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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
04/12/02 -- Vol. 20, No. 41
Table of Contents
Contrary to what someone wrote in last week's MT VOID, Portugal is not currently adjacent to France. Nor are there plans for it to be in the forseeable future. Our apologies to anyone who ruined clothing trying to cross the border. [-mrl]
I was reading about the current crisis in the Catholic Church over clergymen who abused their position for sexual gratification. One columnist was saying that it was sent as a test of faith. Those who lose their faith have failed the test. I can see their point. That is exactly how I felt about the Lewinsky scandal. [-mrl]
OK, I lied. It wasn't exactly. I did feel that Lewinsky was older and more willing. [-mrl]
In fact, the little geographical inaccuracy was intentional. It was to see who would lose faith in perspicacity of the MT VOID editorials. [-mrl]
John R. Pierce Obituary:
LOCUS reports: "John R. Pierce, best known as a scientist and electrical engineer, died April 2, 2002, at the age of 92. He wrote SF and nonfiction articles, under his own name and as John Roberts and J. J. Coupling, from the 1930s through the early 1970s."
John Robinson Pierce was a Bell Laboratories visionary and one of the inventors of the transistor. A longer obituary can be found at http://www.nytimes.com/2002/04/05/obituaries/05PIER.html.
In my review of THE YEAR 2000 (1970 original anthology, edited by Harry Harrison), I wrote, "Though in real life J. J. Coupling was involved in communications technology (under his real name, John R. Pierce, he was an executive director in Bell Labs when he wrote his story), 'To Be a Man' is more about bioengineering. However, it has some very 'modern' ideas, in particular more of the concepts that Greg Egan is using these days. (I was particularly reminded of Egan's 'Reasons to be Cheerful.')" [-ecl]
Charles Sheffield on Hard SF (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Charles Sheffield's thoughts on hard science fiction can be found at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A62465-2002Apr4.html. [-mrl]
Dance in America (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Dance in America
I am not sure what possessed me to watch the PBS special on the work of Bob Fosse, the choreographer who was responsible for plays like SWEET CHARITY and CHICAGO. I am sure it could not have been that some of the dance routines that he designed could be considered to be of a tawdry or salacious nature. Heavens, no. I guess I have been a little interested in him since I saw his semi- autobiographical, semi-fantasy film ALL THAT JAZZ. In truth I think this is a pretty good film, though I am not attuned to what some people find so fascinating about dance. Indeed, I have been puzzled they cover dance so frequently on National Public Radio. At least if they covered painting, the commentator can describe the subject matter of a painting. When it comes to dance, the commentator can do little more than say, "Yup, they're doing it." I think NPR feels they have to cover the arts. One of their major functions is publicity. They feel they need to publicize and build interest in art performances so people will go and spend money on tickets. A Nijinsky is as interested as a Jerry Bruckheimer is in getting butts to fill seats. NPR provides exposure. So NPR will have coverage of dance where the listening audience has no idea what the dance looks like and this is all in the interest of supporting the arts. It really makes even less sense than putting a ventriloquist on the radio. (Please do not write me. I know that has been done also.)
This program about Fosse was not NPR, however but PBS. They do broadcast moving pictures. In fact, I suppose if you are interested in dance, TV is not only better than radio, in my opinion it is probably a better than live performance. How can that be? Well, if you have a bunch of people dancing on a stage, some areas of that stage will be more important than others. Most people look in the right place, but some may be looking at the cute thing in a brief something to the left of the stage. (This was a particular problem in dances choreographed by Bob Fosse who tended to have cute things in brief somethings in many parts of the stage.) You might miss a very important pas de deux because you are looking at the wrong part of the stage. On television presumably the camera operator has been cued in where it is best to aim the camera. Camera operators who focus only on the cute thing in the brief somethings do not get asked back. With a good camera opeator you won't miss that all-important pas de deux. What is more, perhaps the best angle to see the dance is frequently from some point impossible to see from the audience. Some dance companies specialize in kaleidoscope formations that can be appreciated only if seen from above. For these dances an overhead shot would be best. On television you can get an overhead shot where you probably cannot see from overhead in a live performance. There are things you can do in television broadcast dance you cannot due in live performance. And, of course, the camera can pull in close on a dancer. It can give the viewer detail that could not be seen from the audience. On the other hand the wide screen of a motion picture with its detail would be better than television. But either is better than going to see a live performance, particularly from the back of the hall or the balcony.
