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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
Club Notice - 03/06/98 -- Vol. 16, No. 36
Table of Contents
MT Chair/Librarian: Mark Leeper MT 3E-433 732-957-5619 firstname.lastname@example.org HO Chair: John Jetzt MT 2E-530 732-957-5087 email@example.com HO Librarian: Nick Sauer HO 4F-427 732-949-7076 firstname.lastname@example.org Distinguished Heinlein Apologist: Rob Mitchell MT 2D-536 732-957-6330 email@example.com Factotum: Evelyn Leeper MT 3E-433 732-957-2070 firstname.lastname@example.org Back issues at http://www.geocities.com/~ecl. All material copyright by author unless otherwise noted.
URL of the week: http://pubpages.unh.edu/~ss1/bookaminute/. Book-A-Minute science fiction and fantasy, for those of you who have no time to read anymore. [-ecl]
Film Fest: "Notes on a Biological Imbalance in an Upland Arizona Valley." That is how it starts. Science fiction abounds in stories of conflicts of humans against aliens. The aliens are usually thinly disguised Nazis. Or they are the threat of Communism. E.T. was a child from outer space. Klaatu was a reframing of Jesus Christ. THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD was basically a clever bear. The aliens in THE WAR OF THE WORLDS are actually just a super-version of British Imperialists. Aliens are almost never really alien. The closest thing to a portrayal of humans against a really alien enemy is in PHASE IV. This is a film directed by Saul Bass. Bass is the Vincent Van Gogh of film title sequences. When filmmakers wanted to give their film a distinctive look, they called on Bass. Back in the 60s you started seeing a lot of companies simplify their logos. Bell went from having a logo that was basically a coin with a picture of a bell to a blue circle with a very simple outline of a bell inside. That was the visual styling of Saul Bass. He did a similar simplification of the Quaker Oats logo.
Bass created the look and the credits for films like EXODUS and ANATOMY OF A MURDER. He also did credit sequences for films like NINE HOURS TO RAMA and WALK ON THE WILD SIDE. He brought considerable intellect and visual style to the one film he directed, PHASE IV.
An entomologist (Nigel Davenport) notices peculiar behavior from the ant colonies in one small area of the Arizona desert. Ant colonies that usually are bitter enemies start cooperating against common predators. He invites a mathematician (Michael Murphy) to join him for some "science in the sun." Instead they find themselves in at the beginning of a war between two mutually alien species. Most of what the two sides do is attempt to gain intelligence about their enemy. The humans take advantage of their size; the ants take advantage of their small size and their numbers. The ant photography, incidentally, is terrific.
The Leeperhouse film festival will show PHASE IV on Thursday, March 12, 7:30 PM.
(Just for yuks, this is a partial list of other films for which Bass did striking credits: THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM, AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, VERTIGO, BONJOUR TRISTESSE, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, SPARTACUS, PSYCHO, WEST SIDE STORY, and ADVISE AND CONSENT.) [- mrl]
DARK CITY: (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Capsule: This film is an incredible visual experience and a story unusually dense in ideas. Still, I defy anybody to see it only once and still recall the full arc of the story 24 hours later. The style is much closer to Japanese anime or comic book than it is to film. Characters are little more than flat paper stand-ups, but the visual aspects of this cinema comic book are a real knockout. This is a film that goes in for quantity of ideas though not necessarily quality. You will not see too many American films that are a lot like DARK CITY. Rating: 7 (0 to 10), +2 (-4 to +4)
It was a dark and ominous night. The city was a dangerous place that had no pity for the weak. An alien race "older than time" but now on the brink of dying out had came to the city to observe humans hoping to learn something that would enable them to save themselves. John Murdoch awoke in a bathtub to find he had no memories and there was a murdered woman nearby with mystical symbols carved into her body. Somewhere a clock was striking midnight.
The images and the ideas come and go almost that fast in DARK CITY. This is a film that owes its style not so much to other films but to European New Wave comic books. A new idea or a piece of visual excitement flashes by the viewer at a rate of about two a minute. This is certainly an impressive style of film-making but it does carry with it a risk. In a story in which anything can happen at any time it is hard to care what is happening at any moment. DARK CITY will never be remembered as a thumping good story, but the film has other rewards. Stylistically the film is a lot like CITY OF LOST CHILDREN or BRAZIL, but without the sympathetic characters of those films. So the dynamic of the film is not to make the viewer feel much empathy for the characters but just to wonder what will happen next, what will it mean, and what will it look like. In fact, the city itself is the most engaging and certainly the most dynamic character of the film. The city looks like something out of the 30s and it is invested with aliens, human-looking but pale and hairless dressed in black bowlers and black fur-collared coats like the aristocratic gangsters in Fritz Lang's M.
