Category Archives: films

Le retour

I’m now back on Bute after my month in Paris – a residency that saw me visit ten museums, innumerable places of interest and seven cinemas, culminating in a matinee at the St Andre des Arts, a unique and fantastic independent cinema just a five-minute walk away from Shakespeare and Company and within easy reach of a host of excellent bistros (but then again, that’s true of anywhere in Paris). To have seen Sally Potter’s new movie The Party – a film so British in nuance, in tone, in its political concerns – at this most Parisian of venues added up to a strange sense of cultural disjuncture. The film itself was brilliant: merciless, excoriating, stunningly shot and laugh-out-loud funny, even while providing a salutary reminder of everything I’d be returning to the following day…

What I did mostly in Paris, though, was write, and think about writing, both the project I was engaged in while I was there and what might come afterwards, the way those two entities seemed increasingly, as time progressed, to bleed into one. The piece of writing I completed – some 15,000 words of first draft – while staying at Les Recollets is a strange hybrid of pure fiction and detailed account of actual stuff I was actually doing, inspired by Chris Marker’s 1962 film La Jetée, prompted by my own experience of being in Paris, expanded by thoughts on the novel I’m about to start writing. Indeed, I have started writing it: the piece I wrote in Paris, suitably edited and redrafted, will form the prologue.

This past month has been instructive and inspiring in ways that cannot – at this early stage – be fully articulated, and I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to all those involved in making my trip possible.

It is wonderful to be home. There is much to be done, with hopefully some more good news to report in the coming weeks.

A Hallowe’en trio

In some ways this is my least favourite time of the year – I hate it when the clocks go back, and I am already looking forward to the spring equinox – and so anything that brightens it up is welcome indeed. Whether or not it’s appropriate to talk of Hallowe’en ‘brightening things up’ I’ll leave for you to decide – but as a moment to take stock, to light the fire (metaphorically if not literally) and make lists of favourite horror fiction and film then yes, for me it is!

Horror fiction comes in many forms, and the kind of horror I associate with Hallowe’en tends to have an elegiac, sepia-tinted quality that has as much to do with autumnal mists and shorter evenings as with the pagan festival of Samhain itself. Ironically, this would decidedly exclude offerings like John Carpenter’s 1978 slasher flick Halloween (not to mention its ludicrous sequels), which seems part of another genre entirely and as father of the jump-scare has done horror cinema no favours at all.

Here then are three unequivocal Hallowe’en recommendations, all of them British, all of them excellent. I hope you enjoy them.

1. The Inner Room by Robert Aickman.

‘Two rooms on the ground floor remained before I once more reached the front door. In the first of them a lady was writing with her back to the light and therefore to me. She frightened me also, because her grey hair was disordered and of uneven length, and descended in matted plaits, like snakes escaping from a basket, to the shoulders of her coarse grey dress. Of course, being a doll, she did not move, but the back of her head looked mad. Her presence prevented me from regarding at all closely the furnishings of the writing room.’

One of Aickman’s longer works, this is a masterpiece among masterpieces, a horror story of uncommon power and disquieting political undercurrents, told in the restrained, deceptively quiet manner of the classic Victorian ghost story. It begins in an almost comedic manner:  an observant, intelligent child describes what happens when her father’s car breaks down, leaving the family stranded for a couple of hours in an unfamiliar place. The result of this mini-adventure – the acquisition of a sinister dolls’ house the obtuse if well-meaning father insists on calling Wormwood Grange – has far-reaching consequences. Dolls’ houses are one of my obsessions anyway, and even re-reading the above short extract is enough to make me breathe a little faster. Any Aickman story would make ideal Hallowe’en reading, but with this one you get more pages to feast upon.