But it strikes me that Bob Fosse's style of dance is to get several people doing in unison things that if one person were doing it, it would look really stupid. Something about the several people going through a senseless motion it makes it seem less senseless. It may have to do with symmetry. If you look though a kaleidoscope you see a random pattern of pieces of colored plastic replicated so that it really looks beautiful. Look at just one of the cells and it is a random positioning of bits of colored plastic. It looks like junk. It is much the same with dancing. One person dancing may just be just acting strangely. If six people are dancing identically strangely we have a much higher threshold of what looks weird. If you have fifty people in a line doing identical senseless things, they seem organized. They look impressive. I am not talking just about dancing now. Adolf Hitler terrorized Europe with huge goose- stepping armies. At that time at least, before we all came to know what a goose-step meant, if you saw only one man goose- stepping, you would chuckle. You'd say, "Look at that. A grown man imitating a goose!!!" There is safety in 100 men walking like a goose. Once you see 10,000 men walking in unison like 10,000 geese you start to think that walking like a goose looks really impressive.
Only one person doing something is eccentricity. Get ten people doing it and it is imitation. A million people do it and it become style and something to be admired and emulated. That is really what the fashion industry is all about.
As for dance as an art form, it has been ruined for me. There is a brilliant bit in the comedy TOP SECRET. It is an AIRPLANE! sort of spoof on the spy film. At one point the main character is in Bavaria. A bunch of couples are on a dance floor and everybody is doing a sort of Bavarian dance. The steps get loonier and loonier, but everybody does them in unison. Eventually they look so absurd that you have to say to yourself that this is ridiculous. And only then do you realize how ridiculous it has been for several steps and nobody noticed. As long as everybody is going through the same steps it does not matter to someone watching that the dancers are behaving very strangely.
But is it not true that we all are dancers, doing the ridiculous because everyone else does and it is expected. We never question it. It is said that one of the great formative influences on Bertrand Russell was an incident that occurred when he was still a child. Russell was watching his father shave. "Daddy," he asked, "Why do you shave?" The elder Russell looked at his son. Then he looked at the razor. He thought a moment and asked out loud, "Why DO I shave?" He then put down the razor and never shaved again. Actually shaving once had a purpose. It became the established custom originally to eliminate nesting places for lice and other insects and so as not to provide a handhold in battle. These days most of us no longer are bothered by facial insects and few go into battle, but shaving is still with us and most of us do it because there are a lot of other people who do it. Me? I compromise. I have a beard. [-mrl]
PANIC ROOM (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Fairly standard woman-in-distress suspense story as three men try to break into her new home, a Manhattan mansion. Matters are complicated by the existence of a special high-security fortified room. The tension is high, but the content is low. The biggest thief is Forest Whitaker, who once again steals the show. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), +1 (-4 to +4)
Forest Whitaker is a big chunky black man, not especially attractive, in an industry in which most successful black actors have the look of Will Smith and Halle Barry. Very few roles are ever written specifically for unattractive black men so for every film he is in, Whitaker is a quirky casting choice. He seems constantly cast against type in roles like assassins and that nearly always makes him the most interesting aspect of any film he is in. Two years from now people will see the title PANIC ROOM and remember the strong room and that Forest Whitaker was trying to break into it. Fewer people will remember it was Jodie Foster in distress in spite of her top billing, her intelligent performance, and her fame as an Oscar winner. This probably would have been much the same film with a Rene Russo or a Nicole Kidman as the imperiled woman. Replace Whitaker and it would not be the film we saw. [Postscript: reading other reviews I see that Nicole Kidman really was initially cast as the lead, but had to bow out due to an injury.]
