Last of the Titans: A Note on the Passing of Ray Harryhausen (and Forrest Ackerman and Ray Bradbury)
EDITOR’S NOTE: With this post we welcome award-winning writer, editor, filmmaker, composer, and artist Jason V. Brock to the Teem. Jason’s work has been published in Butcher Knives & Body Counts, Simulacrum and Other Possible Realities, Fungi, Fangoria, S. T. Joshi’s Black Wings series, and elsewhere. He was Art Director/Managing Editor for Dark Discoveries magazine for more than four years, and he edits the biannual pro digest [NAMEL3SS], dedicated to “the macabre, esoteric and intellectual,” which can be found on Twitter at @NamelessMag and on the Interwebs at www.NamelessMag.com. He and his wife, Sunni, also run Cycatrix Press.
As a filmmaker Jason’s work includes the documentaries Charles Beaumont: The Short Life of Twilight Zone’s Magic Man, The Ackermonster Chronicles!, and Image, Reflection, Shadow: Artists of the Fantastic. He is the primary composer and instrumentalist/singer for his band, ChiaroscurO. Jason loves his wife, their family of reptiles/amphibians, travel, and vegan/vegetarianism. He is active on social sites such as Facebook and Twitter (@JaSunni_JasonVB) and at his and Sunni’s personal website/blog, www.JaSunni.com.
Jason will contribute an occasional column titled “Monstrous Singularities.” For this inaugural installment, he offers an elegiac reflection on the passing of three authentic titans of fantasy, horror, and science fiction whose work literally helped to define major aspects of popular culture and collective psychology during the twentieth century.
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They were present at the beginning… and we are witness to their end.
Endings, in many ways, are entrances into self-realization — whether a portal into some altered state of mind, a window into collective insight, or even a chance for some final and comforting acceptance. Endings signify not only change, but also, often, transcendence, either metaphorically or literally, and on occasion simultaneously. Be it a lonely struggle that reaches a sad (even tragic) conclusion, or perhaps the unexpected outcome of a traumatic situation, or the shared exhilaration of justice served, endings are always transitional, even transformational, in ways that beginnings cannot be. Endings are the true headstones by which we collectively measure and define history. They are markers of conclusiveness — more so than births or the start of a new venture, which can be shrouded in secrecy, obscured by the fog of antiquity, or both. Thus, they are uniquely able to serve as touchstones for what has been bequeathed to the past (what cannot be again) and what is yet to be accomplished (and is therefore allotted to the future).
In May of 2013, the 92-year-old stop-motion animation film pioneer and artistic genius Ray Harryhausen, perhaps best known for his creation of the special visual effects for Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans, passed away. His ending completes, in a sense, a circle of loss for the world; with the transitioning of Harryhausen away from the realm of the living and into the annals of time, a triumvirate of giants has now vanished from the Earth, a troika destined to become even more powerful in voice, authority, and veneration over time. This amplification will undoubtedly be quite profound in the immediately foreseeable future, as people who are not yet aware of them, or who may have forgotten the seismic impact of their works and personalities, discover or rediscover their greatness and celebrate it even more, perchance, than those who instantly recognized it and mourned their loss to humanity and culture.
“Today’s special effects are cold and unrelenting in their so-called ‘realism,’ while yesterday’s, with their obvious artistry and dreamlike unreality, are, frankly, magical. In a technological era before the advent of CGI, Ray Harryhausen gave life to the inanimate in a way that is more deeply real than the best-rendered dataset of today’s blockbusters. His enchanted touch imbued the unreal with heart and an underlying pathos that a computer simply cannot achieve.”
Becoming iconic — as Ray Harryhausen, Ray Bradbury, and Forrest J Ackerman assuredly did — was a process that began long ago in Los Angeles, California, in October of 1934, at a remarkable local landmark known as Clifton’s Cafeteria. As the adopted “home” of LASFS — the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society — this was a meeting place that served as a focal point of the lives of a great many people who later came to shape and influence modern civilization, including Robert Heinlein and the youthful trio of Bradbury, Harryhausen, and Ackerman. Clifton’s Cafeteria was a safe haven for individuals with like minds who believed fervently in the dawning scientifically oriented future, and who maintained a devout sense of awe about the expansion of human knowledge and the coming futuristic age, as represented by rockets, Mars, utopias, and the prospect of peace in the world. The Depression Era backdrop for these ideals was a period in time not far removed from the colossal traumas World War I and the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918. But even when issuing warnings about fading morality and technology run amok, there was still a basic optimism in the work and conversation of the LASFS, an abiding sense that tomorrow would bring more than fear, pain, and misery; indeed, tomorrow promised hope, opportunity, and change for the betterment of humanity.