2. Don’t Look Now by Daphne Du Maurier

I happen to think Daphne Du Maurier is underrated. She’s world-famous, of course, with several of her novels adapted for film multiple times across multiple territories. She was a bestselling writer in her own lifetime, but what is not talked about so much – then or now – is what a good writer she is. As a highly successful woman, Du Maurier predictably found herself being type-cast as a writer of sensationalist suspense fiction, the kind of thing that was fine for entertaining the ladies but most definitely not to be taken seriously. Her novels make compulsive reading, yes – but they are also small masterpieces of narrative economy with a deftness of characterisation and style that reward repeated reading and warrant closer attention than they have often received*. Her short stories in particular are taut as drums. My first encounter with Du Maurier came through a dog-eared Penguin paperback of her collection The Blue Lenses. I was about thirteen at the time and I would say that my encounter with these stories formed a defining moment in my appreciation of horror fiction. I’m choosing Don’t Look Now as my Hallowe’en Du Maurier recommendation though because again, you get more story for your money, and because it exists with its 1973 film adaptation by Nicolas Roeg in a near-perfect equilibrium of mutual understanding. Could Roeg’s film be the greatest British horror film of all time? It’s certainly up there. Du Maurier’s original novella, a poignant and ultimately terrifying story of a married couple haunted by the accidental drowning of their young daughter, is not just a great horror story, it’s a sublime piece of English short fiction.

3. A Field in England dir Ben Wheatley screenplay Amy Jump

‘Quintessential’ is possibly the most over-used adjective ever among listmaniacs, but Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump’s 2013 film truly is the quintessential Hallowe’en watch. Set in the English Civil War, it tells the story of a bunch of common soldiers who flee the battlefield – in search of a pub, what else? – only to find themselves in mortal spiritual danger of the most uncommon kind. Shot entirely in black and white, A Field in England has in its jump-cuts and unscripted asides something of the quality of found-footage, but without any of the derivative and outworn tropes that have sadly become the defining features of that sub-genre**. This film is genuinely unnerving – some scenes made me go cold all over and that really doesn’t happen often when I’m watching horror films. It could be argued that Wheatley’s films kick-started the current renaissance in folk horror and A Field in England is, absolutely, the The Wicker Man of its generation.  There’s only one problem with this movie: it’s almost too frightening to watch alone…

 

* Probably my biggest beef with Roger Michell’s really-quite-OK film adaptation of Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel is that for some totally inexplicable reason he decided to replace the unforgettable first line of the novel – ‘They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days. Not any more, though.’ – with some bland paraphrase of his own. Madness.

** Stupidly, the only horror film I thought to bring with me to Paris was John Erick Dowdle’s 2014 As Above, So Below which is at least Paris-set, a fact that doesn’t, on balance, make up for its general ridiculousness. That being said, I do have a guilty affection for it. Must be the catacombs…

Blade Runner 2049: man-film or meh film?

‘The 2017 follow-up [to the 1982 sci-fi classic Blade Runner] simply couldn’t be any more of a triumph: a stunning enlargement and improvement.’ So says Peter Bradshaw in his Guardian review of Denis Villeneuve’s much-anticipated blockbuster. He gushes five stars all over it, insists we all rush out and watch it on the biggest screen possible. I love the original movie (because of course I do) and with the pre-release press almost unanimously positive I was massively looking forward to seeing this new one. Was I set up to be disappointed? Is it possible for big-budget science fiction to actually deliver any more? (I’m thinking of my personal catalogue of recent let-downs: Gravity, Interstellar, Arrival, and I’m not even going to mention Alien: Covenant.)

What was it about the original? Something about the texture, the lighting, the score (of course), Rutger Hauer (of course), but most of all the un-pin-downable nature of a film with themes too big to be easily summarised, its open-endedness, its inexplicability, the sense that for those two-and-some hours we were living in that world, experiencing the claustrophobia of a society that had lost its moral compass, that – in spite of its technological advances – was coming unspooled.

This past couple of days – since people have actually started seeing the film, in other words – I’ve read quite a bit online about how depressingly retrograde Blade Runner 2049 is in its treatment of women. Personally I feel divided on that subject. Whilst the background sets do feature giant-sized avatars of naked ladies, and the AI-girlfriend trope is dealt with much more interestingly in Spike Jonzes’s film Her, Robin Wright and Sylvia Hoeks are nonetheless every bit as front and centre as Jared Leto and Ryan Gosling. If the film is indeed a man-film, I think it’s more in its overall attitude and governing ambience: it is supremely dishonest about violence, as Hollywood action movies are mostly always dishonest about violence, It steamrollers through the idea of any form of problem-solving that is not based around the physical exercise of power. It simplifies and erases. It negates the idea of people (and by people I also mean replicants) living their lives.

