strange_complex: (Leeds owl)
3. Mary Shelley (1818), Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus

I read this in preparation for a trip to Geneva with the Dracula Society, organised to mark the bicentenary of the famous wet weekend in the Villa Diodati which gave rise to it (and to Polidori's 'The Vampyre'). I never wrote about the trip here in any detail, because it came half way through my Mum's final illness, and just at the point when we were really starting to realise that it was final. I spent a lot of the time while I was there worrying and checking my phone for updates, and then all the time after I got back just trying to cope while also carrying a pretty heavy load of work commitments. So the trip itself was a rather strained experience; but what I did get out of it was very much enhanced by my pre-holiday reading. I believe in the case of the novel it was my third time reading it, the first and second times being once in my mid-to-late-teens and another in my mid-twenties. Both well pre-date my habit of book-blogging here anyway, so as far as LJ / DW is concerned this is the first time. That makes it a pity that I didn't manage to do so while it was all fresh in my mind, but I did actually make a few notes about this one while reading it at the time, so I can do a slightly better job than with most of these catch-up reviews.

Obviously, it is a great novel. That isn't to say it's perfect. My mental red pen was particularly exercised by the way Justine was introduced: in the middle of a letter from Elizabeth to Victor, where she takes it upon herself to recount the entire story of how Justine came to be part of their household, even though Victor would of course already know all of this. I could see him as he read it turning over the pages in bafflement thinking "Why the hell is she telling me all this? Get onto something I don't know!" But hey, Mary was only 18 when she began writing the thing, and did it all in longhand while on the road through Switzerland and Italy. Let's cut her some slack. What she created here was innovative, genre-defining, gripping and incredibly cleverly put together.

Reading it now, I'm much more aware of its literary and historical context than I think I've been on previous encounters. Previously I think I have just accepted it as a gothic novel because that it how it is usually marketed, and also viewed it through the filters of its many film adaptations. It certainly is in the gothic arena, as you would expect given that Mary started writing the novel as an entry in a ghost story competition. It draws on established gothic tropes like descriptions of wild landscapes and huge, powerful storms; Victor's great moment of inspiration for how to build his creature happens in a charnel-house (what more gothic?); and he later uses a vampire metaphor to describe the effects of the creature on his family, saying that it is as though he himself had risen from the grave to murder them (exactly what Byron's vampire in The Giaour is condemned to do, as Mary must have known). But I think I understand the Romantic movement better now than I did when I first encountered Frankenstein, and I see now that its central themes of man's hubris, the rejection of technology and the nostalgic glorification of nature make it a Romantic novel more than anything else: again, totally unsurprisingly given who Mary was hanging out with while she wrote it. It's also frequently touted as the 'first Sci-Fi' novel, which of course isn't in the least bit incompatible with the other genres: it can be a Romantic novel which draws on gothic tropes while also sowing the seeds of something new. On the SF front, I was struck in particular coming to the book after many years of film adaptations by how very little scientific detail Mary provides about the creation of the creature. All those big set-pieces with sawing-and-stitching montages, lighting storms and of course bubbling equipment are entirely a product of the movie industry; Mary in fact skims very lightly over the creation process and gets on to its consequences instead. But SF-ness doesn't just lie in sciencey-science and techno-babble. I felt that her use of the creature's perspective to consider what our world might look like to an adult intelligence dropped into it without prior knowledge did justify describing it as an SF novel. In any case, certainly speculative fiction.

I think I was also alert to issues around social class this time in a way I haven't been on previous readings. For all Mary's radical family background, she certainly believes in a strong overlap between high social status and inherent worth. It's noticeable that her idealised family in the cottage turn out to be from a fallen 'good' family, rather than just being normal working people, and her account of how the Frankenstein family 'rescue' blonde aristocratic Elizabeth from the dark Italian peasant family who have taken her in practically slides into eugenics. More interestingly, though, there is a lot of anxiety detectable here. The narratives of the cottage family, Elizabeth and Victor's mother are all about people of once-high status who have fallen on hard times; a theme which must have felt potent for Mary after having thrown in her lot with Shelley at the cost of her father's disapproval and constant financial instability.

As for the characters, have I realised on previous readings what self-absorbed whiny little fuck Victor is? I'm not sure, but I found him almost unbearable this time around. He actually claims his suffering is worse than Justine's when she is about to be executed for a murder she didn't commit, on the grounds that at least she knows she's innocent. Fuck off! I've always known the novel was written to explore both sides of the creator / created relationship, inviting our sympathy for the creature as much as Victor, but on this read I massively preferred the creature, in spite of his cottage-burning anger management issues. I'm sure Mary intended us to find them both flawed, but at least the creature seems to start off with basically decent instincts, only to be drive to murderous extremes by the way other people treat him. Victor has no such excuse that I can see, creating his own woes, exacerbating them by behaving like an absolute wanker to everyone who tries to help him, and crying about how hard-done-by he is all the while. No to that, thank you very much.


