Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The D & P Cross-Examination Presents: Godzilla (2014)

In this debut installment of the D&P Cross-Examination, Dan and Pete discuss Director Garth Edwards’ 2014 feature length release: “Godzilla.”  In a conversation about the merits and shortcomings of the new “Godzilla” movie, they touch on genre classification, computer graphics, the soundtrack, analysis of specific scenes, and the new film’s place in relation to Godzilla movies of the past.  While the opinions expressed diverge in many places, both Dan and Pete seem to agree that “Godzilla (2014)” is an unusual blockbuster, deserving of discussion.  

Note: For the purposes of clarity, the new film is referred to throughout the article as “Godzilla (2014)” to prevent confusion with Godzilla the character, or Godzilla movies of the past.   

Dan LaTourette: Now, what I put in my post (here) about what I felt the “Godzilla (2014)” did with the more human perspective approach is that it made the viewer assume the role of the humans instead of participating in observation of the people in the film. Now, I'm not saying this is totally justifying the characters being flat, but I will say I felt that the film asked its viewers to interact with the film more than normal. Did you get any sense of this approach? Or, in general, what didn't work with this human perspective approach?

Pete Berris: I think that I may have had a slightly different experience interacting with the film. Since I did not relate especially well to the lead character, I'm not sure that I actually felt tangibly connected to the events of the film as they unfolded. That being said, I do think the characters in the film served a somewhat unusual purpose. As I believe you have suggested, the film essentially invites the viewer to see events as they unfold, through the eyes of characters caught in circumstances beyond their control. To me, this felt like a conscious attempt at creating a Godzilla film for the post 9/11 world. We live in an era where so many can unfortunately relate to horrific images of skyscrapers collapsing, gigantic tidal waves crashing ashore, and stadiums filling to capacity with survivors trying to rejoin loved ones. Much of the imagery contained in "Godzilla (2014)" could have come directly out of September 11th, Hurricane Katrina, or other disasters of recent years.
For a modern audience, connecting the struggles for survival contained in “Godzilla (2014)” to some of the real human-level stories that have come out of events like 9/11, would probably be natural. “Godzilla (2014)’s” palpable ties to such recent news events changes the perspective of the film, and alters how the audience can relate to both its characters and plot developments. By making the disasters a key point of emotional reference for the audience, “Godzilla (2014)” is able to employ contemporary issues for the purposes of building suspense. Another effect of the pure emphasis on disaster itself in “Godzilla (2014),” is that the movie often feels more aligned with the tradition of disaster movies, than that of science-fiction monster movies. In “Godzilla (2014)” the disaster and mayhem is more central to the film than the "science" or the monster. In a way, the biggest difference between “Godzilla (2014)” and the typical disaster movie is that the core catastrophe in the film just happened to be reawakened dinosaurs rather than a hurricane, or killer bees, or a “sharknado.”
DL: I guess what I was trying to say is that the characters were made flat such that the viewers had to become more involved with the film. Essentially, the characters are more like avatars (like in a video game) rather than full-fledged characters. The HALO jump was the biggest example of this since we literally see the jump through the eyes of the soldiers, even through the goggles.

PB: I think your point that some of the camera techniques encourage viewers to participate in the film is logical. I'm not as convinced that flat characters are conducive to audience involvement, though
DL: Well, I can definitely see why. It's not really the norm for a film like this under this sort of marketing context. I will say, though, that I feel this film has more layers than meets the eyes. I mean, the director's last film was a sci-fi film with an incredibly meager budget, but it got positive reviews. It seems this filmmaker works off subtlety.

PB: Although I have not seen the director’s previous work, I do agree that “Godzilla (2014)” certainly has moments that reach beyond the havoc and chaos that generally dominates the screen. There are throwbacks to the first Godzilla film, “Gojira (1954),” which are nice, such as the use of a Japanese scientist named Serizawa who provides one of the main scientific viewpoints of the film (even if the portrayal does not exactly align with the character’s sentiments in “Gojira”). It was additionally interesting that “Godzilla (2014)” strongly implied that Serizawa's father died in Hiroshima, an obvious nod to the political and philosophical underpinning of “Gojira.” Another notable subtlety is that in “Godzilla (2014),” the title monster is referred to by both its original Japanese name and American adaptation. One last decision that I think added some dimensionality to the film was “Godzilla (2014)’s” presentation of the 1950s atomic bomb tests as an attempt to to kill prehistoric dinosaurs. I just wish that many of these more nuanced moments had been more comprehensively integrated into the film, rather than applied like a quick dressing. Nevertheless, at times “Godzilla (2014)” is a multifaceted movie, even if the execution of the more ambitious elements is disappointing.

DL: Yea, and although I agree that none of these historical themes are ever really explored thoroughly (mainly having to do with making sure the film meets as many expectations as possible) I do like the fact that they are all placed in the forefront for the audience to consider at least and, in the end, the audience can actually connect the original themes of the classic Godzilla films with the modern themes and ponder at their relationships. The biggest question I came up with, and I would guarantee the filmmaker wanted to bring up, is: Why is the idea of Godzilla still relevant?

Though I must say Ken Watanabe's character, as necessary as it was, was misused. All he did was stand around and looked on in wonder and awe.

PB: Agreed. In “Gojira,” Serizawa was a major character who voiced some of the major scientific concerns of the film, and provided the main allegory for the dangers of a nuclear age. Wantanabe’s Serizawa has some of the same potential, but it remains unrealized. In “Godzilla (2014),” Serizawa suggests that Godzilla is a restorative force of nature that the military should not kill (along the lines of the argument offered by the character Dr. Yamane in the original), but Serizawa’s proposal is addressed so tangentially and weakly that it almost seems intended for outright audience dismissal. Serizawa certainly never even comes close to butting heads with the military forces dominating both the plot and the film. Serizawa offers one of the major “scientific” tenants of “Godzilla (2014)” in citing Godzilla as a force to restore balance in nature, but the idea is woefully ignored for so much of the movie.
While "Godzilla (2014)" actually has two leads with the potential to provide a robust scientific viewpoint, neither fulfill that role. Serizawa has minimal lines and an even smaller impact on the course events. The other scientific voice in the film, Joe Brody, is killed off a third of the way through the film (which really says a lot). The relegation of science to the background in “Godzilla (2014)” seems odd, because scientific concerns have been a major preoccupation of Godzilla films for decades. By killing off one major scientific lead, and rendering the other useless through ineffective writing, the film abandons one of the major mechanisms of explaining why Godzilla is still relevant today. This decision was a major surprise to me, since there are so many opportunities for a movie to exploit major scientific concepts that are shaping our era. Climate change, for example, seems like it would have been a logical choice for “Godzilla (2014), especially since past films in the series have focused on environmental matters (particularly in the seventies). In any event, the focus of the film ended up being squarely militaristic, rather than scientific.
DL: Yeah, good point, and I think that is where personal taste takes control because I didn't mind this sort of thematic ignorance. But let's go to something else. You mentioned not being a huge CGI fan, and to a large extent, I'm not a huge fan of it either, but was there anything in this film that was particularly effective in terms of CGI effects as compared to other recent films you may or may not have seen?

