When talking about films I saw as a pre-pubescent adolescent, I think one of the most important would have to be Ray Harryhausen’s Clash of the Titans (1981). Now technically, keeping inline with the logic of discussing film, I should have said Desmond Davis’s Clash of the Titans because he was the director, and ever since the 50s and 60s we have gotten in the habit of attributing films to an author, which usually results in naming a director (it can be a problematic habit that I posted about in some detail here ). But Clash of the Titans is not Desmond Davis’s film, it is Ray Harryhausen’s film, and it is sadly his very last film before he retired, effectively closing the chapter on a very rich and personalized contribution to cinematic special effects.
This film holds a special place in the pantheon of formative films for me, and it needs to be contextualized a bit with some details of my experience back in the early 80s with movies, theaters, and long and lazy Summers. This film was released on June 12, 1981, and I saw it soon after that and it was amazing for some very specific scenes that I will talk about shortly. But it wasn’t until the Summer of 1983 that I really was able to “see” this movie. You see, the theater up the block from my house, the Baldwin Century Theater, was one of a classic chain of single house theaters that represents for me everything that was amazing about movie going. It was a huge auditorium by contemporary standards, and by 1983 it was in serious financial difficulty given that movie theaters on Long Island had already begun literally splitting these single screen cathedrals in half to show two films simultaneously. The logic of the multiplex was beginning to supplant the single house theaters all over the country, signaling the end of a movie theater experience that had been around since the depression (the Baldwin Century Theater was built in 1933).
As a result of the larger trend towards cultural sterility and alienation, the Baldwin Century Theater’s economic struggles led the management to experiment a bit with imagining itself as a re-run theater. For the Summer of 1983 they got prints of pre-released films like Clash of the Titans and Star Wars (more on Star Wars in another formative 10 post) and showed them for the entire Summer for 75¢ a pop. That was an admission fee that even an eleven year old could easily afford, and it resulted in my sisters and I going to the theater regularly for almost two months. We must have seen Clash of the Titans and Star Wars twenty times that Summer, and watching the two films together like that was, in retrospect, an interesting juxtaposition of the future and the past of special effects in cinema. What’s more, by this stage of the theater’s rapid decline the management seemed to understand they were finished, so neighborhood kids who were just a little older than me, and that I knew, were effectively running the movie house. It was almost as if it were a fun place for kids to go and hang out, and while I never watched either of these films all the way through after the fourth or fifth time that Summer, there were scenes from each I never missed.
And that brings me to the actual film, which was by no means a great film if one were to examine it in terms of narrative or acting. And while there was no shortage of great actors in the film, including Laurence Olivier as Zues, Maggie Smith as Thetis, and Burgess Meredith as Ammon, the actual screenplay and narrative thrust were not remotely adequate to the British thespian firepower at hand. These actors were just names on a card that meant nothing to an 11 year old (and having seen the film lately the acting is by no means remarkable), what was memorable however was Ray Harryhausen’s fantastic creatures. The film brings to mind for me a phrase Tom Gunning used to define the very beginnings of film: “the Cinema of Attractions.” This concept refers to early years in cinematic history, roughly from 1894 to 1908, when film was in an almost constant state of transformation, and its logic wasn’t so strictly dominated by any one particular sense of narrative or formative style. To quote Gunning:
[Cinema prior to 1908] did not see its main task as the presentation of narratives. This does not mean that there were not early films that told stories, but that this task was secondary, at least until about 1904. That transformation that occurs in films around 1908 derives from reorienting film style to a clear focus on the task of storytelling and characterization.
Rather than using film for outright entertainment purpose, the “cinema of attractions” offers the viewer something different: “the chance to take a journey somewhere else-a place to which he will likely never physically travel…films sought to transport the viewer through space and time, rather than to simply tell a story,” as Lila E. Stevens points out in her discussion of documentary film here. And while Clash of the Titans is anything but a documentary film, and I am admittedly re-appropriating Gunning’s phrase to define the earliest moments of cinema for my own nostalgic purposes. That said, I do think that a number of the formative films in my life have consistently represented a series of scene-based attractions that overpower the the narrative to focus on a moment that captures the dynamic qualities of the medium as a space for wonder. And it’s for this reason that I claim privilege to extend the scope of such a term, or at the very least an excuse for commandeering it.
