My 2020

Image from The Simpsons amended to comment on the UK Govt
Evergreen

Where to begin? It feels inappropriate to summarise 2020 solely with a list of what I’ve read and watched. Bigger things were afoot. Although there are some global commonalities to this year, I’m sure that we have all experienced them differently at an individual level.

Time has taken on a strange elasticity this year. Certain events seem like another lifetime ago (e.g. the Australian wildfires), and some months draaaaaagged (I’m looking at you March, April, and May), but in other ways things seem to have occurred in the blink of an eye. I started the year trying to stick to my intention of reading non-fiction books on my morning commute, but mid-February my attention kept going back to the news story that started in China but steadily crept across the world. By March, it all felt too close for comfort. My Mum is immunocompromised and I became increasingly worried that – as someone who daily commuted into a city centre on public transport, to work in an open plan office with far too many people – I could unwittingly bring the virus into our home with fatal consequences for her. I was relieved when work started making noises about people working from home (rapidly escalated from a plan of teams splitting in two to work alternative weeks in the office, to suddenly being told on a Friday that anyone who could work from home should do so from the following Monday – we started working from home on 16th March), and actually felt calmer when lockdown finally began.

My immediate family has come through this year relatively unscathed. None of us has had Covid-19. I have been fortunate to be in full time employment throughout the pandemic, without any reduction in hours or pay. Some family members have been in more precarious situations, so I feel lucky in that respect (even if occasionally narked at media commentators’ assumptions that we’ve all taken up loungewear and macramé, with heaps of extra time – the only time I’ve acquired is from my commute, and I’ve put that to use by sleeping an hour later in the mornings, which seems to suit my body clock better than my normal alarm call). I am among the sizeable chunk of the population who have liked working from home. I am introverted and prefer to work quietly. Most of my work is data-heavy and requires concentration. I’ve liked having more control over my environment, fewer interruptions (and it’s easier to make myself unavailable to be interrupted), and no commute – and I can listen to music without headphones.

Image of my work station at home
My work space, March – September

Between March and August I was working in my bedroom on my personal laptop, which wasn’t ideal in terms of creating a work/life separation. I had to rig up a somewhat unstable and Heath Robinsonesque solution to get the screen to the height it needed to be if I was going to be looking at it all day. At work I have two monitors, so that was another adjustment. In the summer we were told that we were likely to be working from home until at least Easter 2021, and in August my employer supplied us with requested technology, so I got a work laptop and a monitor. I couldn’t get set up immediately because my existing “desk” was not big enough, but I bought a basic table from Ikea and got set up in a different room in the house at the end of September. I’ve now got a closer approximation to what I would be working with in the office, and am working in a space that I only spend time in during work hours.

I am still getting a daily hit of human interaction (via daily video call check-ins with my team) even if it’s not in person, and even though I’m not seeing other people from work who I would usually chat with (it only occurred to me in December that I could video call those people as we’re all on the same set-up). My Mum was in the shielding group during the first lockdown. Shielding lasted until August and since then has barely been mentioned by the government (despite the second wave, local lockdowns, and then another national lockdown), but Mum was told by her hospital consultant in September to start shielding again “irrespective of what the government is saying”. So she has been stuck with me as her only company for most of the year, although she has managed to see my brothers and their families in between lockdowns. As she has been shielding, I haven’t been out much either – grocery shopping has been done online, and I think I’ve only been into a physical store four or five times since March.

I miss walking home. My commute in the morning is entirely on a bus, but on the way home I go a different route and walk the second half of the journey. It’s a good way to rid myself of any irritations from the day, and to make a demarcation between work and home. I’ve lost weight this year but I think it is mainly lost muscle. Technically there’s nothing to stop me going for a walk as even during lockdown daily exercise was allowed, but in the first half of the year I wanted to stick close to the house. In spring/summer, I spent a lot of time in the garden (another piece of good fortune) but that has stopped as the weather got colder. In the autumn, I tried starting a daily walk during daylight but I don’t amble (my walking tends to be with a purpose, a fixed destination), it is not very scenic in the vicinity, and it seems to have been raining here for most of the past 6 weeks, so that hasn’t been very successful. Something to work on next year.

I think one other thing that I’ve missed in 2020 is the cross-pollination of information that you acquire by mixing with other people (I used to get this from Twitter as well). That hasn’t happened as much in the virtual environment, so I’ve had to rely on my own sources, and attempt to broaden my net. Trying to follow a global story highlighted the paucity of good international reporting in the UK. I know that as papers/news organisations have cut budgets, foreign desks have been reduced (along with arts coverage); that has been made manifest this year. It should also be said that the concerted focus on the UK and US – to the exclusion of anywhere else beyond a two-line reference to the current state of their daily death toll (although this also happens beyond coverage of the pandemic) – illustrates the parochialness of the British media. One notable exception was Channel 4 News, who did some first-rate reporting from a broad range of countries, avoiding sensationalism, and always according dignity to people interviewed in what were often distressing circumstances. But I have watched too much news this year. By the summer, I had stopped watching it on a nightly basis because rage is an exhausting emotion when you don’t feel that it can be turned into constructive action (it can be a galvanising force, but it hasn’t felt like that for me this year).

