April Shame: So Godzilla (1954) isn’t really a monster movie
by James David Patrick (originally posted at cinemashame.wordpress.com)
The confluence of me and Godzilla is an odd twisty tale of no matter. That said, let’s dive in and read about all of that inconsequence.
It all began back in the late 1980’s with a little arcade game called Rampage where you controlled one of three monsters as they razed buildings, ate people and destroyed all military vehicles that attempted to stop them from razing buildings or eating people. Ported over to the Nintendo Entertainment System (and pretty much every available video game system of the next decade), the monster masher became a staple in my gaming rotation. And you’re probably thinking, “But hey the lizard monster in Rampage isn’t even Godzilla – its name was Lizzie!” Or not. But either way you’d be on point. On point because you were right about the name or on point because you didn’t care either way.
Rampage – Arcade
Shortly after Rampage came an actual, legit Godzilla licensed NES game called Godzilla: Monster of Monsters, a side-scrolling action game featuring both Godzilla and Mothra as playable characters against the legions of classic Toho and Godzilla monsters like Gigan, Mechagodzilla, Ghidorah, etc. And it was actually pretty excellent and by excellent I mean don’t challenge my nostalgia, bro. By this point in adolescence, I was aware of the Godzilla movie franchise and knew that these were characters from the old Japanese films. When I decided it was time to watch some of these movies, I couldn’t settle merely one monster. Why would I want to watch a movie about just Godzilla when I could have Godzilla and Hedorah, the smog monster? Or Godzilla and Gezora, a massive cuttlefish?!? Clearly two monsters was better than one! Obviously! Without a doubt! And thus I watched whatever Godzilla vs. movies I could find.
Godzilla: Monsters of Monsters
I had just never watched the original Godzilla… until now…
As I started to say in the title of this ramble before the actual words got in the way, Godzilla isn’t really a monster movie at all. Okay, sure, there’s a giant rampaging radioactive lizard, but if you want a monster movie by today’s standards you’re best queuing up Alien or Q: The Winged Serpent. People are terrorized, directly, by a real goddamn monster. Godzilla, like Stay Puft, is just a sailor, in town for the weekend and all he needs is to get laid. But that’s an alternate theory to be tackled in a longer-format essay.
While watching Godzilla the specter of World War II is inescapable. Godzilla is a war film, only not as we’ve seen before – a movie about the nuclear fallout. The ever-present fear that war can no longer be confined between a first volley and a few signatures on a peace treaty. What the United States had unleashed on Japan on August 6th, 1945 wasn’t a confined act of war, but an uncontrollable monster. (Another related theory: bombs = dragon sperm, Japan = the fertile womb. I’m still working it out.) Curiously enough, I sensed no acute blame on the United States (despite the film being re-edited with Raymond Burr for stateside consumption). The atomic age, the film seems to suggest, wasn’t the fault of one man or one nation, but a sin committed by all humankind.
To punctuate the fear and persistent paranoia, director Ishiro Honda and DP Masao Tamai create a noir-like cinematic playground. Black & white stock. Contrast jacked off the charts, the blacks several shades darker than a standard contemporary palettes. This, of course, serves aesthetic and the emotional response to pending attacks, but it also allows the film’s model work and monster effects to remain in shadow as most of Godzilla’s attacks take place at night.
The result of all this is a film about a national existential and personal crisis. It’s man vs. nature, man vs. man, and man vs. the gods. It makes perfect sense, therefore, that no single individual becomes a focus of the film. The collective remains the focus, Godzilla the lead actor with a few humans standing out as representatives of science, love, religion and war. Scientists want to save or preserve the creature to study the effects of the radiation. Religious groups worship Godzilla as a deity sent to destroy man for those aforementioned sins. The government wants the creature destroyed at any cost.
All of these conflicts bubble just above the surface of the film with skilled subtlety, but that nuance doesn’t matter one bit when the viewer first catches sight of that now legendary monster. While the latter Toho Godzilla movies emphasize spectacle and superficial entertainment, the original 1954 Godzilla, despite being about a 50-meter tall lizard, emphasizes humanity through the interplay of fear, faith and foolish bravado.
In my opinion, the religious zealots got something right. Godzilla is definitely worthy of your worship.
March Shame: So The Birds has a beginning, a middle and “an end”
(originally posted at wordpress.cinemashame.com)
The year: 1990. My age: 12. The movie: Psycho. This was the year I watched my first Alfred Hitchcock movie, or at least the first one I remember. Pardon me if I don’t stop to fully explain the greater ramifications of showing a 12-year old Psycho. Sure, it was all that, but it was also… more.
