The City in Fiction and Film, week 20: Dirty Pretty Things

dirty-pretty-things-movie-poster-print-27-x-40week 19

This week’s class was a short one (since we had a lot of admin and related things we also had to cover), so it is even more unconscionable that it has taken me nearly three weeks to write it up.

Before discussing Dirty Pretty Things (Frears 2002), we began by considering the notion of diaspora and different kinds of migrancy.

The term ‘diaspora’ – now used to mean the dispersal of people from their homelands to communities in new lands – was originally used to describe the scattering of the Jews from Judea and into the Babylonian exile after King Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of Solomon’s Temple in 586 BCE (the return from Persia in 520 BCE echoed the earlier exodus from Egypt and settlement in Judea). A second diaspora took place in 70 CE, when the Roman occupiers quashed a rebellion and passed laws banning Jews from living in Jerusalem and Judea.

There are other historical precedents, such as the west African slave trade, which began in the late 1400s, with the first African slaves brought to the ‘New World’ in 1502 (just a decade after Columbus ‘discovered’ the West Indies). This slave trade was essential to the wealth of the British Empire (although Britain likes to emphasise its role in Abolition, rather than in the slave trade and the use of slave labour even after Abolition) and to the birth of capitalism and the industrial revolution. After Abolition, there was a stream of diasporas into American from Europe (Irish, Germans, Norwegians, Swedes, Catholic Poles, Russian and East European Jews, Italians) and Asia (Chinese, Japanese). There were also Indian and Chinese diasporas into the Caribbean and South America, often in the form of indentured labour.

Such movements, which continue in the present, produce various categories of migrants:

  • Colonial settlers.
  • Transnational corporate expatriates: economic migrants of an elite managerial class, who work in another country while retaining citizenship in their homeland; they move easily across borders. The news never labels them ‘economic migrants’ though, as that is a tag reserved for condemning poor people.
  • Student visa holders: advanced education in host countries is potentially of great benefit to host country as well as homeland.
  • Postcolonial émigrés: post-independence migrants to former coloniser nation.
  • Refugees: targets of persecution, state violence, retaliation, repression, torture or unlawful imprisonment who have been granted asylum within host country (numbers dropping globally, but only because of increasingly draconian asylum processes).
  • Asylum seekers: those whose application for asylum has not yet been processed (and thus are denied the rights afforded to refugees under international law), which is probably the key reason for making asylum processes increasingly draconian.
  • Detainees: asylum seekers held in detention camps. Iin the 1980s, Cuban ‘boat people’ were welcomed in the US as political refugees from a regime opposed by the US, but Haitians fleeing the bloody, CIA-backed Duvalier dictatorship were detained as merely ‘economic migrants’ (almost 45,000 of them held at Guantánamo by 1994).
  • Internally displaced persons: people forced to relocate to another region of their own country due to violence, civil war, ethnic cleansing, political persecution, religious oppression, famine, disease.
  • Economic migrants: workers responding to push/pull of global economy (depression, recession, poverty, famine at home vs labour shortages in another country).
  • Undocumented workers (‘illegal aliens’): people who migrate for various reasons without the required legal documentation.

There are lots of films that explore these different experiences, including The Exiles (Mackenzie 1961), Black Girl (Sembene 1966), El Norte (Nava 1983), White Mischief (Radford 1987), Lone Star (Sayles 1996), Men with Guns (Sayles 1997), Last Resort (Pawlikoski 2000), Demonlover (Assayas 2002), In this World (Winterbottom 2002), Blind Shaft (Li 2003), Code 46 (Winterbottom 2003), Silver City (Sayles 2004), Ghosts (Broomfield 2006), Blind Mountain (Li 2007), It’s a Free World… (Loach 2007), Frozen River (Hunt 2008), Sleep Dealer (Rivera 2008), She, A Chinese (Guo 2009), Sin Nombre (Fukunaga 2009), Le Havre (Kaurismäki 2011), Out in the Dark (Mayer 2012).

Kevin Foster, who compares films from the Windrush era – Sapphire (Dearden 1959), Flame in the Streets (Baker 1961) – with Last Resort and Dirty Pretty Things argues that such films, for all their apparent concern with the experience of migrant populations are ultimately more concerned with the ways in which their presence impacts upon and is articulated by the domestic population.

what unites the differing treatments of exile and displacement is their common focus on domestic anxieties regarding British national identity. … these films suggest that the experiences of migrants and asylum seekers … are of less interest to British audiences and filmmakers than what is happening to their own countries and themselves. … The new migrants, like their Commonwealth forebears, are of interest to British filmmakers in so far as they provide a focus for the analysis and treatment of essentially domestic political, social and cultural concerns. (Foster 683, 688)

He also outlines a common set of preoccupations in these films: ‘to explore and map the alien space of the here and now’; ‘what it means to lose one’s place in the world’; ‘what it means to lose the cultural identity that anchors one to [the world]’; ‘what it is to be stateless, lost and adrift’; ‘how, under the manifold pressures of migration, families cope, collapse or coalesce, how their traditional structures and roles shift in the face of unexpected circumstances and unfamiliar needs’; the nature and frequency of ‘improvised’ and ‘quasi-familial arrangements’ for support (688).

While this is all rather uncontroversial, his final point is perhaps more difficult to process: for all the often extreme differences between being a white citizen, a citizen of colour and a newly-arrived migrant (of whatever sort), the appeal of such films to the domestic audience lies in some kind of recognition of a shared experience of precarity and dislocation in a country that is becoming increasingly unhomely to the majority of its own citizens. As Foster writes

Britain may still exercise a magnetic attraction to the descamisados of the modern world but it is an increasingly foreign land to its own people, less a home and more like a hotel where every care or comfort comes at a price. (691)

Our own discussion of Dirty Pretty Things began with its view of London. For a film centred around a reasonably classy central London hotel, it is initially surprising that we  see so few tourists and nothing of tourist London: no Big Ben or London Eye or St Paul’s Cathedral or Southbank or Dome. There is also a strong emphasis on spaces of transition – hotel lobbies and bedrooms, taxis, car parks, tunnels, corridors, Heathrow airport; like Boyz N the Hood, this is a film about mobility and entrapment. Moreover, Frears’ colour palette – bright blocks of colour – give it all a slightly unnatural, constructed feel, despite its location shooting and overall naturalism, as if to insist that there is nothing normal or natural about this city. It is manmade, artificial, and so are the economic and social relations that dominate it. (This idea is extended through the image Senay (Audrey Tautou) has of New York, clearly derived from film and television and tourist imagery – a fetishised irreality she both clings to and knows to be false).

