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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
07/09/10 -- Vol. 29, No. 2, Whole Number 1605
Table of Contents
Dome (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I have never been able to appreciate the architectural beauty of the Jefferson Memorial having lived, as I did, through the era of roll-on deodorants. [-mrl]
3D: Fad or the Future of Cinema (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Most people reading this will be aware that 3D is very big in the film industry at the current moment. These days most of the high- profile fantasy films coming out seem to be in 3D. Major filmmakers are saying that 3D movies are the wave of the future. Meanwhile television manufacturers are looking into how to best make a 3D television available at home. Is 3D the wave of the future? Perhaps. Do I think this is a good thing? Well, I was impressed with the first few films I saw of the new 3D technology. The means of making and projecting of films in 3D is so much better than it has been in the past. Real-D with its circular polarization really created the effect of seeing objects in dimension. But if 3D is the wave of the future it will have to prove itself not just in the technology, but in adding to the art. I am not sure it is doing that right now.
The production of films has had three major enhancements prior to 3D. They are 1) motion itself, 2) sound, and 3) color. There are, of course, dozens of technical innovations every year. And there have been changes like going to wide-screen and the addition of CGI. But these three have had the greatest impact on the viewer. Has each really advanced the artistic merits of storytelling and helped the artist to be expressive?
I think that there is no doubt that motion added a lot over the stilted slide-show and magic lantern presentations that preceded it. Further I do not doubt that sound added a lot. It is extremely difficult to convey dialog with pantomime and title cards. Silent film acting was of necessity punctuated with florid gestures. It would be very dull to see realistic human behavior in a silent film. Try watching people sitting near you in a restaurant and see if their actions without sound would be expressive enough on silent film. Expressing emotion without vocal tone is really a very difficult task. It took only a handful of years for silent film to give way to sound film.
Adding color to film took much longer. Some films going back to pioneer films would have some very limited color touches. Georges Méliès had hand-painted color in his films at least as far back as 1897. Today it is a rarity to see a film done in monochrome, but not nearly so rare as to see a silent film. I think it would be hard to make a case that color brought anywhere near the expression to films that sound did. A high proportion of the best films ever made were made in black and white at a time when they could have had color. Many are better for having been made in black and white. CASABLANCA could have accented the exotic locale and the sharp gray of the German uniforms if it had been made in color. Neither was really the point of the film. Color would really have been a distraction and would undercut the emotion of the story. Actually these days filmmakers who want to mute the emotion of films can wash out the color and have the same emotional texture of monochrome. On the other hand if one is doing a film about the Arabian Nights or South Sea islands, color conveys more than black and white. If what you are making is a deeply felt human drama, generally the best you can hope color to do is not to damage the tone. It seems that the more serious the film, the less that color adds over monochrome.
Whatever I say about the artistic value of adding color goes double for 3D. This is, of course, far from the first time that 3D has been tried. The 1950s marked the first rush of 3D films. At that time television was just becoming popular. The film industry was greatly afraid that free television broadcasts would eclipse the popularity of films. People were getting sound and pictures right in their homes. The film industry wanted something that would set them apart from what people could see in their homes and one thing they hit on was 3D movies. There are certainly films that are the better for having 3D. AVATAR and HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON did have those nice flying sequences. Flying is very much a 3-D activity. You are moving in three-dimensional space. But how much of the film is involved in 3D activity? There are just a handful of showpiece sequences. But human drama is not much enhanced by taking place in three dimensions. CASABLANCA would be at most very little improved if it were seen in color and probably not at all in 3D. More likely the drama of the story would be lost. In a story of real human drama is not improved by the feeling you are standing actually in the midst of the characters.
I would not rule out that some enterprising filmmaker could find a way to make 3D be expressive in drama deeper than action films. But that is not happening now. Alfred Hitchcock did one film DIAL M FOR MURDER in 3D. His 3D direction was fairly good. But that is a film of dialog and not much in the way of actions. All Hitchcock succeeded in doing was keeping the 3D from damaging the experience of the film.
One more consideration is that 3D is useless for five to ten percent of the audience who do not have binary depth perception. Then there are people whose eyes do not align when they focus or who suffer from amblyopia. And others get eyestrain. There are no good figures I know of, but a significant fraction of the population cannot use 3D. The deaf did not stop the sound revolution, but it is a consideration.
