Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Sci in our Fi, no. 2

As an addendum to this post, here's director Duncan Jones chatting with The High Bar's Warren Etheredge about his films Moon and Source Code, on the occasion of Source Code's preview screening. A self-described fan of hard science fiction, Jones discusses the use of scientific concepts ("hard," "soft" and "gray area" science fiction) in his two "out of the park" films so far. Also on the table are such topics as working with his screenplay writers, storytelling in the age of CGI and 3D, cutting-edge real-world sci-fi-like technologies, his recommendations for science fiction reading and "one great underrated sci-fi movie," and the prospects for his third film — including new technology he's hoping to use.

As usual with Warren's interviews, this casual chinwag is more spontaneous and enjoyable, and goes deeper, than your average press junket.

The High Bar w/ Warren Etheredge & Duncan Jones from The High Bar on Vimeo.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Sci in our Fi

Mike Brotherton, University of Wyoming Associate Professor of Astronomy, speaks about science in movies at the Summer 2011 Saturday University event in Jackson. Does it matter if Hollywood gets the science right in movies? Entertainment informs opinions about science and scientists and is stealth education for better or worse. Good science is rare in the movies, but perhaps even bad science offers teachable moments. In this talk, he illustrates examples of good and bad science in cinema.

Mike organizes and teaches Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop, with the goal of improving the portrayal of science in books and films. This clip is almost an hour long, but full of interesting perspectives.

As a former astronomy teacher/presenter and scriptwriter/producer for planetariums, as well as a movie lover and, like Mike, a member of SFWA, I love a science fiction movie or TV show that makes an effort to get the science right while honoring its paramount obligations to story and drama. Meanwhile, I grind my teeth when science is ignored simply out of laziness or willful ignorance, especially when the choice of respecting the science (and therefore our intelligence) could have honored and even enhanced the story and drama. And there are cases, such as Mike's example of the stars in Titanic, when getting it right is just as easy as getting it wrong, so why not get it right for those of us who notice? J.J. Abrams' Star Trek, as much as I love it, is a case in which my teeth-grinding could have been forestalled with a few pen strokes that simultaneously worked in service to the story's narrative and tension. Oh, if only he'd seen my Star Trek show produced in cooperation with Paramount.

Music: Miklós Rózsa
Near at hand: Oddly inscribed scabbarded short sword that, I swear, came with the house.

Movie Line Rhymes

There's been a spate of themed movie clip supercuts lately —

25 Greatest Unscripted Scenes in Films

Before They Were Famous: 25 Actors in 3 Minutes

50 Trippiest Drug Hallucinations in Films 

100 Most Awesome Punches in Films 

The Evolution of Movie Dance (100 Greatest Dance Scenes 1921 - 2010)

— most of them courtesy of the YouTuber mewlists.

However, this one by ScreenWerks on Vimeo is my fave so far:

'Movie Line Rhymes' by Jordan Laws from ScreenWerks on Vimeo.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Screw CGI, no. 5: A flash from above

Perseid Below
Credit: Ron Garan, ISS Expedition 28 Crew, NASA
This remarkable view captured by astronaut Ron Garan looks down on a Perseid meteor. From Garan's perspective onboard the International Space Station orbiting at an altitude of about 380 kilometers, the Perseid meteors streak below, swept up dust left from comet Swift-Tuttle heated to incandescence. The glowing comet dust grains are traveling at about 60 kilometers per second through the denser atmosphere around 100 kilometers above Earth's surface. In this case, the foreshortened meteor flash is right of frame center, below the curving limb of the Earth and a layer of greenish airglow.

A larger version (4256 x 2832, resolution 240) with more info is at APOD.

More at Talking Points Memo.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

For your consideration — "Sad, beautiful facts" edition

Sound on Sight: The "Gray Ones" Fade To Black — A passionate personal essay that really wells up my own sense of generational despair. Will 20th century movies be watched the way 19th century novels are read now, by only dedicated academics and adherents?