The London we see in the film is like the inverse of Notting Hill (Michell 1999), which ethnically cleansed its eponymous location (as subsequent gentrification is also doing). In Dirty Pretty Things, there are (almost) no white people because it focuses on cleaners, night staff, taxi drivers, and so on – the ethnically diverse working class without which the city would grind to a halt but who are typically marginalised.

The other key idea we discussed was concerned with borders. We tend to think of borders as physical locations whereas they are much more complex than that. They are legal constructs which only sometimes coincide with physical locations around the edges of a country. The apparatus of the border also functions within the enbordered territory. The crude, violent aggression of the Immigration Officers who tear apart Senay’s flat looking for evidence that she is working or accepting rent from a subletting tenant, and the laws banning her from earning any income while her case is being processed are just as much the border as the passport control points through which she and Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) must pass on their way into and out of the UK. Just as the ‘transnational corporate expatriate’ is never labelled an economic migrant, so the ban on asylum seekers earning an income emphasise the relationship between wealth and the border. It is this function of the border that drives Senay and others into underpaid labour, sweatshops, sexual harassment and a state of constant precarity – and into the grips of organ harvesters…

Next week, we will take a step back in time to an earlier Stephen Frears movie, My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), and think about it in relation to Black British cinema and second- and third-generation Black Britons.

week 21

Core critical reading: Foster, Kevin. “New Faces, Old Fears: Migrants, Asylum Seekers and British Identity.” Third Text 20.6 (2006): 683–91.

Recommended critical reading
Amago, Samuel. “Why Spaniards Make Good Bad Guys: Sergi López and the Persistence of the Black Legend in Contemporary European Cinema.” Film Criticism 30.1 (2005): 41–63.
Berghahn, Daniela. Far-Flung Families in Film: The Diasporic Family in Contemporary European Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014.
Gibson, Sarah. “Border Politics and Hospitable Spaces in Stephen Frears’s Dirty Pretty Things.” Third Text 20.6 (2006): 693–701.
Lai, Larissa. “Neither Hand, Nor Foot, Nor Kidney: Biopower, Body Parts and Human Flows in Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things.” CineAction 80 (2010): 68–72.
Loshitzky, Yosefa. Screening Strangers: Migration and Diaspora in Contemporary European Cinema. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Monk, Claire. “Projecting a ‘New Britain’.”, Cineaste 26.4 (2001): 34–3, 42.
Pravinchandra, Shital. “Hospitality for Sale, or Dirty Pretty Things.” Cultural Critique 85 (2013): 38–60.
Wayne, Mike. “British Neo-noir and Reification: Croupier and Dirty Pretty Things.” Neo-noir. Ed. Mark Bould, Kathrina Glitre and Greg Tuck. London: Wallflower, 2009. 136–51.
Whittaker, Tom. “Between the Dirty and the Pretty: Bodies in Utopia in Dirty Pretty Things.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 14.2 (2011): 121–132.

Recommended reading
Contemporary British fiction about the experience of migrants from Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Eastern Europe includes Benjamin Zephaniah’s Refugee Boy (2001), Leila Aboulela’s Minaret
(2005), Fadia Faqir’s My Name is Salma
aka The Cry of the Dove (2007), Marina Lewycka’s Two Caravans (2007), Rose Tremain’s The Road Home (2008) and Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways (2015).

Recommended viewing
British films addressing similar material include Last Resort (Pawlikowski 2000), In This World (Winterbottom 2002), Ghosts (Broomfield 2006), It’s a Free World… (Loach 2007) and She, A Chinese (Guo 2009). Also of interest are Lone Star (Sayles 1996), Lilya 4-Ever (Moodysson 2002), Silver City (Sayles 2004) and The Terminal (Spielberg 2004).

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The City in Fiction and Film, week 19

scan0005Week 18

This week we entered the final block of the module, looking at the multicultural city. Our focus this week was fiction the experience of coming to England – and to London – as an emigrant from the Caribbean. We looked at extracts from Jean Rhys, George Lamming and Sam Selvon – and then ran out of time for VS Naipaul.

Jean Rhys (1890-1979) was born in Dominica; her father was a Welsh doctor, and her mother ‘third-generation creole’. She lived mostly in the UK from the age of 16; not a huge success at RADA, she became a demimondaine, a chorus girl, an artists’ model – which certainly informs the opening of Voyage in the Dark (1934), a novel in which Anna Morgan is relocated (by her indifferent stepmother) from the Caribbean to the UK after her father’s death. Anna becomes a chorus girl, and then a wealthy man’s mistress. After they break up, she slowly descends into poverty and ultimately nearly dies having an abortion. The novel’s title plays on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), reversing the direction of colonial exploration of a strange land; at the same time, Rhys displays her modernist credentials through passages of interior monologue that include flashbacks to Anna’s Caribbean childhood.

Our focus was on the first three pages of the novel, to see how England and the Caribbean were contrasted. A lot of this is achieved by appeals to the senses, and by mixing memories and imaginative recall into the different present. The Caribbeanis associated with ‘heat’ (and not the mere warmth of a fire or of bed clothes) and ‘light’ and exotic ‘purple’; England with ‘cold’ and ‘darkness’ and ‘grey’ – with Southsea’s grey streets and ‘grey stone promenade’ and ‘grey-brown or grey-green sea’. The Caribbean was rich with smells (frangipani, lime juice, cinammon, cloves, ginger, syrup, incense) as well as – and indicative of race/class distinctions there – the smell ‘of niggers and wood-smoke and salt fishcakes fried in lard’. It was a wide open space, with breezes off the land and sea. In contrast, the small towns Anna and her friend Maudie visit with their theatrical troupe are devoid of variety and ‘always looked so exactly alike’. Motion becomes stasis – ‘you were perpetually moving to another place which was perpetually the same’ – and the nearest to escape is an architecture that mocks you with the memory of transit: ‘rows of little houses with chimneys like the funnels of dummy steamers and smoke the same colour as the sky’ (so grey, I’m guessing). And the laundry hangs limply on the line ‘without moving, in the grey-yellow light’.

The theatrical troupe does bring a slight sense of the scandalous and exotic to dreary Southsea: the landlady initially mistakes the two chorus girls for prostitutes, and her opinion of them does not improve when they do not rise until after lunch-time, and Maudie swans around in a nightgown and a kimono that is, significantly and of course, torn.

