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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
12/12/03 -- Vol. 22, No. 24
Table of Contents
Answer to Last Week's Puzzle (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
We got no correct answers to last week's puzzle. The question was "Find the name of a world-famous American writer. This writer has a first and last name. Reverse the order of the two names. Remove one or more letters from the end of the first name and one or more letters from the end of the last name. The result is the name of a famous science fiction, horror, or fantasy writer. Who are these two writers?"
The answer is Tennessee Williams. Reverse the order of the names and remove some letters at the end of each to get William Tenn. [-mrl]
This Week's Puzzle (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
In EX LIBRIS: CONFESSIONS OF A COMMON READER, Anne Fadiman talks about a book that had by her count at least twenty-two words she not only couldn't define, she couldn't remember ever seeing them before. She showed the list to several people in publishing and academia to see how they would do. Before telling you the results, we figured we would give you the list and see how you all do. This is on the honor system--no looking them up. Let us know how many (and which) words you know of the following:
monophysite, mephitic, calineries, diapason, grimoire, adapertile, retromingent, perllan, cupellation, adytum, sepoy, subadar, paludal, apozemical, camorra, ithyphallic, alcalde, aspergill, agathodemon, kakodemon, goetic, opopanax
State Names (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
The answer to last week's puzzle is Tennessee Williams. Ever notice that some times characters in fiction get named after state names. Well, you probably already know Indiana Jones. Dennis Weaver played a Kentucky Jones in a TV show. Jackie Gleason played Minnesota Fats in THE HUSTLER. Wallace Beery was called Rhode Island Red in PONY EXPRESS. There was a western about Nevada Smith starring Steve McQueen. Previously, Alan Ladd played the same character in THE CARPETBAGGERS. Most he-men have the option of taking the state they are from as a nickname. It occurs to me that an Indiana Jones type is as some kind of a disadvantage in this regard if he is from Virginia or Georgia. It kind of puts Washington Irving in a new light too. [-mrl]
The Drive-In Theater (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I was discussing drive-in movies on Usenet to someone who had never been to one and wondered what it was like. I tried to answer his questions and as I did a flood of nostalgia came to me. I guess I kind of miss the old drive-ins. If you see how the drive-ins appear in the media they appear to be trysting places that showed only bad movies. Let me say that I never saw anyone "making out" at a drive-in, but my attention was usually on the screen. As for the quality of films shown I must say that films like THE BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER KWAI, THE GUNS OF NAVARONE, THE EXORCIST, THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, THE DEVIL'S BRIDE, and THE FLY (1958) I saw for the first time on a giant outdoor screen. I suppose more often the films were like THE GIANT SPIDER INVASION, HOUSE OF THE SEVEN CORPSES, and MARK OF THE DEVIL, PART 2. But it depended a lot on the drive-ins you picked and of course you could be selective.
New Jersey, where I live now, is the home of the drive-in movie. The first drive-in theater was in Camden, New Jersey. Richard Hollingshead patented the idea of the permanent outdoor movie (as opposed to putting a bedsheet over a laundry line like the traveling film shows did in the silent film days). Hollinshead opened that first on in June of 1933. It has been something like thirteen years since that last drive-in movie closed in this state.
So what was it like? There were rows of speakers on stands and you would drive in and park next to one of these stands. This meant that though the sound could be fairly loud, it was in glorious monophonic. There was no good way of having stereo sound. Most movie theaters were a fair-weather business. They would close in the autumn and not open again until spring the next year. To keep the season going longer some theaters installed in-car heaters you pulled into the car like the speakers. Whoever sat close to it got toasted and in the far corner of the backseat it was still pretty cold. On the same stands that had the loudspeakers some also some theaters had in-car heaters. The management had to forever remind people to return the speakers and the heaters to the stands when leaving because some people would forget and then rip the heaters and/or speakers off their cord when they tried to drive away. They could also destroy their windows. The rows for parking were banked so by moving your car forward and back you could aim at the screen at a higher or lower angle. You would inch your car forward and back until everybody in the car could see the screen. That was not an easy job of framing the screen in the windshield because most drive-ins had really big screens. You don't see screens that big these days. That meant that even the first row had to be a good distance back from the screen. That gave the manager empty space and many put in playgrounds for the kids to play in before the show started. Shows had to start pretty late, particularly in early summer because the sun did not go down until late.
