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Comic books & Movies 11 Apr 2014 08:38 pm

Shake it like a Paramount picture

I saw the new Captain America movie last weekend.

It’s big and loud and everything you’d want in a summer popcorn movie subtitled “The Winter Soldier” that comes out after winter and more than two months before summer. It’s subtle and thoughtful in places, but you’re always just a few minutes away from an explosion, if that sort of thing is important to you.

Twenty years ago, “Captain America” would have been the kind of movie that Marvel Comics fans could only dream of. Back then, DC had successful Superman and Batman franchises to crow about, but the best that Marvel fans could do was remember the ’70s “Incredible Hulk” TV show where Lou Ferrigno’s green body paint dripped whenever it came into contact with water and some old Spider-Man cartoons that used the same animation over and over.

So I feel like a curmudgeon for mentioning even one little flaw in the new Captain America film, especially because it’s a shortcoming in many other films as well: shaky-camera syndrome.

If you’ve been to the movies at any time since “The Blair Witch Project” in 1999, you’ve likely come into contact with shaky-cam. Cinephiles know the technique as “subjective camera,” meant to replicate queasy, stomach-churning motion, all the better to invest a movie or sequence with a sense of reality.

“Blair Witch” uses it to good effect, although the media was filled with stories about people who claimed to become violently ill from watching jiggling footage of kids running around in the woods. Other memorable shaky-cam productions include “Cloverfield” (about a giant monster) and “The Bourne Ultimatum” (a modern-day spy flick with Matt Damon).

The latter is what made me question shaky-cam. When a filmmaker uses the technique in something like “Blair Witch” or “Cloverfield,” where one or more characters carry handheld cameras and the audience is supposed to be watching “found” footage, it works, albeit nauseatingly. It’s similar to the epistolary technique in literature, where an entire book is made up of one character’s letters or journal entries; or to the stream-of-consciousness technique in some modernist novels that purport to get deep inside a character’s head, usually at the expense of plot.

But when shaky-cam started to invade big-budget movies, I cried foul. Why wouldn’t audiences want to see clearly the meticulous action sequences and stunts in “The Bourne Ultimatum” or the expensive sets and costuming in the first “Hunger Games” film?

Instead of pulling me deeper into movies, shaky-cam now takes me right out. And the more that follow-the-bouncing-frame is overused — in sci-fi and horror and westerns and all over TV, especially in action and adventure shows — the more egregious it becomes.

Used (very) sparingly, shaky-cam still can be effective, but it’s seldom used sparingly. Instead, fans are subjected to entire sequences and sometimes whole films that look as though the camera operator had been attacked by a swarm of killer bees when the director yelled “Action!” and was intent on killing each and every one by swatting them with his lens.

In “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” I had hoped to spot some Cleveland backgrounds here and there. Forget that. I was too busy figuring out who was hitting whom in one-second microclips and avoiding motion sickness.

Maybe movie tickets these days should come with complimentary Dramamine. Either that or directions on how to empty your popcorn on the floor and use the empty tub as a barf bag.

And with Spider-Man, the X-Men, Godzilla and many others waiting in the wings, we might need fewer reminders to silence our cellphones and more signs that say, “Fasten your seat belts.” It’s going to be a long, turbulent summer.

@cschillig on Twitter

Originally published April 10, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Comic books & Commentary & Media & Movies & Music & Television & education & technology 13 Feb 2014 08:38 am

Stomping out all signs of fun


If you’re a kid who’s ever been told that texting will rot your brain or pop music is immoral or video games are turning you into a zombie, you need to read “Bad for You.”

If you’re a parent, teacher, minister or some other well-meaning adult who’s ever told kids that texting will rot their brains or pop music is immoral or video games are turning them into zombies, you need to read “Bad for You.”

Subtitled “Exposing the War on Fun,” the book, by Kevin C. Pyle and Scott Cunningham, looks at popular fads and new technologies throughout history and exposes some depressing similarities in the way some people respond.

For instance, the book quotes one sarcastic critic as saying that, as a result of a popular new form of entertainment, “There is now very little danger that Americans will resort to the vice of thinking.” Is he referring to heavy metal music? Xbox One? The Flappy Bird app? None of the above. Writing in the 1920s, he was expressing concerns over radio and, separately, “incredibly frightful” jazz music.

One by one, Pyle and Cunningham examine hiccups in the social psyche down through the centuries, including printing presses (a pundit in 1494 noted that paper was less permanent than parchment), telephones (which allow children talk to undesirables against their parents’ wishes), Elvis Presley (derided as “deplorable” by that paragon of virtue, Frank Sinatra), Dungeons and Dragons (believed to cause an increased risk of suicide), and Harry Potter books (feared by some to promote witchcraft).

