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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
Club Notice - 02/07/97 -- Vol. 15, No. 32
Table of Contents
Unless otherwise stated, all meetings are in the Middletown cafeteria Wednesdays at noon.
DATE TOPIC (no meetings scheduled) 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/Librarian: Mark Leeper MT 3E-433 908-957-5619 email@example.com HO Chair: John Jetzt MT 2E-530 908-957-5087 firstname.lastname@example.org HO Librarian: Nick Sauer HO 4F-427 908-949-7076 email@example.com Distinguished Heinlein Apologist: Rob Mitchell MT 2D-536 908-957-6330 firstname.lastname@example.org Factotum: Evelyn Leeper MT 3E-433 908-957-2070 email@example.com Backissues available at http://www.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.math.technion.ac.il/~rl/JulesVerne. Jules Verne's birthday is February 8; this is a very complete site dedicated to him and his works. [-ecl]
URL of the week:
URL of the week: http://www.suntimes.com/ebert/old_movies/star_wars.html. Mark Leeper, our esteemed founder, is cited by Roger Ebert in his review of STAR WARS. For the full review as it appeared ten years ago for STAR WARS's tenth anniversary, see the next article. [-ecl]
(a film article by Mark R. Leeper):
What's So Good about STAR WARS? Copyright 1987 Mark R. Leeper
This year marks the tenth anniversary of George Lucas's STAR WARS. I think it is fairly safe to say that for the fantasy film genre and for the film industry as a whole, the decade has been very different than might have been expected when Fox was telling theaters that if they wanted to show THE OTHER SIDE OF MIDNIGHT they would also have to book this science fiction film, STAR WARS. There is little doubt--at least to my mind--that STAR WARS is one of the three most influential films ever made. In fact, the only film that obviously was more influential was Edward Muybridge's sequence of snapshots of a running racehorse that was, in essence, the first motion picture.
But "influential" and "good" are two different things. Recently, when I listed films that I gave my highest rating to, I included STAR WARS. One comment I got from a reader was that it was a good list but should not include STAR WARS. The belief that STAR WARS is actually good as a film is actually not very common. I have heard it claimed that it is the weakest of the three currently released "Star Wars" films or that the whole series is a piece of fluff without much cinematic merit. It is my contention that the original STAR WARS is, on its own, a good film and the best of its series. Though it is not in the scope of this short article to examine an entire decade of fantasy films. I would contend that no better science fiction, horror, or fantasy film has been made in the interim.
Before we can determine if STAR WARS really is a great film, in the sense that CITIZEN KANE is a great film, we have to determine some characteristics of film greatness. What is it that makes a film great? One characteristic would be originality. A film should be experimental and should break new ground. But many film experiments fail and leave audiences confused. The new ground that a film breaks must be accepted by audiences so that a film leaves its mark. To this extent, being good is connected with being influential. Still, it is clear that an exploitation film may be the first of its kind and have imitators without being very good. The ground that a film breaks must be valuable. It should advance the art of filmmaking. If a film does what it does well, breaks new ground in the art of filmmaking making valuable contributions, and those contributions are accepted by audiences and become part of the palette for future filmmakers, no more is required for a film to achieve greatness. If you come down to it, that is really what makes CITIZEN KANE a great film. But is STAR WARS great in the same sense? I think that while CITIZEN KANE undeniably has some virtues that STAR WARS lacks (and vice versa), STAR WARS is great in the same sense.
STAR WARS was a ground-breaking film. It was the first marrying of cinema and the new video and computer technologies for creating images on film. The effects people had to invent much of the technology as they went along. The last jump in visual technology of the same magnitude had been with Willis O'Brien's stop-motion effects for KING KONG. As late as the '60s the most visually imaginative films--films like JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS--still relied most heavily on variations on, and enhancements of, O'Brien's techniques. Between JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS and STAR WARS there were some impressive pieces of visual fantasy, notably 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and LOGAN'S RUN, but they relied mostly on just extensive use of model work and other long-existing technologies. For STAR WARS a battery of new technologies was employed and for the first time since KING KONG special effects made a real quantum leap toward the goal of being able to create on the screen any scene that the mind's eye can create.
