Classic Review: Gojira

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

When I reviewed the 1998 remake (or is it reboot?) I mentioned that I was a fairly devout Godzilla fan as a kid.  Still, I admit that I was only really a fan of the sequels.  I loved to watch Godzilla fight other monsters and comically destroy cities.  I didn’t see the original film until much later on and I was initially put off by it.  It was slower paced, there were no other giant monsters for Godzilla to fight, and the whole movie felt too grim.  I dismissed it for many years.  Having recently rewatched it, though, I see what a masterpiece it truly is.

It’s difficult now-a-days to treat giant monster movies seriously.  No one, it seems, not even those who make them, honestly wants to make great films for the genre.  They’re about action.  They’re about special effects.  They’re about how cool the monsters look. They don’t exist for story telling purposes*.  Most are glorified sporting matches, a football game with more monstrous contenders.

Not so with the 1954 Gojira (Godzilla was an American mistranslation that stuck.)  Here is a movie that is about ideas, not merely action.  The grimness that I found so off putting years earlier is quite intentional—this film is about war and nuclear annihilation, albeit through the imagery of a giant destructive dinosaur.

Japan, of course, had experienced the destruction of the atomic bomb less than a decade earlier, and so many scenes in the film allude to it.  A city on fire, countless buildings collapsing, hospitals overflowing with the injured and dying, the military fighting a losing battle against an unstoppable force, a secret weapon (the oxygen destroyer) that could end a war but might fall into the wrong hands.  The imagery is powerful, even overwhelming at times.  One scene shows school children singing a prayer, a desperate cry for salvation, the kind of thing that could very well have happened after Nagasaki or Hiroshima were bombed.  It may be one of the saddest moments ever filmed.

It’s easy to be caught up in moments like this in the film and forget that they were caused by a clumsy man in a rubber suit.  Admittedly, the special effects aren’t great.  At no point does Godzilla look real or believable; he looks like what he is: cheap foreign effects from fifty years ago, and still I find myself involved.  Maybe its because the film takes him so seriously.  A shot of Godzilla standing in the middle of a miniature city in flames should’ve seemed comical, and yet I found myself feeling disheartened over the destruction.  People aren’t supposed to die in vast quantities in a giant monster movie, cities aren’t supposed to be on fire.  This film dares you to care, plain and simple.
I had once said that giant monster movies could never rise above B-movie grade.  I think it’s time I retract that.  The reality in film is that any subject can be made into an A-film, if only it’s done with sincerity and strong ideas.  Too many films aim low and get low returns.  Gojira could’ve easily done that.  It could’ve just been another monster movie.  But instead it aimed higher; it wanted to symbolize something.  And that’s why, fifty-seven years after its release, people like me are still talking about it.

*Cloverfield may be an exception, but I never saw it.

Classic Review: Twelve Angry Men

Summary: An absolutely boiling drama that has stood the test of time, and goes to show that great cinema thrives under limitations.

Review: Great films don’t stand only as examples of what films can or should be; they stand also to condemn every film produced with venal intentions for apathetic audiences.  This is not because a great film would attract audiences if it were released instead, but because far too often lesser material is rewarded while exceptional work is ignored.  What matters, however, is the pictures’ enduring memory.  ‘Twelve Angry Men’, the first film directed by Sidney Lumet, was released in April 1957 to critical acclaim but box office disappointment.  I ask you, what else came out on the thirteenth of that month in that year that is as enduring as this film?  Why would a screenplay this electric with a cast this matchless go without popular response?  I have no clue.  The good news is that popular and critical reaction would soon match up.  The bad news, at least for whatever stood in competition for its box office dollars, is that apparently only ‘Twelve Angry Men’ survived.

