Home Video Hovel- Godzilla

23 Jan

It’s strange to think that not too long ago, the inclusion of Godzilla in The Criterion Collection would elicit the kind of clueless sneers and WTFs usually reserved for films like Armageddon or, to a surprising many, the films of Wes Anderson. Even now, Godzilla has a certain unearned reputation as schlock, but the the total geek takeover of mainstream culture has had one significant benefit – educating the masses of the enduring cultural and artistic importance of science fiction and fantasy. And there are few genre films more important, and even fewer more iconic, than 1954’s Godzilla.

By now, the concept of the film as a response to nuclear armament is well-established, but what is less acknowledged, and what I certainly didn’t know, is that its inception is even more immediate than that. Following World War II, the United States conducted hydrogen bomb tests on the Marshall Islands, telling Japanese fishermen and other vessels to just stay away, but not elaborating on why. Unsurprisingly, a fishing company decided to send a boat, the Lucky Dragon 5, out there, correct in assuming there’d be no competition. The fishermen saw what looked like an erupting sun over the horizon, turned around, and within weeks it was clear they all had acute radiation syndrome. The chief radioman died six months later, and two months after that, Godzilla was released, sporting an opening scene that is almost a direct dramatization of the Lucky Dragon incident.

So when people talk about the social importance of Godzilla, it’s not just an overarching, stock, Cold War reaction. It’s a very definite, pointed piece that also speaks to a larger unrest that had been troubling Japan since World War II. That, on top of all that, it’s also a surprisingly complex piece in terms of morality, with no clear answer to any of the many obstacles put forward – from relationship drama all the way up to the major philosophical questions surrounding the atomic bomb – AND an exciting monster movie becomes almost overbearing. I don’t hold it in nearly the same esteem that others do – the acting in particular is rough in many areas – but the declaration that Godzilla is an “important classic film,” to use Criterion’s own terminology, and one of the greatest films ever made, is beyond question.

I do wish all films in the Collection were afforded the treatment with which Criterion has lavished this title. If you’re a fan of Godzilla at all, the acquisition of this new Blu-ray edition is almost mandatory. Obviously, Criterion has extensively restored the main feature, with glimmering picture and crystal-clear sound. Aside from its iconic imagery, Godzilla isn’t the most visually dynamic film, and its cinematography was never the sharpest, but the many shades of gray are well-represented, the picture is quite sharp, and the film grain and damage marks seem inherent to the material and irremovable (David Kalat backs this up in his commentary). The astounding score by Akira Ifukube, perhaps the film’s single greatest feature, is booming and encompassing, without overshadowing the drama onscreen. Except, you know, when it’s supposed to.

The same treatment has been afforded to Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, the American remake/re-imagining/dubbed version. For those who don’t know, an editor named Terry Morse was hired not only to recut and dub the film for American audiences, but also film new scenes featuring Raymond Burr as an American reporter named Steve Martin (hilarious in retrospect, kind of like how there’s a character named Frank Miller in High Noon), who wouldn’t you know it, just happened to be slightly offscreen during the events of the Japanese version. It’s kind of like Forrest Gump, only without the painful self-awareness. The vagaries of film preservation have resulted in a situation in which the Japanese scenes in King of the Monsters look way worse than they do in the full Japanese Godzilla, but the American scenes look way better, but on the whole it’s another handsome high-definition transfer on Criterion’s part.

Then you get to the special features, and you really don’t know what to do with yourself. On the whole, I’m sorry to say, this is sort of a case in which more is less – they’ve thrown hours and hours and hours of material on here, but not as much sticks as you might like.

But let’s start with the good – David Kalat’s commentary tracks on both Godzilla and King of the Monsters! are fan-freaking-tastic. Unleashing an enthusiasm I previously thought reversed for friend-of-the-show and AuteurCast co-host West Anthony, if you weren’t previously convinced of neither Godzilla’s quality, nor its import, Kalat’s sheer force of will would certainly do the trick. They’re both deep commentary tracks, effortlessly interweaving world and film history, production stories, thematic insight, aesthetic admiration, and pure, undaunted enthusiasm. I listen to many, many commentary tracks, and these two team up to make for one of the finest listening experiences I’ve yet had. Were you to buy the disc for just these, you would not be disappointed.

