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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
04/29/05 -- Vol. 23, No. 44 (Whole Number 1280)
Table of Contents
Heard in Passing (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I was listening to the radio and they used a phrase that really caught my attention. A Public Radio station was sponsored by a funeral parlor that offered a complete line of services including what they called "personalized pre-need funerals." What the heck is a "personalized pre-need funeral?" It sounds like something out of Edgar Allan Poe. I think I'm willing to wait until I actually need the funeral, thank you. "Uh, yeah, we have sold only one pre-need funeral. That one was personalised in the name of Mr. James Hoffa." [-mrl]
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE: Pro-Jewish or Anti-Jewish? (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Not long ago I reviewed the new version of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE with Al Pacino. One of the aspects I discussed was the play itself. Now this play has always been something of a problem. Shakespeare made it a comedy, yet as time has passed the issues it raises have become more serious. I seem to remember being taught in school that the play itself was not anti-Jewish. Shakespeare was every English teacher's hero and he was taught as if he was perfect in every way. Shakespeare has to be perfect as a writer. I am reminded of the line in THE PRODUCERS in which the neo-Nazi (Kenneth Mars) says that though Hitler was a housepainter, but he was a *great* housepainter. "He could paint an entire apartment in ONE afternoon! TWO coats!"
Shakespeare shows us many positive aspects of Shylock. But I do not think that I was convinced at the time and I still am not convinced. As I said in my film review, "I think it would be a pleasant fantasy that William Shakespeare did not intend THE MERCHANT OF VENICE to be anti-Jewish and intentionally left ambiguity in the play so that it could be interpreted positively. In my opinion a reading of the play does not give that as the intention of the playwright." That review prompted a discussion, and the discussion prompted this article.
Do I think that Shakespeare hated or feared Jews? No. He probably never even saw a Jew. But then I don't think that D. W. Griffith hated or feared blacks either. But they were convenient villains when Griffith made THE BIRTH OF A NATION and having grown up in the South during the last quarter of the 19th Century he heard few voices in that culture saying this vilification was a bad thing. Long after the Second World War ended films would have Nazis as villains. They were culturally acceptable to use as villains and a writer was never wrong if he said they were nasty and deceitful. They could be doing things very unlike what the Nazis ever did and the films could be misrepresenting them, but the viewers accepted it because they felt, not inaccurately in my opinion, that the real Nazis deserved much worse. They could be used as villains not out of the writer's vitriolic hatred of Nazis but still the story could be anti-Nazi. Similarly I don't think Shakespeare had a deep and abiding hatred of Jews. I think that they were convenient villains and there were no voices in England to defend them in their absence.
The usual points that are made are the following:
Let me take these in that order.
Shylock is given sympathetic speeches. The most notable of them is the "Hath not a Jew eyes..." It has been interpreted that Shylock poses these rhetorical questions intending to show that Jews are just as human as Christians and with the same emotions. That is not, however, my reading. I think the order of events is very important. If Shylock had given this speech asking for clemency after the trial it would have had a very different effect. Compare it to the effect of the speech at the end of Fritz Lang's M. I think Shakespeare put that speech where he did to make the audience say that perhaps Jews are not so bad after all only to wipe that argument away in the trial. The effect is to make the audience feel some sympathy for Shylock only to discover the sympathy was misplaced. In LIFEBOAT Alfred Hitchcock does the same thing. In spite of the audience's natural antipathy to Germans in 1944, the German in the lifeboat seems genuinely sympathetic. Then in the last reel that is all reversed. The order of events is very important dramatically. If the audience sees the German doing his dirty work first and then sees him humanized, the effect is very different from first humanizing him and then showing his villainy. If Shakespeare were defending Shylock the humanizing text would have been after we see his transgression. I think Shylock merely has a smooth tongue. The speech is intended to be a beguiling argument, but it cuts against Shylock also. If we are all the same, why does he want to commit a vicious act against his brother? He professes that we are all so similar and all the while he is trying to kill. Notice that he will later and more transparently try to beguile his judge with flattery to achieve his ends.