This was rage driven by government incompetence and indifference. Their consistent inability to do the right thing, to prepare, to listen to expert advice, to take hard decisions, to do anything at all in a timely fashion (beyond rewarding their chums with lucrative contracts) would almost be impressive as a spectacular streak of misjudgement, if it didn’t have real world consequences for the rest of us. They continue to look straight at the TV cameras and attempt to gaslight the nation, stating that they’ve always said X (when they actually said W – and it was broadcast live on national television) and claim they acknowledged that Y was likely without proper mitigation (whereas the suggestion was pooh-poohed as glumster exaggeration), but Z is going to be world-beating (adequate would be sufficient, but they don’t even manage to clear that bar). At the same time, they (and it doesn’t seem to matter which ministerial non-entity gets sent out) seem completely inured to the fact that the numbers that they’re reciting relate to actual people, with families and friends, and loss on an almost unimaginable scale. If you’re going to announce that several hundred people have died in the past 24 hours, or you’re going to suddenly upend Christmas a few days before the event after weeks of telling the country to crack on with festive planning, then kindly bin the protracted metaphors and latin bon mots, suppress the smirk, straighten your tie, and at the very least brush your fucking hair.

I haven’t been following the news closely in the past couple of months (that continuing rage issue…but also increasing anxiety as the same mistakes get repeated for the second or third time, and we get stuck in a loop of lockdowns), but the general rule of thumb that I’ve adopted is that if the British Government announces a policy, expect it to be reversed (or shown to be a complete shambles) within the next 2-3 weeks. If they say something is happening, it isn’t. If they say something isn’t going to happen, it will. Even with the vaccine being rolled out, there is still a lot of uncertainty ahead of us – but the forthcoming catastrophic mismanagement and endless series of u-turns from the British Government can be relied upon.

Books

Book covers of the books I read this year
The books I read in 2020

My reading year started off fairly well and then ground to a halt as the news took over. I was able to focus on work, but for the first 4-6 weeks of lockdown I was unable to concentrate on reading anything during my downtime other than the news or the occasional magazine. Several friends reported the same experience, and this inability to read seems to have been pretty widespread. When I managed to pick up a book, I was a lot slower than normal. Initially I tried to read a bit before work – to keep to the pattern of my commute – but that didn’t take off (difficult to be engrossed in something if you’ve got one eye on the clock). After April, I managed to pick up momentum but have had several periods throughout the year where my concentration has gone again. In October, I decided that I was going to stop reading the news or browsing the internet in the evening; I set myself a limit of being online for only an hour after work – mainly to be used reading personal email – and then after dinner I would read until I went to bed. That turned out to be an effective strategy, and my reading has been more fluidly continuous since then.

I have actually managed to surpass my book tally from last year (woo-hoo!), although I am aware that there are quite a few novellas and slim volumes of poetry in the mix. The image above is the complete set as of 29th December – I will start something else before New Year, but may not finish it before the chimes at midnight. I did not pick up The Honourable Schoolboy as I’d suggested I might in last year’s round-up post, but in homage to its recently-departed author I will aim to in 2021. Likewise, I don’t think I fulfilled the intention of reading more translated literature – there’s some in there, but not as much as I have managed in the past. I want to read a broad range of voices and perspectives. In a narrower reading habit, I continued catching up with the two long-running John Sandford series that I read several of last year, but may have reached the end of the road with at least one of them. A scene of sexual violence (and part of the abhorrent nature of the scene was how it was written) added nothing to the story and made completing the book feel like a chore. His two main series intertwine – some of the same characters crop up in both – but are tonally distinct, so I may continue with the other series for at least one more book. I used to read a lot of series but find they appeal less and less (apart from Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series), although Jacob Ross’s new series is excellent, and I thoroughly recommend those two books (Miss K. Stanislaus is one of the most original characters I’ve encountered).

I didn’t read very many “new” books this year, partly because I didn’t encounter the serendipitous finds from browsing a physical book shop (I usually head to Waterstones on payday for a good browse) and also because I mainly read books that I already owned. I don’t think I was looking to be challenged this year (reading was hard enough already), so I stuck to the familiar – I will attempt to roam further afield in the year ahead.

My top 5 books read in 2020:

Book covers of my top 5

These are the five that really stood out for me – the kind of books that you know that you will re-read in the future, even before you’ve finished them the first time.

  • Wintering – Katherine May. This is far and away my favourite book that I read this year. In On Connection, Kae Tempest argues that ‘connection is collaborative […] We are not impartial observers; we are a fundamental part of the circuitry; if we are not connected, the charge will not be able to flow’ (pp.49-50). I connected with this book. Part memoir and part philosophical exploration, it’s about “wintering” as a kind of ‘stowing yourself away’ either from actual winter or metaphorical winters, for recuperation.
  • The Thin Man – Dashiell Hammett. A fast-talking, sleuthing joy. I haven’t seen the film it was made into but it caused me to speculate how much fun someone like Preston Sturges could have had with these characters.
  • The Thirty-Nine Steps – John Buchan. A proper boy’s own adventure and a real page turner.
  • The Bone Readers – Jacob Ross. An immersive experience into another place and culture – conversations are full of local vernacular and expressions often spelt phonetically, causing me to half whisper exchanges to myself – with characters who seem to have arrived fully formed but who hold the promise of further depth and insight in future books.
  • Sea Monsters – Chloe Aridjis. A female coming-of-age that avoids the clichés inherent to that phrase and written in a voice as fresh as a sea breeze.