Instead of the tears in rain monologue, we get ‘if one of us can have a child, that proves we have souls’. Or something. Dodgy sentiment, poor writing.

‘The sequel slightly de-emphasises the first film’s intimate, downbeat noir qualities in favour of something more gigantic and monolithic,’ says Bradshaw. Yeah, Pete, and that’s precisely the problem. It’s all just a little bit… bland?

I like Denis Villeneuve. In spite of his escalating fame, he keeps trying to make interesting films. Some of his movies (Incendies, Prisoners, Enemy) have been amazing and only one (Sicario) has been actively awful. I didn’t hate Blade Runner 2049. I just feel a bit meh about it.

Harrison Ford is great in it, though, I’ll give it that.

A toe in the water

I went into Glasgow yesterday, to attend a couple of screenings at the Glasgow Film Festival. I was particularly keen to check out Olivier Assayas’s new movie Personal Shopper, and after having (finally) caught up with Local Hero last summer, the opportunity to see Bill Forsyth’s rarely screened adaptation of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping seemed too good to miss.

In the event, the Forsyth proved the superior movie by far – emotionally rich and beautifully photographed, it put the curiously affectless, all-surface Personal Shopper in the shade. After the Festen-tense drama of Summer Hours and the intense, dramatic weirdness of The Clouds of Sils Maria, Assayas’s handling of the ghost story elements in his new venture seemed altogether too conventional, too trope-y, while the ‘sad lives of the super-rich’ plot strand that didn’t bother me overmuch in Clouds (because the emotional drama felt so convincing) here played out like a much less successful recapitulation of Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring (which did at least demonstrate a modicum of irony). The Neon Demon, only less in your face and therefore less gripping.

The weirdest thing for me about Personal Shopper was the music that accompanied the closing credits: Anna von Hausswolff’s ‘Track of Time’, the very same track that, with its accompanying video, directly inspired a recently completed short story of mine. More on that, hopefully, soon.

As much as the movies themselves, the best thing about yesterday was being in the Glasgow Film Theatre, the number one indie film venue in the country and a joyous early discovery for me in our new life here in Scotland. Taking the ferry and the train from Rothesay to Glasgow is made special precisely through being not special: this is a normal, regular commuter route, a well-worn connection between the island and the mainland that has existed and thrived for several centuries. Our two regular ferries – the MV Bute and the MV Argyle – were built in Gdansk and sail roughly once an hour in both directions. They are a constant and regular presence in our life here and one can’t help but feel a strong and immediate affection for them. 

Before moving here I’d not been in Glasgow for more than ten years and so had trace memories only. Since coming to live on Bute, I’ve been into the city twice already and the connection feels immediate and strong. What I place. There is enough here – of history, of psychogeography, of culture – to fill several lifetimes. I am already making notes on all manner of subjects – even notes about notes I need to make notes about. If there has been anything lacking in our time here so far it is simply hours in the day. There is so much to think about, to discover.

One of the (many) upsides to being involved with the shadow Clarke jury is that it’s the first thing that has made me feel normal – i.e like the world around me is something I recognise – since June 24th last year. While the planet’s most obnoxious internet troll continues to host his clowns’ tea party in the White House, and while the Westminster government continues hell bent on its mission to transport Britain back to the 1950s (a mission every politically literate person in the country – and a good few out of it – knows is batshit crazy), we can at least still read, we can still write, we can still cogently criticise what we read and write. (Abigail Nussbaum’s similar thoughts on nominating for the Hugos are well worth reading.)

