skip to main | skip to sidebar

Tuesday 29 June 2010

Happy Birthday, Uncle Ray

Ray Harryhausen is 90 today. It says so on my Simpsons calendar and my Simpsons calendar don't lie.

There was a suitably 'star-studded' tribute at BFI South Bank - formerly the NFT - last week, and there's a cracking Harryhausen exhibition titled The Fantastical Worlds of Ray Harryhausen at the Academy building on Wilshire Boulevard. I've seen a lot of the stuff before in other RH exhibitions in Bradford and the late, lamented Museum of the Moving Image in London, but it's the most comprehensive.

Because of the way the foam rots and the armatures get cannibalised, what survives has the air of precious medieval relics... for me the high spot was the stripped armature of the 7th Voyage cyclops, one leg missing, on Ray's actual animation bench. Some of the stuff I've seen before; three of the skeletons from Jason (one of them, if I recall correctly, repurposed from Sinbad) and some hard rubber 'stand in' models cast from the moulds and used for lighting, but lots that I hadn't... a crumbly squid, the flying saucers (tiny!), some breakaway model sets, and loads of original sketches and storyboards.

My friend Archie Tait attended the London tribute and reckons that Harryhausen is one of the most important artists of the 20th century. And I reckon Archie's right. His films are unique, and will remain so; never again will a mainstream commercial feature be handcrafted with one person supplying so much of the concept, design, fabrication, execution, and performance. He may have had assistants on the original Clash of the Titans, but that was nothing compared to the anonymous flashmob of (undoubtedly talented) animators involved in the remake.

I've seen Ray speak once and had the honour of interviewing him onstage twice. And in Stockport's restored art deco Plaza Cinema I introduced him and Forry Ackerman when they spoke before a Festival screening of the restored print of King Kong.

Proudest moment? When he walked over to me in the hotel bar, jabbed me in the chest, and said, "I remember you! From Preston!"

(He'd accepted an invitation to visit the Preston SF group about three years before; he, his wife Diana, and family friend Philip Strick lodged at the small hotel in my village.)

The Academy exhibition runs until August 22nd. In the meantime, another exhibition opens today at the London Film Museum housed in the old County Hall building, south of the river. It's called Ray Harryhausen - Myths and Legends and I believe it's a touring collection that I've seen under that name before.

But - and this is hot news, apparently, just announced - Ray is offering to donate his archive and the accumulated materials of a life's work to the National Media Museum in Bradford. According to the BBC news website:
Harryhausen said: "Now I have reached 90 it is important, certainly in my profession which does not have a reputation for looking after cinematic artefacts, to preserve my art in all its forms - models, drawings, equipment etc, and that this will be available for future generations."

Paul Goodman, head of collections and knowledge at the National Media Museum, said: "With our proven expertise in caring for, exhibiting and interpreting such a range of artefacts, the museum is an ideal place for this extensive and remarkable archive."
How cool is that?

As a bonus at the Academy, down in the lobby on Wilshire, there's a similar exhibition of stuff honouring Chuck Jones. Which is a peek into another universe of brilliance, that I'll say something about another time.

Sunday 27 June 2010

In Shatner's Footsteps

I finally made it to the Batcave. My third attempt.

The Satnav was still insisting on directing me up closed roads through Griffith Park. This time, I made a hand-drawn map from Google instead. On the Canyon Road approach there was no signage and in the park itself no trail maps or any information at all.

So I set off up the main track. It climbed steeply for about a mile and a half until I was up level with the Hollywood sign, which is in the park not far away. At that point the track went two ways so I asked the next person if they knew which way the caves were.

He pointed back down the way I'd come... there was another trail from the parking lot, and I hadn't seen it. So I went all the way back down, and in the end all turned out for the best... the caves are no more than a ten-minute walk from the parking so as a hike, that would have been a bit of a squib.

The 'caves' are actually a short tunnel through an outcrop of rock in of a dead-ended canyon that's reckoned to be one of the most-used locations in Hollywood history... zillions of Westerns, The Lone Ranger, the old Kirk Alyn Superman serial, The Searchers, Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, B-movie horrors like Robot Monster, the Douglas Fairbanks Robin Hood... as well as various alien planets in Star Trek.

The tunnel's outermost entrance was dressed to become the Batcave's exit in the '60s TV show. Each week, in the same recycled sequence, the Batmobile would emerge from the cave and head for 'Gotham City, 14 Miles'. The sequence was undercranked to speed up the action; the entrance is so narrow that Barris's Batmobile must have backed in with only a few inches' clearance.