Honourable mentions (A-Z by title): Brit(ish) – Afua Hirsch (it was educational to see this country through the eyes of someone of a similar age to me but whose experience of it was/is markedly different to my own), City of the Dead – Sara Gran (initially seems overly – and too knowingly – quirky but develops into an unusual exploration of the protagonist’s psyche), The Historians – Eavan Boland, On Connection – Kae Tempest, Red Harvest – Dashiell Hammett, Surrounded By Idiots – Thomas Erikson (if you work in a large organisation, you will have “ah-ha!” moments reading this), We Need New Stories – Nesrine Malik.

2021: As already stated, an attempt to roam further afield, more translated works, a broad range of authors and topics (including non-fiction), and an appointment with The Honourable Schoolboy. I have also taken a lot of pleasure in reading older books this year, so I will seek out some other classics as well. I’m going to up my target as I’ve surpassed 52 two years in a row: I’m going to aim for 70 in 2021. I think it’s doable if I can avoid those periods when I stop reading for weeks at a time.

Other reading:

Below are are things I’ve read online in the past twelve months that made some kind of lasting impression on me, whether because they are particularly insightful, or maybe contain a perspective that I hadn’t considered, or perhaps the topic was one that I found interesting. Print publications I subscribe to (such as The London Review of Books) don’t feature much because I don’t read them online. Looking at this list I can see that the selection is very anglo-centric, a sign of that limited cross-pollination of information sources. I subscribe to the RSS feeds of various online sources of cultural coverage from Spain and Latin America, but apparently I don’t often bookmark what I read there. I haven’t included many Covid-related articles because the situation has been so fast-moving that I rarely bookmarked them. You can also see the impact of my changed reading strategy in the near absence of articles from October or November (two of those included came to me via mailing lists / subscriptions). I have tried to avoid including paywalled articles, but there are a couple. These are listed in chronological order (estimated where there is no obvious date):

Films:

Film posters of films I watched in 2020
The films I watched in 2020

At the start of the year people kept saying “This is like a film” and it was, but despite the air of unreality that still remains, I can’t help but feel that a film would be over by now (or at the very least much of this would have been shortened into some kind of montage sequence).
As I said above, I don’t feel that I acquired additional time this year, and I was not often in the frame of mind for making that circuit of connection via cinematic means. I didn’t fulfil my plan of exploring the French films featured in Bertrand Tavernier’s documentaries – or catch up with recent Spanish cinema – but I’m not going to beat myself up about it as I don’t think anyone’s plans turned out the way they expected this year. I watched more TV than is usual for me, but mainly documentaries (there was a very good 3-part documentary about Putin on C4 at the start of lockdown and The Innocence Files on Netflix is also worth catching) and gardening / home improvement programmes. I recorded Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology as they were broadcast on the BBC, but haven’t started watching them yet. As with last year, I didn’t feel that interested in / motivated to watch dramas. Half of the films shown above were watched in the last two months. 13th, Nostalgia for the Light, and Homecoming were all rewatches for me, but my Mum hadn’t seen them. The newest film I saw was Madrid, Interior (Juan Cavestany, 2020), which was filmed during Madrid’s first lockdown, a mixture of scripted sequences with well-known actors (filming themselves) and footage by members of the public, imbuing the surreal and suffocating nature of lockdown with a streak of absurdist humour. It was the closing film of the Festival Márgenes. I watched Knives Out on Christmas Day, and that was one of the most enjoyable films I’ve watched for some time.

Some cinematic moments that lingered from this year’s viewing:

Image from Epstein's The Fall of the House of Usher (1928)

The ethereal beauty of the closing sequences of Jean Epstein’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1928) (still streaming for free on the Cinémathèque Française platform, here). [in looking up that link I’ve just discovered that they’re streaming Feuillade’s Les Vampires series until 5th January – scroll down from the top]

The public testimony of José María Galante – an indefatigable campaigner for justice in relation to crimes committed under/by the Franco dictatorship – about his own experience of torture, in The Silence of Others (Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar, 2018). Sadly, he died of Covid-19 in March.

The expression on Merry Clayton’s face as she listens to her isolated vocal track from The Rolling Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ in 20 Feet from Stardom (Morgan Neville, 2013).

Daniel Craig’s performance / accent in Knives Out (Rian Johnson, 2019).

The sheer charisma of Teddy Pendergrass in Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me (Olivia Lichtenstein, 2018).

