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Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Ray Harryhausen 1920-2013

"What we do now digitally with computers, Ray did digitally long before. But without computers; only with his digits."
                                                               -Terry Gilliam

As a young child of no more than six, I can still remember sitting on our multi-colored shag carpet in rapt attention before that wood-paneled, 19" RCA TV set. Playing that quiet afternoon was Jason and the Argonauts, and watching it awakened in me a lifelong love of both Greek mythology and movie special effects. I sat aghast as malevolent skeleton warriors, massive bronze statues, vicious harpies and more came to life right before my eyes. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before. 

That was my introduction to the work of Ray Harryhausen.

Back in those days before any form of self-determined video viewing, you had no choice but to watch what happened to be on TV at that moment. And in my naivete, I assumed that since King Kong was shown on Thanksgiving every year, and The Wizard of Oz was always shown at Easter time, that Jason and the Argonauts would be shown again the next year on the same day. So I took note of the date. Alas, one year later, I learned the folly of my ways. I would have to wait for the advent of VHS to enjoy the movie again.


The beloved Cyclops from 7th Voyage of Sinbad.
For me, there was a magic to the work of Ray Harryhausen, the special effects pioneer who passed in London today at the age of 92, that distinguished him as one of the most influential forces in the history of genre film making. For my money, he was the single most important living figure in all of horror/sci-fi/fantasy entertainment. And so, today is a very sad day, in which we mourn the loss of a man, much as we've mourned the loss of the ingenuity and spirit that he brought to his industry.

For so many of us, there are those special Harryhausen films that stand out for one reason or another. I recall when Clash of the Titans came out in theaters in the summer of 1981, alongside Raiders of the Lost Ark, and my parents made me choose one to go see (admittedly, I picked Raiders--a film which epitomized the ILM-era of movie effects that helped phase out the Harryhausen style.) And there was nothing so exciting as catching a movie like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad or The Golden Voyage of Sinbad on TV. For my dad, a monster movie fan through and through, it was all about stuff like The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, It Came from Beneath the Sea, and 20 Million Miles to Earth.

Harryhausen made a mark that was as deep and wide as that made by his lifelong friend and fellow genre giant Ray Bradbury. It was a childhood viewing with Bradbury of King Kong in 1933 that first set Harryhausen's young mind in motion. Studying the groundbreaking work of Willis O'Brien would lead Harryhausen to one day innovate a particular brand of stop-motion model animation--he called it "Dynamotion"--that would ensure that his name would live on forever in the hearts of all those for whom cinema is an escape into fantasy and wonder.

There was something about those quirky, jerky creations that, for this writer, will ever trump whatever CGI concoctions can be thrown at our overloaded senses in the movies these days. You could feel the energy and passion that went into the work. The dedication this man invested to create such marvels. They had spirit, personality, and more life to them than any overwrought, cold-as-ice, super slick digital construct. You can't recreate that kind of flavor in a hard drive. You need to get down on your hands and knees, with solid objects, and work it out in the trenches. That's what this man did, and that's why his name will be remembered longer than that of any programmer at a keyboard.

The Ymir from 20 Million Miles to Earth.
So I say God bless Ray Harryhausen and the tremendous gifts he gave to all of us. I thank him for populating my nightmares and sparking my imagination. Learning of his death today was like a blow I expected for years, but one that nevertheless did not feel any softer for the anticipation. He had been on my mind a lot lately, as I plan to host a double-feature screening later this month that will actually include It Came from Beneath the Sea, one of his true benchmarks. In fact, as fate would have it, today I came home to discover in the mail the DVD box set of Harryhausen classics I had ordered some days earlier to help me prepare. As if there were any chance of me forgetting this day as it was.

I close tonight with words that have always resonated with me, from the critic Peter S. Beagle. They were written for J.R.R. Tolkien, but could just as easily describe the amazing talent we've just lost:
“He is a great enough magician to tap our most common nightmares, daydreams and twilight fancies, but he never invented them either: he found them a place to live, a green alternative to each day's madness here in a poisoned world. We are raised to honor all the wrong explorers and discoverers - thieves planting flags, murderers carrying crosses. Let us at last praise the colonizers of dreams.”


iMucka said...

When I heard the news I instantly went to watch Jason and the Argonauts. I don't think we will ever see someone with such skill ever again.


James Gracey said...

Such a lovely and fitting tribute. I too remember watching the likes of Jason and the Argonauts and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad as a child. Like you, Harryhausen’s creations awakened within me a passion for mythology and monsters; a passion that has never diminished throughout the years. His work had such individuality and, most importantly; soul.

Kangas said...

Bummed. Loved the guy. Just watched an interesting documentary on Netflix streaming that features a lot of his early stuff--it's called Sci Fi Boys, if you haven't seen it.

Bill Dan Courtney said...

He was great and I still love watching his classic material. Just fun movies overall and his animation just added to the charm and magic. Sad day.

B-Sol said...

I made sure to show my kids Jason and the Argonauts soons after I heard this news. This is a really big loss. I think I saw the documentary too, great stuff.

Play With Death said...

This is a good article. These movies made my day as a kid. I remember watching "...Sinbad" and "Jason and the Argonauts." with the old man and getting such a kick out of the monsters.

Great site by the way. PlayWithDeath.com supports what you do. Keep horror alive!

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