4. Andrew McConnell Stott (2014), The Poet and the Vampyre: the curse of Byron and the birth of literature's greatest monsters / 4.5. parts of Daisy Hay (2010), Young Romantics: the Shelleys, Byron and other tangled lives

This was the other side of my pre-holiday reading: historical background about the famous Diodati weekend and the authoring of Frankenstein and 'The Vampyre'. The book by McConnell Stott I bought myself after Googling for something to help me understand the context for our holiday, and I definitely chose well. It is very much focused on the Diodati weekend and what came out of it, but includes plenty on the run-up and aftermath as well. The one by Hay was lent to me by the lovely [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 and offers a broader general take on the Byron / Shelley phenomenon, so I just read one chapter and a few other snippets which dealt with the relevant material.

I hadn't realised before starting on either just how well-documented the movements of the people concerned actually were. More or less everyone involved was busy writing diaries or letters about what they did, which is why such detailed accounts of the events of the Geneva trip are possible. Stott made really good use of these, quoting from them at length and providing proper scholarly notes at the back of the book which I appreciated. His style is far from dry and academic, though – often his book reads almost like a novel in its own right, and I felt very engrossed and involved with all the characters. I won't try to recount everything I learnt from it, but I will note down the one thing which struck me most powerfully: viz. that Claire Clairmont is an absolute bad-ass! She is so often either left out of accounts of the Villa Diodati weekend altogether, or portrayed as the ditzy one who was just there to fuck Byron and wasn't on the same intellectual level as the others. But her surviving letters and memoirs make it very clear indeed that this was far from the case. Yes, she did want to fuck Byron, but for a girl of her age in the early 19th century to conceive of that goal and travel half-way across Europe to make good on it frankly isn't to be sniffed at. As for her intellect, she was brought up alongside Mary in the same radical intellectual household, and she clearly benefitted from it. Just because she didn't become a published poet or novelist doesn't mean she was thick.

Anyway, Mary and Claire got the last laugh in the end, outliving all the ridiculous, self-obsessed men in their lives by several decades each. Claire even wrote a set of memoirs in her old age hauling both Byron and Shelley over the coals, and not without cause. She was absolutely part of it all, and I'll never stand by and let her be erased from the Diodati story again.


That trip to Geneva

As already mentioned above, I never did write this trip up at the time and I can't now in detail, but I may as well include a few notes about it while I am looking back over the relevant reading material. We were there from the 3rd to 5th of June, c. ten days before the 1816 night of the ghost story competition (16th June), and at a time when the full party had all already arrived in the Geneva area. On the first day we went to the Villa Diodati itself, of course, followed by a bicentennial exhibition about its occupants at the nearby Bibliotheca Bodmeriana which was absolutely amazing: they had portraits of all five of the Diodati contingent, practically the whole of Mary Shelley's manuscript for Frankenstein, absolutely loads of other personal documents and effect of those concerned, and tons of fascinating material about the later impact of Frankenstein - e.g. play-bills for early theatrical versions of it. Then on the following days we went to Chillon Castle at the other end of Lake Geneva, which Byron visited and wrote a poem about, and which had its own bicentennial exhibition focused primarily on him, and then to Gruyères, of cheese fame, which also had a very nice castle as well as a festival going on in the medieval village and cows lounging about on the hillside just outside. These are a few pictures, showing all of us at the Villa Diodati, the boat arriving to take us home from Chillon, and me in the castle at Gruyères with a huge downpour bucketing down behind me.

Diodati full gang crop.jpg

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strange_complex: (Chrestomanci slacking in style)
In this post I am reviewing three books which I actually read in 2015. I'm aware of how utterly ludicrous that is; just humour me. It's a thing I feel I need to do.


