Issue #257 of Interzone is now a thing in the world: Subscribers will have received their copies while non-subscribers have been left to experience its absence, like an amputated limb or a press-ganged lover. As ever, physical subscriptions are available via the TTA Press website and digital subscriptions can be found on Smashwords. Buy it for the fiction… buy it for the non-fiction… buy it because it is almost certainly the only genre magazine published this year to feature an astronaut with an albatross strapped to his chest.
This month’s issue contains some really interesting work, including:
- “Songbird” by Fadzlishah Johanabas
- “Brainwhales are Stoners, Too” by Rich Larson
- “The Worshipful Company of Milliners” by Tendai Huchu
- “Blossoms Falling Down” by Aliya Whiteley
I say ‘including’ as the cover story is “A Murmuration” by Alastair Reynolds. I think this is the best thing that Al Reynolds has written since Revelation Space. Ostensibly a hard science-fiction story about bird-watching, “A Murmuration” is also a study of professional obsession, isolation and creeping madness. Much like Ian Sales’ BSFA Award-winning novella Adrift on the Sea of Rains, Reynolds fills the foreground of the story with lots of detailed scientific ideas only to then hint at what is actually going on behind the infodump. Sales beat his readers over the head with NASA acronyms and maintenance procedures in a way that hid his protagonist’s growing madness, Reynolds does something very similar here with a scientist who is trying to publish a paper that models avian group dynamics only to find himself getting more and more obsessed with the paper’s referee while the experiment spins wildly out of control. As with Adrift on the Sea of Rains, there’s something intensely satisfying about stories that combine the subtlety of art house film with the directness of hard SF and it’s a real pleasure to see Al Reynolds exploring that particular literary space.
Issue #257 also includes interviews with Helen Marshall and Aliya Whiteley as well as the usual columns by Nina Allan, Nick Lowe, Tony Lee and yours truly. I won’t spoil this month’s column for those of you who aren’t subscribers but it does include the line “Science fiction could stand to learn a lot from Malcolm McLaren”. Anyway, enough of the new stuff and on with the old stuff! Unlike many of these columns, this month’s is dated by my decision to write about a film that happened to be in the cinemas at the time of writing… so please excuse my apparent inability to tell the difference between Summer 2014 and Spring 2015. The curious may be interested to know that I expanded my views on the Marvel Cinematic Universe while posting my review of Ari Folman’s The Congress.
FilmJuice have my review of Norman Jewison’s iconic 1970s science fiction film Rollerball, which has just been re-released on Blu-ray. When my editor at FilmJuice approached me to write about Rollerball I was initially a bit reluctant… I first saw Rollerball at the age of six because I was named for the film’s protagonist and my mother couldn’t be bothered to provide me with boundaries. In fact, I actually saw Rollerball a number of years before I first saw Star Wars and I remember being puzzled by the latter’s lack of blood. Where was the scene in which Luke wrenched off a Storm-trooper’s helmet and punched him in the back of the head with a spiked glove? I watched Rollerball so frequently as a child that I wound up committing huge sections of the film to memory at least a decade before acquiring the emotional and conceptual apparatus to understand what the film was actually about. I was reluctant to take this reviewing gig as I have never before written about Rollerball and was a bit concerned that the suck fairy might have gotten to it… Thankfully, while the film turns out to be something of a thematic mess, it more than stands up to critical scrutiny:
The 1970s was a time when science fiction was enjoying a moment of rare literary respectability. The collapse of the pulp magazines had forced the genre’s writers to shift closer to the literary mainstream and the institutions comprising that mainstream had rewarded this cultural obeisance with a market for short fiction that spilled from the pages of glossy magazines and out into the Hollywood hills. Perhaps sensing that science fiction was a genre on the up, [director Norman] Jewison secured the rights to a short story that had appeared in the pages of Esquire magazine and hired the author William Harrison to provide him with a screenplay. Despite Jewison having no experience directing action and Harrison having never before written for film, the pair managed to produce one of the most bewildering and influential works of 1970s science fiction.
