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The Lonely Scientist as Hero – Dr. Serizawa in Gojira (1954)

Dr. Daisuke Serizawa is my lonely scientist of choice, from the original film Gojira. What attracted me to the character was how differently he is portrayed, for a lonely scientist, that is. Most lonely scientists inadvertently cause destruction…or at least their own downfall. But in Gojira, Serizawa’s loneliness is actually a sign of his heroism and humanitarian integrity, rather than instability or pride.

The original Japanese film was released in 1954 and launched one of the most famous – perhaps the most famous – movie monsters in history. His only competition is King Kong. What makes the original Japanese film so good, however, is not the special effects or even the monster, but what the monster evokes. It is a beautiful evocation of the trauma of war, evacuation and dislocation, and nuclear warfare.

The monster, Godzilla (or Gojira) actually looks rather unimpressive today. Whenever he rises from the sea, he sways woozily, like he’s had too much to drink the night before. He’s also a bit pudgy and ponderous. It does lend him an aura of unstoppability, though. Slow-moving, but invincible and inevitable.

But when he rises from Tokyo Bay and begins to lay waste to Tokyo, the burned out city he leaves in his wake is a painfully accurate image of how many cities in Japan (and around the world) did look after bombing. While the monster is stalking through Tokyo, a woman hugs her three children tightly and tells them that they are going to see their father soon, who no doubt died during the previous war.

The film surprisingly does not flinch from showing what must have been nightmare memories for many people. Children crying in hospitals, cities on fire, military machines ineffectually firing as the monster keeps coming. The monster represents not just the war, but also nuclear warfare. In the film, he  is a prehistoric dinosaur released by the testing of atomic weapons.

The only one who can save Japan is the lonely hero of the film: Dr. Serizawa. Serizawa himself is a living reminder of the war, having lost an eye while fighting during WWII. He is engaged to the daughter of a colleague, zoologist Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura). The daughter, however, is in love with a ship’s captain

But Serizawa spends all his time in the lab and everyone wonders what he’s working on. The only person he shows is his fiance, Emiko (Momoko Kochi). Oddly enough, I think that was his way of telling her that he loved her. He’s a more reserved man, but after her shows her what he’s experimenting on – which horrifies her – he tells her that she is the only person he would show that to.

What he’s working on, however, turns out to be an inadvertent weapon of mass destruction. It’s an Oxygen Destroyer, which he discovered accidentally and deprives all living things in an area of water of its oxygen. He’s afraid of sharing it with the world for fear it would only add to the already lengthy lists of ways people can kill each other. Hence his isolation and refusal to see others.

The dilemma for Serizawa is to decide whether or not to use it to destroy Godzilla. If he uses it, then the world will know and he fears will want him to create a weapon for them. If he doesn’t use it, then Godzilla will go on destroying cities.

(Spoilers) His solution is to destroy his research, use his Oxygen Destroyer to kill Godzilla, and end his life in the process so that not even the knowledge in his mind can be used for ill. This only works because his research is entirely in his control, because he works alone. The lonely, principled hero standing up for right.

I can’t help but think, however, that once it is even known that such a thing as an Oxygen Destroyer exists, then it will be invented again by somebody. No one ever really does have a monopoly on scientific knowledge and scientists never can ultimately be alone – it’s there for everyone to find. As was pointed out to me recently, the knowledge is out there on how to create a nuclear bomb; the hard (and expensive) part is actually building one.

This is my contribution to The Movie Scientist Blogathon, hosted by Ruth of Silverscreenings, and myself. Be sure to check out all the other posts, which can be found here for Days 1, 2, and 3.

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Posted by on September 10, 2017 in Movies

 

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Reality in Movies and Rules of the Genre

When La La Land came out, I must have read a half-dozen reviews that began with something akin to “I don’t usually like musicals, but…”. I confess, this actually scared me away from the film (perhaps unjustly), because I usually do like musicals (I love them!). But there was so much talk about the resistance people normally feel towards musicals that it started me thinking.

