husband in, while others got off more lightly.

Watched on Amazon Prime.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Review of 'The Road Home' by Rose Tremain

Another beautifully written book by Rose Tremain, with a great portrait of the central character - Lev, a middle-aged Polish man who leaves his village to come to England so as to be able to support his mother and daughter - and lots of great secondary characters too. Despite the miseries that befall Lev, and some of the awful people that he encounters, it's basically positive and hopeful...probably more so than real life would be, but that's sometimes what we need books for.

Review of 'The City of Lost Children'

Re-watched this after attending some events at the Stroud Steampunk Weekend. I remembered the film as being visually arresting but couldn't recall much about the story line...and now, ten minutes after it ended, I understand why; the plot is basically incomprehensible, a mish-mash of images and cliches that doesn't add up to anything. There is a summary on Wikipedia which suggests that it's an anti-capitalist film...

Another film where there is a strong argument for a twenty-minute "extended trailer" or "art director's cut", so that we can enjoy the visuals and not have to worry about narrative.

Watched on the Middle Floor at Springhill, all by myself because no-one else wanted to sit through it.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Review of 'The Three Body Problem' by Cixin Liu

The "hardest" hard science fiction I have read for ages, with lots of theoretical physics in it. Lots of ideas and weirdness too, including a virtual reality game that rather recalled to me the 'Second Life' thing that was going on in Snow Crash.

There's lots to like in this - especially the earlier parts, set during the Cultural Revolution, which is as hard to understand for us as the alien civilisation depicted later. And the early sections about SETI.

But other aspects were sort of clunking, and I did get a bit bored by the very long section on unfolding a proton in n-dimensional least that's what I think it was about.  And I find the suggestion that advances in civilisation depend on increasing theoretical knowledge in subatomic physics (the aliens intend to stymie all progress on Earth by muddling up experiements in particle acceleration) very's one way to think about the relationship between science and technology, but not the only way.

Review of Tolkien

Rather plodding biopic about Tolkien, who didn't have a very interesting life (student then professor at Oxford). Some interest from the cutting backwards and forwards to awful experiences in the Great War, into which fantasy sequences have been inserted (dragons, monsters). I note in passing that depictions of WW1 in films tend to emphasise the slaughter and the horror, but depictions of WW2 do so less consistently.

Without the intercollated WW1 scenes it would be a dull biopic about a quite dull bloke and his dull posh friends (and nice kind wife). They drink a lot of tea and eat cake. Once he and his girlfriend are thrown out of a hotel tea room for mucking about with sugar cubes.

The more interesting bits of the story really happened before the film starts and aren't covered at all in the film...the family's move to South Africa, his mother's conversion to Catholicism and her Baptist family's decision to cut her off from all support as a result, the extraordinary education she must have given her two children at home...

Watched at the Vue in Stroud in a nearly-empty cinema, with annoying subtitles.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Review of The Post

Liberal film about the days when the mainstream media were the good guys, exposing the crimes and lies of the government, and focusing on the Washington Post's decision to publish The Pentagon Papers. Hard to believe that there was time when it was considered significant when the government was caught out lying or deliberately misleading the public, or that people believed that there would be consequences if this was revealed.

Bits of the films dragged for me, but it came to life towards the end with the decision to publish despite the fear of doing the wrong thing (endangering American lives by revealing details of war plans) or being prosecuted. It's about this point in the film that the pre-digital process of producing and distributing newspapers begins to dominate the imagery - typewriters, sub-editing by hand, vacuum capsules to take copy from editorial to typesetting, hot metal type...again, hard to believe that this was something in my lifetime.

Watched on Amazon Prime.

Review of The Children Act

Another slow emotional film, with Emma Thompson as the judge who must decide whether to force a blood transfusion on an unwilling 17-year-old Jehovah's Witness boy who will otherwise die. Nice depiction of the dilemma, and great acting from all the cast. Screenplay by Ian McEwan who wrote the book, but very cinematic...lots of powerful close-ups.

Two really trivial thoughts. Firstly, we see the judge distracted and disengaged from her marriage, but she mainly does this by working late on her laptop. She has a smartphone but the only thing she does with it is make and receive phone calls...which is not the way that modern people really are disengaged and distracted; they spend all their time checking their phones and browsing social media, and so on. I know she's a bit old that for that but the taking phone calls thing felt wrong.

Secondly, there is a good supporting performance from Jason Watkins as the devoted and self-effacing judge's clerk. But I was really aware of the other actors' eyes in the film - Thompson's eyes, and the eyes of Fionn Whitehead who plays the boy, in particular. Jason Watkins has very distinctive dark eyes, that seem to be all black pupil, and I couldn't help noticing them and remembering his performance as the vampire policeman William Herrick in Being Human.

Watched on Amazon Prime.