Spring finally arrived over Easter, and I had a really fun long weekend!
Role-playing game: started a new campaign in Mutant: Year Zero. The characters are members of a small mutant community living in the centre of a bombed-out and almost depopulated Stockholm where the sea level has risen 8 metres. Our first session involved wolf people and a dangerous robot that had fallen from the sky…
Movie: At the suggestion of game group member Roland, we watched the fine Swedish short film Kunskapens Pris: Balladen om den vilsne vandraren (2007, “The Price of Knowledge: Ballad of the Lost Wanderer”). It’s set in the world of the Mutant RPG and was directed and designed by the brother-in-law of an old Tolkien Society buddy of mine. Neat!
Movie: Avatar 2: the Way of Water (2022). I enjoyed this movie for its consistently incredible visuals. Not for its characteristically American preoccupation with fatherhood, family, New Age Gaia Hypothesis environmentalism and the Vietnam War. Grade: good!
Book: Tolkien’s Silmarillion (1977). There were two important reasons that it couldn’t find a publisher until after The Lord of the Rings became a best-seller. One was that LotR created a genre and an audience for Sil. The other is that Sil is by far not as good a read as LotR or The Hobbit. Sil is not a novel and not an epic. It is part mythology, part heroic legendarium, all written by a young 20th century academic who would only later become a successful fantasy novelist. You need to approach it on its own decidedly odd terms. Much of it is beautiful, but some of it is just patently silly. Sil is an almost Biblical crazy-quilt of tangentially related writings, not all of which are even complete. Chapter 22 on the Ruin of Doriath abruptly breaks down into terse synopsis. This book does not reward a focused read-through. But any fantasy reader can enjoy picking it from the shelf every year or two and reading a chapter at random.
Movie: Sabrina (1954). Audrey Hepburn, 25, is the chauffeur’s daughter who can’t choose between the rich brothers William Holden, 36, and Humphrey Bogart, 55, and this really hasn’t aged well. Nor had Bogart, come to think of it. Grade: OK.
Geocaching: renovated a cache of mine that’s been in continuous operation since 2006! Strange how time flies.
Book: S.J. Gould’s Eight Little Piggies (1993). Re-reading an old favourite essay collection. Makes me curious to read more about current advances in palaeontology and evolutionary biology!
In the 70s when I was four or five, my parents gave my kid brother a bath towel with a picture of Elton John. I got a towel with an old movie poster for Treasure Island, depicting Long John Silver and young Jim Hawkins with a parrot. A few years later I read the book and learned what it was all about.
The towels are still at my mom’s summer house. Out of curiosity I eventually looked the movie up and found that it’s from 1934, directed by Victor Fleming (1889-1949). And now I’ve finally watched it. The towel is older now than the movie was when I got the towel!
I haven’t seen many 1930s movies, and I neither loved nor hated this one. It certainly has spirited acting and lavish sets. One odd difference from the novel is that while only about 1/3 of the book is spent in Bristol before the treasure expedition sets sail, almost 1/2 of the movie goes by before it reaches this point. The visuals are extremely reminiscent of the 1970 film about Pippi Longstocking in the South Seas, so I guess now I know where the Swedish team picked all that up.
Reading about the cast and crew I find that Victor Fleming was a huge deal, going on to direct Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz shortly after this film. Child actor Jackie Cooper (1922-2011), who plays Jim Hawkins, transitioned successfully into a lifelong Hollywood career, with his last acting credit in 1990. I’ve actually seen some of his work without any inkling that he was the boy on my towel: he plays Clark Kent’s newspaper boss in Superman I-IV, and he’s in The Twilight Zone, Columbo and Kojak.
A hundred years ago, writers and film makers in the West could just say ”poorly known ethnic group X is scary and evil”. Tolkien used his invented goblins and orcs for the same purpose. Thankfully this is considered hate speech today. But it seems that some stories still need tribes of exotic villains. So a new trope has emerged that I like to call ”Actual Ethnic Person Expresses Disgust”.
