Filler content with artistic license

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #40:-

THE ART OF MURDER by JOSE CARLOS SOMOZA

Abacus pb, 470pp, £10.99      http://www.twbg,co.uk

In the year 2006 the world has been irrevocably changed by a new artistic movement known as hyperdramatism, or HD for short, which consists of actual people being transformed into works of art to be displayed in galleries, public places and private houses. Some of the works are worth many millions. Elsewhere we have all the usual trappings of the art world, involving forgeries, reproductions, splinter groups, criminal factions, the use of people as ornaments and decorations, pieces of furniture. Pivotal in the development of HD and its leading exponent is the Dutch artist Bruno Van Tysch, with the wealthy and influential Van Tysch Foundation determined to protect his interests at any cost. Young Clara, like so many others, dreams of being taken by Van Tysch and made into a masterpiece, an ambition that may well be realised when she is asked to undergo the gruelling ordeal that will make her into a canvas worthy of the Maestro. But what Clara doesn’t know is that two of Van Tysch’s most valuable works have recently been destroyed (murdered, in ordinary terms) and his Foundation faces a crisis like none before. Security chiefs April Wood and Lothar Bosch find themselves thwarted at every turn and reach the conclusion that someone inside the Foundation itself is helping the killer. The only course open to them is to delve back into the life of Van Tysch himself in the hope of figuring out who his enemy is and why he destroyed these particular paintings, but with the new exhibition of thirteen pieces based on the work of Rembrandt set to open shortly time is against them.

In 2003 Somoza’s novel The Athenian Murders won the CWA Golden Dagger Award, which may account for the belated English publication of this earlier work. Though perhaps it seemed reasonable at the time of writing, the year 2006 is too soon for the changes in society envisaged by Somoza to take hold, but that is the only false note struck in this otherwise thoroughly convincing and beautifully crafted novel, which operates on several levels. In the foreground is a compelling murder mystery, one that is no less enjoyable for the eventual transparency of its resolution, with meticulously plotted move and counter move, and characters as real as those we meet on the street every day functioning alongside the larger than life luminaries of the art world. The real joy of the work though is in the background to these events, the way in which Somoza delineates the mechanics of using actual people as works of art and then so thoroughly explores the implications of such a practice. Like the very best art, The Art of Murder holds a mirror up to society, convincingly extrapolating from present trends and asking vital questions about the role and purpose of art, about pornography, slavery, the artistic impulse and marketing, fetishism and S&M practises, the objectification of people, our concepts of beauty and criminality, the nature of genius. The end result is a superb, multi-layered work of fiction and a book I can’t praise enough. Go buy a copy right now and then get one for somebody you love.

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Trailer Trash – Blade Runner 2049

Really looking forward to this.

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Filler content with slashers

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #40:-

LEGACY OF BLOOD by JIM HARPER

Headpress pb, 192pp, £9.99 http://www.headpress.com

Subtitled A Comprehensive Guide to Slasher Movies, the heart of this book consists of over 130 reviews of films, some with quite respectable reputations and others that have gone straight to video. Harper is a reviewer after my own heart. His enthusiasm can’t be doubted and he approaches each film from the perspective of a fan boy rather than any more serious critical stance, but he never holds back when a movie deserves trashing and his comments can be entirely apposite. His critical faculties may at times seem skewed, as with his fondness for the god awful Valentine, which I personally never regarded as anything more than a flimsy pretext to put Denise Richards in a bikini, and he does rather dwell on nudity and gore to the neglect of other qualities, but overall he’s a pretty canny commentator, and his views, always leavened with humour and a genuine feel for the subject matter, are worth hearing for anyone interested in this subgenre. In addition the book is packed full of those vitals titbits of trivia that are a film nerd’s guilty pleasure, such as that while Scream was the most successful slasher film ever the spoof Scary Movie outstripped it by a considerable margin at the box office, or that Silent Night, Deadly Night had people picketing cinemas in protest at the portrayal of Santa as a serial killer. Other features include a listing of so called video nasties and stars who got their first break in slasher films (Tom Hanks, would you believe?).

Where the book falls down is in its analysis of this subgenre. Harper gives us a series of introductory essays tracing the development of the slasher movie, its most significant financial and critical successes, and identifying the genre’s defining characteristics, such as the inevitable female survivor (given the label “Final Girl” by academic Carol Clover), the clay feet of authority figures and the premium put on virtue, illustrating each trait with numerous examples and naming exceptions to the rule. Where he draws the line is at suggesting the reasons for these characteristics, and similarly he makes no real attempt at addressing the slasher movie’s continuing appeal, so the reader is left with the feeling that there’s still a significant work to be written on the subject. This is not it, but it will do to be going on with.