Meanwhile, Kate Kulzick counterpoints: Why the True Classics Will Never Disappear

On a not unrelated note: NPR: The Sad, Beautiful Fact That We're All Going To Miss Almost Everything

Also NPR: On Location: Mansfield, Ohio's 'Shawshank' Industry (audio)

Also also NPR: Your Picks: Top 100 Science-Fiction, Fantasy Books — Unsurprisingly, more than half of the top 50 have been movie-ized in one form or another. The Science of the Trailer

Great movie taglines according to Filmsite and Tagline Guru

CNBC: The 15 Lowest-Grossing Oscar Winners

Jim Emerson: Our Hospitality: Buster Keaton and gravity

A Bright Wall in a Dark Room: Amanda McCleod on Julie Delpy's 2 Days in Paris, a film I like quite a lot. Now I'm in the mood to see it again.

Slate: I Watched Every Coen Brothers Movie. Here's what I learned. Plus: What Are the Best and Worst Coen Brothers Films? Addendum: The readers speak and David Haglund follows up

Also Slate: The Saddest Movie Scene Since 1995

Parallax View: "You're Goddam Right I Remember" – Howard Hawks Interviewed — Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977

Juan Cole: Jordan Plans Green Star Trek Theme Park — Cole on, among other things, science fiction as an international attractor.

Cracked: B-Movie Posters for Classic Films

io9: Why We Love Suspending Our Disbelief

Also io9: "To the Moon" is like a backstage pass to the the sights and sounds of 1960's NASA

Click to sharkify. Via Medium Large

Music: John Barnes Chance
Near at hand: Wind-up robots

Friday, August 5, 2011

That's "Air Commodore" Bourne to you, mate

Next month, Elizabeth and I will be spending a week and a half in London. A pleasure trip with some business mixed in, I hope.

On our itinerary is catching the current production of Dr. Faustus at Shakespeare's Globe. Last night we secured our tickets well in advance. (Good thing too, as those tickets are moving like a bat out of Mephistopheles' front door.)  In so doing, we registered a new account at the Globe's website. There I noticed the dropdown list of titles/honorifics you can choose to apply to your name. No big deal, lots of sites have such a list. Yes, they do. Nonetheless, this was their list:

Elizabeth is now, I believe, Countess of Seattle.

Yep, that's Arthur Darvill, Doctor Who's serially deceased "Rory Williams" as Mephistopheles. And may I say, Oh hell yeah.

The inevitable has arrived

Finally, Brad Pitt has officially become Robert Redford.

Elizabeth is so okay with that.

From the dept. of synchronicity: at 48 years old in 2011's Moneyball, Pitt is the same age Redford was in 1984's The Natural.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Better brains through TV and movies?

It's something I've pondered for a while now.

Being a polymath blogger scholar observer fanboy of vintage/classic movies and TV as well as the emerging new titles and media, for years I've found that it's an intriguing exercise in compare/contrast to watch, say, popular TV episodes from the 1950s-'70s (Tales of Tomorrow, Dragnet, The Untouchables, The Andy Griffith Show, The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, the original Star Trek, Mary Tyler Moore, etc.) alongside their modern descendents (The Sopranos, The Wire, CSI, Eureka, Lost, 30 Rock, etc.). Compare Perry Mason with Law & Order, or the original '70s version of Battlestar Galactica with the "re-imagining" from a few years ago, or (being an Anglophile) Doctor Who then vs. the current post-Davies, Steven Moffatt years.

It's not just that entertainment media today is more varied with exponentially more avenues for choice and access. Over the decades there has been, by and large, a strong curve upward in the overall quality and sophistication of the screenwriting, and with that a concurrent rise in what's expected from the viewers who engage with what's on the screen. It's my contention that we're living through a Renaissance in TV screenwriting right now, with HBO being the primary analogue to Da Vinci's studio. (The ubiquitous "reality" programming is not part of my thinking here. Or anywhere else for that matter.)

Until the 1980s-90s a TV storyline rarely spanned more than a single episode with, at best, simple "A" and "B" plotlines that lightly intersected after the last commercial break. Characters remained fundamentally unchanged and unexplored. Stories rarely exhibited depth greater than a No. 10 envelope. (Yes, there were and are exceptions. I'm spit-balling generally here.)

