Category Archives: films

Two guest blog posts

Two guest blog posts popped up online during the last week:

First off, Book Stewards put together a really nice Q&A, covering reasons I began writing, happy accidents that resulted in publications, upcoming projects and the elusive ‘Tim Major thing’. I also got to recommend a load of my favourite recent reads. You can read the full article here.

Secondly, Speculative Chic were nice enough to ask me to write an article for their ‘My Favourite Things’ series – I chose the SF, horror and classic films that are floating my boat at the moment. Here it is.

Les Vampires (Midnight Movie Monographs)

Yesterday I returned from FantasyCon. From about the halfway point of the convention I started feeling quite overwhelmed – but not in the what-am-I-even-doing-here? sense that I used to feel at such events. This time I was overwhelmed because I felt comfortable, and because the people I was speaking to are no longer intimidating but are my friends, and because those same people are so very, very talented. Each time I looked around at the faces in a reading room, or a panel session, or at the bar, I felt awed at the thought of all the wonderful fiction these people were producing, and even more awed at all the potential still to be tapped.

Also, it was fun.

In the midst of all this, I failed to take stock of the fact that a book I wrote was released at FantasyCon. My non-fiction book about the 1915 French crime serial, Les Vampires, was launched at the PS Publishing event on Friday. I held a copy – briefly – when somebody asked me to sign it. I picked up a copy for myself the next morning, and jammed it in my rucksack along with books I was far more excited about, including novels by Aliya Whiteley and Stephen Volk and collections edited by Dan Coxon and Mark Morris. When I rolled into my hotel room at 2am I picked up the Les Vampires book, smiled, fell asleep.

I was tired on the train home on Sunday. I decided I wouldn’t begin reading any of the books written by my friends; in my addled state I wouldn’t have paid close enough attention. So, with the guilt of vanity, I started flicking through my own book. Then I ended up reading the whole thing. I felt very emotional.

I realised that I’m proud of my book. In published form, I found it easier to enjoy and appreciate than other books I’ve written, perhaps because it’s primarily factual, but also because it’s a response to a film I adore, and because I think my enthusiasm is clear and real and honest.

I still don’t know whether the book would be comprehensible to somebody who hasn’t watched Les Vampires, and the film is over 100 years old, 7 hours long, and is frustratingly difficult to buy on DVD in the UK right now, all of which makes my book hilariously niche. But I think it’s a good book, and I really do like the 10 pieces of weird fiction I wrote and slotted in between the analyses of each episode of the film. I hope the book is noticed and read.

Anyway, to tie in with my overwhelmed and glowy feelings about FantasyCon in general, I feel very grateful that I was allowed to write Les Vampires. Neil Snowdon, founder and editor of the Electric Dreamhouse Press imprint (he even designed the excellent cover of my book!), was indulgent in letting let me spend legitimate time exploring a film I love. He’s been supportive of my work in general and he was responsible for introducing me to many of the writers who are now my friends. I spent several hours with Neil on Saturday, after having met in person only once before, two years previously, and then for only 15 minutes, and we felt like old friends. I hope we’ll continue to collaborate in the future. I hope the Electric Dreamhouse monograph series will continue to grow, and that the books will find readers and recognition.

So. I had a great weekend, and things are great. I have a new book out, and I’m proud of that.

You can find out more about the book here, and you can buy it direct from PS Publishing or from Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com.

And if you haven’t already – and regardless of whether you buy my book – you should watch the film. Les Vampires is utterly wonderful and deserves to be seen.

 

100 films I love right now

I’ve made a top 100 film list. I’ve tried to avoid objectivity or the temptation to pick ‘greatest’ films – instead I’ve tried to capture a snapshot of my tastes right now. I’ve tried not to pay attention to what would be my usual choices or agonise too much over my selection. I use Flickchart, so I had a starting point of a list of pretty much all the films I’ve seen, theoretically in ranked order – but to make this list I’ve cherry-picked only the films that are currently on my mind or that, when I see their titles, I want to rewatch immediately. It’s a skewed list, featuring lots of films I’ve seen for the first time in the last year or so – if I made a similar list next year, I’d guess that more than a quarter of the titles would be different. It’ll be interesting to see whether e.g. A Cottage on Dartmoor or The Swimmer stay with me.

I’ve listed the films in chronological order, which reveals a surprise: 11 of the films in this list were released this century. It’s notable that most of these recent titles are very downbeat and slow-paced – I hadn’t quite realised this is so clearly a factor in my tastes in modern cinema.

The director who appears most is Hitchcock, predictably. There are three by: Ingmar Bergman, Francis Ford Coppola, Luis Buñuel, F.W. Murnau and Nicholas Ray. There are two each by: Buster Keaton, Carl Theodor Dreyer, David Lynch, Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jacques Tourneur, Jerzy Skolimowski, Robert Bresson, Roman Polanski, Thomas Vinterberg, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders and Andrei Tarkovsky.

