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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
Club Notice - 07/05/96 -- Vol. 15, No. 1
Table of Contents
Unless otherwise stated, all meetings are in the Middletown cafeteria Wednesdays at noon.
DATE TOPIC 07/31 Hugo Ballots due Outside events: The Science Fiction Association of Bergen County meets on the second Saturday of every month in Upper Saddle River; call 201-933-2724 for details. The New Jersey Science Fiction Society meets on the third Saturday of every month in Belleville; call 201-432-5965 for details.
MT Chair: Mark Leeper MT 3F-434 908-957-5619 firstname.lastname@example.org HO Chair: John Jetzt MT 2E-530 908-957-5087 email@example.com HO Librarian: Nick Sauer HO 4F-427 908-949-7076 firstname.lastname@example.org MT Librarian: Mark Leeper MT 3F-434 908-957-5619 email@example.com Distinguished Heinlein Apologist: Rob Mitchell MT 2D-536 908-957-6330 firstname.lastname@example.org Factotum: Evelyn Leeper MT 1F-337 908-957-2070 email@example.com Backissues available at http://www-gbcs.mt.lucent.com/~ecl/MTVOID/backissues.html or http://sf.www.lysator.liu.se/sf_archive/sf-texts/MT_Void/. All material copyright by author unless otherwise noted.
URL of the week:
URL of the week: http://www.amazon.com. This bills itself as "Earth's largest bookstore." If you're into ordering books on- line, this is the place for you. Ships worldwide. [-ecl]
In one week I am seeing two different science fiction films. And I mean VERY different. One is the soon-to-be-released INDEPENDENCE DAY with its state-of-the-art special effects for the last years of this century. The other is BEGINNING OF THE END, which was made in 1957 with special effects that were really pretty mediocre in 1957. In some ways these two films have a lot in common. I think that both are driven not so much by story, but by the images that could be put on the screen. BEGINNING OF THE END was one of the films, one of the better ones actually, directed in the Fifties by Bert I. Gordon. He made this the same year he made his best-known film, THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN. You should see some of the worse ones.
People seem to think that what made Ed Wood, Jr., unique as a filmmaker was his sublime disregard for his audience's enjoyment of his films. They think that he alone of filmmakers had the attitude that he could get away with nearly any quality-cutting in his films and with paying no attention to his viewers' expectations. This is perhaps in large part true of Wood, but he is not unique in this regard. There are scenes in BEGINNING OF THE END that are ludicrously bad. This is the film in which giant grasshoppers overrun the state of Illinois. Gordon did not follow the approach of THEM! and build reasonably realistic models. (In fairness, the ants in THEM! were not all that realistic, and there were only one and a half of them that was ever built, so you could not have more than two of them in any scene. Still, what was done with THEM! was is still admired as the classic giant insect film, if there can be such a thing. Gordon's work has fallen into obscurity, thank goodness.) Gordon used real grasshoppers and matted them over scenes of the army fighting the grasshoppers or people looking afraid. He was just learning about overlaying images, apparently and had some horrendously unbelievable superimpositions of pictures of grasshoppers and humans. The grasshoppers were shot on different film stock and often had really bad outlines where the images were combined. His all-too-transparent effect of grasshoppers climbing buildings was created by putting real grasshoppers on photographs of Chicago buildings like the Wrigley Building. To show the grasshoppers falling off the building, he simply showed them sliding down the photograph. One he even has step off the building and for a moment walk on the sky. There is not one believable special effects scene in all of BEGINNING OF THE END. Yet this film's effects are almost a virtuoso performance compared to the effects in some of his earlier films like THE CYCLOPS.
