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Colin Barrett’s Young Skins: “Diamonds”

December 3, 2015
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If “Calm with Horses” was all about Barrett relaxing into the long-distance gait of the novelist then this story is all about the explosive energy of the short fiction sprinter. Even less concerned with narrative and sustained characterisation than the collection’s opening stories, “Diamonds” demonstrates the raw power of Barrett’s prose as well as the strategic weaknesses of his methods.

The story begins with a display of pyrotechnics:

The midland skies were huge, drenched in pearlescent light and stacked with enormous chrome confections of cloud, their wrinkled undersides greyly streaked and mottled, brimming with whatever rain is before it becomes rain. Each time I came to and checked the carriage window the same cow seemed to be eyeing me from the same sodden, tobacco-brown field.

Little more than a shot across the reader’s bow, we move on to discover a protagonist who is all out of luck and all out of options. Rock bottom is rising up to meet him and the only way out was a return to source… to Glanbeigh!

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Future Interrupted: Yesterday’s Plays for Today

December 1, 2015
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Interzone #261 is now a thing in the world. It glistens, it gleams and it can be pur-chased from a variety of fine venues including the TTA Press website and Smashwords.

This month’s issue begins with an editorial by Maureen Kincaid Speller about the need for diverse books before assaying Nina Allan’s thoughts on whether the next star of Doctor Who needs to be drawn from a more diverse pool of actors. Combine the two pieces and you have the entirely reasonable suggestion that a more diverse pool of writers would inevitably result in a much-needed renewal of both character and format.

This issue’s Book Zone opens with Jack Deighton reviewing the first two volumes of Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy while Ian Sales turns his mind to the recent works of David Mitchell. Also featuring are reviews by Paul Kincaid, Stephen Theaker, Ian Hunter, Andy Hedgecock, and Jim Steel but my favourite piece is Maureen Speller’s brilliantly icy review of Ian McDonald’s Luna:

We are invited to admire the staggering diversity of nationalities and beliefs which intermingle and form lunar society, not to mention the ever-so-slightly too casual presentation of same-sex relationships, as well as bisexual and gender-neutral characters, but the fact of their being so very front and centre in the novel suggests discomfort rather than casual acceptance.

Ouch.

Luna is a novel that performs sexuality in the way that a retired bank manager might perform Hamlet: It bellows where it should whisper, mumbles where it should declaim, and looks entirely unappetising in a pair of Marks and Spencer tights. In fairness to McDonald, this tendency to ‘do’ sex in a somewhat over-exuberant and cringe-worthy fashion is also present in his earlier books but it’s easy to ignore bad sex in a novel not overly concerned with it. By deciding to write a novel with a huge cast and attending to the sexuality of each and every character, McDonald is forcing his readers to attend to his own weaknesses.

 

Typically excellent are the usual columns by Nick Lowe and Tony Lee. Lowe harrumphs magnificently at Hollywood’s discovery that old school science fiction might have produced better stories than your average Hollywood hack while Lee continues to survey every last genre DVD released in the UK. Lee is the first person I ever reviewed for and I must admit that his work in Interzone and Black Static has turned him into one of my critical heroes… not only does he cover a lot of terrain, he does it with the intense focus and stylistic panache of a man forced to contain complex thoughts within a tiny word-count. I don’t think anyone does better capsule reviews than Tony Lee.

 

This month’s fiction contains names both familiar and not:

  • “Five Conversations with my Daughter (Who Travels in Time)” by Malcolm Devlin.
  • “We Might be Sims” by Rich Larson.
  • “Heartsick” by Greg Kurzawa.
  • “Florida Miracles” by Julie C. Day.
  • “Scienceville”by Gary Gibson.
  • “Laika” by Ken Altabef.

 

My column is entitled “Harder-Core-Than-Thou” and it’s about the term ‘Core SF’ and how the genre’s conceptions of core and periphery are shaped by market forces and the occasional need to move the field’s economic heartlands. But… you’ll have to wait six months to read that one! In the mean time, here is my column entitled “Tomorrow’s Plays for Today”. It’s about obscure pieces of British genre TV and how Alan Garner almost certainly hated sex… and women.

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Colin Barrett’s Young Skins: “Calm With Horses”

November 27, 2015
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At 74-pages in length “Calm with Horses” is not only the longest work in the collection by some considerable margin. It is also the only work that might be described as a novella rather than a conventional short story and this format change may account for why the stylistic fireworks that characterise both “The Clancy Kid” and “The Moon” feel less present.