I guess my feeling about 3D is that it is a tool for the right purpose, but it is a purpose that does not occur all that frequently. If it is a flying sequence where spatial relationships matter--like a WWI biplane dogfight--I think that there is a real place for 3D. I cannot think of a single scene from Shakespeare that 3D would do much for. (P.S. In retrospect, perhaps the murder of Julius Caesar.)
If 3D really takes hold we can expect it to be used a lot for Cinema d'Blo'em'up. But it just is not going to add much drama to serious stories. It is just a way to make films more like amusement park rides. If that is the wave of the future, I suspect it will be bad for cinema. But deep down I suspect that the 3D craze may be just temporary. It really is there to give films in theaters an edge over home video. 3D was really the last advantage that your movie theater had over home video. But it really has not been around for long before home video is promising to offer 3D. When it is no longer a novelty at theaters I think the studios will lose interest in it.
Independently, Roger Ebert wrote an article on the subject of 3D's contribution or lack thereof. It can be found at http://tinyurl.com/267cdby if the reader wants another take on a related question. [-mrl]
INFERNO by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (copyright 1976 Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, 2008 Blackstone Audio, Inc., 5 hr 42 min, narrated by Tom Weiner) (audiobook review by Joe Karpierz):
Back when I was in high school, I read GALAXY magazine. In 1976, the magazine serialized INFERNO, by Niven and Pournelle. I loved the novel so much that I a) read a whole bunch more Niven and Pournelle before I got tired of them, and b) wanted to read Dante's Inferno, after which the Niven and Pournelle effort is patterned. I never did read Dante, alas, but I always remembered INFERNO with a kind spot in my heart.
And then the inevitable happened. Niven and Pournelle wrote a sequel a couple of years ago. I wanted to read (or listen to) that sequel. But I hadn't read INFERNO since 1976. So, armed with audible.com credits, I purchased INFERNO. And I'm glad I did.
Those readers who have been around forever--or at least since the 70s--are probably familiar with the book. Allan Carpentier, a science fiction writer, drank too much at a convention and fell out a hotel window to his death. When he came to, he was inside a bottle at the vestibule of Hell. Crying out for help from G(g)od (he's agnostic), a guide, Benito, releases him from the bottle and offers to take him to the exit from Hell. The problem is, that exit is located in the lowest circle of Hell, at the feet of Lucifer.
Carpentier, though, doesn't buy the fact that he's in Hell--he calls it Infernoland, as if it were a giant amusement park built by some sick developers trying to make a buck. He takes Benito up on his offer, though, since he doesn't see much else that he can do at the moment. He spends a lot of time doing what any good science fiction writer would do--he tries to figure out how the place works, the scientific setup behind it, etc.
His outlook changes, however, when he is injured, and watches himself heal. There's no man made artifact that can do that. He slowly comes to realize that he really is in Hell, and that he needs to get out. He really needs to get out. He believes this is Hell, but as he watches the punishments of the damned get worse and worse, he has a hard time reconciling the place with a G(g)od that would punish people like this.
For those of you who haven't read the book, I won't spoil the ending, nor will I give away who his guide really is. Suffice it to say that the novel is an interesting investigation into the psyche of a modern SF writer trying to understand why a loving G(g)od would create a place like this. The story does mimic Dante in many places and ways, so I'm told. Probably the one downside to this novel is that it does feel dated. Hell is populated by Western (read U.S.) characters who have a Christian outlook on life. The book's language, treatment of women, and views on homosexuality are clearly from a different era. However, this is one terrific novel.
Narrator Tom Weiner does an outstanding job with the source material, playing multiple male and female parts with extreme skill. Weiner really adds to the quality of this audiobook.
The next time someone tells you to "go to hell", pick up a copy of INFERNO. You'll be glad you did. [-jak]
THE CITY & THE CITY (letter of comment by Fred Lerner):
In response to Joe Karpierz's review of THE CITY & THE CITY in the 07/04/10 issue of the MT VOID, Fred Lerner writes:
Joe Karpierz wrote, "And now there's THE CITY & THE CITY, which I actually enjoyed--but in my opinion has no elements of the fantastic in it whatsoever." He then went on to say that "the setting is a physical location that has two cities--countries, actually--occupying it at the same time--Beszel and Ul Qoma. ... the idea is that a person in one city may not notice or see anyone in the other city. If they accidentally notice someone in the other city, they must "unsee" them--act as if they didn't see them at all."