LASFS was a community where many, many important connections, both philosophical and personal, were made, and a place where lifelong bonds were developed. This included the epic friendship between the three Titans-in-the-making (future legends Ackerman, Harryhausen, and Bradbury). Their meeting was (in retrospect) momentous, for it resulted in a vibrant knot of intertwined creative relationships and inspirations that would not only span virtually the entire breadth, depth, and duration of the contemporary social, artistic, cinematic, and literary world, but which would, in a multitude of ways, invent it.
If this meeting of the minds was, in one sense, the beginning of an aspect of “digestible popular modernity,” then by contrast the end of this epoch, and the initiation of its transition to the status of communal and critical memory, began with the death of Forrest Ackerman in 2008, who, like Harryhausen, lived to the age of 92. The collapse continued with the sad passing of Ray Bradbury in June of 2012 at the age of 91, and finally concluded in 2013 with Harryhausen’s demise. This last departure represents a true end of an era, and carries with it the hallmarks of the passage of a great age — one which produced a pantheon of creative, intellectual leviathans whose equals we are unlikely to see again. These were individuals who were dedicated to an upbeat outlook regarding humanity’s future, a respect for our enduring and shared past, and an aspiration that we would not allow our lesser demons to murder our better angels. They evangelized their beliefs and hopes not in churches, mosques, and synagogues, but in movie palaces, newsstands, books, and the realm of ideas.
Cinema, at least in the early-to-mid twentieth century, was the predominant language of cross-cultural pollination outside of a major world war. Until the advent of the Internet, no other force, including television, held as much power to shape global mores and a collective ethos. In the same way, film today still retains a power to influence more minds and hearts than the printed word, as it is not reliant (or at least not entirely) on language but on universal comprehensions of music, imagery, kinesthetics, and emotion.
Emotional resonance was key to the process of winning those hearts as well as minds — most importantly the emotion of love. Yes, love is there on the silver screen; in fulfilling his career ambitions and calling as a filmmaker, Ray Harryhausen embodied passion and enthusiasm, along with all of the other aforementioned dominant aspects of non-linguistic communication, and his vision (and imagination) would prove to be a potent influence on worldwide popular culture. Using one frame at a time and miniscule movements of exquisitely constructed miniatures between each exposure, he was able to bring to life myths, legends, and magical sagas with greater graphicness and gravitas than any number of books, stories, articles, or essays could ever have done. In a technological era before the advent of computer-generated imagery (CGI), his skills not only as a sculptor but as a performer and director gave life to the inanimate in a way that is more deeply real than the best-rendered dataset of today’s blockbusters. His enchanted touch imbued the unreal with heart and an underlying pathos that a computer simply cannot achieve, and likely never will.
Today we watch images on movie screens that are so “realistic” they spook us into the Uncanny Valley (so-called) and won’t allow full acceptance of a given scenario or its characters, even as the action pummels us senseless. But yesterday, in the heyday of the Titans, we watched moving images on our giant screens that were so unbelievable that they allowed us to suspend our disbelief, to let our subconscious selves relax. Today’s special effects are cold and unrelenting in their so-called “realism,” while yesterday’s, with their obvious artistry and dreamlike unreality, are, frankly, magical. And Harryhausen was the Master of the Majicks.
I was lucky, along with my wife, Sunni, to know all three of these great men personally. They were mentors, inspirations, and friends. And not only were they inspirations to us personally, but they inspired many others whom we deeply admire and respect, including Charles Beaumont, William F. Nolan, Richard Matheson, George Clayton Johnson, and more. And the list could of course go on and on: John Landis, Greg Bear, Joe Dante, Steven Spielberg, Rod Serling, Marc Scott Zicree, Dan O’Bannon, George Lucas, and others.
Sadly, this world is not a place made for Titans or giants, and so there aren’t too many remaining with us. And the few that are left are fading far too quickly.
Rest in Peace, Ray Harryhausen: You are loved and deeply missed.
Posted on August 12, 2013, in Arts & Entertainment, Monstrous Singularities and tagged argonauts, art, clash of the titans, culture, fantasy, forrest j ackerman, horror, jason v. brock, movies, Ray Bradbury, ray harryhausen, Science Fiction, uncanny valley. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.