Text-messaging is examined in depth. As a teacher who believed that goofy abbreviations and jargon used in “text speak” would somehow worm their way into students’ more formal writing, I was abashed to learn how wrong I was. According to some researchers, kids who use “textisms” often have a better understanding of spelling and grammar — and larger vocabularies, to boot.

Rather than being corrupted by “IMHO” and “ICYMI” (google ‘em), kids can easily “code switch” between different registers of language — in this case, between informal text messages and more formal school essays.

To which I can only say: OMG.

But it’s not until the end of the book that Pyle and Cunningham really win me over. In a chapter called “Bad for You: Thinking,” they examine American schools. The section covers the history of education in the U.S. and how schools were influenced by the efficiency movement or “factory model” popular during the Industrial Revolution.

One result of this model is the discovery that workers are more productive with periodic breaks, which led to the idea of recess in public schools. Today, however, recess is under fire as a waste of time, eliminated or reduced in 40 percent of American schools to allow children more time to prepare for standardized tests.

Also cut in favor of standardized-test prep is access to the arts, history, and music.

Standardized testing, which measures convergent thinking (the ability to select one correct answer), is practically a relic in today’s high-tech world. What is needed, experts argue, is more emphasis on divergent thinking (the ability to find more than one answer or solution to a problem), something that can be aided by the very activities being trimmed from the school day — including recess.

“Bad for You: Exposing the War on Fun” is written for kids but can be just as rewarding for adults. A word of warning: It’s laid out like a comic book, another form of fun that has come under fire in the past. In the first chapter, the authors look at the hysteria over comic books in the 1940s and ’50s, when a U.S. Senate subcommittee was convened to study their insidious effects and comics were burned by concerned parents.

As a comics-obsessed kid in grade school, I can remember teachers who wrinkled their noses at my preferred choice of literature, immune to my belief, even then, that comics were teaching me more vocabulary and reading skills than anything in their classrooms.

I don’t remember if my teachers ever told me that comics were rotting my brain, immoral, or turning me into a zombie. If they did, I wish that Pyle and Cunningham’s “Bad for You: Exposing the War on Fun!” had been around to set them straight.

Chris Schillig, who is still a self-diagnosed comic-book addict, can be reached at

chris.schillig@yahoo or @cschillig on Twitter.

Originally published Feb. 13, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Comic books & Commentary & Media & Movies & Television 24 Jan 2014 09:36 am

Forgotten figures of pop


Did you know there was once a fourth Rice Krispies elf?

His name was Pow! (exclamation point mandatory) and he joined Snap! Crackle! and Pop! for two television commercials in the 1950s. In a recent article for, a Kellogg’s spokesman explains to writer K. Annabelle Smith that Pow! was never intended to be an ongoing character, but rather a guest-elf of sorts.

This minor deity in the animated pitchmen pantheon got me thinking about other erased or marginal characters in long-running concerns, whether they were TV shows or comic books or commercials.

Does anybody remember:

Castor Oyl — brother to Olive, the string-beaned girlfriend of Popeye the Sailor. When most of us think of Popeye, we imagine the classic cartoons of the 1930s and 1940s. But Popeye made his first appearance in the “Thimble Theatre” comic strip in 1929, after the strip had been in existence for 10 years with Castor as the main character.

These days, Castor is a pop-culture relic, although he did have a role in the “Popeye” movie starring Robin Williams and, more recently, appeared in new Popeye comic book adventures. Yet I doubt most people could identify him today. (Visit my blog, for a visual.)

John Doggett and Monica Reyes — These two characters replaced FBI special agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) on seasons eight and nine of “The X-Files,” also known as “X-Files: The Seasons Nobody Talks About.” Played by Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish, respectively, Doggett and Reyes faded into obscurity when Duchovny and Anderson returned for the series’ swan song and two successful films. Patrick’s biggest claim to cinematic fame remains his portrayal of the T-1000 Terminator that bedeviled Ah-nold in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.”

Mycroft Holmes — the older, smarter, fatter and lazier brother of Sherlock Holmes. Writer Arthur Conan Doyle used or mentioned him only a handful of times in four novels and 56 short stories about the famous detective. He is said to exert great influence over decisions of state, but otherwise just sits around the Diogenes Club, smoking and eating. There are worse ways to live, I suppose.

