Ray Harryhausen, this written May 7 2013


Here again, one of those days. All those in my generation interested in special effects, fantasy and horror, are held within the continuous culture of the movies we saw when we were young, and all the movies of Spielberg, Lucas, Jackson and Burton, all in that culture, by the oversight of the elders, by the living on of the prototypes, the original masters. And when they die: then, since they are no longer there, to comment on what’s going on now, to compare them to us, to approve or not of what is being done now, a ground is lost. It’s fun to be part of a long-term culture held together by the living of those who made the works of it a long time ago. And when that it over, then there is a sense of loss of the culture, and coherence. So, the role of the prototype in a culture.

The death of Ray Harryhausen Tuesday in London is another one of those moments. He was the master, and having him around to preside emeritus over the evolution of special effects was important. For me, personally, there was Joyce, and Eliot, and Sir James Frazier, and others, there was art, and there were movies, and of course in my growing up I outgrew Harryhausen, but it is an easy case to make that Ray Harryhausen might have been the most influential artist in my life as a viewer of movies and even a writer. I was exactly the age of movie goer who was innocently exposed to his special effects as the signal achievement of Saturday matinee culture. There is little doubt, anyone who ever reads my accounts of movie culture, that The Three Worlds of Gulliver, especially the Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, and, copied from him, but not Harryhausen, Jack the Giant Killer, were key and profoundly influential movies in my Saturday matinee era. I am 100% convinced that I saw all these movies in a Saturday matinee at the Fox Bay theater in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, in 1962-1964. The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad is arguably one of the most influential movies I ever saw. The Cylcops, in that movie, is, in my view, and copied again by an follower of in Jack the Giant Killer, with Torin Thatcher villainously presiding in both, is by far the greatest stop motion creation Harryhausen ever made. I continue to lecture about the wild space in the imagination, and believe that del el bahri in Egypt and the Valley of the Kings was so important to the Egyptians because it was where their imagination went to play, a wild space. And I think that I fixate on that place because it is an adult transposition of the Valley of the Cyclops in Seventh Voyage (an image repeated in the dazzling valley of bronze figures, featuring Talos, in Jason and the Argonauts. Though there were many things that I saw in my childhood that disappeared for a time, I seem to recollect that my acknowledgement of the influence of these movies never did. When I rediscovered the cultural legacy of these movies on the shape of my creative culture in the early 1990s, informing my fiction from that point on, Harryhausen was there. I do not know exactly when I saw Jason and the Argonauts but of all the Harryhausen movies I watched it more than others. I still watch it, when it is on. I also like all the later Sinbad movies, and just mentioned Eye of the Tiger a couple of a days ago. I like Clash of the Titans, and wanted to compare it to the remake a few years ago. I also consumed in one way or another, though possibly on TV, Mysterious Island, From Earth to the Moon, and then recaptured earlier viewings, probably all on the Late Show, of the Beast from 20,000 Phantoms and Earth Versus Flying Saucers, which well could be the Quatermass II of my more conscious American sense of the sci fi and horror origins of my visual culture. In short, still today, and pretty much without a break or suspension, through all of my life as creative person or critic, Harryhausen has persisted, he is by far one of the three or four artists who directly and immediately influenced how I viewed and lived in the world (though the fact that he put in me a taste for the fantastical may mean that I spent most of my time on earth in a fantasy world). In terms of Rommer Reviews, I do not remember which of his movies I have reviewed, though I recollect that I reviewed Valley of the Gwangi last year. But in honor of his passing, I will put all those reviews on the record. Ray Harryhausen, the prototype.

