The Corona Diaries: It’s a small world after all

I felt a range of different emotions when the COVID-19 crisis began, and a lot of different thoughts went through my head. One was a profound sense of unreality: this kind of thing happens in movies, not in real life, and definitely not here, in Switzerland, in one of the wealthiest, most privileged countries in the world. Another was constant, low-level stress and the feeling that my brain and its usual processing power was off, somehow, that my thinking was constantly woolly and my ability to remember things (never exactly my strong side) was pretty much shot.

However, not all of what I was feeling was confusing, confounding or plain bad. There was also a sense that for the first time in my life we were experiencing something as the whole world. Even if we were stressed, anxious and confused, we were sharing this. No other event I’d ever experienced felt as truly global, and that was a good feeling: we were all in this together.

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It’s the pictures that got small

This week I saw my first Hitchcock on the big screen. I grew up in the ’80s, which meant that I first and, more often than not, only saw the classics of cinema on TV – and in the ’80s that meant, what, screens that were 30 inches across if you were lucky? TVs were big, bulky monstrosities, but the screens weren’t particularly big – which was good, really, because television channels broadcast images that were relatively fuzzy. If you sat close enough to the screen so that it filled your field of vision (and you could smell that weird electric smell), what you saw was basically impressionist art.

North By Northwest

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Although I got the novel as a Christmas present, I only read Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation after 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.


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Enter the Zone

Ever since I spent a few months in Glasgow in 2000 and fell in love with the Glasgow Film Theatre, I’ve been hoping that a good repertory cinema would open a bit closer to home. Last autumn, that wish came true, when a local cinema that before had mostly shown B movies along the lines of The Core and The Extraordinary League of Gentlemen was refurnished and turned into a cinematic time capsule. They show some current arthouse fare at the Kino Rex Bern, but mostly they show classics, whether American, European or otherwise, and organise series on particular themes or filmmakers.

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Le retour du sous titre

You know what’s almost as bad as not having any subtitles in a series of films filled by mumbling Yorkshiremen? (Note that in the meantime a friend’s lent me the German edition of Red Riding, which features subtitles along with the English audio track. Blessings upon their Teutonic heads!) Buying a DVD that advertises, right on the back, subtitles in every language under the sun, or at least in English, German, French, Russian and a fair number of other languages – but then the actual DVD bears little resemblance with what’s promised on the box.

Other than featuring Andrei Tarkovsky’s enigmatic Stalker, that is. I’ve been interested in the film for, oh, about 15 years now, ever since a friend mentioned to me that it’s one of his favourite movies. My interest was piqued even more when I played the Stalker games, although they’re based less on the movie than on the novel Roadside Picnic (and ironically, while the games are relatively thoughtful, they still look like an ’80s action movie next to Tarkovsky’s film). I ordered the DVD on ages ago – precisely because the edition promised subtitles in lots of different languages – but only got around to seeing the film now.

First impression: man, my French sucks. I was never very good at it, but after letting what ability I had rust for 15 years I understood perhaps 40% of what was being said. (Or rather, 40% of the subtitles; I understood even less of the Russian dialogue, although I did understand “бутерброд”!)

Second impression: even if I understand fairly little and the film is extremely slow – there’s something eminently compelling to Tarkovsky’s style. Even more than Solaris (which suffered somewhat from being set in an outdated future, the fate of so much sci-fi) Stalker is hypnotic… and gorgeous to look at. It is atmospheric without going for any of the predictable tools of atmospheric film makers. The world of Stalker is ominous and eerie, yet at the same time naturalistic, creating an effect I haven’t seen in any other film. There’s something almost documentary in its visuals, yet there’s a dream-like quality – and it’s this seeming contradiction, this tension, that is utterly fascinating.

More than that, perhaps it helps to see the film in a language I don’t fully understand. Films that are put in the ‘art film’ box tend to have a certain portentous, somewhat affectated quality to them; as much as I like Bergman, for instance, a number of his films have a certain self-aware heaviness that can be more alienating than is necessary. Perhaps Tarkovsky’s work has this same quality if the viewer understands the dialogues enough to realise that they’re unintelligible – but my impression was that while the world and themes of the film are portentous, the characters feel real. Not 100% and not all the time, but they’re more than just vehicles for themes.

