Naturally, since Clash of the Titans (1981) was a Ray Harryhausen film, I went to see it first at a drive-in, the Island in Alameda, with some humorous friends and some even funnier cigarettes. Typically poor visuals, but how can I complain? I was the one who insisted we go to a drive-in.
A couple of decades later, when Harryhausen came to the Smith Rafael Film Center, I got a better look at his intentions when he screened the original Clash's best sequence: his tribute to Ernest Haller's chiaroscuro in Mildred Pierce during the Medusa-slaying scene. In his last film, the legendary Dynamationist wanted to make the lair of Medusa look like Mildred Pierce's home, with its inky shadows and moonlight-pale highlights. (Can't watch that film now without thinking that Joan Crawford would have been so much more effective with a wig of live snakes.)
I'd missed the import of the film's full visuals, but did it work, even in bad projection on the unwashed, smog-pitted screen of a moribund drive-in? Of course it did. Remember how Motown used to have a crappy record player in the office—how they'd test the 45s on it to make sure the songs would sound right on the cheap, one-speaker car stereos of the day?
We were fully enthralled. There'd been guffaws at the unfortunate clockwork owl Bubo, and Ursula Andress, as always, begged for a touch of the animator's hand. Then came the scene of Perseus (Harry Hamlin) and his men dry-gulching Medusa, and the guffawing stopped. Director Desmond Davis had Perseus and his soldiers sneaking up on the monster in a demonstration of silent, efficient squad leading.
The lair was a cross between a ruined Greek temple and a forlorn Arkansas reptile zoo. Dank, loudly dripping water and reptilian slithering make up the sounds; Laurence Rosenthal waits to turn up the trans-Danubian spine-tingle music until Medusa slithers in stage left. She's as big as an anaconda and has a rattlesnake's tail. She carries a bow and arrow, and she's a crack shot with it.
Twenty-nine years have been kind to most of this film, Harryhausen's farewell to stop-motion animation. As an animator once told me, there's no button on the keyboard that says, "Good Taste." Harryhausen's era consisted of not just a sense of respect for cinematic traditions and fine art, but the kind of filmmaking that gets denounced as cultural relativity.
An introduction for millions of kids to the idea that the world had non-Christians in it, the Harryhausen/Charles Schneer Sinbad movies are unambiguously Muslim. ("Trust in Allah, but tie your camel.") Harryhausen was even culturally sensitive enough to note that a believer like Sinbad probably ought not to have had a female figurehead on his ship. Of course, in the last major film go-round, in '03, animators made Sinbad an ancient Greek from Syracuse.
How will the producers finesse the round, strong paganism of Clash of the Titans in this era of religious jitteriness? It's being screened too late to review. The spotty track record of director Louis Leterrier (Transporter 2 and The Incredible Hulk) suggests that Clash of the Titans will likely do nothing to disturb the retirement of the still-living Harryhausen.
He's still in fine possession of his marbles and dismissive, as he gets to be, of 3D animation as a breakthrough. "We had 3D in my day, too," he told my former colleague Stephen Whitty. Better than that, in his day they had Ray Harryhausen.
'Clash of the Titans' opens Friday, April 2, everywhere.
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