Sunday, December 28, 2014

2014 in Shit: Godzilla

Back in June, I had a conversation with my friend Aishwarya about Godzilla, which I have reproduced below, slightly altered to make me look like I type like a legible human being on the internet. There is more to her side, but I am starting where I jumped in because I can't find all of her tweets. Apologies in advance.
A: (Except when [Ken Watanabe] brandishes a watch that stopped in August 1945 and is like "Hiroshima," in case you-the-audience had missed this.)
B: That was maybe my favorite moment in the movie (for me, it was [Watanabe] saying Fuck You to the whole thing though).
A: Introducing deliberate cringe, you mean?
B: From the audience (both attentive and not so), from the General (or whatever he was), from himself (presumably).
A: Not sure if it's a sign of how low my expectations are that I was just relieved they didn't claim the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were also America trying to kill Godzilla.
B: The bizarre multitude of explanations for Godzilla's existence definitely made me wary of that too (...which might have been another reason I was so into that scene, actually).
A: I can see that. It was the one non-terrible thing about that moment for me.
B: Yeah, can definitely see that. I was probably too generous with the movie because I got surprised Elizabeth Olsen was in it & I <3 her.
To give a little context; Aishwarya wasn't super high on Godzilla, for a lot of very good reasons. I was pretty into it, although probably a good amount of that was me convincing myself that I was. It's kind of what I do I guess.

There's also a good amount to unpack there. Instead of doing that up front, though, I think I'm going to start with just generalities, and let it unfold.

One of the weirdest things about watching Godzilla was that I ended up enjoying teasing at its narrative/worldbuilt limitations. I spent a chunk of the movie entertaining myself by thinking about why it was, exactly, that Godzilla didn't seem to eat the MUTOs when he killed them. There was some specific piece of dialogue speculating on the meaning of Godzilla that inspired these thoughts, although I can no longer remember what precisely it was. This is partially because of how long it has been since I saw the movie, but it is also partially because a lot of Godzilla is dedicated to folks speculating on what the hell Godzilla is or could be, what the presence of this thing means and how it will act. Which is about as good a thing as you can ask from a big budget Godzilla movie at this point, I think; one that is aware it has a lot of explaining to do and that that explaining will never remotely approach satisfactory. Dazzle 'em with (contradictory) exposition, in other words, or run the risk of allowing the overdetermined to wreak havoc.

Which isn't to say that Godzilla did anything remotely like successfully avoiding that ultimate fate. Charitably, it could be said to have embraced it. Really, really charitably, it could be said to be structured around it; everything from how incredibly white the film was to how Ken Watanabe's character or Elizabeth Olsen's character were portrayed in individual moments could be said to fall into a larger rubric of the impotence of a response to such a messy history by way of the response that all attempts are impotent. Something like that. Or Hollywood or whatever, I guess.

Despite the lackluster showing this year, this whole Year in Shit thing isn't about teaching you how to read films in boring ass ways. Or more specifically, the kind of charitable reading I prefer just doesn't happen to coincide with ideology critique, which that previous paragraph was trending dangerously close to. So, backing up.

The point is: Godzilla kind of suckered me. I found myself watching it in a way that I never watch movie, at least in part because I kind of hate it when I read about someone else's having watched a movie that way. I understand that there are pleasures in that kind of watching, and it does occasionally lead to something genuinely interesting, but I've rarely ever seen it do much than serve as a way to lock shit down. Whether that's alternative readings of a text (with the attendant stakes of differing priorities or methods of valorization) or potential audiences for it (Hi, every two star "As a physicist..." Amazon review), I don't tend to dig it. But Godzilla got me to engage with it, and for that I both respect and resent it.

It would have been pretty sweet if, after Godzilla blasted that one MUTO with his mouth laser through the throat, he started eating it, though. I mean, just in my opinion.

