RIP Ray Harryhausen
I hadn’t really planned on this, even after hearing about it, but today’s post will commemorate the life of stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen, whose passing was reported earlier this week. I won’t be saying much about his work, as I don’t think I have much to say that hasn’t been said. I will talk a bit about Harryhausen’s impact on me. Looking back, it feels like Harryhausen’s films “should” have been a formative influence on me, but I really can’t say that was the case. I was well aware of Harryhausen’s films, but the only one I saw before I was in college was Clash of the Titans and the Kali sequence of Golden Voyage of Sinbad, which was shown in my junior-high English class for ostensibly educational purposes. I suspect that part of the problem was limited availability and interest in stop-motion films in the 1990s: I went looking for King Kong at the time, and could never find anything on the shelves but the infamous 1976 remake, which I was already forewarned about from Michael Medved’s “Golden Turkey” books. (Incidentally, I have always preferred reading about “bad” movies to viewing them myself, so I have never watched this or many of the notorious B-movies.) I distinctly recall discussing it with a video store clerk, and was told that people were only interested in buying the “new” version.
Fast-forward to around 2002, and I was on my own at NAU, with plenty of free time and a Barnes & Noble, Hasting’s and Bookman’s directly adjacent to campus. I had finally found a copy of King Kong around 2000, and it was joined by VHS copies of Valley of Gwangi, Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers, the Sinbad films, and DVDs of Jason And The Argonauts and Kong animator Willis O’Brien’s The Black Scorpion. My graduation present to myself was a $50 box set of Harryhausen’s science fiction films, which added Mysterious Island, It Came From Beneath the Sea, From the Earth to the Moon and 20 Million Miles to Earth to the collection. I was never greatly impressed by the films, and often frustrated (I still can’t watch Black Scorpion without wishing I could smack the editing genius who decided to mix incessant shots of a drooling puppet with O’Brien’s animation upside the head), but I always loved the stop-motion creatures. My favorites were Gwangi and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. In many ways, I was most impressed with Eye of the Tiger, despite its egregious flaws, because of its unusually (comparatively!) focused storyline and the presence of two sympathetic and well-developed stop-motion characters, the prince-turned-baboon and a friendly giant caveman. I was also intrigued by the occasional fragments of incomplete films, such as Harryhausen’s early Evolution footage, which the image at the head of this post is taken from.
It’s hard for me to say in hindsight how much Harryhausen’s films influenced my own writing. By the time I saw them, I was already well into writing the “Naughtenny Moore” adventures, and indeed mature enough as a writer to be acutely aware of the films’ flaws. At the same time, I believe I was especially able to recognize the best qualities of the films, especially the subtle nuances of motion and expression that make the difference between special effects and a fully-realized living creature. That led to my most poignant memory at all related to stop-motion films. Right about the time my interest in stop-motion films was in full stride, I was also finding out about my Asperger’s diagnosis, and recognizing the long-standing problems that were associated with it. These included the quite typical problem of following “body language”, which I recognized as pretty much interchangeable with my equally typical tendency not to look at people when talking to them. At some point in all my struggling and pondering, I had a true epiphany: “I can follow King Kong’s body language, so why not real people?” So I decided to try, and I like to think I’m catching on.