MT VOID 01/07/05 (Vol. 23, No. 28, Whole Number 1264)

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
01/07/05 -- Vol. 23, No. 28 (Whole Number 1264)

Table of Contents

El Presidente: Mark Leeper, The Power Behind El Pres: Evelyn Leeper, Back issues at All material copyright by author unless otherwise noted. All comments sent will be assumed authorized for inclusion unless otherwise noted. To subscribe, send mail to To unsubscribe, send mail to

Frank Kelly Freas (1922-2005) (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

Those of us who got interested in science fiction in the 1950s and 1960s (or earlier) are finding us passing some unpleasant milestones. It seems that many of the people who created the science fiction we liked in those decades are getting old and dying.

On January 2 we lost one of the people who gave science fiction the excitement that I found it had when I was first discovering it. Back in the 1960s when I would search the paperback racks in drug stores and the magazine shelves at my local library I would feel a sort of electric thrill when I saw the covers, many of the best contributed by Frank Kelly Freas. When I first had pictures of other worlds and the possibilities of the future Freas put a lot of those images into my young and impressionable mind. Many of the paintings told stories in themselves. For example:


Kelly Freas has always been considered one of the great visualizers of science fiction, sometimes the greatest. Ten times he won the Hugo Award for Best Professional Artist and there was a time when he was thought to have an absolute lock on the Best Artist award. He also won the Retro-Hugo for 1951.

Freas had a particular style that was instantly recognizable. I think they had a texture that was characteristically his. I am not sure what it was exactly. Regions in his paintings would be impressionistic, yet other regions would be sharp and clear. He would have carefully detailed faces. Maybe an artist could describe better what exactly is the Freas style. As I am writing this I am looking at several of his images and I would know they are by Freas even if they were not so familiar. But it is difficult to find a Freas painting that is not familiar. I can see that texture in the way he painted Campbell that could only be Freas.

I can look at the Martian that Freas used to illustrate the novel MARTIANS GO HOME by Frederick Brown. The little green man with the pointed ears is obviously whimsically painted, yet it still is done in a realistic style that is not at all cartoonish.

His works also included the NASA astronauts' crew patches and posters.

Curiously I never knew at the time that he also was one of the major art contributors to Mad Magazine and is credited with having help shaped the famous image of Alfred E. Newman after the visage was first created by Norman Mingo. It was a variation on a face that appeared in advertising in the 19th century. And with Freas's great fame in science fiction circles I am rather surprised that in what is being written about him he seems to be best remembered as an illustrator for Mad Magazine.

I think that he used a different texture and style so that while I can always recognize one of his science fiction paintings, I don't see the same style in Alfred E. Newman.

Freas's paintings were displayed at the Smithsonian Institution and New York's American Museum of Natural History.

Perhap the science fiction image for which he will be best remembered is the repentant robot for Tom Godwin's THE GULF BETWEEN.

Frank Kelly Freas was 82. He certainly will certainly be missed. [-mrl]

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE (letter of comment by Daniel Kimmel and response by Mark R. Leeper and further response by Daniel Kimmel):

Dan Kimmel responds to Mark's review of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE from the 12/31/04 issue:

For once I have a more nuanced opinion than Mark. :-)

While I have not formally reviewed "Merchant of Venice" yet, I have been engaged in discussions on it as the resident film critic in a Jewish Usenet group, so I've had to give this some thought.

First, let's dismiss the notion of "Shakespeare as bigot." Shakespeare never met a Jew in his life (they had all been banished from England previously and were not yet welcomed back) and was apparently lifting the plot of Marlowe's "Jew of Malta." The Jewish moneylender as villain was a dramatic convention of the time and no more proof of Shakespeare's feelings than, to pick a ludicrous example, the Marx Bros. being considered personally "racist" on the basis of the "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm" number in "A Day at the Races."

I found the film fascinating because I think a conscious attempt was made to reinterpret the play, and not simply by playing up one speech ("Hath not a Jew eyes...") at the expense of another. In both the added prologue and the whole thrust of the film, the director wants us to be aware of the antisemitism that would have been unremarkable--and hence invisible--to Shakespeare's audiences. "Merchant" is considered one of the comedies in the canon. Not only does it end in multiple marriages but there's some low comic business with the servants that was cut from the film's script.