STAR WARS was obviously a ground-breaking film from the first moments of the film. Just showing a field of stars, STAR WARS did something that no other film had ever done. It panned the camera upward. That does not sound like much, but consider that not even 2001 had ever done it before. Space scenes had always been done with a fixed camera, and for a very good reason. It was more economical not to create a background of stars large enough to pan through. So scenes in space had always been done with a static camera, just like all scenes were done in the early days of film. I had never even realized that in all science fiction films I had seen, the space shots were done with a static camera until the instant I saw Lucas's 90-degree pan. Not a single model had shown on the screen and certainly not a single set or character and already the film was a one-of-a-kind!
When we do finally meet characters the first two we meet are robots with personalities that are a cliche now, but the closest I remember seeing before was the robot in LOST IN SPACE, who occasionally would lose his cool and yell, "Warning! Warning! Danger! Danger!" while gesticulating wildly. We have seen characters for all of two seconds on the screen before we again see that STAR WARS was unprecedented.
And the impact of STAR WARS continues right through the film. Scene after scene is done with an originality and sense of wonder totally unprecedented in the science fiction film. The audience reaction was nothing short of astounding. In Detroit, where the film played there was a difficult left turn to get to the theater parking lot. VARIETY reported that making that left turn had become the new summer sport in Detroit. The lines that queued up to see the film were legendary because in so many different ways the film delivered more than it had to. There was more bang per dollar of admission then perhaps any other film made to that point.
One thing the film delivered was a sparkling score by John Williams. Williams used a leit-motif approach, but composed many themes, each of which was attractive and which blended together into a very fine score that was reproduced--for the first time-- with the process of Dolby sound. It gave a live-orchestral clarity to the score as well as allowing far more use of subliminal sound effects surrounding the audience. Many were barely perceptible to the ear but certainly helped to make the experience seem more believable.
This reality was further enhanced by the detail Lucas embued the film with. Small details--throwaways--that few filmmakers bother with were painstakingly added. In one scene after the visit to the cantina, we are watching the main characters in the background and the silhouettes of two spindly legs walk by in the foreground. Because that is not where the viewer's attention is at the time, many in the audience never even noticed the legs. To throw in unnecessary details and then purposely call the viewer's attention away so the details may well go unnoticed is a mark of a good craftsman.
A little more noticeable, though again unnecessary to the plot, is the skeleton shown in the background in a desert scene. Nobody in the script mentions the skeleton of some gargantuan desert creature, as if it is a perfectly normal sight. Similarly the speeder, which could have been easily made a wheeled vehicle, instead floats. No mention is made of the floating vehicle; again, the matter of fact acceptance of this wonder is what helps to make the film work.
More noticeable but equally unrequired to the plot are some breathtaking planetscapes, again of a scale that never had been used in science fiction films to that point. Films like THIS ISLAND EARTH or FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS had shown planetary landscapes but they used unconvincing models or matte paintings. ILM has since become known for very impressive backgrounds and spacescapes. STAR WARS was their debut.
A few more touches, perhaps not as original, but which were unexpected, should be mentioned. One is the use of two distinguished actors in major roles. Getting Sir Alec Guinness to appear in any science fiction film is something of a wonder. His first response on seeing the script was reportedly, "Oh crumbs, this isn't for me." He enjoyed the script sufficiently, however, that he changed his mind. More so than even actors like Olivier or Gielgud, Guinness has been selective of his parts and his presence in this film puts STAR WARS in fine company. Peter Cushing was then, as he is now, perhaps the most accomplished and beloved of actors specializing in fantasy roles.
Another unusual touch is the pacing. The audience comes in with the story already in progress. The viewer has to catch up by reading the screen explanation rolling by, then is immediately tossed into the action. This requires more from the audience, but that is far better than boring the audience with slow introductions. This style, borrowed from internal chapters of serials, might not work well outside of the fantasy genre, but captures audiences very effectively here.
It seems then that STAR WARS was an innovative film, every bit as much as was CITIZEN KANE. Had this much innovation been lavished on a mainstream film it would be considered an artistic triumph. As it was, it was a box-office champion, an accolade that perhaps meant even more, at least to its backers.
I would like to conclude this discussion with a comparison of the "Star Wars" films which purport to be a continuation of the same story but which I consider to be stylistically inferior to the first film. I will continue to call it STAR WARS, incidentally, in spite of the retitling to STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE.
