Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Ray Harryhausen and Chuck Jones

I sit here. Smoke a cigarette. Pour a few fingers of whiskey into a tumbler (Evan Williams). Follow that up with a bit of Yuengling. Listen to Mick Jagger not realize he's old yet with "Doom and Gloom."

And I think: Would any of my monsters exist without Ray Harryhausen?

The answer is: Probably not.

No parasite people from INFECTED. No Stilt-walkers (humans stretched out with long limbs). No towers of flesh born of amalgamated people. No hundred-foot-tall Hroza from EMERGENCE (my lumbering ancient creatures, spawned from crustaceans and arachnids and mammals). No gargoyles. No gremlins (Well, that was Joe Dante ... Who also would have nothing without Harryhausen). No Pilots from the forthcoming STRANDED and no warmachines from the same book.

The same goes for the humans. Who, though more in line with Elmore Leonard's palettes, fit the Jones-Harryhausen mold.

Chuck Jones and Ray Harryhausen are the reason those beasts -- all my beasts -- exist. Or, if not the monsters themselves, then, certainly, the personalities. Jones and Harryhausen are responsible for the emotive characteristics of those fuckers.

I'll quote myself here, from EMERGENCE:

The people of Brooklyn had no idea what they were witnessing.
A few miles north of the Verrazano Bridge, in Bayonne, New Jersey, a towering black hundred-foot figure stumbled. Jumped. Spasmed. It crashed into the Hudson River. Sprayed up jets of white foam in its frenzy.
At first glance, it seemed some enormous piece of construction equipment had collapsed. That in and of itself was unusual, but they'd seen it before.
Watchers along the riverfront snapped blurry shots with their phones. Remarked on how odd it was. Kept walking.
Farther south, more eyes saw the big tentacular thing as it burst up from the water and latched onto the underside of the Verrazano. It hung there, making a terrible animal noise none had ever heard before. The screaming of a whale, distorted. A howl of pain. Shaking the steel of the bridge. Splashing back down under the waves.
More disbelief. More blurry phone photos. Some video now.
The shape came ashore. Emerged from underneath the Verrazano. Pounded its massive eight legs. Crawled up from the direction of the Hudson. Whipped its tail back and forth. Knocked around cars and trees in the park. Knocked around people who happened to be in the way.
Its mammalian skull glared, eyes rolling and staring and showing nothing but hate.
The thing barked. Howled. Roared.
The mass of feelers along its body snapped out. They sounded like whips in the air. Snapped again. Split a man in half. Then a woman. Both died running from the monstrosity.
It tripped on its own legs. Destroyed a Chinese food place at 101st. Dust and debris skittered around Brooklynites as they made for cover.
People screamed. Ran. Covered their ears and pinched their eyes shut as though the worst headache they'd ever experienced was bludgeoning their brains. They all felt a powerful white static blare. The neural noise made it impossible to think. Many collapsed. Grunting and grimacing and staring up at this tartarean behemoth in disbelief.
The lobster spider squid thing stopped. A confused look played across its face as troops from the Fort Hamilton Army Base surrounded it and established lines of fire. It sneezed. Coughed. Used one of its chitinous legs to scratch its face and then its head. It looked up to the sky, and then its eyes rolled back in its head.
It teetered and tottered. Wobbled to and fro.
It crashed face-first into the asphalt on 4th Avenue, shattering and sheering up sheets of road. Its legs shook once. It laid still.
NYPD officers and soldiers made their way around the massive body.
When one of the thing's tendrils curled in a death rattle, a trooper unloaded a full magazine from his M4A1 carbine into it. Just to be sure. The enormous body responded by jetting out gouts of gore that covered the street in a wash of blood.
At the center of its thorax, they heard a sound.
A faint buzzing.
Cops and soldiers backed off. They formed a defensive ring around the spot.
They watched in horror. They expected some new attack.
A whirring metal blade jutted out from the monster's flesh. It cut up and around in a circle. Even more blood streamed onto the street and splashed into pools.
A grunt. The sound of a kick against something heavy but squishy.
The circular door of skin flopped down from the beast's side.
Behind it stood a kid.  A goddamn teenager holding a chainsaw. A goddamn teenager with a six-gun strapped to his thigh. A goddamn teenager lighting a cigarette as he stepped out of the carcass of the creature.
Like it was no big deal.
The teenager said, "That was fun." Pulled on his cigarette. Dropped the chainsaw. "Someone's gonna have to take me back to Bayonne. I left my car there." The kid lifted his hand to his head. Said, "Shit, hang on." He disappeared back inside the corpse. Came out a minute later adjusting a cowboy hat on his head. "Almost left my Stetson in that awful bastard."

I write cartoons. Just ... Y'know ... Horrible ones.

