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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
07/25/03 -- Vol. 21, No. 4
Table of Contents
Our logs for our recent trip to Los Angeles (via Oklahoma) and back are at:
(Who says we have to be consistent? :-) )
Pirates and Pirate Films:
"Yeah, despite what people think, how interesting can pirates really be? All they did was board ships, kill the people on- board, and then steal the stuff. Yawn." A poster expressed this sentiment on Usenet a few days ago. Following the release of PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL there has been some discussion on the Usenet about the question whether pirate stories are really all that exciting to make films from. We are aware that the Western genre has fallen on hard times in the popular media. Actually, there are other genres that really have gone almost out of existence. Lost race fantasies, popular a century ago, are almost gone. The only lost race film I have seen in decades was Disney's ATLANTIS THE LOST EMPIRE. Similarly, pirate stories seem to have lost cachet.
We in the United States are fascinated with other periods of lawlessness from our history. In specific we are interested in days of the turbulent West and the gangster-ridden 1930s, each with its colorful wrongdoers. But we seem to not remember so well the days of pirates on the high seas, preying on the Southeast of what is now the United States. We think of them as sort of a European phenomenon from the few stories we do see but no continent was free of their ravages. And there was a time when stories of the great buccaneers thrilled Americans as much as stories of the great gunfighters.
Why is it the pirate story, as a genre, has lost popularity? We will probably never know all the reasons why. But I think one reason as far as cinema is concerned--let's limit the discussion to cinema--is that a Western or a gangster film is a lot cheaper to film than a pirate story. While a Western probably requires horses and costumes, and a 1930s gangster film requires a lot of set work to recapture the look of the period, a pirate film requires the sets and the costumes and instead of horses it requires ships. The genres of story that remain popular today are those that have gotten visualized in films. Notice that "sci-fi" got a lot more popular after the release of the first of the STAR WARS films and its host of imitators. For the most part pirate films have been comparatively few and have not lived up to the excitement of the boys' pirate stories of the early parts of this century.
If one looks at the classic pirate films going back to the Douglas Fairbanks in THE BLACK PIRATE, they seem to mostly be a pretty tame lot. The plots of films in the pirate genre frequently are about some levelheaded, decent guy who becomes a pirate to avenge a wrong. The classics are mostly pretty short on blood and thunder with the exception of an occasional sea battle. THE SEA HAWK is really about Sir Francis Drake. Even that is sanitized. The title character of CAPTAIN BLOOD is really a good doctor who has been enslaved unfairly and gets hold of a pirate ship. THE CRIMSON PIRATE throws in a bunch of Jules Verne stuff, what today some people call "steam punk." These are decent stories, but they are not what we really think of as pirate tales. A lot of these films were hobbled by the film codes of the time. The 1972 TREASURE ISLAND with Orson Welles is better than the other more softened film versions, but even it is somewhat reserved. Welles talked about the Stevenson story when he adapted it for radio. He recognized that a pirate story should be at least in part a horror tale. In 1972 he got to play Long John Silver and he may have influenced John Hough to direct some of the film version that way. Certainly there are obvious scenes that can be played for chills. The pirates who besiege the Admiral Benbow Inn are a fairly frightening lot. Sequences like Jim Hawkins hiding in the apple barrel to avoid a sudden death and dodging the hand reaching in for an apple could be played for real suspense.
But I cannot think of too many pirate films that go for the full all-out horror story aspect. There actually is more of the blood- and-thunder pirate story in PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN than I remember seeing in any other pirate film. Every once in a while a current film does something right that the classics got wrong. I really think what the readers of pirate stories were looking for in films like CAPTAIN BLOOD they never really got until PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN, in spite of the Disney connotations of the name.
But weren't characters of the classic films more like the real pirates? Actually not. What we have seen in films in the classic pirate films starring Tyrone Power and Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks really does not very accurately represent pirates and does not use them to their real dramatic potential. They actually were incredibly flamboyant and most of their leaders were real sociopaths. They are every bit as interesting as 1930s gangsters or samurai. They are people who respected no rule but their own and lived outside any law. They got power by being really ruthless and really scary. They happily tortured their victims. One recommended book is Frank Sherry's REBELS AND RAIDERS. [-mrl]
A Little Reflection on Placebocin (letter of comment from Don Blosser):
A certain segment advocates homeopathic medicine, whereby the active ingredients are diluted many times, the more dilute, the more powerful the effect, one part in a million is "better" than one part in 100,000 or so it is claimed.
So the inquiring mind should consider their response to Placebocin as well, just to cover all bases.
Let's see diluting Placebocin from full strength, to one part/million, or better yet I guess. one part/ten million or one part/hundred million. Might take a while, but think of cures now possible, with homeopathic versions of Placebocin and its derivatives and generic copies!.
We don't even need to discuss the riches that would descend upon the patent holders.
Enjoy, no charge for the idea. [-db]
[Note: Paul Chisholm points out that there are actually quite a few side effects to placebos, unlike what I said in my article last week. If interested you can start your search at http://tinyurl.com/hwj4. [-mrl]]
THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: An interesting premise from a graphic novel makes about half an hour of interesting story, mostly for the introduction of the characters. But the film needed a good plot to make it more than just a comic book origin story. This one seems to have a plot that was patched together as it went along. The film has a nice look, but the viewer is never intrigued by the villain or his machinations. Rating: 4 (0 to 10), 0 (-4 to +4)
Perhaps one of the most respected names of authors in the graphic novel medium is Alan Moore, creator or co-creator of WATCHMEN, V FOR VENDETTA, FROM HELL, and THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN. FROM HELL has already been filmed and now THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN has been filmed also.
