The recent passing of special effects animation master Ray Harryhausen has been widely noted. I must admit to having little to add to the many well-deserved hosannas. A disciple of Willis O’Brien, he was able to one up his mentor by gaining a measure of creative control that enabled him to produce a greater body of work than O’Brien could hope for. His films, whose epic storytelling seems to have been inspired by the Korda version of The Thief of Bagdad, were designed to showcase his spectacular talents, especially the skeleton fight in Jason and the Argonauts and the Medusa sequence in the original version of Clash of the Titans. Alfred Hitchcock also seemed to structure his films around a series of set pieces, though Harryhausen’s seem more resistant to the fatigues of repeated viewing. Why this is so is the subject of “Harryhausen and the Expressively Imperfect World,” by The New Yorker’s art critic Adam Gopnik, who rightly compares him to Georges Méliès, noting:
What was odd about Harryhausen’s work was that it was obviously “fake,” fabricated—even in its heyday, its invented, articulated falseness was as evident as it was bemusing. One wasn’t convinced by his skeleton warriors; one was amazed by them, a different thing. His sword-fighting skeletons didn’t look like skeletons come to life; they looked like models of skeletons, painstakingly animated. And yet something about that truth spoke to some part of us deeper than the merely deluded eye—so that it is the rare lover of fantasy who does not much prefer Harryhausen’s “Clash of the Titans” to the elaborate C.G.I. remake. Indeed, in the manyobituaries he received this week, a good number of people, and not all of them oldsters moved by nostalgia, made the case, or registered the feeling, that something in Harryhausen’s work, for all its obvious effort, was better than anything of the kind that came after. Tom Hanks, George Lucas—so many spoke up, or had spoken up before, about how mind-altering and enthralling Harryhausen’s underpowered and underfinanced spectacles remain.
Images: Frame grabs from Jason and the Argonauts from DVD Beaver. The photo of Harryhausen is a frame grab from the John Landis interview on the Jason DVD.
Right off the bat, let me say that Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is a wonderful film which I cannot recommend too highly. In a sense, it’s one of those generic, loving homages to the movies that come along every so often; though Hugo is in a class all by itself. While a “family film” like this may seem off the beaten track for the director of Taxi Driver and executive producer of Boardwalk Empire, it also appears to fit in with much of what he’s been dong throughout his career; in fact, I would venture to say this sort of sums up what he, as an artist, is all about.
Hugo is about a young boy who encounters the elderly and forgotten film pioneer, Georges Méliès, who has been reduced to running a toy stall in the Montparnasse train station in Paris and helps spur his rediscovery. (In fact, his rediscovery was prompted by an article published by filmmaker René Clair and Paul Gilson in the October 15, 1929 issue of La Revue du cinéma; the two are represented in Hugo by the character of René Tabard.) In the process, Scorsese gets to show us Méliès at work in his Montreuil studio; along the way, we also get to see clips from the recent restoration of the hand-colored version of Méliès‘ Le voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon) (1902).
In a number of his films, Scorsese has been concerned with various, often unsavory aspects of his and America’s history/identity, such as Gangs of New York and Mean Streets, while several of his documentaries, especially A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies and My Voyage to Italy — have concerned themselves with film history itself. Thus, it seems only natural and fitting that he should make Hugo, a film which seems to sum up how Scorsese sees himself as an artist.
In terms of production, I was initially a bit put off by the film’s use of 3D stereo, which seemed a bit off-putting with its sometimes obvious multiplane effects; but I soon realized Scorsese, cinematographer Robert Richardson and production designer Dante Ferretti were trying for a style evocative of illustrations for a children’s book; though it does have some resemblance to Brian Selznick’s illustrations for his The Invention of Hugo Cabret, from which the movie was made from, it also had more than a passing resemblance to the look of Robert Zemeckis’ Polar Express, which works better than you might think. Anyway, go see it.
P.S.:December 2nd—The always useful fxguidewebsite has a nice piece on Hugo’s visual effects here (which is actually the first of two parts), which also lists a number of filmic references made in the movie beyond Safety Last. Incidentally, one of the tasks the effects team had to do was to convert some Méliès footage to 3D, which brought to mind something that Serge Bromberg (whose Lobster Films was responsible for the restoration of the color version of Méliès‘ Le voyage dans la lune noted above) did something quite similar and more interesting. As Kristin Thompson reported last year:
Méliès’s early shorts were often pirated abroad, and a lot of money was being lost in the American market in particular. After the Lubin company flooded that market with bootleg copies of a 1902 film, Méliès struck back by opening his own American distribution office. Separate negatives for the domestic and foreign markets were made by the simple expedient of placing two cameras side by side. The folks at Lobster realized that those cameras’ lenses happened to be about the same distance apart as 3D camera lenses. By taking prints from the two separate versions of a film, today’s restorers could create a simulated 3D copy!
Two 1903 titles–I think that they were The Infernal Cauldron and The Oracle of Delphi–triumphantly showed that the experiment worked. Oracle survived in both French and American copies, and the effect of 3D was delightful. For Cauldron only the second half of the American print has been preserved. Watching the film through red-and-green glasses, you initially saw nothing in your right eye, while the left one saw the image in 2D. Abruptly, though, the second print materialized, and the depth effect kicked in. The films as synchronized by Lobster looked exactly as if Méliès had designed them for 3D.
The Bioscope, Luke McKernan’s invaluable blog, notes that tomorrow the Cannes Film Festival is presenting “what may be the film restoration to beat all other film restorations—the colour version of Georges Méliès‘ Le voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon) (1902).” While the film is far from being lost, all known hand-colored prints of the film were considered lost until 1993, when a copy, in very poor shape, was turned up by Filmoteca de Catalunya in Barcelona. The print was then acquired by Serge Bromberg’s Lobster Films, who overcame great odds to restore the film in time for Méliès’ 150th birth year celebration.
Bromberg, whose Lobster Films (along with Dave Shepard’s Film Preservation Associates) is one of the most respected brands in classic films on DVD, also serves as Artistic Director of the Annecy International Animation Festival. I only met Bromberg once, during one of his visits to Los Angeles, when he paid a call on animator and film collector Mark Kausler. At the time, Bromberg was elated over his recent discovery of a different cache of Méliès films, which I believe he had turned over to the La Cinémathèque française. Thank God, his enthusiasm for Méliès and his films has not wavered.