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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
09/17/04 -- Vol. 23, No. 12
Table of Contents
The Cat Woman Mystique (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I didn't see the film CATWOMAN, but at the same time it was on I was listening to an old time radio show about another mysterious fictional cat woman. I guess the exotic mysterious feline personality seems to be easily melded to the feminine. I remember a Sherlock Holmes movie in which he reasoned that a crime was committed by a woman because the reasoning was feline and not canine. The one in the radio play was always surrounded by cats. It takes something from her mystique to think how she must continually be opening tins of smelly meat and emptying even smellier litter boxes. [-mrl]
In Defense of Visual Imagery and Special Effects (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
This weekend we will have the release of SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW. From what I have seen of this film it is mostly visual images with an intentionally pulpish plot. Films like this and SPIDERMAN 2 now seamlessly mix animation and live action so that what you are seeing is more a cartoon than live action. Just about anything an artist could draw on paper could be put on the screen these days. And it is true that films with really good scripts are not as common as films with great special effects. I was in a discussion recently about the value of visual effects. It was just after the release of THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW. The person I was having the discussion with pointedly asked me what was the value of a film with spectacular visual effects that did not have interesting characterizations.
Now he had a good point as far as it went. Human drama is important, but it is not the only virtue a film may have. The truth is that we are getting a lot of films whose whole reason to be is to show off special effects. That is not too surprising. Filmmakers and financiers can much more easily mandate good special effects than they can a good script. There are fewer people out there who can write a good script time after time. Unlike the education system in England, our school system does not really teach the writing of drama in schools. And that makes a big difference. Most people in this country get through school without ever having written in the dramatic form. At least at one time it was taught in the British schools. I do not know if they teach the writing of drama currently, but we rarely or never did. England seems to be acutely aware that it is the country of Shakespeare. Meanwhile we get a lot of films that are poorly written and seem to be just canvasses for special effects. I, ROBOT is for me a good example. It is not a good thing to not have the writing needed for the story, I admit. But my correspondent went what was in my opinion too far in the other direction. He asked me who cares about a film like THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW given that we're not seeing anything that realistically resembles [human drama] but a bunch of spectacular visual effects?" Who cares? Well, I have to say I care. Just like I learn from seeing artist depictions of what happens when a black hole rips a star apart or a comet impacts the Earth. It makes the science more meaningful.
Science fiction is not the only genre that has benefited from the visual revolution. I saw THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS not for deep insights into the human condition but to get a mental image of the French and Indian Wars. It made that history more meaningful for me even if the story could have been better. (And, as Samuel Clemens pointed out, James Fenimore Cooper was not such a great writer to begin with.)
Consider that a hundred years ago people read in books about Ancient Egypt or Ancient Rome or Troy, but they did not have a good mental picture of what it was like. They could not picture the world of the ancients. Today they have a much better mental vision of what it was like. That isn't because the education system got a lot better. It didn't. But films have become great educators. Today I have a better mental picture of what really extreme weather conditions are possible and might look like because I saw THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW. It may not be 100% accurate in every scene, but I am thinking in the right direction. For that matter astronomical pictures like the previously mentioned black-hole-destroying star may not be entirely accurate either. They are just suggestions that other scientists frequently correct. And filmmakers are concerned with getting the effects accurate. Cecil B. DeMille said, "The value of special effects depends entirely on the impression they give of reality."
And *similarly* I ahve read about the errors in THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW and know what they *should* look like rather than what they did look like. Even the inaccuracies were productive. There is a lot more I look for in a film than special effects, but special effects have their place as well as good acting, particularly when they have an informational and educational value. Now one might argue that SKY CAPTAIN is not all that anxious to teach real science, but just as the existence of Stradivarius violins allows an artist more latitude to be expressive, so good techniques for creating special effects also help artists to express themselves.
By the way, if you want to get a better idea of the physics, where films get it right and wrong, see the movie physics site:
They get have a fairly good and amusing style analyzing the physics in popular films. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
This week will be a bunch of quick takes.
Alasdair Gray recently achieved fame (or notoriety, depending on your point of view) with his introduction to the Canongate edition of the Bible's "Book of Jonah", which many denounced as blasphemous. However, his other works tend to be a bit less controversial--and unusual, in that he also does illustrations and interesting layout designs for his book. I enjoyed 10 TALES TALL & TRUE (ISBN 0-156-00196-9), and also UNLIKELY STORIES, MOSTLY (ISBN 0-862-41737-6), but found his novel POOR THINGS (ISBN 1-564-78307-3) (about a female creation a la Frankenstein) not enough to hold my interest. It may be that Gray is an author who works best in short fiction.
Max Murray's THE VOICE OF THE CORPSE (ISBN 0-486-24905-0) is yet another Dover mystery from the first part of the last century, and is full of blackmail and hidden secrets, perhaps to excess. I suppose it is possible that everyone has such things to hide, but that one person could ferret them all out strains credulity a bit.
Lawrence W. Raphael's MYSTERY MIDRASH (ISBN 1-58023-055-5) is a collection of Jewish mystery stories. It is not just that the characters happen to be Jewish, but also that there is some aspect of Jewish law, or some story from the Jewish written or oral tradition that ties in, or some other more substantive connection. I enjoyed them, but as with the "cat mystery" of a few weeks ago, these seem aimed at a fairly specialized audience. And the not everything was fact-checked. For example, one author makes a reference to "Lee's strategy at Vicksburg." Lee was not at Vicksburg; he was a thousand miles away at Gettysburg at that time. Another author claims there are three laws one may not violate even to save one's own life, and that Sabbath observance is one of them. Actually, it's not.
Mark Dunn's IBID: A LIFE / a novel in footnotes (ISBN 1-931561-65- 6) is just what it says. The introductory material explains how the actual book was accidentally destroyed, and only the footnotes are left. (There was, of course, no such book.) The book was/is about a three-legged man and his life. The problem is that the gimmick wears thin quickly, and the view of his life is as one seen through a strobe, with brief unconnected vignettes that were footnoted. Dunn's earlier book ELLA MINNOW PEA, in which gradually each letter of the alphabet is discontinued, transcended its gimmick by having a fairly straightforward story to carry it. But in IBID: A LIFE the anecdotes are too bizarre and the story too fragmented to keep my attention.
The most fascinating part of Bob Schieffer's THIS JUST IN: WHAT I COULDN'T TELL YOU ON TV (ISBN 0-399-14971-6) are his stories of how the Nixon White House brought pressure on the news media (especially television) to present a more favorable view. His comments on the evolution of party conventions is also particularly timely, but a lot is autobiographical information that is not of general interest.
Terry Manners's THE MAN WHO BECAME SHERLOCK HOLMES (ISBN 0-7535- 0536-3) is about Jeremy Brett and his life and career, and is probably more thorough about his earlier career than his stint as Holmes. In part this is because his illness (manic depression) became most pronounced during his times as Holmes, and so Manners concentrated more on the illness than on Brett's portrayal of Holmes. It all seemed a bit sensationalist at times, but I suppose if one is attempting to explain a lot that people may have misinterpreted, that is necessary. (For example, towards the end, Brett was too heavy to be an accurate Holmes, but this weight gain was a side effect of medication and not something he could control.) [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Pessimism is only the name that men of weak nerve give to wisdom. --Mark Twain
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