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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
Club Notice - 07/31/98 -- Vol. 17, No. 5
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 2E-537 732-957-6330 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.
URLs of the week: URL of the week: http://www.bucconeer.worldcon.org. The 1998 World Science Fiction Convention, to be held August 5 through August 9 in Baltimore MD. [-ecl]
Le Miz: Victor Hugo wrote a novel with the title LES MISERABLES, meaning "those who are miserable" or "the wretched of the earth." It is a very moving title when you think about it. It refers to the poor people who lead miserable lives. I wonder how he would react to hearing his beloved poor called "Le Miz."
Chicago: I recently spent some time near Chicago going to a class in the town of Naperville. I never thought of myself as an architecture fan, Chicago may be the city with the most beautiful architecture in the country. I say that walking a tightrope. I don't want to be too positive on Chicago or my management will think that I was taking the class for fringe benefits. Let me assure you I tried to go as economically for the company as possible. We stayed at a motel chain. Of course we did not have a lot of choice. Just we noticed that all you see are the same places: Motel 6's, Quality Inn's, etc. etc. You see the same restaurants: Taco Bells, McDonalds, Burger Kings, ad nauseum. You see the same grocery stores, and the same department stores. I guess it really is true that in the United States that man is born free and everywhere is in chains.
But, and here is where the tightrope part comes in, I don't want to be too insulting to the Chicago area since I do have a lot of friends there. On top of which I was born in Cook County Hospital. The funny thing is that every time I pass it now I have this tremendous urge to spawn. But let's not go into that.
When I was in New Delhi I realized that this was a city with different cultural assumptions. In the US traffic patterns are really based on the queue. In New Delhi the traffic is based on the crowd or the mob with people going in different directions at will. Chicago has traffic based on the traffic jam. Wherever you go you have varying degrees of traffic jam ahead of you. I think there is a secret to designing traffic patterns so that the traffic keeps flowing smoothly. I don't know what the secret is, but it should not be difficult to find out. I think that just about every city in the country knows it but Chicago. I have never been in a place that has so many traffic jams for so little excuse. The Eisenhower (so-called) Expressway must have wasted more people- hours in the United States than professional wrestling. I saw two cars hit head on at full expressway speeds. Luckily there was no damage. 31 miles into the city on a Tuesday night took us 90 minutes.
But you can tell Chicago is an upscale area. A sign by the side of the road says (and this is the truth) "Use car phone to report road emergencies x999." Who said Social Darwinism is dead?
Chicagoans seem to love trolleys and there isn't one real trolley within the city limits. They have what I would call a Faux Trolley. They have trolloid busses. They have steering wheels and gasoline engines. I hate to think of all the little Chicagoans growing up loving trolleys and never experiencing a real one. It is like the British with hamburgers. [-mrl]
SNOW IN AUGUST by Pete Hamill (Warner, ISBN 0-446-60625-1, 384pp, US$7.50) (a book review by Mark R. Leeper):
In the cold winter of 1946-1947, New York City, a young Irish- American boy becomes close friends with Rabbi Judah Hirsch, survivor of the Holocaust. Michael Devlin becomes increasingly fascinated with Jews and wants to know everything he can about them. Michael and the Rabbi become each other's teacher and guide to the other's culture. But Michael is also the witness of a hate-crime by the leader of a local anti-Jewish youth gang, the Falcons. He would love to go to the police but his code of honor forbids his turning informer. Yet his Jewish friends and has anti-Jewish enemies are on a collision course.
Pete Hamill writes with a nice eye for detail about a boy immersed in his own popular culture with Captain Marvel and Frankenstein. Meanwhile he looks with the eyes of an outsider and learns about Jewish culture and Judaism. As a Jew myself, I was flattered with Hamill's positive view of Jews as a misunderstood and persecuted people. It is a near certainty to me that Mr. Hamill is not Jewish as his squeaky-clean appraisal is unlikely to come from a Jew. But somehow this world is a little too idealized--it does not show enough why Michael has fascination with Jews. Michael is making big sacrifices for Jews and it is never clear why.
The novel seems to be simplified from real life, almost making it a juvenile. Michael never has a serious moral decision to make, one that could possibly be controversial to the reader. As long as the reader can accept a moderate liberal viewpoint there are no issues to which to object. What do I mean about these moral issues? When I was growing up my friend Charlie Francis and I agreed we would each go to the other's Sabbath service just to understand it better. So one Sunday I went with Charlie to church, and the following Saturday he was supposed to go with me to synagogue. But that week Charlie said that he asked his priest and he was absolutely forbidden to go to a Jewish ceremony. That sort of moral issue could, but does not, arise in SNOW IN AUGUST. The reader does not have to choose between what the priest believes and Michael's inclination to learn about Judaism. In SNOW IN AUGUST nobody objects to Michael's fascination with Jews but the youth gang, the Falcons. Every moral issue has an obvious solution.
Because the characters are so polarized, the good and the bad, with the bad threatening everybody good, everybody good liking everybody else good, one has the feeling that Hamill is talking down to the reader. Even Rabbi Hirsch is enthusiastic about Jackie Robinson entering the Major Leagues. Baseball players are not usually a subject of great fascination of rabbis.
