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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
05/16/03 -- Vol. 21, No. 46
Table of Contents
Trick Question (by Mark R. Leeper):
Find a common word in English that would be in any good English dictionary. It has three syllables and it pronunciation starts with a 'd' sound, yet it is not spelled with a letter 'd' anywhere. The answer will be an item later in the notice. [-mrl]
The Man who Didn't Shoot Liberty Valance (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
One of the nice things about writing a weekly editorial for a publication that nobody pays for is that I can write just about anything I want. You don't want to read it, you can have your $0.00 back. This week I want to talk about something that some of you really should not read about. I am going to talk about a film and give away some of the plot of the film. If you haven't seen this movie, you probably should not be reading this article. I don't want to spoil a good film for you. I am talking about John Ford's THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE. Will all those who can still have the film ruined for you please leave the room. Thank you.
Okay, are we all people who don't mind reading spoilers about THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE? Good. Sometimes a film changes a lot from the concept of the scriptwriters to what the director puts on film. Different people have different visions. Sometimes when a script is still just ideas in air, it plays one way and when it comes to hanging meat on those ideas, somehow it just does not work out physically the same way. Well, little things happen. When Rod Serling wrote the script for SEVEN DAYS IN MAY--and he did write a brilliant script--he made one little mistake. He accounted for only six days. What is more, the seventh day had to be the day of the running of the Preakness. That always falls on a Saturday. So the first day has to fall on a Sunday. Well the sort of action that the film starts with has to happen on a weekday. It certainly cannot start on a Sunday. This really bothered director John Frankenheimer until a friend suggested that since this was in the future, in this film the Preakness would have its first Sunday running. So there are little posters up in the film saying "First Sunday running of the Preakness."
I think something like that happened to John Ford when he made THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE. I think he realized in filming that the title person was a different character altogether from who is was supposed to be in the script. [You're sure you want to read this?] The two men in question are Rance Stoddard, played by Jimmy Stewart, and Tom Doniphon, played by John Wayne. The whole world knows Stoddard as "the man who shot Liberty Valance." In the film Stoddard goes out in the street and faces the bullying Valance (Lee Marvin). An instant before he is to be shot between the eyes, Stoddard apparently gets in a lucky shot and kills Valance with a handgun. This makes Stoddard a hero and earns him his nickname. Stoddard is going to be elected to political office by acclaim when he realizes people just love him for having killed a man, an action directly against his principles. He is about to give up and go back to his home in the East when Doniphon stops him. Doniphon tells Stoddard that it was he, Doniphon, who killed Valance. He used a rifle from a side alley. Stoddard realizes that no matter what people think, he (Stoddard) did not kill Valance so his conscience is clear. That is fine. That is the way James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck wrote the script.
But John Ford must have realized as soon as he started filming the scene, in flashback, that it could not have happened at all the way that Doniphon describes. The man who killed Valance had to be just who everybody but Stoddard thought it was, namely Stoddard. First, Doniphon would have had to synchronize his shot closely enough with Stoddard's shot so that the two would sound like a single shot. This is virtually impossible. The odds against it happening even by coincidence are just absurd. Doniphon would have had to do it intentionally. Second, when he is shot, Valance staggers a moment in no particular direction and then falls backward and away from Stoddard. What happened to all the momentum that the rifle bullet would have carried? Valance should have been kicked to his right. There is no momentum from bullets unless it is away from Stoddard. Third, the drunken town doctor is no candidate for the CSI team, but if you look at a body you just can't miss being able to see whether he has been hit from the front or the side. It should be obvious from roughly what angle Valance was hit.
I think that Ford must have realized all this and also realized that the script was still perfectly consistent. Doniphon still had saved Stoddard's career, but he hadn't done it by telling the truth about the killing of Valance. He did it by lying and claiming it was his own bullet that did the deed. And at the right moment Stoddard was willing to believe him. That puts the ending of the film in a very different light. I think Ford must have known this and quietly let people draw their own conclusions. But it is surprising how many people don't seem to pick up on the absurdity in one of the most popular Westerns ever made. [-mrl]
THE MATRIX RELOADED (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: The war to release humanity from computer-generated non-reality continues in a pretentious and violent film that nonetheless has a lot of style. The viewer is never really sure what level of reality is on the screen and the plot is difficult to follow, but the film does have some wit. The fight and chase scenes are plentiful and go on forever, but also show some new flourishes that will probably be imitated by others. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), +1 (-4 to +4)
In THE MATRIX we learned that nothing is what it seems and but for a small handful of us everybody is lying unconscious in a plastic box. Life, free will, and time are all illusions. I hope you remember all that from the first film because this film is not for the squeamish and not for people who missed THE MATRIX. Here we continue the story without benefit of recap. If you did not see the first film you may be lost in the first ten minutes. If you did see THE MATRIX it may take as much as twenty minutes. As the film opens Neo (Keanu Reeves) is having digital dreams about Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) falling from a tall building and continuing a gun battle all the way down to her apparent death from hitting a computer-induced image of the ground.
