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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
10/26/01 -- Vol. 20, No. 17
Table of Contents
Quotes from Toronto (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
A special feature from the Toronto International Film Festival this issue. These are actual lines overheard from other people waiting for films. "When I eat at McDonalds I get the shakes." and "You make fun of a guy's nipple ring, all of a sudden you aren't invited to the wedding." [-mrl]
Series SF (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
We recently were in the little town of Bucksport, Maine, and having a little time to kill we dropped into the bookstore on their main street. In the science fiction section we should have known what to expect, but were still a little disappointed. Everything we saw was part of a series or a spin-off of a movie or something of the sort. Now this is really a little odd. If you look at the mainstream section there are almost no series. The state of general fiction is like the state of science fiction in the Sixties. I hasten to add this is a good thing. In mainstream fiction authors have an idea and write a novel. There are very few series. If the novel is popular, they may write another novel but it usually will not have the same characters or premise. And the novels are frequently about 350 pages. In science fiction we get too much of the same thing over and over. We get Star Trek book after Star Trek book after Star Trek book. If that is not too much of the same thing we also get newer wider books, books two inches thick from authors like Robert Jordan. Good writers are succinct, but modern science fiction and fantasy writers are paid by the length and you can tell. It is not that the other sorts of books are not available. They are. But you have to go to the bigger bookstores to find them. Even there the better stuff is being choked out by Star Wars novels and the Terry Pratchett stories.
The common wisdom of science fiction fans is that this sorry state is the fault of publishers who only want to publish safe bet novels. Science fiction conventions love to have panels talking about what is going wrong. Of the triad of writers, publishers, and readers, publishers are the least well represented at the conventions so usually publishers get the blame at these panels. I am sure that when writers and publishers get together in conference, it is the readers who become the villains.
My (rhetorical) question today is why is the same problem not happening with mainstream fiction? I think I have an answer. What is happening may be the result of literary movements in science fiction. In the 40s more than the 50s, and the 50s more than the 60s, and the 60s more than the 70s, science fiction was a fun genre. It was a literature of ideas. The free play of concepts was the attraction of most science fiction. Starting about 1970 or so science fiction writers got a lot more into literary style. Thomas Disch coined the phrase "the tyranny of ideas." He asked, "Why do science fiction writers feel they have to write about ideas?" My answer, then as now, was that they don't. They can write about kidney disease if they like, but who is going to want to read it? Many writers, especially those under the narcissistic banner of "the new wave" borrowed, I believe, from French cinema, decided they should be writing books that were literary experiments. Science fiction novels should be elevating.
Suddenly it was quite possible for a teenage fan to buy a science fiction novel and to just not be able to understand what it was all about. Reading science fiction frequently became like an exercise from English class. To a number of fans this was good news. They wanted their books to be more challenging to read. Unfortunately this sort of reader was really in a small minority. A large proportion of the readers want to buy novels that will play with their imagination about the universe, not about literary style. These were book by writers like Van Vogt, Simak, Asimov, Wyndham, Del Rey, de Camp, Clarke, and perhaps above all Heinlein.
While some writers were becoming more literary, others decided they wanted to use science fiction as a social force. Novels came along with strong social messages. These messages were all very good ones (well, usually) but they were as much fun as sitting in church and listening to sermons. A lot of the youth audience was lost. Science fiction in the 1970s and 1980s was a lot more serious and literary than science fiction in the 1940s and 1950s, but it was not nearly as much fun. In the later years it was harder to pick up a science fiction novel at random and know it would be a pleasurable experience.
The publishers took a look at McDonalds and the money they were making by turning out a dependable product time after time after time. Every time you buy a McDonalds hamburger it will be an enjoyable experience a lot like the last time you bought a McDonalds hamburger. It will not be a great experience, but you know ahead of time what you are getting. If you buy a Star Trek novel you know you will understand the universe in which the story is set. You know the writing will be in plain prose. Publishers have found that if they want to sell books they have to guarantee that the reader will understand what is going on the book. They have to link into previous reasonably happy science fiction experiences.
