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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
05/18/07 -- Vol. 25, No. 46, Whole Number 1441
Table of Contents
This issue is early because on Friday we will be at a ceremony where my father will become a Professor Emeritus of Western New England College. We will return to our usual schedule next week. [-ecl
The letter of comment in last week's issue of the MT VOID which suggested that the lie Obi Wan told could be corrected in the next revision was by Gerald S. Williams, not Gerard W. Ryan. [-ecl]
Bangs and Whimpers (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
If you want to see the plots for twenty good science fiction novels (well, maybe eighteen) you might find of interest "Discover Magazine"'s survey of twenty ways the world could end. Well, the world will end some time, and these are what "Discover" magazine considered the twenty most likely ways. I can think of a few others, like the end we see in CHILDHOOD'S END. Most I had heard of, but rarely collected in one single place.
Bayes's Law (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
One of the arguments usually given for Creation or Intelligent Design is that things had to be just the way they were or intelligent life would not have existed. That argument comes from a possibly willful misunderstanding of Bayes Law. But it is a lot like believers asking, "Without Divine Intervention how do geologists account for the claim that the original prehistoric super-continent Pangea would break up just perfectly to create the continent shapes we have known about since childhood?" [-mrl]
Hammer Resurrected (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I was just writing about Hammer Studios a couple of weeks back (in the 04/27/07 issue of the MT VOID), and now they are in the news again. Hammer was the company that revived gothic horror films in the late 1950s to early 1970s. They were famous for their Dracula, Frankenstein, and Quatermass series. Hammer did good stuff that a lot of people my age remember fondly. Their quality deteriorated over time, slowly raising levels of gore and slowly dropping the levels of necklines. But throughout their run they managed to sprinkle in at least a few intriguing films. The name still conjures up pleasant memories among a lot of fans.
It seems over the past week a European firm has bought up the rights to the Hammer catalog and the rights to make more films under the Hammer banner. It was sold to John de Mol, the Dutch creator of a reality-TV series called "Big Brother." (I know nothing about it.) Hammer films is a familiar name to me, Big Brother is much less so. De Mol claims to want to create a "new generation of horror lovers." To me that sounds good and I would like to think this is good news, but frankly I am less than thrilled.
Hammer's horror films were films of their time. Their reputation was for graphic horror, but the truth was that they did not so much push the outside of the envelope as to tickle it a bit. Their films worked--those that did which admittedly were fewer as time went by--because they had two very good actors. Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee were fine artists. And more importantly they knew they had to play their roles seriously. In the United States, Vincent Price was playing the same kind of roles and enjoying his roles more than I was enjoying watching them. He seemed much too frequently to be playing tongue in cheek. He was tearing down the horror genre with humor while Cushing and Lee were building it up. They might have been having fun with the material, but they were having it off-camera, not on.
But trying to revive Hammer horror now is like trying to revive Orson Welles's "Mercury Theater". Both were reflections of their times and of the personalities of specific people involved with the production. Pushing the envelope on graphic horror would be very different today. These are different times and different creative people would be making the films. And after the lamentable advent of slice-and-dice slasher and torture horror films it is unlikely that audiences would respond to the old sort of Hammer horror.
The de Mol consortium is probably just buying a familiar brand name and putting it on a completely different product. It is like me building cars and calling them Tuckers, claiming it is a rebirth of the Tucker tradition. Simon Oakes, one of the two men charged with running the studio says, "Hammer is a great British media brand that has lain dormant but lived on in people's imaginations. It is more intelligent and character-driven than traditional American 'goreography,' and we intend to capitalize on this and make it a global brand."
"Capitalize?" "Global brand?" That part does not sound good. Calling them intelligent and character-driven sounds a little more promising. And after I say that, I will say that I might have reacted with the same sort of skepticism in 1957 that anyone would still enjoy horror films with the same monsters whom Abbott and Costello were playing slapstick games with.