So it is hardly fair to make Ed Wood the poster-boy for replacing quality with expediency in film-making. Wood was actually coming out of a tradition of some very poorly make films. Picking out Wood totally ignores the production from studios like PRC--the name stood for Producers Releasing Corporation, but it could as well have stood for Poverty Row Crud--and the careers of such masters of schlock as Bert I. Gordon. Gordon did build his films around the visual images he thought he could create on the screen. The problem was that he was totally inept at creating those special effects. There was a time that that was acceptable. In the Fifties the emerging medium of television had generally very rudimentary effects. The idea was not that the viewer had to believe what was being shown on the screen, but that it told the story. Nobody complained to ventriloquist Edgar Bergen that his dummy Charlie McCarthy did not look real. Puppet shows did not require that marionettes look real. Television programs like ROCKY JONES, SPACE RANGER did not require hyper-realism in special effects. All that was required of the images is that they told the story. This was the common philosophy for science fiction television in the Fifties and it took a long time to get to the quality of effects we see today on BABYLON 5 and the latest incarnations of STAR TREK. We can see even some fairly recent BBC series like THE TOMORROW PEOPLE that are still made with the same mediocre effects. To show a spaceship approach they simply take one image of the ship and make it larger and larger against the background. So we can make some excuses for Gordon's effects. They do tell his story, even if the reason-to-be of his story is to show off the special effects.
But now which film is really more enjoyable? Will INDEPENDENCE DAY with its state-of-the-art effects really be better than THE BEGINNING OF THE END with its hokey and unconvincing effects and its silly story? It is hard to tell at this point, but that is the way the smart money is betting. [-mrl]
THE HIGHER SPACE
by Jamil Nasir (Bantam Spectra, ISBN 0-553-56887-6, 1996, 256pp, US$5.99) (a book review by Evelyn C. Leeper):
This book is an odd combination of mysticism and mathematics, with some horror touches thrown in. The story centers around a teenage girl who is trying to escape from her abusive foster father, and avoid her equally threatening birth mother, by studying Thaumatomathematics. Parts of this book seem to be descendants of Dennis Wheatley and Fritz Leiber, with covens and witchcraft. But just when you think you now what's happening, Nasir pulls the rug out from under you with a complete change of direction.
The very fact that this book doesn't fit into a definite category means that it will have difficulty finding its audience. In fact, I'm not sure I can even describe who that audience would be, and certainly not without revealing more of the plot than I want to. I did find that the child-abuse/custody case part proceeded a bit too conveniently for the plot to be completely convincing, which may seem an odd complaint about a book that has so many hard-to-believe concepts. On the other hand, one requirement that I have for a speculative fiction book is that unless something is intentionally and clearly a variation from our world, it should be true to reality as we know it. On the other hand, maybe this is how these cases go--I have no first-hand experience (thank goodness).
In any case, this is certainly an interesting book. While all the individual elements have been used before, this is an original and unique blending of them. It may not be to everyone's taste-- unusual blends often are not--but if the thought intrigues you, give this a try. [-ecl]
THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME
(a film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Capsule: This is a wonderful film for anyone who does not know the Victor Hugo novel and yet a brazenly horrendous adaptation for anyone who does know the story. Disney's animators have lavished their greatest technical virtuosity on a script that is painfully inaccurate to its source. With such extremes of good and bad I have to give the film a mediocre rating, but in fairness there is a lot to admire here as well as much to revile. Rating: low +1(-4 to +4)
By any objective standards, point for point, this is the best animated film that has come from Disney Studios. It has the best animation, the most complex story, and even the most interesting characters of any Disney Studios animated film. The reason that this film is getting flak--and I am not saying that it is not fully deserved--is that the violence that the Disney people invariably do to the story is this time being done to a different type of story. It is a story with which many people have both a passing acquaintance and, even more important, a certain respect. This is an adaptation of the often-filmed 1831 novel NOTRE DAME DE PARIS by Victor Hugo. But this time when the Disney people turn the characters inside-out, totally distorting them, and there is a sizable proportion of the audience who know what is going on.
There is a canonical version of the story of Aladdin--the one translated by Sir Richard Burton from the Arabic--but few people actually know the details of the plot. So if the Disney film moves the setting from China to Arabia and bases the story more on "The Thief of Bagdad" than on the original Burton version, few people notice or care. But just about every review I have written of a Disney animated film contains the complaint someplace that the story is not accurate to the original story on which it is based. This time around the Disney people have chosen a classic that is cynical, misanthropic, and extremely angry (not unlike the emotions I felt when I first heard that Disney would be doing HUNCHBACK.) But having resigned myself to seeing a novel I really like being desecrated on the screen, the film that Disney Studios have made is about as well-made as that studio has ever done. And it is not as if the classic Charles Laughton version was tremendously accurate to the novel either. It distorted the Hugo badly also, though nowhere nearly as badly as the new animated film.
