MT VOID 10/01/99 (Vol. 18, Number 14)

MT VOID 10/01/99 (Vol. 18, Number 14)

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
Club Notice - 10/01/99 -- Vol. 18, No. 14

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.

Chair/Librarian: Mark Leeper, 732-817-5619,
Factotum: Evelyn Leeper, 732-332-6218,
Distinguished Heinlein Apologist: Rob Mitchell,
HO Chair Emeritus: John Jetzt,
HO Librarian Emeritus: Nick Sauer,
Back issues at
All material copyright by author unless otherwise noted.


This is just a reminder that we will be showing GATTACA in HO 1J-672 Wednesday and Thursday (October 5 and 6) at noon. [-ecl]


This last weekend we got the news story I have been expecting. The President has had his annual check-up and he is healthy, but he is gaining weight. What did they expect? We are hearing a lot about declining moral values in the Presidency. Some Presidents have this tendency to become decadent. But is it any wonder? Here the President has a whole staff of something like eighteen people on call to make his meals. Probably graduates of the Cordon Bleu or some other cooking academy. What do you eat when you have eighteen highly trained chefs on your kitchen staff?

Three meals a day he probably gets all outlined on little embossed cards telling him what he is going to get in six terrific courses. Or maybe the chef tells him directly. When you are the President of the most powerful country in the world you don't get a cold meatloaf sandwich and a bottle of beer for dinner, as much as you might want it. You might start out your term in office trying to be like Jefferson, but by the end you probably just look like Taft.

I can just picture it. The President trudges out of the Oval Office at six in the evening. Now he is tired. He has had a hard day of being Presidential or covering something up or something. He trudges to the Presidential Dining Room. There is the First Lady, in earrings no less, sitting at the far end of a candle-lit table. Standing next to his chair is Pierre, the White House head chef. His term as White House Chef has taken its toll on Pierre, his weight and his arteries.

"Good evening Mr. President. At your request we have a light meal for you this evening."

"Light is good. I really am still full from lunch."

"We hope you enjoy what we have prepared for you. We will start this evening with a very nice asparagus salad on a bed of raddicchio and tiny filigree mushrooms."

"Uh, thanks Pierre, but I'm really not hungry."

"Then we will have an appetizer of cold Smoked Whitewater Salmon,..."

"Now, I've asked you to refrain from using that word. And I just told..."

"A Viennese Beef Pastry..."

"I had lunch with the Iowa Potato Queen. I had two baked potatoes. I am still full. Tell you what. Do you have something for heartburn?"

"Then we will have German Sauerbraten with red cabbage and potato pancakes."

"Oh God. No, no more potatoes today."

"Then to top it off vanilla ice cream shells with fresh raspberries en eau-de-vie de framboise."

"How about just a hot dog and a Coke?"

"What is"

"Just a hot dog, Pierre. C'mon Pierre, you know what a hot dog is."

"We do not learn about hot dog at Cordon Bleu. But I will make you a very I will make you Hot...Dog...Pierre."

"And what is that like?"

"It is like German Sauerbraten and Potato Pancake."

(The foregoing play is purely a work of fiction. Any similarities to real persons living or dead or real dishes, previously served or in preparation, is purely coincidental. In specific, Pierre is NOT intended to represent Pierre Chambin, the obese French chef who was downsized from the White House kitchen staff in 1994 for preparing too many high-fat, continental-style dishes to a first family that was trying to be weight-conscious.) [-mrl]

THE SIXTH SENSE (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):

Capsule: This is a slow and deliberate psychological horror film about a boy who sees visions that terrify him. They are slowly eating away at his mind and soul. The script is itself a trap to tantalize the viewer and snap shut only in the final moments of the film. And it has one of the best performances of the year from any actor. But it is particularly amazing that the actor is young Haley Joel Osmet. Rating: 8 (0 to 10), high +2 (-4 to +4). Spoiler warning: The trailer for this film tells the main premise of the plot which would not otherwise be obvious until well into the film. This review will reveal no more than the trailer does. I have not seen any reviews that do not reveal the premise.

