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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
01/17/03 -- Vol. 21, No. 29
Table of Contents
Leeperhouse Film Festival:
Our next film festival is one of the strangest films in a long time and one intimately tied to the current film ADAPTATION, which is also one of the strangest films since BEING JOHN MALKOVICH. We will show this film at 7:30 PM on Thursday, January 23.
BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (1999) dir. by Spike Jonze
As I say, BEING JOHN MALKOVICH is intimately tied to ADAPTATION though nothing so simple as one being a sequel to another. BEING JOHN MALKOVICH is a film of great originality with a really bizarre premise. What is the premise? Well, if you don't know already you will enjoy the film more without knowing what is coming. The truth is, if I told you what the film is all about you probably wouldn't believe me anyway. Unless you already know. So what can I tell you about it? Oh, the film stars John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, and Catherine Keener. John Malkovich is in it also. But it is Cusack who discovers the hole on the short floor. No, I better not tell you about that hole. You either know the story or you wouldn't believe me. I will say that Roger Ebert picked this film as the best film of 1999. That's not too bad considering what BEING JOHN MALKOVICH is about. But then maybe you don't know what this film is about. Maybe. [-mrl]
[Esteemed Boston critic Dan Kimmel said of BEING JOHN MALKOVICH that he hadn't seen such a strange film since Luis Bunuel died. I hope that helps.] [-ecl]
Windycon Report Available:
My Windycon 29 report is finally available at http://fanac.org/Other_Cons/Windycon/w29-rpt.html (or http://www.geocities.com/evelynleeper/windy29.htm, but that is more likely to be blocked. For those interested in convention reports in general, http://fanac.org has many others as well. [-ecl]
England's Manzanar (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
For years I have been a fan of Alastair Cooke and his incisive comments on literature and on the American scene. He was the long-time host on PBS's Masterpiece Theater. That seemed somehow appropriate since much of their stock was, like Cooke himself, an import from Britain. On that program he gave introductions to such classics as I, CLAUDIUS and UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS. Among other things his responsibilities might be subtly filling the Yanks in on details the British audience might know but Americans might not. He also has a program I often with equal relish listened to on the BBC called "Letter from America" which is his commentary on the current happenings in the United States from the point of view of a quintessential Englishman. Seeing the United States from other eyes is always a fascinating experience.
Cooke has a nice easy conversational style that fascinates the listener even when he is beating around the bush to fill time. Cooke marking time is often more interesting than many people's getting to the point. He could probably tell you what he had for breakfast and make it enthralling. Last week he was telling his audience in his oh-so-gentle way about some new "Orwellian" measures that the United States Government was using to spy on its own people in the name of security, creating an Office of Information Management. At a point much later in his talk he hit, not too coincidentally I think, on a memory he had of the internment of Japanese immigrants in World War II. The subtext is that Americans are wont to do the unjust and even the unconstitutional in times when they fear for their security.
The observation is, to my mind, fair and well-taken, if indeed that was what he was saying. And I think it was. I would, however, say they are incomplete without at least some mention of the British "Dunera Affair" that took place some two years earlier. The Japanese internment may have been unjust and unjustified, but it at least can be seen to appear on some level to be in the national interest. The Dunera Affair lacked even that much weird logic.
For German Jews, escape from Germany and the death camps required great luck and great expense. Only a small percentage made it out alive and managed not to fall into hands nearly as unsympathetic as the Nazis'. Some of those were able to make it to civilized England where they hoped and expected that they would be safe from persecution. These people hated the Nazis as much as anyone in England and probably with a good deal more cause. This was not sufficient for the English government to treat them as allies. Reasoning I have seen attributed to Winston Churchill himself said that these people had been German until recently, so they could not be trusted not to spy for the Nazis.
So 2542 of Jewish refugees whose only crime was to escape the Holocaust (they thought) were classified as "enemy aliens" and rounded up. Not wanted in England they were arrested and herded onto the HMT Dunera, a boat whose maximum capacity was supposed to be only 1600 including crew. It set sail for Australia from Liverpool in June of 1940. Much of their remaining valuables were confiscated from the prisoners and not returned. Prisoners were beaten at the hands of British guards. There were hammocks strung all over the boat. There were no toilets. The stench and the seasickness were terrible.
