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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
11/02/01 -- Vol. 20, No. 18
Table of Contents
That Sad Time of Year (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Well, I guess Halloween is over for another year. It is always a little sad and melancholy when the Halloween season ends and the Christmas season with its forced joy is bearing down on you. Make Halloween not just one day, but let it live in your heart all year round. Dwell on the gruesome. Read obituary pages. Be familiar with the symptoms and course of plague, anthrax, and ebola. Fondle venomous spiders and snakes. Pick forest mushrooms and give them as gifts. Don't just know cancer's warning signs, but practice them. Paint your fingernails black. Do whatever you can. Let's not let that Halloween spirit die. [-mrl]
Near Earth Experiences (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Last week I was talking about how I think that science fiction is not producing as much of the idea stuff the way it did three decades ago. At one point one of its major functions was to play with ideas generated by science and look at the implications of those ideas. A lot seems to be really fantasy in style, a lot is social comment, a lot is war stories, and far too much is in series. But what I really bemoan is the lack of stories based on recent findings in science.
In a sense you would think that the science fiction would almost fall out of the science just as alternate histories should fall out of the study of history. In studying history there is little point of learning that Napolean lost at Waterloo if you do not look at what would have happened if he had won and how history is different. There may be a little more reason to learn the speed of light for practical reasons, but the very phenomena should suggest stories. The physics student might likely also consider how things would be different if the speed of light were a different constant. Books that look at basic changes to the physics of our universe are John E. Stith's REDSHIFT RENDEZVOUS and Alan Lightman's EINSTEIN'S DREAMS. The first looks at the subject of what would happen if some universal fundamental constant were different, the latter looks at several.
The subject of fundamental constants is particularly on my mind because of the news over the summer that the fine-structure constant, which defines the strength of the interaction of light and matter, might be better called the "fine-structure current value." Its value, which was the same wherever we see it, appears to be a tiny amount different for very distant objects. The reason the number appears different may be because the objects that exhibit the number are so old or because they are so distant that perhaps that region of the universe has a different constant. In any case the number has not changed very much if it really has changed at all. It is thought to have increased by about one tenth of one percent of one percent. That is not very much, but when you are talking about something assumed to be a constant, it is very much indeed.
Explaining exactly what the fine structure constant represents is beyond the scope of this article and perhaps even that of my understanding. But it comes out of the interaction of light and matter and measures the strength of that interaction and seems to be very close to 1/137 (without any units) both before and after. (Well, I said it had not changed much.)
A major problem in studying this phenomenon is one of our vantage point. It is that we are so immobile in space and time, and always will be. Hence any measurements we might have are extremely constrained. That is one of the problems with physics. In physics you are very restricted in the length of time you can observe a phenomenon and are very restricted with the vantage point. If light traveling multi-parsec distances undergoes a red shift proportional to the distance traveled would we ever realize it? Probably not. We use the fact that it is fixed to make other measurement. Nothing guarantees that the frequency of light says fixed. Not as long as we can only observe in the relatively tiny distances we will ever be able to travel. At least I do not believe we could tell. If different parts of the universe had different speeds for photons in gently undulating waves would we notice? Suppose that around Sirius light travels around 1.001C. Maybe at Canus Major the speed is .99999C. Could we ever tell this was true? Probably we would misattribute the difference to motion.
But given our limited vantage point in space and in time, who is to say what things we consider physical constants really are constants through space and time? How might the nature of energy and matter be different if we could really see the universe end- to-end and forward and backward in time rather than just look at it through a peephole? Will we ever be able to do that? As Henry asks at the end of THE LION IN WINTER, "What do you think are the chances?" [-mrl]
Fantasy and Horror from the Toronto International Film Festival (film comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I previously did a piece on films of the supernatural at the TIFF. The subject matter has some overlap with this week's selection of films, but it was just the best way to break things down. This week I will discuss two delightful comedies, one made by Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel and one featuring him as the main character. Surprisingly enjoyable is Luis Bunuel's THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL. It sounds kind of bleak, but it really is a film of the same mold as GROUNDHOG DAY. BUNUEL AND KING SOLOMON'S TABLE is a unique film from Spain that mixes comedy and a fascinating trio of heroes. Less delightful are two horror films, one from Britain, one from France. LE PACTE DES LOUPS has already been released in France and has done very well in their domestic box-office. THE BUNKER is a very dour film about Nazis fighting the supernatural. [-mrl]
LE PACTE DES LOUPS (THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF) (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: A strange and fearsome beast is preying on the peasants of the Gevaudan region of France. This is an extremely frustrating film that tries very hard to create a 1760s period feel and then scuttles it with anachronistic fighting techniques and 20th Century attitudes and values. Mostly this is just a recombination of familiar elements. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), +1 (-4 to +4)
For a long time starting in the 1970s popular filmmakers were avoiding making films set in historical periods. The belief was apparently that people were not being taught history as well in schools and that the big money demographic as far as film audiences were concerned, that is teenage boys, did not know much about and hence could not identify with historical periods. I think someone must have realized that most teenage boys do not know that much about Middle Earth either and that is not going to get in the way of LORD OF THE RINGS. So several adventure films will be coming out soon set in historical periods. The problem is filmmakers realize that teenage boys still do not know much about those periods so while the films may use the periods as exotic settings, the films being set in these earlier times are not necessarily historically accurate. A prime example is Christophe Gans's LE PACTE DES LOUPS which does a terrific job of recreating the look of 1760s France and then adds martial arts, what looks like wire-enhanced acrobatics, and characters with 21st century values.