Hammer films meant a lot to me from the time I saw the double feature of CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HORROR OF DRACULA at the Capitol Theater in Springfield, Massachusetts. I think that must have been about 1962. After that I always looked forward to the next Hammer Film I could see until about 1974 when on a trip to Toronto I saw a movie marquee with TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER, Hammer's second Dennis Wheatley "Black Magic" film. That was the last good Hammer film. With that film the era of great Hammer films came sadly to an end. If this is a rebirth of that era, nobody will be happier than I. [-mrl]
THE PROMISE (WU JI) (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: This is a Chinese fairy tale told in the style of very old Chinese fairy tales but brought to the screen with very modern CGI. A little girl makes a Faustian bargain with a goddess. Huge armies march. Men out-race the wind. Assassins make devious plots. There are some spectacular scenes that we know are generated largely in computers, but they are still fabulous. Chen Kaije's film is the melodramatic and complex story of a princess who has made this bargain and now must choose between a great general and a superhero, knowing she must lose whomever she picks. China's film industry is learning to make fun films. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
There are broccoli films and pizza films. Broccoli is nutritious, and while you are eating you may even appreciate texture and flavor with a little effort. But it is not enjoyable like pizza. There was a time in the 1980s and 1990s when Hong Kong was making some enjoyable action films and at the same time China was making films that were lofty and edifying. The Hong Kong films were like cinematic pizza while Chinese films, following some socialist ideal, were intended to be uplifting-- more the cinematic equivalent of broccoli. China's best uplifting film director was probably Zheng Yimou. Meanwhile the Hong Kong film industry was doing well with their action films, the cinematic equivalent of pizza. The first pizza film to be made by China, to my tastes, was Chen Kaije's THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN, a film of armies, action, and assassins. Somehow this film was appreciated, but did not get a really big following. Perhaps it was just not promoted as a pizza sort of film and people were expecting broccoli. Ang Lee's CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON was only part Chinese, but it probably demonstrated to the Chinese that they could make entertainment films. Zheng Yimou has been awkwardly transitioning from broccoli films to pizza ones. His HERO was a beautiful film and even somewhat fun. THE HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS was even more beautiful, but the story was melodrama and at times just silly. His CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER is visually exquisite but was not dramatically involving. Now Chen Kaije has made a bigger film of armies, action, and assassins. It is not as exquisite as THE CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER--few films are--but is one big dollop of screen entertainment, a big Chinese fairy tale writ large across the screen.
THE PROMISE is the story of a promise and a deception and the long-term effects of each. In the film's first prolog a poor little girl, Qingcheng, promises that in return for riches and glory she would lose any man she would ever love. It a mythic bargain reminding one of Alberich's fateful bargain in the opening of DAS RHINEGOLD. In the second prolog a great conquering general Guangming (played by Hiroyuki Sanda) of a crimson red army acquires a slave Kunlun (Jang Dong-Kun) with the magical power to run as fast as the wind. Almost immediately the general is wounded, apparently mortally, and asks his new slave to perform a mission in the general's all-encompassing armor so people would believe it is the general himself. Kunlun does and on the way saves the life of Qingcheng. At the heart of this story is a love triangle among the general, his magical slave, and the woman who dare not let herself love either. Mixing into the brew is the evil assassin Wuhuan (Nicholas Tse) who covers half his face.
At thirty-five million dollars this is China's most expensive film to date. While that price tag seems modest by Hollywood standards it buys a lot of labor in China. Computer graphics, it should be remembered, are actually very labor-intensive. Technicians have to labor over each frame of a film to get it right. A million dollars buys a lot of digitized tweaking in China. We see huge battles. And there are individual martial arts fights obviously enhanced with wirework. The story may be a little complex and not be easy to follow. There may be a few too many over-dramatic scenes, but this is a fairy tale in a traditional Chinese style. It may not always be coherent, but it is a beautifully visualized fairy tale. The images are highly stylized with strong use of primary colors.
