Saturday, May 31, 2014

An Ape Contemplating the Meaning of Life...

Artwork by Jean Labourdette.

Cryptic Curiosities: Pepper's Ghost

During the Victorian Era, many were fascinated with afterlife, ghosts, and communicating with spirits.  Thus, spiritualism was a major near-religion for people during this time in history.  Psychic readings, séances, spirit photography, and other curiosities sought to appease the public's hunger for the supernatural.  Additionally, the "Ghost Show" was born.

The Ghost Show allowed audience members to witness the appearance of spirits in the comfort of the theater.  However, the conjuring of these ghosts was actually a clever illusion devised by the creator of the Ghost Show, John Henry Pepper. Unlike many "ghost-makers" during this time, Pepper never attempted to pass off his ghosts as anything more than illusion and did not seek to take advantage of his audience, but to entertain and even educate.

Pepper, a professor of chemistry, developed the illusion by taking advantage of successive reflections (the same kind of reflections you might notice in the glass as you ride in a car at night).  The trick worked in this way:  A projectionist below the stage shined an intense beam of light on an actor portraying a ghost.  A large sheet of glass tilted at a 45 degree angle toward the audience reflected the image of the actor below to give the audience the illusion of a semi-transparent "ghost" on stage.  Through careful coordination and stage direction, actors were able to interact with the fabricated phantoms.

A similar technique is occasionally used even to this day to create 3-dimensional holograms.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Godzilla Through the Years - Part 8

The 2014 American Film:  Return of the King

Spoilers below!  
Read on at your own risk!

Marking the 60th Anniversary of the original 1954 film, Godzilla has once again returned to the big screen and, thankfully, returned to form. 

Legendary Pictures' 2014 Godzilla is a very different American Godzilla film.  Unlike the 1998 movie, the filmmakers have paid careful attention to the original Japanese films and made careful efforts to pay appropriate homage.  Once again, radioactivity plays a major role in the plot and the theme of "Man versus Nature" takes center stage amidst the conflict for survival between leviathans and humanity.

Following a prologue involving a startling discovery, the film begins with an anomaly resulting in a meltdown at a Japanese power plant which results in the plan'ts destruction.  Obviously, many die in the aftermath including the mother of the main character, Ford Brody.  15 years later, Brody, now EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) expert for the military must return to Japan to get his father who has been detained by the police for trespassing near where the power plant once stood.  Obsessed with the cataclysm that caused the death of his wife, Brody's father believes that the meltdown was not an accident and sets out to prove this to his son and the rest of the world.  Sure enough, a huge cocoon is discovered at the ruins of the power plant.  A mysterious military organization called Monarch attempts to destroy the cocoon, but is ultimately unsuccessful.  

A gargantuan insect-like creature emerges from the cocoon.  The creature emits a powerful EMP (ElectroMagnetic Pulse) that disrupts all electronic devices.  This devastating ability allows it to escape.  Dr. Serizawa, the scientist in charge of Monarch explains that the creature (called a MUTO - Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) feeds on radiation and will seek out the nearest source.

As the military scrambles to capture and subdue to the monster, Dr. Serizawa reveals to Brody that the MUTO is actually an ancient life-form that belonged to a primordial ecosystem that thrived when the Earth was 10 times as radioactive.  Other organisms like the MUTO thrived on the excess radiation until levels subsided, at which point they went into a state of hibernation.  Dr. Serizawa goes on to explain that another such creature was awakened in 1954 when the first radioactive submarine descended into the depths of the ocean and that this other monster may be humanity's only hope against impending extinction.  This creature is called...  Godzilla! 

As Brody attempts to get back to his family in San Francisco, Godzilla is reawakened by the emergence of the MUTO and begins hunting the monster.  The military pursues both monsters only to find that a third monster - a larger, female MUTO - has appeared near Las Vegas.  All three monsters are expected to converge in San Francisco, where the two MUTOs will begin creating a brood of giant offspring that will overrun the planet...  unless Godzilla is able to defeat them and restore balance!