6. Conrad Russell (1999), An Intelligent Person's Guide to Liberalism

After the 2015 General Election, various Lib Dems shared lists of reading recommendations in the spirit of fuelling a #LibDemFightback. This one seemed the most universally-recommended, so I got it out of the University library and read it. It is indeed a very good articulation of what liberalism is about today (or was at the time of publication), and how it has evolved from its earliest recognisable origins in Whig opposition to James II’s interference in parliamentary autonomy through a series of different issues (religion, economics, personal freedoms, the environment etc.) as UK politics has changed over the centuries. I found the chapter on economics the most interesting and helpful for clarifying my own understanding of liberalism. Broadly, it points out that liberalism does not really have a clear default economic position in the way that (say) socialism does, because it initially evolved in a context where the main dividing lines in politics were not economic ones, but others – primarily religion. But because liberalism is essentially about the redistribution of power from those who are hoarding big chunks of it to those who don’t have any, it isn’t too hard to translate this to economic forms of power, and indeed there are plenty of early examples of liberals siding with the economically-exploited over their exploiters – e.g. Whig involvement in passing laws for the ten-hour working day in the mid-19th century. This in turn opens the door for a vision of liberal economics which is much more about cooperatives, mutuals, trade unions, breaking up monopolies and cartels, encouraging entrepreneurialism and ensuring level playing fields than the laissez faire approach often described as ‘classical liberalism’. I would love that vision to be more deeply embedded and widely understood in the Liberal Democrats today, never mind in wider politics – but unfortunately it is not. Meanwhile, back to the book, its big flaw is that it is unlikely to be at all accessible to anyone not already interested in liberalism and familiar with UK politics. Fair enough, it bills itself as being for the ‘intelligent person’, but that in itself is not very liberal really – hardly in keeping with the Liberal Democrats’ consitutional pledge (adopted verbatim from the Liberals before them) to ensure that no-one is enslaved by ignorance. And, as is often the case with similar riders, ‘intelligent’ is really just a synonym for ‘educated’ or ‘pre-informed’. So Russell will refer in passing to something François Mitterrand said in 1989 (I’m inventing the example, as I no longer have the text in front of me to provide a real one), without actually saying what it was or how it relates to the issue under discussion. A more accessible introduction to liberalism could certainly be written, then, and could do a lot of good by helping to ensure a broader understanding of what it actually is. As my friend Andrew Hickey, who also recently reviewed Russell's book points out, an awful lot of the people who are currently convinced that liberalism is a terrible scourge on society are actually working with a heavily distorted understanding of it, and would probably quite like the sort of thinking which Russell outlines if they knew about it. Attempting to communicate it is, of course, on us liberals, and clearly that is what Russell was trying to do. Until anyone can achieve a more accessible articulation of the same thinking, his book will probably remain the best introduction to liberalism we have.


7. Andrew Hickey (2015), Head of State

Talking of Andrew, he wrote a book of his own, and it's great! It is a novel, technically belonging to the Faction Paradox series, but I can personally attest that you do not need to have read any prior Faction Paradox stories, or really know anything about them, to enjoy it. It helps in particular that the story is very much set on Earth; though I don't know how much that is or isn't true for other FP stories – maybe they all are? Anyway, this one follows a surprise outsider's US presidential election campaign, which is clearly being manipulated by the Faction Paradox in some way, and which relates to traces of their activities also identifiable in the historical and mythic past. In order to tell this story, Andrew has used multiple interweaving narratives: different present-day perspectives on the presidential campaign, Victorian explorer Richard Burton, the 2002nd story of Scheherazade and various interpolations from non-human dimensions. This is not easy, but I thought he did it exceptionally well, capturing the various voices of his different characters distinctly and recognisably without making any of them seem over-mannered or cariacatured. For those reasons alone I enjoyed reading the novel and would recommend it to anyone. But there is of course an extra dimension of pleasure to reading a novel by a friend whose view on the world over-laps closely with your own. I recognised a lot of both the political and the online culture described, for example: in particular a female journalist blogging on a platform called 'dreamjournal', whom Andrew confirmed when I asked him was indeed based on the journalist I thought she was. He is even sweet enough to have included me in his acknowledgements at the end, although literally all I did was lend him a book of commonly-used Latin phrases with which he could pepper Richard Burton's prose. As for that presidential candidate – he's a Bernie Sanders, not a Donald Trump, but an awful lot about the campaign sections of this book did resurface in my mind during the latter part of 2016: high-level corruption and manipulation, people gradually realising that the 'no-hope' candidate is going to win, and a load of right-wing nutjobbery to boot. It's a pity real life has managed to turn out even more horrendous than what happens at the end of this book, but that's another matter. I'm really proud to know the author of such a great read.


