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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
12/16/05 -- Vol. 24, No. 25, Whole Number 1313
Table of Contents
Interaction Worldcon Report Available:
My Worldcon report for Interaction is available at
What I Have Learned (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
All life is suffering with minor respites for chocolate. [-mrl]
The Impact of Rod Serling and "The Twilight Zone" (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I was this past week on a panel discussing the television show "The Twilight Zone". It brought back a lot of good memories of the late 1950s and early 1960s when my life really was divided in two pieces: watching "The Twilight Zone" and waiting for the next "Twilight Zone". I don't think that there is any television show that had the impact on me that that series did. I was a kid who loved science fiction and fantasy. This show channeled me into adult written science fiction. The story is that maybe a year after it premiered my father returned from a business trip and brought back a book that had been left on the seat. It was NOTIONS UNLIMITED by the late, great Robert Sheckley. My reaction was how terrific it was that you could find Twilight-Zone-like stores in books. It was a while before I looked at science fiction books and did not think of "The Twilight Zone". I remember hot days in the summers of that time my mother would take my brother and me and friends to the swimming pool and we would sit in the back seat and sweat and talk excitedly about that really great episode of "The Twilight Zone" that we had just seen. And we discussed what were the best episodes. But it was more than a show that pleased just youngsters.
"The Twilight Zone" was a revolution for broadcast fantasy. More science fiction fans were getting their doses of fantasy from one television show than they had from all the other broadcast sources of fantasy combined. There had been several radio and television shows of science fiction before. Some of the most popular were those associated with Arch Oboler. They had low-grade science fiction ideas and were not very good writing. A typical Arch Oboler story would have a scientist is working on growth hormone and carelessly spilling his waste onto the ground. Next thing you know he has giant worms attacking his house. His most famous story, I think, was "Chicken Heart" about a scientifically treated chicken heart that kept growing to monstrous size and was "in your town . . . on your street!" The series might have had a dubious charm but rarely good writing. Other series like "Quiet Please" occasionally had a well-told story, but it was mostly there for the ideas. On television besides programs like "Captain Video" and "Tom Corbett"--Westerns and crime stories set in space--there was some acceptable science fiction from "Science Fiction Theater", a short-lived anthology series, but nothing that would be really engaging. The stories were on the level of having a surprise ending that that strange person in the story was actually an alien. We could say something similar about "One Step Beyond". "Tales of Tomorrow" should be mentioned also.
What was different about "The Twilight Zone" was Rod Serling. He was not a fantasist doing his best to write decent drama. He was a dramatist who wanted to do some fantasy stories. He had done several outstanding plays for live television and was considered a really good dramatist. His best remembered plays are probably "Patterns" and "Requiem for a Heavyweight," but only because they were adapted into films. With "The Twilight Zone" this writer of great dialog was doing fantasy stories on a weekly basis. In the beginning the new "Twilight Zone" series had both good ideas and human drama, though the emphasis was actually more on the drama. Even my parents, who were never much for fantasy stories, watched the first season of "The Twilight Zone". I can only assume it was because of the quality of the writing.
"The Twilight Zone" would have decent actors and some soon-to-be stars: actors like Robert Redford, Jack Warden, Jean Marsh, Lee Marvin, Robert Duvall, and Martin Landau as well as later familiar faces like William Shatner. There were also some extremely good character actors. I did not appreciate this at the time, but as the years roll by I am more impressed with the acting of Jack Klugman, most notably in "The Twilight Zone" episodes "A Passage for Trumpet" and "In Praise of Pip". He could play emotional pain as well as anybody I have ever seen. I did not appreciate his performances when I was eleven, but today they literally bring tears to my eyes. Other actors like Art Carney gave some of their best performances for Serling.
Where Serling ran into trouble were the requirements of a weekly anthology series. That is a very difficult regimen. From an early point he brought in writers like Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont to pinch-hit for his writing. Matheson just had his feet barely wet in dramatic fantasy with his script for THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN. He had also written for some television Westerns before "The Twilight Zone". He contributed sixteen scripts to Serling's series. (Only Serling wrote more "The Twilight Zone" scripts.) This experience started a whole career for Matheson in fantasy drama. Matheson is another of my choices for under-appreciated creative people of fantasy.
Even with a stable of good writers and actors Serling could not keep up the standards the show really demanded. Eventually he had to go with lesser ideas and less talented writers. Some of the final season episodes are painful to watch. Most science fiction magazine editors reject Adam and Eve stories immediately. Serling accepted one. Some of the later shows were also very sloppy. In "The Bewitching Pool" the little girl's voice is done by the actress for part of the story and by all-too-recognizable cartoon voice June Foray the rest of the time.