Idling on the sofa, Anna reads Zola’s Nana. Its cover features a stout woman with a wine glass, dandling a little incongruously on ‘the knee of a bald-headed man in evening dress’. It is a cautionary foreshadowing. The incense of the Corpus Christi processions a few paragraphs earlier gives way to the image of a tree in the back garden which has been cut back so awkwardly it ‘looks like a man with stumps instead of arms and legs’. The body of Christ becomes an amputee, symbolically castrated. (The novel opens with a broadly Christian – and theatrical – image of death and rebirth: ‘It was as if a curtain had fallen, hiding everything I had ever known. It was almost like being born again.’)

Anna is a bit ambivalent about the dirtiness of her ‘dirty book’, and Maudie, who here is Rhys’s mouthpiece, implies the intentions of her own semi-autobiographical novel: ‘it’s about a tart. … I bet you a man writing a book about a tart tells a lot of lies one way and another’.

Zola’s novel – or, at least, the idea of it – underscores Rhys’s complex blend of the exotic and the mundane, a constantly-breaking-down binary opposite that recurs in the fiction of Caribbean emigrants to Britain.

Next we turned to emigrants of the Windrush era. George Lamming (1927-) was born in Barbados of mixed African and English parentage. He taught in Port of Spain, Trinidad (1946-50) before emigrating to England, where he became a writer and a broadcaster on BBC Colonial Service. He became an academic in 1967, and subsequently worked at universities in Jamaica, US, Denmark, Tanzania and Australia.

We explored a long and rather curious section in his The Emigrants (1954). The novel follows a disparate group of Caribbean emigrants sailing to the UK; once in London, they slowly drift apart, but their lives intertwine and occasionally intersect. We looked at the end of the first, shorter part of the novel, after the ship has docked in Plymouth. Here, the wind is associated with Britain, but it is a ‘keen’ wind, bringing with it darks clouds, the threat of rain, and a coldness that has even the Devon locals constantly rubbing their hands together to stay warm.

Again, there is a sense of the colonial adventure narrative being inverted. The dockworkers

were bewildered by this exhibition of adventure, or ignorance, or plain suicide. For a while the movies seemed truer than they had vouched for, the story of men taking ship with their last resources and sailing into unknown lands in search of adventure and fortune and mystery. England had none of these things as far as they knew.

Although to emigrant, of course, England will at least have adventure and mystery – and fortune (if not fortunes) will have a hand in what befalls them, good or ill or indifferent.

The dockworkers conclude that the ‘archipelago of unutterable beauty’ they imagine the emigrants have come from has ‘bred lunatics’:

How could sane men leave the sun and the sea …, abandon the natural relaxation that might almost be a kind of permanent lethargy, to gamble their last coin on a voyage to England. England of all places.

In the next few lines, the emigrants are described as having ‘childish curiosity’ and behaving like ‘timid spaniels’. Which prompted a discussion as to where such imagery – Lamming attributing racist stereotypes of black people to white characters – comes from; while the power relations of race mean that Lamming cannot be being racist about whites her, is he prejudiced about them? Or does he share a class/race prejudice against Caribbeans of a lower class and educational level than himself? There is insufficient evidence in the extract to draw any firm conclusions, but we returned to some of these issues in relation to the Selvon extract.

After three pages of the roaming third-person narrative typical of the novel, it suddenly changes form into something closer to poetry or competing dramatic (and distracted) monologues. The train journey to Paddington is depicted through a cacophony of voices and thoughts, snatches of dialogue and musings, in dialects and pidgins and patois rarely attributable to any specific one of the characters encountered in the preceding hundred pages.

It is a remarkable passage, which gives a good sense of how strange England is. Sugar rationing and saccharine are as mystifying when you come from sugar plantations as the notion of tea without milk. As English beer. As terms of friendly familiarity and slang like ‘spade’. As the British obsession with newspapers and legalities and the football pools. As the English’s ignorance of the range and variety of the Caribbean – and their surprise that a citizen of the Commonwealth, formerly the Empire, should speak English better than the French do. As the billboards advertising cold cream and razor blades and ‘Hermivita’ and ‘dissecticide’.

This passage also ends with foreboding. The train comes to a stop. There is impenetrable smoke everywhere. Catastrophe is intimated.

But it is just the London smog:

Tell me, Tornado, tell me.
What, man, what?
When we get outta this smoke,
When we get outta this smoke, w’at happen next?
More smoke.

Next we turned to Sam Selvon (1923-94), my favourite of these writers and the one whose work I find hardest to talk about. He was born in Trinidad to East Indian parents – his father an emigrant from Madras, and his maternal grandfather was Scottish. He was a journalist on the Trinidad Guardian (1945-50). He emigrated to London and clerked in the Indian Embassy, then relocated to Canada in the 1970s.

Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners (1956) depicts roughly three years in the life of sundry emigrants in London, most centrally Moses Aloetta. He has been there a decade, achieved little beyond survival and is getting increasingly homesick for Trinidad. There is no overarching plot as such, just incidents that befall characters – and their tall tales and boasts – as they look for lodging, jobs, loans, sex and other pleasures. The third-person narration breaks new ground by being in the same creolised English that the characters use (and there is a remarkable stream-of-consciousness passage about the London summer).

The novel opens, of course, ‘one grim winter evening’. The cold will be a key feature of the novel’s opening as, in the most comical of the colonial inversions, the newly arrived Henry Oliver – aka Galahad – steps off the train at Waterloo wearing ‘a old grey tropical suit and a pair of watchekong and no overcoat or muffler or gloves or anything for the cold’.

For Moses, who has agreed to meet this stranger and get him started in London, there is a

kind of unrealness about London, with a fog sleeping restlessly over the city and the lights showing in the blur as if it is not London at all but some strange place on another planet.

Selvon also comments on the English obsession with the newspapers (and radio), which they believe without question. And Moses has been here so long he has started to behave in the same way, albeit unknowingly – he considers the new arrivals to be ‘real hustlers, desperate … invading the country by the hundreds’, regurgitating the language of folk-devils and moral panics the British press are so accomplished at creating. There is a journalist at Waterloo, talking to the arrivals and taking pictures, and it is not entirely clear whether it is his copy or his editor’s revisions which produce yet another scare-mongering story about not just lone workers but now whole families arriving. And like all ‘English people [he] believe[s] that everybody who come from the West Indies come from Jamaica’.

This time it is Tanty, who has begrudgingly emigrated with her children and grandchildren, not baffled British dockworkers, who questions

Why all you leaving the country to go to England? Over there it is so cold that only white people does live there.