Moore's intriguing premise is that several characters, not necessarily heroes, from popular late 19th Century British (or French) fiction all exist in the same universe and can be called upon by the British government to form a sort of Justice League of Britain. Included in this all-star team are H. Rider Haggard's Allan Quatermain, Jules Verne's Captain Nemo, H. G. Wells's Invisible Man, Robert Louis Stevenson's Jekyll/Hyde, and Bram Stoker's Mina Harker. The graphic novel turned them all into superheroes, modifying several of them from their original form intended by their creators. Nemo, decked out like a maharajah, has a Nautilus the size of an ocean liner. (Side note: In 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA Jules Verne originally planned that Nemo would be a Polish engineer who had reason to hate Russians. Verne's editor removed this detail so the novel would sell better in Russia. In MYSTERIOUS ISLAND we find that Nemo is an Indian, Prince Dakar.) Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde get crossed with the Incredible Hulk. Hyde is a hulk-monster. In the book, Hyde is a small man for whom even Jekyll's clothes are far too big. Not to mention that many of these people died in their original stories. The film takes even greater liberties. Along for the ride is Dorian Gray who can pass all his injuries on to his portrait but who dies if he sees the portrait. Mina Harker has become a vampire like Dracula, but uses her new powers for good rather than eeevil. Also joining the action is Tom Sawyer, now all grown up and a secret service agent.
While the story would have been better had Moore and co-author Kevin O'Neill restricted themselves to faithfully represent the characters from the stories, it is still a fairly clever premise to bring these characters together as a team. For that, if for no other reason, I was looking forward to the film version of THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN. Unfortunately, the film has to introduce this premise and that task takes no little time on the screen. It diverts time from telling the main story. With not much time to tell the story, LEAGUE is not the most interesting or engaging tale that it could be. It is a rushed story of a super-villain with a confusing and confused but nasty plot that endangers the whole world. The plot might be fit for a lesser James Bond effort, but even there it could be better amplified, better explained, and the character of the villain would be more fleshed out. In fact, the villain of this piece has a particular visual characteristic about him. He loses that characteristic late in the film and when he does he also loses most of his interest value. It becomes hard to pick him out of scenes. The viewer hardly knows or cares. This is not a memorable screen villain. Nor does it seem the writers started their script knowing what the villain's plot was.
Part of the pleasure of the film is supposed to be the anachronisms. But most of the fun is in the first part of the film and the anachronisms long outlast the fun. Having a fancy submarine in the 19th century is a good fun anachronism. Having it be the length of the Queen Mary we can nod at. (Though it does seem to change scale several times in the course of the film.) A little while later when we see Nemo also has an automobile that looks like a 1930s Hollywood roadster with fancy bric-a-brac added, we must turn a blind eye. Later when we hear someone making jokes about wanting to nail a woman, the anachronism is just there to make a really stupid and tasteless joke and has no humor value at all. It is the kind of joke that is a cue for the patrons to check their watches.
The film's strong suit then is not its plot but its visual effect. The production design is by Carol Spier, and she is very accomplished. She has been art director or production designer for several David Cronenberg films (including NAKED LUNCH and "eXistenZ"), MIMIC, DRACULA 2000, and BLADE II. These are all films with strong visual elements and it probably is no coincidence. LEAGUE has a nice Victorian "steam punk" look and a lot of nifty gadgets to look at.
It would be nice to see these literary characters brought together in some intriguing yarn. This story is not it. And the villain is just too much (dare I say it?) a comic book villain. I rate THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN a 4 on the 0 to 10 scale and a 0 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Brian Aldiss has written a couple of autobiographies. One was BURY MY HEART AT W. H. SMITH'S. Another, dealing more (from what I know of BURY) with his earlier years, was THE TWINKLING OF AN EYE. I found the latter in a used bookstore and tried it, but it somehow failed to grab me the way other literary autobiographies have. (It's possible a greater familiarity with all of Aldiss's work might have made a difference.)
A more interesting literary biography was PAPA, the biography of Samuel Clemens written by Susy Clemens when she was thirteen years old. Her spelling is quite outrageous, but her descriptions of Twain are pretty much spot-on.
Our library reading group read "The Aspern Papers", a novella by Henry James about a literary biographer who goes to Venice to try to recover some letters written by his idol. These letters are now in the possession of an old woman and her niece, so he uses his charm to try to obtain the papers from the niece. I won't say whether he succeeds, but frankly, it was hard to care.
The book for our science fiction group was much better: A PRINCESS OF MARS by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Now I'm sure to many people the notion that A PRINCESS OF MARS is a better book than a Henry James novella is heresy. And there is a fair amount of cliche, repetition, and stereotyping in PRINCESS. But at least it moves along.
A couple of years ago, when The History Channel starting running "The XY Factor", a series about sex throughout history (and mythology and legend), I re-read Arthur C. Clarke's "I Remember Babylon". In that, it is suggested that if the Chinese managed to put up a communications satellite, they could undermine Western civilization by broadcasting all sorts of shows then unavailable, including such outrageous things as images of the sexually explicit carvings on Indian temples and scenes of torture--all supposedly as educational documentaries. Well, it was when "The XY Factor" ran its show on sex in Asia and *did* show those carvings that I re-read the story, and now I see that The History Channel has a documentary on "punishment" through the ages. Clarke was wrong about only one thing--it isn't the Chinese. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: The nature of men and women--their essential nature--is so vile and despicable that if you were to portray a person as he really is, no one would believe you. --W. Somerset Maugham
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