Of course this is not the real world. The real world is where there is a war going on between humans and machines. Most of the world's humans are being milked for their heat for energy to run the machines. Many of the small groups of humans who have awakened have dug out a cavern near the earth's core to act as a refuge. Here the refugees, all but a few in their twenties, apparently, stage huge rave-like dance parties and maintain huge machines that keep them alive. (How did the machines get down there in the first place?) But these are good machines. The evil machines are digging down to Zion to defeat them and return them to being their energy source. We are left to wonder why the evil machines don't dig someplace else and go all the way to the core to get limitless energy they don't have to feed or entertain. (Of course, when I similarly asked about implausibilities of X2 I got put in my place with the response, "It's a comic book, stupid." I think that in recent years the bar has been somewhat lowered on science fiction film logic.)
Visually this film comes off somewhat better than the story, though much of the film has dark backgrounds that match the dark tone of the story. The images are cold and hard. Some of the actors have implants that look almost like nipples at odd places on their bodies. Backgrounds are stone or steel. Neo dresses with some style in a floor-length coat that occasionally makes him resemble a Vatican priest.
This is an action film with a capital A. Fights are staged with a great deal of style and martial arts and CGI and wirework and predictable outcomes. On the other hand, chase scenes are staged with a great deal of style, martial arts, CGI, wirework, and predictable outcomes. The computer-created world that Neo is running around in is one that seems to be set in our present day, but it is one in which the current craze is talking philosophy which has caught on in much the same way the Twist caught on in the 1960s. That is everybody's doing it, nobody quite has the hang of it, and it just comes out silly. Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) adds a tad more gravitas to the philosophy by talking in a deep voice. The deeper the voice, the more respect that a philosopher gets. I am not sure if he is presenting pseudo-science as mysticism or mysticism as science.
The real problem with Andy and Larry Wachowski's script, which they also directed, is that what is happening through much of the story is in a virtual reality world in which anything can happen. If Neo believes he has the ability to fly, he can fly. It is difficult to invest much interest in a world where anything can happen. It is only the continuity and the rules of the world that make us interested in the people who work under the constraints of that continuity and those rules. It is probably not a spoiler to say that this film has a cliffhanger ending. We are supposed to be worried for the endangered characters until November when THE MATRIX: REVOLUTIONS is released. Yet not ten minutes earlier a character died but with a little simple script hand-waving they brought that character back to life and good as new. Gee, maybe the Wachowskis will forget how to rationalize their way out of problems between now and November. Quel suspens!
This is a highly stylized exercise in filmmaking. Some of the chase sequences are among the best ever staged. They are not what I look for in a film, but I will give them that as traffic chases go, this one is a doozy. The filmmakers are very proud that these are real Hong-Kong-style fight sequences. That is even less my cup of tea. But there are a lot of images we are seeing on the screen for the first time, some quite impressive. I rate THE MATRIX RELOADED a 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. For those willing to sit through the exceptionally long credit sequence there is a trailer with scenes from THE MATRIX: REVOLUTIONS. [-mrl]
CONFIDENCE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: This is another one of those tricky con-game films for which the audience has to try to figure out who is really doing what to whom. Edward Burns is weak in the lead, but there is an interesting and pivotal role for Dustin Hoffman, albeit a small one. The puzzle is complex enough but the film seems to lack life. The writing seems artificial. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), +1 (-4 to +4). [Minor spoilers.]
Film fans frequently talk about the good and bad things that the computer has done for special effects. It has made them more complex and more technically perfect but also more artificial and less believable. We are drawn into them a lot less. They seem less organic. What fewer people notice is that the computer seems to have done much the same thing for script-writing. What do I mean by that? When scripts were typed on paper with a typewriter it was a lot of work to go back to an earlier scene and add three lines to tie up a loose end. Before the scriptwriter started typing he had to have thought out the story in detail and fully understand it. These days it is a lot easier. Not easy, perhaps, but easier. A scriptwriter can jump all over the screenplay and revise scenes here and there once other scenes are written. Entire subplots can be added and dropped into place. It took real genius for Frederick Knott to create a character like Tony Wendice in DIAL M FOR MURDER who seems so ready for any eventuality. Today, creating that sort of character just takes some attention to detail. And because the writer need not be so involved with the characters, neither is the audience.
CONFIDENCE is a film that pulls the rug out from under the viewer, not once but multiple times. But it still has the feel of a sterile writing exercise assembled in a computer. It stars Edward Burns as Jake Vig. Burns is an actor who follows the old Spencer Tracy advice: he knows his lines and does not bump into the furniture. But you feel roughly the same vibes coming from him while he is waiting for someone to shoot him in the head or waiting to make love to Lily (Rachel Weisz).
