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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
11/09/01 -- Vol. 20, No. 19
Table of Contents
McCarthy on the Right and McKinney on the Left (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I want to present a moral issue here. It is one that is troubling me a great deal. But to get to the issue I have to tell you a story first. And you may have to read the whole thing to figure out where I am going with this.
The terrorist attack of September 11 hit New York City in a lot of different ways, and not the least of which was financially. People from all over the country and the world made generous donations to New York City to help get it back on its feet. One of the donations was to the tune of ten million dollars and came from Prince Alwaleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia. To the newspapers this looked like a story too good to miss. After all, Saudi Arabia was the country that had spawned Osama bin Laden. It is a Moslem country. For a prince of that country to be contributing help repair the damage sounded like big news.
So the papers got a prepared statement from bin Talal. And what did he tell them? This attack had been commensurate and a reasonable reaction to America's support of Israel. He also said, "At times like this one, we must address some of the issues that led to such a criminal attack. I believe the government of the United States of America should re-examine its policies in the Middle East and adopt a more balanced stance toward the Palestinian cause.... Our Palestinian brethren continue to be slaughtered at the hands of Israelis while the world turns the other cheek." It is like Saudi Arabia with its totalitarian controlled press and its hatreds has a more balanced view. It was relatively clear that bin Talal had bought and paid for a public forum for his point of view and had purchased it fairly cheaply as these things go. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani made it even cheaper by correctly returning to bin Talal his check. New York City was just not that desperate for the money. (Side note: The Arab press took Giuliani to task, claiming he was a Jewish homosexual. Also "He hides his first name, chosen for him by his Italian father, so as not to remind the Jewish voters of the infamous Rudolph Hitler. This is why he prefers to shorten it to Rudy.'")
Representative Cynthia McKinney of Georgia watched this incident and decided to try to weigh in and make some political gain from it. She attacked Israel, American policy toward Israel, and American race relations. She said, "I believe I can guide your generosity to help improve the state of Black America and build better lives." She told him "...sections of the Voting Rights Act will soon expire, and quite frankly, after crippling Court decisions, there is not much left of affirmative action to mend." Curiously, she did not explain to him what voting rights and affirmative action are and probably did not think about the fact that bin Talal's country never thinks about such niceties. In any case because this was an open letter its content was probably less intended for him than for citizens of her own country.
As might be expected columnists across the country have read her open letter and have been rightly anxious to inform her that someone trying to make political grist from this situation may have been shorted a few IQ points. Her response is that all the people disagreeing with her is denying her her right of free speech. She says, "I have been attacked for speaking.... I believe that when it comes to major foreign policy issues, many prefer to have black people seen and not heard."
Well, the obvious reaction is to say that everybody is allowed free speech, including her critics. She may have been a jerk, but nobody is telling her that she does not have a right to be a jerk. But anyone who read her open letter has a right to react to it, even openly. If she is complaining that that people are criticizing her for what she said in an open letter, it is no less idiotic than what she said in the open letter itself. She has a right to express herself and say what she likes and people have every right to disagree with her. My gut feeling is that she is in the wrong.
It is true; however, that this whole incident has some eerie echoes of what happened during the McCarthy era. Then also people had the right to say what they liked on either side of the political spectrum, albeit at their own risk. And then as now their risk included being held up to ridicule by the public and by columnists. In those days one such columnist was pro-government writer Westbrook Pegler whose barbed prose could and frequently did skewer some left wing writer. And then as now careers might be crushed by being so skewered by self-styled guardians of well being like Pegler. But Pegler had the right to say what he wanted short of libel, (though he often went beyond that point). People in the press are going after one person for speaking her mind just like they did in the 50s.
While my natural sympathies are against McCarthyists, they are also against McKinney. But I see the two situations as very analogous and the major difference is that fifty years later I am on the other side. I would love to have a better reason for the inconsistency of my viewpoint. Somehow I am getting more empathy for McCarthy on the right and McKinney on the left. And I do not like being on the side of either of them. [-mrl]
MONSTERS, INC. (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: MONSTERS, INC., won't get many top ten film nominations, but it won't get many thumbs down votes either. MONSTERS, INC., is cute, likable, and a lot of fun. The company of the title puts monsters in children's closets to turn their screams to the energy to power their land. But monsters are more afraid of children than vice versa. Pixar animated films gets better and better. Rating: 7 (0 to 10), +2 (-4 to +4)
While the quality of films from the majors in Hollywood seem to be hitting a slump as bad as the stock market's, the field of the animated feature film seems to be an exception. Animation is getting better and the stories are even occasionally keeping up. There are three major sources of major animated. There is Disney Enterprises who invented the animated feature; there is Pixar, who do three-dimensional computer animation and release their films through Disney; and there is Dreamworks, a Johnny-come-lately who picked up the digital technology very quickly. Each has its own style specialty. Disney most frequently mangles some classic story or tells their own story but in the same silly style. Pixar tells sentimental stories aimed at children but so well done that all ages can appreciate them. It is too early to tell if Dreamworks will stay in the field and have an identifiable style, but certainly their SHREK seems to indicate they may be the wild, irreverent parallel to Disney that Warner Brothers short animated films were in the 1940s and 1950s. Each three sources should be commended for bucking the tide of most of the majors and almost reliably turning out quality entertainment.