Here’s the full list:

Continue reading 100 films I love right now

‘LES VAMPIRES’ film book to be published in 2018

Another publication announcement! My first non-fiction book will be published in summer 2018 by Electric Dreamhouse Press, the PS Publishing imprint run by editor Neil Snowdon, who was responsible for the terrific Nigel Kneale anthology, We Are The Martians.

While I started work on this project at the start of 2017, I haven’t talked about it at all online – mainly because my imposter syndrome kicked in badly with this project (the impressive list of contributors to the Midnight Movie Monograph series is daunting). But I’ve now delivered a draft and can finally accept that it’s happening…

My book is about the 1915–16 French silent crime serial, LES VAMPIRES, which stars Musidora as the original femme fatale, Irma Vep. As well as details of the production, the historical context and my response to the film, the book will contain 10 new pieces of weird fiction inspired by each of the 10 episodes of the serial.

Before I started writing the book I loved LES VAMPIRES. Now, after watching the 10 episodes countless times (the serial runs to 7 hours in total), it’s become one of my favourite films of all time. Lucky, that – I’ll be watching it many more times before the book is published…

More info in the new year.

What Horror Writers Talk About When They Talk About Love

Recently, James Everington invited me to write a piece for his blog to promote the upcoming publication of his novella, Trying To Be So Quiet (Book Books). The theme is ‘What Horror Writers Talk About When They Talk About Love’. Here’s my article.

GAC-REBEL-WITHOUT-A-CAUSEMy second son is due to be born within the next month, so my response to the theme is related to parental love. My reference points in the article are two of my favourite films, Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955) and Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979). My favourite part of the article is nothing I wrote, but James’ caption of this photo of Sal Mineo and James Dean: ‘Neither of these men is Tim Major’. Thanks for that, James, and thanks for having me on the blog!

Martian canals and borrowed ideas in SF

RCoM poster

I’ve got an article up on the Hodderscape website – it’s about Martian canals, the 1964 film Robinson Crusoe on Mars, and the borrowing of ideas in science fiction. It’s rather a ramble, but the main idea is that even misconceptions can lead to good fictional ideas that are then developed by writer after writer.

You can read the full article here.

Favourite films watched in 2014

Under the SkinAs a consequence of having a one-year-old child, this year I saw only ten films released in 2014. The only essential one was the unsettling and astounding Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer). Next in line were All Is Lost (J.C. Chandor), Frank (Lenny Abrahamson) and Calvary (John Michael McDonagh). Locke (Steven Knight) gave plenty of food for thought, in terms of scripting and character development.

For All MankindBefore my son was born I worried that I’d no longer have the attention span for ‘difficult’ cinema, but I was proved wrong. Being stuck in the house every evening has its benefits! My favourite films that I saw for the first time in 2014 include Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana and Diary of a Chambermaid, both subversive and compelling. For All Mankind (Al Reinert) was a revelation – how had I never seen this NASA Apollo footage before? I was blown away by the formal perfection of Ashes and Diamonds (Andrzej Wajda). Blue Is the Warmest Colour (Abdellatif Kechiche) and Stroszek (Werner Herzog) tie for the most engaging central performances. Hour of the Wolf (Ingmar Bergman) and Hunger (Steve McQueen) were the two films I found most unsettling. Other than For All Mankind, The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer) and The Thin Blue Line (Errol Morris) were my favourite documentaries, both exploring the truth via artifice, although Hoop Dreams (Steve James) came close. Alongside Cat People (Jacques Tourneur), my most purely pleasurable film experiences this year were Hammer’s The Abominable Snowman (Val Guest) and The Nanny (Seth Holt).

The peculiar charm of ‘Robot Monster’

Robot MonsterRobot Monster (Phil Tucker, 1953) is a terrible film, but it’s weirdly haunting. The film tells the story of a group of people who, after waking from a picnic nap, find themselves the remaining six people on Earth. Ro-Man, an alien with a diving-helmet head and the body of a gorilla, has destroyed the human population with a combination of nuclear attacks and rampaging prehistoric creatures. Now he’s out to kill the few survivors.

What’s notable about Robot Monster is that its low production values mean that modern viewers are likely to dismiss plot confusions as errors. When the young Johnny encounters Roy and the Professor they’re clearly strangers, yet minutes later we see him address the Professor as ‘father’. The appearance of dinosaurs is baffling, as if the fact that Ro-Man appears not to be able to locate the human survivors despite being only a short walk away. The sort-of sex scene, conducted almost entirely in sign language, is laughably chaste.

