Archive for Beverley Cross

Culture Clash

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on December 6, 2019 by dcairns

Here’s Donald Benson on CLASH OF THE TITANS — just the kind of thing I like to see in a mini-blogathon!

I got to know Harryhausen films on television, not seeing one on the big screen until THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD, after which I saw several more at UCSC and at some revival houses. I also took to browsing sci-fi and film magazines at the campus library. This was just before STAR WARS ushered in a special effects revolution.

My second-hand amateur guesswork: By the time of CLASH OF THE TITANS, Ray Harryhausen films had become a little like Disney animation features. They were marvels of craftsmanship and artistry, still the gold standard for new generations of animators and effects wizards inspired by dueling skeletons. But somehow they were less relevant as movies. They were generally well-written and directed, and looked better than their modest budgets, But they were of a style that felt increasingly old hat no matter what new wonders Super Dynarama wrought, just as Disney’s 60s animations settled into a rut despite unmatched character animation. 

Part of this was dictated by necessity. Harryhausen and Schneer would get Columbia to put up some money and go make the movie. Everything on the live action shoot had to be precisely pre-planned because of the budget and the effect requirements; no room for auteur directors (I believe they were brought on when much had already been set in stone).

Harryhausen certainly had artistic ambitions. He wanted to do War of the Worlds and a Baron Munchausen feature; test footage for both projects can be seen in a DVD documentary. Would these have broken the mold, or turned out as solid but predictable additions to the Harryhausen canon? As it was, there evidently came a point where the only projects they could get financed were two more Sinbad adventures. They weren’t sequels and Harryhausen was still pushing forward — SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER has a prince turned into a baboon, and the animated baboon delivers a character performance — but the subject matter must have felt like a clear retreat.

By 1981 films like JAWS and STAR WARS revolutionized effects AND created the blockbuster mentality. Harryhausen’s hand-wrought magic may have paled slightly next to technological breakthroughs (the way older fantasies paled next to Harryhausen), but they were oddly buoyed by same eager suspension of disbelief that allowed the Muppets to star in movies. More problematic was the blockbuster mentality. Harryhausen and Schneer were comparatively minor players; their fantasies fell into a weird dead zone between gigantic studio epics and low-rent matinee fare. Ray Harryhausen decided to go big … and then go home.

COTT was billed as his farewell performance, which meant something because he was finally being recognized as the guy who made all those films kids grew up on. It revisits the Greek myths of his most highly regarded film, “Jason and the Argonauts”, and brings back the same scriptwriter, Beverley Cross (his wife Maggie Smith plays a ticked-off goddess). There are ambitious effect sequences and an interesting experiment: the beast-man Calibos is an actor in close shots, and an animated creature in longer shots; an effect managed with editing as I recall. More money was spent, there were big names in the cast, and Harryhausen had a little more help in his animation studio. 

My main memory is that the effects were nifty, and the usual Harryhausen vibe was there under the glitzier trimmings. What I wonder is, how much of their usual control did he and Schneer give up to make their exit with a would-be blockbuster? 

As late shows go, it can be counted as a happy ending. Harryhausen did better and more memorable films, but COTT was a showy final bow and presumably a nice bundle for retirement. And after a lifetime of painstaking stop-motion work he spent his remaining years as a beloved elder statesman to the now somewhat-glamorous special effects industry, taking bows and at some point doing a heroic sculpture of Dr. David Livingstone, an ancestor of his wife. Better than going out on the frankly minor Sinbads, and probably better than trying to compete with his own proteges and/or CGI.

Donald Benson

What sorcery is this?

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , on April 23, 2015 by dcairns

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A great good friend having sent me one of Twilight Time’s lush Blu-rays of SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER, we decided to watch it. This was the first Harryhausen film Fiona and I saw on the big screen, but we had already had our minds invaded by his imagery, via TV screenings of JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS and THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD. I hid behind the sofa from both Talos and the cyclops, while Fiona, made of sterner stuff, pressed her barely-formed eyeballs against the cathode ray tube in order to squeeze more detail out of those fascinating, fluttering harpies. Only decades later were we told that the models used were so tiny, they basically didn’t HAVE any more detail than you can see in long shot.

