MT VOID 03/07/97 (Vol. 15, Number 36)

MT VOID 03/07/97 (Vol. 15, Number 36)

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
Club Notice - 03/07/97 -- Vol. 15, No. 36

Table of Contents

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
HO Chair:     John Jetzt    MT 2E-530  908-957-5087
HO Librarian: Nick Sauer    HO 4F-427  908-949-7076
Distinguished Heinlein Apologist:
              Rob Mitchell  MT 2D-536  908-957-6330
Factotum:     Evelyn Leeper MT 3E-433  908-957-2070
Backissues available at
All material copyright by author unless otherwise noted.

The Apu Trilogy:

Reminder of the film festival, the APU TRILOGY, Sunday, March 9:

                 12:45 PM front door unlocked
                 1:00 PM PATHER PANCHALI
                 3:30 PM APARAJITO
                ~5:30 PM Dinner at Amravathi, Rt. 34
                 7:00 PM APUR SANSAR
The front door will be left unlocked except when we are at dinner. If you come while the films are running just walk right in and to your left. We will be watching the films, not answering the door. We will have Indian snacks. You may optionally bring more, but it is certainly not required. Please don't bring meat, however. Positive RSVPs are also welcome and useful, but not necessary. Call me if you need directions. [-mrl]

URL of the week: The Yahoo! index to pages about cloning on the Web. [-ecl]


I can feel a Devil's Advocacy coming on. I get these every once in a while when I find a lot of people frightened of something and I don't really know why. Scottish scientists have cloned a sheep. It was not a whole long time after that someone cloned something bigger, a monkey. No, I guess that's smaller. But religious people are really concerned because a monkey is pretty close to us in our line of descent, even the ones who don't believe in our line of descent. But I have a hard time understanding what people are fearing. Each time I ask why is that bad may I get taken back one step to something else fearful but we always end up with the answer, "I don't know, but I am afraid of it." Four or five people have gotten to the same point. This is a new idea for them and they don't really know why, but they are sure it will be bad. Perhaps it will, but nobody has told me a convincing reason why.

"What happens when we clone Michael Jordan?" I am asked. "Won't that ruin basketball?" Maybe. Maybe it will make it better. Is that a good reason not to do it? We are more likely to clone the Michael Jordans than the Ted Bundys. What about cloning Adolf Hitler like in Ira Levin's THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL? Even in that thriller, it was unlikely that anything much would come of the experiment if I remember correctly.

What seems to worry people is if we can control our offspring we will start making selfish decisions. I am not sure what "selfish" decisions are in this context. We certainly try to give our kids every advantage we can over other children. Is it so different altering a child genetically to be better able to survive?

Consider a simpler choice than cloning a whole person. What will be the effects when we can choose the gender of a baby? The example that usually comes to people's minds is China where male children are highly valued and female children are not. It is not unknown that in the country where you may be allowed only one child (not everywhere but there are strong disincentives for having multiple children) for parents covertly to kill female babies at birth so they can have another chance at having a male child. What people bring up to me is what if the Chinese were allowed to choose the sex of their child. What would stop them from having an overwhelming numbers of boys? Well, not a thing. Well, wouldn't that be terrible? No. It would mean for a start that there would be less of this infanticide. Further, at first the Chinese would have a lot of male children and not many female. That would put girl children in very short supply. This would certainly mean that girls and women would undergo a much-needed status elevation in Chinese society. It would have to happen. There would just not be enough women to go around for marriage purposes and those that there were would be much sought after. It wouldn't take very long for people to want girl-babies. Eventually the ratio of the sexes would approach a happy balance. I doubt that it would be as much as a 60%-40% split--60% boys, 40% girls. That would mean that at least 20% of the population could not find mates. More likely it would end up a 50%-50% split with each gender pretty much equally valued. But in the meantime with shortages of women to have, wouldn't that create a population shortage? In China? Be real.

You see Adam Smith's Invisible Hand applies to more than just economics if you let it. The best thing that can happen to a country that values one gender over the other is to remove the natural tyrrany of the Law of Averages. Those laws say that it is a random chance what the gender of your children are. With a 50%- 50% distribution. But if you really could choose market forces would take over and they generally work smarter than pure chance.

So returning to full-fledged cloning, what will it mean when we can all choose to have superstar athletes for children? We won't have more superstars, we will just have stiffer qualifications for superstar status. Maybe basketball will get better. Maybe it will just mean become less egalitarian. The game may be taking over by clones of great basketball stars. Or maybe the rules will be changed so using clones of great basketball stars will be considered like using steroids. One difference, you won't have to do drug tests to find out if a basketball player has been cloned. The rule will be that if you look too much like some basketball star of the past, you are not welcome on our court.

