Wasted Hours

The doctor tells you to sit down and you know its bad news because they never tell you to sit down when it’s good. And it is bad news; the test results have come in and you have a year left to live and – no, too dark.

Okay, Aliens have arrived and announced they will destroy the world in 1 year’s time.

Okay, still dark.

A comet’s going to plow into Earth in a year’s time —

Point being, you have a year left and are deciding how to spend it. That’s the point of this little exercise (and it is an exercise).  What do you do with that year? How do you decide to live it? Do you quit your job or soldier on, making sure there’s enough of a nest egg for your loved ones?  Say you have the money thing all sorted (and let’s face it, a lot of us do what we do because we need the money it pays, not because of any great enthusiasm for the job); what do you do with the rest of your life?

For my part, first I’d make sure all the various projects I’m immersed in are wrapped up well before D-Day, because I hate loose ends.  Then I buy some airplane tickets, because I have a plan.

First, I fly from New York to Vancouver, British Columbia. I stay there a few weeks, seeing the sights, but more importantly visiting the old haunts.  Because I lived in Vancouver in the late 1970s/early 1980s, and haven’t been back since 1984. I want to see how things have changed, but more than that how they’ve stayed the same. I can see my old House and School on Google Earth, but it’s not the same.  I want to walk those streets, and the hilly street leading to my school which seemed as tall as Everest when I was 6 but probably doesn’t feel that way now (despite the fact we actually lived on a Mountain). The first time I ever saw mountains was when we lived in Vancouver.

My bedroom, above the yellow car which wasn't ours

My bedroom, above the yellow car which wasn’t ours

From there it’s a shorter flight to Edmonton, where we lived for only 15 months in 1981-1982, and where there are no mountains. I’d like to do the same; my old home, my old school, the sights. I want to visit the world famous West Edmonton Mall because it opened when we lived there, and even then it was the biggest indoor mall in the world. It was also a shopping mall, period. No roller coasters or ice rinks or wave pools. Those are the type of thing that do well in a city where it’s winter eight months of the year (at least in my memory).

Edmonton

The one day of the year there isn’t snow on the ground. We called it “summer”

From Edmonton it’s a longer flight to Toronto, specifically Scarborough, where I lived for three years. Of all these places Scarborough is a place I’m more familiar with, having lived in and around Toronto most of my life. Even after we moved away, I still visited my friends there and that old neighborhood, and even now when I’m in Toronto on business I occasionally take a swing through the old nabe.  In a way I never really left it.

Pinemeadow

Where I discovered Bowie and Duran Duran. You may know the story.

One place I did leave was Greensboro North Carolina, where I lived from 1985-1986. I wasn’t terribly happy there, but now I can look back through the safety of near 30 years and realize that negative experiences can be better for you than the positive ones, because they force you to survive them, and because they make you a better person. I haven’t been back to Greensboro since we left it which is why I’m curious to visit it now, to see what’s changed and what’s remained the same (Google Earth is great for showing that while my nabe hasn’t changed noticeably, the shopping malls, movie theaters, and schools have, substantially).

Greensboro

The condo looks exactly the same as it did in 1985. If you can get it to 88 mph you can travel thru time.

The flight to Greensboro would have to come after a 3 hour drive up the 401 to Brockville, Ontario, where I lived from 1986-1992. Of all these places mentioned it’s where we lived the longest, and in a way I never really left it. MIXTAPE is largely based on the years I lived there, and while I was glad to leave for college and the big city, I realized over the years that followed that I’d left a little bit of myself there. I think we all do, given how heightened everything at that age is. First love, first favorite band, so many firsts happen in that span of 13-18 that you never really forget them. And I thought I’d put all of this stuff behind me.

March, 2013

It’s coming, I promise!

This list doesn’t even comprise other places I’ve lived, from Thunder Bay and Barrie to Mississauga and Ottawa (where I was born). It doesn’t even comprise places I’ve never seen and always want to. That’s why I wrote it all up; because I really want to put all of it behind me.

We all spend too much time looking backward. I’m as guilty as anyone, maybe more so (thanks, Mixtape). Really, it’s a greater problem than I think we want to admit.  Look at the movies we watch, and the music we listen to. Hell, look at the Internet, where I can see what my old homes look like today, as they are, and recall how they were.  Where you can watch old TV episodes of shows you loved 20 years ago. Where every little obscure bit of fandom is given fertile soil to grow in.  I think we as a culture have infantilized ourselves to the point where it’s not uncommon to find people in their 30s and 40s arguing over 35 year old film franchises and 50 year old comic book characters.

A favorite cult film of mine, Free Enterprise (a 15 year old movie I might add) nailed this when a 30-something woman tells her 30-something boyfriend that his apartment, awash with action figures and movie memorabilia looks like “a really rich 12 year-old lives here”. Some days I feel like a rich 15 year old; I have thousands of songs and hundreds of albums in my collection, I have movies, and video games, and comic books everywhere. I tell myself because of work, but a part of me realizes that if I was working in a bank I’d probably have the same stuff cluttering my place.

