Four or Five Things About China Miéville

[Just stumbled across this old thing I wrote for the Wiscon 17 Programme Booklet in 2003, when China and Carol Emshwiller were GOHs]

Skulltopus011 Saturday September 28th 2002 was a bright and clear day in London. Which was just as well, because China and Emma were late. A group of us had arranged to meet at the National Film Theatre’s Café on the South Bank of the Thames at 12.30. From there, we would cross the river to the Embankment to join the protest march against war on Iraq and for a free Palestine.

In a way, though, the delay didn’t matter. Despite early police claims that there were only 40,000 protestors, it was clear there were ten times that number. It’s not like anyone would have noticed if we were late.

But coffee had been drunk and impatience was setting in and the crowd on the opposite bank was swelling and China wasn’t answering his mobile phone.

Suddenly, in the distance, a sighting.

Arms were waved. Watches were pointed at extravagantly. Tutting noises were made.

China and Emma arrived. China was breathless, not from rushing but from excitement. ‘Sorry we’re late, but you won’t believe what we’ve just seen. We had to stop and watch. We were walking through the park, and there was this pelican. Fucking huge, and it just swooped down and ate a pigeon. It was gross. You could see the pigeon struggling in its gullet.’

China was right. Nobody believed him.

Not that the story was completely implausible. It’s just that impish Mike Harrison had already started the rumour that en route they had popped into John Lewis – an irredeemably bourgeois department store – to buy some things for their new flat.

To this day, nobody believes China’s story about the pelican and the pigeon. But for some reason everybody seems to take a special delight in preferring to believe Mike’s version of events.

***

One of China’s favourite passages of our sf explanation is to be found in Eric Flint’s 1632. It goes like this:

So that’s about it folks … Somehow – nobody knows how – we’ve been planted somewhere in the middle of Germany almost four hundred years ago. With no way back.

It seems like this passage might soon occupy that special place in China’s heart once reserved for a line from the underrated Prince of Darkness:

Nothing anywhere ever should be able to do what it is doing.

***

China’s taste in movies is a bit hit-and-miss.

He’s right about Prince of Darkness – it is underrated. He’s right about Being John Malkovich – the more you think about it the worse it becomes. He’s right about Donnie Darko – it is a little too knowing for its own good. And he’s right about Daredevil – even it if was identical in every other respect, it would have been massively improved by casting Eric Stoltz instead of Ben Affleck.

But he will insist on the genius of the first five minutes of X-Men.

And that Fight Club is a great movie.

***

One of China’s favourite comic book panels is to be found in an old Trigan Empire strip from Look and Learn. It is night-time. On a roof in a city an old man and a young lad are stargazing. Suddenly there is a noise. They both look alarmed.

What was that?

say the old man. The boy replies:

It sounded like a large party of men rushing stealthily down the alley!

***

Last autumn, I was diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma. We got home from my first session of chemotherapy about 3.30pm on Friday 15th November. Around 4.00pm the doorbell rang. China and Emma had sent me a huge bouquet of flowers with a hope-it-went-okay kind of message. Later that evening I phoned to thank them, and the first thing China did was apologise in case receiving flowers from a male friend made me feel awkward.

It was a rugged, ironic, manly thing to do; but, in truth, I’d never before received flowers from a male friend and I’d no idea feeling awkward about it was even an option.

***

Perhaps these tidbits, incidents and events will provide a future biographer with things around which to drape some insights into China’s character. But I will leave it to you to decide what it all might mean.

[A sort of sequel piece can be found here.]

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Last Tango in Paris (Luc Besson 2015)

Woody-Harrelson-Zombieland-500x250‘Based on an idea by Luc Besson.’

You know how seeing those words on a screen fills you with dread and giggles?

Let’s remake Escape from New York in a futuristic banlieue, no, wait, in a space prison.

