MT VOID 11/19/99 (Vol. 18, Number 21)

MT VOID 11/19/99 (Vol. 18, Number 21)

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
Club Notice - 11/19/99 -- Vol. 18, No. 21

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.

The Speckled Band

Frequently the sacred cows of our society do not bear close scrutiny, particularly in works of art. In art the same criteria we apply to newer works of art if applied to the classics would show them to be flawed in the same way. There are two film versions of NOSFERATU. One is a classic of German cinema directed by F. W. Murnau in 1922, one is a nearly identical remake made almost as a silent film in 1979. The former is one of the most chilling films ever made. The latter is and intentionally close recreation using almost all of the same techniques and style is ponderous and dull. The only major difference is that the remake is in color. But watching it one knows it could have been made with modern techniques so you are less likely to be impressed. When you see a silent film you make allowances for its age. The difference is not that the first is done so much better but that one knows it is not a classic so one can be critical in the way one would not be with the original. (Or one should. I do not know what a young audience would make of the original NOSFERATU.)

I am listening to a radio adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's story "The Speckled Band." By the way, SPOILER WARNING: IF YOU HAVE NOT BEEN IN CONTACT WITH THE STORY AND DON'T KNOW THE ENDING AND DO NOT WANT TO KNOW THE END, GO AWAY. I would be spoiling it for you. Anyway this was what Doyle himself considered to be one of his very best Sherlock Holmes stories. One of his best, mind you. And most of his fans agree. If you remember Holmes's client tells him about a woman who had spent a night alone in a particular room. In the middle of the night the woman had screamed, staggered from her room, gasped cryptically "the speckled band," and died. The whole story is about Holmes trying to figure out the meaning of these last words. These days most of us know that the murder weapon is and title refers to a deadly swamp adder.

Now this is a classic, but it occurs to me that this story is really a prime example of what is frequently called "the idiot plot." That is a story where if one person did the logical thing, the whole plot would fall apart. The plot works only because the people are behaving like idiots. They are unrealistically doing it as well. Now I am not going to try to second guess the great Sherlock Holmes. I will assume it was a brilliant piece of deduction to figure out that the clues pointed to the murder weapon being a deadly reptile. Even the clue that there was an indiscrete saucer of milk left hanging around. How that points to swamp adder I have no idea, because adders, being reptiles, are not partial to dairy products. There are few swamps where any self-respecting adder would get a taste for milk. But what is really foolish in the plotting is the behavior of the victim. What kind of person would feel herself dying, find a sympathetic sister, and say something stupid like "the speckled band." And people in the story think the words mean a speckled band of gypsies. Her last words are poetic. They are picturesque language. But under the circumstances it really is not the way the woman would express herself. Does it not only seem more natural and at the same time more intelligent for her to yell, "SNAKE!!" [-mrl]

BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):

Capsule: Paydirt! A really, really off-the- wall fantasy that provides just one strange idea or one weird insight after another. An office worker discovers his file cabinet hides a doorway into the head of John Malkovich so that fifteen minutes at a time the visitor can be the famous actor. Different people are affected differently and the implications of the premise are used in multiple comic ways. Rating: 9 (0 to 10), +3 (-4 to +4)

BEING JOHN MALKOVICH is an audacious new comedy that starts strange, keeps getting stranger, then hits an idea so weird that it takes the rest of the film to explore only some of the many ramifications. "Nobody's looking for a puppeteer in today's wintry economic climate," complains Craig Schwartz (played John Cusak) an out-of-work puppeteer to his wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz). Craig has been reduced to street performances of Heloise and Abelard for change, and even that does not work for him. Lotte looks and dresses and generally lives like a hippie. She works in a pet store and has turned the Schwartz's modest apartment into a menagerie of distressed animals. In his desperate efforts to find work Craig takes a job as a filing clerk on the seven and a half floor of an office building. The floor only about five feet high was created to provide equal access for midgets. Craig reluctantly settles into his job and starts having designs on the office beauty, a leggy clerk named Maxine (Catherine Keener). When Maxine finds out Craig is a puppeteer his attentions are only a little less welcome than the strep throat.