2021: I’m going to aim to watch at least one film a month – I don’t know that having a target will make any difference because I’m feeling quite disengaged from films, but I’ve found with reading that making it into a habit was key to my reading more (after a few years of reading very little). I’d like to watch some of the French films that I mentioned at the end of 2019, and some of the key Spanish titles from the last couple of years. I’m at a crossroads with Spanish cinema; I persist with trying to stay informed, but I’m unsure whether my recent lack of engagement with Spanish cinema is just my general lack of enthusiasm for cinema in general or whether I need to accept that I’m no longer as interested in that specific area as I once was. It may be a combination of the two, but this year I should decide whether to draw a line under it.

Feeling a pressure (entirely of my own making) to write about what I watch is part of what is stopping me watching films. I’ve written very little on the blog this year but I feel ok about that, so I think that my target of watching one film a month needs to be entirely without strings attached – I need to get back into watching films for sake of watching, for enjoyment, and wait and see if inspiration strikes. If it doesn’t, at least I’ll have tried to reconnect with an art form that at its best is utterly transportive. One film I’m putting to the top of my watchlist is Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Tsai Ming-Liang, 2003), which I’ve wanted to see for years (it finally got a UK release a couple of months ago) – if anything can rekindle the magic of cinema for me, I think it may be that, so I’ll make that one a priority.

 

Getting to the end of 2020 (and this overlong post) is no small thing and worth celebrating – I wish you health, happiness, and close proximity to your loved ones in 2021.

 

Stay at home: Viewing and reading suggestions

Stay at home, please.

I have been working from home for just over a week. My place of work had announced its impending closure earlier today, but I expect to still be working from home (rather than getting through my TBR pile) for the foreseeable as many of the services that my team support are either already online or will be adapted for delivery in that format. Anyhow, as it now (finally) looks like a whole lot more of us in the UK will be indoors, I thought I’d start compiling a list of things to watch / read online for free (or minimal cost). I’m going to divide things into Viewing and Reading (I may add Listening if I have time to get into podcasts), and then add links in alphabetical order as and when I encounter them. Update: I’m going to tidy this up as and when services end or links no longer work.

[Last updated: 18/05/20]

Viewing:

10 Years with Hayao Miyazaki – VOD. Four-part documentary about the creator of Studio Ghibli’s best-loved films. Streaming on a Japanese platform for free, and appears to have subtitles in nine different languages.

The 100 Best Films Streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime – compiled on the BFI site, and looks like it will be updated regularly.

40 Days to Learn Film – VOD. A film lecture from Mark Cousins (free to view).

Chili – VOD. Not a platform that I’ve heard a lot about but they have individual titles (including films recently in UK cinemas) available for digital rental, and although they don’t appear to have much in the way of World Cinema, they do have a fairly substantial documentary section.

Cinémathèque française – Streaming. The Cinémathèque française has launched a new online platform, Henri (named after Henri Langlois), on which they will add a different film every night at 8:30pm – and it will be accessible worldwide. They will be choosing films that they’ve restored in the past twenty years, including some that are otherwise unavailable. They’re starting tonight (9th April) with Jean Epstein’s The Fall of the House of Usher.

Doc Alliance – VOD. Subscribe for 6€/month. A vast catalogue of documentaries (including shorts) from around the world (there are often multiple versions of the same film, each with subtitles in a different language).

Festival Scope – VOD. Hosts the online presence for various film festivals – films can either be rented individually, in batches with a discount, or sometimes for free. It will be worth periodically checking back to see which festivals are making films available.

Korean Film Archive YouTube Channel – VOD. Korean films put online for free by the national film archive (English subtitles are available – at least on the selection that I’ve browsed through).

Márgenes – VOD. This is the platform that hosts the Festival Márgenes every year. There are geographical restrictions on some titles, but a lot can be rented for a couple of euros. The bulk of their catalogue is effectively independent Spanish-language cinema, including quite a few of the ‘Otro cine español’ titles that I’ve written about in the past. Explore!

Panda cam (other animals/birds can be chosen from the main navigation bar) – filmed in nature reserves, national parks, and zoos. A whole lot more relaxing than the news.

Reading:

The Big Issue – The homeless population (ever expanding in recent years thanks to austerity and other government policies) are especially vulnerable to the pandemic, and The Big Issue‘s vendors will not be encountering customers during lockdown. Most of the magazine’s income comes from those street sales; they are asking people to show their support by either buying a digital copy, taking out a three month subscription, or making a one-off donation, to help them cover costs (and continue to support their vendors) during the lockdown and its aftermath.

Borderless Book Club – This developed out of the Translated Fiction Online Book Club [I’ve removed the details of that to avoid confusion], but they’ve now expanded their schedule and gone for a snappier title. The original six UK independent presses who specialise in translated fiction – Peirene Press, Charco Press (who have some excellent Latin American titles in their catalogue), Comma Press, Istros Books, Nordic Books, and Tilted Axis Press – have been joined by Bitter Lemon Press and Fitzcarraldo Editions in their online book club, which involves live discussion and interviews with authors and translators (all via Zoom). Even if you don’t want to participate in the book club (I haven’t had time and tbh video call discussions don’t appeal to me, not least because I’m using them for work), these indie presses merit bookworm support and their back catalogues will reward exploration.

