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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
03/30/07 -- Vol. 25, No. 39, Whole Number 1434
Table of Contents
This issue featuring discussions of the film 300
Little Heroes (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
The new film 300 makes a number of strange artistic choices in its depiction of the Battle of Thermopylae. One struck me as particularly strange. I should explain that there are giants and very big people noted in Greek and Roman myth and history. There is no mention of midgets and dwarfs. Bigness was noted, smallness was not. The same is pretty much true of the Bible. Who were the very small people? Obviously they were there but being small was not considered notable. The Greeks never noted Xerxes as being notably tall, and it is the kind of thing they would have noted if it were true. Hence we can conclude that he was not tall enough that it would get any special note. He is, however, in the film much taller than the Spartans. Leonidas barely comes up to his belly button. In the film all the Spartans we see must be barely three feet tall, if that much. The Spartans shown must be all the size of hobbits. It shows you do not have to be tall to be macho. I thought that was an interesting artistic choice. [-mrl]
The Fantastic Art of Ron Turner (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Many of you know science fiction art, but fewer probably know of Ron Turner. He did the cover of British books and magazines mostly in the 1950s and early 1960s. His art work might be considered less photo-realistic and might better be described as "enthusiastic". The books he illustrated seem to owe much to the tradition of the Penny Dreadfuls. The stories he illustrated were attributed to such authors as Volsted Gridban and Vargo Statten (both pennames for the prolific John Russell Fearn). You can see a show of Turner's artwork at http://tinyurl.com/39b8mf. [-mrl]
300: The Reaction (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
The most talked about film of the year is no longer the long- titled BORAT: CULTURAL LEARNINGS OF AMERICA FOR MAKE BENEFIT GLORIOUS NATION OF KAZAKHSTAN, but is now the much more briefly- titled 300. I for one say, "Thank goodness" (and not just because 300 is much faster to type and I don't even need to hit the caps-lock). 300 is certainly for me the more interesting of the two films.
300 seems to have become one of the surprise hits of the year. Audiences are being thrilled by this overly imaginative retelling of the story of the battle of Thermopylae from 480 B.C. This is not history like people snoozed through in school. The filmmakers have completed the task begun by Herodotus, using exaggeration and probably downright lies to make this battle a pulse-pounding exciting epic. And it is working. The film seems to have mostly a young audience so aflame they are yelling at the screen. Now that is a mixed blessing, since this film is far from even Herodotus's telling of the story and contains elements that nobody should take seriously. This plot of this film is somewhat impressionistic. At a high-level it looks very much like the accepted accounts of the story of the battle. Get up close and the details are no longer anything near accurate and are at times laughably absurd.
It is interesting that this film has enraged the self-appointed guardians of political thought from both the right and the left. A friend I saw this film with was absolutely outraged at the film because, as she said, the film was going to get people killed. The film is such a thrilling a portrayal of war that people were going to go out and enlist because of it. They would be sent to Iraq and that would be the end of them. A film should not be making such underhanded political statements, my friend thought. The film is a distortion. I asked her about DR. STRANGELOVE and discovered to my surprise that she considered the Kubrick satire to be a fair and balanced portrayal of the military.
Somehow ancient Greek histories do have a power to heat the blood. Years ago there was a similar reaction to a film about gang warfare in New York. THE WARRIORS was set in its present, but the story was really that of THE ANABASIS, Xenophon's account of his retreat from Persia across Asia Minor some 79 years after Thermopylae. (Xenophon and his 10,000 men had been hired by Cyrus the Younger, who wanted to seize Persia from King Artaxerxes II, his brother.)
Bloggers and others on the left have interpreted 300 to be a rabble-rousing, blood-thirsty, pro-military film in which the heroes are whites and come from Europe while the villains are nasty Persians. The film glories in killing sub-human enemies in the name of patriotism and freedom. One just has to look at the end-credits spattered with blood to get the point of the film. The film is will supposedly turns the viewers into aggressive hawks. The people who hold this opinion rarely seem to speak out against the passions unleashed by football or soccer matches worldwide. Those are generally accepted as a healthy part of society. But 300 is going to turn people into rabid killers.
