Monthly Archives: January 2011

The Celluloid Europudding

There are some things Europeans do better than anyone else on Earth; wheat beers, chocolate, shrugging, pogroms. Still, there are some skills that elude us, that simply escape our grasp despite our efforts to get a grip. One of these is undoubtedly Science Fiction movies. No trouble with writing it, in fact Europe can trace its SF back to (Greek speaking Syrian) Lucian of Samosata in 160 AD, it’s just the pesky on-screen variety that leaves us flummoxed. There are notable exceptions, of course; Fritz Lang (Dr Mabuse, Metropolis), Tarkovsky… but from the 1940s on the US has left us trailing in its wake.

Of course not all of it is our fault. For a start, SF is expensive to do. It tends to need lots of special effects, graphics, costumes, elaborate sets… and then Hollywood has set the bar incredibly high in terms of its production values and sheer pizazz. Avatar wouldn’t be funded by European banks. It takes Hollywood money to make those kind of films. Despite the drawbacks, some hardy souls have given it a go. There is a certain charm to these films. I have identified a number of sub-categories of this cheap and cheerful world of celluloid fun. I am not including Eastern Europe or Russia here (which I don’t know much about apart from Solaris) or the UK and Ireland.

Category 1: The Blatant Rip Off.

If you can’t afford to do your own special effects, steal them from other films. OK, so it’s not legal and will confine your oeuvre to your home market (if that), but you might shift enough units before Inspector Plod feels your collar for copyright infringements to make a few Lira. This is certainly the background to the classic rip-off movie, TURKISH STAR WARS, that steals all its effects from said Hollywood blockbuster (Thanks Garak, for introducing me to this).

Category 2: Quarry On.

The old Dr Who trick of having your action set in an open-cast mine can give you cheap authentic-looking settings for other planets and after-the-bomb scenarios. THE NEW BARBARIANS is a particularly ridiculous Italian variant of this. Post-apocalyptic humans race around in souped-up futuristic milk floats dripping with useless weaponry. The film is unintentionally hilarious and includes the funniest male-rape scene ever filmed.

Category 3: Europudding.

True Europudding is born from international cooperation. More than one country will fund it, there will be lots of red tape and quangos involved. Generally it will result in stolid, middle-brow product designed to satisfy all parties and offend no sensibilities. Usually it is confined to costume dramas and literary adaptations, very rarely, SF gets a look in. In this case, a German-led consortia did a reasonable job of adapting Poul Anderson’s novel THE HIGH CRUSADE. The English language version has cat-aliens with camp Scottish accents. Not bad at all!

Category 4: Gross-Out Cyberpunk.

Near-future gore-fests are another staple of the continent that gave us Noir. Plenty of examples here. NIKITA (the original French version), DOBERMANN etc. The most charming of all, however, is the Spanish ACCION MUTANTE. The film deals with the exploit of a terrorist cell who fight for the rights of the ugly, disabled and deformed. They target beautiful celebrities, plastic surgeons, cosmetics manufacturers, gyms and health foods. The satire is biting, the film sags in places (and is not a little misogynistic), but the first half hour, especially the shooting-up of a society wedding, is certainly worth seeing.

 Category 5: Let The Right One In.

Obviously you might just give up and let Hollywood and their money into your film. If you make sure you attract some Hollywood talent, you should be OK. I suppose that’s how Roger Vadim got the funding for BARBARELLA, by getting his missus to be in it.

Category 6: Time Travel.

Sneaky one this. Just get some time travellers to turn up in the present and bingo! No expensive sets! LES VISITEURS goes one stage further and has the time-travellers arrive from the past. Kerching! Great comedy of manners about medieval knights let loose on contemporary France. Mind you, they travelled to the future using magic, so perhaps it ain’t SF at all…

Category 7: Hammer Maison d’Horreur

Yup, take the model of Hammer (cheapo horror, scantily clad girls) and fill your boots. PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES is a classic of the genre. This Europudding (Italian/Spanish co-production) gives an idea of how difficult it is for porn studios to diversify.

Category 8: Decent Special Effects!

At Last! Will Ellwood directed me to this Finnish team of SF film-makers. They began with their err… homage? To Trekkiedom, STAR WRECK and are currently producing the Nazis-on-the-moon epic IRON SKY. Production values are amazing, the film looks awesome. A release is imminent.



Category the Last: Virtual Reality.

Future tech so sophisticated that computer sims look like real life. Again, no expensive sets. Head and shoulders above the rest of the genre was Alejandro Amenabar’s ABRE LOS OJOS (open your eyes). Thankfully Tom Cruise remade it as Vanilla Sky so the original will make no money. No more SF from Spain, then.