(You can find my birthday Batmobile-stalking post here)

Standing in the canyon and looking back, you get the best-ever view of the Hollywood sign. The area is part of the 'Hollywoodland' development-that-never-was, which the sign was originally created to promote.

I suppose I could go and seek out 'stately Wayne manor' - there were reports that the building used for the exterior establishing shots burned down in 2005, but they were apparently mistaken. A lookalike building burned, but SWM was a few doors down the street.

Otherwise, I seem to have run out of Batstuff to look for.

Saturday 26 June 2010

Please Touch

So there we were, at the Getty Villa. It's quite a place. Situated on the Pacific Coast Highway between Santa Monica and Malibu, it's like the little-brother museum to the spectacular Getty Center.

The Getty Center's further inland, on a hilltop overlooking the Sepulveda Pass, and looking like Tony Stark's place in the Iron Man movies. You even reach it by a private monorail. The Villa, on the other hand, can't be seen from the road. That, plus the fact that you can't just show up but have to book a timed ticket online to get in, led me to expect something comparatively modest.

Idiot that I am.

The numbers are controlled because the access is tricky, but the museum isn't small and once you're in you can stay all day, if you're inclined. The villa was designed and built to house the classical artefacts of the Getty collection; vases, bronzes, marbles and frescoes, with the odd mummy or case of jewellery thrown in for good measure. The design is based on a country house in Herculaneum that was buried in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Right there, in the Malibu hills. A walk around it wipes away two thousand years or more, to give you a gut feeling of what complex, sophisticated people the creators and owners of these objects were.

The hillside setting incorporates a peristyle, one of those enclosed Roman gardens with a long pool where guys in togas chased concubines and people lay around eating grapes off the bunch. Or something like that.

When we go to a museum or a gallery we usually fix a time to meet and then wander off separately, so we can each browse at our own pace. In an alcove at the end of the peristyle, away from the main body of the museum, I found an alcove. In the alcove stood a tall marble statue, and on the wall by the statue was a plaque that read PLEASE TOUCH in both normal script and braille.

The marble was a 1920s copy of a Canova original. As the plaque went on to explain, the purpose in placing it there was to give people the opportunity to feel the various textures of the stone and to appreciate the work of the sculptor in a tactile way. In the main rooms of the museum there were few barriers and you could get right up close to the objects, but contact was forbidden... there were notices explaining how the grease and oils in skin can bollix up stone. I've seen those shiny-footed saints in Rome and I know that it's true.

But I didn't take advantage. Here's why.

Imagine you're at the Villa. You got your timed ticket and you've been walking around the galleries, and you're taking time out for a stroll to the end of the Roman garden. At the end of the peristyle you turn the corner to be confronted by the sight of a middle-aged English bloke standing on tiptoe with his eyes closed, running his hands all over this...

I believe my point is made.

Michael Jackson, One Year On...

I'm not a fan of the talented-but-damaged song-and-dance performer, but nevertheless...

joe jackson
see more Lol Celebs

Saturday 19 June 2010

The Forgotten

ABC have scheduled the two unshown episodes of The Forgotten for back-to-back broadcast on the evening of Saturday, July 3rd. They're called Designer Jane and Living Doe.

I was off the show and in development on another project when the news of cancellation came through, but I saw how the episode order was rejigged so that creator Mark Friedman could give closure to the series-long arc involving the missing daughter of lead character Alex Donovan.

I'm glad that happened. And I'm glad the unaired episodes will get a screening. It's only fair to the audience.

It's easy to forget that even when a show doesn't perform to a network's satisfaction, by any human or historical measure its audience is still enormous. In a statistic that I've just made up, more people watched one episode of The Forgotten (or Pushing Daisies, or Eli Stone, to name two other shows cancelled with episodes unbroadcast) than saw Victorian superstar Sir Henry Irving perform in his lifetime. Okay, maybe that's a bit dodgy. But swap Henry Irving for Edmund Kean and I'll stand my ground.

Most showrunners have a destination in mind so that they can, when the writing's on the wall, plan some kind of closure for their creation. But there are those where it seems that the showrunner deliberately does a bad job in order to spite the network.

Life exited with grace, spoiled only a little by the fact that Sarah Shahi's pregnancy prevented her from playing a greater role in the last few episodes. Pushing Daises bowed out with warmth and charm, when we eventually got to see the finale.

