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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
07/29/05 -- Vol. 24, No. 5, Whole Number 1293
Table of Contents
Revolutionary Hot Sauce (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I guess this is what happens to unsuccessful revolutions today. The Huey P. Newton Foundation wants to use the Black Panther Party slogan "Burn, Baby, Burn" to sell hot sauce. (Huey Newton was one of the co-founders of the Black Panther Party.)
I particularly feel heartened that they are working within the system to provide for a tangible public good, namely hot sauce. [-mrl]
Reviews (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I was discussing film and my film reviews with a friend recently and the friend asked me whether I ever change my rating of a film. My friend was taken aback when my enthusiastic response was, "Oh, yeah. I do it all the time." I guess it is a little disconcerting to people who rely on my rating to then find out that I consider there is nothing sacred about the numbers I give to the quality of film.
This coincidentally comes just shortly after Roger Ebert answered in his "Answer Man" column a related question about his ratings. He was asked how he could give a three-star rating to a recent popcorn film and give only two and a half stars to a film that is probably a classic. His response is that the reader should look at what he says in the text of the review and not the rating number to know what he thought.
I would say with my reviews both that the rating is what is important and also that it is subject to change. Sorry, that is just how it is.
Doesn't the text say what I think of the film? Well, usually it does. But what I want to tell people about a film is what they will not find elsewhere. I want to give readers something to think about when they see the film. The example I usually give is my review of the 1997 film TITANIC. There was a lot to like about the film and my numerical rating was high. But there were a lot of reviews to give the positives on the film. Nobody seemed to notice the negatives like the water raising parallel to the ceiling in the compartmentwhere the main characters were trapped while scenes of the deck showed the ship tipping. Nor did most notice the anachronism of having that a young woman raised in polite society in 1912 knowing the uni-digital sign of contempt, much less give it to someone else. The review left ambiguous my overall assessment of the film, but the high numerical rating gave my positive overall impression. For me the rating gives my actual impression.
But still my rating is very subjective. In TITANIC, should I let the negatives dominate my opinion of the film? Should I weigh more the technical achievement of the film or the melodrama of the love triangle with the evil and the good suitor? How I feel about the film at the moment will be important in choosing a rating. Another time my attitude might have been different. I have said many times that my rating represents one viewer's attitude on my most recent viewing.
Will my attitude change from viewing to viewing? Absolutely. Mood hopefully will be only a small part of it. But it is a poor work of art that appears exactly the same on every viewing. I have never heard much of a discussion of how film criticism has been affected by the common practice of putting commentaries on DVDs. A film like DARK CITY I enjoyed in a theater and probably rated well, but had no idea why Roger Ebert picked it as the best film of its year. After hearing his DVD commentary I have to admit that I see a lot more in the film. While I still don't call it the best of its year, I am convinced I erroneaously low-rated it.
Other films that I think I should have rated more highly were include RESTORATION and JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO. My first viewing of A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS led to a lukewarm opinion. Luckily I was not writing reviews regularly at that time. Today I would say it is one of the three best films I have seen. Recent films that I would already up-rate based on the commentary and viewing again would include DE-LOVELY and THE AVIATOR. HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG on second viewing I gave one of my rare ratings of a full +4.
But it is not clear that it would be a service to my readers to up-rate those film. Most viewers don't want to study a film. It is not clear that a viewer wants to have an impression of the film if it were studied. More likely what would be useful is a first impression. That is usually the rating I give a film, even if that impression may change with time. [-mrl]
Sobering Thoughts (letter of comment by Tony Pszeniczny):
Tony Pszeniczny responds to Mark's sobering thoughts in the 07/22/05 issue of the MT VOID [and Mark's responses are interleaved in brackets], "I mostly agree with your thoughts on terrorism. I just have one thing to add about democracy for the people as a way to counter terrorism: democracy means nothing if you don't have a job." [-tp]
[When I was in China we saw people without jobs who really envied our Democracy. -mrl]
"Everything above surviving is an extravagance. I think Benjamin Franklin had it right when said something like: Freedom means nothing without economic freedom. Will the Iraqi people achieve this?" [-tp]
[I certainly hope so. It should be a high priority that they have no less economic freedom than they had before. -mrl]
"Do you have any idea what the unemployment rate is right now in Iraq?" [-tp]
[About 27% as of June. And if it doesn't come down then there will be more people willing to take part in the insurgency. They have to find work somehow. -mrl]
"What will it be after the US declares the war is over and a 'democracy' installed? Will there be enough satisfied-in-the- belly people to: vote, speak out for reforms, fight for injustice, and educate themselves to the point of being able to make the critical decision to ignore politico crook candidates and stand behind truly good leaders?" [-tp]
[Voting: There were quite a few at the last election.
