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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
09/03/04 -- Vol. 23, No. 10
Table of Contents
ConKopelli (Westercon 57) Report (announcement):
My report on ConKopelli (Westercon 57) is available at http://www.geocities.com/evelynleeper/conkop.htm. [-ecl]
Frank Frazetta Documentary (announcement):
There is a documentary about Frank Frazetta running on IFC this month. It is called "Frazetta: Painting With Fire" and is 105 minutes long. The next airing is on September 7 at 12:15 PM and 7:15 PM EDT; check listings for future showings as well. [-ecl]
The Warner Wolf Legacy (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Why do people like TV sportscasters who can do this artificial enthusiasm thing? They don't do that in their other news. How about trying it with restaurant reviews. "Well, I ordered and things are getting a little lethargic. Wow! Did You See That? THEY BROUGHT BREAD TO THE TABLE!" [-mrl]
The Age of Targeted Warfare (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Back when martial arts films first got popular I made a comment that some people found strange. I thought that they were exercises in nostalgia. That got me quizzical looks. Why nostalgia? They reminded us of an age when to be a formidable fighter you had to train and use self-discipline. Even in those days (the days of the film) there were kids on the street, sporting Uzis or AK-47s, more deadly than Bruce Lee. Put them both on an open field twenty yards apart and Bruce Lee probably hadn't a chance. His style of warfare still had its uses under the right circumstances, but it was no longer what fighting was about. But it was nice to look back to the days when it was.
On my last big trip I re-visited the Wright Patterson Air Force Base Museum in Dayton Ohio. The museum is huge and seemingly constantly growing. There are big galleries in the form of hangars for The Early History, WWII, Korea and Vietnam, the Cold War, and a new one for the present. It is interesting to see the new graceful and very untraditional shapes for stealth aircraft. The curved surfaces intended to prevent radar detection give the planes a surreal and almost science-fiction look. The guide at the museum told the story about a stealth bomber that was parked and a bat flew into it and knocked itself out. That may seem like a minor incident, but it is significant. Bats' sonar detects tiny insects but this one could not tell there was a many-ton aircraft right in front of it.
The new technology is laser-guided bombs. American forces actually got a bomb in the front door of Saddam's palace with one of these. The technology is easier to understand than I had realized. If you have a laser pointer you can put a little red dot of light on an object a fair distance away. Even the ones they sell in campus bookstores have a range of hundreds of yards. The dot of light is almost undetectable unless you are looking right at it. The military just developed a missile that can see it and home in on it. Hold it in place and you can put a missile just exactly where you want it. This is real precision bombing. But does it really make us a lot safer?
The thought that scares me is that just as they have made such strides in what I would call targeted warfare, the sort of enemy we face is not one that gives us targets to aim at. In a guerilla war there are no big targets to shoot at or they materialize unexpectedly only just before they strike. After Pearl Harbor we knew where we had to go to strike back and the problem was getting there. In World War II there were Berlin and Tokyo as major targets. After 9/11 we could go pretty much wherever we had to in order to fight back, but we really didn't have any good targets allowing us to attack the enemy directly. We had to hit back extremely indirectly. It seemed to be the right thing to do because when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And our huge military is only a kind of hammer. But what we got was a very dubious sort of revenge. Shakespeare noted in MACBETH, "Naught's had, all's spent, Where our desire is got without content: 'Tis safer to be that which we destroy, Than, by destruction, dwell in doubtful joy." We don't know where Osama Bin Laden is, but we do know where Baghdad is and we know where Afghanistan is. Neither of the latter is going anywhere. So those were so we went after targets rather than the key enemies.
And it seems only logical that if we get so good at targeted warfare overcoming the enemy will arise that does not use those defenses. Being an obvious target for your enemy is very obviously a liability. What the Wright-Patterson Museum seems to demonstrate, I am worried, is that we have gotten really, really good at fighting a World War II sort of war when the enemy was get its orders from a known location. But the Age of Targeted Warfare may well be ending. We may be entering an age of nebulous enemies. The Wright-Patterson museum may be essentially a nostalgic look at a style of warfare for which big planes and technology were an answer.
I will have more to say on this subject next week. [-mrl]
HERO (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: China tries to make its own CROUCHING TIGER with a story of an enigmatic stranger who has killed a triad of assassins for the benefit of China's first Emperor. The stranger tells the emperor multiple versions of how he killed the emperor's enemies. Visually HERO is stunning. The telling is operatic in style but becomes muddled. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
In the last half of the 20th century China saw Japan study American culture and then move in to compete with us in technical, economic, and artistic fields. China has made tremendous strides in many of the same directions. Much more than in the past they are now vying for the international cinema market, not just with artistic films, but with entertainment films also. I expect that in the near future we will see more Chinese films intended not to show us something edifying, like Chinese village life, but more to entertain and even impress. HERO is one such film.
HERO is the most expensive film ever made in mainland China. It is historical spectacle, but in the mold of CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON. It has jaw-dropping art direction and martial arts that still astound, even making allowances for the obvious assistance of wires.