Let’s make a movie about taxis going really fast four separate times, and then let’s make it three more times except instead of taxis we’ll have a delivery guy who kicks ass but has a heart of gold, and then we’ll try it on telly, and then we’ll reboot it and pretend the first ones never happened…

The ideas just pour out of him.

However, just because French courts ruled that Besson is ‘the death of cinema’ (long story, kinda almost true), it does not mean that he cannot have good ideas.

He bunged Tony Jaa euros when it mattered. There was Jean Reno as the clean-up guy, and that whole le parkour thing.

Sometimes his ideas are obviously crazy, but then turn out not to be. Like the morning he sat down and thought, I know, I’ll make Jason Statham a movie star.

Perhaps his most surprising idea to date, though, is his decision to remake Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1972 censor-bothering erotic drama Last Tango in Paris. 

Given the late-career boosts enjoyed by ageing male stars in recent  movies from Besson’s Europacorp, competition for the role of Paul, made famous by Marlon Brando, was understandably stiff. Michael Biehn, Michael Madsen, Craig Fairbrass and Andy Garcia were all considered. But, Besson explains, it was  Woody Harrelson’s performance in Zombieland (2009) that caught his eye. ‘He was perfect. I completely believed he would criss-cross the post-apocalyptic badlands checking out convenience stores and vending machines. Such drive! Such focus! I knew the moment I saw it that he was ideal for Paul.’

In Last Tango, Paul meets a mysterious woman, Jeanne (Scarlett Johansson), at a Parisian apartment they both want to rent. She is half his age. Soon they embark on an intense – and quite graphic –  sexual relationship. They agree to keep it all anonymous, to share no details of their personal lives, and soon Paul finds himself in a race against time to retrieve from evil Albanians a world-shaking secret concealed in France’s only remaining can of a popular fizzy drink…

Luc Besson’s Last Tango in Paris opens June 18.

Hours (Eric Heisserer 2013)

Hours.poster.croppedand so anyway it turns out that the best thing about Hours (2013) – a film in which Paul Walker must hand crank a battery recharger every 3 minutes or less for several days in order to keep his prematurely-born daughter alive in a ventilator while Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath rage outside the deserted hospital – is the bit when Vin Diesel, sporting a prosthetic nose that makes him look like Nicole Kidman, rocks up in an old Detroit muscle car fitted out as a hovercraft to drop off James Franco, who races into the hospital to save father and infant by gnawing off his own arm, though I confess my eyelids did get a little heavy about seventy-five minutes into the movie and so I can’t swear this is exactly how it ended…

The final post, honest, on Jupiter Ascending (with hints of Fifty Shades and Star Wars)

in which the author finds himself attempting self-reflection, which is not, as you know, his strong suit…

0d25976623564ed7fbaa2169ae7c7774After my single-sentence review and longer post, various folk sent me links to blogs saying positive things about the film I had not considered, such as this piece by bootleggirl.

It contains a whole bunch of things I think are problematic.

First, and probably  least relevant here, is the great, and mostly American, tradition of demonising Mormons – I have always found Orson Scott Card hateful and tedious, and am familiar with the many criticisms of the Twilight books and movies (without reading or seeing them), but blaming all that is wrong about them on a religion is just lazy thinking. I am no fan of religion, organised or otherwise, but at least I understand that religions are complex shifting phenomena, and that people have complex shifting relationships with their religions.

Second, the equation of negative criticism of the film with sexism and transphobia. I have no doubt that transphobia does play a role in the treatment of Lana Wachowski – bootleggirl seems to have specific examples in mind, my only evidence is that we live in a much-too-often really shitty world full of loudmouths and assholes. And I will return to the question of sexism in a while. But I am not certain that recognising these factors makes the film any more coherent. (And there is the question of what is meant by incoherence. It is not as if the narrative is hard to follow; it is, after all, a pretty linear, one-damn-thing-after-another action-adventure. It is more that the thinness of the characters and the compression of what was presumably a three-hour cut makes motivations unclear/unconvincing and reduces the story-world to a series of flat and largely indistinguishable backdrops. The lack of chemistry between the leads also does not help make any of it seem to make sense.)