So what does a Colin Barrett story look like when it isn’t waxing rhapsodic about fierce women and drink-cudgelled men? It looks exactly what I hoped it would look like: An intense and character-focused story that takes place in those few precious millimetres where the wheel of crime fiction hits the road of literature. Ragged, patchy and perhaps overly reliant upon the literary ellipsis, “Calm with Horses” is by no means a finished product but it bodes well for what Barrett might be able to accomplish once he starts producing novels.

 

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REVIEW — The Raging Moon (1971)

November 24, 2015
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Some films fail at the level of script, others fail at the level of pacing or subject matter. Bryan Forbes’ The Raging Moon is interesting in so far as it fails at the level of casting.

Based on a novel by Peter Marshall and manifestly inspired by the author’s life, the film tells of an unpleasant but vital young man who inexplicably loses the use of his legs. Abandoned by a family who simply cannot cope with the idea of a disabled son, the character plunges into depression just as he begins life in a Church-run home for disabled people. This protagonist’s depression lingers until he becomes friends with an attractive middle-class girl who effectively gives him something to live for. No longer depressed and now capable of imagining a future without the use of his legs, the young man emerges as a fully-formed adult with a promising literary career.

As I explain in my review for FilmJuice, the problem with Forbes’ adaptation of The Raging Moon is that while the story was originally designed to be a bildungsroman in which a young man has to lose the use of his legs before gaining the use of his mind, the film focuses not upon the protagonist’s journey but upon the under-written romance that marks the point at which the character comes properly of age:

Simply stated, the romance between Bruce and Jill feels under-written, poorly paced and completely unbelievable. Having spent a quarter of an hour establishing that Bruce is depressed and alienated from the people around him, the film transforms him into a love-struck puppy within fifteen seconds of noticing Jill across a crowded room. Given that Jill simply did not exist as a character prior to that scene, Bruce’s attraction and mood change seem completely out of character. Shockingly under-written given the detail lavished upon both Bruce’s relationship with his brother and Jill’s relationship with her former fiancé, the bond between Jill and Bruce feels more like a cynical contrivance than something genuinely character driven. Indeed, a romance featuring Malcolm McDowell and Nanette Newman was always going to be an easier sell than a film about a horrible young man who loses the use of his legs but gains the ability to think and feel like a normal human being.

Rather than casting someone who could play a petulant boy as he turns into a man, Forbes cast Malcolm McDowell… postboy for adolescent angst and justified rebellion. This casting decision alone practically forces us to mis-read McDowell’s character and view him as a rebel rather than the immature and lonely figure that Peter Marshall quite obviously intended.

Also problematic was the decision to cast Nanette Newman in the role of Jill. In 1971, Nanette Newman was not only a proper film star but also Bryan Forbes wife meaning that the character of Jill could not help but expand beyond the limited role accorded it in both the script and the novel. Had Marshall and Forbes decided to rework the story to provide Jill with more back-story and interiority then the romance between the two characters might have worked. Instead, we have a romance that rests on an underdeveloped and unengaging relationship.

It took me a while to work out quite how negative I wanted to be in this review. The problem is that while the film was s0ld as a romance and fails according to that particular yardstick, there’s a really interesting (if somewhat prosaic) drama trying to get out from beneath the director’s terrible casting and adaptation decisions.

Rather than viewing The Raging Moon as an under-cooked romance, we would be better off viewing it as a social drama looking at the lives of disabled people in the late 1960s. For example, the film does an excellent job of noting how families would distance themselves from disabled children in an effort to remain untainted by the stigma of disability. The film also suggests that this stigma informed the policy of locking disabled people away in homes and resulted in people experiencing real horror and disgust at the idea of disabled people having relationships with each other.

Raging Moon deserves full credit for daring to show a tender love affair between two people in wheelchairs but that type of romance is poorly served by a script set up to support a completely different type of story.

 

 

 

REVIEW — The Captive Heart (1946)

November 19, 2015
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Earlier this week, I wondered what a fully mature and authentic British film industry might actually look like. For inspiration, I looked to the British cinema of the 1940s and found both good and evil.

One side of the dyad is represented by Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol, an immensely thought-provoking film about how children see the world and how that vision is subject to distortion by more-or-less well-intentioned adults.However, while the mature and authentic British film industry of the 1940s was capable of producing complex and challenging films like The Fallen Idol, it was also capable of producing films so wedded to the political establishment that hindsight reveals them to be almost indistinguishable from propaganda.

