20 May 2013

PERSONAL CANON: MONSTERS AND GODS

Of the 16 films made between 1949 and 1981 that featured visual effects by the great artist Ray Harryhausen, you could mount a serious argument that not one of them is very good. I would not personally agree with you (at a stone-cold minimum, Mighty Joe Young and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms are both quite effective in ways that completely transcend "good for a B-movie" limitations), but an honest blogger must admit that there many problems that keep cropping up in the various films he worked on: tepid heroes played blandly by empty prettyboys, unyieldingly episodic plot structure, a visible cheapness in all ways that aren't directly related to Harryhausen's personal skill, a distinctly juvenile emotional register. This must be conceded for the simple fact that it's all true: these were programmers, after all, movies whose chief motivation was to keep kids happy for a Saturday afternoon, and plainly not built to be durable.

All that being said, you can't be much of a fan of classic B-movies and not kind of love at least some of his films; they are simple, they are "cheesy" (a word that I hate even when it's being used accurately, but it puts the idea across), and they are not artistically rigorous to speak of, but the best ones - and maybe I'm speaking about B-movies as a whole and not just the Harryhausen ones - have energy, a kind of crackling urgency that you simply do not find in more legitimate forms of cinema all that often. A good '50s or '60s B-movie (a good one, I repeat) is bursting with the need to tell its story in a way that feels much cleaner and purer than other things might; they're the closest feature-length cinema comes to the narrative impetus of fables, or the One Thousand and One Nights. Or even the epics of Homer, which are not, despite their literary importance, sober-minded tales of personalities and human behavior (though they include that), but ripping yarns: "And then Odysseus beat the Cyclops! And then his sailors were turned into pigs! And then..."

So anyway, B-movies. They are unsophisticated as all heck, but we're biologically identical to naked apes scavenging for fruit in the African plains, and some unsophistication can be good for you in the right form. Which brings me back to Ray Harryhausen, because his best films were exactly that, rock-solid, deeply appealing and intelligently-presented unsophisticated bedtime stories. And while it's appropriate to say that the visual effects designer of a movie shouldn't have that kind of importance in our judgment of a movie, the fact is that by the 1960s, these really were his pictures: 1963's Jason and the Argonauts (did I mention that this is a review of Jason and the Argonauts? It will be, eventually) was the first time he took a credit for associate producing a movie, something he'd get on nearly all of his subsequent projects, most of which were based on mythology. And this we can readily credit to Harryhausen, because it is known to be true: the reason the latter part of his career was so overwhelming dominated by Ancient Greece and Sinbad the Sailor was because he was deeply in love with those things, and wanted to give them cinematic life in a way that would make everybody else love them as well.

Back to my opening claim, then: most of Ray Harryhausen's films aren't "good", by any objective rules we might have - lucky, then, that the analysis of art is subjective - and even if we were to throw out the question of absolute quality, Jason and the Argonauts still isn't nearly his "best" film - there's more emotional depth in Mighty Joe Young, a far more coherent narrative in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, stronger characters and more sustained world-building in Mysterious Island, Raquel Welch's awe-inspiring cleavage in One Million Years B.C. But Jason and the Argonauts is my favorite, no contest, don't need to think about it. It's not because it was my very first Harryhausen film (7th Voyage), nor did I first see it at a deeply impressionable age (16, which is pushing it on the old side of things). It's because it's this film of all of them that gets it - gets the deep, lingering awe that continues to make reading ancient mythology such a compulsively easy thing to do millennia after the cultures that produced those myths have ceased to exist. It's a complete mess, even a disaster in some totally unforgivable ways, but I cannot name another adventure movie in the whole long annals of escapist cinema that works so nearly in the same register as those short, punchy fantasies in heavily bowdlerised anthologies that are how most of us, I suspect, first encountered Greco-Roman mythology. It only shows the broad strokes and invites us to fill in the rest with our imagination, or not; perhaps we're only there for the hair-raising accounts of monsters and the dark, unknown places in the world, places that were so much more alive in the ancient centuries that originated those stories than they can be now. Much is made in Jason and the Argonauts of "the far side of the world", with the kicker near the end that the people found over on the far side speak in just the same dazzled phrases of the "real" world back in Greece. Jason and the Argonauts is about plunging recklessly into the unknown, and finding wonderful things there: wonderful things created by Harryhausen, of course, which means that unlike most movies, they really are wonderful.

The film is a tolerable adaptation of the Jason myth, much closer anyway than Clash of the Titans, from 1981, was to any version of the Perseus story, to say nothing of the heavily Greekified Sinbad movies. Herein, the craven Pelias (Douglas Wilmer) acquires the throne of Thessaly through murder, and having received a message from an oracle that only the king's children can unseat him, he attempts to kill them. In this, he is only one-third successful, and his crime greatly angers the goddess Hera (Honor Blackman), who cajoles her husband Zeus (Niall MacGinnis) into letting her intercede in knocking this tyrant off his throne.

