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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
05/10/02 -- Vol. 20, No. 45
Table of Contents
Query (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
How long a Jedi Master must you be before the order of sentences in English grammar can you figure out?
For that matter, what exactly does it mean that Yoda spoke convoluted English grammar a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away?
Come to think of it, other than our own, aren't all galaxies far, far away? [-mrl]
Richard Cowper (whose real name was John Middleton Murry, Jr.) died 29 April 2002. His best known works were THE TWILIGHT OF BRIAREUS and the trilogy consisting of THE ROAD TO CORLAY, A DREAM OF KINSHIP, and A TAPESTRY OF TIME. He also wrote many short stories, including the Hugo-nominated "The Custodians" and "Piper at the Gates of Dawn," and was nominated for several other awards as well. He wrote some non-science fiction as Colin Murry.
I believe (though I haven't dug through the very early MT VOIDs to check) that the MT Holz SF Club read THE ROAD TO CORLAY as one of its earliest discussion books. [-ecl]
A friend who has visited the Louvre asks why is "Mona Lisa" so popular when there are other great da Vinci paintings around? Because I think he deserves a full answer and because I am desperate for a subject for my weekly editorial, I will give him this verbose answer.
I think there are really two questions there. One is why it gets any special attention at all and, more interestingly, why the attention it gets is so great.
Why does it get any special attention? I think it appeals to a broad band of people. It offers something for both the art connoisseur and the general ignorant observer. Since I fall mostly in the latter category I will not go into how the background matches the foreground in showing the creative forces or that the face is a balance of being idealized and individual. Let us just say that it supposedly demonstrates great virtuosity. I will not say much more since this much I say this not so much with erudition as with plagiarism.
Most of the public likes the painting because the smile is ambiguous and the action of trying to interpret it has become a game itself. Whether Leonardo da Vinci saw anything enigmatic in the smile is open to conjecture. Interpreting the smile is like looking at the famous ambiguous picture that could be interpreted as either a young beautiful woman or an old and ugly lady. It is a game nearly as interesting as the popular "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon."
This explains why Mona Lisa has some marginal interest over other paintings by da Vinci. It hardly explains why it is so much more famous. The only other da Vinci painting that can match it is probably "The Last Supper." With apologies to the old marching song "We're here because we're here because we're here," the Mona Lisa is famous because it's famous because it's famous. I do not mean that in the tautological sense. I am not saying just "because." Fame is a crowd phenomenon. Crowd phenomena are heavily influenced if not dominated by feedback loops. Feedback loops have large, perhaps exponential, multiplier effects. Trivial subjective differences in the interest values of a work of art can make one world famous while the other may be extremely obscure.
Let me show you this effect in action with the Mona Lisa. I remember seeing an animated cartoon in a movie theater. An art thief had stolen a painting and was being pursued by the police. At some point he opens the painting and while the rest of the frame is still cartoon style the painting is a photographic reproduction of the Mona Lisa. I guess the joke is that it is a painting that we really recognize and were likely to have seen before. Some of the kids might not get the joke. They may not have seen the Mona Lisa before. But they are seeing it here. And they got the point that this is a famous painting. Next time they see it they will probably remember it. Because it was a famous painting it had just gotten more famous. Fame feeds off of fame.
As another example, everybody knows Shakespeare is great so he is repeatedly taught to the next generation. Every year in my high school English classes we read a Shakespeare play. (This in spite of the fact they were teaching modern English, a language unfamiliar to Shakespeare.) Christopher Marlowe was a great dramatist of the same magnitude. I have been told that the poet John Donne was an even greater literary genius. Equal emphasis could have been put on them but it was not. Shakespeare was more famous because the parents who attended the high school PTA had heard of him and respected him. They read him in school and remembered his writing. Even their parents insisted their children know Shakespeare. Shakespeare more than Marlowe was the thing to read because Shakespeare more than Marlowe was the thing to read.
