Wednesday, May 29, 2013

In Memoriam: Ray Harryhausen

I honor the memory of Ray Harryhausen, pioneer of stop-motion animation and hero of my own creative imagination since I was a kid. With his recent passing, I've thought a lot about what his work has meant to me over the years.

When my brother and I were kids, my dad told us Greek myths as bedtime stories. We had books illustrated with paintings of all the monsters and what have you, but what a treat it was to be able to sit down and watch "footage" of, say, Jason's quest to capture the golden fleece:

When he was a kid himself, Harryhausen was inspired to pursue his life's work when he viewed Willis O'Brien's special effects on the original "King Kong".

O'Brien, of course, was the mastermind behind the 1925 dinosaur classic "The Lost World":

Harryhausen later went on to work with his muse O'Brien on "Mighty Joe Young", a film that remains among the best work of both artists:

Given the tendency of Harryhausen films to mine the world's mythologies as source material, the narratives of his films-- particularly those that echoed O'Brien's-- tended toward a compelling "shadow" of Joseph Campbell's monomyth.

Whereas Campbell noted that "the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man", there's a weird anti-narrative that develops through "Lost World", "Kong", "Mighty Joe Young", and subsequently Harryhausen's "The Valley of Gwanji" (one of Mr. H's finest, in my opinion):

In each of these films, someone returns from "mysterious adventure" not with "boons" to bestow, but with a monstrous being upon which the bringer hopes to capitalize. This plan, of course, invariably goes awry; the monster escapes its shackles and wreaks havoc on its immediate locale, entertaining us along the way.

In the cases of "King Kong" and "Mighty Joe Young" especially, the unleashed creature is portrayed with a sensitivity allowing a certain pathos-- linking it with classic sympathetic monsters like Dr. Frankenstein's. But in the same Promethean vein, the stories look ahead to mythoi like the "Alien" franchise-- where, while the desire to profit from monstrosity remains, sympathy for the monster is nowhere to be found, and the consequences are far more dire.

A possibly unrelated postscript on Ray Harryhausen, and I'll let you go. Check out this trailer to "Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers", one of his early films. Notice how the tonality of music and sound effects are so often in key with each other.

Isn't that cool? I don't know how this happened, and I doubt it had anything to do with Ray Harryhausen himself, but it's just one more particle of fairy dust that's floated around his work all this time. Thanks, Mr. Harryhausen, for everything.

Mike Hallenbeck home page

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