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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
04/26/02 -- Vol. 20, No. 43
Table of Contents
The Science Fiction Tax (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
It is becoming more and more the policy of our government that people where possible the people who get the benefit from government programs are the people who should be taxed to support those programs. There is the exception of important pork-barrel stuff for which the goal is specifically that you get other people than ones benefited to pay for it. So who should be taxed to pay for NASA? Who actually gets benefit from the space program? Michael Williams, the Republican candidate for the Fifth Congressional District seat for Representative from Alabama, gave this a lot of thought and came up with his proposal. The people who like the space program are apparently sci-fi people. So the proper people to tax are the people who like sci-fi, right? Of course right. The Huntsville Times reports the 28-year-old "Williams proposes a 1 percent 'NASA tax' on science fiction books, science fiction comic books, space sciences books and any other space-related literature. The tax would also apply to 'space, space-related, and science fiction toys, puzzles and games,' Williams said in a listing of his platform." I imagine the tax will also serve as a nuisance tax for all these people who have these silly ideas that stir things up. Williams also suggests more far-sighted possibilities. "Williams wants Congress to adopt a resolution establishing a 'global grand convention' that would ensure all inhabitants of Earth the same basic rights found in the U.S. Constitution. His resolution would also require holding a constitutional convention when 30,000 colonists have settled or been born 'on the moon, Mars or any other celestial body besides the Earth.'" The full story is at http://www.al.com/news/huntsvilletimes/index.ssf?/xml/ story.ssf/html_standard.xsl?/base/news/101949940424601171.xml I am wondering how popular this will be in Huntsville. That is the home of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. The science fiction fans may be opposed to the bill. The NASA advocates may be for it. There may be some overlap in the two groups. [-mrl]
The Cradle of Civilization (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
This week I reviewed THE SCORPION KING. It is about a real historical figure (though not really, I guess) at the beginnings of Egyptian civilization. It got me wondering where was the first civilization. Was Egypt the so-called "Cradle of Civilization"? I did a little web search. I had seen a book claiming that India was the "Cradle of Civilization." The claim was that India was where civilization really began. Did the historians on the net agree? Well, yes. But in addition to India there was (very nonspecifically) Africa, (more specifically) Kenya, Greece, Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Ethiopia, Armenia, Syria, and Ajloun (Northern Jordan). The last few are pretty much adjoining, of course. But even so, it seems like early civilization really slept around in A LOT of different cradles. [-mrl]
Capturing Spirit (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
In the May issue of THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY & SCIENCE FICTION Lucius Shepard reviews a film that we both admire, Peter Jackson's THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING. He and I both consider this to be a very good film adaptation. Shepard says that Jackson "has been absolutely faithful to the spirit of Tolkien's intent." While that was much how I felt, I intentionally did not say that in my review. I know what Shepard is saying and I almost said the same thing and stopped myself.
When Shepard saw the film he got much the same feeling in the pit of his stomach that he got when reading the book. I felt much the same way. But I do not know if Shepard got the same feeling that I got. Further let us take an example that would seem to be less faithful. Take, for example, Paul Verhoeven's film adaptation of STARSHIP TROOPERS. I think the consensus of science fiction fandom is that they took the Heinlein novel, a philosophical treatise on meaning and responsibilities of citizenship, and turned it into a giant-bug movie. The simple fact is that the Heinlein novel actually is a giant-bug story. It also happens to be a philosophical treatise on citizenship. Most works of fiction are complex enough that they can be more than one thing.