8. John Buchan (1927), Witch Wood

I learnt of this book from the British Library's exibition, Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination in autumn 2014, where it was presented as an example of folk horror and likened to Witchfinder General in particular. It's a reasonable comparison. This story deploys the classic folk horror motif of an educated outsider coming into a small, traditional village community: in this case a newly-ordained priest, David Sempill, assigned to a parish named Woodilee. It's also set during the Civil Wars, though in Scotland rather than in England, and involves accusations of witchcraft. After those face-value similarities, though, it's a pretty different kind of narrative: essentially a historical novel concerned with how the ideological conflicts of 17th-century Scotland translate into personal struggles for its main character. On the one side, Sempill owes loyalty to the Kirk and, through its Solemn League and Covenant, the parliamentary side of the Civil War. On the other, he increasingly finds that his efforts to help the sick and the needy put him at odds with his parish leaders and church elders, who are more concerned with personal reputation and formal doctrine than actual morals or spirituality, and that his sympathies are drawn instead towards royalists and aristocrats. Witches and indeed fairies are overlain onto this, in ways which allow Buchan to highlight the hypocrisies of the parishioners and tangle up Sempill's political leanings with romantic attraction. But there is nothing overtly supernatural in the book: only a bit of paganism-cum-Devil-worshippery and Sempill's hyper-romanticisation of his girlfriend. Most of the politics and religion I could take or leave to be honest, not having any great investment in either, but the novel does contain some very engrossing sequences: Sempill's terror journeying through the dark wood at night, the utter devastation of his village by the plague, or the tormenting of an obviously-vulnerable old woman by a witch-pricker. Those are what have stayed with me, and what made it worth reading.
strange_complex: (Ulysses 31)
Start of term = busy = also tired when not actually busy = still haven't finished writing up the Starburst Film Festival I attended in late August. Friday and Saturday are covered at the links; the schedule for Sunday is here, with what I did below.

Sunday schedule.jpg

Space-flight and puzzle games )

Interview with Toby Whithouse )

23. Aliens (1986), dir. James Cameron )

Red Dwarf series XI: exclusive first episode preview and interview with Doug Naylor )

Finally, it was time to depart, sad that it had already all come to an end, but already making plans for future fantastic film-related adventures as we bid one another goodbye. I'll certainly come back for another Starburst festival if they do it again next year.

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strange_complex: (Darth compels you!)
Seen last Thursday evening at the Cottage Road cinema with the lovely Mr. and Mrs. Zeitgeist Zero. As more or less everyone has said, it is great, basically because it is much the same as the original three films, except that the characters now have new names and faces. There's just the right mix of big plot business, epic battles and explosions, cute robots, soaring music, snarky humour and the personal journeys of the main characters - with the emotional emphasis very much on the latter. And everything else I say about this film is bound to be spoilerific.

Let's start with characters )

Then there is plot )

In short, then, jolly good. I'm certainly looking forward to the next one, and may well go back for another big-screen viewing of this before it finishes its cinema-run.

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strange_complex: (Ulysses 31)
As if a genuine Smell-O-Vision film and an unfilmed Hammer Dracula script hadn't been enough, last weekend's journey of cinematic wonders ended on the Sunday evening in Bradford with 2001: A Space Odyssey, seen as it was originally intended to be seen - that is, in the full glory of Cinerama. I watched, rapt, alongside [livejournal.com profile] minnesattva, magister and Andrew Hickey, as the wonders of space opened up before us, and pondered idly what it must have been like to live in those heady days of the late '60s White Hot Technological Revolution, when the world of normalised space travel which it depicted might really have seemed like a plausible likelihood for the far-distant future of 2001.

I have seen the film before, of course, but believe me when I say that seeing it in Cinerama is an entirely different experience. Kubrick designed it specifically to be seen on a curved screen, and once you see it that way it becomes so painfully, searingly obvious that he did that you realise you simply haven't experienced the film he thought he was making until that moment. This was perfectly clear to me already in the first half, when I realised exactly why the location chosen for the ape-creatures drinking from their water-hole was a rounded geographical bowl, and why so many scenes of the lunar landscape are designed the same way - because, of course, in Cinerama they would appear to be actually curving out towards the audience, as though we were sitting ourselves on the far side of that very bowl. In Cinerama, when the idea occurs to one of the ape-creatures for the very first time to pick up a large thigh-bone, and use it to smash up the smaller bones of the animal skeleton lying in front of him, the pieces which fly up into the air appear as though they are coming right out of the screen at you. And as for the space stations and planets which cartwheel by to the music of the Blue Danube - watching them is like looking out from the bridge of your own vessel, as vast bodies thousands of miles away float balletically across your field of vision.

