film: “A Dog Called Money” (2019)

This a documentary film about PJ Harvey recording an album, though it might be more accurately described as an art film hung around PJ Harvey recording an album (said album turning out to be The Hope Six Demolition Project from 2016, indicating how long it takes to put this kind of film together). The film intercuts PJ Harvey and her buds (people like John Parish, Mick Harvey, Flood, James Johnston, Terry Edwards etc.) recording with scenes showing Harvey travelling around the world, ostensibly to gain inspiration for her songwriting.

I found the recording scenes fascinating, as the recording process was itself set up as an art project, with people able to come in and gawp at the musicians doing their stuff through a one-way mirror. The globe-trotting scenes were a bit more hit and miss. These saw the Peej heading off to Washington DC (which from memory is pretty obvious from the album, which does a lot of name-checking that city), but also to Afghanistan and Syria. The Washington stuff, which saw Harvey going to a black gospel church and hanging out with the youth seemed a bit too much like that bit in Rattle and Hum where Bongo goes all gospel; all that was really missing was a gospel version of some PJ Harvey classic like ‘Down By The Water’. The stuff in more troubled parts of the world featured some genuinely funny moments (like the bit where a Kabul traffic cop loses it and starts kicking cars) and moments of fascinating musicality, notably Harvey attending what seems to be a Sufi mystical gathering where the music is oddly reminiscent of those chain-gang work-songs from the southern United States, but overall it felt like whitey holidaying in other people’s misery, with an added disturbing fear that Harvey was going to go all Paul Simon and absorb the music of her Afghan pals into her new record. The scene with refugees trying to cross the border between Greece and the Country Formerly Known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is genuinely depressing but as Harvey was not even present there you have to wonder what it is doing in the film.

On balance therefore I rank this film as an embarrassing failure but would still recommend it to everyone who loves the music of PJ Harvey.

image source (Guardian)

film: “In Fabric” (2018)

Seeing this film earlier in the year was me belatedly climbing onboard the Peter Strickland express. It tells of a weird department store and a cursed dress, with the film having the overall sense of being a mashup of Are You Being Served? and the darker works of David Lynch. It all feels very Scarfolk, with the shop seeming to exist in that mysterious long 1970s of yore, an effect accentuated by the curious early synthesiser music soundtrack by Cavern of Anti-Matter; the general aesthetic also feels a bit retro, unsurprising given Strickland’s rep as an aficionado of Italian trash films of the 1970s. That all sounds very appealing but for me the film had considerable problems, the greatest of which was its length. I think it could have done without the whole second plot. The film’s lurches in mood also seemed a bit problematic, with it being at times very funny (in a strange way) before going back to menacing horror. My sense of the film was that it was one where at the beginning the creator(s) threw out every possible idea in a brainstorming session, and then used them all. That would probably explain the length. For all that, I still think the film was worth seeing, given its appealing visual aesthetic, the strong performances from the actors and its general strangeness.

Just before it began I noticed that In Fabric received an 18 certificate from the Irish film censor. Curious readers will be pleased to hear that this most probably is for the scene in which some of the shop assistants sex up a showroom dummy for the delight of a strange voyeuristic onanist.

image source (No More Workhorse)

“Tomb of the Cybermen” (1967)

This is a four episode story from the popular TV series Doctor Who. In this one the second Doctor and his pals Jamie (Scottish) and Victoria (Victorian) land on mysterious planet called Telos and fall in with some space archaeologists, who are looking for the eponymous tomb of the Cybermen. Said tomb turns out to be some class of trap laid by the rubbish cyborgs, though even after a close watching of this story I am still unclear as to what the Cybermen were hoping to accomplish that could not have been accomplished by not entombing themselves. For all the plot problem, the story just about deserves its reputation as a classic of early Doctor Who, with the episode two cliffhanger of the Cybermen waking up and bursting out of their cells being one of the programme’s most memorable. The story also features the great stock character of Doctor Who, the human villain who thinks that by doing some kind of favour to implacable aliens they will assist him (usually him, though in this case also a her) in conquering the Earth; this always ends well.

