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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
05/27/05 -- Vol. 23, No. 48 (Whole Number 1284)
Table of Contents
Phantoms of the Opera (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Now that the film version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA is available, I have revised my old article "The Phantoms of the Opera" in which I review the various film versions of the novel by Gaston Leroux. The complete article can be found at http://www.geocities.com/markleeper/phantoms.htm. This issue includes the final review for that article, Dario Argento's IL FANTASMA DELL'OPERA. [-mrl]
Neverland (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I saw RETURN TO NEVERLAND. It is not as good as the best of the original Disney version of PETER PAN, but it never gets as bad as the worst of the original. This film does not use guilt to coerce children into affirming a specious belief. Somebody at Disney must have realized only religions are allowed to do that. [-mrl]
A Time of Endings: Star Wars (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Last week I discussed the end of "Star Trek" series of series. This week I would like to talk about my take on the "Star Wars" series, also coming to an end.
In the mid-1970s I loved the science fiction film, but it really did not love me back. Science fiction cinema really had taken a rather glum turning. The notable films were pieces like SOYLENT GREEN and SILENT RUNNING, both superficial and dour. There had been only two science fiction films in the previous ten years that I considered actually to be good. One was QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (as *nobody* who knows me will be surprised) and the other was PHASE IV. Both had gone almost unnoticed in the United States. The crescendo of the weak science fiction was LOGAN'S RUN which didn't even make sense as a story and had very silly visual effects people floating on wires. I felt like I was starving for a science fiction film with some real imagination.
At the MidAmericon World Science Fiction Convention the guy who had made AMERICAN GRAFFITI had rented a room and was showing off the costumes for his new science fiction film. The storyline on the handout sounded like a comic book plot, but the production paintings looked very nice. They were nothing like anything that could really be done on film, but they looked creative. A costume science fiction film like LOGAN'S RUN with sets that were built to look like these might at least be watchable. They should use these paintings in the advertising, I thought, even if they don't get the film to look like that. The paintings might get people at least imagining what is going on in the background.
By the time the film was released I had seen a trailer that led me to believe this was going to be at least an interesting science fiction film. It happened to be released the same weekend as what I expected to be the big special effects film of the summer, SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER, which featured special effects by the great Ray Harryhausen. Last Wednesday was the 28th anniversary of the original opening. As it happens that was a Wednesday also. (Actually I could not see the film until Thursday and early reports just told me I definitely should see this film.) Watching this film I can actually say I was agog. But then so was the rest of the audience. A lot of science fiction fans remember that particular weekend. Much of the world's film industry also remembers that weekend.
Last week we saw the completion of the series. In six chapters we get the story of one man's life. The series has been a test- bed for a lot of different ideas. Frequently the experiments have been to the detriment of the series's popularity, but I think that was expected. Some innovations go down smoothly with the fans and some that do not. One that generally goes down well is the pioneering use of computers for the expression of visual imagination. I don't think one can fault the series for its imagination or for how well it is translated to the screen. It heralded a new start for the science fiction film. A lot of films with bad plots whose only virtue was the visual component were made by other filmmakers using Lucas's innovations. I have heard George Lucas blamed for that, but I don't agree.
The complaint has been made that the story told in the six chapters is shallow. For me that is not really a problem. I think of the story much more as myth, and it was intentionally so. But few myths do develop their characters well. Perseus who slew the Medusa is not a three-dimensional person who shed light on the human condition. He is a mythic hero.
Another complaint is the George Lucas years later went back and revising his earlier films in the series. I admit I would love to have on DVD the original release version of STAR WARS. But I think I also understand the need for the revisions. Quite simply Lucas was not making six films; he was making a single film in six parts. There were six releases over a course of twenty-eight years. But I think he was telling one story that he wants it to be watchable in one seamless stretch. For the effects style not to seem wildly uneven, the earlier films have to be revised to look like 2005 films. I doubt there will be any further revisions, at least not once the films are uniform in style.
