Friday, May 24, 2013
Monday, May 20, 2013
Ray Harryhausen has died, at the ripe old age of 92. His influence on visual effects cannot be overstated. (As one of my brothers observed, without Ray Harryhausen, there'd be no "full-motion" dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. Yep.) Harryhausen's stop-action animation technique, which he called "Dynamation," required meticulous planning, discipline and patience. For his most complex scenes, such as the wide shots in the skeleton fight in Jason and the Argonauts, even working all day might yield only a second of footage, because he had to move seven independent models a frame at a time. That dedication is part of what made him a master, but the key element was that he was a great storyteller. Watch his films, and if you focus on just the effects, they may look dated, even a bit cheesy at times. But get sucked into them as movies, and the scenes still work. They're well-constructed. Harryhausen sets up the physical space and makes sure to get plenty of reaction shots. The creature sequences serve as spectacle scenes, but in the hands of a lesser artist, that's all they'd remain. Harryhausen makes them dramatic. He makes them part of a story. As I wrote for the mediocre remake of Clash of the Titans (the 16th film reviewed here):
Here's Harryhausen on Medusa:
And here's the Medusa sequence itself. (Unfortunately, there are some cuts added, and the transfer is dark, but you can still get a decent sense of Harryhausen's excellent shot selection to build tension.)
Finally, here's the Harryhausen monster compilation:
Thanks for all the magic. There's no doubt that his influence lives on.
I was a fan of the original film as a kid, despite some misgivings. I didn't like all of the liberties it took with the mythology, but Harryhausen was pretty cool. In later years, when it happened to be on TV (the Turner stations loved it), I'd sometimes switch over just to catch the Medusa sequence, which is masterful and still holds up.Here's Ray Harryhausen's official site. There are obituaries from The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, the AP and the BBC. There are also appreciations from Rob Vaux, Pixar's Pete Docter and Krishna Bala Shenoi. The Los Angeles Times also rounds up Hollywood reactions, examines the complexities of Harryhausen's process, and looks at some of the people he's influenced. (If you have a Harryhausen appreciation I missed, feel free to link it in the comments.) Still, the best tribute to Harryhausen is his own work. Here's the famous skeleton fight from Jason and the Argonauts: Many viewers have remarked on this scene from the same film featuring Talos, the bronze giant. Although he's ostensibly a foe, Harryhausen gives him a touch of pathos here and makes him slightly sympathetic:
Tuesday, May 07, 2013
"Star Blecch, the (Gaack!) Motion Picture." Click for a larger view. Note the Sergio Aragones margin cartoon as well.) At Film Comment earlier this year, Grady Hendrix delivered a wonderful piece, "CAHIERS DU CINÉMAD":
For many of us, the first exposure to classic films wasn’t on film at all, it was in print. It was in black and white even if the films were in color, it was printed on cheap paper, and it was full of some of the worst puns known to man. We thrilled to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Oddfather, Arthur Penn’s revisionist Western Little Dull Man, the sophisticated sex comedy Shampooped, and Stanley Kubrick’s ground-breaking 201 Minutes of a Space Idiocy. For us, Casablanca was cast with professional wrestlers, My Fair Lady featured women’s libbers trying to reform a male chauvinist Burt Reynolds, and The Exorcist ended with Satan demanding a six-film deal. Rude, irreverent, and with 58 years of history now behind them, MAD magazine’s movie satires gave some of us our first encounters with the modern cinematic canon. Always happy to aim over the heads of its target audience of teenaged boys (issue 28 featured a guide to IRS form 1040), MAD was parodying movies like Barry Lyndon (Borey Lyndon) and Blow-Up (Throw Up) to a readership with little awareness of these movies beyond their newspaper ads. Long before most kids were old enough to see R- and X-rated movies like Dressed to Kill, Altered States, and Midnight Cowboy, they were familiar with Undressed to Kill, Assaulted State, and Midnight Wowboy. While film studies majors gasp over the deconstruction of genre in the works of David Lynch and the meta-movies of Charlie Kaufman, “the usual gang of idiots” over at MAD have been deconstructing, meta-narrativing, and postmodernizing motion pictures since the very first movie parody (Hah! Noon!) appeared in 1954. … Prior to the Seventies and the advent of Monty Python, Mel Brooks’s film send-ups, and the team