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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
10/05/01 -- Vol. 20, No. 14
Table of Contents
Crisis of Faith (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I consider myself to be fairly liberal and also more libertarian than not. I am a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union. But I have to say that I also consider myself a pragmatist and there are times that I do stray from the purist adherence to those beliefs. I have crises of faith with a few of the supposedly liberal stands. People who follow my editorials know that I have some problems with some of the extreme actions and extreme opinions some people have in the name of feminism. This week I want to talk about a couple of others.
In general I am against any form of killing for any purpose except survival. I do not believe in hunting for any purpose except to preserve ones life. I believe in hunting is all right for food and in very cold climates hunting for fur. I think that beyond those two purposes, there is no such thing as a moral right to bear arms. In general the National Rifle Association should consider me an opponent. I certainly oppose them. But I also oppose the stand of the ACLU on gun ownership. More accurately they agree with my viewpoint on gun control and I am paying them to oppose me. It is like having a dentist recommend a brand of rich candy bar.
The ACLU has a position to defend Constitutional rights and some of the ones they defend are much more tenuously connected to the Constitution than the right to bear arms in well-ordered militias. I think that the Founding Fathers did not foresee what problems the second amendment would cause. Nevertheless the ACLU should be as protective of the second amendment as they are of the other nine. I still support gun control, but I while I do that I would like to think the ACLU is looking out for the Bill of Rights in case I go too far. But I do not have a lot of confidence in the consistency of their viewpoint.
The other issue, and another one where I would differ from the ACLU's viewpoint, is racial and ethnic profiling. For a couple of years now we have heard a great deal about police who racially profile motorists. I admit on the surface it sounds like a bad thing. But all along deep inside I know I don't know. That will probably infuriate some people, but hear me out. I can see circumstances in which racial or ethnic or gender profiling makes sense. Let's take an extreme case. Suppose the police are looking for a rapist and the victim can not identify the rapist. Should they be detaining equal numbers of men and women? After all very few men are rapists. But still you are 100% (or very nearly 100%) sure the person you are looking for will appear to be a man.
Let us look at an example in which it is not so sure? There currently is a hunt on for terrorists. I am almost certain that profiling is going on and people who get special attention are Muslims of Middle Eastern origin. Do all terrorists fit this mold? Certainly not. There are terrorists who are anarchists. There are some who are just unbalanced. Are most Muslims of Middle Eastern origin dangerous terrorists? No, only a very tiny percentage. Is there a correlation between terrorists and Muslims of Middle Eastern origin? You better believe there is one. Pick a terrorist threatening the United States and the odds are really good that he or she is a Muslim of Middle Eastern origin. There are certainly more than you would find by pure chance. And the reasons are obvious. So the investigators are giving special attention to Muslims of Middle Eastern origin. Is that fair? Under the current circumstances I would say it is. It is never a good thing when the innocent are inconvenienced, but the alternative is worse. It is one of the prices people pay in society.
So what about the police giving "special attention" to motorists of a particular ethnic background? It superficially seems wrong. But whether there is a correlation with the actual perpetrators or not, I don't know. And if the police only racially profile that will certainly skew the results since only people who fit the profile will be accused. It is easy to see that racial or ethnic profiling could be misused and give rise to great injustices. It could easily be misused. Perhaps it is being misused and abused. But its accusers are stating without proof that it definitely is being abused. It is not intrinsically wrong, however easy it would be to abuse. Accusers have the burden of proof that it is being abused. I think ethnic profiling in looking for terrorists is valid. But leave it to the professionals. Don't try it at home, kiddies. [-mrl]
Wartime Films at the Toronto International Film Festival (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
While we now attend each year the Toronto International Film Festival, certainly this will be the one that will be best remembered. Essentially this was the one where the US went to war. There was inevitably a lot of introspection by everybody, certainly every US citizen, on what would be the effects on people of this new kind of war in which we suddenly found ourselves. Several of the films focused on the reaction and behavior of people in the war between fascism and democracy that was the greatest event of the last century. Films that fit into this category were ENIGMA, TO END ALL WARS, TAKING SIDES, and FOCUS.
