Oscars 2021

Around this time last year I was congratulating myself on having been to the cinema frequently enough over the previous twelve months to have an opinion on who was going to win what at the Academy Awards. In the event my predictions were well off, but I felt at least a little more in touch with the zeitgeist than usual.

This year though, despite there being little else to do for entertainment, and my subscription to three separate streaming services notwithstanding, I’ve watched hardly any new films, and only one with any Oscar nominations; The Trial of the Chicago 7, which I thought was OK, but not brilliant. I have read enough reviews to guess that Nomadland might do well, but otherwise I’m pretty much clueless. Perhaps if I cram a year’s worth of cinephilia into the next ten days I’ll be able to watch the ceremony without feeling like a complete philistine.

2020: The year in review – Part 1: Culture

2020 has, for obvious reasons, been the sort of year when I might have expected to have had plenty of time to watch all the movies and read all the books that I had been meaning to catch up on for ages. Sadly, that has not been the case, partly due my work schedule actually being busier than it has been for a long while, but mostly because any downtime I did have was spent trying to keep up with the latest news, then attempting to distract myself from the latest news with undemanding entertainment.

That said, the year wasn’t a complete wash-out, culture-wise; the complete list is on our Tumblr, and here are the highlights:

Film – Towards the end of 2019 I got back into the habit of going to see a movie on the big screen most weeks, and I kept this going into 2020, alternating between the multiplex and the arthouse, right up until the cinemas were shut down. Of the mainstream films I saw, my favourite was probably Parasite, though The Lighthouse and Little Women get honourable mentions. I did sign up for a Netflix subscription after lockdown kicked in, but I haven’t really made much use of it; my pick from that service would be Uncut Gems. My personal Oscar for 2020 goes to an independent movie screened during our local film festival; Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway, a delightfully surreal Spanish-Estonian-Ethiopian-Latvian-Romanian co-production, concerning secret agents trapped in a VR dystopia, featuring Batman, ninjas, Joe Stalin, the titular Saviour, 8-bit computer graphics, and much more. If if wasn’t for the evidence of its existence on the internet, I might suspect that I had just dreamt it.

Books – I got through shockingly few full-length books this year; my reading time was consumed by keeping up with political developments, and trying to stay on top of the professional updates I needed to do my job effectively. I didn’t manage much recent fiction, but I did finally complete Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, roughly 30 years after my first reading of Swann’s Way, and started on another classic series, Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, by revisiting Justine, which I had first read when I was 15 (though I didn’t really appreciate the work’s psychosexual depth at that tender age). In the current circumstances I could hardly avoid returning to the plague-haunted Oran, vividly described by Camus in La Peste, and my literary travels also took me to pre-revolutionary China, in the collected works of Lu Xun. In non-fiction, I explored cosmology and quantum theory with Dan Hooper and Sean Carroll, and the origins of consciousness with Daniel Dennett. My favourite book of the year was another old one; Anna Kavan’s 1967 novel Ice, an unsettlingly phantasmagoric evocation of impermanence, loss, and gendered violence, set amid a world succumbing to a creeping environmental catastrophe – just the kind of cheery tale we need in times like these.

Music – I may not have had the cognitive bandwidth to fully engage with serious literature and cinema in the last 12 months, but I did listen to a lot of new music; here’s a fairly arbitrary top ten:

  • If You’re Dreaming – Anna Burch
  • Devotion – Margaret Glaspy
  • Song For Our Daughter – Laura Marling
  • Jetstream Pony – Jetstream Pony
  • The Black Hole Understands – Cloud Nothings
  • The Making Of You – Snowgoose
  • Ballet Of Apes – Brigid Dawson & The Mothers Network
  • Consummation – Katie Von Schleicher
  • It Will Come Easier – Emma Kupa
  • Honeymoon – Beach Bunny

I didn’t see much live music this year; I did have tickets for a few shows, but most of them ended up being cancelled. Of those that did go ahead, I enjoyed a recital of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, and a very rare trip to the opera house, to see a revival of John Adams‘ Nixon in China.

