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Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Ray Harryhausen

The first time I saw a Ray Harryhausen movie, it was Jason and the Argonauts on Saturday afternoon TV living in Sandersville, Georgia with my sister Chris and mother, Mur.  Mur must've read something about the movie and that it was "educational" because I don't remember her watching much Saturday television with us.  Or maybe she was just drawn in when Jason started battling Harryhausen's winged harpies.  Throughout the movie, Mur provided somewhat disdainful commentary - she was well versed in mythology - but when Jason sews the dragon's teeth and an army of skeletons leaps up to fight him the three of us just watched in jaw-dropped silence.  Later, none of us could figure out how it was done.

There were only two other Harryhausen movies I "officially" watched, that is watched in the company of other people.  The others I saw by myself at one time or another on television - the cheesey scripts and cheesier acting redeemed by Harryhausen's marvelous animation.  No one ever watched a Harryhausen film to see the movie.  For example, 20 Million Miles to Earth is perhaps the most pointless story ever filmed.  A spaceship brings back a tiny critter - humanoid and reptilian, you get the idea - and it begins to grow.  That's it.  That's the whole story.  It starts small and gets bigger.  It looks pretty menacing, but it doesn't hurt a fly until the very last scene where it wrestles an elephant before being killed by sharpshooters or something.  I don't even think it even kills the elephant.  But no matter: you watch the whole movie enraptured waiting for the next appearance of the creature.

The other two movies I "officially" saw were Valley of Gwangi and Clash of the Titans.  From the title, you might think Valley of Gwangi was about marijuana growers but actually it was about these cowboys who find a whole valley of dinosaurs.  I must've been eleven or so when I saw that; I loved that movie.  At the time, though, although I loved watching the dinosaurs, I just thought it was the kind of special effects they "did out in Hollywood."  That the director just went to the art department and said, "Can you boys whip me up some dinosaurs?  I'm making a cowboy movie."  I didn't realize that all those films, Sinbad and Gwangi and Jason and Mysterious Island were all the same guy working endlessly on little wire-armature and foam rubber models - a tiny shift in a pterodactyl's wing, the half-blink of a roc's eye, then click with the camera and another tiny shift.  Of all the great stop-action animation films, only one, the original King Kong was not Harryhausen's work.

The last Harryhausen movie I officially watched was Clash of the Titans with Laurence Olivier as Zeus.  Sir Laurence must've been cussing his agent: an Oscar-winning, classically trained, Shakespearean actor upstaged by giant scorpions.  The reason I always specify I only officially watched three movies is that Harryhausen films are typically not the sort of thing you'd boast about seeing except - dang - they're impossible not to watch.

So anyway, the Great Harryhausen died yesterday, and instead of my usual drawing, I append a You-Tube compilation of his work.  (Sorry, but it'll begin with an ad.)  It's four minutes long and sort of exhausting, but if you find it exhausting watching this, think of the work that went into making it.  I wish I could say there was a special place in heaven for geniuses like Harryhausen, but I can't.  If there were a place just for people like him, he'd be all by himself.

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