Well, I’m off to watch my latest prize, its a Turkish superhero picture featuring Captain America, Spiderman and Mexican Wrestler El Santo in a crime-fighting extravaganza that’s laced with 70s erotica. The name of this masterpiece is 3 DEU ADAM. Smoke me a bratwurst, I’ll be back for breakfast…

Fin

Outside, Both Of You!

…or why Magic Realism should not be fighting Fantasy

 Arguments about literary genre are never pretty (and hardly ever illuminating) although often necessary for working out a shorthand for what literature is doing (and where it’s going). In the circles I move in, it is Science Fiction and Fantasy (a.k.a. Speculative fiction) that floats our boats – hence our perspective, that of the outsider looking in.

 And Speculative fiction is still seen as an outsider in terms of reputation if not in box-office. Nothing in the literary firmament draws crowds like an SF or Star Trek convention, few authors sell more fiction than the top Fantasy authors do. In terms of popular culture, we are the big beasts, literary fiction that trails in our wake, feeding off the scraps that Fantasy’s bounty bestows. Yet still there is that division, redolent of class antagonisms, that literary fiction is superior to the rest. We outsiders resent this, so we vent our anger accordingly. For every sniffy Marge Atwood who claims not to write SF because there are no ‘talking squid’ in her books, there is the equivalent put-down from genre fans to the ‘highbrow’ literature of ponderous historical novels and misery-lit set in Ireland.

 It is in this context that Magic Realism has caught some of the flak. Fantasy writers feel aggrieved that authors using elements of fantastic literature are lauded while they are not. As Terry Pratchett comments, in a typically pungent aphorism;

 “Magical Realism is a polite way of saying you write Fantasy.”

 And it is my polite intention to prove that Pratchett (one of my favourite authors) is wrong. He is wrong for the best of reasons. His novels are not only best-sellers, but rich satires that at their best reach the heights of literary merit (like say, Sterne, Swift and milquetoast Amis). Yet Pratchett is still a ‘Fantasy author’ and therefore an outsider, a curiosity in the world of literary elites. His situation must be a frustrating, but he certainly should not turn his ire on Magic Realism; the outsider literature par excellence.

 Definitions of MR abound. Bruce Holland Rogers goes through the differences between Fantasy, SF and Magic Realism at a brisk pace. To summarize, Fantasy presents the unreal as real (particularly in the case of heroic fantasy where whole worlds are invented). Creatures of imagination and myth are summoned into existence by the storyteller. Magic Realism sees the real as unreal. In essence, it presents the PoV of people who see the world from a different optic to the western, rational observer and their assumptions of order and reality. Obviously there’s a lot more to unpack and discuss in these definitions (perhaps in a later post?), but I wish to move on from a question of nomenclature to Magic Realism’s role as a purveyor of outsider literature.

 The term Magic Realism was coined in Germany, to define an art movement, yet it was in Latin America that it achieved fruition in literary terms. There it found that the Latin American psyche has long been plagued by its outsider status and struggles with identity. Simon Bolivar encapsulated these anxieties in the 1815 Jamaica Letter:

 “We are but a small human kind… a world apart… neither Indians nor Europeans but a species halfway between the legitimate owners of the land and the Spanish usurpers.”

 This halfway-house reality between Indian and European became a major element in Latin American literature. In the 1930s and 40s a raft of novels was published regarding the lives of traditional communities and their relationship to capitalist, western culture as it encroached upon their lands and society. Romulo Gallegos’s Doña Barbara, Ricardo Guiraldes’s Don Segundo Sombra and Jose Eustasio Rivera’s La Voragine (The Whirlpool), explore these themes from a strictly metropolitan perspective. While these novels brought the Indian reality closer to the attention of the city-dwelling elites, it was two (paradoxically European) literary movements that crystalized the development of what Alejo Carpentier defined as Lo Real Maravilloso.

 First, Social Realism, emerging from the Writer’s Congress of the USSR, became a rallying call for intellectuals of the left intent on changing the nature of the novel itself (regarded as a bourgeois affectation). In terms of the portrayal of the rural Indian and peasant, references to nature’s beauty, charming customs, quirky characters and all the other tropes of the rural idyll were to be replaced with description of harsh realities and material conditions (Much as Emile Zola had developed some fifty years earlier). The most celebrated example of this style is Jorge Icaza’s Huasipungo, described by Gerald Martin as “… perhaps the most brutally laconic and unyielding novel ever published about the conditions of the Indians.” A notorious scene in the book involves the plantation owner and his family forced to give up their horses in a flood and instead ride on the backs of their Indian labourers (common practice among rural elites). Social Realism also raised important questions about the nature of the novel: In nations with high levels of poverty, illiteracy, political violence, corruption and marginalization, who should the author be writing for and about? Whose interests should she serve/represent/champion in their fiction?