Chuck Cunningham — Ritchie’s older brother on “Happy Days.” At some point in the second season, he was written out of the series, never to return, and the Cunninghams went from having three kids to only two. His disappearance has even inspired a term, “Chuck Cunningham Syndrome,” used for any characters unceremoniously erased from continuity.

Uncle O’Grimacey — In the world of McDonald’s advertising, O’Grimacey is the uncle of Grimace, the purple, milkshake-loving companion of Ronald. Unlike his nephew, O’Grimacey is green, befitting his role as head huckster for Shamrock Shakes. He last appeared in the mid-1980s and has presumably retired to a small cottage in Ireland.

An Internet search for “McDonald’s characters” will reveal dozens of oddities, such as the Griddler, Iam Hungry and CosMc, an alien who spoke in surfer lingo. I believe all the McDonald’s characters, with the exception of the head clown, have been quietly phased out, relics of a more innocent time when it was acceptable to use cartoon characters to coax children to eat fattening, processed foods.

Word has it the McDonaldland gang rode off into the sunset on the back of Joe Camel, guided by the Budweiser frogs.

Let’s hope they all say hello to Pop!, Chuck, Castor and all the other retirees in the Forgotten Hallows Retirement Center out in Obscuria, Oregon.

Send any other obscure

pop-culture characters to or @cschillig on Twitter.

Originally published Jan. 23, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Books & Commentary & Movies 08 Nov 2013 01:31 pm

Disturbing fiction, disturbing fact

In every regard, “Ender’s Game,” which was number one at the box office last week, looks like a movie I would enjoy.

It’s based on a novel I admire, in a genre I like, with an actor, Harrison Ford, whose pop-culture credentials (Han Solo and Indiana Jones) are impeccable. Yet I doubt I will ever see it.

“Ender’s Game” tells the story about a future Earth, imperiled by a warlike, alien species. The government selects children to train for an anticipated attack by the enemy. One of humanity’s best and brightest is young Ender Wiggins, a gifted strategist who plays a key role in the coming battle. The book has smart things to say about giftedness in children and the atrocities of war.

When I first read the novel about 20 years ago, I liked it well enough to seek out a collection of Orson Scott Card’s short fiction, which includes the stories “Lost Boys,” with a great surprise ending, and “Eumenides in the Fourth Floor Lavatory,” one of the most disturbing pieces I’ve ever read. (That’s a compliment.)

But since that time, equally disturbing information about Card has come to light. He is a homophobe in the worst sense of the word, one who loudly and proudly promotes an agenda rooted in a deeply conservative Mormonism., which has made a hobby of sorts writing about the author, notes some of his more egregious comments, including a belief that homosexuality is rooted in childhood molestation, that sodomy laws should remain on the books to punish gays for their crimes, and that it would be morally defensible for the public to rise up and overthrow a government that redefines marriage in any way other than between a man and a woman.

“Regardless of law, marriage has only one definition, and any government that attempts to change it is my mortal enemy. I will act to destroy that government and bring it down,” Card wrote in 2008.

It’s been somewhat amusing to watch the studio, director and actors put space between their work on the film and Card’s conservative views. They talk about how great the book is, and how a work shouldn’t be judged by a writer’s political statements.

Card himself has somewhat modified his stance, especially after the tide of public and political opinion turned against him; in July, he asked marriage-equality supporters to show him tolerance and not to boycott the film.

I’m not boycotting “Ender’s Game” or asking anybody else to do that either. Film is a collaborative medium, where hundreds of talented people in front of and behind the cameras labor to create a finished product. To tar all those folks with Card’s intolerant brush is foolish.

Nor am I naive enough to believe that my $9 (or whatever a ticket goes for these days) is going to make or break Card, who is not receiving a share in the box office gross, or anybody else associated with the movie.

No, I’m not going to the movie because I know that I wouldn’t enjoy the experience, that in the back of my mind I would be thinking of Card’s comments and how venomous I find them to be.

People sometimes ask why a straight male is so passionate about the issue of gay rights, sometimes insinuating that maybe I’m not so straight.

My answer is simple and a little corny: I believe people have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This means all people, regardless of race, religious affiliation (or lack thereof) and sexual orientation.

Gay rights is the civil rights issue of our era, I’m convinced. Decades from now, our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will ask us where we were and what we believed during these tempestuous times. I’m comfortable with the answer I’ll provide.

But I also believe we have the right to speak our minds, out loud and on paper, and I defend Card’s right to do exactly that. He has the courage of his convictions.