On their arrival at Sidney locals gathered to jeer the enemy aliens and to throw rotten vegetables at them. These people who had done no worse to the Allied side than to escape Germany to save their lives were herded into camps at Hay and later the overflow camp at Tatura in the outback.
Though mistrusted at first, the refugees were treated somewhat better by the Australian military, who presumably understood that these were not German spies. They were allowed to set up informal schools. With some musical instruments they played concerts. They were permitted to administer their own camps and the Orthodox were authorized to establish kosher facilities. When it was allowed, they were released and only about half returned to England. Large numbers felt they had ties to the Australian army and joined it after the war.
One hears very little of this incident these days, certainly less than of the Japanese internment in the United States. There was an Australian film on the subject called THE DUNERA BOYS, but the British do not mention it much. If it is Cooke's subtext is that Americans are too ready to ignore human rights to attain a small measure of security, he should look at the history of his own country in the 20th century. The people to whom he is writing may well be cut from a very similar cloth. [-mrl]
ADAPTATION (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Charlie Kaufman has in one stroke made his the most recognizable screenwriter's name in the country. His film, directed by Spike Jonze, is a meditation on the forces that make films successful; it is also a philosopher's chestnut and a marvelous mental toy. This is the kind of film that viewers can discuss for hours. Rating: 8 (0 to 10), low +3 (-4 to +4). Spoiler warning: it would be impossible to discuss ADAPTATION without talking somewhat about the nature of the film. That is a bit of a spoiler. Those who want the film completely unspoiled are advised to see the film without reading or hearing any discussion of it.
In the early days of television one of the first experiments broadcasters tried was training a television camera one a monitor displaying what the camera was seeing. What the monitor then showed was a picture of the monitor showing a picture of the monitor showing a picture of the monitor showing a picture of the monitor.… Like that image, ADAPTATION is infinitely self-referential. ADAPTATION is about a lot of different things. This is a film about orchids, about the book THE ORCHID THIEF, about the man who was the subject of the book THE ORCHID THIEF, about the woman who wrote THE ORCHID THIEF, about the man who wrote the screenplay of THE ORCHID THIEF, about the writing of the screenplay for THE ORCHID THIEF, about the twin brother of the writer of the screenplay for THE ORCHID THIEF, and about Hollywood. Above all ADAPTATION is, at least in theory, the largest cream pie that a filmmaker could throw in the face of an audience and still have that audience come up smiling. This is just a story but a treasure trove of jokes on the audience and weird script devices. The amazing thing is that when it is all over the viewer discovers there was a complete story being told.
In Charlie Kaufman's adaptation of Susan Orlean's THE ORCHID THIEF, real life screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, here played by Nicholas Cage, is hired to write a screenplay for the book THE ORCHID THIEF by Susan Orlean (here played by Meryl Streep). He is drawing a complete blank on how to tell Orlean's story of her discovery of orchid collector and thief John Laroche (played by Chris Cooper). Lurching backward and forward in time, showing several story lines, the film shows Kaufman's paralysis of low self-esteem-fed writer's block and the incidents he reads of Orlean's relationship with Laroche. Meanwhile Kaufman is having problems with his twin brother Donald Kaufman (played by--who else?--Nicholas Cage) who wants to become a screenwriter himself, but whose ideas represent the worst of the Hollywood movie machine. Meanwhile Charlie is discovering himself fascinated with Orlean and suspects that she is fascinated by Laroche, an off-putting good ol' boy type.
Kaufman, who, I believe, does not really have a twin brother Donald, mixes together truth, fiction, and semi-truth. He cut his teeth writing material for TV shows "Get a Life" and "The Dana Carvey Show." He worked with Spike Jonze previously on BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, a good and wacky film. In that film, however, his writing was uneven. He had many weird ideas, all in the first third of the film. Through the rest of the film he just developed the strange ideas he had already without really adding much more. This film is much more smoothly written and uniformly strange.
