Wednesday, May 8, 2013

RAY HARRYHAUSEN, 1920-2013



Harryhausen animating "Mighty Joe Young", 1949


There will be many tributes to the life and work of Ray Harryhausen, most of them peppered with the types of clich├ęs and empty platitudes typical of modern day Hollywood, of the type that likes to glory in reflected genius, but this writer will not quote any of them.  All I can say is that I have known this man for 43 years and I am saddened by his death.

He was the cinema's one, and only, doyen of special visual effects.

He is often credited with being the father of modern-day special effects pictures.  “It’s a dubious honor,” he told me more than once, lamenting, like me, on the horrible state of the motion picture.  He had the true artist’s contempt for the degrading images that now fill our screens and this degradation is what finally made him retire at age 61, even though he could have continued working for at least another ten-fifteen years had he so wished.  But his heart was not in it any longer.  Being the gentleman he always was he was unfailingly kind in accepting tributes from his fellows but privately bewildered: he simply could not understand the new generation of movie makers.  He didn’t know what was going through their heads.  On this as in other matters we were in complete agreement.

Ray died yesterday in London at the age of 92.  Someone once described him as “the cinema’s Gepetto”, perhaps the most apt description of this charming man, who made for the most part charming films geared for whole families.  His biographical details are easily found so will not be detailed here.  But his one enduring contribution was to bring art to the fantasy film.  His great mentor, Willis O’Brien, did the same thing in his day with the creation of KING KONG, the very film that decided Ray upon his own career.  While he worked long and hard hours animating his models frame-by-frame during his productive years he was virtually ignored by the media and if he was noticed at all it was usually a snidely dismissive (and often infantile) review of a film it might have taken three years of his life to make.  Prominence came only late in life, after his retirement, when a California school teacher singlehandedly shamed the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences into awarding him an honorary Oscar in 1992.  Then he was “news”; then those who had contemptuously dismissed him or ignored him now wanted to ride on or lead his bandwagon.  That would include overstuffed “critics” like Richard Schickel who after years of relegating his films to the trash heap now wanted to be his biographer.

Ray was not a perfect man nor were all his films worthy vehicles for his art.  Once the late 1960s left their terrible stain on world cinema, a stain which has not only not been eradicated but has gotten worse, Harryhausen’s films also declined accordingly, so much so that his final three films are fairly unwatchable, as films.  His great days were 1949 through 1964 and the films he created then were and are still hallmarks in the world of fantasy.  They are miles above the rubbish that calls itself fantasy being made these days.  They had charm, they had imagination, they had style, they had stories.

Though he would disagree with me, the perfect Harryhausen film would be THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD from 1958.  If one would wish to judge the man and his work best, that would be the one to see.


This blog occasionally delves into matters other than those of moment in the Faith and the world but we do try to bring up cultural issues from time to time, recalling some of the artists in different fields who made a positive, long lasting mark on the world.  In the cinema Ray Harryhausen did leave such a mark.  And we must be grateful that he was a man of such single-minded devotion.  It was that devotion and that single-mindedness that gave us several classics of imaginative cinema. 

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is a very nice tribute. If we do not remember good people and things past it is great loss. I always enjoy your remembering good people and things to us.

Aged parent said...

It's kind of you to comment.

Great art is usually not done by committee. It is usually done by solitary and often lonely artists working alone with a devotion to their craft. Harryhausen was such a man, creating his illusions virtually by himself. Compare that with any overblown extravaganza today when 200 different people do the work this man did alone.

He was a humble, gifted man.

Anonymous said...

Thank you. Can "most" individuals
in this country kid themselves to
believe they were "educated"
about anything worthwhile? Amazingly, those who left high school and entered a practical
vocactional school (while looked down on by the elite, or wannabe elite), may enjoy a healthier state of mind and spirit.

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