R.I.P. Ray Harryhausen

Ray Harryhausen died yesterday, the visionary responsible for the animation in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts, among many others.

Even before I knew or much cared to know his name, he inspired and touched me. If it were ever raining on a Saturday afternoon when I was a kid, we would tune in to Chanel 11 hoping that the Yankees were rained out, and the station would show an emergency double feature of films from Hammer Studios, maybe the B-list of Universal’s classic monsters, or the golden fleece itself: those garishly colored stop motion Greek myths.

To this day, I love showing friends the skeleton fight from Jason and the Argonauts, but it’s worth remembering that Harryhausen kept making films into the Star Wars era. This film from 1973 made a huge impression on me, especially Kali wielding swords in all her arms.

It’s about as politically correct as Help! and full of adolescent Freudianism: just check out the busty heroine’s reaction to the “one-eyed centaur”!

Reading his obituaries, I’m struck by how many people he knew. Something many artistic legends have in common: how many people they cross paths with who also have the scent of legend around them, more than coincidence can really explain, and more than the obvious principle that “tuned in” people hang out with other “tuned in” people. Long before he had a successful career he joined a science fiction club with a guy named Ray Bradbury, and after he’d settled in London he married a descendent of the explorer Doctor Livingstone.

Every once in a while for as long as I’ve read about film, publications figure it’s their job to ask the question, how much special effects is too much special effects? The last time the NY Times did so, a few months ago, it rehashed the usual positions, and but added a science writer named Natalie Wolchover, who pointed out that the place where CGI turns people off is when it makes humans who are almost but not quite  lifelike. “We then respond to these creatures evolutionarily, as we would toward a diseased or reproductively unfit stranger.” Genius.

You didn’t have to worry about that with Harryhausen! His dinosaurs and gods were clearly otherworldly, and yet also looked like representations. The cheapness was an endearing part of their magic. They looked like rubber, or maybe Playdough, puppets. You could see where human hands altered them between shots, and appreciated the loving attention that every motion received. Sorry, CGI fans, but there is a difference between sitting at a computer and bending the arm of a three-dimensional sculpture, and when you watch one of Harryhausen’s scenes it feels better because you feel that attention; you experience the pleasure and meticulousness the sculptor himself was experiencing, and it’s just more fun to imagine that.

It’s the difference between Oz the landscape in the new movie and Oz the landscape in the real movie. Oz is a place with plastic flowers, bright blue water that gushes in its vinyl-lined stream, and painted horizons. I want to go there, not the place that never existed. I also want to go to the ancient Aegean and Asia Minor, thanks in large part to the genius who just passed away. Even before I was devoted to movies I could tell that Jason and Sinbad and all his other films were the work of one artist. He was 92. I guess it was time. RIP.