Some films demand spectacle, action, sexual chemistry and endless stanzas of visual poetry.  They need these things to exist.  What ‘Twelve Angry Men’ proves is that the most essential dramatic element, stakes that create suspense, can thrive in a visual environment as small as a single room.  The story doesn’t demand more, but it puts other stories that have more but lack legitimate tension to shame.  ‘Twelve Angry Men’ is nothing but dialog, but it has more impact than a dozen car crashes in a brainless, gutless action movie.  With actions as simple as frowns and glances, a war wages in this single room that captivates the viewer, with compelling moral, logical arguments and severe emotional consequences.  Every character is challenged, so that everyone in the audience is challenged.  You will question yourself, your prejudices, and your approach to justice.  The screenplay almost guarantees that.

And perhaps this is why it was not a box office success.  We like to pretend that audiences have grown more or less sophisticated over the years, depending on the arguments we are making at the moment, but in fact people have not changed.  By and large, sophisticated stories are ignored, only for word-of-mouth to redeem them at a later time when it is too late to reward the producers for their financial risk.  While it is true that filmmakers are getting their money back from home video sales, producers still view the box office as the measure of a film’s worth.  This is changing, but the push for 3D and IMAX technologies shows that filmmakers want theatrical vindication of their investment.  So many, arguably most, future classics are small features, like ants carrying many times their own weight.  Truly exceptional movies that also make hundreds of millions in box office are rare.  Most hits are, ironically, forgettable.

But I digress.  The reason for my tangents is that it is difficult to say more about ‘Twelve Angry Men’ than has already been said by much sharper analysts.  What I can say is this: the cast and crew worked with a smaller toolbox than are afforded most projects, and they delivered something truly special.  Its intimacy and emphasis on character gives an immersion that 3D technology can never match.  It is so true to life and so damn engaging that there is nothing left to improve, except perhaps removing the superfluous musical score, which intrudes a couple of times and doesn’t add anything of substance.  This makes for an ironic flaw in contrast to other films and their poor use of musical resources; ‘Twelve Angry Men’ had a limited toolbox, and ended up with just one tool too many!  The harmony between Sidney Lumet’s direction and Reginald Rose’s screenplay makes the real music here.

This movie should be required viewing for up-and-coming filmmakers.  If you’re interested in writing screenplays, I urge you to watch this film and study the most insignificant details.  This is a taut, perfectly calibrated symphony of cinema.  If you can do as well, do so, and don’t compromise.  History will vindicate you.

Classic Review: Alphaville

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary:  A logically opaque, madcap, pretentious, and hilarious genre mashup.

Review:  To a geek like me, combining deconstructed film noir with a vague science fiction dystopia makes for a beguiling premise.  After hearing about ‘Alphaville’ and reading a little about it via the Criterion Collection, I made it my first DVD rental through Netflix, expecting an equally exciting product.  Of course, I had overlooked that this is an art film, and moreover it is quite insane.  This means it ended up even better than I expected.

‘Alphaville’ moves swiftly from episode to episode, slapping random ideas together like an optimistic French philosopher who is both drunk and convinced that ‘Axe Cop‘ is the next big thing in serious literature.  That’s hyperbole, yeah, and it’s cathartic to say it.  The point being, it seems the filmmakers weren’t concerned with making the premise seem credible, but they were using it as an excuse to indulge in various kinds of madness.  “Tangent” is the word of the day.  It’s possible that Godard did find reason for the randomness, however, as the story, in its most vanilla form, could be described as the man of passion (viva la France!) versus the cold logical computer society of tomorrow.  A stylistic rebellion against narrative sense, perhaps?

The protagonist, Lemmy Caution, a character borrowed from detective novels and films set in an ostensibly more realistic time and place, is summarily transposed, with all his noir tendencies, into the Huxleyian future city of the film’s title.  In this setting, the sheer arbitrary nature of his behavior clashes directly with the computer that nigh-intangibly controls everything.  It’s like an episode of classic ‘Star Trek’ — the episode ‘Return of the Archons‘ comes to mind — only instead of Bill Shatner lasering zombies we have Eddie Constantine shooting holes in centerfolds.

