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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
08/01/03 -- Vol. 21, No. 5
Table of Contents
Noxious Gases (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
The Learning Channel had a documentary called "The Extreme Universe." They were talking about superheated planets that are very large and very near their stars, with distances like four million miles. They said, and I'm not making this up, the atmosphere has noxious gasses at 1000 degrees centigrade. What does that mean, noxious gasses? Are they saying they'd prefer to breathe oxygen at 1000 degrees to 1000-degree ammonia? If you get the atmosphere to 1000 degrees C, it's all noxious. If you breathe gasses that hot, the chemical makeup is going to be just a minor detail. [-mrl]
Matt Jefferies's Enterprise (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
It may have escaped most people's attention, but the creator of one of the great icons of science fiction died last week. The man's name was Walter Jefferies, though he went by the nickname Matt. It is not a name that is particularly familiar, but his prop design has become instantly recognizable all over the world. He worked for Desilu Productions in the 1960s and designed the NCC-1701. That is the Starship Enterprise. Though other designers in the television and film series have given us successor craft, the basic design that Jefferies created in the 1960s is always there.
Jefferies had previously been a flight test engineer and a successful aviation illustrator prior to working for Desilu and he got along well with Gene Roddenberry. His flying experience and his love of aircraft made him an obvious choice to design an interstellar craft. At least that was what Roddenberry thought. Jefferies was not so sure. Roddenberry described to him the ship that he wanted: "Fantastic speed beyond our galaxy, shirt sleeve environment, mixed crew, probably a five year voyage, not to worry about gravity," he said. "Make it look like it's got power." Jefferies admits to having been a little bewildered by this assignment. "In my approach to 'Star Trek' I wanted to be as practical as possible. I could tell Gene was serious enough, but I really didn't know where to start. I knew the Enterprise was going to be on the cutting edge of the future, but essentially he gave me the job of finding a shape, and I didn't know what the shape looked like." Roddenberry did not know what he wanted, but knew what he didn't want. "No fins, no wings, no smoke trails, no flames, no rocket." Some very different ideas for what the Enterprise might look like are at http://members.aol.com/IDICPage/MattJeffries.html.
Eventually Jefferies decided on a spherical passenger compartment and engines kept a good distance away in case of radiation leaks. If there was trouble with the engines they could be jettisoned and replaced. Ultimately the spherical passenger compartment became more saucer-shaped to look a little fancier, though Jefferies was leery of making the craft look like a flying saucer. The general understanding is that the original design was an upside-down version of what we now know as the Enterprise. Jefferies in a BBC interview said that that was not true. He said that he wanted the Enterprise one way and Roddenberry wanted it inverted, but that he (Jefferies) eventually won out and it was the way he designed it.
Even the number NCC-1701 was engineered. The 1701 made of digits easily recognizable from a distance. Unites States aircraft have designations beginning NC, Soviet craft have designations starting CC. To reaffirm that this was an international mission Jefferies combined the two. So from the beginning Soviet participation was assumed. Nonetheless, during the first season Radio Moscow complained that there were no Russians aboard the Enterprise. Since the designation was a little obscure, a Russian crew member, Ensign Pavel Chekov, was added.
Jefferies also designed the bridge to be circular, though this made it somewhat harder to film. There was no obvious place to put the camera. Episode directors all wanted to pan around to show 360 degrees of the bridge which took a lot of effort and no such pan ever made it to the broadcast episode. Jefferies even made the suggestion for the title sequence. Since the Enterprise was immensely powerful you would see it at a distance as just a point of light and in an instant it would fly past the viewer.
Jefferies himself was not a fan of the Star Trek series. He did not watch the subsequently made series, finding it confusing. He also thought that subsequent bridges were a little to fancy for his taste. He was invited to the screening of the first movie and he fell asleep on it, but his interest was in flying, not in science fiction.
There have been references in TV scripts to a Captain Jefferies and the ducts of the Enterprise are called "Jefferies Tubes." According to the technical manual Jefferies Tubes are "a system of access tunnels and utilities corridors that carry much of the various utilities conduits and waveguides." Both are uses of the name Jefferies are tributes to the designer of the Enterprise. Jefferies was also a production designer on the television shows "Dallas" and "Love, American Style," and an art director on "Little House on the Prairie." Walter "Matt" Jefferies is dead at age 82, probably of cancer, though that has not been confirmed. [-mrl]
SEABISCUIT (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Five different stories of redemption are intertwined in the history of the champion racehorse Seabiscuit. The story is something of a cliche, but the film is beautifully mounted and has fine actors. It is hard to see the film and not be rooting for the horse to win and the characters to succeed. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), high +1 (-4 to +4)
As a confirmed non-sports-fan, I find enjoyable only a few sports films and only one, THE NATURAL, that I actually consider good. The few sports films I do enjoy are all really about something quite different from sports. And while I enjoy researching the events surrounding most historical films I review, I will beg off this time as I am sure there are many on the Web who would enjoy digging into the racing history more than I would.