We’ll start seeing the first of the shadow jury’s personal shortlist posts going live this week. And while you’re waiting to find out what we’ve picked, why not have a stab at guessing the official @ClarkeAward shortlist?  The award’s director, Tom Hunter, has come up with a competition: guess the official shortlist in its entirety and win copies of all six books! The contest is made all the more tantalising by the fact that to date, no one has ever managed to do this. So try and be the first. The competition is being hosted along with the shadow jury at the ARU Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy. Just post your guesses in the comments to enter.

 

A question of adaptation

#weird 2016: Arrival

arrival-posterWe went to see Denis Villeneuve’s new movie Arrival last night. He’s an interesting director. His 2010 Incendies was outstanding, his 2013 Prisoners as well executed and chilling an essay in the serial killer thriller genre as you might hope (or not hope) to find. Enemy, Villeneuve’s take on a Jose Saramango novel starring Jake Gyllenhaal, was weird and slightly dull but still interesting, a film I’d like to see again after having read the work it is based upon. 2015’s Sicario, the movie widely regarded as Villeneuve’s breakout, I found sprawling and messy and unkempt, and not in a good way, mainly because the screenplay was so appalling. I’d still go and see anything Villeneuve puts out though. Like another similarly flawed director, David Fincher, he’s clearly serious about his art, and that’s what counts.

What then to make of Arrival, the film of Ted Chiang’s multiple-award-winning novella Story of Your Life (screenplay by Eric Heisserer)? In a sentence: I was expecting so much more. The reviews were great, seeming to agree that Chiang’s story, which some had initially deemed ‘unfilmable’, had been justly served, thus bringing the author’s work to a whole new audience. It would be great if that were so – yet after seeing Arrival for myself, I tend towards the belief that it will be chalked up as just another dutiful spin on Close Encounters, with most audiences remaining completely unaware of the movie’s infinitely superior source material.

It could be argued that Ted Chiang represents the Platonic ideal of the science fiction writer, the perfect fusion of reason and emotion, of form and idea. His language is candid, unfussy, absolutely fit for purpose, the extensive preparation Chiang undertakes before embarking on a story rendered invisible in its careful and relentlessly considered execution. The word that springs most insistently to mind when I consider the resolution, the unveiling of Story of Your Life is beautiful, not so much because of any ‘message’ the story might convey, but because of its author’s careful and painstaking attention to an idea. Story of Your Life is perhaps most readily comparable with Mieville’s Embassytown – stripped of that novel’s rococo excesses and clunky final third. At roughly one-sixth of the length, it’s a David-and-Goliath scenario with Goliath well and truly struggling to maintain his footing.

What spoiled Embassytown irreparably for me was its surrender to conventional outcomes: a trite ‘final battle’, a resolution that, after the more pleasingly abstract expositions of the first half, seemed disappointingly pat. And it is this – this damnable Hollywood obsession with conflict and resolution, with jeopardy, for goodness’ sake – that made Arrival feel limited to me, and finally derivative. There is no ‘conflict’ in Story of Your Life – the joy and satisfaction in that story lie in working out what is going on, the sudden realisation, the beauty of certain ideas about language, time and non-linearity – it’s like a literary game of chess. Arrival is all about deadlines, time running out, a constant threat of violence, soldiers setting up cordons and dashing about with guns. Amy Adams is the still centre, compelling and powerful in her role and a joy to watch. Yet still, there she is, in her impossibly beautiful waterside house (how d’you get that on an academic’s salary?) with her impossibly beautiful doomed child (even here the stakes have to be upped as Louise is made ‘responsible’ for the child’s doomed-ness – it’s not like that in the story) the One who can fix the world with a single phone call.

I don’t know, perhaps I’m being uncharitable. Arrival is a thoughtful, interesting film narrowly skirting the edge of something special. Perhaps it’s simply that in the light of ongoing political events I was simply not in the mood to see yet another film about the American military threatening to destroy anything they don’t understand, and where China is once again painted as the inscrutable, implacable villain with their finger on the nuclear button.

I don’t think it’s China people are worried about at the moment, actually. Jeopardy indeed.

