Friday, August 20, 2010

Sean McCourt on Ray Harryhausen

Late August is traditionally one of the few moments of the Frisco Bay filmgoing year during which there are no film festivals- a quiet before the storm of autumn festivals whose flyers are sure to blow onto our doorsteps like fallen leaves soon enough, when the Arab Film Festival, Docfest, the United Nations Association Film Festival and others get into gear, and when the San Francisco Film Society begins its Fall Season in earnest (they've already announced their line-up for a new presentation of something called the NY/SF International Childrens' Film Festival in September, and a few other isolated screenings including Mauritz Stiller's silent Sir Arne's Treasure with music by the Mountain Goats on December 14). In the absence of festivals, several local cinemas have outdone themselves in programming older films worth discovering or revisiting on the big screen in the next few weeks. The Roxie begins a truly amazing and eclectic series entitled Not Necessarily Noir tonight with a double-bill of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the Quatermass Experiment; other great selections by programmer Elliot Levine include Andre De Toth's Day of the Outlaw, Brian De Palma's Obsession, Paul Schrader's Blue Collar (image below) and Hardcore, and Abel Ferrara's The Bad Lieutenant.

Also tonight, the VIZ Cinema begins two weeks screening Akira Kurosawa's most broadly-beloved samurai pictures, just as the Pacific Film Archive winds down their summer-long Kurosawa retrospective with the final few films of his career. In addition to the PFA's regular programming (they've just announced their schedule through October as well, by the way) the Berkeley venue has been rented out the afternoon of Sunday, August 22, when Franco Zefferelli's 1981
Endless Love is presented by the Film on Film Foundation, with screenwriter Judith Rascoe expected to be present to talk about her adaptation of the Scott Spencer novel for the screen. FOFF's Brecht Andersch has penned two compelling articles on the "accursed" nature of the film and its place in the great tradition of American melodrama, but the only way to be sure whether or not this never-on-DVD Brooke Shields vehicle deserves its less-than-stellar reputation or not, is to see it on 35mm for ourselves.

The Castro Theatre, too, is an exciting repertory venue in August and September, with films by David Cronenberg, John Carpenter, Frank Tashlin, Charlie Chaplin, and other sure-bet directors on the horizon. This weekend the venue turns its screen over to the special effects career of the great Ray Harryhausen. Sometime Hell On Frisco Bay contributor Sean McCourt interviewed Harryhausen in 2006, and I'm pleased that he has offered up his article on the nonagenarian wizard, originally published in a slightly different form in the Marin Independent Journal, for publication here. Here's Sean:

Much like the mad scientists of classic horror films that diligently toiled in remote and mist-filled secret laboratories to bring their mutant creations to life, special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen had to invent unconventional techniques to bring his movie magic to the big screen when he revolutionized the world of fantasy film making in the 1950s and 1960s. His work on Jason and the Argonauts (above image), Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers, and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms among many others has influenced several generations of filmmakers that grew up watching his stop-motion creatures—icons that have rampaged their way into the imaginations of children and children at heart for more than fifty years now.

Harryhausen, celebrated his 90th birthday this year, and the Castro Theatre is honoring him this weekend with a six-film tribute including /The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (image below), a film that contains one of his best known scenes—a climatic duel between Sinbad and a sword-wielding skeleton. The effect was created by using a technique called “Dynamation,” where live action footage is combined with stop-motion animation to give the illusion that the intricately detailed models of monsters or people are interacting with the real world.

Seeing 1933’s King Kong as a young boy inspired Harryhausen, and he thinks the stop-motion animation methods that were employed in King Kong and that he later used in his own work did a better job than the computer generated special effects of today. “If you make fantasy too realistic, I think it defeats itself,” says Harryhausen. “It suddenly becomes mundane you know, because half the charm of the early Kong was it was like a nightmare, you knew it wasn’t real, and yet it looks real.”

Bay Area film fans will likely recall It Came From Beneath the Sea, a 1955 sci-fi romp that featured a giant octopus tearing down the clock tower of San Francisco’s Ferry Building and destroying the Golden Gate Bridge. If had been up to city officials, however, the latter scene, another of Harryhausen’s most famous, may never have come to fruition. “We submitted the script to the San Francisco city fathers, and they felt that it would weaken the bridge in the public mind if somebody pulled it down, like a giant octopus,” he laughs. “We had to do everything in a devious way—we put the camera in a bakery truck and went back and forth over the bridge to get our background shots. But the picture was released there and there were no complaints.”

Another hurdle Harryhausen had to overcome on the picture was the lack of sufficient funding. To cut financial corners, and to save some time in the process, the special effects guru made the octopus with only six tentacles, as opposed to the anatomically correct eight, cleverly hiding the fact by making it look like the missing arms were simply under the water. “If they had cut the budget anymore we would have had a tripod,” he laughs.

Limited financial resources were a common bond between most of the films that Harryhausen worked on in those days, as science fiction and fantasy pictures were often regarded as “B movies” by the big studios. “Unfortunately we had to work on very tight budgets, and we always had to compromise—we could never get quite what we wanted because of time and money—but today they’ve outlasted nine tenths of the ‘A pictures’ of that time.”