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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
11/22/02 -- Vol. 21, No. 21
Table of Contents
Alchemy and Fantasy (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I have commented in previous writings that I am a little bemused and a little bothered that for American audiences the title HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSPHER'S STONE was changed and dumbed down to HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCEROR'S STONE. The reason for this transformation is that somebody decided that Americans would not know what the Philosopher's Stone was. It would sound a little abstract for Yanks. The powers-that-were decided we are ignorant of the existence of alchemy and can just as well remain so. I think that concepts of alchemy show up much more in European literature than in American literature. Not all European fantastical ideas get this treatment. Ideas like the existence of vampires have been mined ad nauseum in American literature and film, but somehow alchemy is too complex and abstract to have ever caught the public's imagination here. The New World is a world of science and materialsm. The mysticism of alchemy is apt to be looked upon, even by those who know of it, as hokey.
Americans are not well grounded in the mystical, especially if it is non-religious. I am not saying there is any basis in fact for the mystical, but one should be able to recognize the basic concepts of mysticism. There probably is no better example of American materialism than the way films have handled the concept of the Frankenstein monster. With the exception of the short 1910 version made by the Edison studios, the film versions have all placed the creation of the monster outside of the realm of mysticism and squarely in the realm of the scientific.
This scientific or pseudo-scientific approach is not actually true of the original book by Mary Shelley. In particular, everybody in American films generally assumes that Frankenstein sewed together dead bodies and animated them with electricity in some generalization of galvanism. Checking the novel, there is one quick mention of electricity in the novel and it is not in any connection with the creation. Mary Shelley is extremely coy in her explanations of how Victor Frankenstein performed his ill-considered feat. We are told that Victor went off to college and studied science. He also became interested at the same time in the works of the mystics of alchemy. He realized one day he had what he needed to know to create a man and he simply went ahead and made one. Though Shelley is quite verbose in other places, in the method of creation she was extremely terse. And with good reason. She had no idea how to make a human and that was not what she intended to be the point of her novel in any case. Writing at the time I think she said that she had gotten the idea for the story from discussions about science, but elsewhere she said it was also inspired by folk tales. But the only reliable source on the manner of creating life would have to be the book and it does not say.
From the novel one rather gets the impression that the monster was made in a manner related to the way that alchemists created homunculi with a little science thrown in to help Victor Frankenstein past the hard spots. The classic 1931 film adaptation has Colin Clive taking bodies, piecing parts together, and with the strangest pieces of electrical equipment that could be assembled, the body is infused with electricity and somehow brought to life. All traces of mysticism and alchemy from the book have been eliminated. All film versions of the story since (that come to mind) have followed in the same path. Only with the mention of Dr. Pretorius in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN is there much of a nod to the alchemist's art.
One rarely sees mentions of alchemy in American fantasy. Like the original Frankenstein monster it bridges the gap between mysticism and materialism, though unlike the monster it has a very real place in history. Its place is as a belief system to which some people devoted their lives. The mysticism provided more emotional values than practical ones. Its results were unreliable and much more open to interpretation. Eventually the objective pushed out the subjective and alchemy mutated into chemistry.
In fact, alchemy should probably be thought of as an early stage of chemistry even more than astrology is thought of as an early stage of astronomy. The goals of alchemy are more similar to the goals of modern chemistry than the goals of astrology are to astronomy.