I love the redesign of Godzilla.  The creators of the film expressed a great desire for realism and this is definitely reflected in the creature design.  I also adore the design of the MUTOs which resemble giant praying mantis with some almost reptilian features.  These monsters will fit in nicely with Godzilla's bestiary of gargantuan foes.

Following the disappointment of the design of the monster in the 1998 film, I am beyond delighted to say that Godzilla actually looks like Godzilla.  The new design reflects all of the fearsomeness and majesty that fans worldwide expect from the King of the Monsters. Godzilla's anatomy actually resembles that of real-life reptiles with layers of scales and leather-like texture.  Admittedly, the filmmakers also borrowed anatomical elements from other creatures (including traits of dogs, bears, and even eagles) to allow for resemblance to the original design.  They do an excellent job overall while managing to create something new and fresh in the process.  This is probably one of my favorite incarnations of the creature.  

The special effects of this movie are top-notch, making this the most believable Godzilla to date.  Many, less capable directors would perhaps take this fact as an opportunity to overwhelm the audience, but throughout the film, director Gareth Edwards exercises a great deal of restraint.  So many blockbuster movies of today put a great deal of focus on spectacle and get carried away, showing scenes of destruction from ridiculous, dizzying camera angles. Edwards, however, wisely keeps the spectacle primarily from the human perspective.  Nearly every shot is from a conceivable point of view, as if the cameraman was shooting on location, which does a great job of putting the viewer in the moment, creating a tangible sense of wonder, suspense, and terror.

Alexandre Desplat did an excellent job with the music of the film.  The score is appropriately loud and bombastic, hearkening back to classic creature features of the yesteryear.  Many fans lamented the absence of Godzilla's theme from the Japanese movies (indeed, I'll admit missing it as well), and yet I think Desplat did a fine job and has created another memorable piece of music that will be long associated with the giant monster. 

Overall, this is a great Godzilla film.  The original 1954 film remains the best in my opinion, but this is a fine update.  As a Godzilla fan, I found myself a bit disappointed by the surprisingly short amount of time that Godzilla was onscreen, but this is my complaint with any Godzilla movie.  I always want to see more of my favorite monster!  

Thankfully, I may not have to wait very long.  It was recently announced that a sequel (possibly even a complete trilogy!) is currently in the works thanks to the film's financial success.  You just can't keep a good monster down!  Long live the King of the Monsters!

Previous Entries:

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Art of M.C. Escher

I suppose it was in elementary school that I first encountered the work of  the Dutch artist M.C. Escher.  In middle school, he was one of the few artists I could be bothered with remembering.  I long associated Escher with illusions primarily, as many probably do today.

But Escher was actually a very versatile artist and his collection of works proves to be quite multifaceted.

It is evident that Escher was fascinated with the interplay between light and shadow, perspective, and meticulous geometry.  The majority of his works combine these elements to produce his distinct, typically monochromatic style.

Below are examples of Escher's impossible architecture, for which he is probably best known.

Escher also specialized in mind-bending illusions that seem to blend two-dimensional drawings with the appearance of three-dimensional forms.

Finally, Escher was also fascinated with tessellations, which usually involved geometric tiles that do not overlap.  In pieces such as these, Escher's artistic prowess combines with precise mathematics to give the viewers of his pieces a glimpse of  apparent infinity.

It's no wonder that the works of M.C. Escher continue to mesmerize and amaze even to this day!

The Music of The Invisible Ray

Franz Waxman was a successful composer for many classic films such as Universal's Bride of Frankenstein and Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca and Rear Window.  His career spanned three decades and he produced over 150 scores.

I've been listening to Waxman's score for Universal's Bride of Frankenstein a lot lately.  In my search to find more music from this great conductor I stumbled upon the suite from the 1936 film, The Invisible Ray, starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.

Below I'm sharing the suite from The Invisible Ray.  So much of what made Waxman such a great composer are on display in this piece.  A hypnotic, ethereal prelude sets up a driving percussive theme followed by a suspenseful crescendo before evolving into a beautiful variation and continuing into the remainder of the suite.  It's easy to see why Waxman was so sought after to score films and television productions throughout his career!