Diverted Traffic – a new newsletter from the London Review of Books that each day releases an archive article from behind their paywall.

Nancy Campbell to Alicia Kopf | Alicia Kopf replying to Nancy Campbell

Pedro Almodóvar’s Lockdown DiaryPart 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 |

The Pudding – a ‘digital publication that explains ideas debated in culture through visual essays’. Among their greatest hits: Rappers, sorted by the size of their vocabulary; Women’s pockets are inferior; Colorism in high fashion.

Virtual Book Channel – from LitHub. Interviews, book launches, and more.

Weekly Film Bulletin – sign up for a new weekly email of feature writing and VOD recommendations from Sight & Sound.

My 2019

The covers of the various books I read in 2019
The books I read in 2019, in the order I read them

Books –

My Twitter bio used to say ‘Lives vicariously through books and films’, and I think that I have pursued escapism through books this year (films, not so much). I finally hit my ’52 books in a year’ target! I am currently reading book no.59, but I’m unlikely to finish it before the year is over. I started a new job back in May, and was doing a fair amount of background reading in the first half of the year (I applied in January and was interviewed in March, so the application process was quite elongated) – I usually only include books read ‘for fun’ or my own curiosity, but there is work-related reading in my tally this year (nothing ‘how to…’ but more thematic or topically relevant non-fiction), mainly because it was done in my own time and to answer my own questions, so it ‘counts’.

New job aside, 2019 can be characterised as ‘ugh’. We’re ending on a low. I wasn’t as shocked by the election result as I was in 2015, but I was still surprised and dismayed by the scale of the defeat. The Windrush scandal alone should have seen them turfed out on their arses…and that is the tip of the iceberg of what they have done in the last nine years. Now with a sizeable majority, they have a free rein. I don’t remember exactly what was going on at the time, but my reading a combination of ten John Sandford and Robert Crais books back-to-back over the course of two weeks or so in August is illustrative of a desire to block out the news (my literary crime sprees occur when I’m low or need distraction).

I usually list my standouts for the year in alphabetical order, but this year my favourite was far out ahead of everything else, so I’m going to list them in order of preference. My overall top 5 were:

  • West – Carys Davies
  • Ghost Wall – Sarah Moss
  • Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata
  • The Cost of Living – Deborah Levy
  • Sarah Jane – James Sallis

Honourable mentions: An Honourable Man – Paul Vidich, Four Words for Friend – Marek Kohn, and The Equestrienne – Uršula Kovalyk. I’m aware that these selections are weighted towards the second half of the year, but I believe that has more to do with the first half of the year’s reading including the aforementioned background reading (and a focus on work), rather than them simply being fresher in my mind. My crime spree hit a reset button and I got on to a good run of fiction in the last few months of the year. I wouldn’t ordinarily read so many books by the same authors in one year, never mind back-to-back (even the best writers get a bit same-y or the stories run into each other, especially with recurring characters), but I was attempting to catch up on certain long running series by Sandford and Crais.

2020: I still have another series of Sandford’s to catch up with, and also Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther books, of which I’ve got at least four to read. I’ll keep on with the short stories and novellas – and I didn’t read as much in translation this year, so I’ll put more effort into that again. In the first half of the year I managed to read non-fiction during my morning commute and I want to re-start that (it tailed off after the summer and I either got sucked into reading the news or stared out the window instead). I still haven’t got back into longer books (I’m talking 400+ pages), but maybe this will be the year when I finally read John le Carré’s The Honourable Schoolboy.

Other reading –

Online articles that I’ve found interesting or thought provoking in one way or another (usual disclaimer: I don’t necessarily agree with them, but think that they are worth reading). I’m going to list them in chronological order because a number of them relate to situations that developed over the course of the year (UK politics/social issues, mainly). Where I don’t know the date, I’ve positioned them where they occur in my bookmarks (on the basis that I must have read them at that point in time). You will also notice that they are not evenly distributed throughout the year – the large gaps are where I was deliberately spending less time online, and the clusters in certain months are where I felt the need to pay attention (noticeably in relation to the General Election). There’s not much film writing included, which is indicative of my general levels of interest but also I’ve found that without Twitter I encounter less of that subject matter. Articles from The Guardian are mainly from their Long Reads series – I subscribe to the RSS feed of certain sections of the paper and those of specific journalists (part of a strategy to avoid the clickbaity provocations of the main page). The London Review of Books (LRB) has a new website and has removed the paywall until mid-January, so I’d advise you to fill your boots over there.

Films –

Posters of films watched in 2019

I was in half a mind to just have an image from the film(s) I want to talk about, but having displayed everything that I’ve read, I thought that I may as well display the entirety of what I’ve watched as well. It’s an odd assortment. Four more titles than last year but still very few in terms of my older habits. All but two of them are documentaries or documentary series – I have had zero interest in watching fiction recently.

