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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
03/28/08 -- Vol. 26, No. 39, Whole Number 1486
Table of Contents
Michael Chabon's novel-nominated novel is THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION, not THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN'S UNION. That is, the union has more than one policeman. (This typo was in the initial press release. In fact, it was apparently in the mail sent to Chabon notifying him, and *he* didn't notice it!) [-ecl]
Star Quest (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Netflix has a member rating system for their films. One rates a film from one to five stars. Then under each film they display you see some number of stars which is their average rating. One day this week they did not display the stars. It was as if the stars were just suddenly winking out. I was thinking that might be a tribute to the recently deceased Arthur C. Clarke. [-mrl]
City Editor Has a Lot of It Wrong (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I think I just lost my respect for the important position of newspaper editor. This is an except of an editorial by Greg Bucci, city editor of the "Mohave Daily News":
H.G. Wells had a lot of it right.
I've always been a fan of H.G. Wells, the 19th/20th century British sci-fi author. You know, he's the guy who penned such classics as "The War of the Worlds," "The Time Machine" and my personal favorite, "1984."
Besides giving me column fodder from time to time, Wells has provided Hollywood with motion picture themes since, well, a darned long time ago.
In "1984," Wells describes a frightening future with kids spying on their parents and their neighbors; screens in every home that monitor everyone doing almost everything humans do. In the 1956 film based on Wells' book, helicopter-like devices whirred overhead in the hellish city in which the hero Winston Smith resided. [http://tinyurl.com/ysnf93]
I suspect that Mr. Bucci may by now be able to see the upside of being able to go back and edit history they way Wells described it in his 1984. [-mrl]
Old Films with New Ideas (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I read David Brin's short story "The Crystal Spheres" recently. In the story it is discovered that there is an invisible barrier in space, a "crystal sphere" around the solar system. Spaceships that do not expect that this invisible barrier is they collide with it and never know what hit them. If humans want to get out into interstellar space they have to break through this barrier first. Once they do the whole universe is there. But first they have to smash their way through the barrier. It is a very dramatic idea to smash through an invisible barrier and to escape to the freedom of being able to go anywhere in the universe. It is almost like a baby chicken has to get through the shell to get to get to the real world outside. This 1984 story won the Hugo for Best Short Story, mostly because of its idea. There was something about this story that I found a little odd. I will get back to it shortly.
One of the perennial topics of discussion at science fiction conventions is how bad science fiction films are compared to written science fiction. Most science fiction fans are convinced that there is a lot better writing in books than in films. One argument is that the films do not have as good ideas as the written form does. If I get on one of these panels I tend to like to play Devil's Advocate. I perhaps am not so fond of the current crop of science fiction films, but I make the outrageous case that films by any objective standard do better than would be expected when compared to the written science fiction. Let me try to give a case in favor of science fiction films.
Comparing a science fiction novel to a film is an unfair comparison to start with. These days a science fiction novel is often 500 pages long. And those pages are fairly dense with writing. A rule of thumb says that a film script has about one page for each minute of film time. So a film script is about 100 pages with a lot of white space. To be fair, a film has to be compared to a story about 20 to maybe 50 pages. You might expect that you can do a lot more with 500 pages rather than something like 40 pages.
Even then it is not a fair comparison. A science fiction film has to be for the most part external to the characters, seeing them from the outside. A written story can tell you what is going on inside a character's head, while a film has to show it with sign language. This means that a film usually has to be more superficial. Now the filmmaker can make up for it a little by using visuals. But visuals tend to slow down the story telling even more and that makes for less story told. Consider how long it takes to read the words "the dog jumped off the boat and ran down the beach." To show that action in a film takes considerably longer than it does to read the words.
I do not know how many short stories and novelettes there are published in science fiction in a year, but I suspect that there are a lot more than there are films. A film is an expensive production (literally). To write a story requires only a PC. We would expect that stories should be a lot better than science fiction films. Sorry, I just do not get the impression that the stories I see are so much better than the films. I think that if one took the first twenty science fiction films released in a given year and the first new twenty stories less than fifty pages to appear in print, I think the films would do very well by comparison to the stories. Considering the flexibility that a prose author has you would expect the stories to do a lot better and they just simply do not.
