Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Review of 'The Player of Games' by Iain M Banks

Enjoyed this more than the first one in the series...more about The Culture and what fully automated luxury communism is like, artfully described by taking the protagonist to a different culture, and then commenting on the differences. Not so much space opera either, so more drama and personal elements, even if some of that happens between people and machines. 

Now looking forward to reading the next one.

Review of 'Essex Girls' by Sarah Perry

An essay in little-book form, and really enjoyable. I loved The Essex Serpent, and here we get a little bit of insight into Perry's hinterland - raised as some sort of strict and dowdy Protestant in gloomy flat Essex, with nothing at all of the unbridled licentious vulgar Essex Girl about her, and yet some sense of connection and kinship with the archetype of a woman who won't accept the definition of others. 

I'd have liked more dissection of the stereotype - after all, Essex Girls are essentially a working-class version of other kinds of irresponsible woman (like say 'Flappers'), and I think the class dimension is under-discussed here and elsewhere.

But it's an enjoyable read and a celebration of some forgotten but important women.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Review of 'The Prom'

Cheesy spoof of cheesy musicals, in which a group of washed-up actors from Broadway musicals decide to improve their image by finding a cause, and hit upon a young lesbian woman who is barred from attending her high school prom because she wants to take her same-sex partner. Lots of jokes about New Yorkers and the liberal elite not understanding 'ordinary people' - Meryl Streep's character has never heard of the diner chain Appleby's, which seems to occupy the same place in the US hospitality pantheon as say Harvester Inns in the UK, though the actually look a bit nicer in the film...was this product placement?

Lots of other product placement, but also some good jokes and big song numbers. Oddly it seems to be set in an America where there are no other social problems at all, in particular no race issues - the nice young lesbian woman's putative same-sex partner is African-American, and this is not even worth mentioning. The young men, and the young women, in the film, all hang out with each other across the racial divide. 

But was enjoyable to watch.

Watched on Netflix

Review of 'Venus'

It's not going to be easy for an English man in his 60s to review a film which is basically a series of intercut interviews by young Danish women talking about their sexual experiences. But a few observations nonetheless.

The film is not remotely erotic, though the young women are nice-looking. It's mainly interesting, though I did have a few little dozes...normal for man in his 60s watching a film from the sofa in the late afternoon, I'd say. 

For the most part sex seems to be more a source of misery than happiness for these women. They have very few orgasms compared to the number of times they have sex, or the number of sexual partners they have. They're concerned about what they ought to be doing, how they ought to be doing it, and what others will think. And these are women in Denmark, probably the best country in the world to be a woman. Of course they might be a selected group, even though they have selected themselves by answering an open call to attend filming - if they weren't miserable maybe they wouldn't have attended.

And towards the end the film-makers, who are lesbians even though the subjects mainy aren't, ask the women to undress and show their naked bodies to the camera...most of them do this, even though a few don't or keep mainly out of shot. Why? I can see what it added to the film, but I still think it would have stood better without this. 

As I watched I wondered what a film of young men talking about their sexuality would be like, and I suspect it would also be full of insecurity and awkwardness. Maybe sex, except between stable regular partners, is just miserable, or more miserable than happy?

Watched on Amazon Prime.

Review of 'The Happy Prince'


Really sad period-dress film about the last days of Oscar Wilde's life, when he is living in France, and looking back on his glory days when he was successful and celebrated. He's hardly abandoned - there are lots of people around him who love him and look after him, but he's still infatuated with 'Bosie' - Lord Arthur Douglas, portrayed as a vain, selfish and unsympathetic character, while also wondering whether his wife might yet be reconciled to him. There are some really upsetting scenes with boy prostitutes, and others in which he is spat on by members of his once-adoring public or chased through the streets by posh young men intending to assault him for his moral crimes. Well done, but not exactly enjoyable.

Watched on BBC iPlayer.

Review of 'The Shape of Water'

Unusual surreal fantasy drama-thriller...Sally Hawkins plays a cleaner at some sort of secure/secret military base, where a strange amphibian humanoid creature (obviously modelled on the Creature from The Black Lagoon) is used for experiments by ruthless and cruel secret agents and scientists. There's a good and complex plot involving Soviet agents, Sally's neighbour (she lives in a weird flat above a cinema), her African-American work-mate, and several other really good characters. Very much an art director's film, with lots of great sets and settings to evoke the period atmosphere. Some horrid violence, and some weird sex, if that bothers you. But great.

Watched on All 4.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Review of 'Consider Phlebas' by Iain M Banks

Finally got round to reading this - it's been on my Kindle for years. Meant to because I understood it was intellectual, political and progressive science fiction, including a depiction of a civilisation that really is fully automated luxury communism. I enjoyed it, though I was expecting more of the intellectual stuff during the narrative, and it mainly isn't - it's more space opera, with the back story squeezed into a series of epilogues and appendices. 

