January 2nd, 2008


2008 Movies 1) Odd Man Out

1) Odd Man Out (1947)

I'd been wanting to see this since reading about it in Ciaran Carson's The Star Factory, for purely personal interest reasons - the setting in Belfast, the connection with Doctor Who - but it really is a brilliant film in its own right. Even though you pretty much know what is going to happen right from the very beginning - terrorist bank raid goes wrong, the wounded leader staggers around the city pursued by friend and foe alike - the tension is maintained throughout. James Mason is superb as the central character, suffering angst and flashbacks, inspiring loyalty and love; and the whole thing is beautifully directed with great background music.

The approach to Belfast is ... peculiar. The film starts with a fantastic establishment shot from the air, coming in over the Lagan and zooming in on the Albert Clock and High Street (also the setting of the climax); but at one point we see the police inspecting a map of a completely fictional unnamed city on the edge of the fictional Fernagh Lough. However the trams in this city clearly go up the Falls Road! And while most of the adult actors seem to have southern Irish accents (basically because they were recruited from the Abbey Theatre in Dublin) the extras are definitely from Belfast - there's a beautiful scene with a dozen kids who the BBC was trying to track down recently.

And there's William Hartnell - only in two scenes, as Mr Fancy, the barman in charge of the "Four Winds" saloon (clearly based on The Crown, but equally clearly a studio set rather than the real thing), and sixteen years away from becoming Doctor Who: he none the less has a couple of very characteristic moments. His second scene has been Youtubed here and here: look at the way his eyes are moving about 1:25 into the first clip - we've certainly seen that before! - and listen his rant for the first half-minute of the second clip - very Doctor-ish until he uses the unnervingly colloquial word "quid"!

Anyway, a good start to the year's viewing.

New Year's Resolutions

I resolved yesterday to make my new year's resolutions today (other than reading resolutions). I've spent a bit of time this morning with the goal-setting Facebook app, which has been some help, though I'm keeping most of those goals, personal and professional, to myself.

A few areas I do feel comfortable noting here, though: a) cranking up my Russian course, bought in 2002 but allowed to slip rather - it should be ideal listening for one leg of the commute; and b) reviving a couple of my writing projects, in particular i) reviews of joint Hugo and Nebula winners, currently stuck at Hell is the Absence of God; and ii) my notes on books of the Bible. Both of those will be tracked here.

January Books 1) Macedonia

1) Macedonia, by Harvey Pekar and Heather Roberson, illustrated by Ed Piskor

Long-term readers will know of my obsession with Macedonia. This is the story of peace activist Heather Roberson, who went there in the summer of 2003 to find out how the 2001 conflict had been prevented from escalating into another full-scale Balkan war, and acquired an obsession to match mine. She and Pekar portray well her fascination with this paradoxical, contradictory country, exploring Skopje and Tetovo with excursions to Belgrade and Pristina, and I found much to agree with - the curious mixture of paranoia and pessimism which otherwise enlightened individuals sometimes display; the Hotel Ambasador and the Irish Pub in Skopje, the Hotel Moskva in Belgrade, the attitudes of the international officials involved with the local process. Indeed, one or two of the internationals depicted are people I know - mostly identifiable because of the positions they hold, though they are not named and their physical appearance in the book is quite different in real life. One particularly impressive character, who oddly enough has just renewed contact with me via Facebook and LinkedIn, is given a completely different profession in the book to real life but is none the less clearly recognisable to anyone who has met him.

I'm not sure how interesting the book would be to people who don't share the same level of fascination with the country as me and Roberson. It's very text-heavy in places, with an awful lot of background information needed to set her experiences in context (though it seemed to me mostly accurate, with only one or two points where my eyebrows rose in disagreement). Her basic paradigm, that conflicts can be resolved through application of the rule of law, is quite a complex area to explore through the medium of the graphic novel and it's not quite clear what her conclusion actually is, once she has seen her idealistic propositions tested in practice. Also, I'm not sure that she and Pekar quite manage to communicate the sheer charm of the country and its people of all ethnicities; I think the casual reader may end up being rather surprised or sceptical that she likes the country as much as she says she does. And there were a number of annoying errors in the Macedonia/Serbian phrases and street signs shown.

It may not be up to the standards of Safe Area Goražde, but it is nonetheless a fine effort, and certainly would be good reading for anyone thinking of getting involved in Balkan politics these days.