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Thought Projectors 2

May 10, 2016

I’m still not intending to make this into a regular feature but my level of engagement grows with the hours of sunlight and so I find myself accumulating and thinking about more things than usual.

The great disappointment of last week was the cancellation of my photography class. I started thinking more seriously about photography last year when I realised that taking photos is actually a pretty good justification for getting out of the house, breaking new ground, exploring new places, and generally looking at the world in new ways. I am yet to acquire the urge to share my photos with the general public and I definitely do not want to get sucked into writing about photography as that would turn my New Thing into yet another facet of my Old Thing. This being said, I have begun to notice the way that my personality intersects with the photos I choose to take: Photos of storm-tossed skies, desolate beaches, and ruined houses are pure love while photos of people on the street or models posing for me in a studio are raw terror. People are far more decorative when they’re specks on the horizon.

Anyway, here are some of the things that have been occupying my mind since the last time I posted one of these things…


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California Trilogy (2011) – Being Forever on Alert

May 5, 2016

I like to think of criticism as the art of reaction. The most common form of criticism is the review, a format that limits the critic’s powers to remaining in synch with their audience and explaining whether or not a film or book is likely to prove pleasing to said audience. Another common format is the academic article in which the critic’s powers are limited to discussing a particular work of art in terms of a finite body of theoretical literature.

While these may be the most recognised forms of criticism, critics can articulate their reactions in terms broader than either audience expectation or academic dialogue. At the root, criticism is all about voicing one’s reaction to a particular work of art and explaining the connections that were forged between the work you saw and the memories you have. Little wonder that popular criticism is starting to feature more autobiographical elements: What connection could possibly be more primal than the moment in which a work of art tells you something about yourself?

As someone who has produced a lot of criticism over the years, I find myself drawn to works of art that give me more room to elaborate my own reactions. Some works are well-curated and well-structured articulations of particular ideas that will speak directly to my favoured concerns but others are more elusive and so demand considerably more of me as a critic: The less obvious the connection, the more satisfying its articulation.

James Benning is a filmmaker I had not been aware of until Ian Sales recommended him to me. Born in 1942 and originally trained as a mathematician, Benning returned to university in his 30s before landing a job teaching film. While Benning’s work has been turning heads since at least the 1970s, he appears to have supported himself primarily through teaching and so has been quite adamant in his refusal to chase funding by doing what the film industry expects of its professional filmmakers. Until recently, Benning’s refusal to compromise even extended as far as a flat refusal to allow his films to be seen outside of proper cinemas. In fact, the only reason he stopped working with 16mm film is that the film stock was no longer being manufactured. In a 2012 essay explaining the decision to allow his films to appear on DVD, Benning said:

I’m getting older. It’s easier to give in.

In other words, Benning is a director who is extremely (some might say excessively) reluctant to accommodate his audience. This much was evident from the formal characteristics of the films themselves.

California Trilogy comprises three films about the state of California. The films are all just under ninety minutes long and are all made up of thirty five shots that are all two and a half minutes long. The camera never moves and – according to Benning – none of the shots were staged… Benning simply set up his camera, recorded chunks of Californian space-time, and stitched them together to produce three beautiful and enigmatic works of cinematic art.


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[SOR] Nalo Hopkinson’s “The Glass Bottle Trick”

May 3, 2016

I noted with interest that while this is no less than the sixth time that “The Glass Bottle Trick” has appeared in a magazine or anthology, it first appeared in a book called Whispers from the Cotton Tree Root: Caribbean Fabulist Fiction.

I must admit that these types of themed anthology rather set my teeth on edge as they often struggle to negotiate the fact that many people are likely to pick up an anthology of Caribbean genre writing with a head full of racist stereotypes as capitalism expects Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people not only to perform their identities on request but to perform these identities in ways that coincide with certain pre-conceived notions about people from other parts of the globe. Indeed, as the ever-provocative writer and activist Yasmin Nair is fond of pointing out, it is very difficult to come from somewhere like South Asia and not wind up performing one’s nostalgia for a youth spent growing up under a formidable and preternaturally wise banyan tree. While I don’t necessarily want to wander into the minefield of anti-capitalist critiques of identity politics, it seems to me that diversity should not be about cultivating spaces in which Jamaican women can write about goat curry but about creating a literary culture in which they no longer feel obligated to do so.

