Ah! The life of the mind!
I’d like to present myself as having spent my youth reading important works of literature, pondering deeply the most significant of thoughts, but the truth is that I had the attention span of a moth and lost countless hours wallowing in easily digested fluff and frivol. From the age of ten or so until I headed off to my second boarding school, I read “The Saturday Evening Post”, “Boy’s Life”, “MAD Magazine”, “Sports Illustrated”, “Sport Magazine”, and a variety of comic books. During my secondary school years, I dropped “Boy’s Life”, “The Saturday Evening Post” disappeared, I added “Time Magazine”, but stuck with “SI”, comics and “MAD”.
Oh, and during the entire period of time, I maintained my subscription to “Famous Monsters of Filmland”.
I missed the first two volumes published in 1958, but eagerly sank my teeth (heh) into Volume 3., featuring the alluring article, “For The First Time See Frankenstein From Space” and boasting an elegantly presented cover portrait of Lon Chaney as the Phantom of the Opera. .The fourth described “Christopher Lee – The Handsome Horror”, but the true enticement was a feature on late-night shockmeister, Zacherly, with whom I had an unhealthy fascination as is described in an earlier post of mine on horror films and Halloween. The fifth begged producers to bring back The Fly; the sixth offered the secrets of The Time Machine, and so on until the late 1960’s.
Contempt before investigation is to be expected, and the garish cover art certainty evoked the least reputable sort of cinematic fandom, but with great good cheer, the magazine celebrated the actors and artists who brought the fantastic to the screen. I suspect only a few die-hard Famous Monster fans have seen the 2007 documentary Famous Monster: Forrest J. Ackerman. The film about Ackerman, the editor of the magazine from the start, chronicles the history of the publication and places Ackerman within the mainstream of science fiction publication from the early 1950’s, as well as honoring his contribution to the revival of interest in horror films. Forrest Ackerman was a prolific writer, an avid collector of genre memorabilia, literary agent for Isaac Asimov and L. Ron Hubbard among others, and a relentless advocate of the work of Lon Chaney, Sr. and Ray Harryhausen. Chaney, known as “The man with a thousand faces” was a master of disguise, willing to go to any length to create physically grotesque characters that revealed the humanity beneath the horror. Less renowned, Harryhausen was the genius who perfected the use of stop motion animation in fantastic adventures, pioneering the use of stop motion animation in live action fantasy and horror films.
I’m thinking of Harryhausen these days because a series of unexpected events allowed me to watch Harryhausen’s work in Mighty Joe Young for what must have been the fifteenth time again after a hiatus of about fifty years. The film, made in 1947, was intended to capture on the popularity of King Kong, made fourteen years earlier and employed the same method of stop motion animation and was Harryhausen’s first major production. The models of the great ape were sculpted by the Michael Delgado who had fashioned Kong, and, as was the case in King Kong, the size of the ape varied from sequence to sequence. Nevertheless, Joe was a better looking creature and a far more completely developed character than Kong, in part due to the contribution of the emerging stop motion animator, Ray Harryhausen.
My appreciation for Harryhausen’s skill grows even more profound year-by-year as I encounter the mind-stretching (and frequently mind-numbing) effects now available through computer-generated imagery (CGI) as exhibited in virtually every film made in the last decade, certainly in films of fantasy such as The Lord of the Rings, the various Terminators, the contemporary iterations of The Mummy, The Matrix, Inception, and the recently released Dr. Strange, each of which has earned a place of distinction in the catalog of films featuring impressive effects, but which also may be films in which the effects become the tail that wags the dog.
Endless waves of battling armies, buildings melting with Escher-like inversion, characters trapped as human batteries, shape-shifting predators pretty impressive, but although I lack the language to adequately describe the curious dissonance for the viewer (ok, for this viewer), visually slick computer generated effects appear completely real even as we are aware that they are not; the sense of wonder is lost as we are bludgeoned by powerful visual gymnastics. I find myself impressed and disappointed in the same moment; I’m both impressed by the wizard and seeing behind the curtain.
Harryhausen’s Mighty Joe Young had personality; he spit at his pursuers from the back of a careening truck and knocked back a bottle of Scotch before busting out of his cage. Yes, his size relative to live actors was inconsistent, and yes, he was obviously an animated model ape, but he never pretended to be more than he was – a wonderfully crafted pretense. There are stirring moments in the film, such as Joe’s carrying orphans from a burning building despite his profound fear of fire, but even without knowing how many hours Harryhausen must have spent in moving the model with exquisite precision so that his brow was raised in disbelief, his fangs emerged with outraged anger, we know we are seeing an animated character and asked to join in the fun of the fantasy.
In a later Harryhausen films, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, live actors faced a cyclops, a dragon, and a terrifying snake-lady that still disturbs my dreaming. He carried Sinbad to other adventures in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger bringing giant wasps, a saber-toothed tiger, a minoton, and dueling skeletons to the screen. An all-star cast (Sir Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Ursula Andress, Burgess Meredith) joined some of Harryhausen’s finest creations in The Clash of the Titans, a free-wheeling adaptation of the adventures of Perseus, including a writhing Medusa and the enormous sea creature known as the Kraken, giving birth to the cherished line, “Release the Kraken!”, now generally applied to any moment in which all bets are off. The Kraken itself, by the way, was mostly obscured by bubbles, leaving the enormity of its power entirely to the imagination.
Critics panned Clash of the Titans, and Harryhausen left the tedious work of moving objects frame-by-frame to others.
I’m fond of a number of contemporary fantastists, such as Tim Burton and Wes Anderson, but even in their best work, I rarely find myself rocketed back into the willing suspension of disbelief which characterized my entirely uncritical and completely joyful absorption in reading as a child all of the Oz books, Peter Pan, novels by E. Nesbit, H.G. Wells, Rider Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Fritz Liber, or in watching a succession of goofy films that were unself-consciously fantastic, such as the Harryhausen epics.
From the first pages of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to the last pages of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, however, my inner child was allowed to romp at will. Fortunately, my younger kids were as absorbed in J.K. Rowling’s world as I was, so we shared the giddy anticipation of the next in the series of books, happily standing in line at midnight to grab a copy of the next book as it was released in the U.S. We read Deathly Hallows,the last in the series, wept, and prepared to live in an ordinary world again, abandoned by magic and adventure … until the release of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, exactly what I needed in a year that has been more than fantastic but hardly uplifting. The film deserves thoughtful description, and I hope I can grab enough distance at some point to write without gushing, but, having bashed computer generated imagery in recognizing Ray Harryhausen’s contributions to film fantasy, a large part of my appreciation of this Rowling enterprise is in admiring the many generated special effects that serve the magic in the film without drawing attention to themselves. The fantastic creatures have their moments, of course, and are made to move as their character demands, but the greater fun is in the “ordinary” magic, apparition in particular.
I am indebted to the writers and artists who labored to create adventure I have experienced without risking life and limb. The famous monsters helped me get through my own ungainly transformations, and the creators of fantastic worlds have allowed me to leave the world around me just long enough to restore my sense of wonder.