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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
12/13/02 -- Vol. 21, No. 24
Table of Contents
Truth and Lies (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
This is one economics topic you won't hear about in a college class, so listen up. I want to talk today about one of the two fundamental pillars on which our economy is based. One of those pillars is the basic honesty with which we deal with one another. Think how exhausting life would be if we were always on our guard for fear of being cheated. Look how much extra effort would go into our simple day-to-say existence.
The other pillar of the economy is something I will call the "mutual-consent lie." It is not really a lie because a lie is made with an intent to deceive and this is a false statement made with no hope of fooling anybody. It is a lie made as a matter of form. Advertising uses this sort of lie all the time. The people who see the advertisement know it is a lie. The people who composed the advertisement know the public knows its advertisements are lies. And of course the company who bought the ad knows that the ad is a lie and that everybody in the public knows it is a lie.
Let's take the first example. Go to any fast food hamburger joint and take a look at the pictures of the hamburgers they serve. It is enough to tempt a vegetarian. The claim is that the burger you are seeing in the picture is the burger you are getting. Good luck. The truth is that not only did this burger get as much or more makeup time as Michelle Pfeiffer gets for a major film. This burger is a ringer. It was actually especially cooked just enough so the outside was browned. The law says they cannot show you a burger with more meat than the real burger has so a radial cut was made at the back of the patty and spread so that the meat would look wider. I could go on and on, but you get the idea. With enough food preparation and photographic tricks you can make a pig's knuckle look like Chateaubriand.
A local automobile billboard claims that at an upscale car dealership "You will just love us as much as the car." Sure. I believe that one. When was the last time you loved someone trying to sell you an expensive car?
There are very basic lies. Not that I am a big fan of lamb, but this one still crinkles my cabbage. In spite of appearances on menus you almost never can get lamb in the US. Don't believe me? What you get is mislabeled mutton. Veal is to beef as lamb is to mutton. Very young mutton is called lamb and is generally a pricier product. Everyone just accepts in the US that if you order lamb you will get mutton. Lamb just sounds better. I guess that is not really a mutual consent lie. It is just a common lie.
Well, how about the Famous Amos Frosted Oatmeal Cookies? You look at Amos on the package and you figure how could this nice old guy do anything nasty to you? You see these things in vending machines. And Famous Amos has a reputation for being a very good brand. They look in the picture like thickly frosted little cookies. Even if they were really thinly frosted, I could almost accept that it was just dressed up like the hamburger was. When you open the package your realize that each cookie has exactly the same frosting pattern. It looks thick, but that is because it is little mesas actually pressed into the cookie dough of each identical pressed cookie. There is a bit of frosting at the top of the mesas. What crumbles my cookie is not just that there is a deception, but that it is so blatant and transparent and that wonderful old Famous Amos is lending his name to it. Of course the man himself is no longer connected with the product. He sold his name to the Kellogg's cereal people who own among other things another cookie company, Keebler.
But when the lie is so blatant and so obvious one can only assume that it is being made as a matter of form and of mutual consent. These obvious lies just hang around in our environment convincing people that everybody is dishonest and that it is somehow okay to deceive people. This is the thin edge of the wedge. It starts with cookie frosting and ends with Enron. Or doesn't end with Enron. [-mrl]
EQUILIBRIUM (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: "Let's shoot some big guns in the name of protecting the right to be sensitive and to have feelings." There is something very strange about making a violent movie about how important delicate emotions are. EQUILIBRIUM is a highly stylized piece that borrows from an astounding variety of other films and even other genres. Take away the familiar and there is not much new or original here. And the unemotional characters make this a hard film to feel much about. Rating: 4 (0 to 10), 0 (-4 to +4)
Ray Bradbury wrote at least at two stories, "The Pedestrian" and "Fahrenheit 451," about future societies in which simple pleasures that he enjoyed would be outlawed. Several dystopic films have been made on similar themes including FAHRENHEIT 451, THE LAST CHILD, ZPG, and THE HANDMAID'S TALE. The latest film to use this near-cliche is EQUILIBRIUM. It is the dubious premise of this film that after a nuclear war (that seems to have done surprisingly little damage) the world government decides that emotion is the cause of the humanity's problems--how that reasoning goes is never clear--and that everybody must be drugged so they never feel emotion. The drug chosen is "Prozium" (perhaps a cross between Prozac and Valium?). It is illegal to not take your Prozium every day. Now right away this seems like a wrong turn. One rather believes that the filmmakers assume that taking emotion-controlling drugs is extremely common and becoming more widespread. I suspect that what may be true in the filmmaking industry is not as true in the hinterlands where this film will be playing. There the theme of this film will be less meaningful.
