MT VOID 02/26/99 (Vol. 17, Number 35)

MT VOID 02/26/99 (Vol. 17, Number 35)

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
Club Notice - 02/26/99 -- Vol. 17, No. 35

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 201-447-3652 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 2E-537  732-957-6330
Factotum:     Evelyn Leeper MT 3E-433  732-957-2070
Back issues at
All material copyright by author unless otherwise noted.


God grant me

-- the COURAGE to change the things I can.

-- the SERENITY to accept the ones I cannot change,

-- the WISDOM to know the difference,

-- the OPPORTUNITY to get my hands around the neck of the schmuck who is causing all these problems,

-- and the STRENGTH to wring his neck for him. [-mrl]


A while back at work there was a fad--yes I think I can use that word--a fad for getting lots and lots of feedback on your job and how you were doing it. Rare would be the day at work we did not get a survey in the mail. The idea was you should go to your customers and find out how they thought you should be doing your job and get their suggestions. The idea was that the more feedback you got the better you could do whatever it is you do. I think what they did not give a whole lot of thought to is that surveying people accurately without prejudicing the result is an incredibly intricate and difficult process. And acting on the results of surveys is actually fairly perilous. If you survey your customers and do what they suggest to pleast them you can end up pleasing a lot fewer of them. How is this possible?

Let me give one quick example. A while back some red dyes in food were cancer-causing. Eating some commercial foods that were red- colored actually added a little bit of danger of getting sick. I believe I have heard that M&Ms candies never used the dangerous food colorings. But their red M&Ms were suspect, and not surprisingly they stopped making red M&Ms. And I don't really suppose that the world was a whole lot worse off for not having red M&Ms. The candy was a little less festive, but none had alarming colors. This was probably a reasonable business decision and it was one made WITHOUT consulting customers.

Okay, fine. Time passes. Food colorings became safer. A new generation comes along with no fear. At least no fear of red M&Ms. The Mars Candy Company decides it is time to bring back red M&Ms. And as long as they are bringing them back they want to please their customers. They decide to ask what other colors people would like. And what answer came back more--much more--than any others? People suggested that there should be blue M&Ms.

So now Mars has really little choice. If people want blue M&Ms they will make them. There is this problem. There is a myth that there is no blue food. In fact there are some. Blueberries are blue. There are some liqueurs that are blue. I think they look like Windex, but being a non-drinker nobody asks me. There are some foods made from blue liqueurs, like blue pancakes. But in general and for reasons I am not sure anybody knows, there are very few blue foods. Certainly when you make a blue M&M it looks like it is covered in glossy truck paint. So why would so many people want to have blue M&Ms?

The answer might be that the survey was flawed. But how could it be if it just asked people what other color they wanted. They did not lead anyone toward any particular answer. At least they do not appear to have. Actually they probably did without realizing it. There is a principle of completeness in surveys. If one item seems to be missing from a list, it will be noticed. Suppose that you were making a postage stamp that was a tribute to American comedians. It had Shemp Howard and Larry Fine. There was room left for one more comedian. You ask people who should it be. As famous as Bob Hope is, I bet he would get very few votes. Well, first of all he is still alive, but that is not the problem. People would probably pick Moe Howard. They would want to complete the set of the original Three Stooges.

Now in addition to orange and brown M&Ms you have red, yellow, and green. You have the bright primary colors of light. You have two of the three primary colors of pigments. The one that is missing is blue. If you ask people what color of M&M is missing, a fair percentage will say blue. None of them are even thinking what a truly disgusting color enameled blue is for a piece of candy. And nobody will specifically give feedback that blue is a color do not want. Who would even think of it as a possibility?

Now it may be that people who dye their hair day-glow colors and put safety pins through their lips may want blue M&Ms, but to most people they are a little disgusting. The Mars people recognize this and there are very few blue M&Ms in a bag. But they are stuck with the color because their survey indicated this was what they had to do to please the customer. And my suggestion of what to do if you get a blue M&M? As you pop it in your mouth. And as you do it, close your eyes and think of England. [-mrl]

OCTOBER SKY (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):

Capsule: In Coalwood, West Virginia, 1957 a boy uses model rocketry to escape the fate of a career digging coal. With the inspiration of one high school teacher and the drive to follow his curiosity and vision, he resists all the pressures of the town, and especially his own father, to work for a dying mining company. While parts of the story seem contrived, this is a true story. It is based on a book by the main character is riveting. Rating: 8 (0 to 10), low +3 (-4 to +4)

It is October 1957 in Coalwood, West Virginia and there are virtually two different worlds--worlds that never touch each other. One world is the town's coal mine. The Olga Mining Company runs that and it is the town. Most boys know from an early age that when they get old enough they will go down in the mine to work. The other world is what they read about in the papers. It is where amazingly the Soviets just put a satellite called Sputnik in orbit around the whole planet. And for nearly the first time the two worlds touch. There right over Coalwood is a light shooting across the sky. Homer Hickam, Jr. (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) sees the satellite go overhead, and nothing will ever be the same for him. There overhead is a piece of the outer world, put there by a rocket. Homer gets some of his buddies together with the school nerd and they decide that they are going to build their own rockets.

