Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013)

Ray & friendsHe was with us so long, we came to believe he’d live forever. Sadly, that wasn’t the case. Even legends fade with the passage of time and, eventually, the mountains will slowly crumble away and the sun will flicker, flare and wink out, consigning us to forever darkness.

But those of us who have spent long hours, days and weeks of our lives in movie theaters know it is possible to exist in perpetual gloom and that it is, in fact, the perfect environment for those who dare to dream of mysterious, impossible worlds and possess imaginations that refuse to be fettered…or constrained.

Raymond Frederick Harryhausen had just such an imagination and a generous spirit that demanded he share his dreams and visions with the rest of us (to our eternal gratitude). Like his good friend, Ray Bradbury, he never lost his child-like glee, a sense that the universe is filled with possibility and on any given day a leviathan might emerge from the deeps to menace a quiet, coastal community or flying saucers descend on Washington, threatening our earthly dominion…

Even a partial list of his film credits impresses:

Mighty Joe Young
20 Million Miles to Earth
Earth vs. the Flying Saucers
Jason & the Argonauts
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad
The Clash of the Titans

From the time I was eight or nine to my mid-teens I saw every one of those movies and to say they left an impression on me is an understatement. My childhood was fraught, my home life unhappy, and it was artists and creators like Ray Harryhausen, Rod Serling, Jim Henson and Gene Roddenberry who transported me Elsewhere, inspiring in me a love of the fantastic and unreal I’ll retain to my dying day.

And I’m not alone. The roster of film-makers, writers and artists who revere Ray Harryhausen stretches back generations and Tom Hanks isn’t the only one who feels that discovering “Jason & the Argonauts” was as important to him as “Citizen Kane” or “Casablanca”. The Tweets and posts mourning the loss of Ray Harryhausen make it manifestly clear that his influence was wide-ranging and profound and continues even in this age of soul-less CGI and digital photography.

Working with a tiny, devoted crew, animating meticulously executed models built by his father and costumed by his mother, Harryhausen was able to conceive and create highly personal projects, often on a shoestring, necessity leading to numerous innovations and processes that had a profound effect on the technology of film. He was, without question, an auteur and should have been credited as (at least) co-director on many of his projects, an oversight he didn’t seem to resent. The very personal control he exerted on his films (co-producing many of them with his longtime business partner & friend Charles Schneer) was almost unprecedented in the age of studios—it was a freedom he cherished and vigorously defended against all comers.

When computer generated images supplanted the time-consuming process of stop-motion animation, Ray was fatalistic, evincing no bitterness, except for the occasional reminder that technology, no matter how impressive, is, after all, only a tool, not an end in and of itself.

His last full-length effort, “Clash of the Titans”, was released in 1981. It was charming, sweet and a modest hit. But compared to what Spielberg, Lucas and Industrial Light and Magic were up to, “Titans” seemed creaky and old-fashioned and the writing was on the wall. Audiences wanted a bigger bang for their buck and the old myths couldn’t compete with newer, flashier notions, Jedi knights and malevolent aliens, starships the size of small moons…

Ray retired, spending the last decades of his life in a quiet London suburb, receiving visitors, answering a steady stream of correspondence from friends and admirers (including the chap typing this recollection), appearing at showings of his films or conventions, where he was inevitably feted like a rock star.

Clearly, he understood what he represented to so many of us and took great satisfaction from the impact his movies had made, the incredible legacy they represent. He was with us for over nine decades and in the course of a lengthy and productive career, seized the attention of many young, impressionable minds, bringing to life the myths and stories he loved as a boy, reminding us of the universality and power of a well-told tale. His movies appealed to our child-like natures but were richly detailed, created with passion and intelligence, lovingly presented.

The days of a single artist having so much control over every aspect of production is long gone in Hollywood (and elsewhere). We’ll not see the like of Ray Harryhausen again. Nowadays, movies are created by committee, edited with the assistance of focus groups and “test” audiences, accompanied by viral ad campaigns. Individuals and artisans have no place in such a corporate milieu and cinema, as an art form, has suffered greatly since these men and woman were removed from the equation.

What we’re left with is spectacle, an appeal to a viewership’s basest instincts, form without function, noise and bombast and ridiculous eye candy, signifying…nothing. Witness the re-make of “Clash of the Titans” a few years ago. Well-executed, state of the art…and utterly insipid and lifeless. Big budget, frantic editing, heart-pounding action sequences, stunning choreography…all it lacked was the humane touch of the Master.

Ray could take an eight-inch model, animate it frame by frame, make it move, grimace, lash out, hurt, bleed, die…and we’d watch breathlessly, even shed tears at the creature’s death throes, eyes leaking in sympathy for a latex-clad armature we could have held in our hand.

That’s magic.

And that was Ray Harryhausen.

Ray & Ray

About Cliff Burns

I'm a literary writer, specializing in slipstream/ alternative/surreal/science fiction. My influences include Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, David Cronenberg, Rene Magritte, any artist who defies convention and busts open genres, attacking the status quo.
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