It was about this time that I first became what one might call a pre-teen video store junkie. By the way, PRE-TEEN VIDEO STORE JUNKIE is my Ennio Morricone tribute band (obligatory hat tip to @ThatAndyRoss every time I freeload on his #Bond_age_ meme). In short order, I watched Rear Window, North by Northwest, Notorious and Dial M for Murder. I worked my way through the available VHS tapes, whatever my parents had in the library. Undergraduate film school brought about a lot of clips during class, but I don’t specifically recall watching a whole Hitchcock film. The Hitchcock class was a rotating offering that rotated right out of my time in the program. I found myself in “The Politics of Oliver Stone and Steven Spielberg” instead. This class offered me the opportunity to form drastic opinions about The Color Purple and Born on the 4th of July and for that I will always be grateful. But I’d have much rather tackled the deep cuts from Hitch, most of which I eventually got around to on my own time after the release of the first Hitchcock DVD Box sets.
But the one movie I never sat down to watch was The Birds. I’d studied the isolated “jungle gym” scene on its own during my Intro to Film class. I’d seen dozens of clips in montages, retrospectives, etc, etc. I’d felt like I’d seen it a dozen times over. But I hadn’t. And then when I created this CinemaShame list I still didn’t think to include it. Two months into my list, I realized I’d forgotten probably my most egregious oversight. So I dropped Ride the High Country and replaced it with The Birds.
After numerous false starts I finally set a hard date with Hitch during the #Cine3Some (the simul-live-tweet of three different films at the same time) where @AnnaRenee would finally finish Gone With the Wind and @theactualkeith would show up late and then fall asleep during Citizen Kane. Shame!
The first act of The Birds is not, well, especially great. It meanders in and out of a bizarre crush turned practical joke about lovebirds. The basis for suspense is being built, brick by brick. Chickens won’t eat. Birds gathering on a wire. Questions about bird migration. Every mention or shot of birds is heightened to a preposterous level of perceived significance.
And then Tippi Hedren gets clubbed by a seagull. Act two. Hitch stops messing around… and then before you know it, you’ve reached the scene. THE scene.
Out of context, the “jungle gym” scene is a study in conducting escalating tension. In the context of the entire film, however, the “jungle gym” scene pays off dozens of smaller moments, all leading up to this one sequence. Melanie Daniels (Tippi) sits, enjoying a quiet cigarette on a bench. Minding her own business. In the background, children sing a Scottish folk song (“The Wee Cooper O’Fife”) in the schoolhouse. The crows gather. From here on out, Hitch unleashes sequence after sequence of birds gone bad. No explanation. No attempt to point fingers or give them some excuse for the bloodletting. Some might posit that this film is an environmental fable. Poppycock. The birds are attacking because the birds are attacking. Throughout the film characters want to blame Melanie Daniels because of the timing of her arrival at Bodega Bay. A woman confronts her. Accusing her of “EEEEVIL.” As the hysteria mounts and the fingers point, it becomes increasingly more clear to the viewer that there’s no solution, no possible deus ex machina that will save these characters from the birds.
And that brings us to the ending.
I’d heard plenty about the ending. Angst. Derision. Worship. It was time to see for myself.
Here’s my tweet immediately following the conclusion of The Birds:
And even as I launched into the second of my Thursday night CinemaShame features, Godzilla, I still didn’t know what to make of that ending. It was the absence of a resolution.
This morning I had a revelation. Well, not so much a revelation as an understanding, a reading that satisfies everything I wanted or needed from the ending to this film. I rewatched the ending tonight to further flesh out my hypothesis.
As viewers we’ve come to know these characters, even fear for their well being. We hope that they escape. This is the tension in the film. As they’re loading up the station wagon to make a valiant ride to the hospital to mend Melanie’s wounds, we expect the birds to attack. When they don’t and when there’s no added tension we don’t know how to react. Yay? Our characters are safe? Happy ending?
(originally posted at wordpress.cinemashame.com)
Nah. Not exactly. (Spoiler-ish things to follow, but nothing below would lessen your enjoyment of the film have you not seen it.)
As the wagon drives off into the “safe” horizon, the camera remains at the house, at Bodega Bay, surrounded by the idle crows and seagulls. If we return to the notion that there’s no reason for the attacks, no ecological message, no provocative “EEEVIL” inspiring supernatural swarms of killer birds, we have no reason to believe that Melanie and Mitch will arrive at the hospital safely… unless the birds have already achieved some measure of victory. With the camera remaining with the birds rather than the humans, the point of view has shifted. The birds, as the title of the film suggests, have been our main characters all along and now as we and the birds watch the purged humans flee Bodega Bay, this is our happy ending.