ENIGMA (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Dark and complex espionage thriller based on the Robert Harris novel. March 1943 the British lose their former ability to decode German messages to their submarine fleet. They must either get it back or lose an important shipping convoy. An intelligent thriller perhaps a little too reserved to be thrilling. Rating: 7 (0 to 10), low +2 (-4 to +4)
For thirty years after the end of the World War II Britain's most secret weapon remained secret. Like the US had done with the Manhattan Project, Britain had put many of their best minds onto their own scientific wartime project. What they found could well have saved the war for Britain. At minimum it shortened the war by at least two years by negating the Germans' most effective weapon, the U-boat. The Germans communicated with their men in the field (or in this case the sea) with an incredibly complex code called Enigma. The code was encrypted and decrypted with a device of mechanical and electronic components that created an unimaginably large number of possibilities that has to be considered in decoding the message.
The mathematics necessary for decoding Enigma was considered to be orders of magnitude beyond what any country could accomplish, even if the closely guarded Enigma boxes fell into the hands of the enemy. What the Germans did not know was that an Enigma box had fallen into allied hands and teams of puzzle solvers and mathematicians were recruited for the purpose cracking the code.
The team was installed at Bletchley Park under the direction of Alan Turing. For the first time rudimentary electronic computers were used to search for and test solutions. By July of 1941 the work had already borne fruit and supply convoys from America were saved from submarine wolf packs. It typically took two days to decode a message, but for many of the messages that was short enough time.
Then in February 1942 the code changed. It was still Enigma, but a new order of complexity had been added. The code could not be solved. At the same time the strategy of the submarine packs changed. The Germans could not know how great a setback it was. By December the Allied shipping losses had quadrupled. It took ten months to recover the old capabilities and the Battle of the Atlantic again turned in favor of the Allies. And so it remained.
All this is history. It is history filmmakers have not made much usage of, though code breaking was an important part of World War II. The film U-571 told the fictional story of Americans capturing an Enigma box and set it much later than the British actually did. The film MIDWAY tells a little about the Americans efforts at code breaking. Robert Harris wrote the novel ENIGMA, a mystery story set in and around the Bletchley Park project. Tom Stoppard has adapted the novel into a screenplay and Michael Apted directs.
The premise is that in March 1943, the Germans changed the code again. The British have just four days to break the modified code before an important convoy from New York will be entering waters that may have German U-boats. Without knowledge of where the U- boats are there is no way to avoid these waters. With nary a mention of Alan Turing in the screenplay, sullen mathematician Tom Jericho (played by Dougray Scott) who had left the Bletchley Park project has been brought back onto the project. He had been instrumental in breaking the code the last time, but had since suffered a nervous breakdown. That breakdown was brought on by being rejected by lovely co-worker Claire (Saffron Burrows). She was a fellow project member with whom Tom had fallen in love. Now there is evidence that Claire intentionally broke project security and perhaps was spying for the Germans. Tom has a double problem of resolving the new German code and looking for the now missing Claire. Helping him is Claire's swatty and bookish housemate Hester Wallace (Kate Winslett). Making life even more difficult is sinister and polished intelligence operator Wigram (played nicely by Jeremy Northam).
Tom Stoppard's adaptation is better than one might have expected retaining some reasonable explanation of the history and the mathematical issues involved without obvious expository lumps, though by the end of the film some technical problems are going by too fast to comprehend. Perhaps in deference to Apted the script has some feminist touches that I do not remember from the book. It also has one gratuitous car chase. John Barry has provided a score that is by turns lush and ominous.
An interesting chapter in history could have made for a better thriller, but as it stands it is reasonably exciting if reserved. I rate it a 7 on the 0 to 10 scale and a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale.
People interested in the efforts to break the Enigma can find a lot of intriguing material at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/decoding/. This is information to accompany the excellent episode of Nova "Decoding Nazi Secrets." Included is a transcript of that broadcast.