Another experiment is to shoot his series out of chronological order. This causes its own set of problems, but Lucas has kept them manageable. He intended that the Indiana Jones films would be made in reverse chronological order and found the problems were insuperable. But telling this story in two trilogies made the odd order much easier.
Lucas has certainly made some mistakes along the way. He wanted to see if pure CGI characters could be included in the story and could be major characters. Jar-Jar Binks proved the concept, though many found the character obnoxious and irritating. He provoked outright hostility from some quarters. But Peter Jackson built on Lucas's concept and gave us his Gollum, a much more interesting CGI character. That might not have been possible without Lucas taking the lead.
Lucas's episodes were somewhat uneven. Starting with RETURN OF THE JEDI he seemed to be aiming at a younger audience or at least to be more aware of their presence. The Ewoks of RETURN OF THE JEDI were entirely too cute. So was the pod-race sequence of THE PHANTOM MENAGE. Seen as a six-film series with cuter and more serious elements, the style seems to me a little more even. After all Shakespeare put comic relief into his most dour tragedies.
George Lucas has been blamed for negative changes in the film industry, many of which can be seen as being a direct result of filmmakers mimicking the "Star Wars" phenomenon. To me this makes as much sense as saying that if CITIZEN KANE had been followed by a bunch of poor semi-biographical-films then Orson Welles would be at fault for having made KANE. Much of the film industry learned how to be more profitable by mimicking Lucas, but I do not blame Lucas for that.
Lucas was also the catalyst for science fiction and fantasy to become much more central to the American film business. Again I neither credit nor blame Lucas. In both his success was the catalyst.
Science fiction is about imagination and the movies to a large part are about suspension of disbelief. Lucas gave the industry the tools it needed for that where they clearly were missing in films before STAR WARS. Even if the films he made were terrible, and I would argue they are actually fairly good now that we can see the the entire story, he should be thanked for creating the tools to make the science fiction look real.
Where I do credit Lucas is in demonstrating that what the imagination can picture the screen can show. In FORBIDDEN PLANET there is a machine that makes mental images and allows them to be shown to others. George Lucas made his own machine and gave it to the world. His six-chapter life story of Anakin Skywalker (a.k.a. Darth Vader) is more than the sum of its parts. I am both sorry and happy to see the story complete.
Had George Lucas not made STAR WARS, no doubt eventually someone else would have applied computerized image creation. And there are many who think that this emphasis on the transferring mental images to the screen is a bad thing. But the series and Lucas have affected every imaginative film since STAR WARS, if not directly, by creating a market. For better or for worse--and I think for the better--his films have been a real milestone in the history of cinema. [-mrl]
Ideas (letters of comment by Steve Milton and Rob Mitchell):
In the 05/13/05 issue of the MT VOID, Mark noted, "The literature of ideas, including science fiction, gets the least respect of all [literature]."
Steve Milton responded, "The answer to your question is that people are bored about what they do not understand. People (as a topic) are the lowest common denominator among the three categories of people. Ideas are only of interest to geniuses who are in a distinct minority."
Mark responded, "I think that is the direct implication of the original quote. I was saying that the people who talk in ideas get respect, but science fiction, though about ideas, does not get a lot of respect. I was noting the irony. Of course Kant's Critique of Pure Reason is about ideas also and gets respect. Perhaps it is explained that SF does not seem to be a literature of ideas. All too frequently it is not any more. Respected authors like Thomas Disch complain that SF is too much about ideas. He talks about "the tyranny of ideas" in SF." [-mrl]
Rob Mitchell also responded to Steve, saying, "One possible implication of Mark's obervation combined with Steve's response, is that "great literature" is targeted at the lowest common denominator, at least the lowest at the time the author was working. I'm not sure I'm comfortable with that implication, nor with related implications if we generalize the concept to fields other than literature (e.g. art and music). Must ponder..." [-rlm]
Mark then responded to both, saying, "I think SF does not have a good reputation in the eye of the mainstream because of bad TV, pulp covers, poor films, etc. It is ironic that though we see it as a literature of ideas, that is not the literary community's viewpoint. That may be changing. It used to be that SF was looked down on in the classroom. Now more often it is assigned reading. It could be the teachers are taking a broader viewpoint and it could be that they are just lowering their standards. (Can you tell I just read Thomas Friedman's editorial today at http:/www.nytimes.com/2005/05/13/opinion/13friedman.htm)?"