But all of these issues are addressed at the end of the film, where we learn that the events were only Johnny’s dreams, inspired by TV adventures. It’s a standard copout, but in this case it’s the only explanation that makes sense. If this were a less overtly awful film viewers would attempt to unravel the inconsistencies and come to the correct conclusion. Strangely enough, it reminded me most of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, in which baffling events and inconsistencies can only be explained as dreams. The narrative trick in Robot Monster somehow remains in plain sight, without making itself clear. It’s certainly not a deliberate effect, but it’s strangely satisfying.

The film is full of other treats. Like all my favourite bad films (the incomparable Troll 2 springs to mind), individual moments linger after the film has ended. Ro-Man’s conversation with Johnny is oddly collegiate. The wedding ceremony and subsequent honeymoon in the face of annihilation, whilst clearly insane, is affecting. There are a handful of moments that might act as starting point for genuinely interesting films, or literary novels.

Robot Monster is a terrible film. But I love it.

Favourite films watched in 2013

Warning to the Curious

Other than Alfonso Cuarón’s essentially perfect Gravity (see my review), the only other 2013 film I saw that was worth a damn was Stoker (Chan-wook Park), a terrific and seedily terrifying reimagining of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt.

As for the rest of my film viewing, A Warning to the Curious (Lawrence Gordon Clark, 1972) was one of the most unsettling film experiences I can remember, up there with Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Shout (1978). Night of the Demon (Jacques Tourneur, 1957) was an expected pleasure. Whether or not the demon should have been omitted, as per Tourneur’s original intentions, is moot. With or without it, this is a peculiar masterpiece. I found Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966) striking and shocking – pop-culture familiarity still doesn’t prepare you for the experience. Sunrise (F. W. Murnau, 1927) was another absolute surprise – far more melodramatic than I’d imagined, but also far more dry and blunt, too. And it was a vast relief to see a (relatively) modern film with as much time to pay to its characters as Together (Lukas Moodysson, 2000), an unflinching and strangely warm account of communal living.

Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013)

Gravity

Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity makes good on the promise of the Lumière brothers’ L’Arrivée d’un Train en Gare de la Ciotat. Although stories of the Lumière film terrifying spectators may be myth, the 1895 film is an immersive experience, even today. It’s all spectacle and zero plot and it operates perfectly.

Gravity features a plot, but only barely. It’s the most basic type of thriller: it sets up a difficult situation, piles on the peril, and then allows us to watch its protagonist try to grapple with the problem. It’s a rollercoaster ride, almost literally. The camera swings and banks, carrying the viewer along – except it can achieve far more than just thrills of simulated motion. As in David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999), the fluidity of the CGI camera allows us unprecedented and unexpected access to characters. One moment in particular stands out as a cinematic watershed: the camera views Ryan Stone’s panicked face, then seeps through the visor of the spacesuit to view the projected readouts and view of the Earth from within. It reveals far more about Stone’s predicament than any dialogue or facial expressions. Cuarón trusts viewers to empathise with characters through shared experience.

For such a lean and kinetic film, there are a surprising number of static moments. While some viewers have found Stone’s foetal position too bluntly symbolic, it functions as a peculiar and necessary still centrepoint, following one exhausting experience and preceding others. Similarly, the dialogue isn’t much to write home about, but again functions as shorthand. Finally, although it may have wrongfooted some cinemagoers, the casting of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney fits Cuarón’s approach perfectly. He has so little interest in developing backstory for the characters (What kind of doctor is Stone? What’s the purpose of her scientific project? What do we know about Clooney’s Matt Kowalski at all?) that the familiar, A-list faces serves as shorthand. It allows the film to clock in at a tight 91 minutes, dispensing with the usual flab of Hollywood blockbusters.

The things I most enjoyed in 2012

End-of-year lists are always self-indulgent, but this is more self-indulgent still. I wanted to capture all the things that were new to me this year that summed up what I most enjoyed in 2012. I realise that this is only really of interest to me.

Albums

Feelies

Transverse (Carter Tutti Void, 2012) was the single album of 2012 that stands alongside my favourites from other years. I missed New History Warfare Vol 2: Judges (Colin Stetson, 2011) and An Empty Bliss Beyond this World (The Caretaker, 2011) in 2011 but they became firm favourites this year – Colin Stetson for Tube journeys and The Caretaker as a background to writing. Biokinetics (Porter Ricks, 1996) became my soundtrack on countless rainy train journeys, a heartbeat layered on top of the hum of travel. World of Echo (Arthur Russell, 2001) gradually became less an album heard than an album felt. My go-to album for relaxation this year was the reissued UFO (Jim Sullivan, 1969). And Crazy Rhythms (The Feelies, 1980) and Midnight Cleaners (The Cleaners From Venus, 1982) were the two albums that made me upset at time wasted before having heard about them – my favourite pop albums of 2012.