Tomb of the Cybermen follows directly after Evil of the Daleks, in which said Daleks killed (nay, exterminated) Victoria’s father. There is a quite touching scene in this story in which the Doctor (played by Patrick Troughton) talks to Victoria about grief and her memory of her father, referring obliquely to his own lost loved ones. In days of yore Doctor Who was primarily aimed at children, so I cannot but think this scene was intended as a comfort to any children who might themselves have lost family members.
The story also features Cybermats, which are kind of like rats that have been turned into animal versions of the Cybermen or something. I think they are meant to be threatening, but as is the way of such things they end up looking quite cute.
These days however Tomb of the Cybermen is often noted for its problematic racial stereotyping – Middle Eastern people are shifty while Africans (or the story’s one African) are muscleheads. And Americans are all “gee golly” etc., showing yet again the downpression and negative stereotyping white Americans must endure on a daily basis. I thought maybe the stereotyping was not the worst I have ever seen, but then I am notorious for my unwoke nature.

image source (Wikipedia)

Sarah Brightman and Hot Gossip ‘I Lost My Heart to a Starship Trooper’ (1978)

All the space stuff I was doing over the summer decided me that I wanted to download this amazing tune, which is one of very few instances in which a dance troupe released a record (joined of course by the charming Ms Brightman). Musical flourishes reference popular science fiction themes, while we are provided with lyrics to enjoy such as the following:

Tell me, Captain Strange, do you feel my devotion?
Or are you like a droid, devoid of emotion?
Encounters one and two are not enough for me –
What my body needs is close encounter three!

And then there is the chorus:

I lost my heart to a Starship Trooper!
Crashing light in hyperspace!
Fighting for the Federation!
Hand in hand we’ll conquer space!

This obviously is from before Blake’s 7 turned people against federations.

Don’t waste your time reading my words – play the video and appreciate the tune in all its fabulousness.

image source (Wikipedia)

Derek Jarman corner: one exhibition, two films

Derek Jarman died some time ago but there is currently a retrospective exhibition of his work on in the Irish Museum of Modern Art, and I think it is worth your time. I somehow found myself at the opening, where there was free beer, which meant I had a quick viewing but will need to go back to examine it in more detail. The exhibition has considerable audio-visual elements to it, with various of his film work being shown there, including Super8 classics like A Journey to Avebury and the various pop videos he directed (the latter sadly being shown in non-ideal circumstances – a monitor in a corridor at a small-child’s eye level).

The Irish Film Institute has been showing a season of his feature films. Last week I caught his Caravaggio from 1986, which deals impressionistically with the painter’s life, focussing in particular on his relationship with a Roman bruiser (who becomes his model) and the bruiser’s wife, played by Sean Bean and Tilda Swinton respectively; this was one of Bean’s first screen roles and he starts as he means to go on. Caravaggio himself is played by Nigel Terry while various other stars of the British stage and screen show up in a variety of roles. The film looks stunning, despite its all having been filmed indoors in some bunker complex, with the lighting deliberately mirroring the chiaroscuro effect of Caravaggio’s art. It is in some respects impressionistic rather than plot based, but that is not a criticism.

Caravaggio is rather focussed on the artist’s homosexuality, with one particularly memorable and homoerotic scene being the one where the painter throws gold coins to the topless bruiser, who takes them in his mouth. Nevertheless, the film is somewhat restrained in its depiction of homosexuality: although Jarman was keen to push the envelope, there was only so far it could be pushed in 1986. In other respects the film sanitises Caravaggio’s life, downplaying the extent to which he was always killing people in drunken brawls. But it remains a classic of arthouse cinema that I recommend to all readers. If stuck for time the Pet Shop Boys video for ‘It’s A Sin’ is the redux version.