I’d then advise you to turn to The Unluckiest Dragon, a video essay by historian Greg Pflugfelder (who I’m sure was never teased in grade school) on the Lucky Dragon 5 incident, and its enduring legacy. It’s short (just over nine minutes), informative, and not without its share of terrifying material, and on the whole very well put together.

There’s a short featurette on the film’s photographic effects (that is, the method by which the monster footage was combined with crowd shots), and while it’s short on technical detail, it’s loaded with great, primary-source material visually detailing the process. Might be one for gearheads only, but hey, we need some love too sometimes.

Beyond that, your own personal interest in the subject matter addressed in each subject matter may make for a more fulfilling experience, but the interviews with the cast and crew (specifically actors Akira Takarada and Haruo Nakajima, special effects technicians Yoshio Irie and Elzo Kaimai, and composer Akira Ifukube). As I was endlessly enthralled by the score, the piece on Ifukube suited me best, even at its rather long running time (50 minutes). The rest did not make for the most compelling speakers, but the interviews are also laden with amazing behind-the-scenes photos, so if that’s your bag, there’s added incentive. At the very least, I can’t imagine a major Godzilla fan, or those with interest in classic monster movies, would much regret many of the insights offered in each.

Finally, film critic Tadao Sato offers a short piece on Godzilla’s place in Japanese culture, but honestly, there’s nothing here that isn’t covered in the commentaries, which by their very nature are go into much greater depth. There are a few added anecdotes, however (Sato was a film journalist when Godzilla was first released, so he was at ground zero, so to speak), and since it only runs about 12 minutes, it hardly hurts.

A booklet is enclosed with an essay by J. Hoberman, whose credits listed following his words are already out of date, mere days before this is released, but we are provided here with yet another reason that his recent departure from The Village Voice came too soon, but could never truly have come at a fitting time.

Finally, I want to say a word about the cover art, which has come under tremendous scrutiny by all the usual suspects, complaining that the monster represented is a closer match to the recent American remake than that in the Japanese classic. Criterion’s response is that they asked artist Bill Sienkiewicz to capture a more elemental vision of the monster than a strict interpretation, which is in keeping with the design philosophy that has guided their art for the past decade-plus. I have dozens of Criterion discs, and unless they use a photograph for the cover, they never represent a realistic portrayal of the films’ subjects, preferring instead to capture the feel of the piece, which this one does perfectly.

This is a tremendous package in all the ways one would hope and expect. The transfer on both films is lovely, suffering not one bit from what would seem like a disc overloaded with content. While that content is sometimes redundant or unnecessary, the good stuff is so very good that one needs only to take a curatorial stance to get the most out of this. The main feature is a classic film, and one could easily make the argument that it’s among the greatest ever made. Criterion has provided a package worthy of such a film, and even those with a casual interest in it are well advised to pick it up. I can almost guarantee you’ll learn something.

13 Responses to “Home Video Hovel- Godzilla”

  1. Timothy Meadows January 23, 2012 at 3:38 pm #

    Funny how Criterion’s special features do the heavy lifting for reviewers.

  2. Scott Nye January 23, 2012 at 4:06 pm #

    If that’s a shot at me, you’ll have to elaborate. I’m incredibly dense.

  3. Timothy Meadows January 23, 2012 at 4:38 pm #

    Just funny how much more insight this review has compared to the The Moment of Truth review. For The Moment of Truth Criterion didn’t provide a cultural or historical frame for bullfighting, I guess, or at any rate you allowed your personal perspective to overwhelm the review. While with this review you echoed established and documented perspectives on the movie. In summary, there’s a noticeable difference in your approach to the reviews that’s obviously at least in some part a product of the Criterion special features, and I think that’s funny because it demonstrates the impact the special features have on the viewer.

  4. Scott Nye January 23, 2012 at 5:13 pm #

    Well, it’s a matter of approach. For me, unless I have a unique, personal, or interesting take on the film in question, I treat DVD and Blu-ray reviews as reviews of a product, so I focus more on special features and the technical quality of the transfer, mastering, etc.

