Saturday, July 07, 2018

Steve Ditko 1927-2018

Sad to read that Steve Ditko, the man who drew Spiderman and Doctor Strange, has passed. As a boy, I taught myself to draw by copying Ditko. I suspect I am not alone in that. A true great of comics.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Missions - BBC 4

They've been trailing Missions for weeks now. It finally got underway last night. Turns out it is ten 25 episodes - and it's French. The plot, I have to say, is sketchy at best and there's much I didn't understand. Nevertheless, the central premise of the first two episodes - that this is supposed to be the first manned mission to Mars but another privately funded mission has beat them to it - is pretty good, especially when it turns out to be a red herring. The man they find waiting for them is not a member of the other crew but a Russian cosmonaut who went missing on re-entry in 1967. Bloody great!

What caught my attention, however, was not the anodyne sci fi acting but the stunning visuals. I really loved the effects on the opening hook, the cosmonaut realising he's going to have to do everything manually with only the best wishes of the Soviet Leader (presumably Brezhnev) to sustain him. But then come the titles, which are absolutely stunning. I cannot even bring to mind a full-blown feature film with titles this good.

I eagerly look forward to next week's double bill.
[Missions was created by Henri Debeurme, Julien Lacombe and Ami Cohen. It is distributed by AB International.]

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Danilo Kis and the pocket-sized novel

Danilo Kis was a Yugoslavian writer who lived and worked in France but wrote and published in Serbo Croat. He died of cancer in 1989, six years after publishing this last collection of short stories or, as he preferred to call them, pocket-sized novels.
I have reviewed the individual stories over on my book blog. I am writing here - for the first time in a very long time - because that concept intrigues me. Fortunately the introduction, by Kis's biographer Mark Thompson, quotes Kis himself on the subject.

Kis believed that when he began writing the short story was moribund. Thompson tells us that Kis was referring to the likes of Maupassant and Chekov, authors of the kind of story --
that creates a complete picture of the world and time, a 'totality of experience' through a single gesture, an insignificant day in the life of an insignificant character, by means of deduction (in terms of ontology) and induction (in terms of literary technique).
Of course Maupassant and Chekov were writing at the same time, the time of high Empire and inarguable truths. There were some things that did not have to be stated because they were universally accepted. For example, democracy was a good thing, a free press was desirable, ladies were all very well as a leisure activity but had no role to play in the wider world. There were so many significant figures bestriding the world that insignificant people doing insignificant things had a contrarian attraction for the discerning reader.

Kis's argument, Thompson tells us, is that two World Wars had shattered the paradigm. After the Western Front and Blitzkrieg everyone was insignificant, honour irrelevant, greatness fleeting. The world was hostile to the individual. The individual was doomed to search for explanations that never came or were purposely withheld.
Nothing is supremely meaningful and nothing is meaningless: descriptions of things and topics, proffered with cold objectivity, carry the same significance as the spiritual condition of heroes in tales of old; they are the cells of a single organism; every topic - like every pore on the hero's skin - is a sort of micro-organism which bears witness to the malady and crisis of the world in which he, my hero (if there is one at all) lives.
Thus the modern short story, irrespective of length, has to take on the novel in creating an entire world. The only thing that makes it a short novel is that there is only one problem for the single protagonist to tackle. I wondered what Kis might say about the novella - is there a difference or is a novella merely a pocket-sized novel? I considered this in light of my own novella, Savage Company, and concluded that it is, in fact, three pocket-sized novels as defined by Kis; three protagonists dealing individually with three linked but distinct problems.

Finally, the question is: are the stories here (all or any) pocket-sized novels? For me, 'Simon Magus' and 'The Legend of the Sleepers' are apocryphal tales; 'Last Respects' and 'Pro Patria Mori' are contes cruels in the manner of Villiers de l'Isle-Adam. The two unequivocal condensed novels are the title story and 'The Book of Kings and Fools'.

The former tells of a woman visiting Sweden who is introduced to a secret archive, possibly suggested by the Church of Latter Day Saints' genealogical collection, in which every person who has ever lived but who has not attained sufficient fame to warrant an entry in more mainstream works of reference is memorialised. Naturally the woman looks up her recently deceased father. She finds a record of every last detail of his life, no matter how trivial.
Perhaps this example will give you an idea how pansophical, to use an old word, The Encyclopedia of the Dead actually is. The principle is clear, yet the erudition, the need to record it all, everything a human life is made of, are enough to take one's breath away. What we have here is a brief history of Ruma, a meteorological map, a description of the railway junction; the name of the printer and everything printed at the time - every newspaper, every book; the plays put on by touring companies and the attractions of touring circuses; a description of a brickyard ... where a young man, leaning against an acacia, is whispering a mixture of romantic and rather ribald words into a girl's ear (we have the complete text). And everything - the train, the printing press, The Bumptious Bumpkin, the circus elephant, the track forking off in the direction of Sabac - it all figures here only insofar as it pertains to the individual in question.
If this is exactly what Kis means by a condensed novel, 'The Book of Kings and Fools' is in a sense the inverse. It shows and explains a world entire unto itself which is nevertheless a fake or construct. It is, specifically, the world of The Protocols of Zion, foundation text on the one hand of Twentieth Century anti-Semitism, on the other the basis of The Da Vinci Code via Henry Lincoln and other Holy Blood conspiracy theorists. I loved this story because I had recently loved Umberto Eco's Prague Cemetery which tells the same story at infinitely greater length.

This is perhaps the great attraction of Danilo Kis. Unlike other post-modern polemicists he can turn his big idea on its head and relish the result.