Michael's dialogues act like a primer on Judaism that will probably more of interest to non-Jews than to Jews. One problem with the dialogue is that while the language may not be contrived, the content of the dialogue certainly is. For example, Michael asks the rabbi if there is a reason that Easter and Passover fall the same time of the year. The rabbi explains that there is and goes into why. Fine. But it seems like an unlikely question. Chanukah is at the same time Christmas for no particular reason and had Michael asked about those two holidays there would have been no good answer. Michael just happens to ask the right question to give the rabbi an opening for a small lecture.
Hamill has a pleasant writing style and while the story is predictable, I would be lying if I denied that I wanted to get return to the book each time I put it down, even though I was fairly certain what was going to happen.
My major complaint with SNOW IN AUGUST is its climax. The book makes the same mistake as Tod Browning's film FREAKS. The biggest part of the novel takes place in the natural world and shows a group of people discriminated against and regarded with what is assumed to be ignorant fear. Then at the very end we discover that they have supernatural powers which they unleash, albeit in a good cause. So, in fact, there is good reason to fear them. In the case of the novel, the Jews really do have supernatural knowledge that they can unleash against their enemies. And the book never comes to terms with why the power would be unleashed in this relatively mundane incident of anti-Jewish hatred when it apparently has not been used for hundreds of years of pogroms and the Holocaust. [-mrl]
SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Capsule: This is perhaps the most realistic and at the same time perhaps the most violent war film ever made. Eight men are sent on a mission of mercy in the week following the Normandy Invasion. Along the way we see the invasion of Europe from the perspective of a grunt soldier. It is not a pleasant sight. This is an answer to every war movie that ever made battle look glorious. Rating: 9 (0 to 10), +3 (-4 to +4)
I am sorry that John Wayne is not around to see Steven Spielberg's SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. Wayne made many films of the glory of war. Perhaps during the war that was what was needed. But it presented a totally artificial view of what war was really like. In a John Wayne film when someone is killed they fall over--usually bloodlessly. Nobody has to deal with people who have been cut in half by machine gun bullets, with wounded solders looking for their own severed arms. The deaths in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN are anything but bloodless. And at a time when so many films show gratuitous gore, as a special effect Steven Spielberg may be the only director who knows how to shoot blood so that the viewer feels the pain.
There are four boys in the Ryan family, or at least there were the week before D-Day. Mrs. Ryan will get three telegrams in one day about the loss of three sons. The last remaining son was airdropped behind enemy lines and nobody knows if James Ryan is alive or dead. The brass wants to see him back safely with his family. A squad of eight men is sent to find Ryan and send him home. But the squad is decidedly ambivalent about the assignment. Eight men are risking their lives in highly dangerous territory to save the life of one private who is being sent home in what may be only a public relations gesture. Is he more deserving of special treatment because of what happened to his brothers? When they find him is he even going to want to go home? Might he be already dead and the whole mission pointless? Are eight people likely to be killed for some general's quixotic notion of mercy?
No film in memory has ever taken such a gritty and un-romanticized view of what the dog soldier experiences. The battle scenes are as vicious and unrelenting as any film has ever shown us. The action begins with a 25-minute subjective view of the squad landing on the Normandy Beach-right in front of a nest of machine guns. There are no dramatics here. It is just a bunch of men being delivered into to mouth of a meat-grinder. Most of the delivered soldiers last just seconds before they die in any of a variety of ugly ways. The survivors of the squad are chosen for the Ryan mission and with some trepidation they go off to find the private. Captain John Miller, a blood-and-guts commander, played against type by Tom Hanks leads the squad. Unknown to the high command but suspected by the men, Miller is starting to crumble under the stress of constantly dealing with the dying and dismembered. The squad is a heterogeneous mix of personalities and ethnic types borrowed from any film like A WALK IN THE SUN or THE BIG RED ONE. It includes the loyal Sergeant Horvath (Tom Sizemore), the uncooperative Private Reiben (Edward Burns), the Jewish Private Mellish (Adam Goldberg), and a timid translator, Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies). Among the issues contested by the unit is the question of how to treat surrendering Germans and the individual's responsibility to be sacrificed for the many.