What we are really seeing is something of a polarization of science fiction. Where most of what was being written was kinda fun and kinda good, now you have a lot of obviously edifying but not so much fun authors (in my opinion) like Gene Wolfe, Samuel Delaney, John Crowley, David Zindell. But where the real money is, the teenage reader, the books are obviously in clearly recognizable packages. At twnety feet you can probably recognize a Terry Pratchett book, a Star Trek book, and a Star Wars book. You can recognize a Robert Jordan book just from its heft. These are what sell the best, and these are what you find in bookstores like the one in Bucksport, Maine. [-mrl]
FROM HELL (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: The Jack the Ripper story is back in the public eye with a new film directed by the Hughes Brothers. The story is stylishly told and the telling is fairly accurate except for the needless adding of supernatural elements. In spite of being based on a graphic novel the film is nearly a remake of 1979's MURDER BY DECREE. Rating: 7 (0 to 10), +2 (-4 to +4)
Most people know the name Jack the Ripper, the killer who murdered five prostitutes in London's East End in 1888. It is a little hard to account for what made Jack the Ripper the most famous serial killer of his type of all time. Certainly his nickname helped to capture the public's imagination. The area of London's East End also adds some romance to the story, though as this new version of the story points out, the East End was more squalid than romantic in 1888. Also it happened in England. Somehow, perhaps because of the presence of the media, what happens in Britain or the US becomes much more of a world event than what happens in, say, the Botswana or Indonesia. In any event the Jack the Ripper case has become mythic around the world. The Ripper murders have been the subject of several films. As retellings of the events of the case go, FROM HELL is one of the more accurate. The most obvious deviation from facts of the case history is to take one of the major figures in the investigation, Inspector Frederick George Abberline and cross him with Sax Rohmer's "Dream Detective." Under the influence of opium he receives psychic messages in the form of images relevant to the crime. The real Abberline would probably not have been amused.
London's East End in 1888 already seems like a corner of hell for the prostitutes like Mary Kelly (played by Heather Graham) who ply their sad trade in the streets and alleys. There is hardly enough profit in their work to feed themselves. Making matters worse gangs of thugs shake them down for the little money they do make on threat of being cut with sharp knives. And now someone else really is carving up prostitutes in a series of killings the papers call "the Ripper murders." Inspector Frederick George Abberline (Johnny Depp) is investigating the crimes but does not inspire much confidence in the likes of Mary Kelly. And the fact he gets most of his best clues from opium dreams and absinthe laced with laudanum does not inspire his superiors either. Abberline investigates with the help of Police Sergeant Peter Godley (Robbie Coltrane) whose combination of disdain for his habits and concern for Abberline is one of the best things about FROM HELL.
In this very dark view of late 19th century London Jack the Ripper's cruelty would almost be a redundancy, but he rises above it as the most vicious force of all. Certainly London is a most threatening landscape. It seems to be composed of victims and predators, the latter mostly all with sharp knives. We even have contemporary John Merrick, the famous Elephant Man, thrown into the story.
The production is film on a very large set that apparently was built in the Czech Republic. Peter Deming, who also filmed EVIL DEAD II and recently MULHOLLAND DRIVE, kept the scenery and photography dark to match the tone. The film intentionally dwells on unpleasant images and increasingly more gore. The disagreeable images however do not extend to the female lead who seems unrealistically intact considering the lifestyle she has led as an East End prostitute. That makes her the one actor who is incongruous in a role and it probably because the female lead had to be made appealing to the audience. She is almost as out of place as the horrible song over the end credits. The latter is jarringly badly chosen.
Part of where this version falls down is in its presentation of the Ripper Case as a puzzle. I am told that in the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell on which the film is based that the reader knows from the start who the killer really is. The Hughes brothers (MENACE II SOCIETY) have not taken that approach but intended to leave it as a mystery until the last part of the film. This was not very well done and the real killer is not well concealed. Speaking for myself from the moment of presenting the character who would who would in fact be the Ripper, that was who I fully expected it would be. Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesias's script while good and professional in some other ways is amateurish at making the story a real puzzle.
Another problem is that there is too much that is familiar in FROM HELL, even given that it is based on a real case. This story is made of factual and fictional elements. Not only almost all of the factual but also many of the fictional elements seem present in a previous film MURDER BY DECREE, which pitted Sherlock Holmes against Jack the Ripper. In that film Holmes used the help of a psychic who sees the murders in his dreams much as Abberline does. Many of the same clues are mentioned in each film. Many of the same clues go unmentioned in each film. It is almost certainly true that MURDER BY DECREE was much of the inspiration for the graphic novel on which FROM HELL was based.
FROM HELL is effective as a macabre history, as a horror story, and a little less so as a mystery. It dependence on the supernatural, however, unnecessarily spoils the credibility of carefully achieved accuracy. I rate it an 7 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
Asian War Epics from the Toronto International Film Festival (film comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I have to admit having a special fondness for historical action and adventure films. Second only to films of the fantastic, are films of historical periods and armies facing each other. I guess I probably like them both for some of the same reasons, the escape into a world of action and adventure. But be it LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, THE WAR LORD, GETTYSBURG, CAPTAIN HORATIO HORNBLOWER, or whatever, there is something fascinating about seeing other people fight. And since I was brought up on Western history, it is of particular interest to see war films from Asia so that there is the novelty of seeing a different culture at war. This year's TIFF offered three epics: ASOKA from India, BANG RAJAN: THE LEGEND OF THE VILLAGE WARRIORS from Thailand, and MUSA--THE WARRIOR from South Korea.