I would hope we would also have a few Einstein clones. I am afraid that as things are going we would have people more willing to clone the great athletes than to clone the great thinkers, but we would probably have some of those also. But point-for-point I see far more advantages than disadvantages to the capability to custom- design the next generation. So why are so many people terrified of the concept? Well, it will lead to a very different world. Better the devil you know than the one you don't. But we have a world plagued with people who are selfish and unintelligent. We could use a few more of the brilliant thinkers. And cloning just might do that for us. The problem may be that people just will be reticent to use these techniques enough. I mean we have sperm banks now and we don't have very many people willing to give their children just half a good set of genes, effectively mating with the great minds of our times.

Hey, that disease that Stephen Hawking has ... anyone know if it is genetic? [-mrl]


(a film review by Mark R. Leeper):

Capsule: A hit man for the Mob brings in a new recruit and treats him like a father little suspecting that the young man is really an undercover FBI agent. Al Pacino turns in a memorable performance as sort of a Willy Loman of crime, for once playing a low-level hood. Johnny Depp turns in a just-okay performance in the title role and is far outclassed. Much of this film seems realistic and the film works surprisingly well considering that the director is Mike Newell who directed sedate British films like FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4).

The setting is New York City, 1978. Lefty Ruggiero (played by Al Pacino) is one of this country's countless semi-failures, able to get by just acceptably in a dead end job, but he is never really going be successful. Lefty's job is working for the crime syndicate and especially killing people now and then when the need arises. He knows he is well into the second half of his life, has a moderately okay home life though his son is a drug addict and that bothers him. His path crosses that of Donnie Brasco (Johnny Depp), a young kid who seems to have the horse sense that would make him do well in the Syndicate. Lefty takes Donnie under his wing and helps him to make a name for himself in the local mob. Perhaps he sees in Donnie the son he does not really feel he has at home. What Lefty does not know is that Donnie Brasco is really FBI agent Joe Pistone on assignment to go undercover to collect information about the Organized Crime. The two men become close friends and in spite Lefty's having been a murderer many times over, Donnie learns to like the older man. Brasco knows that if he is ever discovered, both he and Lefty will be killed. At the same time being Brasco is a full-time job and that means that his Joe Pistone side must spend most of his life away from his family. This puts a real strain on his marriage. There just is not enough of Joe Pistone to be two people. The story, which is based on truth, gives us an inside view of the workings of organized crime and at the time shows how Joe handles his life that often calls for him to be away from his family for months at a time. There are signs that Joe will be the same sort of failure working for the FBI that Lefty is for the Mob. On the other hand, Donnie begins to discover that he could have been fairly successful if he had sincerely gone in for organized crime. Donnie's feigned drive seems to sell better than Lefty's more sincere loyalty.

DONNIE BRASCO is something of a departure for director Mike Newell. Newell directed ENCHANTED APRIL, INTO THE WEST, and FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL. Making a film in GOODFELLAS territory is one of the last things that would have been expected of him. He gets the dialog and the feel of the film just about right. Part of how he does this is filming on the streets of New York City. The mentor/student relationship between Lefty and Brasco and between Joe and the other agents of the FBI allows the script to explain things reasonably comfortably and allows the viewer to pick up nuances in the conversation that would not otherwise be obvious. Among other things we learn is about six different, often contradictory, meanings for the phrase "forget about it." Under Newell's direction we learn just about everything that there is to know about the voluble Lefty. Pacino rarely stops talking and when he does talk he uses low-class profanity and candid vocabulary. On the other hand, Johnny Depp plays his character as quiet and unemotional so that we are rarely sure what his is thinking and feeling--at least not from his performance. It is Pacino who holds our attention. But the longer the two men are together the more of Lefty's behavior and mannerisms Joe seems to pick up and use even in his personal life.

This film does give in to some prosaic touches. Any film about Italian gangsters seems to need a scene of cooking. At .least if you are Italian, what crime does not pay in money it pays in dividends that show up on your waistline. That is part of the genre and it has come to an expected feature of Italian gangster films. More irritating, however, are the number of product placements that Newell has put into his film. It is not even particularly subtly done. In the middle of a dark warehouse neighborhood there will be a big company logo very obviously placed in the picture. Deep focus is used in a kitchen scene so that the viewer can pick up the name on a cereal box. Later much the same is done with a scene at an airport in which the camera focus lets us read clearly the company name on a plane. If Newell has so little respect for his own movie that he sells advertising space in it, it is a lot harder for me as a viewer to respect it.