Live music

Boredoms

The American Contemporary Music Ensemble’s performance of Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet (Gavin Bryars) at All Tomorrow’s Parties was one of the most perfect things I’ve ever experienced. Boredoms at the same ATP festival was one of the bravest and maddest, featuring five drummers and a tree of guitar necks hit with a stick.

Films

Shout

I loved working through Les Vampires (Louis Feuillade, 1915), influential in technical respects but with its own weirdly dreamy qualities. The imagery has stayed in my mind longer than any other film. The Shout (Jerzy Skolimowski, 1978) was my hidden treasure of 2012, perfectly tailored to everything I like about films, and a great companion piece to Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland, 2012). The latter was perhaps not the best-crafted film released in 2012 (surely The Master), but the one I responded to the most enthusiastically. I thought my high expectations for F for Fake (Orson Welles, 1973) would make it a disappointment, but it was totally surprising despite the fact I expected surprises. The same applies to That Obscure Object of Desire (Luis Bunuel, 1977), especially the first 15 minutes or so, with a remarkable story structure. The Silence (Ingmar Bergman, 1963) was an epiphany, the first Bergman film that I’ve had an emotional reaction towards and predating David Lynch by 20 years. The Bespoke Overcoat (Jack Clayton, 1956) and Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 1990) featured the most sympathetic performances, within beautifully humanist films. And Vampyr (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1932), performed with a live soundtrack by Steven Severin, was the trippiest film experience, with Rose and I half-awake with woozy colds.

 

Books

LovedOne

I’m pickier with books than films, perhaps due to time investment. I’ve liked and/or appreciated lots of books this year. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Collins’s The Moonstone and Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther come close, but the only book that made me bubble over with enthusiasm was The Loved One (Evelyn Waugh, 1948), a perfect and perfectly concise novel.

TV

Carlos

Carlos (Olivier Assayas, 2010) was the most compelling thing I saw on TV this year, making a case for longer treatments of complex events than films can offer. It also had the best soundtrack. The Olympics opening ceremony (Danny Boyle, 2012) was the broadcast that made me happiest, possibly due to watching it with a hangover and letting the spectacle wash over me. Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia (2012) felt like the best kind of ‘event’ TV fiction, and among the best scripts that Steven Moffat has yet produced. Black Mirror: The Entire History of You (2012) was the TV episode most tailored to my interests – fingers crossed for more Twilight Zone for the C21st. Breaking Bad Season 4-5a (2011-2012) was the most moreish TV experience once the show broadened out in scale, having earned our sympathy for the characters. The Thick of It Season 4 Episode 7 (2012) was the most surprising TV episode, using comedy characters to hint at something huge and dreadful just off-screen.

 

Theatre

SergeyBoris

The puppet show Boris and Sergey’s Vaudevillian Adventure (Flabbergast Theatre) at the Edinburgh Fringe made me feel like a child and made my face hurt from smiling and laughing.

Art

Saville

It’s rare for visual arts to get me in the guts. The Jenny Saville retrospective at Modern Art Oxford did just that. And the Speed of Light night-hiking/neon joggers/sound art performance at the Edinburgh International Festival was an event that was at once hilarious and baffling.

Favourite films released in 2011

Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, USA)
At first glance, ‘Black Swan’ appears similar to Aronofsky’s previous film, ‘The Wrestler’, with its shaky documentary style and focus on a single struggling performer. But soon enough the film reveals itself as an out-and-out horror film with a fresh treatment of genre tropes (transformation, mirrors and doubling). Perhaps what seals it as not only my favourite film of the year, but my favourite cinema experience, is that I saw it amid a well-to-do North Oxford audience who’d been terribly misled. Many of them were ballet aficionados who saw ‘Black Swan’ following a screening of the Bolshoi Ballet’s ‘Swan Lake’, and seemed utterly unprepared for Aronofsky’s nightmare film, which resulted in an electric tension in the cinema.

The Tree of Life (Terence Malick, USA)
Watching the credits at the end of ‘The Tree of Life’, I felt less like I’d finished watching a film, and more like coming to after a protracted daydream. I struggled at the start, where the structure of the film comprises of tiny snippets of footage, but lost any scepticism during the ‘creation of life’ sequence (and felt that the dinosaurs fitted in perfectly well). After that point the pacing slows and the story becomes more accessible, I think, and I was totally won over. The ending on the beach may have enraged some critics but I thought it was wonderful and that it didn’t compromise Malick’s vision at all.

