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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
01/28/11 -- Vol. 29, No. 31, Whole Number 1634
Table of Contents
340 Free Movies Online (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
The Open Culture site has compiled a list of 340 movies, free for the effort to download.
The Color Problem (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I notice that the Mexican food you get in the grocery here had warnings about how spicy it really is supposed to be. They may put a little thermometer on it and have it be green if it is mild, yellow if it is a little spicy, and it works its way up to bright red if the food is what Americans think up as spicy. I am trying to get the grocery to stock the stuff that has infra-red thermometers. [-mrl]
Francis Ford Coppola and 3D (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
On the99percent.com, Ariston Anderson talks about Francis Ford Coppola's latest film, TWIXT NOW AND SUNRISE, in "Francis Ford Coppola: On Risk, Money, Craft & Collaboration". One comment he made was, "The film even features the latest 3-D technology--but as a brief dramatic segment that serves the story, rather than the typical two-hour, multiplex gimmick." While that is reassuring from an artistic viewpoint, what it really means is that movie- goers will end up paying the 3D premium (about $3) for what is basically a 2D film. I suspect that of the prospective theatrical audience for the film, a fair percentage will decide to wait for the DVD rather than pay the extra, and of those who pay the extra, a large percentage will feel cheated.
And Roger Ebert just recently published a letter by Oscar-winning film editor Walter Murch in which Murch explains in technical detail why 3D is "dark, small, stroby, headache inducing, [and] alienating": http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2011/01/post_4.html. [-ecl]
The Top Five Science Fiction and Fantasy Films of the '00s (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
There seems to have been little notice that a decade has ended just a few weeks ago. Most people seem to have fallen into the popular misconception that the decade started over a year ago with 2010. At some point I will have to put together a top ten films of the decade that has closed. I think, however that I can list the best fantasy films of the recent decade. In chronological order the top films are these.
THE LORD OF THE RINGS (2001-2003)
Let me be clear on this. I have no particular interest in stables, clean or dirty. But if the Augean Stables were cleaned up by Hercules, I can be really impressed by the job he did. THE LORD OF THE RINGS is not a style of fantasy that particularly appeals to me. I don't do well with elves. But whether I am enthralled by the story or not, I can concede that it must have been a huge and nearly miraculous task to bring that mammoth novel to the screen in a way that did not look tacky (at least when there were no Orcs on the screen). I count the entire trilogy as a single film released in three parts and that film is a magnificent job. Peter Jackson created a fully realized world that I think that J. R. R. Tolkein would have loved. I am not in a rush to see THE LORD OF THE RINGS again, but I would say it is a phenomenal job of adapting a novel to the screen.
THE ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (2004)
A medical procedure allows for the removal of painful memories by erasing them. The hitch is that the memories must be opened and partially relived as they are being erased. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's script is demanding--not so challenging as his SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK, but demanding. Still it is delightfully engaging, intelligent, and even profound. Charlie Kaufman is showing that he has not yet reached his peak. ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND is still his best script by a sizable margin. The director is Michel Gondry, but for once it is the screenwriter who got the deserved attention. I would like to think this is a movie that will show the film industry that good writing can do more for a film than good special effects. Michel Gondry, by the way, has been seduced by more standard super-hero films. Currently he has in theaters THE GREEN HORNET (2011).
THE PRESTIGE (2006)
Toward the end of the 19th century two rival stage magicians compete and battle for dominance. This is a thriller, an education in stage magic, a mystery, and even a bit of a science fiction film. Christopher Priest's novel is brought to the screen by co-writer and director Christopher Nolan in a wonderful adaptation. In spite of the popular THE DARK KNIGHT and INCEPTION I would still pick this as his best effort. This is a film that may be more enjoyable on the second viewing once you know its intricate secrets. Where THE PRESTIGE varies from the Christopher Priest novel it is based on it does something very interesting. The film is no less fascinating than the book on which it was based.
THE MAN FROM EARTH (2007)
Years ago Jerome Bixby wrote a Star Trek episode entitled "Requiem for Methuselah" about an immortal man. That was really a somewhat superficial exploration of the concept of immortality and what it be like to live for a very long time. It is clear from THE MAN FROM EARTH that he could not shake the idea and has given great thought to many ramifications of the idea.
John Oldman is a young-looking college professor who has lived for a very long time. He may even be a Cro-Magnon, but at the time he thought of himself only as one of "the People" and the topography of his first home has long since changed. The film is little more than a stage play, done without flashbacks or special effects. This film is carried entirely by conversation. But it playfully examines humanity's history, civilization, and ideologies. The film is constantly challenging and never patronizing to the viewer. I would be hard-pressed to find a more intelligent science fiction film.
