Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day 2013

The Bad: It's been 10 years since the (Second) Iraq War started, leading to many a retrospective. I find it depressing but not surprising that so many hawks have learned so little, and so many still insist that they were wrong for the right reasons, while those damn hippies were right for the wrong reasons. It's all bullshit, of course. Worse than the merely unrepentant hawks are the rabid ones, who are typically but not exclusively right-wing. (As I wrote elsewhere, I guess it wouldn't be Memorial Day or 11/11 without idiots angrily proving once again that they are obstinately insensate to any deeper reflection or profounder meaning to the holidays.) Although 11/11 means more to me, both it and Memorial Day are meant to give one pause, to remember the truth of the saying that war is hell, and consider that it should not be entered lightly. Wars shouldn't be started, for instance, to prove one's manhood by proxy, sending others to die on one's behalf, or to enrich private corporations. The times character and wisdom really matter are for weighty issues such as war and human rights (torture, but also basic treatment and due process). "Hippie-punching" is childish and obnoxious, but the incivility aspect is a minor concern compared to the real problem – encouraging gleeful bullying in the democratic process and making bad policy decisions based on spite, greed and vanity.

The Good: People do exist that get it. If you want to read a great mea culpa on Iraq, check out John Cole's, originally written in 2008 and reran this year. The unrepentant hawks don't demonstrate a sliver of the integrity and courage that he does. Similarly, I see friends and acquaintances on blogs and social networks who write or link good pieces on Memorial Day. Some are military veterans, some have buried loved ones fallen in the line of duty, but most are just human beings with a general sense of decency. It's not a difficult puzzle to solve. But as long as such basic wisdom (reluctance to go to war, especially without good reasons) is denied by pundits, politicians and paid shills, more people need to speak up.

Lastly, I usually catch the National Memorial Day and Independence Day concerts on PBS. They can be awfully schmaltzy, but I was impressed this year by two segments in the National Memorial Day Concert. One was a brief, harrowing account of D-Day, in a rerun segment featuring the late Charles Durning (a WWII vet who was a long-time participant in the concert, and got Joe Mantegna involved). The second was a lengthy dialogue between Joe Mantegna and Gary Sinise recreating the experiences of twin brothers in the military. One lost a leg in Iraq, while the other committed suicide stateside. The surviving brother, National Guardsman Staff Sergeant Earl Granville, attended the concert and understandably teared up during the segment; he's become a spokesman on military suicides and PTSD. I appreciated that the organizers used the concert not just to sing a few patriotic songs, but actually addressed the costs of war and reached out to military personnel and their families who might be suffering.

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Doors – "Riders on the Storm"

There are many great Doors songs to choose from, but I have to agree with Digby that this is one of the best for featuring Ray Manzarek. RIP.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Ray Harryhausen (1920–2013)

It was inevitable; after a wonderful run, the great 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):

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:

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.

(The leads in Monsters, Inc. dine at the restaurant Harryhausen's.)

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

The MAD World of Film

(MAD's on-target parody, "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

Looking at Democracy via Zencomix

Blogger 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

May Day 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.