Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2014, pt. 3: Gwyneth Jones

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2014
by Gwyneth Jones

This is going to be about books and movies, with a couple of excursions into Art. Music would be another essay!

January: we went to see the Katniss Everdeen show #2 (I mean The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) for our Christmas outing. Much better than the book, good idea to ditch all the "Peeta is interesting too! He has his cute handicrafts!” ; and to boost the revolution.  Downside: I don't know if you'd get me inside a Center Parcs holiday world now. I'd never be able to enjoy the fencing or the tree climbing, I'd be waiting for the poisonous fog and the mad mandrills the whole time.

February: we saw American Hustle, and I didn’t like it. Megastars, ingenuously dressed up to look tawdry, and loving themselves in the mirror. The best bit, the very best bit, was Jennifer Lawrence and the science oven. I'll stick with The Sting. Which I assure you is more authentically "Seventies." Then we saw Inside Llewyn Davis. Very well-crafted, excellent central performance,  limited folksong repertoire (the scraps left over from O Brother?); whole thing very mean-spirited. Those Coen brothers really did not like this Davis guy! And then we saw Under The Skin.  I like the original Michel Faber novel, which is grim but not horror, better. And Isserly the sympathetic fictional character makes a lot more sense than Jonathan Glazer’s blurred, confusing, alien femme fatale. But as arthouse scifi horror this was pretty good. Scarlett Johannson so has that bruised, slightly fleshy Monroe look worked out.

April: we saw John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary & it was stunning. Quirky "black" Irish  humour
fans of McDonagh’s  In Bruges and The Guard got a shock, Calvary  is a full-on, uncompromising morality play, harsh and pure as they come. I don't know what to compare it with, except maybe Park Chan-wook's Sympathy For Mr Vengeance. And all played out beside the bleak and beautiful strand under bare Ben Bulben's head. The entire audience at The Dukes sat in dazed silence without stirring as the credits rolled, and I have never seen that before.

May: I went to Manchester to visit my friend Mary. We saw Simon Armitage's The Last Days Of Troy at the Royal Exchange Theatre.  The production looked really good, and the action was thrilling, but everything lost focus after the interval, when Armitage strays  away from lifting stuff directly from The Iliad, and makes a bit of a hash of Book II of the Aeneid instead. Shabby treatment of Helen. I know Lily Cole is a supermodel, not an actress, but she’s not an idiot, and there’s no excuse for mutilating the really extraordinary thing Homer does: making Helen, of all people, his viewpoint character: the person who has been weaving on her loom the story the poet’s words tell. Wouldn't you think, in this day and age, a dramatist would know better? Also went to Opera North’s La Bohème at The Lowry, which was lovely. Young cast, believing every word of their story, looking like real, young examples of the bohemian life, and very sweet. 

JuneI didn’t get out much, but I read some books, including: Natsuo Kirino, The Goddess
Chronicle, a Japanese Creation Myth tale, a poignant, strange reminder of what "Okinawa" and "Iwo Jima" might have meant, if they didn't mean The War In The Pacific. Have to admit it's all about Death, and mainly about women (or Yin) getting the short end of that stick, but I liked it a lot. Will now seek her futuristic “hardboiled detective novels”  Belinda Bauer, Rubbernecker:  At first I thought this one was a bit of a conjuring trick. You say Our Hero has Asperger's, then you can do anything you like with him, including using any quirky internal musing (such as we neurotypics might easily indulge in), sound like you Know Everything about the Autistic Spectrum.  But I soon changed my mind. Really liked it. Gruesome fun, with compassion and a good heart. What more can you ask?

July and August: I have nothing special to report.

September: we saw Ben Power’s Medea, filmed live at the National Theatre,  and it was another stunner. Helen McCrory excellent in the name part, and Danny Sepani's Jason impressive: this imposing, successful man who's so good at compartmentalising, putting the brutal piracy and all that business in Colchis out of his mind, astonished that the foreign wife he needs to discard is cutting up rough. The type of man, I would say, if I was a savage or an Ancient Greek,  who positively calls down on himself (and others) the unstoppable, black, implacable force of a Medea. Great music by Will Gregory and Alison Goldfrapp.  NB, not a lot like Euripides.  I read Karen Joy Fowler’s, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves : I was completely wrapped up in this book, and devoured it in a sitting. Only thing, I thought the storytelling ended too soon. I wanted the reunion, when the sisters meet again, for the first time, to be part of the story. Just that moment, no need to go further: let the rest of the book be (as it is) righteous and necessary footnotes. And then we saw Two Days One
Night, which I also loved. The Dardennes Brothers are so good at passionate drama about ordinary things, happening to ordinary people. I spent most of this movie, totally involved in  the action, thinking, oh no, this isn't going to work. Sandra isn't coping. If she wins this cruel little game and gets her job back, she’ll lose the last shreds of her self-respect. It'll be awful, terrible, she won't last a day . . . But the Dardennes were ahead of me. I can't tell you how or why (even though, after visiting with the Ancient Greeks, I'm feeling more annoyed than usual with that 'spoiler' concept) but it works. Just go and see the movie

October: we visited Shrinking Space's Digital Brighton show : a digital audio-art  installation about the Solar System, in a huge dank hangar, graffitied like an underground car park. Pairs of stools set by roof pillars dotted the endless concrete floor. We were given headsets, MP4 players, a brief induction, and were launched to wander.  Disappointed at first: I never read the advertising properly, I'd been expecting an update on NASA's "music of the spheres" (sound transcription of the radio emissions of the different planets), and instead I was getting human space science voices. I slowly became hooked. I didn't like Earth so much, it was too mundane (the Moon was a bit mundane too), and I didn't like the Sun, it was too big. I liked Venus and Mercury best of the planets, and Enceladus best of the moons, because it was most active, but it was difficult to hear Mercury: the Sun kept eating it. I liked Voyager a lot, because it was so thrillingly quiet, so mysterious; and I got confused by Rosetta. All the voices (apart from Earth and Moon) use the second person plural, uniformly, without a second thought. It's not a device out there, it is we. It is the people who are running the experiment, themselves. They had made a transition.

