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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
Club Notice - 12/29/00 -- Vol. 19, No. 26
Table of Contents
Chair/Librarian: Mark Leeper, 732-817-5619, firstname.lastname@example.org Factotum: Evelyn Leeper, 732-332-6218, email@example.com Distinguished Heinlein Apologist: Rob Mitchell, firstname.lastname@example.org HO Chair Emeritus: John Jetzt, email@example.com HO Librarian Emeritus: Nick Sauer, firstname.lastname@example.org Back issues at http://www.geocities.com/evelynleeper. All material copyright by author unless otherwise noted.
Ford Thaxton's internet page with film soundtrack scores at http://www.film.com/reviews/features/stc/ was playing the scores from films about Pearl Harbor. It occured to me that in the 1950s the big film about Pearl Harbor was FROM HERE TO ETERNITY. In the 1960s the major films about Pearl Harbor became a little more explicit with DAY OF INFAMY and TORA! TORA! TORA!. In the meantime the event has receded in the past and American education has lowered its standards a little. The upcoming film about the battle will be PEARL HARBOR. I expect the next major film to be called WWII: PEARL HARBOR and the one after that to be called THE JAPANESE SURPRISE ATTACK AT PEARL HARBOR. [-mrl]
STRANGE AEONS, a British horror fanzine, has been publishing a few of my horror film reviews (e.g., THE NINTH GATE). The magazine is dedicated to horror, but especially to Lovecraftian horror. They don't seem to be into the slasher or fishhook sort of horror that seems to be so popular now. They are not into the HOLLOW MAN and WHAT LIES BENEATH sort of horror film that ends up with the unkillable stalker. They are into the quiet horrors that are the sort of thing that H. P. Lovecraft would write. They send me a copy of each issue that has one of my reviews and frankly, I am enjoying them more than I expected. I was never that much of a Lovecraft fan. But I am getting there now. Part of what held me back, for at least some of the time, was the knowledge that Lovecraft was an anti-Semite, if an odd one. When he would rant against the Jews his wife would try to stop him, reminding him, "But I am Jewish." "No you're not. You are Mrs. Lovecraft." I suppose if I can get over that objection to Richard Wagner, I can do the same for Lovecraft.
I guess the truth is that I am not becoming so much just a fan of Lovecraft as of the breed of fantasy that flourished in the 1930s and then died again. Indeed there were some very good writers at that time and most have been forgotten. Some remained popular to later years, people like Ray Bradbury and, of course, Edgar Rice Burroughs. And some were revived later and to remain popular. That is writers like Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan and H. P. Lovecraft. Some get revived fitfully, but today are for the most part on their way to being forgotten. A. Merritt was great at creating strange alternate unnatural histories of the world with weird natural gods with names like "Snake Mother" and "the Metal Emperor." If I remember rightly, a close friend of Lovecraft was the American Coleridge, the poet and fantasist Clark Ashton Smith- -ignored because of where his writing was published, not for any lack of brilliance. These writers maybe did not all flourish in the 30s, but they published in the pulps. That was really the Golden Age of pulp writing. Some pulp writing was not great, but some was as good as any writing that was being done. But it was totally ignored by the academics as coming from the wrong side of the tracks. Since the 1960s science fiction writing has gone from the lower class of academic respectability, just a bit above pornography, to the middle class. But as that has happened much of the best has been forgotten. Lovecraft might have been forgotten, not much respected in his own time in his own country. As with Edgar Allan Poe, what called him to Americans' attention was that he was discovered and became respected by Europeans. So perhaps a British fanzine of Lovecraftian horror, much set in Massachusetts or Rhode Island, is not so strange.
Lovecraft's is not the best writing of the 1930s, but it is usually quite worth reading. Lovecraft combines much of Smith's poetic style--as seen through a morbid lens--with some of the bizarre imaginative mythologies that could have been created by A. Merritt. He wrote fifty-some stories, about a quarter of which share the Cthulu premise. This is a sort of alternate mythology that turns his horror stories into science fiction. In times long before we measure life on Earth, we were occupied by immortal aliens, huge and so horrible that merely to see what their shadows looked like would send us screaming mad. These creatures were banished from the Earth but to someplace somehow very near. They want to return and offer mortals some incredible power in return for opening the doorways. This is a horror for the 1930s in a way that even the popular Universal horror films were not. In the 1930s the memories were fresh of the horrors of the Great War. In part these horrors inspired the 1930s horror films. But the Frankenstein Monster or a werewolf or Dracula could be only so frightening. If one of these monsters killed maybe two or three people a night, that was about the most. During the war one man in a trench with a machine gun could kill that many soldiers in a few seconds. What threat was Dracula compared to the Spanish Influenza virus that killed 30,000,000 people? But if the Great Old Ones return, they take their world back. There will be no human survivors. There was the possibility that science might find a natural explanation for Dracula and werewolves. But the Great Old Ones were from nature and the world of science. Other writers have picked up the Cthulu premise to write more stories in the shared world. These stories have come to be called the Cthulu Mythos, though Lovecraft himself never used that terminology.