And I will read all the others, and probably enjoy them too, though perhaps with lowered expectations.

Review of 'The Cut Out Girl' by Bart Van Es

I really don't like reading Holocaust literature, but I took a chance on this because (a) Ruth had read it and recommended it and (b) I'd heard an extract on the radio.

A good decision, though it's not an easy read. It's cleverly structured so that the narrative shifts between the author finding out what happened to the Jewish girl that his family took in and hid during the war, and the story as seen through the girl's eyes, as remembered by her grown up self and reconstructed by the author. Hanging over the story is the knowledge that the girl survives but then, as an adult in the 1980s, falls out with the family so that the author grows up without having known about her; we don't find out until fairly late in the book what this was about.

Although I thought I didn't have much to learn about the Holocaust, and everyone knows about Anne Frank, and lots of people know about the 1941 February strike against the deportations of Jews from Amsterdam, there was lots that shocked me. I didn't know that more Jews died in the Netherlands than in any other Western European country, or that this was in part because the Dutch contracted out the round-ups of Jews to competing private agencies - few of the Jews were rounded up by occupying German forces. 

And I was really stunned, and upset, to read about what happened to those survivors who returned from the camps to their country, to find that they weren't welcome, that their houses were occupied and they couldn't get them back, that they were liable for taxes for the years that they spent in the camps...and that the Calvinist "resistance" organisation tried hard to prevent those Jewish children who had been hidden from being returned to their families, or where there were no survivors of the families to other Jews who wanted to adopt them. They argued that by putting their children into hiding the Jewish families and communities had given up any rights to them. 

Not an easy read - lots of the personal stuff that happens to the girl of the story is hard too - but worth it.

Review of 'Fierce'


Once again a bad film in which - somewhere - there is a good film struggling and failing to get out. Reality talent show program host is suckered into doing an episode from his home village (it's Poland) from which he got out early, leaving behind a young woman who bore his child. Now years later the child, now an implausibly gorgeous young woman herself though still at school, goes on the talent show just so that she can meet the father, but he's shallow and trashy and they don't really meet. But she turns out to be a superstar singer, and she goes from round to round until...

Made worse by the fact that it's dubbed into American English - I liked it better when she was singing, because that's still in Polish. When it's English it seems like every other implausible teen movie. Warsaw looks awful, though I think the film thinks it looks glitzy, all plate glass and neon. There is no sign of the beautifully reconstructed old town, though I caught sight of one Stalinist-era building that I remembered in the centre of town, now swathed in neon. By contrast the village that the characters keep describing as a shithole from which they want to escape is beautiful, with a stunning river next to it. I want to go there, and I wish I knew where it is.

Like I said, there's actually some good elements in there - the breakdown of families, the tawdriness and impermanence of fame, the impact of celebrity and social media on real life - and I'd like to see what another, more subtle director would make of it.

Watched on Netflix.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Review of "Shame"

Hard-to-watch but worthwhile film about a man who is a sex addict. He has a lot of sex - with prostitutes, with casual pick-ups, and at one point in a gay club, though he doesn't appear to have had any gay inclinations until that moment - he just seems to need to come all the time. He wanks in the shower, he wanks in the toilet at work, and his work laptop is filled with porn - something that might have given him a problem, except that his boss seems to be very protective of him and agrees that they can blame it on the intern.

At one point in the film he almost develops an actual relationship with a co-worker, but she's interested in something that might have a future...and at that point he suddenly can't get it up. 

And there's a catastrophic relationship going on with his equally damaged sister, who has moved into his apartment because she has nowhere else to go.

Like I said, hard to watch, but worth it.

Watched on All4 via phone and Chromecast.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Zionism: from both sides, now

From early on Zionism had two different aspects, and this is still important now. In Palestine it acted as a movement and an ideology of colonists, seeking to take over a territory and dominate the local inhabitants. But in Europe, where Jews were an oppressed minority, Zionism was a movement of nationalism (albeit an odd one) for an oppressed people, offering solidarity, cultural renewal, and self-help organisations. Now in Israel (and Palestine) Zionism acts as an ideology and set of institutions for Jewish supremacy - many Israelis say that Israel must be the state of the Jewish people of the world, not a state for all its citizens. But for Jews around the world, Zionism still means Jewish cultural identity, the national pride of a minority that’s not always oppressed but is often fearful.

For non-Jews, including anti-racists, it’s not always apparent how much Jewish identity has been subsumed into Zionism. Radical anti-Zionist Jews who have broken with the mainstream Jewish community, and its identification with Zionism and Israel, have found their own version of Jewish identity. But for most Jews in Britain identification with Israel is a very important aspect of their Jewish identity - even if they are privately unhappy or very unhappy about the government and some aspects of Israeli society. The idea of Israel as a refuge for future Jewish refugees still has a very strong hold. It’s bound up with the memory of all the Jews who didn’t manage to escape the Holocaust, and the memory of how migration to Palestine provided an exit route for those few who did escape or managed to survive the extermination.