As I say, the sports films I respect and enjoy are really about something very different from sports, and SEABISCUIT is no exception. Writer-director Gary Ross's film is about a country that is on its feet, is knocked to its knees (or perhaps more accurately on its face) when the stock market crash leads to the Great Depression, but then struggles back to its feet. The story is stocked with characters whom the fates have knocked down but who fight their way back.
Charles Howard is played by Jeff Bridges almost as a reprise of his character from TUCKER: THE MAN AND HIS DREAM. Howard built his bicycle repair business into a fortune in the automobile industry. He was one of the wealthiest men in America and one of the most happy until tragedy tore apart his marriage. Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire) was torn from his family by the Depression and is going through life with a chip on his shoulder. Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) was an open range cowboy when he ran out of open range and became a drifter. Then there is Seabiscuit himself, parented by two champions, but born small, mis-trained, and mis-used.
The redemption of this owner, jockey, trainer, and horse parallel the redemption of a country from some of its worst years. The New Deal put some money in the people's pockets and restored their self-confidence. At the same time the champion racehorse Seabiscuit gave them something to divert them and to hope for and to dream about. The small horse with a crooked leg who won all those races became a sensation, even a national hero. The horse was the long shot that paid off. The three humans and the horse make a team and compensate for each other's shortcomings. None could have recovered without the help of the other three.
SEABISCUIT was written and directed by Gary Ross based on the popular book by Laura Hillenbrand. The score was by Randy Newman with much of the same spirit that he gave THE NATURAL, a quality of American rustic nobility. The film is narrated by David McCulloch, lending the film the feel of a PBS documentary, which then fades into the drama. How faithful the film is to the facts is difficult to judge, but the use of McCulloch feels almost a testimonial of authenticity. Pulling in the other direction is the comic sports reporter Tick Tock McGlaughlin played by William H. Macy. For all I know his daffiness may be typical of sports writers of the time, but it feels exaggerated. Special note should be made of Chris Cooper's performance. He is an actor I have liked since MATEWAN and he seems to have hit his stride and is finally getting the attention he deserves. He is one of the most interesting character actors in films.
If SEABISCUIT has a problem, it is that it has little profundity. It seems to be saying little that is more profound or controversial than its rather flat message of perseverance through hard times. Nevertheless, some people are bothered by its reminders that in the Great Depression progressive government programs made life bearable for many of the destitute. Some have contrasted these policies with that of the current administration. In any case, SEABISCUIT is something of a stereotyped and familiar story done with a good deal of style. I rate SEABISCUIT a 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
SWIMMING POOL (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: An Agatha-Christie-like mystery writer accepts an invitation to spend time at her publisher's villa in France. She did not expect that she is to meet the publisher's sensual and over-sexed daughter and she is to be plunged into a psychological battle of wits. This is a tricky story that will leave viewers with a lot to talk about. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), high +1 (-4 to +4)
Sarah Morton (played by Charlotte Rampling) writes books about the exciting life of a Scotland Yard detective, but her own life is anything but exciting. She lives a quiet life taking care of her father. She shuns the praise of her fans, preferring a drab existence. When her publisher, John Bosload (Charles Dance), offers her the loan of his French villa she agrees, expecting to use it as a quiet place to work. She begins her stay living on a pallid diet featuring yogurt and diet Coke. Her quiet self-denial is interrupted by the arrival at the villa of Julie (Ludivine Sagnier), John's daughter. At first Sarah is not happy about the unexpected disturbance and distraction, and it only gets worse.
Julie lives a free and sensual lifestyle that initially, by example, tempts Sarah to give in to a little self-indulgence. But Sarah lets it go no further than eating a sinful dessert or two and enjoying herself by the pool a bit. But Julie does not stop with sinful desserts. She suns herself barebreasted and brings home a different man each night. Sarah looks on with a mixture of fascination and abhorrence and she even gives in to covert spying on Julie. This contrast of personality puts the two women in a collision course.
There are images in the film that Ozon seems to return repeatedly to. Repeatedly we see someone sleeping by the pool and in the background are the two legs of somebody standing over the sleeping body. Perhaps this is an image of two personality types, one relaxed and one very rigid. Sarah certainly seems to be a person who is wound very tightly. She is an insular woman who knows her responsibilities and woodenly goes through life making sure they are covered. She has little tolerance for the humanity of others and will snub her fans simply to avoid dealing with them. Julie is self-absorbed and gives in entirely to hedonism. One lives a life of responsibility and self-denial, the other irresponsible self-indulgence. Ozon keeps us wondering if Sarah is physically attracted to Julie or if she only wants the release of living vicariously through Julie's unrestrained and amoral life style.
