MT VOID 12/17/99 (Vol. 18, Number 25)

MT VOID 12/17/99 (Vol. 18, Number 25)

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
Club Notice - 12/17/99 -- Vol. 18, No. 25

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.


Our Paris trip logs are available at:


As we approach the end of the century I think there is one subject on just about everybody's mind. Not all writers have been willing to fact the situation, but part of the reason people read the MT VOID is that we handle the issues that nobody else will touch. In that spirit I think it is time to look back and assess just what exactly has gone wrong with mashed potatoes and how we have arrived at the current deplorable mashed potato situation. I think it is purely human nature and the invisible hand of the marketplace that have brought us to the current sorry pass. But let us look unafraid at the facts. It was not that long ago that mashed potatoes were different...

Old fashioned mashed potatoes were a standard dish. My own mother used to make mashed potatoes. She would take a special device called a "potato masher" and mash them and they would come out the consistency of mashed potatoes. All the way through. There were no lumps. Well-mashed potatoes should have no lumps. "Silky" would almost describe the way they came out. People who had lumps in their mashed potatoes simply has not taken the time and made the proper effort to make the dish correctly. A good cook made perfectly homogenous mashed potatoes. Oh, those were such wonderful times. Little did we see that change was coming to the world of mashed potatoes.

Then came the mashed potato flake and the mashed potato bud. Add boiling water and butter and they made perfect mashed potatoes. Every time. Well most times, sort of. They were easy to make but they were not always perfect mashed potatoes. If you added too much water you could end up with mashed potatoes you could sip through a straw. This was not good. Also the flavor might not always be exactly right. This was even worse. But they were easy to make so lunch counters, cafeterias, and bad diners everywhere made instant powdered mashed potatoes from flakes and passed them off as real mashed potatoes. Sometimes they made them well. Sometimes they were made not so well.

Then the public started catching on. There were those who refused to order mashed potatoes altogether claiming it was one more step downward in the sausaging of America. Or they felt they really were mashed potatoes but they had been made in a food processor. Even good restaurants where the potatoes were hand-mashed were caught up in the paranoia. Their answer was to try to find some way to make mashed potatoes that would obviously been hand mashed. They began to not make the potatoes quite so perfectly. Leave a few lumps in the potatoes, that was their philosophy. If they missed a few lumps that only proved that they made them the right way with a potato masher. It is the imperfections that confirmed they did the job the old fashioned way. A lack of lumps altogether makes the potatoes suspect. It is just like the fact that you can detect an artificial diamond by its total lack of imperfections.

And that was how things remained for many years. But things have not continued like that forever. I realized this the day I ordered turkey and mashed potatoes in a diner. And the potatoes came a little too liquid and smooth. They were almost the consistency of a thick milk shake. But as I ate them I was amazed by finding a lump in the potatoes. Had they really over mashed these potatoes to this extent and still left a lump? But then my tongue noticed edges on the lump. It was a diced potato. Then it dawned on me what was happening and the full horror of the situation hit me. Yes, these were powdered potatoes as I had first guessed. The powdered potato mixes were now coming with lumps. I don't know if they have them mixed into the powder or if you get a little packet of potato lumps as part of the mix. I started imagining what they must have said on the box. "Mix the magic potato lumps into your mashed potatoes to get a real --down home' mashed potato consistency." No.

So this is it. That was about a year ago. Since then no matter where I get mashed potatoes, fancy restaurant or cheap diner, they ALWAYS have lumps. The mixes have gotten smarter and they are now not usually diced potatoes, but every restaurant that serves mashed potatoes has lumps. This was not how it was supposed to be. Mashed potatoes should not have lumps. But you cannot serve mashed potatoes without lumps in the mad race to make all mashed potatoes seem hand-mashed. But the lumps no longer prove anything. Some mashed potatoes will be hand mashed and some will be assembled from hobby kits, but ALL will have lumps. This is the legacy that the 20th century will leave the 21st in the field of mashed potatoes. The next generation will grow up believing that mashed potatoes just always have lumps. This is not a legacy we can be proud to have left. An inexorable part of the dumbing down of America will be the lumping up of mashed potatoes. And we will have done it to ourselves.