Indeed it is so cold that, Galahad says,

‘I find when I talk smoke coming out my mouth.’
‘Is so it is in this country,’ Moses say. ‘Sometimes the words freeze and you have to melt it to hear the talk’

The opening pages also give a sense of the housing discrimination and landlord-exploitation emigrants faced (and were, paradoxically, blamed for). Later in the novel, the intersections of race and class are elaborated upon when the narrator observes that ‘wherever in London that it have Working Class, there you will find a lot of spades’; and in one of the most moving passages in the book, Galahad, works out that it ‘Is not we that the people don’t like, … is the colour Black’, and begins to talk to the colour of his own skin as if it is somehow a separate and distinct entity.

We closed with a brief discussion of Basil Dearden’s 1951 film Pool of London. An Ealing crime thriller cum social melodrama (with moments of post-The Third Man expressionist lighting, of Humphrey Jennings/GPO-like poetic realism and of pre-Free Cinema procedural documentary), it is set around the Thames when London was still a freight port – and a city of wartime ruins. (One of the delights of the film is the skyline – you can actually see Nelson’s Column from the South Bank!)

Pool of London. seems intended to meet the call of Michael Balcon’s 1945 manifesto for British cinema ‘to offer “a complete picture of Britain”, which includes being ‘a leader in social reform in the defeat of social injustice and a champion of civil liberties’. It is dazzling sleight-of-hand. It features the first starring role for a black actor in British film since Paul Robeson’s films in the thirties. It is stolidly, agonisingly liberal and reasonable. And it sidesteps the contemporary story of immigration by showing only one black character, Johnny (Earl Cameron), who although he arrives by boat is not an immigrant.

Johnny works on a cargo vessel that treks back and forth between London and the continent. He is only ashore when his ship is in port, and has no intention of staying. He meets a nice white middle class girl and although they are drawn to each other, the nearest they come to touching is when the bus takes a corner too quickly (this is not Sapphire (Dearden 1959) or Flame in the Streets (Baker 1961)). He is restrained and respectful, and avoids confrontation on the odd occasion someone says something overtly racist. He loses control just once, when he has been steered into a dive bar – coincidentally the only place in the whole of London where we glimpse, momentarily, another black face – to be robbed.

And, most importantly, he leaves.

Week 20.

Recommended critical reading
Akbur, Riad. “The City as Imperial Centre: Imagining London in Two Caribbean Novels.” A Companion to the City. Ed.Gary Bridge and Sophie Watson. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000. 65–74.
Bloom, Clive. Violent London: 2000 Years of Riots, Rebels and Revolts. London: Pan, 2003. See chapters 18–22.
Gilroy, Paul. There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack:  The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation. London: Hutchinson, 1987.
Kundnan, Arun. The End of Tolerance: Racism in 21st Century Britain. London: Pluto, 2007. See chapter 1, “Echoes of Empire.”
McLeod, John. Postcolonial London: Rewriting the Metropolis. London: Routledge, 2004.
MacPhee, Graham. Postwar British Literature and Postcolonial Studies. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. Especially 40–51, 118–127.
Nava, Mica. “Gender and Racial Others in Postwar Britain.” Third Text 20.6 (2006): 671–82.
Sivanandan, A. “From Resistance to Rebellion: Asian and Afro-Caribbean Struggles in Britain.” A Different Hunger: Writings on Black Resistance, London: Pluto Press, 1982.
Solomos, John. Race and Racism in Britain. 3rd ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Chapter 3, “The Politics of Race and Immigration Since 1945.”

Recommended reading
The experience of Afrodiasporic migration to Britain is also captured in Buchi Emecheta’s In the Ditch (1972) and historical novels such as Caryl Phillips’s Final Passage (1985), Beryl Gilroy’s In Praise of Love and Children (1996) and Andrea Levy’s Every Light in the House is Burnin’ (1994) and Small Island (2004).
Sympathetic treatment by a white British author can be found in Colin MacInnes’s City of Spades (1957); his Absolute Beginners (1959) culminates in the 1958 Notting Hill race riots.
The classic Arabic text of emigrating to Britain is the Sudanese Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North (1966).
The Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène’s Black Docker (1956) is a semi-autobiographical account of his years in France.

Recommended viewing
The Nine Muses (Akomfrah 2010) is an intriguing account of post-war emigration from the Caribbean and India to Britain. The BBC documentary Windrush is a more detailed, conventional account of West Indian emigration to Britain.
Pool of London is one of several films to address Windrush-era migration of Afro-Caribbeans, along with Sapphire (Dearden 1959), Flame in the Streets (Baker 1961), A Taste of Honey (Richardson 1961), The L-Shaped Room (Forbes 1962) and To Sir, With Love (Clavell 1967). Absolute Beginners (Temple 1986), adapted from MacInnes’s novel, is also of interest.
Earlier, the African-American singer Paul Robeson starred in several British films, including Big Fella (Wills 1937) and The Proud Valley (Tennyson 1940).
The first feature film by a black British filmmaker is Horace Ové’s Pressure (1976), co-written by Sam Selvon.
Sembène’s 1966 La Noire de…/Black Girl, adapted from his story ‘The Promised Land’, depicts a migrant Senegalese worker in France. Kent MacKenzie’s The Exiles (1961) is about Native Americans who have had to migrate within the US to Los Angeles. El Norte (Nava 1983) and Sin Nombre (Fukunaga 2009) follow Latin Americans migrating to the US. The Brother from Another Planet (Sayles 1984) tells the story of a black alien who crash-lands in New York.