My favourite thing that I’ve watched this year is the combination of Bertrand Tavernier’s 3 hour documentary on French cinema and his subsequent 6 part TV series that continued on the same subject (if you look closer, you’ll see that the second poster puts the title into the plural). The TV series (the French DVD set has optional English subtitles) covers the same time frame (he again stops at the point when he began making films himself) but different films and filmmakers to the documentary film – even with what must be more than 8 hours, it feels like he barely scratches the surface of his enthusiasms. As with Scorsese’s documentaries on Italian and American cinemas, you’re getting a personal view of the films rather than a straightforward history, but that’s what I find so engaging – not just that you’re getting a knowledgeable person’s recommendations, but that you’re getting introductions to titles that don’t necessarily feature in the sanctified canon. [If someone could make an equivalent for Spanish cinema, that’d be grand].

My knowledge of French cinema is fairly basic (certainly in comparison to Spanish cinema) or feels un-informed, essentially confined to what was covered in either an Introduction to Film Studies module, or a semester-long undergraduate module which concentrated on the 1980s (Besson, Beineix, Carax – and the cinéma du look) onwards. That said, French films had decent distribution during my teenage years and into my twenties, so I did watch a lot of French films – and developed a love of Claude Chabrol and Lino Ventura – both at the cinema and via Lovefilm, and initially my PhD was going to include French cinema, so I had subscriptions to French film magazines and was paying attention to what was being made at that point. But in terms of what French cinema means to French people, my understanding was limited (although the film magazines were interesting in that regard in terms of what was popular and who got coverage – that’s why I still have subscriptions to Spanish film mags; if I had to rely on information filtering through to UK/US publications, I wouldn’t know anything or anyone).

After watching Tavernier’s films, I have discovered that where Pathé and Gaumont have in recent years restored older films for French home viewing, a fair few have optional English subtitles – I now have a small pile of imported films by Duvivier, Clouzot, Lautner, Grangier, Grémillon, Becker, and others. In 2020 I’ll be looking to rekindle my interest in cinema via these treasures. I have given up on contemporary cinema at the moment – at least in terms of going to the cinema – but alongside the French imports (of old films) I am hoping to start watching some of the (recent) Spanish films that I’ve imported in the last couple of years (although I think I’ve said that in each of the equivalent posts in the last two years). So 2020 may be a year of French and Spanish cinema for me…and more documentaries, no doubt. Hasta pronto.

My 2017: A year in books (and a few films)

a montage of the covers of the books I read in 2017
The books I’ve read for pleasure / personal curiosity in 2017, in the order I read them

Books

Yes, this is a film blog (don’t worry, I’ll get to the films shortly). But – for me – reading replaced writing this year. I said at the start of the year that I had lost interest in writing about films…twelve months later that remains the case. I tried publicly recording (on here) what I watched each month hoping that it might make me write something on a regular schedule but it became nothing more than a listing exercise, and a flurry of activity around a new approach to the Carlos Saura Challenge petered out again once I’d got to the end of the first section (although I am intending to continue with the second section). Books were what managed to hold my attention in 2017.

I always used to have a book on the go, and throughout my teenage years and my twenties could easily get through a book a week (more during the holidays). I’m talking about reading for pleasure or to satisfy personal curiosity (not studying); the ‘list’ above excludes anything I read for job-related purposes. Back in 2013, concurrent situations in personal and professional spheres pushed up my stress/anxiety levels to a point where I couldn’t concentrate on things that didn’t have a clear purpose (or that weren’t obligatory) – reading ceased to be a relaxing activity for me, and I stopped reading for pleasure.

I felt the loss of that in my life, but I got too frustrated by my inability to concentrate on what I was reading. I managed to read fiction occasionally (usually started when on holiday but it would then take me several months to read a not-very-long book) but generally my only reading was the news or magazine articles. I started writing more during this period but knew that I would find it easier (or less difficult) if I was reading more, in terms of grasping both ideas and words. Last year I was determined to get back into reading properly (strangely enough the news isn’t particularly attractive reading material at the moment): I set myself the challenge of a book (fiction or non-fiction) each month. I managed fourteen books in 2016, only five of which were fiction. Non-fiction was easier to get into because such books usually involved me trying to find an answer to something, or understand something that had crossed my radar and piqued my interest, so a sense of purpose came into play. But I was disappointed with my continued distraction in relation to fiction (the five fiction books were all read in the first half of the year), given that it used to dominate my reading habits.

So, to 2017. I doubled my challenge: two books a month, and at least one had to be fiction. I considered how my habits had changed since the days when I always had a book on the go: the bulk of my reading used to be done in the evening but now I was more likely to be on my laptop at that time of day. I decided that my laptop would have to be switched off by 9pm (unless I was studying an online course or watching a film on it). I looked for short story collections and novellas with the idea that I’d be more able to maintain my concentration with shorter texts as a starting point (probably 30-35% of the books I’ve read this year have clocked in at under 200 pages), but I also tracked down the ‘next’ book in several long-running crime fiction series that I’d previously read avidly – the longest books I’ve read this year have all been from the latter category. Although I clearly surpassed my target, I have still had periods where I’ve drifted back into a listless lack of concentration and not read anything for several weeks at a time. I’ve noticed that this corresponds to peaks in my levels of stress/anxiety; obviously that’s something I still need to address. Overall I’m happy with the progress that I’ve made: I’ve enjoyed reading again, and got properly engrossed in a book again (to a stayed-up-far-too-late-to-finish-a-book-when-I-had-work-the-next-day extent). The fiction/non-fiction split has also reversed – 29 fiction / 16 non-fiction – which feels like a good balance (although I’d also be happy with 50/50). I’m currently still reading book no.45, one of Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series (it’s the right time of year to reacquaint yourself with old friends) – A Man Without Breath – but should finish it before the year is out.