The reason I call the film bewildering is that while the action sequences remain viscerally potent and brilliantly conceived, the quiet stuff surrounding them turns out to be more than a little bit confused. The problem is that while the film is based on a short story, Harrison’s story is all about how the unexamined life is not worth living. In the story “Roller Ball Murder”, Jonathan E is an exquisite physical specimen who has been raised to the peak of physical fitness and celebrated for his athletic prowess. However, as time passes and the game becomes more violent, Jonathan begins to wonder whether there might not just be a little bit more to life than victory, accolades, drugs and sex. Doubting his vocation, the big lump tries to educate himself about history and philosophy only to realise that the government has destroyed all the books. Now… while the director of Fiddler on the Roof would have had his pick of new projects, it is unlikely that even 1970s Hollywood would have helped to fund a science fiction sports film about the lack of spiritual sustenance to be had from a hedonistic lifestyle. As a result, Harrison and Jewison ditched the story’s Platonic theme in favour of well… a number of different themes:
Inexperienced as a screen-writer and forced to come up with a new motivation for his character, Harrison threw everything but the kitchen sink at his script in an effort to provide Jonathan with a set of motives that were both primal enough to be relatable and high-minded enough to give the film thematic heft. This resulted in a protagonist whose act of rebellion feels so hopelessly over-determined as to be effectively meaningless: Apparently Jonathan E is angry with the people who broke up his marriage, and looking to avenge the death of his friend, and start a rebellion, and embody the kind of radical individualism that is supposed to pose an existential threat to corporate governance.
Rollerball is a hugely influential film that inspired not only Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games but also the flood of YA dystopias that followed in its wake. At first glance, this influence is rather shallow as both Rollerball and The Hunger Games are set in dystopian futures where governments use bloodsports to keep their oppressed populations in line. However, look beyond the surface tropes and you will notice that both Rollerball and The Hunger Games are in the business of presenting small acts of athletic disobedience as the birth of revolutionary subjectivities that pose an existential threat to their respective societies:
- Jonathan E doesn’t want to retire, this forces his government to change the rules of the game and marks him as a threat.
- Katniss Everdeen would rather not kill her fellow tribune, this forces her government to change the rules of the game and marks her as a threat.
In order to make this act of thematic inflation stick, both Rollerball and The Hunger Games blur the boundaries between the political and the personal to produce a weird thematic mess that is both a literal description of an athlete who becomes a political rebel and a weirdly metaphorical treatment of both individualism and the similarities between becoming an adult and acquiring political agency. The big difference between Rollerball and The Hunger Games is that while Rollerball ends with that moment of individualistic awakening, The Hunger Games goes on for several more books and films exploring the athlete’s political career.
Another way in which Rollerball influenced The Hunger Games is that while both films rush to adopt revolutionary postures, their critiques of despotism are both completely toothless.
Despite pre-empting the idea of corporate rule that featured so prominently in Sidney Lumet and Paddy Cayefsky’s Network, Rollerball really struggles to imagine what corporate rule might look like and how it might be undone. Consider the memorable speech from Network in which Ned Beatty proclaims that “the world is a business”:
It is easy to imagine Rollerball as a film set in the post-national future that Ned Beatty describes but rather than a vast homeostatic system in which unfettered capital flows from one side of the world to another, Rollerball has a set of neatly-ordered monopolies in which the corporations no longer even bother to compete. In fact, the film even goes so far as to suggest that money is no longer an issue as there is no poverty or talk of wages and Jonathan gets his luxuries with the help of something called a ‘privilege card’. Also deeply weird is the idea that the game of Rollerball was designed to highlight the futility of individual effort and that Jonathan E’s rugged individualism poses some sort of threat to corporate hegemony.
The truth is that while Rollerball may present itself as an anti-corporate film, the system it critiques is actually much closer to Communism with its planned economy, institutional monopolies and rule by elusive grey-faced men. Rugged individualism will always pose a threat to the vision of Communism that existed in American minds for much of the Cold War but as everything from the Premier League to the NBA will tell you; when the people love an athlete and the athlete breaks the law, corporations will always look the other way.
Revisiting Rollerball as a critic did not exactly undermine my childhood love of the film but it did suggest that I wasn’t really missing very much when I failed to connect with the quiet talky bits. Those action sequences are amazing and the film continues to look great but when it comes to political critique, the film is much closer to The Hunger Games than it is to Network or the paranoid Hollywood cinema of the 1970s.
