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Draft Ballot 2014 Hugo Awards – The Fiction Categories (Best Novel, Best Short Story, Best Novelette, Best Novella)

March 29, 2014

You can find my other nominations for the 2014 Hugo Awards here:

I left this category till last in an effort to give myself as much research time as possible but in truth, I am as pessimistic about the state of the field as I was this time last year when I struggled to pull together a list of stories and novels that I actually liked. This year, my defeatism was less pronounced in that I did at least try to read the stuff that people were talking about, just without actually enjoying any of it.

My alienation has quite a lot to do with the fact that I’ve used my Interzone columns as an excuse to re-examine how I approach the field and how I form judgements about what it is that I want to read. What I found is that I arrived on the shores of science fiction in search of a very specific affect: I wanted fiction that would peel back the skein of human comfort and expose the true mechanics of the world using a fictional world as its delivery vector. I’m not sure what it is about this desire for a greater understanding of real world events and processes that’s supposed to make me want to read whimsically deconstructed fairy tales, escapist power fantasies and hollow experiments in meta-fiction but I have definitely reached a point where I no longer trust the field to deliver works that I want to read. More on this when I get to the short fiction categories.

NB – As in my other nomination posts, I’ll be putting up links to other nomination posts. People should feel free to link to their posts in the comments but anyone putting themselves forward for ‘consideration’ will have their comments deleted.

Read more…

REVIEW – Fire in the Blood (2013)

March 28, 2014

FitBFilmJuice have my review of Dylan Mohan Gray’s documentary about the pharmaceuticals industry Fire in the Blood.

Since Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine demonstrated the existence of a large potential audience for documentary film, many have tried to use film as a means of raising awareness about particular injustices and so bringing pressure to bear on people with the power to make a difference. The problem with this approach to documentary filmmaking is that if the film becomes merely a means to an end then there is little incentive to put anything in the film other than what is strictly necessary to change minds and win support. As a result, films like Louie Psihoyos’s The Cove and Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me are often little more than rhetorical exercises that manipulate audiences into agreeing with their point of view rather than seeking to educate them about the nature of the world at large.

One of the challenges of documentary filmmaking lies in striking a balance between moral simplicity and emotional accessibility on the one hand and accuracy and educational potential on the other. Often, learning more about the world means losing touch with simple moral principles and realising that even the most hideous atrocities happen as a result of people acting in good faith. In the real world, people do not wear black hats and even if they did, it would probably mean that they were goths.

Dylan Mohan Gray’s documentary opens with a very simple moral equation: Millions of people in the developing world are dying of AIDS but while humanity has the technology to prevent those deaths by using retro-viral drugs to prevent HIV from turning into AIDS, these drugs are under the control of multinational corporations who would rather allow millions to die of preventable diseases than see their profit margins slip. Obviously this is a morally intolerable situation but humanity lacks the political will to nationalise the corporations and bring their resources under the control of institutions with the desire to resolve morally intolerable situations. As a result, the film follows a group of activists as they work to broker a compromise that will allow the morally intolerable situation to be resolved without embracing #fullcommunism. The great thing about this film is that, in seeking to explain why this situation came about, the filmmakers manage to educate their audience while never losing sight of principle. It turns out that the real problem with AIDS in the developing world is not patent law but the obvious corruption and cowardice of Western governments.

Turns out some complex truths are morally simple after all…

REVIEW – White of the Eye (1987)

March 27, 2014

WhiteoftheEyeFilmJuice have my review of Donald Cammell’s thriller White of the Eye.

Donald Cammell is arguably best known for his first film Performance in which an east end geezer moves in with a jaded rock star and loses his values and identity in a world of sex, drugs and faded Edwardian interiors. Set in small town Arizona, White of the Eye could not be more different in so far as it conceals its artistic intentions beneath a thick genre glaze. The glaze in question is that a serial killer is moving from house to house murdering wealthy attractive women. Hired by the husbands of wealthy attractive women to install expensive sound systems, the film’s protagonist is sucked into the investigation despite his claims of innocent. Rather than following this narrative line in a conventional manner, Cammell slows things down to a crawl and begins to explore the protagonist’s history and relationships in exquisitely stylised detail:

Cammell’s film opens on a montage that feels like a dozen 1980s music videos crammed into a pot and reduced down to an inky sludge. Hints of ZZ Top collide with notes of Duran Duran as red wine splashes across tiles, blood arcs through the air and eyes are drawn to stocking-clad legs, pastel interiors and improbably geometric patterns. If, as Marianne Faithful once said, Performance took 1960s Chelsea and placed it under glass, White of the Eye takes the surface gloss of 1980s MTV and turns it into a living, breathing, bleeding world.