Indeed, the film is made as if this is not a comedy but one of his tragedies, to with "The Tragedy of Shylock." Shylock is wronged and justifiably offended, and his tragedy is that his wounded pride is greater than the common sense which would have indicated he should have quit while he was ahead. There are moments during the trial where Shylock could have accepted a multiple return on his loan and the humiliation of his foes, but -- as played by Pacino -- he is so blinded in his anger he pushes on. And we come to the end of the film not thrilled that the villainous Shylock has been outwitted but deeply saddened at how he has become an accomplice in his own downfall.

The subsequent scenes would traditionally be played for comedy, with Portia and her maid gleefully twitting their beaus for being so cavalier about their keepsake rings, and Shylock's now Christian daughter entering into a marriage with her newly enriched (at her father's expense) husband. Instead there's an airlessness about those final scenes. These are people very full of themselves who are blind to the injustice they have allowed to happen.

Playing "Merchant of Venice" as a tragedy rather than a comedy is, I think, a very appropriate choice for modern audiences, making palatable an otherwise problematic play. By putting the biggest name in the cast -- Pacino -- in the role of Shylock, the filmmaker's signal that it is his story that is unfolding, and the rest is mere window dressing. It may not be as much fun as Ian McKellan's "Richard III" or Kenneth Branagh's "Much Ado About Nothing," but that, I think is the point. [-dk]

And Mark responds:

Okay, let me get to your more nuanced response to my review. :-)

Like most other people, I think you want to dismiss the notion that Shakespeare could have been bigoted. I think of it more that he was just being what was considered a reasonable man in his times. People seem so anxious to defend Shakespeare because he is so revered. We are so anxious to think of him as having 20th Century (or 21st) values. The attitude was that he was a genius so he must think like we do today. It is just not true.

You point out correctly that Shakespeare never met a Jew in his life. Perhaps that is true. Do you believe that it is necessary to know a Jew to be bigoted? The Egyptian made a TV movie based on the Protocols of Zion. The Iranians made a movie recently in which Jews steal organs of Palestinian children to keep Jews alive. I would guess the people who made these films never met any Jews in their lives either. Does that imply to you that they are not really bigoted? Shakespeare had the attitudes of people of his day and those were bigoted attitudes.

Also, when the principal filmmakers of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE were on Charlie Rose someone, I forget who, said it was not really based on THE JEW OF MALTA but on an actual trial. Other than the fact there arguably is a nasty Jew in each who is defeated in the end the stories seems very different. What similarities do you see?

I am not certain in the case of the Marx Brothers if we would say they were racist. It may well be in a gray area. On the other hand the lust for Christian flesh and the equating of it with money are very traditional libels against Jews. The flesh thing is a variant of the blood libel. You say the antisemitism might have been invisible to Shakespeare's audiences. It may have been as invisible to Shakespeare. In this respect he was probably a normal man in a society in which everyone was bigoted by today's standards.

Incidentally, I prefer to use the term anti-Jewish over antisemitic. Antisemitism is a euphemism to be able to say, "I don't hate Jews, I oppose Semites." You might look at which says, "Wilhelm Marr (1819-1904) was a German agitator and theorist, who coined the term "anti-Semitism" as a euphemism for the German Judenhass, or 'Jew-hate'."

Shylock in the Radford film is like Tamora in TITUS ANDRONICUS. We see each offended and each wants to take a disproportionate revenge. As with TITUS ANDRONICUS we do not root for either side. We just think it is bad that things went this far. Shylock's revenge is probably much more disproportionate than is Tamora's. And it is worse than even that because Shakespeare makes Antonio a nice guy whose nicety includes spitting on these ugly Jews. That was considered a virtue, or at least not a fault, in Shakespeare's day.

I think Radford tries to subvert the intention of the play, but with only limited success. We live in better times and I hope they stay that way. [-mrl]

And Dan responds:

I think here's where we meet in the middle. My point is that Shakespeare wasn't motivated to write the play because he hated Jews, but that his play reflected the prejudices of his society which--perhaps unthinkingly--he had absorbed. You will sometimes hear that Walt Disney was an antisemite. More likely he was a product the early 20th century Midwest. Neither was a Judeophile, but neither were they people who considered hatred of Jews part of their self-identity.