Then in the intermission, Andrew too commented that he had never realised before just how much of a Cinerama film 2001 was. Fresh from having seen The Best of Cinerama that morning, he meant something more than my simple observation of curves, space and quasi-3D. Rather, as he pointed out, Cinerama travelogues of the type he had seen that morning regularly introduced their viewers to a rather surreal combination of the wonders of nature, followed by the wonders of technology - exactly like the early ape-creatures followed by the pirouetting space stations we had just seen. What's more, although 2001 was not shot using the three-strip camera technique which The Best of Cinerama used (and which I have experienced myself for The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962)), he had noticed that some of the shots were composed as though they were going to be - that is, with strong verticals positioned 1/3 and 2/3 of the way across the screen, exactly where the joins between the strips would have been visible. I settled down for the second half with his comment in mind, and he was absolutely right - for example, Kubrick had shot the room on the Discovery One containing the three EVA pods exactly and precisely with its two far corners at the 1/3 and 2/3 positions, just as I remember noticing for every scene which ever featured a room in it during The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm. I wasn't particularly surprised later on, when checking the Wikipedia page for the film, to learn that it was indeed originally planned to be shot in three-strip Cinerama, exactly in line with what Andrew had noticed.

Truly, truly spectacular, then. A film with an almost boundlessly-ambitious vision, making the fullest possible use of the technology available in its day, stretching it to create a cinematic experience which would actually do justice to the nature of the story. In fact, we were lucky enough to enjoy not only the film, but (part of) an after-show chat from Douglas Trumbull, who did the special effects for the film, and who articulated exactly the vision Kubrick was trying to create. He explained that Kubrick wanted to create a film which was less concerned than usual with the characters on screen, or the experiences and dramas they are having. In fact, this was deliberately minimised by pointing the cameras relatively little at the actors, and having only fairly limited and largely banal dialogue. Rather, he wanted to put the audience and their experiences at the forefront. This is particularly clear at the climax of the film when the last surviving crewman of the Discovery One, David Bowman, comes face to face with the monolith in orbit around Jupiter, and falls into the strange and psychedelic star-gate which it opens up. During this whole sequence there is actually very little screen-time devoted to David's reactions, and as Trumbull put it, this was because Kubrick didn't want this sequence to be about David experiencing the star-gate - he wanted it to be about the audience, in the star-gate. And in Cinerama, boy, is it!

Even without the Cinerama, though, the care, detail and ambition put into the model-work and the special effects is so impressive that even now, almost 50 years after its release, the only thing which really gives the film away as not having been made this year are some of the fashions worn by the female members of the cast. I'd love to say the treatment of gender was a give-away too, given that women appeared almost (though not entirely) exclusively in subservient roles (daughter, mother, air-hostess, receptionist), and that by the time you get to the elite crew of the Discovery One, they have (of course!) vanished altogether. But the sad truth is that there are more films which still do exactly that today than don't. Only two years ago, Geena Davis (Thelma of Thelma and Louise fame) suggested that modern Hollywood films consistently depict women to men in supposedly mixed groups at a ratio of 1 to 5 or 17%, and that what's more men perceive this as a 50:50 balance, and anything more as female-dominated. Here, too, I noticed that in the board-room scene where Heywood Floyd explains to the Clavius base personnel why it is so important to maintain secrecy around the monolith found on the moon, there were two women and ten men: exactly the 1 to 5 or 17% (to be precise, 16.67%) ratio which Geena Davis pointed out. So, in other, words, the gender balance of 2001 may be heavily patriarchal, but it certainly isn't dated! We're still doing it, just the same. :-/

That is on us, though. While we're working on it, a late 1960s film which makes you feel as though you are actually floating in space remains very much worth watching, and I am once again awed by the power of Cinerama.

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strange_complex: (Wicker Man sunset)
I watched this last night with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan after a lovely home-made lasagne and over half a bottle of wine. We really needed the wine. It is a hokey sci-fi movie, in which alien beings land on a British island called Fara, and cause a freak mid-winter heat-wave. Doctor Who fans will instantly understand how carefully thought-through and plausible the plot was, how compelling and nuanced the dialogue and how well-delineated the characters if I say that much of the screen-play was written by Pip and Jane Baker. For those fortunate enough not to be familiar with their work, I will simply explain that it displays none of the characteristics referred to in my previous sentence.

