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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
11/17/06 -- Vol. 25, No. 20, Whole Number 1361
Table of Contents
Next week's MT VOID will probably come out a few hours later than usual. [-ecl]
Jack Williamson (1908-2006):
John Clute said it best, "It seems that there was never a time when Jack Williamson, who has died at 98 after an active career extending from 1928 until late last year, was not the father of American science fiction. 'If your father read science fiction,' the editor and novelist Frederik Pohl once wrote, 'he very likely counted Jack Williamson high among his favorite writers.' What now seems remarkable about this statement is that it was made in 1953."
Winner of Hugo and Nebula Awards, the Nebula Grand Master Award (1975), the World Fantasy Life Achievement Award (1994), the Science Fiction Hall of Fame (1996), and Grandmaster of the World Horror Convention (2004), Williamson had a career spanning nine decades (1928-2006). His best-known works are his "Legion of Space" stories, "With Folded Hands" (later incorporated into the novel THE HUMANOIDS), and DARKER THAN YOU THINK.
John Clute's full article may be found at http://tinyurl.com/ykd5va. [-ecl]
I Guess I Should Explain (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
The film reviews I write for the MT VOID I also post on the Internet. I have been embroiled there in a discussion there about my recent review of the film BORAT: CULTURAL LEARNINGS OF AMERICA FOR MAKE BENEFIT GLORIOUS NATION OF KAZAKHSTAN. This is the film in which British comic Sacha Baron Cohen pretends to be from Kazakhstan and acts extremely boorish to bring out negative reactions in others.
I did something with the BORAT! review that I had never done with a film review before. I not only gave a very negative review to the film, I actually included a light insult to the fans of the film. The last line of my review was "BORAT was just not on my wavelength. If this film is on your wavelength, perhaps you need to recalibrate." I do not think it was a terrible insult, though there were people who seemed to be terribly insulted.
I had people following up on the Internet or sent me e-mail very angered that I would imply that there was something wrong with them if they liked this film. If you are one such person, I will accept it stings a little bit, and I freely apologize to you and the other fans of this film for my comment. But do you see any irony here? You took such pleasure in this film that you feel you have to defend it. This is a film that claims Kazakhs have regularly incestuous relationships, bring feces to the dinner table, have strongly anti-Jewish traditions like the running of the Jews, etc., etc. That seems to you to be humor. But when the circle of the insults is extended to you, suddenly it is not such a joke to you any more.
People who defend the film seem to try to frame it as a noble effort. The claim was made repeatedly that Cohen's insults are somehow "fighting fire with fire." That is, the film supposedly holds a mirror up to our racism so that we can see it. I am not convinced. I saw someone else on the Net making an anti-Kazakh joke so the practice is spreading. Before the advent of Cohen who ever heard an anti-Kazakh joke? The Kazakhs certainly did not. My understanding is the Kazakhstan government started to express their displeasure when Borat was only on television and now that is it a film they have protested to the United States government. Of course, the United States government, though embarrassed, could do nothing because making such films is (rightly) protected by the United States Constitution. Still, the Kazakhs are irate that a (British) comic in an American film is attacking their country with unprovoked insults. I would defend the company's right to make such a film, but I can also see the Kazakhs' point of view. It is particularly embarrassing when much of the world is questioning whether democracy and free speech are really as good as the United States and Britain claim. Among other things we are defending the right to make bad taste unprovoked insults. I think that it is a good thing that we *can* make this film but a bad thing that they *did*. Our free speech is not playing well around the world.
In my conversations about this film somebody made the argument that Borat's insults do not really matter. After all, we are all mature enough to rise above such insults and the Kazakhs should be also. Nobody really believes what is said in a Kazakh joke. My joke, on the other hand, some people clearly did not rise above. Well, I don't think with any insulting ethnic jokes that there are many people who believe that they represent reality. Insults that are actually believed would not be insults but libels. And yes, libels are a lot worse than these insulting jokes. But even obviously fictional insults do hurt also and are remembered. I know I have gotten my share. But it really had been years since I have heard anyone tell an insulting ethnic joke. Society seemed to have risen above that, at least in the circles I go in. Now they seem to be making a comeback. Rather than fighting fire with fire, I think that Borat is just setting his own fires.
