I bring you a slight deviation from parameter with this week’s Hangover Theater. Since I live in Bizarro Cable Land (aka Canada), researching — or even giving a fuck about — this weekend’s US cable offerings wasn’t worth the hassle. We foreign ‘Jibans are used to approaching this column hypothetically, and we can all recognize a “comfy cable favorite” (as TK calls it) no matter which time zone it’s airing in. I can write about Desmond Davis’ Clash of the Titans because it’s safe to assume that Titans will be coming to a TV screen near you this summer, if not this weekend; such are the clockwork meanderings of perennial cable standbys. Furthermore, Titans is the perfect movie to wake up to, rock-eyed and rag-mouthed, after a Friday night Jim Beam throw-down. So fold this title into your memory banks and don’t hesitate to scroll for it on those remorseful mornings, when the first thing you reach for is the scuzzed-over highball you set on the closest surface the night before, and when the second thing you reach for is your remote — because there’s no way in Hades you’re getting off your back until that sun is so far over the yard-arm, it’s half sunk in the Ionian Sea. When you’re too grilled even to lurch across the room to choose a DVD from your own collection, you could do worse than one of the finest sword-and-sandal clunkers ever made.
First, let me explain about the image. I know it’s a little indulgent. I could have gone with this, which is more fitting, since writhing scalp-snakes and a stone dead stare evoke hangover in many of us, I’m sure. I might have gone with this image, too (ooh, pretty), or this (Calibos would take pelt-tongue and morning-after-the-night-before breath in stride), but the moment I spotted the Gay Perseus series, there was no turning back. Thank you, Google, for fertilizing my Uranian fantasies. Hangover Theater is all about the therapeutic, so let me cure the ills of our non-lesbian female and non-het male readership (and hell, with all the so-called “man-crushes” circulating around this site like the sexiest pox ever, Gay Perseus’ charm might penetrate deeper than I expected). Hangover Theater has one job to do: distract our Dionysian readers from their morning-after pains. Behold Gay Perseus, supine on the sand, be-oiled and soft-focused into ripe anticipation. That enigmatic, if you only knew what I’m thinking smile on his lips is the antidote. You may not have the loins to do anything about it, but you can gaze back with slap-happy appreciation and, for a moment, not want to die.
( … )
Harry Hamlin’s shanks may have been roasted to tenderness back in 1981, but they’re not the reason we’re gathered here today. They’re not what made me fall in love with this flawed little wonder in the 80s, when a pay-per-view network aired Clash of the Titans for free, one promotional weekend (I repeat: this movie lives in your television). I was spending the afternoon on my grandmother’s rug, bored out of my mind; picture my delight when I stabbed on the TV and saw a rotoscoped eagle land on Mount Olympus and turn into Poseidon. Did you know Olympus is peopled with the likes of Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Claire Bloom and Ursula Andress? Did you know Burgess Meredith lives in a cat-infested amphitheatre in Joppa, in the Kingdom of Phoenicia? Clash of the Titans gives damned good Greek, the kind Hollywood invented in the 1950s right around the time it invented major cinematic anachronisms. There’s no better chicken soup than chitons and pillars and a cast weighted with Old Vic regulars who’ve transposed their Shakespearean bag of tricks onto cheap celluloid. Olivier as Zeus — for instance — bursts with ham stuffing when he tells Perseus that his magic shield “has the power [longing thespian gasp] to render its wearer [longing thespian gasp] invisible…” Maggie Smith (God love her), as Thetis, walks the set like it’s the most reasonable set she’s ever trod and speaks her lines like they’re the most reasonable lines ever written. The whole thing’s a hippodrome of dumb, but she’s having none of it, old sock, and perseveres. So does Hamlin the Himbo, who’s leagues out of his depth and wooden in contrast even to random Old Vic palace guards and random Old Vic Joppa citizens. I’m not sure why, but I love those moments.