Next week I will look at what the study of alchemy actually was in history. As for the alchemist goal of creating life in a laboratory, they probably never accomplished that, but neither has science. That is about to change, however. It looks like the creation of life in a laboratory is now only weeks away. The BBC (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/2499119.stm) and the Washington Post (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A17496-2002Nov20.html) and the report that life is about to be created in the laboratory in the form of a very basic bacteria. The idea is that this will give rise to cheap energy sources. That is a connection that outwardly sounds as tenuous as any in a bad sci-fi film. To make cheap energy scientists will create life in a laboratory. [-mrl]
HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS:
CAPSULE: Harry Potter returns to Hogwarts School for his sophomore year and finds a new mystery involving a missing secret room at the school and a struggle between purebred wizards and those who are interbred. There are a lot of new things to see in this world to make up what gets reused from the first film. This is not a perfect film, and it does drag in spots, but it is consistently inventive and rewarding. Rating: 7 (0 to 10), +2 (-4 to +4)
Harry Potter film is out and the question is, is there enough new and exciting to make up for the fact that a lot of this strange world already will be familiar to most of the audience from the first film? For me that question may be too close to call. But Harry Potter remains a children's film made so well that all ages can appreciate it. Compare that to LORD OF THE RINGS, the other current popular annual franchise, which is a film for all ages that children can appreciate.
The continued format of the boy wizard opens many possibilities for story-telling. But the same as last year--and probably same as always with Rowling--the story is really an English Public School story, with its standard coming of age and overcoming bullies theme, crossed with a boy-detective mystery. Harry's powers of wizardry are really secondary his powers of logical deduction. That is probably a good thing because powers of logic are understood by the viewer while powers of magic are much less so.
As the film opens Harry is a little morose. He is back at home with his aunt and uncle who treat him as an awkward and unwanted stepchild, which is basically what he is in this world. To make matters worse, none of his friends have written to him all summer long. But buck up, Harry. Summer is over and it is time to take the train (from the invisible platform, of course) and head back to Hogwarts for another year of exciting education, learning useful skills like turning rats into crystal goblets. It turns out there was more than meets the eye in last year's choosing to what house at the college each wizard is assigned. Slithern was all purebred witches and wizards and they feel racially superior to Harry and his friends. And there is a new mystery--something about a room that was sealed up back when the original Wizard Slithern helped found the school. Old Hogwarts seems more sinister this year than it did last year. If like in the old Jim Stafford song you "don't like spiders and snakes" this could be a bad year for you at Hogwarts. Even the usual friendly (?) game of quiddich takes on a dangerous and nasty feel almost as bad as English Rugby. And of course we have Harry getting into trouble with the teachers who seem a tad ungrateful to the boy who saved Hogwarts and perhaps the world last year. But then Hogwarts is a bit darker this year. The sun seems to rise only to allow the occasional game of quiddich.
There are some new characters this year. Kenneth Branagh plays Gilderoy Lockhart, a sensationalist celebrity wizard who is coming to teach at Hogwarts when he finishes promoting his new book. Then there is Dobby the House Elf. For this new character the filmmakers seem to have managed what George Lucas could not do. They have created a fully digital character that does not set the viewers' teeth on edge. It is Dobby who direly warns Harry against returning to Hogwarts. Somehow the script mentions only one freshman entering Hogwarts for the first time, oddly enough. She does not get nearly the fuss that the freshmen got last year, sad to say.
Daniel Radcliffe does a decent job of portraying Potter, aged just about the right amount since last year thanks not to digital effects but to plain old-fashioned nature. Radcliffe just happens to be a year older as is Potter. The teaching staff is played by much the same set of substantial but underused actors. These are one-time major lead actors cast in small supporting roles well beneath their talents. Little more than scenery are Maggie Smith and Alan Rickman. Only a little more important is the late Richard Harris in his final screen role. He has already replaced for the next film as the annual release schedule does not leave much time for delay. Most dispensable of the repeated roles is John Cleese as a nearly headless ghost. The time spent reminding the audience just who he is seems wasted since he still does not participate in the story and is only a piece of scenery. One problem with a series that releases for the holiday season each year is that there is a little too much that is Father-Christmassy in this world each year.
HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS sadly fails to expand much on the world created by the first film. It is a well-crafted mystery film set in a little too precisely the same world as the first film. I would have liked it to deliver more that was new and intriguing, but it is not substantially worse than the previous film and I am willing to be happy with that. I rate HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS a 7 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. Two notes: It is nice to have the same title in America and in Britain. Also, be aware that if you sit quietly to the end of the credits the filmmakers give you a little reward. [-mrl]
THE QUIET AMERICAN (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Michael Caine gives one of his best performances as Thomas Fowler, a worldly English journalist, and his relationship to a naive American who has strong ideas how to shape Vietnam. Graham Greene wrote the novel set in 1952 Vietnam. The story is powerful and only became more so as the United States became more involved in Southeast Asia. A riveting film. Rating: 8 (0 to 10), low +3 (-4 to +4)
I saw Graham Greene's novel THE QUIET AMERICAN sold on street corners of Vietnam when I visited in March of 2002. I thought that the reason was just that it was currently being filmed in the country at that time. In Hoi An, in fact it was being filmed in town at the same time I was there. The film was being directed by Michael Caine we were told. I had never heard of Caine directing and he wasn't this time either. He was starring, but the film was directed by Australian Philip Noyce who has helmed good films like DEAD CALM and CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER. In the interim I read the novel (well, part of it) and had seen the earlier version of the film which had Audie Murphy in the title role. Noyce was both more faithful to the novel and made a far better film. In fact, the earlier version totally perverted the story.
My biggest problem with Noyce's version is probably with me. Brendan Fraser has played a lot of exaggerated comic roles and very few roles that are as serious as his part in SCHOOL TIES. He always looks a little wacky these days even in serious roles. And this is a film that relies on an undercurrent of danger that goes well with some sudden and startling plot turns.
Fraser plays Alden Pyle, an American scholar in Saigon. Pyle is devoted to making a difference in the country, not for the French or the Communists, the two sides then fighting for control. Instead he idealistically championed a "third force" who could represent the interests of what he sees as a single Vietnamese people.
We see this idealist through the eyes of a decadent English correspondent. In fact, we see him only in flashback after all his good intentions have gotten him murdered and his body thrown into the river. In the flashback Thomas Fowler (Caine), a worldly and quietly decadent correspondent for a London paper, meets Pyle. Fowler is skeptical of Pyle's ideals. Then Pyle meets Phoung, Fowler's attractive mistress. He becomes fixated on her and Fowler is amused by this chink in his idealistic armor. Pyle decides to take Phoung from Fowler.
Noyce has recreated an earlier era. This is a Saigon with foreigners in white suits sitting in cafes to avoid the noonday sun, watching and admiring young Vietnamese women in their Ao Dai pants dresses. It is a Vietnam of steamy but beautiful landscapes and sudden death from explosions or staccato gunfire. THE QUIET AMERICAN was filmed entirely in Vietnam as an Australian production. A nice musical score is provided by Craig Armstrong. I rate THE QUIET AMERICAN an 8 on the 0 to 10 scale and a low +3 on the -4 to +4 scale. It is one of the high points of the year. [-mrl]
THE EMPEROR'S CLUB (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Kevin Kline takes on a Mr. Chips sort of role as a teacher who champions traditional values and integrity at a posh boys' school. This leads him to a piece of unfinished business many years later when some of his students have grown up. This is a film that like some of Kline's students, does not live up to its potential. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), +1 (-4 to +4)
Currently there is an epidemic of cheating in academia. An old officemate of mine, newly out of school, once told me in all sincerity that as hard as schools have gotten, students really HAVE to cheat these days. I later heard that he ended up a lawyer in the financial industry, which is probably just the career for his attitudes. Are virtue and character really important to success or is life just a scramble for acquisition without principle? That is the subject of Michael Hoffman's THE EMPEROR'S CLUB. I am tempted to say that it is a theme that is particularly timely in the days of the Enron and Worldcom scandals, but in fact it is no more timely now than it would have been at any other point in history.