Gradually, though, all sorts of envelopes have been pushed outward until getting hooked on a show is more like getting pulled into a good novel rather than a stack of comic books. Layered subplots and character arcs that last for months or years are now the norm. Plot puzzles — plus their keys and hints and traps — are more complex and nuanced than ever before. Characters we love (or "love to hate") tend to be deeper and more faceted. Emotional, moral, and social content is more provocative, less hidebound and unadventurous, and thus more likely to challenge our thinking and beliefs, potentially stretching us in those directions as well.

We have more options to not simply watch passively our favorite TV shows (or movies too, although that's a somewhat different discussion) because enjoying a series is, as far as I can see, more proactive and involving than it ever used to be. As with playing computer games, we're plugged in to what we're watching almost as co-participants. There's more to do.

Screenwriting and screenwriters, not coincidentally, have likewise evolved with us to keep this feedback circuit alive, and so keep challenging us with long-form plotlines, more intricate puzzles, and characters who maintain three dimensions no matter which way they, or we, turn them.

Since entertainment media is like the Force, surrounding and penetrating us and binding the cultural galaxy together, for years I've wondered if it's changing us as much as we're changing it. I don't mean that we're just staring at screens more hours of the day (duh, hello). I mean, is all that upswinging stimulation from increasing narrative sophistication and complexity rewiring our gray matter similarly, and for the better?

Which leads to me to something I read today via Andrew Sullivan:

Jonah Lehrer mulls the Flynn Effect, or the "widespread increase in IQ scores over time." One theory:
It obviously has to be extremely widespread, since the IQ gains exist at the population level. One frequently cited factor is the increasing complexity of entertainment, which might enhance abstract problem solving skills. (As Flynn himself noted, "The very fact that children are better and better at IQ test problems logically entails that they have learned at least that kind of problem-solving skill better, and it must have been learned somewhere.") This suggests that, because people are now forced to make sense of Lost or the Harry Potter series or World of Warcraft, they're also better able to handle hard logic puzzles. (The effect is probably indirect, with the difficult forms of culture enhancing working memory and the allocation of attention.) As Steven Johnson argued, everything bad is good for us, especially when the bad stuff has lots of minor characters and subplots. HBO is a cognitive workout.
Just as casually lifting a five-pound weight with enough repetitions will over time improve muscle strength, or doing the New York Times crossword puzzle every day will hone memory and mental agility, I wonder if our evolving viewing habits and desire for increasingly engaging entertainment are making us smarter and more observant, in contradiction to what our moms told us about that crap rotting our brains. (Well, okay, there is still Jersey Shore.)

It's an interesting notion, albeit one I'm wary about drawing too much from. After all, as Lehrer says, the effect is likely indirect and in any case "it's wise to be modest about what we know about population changes in IQ over time."

Nonetheless, I wonder if in fifty years today's more "complex" and "sophisticated" entertainment will seem as thin and simplistic as the programming that went out over black-and-white screens and rabbit-ear antennas decades ago seems to us. If so, at least we have it on good authority that viewers in the future will have a sixth finger for the remote control.

Music: Paul Simon
Near at hand: Germaine Greer's Shakespeare's Wife

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Future (2011) — Miranda warning

With Miranda July's The Future now opening in theatrical release beyond the festival circuit, I'm moving my May write-up from the Seattle International Film Festival screening to here and now.

The press blurb that lured me in:
With droll humor and touches of magical realism, Miranda July (Me and You and Everyone We Know) tells the story of a young couple who decide to take thirty days to explore their destinies. This whimsical experiment leads to some surprising revelations about the uncertainty of what the future holds.
I like Miranda July. Rather, I like the concept of Miranda July: multimedia performance artist, musician, writer, actor, film director, and fellow erstwhile Portlander at the same time I lived there. I've enjoyed her short fiction. Her 2005 writing-directing-acting debut feature, Me and You and Everyone We Know, made a strong impression, so this, her sophomore film, has been on my anticipation list. Critics' ten-for-a-dollar descriptors such as "quirky" and "surreal," or even the grandiloquent yet leaky umbrella term "magic realism," typically don't put me off, and indeed can be suitable attractors for me.

Miranda July's The Future is indeed quirky, with segments of dour whimsy that employ the surreal to explore the dissolution of an L.A. couple's relationship through magic realism tropes — including voice-over narration that's ostensibly from a cat, a man's desire literally stopping and fragmenting time, and a full moon that gives indifferent relationship advice.