In the end, though, I can really only judge Stalker as a visual experience until I’ve rewatched it (after a French refresher, perhaps), and on those terms alone it’s well worth seeing. Even if there’s a relative scarcity of Ukranian mercenaries, radioactive mutants and frantic gunfights.

But if I get my hands on the people responsible for that mendacious DVD edition, je m’occupe de vos miches à la médiévale!

Films that didn’t click – the introduction

No news on the game front, really; I’m still playing Stalker (pure nukular goodness!), Neverwinter Nights 2 (it’s okay, but I still don’t get the enthusiastic reviews), Anachronox (slowly getting to the end) – and a rallye game called Colin McRae DIRT, best proof that the streets are safer with me off them.

Don’t drink and drive. Or, in my case, don’t drive.

I also haven’t watched any new films (or rewatched old ones), so I’ll take this opportunity to write about films that I expected to like – but didn’t. Usually when that happens, it’s that I like the director’s previous work a lot, but then fail completely to connect with the film. Or it’s that a reviewer I like gives the film a glowing review that I fall for. By the way, I don’t share the dismissive arrogance many people have when it comes to reviewers – good critics don’t necessarily share my opinions 100%, but 1) they have to recognise what a film is trying to do and 2) I have to know where they’re coming from after reading the review. What I do hate is critics who pan a genre film, for instance, because it isn’t Truffaut, critics who mistake their dislike for a certain kind of story or storytelling for its inherent unworthiness. And with a good reviewer, it doesn’t really matter whether they liked a film or not – I will have a good idea from what they write and how they write it whether I’m likely to enjoy the film.

Before I get started on this in earnest, though, I’ll have to come up with a list of films that fit. I’ve got a few ideas: Punch Drunk Love, for one, and my own favourite, Russian Ark. (Okay, technically that latter one is a “Film that this blogger hated with a vengeance”, but more of that later.) So, tune back in very soon!

P.S.: Films that – ironically, predictably – didn’t click for anyone, part 1:

Notes from the Zone

Nope, I haven’t handed in my nerd credentials and stopped playing computer games. As a matter of fact, I recently got a new graphics card, so I’ve been diligently playing those games that didn’t run that smoothly before the upgrade. One of the titles I’d most been looking forward to is Stalker – Shadows of Chernobyl. (Well, technically it’s called S.T.A.L.K.E.R. – Something of Doodah, but unless someone can tell me what the abbreviation is supposed to stand for, I refuse to use that wannabe leet name.)

There’s been a discussion about games as art for a while now. If we look at them as narrative art, then I’d agree that there are few games that tell a story that’s better, or even as good, as your average mainstreamy Hollywood genre piece. (There are exceptions, but that’s material for another entry.) What games can excel at, though, is atmosphere – and that’s what Stalker has in spades. It’s based, though loosely, on Andrei Tarkovsky’s enigmatic film of the same name (which I haven’t seen yet – shame on me!).

The game is set in the area around the radioactive wasteland surrounding the defunct nuclear reactor in Chernobyl. Stalker‘s version of the Zone is populated by lone adventurers, bandits, militia and mutated animals. It is dotted with anomalies that tend to mean your death if you wander into any one of them unawares. (There is grim fun to be had of watching packs of mutated dogs happen into an anomaly that pretty much spins them around like the cow in Twister – and then tears them apart.)

Stalker manages to be one of those games that’s greatly enjoyable but not a lot of fun, and that’s mainly down to its atmospheric setting. On my first day in the Zone, I happened across a camp that other Stalkers had made amidst rusty cars and a broken down Hind helicopter. Just as the sun set, a group of bandits attacked, and most of what I could make out were bursts of fire in the darkness and the flashlight’s circle of brightness illuminating burnt out Ladas and the occasional bandit aiming his semi-automatic at me.

In general, the nights in the Zone are tense and scary – mostly because they are actually dark. Walking towards distant lights, your flashlight barely illuminating the bushes in front of you, while you hear strange animal sounds, and suddenly a pack of dogs attacks, their eyes glinting in the dark… Definitely beats the hell (pun only semi-intended) out of Doom 3‘s predictable haunted house ride and its rubber zombies.

I’m not very far yet, but I’m looking forward to getting closer to the shut-down reactor and entering the parts of the Zone that used to be residential areas. Until then, I will continue being the bane of mutated dogs and hogs everywhere… until I run out of ammo. I run pretty fast (’till I stumble into one of those amusing anomalies and it proceeds to turn me inside out).