Much of the CGI used in the film was effective but it was in the final battle that I was blown away by the general use of art direction, the color palette and the particle effects used for the dust and debris (which also clouded Godzilla for an ample portion of time). It made me feel like the filmmakers wanted to treat this battle with fragile care rather than make it seem like the only worthy aspect of the battle was the action itself.

As for the other creatures, I can see your point, though I will say I was not as irked by their design. I actually like the long legs and when the male first bursts out of the complex at the beginning of the film, the strangeness of its body made me feel disoriented and, thus, anxious during the scene. That, and a well established soundscape.

PB: Speaking of sound, how do you feel about the soundtrack to the movie?
DL: The soundtrack was the most surprising thing. Of course, they got me with the use of the underrated gem of “Breakfast in Bed” from the album “Dusty in Memphis,” one of my all-time favorite albums in the history of mankind. But, in general, it was more than just that. The HALO jump featured iconic music from “2001” and, instead of me getting all purist on the choice I actually liked it.

PB: Going back to Godzilla's monster foes for a minute, how do you feel about the amount of time they had on screen? For me, their prevalence was a bit of a problem, since they overpowered the named star in terms of screen time...
DL: Right, so I am going to play my “Jaws” card for this. One of the things that makes the Spielberg film so amazing, even more amazing forty years later, is that the onscreen time of the shark was very minimal. Consequently, the significance of its appearance increased and, thus, the dramatic effect increased…at least that is the theory. This goes way back to the Hitchcockian philosophy of suspense that it is not the bang, but rather the build up to that bang, that which instead of that creates the most drama and emotional involvement. Godzilla was not seen as much as the other creatures and a lot of his screen time was with shaky camera or even through the television set. Yet, because of this restraint of showing him, I felt the significance of his presence was amplified, and his role as the force of balance was amplified as well. Since the film was taking more of a human perspective and much of the film was showcasing how this whole phenomenon was out of the humans’ hands, the arrival of Godzilla after much destruction and uncertainty became a cathartic shift in the tone of the narrative. A consequence of this is that, in the end, we never get a sense of who Godzilla really is. And this is where I feel like the film's ambition peaks because, as a human in the midst of such an event, at what point would we take time to truly understand this fantastically large creature? We wouldn’t get the chance. Once the battle is over Godzilla leaves and we can’t control that.

PB: I think you make some very strong points. In particular, I think we may feel similarly about Godzilla's presence throughout the film, which is frequently palpable even when he is not on the screen. If “Godzilla (2014)” had not succeeded in that regard, I think the movie would have been dangerously close to being a complete wash. That being said, as much as I understand your argument, Godzilla's lack of screen time remains a major issue for me on a number of levels.
Godzilla's involvement, even including his indirect off-screen impact, is so scant that it really strains the new movies’ ties with some of its antecedents. Since the focus of “Godzilla (2014)” is more on the disaster itself than on the monsters, the film’s ties to science fiction and monster movie genres feel a bit tenuous. In focusing on the effect, rather than the cause, "Godzilla (2014)" really aligns itself to disaster movies, and films like “Jaws.”
I think part of the problem for me is that the approaches of those two movie types are somewhat disparate, and sometimes cancel each other out in "Godzilla (2014)." The suspenseful build up in "Godzilla (2014)" that you compare to "Jaws" and some of the great "Hitchcock" movies is certainly a nice touch, and it does periodically work. However, I think this approach was undermined by the trappings of the disaster genre that permeated "Godzilla (2014)." With disaster movies, and the new film, the spectacle is everything. So while "Godzilla (2014)" attempts to gradually build to the entrance of the leading monster with classic suspense tactics, it also simultaneously reeks disaster style havoc with two additional monsters, a massive military force, two nuclear plant meltdowns, and a menagerie of action-packed sequences. While I think the film may have done a respectable job in recreating tropes from both suspense and disaster movies, it does not really combine them neatly. As a fabricated illustration of how “Godzilla (2014)” sometimes feels, imagine an alternate version of Hitchcock's "Rear Window" where Jimmy Stewart’s obsession with the mysterious activities across the way are constantly interrupted by eighteen dancing mobsters with tommy guns, an explosive gas leak, a herd of amorous elephants, and a squadron of World War I fighter pilots performing aerial maneuvers outside his room. More simply, the build to the bang is lessened when the succession of lesser bangs becomes too distracting. In "Godzilla (2014)," the leading beast is so overpowered by the tropes of the disaster genre that I think the title could have almost been, "G.I. Joe verses two Gargantuan Old-Time Reptiles: Guest Starring Godzilla"
DL: I almost think that you are now maybe thinking about this film too much as a disaster film which is reasonable considering your feelings, but what I perceive creatures, and Godzilla. The creatures are wreaking havoc for reasons that we can say are aligned with biological instinct.

In fact, one of the interesting things I'd like to point out now is that these creatures are not bad guys and, for the most part but not all of it, were not framed as outright bad guys. Having two of them might seem cumbersome but at least it is grounded in some form of a biological explanation. The humans mostly have no understanding of this biology, but what they do know is that having these things around is totally costly, and they try to figure out a way of beating them. What the story does right, I think, is that it gives the humans time to formulate a plan, and fail to the point where Godzilla really is the only option to destroy the creatures. I think that the dynamics between these three characters fall in line with the monster movie more than the disaster film. 