For my tastes it's also, like Me and You and Everyone We Know, a shade too "twee" and "precious" — other easy descriptors that, especially when coupled with "self-seriously," do tend to push me away. 

In any case (and despite its current standing as 2011's most defiantly unmemorable title), I went into The Future fully prepared to engage with it through every port. And so I did for roughly the first half.

After four years together and each in their mid-thirties, Sophie (July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater) are examining their rote, unfulfilled lives and forecasting a rote, unfulfilled future coming fast. For Jason, turning 40 is just five years away, and 40 is practically the same as 50, and after that, well.... "It's too late for us," he glums. Starting with the film's title, this theme of time getting away from us is central here.

They plan to adopt a damaged cat, Paw-Paw (whose cloying high-pitched narration comes voiced by July) from an animal shelter. But because Paw-Paw has been injured in the wild, the couple must wait 30 days until the cat's injuries heal at the shelter before cementing their relationship in its cat-owning phase. They imbue adopting the cat, like every other mundane shift in their flat-affect lives, with the life-quaking importance of childbirth or a death sentence. They characterize the waiting period as "our last month ever."

So with 30 days to get their capital-L Life shit together, they focus on "being alert" to everything around them, being open to opportunities to find themselves and actualize their true personas. (Or whatever the current phraseology is.) Jason literally pulls the plug on his job as a phone-in tech support drone, and Sophie quits her position teaching dance (rather, "dance") to five-year-olds.

There's the setup, the premise that hooked me enough with its humor and my willing questions about what colorful surprises July was going to unfold like origami out of these two drab, emotionally and vocally monotone, empty characters. (Later on, Sophie's flat affect remained so changeless and severe that, by the last half-hour, I wondered if she was meant to be brain-damaged. Honestly, I did.)

And for a while their thin story continued on satisfactorily: His determination to encounter new people and experiences quickly lands him in another drone job, this time selling young trees as a door-to-door environmental activist. (When Sophie notes, "You're not environmental," he replies that he appreciates the outdoors being out there somewhere.) On his route, he engages with an eccentric elderly man who seems to need Jason's attentions as much as Jason needs to feel engaged with a human being in the same room. Meanwhile, Sophie's frustration at her immediate failure to fulfill a simple goal — one new YouTube solo dance video for each of the thirty days — soon lands her into an affair with a drab stranger (David Warshofsky) in the suburbs.

At this pivot point, the film gradually started detaching itself from me like a damaged retina. Once Jason discovers the affair, July shifts to a darker tone and a Donnie Darko vibe. As time unlocks from a linear progression, July piles on the inexplicables. What is suggested when the moon (in the voice of the aforementioned eccentric elderly man) tells Jason that by laying his hand on guilt-ridden Sophie's head he has made 3:14 in the morning last for days? How much, if any, of Sophie's affair and submersion in suburban wifely humdrummery is real or some splintered-time dream-state? Why does the man's young daughter want to bury herself in the yard up to her neck? And then there's the yellow shirt that crawls by itself until Sophie uses it as a conceptual-dance body-condom.

Again, on paper none of those should push me away. Here, though, with Jason stopping and splitting time to prevent losing Sophie, with the moon giving him uncertain wisdom, and Paw-Paw interjecting in July's squeaky child-like voice with dislocated, seemingly tacked-on meditations on waiting and wildness and death and the afterlife (two finger-puppet cat paws are all we see, so it's not unequivocally clear exactly who or what that voice is supposed to be), what I wished to find intriguing soon became merely annoying, followed by similar annoyances, then still more stacked drearily further until ... as I checked my watch ... I disengaged wholly from the narrative, the characters, their relationship, and whatever meaning or import July was trying to impart through it all.

If there are, as the promo copy states, "surprising revelations" to be had in Miranda July's The Future — perhaps the shiver of an experienced truth expressed in a new way, or some unique turn of the prism through which I see life, relationships, or the reality-warping effects a dissolving relationship can have on the inner and outer lives of its participants — I missed them. Or else I saw them and yet still hoped to be surprised.