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Horror High – Class of 2015

It’s October, so obviously I’ll be writing a lot about horror movies.

Here’s four that debuted in 2015 and which I’ve watched at some point in the past year or so.

Knock Knock (2015)

Keanu Reeves plays a home alone husband and father whose desres is invaded by two party girls intent on showing him a good time whether he wants it or not. And, of course, given that the director is Eli Roth, things then take a turn or two for the worse. According to wiki, Keanu had a couple of home invasions by young women in 2014, so perhaps the theme struck a chord with him, as I can’t imagine why else he’d get involved in such drivel. There are echoes here of Hard Candy and Haneke’s Funny Games, but it lacks the subtlety and edginess of either, being just a cheap exploitation flick about the dangers of letting strange, feral young women into your house under the impression it’s the ‘nice’ thing to do (and possibly also by way of showing that Keanu’s character isn’t really that ‘nice’, given his willingness to engage in sexual shenanigans and betray his wife, simply because the young ladies offer it up on the proverbial plate). There are moments when it reaches for something more – strong hints that this isn’t the first time Keanu’s character has been unfaithful and his wife has him on a short leash, suggestions that the young ladies have an employer who has pointed them at their target – but none of it is taken to any worthwhile conclusion. At bottom, it’s just a cheap and nasty film about how being unfaithful is a bad thing, because we couldn’t figure that out for ourselves, and eminently forgettable.

The Gift (2015)

Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall are Simon and Robyn Callem, the paradigm yuppie couple in this psychological thriller directed and written by, and also starring, Joel Edgerton. Relocated to LA after Simon’s promotion, they run into his old school friend Gordo (Edgerton), who starts to intrude himself into their perfect life, bringing the couple expensive gifts. At first Robyn finds him appealing in a cute puppy dog sort of way, but gradually things turn sour and she begins to wonder exactly who they have allowed into their lives. Only as she investigates, things get turned round and she is left wondering about her husband’s past, what he may be capable of in pursuing his ambitions. Reminiscent of The Hand that Rocks the Cradle in some ways, this is a film about the past coming back to bite you in the arse. And, as far as that goes, it’s a tense and involving story with plenty of plot twists, and I took pleasure in seeing the bully get his comeuppance. More morally nuanced than Hand, it suffered for lack of a character as strong or memorable as Rebecca de Mornay’s barking mad child minder. While it might be pitched as a psychological thriller, to my mind this was plot driven and the characters didn’t really stand out, with the bare minimum of acting chops required from the cast. I enjoyed the film and thought it had some good things to say about the peril of judging others, about how we have to wonder how well we know those we love, but all the same I don’t think it will stick in my memory for very long.

The Messenger (2015)

This film presents the down side of being Haley Joel Osment’s character from Sixth Sense. Ever since the suicide of his father, Jack has been tormented by visions of dead people who nag him to tell their stories. His life has suffered as a result, with stays in psychiatric facilities and bouts of alcoholism, inability to get a job and function in society, incidents of being beaten up for the things he has told people. His latest contact from the other side is reporter Mark, who was supposed to have committed suicide, but wants his wife Sarah to know that he was killed by masked thugs. Only Sarah doesn’t welcome the knowledge and is dealing with shit of her own, resulting in Jack’s arrest and return to psychiatric care. I have very mixed feelings about this film. It’s well-acted by all parties, especially Robert Sheehan as Jack, who gives a bravura performance as somebody tormented by an ability he didn’t ask for and doesn’t know how to cope with. His despair, depression, and desperation seethe off of the screen at times. Underlying this are the family secrets, with the hint that the ability is in Jack’s genes and may have been the real reason for his father’s death, all of which adds a nice degree of ambiguity to the proceedings and heightens the personal drama. On the negative side, the plot strand with Mark and Sarah doesn’t really seem to go anywhere and at the end is just left hanging, with the viewer feeling unsatisfied as to the reason for Mark’s death and Sarah’s troubles. With hindsight, it all feels like something that was just tacked on to give Jack’s dilemma a bit more oomph, but with the implications not really thought out, or perhaps not even considered at all. On balance I liked the film more than not, but don’t think I’ll ever watch it again.