Meanwhile, these people's opposite numbers on the right are complaining about a film in which the villain, Xerxes, is the nasty head of a huge invading military force. The heroes are people who blithely go to their deaths on the promise that they can take large numbers of the enemy with them. It is a rare film that the right considers too left and the left thinks is too right.
My attitude is that I will start worrying about 300 when I actually start hearing about people complaining that they got all excited about the film, signed up for Iraq, and were maimed as a result. Frankly, I do not see that as a likely scenario. The political influences I worry about in film are a good deal subtler than anything--and I mean anything--is in 300. How often in films do you see a conflict between a man and a woman, and it is the man who is in the right and the woman wrong? How often is a white correct the right when in conflict with someone from a minority? It happens, but it is a small percentage of the occurrences. I saw HAPPY FEET last night. The colony of penguins are ruled by repressive males. Then we find a bigger villain and it is humans from the United States or possibly Europe or Australia. The latter may not be unrealistic--my sympathies are on the side of conservation--but so many films have these little subtle messages that it becomes wearing after a while. I am not bothered by 300 because there are subtle messages planted in it. I don't think there are such messages. The people who made 300 do not do very well with subtle. [-mrl]
2007 Hugo Award Nominations:
Congrats to regular contributor Joseph T. Major, for his nomination in the "Best Related Book" category.
300 Confused Critics (film review by Dale L. Skran, Jr.):
Based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller, 300 is taking a trashing from some critics. There seem to be several schools of thought:
It is unusual that I pay this much attention to critical thought, but here the criticism seems to be a big part of the story. Unfortunately, critics often fail to appreciate or understand films made from comics or influenced by anime styles. I fear 300 falls into this category. I also suspect that some professional film critics are unhappy with the popularity of super-hero and SF films in general, and take a sadistic delight in tearing into small errors and difficulties, while completely forgetting that the film is much better than dozens of historically well regarded action pictures of the 1950s and 1960s.
First let's take the matter of the political bent. This is an uncompromising, politically-incorrect film. It states boldly that all cultures are not equal, that some things are worth dieing for, that freedom is not free, and that evil can sometimes only be fought with great violence. It is not in any sense a propaganda film in the Nazi style. The events in the movie follow those in real life rather more closely than is typical for this kind of historical film. The Spartans are portrayed as being brave, honorable, polite, courageous and skillful, while at the same time utterly ruthless and overly bound by foolish traditions and a corrupt religion. Anyone who watches the movie and sees it as a mere whitewash of the Spartans isn't watching the whole movie. The point is not that we ought to be the Spartans or that everything the Spartans did was good, but that on this one day, 300 Spartans did something that was brave and unique, and that really did make a difference in our lives today.
Now we come to the supposed lack of nuance. For a movie filled with splatter, this is actually fairly subtle. The Spartans are portrayed in a spare and subtle fashion, often without extensive exposition. The acting is professional and believable; everyone stays in character and it feels real. The critics that are complaining about a lack of nuance are really objecting to the movie on a political level. They want some hint that Leonidas had a child-hood death wish, that death in battle is foolish rather than honorable, etc. This sort of "nuance" is not to be found, and thank the stars above. There have been so many anti-war "war" movies made, bursting with contempt for their "heroes" that it feels incredibly refreshing to see a direct, strong, and honest case made for the martial values.
Another set of critics fail to understand the anime-influenced film-making style. In anime, "subjective view" is used to show visually how the characters *feel* about things. Thus, in 300, Xerxes, the Persian king, is portrayed as being a giant with a lot of piercing. This is clearly not intended to be a historically accurate picture, but represents how the Spartans *saw* Xerxe--as a huge menace from a foreign place. The critic at the LA times complains about an early scene where emissaries of Xerxes are pushed into a seemingly bottomless well in the Spartans' capital. He wonders if the Spartan kids ever fall in. Leaving aside the fact that if such a well existed, the Spartans would not cry over any kids stupid enough to fall in, the well is another example of subjective view--to those being pushed in, it *seems* bottomless!