Television – For the first time in more years than I care to remember I followed a TV series in its entirety; Mrs. America, an examination of the political struggles in the 70s around gender and race, which gave a human face to the history underlying today’s culture wars. I have a few other shows bookmarked on Netflix; we’ll see if I ever get round to watching them.

Last December I resolved to spend more time on cultural pursuits, and less time obsessing over the news. I guess, with the year we’ve had, I can be forgiven for falling a little short of that goal. We’ll cover some of what distracted me in our next post.

Trump Rex

I went to see Parasite this week, and, fair play to the Academy, it is a better film than Little Women. I still think Saoirse Ronan should have won Best Actress though.

In other class-struggle-related news, it looks like Donald Trump is determined to live up to accusations that he is a fascist, by openly comparing himself to a king, and loudly proclaiming his belief that he has the right to use the supposedly independent Justice Department to persecute his political enemies. This latter boast has prompted much hand-wringing among liberals, who seem to have forgotten that selective prosecution on ideological grounds has a long history in the US – just ask the Black Panthers.

Now that Trump has upped the stakes by going after people who would consider themselves part of the establishment, it’s likely that there will be some sort of institutional response that he will be able to characterise as a deep-state backlash, of the kind existing in the fevered imaginations of Q-Anon enthusiasts, thus furthering his narrative that he is on the side of the ordinary man in the battle with unaccountable elites, and boosting his chances of re-election.

Tempting though it is in these circumstances to cheer on whatever elements of the government machine Trump is taking aim at, that would be a bad mistake – the FBI are not our friends. Getting involved in the internal squabbles of the ruling class can only be a distraction; we need to remember that all of them are our enemies, and concentrate on building a movement that can sweep aside the whole rotten system, liberating us from the leech of capitalism once and for all.

Oscar predictions revisited

So, how accurate was my forecast?

For the films and actors I thought should win, I scored 3/10, and for those I reckoned would win I got a slightly better 5/10. I evidently liked Little Women a lot more than the Academy did (though it did get the award for Costume Design), and they had a better opinion of Parasite than I, which I guess might be because I haven’t actually seen it yet. We did agree on the brilliance of Laura Dern at least.

I’m not sure if my interest in this is a sign that I’m getting back into tune with popular culture, or if I’m just paying more attention to the review section of the newspaper, in a probably doomed attempt to maintain the illusion that I’m still in touch. Either way, I’m going to try to keep up my weekly trips to the matinee show, at least until the weather gets a bit better.

Oscar predictions

Thanks to my recently-reinvigorated cinema-going habit, this is the first year for a while that I have actually seen, or at least read about, enough of the films with Oscar nominations to have an opinion on who is going to win.

So here are my tips for the main awards, in the format Category – Should win; Will win:

Best Picture – Little Women; 1917

Actor – Leonardo DiCaprio; Joaquin Phoenix

Actress – Saoirse Ronan; Renée Zellweger

Supporting Actor – Brad Pitt; Al Pacino

Supporting Actress – Laura Dern; Laura Dern

Cinematography – The Lighthouse; 1917

Directing – Once Upon a Time in Hollywood; 1917

International Feature Film – Parasite; Parasite

Adapted Screenplay – Little Women; Little Women

Original Screenplay – Knives Out; Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

I’ll check in tomorrow to see how many I got right…

2019: The year in review – Part 1: Culture

Here’s our look back on our most notable cultural experiences of the year; the full list is, as ever, on our Tumblr.

Film – I’ve started going to the cinema regularly again over the last few months, mainly matinee shows at the multiplex, but a few trips to the arthouse too. I liked Ad Astra, Knives Out, and Rolling Thunder Review, but my favourites were the monochrome Bait, an expressionist tale of class conflict in Cornwall, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino’s flawed but ultimately beguiling portrait of late-60s California.

Books – I’ve read less than I would have liked this year, mainly because I spent a lot of time obsessing over the news, which, for much of 2019, was not unlike a melodramatic potboiler, though surely one that any editor would have rejected as implausibly plotted. Of the actual fiction that I did get through I thought the best was Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman Is In Trouble, though I felt it was a bit more predictable than many of the reviews suggested. I enjoyed the poetic memoir of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Little Boy, and caught up with some historical reportage; Vasily Grossman’s notes from the eastern front in WW2, collected in A Writer at War, and Svetlana Alexievich’s anthology of first-hand female accounts of the same conflict, The Unwomanly Face of War, easily one of the most moving works I have ever read.