The Gallows (2015)

This is another entry in the found footage school of horror film making. Twenty years ago high school student Charlie was killed onstage during a performance of a play called The Gallows when a prop didn’t function properly. In the present day, the school decides once again to put on the play and four students break into the school late at night with nefarious things on their minds. Cue the spirit of Charlie wreaking havoc from beyond the grave, or something like that. This was made on a shoestring budget and it shows, with little or no special effects and hardly more than the one set, while the characters have the same first names as the actors who play them (perhaps a nod in the direction of Blair Witch). There’s no real rhyme or reason to what happens, with the hint that Charlie’s death might not have been a tragic accident after all pushed out of the door and then abandoned. The artificiality of the found footage device is forcibly underlined, with characters filming on their phones even as they run for their lives, and nobody has any real motive for the way they act, least of all Charlie. An attempt at art mirroring life, with students reenacting Charlie’s death, doesn’t really come off and all that we’re left with are the inevitable jump moments and the corpse of a good idea that never really came back to life. On balance I didn’t like the film at all and don’t think I’ll be watching it again any time soon, if ever.

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Song for a Saturday – Your Latest Trick

And we end our visit with Dire Straits on this high note.

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Filler content with identity issues – Part 2

Following on from Monday’s post, the second part of a feature on the work of Andrew Hook that originally appeared in Black Static #57:-

WHO I AM AND WHAT I’M DOING HERE: ANDREW HOOK (continued)

HUMAN MAPS (Eibonvale Press pb, 244pp, £10) is Hook’s fifth story collection. It contains twenty one stories, all of which have been previously published, including four in Black Static and one in Interzone. Three of the stories – ‘The Human Map’, ‘Bothersome’, and ‘The Opaque District’ – I’ve reviewed previously and won’t repeat myself here, though I will copy and paste my comments to the Case Notes blog in the Black Static section of ttapress.com.

We open with ‘Tetsudo Fan’. Set in Japan it is the story of fifteen year old Kazuo, a young man whose hobby is train watching as a result of which he is drawn into the influence of the older Kunihiro, whose motives will no doubt seem suspicious to the reader. Through the means of a model railway set, Kazuo makes the jump from child to a sexually aware adult. It is a bizarre chain of events, with inappropriate behaviour woven through the text and for the reader fear of what may happen to Kazuo, but at the same time you sense that for Kunihiro the boy is only ever intended to be an observer. At the end his own sexual awakening sees the young man’s desires imprinted on trains, with an awareness of the power they confer by proxy, so that ultimately what Hook gives us is a psychologically acute depiction of an unhealthy relationship and the resultant obsession. ‘The Perfection of Symmetry’ presents us with a world in which photo shopping and similar techniques have been outlawed and the perfectly symmetrical Vermillion Chandler is the world’s most successful model. More character study than anything else, it is a story which marks the tyranny of beauty, showing the sacrifices Vermillion must make to preserve her good looks and commercial viability, until it becomes an obsession that impacts on her mentally. The story tells us that our passion for beauty is both unnatural and unhealthy. In ‘Blue Sky World’ a young man meets the ethereal Sidonie, who can sing perfectly, but when he and his friends learn that she is from another world, her presence the side effect of a military experiment, their plans to capitalise on her perfect voice are complicated. Again it is a strange story, one which shows how human beings have an instinct to commercialise anything, or if not that then to militarise it, though sometimes finer instincts can prevail. At the heart of the story is the vision of a world that has taken a different track, one where the emphasis has been placed on the arts rather than technology, and while I welcome the idea I think Hook rather weights the scales in favour of art, unconvincingly so.

‘Vulvert’ is the way in which an American woman called Velvet pronounces her name, a fact that makes her irresistible to the linguist protagonist of the story. Compelling to read, it is nonetheless an obliquely written piece, one which doesn’t really seem to go anywhere, or to achieve anything much beyond telling us that folk are strange, particularly in the ways of a man interacting with a maid. I liked it, but more for the journey than any destination. Next up we have a world in which Dr Swe Swe Win has invented the ‘Periscope’, a device that enables him to see the future, but others have to interpret and act on what he sees. The reality though is that nobody really cares if he can foretell the future or not, they simply like the idea of having somebody with such an ability onside, and in his private life Win is every bit as much adrift as everybody else, with the final realisation that there are infinite possibilities and even this one may be no more than an illusion, pitched in a story that ultimately questions its own reason to be. Student Yoshi works at a hostess club, using the money he makes to finance the building of a customised sex doll, the ‘Monster Girl’ of the story’s title perhaps, although there are other contenders for the role. But this is only in counterpoint to his dismal relationships with real women, those who desire him and those he idealises. It’s a strange, compelling story, one that delves beneath the surface of the various relationships to give a picture of twisted psychology, one that is regarded with compassion and a sympathetic eye, albeit an eye that is not entirely uncritical.