 

My top thirty-two films of 2015

This year, I watched 365 films (though I could not work up the energy to transcribe the incomplete-because-of-system-constraints list from my FB page this morning, so you will have to go dig around there if you really care). Anyways, here are my top nine films which had cinema releases or previews in the UK this year, and the top twenty-three I saw for the first time this year:

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The top nine (in (current) order of preference)
Hard To Be A God (German 2013)
Crumbs (Llansó 2015)
High Rise (Wheatley 2016)
Mad Max Fury Road (Miller 2015)
White God (Mundruczó 2014)
Furious 7 (Wan 2015)
Bone Tomahawk (Zahler 2015)
The Signal (Eubank 2014)
Spy (Feig 2015)

The other top twenty-three (in alphabetical order, ‘cos decisions are too hard and I already made a bunch)
21 Jump Street (Lord/Miller 2012)
Adrift in Tokyo (Satoshi Miki 2007)
The Baader Meinhoff Complex (Edel 2008)
The Babadook (Kent 2014)
Babylon (Rosso 1981)
Beasts of the Southern Wild (Zeitlin 2012)
Black Joy (Simmons 1977)
The Drop (Roskam 2014)
Go For Sisters (Sayles 2013)
A Lonely Place to Die (Gilbey 2011)
Los Angeles Plays Itself (Andersen 2003)
Make Way for Tomorrow (McCarey 1937)
Piccadilly (Dupont 1929)
Pitch Perfect (Moore 2012)
The Rover (Michôd 2014)
The Shining (US cut) (Kubrick 1980)
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Zeman 1978)
Stage Struck (Dwan 1925)
The Stolen Airship (Zeman 1967)
This Filthy World (Garlin 2006)
Tiger in the Smoke (Baker 1956)
Tusk (Smith 2014) – though I might be completely wrong about this
Yeelen (Cissé 1987)

 

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Van Peebles 1971) and Baadasssss! aka How To Get the Man’s Foot Outta Your Ass (t’other Van Peebles 2003)

bigtmp_20824[A version of this review appeared in Film International 27 (2007), 70–3]

In the late 1960s, Melvin Van Peebles, an expatriate novelist and the director of four short films, including The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968), which depicted the brief romance between an African-American soldier and a white French woman, was hired by Columbia Pictures to direct the comedy Watermelon Man (1970). His debut feature starred Godfrey Cambridge as Jeff Gerber, a white racist who, one morning, wakes up to find he has become black. Driven out of his community, he eventually finds pride in his new identity. In a remarkable final scene, he is shown working out in a basement somewhere with two dozen other black men, practicing martial arts with mop and broom handles. The camera zooms in over these men and into a medium close-up of Gerber as, yelling, he thrusts his mop handle toward the camera, freezeframing for a full ten seconds.[i]

This image of militant radicalism resonates with the final shot of the anti-imperialist film Yawar mallku/Blood of the Condor (1969), about the resistance triggered by the revelation that the Peace Corps were sterilising indigenous Quechua women without their consent (which in reality led to the Peace Corps’ expulsion from Bolivia). Jorge Sanjinés’ film ends with a still of raised hands, holding automatic rifles. Although there is no reason to suggest direct inspiration or imitation, the connection is not a spurious one, as Van Peebles’s subsequent film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, makes clear. It defied Hollywood conventions of racial representation, narrative structure, the construction of time and space, and the relationship between soundtrack and image. And in its adaptation of nouvelle vague techniques, which it re-radicalised through merging them with Black Power politics and African-American aesthetics, it represents not only a landmark in black American cinema and American independent cinema but also a rare instance of Californian Third Cinema.

In their 1969 manifesto ‘Towards a Third Cinema’, Argentinian filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Gettino identified three kinds of filmmaking: First Cinema (the commercial cinema of Hollywood and its imitators), Second Cinema (auteurist and art cinema, always limited politically by being a bourgeois cinema dependent on First Cinema distribution) and Third Cinema (neither commercial nor bourgeois, an activist cinema directly involved in political struggle). Mike Wayne’s Political Film: The Dialectics of Third Cinema argues that rather than treat these categories as pigeonholes into which we can place films, they should be understood as conceptual categories whose dialectical interaction can be observed in individual films. Regardless of its political impact – Huey Newton devoted all of the 16 June 1971 issue of The Black Panther to a laudatory review of Sweetback, declaring it ‘the first truly revolutionary black film’, and made it mandatory viewing for members of the Black Panther Party nationwide – it retains significant First Cinema elements: Van Peebles’s desire to make it as entertaining as ‘a motherfucker’, its commitment to a narrative about an individual, and its commercial distribution and exhibition (however much Van Peebles had to fight to get it screened, it made $15 million on its initial release and dislodged Love Story (Hiller 1970) from number one at the US box-office; and it has been commercially available on video and DVD for some years).

tumblr_m5vimzquPt1qf5ylso1_500Its Second Cinema elements can be articulated around the figure of Van Peebles himself, who has credits as writer, composer, producer, director and editor, as well as star, while its Third Cinema elements can be detected in the goals towards which he flexed his auteurism. Sweetback is precisely, as the opening titles claim, ‘a film of Melvin Van Peebles’. The narrative is a slender armature upon which a unique – and arguably a uniquely African-American aesthetic – is developed. Growing up in a South Central whorehouse, a ten year-old boy is introduced to sex by a prostitute, who cries out in ecstasy that he has a ‘sweet, sweet back’. Strangely passive and nearly as mute as John Sayles’s Brother from Another Planet, the adult Sweetback seems disconnected from the black community in which he makes a living performing in sex shows. Lent by his boss to some white cops who need to bring someone in for questioning to make it look like they are making progress on a case, Sweetback eventually intervenes when they brutally assault the young black radical Mu-Mu, beating them to death with his handcuffs.

‘Where we going?’, Mu-Mu asks him.
‘Where you get this “we” shit?’ he replies.

But as Sweetback goes on the run, he encounters his community for the first time, and as a result later sacrifices his own chance at escape to ensure that Mu-Mu survives because ‘He’s our future’. Fleeing the police and an army helicopter, Sweetback finally escapes the city and heads for the Mexican border. When the hunting dogs unleashed to bring him down fall silent, his pursuers are convinced they have killed him. But the next morning, the dogs are found dead, floating in a river. And out of the Californian hills flash the words:

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Generically, Sweetback can be understood as an example of the neo-slave narrative which, beginning with Margaret Walker’s novel Jubilee (1966), reworked the 19th century tradition of autobiographical writings by escaped slaves so as to explore the ongoing legacy of the West African genocide, the Middle Passage and slavery in the Americas.[ii] It also has (like the final minutes of Watermelon Man) strong affiliations with a group of African-American novels from the 1960s and 1970s by such authors as Chester Himes, Sam Greenlee, Blyden Jackson and John A. Williams which imagine a radical black uprising against white supremacist America.[iii]

Formally, though, it is difficult to think of an American narrative film – even in the midst of the ‘Hollywood Renaissance’ – to compare. Van Peebles shot the film, with a non-union cast and crew, in about 19 days, and then embarked on five and a half months of editing. The film is a compendium of technique: location shooting, actuality footage, handheld cameras, imbalanced framings, zooms, slow motion, expressive shifts in and out of focus, superimpositions, multiple superimpositions, colour synthesisation, split screens, mirrored split screens, multiple split screens, and so on. An uncharitable view might be that such overt stylisations were nothing more than a bravura attempt to expand the slight narrative to feature length and get around problems with shooting sufficient coverage and recording sound on location. But whatever shortcomings the footage might have had, in its editing this low-budget crime drama was transformed into one of the most important films made in America. While the radicalism of, say, The Spook Who Sat By the Door (Dixon 1973) lies almost entirely in its narrative of black revolution, Sweetback simultaneously developed an aesthetic radicalism far in excess of, say, The Battle of Algiers (Pontecorvo 1966), even of Tout va bien (Godard 1972).

