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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
06/01/12 -- Vol. 30, No. 49, Whole Number 1704
Table of Contents
Science Fiction (and Other) Discussion Groups (NJ)
June 14: TWELVE MONKEYS (1995), Middletown (NJ) Public Library, discussion after June 21: THE SWEET HEREAFTER by Russell Banks, Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM July 26: SCHILD'S LADDER by Greg Egan, Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM August 16: THE ASTONISHING HYPOTHESIS by Francis Crick, Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM September 27: CYBERIAD by Stanislaw Lem, Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM October 18: THE KALAHARI TYPING SCHOOL FOR MEN by Alexander McCall Smith, Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM November 15: TRIGGERS by Robert J. Sawyer (tentative), Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM (note this is the *third* Thursday) December 20: DEATH OF A SALESMAN by Arthur Miller, Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM
Northern New Jersey events are listed at:
Life in the Fast Lane (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I would like to make a prediction here. As you probably know many states have special lanes on their highways that only cars carrying some minimum number of people can use. With enough passengers, a car is considered a "high-occupancy vehicle." This encourages people to carpool and to take fewer cars, thus helping the environment. Now states are saying they will also offer for an optional surcharge drivers who are driving with too few passengers to also use the HOV lane.
Now my question was how will anyone know which single-person cars have paid the surcharge and are allowed to drive in the HOV lane? Then I realized just where this was all going. These states will simply charge all drivers the surcharge as part of the toll and then all drivers will be allowed at their discretion to use the HOV lanes. [-mrl]
A History of Robots in the Movies (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
"Robots in Film" is a nice trip down memory lane. The authors have listed every film they could think of with mechanical men in one form or another. It is complete there with an introduction and then 12 long parts in table form.
The New Yorker Science Fiction Issue, June 4 & 11 (comments by Charles Harris):
The June 4 & 11, 2012, issue of "The New Yorker" is the Science Fiction [and Horror] Issue.
The following articles are available to nonsubscribers at http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/toc/2012/06/04/toc_20120528:
Available only to subscribers: articles and fiction by Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. Le Guin, Anthony Burgess, China Mieville, Margaret Atwood, Karen Russell, Jennifer Egan, and Jonathan Lethem. [-mrl]
How the Film Industry Is Changing (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Subscriber Lax Madapaty suggested that I write an article on how I see films and how my viewing habits have changed over the years. That got me thinking about how not just my viewing patterns have changed but what is changing in the film industry and what is driving the change. Here is my take:
I have to say that while I have tried to keep up with current film, but there is a very strong economic pressure on me to see fewer films as they come out and instead to see more on video. In my area of New Jersey, and from what I understand in much of the country, it is becoming an expensive hobby to keep current on film. The basic ticket price has risen to the $10 range for adults to see a standard 2D movie. For my wife and I to see an evening movie just released that would cost $21 just in ticket price. For friends of ours it would come to more than that. They would buy popcorn and soda. I was amazed to find popcorn and a soda will cost around $9 a person. Do you have any idea how cheap it really is to produce a bag of popcorn? The materials are not the reason behind the high cost of concession snacks.
Admittedly I rarely would pay a full admission price. For decades before I retired I would see movies at weekend matinees or occasionally early evening shows if they had a reduced charge. But matinee tickets have risen as much as prime time tickets have. If evening prices rise a dollar, so to matinee prices generally. All the theaters seem to be following this policy about the same.
That situation lasted a while in my area and then a modest price war started. One theater apparently found its demand dropping off. They declared that each Tuesday they would pick two films and make admissions for them $7. Our other big local multiplex started a policy of all films $6 on Tuesdays. The first theater expanded its Tuesday policy to all films more than a week old, but they also advertise with discount coupons as an added inducement. But even so it costs about $12 for the two of us to see a movie.
For comparison sake: I rent from Netflix frequently, and the monthly fee averages out to about $1.50 per film. Snacks from my kitchen in the next room will be under a dollar. That is $2.50 for two people. I suppose there is also depreciation on my television. I admit I suppose I could watch a lot of films in the theater for what this TV cost. But I would have bought a television in any case for PBS and to keep informed. Netflix costs about one fifth the cost of going to a matinee.
So what is really happening and why are ticket base prices going up? I think a number of trends are hitting the film industry at the same time. Film production costs have gone up. Name actors are asking bigger salaries. Many films have big special effects budgets. 3D is not really paying for the costs to convert to the format.
Let me say something about 3D. Many films are being shot flat and then retro-processed to be 3D. Because of this and because the studios are charging in the range of $3 to see a film in 3D, the public is pushing back on the feature. People do not want to pay extra for this dubious enhancement. But still there were industry costs for fitting out theaters with 3D equipment. I think the film industry's investment in 3D is turning out to be a colossal misjudgment. But theaters are really anxious for innovation right now and at the same time want to finance it out of the ticket prices.