TO END ALL WARS (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: This is a harrowing look at a rarely dramatized chapter of WWII, life in a Japanese prison camp. TO END ALL WARS is a moving film about the struggle of prisoners to retain their humanity and their dignity. The somewhat religious interpretation may not be to everyone's taste. Rating: 9 (0 to 10), +3 (-4 to +4)
More than any other people the Japanese seem capable of acting with one goal and not letting any other consideration get in their way. This may be a holdover from the code of Bushido when loyalty to ones master was the only law. During World War II, of course, the one goal was winning the war. This led them to do some very inhuman things in pursuit of that goal. When the Japanese had captured prisoners, they were very much treated in whatever way would be optimum for achieving the one goal. Minimum resources were to be spent in maintaining prisoners in keeping with maximal positive output. While the Germans, not known for their kindness in those days, had a 6% mortality rate among captured prisoners of war, the mortality rate of Japanese prisoners of war was 27%. The best thing for the war effort was working prisoners nearly to death on the Thailand to Burma railroad. That railroad was needed if Japan was to attack India as it planned to do. The best thing for the effort was not to waste much food on the prisoners so short and amazingly wretched food was the order of the day. And just being in the jungle without proper medical aid took its toll.
In the public mind Japan has never been held as accountable for war atrocities as was Germany. Filmmakers have been reticent to tell the story, perhaps for fear of offending the Japanese. There are comparatively few films about the Japanese POW camps. Certainly there was David Lean's THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI. There were some low-budget British exploitation films and that was about it. Then there were TV series "A Town Like Alice" and "Tenko." Lest the experience be forgotten we have a new film TO END ALL WARS directed by David Cunningham and written by Brian Godawa. It is based on the account of Ernest Gordan who survived the horror of that World War II prison camp and went on to become for 26 years the Dean of the Chapel at Princeton University. The film while realistic shows the conditions in the camp as being considerably more brutal and sadistic than BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI portrayed them.
The story opens with six or so soldiers being marched into the prison camp only to be immediately placed in front of a firing squad. It turns out to be a grim joke, one of many that the sadistic Japanese play to amuse themselves. Beating and torture are commonplace events. Men already imprisoned tell the new arrivals to enjoy the last of their health; it will not last long with parasites and disease almost inevitable. However, unlike as in KWAI, the prisoners want to avoid going to the hospital, called by the prisoners the Death House.
So goes a war within a war with the prisoners trying to maintain their humanity and with the Japanese trying to make them interchangeable and highly expendable cogs in a rail-laying machine. This is more than just a battle of who will win the war but a battle of ideologies. The Japanese believe that the individual is nothing, that conformity to group's norms is all that gives a life meaning. Conformity is purpose. Before the film is over there will be some surprising revelations about the character of the prisoners and the character of those running the camp. If this story showed nothing but sadism from the Japanese it would be one kind of story. If the British (with one American, by the way) and the Japanese learned to respect each other it would be another kind of story. It is neither. It is a stirring and believable account of camp life.
The color has been distorted in the film to give a washed out yellow. This serves a double purpose for Cunningham. It gives an effect of Technicolor film that has been left in heat. It also creates a distancing effect. The only touch that seems a little out of place is the use of Gaelic music.
This is a powerful and philosophical view of the prison camp experience. I rate it a 9 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +3 on the -4 to +4 scale.
TAKING SIDES (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: This is a film that avoids easy answers. Wilhelm Furtwangler, then the world's greatest orchestra conductor stayed in Germany and cooperated with the Nazis. What were his views; was he a war criminal or a secret resistance fighter? How much did he know about crimes against humanity? The US government investigated him after the war and this film is a dramatization of that investigation. Rating: 8 (0 to 10), high +2 (-4 to +4)
In my opinion one of the best films of the last few years is Istvan Szabo's SUNSHINE, a film that covers the fortunes of a Jewish Hungarian family under the reigns of three different regimes, Hungarian aristocrats, Nazis, and Communists. Szabo's follow-up film, a German production, is much more limited in scope. It is about the post-war investigation of who criminally supported the Nazis and who opposed them. Ronald Harwood's screenplay ambiguously looks at the investigation of a great classical music conductor who stayed on in Germany when the Nazis took power and became the most popular conductor of the Third Reich.