This is the story of the four boys who dedicate themselves to building and launching their own rockets. Naming the rockets Auks after flightless birds they soon find that launching rockets not only can be the ticket to get them out of town, it really has to get them out of town. The town is owned by Olga and they are not allowed to fly rockets from Olga's property. Instead they find a slate hilltop eight miles from town and set it up as their launching base. They begin to get the materials and money they need by any means, fair or foul. This includes stealing spikes from abandoned railroad tracks and selling them. But there is tremendous resistence in the town to doing anything as strange as building rockets and they come into conflict with the school, with the police, but most of all Homer Jr. comes in conflict with his father, Homer Sr., superintendent of the Olga mine. [Note: to avoid confusion, Homer Sr.'s name is changed to John in the screenplay.]

"John" is played by Chris Cooper in an ironic piece of casting. Cooper is most familiar for his role as the coal mine union organizer in MATEWAN. In this film he is cursing that same union. But the conflict between Homer and his father forms the dramatic core of the film. It is in the love-hate relationship between Homer and his father that the film gets its strongest resonance. Homer's relationship with an inspiring teacher, Miss Riley (Laura Dern), while also strong, falls into more familiar territory.

OCTOBER SKY is directed by Joe Johnston who directed THE ROCKETEER and JUMANJI. The screenplay is by Louis Colick, based on the book ROCKET BOYS by Homer Hickam, Jr. Hickam claims to be pleased with the adaptation of his book and even points out that the two titles are anagrams. For acting credit, the honors go mostly to Chris Cooper as Homer's father. Laura Dern and Jake Gyllenhaal are just a little too good-looking for their roles as films of the original people demonstrate at the end the film. However, Coalwood, filmed in a Tennessee coal town really does capture the look of West Virginia in the 50s. [I say this as someone lived in West Virginia for a while in the 1950s. Okay, I was very young, but I still remember the look of coal country.]

OCTOBER SKY is a powerful look at a young man's drives to become a scientist. It is also a moving portrait of a father-son relationship. I rate the film an 8 on the 0 to 10 scale and a low +3 on the -4 to +4 scale.

MINOR SPOILER: There are some odd touches that should have been cleared up in the script with some explanation. Why did the boys never look at the object the police were holding until AFTER they proved it was not theirs? For that matter why did the police never notice that the object they were holding was professionally built and not made by amateurs. Also were both younger and older brother high school seniors in the same year, as they seemed to be? This seems possible, but unlikely. [-mrl]

CENTRAL STATION (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):

Capsule: A retired teacher who works in Rio's Central Station and boy who has lost his mother become mismatched travel companions on a bittersweet journey through rural Brazil. That they should go from hating each other to being friends is a dramatic cliche, but the look at the lives of the poor and the pious of Brazil makes this film worth the trip. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), high +1 (-4 to +4)

Oscar-nominated Fernanda Montenegro plays Dora, a retire school teacher who earns a modest living working in Rio's Central Station, a bus and train station. She writes letters for the illiterate. But she rarely if ever mails the letters. Instead, she cynically uses her position to look into the lives of her uneducated clientele to laugh at and despise them. Hers is one of many dirty businesses that prey on people who travel through the station. One day Dora sees one of her clients accidentally hit by a bus and killed leaving the client's son Josua (played by Vinicius de Oliveira) homeless. She is initially untouched by the boy's plight. Eventually she is drawn in and decides to accompany the boy on a bus trip to be sure he finds his father. Her journey takes will take on many meanings as she learn to love first the boy and through him the illiterate poor of Brazil as she learns to understand each better. Unlike the approach that would likely be taken with an American or British film the poor are not shown to be quirky and humorous. Director Walter Salles, Jr., gives them a quiet and pious dignity. Chance makes Dora herself one of the rural poor, even if only temporarily and from this vantage point she sees the poor very differently. She also will see this journey as a sort of last chance to grasp life and a last chance to escape her cynicism actually feel inspired as she once did. Salles shows us she is in more desperation than the boy she is helping.