The Tcho-tcho people were first described in a 1932 story by August Derleth and Mark Shorer, “Lair of the Star Spawn”. They are a race of evil Burmese pygmies. Derleth & Shorer did not make up this fictitious ethnic group out of any concern that peaceful Burmese tribespeople in the real world would read the story and be offended. More likely they had no idea what any real tribe in Myanmar was named. The nasty Tcho-tcho then proved tenacious: they have recurred through the decades in many stories by other writers, notably Lin Carter and T.E.D. Klein.
By the 1990s it became clear that an Actual Ethnic Person had to come in and Express Disgust if the Tcho-tcho people were to remain useful to horror writers. In the 1997 modern-day supplement Delta Green for the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game, Dennis Detwiller et al. explained that though the Tcho-tcho themselves are indeed scary evil pseudo-humans from south-east Asia, everybody else in that part of the world absolutely hates them. In scenarios in the 2018 collection A Night At The Opera, which myself and my RPG group have been enjoying for months now, Shane Ivey and Greg Stoltze specify that the Chinese, the Vietnamese, the Burmese and the Thai loathe the Tcho-tcho. In Stoltze’s neatly structured and unusual scenario “The Star Chamber”, a woman who keeps a bar in a remote multi-ethnic Myanmar village informs the player characters that the Tcho-tcho are terrible monsters — even though a number of them live in that same village.
A really clear recent example of this trope from the screen is found in the fine 2015 horror Western Bone Tomahawk. Here the scary evil people are a race of mute murderous male cave-dwelling cannibals who treat their own women with horrifying cruelty. But they do seem to have been living in that cave for a very long time. And this, the script writer realised, technically makes them Native Americans, which is not good. So there’s a scene in the movie where an Apache man (played by Zahn McClarnon) comments on them and says that the troglodytes are nasty and evil and absolutely not Native Americans. (Even though several of them are played by Native American actors!) The Apache character serves no other purpose in the narrative and is never seen again. Even in our own more enlightened time, once an Actual Ethnic Person has Expressed Disgust, we are free to enjoy the fight against the scary evil people / orcs as if it was 1932.
For a solid summary of Tcho-tcho lore in fiction and RPG materials with references to the literature, see Daniel Harms, The Encyclopedia Cthulhiana. I have the 1998 2nd edition.
I’ve seen fourteen films this festival season: one at the genre gathering Stockholm International Fantastic Film Festival (formerly Monsters of Film) and thirteen at Stockholm International. Unless noted otherwise, all the movies are from this year and haven’t seen theatrical release yet.
Four get my particular recommendation:
Mad God (2021). Dark dirty rusty industrial dieselpunk hell dump with a lot of heritage from Bosch, Piranesi, Giger, Moebius, Gilliam, Jeunet & Caro. Puppet animation with some live acting, no dialogue. Mind-blowing. My jaw was on the floor. WTF factor off the scale.
Medusa Deluxe. Secrets, rivalries and a scalped dead man at an annual regional hairdressing competition in England.
Brian and Charles. Heartwarming naïvist comedy about a lonely inventor in rural Wales who builds and befriends an intelligent robot.
I Love My Dad. Estranged absent dad impersonates a pretty girl online in order to talk to his depressive son who has blocked him.
Eight were OK:
Boy From Heaven. Rural student gets involved in clandestine political machinations around the election of a new Sunni Pope equivalent. The cast is exclusively male, the dialogue deals exclusively with Islam and Egyptian politics, and it is entirely in Arabic.
Broker. Director Koreeda returns to the theme of elective family relationships among criminals dealt with in 2018’s Shoplifters in this road movie about orphanhood, baby selling and childlessness.
Living. Lavish costume tear jerker about a post-WW2 senior civil servant who is jolted out of his sleepy complacent bureaucratic rut when learning that he’s dying of cancer.
The Kings of the World. Five homeless street urchins leave Medellin to try to make good on the oldest boy’s inherited land claim in a distant scenic rural area controlled by the paramilitaries. They meet with a little kindness, a lot of severe hardship and an unsurprising end.
Funny Pages. Young aspiring cartoonist living in squalor among comics-fan misfits and the violently insane. Awkward, occasionally funny, disturbing.
Nightsiren. Multi-generational witch hysteria and witch activity in remote Slovak mountain village.
A Man. After a Japanese man dies in a workplace accident it is revealed that he has been living under someone else’s identity. Apparently it’s a case of identity exchange, not theft. What was he ashamed of?