Third, the array of assumptions made about Lana Wachowski. Although, on the other hand, I think bootleggirl does a good job of demonstrating how adopting a trans perspective can change our understanding of the film. Suddenly, the sequence in which a camp robot leads Jupiter and Caine through the labyrinthine bureaucracy necessary for Jupiter to be declared queen becomes something else. It is no longer a misjudged and tiresome homage to Terry Gilliam (himself as frequently tiresome as he is misjudged) into a wry representation of the difficulties faced by trans people in gender-binaried and gender-binarising bureaucracies.

But there are a couple of important things in bootleggirl’s piece, both of which brings us to sexism in the response to Jupiter Ascending.

The first is bootleggirl’s attempted regenrification of the movie away from its marketing image. It is not a space opera for boys, like Guardians of the Galaxy (Gunn 2014). It is about ‘space angel werewolf boyfriends’ with antigravity rollerskates, and thus obviously

a member of the female-targeted romantic fantasy genre – stuff like City of Bones, Beautiful Creatures, and yes, Twilight.

I’ve seen none of the movies bootleggirl gives as examples, and I am way more True Blood than Twilight (at least until the fairies showed up), though admittedly not someone who could ever really understand the appeal of Bill or Alcide, especially not with Eric around.

But this makes me curious about the extent to which the film’s delayed release was also about cutting it, post-Guardians, in an attempt to ‘normalise’ its gender appeal (i.e., make it play more to the boys, albeit not very successfully). The female friend I saw it with, who enjoyed Guardians more than I did, also enjoyed Jupiter Ascending more than I did. But then afterwards was slightly appalled at herself for being swept along by the romance narrative.

Jupiter Ascending reminded me of NK Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (2010) not just in terms of similar story elements, but also in my response to it. It is a novel I liked well enough, but not sufficiently to read the rest of the trilogy or to understand why it got all those award nominations. It was all a bit too bodice-rippery for me. (The same friend read my copy in a single sitting and immediately tracked down the sequels; and looked at me like I was mad when I first made the comparison.)

Bootleggirl is very clear on this point: Jupiter Ascending is ‘a female fantasy. It’s not anti-feminist.’ Again with the problems. Female fantasies are not monolithic. The ones in this film are not shared by all – or even most? – women. Just because it is a female fantasy it does not necessarily follow that it is not also anti-feminist. Not all women are feminists. Feminism is not monolithic. Neither is anti-feminism. Both take many forms.

But I am reminded of a point made by Anne Bilson about the Twilight movies

it seems to me that Twilight attracts a lot more vitriol than any other nonsense aimed at the young male demographic. … reviews of such boy-tosh may be predominantly negative, but the tone is not so much derisive as regretful at opportunities wasted. No matter that movies aimed at boys feature superpowers or super-robots or saving the world with super-ninja skills. Those sorts of fantasies are permissible, almost cool, even when the films peddling them are awful. … But Twilight caters to the sexual fantasies of teenage girls. I’m not saying in a good way, but at least it caters to them, and there’s not a lot else at the cinema that does – not in a young adult fantasy genre that invariably reduces females to also-rans or decorative sidekicks while the Harry Potters and Lightning Thieves get on with their questing.

Angie Han makes some similar and related points in her ‘Partial Defense of Fifty Shades of Grey’.