When a person is an entertainer, it can be a liability to share opinions. Readers sometimes say that my humorous writing is not so humorous now that they know my leftist politics.

I understand that, because it would be challenging for me to read or re-read another Orson Scott Card book knowing his beliefs as I do now. More than any other art form, a novel is like climbing inside the head of the author and spending an extended amount of time in his company.

I don’t want to be in Card’s company anymore, and likely will never be able to square his brilliantly imagined fiction with his intolerance. Maybe that’s a failure of my imagination.

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published in The Alliance Review on Nov. 7, 2013

Books & Commentary & Family life & Movies 31 Oct 2013 07:02 am

Shaky traditions of Halloween


Halloween is one holiday where my traditions aren’t firmly established.

For previous Beggars’ Nights, I’ve decorated the house with pumpkins and with abandon, but not this year. The spirits are willing, but the flesh is weak. Or lazy, to be more exact.

Nor will I be hiding beneath a pile of leaves in the front yard, waiting to scare the bejesus out of passing princesses or cowboys. The last time I seriously contemplated this was the same year I herniated a disc in my neck, putting a literal crimp in my plans.

Since then, I’ve erred on the side of caution and left the scares to younger folks, like a family in the neighborhood who erected a mock graveyard, complete with a seated figure of Death that gave me a good jolt one dark morning when I saw it from the corner of my eye.

On Halloweens past, I’ve run marathons of classic Universal Studios horror movies (”Dracula,” “Frankenstein,” “The Bride of Frankenstein” and their ilk). Sadly, the monsters have to stay in cold storage this season, brought low by my poor time management.

The best I’ve done this year is a collection of “scary snippets,” excerpts from classic fright films that I show to my Advanced Placement class. They then analyze, in writing, the elements that make each clip effective. (Yeah, I know, an English teacher can drain fun from an assignment quicker than a vampire drains blood.)

Most years, my wife and I hand out candy on Halloween. But sometimes, like this year, our schedules won’t permit it.

When that’s happened in the past, I’ve put a bowl of candy on the front porch under the watchful gaze of a life-sized Creature from the Black Lagoon cardboard cutout, along with a sign that reads, “Honor System: Take One Piece.”

Like Montresor, the mad narrator in Edgar Allan Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado,” I know enough about human nature to realize that a handful of hungry ghouls gets the biggest portion of the Schillig loot.

Montresor needs an empty house to commit murder, so he orders his servants not to leave the premises while he’s gone on business. It is an edict sufficient, he knows, “to insure their immediate disappearance, one and all, as soon as (his) back was turned.”

My motives haven’t been as sinister, but the results are likely similar: People doing the exact opposite of what they’re asked.

This year, though, my wife is absconding with the candy for a kids’ party elsewhere, so the Creature will stay in the attic and no porch light will blaze. I guess I’ve become the Halloween grinch.

One tradition, however, is immutable: my annual reading of “The Hallo-Wiener” by Dav — no “e” — Pilkey, creator of the Captain Underpants series.

The story of Oscar, a wiener dog whose mom dresses him as a frankfurter for Halloween, eliciting howls of laughter from his canine pals, was a perpetual hit with my daughter when she was younger, so much so that we kept reading it together long after we’d both memorized all the words and long after most dads stop reading to their kids.

A few years ago, I recorded myself narrating it and mailed a CD and a copy of the book to her at college. Now that she’s in grad school and just as busy as her old man — cue “Cats in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin — we often enjoy the book asynchronously. This is a fancy word thrown around online education circles that means “not at the same time.”

This year, though, maybe I’ll surprise her by phone, and we can enjoy Oscar’s travails simultaneously, through the magic of Ma Bell. Or Ma iPhone.

Because any book that features lines like “Farewell, my little Vienna sausage!” and “Help! We’re being attacked by a giant frankfurter!” is too good to be left on the shelf.

Happy Halloween. May all your frights be pleasant ones.

Originally published Oct. 31, 2013, in The Alliance Review.

Family life & Movies 12 Sep 2013 11:38 pm

Marital movie bliss

What is the secret of a successful marriage?

If you said whiskey and a bullet to bite down on, go to the back of the line. You’ll soon be joined by weepy-eyed men who answered “man cave,” “separate houses” and “dead mothers-in-law.”

Stephen King had a character in one of his books say that silence is the secret. The idea of talking about problems — advocated by folks like Dr. Phil, who deals with dueling partners in one-hour increments before sending them back home with a copy of his latest self-help book with which to strike each other over the head — usually leads to one or both parties saying the wrong thing, which risks further aggravation and estrangement. “Estrangement,” as defined by Merriam-Webster’s, is “the state or condition of sleeping on the couch or in garage for two or more nights simultaneously.”