FilmJuice have my review of Wladyslaw Pasikowski’s historical espionage thriller Jack Strong, which is out in the UK on Monday. Set during the final decades of the Cold War, the film tells the story of a real-life Polish officer who came to realise that the Soviet Union would quite happily turn Poland into a radioactive wasteland if it meant protecting themselves from a Western invasion. Thus, rather than remaining loyal to his military command and working with the Soviets to defeat the West, he began sharing Polish and Soviet military secrets with the Americans in the hope of averting war. Aside from being a technically-accomplished thriller with bags of tension and some lovely set pieces, the film also goes out of its way to explore not only the historical context that informed the officer’s decision the spy for the Americans, it also spends quite a lot of time building up the characters in order to ensure that every act of betrayal has a personal edge:
The grit in the story also extends to the film’s treatment of Kuklinski’s home life as his teenaged son Bogdan comes to reject his family’s military heritage in order to embrace the kind of dissident political tendencies that would eventually result in the formation of the famous Solidarity movement. Bogdan is trapped between an intense love for his father and an intense hatred for the authoritarianism that his father’s job represents, this eventually leads him first to drink and then to drugs setting up some wonderful scenes in which Kuklinski is forced to confront his son about ideals that he secretly shares. In fact, one could easily read Bogdan as a manifestation of Kuklinski’s tortured conscience as well as the fear and self-disgust that grows within him as the film progresses.
Jack Strong reminded me of why I used to love spy films and why I no longer do. I have two main problems with the espionage genre:
Firstly, the number of spy films coming out of the English-speaking world seems to have increased exponentially since 9/11. Aside from successful franchises such as the Bond, Red and Mission Impossible films, we have ‘historical’ spy films such as Zero Dark Thirty, Fair Game and Argo as well as action-based spy films like Hanna, Haywire and Safe House.The popularity of espionage tropes is even blurring genre boundaries as TV procedurals such as Elementary and Sherlock seem to have gone out of their way to include espionage elements and that’s without mentioning the fact that superhero films and TV series make extensive use of espionage tropes in an effort to make their costumed antics seem more grounded and real. Espionage tropes are now so ubiquitous and over-exploited that their presence in a film or TV series often feels like an admission of intellectual bankruptcy.
Secondly, when espionage elements do turn up in contemporary films and TV series, they usually take the form of power fantasies. ‘Power fantasy’ is often associated with texts in which a character is imbued with super-human powers giving them a degree of agency to which the audience could only ever aspire. A textbook example of this type of power fantasy is the scene in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man in which the freshly-empowered Peter Parker beats and humiliates a high-school bully. However, while power fantasies are usually associated with agency-giving powers like flight or super-strength, they can also be associated with characters having the capacity to see the world in much simpler terms than people in the real world. Espionage thrillers often feature these types of knowledge fantasy in that they replace complex political issues with simple moral dichotomies in which it is relatively easy to know ‘right’ from ‘wrong’. In some cases, the knowledge fantasy even extends as far as having the evil-doers be instantly recognisable thanks to their physical characteristics and it is in this shared fantasy of recognition that the espionage and superhero genres meet.
What makes me uncomfortable about a lot of contemporary spy stories is the way that they apply these fantasies of knowledge to real-world political problems in an effort to make the film or TV series seem more ‘realistic’. The reason that real-world political problems prove intractable is that it is often almost completely impossible to determine which is the ‘right’ side of a particular issue. Taking real-world problems and reducing them down to simple moral dichotomies is not only supremely unrealistic, it is also intensely problematic as it means not only demonising the people who happen to be on the receiving end of popular fears, it also encourages the fear by suggesting that audiences are right to be terrified of particular groups. For example, one of the most egregiously right-wing TV series in recent memory is Homeland, a series that suggests Al Qaeda not only have the power to infiltrate the CIA but also to ‘turn’ American soldiers into double agents. Eager to continue feeding on popular fears, later series of Homeland appear to have switched from fantasising about an all-powerful Al Qaeda to fantasising about the supremely competent and ruthless Iranian intelligence services.
Jack Strong is just as much of a knowledge fantasy as any contemporary spy film as it not only assumes that the Soviet Union would have abandoned its satellite nations, it also glosses over the fact that America would almost certainly have proved equally reluctant to defend European cities with nuclear weapons if it meant endangering US cities. However, the fact that the film dealt with ‘historic’ issues rather than contemporary ones served to make its knowledge fantasies seem less grating and Pasikowski further attenuated the political elements of his story by stressing the human dimension not only of the character’s decision to become a traitor but also of his on-going attempts to remain hidden from people within his own government and military hierarchy. Jack Strong appealed to me because, unlike many spy films, it never forgets that complex political problems have their roots in complex political humans. Films that reduce real-world problems to simple moral dichotomies are nothing more than the latest generation of war-time propaganda.