Shylock offers Antonio a free loan of money after Antonio spit on him. Does this make him a sympathetic character? Perhaps it does momentarily. My interpretation is that the loan was an attractive trap with a good chance of giving Shylock power over Antonio. In Shakespeare's time sea travel was a good deal more uncertain than it is today. Antonio will not let himself believe that there is a real risk, but crafty Shylock knows better and cannot pass up a chance at for revenge. One has power over those who owe him money.
As for the severity of Shylock's punishment, losing his fortune and his daughter, I am not sure that Shakespeare intended this to seem like an unjust punishment at all. Shylock has sought a death. His punishment is, however, not death but simply to take away his money, which he had used as a trap. And it is also to bring his daughter to Christ, which supposedly rescued her soul. First it is apparently not the court that punishes Shylock this way; it is an act of fate or God. Shakespeare's audience would have seen that as a merciful and good punishment in which Shylock was disarmed and his daughter was rescued.
While I am not offended by Shakespeare's THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, (well, maybe just a little) I would not say it should be dropped from the repertoire of Shakespeare's plays performed. I appreciate that it is a classic. It probably can never again be performed in the same cultural context it ahd in Shakespeare's day, it is still a good example of Shakespeare's style, and I would defend it as free speech. But I would not go so far as to make an effort to exonerate Shakespeare. I would say it is anti-Jewish in the way that CASABLANCA is anti-Nazi and not the way that JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG is. [-mrl]
Pulgasari and a Hard Road to the Stars (letters of comment by George MacLachlan and Paul Chisholm):
Regarding Mark's comments on Pulgasari in the 04/22/05 issue, George MacLachlan wrote, "I saw a brief news item about a week ago (60 MINUTES?) about a female film star (I seem to recall she was Japanese) who was kidnapped and taken to Korea to make films for Kim Jong Il. I believe that her husband, a film producer was also kidnapped to make films. They have since escaped and were being interviewed for this story. Seems like this sick-ko (sp?) Kim Jong Il goes out of his way to prove to the world what sort of a nut case he is. The thought of him having nuclear capability is frightening." [-gfm]
Mark responds, "That is the same story. The actress is Choe Eun Hee, but I think she is Korean. Her husband, Shin Sang-ok, is both a producer and a director (http://us.imdb.com/name/nm0645661/bio). He directed PULGARSARI. If you look up the earlier story in the MT VOID I give more detail." As for nuclear capability, Mark notes, "Ah, this is the age of empowerment." [-mrl]
Regarding Mark's comments in the 04/22/05 issue on the plaque at NASA commemorating the death of the Apollo I astronauts bearing the phrase "It's a hard road to the stars," Paul Chisholm writes, "I always thought that was a reference to 'Ad astra per aspera': 'to the stars through difficulty' (the official state motto of Kansas, for what that's worth)." [-psrc]
Evelyn adds, "If that's the Kansas state motto, then the fact that one of the major space museums of the world (the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center) is located there is quite fitting. In addition, for the Soviet's Luna II program, five 'lunar spheres' were built: two were launched with the payloads, one is missing, and the other two both ended up in Kansas! One is in the Cosmosphere; the other was presented to President Eisenhower and is now in the Eisenhower Library. (The lunar spheres were small globes of the moon made of plates engraved with 'CCCP'.)" [-ecl]
WRITER OF O (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
[This review originally appeared in the 01/28/05 issue of the MT VOID, but since it is showing at the Film Forum in New York starting 05/04/05, we are re-running the review.]
CAPSULE: This documentary is about the history and mystery of the sadomasochistic novel THE STORY OF O. The information is now stale news and the style of the documentary seems intentionally dry. It is hard to imagine a film this bland about a sexual bondage classic like THE STORY OF O. Even the dramatization of scenes from the novel fail to engage the viewer. Rating: 0 (-4 to +4) or 4/10
Pola Rapaport, who wrote and directed WRITER OF O, was fascinated by the book THE STORY OF O as a young girl. Like many other people she found the book to be a hypnotic and erotic guilty pleasure. As an adult she knew of the mystery of who was the writer of this book who hid behind the penname Pauline Reage. In later years the author was revealed to be Dominique Aury, a small and quiet woman who did not want to reveal her identity until her parents had died. Aury had a secret love affair with publisher Jean Paulhan and had written the novel to cater to his sexual tastes. Paulhan recognized the novel as one of highly seductive sexuality and one that should not be kept to himself so published it under a penname. The novel became an international publishing sensation.