You find a lot of these feedback phenomena that feed on themselves. It is even more so when finance is involved. There was the South-Sea Bubble, the Lucent Stock Fiasco, and the Dutch Tulip Craze. They all follow the pattern of thinking something must be good because everybody else knows its good. Then the bottom falls out. The poet Schiller said, "Anyone taken as an individual is tolerably sensible and reasonable--as a member of a crowd he at once becomes a blockhead." The Mona Lisa is a little more interesting than other paintings by da Vinci. The rest is crowd phenomenon. [-mrl]
CAPSULE: Sam Raimi does a comic superhero story that is more character driven than fight driven. Toby McGuire plays Peter Parker, the boy bitten by a spider and finds himself with special spider powers. The film is fairly faithful to the comic book and at the same time is fast-moving and fun. Rating: 7 (0 to 10), low +2 (-4 to +4) Following the review is a non-spoiler discussion of Spider-Man's capabilities.
I have not read a lot of comic books since I was in Junior High. At that time Spider-Man was still a new comic, but I read several issues and have read a few since. To be honest it was neither sufficiently weird, nor sufficiently science-fictional to hold my interest at that time. I did like that the characters portrayed were a little better developed than the DC superheroes. I have, however, read enough Spider-Man and X-Men comic books to know that the new film SPIDER-MAN seems closer to the original comic books than the recent X-MEN did. But that is not the only reason I think this is the better of the two films. For my taste the characters of X-MEN did not seem as well-developed and to a much greater extent that film was fight-driven and while SPIDER-MAN is more character-driven. Peter Parker is something of a cliche, much like the title character of CARRIE, but at least we get a better idea of who he is than we did with the characters of most comic book based films.
Peter Parker (played by Tobey Maguire) is his school's science nebbish. He can tell you anything about science, but he cannot work up the courage to talk to his attractive next-door-neighbor and classmate, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). An orphan, he is lives a frustrating life in a minor key in a lower-middle class neighborhood of New York. Then Peter is bitten by a spider that was altered by DNA research. (Originally in the comic it was altered by atomic radiation, but writer Stan Lee seems to use whatever science that is current, mysterious, and topical.) Parker is very sick for a few hours, but when he recovers he gets considerably better than just well. He finds he has the power to shoot webs from his wrists. (Why would he develop this at his wrists? I suppose it would be a very different film if he had inherited spinnerets in the same anatomical location where a spider has them.)
Now, after hundreds of years when presumably nobody in New York City had super-powers, the same day that Peter Parker becomes spiderized by sheer coincidence someone else gets super-powers also. (What are the chances?) It is Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe), the father of Peter's best friend (another twist of fate!) who becomes a super-powered schizophrenic. Osborn is much like Jekyll and Hyde, but instead of Hyde he turns into lurid Green Goblin. Actually, his most amazing power seems to be to keep his balance on a sort of high-speed anti-gravity speeder. But while the film does have fight scenes between him and Spider-Man, they do not drag on as they do in some films like the current BLADE II. Instead, the film focuses on how Parker's relationships change as he discovers his powers. Parker interacts with Ms. Watson as well as his aging aunt and uncle. The latter is played by the venerable Cliff Robertson. (That is an interesting casting choice. Robertson's signature role was Charly Gordon who also finds his relationships changing when he is altered by a scientific experiment.)
Actually, the special effects of SPIDER-MAN may be of a lower average quality than most other blockbuster fantasy films of late. In spite of this being one film where wirework might work well, too often the filmmakers rely on digital effects that do not convince the eye. The images create look three-dimensional but frequently will accelerate in ways that look more like cartoon figures.
Also, the fact is that while SPIDER-MAN may have a nifty suit, the whole concept does not work well for a movie superhero. Spider- Man's powers are that he is strong and fast, he throws sticky webs, and he sticks to things. His sort of rescue is generally limited to throwing a web to stop someone from falling. But to make a sequence long enough to be interesting on film the person has to fall from a very great height. People fall from very high up indeed in SPIDER-MAN. I will discuss more limitations of the Spider-Man character after the review. And in addition to conceptual limitations, he has another restriction imposed by the writers. As my wife has observed in films, apparently superheroes are frequently not allowed to kill their opponents directly any more, even in fights to the death. Notice that SPIDER-MAN does not kill his opponents. Instead he frazzles them to the point that they make some stupid blunder and conveniently kill themselves. We see this happen at least twice in this film. The writers apparently do not want to risk losing audience sympathy. In fact, these "frazzle-to-death killings" seem to have become standard in many action films.