#weird2016: The Witch

the witch filmWell, this was interesting. I’d been looking forward to The Witch ever since seeing the trailer around this time last year. I missed seeing it in the cinema but finally caught up with it on DVD, a perfectly acceptable substitute when the need arises, but the unnerving, subtle beauty of the cinematography did leave me wishing I’d been able to experience this movie on the big screen as the director intended.

Cast out from their fledgling Puritan community in the backwoods of seventeenth-century New England (the film opens with a theological disagreement between church elders) William (Ralph Ineson getting his best Nedd Stark on) and Katherine (the always excellent Kate Dickie) take their five children to live in a remote farmstead on the edge of the forest. When the youngest of the children vanishes without a trace, William is determined to blame the tragedy on blind chance – a wolf must have taken the boy. Twins Jonas and Mercy have other ideas, though – everyone knows the woods are home to witches. Their brother’s disappearance must surely be the work of the devil. But who is the devil working through, and who will be his next victim?

It would be impossible to watch the first half of this film without thinking of Nicholas Hytner’s The Crucible, with Ralph Ineson in the Daniel Day Lewis role, a man of faith who is nonetheless determined to uphold the laws of reason in the face of a religious extremism that threatens to overturn the community and civilisation they have spent so long in building. Naturally blame for the devilish goings on is laid at the door of Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), William and Katherine’s adolescent daughter whose burgeoning sexuality has already begun to stir the senses of her younger brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw). William won’t have it, though – Thomasin is ‘his girl’, intelligent, truthful and responsible. When she says the twins’ talk of her being a witch is nothing but a joke, he is prepared to believe her. But as tragedy after tragedy strikes the family, his faith in God and in his daughter is tested to the limit – and beyond.

As with The Crucible, it is emotional claustrophobia, the sense of creeping entrapment with no safe way out for anyone, that defines the action of this unusual and affecting film. The family, already under a severe strain from the harsh demands of their environment, seem besieged by misfortune, and the rising tide of horror seems all the more unbearable for taking place in such isolation, away from the sight and knowledge of anyone who might offer help. Of course it’s more or less impossible to know what life in a seventeenth-century New England village might ‘really’ have been like, but the period details here – the robust Puritan clothing, the mud, the candlelight, the sinister, encroaching forest and above all the sense of being acutely vulnerable in a vast and unknowable world, are rendered with a level of passionate commitment (I was reminded of Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights) that makes them feel accurate and utterly convincing.

What surprised me most about The Witch was the ultimate direction it chose to take. I don’t want to spoil the film for anyone by revealing too much about that, and even hours after seeing it I still can’t decide whether it was madness to go that way, or genius. What I do know is that The Witch is a beautifully crafted, richly imagined and intellectually worthwhile addition to your watch lists, and I would advise any fan of horror cinema – especially quiet horror cinema – to see this as soon as you can, if you haven’t already.

There’s a fascinating and informative interview with the film’s director, Robert Eggers, here. Suffice it to say this guy has definitely earned his horror credentials!

#weird2016: the terrifying weirdness of Philip Ridley

reflecting skin.ridleyOver the weekend I finally managed to catch up with, via the recently reissued DVD of the film, Philip Ridley’s first feature The Reflecting Skin (1990).

On the face of it, this is a simple coming-of-age story. Our eight-year-old hero Seth is growing up in rural Idaho in the early 1950s. WW2 is still a recent memory. Seth’s parents, Luke and Ruth, cope with the absence of their elder son Cameron, who is with the US armed forces in the Pacific, largely by ignoring each other, scraping by on the proceeds from their one-pump gas station. When one of Seth’s young friends turns up murdered, the local sheriff seems determined to point the finger at Luke, who was once cautioned for ‘indecent behaviour’ with a seventeen-year-old youth. Seth has other ideas. A near-neighbour, Dolphin Blue, harbours fantasies of violence and keeps mementoes of her deceased husband Adam – dead from suicide – in a locked box. Having been told about vampires by his father, himself an avid reader of pulp magazines, Seth believes the seductive Dolphin to be the true face of evil at the heart of their tiny community. As the recently returned Cameron falls ever more deeply in love with Dolphin, Seth becomes increasingly desperate to warn his brother of the danger he faces.