I think what is driving the urge to increase profits is the simple desire to be more profitable, of course, but it is also something else. There is a sort of hysteria akin to that of a mid-life crisis, but it is attacking the film industry. The executives are trying to get what they can because they expect bad times for it ahead and they are worried.
What is so scary? Well, it is something that sounds like good news at first. That news is that young children are watching less television. From 1990 to 2010 television watching dropped noticeably among children. It is easy to see why that is happening. It is the computer and the Internet and social networking. This is what CBS, NBC, and ABC are facing. Among them they used to provide the lion's share of entertainment to the country. Now they are just three more options for entertainment. I am reliably informed that some of the best television ever written is on commercial TV now, but fewer people are watching. That quality is just hearsay on my part since I generally do not watch commercial television. That choice is right for me and millions of other people like me. Just like I am going to fewer movies. Kids are being attracted to other entertainment just as much. They prefer to watch YouTube and follow twitter than to watch television or go to movies. Now my not watching commercial TV will not hurt the networks and film studios much twenty years from now. But the networks and the movie studios are planning that in two decades they will have an audience from the twenty-somethings then who are just somethings now. And the entertainment media are desperate to find how to get back the missing revenue and to compete with newer forms of entertainment. [-mrl]
NORMAL (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Somewhere in the same category of film as BEING JOHN MALKOVICH is NORMAL, a new comedy with fantasy elements. NORMAL is the creation of fledgling writer/director Nicholas P. Richards. While there are plenty of fantasy ideas to build a strong comedy around, Richards does not give us characters we care much about. Too many ideas go nowhere. Rating: high 0 (-4 to +4) or 5/10
Phin (played by Geno Rathbone) lent his car to the wrong person and never got it back. Now he needs his transportation. Phin barely earns enough to eat from his job of dressing as a gorilla and acting as the mascot in his uncle's used car lot. His job is to dance excitedly when he hears the proposed price of a car. (Hey, it's better than nothing. Somebody has to wear the gorilla suits.)
Phin gets an offer of a one-time job. He will be paid $2500 to act as courier to deliver a mysterious package. The job starts badly when he breaks the zipper on the gorilla suit and has to wear it from the neck down all day on his courier job. Things go from bad to worse when the car he borrows breaks down. From there one bad break follows another and soon Phin finds himself in a sort of parallel universe he did not even know existed.
Writer/director Nicholas P. Richards has a reasonably deft hand at dialog, but is not so deft at plotting. There are some interesting ideas in the screenplay, but most seem to be just throwaways that do little to enhance the minimal plot. References to Scrabble seem to be dropped into the film as a repeating gag with no apparent payoff. The film has an acceptable first act, a really interesting second act, but then everything that has been gained is lost on a slight and minimal third act. Most of the ideas seem to be just stretching the film to feature length rather than changing the main line of the story. NORMAL seems to be reaching to be another BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, but needed to do more with its fantasy premises.
Geno Rathbone as the main character has the least screen presence of any actor in the film. Emmi Chen as a traveling companion has the appearance of a young Shirley MacLaine. But when Rathbone shares the screen with a radiant Erin Breen he almost seems to disappear from view.
Nicholas P. Richards who wrote and directed NORMAL began his career in music but switched to video and filmmaking in general. This is his first film directing, though he wrote and acted in the science fiction film GREEN EYES FOR ANASTICE. Here he simply did not give us compelling enough reason to care about his characters and what trials they have. When the biggest mystery of the film is answered, the result is just not very exciting. Even the title has little to do with the plot. I rate NORMAL a high 0 on the -4 to +4 scale or 5/10. I could easily believe that better things will come from Richards, but he is not there yet.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2369157/
Angry Men, the Holocaust, and Marvel (letter of comment by Kip Williams):
In response to Mark's comments about TWELVE ANGRY MEN in the 05/18/12 issue of the MT VOID, Kip Williams writes:
And here I thought you were going to tell us Fox News is changing their name to TWELVE ANGRY MEN. [-kw]
In response to Mark's comments on Holocaust films in the same issue, Kip writes:
Isn't one major reason the United States is more interested in the Nazis and their Holocaust the fact that the United States was involved? If it had all been someone else fighting them, Hollywood might have paid some small attention to it, but not have been as fascinated for as long or as many films. Remember: It's all about US. ("Two Ohioans Feared Lost in Massive Japan Quake") [-kw]
On the Holocaust the dirty secret is that the United States was involved on the dark side until very late in the war. The State Department wanted to give as little aid as possible to Jewish refugees. We had our own internment camps for many of the refugees who has come this far.