While the film itself is pretty damn fine, I was amused by the fact that the documentary included on the disc about Cammell made him seem like a complete and utter cock as it spends well over an hour talking about how much he enjoyed hanging about with aristocrats having loads of sex and taking loads of drugs. I appreciate that this might well have seemed incredibly transgressive and important to people in the 1960s but nowadays it just sounds like the Bullingdon club on spring break.

REVIEW – White Dog (1982)

March 24, 2014

WhiteDogFilmJuice have my review of the recent Masters of Cinema release of Samuel Fuller’s racially-themed horror film White Dog.

Cutting to the chase, I really enjoyed this film. Set on the margins of Hollywood, the film tells of an actress who happens to run over a beautiful white Alsatian dog. Forced to take responsibility to the animal after taking it to the vet, the actress nurses it back to health and has all of her care and attention redeemed when the animal protects her from a rapist who breaks into her home. Fuller shoots the dog at night using spotlights that reflect against the whiteness of the fur but not the background meaning that the dog appears to glow in an almost spectral fashion. The otherwordliness of the dog is put to brilliant use when it escapes the actress’s yard and begins attacking black people: The pure white dog devouring black people and covering itself in blood is as striking and troubling an image of racism as you could possibly imagine. Part of what makes these images so troubling is the fact that they could just as easily have been inserted into a film about a heroic white dog that eats evil black people. However, to look upon these scenes as racist or problematic is to ignore the wider context of the film and how the film is really about trying to cure racism:

Fuller intends the dog (tellingly referred to as ‘Mr Hyde’) to serve as a metaphorical representation of human racism and, to a certain extent, he does: One point the film repeatedly makes is that there is nothing ‘natural’ about the dog’s hatred of black people; his fear and hatred were deliberately engineered by people who wanted to use his savagery as a tool of racial segregation and oppression. Another point the film makes is that the techniques required to train a racist dog were pioneered in the days of slavery when plantation owners had a vested interest in keeping vicious attack dogs that would happily kill a black person but never think to harm a white person. These two ideas certainly mesh with contemporary thoughts on social justice and they make a very interesting point about how the racist attitudes that continue to be perpetuated today originated in a time when extreme and dehumanising patterns of racist thought underpinned an entire economic system. Fuller’s metaphorical racist dog also represents how difficult it can be to wean oneself away from racist thought and how some attitudes can be so deeply engrained that unravelling them is tantamount to unravelling an entire personality. However, Fuller’s metaphor only goes so far.

While I think that Fuller’s position is somewhat outdated (one of the first things you learn about social justice is that it’s a white person’s duty to educate themselves and not to be ‘saved’ by black and minority ethnic people) I don’t think it’s racist. In fact, I think that White Dog is a thoughtful and intellectually intense film that tries to grapple with a huge and incredibly different problem. What I don’t understand is the logic of using an intensely problematic piece of fiction as a springboard for that engagement.

White Dog is based on a book by the French novelist Romain Gary which tells the semi-autobiographical story of a dog who has been trained to attack black people on sight. As in the film, a black animal trainer steps in and tries to cure the animal but rather than getting rid of the animal’s murderous urges entirely, the trainer simply reprograms the animal to attack white people instead. As I explain in the review, Gary intended this as a critique of civil rights activists who, in his opinion, were training people to be ‘intolerant of intolerance’. From J. Hoberman’s interesting piece about the film:

Gary and his then wife, actress Jean Seberg, find a stray German shepherd that, they soon discover, has been raised to attack black people on sight. Although told that the dog is too old to be deconditioned, they turn him over to an animal trainer who turns out to be a Black Muslim and vengefully reprograms the creature to maul whites—including, at the book’s climax, Gary himself. (Some of the vengeance in this “found” allegory belongs to the author: Gary disapproved of his wife’s public support of the Black Panther Party, a political stance that put her under FBI investigation.)