20 years later, the old king's son Jason (Todd Armstrong) is put into position through Hera's machinations to encounter Pelias, saving him from drowning. The usurper instantly recognises his savior, but knowing he can't kill the young man himself, suggests a sure-to-be-fatal quest for Jason to undertake: in order to prove to the people of Thessaly that he is a worthy heir to the throne, he should sail to the unknown parts of the world and the magnificent golden fleece, bringing it back as trophy and sign of his courage. In order to complete this quest, Jason must gather the finest heroes in Greece, and put them all on the finest ship ever built, by the great shipmaster Argos (Laurence Naismith). All of this takes us about 35 minutes into a 103-minute film, and this is the last time that Jason and the Argonauts pretends that it's anything other than a series of incidents presented largely independent of any greater narrative arc for our amusement (in which, honestly, it's a pretty fair approximation of the digressive structure of the Argonautica, the most famous retelling of the myth).

In fact, the film is so loose and episodic that it rather spectacularly falls apart as anything resembling a self-contained narrative by ending without having so much as genuflected in the direction of resolving its only established conflict. Oh, Jason gets the fleece, no spoilage in that; but that's all he does. He doesn't come back to Thessaly, doesn't confront Pelias, doesn't end the story at all. There's a vague implication of more adventures that would likely make up a sequel that nobody seems to have ever intended to make, and the whole thing is really just too frustrating for words, if you let it be. So don't let it be, I say: the intended spirit of the movie isn't of a much more frivolous cast, with the fun being in the excellent B-movie adventures that happen along the journey, not the journey itself. It's surely not an accident that the abrupt ending-that-isn't comes hard on the heels of the film's last big FX setpiece - literally just 90 seconds after it ends - meaning that any viewer who has it in their soul to be riled up by human heroes fighting sword-wielding skeletons (and if you're not that view, then boy, stay away from Jason and the Argonauts) will be too exhilarated by what just happened to give much of a shit about the film's dramatic incoherence. What can I say, it's always worked for me; perhaps that's a side effect of genuinely believing the skeleton sequence to be one of the absolute best setpieces in the history of cinema, good enough that I would forgive any movie anything that happened in its immediate aftermath.

The effects in the movie are pretty amazing, at any rate. There are four big stop-motion sequences, along with a few other shots with miniatures and optical effects and such (which are not, as a rule, as good; though the work in the "cliffs that crush you to death" scene is hard to complain about, given the budget and the period), and the worst of these four sequences can stand against anything else in Harryhausen's career. Custom generally holds that the first and last are the best: the giant bronze sculpture Talos, who moves with creaking metallic stiffness (great sound design), and boasts easily the best compositing work Harryhausen had demonstrated to that point. The Talos sequence overall is absolutely great, even from the moment that he's nothing but a single massive statue in an abandoned valley, surrounded by other massive statues; a touch of otherworldly menace just by virtue of being so inexplicable, like something out of Lovecraft almost. But it's the ponderous menace of the moving statue that is really impressive, fantasy and G-rated horror at their most exciting.

The other great sequence is the fighting squad of seven malevolent skeletons, one of the most iconic and beloved setpieces in English-language popcorn cinema. I'm not even going to bother explaining why it's great, because everybody who's seen it knows, and I wouldn't want to give it away for everybody else.

The less-beloved monsters (a pair of harpies, and the Hydra) aren't quite up to level thus established, though they'd be undeniable standouts in literally any other fantasy movie. The Hydra isn't necessarily as smooth as it could be, but in both cases, the creativity of the design and the excellence with which the animation is married to the live-action footage is as good as anything Harryhausen had achieved by 1963, with perfectly matched lighting and non-stop choreography doing a lot to cover up any little sins.

It's all just such a great adventure movie; totally about the experience of the moment, completely imaginative, absolutely free of any characterisations to speak of that might make the material too specific and thus unable to tap into a sort of Jungian universalism. The film came after the glut of Italian Hercules pictures, and perhaps in retaliation, the film depicts Hercules (Nigel Green) as a comic middle-aged buffoon; that, and Patrick Troughton's anguished cameo as the blind harpy victim Phineas, are pretty much all the farther the film goes in differentiating characters. The film would much rather present spectacle in the most wide-eyed, awe-inspired register, using the people onscreen as vessels to funnel that through rather than people to whom it happens; it is fundamentally about realising one man's visions of what Greek myths ought to look like, and luckily for all the people who've watched in the intervening half-decade, that man had visions as exciting and playful and richly detailed as anyone else who ever worked in fantasy cinema.

2 comments:

Samuel Wilson said...

Casting Nigel Green as Hercules was inspired, and the perfect way to differentiate Jason from the Italian muscle movies. I think Jason has the best ensemble of all Harryhausen films, and I can't leave the subject without bowing to Jack Gwillim's berserk King Aeetes. His conniption fit ("Kill! Kill!! KILL!!!") is a perfect buildup for the skeleton attack and a one-of-a-kind acting moment.

Vilsal said...

This should make a fun double-feature with Pasolini's sequel.