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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
11/09/01 -- Vol. 20, No. 20
Table of Contents
Follow-up on last week's editorial (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
More or less as I expected, there was a lot of mail about last week's editorial. There are people who thought (and I would say misread) my editorial to interpret it that I was defending McCarthyism and Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney. I thought that I held back from actually doing that, but I said that I was leaving open a path where I might end up having to defend one or the other if my current quandary was not resolved. It is possible that I was trying to say too much in too few words.
There are really two different ways of looking at issues. One is to look at issues one at a time and deciding them one at a time. This way each issue gets a lot of personal attention. That can be good. It also can be bad. It gives one flexibility and perhaps a feeling that one has decided each issue strictly on the basis of its own merits. The problem is that one is very much tempted to decide each issue on the basis of self-interest. One can come away feeling that one has judged each issue, but that is not really what has happened. Instead on each issue one has decided selfishly. I have been told by someone that if the government makes it possible for you to cheat on your income taxes and does not check up on you, you really have a responsibility to do so. After all it is not really fair for you to have to follow the rules if other people are able to circumvent them. In truth this guy wanted to cheat on his income taxes and at the same time wanted to at least be able to claim that he was living up to the highest principles. This same person complained bitterly that the company we both worked for was not treating him fairly and, in fact, was cheating him. I wanted to tell him that if he made it possible for the company to be unfair to him, the company had a responsibility to do so. I am sure that he would have come back with a rationalization that that sort of cheating was immoral. The truth is that while he wanted to claim that he had principles, in fact he wanted to make decisions in self-interest.
Now, of course, the other approach is to a set of rules about what is moral and what is not that is independent of any specific individual cases. You can call these what you want. They can be principles or when the society sets them up they are called laws. In an editorial a while back I said that rights are a form of laborsaving device, so are principles and laws. A parked in front of B's driveway. A feels that government should let him put his car in any empty. B thinks he should be able to get his car onto the street. It you operate purely pragmatically you have some deciding to do. One could consider the two arguments and choose whom one agrees with. If B is being a real pain and presenting his argument with profanity and racial epithets and A is being very polite and well-ordered, one would be tempted to certainly consider A's argument and perhaps even decide he is in the right. It certainly would require some consideration. The law is a laborsaving device to determine that A is actually wrong and B is actually right. One of the risks of having laws, principles, etc. is that occasionally they mean you have to agree with someone you do not want to agree with. Occasionally you have to let the Nazi party march in Skokie.
One problem is that usually personal principles are understood intuitively, but rarely set down in fixed legalese. What I was saying last we with that intuitively I would like to think my principles would defend the press that in large numbers criticized McKinney's opportunism in trying to embarrass and attack the United States and Israel. I would also like to think my principles would condemn the press who would gang up on outspoken liberal dissenters in the 1950s. But unifying those two principles is not easy. I have been taught to believe that in the 1950s the press was wrong to gang up on liberal dissenters who openly opposed their government's policies. It is fascinating how many of the same people defend so similar an action by the press today without first resolving the inconsistency. [-mrl]
THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: The Coen Brothers give us a crisp and well-filmed noir- ish thriller. A quiet, second-chair barber tries blackmail to get to a better life and sets in motion a chain of weird events. It is a 40s crime film 55 years late and right on time. Rating: 8 (0 to 10), high +2 (-4 to +4)
"You know what you are? You're an enthusiast." The words come late in THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE. They are spoken by teenage pianist Birdy Abundas (played by Scarlett Johansson) to Ed Crane (Billy-Bob Thornton). The words are as startling as a splash of ice water on a hot summer day. Enthusiasm is just about the last thing we would expect anyone would see in Ed. Ed is a man with little obvious emotion. Life is what happens to Ed, a thing he just rides, rather than something he actively lives and participates in. When Ed enters a room with three other people in it, he makes it approximately three people in the room. Ed is in a loveless marriage to Doris (Coen Brothers regular Frances McDormand) that just sort of happened to him. Ed is in a monotonous and vaguely irritating job as the assistant in his brother-in-law's barber shop. The job also just sort of happened to him.
Ed is a quiet man whose passive face hides an intense desperation. He cannot stand that his brother-in-law talks constantly all day long. Ed knows his wife is having an affair with her boss (James Gandolfini in a role not too different from Tony Soprano on television) but, like the job in the barbershop, there is nothing much that can be done to improve circumstances. Ed sees nothing in his future but years of more quiet desperation. Then a customer tells Ed about a new opportunity. For $10,000 Ed can get into the new field of dry cleaning. But Ed doesn't have $10,000. Perhaps he can cash in on his wife's infidelity. Ed decides to blackmail his wife's boss. This starts a complex chain of events. The script by Joel and Ethan Coen is complex with plenty of loose ends that will be tied up by the end of the film. The pacing of the film is as slow and deliberate as Ed is himself.
THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE is filmed in crisp black and white in the styles of 1940s crime films, just slightly exaggerated. In the best film noir traditions the camera plays with light and shadow. In one scene a defense lawyer is show standing in the light from the window so shadow on the upper part of his face forms a nearly perfect image of an executioner's mask.
We see Billy-Bob Thornton looking as normal as I can ever remember seeing him. That is the key to his role and to the title of the film. He is a man you could pass on the street and never even notice or remember you had seen him. A 1940s film would have put someone like a Fred McMurray or perhaps a Jose Ferrer into a role like this. These are actors who in spite of themselves would have added some panache to the role and panache is just what the Coen brothers were trying to avoid. Thornton plays the role as a man as burned out and stale as the cigarette that dangles from his lips. He is as easy to ignore as the ash on the barbershop floor.
THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE is a little slow and listless, but it is a great film to watch and in the end the script is as clever as we would expect from the Coen Brothers. I rate the film an 8 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Gratitude is merely the secret hope of further favors. --Francois de la Rochefoucauld
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