SWIMMING POOL is something of a puzzle film directed and co-authored by tricky film director Francois Ozon. Some of its twists are easily predictable, some really startle, and some seem to make no sense. Much of what happens late in the film is open to interpretation. Even at the end the story leaves some questions and in fact no single explanation seems to fit all the facts. Certainly this is a film that will have people arguing about what the end really means and what has happened.
Rampling is a good choice for Sarah. She has intelligent eyes that are at the same time inscrutable. This is a film that will have the viewer wondering just what really was going on behind those eyes. I rate SWIMMING POOL a 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN (film review by Dale L. Skran, Jr.):
League of Idiotic Critics
Based on a graphic novel by Alan Moore, THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN is taking a trashing from most critics. There seem to be several schools of thought:
First let’s take the matter of the quality of the adaptation. To some extent THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN is suffering from Lord-the-Rings-itus. THE LORD OF THE RINGS is probably the best- ever fantasy/SF adaptation from book to film and has really raised the bar a lot. SPIDERMAN is also much better than past comic book adaptations, with a similar bar-raising effect. Thus, in a big twist, many critics have actually read Moore’s graphic novel, and launch into detailed comparisons, all putting the movie in a negative light. Although normally I lead the pack complaining about trashing comic characters in movies (e.g., DAREDEVIL) here I side with the writer/directors of THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN. The graphic novel, if tightly adapted, would have produced a dismal swamp of a movie that was minimally rated R or more probably NC-17. Although I have read the graphic novel, and enjoyed it, I simply don’t think that a straight adaptation made a lot of sense, any more than BLADE RUNNER was a mistake in its large deviations from "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" Do we really want to see Quatermain as an opium addict, the invisible man as a sexual sadist, or Mina Harker as a smoking suffragette? How popular would the villainous "Fu Manchu" be in this day and age, given that Moore made him a flimsy oriental stereotype? So good riddance to Moore’s eccentric vision found in the graphic novel! The movie has all the really good ideas from the graphic novel, and, frankly, a much better plot.
Now we come to the special effects. Indeed, some scenes seem not so great, especially where snowfall is involved. I’ve seen complaints about the invisible man effects but whatever problems exist are not that visible. Some complain about Mina Harker being surrounded by bats during various parts of the film. These critics apparently are unaware that (a) vampires can control and use bats, and (b) transform into bat-like creatures. They may also be unaware that not all writers use the same vampire mythos-- I’d suggest sentencing them to watching all seven seasons of Buffy, followed by a lot of Hammer films. Other critics complain that the Nautilus does not resemble that in the comic--it doesn’t, but the squid-like Nautilus in the comic was silly and impractical. I liked THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN’s Nautilus just fine. Some critics seemed to expect a literary feast, and were quite upset that they walked into a kind of boy’s adventure novel--these objections seem petty.
Another set of critics feel that the characters (the Invisible man, Mr. Hyde, Alan Quatermain, Mina Harker, Dorian Gray, Nemo, and Tom Sawyer) are too unfamiliar to the modern audience. Others complain that the scriptwriters’ attempts to introduce the characters are leaden and oversimplified. Some critics complain that Dorian Gray is not witty enough, apparently confusing him with Oscar Wilde. The screen-writer patiently and perhaps in an oversimplified fashion introduces the characters, leading other critics to complain of a leaden script. Although not a perfect script, it is probably better than that of the first X-man movie, for example.
Finally, we come to the "character we love to hate" syndrome, with Tom Sawyer played by Shane West as the main nominee. This is apparently comprised of dislike for the introduction of an American character not in the comic added to a dislike for Mr. West. I just don’t see it--West does a professional job--far better than people like Chuck Norris or Jackie Chan. Sean Connery’s Alan Quatermain is great--it is hard to imagine better casting here. Connery projects a man of 40 leaping out of his 72- year-old body--quite a feat. The other actors work well also, with Mina Harker especially fun to watch, and the "new" invisible man being pretty believable.
In conclusion, THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN is not a great film, but it is a fine summer adventure film (I’ve seen it twice now!), with a number of interesting bits, and a great fundamental idea. I rate it a high +1, or maybe even a low +2 (on the -4 to +4 scale). There is intense action, and some sexual innuendo but this is not the blood feast I feared it might be coming from the director of BLADE. Definitely not for little kids, but less nasty than, say, DAREDEVIL, and comparable to SPIDERMAN from a violence viewpoint. Rated PG-13, and I think correctly rated, unlike DAREDEVIL, which deserved an R.