The birds have won.
Note the ray of sunshine.
February Shame: So The Longest Yard is not really a comedy
(originally posted at www.cinemashame.wordpress.com)
I am an unapologetic fan of Burt Reynolds. When I talk about Burt Reynolds films in the 1970’s I occasionally slip into a diatribe not unlike something that would come from the mouth of Sterling Archer.
I’m under no delusions.
Most of Burt’s cinematic output is, objectively, bad. But it’s pure entertainment. Just listen to that trademark Burt Reynolds laugh and try not to smile. Go ahead.
In Entertainment Weekly’s Guide to the Greatest Movies Ever Made, one of my inspirations for the CinemaShame project, The Longest Yard was ranked as the highest “comedy” I had not yet seen. And it starred Burt Reynolds. No more excuses.
When, within the first five minutes, The Longest Yard offered me a drunken Burt Reynolds man-whore; a car chase; an unexpected appearance by Bernadette Peters and “the laugh,” I was convinced The Longest Yard might be the best movie ever made. Clearly, I’d become wrapped up in the moment.
And then a funny thing happened after about 30 more minutes. I realized that The Longest Yard wasn’t really comedy at all. Sure, there are funny moments. Indisputably funny. In addition to Richard Kiel’s “I think I broke his fuckin’ neck” bit, this scene in particular had me rolling:
In the end, however, The Longest Yard is about race and privilege, the corruption of the prison system and the culturally accepted violence in sport. For every laugh there’s dire consequences. The warden, played with wonderful, slithery menace, by Eddie Albert (Green Acres) doesn’t pull any punches. He’s not in this movie for cloying broad comedy. He coerces an inmate to burn another inmate (a main character, mind you) by locking him in a cell and rigging the light fixture to explode. Names have been removed to prevent spoilerfication. And even though Burt Reynolds summons all of his mid-70’s superpowers, including a gag about shaving his mustache, he’s only half inside the comedy can and gives a performance that somehow, someway balances and cements the erratic tone of the film into something coherent, funny and dramatic. Burt Reynolds had range, goddammit.
In fact, the influence of The Longest Yard can be felt in nearly every football movie since, comedy or otherwise — yet none can touch the brutality displayed in 1974. Even when it’s funny, it’s a touch uncomfortable. Much like the scene above. Once is funny. Twice is funnier. Three times and I started to feel sympathy pains. Take for example Any Given Sunday — the movie of similar subtext that sets out to acknowledge the socially-approved manslaughter. The gloss and sheen of a modern big budget film makes the violence seem safe and less terrible. The gritty, grainy film stock used in the 70’s, coupled with the trending cinematic realism blurs the line between horror and humor. Is The Longest Yard a great cinematic achievement? Maybe. Maybe not. What is, however, is a miracle in light of our current, disposable expectations for sports movies and sports comedies in particular. This is something much more… even if I’m not quite sure how to stock it on the video shelves.
As a follow up to my introduction of CinemaShame yesterday, I’m reposting the entry I wrote for my January selection, BEN-HUR. I have my February selection lined up for this weekend. It really feels good to finally watch these movies. There’s therapy happening here daily.
That’s how I began my viewing on Ben-Hur Saturday night.
But first some backstory.
I’ve owned multiple versions of Ben-Hur on DVD and Blu-ray. Most recently I picked up this mamajamma 50th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition on Blu-ray. And for a long time, I’d been content to look at it on my shelf. A brilliant example of how to make me pay money for a movie I have no agenda to watch. Put it in a bigass glossy box with cool cinephile-specific shit inside I might not ever read. I also have the similarly-styled Casablanca set. (more…)
Back in January, a Twitter acquaintance (#Bond_age_ regular @campbelldropout) and I were discussing an idea for a project that would encourage people to finally tackle those movies that they regret not having seen. He had come up with a list of 12 movies that he planned to watch in 2014. Ones that he’d always wanted to see, but for one reason or another just hadn’t. It was an idea I’d considered around in the past. I just hadn’t come up with a way to make the venture more community-oriented… until he showed me his list. After exchanging a few tweets we came up with the idea of CinemaShame, a support group for cinephiles with latent guilt. Here’s the blurb from the About page at cinemashame.wordpress.com:
Everyone’s got those movies that they regret not having seen. They tear at the very being of the movie fan, the movie aficionado, the cinephile. Should our friends find out, we’d be labeled frauds, outcasts.