 

Second, Surrealism and the work of writers like Joyce, Kafka and Faulkner became important influences for Latin American writers. The subconscious, with its multi-layered carapace of hidden drives, sublimated urges and pent-up energies, showed that ‘civilized man’ was just a construct that was easy to strip away. Indigenous reality was, in contrast, more real, closer to our essential nature, to a meaningful collective unconscious than western individualism. Alejo Carpentier’s Los Pasos Perdidos (The Lost Steps) explored this very theme.

Alejo Carpentier, posing.

Surrealism offered a way to portray other world-views and write from the PoV of the Indigenous other rather than ‘about’ them – through their myths and symbolic dream-time. The best example of this approach is Miguel Angel Asturias’s Hombres De Maiz (Men of Maize). The novel deals with the loss of a Guatemalan Maya community of their lands. Asturias (who had translated the Mayan creation myth, the Popol Vuh, into French), employed the language, poetry and customs of the Maya to construct narrative. Mayan-style metaphors and story-forms are used to explain a war between two communities, ideologies and economic systems.

 Bringing together these movements (the surreal and the socialist) puts the two key building blocks of Magic Realism in place. Other influences are also at play, of course. From Borges’s seminal (pre post-structural) deconstructions of literary mimesis, to the reframing of historical landscapes – Garcia Marquez’s Macondo being the most ambitious example – helped shape a new genre that kicked the tired old realist novel up its flabby, metropolitan arse.

 And so we come to the Latin American literary ‘boom’ of the 1960s. And here they came; Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortazar and above all, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, all under the banner of Magic Realism (a term most of them had not chosen for themselves). To outsiders it appeared that all this literature had arrived out of nowhere, devoid of context. They gazed at the exotic visions of foreign lands and fantastic tales from a mysterious continent and recoiled. Why, this is just fantasy! Perhaps these outsiders should have looked closer. Perhaps Terry Pratchett should as well.

Gerald Martin Journeys Through The Labyrinth: Latin American Fiction in the 20th Century (London:Verso, 1989).

Comic Book Classics — 14

 

For once I bring you a Comic Book Classic that is relatively easy to get hold of. You may even own a copy already. Hergé’s creation is not only ubiquitous in the French-speaking world, but a permanent fixture in the Children’s section of British bookstores too. The Belgian boy-reporter has been off on his adventures since the 1930s, becoming the blueprint for Franco-Belgian adventure comics. Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix, for example, followed the Tintin formula in many ways; a hero (Tintin/Asterix) is accompanied by a bumptious sidekick (Haddock/Obelix) and a small white dog (Snowy/Dogmatix). Goscinny tells the story that Dogmatix was added to the Asterix roster on the insistence of the publishers for this very reason; the desire to follow Herge’s blueprint.

Another first is the transfer of the Tintin strip from newspapers and periodicals to the album (a hard-cover book using high quality paper and colour printing), containing a whole adventure. Previously Tintin stories had been serialised and printed on low-quality newsprint (like the Catholic boys’ paper, Le Petit Vingtieme). Conversely, the Album changed Tintin in radical ways. First, it raised the bar in terms of what was possible in terms of narrative and art. Herge became obsessive in researching his locations and drawing his locations and backgrounds with as much reality and detail as was possible. Landscapes and scenery were informed by a vast collection of postcards, photographs and descriptions gathered of the places Tintin would visit.

The Castafiore Emerald is unusual as it is one of a very select number of Tintin albums that does not involve travel to foreign lands. It is set entirely on location at or near Captain Haddock’s estate, Marlinspike. It is an unusual story in that the ‘adventure’ is nothing more than a series of red herrings and wild-goose chases. It is one of the charms of the narrative that Hergé manages to concoct a thriller based on misunderstandings. It is perhaps this aspect (the fact that he manipulates our expectations of plot and adventure with such wit) that most appeals to me.

The plot of the story, a story where nothing happens, goes like this; Tintin, Snowy and Haddock find themselves in a nearby gypsy camp. The locals are giving the gypsies a hard time, so Haddock invites them to stay at his estate. Back home, the operatic Diva Bianca Castafiore drops in on her old friend Haddock (much to his chagrin) to film a TV special in his estate. That night, La Castafiore’s emerald goes missing. Without it, the diva can’t go on and the TV show will have to be cancelled. The jewel thief must be found.

Suspicion immediately falls on the newly-arrived gypsies and Tintin and Haddock set off to investigate. The sensitive portrayal of the gypsies (and the nature of prejudice against travelers in general) is a sub-plot that Hergé manages with aplomb. Another sub-plot involves a broken stair that Haddock keeps tripping on and falling down and a repair-man who never quite finishes the job (something that was happening to Hergé in real life as he was writing the story).