[And on the term "anti-Semite"]

I'm well aware of the origins of the word. I have adopted the view I learned from the folks running the National Center for Jewish Film to write "antisemitism" as opposed to "anti-Semitism," since the latter implies there is thing called "Semitism" which one is against. [-dk]

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: Andrew Lloyd Webber's stage musical, the most profitable musical of the 20th century, comes to the screen with a lavish production. Unfortunately the story has been somewhat "younged down" and some nonsense added. It is not ideal, but it still is arguably the best dramatic adaptation of Gaston Leroux's novel. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10

Most people I know of who like the story of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA were introduced to it by Andrew Lloyd Webber's stage musical version. I was not. I read the novel as a young teen because of its connection to horror film. It is a rare popular horror story that is not based on science fiction or the supernatural but on events that could occur. In fact, in the novel LE FANTOME DE L'OPERA Gaston Leroux purportedly wove together events that really did occur at the Paris Opera House. It is claimed that there was a vagrant dubbed "the opera ghost" living in the huge underground of the Paris Opera House, down where there was a near-lake that was used as part of the structure to support the stage. There supposedly was an incident where a chandelier improperly fastened came lose and fell on the audience. And the great diva of the opera house really was named La Carlotta.

Leroux wove from these incidents LE FANTOME DE L'OPERA, the story of Erik, a man who had a great genius, but whose face was nightmarishly disfigured from birth. (The 1943 version ignored the text and suggested the Phantom was scarred by acid, and most versions have taken to borrowing the idea that the disfigurement occurred later in a dramatic accident.) In the original text, after a distinguished but macabre career in Europe (where he was shown in a cage as a carnival freak) and Asia Minor (where he designed royal palaces with a multitude of secret passages) the mysterious Erik helped engineer the Paris Opera House. Then he secretly retreated from the ugliness of the world to live in the Opera House's lower levels so he could delight in the beauty of the music that filtered down from above. He is drawn to a chorus girl by the purity of her voice, which he thinks with his tutelage he can perfect. That is the backstory and that is where the narrative of novel begins. Leroux, incidentally, never tells us Erik is physically attracted to Christine, though of course the dramatic versions play up that possible interpretation just like they play up the possible the sexual frustration of Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll. Sex sells tickets and may make the characters' motives simpler and more comprehensible to the audience. Erik seems instead to want to possess her only to perfect her voice.

[The story of Erik can be found at]

Andrew Lloyd Webber's stage play, essentially an operetta, is actually the most accurate to the novel of any of the familiar dramatic versions. It is more so than even the Lon Chaney version which made Erik a mad escapee from Devil's Island. Leroux's Erik is not mad and not an escapee. He is, however, wholly unscrupulous and his knowledge of the baroque building of the Opera House makes him almost a super-villain. Webber's telling of the story is good, but the success of the musical is probably more attributable to the splendor of the production and the approachability of the music. Webber is no genius when it comes to writing a musical. He is just popular. His themes are pleasant and neither inventive nor demanding. He may be to musicals what McDonalds is to hamburgers. I never thought he was particularly consistent in where he reuses themes so they cannot be considered leitmotifs. Yet his music for a scene always comes out at least appropriate and usually effective. Here he adapted his stage script with director Joel Schumacher.

While the play did not go into Erik's background, the film does and gets it wrong. Apparently they wanted Erik (unnamed in the film and played by Gerard Butler) to be a romantic attraction so they have toned down his deformity. They have done what they could to make him handsome when the upper right of his face is covered. His face looks more like a man with scars from a fire than like Leroux's Erik. Webber also takes about twenty years off his age. To do this they had to claim that after he was displayed in a carnival, a la the Elephant Man, he immediately fled to the cellars of the opera house. Without his experience of travel, his genius seems inexplicable. The script has the character Joseph Buquet give an eyewitness account of what the Phantom looks like and what he describes is the Lon Chaney phantom, not the Gerard Butler phantom. Butler's singing voice is not perfect, but it probably fits his character and the experiences the character has been through.

