Formative 10: Clash of the Titans & the Cinema of Attractions

Movie post of Clash of the TitansWhen 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).

Watercolor of an old school theaterAs 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.

Laurence Olivier as Zues in Clash of the TitansAnd 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.

Image of Calibos

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.

Image of the Scorpions from Clash of the Titans

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. Image of Medusa from Clash of the TitansBut 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!

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11 Responses to Formative 10: Clash of the Titans & the Cinema of Attractions

  1. Brad says:

    Jim, these Formative 10 posts are epic. They remind me of fireside chats, not in the FDR way but the Family at Home on Winter Break way. The only time I have seen Clash of the Titans was in Astronomy class in 12th grade, on reclined leather seats in a planetarium. I thought it was laughable, & I may have fallen asleep, but I did not think it was bad persay. I think, for me, this movie defines “outdated.” But that’s why these lists are so amazing, because they allow us to look back & evaluate our own tastes in wonderful hindsight! (This isn’t to say you think it’s bad now, I don’t mean it like that. What I mean is that one of the most fun & rewarding activities to do is to return to old favorites, whether it be film, literature, whatever!).
    I had not seen that Jason & the Argonauts scene, but it reminded me of Army of Darkness, which is definitely one of the best movies I’ve only seen once. Here is what it reminds me of exactly, to be a bit more precise:

    I have things to say about Star Wars! I’m excited!

  2. Reverend says:

    Brad,

    Funny you should comment here because I was just reading and thinking about your religion in films post which is itself epic. This is pretty fun, no?

    I couldn’t agree with you more, I can’t talk about Clash of the Titans in terms of it being a good or bad film, it transcends that for me, and while I watched it two nights ago, and felt the hands of time on it, the animation and its very movement is so wrapped up for me with another time and place. A place of my adolescence that captures a sense of wonder with this stuff that is still with me, but hard to recapture through those uncorrected eleven year old eyes.

    Film for me is all about memories, it is what makes it the ultimate form in my mind. And while I spend more time than any rationale human being should on the internet, it is still a far third to movies and books. But movies are the pinnacle for me, because the are more than ideas and opinions, they are how I track time. Others use music or pictures or text, I use the magical conflation of all these in God’s highest artform 🙂

    More seriously, movies of my youth are what I feel most passionate about when it comes to this blog. I really don’t consider this an edtech blog, it is a b-movie blog that has been hijacked by my work in edtech, and the formative 10 is the very thing I always thought this space would be all about. For me, doing this kind of thinking and watching in this blog is like I finally took the advice Sherwood Anderson gave a young William Faulkner:

    “You have to have somewhere to start from: then you begin to learn,” he told me. “It dont matter where it was, just so you remember it and ain’t ashamed of it. Because one place to start from is just as important as any other. You’re a country boy; all you know is that little patch up there in Mississippi where you started from.

    I make no pretenses to be William Faulkner, and I can rest assured that my blog makes that painfully evident, but I found this as a space to start from. As a way to write things that I find important with no real ambition beyond the writing and sharing of it. It is a really cool thing to spend hours of my day thinking seriously about moments in my lie that I want to remember, and hold on to and talk about. When I was an undergrad and graduate school student I always felt I needed to do something grand and magical like write something as great as Faulkner (who is America’s greatest master of the written word) or re-invent criticism. But I’m not a writer, but its the form I have been trained to think in, and while I can’t write, I can think through my own little patch up there in Long island where I started. It is fun to do it, and I find it great therapy for my own sense of what this whole thing is about. And it ain’t about being good or bad, or right or wrong, it’s about laying down tracks to a train that you hope will take someone somewhere sometime. Even if no one rides trains anymore.

    And that story/novel/epic/masterpiece of fact is transporting me, Brad, to some really wild and thought provoking places. You are just laying it down, and it shows, and its good, and it means. So thanks for that, and thanks for the comment, and thanks for being a film nut.

  3. Matt says:

    My god — this post has it all! Gorgons, gods, d&d, and Piers Anthony!

    I watched Clash of the Titans so many times myself, but it was always on TV — never in a theater. I loved reading your recollections of those early viewing experiences in the Baldwin theater — just great.

    I came to the film, by the way, through D’aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths, which was one of my favorite books as a kid — I spent hours and hours looking at those illustrations. . .

    Anyway, thanks for the post. “Kinesis in the raw!” is an epic line.

  4. Andy says:

    @Matt

    Ha! That was the exact opening line I was going to put in my comment.

    I saw Clash in an old style single screen theatre when I was nine years old. I have seen it several times on TV since. The tidal wave scene at the beginning used to crop up in my dreams quite a lot, darn that pesky Kraken.

    And by the way, Jim, keep on plugging D&D, that game was solely responsible for getting me to read and develop in the face of school being boring and oppressive.

    It’s funny that you talk about the early Cinema of Attractions for two reasons. Firstly, I was just this week talking to an old friend about watching those old shorts during phototography A-level and a bit in my Drama degree too. Although the films that blew me away at that time were the longer features that followed – Battleship Potempkin (Eisenstien) and Man With A Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov).