True Grit (Ethan and Joel Coen, USA)
‘True Grit’ contained some of my favourite suspense sequences that I’ve seen in any film this year. Jeff Bridges may have been wonderful, but I think it’s Hailee Steinfeld that steals the show, and it was great to see Matt Damon tackle something out of his normal range. After ‘True Grit’ and ‘No Country for Old Men’ (and the teeth-grinding awfulness of ‘Burn After Reading’), I’m starting to dread the Coens’ return to comedy.

Rango (Gore Verbinski, USA)
It was the involvement of the Coen’s cinematographer, Roger Deakins, as visual consultant that tipped me off that ‘Rango’ might be a treat. The film pastiches are accurate and funny and all the western signifiers are in place, but I wasn’t prepared for the tightness of the script. All of the key elements are laid out within the first twenty minutes, whereupon the rest of the film plays out satisfyingly. It makes ‘Toy Story 3’ seem rambling and incoherent in comparison. And the creature designs are so gruesome and gormless that it’s hard to imagine anyone involved believed that they were really making a children’s film.

Win Win (Thomas McCarthy, USA)
Yet another reason to hate Thomas McCarthy, director of ‘The Station Agent’ and ‘The Visitor’, respected actor starring in the fifth season of ‘The Wire’ among other things, and by all accounts a very nice man. There was no easy way to promote this midlife crisis/wrestling/parenting tale, but it’s a real shame that more people didn’t get to see this at the cinema.

Tyrannosaur (Paddy Considine, UK)
From the brutal opening sequence to its bleak ending, ‘Tyrannosaur’ is hard to watch, but the moments of humour lift the film from gratuitous misery. Olivia Colman has deservedly garnered lots of praise – her character is introduced with apparent whimsy recalling Colman’s ‘Peep Show’ persona but then changes out of all recognition – but Peter Mullan’s Joseph is equally compelling, in particular in any scenes without dialogue where his suffering is most apparent.

Point Blank (A Bout Portant) (Fred Cavayé, France)
This is the only film on this list that I’ve seen more than once, and just thinking about it makes me eager to see it again soon. At 84 minutes, it’s one of the punchiest action thrillers I can imagine. There may be some plot twists that challenge credulity, but this is a fantastic rollercoaster ride as Gilles Lellouche’s main character becomes trapped in a violent world, making bizarre choices that always seem perfectly logical in context.

Troll Hunter (André Øvredal, Norway)
Another action film that really delivers. Øvredal surprises us by laying out all his cards on the table almost immediately, as it becomes apparent that the trolls aren’t going to be shrouded in mystery, but seen up close throughout. The pacing is surprisingly nimble and the film gives viewers everything they could possibly hope for, with humour, scares, a variety of trolls and some fantastic chase sequences.

The Ides of March (George Clooney, USA)
It’s not quite up there with ‘Good Night and Good Luck’, but ‘The Ides of March’ at least proves that Clooney is dependable at delivering considered, mature political thrillers. Ryan Gosling comes into his own, and the support cast is fantastic, particularly Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman. We saw this at the Nitehawk Cinema in Williamsburg and even the horrendous hotdogs with George Washington sauce couldn’t detract from this excellent film.

Beginners (Mike Mills, USA)
Like ‘Win Win’, this is another film that must have caused headaches for the marketing department. The pre-release emphasis on Christopher Plummer’s character, an elderly father who comes out as gay, suggested an entirely different film. The true focus is on Ewan McGregor’s Oliver, to whom his father’s attitude is just another factor in his wavering indecision about his own life. Mills fills the film with curious touches which add up to create an intimate portrait of his lead character and produce a romantic comedy that feels natural and reaffirming.

Just outside of my top ten of films released in 2011:
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson, UK)
Submarine (Richard Ayoade, UK)
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt, USA)
Source Code (Duncan Jones, USA)

And some notable, high-profile disappointments. All of these films make me shiver slightly to recall them:
The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodovar, Spain)
Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, Spain/USA)
Hanna (Joe Wright, USA, UK, Germany)
The Fighter (David O. Russell, USA)

There are various films released in 2011 that I haven’t yet got around to seeing, including Lars Von Trier’s ‘Melancholia’, the Dardenne Brothers’ ‘The Kid with a Bike’, Terence Davies’ ‘The Deep Blue Sea’, Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Contagion’, Alexander Payne’s ‘The Descendants’, David Cronenberg’s ‘A Dangerous Method’, Steve McQueen’s ‘Shame’, Asghar Farhadi’s ‘A Separation’ and particularly Michel Hazanavicius’ ‘The Artist’, which I’m really excited about.

My year of needless data

About five years ago I asked my friend Charley a question: If it were available to buy, how much would you pay for all of the quantifiable data about your life up to this point?

The data would (presumably) include such numerical data as number of hours spent on the toilet, number of times spoken the word ‘shoe’ out loud, but also magically-derived but still quantifiable data like number of minutes spent thinking about sex, and so on.