I have also seen a number of complaints that the movie is not historically accurate. If the viewer focuses on the subjective view shown on the screen, this may seem to have some truth. After all, Xerxes was not 8 feet tall! However, when these scenes are ignored, the general plot of the movie follows fairly closely the historical record, at least as I have found in my reference books. The touch of having a crippled at birth Spartan be the traitor is not historically accurate, but seems to me to have been added to show graphically how the Spartans rigid adherence to their values in the end led to their downfall. Many of the lines that seem contrived, such as "Tonight Spartans, we dine in Hades," really *are* attributed to Leonidas.
Finally, 300 is extremely violent. This, however, is part of its charm. It is an honest look at fighting with swords, and with the exception of the blood-spattered closing credits, never seems gratuitous in its lopped off arms or grunting collisions of bodies. It must be added that 300 is a beautiful film, with great action sequences and amazing visuals. Some have characterized this as the story of the 300 Spartans as written by Robert E. Howard and illustrated by Frank Frazetta, and this is not far off from the truth. This is more than an action picture--it is the stuff of legends.
In conclusion, 300 is a surprisingly good film, but not for everyone. I rate it a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. Compared to Sin City, 300 is a much better film and far more watchable. This is a real R film, with lots of violence, grotesque images, and some sex--clearly not for the kids. However, what you remember when you leave is not the gore or the weird executioner, but that 300 Spartans died so that we could sit around our dinner tables and discuss the meaning of life, and that freedom has never been free. [-dls]
THE LAST MIMZY and 300 (letter of comment by Joseph T. Major):
In response to Mark's review of THE LAST MIMZY in the 03/23/07 issue of the MT VOID, Joe Major writes, "THE LAST MIMZY: I stipulate all you say but this movie does have one good thing about it. THE BEST OF HENRY KUTTNER was re-released." [-jtm]
Evelyn notes, however, "Matthew Cheney decries the omission of any mention of C. L. Moore as a co-author of 'Mimsy were the Borogoves'. The story originally appeared with the by-line of 'Lewis Padgett', which was used for the Kuttner/Moore collaborations." For more details, see http://www.strangehorizons.com/2007/20070326/cheney-c.shtml." [-ecl]
In response to Mark's review of 300 in the 03/23/07 issue of the MT VOID, Joe writes, "THE 300: You cite 'One historian's take on the errors:' Here's another's: http://www.jewishworldreview.com/0307/hanson.php3." [-jtm]
Persephone, Starlings, 300, Heisenberg Principle, Schroedinger's Cat, and Edward Rutherfurd (letter of comment by John Purcell):
In response to the 03/23/07 issue of the MT VOID, John Purcell writes:
Thanks for the groaner starting off your latest zine. That one ranks right up there with the upcoming interview with the veteran Kamikaze pilot.
I can't stand starlings either. They have gotten so bad down here in College Station that some locations--such as the Kroger parking lot, which in 2005 I dubbed the Alfred Hitchcock Memorial Parking Lot--have such a huge starling population problem that they have installed these very loud and annoying "bird avoidance devices" that are probably more aggravating than the birds themselves! Heckuva trade-off. The birds seem to be gone--for now. In fact, they've seemed to simply relocated half a mile down the road to the Wal Mart/Albertson's parking lot. There are so many of these fershlugginer starlings that they literally cover the lot--and trees and buildings and cars and etc.--that it looks like a living lake of black feathered water. The power lines sag from the over-abundance of starlings on the wires. Very dangerous, indeed. I won't even mention the bird-droppings that are everywhere. . . . Whoops! I guess I did mention it, didn't I?
