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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
06/02/06 -- Vol. 24, No. 49, Whole Number 1337
Table of Contents
http://www.literature-map.com/ If you read author A, who else will you like? http://interact10ways.com/usa/information_interactive.htm Infinite-depth photo montage
Working in New Jersey, Living in Hawai'i (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I am recently back from my first trip to Hawai'i. I guess the general opinion is that this Hawai'i is a paradise. It is the place that a lot of people really want to live. Once they come to those islands they want to stay. I can see where they get that attitude. Some of Hawai'i is spectacularly beautiful. We were hearing about it when we landed on Hawai'i. Side comment here: Landing on Hawai'i is not the same thing as landing in Hawai'i. Hawai'i is an archipelago. It is made up of many islands, but over two-thirds of its landmass is a single island called Hawai'i. Sometimes to avoid confusion they call it just "the Big Island." Landing on Hawai'i is landing on the big island.
Anyway we had landed on the Big Island and were being taken to our rental car by the car rental shuttle. When the driver heard this was our first time he said he had a warning for us. He came to Hawai'i thirty years earlier for an eleven-day vacation and never left. Never left. I could interpret his warning two ways. One is that you may be tempted by the beauty of Hawai'i to just never leave. Or he might have been warning us that if we give in to a temptation to stay on the island we might end up doing something like driving an airport shuttle. I did not ask him to explain which he meant.
Not far from where we visited on Maui is an area accessible only by four-wheel drive and by helicopter. There are the homes of some wealthy reclusive celebrities like Carol Burnett, Kris Kristofferson, George Harrison, and Jim Nabors. I guess it is nice to live in a place of beauty, but do they really notice that beauty after the first month? After that I would think you would look at these homes as places of confinement. You can interact with people only in limited ways. The Internet might help, I guess, but it would run slowly because you would not have landlines. I doubt you even have telephone. There is too much speed-of-light delay on satellite communications. It would be bad enough to be a bird in a gilded cage, it would be worse to realize you built that cage at huge expense.
I know that back when I was working for Bell Laboratories in New Jersey a lot of people had the dream that they could keep their job and still live in some place exotic like an island paradise. The dream was that telecommuting would advance to the point that would be possible. Back when we were working there, telecommuting was really a new adventure. People could work from their homes. People would not even have to live in the same state as their employers. Technology was actually making things better for the workers. And unlike most of our technological dreams gradually telecommuting really did became a reality.
We watched as we passed the milestones of the telecommuting capability. First there were connection to home PCs. You could be twenty miles from the company and still doing your work. You did not have to come to the building to get work done on the weekends. It sounded good, but at the same time we knew that if it came about we would probably be expected to work on weekends. Well, it was worth the price. Then a few technical visionaries tried to prove you actually could live in another state and do the same work. And, yes, they proved their point. The technology really was good enough that the people doing the work could live places like Florida and Arizona. Wow! Things were REALLY getting better. And now the dream has actually become a reality. People are working for technology companies in New Jersey while they really are living in exotic places like Bangalore, Hyderabad, Bombay, and New Delhi. And a lot of the people I knew don't have to come in to work at all. Sadly most of the people who looked forward to what telecommuting would do no longer work for Bell Laboratories. But that also is the power of this technology. [-mrl]
THE DA VINCI CODE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: What appears to be a ritual murder in the Louvre leads to the discovery of secrets that could change our concept of two millennia of history. For once we have a thriller that is 90% idea and 10% action rather than the other way around. Ron Howard directs the film adaptation of Dan Brown's international bestseller from a script by Akiva Goldsman. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
Okay, I admit it. This film was my first contact with the story that has become a small industry unto itself. I did not read the novel and was only somewhat knowledgeable about the speculations in Michael Baigent, Henry Lincoln, and Richard Leigh's book HOLY BLOOD, HOLY GRAIL. This novel was based on ideas or similar ideas to ones in that supposedly non-fiction book. I came to this film fresh.
I cannot comment on how likely are the historical suggestions in this film, but what a pleasure it is for me to have a film based so heavily on interesting historical speculation. Today the majority of film thrillers are action thrillers. This is a film with some action, but the action is not a major part of the film. Much of the screen-time is devoted to explanations. That can make the film dull, and perhaps some viewers will find these explanations uninteresting, but that was not how I found them, and they seem to have enthralled readers of the book. The action scenes are rather prosaic. It is the wordy parts of the film that make the film that are the attraction. The ideas are really are engaging even if not entirely convincing. There is violence in the film but we only see it really closely in one scene and that is voluntary self-inflicted masochistic violence. The kiddies will know not to do this at home.