This version is something of a saddlepoint, being on one hand the worst adaptation of the five well-known English language versions of novel. (I have not seen the two French versions nor the 1917 version THE DARLING OF PARIS with Theda Bara--and I am not sure I want to.) And yet, in my opinion at least, this is the best Disney animated film to date, beating out even BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. This is the darkest-themed of any of the Disney films and has some of the most complex characters, for what that is worth. There is little wrong with this film that could not have been fixed by re- titling it BELL-RINGER OF NOTRE DAME, changing all the character names, and saying that this was "suggested by" NOTRE DAME DE PARIS.
Though never stated in the film, the year is 1482, during the reign of Louis XI. In this version Quasimodo is cutely deformed in much the same way a troll doll is. He lives in seclusion (though not in deafness) because he is forbidden to leave Notre Dame by his harsh guardian, Judge Frollo, and because he is shy, being stigmatized by his deformity. In this version, the people of Paris are unknowingly cruel to him when they first see him close up, but are basically good at heart. The cathedral is run by people who are also good, and the chief evil in Paris is Judge Frollo. Quasimodo's only friends have been three gargoyles who come to life just for him, not unlike the tiger toy in "Calvin and Hobbes." But risking rejection, Quasimodo makes friends with the rambunctious and buxom gypsy woman Esmeralda and the dashing and noble Phoebus, Captain of the Guards and a man with a strong sense of morality and chivalry. Even in just this much plot the story has been horribly and painfully twisted.
The screenplay--by five people, always a bad sign--invariably finds the most vulnerable places to undermine Hugo's story and to distort nearly everything about it. It is almost impressive how they take such liberties as they do and still leave the story at least recognizable with so much of the screen story just the reverse of the Hugo novel. For example, Esmeralda has one quick moment of shock when she realizes that the ugliness of "Quasi" is not just a mask, and from that point on she has nothing but admiration from him. "You are a surprise from every angle," she sings. It took a great deal of sugar-coating to make the story innocuous enough that it could be a Disney film. And still it is the darkest and most powerful of Disney's animated features, which is perhaps not saying very much.
As bad as the distortion of the novel is, the writers have some powerful scenes. Where Frollo describes the Gypsies as being vermin, like ants crawling under a stone, the scene has the power of some of the anti-Jewish propaganda films of Nazi Germany. There is a terrific scene of the sexually-frustrated Frollo seeing images of Esmeralda in a fire that very nicely gets across to even fairly young children the thorny concept that Frollo's hatred of Esmeralda springs from his own desire for her. And the script also borrows from other film versions. There is a scene where Esmeralda prays in the Cathedral for nothing for herself, but for God to help her people. This scene was invented for the 1939 film version, but is the basis for a musical number in this film.
Being fair, Disney's HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME is also a technical marvel. The Disney animators are no longer trying to make a computer animated film look like it was entirely hand-drawn. Instead they are mixing in images of such technical perfection they could only have been created by computer. Gone is the feeling of just six or seven planes of flat images. The images now create a heightened sense of depth that is far too perfect to be done by hand. This film has jaw-dropping scenes that could never be filmed in live-action on animated without a computer. When Quasimodo swings down over the heads of the crowd to rescue Esmeralda and the viewer goes with him arching down, it is one of the most spectacular animated sequences in any feature film. Still that scene is flawed, perhaps intentionally. It does have the problem that everybody in the crown seems to be the same height to give the feel of a plane of heads. But it is a terrific image, nevertheless. There are some other problems with the animation. Once again a different team animates each major character. But the styles of animation do not quite match. While Phoebus has a natural, rotoscoped look about him, Quasimodo has a flatter look and feel. When the two walk together they do not look right. It almost looks like a human walking with a Toon. Nor is the artwork particularly original. In face Frollo looks far too much like the witch from SLEEPING BEAUTY turned into a man. And Esmeralda looks ... well, like Disney animators have lost their innocence and are now into drawing heroines with big breasts.