For your listening enjoyment:

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Godzilla Through the Years - Part 7

The Millennium Series (1999-2004)

Almost as if it was in response to the American remake, Toho released another series of films shortly after the release of the maligned 1998 movie.

The Millennium series of Godzilla films offer several different takes on Godzilla.  Each of these films are meant to be sequels to the original 1954 film and so Godzilla's size is once again downgraded to be around 50 meters (164 feet).  Nearly all of these films find Godzilla battling against a variety of foes both new and old.

The "Millienium" series includes Godzilla 2000: Millennium (1999), Godzilla vs. Megaguirus (2000), Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001), Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla (2002), Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. (2003), and Godzilla: Final Wars (2004).

Admittedly, this is the series that I have the least expertise on, so I will only focus on the films I am familiar with.

Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah:  Giant Monsters All-Out Attack

For each of these films Godzilla was radically redesigned, but my personal favorite characterization from this series is depicted in Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah:  Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (which boasts the longest title for any movie in the Godzilla series).

For this film, Godzilla is meant to be a distant memory, almost a myth since his appearance and apparent destruction in 1954.  It is revealed through the course of the movie that Godzilla has been resurrected and possessed by the tortured souls of World War II soldiers who are angered at being forgotten.  This further strengthens Godzilla to the point of near total invulnerability and gives him an almost devious intelligence as he wreaks havoc on Tokyo. The design of Godzilla in this movie is probably the most sinister since his debut.  Godzilla is given an almost demonic appearance.  His head has pronounced fangs, a predatory expression and pupil-less eyes that are a glassy white, devoid of any soul.

This Godzilla is merciless, brutally lashing out at mankind's futile attempts to thwart his advance and tearing into his monstrous foes with ferocious fury.  This is Godzilla at his most villanous since the original film.  In a particularly chilling scene a classroom of school children is being prepared to evacuate when suddenly the whole building shakes.  The teacher and her class look out the window facing the bay Godzilla just emerged from to see a blazing mushroom cloud, the result of Godzilla having just unleashed his atomic breath on a crowd of fleeing people.

This is one of the first times since the original film that innocent bystanders are shown being killed onscreen.  In fact, Godzilla is so evil in this film that it takes the combined effort of three "Guardian Monsters":  Baragon, Mothra, and a side-switching King Ghidorah to put an end to his reign of terror.

Godzilla:  Final Wars

However, it wasn't long before Godzilla returned again to his role as defender of Earth against an extraterrestrial threat.  Once more, a legion of giant monsters is unleashed on the world by a group of malevolent aliens.  Humanity decides the only way to put an end to the destruction is by fighting fire with fire and setting Godzilla loose.  Of course, Godzilla does what he does best and decimates foe after foe in a series of bombastic fight scenes.

Marking Godzilla's 50th anniversary, the director of the movie intended Final Wars to be a sort of "greatest hits" tribute to Godzilla's legacy and depict the King of the Monsters facing an overwhelming array of foes, the most ever on screen. Thus, Final Wars could almost be considered a modern version of Destroy All Monsters.  The film features about 14 different monsters, most of which had not been seen of film since the original series, including fan favorites such as:  Anguirus, Hedorah, Ebirah, and Gigan.  The returning monsters depicted in the film were radically redesigned and brought to life using a combination of suitimation, practical effects, and CGI.  But Godzilla also faced off against a series of new foes including the American "Godzilla" (from the 1998 movie), Monster X, and a new version of a King Ghidorah, called Kaiser Ghidorah.

Unfortunately, despite being an awesome special effects spectacle, Godzilla:  Final Wars did not fare well at the box office.  The most expensive Godzilla film ever produced ended up losing Toho money.

Additionally, the movie was met with poor reviews that directed attention to the short battle sequences and weak, derivative story. This was to be the last Godzilla film not only of the Millennium Series, but for the remainder of the decade.

But, as has always been the case, this was not to be the end.  Godzilla will return again...