I grew up Zionist. I went to a state-funded Jewish primary school that was run by a Zionist organisation. The Hebrew that I learned there was the Israeli kind - I didn’t even understand why older people pronounced Hebrew in a completely different way. The songs we sang were Israeli songs, in Hebrew. We celebrated Jewish holidays the way they did in Israel. There were maps of Israel and Israeli flags all over the school...I don’t think there was one British flag or map of Britain. Later on as a teenager I went to a Zionist youth movement, where we went camping, and got off with each other, and sung more Israeli songs and practiced living like a utopian community.

Eventually my politics took me away from most of this. I mainly look at Zionism through the eyes of its victims, although I can still connect with some of the emotional memories I have about Israel as a rescuer. I also know that some fascists and conspiracy-theorists use Zionist as a code-word for Jew, and sadly that some of my friends and comrades on the left can unconsciously slide into using antisemitic themes and imagery when they’re - rightly - calling attention to Israel’s crimes.

I’d like to persuade more British Jews to oppose the Israeli government and the Occupation, and to support equal rights for all citizens in Israel. I hope more people in Britain will stand in solidarity with the Palestinians, and will support their struggle against Israel. But I hope that it’s possible to do this in a way that doesn’t involve a frontal assault on the personal and cultural identity of Jewish people, and that means treating the issue of ‘Zionism’ with some nuance and sensitivity.

(Afternote: I wrote this as a comment on someone else's Facebook post, and then re-posted as stand-alone Facebook post of my own, and now I've put it here to give it a more permanent home. It was intended originally as a short response, and there are some aspects that deserve more substantiation or exploration. But it's here as it emerged, and I think I still stand by what's in it.)

Wednesday, December 09, 2020

Review of "Manifesto: How a maverick entrepreneur took on British energy and won' by Dale Vince

Hard to live in Stroud without knowing about Dale Vince. We've been customers of Ecotricity for years, and we've been to hear him talk at Womad a few times. Sometimes we see hin in the local cafe, and he seems to radiate a 'don't talk to me' aura, not in a hostile way but like someone who'd like their privacy respected.

This book is really interesting - he reveals a lot of his personal history, with the Travellers Convoy and after. He's obviously a very focused person, with a really strong connection to practical things, but a good business sense too, and a powerful code of ethics. It's fascinating to read about the details of the company's relationships with other big businesses, and how absolutely awful they were.

I'd recommend this to anyone who wanted to know about the practicalities of the renewable energy industry.

Monday, December 07, 2020

Review of 'Private Life'

Thoughtful quiet film about a couple trying to have a child, or adopt one, and the strains this places on their relationship. Lots of dimensions, including the involvement of a niece who offers to be an egg donor. I liked the depiction of their relationship as neither idealised nor catastrophic...they have really bad patches and get angry with each other, and then they get over it...just like lots of people do in real life.

One small winge...they work as writers, they seem to have enough money for a quite-nice appartment in a NY district that's not yet gentrified (where is this?) but they don't actually seem to do any work, even though all the treatments that they try are really expensive. Sometimes they borrow money from their relatives, but they don't seem as poor as their working lives would seem to indicate.

Watched on Netflix.

Friday, December 04, 2020

Review of 'How to Thrive in The Digital Age' by Tom Chatfield

Surprisingly good book from 2012 about the effect of the life digital on the rest of our lives...particularly good in the earlier chapters on the impact on the way we experience time. Worth a read...the later chapters not so much.

Review of Pornocracy

Film about online porn, and mainly about Pornhub and the constellation of companies around it. It points out that the internet has more or less killed off the traditional porn industry of exploitative and nasty content producers, and replaced it with what is effectively a massive public pirate site - and no-one cares much about the property rights of the content producers, or the deteriorating pay and conditions of the people working in the industry, because hey it's porn.

But it doesn't really answer the question that it raises - how does Pornhub and its associated companies, which are massive and must have huge servers and pipes - make any money? The content is mainly free (and stolen), and the ads are mainly for other sites owned by the company. The subscriptions and the external ads don't seem able to cover the costs. 

One possibility that's raised but not really spelled out is that it's actually a massive money laundering operation. I tried to see if anyone else is alleging this, and can't really find anything substantial.

Wednesday, December 02, 2020

Review of 'Uncle Frank'

Amazon original movie in which a southerner who has moved to New York because he's gay (and now lives with a handsome and lovely Saudi gay lover) returns to his home town, because his hateful homophobic father has died and he is going to the funeral. He takes along with him a young female cousin who is a sort of protoge - he encouraged her to think for herself and she's ended up going to university in New York - and then the lover follows him, for not clearly explained reasons. It's mainly tragic and emotional but there are some good funny scenes too - overall quite a good film with nice acting and interesting characters...well, I thought so. Wonder what gay friends thought. Perhaps I will ask them.

Watched on Amazon Prime.