I love this crazy, lopsided movie. Titans, at its most basic, is about a rivalry between two gods and their demigod offspring (sidebar to undergrads: don’t crib notes for your Mythology 101 class off a film that can’t even get its title right). Perseus, a half-mortal son of Zeus, is good-hearted, so naturally he gets to be favored and hot. Calibos (Neil McCarthy), a half-mortal son of Thetis, has been a toxic little ponce, so Zeus deforms him. When his bride to be, the princess Andromeda (Judi Bowker), spurns him in disgust, Thetis and Calibos make life difficult for the city of Joppa. Suitors are ordered to solve a riddle given to the princess each night by Calibos. Solve the riddle, win the girl and the kingdom; fail, and burn at the stake. Thanks to a trove of god-forged weapons, Perseus believes he’s up for any challenge, even — despite every last odd — an intellectual one. He enlists the help of Burgess Meredith, Pegasus, Bubo the automaton owl (plugging into RD-D2 love in those halcyon Lucas days), Stygian witches, and Medusa’s head, and he motivates his troops with rusty clarion calls like “It’s time for action, not words!” and “I have found my destiny!” It all takes place against a backdrop of lapis-blue skies, bleached columns, bubbling bogs and mosaicked halls, and I defy you not to feel affection for Hamlin and Bowker, two dolomite-dumb beauties who bat cow-eyes at each other and make plans to rule as King and Queen of the Joppa prom.
If any of this appeals to your inner sot, hold onto your stubby because it gets better. The fantasy will ramp up your fever dreams, but it’s the special effects that will add a tincture of surreal to your hangover blend. The effects also happen to be the film’s greatest asset. As many readers already know, Titans is a legend because of Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion artistry, which (so goes the bitching) was perfected two blockbusters too late; Star Wars was still a laser-gleam in society’s collective eye, and Raiders of the Lost Ark simulcasted Titans into Mojito mash when it opened the same weekend. None of this deterred Harryhausen, who co-produced the film and (if IMDb is to be believed) shared the effects work with just one extra set of hands. The post-Lucas generation is split down the middle about the results. You either love them or you hate them. Lovers admire the storybook feel the effects give to the action — it’s like watching the world’s most animated pop-up book — and haters dismiss the effects because they want their movies to look true to life. Lovers appreciate any kind of stylized design onscreen and the extraordinary texture of Harryhausen’s creatures; they’re the people who prefer the 3-D heft of Carpenter’s The Thing beasties over Raimi’s barren Spiderman. Haters are futurists who’re always eager to witness the next great tech. As always, it all comes down to aesthetics, and “true to life” isn’t something I’ve ever expected to find on a movie screen, anyway (our culture still isn’t over its quaint privileging of “realism” in art). Harryhausen’s bestiary is a little shaggy in places, but in other places it continues to work. Pegasus and Bubo appeal immensely, the watery destruction of the city of Argos has impact, and the Medusa scene is a work of visual art, with its fiery reds and gleaming coppers and one-of-a-kind movie Gorgon. Titans is full of walking sculptures that make up a gallery worth preserving.
One of the reasons this film is prime hangover helper is the fact that it’s based on myth. As my colleagues have argued, Hangover movies should be plotted along low hums that can lull you to sleep and be simple enough to recover, story-wise, should you doze off into salutary oblivion. Nothing is as graven on our minds as myth. Even if you aren’t familiar with the story of Perseus, its formula (as presented here, anyway) is archetypal: angry king throws baby into sea; gods intervene and let baby come of age in pastoral seclusion; grown hero is thrust into the world and falls in love; sandals are worn, swords are wielded, and adventures are had by all. If you’ve got one fairy tale or one legend in your pocket already, chances are you don’t need to wake up your imagination to follow the plot; archetypal stories are easy on the Scotch-rotted mind. There’s no erring if you find yourself drifting in and out of consciousness, because you’ve been culturally fashioned to fill in the gaps with barely a nudge of effort. And the last thing you want, when you’re dry-heaving on the couch and wondering if you can get a piece of toast down, is the unexpected; myth isn’t just effortless, it’s also comfortable. Look back on your Saturday morning cartoon-marathon stupors, and consider how much your nostalgia rests on the appeal of folklore patterns cycled out in hypnotic colors. There isn’t a whiff of irony or a tinge of complexity in this movie’s rendering of functions, so you can barely-awake its ass and still remember scenes days later (the walking sculptures will help your recall). I doubt the remake that’s being jigged by Louis Leterrier (Transporter 2, The Incredible Hulk) will have the same sweet core of earnestness, or the same degree of texture in its special effects. But damned if I won’t feel compelled to see it anyway. We need more myth movies, for hangover balm or otherwise. — Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published as part of Pajiba.com’s Hangover Theater series, on July 9, 2008.)