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Last Year at Marienbad (1961) –Submitting to Another’s Interpretation

February 3, 2016

As I remarked in the introduction to my recent piece about Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad is one of a handful of works comprising the peak of the sensibility or movement known as European art house film. Great works may have followed in its wake, some may even continue to be made, but few films have managed to equal (let alone outstrip) Marienbad when it comes to sheer inventive panache. This was a film that did not so much bend the rules of cinematic story-telling as shatter them into a thousand beautiful pieces.

There are many critical paths into Marienbad, but the one I would like to focus on today involves the colliding sensibilities of the film’s writer and director:

The film’s director – Alain Resnais – may have begun his cinematic career as an actor but his reputation was built on the back of a documentary exploring the extent of France’s collaboration with the German war machine during World War II. Night and Fog served to confront the myth that the French people had spent the entirety of World War II actively resisting the German occupation. Far from spending their evenings blowing up ammunition dumps, many French people welcomed German occupation and their welcome even extended as far as helping the Nazis to exterminate France’s Jewish population. The myth of the citizen-resistance fighter was not only put about by French political elites eager to evade answering questions about their own wartime activities, it was also embraced by a French population wracked by feelings of guilt and shame. While themes of remembrance and forgetting may have gone on to dominate the rest of Resnais’ cinematic career, that career began with an examination of how memories can be manipulated by those with a vested interest in particular truths.

The film’s writer – Alain Robbe-Grillet – differed from most writers in so far as he trained as an agronomist with a particular interest in diseases of the banana. As someone whose perhaps more scientific than humanistic, Robbe-Grillet’s writing was famously devoid of humanity. Even when his work did feature conventional characters and narratives, the prose would invariably be affectless and profoundly wedded to the surface of objects. For example, consider the opening to his classic experimental short story “The Secret Room”:


The first thing to be seen is a red stain, of a deep, dark, shiny red, with almost black shadows. It is in the form of an irregular rosette, sharply outlined, extending in several directions in wide outflows of unequal length, dividing and dwindling afterward into single sinuous streaks. The whole stands out against a smooth, pale surface, round in shape, at once dull and pearly, a hemisphere joined by gentle curves to an expanse of the same pale color—white darkened by the shadowy quality of the place: a dungeon, a sunken room, or a cathedral—glowing with a diffused brilliance in the semidarkness.


There are two further things to say about this quotation: The first is that, despite appearing to be written in an objective or photo-realistic style, neither the room nor its contents ever existed. The room is a complete fiction that has been introduced into your head by the simple act of reading the above passage. The second thing to say about this quotation is that the red stain is blood dripping from the breast of a woman who has been murdered. Indeed, while Robbe-Grillet never killed or maimed anyone, his fantasy life is said to have revolved around the torture of young women. These fantasies would often inspire real actions undertaken as part of a long-term sadomasochistic relationship with another consenting adult. I mention this not to posthumously kink-shame Robbe-Grillet, but rather to position him as someone who would have been quite comfortable distinguishing between non-consensual sex and the performance of non-consent as part of an activity to which everyone involved would have willingly consented.

Last Year at Marienbad is a film about memory but also about consent and the extent to which our memories and actions can be shaped by other people.

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REVIEW –Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)

January 21, 2016

FilmJuice have my review of Alain Resnais’ iconic art house drama Hiroshima Mon Amour. Historical distance tends to result in cultural moments losing a lot of their nuance. For example, when we look back at British punk, we often struggle to see beyond the Sex Pistols and even when we do manage to escape the event horizon of their fame, we tend to only see bands like Crass and X-Ray Spex. I have a theory that when the books are closed on post-War European cinema and its contemporary art house rump, people will agree that the cultural moment peaked with Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad and L’Avventura. Sure… great films came before and after (I’ve reviewed quite a few of them) but even fifty years later, European art house film struggles to be anywhere near as beautiful, shocking, and thought-provoking as those three films. Indeed, one of my recurring moans is that many of the directors working in contemporary European art house film are little more than tribute acts grinding through gestures and ideas introduced over half a century ago.

And yet, who can blame generations of film school graduates when those gestures and ideas contain so much power?