    In the case of MOMENT OF TRUTH, I was pretty up front about the fact that I really hate to see animals suffer, and admitted that very well could have clouded my judgment. I did a bit of reading on bullfighting before writing my review, but remain unswayed with regards to any cultural value it might have. In any event, I still reviewed the PRODUCT pretty much without judgment.

    In the case of GODZILLA, I was pretty surprised to learn how urgent its social import was, and thought that angle may be of interest to our readers. If not, well, that’s how it goes sometimes. But this is a major film about which much has been written, so ANY attempt at an intellectual examination would almost inevitably result in regurgitation. Additionally, it’s not a film that means a great deal to me personally, so I had nothing to say that I really felt like I NEEDED to express.

    But if there is some course you’d like the discussion to take, don’t you think it’d be far more fruitful to steer it that way yourself, instead of lambasting me for not doing so? The comments section can be a wonderful forum by which one could discuss any number of things, and just because it’s not touched on above doesn’t mean it’s invalid. Critiquing another writer’s method is fine and all (and trust me, I can take it), but surely you have something real to say about, you know, something besides ME? I think we’ve established I’m not all that interesting.

  5. Timothy Meadows January 23, 2012 at 5:29 pm #

    I look forward to experiencing these releases, which are not yet available to the general public. I’ve made an observation on two pieces of writing I’ve read, just as you made observations on two products you experienced. There’s no reason to lecture me on the comment section’s possibilities when I’m on topic, and I consider your value judgement (i.e. “something real to say”) an indication that you cannot ‘take it’, whatever ‘it’ is, because it’s not a ‘shot’ at you I’m taking, as I already attempted to clarify. I made a comment related to the quality of special features vis-à-vis the experience of viewing the movie, and meant no offense, mmkay.

  6. Scott Nye January 23, 2012 at 6:34 pm #

    Hey, go to town, use the comments section for whatever you want as long as you stay on topic, which you totally are.

    I was specifically curious in this case, as this is hardly the first time you’ve taken me to task for my professionalism, but you seem pretty convinced of your assessment of my character, so hey, more power to you, brother.

  7. Timothy Meadows January 23, 2012 at 7:06 pm #

    Had to Google myself + Battleship Pretension to see what you were referring to, and was surprised to find a comment (a single comment) by me from November 10, 2011 that directly challenged your professionalism. Sorta lol’d because it links to this conversation in a way I neither expected nor considered. I assure you that today’s comment was independent of that previous comment, and that I know nothing of your character other than what you display of it here. Basically, I know very little about your character. This conversation has revealed some things to me, but I’m not sure what, and my original reply was directed toward the article. This conversation is beginning to feel oddly like group therapy, and I bet if I’d said “great article, nice job” a conversation like this wouldn’t have begun. I noticed a thing, I commented on that thing, and this is now the third time I’ll have clarified that it wasn’t meant as an insult.

    If this doesn’t appease you, I’m sorry, I’m literally and truly confused at this point. We should have had a moderator.

  8. Scott Nye January 23, 2012 at 9:19 pm #

    Clearly there was a miscommunication, and I apologize for my end of things. In the end, if you make a comment about the style or structure of a piece of writing, you are making a comment about the author, to which you’re entitled. I assure you I didn’t take it personally, other than that it furthered a trend in online film criticism in which the writer is discussed more than the piece in question. This profession, such as it is, is built around the idea that art is worth discussing, and the most frustrating part of it is when that central goal gets lost – something which we’re all guilty of at one point or another. So whether you leave a good comment or a bad one regarding my choices as a writer, the net result is the same – the movie gets lost in the shuffle.

    Once again, I apologize for not being more clear and forthright earlier. But at the same time, I’d ask that you not presume anything about myself (as you did in declaring that I’d clearly taken your remarks to heart), and take me at my word. In such a forum, that’s all we have anyway.

    Have a good one.

  9. Timothy Meadows January 24, 2012 at 1:26 am #

    This conversation strikes me as an analog for the potential harms of bad criticism and as support for my initial remark. I wish to rewind and represent my case.

