MT VOID 12/19/97 (Vol. 16, Number 25)

MT VOID 12/19/97 (Vol. 16, Number 25)

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
Club Notice - 12/19/97 -- Vol. 16, No. 25

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  732-957-5619
HO Chair:     John Jetzt    MT 2E-530  732-957-5087
HO Librarian: Nick Sauer    HO 4F-427  732-949-7076
Distinguished Heinlein Apologist:
       Rob Mitchell  MT 2D-536  732-957-6330
Factotum:     Evelyn Leeper MT 3E-433  732-957-2070
Back issues at
All material copyright by author unless otherwise noted.

URL of the week: Special issue of THE NEW SCIENTIST devoted to cloning. [-ecl]


Maybe it is that great minds think alike or that science fiction readers think alike, but Robert Silverberg has written an editorial in the February 1998 ASIMOV'S that could be inspired by one of mine. He asks why all the fuss over the cloning of a sheep and why are we all so afraid of human cloning. He also does not rule out that there could be some terrible consequence, but like me he is waiting for someone to point out the danger. He is more eloquent than I am, and he has always been sort of the level-headed spokesman for science fiction. But he and I are in what I think is complete agreement. [-ecl]

DUMBO Evelyn is going through the set of films that film critic Leonard Maltin gives a rating of four stars out of a possible four. Some of these are films that I have seen years ago, but never saw as an adult. For example, a local station has shown the Walt Disney classic animated film DUMBO. The film was made in 1941 and I saw it on a re-release, but I was about nine years old at the time. It is interesting to see the film with the eyes of an adult and to see what it is really about. We have the circus elephant Mrs. Jumbo wanting and awaiting having a baby elephant. Where is Mr. Jumbo? Nobody seems to know or at least not to talk about it. He has long since left the scene. All the other female elephants looking on expectantly, if not themselves expectant. Then the baby is born and suddenly we realize that while the mother has the small ears of an Asian elephant, little Dumbo has the giant ears of an African elephant. Suddenly Mrs. Jumbo, who till now has seemed just a little frumpy, takes on a whole new aura. The old girl clearly has not always been so domesticated as she now seems. Sometime in her past she has obviously sown her wild peanuts. We have what must be the first screen story of the offspring of an inter-racial union. This is pretty strong stuff to take five- and six-year-olds to see, a sort of children's version of SECRETS AND LIES. But even the latter film concentrated on the mother, not so DUMBO. As Dumbo gets older he faces more and more prejudice. His only friend is another social outcast, a mouse. Dumbo is not allowed to be himself but makes himself into a clown. Significantly he plays this role in whiteface. Eventually Dumbo comes to be accepted, not for himself but by exhibiting a talent of flying, something that no other elephant has ever been called on to do. The artificial deus ex machina reminds one of the self- admittedly absurd ending of Bertold Brecht's THREE-PENNY OPERA.

DUMBO is a fairly gritty and serious movie. I suspect that a lot of what the adults were seeing that year was mild by comparison. The film that won the Oscar for Best Picture that year was the somewhat sugary HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY. In a world on the brink of war in this country, already engulfed elsewhere, the adult population was having their hearts warmed by hearing a paternal Walter Pidgeon give positive philosophical life-lessons to a young Roddy McDowell. Meanwhile the kids at the matinees were seeing hard-hitting social allegories like DUMBO. I wonder if this led to a more serious-minded generation whose matinee fare was films like DUMBO and low-budget Westerns. I don't know how many of these you have seen but they are real paranoia pieces where as often as not the theme was authority figures, bank owners and town sheriffs, who were in secret conspiracies with evil, desperate men. The young crowd worried about the state of the world with older brothers going off to war and they when they escaped to the movies the world was just as dark. This could be why in the 50s, when you would have expected a lot of fantasy films catering to the veterans who had seen enough pain in their time, instead we get heavy social dramas like THE EDGE OF THE CITY and even the crime films were serious film noir efforts like THE ASPHALT JUNGLE. I think if we looked at the bleak nature of children's entertainment of in the pre-war era it helps to explain a lot of what we are seeing today when many of those children are now in government and are the captains of industry. [-mrl]


(a film review by Mark R. Leeper):

Capsule: A ten-year-old Creole girl grows up during one hot Louisiana summer. Director and writer Kasi Lemmons draws some very nicely defined characters for whom the viewer has real interest and empathy. One of the most touching and engrossing films of the year. It is also very well photographed with some very memorable images. Rating: 7 (0 to 10) +2 (-4 to +4)
New York Critics: 14 positive, 1 negative, 5 mixed