Newly-divorced Meg Altman (played by Jodie Foster) and her teenage daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) are spending their first night in their fantastic New York City brownstone townhouse. The house has all the luxuries including a special high-security fortified "panic room" just in case there is a break-in. And wouldn't you know it, the first night that is exactly what the two have to contend with. Three desperate men do break in, expecting the house to be empty. There is something specific in the house that they want, what Hitchcock would call "the McGuffin." Meg retreats to the panic room with her daughter knowing that the telephone connection to the police is not yet in place. Safe in their small vault and command center the mother and daughter might have been able to wait out the intruders. However, the intruders cannot take what they want and go since the McGuffin is in the panic room with Meg and her daughter. Also one of the intruders is Burnham (Whitaker) who is an expert on fortified rooms, their strengths, and their weaknesses. If anyone can get past the defenses, he can. The team of trespassers, who know more about the panic room than Meg does, play a cat-and-mouse game to get into the safe-like room. They have other problems just working as a team. Burnham wants to find the McGuffin, grab, and run without hurting anybody. Junior (Jared Leto) has no such scruples. He is flashy and impatient. Raoul (Dwight Yoakam) is nearly silent and inscrutable behind a ski mask. At least initially he has a facade that is icy and hard edged. He has unexpectedly come armed and Burnham has not bargained to be involved with guns. This is going to be a long night.
This could have been a clever battle of wits between two intelligent and fallible opponents, but it is somehow only partially successful. Occasionally Meg does things that are extremely stupid and it is only the contrivance of the scriptwriter that keeps her alive. The major problem with the script is that the opponents are neither as intelligent or as fallible as would be needed to set this film apart. What should be an interesting plot twist near the end comes with road signs that start as early as the opening credits. Speaking of which, the artistic design of the opening credits may be the most original feature of this film.
David Koepp's screenplay does little new with its people beyond a little with his Burnham character. The one thing that sets Meg apart from other besieged but resourceful women in other films is that she wears glasses. Glasses are a touch rarely used for lead actors and generally are used as a visual signal of intellect. Sarah is the standard rebellious teen who feels insecure because of the divorce. Her relationship with her mother that is totally standard.
The film is visualized with a depressed (and depressing) color scheme of darks and muted yellows and greens. A dark color scheme and the use of rain are familiar David Fincher touches from films like SE7EN This is a film that requires the viewer to leave logic behind. One or two of Meg's defenses would have gotten her killed in all probability. The viewer may be incredulous but never bored. I rate it a 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
THE FIRST HORSEMAN by John Case (a short book review by Tom Russell):
Recently I've been busy with yet another home improvement project: gutting and replacing a bathroom. During such activities I often have the radio tuned to 93.9 FM to listen to WNYC, National Public Radio. Anyhow, one guest said someone had figured that if you took all the new books as they were published the end of the line would be moving at ninety miles an hour.
I, of course, don't believe it. However, it would be interesting to know what that statistic would be for science fiction books. Perhaps then I wouldn't feel as I'm quite such a laggard in my reading.
John Case wrote THE FIRST HORSEMAN over four years ago. In it terrorists attack New York City; Washington, DC; and other high- profile American targets. A CIA agent evaluates whether anthrax might be the weapon, and if the Taliban might be responsible. The book's dust jacket hypes, "Case once again combines cutting-edge science with political intrigue in a thriller . . . so frighteningly believable it might just happen tomorrow."
It is frightening to imagine what might have happened if the anthrax mailer had had the resources to mount attacks such as imagined in this novel. As the author is, again according to the dust jacket, an "award-winning investigative reporter" and author of non-fiction about the intelligence community, perhaps we do have cause for concern about the plots in THE FIRST HORSEMAN. [-tr]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Decency ... must be an even more exhausting state to maintain than its opposite. Those who succeed seem to need a stupefying amount of sleep. -- Quentin Crisp
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