This may be one of the most purely enjoyable films we have seen coming from China. In the end the film may be less than the sum of its parts, but some of those parts are simply marvelous. It is not so much like a RAISE THE RED LANTERN as a Chinese THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, not good in every detail, but with some wonderful images. I rate it a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0417976/
SUPERMAN (1980, Telugu language) (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: A man is able to fix his family's problems when Hanuman gives him super powers. This 1980 Tollywood film is an ultra- cheesy rip-off of the DC Comics character Superman. It was a blockbuster in an India at a time when busting blocks must have been extremely easy. Rating: -2 (-4 to +4) or 1/10
This Tollywood film (like Bollywood but in the language Telugu) creates a cheap Indian version of the famous superhero. The main character in this film is called "Superman", but the film gives every indication that was not the name it was shot under. It could easily have already have been completely filmed before the decision was made to name him that. My un-informed guess is that he was to be called something like Hanu-Man. But under the title SUPERMAN it was much more likely to be a hit. Raja, the main character, wears a super-suit much like the DC comic hero, but he has a big "H" on his chest.
While our hero has powers like Superman, his origin is closer to that of Batman. The film begins during a festival to honor Hanuman. (Note: Hanuman is ape-like and actually the Lord of Apes. If this sounds a little like Sun Wukong, China's Monkey King, there may be a common origin. Hanuman is a loyal servant to Lord Rama in the Ramayana.) Getting back to our story, young Raja is partaking of the festival with his loving parents. They honor a strange-looking stone statue of Hanuman, preparing an offering of valuable gems. But then three badmen, apparently outlaw cowboys, break into the house, steal the gems, and kill Raja's parents before Raja's eyes. The mourning and angry Raja prays to the Hanuman statue that he might be given the power to avenge his parents. The statue at first does nothing, but as his prayers become more fervent suddenly he stands not in front of a statue but before Hanuman himself. Hanuman transforms the grieving Raja into a boy with the powers of Hanuman which are pretty much those of our Superman. His suit is also a minor variation on Superman's suit including a big "H" on his chest. Still, everybody calls him Superman in the dialog and Tollywood songs.
But there the similarities end. Forget about Truth, Justice, and the South Asian Way. Raja has his hands full just punishing his enemies. Raja can fly as a last resort, but prefers to chase villains in his not-very-super mini-van. There is no changing in phone booths for this Superman. At will he can just flash between street cloths or super-suit. In his secret identity he does not wear glasses. In fact, I could not detect any visual difference in his face between his normal and super forms. I guess the tights distract the locals and his identity remains secret. This makes it even less understandable why nobody recognizes him than it does for Clark Kent. Neither Clark Kent nor Raja can dance, but at least our Superman at least knows he can't dance. It has been aptly observed that the actor who plays the adult Raja looks like an Elvis impersonator from Elvis's later, fatter years. Even in tights Raja looks more like a lounge lizard than a superhero, and in or out of costume he looks like just exactly the same lounge lizard. Rama Rao, who plays the adult Raja, could take acting lessons from Paul Naschy. The film attempts a romantic and has a ten-rupee version of the "Can You Read My Mind" idyllic flight.
The special effects of the film have no magic whatsoever and are several steps below even the 1940s Superman serials. At least in the serials the filmmakers knew that they could not do flying effects. In this film when you see Superman fly he is clearly standing on a solid floor and the floor seems to fly with him. To change direction the actor stands still while the camera flips upside-down. The effect is less convincing than it sounds. One rarely sees a film that leaves the viewer with the feeling he could have done the special effects better.
The actor who plays Superman is almost as interesting has the character he plays. Earlier in his career, N. T. Rama Rao had been in a very large number of mythological films, frequently playing deities such as Lord Rama and Lord Krishna. This film was made late in his acting career. Three years later he was elected the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, a southern India state. It did not work out well as he was thrown out of office only to be elected again and again be thrown out of office.