At the time we both agreed that a Microsoft Excel document containing this information would be worth around £10,000. While I don’t have this sort of money, nowadays I think that £20,000 sounds more like it. Sometimes I think that if only I had access to more data about myself, I’d be able to understand myself, second-guess myself, and become the person I’d like to be. Writing a diary, blogging, logging books read and listing films watched are all ways of building up some kind of data picture about myself.

Anyway, on to more readily available data…

Books

In 2010 I kept a log of all the books I read. I like to think that I read bits and bobs from different eras and styles, but on closer inspection I’m far more conservative than I’d expected.

I’ve always thought that it’s crazy to assume that the best literature (or music, or whatever) is that produced in the last few years – but still, exactly half of the books I read this year were from the 2000s (17 of a total of 34). Similarly, 18 of the books I read were from the USA and 14 were from the UK.

I’m more comfortable with my selection of book genres. In 2010, I made a conscious decision to read more science fiction / speculative fiction, as it’s a genre that I love but have unconsciously pooh-poohed since I was a teen.

Like the near-obsessive that I am, I’ve been rating books in 2010, too. The books I enjoyed most were Middlesex (Jeffrey Eugenides), Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro), The Chrysalids (John Wyndham) and The Bridge of San Luis Rey (Thornton Wilder). The four books started but failed to finish were all non-fiction works.

Films

Most films that I’ve seen in the cinema this year (12) would have been made in 2009 or 2010 – but still, 48 of the 79 films I watched in 2010 were made in either the 2000s or this year.

As for films genre, it’s been drama almost all the way. Perhaps my genre tags are a bit lacking here. But still, a pleasing lack of action blockbusters last year.

This next one, I’m less proud of. I barely watched any non-English-language films in 2010.

As for ratings, there were nine films I watched in 2010 that I adored. Five of these were films that I’d seen before (The Conversation, Aguirre, There Will Be Blood, Adventureland, City of God), so the four films new to me that I loved were Adam Curtis’ documentary It Felt Like a Kiss, Kubrick’s 1956 noir The Killing, Tomas Alfredson’s Swedish vampire horror Let The Right One In, and the 2010 critics’ darling, David Fincher’s The Social Network.

GetGlue is a foisting machine

In the last week or so I’ve been playing around with GetGlue, a new recommendation and social networking site that covers all media (i.e. film, TV, books, music, general topics). After my abortive research into film recommendation sites – and I really should update my earlier post, as I ended up leaving Jinni in favour of Criticker, which still has plenty of failings – this feels like it could become the site for me.

There are several main draws to GetGlue. The first seems trivial but is central – you gain virtual stickers for various activities – for example, rating 50 TV shows. These stickers show up on user profiles, working as boasts similar to Xbox achievements. There are also mentions of becoming applicable to receive ‘hard-copy’ stickers for free, but this doesn’t seem to be the big sell.

The other USP is that GetGlue distinguishes between recommendations and ‘checking in’ – i.e. letting users know what you’re currently watching, reading, listening to or thinking about. This feature’s obviously inspired heavily by Facebook updates, and indeed you can publish each comment directly on Facebook (or Twitter) – you could actually use GetGlue as a portal for social-media updates related to your likes or dislikes.

Finally, and the feature that’s got me hooked, is the ability for users to become ‘gurus’ of particular subjects, achieved through posting reviews and users voting. Guru status bestows the user with page-editing privileges and also the ability to hardwire particular recommendations to that page. The temptation to foist obscure but related books, films and music onto casual browsers is huge, I’m discovering. I’m disproportionately proud to be guru of 10 things, currently: The Last Man on Earth, The Drums’ Summertime!, Dungen, Viktor Vaughn’s Vaudeville Villain, Lonnie Donegan, The Research, Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, Electrelane’s The Power Out, The Hired Sportsmen and 13 & God.

As with my earlier comparison post, here are my thoughts about GetGlue, distilled:

Pros:

  • Impressively wide catalogue due to links with specialist websites e.g. Last.fm and imdb
  • Ability to add to index from selected sites
  • Covers music, film, books, topics
  • Clean, clear interface
  • Guru status offers Wikipedia-like editing rights, plus ability to make recommendations
  • Stickers encourage exploration and are strangely compelling
  • Distinction between ‘checking in’ and liking things
  • There’s a linked iphone app
  • Links to Facebook and Twitter

Wishlist:

