There’s quite a lot that has to happen for me to truly mourn the passing of a celebrity, an artist, or a noteworthy figure in popular culture. Quite often, the problem for me is that “celebrity” naturally inspires a distance between myself and the noted member of society. It’s sad for me to realize that I’ll never read another Roger Ebert review, never get to listen to a new track by Levon Helm, or that Stan “the Man” Musial has joined the ranks of the great All-Star team in the sky. It’s natural to feel some sense of loss, and to gain a true appreciation for what they’ve done. (Check out my colleague’s touching tribute to the late Mr. Ebert here, to whom all of us at the Recorder are deeply indebted to.) More often than not, however, it’s only a momentary blip in the never-ending stream that is life. It’s sad to know that Whitney Houston has passed away, but in the end, I’ll still dance like a fool to “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” without thinking more on the subject than “hmm…she’s passed away…we’re all getting old.”
And then I came home from work today to discover that Ray Harryhausen has passed away.
Somebody like Harryhausen is not a well-recognized name in the general lexicon of popular culture. He didn’t discover a cure for a disease, he didn’t play quarterback for the Cowboys, and he never had a #1 Single on the Billboard Top 40. He did headline several movies of his own, but we’ll get to that in a second.
No, what he did was to provide hope, inspiration, and a wave of dreams for countless people the world over.
Mr. Harryhausen was a leading figure in the special effects industry of the 1950’s, the 1960’s, and on through the 70’s. A practitioner of stop-motion animation, a process by which clay figures are painstakingly manipulated frame by frame to create a sense of palpable movement, he was responsible for countless terrifying dinosaurs, mythological monsters, and weird space aliens that crossed the silver screens of many an age. None of the films that he was responsible for will go down in history as grand-scale epics, or films that stand alongside the monoliths of world cinema, yet in their own way, they tower above nearly everything else that has come before and after them.
A good Harryhausen film featured anonymous B-grade actors with textbook plots, sub-par dialogue, and spectacular locations that mostly served as a backdrop for whatever monster happened to feature into that movie at the moment. It’s a struggle for me to name some of the actors to have grappled with his creations (though Lawrence Olivier’s turn as Zeus in Clash of the Titans always comes to mind for me), and more often than not, the only things I take away from his works are the monsters themselves.
Which is as it should be.
From Mighty Joe Young to his 50’s sci-fi films, and on through the Sinbad movies, Jason and the Argonauts, and the aforementioned Titans, Harryhausen put on the screen some of the most noteworthy creations to ever emerge from Hollywood. To list them all would be trivial and otherwise to the purpose of what I’m really trying to say here (though here’s a link that sums it up quite nicely).
Christ, it’s hard to put into words what I’m feeling here.
You see, Harryhausen movies were my childhood.
I first saw Jurassic Park at the tender age of 6. Seeing living, breathing dinosaurs on the screen, I naturally became obsessed. (As all small, weird boys are wont to do) From there, I asked my mom to find more movie examples of dinosaurs in the movies, pouring through old videos at the library and staying up far later than might have been considered healthy for me to watch the old Sinbad movies on the Sci-Fi Channel. (NOT SY-FY, the mutant hybrid that has taken my love for the classic genre stories of yesteryear and perverthttp://www.addisonrecorder.com/wp-admin/post-new.phped them into schlocky, Roger Corman-rejects that don’t deserve to sniff a Cyclops’ arse.) I instantly fell in love with the misunderstood Ymir of Twenty Million Miles to Earth, the rampaging Rhedosaurus of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and the gorgeous Pegasus from Clash of the Titans. I trembled as Medusa stalked Perseus through her dark, creeping labyrinth, shuddered at the arrival of the skeleton army in Jason and the Argonauts, and developed a fear of octopi that lasts to this day thanks to the overgrown cephalopod of It Came from Beneath the Sea. Harryhausen’s magic took me to the moon and back, carried me off to mysterious islands, and even 100 million years into the past, where Racquel Welch was chased down by (in no small order) an archelon, an allosaur, a triceratops, a pterodactyl, a ceratosaur, and some weird iguana with a fin on its back (Which Harryhausen was ADAMANTLY against; the use of lizards with glued-on prostheses was something he felt was a cheap cop-out.)