    First, let’s start at the beginning. I arrive at Battleship Pretension looking for the new podcast. I see your article on The Moment of Truth. I think: yes, an article about a title I’ve been anticipating, can’t wait to learn about this movie. I click the article with this reasonable expectation.

    Because I completely agree with you about the central goal of criticism being to discuss and explore art, you can imagine my disappointment when the article began with a use of the first person plural pronoun ‘us.’ Oh no there’s a choir, the writer has placed an opinion of his at the foreground of the discussion. You probably remember that the article began with an indictment on bullfighting, a view which should exist independent of the merits of Francesco Rosi’s film, as the pronouncement seems to suggest that the function of criticism is not purely art bound, but has elements of individual perspective as well.

    I read further. You describe the film as “complex and honest” but make no mention of what’s complex. Is it complex because you oppose violence against animals and Rosi shows violence against animals? How is that objectively complex? You say Rosi contrasts the torero’s career “against the violence he commits to get there,” but you don’t explore the value of this contrast, or what it signifies, and the next sentence is about the “pure, violent nature” of the bullfighting (smacking my forehead already). You then say he weaves the footage and how it’s horrific (ok, ok), artful, honest, and probing – but you’ve only described the horrific element of this sentence! Then you deliver the blow of “it’s couched in a central story of much less relevance.” I still only know one thing about the story!!! Only one thing, that it has to do with a career of bullfighting. This I can tell by the cover.

    “The horror of the bullfighting was a little too overpowering,” co-exists, laughably, in a paragraph with “I’m not easily rattled by these sorts of things.” You were rattled, the film is about a bullfighter, and it’s in documentary form. These are the things I know after two paragraphs. You mention that Rosi’s “concerns exist so far outside of his central story that one’s own interest in it could vary tremendously,” but again fail to mention what the story is. Is a story about the rise of a torero seriously so commonplace that you don’t think it’s worth detailing? Is this a variant on Vicente Blasco Ibáñez’s famous Blood and Sand, the same story?

    The next paragraph is tech related, sure, fine. The next two paragraphs are special features relate, sure, fine.

    And then, I swear, you begin the final paragraph with “Ultimately, if you have the stomach for it, the film may prove worthwhile yet.” Why may it be worthwhile? I’m seriously dying to know!! Seriously. You then mention AGAIN its documentary qualities and its violence (JESUS), and end, almost ridiculously, with “it’s undoubtedly an urgent, provocative piece of art, so I’d never write it off entirely. If its main story had similar qualities, I may be more willing to laud the film accordingly.” Why is it urgent and provocative? It was provocative to you because you are offended by bullfighting and cannot even imagine why anyone would appreciate the sport, which you don’t give a cultural context for, but of the art of the film and how it may be urgent and provocative you make no mention. What are the qualities of its main story and where was that discussion? I’m glad you’d be “willing” to laud the film you want to talk so little about. If you indeed mean the depictions of violence are urgent and provocative then what, besides your well-established opposition to animal cruelty, make them urgent and provocative? If it’s the story of animal cruelty and it engulfed you, than why not say that, why say it’s the story of a torero?

    For those who have missed it: bullfighting is violent and Scott Nye is against it. Read his review to find out all about it.

    Then I click your Godzilla review. It begins with another extraneous conversation about geek culture or some shit. There’s a whole paragraph about that with a final sentence that tells me Godzilla is important. But why?

    Well, the next paragraph actually tells me! You discuss the film’s social relevance, which, from what I gather, you learned from the Criterion special features. I’m reading a special features review, okay. That’s fine. You talk about morality and no clear answers, cool. This paragraph ends with the subjective statement, “I don’t hold it in nearly the same esteem that others do.” And why not end with this sentence? There’s no rule that says we can’t discuss ourselves as we discuss art. In fact, art isn’t a science, art is a discussion of ourselves, so it makes perfect sense. Of course I learn something about Godzilla by knowing that Scott Nye doesn’t hold it in early the same esteem as others do, never mind the fact that he doesn’t explain why he doesn’t, it’s enough to know that he doesn’t. Makes we want to go back and rewatch the movie.