The parallels between ‘Alphaville’ and the previously mentioned ‘Return of the Archons’ are actually pretty striking, as are the differences.  Both involve men on a mission, looking for missing persons in a computer-controlled, soulless society.  Unlike the Enterprise crew, who wander only because they don’t know where to start, Lemmy Caution does whatever the hell he wants, despite having a clear objective from the get go.  The film’s plotting is startlingly opaque.  If Lemmy has a grand plan, he doesn’t share it, to my recollection.  He’s there to find a couple of people and blow up Alpha 60, the monstrous computer, preventing Alphaville’s influence from infecting other “galaxies”.  This being an art film, Lemmy’s solution isn’t bombs or bullets, but unbearable love poetry.  It’s similar to James Kirk’s tactic of talking alien intelligences to death, with the writer’s naked ideas as the ultimate weapon.

The best way to digest this film is as a comedy, a guilty pleasure packed with odd moments.  Judging by its creator’s pedigree, it’s probably not unintentional.  It’s not a bad film.  In fact, it’s rather brilliant, in a quirky way.  It deserves a bigger cult audience than it has accumulated, especially in light of substantially better, relatively recent sci-fi dystopia film noir such as ‘Brazil’, ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Dark City’ and ‘Minority Report’.  They all owe an artistic debt to this wonderfully off-kilter classic.

Classic Review: F For Fake

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  An excellent film — a sort of metadocumentary — that exposes its own artifice and the relationship between truth and trust.

Review:  In the 1973 film ‘F For Fake’, over 88 minutes cinematic genius Orson Welles examines the nature of art in a filmic form not quite documentary and not quite fiction.   It’s proof that the peculiar magic of the medium is not restricted to the categories dreamed up by marketing departments.  ‘F For Fake’ is a truly self-aware film.  It doesn’t merely acknowledge its artifice in a humorous, superficial way; it turns itself inside out.  It is edited in such a way as to obfuscate our attempts to sort out truth and fiction.  It’s like a photograph of a flower-pot hiding its very subject immediately behind it.  For us viewers at Mr. Welles’ mercy, the question is, when are we looking at the proverbial flower-pot?

Orson Welles is brazen and beguiling as he guides us through the twisted tale of an infamous art forger and his equally infamous biographer.  Throughout the story, he weaves in a bizarre fiction and chases rabbits down their trails.  Mr. Welles promises to tell us the truth whilst declaiming himself as a charlatan akin to his subjects.  Welles in his own estimation is untrustworthy, but we believe him anyway, and that is precisely his point!

While he’s at it, he subtly explores sexuality’s use as a deceptive device, through two sequences in which a beautiful woman distracts us from the ideas at play.  He seems to suggest that physical beauty is often used by filmmakers to divert our attention from both flaws and substantive content.  That’s consistent with how often sex appeal determines casting, particularly in works of a shallower nature.  It wouldn’t be enough to say that this is just good business.  Even if it has become second nature, these techniques are a kind of sleight-of-hand.  The plot could disappear into a deep hole, but your basic instincts might not let you notice.  And, for a storyteller more intent on complexity, using human desires to his or her advantage is a simple and effective way to get an audience’s attention while they work past the mind’s more intricate defenses.

In a film-craft sense, ‘F For Fake’ is really brilliant, with rapid cuts, repetitions, and instantly evocative imagery creating a captivating kaleidoscope.  For those of us in the post-MTV world who have to endure and sometimes enjoy the films of Michael Bay and others like him, it’s positively redeeming to see prototypes of postmodern techniques used so meaningfully.  Paired and contrasted with the classic techniques of ‘Citizen Kane’, it’s perhaps the ultimate example of Orson Welles’ range and influence.