What is the usual charge against a musical? That it is not realistic. That people cannot buy the transition between normal talking to that moment when a character suddenly bursts into song. Some say they simply cannot take that level of artifice.

Which really struck me, because I had honestly never thought of musicals as being especially artificial. I thought that is what movies were all about: artifice. There is no such thing as true realism. It reminds me of a story I heard, about a man talking to Picasso on a train and complaining about how unrealistic his paintings were. Picasso asked the man what he considered to be realistic and the man showed him a picture of his wife. To which Picasso responded by asking if the man’s wife was really three inches tall and two-dimensional (I’ve paraphrased, because I do not remember the exact details of the story).

I think the point is that there are many ways of portraying reality. Reality has many layers. There is physical reality, emotional reality. And there are many ways to tell a story, convey emotion, reveal truth, and explore concepts. If all one did was watch real people go by, you would miss a lot. You would see what they look like, what they do, hear what they say, but you would not necessarily know what is inside of them. They would have to reveal that to you (and often mere words are not adequate). You would not necessarily grasp overarching ideas, feelings, philosophies and beliefs. That comes with expression…through mediums that are not always “real.”

Another thing that puzzled me about the reaction to musicals is that it seems to ignore the fact that every movie genre has its own set of rules and musicals are not unique in this way. I recently saw Pacific Rim. What’s the point of Pacific Rim? To watch machines punch giant sea monsters. If you don’t like that sort of thing, you probably won’t like Pacific Rim. It’s the same with a melodrama. A Bette Davis melodrama has specific rules. A horror film? Screwball comedy? A superhero movie? Fantasy? Every genre has certain rules, boundaries, expectations. A monster movie is criticized, not for its lack of plot, but for its lack of monsters.

Original Godzilla

So I guess my question is, why is the musical singled out? People don’t usually complain about ballet. Or silent films (well, there can be complaint about that). Opera? Stage plays? Poetry? Is Singin’ In The Rain really less realistic than X-MenShades of GreyMetropolisDark Victory, Hunger GamesLord of the RingsTerminator, or King Kong?

Though often a film can transcend its genre and rules, like Godzilla (or Gojira). I like the example of Godzilla, because on the surface it may just be a monster movie, a guy walking around in a rubber suit, but it is also so much more. An exploration of the horror of nuclear holocaust, trauma, and science.

Perhaps people feel that the musical is inherently inferior because musicals tend to be (though certainly are not always) upbeat and happy. But I think joy (which is perhaps best expressed through dance and song) is just as worthy of exploration as nuclear holocaust.

This topic has been a pet peeve of mine, so I apologize for the ranting tone of the post. 🙂 But I would like to know what you think? Do you find musicals unrealistic? Are there certain genres whose roles you have more trouble accepting? Do you love it all?

 
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Posted by on March 28, 2017 in Movies

 

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King Kong (1976) – Oil, Fame, and A Guy in a Gorilla Suit

King_kong_1976_movie_poster

I like how the poster reads “King Kong: For Christmas,” as if they were serving him on a platter for the main course

In the name of King Kong completeness I watched the 1976 remake of King Kong, a film that is mostly remembered for being the Kong film that was advertised as containing a robotic Kong and instead presented a man in a suit.

But I do give the screenwriter credit for trying to update the film and put it in a contemporary 1970’s setting (complete with hippies, evil oil companies and oil shortages) and trying to create a film that makes you think. But as a successful, exciting Kong film? Not as much.

Part of the problem is that Kong does not dominate the film the way he does in the original 1933 film (or even the 2005 film). He hardly gets to fight any monsters, his destruction of the city is limited and ultimately he spends most of the time leering at the leading lady (I think he’s trying to smile) and looking depressed. The human characters are more interesting than he is and in a Kong movie he needs to be the star.

