But you know, every time I go to see one of these older fantasy films, whether it be King Kong or The Valley of Gwangi, I have to sit through the lunkheads in the audience cracking up every time an effects sequence appears on screen. Last night, it was an older couple, probably in their sixties, sitting right behind me, yucking it up over Harryhausen's creations. It ticked me off.
I'm more sensitive to this than most, since Harryhausen was my boyhood hero, one of the main reasons (along with Star Wars) I grew up believing in the power of fantasy. But in a broader sense, the hilarity of last night's audience made me wonder: when did classic become camp?
There are campy movies out there, for sure. Many of them were made in the fifties and sixties, when Harryhausen was at the peak of his form. But his films weren't among them. They were designed as spectacle, perhaps, but not as camp. They were meant to be taken seriously: to inspire awe and wonder, not giggles.
Now, as a literary critic and film scholar, I know that what a creator intends for her or his artwork has nothing to do with how an audience receives it. If, in today's era of soulless but realistic computer effects, a film with stop-motion monsters appears silly, audiences will, perhaps naturally, perceive it as such.
But I can't help thinking you'd have to exist in a historical vacuum not to recognize artistry as artistry, regardless of its relationship to present standards. Cave paintings might look quaint today--but they were pretty damn impressive in their time. The acting in Citizen Kane is over-the-top by today's naturalistic standards--but that's still a pretty darn good film. Harryhausen, working alone and with budgets in the mere thousands, couldn't produce what immense teams of technicians equipped with multi-million dollar machines can produce today--but that doesn't make him a hack.
It's inevitable, perhaps, that a consumer culture such as ours--a culture that can't wait to get its hands on the next technological gizmo, simply because it's the next--will equate past with surpassed. It's perhaps inevitable that such a culture will perceive anything classic as campy.
But I'm going to stick with my convictions. Something that was good in its own time--something that was great in its own time, as all of Harryhausen's films were--can still be meaningful in ours. If we fail to acknowledge this, then we're the ones who have become silly and irrelevant.