I’m not sure, but these approaches seem to me to be one way to deal with the sexism in such high-profile female-centred, female-created and/or female-targeted movies: try better to understand their appeal to often largely female audiences; try to leverage any analysis, complaints or critiques into the broader problem of the everyday and widely tolerated sexism of most cinema (not just content, but distribution, exhibition, reception). And we need to question and challenge the boy-tosh in similar ways

Which brings us to the second thing in bootleggirl’s post that set me pondering:

do not critique this movie by bringing up whether Jupiter is empowered. I’ve spent substantial time on another forum where largely male folks compared Jupiter unfavorably as a heroine to Princess Leia in Star Wars episodes IV and V. Even leaving out the metal bikini scene, Leia gets upstaged as the “leader of the Rebellion” as soon as Luke shows up, and like Jupiter, her exercise of power is primarily in conventionally feminine ways like giving orders or resisting pressure techniques, rather than shooting guns. Yes, Leia is slightly better at hand to hand combat than Jupiter, who has space werewolf fallen angel boyfriend to protect her. … I find this critique especially galling from people who loved Guardians of the Galaxy, the film that notorious feminist Joss Whedon was involved in producing where the female characters are good at fighting but also completely reduced to sex objects for men.

4766351833_c999af8d08To be frank, I am always mystified by this widespread reading of Leia, who rapidly goes from feisty to uppity to domesticated over the course of the three movies. Her story arc is one of humiliation, of a woman being put in her place. Regardless of what she does, that is how the films treat her. And let’s not forget, her supposed feminist credentials in the first movie are at least as much about the exercise of class privilege and whiteness. But it does seem de rigueur to genuflect before Leia, or at least before this presumably male fan perception of her.  ( In class last autumn, I mentioned Guardians‘ undermining of Gamora (Zoe Saldana) by the way the camera repeatedly leers at her arse. Male students, presumably intentionally catered to by such shots, genuinely seemed not to have even noticed them; but a lone female student did speak up, saying that was the only reason she enjoyed the film. Which made the ensuing discussion a lot livelier than it might otherwise have been.)

2116419.jpg.square-true_maxheight-285_size-285All of which made me think some more about my own liking for and championing of Emily Blunt’s Rita in Edge of Tomorrow (Liman 2014) and, to a lesser extent, her Sara in Looper (Johnson 2012).

Because when male fans are the ones judging the supposedly feminist credentials of female characters we could well be in serious trouble. Especially when the feminism invoked is so one-dimensional and non-specific as ’empowerment’ – a term that always was pretty vague and has become utterly devoid of actual meaning.

211996120It puts feminism(s) in the past, and treats the social realm as an even playing field in which magically empowered individuals swim while others sink and have no one to blame but themselves. Whatever its uses in the past, ’empowerment’ is now mostly a lickspittle, running dog discourse that leaves patriarchy and neoliberalism untroubled, and the action heroine ceases to be a feminist icon (however problematic) and instead become just another masculine fetish item.

Which is not to say that feminists and other women cannot make important use of them. But when they become such toys for boys to fight over, they also become a way of avoiding feminism(s) entirely.

(Trust me: I’m a boy, we pull this kind of shit all the time.)

Stephen King, Doctor Sleep (2013)

514NhnvVinL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_This is, I shit you not, the one about evil gypsies abducting children.

Admittedly, the gypsies are actually some kind of energy-vampires, who traverse the US in the guise of middle-aged people in RVs. And they don’t merely abduct the infants, but slowly torture them to death to release more of whatever kind of energy it is they chow down on. And one of the infants in their sights is a girl in her teens who can shine way more powerfully than anyone else. And she knows Danny Torrance, who has grown up to become, like his father, an alcoholic, but is in Alcoholics Anonymous and sober for most of the book.

But mainly it is about gypsies abducting children. I shit you not.

Despite being a sequel to The Shining, it mostly isn’t. It shares Danny and one location and some references to Hallorann and Wendy (in whom King still cannot muster any interest) and inserts them into a mildly and differently fantastical version of the contemporary US. It is smoothly competent – the riff on Jerome Bixby’s ‘It’s a  Good Life’ (1953) is nicely done, but the allusion to The Silence of the Lambs sits there for no reason like a lump in your pablum – but it is hardly gripping, suspenseful or scary. It is like bathing in a cup of tea the way my mum makes it.