The United States only changed sides on the Holocaust when it was impossible to not liberate the camps. So if that is involvement, the United States was involved. But since then (and perhaps because those policies ended up looking so bad), the United States has intervened in other Holocausts, and those are not so often in the public eye. How much do you really hear about the 1995 Serbian ethnic cleansing? The United States was certainly involved there restoring peace. There are actually several films about the Rwandan genocide and there the United States stood by. I think here it is not really all about us. It is all about catching people's imagination and empathy. [-mrl]
In response to Mark's comments on Marvel comics and films in the same issue, Kip writes:
(The Stan Lee story was my own, and I'm apparently still the only one telling it, a decade or thereabouts on since I scribbled it down.)
I watched THOR on DVD yesterday and enjoyed it more than I expected. The parts outside of Asgard were the most interesting, but even Asgard woke up once in a while. Stan Lee's cameo came early on, so I didn't have to keep watching for The Man. Sarah was at school for most of the time I was watching, so she didn't get to see it with me. Otherwise I'd pass on her opinion as well. The movie sets up Loki for us--it's his origin story, in many ways. Most of the faces that are familiar from THE AVENGERS who appear here are in pretty briefly, with the exception of the scientist that's all through the more recent picture. On to CAPTAIN AMERICA and IRON MAN 2. [-kw]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
On occasion I have been asked why I sometimes include more minutiae or a more detailed analysis about a work than people may want to read. The answer is that I am using this column as a sort of literary diary for myself, rather than something strictly written for an external audience. If I have a new insight on some work that I have discussed at length already, I will include it because I want to remember it, rather than because I think that my audience is that interested in it. So feel free to skip anything you find boring. (Actually, I am assuming you are doing this already. This is why you will probably have to keep doing this.)
CIVILIZATION: THE WEST AND THE REST by Niall Ferguson (ISBN 978-1- 59420-305-3) has somewhat more content than WHERE GOOD IDEAS COME FROM, but only because of a lot of what seems to be "scattershot history." Ferguson compares traffic on the Thames and the Yangzi in the year 1420, describes how the Ottoman Empire was at the gates of Vienna in 1683, and so on. While all of his examples help demonstrate his premise, he never ties them together as a continuous thread.
Ferguson's premise is that the rise of the West over the last six hundred years can be attributed to six factors (or "killer apps", as he calls them):
For example, in 1400 China had an advanced and stable civilization while Europe was a hodge-podge of small backward kingdoms in constant conflict with each other (and their neighbors). The prediction at the time would have been that China would continue to be the leading civilization, but Ferguson says it was the very turmoil that Europe was in that caused it to surpass China. This is not exactly a new idea of course; one need only consider Harry Lime's quote from THE THIRD MAN: "In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love--they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock." Isaac Asimov claimed much the same thing in THE END OF ETERNITY, and Harry Turtledove uses it as an important element in his "Worldwar" series.
Each of the six factors supposedly gets a chapter, but the chapters do not necessarily stay on topic. The most extreme example is probably the chapter "Medicine", which devotes only eight out of its fifty-five pages to talking about medicine, and even those are more about public health in the sense of clean water, a working sewer system, etc., than what we think of as medicine. The other forty-seven pages are a long description of the various forms of colonialism and slavery practiced by the various European powers, e.g., in Ibero-American colonies slaves had more rights and could more easily buy their freedom than in Anglo-American colonies. This chapter also contains eight pages on the French Revolution.
Talking about the (Protestant[*]) work ethic, Johnson describes how much more religious the United States is than Europe. His example is Springfield, Missouri, with 400 Christian churches ( 1 for every 1000 people), including 122 Baptist churches, 36 Methodist churches, 25 Churches of Christ, and 15 Churches of God. He compares this to Europe, with its state-endorsed and supported religions, and notes, "In religion as in business, state monopolies are inefficient." Ironically, then, he proceeds to talk about how all this American religiosity is more a consumer-driven one, where churches compete more on entertainment potential than on theological or doctrinal differences.
[*] Johnson talks about how this work ethic was attributed to Protestants by Max Weber (the originator of the concept). Weber seemed to work at willfully disregarding the evidence of Jewish or Catholic entrepreneurs. For example, of the Jews he wrote, "The Jews stood on the side of the politically and speculatively oriented adventurous capitalism; their ethos was ... that of pariah capitalism. Only Puritanism carried the ethos of the rational organization of capital and labour." This is, so far as I can tell, proof by assertion. Johnson notes that if one looks at successful CEOs, it appears that Jews outperform Protestants. I suspect you would find that Mormons (who are not Protestants, not deriving from the Martin Luther Reformation) do well also.
[Perhaps if Weber is right about Jewish CEOs having a better success rate it is from the same phenomenon as referred to in the THIRD MAN quote earlier in this article. -mrl]
In fact, the work ethic is probably driven as much by a combination of competition, laws of property, and consumerism as by any religious fervor. Similarly, medicine is really a subset of science. But six "killer apps" is a better number than four, at least in terms of dividing a book into chapters. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Parents are the last people on earth who ought to have children. --Samuel ButlerTweet
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