Now, I haven't read THE CITY & THE CITY, so by rights I've got no business quarrelling with a review written by someone who has. But this review seems inherently self-contradictory. If the premise of the story, as Joe describes it, isn't fantastic, then what is? [-fl]
Evelyn notes, "Well, as I wrote in my column in the 04/30/10 issue of the MT VOID, there is Baarle, a real city that seems physically similar to Beszel/Ul Qoma in that it has enclaves within enclaves, etc. The 'un-seeing' part does not apply in Baarle, however, and that part, as well as what originally caused the situation ("Breach"), seem to be what people point to as the fantastic elements. However, I strongly recommend that you read THE CITY & THE CITY--it's one of the few books that really excited me over the past decade or so." [-ecl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
CIVIL WAR CURIOSITIES by Webb Garrison (ISBN-13 978-1-55853-315-8) seemed promising. After all, there are lots of Civil War curiosities; here are just three:
I could list many more, but I won't.
But although Garrison devotes an entire chapter to soldiers handicapped by the war, he never mentions Powell. Nor does he relate the Sedgwick incident. He does cover Wilmer McLean but on the other hand he manages consistently to misspell Mary Boykin Chesnut's name. In short, I was disappointed.
BABEL-17 by Samuel R. Delany is an old book (it was first published in 1966), but I had never read it before. One reason was that other Delany books I had read (DHALGREN, NOVA) had put me off Delany. Thinking about it, though, I wonder if some of that was that I had read those books when I was too young for them (NOVA when I was 22, DHALGREN when I was 25). Delany is not an easy author, and maybe one needs more maturity than I had then. At any rate, BABEL-17 when I was 59 did not seem nearly as hard to read (except maybe for Part Four, which I think is *supposed* to be hard to read). What made me pick it up was hearing that it was based on linguistics, and in particular on the idea of a(n artificial) language which has no first-person-singular pronouns (or first- person-plural, or second-person either). Having just finished listening to John H. McWhorter's Teaching Company course on human language, I was eager to read stories that used some of the ideas that I have just heard, and BABEL-17 did this. Delany definitely uses the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis here--the idea that not having a first-person-singular pronoun will affect how a person regards himself (as opposed to the Sapper-Worf hypothesis, which says that Picard should transfer Worf to the bomb squad).
And consider the following passage: "I saw a bunch of the weirdest, oddest people I had ever met in my life, who thought different, and acted different, and even made love different. And they made me laugh, and get angry, and be happy, and be sad, and excited, and even fall in love a little. ... And they didn't seem to be so weird or strange anymore." The fact that this book is from 1966 means that this was written three years before Stonewall, so its lack of subtlety is understandable.
Oh, and there is humor as well. One off-stage character is named Muels Aranlyne, and he had written a book titled EMPIRE STAR. Samuel R. Delany wrote a novella titled EMPIRE STAR in 1966.
Re-reading "Averroës' Search" by Jorge Luis Borges reminded me of all those "future archaeology" books. I have previously referred to Gary Westfahl's article about this genre, "The Addled Archaeology of the Future", which discusses Edgar Allan Poe's "Mellonta Tauta" (1849), John Ames Mitchell's THE LAST AMERICAN (1889), Robert Nathan's THE WEANS (1960), and Macaulay's MOTEL OF THE MYSTERIES (1979). "Averroës' Search" postulates that Averroës, when he read the words "tragedy" and "comedy" in Aristotle's "Poetics", had no idea what they meant because he had never seen a drama, or rather never saw anything he recognized as a drama. For shortly after he has been thinking on what the terms might mean, he glances out the window and sees three boys "playing" with one standing on the shoulders of the second, and the third kneeling with his head on the ground. Averroës recognizes them as being the muezzin, the tower, and the congregation, but makes no extension of this to a dramatic form. And when his friend Abulcasim describes seeing a play in China, his description is similar to the "future archaeology" style--the interpretation of what is going on is just a bit off. (Even when he explains the idea of drama, though, one of the people listening asks why they needed twenty people to tall a story that one person could tell just as well.) [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: I like long walks, especially when they're taken by people who annoy me. -- Fred Allen
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