My top 10 books read this year:

My Top 10 books of 2017

As I’ve said, these were all read for pleasure or to satisfy personal curiosity – I don’t write notes about books read outside of a work/study context, and I don’t read them in order to critique them, so I’m not going to expand on my choices book by book. But they are all books that resonated with me, moved me, made me laugh, or made me consider the world / society from a different perspective. Some aspect of each one has stayed with me, continuing to flitter through my mind long after I finished reading them.

  1. Housekeeping – Marilynne Robinson (no, I’ve not seen the film)
  2. A Field Guide to Getting Lost – Rebecca Solnit
  3. A Far Cry from Kensington – Muriel Spark
  4. The Lonely City – Olivia Laing
  5. Closely Watched Trains – Bohumil Hrabal
  6. Nights at the Alexandra – William Trevor
  7. Heroes and Villains – Angela Carter
  8. The Moro Affair – Leonardo Sciascia
  9. The Knowledge Illusion: Why we never think alone – Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach
  10. Tell Me How It Ends: An essay in forty questions – Valeria Luiselli

Honourable mentions (alphabetical by title): A Song of Shadows – John Connolly, Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury, Hold Everything Dear – John Berger, They Can’t Kill Us All – Wesley Lowery.

2018: I’ll be looking to attempt some longer books, and my overall aim will be fifty-two books for the year.

 

Films

At the time of writing, I’ve watched 75 films (56 features and 19 shorts) this year – I actually thought it was fewer than that, but it is still a marked drop in comparison to a couple of years ago (e.g. the 312 films I watched in 2015). I didn’t go to any film festivals this year and only went to the cinema once. I don’t want cinema-going to become what reading was to me a few years ago but it’s not really the same set of circumstances – there’s a general lack of interest/enthusiasm on my part…and I don’t currently feel the need to try to counteract that (in relation to reading I felt the lack; I don’t feel like I’m missing anything at the moment). I intended to make an effort to see Blade Runner 2049 at the cinema (Denis Villeneuve’s last three films have all justified a trip to the big screen) but didn’t get around to it; I just wasn’t bothered enough (to go) in the end. I’m still watching older titles on DVD/VOD, although the demise of Lovefilm has narrowed the options (I have ended up getting Netflix – mainly because of TV series I wanted to watch – but the range of films is nowhere near as extensive as Lovefilm was).

I also haven’t caught up with films that came out earlier in the year that are now available on DVD/VOD. My list of titles to catch up with includes: Baby Driver, The Beguiled, The Fits, Good Time, Jackie, Logan, Moonlight, Neruda, Personal Shopper, SilenceWonder Woman…and more. I’ve also got at least a dozen Spanish DVDs that I’ve bought throughout the year but still not watched: Abracadabra, Júlia ist, María (y los demás), No sé decir adiós, Que dios nos perdone, Tarde para la ira (which is also available on Netflix UK, under the title The Fury of a Patient Man), Verano 1993…and more. I’ll be looking at other people’s ‘best of 2017’ lists to see whether there’s anything else I should be tracking down – although the more unusual works (the hidden gems that get championed by certain film writers) often don’t make their way beyond the festival circuit.

Anyway, that’s a longwinded way of saying that I haven’t seen enough new films this year to compile a top 10 or even a top 5 of 2017, so instead my top 10 for this year encompasses all of the films I’ve seen in the past twelve months (irrespective of when they were produced) –

a moment of confrontation in Hunt for the Wilderpeople

1. Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi, 2016) – I knew when I watched this back in January that I’d likely not see anything else this year as chucklesome and enjoyable (no, I haven’t seen Thor: Ragnarok yet…but I will, and it’s the first time I’ve been remotely interested in a Marvel film). I bought it for both of my brothers for their respective birthdays – the last film that compelled me do that was Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier, 2014) [very different films, just similarly on my wavelength] – and am still quoting it at random intervals. More Sam Neill in films, please.

 

an image from A Touch of Zen

2. A Touch of Zen (King Hu, 1969) – ‘widely regarded as the greatest martial arts epic of all time’ says the blurb on the back of the DVD. I wouldn’t disagree.

 

a still of Jeanne Moreau, Marcello Mastroianni, and Monica Vitti together in La notte

3. La notte (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961) – Moreau, Mastroianni, and Vitti. One of those films that I find difficult to write about because my engagement with it was felt rather than thought.