The people I know who like this film, like it to laugh at its incompetence. I generally do not rate a film higher for ineptitude. I will however say that people who do like bad films for parties could do a lot worse than the Telugu SUPERMAN with or without subtitles. I have to rate it a -2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 1/10.
An excerpt can be seen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wj8ApCdC3PM; however, the film *did not* plagiarize the song "Can You Read My Mind?" from SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE. The music in the film is much more like what you hear in the last ten seconds of this clip.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0371968/
Thanks go to Lakshmikanth Madapaty for showing me this film and serving as a reference for technical details. The information is his; the errors are mine. Sorry I could not rate it higher, Lax. [-mrl
BLACK (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: The story of Helen Keller and THE MIRACLE WORKER is transplanted to Northern India so that it can be embedded in a larger story. Ayesha Kapoor and Rani Mukherjee share the role of Michelle McNally, blind and deaf from infancy. She is rescued from limbo by a brilliant teacher (Amitabh Bachchan) who years later must be rescued from the ravages of Alzheimer's Disease. Sanjay Leela Bhansali built a visually beautiful film around the story of "The Miracle Worker." It is hard to imagine such an elegant and satisfying film coming from the Bollywood system. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
Some of the most artistic and beautiful films we are seeing these days are coming from Asia. That is in large part because computer graphics have made a small proportion of new Western films visually spectacular, but at a very large cost. SPIDER-MAN 3 is rumored to have cost more than a third of a billion dollars. Asia has responded with their own films of visual splendor. Production and labor costs are so much less there that beautiful films simply cost a lot less to make. Filmmakers like China's Zhang Yimou have been making stunning-looking films, though of late in films like CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER his images seem more important to him than is his story. In 2002 Indian director Sanjay Leela Bhansali made an opulent adaptation of the popular melodramatic novel DEVDAS for a small fraction of what such a beautiful film would cost in the US. Bhansali knows better than Zhang how to balance story and visuals in this new technological environment. For BLACK he wrote his own story, no doubt inspired by some version of THE MIRACLE WORKER. Here the story matches the visuals in power.
BLACK is the dramatic story of Michelle McNally, once a girl retrieved from the oblivion of being left blind and deaf from an early childhood disease. Later in life she must return the favor to her teacher who is then lost in his own oblivion in life that is Alzheimer's disease. THE MIRACLE WORKER apparently inspired the story, and in fact much of the first half of BLACK is a recapitulation of THE MIRACLE WORKER. The second half of the film tells of Michelle's struggle to adapt to the world in spite of her disability, her relationship with the teacher who saved her, and later her attempts to retrieve him from the clutches of Alzheimer's. As she has been becoming more aware of her wider world, his world is collapsing in on him.
Rani Mukherjee plays Michelle McNally as an adult who is three- quarters British, one quarter Indian and lives in Northern India. As the film begins her beloved Mr. Sahai (Amitabh Bachchan) is found wandering in her town years after he disappeared. Her memory goes back to what this man has meant to her. An early childhood disease robbed her of both her hearing and her vision. Much like Helen Keller she lived like an animal because there was no known way to reach her. An alcoholic teacher, himself almost giving up on life, takes on the task of teaching Michelle. A fictional story of this taming might be expected but because the filmmakers could not improve upon the story of Helen Keller in the play and film THE MIRACLE WORKER they instead simply borrow it. That story forms most of the first half of the film.
As the story continues, Michelle goes to college and (surprise!) she finds that it actually is very difficult for her. But with patience she learns Braille and is able to see a much more complex world. The story covers family drama and her life at school and her religious life. Slowly we see Mr. Sahai fighting lapses of memory. He then disappears altogether. The film builds to the moment that started it. After ten years of apparent wandering Sahai is back in Michelle's village and in need of help. This is melodrama, but it is good melodrama.
Visually Bhansali creates his images with a limited set of colors. He rarely strays from white, gray, blue, and, of course, black. Black is very important to the entire film. Michelle creates her own definition for the color black that has engulfed her life. Black becomes for her a metaphor, a mystical metaphysical color.
