Saturday, 26 February 2005

The Films of the Great Ray Harryhausen

The first movie I can remember watching was when I was about four years old. . Dad, Mom, my brother, and I went to our community's Hallowe'en party. When we got home, we turned on the TV and there it was--Jason and the Argonauts. I was fascinated, particularly by the Children of the Hydra's Teeth, the skeletons which Jason fights in the film's climax. I have often wondered how that movie had an impact on my tastes in films and books later in life. It is hard to say. Given television in the Sixties, when Star Trek, Batman, Bewitched and various other sci-fi, fantasy, or superhero shows were on the air, I suppose anything could have turned me into, well, a geek in later life...

Regardless, I know one thing to emerge out of seeing Jason and the Argonauts at such an early age--I have been a life long Ray Harryhausen fan. After seeing King Kong as a child, Ray Harryhausen started making his own amateur, stop motion films. Harryhausen broke into the film industry when Willis O'Brien (the special effects wizard behind King Kong), whom Harryhausen had met through O'Brien's niece, asked him to work on Mighty Joe Young. Harryhausen was then able to learn his craft directly from the master of that craft.

Harryhausen went onto work on other pictures: It Came From Beneath the Sea (about a giant octopus), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, and 20 Million Miles to Earth. It was with The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, however, that Harryhausen really came into his own. In It Came From Beneath the Sea Harryhausen only animated a giant octopus. In 20 Million Miles to Earth he only had to deal with the giant Ymir. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad gave Harryhausen a chance to truly show his talent. Among the stop motion creations were the cyclops, the roc, and a skeleton. Harryhausen was also faced with the task of a special effect that was not stop motion--the princess who had been shrunk. It was Harryhausen's best work to date and still among the best work he ever did on film. What makes The 7th Voyage of Sinbad a classic is not its special effects, but the fact that it is simply a good movie. The film benefits from a strong script, sincere performances, and an excellent Bernard Hermann score.

Following The 7th Voyage of Sinbad there would be no more "giant monster" movies for Harryhausen. The films he did afterwards are what today would be called "high concept." The Three Worlds of Gulliver adapted part of Gulliver's Travels. It stands out as one of Harryhausen's movies in which the bulk of the effects were not stop motion. Instead, Harryhausen was faced with such things as making real actors appear to be tiny Lilliputians. He succeeded admirably. Harryhausen next did the effects for The Mysterious Island, based on the classic Jules Verne novel. Harryhausen was once more doing a good deal of stop motion, as creatures on the island tend to grow a bit larger than normal. The movie also benefits from a Bernard Hermann score, as well as Herbert Lom's perfromance as Captain Nemo.

With Harryhausen's next film he surpassed the success he had with The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Jason and the Argonauts featured the most impressive effects Harryhausen would ever achieve, including the giant Talos, the Hydra, and Children of the Hydra's Teeth. The movie is perhaps not as strong as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, its primary defecit being some of the actors' performances, but it is still a classic, with a particularly strong story.

Harryhausen's next film was First Men in the Moon, based on the H. G. Wells novel. He also did the animation for One Million Years B.C. It was with The Valley of Gwangi that Harryhausen truly returned to form. The movie was based on a concept developed by Willis O'Brien in the late Forties which would combine elements of the Western with dinosaurs. Unfortunately, the project was abandoned. Fortunately, Harryhausen saw O'Brien's concept through wonderfully. Among the film's highlights are a battle between a tyrannosaurus rex and an elephant.

With Harryhausen's next film, he returned to the subject of Sinbad. The Golden Voyage of Sinbad nearly matched The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts in quality. It benefited from a strong script and sincere performances. Unfortunately, its sequel, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger would not be nearly as good. It did feature some truly astounding effects, but its story was much weaker than Harryhausen's preveious films. The same can be said of Clash of the Titans. Clash of the Titans relates the Perseus myth and it includes some of Harryhausen's best effects. Among these are the winged horse Pegasus, Medusa, and the giant Kraken. Unfortunately, it suffers from a weak script and less than stellar performances. Sadly, it was also Ray Harryhausen's last film.

Ray Harryhausen is perhaps the greatest master of stop motion animation of all time. I think what must not be overlooked is that part of Harryhausen's greatness was in selecting the right projects. Harryhausen's movies were never mere displays of special effects. Instead, they generally had strong stories and in all of them the special effects were an integral part of the story. They were not movies in which FX occurred for FX's sake. These days much of what Harryhausen created can now be done by CGI. Quite frankly, however, I still find Harryhausen's stop motion animation more appealing much of the time. Too often CGI looks like CGI. Harryhausen often made his stop motion animation look real.