  • User profiles by default show a Facebook-like ‘stream’ rather than a definitive overview of that person (favourites are more enlightening but are buried away)
  • Favourites can’t be split into media type, so can become messy and unrepresentative
  • Can’t reorder favourites or lists
  • ‘Saved’ items could be made into more useful ‘to read’/’to watch’ lists, so could become a reminder tool
  • The iphone app only allows you to ‘check in’ rather than rate favourite items
  • Recommended items are literal-minded and uninspired (e.g. if you like an album by an artist, you’ll like other albums by the same artist), and only relate to a single item rather than a combination of items
  • Inability to add extra comments to a page once you’ve reviewed – even if you’re the guru
  • ‘Check in’ seems different to ‘currently reading’ etc – it’d be nice if user profiles could show media that the user is currently immersed in…
  • Only three tiers of rating: ‘favourite’, ‘like’ and ‘don’t like’ (perhaps, though, this is a ‘pro’, as it’s much lessy fussy than, say, Cricticker)
  • Can’t embed stream or favourites in non-Javascript blog (like this one)
  • Can’t easily browse recommendations – quite limited categories (e.g. 1970s)
  • This is entirely trivial, but I’d love to see the stickers feed into a meta-game or measureable tally of ‘progress’ – probably irrelevant for most people though!

You can see my GetGlue profile here.

Finding a Last.fm for films

I love lists. I love films. Surely there exists an online application that allows me to log the films I’ve watched, which then recommends other films I’d probably like?

Last.fm has fulfilled my nitpicky needs for music, and frankly, I would never keep a manual log of music I’ve listened to. However, I do keep a handwritten diary of films that I’ve watched (and I’m comfortable with the image you may have of me after that confession!). The downside of a handwritten record is that, in this age of remix culture and endless tweaking, I can’t analyze the list in any way. So begins my search for the ‘Last.fm for films’.

My criteria include:

  • a satisfying ratings feedback system (rating films must be fast and decisive)
  • ability to filter, export and display list data (to display on this blog)
  • a comprehensive list of film titles
  • a solid and reliable recommendation system

I’m not trying to be impartial – this is a search for the best tool for me alone. Extra points will be awarded for:

  • being UK-centred or at least not wholly USA-centric
  • inclusion of social features (finding people with similar tastes in order to ‘steal’ recommendations from their lists)

I tested each website using a similar technique – I added ratings for a bunch of films (most of the sites require 10 ratings before any recommendations are made). As far as possible, I rated the same films on each website (a mix of my favourites e.g. ‘Rear Window’, ‘Aguirre, Wrath of God’, ‘Bigger than Life’, a selection of non-English-language films e.g. ‘The American Friend’, ‘Il Divo’, and popular films that I disliked e.g. ‘Once’, ‘Revolutionary Road’). Judging the ease of adding the ratings and the resultant recommendations informed the bulk of these conclusions.

Click ‘Read more’ below to read the full reviews of each of the websites.

Continue reading Finding a Last.fm for films

Nicolas Moulin, Blindness and deserted streets

Via BLDGBLOG, I’ve just discovered Nicolas Moulin’s computer-altered images of Paris, with streets emptied of all life and the ground floors of each building sealed with concrete. You can see more of Moulin’s stunning work here.

One commenter on the BLDGBLOG post referenced the opening scenes of Danny Boyle’s ‘28 Days Later’ – but these images are perhaps even more affecting, as all traces of human life has been removed. I spent last night watching Fernando Meirelles faithful adaptation of José Saramago’s novel ‘Blindness’, and was particularly impressed/horrified at the scenes depicting the city, Sao Paulo, after the population has become blind. The streets are strewn with rubbish, but also with families, animals and bodies. While much of this speaks of death, it also shows that the city is resolutely full of life, even after the blindness epidemic has affected everyone.

I find Nicolas Moulin’s images compelling and disturbing precisely because of the lack of life, and because the comprehensive removal of all traces of humanity seems premeditated.

Lunar Park and required reading

I’m currently reading ‘Lunar Park’ by Bret Easton Ellis, a book in which the protagonist is a fictionalised version of Ellis himself. I’ve read and watched ‘American Psycho’, and my knowledge of Bret Easton Ellis ends there. Lunar Park appears at first to be autobiographical, but it’s soon apparent that Ellis the narrator is an exaggerated portrayal of Ellis the author. Both Ellises are famous and successful novelists with the same bibliography. Narrator Ellis has extreme drug problems, an illegitimate child, and a self-obsessed and sulky attitude.

Given the caricatured nature of Ellis the narrator, I’ve assumed that there are lots of details in the novel that are also exaggerated or falsified. The narrator is married to Jayne Dennis, a Hollywood superstar actress who has starred in blockbuster films with Keanu Reeves. Now, I’m pretty sure that Dennis is a fictional character, but now I’m wondering about how prepared one should be to read ‘Lunar Park’. Should I read Bret Easton Ellis’ Wikipedia profile to find out whether he did indeed have massive drug problems after the publication of ‘Less Than Zero’? Should I find out who were his celebrity friends? Should I Google Jayne Dennis to determine whether she’s fictional – and if she doesn’t exist, should I try to determine whether the name is an alias for another Hollywood actress? Would my understanding of the novel be lessened if I hadn’t read ‘American Psycho’, and should I have read ‘Less Than Zero’ before starting this book?