But Deadwood? If that's how you say goodbye, I'd rather you didn't bother.

Saturday 12 June 2010

Brian Clemens, OBE

Delighted to hear confirmation of the OBE for Brian Clemens in the Queen's Birthday Honours List. I'm no big royalist but these are national honours and, much as I'd like to imagine Her Maj slipping in an Avengers DVD to keep the grandkids entertained, there's more at work here than just patronage and whim.

Although it's fascinating to see the cultural forces at work, determining who gets what. Awards are an odd mixture of politics, crowd-pleasing, and genuine appreciation of merit. Punch a clock on a soap for long enough and you'll qualify as a national treasure. Recognition for those with significant but behind-the-scenes achievements is much more hard-won.

Play heroes and you get a knighthood; create those heroes and they stand you in a different line. In BAFTA's case they even shunt your awards to a different night, the one that no one watches.

But that's a whole nother argument.

Thursday 3 June 2010

Lost and the Long-Distance Plan

I dropped out of Lost a couple of seasons ago, after the introduction of the flash-forwards (which drew a gasp of admiration out of me when they reversed all my assumptions with the first one) but before they started with the sideways-flashes. I was curious about how they'd wind it up, but I'd been too long out of the game to follow the finale so I waited and then went looking to read the after-show spoilers instead.

In the course of which I came across this piece in which Kay Reindl tackles the assertion (by a novelist) that the Lost writing team should have carried a novelist or two, to show them how it should be done.

People, I've done both - I made a better-than-good living out of my novels through the 80s and 90s - and she's right. Try to make episodic TV with just a novelist's tools and you'll be chewed up and spat out, left nursing wounds that you'll be showing to the faithful at literary festivals for the rest of your life.

My favourite part about working as a novelist is that of being an armchair general, in that I can plan a perfect campaign and designate the outcome. Whereas the American TV series is like a feuilleton whose fate, length and scope will depend on factors that can't be predicted with any accuracy. You put all of your initial energies into getting it sold and while you may have a grand design in mind, that's like the battle plan that never survives the first exchange of fire. You're navigating a sea of executives, viewer responses, and unpredictable production developments. There's no way to account for new ideas you may have along the way, or the contributions of of your creative coworkers whose ideas may take you in directions you didn't foresee, but which you'd be stupid to pass up because having such ideas is what they're there for.

Ideally you should have an ultimate destination in mind, in the form of a vision of your finale that you keep in your back pocket and put into the works on the day you hear you're being cancelled. A classic example would be the spectre of the one-armed man that always stayed out of reach throughout The Fugitive. An early Flann O'Brien Third Policeman hint suggests that this conceit was the back-pocket idea in the Lost showrunners' minds from the beginning (leaving them with little choice but evasion or denial when some fans predicted the 'correct' outcome), but we can be sure that everything in between was live juggling, and the various closures and resolutions were a matter of tidying-up the playground to the best extent possible.

In an early post, I wrote:
For me it can never end successfully with a make-sense-of-it-all revelation, any more than The Prisoner could... it's all about dread and uncertainty and wondering about what's on the other side of the door. As Stephen King points out in Danse Macabre, the moment you actually open the door all that wonder condenses down into whatever's there.

The only good ending I can imagine is something like, they find a box that's the answer to everything, look inside it and go "Wow." Like the moment in Lost in Translation where Bill Murray whispers something to Scarlett Johannsen that makes everything OK, and we all have ideas about what it might have been that are unique to ourselves, and which are best not shared. Some people won't have that... a quick Lost in Translation Google shows messageboards with people wanting tips on how they can boost the soundtrack enough to hear what Murray says.
If you saw Lost as a puzzle to be solved, then I guess you were disappointed. If you saw it as a journey - well, to quote Shakespeare, journeys end in lovers meeting.

Which, I gather from the spoilers, is what you got.

Wednesday 2 June 2010

Arise, Sir Hood

Congratulations to Sir Patrick Stewart, knighted today. He used the occasion to give credit to the English teacher who opened his eyes to literature and first encouraged him to perform.

It's no surprise; many a career in the arts can be traced back to the influence of a charismatic and inspiring figure in the classroom.

So Roy Bateman, if there's any slim chance you're reading this - thanks, and if you'll tell me where to send it I really will return the copy of Doctor Faustus that you lent me.