Thematically similar to the current STIR OF ECHOES, THE SIXTH SENSE is a horror story told so subtly that it is a psychological study that is told against a backdrop that is almost magical realism. It is a mystery told so subtly that the viewer does not even recognize it as a mystery until at the end the solution is presented. Then the viewer may want to see the film a second time just to verify if the script is consistent and to see how well the mystery was hidden.

Malcolm Crowe (played by Bruce Willis) is a South Philadelphia child psychologist. He is so good at what he does he has been given a citation from the mayor. Currently he is dealing with a severely disturbed child, Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osmet). Malcolm knows that the classic treatment and assumptions of treating children with this syndrome can be wrong. The last similar patient grew up highly disturbed and blaming Malcolm. In revenge he broke into Malcolm's house, shooting the psychologist. Malcolm desperately wants to avoid the same mistakes in treating Cole. But from the beginning he is having serious trouble connecting with Cole or in truth with anyone. His bad experience with the previous patient has left him almost without the emotions to reach out. What he slowly begins to discover is that Cole is trying to adjust in any way he can to something beyond an emotional problem. His problem is that he sees the dead. It is not just that believes he sees the dead--they really are there and they talk to him. He will see a dead child, start to talk to him, and then see the back of the child's head is blown off. He lives with a thousand unpleasant jolts like this every day. The resulting shock is just more than he can handle much of the time.

Bruce Willis obviously gets top billing for this film being a veteran of so many high-grossing films. In fact he turns in one of his most subdued and best performances here. But he is playing opposite an even better actor. Haley Joel Osmet has some very difficult scenes to deliver as the haunted--figuratively and literally--child. Too young to have gone through the years of training most of today's actors have, he seems to be a natural actor capable instinctively of giving a layered performance. Whether he is remembered at Academy Award time or not he has given just about the best performance of the year and he has made a difficult film work. Certainly some credit must go to writer and director M. Night Shyamalan who must have known exactly what haunted feel he wanted from Osmet. Shyamalan keeps the pacing slow and ominous throughout. The James Newton Howard score is not one of his best but adds to the tension.

This is a film with some clever twists and a really good performance by a child actor. This may be the surprise film of the season. I give it an 8 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]

AN UNUSUAL ANGLE by Greg Egan (Norstrilia Press, ISBN 0-909106-12-6, 1983, 200pp, A$14.95) (a book review by Evelyn C. Leeper):

No, this is not a new Greg Egan novel; it is an old Greg Egan novel. Actually, it is a *very* old Greg Egan novel--his first novel. Someone discovered a case of them in a basement somewhere and they showed up at Aussiecon Three, where I immediately grabbed one. (See last paragraph for availability information.)

The plot of this book is not like Egan's later work, but the wealth of ideas--and many of the same ideas--that characterize his later work is. There is a section on how quantum mechanics restored the concept of free will. The protagonist sends out "viewpoints"--essentially non-material copies of himself--to perform various tasks. The protagonist is (literally) making films in his head, which conjures up a vision of universes within an individual mind, which in turn conjures up the image of layers of universes. (And yes, I mean literally--the protagonist claims to have an actual little film lab in there!)

The protagonist--first-person narrator, in this case--is a student at what appears to be (in United States terms) a private preparatory school. Though it many ways it seems to be run by the same sort of people as the upper management in "Dilbert," the narrator actually finds some method in their madness. That is, their insane methods are actually logical to achieve their goals--it's just that their goals are insane also.

I find it interesting that both Greg Egan and Neal Stephenson both have their first novel out of print, somewhat disowned by themselves, and set in an academic environment. I suppose this may be a function of "write what you know." The value of this suggestion can be judged by comparing the quality of these authors' later works--arguably about things they have no firsthand experience or knowledge of--to their first novels. (And how much did Shakespeare really know about early Scottish politics?)