The argument can be made that more interesting ideas go into the stories than the films. I do not mean to be picking on David Brin with my examples, but two of his more audacious and seemingly original ideas I had seen earlier in films. For years when people have talked about Brin's Uplift series I have pointed out that the idea of Uplift was apparently originated by TV and film writer Nigel Kneale. Uplift is one species or race bringing another race to higher intelligence. In Brin's "Uplift" series, no species has ever made the jump to space travel without being uplifted by another race. But as far as I have been able to tell the first case of uplift in science fiction appeared in the 1958 BBC television play "Quatermass and the Pit". The story was redone as a film in 1967. The idea of uplift appeared again in the film 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY in which apes are apparently raised to a higher level of intelligence by alien intervention. But as far as I have ever been able to tell, Nigel Kneale invented the idea of uplift. (Well, with three moot exceptions. One might argue that there was a rough sort of uplift in H. G. Wells's THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU. Machinery rather than an alien race did a sort of unintentional uplift in the film FORBIDDEN PLANET. Also one might hold that real world teaching human communications skills to apes and birds is a form of uplift.) I do not know if Brin was influenced by these earlier dramatic works, but it seems quite certain he saw uplift in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY before he wrote about uplift.
Now the reader has probably guessed that I am going to make a case that the concept of Brin's crystal spheres--a concept that won him a Hugo I might add--had appeared earlier in a film. But probably most readers will not be able to think of the film because today it is an almost forgotten film. In 1957 the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. Roger Corman realized that the birth of what was to be a space race was on everybody's minds. So was a fascination with the whole concept of satellites. In early 1958 he directed a fairly weak science fiction film to capitalize on the new interest in space satellites. The film he made was THE WAR OF THE SATELLITES. The film's concept is that to prevent humans from venturing too far into space aliens have put an invisible barrier around the Earth. Spacecraft that collide with this barrier break up like they hit a brick wall. Once humans understand the barrier they smash through it and are ready to go into deep space. Brin made his sphere bigger and encompassed the entire solar system, but otherwise the concept is very close to the same. Maybe it is just coincidence and maybe David Brin knows a good idea when he sees it over popcorn. As far as I know, nobody but your humble servant has ever noticed that Brin's "Crystal Spheres" and his "Uplift" are both re-uses of ideas from much older stories, pieces from dramatic science fiction. [-mrl]
MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Bharat Nalluri directs the story based on a novel by Winifred Watson of a luckless and now jobless governess who manages to cheat her way into a position as a social secretary for an attractive but scatterbrained actress. Pettigrew, who never had much luck managing her own life, finds she is perfect in this job and can use it to help guide the actress to a better life. The story uses too many contrived coincidences and has too many major characters we just do not care about. The cast is good, but the material lets them down. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
We are in late 1930s London, a city still in the clutches of the Great Depression and just weeks away from entering World War II. Guinevere Pettigrew (played by Frances McDormand) is in the clutches of her own personal depression. The widow seems unable to hold a job as a governess. Out of work and alone, she haunts soup kitchens to get what food she can. When she hears of a job working for an actress Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams) she steals the calling card with the address and tells the actress that the agency sent her. Little does she know that in hours this job would thrust her into the glamorous world of the beautiful people.
This all could have been done with a Frank Capra sort of feel. But there were small problems with the script. For me overall the writing did not quite work. First there are multiple important coincidences that occur to drive the plot. This leaves the story with a contrived feel. And whatever good things come to Pettigrew would not if she did not have enormous good luck. We may be happy for her, but we do not feel her betterment came from her personal virtues but because by chance she was lucky.
Still, the Capra-like plot might have worked if the characters were appealing. Their being decent people would be their chief virtue. Francis McDormand's Miss Pettigrew schlemiel does have our empathy at the beginning, but by the middle of the film she no longer seems the same Chaplinesque quality. Once her luck is working for her and she seems a different character. Much of the initial empathy wears off as she seems to know just the right thing to do. Having better luck could have been a matter of chance, but her savoir-faire seems to come out of no place. Even Pettigrew seems puzzled that things start working out for her. Her talent is neither explained nor motivated. Her new capabilities are used to the benefit of Delycia. I Pettigrew loses empathetic values Delycia never really has them in the first place. In her scatter-brained way Delycia is managing to string along three men for her own purposes and is getting professional advantage using sex. Miss Pettigrew is helping her to get what she wants out of life and the viewer may be less than sure she deserves it. The smart set on London society never have come off as so liberal in a film before. Immediately they seem to accept Pettigrew as one of their own, even with her in her mousy brown lower class clothing. Nobody gives her appearance another thought.