When I was a teenager I excitedly read John Wyndham's THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS. I had seen the 1962 film based on the novel and knew it was about humanity being crippled by blindness and falling easy prey to a menace of giant carnivorous plants. For me the film had been faithful to the spirit of the book. But I also saw in the book a study of different societies. Wyndham was looking at our civilization having fallen apart and at a number of newly formed societies. Some societies failed, some succeeded. Wyndham was writing about societies that were destroyed in the first round by their own internal problems. Those that survived that went on to the second round in which they had conflicts with other societies and some were destroyed by these conflicts. The survivors in the first two rounds go on to the third round where they faced something somewhat worse than human competitors. Here it was carnivorous plants. That is a very different sort of novel than the one I read as a teenager and I am pleased to say the BBC did make a TV version of that THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS. Both versions were true to the spirit of the Wyndham because the novel was written in both spirits, depending on the reader. One dramatization is better not because it is more accurate (though I admit it is) but because it captures more interesting aspects of the novel.
I could tell almost the identical story about Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis." I found that one in the library as a teenager and found it a sort of enigmatic and elliptical fantasy about a man going through some strange physical changes. When I read it these days it seems more to be about the dichotomy between a person's spirit and the physical self. Gregor Samsa would like so much to be able to continue supporting his family as he had planned, but his body is rebelling and carrying him to another destiny. The story has both interpretations and there may be other interpretations.
When Shepard says that THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING is faithful to Tolkien's intent he is assuming that he knows Tolkien's intent and that the film strikes the same emotional chord with him that the book did. It may be striking a very different emotional chord than the book might have struck with a Paul Verhoeven reading, assuming he read Tolkien. I am not ruling out the possibility that some filmmaker in adapting a book intentionally tells a different story. That happens all the time, as we well know. It probably is a fault. But before we can accuse a filmmaker of not being faithful to a writers intent you have to know precisely what all the writer's intentions were. That may not be as easy as it first appears. And even if one knows them, translating them to film may be no easy task. Stanley Kubrick may have made good films from Nabokov's LOLITA and King's THE SHINING, but neither was very close to what I would guess was each author's intent. That is why I was so impressed that Peter Jackson made a film that gives me what I got out of Tolkien's story. But I would never claim in print that I knew what either author's intent was. Instead, I would say that Jackson recreated in me much of the feeling I got from the original story. [-mrl]
THE SCORPION KING (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Conan the Barbarian (in virtually all but name) clobbers again in another sword and sorcery adventure, but this time he is played by The Rock and called Mathayus, the Scorpion King. THE SCORPION KING has a little too much tongue-in-cheek kidding and some really absurd in clothing and hair styles. But for some of the peek-a-boo fashions, this would be a good children's matinee film. Nothing special, but it could have been worse. Rating: 4 (0 to 10), 0 (-4 to +4)
Back in 1982 Universal gave us the film CONAN THE BARBARIAN which I enjoyed a great deal. I don't believe in calling a film a guilty pleasure, but I will say it was a film of selective appeal. John Milius as writer gave it a literate and interesting script that borrowed lines from the likes of Ghengis Khan and Nietzsche. As director he combined dark and light emotions. And then Basil Poledouris topped him by giving it what I still consider to be my favorite film score of all time. Making what is essentially another Conan film is far from Universal's worst decision this year.
In THE SCORPION KING, plot is a commodity in relatively short supply compared to action. A certain king hires Mathayus and two cohorts to kill a threatening conqueror. (The king sits pensively on his throne in the same pensive posture that is the last image of CONAN THE BARBARIAN, if memory serves.) The evil conqueror is one Memnon, played by Steven Brand. (Memnon is a Greek or Ethiopian name, but not an Egyptian one, by the way.) Mathayus spends the rest of the film fighting Memnon with the help of two other minor barbarians, a humorous thief, and a friendly child.
The first question the producers must have faced was who to cast as the new barbarian strong man. There are probably any number of reasons that they could not get Arnold Schwarzenegger. Still they do seem to have gotten lucky. The Rock (real name Dwayne Johnson) is a part-Samoan professional wrestler with a chest just a little smaller than Rhode Island. (I think.) The man looks like he really could be a barbarian giant if they do not give him too many lines like "Boo!" He does not do the brooding hero thing quite as well as Schwarzenegger, but he has a lighter and more pleasant style. Personality that Schwarzenegger seemed to be laboring to create comes more naturally to The Rock. While I was not expecting much from his acting after THE MUMMY RETURNS, now I am a sorry that film did not give us more of him. There is one veteran actor here, Bernard Hill as a "scientist" playing with gunpowder.