This attempt to set up an equivalence between systemic white racism and angry reaction to that racist system will be familiar to anyone who remembers the much-lamented Derailing For Dummies site as the ‘You’re As Bad as They Are!’ defence:

Because they’re angry about the treatment they undergo and because they are aggressive and persistent in wanting to see change happen, you can target this behaviour (remembering that it is unseemly for Marginalised People™ – they’re supposed to set an example at all times by being humble and long suffering) by suggesting it puts them on a par with the people and system that stigmatise, ostracise and target them every second of every day of their lives. This also suggests that reacting to such discrimination is totally unreasonable and out of proportion (they should just take their knocks!) and that has the benefit of indicating your ignorance to just how pervasive and constant this discrimination truly is.

Thankfully, Fuller does not follow Gary down that particular political rabbit hole but it I can’t imagine anyone wanting to base a contemporary critique of racism on a book that suggests black civil rights activists are morally equivalent to people who train their animals to attack black people on sight.

 

 

Future Interrupted – Three

March 19, 2014

251IZIssue 251 of Interzone is now out in the world. The March-April 2014 issue boasts stories by Greg Kurzawa Tracie Welser, John Grant, Karl Bunker, Suzanne Palmer and BSFA Award-nominee Gareth L. Powell. However, while many genre magazines are quite content to focus all of their energies on short fiction, IZ manages to provide not only excellent fiction but also the finest dead tree science fiction magazine in the world today. Aside from the usual columns by David Langford and Tony Lee, issue 251 also includes a wonderfully pugnacious interview of Simon Ings by the legendary Paul Kincaid. There’s also a withering dissection of Joanne M. Harris’ The Gospel of Loki by Maureen Kincaid Speller and an uproariously puzzled and uncharitable review of Peter Watts’ short story collection Beyond the Rift by Jo L. Walton. This issue also includes my column about reclaiming the lost potential of science fiction’s golden age but the real stand out (as always) is Nick Lowe’s film column mutant popcorn. I was lucky enough to interview Nick Lowe for the 25th anniversary of Mutant Popcorn and I am still inevitably humbled by the depth of his insight and the sharpness of his wit. Just read the opening to this week’s column and tell me that Nick Lowe is not one of the finest film critics of all time:

Can we love what is not human? Will we? Should we? Must we? In a sense, we already do. Film is all about seducing us into loving the unreal, the dead, the Maschinenmensch, using our cognitive overspill to project on to the faces of the stars the illusion of inner life and being, as our hyperactive theory of mind already does for animals, toys, machines, and gods. But a singularity is approaching, where our relationships with imaginary friends outstrip our dwindling power to interact with living minds; where the worlds on our screens become more involving than the lives we inhabit and share, and our repertoire of affect dwindles as we fixate on ever more tailored and appealing simulations.

They say that you should kill your idols, but I’d rather read their opinions about films.

Speaking of opinions, here is my third Future Interrupted column. Titled “An Eternal and Meaningless Now”, the column asks what we might reasonably expect from representations of the future and how, rather than falling into the old trap of treating the future as a version of the past that includes rocket ships, why not consider making the future look like the present? A mess of disconnected and degraded images.

Read more…

Draft Hugo Ballot 2014 – The Media Categories (Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form), Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form), Best Related, Best Graphic Story)

March 17, 2014

You can find my other nominations for the 2014 Hugo Awards here:

Reading through the various draft ballots and recommendation posts, I am struck by the extent to which engagement with the Hugo Awards has come to fixate upon administrative matters. Almost every post about the Hugos comes with an introduction or companion piece discussing how the awards might be ‘fixed’ by ditching some categories, adding others and redrafting those that remain. Are these administrative matters really more interesting than the works themselves? I find it interesting that aesthetic disagreement is now so impolitic that people are more comfortable discussing bureaucratic guidelines than they are works of science fiction and I include myself in that assessment.