This is a film that seems to be as self-modifying as it is recursive. This film is an audience-pleaser, but it helps if the viewer is a fan of the mathematical artist M. C. Escher. Though there is no reference to him in the film, the film could well be called Escher-esque. I rate ADAPTATION an 8 on the 0 to 10 scale and a low +3 on the -4 to +4 scale. There are two scenes of extreme, sudden, and unexpected violence. I wonder what the real Susan Orlean thinks about her sincerely intended book getting sucked into this madcap vortex and her along with it. What does she think about how she is characterized on the screen? [-mrl]
25TH HOUR (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Monty Brogan has drawn a seven-year sentence for drug dealing. His life as he knew it is coming to an end. He as just one last day of freedom to tie up this chapter of his life. He plans to get together with his friends and family for the last time and get things straight with them. Like a man who is on the way to his death he is getting his affairs in order. Edward Norton gives a poignant performance, but the film gives in a little too much to sentimentality. Rating: 7 (0 to 10), low +2 (-4 to +4)
Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) is a likable sort who had his life more or less together. He has friends, including Naturelle (Rosario Dawson) about whom he is serious. His father James (Brian Cox) and he are on good terms at last. He has just recently stopped dealing drugs for the Russian Mafia and he is going straight. Then the police find drugs and money in his apartment, a tie with the recent past that he has not yet cut. Now he is going to prison for seven years, a victim of the New York's Rockefeller laws. Thinking about the sentence that is about to start is tearing Monty up. He broods on how much he has lost and thinking about just what the seven years is going to be like. His good looks which have helped him until now will just make him a sexual target in prison and he dreads the thought of it.
Monty has one more night before he must either turn himself in or become a fugitive. On his last day of freedom he is getting together with his best friends for one final night of fun and to say good-bye to them. Most of the film is the story of his only remaining day. His friends are stock dealer Frank Slaughtery (Barry Pepper) and awkward and single high school English teacher Jacob Elinsky (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who has his own crisis. Monty has broken rules and Elinsky is boyishly uneasy that he will be tempted to do the same. In his case, he is being tempted and manipulated by a nymphet from his English class (played by Anna Paquin). Monty needs one more piece of closure. When the police raided his apartment, they seemed to know exactly where to look for the drugs and money. Somebody told them where to look. Monty wants to know who it was.
25TH HOUR was directed by Spike Lee from a screenplay by David Benioff, from Benioff's own novel. There is some action and even violence, but for the most part the story is driven by dialog. Monty's father blames himself for his son's problems and Monty wants to release him from that guilt. At times the writing could be a little subtler. To make Monty likable from the very beginning, the pre-credit sequence has him rescuing a dog who has been badly injured. This is as manipulative as any device Steven Spielberg would have used. A sequence toward the end of the film also seems a little overly sentimental. This Monty does not seem like the same person who in another sequence curses all the ethnic groups he sees in Manhattan. There is another example of going tapping a little into overly-emotional material. The film returns repeatedly to the image of the wreckage of the World Trade Center and frequently the beams of the two searchlights that have temporarily replaced it. They echo the wreckage of Monty's life and the quick last-day fixes he is attempting.
Rodrigo Prieto's photography frequently irritates with use of what is probably 12 frame-per-second shooting. The movement of images is jerky. But there are moments of poignancy in this film and I rate 25th HOUR a 7 on the 0 to 10 scale and a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
BIG SHOT'S FUNERAL (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: China tries to make a film that will play well as a screwball comedy in both the United States and in China. It is a good attempt and the words are right but the rhythms just don't quite work. Also, there is a bit of an anti-capitalist message that fades through. When it is discovered a great American director is dying in China, there are plans to make his funeral a highly commercialized international event from Beijing's Forbidden City. Rating: 5 (0 to 10), low +1 (-4 to +4)
From China comes a film very atypical of that country. BIG SHOT'S FUNERAL is a wild and topical comedy about commercialization and global business. While it has many funny bits, overall the film seems to have timing a little off for Western audiences. Don Tyler (played by Donald Sutherland) is one of the great international film directors. He is currently in China to film THE LAST DYNASTY, his remake of THE LAST EMPEROR. Tyler is under pressure to get more of his film made, but Tyler is finding the process slow as he gets distracted and fascinated by Chinese society. Yoyo is hired by Tyler's assistant Lucy to film the process for a "Making of..." film. Tyler and Yoyo become good friends who have long talks. When Yoyo mentions that in Chinese culture a funeral is not sad, Tyler gets fixated on the phrase "comedy funeral." Then a heart attack takes Tyler off the film and in the expectation of dying he says he wants a comedy funeral. Yoyo runs with the idea wanting to make the funeral a global media event broadcast from the Forbidden City.