Some twenty-five years before the French Revolution, which would bring upheaval to all of the country, a beast has come to the rural Gevaudan region of France. Over the course of three years it has killed one hundred women and children. To clear things up Louis XV sends Fronsac, an ex-military naturalist. With Fronsac comes his faithful American Indian equal Mani, a great kickboxer and a noble savage who happens to follow Fronsac around. From the beginning of his visit Fronsac and Mani are embroiled in local conflicts. Fronsac has his own ideas about the nature of this strange creature that has killed so many.
The trailer tries to present the impression this is a film in the vein of THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF. Perhaps that done with this level of production values could have been a fresh and effective film. In fact, it is more like a warmed-over Sherlock Holmes story done with some panache, but not enough to make it worth while. Initially the script generates some wonder at the nature of this strange beast but the writing soon proves to be a real disappointment. The hero has 20th century thinking and values in spite of the 18th century look. The fight scenes do not help much either. The digital effects and what appears to be wirework do not help. Fights are unrealistically staged with gangs of attackers conveniently coming on conveniently one at a time.
Director Christophe Gans shares writing credits with Stephane Cabel. The editing is by David Wu who also edited THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR, giving the viewer some idea what to expect from the fight scenes. The film may be edited down from the 142-minute version playing at film festivals, which might be a bit long for subject matter.
There is the germ of a good idea here, but in the writing all sorts of commercial compromises were made to dumb the film down to make it play better with wider audiences. This is a film that looks a whole lot better than it sounds. My advice to American viewers: just enjoy the art design and do not bother reading the subtitles. I give this film a 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale.
One side note: in the beginning of the film JAWS we see a woman attacked near a buoy. We do not see what is attacking her but she seems two or three times to be tugged back and forth like she is getting away and being pulled back. She is flopped around like a rag doll. I was never sure what the shark was supposed to be doing that would create this back-and-forth motion. That scene is imitated on dry land toward the beginning of this film and that motion makes less sense on dry land. In neither film when you see the creature is that movement repeated. It just does not seem that motion would result from the attack. [-mrl]
THE BUNKER (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: This horror film set in a Nazi bunker. In the closing days of World War II, German troops hide in a defensive bunker as the Americans advance on their position. But some supernatural threat may be worse than the enemy. The film offers more mayhem than suspense and does not really work beyond the "something scary in the dark" level. Rating: 3 (0 to 10), -1 (-4 to +4)
I once observed that it was wrong to tell ethnic or gender jokes, but that it was a shame since some of them actually are funny. So there should be a way to sanitize the jokes without losing the humor. The way to do that I suggested was to change them all to "bigot" jokes. I mean use the jokes to make fun of bigots. Nobody, I said, is going to go out of his way to defend bigotry. There are few categories of people that nobody defends. Nazis are one. People may complain about a violent and bloody gore-fest horror film if the victims are American teenagers. But nobody feels to bad if eldritch forces vent their hostility on Nazis. It almost to be a form of justice. That is what THE BUNKER does. It does not develop its characters; it does not have any message beyond "don't be a Nazi"; it portrays no emotions beyond hatred, fear, and paranoia. The plot is just a mechanism to put Nazis in a confined space and have supernatural forces and their own fear kill them.
In the late days of the war in Europe a detachment of German soldiers have found a bunker deep in the German forest. A few Germans are already holding the bunker, but they seem more like "the walking wounded," burned out by their experiences. The Americans are moving on this location, so the German soldiers must decide if they must hold the bunker and the tunnels underneath, dug by slave labor, or if they should use them to escape. But escape in the tunnels may not be such a good idea. There seems to be some sort of supernatural force in the dark. If the current events did not scare them enough, there is the stormy weather and the dankness of the surroundings and the locals' ghost stories about this part of the forest. And of course their fears are justified soon in the best tradition of haunted haus films.
Unless you count bodies, the pace of the film is rather slow. THE BUNKER is heavy on atmosphere but weak on real plot. Clive Dawson's screenplay under Rob Green's direction should have been better able to use the premise of the characters being Nazis. Considering the horrors of Germany in the Second World War the problems faced by the Germans are tame compared to the horrors they inflicted on others. Even Rod Serling used the premise to better effect multiple times in Twilight Zone episodes.