In Detroit I remember some drive-ins stayed open all winter. The reason why there is that in Detroit anything that had something to do with the automobile seemed like a pretty good idea to the locals, most of whom to one degree or another were supported by the automobile industry. I remember getting stuck in the snow leaving the Fort George Drive-in after seeing THE GIANT SPIDER INVASION and BUG! The drive-ins stayed open in the rain, though they would be empty it the weather seemed like it could be bad. If it started raining during the film you had to run your wipers and watch the film around the wipers. Even if it didn't rain you frequently had to run your engine to defog the window.
The concession stands were a big part of the business's income. They would often charge something like only $5 per carload for movie admission and they made it up on sales. But I rarely went to the stands. When I was young we would bring popcorn in a grocery bag as the snack. It always looked better than what was at the concession stand. They would run ads for the various selections at the stands in the intermission between movies. Whoever distributed the ads used bad film stock and the colors of the food we saw in the ads was never quite right. The hot dogs were plump and juicy looking but they frequently has a sort of greenish tinge. (Perhaps the ones from the concession stand did also, but in your car it was too dark to tell.) They would advertise corn dogs, popcorn, candy, pizza ("a delicious tomato pie"), and Hot Toddy (hot chocolate). Every minute they would show you for five seconds a clock counting down to zero ("The show starts in SIX minutes. There is still time to visit the snack bar where we have ice-cold Coca-Cola."). They would illustrate with cartoon hot dogs turning somersaults and jumping into buns. They would have little cartoons of candy boxes, popcorn boxes, hot dogs, etc. marching across the screen singing "Go on out to the snack bar. Go on out to the snack bar. Go on out to the snack bar, and have a bite to eat."
In the summer if there were mosquitoes they would also sell this spiral wire coated with something that you lit one end and it burned slowly in a spiral releasing insect repellant. Sometimes they would have all night movies and free coffee and doughnuts to people who stayed through the whole night. I always wanted to go when they had five horror films in a row, but as a kid, what were my chances? Years later when I actually saw some of these films on TV I realized how lucky I was not to have paid to see some of them. But of course you could always take a little nap and have someone wake you for the next film. Parents frequently would bring their kids already in pajamas so they could sleep through the movies. Young parents didn't need to hire a baby sitter. Sometimes they let their kids, still wearing pajamas out of the cars to go play in the playgrounds just under the screen while waiting for the sun to set so the films could begin. Those were good days.
I understand in Japan there are still drive-in movies. In, the United States the drive-in is an endangered species. In my home state it is already extinct. I hear that in Japan drive-ins are popular. At night they are drive-in theaters, during the day they are commuter parking lots. Marvelous people, the Japanese. They missed out on the 1950s so they are having them now. You should see the "Elvis Dancers" who rock and roll dance on Sunday afternoons. They don't want to miss the fun of having drive-in theaters. Here in the United States, at least in New Jersey, the party is over. [-mrl]
THE LAST SAMURAI (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: THE LAST SAMURAI chooses some overly familiar pieces from other films and assembles them in an enjoyable--though not always believable--package. Cruise plays a burned out and alcoholic hero of the Indian wars who around 1876 is captured by a samurai leading a rebellion to reject foreign influence. The American learns to respect and embrace the way of the Samurai. The battle scenes are splendid, the script is not. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), high +1 (-4 to +4)
When I see a Tom Cruise movie these days I always have the knee-jerk reaction to think of it as a vanity piece. Most of his films seem rather thin and intended to show him doing feats of physical prowess. He is a sort of the modern-day Douglas Fairbanks. The problem is that description fits too many actors. What sets Tom Cruise apart from the Vin Diesels is that Cruise can act and once in a while he gets a really good original script. Viewed from a hilltop, the script of THE LAST SAMURAI looks pretty good. An American in mid-1800s Japan--a Japan torn between holding on to its feudal traditions and embracing the rapid changes of the modern world. The problem is that when you actually get into the story, every bit of it seems to have been borrowed from someplace else. The script seems to be SHOGUN crossed with DANCES WITH WOLVES and laced with THE WIND AND THE LION, themselves not that far apart from each other. There are sub-plots that have been years ago worn thin with overuse. Cruise's character is humbled by the fact that he is hopelessly bad at Japanese styles of fighting and also is picked on by bullies. He likes an attractive woman who has every reason to hate him. He is living among Japanese rebels who to his foreign mind dress in funny ways and have funny customs. Gee, I wonder what they will do with these plot threads? In spite of the "stranger in a strange land" structure of the film, the viewer never finds himself on a piece of plot that he does not know where it is going.