Hiroshima Mon Amour was Resnais’ first feature-length film and the road to directing narrative features was paved with short, confrontational documentaries including Night and Fog, his damning examination of French involvement in the Holocaust. As might be expected of a feted documentarian, Resnais’ first feature begins with a series of documentary gestures in which a woman describes visiting a museum about the bombing of Hiroshima while her Japanese lover repeatedly asserts that she saw nothing at Hiroshima. The steel in his voice and the intimation of trauma it suggests set the tone for a film about memory, emotion, and the urgent need to forget:

Were someone to make Hiroshima Mon Amour today, people would say that it was a film about trauma; the trauma inflicted upon the Japanese people by the American use of nuclear weapons and the trauma of being used as a scapegoat for the years your home town lived happily under German rule. Rather than differentiating between the wartime experiences of winners and losers, soldiers and civilians, Renais links the experiences of a Japanese soldier to the experiences of a French teenager and explores the effects of trauma upon memory and, by extension, the self. Though Renais would likely not have thought of his film in terms of modern ideas about psychological trauma, he intuitively understands the ways in which trauma can distance you from people who do not share your experiences. He also understands how traumatic events can demand a form of active and self-protective forgetfulness whereby the traumatised create new stories to tell about themselves. For example, the architect is only able to function because he chooses not to talk about the destruction of his home and family. When his lover tries to start a conversation about Hiroshima, his only response is to shut her down… “You saw nothing of Hiroshima”. Conversely, the actress is only able to function because she chooses not to fall in love so deeply as to be transported back to that day when she was shaved and thrown into a basement. She recognises the need to confront these feelings and move on with her life and yet she cannot… “You destroy me. You’re so good for me”.

I’ve long suspected that my tastes are turning more and more towards the abstract. I’ve spent so long thinking about books and films that I genuinely struggle with the carefully curated experiences offered by works with strong narratives and the need to lock audiences into a single unambiguous narrative. All too often, these works feel like theme park rides only without the excitement. Like many films influenced by the experimentalism of French modernism, Hiroshima Mon Amour turns its nose up at the tricks and traps of western story-telling and encourages us to think by providing us with a stream of unanswered questions and evocative images. Hiroshima Mon Amour is one of those films that perfectly suits my current needs and tastes… it is my bag, baby.

REVIEW – Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)

January 19, 2016

FilmJuice have my review of Arrow’s re-release of Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. The film revolves around a group of female rock musicians who decide to leave home and try their luck on the LA music scene. What they find is a scene replete with sex and drugs where fame is just as likely an outcome as death. Initially wowed by the glamour and raw sexuality of their new friends and hangers on, the band lose sight of the music and each other before re-discovering themselves and asserting their basic moral character. In other words… it’s the cinematic version of Josie and the Pussycats only without the tunes and satirical edge:

The problem with Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is that while Meyer had been working in Hollywood for a few years, neither he nor his screen-writer the film critic Roger Ebert had any idea as to what LA’s sinister underbelly was actually like. Meyer was 48 when Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was released and so the image of Hollywood he wound up ‘satirising’ was one with little or no basis in reality. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is not so much humorous as embarrassing in that characters wander around spouting 60s-inspired gibberish like “don’t bogart that joint” and “I’d love to strap you on”. It’s funny enough the first few times but the well is shallow and Ebert’s script keeps digging long after the audience is being served refreshing glasses of dirt. Moving beyond the thin attempts at satire are juvenile attempts at transgression that usually boil down to footage of enormous bouncing breasts and moments of gay panic.

Some critics describe Beyond the Valley of the Dolls as a satire of the LA scene but the satire rarely rises above the level achieved by Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In, which I assume provided the bulk of Ebert and Meyer’s ‘research’ into 60s counter-culture.

Meyer is a director who reminds me a lot of Roger Corman in so far as his fame seems to be a reflection of financial realities rather than genuine authorial vision. Both directors arrived on the scene after the collapse of the studio system and TV’s wholesale annexation of cinema audiences. Corman and Meyer made money and brought in younger audiences by filling cinema screens with sex and violence and so have come to be hailed as pioneers but the directors of the American New Wave did much the same and yet produced art rather than the grubby, stupid and lacklustre nonsense that we have come to associate with Corman and Meyer. As I say in my review, Meyer deserves credit for developing a vision that was uniquely his own but there really are much better Meyer films than Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. This film is unfunny, unsexy, unexciting and egregiously reactionary. Ugh.


Future Interrupted: All That Science Fiction Allows

January 13, 2016

Interzone #262 is a thing in the world. Those desirous of their own copies are urged to visit the TTA Press website, Smashwords or any purveyor of eBooks with a search bar and a robust commitment to science fiction.