If you keep quiet, you’ll never say the wrong thing, except in those situations where silence is exactly the wrong thing to say. (If you don’t understand that last line, you’ve never been married.)

I’ve found that compromise — defined by some cynics as a situation where both parties lose — is the best state of affairs for matrimonial bliss. My wife agrees, as long as she always wins the compromise.

We compromise a lot, especially when it comes to movie selection. In the past, we’ve had an agreement where she picks movies on any day of the week that ends with “y.” This is because on our second date — back in the time before surround sound and stadium seating, when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth — I took her to see “Texas Chainsaw Massacre III,” which I find as life-affirming and beautiful as some people find “The Sound of Music.” She’s never let me forget it.

Because of this decades-old lapse in taste, I usually must wait until the movies I want to see come out on home video, where she sleeps or texts through them on the couch.

Lately, however, in a rare admission of compromise on her part, we’ve been taking turns, which is how I saw “Man of Steel,” “Pacific Rim” and “Star Trek: Into Darkness” in theaters over the summer.

Her recent choices include “The Heat,” “We’re the Millers” and “The Internship,” all of which were fairly good, except for “The Internship,” which was so bad I barely remember seeing it. This rare admission of enjoyment is how these things go in our marriage. If I say I liked one of her choices, it suddenly becomes one of my choices, meaning she gets to pick the next one. I apply the same reasoning to the few selections of mine that she admits are bearable, which aren’t many.

(For a brief time, I refused to see any of her selections after she tricked me into watching “Magic Mike,” a movie about male strippers. I detailed that little imbroglio in a column last year. Email me if you’d like a refresher copy — of the column, not “Magic Mike.”)

Oddly enough, just as some longtime couples start to resemble one another, our tastes in movies are starting to merge. How else to explain that “Mud,” a movie starring Matthew McConaughey, one of my wife’s favorite actors (especially when he appears without a shirt, which seems to be a contractual requirement), was my choice, while “White House Down,” a big, dumb action flick starring Channing Tatum about terrorists blowing up the White House and the Capitol building, was hers. (And yes, both McConaughey and Tatum were in “Magic Mike,” which is just rank coincidence.)

Could we be heading toward a time when she selects titles like “Nightmare on Elm Street Part XXVII” and I’m agitating for “Matilda” or “Confessions of a Shopaholic”?

Doubtful. She drew a line in the sand and said no to “The Lone Ranger” this summer, and she’s already said that I’ll be watching “Thor: The Dark World” by my lonesome. The only compromise in these cases will be whether going to the movies solo counts as my “turn,” meaning she gets to pick the next one.

I think I know the answer, and while I’d like to argue the case, in this situation, again, Stephen King is right and Dr. Phil is wrong.

Originally published Sept.12, 2013, in The Alliance Review.

Books & Commentary & Media & Movies 22 Aug 2013 06:12 pm

Big and tall, short and small


Size matters in pop culture. Or maybe it just matters to me.

Since childhood, I’ve been fascinated by stories that hinge on size differentials. People who shrink, monsters who dwarf skyscrapers, bugs the size of Cadillacs — give me any or all of the above and the odds that I will like the book, movie, poem, radio drama or synchronized swimming event where they appear, especially if the big things are juxtaposed against smaller ones.

Most kids like monsters, I think, but I always preferred the really tall ones. The Frankenstein monster is more appealing than Dracula because Boris Karloff, who plays the monster, is taller than Bela Lugosi, who plays the vampire. (Plus, Lugosi has that really thick accent and walks like he’s stuck in jelly. “I vaaaant to succck your bluuuud,” he says, inching along at the speed of your average tortoise, while toddlers crawl past and old men in wheelchairs lap him. Not much fear factor there.)

We all root for the underdog, which is why we all cheer for David and his slingshot against Goliath, and why “Rocky” kept spawning sequels until the sight of Sylvester Stallone without his shirt became too grotesque for even the most stalwart of moviegoers.

I just take the term “underdog” more literally than most, wanting to see the conflict reflected in extra inches, feet and yards. After all, who could be more underdog-like than people fighting giants, or characters shrinking to the size of dandelions and trying to avoid a size 10 shoe?