Friday, 25 February 2005

Movies That Should Not Have Won Best Picture

Sunday night the Academy Awards will be held. There are some that believe The Aviator may well win Best Picture and Martin Scorsese may win the Best Director award for his work on the movie. And having seen The Aviator, I honestly believe it deserves all the awards it can get. Unfortunately, I don't think it will win either the Oscar for Best Picture or Best Director. It has already won a number of awards: Best Film at the American Film Institute awards, Best Picture-Drama at the Golden Globes, Best Picture at the Producers Guild of America awards, and so on.

Unfortunately, it has lost some awards that are pretty good indicators of what the Oscars will look like. The Los Angeles Film Critics preferred Sideways to The Aviator--the movie virtually swept their awards. The New York Film Critics also gave Sideways their Best Picture award, while the Best Director Award went to Clint Eastwood for Million Dollar Baby. Sideways also swept the Broadcast Critics Choice Awards. The Directors Guild of America also gave their award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Feature Film to Clint Eastwood for Million Dollar Baby. At the Screen Actors Guild, Leonardo DiCarprio (who played Howard Hughes in The Aviator) lost to Jamie Foxx for his role as Ray Charles Ray, while the entire cast of The Aviator lost to the cast of Sideways. At The American Society of Cinematographers awards, The Aviator lost to A Very Long Engagement in the feature film competition. Quite simply, it looks to me like competition at the Oscars is going to be between Sideways and Million Dollar Baby, with The Aviator as odd man out. To me this is a real shame, as I feel The Aviator truly deserves to win Best Picture.

Of course, it would not be the first time that the best movie did not win the Oscar for Best Picture. How Green Was My Valley beat Citizen Kane at the 1941 Oscars. Any other year How Green Was My Valley probably would have deserved to win. It is a great film. But Citizen Kane has become the touchstone of motion pictures--the film to which all others are compared. Only a few films (Seven Samurai, for one) are as good as it is. I rather suspect Citizen Kane lost the Best Picture Oscar For two reasons. First, it was made by a Hollywood outsider, Orson Welles. Second, and perhaps more importantly, William Randolph Hearst actively campaigned against the film, believing it was based on his life (in truth, it was based on a number of different tycoons' lives).

At least How Green Was My Valley is a great film; however, there have been times when great films have lost to films that were only good and, sometimes, to films that were actually bad. Singin' in the Rain is considered by many to be the greatest musical of all time and one of the greatest films of all time. Surely, it won the Academy Award for Best Picture? Well, no, it didn't. It lost to The Greatest Show on Earth, a film that, while entertaining, is hardly great. It is perhaps arguable what the best movie released in 1985 was. Some might argue that it was Prizzi's Honor, others might make an argument for The Color Purple or Kiss of the Spider Woman. Few would argue for the movie that actually won Best Picture that year: Out of Africa. Indeed, I don't even think Out of Africa should have been nominated, as it is a bad movie whose only redeeming feature is its cinematography. I can only figure both Sydney Pollack and Meryl Streep had a number of bad days when they made that movie.

In fact, the number of classic movies that either did not win the Academy Award for Best Picture or that were not even nominated is pretty amazing. King Kong (the original, not the Seventies remake), It's a Wonderful Life, The Searchers, North by Northwest, and Star Wars, among a number of others, did not win the Oscar for Best Picture. That is not to say that there are not years when the best picture actually wins Best Picture--The Apartment won in 1960. Annie Hall won in 1977. The Lord Of the Rings: The Return Of the King won in 2003. That having been said, when it comes down to it, I don't really trust the Academy in selecting what really is the best picture at times. Too many times the best movie in any given year has not won the award. Many times it has not even been nominated. I suspect this is going to be one of those years when it was nominated (The Aviator being the best film of the year), but it won't win.

Wednesday, 23 February 2005

Magazines

Those few of you who actually read this blog may have noticed it has changed again. I noticed that the Faintly Victorian template tended to run paragraphs together. I then replaced it with another template from Eris Design, this one called Mist. I haven't noticed any problems with it yet, but if any of you notice any, please let me know.

Anyhow, I am still thinking a bit about blogs. I have to wonder if they can't be considered an electronic variation on the magazine. To a degree, they do seem to have some things in common. Ideally, blogs are published regularly, just as magazines are. Like magazines, many blogs contain articles. The jargon of bloggers even borrows from magazine jargon--an example being the term sidebar. Of course, there are some important differences. Many blogs are little more than online diaries and most blogs do not contain a large number of articles in any one instance of publication.

At any rate, I don't think that electronic media will ever replace the old fashioned paper magazine, regardless of what some science fiction novels and TV shows might claim. After all, the magazine has been in existence for literally centuries. I am not sure what the first magazine was, but the first major one was The Tatler, first published in London in 1709. The first general interest magazine was The Gentleman's Magazine, published in England in 1731. It was also the first magazine to be called a magazine.