Yesterday I saw Jarman’s Edward II, from 1991. Adapted from Christopher Marlowe’s play (from 1594 or thereabouts). This film is more focussed on narrative than Caravaggio, but it similarly rejects realism, being shot entirely in what seems to be a concrete bunker with anachronistic elements deliberately embraced. It tells the story of that unfortunate king, whose love for another man shocks the establishment, ultimately leading to his overthrow and murder. Tilda Swinton plays the Edward’s queen, whose neglect by her husband drives her into the arms of Mortimer, his main enemy (played in turn by Nigel Terry). I felt a bit like the king’s enemies got the better roles here, with Swinton and Terry shining over Steven Waddington as Edward, though I was also impressed by Andrew Tiernan as Gaveston, the king’s lover.
In contrast to Caravaggio, this film really goes for it in terms of gayness, with the opening scene being Gaveston learning that he is free to return to England while two sailors get it on in the bed he is sharing with them. Jarman tries to present Edward as some kind of gay rights martyr, with at one point his army being a load of protesters waving Outrage banners, but I remained somewhat unconvinced – Edward still comes across as a weak figure and the author of his own misfortunes, who is unwilling to subordinate his private fancies to the needs of the state (compare with Shakespeare’s Henry V and his renunciation of Falstaff on his accession to the throne). Nevertheless, the film is a fascinating piece of work, which left me eager to investigate further both the work of its director and the playwright on whose work it is based.


Derek Jarman (The Quietus)

Title page of 1594 printing of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II (Wikipedia: Edward II of England)

Octocon 2019

My write-up of this year’s Worldcon is almost but not quite complete. Since then I also attended Titancon/Eurocon in Belfast, but rather than write about that or my last day at Worldcon I am now going to leap ahead to a discussion of this year’s Octocon, which took place a week ago. This is the Irish national science fiction convention, normally taking place over a whole weekend but this year reduced down to one day, partly because some of its big programme items had temporarily migrated to Worldcon, notably the Golden Blasters (a competition for short science fiction films) and the Vault of Horror (man with cropped hair and stick shouts at audience members while playing scenes from bad films). This year’s Octocon was pitched as a quiet post-Worldcon catch-up for Irish SF fans and also as a con for people who are averse to enormocons. As with last year it took place in the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Blanchardstown, with Janet O’Sullivan and Raissa Perez co-chairing.

After the opening ceremony, the first programme it, I attended was the Sunday Service, in which Janet O’Sullivan and James Brophy presented a rofflesome recap of the year in SF. This unfortunately served to remind me of how thanks to my boring World War 1 blog and time spent doing Worldcon stuff I largely missed all the big picture films they mentioned (though frankly I was also washing my hair every night I otherwise had free to see the latest superhero film).

Next I found myself attending a panel on the Fae in popular culture. There always seems to be a fair bit of Celtic fantasy Leprechaun fairy stuff at Octocon; this year it was the overall theme of the convention, with a number of programme items touching on the fair folk. In response to a question the interesting point was made that Ireland’s greater wealth of hidden people lore exists mainly because it was extensively written down in the Middle Ages. It was also noted that this year marks the 60th anniversary of the release of Darby O’Gill and the Little People. Suggestions were made that people might want to investigate Dúchas, the Irish digital folklore project, and perhaps even volunteer time to assist in the transcription of items from its manuscript collection.

A panel entitled Preserving Nature in SFF Futures looked at ecologically themed SF, something which has been on trend for a while and which I suspect we will be seeing more of in years to come. The subject can be a difficult one, with it being very easy to just fall into writing dystopian grimness. One good point from the audience was that narrative conventions tend to focus on individuals but combatting the ongoing climate crisis requires collective action, something a bit more difficult to represent in fiction. There is also the danger of pushing people into the slough of despond by painting such a convincing picture of the horrors of climate collapse that they are left feeling helpless and without agency.

A couple of fictional works were mentioned at that panel that I though might be worth investigating. Peadar Ó Guilin mentioned Stephen Baxter’s novelette ‘On the Orion Line’, where perpetual war with aliens arises from humanity’s depletion of resources and need for continuous expansion to maintain its civilisation. John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up deals with near future civilisational breakdown due to ecological collapse and resource depletion (in a manner perhaps similar to Harry Harrison’s brilliant Make Room! Make Room!). The commercially unsuccessful film Downsizing was mentioned as one that attempts to look at the personal implications of the approaching end. Even The Hunger Games was cited both for its warnings that economic and political systems can be hard to remove (but also its prescient suggestion that one girl can make a difference).

I do find myself wondering whether the fundamentally depressing nature of climate collapse fiction means that readers will tire of the subgenre. I was struck previously by Morgan Hazelwood’s write-up of a Worldcon panel on Hopepunk, another emerging subgenre, in which writers offer at least some kind of light at the end of the tunnel. There is obviously a danger of switching from helpless despondency to complacency, but I think to make action possible to avert or minimise ecological catastrophe there needs to be some sense that the situation is not completely hopeless.