I also read a lot of sf, in preparation for two public engagements. Notably  The Girl In The Road,
Monica Byrne: A travelogue around India and Africa, in a day after tomorrow world where no we didn't get around to doing anything about global warming, but yes the technology did go on getting more and more marvellous. Pay attention when our free and easy heroine casually tells you, around page two, that she is psychotic. Of course she's psychotic, we're all psychotic, we are brutally murdering our own, literally our own, flesh and blood. An enthralling debut, full of wonderful invention but perhaps not meeting the criteria for positive, corporate-compliant sf;  in territory where older "Western" writers might fear to tread these days. NB, if you don’t like magical realism, walk away now. And The Machine, by James Smythe. A story all about male violence; why women stay with violent men; how women can feel ownership of a violent man’s power, even when he’s brutally abusive, and all against the backdrop of a stifling, paralysed, near future UK. Very impressive.

November: we went up to London to see the Anselm Kiefer Retrospective at the Royal Academy: having done our prep by watching the Imagine feature on the artist the night before. The staggering humungous scale of his operations had a somewhat chilling effect on me, so that when we reached the exhibition I ended up feeling most moved by the "Attic" pictures; that I first saw in the Liverpool Tate many years ago, and immediately co-opted into White Queen, my London-based, Wagnerian alien invasion story.  (Interestingly, the "Attic" picture I quoted in White Queen, Parsifal I was the only print available on sale when we exited through gift shop. Maybe Braemar Wilson bought it here! I didn't: just felt a little spooked, by a ghost of the fictional future.)

I was thrilled, I admit, by the mesmerising Aschenblume; the Shulamith and Margarethe diptych, and the Black Sunflower series ; and enjoyed watching people make the alarm go bleep by peering too closely at the sheets of lead embedded with real diamonds.  But move over, I kept thinking. Move over, Holocaust. We are entering uncharted territory now, you are no longer the terrible, absolute, unrepeatable, high water mark you once were. Our damnation is not in the past, it's engulfing this new century, and the huge mass of Keifer's evidence weighs against his ethereal promise of hope like a lead cathedral against a feather . . .

Installations of piled up paving stones, with a coulis of red grit, did nothing for me, however.
Very much impressed by Ida. This is SUCH a beautiful film, such limpid clarity, such economy of storytelling images: & absolutely amazing, as many people have said, to know that this is entirely digital. A story from the past, but timeless as the light on wintery Poland. What do you do, after the genocide? Years after, when you finally cannot live with what you know and partly know; when you decide the bodies cannot be left buried.  Good article from the director about the making of the movie here (if a little bit cocky):

December: two bookend movies , Effie Grey (Richard Laxton) and Mr Turner (Mike Leigh). I’m out of step here, I know, but I far preferred Effie Grey. Clearly this is the way things were,  but J.M.W Turner’s habit of routinely grabbing female flesh (of unthreatening inferior status)  and raping the woman  as briefly and complacently as he would take a bite from a veal and ham pie — was not endearing. Is “I know I’m unattractive” an adequate defense? No, it is not. Not now, not two hundred years ago. Bookends because both movies deal with a pivotal moment in art history, when the misty Modernism of the Age of Revolution (Turner) gave way  to the lurid colours (and awful drawing!) of the High Victorian Pre-Raphaelites. Comparing the two John Ruskins,  I felt Mike Leigh had it very wrong with his infantile fop. It's a long time since I read anything by Ruskin, but I know he had power & I think the twisted bully in Effie Grey was nearer the mark.  

I have no idea what anyone sees/saw in Interstellar. Possibly this is because I’m a jaded sf fan, unable get all excited by wild terms like "time dilation" or "the fifth dimension" if they don’t come with an engaging story or believable characters attached. Or possibly because it was unutterably boring, very much too long, and hogwash. But then as a treat we watched Guardians of the Galaxy the other night on Netflix, and it was pretty good.

Right now I’m reading  Jessica Cornwell's The Serpent Papers, a spooky mystical thriller about Alchemy and Barcelona.  And looking forward to my Christmas holidays, during which I plan to read The Goshawk, T H White,  H Is For Hawk, Helen MacDonald, Tangara, Nan Chauncy, and The Heart Of Midlothian, Walter Scott.  And finally, here’s something rare and strange, a surreal, all female apocalypse from dissident film makers in Communist Czechoslovakia: introduced to me by David Sorfa of the University of Edinburgh: Late August At The Hotel Ozone

Happy New Year

 Gwyneth Jones is the critically acclaimed author of numerous novels, short stories, and essays. She has been honored with the Philip K. Dick, World Fantasy, Clarke, and Tiptree Awards for her fiction, and the Pilgrim Award for her criticism. Aqueduct Press has published her short fiction collection Universe of Things, her essay collection  Imagination/Space: Essays and Talks on Fiction, Feminism, Technology, and Politics, her novel Life, her short story suite The Buonarrotti Quartet, and ebook editions of her Aleutian novels White Queen, North Wind, Phoenix Cafe, and Spirit. She lives in Brighton, England. 

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