I recently used the broadcast of Death in Heaven as a prompt for some musings on the general phenomenon of the New Who season finale, which regularly sees writers boxing themselves into corners which only dei ex machinis and magic reset buttons can get them out of. Well, the plot of this film made every single New Who season finale ever broadcast look sober, realistic and meticulously thought through. The alien invaders were initially described as beings made entirely of light or heat waves (it was never clear which), who had been attracted to a space observation station based on the island because of the radio signals it had been broadcasting. Later, they turn out to generate heat, to be attracted to light, to have physical bodies after all (rather like huge glowing jellyfish), and to burn up random things - sheep, people, car batteries, gas cannisters. So it's all a bit incoherent, really, and not surprising that neither the characters in the film nor the writers can come up with any convincing plan to defeat them. The characters decide to set fire to some haystacks in the hope of attracting the aliens and then blasting them with dynamite, which utterly fails, while the best the writers could come up with was a freak thunderstorm and downpour, which kills the aliens by essentially dousing them out. That's it - the whole plot.

And that would be fine, if there was a compelling and convincing drama going on around it. But there isn't. The main attempt at human drama is a story-line about a couple whose marriage is threatened when an old fling of the husband's arrives on the island and starts trying to seduce him again. But this literally switches on and off from scene to scene, depending on how the main plot is progressing. So for example the wife eventually catches her husband kissing the old fling, and is supposed to be really upset about it. Then we get a couple of scenes where she appears to have forgotten all about it while some expository dialogue about the aliens goes on. And then she is all upset again. And so on. Also, it didn't help that the husband attempted to win his wife back over by saying that the old fling was a "common slut" who meant nothing to him, and that the wife responded to this by smiling and apparently being mollified. Or that the old fling was made to be the object of a gratuitous attempted-rape scene from a heat-crazed islander at one point, either. No indeed.

So why did we watch it? Oh, you know why. Because it stars both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, that's why! Both were playing very much to type - Peter as a kindly local doctor, and Christopher as an arrogant and irascible (though not actually evil) scientist. They even played out a very typically-them gentlemanly hierarchy through their costumes, too. While most of the male characters in the film responded to the heat-wave by unbuttoning their collars and rolling up their shirt sleeves, Christopher Lee's insisted on wearing a tie throughout, while Peter Cushing's kept his jacket on to the last! Bless. Other familiar faces included Patrick Allen as the cheating husband, who also plays the captain of the king's troops in Captain Clegg, Sydney Bromley as an old tramp killed by the aliens, who likewise appears in Captain Clegg as poor old Tom Ketch (and thus dies within the first few minutes of both films) and Sarah Lawson as the wronged wife, also famous as Paul Eddington's wife in The Devil Rides Out. It's quite the Hammer reunion, then, right down to having Terence Fisher as the director. But I guess Terence Fisher didn't have the same feel for sci-fi as he did for Gothic horror, and that there are limits to what anyone can do to bring a flat script to life.

As a Christopher Lee fan, the film offers a certain value. His character appears very early on, remains prominent throughout, and even makes it almost to the end of the film without dying - though not quite. He wears smart-specs quite a lot, exclaims impatiently at people, and does lots of sciencey stuff. Very nice. Actually, in plot terms he essentially serves as the Doctor Who character in this story, since he comes to the island to figure out what is going on, has to convince everybody else that what he claims is happening is true, and concocts a plan to defeat the aliens at the end (though this is a failure). But if so, he is ruder and grumpier than any real Doctor who has ever appeared on screen, including the Sixth for whom Pip and Jane Baker went on to write. Meanwhile, of course, his character, like all the others, suffers from being pretty two-dimensional, and having a lot of extremely banal dialogue to deliver. So it is worth watching once if you really like him, but is neither one of his best performances, nor his best films.

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strange_complex: (Mariko Mori crystal ball)
I saw this about a month ago with [livejournal.com profile] big_daz, [livejournal.com profile] nigelmouse and his chum called Andy (I think), and hugely enjoyed rediscovering what a classic it is. It isn't just that it has all the standard elements of a good film (plotting, direction, acting, character, dialogue, setting and that little bit of magic which makes them all work together). It has an energy and freshness which has stood the test of time really well, and packs huge riches of detail and ideas into its two short hours.

I think it has gained something with the passage of time, too. Watching it in 2013 inevitably means approaching the film itself as a form of 'time travel' back to the 1980s )

Lots could be said about all sorts of elements within the story, but I am sure they have already been written about on the internet somewhere, so I will focus on just two particular things which occurred to me on this viewing, but which I had never really thought about before.

One is the portrayal of the black character, Goldie Wilson )

My other line of thought was to wonder more generally what we should make of a story in which the 1980s try to fix their problems by going back in time to rewrite the 1950s )

Anyway, like many an SF or fantasy classic, I think there are good reasons why this film has become something of an icon over the years. It's fun, yes, but has some surprisingly good thinky mileage in it to boot. Here's looking forward to its thirtieth anniversary in another two years' time, when we really will stand in exactly the same relation to 1985 as the film did to 1955.