EQUILIBRIUM borrows from many different sources. It borrows big chunks from 1984; some of the plot seems to be from MINORITY REPORT; there are visual borrowings from METROPOLIS, BLADERUNNER, and from the famous 1984 Apple Computer commercial used to introduce the Macintosh. A style of machine-gun action borrows from John Woo films and from THE MATRIX. Fighting scenes use style borrowed from Kung Fu and samurai films, especially Zato Ichi films. There are almost too many different borrowings packed into this film to list, but primarily it borrows its plot from FAHRENHEIT 451.
In this future world emotion and especially art have been outlawed and are held in check by the mandatory universal use of the drug Prozium. These laws are enforced by super-lawmen. The best are John Preston (played by Christian Bale of AMERICAN PSYCHO and EMPIRE OF THE SUN) and his partner Partridge (Sean Bean of the BBC's "Sharpe" series). Society's criminals, mostly fans of art, do not have a chance with a lawman like Preston who seemingly can see in the dark using his ears as effectively as his eyes. He also can put himself into a criminal's mind and think several steps ahead of that criminal. He and his partner make up and unstoppable crime-fighting team. But with one slip Partridge accidentally reveals that he has been cheating and taking a peek at some William Butler Yeats poetry. Preston knows what needs to be done, but it will put Preston in touch with the courageous, emotional, and art-loving underground. One wonders who in the production, if anyone, took this plot seriously, and who in the production, if anyone, thought this was supposed to be just a dark comedy. It is certainly played straight and almost humorlessly. The concept that people like Stalin and Saddam Hussein are only a danger because there are emotions and art in the world seems a little preposterous.
It is all filmed extremely stylishly. Care is taken that people who have faithfully renounced emotion are filmed in cold blues, grays, and blacks. People and locations that are associated with emotion are films in yellows and reds, warmer colors. Bale cuts a stylish figure posing in cold colors, and he definitely poses, in his tight long jacket. He looks good though many of the future fashions are the same old tired tight-collared Nehru jackets. Pictures of the New New York City look like the Old New York City crossed with Albert Speer's architectural plans for the Third Reich. The fighting is equally stylized with techniques borrowed from samurai films and kung fu films even in gunfights, though there are also sword and kung fu fights. Some of the action scenes seem to be filmed for style rather than logic.
EQUILIBRIUM is a scrapbook of better films, but its own story is self-contradictory and verges on the hypocritical. This is a good film for someone who does not get out to see action and science fiction films a lot and needs to catch up. I rate it a 4 on the 0 to 10 scale and a 0 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
OUTCAST OF THE ISLANDS (1952) (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Though the story is familiar, the craftsmanship reminds me of the films that first got me interested in cinema. In a sense it is a retelling of the story of the snake in the Garden of Eden. The dialog is extremely good in some places. This is a simple story told extremely well. Rating: 8 (0 to 10), low +3 (-4 to +4)
Carol Reed was one of the finer if now nearly forgotten British filmmakers of the post-war years. His one remembered classic was THE THIRD MAN, a story written for the film by no less a personage than Graham Greene. (And before I am corrected, the screenplay predated the Graham Greene novel.) For OUTCAST OF THE ISLANDS Reed adapted, fairly faithfully, a story by Joseph Conrad.
The story has the quality of a myth or a parable. Somewhere in a port on the Malaysian Peninsula, Willems (played by Trevor Howard) has cheated in just about everything he had done in his life, including embezzling funds from his trading firm. Now he has been found out and he has to run. He fakes a suicide attempt in order to be rescued by Captain Lingard (Ralph Richardson). In the past Lingard has tried to be like a father to Willems and he decides to try again. Lingard takes Willems to a secret trading port up a nearly impossible to navigate strait. Only Lingard trades there in any quantity because only Lingard knows how to get a boat through the strait. The port is a paradise and Willems has had more luck than he deserves.
Lingard leaves Willems there in the care of his somewhat obnoxious partner Almayer (Robert Morley) who runs the trading post. Lingard, who almost raised Willems, has complete faith in him. It is a faith that is charitable, but the audience has seen no fiber at all admirable or unselfish in Willems. Here we have paradise and the snake has been placed there. One can guess what the consequences will be. Almost immediately Willems begins making dubious friends like an Arab trader and a discontented native. George Coulouris, familiar from other films like CITIZEN KANE, plays the latter.
It is something of a revelation to see how well this film, not even one of the best remembered of the period, is crafted. There is exquisite photography of the local population of quality far beyond what is needed to establish the essentials of the story. The script is studded with clever dialog. This is a film that could easily talk down with obvious moralist views. Yet the OUTCAST OF THE ISLANDS never condescends. Almayer runs the trading post with his family. It is interesting to see his son, an unctuously over cute child of the type one usually sees in films. Still our first instincts are correct that there is nothing particularly attractive about this child. It has been suggested that Richardson is miscast as the sea captain. Actually I think he does a decent job. I think Morley is the only poor choice. After his comic roles he seems too much a comic actor for the role. Almayer should not be such a comic character and seeing him as a amusing creature somewhat ruins his impact.