Now don't get me started on what has gone wrong with the taste of Coca-Cola. [-mrl]

THE GREEN MILE (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):

Capsule: In a Louisiana prison in 1935 a black giant sentenced to death adds a touch of magic to the death row cell block. Frank Darabont returns to writing/directing a Stephen King prison story with THE GREEN MILE. He spends three hours on his film and gives us some moving moments, but the dramatic payoff is never strong enough to justify the length and the artificiality of his new work. What Darabont did naturally in THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION seems far more contrived here. This is a decent film when a very good film was expected. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), high +1 (-4 to +4)

Five years ago Frank Darabont released THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION a film he wrote and directed based on a Stephen King story set in a prison. I picked that as the best film of its year. Now Darabont returns to that territory with what promised to be a powerful Stephen King story, but one which is not compelling enough to justify the film's three-hour length. Certainly the payoff, when it comes, is moving. But it is undercut by the introduction of mystical elements and by heavy-handed stylistic touches. The addition of supernatural elements to a gritty story of human experience seems ill-conceived.

At a home for the elderly one resident Paul Edgecomb (Dabbs Greer) has a number of strange behaviors. Every day he gets out and takes a walk in the woods. Seeing the film TOP HAT on television reduces him to tears. Finally he tells his story in private to a friend. In 1935 he was the lead guard on death row at a Cold Mountain Penitentiary in Louisiana (here he is played by Tom Hanks). The team of guards was made up of decent men most of whom just wanted the best for the convicts under their care. The one exception is the sadistic Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison), the governor's wife's nephew. [No mention is made of Senator Huey Long who was a virtual dictator in Louisiana. It was under his auspices political appointments like Percy's were made. The governor that year was Long's handpicked replacement when three years earlier in the middle of his term Long vacated the office for a seat in the US Senate. Long was at the height of his power at the point this film was set. Change was fast in coming, however. This film is set in July. A little over a month after the events of this film, on the night of September 8th, 1935, Dr. Carl Austin Weiss assassinated Long in the State Capitol Building in Baton Rouge.]

The story really begins when John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan) a huge black man is brought to the cell block having been convicted of raping and murdering two young girls. Paul cannot believe that this giant child-man who is afraid of the dark could be a murderer. The film slowly develops the stories of some of the inmates and guards. For a long time the script neglects Coffey whose angel- like presence is felt over the entire cell-block but who does little to interact with people.

Darabont's script apparently wanted to carry over from the novel the feeling that the viewer really knows the inmates as individuals and cares about them. But the characterization comes slowly and too frequently characters are dispatched quickly. The one inmate not well characterized is Coffey, the one who would be most interesting to know. Our reactions to Coffey come mostly from stereotypes borrowed from other films. That is the problem with too many of the main characters. We do not really understand Percy at the end of the film. Nor do we really understand Wild Bill.(Sam Rockwell of JERRY AND TOM), a wild animal of a man. Even Paul is not a character of much depth or wisdom. He is simply a good and decent man.

Almost the entire film is shot with a heavy yellowish filter that blocks out any bright light and artificially casts a pallor on the film and calls attention to itself. In THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION Darabont's team created a prison that looked like a prison of the period. This is a longer film and most of the film takes place in the one cell block and the room of the electric chair. While the confinements are not claustrophobic, they do start to become tiresome after a while.

Tom Hanks is reasonable as the decent and likable prison guard, a welcome change from usual negative stereotypes. A man with grown children, he looks a little young for the role and the accent never sounds exactly right. His second in command is David Morse as Brutus "Brutal" Howell. Morse is a large quiet actor familiar from THE CROSSING GUARD. He his tall and calm image gives him the air of a blond Gary Cooper. James Cromwell has been a familiar face for many years, but since BABE he has been getting more major roles. Here he plays a prison warden with the requisite dignity. Another familiar face in a very small role is Gary Sinese.

The lineage of THE GREEN MILE is excellent, but the film itself is only decent and probably could have been more effective at a two hour length. I rate is a favorable but disappointed 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]

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

Capsule: THE INSIDER traces the story of the incident in which the big tobacco companies went from incredible power to their current huge losing streak. It is told blow by blow (by blow by blow by blow). A former tobacco executive is slowly convinced to become a whistle-blower for the CBS News "60 Minutes" team. It shoulda, coulda, woulda been exciting, but is told so authentically and in such detail that it becomes ponderous, over- long, and at times even dull. Rating: 4 (0 to 10), 0 (-4 to +4)

