From the land beyond beyond
To the world past hope and fear
I bid you genie, now appear!
– From The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)
Ray Harryhausen died last week at age 92, and at the beginning of a summer movie season, which would be virtually unrecognizable without him. As a towering master of in-camera special effects, and a maker of movie monsters like no other, Harryhausen movies like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts had a transformative effect on the young imaginations of people like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and James Cameron – people who changed our very ideas of what movies can do. The realms of fantasy and escape he crafted so painstakingly from Plasticine and latex rubber were the soil from which movies like Star Wars, Alien, E.T. and The Terminator would spring.
For all his influence, his craft has pretty much disappeared. Inspired by the pioneering stop-motion effects created by Willis O’Brien for 1933’s King Kong, Harryhausen devoted his life to making monsters – dragons, Cyclops, skeletons, snake-headed Medusas, two-headed birds of prey and massive, ambulatory iron statues – that moved over a shuddering earth one frame at a time. He was known to take years on a movie’s effects if required, and he did it all pretty much alone. For the mind-blowing sequence at the end of Jason, in which the hunter of the Golden Fleece is beset by an army of skeletal warriors summoned from the earth and armed with swords and shields, Harryhausen reportedly spent two years at work, sometimes shooting a scant second or two a day.
Before digital effects made the impression of just about anything theoretically possible, Harryhausen created images that conveyed an entirely different kind of realism. His models might have moved in a lumbering, hesitant way that never let you forget you were watching something handmade, but it was that very quality of human agency that – when cut together to convey larger-than-life creatures moving in a world of tiny men, combined with lavish Technicolor and layered into real-world backgrounds and foregrounds – could make your hair stand on end. Especially if you were about 12 years old.
So the fact that Harryhausen’s effects weren’t realistic doesn’t matter. They were so uniquely suggestive of a dreamlike alternate reality – one connected by texture, material and craft to the palpable world – that seeing became its own form of believing. The magic wasn’t in the illusion, it was in our acceptance of it. His monsters were so clearly man-made you could almost reach out and touch them – a 3D that required no glasses.
The enigmatic French photographer and filmmaker Chris Marker was born a year after Harryhausen (and died a year before), and his artistic career was also defined by a quest for alternate expressions of the real. But where Harryhausen imposed hand-crafted fantasy on the real world, Marker transformed the real world into something fantastic.
As part of its photographic exhibition of Marker’s work – itself coincident with the Contact photography festival in Toronto – the TIFF Cinematheque is presenting a mini-retrospective of the elusively suggestive French image-makers’ work. And there may be no more suggestive or elusive Marker masterpiece than La Jetée, the 29-minute 1962 short film that has reverberated down the corridors of popular culture and rattled the doors of everyone from David Bowie and Terry Gilliam to Andrei Tarkovsky and the titular protagonist of The Time Traveler’s Wife.
Unfolding as a series of black-and-white still images – save for one suggestively transcendent moment of a fluttering eye – Marker’s movie tells the story of a man dispatched through time as part of a post-nuclear experiment to alter history, and whose obsessively regenerated memory of a woman standing on the observation deck at Orly Airport contains the existential clue to his own fate.
At once a science-fiction parable, a photographic essay, a philosophical treatise and a meditation on the suggestively time-vaulting properties of the cinema and photography, La Jétee is also an arresting feat of cinematic illusionism – a movie that at once reduces film to its still-frame elementary components and elevates it to a kind of transcendent spiritual poetry. And it’s done entirely in moments photographed in single frames, strung together to convey an impression of time in flux. It’s a strategy not that different from Harryhausen’s, and – the absence of dinosaurs notwithstanding – with a provocatively similar result: delivering the viewer to a place that only moving pictures can.
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