When George Lucas made STAR WARS he had little expectation that it would become one of the most popular films ever made. In some ways that contributed to the artistic achievement. In the later films he knew what had worked well in the first film and could consciously repeat and effectively milk it. In the first film the line "I've got a bad feeling about this" was used and got a positive audience reaction. It even appeared on humorous buttons people wore at science fiction conventions. It was a good line, but its popularity prompted it to be used twice in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.
Each of the STAR WARS treats aliens in a different manner, but the first film is by far the most satisfying treatment. In that film robots, intelligent non-humans (INH), and humans all interact in roughly the way people of different origins interact in New York City. STAR WARS takes place in a sort of melting-pot universe. We are introduced to many species of INH in STAR WARS. The only new one to be added in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK was Yoda. For that matter, Chewbacca is the only other INH in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. Gone is the melting-pot universe. It was, however, back with a vengeance in RETURN OF THE JEDI.
In a documentary made by Lucasfilm, it was claimed that George Lucas was never happy with the aliens in STAR WARS and he was finally able to create the effect he wanted for RETURN OF THE JEDI. True, there were more aliens in RETURN OF THE JEDI, but they were stupid ideas for aliens. While the aliens in STAR WARS were misshapen creatures designed by Ralph McQuarrie, Ron Cobb, and Rick Baker, RETURN OF THE JEDI featured aliens like Sly Snoodles, a singing elephant with lips on the end of her nose. Also, there is Salacious Crumb, a rather obvious muppet who looks like he would be more at home on FRAGGLE ROCK than in a major motion picture. And who can forget the dancing fat woman? Of somewhat higher quality are the pig guards, but they are reminiscent of Earth creatures and look like something out of a fairy tale. Only Jabba the Hut seems sufficiently alien and he resembles a caterpillar. The aliens are cute and not crisply done like the creatures in STAR WARS.
And speaking of cute, Lucas at one point said the third film would take place in large part on the Wookie planet. But Wookies would not have made very good toys and certainly not new toys, so Lucas reversed the syllables in Wookie and got Ewok, a lovable, merchandisable teddy bear. Most fans over the age of ten get a little sick at the thought of Ewoks.
There is also a question of realism. In the first film we see a guerilla attack on the Death Star; the second has the Empire crushing a rebel base; the third has the killing of Jabba and his crew and the Empire fighting the teddy bear Ewoks. So in which of the three films do we see the greatest number of allies of the rebellion killed? By far, the answer is the first film. Not even counting Lars and Beru, who were innocent bystanders, more allies were killed in the attack on the Death Star, which was done reasonably realistically, than in all the battles in the later films. In RETURN OF THE JEDI one Ewok is apparently killed, I think, and one is knocked out by his own bolo. Very few "good- guys" are killed in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, in spite of the apparent darker tone of the second film.
Because of all the points mentioned above and because so much more of Lucas's creativity went into the first film, for which a universe was created--the other two films just used, and only in minor ways amplified on, this universe--I still contend it was the best of the three films and will remain the "Star Wars" film most people will remember. In 2077, it will be the best-remembered "Star Wars" film. [-mrl]
HAMLET (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Capsule: Lavish production made by the numbers.
The film has major actors, is beautifully
filmed, but in spite of a great swashbuckling
sword-fight at the end fails to breathe life
into its play the way MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING
did. Its biggest attraction is that it covers
the entire play. There are serious logic
problems implicit in Branagh's choice of
setting. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) This
review contains minor spoilers for those
unfamiliar with the play. I suppose there must
be somebody out there.
New York Critics: 3 positive, 0 negative, 4 mixed
Kenneth Branagh has now directed his third Shakespeare film. His HENRY V surprised all by being a vivid and powerful adaptation that transcended the frequent language barrier that some feel seeing Shakespeare's plays. Branagh managed this by putting more modern intonation into the words and by just plain good acting. His MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING proved to be a joyful romp that was even more approachable than HENRY V. It demonstrated that Shakespeare comedies could really be made as enjoyable and even as funny as most modern comedies being produced. For his third Shakespeare adaptation Branagh decided to make his most ambitious film to date, an unabridged HAMLET. Until now his Shakespeare films have been abridged to fit the standard screentime of two hours or less. And while HENRY V had the exciting Battle of Agincourt and MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING was a light and frothy comedy, HAMLET is much more weighty and cerebral. The producers asked would audiences accept sitting through a four-hour film adaptation of a tragedy? Well, they would not have to. Two versions would be released: a limited full-length version for the few who would be willing sit through the whole thing and a faster-moving version edited down to two and a half hours. What happened must have startled the film distributors and undermined the old truism that nobody every went broke underestimating the intelligence of the public. What was discovered was there was almost no market for the peppier abridged version. Had the shorter version been the only film made the public would likely have flocked to it, but just about anybody erudite enough to want to see the short version actually preferred to see the full play performed. After nearly a century of cutting down Shakespeare plays to make versions the public would want to see--Shakespeare films go back as least as far as the 1899 KING JOHN--it turned out that the public really did not want their Shakespeare cut down for them. This discovery may affect many Shakespeare film productions to come. So even before its release HAMLET had broken new ground.