Music – no big changes in my musical taste this year; here are my top ten albums, in the order I bought them:

  • Get Tragic – Blood Red Shoes
  • Remind Me Tomorrow – Sharon Van Etten
  • Lung Bread For Daddy – Du Blonde
  • Titanic Rising – Weyes Blood
  • Stranger Things – Yuck
  • Joanthology – Joan As Police Woman
  • Any Human Friend – Marika Hackman
  • Dolphine – Mega Bog
  • Life’s An Illusion – The Sorry Kisses
  • No Home Record – Kim Gordon

I probably listened to Joanthology more than anything else, but it is a retrospective; my favourite of the original releases was Lung Bread For Daddy. I didn’t go to as many concerts as usual this year; but the two I did manage were great – Laura Gibson and Marika Hackman.

I’m planning to keep up my weekly cinema trips, at least until the winter is over, and I definitely want to start reading more fiction, though I guess I say that every year. It would do me good to step off the treadmill of trying to keep up with all the news, all the time, and just slow down a little – I did manage that for a while over the summer, but events drew me in again, as we’ll see in part 2 of our annual review, when we look back at the year in blogging.

Star Wars IX – instant review

I’m not long out of the cinema; here are my immediate thoughts on The Rise of Skywalker

[Some spoilers ahead, so don’t read this if you haven’t seen the film yet.]

It was efficiently entertaining, and I’m sure it will please both SW fans and casual moviegoers, but, in contrast to  The Last Jedi, which subverted expectations, this was a definite return to the established lore of the franchise. The bad guy turned out to be exactly who we suspected, Ray’s parentage wasn’t as random as we had been led to believe, and the characters’ development mostly followed predictable arcs. The space battles and light-sabre duels were pleasingly spectacular, but some things, like the Knights of Ren, were built up and then never came to much. Setting key scenes on yet another desert planet seemed a bit repetitive, but there were some interesting new backdrops, particularly the giant waves crashing into the ruined Death Star, and the barren Sith home world. There were a few plot holes – where exactly was the other transporter that Chewbacca was supposedly on? – and unlikely coincidences, and “The Force” does a lot of heavy lifting in moving the story along, but this could be said about any of the previous episodes, and one can’t really complain about such minor points if one is prepared to accept the central implausibility of the whole saga; that all the important events in a galaxy-spanning conflict seem to involve the same half-dozen people.

Overall though, a fun way to spend a couple of hours. I may even go and see it again over the holidays, once I’ve read all the other reviews, and have more of an idea of whether I should like it or not…

Far, far away

In an attempt to avoid having to process the events of last week I’ve been immersing myself in popular culture, specifically the latest instalments in the Star Wars saga.

I’d obtained a DVD copy of The Last Jedi about a year ago, but had never got around to watching it, until this week. [Spoilers for a two year old film ahead.] It was pleasingly diverting, though the plot wasn’t exactly cheery, concerning as it does the plucky resistance being almost wiped out by the fascistic imperials, mostly because of the rebels’ own bickering and incompetence, a rather dispiriting echo of our current political situation.

What was more fun was catching up on the debate among the SW superfans as to whether TLJ was a disrespectful travesty, or a much-needed shake-up of a tired franchise. I lean towards the latter camp, since I liked all the new characters who seemed to rile up the traditionalists, particularly Vice-Admiral Holdo, the sort of sensible commander who weighs up the situation and makes considered strategic decisions, and thus actually gets things done. Of course being right all the time is a bit boring for an action movie, which is perhaps why Holdo inexplicably sacrifices herself to save what’s left of the rebel fleet, when the cause would have been much better served had she sent a relatively disposable junior officer like Poe Dameron on the suicide mission instead. Killing off the obvious surrogate for the key frustrated-white-male demographic would have been a step too far though – TLJ may have set itself up as iconoclastic, with a female lead, racially-diverse cast and grumpy Luke Skywalker, but Disney were never going to make it completely uncommercial.