    The second reason is that I just found and watched, for the first time, a DVD of the movie that took the American industry firmly OUT OF the ‘Cinema of Attractions’ – Birth of a Nation. And boy what a shocker it is.

  5. Andy says:

    Hmmn, I should add something solid to this.

    I would say that there is a clear distinction between the cinema of attractions at the dawn of cinema and the ‘event movie’ that became the main stuido pic model by the turn of the 80’s.

    In the cinema of attraction, I belive it wasn’t really the contents but the fact of watching ‘moving pictures’ that was an attraction in the same way as watching an escape artist or magician was.

    The event movie … starting with Star Wars and Jaws, and perfected by Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, is where the movie is based around an event/attraction within the film – like certain special effects or the performance of a single star who does their unique ‘act’ … then what made this unlike similar examples you could undoubtably find in earlier movies, was the total submission of all other elements in the film to this principle.

    So the event movie starts with the event or attraction then builds the narrative, characters or other pesky stuff around it and indeed leaves it largely undeveloped.

    I get into huge fights with other ‘open thinkers’ over Star Wars. I loved it as a kid and it represents a landmark in movie trends and history. But as for the story and worldview – it’s trashy. Lord of the Rings is the other one with it’s offensive ideology and the open fact that Tolkein set out to vreate a creative and subtle way to transmit his colonial era worldview to the countries youth.

    It fine to like these movies as stories etc – but its not fine to fetishize them or worship them.

    An example of a vacuous event movie that I personally like to watch is Beverly Hills Cop.

  6. Reverend says:

    @Matt,

    I knew you would share the love of Clash of the Titans with me. We have talked about this one a few times, and I am going to have to check out D’aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths, for it looks amazing. Perhaps one day we can catch Clash of the Titans at the BAM together, for I saw it there, along with Jason and the Argonauts in 2003 or 2004 and it was awesome!

    @Andy,

    Couldn’t agree with you more about D&D, and your comment here is inspiring yet another post about my experiences with the Monster Manual, a work of art in every sense of that word.

    As to your distinctions between the event movie and the Cinema of Attractions, you are absolutely right, and it was sloppy of me to conflate the two. But I will offer up a meager defense of my pillaging of the term. Harryhausen’s animations seem to be a unique and somehow outside of film’s chronology even in 1963 with his work in Jason in the Argonauts, no less in 1981 with Clash of the Titans. In the wake of Star Wars (which you do a great job of problematizing and will return to in yet another post -damn your giving me work 🙂 ), Clash of the Titans seems to bring you back to the origins of film history. Of the crat of creation, rather than the spectacle of magic. Clash of th Titans looks like it could have been made in 1906. So, given the fact that this is really the last episode in a moment of special effects of this kind, I liken it to a transitional moment in cinema that hearkens back to the beginning, for Clash of the Titans seems somehow more akin to Méliès A Trip to the Moon from 1903 than just about anything we can find in the 70s and 80s, as well as beyond.

    This is gross overstatement and historical conflation, yet I think it is sound and beautiful in its erroneous reasoning 🙂 That said, I also know your definition is right, but calling Clash of the Titans an event film somehow cheapens it for me, and I prefer the reactionary route of colonizing my visions of nostalgia for the youth of tomorrow along a manipulated logic of history, a la Tolkein and Jackson 🙂

  7. Andy says:

    Hey Jim

    I’m not sure that Clash is a pure event film, you’re right, and I certainly don’t put it together with Jaws and what have you. I watched the medusa segment just now and agree that, due to Harryhausen’s work, it seems to be from another era. Also, the shot selection, angles, composition and editing are top rate in that sequence.

    I also don’t feel comfortable thinking of his work as good but outdated so to speak – compared to other films around 1981. It brings me around to the John Carpenter movies we talked about. Not only do they still hold up when I watch them now, but I find them more engaging than most CGI. Not only for the superior narrative and imagery but the effects themselves. Visually, Escape from New York has a much more compelling and meanigful visual future than The Phantom Menace, for example.

    So I guess I agree with you that his work stands up by itself as art. I’m a big fan, myself.

    And while we sneaked back to post-apoc. future movies, may I name drop The Ultimate Warrior, starring Yul Brynner?

    Also, I’m not completely writing off Star Wars or LotR, but it’s definitely important to be aware of all the text’s sides. I think that we draw lines in this area depending on our own principles too. I would never big-up Gone with the Wind as I find its whitewashing of history too offensive, the book especially. LotR is 50-50 for me, although the Jackson films unintentionally brought it out in part two. When a group of us were watching the Battle of Helms Deep play out on screen, even a not particularly critical friend of mine dropped his jaw and blurted “It’s the battle of Rourke’s Drift”.

    I don’t want to lay down any unrealistic black and white classifications for all these movies and I think I’m going to run with your style on this one 🙂

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