This issue’s non-fiction is typically excellent. Nina Allan kicks things off by considering the ‘One Book a Year’ publishing model imposed on most contracted authors and how the pressure to deliver a new book every twelve months serves to bridle the impulse to innovate or experiment.  Allan’s piece rather reminded me of this quick trip delivered via M. John Harrison’s blog:

Why are genre writers so desperate to convince? Treat ’em mean keep ’em keen seems to be lost advice. The result is chapter after opening chapter of needy, to which the experienced reader is only going to react with contempt.

Timidity is a learned response to the condition of selling your work to companies that no longer believe in your product. If your editor and publisher don’t believe in your process, why should you?

Other excellent non-fic in this month’s issue include Andy Hedgecock’s interview with Dave Hutchinson as well as his double-review of Europe in Autumn and Europe of Midnight (which are both sensational). Also excellent is Nick Lowe’s bravura critique of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (which is not in the least bit sensational):

In the meantime, for everyone missing Christmas 1977, here’s a beardy bloke in long robes to help with who’s naughty and nice, because in Disney’s new contracted universe every Christmas from now to ever and ever will be a Star Wars Christmas. May the force be with us all.

I share many of Lowe’s misgivings about the film’s haphazard plotting, nonsensical world-building and general sense of hugely expensive slapdashery.

Between Force Awakens and the horrors imposed upon the Star Trek franchise during his tenure, Abrams has emerged as a man not merely consumed by his own inner demons but a man intent upon using his considerable cultural reach to impose those demons on the rest of us. Normally, I’m a big fan of artists using their work as a form of therapy but every film Abrams produces inevitably winds up being hand-wavy inter-textual nonsense about how Daddy Issues.

It’s not just that Abrams is repeating himself, it’s that he’s repeating himself in a way that suggests complete psychological paralysis. Film after film features tedious self-inserts working to secure the respect of an older generation only to wind up trapped between the urge to please Daddy and the urge to murder him for his many crimes. Once Bad Dad is killed, the characters enjoy a moment of exhilaration as they finally achieve the responsibilities of adulthood. However, the next film in the franchise inevitably deposits them back at square one: Poised on the bring of adulthood, angry with Dad, and yet desperate for his respect.

Abrams’ refusal to let his own characters reach adulthood intersects with broader issues surrounding the infantilisation of adult audiences under contemporary capitalism and is manifest in a cloying devotion to the source material of the franchises with which Abrams works. Thus, Star Trek could not be made without the new actors being anointed by the original cast and Star Wars: The Force Awakens features endless scenes in which batons, swords, catchphrases and assorted bits of lore are passed from one generation to another. This shit is not just tedious, it is downright sinister as textual obsessions with nostalgia and parental love inevitably fuse with the orgy of consumerism that surrounds each and every one of Abrams’ films. You may never be able to win Daddy’s love but Mickey Mouse’s rates are surprisingly reasonable.


This month’s short fiction includes:

  • “The Water-Walls of Enceladus” by Mercurio D. Rivera
  • “Empty Planets” by Rahul Kanakia
  • “Circa Diem” by Carole Johnstone
  • “A Strangle Loop” by T.R. Napper
  • “Dependent Assemblies” by Philip A. Suggars, and
  • “Geologic” by Ian Sales.

The presence of Ian Sales’ story in this month’s issue has worked out nicely as “Geologic” is very much a story in the style of Sales’ Apollo Quartet, which is the subject of this month’s reprinted column…

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REVIEW — The Angry Silence (1960)

January 5, 2016

I often wonder how much attention I should play to politics in the evaluative elements of my reviewing. As someone who is normally quite cynically detached from the culture that surrounds me, I am –to borrow a turn of phrase from Peter Mandelson and thereby prove a point — intensely relaxed about the consumption of right-wing culture.

I can watch Triumph of the Will and The Birth of a Nation just as easily as I watch Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. I can watch and appreciate these films because I take them all  to be well-realised expressions of particular world-views. The fact that I have more personal sympathy for the politics of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning might encourage me to return to that film slightly more often and hold it in slightly higher regard but ugly politics are no impediment to the creation of beautiful films. At least in principle…

There are times when right-wing culture annoys me and those times are usually when the film is quite obviously tapping into existing trends in right-wing propaganda in order to connect with an audience. My go-to example for this type of thing is Ciaran Foy’s The Citadel, a low-budget horror film that draws on a variety of racist and classist stereotypes in its efforts to depict modern-day council estates as madness-flecked sink holes filled with feral dog-children who would just as soon rape you as smear faeces on your front door. This type of shit bothers me because these are notions that are still ‘live’ and still doing damage to the people who live and work on those council estates. Fascism and racism are still very real social problems but I feel that cultural politics have shifted far enough that it is easy to gain some distance from films about Nazis and Klansmen. This may be a reflection of my white privilege, but it is also how culture works… time and distance make it a lot easier to be objective.