Next Entry:
Part 8 - The 2014 American Film: Return of the King

Previous Entries:
Part 6 - The 1998 American Film: Lost in Translation?
Part 5 - The Heisei Series (1985-1995)
Part 4 - Return of Godzilla (1984)
Part 3 - The Original Series (1955-1975)
Part 2 - Gojira (1954)
Part 1 - Past, Present, and Future... Godzilla and Me

"Time Enough At Last" - The Twilight Zone

“There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man.  It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination.  It is an area which we call...  The Twilight Zone”

From 1959-1964, Rod Serling greeted audiences with an foreboding voice-over that served as an introduction to the science-fiction/fantasy anthology series.  The Twilight Zone was and is notable for its high-concept, quality storytelling that tackled a variety of social issues, taboos, and human psychology.

To many, the first season's "Time Enough At Last" is one of the quintessential episodes of The Twilight Zone.  It's certainly one of my personal favorites.  This episode seems to encapsulate almost everything that made this classic television series so great.

Written by Serling himself, the episode tells the story of Henry Beamis, a timid bank teller who just wants to be left alone to read.  A devastating, literally world-changing twist of fate grants his wish, but even more tragedy is not far behind in what is perhaps the most ironic of endings.

For your enjoyment:  

In Memory of H.R. Giger

(February 5, 1940 – May 12, 2014)
"Sometimes people only see horrible, terrible things in my paintings...  I tell them to look again, and they may see two elements in my paintings — the horrible things and the nice things. I like elegance. I like art nouveau; a stretched line or curve. These things are very much in the foreground of my work." 
H.R. Giger

H.R. Giger, the Swiss surrealist painter, sculptor, and concept designer passed away yesterday.

It is impossible to discuss Giger without talking about the unique style he created called "biomechanical".

Apparently Giger was plagued by frequent night terrors throughout his life.  He mentioned once that he only found respite by putting what he experienced on the canvas.  Through the course of one particularly vivid nightmare, Giger recalled seeing a bathroom come to life in a terrifying manner, with pipes and toilet bowls developing skin and metamorphosing into gazing creatures with gaping maws that peered hungrily at him.  This, Giger insisted, was the inspiration for his signature style.

Giger is best known for his design work on Ridley Scott's film, Alien.  He designed not only the titular alien creature, but also the various stages of its life cycle, the derelict extraterrestrial ship and the "space jockey" pilot.  Despite numerous problems during production of the film, Giger couldn't resist seeing his work in three dimensions.  He endured criticism of executives and censorship from the studio only go on to create something truly memorable among the annals of cinematic history...  The Xenomorph!

"Biomechanics fused the impossible into a savage logic: metal and flesh, sex and death, hypnotic beauty and violation; its cool, corpse-silver colors pre-empting Scott's industrial-tech aesthetic. The artist's contribution to the film is definitive-he brought the alien to Alien."
- Ian Nathan, from Alien Vault: The Definitive Story of the Making of the Film

While Giger's style is often emulated today,imitations of his trademark style pale in comparison.  His mesmerizing, nightmarish landscapes remain as his legacy for generations to come.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

A Castle in the Mist...

A spooky painting by Ruth Sanderson for an illustrated edition of Sleeping Beauty.

Cryptic Curiosities: The Bateson Revival Device

What is the Bateson Revival Device you might ask?  Besides being an awesome name for your psychedelic prog rock band, the Bateson Revival Device was one inventor's answer to 17th and 18th century fears of premature burial.

This was actually a legitimate fear back in those days.  Doctors were not as skilled at discerning the difference between someone who was dead or merely unconscious.  Due to the lack of preservation chemicals used in modern funeral homes, burial was often a quick affair in order to stave off the smell and general uncleanness of decaying flesh.  It was not completely unheard of for someone to wake up from unconscious or comatose states in the process of being buried or after burial had already taken place!

Enter John Bateson, an inventor who was (understandably) paranoid about this particular predicament.  Thus, the Bateson Revival was created.  The device consisted of a small bell attached to the lid of a coffin that was connected to a cord which would be fitted onto the hand of the deceased (or not).

The device was meant to work in such a way that if one was to wake up to find themselves buried alive, they could ring the bell until someone was able to come and rescue them.  I'm aware of no account in which the device was actually used. However, many people had the same paranoia as Bateson...  And so he became a very rich man.