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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
06/13/03 -- Vol. 21, No. 50
Table of Contents
Reproductive Fears (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I recently saw within a week of each other two films that make an interesting pairing. The first of these was ALRAUNE, a 1952 German film retitled UNNATURAL for the American release. This was the latest version of a novel by Hanns Heinz Ewers that had been filmed no less than six times going back to 1918. It is the story of a woman who had, in a vainglorious scientific experiment, been created in an unnatural way that was quite literally an offense to God. Because of the perverted way she came into being she is literally soulless and goes around ruining many men's lives and murdering before she is killed. And what is the unnatural way she was created? At the time the novel was written it was science fiction, but she was the result of what we now call (gasp!) in vitro fertilization! As they pointed out in the film, intending to shock, her mother had never even seen her father!!! Horrors. The ghastly creature that resulted from this sinful process was God's Vengeance for science usurping His power. That premise is more interesting than the resulting film was. The assumption is that God WANTS people to reproduce through intercourse and is offended if any other process is used. Only genuine sexual intercourse has God's Seal of Approval as a process for reproduction. In fact, I think even at this time artificial insemination was used for cattle. I don't know if they thought that there were soulless cows running around ruining the lives of bulls. Actually I think the assumption is that no cow has a soul so all cows are soulless, immoral monsters, examples of the sort of depraved beings we all could become without God's grace.
These days in vitro fertilization is fairly commonplace and there are not a lot of soulless people running around that anybody can tell (or at least prove). But this technique was a new idea at the time and people watching the film were told that there was something innately blasphemous about Petri dish insemination. It was something that they were afraid of and as people are so often wont to do, they projected those fears onto their God. I believe the logic is that if they were righteous people and they are spooked by this new technique, it follows God must not like the idea Himself. Regardless of the fact that the Bible could not possibly say anything specifically about this method of reproduction, somehow God now has a bunch over-eager advocates running in to protect what they see as His interests. Somehow over the years it since ALAURNE was filmed 1952 it seems that God has decided He is more comfortable with in vitro fertilization. His advocates are no longer running around trying to say it goes against His plan.
Shortly after seeing that film I saw a sci-fi movie on cable. It was THE 6TH DAY with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Here was another hokey film about people creating people through non-traditional means. This time it is human cloning. What interested me the most is that this film seemed to be more recent but it was no less a work of fear mongering about science intruding on reproduction than was ALRAUNE. Every technical inaccuracy and common misunderstanding about human cloning that I knew of showed up in the film. Arnold found himself with an identical copy of himself, a technological doppelganger, running around. It had his looks and even his memories. Even his family could not detect a difference. The process used might have even been to use a matter duplicator like the one used in THE FOUR-SIDED TRIANGLE, filmed in 1953 (a time very paranoid about human reproduction, apparently).
What is wrong with all this? Well, cloning is a process to create an embryo genetically identical to a donor. A person created by the cloning procedure would be a genetically equivalent identical twin, but one much younger than the donor. How much younger? Measure the time between the two fertilizations.
A clone will be much less like the original that an identical twin would be. And the brain of a clone would start out empty. There would be no memories that the clone would inherit from the donor. Since environment does a lot to form the individual's mentality almost certainly a clone would have a very different personality from the original. In addition experience makes people look different. Even with identical twins someone who knows them well can usually tell them apart.
The film paints the picture of a society that has sold it soul for the immoral practice of cloning humans. Remember in the old western movies where the dance hall girl has been lewdly cavorting with any cowhand that comes along. Someone asks her doesn't she have a husband. She looks up extremely blase and says something like "Three of 'em. But I don't know where they are." The subtext is this is a person to whom shocking sin means nothing. An almost identical character is in THE 6TH DAY. They ask her, "How many times have you been cloned?" Same blase expression. "Six times." We are supposed to have the same shocked reaction. This is formula writing. Somehow it just does not work this time. Once the modern equivalent of the dance hall girl has made the contribution of donor eggs she no longer need be involved with the process. It is hard to be shocked at her for something that could be done without even her knowledge.
If you want to know what fears people have at a given point of time, one good source of information might be the horror stories that people in that society tell themselves. In the case of ALRAUNE and THE 6TH DAY obviously the fears have little relation to reality.
If as a society we do get involved in cloning humans, I think that we will find that the humans created by this process are fully human and fully people as much as identical twins are and as much as people who are the product of in vitro fertilization. Right now there seem to be a large number of self-appointed advocates for God projecting their fears onto Him and saying that he has policies that one has really to stretch to claim they are covered by the Bible.