Pixar's MONSTERS, INC., is not a memorable film but it is a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. Parents will enjoy it as much as the kids do. In this modernized fairy tale monsters live in a world parallel to that of children and enter our world to scare us. One twist: so as not to scare the kiddos, the monsters are really more scared of us than we are of them. Every monster knows that just the touch of a human child can kill a monster. Having monsters from the closet scaring little children is just a matter of business. The monsters realize that nobody has more energy than children do, so they power their world on the screams of children. The world's power company is called Monsters, Inc. (which I guess is like us naming our power company Humans, Inc.). Their slogan is "We scare because we care." The best of the scarers is James "Sully" Sullivan (voiced by John Goodman), a big fellow whose "wild thing" looks belie a pleasant and sympathetic nature. His best buddy is a walking eyeball by the name of Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal). He is Sully's trainer but has a hankering to try his skills though he is not nearly as good at scaring children. One day this neat setup starts to go awry when a little girl, a sweet confection of a child nicknamed Boo, crosses the border to the world of the monsters.
The script by Andrew Stanton and Dan Gerson is full of in-jokes, some in further than others. Few fans of fantasy film will not get the reference to Harryhausen's. (One guy who may not have gotten it is Billy Crystal who said the name as if it were "Harry Hausen.") The script has some obvious logic gaps that should have been mended. The little girl, supposedly toxic to monsters, touches Sully frequently without his giving it much thought. At one point Boo is given a suit to wear which she does through a big portion of the film. She seems much too adept at taking the suit off and putting it back on for a girl of her age. The writing, which starts clever and original toward the beginning, falls back on cliches toward the end including a long time-filling chase and a theme of corporate irresponsibility. This is really a theme that has been used to death in other films and it seems an atypical lapse in imagination in what otherwise is a clever script.
Not all of the problems the film has are its own fault. Like many films this film has unfortunate echoes of very recent American history. For years the monsters have worried about the possibility of the contamination from a human child entering their world. Now it has happened and they try to ignore it and continue their business while monsters in decontamination suits try to clean up the problem.
Pixar's animation processes get better with each film they do. Sully really looks like he is covered in real fur and there is real expression in his face. His face seems more expressive than, for example, the faces of the apes in this year's PLANET OF THE APES, in spite of being wholly computer-generated. In the case of one of the monsters we even see expression in multiple eyes like a spider has and surprisingly it works. Pixar may treading on what might be dangerous ground here. Filmgoers got irritated at Steven Spielberg because he made them feel sorry for what was really a piece of plastic in E.T. Here people are feeling empathy for what is further from reality, just a set of ones and zeroes stored in a computer. It is not a problem for the film, but I am a little surprised that being so accomplished in dimensional animation, they did the opening credits in flat animation. It just does not seem like their style.
Pixar's style is the constant flow of ideas and jokes in the margins of the film. This film has what must be hundreds of little film references and ideas packed around the main story. Film allusions are probably just to numerous for the viewer to catch even most of them. In the world of monsters, even the grills of cars look fierce. There are fun references to films from POLTERGEIST to THE RIGHT STUFF. There is an explanation for the existence of folklore monsters in our world like the Nessie and Bigfoot. This is a funny and imaginative film. It rates a 7 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale.