SLEEP DEALER (2008)
This near-future extrapolation takes place in a Mexico maybe two decades hence. The world is much like ours with a few major differences. Rudy lives in a small village where the water resources have been privatized, this is not so farfetched and is probably based on the real-life privatization of water resources in Cochabamba, Bolivia in 2000 when the water supply was sold to an international consortium. Similarly in SLEEP DEALER the water has been diverted and dammed. People have to purchase the water that was formerly theirs for the taking.
With a simple operation people who can afford it can connect electrical jacks directly to their nervous system so they can connect their bodies into the Internet. Their vision can be recorded or used for virtual reality. Day laborers can connect to the Internet from Mexico and have their labor transmitted via telepresence to robots doing the work. The film is an interesting near-future extrapolation. The networking related scenes are done using a primary color palette giving a layer of unreality. Though it is a US-Mexican co- production, the director, Alex Rivera, and actors are Mexican. Writer-director Alex Rivera's film is negative on the US but still gives a very believable extrapolation of the next two or so decades.
["Locus" film reviewer Gary Westfahl's take on the "The Ten Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Films of the Twenty-First Century--As of December 31, 2010--And A Prediction about Ten Best Lists to Come" can be found at http://tinyurl.com/void-westfahl-10. Westfahl looks at box-office winners, explains why this is a poor metric, and gives his own selections. -ecl]
SONG AT MIDNIGHT (1937) (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: The first fully sound version of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA came not from Hollywood but from China. Weibang Ma-Xu wrote and directed this adaptation of the Gaston Leroux novel. The film takes a long time to get going but the last 15 minutes deliver the action. The film is available on DVD and can be downloaded off the net, minus English subtitles. Expect a version fundamentally different from Western interpretations of the story. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
The Lon Chaney version of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA was shot as a silent film and then re-fitted to have some sound segments. All of those scenes, I believe were ones of the singing of opera. The earliest all-sound version of the story is one that until recently has not generally been known in the West. It is a 1937 film, made in China, which in English is called SONG AT MIDNIGHT. This film is considered a horror film. But with the exception of just one or two sequences it was for the most part more just a sad story than a horrific one. The Phantom's appearance is shocking, but the plot is much less so. The film is probably less interesting for itself than for comparison to other versions of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. There are some elements of the original story and not others. One can see what effect this subset of the original elements has.
The story takes place in China and deals with a male opera singer Sung Dan-ping (Jin Shan), who is in love with Xia (Woo Ping), the daughter of a powerful warlord. The warlord suspects Dan-ping of having connections to his enemy the Kuomintang (or KMT--the rival political faction led by Chiang Kai-shek). For that reason and because he wants to separate Dan-ping from his daughter he has his minions beat and whip Dan-ping and then throw caustic acid in Dan- ping's face, horribly disfiguring him. Dan-ping does not want Xia's pity and does not want her to see his deformed face. He arranges that she be told he is dead, but instead he goes into hiding. To fill his time he writes operas and he sings. In the dark of night he creeps out and sings to the moon. Only a handful of people know who the mysterious phantom singer is. Now how is this different from the familiar versions of the story?
-- Dan-ping is never the powerful avenging spirit that Erik is in the PHANTOM. He is much more a figure of pity and nobility than the western Phantom is. He really wants vengeance only against the man who disfigured him and separated him from his love.
-- The Phantom's survival is not really secret. While it is not public knowledge apparently, multiple people seem to know the Phantom is Dan-ping and still alive. He just does not want Xia to know he is alive.
-- He does not have a melodramatic appearance with cape and similar folderol.
-- The story does not take place in the mysterious innards of a mysterious building like the opera house of the original. There is no dramatic chandelier sequence.
-- The Phantom is reduced from a figure of horror into simply a sympathetic victim whose goal is to just protect the woman he loves.
Weibang Ma-Xu both wrote and directed, basing his script on THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA by Gaston Leroux. There are several touches of the film that seem to imply he based his style on Universal's horror films of the time or at the very least on the Lon Chaney version of story. While the pace of most of the film is slow--it takes an hour before Dan-ping is deformed. We have a faster-paced climax with an angry mob of villagers with burning torches. Pieces of (Western) classical music create mood, as does shadowy, high- contrast photography. This is much Universal's style. However Universal may have returned the courtesy and taken an idea from SONG AT MIDNIGHT. In the Chinese film Dan-ping's face is deformed by caustic acid thrown in his face. The Lon Chaney version, accurate to the book, has the deformity a birth defect. However, when Universal remade THE PHANDOM OF THE OPERA a second time, in 1943, Claude Rains became the Phantom when caustic acid is thrown in his face.