[Mark replies, "I am not sure I meant that I could not stand starlings, but it would improve the fauna of my back yard if they decided it was time to move one to other neighborhoods." -mrl]
Despite the historical inaccuracies of "300", I would still like to see the movie. The History Channel documentary, "The Last Stand of the 300", is really quite informative and interesting; I learned things about the background causes leading up to this pivotal event in Greek/Persian history, plus the repercussions of it (Alexander's conquest of Persia, for one), from this documentary that I've barely known about. I agree with your assessment that this is the sort of gory, hack-'em-up kind of flick that would probably get teenagers interested in learning history. Heck, it might even get kids reading, period.
[Mark replies, "The documentary was very good and very well- timed. I wonder if they produced it to release at the same time as 300 or if it was an old documentary and they just decided this would be a good time to rerun it. It did confirm, what was my impression, that the pass between a rock and and wet place. The film showed it as being a pass between two walls of rock. The suggestion about getting kids interested in history was semi-autobiographical. I am sure my interest in history started as an interest in historical films. I remember in junior high history giving an excited and exciting account of the Battle of Marathon. Mr. Burns was impressed that I had researched it so well. Years later I discovered that it was not so much accurate to the actual battle but to the film THE GIANT OF MARATHON." -mrl]
As far as the discussion in MT VOID about the Heisenberg Principle and Schroedinger's Cat, there's nothing I can really add here since by the time I finish this sentence my stance will have probably changed, and besides, I'm not really sure about what observations I might be able to make. The sands of time are shifting underfoot again...
[Mark adds, " Well, any observations on the subject would probably change the subject. Once the subject had been changed we could no longer discuss the original subject. As for the sands of time shifting, I hope it isn't because some jerk stepped off the path and crushed another butterfly. Apparently we are having that problem fairly frequently recently, 70,000,000 years in the past. (That is the kind of sentence only science fiction fans understand.)" -mrl]
Book-wise, for my birthday three days ago, I received three more Edward Rutherfurd books to add to my collection: RUSSKA, FOREST, and THE PRINCES OF IRELAND. He's one of my current favorite writers. Rutherfurd may be long-winded--these books are HUGE in page length--but always interesting, enlightening, and entertaining. SARUM was my first exposure to Rutherfurd, and hooked me. Currently I'm reading London when I have the time.
Another fine zine, Mark. Thanks again for posting it my way. [-jp]
Starlings (letter of comment by Lorraine Kevra and friend):
In response to Mark's article on starlings in the 03/23/07 issue of the MT VOID, Lorraine Kevra writes, "Thought you might enjoy reading this email from a friend of mine named Mary who used to be one of the few animal rehabilitators in our area until they started charging an outrageous licensing fee to do a very thankless and time-consuming job. Thanks to the stupidity of the gov't, we have even less animal rehabbers left, and injured and baby animals must be turned over to our state agency resulting in the animal having little chance to survive (but don't get me started :-) . It looks like Mary's baby starling was named Buddy . . . . [-lk]
Mark responds, "The fact that they are so intelligent probably contributes to starlings being pests. They are smart enough to make trouble. I don't actually give much an opinion on the birds in my article. (I do poke a little fun at them comparing them to a motorcycle gang.) I like birds and have several times written about bird intelligence. Individually I like starlings, but when they come en masse they are bad news for the other birds I see in my neighborhood." [-mrl]
Lorraine, I could understand that from most people's point of view. However if anyone ever raised a Starling they would love them. Starlings are fun, devilish, and can speak just as clear as a human. I adopted one out just when we moved here almost ten years ago. Buddy just died. Buddy had a vocabulary like a human. Every morning when Grandma would come down the stairs, he would ask Grandma if she was going to have breakfast. The whole family loved him so much. They had a cockatiel also, but Buddy was special. Now my niece has one named Trouble. It is legal to keep a Starling in captivity. They are a brilliant> bird. Also Starlings are big Grub eaters making them enviromentally safe.