‘F For Fake’ revolves around a simple premise: What we believe is true relies on who we believe is trustworthy.  It is a reminder that those we call experts — such as the art dealers defrauded by Elmyr de Hory — also rely on other people for estimates of the truth.  Considering that a painting mimicking an original may trick even the finest eye, what then is an original’s value?  Isn’t it possible to derive the same pleasure from an original and a fake?  If a duped museum believes that a clever fake is the genuine article, and displays it under this pretense, would the viewers in effect be seeing an original, or even the original by proxy?

The film challenges the notion that art’s virtue is in the truth of itself.  Art, genuine or forgery, is properly measured by how well it convinces us.  Aristotle observed, in reference to theatrical art, that (and the emphasis is mine) “A tragedy is the imitation of an action that is serious, and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself . . . with incidents arousing pity and terror, with which to accomplish its purgation of these emotions.”  In short, it’s a noble deception by which we hope to accomplish an emotional change in those who, for at least a little time, choose to believe it.  As in the case of a painting, a film’s communicated truth is in its emotional effect on the viewer.

One hopes that a filmmaker is responsible and doesn’t betray our confidence by convincing us of ignoble things; but what is there to stop them?  My hope as a filmmaker and a critic is to be an honest charlatan.  I’d like to echo Mr. Welles, who in this magic act says, “What we professional liars hope to serve is truth. I’m afraid the pompous word for that is ‘art’.”

Classic Review: The Trial (1962)

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A deep, brilliant classic and a potent humanistic antidote to exploitative horror films.


Review:  I have a bit of a beef with horror as a cinematic genre.  It’s typically immature at best and outright revolting at worst, with some blessed exceptions.  Like run-of-the-mill, thoughtless action films, there’s a noticeable separation between the filmmakers and the ethical subtleties of the material; it’s not so much about telling a story as it is about extravagance and extremes, which demands a pushed envelope with every new film.  The filmmakers shrug off concerns about content in favor of impact and, of course, money.  It’s why the standard Hollywood horror film of today continues to devolve into aptly named “torture porn“, the final expression of exploitative ethics.

Now what does this rant have to do with Orson Welles’ under-appreciated masterpiece ‘The Trial’?  In short, this adaptation of Franz Kafka‘s novel is the antithesis of torture porn.  What that degraded form of horror says about the human condition, ‘The Trial’ says the opposite.  And yes, ‘The Trial’ is fundamentally a horror picture, at least in my opinion.  It is surrealistic, nightmarish and psychologically potent.  I had a similar gut reaction when I saw ‘Night Of The Living Dead’.  It is unique, which is more than I can say for most films.  Even today, after over forty years of film history have gone by, it’s only aged like a fine wine, becoming a richer and more profound experience that’s quite difficult to replicate.  Orson Welles’ direction is superb, as per his rep, and it’s packed with fine performances, particularly that of Anthony Perkins in the lead role.

And now, to explore the film’s story, I’ll continue my initial critique.  So what is torture porn’s — and by extension most postmodern horror’s — philosophy?  It’s the withering of human dignity in the face of unspeakable evil, usually embodied in one or a few figures.  It’s utterly vampiric, destroying souls and bodies in the quest for pleasure by the monster at a given film’s center, vicariously experienced — and here’s the real horror — by the audience.  We’re taught to identify with the vicars of decay.  Now, in the other corner is the ‘The Trial’, combining Kafka’s and Welles’ ideas, and its philosophy is the exact opposite.  The lone figure with whom we identify in this universally human nightmare is Josef K., the man accused of an unknown crime, a man who may not be innocent but is sure he is not guilty.  He is an avatar of our consciousness in a lucid dream, running from monsters masked by the faces of lawyers and little girls.  ‘The Trial’ is our subconscious rebellion against the weight of an impersonal cosmic law that offers no explanations and no access to its logic.  Pointedly, the antagonist is the very Advocate assigned to defend Josef.