The year is supposedly 1962, though there is a timelessness to the narrative. Eve Batiste (played by Jurnee Smollett) narrates the story and begins by saying this is the year that she killed her father. That statement hangs over the entire film and gives what seems to be a series of random remembered incidents a direction, though the viewer is unsure how figuratively or literally she means she killed her father. Eve lives on the bayou in the town of Eve's Bayou. Her father, Louis (Samuel L. Jackson) is the attractive town doctor who has a tendency to fool around with his more attractive female patients, cheating on his wife Roz (Lin Whitfield). Also in the family are Eve's older sister Cisely (Meagan Good), her young brother Poo, and Louis's sister Mozelle Batiste Delacroix (Debbie Morgan). Louis gives Eve the impression that he prefers his oldest daughter over her, and Eve feels the sting of that rejection as well as feeling a little bit left out. One evening Eve catches her father making love to the wife of a friend and this starts things changing in the family. Eve does not want to believe what she has seen but is only half willing to accept her sister Cisely's fabricated explanation that it was all innocent. And the matter remains in both sisters' minds. Writer/director Kasi Lemmons makes this one of several stories unfolding at the same time. Aunt Mozelle is a seer with psychic abilities to see into the lives of others, but cannot use her powers to help herself: she has outlived multiple husbands and blames herself for their deaths.

The film at no time ties itself to any current events outside of the community of Eve's Bayou, Louisiana. For that matter, in spite of a black cast of characters, the subject of race is totally absent. Virtually the same story could have been told in the white or the Chinese community, for example, with only minor alterations. One such modification might have to involve the acceptance of voodoo in this story. This is a world in which fortune tellers and psychics are authentic. The acceptance of magic is not the main thrust of the film but it adds to the texture. An old voodoo priestess seems to be half sham, yet her magic appears to work. She is nicely played by Diahann Carroll in a real departure from her squeaky clean image back when she was one of the first female black leads in a TV show.

It pretty much goes without saying that Lemmons would get a good performance from the likes of Carroll and Jackson. These are well-established actors who will give good performances as second nature. It is perhaps a different talent to get good performances from children. Getting an acceptable and by-the- numbers performance from them is not difficult but getting a performance with some depth is a lot harder, because children frequently are overconfident in front of a camera and do not know how to control a performance. As the lead Smollett has to carry the film without reducing it to a children's film, and her performance is fully up to adult standards. She apparently understands acting and that makes a real difference to the film. Meagan Good as the somewhat enigmatic older sister does not have as much to do, but also gives a very solid performance. Amy Vincent's cinematography includes at least a few very effective images and adds greatly to flavor of the film.

EVE'S BAYOU is a rich and emotional look at one small community and is not a bad debut writing and directing effort by Kasi Lemmons. I give it a 7 on the 0 to 10 scale and a 2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]


(a film review by Mark R. Leeper):

Capsule: Steven Spielberg's account of the slave mutiny of 1839 and its legal aftermath is certainly a good historical film, filled with facts and historical details. Occasionally it is actually powerful. But it lacks some of the emotional impact of THE COLOR PURPLE and SCHINDLER'S LIST and its pacing is off. Still, it is a useful and engaging source of historical perspective. Rating: 8 (0 to 10), high +2 (-4 to +4). A minor potential spoiler follows the main review.

In one of those delightful ironies of history the ship was called La Amistad--Spanish for "friendship" or "friendliness." In fact, the ship was anything but friendly. Its primary cargo was black people being brought in chains from Cuba to the United States, a country just sixty-three years old and whose current President, Martin Van Buren would be the last President to have been born owing allegiance to the Crown of England. In this summer of 1839 off the coast of Cuba some fifty-three slaves chained up in the hold of the ship would break from their bonds take control of the ship. Taking command was Sengbe Pieh whom the Spanish had renamed Cinque (played with surprising power by Djimon Hounsou). His plan was to force the crew of the ship to sail back to Africa, but they tricked him and instead sailed north up the coast of the United Stated. An American Navy man-of-war captured La Amistad off of Long Island, New York. The ship could have been hauled to a New York harbor or to Connecticut. It was taken to New Haven, Connecticut to increase the salvage value. New York law said that nobody could own anyone else and the blacks on board would be considered passengers. Connecticut still allowed slavery and the blacks were legally cargo that could be sold.