of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker, MAD were the only people parodying Hollywood sanctimony on a regular basis.Some of those specific parodies were before my time, but I caught several in the MAD blockbuster issues, which would recap many of their greatest hits. At my house, we kids were introduced to MAD by our dad, who had saved from his own childhood some of the original comic books (before it switched to magazine format) and early paperback compilations. Some of the stories had a meaner edge than the later, more zany, pieces, but they were still great fun to read. (Who could forget Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood's fantastic "Superduperman"?) The film parodies appeared later, and with few exceptions, they were the best part of the magazine. Unfortunately, they also grew shorter and some issues didn't have any (it's why I stopped following MAD). Hendrix writes:
But when MAD switched from black and white to color and began running ads in 2001, it coincided with the decline of the movie-satire golden age. In the 18 years between 1984 and 2002 they published 180 of them, but between 2002 and 2012 there were only 40. The spoofs used to average seven pages each, now they average five, and sometimes even four. But this decline has more to do with movie industry practices than the quality of the satires themselves, and the parodies are too much a part of the magazine’s DNA to disappear completely. They’ve also shown a remarkable continuity. Over the past 50 years, four editors (Harvey Kurtzman, Al Feldstein, Nick Meglin, and John Ficarra), and the same five writers (Dick DeBartolo, Stan Hart, Arnie Kogen, Larry Siegel, and Desmond Devlin) and five artists (Mort Drucker, Angelo Torres, Jack Davis, Tom Richmond, and Hermann Mejia) have been responsible for 87 percent of them, and the format has remained remarkably consistent.The other writers and artists had their moments, but the magic pair for me was always Dick DeBartolo and Mort Drucker. Their parodies of the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises were among their best, featuring some hilarious (and quotable) exchanges. (MAD even did a musical parodies of both!) The number of film parodies MAD delivered is impressive. And it's hard to overestimate the influence of MAD on several generations when it came to their general comic sensibility (and sure, their attitudes toward film, too). So thanks to MAD – most of all that wonderful big kid William Gaines – and parents wise enough to heed MAD's mission of 'corrupting the minds of children.'
Monday, May 06, 2013
Zencomix/Dave Dugan writes:
I've entered a contest sponsored by the Illinois Humanities Council and The MacArthur Foundation called Looking At Democracy. There's $100,000 worth of prize money, and $5000 of that money is a "People's Choice" Award. Voting is open to the public, and you can help me win the $5000 by voting for my submission.You can vote for his entry (pictured above), "Truth or Consequences," here and peruse the other entries here. (Hey, I'm biased, but I think his piece is one of the better ones I've seen over there – and it's a great piece for the Blog Against Theocracy.)
Wednesday, May 01, 2013
Happy May Day! A couple of links: Democracy Now covers the Bangladesh factory collapse that killed over 400 people. A demonstration was held today. Erik Loomis weighs in on Bangladesh and the Texas factory explosion, and also passes on some useful links.
Tuesday, April 30, 2013
April is National Poetry Month. As usual, I'm posting late and wanted to recommend the wonderful Favorite Poem Project. This year, I thought I'd look at two poems involving the Greek god Apollo. The first one is better known:
Archaic Torso of Apollo By Rainer Maria Rilke (Translated by Stephen Mitchell) We cannot know his legendary head with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso is still suffused with brilliance from inside, like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low, gleams in all its power. Otherwise the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could a smile run through the placid hips and thighs to that dark center where procreation flared. Otherwise this stone would seem defaced beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders and would not glisten like a wild beast's fur: would not, from all the borders of itself, burst like a star: for here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.That last line is unexpected and startling, and really makes the poem for me. It puts all that's come before in a new light, and suddenly, the poem captures the deep introspection that gazing at great art can provoke. Mark Doty discusses the poem more here. Compare it to this one. (Coincidentally, I was introduced to it in a lecture by Mark Doty.)