According to Edouard Glissant’s Caribbean Discourse, the brutal dislocation of the slave trade was such that Afrodiasporic

historical consciousness could not be deposited gradually and continually like a sediment. (62)

Others have built on this insight to argue that this different experience of historical space-time has led to the development of a diasporic black aesthetic, manifested in contemporary music, for example, in terms of scratching, dubbing, breaking, mixing and remixing. Throughout Sweetback, Van Peebles improvises a similar aesthetic, returning materiality to the film, rendering it sensible through a complex play of prolepsis and repetition, folding and layering, which shatters the white reality constructed through Hollywood’s technical and narrative conventions. (One particularly moving instance has the camera and the soundtrack return again and again to a poor African American woman, surrounded by the children she looks after for the county, repeating with slight variations the lines ‘I might have had a Leroy once, but I don’t rightly remember’ and ‘When they get older and bad, they take them away from me.’)

But rather than an aleatory jumble of fragments, the film coheres through its soundtrack, which includes music by Earth, Wind and Fire. The blaxploitation films which flourished, briefly, in the wake of Sweetback’s success, resulted in impressive soundtracks by James Brown, Isaac Hayes, Millie Jackson, Curtis Mayfield and Edwin Starr, and footage shot on location without synchronised sound was often edited into a montage sequence to accompany a particular track, as with Mayfield’s ‘Super Fly’. Van Peebles went much further – the only comparably imaginative soundtrack of the period is that of the rather different The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Hooper 1974) – and produced a layered, ruptured, sometimes deeply discordant blend of diegetic sounds, diegetic and extra-diegetic voices, and music. Throughout the film one can sense the dialectical tensions and unities of sound and vision.

In his 1969 manifesto ‘For an Imperfect Cinema’, Cuban filmmaker Julio García Espinosa argued that rather than aspiring to the kind of ‘perfect’ cinema exemplified by Hollywood’s hermetic Teflon spectacles, Third World countries should aim to develop an imperfect cinema, a genuinely popular art created by the masses to aid them in their daily and revolutionary struggles. Sweetback tends towards this kind of imperfection. If financial restrictions mean that Van Peebles’s techniques are raw, that rawness itself is a direct manifestation of and testimony to the marginalisation of African Americans in mainstream America and to the radicalism of the project. As, perhaps, is the extent to which the making of the film became such a one-man show – the opening titles might declare that it is a film ‘starring the black community’, but ‘and Brer Soul’ gets its own, separate title afterwards. Faced with such effective exclusion from filmmaking as a way to express African-American experience(s), and with the US state’s violent and often illegal suppression of such radical black groups as the Panthers in full swing, perhaps there simply was not available the possibility for the kind of collectivism often seen as crucial to Third Cinema. Perhaps, also, there were political and personal factors.

baadasssss-movie-poster-2003-1020233016Mario Van Peebles’s Baadasssss! – a sometimes humorous, sometimes sentimental, sometimes inspiring (in a TV movie kind of way) adaptation of his father’s book about the making of Sweetback – indicates the latter while also, incidentally, revealing something of the former. There can be no denying the sexism and homophobia evident in Sweetback (or, indeed, Baadasssss!) and these problems were not uncommon in Civil Rights and Black Power movements.[iv] Baadassssss! is sufficiently certain of the importance of Sweetback to not need to paint its creator as a saint.

In easily the best performance of his career, Mario plays Melvin as an egotist tormented by insecurity, a bully whose manipulations and threats could also inspire, a radical who might also just be a hustler talking radical, a genius who might also just be simulating genius through a deep-rooted fear of being seen to fail. But he is always meant to be admired, or at the very least excused. The Oedipal conventions of the narrative – Melvin justifies putting thirteen year-old Mario in a sex scene by telling how his father sent him out every day from the age of nine to do demeaning work which might see him beaten up and robbed – further accentuate this, even as they make the phallus as central to the making of Sweetback as Sweetback’s own phallic mastery is to the original film.up-badass2_lg

As the casting of Lawrence Cook, Pam Grier, Isaac Hayes, Robert Hooks and Melvin in Posse (1993) suggests, Mario Van Peebles has always seemed keen to place himself in a lineage of black American actors which reaches back through his father’s generation at least as far as Woody Strode, while also aligning himself with the New Jack Cinema of the 1990s (as attested by his casting of John Singleton as a DJ in Baadasssss!). In Baadasssss!, he captures very well the look of the early 1970s, but sadly very little of the politics or spirit (one is constantly reminded of how its executive producer Michael Mann stripped everything of real political significance from Ali (2001), his own biopic of Muhammad Ali). Mario Van Peebles has made a very competent film in admittedly difficult circumstances, and even made some interesting stylistic choices, but is not really any kind of meaningful successor to ‘the first truly revolutionary black film’. It is First Cinema, longing to be Second Cinema.

At the end of Isaac Julien’s Baadasssss Cinema (2002), Fred Williamson is asked about the ‘black Hollywood’ whose success is signalled in the Oscar wins of Cuba Gooding, Jr., Denzel Washington and Halle Berry. Chewing on his cigar, he laughs as he says,

Black Hollywood? Yeah, right. … it don’t exist, man, no, no.

The point of Sweetback was that it was not about integrating into the white Hollywood machine; the sadness which haunts Baadasssss! is that the trail that it blazed in the early 1970s has led many right into that trap.

Notes

[i]
Columbia supposedly had a ‘happy’ ending in mind, in which Gerber regains his whiteness, but Van Peebles reputedly shot this different ending without telling the studio.

[ii]
Other examples include Gayl Jones’s Corregidora (1975), Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of An American Family (1976), Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada (1976), Samuel Delany’s Star in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984), Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) and arguably every novel by the late Octavia Butler.

