One of the first films I reviewed when I started this blog was Philippe Claudel’s debut I Have Loved You So Long, a beautifully made but cynically constructed film that skilfully leads you up the garden path before taunting you for having the temerity to set foot in someone’s garden. Like many of the works I value most, I adore and hate I Have Loved You So Long in almost equal measure: I adore it because I admire its courageous choice of subject matter (a woman who murdered her own child) and the skill with which Claudel guides us into a very specific emotional state. I hate it because Claudel would rather get one over on his audience than use his skill to set them free with a fresh idea or perspective. I have reviewed hundreds of films in the years since I first saw I Have Loved You So Long and yet Claudel’s betrayal has always stayed with me… I am not an academic critic and I do not approach the culture I write about through a fixed ideology but one thing I believe is that great works encourage the audience to make their own choices and their own interpretations.
Given that I have something of a history with Claudel’s films, I jumped at the chance to write about his latest work Before the Winter Chill for FilmJuice.
Before the Winter Chill is one of those incredibly grown-up films that French cinema keeps quietly churning out while the English-speaking world gorges itself on films aimed at children. Set in contemporary France, the film revolves around an aging neurosurgeon (Daniel Auteuil) who has drifted through life without asking himself too many questions. As I explain in my review, the film is filled with pastoral images in which only his wife Lucie (Kristin Scott Thomas) is seen to be working. Indeed, the gap between the surgeon’s indolence and his wife’s incessant toil provides the pastoral setting (a vast modernist house with floor-to-ceiling windows that make the garden feel like part of the house) with its own emotional counter-force. Even as the film bends over backwards to establish the surgeon as an intelligent and sensitive man, it is abundantly clear that something has to give… there is too much unhappiness in every sour comment and petulant gaze. The shock to the system comes in the form of an attractive young woman who seems to be either in love with the surgeon, stalking him or quite possibly both. However, the film keeps the young woman’s motivations at arm’s length and encourages us to stretch our empathic muscles:
The film’s central mystery is a beautiful art student named Lou who seems to be very taken with Paul. Forced to assume Paul’s viewpoint, the audience is asked to keep guessing about Lou’s motivations; in one scene she is a young woman attracted to an older married man, then she is a stalker, next she is gravely disturbed and in need of help. All of these versions of Lou seem to exist in Paul’s head at the same time and his need to ‘solve’ the puzzle of Lou encourages him to spend time with her in a way that only serves to enrage his family and expose the tensions between them. While the film may begin by asking us to identify with Paul and ask why everyone is so grumpy, the film ends by asking us to identify with Lucie and ask: Why didn’t he put that much effort into making sense of the people who love him? Why did he open up to a peculiar stranger but keep everyone else at arm’s distance? How could he ask so much and give so little?
I have quite a strong critical read on this film but, unusually for me, I feel no great desire to share it with the world. As I explain in my review, Before the Winter Chill is one of those films that encourages speculation without providing sufficient clues as to why the various characters act in the way they do. People who are averse to spoilers want to preserve the sanctity of the plot, what concerns me is that by presenting you with a strong read, I would be denying you the pleasure of resolving the film’s ambiguities in your own unique way.
Part of what makes this film so satisfying is that it shows quite how far Claudel has developed as an artist. I Have Loved You So Long was an incredibly impressive debut but it was also intensely controlling as Claudel beat his audience over the head with very specific sets of emotions. Before the Winter Chill is no less skillfully made, Claudel’s use of music, acting and cinematography continue are still absolutely masterful. The difference is that today’s Claudel is comfortable with ambiguity and the audience’s right to resolve that ambiguity in a manner that works for them.