I think in time the process of cloning will be accepted as just one more technique for creating a human and not a disaster that will bring about the fall of civilization. We will probably even find the whole subject of cloning a little dry and unexciting. I expect the fears we currently see expressed in films like THE SIXTH DAY will seem as exaggerated and absurd as those expressed in ALRAUNE. [-mrl]
THE SWEATBOX (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: The singer Sting was hired to write songs for the film THE EMPEROR'S NEW GROOVE. It was a contract he later had reason to regret as he found the demands of the job particularly taxing. This documentary shows what he went through and also shows the chaos that the process of making a film can be. The film is similar to, but not as good as, LOST IN LA MANCHA. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), +1 (-4 to +4)
This is the documentary about production problems making the film THE EMPEROR'S NEW GROOVE. It is directed by John-Paul Davidson and Trudie Styler. The latter is the wife of Sting who was intimately connected with the project. I suspect the documentary started as a "The Making of..." sort of featurette and when the production had problems it was re-packaged as a document of production nightmare. Also at this festival (the 2002 Toronto International Film Festival) we saw the similar documentary LOST IN LA MANCHA, about the problems Terry Gilliam had making his Don Quixote film. That film is probably more downbeat since Gilliam's film never got made and production was canceled. The obstacles encountered making THE EMPEROR'S NEW GROOVE were light by comparison. So this film might have been better out of that context. However, the problems faced in this production were more prosaic and much less memorable. Much more of THE SWEATBOX is filled with accounts of more ordinary sorts of troubles.
The problem was that the company had not settled on even so much as what the story would be about when the various sub-departments of Disney animation were turned loose. Changes late in the creation process are far more expensive than are ones early in the process. The film had serious script problems and well into the production the plot was changed from being a sort of Andean THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER into the plot that was eventually released, in which the young emperor is turned by evil magic into a llama and has to rely on an older man (voiced by John Goodman) as a friend. This meant that a great deal of the work that was done had to be thrown out and redone.
In the case of this film large changes were made far into the production and the resulting expenses turned into what some consider a fiasco. I have a different perspective. I worked most of my career for Bell Laboratories. I saw in and out of Bell many projects suffering from very analogous sorts of problems and in some cases the results were considerably more expensive. The lessons hard-learned at Disney were the same ones we learned many times over at Bell Laboratories. Those same lessons have been learned many times over in other companies in the entertainment industry, that have be learned many time over in many other industries, and I would bet money that they have even been learned many times over on previous Disney projects. The problem is remembering the lessons learned the next time around. The foibles of making THE EMPEROR'S NEW GROOVE were probably common to most large projects. On the other hand many of Gilliam's problems on his Don Quixote project were probably fairly unique to Gilliam.
Particularly aggrieved at the changes was the singer Sting who wrote half a dozen songs for the original film plot and thought he was done. When the plot changed under him all of a sudden his songs no longer made sense. There was a new story and a new context. He had new songs that he had to write that fit the new storyline. This was not a total loss to him. The documentary made clear in other interviews that when work is thrown out and has to be re-done, it is Disney that pays for both the old and the new work. Sting was paid for every song he wrote. His grievance was the loss of audience for the songs he had written and as well as the loss of the freedom to be able to go on to other projects. The documentary shows him, not entirely sympathetically surprisingly, being called back to the project from vacations in places like Tuscany and the Himalayas. He seems to have been caught unaware that writing six songs for a film is a considerably bigger and more demanding project than writing six songs to please himself. Given that one director of THE SWEATBOX was his wife and another was a friend, his treatment by the film is surprisingly even-handed.
The move of the home market to DVDs probably has increased the demand for "The Making of ..." sorts of featurettes made along side of major film productions. Some of these film productions will be failures or will simply run into major problems. The logical thing to do at that point is to turn the side featurette into a document of production problems. That is probably why there were two such similar films at the Toronto festival. We will probably see more of this sort of film until the filmmakers sense that the market has been glutted. In this meantime this is a reasonably entertaining film, though not as much so as LOST IN LA MANCHA. I rate THE SWEATBOX a 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a 1 on the -4 to +4 scale. Note: The title has a double meaning. It is the nickname of the screening room, but the title also represents the unfair treatment that Sting feels he suffered at the hands of the Disney people. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
I plan to read all of Marcel Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past" (or "In Search of Lost Time", as it's now called), and have read the first book (SWANN'S WAY) already. So when I heard about Alain De Botton's book HOW PROUST CAN CHANGE YOUR LIFE, I thought, "Well, that should be helpful as a study guide." Eventually, I found a copy in a library, and what I discovered was that it was full of "pop philosophy" (which is at least a level above pop psychology) on ideas that could be found in a lot of other books besides Proust as well. While I don't discount it completely as an annotation to Proust, it isn't really about how Proust is so different from any other author. (It also assumes that the details of Proust's life are valuable in understanding the book, which is a theory I subscribe to, but not universal.) Also on my stack is Phyllis Rose's A YEAR OF READING PROUST, so I'll have to read that and compare it. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Sex is God's joke on human beings. -- Bette Davis
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