I suppose this film is better than a film with a stalker with a hook or a knife going after teenagers. But perhaps what makes THE BUNKER a disappointment is that it does have decent production values in the service of what is basically just grind 'em up plot with plenty of gunfire but without a whole lot of characterization beyond the uniforms. In fact, the uniforms make it harder to keep the characters straight. It would be hard enough to identify with these characters if the viewer liked them. I found myself rooting for the supernatural whatsis.
Atmosphere is added by making even the fully lit scenes seem dim. With some care taken for the visual values THE BUNKER still fails to have much in the way of new ideas or even suspense. I have seen positive comments about this film, but THE BUNKER seems to be a prime example of a film that is full of sound and fury but which signifies nothing. I rate it 3 on the 0 to 10 scale and a -1 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
EXTERMINATING ANGEL (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: This is Luis Bunuel's strange and humorous attack on the upper classes in Mexico. After a dinner party the guests find a strange force will not let then leave. Instead their refined ways are deconstructed. This is a weird but likable fantasy. Rating: 7 (0 to 10), +2 (-4 to +4)
It is going to be a marvelous party. All of the upper crust in town is invited. In the host's house the servants are working overtime to prepare. Well, not all of them are preparing. Some just want to walk out of the house. They are not sure why they feel compelled to leave, but they are willing even to lose their jobs just to get out of the house.
The marvelous guests arrive and have charming witty conversation. The party is so nice that they cannot bring themselves to leave. Soon it is clear something out of the ordinary is going on. People now want to leave, but cannot bring themselves to cross the threshold. Hours turn into days and food and water are running out. Still the guests are compelled by force or forces unknown to stay and continue the party. Soon sickness and death will follow if they cannot leave.
Luis Bunuel's films are noted for their bizarre twists on reality. This 1956 low-budget, black-and-white fantasy from Mexico takes a nasty bite out of the upper class. While it was filmed in Mexico, there is little visual clue of its country of origin. It could take place any big city of America or Europe. The conflicts Bunuel is commenting on are those of class and not nations. He deconstructs the upper classes of society and tests them under stress in ways they could not be tested in the real world.
It is interesting to see the mechanics by which the sinister barrier seems to work. The characters see themselves as trapped and even are dying as a result. On one level they want to leave. Still, physically they cannot force themselves to make the exit. It is almost as if they have become addicted to being in the house as if it were a drug they abhor but are physically unable to give up. Perhaps this was even intended to be a metaphor for drug addiction, which would be similarly destructive. Eventually the victims degenerate into barbaric behaviors for their habit. Meanwhile people outside want to get in, but they are tied up with the official bureaucracy. The local government, with concern for safety matters is controlling entrance. The simple action of stepping across a threshold is seemingly forever forestalled.
THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL, if made today, might be considered a light comic fantasy on the level of a GROUNDHOG DAY. For its time is was a startlingly different classic from a great experimental director. I would give it a rating of 7 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. It was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival as a companion piece to BUNUEL AND KING SOLOMON'S TABLE. [-mrl]
BUNUEL AND KING SOLOMON'S TABLE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: In the 1930s Luis Bunuel, Salvador Dali, and Federico Garcia Lorca join forces and have an Indiana-Jones-style adventure looking for one of the great (non-existent) treasures of history. The feel is a little like RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. But the pace is slower. There are some sly comic touches. The film was made for the 100th anniversary of Bunuel's birth in the year 2000. Rating: 7 (0 to 10), low +2 (-4 to +4)
The story is told in flashback as an elderly Luis Bunuel remembers his adventures with his friends and plans to film them. In the years just prior to the Spanish Civil War three internationally respected artists: Luis Bunuel, Salvador Dali, and Federico Garcia Lorca have a wild film serial adventure looking for a mythical artifact that allows one to look into time. The table is given a history that would make the Maltese Falcon green with envy. With a bizarre sense of fun co-writer and director Carlos Saura throws in anachronisms, jokes about the making of the film itself, film references, and a beautiful sense of elegant photography. The story is told in flashback as Bunuel's reminiscences. The present time flows into the 1930s and passersby seem to know about films Bunuel would make in the future and about the making of this very film. Meanwhile we are treated to the comical repartee of three slightly mad geniuses as they go on their madcap quest through mystical Toledo, Spain, with its strange dark rooms and corridors, fighting mysterious foes, and seeing incredible sights. Some of the visual ideas have a ring of Monty Python; some are state-of- the-art visual effects. While a few of the images lack sufficient imagination, others are delightful and some astonish. Set design is by the remarkable Jose Hernandez. The score, featuring a flamenco motif, is by Roque Banos.
Saura has filled the film with interesting images, but he has a pacing problem. Basically, the story bogs down in the middle act and does not progress for a good long time. The film shown at the Toronto International Film Festival at 9 AM on September 10. That is just 24 hours before the terrorist attacks. This coincidental incident put its secret religious spy networks into a wholly unintended and unfortunate context. Some slightly anti-Semitic comments take on a much more serious aspect in retrospect.
This is a fresh and exciting fantasy film. I give it a 7 on the 0 to 10 scale and a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Admiration, noun. Our polite recognition of another's resemblance to ourselves. --Ambrose Bierce
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