Sense of Wonder: Special effects titan Ray Harryhausen clashes with modern fantasy

Old legends never die; they just fade away…

Ray Harryhausen with the Medusa model from the 1981 CLASH OF THE TITANS
Ray Harryhausen with the Medusa model from the 1981 CLASH OF THE TITANS

Over at NJ.com, Stephen Whitty has an interview-profile of Ray Harryhausen, the legendary special effects maestro responsible for the original version of CLASH OF TITANS. The 90-year-old Harryhausen is a major influence on today’s fantasy filmmakers, but he seems indifferent to their efforts. His reaction to the remake (which he has not seen) is: “Not really my cup of tea.” He explains:

“When they said they were going to make a new ‘Clash of the Titans,’ I read they were going to make it in a ‘realistic’ way,” he says. “Well, how can you do that? Who in their right mind is going to believe a horse can fly? If you want realism, you should go look at reality. What we always gave the audience was fantasy.”

Whitty’s article provides a good synopsis of Harryhausens film career, which stretched from the 1940s to 1981’s CLASH OF THE TITANS, and it is nice to see that the remake has lead to the spotlight shining back on the man who gave so much to so many of us during the formative years of our childhood, when we could evade giant caterpillars on the moon, face off against six-armed statues in the Middle East, or face Hydras and Kracken’s in Ancient Greece.
However, it is just a little bit saddening to see Harryhausen so removed from the movie medium. I suppose he is simply sick of the Hollywood rat race and has no interest in even acting as a mentor to the filmmakers of today who grew up on his work. Instead, he prefers to spend his retirement working on special edition DVDs of his old movies or publishing glossy books about his work.
What really hurts, however, is seeing that his Sense of Wonder seems to blunted. Harryhausen was once an innovator: he  took a technique that dated back to the silent era, and he updated and modernized it, breathing life into inanimate objects that became incredible creatures on screen. Critical reaction to his work was often muted, praising the effects but dismissing the films overall as mere showcases for his talent, as if Harryhausen’s own special brand of movie magic was not justification in and of itself. (Why is writing a good line of dialogue considered more praise-worthy than bringing imagination to life?)
Today, however, Harryhausen sounds a little bit like his old critics, irritated by advances in film technology, indifferent to the wonderful achievements they have engendered, openly hostile to advances in story-telling. Just look at this:

What he thinks about current fantasy films, though — well, that’s not so delightful.
The pacing annoys him. (“Modern-day audiences seem to expect an explosion every five minutes.”) So do the plots. (“We went back to the old legends. They base their movies on comic books.”) And most of the major “breakthroughs” leave him unmoved.
“‘Avatar,’ I’m sure it’s impressive,” he says. “But it’s more or less ‘Flash Gordon,’ isn’t it? And 3-D — I suppose it’s more refined now, but we had that back in the ’50s.”

I have never been a fan of what I term the “Golden Age” approach to film criticism, in which a mythical Golden Age from the past (usually conforming to a viewer’s impressionable youth) is revered as the high-water mark in the history of cinema, followed by an inevitable decline. Motion pictures – like all the arts – live and breathe and grow. The classics of yesteryear retain their appeal, and we celebrate them for it, but we should not hold them up as the eternal yardstick by which all modern work seems lacking. ”
The lesson that Harryhausen never learned from the formative experience that inspired his career  – a childhood screening of KING KONG (1933) – was that, although a fantasy, the film was grounded in unpleasant reality (the Great Depression) that reverberated with audiences; also, it was filled with dark undercurrents that register more profoundly with adults than with children. Do I really need to point out that the plot is driven by a primitive, sub-human creature’s lust for a beautiful blond woman? And that the resulting sexual frustration leads to an orgy of destruction and loss of innocent life? As wonderful as Harryhausen’s films are, he never captured that kind of raw, primordial power, even when the scripts he worked from were based on Greek mythology, like CLASH OF THE TITANS.

Medusa rears her ugly head
Medusa rears her ugly head

Harryhausen was a master at providing child-like fantasy that appealed to young and old with an innocent sense of awe and wonder, but his technique was capable of achieving much more. In fact, perhaps the best single sequence he ever created is the Medusa set-piece from the ’81 CLASH OF THE TITANS, which plays like a mini-horror movie. I guess that scaring an audience – as opposed to amazing viewers – was not where his heart was at, but even fairy tales can be Grimm – and are the better for it.
I don’t know whether the new CLASH OF THE TITANS will match its predecessor or successfully capture an adult tone appropriate to the tragic nature of Greek mythology, but the remake deserves to be assessed on its own terms, and a “more realistic” approach to characters and storytelling (even in the context of a mythical fantasy) could yield interesting dividends. If you don’t at least believe in the possibility, then your Sense of Wonder is as dead as a victim who has stared into the Medusa’s eyes.

2 Replies to “Sense of Wonder: Special effects titan Ray Harryhausen clashes with modern fantasy”

  1. Sadly, although this is a stinging criticism of Harryhausen’s views on contemporary fantasy, and as a major fan of his work, I must agree. Perhaps it’s old age that contributes to his view, or the Golden Age prism of which you speak that is somehow viewed as the apex of fantastic filmmaking. I think industry talents like Rick Baker have the best view in that while they have their preferences for special effects forms they also realize they must stay current and adapt with a changing medium, and audience tastes. If we don’t we all end up as fossils in the Valley of the Gwangi.
    And as to the Great Animator missing key elements of King Kong, such as the inherent racism and violence, as I’ve commented previously here and on my blog, fantasy films often get a pass on such things where other genres do not. I’m not surprised he and many others miss these important considerations. Thanks for amking us aware of the article, and for sharing these good thoughts.

  2. You know, it hurts to say anything bad about Harryhausen. I’m in the middle of watching the 1981 CLASH OF THE TITANS again for the umpteenth time, and it reminds me what a huge contribution he made to my formative years. I just never want to fall into the trap of dismissing current work by saying “They don’t make ’em like they used to.”

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