BLACK is a very moving film. It is nearly as moving as Arthur Penn's version of THE MIRACLE WORKER and then tells its own story which is nearly as powerful. I rate BLACK a low +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0375611/
Unexpected Interconnectivity (letter of comment by Kenneth Howard):
In response to Mark's article on unexpected interconnectivity in the 05/11/07 issue of the MT VOID, Ken Howard writes, "I saw this week's editorial. Thanks for the citation. I agree with your general point about side effects, but would point out that an important factor is how we adopt the technology, rather than just the technology itself. Cars, for example. Two from food processing: high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated vegetable oils are also candidates." [-kh]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
When we visited Washington and Oregon in April, my major destination in Portland was Powell's Books. Powell's Books is the largest bookstore in the United States, filling an entire city block, three stories tall--and that is just their main store. They claim over a million volumes in their main store. (The Strand claims 18 miles of books, which I calculate is also about a million volumes, but it is crammed into a smaller space, and they do not have the extra locations that Powell's has.)
Powell's has all the features of an independent bookstore: staff picks, notes about authors hanging on the shelves ("Looking 4 Andrey BIELY? <- Try it spelled BELY"), and so on. It also had something which may be unique to them--the inter-filing of new and used books. (I have known other stores that have tried this, and then given it up.) [Actually, I saw this later in one of the small stores in Astoria as well, so it may be more common than I thought.] There are even in-store computer screens where one can look up what room and aisle a book is in. Oh, yes, the place is divided into rooms: the blue room is literature, the purple is history and philosophy and so on.
Unlike many bookstores, Powell's concentrates solely on books. Oh, there are some non-book items: travel gadgets in the travel section, literary action figures (Poe and Shakespeare), magnetic poetry, and Powell's shirts, mugs, etc. But they do not have music, movies, or any of that sort of stuff. (They do have audio books, which are shelved separately in the Coffee Room, rather than inter-filed with the non-audio counterparts. Odd.)
Bookshelves go up to very high ceilings, but the top few shelves are labeled "Overstock--employees only" and everything that is shelved for customers was within my reach (I'm 5'3"). There did not seem to be any step-ladders, but every room has a staffed information desk whose person can assist you if you cannot reach something. And the staff are invaluable for answering questions such as, "Where are the anthologies shelved?" or "Where are books on bookstores?" While you might know which room you want, still each is a bit of a maze.
Everything is well-labeled, and findable with the computer--if you think to ask, rather than just looking where you *think* something should be. For example, Boehmer's CITY OF READERS, about Portland's bookstores, is filed with "Pacific Northwest/Portland" in the Green Room, not with the rest of the bookstore books in "Books on Books" in the Blue Room.
It is an amazing store, unique among bookstores. With all this, it seems mean-spirited to point out its shortcomings. But there are shortcomings: selection, size, and price.
I had read somewhere that it had every book in print; this is probably not possible, but I had hoped to find an improved selection because of the used books. However, Powell's is primarily a *new* bookstore. I would estimate that used books are less than 25% of the stock. (Mark said that the sections he looked at were less than 10% used.) The coverage of several authors was somewhat spotty. There were no copies of any of the collaborations between Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares. The only Russell Hoban novels they had were KLEINZEIT, PILGERMANN, and RIDDLEY WALKER. (He has had at least four recent ones that I would have thought still in print.) They did not have Howard Waldrop's recent collections CUSTER'S LAST JUMP or DREAM FACTORIES AND RADIO PICTURES.
One has to be sure one is looking in the right place, of course (as with the Boehmer book mentioned above). There were whole sections I did not get to because I did not realize they existed. For example, there is a "Classics" section apart from "Literature". Had "Literature" been called "Fiction", I would have looked for "Classics" as well. (On the other hand, I think "Classics" might be just Greek and Roman classics, as I seem to recall seeing Dickens on the "Literature" shelves.) Their "Metaphysics" is in a separate room (Red Room: "Scene of Discovery") from their "Philosophy" (Purple Room: "Where Past Meets Present").