This week saw the release of Arrow Films’ Camera Obscura; a magnificent box set exploring the early work of Polish director Walerian Borowczyk. As someone who already owns quite a few luxurious box sets devoted to art house film directors, you would think that I’d be immune to the packaging-foo of independent DVD publishers but Camera Obscura has taken me completely by surprise. Aside from an impressively thick booklet, the box set contains five beautifully restored feature-length films as well as Boro’s early short films and a suite of documentaries about both him and his work. To say that Camera Obscura is comprehensive would be an understatement,
FilmJuice have my reviews of:
- The Theatre of Mr. and Mrs. Kabal (1967)
- Goto, Island of Love (1969)
- Blanche (1971)
- Immoral Tales (1974)
- The Beast (1975)
FilmJuice’s editorial format required me to break the box set down into five separate films, which is something of a pity as Camera Obscura does an absolutely amazing job of capturing Borowsczyk’s development as an artist. The key to this process of evolution are the short films included on the same disc as The Theatre of Mr. and Mrs. Kabal.
Somewhere along the line we appear to have become convinced that style is something quite distinct from content. We look at heavily stylised works and either lionise them for the way in which style and content complement each other or we chastise them for indulging in stylistic experimentation without ever bothering to ground the experiments in content or message. We believe that content without style is direct. We believe that style without content is decadent and frivolous. We have fallen into the habit of treating style as a luxury or an indulgence when in truth it is anything but.
The French writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau once observed that style is just a simple way of saying complicated things and while it’s possible to unpack this statement in a number of different ways, what I choose to take from it is that the style that a work adopts is as much a part of that work’s content as anything else. The rejection of the style/content dichotomy is what lies at the heart of Samuel R. Delany’s oft celebrated and immediately forgotten essay “About 5,750 Words”:
Put in opposition to “style,” there is no such thing as “content”.
Simon Ings’ novel Wolves is proof of the fundamental correctness of Delany and Cocteau’s position; it is a novel whose content is entirely exhausted by its confused, disorienting and thoroughly engrossing narrative style.
The novel deals in the lifestuff of a man named Conrad who, when we first encounter him, is desperately fishing for excuses that will allow him to dump his recently maimed girlfriend without tarnishing his self-image as a sensitive man who claims to have fallen in love with his girlfriend’s world. Conrad later shares this rationale with a woman he is trying to seduce as he thinks that falling in love with someone over their tooth-brushing habits and choice of restaurants makes him appear sensitive but in truth it is a narcissism that cuts to the heart of the novel’s plot as well as the stylised manner in which said plot is presented.
The World’s End may be a shit film but at least it is full of bitterness and self-recrimination. The roots of that bitterness reach all the way back to the late 1990s when the writers of The World’s End first found success with a sitcom named Spaced.
This may be hard to believe but geek culture really wasn’t really that much of a thing before the late 90s. Sure… people enjoyed the films, books, comics and games that continue to provide geeks with a sense of common ground but mainstream culture rarely acknowledged that people (other than sports fans) were beginning to define themselves through their love of popular culture. Postmodernism was popularised throughout the 1990s but what drove that popularisation was not so much the death of cultural meta-narratives as the frisson of parental approval that came with every suggestion that a creator loved the same shitty pop culture as the rest of us. We often speak of constructing identities in terms of self-expression and self-acceptance but what really drives the adoption of a particular label is the recognition of others, particularly people in positions of authority. Simply stated, geek culture was not much of a thing until the late 1990s because advertisers and cultural creators rarely pandered directly to geeks and so rarely legitimised their identities.
Things began to change is the late 1990s when marketers noticed how devotion to a particular cultural product acted very much like devotion to a particular set of cultural values. Way back in ye olde black and whitey times, advertisers realised that if you associated a particular brand of pipe tobacco with values of manliness and respectability then people who valued manliness and respectability were more likely to buy the pipe tobacco. The success of films like Kevin Smith’s Clerks and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction demonstrated that this transferral of affection also worked with popular culture; if a film makes a reference to some aspect of popular culture then the people emotionally invested in that aspect of popular culture are more likely to seek out and enjoy that film even if the subject of the film is entirely unrelated to the subject of the obsession. First broadcast in 1999, Spaced ruthlessly exploited these quirks in human psychology by dignifying geeks with their own slice of comedic social realism.
After something of a break, FilmJuice have my review of Julien LeClercq’s The Informant (a.k.a. Gibraltar), from which I expected a lot but received surprisingly little.