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“Exhibit A”

Really, what is our economy based on other than fear of the future (life insurance, car insurance, home insurance, insurance insurance) and nostalgia for the past (new Star Trek, new Star Wars, more Hobbitses, reunion albums and tours) where you thought things were safer and simpler than they really were?

Look, it’s totally natural to allow yourself some comfort of what you already know – says the guy listening to The Pixies for the “who knows how many times” time as he writes this. The danger is in spending so much time looking forward you miss the things that are happening right now that you could cherish ten years hence.  My fear is that I’m becoming the type of person I swore I never would – the geek equivalent of the old HS quarterback reliving the big game over and over again.

So this “End Of The World Nostalgia Trip” would never happen. I’d be too busy visiting Monument Valley, Giza, Rome and Florence, Australia and New Zealand, The Galapagos and Cook Islands, Rio and Buenos Aires and Montevideo, and Antarctica, and those parts of Canada I have never seen. I’d take that month and just boot around the lower 48 and make sure I spent some time in every state, even Nebraska and South Dakota. I’d cram as much new stuff into my experiences that, if they elbow out some of those cherished memories, that’s okay, because as Johnny Thunders once crooned, you can’t put your arms around those.

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Portrait of the Artist as an Angry Young Man With Hair

 

Thanks, Ray

Ray_harryhausen

Before I knew his name, I knew who he was.

First time would have been when I lived in Vancouver, more years ago than I care to get into; I would have been 6 or 7.  Anyway one favorite, and repeated excursion was to a nearby theater that would show “family friendly” movie matinees every weekend. Remember this was before home video, so these would have been your only chance to see such classics outside of the afternoon movie on one of your 13 local and national channels.  They showed movies, and we went frequently. And more often than not, it was a movie where the Big Name was the guy who made the monsters. Actually, let’s fix that, because Ray Harryhausen never thought of them as monsters. Creatures, yes, but not monsters. He was very specific about that when I met him years later.

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The Ray Harryhausen movies were the draw for us kids. Jason and the Argonauts, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (based on a story by his childhood friend, and another Ray — Bradbury). They were colorful even when they were in black and white, with easily defined lines between good and evil, with a menagerie of giant vultures, Cyclops’, sea creatures, dragons, and skeletons waiting in the wings to strike.

[A note about those skeletons; at a screening of Jason and the Argonauts in 2004, the climactic appearance of those skeletons brought an entire theater to its feet, filling the auditorium with cheers. Ray was there and smiled the whole time.]

Back in Vancouver, all my dad had to saw was “Ray Harryhausen movie” to get me into the car. See, even he knew who Ray was.  And I grew up with Ray as a giant figure in my life, as big as Godzilla who while a man in a suit, still held true to the vision Ray Harryhausen established; creatures, not monsters.  In summer of 1980 I even made my own Super-8 stop-motion animated film. Well, not really a film; just a bunch of my Star Wars toys animated by my unseen hand and 24 frames per second.  I still have it here.

For years to follow, every so often when one of ray’s movies would appear on TV on a rainy afternoon, it had my attention even when I had seen it numerous times before. This continued through my teens and into my 20s, and when I bought my first DVD player, the very first DVD I bought and watched on it was The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

In 2004 I got to meet and interview Ray (following that rare screening of Jason and the Argonauts, no less) on the occasion of the release of Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life. My hour with him began as he, his publicist, and his assistant were finishing their room service lunch (and Ray, ever the grandfather, reminded his assistant she hadn’t finished the capers on her Eggs Benedict) He was a very friendly, soft spoken man, and for the next hour we talked. About movies. About his work. About his favorite movie (one he shared with me, King Kong) About the generations of filmmakers he inspired.

That last point is the one you’ll hear a lot of this week. The people he influenced, and the films they made that serve as 24 fps tributes to Ray. Steven Spielberg and Jurassic Park; George Lucas and Star Wars; James Cameron and Terminator 2; Guillermo del Toro and Pacific Rim (surely the ultimate homage to Ray’s genius).  But for me the ones he had the greatest impact on are the low budget DIY filmmakers who work out of the sheer love of the craft. The ones you haven’t heard about yet. That’s Ray’s legacy; he set the bar all creative types have to try and live up to.

So thanks, Ray, for everything. We’ll try our best to make you proud.

Ray-Harryhausen

[My interview with Ray ran in Rue Morgue Magazine, albeit in a slightly edited form. In honor of Ray, and with Rue Morgue’s blessing, I have included the full interview below.

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“The story is forgotten a lot of times among the effects driven films you see today.  You know a lot of people criticized my stories for being very simple, but that was the key to their success; they’re simple morality tales.  The fantasy aspects are what make them unique.  You can’t go on having a complicated story with fantasy; you’re making a story all ages can enjoy.”

