Andrew Nette: My Highlights
In past years, I have always tried to conclude the writing year with wrap up of my top fiction/non-fiction reads. But this year I want to do something a little different and look more broadly at the culture that has sustained me in what has been another difficult and stressful 12 months, dominated, as it has for so many of us, by the Covid pandemic.
As was the case in 2020, Covid meant that I spent far more time than I would’ve liked at home. So, most of the movies I watched had to be on the small screen. One of the standouts for me was a 1953 Argentinian retelling of Fritz Lang’s 1931 classic, M, called El Vampiro Negro or The Black Vampire. Helmed by one of Argentina’s most famous mid-century directors, Roman Vinoly Barreto, the story focuses the panic that engulfs Buenos Aires as children are stalked and murdered by a paedophile. Barreto particularly focuses on a nightclub singer and mother, played by Argentina’s equivalent of Marilyn Monroe, Olga Zubarry, who is the sole eyewitness to the child killer and who fears her daughter may be the next victim. Proof positive that classic noir was not just a North American phenomena, El Vampiro Negro is a powerful film, stunningly restored by the US Film Noir Foundation.
Another major focus of my film viewing this year was American noir cinema of the very late 1950s and 1960s. I find it interesting that so many of the films made during this time remain unknown and underappreciated relative to the classic film noir period, generally regarded as beginning with John Huston’s 1941 classic The Maltese Falcon and ending in 1958, and the body of American crime cinema known as neo noir, which took off in the early 1970s. If you want to know more, check out this piece that I wrote for the US site, CrimeReads, in which I discussed my observations around this and listed ten American noirs films from the period that I think are underviewed and underappreciated.
Of the films I did get to watch on the big screen, the standout for me was Denis Villeneuve’s Dune. I read Frank Herbert’s dense and multi-layered new wave SF classic in my late teens, and while I am a fan of David Lynch’s 1984 version – and this year got to write one of the booklet essays that accompanied the Arrow Video release of this edition- I was really looking forward to what Villeneuve could do. Particularly given the advances in special effects that have occured since and the fact that he was able to make the film in two parts, something that Lynch wanted but was unable to carry off. Anyway, Villeneuve’s remake or should I say revisioning of Herbert’s story didn’t disappoint. I was particularly impressed by how the special effects, while awe inspiring, also made the film feel intensely human, something I am still thinking about weeks after seeing it.
I always mix up my reading between old and new books but, for reasons I won’t go into here, over the last twelve months I have leaned particularly hard into older fiction. Analogue era espionage fiction. like last year, was again a favourite and this year, in addition to continuing to make my way through Len Deighton’s books, I read and loved Graham Greene’s wonderfully downbeat 1978 Cold War spy novel, The Human Factor. I also enjoyed making my way through a complete collection of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, the work of Dan J. Marlowe (particularly his Earl Drake novels), new to me French noir author Frederic Dard, the crime fiction of Dorothy B. Hughes, and the work of Patricia Highsmith beyond her Ripley novels. But the real revelation of 2021 was Georges Simenon’s romans durs. Simenon wrote approximately 18 of these stand-alone noir novels, of which I have now made my way through five and they have all been excellent. I’m planning to write in more detail about Simenon’s noir fiction, so will not go into more detail here, but you can check out the review I did of the first of his romans durs I encountered, The Snow Was Dirty, published in 1946.
While older books dominated my fiction reading, I did get into some new fiction. One standout was Australian author John Byron’s beautifully written debut The Tribute, about a serial killer stalking contemporary Sydney who is intent on recreating scenes from the Fabrica, the 16th-century foundation text of modern European anatomy. Another was Iain Ryan’s utterly unique novel, The Sprial, which combines what has come to be called academic noir with sword and sorcery. I also enjoyed Michael Winkler’s self-published hybrid non-fiction/fiction book, Grimmish, a rambling meditation on pain and masculinity loosely based on real life Italian American boxer Joe Grim and an 1908-09 tour he did of Australia.
Non fiction was another major source of my reading in 2021. I really enjoyed Anna Cale’s biography of the late British actress Diana Dors, The Real Diana Dors, which I reviewed on this site here. Robert Rosen’s ‘porn memoir’ Beaver Street: A History of Modern Pornography is an utterly compelling look at the twilight years of New York’s analogue pornography industry from the 1970s to the early 1990s. While published over 20 years ago, Thomas M. Disch’s The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World, contained some fascinating observations about the evolution of science fiction from its earliest days and how it relates to the contemporary world.