The story is told in flashback, improbably to that man who has that gun at the back of Jake's head. In flashback Jake tells the story of how he came to this sad turning. Jake heads a team of four grifters including the downbeat Gordo (played by the watchable Paul Giamatti). They pull a con to rob the wrong man, a collector for kingpin Mr. King (Dustin Hoffman). King wants his money back. King generally gets what he wants. But Jake no longer has the money. King suggests that Jake run a big con on a high profile corporate banker (Robert Forster in maybe one or two quick shots). Jake adds a couple of new members to his team including Lily, a beautiful pickpocket inexperienced at con games.
Something should be said about Mr. King. This film is being promoted as if Dustin Hoffman's King is a major character in the film. He isn't. At least he isn't if you count screen time. But of course Dustin Hoffman is a more interesting actor than Edward Burns and CONFIDENCE could be People's Exhibit A. Also though Hoffman has a small part he hangs over the whole film and is the reason people do what they do in the film. He's scary and sharp as a knife. The talkative hood covers his criminal activity by running a strip club. He seems at first like Ratso Rizzo with thirty extra IQ points, but deep down he has inviolable principles. For example, lesbian acts are okay for his club but not with sisters. King laughs at Jake's neat appearance. "Style can get you killed." Hoffman does not have a big part but he has the best dialog and his scenes are the ones that will be remembered.
CONFIDENCE has a good cast with some familiar actors in minor roles. Andy Garcia plays Gunther Butan, a mysterious federal agent who knows there is something illegal going on and clearly has something he wants. Rachel Wiesz as Lily is probably best known from the Mummy movies, though she was also in SUNSHINE. Also Jake uses some crooked cops occasionally, one played by Luis Guzman. But the actor people will remember is Hoffman.
Even the title has multiple meanings in this tricky film. The plot is interesting, but the characters are not really flesh and blood. It is almost as if the film was merely a logic puzzle. I rate it a 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
THE DANCER UPSTAIRS (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: A police officer tries to track down a terrorist revolutionary leader. At the same time he finds himself attracted to his daughter's ballet teacher. Too much of the story is familiar elements recombined and creating surprisingly little suspense. The story had potential as a tense political thriller, but it never clicks into place. Rating: 4 (0 to 10), 0 (-4 to +4)
In an unnamed Latin American country not too different from Peru (though the film was shot in Equator) a revolutionary leader, the self-named "Presidente Ezequiel," carries on an unpredictable campaign of terrorism and killing. The police are unable to stop or even identify him. He does not even seem to have a manifesto. All the police have is his trade mark, a slogan on a sign and a dead dog hung by the neck at the site of each attack. He seems to have an army of followers with children ready to die for his cause. One wonders how he can have as many in his army as the film implies he has without any public statement about what he stands for. That is a major implausibility in the film.
Augustin Rejas (played by Javier Bardem) is a former lawyer turned policeman. He idealistically went from a highly paid career in one part of the law to became a police functionary rather than to let himself be corrupted or have to deal with other people who are corrupt. Now he faces the fact that after rearranging his life the police are usually no more honest than lawyers were.
Five years earlier Rejas photographed the man who is now thought to be Ezequiel. Now he has been put in charge of the operation to find him again. The moral Rejas is a family man with a wife and daughter to whom he is devoted. In spite of this he finds himself fascinated by his daughter's ballet teacher Yolanda (Laura Morante). His life becomes torn between his detective work tracing down Ezequiel and maintaining his family relationship while toying with his realization that he is attracted to Yolanda.
THE DANCER UPSTAIRS is low key as a political thriller and a little languorous as a love story. Where Costa Gavras would tell us the politics of each side, the script by Nicholas Shakespeare from his own novel tells us very little more than that the government is corrupt and Ezequiel opposes the government. The audience is as much in the dark as the country's government as to what Ezequiel stands for. Still neither Ezequiel nor the government seems like much of a bargain. The ending of the film is badly telegraphed.
Actor John Malkovich directs for the first time and, unpopular as this opinion may be, I blame Malkovich for the film being what I consider a misfire. This material needed an experienced director. In the right hands this tale could have been a Graham Greene level study of human personality told against the backdrop of turbulent times. In the hands of Malkovich it becomes a little too obvious and is more STATE OF SEIGE crossed with CARMEN. Malkovich uses some unsubtle and manipulative effects. This is no more obvious anywhere in the film than in the self-indulgent final scene that goes on for minutes after its point has been made. THE DANCER UPSTAIRS is shot in murky, dark photography so that in some night scenes is takes some effort to make out what we are seeing. Be warned that Malkovich does not pull back from showing explicit gore.