In the naivete of its child protagonist and its unintended tragic consequences, we might draw strong comparisons with such movies as Losey and Pinter’s 1972 classic The Go-Between and Joe Wright’s more recent Atonement and we would be right to do so. In their portrayal of misplaced jealousy, burgeoning sexuality, terror and envy of the adult world and the febrile intensity of the juvenile imagination, these films form a natural trilogy almost. That they all take place under the heat of ‘that last summer’, a span of time that seems destined to forever change the lives and futures of those who pass through it, draws such comparisons still tighter.

Interestingly though, Ridley’s film stands alone here in taking place in ‘real time’ rather than through the clarifying lens of hindsight. We can only guess at how the adult Seth might be affected in future – not just by what has happened, but by his own particular part in it. This is a dark tale, richly informed by Dick Pope’s superb cinematography, Nick Bicat’s ravishing score (fun fact: Bicat also wrote the music for the 2002 TV adaptation of Ian McEwan’s ‘Solid Geometry’) and Ridley’s own inimitably concise and emotive screenwriting. The imagery on display here – Dolphin’s memory box, Cameron’s photos, the mummified foetus, the nuclear sunsets, the teddyboy ‘vamps’ in their black Cadillac – is of a high and potent order. The only word that seems to fit this film is ‘Ridleyesque’.

I first encountered the work of Philip Ridley when I saw, completely by chance, his 1995 feature The Passion of Darkly Noon on late-night TV. Always on the lookout for interesting and out-of-the-way horror cinema, I was blown away by it. I also could not understand why so few people seemed to have seen this film or even heard of it. The themes were serious and deep, the vision complex, the writing and acting superb. The fact that this unique film has still never had a UK DVD release is a source of abiding mystery to me.

Ridley clearly likes to take time over his work, and it was more than a decade after Darkly Noon before he returned to the screen with the brilliant Heartless. Ridley’s third movie presents an equally disturbing journey into the heart and mind of an isolated young protagonist, with a destination no less terrifying than the end-point of his first. Particular shout-outs here should go to Eddie Marsan – the price of the DVD (easily obtainable this time, thankfully) is worth it for his Weapons Man alone – and to Clemence Poesy, who you will no doubt remember for being brilliant in In Bruges.  Again, this film has been more or less overlooked by the horror community, yet for me, Ridley’s movies are as equally deserving of attention as Ben Wheatley’s. What’s going on?

Could it be that Ridley’s themes – his preoccupation with religious belief, faith, sin and self-destruction – are seen by some as contentious and unfashionable, maybe off-putting to viewers? If so, then that’s just Ridley doing his job! He does not simply recycle old tropes – vampires, demons, ghosts – to sanitized formulas as so many more commercial directors are wont to do. He takes the tropes apart, examines them for substance, shows us what might happen when dangerous ideas are followed through to their logical conclusion. If you’re seeking comparison, think Guillermo del Toro before he went Hollywood – the del Toro of Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone. Philip Ridley is as good as that, perhaps better. He is a master of the weird, and I just hope we don’t have to wait another decade to see his next masterpiece.

#weird2016: Frozen

frozen mckoenI found a reference to this film quite by chance, while I was looking for something else – isn’t that what always happens on the internet? And no, I’m not talking about Elsa and Anna and ‘Let it Go’, nor the by-the-numbers 2010 trapped-on-a-ski-lift-with-wolves-beneath horror movie either. This is something quite different – and it’s exquisite. It is also, so far as I can tell, almost completely unknown.

Kath works in a fish factory in the town of Fleetwood, on the edge of Morecambe Bay. Following the unexplained disappearance of her sister Annie two years before, Kath falls into depression and attempts suicide.  She is referred to a counsellor, a local parish priest, who helps her begin to talk through her feelings of abandonment. Kath is not prepared to give up on her sister, however. She pays a visit to the police, demanding to see the video clip taken from a security camera that shows the last recorded sighting of Annie down by the docks. Kath watches the film obsessively, searching for any tiny detail that the police may have missed. When she retraces her sister’s last known movements in an attempt to draw closer to the truth, she experiences something extraordinary. What she sees convinces her that Annie – wherever she is – is trying to get a message to her. Desperate to be believed, she turns to Father Noyen, landing them both in a situation that neither has foreseen.

