Friday, 16 January 2015

The Grand Budapest Hotel (dir. Wes Anderson, 2014)

So, what with the Oscar nominations, and the fact that this movie popped up (conveniently) on Sky Movies, I decided to re-watch it. It really is a splendid piece of work: charming, witty, laugh-out-loud in places, gorgeously framed and designed and acted. Fiennes' Gustave is a beautiful performance (boo to him not getting Best Actor nod), and I would hazard the only character from any of this year's films who will enter popular consciousness in a longer-term sense. There's also the sheer pleasure of seeing Anderson make his most Andersonian film yet, and registering all the little tropes and signatures of which he is so fond: the uncondescending absorption in kitsch, the use of models, the sly but telling staging of generational misdirection and love. Charm, I have had occasion to say more than once, is really very hard to fake, and this is a thoroughly and deeply charming movie.

The question is: is it anything more? I've read criticism suggesting it is style over substance, all icing and no actual cake. Suggesting it isn't really saying anything. There is lots of running around and some artfully staged gags and set-pieces, but to what end? The first time I saw it, last year, I wondered if it was saying something about American attitudes to Europe, specifically that other-side-of-the-Atlantic sense that there is something old and elegant and a bit faggotty but above all something out-of-time and doomed about the mitteleuropäisch world. Which is fair enough, though a little shallow and caricaturing.

Rewatching it, however, was a revelation. The whole movie erects its filigree gorgeousness across a chasm, and only a fool (like me, evidently) could fail to grasp the nature and depth of this abyss. The repeated scenes, like visual rhymes, in which the old-school cultured European is on a train that is stopped in a field. Peering through the window and wondering 'why are we stopping in a field?' A whole movie structured across a tacit divide: we get the pre-war elegance and the post-war Sovietised shabbiness and downbeat melancholy. But what is the gap, exactly? What story does the film keep telling, in its various ways? Deputy Kovacs, played with swaggering elegance by the Jew, Jeff Goldblum, tries to execute the legal will of his deceased client and for his pains is murdered by the thuggish, skull-faced Jopling (played by the Aryan, Willem Dafoe). Serge X (played by the Jew, Mathieu Amalric) helps Gustave and Zero by packing 'Boy With Apple' for Gustave with the true will in the back, is also murdered by Jopling. Zero himself (played as a young man by the Guatemalan actor Tony Revolori, but realised in old age by the Jew [update: I was corrected on this point on Facebook: the actor's parentage is Syrian Christian and Italian], F. Murray Abraham) relates how his whole family has been murdered, and faces several close brushes with death himself. He survives, but everyone he loves vanishes into the abyss between the pre-war and post-war iterations of the movie. The Nazis are never mentioned, never shown on screen; but they, and the Holocaust, are the invisible centre of gravity around which the whole film bends. This is not to suggest it's in any way a gloomy or morbid movie. On the contrary the lightness and humour with which Anderson tells his story is not only wonderful in its own right; it is a very clever way of narrating the Holocaust. As M Gustave says of the perfect lobby boy, he is completely invisible, yet always in sight. I have heard the eternal footman, or in this case, lobby boy hold my coat and snicker. What happens to Gustave in the end is that 'they' shoot him. As the man himself puts it: 'You see, there are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity. Indeed that's what we provide in our own modest, humble, insignificant... oh, fuck it.'