ASOKA (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Fanciful retelling of the story of Asoka, the Emperor who conquered India and then spread Buddhism. This film has unusually rich production values for a Hindi film and tells his life as a love story between two young people. The real content of the film is the fictionalized romance and any historical detail is little more than a plot complication. Rating: 7 (0 to 10), +2 (-4 to +4)
Who was Asoka? Americans may be vaguely aware that the name Asoka (or Ashoka) is venerated by Indians. (In the US it seems to be a common name for Indian restaurants.) Asoka is for India approximately what King Arthur was for Britain. He was the third emperor in the Maurya (Peacock) Dynasty. His grandfather, Chandragupta Maurya, was the first great conqueror in the subcontinent since Alexander the great and unified much of the area we now think of as Northern India. He left his son Bindusara to rule after him. When Bindusara, in turn, was dying his son Asoka murdered all rival princes but Asoka's brother. This bit of barbarity did not sit well with the people and it was four years before Asoka was allowed to ascend the throne and become King of Magadha. After eight years of rule, he began his campaign of extending his empire by warring on the neighboring kingdom of Kalinga.
Asoka nearly finished the job of conquest of by spreading his empire to all of the subcontinent, as well as parts of Afghanistan, the Himalayas, Nepal, Kashmir, and the Swat Valley. But to hold power he had to change his image. Once he had conquered he won support by cultivating a character of righteousness and promulgating Buddhism, though little is known if he himself actually even adopted the religion. However, while he formerly was known as Asoka the Fierce (Chandashoka) he now became Asoka the Righteous (Dharmashoka). He tried to be a ruler that the people would want, working for civil improvement. Asoka set up systems of communication, provided trees along roads to comfort travelers. He provided medical facilities for men and animals, and championed religious tolerance. His edicts, carved in stone throughout the empire, became the most lasting reminder of his reign. In fact though he ruled roughly from 272 to 242 B.C., his legend was not written until the second century A.D. The Greek historians never mention him and even the Brahman's do not mention him, but he is a Buddhist legend. It has been pointed out that more people remember his name than those of Caesar or Charlemagne.
Sadly, much of this is incidental to the film. The telling of the story of Asoka is as fanciful and has as little relation to real history as the film CAMELOT. Instead, the film ASOKA becomes in large part a (temporarily) tragic love story. The film begins with Asoka (Shah Rukh Khan), a young prince, being given a sword that is as much a demon as it is a sword. He is told he will be great and goes to claim that heritage. He finds it is all too easy to use his sword in palace intrigues. As a result he chooses for himself a sort of voluntary exile and what Australians would call a walkabout.
While on his sojourn he happens to see and instantly fall in love with a dancing princess. She is Kaurwaki (Kareena Kapoor). He also makes friends with a Buddhist holy man who plants the seeds of Asoka's later historic transformation to Buddhism. As he travels we see his tempestuous nature that will lead him to become the fierce conqueror. Both transformations wait until late into the 150-minute film.
Santosh Sivan who directs and co-wrote the film gives the film a very nicely polished or frequently even a lush sumptuous look. Until recently Asian films have not seemed to go in a big way for spectacular large-scale battle scenes. Now Chinese and Indian filmmakers are recognizing that they can stage historical spectacle more economically than their Hollywood counterparts. Sivan takes a while but does give us some big battle scenes. The film opens more with a flare of fantasy in a style reminiscent perhaps of a Sinbad film. The music is by Anu Malik, whose songs do not really help the period feel, but are quite pleasant. I rate ASOKA a 7 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale.
Americans without much experience with Indian films should expect some stylistic differences. Acting is occasionally overdone by American standards. That is just the art form. Music is a very integral part of Indian films, much more than American films. A friend liked the film but expressed some frustration that the action would stop inappropriately for what appeared to be embedded music videos, sometimes with music and dancing that seemed very wrong for the period. This too is really part of the art form. Think of it as seasoning added to the meat of the story. In fact as a nice souvenir the songs of almost any major film are available in Indian music stores and even groceries on audio cassettes for only two or three dollars. It is a real bargain. Much of the music easily becomes very likable. [-mrl]
BANG RAJAN: THE LEGEND OF THE VILLAGE WARRIORS (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: This is a Thai film commemorating a heroic village who resisted the Burmese armies invading Siam in 1765. The style of the film is crude but promising. As international historical films go, this seems like a low-budget epic that somehow does not grab the imagination quite like a Kurosawa might, but still has well-executed moments. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), +1 (-4 to +4)
In the mid-18th century certain provinces of Burma resisted the central government. These provinces needed outside support and got much of their support from the neighboring country of Siam (now Thailand). When a new ruler of Burma came to power his first priority was to subdue rebellious provinces and his second was to punish Siam for supporting the revolt. In 1765 he sent two armies into Siam to capture the capital, Ayudhaya. The two armies were intended to converge on the capital, but only one arrived. One army was held up by the resistance of a single tenacious Siamese village, Bang Rajan. This village has become legendary in Thailand as sort of a Siamese Alamo. This film is the story of the Bang Rajan resistance.