I have found myself reading film monographs more and the best this year was Jez Conolly and Emma Westwood’s nuanced and perceptive analysis of John Frankenheimer’s underrated and underseen 1966 science fiction noir, Seconds (which I reviewed it on this site here). I also recommend you check out American critic Nick Pinkerton’s Goodbye Dragon Inn, a poignant look at Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang’s 2003 film of the same name about the last of operations of a traditional Taipei single screen movie house, fused with the author’s musings on the future of cinema. Finally, as the year draws to a close, I am deep into W. Scott Poole’s Wastleland: the Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror, an absolutely enthralling alternative history of World War I and the impact that it had on birthing modern horror on the page and screen.
While I watch a lot of television, including my fair share of so-called ‘event television’, to be honest, not a lot of it really stays with me for very long. It was fantastic to revisit the 1992 Australian true crime mini-series Phoenix, which was filmed in my home town of Melbourne (which I wrote about here). I also enjoyed the Netflix series, Midnight Mass, which successfully managed to meld intellectual discussion of life and the universe with a solid horror plot.
But the best television series I have seen this year is Mr Inbetween. Mr Inbetween, which started in 2018 and just had its third and – what I understand to be – final season, tells the story of Ray Shoesmith, played to perfection by series creator Scott Ryan (pictured). Ray is a bouncer and professional Sydney hitman who has to balance his hair-raising criminal activities with being a boyfriend, a father to his young daughter, and a carer to his brother who has increasingly debilitating motor neurone disease. It might not sound like much but this series, produced by Australian production company Blue Tongue, seamlessly combines pitch black noir, with sharp social observation, moments of real poignancy, and laugh out loud comedy. I cannot tell you how incredibly refreshing to see a noir television series this good made in and about Australia.
Andrew Nette lives in Melbourne and is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, reviewer and pulp scholar. He is the author of two novels, Ghost Money, a crime story set in Cambodia in the mid-nineties, and Gunshine State, and co-editor of Hard Labour, an anthology of Australian short crime fiction, and LEE, an anthology of fiction inspired by American cinema icon, Lee Marvin. He also co-edited Girl Gangs, Biker Boys, and Real Cool Cats: Pulp Fiction and Youth Culture, 1950 to 1980, and Sticking it to the Man: Revolution and Counterculture in Pulp and Popular Fiction, 1956 to 1980, both published by PM Press. Both reviewed by Alf Mayer here and here. He also co-edited a third volume for PM Press, Dangerous Visions and New Worlds: Radical Science Fiction, 1950-1980, out in late 2021 and reviewed here by Alf Mayer.
„The Zone is a separate world. A different world in the midst of the world. It was invented by the Strugatski Brothers, but literature stepped back in the face of reality.“ (Svetlana Alexievich quoting „Anatoly Shimanskii, journalist“. – Voices from Chernobyl, p. 132.)
I recently viewed the five hours of the HBO series Chernobyl, in three nights, and found it thoroughly interesting. Very well done. Sound design, audio, and the score by Hildur Guðnadóttir absolutely outstanding. The continuity, too, is amazing, as even our resident postSovietologist and Putin critic and biographer Masha Gesson had to admit, although she (rightfully if mostly peevishly) had quibbles with the project. Due to the facts that, not only do I read too much, I was also if briefly a student engineer at General Electric’s Nuclear Engineering Division, in San Jose, California, in the summer of 1966 (re a reminiscence of which, circa 2005, I got into a near-violent altercation, over a nice supper in Berkeley, with a guy who screamed across the table, “There were no computers in 1966!”) — I know not-enough-and-yet-a-bit-too- much about the subject, and the people who made the film do too, up to and including the work of Nobelist Svetlana Alexievich (Voices from Chernobyl, excellent), an aspect of which they managed to incorporate as a subplot, not to mention Serghii Ploky’s compelling blow-by-blow account, Chernobyl. In googling around after viewing the film I found Gesson’s piece, along with more than one „respectable“ reviewer who dismissed the so-called downwind radiation poisoning aspect of the disaster as total bullshit, stipulating a death toll capped at 31 people, etc etc. According to the closing credits, the official Russian total of directly attributed decedents also stands at 31. Collusion? Other estimates range from 4300 to 200,000, and their accountants universally opine the mortality as ongoing, that is to say, transgenerational. The Russians themselves created an eleven hundred square mile “Chernobyl Exclusion Zone”, also euphemistically referred to as a “radioecological reserve”, after systematically depopulating it of all two- and four-legged lifeforms, either by forced relocation or meticulous extermination, out of “an abundance of caution”, a touching concern other managers of other nuclear disasters have hastened to profess. 31 people? Really?
Then there’s my brother. When I cited: “radiotrophic [not to say radiophagic] fungi…discovered in 1991 growing inside and around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. It was specifically noted that colonies of melanin rich fungi had begun to rapidly grow within the cooling waters of the reactors within the power plant, turning them black…”, my brother’s response was, ”It’s inevitable.” He then reminded me that he’d long since recommended Entangled Life, by Merlin Sheldrake, which I’ve now read and, (a) yes, cf. p. 181, ‘it’ is inevitable, and (b) I, too, can recommend this excellent book. Also, by the way, my brother knows a great deal about the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, in central Washington, a knowledge base relevant to this essay, but in excess of its spatial considerations.