Ironically, another problem is that Powell's is too large. When I go into Shakespeare & Co. in New York, its selection is small, but well-chosen to include a lot of interesting books one does not see elsewhere. These books are probably all at Powell's, but there are *so* many books that it is hard to find them.
Powell's "Science" section is a bit small, but they have an entirely separate Powell's Technical Books store a couple of blocks away, so the bulk of science and math may be there.
Have I been spoiled by the Internet? Undoubtedly. But it is also a resistance to new book prices--when 75% or more of the books seem overpriced to me, it makes the store less appealing. (I hardly ever go to Borders or Barnes & Noble either.) For me, the Strand is more attractive. The selection is spottier, perhaps, since (almost) everything is used (they do have a couple of tables of discounted new books). But when I find a book in the Strand, I am reasonably sure that the price will be reasonable. (As Mark expressed it, if dimes were dollars, he would have found a lot of books in Powell's he wanted.)
It is not just American prices. In fact, these may be relatively cheaper than elsewhere--slim mass-market-sized volumes of Borges's works in Spanish were $12.99 each. (Of course, the fact that they actually had four different Borges titles in Spanish is a tribute to Powell's!) And part of my feeling on prices may be because I have become more selective since retiring. It's not that we are suddenly poor, but there is a psychological change that happens when you swap a salary for a pension. When I was working, I would buy some new hardbacks, and the price was not a major issue. (Even then, space was a bigger concern.) Now I rarely buy new hardbacks, and even paperbacks at $7.99 seem expensive. For that matter, the only section I saw which seemed to have a large selection of used mass-market paperbacks was the science fiction (and horror). Most of the rest tended toward hardbacks or trade paperbacks. And the paperbacks in the science fiction section were older, out-of-print ones, priced accordingly. Powell's is not a place to go for half-price science fiction paperbacks.
And of course, added to all this was the fact that we were traveling with just carry-on luggage, so buying books meant we had to pack them. There is no incentive to pay full price for books we can get at home for the same price or less.
We did buy three books, all used. I bought a copy of Evan Morris's THE BOOK LOVER'S GUIDE TO THE INTERNET, now ten years old and woefully out of date--but I *am* mentioned in it (for the "rec.arts.books" FAQ and also my "encyclopedic" bookstore lists). We picked up a copy of Bernard DeVoto's THE COURSE OF EMPIRE for $5.95 that had been $17 at the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center. And Mark bought a fantasy origami book. One additional benefit of Powell's is that, being in Oregon, there is no sales tax!
[In regard to THE BOOK LOVER'S GUIDE TO THE INTERNET, Mark notes, "This is not a recommendation. You have heard of the Boulevard of Broken Dreams? This book charts the information super-highway of broken links." -mrl]
No bookstore lover should miss visiting Powell's. In competition with any new book store, it is a clear winner. But people expecting a vast supply of cheap (or cheap-ish) used books are likely to be disappointed.
A word about parking is probably in order. Powell's has its own garage, which is almost always full (but worth checking out--it's on the west side of the building, which is one-way heading *towards* Burnside). It was full on Saturday, but we had no problem getting in late Sunday afternoon. Well, what I mean is that there were lots of free spaces. But the in/out ramp is very steep and has the tightest turn I can remember--we had a small car, and it took me a three-point turn going in and a *five*- point one going out to make the turn. (Not only is the turn tight, but one must be very careful of the support pillars right next to it!) The first hour is free with any purchase; the second and third are $1.25 each. Metered parking on the streets nearby is limited to 90 minutes, which probably would not allow you enough time (assuming you could find a space), and lots are not cheap. Your best times may be weekends, when parking can be found for $3 all day. Or use public transportation. Powell's is open 9AM-11PM 365 days a year, so you could also try late evenings. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Illusion is the dust the devil throws in the eyes of the foolish. -- Minna Antrim, Naked Truth and Veiled Allusions
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