A writery panel on Suspending Scientific Disbelief looked at how far SFF writers can get away with flying in the face of established scientific fact. However one interesting point for me was when the panelists were invited to bring up examples of scientific facts so bizarre that they would be hard to include in a story. My favourite one mentioned was by Edmund Schluessel, who revealed that the resonating frequency of the cable in a space elevator is related to the resonant frequency of the planet it lifts from, so by twanging the cable one could make the planet explode, or something like that. More generally the point was made by Michael Carroll that while a good plot can survive bad science, there is only so much scientific implausibility the reader can take before they go “Ah here now come on”. I was also interested by the panelists’ mention of The Martian (book and film), in terms of how it dealt with the psychology of the abandoned astronaut and not just the purely physical stuff (which sadly has been somewhat superseded by scientific discoveries since).

And then to a panel on Romance in SFF. I’ve always liked romantic plots in SF and fantasy genres, at least in theory, as they suggest that the human characters are more than just problem-solving automatons. To some extent though I thought this panel talked more about romantic fiction (a separate genre) rather than SFF with romantic elements. Several of the panellists write romantic fiction, a genre with its own set of conventions (one of which mentioned being the Happily Ever After ending). My feeling however is that the appearance of romance in SFF does not require an adherence to romantic fiction genre conventions: the romance in SFF can mirror the romance in real life, where people aren’t always looking to live happily ever after or do not always manage to, and so on.

Nevertheless, the discussion of romantic fiction was fascinating. It is not a genre with which I have much familiarity, but I was struck by Ruth Long’s discussion of the idea people keep having that they could start writing Mills & Boon novels as a way of turning a quick buck. Long does not (I think) write Mills & Boon novels herself but she noted that for a writer they present some pretty unique challenges, with a rigid house-style and required set of characters and plot elements within which a writer is meant to produce something that the book’s readers will not consider a rehash of previous novels. That came across like a form of constrained writing akin to that practiced by Georges Perec and those Oulipo people. I was also reminded of a BBC News article some time back about Roger Sanderson, the one man who has successfully written for Mills & Boon, which provided further insights into the world and its readers’ expectations.

There was some discussion of what counted as examples of good romance in SFF, with Han Solo & Princess Leia being held up as the gold standard. I’ve always found that one of the more tiresome elements of the original Star Wars films, but I’m not sure whether that is because I find it reactionary or whether it is because fundamentally I can’t identify with Han (this in particular may be a romance designed to appeal to girls). For contrast, in my notes I quickly listed the first appealing romantic SFF plots that occurred to me, and here they are:

– Tarrant and Servalan in Sand, an episode of Blake’s 7 written by Tanith Lee. Notable for being one of the few moments in which the Servalan mask slips.
– Eowyn and Faramir in Lord of the Rings. Sad people find each other.
– Laurie and Dreiberg in Watchmen. OK maybe this is a problematic fave, but it is interesting as an example of how the dorky guy getting the girl does not actually resolve his problems and instead leads them down a whole rabbit hole of deeply problematic behaviour.
– K (as played by The Human Corgi) and Joi in Bladerunner 2049. Sad love between two non-humans, at least one of which may not actually be self-aware.
– The unnamed space traveller and the girl he left behind in ‘Spirit of the Age‘, by popular band Hawkwind.
– No spoilers, but a significant part of the plot of now somewhat forgotten film Strange Days is driven by the romantic travails of the male lead.
– Buckaroo and giant pound coin in Pounded By The Pound: Turned Gay By The Socioeconomic Implications Of Britain Leaving The European Union. Love is real, despite Brexit.

And then to Irish Sidhe 101, a talk by Lora O’Brien on the folklore, traditions and history surrounding the fairy folk in Ireland. Lora O’Brien describes herself as a Draoí (not a Druid) and has what might be called neo-pagan beliefs, including that the fairy folk have a real existence. She was also rigorous in her reference to the history of manuscript sources of information about beliefs surrounding them. I was struck by her mention of the Saga of Fergus Mac Léti, a very early manuscript that has descriptions of a class of little person somewhat similar to kitsch modern depictions of Leprechauns, but different in that they were associated with coastal areas and the sea; to me this illustrates how cultural beliefs shift over time.