The Rock may not be such a bad choice, but so many other choices made in the script and production are. This is a film that has absolutely no sense of where or when it is taking place. The real King Scorpion ruled in what is now Egypt about 3200 BC. Yet at the beginning of the film he is someplace covered with snow and where breath freezes. That has to be a long way from Egypt. People just did not get around that much in 3200 BC. Since there is not much to tie it to Egypt we might as well just assume this film takes place in Ancient Never-neveristan. The villain Memnon has a styled LA haircut and a carefully maintained one-day-growth of beard. The sorceress wears diaphanous things that show about as much as will not get the film into ratings trouble. A so- called "scientist" has gunpowder which he says he got from China. Indeed gunpowder was invented in China, but it was about 4400 years after King Scorpion died. This is no small anachronism. This is a film that really needed John Milius's literacy and intelligence (though rumor has it he is working on his own new Conan film). THE SCORPION KING does not really tell us much about who Mathayus really is but a desert assassin. I suppose THE SCORPION KING got along with a John Debney score that at times sounded a little like John Williams, but it was not a particularly memorable score. Again, Poledouris might have been the right choice to score the film.
I cannot in good conscience call this a quality film. It is a film with many faults and few virtues. But one of the virtues is that the film is fun and that makes up for a lot. I rate it a 4 on the 0 to 10 scale and a 0 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
FRAILTY (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: An intelligent horror film covering some of the same territory as GOD TOLD ME TO. A Texas father and his two sons participate in a series of murders believing they were told to do so by an angel. Star and director Bill Paxton creates a film that is atmospheric and unusual. It has no gore, and its violence is implied but kept (just) off camera. Rating: 8 (0 to 10), high +2 (-4 to +4)
The topic has eerie resonance in a world wracked with brutality in the name of God and fundamentalist religion. How far should one go if one believes his religion truly calls for murder? Faith is believing in spite of common sense, but if one is willing to abandon common sense what control is there left?
Matthew McConaughey plays a man who walks into an FBI office and tells the agent that he is Fenton Meiks, the brother of the long-sought "God's Hand" murderer. That is, his brother is the current God's Hand murderer. In flashback we are told the original killer was his father, whom we come to know only as "Dad." Dad (Bill Paxton) was a normal loving father of two young sons. Then one night Dad wakes up the children. He has seen an angel and has been given a mission to kill seven "demons." These demons will be masquerading as humans. The angel has given Dad a list, but he will need the help and cooperation of his two sons. The older boy is Fenton (at this age played by Matthew O'Leary) the younger is Adam Meiks (Jeremy Sumpter). Adam immediately believes his father and is thrilled to be "like a superhero." Fenton is more skeptical. He knows killing is wrong and is afraid his father is insane and dangerous. This sets up a great tension between father and son. Fenton knows he cannot stop his father, but wants to do what he can to save his brother from getting involved in the killings. He does this even at the price of incurring his father's self-righteous wrath.
Brent Hanley's first produced screenplay is a powerful one. At times the plotting is a little contrived with coincidences needed to keep things going, and some story line twists telegraph themselves, but generally the writing is powerful. With a surprisingly sure hand for a first-time director, Paxton creates a shadowy noir-ish world. Scenes are intentionally under-lit so that the darkness is oppressive. Beyond that there is a sweaty realism, perhaps reminiscent of the film BADLANDS. Brian Tyler's score at times reminds one of Bernard Herrmann. Three major actors who have been cast as Texans really are Texans--Bill Paxton, Matthew McConaughey, and Powers Boothe are all gen-u-ine Texans which may add a little realism. Unfortunately with three names like that, Matthew O'Leary gets only fourth billing as the young Fenton. If memory serves he has the biggest and most important part in the film. It is worth seeing Paxton in a rule where he gets a chance to act.