This book is out of print (and unlikely to come back into print, from what I've heard), but Slow Glass Books, GPO Box 2708X, Melbourne, Victoria 3001 AUSTRALIA may still have a few copies. They take credit cards, so a letter with your credit card information and a statement authorizing them to charge it for the price plus shipping and handling would probably be easiest for those not in Melbourne. [-ecl]

AMERICAN BEAUTY (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):

Capsule: A razor-sharp, merciless look at human relationships in suburbia goes from a light satirical comedy to a drama of piercing intensity. One man's midlife crisis tears apart a neighborhood. This provocative theatrical film is the debut of former TV-writer Alan Ball and it is as perceptive and as it is unforgiving. Ball keeps no less than six characters center stage and defines each of them with brisk and telling dialog. Rating: 8 (0 to 10), low +3 (-4 to +4)

Few films have the power to take American suburban life and really pin it down for examination like you would pin down a butterfly. Michael Ritchie's SMILE did a very good job. Still a good job Bill Persky's SERIAL is just a bit wider of the mark with somewhat broader humor. Reminiscent of each at times, AMERICAN BEAUTY does it even better.

The story is narrated by Lester Burnam (Kevin Spacey). Lester is fast approaching middle age and life is just not working for him. The advertising magazine where Lester works is probably going to fire him any day, but he holds tightly to his job putting off facing of the obvious failure of the current career. But his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) is ever-ready to remind him. Dinnertime with Carolyn has become a constant series of barbs that he parries as well as he can manage. Carolyn is also failing, but as a real estate agent who is even more success-oriented than Lester is. She is constantly on the lookout for the key self-help therapy to make her a selling genius. Once passionate she has lost interest in any relationship with Lester beyond the dubious pleasure of grinding him down. Caught in between is their daughter Jane (Thora Birch) who hates her parents and feels no connection with them.

Things have been this way for years but are set in motion again by two events. Lester meets his daughter's best friend Angela (Mena Suvari) and finds that after years of being sexually deprived he is attracted to her almost to the point of obsession. When Angela flirts back it fires off a serious midlife crisis in Lester. He as much as possible returns to the behavior patterns of the counter-culture years of his early twenties. He resigns before he can be fired and takes a job flipping hamburgers. From there it is a short step to Pink Floyd and marijuana. The other important event is the arrival next door of the Fitts family. Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper) is recently retired from the Marine Corps. His son Ricky (Wes Bentley) is a hyper-intense boy with a history of mental problems. His hobby is voyeuristically videotaping his friends and family to keep as a huge archive of taped memories which he funds by selling drugs. His tyrannical father deludes himself that Ricky is getting the money through odd jobs. Ricky comes between Jane and Angela when Jane is fascinated by him and Angela repulsed by him.

Spacey's transition from overly tense to extremely mellow is handled credibly. Bening manages to keep her character less complex than meets the eye. She has embraced simplistic self-help regimes that have her repeat endlessly mantras like "I will sell this house today." She is a cold, heartless woman with no core at all. It is ironic that Spacey's character while rejecting the adult world for one of a superannuated teen, still hopes to win back his wife. Bening claims that she refuses to be a victim, but it is really he who lives that philosophy. It is Bening's character who outwardly wants to maintain the image of not changing but is doing the most to betray the relationship. The Fitts family is a frightening view of parental oppression. One parent is explosively violent, a sort of a mad dog apparently created by the military. Barbara Fitts (Allison Janney) has retreated from life in a much less healthy way than Lester has. One feel that Jane should examine this family before judging her own.

The script by Alan Ball (new to film but with TV experience) is able to cover a large number of characters making them all go through complex degrees of changes. It manages this without turning the film into a soap opera by subtly cheating a bit with the dialog, having characters being just a little more candid and self-revealing than they would probably really be in life. For example, Ricky just happens to accuse Angela of being just what it is her worst secret fear that she is, and by her reaction all is revealed. By using this technique Ball manages to observe and keep in focus six characters in the foreground of the story. Directed by Sam Mendes (a veteran of Broadway but new to film), the characters are well displayed to allow an appreciation of their complexity in a pace that never bores. With cinematographer Conrad L. Hall, he creates some interesting erotic fantasies for Lester. Almost all the fantasies have rich red imagery of roses. It is interesting to watch how often roses are included in shots.