Some fiction clearly signals whether there’s required reading. Series or sequels are usually numbered to indicate where to begin. But some novels and films are more difficult to judge. A couple of nights ago I watched Wim Wenders’ ‘The American Friend’, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s ‘Ripley’s Game’. The book is the third in Highsmith’s series of novels featuring Tom Ripley, and you could certainly argue that the series is richer if read in strict order. But with Wenders’ title change, and the lack of cohesion across the various filmed versions of the novels, the required reading (or watching) for ‘The American Friend’ is far from clear. Without prior knowledge of the character, perhaps it’s possible to get through the whole film without realising that Tom Ripley is a serial killer, given that in this particular story his motives are quite ambiguous.

Should works like ‘Lunar Park’ and ‘The American Friend’ come with a required reading list, or a set of instructions? What’s the correct or default way to approach them?

Talking of instructions for fiction, I’m interested in non-linear fiction, books that require you to determine some kind of unique path through the work. Nabokov’s ‘Pale Fire’ is a good example: a quarter of the book comprises a fictional work called ‘Pale Fire’, a poem in four cantos. The remainder is an essay on the poem, and yet both of these together make up Nabokov’s ‘Pale Fire’. To read the book you have to decide whether you’ll read first the poem and then the notes in standard linear fashion, or whether you’ll dot between lines of the poem and notes relating to those lines. I’d argue that the latter is the ‘correct’ way to uncover the plot, but it’s up each individual reader to decide. The introduction to Milorad Pavic’s ‘Dictionary of the Khazars’ instructs the reader to refer to dip in and out of the fictionalised encyclopedia entries to piece together the story. Almost every page of Mark Z. Danielewski’s ‘House of Leaves’ requires the reader to decide for themselves how to progress through the fragmented text.

Anyway.

I’m not really trying to reach any conclusions, but there does seem to be a lot to be said about non-linear narratives and prerequisites when approaching fiction. As a side note, it strikes me that while there are good examples of books and, more and more, videogames with non-linear narratives, there are no non-linear films that I can think of, apart from perhaps Mike Figgis’ ‘Timecode’, at a pinch. Maybe someone should attempt to create a choose-your-own-adventure film to be ‘read’ via DVD chapter selections. Or has this been tried already?

Films of the decade

For the record, my favourite films of the 2000s, in alphabetical order:

24 Hour Party People
28 Weeks Later
Adventureland
Caché
Children of Men
City of God
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Dogville
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Good Night, and Good Luck
I’m Not There
In the Bedroom
In the Mood for Love
Memento
Moon
Mulholland Dr
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Rachel Getting Married
Shaun of the Dead
Spirited Away
The Incredibles
The Last King of Scotland
The Lives of Others
The Royal Tenenbaums
There Will Be Blood
This is England
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John Hillcoat on societal collapse

John Hillcoat, director of the wonderful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, commenting on the swift degradation of society after a catastrophe:

To New Orleans, where we have picked up some local crew who are survivors of Katrina, which gives everything an added poignancy. We heard incredible stories: after the hurricane, the first gang that came to loot the shopping mall we were shooting in were all policemen – that was just how quickly the system collapsed.

See Hillcoat’s film production journal here.

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To New Orleans, where we have picked up some local crew who are survivors of Katrina, which gives everything an added poignancy. We heard incredible stories: after the hurricane, the first gang that came to loot the shopping mall we were shooting in were all policemen – that was just how quickly the system collapsed.

The Last Man on Earth (Ubaldo Ragona, 1964)

I’ve been thinking about this film a lot recently. What’s striking about The Last Man on Earth (partly adapted by Richard Matheson from his novel I Am Legend) is the sheer tedium of Robert Morgan’s day-to-day existence in the years following the vampire virus outbreak. Vincent Price spends a great deal of the film detailing his routine tasks such as barricading the doors of his family home, collecting supplies of garlic from the supermarket and whittling stakes to clear the neighbourhood of vampires during the day. There are few glimpses of a post-disaster society – Morgan has spent several years alone, hounded by his vampiric former neighbours and stubbornly trying to live as traditional a life as possible in the circumstances.

While the film was reportedly an influence on George A Romero’s 1969 Night of the Living Dead, I think The Last Man on Earth succeeds – and is unique – because it emphasizes the dullness of a post-apocalyptic world, rather than the threats or opportunities.

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