From there the deals and the absurdity of the commercialization gets worse and worse in an accelerating spiral. One company will fight to become the official beer of the Tyler funeral. Really it is the same joke over and over. The script was written with several topical references to recent events in China. References are made to the Turandot broadcast from the Forbidden City just a year before the film's production. The film itself is obviously shot in the Forbidden City, at one point a rare and exotic location, but its ready availability is part of the joke. Individual gags seem to work and are funny, but overall the feel seems uncoordinated and does not hold together as a unity. There are too many repetitions of the same idea, a bad taste juxtaposition of a potential sponsor and what should be a solemn event. BIG SHOT'S FUNERAL has no good third act to follow the rest of the story. When the jokes run out the plot just gets tied up as quickly as possible.
Director Feng Xiaogang is known for his offbeat films and this film is certainly not what one expects in a Chinese film. With American actors like Donald Sutherland and Paul Mazursky, much of the dialog in English, and a non-traditional theme, BIG SHOT'S FUNERAL is very unusual for a Chinese film. This is light-hearted jab at commercialization and internationalization of the media. I rate it a 5 on the 0 to 10 scale and a low +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
THE DA VINCI CODE by Dan Brown (book review by Tom Russell):
This was the best novel I read in 2002. Back in November I found an "Advance Reading Copy" of the novel at our town library. It is due to be published hardcover in March 2003, or perhaps May 2003 as that is the copyright date in this advance-reading (paperback) issue.
From the back cover: "A mind-bending code hidden in the works of Leonardo da Vinci. A desperate race through the cathedrals and castles of Europe. An astonishing truth concealed for centuries-- unveiled at last."
Inside the front cover there is a letter from Jason Kaufman, Senior Editor, Random House, inviting e-mail comments. Here is his reply to the note I sent (which I am not including here as it contains spoilers).
>Subject: RE: The Da Vinci Code - typos? >Date: Fri, 6 Dec 2002 12:02:24 -0500 >Dear Tom, > >Glad to hear your strong response to the book. Unfortunately >these errors were in the early reading copies, but should all >be fixed for the book... >Thanks for writing, and hope you'll help spread the word! > >Jason Kaufman
To explain this: even this "advance copy" includes testimonials from people who read even earlier versions of the novel. As he suggested, I'm spreading the word... [-tlr]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Of my comments about how it is difficult to find any sort of basic book about gnosticism, Ian Gahan writes that he would also be interested, saying, "I became interested in this from reading THE JESUS MYSTERIES by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy. This propounds the theory that the Christian religion was formulated by a group of Jewish Gnostics in Alexandria as a means of promoting the Gnostic mysteries to fellow Jews. In a similar manner as was developed by other Mediterranean peoples, Egypt - Isis/Osiris, Greece - Persephone/Dionysus, Syria - Aphrodite/Adonis, Asia Minor - Cybele/Attis, Mesopotamia - Ishtar/Marduk, Persia - Magna Mater/Mithras, Judaea - Asherah/Baal."
Well, I started out this week with Martin Gidron's THE SEVERED WING, an alternate history that assumes that we entered World War I earlier and imposed less oppressive terms on Germany at the end, hence preventing the rise of the Nazis and World War II. It is set primarily in New York, which is seen as having a much larger and more vibrant Jewish population and cultural scene (Yiddish is still very widely used). I'm not sure one can extrapolate that this would be the result (most of the Yiddish-speaking immigration had dwindled by 1920 because of immigration restrictions, and one would have to postulate that those would not be in place either), but it's still an interesting view, and the gradual drifting of the main character from that world to this is eeriely done (and reminiscent of a "Twilight Zone" style).
I re-read THE CLUB DUMAS by Arturo Perez-Reverte for our library discussion group. Much as I like the film THE NINTH GATE, it's still annoying in that the film drops the entire Dumas plot and pumps up the other sub-plot and makes it much more overt.
I'm still reading Ivan Klima's KAREL CAPEK--LIFE AND WORK (certainly of interest to science fiction fans) and J. P. Telotte's SCIENCE FICTION FILM (not as much of interest, since there is very little new in this academic press study that hasn't been covered elsewehere before). [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing. -- Theodore Roosevelt
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