Some movie watcher, you are.
How have you not seen [insert movie title here]?
Everyone’s heard these exclamations at one point or another, so much so that we probably clutch these secrets so close to our chest it hurts. No one will ever know. But we know. And it eats away at us every time we respond in a Twitter thread or Facebook post with a vague, understated comment that suggests we’ve seen the film in question, without ever committing one slice of concrete knowledge.
Only the penitent movie watcher will pass, will rest easy at night, will finally, after all these years, watch The Deer Hunter without shame and without the judgment of self-righteous others.
Join the penitent men and women who are writing their confessionals in the form of 12-movie lists. Watch one per month and then submit a blog entry about the experience. Write about why you chose the movie, why it was important for you to finally watch it, write about your expectations and how that shaped your viewing.
The project immediately gained quite a bit of interest on Twitter, with 19 people now having submitted their own Statements of Shame — their list of 12 movies they plan to watch. So far it’s been a lot of fun, a virtual watercooler for classic movies. Even if you don’t have any desire to contribute, skim some of the posts on the website, maybe even chat up some of our contributors about their selections.
To describe some of my own impetus for starting the project, here’s the post I wrote to describe my own seeds of CinemaShame:
I meant to post an origin story (they’re all the rage after all) about the beginnings of CinemaShame but the whole project took off before I could toss this out there. Better late-ish than never. Sometime in high school (1995-ish) when I became obsessed with haunting video stores, my parents bought me a book called THE ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY GUIDE TO THE GREATEST MOVIES EVER MADE. It had just been published in 1994 and was the most up-to-date guide on movies I’d ever seen. The lists contained within were broken down by genre: Drama, Comedy, Action, Sci-Fi, Western, etc. It even contains an awesomely nostalgic time-capsule section on the best Laserdisc releases.
Anyway, as I went through the book I marked the movies I’d seen and immediately set forth watching every movie counted off in the book. Suffice to say, twenty years later, dog-earned and falling apart at the binding, the book remains a constant around my TV. I’m still marking off movies I’m just seeing for the first time. A few months ago, I began wondering how I could encourage myself to tackle those films I hadn’t yet watched when the notion of crossing another movie off the list hadn’t yet compelled me. I’d tossed about the idea of live tweeting the movies but the rigors of #Bond_age_ made that impossible. Then when @campbelldropout offhand mentioned his 12-film list on Twitter, I had a EUREKA! moment and the ensuing conversation begat CinemaShame.
In compiling my list of 12, I consulted the EW Guide for a few picks. I looked at the movies I already owned for some others. Perhaps the best aspect of this book is that the lists aren’t routine regurgitation. They contain some surprise entries among the hard-and-fast staples. This might be the result of it being compiled pre-Internet and free from widespread public ridicule. Whatever the reason for it’s longevity, this book has guided my movie watching for as long as I can remember, and I feel like I owed it this fleeting moment of fame.
A sample page from the Sci-Fi/Horror section.
Here’s a sampling of how the book ranks the most listed films by our Penitent Moviewatchers:
No big shock. Kane takes the #1 spot in Drama.
Citizen Kane – #1 Drama
Gone With the Wind – #2 Drama
The Godfather / The Godfather: Part II – #3 Drama
Casablanca – #4 Drama
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – #11 Drama
Raging Bull – #22 Drama
It’s A Wonderful Life – #27 Drama
Taxi Driver – #35 Drama
Comedy, et al.
Maybe I love this book because it picked Airplane! as it’s #1 Comedy. Nobody’s watching Airplane!, however. I do hope everyone’s seen it… ahem.
Dr. Strangelove – #11 Comedy
Enter the Dragon – #27 Action
The Wild Bunch – #9 Western
Rio Bravo – #12 Western
North By Northwest – #10 Mystery/Suspense
Psycho – #1 Sci-Fi/Horror
Close Encounters of the Third Kind – #4 Sci-Fi/Horror
2001 – #10 Sci-Fi/Horror
Blade Runner – #50 Sci-Fi/Horror
Dracula (1931) – #51 Sci-Fi/Horror
Singin’ in the Rain – #3 Musical
…the only thing I really don’t like is the way the book handles the “foreign” category… just an arbitrary grouping of everything that’s not in English…
The 400 Blows – #48 Foreign
Rashomon – #61 Foreign
La Dolce Vita – #71 Foreign
Breathless – #75 Foreign
The Apartment – #51 Laserdisc (Ha!)