Unfortunately, that new ground is among the precious little innovation this new version of HAMLET gives us. Not that it is not an estimable film, but unfortunately it is not so much ingenious as just highly competent. Branagh has assembled a terrific cast, particularly considering the cameo roles, and created a lavish and beautiful production that is at the same time just a bit dull and safe. This is a surprisingly unsurprising adaptation particularly since it is coming from the innovative Kenneth Branagh. The only major creative touch--beyond telling the whole story--is to move the setting to the late 19th Century. A year earlier when Ian McKellan moved RICHARD III to Britain in the 1930s, he chose a time which many of us could actually picture and for which we had rich associations. He chose a time when similar events could have almost taken place in Britain and were actually taking place in Germany. But Branagh's change of setting is comparatively pointless. The public has few associations with his chosen setting beyond perhaps the plays of Strindberg and Ibsen in other parts of Scandinavia. Branagh's recreation of this time and place is a time impressive and perhaps a bit exaggerated and overdone. A major setting is a huge mirrored palace ballroom equipped to drop a blizzard of white confetti to celebrate the first, rather prosaic, pronouncements of the new king. This may be spectacle, but it is unnecessary and overdone. The film, set in the harsh Danish winter, is being distributed at the height of a particularly harsh American winter when the viewer may well ask himself, "Isn't there enough ice and cold in the world without having to pay to see it on the screen?" For visual effect Branagh has moved the story to the Danish winter in spite of the play having Ophelia find fresh flowers and unfrozen water late in the story. Also the setting calls for an unstrung Ophelia to be committed to an oppressive asylum, but without comment from any of the characters she seems to be able to escape it not unlike DRACULA's Renfield. Is this what Shakespeare intended? But then, frequently the visuals contradict the play. A character who supposedly has found "a muddy death" is found floating in clear water. A scene in which the ghost is said to turn in a start shows no such action from the ghost.
Branagh's great talent for use of modern inflection to make Shakespeare understandable is somehow missing here from his performance. This is never more clear than in an exchange with that great Shakespearean, Billy Crystal, playing the gravedigger. It is surprising how much easier it is to follow Crystal's end of the conversation. Crystal seems a little out place, but less so than Michael Keaton was in MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, and his diction is plainer and easier to understand than Branagh's by far. At times Branagh races through his speeches as if his goal is to get to the other side. While we are on the subject of famous comedians in smaller roles, Robin Williams who discusses Shakespearean acting in DEAD POETS SOCIETY gets a chance to do some as Osiric. For once he is reasonably restrained and while his fans may be disappointed he really should not be the focus in his scenes and he shows commendable control. Derek Jacobi plays the new king with quiet dignity and few strong emotions though why the queen should prefer him to his brother Old Hamlet (Brian Blessed) is never convincingly clarified. Julie Christie begins with the same quiet dignity, but of course her role improves as the story progresses and as an actress she takes full advantage. Other small roles go to the likes of Charleton Heston, Jack Lemmon, and Gerard Depardieu to no strong effect.
Branagh has a taste for the visually over-dramatic particularly on scenes that feature him. He holds the intermission until the end of Act 4, Scene 4, very late in the play, so that he can bring the break with what comes the closest to the usually-vacillating Hamlet giving something approaching a stirring speech. Trying to recapture some of the fire of Henry V doing the St. Crispin's Day speech, he has Hamlet giving the soliloquy on a field of ice and stone to a camera tracking back and back from him. Hot dang, that's dramatic! Later he self-indulgently has himself carried from the floor of the palace in a Christ-like pose. Once again Patrick Doyle provides the music, though rarely with the effect of the pre-intermission sequence. His music is used to a much lesser degree than in MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, perhaps because of the more thoughtful nature of the themes. Sadly the score is not particularly original or exciting and like Branagh his newer efforts are strongly reminiscent of his earlier work.