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strange_complex: (Cities condor in flight)
And now that I am finally up to date with film reviews and Doctor Who reviews, I can turn my attention once again to my much-neglected book reviews.

I should have read this one years ago, given that I'm a Classicist who loves stories of a fantastical nature, but it took me until 2011 to finally get round to it. And what a fool I was to wait so long, because it is completely ace! I knew that it involved the narrator going on a voyage to the moon, and for that reason has often been viewed as the first (surviving) SF story - but actually he and his companions travel through a whole series of wondrous settings. These include an island with rivers of wine, a giant whale so huge that there are colonies of people living inside its stomach, an island made of cheese, the Isle of the Blest full of Greek heroes, philosophers and writers, Calypso's island, an island inhabited by people with the heads of bulls, an island full of cannibalistic witches and finally a mysterious new transAtlantic continent which he promises to describe - but never does.

In its own time this was probably conceived as a satire on stories of epic voyages like the Odyssey and the Argonautica, so the settings which the narrator experiences are basically an exaggerated parody of places like the island of the Lotus Eaters, Circe's island, the all-female society of Lemnos, or the land of the six-armed giants in those works. Lucian knits his fantastical settings together using the same epic voyage format, but marks his work out as satire by declaring up-front that the entire story is a bunch of lies. This has kept scholars busy discussing ancient conceptions of the relationship between 'fiction' and 'lies' ever since (to little purpose in my view).

Reading from a modern perspective, I found that the succession of wondrous lands full of strange people reminded me more than anything of the Wizard of Oz series. That may simply be because the very lively and engaging translation which I read was published in 1913, though - i.e. right in the middle of the period when L. Frank Baum was writing the original Oz series (1900-1920). Certainly, almost any modern SF series which involves a core group of travellers visiting a succession of fantastical places could be compared to this, including Star Trek, Doctor Who and The Hitch-Hikers' Guide to the Galaxy (which incorporates the satirical element as well) and no doubt many more. Indeed, just as this work in itself relates closely to the Odyssey, the Argonautica et sim., so too do modern works of SF using the same basic voyage format - as Ray Harryhausen surely knew when he closed the circle by positioning Jason and the Argonauts as an SF film. Genres overlap and inform one another, and everything is intertextual.

From the translation I read at least, I can also say that this was a genuinely good read - funny, inventive, and (precisely because it is so fantastical) not really requiring any particular knowledge of the ancient world to 'get' the jokes. The Isle of the Blest section might drag a bit for non-Classicists, because that includes topical humour about particular heroes and thinkers - e.g. Ajax, Theseus and Menelaus, Alexander and Hannibal, Homer, Aesop, Diogenes the Cynic and so forth. But even there the basis of most of the jokes is pretty clear from the context. Otherwise, I can highly recommend this book to anyone - especially since it is available for free right here, and is only the equivalent of a couple of chapters from a modern novel long.

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strange_complex: (Ulysses 31)
15. Iron Sky (2012), dir. Timo Vuorensola

Seen on May 23rd at the Hyde Park Picture House with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan, [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy, [livejournal.com profile] bigdaz, [livejournal.com profile] maviscruet and most of the rest of the Leeds goth community.

As I'm sure most people reading this know, Iron Sky is a kind of collaborative, crowd-sourced international production, which was initially slated to be shown in UK cinemas on one single day only, before being released on DVD. Whether this was down to a genuine reticence on the part of the distributors, or just a publicity stunt, I don't know, but it did help to generate quite a viral 'buzz' about the film beforehand, and I can't honestly be sure whether I would have gone to see it if it had just had an ordinary release period. Anyway, it certainly added a lot to the fun to be there in a completely sold-out cinema, enjoying what we knew (or thought) would be a one-off event, and to come out afterwards to find myself part of a crowd of over a hundred people standing around on the pavement outside discussing the film.

The story itself is just outright silly, but in a very knowing, tongue-in-cheek way )

If you didn't see this in the cinema, I'm afraid you missed a treat which you'll never quite get the chance to re-capture. But it's still worth seeing on DVD.


16. Prometheus (2012), dir. Ridley Scott

See on Friday night with two Lib Dem chums who aren't on LJ.

This was my second ever experience of a (modern-style) 3D film, and since the previous one was an animation (The Pirates), it was obviously a little different. I really liked it, though, and felt that there were quite a few scenes which would have been quite a lot poorer without it )

Oh, and obviously the title of the film is a Classical reference, but it isn't enormously profound in itself so far as I can see - just one of a number of references to creators and their creations which all help to support the main themes of the film. If you'd like fuller commentary on the Classical and archaeological aspects of the film, I recommend Juliette Harrison on the subject.