More times than not, his creations were infused with more life than most of the films that are released into theatres today. The secret to his creations, and why they’ve endeared themselves to countless viewings and discoveries, is what sets him apart from most of his contemporaries. Unlike the monsters and aliens of most late-night drive-in films of the 50’s and 60’s, Harryhausen never thought of his effects as “monsters”, but rather as animals, pure and simple. They reacted to situations as any normal creature might, whether with fear, playfulness, or violent rage, oftentimes only attacking the puny humans beside them out of pure animal instinct or in retaliation against the violence of man. His Ymir is a classic example. A stranger in a strange land, the Ymir initially pays humans no heed. It is only when it is attacked, out of fear of the unknown, that it strikes back, lashing out as a means to protect itself in this strange new world. This makes its tragic fall at the end of the film all the more heartbreaking; the poor guy never had a chance.
If Jurassic Park was my gateway drug to cinema, Harryhausen was like crack. I didn’t rest until I had tracked down every single one of his movies, taping them and watching them again and again on my now historic VCR. It’s somewhat fitting that I discovered much of his work on a now-outdated device, because time has swept away much of the use of stop-motion animation (the delights of Aardman Animation and the works of Messrs. Burton and Selick aside) in favor of soulless CGI creations. It is only with the advancement of technology that we have been given creations such as Gollum, the Hulk from the Avengers, and other creatures. Here’s where we must remember that, for his time, the work of Harryhausen was regarded as cutting edge. Think of the awesome feeling that watching the skeleton horde attack the Argonauts must have been!
Having obtained and carefully studied each moment of each film, I then began to ask questions about how they were made. Discovering how to replicate the process on my own terms, I then began to explore my own creative interests by molding my own clay figures and animating them on our home video camera. There are countless piles of tiny camcorder tapes hidden away in cabinets in my old farm house, featuring tales of dinosaurs, monsters, and mythological figures romping and rolling through a wave of ferns, trees, and LEGO constructions. Where most families have videos of vacations to Disney World, we had tales of “Timmy the Tyrannosaur”, a dinosaur with a head cold who never got “no respect”.
It should be said that by watching Harryhausen, I led myself into Greek mythology, taking a cue from his adventures as I began to study ancient storytelling. From there, I fell into Greek tragedy, which led me to Shakespeare, which led to…well, you get the idea. Without Harryhausen, I’m sure I don’t have the same appreciation for the Tauntauns in Empire Strikes Back, or for the Universal horror films of the 1930’s, or for the Japanese kaiju films that soon dominated my landscapes.
To love a Harryhausen film is to remember what it is like to be a child; to be imbued with a sense of wonder, to start to question what other worlds might be like. There might be a certain disregard, or even contempt, for living in fantasy wonderlands, and for embracing the childishness that comes with bold imaginations. I vehemently disagree. To be able to imagine grand fantasy worlds is to be able to ask questions about our own world, about what passes for right and wrong, and for what kinds of problems and solutions a magical realm might offer. Harryhausen provided a spark for countless children in need of adventure, daring them to dream boldly of what might lie beyond the edge of the ocean, or what kinds of creatures might dwell in the moon. It’s no small coincidence that children with active imaginations often grow up to be the movers and shakers of modern art and culture, because they dared to dream big as small children. There’s a touch of the Ymir in Gollum, and the benevolent Mighty Joe Young in the dragons of How to Train Your Dragon. The Incredible Hulk owes a small touch of influence to the Troglodyte from Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. Hell, the tyrannosaur that rampages through San Diego in The Lost World can be reflected in The Valley of Gwangi. Yes, they might be lesser movies, but tell that to a wide-eyed seven year old child. Shoot, the logo of Columbia Pictures is his Pegasus!
If there’s anything to be taken from Harryhausen’s life and career, it’s that he was a visionary who dreamed of creatures and worlds far apart from the rest of society, and we are far, far richer for it.
That’s why I cried today when I heard that Harryhausen had passed away. Because with his passing, a great flame that lit up my childhood has been extinguished.
Fortunately, we are left with his creations, who will go on to inspire the next wave of dreamers.
R.I.P. Ray Harryhausen, 1920-2013.
(It’s only fitting that he and Ray Bradbury were lifelong friends, men who shared their work with one another from a young age, boyhood companions who pursued their love of the fantastic long into old age, even collaborating on The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. While the world might respect Bradbury’s work more, it will never love his work half as much as children will love The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. But it was never about that. Now, they can go on to create whatever works await us in the afterlife. The world will be watching.)