This is a perceptive film that flows from humorous to very serious. It is a quality of writing rarely seen in films these days. I rate it an 8 on the 0 to 10 scale and a low +3 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]

MUMFORD (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):

Capsule: Pleasant and amiable is Lawrence Kasdan's style in this story of two Mumfords. One is a small town of that name; one is the name of the town's successful but unorthodox psychologist. This film does a once-over lightly on the town and on the nature of psychological help. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), high +1 (-4 to +4)

Films like PLEASANTVILLE have questioned time-honored American small town values. But traditionally American films have given us idealized representations of American small town life. Generally in American films small towns are where good people live and work. Films like SHADOW OF A DOUBT have intentionally shown small town life as really being the American ideal. Hitchcock intentionally played up the theme in SHADOW OF A DOUBT to show wartime audiences that small town life was what Americans were fighting for. Films like DOC HOLLYWOOD press the idea that if you get to know the American small town you are bound to like it and the people in it. MUMFORD is a similar film extolling the virtues of the small town life. DOC HOLLYWOOD was about the outsider trying to leave the small town but falling in love with the town instead. MUMFORD is a variation in which the outsider already loves the town and really wants to stay in the small town in spite of forces to make him leave.

MUMFORD opens with a sequence that looks like it was from some luscious, steamy 1940s James M. Cain film adaptation. Are we in the right movie? Yes. We are in the fantasy life of the Mumford town pharmacist. The strong, handsome young man of the fantasy turns out to be plump, balding and nearly blind in real life. He is on the couch talking to bland, handsome psychologist Dr. Mumford (played by Lorn Dean). Doc Mumford is disarmingly pleasant and affable.

Through most of the first third of the film we get to know the unorthodox doctor and about six of his cases. We watch how he goes about treating them. Among them are Althea Brockett (Mary McDonnell) who lives in luxury but is becoming a compulsive buyer. Young Skip Skipperton (Jason Lee) skateboards through traffic and runs the most successful modem company in the world. Emotionally he is still a child just looking for a buddy with whom to talk and play catch. Then there is Sofie Crisp (Hope Davis) an attractive divorcee who is living with her parents and developing Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Mumford's treatment in each case seems to be in equal parts pleasant conversation and intuitive pop psychology. Sooner or later he seems to get each of his patients up to a nice place in the hills he knows of that has an impressive overlook of the town. Kasdan's approach to getting to the story is as unhurried and even as pleasant as life in the American small town of the title.

Ernest Delbanco (David Paymer) and Phyllis Sheeler (Jane Adams), a psychiatrist and a psychologist, do not mind that the newcomer is more successful than they are, but have some reservations about his style. But we too start to notice something a little off in the psychologist's style. In shooting the breeze with his patients Mumford may indiscreetly talk about his other cases. Often his comments to his patients are a little more direct and frank than we might expect. He bones up on the Internet for some surprisingly basic psychological information. He also takes an immediate dislike to town lawyer Lionel Dillard (Martin Short). It may well be that Doc Mumford may have some problems of his own, psychological and otherwise.

In telling his story, Kasdan uses some unorthodox approaches. The primary story line is delayed well into the film and then only half-heartedly visited now and again. What drives the film is not the pace of the plot. Instead, one wants to see each of the cases Dr. Mumford is treating and how a simple intuitive approach works to solve problems. Nor is the cast a particularly high-powered one. Loren Dean, who played the title role in BILLY BATHGATE and was an investigator in GATTACA, is likeable and inoffensive, but he borders on being insipid and never generates much dramatic tension. Alfre Woodard is under-used as a friend and neighbor of Doc Mumford. Woodard previously shared with Mary McDonnell the films BLUE CHIPS, PASSION FISH, and GRAND CANYON. Martin Short is slightly abrasive as the town lawyer. Jason Lee as town entrepreneur may be familiar as the clueless Banky from CHASING AMY.

This will not be one of Kasdan's more memorable scripts, but it is certainly a pleasant way to spend an hour or two. I rate it a 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]

Quote of the Week:

     The amount of noise anyone can bear undisturbed stands
     in inverse proportion to his mental capacity.
                                   -- Arthur Schopopenhauer