This is a slow-burn, quietly effective ghost story with an immaculately realised sense of place and a genuine frisson of terror at its heart. Stumbling upon it unexpectedly like this makes it seem all the more magical somehow, like being made party to a secret. Shirley Henderson and Roshan Seth are outstanding in the lead roles, but everyone involved with this movie has done a marvellous job. The stark simplicity of the screenplay is a joy. The writer and director, Juliet McKoen, made this film in 2005 and so far as I can tell she’s made nothing else since. This seems a criminal shame to me and I sincerely hope we see more from her in the future. Fans of Andrea Arnold and Mike Leigh, the English ghost story and especially The Loney should all seek out this gem as soon as possible. Watch out for the moment with the roller coaster. It made all the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end – and that’s something you’ll never come close to getting from more commercial horror.

Superb little indie movie and most highly recommended.

Save the Curzon Soho

When I first moved to London in the mid 2000s, the Curzon Soho cinema was one of the first venues I discovered that felt uniquely, precisely tailored to suit my needs and tastes. That they were showing remarkable films goes without saying – but coming from a provincial city I found myself spoiled for choice in that respect in every direction anyway. No – the Curzon offered something more, something extra, something harder to define. Was it the comfy chairs downstairs in the bar, where you could sit and work unhindered or hang out with friends before or after the movie you had come to see? The upstairs coffee bar, stylish and very London and yet inclusive and inviting enough for anyone totally new to the place to be able to enter without feeling like a fish out of water? The marvellous film posters and DVDs on display in the foyer? The informed friendliness of the staff? It was all these things and more. The Curzon felt like a venerable London cultural institution that truly was open and welcoming to everyone. I loved the place, still love it dearly, think of it often, visit when I can, still feel it as one of the things about London I miss most.

When I read in yesterday’s Observer (in an excellent article by film critic Jonathan Romney) that the Curzon is under threat of being demolished in yet another tranche of Crossrail mayhem, I felt and still feel profoundly depressed. It’s not just the Curzon, it’s everything. Little by little, London is being corporatised. Ordinary citizens feel, more and more, as if they have no power and no say in their environment, their political culture, the future of their social and cultural institutions. If I compare the Charing Cross Road/Shaftesbury Avenue area as I first came to know it in the 1980s – a warren of independent bookstores and corner cafes and newsagents and general old-London-ness – with how it is currently being reformatted, I feel choked up with sadness and an impotent kind of anger. I dare not research the number of bookstores on CXR that have been forced to close due to deliberate – yes, because none of this is chance, it is an overall plan – hikes in ground rent, because it makes me want to throw things.

In a remarkable 2014 interview with Ned Beauman, William Gibson, himself something of a part-time Londoner, spoke of the creeping gentrification of London in forthright terms:

“Some [of my lifelong Londoner friends] just don’t seem to see that there’s anything happening to [the city], even though it seems to me to be such a radical change. It amazes me when people argue: ‘Oh, it’s only happening in that neighbourhood, and if that’s no longer fun we’ll just move.’ I thought that was what the developers wanted you to do so you can gentrify the next bit.”

Even in my relatively short period of close intimacy with London, I saw the city being forcibly remoulded in ways that made me uneasy.  This continues to happen, faster and faster with every year that passes, and with Londoners – I mean actual Londoners, people who do the work and clean the streets and love the bones of the place – feeling ever more disenfranchised from crucial decisions. The same as is happening in the rest of the country, in other words, only even faster.

Yes, it makes me angry. It makes me sullen and paralysed with anger. It seems to me that the best thing we can do in the face of this is to fight back in the small ways that are open to us – writing, speaking, seeing, thinking even – in the knowledge that if enough of us stand up and speak out, then some of the worst decisions at least can be halted or reversed.