However, while it may be comforting to believe that a mature British film industry would happily churn out films of similar quality to The Fallen Idol, an authentic British film industry would almost certainly give voice to conservative and reactionary feelings that are just as much a part of the British cultural landscape as the desire to ask awkward questions and consider the perspectives of the powerless. While The Fallen Idol may embody everything I’d like to see from a mature British cinema, the opposite side of the dyad would be represented by  Basil Dearden’s The Captive Heart, an elegantly-structured and intelligently scripted film that just so happens to feel like the clarion call of a new British imperialism.

The film opens with footage of injured British soldiers marching through the French and German countrysides. These are the remnants of the British Expeditionary Force and they are destined to spend the rest of the War in a German POW camp. The film introduces us to a variety of different characters, provides them with back stories and then allows us to watch as the men come to terms with both their new situation and the demands placed upon them by their connections back home. As I say in my review, the effect is very reminiscent of the so-called Cosy Catastrophes that dominated British science-fiction in the aftermath of World War II:

Back in 1973, the British author and critic Brian Aldiss argued that British writers like John Wyndham had a nasty habit of depicting the end of the world as a cosy catastrophe in which survival demanded little in the way of hardship, sacrifice or philosophical re-orientation. The classic example of this style of science fiction story is Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids in that, after escaping a London full of man-eating plants, the protagonists settle into a Sussex mansion where tea is drunk, cake is made, and the class system endures. Though somewhat unfair to Wyndham, it is easy to see how the generation that survived World War II might have come to imagine the end of the world in terms of rose gardens turned into veg patches rather than rape, cannibalism and disease. To this day, popular British representations of World War II are far more likely to dwell on ration books and period kitchens than the experiences of men who spent their formative years dodging bullets and climbing over corpses.

The idea that ‘Englishness’ will endure the collapse of civilisation is absolutely central to The Captive Heart. Aside from the fact that all of the various sub-plots involve British people doing British things in a POW camp until they can get back to Britain and continue being British, the film’s primary plot-line involves a man falling in love with Englishness as he falls in love with an English woman:

(Michael) Redgrave’s Czech officer is something of an interstitial figure as his growing love for Mitchell’s widow is skilfully interwoven with a growing love for the English born of their many kindnesses. There’s even a montage of people playing cricket as a voice-over talks about fruit trees coming into bloom in the back garden. The reason The Captive Heart was released so soon after the end of World War II is that Ealing Studios began making it before the war had even ended. This means not only that the film was made without being touched by the realities of war but also that it was made with very little idea as to how England (or indeed Britain) might fit into a post-War Europe. Unsurprisingly, the film resonates with a distinctly imperial mind-set in that English values are shown to be not only eternal and immutable but also exportable to Eastern Europe where tales of English decency and sacrifice would doubtless fill the squares with people desperate to try their hand at cricket. Seen in this light, Michael Redgrave isn’t so much seduced into English as colonised by it.

If I am blurring the line between Englishness and Britishness then it is because the film makes exactly this mistake. Much like Laurence Olivier’s wartime Henry V, Englishness is parlayed into Britishness through the use of loyal Welsh and Scottish subalterns who hint at a broader conception of Britishness only to doff their caps to the English upper-classes.

The Captive Heart is a deeply conservative film and that conservatism is manifest in its abject failure to imagine a future that was not identical to the twenty-years between World War I and World War II. The Captive Heart cannot imagine a world in which Britain isn’t a global player or where Englishness is neither admired nor emulated. Nowadays, people often use the acronym “TINA” to refer to our failure to imagine a world other than that provided by neoliberalism but I think works like The Captive Heart and Day of the Triffids are examples of an older version of TINA whereby people simply could not imagine a world without cricket, empire and an all-encompassing class-system.

 

REVIEW — The Fallen Idol (1948)

November 17, 2015
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This week, circumstances have allowed me to offer you something of a cultural dyad. For years now, British film critics have fetishised British film to the point where the term has become almost meaningless. For some, it means simply British accents and British names on the credits of Hollywood Blockbusters. For others, it means a truly national cinema that speaks to the concerns of the British people in terms that are uniquely theirs. As someone who has grown increasingly pessimistic about the Hollywood machine’s capacity to generate decent films, I favour the latter solution but even I wonder what a mature and deep-rooted British cinema might look like. Would it be Hollywood-lite in the same way as BBC dramas have come to feel like childish and over-eager attempts to appeal to American audiences? Or would it be something much darker and unpleasant? An expression of the fascistic desires and xenophobic tendencies that coarse through the British political bloodstream?

French cinema might be a good form to emulate but French cinema has very noticeably struggled with the urge to be Hollywood-lite and the urge to continue producing respectable grown-up films about middle-class people experiencing some sort of crisis. Don’t get me wrong… I love French populist cinema almost as much as I love films about middle-class French people experiencing crises but I also realise that neither of these models represents the realities of modern France. Another alternative would be to look back to a time when Britain actually had a film industry that was both mature and authentic, which is where this week’s offerings come in.