The narrative of Clash of the Titans seems to be the occasion for Ray Harryhausen to transport the viewer to a fantastical time and place with his animated creations that themselves mark a point in time that seems irretrievable beyond the celluloid it was captured on. And for me remains one of the most formative films in my early career as spectator for this very reason. I wasn’t at the time so concerned with the some structuralist approach to narrative and story, I was eleven and fascinated by the visual magic that was in motion on the large screen before me. Kinesis in the raw! How can I forget the animated vulture carrying Andromeda’s spirit to meet Calibos in the Swamp of Despair. Or Calibos himself (a Harryhausen original), whose mangled, hybrid form became the symbol for me of the Satyrs I would later read about in Greek Mythology, or the goat-footed balloon man whistling far and wee in e. e. cumming’s “In Just Spring.”
Calibos was a memorable villain, not because of anything he did or said, but because of how he looked and how he moved, how he was animated. Much the same can be said of Pegasus or the three-headed dog Cerebus or the growth hormone spawned Scorpions. But without question the greatest single scene in Clash of the Titans that may in and of itself be responsible for the impression this movie has had on me for all these years is when Perseus encounters and beheads Medusa. Now I fully understand that Harryhausen’s greatest single contribution to special effects in film comes almost twenty years earlier in Jason and the Argonauts (1963) with his animation of the fighting Skeletons scene (I’ve linked to this work of genius below). Acknowledging that, his animated gorgon will forever hold the honor of his greatest work for me. Not so much because I can’t objectively see that is far less complex and innovative than the fighting skeletons, but rather it was a ten minute scene that embodied the idea of movies as a series of attractions, each of which are often far greater and more powerful than a narrative whole.
Medusa Scene from Clash of the Titans
It is the narrative that we are ultimately trained to appreciate when we come to study in school, but the scenes of attraction are likes lines of visual poetry that contain those moments of pure and utter imaginative magic. It was the Medusa scene in Clash of the Titans that turned me on to Piers Anthony’s Xanth novels and got me playing Dungeons and Dragons. It was this scene that ultimately encouraged me to read Edith Hamilton’s classic work on Greek Mythology, and it was this scene that made me re-think the far more contemporary special effects I had been introduced to years before in Star Wars (the Sand People had a somewhat similar effect on me as Medusa had–which is interesting for me to consider). It was also this scene that made me think having a quiver of arrows strapped to your back was possibly the coolest thing in the entire world, not to mention having snakes for hair or being able to turn others to stone with a dirty look.
So, when I talk about Clash of the Titans it’s not so much about a movie as it is about a series of scenes that were meticulously handcrafted in their effect on my psyche. Medusa as a character may even be laughable to all those CGI babies out there, but it suggests one possible aesthetic of many, and a very individualized one with the distinctive marks of its creator. A form of craftsmanship in special effects (a world that has changed drastically) that we aren’t likely to see ever again. And while I may be wrong with this sentiment, the fact that Hollywood is re-making Clash of the Titan—which is slated for a 2010 release date—may allow me to think more closely about the transformation of special effects in cinema over the last thirty years, along with Harryhausen’s place in this history.
Interestingly enough, Harryhausen didn’t retire in 1981 because he was ready to stop animating, but because he was pushed out of the business. No one was interested in his work anymore given the rise of George Lucas’s visual effects house Industrial Light & Magic, the shop that revolutionized special effects in a little film you might have heard of called Star Wars (1977). Which, I imagine, has to be my next formative 10 post given how this one leaves off with a certain amount of unfinished business. But before I end it, here is the Skeleton Fight scene from Jason and the Argonauts, just in case you have haven’t seen it before. Just the way they come out of the ground is simply amazing. Though, you may want to get the DVD, or wait for it to come out in a single screen theater near you. Enjoy!