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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
11/21/03 -- Vol. 22, No. 21
Table of Contents
A Thought for This Thanksgiving (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
When the world seems to be in a moment of crisis we should be thankful that it is only a small minority of people causing the problems. The vast majority of people in the world are good at heart and just want peace and happiness for the world. We good people really have much greater numbers and can be a Force for World Peace. We need to band together, confront the troublemakers, and really beat the crap out of them. [-mrl]
THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY (film comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Most of John Wayne's adventure films from the 1950s and 1960s have become classics and are frequently revived on video and on cable stations like Turner Classic Movies. His Westerns have dated very little. Even bad films like THE CONQUEROR have made it to video and are available for people who really want them. There has been one exception, one film that has been kept from the fans. It is film that was highly regarded on its release but has never become generally available. THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY (1954) based on the novel by Ernest K. Gann was really one of the seminal disaster films. It set the mold for the AIRPORT series of films and later for the AIRPLANE! satires. The film was important and it was a critical success. So why has the film become so obscure?
Well, the rumor on the net is that it is really owned by Michael Wayne, John's son who runs the Batjac Production Company. And that he has several times announced that it would be released to video, but the actual event has never happened for what are called "technical reasons." I could be proved wrong very easily, but I think there are other problems with releasing the film. I think that while this was a really exciting film in the early Fifties, much of the impact it had would be lost on a modern audience and the film would be made laughable, in spite of its esteemed reputation.
I actually have recently seen a copy of THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY on videotape, recorded from an early cable broadcast. I had not seen it in years and inspired by a discussion with a reader I decided to watch it again to see if it still had the impact it once had. I find it hard to believe this film is the same one I saw years ago and which had so impressed me. That I remember as being an engrossing film of a flight from Honolulu to San Francisco that may be doomed.
The problem is that where the film is good, it is very good, but where it is bad it is laughably and even painfully dated. I suspect that with the 1954 editing, the film would end up a laughing stock. Part of that is that parts of the film were hokey in a style that was acceptable in 1954, but which 49 years later has not aged well. Each of the passengers comes to the ticket counter and gives age and profession (did they really have to do that in 1954 to get a plane ticket?), then the attendant tells the woman at the counter the person's real background. He apparently knows nearly every passenger on the plane at least by reputation. Why? He has been a night clerk in a Nevada hotel. There is the young newlywed couple with the wife terrified because the world is so big and they are so young. We have a selfish and self-absorbed theatrical producer. Then there is the lovable little Swedish fisherman. Each person but the fisherman is profiled by the ex-night-clerk. John Wayne is the co-pilot, flying since the early days, but who made a flying mistake once that killed his wife and son. Each has his own back-story and each will be redeemed by the frightening events to come. Even if some of this seemed like good cinema, in the post-AIRPLANE! era they will seem very dated. Some of the constructs, like voiceovers to represent thought, really date the film. It does not help that the actual pilot is Robert Stack, who brings forth memories of the later satires.
This is not to say that there is not plenty to like about THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY. Dimitri Tiomkin wrote one of his better scores, based around a sixteen-note theme that the Wayne character repeatedly whistles. It won him an Oscar. William Wellman does a good job of twisting the tension, particularly in the later parts of the film. Of course the wizened old co-pilot has the experience to take over and save the flight, though latter-day audiences may ask if the decision he makes is not dangerously irresponsible.
The major faults of this film are those of its main character. Time has past this film by. It is still a solid piece of entertainment for the right audience, but age has made more obvious the artificial parts that were in the syntax of cinema when the film was made. [-mrl]
MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: In 1805 Jack Aubrey, captain of HMS Surprise, is obsessed by the mission to capture or sink the French ship Acheron. More so than in any previous film we are brought aboard a fighting ship from Britain's war against Napoleon. The story may be slow except for some really exciting action scenes, but the historical detail is probably the best for any film about the period. If you like Aubrey (or even Hornblower) stories this film from director Peter Weir is a must. Rating: 8 (0 to 10), high +2 (-4 to +4)
MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD is about life at sea and it is about little else. When the film starts you are on His Majesty's Ship Surprise, crew 197 men, and you will be there for 138 minutes getting a fascinating education of what life was like on a British fighting ship during the Napoleanic wars. There are a number of good films about shipboard life in the British Navy in the early 1800s. It seems to be a period that grabs the imagination of writers and filmmakers. There is DAMN THE DEFIANT, BILLY BUDD, and CAPTAIN HORATIO HORNBLOWER. But none of them is as intensely a survey of shipboard life as is MASTER AND COMMANDER. There is an overall plot of the Surprise's mission to capture or sink the French privateer Acheron. Acheron is bigger, faster, and has twice the number of guns of the Surprise. And the viewer will be on the Surprise until that mission is accomplished.
