Posted by davidkalat on November 5, 2011
The cat is out of the bag–I had been under orders not to tell anyone until now that I provided the Vin Scully style play-by-play for both versions of Godzilla (1954/1956) on Criterion’s new Blu-Ray edition. I guess some Godzilla fans sensed something in the air, the way animals perceive a coming tornado, because I’ve gotten quite a few email inquiries about whether I was doing a commentary for the Godzilla vs Megalon Blu-Ray. Close, but not quite, fellas.
Over at the Criterion Forums, speculation about the Godzilla Blu-Ray led to this exchange:
Posted: Mon Aug 22, 2011 7:43 pm
What value does this have besides kitsch? This is an honest question; I’m not trying to troll anyone who likes this. I’ve never seen anything Godzilla-related, and I’m curious as to what the appeal is.
Posted: Mon Aug 22, 2011 7:53 pm
You have to look at the first Godzilla movie quite differently. It was a lot more serious in tone, a reaction to the bombings in WWII, the destruction of Japan, the hydrogen bomb testing in the Pacific that killed some fishermen (a newsreel on the BFI disc shows it).
Fair enough, but it does rankle me a tad how respect for the austere horror parable of Honda’s original Godzilla tends to come at the expense of the later, sillier films. The 1954 ‘Zilla is a masterpiece, a work of apocalyptic art. But the crazy sequels are fun, too, and I hate to see them thrown under the bus.
Ishiro Honda’s original Godzilla is a fine example of what can happen when exceedingly talented and sensitive people discover an opportunity to transform real-life traumas into pop cultural allegories. It got under the skin of everyone who saw it, around the world, and close to sixty years later shows no sign of losing it’s power.
The sequels are another matter altogether. The first Godzilla movie is the Godzilla movie you can invite home to meet the parents. It is respectable, it can plausibly appear on the Criterion label. People who hate monster movies and deride fantasy can own up to liking it because it’s art, because it’s serious, because it isn’t really a monster movie, it’s just a semi-documentary wearing a monster movie disguise.
The sequels, though, are the fun ones. You may not invite them home to meet the parents but they’re the ones you want to spend time with. They entertain, they thrill, they make you smile. But if you can’t own up to watching monster movies, you won’t be able to admit to liking them, not in respectable company.
It was the silly form if Godzilla that hooked me in the first place. I was six, and I saw this preview on TV:
And I knew, I knew, that it was my destiny to see that movie. I made my parents take me to the drive-in to meet my destiny, and my life has taken the course that it has.
I mean–who wouldn’t want to see the ultimate battle of giant against giant? (And if you’ve seen the movie before, the preview becomes absolutely hilarious).
For those of you who have never seen Godzilla vs Megalon, but who for some reason have kept reading to this point (unlikely, but still), what you need to know us that it is an uncommonly slapdash movie.
Ironically, this clumsy piece of haphazard filmmaking which would come to be the most widely seen, most accessible, best known of all Godzilla films in the US.
Back in the 1960s, Toho had partnerships with studs like Columbia and Warner Brothers, or substantial independents like AIP or UPA to distribute their pictures in the states. By the 1970s those relationships were dissipating. When Godzilla vs Megalon came to America, it was under the auspices of a fly-by-night fleabag operation called Cinema Shares.
When American distributors prepared the original Godzilla for US audiences, they remade the film, adding footage of Raymond Burr and reworking the Japanese footage. Say what you will about the artistic value of the reconfigured result, it was born of a desire to maximize the company’s investment and target the largest possible American audience. Twenty years later, Cinema Shares did this to prepare Godzilla vs Megalon for American tastes: nothing whatsoever.
I mean, yeah it was dubbed, but that had nothing to do with preparing the movie for Americans.
Toho had found a sizable European market for their exports, but European distributors were poorly equipped to dub Japanese dialog into Italian or German or whatever. As a convenience to European buyers, Toho started providing “international” versions with an English language soundtrack, prepared by a Hong Kong subcontractor. It was easier for European companies to dub from English into the relevant local language.
US distributors like AIP simply ignored these international English tracks and crafted dubbed versions on their own dime. Invariably, the bespoke versions made especially for the US market outstripped the international reference tracks.
But lazy underfunded distributors saw the international tracks as a gimme–and figured they could skip the expense and effort of making a good dub track.
Actually, I’m lying when I say Cinema Shares did nothing to promote or Americanize the movie. They did three things, listed below in order of significance, from trivial to profound:
1. They made a promotional comic book, which appeared to have been created by a mad hermit who had never seen the movie before and also had never encountered human civilization in any form.
2. They made some censorial elisions, trimming a few swear words or fleeting glimpses of nudie pinups in the background of other scenes.
And thus did Godzilla vs Megalon conquer the world.
A few weeks ago I was remarking on the challenge faced when a cultural institution with a small but loyal fan base struggles to widen it’s appeal, and in so doing risks alienating it’s core.
Megalon is an example of a related problem–when a loyal audience forms within a larger base, with a competing set of aesthetic allegiances.
Over the years, millions of Americans have seen Megalon. Some saw it when I did in the 1970s. Some saw it on NBC a few years later, hosted by John Belushi. Some saw it on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Some saw other TV broadcasts, or bought it on VHS for a dollar. Only an exceedingly small percentage of these people actually loved the movie–found it’s delerious charms infectious and winning.
As a movie, it is demonstrably flawed. It is a disjointed narrative held together only by stream of consciousness association.
Now this kind of craziness can be enjoyed on it’s own merits. And enjoy it I do–this movie satisfies a peculiar hunger. But there are (better) Godzilla movies whose reputations are tarnished by association with this absurd concoction. Just try to explain why you think Godzilla vs Mothra is an exceptional relic of 1960s fantasy cinema to a person whose vision of Godzilla is this:
Well, that’s a losing argument. And because of that, serious Godzilla fans took to sagging off this film. Like a group of high school nerds rejecting a fellow nerd for being too nerdy, in the hopes that without him their social standing might lift just a little, Godzilla nuts decided to reject this movie first. Go ahead, make fun of it–we don’t care anyway!
I have to say that I often feel out of place among Godzilla nuts. I go to the conventions, but I am perplexed by how determined other fans are to insist on taking Godzilla seriously. Some of the time, that’s appropriate–the 1954 film a perfect example. But if that’s all you enjoy about this franchise, you deny yourself the vast majority of the films and the most enduring aspect of their legacy.
By contrast, if you embrace the silly, if you revel in it for it’s own sake, then even Megalon becomes worthy fun. It doesn’t get much sillier than this. And I would so much rather live in a world that can include a scene like this:
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