The question is: what monster is the film for? I'll briefly pull out another card from another film. “Fargo,” one of my favorite pictures to watch, is known for introducing its protagonist halfway through the film. And while I know the expectations are far different in that film than in the well-established Godzilla franchise, what it shares with the Coen film is that so much damage has been halfway through the film that narratively it renders, well for lack of a better term, balance or, maybe poetic justice to restore order: that balance in the Coen picture is Marge and in our film it is, of course, Godzilla. But I think this all starts with the premise of the film expressing itself from the human perspective, which would really make the monsters secondary inherently. But I don't think that really happens because in so many monster films and even disaster films, so much damage is done with no inclination of what it must feel like to be in one of those CGI explosions. Nevertheless, maybe getting creative and thinking that the humans are the third monster might inspire you to lean towards my sentiments.

PB: I agree that the film presents the monsters without an explicit value judgement, and instead generally depicts them as a biological force of nature. While this approach can definitely be found in some monster movie classics like "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)," I think that the execution of this concept in "Godzilla" still feels more rooted in the disaster movie tradition. Since the monsters simply exist as an organic force, it would be possible to substitute any other go-to threat of the disaster movie genre for the monsters in "Godzilla (2014)" and have a predominately similar picture (minus the title). In many other monster movie classics, this might not have been possible since the central creature generally represented some concept that was inseparable from the heart of the film. For example, in "Gojira" the moral was all about the dangers of humans and the atomic age--an idea that would have been harder to pull off with, say, a whopping hurricane instead of Godzilla.
Again, the central focus of “Godzilla (2014)” is disaster in and of itself. While the film hints that Godzilla is a natural force intended to restore order, the movie fails to resolve what exactly was so out of order as to require a monster's intervention. Yes, "Godzilla (2014)" makes passing references to atomic anxiety of the sort contained in "Gojira," but I feel as though it was insufficiently woven into the narrative to count as the central focus.
 While you suggest that the humans could be viewed as the monster, an approach that has certainly been embraced by past monster movies including "Gojira," I struggle with that reading of "Godzilla (2014)." Again, the presentation of the main characters is more like that of a disaster movie than a monster movie. The central focus provided for the audience is the ubiquitous, wholesome nuclear family, which is in danger of being torn apart by the harsh realities of a nearly apocalyptic scenario. This structure is a hallmark of the disaster genre, a recurring motif and device in a wide swath of that genre’s pictures. The goal of course, is for the audience to wear out the edge of their seats, wondering if the nice little family can survive an absurdly trying sequence of events. Whether intentional or not, the effect of this approach is to have the audience associate with the characters. This effect is certainly true in "Godzilla (2014)." If the audience didn't relate to the characters, the central suspense device in the film would not work. However, the problem in “Godzilla (2014),” is that since the audience associates with, and roots for, the central characters, the film lacks a major mechanism for portraying humans as monsters.  Additionally, at no point in “Godzilla (2014)” does the protagonist express doubt about his course of action, nor does he ruminate about the philosophical meaning of the monster. As a result, the audience is not really encouraged to question the human role either. Viewers are simply expected to adopt the lead's concerns of following orders and returning home safely to his family. Admirable, but hardly the sort of moral pontification that might be expected in a monster movie. Admittedly, this lack of philosophical introspection may be understandable since the film elected not to feature a scientist in the central role (itself a departure from scores of monster films), but the problem is that no other characters provided the opportunity to truly question the human role either. As I have said before, the two scientific leads in the film were ineffective, and they were certainly deficient at offering a serious critique of humanity.
DL: I actually agree with pretty much all your points and I am happy that it is so elaborate in the way you convey your knowledge of the genres in question; you certainly know more about monster films than I do. Expectations play a big roll and I feel that what the filmmakers ultimately did to this film is a hybridization of marketable genres. The monster film, per se, hasn't really been a successful genre recently (at least I can't really think of an actual monster film in the past...um, well, I guess since “Jurassic Park”). The disaster film, for worse, has been a more dominant genre, with recent examples like “Day After Tomorrow” and “2012”--both terrible films.
If I were to compare “Godzilla (2014)” to a film that does something similar, I would compare it to something like '”Alien” (granted, I consider '”Alien” to be the finest horror film and is still one of the best sci-fi films...so this one is an ideal example, but bear with me). It tinkers with tropes of two genres and tries to find ways the two genres compliment each other to induce an intriguing form and expression. I feel that was what this Godzilla film did, just not as successfully. But, I still stand by the assertion that the film is more monster movie than maybe you perceive it as, and to back that up, I guess I'll look more towards cultural norms than the actual genre. To me, it makes sense that this film is constructed differently than the ones made in Japan in the last century. I feel that the roles of the humans might reflect a difference of mentality of what the humans role should be and, conversely, what Godzilla's role should be. Though I have not really looked into the film that much to give any specific examples, I feel strongly that this cultural and temporal difference is the main reason to employ a broader interpretation of the monster film/disaster film. The ending, as in the second to last shot, is purely a disaster film ending. The next shot of the water after Godzilla dives in is a monster film ending (a shot I love...there's a serenity about it that I still have yet to think through). To me, there really is an acknowledgment of the use of both genre tropes.

Now, in terms of the morality of the film...I feel that is purely visual. Unfortunately, I have to watch the film again to remember how some of these shots were constructed. But one example I do remember is a brief shot (maybe ten seconds), where the main character is running back after he had blown up the nest. Godzilla falls and they happen to glance at each other through a devastated alleyway. It is cut short by the engulfing dust that swallows the monster. There is the red sky that the soldiers jump through and the deserted city in Japan which seems like a far cry once you get to the end of the film. To me, there is always a sense that the humans have been making the wrong decisions and there is this melancholic tone to the actions of the humans throughout the film, despite it also being very mechanical due to the fact that it is mainly military people making the decisions. Also, and this is not really an attempt for justification, but maybe the fact that the scientists took the back seat (a move that I would even think the filmmakers were considering in relation to the previous films), is sort of a nod to the way we treat science. The characters we do follow don't necessarily hold the weight of the moral issues involved, but can only react and respond to the decisions made beforehand.