Further, for some reason, the events have been moved from the Paris Opera House to a fictional opera house, the "Theatre Opera Populaire." This makes little sense since the catacombs beneath, the incident of the chandelier falling, and the presence of La Carlotta all fit the real Paris Opera House. And Paris of the 1870s probably would not have two such luxurious opera houses. These changes and moving the chandelier incident were probably done to give the film more of a punch ending. Also the chandelier incident was filmed in a way to explain why in the staging of the play the chandelier seems to glide diagonally rather than simply fall.

Also playing in the film are Emmy Rossom (who played the dead daughter in MYSTIC RIVER) as Christine Daae in a performance that hits all the notes, but does not do anything special. Patrick Wilson plays a particularly bland Raoul who may be remembered only because he dresses like Lord Byron and has shoulder-length hair. Frequently he looks like something off the cover of a bodice- ripper paperback. Miranda Richardson and Simon Callow are underused while Minnie Driver does a surprisingly good turn as a vain and thoroughly unpleasant La Carlotta.

With production design by Anthony Pratt, art direction by John Fenner, and set decoration by Celia Bobak the film has almost too much to see. The garish sets have almost too much visual detail to take in and frequently are expressionistic. Perhaps taking an idea from THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, the graveyard scene is commanded by two stone colossi. Taking another idea from Jean Cocteau, wall candelabra seem to be held in place by live arms in a scene that is almost a dream sequence. Minutes later we see candelabra emerge from under water already lit.

As he did with EVITA, Webber wrote a new song for film version of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. But at least this time it is under the end credits so it is not too jarring for an audience who knows the music of the stage play by heart. THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA is a film with some glaring faults, but it still is a magnificent production visually. I rate it a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. [-mrl]

THE AVIATOR (film review by Mark R. Leeper)

CAPSULE: Martin Scorsese's biography of Howard Hughes is full of the stories about the eccentric billionaire, but fails to bring us into the mind of the man. Instead of showing the inner self of the man, we learn little more than we could have from newspaper clippings. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10

Popular actors Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio each act in a biographical film for the winter film season. It is valuable to compare them and see how different they actually are. DiCaprio is the flashy and high finance maven Howard Hughes in THE AVIATOR and Depp is the much more modest J. M. Barrie in FINDING NEVERLAND. These are two very different men in two very different films. Barrie's love of children was mostly a quiet and private thing. Hughes's love of shiny planes and flashy women was plastered across the headlines of the newspapers and gossip magazines of the world. Because FINDING NEVERLAND focuses in on a short segment of the man's life where only a limited amount is known, the film could fill in the blanks and make Barrie a warm and comprehensible man, someone you would want to know. The film about Hughes is more a scrapbook of much that was said about Hughes from his twenties on, positive and negative, but does not reach inside the man. So much was said about Hughes that the film must rush to retell enough of the stories in its somewhat bloated 160-minute length and there is no time for Martin Scorsese to reach inside the man and make him more real than an icon. Praise for FINDING NEVERLAND would be to say it was a warm and loving film. Praise for THE AVIATOR would be to say that yes, it was pretty much all there.

The film covers Hughes's career from his arrival in Hollywood with apparently more money than sense. As the story begins he is producing for his film HELL'S ANGELS some of the most impressive aerial footage ever caught on film. (See the film if you don't believe it. What he created without special effects was unsurpassed until CGI.) But his answer to every problem is to throw more money at it. For the film he has assembled the largest private air force in the world and he needs 26 cameras to make it all work. To get the last two cameras he even tries to borrow them from Louis B. Meyer.

Hughes was the heir to an oil equipment fortune and could use his money to get whatever he wanted. This included fast planes and faster women. He was a movie producer who was frequently lucky though rarely tasteful. He liked sexy actresses and cultivated relationships some of the most beautiful and most high profile women. This included Jean Harlow (played by Gwen Stefani), Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett in a magnetic impression of Hepburn), and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale)

As Scorsese paints him in THE AVIATOR, Hughes is not a genius when it comes to aircraft. Instead, he could afford to put good people on his payroll and then he could be very demanding. He happened along at a time when there was a lot of progress that could be made in aviation and with a feel for how air equipment could be improved he demanded those improvements of his very good staff. It was a method that worked for him and his staff was able to deliver to him many cutting-edge to aircraft. He wanted the thrills of the new planes the way he wanted the thrills he got from young starlets. He test flew the planes that were made from him, occasionally crashing.