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strange_complex: (ITV digital Monkey popcorn)
Whew! It's taken me a couple of days to type this lot up, as I saw a lot of films on the final day of the festival, and I think we all know I am a bit prone to tl;dr reviews, even when I think the thing I'm writing about was rubbish. But I've managed it now! It's up to you to decide if you are brave enough to read it all. ;-)

15a-f. Short Films )

TV Heaven: Children of the Stones (HTV, 1976) )

16a. Intrusion (1961), dir. Michael Reeves )

16b. The Sorcerers (1967), dir. Michael Reeves )

17. Robocop (1987), dir. Paul Verhoeven )

18. The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (1974), dir. Jorge Grau )

So that was a pretty intensive weekend of film viewing all told - in fact, coming out of the other end of it I find that I am now well ahead of 2009's total of 14 films seen over the entire year, even though it is still only June. I absolutely loved it, though, and have found myself haunting Amazon and eBay ever since it ended, swooping up copies of films I saw, or other works by the same actors and directors to add to my collection. Debate is currently raging on miss_s_b's journal about what form next year's festival should take. But whatever the final line-up, unless life conspires to stop me I'm pretty sure I'm going to be there.

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strange_complex: (Nuada)
IMDb page here. Seen at the Hyde Park Picture House with [livejournal.com profile] la_guapita and Nicolas.

It didn't sound that good from the IMDb plot summary - I only suggested it to Charlotte and Nicolas because I wanted them to have the experience of the Hyde Park Picture House, really. But once Charlotte had reacted with 'Ooh, yes, I really want to see that', and [livejournal.com profile] johnnydefective had enthused wildly about it over curry, I figured it must be worth checking out after all. Those are two people whose film opinions I usually trust.

See, what the plot summaries just don't bring out (although maybe because it is so blindingly obvious given the setting that they felt they didn't need to) is that this is an example of one of my favourite kinds of film - the 'cabin-fever' movie. Like The Thing, Night of the Living Dead or (best of all) Cube, you have a small number of people trapped in an extreme situation - and the rest is really about their character interactions, rather than about the specific setting.

The science of it all is pretty obviously bollocks, and there was also one point where it felt like a huge chunk of footage had just been taken out, causing us to leap suddenly forward to an event which it had seemed a moment before wouldn't be happening for quite some time (I'm trying to be non-spoilery, here!). But neither of those things really mattered. As I said, it's character-driven, and that side works out just fine. There are some tense moments, some unpleasant realisations, and the consequences of some bad (but plausible) decisions to be faced. And of course there is Cillian Murphy, who's already proved his worth in a Danny Boyle cabin-fever movie in 28 Days Later. He manages to do the 'small, vulnerable human facing things too terrible to imagine' thing very nicely.

So yeah - I wouldn't say re-arrange existing commitments to see it, but if you get a chance, it's a good use of an evening.

strange_complex: (TARDIS)
I've just been out to the doctor to get my annual 'flu1 vaccination. I qualify for a free one every year because of my asthma, and have been having them for six years now: ever since I actually did get 'flu over Christmas 1999, and realised that a small amount of forward planning and a slight prick in the arm was more than worth going through each year in order to avoid it.

So, the jab went fine. I hardly felt it, and that's another 'flu-free winter to look forward to. But while I was there, I noticed the leaflets the NHS have printed up this year to encourage those in vulnerable groups2 to get the injection:

Are you scared yet? )

Let's take a closer look at those little gremlins, shall we?

Fear me! )

Now is that, or is that not, the Jagrafess? Hmm? Is that its goal in the 21st century, then: to take control of Earth through the medium of viral infection? Is that what the NHS are desperately trying to tell us by printing suggestive pictures of it on their literature? Has it had itself cloned and miniaturised a billion times over for an attack not unlike that of the Swarm in The Invisible Enemy? Is it a coincidence that that very story also saw the debut of the lovable K-9, who is set to return to our screens this coming spring? Will he, by then, be deeply involved in a real-life battle against the new and mysterious Jagrafess virus?

And do I now know far more about Doctor Who than I thought I did or ever expected to? I may be protected against the Jagrafess now, but you lot clearly took over my brain some time ago...

------------
1. That's 'flu as in Actual Influenza: not the same as a cold. Even a bad cold.
2. For the record, you qualify if you're over 65, or have kidney disease, diabetes, reduced immunity or any serious chest or heart complaint, including asthma. If that's you, get it! Don't have 'flu.

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