This film certainly counts as an adaptation of the Gaston Leroux novel, and as far as Chinese films go it probably is a horror film. Still today it would probably be considered more melodrama than horror. I rate SONG AT MIDNIGHT a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
There is a downloadable version of this film at http://www.archive.org/details/song_at_midnight. Sadly, this version has no subtitles. However, two very effective sequences do not need subtitles. One is the scene where the bandages are removed from Dan-ping's face and the horribly distorted face beneath is revealed. This can be found starting about 0:58:00 minutes into the film. Then in the last finale minutes of the film Weibang Ma-Xu tries to outdo Universal in an exciting finale, and he actually succeeds. Watch starting at about 1:45:00.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/find?q=song+at+midnight;tt=on;nm=on;mx=20
AGAINST ALL THINGS ENDING by Stephen R. Donaldson (copyright 2010, Putnam, $29.95, 596pp, ISBN 978-0-399-15678-6) (book review by Joe Karpierz) :
I don't know what to make of AGAINST ALL THINGS ENDING, the third book in "The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant". There are a couple of ways to describe it. One is that it is like a driver that has just gotten his driver's license, and is afraid to go too fast. So, the driver goes slow--very slow--until at some point he figures out that it's okay to then go speed limit, and then after that off the dial. The other way is like a song that starts out slow, then gradually begins to speed up, and finally builds to a thundering crescendo.
The only problem is that the driver has not reached his destination nor has the song reached its conclusion. The driver has seen a lot along the way, and the song has meandered, but we're not there yet.
For example, our characters spend the first *102* pages in the exact same physical place, Andelain, as they did at the end of the last book. Whining, complaining, planning, angsting (is that a word?), trying to figure out what they're going to do now that Linden Avery, our female protagonist (I hesitate to call her a herione), has used all the magic at her disposal to free Thomas Covenant (yeah, that's right, this series is about Thomas Covenant but he doesn't show up until the end of the second book) from the Arch of Time while at the same time awakening the Worm of the World's End, thus bringing about the destruction of the Earth. One of the Insequent, the Harrow, is bargaining with Linden to take her to the place where her son is imprisoned and held by a croyel. The deliberations drag on and on and on and on, and the Harrow says, basically, "Let's get on with it already!" Yep, that's exactly how I felt about the whole thing at that point.
And along with all that stuff is Donaldson once again showing off his vocabulary, trying to prove to anyone who is still left reading the Covenant books that he has read and understood the dictionary from cover to cover, and by God you will be doing that too before the series is over.
Then a funny thing happened. He got on with it.
The book started to move. Stuff started to happen. It got interesting, and I didn't know where it was going - at least not midway through the book. I went from being completely turned off *again* to wanting to find out what happens next. And by the time the book was finished, it was moving at a rapid fire pace--well, for a Covenant book, anyway--and Donaldson seems to have left the 37 syllable words far behind. And really, it was about time.
This book really is all about endings. Of course, it's about the impending end of the world. But Donaldson ties up a couple of story lines earlier than I expected. One is that of Covenant and his wife Joan. Joan has been causing problems for Covenant the whole series now, and Donaldson takes care of it in what I believe is a wonderful way, explaining Joan's descent into madness and discord in a touching way. The other is that of Linden and her quest to see Jeremiah restored to health. I suspect that both of these resolutions will play a large part in the end of the series in the final book, out in 3 years time.
Oh, there are lots of storylines to be played out and tied up. Covenant's son Roger is still on the loose. All our favorite enemies are still out there, and I suspect this thing will end up with one big mother of a battle to complete the saga. Problems? Yeah, there are a few. There are *way* too many characters to keep track of in this book, and I suspect Donaldson had problems keeping track of them as well. After a while my head was spinning trying to keep all of them straight. We're talking giants, Insequent, Haruchai, Humbled, Ranyhyn, Cords, etc. There were some compelling things going on with some of them, but it was impossible to make all the story lines interesting. AS I already stated, the early part of the book was a drag to read--it moved too slowly, not unlike both of the previous two books.