Maj. Steve Arnold (played by Harvey Keitel) has been assigned by his superiors to investigate Wilhelm Furtwangler (Stellan Skarsgard), perhaps Europe's greatest classical music conductor. When other artists fled Germany, Furtwangler remained behind and conducted for the Hitler and his henchmen. After the war is over Arnold assigned to interview Furtwangler and members of his orchestra and if appropriate to prosecute him for war crimes. He secretly is told by his commanding officer to find Furtwangler guilty. From there we follow him and learn a little about Arnold and something about Furtwangler and his orchestra. As he interviews members of the wartime orchestra Arnold starts noticing odd peculiarities that may or may not point to a conspiracy against his investigation. There is a certain sameness to the responses that he is getting. Perhaps any cooperation he is getting has been in some ways managed. If so, perhaps he can never come to the truth.
In large part the film is about mind games that Arnold uses to manipulate his interviewees and especially Furtwangler. Where the script has problems is that in the end it is so ambiguous. It has no obvious resolution and not much of a final act. When it is over whether anything has been established is open to interpretation. Perhaps that is better than so many films that make it all to obvious what the audience should believe, but it is like watching a murder mystery and never finding out who the killer is. We are given clues to something but they are never tied up. In the end we just know more about both Arnold and Furtwangler.
The film is basically a stage play. The visual is not very important. Corners are cut visually including touches like filling windows with photographs to avoid having to shoot on location. As with a stage play, what this film centers on the dialog, and that is intriguing. I rate the film an 8 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [There is one piece of sloppiness few people but me would notice. At one point we clearly see Arnold's desk calendar say "Jan 16 Tues." A quick mental calculation told me that combination could occur in 1945 and then not again until 1951. The events had to take place in 1946 or 1947. A possible date could be obtained from any World Almanac.]
FOCUS (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: In the late years of World War II a man sees anti-Semitic influences moving into his neighborhood but wants to remain neutral. As neutrality become more and more difficult he struggles with his conscience. Neil Slavin directs this adaptation of a novel by Arthur Miller. Rating: 7 (0 to 10), +2 (-4 to +4)
FOCUS is a story of an anti-Semitic movement during the years of World War II, but it does not take place in Europe, but in the US. Kendrew Lascelles wrote the film based on Arthur Miller's 1945 novel FOCUS. It is the story of Fascism creeping into a middle-class neighborhood.
Lawrence Newman (played by William H. Macy) lives with his mother. He works in a prosperous Manhattan company interviewing new applicants. He interviews people applying for jobs and generally makes sure the company hires only the "right type," good gentiles. One of the people he turns down is non-Jewish Gertrude Hart (Laura Dern) who nonetheless looks too Jewish to be put in a visible position.
Lawrence happens to witnesses a tough-guy neighbor beat up a woman. But he does not want to make trouble in the neighborhood by going to the police. Another neighbor Fred (the intimidating Meat Loaf Aday) seems to be on a personal campaign to chase out of the neighborhood the corner news dealer, a Jew (David Paymer), to move out of the neighborhood. When Lawrence gets new glasses, glasses that accidentally make him look Jewish; suddenly he gets a new view of his street and especially neighbor Fred who is inviting "Americanist" organizers into the neighborhood. Lawrence tries desperately to hold onto his neutrality in the Jew-baiting in spite of the dictates of his conscience.
For his first feature film commercial producer Neal Slavin has chosen a particularly timely theme, that of a slow but insidious spreading prejudice and fascism. The targeting of ethnic groups for particular hatreds is especially timely. Particularly chilling is that Fred so anxious to introduce the same fascism that was currently engulfing Europe.
Slavin symbolizes the cycle of evil with the image of merry-go- round accompanied by ominous music. The film's one less than subtle touch is the big billboard at the end of the infiltrated street proclaiming "There's no way like the American way."
It is interesting that two of Arthur Miller's novels were adapted at the same time. Like FOCUS, Amos Gitai's EDEN also was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival. Both are about people caught up in evil circumstances and having to take a stand. However, FOCUS is by far the better of the two. I rate it a 7 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: In heaven all the interesting people are missing. --Friedrich Nietzsche
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