strange_complex: (Corpus Agrimensorum colonia)
Gosh, I found this book disappointing. In theory, it should have been right up my street (whether that be total, alter or cross-hatched). It is speculative fiction about cities, majoring especially in boundaries. Man, I'm so into that shit that I've just finished the peer-review edits to one paper on urban boundaries, am starting to research another, and will be going on a walk about it on Monday. And I could swear friends have been waxing lyrical about this particular book on the periphery of my attention-sphere pretty much ever since it came out. Except that maybe I didn't listen properly to what they were saying. Because while I entirely recognise that its world-building is superb, and its plot is certainly perfectly competent, the fact is that it offers almost no characterisation or indeed human emotional colour whatsoever. And that doesn't half make for dull fiction.

Actually, I found even the world-building a little bit disappointing, because although it is certainly an outstanding example of what it is trying to do, that wasn't quite what I expected, or what tends to appeal to my tastes. Knowing in advance that the book dealt with two cities which physically occupy the same space, but whose residents are unable to see one another, I expected the relationship between the two to be supernatural - as for example between London Above and London Below in Neverwhere, the muggle and magical worlds in Harry Potter, or the parallel worlds in His Dark Materials. In fact, though, the division is legal and social )

In all fairness, that is a brilliant concept, and Miéville builds it up beautifully from the first chapter onwards, dropping little hints of crumbs at how the city works into the narrative of his viewpoint character (a Besź police inspector) at just the right pace to intrigue without becoming tedious, and while also ensuring that his readers are entirely au fait with it all by the time it becomes crucial to the plot. But a) it isn't the magic I picked the book up hoping for (not at all Miéville's fault) and b) unfortunately the drab emotionless characters give us all too little sense of what a division like that would really mean to the people living it out every day (very definitely Miéville's fault).

The main viewpoint character I mentioned a moment ago, Inspector Tyador Borlú, came across to me as an avatar with no internal life. Some authors would have written deep inner conflicts into his psyche to mirror the divisions of the city which he inhabits, and explored them in depth, but as it was his entire function seemed to be to work his way through the plot like the sprite in a puzzle-based computer game. He learns some new things as the story goes along, of course, but does he experience any kind of emotional arc, or change in any fundamental way as a result? I don't think so. Since he ends the story doing spoilery things ), it is just possible that Miéville wrote him that way from the start to set him up as well-suited to that lifestyle. But if that's the case, then almost any of the characters Borlú interacts with could equally well do the same spoilery things ), because none of them seemed any more alive than him.

So, in short, I'm unlikely to read any more of Miéville's novels. But at least I've found that out now, and can thus target my meagre reading activities towards more satisfying objects in future.

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strange_complex: (Twiggy)
Seen this afternoon at the Hyde Park Picture House with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan. In one sense, it is another Monsieur Hulot film, and thus follows on from Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot, which we saw at the Cottage Road almost (I am shocked to discover) five years ago now. Certainly, it includes M. Hulot as a character. But he is less prominent this time, and the feel of this film as a whole is quite different.

Les Vacances was already in part about vignettes of everyday life and capturing the character of the location, but Playtime is noticeably more concerned with both of those, and less so with M. Hulot himself and his antics. The farce and comedy also often require a pretty sharp eye to spot. In Les Vacances it would usually be the main focus of the shot, but in Playtime you are often looking at an extensive scenario with a lot of different things going on at once, and while things like chairs coming apart, people using a lamp-stand as a pole on a bus, people sneaking contraband glugs of alcohol etc. are there to see and are intended for comic effect, they aren't as in your face in this film.

In fact, it reminded me this time rather of Fellini's Roma (1972), which is definitely not a comparison Les Vacances would invite. It's the way both lack a traditional plot and instead just follow people around the city, documenting their strange little ways both individually and collectively. And, as I said to [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan, the way Playtime has a brief little scene of nuns with wimples that bounce as they walk, which took me right back to the clerical fashion parade in Roma, where the wimples do just the same - only more so. Now that I know about the similarity, I wouldn't be at all surprised if Fellini was deliberately referencing Tati there, in fact. This certainly seems much the sort of film I can see Fellini liking.

The big difference between Roma and Playtime, though, is that Roma is very much about Rome's many strange juxtapositions, and especially the contrast between different layers of time in the city. But Playtime is all about an ultramodernist Paris, in which the Eiffel Tower and the Sacré-Coeur appear only as reflections in plate-glass windows, and which doesn't actually exist. The Wikipedia article explains all about this - the locations are almost exclusively purpose-built sets full of plate-glass and tower-blocks, including photographic images for some of the buildings and cardboard cut-outs for some of the people (which I certainly noticed, and which adds to the surreal, inhuman feel). So it is not a biography of a real, living city like Roma, but an exploration of a particular kind of urbanism, and what it means to try to be a human being in the midst of it all.

As such, a lot of it feels quite muted, regimented and claustrophobic, because that is what Tati is basically trying to say about ultramodernism. But things become more exuberant towards the end of the film, when we spend a good half hour or more following the goings-on of the opening night at a new restaurant called the Royal Garden. This is full of disasters (lights shorting out, décor falling down, waiters' clothes getting ripped on chair-backs), but it doesn't stop the patrons having a rip-roaring time as the band plays and the alcohol flows. This was lots of fun to watch, and [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and I agreed that there were some fantastic frocks on the lady patrons, too.

Earlier on, I also absolutely loved the man who is selling doors which close "in golden silence", gets really angry with M. Hulot, and launches into an extensive rant at him which includes several dramatic door-slams - but of course finds that his treasured product does not make the required noise. And, in a different way, the shots of an American tourist, Barbara, looking around at the posters in a tourist agency, and finding that every single one shows a nearly-identical tower-block with a small token image of an actual local feature or landmark shoved into one corner.

All in all, an interesting, enjoyable and often poignant film which is certainly beautifully shot, but is sometimes also a little slow, and definitely wouldn't make a good first introduction to M. Hulot. Stick with Les Vacances for that.

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