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Friday, June 10, 2005

Of Trope, Melisma, and Ray Harryhausen (Part 2)

(Continued from Part One)

I've spent a bit of time trying to figure out why I'm so fond of the work of Ray Harryhausen, and come to the conclusion that it's because he was an original talent. He didn't invent stop-motion animation -- George Méliès probably did that -- but Harryhausen took an existing technology, combined it with a sculptor's artistic skill, and achieved that wonderful synthesis that can only be described as, "like nothing you've ever seen before." Sure, his movies could be remade now with better scripts, better acting, and modern CGI effects, but why? Harryhausen rarely repeated himself. Wouldn't it be better homage to do as Nick Park has done, and strive to create something equally new and original?

The more I think about this, the more I realize that this has been a recurring theme throughout my life. I started classical piano lessons at age 7, and by age 14 was bored out of my mind with Beethoven. Sure, it's lovely music, and I enjoy listening to it, but why labor to re-perform some 200-year-old klaviersonate when there are so many other people out there who are already eager, willing, and able to do it? Wouldn't it be better to write new music?

My interest in music was not rekindled again until I was in college, and was surprised to learn that there were such things as living composers, and such a thing as modern music (besides jazz and rock), and that "serious" music was not some fossil form that was trapped in amber sometime in the early 19th century. I got the same kind of thrill from listening to Edgard Varese, Karlheinz Stockhausen, or Igor Stravinsky as I did from catching an old Harryhausen film -- it was "like nothing I'd ever heard before" -- and in many ways my entire career ever since can be described as having begun the moment I first laid my hands on an ARP 2600. (Although I will freely admit that listening to Krzysztov Penderecki still sets my teeth on edge and my contempt for Walter/Wendy Carlos knows no bounds, but those are topics for another time.)

More importantly, it was in the course of all my music history and theory classes that I finally realized my general dissastisfaction had an identifiable source, and it could be summarized in two words: trope and melisma. To provide extremely concise and not entirely accurate definitions:

- A trope is a common form or a familiar structure.

- Melisma (not to be mistaken for miasma) is the process of creating "new" material by working over, polishing, embellishing, or otherwise spinning out tiny variations on already well-established tropes.

Which in an extremely roundabout way brings us back to the literature of the fantastic, which is the ostensible subject of this blog.

...To be continued...

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Of Trope, Melisma, and Ray Harryhausen (Part 1)

During the discussion of The Matrix, someone asked me why I was looking for movies in the library in the first place. The answer is that for reasons unknown, my local library has a large collection of Ray Harryhausen movies, and I have been a huge fan of Mr. Harryhausen's work ever since I first saw Jason and the Argonauts, when it was a first-run movie and I was just 8 years old. Forty-two years later, I still love that movie, and still get a thrill at the dramatic climax, when the dry and barren dirt cracks apart and breaks open, and one by one, the skeleton warriors slowly rise to their feet...

Okay, I'll concede right here that most of his movies qua movies are downright bad. The acting is second-rate; the dialog is laughable; the science in something like 20 Million Miles to Earth is pure gibberish. But those things aren't Harryhausen's fault, as he was neither the writer nor principle director. Rather, he was (in case you didn't know) the special effects director, and his unique genius lay in the now nearly lost art of stop-motion animation. Anyone can cover a golf-cart with a papier-mache shell and pretend it's a giant ant, or put a man in a rubber suit and pretend he's a monster, or glue some spikes on an iguana and pretend it's a dinosaur, but Harryhausen was the master of making the impossible come to life -- and not only to come alive, but then to act, often with more skill and expressiveness than the humans who were split-screened into the scene.

I've been thinking a lot about Ray Harryhausen lately. In part it's because I've just finished a lengthy essay on King Kong for an as-yet-untitled BenBella Books anthology, and in writing it I was suddenly stricken by the realization that, well --

Willis O'Brien was the animator who brought Kong to life, and 12-year-old Ray Harryhausen was so dazzled by Kong that he spent his life perfecting stop-motion animation techniques, eventually winding up working for O'Brien on films like Mighty Joe Young. Now, Harryhausen also stayed lifelong friends with his old high school buddy, Ray Bradbury, and it just so happens that I've met and spoken with Mr. Bradbury a fair number of times over the years. So this means...
Forget my being just two degrees away from Kevin Bacon. I'm only three degrees away from King Kong! Is this cool or what?!

To be continued...