MURDER IS NO MITZVAH (letters of comment by Charles Harris and Denise Moy):
In response to Evelyn's review of MURDER IS NO MITZVAH in the 05/13/05 issue, Charles Harris that a relative of his who reads mysteries but not sf, and she mailed back, "Hey, thanks for book review. I plan to get it." [-csh]
And Denise Moy wrote, "I thought you might want to know about one of our professors' books, INTERESTING JEWS: AMERICAN JEWISH DETECTIVE STORIES by Laurence Roth put out by Rutgers University Press." Rutgers' blurb about it is at http://220.127.116.11/acatalog/__Inspecting_Jews_1586.html. [-dm]
STAR WARS: EPISODE III - REVENGE OF THE SITH (letter of comment by Charles Harris):
Regarding STAR WARS: EPISODE III - REVENGE OF THE SITH, Charles Harris forwards the following from an unspecified source:
"Today, Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith opens at theaters nation-wide. And weirdly enough, the plot of what will undoubtedly be one of the biggest films in movie history revolves around a scheming senator who, seduced by visions of absolute power, transforms a democratic republic into an empire."
"We've put together a new TV ad, based on the same theme, that we're launching today. It's our first (and only) political ad to feature both a space battle and an army of judge robots. You can check it out at: http://www.moveonpac.org/savetherepublic/."
About the film and its reviews, Charles also writes, "Hmmm. I just read a couple of the '83% Fresh' reviews of SITH on Rotten Tomatoes, and I'm beginning to wonder about Rotten's scoring (and about whether I want to see SITH at all). Rick Groen's Cream of the Crop 2-star review is awarded a positive tomato; I challenge you to find anything positive in his review. [This was apparently an error that has since been corrected. -mrl] Ebert does dole out 3.5 stars and does offer a couple of unsupported positives ('...fun...', '...a great entertainment...'), but it seems to me that the few positives are called into question by his more numerous and pointed criticisms. Even Ebert's putative praise of the SFX is equivocal: '...special effects should be judged not by their complexity but by the degree that they stimulate the imagination, and 'Episode III' is distinguished not by how well the effects are done, but by how amazingly they are imagined.' That the effects are amazingly imagined does not at all imply that they *stimulate* the imagination; cf. SKY CAPTAIN. I get the impression that Ebert feels an obligation--to the fans and film historians--to give the film his imprimatur despite his own lukewarm judgment." [-csh]
Mark responds, "I read [Ebert's comment] as praise. The entire quote can be seen at http://tinyurl.com/9lq9n. THE HULK, on the other hand, had perfect special effects but they did not show me anything particularly imaginative. Everybody knows that Lucas's effect are going to be complex and look perfect. In addition they will also be imaginative.
"You say you draw a distinction between being imaginative and stimulating the imagination. I am not sure I understand the distinction even when you give SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW as an example. I was lukewarm on SKY CAPTAIN, but thought it was both imaginative and stimulated the imagination. I thought it fell down in its dramatic aspects.
"Incidentally at the Rotten Tomatoes site, the critics choose for themselves if their review will be summarized with a positive "red tomato" or a negative "splat." I know that because my reviews are also included there. I assume that Groen's "red tomato" was his own temporary clerical error. (http://www.rottentomatoes.com/ is a site that give a comprehensive selection of film reviews, each one denoted with a positive "red tomato" or a negative "splat" assigned by the critic.)
