The recent passing of special effects animation master Ray Harryhausen has been widely noted. I must admit to having little to add to the many well-deserved hosannas. A disciple of Willis O’Brien, he was able to one up his mentor by gaining a measure of creative control that enabled him to produce a greater body of work than O’Brien could hope for. His films, whose epic storytelling seems to have been inspired by the Korda version of The Thief of Bagdad, were designed to showcase his spectacular talents, especially the skeleton fight in Jason and the Argonauts and the Medusa sequence in the original version of Clash of the Titans. Alfred Hitchcock also seemed to structure his films around a series of set pieces, though Harryhausen’s seem more resistant to the fatigues of repeated viewing. Why this is so is the subject of “Harryhausen and the Expressively Imperfect World,” by The New Yorker’s art critic Adam Gopnik, who rightly compares him to Georges Méliès, noting:
What was odd about Harryhausen’s work was that it was obviously “fake,” fabricated—even in its heyday, its invented, articulated falseness was as evident as it was bemusing. One wasn’t convinced by his skeleton warriors; one was amazed by them, a different thing. His sword-fighting skeletons didn’t look like skeletons come to life; they looked like models of skeletons, painstakingly animated. And yet something about that truth spoke to some part of us deeper than the merely deluded eye—so that it is the rare lover of fantasy who does not much prefer Harryhausen’s “Clash of the Titans” to the elaborate C.G.I. remake. Indeed, in the many obituaries he received this week, a good number of people, and not all of them oldsters moved by nostalgia, made the case, or registered the feeling, that something in Harryhausen’s work, for all its obvious effort, was better than anything of the kind that came after. Tom Hanks, George Lucas—so many spoke up, or had spoken up before, about how mind-altering and enthralling Harryhausen’s underpowered and underfinanced spectacles remain.
Images: Frame grabs from Jason and the Argonauts from DVD Beaver. The photo of Harryhausen is a frame grab from the John Landis interview on the Jason DVD.