"The Twilight Zone" borrowed a little from previous films and radio plays; some episodes were taken almost directly from DEAD OF NIGHT. It adapted a play by Lucille Fletcher that had been popular on the radio. But it virtually strip-mined ideas. For years afterward we saw one reworking of a " Twilight Zone" idea after another. Others film can be found that were made up in large part of ideas from "The Twilight Zone". CARNIVAL OF SOULS, BRIDES OF DRACULA, POLTERGEIST, and several television movies re- use ideas that were probably taken from "The Twilight Zone". The series was a new fantasy idea every week.
I cannot think of anything I acquired during the period that "The Twilight Zone" was on that I value as much as the experience of looking forward to each new episode of "The Twilight Zone". [-mrl]
KING KONG (2005) (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Peter Jackson's longtime ambition to make a new version of KING KONG is fulfilled with a great yet respectful expansion and remake. He finds enough ways to improve the original film that even die-hard fans should be impressed. There is a lot of film here for a single admission ticket. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
The question has been asked, "If you have a favorite film, who would you want to remake it?" And the best answer is, "Nobody!" If you have a favorite film you want the story left as it is. At least that is the common wisdom. But all my life one of my favorite films has been the 1933 KING KONG. (I gave the 1976 remake a viewing. It was painful. The opening was reasonable, but as the film went along it got worse and more painful.) Then it was announced that Peter Jackson was going to make another remake. Well, at that time Jackson had showed some talent. But I was a little relieved when the project was tabled and Jackson went off to make his version of THE LORD OF THE RINGS. That was an extremely hard project and Jackson proved himself to be a very good visual fantasist. He also was the first director ever to have one film I rated -4 (BAD TASTE) and another I rated +4 (THE LORD OF THE RINGS). Then he went back to Kong. Okay, Mr. Jackson, do your best.
All right, I admit it. Peter Jackson actually made a better version of KING KONG than the original. It really is considerably better. I gave the original KING KONG a +4. Jackson's version gets a +3. His film was not as original as the 1933 KONG and he had seventy-two years of technology to help him. But he has made what I would judge one of the greatest action- adventures ever filmed. By making a film that is almost 80% longer he has the time to develop his characters and it does show. He gives the people back-stories so you can actually get involved with the characters. I have to admit that in the first half-hour or so of the film I was getting involved in the stories of Carl Denham as an unscrupulous filmmaker and of Ann Darrow as someone other than the girl who would be in a hairy paw. This is not the same Ann Darrow who was in the 1933 version, but she is close enough. Carl Denham is similar to the original but is more of an unprincipled sharpster who is less than likable. Another change that I think would have been made in the original film if the writers had a second chance: the girl is sympathetic to the beast. The same team did that with SON OF KONG and in MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. But the original Ann Darrow in the 1933 version never seemed to look at Kong as anything but a threat. In fact, any sympathy that the audience felt for the ape may have been unintentional.
I will not say a lot about the plot, since most people have seen the original film, and that tells more than enough about the plot of this version. Jackson has used the original film as an outline and just expanded it with a great deal of respect for the original material. He was content to tell very much the same story and just in scene after scene show how his visual sense and his seventy-two years of additional technology allowed him to outdo the original on a scene-by-scene basis. For example in the original KONG the natives are not really as impressive as intended, and they are entirely the wrong race. In the new film they are racially more accurate and as scary as the orcs of LORD OF THE RINGS. In the original film all the character foundation work takes place before Ann is kidnapped so after that the film can be non-stop action. The same is true here, but it is about seventy-five minutes before the real action starts. It does the job, but the film does not drag.
Even some of the best films have a few scenes the fans could do without. I have problems with both versions of KONG. In the original film poking fun at Charlie, the Chinese cook, never sat well with me. In the new film nearly every scene seemed to work for me for most of the film. But there is a silly little idyll that I could have done without with Kong and Ann on a frozen pond in Central Park, away from the hustle and bustle that one might expect would accompany having a twenty-five-foot ape loose in the New York City.