There is a lot of film here for a short 86 minutes, a lot that is terrific and a lot that is terrible. On balance I give THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME a low +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. I wish Disney had stuck to a lesser-known and lesser-loved book. [-mrl]
THE HORSEMAN ON THE ROOF
(a film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Capsule: A tale of adventure and love in the time of cholera. An Italian revolutionary and a beautiful and wealthy French woman, each with a mission, repeatedly encounter and help each other in 1832 France. Jean-Paul Rappeneau gives us a high-spirited, yet solid historical adventure that excites but never goes over the top into swashbuckling. Beautifully filmed and nicely acted. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4)
It is 1832 and the threat of Napoleon is over. Still Italy knows no peace. Twelve years earlier, inspired by a revolt in Spain, the Neapolitans arose and forced King Ferdinand I to give the country a constitution. A congress of European governments, meeting at Troppau and Laibach, decided it must discourage all such revolutions, which might, after all, spread to other countries. The Congress gave Austria a mandate to march into Italy and to restore things to the way they had been before the constitution. Their rule was marred by uprisings, not surprisingly, including a 1821 Piedmont revolution put down in less than a month by forces of royalists and Austrians. The 1831 uprisings in Modena and Parma met a similar fate. But uprisings against the royalist government and especially the invading Austrians continue. Many ranking officers in the various rebellions find things a bit hot for them in Italy and find sanctuary in France. They were also finding support from like-minded Frenchmen, disillusioned with their own king Louis Philippe. He had been chosen as King in part for his liberal viewpoints. The reality disappointed the people, however, after the new king had ruthlessly put down a workers rebellion in Lyon the previous year.
Angelo Pardi (played by Olivier Martinez), an officer in the Revolutionary Army, is in France with gold collected there that will help finance revolution ... if he can get it back to his country intact. Austrian agents are also in France, hunting down the enemies of the Italian royalist government. The French are generally sympathetic, but just now they have an even more frightening and implacable enemy. One that can strike at anyone, highborn or commoner equally. An epidemic of cholera haunts the land. And making the situation even more dangerous, the people hold any number of strange ideas of what causes and what prevents the disease. Any stranger might be accused of being a well- poisoner and hung by angry mobs anxious to do anything that has any chance of protecting them from the disease. Pardi faces a double threat from the Austrians specifically looking for him and from the French who in their ignorance are looking to kill any strangers who may possibly be visiting this disease on them. On the run Pardi finds himself in the house of a beautiful aristocrat Pauline de Theu (Juliette Binoche). She hides him and helps him, little knowing that their paths would cross again multiple times. A good deal of what makes this film engrossing is its view of the medicine of the period. While that is not the primary focus of the story, it figures heavily in the plot, not unlike RESTORATION earlier this year.
Jean-Paul Rappeneau, who five years ago gave us his terrific adaptation of CYRANO DE BERGERAC gives us another delightful historical excursion, beautifully acted and photographed. Like CYRANO, HORSEMAN has a clever wit that shows itself at odd and unexpected moments. There are a few enjoyable digs at the aristocracy of France. One particularly enjoyable scene involves the reactions at a dinner party to Pauline's recent past. It should be noted that this film takes place in a France that the previous year had produced the novel NOTRE DAME DE PARIS (bearing little similarity to an animated film to be based on it near the end of the next century) and the film even makes some mention of Victor Hugo. The cast will be mostly unfamiliar to American audiences, though Juliette Binoche will be familiar for roles in THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING and BLUE. Binoche has the sort of exquisite demure beauty that seems to be a staple of French films. However her role rarely calls for her to show much versatility. Martinez is moderately the more interesting of the two actors lead actors, but perhaps because his role is better written. There is also a small role for Gerard Depardieu who also does not get a chance to show much range. Martinez has the greatest opportunity to act except for a sequence for Binoche toward the end of the film.
With the exception of a modest resurrection of the Western it has become very rare to see American films set prior to World War II. Most serious historical films these days are coming from Europe. The same Hollywood that made great films like QUEEN CHRISTINA and THE SCARLET EMPRESS back in the 1930s now seems to shy away from historical settings, perhaps for fear of lack of interest. In any case, for those with no fear of subtitles, this may well be the most rewarding film of the summer. I give it a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
Mark Leeper MT 3F-434 908-957-5619 firstname.lastname@example.org
Quote of the Week:
What we call progress is the exchange of one nuisance for another nuisance. --Havelock Ellis