To be honest, I was most of the way through this book before I actually started to care about what happened. As I told one fellow at work, "I realized that I just don't care any more." What saved it was the last few chapters, were everything started coming to a head. And really, after nine books and 34 years, I'm not going to give up now. The book was uneven. At this point, with one book to go, Donaldson can either send it out in a blaze of glory or a with a whimper. Let's hope it's blazing. [-jak]
Thoughts on Camelot (the movie) (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
We watched CAMELOT again recently, and I was struck with how bad it is--between the musical numbers, the characters, and the scripts, I found much to dislike. (Yes, I know one uses "among" rather then "between" for three or more items, but "among the musical numbers, the characters, and the scripts" just sounds wrong.)
Yes, everything is too clean, and the make-up and hairdos are all wrong, and where on earth did Guenevere get that ridiculous-looking carriage, but go a *little* deeper and there is even more wrong.
What an ego Arthur has, that he thinks *everyone* is thinking, "I wonder what the king is doing tonight?" In fact, he's pretty obnoxious throughout the film--but then, everyone is.
Arthur sings that he is "wishing I were in Scotland fishing tonight." Was it called Scotland then? And when is then, anyway? Clearly this is Christian England, but it must be somewhere between when the Romans left and before the Normans arrived. On the other hand chivalry seems to have been invented already. Pellinore makes a reference to Charlemagne, putting this at least in the 9th century. So we're pretty much between 800 and 1000.
When her entourage stops to rest, Guenevere asks for tea. There was no tea in England then. (On the plus side, there was a Saint Genivieve, who was early enough for this.)
Guenevere mentions Mongolia--was it known then? I wouldn't think it had that name until the 13th century.
Richard Harris is *really* bad as Arthur.
"By 9PM the moonlight must appear." How exactly is this managed when the moon is new? Or for that matter, in general? This seems astronomically questionable.
There is no way Guenevere's wedding train could be splayed so perfectly if she walked unattended.
The English Channel is labeled as such on Arthur's map, but was not called that in England until the 18th century. France wasn't France until the 9th century, but we established it must be that late, so this is not necessarily an error
"The knights will whack only for good. Might for right." But who is defining what is good or right? I mean, I suspect the knights thought that having the peasants grovel to them was good and right. (Later Pellinore reinforces this theory when he is having a Socratic dialogue with Arthur about trial by jury.)
Lancelot du Lac, The Lady of the Lake--what is this thing with lakes?
The Queen won the May Day footrace--what a surprise!
"I'll barbecue him." The word was first used in English in 1661.
Well, you get the idea. When it ran on Turner Classic Movies, Robert Osborne pointed out it was the last "major studio" musical: films such as FIDDLER ON THE ROOF were made by smaller production companies and only distributed by one of the majors. There may be a reason for that. [-ecl]
Raymond Burr (letters of comment by Stephen Spinosa and Keith F. Lynch):
In response to Sam Long's comments on Raymond Burr in the 01/21/11 issue of the MT VOID, Stephen Spinosa writes, "Actually Raymond Burr played a mobster in the Frank Sinatra film MEET DANNY WILSON back in 1951 when Frank was hitting the bottom on all sides before his big comeback in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY. I don't know about any other roles pre-Godzilla..."
And Keith F. Lynch writes, "As for Raymond Burr, another stfnal appearance was in the movie AIRPLANE II, about a space shuttle that goes off course." [-kfl]
Mark replies, "Burr did a lot of radio work. The same year as GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS he was doing the radio series "Fort Laramie". But before that year he was a regular on "Pat Novak for Hire" in 1946 and 1947. Checking the IMDB, I see in the early 1950s he was in the remake of M, the film noir HIS KIND OF WOMAN, the science fiction THE WHIP HAND, and the Bob Hope film CASANOVA'S BIG NIGHT. But his best known pre-GODZILLA role was as the killer in Alfred Hitchcock's REAR WINDOW." [-mrl]
Winston Churchill and King Edward VIII (letter of comment by Tim Bateman):
In response to Evelyn's comments on "Great Man vs. Tide of History", Tim Bateman writes:
I have a couple of minor comments and corrections regarding Evelyn's interesting piece "Great Man vs. Tide of History"
You write of Churchill that "during his time as First Lord of the Admiralty in World War I, he was responsible for the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign, and was forced to resign." Churchill may or not have been forced to resign, but the responsibility for the Gallipoli campaign's disastrous nature was not entirely his, the last time I looked at current historical thinking: Churchill proposed a naval campaign in the Ottoman Empire's waters, and other hands made amendments to this Master Plan, converting it from a horse to a camel.
I also wonder whether he might have been viewed as a divisive choice, given his role in the General Strike of 1926 and calls for India to be retained in the Empire throughout the Thirties.