PB: Nicely argued. I think your last comment is particularly thought-provoking. Even if the relegation of science to the back burner in "Godzilla" is not an intentional commentary on how science is regarded by so many today, it could very well be a byproduct of the zeitgeist in that regard. Either way, it sounds like we agree that science is not really the main focus of this film. As for genre classification, I certainly agree that elements of both the sci-fi monster and disaster genres are included (along with tropes from classic suspense pictures), and it sounds like we just differ on the ratio at which these different movie traditions are blended. The boundaries between the genres we have been talking about are certainly not well-defined walls either, which means there may be no satisfactory answer. I think part of what may make classifying "Godzilla (2014)" difficult is that the film tends to move from one genre-type to another in an almost linear manner, rather than addressing the different genres concurrently.
I thought that this approach to the different directions of the movies was actually a very odd aspect of the film. As I recall, the film almost occurred in several stages. There was the largely science fiction introduction, before the film set up the nuclear-family- disaster-movie platform. “Godzilla (2014)” promptly returned to science fiction when the protagonist returned to Japan. After Joe Brody dies, disaster and suspense tropes take over for the most part, until the final sequence that you just summarized. To be fair, I do think that there are sections of the film where the genres blend more harmoniously. As the protagonist and his fellow soldiers venture into San Francisco in an attempt to regain their lost nuclear warhead, they bravely walk through the chaos like disaster movie characters. However, the scene playing out beside them, a fight- sequence between Godzilla and the other two monsters is very much a nod to some monster movie classics (including many in the Godzilla franchise that involve the named star dueling with monsters ranging from multi-headed space beasts and sea monsters, to gigantic moths and flying dinosaurs). For me at least, the different genres weren't woven together as thoughtfully in much of the rest of the movie.
DL: Yeah, I can see that. And it seems to me that your final thoughts about the film gear more towards these genre complications. Again, I don't know if you have seen 'Alien,' but that is probably the best example of genre conflation where literally no compromise is made: slasher and sci-fi in harmony.
But can we talk about the HALO jump? I just want to talk about it more. I still think it is a a scene that made “Godzilla (2014)” for me and the culmination of all the pleasant surprises that came before. When the HALO jump occurred, I knew I was seeing something that wasn't necessarily run-of-the-mill.

Despite all the trepidations of CGI that many people have, there is something within me that roots for it. It has a lot to do with the fact that I like video games and the premise of most games is to construct worlds of their own through the magical powers of the computer. My tenure of video games have given me access to some very beautiful and very captivating worlds and so when I regard CGI I say to myself that I know that beauty can be made and expression can be unfiltered. 
The HALO jump scene is marvelous and one of the most beautiful CGI scenes in mainstream science fiction. I think the only two films of recent memory that can be equated to such marvel are 'Gravity' and 'Avatar.'  But I will say that what makes 'Godzilla’ (2014) uniquely compelling is that it is rooted more in a perceptible reality. Seeing San Francisco draped in a red sky infused with starkly menacing clouds was equally intriguing and spectacular. I mean, watching it on the gargantuan screen with my unfashionable 3D glasses made me relate the wide shot of the cityscape to a romantic painting of the 19th century that heavily enunciated the organic power of nature. Indeed, that is truly what we are witnessing with the monsters, but the film expresses it in more than just monsters, and this shot really exemplifies an attempt that I feel is mostly successful.
But the actual scene, the movement of these images, is just as impressive. Backed by a curious choice of music that ended up being (as I said earlier) perfect--the same music used in '2001: A Space Odyssey' when both the apes and the humans on the moon discover the monolith--there was a tone that was filled with anxiety and weathered melancholy when coupled with the imagery. The whole human perspective aesthetic reached its pinnacle when the soldiers fall from the sky and we enter the perspective of the main character as he falls through the dense, dark clouds and past the fighting monsters (in 3D, that was an almost physical experience). Aesthetically, this all made sense, and I remembered smirking when witnessing the consistency of such formal choices. But, man, the red streaks in the sky? One reviewer likened it to tears, which is why I like to connect this scene to the whole visual theme of humans as a monster. 
Okay, I'll stop, this can be a singular post in of itself. But I like the scene.  It works, and stylistically it is one of the more involving scenes in recent memory. CGI is employed in a fascinating way and endorses the idea that beautiful things can come from  it.

PB: The scene that really stood out to me in "Godzilla" was the showdown between the monsters and the military on the golden gate bridge. One of the first classic sci-fi movies I remember watching when I was a kid featured a sequence where the military literally rolled out in response to the central threat of the film. In an exciting mishmash of what was probably stock footage, well formed lines of tanks, jeeps, and soldiers roared out of a military base prepared for battle with the unknown. Though some of the other details are less clear in my memory, I suspect that line after line of well formed tanks, jeeps, and soldiers also failed in their mission. This filmic tactic was essentially an ingenious construct to illustrate how powerful the preternatural antagonist of the film was. Even the modern American military, circa 1951, was powerless to stop such a terrific foe! While such sequences are commonplace in the monster genre, and the Godzilla canon is no exception, it is easy to imagine how disconcerting imagery of military defeat at the hands of a superhuman force must have been. An audience might have shuddered as all of the psychological comforts and securities of the modern age, not to mention military superiority, were exposed as ineffective on the Silver Screen (at least until the ingenious scientific solution that usually resolved monster films). In any event, it was a good movie trick then, and it's a good movie trick now. The golden gate bridge scenes in "Godzilla (2014)" are both a welcome throwback to some of the film's antecedents, as well as a well-proven technique to remind the audience of the possibility that something may exist beyond the scope of our understanding, capabilities, and strength.
In any event, we have covered quite a bit of ground, including genre classifications, the soundtrack, the role of science in "Godzilla," and even details from specific scenes. Considering all of this, what is your overall impression of the movie?
DL: To me, “Godzilla (2014)” represents a tweak in the mainstream. I think the film altered many expectations for average moviegoers and for knowledgeable moviegoers like me and you.  Some of these alterations were successful while others were not, but I feel that the existence of such alterations tells me that these filmmakers were aware of the narrative and filmic choices they had at their disposal, and they made use of them rather than narrow their field of vision and go down the predictable path that dominates many other mainstream. In the general scope of things, the film gave me many pleasant surprises that allowed me to remain curious as to what they could come up with next. To me, with what the filmmakers were trying to do, many of the formal choices ended up being reasonable, and I was happy to see such organization in the choices. And then, of course, there are scenes that I was totally blown away with because they just reeked of care and intelligence; the visuals looked stunning and deliberately ambiguous. In the end, it was a lot of fun and smart, something you don't necessarily get when you have a budget of eight quadrillion dollars. How would you summarize your overall opinion of “Godzilla (2014)?”