It has been suggested by Lin Carter that in fact H. P. Lovecraft was a better horror writer than Poe. I do not think I accept that myself. Both authors were masters of mood, though I think that Poe was better at varying moods and styles. Lovecraft to often fell back on nameless dread as clues keep coming together and then the payoff is some idea that is morbid and moderately creative. I think that Poe could paint more hues of dread but then his payoffs were less varied and imaginative than Lovecraft's. [-mrl]
SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE (a film review in bullet form by Mark R. Leeper from the Toronto International Film Festival):
Capsule: Basically a one-joke black comedy, but one beautifully realized. What if the elusive Max Schreck (who played the vampire in the silent version of Dracula, NOSFERATU) really was a vampire. This is a sumptuous recreation of Eastern Europe in the 1920s and of the film director F. W. Murnau. Standout performance by Willem Dafoe. Well acted and well filmed. Rating: high +2
CAST AWAY (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Capsule: Tom Hanks plays a FedEx executive marooned on a deserted island who must find the means to stay alive and sane. Much of the film is enthralling but director Robert Zemeckis spends too much time on the aspects of lessor interest and not enough time on the parts that are really most enthralling. The film builds to a platitude by rushing past some of the most intellectually engaging material. With more emphasis on the real meat, this film would have rated considerably higher. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), high +1 (-4 to +4)
Chuck Noland (played by the versatile Tom Hanks) is a very dedicated executive for Federal Express, the package delivery company. He is extremely systematic and obsessed with the passage of time. Chuck has become a local legend for his dedication to delivering packages on time. He is even the center of a Federal Express urban myth about the lengths he will go to get a package delivered on time. Chuck knows that in his business time is all important for him, but unknown to him, he is about to spend the next few years of his life in a place where time is far more subjective.
Chuck is napping on a company flight over the Pacific and awakes to discover that the plane is off course in a storm and desperately trying to find its way back. Suddenly the world falls apart under him and we find ourselves in a crashing plane that is rapidly decompressing. After what well might be the scariest plane crash in cinema history Chuck finds himself in a life raft in a storm alone on a hostile ocean. With extreme good fortune he is blown to an island. But perhaps the island is not such good luck as he has no tools and no means to feed and protect himself. How he does that is the heart of the film. Unfortunately, there is not enough of this heart.
The problem is that the buildup to this point really takes too much time. The script shows you a bit of his relationship with his lover Kelly Frears (played by Helen Hunt). But once he is on the island that part of the film really is necessary only to establish that he has a woman whom he dearly loves. Developing that relationship takes valuable time from coverage of the island experience. The opening setup is not only unneeded, it is also puzzling. We are taken to a large family Christmas dinner at which everyone in the family seems to dress the same and work for Federal Express. That strikes the viewer as peculiar, but it leads to nothing. It not only wastes precious screentime, it does nothing to enhance the story. What it does serve to do is give Federal Express an even larger product placement than the huge one they would already have.
The centerpiece of this film is the air crash which is as detailed as it is frightening. One might almost say it was done in the realistic style of the beach landing of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and may be nearly as harrowing. It packs quite an impact and I will certainly think of its images the next time that I fly. Trust me, you should not expect to see this film as an airline in-flight movie.
This in many ways is an engineer's film. With a set of modest tools washed up on the shore from the crash or available on the island he is forced to reinvent or discover ways to fulfill his needs. He must reinterpret objects from a few floating FedEx packages as the tools to build his small world. And the knowledge of how to do that does not come easily. In the beginning he is almost a laughable character, strange-looking and overweight, and he makes foolish and frustrating mistakes. And he pays for those mistakes in pain and blood. What seem like very small tasks in civilization become extremely hard.
As time goes by, Chuck's intelligence as well as his fitness seems to improve immensely, though not his sanity. I think that the most interesting point made by the film is that sanity may be really a social affectation. Many people let down their guard when they are alone and do things like talking to themselves that they would not do in front of others. Chuck's circumstances are more extreme and he goes a lot further. To save the greater part of his reason must sacrifice the lessor part. Chuck allows his sanity fall away and to be replaced by a benign and natural insanity. He invents a friend to talk with. In order to battle the solitude he even comes to love the friend. But he can only do this because he is alone. If he knew anyone was watching him he would be inhibited from creating such a friend. Yet his actions seem natural. Perhaps we are all at least partly insane and keep that part in check while there is danger that other people may find out. And those others also keep their irrational sides hidden. While this phenomenon is usually interpreted as the solitude driving him insane, it seems really to be a process of the privacy allowing him to drop his guard. He allows himself to be natural in ways that few other people in the world can.