The films of Asghar Farhadi form an interesting counterpoint to the films of Joanna Hogg, which I wrote about last week. While both directors are fascinated by the way that group dynamics can impact upon our emotional lives, Hogg’s career has seen her transition from the emotional opacity of formalism to the conceptual opacity of surrealism while Farhadi’s relentless pursuit of emotional truth frequently has him brushing up against melodrama as he did with the magnificent Oscar-winning family drama A Separation.
There can be no greater validation of cinematic art than two directors approaching the same subject matter in radically different ways and yet somehow managing to produce works that feel as natural as they are satisfying. It is easy (and exciting) to imagine Joanna Hogg dancing round the question of who was responsible for the miscarriage in A Separation while Asghar Farhadi would arrive on Archipelago’s Scilly isles and refuse to let go until everyone came clean about what it was that was making them unhappy.
There’s a wonderful moment in the British situation comedy Peep Show when the emotionally constipated Mark Corrigan is confronted by a sister who wants to discuss their traumatic childhood prompting Mark to lament that the people who want to talk always seem to win. Asghar Farhadi’s latest film The Past is sympathetic to both sides of Mark’s observation: Yes… the people wanting to talk usually get their way and No… this isn’t always for the best.
FilmJuice have my review of Richard Laxton’s Effie Gray, a biopic dealing with the disastrous marriage between Euphemia ‘Effie’ Gray and the eminent Victorian art critic John Ruskin. Like many of the books, plays and films that have dealt with doomed marriage, Laxton’s film lays the blame squarely on Ruskin’s refusal to consummate the marriage while an ambitious script by the actress Emma Thompson tries to account for his reluctance in terms of Victorian society’s ambient sexism. This film has something of a troubled history as while it was completed over two years ago, two separate (and ultimately groundless) plagiarism cases prevented the film’s release. When the film did finally limp onto British cinema screens, it did so on the same weekend as Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner (a film that also featured the couple) and without the support of Thompson who refused to do any publicity for the film despite both writing it and appearing in it. While it may be a bit gauche to speculate as to why Emma Thompson would refuse to do any publicity for a film she once considered an intensely personal project, I think it has something to do with the fact that Laxton really seems to struggle with the film’s feminist themes:
The real tragedy here is that while Thompson’s script may try to tell the story of a feminist icon, the man employed to turn that script into a film took his cues from John Ruskin and contented himself with a sexless doll.
The problem is that the script and the film are pulling in opposite directions. Things start off quite well as Thompson’s script and Laxton’s direction combine quite well to expose the everyday sexism of Victorian society. Unfortunately, when asked to turn this social analysis into a psychological explanation for Ruskin’s refusal to have sex with his wife, the film dithers and slithers and winds up not saying anything at all. The reason for this failure of characterisation is that while Laxton wanted to make a film about Ruskin, the script is actually about Gray and so it is quite content to voice a few ideas about Ruskin before moving onto the meat of the film: Effie’s experiences in a loveless marriage and how she found the agency required to take control of her own life. In fairness to Laxton, Thompson’s script really does not give Dakota Fanning a huge amount to work with but a director who was sensitive to Thompson’s aims would have realised that Effie’s character lay not so much in what she did and did not say but in how she felt while she was saying it. A sympathetic director would have encouraged Fanning to create an Effie Gray who was visibly constrained and ill-at-ease with the society she inhabited but instead we are given an Effie who is almost hypnotically passive… a beautiful china doll in need of nothing more than a good fuck and a house to keep.
As my score of 2 out of 5 would suggest, I did not enjoy Laxton’s Effie Gray but my lack of enjoyment stemmed more from my intense feelings of frustration at what an awesome film this could have been if either the script or the director had been allowed to take precedence:
- A director sympathetic to Thompson’s script would have kept the focus on Effie and realised that the final act was actually the climax in a series of social confrontations that began on the day that Effie arrived at Ruskin’s family home. The film’s final act feels a lot like a thriller with Effie sneaking around to meet doctors and lawyers under the noses of her family and a sympathetic director might have taken this ending as a cue to turn Thompson’s script into a social thriller comparable to Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White where an intelligent and ambitious young woman finds herself fighting for freedom against villainous men and matriarchs who are supported by a set of social attitudes that are designed to break women on the wheel and turn them into objects. All of those scenes in which Effie clashes with older women should have been tiny battles of wit rather than acts of one-sided oppression!