Then came 1946 and the crash during his test flight of the XF-11. Scorsese shows us the crash in graphic and horrifying detail and we realize the man is breakable. Until that point he seemed unstoppable. But in seconds his life was turned around, and he nearly dies. His lifestyle had been fed by the excesses of the Roaring 20s, not dulled by the Depression, and then had been given new life by the government's demands for aircraft in the war. His affluent life style during some of the worst economic years in the nation's history brought him worldwide notoriety. In moments the tide was reversed. THE AVIATOR shows this as the signpost of a tragic reversal of Hughes's fortunes. In spite of setbacks he is forever a high-roller, buying TWA, but the wolves sense his weakness and bring him down. The plot of his life is actually fairly parallel to that of Tony Camonte, the main character in his own film SCARFACE. Both make the right moves and are amazingly successful, but over-reach themselves and see their empires crumble. Alec Baldwin plays Juan Trippe, the founder of Pan- American Airlines, who is one who goes for Hughes's throat. Here Baldwin plays essentially the same cool but deadly character he played in THE COOLER.

While predators are picking at Hughes from without, the personal demons of his own obsessive-compulsive nature are eating him from within. A fear of microbes that his mother instilled in him as a little boy ate him from within. Small things will drive him off the track of a conversation. A piece of lint would drive him to distraction. His manias drag him into insanity. We see all this happening. Leonardo DiCaprio goes through all the steps and actually manages to look like Hughes as it happens. But we don't learn anything we did not already know about Hughes.

This film tells a lot about what the world thought about Howard Hughes without peering too deeply into the enigma. But, yes, what there is to know about Hughes's history is pretty much all there. I rate it a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. [-mrl]

KUNG FU HUSTLE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: From the director of SHAOLIN SOCCAR comes this satire on the Shaw Brothers martial arts films, which is live-action but takes on the style of a cartoon. It is a very funny film, even for people who are not kung fu enthusiasts. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10

Very few comedies actually make me actually laugh out loud. I did not have high expectations of a film with a title like KUNG FU HUSTLE. Martial arts films usually do not do much for me. To say I laughed out loud is one of the highest compliments I can give a comedy. All my low expectations were dashed. This film written by, directed by, and starring Stephen Chow was the funniest comedy I saw in 2004.

The scene is the 1940s and the story opens in a police station with a super-elite squad of police being mopped up by the incredible force of one legendary street gang. I mean these guys are really tough. After totally destroying the police the gang walks out to the street only to run into The Axe Gang. The gang that the police could not stop is in seconds wiped out by the even more incredibly powerful Axe Gang. These are people in their suits, ties, and top hats that never even get mussed and are not to be trifled with. The Axe Gang members are mean and they are powerful. They also dance very stylishly. Their influence has spread just about everywhere but to a little slum called Pig Sty Alley. This looks like just a normal low-rent section of Shanghai. The residents play off of each other in very normal ways. Living there is not easy and it has made the denizens tough. Now the super-powerful Axe Gang wants to take over the streets of Pig Sty Alley. The smart money would bet on the Axe Gang. But then the smart money doesn't live in Pig Sty Alley if it is really smart. The Axe Gang finds taming this one little slum neighborhood will take more than they could ever imagine.

This wild satire of old Shaw Brothers' kung fu films is live action but has the level of reality of a Chuck Jones cartoon. The unexpected and hilarious happens time after time, catching the viewer by surprise. The mammoth battles are outdone by the supreme battle. The supreme battles are brushed away by the ultimate battles and the ultimate battles are pushed aside by even more absolute battles. Stephen Chow previously directed SHAOLIN SOCCAR, a film that enjoyed great popularity worldwide. After seeing KUNG FU HUSTLE I rented SHAOLIN SOCCAR. Stephen Chow seems to get better with every film. I give KUNG FU HUSTLE a rating of a high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10. [-mrl]

MODIGLIANI (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: Andy Garcia plays Amedeo Modigliani in a disappointing account of his relationship with his model and lover and with Pablo Picasso. The film builds to a rather melodramatic finish. It may be a true story, but it is a very familiar one, nonetheless. Rating: high 0 (-4 to +4) or 5/10

Amedeo Modigliani as seen in this film is a self-indulgent, self- destructive artist who ruins other people's lives. In many ways Andy Garcia as Modigliani is a carbon copy of Ed Harris's portrayal of Jackson Pollock in POLLOCK.