I was put in mind of a sentence from Nabokov's 1948 story 'Symbols and Signs', perhaps my single favourite short story. The characters are two elderly Russian Jews, living in New York after the war and trying to find the wherewithal to keep their deranged, paranoiac, possibly suicidal son in the institution that cares for him. At one point, the mother pulls out a photograph album and looks through the photographs. Her attention is mostly on her son, of course; but the sentence I'm talking about is the last of this quotation, the one concerning Aunt Rosa.
She pulled the blind down and examined the photographs. As a baby, he [the son] looked more surprised than most babies. A photograph of a German maid they had had in Leipzig and her fat-faced fiancé fell out of a fold of the album. She turned the pages of the book: Minsk, the Revolution, Leipzig, Berlin, Leipzig again, a slanting house front, badly out of focus. Here was the boy when he was four years old, in a park, shyly, with puckered forehead, looking away from an eager squirrel, as he would have from any other stranger. Here was Aunt Rosa, a fussy, angular, wild-eyed old lady, who had lived in a tremulous world of bad news, bankruptcies, train accidents, and cancerous growths until the Germans put her to death, together with all the people she had worried about.
There's a whole novel in that sentence (I often think Nabokov doesn't get enough credit for the sometimes extraordinary tenderness with which he writes). Rosa was right to worry, we might think; it's just that she worried about the wrong things: she fussed at the near-by trivia and did not see the storm-front rearing over the horizon. I'm not sure that's right, though. We live our life close at hand, after all; the people we care about tend to be near, and they matter a great deal. It's reasonable to hope that the huge impersonal forces of death and horror pass us by, but it's a mistake to obsess about those things. In its attention to detail, to the surface textures and delights of life, even unto the icing, Grand Budapest Hotel understands that. It also understands the abyss, into which the middle years of the century shovelled literally millions of Jewish and Queer corpses. It just doesn't put that centre-frame. When I watched it first I thought the movie charming but lightweight. Now I wonder if it isn't a masterpiece.

Kameron Hurley, Infidel (2014)

The excitedly-named but short-lived 'Vol 2 Week' comes to an end at Sibfric, with a brief notice of the second volume in Hurley's Bel Dame Apochrypha trilogy. It's a 2011 title, and old news for true Hurley fans ('Hurphiles'?). Still, better late than never. This novel, then, carries the story of Nyx, warrior-assassin for the matriarchal 'Bel Dame' Guild, past the end of the war that characterised volume one of the sequence, God's War. I reviewed that novel here, if you're interested. Barebones summary: Nyx is now too-old-for-this-shit, no longer a Bel Dame and working as a bodyguard for a diplomat's child. In an opening scene that reminded me, somewhat, of Tony Scott's Man on Fire (with Nyx in the Denzel role), she is ambushed whilst escorting her charge. Ah but the twist is: it seems the Bel Dames themselves have put a hit out against her, rather than the kid she was guarding. Throw in a wasting disease slowly killing our hero, lots of juicily repellent Bug-tech, and an incident-ful narrative more cannily paced than God's War, and the result is a very readable book. Hurley's descriptive chops are better in this instalment too, I thought. The whole is better crafted without losing its visceral, tearing-off-heads shock and vigour.

Downside: the narrative barrels the reader through so effectively that the post-reading experience involves reflecting back in a way that starts to notice a general thinness, literally for Nyx, figuratively for the book as a whole. Of course it is marking time until the end of the trilogy; but it doesn't move us very far forward. And the villains and their evil schemes are underdeveloped, in part because the focus is so largely on Nyx and friends. There's also a degree of individual mismatch, unavoidable in the case of books and (some of) their readers, and which will certainly not bother most. In this case it has to do with the conceptualisation of war. Hurley is unflinching in showing the horrible, sickening and bloody mess war entails; and her baseline assumptions are the post-world-war-1 consensus that battlefields are arenas of savagery shaped by the hypocrisy of leaders and the pitiable plight of the front line soldiers (“We kill a few people to stop a lot of people dying," Nyx said. "Wars kill a lot of people to keep a few people rich.”) Not being a warmaker myself, and shaped as I am by the predominantly anti-war aesthetic of 20th-century literature, I don't exactly disagree with this; although it's enough of a consensus now (cf also: Grimdark) as to risk becoming deadening. And it opens up upon some dangerous side-alleys, not the least of which is the general contempt for 'politicians', a word treated as a synonym for 'corrupt leeches', as against honest salt-of-the-earth street brawlers and criminals (“I'm a bloodletter, not a politician," Nyx said. "I just take off heads”), which was exactly the attitude that softened the ground for the sowing of Fascism in the 1930s.

That's not my problem, though. Not really. Hurley is scrupulous in showing how much Nyx's career as a fighter has harmed her, ground her down, wrecked her body (even in a world where new body parts are easily purchased), deadened her soul. But it seems to me that the harm war does to soldiers is not the most interesting or important story to tell about war. More to the point is the harm war does to people who aren't soldiers. Both God's War and Infidel are about unaccommodated woman, the life solus, the costs and exhilarations of fighting and surviving. But that's easy. What's hard is not surviving yourself, but keeping other people alive. My own personal prejudices predispose me to think the most interesting stories are about people who raise kids in a warzone. The opening scene of Infidel made me wonder if this novel was going to address this; but it doesn't. Ah well. The thing about Achilles is that he doesn't have kids. In one sense, better than the whole of the Iliad is the scene in The Magnificent Seven where Charles Bronson spanks the Mexican kids for despising their parents. The point of that scene is: being a parent is much harder, and requires a different, more complete form of bravery, than being a gunslinger. It's the same logic that says: the Dad in McCarthy's The Road is a finer warrior than Han Solo.

