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 under viewed 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.