Alex Proyas wrote the story, co-wrote the screenplay, and directs. His CROW was a nimble translation of comic book style to the wide screen. DARK CITY goes much further in his stylistic experiments. In rapid flashes his story piles idea on idea without stopping longer than a quick muse to think about the implication. The viewer and the characters is doused in a shower of plot complications and new ideas with little time to consider them. As one complains "I have a jigsaw puzzle in front of me and each time I rearrange the pieces it still doesn't make any sense." But as with THE BIG SLEEP, what is most important is not the understanding of the plot but in the going along for the ride. This is a study in mood and texture and a very different sort of science fiction film from STARSHIP TROOPERS.
But visually the film is often stunning. The city has a film noir-ish feel that fully reflects the title. Rufus Sewell of COLD COMFORT FARM and DANGEROUS BEAUTY does not get much chance to register much emotion besides bewilderment. He becomes a sort of place-holder and a cipher in more ways than one. Keifer Sutherland is a terrific half-mad scientist who might have been at home in DR. X. Jennifer Connelly is terrific in the scenes as a torch singer, but registers the same lack of depth as Sewell otherwise. William Hurt is a Bogart-like police inspector with nearly the same style. Rounding out the cast are the always enjoyable Richard O'Brien and Ian Richardson as white-faced aliens.
This is a film with the texture of nightmare. It does not pay off in ways that most films do so it will appeal only to a narrow audience. But for what it is it is very nicely realized. It certainly is one of the most enjoyable surprises of the new year. I rate it a 7 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale.
I wonder if I am the only viewer to see strong parallels between this film and Harlan Ellison's OUTER LIMITS episode "The Demon with a Glass Hand." (I rather suspect that Ellison will. But then he managed to convince a jury that TERMINATOR borrowed from his "Soldier from Tomorrow" story rather than the more obvious choice of the science fiction film CYBORG 2087.) [-mrl]
MR RINYO-CLACTON'S OFFER by Russell Hoban (Jonathan Cape, ISBN 0-224-05121-0, 1998, 182pp, L14.99) (a book review by Evelyn C. Leeper):
There has been much discussion of magical realism in rec.arts.sf.written these days, and I think I would classify this as magical realism. That is, of course, a meaningless statement, since the real question is not what category this fits into, but what this is about, and what it says.
The offer in question is the following: Mr Rinyo-Clacton will give Jonathan Fitch a million pounds in exchange for the right to terminate Fitch's life any time after a year has passed. Fitch, who has just lost his girlfriend and his job, agrees. One thing leads to another, and the next morning he wakes up realizing that he may have contracted the HIV virus as well.
Now, from a strictly logical standpoint, this makes no sense: if he thinks he's going to die in a year, why worry about a virus which doesn't even show up in a test for three months and would almost definitely not progress from an HIV+ condition to AIDS in a year? (I know people who have been HIV+ for many years now, and they have not yet developed AIDS.) But people are not rational, particularly about death.
One of the cliches about AIDS (and by extension, about the HIV virus) is that those who having it are "living with a death sentence." But we all are. Anyone could be hit by a truck, or choke on a piece of food. It's just that they know it, and we don't. So Fitch's reactions are perfectly reasonable, in a bizarre way: he is more concerned about the HIV virus that he *may* have, than about the agreement he signed selling his death in a year. Something--the media? one hates to blame them for everything, so maybe it's human irrationality as reported and spread by the media--something has convinced Fitch that the *possibility* of death from AIDS at some unspecified future time is a more serious concern than the virtual certainty of death from Mr Rinyo-Clacton at the end of a year.
I presume that in mainstream contemporary fiction, AIDS has been dealt with fairly extensively. Since my contemporary reading is more in science fiction, the examples I have seen are somewhat non-standard, and usually involve a plague which has some similarity to AIDS. But Hoban has done the reverse. Instead of looking at AIDS through the mirror of another disease, Hoban looks at death through the mirror of AIDS. Fitch feels that as long as he doesn't have HIV he's safe. We all do this. If we don't have AIDS (or don't smoke, or in general don't belong to that other group over there), we're safe. Death happens to other people.