To call Ray Harryhausen opinionated is an understatement; he’s been around the block enough times to state, in blunt terms, what he likes and dislikes about what he sees as the decline of good storytelling in the movies. And he should know; from the first viewing of King Kong through a lifetime of dreaming his own legendary monsters, this icon has created, shaped and influenced fantasy film storytelling more than any other.  From the towering Cyclops of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and skeletal warriors of Jason and the Argonauts to dinosaurs and flying saucers, Gorgons and Harpies.  Now, his memoir Ray Harryhausen; An Animated Life is introducing a new generation to his work and re-acquainting a legion of fans with the creations he spawned.  And unlike many of today’s filmmakers; students of the “more is more” school of effects overkill, Harryhausen can still pinpoint the key to making us believe in the wondrous.

“With effects today the doors are wide open and that’s part of the problem,” he states bluntly. “In the fifties the amazing image was unique.  But today in a thirty-second commercial you see the most amazing things; so the unique is now rather mundane.  That isn’t to say there isn’t still some innovation in movies today.  From the time I saw Willis O’Brien’s work in The Lost World I was fascinated by dinosaurs.  And several years ago the BBC did a series called Walking with Dinosaurs that was just wonderful.  They looked very real; you could do dolly and helicopter shots of these herds of dinosaurs that would have taken forever in the days I was working.  But on the whole my wife and I don’t go to many films today; they’re all too violent and depressing for me.  They’re looking into the gutter when they should be gazing at the stars.”

Indeed Harryhausen’s films inspired a generation of storytellers to look at the stars; genre heavyweights Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and Peter Jackson all lists his work as a major influence.  We need not look far from the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park and the armies of Mordor to feel his influence.  Harryhausen wonders; “Why do people still watch my work?  I think they find something more to it than meets the eye; there’s more to our stories than people give us credit for.  Maybe people today just want the spectacle placed over the story because they’re accustomed to that.  The effects are beautifully done but lots of movies [today] seem to be built around what they can do with effects.  They are important but shouldn’t take precedent over a good story told well.”

Yet the child in Harryhausen beams when he recalls the thrill of watching a giant ape climb the Empire State Building those many years ago, and feels a kinship with the filmmakers his work inspired in turn. It was seeing Kong that led him to seek out the creator of the film’s still extrordinary effects, the legendary Willis O’Brien. “He was a friend and a mentor in that order,” Harryhausen smiles warmly. “He taught me a lot; the importance of studying anatomy which I took very seriously. Any artist should have an interest in and take inspiration from the real world and use that as their basis.  You can study anatomy, movement, sculpture; but it’s more important to keep the story front in your mind.“

And yet, for all the talk of people and films he’s influenced, Harryhausen draws a long sigh, lamenting the slide in quality storytelling in film today.

“The studios are trying to make silk purses out of sow’s ears and failing miserably. The old Studio System, for all its faults, really made brilliant films. But now businessmen and lawyers and bankers are running the studios; they don’t love movies, they love product. And they make product.”

“Now, I never worked ‘in’ the studio system,” he continues. “That was one of the benefits.  Animation was a unique field; back then people didn’t know very much about it so I was able to work independently.  It started out as a hobby working alone in my garage but I always worked alone.  Every bit of animation you see in my films [besides Clash of the Titans] was done by myself. And the people who just thought I was an effects man were wrong; I was involved through the entire process.  I’d bring in many original ideas.  On all of the Sinbad films I brought in a twenty-page outline and we’d get a professional writer to come in and elaborate on it.  But they mainly came from my drawings because the writer couldn’t envision what I could do for the least expense.  We made our pictures on a very tight budget, yet tried to get a very spectacular feel to them. And I think we achieved that. “It would often depend with us on what was possible given the money and time we had.  I would often start by doing pictures of various sequences that I felt I could do for a reasonable cost.  The writer and I would have numerous discussions as to what was possible and he’d put that in.”

“And even now that has changed; movies are so ambitious that the work is done in groups, which can also lead to a watering down of creativity. The reliance on computers; they call it progress.  I think there’s still a place for more traditional forms of animation but ultimately it’s the public purse that decides if they want spectacle every five minutes.”

At eighty-four, Harryhausen should be content to enjoy himself and stay far away from the trials of modern moviemaking, but of course he has other plans; “I have something new that is coming out,” he beams.  “The Tortoise and the Hare is something that I started in 1952 but never finished; I was too busy with features.  I still had the puppets though and two young fans contacted me about four years back and asked if they could  finish it.  So I loaned them the puppets and the camera I used and they finished it!  So you’ll see it on video and DVD with the other fairy tales I’ve made since 1945.  Hopefully it will be released in time for this Christmas.”

Ray Harryhausen is one of the last of a generation whose impact on storytelling may never be fully appreciated.  But he remains a quiet, humble man, proud of his work and overwhelmed that it still draws fans around the world. “I hope this book will be an inspiration to people who know my work and also to those just starting to learn about it.  All told I have been very fortunate to be able to do something I always wanted to do and that’s how I spent my life.”

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