Friday, July 22, 2011

Big Clouds, Big Scorpions, Doing Stuff

When the Sun sets below the horizon, big clouds and high clouds can sometimes remain in direct light for quite a while after the ground-level landscape goes into shadow. When clouds are big and high, the effect can be extraordinary.

I saw this today to the southeast after sundown.

I didn’t think I had time to fiddle with setting my camera manually, so I just let its automatic sensors do their best. It was a pretty extreme lighting situation and I think the camera did reasonably well.

In this shot, the whole top ridge of the cloud formation is illuminated.

I moved south a little, to get past the power lines and grabbed another shot with more of the foreground. Already the illumination has risen to include just the top of the clouds.

I walked about half a block east and zoomed in a little to frame just the bright clouds and some dark, low clouds. The illumination is at just the tip of the massive cloud bank.

I should have taken one more picture, with the giant clouds completely in shadow, but I didn’t think to do that.

When I was taking the pictures I wasn’t thinking about the sequence of the illumination moving, I was thinking of the great contrast between the illuminated area and everything else. Once the shadow spread over the entire cloud that contrast was lost and I put away my camera.

I wish I had taken one more picture, with the whole cloud in shadow. It would have been a cool sequence. A real photographer would have gotten that final picture.

It really bugs me that I didn’t take a final picture with everything in shadow. It really bugs me that I let my thinking in the moment—my thinking about the great contrast—distract me from the larger, more interesting reality of the sequence of illumination moving up the cloud.

A real photographer would have grabbed more photos regardless of his thinking “in the moment” because a real photographer would have taken for granted that there’s always more going on than you’re thinking about at any given moment.

This really bugs me. But it nicely sets up what I wanted to talk about today.

Even before I saw those clouds, I’d planned on today’s post being about the value of doing stuff even if you’re doing stuff that isn’t done perfectly.

This is a topic close to my heart.

I like writing, and I think I’m reasonably good at it. However, I also like making music and drawing and photography and amateur astronomy and doing little movies and even a couple of other things that don’t make it onto this blog. Since I know I’m not particularly good at any of this other stuff, I spend a lot of time wondering if there is any value—in the larger sense that word—in my doing any of this other stuff, beyond the personal satisfaction, I mean.

And I think there is.

Here is one of the ways I think about this.

Back around 1957, an old-time Hollywood producer—a guy named Jack Deitz—financed a low-budget monster movie called, “The Black Scorpion.” Deitz wasn’t looking to make art or fulfill any personal ambition to make a fine monster movie. He was just trying to crank out the most low-cost product he could manage to crank out to cash in on the popularity of “giant bug” movies back then.

Being a cagey, resourceful Hollywood type, Deitz hired a bunch of fringe people who couldn’t really find work at the big studios, but who could be counted on to deliver acceptable product. His leading man was a little too old to be a leading man, but experienced. His leading lady was attractive but not necessarily a great actress. The script was almost laughable. His main special effects technician—Willis O'Brien—was a famous guy, an extraordinary talent who had created “King Kong” decades earlier. But Willis O’Brien, in 1957, couldn’t get much work because studios didn’t want to pay for his proposed projects. So O’Brien was forced to take low-paying jobs where he couldn’t really create special effects the way he wanted to. And, since he was getting on in years, he hired an assistant who did almost all the work, a young man named Pete Peterson. Peterson had some health issues which made it hard for him to work fast enough to suit the big studios, but he was conscientious and skilled and, like O’Brien, willing to take what he could get, willing to do low-budget work.

It’s tempting to think the result of this penny-pinching and compromise would be a disaster. But that would be a mistake. The movie “The Black Scorpion” is actually a lot of fun to watch.

Almost every particular aspect of the movie is awful, but the end result—somehow—is kind of fun.

I saw it as a kid and even as a kid I realized that the special effects weren’t very special. And I realized the movie had a “thrown together” kind of look to it. But the filmmakers had put together a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. They had crafted one or two reasonably well-made scenes that were exciting. And the whole thing just worked at some weird, low-budget level. It scared me and entertained me and I had a lot of fun watching it.

It’s still fun to watch even if “professional” types are very critical of it. Here is how Tony Dalton and Ray Harryhausen—a close friend of Willis O’Brien (referred to as “Obie”) write about “The Black Scorpion” in their book “A Century of Stop Motion Animation:”

Viewed today, “The Black Scorpion” is most definitely not a classic of model animation; in fact it would be fair to say that it is positively sad. Coming five years after Ray’s innovative “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms,” which also had a miniscule budget, the film is made up of stock footage, bad acting and sub-standard effects. It has all the marks of an attempt to cash in on a cycle that by then had almost run its course. It is also apparent that Obie found it difficult to come to terms with using cheaper effects to achieve spectacle. His 3-D sandwich method of animation had been tried and tested over many years but the problem was that nobody could afford it any longer. Certainly not the sort of producers who made films like “The Black Scorpion.”

They’re certainly right, it’s not a “classic of model animation.” But, in its own way, it is a classic. Many low-budget films like “The Giant Gila Monster” or “The Killer Shrews” are as fun to watch today as they were when they were made. These films were not made to be “social documents” or “statements” of any kind. There were simply created to be stories with a beginning, a middle and an end and they were created to be as entertaining, maybe even thrilling, as their filmmakers could manage with whatever meager resources they had available.

These filmmakers certainly knew they weren’t doing anything “good” by traditional Hollywood metrics. But they went ahead and made their films anyway.

And these films—awful by any metric imaginable—have entertained generation after generation of monster-movie fans.

These people tried. They did the best they could do. And though they themselves were almost certainly unhappy with the results, what they created was wonderful.

I love this stuff.

This stuff isn’t “serious.” And, at the same time, this stuff isn’t “parody.” These people knew they didn’t have the resources to do perfect work. But they didn’t set out to poke fun at or trivialize what they were doing. They just did the best they could do with the resources at hand.

I love this stuff.

Regardless of its flaws, I’d rather watch “The Black Scorpion” than just about any big budget Hollywood production that’s come out recently.

It’s something about fun.

It’s something about a creation that was made because a person wanted to make it, rather than a creation that was made because it was a person’s job to make it.

I’m going to end today’s post with a few stills from “The Black Scorpion.” These aren’t the monsters. This is one of the “love scenes” in the movie. It’s awful, but it’s wonderful at the same time.

Here’s the backstory. Giant scorpions are killing people. The hero, a geologist, is about to get lowered down (“I love it when they go down into things”) by a crane into a vast cave where the monsters might be hiding. So he’s in a silly cave costume and “the girl” is all nervous about him going down into the cave. She tells him not to go, to leave it to the police or the army.

He says, “Listen, Doc and I know more about caves than anybody else here.”

She grabs him and gives him a kiss on the cheek.

He grabs her and plants one right on her lips.

She says, “Why did you do that?”

He says, “Maybe I just wanted to see what you would do.”

She says, “What did I do?”

He says, “You did alright.”

It’s awful, not matter how you look at it.

But it’s wonderful, too. At the same time!

I love this stuff.

It’s good to do stuff. I don’t understand exactly why. But if you want to do something and you are serious about doing it, there is something wonderful there. I don’t understand it. Even if something is awful. It’s wonderful, too.

It’s good to do stuff.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Sex With A Monster: The Musical

Harps And Flutes, Swans And Monsters

Moths, Scorpions And Unreal Women

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