I read the NEW YORKER magazine and I enjoy some of their really in-depth articles about some incident. They will take some incident like the investigation of a mysterious plane crash and tell you what happened in detail. It becomes a real education in what agencies get involved and how theories are suggested, and what kind of pressure the investigators are under, and just about any other aspect you can think of. Frequently I get the feeling that the article sounded exciting, but I am being told in more detail than I really wanted to know. Often I get to the middle of a story and say, OK, it sounded good but I now have invested more time than I am willing to spend on this subject. Film is a different medium. It is a visual medium. That slows down the telling of stories much more than people realize. I frequently am surprised to find out how short a film script is and how much of the pages are empty space. The magazine article and the film script are two very different media. THE INSIDER is a film adaptation of the Vanity Fair article "The Man Who Knew Too Much" by Marie Brenner. It is too much an adaptation of a magazine article slowed to the pace of a film. It really verges on being tedious at least at times.

For years the seven big companies knew that they dealt in an addictive drug that caused a host of unhealthy side-effects. But they pretended for the public that it was unproven and they did not really believe it. The business was incredibly profitable and the proceeds translated into the political power to squelch and discredit any political movements against big tobacco. The tide turned when a former vice-president of one of the companies was convinced by the CBS "60 Minutes" News team to tell the public how much the tobacco companies really knew about the health effects of smoking. The resulting pressure to stop the story created a small civil war at CBS. Who were the major people involved, what were their motives, how was the story almost killed, how did it get aired anyway? That is the story covered in surprising detail by THE INSIDER. This all could have been enthralling, but it is not the sort of thing that a stylist like Michael Mann would be likely to do well. And in the end, he failed. To make a long story short, the film needed a director who knew how to make a long story short.

The film opens with the CBS "60 Minutes" team in Iran with the assignment to interview a terrorist. We get a taste for their personal style and how they get the upper hand. They go from being one newsman blindfolded at the hands of the terrorists to the actual interview with Mike Wallace (played by Christopher Plummer). There the news team under producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) are ordering around the terrorists and getting away with it. This seems to have nothing to do with the main line of the story, but later when the tobacco industry is so much harder to manipulate than committed terrorists, we have a wry irony on who really has clout in the world. Terrorists can grab the headlines, but the tobacco companies have the real position of power.

Incongruously intercut with the Iran interview sequence we see Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) dejectedly returning from work to his home. We discover that he has been fired and his career brought to a complete halt unexpectedly. He had been a very profitably rewarded vice-president in charge or research and development at Brown and Williams Tobacco; now he was unemployed and needed money to support his family. Rather than support him his wife Liane (Diane Venora) demands of him what are they supposed to do for income. Meanwhile the "60 Minutes" team trying to do a story on fires started by cigarettes have obtained some data they do not understand. They offer Wigand $12,000 just to interpret the data. Wigand's severance agreement swears him to secrecy about anything he knows about tobacco dealings, but he is reluctantly he stretches the severance terms. He is willing to read some documents from another tobacco company and interpret them for Bergman. In spite of the secrecy, Wigand's former employers seem immediately to know Wigand is talking to "60 Minutes" and he is warned off by former boss Thomas Sandefur played Michael Gambon in an all too brief but deliciously sinister role. And so the game begins. Wigand is irate at his negative treatment for what he still considered continued to be loyalty to his agreement and his former employer. Meanwhile someone is playing very rough with Wigand and his family.

The film examines Wigand and the pressures placed on his family as they are caught between two powerful giants. Wigand has always wanted to make tobacco safer and has natural sympathies with getting the story out. He and his family are assaulted psychologically and financially by the giant tobacco industry that had never lost a legal fight. Al Pacino is given top billing but the Wigand family is the core of THE INSIDER.

The story is told slowly and in just a bit too much meticulous detail. The film is 157 minutes and is an extremely demanding film for the audience. The musical score by Pieter Bourke, Lisa Gerrard, and Graeme Revell is one of the worst in recent memory. It puts ominous chords under some scenes and using voice in ways that become a distraction that gets in the way of the storytelling. Also disturbing is the casting of Christopher Plummer as Mike Wallace. Plummer and Wallace are such different types and Wallace is too well-known for even so good an actor as Plummer to play him convincingly.

This film might have been a really engaging experience under another director's control. Michael Mann was the wrong person to helm this film and THE INSIDER lacks intensity because of his style. I rate it a 4 on the 0 to 10 scale and a 0 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]

Quote of the Week:

     When I was a child, I spake as a child, I
     understood as a child, I thought as a child:
     and when I was a man I discovered that nobody
     wise ever really gives that up.
                                   -- Mark Leeper