Jason and the Argonauts
seen @ Landmark Loews Jersey Theater, Jersey City, NJ
I've written before about the special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen, who died last month at the age of 92. In watching two films last weekend that he worked on, 20 Million Miles to Earth and Jason and the Argonauts, I was once again made aware of the difference between seeing movies like these on television, which I did growing up, and seeing them on a big screen.
Stop-motion animation existed before Harryhausen, of course, but he raised it to a new level, and I'm now convinced that you can't truly appreciate it unless you see his work on the big screen, the way audiences of the 50s and 60s saw them. I had actually seen 20M this way once before, when I was living in Columbus. It was a smaller screen at an outdoor venue, though - bigger than a television, but smaller than the screen at the Loews Jersey, which is, of course, an old-fashioned movie palace and designed differently.
Speaking at the double feature last weekend was a film journalist who had written about Harryhausen in the past, and one of the things he talked about was how Harryhausen's creatures had a life and a character unique to movie monsters that stood in sharp contrast to the traditional man in a rubber suit, something Harryhausen hated. You can see that in 20M in the way the Venusian creature reacts to his unusual surroundings here on Earth - how he walks, how he looks around at things.
The journalist guy also said that Harryhausen believed his monsters should exist at a slight remove from reality; as much as he respected and admired the advances in computer-generated effects, he didn't believe in making them too realistic. I can respect that. On Sunday, I was watching, of all things, Peter Jackson's King Kong on TV - Jackson, of course, being one of many current genre filmmakers who idolize Harryhausen.
As convinced as I was of the reality of the various CGI creatures in that movie, there remains something about stop-motion that's slightly unsettling to watch, and I suspect it has to do with this slight disconnect. Armies of CGI technicians go to great lengths to convince you of the high-tech nature of Iron Man's armor, or the reality-warping magic of Harry Potter, but because Harryhausen's monsters fall short of photo-realism, that difference makes it unsettling. It's the so-called "uncanny valley" effect.
Harryhausen is gone now, but it's great to know that he lived long enough to know how well-appreciated his work was and is by those that came after him, not to mention legions of moviegoers. These days the only time you ever see stop-motion in film is if the whole thing is done that way, like The Nightmare Before Christmas or Coraline. Movies like those are remarkable too, no doubt, but one wonders if modern audiences would accept stop-motion in place of CGI in a genre movie. I'm sure there must be some films like that within the last twenty years or so; I just can't think of any right now, which makes me think they're probably not as big as even the worst genre movies with CGI.
In close to three years of doing this, I've made quite a few friends out of my fellow film bloggers, but it wasn't until last Saturday that I finally met a few in person. It seems like most of the friends I make these days are online, living in different parts of the country and even a few outside the country. (This was also true back when I had my comics blog.) Any opportunity to meet someone you only know through the Internet is bound to make you a little nervous, and that was the case with me, I admit, but it didn't take me long to fit in, and for that I'm grateful.
I had taken part in Aurora's last blogathon, the 31 Days of Oscar one (and I'm doing the same for her current one), so I had already interacted with her. I saw that she was going to the Loews on Twitter last week and proposed that we meet up there, and she agreed. We almost completely missed each other, even though we were both in the lobby, Tweeting our locations back and forth, but once we figured out who we were, we greeted each other and made our way to the auditorium, where I joined her party. She was there with a friend whose name, unfortunately, escapes me. She was a classic film novice, and Aurora was in the process of educating her on the old stuff. Her friend seemed receptive, and she even expressed a fondness for Hitchcock.
Will and Joe came a little bit later. I was less familiar with these guys, but it was clear that they knew their stuff too. We all had a conversation outside the Loews after the double feature in which we talked about some of the things I had mentioned above. We even had our picture taken! If you go to my WSW Facebook page, you can see it.
It was a great night overall. There was a big crowd of people for both shows, and I suspect it was as much for the films themselves as it was the fact that it was the last screening of the season until next fall. Once again there was an art display of local high school kids, but this time I was too busy trying to find Aurora to pay it much attention. I was pleased to see a fair amount of kids as well. One of them sat behind Will and me with his dad; during 20M he seemed unimpressed with the stop-motion effects at first, but at one point, in a scene where a bunch of horses are threatened by Venusian creature, the kid said something like "Is the horse gonna die?" to his dad, and that's when it was clear he was hooked. And another Harryhausen fan is born.