PB: My opinion of "Godzilla (2014)" remains mixed. As a disaster movie, I would have to say that it is one of the better examples that I have seen, even if it isn't exactly a genre that's generally renowned for its attempts at "high-artistry." As a science fiction monster movie, I find "Godzilla (2014)" more disappointing. To reiterate my argument, the movie lacks a true "scientific" voice, and many of the tropes of the genre are deemphasized. Additionally, the film shies away from going out on a limb with any of the grand morals that tend to give classic monster movies their intellectual bite (pun intended). I think that “Godzilla (2014)” is most disappointing when compared to other Godzilla movies. I think it barely qualifies as a part of the canon, since, as I have copiously complained, there is not nearly enough Godzilla in "Godzilla (2014)." While there have been other movies in the series where other monsters get a large share of the spotlight, those films felt much less distanced from the Godzilla tradition in other ways.
As art, I think "Godzilla (2014)" frustrates by failing to follow through on some moments of great potential, while other bright spots are poorly integrated into the overall story arch. But, as entertainment, I thought the new "Godzilla" movie really was a lot of fun. In Godzilla on my Mind William Tsutsui writes, "Who can beat 90 minutes of suspended disbelief, moral certainty, and guiltless revels in gratuitous destruction? The Godzilla films were made to be engrossing, exciting, humorous, perhaps a little thought-provoking, and--above all--enjoyable." Despite its shortcomings "Godzilla" easily meets most of those criteria, and may end up being the most enjoyable blockbuster of the summer.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Wind Rises, The Sun Sets, We Look On

This post will be dense, partly because so many feelings and thoughts occupy my mind begging for analysis pertaining to my recent viewing of Hayao Miyazaki's final film, The Wind Rises and partly because it aroused within me a concern for how we look upon works of art and how we are conditioned to look at art in a certain manner. This all is unified, quite curiously, because I feel that the essence of The Wind Rises is about how Miyazaki, himself, perceived what seemed to be his hero in Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of the infamous Zero aircraft that became the lethal missile it was as the kamikaze vehicle (kamikaze, for your information, means, "Spirit Wind," in Japanese). If there was ever a flaw that Miyazaki articulated in his surreal film about Jiro, it might be that he was too much of an idealist.

I mentioned an intriguing point to my friend after we both watched the film: in the film Jiro dreams of being with his hero, Caproni, and of what his hero would say to him. Caproni mentions that his planes should never be used to fight but will be anyways. This is a direct echo of what Jiro is told by his mother at the very start of the film, who says there is no justification for fighting. Knowing that, don't you think that in his dreams, Jiro is projecting his own philosophy onto his recreation of Caproni? I mean, Caproni always refers to Jiro as the, "Japanese boy," even though he is grown up at the end of the film. Do you think Caproni really is like that? So, do you think that Caproni's representation is only the reflection of Jiro's mental state and evolution of his passion? Now, take this a step further and ask yourself, do you think Miyazaki is projecting his own ideals of Jiro onto film the same way Jiro is projecting his ideals within his dreams? I'd say there is a good argument for that and I trust that Miyazaki knows this possible phenomenon and he drips his fantastically personal and somewhat factual story with melancholy.

I bring this up because I feel like this is the heart of the controversy surrounding the film that seems to be glossed over, something that the media as done time and time again in recent memory, being unsettled by stories about characters that go against our progressive thinking today (thinking that...well...may need some reflection and discussion). It's as if stories are not allowed to enter into worlds we think are bad or offensive or...the key word here...ambiguous. The Wolf of Wall Street follows Jordan Belfort's sexed and drugged up lollapalooza of financial domination and Zero Dark Thirty observes the coldness of Maya as she hunts down the man, the symbol, of American austerity. In this Miyazaki film, something similar happens and, just like these other films, audiences are hesitant to praise it because of some sort of social consequence. So, I'll save the ranting for the end (and boy do I have a rant) and now focus more on the film and what it does to convey a intensely personal message of one of the greatest Japanese filmmakers, a Japanese filmmaker who I would unflinchingly put alongside the 'Three Masters,' Kurosawa, Ozu, and Mizoguchi. Hopefully, even without the rant, this will convince you that, once again, these films are crafted with enough intelligence to go beyond such criticism and be works that express a curious ambiguity that, to me, strengthens the human condition.

Jiro Creates Dreams, So Does Miyazaki
There are a lot of f-bombs, naked women, and drugs in Jordan Belfort's story. Likewise, there is a lot of detachment and austerity in Maya's manhunt. Many people who come out of the theatre wonder why in the hell these films functioned in such an unapologetic manner, sometimes leading to superficial criticism. What many people seem to ignore is one of the most fundamental narrative elements in storytelling: perspective. Perspective as a narrative tool drives the tone of the story as well as what we are able to witness in a film but, almost as importantly, what we don't see in a film. Without getting to involved with the other aforementioned films, much of the opposition derives from this lack of access to things they want to see (the victims of fraud and the victims of torture) yet the perspective of the story, specified to one character (with the exception, sometimes, of several scenes), denies viewers of the option, and we are left to cling onto a personality we may not agree with.

The opening shots of The Wind Rises are in the dreams of our protagonist, Jiro, whose fascination with the flying machine coupled with his lack of knowledge, results in an ideal birdlike plane with feathered fingers at the tip of the wings facing off against a quagmired zeppelin, sooted and dark. These machines could easily be connected to many of the Miyazaki's earlier films, particularly Nausicaa and Castle in the Sky. It is more important, right now, to contemplate that the viewer is thrusted into a historical film through a character's dreams. That is not the best way to assure your audience that this is all fact (even though, let us not forget, it doesn't even say it is based on a true story). It is in the second dream sequence where we meet his hero, Caproni, and Caproni and Jiro begin talking with each other, with Caproni showing the young Jiro his latest aircrafts (which, if you are keeping score, look a lot like the planes of Porco Rosso). The dialogue between the two should already be a point of suspicion based on the acknowledgment of perspective. Indeed, taking into account the second paragraph of this essay, one could deduce that Jiro is talking to himself, or, more elaborately, his ideal vision of Caproni based upon his own experiences, mindsets, and what he reads in his english magazines. Or, hell, maybe his idealization of what he wants to be in the future where Caproni is merely a facade.