The story is told in two parts. The first two-thirds are told mostly in flashback, telling the troubled story of how Dad came to be an avenger for God. In the final third, the story is brought up to date. But most important in the film is the contrast of the two sons as two different types. Adam is a believer. He has faith. Fenton is an empiricist. As much as he wants to believe, he also wants good evidence for his belief. That makes this not just a good horror film, it makes it a serious and questioning film. I rate it an 8 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
Letters of Comment:
As usual when Mark writes about food, we got several letters of comment:
From Don Blosser:
While not a real Sentinel Food, the Filipino dish "Balut" certainly did not appeal to me, nor to most of the Marines of my unit back in the early 70's.
We took a Special Services tour from Subic Bay to Manila, twice, most of us, and had the same guide both trips, a young Filipina lady.
To entertain us, during the trip only about 90 miles by the map, but mostly over unpaved or narrow two-lane roads most of the way, maybe the last 10 miles or so was more than two land, our guide naturally had to introduce us to the Filipino customs and traditions.
One of these customs was eating Balut. As the guide explained it, Balut was actually a fertilized duck or chicken egg, placed in the ground and allowed to "ferment" for a period. I don't remember how long unfortunately.
I think when ready, the egg was cracked open and the contents, Balut, was swallowed whole.
Eating Balut, according to the young lady, was supposed to be a sign or test of your virility, or manhood.
Strange to relate, but not a single one of us took her up on her offer to find some Balut for us to partake, even the "wild ones" amongst us.
Maybe it was just my imagination, but the young lady seemed to emphasize her Balut story both trips. I figured it was a come-on, as she was unmarried and seemed to be husband-hunting to boot. Or she was just having a private joke on us, seeing how many of us "manly" Marines and Sailors (there were no other females in our tour groups).
For me, I had no need to prove my virility, with Balut or without.
And Thomas Yan writes:
That was pretty funny. I was surprised that the literal translation of the Chinese name for "fermented tofu" was not given, namely "stinky tofu". And if you've tried stinky tofu, then you must also try natto, the Japanese dish consisting of slimy, fermented soy beans.
As for century eggs, the upside is that nowadays it is not made with horse piss. I'm quite fond of them.
Sea cucumber. Hm. I don't seek it out, but I don't avoid it. It doesn't have much taste, but it's got an interesting texture, so as long as it's with other tasty stuff, it's fine.
Mark had the following exchange with Jonathan Clark:
JC: Loved the article on sentinel foods. Tell Mark that the Japanese sentinel food is "Natto" (fermented soy beans, looks and tastes like it came out of a baby's diaper), while the English sentinel food is probably jellied eels. Marmite is just for frightening children. ML: I am somewhat indifferent to Natto. Locally we get it at Shiki. I have never ordered it, but Evelyn has. She didn't like it. JC: It's a very regional taste, even in Japan. Westerners of my acquaintance who have tried it claimed they could still taste it three days later and that this was not a good thing. I've only tasted it and it didn't seem that bad, but after the horror stories I wasn't brave enough to do more than that. ML: Marmite is OK, particularly when you want something salty in the morning. I have been known to make anchovy omelets. JC: Marmite is an example of something largely missing from the US diet - the savoury. You might look out for Patum Peperium (sp?) which is a pretty intense anchovy-based spread and which comes in a most splendid container. ML: I am not sure if I remember Marmite from Vegemite. JC: To me they are quite distinct in texture, although the taste is close. Marmite is smooth, whereas Vegemite is almost powdery. ML: I have never had jellied eels, though unagi is pretty good. JC: I like unagi on occasion. Jellied eels are more like eating rubber bands in a faintly unpleasant jelly. ML: Similarly I have never had Mountain Oysters. JC: Ditto - Gulf oysters were enough for me. ML: Another person commented on Filipino Balut. JC: I am forced to ask what this might be.... [see above -ecl] Anyway, thanks for writing the article. It was very enjoyable.
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Always forgive your enemies -- nothing annoys them so much. -- Oscar Wilde
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