Billy Edwards update
The last full panel I went to looked at how the terrifying stories of yore find themselves transformed over time into cute bedtime stories. Disney was particularly blamed here, with that studio having so taken over fairy tales that for many people the Disney version is what they think of as the definitive version of the story (this is not always a bad thing perhaps, given how fundamentally unpleasant the original version of Sleeping Beauty is, which must surely be the case for other stories as well). When the panelists were asked about stories or monsters from other traditions that might be worth retelling or recycling things went into pretty bizarre territory. Mention was made of some monster from Swiss folklore that was a giant cow’s udder covered in eyes, which sounds like something from the worst nightmare of HP Lovecraft (sadly I can find no pictures of or references to this online).

The con ended with the closing ceremony and round-up of upcoming events, at which it was announced that after many years of chairing Janet is stepping down, with Raissa chairing alone for next year, which will be Octocon’s 30th anniversary. I then had to return home to attend to the needs of my cat, who had made a surprise appearance in The Observant Octopus. She is still basking in her new-found fame and has completely lost the run of herself.

image sources:

Woman with great hair fleeing gothic house (The Pulp Librarian, Twitter)

Pounded by the Pound (Goodreads)

Helpful Cat

Theatre: “Gym Swim Party”

I do not go to the theatre as much as I ought to, but recently I found myself attending a performance of this play in the O’Reilly Theatre, which was being staged as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival. Gym Swim Party was co-written by Danielle Galligan and Gavin Kostick (my old friend and quaffing partner) and co-directed by Eddie Kay, Megan Kennedy & Louise Lowe. That is a lot of co-directors and I think it might be testament to the kind of show it was, as the production interspersed the more usual actor dialogue stuff with movement and dance elements. The initial premise of the piece was that two rival gym chains were locked in a battle for supremacy over Dublin’s fitness scene and had decided to settle things once and for all in a fit-off that saw their instructors compete in a variety of activities. This part was the least play-like and did feel a bit like you were watching an actual dance-off (partly thanks to the pumping music of a kind that I understand to be played in gyms (a class of establishment I do not frequent)) only with people doing step aerobics rather than dance as such. This bit was great, all high energy and basically fun-to-watch buff people do physical stuff.

I was thinking initially that maybe the whole show would be the contest, which could have been fun but maybe difficult to sustain (also sweaty for the actors), but one of the chains eventually crushed the other, absorbing their business and leaving its gym instructors to beg for new jobs with the victors. At this point audience members with a classical education were beginning to twig that there was some kind of Trojan War referencing going on, both in the names of the characters and the losing company being called Trojan Gyms. And in fact as the post-face-off part of the show unfolds it becomes apparent that this basically an adaptation of Agamemnon by Aeschylus. You will recall that this is the one about Agamemnon returning home from the Trojan War with new concubine Cassandra (spoils of war) only to be murdered in the bath by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover (thereby fulfilling a prophecy that he would die neither on land or at sea). In this one Aggie and Cass (still some kind of weird prophet) have fallen in love; he plans to divorce his wife Clem (played by Danielle Galligan) to be with her, but he meets his doom in the jacuzzi.

Now, you may ask, does the world need more retellings of Greek myths? My own view is that they are great stories and they are worth recycling. This production is to be saluted for setting it in the present day but not trying to make it Relevant – there is no suggestion that the Trojan War is a metaphor for Brexit or that Aggie is an analogue of Donald Trump or that the whole point of the thing is to Make Us Think about some contemporary issue. There are maybe some problems around the edges, like the way it goes for the resolutely kitchen sink setting but then retains the mythic idea of Cass as a seer thanks to an encounter with the Sun God. They also made no attempt to shoehorn the Trojan Horse into the story and I was struck by how Helen does not appear and is only alluded to obliquely when Clem mentions being the less attractive sister. Frankly though the energetic exuberance of the production had me thinking that it would be churlish to quibble.

image source:

Gym Swim Party (Dublin Fringe Festival)