If you are a Londoner, an ex-Londoner who still feels the place in their soul, a person who cares about cinema or the arts or social history or city architecture – any or all of the above – then please sign the petition to save the Curzon Soho. As the Curzon’s manager Ally Clow says in Romney’s article. the cinema has its own sense of community, its own constituency:

“It’s a mix of people who come once a year, people who come every week, and people who come every day who use this bar as an office – they’ll have a couple of cups of coffee, do meetings, hold auditions for films. People feel at home here. It’s an oasis of calm and culture.”

If we want to save the things we care about, we need to show we care. Signing the petition is something anyone can do, in about ten seconds. Please do this. At least it’s a start.

#weird2016: Absentia

absentia.dvdI first came to hear of this film through an interesting list of rare and underrated horror movies compiled by Adam Nevill for The Quietus. Two of Adam’s choices were films I’d seen and ‘enjoyed’ already: the hideous masterpiece Snowtown and the really rather brilliant ghost story Lake Mungo, an ingenious and disturbing cross between Blair Witch and Black Pond. There was one I’d seen at FrightFest and hated: the Spanish movie Sleep Tight, which for me was just an inferior and exploitative update of Peeping Tom, the appalling punchline of which I saw bizarrely repeated recently in Joel Edgerton’s otherwise excellent thriller The Gift (stop using rape-of-an-unconscious-woman as an ingenious twist, boys, I mean seriously). No matter. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Adam’s list, not least because it mainly consisted of films I’d never seen or even heard of – welcome refreshment, when most ‘Top 10 Horror’ lists don’t contain even a single surprise. I was eager to get watching, and ordered a couple of Adam’s choices straight away.

First out of the box was Mike Flanagan’s 2011 movie Absentia. The film opens as Callie (Catherine Parker) arrives in Los Angeles to stay at the home of her older sister Tricia (Courtney Bell). Callie has been on the road, trying to sort out her life following a drug-addicted adolescence. Tricia’s life has been in stasis ever since her husband Daniel disappeared inexplicably seven years before. As Tricia files the paperwork to have Daniel declared legally dead, Callie is determined to help her move on, to find a new place to live, to put the memories and questions behind her.

Only they don’t seem to be alone in the apartment, and when Callie encounters a terrified homeless man in a nearby underpass, things begin to get even weirder.

This movie was funded by Kickstarter, and I’m sure the film’s many backers billygoats.grufffelt they’d more than got their money’s worth. This is a great little film, mainly because the two essential ingredients for satisfying cinema – a good script and wonderful acting – are firmly in place here. The writing is thoughtful, understated and naturalistic, and Parker and Bell are truly compelling as the joint leads – the chemistry between them is wonderful, they seem like real sisters. In fact, every single person in the cast list plays their part beautifully. I loved the low key suburban setting, the off-kilter oddness of everything, the bleached out colours. There were even – and because I’ve watched so many horror movies this doesn’t often happen – a couple of moments where I felt genuinely unsettled by what was happening and had to look away.

It’s easy to see that everyone involved with this film felt fully committed to it, and good on them. Personally I would have left out the fleeting glimpses of the ‘underneathers’ entirely because in horror less really is more – so far as I’m concerned, the first rule of horror cinema should be never show the monster! But that’s a minor gripe and a mistake easily forgiven when everything else about this movie is so right.

On an interesting side note, there is a lot in Absentia that reminds me uncannily of themes I’ve been working with in The Rift, right down to one of the character’s names…

Coincidences like that are ones I enjoy!

(And if you want to know what the hell all this has to do with The Three Billy Goats Gruff, go and watch the movie.)

ADDENDUM: I’ve now seen one more of Adam’s choices, The Pact, which is pact.2012equally worth watching. In terms of its themes of repressed grief and hidden memories, run-down suburban settings, bleached-out cinematography, and effective understatement, this film has plenty in common with Absentia and in an entirely good way. This is a movie where you start out thinking you know what you’re getting and end up (un)pleasnatly surprised. For fans of horror off the beaten track? Recommended.