The Jackson team has created a marvelous visualization of the whole Kong story. Skull Island earns its name, not with a giant mountain that looks like a skull, as unlikely as that would be. This film gives the feel of a great previous civilization that at one time lived all over the island, not just on the safe side of the wall. How they did that with the fauna in the interior of the island makes the story all the more mysterious. The dinosaurs are given a new physicality that I have not seen in even the Jurassic Park films. When stampeding dinosaurs try to go through a narrow space you have the feel that these are massive animals piling into each other. The dinosaurs and most other animals look very good. The bats do not. But close-up bats never look very good on film and it would be better for filmmakers to just leave them out of plots. Kong is much more like a natural gorilla in the new film. He has the posture of a gorilla and he yawns at odd moments making him seem more like a natural animal. The original Kong had too many human gestures, had inconsistent dimensions, and was more a sort of ape-man than a gorilla. The new Kong is a realistic but magnificent ape.
The film is full of loving visual and sound tributes to the original film. The credits are done in the same style. Tiny pieces of the Max Steiner music creep into the James Newton Howard score. Then when we get to Times Square the same neon ads are on the buildings and the Steiner score is reprised in an unexpected way that pokes a little loving fun at the original film. And at the end of the credits there is a nice tribute to many of the names of people who contributed to the original film.
There are a few problems. Kong is graceful, but he is a little too acrobatic to be believed. This is especially true in the scenes where he carries Ann and would have broken her neck if both were more than digital images. In the script Denham sees the ape carry off Ann and does not see them again, but somehow knows that the ape will follow Ann. The script does not explain how he knows that.
This is a production that proves that even a great film can have a remake that is even better. I just wish Willis O'Brien were around and could look what they done to his Kong. I rate it +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 9/10.
Oh, and one thing that I would have been thought would have been obvious from the 1933 film, and this film makes it even more obvious. Some wag has found what some think is a goof in the film. Why leave a Kong-sized gate in the wall that was intended to keep Kong out of the village? It is easy to explain. Suppose Kong decided to climb the wall and he ended on the other side. We know Kong is a climber, after all. Would a native prefer trying to convince Kong to climb the wall again to return to his side or to open the gate and tempt Kong to return through it? [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
In preparation for this small independent film that was coming out soon from some New Zealand director, I read KING KONG by Edgar Wallace and Merian C. Cooper (ISBN 1-887-42491-1). This was (I believe) a novelization written at the time of the 1933 film and as such it is fairly close to that film. There are differences, though. Some make little sense (in the book the ship is the Wanderer; in the movie it is the Venture). Others were either toned down for the movie, or "embellished" for the book, and many of these were racial elements. In the book, for example, Kong is destroying the native village, but Denham does not want to use the gas bombs yet, because "the huts might stop the drift of the gas cloud." He doesn't seem to worry too much about the natives. And there are several passages such as: "The last pin had fallen from her hair and it foamed down her back in a bright cascade made more bright by its contrast with Kong's black snarl of fur. One sleeve of her dress had been torn, so that her right shoulder was bare. The soft, white rondure made another, more startling contrast with her captor's sooty bulk."
Wallace's science is a bit shaky as well. Describing a Triceratops, Denham calls it "[just] another of Nature's mistakes, Jack. Something like a dinosaur. But with their forelegs more fully developed." (Oh, he also spells it "Tricerotops" and calls an individual animal a "Tricerotop".) 1) A Triceratops *is* a dinosaur, and 2) any species that survives seven million years is not exactly "one of Nature's mistakes."
The book is interesting only as an adjunct to the movie. I suspect that Edgar Wallace has written better, just as Isaac Asimov wrote many better books than his novelization of FANTASTIC VOYAGE.
"Audubon in Atlantis" by Harry Turtledove (ANALOG, December 2005) is competently written, but probably of more interest to birders than to the average SF fan. The premise is that Atlantis exists and in 1843 John James Audubon goes there to study (and draw) the unique bird species, many of which are dying out. I had some technical quibbles (quelle surprise!)--mostly that the existence of a large island continent between Europe/Africa and North America would have changed the history of the New World (and the Old) so as to make much of the setting given extremely implausible. However, someone pointed out that the illustration at the beginning shows a map which has Atlantis as the eastern part of North America, separated from the rest by a large body of water. Unfortunately, this is not made clear in the story, and I suspect that the map will not be included with any future publications of the story in anthologies or collections. On the plus side, April 6, 1843, *was* a Thursday, so at least Turtledove did that much research. (You'd be surprised how many people do not.) And Turtledove goes into great detail about the characteristics of the various species (birds and non-birds as well), but I cannot judge how accurate or likely they are. I'll leave that to the birders. (Yes, Kate, that's you!) The ecological part of the story was (a bit too) obviously taken from that of the Galapagos and Mauritius. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: The genius of the American system is that we have created extraordinary results from plain old ordinary people. -- Phil Gramm
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