In ‘Beyond the Island of the Dolls’ Stewart seeks closure for the tragic death of his daughter by bringing her favourite doll to an island that is a shrine for such things, but the reality of the island does not live up to his expectations. There’s a horror vibe going on with this story, but despite the grim imagery and tragic events, Hook goes off at a tangent offering us a meditation on the nature of death, one that enables Stewart to be at peace with himself, though to the reader, who has the benefit and/or curse of detachment, it may all seem rather tenuous and contrived. ‘Rain from a Clear Blue Sky’ tells the story of a group of climbers meeting to plan their next expedition, a trek to the infamous Dyatlov Pass, where many years previous another group died in mysterious circumstances. Their discussion of what might have happened involves the theory of the third man, a figure seen by climbers but non-existent, like the tulpa or thoughtform of Tibetan mysticism. A finely detailed and fascinating story, with a blue sky concept, it is made all the more effective and unsettling by the matter of fact narration and manner in which the truth is revealed. Underlying the main story is a sense of ambiguity, the feeling that we can never truly know the motives of the narrator despite his apparent openness. ‘Cling’ satisfyingly blurs the boundaries between reality TV and real life, film and reality, with a couple’s every move captured on film by a director, leaving them unsure how much of their relationship is genuine and how much lies at the door of the director. It’s a story that asks us to consider life as an art form, and then poses the question of how much is fabrication and how much genuine, and whether ultimately it matters at all as regards the authenticity of our emotional responses.

There’s a surreal feel to ‘Wounder’ and another of the obliquely dysfunctional relationships that seem to be a Hook speciality. The story’s protagonist tries to ease the pain of girlfriend Chloe’s nightmares, but doing so only serves to highlight the differences between them, the tiny problems that reality papers over. It is an intriguing story, one in which emotional attitudes are transmuted into metaphorical quicksilver. Benedict in ‘The Quickening’ is becoming increasingly dislocated in his own life, detached from the consensus reality, and while the problem is presented in ontological terms, with omens and portents to signal all is not well, at heart it may simply be a case of loneliness and social ostracism. In the end he acts on a perilous and self-limiting decision, one that for the reader can only speak to the perils of the desire to fit in. There are three narrative strands to ‘Flytrap’ which explores the idea of alienation through the different accounts of people who feel they do not belong. At its heart the story is a modern uptake on the theme of the changeling, cleverly referencing works of science fiction such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers to make us wonder what it truly means to be human, and how can we be sure that we, or anybody else for that matter, actually is. Despite that the story is an upbeat one, one where abdication from the human race is seen as desirable rather than cue for 1950s style paranoia, inverting the theme of Finney’s classic tale.

Dreams and reality overlap again in ‘Black Lung’ with the story’s narrator dreaming of a dead girlfriend while at the same time expressing fears over his current love’s predilection for smoking. The way in which dreams and reality, facts and fiction, all fade into each other gives the story a surreal quality, with the hint of something terrible taking place behind the scenes, that Rachel may in some way be a threat to the memories of the lost Ondine. The protagonist of ‘On the Beach’ is haunted by images of water in baths and death; he saved the life of a suicidal friend and believes himself to be a lifeguard. It’s another fascinating performance, with infodumps used effectively to forward the story and provide context without the usual sense of intrusion and artificiality. The final picture that emerges is one of somebody who has found validation through an illusion that makes him the hero of his own life, who is trying to make sense of things that are ultimately inexplicable. A group of elderly residents of a retirement home are haunted by ‘Old Factory Memories’, their collective efforts giving rise to a form of consensus reality. Essentially it’s a story of loss, of trying to recapture the past through memory and finding that it is every bit as elusive as the present. Dementia here is seen as a form of hope, at least for the one labouring under its misapprehensions.

Hunter tries to build ‘Dizzy Land’, a fairground attraction, in the rundown seaside resort of California on the east Norfolk coast. But his activities are linked to memories of the woman he loved and lost, and at the end his favourite Rotor ride is transformed into an object of terror, the story presenting us with an image that encapsulates his life’s disappointments. It is a story that uses the trappings of horror fiction at its most clichéd to iterate an emotional truth.  California and Hunter are almost mirror images of each other, once promised great things and now in decline, with Dizzy Land a false hope for them both. Memory is at the heart of ‘Things That Are Here Now, Things That Were There Then’, as an artist tries to capture her life in photographs, but her nemesis undoes her existence by destroying the images that are representative of it. It was I thought one of the weaker stories, overly contrived and with little in the way of emotional resonance for this reader at least, though undeniably well-written and exploiting the idea of a trickster deity to explore the concept of reality and representation.