"[As for Ebert's obligation], I think you are wrong. I think that Ebert is someone who is sincere and knows his own mind." [-mrl]
Star Trek (letters of comment by Susan Wysk and Dan Kimmel):
We got a couple of responses to Mark's article on "Star Trek" in the 05/13/05 issue.
Susan Wysk wrote, "I didn't get interested in science fiction by watching Star Trek. I became interested when Mr. Lomonoco in seventh grade science had us choose and read a science fiction book. I read one of Heinlein's juveniles and have been reading science fiction ever since. Since you and I know how old we are, that was definitely before Star Trek." [-sw]
Mark answers, "I had Lomonoco in 7th grade also and do not remember ever being assigned a science fiction book, but he was a good teacher and he might well have. I wonder if he did in our class and I just forgot it. I wonder what I picked. I was interested in SF since I was five years old. By the time I was in junior high I was really into it." [-mrl]
And Dan Kimmel writes, "Good, thoughtful reviews of 'Star Trek' and 'Star Wars'. I'm not 100% in agreement, but are we ever? :) I just want to point out that you gloss over the best of the 'Trek' series (i.e., you don't mention it at all): 'Star Trek: Deep Space Nine'. I've been on too many panels when I said it was the best and was greeted by cheers rather than shock to think this is just my own take. It had an African American commander *and* his son as regular characters, plus an Arab doctor (played by an Arab actor), and dealt with religion quite seriously for 'Star Trek'. Of course there were no Earth religions because Roddenberry was an avowed secular humanist and thought humanity would be beyond religion by then. It took avowed atheist J. Michael Straczynski to recognize that as a major flaw and rectify it in 'Babylon 5'. (Indeed, he did it so well he got comments wondering if he had secretly found his faith.) There were several standout out episodes of DS9, the titles of which escape me. Two totally subverted the 'reset button.' In one episode Sisko dies or otherwise is taken off this mortal plain (I forget the details) and we get a moving drama spanning years of how the other characters go on in their lives without him. He's back at the end, of course, but our understanding of the characters had deepened. In another, Sisko--a Federation officer!--lies to the Romulans to get them into the Dominion war on our side, and then erases the logs to cover up his deceit. In effect, he's hit the reset button himself."
"I interviewed several people involved in the series, and executive producer Ira Steven Behr told me how they got away with doing a darker, grittier and sometimes funnier version of Trek. Essentially as long as they hit their syndicated ratings marks the front office suits were more concerned about launching 'Voyager' and the UPN network. Unfortunately Paramount entrusted Berman and Braga with the future of 'Star Trek' rather than noticing the brilliant work that Behr and company were doing." [-dk]
Mark responds, "Each 'Star Trek' series seems to have its advocates and they are all enthusiastic. It is hard to give any one series the edge for me. The doctor was half-Arabic and raised in Britain. If you just saw him it would be darn hard to pick out that there was anything Arabic about him but his name. He is actually about as Arabic as Evelyn is Puerto Rican. I agree that 'DS9' got better, but it took a while. Sisko was taken "off this mortal plain" and off on some immortal fancy. :-) Sisko doesn't hit the reset button himself; the script-writers do. But I admit the series had its points. Objectively it may have been the highpoint of Trek, but the first series gets points because it came early. (Just like STAR WARS. The 1977 film is a +4 because of the time it was made, but REVENGE OF THE SITH is probably the most dramatic episode of the series.) 'Voyager' was certainly a step down. You are probably right that 'DS9' was the best science fiction. If I were writing the article again I probably would have mentioned it more prominently." [-mrl]
Dan answers, "You mean I was right? :-) I'm sure you'll make the correction when the essay is published in the 'Best of Mark Leeper' anthology."