By its very completeness, Kenneth Branagh's HAMLET will probably be the definitive version for our generation and beyond. It stands head and shoulders above the 1990 Franco Zefferelli version that starred Mel Gibson. It probably even outshines the Laurence Olivier version. But this was Branagh's opportunity to make what is probably the most celebrated play of the most celebrated playwright. As such it is something of a disappointment and is certainly the least artful and most overdone of the three Branagh- directed Shakespeare films. It is a flawed adaptation, but still probably the best cinematic theatrical release of Shakespeare's HAMLET. I rate it a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
LA CEREMONIE (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Capsule: Claude Chabrol's new thriller is not
actually very thrilling. It has a nice slow
and believable build to its climax, but the
climax is curiously understated and
unaffecting. Chabrol would probably like to
have made a strong statement about class
warfare, but his main character is much more
understandable than sympathetic. There is not
much in LA CEREMONIE to fire the blood of the
viewer and the low-key direction eventually
robs the film of impact. Rating: 0 (-4 to +4)
The spoiler section following the review
contains what could conceivably be a fair-sized
spoiler, so beware.
New York Critics: 15 positive, 1 negative, 3 mixed
Director Claude Chabrol's work has in fact been compared frequently to that of Alfred Hitchcock, but he lacks the British director's efficiency and compactness of story-telling. Take away a few subtle implications of quiet class warfare and this is a story that could have been done every bit as effectively as a half-hour episode on ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS in the late 1950s. Given the screentime of LA CEREMONIE, Hitchcock could have told a story by wide margins both more thoughtful and more entertaining.
The setting is a small but modern village on the northwest coast of France. Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire) is a mysterious woman who hires herself out as a maid to an upper-middle-class family. Her employers are the bland Catherine and Georges Lelievre (Jacqueline Bisset and Jean Pierre Cassel). Given their personalities, Sophie is understandably very standoffish with her new employers. She seems to prefer retreating to the solitude of her room to having any beyond the required contact with the Lelievres. Instead she watches the television. What nobody realizes is that Sophie has a rather surprising secret, one that she protects with surprising dexterity. The little human contact she does make is instead with Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert) the clerk at the village post office whose mild if slightly surly demeanor hides a lot of rage for the more wealthy around her. This is a French film, but it fits well with the new American stereotype that post office workers have an insidious side. Sophie and Jeanne share a common distaste for life in the village in general and of the Lelievres in specific. Chabrol hints at more than friendship and the beginnings of a physical relationship between the two. Each finds the other a sounding board for her rage and together they just might do the unthinkable things that they never would do without each other.
Basing the film on the novel A JUDGMENT IN STONE by Ruth Rendall, Chabrol very slowly and deliberately paces the film though not really adding a lot to the depth of his characters. We see a good deal of Georges and Catherine, but we never get to know very much about them except that they are most comfortable with each other and with their two children. They have a hard time being very warm toward an intruder in their house, even if the intruder has been hired by them. While they seem to be favored with wealth, their attitudes toward others outside the family is stand-offish and self-absorbed at best. Chabrol takes a few cheap shots at the family and their class. At one point Jeanne is faced with having Sophie as a house guest for an extended period of time. She has lived comfortably on her post office salary but with a second mouth to feed she comments that it will be hard for them to eat. Chabrol immediately cuts to the Lelievres eating a somewhat fancy meal.
In the final analysis, this is really not a lot deeper or more impressive a film than various American films in which the hired hand turns out to be more than a handful. While the conflict is not as one-sided as that in films like THE TEMP and THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, LA CEREMONIE is really not far from that genre. The denouement, when it comes, has a few logic problems. This film has done well by the critics, but it is seems to have its problems. I rate it a 0 on the -4 to +4 scale.
SPOILER... SPOILER... SPOILER... SPOILER... SPOILER... SPOILER... SPOILER... SPOILER...
If the recorder was running all evening, recording the opera, would the family have been talking over the opera, essentially ruining the recording? At what point did the recorder come off record mode with the people present not realizing it? [-mrl]
Mark Leeper MT 3E-433 908-957-5619 firstname.lastname@example.org
Quote of the Week:
If more than ten percent of the population likes a painting it should be burned, for it must be bad. -- George Bernard Shaw