Steven Spielberg's new film tells the story of the legal battle that followed the ship Amistad arrival and the question of whether the blacks on board would be slaves or free men. It was an issue that made opponents of current President Van Buren (played in the film version by Nigel Hawthorne--with no small borrowing from his role in THE MADNESS OF KING GEORGE) and former President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins), now a doddering old man and member of the House of Representatives. Van Buren, already unpopular due to a recession resulting from Andrew Jacksons policies, is anxious to placate Southern voters who could make the difference in the elections the following year. Van Buren also wants to placate Spain's eleven-year-old Queen Isabella II (Anna Paquin) who believes that the slaves are Spanish property. Both sides in the controversy are aware that this could be a powder keg that would lead the country into a civil war over the issue of slavery. Coming to the aid of the blacks are two abolitionists, former slave Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) and a Mr. Tappen (Stellan Skarsgard). They bring aboard a real estate lawyer named Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey). But Baldwin has his work cut out for him. He has no language in common with his clients and does not even know if they come from Africa or Cuba, an issue pivotal to the case. The screenplay for this film is based on the book BLACK MUTINY by William Owens and is adapted by David H. Franzoni. The latter's only previous screen writing was the story for the Whoopi Goldberg vehicle JUMPIN' JACK FLASH. It is rumored that for him to make a script of this quality he needed the help of perhaps the best current screenwriter, Steven Zaillian of SCHINDLER'S LIST and LOOKING FOR BOBBY FISCHER.

One weakness of this film is that apart from a few very powerful scenes, AMISTAD is very much a cold account of a court case. Because the blacks who are on trial are strong and for the most part silent we get only rare glimpses at emotions we can share with them. The viewer is angered that they are being denied justice but gets very little understanding for the characters. Their plight is more compelling than they themselves are. Cinque is never a fully three-dimensional person, though we do see a bit of his self-doubt. The only character who is anywhere near fully developed is Matthew McConaughey's. We seem to be seeing a lot of McConaughey these days, but he is not the most emotive actor. Anthony Hopkins plays John Quincy Adams as what old age has left of a once fascinating man, but who now colorful without being really interesting. He bores people with his flowers and plays small practical jokes in the House of Representatives. When he gives an eloquent speech it rates about a 7 where 10 is Lincoln at Gettysburg and 0 is Steven Seagal anywhere.

Spielberg had a difficult fight wanting to make SCHINDLER'S LIST (mostly) in black and white. Here he creates much of the same effect by subduing the color scheme in the set design and probably also by photographic filters. He then makes the only bright colors of the film the blood during the mutiny. In this way he can underscore the violence of his film in a year of so many bloody films. Be warned that in that same violent year perhaps the most jarring scene I remember is AMISTAD's depiction of a man being killed by a sword. The mutiny, lit only by lightning, is the first thing we see in AMISTAD but nonetheless is the centerpiece of the entire film. Spielberg does have a nice visual sense that comes out in this scene and elsewhere showing the blacks in impressive silhouette to make them look larger. Spielberg creates some additional tension by letting the viewer from the start of the film go a long, long time, perhaps fifteen minutes, without any English in the dialog or on the screen. That itself becomes a little wearing.

Others of the film's touches I question: the mutineers aboard the Amistad having fashioned for themselves turbans made from what appear to be American flags. It is not clear where they would find what would be three or four American flags on a Spanish ship. Also the Capitol building at this point had a ring of pillars at the top and ended there. The actual dome was not added until early in Lincoln's second term. We see it, however, fully domed. Just as the Capitol Building was incomplete, so was the Supreme Court. There were eight judges, not nine. The latter was pointed out by Gore Vidal in an article for THE NEW YORKER. Van Buren appears a dithering incompetent. This is perhaps unfair. He was merely a second-rate President having to clean up a mess left by our first second-rate President, Andrew Jackson.

The Jewish Steven Spielberg has now made two stirring films on Black History and one on Jewish History. If he can manage to reconcile tensions between those two communities he will be deserving of more than Oscars. I rate AMISTAD an 8 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale.

Generally when I review a history film I like to look up the incidents in multiple history books and add information to my review to broaden the context and correct misimpressions left by the film. In this instance my collection of history books have been nearly unanimous in omitting the Amistad Incident. Even Howard Zinn's A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES which concentrates on injustice and minorities appears to omit the incident. Of course, any historian writing a history is forced to choose the incidents he feels willing to cover, but it is surprising to see this particular incident so ignored and rescued from obscurity by Black History courses and by Steven Spielberg.

Spoiler Spoiler Spoiler

Another touch that is wearing: in general the film is deliberately paced and comes to a conclusion, then the viewer discovers the film runs its own stop sign and just keeps going. It was a pleasant surprise when Spielberg did that in POLTERGEIST, but here it goes just a bit too long with too little reward. It needed a more power behind the speech by Adams. [-mrl]

                                   Mark Leeper
                                   MT 3E-433 732-957-5619

Quote of the Week:

     Life is not so bad if you have plenty of luck,
     a good physique, and not too much imagination.
                                   -- Christopher Isherwood