Kevin Kline stars as Mr. Arthur Hundert, the classics teacher at an exclusive private prep school outside of Washington DC. Think of GOODBYE MR. CHIPS, but with a teacher who really does get the respect of his students. At St. Benedict School he has taught generations of students the classics and more. He has taught the integrity that really makes life meaningful. As the film opens in the present, Mr. Hundert is being honored in some way that is not exactly clear. He thinks back over his years of teaching to the year 1972. We see the year start as normal with Hundert doing his standard thing of teaching students and giving them little life lessons ("a man's character is his fate," "success is not remembered, contribution is remembered") while he instills a love of Classics. Into his class comes Sedgewick Bell (played by Emile Hirsch). Bell does not play by the usual prep school rules. He does not study. He convinces other students to go out on little adventures rather than studying. He blissfully gets bad grades. Most galling he mocks the traditions the other students follow and the values that Hundert is trying to encourage. Hundert goes to talk to Sedgewick's father, a United States Senator. Rather than find an ally in his struggle to correct Sedgewick he finds the father is the source of Sedgewick's questionable values. Hundert sets out to mold the boy's character in spite of his father. The mere fact of the visit, however, straightens out Sedgewick sufficiently so that he becomes one of the best students in the school. However, Sedgewick's philosophy and Hundert's remain in stark contrast and this conflict of values will become even more clear at Hundert's annual "Mr. Julius Caesar" contest.
Part of what is irritating about this film is that Hundert is a bit of a hypocrite. We see him frequently breaking his own rules. In a library incident he is willing to endorse Sedgewick's request for special treatment over a library book. Perhaps he feels he is helping Sedgewick become a better scholar, but the same rules that apply to the other students should apply to Sedgewick and Hundert seems to be willing to overlook that principle. Later and more prominently in the plot, Hundert will cheat even worse for Sedgewick's benefit. But those are unselfish infractions. In another sequence Hundert plays an impromptu game of baseball. He hits the ball right through the car window of the Head Master of the school. Rather than own up to his part in the damage he boyishly runs away. This is supposed to be cute, but it undermines his character and the whole point of the film. It is a very serious script flaw. In addition, the script and Hundert seem to hold Julius Caesar as some sort of a moral paragon "of profound character." Suetonius certainly would have disagreed.
Neil Tolkin wrote the screenplay based on the story "The Palace Thief" by Ethan Canin. Michael Hoffman, who directed the fine film RESTORATION, directs here. The story has echoes of THE DEAD POETS SOCIETY, even in the title, though here it acts in just the reverse and the individualists are the ones who have the wrong values. With the exception of Sedgewick, all the students seem to blend together and come out looking a lot alike, which is part of the goal of the school. This makes it a school for teaching the upper crust to be the upper crust and much less sympathetic than intended.
I wanted to like this film better than I did, particularly with its love of ancient history. Somehow, there were too many points made by the film that I had reservations about. I rate THE EMPEROR'S CLUB a 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
This is the first of what I hope will be a weekly column on books. I never seem to get around to writing full reviews, and trying to catch up after a few months doesn't work either, so I figure I'll start small with a paragraph or two a week.
I'm doing "catch-up" on alternate history. I'm currently most of the way through ALTERNATE GENERALS II (edited by Harry Turtledove). I'm not sure what the original requirements for a "large-print" book are, but this comes awfully close, with only five lines to the vertical inch. As far as content, most of the stories are (predictably enough) based on the idea that some famous person in our world ended up differently in another. The most extreme, "A Southern Strategy" by Michael F. Flynn, seems to have *everyone* famous in our world end up differently. As a result, what might have been one of the best stories ends up merely annoying.
Gary Blackwood's YEAR OF THE HANGMAN, on the other hand, is a very well-done alternate history about a failed American Revolution. In fact, though it is a young adult book, it is still one of the best alternate histories I've read this year, in part because it deals with society and isn't just a sequence of alternate battle maneuvers.
I also read F. Scott Fotzgerald's THE GREAT GATSBY for our library's book discussion group. I can't say it did much for me, even though it's supposedly a classic.
I'm working my way through Ted Chiang's STORIES OF YOUR LIFE AND OTHERS, re-savoring all of them. I'm also reading Stanislaw Lem's SOLARIS in preparation for the movie next week, so expect comments from me as well as a review of the film from Mark. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: I may as well confess myself the author of several books against the world in general. --Robert Frost
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