While the explosion at Chernobyl blew a lot of radioactive stuff all over the place, it was not an atom bomb-type detonation per se. But it was pretty bad. Or, as Allen Ginsberg, who was in Czechoslovakia at the time, wrote, and later, when I heard it live, sang:
Phone up the doctor, official reply: „Never Mind“
Same afternoon, suggested we take iodine
Three days later Chernobyl’s error disclosed
All over Europe people are saying, „Who knows?“
In Chernobyl, the movie, there are a couple of scenes straight out of Tarkovsky’s Stalker. As it happens, one of the best novels I read this year was Roadside Picnic, by the brothers Strugatsky, Boris and Arkady, upon which Tarkovsky based Stalker. I love the movie, but I am partial to the novel. (In fact, as goes Tarkovsky, I revere Andrei Rublev above all — it’s on and on with these opinions!) My edition of Roadside Picnic, issued in 2012 by Gollanz, an English publisher, includes an afterword by Boris Strugatsky, detailing how he and his late brother spent more time dealing with the Soviet censors than actually writing the book. The brothers co-wrote the Stalker screenplay with Tarkovsky, and they twice had to start and stop production before managing to start and finish it on their third attempt, in Tallinn, Estonia: which is how we get back to radiogenic cancers. So polluted was the site where they shot Stalker, particularly the purling neck-deep muck through which the stalker guides his tourists, toward the end of the movie — which morass, however, was not so stagnant that it wasn’t radioactive, and it is this scene which has a precise antecedent in Chernobyl, in which three volunteers enter the flooded reactor building in search of coolant valves that can only be manually activated — that a statistically disproportionate number of the Stalker cast and crew subsequently experienced and/or died of cancers.
Much in the same manner, cancer afflicted half and killed a quarter of the 200-some people who worked on John Wayne’s stupidest (which is saying something) movie, The Conquerer, ostensibly/either, in Wayne’s case, because he smoked cigarettes, or because the movie was shot in St. George, in southern Utah, downwind from The Nevada Test Site, where something like eleven plein-air A-bombs were detonated just in the year preceding the film shoot (out of a total of 100 atmospheric tests conducted over the “life” of the test site, the remainder taking place underground, for a total of 1021 explosions). It is precisely this latter cause-and-effect that the so-called „respectable“ reviewer of Chernobyl, in the „respectable“ newspaper, The Wall Street Journal (a Murdoch property), specifically denied as a possibility, based on his personal experience of 31 years as a scientist of nuclear waste disposal. But dude, if people don’t absorb radiation, how else are we going to get rid of it? The number 31 thereby taking on an ominous and eldritch honorific, tell it to the waxing enumeration of Nevada Site Downwinders and their descendants.
From The Atomic Heritage Foundation website: “[Atmospheric tests] still produced large amounts of radioactive fallout. It is estimated that nearly 150 million curies of radioactive material was released through the atmospheric tests conducted [chez Nevada] from 1951 to 1962. This amount of radiation equates to about twenty times the amount of radiation released during the Chernobyl nuclear accident.” The Conqueror lensed in 1956 — midstream of such testing. Not only that, producer Howard Hughs paid real dough to airlift something like twenty tons of radioactive dirt from St. George to his Hollywood lot in order to round out some fantasy of cinematographic verisimilitude — ironic, given the film’s sub-verisimilitudinous premise of John Wayne as Genghis Kahn. So — maybe pin a roentgen badge next to your name tag on that next Hollywood studio tour? If only Louella Parsons had possessed the least instinct for a Nobel Prize, at this distance we might have to hand a more nuanced record of the foibles of humanity than the silage she actually bequeathed us.
Of governments withholding information for the good of the governed, there is no end of irony. One more irony, genus Celluloidosis. The “shot” that most polluted downrange of the Nevada test site was a 1953 blast called, most mellifluously, “Upshot Knothole Harry”; which was so thoroughly radioactive that its subsequent downwinder sobriquet became… Dirty Harry. Am I in love with movies, or what?
Jim Nisbet, Jahrgang 1947, ist Autor von dreizehn Romanen und mehreren Lyrik-Bänden. In den letzten vierzig Jahren veröffentlichte er darüber hinaus diverse Artikel, Essays und Shortstorys in Zeitungen, Zeitschriften und Anthologien sowie ein Sachbuch über Bau und Design retro-futuristischer Möbel. Er lebt in San Francisco. Seine Romane bei Pulpmaster.