The dream sequences that heavily populate the film formulate a surreal edge to this otherwise realistic (by Miyazaki standards) historical fiction film. There are even moments in the film where we do not know if what we are looking at is a dream or real. As Jiro helps save the books from the burning library during the hellfire earthquake, we see a cut from the 'real' to a shot of Caproni asking Jiro a question in which it cuts back to Jiro in reality answering. Such casual transitioning plays upon the established idea, established in the first scene, that we are viewing this world through the eyes and mind of a man caught up in his romanticized dreams of creating dreams. The film never strays from this practice, even when it strays from Jiro momentarily to focus on Naoko or Kayo (the typical, but awesome, 'Miyazaki girl').

What is essentially going on is Miyazaki applying a dreamscape to narrative realism; the story of this film is deeply rooted in historical fact...an element that even expects the viewer to understand that as not much is explained as time passes (Japanese viewers would be familiar, of course). The dreamscape is a Miyazaki norm, where worlds are constructed from the ground up that reflect a certain thematic significance that parallels the actual story. Think of the worlds of Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle, and Princess Mononoke. They provide a visual blueprint of the narrative's nuance and themes, reflecting real-world connotation amid the dazzling details of strange, imaginative, and wondrous realms.

Besides the approach of realism in this film, the major difference between the role of these constructed landscapes in his other films and this one is that this is the dreamscape of Jiro, not Miyazaki, or, the dreamscape of Miyzaki's perception of Jiro (this seems a little confusing, but what I mean is that the dreamscape is not made from scratch by Miyazaki, Jiro is still the foundation for the dreamscapes that we see in the film). What we observe is not necessarily a new world the protagonist must enter but a world by which the protagonist has crafted and placed as a reaction to his real world interactions. His ambitions for designing planes is now the same thing as saying his determination to fully realize his idealization of his dreams...which is what creative spirit essentially is. Miyazaki fixates the perspective of the narrative on Jiro as a mechanism to illustrate, quite beautifully, this characterization, where the dreamscape and the real landscape are always in dynamic interplay. Thus, the absence of the real destructive force of the Zero plane shouldn't really be justified by any literal means, it is all set up at the very beginning as an intimate exploration into one man's dreams and one man's reality. The film remains consistent throughout.

Art, Passion, and Socioeconomic Context
There are derivative shots of the act of creating throughout the film, their meaning lies far beyond the scope of the story and lay firmly in the personal ambitions of Miyazaki himself. Consider early on in Jiro's employment at Mitsubishi. When he is enthralled by the shape of a fishbone and begins to sketch it on graph paper, a closeup details the elegant curvature that captures Jiro's imagination. Several times, we see closeups of him writing equations or using the slide rule; there is heavy attention to these moments as we join in on Jiro's meticulousness and focus, laying our eyes on each and every hand movement and what these movements eventually produce on paper. Miyazaki admires these movements, the act of creating something...in other words, we view these shots of designing an airplane as an artistic excursion. Later in the film, when Naoko returns into the diegesis, we encounter her perched on top of a rolling, grassy hill painting a landscape. Cut to a closeup of her hand stroking the canvas with a palette knife in a similar movement as Jiro's hand when sketching the fishbone. Again, the same attention to detail that only becomes crucial as part of a pattern of repeated shots throughout the film.

So, even within the film's narrative and visual structure, there are parallels between the art of plane design and the art of painting; both Jiro and Naoko have their own workstations. The parallel extends beyond the narrative and communicate with the director explicitly. Miyazaki's art is created in the same way, literally. Jiro's workstation can easily be transported to an animation studio. Moreover, the intrinsic characteristics of designing a plane and creating animations (not so much with painting, unfortunately) align with each other in that what is produced on paper is inanimate yet the ultimate goal of a plane designer and animator is to bring to life the inanimate skeleton that remains fixated in the restraining two-dimensional world of the paper.

Moreover, there is also an attempt to depict everyday objects as sources of inspiration. Besides the fishbone, there is one curious shot when Jiro and Naoko walk among the hard rain under an umbrella. As they discuss if the umbrella is doing its job there is a closeup of the underbelly of the umbrella, showing the pole and the ribs that extend outward from it in all directions. Within this narrative, it looks curiously like the ribs used for wings. Although it is not as apparent as the fishbone, one could imply a moment for Jiro as he looks up at the umbrella and directs his attention away from Naoko for a moment and back onto his planes. I will assume at this point (as in I have no evidence) that Miyazaki looks upon everyday objects with the same creative scrutiny. And when we bring back the significance of dreams, the realization of Jiro's dreams start with the paper and the same goes with Miyazaki. Between the sketch and the test flight, between the sketch and the final cut, they conceive about how the animated dream will function.

Now, this act of creating that is carefully and gracefully exhibited within the narrative is within a a historical socioeconomic framework (really, all Miyazaki films fall into this framework). In this case, it is pre-war imperial nationalism that continuously hovers over Jiro and his work. This creates an unfortunate difficulty in the way Jiro's authentic passion for building dreams conflicts with aggressive national sentiment and militaristic efficiency. The narrative clearly explains the undesirable position of Japan. The titanic earthquake hit in 1923 which was proceeded by financial depression. Japan was economically behind many of the superpowers and then some and there was a clamoring among the population to search for some new national identity that went through obfuscation in the first several decades of the 20th century, all as a fallout during the late 19th century attempt to westernize and with the dilution of traditional Japanese mentality (Edo period mentality, the samurai code[s], etc). Jiro's career was in part dictated by the historical events proceeding him. It is in his dream that Caproni first tells the young Jiro that their planes will be used for warfare. Was this Jiro's underlying doubt about his dream fueled by memories of World War I? This isn't necessarily explained but what is depicted is the narrowing path Jiro must take to appease the powers that be who, over the years following the depression, concocted a mentality of imperial angst constituting the bastardization of the bushido code.

There is the artistic idea of the, "death of the author," where, in general, once a piece has been made and broadcasted to the public then the piece is no longer the author's but the people's to interpret and mold. The author cannot control the thoughts and interpretations the audience has on the piece once it has been released. Of course, this can be generalized to an artist and even a plane designer. Jiro was developing a practical vehicle at a time when Japan was looking to catch up with other countries and bolster its pride. Now, I only believe in this 'death' to some extent but if there was ever an example that endorsed such an analysis it would be this situation. No matter the idealization of Jiro's dreams, was there ever any chance he could make planes without performing in favor of the militaristic regime that dominated the country? The followup question would be something along the lines of: was Jiro's dreams potent enough to propel (pun intended) him forward and continue his work despite his knowledge of this consequence? It was an early discussion with his friend, Honjo, that the ironies of his work were laid out and then later on Jiro notes how they are just making planes but not weapons, as if by saying it out aloud would authenticate justification. It seemed like Jiro was destined to 'die' and relinquish his planes to the abhorrence of their intended use. Can we say the same for Miyazaki?