Francis McDormand in the title role is a good actress and is sufficiently convincing as a Londoner even being familiar from American film, particularly those of the Coen Brothers going back to their first film BLOOD SIMPLE. She is quite believable in the part until the script calls for her to be beautiful. She is not the traditional image of Hollywood beauty. That description could to Amy Adams as Delysia. Most of the audience will remember Adams for ENCHANTED. I missed that film, but she was very good in 2005's JUNEBUG. Her character was a bit irritating here, but that may be right for the character and she plays it to the hilt. John de Borman's camera plays up her attractiveness and repeatedly manages by just micro-millimeters to preserve here modesty in scenes in which she is obviously nude. Ciaran Hinds as seems to show up in a lot of films these days. In the last few months he has been in MARGOT AT THE WEDDING, THERE WILL BE BLOOD, and IN BURGES. In our household, however, his signature role was as Julius Caesar in HBO's ROME miniseries. Here as Joe Blumfield he plays the only character whose gravitas seems to match Pettigrew's. Rounding out the roster of familiars is Shirley Henderson whom we see in a lot of films, but is probably best known as Moaning Myrtle in the Harry Potter films.
MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY is a fluffy little comedy that calls heavily on its actors to make its characters amiable. Somehow the characters never manage to make it all the way to likable. This film works as a quick throwaway comedy, only 90 minutes long, but is likely to be quickly forgotten. I rate it a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0970468/
JELLYFISH (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Three intertwined stories of three women in Tel Aviv make for an effective, short, and economical piece of filmmaking. We get a mix of comedy, tragedy, and some mysticism. The stories are strange and offbeat and just matter-of-factly seem to drift into magical realism. Respected short story writer Etgar Karat co-directs with scriptwriter Shira Geffen. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
Three dramas about three women take place in Tel Aviv in this film. Each story lightly touches the other two, but wends its own way. Batya (played by Sarah Adler) is a waitress at a somewhat sleazy catered banquet hall. We see her in the days after losing her boy friend and her job is not going well. The managers are nasty, the food preparation not very clean. Batya herself is tightly bound to her own unpleasant past. But then, as if to take her out of herself, a young girl in a swim ring comes out of the sea. The little girl has no parents around and seems to have come out of nowhere. She also has a strange unworldly air about her. Batya wants to help the mysterious little girl find her family, but that will be harder than she thinks. Keren (Noa Knoller) had a wedding reception was at the same bad banquet hall where Batya worked. For her life is beautiful and she is ready for her honeymoon. Then she finds herself locked in a restroom stall and has to climb out, breaking her leg in the process. This destroys her honeymoon plans. Her new husband wants to find her a nice hotel in Tel Aviv, but one room after another is just not very good. To make matters worse, the hotel they choose does have a nice suite, but there is a woman staying in it and Keren's new husband seems to take an interest in the woman that Keren finds uncomfortable. In the third strand, the joyless Joy (Ma-Nenenita De Latorre) is in Israel trying to find work, but her heart is back at home in the Philippines with her son. She is looking for a job caring for babies where her lack of Hebrew language will not matter, but the employment office keeps giving her elderly and unpleasant women to care for. Making matters worse she speaks some English and her own language from home, but none of the women speak either language.
Each of these women is having an unpleasant time. They are not in control of their lives but are buffeted by the currents of chance like ocean currents buffet jellyfish. Their lives will each somehow connect with the magical renewing power of the sea. Co-director Etgar Keret has an international reputation as a short story writer. His stories are bizarre and frequently enigmatic and that is the style of this film. There are threads that seem to wind through the film, but do not add up to much. There is a charity drive going on and seems to touch all three stories, but that thread never seems to go anywhere.
The production values of JELLYFISH can best be described as sufficient. The photography is not highly polished. It is not a work of art. But it gets the job done. JELLYFISH may not be an easy film to find. It is not the kind of film that one generally sees even the art house circuit. Currently it is playing at film festivals where it is picking up prizes. It will have an opening in New York City starting April 4.
This is a calm, gentle, yet pointed little film with strong characters. The viewer is not always sure he understands what is being said, but the overall effect is pleasant. I rate JELLYFISH a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0807721/
WAIT UP HARRIET (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: A religious message in the form of a little story of how one man solves his personal problems by turning to God and returning to living his life. This is a film for a select audience, probably including church groups who will respond to its message. This is a simple religious film shot with simple production values. Australian Angus Benfield both stars and directs based on a script by Hanna Eichler who also directs. The film is a United States/New Zealand co-production. Rating: low +1 (-4 to +4) or 5/10
These days Sunday morning religious programs are mostly of the format of some televangelist giving a sermon. Back in the 1960s Sunday morning would bring short religious dramas. Generally, they were about an hour long and they all built to some religious lesson. You always knew where they were going. Somebody has deep personal problems and the answer is accepting God and religion. They were a little pat, but they were entertaining in a timeslot when they did not have a whole lot of competition for video attention. I have not seen one of little dramas in years, but WAIT UP HARRIET brings them all back and is a return to that tradition. It is a parable in the form of a little drama. The narrative style is a little more complex with an 86-minute runtime, but the production values may even be a little more simple.