In the film the village knows the Burmese are approaching and chooses Taen as their leader against the Burmese. The village also asks Chan, a non-villager, to help. Chan is a cagey veteran fighter who lives in the local woods. Chan's strength of spirit and his resolve seems to be symbolized by an unusual huge mustache that looks like the horns of a water buffalo. Chan brings with him to the fight a group of fighters and trains the village how to fight. The village asks Ayudhaya for assistance to fight off the enemy in the form of cannons, but Ayudhaya offers no help so the villagers have to forge their own weapons. Meanwhile the village grows as neighbors join Bang Rajan for protection and to fight. But will they be able to overcome the formidable Burmese forces?
This is a historical war film but it is very differently in style from a RAN or KAGEMUSHA. Akira Kurosawa, in his films, makes the most of military regalia, armor, weapons, and local architecture. Thanit Jitnukul, who directed BANG RAJAN, cannot make his films as picturesque and hence cannot create the same sort of feel. His heroes are simple villagers. Chan fights in open shirt and loincloth. Typical weapons are arrows, axes, and machetes. The battle strategy is something like "each man must run at the enemy and kill as many as possible." Somehow it is harder to make these crude forest battles look as impressive as Japanese or Korean Clan Wars or horseback battles of kingdoms in India. Also the film style is much cruder. At least twice in the fighting mud is splashed on the camera lens. Most filmmakers would have edited that part out. The music by Chatchai Pongprapaphan is, however, powerful and exciting. The production cost $1.3M, which I am told is the cost of four typical Thai films, but in Thailand it has grossed the most of any domestic film ever. That is partially fueled by current tensions on the Burma-Thailand border. In fact this film is considered to be part of the provocation for those tensions.
The story of Bang Rajan Village is known to every school child in Thailand. Tanit Jitnukul directs and co-authors this new film, bringing the story to an international audience. I rate it a 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
MUSA--THE WARRIOR (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: In 1375 a delegation of Korean diplomats traveling in China are caught between the warring Mings and Yuans and have to fight their way to safety in this Anabasis-like tale. Along the way they pick up and must defend a Chinese princess. A lot of action but not a strong plot. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), high +1 (-4 to +4)
Following the success of CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, more attention is being given to Asian historical epics, particularly those with a lot of fighting. This has been a niche market since Akira Kurosawa's YOJIMBO and SANJURO, but it is as respectable and popular today as it has ever been. South Korea is attempting to get into that market with a respectable historical action film, MUSA--THE WARRIOR.
In 1375 the Yuan Dynasty of China has recently fallen. The Ming have taken their place. But in the out-lands the Ming and Yuan still battle each other. The envoy of the Ming to Korea was murdered prior to the events of this story and Korean delegation has been sent to China in an effort to mollify the Mings. That delegation disappeared from history. MUSA--THE WARRIOR is a fictional story of what may have happened to that mission.
In the film the group is let into a trap by the Mings. They are disarmed and accused of treachery against the ruling Mings. Their punishment is to be abandoned in the middle of a remote desert ruled by Yuan troops and left for dead. The Koreans decide they have to fight their way back to Korea. As the Korean diplomats are killed in battle or by the trek, a determined leader, Choi Jung, decides that the men must be pushed, but he will get them back to Korea. Without mercy he drives the remaining men through the desert on their way toward Korea and safety. Among the Koreans is the dying Lee Jee-Hun. He frees his powerful slave Yoh-Sol, but the other Koreans still treat him and consider him as a slave in spite of his prowess as a fighter. The adventures they have along the way are very typical for this sort of film. A troop of Yuans have captured the beautiful Ming princess PuYong. Yoh-Sol, a master of the spear, rescues the princess and in so doing makes an enemy of the Yuans. (Do princesses in carts ever get where they were intended to go?) The story follows the attempts of the Koreans to make their way back home surrounded by enemies.
The martial arts here seem relatively untainted by fakery. There is no wirework. For some reason, the director (Kim Sung-su who also wrote the screenplay) shows many of the fight scenes at eight or perhaps twelve frames per second. Why this convention is becoming popular, I am not sure. I first noticed it in GLADIATOR but it seems more distraction than anything else. There seem to be many battles and repeated scenes of people getting arrows through the head or neck. At 154 minutes, this is a longish film. I rate the film a 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. My interpretation of the title was that Musa would be some character's name. However, there is no character named Musa anywhere in the film. I now suspect that Musa may be Korean for "warrior." [-mrl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Democracy is a process by which the people are free to choose the man who will get the blame. -- Laurence J. Peter
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