The scene is Paris just after the Great War, when many of the great artists of the world came together. There is Pablo Picasso, Diego Rivera, Jean Cocteau, Maurice Utrillo, Bartoleme Murillo, Chaim Soutine, and Modigliani. The film begins with a woman asking the audience, "Have you ever loved someone so deeply that you are willing to go to hell for him?" Then the film flashes back to one year earlier. Immediately I asked myself that if this rhetorical question to the audience is a fiction, as it has to be, how could you go back one year earlier from a rhetorical question? Anyway, let that pass. The woman asking the question is Jeanne Hebuterne (played by Elsa Zylberstein). Hebuterne was Modigliani's lover and model. The cutting edge lights of modern art meet and socialize and the center of this clique is Pablo Picasso. Somewhat outside the circle is Modigliani who takes an unreasoning hatred to Picasso, never explained but probably inspired by jealousy. He is the bad boy of the artist scene and tries to taunt Picasso with questions like, "How do you make love to a cube?"

The center of writer-director Mick Davis's script is Modigliani's stormy relationship with Hebuterne. Her father rejects the artist because he is Jewish. Her mother thinks that it will do no good to reject him because he is her daughter's destiny. (Do real people talk like that?) Picasso and Modigliani seem to go from liking each other to hating each other for no apparent reason. Meanwhile Hebuterne has to make some very difficult choices between her family and her lover. Modigliani himself is very obviously self-indulgent to the point of using the people who love him. He will not control his use of drugs and alcohol in spite of his tuberculosis. It is hard to believe that everybody Modigliani met was so famous and more likely that Davis likes to drop famous names into the script. The delightful Miriam Margolyes (who also graced BEING JULIA in the same Toronto film festival) plays Gertrude Stein. At times the script borders on the pretentious. In Davis's vision, Modigliani has conversations with an imaginary figure of himself as a boy. The most engaging sequence of the film is Picasso and Modigliani meeting the aging Renoir who obviously has more wisdom than the two combined. But the film moves to a melodramatic climax of rather banal irony.

Right in the middle of the film there is an abrupt change of style with a strange montage of the great artists working. Everywhere else in the film the photography is high contrast with subdued earth colors. The sky is drenched in white. Suddenly in this sequence we have a rainbow sky and music with a heavy beat with what sounds like rap in French. It feels like it is from a different film or perhaps a music video. It is a jarring stylistic touch that seems really out of place.

If this were the only film ever made about a temperamental artist, this film might have been more impressive, but the material is just too familiar and we are given no reason to care if Modigliani lives or dies. I rate this one high 0 (-4 to +4) or 5/10.

[As background on the character, here is an article on Modigliani I coincidentally wrote in the past:

Amedeo Modigliani is considered to be one of the greatest portrait artists of the 20th century and his paintings have sold for as much as eight million dollars, yet during his short self- destructive life of 36 years he knew very few moments of success or recognition of his style. He often had to resort to painting patrons of Paris cafes and bistros for as little as five francs a picture. He burned himself out on drink, hashish, sex, and above all his art. He left a distinctive and indelible impression on modern art.

Modigliani was born in 1884 in Leghorn, Italy. His family were prosperous Jewish merchants. As a sickly child he had to give up on a higher education and instead studied art. Modigliani's uncle paid for the art education but died when the young artist was 21. The artist Amedeo decided to go to Paris, the Mecca of contemporary art. There with a small allowance from his mother he created art, conversed with some of the great artists of the day. This was the time of the Dreyfus trial, when French anti-Jewish sentiment was at its peak. To show solidarity with his fellow Jews he signed his work "Modigliani--Jew."

The good-looking young man quickly became addicted to drink and high life that he could scarcely afford. Most of his serious work in this period was in sculpture of first wood (railroad ties), and then limestone (building construction materials). He would often use a geometric style that would carry over into his painting. When World War I broke out in 1914, these supplies dried up and he turned to painting to a much greater degree. He made his poverty a little more comfortable as a cafe sketch artist. For a while he lived with English poet Beatrice Hastings. He painted her more than a dozen times and got side commissions painting portraits, none paying very well. Drink and hashish often ate what profits he made. But his work went from notable to exceptional. His style in portraits was geometric form and elongated features.