 

an image from Radu Jude's Scarred Hearts

4. Inimi cicatrizate / Scarred Hearts (Radu Jude, 2016) – in 2015, I wrote in relation to Jude’s Aferim! that ‘it just feels as if you’re in the hands of a director who has something to say and knows how he wants to say it’, and Scarred Hearts confirmed that for me. He is one of the most interesting directors working today. I hope that his latest film – a documentary, The Dead Nation – gets some kind of distribution here (Scarred Hearts so far has only been available as VOD for limited periods).

 

an image from King Hu's Dragon Inn

5. Dragon Inn (King Hu, 1967) – As with A Touch of Zen, one of the striking things was recognising how many later films have paid homage / ripped off the original work. I’ve already pre-ordered King Hu’s Legend of the Mountain (1979), which is being released by Eureka in March.

 

an almost unrecognisable Geraldine Chaplin in Carlos Saura's Los ojos vendados

6. Los ojos vendados / Blindfolded Eyes (Carlos Saura, 1978) – by no means a perfect film or a masterpiece, but definitely one of Saura’s most interesting films (of those I’ve watched so far) and one that I knew little about before watching it. It coheres to the director’s oft-explored themes but feels like the work of someone refining their view of the world – or refining how they represent that viewpoint on/in film. I wrote about it for the first time in July.

 

an image from The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant

7. Die Bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant / The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972) – this is like last year when I had to admit that Modern Times was the first Chaplin feature film that I’d watched; this is the first Fassbinder film I’ve seen. My aversion to date has mainly been the number of people who’ve told me that I have to watch his films, usually with the hushed earnestness employed by Naomie Harris’s character in A Cock and Bull Story (Michael Winterbottom, 2006) when she proselytises her love of Fassbinder to Steve Coogan. This one is hysterical (in both the heightened emotion and humorous senses of the word) and oh-so-perfectly framed and staged (so much is done with one defined and limited space – and silently expressed via the positioning of the camera and different characters within that space). Yeah, ok, I’ll make an effort to watch some more of his films.

 

a still from the documentary Machines

8. Machines (Rahul Jain, 2017) – I like films that show work processes (as in the machinery / mechanical process by which something is made but also the actual human labour involved). Machines is a full immersion (sights and ear-racketing sounds) into a labyrinthine Indian textile factory where workers toil for a pittance under minimal safety regulations and with little recourse for improving their conditions. It highlights social injustice without preaching and allows the workers to express themselves (and their fatigued resignation) in their own words.

 

a still from I Called Him Morgan

9. I Called Him Morgan (Kasper Collin, 2017) – earlier in the year I read this interview with Kasper Collin about how he came to make his documentary on the life (and death) of trumpeter Lee Morgan (how certain aspects of the story came to be told is a story in itself – and forms part of the film). The interviewer’s enthusiasm for the film stuck with me sufficiently that when I randomly saw it listed on Netflix, I decided to watch it. It is one of those instances where the film form is shaped to reflect the artistry of the individual it examines in a way that feels organic to the material rather than a stylised add-on. I won’t detail how the tragic story unfolds but the sense of loss (for those interviewed but also what Lee Morgan’s absence represents for music) is palpable long before the finale is in sight.

 

a still from James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro

10. I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016) – I didn’t know all that much about James Baldwin beforehand but could quite happily have watched a lot more footage of him holding forth, which may point to a shortcoming of the film – although it uses his words throughout, the film is more impactful when he is the person speaking them and slows down when he isn’t on screen. Some reservations (mainly in relation to stylistic choices) about the film notwithstanding, the man and his insight (born of lived experience combined with an extremely articulate intellect) are sufficient for an enthralling viewing experience. I need to add him to my To Be Read pile.

Honourable mention: The Prison in Twelve Landscapes (Brett Story, 2017).

 

What next in 2018? First of all, another extended break from blogging, but this time I won’t be posting at all. Like last year, I’m doing some courses in the first few months of the year and need to concentrate on that. I didn’t achieve the other part of what my 2017 break was intended to do – work out a clearer direction for what I want to do on here – so that’s something else to think about. If I’m feeling so disengaged from film, is there any point in continuing with a blog? I don’t know…although I’m not inclined to shut down the blog altogether because I don’t think my disengagement will be a permanent state of being. But the blog will be quiet for the first half of the year – I hope to return later in the year with the next stage of the Carlos Saura Challenge, but I’m not setting any dates.

I noted at the end of last year that I wanted to spend less time on Twitter, and I put that into effect after I’d finished the first part of the Carlos Saura Challenge in July. I haven’t found sources of news that are as potentially diverse as Twitter but I’d reached the point where spending time on there negatively impacted my mood too much, and – while there are people with whom I miss chatting about books/films/the general fuckwittery and sheer incompetence of the British government – I had effectively already changed from a participant to an observer most of the time. I’m not closing my account but I’m also not intending to spend much time on there (FYI: I switched off email notifications for everything except DMs) – aside from anything else, I’ll not get those books read! So there will likely be radio silence for the first half of the year – but I should reappear on Nobody Knows Anybody part way through the summer.

For now, I wish you all health and happiness in 2018!