Oh, and certainly I can see why people would take offense at my comment. I apologized for it and explained the point I was making. I am unconvinced that a claim that to say *perhaps* some recalibration is necessary is such a horrible insult next to the film's accusations of incest. What is a recalibration? It is a fine-tuning adjustment. That has to be pretty minor as calumny compared to what we saw in the film. It would be easy to minimize the discomfort that such a film would cause because the Kazakhs are distant geographically, but the Kazakhs who are complaining do have a point. A lot of political correctness does not make sense, but some of it does. Avoiding unprovoked ethnic insults does fall in the latter category.
So why do so many critics like this film? I suppose the humor appeals to them. I also strongly suspect that BORAT! is this year's BILLY JACK. For those who do not remember it this was a film about an ex-Green-Beret, militant-passivist, half-Native-American martial artist. The sort of scene it would have would be a whole lunchroom of people would be being nasty to some nice hippies trying to run a "Peace School." Billy Jack would get up and tell the room, "You now, I am a man of peace. But when I see something like I just did it makes me so angry that . . . ." Blam! Blam! Blam! Next thing you know everyone in the room is on the floor beaten up and Billy Jack is that last man standing. When it came out it sort of caught the pulse of the anti-Vietnam-war movement and a lot of critics reviewed the film very favorably.
Critics saw BILLY JACK years later and thought they were looking at a different film. It had not aged very well at all. The fact that so many rated it so well was something of an embarrassment. Its rating in movie guide books started dropping from one edition to the next. I think we will see film reviewers and critics reassessing BORAT! in years to come and see the BILLY JACK phenomenon happening with BORAT: CULTURAL LEARNINGS OF AMERICA FOR MAKE BENEFIT GLORIOUS NATION OF KAZAKHSTAN. [-mrl]
THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Based on a novel but inspired by real events, this is the story of a young Scottish doctor who becomes a personal confidant of Idi Amin, one of the most bloodthirsty tyrants in African history. The history of Idi Amin is an intriguing story, but this film tells us too much about its fictional European and not enough about the politics of Uganda under an all-too-real tyrant. Forest Whitaker gives a superb performance as a dictator of many faces, often changing from one to another in seconds. But we need to see more of what Amin did. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
Besides one or two rarely seen documentaries and docu-dramas, cinema has paid little attention to the rule of Idi Amin (or Idi Amin Dada) of Uganda from 1971 it 1979. Amin, formerly a member of the British King's African Rifles and also formerly a champion prizefighter, made an international spectacle of himself with his truly weird behavior, including jokes that he was a cannibal, as well as his inhuman tactics as a dictator. We see an important and ruthless leader through the eyes of a European who is at least inspired by a real person. That approach was used with SHOGUN also, but SHOGUN was long enough that it allowed us to see a good chunk of Japanese history. Nicholas Garrigan has other things on his mind when Amin is doing his worst.
mes McAvoy plays Nicholas Garrigan, a young Scottish doctor who decides to leave home in order to escape from his overbearing father. He chooses Uganda by chance and decides to use his talent to help out at a rural clinic. This is in an area where four out of five people still prefer the services of a witch doctor to a medical one. Garrigan arrives just after a military coup. Garrigan is caught up in the excitement of change to the then popular leader Amin, and it is not long before Garrigan actually meets the now-President Idi Amin (played by Forest Whitaker).
Garrigan is offered a Faustian bargain. Amin has a volatile personality, but he does have a predilection for the Scottish and on an impulse--how Amin seems to make most of his decisions--he asks Garrigan to be his personal physician. It is an offer that the young doctor is not actually permitted to refuse. Garrigan takes the position and becomes what Amin calls his closest advisor. He finds that Amin has his own charm, at times almost a childlike quality. But being a close advisor makes Garrigan a pawn caught between the sinister forces of the Ugandan dictatorial regime and what may be equally sinister, the forces of the British government. Simon McBurney has a nicely ambiguous role as British diplomatic agent Nigel Stone. Garrigan finds himself figuratively riding a tiger that he dare not dismount.
The presence of the British in Uganda very much hangs over this film. Amin himself worked his way up the ranks in the British military and it was the British who helped to install Amin in power. Still, Amin hates the British because of his ill treatment by them, yet he loves the Scottish whom he does not think of as British. And when Amin decides to expel foreigners, it is the Asians he wants removed and notably not the British.