Written by the same person as the excellent A Prophet and the epic Mesrine, The Informant concerns itself with a Frenchman living on Gibraltar who gets sucked into a world of smuggling and espionage in which everyone lies, everyone betrays and most of the smart people have protection from at least one set of customs officials. Unlike many recent films about the world of espionage, The Informant doesn’t perpetuate the now ubiquitous Thatcherite saw that state power is necessarily evil and corrupt, instead it takes a much more credible tack, which is to suggest that people in the intelligence service are ambitious, incompetent and under so much pressure to deliver results that they invariably cut corners that impact upon people’s lives. Indeed, The Informant is actually based upon the real life story of a Frenchman named Marc Flevet who served as an informant for the French customs only to wind up rotting in Canadian and Spanish jails when French customs decided to disavow his existence for fear of political and diplomatic scandal. The fact that the film is based upon a real life story of government intrigue and ethical shabbiness should have made it a natural companion piece to Mathieu Kassovitz’s excellent Rebellion (a.k.a. L’Ordre et La Morale), which described the politically-motivated slaughter of New Caledonian activists by a French government desperate to look tough in the run up to elections. However, despite the fact that The Informant had the potential to be a proper espionage thriller with a potent political message, Leclerq’s film comes across as little more than an under-written drama:
This plot synopsis makes the film sound significantly more interesting than it actually is. The principle problem is one of emphasis: Had Leclerq rather than allowing the needs of his story to dictate mood and pacing, Leclerq takes his cues from the human drama meaning that a film all about international smuggling and corrupt official seems quiet and plodding rather than tense and dynamic. Leclerq lavishes time and attention on his actors who explore their characters to the full only to realise that there’s not really enough human drama in the script to support nearly two hours of film.
This rather reminded me of Kieran Darcy-Smith’s surprisingly well-received Australian drama Wish You Were Here, which made the identical mistake of taking a script structured like a thriller and using it to make a film whose pacing and emphasis were more consistent with that of a traditional drama. Thinking about it a bit more, I wounder whether this trend might not have something to do with the critical success of works like Top of the Lake and Polisse, which take their cues from TV in that they occupy the space traditionally associated with detective stories but deploy the narrative tools of TV drama. The key difference between The Informant and Top of the Lake is that while both slow the pacing and focus on the characters, Top of the Lake’s characters are substantial enough to support that level of attention while those of the The Informant are now. This also explains why I gave up on the universally-popular Breaking Bad; I enjoyed the early seasons that focused on the plot of a science teacher learning to become a drug dealer but at some point in the third season, a decision was made to slow down the pace and focus on the characters despite the fact that the characters were really not interesting enough to support hour-after-hour of detailed examination.
LonCon3 – the biggest Worldcon in history – is currently winding down. One of the more distressing pieces of news to issue from its administrative bowel is the announcement that the 2016 Worldcon will be held in Kansas City, Missouri.
Dubbed MidAmeriCon II, the Kansas City bid saw off competition from a group of Chinese fans who were hoping to bring Worldcon to Beijing for the first time ever. Given that the 2015 Worldcon is already being held in Spokane, Washington, Kansas City will make it two years in a row (and three years out of four) that Worldcon will have been held in a regional American city without a proper international airport.
As disappointing as this administrative colloquialism may be, it is not a surprise as fifty-three out of seventy-two Worldcons have taken place in the United States.
To make matters worse, a Washington DC bid has now entered the race for the 2017 Worldcon. Prior to the announcement of the DC bid, the 2017 slot had boasted an admirably internationalist slate including competing bids from Japan, Canada and Finland. People with ties to the internationalist bids are justifiably outraged:
A victory for DC would not just make it three US Worldcons in a row, but quite possibly four as the only bids to have declared for 2018 are from San Jose, California and New Orleans, Louisiana.
Aside from undermining Worldcon’s claims to be the World Science Fiction Convention, this administrative parochialism has a number of unfortunate knock-on effects:
Firstly, science fiction culture is currently trying to address its shameful track record of marginalising and excluding people from outside the English-speaking world. One of the best ways of making science fiction culture more accessible to a wider audience is by taking the biggest convention in science fiction and transporting it to a country that is not a part of the English-speaking world. By keeping Worldcon safely locked away in American venues, we are perpetuating the preposterous myth that science fiction belongs to Americans.
