Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Land Beyond Beyond, The World Past Hope And Fear


Ten years of Christian school successfully beat out of my head any predilection to calling someone I admire a "hero" unless they save babies and shit. But I have a few heroes. My parents, certainly. I think I can safely list my wife, who helped save my life and the sanity of me and my family during some dark times. But as much as I love comics, Stan Lee isn't my hero. As much as I love reading, Kurt Vonnegut or Alexandre Dumas aren't my heroes. I like poetry, but Li Po isn't my hero. And yes I'm a film major but Orson Welles or Yasujiro Ozu aren't my heroes. Kurosawa is close but still not quite, and what a hell of a bar that is.

I think Ray Harryhausen is my hero.

I might not be the man I am today if I had never read certain books, or achieved certain goals, but I absolutely wouldn't be the man I am today without the Disney Channel, a station which was home to repeats of Harryhausen's works as well as the original documentary Aliens, Dragons, Monsters and Me. It broke my tiny mind.

You could do that.
You could make something from nothing.
You could make everything from nothing.
You could love monsters just as much as I did BUT FOR A LIVING.
You could make movies without being a pretty boy or being handy with a turn of phrase or having oodles of dollars.
He could. I could. You just had to want it and love it and be willing to work yourself to the bone.

Harryhausen is a one-man rebuttal for all my problems with the preponderance of autuer theory in cinematic academia, at least how it's usually presented. Without wanting to minimize the efforts of the directors and producers and writers he worked with, especially Charles Schneer, it was Ray who literally brought movies to life, in a way that only Victor Frankenstein or Jim Henson have ever really rivaled. One person, toiling away on his own. And yet he wasn't. As much as he's an example of someone's vision other than a director's defining and informing a project, Harryhausen was a shining example of why film is so excellent as a collaborative medium. He was like Jimmy Page but he screwed fewer black people.

But he was a kind, gentle man, a teacher and a friend, a humble man but not one prone to false humility: he took pride in his work, in work, and in what he had accomplished. I've never wanted to be another man, apart from my dad, but I wanted to be Ray Harryhausen.

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My dad.

Let's go back a bit to me saying my parents were my heroes. They were. But while my mom alternating between working and staying home to raise us, she was an ever-present figure in my earliest development. My dad wasn't as present, not because he didn't want to be but because he was busy working. My dad literally worked himself to the bone and we didn't see him as much. When you're a kid time is weirdly elastic...it was never enough time to play, but the time waiting for him to come home and rest and play for just a little always seemed longer. My memories, even my earliest ones, are filled with fun and happy memories with both of my parents, but while my mom was always along for the ride and up for anything, bless her, I remember my dad a lot as a distant example I wanted to live up to.

There were two movies one week on the Disney Channel, back before they showed exclusively shit and Gravity Falls. One was the Rankin-Bass Hobbit and one was the original Clash of the Titans. My mom identified both as my dad's favorite movie, which, looking back, is odd, but at the time it just meant my little brain just grasped the concept of APPOINTMENT TELEVISION. We set our clocks and we sat down and watched them and we recorded that shit and it was just the best. You can draw a straight line from those experiences to me writing up dwarf priest variants right now.

If Clash of the Titans fired my imagination, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad shaped and cooled it into its current form. That movie had everything. On some early Harryhausen interview, probably the aforementioned Disney doc, he mentioned the trick he used with the Cyclops, though not unique to that creature, of giving him animal-jointed goat legs so that kids wouldn't feel cheated and think it was just a guy in a suit.

I watched movies once. Hearing that was the first moment I loved movies.

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I know it had to end, the era of effects which Ray pioneered. I know it but lament it, an artform as valid as any other. I also know one day Ray's life had to end, but no matter when it would be too soon. I'm a grown-ass man. I understand death. The part of me that still knows the chant used to summon Barani by heart is just 5, maybe 4, and it's never going to be fair to him.

I met Ray Harryhausen once. I want to say it was 2000, at Dragon*Con in Atlanta. I got a lot of shit  signed and met a lot of cool people but Ray Harryhausen was the only one I cared about enough to wait in line. And what a line! My heart was filled with the same sensation I felt the first time I saw someone other than me purchase Throne of Blood, a sensation only ever felt by lonely nerds isolated in rural areas in a pre-internet age when a budding cineaste's best option for expanding his horizons was dumb luck and pirated satellite. I had my VHS copy of Clash of the Titans, but I wanted a photo. I bought one in the dealer room not realizing this was apparently a breach of ettiquette. He was miffed! At least I bought one of his other pictures, one with Medusa in it. At least I let him know how great I thought he was.