So in what direct way is ‘The Trial’ opposed to torture porn?  The roles reverse.  The unsympathetic Court, the many, torments Josef K., the one, but he resists them to the last with unapologetic, humanistic ferocity.  ‘The Trial’ is bleak, but instructive, giving meaning to our nightmares upon waking.  We know what the monsters are — original sin manifested — and it equips us with self-knowledge to destroy them.  Torture porn, however, seeks to empower us at the cost of our empathy.  There’s no instruction, no moment of waking from that nightmare.  The films dehumanize the many victims and moralize the one monster’s actions, making it possible for warped minds to sympathize with it.  Vicariously, we become the monster.

But of course, ‘The Trial’ is much more than horror, and deserving of review beyond this contrast.  ‘The Trial’ has much to say about religion, law, politics, sexuality, and cinema itself.  It begs for in-depth analysis.  I plan to give it just that in due time.

Reportedly, Orson Welles considered this the best of his whole celebrated filmography.  It’s a shame that it’s been so often ignored by cinephiles and the critical community.  It’s wonderful stuff.

Classic Review: Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers

Stars: ★★☆☆

Summary:  Silly, heedless, jingoistic and naïve, this classic invasion flick is great throwback fun.

Review:  I grew up on the B’s.  I adored — and still do — the mostly unintentional laughs and geeky excitement conjured up by the sci-fi kitsch of yore, those pictures which defied common sense and budgetary limits with heedless abandon.  My special love was for Toho Ltd.’s ‘Godzilla’ series, but I’d devour anything else.  Recently I’ve had a bit of a B-movie reawakening.  In pursuit of my next cheesy sci-fi meal, I queued up ‘Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers‘ in Netflix on DVD, having admired a creepy edit of the trailer on an overplayed VHS tape in my youth.

Made at the height of UFO hysteria with the substantial plus of effects wizard Ray Harryhausen’s iconic touch, the film arrived at just the right time, capitalizing on public fears while affirming the official faith in the U.S. Military and science at large.  This was the era when space travel was a wild, exciting frontier that most people didn’t know a lick about and promised variants of the sort of phantom dangers that had terrified explorers sailing off the map centuries before.  Nowadays, it seems the American public has grown terribly cynical about the enterprise, and there isn’t that juvenile mix of fear and enthusiasm that accompanied those tentative steps beyond our sphere.

‘Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers’ totally lacks the cynicism and self-awareness that marks today’s cream-of-the-crop science fiction, in part due to its exploitive nature and otherwise attributable to naiveté.  The film’s attitude, in essence, is: “Gee, aren’t rockets cool?  And America, too, God bless her?  And her fine fighting men and those brilliant scientists!  Why, even the flying saucers are cool, and I kind of pity those poor aliens and their burned-out world.  It’s a shame we have to quickly abandon diplomacy and annihilate the last of their race without visible remorse… Gee, isn’t Joan Taylor pretty?  And those American monuments, too?  But I sure did like seeing them built in miniature and blown up!  Hurray for Hollywood!”  You can see why I love this stuff.

Its many humorous philosophical, narrative, and cinematographical flaws aside, ‘Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers’ has lots of great little moments.  Harryhausen’s effects are wonderful and fun, setting the standard for Hollywood spaceships and aliens for years to come, and some of his shots are so nice, they show them twice.  The leads do their best with a silly script and, despite not being terribly memorable on their own, keep the movie watchable when there isn’t an expensive effect or stock footage on-screen.  The most hilarious aspect of the film is the black comedy inherit in how the script treats the aliens, who are actually pretty reasonable and sympathetic before they start trying to destroy the world, which, by the way, they promised not to do and explained in detail why it would be monumentally stupid.  The aliens are just there to get blown up, however, and to prove how damned resourceful America is.  The rest of the world doesn’t visibly contribute at all to the effort to, you know, save the world.  They just trust the States, I guess.  Anyway, the aliens are refugees, and sure they try to take the planet, but at least they want to talk about it first.   When they are soundly defeated, Joan Taylor’s character hilariously wonders if they will ever return, even though the aliens made it quite clear they were the last of their entire species.  So despite the massive loss for humanity’s collective conscience (not to mention science), the nameless aliens die en masse, everybody shrugs and goes to the beach.