Emily (2022). A wildly fictionalised Emily Brontë smokes, does opium, gets a tattoo and shags the curate. Grade: OK.
And two were duds:
Wetiko. Young urban Maya man is lured out to a druggy New Age religious retreat in the jungle. Everyone is very stoned. Everything is very trippy. Nothing very interesting happens for most of the movie. (Horror fans may note that wetiko is the Algonquin form of the word wendigo.)
Rodéo. Penniless misfit woman joins motorbike thief and racing gang.
I’ve been watching more movies in recent years, mostly at festivals and at home. And I’ve been rating them on IMDB since August of 2016. Now I have a dataset of 223 movie ratings: 40 a year on average. I was surprised to find that of the movies I’ve rated, 43% got at least 8 out of 10. I thought I was much more lukewarm about movies.
One thing I haven’t paid much attention to is the directors. It occurred to me that maybe I should identify some new favourite ones. This was not easy: looking at the 97 movies from 2002 or later that I’ve given high grades, in most cases I’ve only liked a single one by each director. But I did find five recurring names.
Neill Blomkamp (b. 1979). District 9, Chappie. Most recent movie 2021.
Kenneth Branagh (b. 1960). All Is True, Belfast. Most recent movie 2022.
Duncan Jones (b. 1971). Moon, Source Code. Most recent movie 2018.
Paweł Pawlikowski (b. 1957). Ida, Cold War. Most recent movie 2018.
Peter Strickland (b. 1973). Duke of Burgundy, In Fabric. Most recent movie 2022.
I’m a white 50-y-o man. Turns out that though my taste in films is pretty wide and eclectic, the few current directors that have repeatedly struck a chord with me are white men between 43 and 65. Perhaps not all that surprising.
As with all other kinds of outings and entertainments, I’ve been particularly keen on going into town for film festivals during this post-vaccination autumn. I watched four films at the genre festival Monsters of Film two months ago and 13 at the much bigger Stockholm International that ended this weekend: 17 movies in one festival season, revisiting my personal record.
Unless noted otherwise, all the movies are from this year and haven’t seen theatrical release yet. Six get my particular recommendation:
Delicatessen (1991). Dark, grotesque, surreal comedy about post-apocalyptic survival cannibalism.
Trollhunter (2010). Film school students start following what seems to be a bear poacher but find out that the man works for the Norwegian State Clandestine Troll Management Agency.
Madres Paralelas / Parallel Mothers. Complicated motherhood, friendship and love interleave against the background of Spain’s civil war memories. With fairly realistic mass grave excavation!
First Date. Teen buys crappy old car to go on a first date. But there is something hidden in it that some stupid and desperate people are ready to do anything to get. Violent slapstick chaos ensues. One refreshing aspect of this film is that it has several people of colour in main and supporting roles, but it is not about race relations.
Flag Day. Growing up with, or more often without, a criminal mythomaniac dad who just can’t help himself.
Belfast. The start of the Troubles as seen by a nine-year-old.
Eight were OK:
Les Olympiades, Paris 13e. Young attractive Parisians have complicated love life. No plot. Lots of close-ups of fucking. (Cf. that I said two years ago about Tu mérites un amour/ You Deserve A Lover: “Young attractive Parisian has complicated love life. No plot. Lots of close-ups of kissing.)
Saloum. African mercenaries, former child soldiers, eco-tourism and a very long monster fight.
Ich bin dein Mensch / I’m your man. Single 40-something academic tries out a tailor-made robot boyfriend.
Old Henry. Outlaw gang attacks farm to retrieve loot without stopping to consider that the short oldish farmer might have had a prior career. Quite a violent one, in fact.
The Power of the Dog. Jealousy, sibling rivalry and repressed sexuality on a ranch in 1920s Montana.
Libertad. The Costa del Sol, Spanish bourgeoisie with hired help from Colombia, mothers and daughters, adolescence and Alzheimer, men are secondary characters. Women, bring your moms and daughters to this movie.
Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror. Long comprehensive documentary. I was impressed by the inclusion of clips from obscure 1970s UK children’s TV.