I hate to extend this, really quite simple point further, but I need to clarify. One of the great strengths of this novel, and its predecessor, is the way it challenges the calcified attitudes to gender and the 'proper' role of women in society. So I need to stress I'm not talking here about anything procrusteanly woman-ish. I'm well aware of the deep-rooted bias in society (one that Hurley tackles head on) that women are 'naturally' nurturing and men are 'naturally' belligerent. Fuck that for a game of soldiers. My point is not that I wanted to read a story about Nyx caring for a child (blimey: can you imagine how that would even go?). Women are not to be defined by their capacity for caring for children. But human beings are to be defined by their capacity for caring for one another. Nyx is a warrior, indomitable and self-reliant and marvellously lacking in self-pity; but there are other, more collective and less individualistic modes of making war, and they work better. There are better military strategies than violence, too, although they may be less immediately dramatic for story-telling purposes. Gandhi made deeper and more permanent inroads into the British Empire than Hitler, after all.

[Note: to sink into mere pedantry, I know (of course) that Greek myth attributed a son to Achilles: the ferocious Neoptolemus. But there's nothing paternal, or parental, about Achilles in the Iliad. He has his self-reliance, and his superb fighting skill, and his glory, given extra sweetness by his foreknowledge of his tragic doom; he had his lover Patroclus, his slave-girl Briseis, and that's all he wants. That and killing people. He's Nyxish, or Nyx is Achillean. One of the two.]

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

John Gwynne, Valour (2014)

The improbably named 'Sibfric Voltwo Week' continues with Volume Two of John Gwynne's ongoing saga The Faithful and the Fallen. I shall not hazard a review of Volume One, since to do so would be to cross swords with the not-to-be-surpassed Jared Shurin, whose detailed account of Gwynne's Malice can be found here. As you can see, vol 1 is a reassuringly or depressingly (pick whichever term you prefer) familiar High Fantasy fable-cum-potboiler: Corban, growing to adulthood, begins to comprehend he is the Chosen One as his cod-medieval kingdom is George-R-R-Martinned around him. Valour continues the story. For those desirous of orienting themselves, the publishers have provided the following jacket text.
The Banished Lands is torn by war as High King Nathair sweeps the land challenging all who oppose him in his holy crusade. Allied with the manipulative Queen Rhin of Cambren, there are few who can stand against them. But Rhin is playing her own games and has her eyes on a far greater prize... Left for dead, her kin fled and her country overrun with enemies, Cywen has no choice but to try to survive. But any chance of escape is futile once Nathair and his disquieting advisor Calidus realise who she is. They have no intention of letting such a prize from their grasp. For she may be their greatest chance at killing the biggest threat to their power. Meanwhile, the young warrior Corban flees from his conquered homeland with his exiled companions heading for the only place that may offer them sanctuary - Domhain. But to get there they must travel through Cambren avoiding warbands, giants and the vicious wolven of the mountains. And all the while Corban must battle to become the man that everyone believes him to be - the Bright Star and saviour of the Banished Lands. And in the Otherworld dark forces scheme to bring a host of the Fallen into the world of flesh to end the war with the Faithful, once and for all.
Also provided is a five-page list of dramatis personae. That's five full pages packed tight with names like 'Dath', 'Gar', 'Heb', 'Rafe', 'Vonn', 'Kai', 'Morc', 'Rhin', 'Rath', 'Jael', 'Wolf', 'Bos' ,'Walk', 'Tanc', 'Flai', 'Jam', 'Nitti', 'Grittay', 'Tolkien', 'Tutti', 'Bois', 'Frum', 'Dee', 'Bigg', 'Bad', 'Citi', 'Dissis', 'Djamhodt', 'Dissis' ... look, I'm making these up now, I freely confess, and have been doing so since 'Bos'. But at least 'Bos' is an actual character in this book. There are also two individuals called 'Fray' ('Benothi Giant, companion of Uthas') and 'Ventos' ('a Helveth travelling merchant-trader') who, one earnestly hopes, come together in the main narrative to sell meat pies. Then: a map.