Anyway, the new Star Wars film is on release tomorrow, and I’ve got a ticket, albeit for the 10 am show, rather than the minute-past-midnight screening that the real fans are camping out for, but still, fairly keen. I’m hoping for at least one more weekend of escapism before I have to return to grim reality…

Questionable things

It’s November 2019, which, as all sci-fi fans and film buffs know, is the month when the events of Blade Runner take place.

We wrote about Ridley Scott’s dystopian masterpiece back in the early days of this blog, when 2019 still seemed like the semi-distant future, and, while I did have an inkling that the decade to come was going to be a bit grim, the way things have turned out in reality makes Rick Deckard’s neo-noir Los Angeles look quite attractive in comparison, despite the perpetual rain, and the homicidal robots.

Interestingly, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel which provides the source material for Blade Runner, is in many ways a more accurate portrait of 21st century life. It envisages San Francisco in 2021 (or 1992 in the earlier editions); the elite have long since fled to off-world colonies, leaving ordinary citizens struggling to survive in a world overtaken by ecological catastrophe and drowning in the detritus of a collapsing civilisation, their lives ruled by unaccountable corporations in a brutal police state, finding solace only in technological simulation of lost nature, and bogus virtual-reality religion.

The book and the movie do share a common theme about the nature of humanity, but the former is significantly darker, and much more downbeat in its conclusion. Dick died shortly before the film came out, but he did see a pre-release version, and apparently liked it, though he felt it complemented his story rather than directly reproducing it.

While android technology may not have advanced as far as Dick imagined, the cleverness of today’s Artificial Intelligence does seem to exceed that displayed by the replicants in the story. Roy Batty may trick his way into Tyrell’s residence with an unexpected chess move (though he’s actually just reproducing a game played out by humans back in 1851), but chess is old hat for modern AI; just last month it was reported that Google’s Deep Mind program had mastered that most advanced of intellectual pursuits, the online real-time strategy game.

Some people warn that AI is approaching the Singularity; the point where it can improve itself faster than humans can keep up. This is generally followed, in classic science fiction at least, by the newly-conscious super-computer taking over the world, though this does depend on humans doing something stupid, like handing it control of all the nuclear weapons, and it usually all works out well in the end, once we manage to teach the machines the power of love or something.

I do sometimes worry that AI will kill us all eventually, though not with an army of cyborgs; it will just get us to do the job ourselves, by using social media algorithms to divide us into mutually destructive tribes, or, failing that, to convince enough of us to eschew vaccination that we all die of measles.

At heart though, I’m still enough of a techno-utopian to believe that humankind is sufficiently smart to stay in control of the technology we create, and that our social organisation will evolve to allow the whole population to benefit from the advances that, at the moment, are just enriching a few. All going well, the future will be less like Blade Runner, and more like … actually I can’t think of a sci-fi film where the utopia doesn’t turn out to be a dystopia before the second reel. Maybe Logan’s Run, for the under-30s?

Reach for the stars

Regular readers will recall that we’ve posted on the topic of space travel several times in the past, marking, among other things, Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering flight into orbit, and Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon.

The tone of our previous pieces has been mostly elegiac, noting with regret that the promise of manned cosmic exploration, which seemed just around the corner in my youth, had largely stalled in the years that followed. There have of course been great strides in robotic exploration, from Mars all the way out to Pluto, and ever more sophisticated telescopes have peered into the furthest depths of the Universe, but I still find it deeply disappointing that Moon bases and space tourism aren’t a thing in the 21st century.

It’s interesting then to see that the latest anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, which, 50 years ago today, put the Eagle lander on the lunar surface, has been greeted with quite a bit of enthusiasm. I haven’t heard anyone arguing that it wasn’t a good thing to do, and there seems to be a general feeling that it’s the kind of endeavour that humanity could do with undertaking again some time soon.

I’m sure that, at least in part, this wish to travel out into the final frontier is fuelled by a desire to forget about how dispiriting the immediate future is looking here on Earth, but, whatever the motivation, it’s good to see a resurgence of belief in the idea of progress. I may reluctantly admit that I’m probably too old now to make it to Mars in person, but I’m still hoping to see some other human get there before I die.