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:
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.
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.)
Saturday, April 27, 2013
Friday, April 19, 2013
Thursday, April 18, 2013
Friday, April 12, 2013
Roger Ebert, not because he was the most famous American film critic, but because he was amazingly prolific, ubiquitous, a talented and smooth writer, reflective and honest, and thus quite insightful. He had an extremely deep love of film, from the moviegoing experience to the moviemaking process to the medium itself, appreciating all its strengths, malleability and most of all, its magic. I didn't always agree with his tastes, but I respected his opinions, which he always justified. Ebert had his moments of pique, but for the most part his reviews were much more honest and fair than those of the "clever film critic" crowd, where a good quip and smug condescension can take precedence over accuracy and honesty. Ebert was fond of quoting Robert Warshow that "A man goes to the movies. The critic must be honest enough to admit he is that man." In practice, this meant that Ebert typically related, in deceptively smooth prose (he made it look effortless), his personal experience watching the movie, and he was introspective, sharp, humble and eloquent enough to explain that beautifully. His general approach dovetailed with what I've always been taught: a good critic relays the experience of what it was like to see a given film or play or other performance. Get familiar with a good critic, and you will have a reasonable gauge of whether you will like a movie, because you will know where your tastes diverge. Most criticism should ask three questions: What does this piece set out to achieve? Does it achieve it? And what is the value of its ambitions? (How worthwhile is it in the first place?) For instance, is a summer blockbuster a good popcorn flick? (Sure, it's not King Lear, but it's not trying to be, and there's room for both Shakespearean tragedies and lighter fare in the world.) Does it succeed on its own terms? Does it deliver the goods? Such questions are especially important for "genre" pictures that traditionally don't get much respect. Ebert touched on these dynamics many times, as when he wrote:
The star rating system is relative, not absolute. When you ask a friend if "Hellboy" is any good, you're not asking if it's any good compared to "Mystic River," you're asking if it's any good compared to "The Punisher." And my answer would be, on a scale of one to four, if "Superman" (1978) is four, then "Hellboy" is three and "The Punisher" is two. In the same way, if "American Beauty" gets four stars, then "[The United States of] Leland" clocks in at about two.The Washington Post obituary adds:
The best movies, [Ebert] said, challenged viewers' understanding of the world and forced them to rethink their opinions. But all movies deserved to be judged according to their own ambitions, from French New Wave films to dusty Westerns, he said. "If you try to apply the same yardstick to the new Godard and the new John Wayne," he told Time magazine in 1970, "you're probably missing the point of both films." A good critic "doesn't have the answers, but he can be an example of the process of finding your own answers," Mr. Ebert wrote on his blog in 2008. And if his movie-reviewing shows had any lasting utility, he wrote, "it was in exposing viewers, many of them still children, to the notion that it was permitted to have opinions, and expected that you should explain them."I'm not a fan of strident "I'm right, you're wrong" criticism, where egos run amuck and someone tries to "pull rank," even if occasional excesses can be excused. Far better, though, to aim for passionate-but-still-civil discourse, or to simply ask, "What did you like about it?" and "What didn't work for you?" Approach the arts that way, and then we're having a conversation, sharing experiences versus trying to one-up each other. Most of the time, Ebert subscribed to the same ethos – he was starting a conversation versus trying to have the last word. The "two thumbs up" stuff was too reductive, but it did cut to the bottom line of what someone wanted to know – whether a film was worth seeing or not. In his reviews, Ebert gave far more context. For the most part, Ebert spared his acerbic wit for deserving targets, and wrote very entertaining (but fair) negative reviews of genuinely bad films. Still, as much fun as those were, I appreciate the writing in his Great Movies series more. Sure, Ebert was popular, and writing for a popular audience, but he really knew his film history, too. He was erudite without being snobby. As the best critics do, Ebert would articulate some part of a great film's appeal or magic, and make you want to either see it again or see it for the first time. My dad was an avid filmgoer (and from Chicago), and in our family, Siskel and Ebert's show (in its various incarnations) was regular viewing. It was gratifying to see people actually talk about film and clearly appreciate it. Siskel and Ebert reviewed the big studio releases, but made a point of also reviewing foreign films, smaller indie features, and documentaries. Hoop Dreams might