Old Joke By Alan Shapiro Radiant child of Leto, farworking Lord Apollo, with lyre in hand and golden plectrum, you sang to the gods on Mount Olympus almost as soon as you were born. You sang, and the Muses sang in answer, and together your voices so delighted all your deathless elders that their perfect happiness was made more perfect still. What was it, though, that overwhelmed them, that suffused, astonished, even the endless ether? Was it the freshest, most wonderful stops of breath, the flawless intervals and scales whose harmonies were mimicking in sound the beauty of the gods themselves, or what you joined to that, what you were singing of, our balked desires, the miseries we suffer at your indifferent hands, devastation and bereavement, old age and death? Farworking, radiant child, what do you know about us? Here is my father, half blind, and palsied, at the toilet, he’s shouting at his penis, Piss, you! Piss! Piss! but the penis (like the heavenly host to mortal prayers) is deaf and dumb; here, too, my mother with her bad knee, on the eve of surgery, hobbling by the bathroom, pausing, saying, who are you talking to in there? and he replies, no one you would know, sweetheart. Supernal one, in your untested mastery, your easy excellence, with nothing to overcome, and needing nothing but the most calamitous and abject stories to prove how powerful you are, how truly free, watch them as they laugh so briefly, godlike, better than gods, if only for a moment in which what goes wrong is converted to a rightness, if only because now she’s hobbling back to bed where she won’t sleep, if only because he pees at last, missing the bowl, and has to get down on his knees to wipe it up. You don’t know anything about us. (Poem from The Dead Alive and Busy.)The opening evokes the themes of the Homeric Hymns and their many later imitators. Apollo is presented as perfect, exemplary, transcendent – an object of admiration. The poem takes a sharp descent to the mortal world of indignities and vulnerability. After reading the whole poem and looking again at the portrayal of Apollo, I'm reminded of a line from Peter Shaffer's play Amadeus, when Mozart complains about depictions of gods and heroes who "shit marble." It ties into an old dichotomy I've kicked around about the depiction of heroes, nicely illustrated by the two major film versions of Shakespeare's play Henry V, Laurence Olivier's in 1944 and Kenneth Branagh's in 1989. Olivier's Henry transcends suffering, is more than a mere mortal, and shot in glowing Technicolor, he gleams in his armor and surcoat, proud and unflappable in the face of overwhelming adversity. Sometimes, this depiction is countertextual, but it's an understandable choice given the film's main purpose: boosting morale for the British during WWII. In contrast, Branagh's Henry is muddy and exhausted, and a hero because he struggles through his suffering to succeed, never transcending it outright. He'll give a fire-and-brimstone speech in public at Harfleur, and then collapse in private. Something similar is going on in this poem. When I first heard/read "no one you would know, sweetheart," it got a laugh from the audience, but it sounded a bit harsh and bitter to me, as if this wasn't the happiest of marriages. But after reading the poem to the end, and reading it again, it's clear this is a marriage of warmth, intimacy and compassion. The couple doesn't even necessary "succeed" in the face of suffering; the point is, they're sharing it, and that alleviates it a little. This is the state of their lives, a far cry from the grandeur of Mt. Olympus. (Shapiro does a marvellous job of contrasting images.) None of this is to exclude other readings of these poems. They make an intriguing pair, and I like and admire them both. Shapiro's poem isn't a direct retort to Rilke's, which in any case is about contemplating a work of art more than the idea of a god per se. Rilke's piece uses beauty as a launching point and captures a moment of solitary (and profound) reflection, while the core of Shapiro's piece is about indignity that becomes a shared moment. (Feel free to share or link a favorite poem in the comments.)