Archive for Clash of the Titans

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

The Sunday Intertitle: Death Match 1,000,000 BC

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , on May 12, 2019 by dcairns

Hilariously delicate design for this intertitle from the Super-8 release of DINOSAURUS, a title I always pronounce to rhyme with “rhinoceros.” Try it, it’ll make you smile!

Why do I own a video copy of the Super-8 version of DINOSAURUS (remember, emphasis on the NOS)? Or any version at all? I don’t know. Why does a T-Rex have such tiny arms?

I have mixed feelings about this movie’s mixed-up special effects. It alternates between stop-motion animation and puppetry. This makes a kind of sense, arguably, with the two techniques being used whenever one or the other is easier or cheaper or more effective. You can rig a glove puppet or rod puppet to drool, for instance, whereas animating the lizard spittle would be a long and thankless task (well, *I’d* thank you, but you probably didn’t get into this business for my gratitude alone). Even the great Ray Harryhausen did a version of this alternation, in CLASH OF THE TITANS, where the character of Calibos is played by Neil McCarthy in close-up, because actors are better at face acting, and by an animated figurine in wide shot, because those guys are way better at having goat legs. (Goat legs and Frank Tuttle are the unconscious theme of the blog this week –see how many occurrences YOU can spot).

CLASH OF THE TITANS is very much like THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE, only with hircine extremities.

But switching FX techniques in mid-roar can be distracting. If the object of the exercise is to fool us (“Trick photography” was my parent’s set answer for any whiny Land of the Giants-inspired “How did they do that?” inquisitions) then we’re not fooled anyway. If the object is to be artistic, animation is the way to go. Puppetry, of course, can be a wonderful art, but I can’t think of many monsters done that way who didn’t feel tacky compared to the magestic creatures (not monsters, mustn’t call them that) of Ray H.

The Monday Intertitle: The Greeks Have an Intertitle for It

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , on January 6, 2014 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2014-01-01-20h23m30s210

HELENA is a silent German two-part epic based on Greek mythology, directed by Manfred Noa and released, unfortunately, the same year as Lang’s DIE NIBELUNGEN. The public stayed away in droves every bit as big as those the filmmaker mustered to represent the fall of Troy. It’s as if a critic wrote, “If you only see one two-part mythological epic this year, make it Lang’s DIE NIBELUNGEN,” and the public decided to take that as an instruction.

A shame, for though Lang’s film deserves its place in history (or another, better place in history — not as a Nazi favourite but as a prophecy of the destruction wrought by war and hatred), Noa’s film is visually splendid and dramatically quite pleasing, though I would slightly fault his taste in casting the authoritative but not particularly ravishing Edy Darclea as Helen of Troy. But what are you gonna do? One man’s face that launched a thousand ships is another man’s limpet-studded wharf. Not that Edy D is a limpet-studded wharf. She’s fine, she’s just not sensational. She’s no Edie Sedgwick.

vlcsnap-2014-01-02-18h35m18s211

Through a glass Darclea.

Unlike in that Wolfgang Petersen foolishness, the Germans aren’t afraid to bring the gods of Olympus onscreen, which is just as well, for they have a crucial role to play in Homer’s scenario. But we’re not treated to Olivier and Andress and Maggie Smith or their Teuton equivalents wafting about amid dry ice and columns, which might get kitsch. The divine figures appear only in visions witnessed by the mortals, which allows for plenty of stylisation and guards against FANTASIA syndrome. It’s a brilliant solution, and one that should be revived the very next time somebody does something mythic with gods in.

vlcsnap-2014-01-04-02h24m42s55

 Filmed in the splendour of dactylic hexameter!

The only star name I recognize is Albert Basserman, who turned up in THE RED SHOES decades later. Maybe it’s the lack of star power that scuppered Noa’s bold enterprise. The film was rediscovered after many years considered lost, and deserves to be properly available. Check out Kristin Thompson’s ten best of 1923 (it’s my annual favourite blog event) and note just how few truly major silent dramas are available to buy in decent condition.

What else do we need? Oh yes, the promised intertitle, bilingual and wreathed in laurel leaves. Enjoy!

vlcsnap-2014-01-04-02h23m22s25STOP PRESS: Fiona: “What does that mean? You don’t tell us.”

Me: “I don’t know.”

Fiona: “Then you shouldn’t have posted it.”

STOP STOP PRESS: according to Google Translate the French means “You have the power to ward off the dark future. Tell me if I must leave for Cythera.” But it says the German means “Yours is the power to summon the dark future. Customer to me whether I should follow the call to Cythera.”