S&TEOTT being the penultimate Harryhausen, the inspiration is a little frayed in places. None of that bothered me as a kid — I didn’t find the giant walrus preposterous, for instance. For their sequels, Harryhausen and regular scenarist Beverley Cross basically re-used the story of their first SINBAD film, and did it a little less effectively each time. In all three films, someone close to Sinbad is bewitched and he must travel to a mythical land to cure the victim. In film 1, it’s Sinbad’s bride-to-be who’s miniaturized, rendering any future nuptials a grotesque rather than romantic prospect. There’s no improving on that, although maybe giving Sinbad a kid and having the kid bewitched would ramp the emotion even higher. Instead, a couple of faceless rulers we never even meet properly get the whammy put upon them, and we’re duly unengaged.

But as a kid I didn’t notice the writers’ repetitive strain injury, nor did I notice the crummy direction in the human-centric scenes. Sam Wanamaker was supposed to class up the acting, but he shoots inept coverage and can do nothing with the pasteboard characters. The editor gets bamboozled into frantic cross-cutting to try to escape each terrible shot as soon as possible, but he has nothing better to cut to. Editors — when stuck with two bad angles, pick one and linger, since you can’t motivate a cut to a new shot that doesn’t show the action any more clearly or attractively.

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Thankfully, the direction improves whenever a monster appears, since for reasons of economy such sequences have to be storyboarded in advance, so Haryhausen is directing those. Suddenly the angles are lucid and dramatic. A couple of years after I saw the movie, my Dad brought a copy of Harryhausen’s Film Fantasy Scrapbook home from the library, and I was able to read all about his film-making and his thinking. It was at that point that I realized that several of the set-piece scenes in S&TEOTT were conscious reworkings of successful bits in earlier Harryhausens. Notably the ghouls attack is a rip-off of the skeleton fight in JASON — Harryhausen thought it could be improved by setting it at night. In fact, the bug-eyed skeletoids are pretty spooky, and the scenes in the tent are excitingly colourful. When it devolves into muddy day-for-night outside though, it’s a disappointing drop in intensity.

Trog still fascinates. The most characterful of the creations (“They’re not monsters, they’re mythological creatures”), even with a silly horn on his head, Trog is charming and uncanny. The film lingers on his un-subtitled exchanges with the baboon prince (yes, there’s a baboon prince) for great stretches, autistically mesmerised by their monkey discourse.

As a kid, I *was* disappointed that Trog never fought the Minaton, Harryhausen’s brass automaton version of the minotaur. I suspect I may have already been exposed to Godzilla double features at the Odeon, Clerk Street, and could imagine nothing better than two humanoids battering hell out of each other, especially in Dynamation. Instead we had to settle for Trog’s battle with the rather fluffy sabre-tooth tiger (you may have noticed that none of these animals have a whit to do with the Arabian Nights) while the putative heroes of the film stand around scratching their underpaid arses.

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Children have terrible taste and great taste at the same time, so I admired Pat Wayne’s shirt. Otherwise, human interest was confined to the glimpses of Jane Seymour’s skin, and a chance to see Patrick Troughton, whom I knew had been Doctor Who, but before my time. He plays the stupidest wise man ever put on celluloid — watch how he interrogates his arch-enemy and contrives to tell HER everything she needs to know, while learning nothing and then allowing her to escape and almost getting himself killed. All of that would have been lovely if the film had established its genius “Melanthius the Greek” as doddering and senile, but the writers seem to want to accept his behaviour as merely unfortunate. Still, the giant hornet he creates successfully freaked Fiona out.

What’s this? I don’t know! Or maybe I DO know and I’m not ready to say? Maybe that’s it? Hmmm…