Doubtless he had no reason to remember that conversation but at least just once I let him know what he meant to me. By the way, before I left the con I purchased that Disney Channel documentary on a limited release VHS. It's one of my favorite nerd possessions still.

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I heard about his passing while at work. I was super bummed out and resolved there and then to honor him somehow, to mark the passing of a great man. I've got no money. I've got no resources. But I have time, friends, and dice.

Last week I ran my players through a Harryhausen Gauntlet. While guarding a silk ship as it traveled to a distant port, It Came From Beneath The Sea and sank their ship. Arriving on a Mysterious Island, the party was set upon by massive crabs. One PC died to be replaced by a backup pregen.

Moving into the jungle interior, they met a wizard who was a combination of Sokurah and Mako from Conan the Barbarian. Though warned against allying with him by a shadowy figure, the wizard (named Obuzu) told them of the six princesses of a distant golden kingdom. Here they were imprisoned by the warlord who sacked their country and killed their parents, and Obuzu was here to help them escape and take back their throne.s.

The first princess was in the Quarry of Bones, a place guarded by a fearsome hydra. Charm Monster was used, but not before the hydra ate my wife's wizard. I let her play Obuzu so we could keep moving. Next stop was the Valley of Gwanji, where the Hydra helped to kill a tyrannosaurus rex and save a princess trapped in something that looked like where the humans lived on the Herculoids. The third was rescued from the cyclops' lair, and dual ass-stabbing from our thieves helped the still-ensorcelled hydra finish him off. Next it was the top of Skullcrusher Mountain, where our fourth princess was guarded by four fearsome sabretooth tigers. The tigers killed Raven again, but were ultimately dispatched, partly through blowing them off the mountainside using a gust-of-wind spell.

The fifth princess was in the Caverns of Medusa, a dark place where lighting a torch meant coming face to face with death and staying in the dark meant being shot up with arrows. She turned the hydra to stone and set about filling the party with ammunition. They were preparing to leave this particular butterface princess to her fate when the shadowy figure from the jungle, Kalibos, showed up with a pet who'd traveled 20 Million Miles To Earth. The party was caught in a run-down. They killed Kalibos and severed his fork-hand, using that as an improvised thrown weapon in FULL darkness to drop Medusa to 1hp and send her slithering away with a failed morale save. The wizard spider-walked up the ceiling and hit the space monster in the face with her stick until it died. The final princess was lashed to the Clashing Rock, set just a few feet into the water from the main beach. As soon as Raven's 3rd character stepped into the water to save her, ONE! HUNDRED! SKELETONS! burst up from the sand and disassembled him.

A pegasus which sprang from Medusa's blood was ridden by the surviving warriors, turning undead from above until the Kraken appeared. Kraken made his charm-monster check but failed his petrify check and turned to stone, toppling over onto the chained princess. The party was bummed but decided to cut their losses and skedaddle. While climbing back over the mountain they discovered a secret chamber wherein lay a flying saucer, which the party hit Auto-Pilot on and which ferried them...somewhere, but off into the sunset for now at least.

It was my first time GMing drunk, and I gotta say I think it went pretty well.

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If I have a point other than "FUCK!" it's this:

I never needed to be taught how to imagine, or taught TO imagine, or taught WHY to imagine. But Ray Harryhausen was the first person I'd heard of who made me not feel as much of a fruit loop for spending so much time imagining more awesome things during school. His admonishment that his films didn't feature monsters but creatures who behaved monstrously because of circumstances they found themselves in was an eye opener at 5 years old. There were giants, in those days, and Ray Harryhausen was certainly one of them...one of the last living giants, a fossil record of an alien era, one of the few I was privileged enough to see and follow and watch and study in my lifetime.

Now he's gone and while the world had bigger problems with that and hell I certainly have more immediate concerns right now than mourning a dead man who never knew my name, I'll likely never shake the feeling that the world became at least .221% more mundane with his passing.

What can I say about a man who changed my life? Apparently the answer is 1,934 words...and not enough.