When the monster sneezed? That little bit of personality? I never would have thought about that without Jones and Harryhausen.

For me, it's all about watching Wile E. Coyote realize - rather late - that gravity will assert control. It's physics. Just in cartoon form.

It's the fantastic and the real. That's what made both of these men superb in their own right.

Have you ever -- especially with the utter ONSLAUGHT of CGI -- seen a creature as emotive as this?

 It's perfect. The Ymir breathes. Responds. Wakes up -- not in the best of moods. And you know it's feeling something.

It's feeling something because Ray Harryhausen spent so much goddamn time animating it. One slight movement for every 24th of a second, so he could meet all 24 frames per second that would go on the silver screen.

Bringing it to life. It was, is, a being he birthed.

All of his creatures were alive, as Doctor Frankenstein said of both his monster and his monster's bride-to-not-be.

We don't see that now.

We have commercials telling us what decongestant we should buy because there's an animated snot rocket. Or maybe a bee voiced by Antonio Banderas because, hoo shit, our noses are stuffed up.

Ray Harryhausen gave his monsters soul.

They were awesome in their terror. Awesome in their celluloid life.

But there was a beating heart behind it. And it's gone now.

I was lucky.

I met Ray twice.

The first was at a SciFi horror convention in the apocalyptic Meadowlands. Me, being twelve, turned sponge the day before at the behest of my old man, who happened to be the right age to see this shit when it originally graced films reels

Still,  I knew it was a BIG THING.

We spent the day before, when my brother was a mewling idiot infant and not the awesome person he is today, watching Ray work his magic.

King Kong was first, so that I understood some more about the history of the medium and who Willis O'Brien was (though this would doom me later). Then Mighty Joe Young, to keep the theme alive. Then, ye gods, it was a slew of awesome.

The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and it's astounding cop-eating scene. It Came From Beneath The Sea (Tentacles! Kenneth Tobey!). Earth Versus The Flying Saucers. 20 Million Miles To Earth. First Men In The Moon. Valley Of The Gwangi (suck a dick, Cowboys Vs. Aliens) ... Then, man, the biggies.

Jason And The Argonauts.

Clash Of The Titans.

You can't touch that. Nothing you do will ever be as amazing as the skeleton-hydra scene from Jason or the Medusa scene from Clash.

I'm twelve. Thinking about this.

My own attempts at stop-motion had been met by "Ye gods, don't do that again" by my peers. So.

My dad has an interview lined up with Ray. Big thing. Gonna happen when some NBC asshole gets done.

Yeah, OK, it's a convention and blah blah. And my dad does blah blah.

I'm staring at some neoprene replicas of the facehuggers from Alien and a goddamn way-too-expensive custom model of Ripley's POWER LOADER from ALIENS when my dad taps me.

My old man says, "Hey. Stop. We gotta go up to talk to Ray."

I say, "Nyrrgh? Ray who?" Still looking at figures from the United States Colonial Marine Corps and the xenomorphs they'd face when I decided to have a war in my backyard.


The name goes off in my head.

Oh, Jesus. Oh, God.

It's the first time in my life I remember panicking. Real, bowel-stilling panic. Like a chunk of concrete had settled in my intestines.

But, hey, I'm twelve. So I go, "Yeah, cool." Like, hey, whatever.

Close to peeing myself the whole time.

And I go over all the movies I know are Ray's.

Just stay cool man. Just stay cool.

Clash Of The Titans. Jason And The Argonauts. Mighty...Something... Joe...Kong?

My brain poops itself.

I meet Ray Harryhausen, twelve years old.

He's huge. Tall. Towering over me.

My brain craps itself.

I blurt out: "King Kong was awesome."

Ray, with his perma-bald down the center head, laughs. "I didn't work on that one."

And I spend the next forty minutes watching my old man and Ray have a grand time.

Thinking: I screwed it up. I screwed it all up.

A decade later, I was lucky enough to get another chance. Thanks, again, to my father -- who had apparently vowed with Ray Bradbury and Ray Harryhausen to never quite grow up.

We were at the Angelika in New York City.

My dad dragged me, already a journalist who'd spent time in the ditches, over to Ray.

Ray looks at me and smiles.

I grab his hand. Say, "You have no reason to remember this, but about ten years ago, I was small, and I said that your work on King Kong was awesome."

Ray says, "Did you?"

"Yeah. I'm sorry."

Ray laughs. I mean really laughs. This kind of deep chuckle that doesn't stop. A belly laugh that has nothing to do with his stomach. "There is no reason to be sorry. I wish I could take credit. You know what I remember?"

I shake my head.

Ray says, "I remember being young and I remember having a wonderful time doing what I was doing. It was different then. But ... Imagination is what matters. Use yours."

Cheers, Ray.

(I will amend this if/when my old man corrects me.)

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