Secondly, one of the reasons why Anime fandom has overtaken genre fandom and begun to grow much larger conventions is that Anime cons tend to take place in large cities that are cheap and easy to get to. Favouring US regional cities favours wealthy, retired Americans who can easily afford to up sticks and travel to up-state Washington to attend a convention. The size of LonCon3 owed nothing to the strength of British fandom and everything to the comparative ease of getting to London.
Thirdly, Worldcons are run along democratic lines by groups of dedicated fans. Anyone can turn up and vote at a World Science Fiction Society business meeting as long as you happen to be attending the con. The problem is that in order to present a credible bid or introduce new business, you need to be willing to visit more than one Worldcon in a row. Favouring US venues over non-US venues means that American fans find it much easier to get involved in the running of Worldcon and this means that Worldcon is more likely to reflect their ideas and experiences. In other words, the more American Worldcons you hold, the more likely it is that future Worldcons will be held in American cities and built according to the concerns of American fans. Holding Worldcons outside of the US allows international fandom a greater chance to get involved in the running of Worldcon and the more international fans get involved in the running of Worldcon, the more likely it is that Worldcon will come to reflect the experiences and concerns of all science fiction fans.
Having read through some of the discussions surrounding the various bids, I am intrigued and frustrated by the forces that shape the bidding process. Obviously the process favours experienced con-runners but why did Kansas City stand almost unopposed and why did three credible international bids pick 2017 as their target leaving the US almost unopposed in both 2016 and 2018?
The WSFS constitution is silent on the matter. Article 4, which governs future Woldcon selection, describes the process of bidding and the hoops that bidders need to jump through but makes no reference to geographical considerations beyond tying a bid to the city it originally declared for. However, if you look back over older bids and discussions of past site selections, you find references to a system designed to prevent Worldcon from returning to the same city over and over again. From the website of the 1998 Worldcon in Baltimore, Maryland:
The rules specify conditions, both geographic and procedural, which a prospective bid must satisfy to be eligible. Bids from outside North America are allowed in any year but to ensure equitable distribution of sites, North America is divided into three regions: Western, Central, and Eastern.
Rob Hansen’s history of British fandom also makes reference to a spat between US and UK fandoms from the 1980s. The details of the spat are unimportant but the background sheds some interesting light on the hidden politics of Worldcon site selection:
During the business session of the 1984 Worldcon Ben Yalow, an East Coast fan, had suggested that for the purposes of Worldcon rotation the US in future be split into two zones rather than the current three “in order to eliminate wimpy bids”. This quote got somewhat garbled on the grapevine and word went round that an attempt was being made by East and West Coast fans to squeeze out ‘the Wimpy Zone’, i.e. the Midwest.
It is entirely reasonable for US Worldcons to rotate from region to region. One of the abiding principles of Worldcon is that it Brings Fandom to You and so any attempt to root Worldcon in a particular place has long been resisted. However, is it possible that the informal policy of rotating between different US regions has lead to a situation in which various US regions believe that they are ‘due’ even though Worldcon keeps returning to American soil year after year?
My solution to this problem is simple: Worldcon must be true to its name and impose legal limits on the frequency of American Worldcons. There should be no more back-to-back American Worldcons. Ever.
I understand that bidding for a Worldcon is an expensive and complicated process but I would like to see a situation whereby (at the very least) American Worldcon bids compete only against one another while non-American Worldcon bids are protected from opportunistic bids like that of 2017’s Washington DC.
Science fiction belongs to the world and it is high time that Worldcon recognised it.
With this year’s Worldcon imminent, the World Science Fiction Society (WSFS) have released a preliminary agenda for this year’s business meeting.
The agenda appears a good deal less worrying than last year’s, which included motions to dismantle the fan categories and impose severe limitations on the use of cheaper supporting memberships to encourage people to nominate and vote for the Hugo Awards.
