FilmJuice have my review of Pawel Pawlikovski’s Ida, a starkly beautiful but terrifyingly under-written film about 1960s Poland.
The film is set in a starkly shot 1960s Poland where an young orphan woman prepares to take orders and become a nun. Worried that this young woman has never experienced life outside of a convent, her abbess orders her to visit with a woman who claims to be her lone surviving relative. Reluctant at first, the young woman travels across Poland to meet with a woman who turns out to be a hard-drinking socialist prosecutor with a fondness for younger men and a Jewish name. Confronted with the fact that she is actually Jewish, the young novice follows her aunt as they travel back to their family’s home town in order to confront the people who killed their family and forced them off their land.
When Ida was released back in 2013, it was received with as much warmth and submissive zeal as the second coming. Not only did it win the Grand Prize at the BFI London Film Festival but reviewers seemed to fall over themselves to declare it a masterpiece while blisteringly high Rotten Tomato and Metacritic scores made it something of a cross-over hit at the American box office. This depresses me a great deal as Ida is a desperately mediocre piece of cinema.
My review blames Pawlikovski’s script for failing to unpack either the emotions or the ideas touched on by the film:
A script with an interest in Polish religious history might have unpacked the implications for Anna’s late-blooming Judaism and explained why discovering that you are Jewish might want to make you think twice about becoming a nun. Similarly, a script with an interest in Polish political history might have noted that Jewish people were purged from the Communist party a few years after the events of the film and explored the way in which a rising tide of anti-Semitism would have forced a respected political prosecutor into near-exile for the crime of being Jewish. By choosing to gloss over the cultural, political and social context of Ida’s journey of discovery, Pawlikovsky ensures that the events of her life are forever lacking in emotional charge.
With hindsight, I now realise that the problem is far more basic. Consider what I said about one of Pawlikowski’s earlier films The Woman in the Fifth:
There was a time when European art house film wanted to blow shit up. There was a time when values were confounded and new ground was broken both in terms of what could be said and how people could say it. European art house film used to shock the world… now it merely puts bums on seats by engaging with the same old themes in the same old ways. In the land of artistic sterility, competence is king and Pawel Pawlikowski’s The Woman In The Fifth is an eminently competent film.
Ida is another supremely competent piece of film making that looks a lot like a serious work of cinematic art despite being little more than a hollow vessel with nothing to say. Pawel Pawlikovsky is a miserable hack who makes cynical, unadventurous and boring films that degrade the language and sully the reputation of art house film. In a more enlightened age, critics would have called him out and exposed his cynicism but now they hail him as a genius. According to his wikipedia page, Pawlikovski teaches direction and screenwriting at the National Film School in the UK and this saddens me even more than this film’s undeserved success. Art house film should be about more than competence but that is ultimately all that Pawlikowski has to offer us.
The November-December issue of Interzone (#255) is now arriving in dataports throughout the Human Imperium. For this gift, and many others, the Emperor would usually require only that you hate but in light of recent events he has chosen to require only miniature British flags and a fresh lick of paint before he comes round to open your local sports centre and/or scout hut.
This month’s issue includes:
- E. Catherine Tobler’s “Oubliette”
- Jannifer Dornan-Fish’s “Mind the Gap”
- Tom Greene’s “Monoculture”
- Malcolm Devin’s “Must Supply Own Work Boots”
- Tim Major’s “Finding Waltzer-Three”
- R.M. Graves’ “Bullman and the Wiredling Mutha”
- Thana Niveau’s “The Calling of Night’s Ocean”
It also includes regular columns by Nina Allan, David Langford, Tony Lee, Nick Lowe and myself. In addition to some fantastic book reviews there’s also an interview with Hannu Rajaniemi by Paul Cockburn and an obituary for Graham Joyce by Andy Hedgecock that includes the beautiful line:
He had a gift for shepherding seriousness away from solemnity.
This month’s Future Interrupted column is entitled “The Origins of Science Fictional Inequality” and it’s another one of those columns in which I take a somewhat critical look at the conventional narratives of genre culture and try to provide an alternative… but you’ll have to wait a few months if you want to read that one for free!
Jonathan Glazer’s third film Under The Skin is something of a puzzle. Loosely based on a novel by Michel Faber, the film concerns itself with an alien who poses as a human woman (Scarlett Johansson) in order to lure single men to a strange alien space. Once trapped in the space, the men are absorbed by a black liquid that keeps them alive until the time comes for their flesh and organs to be harvested. However, the more time the alien spends in the company of humans, the more she is forced to refine her seduction techniques and this process of refinement seems to alienate her from her function.
Most (positive) reviews of the film praise Glazer’s visual panache and speculate that the film is concerned with human empathy and the process of becoming human. While I don’t disagree with this assessment, I do think it short-changes what is a very clever and unsettling film. The truth is that Glazer does not give his audience very much to work with when it comes to working out what the film is about and therein lies the point that the film is trying to get across.