Jack (Angus Benfield) is a man who lives in the past. He had a beautiful, loving, attentive wife Harriet (Melanie Cannan). When Harriet died young, Jack all but died also. He had been an enthusiastic firefighter who enjoyed getting together with others in his fire company, and they all accepted Harriet as one of the guys. When Jack lost Harriet he became nearly a recluse. As we see him he rarely leaves leave his house and more rarely sees his old friends. Instead he eats out of cans and lives in memories of how he met Harriet and how he married her. Jack ignores his son Todd by a previous marriage (Mitch Potts) and bickers with his first wife.
Then all of a sudden there is a new woman who blows into Jack's life and not entirely a welcome one. Marty is not a romantic interest. She is just a friend, but she wants to be just what Jack needs. Her bright red wardrobe and slightly gaudy jewelry attest to her attitude accepting herself and of living life. Marty went to the same church with Harriet and they were good friends. Marty knows what has happened to Jack and now wants to lead Jack out into the living world again as part of her life-affirming Christian philosophy.
The story is simple and the production values are equally simple, appearing to be as effective as a small budget could allow. They get the job done, but show minimal style. The film looks shot on digitally with straightforward lighting and camera work. Reportedly it was shot in ten days for about $20,000. The score by Rob Gilmour seems done on a single guitar, occasionally accompanied by singing. The storytelling is a little slow and introspective.
WAIT UP HARRIET will be released to DVD on April 28, 2008. I am not the target audience and not the sort of viewer who would get full value from a film of this sort. For my tastes I would rate WAIT UP HARRIET a low +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 5/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt1151002/
Overly Frank People (letter of comment by Bill Higgins):
In his comments on science fiction as a literature of discontent in the 03/14/08 issue of the MT VOID, Mark said of people in the hotel lobby at a science fiction convention, "The 'beautiful' people are just there by chance. The people who look a little strange or unkempt or who dress differently or who have a weight problem or a peculiar posture are probably there for the convention. They are bright people, but they look odd. (I am sorry if I am being overly frank. Maybe I should call fans 'non-conformist'.)"
Bill Higgins writes, "The people who are being overly frank are *also* probably there for the convention." [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
This month's science fiction discussion book was THE SIRENS OF TITAN by Kurt Vonnegut (ISBN-13 978-0-385-33349-8, ISBN-10 0-385-33349-8). The point of the book is the pointlessness of human existence, and so far as I can tell, Vonnegut tried to demonstrate this with the book. Very little seems to happen, and one doesn't get very involved with the characters either.
And it is good that Vonnegut is not an author who attempts to predict the future: "According to figures released by the Bureau of Internal Revenue, Fern was the highest-paid executive in the country. He had a salary of a flat million dollars a year--plus stock-option plans and cost-of-living adjustments." Magnetically suspended furniture, rocket travel, etc., yet executives make less than a million dollars a year. Oh, if only it were so.
A TALENT TO DECEIVE: AN APPRECIATION OF AGATHA CHRISTIE by Robert Barnard (ISBN-13 978-0-892-96911-1, ISBN-10 0-892-96911-3) is an analysis of Christie's work. Unlike many books about Christie, this is no mere recounting of plots, but a look at the techniques she used, how her style and characters changed over the years, and so on. In short, it is a book worth reading.
And I want to note one chapter in particular, because some of what it says relates to my comments on various Christie stories over the years. In the chapter on Christie's thrillers (as opposed to her mysteries), Barnard talks about Christie's racial slurs against various groups, particularly the Jews. "These references were never removed in later editions, any more than the even more offensive allusions in Dorothy Sayers have disappeared from Gollancz editions to this day . Christi's American publishers, however, have silently edited them out, which may conceivably be good for race relations but is bad for the social historian." This is, of course, precisely what I have been saying.
But Barnard also notes that "things did change over the years. In the novels of the 'twenties one can be fairly sure that any Jewish character will be ridiculed, abused or rendered sinister. Even as late as the early 'thirties Christie can perpetrate a remark such as: 'He's a Jew, of course, but a frightfully decent one.' However, as she records in her AUTOBIOGRAPHY, about that date she had a meeting in the Near East with a German Director of Antiquities whom she describes as ideally kind, gentle and considerate--until the mention of Jews, at which 'his face changed and he said: "They should be exterminated. Nothing else will really do but that."' The remark came apparently as a complete shock: 'It was the first time I had come across any hint of what was to come later from Germany.' A more politically sensitive person might have sensed the rise of organized anti- Semitism earlier; might even has expressed shame at her own unthinking acceptance of repulsive attitudes. But at any rate from that date offensive references to Jews cease in her novels." [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: The good life, as I conceive it, is a happy life. I do not mean that if you are good you will be happy; I mean that if you are happy you will be good. -- Bertrand Russell
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