Also of interest is the fact that “The Glass Bottle Trick” can be read as a Caribbean re-telling of Charles Perrault’s Bluebeard in so far as it involves a woman marrying a man with a tendency to murder his wives. Aside from rebottling my whine about this anthology’s inexplicable fondness for ‘stories about stories’ it occurs to me that the field’s tolerance for this type of writing might reflect the fact that more and more genre writers are cutting their teeth in academic writing programmes. Stories about stories are mana from heaven as far as academic creative writing classes are concerned as they combine low-level critical analysis with getting students to use an existing story as a set of training wheels while they learn how to juggle all the elements of a story. Had I come across “The Glass Bottle Trick” in the context of a creative writing class I would celebrate Hopkinson’s ability to produce an engaging variation on the theme of a venerable French folk tale but seeing as I actually paid money to read this story, I say that the plot is tired and derivative.

Grumpiness out of the way, I really enjoyed this story. I think Hopkinson not only has a load of really interesting things to say about race, gender, class, and relationships, she also manages to convey those ideas through a set of beautifully drawn characters.


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REVIEW — The Forgotten (2014)

April 28, 2016

FilmJuice have my review of Oliver Frampton’s debut film, a low-budget British horror film named The Forgotten.

The film is set in Central London where a troubled teenager has returned from holiday to find his mother gone and his father living in an abandoned council estate. By day, the teenager helps his father break into flats and strip out copper wiring. By night, he worries about the noises coming up through the floor and the people who seem to be following his father home at night.

The Forgotten was maybe one major script revision away from being a genuinely excellent modern ghost story. It would be interesting to see what a more experienced and worldly Frampton might be able to produce as Britain really could do with a few more genre directors who were willing to make films about the harshness of normal lives.

Though not to be confused with the identically-named Christian Slater-fronted TV series about a group of amateur detectives piecing together the lives of unnamed murder victims, both Forgottens share a desire for social relevance and a belief that pop culture can serve to increase our understanding of the world rather than simply distracting us from it.

However, despite some admirable aims and some real technical skill yielding some really effective scares, The Forgotten is ultimately little more than one of those disposable low-budget horror flicks that wind up on supermarket shelves.

[SOR] Angélica Gorodischer’s “The Perfect Married Woman”

April 26, 2016

One of the biggest structural problems facing genre publishing is the reluctance of editors to seek out the work of emerging writers. As genre awards demonstrate, the single most effective way of getting yourself on a shortlist is to appear on a different shortlist. The second most effective way of getting yourself on a shortlist is to cultivate relationships with genre gatekeepers. Social capital in the form of name recognition and personal recommendation plays far too great a role in determining whose work becomes visible to genre institutions and who remains a non-person. Sisters of the Revolution does suffer for the economics of name recognition but the VanderMeers have definitely made an effort to seek out the work of writers who have long been invisible in Anglo-Saxon genre spaces. Leonora Carrington is one name that deserves to be better known in genre circles and Angélica Gorodischer is definitely another.

Born in Buenos Airies in 1928, Angélica Gorodischer has been writing novels and stories from a feminist perspective since the 1960s. Familiar with the protocols of crime, science fiction, fantasy, and horror her work achieved its greatest level of English-language visibility in 2003 when Ursula K. Leguin translated her space opera Kalpa Imperial for Small Beer Press. “The Perfect Married Woman” is more fantastical than science fictional but its moral and psychological ambiguities make it one of the anthology’s stronger stories so far.


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The New Girlfriend (2014) – What Lies Beneath (Ain’t So Bad, Ain’t So Bad)

April 21, 2016

François Ozon is to Claude Chabrol as Stan Lee and Jack Kirby are to John Wyndham.