There is little surprise or novelty in the plot of THE DANCER UPSTAIRS. A political thriller needs to evoke the emotions of the audience. In a film that pits the corrupt against the totally ruthless it is hard to feel much empathy for either side. I rate it a 4 on the 0 to 10 scale and a 0 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
Solution to Trick Question (by Mark R. Leeper):
The word is "w". I warned you it was a trick question. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Last week I said, "This week we have a little bit of this and a little bit of that." Carl Aveyard wrote to say, "I once went in to a pub in England where they brewed their own beers. To keep confusion to a minimum they called the beers, This, That and The Other. 'I'd like a pint of That please.' True!"
I guess this is "philosophy week."
In his "Synopsis" to his "Meditations", Descartes writes, "For although all the accidents of the mind be changed--Although, for example, it think certain things, will others, and perceive others, the mind itself does not vary with these changes; while, on the contrary, the human body is no longer the same if a change takes place in the form of any of its parts: from which it follows that the body may, indeed, without difficulty perish, but that the mind is in its own nature immortal." One wonders if he could still say that in these days of genetic engineering, plastic surgery, artificial hearts, and general surgical advances.
He also says, "[W]e cannot conceive body unless as divisible; while, on the other hand, mind cannot be conceived unless as indivisible. For we are not able to conceive the half of a mind, as we can of any body, however small, so that the natures of these two substances are to be held, not only as diverse, but even in some measure as contraries." Again, modern discoveries of "multiple personalities" (disassociative identity disorder) would put this into question in a way that Descartes never dreamed of.
But perhaps even more basic is Descartes's famous, "Cogito ergo sum" ("I think, therefore I am"). In his first Meditation, he suggests, "For perhaps it would even happen, if I should wholly cease to think, that I should at the same time altogether cease to be." So how does he account for sleep, and his apparent continuity through it?
Also, at one point he says, "In all fraud and deceit there is a certain imperfection," while he why he claims, "It is impossible that [God] should will to deceive me." But later he says, "I am not always capable of comprehending the reasons why God acts as he does" and "God is immense, incomprehensble, and infinite, I have no longer any difficulty in discerning that there is an infinity of things in his power whose causes transcent the grasp of my mind." Therefore, it would seem that there might be some reason why God would will to deceive him that he can't comprehend.
(Coincidentally, I have been running across a lot of articles recently discussing the differences between Descartes's view of the mind-body dichotomy and Spinoza's. Among them are http://tinyurl.com/bjtq from the New York Times and http://tinyurl.com/bjtx from the Guardian, as well as an earlier article from the New York Times that is no longer on-line.)
Victor Hugo is best known for LES MISERABLES and NOTRE-DAME DE PARIS. I reviewed his TOILERS OF THE SEA here a few months ago (02/14/03), and now I've just read his "Essays on Humanity" (at least those printed in the Walter J. Black 1928 Hugo omnibus edition). His first, "Capital Punishment", is actually a companion piece to his fiction work "Last Days of a Condemned Man" from "Stories of Crime". Hugo presents a fairly strong case against capital punishment. (It is important to remember that capital punishment in France in Hugo's time was applied to more than just murderers, but Hugo is clear that he opposes all capital punishment.)
Of course, many of his arguments now seem a bit familiar. (For example, he disputes the notion that capital punishment serves as a warning to others.) Another familiar argument of Hugo's is that the condemned had been deprived of any chance by society to do other than become criminals.
Some of the arguments are no longer applicable. For example, he describes many botched executions on the guillotine, and gives them as reasons to abolish capital punishment. The only result was that eventually countries adopted different modes of execution, which in turn were also decried as barbaric.
Some of his arguments are a bit shaky. Against the argument that a prisoner sentenced to life imprisonment might escape, he says, "Keep watch more strictly! If you do not believe in the solidity of iron bars, how do you venture to have menageries? Let there be no executioner when the jailer can suffice." I guess Hugo hadn't read Dumas's THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, or didn't realize that prisoners can bribe guards in a way that animals in a zoo can't.
Hugo preaches a return to the "gentle laws of Christ" and end with the declaration, "The Cross shall displace the Gibbet." While I know what he meant, I can't help but feel it is a poor phrasing, as if he wishes to replace hanging with crucifixion.
In another essay, "The Minds and the Masses", he talks at length about the necessity for education and culture for all, but the most striking quote is in regard to the opposition and hatred towards those who propose this, by quoting the early Christian philosopher Tertullian: "O Romans! we are just, kind, thinking, lettered, honest men. We meet to pray, and we love you because you are our brethren. We are gentle and peaceable like little children, and we wish for concord among men. Nevertheless, O Romans! if the Tiber overflows, or if the Nile does not, you cry, 'to the lions with the Christians!'" [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: [After hearing Freeman Dyson speak:] Any sufficiently advanced scientist is indistinguishable from a crackpot. --Mark R. Leeper
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