In the Third Century B.C. what we now call China was a patchwork of kingdoms. Qin Shih Huang-ti, the ruthless king of the Qin fought to conquer all the other kings and to make himself the first Emperor of all China. That much is history. In this tale his greatest danger lay came from a team of three superb assassins who had sworn to kill him. Then suddenly they were gone, killed by a lowly prefect from one of the king's provinces. This man (Jet Li) is of such low origins he does not even have a real name and is called Nameless. Nameless is taken in pageantry to have an audience with the future Emperor and to tell him how he accomplished the deed. But the king recognizes that he is being lied to so Nameless gives several very different accounts. Is Nameless merely working on a different plot to kill the king?
HERO combines the fantasized martial arts of CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON with some of the same history from the under-rated THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN. It has neither the rousing adventure of CROUCHING TIGER nor the historical epic sweep of THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN. But the visual style of production designers Huo Ting Xiao and Yi Zhen Zhou and cinematographer Christopher Doyle makes this one of the most beautiful films that has been seen on American screens in quite a while. Director Zhang Yimou has been more known for beautiful and contemplative films such as RAISE THE RED LANTERN. He has shown, among other things, that he likes playing with color. In this film that taste turns into full-blown passion. Some scenes will have so much of one color that they almost look like tinted monochrome. In others he will have the entire scene in one tone and the two main characters in another color so they stand out. The colors are specifically chosen each to represent a given mood. As Nameless tells his tales he keeps returning to a mystical connection between beautiful calligraphy and swordplay.
HERO will break the rules of physics but never the rules of the Chinese cinema. With its strong and heavily stylized action scenes, this film is like KILL BILL in overdrive. Zhang Yimou avoids showing us any human stained with blood in keeping with the Chinese sensibility. Though the plot involves sex there is just one quick flash of partial nudity. Like CROUCHING TIGER there is plenty of violence but it is choreographed more like high-speed ballet. It is easy to see how this became the most expensive film in Chinese history. Zhang Yimou may use CGI to show a storm of arrows or vortexes of golden leaves, but unlike Peter Jackson he never seems to use a computer image of a human in lieu of a real human. When he shows us a huge army of soldiers it looks like it is played by a huge army of people. It might be politically incorrect to use a computer image rather than employing an actor.
That said the producers were not afraid to borrow talent from other lands. Tan Dun provided the musical score as he had with CROUCHING TIGER. It is a little strange to see a credit for violin and fiddle solos performed by Itzhak Perlman. A few western names do show up in the credits.
Some of the story may seem obscure to American audiences, but in this film the visual style is much more important than the actual plot. This is a case where it might have been better to dub carefully than to subtitle. I had to let several subtitles go unread to appreciate the images above them on the screen. This film is not the entertainment that THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN was, but it certainly is a film that can be appreciated by wide audiences. I give HERO a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Neal Stephenson's SNOW CRASH (ISBN 0-553-56261-4) is a favorite of mine (and it still is, in spite of the quibbles I will make in this column).
The writing is utterly enthralling. The main character is named Hiroaki Protagonist, but always called "Hiro". The second lead is nick-named "Y.T." (for "Yours Truly"). This is a hint as to the sort of word-play Stephenson goes in for. He also looks far-fetched (a.k.a. creative) similes and metaphors. For example, the first paragraph says, "The Deliverator belongs to an elite order, a hallowed sub-category. . . . His uniform is black as activated charcoal, filtering the very light out of the air. A bullet will bounce off its arachno-fiber weave like a wren hitting a patio door, but excess perspiration wafts through it like a breeze through a freshly napalmed forest."
It is sometimes hard to follow everything, because Stephenson also delights in acronyms. He does explain them--once. So on page 176, we find out about the Executive Branch General Operational Command (EBGOC). Then a hundred pages later, he's talking about "EBGOC" and you're desperately trying to remember what it stands for. It is a lot like real life.
There is, of course, a certain irony in that the main characters are concerned over viruses (memes) that control people, but the world they live in is already full of them--franchises for everything, including nations,etc. And Stephenson notices this, and acknowledges this (pages 190-191).
I love the discussions with the Librarian about ancient Sumer and other cultures, but I think Stephenson is wrong when (on page 229) the Deuteronomists are described as working to get the Jews to read the book instead of going to the temple (so as to avoid viruses). The problem with this is that the general theory is that the "reading the book" was formulated as a response to what to do after the Babylonian Conquest when the temple was destroyed, the people exiled, and sacrifices were no longer possible, reversing the order of Stephenson's cause and effect.
There are parts that are just sloppy writing (or copy-editing). For example, on page 50, Y. T. negotiates a $750 billion bribe to be taken to a particular jail, on page 146 Stephenson describes "street people pushing wheelbarrows piled high with dripping clots of million- and billion-dollar bills that they have raked up out of storm sewers." and on page 243 someone says that Y.T.'s skateboard probably cost $100 trillion. But on page 175, Y. T. thinks she "has great stuff to tell Hiro now. Great intel on Uncle Enzo. People would pay millions for it." Later on (pages 394 and 409) it becomes clearer than there may be two different kinds of dollars being talking about, but it still seems careless.
There are also several typos of "it's" for "its", on page 140 we find "Catonese" for "Cantonese", and on page 184 a comma where a semi-colon is called for.
However, as I said at the start, I love this book, and it is only because I have read it several times (as well as listening to the abridged audiobook) that I notice some of these things. This is highly recommended. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: How do you know so much about everything? was asked of a very wise and intelligent man; and the answer was 'By never being afraid or ashamed to ask questions as to anything of which I was ignorant. -- John Abbott
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