John Wyndham is a post-war British science fiction writer who has long been tarred with the masterful brushstrokes of Brian Aldiss who dismissed his work as a series of cosy catastrophes. The term ‘cosy catastrophe’ stems from the fact that Wyndham was terribly fond of narratives in which everything winds up being destroyed except for the novel’s protagonists and the middle-class lifestyle and values to which they cling. For example, The Day of the Triffids opens with a meteor shower that blinds the majority of the British population. Hoping to make their way out of London, the protagonists wind up being trapped by a mad visionary who is building a new civilisation in which the sighted are manacled to the blind and forced into polyamorous relationships. Needless to say, the characters wind up escaping to the Isle of Wight where they meet up with other sighted individuals and pursue what we are lead to believe will be a more conventional middle-class lifestyle. Fear of change and yearning for the familiar is also present in Wyndham’s later novel The Midwich Cuckoos in which humans are impregnated with human DNA resulting in the emergence of a group of super-powered children who wind up being destroyed before their powers can pose a threat to the rest of humanity. One of the more interesting things about The Midwich Cuckoos is that it was published in 1957, six years before Jack Kirby and Stan Lee created The X-men, a series of comics in which super-powered youngsters fight to change the world for the better.

All three writers used science fiction to expose the instability of the status quo and explore the possibility of revolutionary change. However, while Jack Kirby and Stan Lee seemed to welcome these changes with open arms, John Wyndham struggled to see beyond the confines of his own middle-class existence.

The well-educated child of rural pharmacists who moved to Paris for his studies only to discover a love of cinema, Claude Chabrol first made his name as a film critic before following his contemporaries out of the magazine business and into the world of art house film. Early films such as Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins may bristle with the town-and-country animosity of a man who never considered himself Parisian but the films that made him an immortal all speak to the fragility of middle-class identities.

Like many worldly and privileged people, Chabrol was both drawn to and repulsed by the kinds of lifestyles that would have been considered abnormal or unacceptable by ordinary middle-class people. Les Biches – the film that began his most celebrated period – involves bisexual women, gay men, and an assortment of misshapen love triangles that speak both to the ‘straightness’ of Chabrol’s lived experience and his desire to understand what lay on the other side of propriety. By today’s standards, Les Biches seems rather old fashioned as Chabrol presents non-heterosexual relationships as being not just different but downright alien.

Chabrol’s inability to empathise with Les Biches’ characters may explain the rapprochement with the crime and psychological thriller genres that followed. Indeed, while Les Biches suggests that middle-class identities dissolve into something alien and beautiful, films like The Unfaithful Wife, The Beast Must Die, and Just Before Nightfall all suggest that the destabilisation of middle-class identities begins in sex and ends in violence. Many of Chabrol’s finest films are defined by their ambivalence in so far as they function like psychological mysteries that lavish attention on beautifully enigmatic characters before inviting us to make a leap of the imagination that will help us to understand why the characters felt compelled to do the things they did.  This approach to the question of social and psychological otherness is particularly evident in his late-stage classic La Ceremonie, in which two peculiar young women make friends and wind-up murdering the middle-class family who showed them kindness. Why would someone do such a thing? Chabrol doesn’t understand, cannot understand, and must understand.

François Ozon is a director who has always been at ease with the forms of love and affection that lie outside the boundaries of conventional middle-class living. His first film Sitcom describes a family who descend into sexual transgression after the family patriarch brings home a small caged rat. The insane and disproportionate nature of the family’s reaction to the new pet echoes Chabrol’s ideas about the instability of middle-class identities but Ozon dares to suggest that the geeky teenage son might be happier having orgies in his bedroom and that the grumpy teenage daughter might very well be better off as a vicious dominatrix.

Like Chabrol, Ozon’s films frequently revolve around murder but, unlike Chabrol, Ozon chooses to depict these murders as either cathartic (as in Swimming Pool) or simply as the growing pains of a new – and stronger – subjectivity (as in In the House or Jeune & Jolie). When characters do remain wedded to the old status quo (as in Under the Sand) it is inevitably treated as a sign of emotional stagnation and psychological morbidity.

Ozon’s last film The New Girlfriend is an interesting point of comparison as it not only deals with a new subjectivity emerging from the ruins of conventional middle-class lives, it also positions Ozon’s tanks in Chabrol’s front garden by being not only an adaptation of a story by one of Chabrol’s favourite writers but also an adaptation that replaces the blood-soaked ending of the source material with an ending that is beautiful, empowering, and supremely progressive.


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Thought Projectors 1

April 18, 2016

I have been accumulating links for quite some time. Sometimes these links cohere into a long-form piece, but sometimes they just stay as collections of thoughts that guided my thinking for a certain period of time and then ceased to be relevant. It occurred to me that, rather than simply sitting on these links, it might be fun to share them along with the thoughts they produced. So yeah… here are some links.

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