Included with the film is an animated short, "For the Birds." It is amusing, but is too simple and short to take the place of a cartoon. It is really just a sketch. [-mrl]
Films about Filmmakers from the Toronto International Film Festival (film comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Like anyone else, I suppose, filmmakers like to talk about themselves and people in their profession. This year the Toronto Film Festival had several films about how filmmakers fit into society. These are four foreign-language films involving actors or directors and their personal or professional lives. Two are from France, one from China, and one is from Kazakhstan. [-mrl]
I'M GOING HOME (JE RENTRE A LA MAISON) (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: This French/Portuguese film is a nearly plotless character portrait. An aging but highly respected actor loses his wife, his daughter, and his life's compass. Piece by piece his life starts to unravel. This is a textured but nearly plotless portrait of a man going from being highly honored to losing it all. The title is French for I'M GOING HOME. Rating: 4 (0 to 10), 0 (-4 to +4)
Gilbert Valance (played by Michel Piccoli) is one of the titans of the French stage and screen. His name on a production lends it an air of respectability. He has had a long run, but it is coming to an end. The professional world can be fairly pitiless to those who can no longer produce. JE RENTRE A LA MAISON is nearly plotless. It simply follows Valance through his daily life as his star fades.
The film begins with a fifteen minute or so quote from Ionesco's EXIT THE KING. We see a little of what goes on behind the scenes, but mostly we just see the actors on the stage. Manoel de Oliviera who wrote and directed is in no hurry. This is not a film of plot but of feel. Oliveira is painting a portrait of a man at the end of his career. The irony is that the man he is showing is about 20 years the junior of the 92-year-old Oliveira. Oliveira has to be one of the very oldest film directors working.
Valance completes his performance only to learn that a tragic automobile accident has killed three of the five members of his family. Remaining alive is only his grandson. Momentum carries him on, but age drags him down. We see him interacting with his fans, buying a pair of shoes, and spiritlessly pursuing his life. His agent tries to sell him on other jobs, some well beneath his talents and dignity. The parts are supporting and subsidiary roles. His agent is more anxious to keep him working than to get him appropriate parts. Eventually he gets a role in a film production of James Joyce's ULYSSES in spite of the fact that he has no Irish accent. He is wrong for the role and we see how it wears on him. All the while we see him slowly break down.
Here Oliveira directs great French actor Michel Piccoli. The pacing is slow since the film is doing little but show us the life of the main character most of the screen time. We spend at least two minutes just watching an aerial view of Paris. The film is in French, though some segments are in English including ones near the end where the main character acts in a production in English, the director of which is played, incidentally, by John Malkovich.
This is not a story with a beginning, middle, and an end. Instead it is a 90-minute description of the situation a great old actor faces at the end of his career. I rate it a 4 on the 0 to 10 scale and a 0 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
QUITTING (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: From China, a country noted for downbeat films, comes a true story of one mentally disturbed boy, a former movie star, who ruined and terrorized his family until he was institutionalized and reeducated. All of the major characters play themselves. We see both the point of view of the main character and other members of his family. The film is a real indictment of a system in which eldest sons are spoiled and indulged to ridiculous lengths. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), high +1 (-4 to +4)
Communist governments are usually dedicated to the principle that utilitarianism is more important than their people's traditions. The West generally puts this tendency in an unfavorable light. There are, however, some customs that the Chinese people themselves carry to extremes. One seems to be the spoiling of the eldest son who will be expected to carry on the family line. In QUITTING we see what power this custom gives an eldest son whether he deserves it or not. However, we also see the heady and corrupting influence that the infusion of Western culture has had on China.
QUITTING is the true story of Jia Hongsheng. In the early 90s he was a noted film and TV actor, but he destroyed his career with drugs. Early in the film he is living with his younger sister and his parents come to live in the same apartment. From the moment his parents arrive Jia treats them in the nastiest manner. He seems to have no interest in their opinion of him at all. He orders them around and insists that they spend their little money on luxuries for him and repays them with nastiness. Rather than work, he spends his time in his room listening over and over to cassettes of the Beatles. He is drunk with Western culture. And any Western culture is new to him. We see him and his friends dancing to "Oh My Darling Clementine" as if it is the latest Top 100 song.
The film jumps around in time telling of relationships with temporary friends whom he grows to dislike. Without apology he spends his parents' money on drugs. He announces that he is really the son of John Lennon. The final straw is when he crosses the last taboo and hits his father. His parents report him to the police and the first step is taken toward his recovery. It is unusual for Chinese movies to talk about current-day problems in China, though this film is really more a warning about foreign influences. The first hour is a thoroughly unpleasant experience. Eventually when the government puts him on the road to recovery there seems to be hope creeping in.
Any film from so different a culture will have unintended messages for Western viewers. The "nice apartment" where Hongsheng lives looks a bit like a concrete monstrosity to us. Zhang Yang directs a screenplay he co-wrote. Nearly all the important characters play themselves. Frequently they play in painful scenes they lived just a few years earlier. Yang laments that while his film is full of references to Western music, including Beatles songs, none could actually be heard in his film. The price of using Beatles songs is far beyond the budget of Chinese filmmakers. Film excerpts are apparently easier and we see Hongsheng watching TAXI DRIVER with posters in his room.