Then Craig discovers that there is a little doorway hidden behind an office file cabinet. Behind it lies a dark, damp, gratuitously Freudian tunnel that drops the trespasser into the mind and body of John Malkovich (played by John Malkovich). For fifteen minutes the visitor sees what Malkovich sees, hears what Malkovich hears, and feels what Malkovich feels. Then the visitor is gently dropped from thin air to the ground next to the New Jersey Turnpike. For Craig the strange phenomenon is his inroad to win the attentions of Maxine. Maxine sees the Malkovich tunnel as a giant moneymaking opportunity. When Lotte tries the tunnel she discovers that she likes to be Malkovich to ... well that would be telling.

Charlie Kaufman's script never slows down and never leaves a scene with the expected. And only toward the end is the plot so convoluted that it stops making sense. Not all the story possibilities are used, but Kaufman does carry the premise and its ramifications to some strange extremes. Different people get different benefits from the Malkovich ride. Some visitors want to try just being in another body; some want a taste of the Malkovich life style. Malkovich's finely appointed, but sterile and lifeless apartment is a stark contrast to Craig's cluttered low-rent apartment teeming with animals and life. Other people want to share the actor's sex life.

John Cusak seems to have a taste for intelligent humor and takes to his role with gusto. For some reason he looks as seedy as he has ever looked on the screen. Cameron Diaz, who has been alluring in most of her other films here is almost unrecognizably frumpy in a mop of flyaway hair. They are both made as unglamorous as possible to define their rank in society and to contrast with Catherine Keener, one of the beautiful people who can have a lover like Malkovich for the asking. And the old doctor with a voice like Orson Bean really is played by Orson Bean.

At last something new and original in a movie. This is a film as fresh and entertaining as was the story ALICE IN WONDERLAND when it was new. It would be nice if following the lead of BEING JOHN MALKOVICH filmmakers would realize that you could start with some really crazy premise, possibly fantasy, and just follow it to wherever it leads. I rate BEING JOHN MALKOVICH a 9 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +3 on the -4 to +4 scale.

Maybe someone who knows more about the state of marionette techniques than I do. Can a good puppeteer really make a marionette do a somersault and not get the strings tangled up. Questions unanswered: Is there a separate in-house documentary about the seventh floor? After all we know from the outside of the building that the floors started out all the same height, so they must have divided the seventh floor. I was willing to suspend my disbelief for that; I was even willing to suspend my disbelief on the major premises of the film. But one thing is minor premise goes a little too far. I find it very difficult to believe that without benefit of a magical tunnel anybody could get from an office building in Manhattan to the New Jersey Turnpike in only fifteen minutes.

When Malkovich enters the tunnel the result is a really bizarre scene borrowed from a Twilight Zone episode, but it is totally unsatisfying as what would be seen. I was expecting to see an ever-diminishing tunnel or repetitions, not unlike the mirror scene in CITIZEN KANE. But my question is what did the Japanese tourist who was in the tunnel with him see. I assume from the script that Malkovich really has never played a jewel thief. However the reference to him playing someone mentally retarded was probably to his performance as Lenny in John Steinbeck's OF MICE AND MEN (1992). [-mrl]

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

Capsule: Kevin Smith has put together an extremely ambitious comedy fantasy based on Christian doctrine. The film is occasionally very clever, but too often it is heavy-handed. Ultimately this uneven theological farce fails because he has thrown too much in and often communicates it poorly to the audience. Between heavy violence and heavier ideas, between gross-out humor and bizarre satire, the film tries to be too many things. Eventually DOGMA falls apart of its own weight. Smith is not yet the filmmaker it would take to make this whole film work. Rating: 5 (0 to 10), low +1 (-4 to +4)