This is a better story than the platitude that it seems to build up to in the final scene. But it was not all the film it could have been if Zemeckis would have realized where his best material lay. It rates a 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. Wouldn't this be a good time for Luis Bunuel's 1952 ROBINSON CRUSOE to show up again and be rediscovered? I haven't seen it since I was five years old, but by all accounts it was quite good. Extra: look in this film for an emotionally charged scene that seems to be borrowed from MISSION TO MARS. [-mrl]
QUILLS (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Capsule: More enjoyable as a simple exercise in Grand Guignol than for the unoriginal theme, this is a rather cliched story of a rebel blamed for society's ills when it is really the establishment itself which is at fault. A good cast pits Geoffrey Rush against Michael Caine. But the film is more for fans of Jimmy Sangster than for those of Robert Bolt. Rating: 7 (0 to 10), low +2 (-4 to +4)
This year there were two films about the infamous Marquis de Sade and his imprisonment at the mental asylum at Charenton. There was Benoit Jacquot's more reserved SADE and Philip Kaufman's QUILLS. Both tell the same oft-repeated story as such diverse films as GREAT BALLS OF FIRE and THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT. Each of these films tells the account of somebody notorious in his own time. But, we are told, the REAL evil was that of the establishment that tried to suppress and crush these free spirits. The world has come to tolerate what the outcast was doing and the real villain was not the free spirit but the world that wanted to suppress him. There probably are few other ways to tell the narrative of someone punished for free expression from the viewpoint of a world that now tolerates free expression. It would be hard to tell the story of the Marquis de Sade at Charenton any other way in a world that now tolerates Gangsta Rap that is just a violent. Though Peter Brook's 1966 MARAT/SADE is a film that escapes the cliched just about as well as it could be done.
It is the early 1800s and Napoleon is Emperor of France. The infamous Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush) has seen the excesses of the Revolution and the Terror that followed. He has incorporated that horror in his "sadistic" writings. Now he lives imprisoned but in luxury at the Asylum at Charenton under the sympathetic but ineffective care of the Abbe Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix). All he needs to engage his bizarre fantasies is paper, ink, and quills. Coulmier uses argument and what he sees as reason to try to reform his patient and bring him to God. Coulmier argues for restraint and virtue; De Sade is the prophet of unrestrained hedonism and fulfillment. Sade's therapy also involves his staging of innocuous plays with the inmates as actors. Naturally he subverts these plays in any ways possible.
But Sade is an angry spirit who vents his furies by continuing to write his lurid and explicit sexual fantasies. For him writing his fantasies is an irresistible compulsion. His laundress Madeleine (Kate Winslet) manages a tidy business smuggling his fiction to a courier who takes it in turn to be published. The stories sell and are enjoyed all over France and the Emperor Napoleon wants to see this affront to public decency squelched. He sends an alienist Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to Charenton. (Alienists were the forerunners of psychiatrists like alchemists were the forerunners of chemists.) Royer-Collard obtains real results by torturing patients nearly to death and forcing them to give up their insanity. Royer-Collard is a respected man and recently has taken as a bride the reluctant Simone (Amelia Warner) who is about a third his age.
The screen has yet to provide a really hypnotic and effective de Sade. Such diverse talents as Kier Dullea, Klaus Kinski, Patrick Magee, Daniel Auteuil and the great Conrad Veidt have played the man, but it was (with the possible exception of Veidt) never played by someone who combines the whimsy and malignancy that the role requires. Rush has some power in the role, but even he falls short. Michael Caine represents a much more urbane and administrative evil and does a sufficient job but seemingly without his heart being in it. Kate Winslet of TITANIC fame plays the laundress transfixed by the notorious author. Joaquin Phoenix as a benightedly idealistic cleric is also acceptable but uninspired.
Sadly the theme of this story is over-familiar and tired from over-use. Where this film stands out is its ghoulish Grand Guignol vision of the tortures of the asylum and its enjoyably unpleasant anti-establishment view of the early 19th century. And perhaps in that de Sade would have appreciated it. I rate QUILLS a 7 on the 0 to 10 scale and a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. There were two additional treats for me. And it is a pleasure to see seasoned character actor Billie Whitelaw playing as the laundress's blind mother. Also being in the telecommunications industry myself, I enjoyed seeing the early telecommunications fiasco. [-mrl]
Quote of the Week:Melancholy Men, of all others, are the most witty. -- Aristotle