There are some dissatisfying aspects of the script. Garrigan is kept in the Kampala palace, isolated from and largely ignorant of the reign of terror that Amin is inflicting on Uganda. That means that much of what would be of interest is simply not possible to shown in this story from Garrigan's point of view. Garrigan is in a state of denial about the rumors that he hears that things are getting very bad in the country. He continues to admire and have affection for the initially populist Amin while unbeknownst to him a bloodbath is going on mostly outside Kampala. A more interesting story might have had Idi Amin as the central character or perhaps the intriguing Nigel Stone, who much more than the Scot has a global view of Ugandan politics. Frankly, Garrigan's sexual adventures usually are a mere distraction from the most compelling aspects of the story. Garrigan is the third most interesting person in a film in which he is supposedly the main character, and that is exactly how McAvoy plays him.
Be warned that there are some harrowing scenes in this film. But a more complete picture of Amin's reign would have been much more harrowing. After very fine films about African politics like HOTEL RWANDA and the even more riveting SOMETIMES IN APRIL, THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND is merely a good film among great ones. As such I give it a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
The novel THE DARWIN CONSPIRACY by John Darnton (ISBN 1-4000-4137-6) sounded promising. The jacket asks, "What led Darwin to the theory of evolution? Why did he wait twenty-two years to write ON THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES? Why was he incapacitated by mysterious illnesses and frightened of travel? Who was his secret rival?" And the book manages to be at least moderately engrossing on some of these--right up until the end, when Darnton pulls the most bizarre rabbit out of a hat I can remember for a long time. I do not want to give too much away, in case some Darwin completist out there wants to read the book, but, trust me, it is an even less likely scenario than that of THE DA VINCI CODE. However, it has inspired me to put THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES on my reading queue. (I cannot remember if I ever read it--if so, it was probably forty years ago.)
MOVIES THAT MATTER by Richard Leonard, SJ (ISBN 0-8294-2201-3) is not much more than a listing of fifty "inspirational" movies, or at least movies with spiritual and ethical elements. For example, the first film is GROUNDHOG DAY, and the "teachable topics" are "creation, conversion, and Lent." However, Leonard also claims that GROUNDHOG DAY repeated one day thirty-four times--and then he finds significance in this number. We may see only thirty-four different days, Bill Murray learns to play the piano very well in that time, and but it clearly must take him more days than that. Most of the films are set in the current time, with only a few of what we might call "religious" pictures (THE MISSION, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, THE EXORCIST, and THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST). And of these, Leonard strongly criticizes two of them (THE EXORCIST and THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST) on theological grounds. He is ironically much more favorable towards BRUCE ALMIGHTY and GLADIATOR. But the discussion of each film is very brief (really only about 500-600 words of text), and fairly superficial. (I note, however, that the lessons he draws from VERA DRAKE are very different than what I and many others drew.) It is interesting for the list of films covered, though. ("SJ" stands for Society of Jesus, otherwise known as the Jesuits, and Leonard has a Ph.D. in cinema and theology.)
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE THUNDERBOLT KID by Bill Bryson (ISBN 0-767-91936-X) is Bryson's memoir of growing up in Des Moines in the 1950s and 1960s. (As someone who lived in Rantoul, Illinois, from 1959 to 1964, I find a lot of what he writes about familiar. Bryson brings his usual dry humor to this topic, which is enough of a recommendation for those familiar with his work, but for those not, I would compare this to Jean Shepard's tales of his childhood in Hammond, Indiana, of a slightly earlier time. (Bryson writes about Fig Newtons and Shepard has a book called A FISTFUL OF FIG NEWTONS, so there are definitely cultural similarities.)
I recently watched Akira Kurosawa's RAN again. There is a book connection--it is based on Shakespeare's "King Lear" (just as Kurosawa's THRONE OF BLOOD is based on "Macbeth"). For that matter, there is a fair amount of Lady Macbeth in one of the characters in RAN as well. But my comment is that whoever did the subtitles did an excellent job of capturing a Shakespearean feel; for example, near the beginning of the film, Hidetora (the Lear character) says:
"I hoisted my colours over the main castle. I spent more years fighting lance to lance with these two gentlemen. Now the moment has come to stable the steeds of war and give free rein to peace. But old Hidetora is seventy years old."
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: Do you know what a pessimist is? A person who thinks everybody is as nasty as himself and hates them for it. -- George Bernard Shaw
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