- A screenwriter sympathetic to Laxton’s interest in Ruskin might have connected with the character’s humanity, taken his asexuality at face value and dealt with how it must have felt to be asexual when both your wife and your entire society expect you to be sexually active. If we do assume that Ruskin was asexual then Thompson’s suggestion that he was some kind of incestuous misogynist with a fondness for young girls is nothing short of monstrous. Even if a script didn’t assume that Ruskin was naturally asexual, it could still explore the links between his refusal to consummate his own marriage with his parents’ tendency to treat him as a child. Alternately, one could argue that Ruskin was simply an introverted and cerebral man who was far more comfortable treating love as an abstract concept than as a physical action.
So I guess what I am really saying is that while I found Ruskin and Gray’s marriage to be a really fascinating subject, I was not impressed by Thompson and Laxton’s take on it.
Joanna Hogg is one of the most exciting film directors working in Britain today. A graduate of the National Film and Television School, Hogg spent the 1990s working in British television on series such as Casualty, London’s Burning and an Eastenders spin-off exploring the wartime exploits of a young Dot Cotton. While a decade behind the cameras of soap operas and disposable dramas does not usually herald the arrival of a major directing talent, it is worth remembering that British soap operas have a long history of social realism meaning that every year Hogg spent on Casualty and London’s Burning was a year in which she got better at observing people and the worlds they inhabit.
Hogg’s eye for social rituals and group dynamics was evident even in her debut feature Unrelated. The film revolves around a woman who joins her friends on holiday as an excuse to spend some time away from her partner. Upon arriving in Italy, the woman finds herself in a house that is already split down the middle along generational lines and decides to hang out with her friends’ hedonistic teenaged children rather than the people she came to visit. This yields a splendid holiday until a failed attempt at seduction sends the woman scurrying back to the grown-up side of the house and the grown-up life she left in Britain. While Unrelated is a recognisably British film about recognisably British characters who behave in a recognisably British way, the film’s treatment of its subject matter evokes European rather than British cinema. Aside from a southern climate and an interest in middle-aged sexuality that recalls works like Ozon’s Swimming Pool, Unrelated is defined by its emotional ambiguities and a fondness for long dialogue-free scenes and palate-cleansing landscape photography that are common in European cinema but almost entirely absent from British film.
Much like Unrelated, Hogg’s Archipelago is best understood as an attempt to explore the products of British social realism using the language of French art house drama. However, where Hogg’s first film seemed to go out of its way to retain such European topoi as sun-drenched holiday homes and illicit affairs, her second film is far more recognisably British thanks to its focus on wind-blasted landscapes and awkward family holidays. Shot on the isles of Scilly off the South-West coast of Cornwall, Archipelago features a pair of grown-up children who decide to go on holiday with their mother. The family’s unhappiness is manifest right from the start as disagreements escalate into arguments with a speed that suggests the presence of unaddressed problems. However, despite numerous elephants in the room, the family never sit down to discuss their feelings… they simply evade and deflect them by choosing to blow up over ridiculous things such as choice of bathroom and whether or not a piece of food has been properly cooked. Elegantly reserved when it comes to its characters’ actual inner lives, Archipelago is a magnificent study of the British middle-classes and how taboos surrounding direct confrontation and talking about one’s feelings have encouraged people to become emotionally self-contained. The film suggests that while this system of self-containment may be completely unreliable, it is supported by a cultural tolerance of passive-aggressive venting and the kind of extreme emotional projection that would probably be regarded as psychotic in a more emotionally-expansive culture. Like Unrelated, Archipelago explores these ideas in a quintessentially European manner by forcing the audience to observe only to then pull back and provide them with evocative imagery that will encourage them to draw their own conclusions about the things they have just been shown. This willingness to use European cinematic techniques to explore British emotional landscapes not only made for an incredibly fresh cinematic experience, it also served as a timely reminder of how staid, unadventurous and lacking in diversity European art house film can be.
Archipelago is not only a perfect fusion of British social realism and European cinematic vocabulary but also the completion of an experimental journey that began with Unrelated. This posed an interesting question: if Archipelago was everything that Unrelated wanted to be, where would their director go next?
Joanna Hogg’s third film Exhibition is also her most ambitious. Like its predecessors, the film uses a European cinematic vocabulary to explore the emotional dynamics of British middle-class life. However, whereas Unrelated and Archipelago both revolved around relatable characters who were really quite easy to understand, Exhibition concerns itself with a couple whose inner lives are so bizarre and complex that they can only be expressed artistically.