Spielberg has not returned to the black and white of SCHINDLER'S LIST but he does some playing with the color and look. At times he will wash out the film, giving the feel of amateur photography of the time. During battle scenes he will use a special filter to tint the scene. Then he strobes the action so while the film is not slowed down, it will give fewer images per minute. In this way it looks like the viewer is not able to take in all he is seeing. He will use hand held cameras to put the viewer into the action. Miller's physical state of shock is represented by near silence on the soundtrack in the middle of a battle scene. During some of the battle scenes we get almost all of our information visually and the sound is reduced to the din of battle. Other times Spielberg lets the sound tell the story, particularly in scenes where the squad is hearing the earthquake-like rumble of approaching tanks. Spielberg makes his point in the loud numbing battle scenes or in quiet moments as when Mrs. Ryan just folds up and sits on the floor of her porch when she knows she is about to be given bad news. He can make a point by letting his camera wander over the geometrical lattice of a field of crosses in a military cemetery. Curiously enough for so professional a production, there are some inconsistencies in the Robert Rodat script. Early in the film we are told that the boys at first served together and were separated only after the five Sullivan brothers died in the Navy when the boat on which the five served was sunk by the enemy. That true incident, by the way, was probably the inspiration for this fictional story. We see a picture of the brothers all in uniform. But later we are told that when one of the brothers went to boot camp was the last time they were together. One more minor glitch if I saw what I think I saw, the men invading Normandy seem to have guns covered in polyethylene to protect them from the water. Nope. That is a decade or so too soon for that. What they did tend to use is latex, which would have been more tight-fitting. It also would be a product produced for another purpose. (Information on polymers and WWII provided by Harold Leeper, Chemistry Docent for the Tech Science Museum, San Jose, California. He and I go
The honesty and realism of some of the scenes of this film may forever change the war film. This is not a pleasant film, but it is a truthful one in a way that few war films have ever been truthful. I rate it a 9 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +3 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
LES MISERABLES (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Capsule: Victor Hugo's often-dramatized novel gets a new screen adaptation with Liam Neeson as Jean Valjean and Geoffrey Rush as Inspector Javert. This is a fairly accurate interpretation of the novel, but too often the film is dark-literally and in tone--and occasionally the style is bloodless and uninvolving. But it is still a pleasure to see one of the world's greatest stories on the wide screen. Rating: 7 (0 to 10), +2 (-4 to +4) New York Critics: 8 positive, 4 negative, 6 mixed
The best and certainly the longest novel I ever read--about 1600 pages in my unabridged edition--was Victor Hugo's LES MISERABLES. Hugo turned slow operatic pacing into a piece of monumental art throwing in which fifty-page essays were just side comments. This novel also has the distinction of being the only piece of written fiction that ever moved me to tears. So I was very much looking forward to seeing the new film version. The new version is not a screen adaptation of the popular international musical, but a straight dramatic rendering. Much of what I enjoyed of the novel was missing, but then it should come as no great surprise that not all 1600 pages of story would make it to the screen.
Liam Neeson plays Jean Valjean, a vicious ex-convict who is turned in one night into a human saint by the goodness of the Bishop of D. But in the course of the story he will be tempted to return to evil many times as his past repeatedly fights to catch up with him. In this case his past takes the form of the implacable Inspector Javert, searching for the missing Valjean. SHINE's Geoffrey Rush plays the inflexible lover of law and order Javert who hounds Valjean for years. As the film opens Jean Valjean has already been released from his nineteen years in prison, but with his yellow passport nobody will give him shelter until an old woman suggests he try the door of the Bishop of D. After the familiar story of the Bishop's silver, probably the best-known sequence in the novel, we jump forward ten years to see Valjean having become the enlightened factory owner and mayor of the village of Vigo. Uma Thurman plays Fantine, a woman fired from his factory who turns to prostitution. Fantine has got to be the least glamorous role of Thurman's career. Behind the (intentionally) ghastly makeup Thurman is able to put some real passion into her role and gives as good a performance as I can remember from her. Her love for her daughter is a new inspiration for Valjean. Claire Danes completes the set of principles as the adult daughter Cosette in a role that requires little but that she be cute and a bit spoiled.
The film takes a number of small liberties with Hugo's plotting to make things going on within characters' heads happen on-screen and more visibly. In this version Valjean does not just slip out of the Bishop's house with the silver; he physically attacks the Bishop. Valjean's escape to find Cosette is much simplified from the novel and turned into a carriage chase to add some excitement to the story. The Thenardiers are reduced from major characters in the novel to a single scene. The modification that is really the most bothersome is the final meeting of Javert and Valjean. Apparently Rafael Yglesias, who wrote the script, wanted a piece of strong dramatic action. He ends the film in a major key, where a minor key seems more natural to portray Javert's final doubts.
Liam Neeson is physically a large man making him instantly more appropriate than Fredric March was in the classic 1935 version. Neeson tends to underplay the role where some more passion would have been what was expected. Geoffrey Rush is equally passionless, but in this case it works to his advantage. Javert, after all, makes himself little more than a machine for enforcing rules and laws. The most disappointing casting is in having Peter Vaughan play the Bishop of D. Vaughan appears to be something of a ditherer, a nice man but not one with a great deal of intellectual power. Yet the Bishop is really the most important character in the story, and Valjean is only an extension of the goodness of the Bishop into a second person. Valjean is the embodiment of the good that the Bishop did living on rather than being interred with the Bishop's bones.
LES MISERABLES too often is just a bit bloodless. It is a bit more an intellectual exercise than the story of tragedy and triumph Hugo wrote. Still it recalls the passion of the novel. I would still 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
Quote of the Week:
I don't understand guys who call themselves feminists. That's like the time Hubert Humphrey, running for President, told a black audience that he was a soul brother. -- Roy Blount