The 19th century saw enormous growth in the publication of magazines. Indeed, some of the giants of the industry first made their appearance at that time. Harper's Weekly first appeared in 1857. Collier's was first published in 1888. At the same time magazines became more specialised. The first magazine for women to be published in the United States was Ladies' Magazine, first published in 1828. Punch, the famous, British humour magazine, appeared for the first time in 1841. National Geographic made its first appearance in 1888. Even magazines devoted to specific industries appeared in the 19th century. The same year that National Geographic debuted, a magazine for the advertising industry, Printer's Ink, was published for the first time. To give one an idea of the growth of the magazine industry in the United States, consider that in 1860 alone 260 magazines were published.

I rather suspect the Golden Age of the magazine was the late 19th century into the early 20th century. It was at this time that a new phenomenon arrived in the magazine industry--the pulp magazine. Pulp magazines were so called because they were printed on paper made from pulpwood scraps. The first pulp magazine, Argosy, was published by Frank Munsey in 1896. Argosy, like the pulp magazines that would follow it, published almost exculsively fiction. Of course, it wasn't long before the pulp magazines began to specialise. Street and Smith published Detective Story Magazine in 1915 and Western Story Magazine in 1919. Weird Tales, a magazine devoted to horror and fantasy and one of the most famous pulps, appeared in 1923. Hugo Gernsbeck would introduce the science fiction pulp with Amazing Stories--indeed, Gernsbeck coined the term science fiction! Eventually pulps devoted to a specific would make their appearance. Such characters as The Shadow, Doc Savage, and The Spider all first appeared in the pulps. Easily affordable for youths and the working class, pulp magazines became enormously popular and remained so for the first half of the 20th century.

By the 1920s, magazines were an established part of American life. It was in this decade that Time, perhaps the most famous news magazine of them all, first appeared. It was also this decade that The New Yorker first published. Unfortunately, for all the success of the magazine industry in the first half of the twentieth century, the popularity of magazines declined in the latter half. By 1950 most pulp magazines were gone, their readership drawn away by radio, comic books, and television. The glossy magazines would see their own readerships dwindle as more people turned to television and other pursuits. Look and other formerly popular magazines ceased publication. Life, the popular photo essay magazine from the publishers of Time, ceased to exist for a time.

Despite this, magazines have hardly ceased to exist entirely. According to the Magazine Publishers of America, around 17,254 magazines were published in the United States in 2003 alone. As I said earlier, I seriously doubt that electronic media will ever entirely replace the old fashioned, paper magazine. Consider this. To read this blog one must first turn on his or her computer, then open his or her browser, and then go to this page. The process is much simpler with a magazine. One simply picks the magazine up and opens it. Indeed, one can enjoy a magazine even if there is a power failure. I think it is then safe to say that magazines will still be around in the 22nd century.

Tuesday, 22 February 2005

Weblogs May Be Over Rated....

Well, those few of you who regularly read this blog (if anyone reads this blog) may have noticed that it has a new look. Last night I decided that my sidebar had become too crowded and hence I needed another sidebar. That was easier said than done. After trying to create another sidebar on my own, I simply went to Eris Standards and Design where they have a handy, little template generator. This particular template is the three column version of Vaguely Victorian. I've tweaked it a bit, as might be expected. And I think I liked my old template's colours better (it was a cross between Rounders 4 and Herbert with the colour scheme of Split Pea), but this does give me the two sidebars I need.

In other news, according to my counter I am at 996 hits. Before tonight is over I might well have 1000 hits! Okay, I know hit counters aren't accurate, but it is nice to know that at least someone is reading this blog.

Speaking of blogs, there has been a lot in the press about their growing power of late. Admittedly, blogs are pretty young to be getting so much attention. Jorn Barger coined the term weblog in December 1997. It was Peter Merholz who shorted weblog to blog in the spring of 1999, the same year that Blogger was launched. Regardless of their youth, the media of late apparently sees them as a force with which to be reckoned.

In 2002 U.S. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott was driven from office after bloggers found his remarks at Sen. Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party to be racist. More recently, CNN's Eaton Jordan was forced to resign after he made comments that suggested the United States military was targeting journailsts. The mainstream media overlooked his remarks; bloggers did not and went on the attack. On the surface it would appear that blogs are growing in influence. As for myself, I am not so sure of that.