Suspicion moves from the gypsies to other minor characters and supposed villains. Haddock and Tintin assiduously pursue these new leads. Professor Calculus and other familiar characters make an appearance before the big reveal. Castafiore’s maid had err… put the emerald in another place and finds it again later. Phew! Panic over, the show goes on. The album ends. A bravura performance by a comic book genius at the top of his game; as good as a Castafiore performance (if that is even possible). Bravo!

2010 in review

The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 9,400 times in 2010. That’s about 23 full 747s.

In 2010, there were 43 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 53 posts. There were 198 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 21mb. That’s about 4 pictures per week.

The busiest day of the year was December 2nd with 136 views. The most popular post that day was The Mexican Revolution — 1.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were 69.73.170.179, facebook.com, en.wordpress.com, members5.boardhost.com, and mexfiles.net.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for warhammer, the byrds, champignon, sambre, and floppybootstomp.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

The Mexican Revolution — 1 November 2010
8 comments

2

Top 100 Sixties Songs: The Return April 2010
2 comments and 1 Like on WordPress.com,

3

War of the World-Builders January 2010
1 Like on WordPress.com,

4

Comic Book Classics #2 Sambre January 2010
1 comment and 1 Like on WordPress.com,

5

My Top 60s Tunes February 2010
11 comments and 1 Like on WordPress.com,

Predictions, predictions…

 Welcome to a brand new year! All indications are that it is going to be a shit one, so I will avoid it like the plague. I have a cunning plan, you see. My plan is deceptively simple (otherwise I’d never have thought of it) as it involves skipping forwards a few years to avoid the forthcoming unpleasantness. I have, therefore, unilaterally moved to 2014. From here it is possible to look back on 2011 without the inconvenience of having to go through it all; the cuts, the riots, the fall of the ConDem government, the 2012 Olympics… From here I can pontificate about the birth of the Trade Union inspired Real Labour Party (RLP). Its campaign swept the board in the 2012 elections and, with a substantial portion of the Labour and Lib Dems joining their cause, stepped daintily into the newly vacated 10 Downing Street on a crisp May morning.

If you could just see the country three years on from your sorry-ass 2011! A proper socialist alternative in power. Prime minister Bob Crow (The office of Prime Minister is now rotated every 6 months among members of the cabinet, Alan Johnson is up next) has so far nationalized rail, the banks (properly this time), imprisoned business leaders who threatened to to close factories in the UK if taxes went up (Anti-terrorism legislation does have its uses). Rupert Murdoch has just paid £40 bn in back taxes and promised to be more prompt in future. Higher Education Minister, Stephen Fry, has also made Oxford and Cambridge universities postgraduate only; breaking the chain of public school- oxbridge- boardroom/civil service that has so damaged the country. So far our economy is booming, employment is at an all-time high. Life is good.

But I’m digressing. What you want to know in 2011, is how do we get there from here? Obviously I don’t want to give away too much detail (paradoxes could ensue), so I will give a few broad hints here for you to unpick.

 

The new multi-player version of the New World Order is to be dominated by the BRUCIE powers (Brazil, Russia, USA, China, India and the EU). Obviously these powers agree on very little apart from wanting to be richer and more powerful than each other. Left to them, a jobless ‘recovery’ is on the cards. The only inspiration to be had there is in Brazil, where economic growth, freedom and salsa dancing are still compatible bedfellows. Studying Lula’s policies (and Michelle Bachelet’s in Chile) should be the way forward in socioeconomic terms – if you want to alleviate poverty, that is (you may not want to, who knows?).

BRUCIE, ruling the world.

World events will continue to be erratic. There will be no solution to the Palestine/Israeli situation, Iraq and Afghanistan will not be pacified militarily, Pakistan will limp on. In 2013 Hugo Chavez may or may not survive a CIA-backed assassination attempt, Blackpool’s premiership title might be challenged at the high court by Manchester City on the grounds that they spent more money and it just isn’t fair. Should I tell you what the judge ruled? Probably not. In the world of technology, Japan develops a robot that can make sushi and cook fugu safely without poisoning yakuza kingpins. Invisibility cloaking technology enables hipster jeans to look like they’ve been slung around the knees (so-called ‘pantsdowns’ become the fashion hit that defines the decade).

Well, its been fun talking to you all. I’m off to Rio tomorrow to watch the World Cup. It should be a good one. Most of the newspapers are really optimistic that this could be England’s year. I chuckle as I read their overblown assessments of our chances in these finals. Predictions? You’d have to be a fool to make them, really… A total asshole.

ian sneath

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