Not a bad map, as these things go. Then a poem:

Not a good poem, as these things go. Then: a cauldron!
The cauldron was a hulking mass of black iron, tall and wide, squatting upon a dias in the centre of a cavernous room. Torches of blue flame hung upon the walls of the chamber. Uthas of the Benothi giants strode towards the cauldron ...
Now that I have 'pies' in my head, I can't read 'Benothi' without salivating. Mmm! Anyway:
...strode towards the cauldron, his shadow flickering on the walls. He climbed the steps and stopped before it. It was utterly black, appearing to suck the torchlight into it, consuming it, reflecting nothing back. [1]
None more black! This gives you a flavour of the whole: unafraid of a bit of cheesy Gothic melodrama. When the story gets going it's all about the many characters all travelling from place to place and scheming and fleeing and fighting. Perfectly serviceably done. You, for instance. Yes, you. You may well be looking for a huge swamp of a narrative in which you can lose yourself, like sinking into a warm bath. If so, then this is for you, It's utterly unoriginal, full of violence, lots of things happen and it doesn't really go anywhere. Me, I found the prithee sirrah idiom hovered uncomfortably between too wincingly archaic ('"Did you see Akar fall?" "Aye. Calidus spoke true. A giant did slay Romar"' [19]) and frankly not archaic enough ('Textual inconsistencies are remarkably rare in the giants' histories' [316]). There's every dramatic cliché you can think of, most of the stylistic ones, and that irritating convention by which characters' inward thoughts are rendered onto the page in slabs of italics. Aye, he thought to himself, that has always annoyed me, when writers do that. What do they hope to gain?

The world is early medieval, largely Celtic in flavour with a strong dose of Norse: giants, dragons and other monsters are real. But the worldbuilding is the usual Fantasy mishmash and omnium gatherum: bits of French ('"I'll not be a corsair for you!" [333]), Greek ('amphorae of wine' [117]), Persian (carpets are mentioned on p.141) and Indian ('"Avatar of Elyon!" [179]) and so on. Chapters are short, heavy on the dialogue, threaded with detailed descriptions of stabbing, mauling, decapitating, torturing and slaying, and each ends with a mini-cliffhanger or duh-duh-DUH! revelation. The author's website suggests he plans four volumes of The Faithful and the Fallen, but I see no reason why it couldn't go on forever. I admit I found it draggy and stale, but your George-R-R-Mileage may vary.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Ann Leckie, Ancillary Sword (2014)

This week is 'Vol 2 week' at Sib Fric, as we move (is that a sigh of relief I can hear, or a puncture deflating?) towards the end of this ridiculous reviewing-2014-titles-splurge. And today's vol 2 is Ann Leckie's second Ancillary instalment: after Justice, Sword. Perhaps because our hero Breq now has to shore up a corner of Radchaii space using just his sword. Or else. You know. Not. Quite apart from anything else, Breq's possessive is a 'her' not a 'his', just like everyone else in the novel. The sword in this case is a huge Fuck-Off class spaceship, the Mercy of Kalr, with a crew of bristling, honour-obsessed Radschaii officers for Breq (who has been given command of the craft by the Emperor herself) to whip into shape. Or line, is it? Does one 'whip into line'? Or is that lick into shape and ... what into line? Straighten?

Sorry, my attention keeps wandering. The story picks up soon after the end of Ancillary Justice; thousand-bodied emperor Anaander Mianaai gives Breq command of the ship and sends her to Athoek to guarantee the system's safety after two 'hyperspace' gates were attacked and destroyed. She is given three officers: two experienced lieutenants called Seivarden and Ekalu and a 'baby', the inexperienced but well-connected 17-year-old Tisarwat. When they get to their destination they tangle with local politics, including the ethical problematics of a programme of in-all-but-name enslavement of the locals.