    “Godzilla isn’t the most visually dynamic film,” without mentioning why not, but anyway it’s a tech paragraph, so okay. The next paragraph is tech related, okay, sure, also some things you learned from special features, okay. Next paragraph, special features related, fine. Some stuff about friends and how many commentaries you listen to, fine. Next paragraph, special features related, cool. The next paragraph is special features related and ends with a personal qualifier. That’s fine, I mean you’re a human, there should be shades of humanity, it makes sense. Next paragraph, special features/injections of personal taste, fine. Next paragraph, special features related, fine, at this point I can’t even remember that criticism is “built around the idea that art is worth discussing,” so the weird irony about you criticizing Sato’s interview because “there’s nothing here that isn’t covered” elsewhere, in an article that only regurgitates special features material … whatever. The next paragraph is a little Hoberman observation, okay. A paragraph about the cover, whatever. At this point I can barely remember there’s a movie related to what I’m reading. The final paragraph is a classic ending paragraph that summarizes things, okay.

    I know so much about the Criterion special features and what you learned from them and hardly anything about your take on Godzilla.

    Point is, and I really only intended to criticize these reviews, and your frustrating replies in the comment section, though I confess I got carried away — the point is that the words you use and how you frame them, in criticism and ghd comment sections as everywhere else, form an image in the reader’s mind, and less complete images can actually damage a reader’s perception. Like, I’m less excited about The Moment of Truth because you’re against bullfighting. How is that fair to the art? How does that instigate personal pursuance of The Moment of Truth?

    Just as a critic may challenge the effectiveness of a filmmaker in delivering themes, whether the filmmaker’s intentions are visible or not, it seems perfectly fair for a reader to evaluate a critic on the execution of their ideas. In your The Moment of Truth review you clearly discussed bullfighting more than the movie, and your Godzilla review was mainly about special features. So just don’t go off on me when I want to talk about your reviews instead of the art WHICH YOU YOURSELF BARELY DISCUSS, and then, if you can believe it, use the defense that your intention was to instigate discussion of the piece of art.

    Clearly there was a miscommunication, and I apologize for my end of things. In the end, if you make a comment about the presentation of a movie, you are making a comment about the presentation, to which you’re entitled. I assure you I didn’t take it personally, other than that it furthered a trend in online film criticism in which the presentation is discussed more than the movie in question. Criticism, such as it is, is built around the idea that art is worth discussing, and the most frustrating part of it is when that central goal gets lost – something which we’re all guilty of at one point or another. So whether you write a good review or a bad one regarding my choices as a cinephile, the net result is the same – the movie gets lost in the shuffle.

    Once again, I apologize for not being more clear and forthright earlier. I had very specific problems with your reviews that I generalized in a way that led to a confused conversation (this being the analog to your bad reviews). But at the same time, I’d ask that you not presume anything about myself (as you did in declaring that I failed to discuss the art properly based on your pieces which failed to discuss the art properly … and as you admitted, via caps lack, were really about PRODUCT), and take me at my word. In such a forum, that’s all we have anyway.

    Because at the end of the day I think it’s textbook hypocrisy for a critic to berate a reader for his/her criticisms of criticisms. Just as you as a reviewer of movies pull from a personal point of view, so do I as a reader of criticism pull from a personal point of view. And it just may be that it’s not my fault if the conversation goes off course, depending on how the course is constructed.

    And please don’t tell me that I was being presumptuous in thinking that you were taking my comments personally when it seems that all you can talk about is yourself. Seems like if you were really worried about how the art was being perceived you wouldn’t have begun with “If that’s a shot at me” …

  10. Mattallica January 24, 2012 at 9:35 am #

    Watch out, Scott. I hear this guy is a real ladies’ man.

  11. Timothy Meadows January 24, 2012 at 12:15 pm #

    It’s nice of you to defend your friend, 12-inch dick and ladykiller Mattallica, by attempting to offend me. That’ll probably get you the pussy you so earnestly desire.

  12. Mattallica January 24, 2012 at 12:41 pm #

    Here’s hoping!

  13. Timothy Meadows January 24, 2012 at 1:09 pm #

    Be pretty cool.

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