Hooray for Ray

Last updated 10:12 09/05/2013

It's a sign of getting old when the obituaries start meaning something to you.

In the past few months, we've lost Roger Ebert and Nora Ephron, both people who had an impact on my life.

And now, Ray Harryhausen has died - a figure all wrapped up in my childhood like letters through a stick of rock.

Harryhausen was the stop-frame animation genius behind pretty much every monster in every film from the 1940s through to the 1980s. He brought to life creatures for those cheesy old Sinbad movies, for kooky pictures like Valley of the Gwangi and slicker fare like Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans (the original, obviously).

As a child, I just loved his work so much. I remember mum plonking me down in front of Betamax copies of Sinbad movies recorded from afternoon television. They just blew my mind. All those fantastic monsters and the way real people interacted with them. The possibilities of film expanded for me.

Jason and the Argonauts has always been my favourite, though. Let's face it, a lot of Harryhausen movies are a bit ropey when there aren't any monsters around. It's just a bunch of C-grade actors stiffly reciting crap dialogue. But when the monsters come on screen I would put down my toys and stare up in wonder at the screen. They lived and breathed and bit and slithered and flew. Stunning little miracles.

But Argonauts at least has a bit more going for it. The acting is a notch or two higher than normal and there is a pretty decent script. And, of course, the best scene in Argonauts is perhaps the culmination of Harryhausen's career - the skeleton fight. It is still amazing.

Skeleton

The characters have such character and menace and they are sword fighting with real people! So damn cool! Great art has never been so much fun.

The sign of great art is when it makes you look at the world in a different way. Harryhausen's movies certainly achieved that. Whenever my cat is annoyed and her tail flicks slightly at the end, I always think of the death throes of a Harryhausen monster. Do you remember how, just before they died, the tail of the creature would twitch and rattle before dropping to the ground? It was one of those countless details that Harryhausen gifted to his creations and it stuck in my mind.

Even now, when I hear a metal crane groaning in Christchurch city centre, where the rebuild is happening all around my office, I think of that giant metal statue from Jason and the Argonauts and the groaning metal noise it made every time it moved. Come to think of it, Talos would be pretty handy for the rebuild, if you somehow managed to curb his inexplicable homicidal impulses.

Talos


Harryhausen's films were full of such pungent and indelible images. The unscrew valve on the giant statue's ankle, the skeletons, the giant crab, the hydra. All such cool creatures.

Imagine the patience of the man! Spending days painstakingly moving tiny models just to capture a few seconds of film. Not knowing what you have captured until days later when the film is developed. He is a patient artist from an analog world we are fast losing.

Everything he created was handmade and magically endowed with life. The eye and the mind somehow perceived that effort and care. It was beautiful and careful artifice - everything that great art should be.

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