As a last hurrah to the carefree days of summer, when long afternoons afford time to ponder such trifles as the greatest stories about things that are bigger or smaller than normal, here are a few of my favorites:

Jack and the Beanstalk — The story that started it all for me. Little boy, magic beans, giant vegetation, big guys who live in the clouds, even — if memory serves — a singing harp. And you can’t top the suspense of Jack chopping down the beanstalk as the giant descends, screaming “Fee Fie Fo Fum!”

King Kong — Maybe my favorite movie — and movie monster — of all time. Big ape, big dinosaurs, little people running and screaming in terror. What’s not to like?

Godzilla — Everything from King Kong applies, but with the addition of nuclear weapons and radioactive breath. Plus, Godzilla has been better translated into other mediums than Kong. The 1970s Marvel Comics version is still my favorite comic-book series of all time. ‘Nuff said.

The Shrinking Man — Filmed as “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” this novel by the late, great Richard Matheson has the main character exposed to a mysterious mist that slowly reduces him in size, until he is living in his daughter’s dollhouse and fighting off a domesticated cat that is, proportionally, the size of a double-decker bus. If you’ve ever fantasized about shrinking to thimble size and dueling spiders in the basement (and who hasn’t?) this is the book/movie for you.

Jurassic Park — Again, you’ve got dinosaurs, plus the theme of humankind’s naïve belief that it can trump the natural order and Jeff Goldblum (in the movie) nattering on about chaos theory while an angry T. rex uses his colleagues as toothpicks. The sequels aren’t worth a tinker’s damn — or a tinker’s dam, depending on which etymological story you believe — but they do have big dinosaurs vs. little people, so they can’t be all bad.

(I really wanted to like Michael Crichton’s “Micro,” by the way, because he’s the author of “Jurassic Park” and it’s about shrinking people to microscopic size, but I couldn’t get into it. Too much pseudoscience, not enough screaming people. It’s no good if people don’t run around and scream.)

I could rattle off a whole slew of pop-culture references that fit the bill. Here are a few: The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Gorgo, Reptilicus, Ant-Man, the Atom, Tarantula! (a movie so exciting that the exclamation point is part of the title), Tom Thumb, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Johnny Socko, Ultraman, munchkins, Yoda, Tom and Jerry, and Fantastic Voyage.

Pacific Rim — the best movie almost nobody saw this summer. Giant creatures crawling from a hole ripped in the space-time continuum in the Pacific Ocean? Check. Global chaos as said monsters attack? Check. Humans piloting giant robots in a last-ditch effort to save the world? Check. One of the coolest sci-fi/fantasy films since the original Star Wars? Check and mate.

So there you have it — incontrovertible evidence that the bigger they are, they harder we fall for them. Or that I do, anyway.

Originally published Aug. 22, 2013, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary & Movies 16 May 2013 10:55 pm

Sultan of stop-motion


A ferocious dinosaur lays siege to a roller coaster on Coney Island. The fearsome kraken rises from the sea to claim its latest victim. A hapless sailor and his crew battle sword-wielding skeletons.

These movie moments captivated me as a child. Each time a Ray Harryhausen monster took center stage, I would move the rabbit-ear antenna on the old TV in the basement to improve the picture. Even through a haze of static and commercial interruptions, the illusion held sway. I believed.

Harryhausen, the special-effects maestro who died earlier this month at the age of 92, breathed life into all of the above and many more, a pantheon of monsters hatched from mythology and his own fervid imagination.

Without a doubt, Harryhausen’s special effects were the best part of many films with which he was involved. “Jason and the Argonauts,” for example, is a largely tepid affair, a paint-by-numbers, sword-and-sandal epic about the legendary titular explorer’s attempts to find the Golden Fleece and become king of Thessaly. The acting is wooden and the plot virtually nonexistent.

But every 20 minutes or so, the movie blazes to life when a Harryhausen creation saunters into frame: Talos, the bronze giant, voted the second greatest movie monster of all time (behind King Kong); the Hydra, fierce creature with the head of seven snakes; and, of course, a battalion of skeletons, bones clicking and clacking as they attack Jason and his men.

Harryhausen’s effects are cinematic magic at its finest. Using miniature models, he would shoot one frame of film, stop the camera, move the model infinitesimally, and then shoot the next frame, laboriously building the illusion of movement.

Considering that one second of film contains 24 frames, it would take days to yield only a few seconds of usable film, painstaking labor that would be combined later with live-action footage using reverse projection and other techniques. Working within constraints of time and money (there was never enough of either), the man created marvels.