There was speculation as to who could have written this book and frequently assumed to have been penned by a male author. Finally, at the age of 89, Aury allowed her identity as the author be revealed.
This documentary looks at the publishing history of the book and of the mystery of who the author was. There are interviews with Aury, who proved to be still very eloquent in spite of her advanced years. The documentary also features dramatizations of scenes from the novel.
The style of the documentary is curiously dry considering the subject matter, but the publishing history is interesting if the information is new. I rate WRITER OF O a 0 on the -4 to +4 scale or 4/10. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Our book discussion chose Alexander McCall Smith's THE NO. 1 LADIES' DETECTIVE AGENCY (ISBN 1-4000-3477-9) for this month. It was a nice, amiable book, interesting more for the setting (Botswana) and characters than for any amazing detective work. It was popular enough that people expressed an interest in reading the next book for a future discussion. McCall Smith has also written a series of novellas about "Professor Dr. Moritz- Maria von Igelfeld", a professor of Romance Philology. (These are published as individual books: PORTUGUESE IRREGULAR VERBS, THE FINER POINTS OF SAUSAGE DOGS, and AT THE VILLA OF REDUCED CIRCUMSTANCES.) They are more in the tradition of screwball comedies, with such plots as von Iglefeld being confused with a professor of veterinary medicine, Professor von Igelfold, and invited to give a talk on daschunds in Arkansas, or being asked to transport stolen relics with predictably disastrous results. I read the first two--they're fast reads, but I'd recommend sticking with his "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" series.
Jared Diamond's COLLAPSE: HOW SOCIETIES CHOOSE TO FAIL OR SUCCEED (ISBN 0-670-03337-5) is not as well structured as his earlier book, GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL: THE FATES OF HUMAN SOCIETIES. Diamond hops around quite a bit in both time and space in COLLAPSE, and (perhaps more seriously) in what factors he examines. So when he looks at past societies, he goes from Easter Island (failed) to Pitcairn Island (failed) to the Anasazi (failed) to the Mayas (failed) to Iceland (succeeded) to Greenland (failed) to New Guinea (succeeded). There is no chronological or geographic progression, nor is there a continuum of factors here. (The five factors he cites and examines are ecological damage by humans, climate change, hostile neighbors, friendly neighbors, and a society's responses to problems.) He also spends a lot of time discussing Montana's Bitterroot Valley as an example of how a current society is responding to problems. In addition to the lack of "flow", I thought Diamond spent a lot of time repeating himself. I understand that he wanted to show the similarities and differences in the various collapses, but I found myself skipping chunks of material that I felt he had already presented in earlier chapters. Diamond is not anti-big- business, but he is an environmentalist. A lot of the later part of the book discusses how what is good for the environment can be good for business, but I can't say I left feeling wildly optimistic.
Update: I had written my comments on Merryl Wyn Davies and Piero's INTRODUCING ANTHROPOLOGY before completely finishing it, so I have an addendum. Page 151 of the book talks about how Margaret Mead's writings influenced Dr. Benjamin Spock and his theories about how to raise children. Page 152 then reveals how her "discoveries" were discredited when it was revealed that her descriptions of how children and adolescents acted in Samoa were actually based on talking to four adolescent girls who, it turns out, were talking about their sexual *fantasies* rather than than sexual *experiences*. And page 153 talks about her defenders and has one character saying, "But, we argue, she nevertheless gained into American culture through her studies." I assume Piero was making a pun when he drew this character to look like Mr. Spock from "Star Trek"--either that, or he was confused between Dr. Spock and Mr. Spock. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: You're only young once, but you can be immature forever. --John Greier
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