We've all experienced our own relationship crashes in our adult lives, and certainly I've been in Jason's position: that desire to just stop the crunch's forward motion, to make it all not be happening, to suspend reality long enough to fix the broken bits. "If only" spoken as an alchemical incantation rather than an impotent whimper. Likewise, I so, so get Sophie's frustration at her blocked creative self-expression. And yet rather than feel the shiver of penetrating identification with what was happening on the screen, I experienced no revelation more surprising than a desire to shift in my seat.

Movie-watching being, ideally, a two-way experience, I'll cop to some likely fault or missing component in my half of the equation. Rather than brushing it off as some error on July's part, I feel as though I came to this particular screening unequipped with whatever built-in code key I should have to decipher whatever she was trying so resolutely to communicate. After all, I appreciate movies that try to make me work for it, that ask me to be a co-player in the communication. In this conversation at least, July and I were speaking on the same frequency for about an hour before she started adjusting the dial in ways that didn't engage me enough to keep up.

As a filmmaker July displays a skilled, artful eye and a certain welcome economy in her craft. But narratively, The Future struck me as analogous to a university-press novella whose author was so determined to be "literary" with 21st-century mod magic-realism technique that she exchanged the Story for the Aesthetic, leaving both damaged and under-served.

For what it's worth, a fellow audience member behind me, as the lights came up at the end, sighed with the chill wind of discontent and said, "Good thing she added the cat."

The Future played at Sundance, and Sundance-buzz reviews such as here (, here (, and here ( liked the film more than I did, so their experience with it may align better with your own, should you choose.

Music: The Decemberists
Near at hand: Tin House 41

Early Alfred Hitchcock film discovered (mostly)

Who among us can visualize Alfred Hitchcock at the age of 24? I know, right? In our cultural memory he has always been and always will be a portly 50ish, as if that's how he sprang fully formed from Zeus' film canister.

That's how old he was when his first significant credit hit the screen in 1923. One of his two films from that year, The White Shadow, is thought to be the earliest surviving Hitchcock feature. The Alfred Hitchcock Wiki entry on it is brief:
Directed by Graham Cutts and produced by Michael Balcon, and based on the novel "Children of Chance" by Michael Morton. Alfred Hitchcock handled the writing, editing, and art direction, as well as being the assistant director.  The film starred Betty Compson, Clive Brook, Henry Victor, A.B. Imeson, Olaf Hytten, and Daisy Campbell.

This melodrama about a pair of twins — one snow white pure, the other "without a soul," both played by Betty Compson  — has been lost for nearly ninety years. The first three of its original six reels, or about 30 minutes of it, have just been found in New Zealand.

The L.A. Times is where I found the story, which has by now been picked up all over the web:
"White Shadow's" director, Graham Cutts, is described by Sterritt as a "hack" who didn't take too kindly to Hitchcock to the point that his "professional jealousy toward the gifted upstart made the job all the more challenging."

"White Shadow" was discovered in a collection of unidentified American nitrate prints that had been safeguarded at the New Zealand archive since 1989. That's when Tony Osborne, the grandson of New Zealand projectionist and collector Jack Murtagh, brought the highly unstable nitrate material to the archive. Because the archive only has the funding to restore its country's vintage films, experts couldn't spend much time with the American releases (though "White Shadow" was a British film it was released in the U.S. in 1924 by Lewis J. Selznick Enterprises).

There's plenty more at National Film Preservation Foundation, which spearheaded the research to identify early American films at the New Zealand Film Archive.
With mysterious disappearances, mistaken identity, steamy cabarets, romance, chance meetings, madness, and even the transmigration of souls, the wild plot crams a lot into six reels. Critics faulted the improbable story but praised the acting and 'cleverness of the production.'
Here's hoping the remaining three reels turn up before the Shawn Levy remake gets green-lighted.

Reports that The White Shadow was Hitch's first credit are not strictly accurate. Four films in 1922 credited him as "title designer," and earlier in 1923 he worked with director Cutts as assistant director and screenplay co-writer on Woman to Woman.

If you're in Beverly Hills Sept. 22, you can catch a restored print of The White Shadow at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Samuel Goldwyn Theater. The program also will feature two recently rediscovered short films, including one directed by and starring silent-era superstar Mabel Normand. 