Friday, October 20, 2017


Another film about Kennedy? Yes, that's just what we need. I'm being sarcastic, naturally, but as it turns out this is the Kennedy film we probably needed. No conspiracy nonsense, no smut - just a straight account of the events of November 22 1963 as it affected a number of those indirectly involved - Abraham Zapruder, who took the famous 8mm movie; Dr Jim Carrico, who found himself pumping the President chest in the Emergency Room at Parklands; the Dallas FBI agents who not only feel they've messed up but who, it turns out, actually have messed up; and Lee Harvey Oswald's baffled brother Bob.

Parkland (2013) was the directorial debut of Peter Landesman, who also wrote the script. The cinematography is a work of art, switching from stock footage to recreation to art-house effects at times. Landesman's determination to avoid cliché is most memorably demonstrated when we get our first glimpse of the assassination film reflected in Zapruder's horn-rimmed glasses. Given that the eyes behind the glasses belong to Paul Giamatti, the impact is incredible.
All the performances are either as good as Giamatti's or make a damn creditable effort. Zac Efron as Dr Carrico is so convincing I didn't even realise that was him; Billy Bob Thornton as local Secret Service boss Forrest Sorrels, also unrecognisable; and Robert Badge Dale as Bob Oswald. I should also mention, in roles with less screen time, Jacki Weaver as barking-mad Mother Oswald, Jeremy Strong, whose resemblance to Lee is positively disquieting, and the always great Marcia Gay Harden as Head Nurse in the Parkland ER.

The script was so good that even I, who can absolutely remember where I was on November 22 1963 and who has read all the significant literature, didn't know. First, that Oswald had walked into the FBI office only a couple of weeks earlier and threatened an officer, and second that when he was gunned down by Jack Ruby they took him to Parklands - cue Marcia Gay Harden's finest moment, "Not in here!" And the final sequence, where radio and TV reports of JFK's funeral are intercut with Bob Oswald's attempts to bury his brother in someone else's plot in a long neglected cemetery in the middle of nowhere - magnificent film making and deeply moving.

 I only watched because British TV is so currently so bloody awful that there was nothing else I remotely wanted to watch on all those free-to-air and Sky channels. So I suppose I can thank Rupert Murdoch for lowering the tone of TV in general and thank a previous generation for the refuge of Film 4.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017


Antoine Fuqua's 2015 boxing movie is unbelievably hoky in terms of plot, structure and character development, saved by a trio of outstanding performances. The premise could not be more blunt: good guy family man boxer versus slick gangsta challenger. You don't need subtleties like black and white hats when your hero is All-American Billy Hope, the upstart a Colombian called Escobar. It's a redemption story, as most boxing movies are - but what is Billy being redeemed from? His only sin seems to be leading with his face in the ring and being congenitally dim outside it. He doesn't do drugs, he doesn't meaningfully drink. His life spirals out of control when one of Escobar's crew inadvertently shoots Billy's wife dead. How is that Billy's fault?

Perhaps his great sin is taking a bill-paying fight while he's still grieving. He just stands there and takes it for 12 rounds. We've all seen that in real fights. He ends up knocking out the referee who really should have stopped the fiasco much earlier. For this he gets a one-year ban. Really?

Within days, apparently, his mansion is sold and he hits the streets. His daughter is taken into care when Billy tries to kill himself. OK, then, maybe the uncaring state is the antagonist. Nope, because the state is absolutely caring and considerate.

Meanwhile, thankfully, Billy starts over, under the nurturing wing of Titus 'Tick' Wills, a man with a serious backstory which we never get to see. From that moment, we are never in the slightest doubt what will happen.

It's hard to see how anyone could claim to have written this guff, let alone a serious TV writer like Kurt Sutter (of Sons of Anarchy and The Shield). I gather it started out as a vehicle for Eminem, which might explain a certain lack of demands. Instead, we get Jake Gyllenhaal as Billy, a truly outstanding physical performance, albeit the characterisation couldn't be more basic. Forest Whitaker is magnificent as Wills, the best performance I have seen from him in years. This is unexpected, given that Whitaker and rubbish material - a not infrequent combination - usually results in a display of actorly mannerisms and tricks from the Whitaker repertoire. Here, I only spotted one, the spread-arms stance, denoting a mix of helplessness and defiance. The third star is Oona Laurence as Billy's pre-teen daughter. I will state up front that I am a man who would run a mile, despite my debility, to avoid ninety minutes of kiddie acting. There are, however, exceptions - Anna Paquin in The Piano, Natalie Portman in Leon, both of whom have gone on to adult success. I very much hope young Miss Laurence can do the same, because she is really the standout performer in Southpaw, utterly credible throughout.

In case you get the impression that I'm touting Southpaw as an acting fest (Rachel McAdams is also good as the murdered wife, but isn't in it long enough), let me point out that we have Curtis "Fifty Cent" Jackson as Billy's sleazy manager. Perhaps that was the original pitch - "A mash-up of Rocky and The Champ, with Eminem and Fifty Cents!" I have not seen Eminem's 8 Mile and thus cannot comment on his acting skills. On the evidence of Southpaw Mr Jackson cannot act to keep his feet warm and has the onscreen menace of Bambi. He does however wear a slick suit very impressively.

The filmography, to be fair, is magnificent, and Fuqua handles the fight action brilliantly. The music was, sadly, the last score of the great James Horner, he of Titanic fame. Rap fans will be thrilled to learn that Slim Shady provides the song for the end titles. It too is rubbish.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Roger Wood's Biblioblog: Good & A Nightingale Sang... - C P Taylor

Roger Wood's Biblioblog: Good & A Nightingale Sang... - C P Taylor: C P Taylor was a Glaswegian Jewish Marxist autodidact playwright who lived and worked in Newcastle and who died ridiculously young in 1981. ...