The year is 1805 and Captain Jack Aubrey (played by Russell Crowe), captain of the Frigate HMS Surprise is under orders to chase the French privateer Acheron. Acheron is bigger, faster, and has more than twice Surprise's guns. The Surprise is overmatched, but Aubrey is a man committed to capturing his prey. The chase is not like a Star Trek or even a Hornblower story. When the Surprise is so badly outgunned, it loses battles. At one point it is forced to flee from the enemy. The encounters with the enemy are widely separated, but in between is a fascinating education in what life is like on a ship of war in the early 19th century. Aubry does not have Hornblower's 20th century values. For example, when it seems an important object lesson, he has no aversion to ordering a flogging. (This is something Hornblower did only once, and then only because he was forced into it.) Yet Aubry seems a reasonable man who maintains a good relation with even the young midshipmen on his ship. On request over dinner he will tell of what it was like serving with Admiral Nelson. He even makes puns. But he does not allow the crew to question his Ahab-like determination to hunt and if need be lose his ship and crew stalking his powerful foe. The only man who can question him at all is his best friend, ship's surgeon Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany).
The real star of the film is the HMS Surprise (played by the HMS Rose floating in a tank at Baja, Mexico). As we see it is almost a floating city. As Aubrey tells his crew, "This ship is our home; this ship is England." We see a wide variety of aspects of shipboard life: the maintaining of the ship, the preparing food, the painfully primitive medical procedures, the battle station responsibilities, the action in a storm, and the crew's crowded life in the darkness below decks. The film is almost without women except for one quick sequence when the ship stops for supplies. We get to know the ship well. The enemy ship is implacable and kept impersonal, seen only from a distance, for most of the film. Curiously Crowe, who usually seems a bit rigid in his roles, seems less stiff than naval commanders usually are portrayed on film. Laughton as Bligh and Peck as Hornblower seem to have backbones of steel rods. Crowe's body language is much more flexible and informal. And while at times he is dedicated to his duty, he seems a little too willing to reinterpret those orders to help his friend. Much more than in other films we are told the commander's philosophy of battle.
While many of the action scenes are enhanced greatly by CGI, great care was taken to keep the digital effect undetectable. I am usually bothered by digital effects and in this film I never consciously noticed them in spite of their extensive use. The battle scenes are realistic and exciting, but blood seems to be kept to a minimum.
MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD is a big film. It is produced by 20th Century Fox, Miramax, and Universal, and bears all three banners. I rate it an 8 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. (Oh, that piece of classical music that they use so liberally after battle scenes is Ralph Vaughan Williams's "Fantasia on a Theme by Talis," long a favorite of mine.) [-mrl]
MARGARETTE'S FEAST (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4)
Renato Falcoa wrote and directs this low-budget, monochrome, silent comedy from Brazil. It is strongly reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin comedies like CITY LIGHT and MODERN TIMES. Our main character is the head of one of two large families living in what is little more than a shack but which is quickly transformed into a makeshift theater or whatever else the families need. He and the other breadwinner work in an auto factory, assembling cars by hand. We watch them work, but they are called to a meeting where they are told business is failing. Automation will do their jobs more efficiently, and they are to be laid off. Our character is afraid to tell his family but finds a badge that says sales manager and wears it home. Ah, but fate has something good in store. He wins the lottery and suddenly has a lot of money that allows him to see much more of Brazil's society. The sketches satirize crime, evangelists, fancy restaurants, and much more.