be the best example, but Siskel and Ebert championed many great films that would have been overlooked otherwise (I was happy to see Ebert pick Junebug for his Overlooked Film Festival, later called Ebertfest). As Ebert pointed out every so often, genuine discussion of films as films on TV is unfortunately fairly rare. Most TV film coverage comes in the form of glossy entertainment shows or actors appearing on talk shows. Occasionally there's an interesting tidbit, but such programming is about shilling the films, not evaluating them. (Tellingly, I once caught Ebert discussing this point on a small local arts show on the Howard University PBS channel. Ebert had left PBS and was fairly famous by that point, but he was still showing up to have serious talks about film, never mind the small viewership.) It also would be hard to overstate Ebert's influence on a couple of generations' worth of budding film critics and other writers. (I know a few people who were devastated by the news of his death.) Roger became for many a kind of geek hero, a guy with the dream gig of going to the movies and writing about them, who wasn't the most conventionally telegenic but achieved success through his mind and writing. I found a new respect for Ebert in his second life as a blogger, most of all because of the personal courage he showed despite losing his voice and most of his jaw to cancer. It took real guts to agree to the Esquire feature that chronicled all this, and it was an ongoing act of bravery and will that, rather than retiring from public life, he actually accelerated his writing and became quite adept at blogging, tweeting and the rest. When he dared to discuss politics, mostly out of a basic social contract, respect-for-humanity liberalism, he was subject to some vicious personal attacks, but he shrugged them off with good cheer. (Some good bloggers have covered the pieces attacking him since his death, but I'll refrain from linking them here.) On a similar note, the number of positive stories about Roger Ebert as a person is striking. Like his fellow Chicagoan and one-time drinking buddy Studs Terkel, Ebert just seemed to like people (most of 'em, anyway), and made a point of encouraging and helping budding writers and fans. He did far more than he had to. Read through Will Leitch's honest but painful story about attacking Ebert savagely and personally after Ebert had gone to great lengths to help Leitch. The way Ebert responded to this betrayal is really rather extraordinary, with a maturity, compassion and forgiveness that I sincerely admire. This piece may seem overly rosy; I certainly didn't always agree with Ebert's judgments. But as I wrote for Andrew Sarris, for my money, if you truly love film and the moviegoing experience (and aren't too obnoxious), you're in the club; we are fellow travelers. Differences of opinion are inevitable, but in the club, they're minor in the grand scheme of things. Whatever his faults, Roger Ebert loved the arts and loved humanity, and understood how deeply those two are connected. Finally, here are some choice quotations and links.
"Kindness covers all of my political beliefs," [Ebert] wrote, at the end of his memoir, "Life Itself." "No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn't always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out." – The Chicago Sun-Times obituary.
"Just write, get better, keep writing, keep getting better. It's the only thing you can control." – The Will Leitch piece.
To call it an anticlimax would be an insult not only to climaxes but to prefixes. It's a crummy secret, about one step up the ladder of narrative originality from It Was All a Dream. It's so witless, in fact, that when we do discover the secret, we want to rewind the film so we don't know the secret anymore. Ebert's review of The Village.
Mr. Ebert — who said he saw 500 films a year and reviewed half of them — was once asked what movie he thought was shown over and over again in heaven, and what snack would be free of charge and calories there. “ ‘Citizen Kane’ and vanilla Häagen-Dazs ice cream,” he answered. – The New York Times obituary.
So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I'll see you at the movies. – Roger Ebert's farewell, "A Leave of Presence."Ebert Himself Ebert's Site (Reviews, Journal, Great Movies Series) "A Leave of Presence" "I Do Not Fear Death" "How to Read a Movie" "My Name is Roger, and I'm an Alcoholic" "In the Meadow, We Can Pan a Snowman" "Best lines from Roger Ebert movie reviews" Funniest Roger Ebert Quotations Ebert's Seven Most Shareable Quotations Filmmakers Scorsese, Spielberg, Herzog and more. Obituaries Chicago Sun-Times (plus Chaz Ebert) The Washington Post (plus slideshow) The New York Times (plus slideshow) The Los Angeles Times NPR one, two, three Chicago Tribune Appreciations Richard Roeper Stephen S. Duke Rob Vaux Dan Zak Ann Hornaday Digby and Dennis Hartley Roy Edroso Self-Styled Siren driftglass Christopher Orr Aisha Harris Keith Phipps Brian Doan Will Leitch's piece The Onion Open Thread Remembrances The Washington Post Balloon Juice Lawyers, Guns and Money If you wrote an appreciation for Roger Ebert not featured above, feel free to link it in the comments. See you at the movies.