Speaking out: I think that is happening now, but I don't have a lot of information. Fight for injustice: Oh, I hope not. Educate themselves: Probably not. It would be a start if just the United States could do that for themselves. :-) -mrl]
I. F. Stone (letter of comment by Joseph T. Major):
Joseph T. Major replies to I. F. Stone's quote in the 07/22/05 issue of the MT VOID ("If you live long enough, the venerability factor creeps in; first, you get accused of things you never did, and later, credited for virtues you never had.") by saying, "The problem is, regarding his work for the KGB, that most of the people who admire him think that both apply to it." [-jtm]
Mark answers, "I know this is opening a can or worms. It is a long way from having (quite legal) sympathies with the Soviets to actually working for KGB. Do you know that he was an agent? My sources say that he was only accused." [-mrl]
WAR OF THE WORLDS by H. G. Wells (Bantam reissue 2003, $4.95, 194pp, ISBN 0-553-21338-5) (book review by Joe Karpierz):
So I went to see the Steven Spielberg version of WAR OF THE WORLDS during the movie's opening weekend, and realized (to my undying embarrassment) that although I had seen the George Pal version of the movie many years ago, I'd never read the novel. So, I dropped what I was reading (an easy thing to do, as you'll find out two reviews from now, since after I read WAR OF THE WORLDS I went on to another big event book) and picked up a copy.
Now I know everyone around here has commented to death on the movies, radio broadcast, and novel, so I don't think I can add anything new in that regard--and in fact I'll probably duplicate some of it.
What struck me about the novel as I read it was indeed just how much different from, and yet the same as, the style and structure of it is as many of today's novels. Different in the way that folks have been complaining about SF for years and years--no characterization whatsoever. We know that the narrator is married, and there is a brief mention of his job, but that's about it. Different in that it is short, sweet, and to the point. There's no overly long setup that takes half the novel. Within a few pages things start to happen, and there's no rest from that point forward. There's no padding. Wells describes the action and the devastation to the people and English countryside without trying to drown the reader in overly descriptive passages. And it moves quickly, unlike many of today's novels.
And yet it is the same as today's books as it chronicles the effect on humanity of the central subject--in this case, the invasion. We do get passages describing the actions of the Martians and their machines and the destruction of the English countryside, but we also get lengthy descriptions of the invasions effect on the English people and society.
Of course, other than an invasion by aliens, it's consequences, and the ending, the novel doesn't really resemble either movie. Or should I say, the movies really don't resemble the novel, and I suppose we shouldn't expect them to. However, this is one novel that still reads well 107 years after its initial publication. If you've never read it, read it. If you've read it, read it again. [-jak]
DOING TIME, DOING VIPASSANA (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: DOING TIME, DOING VIPASSANA is an intriguing, but ultimately unconvincing, documentary about an experiment to teach Vipassana transcendental meditation to prisoners at what had been India's most notorious prison. The results appear to be impressive, with many of the prisoners being reformed and gaining a much better world-view in just ten days. But the film left me wanting to see more coverage of long-term results for the prisoners. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
In 2000 there was a serious bid by Presidency by candidate Dr. John Hagelin of the Natural Law Party. Part of his platform was that prisons should have a mandatory program to teach Transcendental Meditation to prisoners. It was an unorthodox approach and one that made Hagelin look like a kook too much of the public. In fact, his ideas may well have been based on the experiments at Tihar Prison in New Delhi, India. Indian prison reformer Dr. Kiran Bedi, the Inspector General of prisons for India, had come to Tihar Prison, one of the most notorious prisons in India. Inside, the administration was losing the battle for control of the prisoners. Actual gunfights would break out between prisoners, and drugs were easily available. Rather than being reformed, inmates would come out with an education in crime. Dr. Bedi had a history of instituting prison reform (as well has being a former all-India and all-Asian tennis champion).
Dr. Bedi came to the prison in May 1993. She was faced with the problem of what to do about conditions that were bad for the prisoners, bad for the jailers, and bad for society after the prisoners were released. She took a suggestion of one of the guards to try to teach Vipassana to the inmates and staff. What is Vipassana? It is the oldest form of Buddhist meditation, and it is always taught the same way with a ten-day course of silence, meditation exercises, and self-contemplation. DOING TIME, DOING VIPASSANA is an Indian Israeli film directed by Eilona Ariel and Ayelet Menahemi. It is a 52-minute documentary telling the story of the experiment and some of the results. The effects of the training were so successful that the classes were offered more and more frequently and to larger groups. Part of the prison became an ashram. Eventually the prison had at least one class of 1000 prisoners, all meditating in unison.