The script seems to have been written with the emphasis on Brasco balancing two very different lives, but in fact Pacino pulls our attention toward his character and make him more of interest than Depp's. Overall I rate DONNIE BRASCO a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]


(a film review by Mark R. Leeper):

Capsule: KOLYA has a safe-bet plot: a fifty- five-year-old bachelor suddenly reluctantly inheriting a son. After he stops fighting it, he finds parenthood fulfilling an emptiness in his life. The familiar plot is made somewhat more interesting by being set in a Czechoslovakia while Soviet rule is crumbling. If the plot is unambiguous, at least the film is well-photographed and has a good score and the screenplay by Zdenek Sverak (who also stars) is frequently touching. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4).
New York Critics: positive: 7, negative: 0, mixed 0

Frantisek Louka (played by Zdenek Sverak) is a fifty-five-year-old Bohemian--both figuratively and literally. He plays the cello for the Czech Philharmonic when he can, plays for funerals when he must to make ends meet, and supplements his meager income by performing cosmetic maintenance on gravestones. He still retains some of his good looks so that he can still womanize. His only responsibility in life is occasionally taking care of his mother. But times are hard in 1988 Prague and he has to look for money where he can. That was how he learned of Nadezda (Irena Livanova) an attractive Russian woman looking for a technical husband so that she can establish Czech citizenship. She is willing to pay well and reluctantly Frantisek agrees to marry her for one night. Even then she disappears into the night, escaping to West Germany and leaving her son Kolya (Andrej Chalimon) with his grandmother. Frantisek is pleased that the incident is over when suddenly the grandmother suffers a stroke and Kolya has to go to live with his new stepfather, Frantisek

This year's nominee for Best Foreign Language film from the Czech Republic is a nice amiable movie that has been done many times before in several different languages. A bachelor finds he has inherited a five- year-old. At first the child is a monumental inconvenience and the man wants to see the boy gone. But of course they learn to love each other and then have to struggle to stay together. . The old man and the boy go through much the sort of relationship that has been shown so often before. We have the scenes of the father's sex life being interrupted by the presence of the child. There is the requisite sequence of the child getting sick and the father worrying over him. It would be nice to accept this film as a creative entry from Eastern Europe, but so much of the film is predictable and taken up with sequences that have become hackneyed that one has to start faulting the film for this lack of originality. KOLYA is too much like THREE MEN AND A CRADLE/BABY, KRAMER VS. KRAMER, BABY BOOM or LITTLE MISS MARKER-- with minor variations in each case. The plot has an irresponsible adult reluctantly forced into a parental role discovering what he (or she) has been missing all these years. It is at heart an affirmation of parenthood that pretty much cannot fail to win the favor of the audience.

Where this film gets much of its novelty is in the political climate of Czechoslovakia in 1988. Nearly everyone in Eastern Europe had an intense hatred of anything Russian. Frantisek has to hide the fact that Kolya is Russian. Even Frantisek's mother does not want the boy in her house when she discovers that he is Russian. Frantisek in talking to the boy compares his inability to get rid of the boy with his country's inability to rid itself of the Russian occupiers. We get some idea of why the Russians are so hated by seeing the Soviet Police and their interrogation of Frantisek when they believe he has married Nadezda to get around the law. Our last scene with the two policemen makes the single most striking irony of the film.

KOLYA was directed and co-produced by thirty-one-year-old Jan Sverak. He is the son of Zdenek Sverak, who plays Frantisek. Zdenek co-authored the screenplay. He is well-cast as Frantisek, still having much of the verve of his youth but matching it with distinguished good looks. One could believe that at fifty-five this man could still fascinate a string of lovers. Andrej Chalimon is, of course, an adorable child with a round face and big eyes. He perhaps cries a little, understandably, but he never seems to have the sort of bad-behavior days that real children seem to have. He is just a bit too perfect. Such children do exist, of course, but after what this child has been through it seems unlikely that Kolya would still be one. There are a number of attractive paramours for Frantisek, but the sex is never explicit. In general this film is a bit too likable and neat. This is good entertainment rather than good art. Overall I would rate it a high +1 on the - 4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]

                                   Mark Leeper
                                   MT 3E-433 908-957-5619

Quote of the Week:

     A good politician is quite as unthinkable
     as an honest burglar.
                                   -- H. L. Mencken