Only time I actually couldn't stand them was when I had 80 all at once. I think it was the year of the Starling. I thought when I released them, the sky would turn black. It took me a while before I could actually enjoy getting a baby Starling in. They have a very loud voice when they cry for food. Multiply that by 80 and it was excessive. I was also trying to build them a separate cage in between feedings which there was no in-between. When I was done with #80 it was time to feed #1 again. We laughed about that for a very long time. When they are raised like that, they are not friendly and do not talk. [-mary]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
It's book sale season! As the snows melt and spring arrives, the various organizations (around here, anyway) have their annual book sales. This year, in one week the two biggest in the area (the East Brunswick Friends of the Library and Bryn Mawr) had their book sales. The time was that I would have bought huge stacks of books, but the realization that we have more books than we can ever read, combined with increasing prices at the sales, have resulted in more focused buying.
At the East Brunswick sale, I was appalled to see that the science fiction section was 90% "Star Trek" and "Star Wars". I'd like to think that means that people are keeping their other science fiction, but I suspect that is not the reason. On the other hand, when we went back on the last day, it seemed as if most of them were still there.
[I would love to have a time machine to go back to just after Gene Roddenberry received his cancellation notice from NBC during his third season. I would take him to a book sale and show him with a really huge proportion of the science fiction books for sale bear the words "Star Trek". Not only did his series not really fail, it ate a very big piece of the science fiction genre. --mrl]
I ended up buying a dozen books total, but four (making up half the volume!) were as gifts for other people. The rest included two high-quality guide books to Rome (I still plan to get there some day), as well as ECCENTRIC AMERICA. Another travel book of sorts I bought was John Steinbeck's THE LOG FROM 'THE SEA OF CORTEZ'. The one really thick book I bought was Brian Wilkie's LITERATURE OF THE WESTERN WORLD (Volume I). I would not have bought this by itself, but it turned out that I had bought Volume II (a while ago) for a dime at the local thrift shop, so I decided to complete the set. I also bought two books I already had: Balthasar Gracian's THE ART OF WORLDLY WISDOM, and Neal Stephenson's QUICKSILVER. At fifty cents each, it was worth getting a copy of the former that I could carry around without worrying about it getting beat-up, and for the latter, the paperback will be more portable to read than the large hardcover. And rounding out the books was Marc Sautet's NIETZSCHE FOR BEGINNERS, which I found in the "Religion" section. (That section also had Isabel Allende's ZORRO, Brian Jacq's "Ramses" series, and Charles Dickens's "Christmas Stories". The last almost makes sense.)
We also bought three DVDs, but even these were literary: FINDING NEVERLAND, THE MAN FROM ELYSIAN FIELDS, and THE MERCHANT OF VENICE (the recent version with Al Pacino).
We held off on the Bryn Mawr sale until the third day, because that would allow us to combine the trip with one to the Cranbury Book Worm on one of the "buying days". This was in an attempt to have a net decrease in our volume of books, or at least hold the line. Even on Day 3, there was a huge selection. We ended up with twenty books (three as gifts) and a videotape. (We don't normally buy videotapes these days, but KNIGHTRIDERS is not available on DVD.) Mark said that the mathematics section was better than usual, and found five books. I bought another book that is part mathematics (logic), part philosophy: Robert M. Martin's: THERE ARE TWO ERRORS IN THE THE TITLE OF THIS BOOK. I also found two travelogues, J. R. Ackerley's HINDOO HOLIDAY and Mary Morris's NOTHING TO DECLARE. I don't think that the "X for Beginners" series is as good as "Introducing X", but I bought Richard Appignanesi's FREUD FOR BEGINNERS because 1) he has written other books on Freud, and 2) I have liked his work in the "Introducing X" series. William Irwin's THE SIMPSONS AND PHILOSOPHY is part of a series of philosophy books centered on popular culture. There was also a book on reading by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, a humorous book of supposed letters (such as from Clytemnestra to Agamemnon while he's away), and a study of murder mysteries, a Dover spy novel, a book of Bashevis Singer's stories, and an old Ace double to round out the batch.
Now all I have to do is read them all. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk. -- Thomas Edison
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