Last week’s conference on Ray Harryhausen, Animating Antiquity: Harryhausen and the Classical Tradition, was a really good experience, both personally and intellectually. I should start out by thanking Steve Green and Penny Goodman of the University of Leeds for all the hard work they put in to making the day a success, and to the National Media Museum in Bradford for providing excellent facilities, including a great space, efficient tech and very tasty refreshments.
The conference day was split up into three panels of three papers each; you can see a full program here. I have to admit that I started off the day rather tired, as my sleeping patterns had for some reason been shot for most of the previous week, but I soon woke up as I listened to the stimulating ideas and perspectives of my fellow speakers.
I don’t want to give a complete summary of each paper, but I’ll give a quick outline in case you’re interested (more detailed abstracts
are here). Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones gave us a framework for understanding the gods in Harryhausen’s films, while Dunstan Lowe argued for a shift towards narratives of gigantomachy in modern films rather than unquestioned divine authority. Eleanor OKell gave a persuasive and amusing account of how Harryhausen’s Cyclops in The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad has influenced other filmic depictions of the creature, while Helen Lovatt continued the ancestor narrative by exploring the place of Jason and the Argonauts in the Argonautic mythic tradition. Tony Keen made the case for reading the Harryhausen myth films in dialogue with the contemporary Sinbad films, and Brock DeShane provided an overview of Harryhausen’s use of ancient ruins throughout his oeuvre. Stephen Trzaskoma wondered what happens if we read the gods in Clash and Jason as animators in Harryhausen’s own mould, and Steve Green closed the conference by considering Perseus’ negotiation of his identity as demi-god in the 2010 remake. (My post summarising my paper is here, just in case by some wild chance you’ve not already seen it.)
So, what came out of this conference, other than some new ideas and perspectives on the films? I think I’m coming away with two core feelings. The first, which springs from an observation made by Penny Goodman, is about how well the nine disparate papers fitted together, despite the fact we were all talking about the same comparatively limited corpus of film and there was some overlap between scenes and dialogue that presenters referred to. (When Lloyd mentioned the dialogue where Thetis recounts how Zeus turned into a cuttlefish in an attempt to seduce her, and she saw him off by turning into a shark, I felt a strange mixture of sadness that someone else had got there first and a sense of glee that someone else had thought the scene important enough to mention.) Each paper developed its own perspective on the material, gave a new way of thinking about it, and helped deepen our collective interpretation of the films and their engagement with the classical tradition.
Second, I came away with a renewed sense of the importance of the work that I’m doing. As you may have guessed from the abstracts, my paper was the only one to engage significantly with issues of gender in the films – particularly surprising given how much female empowerment there actually is in the 1981 Clash of the Titans, and particularly timely given the increase in misogynistic themes in recent blockbusters, including the 2010 Clash. However, we were shown a documentary at the close of the conference on Harryhausen and his influence, including clips from various famous Hollywood film makers and animators saying how important Harryhausen’s work had been in getting them into the business – and every single one of them was male. Now, I’m sure that there are women out there who felt inspired by Harryhausen to go into animation, just as I was (partly) inspired to go into classics, but they aren’t there up there with Spielberg. Also, nobody seems to be asking the research questions that come so easily to my mind. So I’m feeling even more certain that the kind of reading of film I do, that thinks about gender and how it interacts with classical reception, serves an important purpose, especially since it’s not something that other people seem to be concentrating on. The paper seemed to get a warm response – so I must be doing something right.