Tom Hanks plays Robert Langdon, Dan Brown's Harvard professor of symbology and sometime detective. Langdon is asked consult on a murder case. He has to examine the body of a murdered colleague and then finds out that he is the prime suspect in the murder. Soon he is on the run, accompanied by Sophie Neveu (played by Audrey Tautou), a French police officer. The motive for the murder does not just have its roots in history, it has its roots all over the history of the last 2000 years with conspiracies and cover-ups in several different eras. To investigate, the two people have to solve what turn out to be a string of puzzles and codes. Each puzzle will leave the two investigators high and dry if the correct answer is not found. Along the way the two are joined by Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen), a scholar of religious history. At their heels is Police Captain Fache (Jean Reno). Also on their trail is Silas (Paul Bettany), an albino assassin who is the catís-paw of the sinister Bishop Sringarosa (Alfred Molina). This film has a very twisty plot, which makes it more unfortunate that the biggest plot twists of the story are telegraphed and spoiled by scenes early in the film.
THE DA VINCI CODE is shot in a very dark film noir style. Much of the photography is intentionally murky. The film is dotted with characters' visualizations of historic events, shot in a different style reminiscent of visualizations from CSI. These flashback (way back) add a nice texture to a film that involves so many incidents of the distant past.
THE DA VINCI CODE is a thriller with some intelligence and some historical detail of moot reliability. But it is nice to have a hero who relies on his brain rather than his fist or a gun. Like INSIDE MAN, the other intelligent thriller this year, it relies primarily on ideas and dialog rather than explosions and chases. I rate it a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
There have been a number of objections to this film claiming that it defames either the Catholic Church or the related organization Opus Dei. It is hard to support either charge from the screen adaptation itself. In the film neither group is said to sanction the villains or their actions. It does claim that certain aspects of Church doctrine are wrong. But people have made that claim at least since the time of Martin Luther. I cannot see that much harm will be done by a film suggesting that in its own fantasy world that doctrine is mistaken. Some members of the Church have taken exception to the film, which is their right. But I do not blame the film for that.
Last question to ponder: In the painting, where is the twelfth male disciple? [-mrl]
X-MEN: THE LAST STAND (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: The X-Men face off against the Brotherhood of Mutants in a fracas over a government-sponsored cure for mutant-ness. Are mutants going to savor their special unique natures or are they going to try to be like the "normal" population. It could be an intriguing idea, but the film does not develop the issue in any detail. And this third installment in the series does not stand well on its own as a film. Viewers who, like me, have only passing knowledge of the X-Men will find that they may be at rather a disadvantage. Brett Ratner directs. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
I frequently identify some of my reviews that the reader should take with a grain of salt for one reason or another. Be aware reading this review that I have not been a regular comic book reader since I was in junior high. Sorry, but it is a fact. Half the audience I saw this film with could recognize all the superheroes and knew all their special powers and their histories. At my level of knowledge I am thinking to myself things like, "Oh, look, that guy has wings." I did see the two previous films in the series, but those were six and three years ago. But, hey, I do get some points because I was the only one in my row who recognized Stan Lee's cameo appearance (as the guy with the water hose).
The story starts back in the days that Professor Charles Xavier (played by Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Eric Lensherr (Ian McKellen)) were still good buddies and trying to find and recruit super-mutants to their cause. They identify Jean Grey-- later Phoenix (played as an adult by a statuesque but static Famke Janssen)--as a promising telekinetic.
These mutants find all sorts of problems fitting in and finding acceptance in society. For example, the aforementioned guy with the wings is Warren Worthington III (Ben Foster) who has a hard time accepting his mutation and tries to pluck his wings. His father Warren Worthington II (Michael Murphy) cannot accept his son's differences either, and he will eventually discover a process to make mutants what society considers normal. But do the mutants want this capability to make themselves like other people, or do they accept what they are already? (Can you see a parallel to homosexuality? Everyone else can.) This is the issue that divides the X-Men from the Brotherhood of Mutants. The problem with the script by Zak Penn and Simon Kinberg is that rather than looking at the question in any depth, it simply repeats the question over and over in the spaces between the film's action scenes. The failure to explore this issue or any relevant issue in any completeness makes the film a self- important but superficial exercise with just a hint of pretentiousness.
With the government offering mutants a path to normality we see for the first time that there are lots of mutants who have been hiding super-powers across the country. Where they have been all this time, and where the mutants in other countries are is left to speculation. Maybe there are tens of thousands of super- mutants in this country. There certainly were lots in this film. Do you want to get an idea how many action heroes were needed for this one film? Kelsey Grammer gets to play a mutant super-action hero. Kelsey Grammer, for gosh sakes! How desperate do you have to be to have Kelsey Grammer playing an action hero? This film has more little subplots than Wolverine can swing an adamantine steel claw at. There are love-triangles; there are mutants who want to leave Dr. Xavier's mutant school. The list goes on.
