COMMENTARY: The Special Effects of Human Expression and Ray Harryhausen

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Gazing into the Mirror of Art: Ray Harryhausen

“I had to learn to do everything because I couldn’t find another kindred soul. Now you see eighty people listed doing the same things I was doing by myself.”
-Ray Harryhausen

A New Yorker article written after stop motion animation master Ray Harryhausen passed away in 2013 has some some hits and misses.  Harryhausen and the Expressively Imperfect World by Adam Gopnik captures something of the mystery, but is a little too pat in its Postmodern self regard.

Where the article goes awry is the typical “Of course I know how he did that” smugness and detachment that is the curse of the contemporary academic mind:

“Though who—at least among those who saw her at an impressionable age—can forget the snake woman who emerges, Play-Doh body writhing serpentinely, before the Sultan’s court—and is met by carefully directed gazes of awe and wonder and cries of ‘Allah, be praised!’ on the part of extras who are, rather obviously, looking at nothing.”

Gopnik undermines the nostalgic awe by pointing out that of course HE knows that it’s just a campy movie and that a sense of wonder is just kids stuff. It wouldn’t be so annoying if he and his ilk didn’t live their entire lives that way, and insist on telling the rest of us about it constantly.

People like that think picking apart the presentation is the fun part; not to better appreciate the artistry, but to try to out-analyze someone who is actually accomplishing something. That sort of thing is only fun for deconstructive wankers who assume others are impressed when they whip out their tiny little pride.

But the heart of the article gets it right in the following quote:

“For, deeper still, in some primal part of us, there is always a vital role for the not-too-perfect in our pleasures. Imperfection is essential to art. In music, the vibrato we love involves not quite landing directly on the note; the rubato singers cultivate involves not quite keeping to the beat. What really moves us in art may be what really moves us in “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad”: the vital sign of a human hand, in all its broken and just-unsteady grace, manipulating its keys, or puppets, and our minds. Expressiveness is imperfection, and Harryhausen’s monsters and ghouls are expressively imperfect. ‘I don’t think you want to make it quite real. Stop-motion, to me, gives that added value of a dream world,’ he [Harryhausen] once said, wisely, himself.”

Wisdom is in short supply in our intellectuals, so that is a welcome admission.

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Since I wanted to make movies from a young age, and was enthralled by fantasy, it’s natural Harryhausen has been a huge influence on my art. Not so much purely in subject matter, but in atmosphere.

I never approached his movies with the clinical awareness of how-did-he-do-that while watching them; I just embraced the poetry of the moment. In any great art, there is level of fascination that defies verbal explanation and rational analysis.

Later, when I pondered armatures, miniature sets, and incredible patient craftsmanship, it wasn’t doubt that was intriguing, it was the power of the achievement.

Gopnik does acknowledge this as well, though he seems leery of being so lowbrow to actually admit he enjoyed something: “…we appreciate them poetically, not for what they did given what they didn’t have, but for what they did with what they did have. We genuinely like them more than things we know are better at doing what they seemed to set out to do.”

A description of painting in the Stuckist Manifesto captures what Harryhausen accomplished in his animated films: ” Painting is mysterious. It creates worlds within worlds, giving access to the unseen psychological realities that we inhabit. The results are radically different from the materials employed…”

As Ray Harryhausen was an innovator, visionary and solitary creative genius who made art for the people, I nominate him as an honorary Remodernist.

The legendary career of stop-motion and visual effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen will be showcased in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and SciencesÕ new summer exhibition ÒThe Fantastical Worlds of Ray Harryhausen,Ó opening to the public on Friday, May 14, in the AcademyÕs Fourth Floor Gallery in Beverly Hills. Admission is free.

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7 thoughts on “COMMENTARY: The Special Effects of Human Expression and Ray Harryhausen

  1. Yes, I think I have an entry somewhere on my blog with his claymation from Little Red Riding Hood. LRRH. You and your wife seem so interesting. I wish I could meet you in person but alas we live so far away.

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