Tom Cruise plays Nathan Algren, a hero of the Indian wars and a veteran of Custer's 7th Cavalry. Cruise has seen too much of the viciousness of the sadistic and one-sided war against the Indians. Nightmares and flashbacks of the barbarism of the whites in those wars trouble him. He is an alcoholic burnout traveling as the chief attraction of a firearms show. Even this less than ambitious position he cannot hold. He is hired to travel to Japan to modernize the Emperor Meiji's new army and prepare them to fight a rebellion of samurai who are bound to the Bushido tradition and do not want to give it up for Western technology. (It is well to remember that any historical film is about both the time it is set and the time is it made. Similarities to the politics of the Middle East are probably intentional.) Chief among the rebels is the guerilla Katsumoto (played by Ken Watanabe). Algren is called upon to lead his under-trained army against this Katsumoto.
In the battle Algren finds a respect for Japanese fighting techniques and is captured by the enemy. Katsumoto believes Algren has the spirit of his totem, the tiger. Algren may be a little surprised to find he still has that spirit himself. Such a man one does not just put to death. Katsumoto decides this is a man worthy of studying and keeps him a prisoner in the hopes of talking to the man and understanding both Algren and the sort of enemy the Americans are. He places Algren in the house of the comely widow of a man Algren killed. With the setup complete, director Edward Zwick and writer John Logan are now free to make the film look good and to let events follow their natural film cliche course.
What would have saved this film from cliche at this point? Logan could have taught the viewer a little about Bushido, the code of the samurai. Of this philosophy we get one quick lesson in the importance of concentration. We see a testimonial that with Bushido Cruise becomes a better fighter and person, but we never get into the meaning of Bushido or how the samurai thinks. For this reason we never get any understanding of Katsumoto. Algren supposedly does come to understand his captor, but the viewer is left behind. Like with an infomercial Zwick spends more time with the promised results of Applied Bushido than with the philosophy's nature and content. Zwick also wastes time with a superfluous romance.
The film has three endings, which is two too many. The first one would have been the most effective. An Akira Kurosawa would have left it there on the battlefield. The second ending one slops over onto the silly side. And I swear the third ending is borrowed from a particular Frank Capra film. The film generally has a good look with a nice battle sequence toward the end. But scenes of a then modern Japanese city seem a little digitized.
A film that immerses us in the Japan of the samurai cannot be too bad and in fact this one has a lot to like. But it falls short of the intelligence that was within its grasp. I rate it a 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
THE GRUDGE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4)
THE GRUDGE, written and directed by Takashi Shimizu, does not have an intelligent plot, but it is still an intelligent horror film in that Takashi Shimizu has thought out what it takes to make a ghost scary on the screen. William Castle would put a skeleton on the screen and perhaps over the audience. A film like GHOST would put a translucent image of a human on the screen. Neither of these are really scary images because they are so familiar and were when they were used. Takashi Shimizu makes his images unfamiliar as well as weird. Or he creates a symbol of security on the screen, for example a blanket, and then has it betray its victim. The story is not intelligent but the images are. Many of the frightening images are associated with strange ghostly child.
