R.I.P. Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013)
One of my childhood heroes, Ray Harryhausen, passed away yesterday. He was an incomparable artist. Many will speak of his influence on modern special effects and many will appreciate his historical role in cinema, but perhaps what one really feels about the man and his art is ultimately dependent on one’s age, and how old they were when they saw their first Harryhausen movie. I don’t know if it’s possible for someone born after 1980, who grew up on a diet of CGI spectacle, to feel the same way about Harryhausen’s creations as someone who remembers a time when such things were done by hand.
“Creation” is the operative term here. To me, the difference is that modern digital effects at best simulate reality (sometimes quite well) – Harryhausen created reality. His creatures were real tangible things. They were the toys we played with as children, the monsters we made out of Play-doh to terrorize armies of little green plastic soldiers. A Harryhausen movie was a child’s sandbox imagination made real. No, the effects didn’t look real in the way that contemporary movie-goers expect – they looked like the fantasies and fears of a ten-year-old boy blown up to epic scale. If you happened to be a ten-year-old boy watching a Harryhausen movie in a darkened theater, it was like seeing your own dreams projected on the screen! Harryhausen’s animations always bore the mark of the artist. He created every model and shot every frame himself. There is no mistaking a Harryhausen effect and any movie that he worked on, no matter the script, the story or the stars, was a Ray Harryhausen movie. I mean, Laurence Olivier was in “Clash of the Titans”, but it’s still Ray’s movie.
Of course the movies were only excuses to get Harryhausen’s monsters on the screen. Nothing wrong with that. Alfred Hitchcock only did “North by Northwest” as an excuse to do a chase scene on the giant stone faces of Mt. Rushmore.
But it’s not just spectacle. Harryhausen’s creations were characters too (sometimes more expressive than their human co-stars). Ray was an animator in the true sense: he gave inert matter life – spirit – anima.
When you watch the dragon and the cyclops battle it out in “The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad”, you see a real life-and-death struggle. And even though the cyclops was a real jerk throughout the film, I still felt sorry for him when the dragon gets him in the end. He has pathos.
And then there’s the Medusa scene from “Clash of the Titans”. It was Harryhausen’s genius to make the gorgon, not just an ugly women with snakes for hair, but a hideous, creeping thing in the dark – a thing that you must not look at, but you can’t resist… The atmosphere is a mixture of fascination and dread.
The scene of Perseus leaving Medusa’s lair and holding up the severed head is a deliberate nod to Cellini’s bronze sculpture of Perseus:
Note also the gouts of ichor streaming from Medusa’s neck beneath Perseus’ feet.
Now how often do you see references to Italian Renaissance sculpture in fantasy films these days?