So here we have Jonathan Fitch, dealing with his two deaths, the one theoretical but known, the other definite but unknown. And his reactions help us examine our own attitudes toward death.
And what of the mysterious Mr Rinyo-Clacton and his gentleman's gentleman whom Fitch describes as having "hands that looked capable of crushing a skull like a walnut. He was also in formal attire and almost invisible in his attendance. Except for the hands. I thought his name might be Igor but it was Desmond." What is his purpose in this contract?
Note to fellow Yanks: There is no period in the title, the American title of THE HOUNDS OF ZAROFF is THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, and http://www.bookpages.com is my favorite British Web bookseller. And in passing I'll note that this is at least the second book in which Hoban quotes Rilke's line, "For Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror..." ("Denn das Schoene ist niches als des Schrecklichen Anfang..."). [-ecl]
DANGEROUS BEAUTY: (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Capsule: The rewards and hazards of being a courtesan in late 16th century Venice are the subject of this not-particularly-original morality play. Catherine McCormack is charming as the reluctant courtesan who learns to master and embrace her work. The story is not very ambitious but is compelling and the view of Renaissance Venice is worth the price of admission. Rating: 7 (0 to 10), low +2 (-4 to +4)
It is 1583 in Venice. Society has proscribed a place for its women. The vast majority are to remain the uneducated maintainers of households for their husbands. It is not the most exciting of lives, but if a woman is sufficiently charming her family may arrange a marriage to someone prominent. This will get the woman and perhaps her entire family good social connections. And at least the married woman may hope to live in moderate comfort. In most arranged marriages love is not given strong consideration in the choice of a husband. Families essentially sell off their daughters for material gain.
On the other hand a few of the most beautiful women can become courtesans--mistresses or prostitutes of the wealthy and powerful. Veronica Franco (played by Catherine McCormack) is in love with handsome Marco Venier (Rufus Sewell). But he is from a wealthy family and her father had died leaving the family with a pile of debts and a desperate need of money. As Veronica's mother (Jacqueline Bisset) tells her she must give up the idea of marriage. Besides "marriage is a bargain, not a perpetual tryst." And it is not profitable enough to support the Franco family. Veronica must make the sacrifice of becoming a courtesan as, she is informed, her mother did years ago.
The plot follows a very predictable trajectory from here. Veronica does not want to become a prostitute, but agrees when she discovers that being a courtesan has its advantages. It really is the only way that a woman in Venetian society can escape the heavy restrictions placed on women. A good courtesan is allowed to become educated and, in fact, learning becomes a necessity. Trained by her mother, Veronica learns the skills necessary for the new profession and makes herself the most desirable courtesan in Venice as well as a quick wit with verse. We follow her career from being too poor to have a normal life to having one of the most powerful names in Venice. But the fantasy world she comes to know will change abruptly when it collides with the real world of the Plague and of the Inquisition.
DANGEROUS BEAUTY was written by Jeannine Dominy based on the book THE HONEST COURTESAN by Margaret Rosenthal. The plot is predictable and even familiar, somewhere between myth and soap opera. This does not ruin the story but a less obvious story could have improved the film considerably. As interesting as the foreground plot is the view of life in Renaissance Venice in the background is really what rivets out attention. The visual effects are far from perfect, but occasionally they do create a stunning image, particularly the recreation of nautical scenes.
McCormack previously played Mel Gibson's love interest in BRAVEHEART. In this film she get chances to display her wit, her skill with a sword, and her body, one more enjoyable to see than the other. Rufus Sewell of COLD COMFORT FARM and the current DARK CITY plays Marco her lover. There seems to be between Sewell and McCormack genuine chemistry, a thing too frequently missing from screen love stories. DANGEROUS BEAUTY is populated with actors who would not seem typical for a historical film. Fred Ward seems an odd choice to be playing as a member of the Venier family, but is reasonable if cast against type. Oliver Platt of FLATLINERS as a competing wit also seems as out of place in a costume drama thought he did play in THE THREE MUSKETEERS.
If DANGEROUS BEAUTY has a rather obvious plot and takes the safe course of exploiting a feminist theme, but the production is well- mounted, well-acted, and pretty to look at. I give it a 7 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
Mark Leeper MT 3E-433 732-957-5619 email@example.com