This is not one long story but a number of short stories, connected incidents somehow connected to one modern and innocent- looking house that is filled with malice. The stories are told out of chronological sequence and really do not shed a lot of light on each other except to show how ghosts can spread their evil. If Shimizu's THE GRUDGE catches you in the right mood, this is a very effective ghost story. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Harry Turtledove's GUNPOWDER EMPIRE is the first in a new series, "Crosstime Traffic". It's clearly intended as young adult reading. (The cataloguing information includes "Teenage boys-- fiction" as a category, but not "Teenage girls--fiction," even though the female protagonist gets just as much time.) Amanda and Jeremy are the teenage children of a couple who are involved in crosstime trading. While the children are on vacation from school, they live in "Agrippan Rome"--a world where Agrippa outlived Augustus and Rome never fell, etc. Something happens, Mom and Dad go back to our world, and then something else happens and all communication between the two timelines is cut off. And then the Lietuvan army decides to attack the city.
This story takes place a hundred years in the future, yet Turtledove makes all sorts of references to PowerBooks, Wal-Mart, Safeway, and Home Depot. The teenagers attend Canoga Park High School, a building 150 years old. The technology in both timelines seems uneven, with Agrippan Rome having cannons and even pistols, but missing a whole lot of stuff that came along before those in our world. And our timeline is basically one with today's technology and social structure, which considering the rapid rate of change we are living with is highly unlikely. Turtledove also indulges in punning, and in such in-jokes as having Jeremy playing a computer game of aliens invading the earth which he later refers to as a World War II game--a clear reference to Turtledove's "World War" series. All things considered, though, it's not a bad book for the target age group.
Though it was published in 1997, John L. Apostolou and Martin H. Greenberg's THE BEST JAPANESE SCIENCE FICTION STORIES doesn't include anything more recent than 1989. I suppose the time and effort required to translate works makes it more reasonable to choose older ones that have proved their worth--certainly the Seiun Awards for translated works are for older works as well. At 174 pages, this book is much shorter than many anthologies, but because the stories are all fairly short it does include thirteen stories. (No novelettes or novellas here!) I don't know if most Japanese stories are this short, or if these are atypical. Not surprisingly, the best stories in this volume are by what everyone seems to refer to as the "big three" of Japanese science fiction: Ryo Hanmura, Shinichi Hoshi, and Sakyo Komatsu. I loved Ryo Hanmura's "Cardboard Box", though I can't say why. And I would call it fantasy rather than science fiction. Shinichi Hoshi's "He--y, Come on Ou--t!" was science fiction but a bit predictable. However, it was somehow short enough that the predictability didn't bother me. Sakyo Komatsu's "The Savage Mouth" was so disturbing that I actually stopped reading it, so I have to say it was effective horror. His "Take Your Choice" was another story that seemed predictable, but again, this didn't bother me. Thinking about it, I think there is a difference in ... something. Not style, but perhaps purpose. The predictable stories don't have the purpose of giving you an amazing new idea, but they do let you consider the implications of what is happening while you are reading the story, rather than the "American" style of having the reader think about the implications only after the story is finished. It's almost as if you are re-reading the story, even the first time through. On the other hand, some of the other stories I found rather opaque, suggesting that there may be some major literary differences between English and Japanese science fiction. Still, a good anthology. One might wish for more like it, but I suspect that there aren't enough Japanese translators, or enough of a market for the translations to pay them very well. If Japan wins the Worldcon bid for 2007, it would be nice if they could do a similar book as a souvenir book. (And I wrote this review before I realized that this issue would end up as a Japanese-themed one.) [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Say what you will about the Ten Commandments, you must always come back to the pleasant fact that there are only ten of them. -- H. L. Mencken
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