There seem to be plenty of inconsistencies in the film. Apparently mutant powers come from a special mutated gene. Presumably it causes changes in the person who has this mutation by the usual ways a gene works. Yet the effects, no matter what they were, can be totally nullified in seconds by contact with a chemical or even the touch of a hand. Science can't even cure a headache that fast. It seems to be more magic than science. The mutant Juggernaut seems to be a character who can build up great momentum so he can slam through walls. Yet he jumps onto a floor without ever having any ill-effects on the floor. Many cars are stuck on a bridge in daylight. They are still there on the bridge after night falls, but by then someone seems to have visited each car and turned on the headlights.
Hey, this is as good a place as any to say that I like the Marvel Comics Logo at the beginning of each Marvel Comics film. And it makes more sense than the leaky gun-barrel that we see at the beginning of each James Bond film.
Those who, like me, cannot immediately remember a wealth of data about Marvel Comic heroes will still enjoy some flash and excitement to watch here, but will frequently realize that there must be more going on than meets the eye. I rate X-MEN: THE LAST STAND a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10. But where do they get these titles? A last stand is some group of people fighting to the last person like Custer at the Little Bighorn or the Spartans at Thermopylae. There is no "last stand" in this film. [-mrl]
SKETCHES OF FRANK GEHRY (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: In his first documentary Sydney Pollak looks at his friend Frank Gehry, one of the world's most esteemed architects. Pollak takes the pose of knowing nothing about architecture so the viewer can learn along with him in sort of a FRANK GEHRY AND ARCHITECTURE FOR DUMMIES. A number of interesting questions go unasked and some only unanswered, but what is there is still more that worthwhile. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
Sydney Pollak is one of the film industry's most respected filmmakers, having directed films going back to THE SLENDER THREAD and THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY and including TOOTSIE. SKETCHES OF FRANK GEHRY is his first documentary. His subject matter is his longtime friend Frank Gehry, perhaps the most unorthodox and artistic architect working today. Gehry is fascinated by shape and form and his buildings frequently have shapes that seem to appear nowhere else in the world. In fact, from the documentary he seems to be taking shapes that are from much simpler objects. He makes models of buildings out of cardboard. When the cardboard bends due to pressure from his hand or gravity, the shape it takes on is fascinating to Gehry. He will fashion the same accidental shape out of concrete and metal. The Gehry Tower in Hanover, Germany, looks like a paper tower perpetually in the process of collapsing. Others look like they were cut with scissors from giant sheets of aluminum and steel by a much more enormous hand. In this way a Gehry building looks like no other architect's work. Pollak's approach for the film is to say that he knows nothing about architecture, perhaps to bring out aspects of Gehry for the uninformed. But ironically at the same time he claims that Gehry is a very great architect. His pose casts doubt on that flattering judgement.
Where this film falls down, as do other documentaries about architects such as MY ARCHITECT and MY FATHER, THE GENIUS is that the architect's aesthetic remains mysterious. When Gehry points to a piece on one of his cardboard models and says, "the piece has to be made more grumpy" the viewer has only a vague idea of what he means. Perhaps Gehry knows no more what he means. Gehry will decide that a piece of cardboard that is helping him visualize a future shape on a building needs eight fan-folds rather than just four. But we never get into his mind to know why. His aesthetic remains unexplained, and is perhaps unexplainable. He will say that some feature of a building that it looks "so stupid-looking it's great." He talks about how insecure he is whenever he starts a new project and is at the "dangerous point of beginning."
Gehry's style is as unique as it is beautiful, but for at least some of his works one has the feeling they must be hellish to maintain or even to use. It is fine, for example, to have curved walls, but office furniture tends to assume flat walls that it can rest against. A curved wall will waste the space. Perhaps there are just some personalities that are not ready for avant- garde architecture.
While there is much that is unexplained, this film makes the work of this great architect seem comprehensible even if the aesthetic is elusive. Certainly this film makes for an entertaining and frequently enlightening experience. I rate it a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
SKETCHES OF FRANK GEHRY was made for the Public Broadcast System's American Masters series and should air in the fall of 2006. For more information about Frank Gehry including pictures, a list of his most famous buildings, and his awards, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Gehry. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
CLASSIC MYSTERY STORIES edited by Douglas G. Greene (ISBN 0-486- 40881-7) is an anthology of thirteen detective stories from 1841 through 1920 (not coincidentally, just about the most recent year for works to have passed into the public domain). Some may be overly familiar (Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue", for example, but most are far less well known, by such authors as Baroness Orczy, Susan Glaspell, And Rodrigues Ottolengui. Even the better-known authors are represented by less familiar stories; for example, Jacques Futrelle's story is *not* "The Problem of Cell 13", but "The Phantom Motor". While I suspect aficionados of this era's detective fiction will be familiar with a lot of these stories, they are a good introduction and overview for the reader wanting to expand their range from just post-World War II works. (And since it is a Dover Thrift Edition, it is a very cheap way to do it.)