The Wicker Man (1973). Policeman goes to remote Scottish island to seek a missing child, discovers neo-Pagan sex cult. Lots of gratuitous breasts and Golden Bough references. Grade: OK.
I only watched one of the movies that got awards at SIFF. That is, I left half an hour into it from boredom. None of the other ones that got prizes seemed at all attractive to me. I’m strictly at that festival for movies that are not in the jury’s taste. I left the following three. All suffer from slow pacing and weak dialogue:
Feathers. Good surreal setup with poor Egyptian family whose dominant paterfamilias is accidentally turned into a chicken does not pay off due to slow pacing and depressing locales.
Rien à foutre /Zero Fucks Given. Young pretty flight attendant leads pointless life.
A Chiara. Teen bourgeois girls in Sicily, something about the mafia. Six years ago I was equally bored by the director’s Mediterranea.
In this plague year, there are few public events and the ones organised have few seats. But I have managed to see nine festival movies this season, eight at the Stockholm International and one at Asiatiska Filmfestivalen. All except two are from this year and haven’t seen theatrical release yet.
I cycled into town for almost all of the screenings to avoid public transport. Didn’t avail myself of the streaming options. I might have if there had been the normal number of films at SIFF this year.
Four films get my special recommendation:
Gaza Mon Amour. 60ish bachelor fisherman loves the widow in the ladies fashion store. While working up the courage to approach her, he catches an Archaic statue of Apollo in his net one morning. Quietly funny about shy greying love.
Love Affair(s). You know how in the cliché French movie everybody is super attractive and they alternate between telling each other about their love lives and cheating on their partners left and right? This is that movie, and quite well executed too.
The Last Shift. Old white man instructs young black man who is taking over his dead-end fast food job. Disillusioned buddy movie about race and poverty in small town Michigan.
Pinocchio (2019). Lavish and respectful adaptation of the children’s classic with ace Italian actors and tastefully employed digital effects.
Two were OK:
The Truffle Hunters. Impressionist documentary about elderly truffle hunters in the Piedmont of Northern Italy. Beautifully staged and shot in Baroque chiaroscuro, but it does kind of go on and on about truffles.
Nine Days. Souls are auditioned for the chance of being born. The guy who leads the auditions and does the selection is unhappy, then performs Whitman.
And I disliked three feelbad movies so badly that I left or wanted to leave after half an hour:
House of Hummingbird (2018). Young Korean teen girl goes through nearly unremitting woes at a glacial pace.
Surge. Repressed young airport security guard quietly going insane. Stressful and awkward.
Black Bear. Much awkwardness. Drunk people arguing about feminism.
Being contracted to do translation work during November and December I’m free to set my own work schedule, and so I have set a new record for myself in the number of films I saw at the Stockholm Film Festival this year: twelve feature films and one shorts package. All are from 2019 and had their Swedish premières at the festival. None was bad or boring, and three get my special recommendation:
Bull. Black rodeo, Oxycontin, rural Southern poverty, teenage anger, absent parents, a tentative replacement dad.
Give Me Liberty. Young Russian American man drives for a disabled people’s bus service but keeps getting sidetracked by various other needy people. Noisy confusing warm-hearted multicultural story.
Perdrix / The Bare Necessity. Absurdist rom com with militant nudists, bored policemen, maghrebois WW2 reenactors in the Vosges and a family that is just itching to get disrupted.
And nine features plus the shorts programme were all well worth watching:
Alice et Le Maire / Alice and the Mayor. Bright young Lit PhD becomes staffer and adviser to troubled Social Democrat mayor of Lyon.
The Art of Self-Defence. After getting violently mugged, a wimpy guy joins a cult-like karate dojo. Movie has severe tonal issues: not a very funny parody, not a scary horror story, not realistic enough by far to grip you. Lead actor good though.
Bait. Old-school but not old Cornish fisherman watches the touristification of his village with disgust. Interesting lo-fi b/w cinematography and secondarily applied studio sound.
Colour Out Of Space. A competent big-budget movie version of the story H.P. Lovecraft considered his best. A meteorite hits a farm, plants and animals mutate, everybody goes nuts, the area is eventually reduced to prismatic ashes.