This is a piece of quality filmmaking. I rate this film an 8 on the 0 to 10 scale and a low 3 on the -4 to +4 scale.
I have something of a mystery associated with this film. I keep reading other people's descriptions of the film that simply do not match the film I saw. Some descriptions mention vicious cannibalistic natives, some mention a huge manhunt for Willems. Neither was in the film I saw. I wonder if there were somehow two vastly different editings of this movie. Somehow those descriptions do not seem to fit a Carol Reed film. [-mrl]
A SNAKE OF JUNE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: A stalker victimizes a repressed couple by blackmailing them into performing sexually liberating stunts. The characters are never very well developed and they seem little more than dolls who are being toyed with and demeaned by the stalker. There are a lot of interesting horror films being made in Japan just now, but this is not nearly as creative or enjoyable. A SNAKE OF JUNE is dull and disappointing. Rating: 1 (0 to 10), -2 (-4 to +4)
Weeks after seeing it, this film still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It was written, produced, and directed by Shinya Tsukamoto, who is best known for the Japanese Tetsuo films.
Someone, apparently a blackmailer but an unconventional one (played by Shinya Tsukamoto) seems to be stalking a repressed and incompatible couple. The couple is Rinko (Asuka Kurosawa) and Shigehiko (Yuji Kotari). Rinko is an attractive young woman. Shigehiko seems to be too old for her, heavy and balding. He is also a neatness freak. Somehow the two seem incapable of communicating with each other and have a negative sort of chemistry. The viewer would like to know a little more about their relationship, but the film gives little detail.
The stalker is taking a huge number of blackmail-worthy pictures. His payment is not money but demands for stunts. He gives the couple odd, but sexually liberating, dares. The first such dare is for the wife to walk through a department store wearing no underwear, a short miniskirt, and a vibrator. We are not exactly talking CITIZEN KANE here.
Much of the style of the film and its visualization seems intended to emulate the Japanese Manga comic books. The film is visualized entirely in blue and shades of gray. There is a constant oppressive rain. The editing is in short cuts mostly. There is little effort to develop the characters beyond putting them in situations. The look was good, but the logic was missing and the characters were all ciphers.
While I do not walk out of films, I was much tempted to do so during the deceptively short 77 minutes of this film. I rate it a 1 on the 0 to 10 scale and a -2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [I do not hold this against the film, but making the film even more unpleasant was that I saw it with extreme heartburn, in 90-degree heat (F), sitting next to a woman eating a garlic-filled sandwich. This is a cinematic experience I will long remember.] [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Well, I just finished the autobiography of a labor-leaning, tree-hugging, equal-rights environmentalist--Theodore Roosevelt. All I can say is that if he rose from the dead and looked at the Republican Party today and they looked at him, both he and they would have heart attacks. Then again, he did split off and form the Bull Moose Party, so even back then he had issues with them. Theodore Roosevelt is considered to be possibly the finest writer of all the Presidents, and this autobiography was certainly both fascinating and readable--and what's more, I doubt any ghost writer was involved. His name has been in the news briefly recently when Jimmy Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize, as one of the other two United States Presidents who have won it. (I can also recommend his books about his life out west, and while I haven't read any of his others, I suspect they're equally good.)
I'm also working my way through Martin Greenberg et al's MORE HOLMES FOR THE HOLIDAYS, a so-so collection of Sherlock Holmes stories set during Christmas. One problem is that because there is no controlling hand anymore, all sorts of contradictions arise. For example, one story will say Watson and his wife always spend Christmas alone together, while another will say Watson is on his own because his wife is spending Christmas with an aunt. (Which is also off, because she supposedly had no relatives, but that's a larger complaint.) Still, I'll read just about anything Holmesian unless it's truly wretched. (Mark read this and noted, "You imply a controlling hand would keep things consistent. How come even with a 'controlling hand' the bullet moved around in Watson's body?" Well, yes, but still . . . .)
One story I liked was Mat Coward's "Early Retirement" in the September 2002 issue of INTERZONE. As someone who worked for a company that sponsored these "team-building" exercises, I could appreciate it perhaps more than others. (Though I will admit that I personally never went on one.)
And I read Greg Benford's FOUNDATION'S FEAR, the first of the "Second Foundation Trilogy" (even though it precedes the first "Foundation Trilogy"). The Foundation parts were okay, but the "Voltaire/Joan of Arc" segments and the "pan" segment broke up the flow completely and had (apparently) little to do with the main story. I had heard that this was a problem with this volume, but that the other two (FOUNDATION AND CHAOS by David Brin and FOUNDATION'S TRIUMPH by Greg Bear) are much more focused. We'll see. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: The displacement of the idea that facts and evidence matter by the idea that everything boils down to subjective interests and perspectives is--second only to American political campaigns--the most prominent and pernicious manifestation of anti-intellectualism in our time. -- Larry Laudan
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