Finally we have ‘Blood For Your Mother’, to my mind the best story in the collection. Miriam is summoned back to the family home to care for her dying father, but her resentment at a lifetime of neglect means she has little wish to become involved. The discovery of the true fate of her supposedly deceased mother turns the story on its head. Hook would almost certainly reject the label, but this is a vampire story, one that offers a variation on the condition that is comical and at the same time horrifying in the way that it presents itself. Underlying this is fear of growing old, of both becoming a burden and the person on which that burden is placed, with vampirism then a metaphor for the ways in which the elderly can drain the lifeblood of the young. It was a memorable end to a collection with ambition, one that in many ways reminded me of Vonnegut’s oeuvre – Hook in the short form has the same sense of playfulness, the same propensity for including chatty asides and irrelevancies (e.g. the similarity between a shark’s brain and a vagina) that are later seen to illuminate the main body of the text, though he has not as yet crossed the line to present a drawing of an arsehole. Not everything was entirely to my taste, with a couple of stories that felt a little too vague and art house for their own good, but the hits outnumbered the misses by a substantial margin and there’s nothing here that doesn’t in some way reward the reading.

For our fourth title from Andrew Hook we have something in the non-fiction line, BUÑUEL’S THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL: A PERSONAL ANALYSIS. This book is one of the first volumes from RoosterVision, an imprint of Bizarro publisher Rooster Republic that looks to be setting out its store along similar lines to Auteur’s Devil’s Advocate series, only with a wider net cast into the sea of celluloid. I’ve been informed that the title is due for a March 2017 release, but other than that I know nothing – price, page count, if it’s hard or paperback, if there are illustrations. All I have to go on for review are Hook’s words, and normally I’d wait until I had something more substantive to consider, but as this is an Andrew Hook feature it seemed like it might be worth including the title, even if only as an addendum of sorts to the main body of the feature.

The book takes a long, hard look at director Luis Buñuel’s 1962 film The Exterminating Angel, a work to which the author feels a powerful attraction. In his introduction Hook compares the film to the detective genre staple that is “the locked room mystery”, though identifying that in Buñuel’s work polarity is reversed – the room is not locked, it is the people who are unable to leave. After this he provides chapters on surrealist cinema and the career of Luis Buñuel. Next up we have a brief summary of the film’s plot, followed by the longest chapter in the book which gives us a scene by scene breakdown of what takes place on the screen. The antepenultimate chapter explores motifs and meanings in the work, while at the same time showing the truth behind the chapter heading that ‘Nothing Explains Anything’. Next up Hook details his own experiences with the film, telling us why it appeals so much to him and how he feels it has influenced his writing career, before finally moving on to elaborate on the film’s antecedents and the influence it has had on subsequent cinema.

Hook writes well and authoritatively, with enough intellectual muscle to convince you that he knows his stuff as regards cinema theory and insights to show that he is thoroughly conversant with his subject matter, has thought long and deeply about The Exterminating Angel. And it’s all wrapped up in an easy, accessible style that won’t deter non-academic readers. The personal stories that he adds, showing how the film affected his writing and remembrances of catching it on late night terrestrial television (as did I myself, back in the day), all help to ground the work and illuminate why it is so important to the writer. It is this personal slant I feel that puts clear water between books like this and the more objective Auteur volumes. At the end, for anyone who has seen the film, their appreciation will almost certainly be deepened by the light Hook shines on unfamiliar corners of the screen, while those who have never encountered Buñuel’s work will probably be encouraged to seek it out, which is a big part of what books like this are really all about, but either way you will have been entertained and enlightened.

 

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A Piece of Poetry

It’s National Poetry Day, so here’s something from Leonard Cohen that feels apposite in the present political climate.

All There is to Know About Adolph Eichmann
Leonard Cohen

EYES:……………………………………Medium
HAIR:……………………………………Medium
WEIGHT:………………………………Medium
HEIGHT:………………………………Medium
DISTINGUISHING FEATURES…None
NUMBER OF FINGERS:………..Ten
NUMBER OF TOES………………Ten
INTELLIGENCE…………………….Medium
What did you expect?
Talons?
Oversize incisors?
Green saliva?
Madness?

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