And Mark says, "A stopped clock is right twice a . . . . Uh, no, I mean... Yes, you are very erudite." [-mrl]
IL FANTASMA DELL'OPERA (THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA) (1998) (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Dario Argento's take on the Phantom of the Opera is bizarre without being rewarding. Argento rejects the Phantom's deformity that is so central to Gaston Leroux's character and re- envisions the phantom as a sort of handsome Tarzan of the Rats. This film diverges from the original story whenever possible going into silly subplots. The Phantom himself is not deformed in this version and here he is the Phantom only because he is loyal to the rats who adopted and raised him. Rating: low 0 (-4 to +4) or 4/10 (Warning: spoilers of Argento's gimmicks in this review.)
I consider myself a fan of horror films and I know that Dario Argento is a cult horror director, but I have to admit that he is a taste in horror that I have somehow failed to acquire. His classic is considered SUSPERIA, and while it has a few good scenes, overall it does little for me. His other films do less. He in a big way goes in for sadistic stalker films. There had already been one bizarre adaptation of Phantom that played up the slasher aspect. It was the 1989 version starring Robert Englund, best known as Freddy Kruger. The Gaston Leroux novel probably was in public domain in 1998, so legally Argento could make a film of same story the then (and as of this writing) popular stage play was based on. The fact he could did not mean he should have, obviously. And it becomes more obvious when one sees the film. He was clearly not into adapting the novel, and though he uses much of the plot of the novel, his heart and his creativity is clearly more in the aspects that diverge from the original. Frequently the divergences are homages (spelled t-h-e-f-t-s) from better films.
The film starts with a sequence borrowed probably from BATMAN RETURNS. In Paris an unwanted baby is abandoned and cast adrift in an underground sewer. He is rescued and his floating basket is pulled to safety by hospitable rats who adopt and raise the boy. In 1877 the baby has grown to manhood under the Paris Opera House. Played now by Julian Sands, he is something more than a human man because he has mental powers to talk telepathically to others and even to possess a victim's arm here and there. Yet he still thinks of himself as a large rat. The phantom is not deformed and not so much repulsive as unkempt with stringy blond hair down to his breast. Sand possibly did not want to wear horror make-up.
The rat-man Phantom hears aspiring opera singer Christine (played by Argento's daughter Asia Argento) and begins to dominate her telepathically. Christine's main obstacle to stardom is Carlotta (Nadia Rinaldi) who is ugly, stupid, rude, bloated, selfish, gross, and untalented, but who is nonetheless the prima donna of the Paris Opera House. One wonders how they chose her. From there the story half-heartedly follows the story of the book with side trips involving child molesters, gratuitous nudity, hallucinogenic dreams, a visit to a fabulous bordello, a treasure hunt, and an overzealous rat catcher who collects rat tails jars and who is building a motorized, riding rat vacuum. (This is 1877 remember.) It all sounds like more fun than it actually is.
The screenplay is by Gerard Brach and Dario Argento. It borrows not just from BATMAN RETURNS but also one sequence is taken, quite illogically, from X THE UNKNOWN. While the scene effectively creates tension and a curiosity as to what is going on, the scene is a cheat and never makes sense in the context of the film. Classic sequences from the novel are forced into the storyline as a matter of form. We have the unmasking scene with Christine sneaking up on the Phantom, though here there is no mask to remove. We have a chandelier scene. But this is much more the story of a mad killer, avenger of rats, who likes to bite body parts off his victims like rats do. The character of the never-named Phantom never makes sense either. Raised by rats he somehow learned not just to talk but to speak in poetry, he seems to know about the ocean's rolling, and know some of the terminology of physics.
An Italian opera house no doubt stands in for the Paris Opera House in this production. Argento, filming in Budapest, probably had no trouble finding one he could rent inexpensively. This opera house does not have the huge catacombs of the novel, but it does seem to be built over caverns that become a frequent setting. There are occasionally effective visuals, though looking down Carlotta's throat is not one of them. The musical score by Ennio Morricone, though non-memorable, is a definite plus. And Argento knows, perhaps because he is Italian, a few very beguiling pieces of opera to leaven the film.
