The Id of Our Conscience, the Representative of Irrational Fear soon reaches his objective. Tokyo. He looks towards his traditional playground and finds it half-trampled, a smashed train set in close-up. His city has been ravaged by another! Infuriated, he searches for the offender and sees it swooping down through the grey cloud-cover. The silver three-headed hydra lands atop several buildings and, with an amplified electronic screech, prepares for battle! Smashing buildings as if they were plywood and cheap plastic they circle one another with wavering arms and wobbling necks. Then, with a gesture of pure human arrogance, Godzilla bends his clench-fisted left arm at the elbow and slaps his right hand around its upper half. From the depths of his chest he whispers a subtle, rather taunting jest and there--right then and there-- was when I came to believe that Godzilla is Cinema's greatest gift to Humanity. His gift is the straight-forward statement that nothing is truly sacred, that some things out there should never be seriously criticised. To criticise them is only to reveal the smallness of your mind, the shallowness of your soul. Godzilla is a shrine to this belief. He is the Tower of Light and Cinema Verité Wisdom, for he is the bodhisattva to not taking yourself (or your cinematic sensibilities) too seriously.
Unless you are the type of person who physically claps in your seat to save Tinkerbell from being splatted, you well know that Godzilla is a guy in a suit. "No shit", you say, but search your celluloid memories for any Godzilla-film experiences. Mostly they'll consist of "you've got to be kidding" or "this is ridiculous". I bet, though, that you'll also remember there were moments when you smiled. Your lightly observed thoughts mingle with your proud apathy, you smirk because Godzilla sure is kicking the shit out of that three-headed hydra. As you force out a cynical chuckle you know, deep down in the crevices of your hind-brain where myth and legend are indistinguishable from reality, that when the hydra was being swung around by its rubbery tail, Godzilla was fulfilling the role of the Hero, and you wanted to identify with that. If you didn't, not for a moment, then you must be a sad individual: a liar to your self and creatively brain-dead . . . or you have never seen Godzilla. If this is the case then a major film lesson has passed you by, for you are walking (Grasshopper) without knowing the pleasure of the occasional crawl.
Godzilla is the sensei in the dojo of Cinema Ephemera. His lessons have been passed on and nurtured by his newest hatchlings, who proudly claim a direct line of descent from the Supreme Reptile. There are four of them, and their names are Raphael, Leonardo, Michaelangelo and Donatello. They are the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Godzilla would be proud of them and of their mentor, the master rat Splinter (yes, a small Stick is but a . . .). They embody much of Godzilla's teachings but are in tune with the 90's social mind-set. With the art of the rubber-suit, marvellously updated by gadgetry from Jim Henson's hi-tech creature shop (Brian Henson was the Supervisor), the four turtles and the sensei rodent continue on, sign-posting the path to cinema satori.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a wonderful example of the wish for self-delusion as an act of pleasure. Though it can seem easy to do, overall it is a complex task requiring the imaginative application of art and craft by many people. The Film Experience is a trick, a gag. It is a constructed performance designed to enable you to fool yourself into "believing" what you see is, or can be, real. The marvel of it all is that it can work so often. Just as often it fails. This success or failure is dependant on the creativity, the insight, the hard work, the luck and, ultimately, the empathy of individual film-makers--from writer to set-painter; if they do not care for what they do the dream is still-born. This suspension of disbelief is equally dependant upon the audience bringing all the elements of the film to an emotive and intellectual whole in their minds. You create the story within yourself from the information and guide-lines given to you by people who have the story within themselves. Hopefully little is lost in the transition. The number of logic circuits that must be dropped to allow the images before your eyes and ears to seep in and be transposed by your own construct of the world depends upon many things: the power of the image, the flow of the script, the performance of the actors, the pace of the editing, the quality of the print, the sound-track, your own tastes, the mood you are in, the comfort of the seats, the air-conditioning, the food in your stomach and how long that bastard three rows back is going to keep right on being a complete shit-head, amongst other things.
With TMNT I, like many others, had prior warning of the subject content, with the original Eastman and Laird comic and a bit here and there of the cartoon series. The pleasure of the film came from its open sincerity. It was an "excellent" (pronounce that as you will) koan to the Godzilla ethos. It possessed a lack of self-importance, except perhaps where it concerned the actual act of story-telling. Where it did tell the story it often told it well, and when it didn't do so well its charm bridged the narrow gaps with humour from characters that Spike Milligan or Roger Ramjet could take innocent pleasure in. Much of the credit has to go to the screenwriters, puppeteers and mime-artists, and to the Director, Steve Baron, who knew how to balance the ridiculous with the sublime. (His success is less surprising when you consider that he directed a number of Jim Henson's The Storyteller episodes.) I must admit my guesses about TMNT were not too far off. When I discovered that the Exec. Producer was Raymond Chow, who brought forth Jacky Chan and many a whimsical martial arts comedy, I knew what to expect. Though the fantastic choreography of Jacky Chan is something TMNT would have benefited from to heighten its action, the fighting is certainly not flat.
The story of TMNT is as simple as its moral, which is often the best way to handle it. The philosophy of Splinter is straight from the introduction to any martial art manual and works to a "T". Splinter himself is a technical delight, his character admirable. He regularly reminded me of Nickodemus from The Secret of Nimh. The turtles are simple, two-dimensional and full of adolescent heroic spirit. Each turtle is a collage of one shot jokes, running puns and martial arts innuendo. By the end of the film they have developed individual characters and a base to expand upon and grow with in the undoubted TMNT sequels.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is silly, in fact it is very silly indeed. What makes it work so well is that it is aware of its own silliness and plays with it, inviting you to join in. It exemplifies the rubber-suit ethic, "Of course it's silly; that's the point! Aren't you going to play along?". If you cannot enjoy the "silly" experience, especially that of TMNT, do not necessarily ask what is wrong with them and why they don't work; rather ask yourself why you cannot get into them and why they don't work for you, because you, like all of us, have been invited to be silly, to relive your youth. Movies like The Creature From the Black Lagoon, It Came From Outer Space, Them, The Green Slime, Terminator, Alien, The Dark Crystal, Predator, The Muppet Movie, Robocop and the many movies of the bodhisattva Godzilla extend this three-fingered, purple hand of welcome to you too. You are invited to aesthetically anaesthetise the logic centres of your brain, to create a bizarre landscape in your mind and enter it, donning your own rubber-suit.
So the sets are up, the backgrounds dry. Tokyo is aglow as it pays wordless homage to Dante. The black smoke bellows into a dark sky. Shimmering in the heat haze are dozens of silver three-headed hydra screeching and taunting, daring their foes as they continue to char what is left of the city. Our heroes stand firm. There stands the turtle-colossus of Gamera (Friend of Children), just landed from his jet-propelled spin. Down at the feet of this Chelonian mega-hero are four small look-alikes in shadow, striking Frank Miller poses, saying cool things like "Totally awesome, dudes". Next to them is Godzilla, who weighs the situation with aggressive calculation. He looks down to his ankle and his last remaining side-kick. Schwarzenegger grips his well-used minigun, ready for action, the sweat running down his oiled muscles. He relaxes his gaze and allows a hint of a smile as he chews on his stale cigar. He looks up to Godzilla; "So, vot do you tink?" he asks. Godzilla responds with his famous cry. Turtle-smiles grow in response to Arny's words. "You said it, big buddy: let's kick ass. Cowabunga!"
. . . and if your suspension of disbelief is having trouble coping with this scenario, it is my fault . . . or is it yours?