‘Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers’ is among the very best in B-movie buttered popcorn guilty pleasures.  For the classic sci-fi fan, this is essential viewing.  Bring your savvy friends.

Classic Review: Fritz Lang’s Metropolis

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary: A flawed masterpiece with an indelible legacy.

Review: It seems that trying to create a sci-fi film with a city as its subject has some sort of curse attached to it. Consider that Fritz Lang’s 1927 ‘Metropolis’, one of the most influential pieces of the genre, as well as its progeny ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Brazil’ and ‘Dark City’ all suffered from box office travails, multiple edits and an ensuing effort to restore them to proper form. All have gone on to gain considerable cult success and respect from critics, filmmakers, and genre enthusiasts. ‘Metropolis’ is considered the honored grandfather of all urban (in the literal sense) sci-fi films, but there’s still a necessary effort to restore all the lost footage.  The most complete version is distributed by Kino.  That’s the version I’ve seen, and will now review.

‘Metropolis’ is definitely a landmark film, as I’ve gone out of my way to stress, and it is essential viewing for cinephiles and filmmakers.  Still, it’s a lot more flawed than I expected, and this is not due to the lost footage.  In fact, the restored footage is a mixed blessing, restoring an entire (if unnecessary) subplot and making sense of confusing scenes but also padding it out with superfluity.  Fritz Lang himself expressed dissatisfaction with the film, in fact he called it “silly”, and I’m inclined to agree with him.  The silliness isn’t found in the film’s stylization and actions, though the actors overplay it considerably as was the case with most silent films, but rather its basic philosophy, which though not entirely without merit executes unconvincingly.

‘Metropolis’ portrays what amounts to a city-state where the spoiled ruling class separates from the downtrodden working class by the sheer weight of technology.  However this incredibly (in the real sense, as in not credibly) distinct division came about, we don’t know, and it’s arguably implausible.  Who benefits from the machinery?  As in, who buys things?  Hell, who sells them?  ‘Metropolis’ is, as Lang later suggested, a fairy tale, and worst of all its moral is shoddy, and for a fairy tale that’s a death knell.  “The mediator between the Head and the Hands must be the Heart!”, the moral goes, and it’s easy to understand but only truly works in the film’s incredible world.  The upper, middle, and lower classes of the real world’s societies need much more complex, subtle ethical solutions to their problems.  These issues and more were criticisms at the time of the film’s original release, as well, and even the noted sci-fi author H.G. Wells got in the act.  His own review had some interesting thoughts, but he seemed unreasonable and hostile, possibly due to a lack of the memetic evolution concept.  To say it clearer, he seemed to think he was original, but Lang wasn’t, even though they were both drawing from earlier art.  Still, his review is worth a read.

I’d like to reiterate that the film’s basic idea is not without merit.  In fact, there’s a great deal of rich, evocative imagery that the filmmakers drew from the concept, and this is, of course, its true legacy.  Its centerpiece, the robot clone of Maria, is ironically one of its least mined story elements.  The device, like all machines in ‘Metropolis’, is naturally wicked, and there’s no appreciation for all the interesting things it would imply, even in the film’s pretentious quasi-Biblical theology.  The false Maria is sadly neglected, but the image planted a kernel in cinema that would forever color how we portray robots.  In fact, you could view the film as a seed, a necessary step in changing the face of 20th century science fiction.  All its imagery has stayed with us.  It’s grown up and become fruitful.

I suppose that’s the truly beautiful thing about the world of ideas, that nothing is ever truly lost, it’s only finding new forms and getting demonstrably better.  It’s natural that there are millions of mistakes along the way, even blemishes on classics like ‘Metropolis’.  I wonder how, in a hundred years, our genetic and memetic descendants will interpret our artistic marvels and mistakes?  I wonder, in such a different world, which will be which?