In a newspaper article I recently read that approxmiately 8 million Americans write some sort of blog or another. Now that is an impressive number, except when one also reads that only 1/3 of all Americans even understand what a blog is! The numbers become even less impressive when one considers a study by Perseus Development Corporation, which studies internet trends. They found that 66% of all blogs had not been updated in over two months and many had apparently been abandoned. About a quarter of them boasted only a single post, made on the day the blog was created. Of course, it can be argued that while most blogs last but briefly, those that remain are growing in influence. That idea may well be dismissed by a study conducted by Pew Research Center for the People and the Press Internet Survey in 2003. They estimated that only 4% of all Americans look to weblogs for information and opinions. From this it seems to me, then, that blogs are not terribly significant for the average American.

Why, then, is the media focusing on this attention on blogs? I have to admit that I have no idea why. I suspect part of it may be a fascination with a new form of communication on the part of those who make their living from older forms of communication. Another part may simply be the novelty of the blog. For the media weblogs may simply be a fad. Quite simply, blogs could be the CB radios of the Naughts. Regardless, it does seem to me that the media may be overestimating the influence of blogs at the moment.

Notice that I did say "..at the moment." I do think blogs could well grow in influence. Speaking as a blogger myself, they are a marvelous means of conveying information. I can see how in times to come blogs could have some influence on society. In fact, I think they could well become a new medium, alongside magazines, telvision, and radio in which people can receive news and other information. I have no idea when that day will come, although I suspect that it is some distance away. At any rate, while most blogs may only last a day, I imagine there will inevitably be other blogs that will always be around. With any luck, this one will be one of them.

Monday, 21 February 2005

Davis, Dee, and Thompson

I didn't write about it at the time as I had a quite a bit going on in my life at the time, but actor Ossie Davis died February 4 at age 87. Davis was one of my favourite actors, a truly gifted man who could perform in dramas and comedies equally well. His career lasted longer than the life time of many actors, over 65 years.

Davis made his debut on the Broadway stage in the play Jeb in 1946. It was not long before he appeared in films and television, appearing in The Joe Louis Story on the big screen and The Emperor Jones on the small screen. He went on to appear in such movies as The Scalphunters, Sam Whiskey, and Do the Right Thing. He guest starred on shows ranging from The Defenders to Bonanza to Love American Style. Notably, Davis was a director and writer as well as an actor. He wrote and directed Cotton Comes to Harlem and directed the movie Gordon's War (one of my fond childhood memories).

More importantly, Ossie Davis was a man of principles. Along with his wife, Ruby Dee, Davis was a one of the early supporters of the civil rights movement. In the Sixties they participated in marches in the South and in the famous 1963 march on Washington D.C. He delivered addresses at both the funerals of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Actor, writer, director, and activist, Davis was a true Renaissance man. There is very much to admire about him.

More recently, Sandra Dee died from kidney disease at age 62 on February 20. Dee made her first appearance on film in the movie Until They Sail in 1957 and then became a star with The Reluctant Debutante in 1958. Gidget in 1959 secured her position as Hollywood's teen queen. She played Tammy Tyree (a role originally played by Debbie Reynolds) in two movies, Tammy Tell Me True and Tammy and the Doctor, as well as roles in A Summer Place and If a Man Answers. By the mid-Sixties, however, Dee's career began to fail. Her divorce from Bobby Darin in 1965 made casting directors skeptical of putting her in the parts of ingenues she had once played. At the same time, the sugary sweet sort of motion pictures she had made were well on their way out. Following 1967 she made only a few movie and television apperances, most notably in The Dunwich Horror.

In some respects Sandra Dee will always symbolise for me the end of an era. She was the last major female star at Universal to be under contract. She was also one of the last actresses to play teenagers with a squeaky clean image. As the Sixties progressed, teenagers were portrayed more realistically than they had been before. I do find it sad that she was not allowed to make the transition to adult roles.

It was also on February 20 that journalist Hunter S. Thompson took his own life. Along with Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese, Thompson was one of the innovators of the New Journalism or, as Thompson liked to call it, "gonzo journalism." The New Journalism involved a higher degree of detail and description than previously seen and, in Thompson's case at least, often the writer became part of the story. As a journalist, Thompson offended people with equal opportunity, particularly those in power. He described members of the Bush Administation as "...the racists and hate mongers among us," called the late Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine "a vicious 200-pound river rat" and Vice President Hubert Humphrey "a hopelessly dishonest old hack."

There are certainly things I did not admire about Hunter S. Thompson. He abused both drugs and alcohol. When the Federal government raided his home in 1990, they found LSD, cocaine, and marijuana--Thompson beat the rap only because the search was ruled illegal. Still, I have to admit that Thompson had, for lack of a better term, moxie. He defied the establishment, defied society, and even defied his editors. His fights with Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner were legendary. More often than not he would twist the stories assigned to him around. His editors would forgive him only because the story he wrote was often beter than the ones they had proposed. I cannot say I admire Hunter S. Thompson--he was much too flawed in too many ways--but I can certainly admire his talent.