Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!
In Rocky, Talia Shire does a great job of depicting a character that is painfully shy and seems exceedingly mousey at first, but who reveals depths of emotion and loyalty as the film progresses. She’s a good fit for Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky, also a character who doesn’t fit the bill of archetypical heroic lead at first. Whatever the Rocky franchise turned into, both the movies and their leads started off at a point where they were downright antithetical to what they’d become later – not least in Rocky IV, in which the title character was pretty much the embodiment of Reagan’s America during the late stages of the Cold War. Rocky and Adrian were engaging characters, but as depicted by Stallone and Shire their charisma wasn’t readily apparent.
Fast-forward 39 years, to 2015 and to Creed, a quasi-sequel or spin-off to the original Rocky series. Yes, I can already hear you: did the world of cinema need to continue turning that particular dead horse into a punching bag? That’s pretty much what I thought – and then I saw who was involved: Ryan Coogler, pre-Black Panther but post-Fruitvale Station. Michael B Jordan, who has come so far since he played poor, doomed Wallace in the first season of The Wire.
2020 has been a year in which, more than ever, it’s been difficult to shake the feeling that we don’t have much agency over our lives. Things happen that are outside our control and we watch them happen, wondering if there ever was a moment when we were in charge of our everyday existence. Therefore it is probably no surprise that two recent high-profile sci-fi series tried to wrangle the theme of whether we live in a deterministic universe, even if they were both made before our sense of agency took its biggest knock in the shape of a nasty little virus: HBO’s Westworld and FX’s Devs, which was written and directed by Alex Garland.
Director James Gray’s Ad Astra, apart from being beautiful to look at (down in front, Brad Pitt fans!), also sets out to be that rare, beautiful thing: a sci-fi movie of ideas. It is interested in outer space as much as the universe inside the metaphorical man in the moon. If only it trusted those ideas to speak to its audience loudly enough, because then it might not have felt the need to spell them all out in explicit, clunky voiceover.
Although I got the novel as a Christmas present, I only read Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilationafter seeing Alex Garland’s movie adaptation, finishing it last weekend. There are some adaptations that ruin the original for you, but that’s rarely been a major problem for me: if a story is enjoyable primarily because of what happens next, I usually don’t feel all that much of a need to read it in the first place. If there are interesting characters or ideas, if the prose is evocative and atmospheric – generally, if it’s the storytelling itself that makes the story thrilling or funny or generally engaging rather than what happens next – then I’m definitely up for experiencing a story more than once.
Tune in for episode 8 of A Damn Fine Cup of Culture, which takes us to Area X and the Shimmer. Will we come back from our discussion of Alex Garland’s Annihilation unchanged? We also spend an all too short summer vacation in early ’80s Italy with Call Me By Your Name‘s Elio and Oliver and have a quick drink with Jessica Jones (watch out for season 2 spoilers from 11:40 to 13:10). Continue reading →