Finally, Harryhausen and his concern for realism was noted in the review. But then he personally seemed to think that something was lost in the pursuit of realism in current CGI. This is a recurring issue with me: something has gone wrong with CGI culture. I complained about when reviewing Cowboys and Aliens, The Wolfman, and even this past week, Argento’s Dracula and even Mama. In all cases, the main problem is that the CGI and the filmed part of the movie never come together and so the CGI seems extraneous and disconnected. That is a problem. Then, it seems rubbery, and slippery, and hard to get hold of. Realism or not, fantasy or not, the main problem is not only the uncanny valley, but, as I said, the uncanny peak, the failure of the effects to be convincingly sutured into the movie so that for a moment the viewer comes to see them as real in the context of the movie. Harrryhausen simply developed a technical arsenal, using stop motion, rear projection, and glass in front, upon which the live film was projected, that was able, miraculously, to create that effect. And then it did not create that effect always, and of course it does now and then look fake, and unconvincing, but it was able to now and then crossover and make contact and for a minute, you sat up, whoa, it was real, in the film. So, his work did not suffer from the uncanny peak. Second, it was also possible that the slight awkwardness resulting from stop motion and rear projection in fact gave some extra quality of unintentional realism to Harryhausen’s suturings. These awkward side-effects para-special effects are fissures, perhaps annoying to current practice, but the secret of their success. His models were always independently lit, and as a result seem sharp and threatening on screen. They existed in their reality on a plane of reality either behind or in front of the filmed segment of the scene, and as a result there was a distance, especially when behind, as when Talos stalks to the inlet to take up position to grab the Argos in Jason and the Argonauts, this gives his models a tremendous grandeur. It is distancing technique, perhaps just a side effect of the process, but it really worked, it made his models seem momentarily imposingly, impossible real, and enormous, in an optical illusion, on screen. And then when the model lunges out of the plane and crashes into a model set in place of a plane and they come together, it was a great effect (the least successful Harryhausen effect was when a rubber model picked up a hero and he had to insert a rubber hero in the model’s hands, never worked). And finally, third, the very awkwardness created by the process of stop motion, which was never able to iron out the micro-glitches of successive shots of a models eeked ever so slightly forward for the next shot of action, gave to them a strange, otherworldly quality that one equated with insects, reptiles, creepy crawlers, hunt dogs, shy girls, monsters, Frankenstein, and that too was thrilling. The fact that in some cases, like the figurehead that comes alive and gets up and walks in Eye of the Tiger, the figure was wooden, or was stone, or was a substance become real, and now alive, gave a rationale to this awkwardness too. And this added to the power and grandeur of this imagery. Therefore, through suturing, through distance and through stopmotion awkwardness, Harryhausen found a technique that allowed him to create convincing special effects, of a painterly beauty, that momentarily did come alive, and make us sit back in our seats, scared, enthralled, forever marked. CGI today completely lacks this quality, and seems unconcerned with its realism vis a vis film in movies today.

So, it is not a matter of realism versus fantasy, it is matter of the integrity of the film, and the ‘realism’ of the effect in the context of the film. The effect must, to be effective, come alive, it must become, for a moment, invested with the spirit of the monster, with the reality of the thing, the filmed effect must become the thing, it must, then, become a cult sequence, within a movie, a spot touched by indexicality, like a miracle spot in a renaissance painting, the spirit and force of the prototype it refers to, entering into it, and scaring one. Without it, it does not work. When it is there, and it is amazing to me how basic and simple the effects can be, but if they acheive this effect, they work, it is magic, without it, it is just eh and nobody cares.

The fact that Harryhausen repeatedly posed with his models seems to suggest that he was trying to communicate subliminally to the CGI people of today. The key was in the model, and the model as a cult statue, as an encultured object, imagined as the thing to which it refers, and utilized by one with a duty to make it real on film too. That religion, that paganism of special effects, is what is missing from CGI today. My apologies to all the experts in media and effects and animation and all the superstructure of schools and degrees and companies and all the money and men and women and work and all those impossibly long crawls after movies of the so many effects people on the movies, but because not one of the people on that list is a true believer in the art of making the prototype of the monster come alive through the artifact of the model and the process of it being submerged in film, which is instrumentation of the paganism of special effects, they make poor effects. The King is dead, the Harryhausen era ended in 1981, but his oversight of the cult died yesterday. And now what will happen? More rubber indulgences in a disconnected extracinematic artisanism, just shopwork, not art.

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