[Evelyn wrote,] "While no one really wanted to keep King Edward IV on the throne..." Edward VIII. When Edward IV was not wanted on the throne, things became somewhat more lively than a speech on the wireless." [-tgb]
FLOOD (letter of comment by Keith F. Lynch):
In response to Dale Skran's comments on FLOOD in the 01/21/11 issue of the MT VOID, Keith F. Lynch writes, "The ship in Baxter's FLOOD is a duplicate of the Queen Mary, not the Queen Elizabeth. I wonder which ship it was that Dale Skran visited." [-kfl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
ADVENTURES IN YIDDISHLAND: POSTVERNACULAR LANGUAGE & CULTURE by Jeffrey Shandler (ISBN 0-520-24416-8) has been mentioned by Michael Chabon in an essay or two, because it takes him to task over his comments about Uriel Weinrich's SAY IT IN YIDDISH. This is a complicated chain of references, so let me explain.
In the 1950s, Dover Books published a series of phrase books for a couple of dozen languages. These were the usual travelers' phrase books, with sentences like "Where is the ticket office?" and "I would like a double room, please." In 1958, they published SAY IT IN YIDDISH edited by Uriel Weinrich (ISBN 978-0-486-20815-2), which had the same sentences as all the others. In 1997 Michael Chabon wrote about it in an essay titled "Guidebook to a Land of Ghosts". Basically, Chabon saw no practical value for the book, while many others (including Dover's president and Shandler) disagree. Shandler says that "Yiddish was widely spoken in Israel in the late 1950s, and there were substantial Yiddish-speaking communities in Paris, Montreal, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, and other places."
I am in the middle here. Like Tevye, I say to Chabon, "You're right," and to Shandler, "and you're right." Yes, there were/are Yiddish-speaking communities, but if someone were visiting these communities specifically, he probably already knew Yiddish, and if he did not, the "national" language (Hebrew, French, or Spanish) would probably be more useful overall, and widely understood in these communities. That is, one can probably manage in the Yiddish-speaking section of Buenos Aires with Spanish, which would also be useful in the rest of Buenos Aires, while Yiddish would not be useful outside that community.
That said, I own a copy of SAY IT IN YIDDISH, and I did take it with me on my trip to Eastern Europe, where I found it to be of no practical use. Our conversations in synagogues and Jewish museums were in English, extremely broken Hebrew, and even in Spanish!
All this is by way of background. The main thesis of ADVENTURES IN YIDDISHLAND seems to be that Yiddish is still a living language (in the sense of having thousands of people who speak it as their first language and teach it to their children as *their* first language), but that it is treated by the non-Yiddish world as a dead or dying language, interesting only as flavoring for English, or as performance art, or otherwise fragmented. For example, Shandler observes that revivals of Yiddish plays are invariably advertised, introduced, and reviewed in English. This seems to be part of the definition of "postvernacularity", so in a sense Shandler seems to be doing the same thing he criticizes in others.
One "criticism" Shandler has is of the National Yiddish Book Center, of which he says, "What, after all, is the nation that the *National* Yiddish Book Center serves?" He continues, "the naming of the NYBC as a "national" institution breaks with a precedent set by older Yiddishist organizations, which more frequently name themselves as ... international, when they wish to articulate broadness of scope." However, I observe that the latest web pages, etc., of the National Yiddish Book Center list it as just the Yiddish Book Center.
KONG UNBOUND: THE CULTURAL IMPACT, POP MYTHOS, AND SCIENTIFIC PLAUSIBILITY OF A CINEMATIC LEGEND edited by Karen Haber (ISBN 978-1-4165-1670-5) is a collection of essays pretty much described by the title. Christopher Priest writes about how the introduction of Production Code affected the film, William Stout talks about the film's influence on art (and other fields), Robert Silverberg analyzes the script, and so on.
There are a few slips. Harry Harrison writes, "[The prehistoric monsters] were created by Willis H. O'Brien, assisted by a youthful Ray Harryhausen, who virtually invented stop-motion special effects for the film." This makes it sound as though Harryhausen invented stop-motion special effects--a better way of punctuating the sentence would have been to use parentheses rather than commas to set off "assisted by a youthful Ray Harryhausen". But it's wrong on a more basic level: Harryhausen did *not* assist O'Brien on KING KONG. (Harryhausen was barely thirteen when the film was made-- youthful indeed!) Harryhausen *did* assist O'Brien on MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, but that was made sixteen years later, in 1949. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: There are trivial truths, and there are great truths. The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false. The opposite of a great truth is also true. --Neils Bohr
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