I mention this as I don’t actually have a problem with any of the media categories. I do think that a ‘Best Film’ Hugo would look better than a ‘Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form)’ Hugo but I’m happy with the neologism in so far as it does allow for genre mini-series and plays in a way that a ‘Best Film’ Hugo would not. Similarly, the ‘Best Graphic Story’ Hugo has been criticised for its failure to reflect the fact that comics come out as individual issues that form arcs which are then re-released as trade paperbacks thereby giving voters three confusing windows of nomination but (teething problems aside) I’m happy to let voters sort these types of problems out for themselves and I suspect the award will settle down into a Best Trade Paperback award given enough time and discussion. Nor do I have a problem with the fact that the winners of these awards neither show up to collect their awards nor seem to give that much of a shit about winning; popular awards are as much for the people doing the nominating as the people doing the winning and I think that having very visible awards for non-literary SF is a great way of reminding people that SF is no longer the sole-preserve of books and short fiction.

NB – As in my other nomination posts, I’ll be putting up links to other nomination posts. People should feel free to link to their posts in the comments but anyone putting themselves forward for ‘consideration’ will have their comments deleted.

Read more…

REVIEW – Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

March 4, 2014

phantom posterFilmJuice have my review of Brian De Palma’s rock opera Phantom of the Paradise. I was not impressed.

Made in the coke-bloat years of prog rock, this musical mashes up Faust and Phantom of the Opera to produce a weirdy-beardy story about a composer who is lured into cooperating with a sinister record producer only for the sinister record producer to betray him, steal his music, get him thrown in jail and eventually try to wall him up in a room in his enormous house. Visually, the film is extraordinary as De Palma makes great use of then-emerging video editing technologies to produce all kinds of split-screen and other effects. My problem was with every other aspect of the film:

Originally a dutiful student of the French New Wave, Brian De Palma soon migrated towards populist films with a hint of artificiality: Carrie and The Fury mused over psychic powers while thrillers such as Body Double and Dressed to Kill obsessed over the appearance of female bodies before hacking them to pieces. Best known for his gangster epics Scarface, The Untouchables and Carlito’s Way, De Palma instinctively understood the swaggering pretence of the American hoodlum and how sharp suits and theatrical yelling are a neat way of masking a predator’s scent. Indeed, no film better encapsulates Brian De Palma’s strengths and weaknesses than his much-underrated reboot of the Mission: Impossible franchise: Expensive, slick and entirely populated by people pretending to be someone else, M:I is far more interested in the elegant imitation of humanity than humanity itself. True to form, De Palma’s early rock opera Phantom of the Paradise is obsessed with masks, illusions and pastiches but offers nothing in the way of emotional reality.

As a satire of the music industry, this is pretty toothless stuff not least because while De Palma is quick to point fingers at the excesses of the prog rock era, his proposed solution to the excess is an operatic rock ‘cantata’ based on the legend of Faust. As I said in my review, this is precisely the kind of portentous rubbish that punk set out to destroy and it’s very difficult for a satire to function when the ‘disease’ and ‘cure’ seem equally bad.

The more pressing problem is that the music is almost entirely hideous. Written and mostly performed by the jowly-voiced Paul Williams (of Bugsy Malone fame) this supposed ‘rock opera’ is neither musically complex enough to be operatic nor raw enough to be rock. In effect, this is pompous music theatre with additional cod-pieces. The pastiches are mildly interesting as they do sound quite a bit like the bands they’re supposed to be pastiches of but the songs themselves are neither satirical nor particularly memorable meaning that this vicious attack on soulless nostalgia is itself nothing more an exercise in soulless nostalgia. Watching this, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Dead Kennedys’s “M.T.V. – Get off the air”.

This film has evidently acquired something of a cult following as the re-release comes with a selection of interviews and extras that seems wildly out of proportion with a flabby and emotionally hollow rock opera from the 1970s. However, as is often the case in these types of situations, the interviews unwittingly reveal quite a bit about the flaws in the production process as much like the Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa DVD revealed Steve Coogan’s willingness to work without a finished script and openly countermand the wishes of the director, the interviews included on the DVD reveal Paul Williams to be just as egomaniacal and unsettling as his onscreen counterpart.

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