The Master of Suspense's 112th birthday arrives next week, Aug. 13.

And now I bid you "Good evening."

Photo of Lee Harvey Oswald watching John Wayne eating lunch

The story at
At about this time John Wayne on a break from filming The Barbarian and Geisha landed there in a helicopter. He had lunch with the marine officers where the company billeted ie the bombed out ruin of a hospital and flew out, later that afternoon. Oswald enjoyed mess hall duties and cooking meals; it is very likely that Oswald helped to prepare their meal.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Pic pick: Dept. of Silly Walks (Silly Meme Division)

via Tumblr



via cicatrix on Flickr



via memebase

via Society6

The return of the West Seattle woodland Grouchos

Via matthetube's Flickr. Thanks, Matt.
Last year in a post titled "Where Are the West Seattle Grouchos?" I lamented the mysterious absence of an urban guerrilla art giggle-bombing that, from 2007-2009, had manifested annually in a stretch of woods alongside a major thoroughfare near my neighborhood. They were the West Seattle Grouchos, and they never failed to lift my spirits as I drove past. Yet last year these drive-by non sequiturs didn't reappear, so I missed the whimsy that seemed aimed at me, a dedicated Grouchophile, on my daily drive into downtown Seattle.

Did the herd of crouching Grouchos migrate to greener Freedonias? Had the unknown artiste(s) moved on to bigger things — perhaps San Francisco and giant Harpos on the Golden Gate Bridge? If so, I wished that I could thank him, her, or them, and perhaps buy a round of a local ale followed by a showing of, say, Duck Soup on the big screen at my house. But alas, they'd vanished like Zeppo at MGM and to all appearances the era of the West Seattle Grouchos was over. (The spot is geo-marked at Wikimapia and wiki.worldflicks.)

So I'm pleased to report that they're back again. And they've multiplied. They're in the same location as before, although given the long, wet spring and nominal summer we've had this year, the underbrush is even more jungle-like than before and the Grouchos aren't quite as easy to spot. So, armed with a camera, yesterday I pulled off to the shoulder of the road and snapped this new herd in the wild before they vanish again for who knows how long.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Valley of Gwangi (1969) — Cowboys and Allosaurs

I caught Cowboys & Aliens this past weekend. Evidently my expectations were properly modulated, as I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. It's a popcorn flick. It's got cowboys, it's got aliens, it's got 'splodey bits. No surprises there. Anything more is gravy, which for Elizabeth means Daniel Craig, who trades his steely-eyed 007 for steely-eyed Clint Eastwood quite agreeably. (And Harrison Ford looks far more at home and unembarrassed here than he did in his previous face-to-face with ETs. What was that film again? My memory has purged it....)

C&A had been on my list of movies to catch later at home casually on the couch via iTunes or Netflix streaming, but Elizabeth arranged a gathering of the tribe to meet at a local cinema and then enjoy each other's company afterward, and I have to say that I'm glad she did. It's not a bad way to see a movie like Cowboys & Aliens.

What surprised me about it was its evident affection for the Hollywood westerns of previous generations. The plot could not be more predictable and by-the-book (the slimy alien monsters could be any old rustlers and bandits and claim jumpers determined to stamp out runaway decency in the west) and no trope is left unturned. Okay, at the end, as our hero rides off into the sunset, the kid doesn't run after him shouting "Shane! Come back!", but it's there in spirit. Subtlety is utterly beside the point.

All the same, Cowboys & Aliens successfully walks the dusty line between winking self-mockery and respectful homage to the traditions of John Ford oaters and B westerns of yore. It's not the Coens' True Grit, with that film's arresting air of authenticity to its time and place. Rather, it begins and ends as a comfortable old shoe, and it reminded me of being a thrill-hungry 10-year-old catching another genre-mashing romp on Saturday afternoon TV: the Ray Harryhausen Wild West dinosaur spectacle, The Valley of Gwangi.

"Cowboys and dinosaurs" — seriously, that must be one of the all-time great Hollywood "high concept" pitches. The Valley of Gwangi does treat us to plenty of both. It has at least one sequence that belongs on any enthusiast's list of Best Dinosaur Scenes Ever.