In fact, this year’s agenda even includes some interesting procedural business designed to make both the WSFS and the business meeting itself more accountable to the community as a whole. Firstly, there’s a motion (PDF) to require that all changes to the WSFS constitution be ratified by a vote of the membership at large. Secondly, there’s also a move to make it much harder to use procedural rules to shut down debate at the business meeting, which is what happened to last year’s discussion about a possible Hugo Award for Young Adult fiction. The language of this second batch of motions is High SMOFese but Kevin Standlee provides some much-needed explanation.
The one thing that does worry me is the motion entitled ‘Hugo Nominating for NASFiC Members’ (PDF). The proposed amendment to the WSFS is, again, written in High SMOFese (the cross-out text is the existing rule, the underline is the proposed change):
The Worldcon Committee shall conduct a poll to select the nominees for the final Award voting. Each member of the administering Worldcon and any member of any convention sanctioned by WSFS in Article 4 held in the immediately preceding, current, or immediately following calendar year, the immediately preceding Worldcon, or the immediately following Worldcon as of January 31 of the current calendar year shall be allowed to make up to five (5) equally weighted nominations in every category.
The explanatory notes frame the motion as a matter of accessibility and a way of opening the institutions of fandom up to more people:
Because of its suitability for smaller markets that do not have the facilities or concentration of people necessary to bid for or run a Worldcon, NASFiCs have great potential to be a pathway for exposing new fans to WSFS, Worldcons, and international fandom.
The use of language is quite deliberate: In an age of increased concern about accessibility and diversity, who could possibly object to making the institutions of fandom more accessible by creating “a pathway for exposing new fans to WSFS, Worldcons and international fandom”?
For the record, I am absolutely in favour of making the institutions of fandom more accessible to American fans, just not when that accessibility comes at the expense of everyone who is not an American fan.
At the moment, if you become a Worldcon member then you get the right to vote for that year’s Hugo Awards as well as nomination rights for the three years centred on the year of your membership. For example, I purchased a supporting membership for this year’s Worldcon last year and that gave me the right to vote for this year’s Hugos as well as nominate last year, this year and next year.
What this motion is proposing is that anyone who attends a NASFiC should automatically get the equivalent of a free supporting membership for that year’s Hugo Awards. What is a NASFiC? It’s an American convention put on by the WSFS whenever that year’s Worldcon happens to be taking place abroad. In other words, whenever Worldcon does leave America, a load of American fans should get free supporting memberships in the name of accessibility.
My problem with this motion is that Worldcon is already institutionally biased in favour of American publishers, writers and fans. Since the first Worldcon in 1939, fifty-three out of seventy-one Worldcons have taken place in America. With most Worldcon members coming from America, it is rather unsurprising that American authors and publishers tend to dominate the annual Hugo Awards. This historic bias is also self-perpetuating as demonstrated by the fact that next year’s Worldcon is taking place in a small American town without an international airport rather than the capital of Finland.
Genre fandom is not a diverse place. A tiny space built by people with limited social skills, fandom has historically dealt with all major differences of opinion by excluding the outliers. However, while fandom’s history of ignoring and excluding women may be terrible, its history of ignoring and excluding people outside of the US, UK, Canada and Australia is actually far worse. One way of combatting this historical bias is to literally take the institutions of fandom and take them to countries whose fans and writers have been traditionally ignored.
Taking Worldcon outside the US makes Worldcon more accessible to people outside the US. Making Worldcon accessible to people outside of the US makes it more likely that their publishers, writers and fans will show up on the Hugo ballot. Having more non-American writers and fans show up on the Hugo ballot makes them more visible and thereby promotes not just accessibility but also diversity.
Worldcon already has an in-built bias towards US genre culture, giving NASFiC members a free supporting membership institutionalises and encourages that bias at a time when both Worldcon and the WSFS should be working to open themselves up to the world outside America.
You cannot give a free supporting membership to the members of the American national science fiction convention without also giving one to the members of every other national science fiction convention. Doing so would further institutionalise the already objectionable American dominance of Worldcon and do absolutely nothing to address the historic marginalisation of non-American voices in both fiction and fandom.
This is a motion that talks the language of accessibility whilst walking the path of historic American privilege.