[iii]
On this cycle of novels, see Kalil Tal’s ‘“That Just Kills Me”: Black Militant Near-Future Fiction” (Social Text 71) and my ‘Come Alive By Saying No: An Introduction to Black Power Sf’ (Science Fiction Studies 102). In 1973, Greenlee’s novel, The Spook Who Sat By The Door (1969) was adapted as an independent film of the same name. Long rumoured to have been suppressed by the FBI, it has recently become available on DVD. Lacking Sweetback’s formal experimentation, it is nonetheless still a potent Black Power document.

[iv]
See Steve Estes I Am a Man! Race, Manhood, and the Civil Rights Movement for an acute analysis of why the fight for African American equality was so often articulated around remasculinising the emasculated black man. These problems were also common in the New Left and other radical movements of the period, as well, of course, as in mainstream and conservative politics.

120 years of sf cinema, part six: 1975-1984

2015 marks the 120th anniversary of sf cinema. This is the sixth part of a year-by-year list of films I’d recommend (not always for the same reasons).

Part one (1895-1914), part two (1915-34), part three (1935-54), part four (1955-1964), part five (1965-74)

1975
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman)
Shivers (David Cronenberg)

1976mrblack
Dr Black Mr Hyde (William Crain)
God Told Me To (Larry Cohen)
The Man Who Fell to Earth (Nicolas Roeg)
Queen Kong (Frank Agrama)
Rabid (David Cronenberg)

1977
Le couple témoin/The Model Couple (William Klein)
Eraserhead (David Lynch)
Izbavitelji/The Rat Saviour (Krsto Papic)
The Last Wave (Peter Weir)
Star Wars (George Lucas)

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Coma (Michael Crichton)
Dawn of the Dead (George Romero)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufmann)
It Lives Again (Larry Cohen)
Jubilee (Derek Jarman)
The Long Weekend (Colin Eggleston)
Piranha (Joe Dante)
Test Pilota Pirx/Pilot Prix’s Inquest (Marek Piestrak)

1979
Alien (Ridley Scott)
The Brood (David Cronenberg)
‘Hukkunud Alpinisti’ hotel/Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel (Grigori Kromanov)
Mad Max (George Miller)
Sengoku Jietai/G.I. Samurai (Kôsei Saitô)
Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky)

1980flash_gordon_ornella_muti_mike_hodges_022_jpg_biqb
Altered States (Ken Russell)
The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner)
Flash Gordon (Mike Hodges)
Scanners (David Cronenberg)

1981
Alligator (Lewis Teague)
Escape from New York (John Carpenter)
Gosti iz Galaksije/Visitors from the Galaxy (Dušan Vukotić)
Mad Max 2 (George Miller)

1982Liquid-Sky-Large
Blade Runner (Ridley Scott)
Chronopolis (Piotr Kamler)
Liquid Sky (Slava Tsukerman)
Les maîtres du temps/Time Masters (René Laloux)
The Thing (John Carpenter)

1983
Born in Flames (Lizzie Borden)
Videodrome (David Cronenberg)

1984
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension (W.D. Richter)
The Brother from Another Planet (John Sayles)
Dune (David Lynch)
Forbrydelsens Element/Element of Crime (Lars von Trier)
Repo Man (Alex Cox)
The Terminator (James Cameron)
Threads (Mick Jackson)

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part seven, 1985-94

Glimpsing solidarity: Leslie Feinberg, Stone Butch Blues (1993)

Stone_Butch_Blues_coverI’d been meaning to read Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues for years when scoping out potential material for a new module suddenly gave me the opportunity. There was even a reasonably-priced second-hand copy waiting in my abebooks shopping basket. But before I could get to it, Feinberg died, someone snaffled my cheap copy, and prices for this disgracefully out-ot-print novel went through the roof. On a long shot, I checked my university’s library – and somehow its single copy had survived a series of recent purges (cos, you know, the last thing you want cluttering up libraries is books). It is a hard novel to describe, since all my reference points seem a little out. It is a bit like one of those Charles Bukowski novels in which incident follows incident and insecure job follows insecure job and characters appear and disappear in a quite specific marginal setting. The factory work Feinberg describes, and the cultures around it, recall Ben Hamper’s Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line (1991) and a section of John Sayles’ Union Dues (1977), as well as scattered chunks of Bukowski. But it is also nothing like them. Probably the closest thing I can think of off the top of my head are the sequences from Lynne Fernie and Aerlyn Weissmann’s documentary Forbidden Loves: The Untold Stories of Lesbian Lives (1992) in which nine women recount some of their experiences growing up queer in Canada in the 1950s and 60s. Maybe the reason I am reminded of that film is that it also looks at mid-century lesbian pulp fiction, and there is a pulp quality to Feinberg’s writing at times, which is one of the many things I love about it (and which kind of brings us back round to Bukowski again, although I only really loved him when I was fourteen or so, and even then I had my doubts). One of my other favourite things about Stone Butch Blues is this passage, so I thought I would share it:

We talked all day long too. The owners only rented our hands, not out brains. But even talking had to be negotiated when it was on the bosses’ time. If we seemed to be having too much fun, laughing and enjoying ourselves too much, the foreman would come up behind us and hit the solid wooden worktables with a lead pipe while he growled, “Get to work.” Then we’d all look at our hands as we worked and press our lips together in silent anger. I think the foreman sometimes got nervous after he’d done that, sensing the murderous glances he received moments after he turned his back. But he was assigned to keep us under control. That required keeping us divided. We came from many different nationalities and backgrounds. About half the women on the line were from the Six Nations. Most were Mohawks or Seneca. What we shared in common was that we worked cooperatively, day in and day out. So we remembered to ask about each other’s back or foot pains, family crises. We shared small bits of our culture, favorite foods, or revealed an embarrassing moment. It was just this potential for solidarity the foreman was always looking to sabotage. It was done in little ways, all the time: a whispered lie, a cruel suggestion, a vulgar joke. But it was hard to split us up. The conveyor belt held us together. Within weeks I was welcomed into the circle, teased, pelted with questions. My differences were taken into account, my sameness sought out. We worked together, we talked, we listened. And then there were songs. When the whistle first blew in the mornings there was a shared physical letdown among all the women and men who worked between its imperative commands. We lumbered to our feet, stood silently in line to punch in, and took our places on the assembly line – next to each other, facing each other. We worked the first few moments in heavy silence. Then the weight was lifted by the voice of one of the Native women. They were social songs, happy songs that made you feel real good to hear them, even if you had no idea what the words meant. I listened to the songs, trying to hear the boundaries of each word, the patterns and repetitions. Sometimes one of the women would explain to us later what the song meant, or for which occasion or time of year it was sung. There was one song I loved the best. I found myself humming it after I punched out in the afternoons. One day, without thinking, I sang along. The women pretended not to notice, but they smiled at each other with their eyes, and sang a little louder to allow me to raise my own voice a bit. After that I started looking forward to the songs in the morning. Some of the other non-Native women learned songs, too. It felt good to sing together. One wintry Friday night, before we punched out, Muriel invited me to go to an indoor pow-wow on Sunday. I said yes, of course. I felt honored. There were a few other Black and white workers at the social – friendships too valuable to explore solely on company time. I began to go regularly and got strung out on fry bread and corn soup. (Alyson 2003: 77-78)

Stone Butch Blues is not really remembered as a novel of working class life, since its greatest urgency lies elsewhere, but this is one of several things that it is, and the politics of a passage such as this one are not a supplement. They are not detachable. They are intrinsic.