Everyone who pays attention to science fiction should by now have received the cheat codes for Adam Roberts: An academic critic and satirist as well as a more traditional (albeit rarely conventional) author, Roberts writes novels that interrogate literary history by pulling apart classic works of science fiction and reassembling them in ways that highlight themes and connections that have heretofore been overlooked. Most evident in novels such as Swiftly and Splinter, Roberts’ methods have grown increasingly subtle and sophisticated with each passing book allowing him to explore the links between the Singularity and Renaissance ideas about collectivism (New Model Army) as well as the bourgeois cosiness shared by works from the Golden Ages of both Science and Detective Fiction (Jack Glass).
While all of Adam Roberts’ novels are perfectly accessible to people who are not familiar with the history of science fiction, there is no denying that you need to ‘get the joke’ in order to get the most out of his work. These accessibility issues might explain why it took until Jack Glass for the science fiction community to recognise Roberts’ talent with both a BSFA and a Campbell Award: These days not many genre people bother to read Swift, Verne and Rabelais but most of them will be at least passingly familiar with cosy crime fiction and golden age SF. The field’s lack of familiarity with the work of Jules Verne also accounts for Twenty Trillion Leagues Under The Sea receiving considerably less attention than is normal for an Adam Roberts novel. This is a real shame as while Roberts’ latest does see him returning to Jules Verne for the first time since Splinter, Roberts is a very different writer to the one he was in 2007 and he is now looking at a very different Jules Verne.
Back in 1986, Shinya Tsukamoto began producing short experimental films with science fictional themes. One of these films entitled “A Phantom of Regular Size” featured a man living in a dystopian Tokyo being pursued, infected and ultimately transformed by a cybernetic spirit of the age, a woman in dark glasses and immaculate tailoring who could have stepped right out of The Matrix almost a generation later.
Phantom went on to form the backbone to a series of feature films that brought Tsukamoto to the attention of a global audience. Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Tetsuo II: The Body Hammer, and Tetsuo: The Bullet Man are all attempts to communicate what it felt like to be a member of the Japanese middle-classes at the end of a period of unprecedented economic growth that had completely transformed Japanese society in the space of a generation. These films portray the Japanese as a people worn down by the technologically sophisticated society that they themselves constructed. The opening scenes of Phantom are of a man in a subway convulsing with anguish as trains roar past like the blades on an enormous mincing machine. Every passage shaves away another ounce of humanity until there is nothing left but a host for technological infrastructure, as though the machine that had robbed the Japanese of their humanity was now putting them to work debasing and infecting the people around them. The early Tetsuo films not only diagnosed the sickness that was the late-20th Century Japanese experience, they also articulated what that sickness felt like by using imagery inspired by science fiction and horror.
Tsukamoto’s Kotoko feels a lot like a companion piece to the early Tetsuo films but rather than grappling with feelings of rage and alienation brought on by the experience of living under capitalism, Kotoko is all about articulating what it feels like to be a mentally ill single mother.
Last weekend, the Guardian published an astonishing piece by Kathleen Hale about her experiences tracking down someone who spoke ill of her and her books online. According to Hale, the negative reviews spiralled out into a more generalised form of online vitriol that motivated Hale to trace her reviewer’s real identity, travel to confront them and then write an article about it in the Guardian that paints Hale as the (moderately self-critical) victim of things like ‘trolling’ and ‘catfishing’ rather than a petulant and intimidating online presence. Anyone who has published a negative review online will read this article and shiver, particularly at the manner in which Hale presents the silencing of her critic as a signifier for personal growth:
I’m told Blythe still blogs and posts on Goodreads; Patricia tells me she still live tweets Gossip Girl. In some ways I’m grateful to Judy, or whoever is posing as Blythe, for making her Twitter and Instagram private, because it has helped me drop that obsessive part of my daily routine. Although, like anyone with a tendency for low-grade insanity, I occasionally grow nostalgic for the thing that makes me nuts.
It’s nice that Kale was afforded the privilege of writing about her experiences in a venue as visible and respected as the Guardian and it’s nice that she was able to transform her defeated and diminished critics into stepping-stones on the road to personal self-improvement. I am genuinely glad that she is feeling better but the bulk of my sympathies still lie with her critic.
I feel quite close to this issue because, for the past ten years, I have been hanging out on the margins of science fiction fandom occasionally writing about books and commenting on the state of the field. In that time I have seen a partisan dislike for negative reviews of favourite books broaden into a more generalised taboo against negative reviewing and a related dissolution of the taboo against authors confronting their critics and responding to reviews. Given that Hale frames her encounters with critics in strictly psychological terms, I think it appropriate that I should begin by doing the same.