Tobey Maguire simply does not look like the Peter Parker of the comic books, but he does a reasonably convincing job. I am a little reluctant to see him in a mass market film since he has been very good in some arthouse films and now he may not return to that sort of film. Dunst does fine as the attractive friend of Parker. But having recently seen her in THE CAT'S MEOW as an actress who hides her intelligence behind a veneer of perky childishness, I think she is wasted in this simple role. J. K. Simmons is terrific as Parker's nasty boss J. Jonah Jameson. Sam Raimi known for THE EVIL DEAD and DARK MAN directs.
SPIDER-MAN was more fun than I was expecting. I'd give it a 7 on the 0 to 10 scale and a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale.
As long as we are on the subject, there are some things I have never known about Spider-Man. The first observation I would have is that there are marked similarities between Spider-Man and the introverted villain in the episode "Spider Boy" of the radio series "The Shadow" (November 11, 1945) I would be curious how much Stan Lee knew of that episode.
In the comic book Spider-Man looks really dramatic swinging among tall buildings, but I have never established how Spider-Man is able to travel very well with his web-swing approach. Necessary (but not sufficient) would be to have buildings at least thirty feet higher than his plane of travel. Actually, depending on the distance between suspension points, it would probably have to be much higher than that. Even in Manhattan he would be extremely limited in where this means of locomotion could take him. He has to alternate suspension points first on one side of his line of travel, then the other or he would end up flattening himself in the plane of the face of the building. He probably would find that it is very difficult to find a sequence of buildings he could use without finding one recessed too far from his line of travel. Web-swinging would of necessity be a very limited means of travel. My guess is that a real Spider-Man would simply walk most places he went. That is a lot less spectacular.
Spider-Man's wall climbs would also be impossible. I am not an expert on spiders, but I think that even tarantulas have problems climbing a vertical surface because they are just too heavy. Parker is A LOT heavier than a tarantula. The film suggested that Parker grows hooks on his hands, but even with fishhook gloves one could never get enough purchase to support a human's weight.
Not only would ha probably not be able to get to where the crime is, it is not at all clear how he knows where the crime is. Apparently Parker usually just happens on crimes being committed. Most of the crimes he seems to stop are in broad daylight and not in high-crime parts of the city. If it were so easy to find crime, police would probably be better at doing their job and stopping it. It seems to me that the comic book refers to so- called "spider sense." My question is what "spider sense?" Most spiders have a hard time knowing what is going on one or two leg- spans from their body. Web spiders can sense movement further away, but that is really because it causes web vibrations under their bodies. Some hunting spiders, very distant relatives of the spider in the film, have considerably better eyesight, but nothing to match the eyesight of a mammal. If Peter Parker inherited spider senses about all he would need is a tin cup.
All this is not to say that spiders cannot do some pretty impressive things--most of which have probably never been used in the Spider-Man comic. Spiderlings use strands of silk to catch the wind and get carried into the air. Live spiders have been found floating in this way in the upper levels of the stratosphere and come down miles out to sea. Most of the impressive things Spider-Man can do he does not get from his spider inheritance. Oh, and at this stage of his maturity he seems to be looking for a mate. Male spiders do this also, of course, but many do not survive the mating ritual. I hope his human side helps him to make a better choice. [-mrl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: "Frog. n. A reptile with edible legs. The first mention of frogs in profane literature is in Homer's narrative of the war between them and the mice. Skeptical persons have doubted Homer's authorship of the work, but the learned, ingenious and industrious Dr. Schliemann has set the question forever at rest by uncovering the bones of the slain frogs." -- Ambrose Bierce
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