Our science fiction group read Philip K. Dick's classic alternate history, THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE (ISBN 0-679-74067-8). Some things became more meaningful for me after our Hawaiian trip, such as references to the Wyndham-Matson shipping line. But the I Ching references are still something I assume Dick got right, because I am not so familiar with it that I can recognize the hexagrams. The one or two I looked up were accurate, but more importantly, Dick relied heavily on the I Ching in writing the book (making one of the characters semi-autobiographical in that regrad anyway). Characters use both the yarrow sticks and the coins, though the coins are much easier to use. The alternate history aspect was very unusual at the time, but people reading it now may well ask what the fuss is about. And Dick has decided to show the Japanese influence on society by having his characters talk and think in the stereotypical pidgin English spoken by Japanese characters of the time ("Essential to avoid politics. ... Yet they might arise. ...Mr. Baynes, sir, they say Herr Boormann is quite ill. That a new Reichs Chancellor will be chosen by the Partei this autumn. Rumor only? So much secrecy, alas, between Pacific and Reich."). One could argue, I suppose, that if the Japanese were the conquerors, they would not feel any need to learn perfect English (did the British learn Hindi in India?), but why would the American characters be talking and thinking like this?
We got somewhat side-tracked in a discussion of what the title "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy" (the title of the book within the book) is supposed to mean. It comes from Ecclesiastes 12:5, but even that source seems to have as many interpretations as there are interpreters.
The entire verse reads in the King James Version as "Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets;"
The one phrase is variously rendered as:
ASV/KJV/WBS/WEB: the grasshopper shall be a burden
BBE: the least thing is a weight
DBY: the grasshopper is a burden
JPS: the grasshopper shall drag itself along
YLT: the grasshopper is become a burden
(The Vulgate refers to "lucusta", or locust, but everyone translates it as grasshopper.)
Everyone agree that the verse as a whole, refers to old age, but the precise meaning of this phrase is unclear. The Geneva Study Bible annotates the phrase as "They will be able to bear nothing." Wesley's Notes says, "They cannot endure the least burden, being indeed a burden to themselves." Another commentator says that the grasshopper is used as a metaphor because it resembles a man on crutches.
Of course, none of this got us any closer to what this meant as the book title, unless it is the notion just as even a small a thing as a grasshopper can be impossible to carry, so even the smallest change in reality may be impossible to accomplish.
While in Hawai`i, I picked up a copy of MARK TWAIN'S LETTERS FROM HAWAII (edited by A. Grove Day, ISBN 0-8248-0288-8). There have been many discussions about Twain's supposed racism in THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN, but it is fairly clear in this--a non-fiction work--that he has many of the racist attitudes of his time, regarding not just the Hawaiians, but also the Chinese and other races. In fairness, one should point out that he is pretty negative on a lot of white men as well, going back in Hawaiian history as far as Captain Cook--which is about as far back as one can go in that archipelago's written history.
I found a couple of Twain's turns of phrase particularly timely, though. In his letter of May 23, 1866, he is describing the sorts of men who serve in legislatures, and says, "Few men of first-class ability can afford to let their affairs go to ruin while they fool away their time in legislatures for months on a stretch. . . . But your chattering, one-horse village lawyer likes it, and your solemn ass from the cow counties, who don't know the Constitution from the Lord's Prayer, enjoys it, and these you will always find in the assembly." And later he describes a debate on a motion as "wandering further and further from the question before the House, and quacking about stuff that had no more to do with the subject under discussion than the Decalogue has got to do with the Declaration of Independence." These days, one might claim that a lot of politicians seem to be suffering from these same confusions.
Our original discussion group read I, CLAUDIUS: FROM THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF TIBERIUS CLAUDIUS, BORN 10 B.C., MURDERED AND DEIFIED A.D. 54 by Robert Graves (ISBN 0-679-72477-X). I had to keep reminding myself that this was a novel. Yes, it was strongly based on Suetonius and other historical sources, but there is a lot of fiction and conjecture in it as well, so it would be a mistake to believe everything in it was true. That Graves manages to write in such a way as to have a work of fiction appear to be a genuine historical memoir of the Roman Era is quite an accomplishment. This (and its companion/sequel, CLAUDIUS THE GOD, were first published in 1934, and probably inspired such later writers as Gore Vidal (*) and others who write novels that appear to be almost factual histories. Considering the enormous popularity of I, CLAUDIUS, it is ironic that (according to Wikipedia), "Graves later professed a dislike for the books and their popularity. He claimed that they were written only from financial need on a strict deadline."
(*) At a continuing education class a couple of years ago, the professor presented as fact a claim made in Vidal's BURR that was actually something that Vidal made up. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Animals are such agreeable friends, they ask no questions, they pass no criticisms. -- George Eliot
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