An excellent example of this process at work is my review of Guy Green’s workplace drama The Angry Silence, which has now gone live on FilmJuice.

The film is set in a period of British history where capitalism had not yet been completely unbound. The story revolves around a factory-worker who is forced to choose between financial security and group loyalty when a communist agitator manipulates his local union into a series of wildcat strikes:

It is at this point that the film’s right-wing politics begin to manifest themselves as Curtis is positioned as a righteous individual standing up to both the inhuman collectivism of the working class and the selfishness of ruling elites who inexplicably single him out as a ‘lone wolf’ and general trouble maker. What makes the film right-wing is the way that it paints the working class as a collection of cowards, sheep and thugs. Easily manipulated by what would appear to be Soviet spies, they strike out of vanity and blind conformity rather than as a means of securing fairer wages or safer working conditions. The Angry Silence is not set in our world but in a parallel universe where capitalists increase wages, workers remove their own safety rails and still people turn out on strike. The situation explored in The Angry Silence is as much of a paranoid right-wing fantasy as the ticking terrorist time bomb that invariably serves to justify the use of torture… no wonder this film was universally praised by the right-wing press.

The Angry Silence is a piece of right-wing propaganda that aped the kitchen sink realism and working-class focus of the British New Wave at a time when those themes, methods and politics still had an audience. It’s not just that the film’s politics are wrong and harmful, it’s that the producers Richard Attenborough, Bryan Forbes, and Jack Rix took a set of tools devised to help set people free and used them to construct an argument in favour of the blasted neoliberal hellscape in which we are now collectively entombed. The Angry Silence is a well-made film in the same way as Triumph of the Will and The Birth of a Nation are well-made films in that it articulates its right-wing worldview with real panache in a film that is well-constructed, well-written and very well-performed.

The Angry Silence is a well-made piece of right-wing propaganda and the only reason I am able to enjoy it is because the argument the film participates in about the merits of collective action and group solidarity have now been lost. I can understand why the right-wing press praised this film and I can understand why the (then) predominantly left-wing film culture absolutely hated it. I hate what this film represents and yet I have enough distance from the argument that I am able to appreciate the skill with which its clauses and conclusions are laid out. Yet another good film in service of an ugly argument.

No Cheers, No Gowns, No Skiffy Paper Crowns (But Thanks Anyway)

January 1, 2016

2015 was the closest I came to shuttering this blog and hanging up my shingle in quite some time. Last year saw the death of many fine blogs and the most frequent reason given seems to have been overwhelming indifference to whatever it was they had to say. I don’t have this problem: I publish stuff online because I enjoy the process of structuring my thoughts, shaping my prose and clicking ‘send’ before moving on to the next project. I have no problem with not being read, but I evidently have a problem with being appreciated.

Early last year, one of my pieces was nominated for the British Science Fiction Association’s award for best non-fiction. I haven’t really mentioned or acknowledged this until now as I found the entire experience profoundly unsettling.

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Colin Barrett’s Young Skins: “Kindly Forget My Existence”

December 29, 2015

As I reach the finish line, I’m moved to consider whether or not Colin Barrett’s Young Skins is actually a decent collection of short stories. As I’ve mentioned before, Barrett’s name often features in articles devoted to the emergence of a new wave of Irish writers and I think the Glanbeigh stuff justifies his inclusion in those types of curatorial pieces… but only just.

“The Clancy Kid” and “Bait” are hip to gender politics and come with enough ugliness, sensuality and kinetic weirdness to ensure that they linger first in the eye and then in the mind. However, as compelling as the collection’s opening stories may be, nothing else quite manages to reach their levels of either cleverness or artistry.

Presenting Young Skins as a story cycle set in the fictional town of Glanbeigh was a great idea as it encourages us to view the collection’s weaker stories in a flattering light cast by its opening triumphs. However, while Barrett does connect the stories at the level of both place and character, he struggles to find deeper connections and so fails to achieve either stylistic consistency or thematic focus resulting in a collection that rapidly loses its shape despite the diminishing returns offered by the pretence of inter-connectedness. Once you realise that Barrett is never going to build on the achievements of those opening stories, you are left with the frustrating and the merely passable.

Young Skins’ final story “Kindly Forget My Existence” is an excellent case in point as while it would appear to be set in the same place as “The Clancy Kid” and “Bait” it is actually an entirely generic piece of literary writing that could have been written by almost anyone and published almost anywhere.


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