A Frank Capra would have handled the story making the people that Dora meets offbeat. Salles is not quite so subtle. He floods the film with Biblical and religious allusions. In the United States, religious imagery in film often has a sinister overtone. Certainly American filmmakers are frequently willing to show a sinister side to religion. Our films frequently portray fraudulent evangelists like Elmer Gantry or vaguely sadistic Catholic schools as we saw in THE SAINT. Salles is making a film for a Brazilian audience for whom fervent Catholicism is an unquestioned virtue. For that reason frequently a viewer in the United States will be wondering what point Salles may be trying to make when, in fact, he will have already made his point. We may wonder at the significance of the Biblical names of men in Josua's family, when the real point is just to say that these are all simple and good people.

Salles does create a definite dichotomy between city people and country people. City people, particularly those who work in the station, are soulless people who look dispassionately on death for minor infractions like shoplifting. The country people, never well defined, are simple, pious, and pure. When they use Dora as a scribe, they open into their lives a window that is purer and finer than what Dora sees in the city people. Oliveira's acting as the boy is simple, but very natural. But of equal importance with the actors is the setting. We see Brazil with its road stops. We see people willing to show Dora small kindness that it is implied they would not show her in the city.

Central Station is a road picture touching look into the lives of the people of Brazil. Perhaps it simplifies them a bit, but Fernanda Montenegro gives a solid performance as a woman going through unexpected changes. Part of what makes her stand out for audiences is her worn face, almost like a female Humphrey Bogart. But her performance is what gives the film what power it has. I rate CENTRAL STATION a 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]

LITTLE VOICE (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):

Capsule: A woman's over-powering personality ruins her own life and the life of her talented daughter. Brenda Blethyn and Jane Horrocks give strong performances in a downbeat look at English lower-middle class life. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), high +1 (-4 to +4)

A big personality can push out of the way all personalities around it. Mari Hoff (played by Brenda Blethyn) is a woman with a big personality and a big voice. When she enters a room she squeezes out just about everybody else. Both her best friend and her daughter are nearly mute in her overpowering and frequently vulgar presence. It is not that she has any intelligence to spread around but she dominates all about her by verbally overpowering them. One of the few people who can get a word in when talking to Mari is Ray Say (Michael Caine). He is an entertainment promoter well past his prime, but who denies the truth even to himself. He promotes pointless acts that are more pitiful than entertaining. Still, Ray has big plans that obviously are of little value even to Ray. He is convinced he can still strike it big if only he can find some great talent right here in his own neighborhood.

Mari's daughter Laura (Jane Horrocks), living with Mari, has almost given up the struggle to talk. On the rare occasions when she even bothers to speak it comes out at a squeaky tiny voice that has earned her the nickname "Little Voice." Laura has retreated from the world dominated by her mother and into a world of daydreaming of her dead father, now nearly elevated to the status of saint in her own mind. She listens over and over to his records of Marilyn Monroe, Shirley Bassey, and especially Judy Garland. Unknown to anyone while Laura has almost no voice of her own she can borrow and even sing in voices of Garland, Monroe, and Bassey in perfect voice impressions.

One night when Laura is listening to the beloved Judy Garland records and Ray is visiting Mari the power goes out. Ray hears the music stop, but strangely Judy Garland's voice continues to sing. Suddenly Ray realizes that "Little Voice" may have real talent that he can exploit to find some real success. But can he get Laura to come out of her shell? And if she does come out, can Mari stand to see someone else in the family getting attention?

Jim Herman wrote the screenplay and directs a film based on the play "The Rise and Fall of Little Voice" by Jim Cartwright. Blethyn and Caine each give performances so earthy one almost feels dirty just watching them. Each is totally self-absorbed. Caine at least is aware enough of how he is perceived that he can control himself. Blethyn's character is so self-absorbed that she does not even think of appearances. Horrocks is so victimized that she seems to be retreating into autism. Ewan McGregor is present as a young telephone installer who is the first person since the death of Mari's husband who really cares for Laura. While reminding the viewer that there are still normal and decent people in the world, he is a little too good to be true. It is never clear what he sees in Laura whose personality qualifies her for the walking wounded.

LITTLE VOICE is a downbeat look at English lower-middle class standards. The little neighborhood nightclub, Boo's, is seamy and tawdry, even if there is little that we see that is explicit. If LITTLE VOICE really is a comedy, it is a dark one and one full of people whom one is happy to be rid of at the end of its 100 minutes. Much of the plotting of LITTLE VOICE is predictable, but the performances are raw and realistic. This is a side of England most of us would rather do without. I rate the film 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]

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

Quote of the Week:

     A thing is not necessarily true because a man dies
     for it.
                                   -- Oscar Wilde