Best books of the millennium so far

The BBC asked a bunch of US critics, what is the greatest novel of the millennium so far? Such an obviously completely bullshit question, you can imagine my eagerness to see the results. I was really looking forward to the pleasure of being outraged and/or bemused by their idiocy and poor taste. That’s the kind of thing that gets me through the day.

What can I say? I was robbed.

Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao topped the poll. And, leaving aside for one moment the obvious and complete bullshitness of the question, I had no problem with that. I like the novel an awful lot. And Junot very generously blurbed the Africa SF collection and contributed an extraordinary long interview to the SF Now collection, extracted here, so I’m very happy for him personally. But none of that helps when I’m jonesing for affront.

The situation was redeemed a little by one of the judges comparing Oscar Wao to Philip Roth’s Portnoy and John Updike’s Rabbit. What the fuck? At last some provocation! Such pedestrian taste! How benevolent of white literary culture to elevate Díaz to such company! The unsavoury reek of appropriation, not only of Dominican/Latino culture, but of geekdom, too! Who dared to say such a thing?

I clicked on the link, and was once more robbed. The journalist is paraphrasing Greg Barrios’ interview with Díaz in the Los Angeles Review of Books, in which the comparison – which also mentions  James T Farrell’s Studs Lonigan – is really just an attempt to explain the structure of the series of Oscar Wao stories Díaz once contemplated writing.

Maybe the other 19 titles in the poll’s top twenty would offer some enormity, some better shots at genuine WTF moments.

Of the other books, I have read only three.

Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (number 6) has been sitting on the shelf for years. I finally overcame the potential embarrassment of being seen not to have read it yet, and got through it in one long sitting on two trains and two planes (serially, not simultaneously) en route to the US. A thoroughly enjoyable romp, full of geek-stroking moments, and I get why people like it so much. But all the way through I was troubled by how comfortable it was. How comforting to imagine twentieth-century American history so utterly free from any anti-Semitism whatsoever. It just seemed dishonest. Good, but a long way short of great. On the whole, I probably rate Jonathan Lethem’s vaguely comparable Fortress of Solitude more highly. (By coincidence, my partner, sat next to me on one of the trains and both of the planes, read Hilary Mantell’s Wolf Hall (number 3), and had a kind of mehhh response. Neither book made the return journey.)

A professional obligation recently required me to read Zadie Smith’s NW (number 18). It took me completely by surprise. A genuinely compelling page-turner, if ultimately also just a bit too comfortable in its rather bourgeois worldview. I promptly bought White Teeth (number 11), but have not had chance to read it yet.

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (number 17) utterly mystifies me. It is flimsy and trite and I really cannot see what anyone sees in it. But people damn well keep on seeing something in it.

Three others are in the to-read pile or, rather, one of the to-read piles, ‘cos this place is becoming unmanageable again. There is a looming happy convergence of personal interest and work which will hopefully get me to Edward P Jones’s The Known World (number 2) and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah (numbers 10 and 13) within the next year.

Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex (number 12) has been flickering in and out of a similar indeterminate space for a few years now, but every time I decide this time I really do need to read it I realise I don’t actually have a copy.

Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (number 19) would be in a to-read pile but I am determined to read one of these shorter books of his I have lying around before committing to such a sizeable tome. I mean, over there in the corner, there’s a small mountain range comprised of the evergrowing proportion of William Vollmann that remains unread. Surely I should do something about that first?

I confess to finding the whole idea of Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections, number 5) baffling. At least he only provokes indifference.

But Ian McEwan? (Atonement at number 9). Genuine ire.

I have not managed to get past the first chapter of anything McEwan has written since, I dunno, Black Dogs or possibly Enduring Love, though I can recall nothing about either of them. (I remember quite liking The Cement Garden and The Comfort of Strangers, and the two early story collections, which is why I stuck with him as long as I did, but I was fifteen or sixteen when I read them, so I doubt it is worth going back.)

At least, I suppose, we are spared Martin Amis. I agreed wholeheartedly with Beulah Maud Devaney’s statement this week that ‘life is too short for Martin Amis’, though found myself repeatedly moving her words and their meanings around a little. Martin Amis is too short to live! Let’s shorten the life of Martin Amis!

Nothing on the rest of the list provoked a thing. Least of all interest.

I don’t know which are the greatest novels of the millennium so far. Not least because is it such an obviously and completely bullshit idea. But here is my list of the books published so far this millennium that I rate most highly. My criteria boil down to this: I could not wait to finish them so I could force my copies on other people to read. Which is unusual for me since, despite my enthusiasms, I am not by nature enthusiastic.

In date order:

2002
Kim Stanley Robinson, The Years of Rice and Salt 
2003

Ahmadou Kourouma, Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote (this is cheating a little, since it was published in France in 1998)
Nalo Hopkinson, The Salt Roads
2003-4
Neal Stephenson, The Baroque Cycle
2004
Gwyneth Jones, Life – I also rate her Rock and Roll Reich series (2001-14) very highly; it is becoming increasingly prescient.
2005
Geoff Ryman, Air: Or, Have Not Have
2006
Shelley Jackson, Half Life
Anthony Joseph, The African Origins of UFOs
Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Wizard of the Crow
2007
Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Hari Kunzru, My Revolutions
2009
China Mieville, The City & the City – or perhaps Iron Council (2004), actually, the whole Bas Lag trilogy (Perdido Street StationThe Scar)
2010
Nnedi Okorofor, Who Fears Death
Karen Tei Yamashita, I Hotel
2011
Andrea Hairston, Redwood and Wildfire
John Sayles, A Moment in the Sun
2012
Zadie Smith, NW