Harryhausen’s biggest influence was the aforementioned “King Kong,” a movie that both he and fantasy author Ray Bradbury (who died last year) saw at impressionable ages. In the book “Kong Unbound,” Harryhausen dubbed it “the greatest fantasy film ever made.” He later would learn its secrets at the feet of stop-motion pioneer Willis O’Brien, the man who animated “Kong.” Harryhausen worked with O’Brien on the original “Mighty Joe Young,” another movie about a large ape whisked away to civilization.

Harryhausen went on to create special effects for many Hollywood productions, including “20 Million Miles to Earth,” “It Came from Beneath the Sea,” “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers” and “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.” “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms,” which climaxes with the monster stomping Coney Island, was based on a story by Bradbury and pays homage to the two men’s love of giant monsters.

Harryhausen’s last hurrah was 1981’s “Clash of the Titans,” another romp through mythology. By then, the heyday of stop-motion animation had passed, replaced by a variation called “go motion” that relied on a computer to move the scale models.

“Go motion” itself would have a short shelf life, supplanted by full computer animation 10 years later in “Jurassic Park.” Today, stop-motion, when it is used at all, is done to invoke nostalgia.

Yet there is still much to recommend the earlier method. The herky-jerky look of stop-motion — with puppets manipulated by hand, inflating and deflating bladders hidden inside to simulate breathing — infuses a sense of personality in the finished effect that is sometimes lacking in more seamless computer animation.

Just as King Kong reflects the scrappy nature of O’Brien, the many creatures animated by Harryhausen reflect what I imagine to be his ferocious desire to overwhelm the audience, to make them gasp or smile or shriek.

And, above all, to make them believe.

@cschillig on Twitter

Originally published May 16, 2013, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary & Family life & Movies 14 Mar 2013 10:09 pm

Remembering Mount Union Theatre


By the time you read this, Mount Union Theatre will almost certainly be history.

The digital reader board was the first to go, scooped out of the original marquee and relocated to West State Street, where it still provides news about speakers and events on campus. Next was the box office, removed to parts unknown. When I drove by last week, the front doors were gone and a dump truck had been backed inside the front lobby.

I almost parked and made an illegal sortie inside to take one more look at the building and try to catch a faint whiff of buttery popcorn or an echo of Clark Gable telling Vivien Leigh that frankly, my dear, he didn’t give a damn. Maybe tomorrow, I thought, but the next day a fence had been erected — probably because a lot of other drivers had the same attack of nostalgia — and that was that.

Like many people in Alliance, I have fond memories of Mount Union Theatre. I first saw “Star Wars” there back in the 1970s, igniting a passion that still burns to this day. It’s the theater where I watched my first R-rated film, “Dracula” starring Frank Langella, a concession by my parents because of my love of monster movies and vampires.

When the theater reopened in the early ’80s after a few years of dormancy, I was a freshman in high school, and my Friday- and Saturday-night dance card was filled with revivals of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Altered States,” “A Man for All Seasons,” one or more of the “Rocky” films, and many more.

In those days, at the cusp of the home video era, the theater was a buzzing, vibrant destination, an inexpensive way to enjoyably fill a few hours. Movies there were second-run, but still new enough that they hadn’t been released onto VHS, so demand was high.

Mount Union Theatre was the place where I almost took my first date, except I was too afraid to ask her and ended up going with a friend instead. It’s the place where my daughter saw her first movie, “The Wizard of Oz,” and where we would take her to see many more, including practically the entire Disney animated catalog. It’s the place where my wife and I both fell asleep during the first Harry Potter film, when we realized the franchise was not for us.

The venue itself, to be honest, was no great shakes. The seats were uncomfortable, the screen was small in comparison to modern movie houses, and the sound system left something to be desired. When I was a kid, I remember the Powers That Be announcing the closing of the snack bar in the second half of the movie, blaring out a last call for popcorn and sodas right overtop the film.

But there was something about Mount Union Theatre that transcended its flaws. Maybe it was the well-chosen Pink Panther and Bugs Bunny shorts before the main feature, or the text-heavy descriptions of each movie in the newspaper ads that gave it a more historic slant, or the fact that you could — and did — run into friends and neighbors willing to share a common experience for a few hours in the same dark room.

By the early 2000s, attendance on Friday and Saturday nights had slowed to a trickle — too many other entertainment options and a much smaller window between theatrical and home video release took a toll on ticket sales.

The last movie I saw there was, appropriately enough, “King Kong,” my all-time favorite, in July 2004. Only a few dozen people were in attendance. Two years later, college brass brought the curtain down on weekend movies, and since then the building has been used only occasionally. My last visit, although I didn’t know it at the time, was to hear One Book One Community author Chitra Divakaruni speak about her novel, “One Amazing Thing,” last year. The theater looked pretty shabby then, a poor cousin to the more opulent Palace in downtown Canton. If Mount Union had more aesthetic appeal than a saltine cracker box, maybe more people would have campaigned to keep it.