By 1915 Modigliani's work was being exhibited at art shows and by 1916 a one-man show was scheduled, but canceled before it could take place when police raided the art gallery and confiscated the nude paintings that made up a substantial part of his work. His work steadily developed, but the bad health of his youth had been returning for years. In 1917 he married an art student and the two would have been happy together were it not for his health and his drinking. In 1918 Modigliani had a daughter. His work started earning reasonable prices, but it was too late to save him from his drinking and its effect on his health. Late in 1919 his illness turned to tuberculosis and he began spitting up blood. One story says that he went to a friend's house and said the Jewish prayer for the dead for himself. In January he died and his wife committed suicide the next day. As is so often the case with artists, his work grew more and more popular after his death. And today he is considered one of the great modern artists of the century.] [-mrl]

This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):

Bruce Chadwick's THE REEL CIVIL WAR (ISBN 0-375-70832-4) takes a distinct "anti-Southern" position, but nonetheless offers some interesting viewpoints on films about the Civil War. I say "anti-Southern" because Chadwick seems to see any indication that Southerners were brave, or noble, or had any higher feelings as a denial of the brutality of slavery. The result is that he criticizes any film that doesn't show the South and Southerners as completely without redeeming characteristics. On the other hand, he does cover a lot of films which were far too slanted towards the South, and it's possibly that this tendency has led to a backlash from him. It's certainly interesting to read about all the forgotten Civil War films of the first half of the 20th century.

Ruth Rendell's COLLECTED STORIES (0-345-35995-X) is an omnibus of four earlier collections: THE FALLEN CURTAIN, MEANS OF EVIL, THE FEVER TREE, and THE NEW GIRL FRIEND. MEANS OF EVIL is a collection of Inspector Wexford stories; I earlier reviewed one of Rendell's Inspector Wexford noels, BLOOD LINES (in the 08/13/04 issue). The rest are stories which involve crimes, but they are not necessarily mystery stories per se. They seem to be part of a sub-genre that encompasses John Collier and Jeffrey Archer-- stories with a "twist". They are also reminiscent in tone to the works of Patricia Highsmith, though not quite as creepy. (I find it interesting that even though it contains two Edgar-winning stories, this is mentioned only in the back blurb, not on the front cover. Apparently the only genre award that publishers think worth trumpeting on the front cover is the Hugo.)

I finally managed to borrow a copy of Dan Brown's THE DA VINCI CODE (ISBN 0-385-50420-9). Given that the wait list at the library is ridiculous, I expected something better. It is full of the Fibonacci numbers, the Mona Lisa, and Leonardo da Vinci, it is not a difficult book to read, and it at least somewhat works as a thriller, but I cannot see what the fuss is over it as some sort of great revelation. Or rather, if it were a great revelation, I could understand the fuss, but it is a work of fiction. The puzzles seem alternately too obvious or so arcane that no one could ever figure them out. For example, the knight's burial was obvious. For other puzzles, it's as if you had a sequence 1,2,3,5, and were asked for the next number. It could be 8 (if it's a subsequence of the Fibonacci sequence), or it could be 7 (if it is numbers not divisible by any other number), or it could be 6 (if it is numbers whose representations can be written as a single curve without crossing a point previously drawn), or it could be something else entirely. Also, despite what most readers seem to think, the premise is not new (HOLY BLOOD, HOLY GRAIL by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln is probably the best known book about the subject). And as many have noted, what Brown presents as fact is not. (For example, reviewer Penn Jacobs points out that the interpretation of the Council of Nicea and the history of the early Church is just plain wrong. And artist Shelley Esaak discusses da Vinci's "Last Supper" at . And finally, characters' decisions at the end of the book are not believable (to me, anyway). NATIONAL TREASURE, often compared to THE DA VINCI CODE, may not have been more convincing, but it was at least more entertaining. [-ecl]

                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

           Etcoff's Law: Be wary of scientific dualisms.  
           For example: Brain vs. Mind, Mind vs. Body, 
           Emotion vs. Reason, Nature vs. Nurture, 
           Us vs. Them

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