This week’s first review demonstrates quite how sophisticated post-War British cinema could be. As my review for FilmJuice argues, Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol is an attempt to engage with how children see the world and how their vision of the world is liable to be distorted by grown-ups with vested interests in particular truths. Set amidst the marble palaces of Knightsbridge, the film is about a diplomat’s son who has been left alone with his father’s butler and house-keeper:

At first, Reed forces us to see this reluctant family unit through the eyes of the child meaning that Mrs. Baines comes across as an evil step-mother while Mr. Baines seems like an ideal father. However, as the film progresses and we are allowed to learn a little more about the secondary characters, it becomes clear that the couple’s behaviour towards the child is being driven in part by grown-up problems that Philippe is not equipped to understand. In reality, Mrs. Baines is not so much an ogre as a desperately unhappy woman who is trapped in a loveless marriage to a man who cannot stop lying.

As the narrative unfolds, Philippe’s attempts to protect the interests of his surrogate father are undermined by his own failure to understand either the adult world or what it is that he is actually seeing. The tension between what Philippe believes, what he wants others to believe and what is actually true blossoms into full-grown horror when Philippe mistakenly comes to believe that Mr. Baines has murdered his wife. Interrogated by the police and still desperate to defend his hero, the little boy spins lie after lie and winds up making things a lot worse than they ever needed to be.

 

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The Fallen Idol took me completely be surprise as it seems to be engaged in a very similar exercise to that pursued by Charles Laughton in his classic The Night of The Hunter. However, while Laughton re-constructed the children’s vision of ‘reality’ as filtered through fairy tales, Reed allows the various interpretations of reality to co-exist and sit atop a ‘reality’ that is accessible to the audience but not the characters. This idea of conflicting ‘realities’ battling for dominance is also picked up in the form of characters speaking either figuratively or literally in different languages meaning that even relatively coherent conversations can be engines of disagreement and confusion. The Fallen Idol is a film in which people are forever talking despite being unable to understand each other.

 

 

Suffragette (2015) – Britain’s Radical Soul

November 12, 2015
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It is often said that Britain’s revolution happened too early to make much of a difference. Rather than waiting for the emergence of liberalism (like France and America) or socialism (like Russia and China), Britain deposed an absolute monarch and handed the country to a bourgeois tyrant who opposed universal suffrage on the grounds that it posed a threat to private property. Though somewhat more democratic today than under Cromwell, British political progress has always been constrained by the understanding that radical politics are somehow profoundly un-British. Sure… people take to the streets from time to time but ask the wrong question or allow injustice to anger you for even a second and that very human emotional response will be used against you like a cudgel, or indeed a truncheon.

The British establishment has never been squeamish about using violence to subdue domestic radicals, but it does recognise that some groups are harder to put down than others. Race and religion are still used as a justification for violent repression (as they were in Ireland and in the aftermath of 9/11) but when the radicals start looking a little bit too white and middle-class, the tactics generally shift to smears and mockery. Central to this undertaking has been the re-invention of the British radical as stock comic character.

 

 

The vision of British radicals as comically inept hypocrites informed the 1970s sitcom Citizen Smith. Written by the same man who created Only Fools and Horses, Citizen Smith’s Walter ‘Wolfie’ Smith uses Marxist posturing to conceal the fact that he is little more than an oafish petty criminal content to sponge off of his girlfriend’s family.

 

 

A similar set of ideas is evident in Disney’s Mary Poppins, in which the Character of Mrs. Banks returns home from a Suffragette rally singing about being a soldier. The scene is played for laughs and the implication is that Mrs. Banks is not only an inattentive mother who can’t be bothered to raise her own children but also an upper middle-class hypocrite who plays the radical before returning home to an army of maids, cooks, and nannies paid for by a wealthy husband.

It bothers me that Mrs. Banks is one of the most enduring depictions of a Suffragette in popular culture.

It bothers me that the fight for women’s suffrage was ever deemed a subject worthy of mockery.

It bothers me that Britain’s radical tendencies have been systematically scorned and buried by self-serving cultural elites.

It bothers me that the history of Britain has been re-written but I am delighted that some films are beginning to challenge the idea that Britain lacks a radical spark. Poised somewhere between the transcendentalism of Steve McQueen’s Hunger and the humanism of Chris Morris’ Four Lions, Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette is an exploration of what it would take to turn a normal working-class mum into a revolutionary. Suffragette is a film marked by the stirring of Britain’s radical soul.

 

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