The film gives a few tantalizing impressions of what the regimen actually is and how students come to meditate and look within themselves. They begin by concentrating on their breathing and the feeling of the air passing the patch of skin under the nostrils. (One wonders if mouth-breathers have a problem with this part.) They try, unsuccessfully at first, to block out all other thoughts. They then concentrate on how all things, including pain and pleasure, come and go. After ten days they are reputedly much more mindful of their place in society and much more willing to function within society's rules. The filmmakers might have been spent more effort in distinguishing this experience from brainwashing. It is impossible for them to simulate the experience, though they do try a few camera tricks to convey some of the feeling. In the end the filmmakers cannot recreate or communicate the experience and can only document it.
It is a little hard to tell if the result is as successful as the film wants us to believe. Certainly it is impressive to see formerly hardened criminals coming out of their tenth day weeping and hugging their jailers. What is difficult to tell is the long-term effect. A ten-day session of nothing but meditation may have this effect on the human mind. It is hard to distinguish the mental state of the trainees who had just completed the program from one that could have been induced by a drug. But a drug would wear off and the claim is that the training does not. Where the film breaks down is in not doing studies of the results months and years later for the prisoners who took the course. Certainly more than a decade has passed since the initial students took the course and there should be statistics as to how permanent their reform has been. Presumably the results have been convincing since reportedly several American prisons are trying the same approach.
This is an appealing approach to the problem of criminal reform, though DOING TIME, DOING VIPASSANA could have made a more convincing argument for its efficacy by doing more follow-up study. I rate the film a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
I found most of the "Introducing" books from Totem Books/Icon Books to be quite good, but recently I've run across a couple that seem to have a very different idea of what "introducing" means. For example, Chris Horrocks and Zoran Jevtic's INTRODUCING FOUCAULT (ISBN 1-84046-086-5) has statements like the following: "'Archaeology', as the investigation of that which renders necessary a certain form of thought, implies an excavation of unconsciously organized sediments of thought. Unlike a history of ideas, it doesn't assume that a knowledge accumulates towards any historical conclusion. Archaeology ignores individuals and their histories. It prefers to excavate impersonal structures of knowledge." (page 64) It does cover Foucault's life fairly thoroughly, but fails (I think) in explicating his philosophy to a beginner. (For one thing, it frequently compares and contrasts Foucault's ideas with those of Hegel or Heidegger, but assumes that the reader is already familiar with the latter. This book might be good for someone who has a strong background in philosophy, particularly 20th century French philosophy--but then again, those people might not need it.
Ziauddin Sardar and Borin Van Loon's INTRODUCING SCIENCE (ISBN 1-84066-358-9) is another book in the "Introducing" series that did not live up to expectations, because it didn't introduce science, but instead introduced philosophies of science. There's nothing wrong with that per se, but when one is expecting an overview of science and the scientific method and instead get a comparison of the different philosophical attitudes toward science--what it is, how it is done, what is permissible, and so on--in different cultures, it is a bit jarring. Had it been called INTRODUCING PHILOSOPHIES OF SCIENCE, I might have been more positive towards it. But it is ironic that on one page the authors decry the Western attitude that only Western science is important and on the next say that nothing happened in science between the Greeks and the Renaissance! And when on page 101, they explain that the Second Law of Thermodynamics is "ethnocentric and racist", I decided that even as an explication of different philosophies, it left a lot to be desired. Then again, I suppose that the authors may have an explanation for this when they claim that "both claiming and maximizing cultural neutrality is itself a specific Western cultural value."
Barry Malzberg's THE MANY WORLDS OF BARRY MALZBERG (ISBN 0-445-00298-?) is a 1975 collection of eleven short stories by one of my favorite authors. In his introduction at that time, Malzberg wrote, "I have resolved to write no more or at least very few short-stories...." Luckily, this resolution was abandoned, because Malzberg has written many very fine short stories since then. Why do I like Malzberg's writing? Because he writes with passion. His stories are not written as exercises in elaborate plotting, but as character portraits and as a means of conveying emotion. This is probably why he has written mostly short fiction--even his novels are much shorter than the current norm. (I believe he has never written a work longer than two hundred pages.) An example of his writing: "Carrying gods around like baggage means after a certain point they become as familiar as underwear and nearly as negligible in the imagined scheme of things." This volume may be hard to find; there is another, later collection titled THE BEST OF BARRY N. MALZBERG (ISBN 0-671-80256-9) which may be easier to find. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit. -- Harry S Truman
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