Cultural Highlights of 2016

In a year of relentless tragedy and despair, here are a scant few things I enjoyed.

BOOKS

Malcolm LowryUnder The Volcano

This was my third attempt at tackling Lowry’s famously impenetrable novel. The first chapter is particularly gruelling, but after breaking through it for the first time, the dark humour and self-flagellating wisdom which follow make it all worthwhile. For anyone tempted to have a go themselves, I found these notes very helpful in decrypting the dense symbology.

Keith RobertsPavane

The best thing I read all year though, by far, was Pavane. It’s an alternate history novel, in which Elizabeth I was assassinated, the Reformation was quashed, and a triumphant Catholic Church retarded scientific progress. In the 20th century setting of the novel, England has steam-powered road locomotives, a network of giant semaphore towers for cross-country communication, and new stirrings of political and religious revolution.

But the appeal of the ahistorical premise isn’t what makes Pavane such a great book. This year, I also read S. M. Stirling’s The Peshawar Lancers, in which a late 19th century meteor shower destroys civilisation in the northern hemisphere, the British elite relocate to India, and by the early 21st century, a steampunk Anglo-Indian empire is in conflict with a devil-worshipping Central Asian Tsardom. This premise is equally interesting. However, Stirling’s novel turned out to be a huge disappointment: a poorly-written mediocrity, no more than a third-rate Raj adventure story with added airships.

Roberts’s, on the other hand, is so beautifully written it’s almost poetry. By the time you’ve read his description of a steam wagon making its way across the Dorset heath on a foggy night, oiled pistons hammering and scalding water dripping from the tank, or of a semaphore tower, its clacking wooden levers, and the blistered hands of its Guild apprentice operator, it’s impossible to believe that such things never even existed.

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New Year’s resolutions 2017: Part 2

I’ve decided to add another New Year’s resolution to the previous set. It’s simply to watch all of the films on the list below. The intention is to knock a number of “must see” films off my own “haven’t seen” list. The films are a mixture of all-time classics that I’ve somehow missed, cult films I’ve been wanting to watch for ages, and unwatched DVDs I have sitting on my shelf.

The original idea was to list 12 films, so that it would be easy to monitor progress: if I watch one a month, I’m on track. But since it’s 2017 and everything’s topsy-turvy, I’ve added a special choice for number 13.

  1. The Third Man
  2. Gone with the Wind
  3. Doctor Zhivago
  4. Where Eagles Dare
  5. North by Northwest
  6. A View to a Kill
  7. Gandahar
  8. Fucking Åmål / Show Me Love
  9. Grave of the Fireflies
  10. Once Upon a Time in America
  11. Mother India
  12. Suspiria
  13. The Manchurian Candidate

Return of the Weekend of the Living Dead: Part 4

Return of the Weekend of the Living Dead: Part 1

Return of the Weekend of the Living Dead: Part 2

Return of the Weekend of the Living Dead: Part 3

By the end of Saturday night, we’d watched a total of nine films. Some might say that’s enough zombie films for anyone. But not for the hardcore attendees of Return of the Weekend of the Living Dead. There was still time on the final day, before people had to go home, to get the tally into double digits.

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Return of the Weekend of the Living Dead: Part 3

Return of the Weekend of the Living Dead: Part 1

Return of the Weekend of the Living Dead: Part 2

SATURDAY EVENING

After a gruelling first session on the Saturday afternoon of RotWotLD, we desperately needed something to revive our flagging spirits. First, booze:

Zombie cocktail in a zombie head bowl!

Delicious zombie head juice.

Second, a series of high (and not so high) quality zom-coms Continue reading

Return of the Weekend of the Living Dead: Part 1

A couple of years ago, I hosted a zombie film marathon. Over the course of Weekend of the Living Dead, we watched the first ever zombie film, White Zombie (1932), and the entire George A Romero series (Night, Dawn, Day, Land, Diary and Survival), as well as a couple of more recent examples of the genre (Rec and 2004’s Dawn remake).

Last weekend was the sequel: Return of the Weekend of the Living Dead (or #RotWotLD, as no-one except me was calling it on Twitter). The aim of the second marathon was to move away from big studio productions and well-known classics, and move into the murky realms of low-budget gore, video nasties and forgotten cult gems. Here’s a round-up of what we watched.

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Inland Empire: a hot mess express of Lynchian weirdness

I’m a huge David Lynch fan. Mulholland Drive‘s one of my favourite films. Lost Highway, Twin Peaks and The Straight Story are up there too. I even love Dune, despite it being regarded as sacrilege by most fans of the book, of which I’m also one: I just treat them as two totally separate works of art, each with their own merits. And Eraserhead, oh god, Eraserhead. I’ve been hooked ever since I saw it as a teenager, and had my mind permanently blown. Which, while I’m on the subject, should be a forced experience for everyone at that impressionable age. Even if they don’t enjoy it, and most wouldn’t, it would at least set the bar for weird, unconventional storytelling high enough in their minds that it might inoculate them from a dependence on cosy, banal, mainstream entertainment for the rest of their lives.

I’d therefore eagerly anticipated Lynch’s latest film, Inland Empire… and then failed to get around to watching it for six years. I even had a naughty copy on my computer, but watching it on a little laptop screen isn’t really appropriate for the sort of immersive experience Lynch’s films usually are, and somehow it never seemed quite the right time to commit three hours of my life to its promised hallucinatory mindscrew.

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