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Raised in Fear: The Superdynamational Horrors of Ray Harryhausen

Press Play By Jed Mayer | Press Play May 10, 2013 at 8:40AM

You never forget the first time you fall in love, especially in the movies. My moment came when I was eight years old, at a Saturday matinee in a cramped multiplex theater. Setting my sights high, the object of my adoration was Kali, Hindu goddess of Time, Change, and Death, brought to life by the magical powers of Ray Harryhausen
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Kali Harryhausen

You never forget the first time you fall in love, especially in the movies. My moment came when I was eight years old, at a Saturday matinee in a cramped multiplex theater.  Setting my sights high, the object of my adoration was Kali, Hindu goddess of Time, Change, and Death; or, rather, a statue of her, brought to life by the magical powers of Ray Harryhausen, the special effects wizard who, sadly, passed away this week at the age of 92. His influence on the development of cinema is incalculable, but in many respects he will be representative of an age that is likely never to be reborn, a time when special effects were created with the hands as well as the mind, with clay instead of pixels, with palpable objects rather than streaming data. By showing us how malleable cinematic reality could become in the hands of an artist, he anticipated the wholesale manipulation of the visual field brought off by CGI technicians, yet the texture, the movement, and the presence of his animated creatures belong to an entirely different realm from that of the smooth, seamless, and ultimately lifeless digital beings wandering somnambulistically across today’s screens.

The animated statue of Kali with whom I first fell in love appears in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974) the first Harryhausen film I’d ever seen—certainly not his best, but filled enough with wonder for anyone with imagination. The feelings I felt for Kali, or at least her animated model, were different from those I felt for the sexy slave girl Morgiana (Caroline Munro), whose I Dream of Jeannie-style costume left little to my boyish imagination. The love I felt for Harryhausen’s Kali was pure, a sense of reverence for something beyond me, a power outside my understanding, a life form fundamentally different from my own, yet no less alive. Harryhausen’s animated figures burn with a hard, gem-like flame, a quicker pulse than the one that beats in the rest of us. Like many of the animator’s best creations, the statue of Kali moves all of her limbs at the same time, particularly impressive given the fact that she’s got six arms, each wielding a scimitar. As befits her statuesque origins, Kali’s face never moves, but she nevertheless conveys a distinct personality in her carefully choreographed movements: graceful yet relentless, cool yet malevolent, hard yet supple, not unlike the goddess on whom she is based.

Harryhausen’s creations have an undeniable presence on the screen, often eclipsing the flesh and blood actors with whom they perform.  Yet their life remains on a different order than that of mere mortals, and in that they are purely cinematic. The statue of Kali is set into motion by the evil wizard Koura, played with high camp by the fourth Doctor Who, Tom Baker. It has often been said that the magician Prospero from Shakespeare’s The Tempest can be read as a kind of self-portrait, of the dramatist as maker of magic. Similarly, Baker’s Koura could be seen as a kind of stand-in for Harryhausen himself, the wizard who brings life to lifeless things and sets them dancing before our amazed eyes. The remarkable thing about Harryhausen’s effects is how they never fail to convince us of their unique powers of life, even while they remain unremittingly artificial, thing-like. Kali’s unmoving face, her claylike texture, her blocky feet keep her firmly bound to her material origins, yet this only makes her performance as a living thing all the more beguiling.

As with all of Harryhausen’s creations, we know Kali is fake, but this enhances rather than diminishes her power, since we can watch and watch and still never fully understand what makes her move. There are documentaries that show stop-motion animators like Harryhausen working at their painstaking craft, so that we can more or less see how it is done, but like cinema itself, there remains something essentially magical in what happens between the frames. Film, or at least the analog kind that moves in frames per second, works through persistence of vision, the overlapping of impressions left on the eye by a rapid series of photographic stills to form a seamless illusion of movement. When we watch Harryhausen’s animation, it is as if we see this process happening before us, as if his creatures are embodiments of the cinematic process within the film itself. 

Harryhausen Seven Skeletons

Each movement made by Harryhausen's creations is made up of countless tiny sub-movements working together to produce a living whole. This is perhaps most dramatically demonstrated by the famous scene in which Jason battles seven fighting skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts (1963). No matter where the eye turns, it sees diverse movement: this skeleton raising a sword; that lifting a shield; this stalking around the scene of battle, looking for an opening; that recovering after being knocked down. Under closer scrutiny each of these figures reveals a further host of movements, the raising of the sword involving the lifting of the upper arm, the extending of the forearm, the extension of the wrist, the back arching, the thigh bone connected the knee bone, etc. The more we look, the less we perceive this as constructed by a master-craftsman and his crew: something else is happening that ultimately evades simple cause and effect.

This “something else” Harryhausen named “Superdynamation,” which, besides being a wonderfully appealing branding of his distinct visual style, is also an apt description of its peculiar appeal. The life he gave his creatures exists in a kind of hyper-reality, their movements more dynamic than mere organic motion. Though given a distinctly 1960s American brand name, Superdynamation has much in common with a visual effect that is quite ancient, one dubbed the “uncanny” by Freud. The hair-raising frisson of the uncanny is experienced “when there is intellectual uncertainty whether an object is alive or not, and when an inanimate object becomes too much like an animate one.” One need only mention the idea of a ventriloquist’s dummy coming to life to convince us that Freud was on to something here. Doors screeching, windows rattling, shadows moving: these are all stock elements of gothic terror, but there is something uniquely creepy about the “too much like” animation perfected by Harryhausen. 

Talos Harryhausen

Although he created a few cute and amiable beings, monsters were Harryhausen’s métier, and the best are those that are explicitly artificial. After falling in love with Kali I needed to see more of her sisters, brothers, and others, scanning the TV listings for late-night showings of Harryhausen’s films. One of my favorite monsters is another statue, in this case of Talos, the mythical Greek man of bronze, who is set into motion in an early scene of Jason. The sound effects contribute marvelously to the peculiar power of this brazen being, whose every movement screeches like rusty metal. His brute materiality, his thingness, is, paradoxically, what makes him a believably living being on the screen, yet it is also what makes him vulnerable: Jason defeats him by simply unscrewing a plug on his heel, from which his life-blood relentlessly flows. There is something grotesque yet moving in Talos’ slow death, like Superdynamation in reverse, motion bringing death instead of life. It remains for me one of cinema’s, and Harryhausen’s, great moments.

Although I will inevitably be accused of technophobic nostalgia, I can’t help but feel that the possibility of such magical movie moments have passed away, along with their creator. Younger viewers who have grown up with CGI don’t seem to have the problem with it that I do. To them the special effects of yesterday appear “fake,” yet surely the effects of today don’t look any more “real.” I’m not sure that was ever the point. When the poet Rilke stared at an “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” the message it spoke to him was that he needed to change his life, to aspire to the superdynamic quality embodied in great art. The question isn’t what is fake or what is real, the question is what quality of life does it achieve. Ray Harryhausen’s uniquely analog art wasn’t merely alive, it was in Superdynamotion, and as far as I’m concerned it’s a life with which digitized special effects will never catch up.

Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.

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