But let’s face it: Nostalgia, however enjoyable, isn’t a viable long-term financial strategy, for a university or for individuals. The college and the community will be better served by a new science facility than by another vacant building, no matter how beloved.

Meanwhile, the one part of the theater that will survive the wrecking ball (besides the digital marquee) are the memories of so many evenings spent in the dark, staring at the silver screen and willingly surrendering their troubles for a few hours.

Like Bogie told Bergman, we’ll always have Paris. And Alliance-area movie fans will always have memories of Mount Union Theatre, even after the building itself has faded to black.

@cschillig on Twitter

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Commentary & Movies 27 Dec 2012 03:00 pm

Sacking Santa


Boss: Santa, could I see you in my office for a minute?

Santa: Certainly, but I hope not for too long. It’s Dec. 27 and I’m exhausted from flying around the world and leaving presents for all good boys and girls. I’m ready for a long winter’s nap … and football.

Boss: That’s what I’d like to talk to you about.

Santa: Football? Hey, I know gambling on the workshop floor is prohibited. That Steelers/Browns thing a few weeks back was just a friendly wager between me and Sparkles the Elf. Won’t happen again.

Boss: It’s not that. See, it’s about your position here.

Santa: Position?

Boss: Yes. The board and I have been looking at our cash flow over the past quarter and weighing it against some rather hefty capital expenditures …

Santa: I’d hardly call some carrots for the reindeer and decent housing for the elves “hefty capital expenditures.”

Boss: From your perspective, perhaps. From ours, we barely made 3 percent more profit than last year, and that gets the stockholders jumpy. And when the stockholders get jumpy, the board gets jumpy. So …

Santa: You’re letting me go?

Boss: Letting you go? Goodness, no. You and your image are huge assets to the company. Why, in merchandising alone, that red hat, white beard and “Ho! Ho! Ho!” make us billions. See, Nick … I can call you Nick, can’t I?

Santa: I suppose.

Boss: Nick, we just plain can’t afford to have you working only one day a year.

Santa: One day a year? But what about all the mall appearances? And a shopping season that starts in October? I’ve worked the last three months without a single day off and with no extra pay.

Boss: Well, have we required that from you, Nick?

Santa: No, not exactly. I mean … it comes with the territory, I guess.

Boss: Exactly. Now about these changes: Effective immediately, you will also double as Father Time on New Year’s Eve.

Santa: But that’s Bob’s job!

Boss: Bob has been … let go.

Santa: You fired him?

Boss: No, we … right-sized him. Now, he weighs less than you, but with a little squeezing, his 2012 sash should just about fit.

Santa: Hrrrmph. Why not put me in the Baby New Year role while you’re at it?

Boss: Some on the board wanted to do exactly that, but the diaper’s too small. And while we’re at it, you’ll also be playing the role of Uncle Sam on the Fourth of July. Weight is a definite issue there, and since we subcontracted this job through the U.S. Department of Defense, we’ll need you to shed, say, 200 pounds between now and June.

Santa: But, but …

Boss: I know, I know … your image as a jolly old elf will be irreparably harmed if you stay thin. The good news is that between July 5 and July 25 — Christmas in July, you know — you’ll be mandated to put the weight back on.

Santa: Now just you wait a minute! I have rights too, you know? What about my contract? Santa’s a team player and all, but this is going too far!

Boss: Oh, you think so? Well, pursuant to Santa Claus Clause 102.7 — the so-called Insanity Clause* — the corporation has the right to modify your contract at any time, with no advance notice, and no input from you!

Santa: But … but … how can this be? I’ve always been a good employee! I’ve let millions of little kids sit on my knee and rub their sticky fingers through my beard! I’ve stuffed myself down chimney after chimney and never complained when the walls were stuffed with asbestos.

I’ve ruined my health eating dozens of sugar cookies left beside glasses of milk! I’ve even smoked that ridiculous pipe in defiance of the surgeon general’s warnings! How can you do this to me?

Boss: It’s easy, Santa. See, the company has reorganized and moved its home offices to Michigan. Merry Christmas, at-will employee! Now, let’s talk about Mrs. Claus, shall we? She’s been quite the drain on our self-funded health care plan this year …

@cschillig on Twitter

* Thanks to the Marx Brothers for this.

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