I daresay Leckie was writing this follow-up before Ancillary Justice created such an impressive splash in the rock-pool of contemporary science fiction: Hugo, Nebula, Clarke, BSFA, Nobel, Olympic Gold and Jules Rémy, all in one year and all for a debut. Genuinely impressive stuff. At any rate, A. Sword has all the marks of an ambitious writer determined not simply to repeat herself. So, where A. Just. was a multi-P.O.V. action-packed adventure, A. Swo. is all Breq, and very low-key on the Things Happening front. The emphasis is on character interactions, and interiority; the beauty of inflections rather than the beauty of Big Explosions (though there is a bomb and some fighting near the end). It's a cooler, more considered book, interested in the protocols of interpersonal interaction, and also with protocols as such. There's a great deal of pother about using the right crockery, about the dos-and-don'ts of courtesy, hierarchy and propriety. More Silver Fork than slash-and-burn. There's also an attempt to engage with questions of colonialism, slavery and class prejudice, although here the evident wrongness of all three quantities (speaking absolutely, but also in terms of Leckie's moral universe) rather undercuts the novel's drama. It's not that the book's various moments of righteous outrage aren't right-on; its more that they feel as though they could be cut-and-pasted into any number of contemporary online situations. One major theme is that the requirement that women and other oppressed minorities register their disaffection 'politely' is itself oppressive:
“When they behave properly, you will say there is no problem. When they complain loudly, you will say they cause their own problems with their impropriety. And when they are driven to extremes, you say you will not reward such actions. What will it take for you to listen?” ....

“For my part,” I replied, “I find forgiveness overrated. There are times and places when it’s appropriate. But not when the demand that you forgive is used to keep you in your place.” ....

“You are so civilized. So polite. So brave coming here alone when you know no one here would dare to touch you. So easy to be all those things, when all the power is on your side.”
One problem I had with the first novel was the way the experience of belonging to a vast hive-mind, of splitting oneself into myriad individuals and then recombining them, was rendered in traditional, monadic-human terms. Leckie's imagination does not, in this case, run to a deleuzeguattarian body-without-organs, or even to a Hardt-and-Negri multitude. And in paler form the same limitation haunts A. Sw. too. Breq is on her own now, although able to augment her mentation by connecting with the systems of her ship. A couple of the perkier, livelier elements read like they come from another novel altogether. For instance, 'Translator Dlique, a diplomat for the scary warrior alien race 'the Presger', with her pleasantly scatty inability to remember such human social conventions as sitting up straight and not dismembering people, has a very Iain M. Banks vibe about her. Also Banks-y is the tendency to name alien races after the sort of noises associated with coughing and wheezing ('Geck! 'Rrrrrrr!'). But reminding her readers of Banks runs the risks of reminding her readers of those Banks qualities (verve, humour, energy, spuming inventiveness) that don't particularly characterise this novel.

Leckie's decision to downplay the bang-bang-bang, and aim for a different set of novelistic qualia, a more thoughtful low-key narrative, is commendable. But commendable isn't necessarily the same thing as likeable, and I didn't rattle through A.S. the way I did A.J. Too much gubbins about bowls and plates; the ‘justice, propriety and benefit’ trilectic had its handle cranked a little too often. The whole thing just cooled an already cool set-up. But that's OK. Maybe you like your set-ups on the gazpacho side.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Tajinder Hayer, North Country (2015)

I count myself lucky to have met playwright Taj Hayer at last year's 'Stage the Future' conference on science fiction theatre, organised by Susan Gray and Chris 'Simon' Callow. I'm posting about him today because there's a reading of his new play North Country happening this coming Wednesday (14th Jan) at 9pm at the Arcola Theatre in East London. This is how you get to the Arcola. And this is what the blurb says: "North Country follows three young people over the course of forty years in post-apocalyptic Bradford. Director: Alex Chisholm. Cast: Michael Cahill, Dina Mousawi, Nima Taleghani". All I know is that Taj is a brilliant writer. Go check out his play. You can thank me for the heads-up afterwards.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Diamond Head, Borrowed Time (1982)

Rodney Matthews' artwork for the cover of this album, offered pretty much without comment. Click to embiggen. It's Elric, you know. You remember that Moorcock novel where Elric stands on a gigantic cork, just outside his serpent-awning lair, and shakes his fist at a distant mauve city? I believe it was called Elric the Camp. Actually, that could be pretty much any Elric novel.