The themes of poverty, the social order, etc., are ones that Chaplain would have found very familiar and would have been sympathetic to the film's point of view. As in a Chaplin comedy the music is well composed to fit the film, incorporating sound effects where needed. Falcoa's music just has a slightly more Brazilian sound. [-mrl]
SO FAR AWAY (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4)
This is a Spanish and Cuban comedy that is at times rollickingly funny. Cuban director Juan Carlos Tabio is the co-director of STRAWBERRY AND CHOCOLATE (1993) which got a wide release in the United States and several other films not as well known. However, there literally is not much I can say about the plot without spoiling it. A plot twist somewhat into the movie seriously warps what this film is really all about. My own rules about what I can say about the plot of a film will not let me reveal what this somewhat gimmicky film actually does. Non-negotiable. Sorry. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
This previous Saturday I did one of my "library marathon afternoons." Mark has a bi-monthly origami meeting at the Monmouth County Library, and since we don't have borrowing privileges at this library, I use the time as an opportunity to read all the books I want to read that it has that our own library doesn't have. (Well, maybe not all.)
I had hoped to get to Jane Jensen's DANTE'S EQUATION, but its length was rather daunting for the four-hour block I had, so I stuck to non-fiction instead. First was Sara Nelson's SO MANY BOOKS, SO LITTLE TIME, which was the diary of her attempt to read a book a week throughout 2002 and write about it. (I suppose what I'm doing here is similar, though I'm reading more and writing less.) Her attitudes and observations about reading in general seemed more interesting than what she had to say about specific books, probably because if one hasn't read the book, her comments don't resonate. But, for example, she talks about "junk reading," saying, "Woody Allen once said that the advantage of bisexuality is that it doubles your chances of finding a date on Saturday night. Having a bifurcated reading brain--one part that likes 'junk' and one that reveres 'literature'--is the same kind of satisfying. You don't have to be any one thing and you don't have to think any one way. And should you happen upon different kinds of people in different situations, your pool of conversation topics is twice as deep." She also admits to the relief of learning to be able to "give up" on a book if she's not enjoying it. I didn't give up on this, but I will admit to merely skimming the last quarter or so.
Fintan O'Toole's SHAKESPEARE IS HARD, BUT SO IS LIFE seems almost designed as a rebuttal to Harold Bloom's SHAKESPEARE: INVENTING THE HUMAN. O'Toole states this fairly early on, saying, "Characterization in the modern theatrical sense is a word which comes into use in the English language in the mid-nineteenth century. Character, in the sense of a part assumed by an actor, comes in a hundred years earlier, but still a very long time after Shakespeare's death. In Shakespeare's time, the word that would have been used in the place of our notion of 'characterization', was 'personation'--the presentation of a person on stage, with obvious overtones of deliberate pretence. To talk about Shakespeare's characters in isolation from the action, to discuss their psychology and motivation, is to treat Shakespearean tragedies as if they were nineteenth-century naturalistic plays. It is to miss their uniqueness and their power." Instead of characterization, O'Toole sees Shakespeare's plays as being primarily about the transitional state that Elizabethan/Jacobean England was in, a transition between the old feudal order versus the new capitalist one, which he simplifies as between status and power. O'Toole looks specifically at HAMLET, KING LEAR, OTHELLO, and MACBETH in this context, and the fact that Hamlet and and Lear have status (based on their positions but no power), while Othello and Macbeth have power based on their own actions, but no status. One of the fascinating things about Shakespeare is just how many interpretations one can find for his plays.
But if you want something simpler, try Thomas C. Foster's HOW TO READ LITERATURE LIKE A PROFESSOR. This seems to be a very strange entry in the self-help field. Basically, Foster gives you a series of chapters with "rules" for interpreting literature. In case you have difficulty in figuring out the rules from the chapters and examples, Foster gives you the rules in bold-face type. And what are the rules? Well, the first few include, "The real reason for a quest is self-knowledge," "Whenever people eat or drink together, it's communion," and "Ghosts and vampires are never only about ghosts and vampires." The problem with all this is that if you're someone who finds these "rules" new, it's unlikely they're going to make a big difference in how you read. Actually, it's unlikely in that case that you'd pick up this book in the first place (although it may have the same intended market as those "Bluffer's" books). Even I, who loves to see lists of things, find this approach to literature a bit strained. But the last rule is worth remembering: "Don't read with *your* eyes." By this, Foster means that one must at least partially judge a book by the standards of its intended audience--relatively easy for this week's best-seller, not so easy for Homer's "Iliad". [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Reading made Don Quixote a gentleman, but believing what he read made him mad. -- George Bernard Shaw
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