However, this 1969 opus from co-producer and stop-motion master Harryhausen suffers from a familiar problem: as in his other Giant Creature features, from The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms to Mysterious Island, the special-effects work is better than the rest of the movie. And yet, when you're a certain age, that's plenty enough, thank you, because what better reason is there to be watching at all?

The concept sounds great on paper: Members of a struggling Wild West show traveling through Mexico find Forbidden Valley, a lost world containing pterodactyls, triceratops, and other holdovers from the era of dinosaurs. There they capture Gwangi — an allosaurus and thus the biggest apex predator south of the border — in hopes of making it their show's star attraction. The movie sticks to the by-now threadbare King Kong formula by making sure that the towering monster breaks its bonds and goes on a public rampage.

On the plus side, The Valley of Gwangi gives us some of the most memorable of Harryhausen  extravaganzas. The scene with four cowboys lassoing Gwangi is justifiably famous, and the beast's hemmed-in confrontation in the town square and inside the church is first-rate even by modern standards. Its battle with a circus elephant is one of numerous similarities to Harryhausen's 20 Million Miles to Earth. And it's all set to Jerome Moross's rousing score, which refurbished parts of his work for 1958's The Big Country.

The DVD adds a bonus extra, Return to the Valley. Shot in 2003, it features Harryhausen, still hale and hearty at 83, talking about the movie's conception and development. Joining him are several starstruck young SFX professionals from Industrial Light and Magic. Appropriately reverent, they discuss the inspiration that Harryhausen and Gwangi provided to their work on Jurassic Park 24 years later, and they remain awestruck as they examine how to show life-size cowboys convincingly roping a tabletop model allosaurus, a sequence that took Harryhausen five months to complete. (Return to the Valley is embedded at the bottom of this page.)

Harryhausen's dinosaur designs were based on the art of Charles R. Knight, a nostalgic data point for viewers whose childhood imaginings predate Jurassic Park. Another Harryhausen treat here is the toy-like Eohippus, a long-extinct horse the size of a house cat.

But to get to the dinos we must first suffer through a story that plods along and that's peopled by characters with all the spark and personality of sagebrush. Half the movie passes before Gwangi leaps into frame for his startling entrance. (Jurassic Park paid tribute to that moment with the T-Rex's entrance.) James Franciscus cuts a bland hero, and Gila Golan (Our Man Flint, Miss Israel 1961, indelicately overdubbed) as the cowgirl T.J. is the stiffest of love interests. Even Richard Carlson, who fought The Creature From the Black Lagoon, barely registers.

It says something about the production and about Harryhausen's artistry — his meticulous sense of detail, realism, and imbued personality — that Gwangi, a snarling dinosaur created from a two-foot model, is the most realistically alive character on the screen.

This production had been a pet project of the late Willis O'Brien, who had wanted to do it in 1942. By the time Harryhausen dusted off his mentor's notes, The Valley of Gwangi was a relic of an antiquated era. Even though it was aimed chiefly at kids (who must have sighed like bored accordions through all the mushy stuff), the movie bombed. Of course, it didn't help that Warner Bros. just tossed it like a used napkin into the theatrical marketplace, inexplicably double-billing it with a mod British-French bit of psychedelia, Marianne Faithfull's Girl on a Motorcycle, thereby missing Gwangi's target audience entirely.

Nonetheless, by '69 monster movies were old hat anyway, and the year of Midnight Cowboy, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Easy Rider was too late in the day for an old-fashioned pulp yarn where cowboys are named Rowdy, Champ, and Tuck. Let's hope that there's an alternate universe where Harryhausen teamed up with Robert Conrad and Ross Martin to make this the Wild Wild West movie that should have been.

Despite its shortcomings and because of that always-entertaining Harryhausen spectacle, decades of Saturday afternoon TV airings have secured The Valley of Gwangi in the hearts and memories of erstwhile ten-year-old boys everywhere. So I can't help but wonder if someone behind Cowboys & Aliens — Jon Favreau, Speilberg, Ron Howard? — experienced a happy flashback to The Valley of Gwangi when the C&A pitch landed in their laps.

Return to the Valley: A "making of" documantary

Music: The Beatles
Near at hand: Parts of a would-be play script stalled in the middle