Post Script: On the second viewing, it was more obvious to me that the screen writer attempted to insert many witty lines from the original texts, but this should not be confused with a literate script. I found the Mina Harker action sequences to be oddly directed; it is unclear why she held back in the initial fight in the library, or why Dorian Gray would ever think stabbing her with a sword would kill her. Also, the action in Venice strains credulity, but I continue to like what was done with the villain and overall plot. My guess is there won’t be a sequel, but if there is one, I’ll buy a ticket! [-dls]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Douglas Brode's SHAKESPEARE IN THE MOVIES is worth reading, even if I disagree with him on just about every movie I was familiar with. For example, Brode thinks Laurence Olivier's RICHARD III is better than Richard Loncraine's (Ian McKellen's). Not only that, but he attributes this in part to the idea that Olivier has more sex appeal than McKellen. I find this such a bizarre notion that I'm hard-pressed to accept it as serious: Olivier is totally unappealing, while McKellen has a dangerous edginess that is strangely attractive. Brode also dislikes Julie Taymor's TITUS and likes both the recent A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM and Kenneth Branagh's LOVE'S LABOUR'S LOST. He also places Baz Luhrmann's ROMEO + JULIET in Miami rather than southern California. While the angle of the sunlight (and the weather) during the beach scenes would seem to support this, the desert location of Romeo trailer argues rather strongly against it, and the milieu of both the city and the beach also indicate southern California. (Yes, I know Giacomo Puccini had a desert outside of New Orleans in the opera "Manon Lescaut"; it was wrong there too.)
As is becoming common, I found strange synchronicity in some of my reading. Milton Steinberg's AS A DRIVEN LEAF is a philosophical novel centered around Elisha ben Abuyah and the famous Jewish sages of his era (during the reign of Hadrian and the Bar Kochba rebellion). It's not surprising that some of the same people are quoted in the "Pirke Aboth" ("Sayings of the Fathers"), but it is a bit startling to see the same *sayings* in both places (in particular, Rabbi Hanina's "Pray for the peace of the government; for, except for the fear of that, we should have swallowed each other alive."). It was even more surprising to pick up Franz Kafka's DIARIES and read the traditional version of the penultimate incident of Steinberg book. The story of AS A DRIVEN LEAF is about Elisha's struggle between the faith of Judaism and the philosophy of the Greeks. (Phrased in those traditional terms, of course, this already shows a bias that "Jewish philosophy and Greek faith" would not.) In any case, Elisha becomes enamored of Euclid's approach and decides he must prove his religion starting with axioms self-evident in their truth and building on those axioms. In this he seems to anticipate Descartes by over a millennium. Unfortunately, the author decides to have the end turn on Euclid's Fifth Postulate in a way that simply doesn't ring true--the argument seems way too modern for that era. Yet that doesn't lessen the worth of the rest of the novel and its musings, particularly its central notion that it is not enough that good should come from something, but that there must be good intentions behind it. "The good which is born by chance out of the evil design is corrupt and rotten at the core. The Empire was conceived in the lust for power [and] is motivated now by the desire to protect a system of exploitation. Everything else in the sight of those who administer it is secondary. ... [Whenever] the liberties of the individual or a group come into conflict with the interests they serve, they will destroy the former unhesitatingly for the sake of the latter." This would seem to contradict Rabbi Hanina, and indeed Elisha's dilemma is in part in trying to resolve these two opposing views.
I enjoy Andrei Codrescu's essays on NPR and find them thought-provoking, but somehow when they are put down on the printed page, they seem much more cynical and bitter. The latest of his collections that I'm reading, RAISED BY PUPPETS, certainly has that problem, though I suppose it's possible that the radio essays are bitter and cynical and I just miss it. Codrescu does say in "My Brush with Hollywood" that writing is different than speaking when he writes, "If they're written down, they're literary. When they're on tape [or radio], they're not." (He's wrong about Sabbatai Zevi, however. Codrescu places him around the year 1000; actually Zevi lived in the 17th century. In addition, Sabbatai Zevi and his followers were Jewish; why would they think the world was ending in the year 1000? And for that matter, there was no widespread belief at the time that the world was ending in 1000--that was a story concocted about six hundred years later.)
Tim Cahill's travel essays are also cynical, though with more of a touch of humor (at least at times). In PECKED TO DEATH BY DUCKS, the first few essays, having to do with war, are less humorous (perhaps surreal is a better word), but it comes through in the rest. I'm not talking about rolling-on-the-floor-laughing funny, or even funny at the level of Bill Bryson, but a recognition of the basic ridiculousness of the situations Cahill finds himself in. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: The best measure of a man's honesty isn't his income tax return. It's the zero adjust on his bathroom scale. --Arthur C. Clarke
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