King’s semi-autobiographical account of Danny’s experience of AA, of its practices and processes, suggests a strong resonance with neoliberal culture’s emphasis on getting the individual to surveil and manage him/herself, to hope for little more than surviving daily, to self-scrutinise, to locate responsibility within the self – anything rather than fix the society that produces alcoholism. But this is thin stuff, too.

Not everyone agrees. For example, Margaret Atwood says that ‘by the end of this book your fingers will be mere stubs of their former selves’.

Presumably because gypsies stole the tops of them.

PS My other Shining-related posts can be found here, here, here and here. (And boy am I kicking myself for forgetting when writing about Room 237 that Yanis Varoufakis’ book is called The Global Minotaur: America, Europe and the Future of the Global Economy.)

Made in Dagenham (Nigel Cole 2010)

Made_in_dagenham_posterand so anyway it turns out the best thing about Made in Dagenham is not the fact that the film repeatedly has to cgi British industry into the background because there is so little of it actually left (and the destruction of working class lives and communities represented by those weightless images is horrifyingly sad, unlike this tale of plucky proletarian feminists bringing Ford to it knees) but the quiet way in which Bob Hoskins, what a lovely chap, sort of invents second-wave liberal feminism when none of the women are looking…

The Shining (Stanley Kubrick 1980)

shiningIt is difficult to know what to say about The Shining, especially as so much has already been said, some of it of dubious merit.

Like Stephen King, I am baffled as to why people find it so scary; unlike him, I rate it way more highly than his original novel (and the miniseries does not even get a look in).

It is a film I never used to like much, although I always admired its soundtrack and steadicam (Kubrick is so very effective when tracking-in that you can forgive him for his lesser parallel tracking, but, to be fair, Jean-Luc Godard’s not as good at the former as he is at the latter). And I have always been a little taken by the simple tricks Kubrick deploys – an omission here, an ambiguity there, and what Michel Chion describes as his ‘commutative editing’ – to make his films seem enigmatic and profound.

This time round, the film grew on me. I have no idea if this is because I finally watched the 25 minute longer US cut (although some months ago Roger Luckhurst predicted such an outcome, and I learned a long time ago he is usually right about stuff). I was struck very forcefully this time round by the visual and aural resonances with 2001 – and partway through the job interview scene, I stopped hearing the dialogue as being badly-delivered and started hearing it as a development of the earlier film’s depiction of linguistic thinning and debasement. Stuart Ullman (Barry Nelson) channels the performance of sincerity and the platitudinous corporate drone of Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester), and everyone sounds like they are delivering lines because that is what so much of human identity and interaction consists of – performativity.

When I recently read King’s novel, I posted about its proleptic depiction of precarious, disciplined neo-liberal labour. This is developed in Kubrick’s film. The Overlook itself, despite it age, resembles one of the non-places of hypermodernity described by Marc Augé: those spaces that are the opposite of utopia because they exist and do not contain any organic society. For all the historical markers we see on display – from those big cans of kosher dill pickles in a hotel that would once have been restricted, to the Native American designs and images on the walls, to the very 1970s purple penis carpet – it is oddly dehistoricised. It is a space that might even confound Steve Buscemi’s5609791_std CHET! in its obscure blurring of ‘trans’ and ‘res’. The Torrance family, that signifier of a private realm outside the world of work and exchange, that gesture towards organic society, is destroyed by the relentless demands of the Overlook, which is only concerned with Jack as labour-power.

The Shining shows the coming proletarianisation of the American middle class, or perhaps merely charts the delusion of social mobility at the core of the American Dream. This is Jack – the terrorised and terrorising, self-surveilling, self-disciplining and other-discipling sadomasochistic subject of a monstrous power. Just the way capital likes it.

shiningAnd management doesn’t care for one moment that he has produced the treatise on work-life balance. To the Overlook, it’s just a paper trail to prove the staff have been consulted at.