Petrox is a rival oil company to Exxon and Shell (and sounds like a combination of the words “petrel” and “detox”). Fred S. Wison (Charles Grodin) has convinced the board of Petrox that an island hidden in the mists of the ocean contains oil. He sets sail secretly, but a Princeton zoology professor, Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges), stows away on the ship. He believes that there is a new species of animal on the island. The ship also picks up a woman on a raft whose yacht blew up. Her name is Dwan (Jessica Lange – her film debut), flighty woman who wants to be a star.

But once they arrive on the island, the film is back to territory mapped by the original film. Native islanders offer to swap several of their woman for Dwan so they can sacrifice her to their god, Kong. Naturally, they refuse and the islanders kidnap her and sacrifice her anyway. And then Kong arrives.

imagesBut alas, Kong is only a man in a monkey suit and he walks like a man and stands like a man and his appearance is a bit of a letdown. Even the CGI Kong of the 2005 film looks more impressive. But nevertheless, Kong carries Dwan off, at which point the leering begins. I think he’s supposed to be smiling and looking sweet, but that’s not the vibe he’s giving off. And because Kong is played by a man in a mask, it’s creepier. The other Kongs – both the ’33 and the ’05 – were more like animals who felt very deeply, but were nevertheless rather juvenile in their affection. Not this Kong. This Kong is more like a man and a randy one, too

Dwan is then rescued and Wilson comes up with the idea of capturing Kong so they can use him in commercials to advertise Petrox. Both Dwan and Jack sign contracts – she to star in the commercials and he to help handle Kong – but Jack is already having doubts and sees Wilson’s plans for Kong as grotesque tragedy. He’s also beginning to wonder about his relationship with Dwan, wondering how a flighty, thrill-seeking, attention-grabbing woman can be happy as a professor’s wife. And then Kong gets loose and stomps through New York City (he climbs the Twin Towers instead of the Empire State Building, which were opened in ’73) and Jack must rescue her, though they take time out to discuss their relationship.

I think one of the difficutlies with this movie is that there is simply not enough action. There’s a lot of staring (there was a lot in the ’05 film, too). In the original, once we meet Kong, we’re off to the races. He fights a T-Rex, he fights a snake, he fights pterodactyls, he chases people, he romps through the city, he destroys a train. He’s a busy guy and we barely have a moment to catch our breath. There are far too many moments in the ’76 film to breath. He only fights one, highly artificial looking snake, there are no dinosaurs, and we don’t really see him chase anyone. It gets dull at times.

1149ff4ef9b80831ba40ab487cdbfee0The other problem is that Kong doesn’t seem to quite belong in his own story. It may be something with the special affects, but there is a disconnect between the scenes with him and the scenes with the rest of the characters and he doesn’t seem like he belongs in the highly realistic 1970s. The original Kong was partly a fairy tale adventure, which is missing in the remake. No running, chasing, seeing incredible new sights (apart from Kong) or making new discoveries. The wonderment is absent.

I also found it interesting how they chose to portray the leading lady, Dwan. She’s a bit of an airhead and not very bright and it’s clear from the beginning that Dwan and Jack’s relationship is not going to work. I would have thought in the 1970s they would have been more interested in a stronger female lead ,but perhaps they were more interested in making a statement about chasing fame and how shallow it is. Dwan ultimately gets what she wants…though it comes at the cost of Kong (who she cares about in her own selfish way – she doesn’t like to see him suffer) and Jack, who I have to say is a bright spot in the film. Jeff Bridges makes a very personable hero who loves Dwan, but isn’t blind to her shortcomings, either. He lost me a little at the end, though, when he cheered when Kong killed a couple of guys who were using flamethrowers. It’s not nice to use flamethrowers, but it’s not nice that three families were suddenly bereft of someone they loved, either.

This is King Kong with a point: oil, commercialism, fame…exploiting oil (and Kong) for fame and money. But the magic is missing.

 
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Posted by on November 23, 2015 in Movies

 

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