Deep down this film is pro-government and anti-Western culture. While watchable, it is not one of the best films to come from China. I give it a 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
LE PORNOGRAPHE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: An examination of a pornographic film director toward the end of his life. On one level he is much like any other film director. But as we look closer his relationships seem to dissolve we see how his work has in subtle ways sabotaged his family relationships. We also see his attitude toward his unusual profession. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), high +1 (-4 to +4)
Jacques Laurent (played by Jean-Pierre Leaud) was a director with a lot of talent but went into making pornographic films. There he was successful and made a name for himself by attempting some artistry. He retired from the profession in 1984 to a comfortable life.
Now, however, he is finding that his money is running out and he has to go back to work, again in the field of pornographic film making, the only place he can find work. He tells himself that pornography is just a business. But he finds that the fact that the films he works on are pornographic puts a strain on his marriage and especially on his relationship with his son. In some ways his son has taken moral authority from the father. The child is father to the man.
At the same time Laurent's artistic pretensions put him in conflict with the people with whom he is working. Laurent would like to create a masterpiece. He wants the film to show not just sex but also love. He wants to work his own soft fantasies into the film while the producers of the film want it to be no more than a quick moneymaker. Laurent has problems even watching his actors perform sex acts for the camera. He detests the business, but feels that pornography is all that he does really well. Laurent's age shows more and more as the story progresses. He begins acting eccentrically. He sees a woman, a stranger, and begins following her through the street, even sneaking into her apartment. The film climaxes in a very strange, but very revealing interview with a reporter to whom he opens up in ways both peculiar and enlightening.
Bertrand Bonello, both writer and director, shows us the texture of Laurent's world in Paris, his life, and how he goes about the creative process of making the film. The theme of a respected artist losing the esteem of his peers makes this film an interesting pairing with JE RENTRE A LA MAISON which also played at this year's Toronto Film Festival. In other ways this film is comparable to BOOGIE NIGHTS.
For the explicit sex scenes--ones that will very likely be trimmed if this film is released in the United States--Bonello had to use real pornography stars. There is some irony that they would be playing in the same film as the respected Jean-Pierre Leaud, considered to be a major actor in France. I rate the film a 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
THE ROAD (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: A philandering Kazakhstan filmmaker must leave his modern city and return to the rural countryside of his youth in order to visit his ailing mother. Along the way we see the world his country has given him and the world he has made for himself. This film is a co-production of France, Japan, Kazakhstan, and the Netherlands. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), +1 (-4 to +4)
The same film in different countries will send different messages and be a valuable viewing experience for different reasons. Not many Americans have much idea of what life is like in modern Kazakhstan. Are they just nomadic tribesmen? Do they have modern cities? Ask most Americans and they would not know. This film follows a Kazak filmmaker in a journey to visit his ailing mother and the film delves into his mind and his family problems, but for an American viewer the film also is educational. It is a view of Kazakhstan as it is today.
The film follows Amir, a filmmaker in a major city of Kazakhstan. Amir dreams of being highly respected in a position that does not seem to get much respect in his country. Amir is married with a child, but he still has an eye for attractive women. His wife clearly knows that he is attracted to other women and it creates tension. He is a man who is more boy than man and lives life without much thought for the consequences that may come crashing down on him like the rock held by a troglodyte figure he uses to decorate his bedroom.
Amir gets a message that his mother is ill. He must go to visit her. This will mean a day-long drive from the city to the countryside where Amir grew up.
As Amir drives he thinks about his work and about his life. He replays several times in his mind a scene in an upcoming film, rearranging it and trying variations. He thinks over a conflict about a sex scene he has put in a recent film. He wistfully remembers a scene from his youth.
As Amir drives we see a subjective view through his windshield. With him we see a transition from a modern city to a more primitive countryside. His son who watches Kung Fu movies and wears a Michael Jordan T-shirt would have no place in the region where his mother lives with its rural architecture and folk customs. The people he knew from his youth remain friends, but it is clear there is resentment of him and his fancy Peugeot.
Director Darezhan Omirbaev's style is operatic and slow. As the film opens we see Amir in sleep and just dwell on him for several beats. We trace his morning routine. At time the progress is slow. Other times the film is rich in insights.
THE ROAD shows us its character's outer landscape and his inner landscape. I rate it a 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: All my life, affection has been showered upon me, and every forward step I have made has been taken in spite of it. --George Bernard Shaw
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