Aside from the way that the exposition in the film seemed to me to be in response to the overdetermination of the subject, what most grabbed me about the movie, as referenced above -- or, maybe more correctly, what most inclined me to be charitable towards it -- was that I was unaware that Elizabeth Olsen was going to be present, and her showing up semi-regularly made me pretty stoked. I've mentioned before that she might be my favorite actor working, and that her appearance in Silent House was what turned me on to her. Her part in Godzilla was, largely, bullshit. She was the upset wife of, uh, whoever that dude was. The main character. I literally have no recollection of who he was or what he did. He sucked.

Olsen was good, though, in that way where she has a total bullshit role and just rides it out until she gets that one opportunity to turn up and she fucking hits it, and that's really all I get in terms of acting. Which brings us to Ken Watanabe.

What Aishwarya was talking about, prior to the parenthetical with which the quote at the top started, was how Watanabe's role was largely reduced to him (very expertly) grimacing at things throughout Godzilla, which I don't disagree with as an assessment of how he was used (or how he acquitted himself admirably, despite that use). Where we ended up differently was our interpretations of one of the only scenes in which he was given something else to do, and I suspect the disagreement stems from the sort of charitable and bizarre mood I felt stemming from those weird things detailed above. Which is one way of saying that I don't really attribute my reaction to the movie itself, but rather to my own temperament; I suspect Aishwarya's response is more accurate to the text as it presented itself, even as I will continue to defend my reading.

The particulars of that scene go like this: a US army general is being all hawkish about Godzilla, threatening, if I recall correctly, to nuke the monster before it can ravage New York City. He threatens this despite the fact that he knows such a course of action will leave the city in the range of the fallout, and all that. He's being a big dumb jerk, basically, as the military personnel ought to be in this kind of movie. Watanabe is in the room where this is being discussed, and is kind of sitting it out at the beginning, just being generally unhappy, and waiting for his turn to actually get involved in the proceedings. When he decides to take his turn, what he does is to show the general a watch in his possession. It's stopped at a certain time that, as he informs the general, happened in August 1945. That time, he then continues, is when fucking Hiroshima was bombed by that general's predecessor or whatever. It's a really strong fuck you that, again if I am remembering correctly, is kind of paid lip service with a fade out and then ignored because a new scene is shown. But in that moment, when Watanabe finally stops being sidelined, it's the best.

Or at least, I thought it was. Because it works to address so many different folks simultaneously, and in each of them there is a veiled fuck you; to the general, who he knows isn't just a hawkish shithead, but is so dull as to not piece together that the "August 1945" reference. To the audience, for whom the same might likely be said. To the movie itself, for elaborating so many different meanings of its monster without once taking into account how those meanings are culturally inflected, and for saddling him with a role of representing those inflections solely through his name and skin without letting him engage them. To all of the above for the aggressive ahistoricism, whether of the lack of need to due military power or to genre for its flattening systems or to the way that this Godzilla seems more interested in rebuking the issues with Emmerich's Godzilla than engaging with any of its other versions. And, in the moment, it even seems a bit of a fuck you to himself, to playing in a movie where he is forced to spell out that Hiroshima was a real thing that happened with consequences, that this world needed stakes that only tokenization could provide it, that everything, really.

I'd go so far as to say that Godzilla is worth seeing for that scene alone. I'm probably wrong about that though.

Other things of note about Godzilla include that Godzilla was pretty great, as a monster. The design was hella goofy though, in a mostly not great way. They did pretty good stuff with it, though. Also there was a weird meme going around that the movie was disappointing because of how little screen time Godzilla got, which I thought was weird and kind of indicative of people watching it who don't watch monster movies? Or whose only previous experience with monster movies was Emmerich's Godzilla, which was panned largely because it was just like two fucking hours of Godzilla stomping around and that shit is really boring? I guess what I mean is less that Godzilla was great in itself and more that it was used pretty well, at least visually, all things considered.

Also Elizabeth Olsen and Ken Watanabe were the shit.

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