This is one of the poorest adaptations of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, though it is much preferable to the 1989 version. Argento could have diverged from the classic story if he had good ideas, but a riding rat vacuum is clearly not one of them. I give this version of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA a low 0 on the -4 to +4 scale or 4/10. [-mrl]
[As noted earlier, Marks comprehensive article reviewing the previous versions of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA may be found at http://www.geocities.com/markleeper/phantoms.htm.]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Susan Wysk passes along a recmmendation, writing, "I just read a time travel book called HERE, THERE AND EVERYWHERE by Chris Roberson. I thought it was very good." I'll add that it is on my list to read. It's on my list to read. (Roberson won a Sidewise Award for Alternate History last year for "O One" and is nominated again this year for "Red Hands, Black Hands".) Unfortunately, the book is available only at one of the libraries not in our inter-library loan system, so I'm going to have to go there to read it.
Guy Boothby's ENTER DR. NIKOLA! (ISBN 0-87877-032-1) has a copyright date of 1975 for Newcastle Publishing. Although there is a note on the cover that says "former title: A BID FOR FORTUNE", there is no real indication that the book was actually about eighty years old even in 1975 (it was written in 1895), or that it is the first book of a series and does not have a real ending. As an example of the genre of "super-villain" story that pre-dated Sax Rohmer's "Fu Manchu" (who first appeared in 1912) and similar works, it is of some historical interest, but not very satisfying for general readers.
DON JUAN IN HELL by George Bernard Shaw was this month's book discussion group choice. This is the middle part of Act III of MAN AND SUPERMAN (ISBN 0-140-43788-6), and is often performed as a stand-alone play. (Conversely, when MAN AND SUPERMAN is produced, this section is often left out.) Charles Harris (a member of the group as well as a correspondent to the MT VOID) said that having read Oscar Wilde's THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GREY, he had probably had enough of the sort of aphorism that both Wilde and Shaw peppered their works with. I wondered if being an Irishman in England makes one write that sort of aphorism. We couldn't quite define what make them similar--Mark suggested that there must be axioms of metamaximetics waiting to be discovered. I also discovered that while Shaw may be a great dramatist, he is no paleontologist. On page 144 of the 1964 Penguin printing, one character says, "The megatherium, the ichthyosaurus have paced the earth with seven-league steps and hidden the day with cloud fast wings." The ichthyosaurus was more like to swim the sea with seven-league strokes. I did like the writing, aphoristic as it is at times and even though towards the end it starts to bog down.
I'll give an example of what I like, so you can judge your reaction. Don Juan tells the Devil, "Your friends are all the dullest dogs I know. They are not beautiful: they are only decorated. They are not clean: they are only shaved and starched. They are not dignified: they are only fashionably dressed. They are not educated: they are only college passmen. They are not religious: they are only pewrenters. They are not moral: they are only conventional. They are not virtuous: they are only cowardly. They are not even vicious: they are only "frail." They are not artistic: they are only lascivious. They are not prosperous: they are only rich. They are not loyal, they are only servile; not dutiful, only sheepish; not public spirited, only patriotic; not courageous, only quarrelsome; not determined, only obstinate; not masterful, only domineering; not self-controlled, only obtuse; not self-respecting, only vain; not kind, only sentimental; not social, only gregarious; not considerate, only polite; not intelligent, only opinionated; not progressive, only factious; not imaginative, only superstitious; not just, only vindictive; not generous, only propitiatory; not disciplined, only cowed; and not truthful at all: liars every one of them, to the very backbone of their souls." (This is also an example of why theater acting is much harder than film acting. The actor needs to learn this line, word for word--because on the stage, actors are not permitted to change the script at all without the writer's permission--and get it right the first time, performance after performance. No retakes, no editing, no "Can we change 'factious' to 'contrary'?") [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: The remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that he really is very good, in spite of all the people who say he is very good. -- Robert Graves
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