What we can conclude is that through the specific socioeconomic lens of the time period, people's perception of Jiro's dreams have them identifying them only as war machines. There is an artistry and there is an art. There is a fascination and curiosity with shapes, form, and structure. Yet it means nothing when no one acknowledges it in that manner. In one pivotal scene, when Jiro lays out his plans for the Zero to his design team, he mentions that the plane could reach optimized efficiency if it didn't have a machine gun. The team laughed hysterically as if that the mere existence of such an idea was impossible. If his planes would only be perceived in one way and one way only, then any perception Jiro holds becomes nullified. The act of designing and animating the inanimate may be a glorious and creative task, but when the piece is done, it is handed over to everyone else.

A Love As Fleeting As Dreams Deferred
It is safe to say that the love story in The Wind Rises is treated with an unconventional touch of fleetness, even when Jiro and Naoko are in close proximity to each other (after almost fifteen years) they still don't see each other as much as they could because Naoko is bedridden with a fever. The fragility of Naoko becomes a huge cost for the time given to share their love and, indeed, upon request of Kurokawa, they get married on a whim justifying such a decision by this limited time given to them. There is a tragic admiration for such situation; the two lovers are already aware of the fleeting nature of this relationship...a love as fragile as the planes on their first flight.

What does this mean though? Why does Miyazaki decide to employ this sort of dynamic? It is worth noting that Naoko never existed in the real life of Jiro, so great liberties are being taken to apply such a major part of the story. Is it a counterpoint to the unfortunate consequences of Jiro's passion? Is it a complement? I think I will analyze this mostly through feeling and tone, as I feel Jiro's passion and Jiro's love are approached in the same way and are used to invoke the same emotional effect.

As Jesse Cataldo says about the film in this review, the film never shies away from the melancholic coating of Jiro's career during a time that created many evils and uncertainty. Irony is always present and there is only a small degree to which Jiro has even the slightest chance to acknowledge that. With the nostalgic and Italian-inspired score of Joe Hisashi, the dream sequences and love scenes play almost like how we experience a good memory. There is the initial moment of happiness, transporting yourself back to the moment that you immediately cherished. Nostalgia eventually dominates as we realize this memory also reminds us of the impossibility of going back to this moment. Consider the bits and pieces of dialogue between not just Jiro and Naoko but Jiro and Caproni. There is the often utterances between the two lovers that their time is precious and the love between them is amplified and more defined. Even before it was known of Naoko terminal illness, their first exchanges since the earthquake hinted at a fleeting nature. When Jiro remarks that Naoko's painting had been ruined by the rain, she remarks that is doesn't matter, she will remember this painting as the memory she had with him that day.

More curiously, however, is Jiro's conversations with Caproni (which, to make it complicated, may just be conversations with himself). Caproni's speeches are always laden with cynicism that there will always be opposition against creating planes for the pure beauty of watching them fly. He mentions to Jiro the idea that you only have ten years to produce your greatest work. After that, you will never return to such creative prowess. The same could be said about Jiro's time with Naoko. Just as we began the film with a dream, we end the film with a dream, a dream that culminates the loss Jiro has accrued in the last ten years. It is a moment of true blissful surrealism.

As I watched, I felt a saddening wonderment underlined by a hint of anxiety. Things were fading away for Jiro, both his planes and Naoko, into the past. He is forever burdened and forever grateful for the memory of these moments that swiftly move with the wind. The concept of love in this film is that it is fragile and, as pointed out earlier, the fragility of these planes and more unfortunately the fragility of Naoko (recall the shocking scene of her blood spilling onto the canvas...a shot that could also be related to the aforementioned shots showing Jiro sketch). I found Naoko's decision to leave Jiro and die away from him to be piercingly tragic yet undeniably Japanese (honor came into play in the decision, I assume), but this moment of passing means more than just the passing of Naoko. It represents, maybe, a dream deferred, an ideal life that could of been had but it seems that, under the circumstances, was always conflicting with the world around it. This somber tone outlining many of the more internal themes (like of art and passion that I mentioned above) bears a heavy anti-war message, albeit subtle. Nevertheless, it does not and should not necessitate any visualization of victims pertaining to Jiro's creations.

Of Course, There Is the Animation
You know, I wonder how many people watched this and thought this could have been done, maybe more effectively, as a live-action film.  Maybe nobody thought that and that was just a volatile reaction stemming from my insecurity...anyways, there is a reason this story works so well as an animation and I think it has to do with surreal nature of the film and its constant exploration with dreams. I marveled at the colorful planes that glistened with the soft grass. One shot remains prominent in my mind of one of Caproni's planes taking off. The puffiness of the smoke squeezing out of the mufflers and the way it plays with the propellers as they begin to gain speed is a luscious feast for the eyes...there were many times where during my viewing of the film where my eyes were wide open and my mouth remained slightly opened.

Miyazaki is a master of invoking a certain tone with movement of shapes, disfiguring them to his liking just enough to invoke one feeling and then disfiguring enough to make a totally different meaning. Consider the earthquake scene, which also stands out as a remarkable auditory experience, as the landscape bends and folds in a gigantic ripple. It's shown with ferocious immediacy...it came and went and the destruction it left (and the fires it started) was devastating. And the wall of smoke that spawned soon after was musty in texture and deathly, holding immense weight with its shades of grey and a hint of hellish orange. Now consider one of the dream sequences where Caproni gives Jiro a tour of a gargantuan passenger plane that is in the middle of a festive party of unapologetic cheering and smiling. The plane amusingly morphs to compensate the fact that there are way too many people on the plane, also highlighted by the way in which the partiers burst out of every window. When Caproni and Jiro climb up onto the top of the plane via a ladder hatch, the hatch is immediately filled with partiers who burst like a pimple out of the hatch. The roundness and simplistic colors compliment the jovial Bacchian scene. It is a depiction of direct contrast to the earlier earthquake scene and it's anxiety-ridden realism.