Esto no es Berlín / This Is Not Berlin. Teenage boys discover drugs, bisexuality and avant-garde art in 1986 Mexico City. Another nostalgic look back at somebody’s coming of age.
La femme de mon frère / A Brother’s Love (2019). Neurotic political philosopher finishes her PhD and ends up jobless and sleeping on her brother’s couch in Quebec. He gets involved with the doctor who gives her an abortion and she starts falling apart.
La Gomera / Whistlers. Romanian-Spanish police thriller about missing drug money. Incomprehensible motivations, gratuitous pornography, gratuitous lessons in the Canary Islanders’ whistling language on location, an oldish charmless male lead.
Le Miracle du Saint Inconnu / The Unknown Saint. Moroccan robber comes out of jail only to find that a shrine has been built on the rural spot where he buried the loot. Beautiful imagery, quietly funny, pretty slow.
Tu mérites un amour/ You Deserve A Lover. Young attractive Parisian has complicated love life. No plot. Lots of close-ups of kissing.
Monsters of Film is an annual genre film festival in Stockholm that started in 2012. I went in 2015, and then managed to come back this year when I’ve found myself with a lot of time on my hands. I saw five feature films and a shorts compilation in less than a week. Unexpectedly, one of the movies went straight into the select list of my all-time favourites!
In Fabric (2018). About a cursed dress, a depraved fashion store and their victims. Grade: Fucking Amazing! It’s scary, funny, sensual, sexy, surreal and yet relatable. I’m going to seek out more of Peter Strickland’s films!
Three of the feature films and the shorts block were also very good:
Code 8 (2019). Mutant superheroes are 2nd class citizens in a city with blanket surveillance and militarized policing. Grade: Great! This is the BIG scifi movie of 2019/20!
Extra Ordinary (2019). Driving school instructor and also exorcist in a small Irish town clashes with aging pop star and also black magician in this horror comedy. Grade: Good!
Achoura (2018). Morocco’s first big-budget horror film. Four childhood friends reconvene to fight dimly remembered supernatural horror. Good acting, cinematography, found sets, fx; confusing and overpopulated first act, not clear who the main characters are. Grade: Good!
And finally one that is better than expected given the era and genre in which it was made:
Night of the Demon (1957). American psychologist comes to England for a conference and to help investigate a Satanic cult. His scientific skepticism soon frays. This film is based on a so-so M.R. James story and is referenced in the Rocky Horror Picture Show’s opening song. Grade: OK, would have enjoyed it more without the ridiculously bombastic score.
I discovered film festivals in 2014, but I didn’t go to one last year because I like my evenings at home and I was working full time at the National Archives then. This year I’ve been able to go to the Stockholm International Film Festival thanks to the telecommuting nature of my current job. But I do spend two days a week in Linköping, and the upcoming final weekend of the festival will coincide with a boardgaming retreat, so I only managed to see 7½ films this year.
My festival M.O. is to first decide when I can see some films, and then watch whatever is on at that time and seems reasonably interesting. Hardly ever do I watch more than two movies on one day, or it becomes a chore. This way I caught three really good ones:
Cold War / Zimna Wojna. Stormy intermittent love affair between two Polish musicians at home and in exile 1949-64. Pretty monochrome photography.
Prospect. Low-budget scifi about bio-mineral prospecting on a lawless jungle planet. Strong female teen lead. Way better than most big budget scifi. Would be even better if 15 mins of slack were cut. Take your lower teen kids to this one!
The Man Who Feels No Pain / Mard Ko Dard Nahin Hota. Indian action comedy about a boy who grows up sheltered because of an innate inability to sense pain – and is educated by his grandfather by means of 80s martial arts movies. Smart and funny!
And some OK ones:
Ex-shaman / Ex-pajé. Slow, largely wordless, beautifully shot semi-documentary about a former village shaman in the Amazon who is now a Pentecostal church warden.
Girls of the Sun / Les filles du soleil. Traumatised French journalist follows a unit of Kurdish former sex slaves into urban skirmishes against the Daesh. Violent and beautiful. Golshifteh Farahani, oh man…
EXT. Night. A young film director, a vivacious prostitute and an old cab driver spend a confused night on the town together in Cairo. Engaging characters, vapid dialogue, not much by way of plot.