Friday, June 29, 2007

HAPPY 87th BIRTHDAY, RAY HARRYHAUSEN!

I saw It Came from Beneath the Sea on TV one Saturday afternoon around 1965, when I was but about five and the movie around ten years old. My parents, sister and I lived in the suburban Sacramento neighborhood of Citrus Heights, a mere 80 miles or so from San Francisco. As I watched the movie’s climactic action sequences, terrified, stealing glimpses from between parted fingers, I asked my mother, who was busily doing housework and attempting to ignore the television altogether, whether or not our relatives, who lived in the East Bay Area, specifically Oakland, were likely to survive such an attack. She, of course, assumed I was speaking theoretically and laughed my inquiry off the way mothers do. But I insisted, and it became clear enough to her that I wasn’t speaking theoretically. I was asking her if our relatives had survived this particular attack. I remember thinking, while watching the giant octopus take down sections of the Golden Gate Bridge, that our proposed family trip to San Francisco would probably have to be called off, as the city would surely be devastated. I also remember being glad that Citrus Heights was far enough inland that a giant octopus attack on our neighborhood was highly unlikely.

Of course, I knew what I was watching was a movie, but I was still young enough to be able to take that imaginative leap and spin a mental web that made room for the possibility that this terrifying occurrence might have some basis in fact. It would be several years later on before I connected that afternoon showing of It Came from Beneath the Sea with the name Ray Harryhausen, who, I would discover, also rattled my spine and piqued my imaginative curiosity with other films I encountered in much the same way, films like The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Mysterious Island (1961), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), First Men In The Moon (1964), The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1960) and One Million Years B.C. (1966), a movie that, thanks to star Raquel Welch, piqued my interest in ways that had nothing to do with dinosaurs. The first Harryhausen epic I actually saw on the big screen was The Valley of Gwangi (1969), a cowboys-and-dinosaurs tale that used, as many movies of this ilk had before it, the original King Kong (1933) as its template. I would later read all about how the creator of that film’s groundbreaking effects, Willis O’Brien, would mentor Harryhausen’s career and usher in the delights and horrors that Harryhausen and his grand imagination would unleash. And I would also be lucky enough, thanks to a re-release sometime in the mid ‘70s, to see Harryhausen’s masterpiece, Jason and the Argonauts (1963), for the very first time on a theatrical scale. Of course, it was a revelation—scenes that I had experienced only on truncated Super-8 Castle Films versions came roaring to life. Harryhausen, whom I had imagined I’d outgrown, had captivated me all over again, and during the era that would soon render his handmade stop-motion techniques allegedly too unsophisticated for audiences who now held Star Wars as the gold standard. Looking back from the vantage point of today, 26 years after he made his last movie, Clash of the Titans (1981), it is the very handmade-ness of Harryhausen’s movies, the imbuement of his fantastic characters with the unpredictable currents of life, that separate them from the untouched-by-human-hands sheen of most modern CGI special effects. His is a lost art, as far as the trends of Hollywood go. But fortunately, for those of us who remember, and for those of us who care to pass on his legacy to our children as a touchstone of real movie magic, his movies remain.

Happy birthday, Ray Harryhausen!

5 comments:

David Lowery said...

Harryhausen was a tremendous inspiration to me as a kid. Clash Of The Titans came out a few months after I was born, so I never got to see any of his work on the big screen, but I quickly began to devour the films on video and TV around the ages of eight and nine, when I started looking for ways to bring my own imaginative flights of fancy to life. His work engendered in me a deep love of the stop motion process that persists today (my first attempt at making a stop motion animated film resulted in a short documentary that's gone pretty far on the festival circuit). When I was in Berlin two years ago, there was an exhibit of all his survining models and puppets at the Filmmuseum, and it was thrilling to get to see them up close and personal (and to steal a few pictures). I finally got a chance to see him speak in person last year, when he was on tour with his new book. It was a fantastic evening.

Sal said...

Wow, Harryhausen was the man for me. I remember when I was a kid my father, who was the football, basketball and baseball coach at my parochial school, used to hold weekend fundraisers at the schools auditorium to raise money for uniforms, supplies and trips for the schools sports programs. One of the things he loved to to was show movies. He and I would drive into Hollywood to visit a rental house that of course rented films to anyone. In todays DVD, streaming video and iPgone world it might seem strange to some but we would walk out with film cannisters. Reels of film of such varied titles as Godzilla, War of the Worlds, 20 Million Miles to Earth, The Jungle Book, Mary Poppins and many others.

But mostly he and I loved to rent things like The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Earth Versus The Flying Saucers, The Valley of Gwangi, First Men in The Moon, Mysterious Island, The 3 Worlds of Gulliver and of course Mighty Joe Young.

How cool do you think it was to sit there in that auditorium, plug in the antiquated audio plug that would feed the buildings P.A. system, thread up the projector and watch the flickering light of the small lamp house project the films image onto that flimsy screen.

When you throw in that tiny snackbar we set up with popcorn, hot dogs, candy and cold cokes in glass bottles... well it doesn't get any better than that. I don't really know how much money my dad actually made for the sport program but I don't think for one minute that it was about raising money. Itwas really about watching movies on a Saturday afternoon. Just like they did downtown.

Thanks for that memory trip Dennis.

Brian said...

I'd never seen It Came From Beneath the Sea until less than a year ago, when it played in 35mm on a local screen. Now I can't walk by the ferry building or underneath the Bay Bridge without thinking of oversized tentacles. I'm glad your imaginative leap at age five was just that.

I was born just in time to be in the perfect demographic to appreciate Clash of the Titans to its fullest on the big screen. I was already fascinated by myths and monsters, and the film would, if I kept track of such things then as I do now, probably rank as my favorite the year it came out. Well, either it or Time Bandits, though I might not have seen that one until 1982. Anyway, I bought the novelization of Clash of the Titans, played with the action figures, and just became generally obsessed with Greek mythos. But nothing quite lived up to the way my eyes popped seeing Harryhausen's Medusa, Calibos, Bubo and the Kraken up there on the big screen.

I'm glad I got to experience Harryhausen's last film on the big screen at age eight, but I loved watching his films on television or on 16mm prints projected at a daycamp I used to go to (still the only way I've seen the Golden Voyage of Sinbad too, so I know future generations of kids won't be deprived. I just hope they're not somehow conditioned by digital technologies to turn off that sense of wonder and astonishment at seeing these creatures move. Animation may be getting easier to produce in some ways thanks to the computer, and more ubiquitous. But rarely does it approach the level of painstaking artistry apparant in a Harryhausen-designed sequence.

Peet Gelderblom said...

You're gonna love this YouTube compilation, Dennis:

http://tinyurl.com/2vd5rs

And check out this catalogue of Harryhausen clips, organized by monster:

http://tinyurl.com/y8nz5y

Peter Nellhaus said...

Last November, I was able to see Harryhausen's models at the Film Museum in Berlin, and stand transfixed as clips of his films were shown on a TV. Those sword fighting skeletons remain thrilling after all these years.