One of my favorite comedies of all time is Stanley Donan's BEDAZZLED featuring the writing and acting of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. It is a retelling of the story of Faust in modern terms. But what makes it funny is are the often hilarious discussions of theology and religious dogma between the Devil and a nebbish Wimpy Burger grill man selling his soul. Films rarely get into humorous examinations of anything so abstract as religious belief and in the deft hands of Cook and Moore it made for a really original comedy. I hardly expected a film along these lines from relative newcomer Kevin Smith, with only the films CLERKS, MALL RATS, and CHASING AMY under his belt. None of these films indicated any inclination toward a far-out fantasy with a humorous take on religious belief, one along the lines of BEDAZZLED. When I heard that was what he had done I came hoping for a lot and I got a lot, but not the same lot. Smith wrote himself a script that a many-year veteran director might have found overly ambitious. There is just too much in the film for it to all hang together. One has the feeling that any fleeting idea Smith had stuck to the script like flypaper. Somehow feces monsters, heavy violence, deep theological discussion, fantasy, and an action thriller plot just do not all fit comfortably in the same film.

The plot is convoluted and often the viewer has to listen quick to get the concepts. Apparently two fallen angels Loki and Bartleby (played by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck) have found a loophole in God's rules so that they can get back into heaven, though they may have to destroy the world to do it. An abortion clinic worker Bethany (Linda Fiorentino) is chosen by the archangel Metatron (Alan Rickman) to stop the two angels. Soon she is travelling with Kevin Smith's repeating characters Jay and Silent Bob. In DOGMA we learn they are prophets of the Lord. This may limit their usefulness to Smith in future films. They are also joined by Rufus (Chris Rock), the 13th Apostle whom we never heard about in the New Testament because he was black. The fact that the film also suggests that Christ was also black requires some fancy explaining. What Smith should have done was drop one idea of the other and not was screen time reconciling the two ideas. There is enough explaining that has to be done in this film as it is. George Carlin has a small role as a Catholic Cardinal with a concept for popularizing religion. It is possible that the ideas for this sequence were all Smith's or perhaps he was writing a pastiche in the style of George Carlin. But the whole George Carlin Buddy Jesus sequence is very, very much in the style of Carlin and it would hardly surprise me to find out that the long-time iconoclastic comedian had a lot of input on his sequence or even wrote it himself. Tiny roles go to Bud Cort and Janeane Garofalo. It is not clear why name actors were needed in such tiny roles.

With CHASING AMY Kevin Smith showed that he could write characters with some emotional complexity. Unfortunately DOGMA does not take the time for developing characters in a meaningful way. The acting and seems much cruder in this film than in CHASING AMY. Some surprisingly crude production values betray the low budget this film must have had. Particularly noticeable early in the film words seem to fit lips very poorly as if the in studio dubbing were not competently done. The plot calls for special effects but they range from adequate to crude.

The script is full of interesting ideas but frequently they go by at lightning speed and such basic concepts as why the action is taking place now rather than at some other point of the past or future seem too quickly glossed over. Consideration should have been given how to convey the ideas better. Inconsistencies mix into Christian theology in the form of a muse from Greek mythology and the Norse god Loki. Humor is always subjective and there were members of the audience laughing, but for me much of the levity for me fell flat and was not even germane to the subject matter (e.g. Wisconsin cheese hats). Smith needs to be more selective in the humor included. Smith might well have considered letting less be more.

DOGMA comes close to subject matter I would have greatly enjoyed. A little refinement of the script could have made this like BEDAZZLED, an intelligent comedy to be savored for years. It still has a lot to offer, but I rat it only a 5 on the 0 to 10 scale and a low +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. DOGMA's reinterpretation of theology is causing the same protest that Milton or Dante might face if they were around today. The upside is that the protests appear for now to be low-key and generally ignored. [-mrl]

Quote of the Week:

     In every well-governed state wealth is a sacred
     thing; in democracies it is the only sacred thing.
                                   -- Anatole France