Thursday, October 26, 2006
(Day 8 of Countdown)
“People say, ‘How can you put this stuff out there in the world? Well, it’s already out there….You’re so scared, you want to scream.”
--Eli Roth, director of Hostel
Virtually all of the giant monster movies have overt metaphorical concerns. In the case of King Kong, it is of course man’s (and on a certain level, capitalism’s) lack of respect for the mysteries of nature. With the giant movie monsters of the ‘50s, nowhere more perfectly captured than in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, it is the consequence of the atomic bomb. Some of my childhood favorites were those stories of giant scorpions, ants, and tarantulas set loose by radiation. But the fear evoked by those movies has little to do with the cause. That’s only the moral.
The horror, by which I mean the central focus of the art, is that the monster in those stories may not even comprehend the devastation it causes, but whether it does or not, it simply doesn’t care. The truly scary thing about the giant monster is its reminder of our insignificance. The gothic in architecture is that quality of the high ceilings and towering spires that serves to remind us of our insignificance in the face of God. The horror of the giant monster tells us we are not only insignificant in the face of the divine, but we are pitifully vulnerable and unimportant in the face of the natural world.
When the two forces are combined, the effect can be doubly devastating. The first Godzilla movie’s most frightening moments are those parts of the story early on before the big rubber suit is even seen. One scene only implies the presence of Godzilla through a storm devastating a seaside village. In other scenes the monster simply causes the ocean to rise up, and then a ship disappears. Those scenes say that nature might have a malevolent will, and that sense of insignificance in the face of such awesome forces has some of the fire and brimstone resonance of a classic like Jonathan Edwards’ early American and highly influential sermon “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God.”
It’s worth noting here that these core emotions have fueled the most influential pop culture of the past several decades. Of all of the reasons that Stephen Spielberg has been the most popular film director for the last three, I think the most fundamental is the dark side of that sense of wonder associated with his movies. It is that moment when we know just what Roy Scheider means when he says, “We’re going to need a bigger boat!” It is those storm clouds that herald the coming aliens in both Close Encounters of the Third Kind and War of the Worlds.
This is essentially the same incomprehensibly large and intangible horror that takes on a human face in Schindler’s List. One reason Worlds feels like a return to form for Spielberg is the way it concentrates this feeling of insignificance and helplessness. Focusing only on Tom Cruise’s perspective on worldwide devastation (that mankind is ultimately powerless to solve) boils Spielberg’s modern gothic down to its essence. It says a lot about the power of the gothic (the fear contained in the church whisper if you will) that the other most popular storyteller of this same era, Stephen King, also made his mark delivering that ancient disquiet in the wake of the Baby Boom’s cultural explosion.
The ghost story reminds us of the past and the inevitability of loss. The tale of madness makes us doubt our own faculties for dealing with reality. The tale of the giant monster trumps them all on one level, saying, “So what? You really don’t matter that much in the big picture!”
But what may be most important about the giant monster tale connects it to other forms of horror—the way it voices our need for one another. I have fond memories of those crackling radios on stormy nights, as well as contemplating that giant ape wreaking havoc in the dark night of Gotham City [see previous blog], my 6 year old self under covers next to my mother in that haunted house she’d fashioned for me.
The loss of and need for community are perhaps most crucial to the giant monster tale. These monsters generally can’t be defeated simply through some individual act of confrontation. Running away really is the only answer for the individual being chased through the streets of New York or Tokyo, and one of the great archetypal images from these movies are those ongoing shots of crowds simply running for their lives.
What generally defeats the giant monster is the collective effort of a team of individuals. It took four bi-planes and the lives of a few pilots to bring King Kong down off the Empire State Building. In The Blob, juvenile delinquents found common cause with the adults to refrigerate the monster. Godzilla took mind-boggling coordination of scientific theory and the engineers and technicians necessary to engineer a bomb that would sap the ocean surrounding the monster of its oxygen.
And the original Japanese version of Godzilla, Gojira, called for a more comprehensive social response to ensure a future free of such threats. The horror of insignificance reminds us that our only real hope for survival lies with faith in one another.
"There is only one thing on this earth more powerful than evil, and that's us. Any questions?"
--Buffy, the Vampire Slayer
To get a glimpse of what can happen when we work together, check out this new video by the California Nurse's Association--