Then there is also the cognitive reason that animation provides the viewers; the way in which we connect with the characters and are convinced of the feelings expressed. Motivated by the enlightening work of Scott McCloud, what animation does and what Miyazaki has capitalized his whole career with his fantastic characters is the amplification of emotions through simplification of visualization. In other words, the simplistic detail of Jiro's face or of Naoko's face allows the viewer to fill in the missing pieces of a certain feeling and, thus, allow more involvement from the audience. Thereby, hopefully, the feelings expressed by the characters will be amplified by the viewer's participation in adding their own familiarity of the feeling. Without getting into too much theory, this really stems from the idea that animated figures in anime, manga, comics, and the like are never drawn to look exactly like a real person and our cognition must compensate for this disparity.


The Rant
From here on out I'll be forcefully raising my blood pressure in order to deliver a heated and passionate observation of the state of animation and how it has become defunct to the point where any sort of discussion is almost rendered worthless.

The main reason I watch the Oscars is that there is always a chance where the academy, with arguably the most famous awards ceremony, gives credit where credit is due.  That is not another way of saying if they choose what I want them to choose then it is alright; I have favorites but good choices, mind you, are not limited to my choices. It is just when something like this and this happen I question the integrity of not just the Oscars but the film industry as a whole. Instead of tackling this whole problem let's just focus on one of the voter's explanations, where he or she stated that his interest in animated films stopped at the age of six. Great, as a voter for one of the most prestigious awards in all of cinema, the conclusion you make for animated films is that they are only made for kids. Nevermind the fact that animated films make up a huge part of the industry today (whether the films are good or not) and nevermind that they have a crucial place in cinema history (Sergei Eisenstein said his favorite film happened to be Snow White, there's also Fantasia, Yellow Submarine, Chuck Jones, Miyazaki, Chomet...you get the point), let us just ignore the creativity, the necessity, and the relevance of such a form of art that has been cast aside as childish and, by an incredible skill of logic, negligible.

Could it be that there is still a potent conditioning factor our American industry has weighed down on it's audience such that these artistic products can be marketed with directness and clarity? Animated films, according to the business, can only be marketed to younger folk. With this mindset, could you really fault the voter for uttering something that could only be interpreted as stupidly ignorant? Of course not. I mean, it is the job of that voter to watch the films given to them such that they can make an honest choice no matter the ignorant ideologies they uphold...it's not like the Oscars are prestigious, right? Let's take a look at the gravity of this statement from another angle. If the Oscars are about celebrating the brilliance of an art form, why distort such a vision by disrespecting the ceremony, one, and disrespecting the men and women who worked their asses off to do what they love and say what they want to say.

Now let's take a look at the other responses in bulk. Of course, this is only a limited scope into the minds of the voters but my accumulated observation tells me that none of them have any clear idea what the hell is going on in the animation category. None. Not one even mentioned the existence of an ambiguous, certainly not for kids, feature made by Miyazaki. Of course, I'm relentlessly bias, and I will say that I have not seen Frozen either. Fine, you can flog me afterwards, but hear me out. Whether or not Frozen is a good film, can you really praise it for its originality? I mean, wasn't it just a year ago that Disney came out with a very similar film called Brave? How different are they and in what ways is Frozen better? Is Disney offering anything new here? Frozen might even be an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of a strong female character (which, by the way, has been Miyazaki's forte since 1984 with Nausicaa). If the voters had any inkling of understanding towards the films they should have watched anyways, shouldn't they be suspicious at how Miyazaki managed to make an animated film not for kids? Suspicious enough to watch it, maybe? Maybe not, and The Wind Rises suffers from two forms of prejudices now: it is an animated film and it is an animated film about a controversial figure that's not for kids.

Okay, so maybe original doesn't equate with good. Moreover, it is not that I do not like marketable trends in the film industry...I'm a huge fan of Hollywood's golden era which was dominated by marketable tropes left and right (though I would argue that I prefer those films because they are, inherently, different from what we see now in the mainstream). Nonetheless, what's the peril in bringing in and applauding a film that goes against the grain, makes us uncomfortable, and asks us to think as well as to feel? The Wind Rises is too good and too provocative to simply be ignored by academy voters who never look beyond their shorelines for animated stories. At the Oscars, there is always a chance to trampoline a film from obscurity, a good film, and into the limelight for further discussion and further observation from a wider audience. There is always a chance for the award to get people to notice a film that has come and changed the way we look at the world, or ourselves, or of cinema. This year had two chances, really, with the animated feature and the documentary feature (which is another story and just as tragic).

Whatever, maybe there are a lot fewer people who thought there was a chance for something other than Frozen to win and I hate that I am barraging it with my cynical comments but it is situated in the wrong place and at the wrong time. Between a suffocating perception of what animation is 'suppose' to do and the total lack of respect some people with too much authority have towards film and the art of expression through a visual medium, The Wind Rises has suffered from an almost irreversible wound of frightening idiocy. Don't tell me that, "Well, Frozen was good, so..." Is it safe to say that it is easier to predict what Frozen would entail than The Wind Rises?...and when we have people only watching the mainstream American film and not the Japanese film made, by the way, by one of the most celebrated filmmakers in the last twenty years, don't you think that's an unfortunate system we made ourselves, where we are so accustomed to only see what is brought to us on a silver platter. We've been conditioned to not explore what else is out there and question the status quo (please bear in mind that questioning is not the same thing as defying or rebelling). Ultimately, we can only go so far as to see the mixed reception of such a complicated and beautiful film that reduces to a certain shallow paranoia akin to how people are reacting to The Wolf of Wall Street and Zero Dark Thirty.

I'll stop now...rant over.


Miyazaki's final feature- I hope that is not true- is a film that sparks curiosity about what the form of animation can talk about and what Miyazaki wants to say. It's a tough film as it mixes nostalgia, cynicism, beauty, tenderness, and melancholy with a subtlety and nuance of a fine fabric draped over an antique table. This has been the most real film he has created, yet flying is still a metaphor and there is still a wonderment of a dreamlike world dominating the senses. I hope people get a chance to see this film, to find out a personal account of a history they are usually never exposed to. Maybe then you can conclude yourself if Miyazaki is convincing enough with his narrative. He convinced me and he showed me that, like always, humans are more ambiguous, flawed, and graceful than they appear to be.