Robin Pen's
CRITICAL
EMBUGGERANCE


A Jungian Analysis of Rubber Suit Monsters

PART THREE: ARCHETYPES BEHIND THE VINYL PERSONA

TRANSCRIPT: GODZILLA TV interview 9b - Aug '87.

EXCERPT START-

MIKE: Welcome to the program.

GODZILLA: Happy to be here.

MIKE: How do you view the claim that your fame is the result of your repeated destruction of Tokyo?

GODZILLA: Hard to say really, but I don't believe it was "Tokyo" alone.

MIKE: Of course, but it must have been hard work walking over those city blocks and train ramps.

GODZILLA: Not if you consider they're just desk-top models.

MIKE: You're kidding.

GODZILLA: Not at all.

MIKE: Well, that explains why you look so much larger on the screen.

GODZILLA: Slow motion helps. Er . . . it's rather hot under these lights. Do you mind if I take my head off?

MIKE: Pardon?

GODZILLA: No problem. I just find the seam around the back of the . . . that's got it.

MIKE: What are you doing? My god! His head's come off! There's . . . there's somebody inside Godzilla! A Japanese guy with a head-band!

GODZILLA: (Sigh) That's much better. Now that I can breathe, I would like to talk about why I'm here.

MIKE: Run! Everybody, run away!

GODZILLA: Let's think about it. I mean, what has happened to good, clean, wholesome fun, I ask you?

END EXCERPT.

Dirty red skies. Cityscape matte paintings of colossal buildings. Vast windows looking out on city developments with moving bill-board commercials. Endless industrial sounds, distant and regular like huge, muffled heartbeats. Craft slowly descending upon towers with lights flashing in unison. Hanging frames of neon glowing out of shadows that are, for an instant, obliterated by stuttering fluorescence. Video monitors pulsing voyeuristic images and overlaid vector graphics. Shafts of torch light cutting though black smoke, with screeching tones synchronized to the light flaring off the lens. Water dripping onto stern faces and their stern matte-black conventional weaponry with exotic attachments. Thin wire microphones in front of nervous lips.

There: some of the images you have to have for The contemporary sci-fi movie. You too can use the same system as the rating and censorship board to judge just how "SF" any film is. Simply tick the number of weak, medium and strong visual icons - stars, robots, weird planetary surfaces, bizarre weapons, what have you. Once they're counted up, you can sit back and view the movie for what it really is. Which, naturally enough, is an action movie. And an action movie is almost certainly what a science fiction film has to be these days if there is to be any hope of making money.

Meanwhile, in the senior executive's office, the producer is making his pitch. "It's an action adventure, action thriller, psychological action drama . . . and it's set in the future." "Ah shit!" says the boss. "That means a bigger budget". "God no! We use a quarry and do up the old sets from 'Alien Tours' at 20th Century Fox. Like we did for V, remember?" But if you are Arnold Schwarzenegger and Paul Verhoeven, you get as much money as you could possibly want, then proceed to shoot it in a quarry and make it look like the old sets from 'Alien Tours'. And the result is Conan 6: The Next Generation, but for reasons to do with the praising of the Goddess of Sheer Originality, you decide, instead, to call it Total Recall. (Please note the sudden clash of reverberating orchestral instruments and accompanying light show when this title is in use. Thank you.)

Total Recall: the movie that has the scope of SF (in its special effects). Total Recall: the movie that has the excitement of SF (in its special effects). Total Recall: the movie that has the spectacle of SF (in its special effects). Total Recall: the movie that has the most singularly impressive lack of regard for basic physics and spends a hell of a lot of money announcing so - even The Abyss can't compete for asshole physics; not for the lack of trying, mind you - (and the special effects weren't that good anyway). Now, there are a number of possible explanations for Total Recall's (pseudo-)scientific faux pas:-

1. Total Recall is not SF, but fantasy dressed in the trappings of SF: Yes, this is all happening in an another universe (A Long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away) where the laws of physics do not operate in the way we understand ours to. 1.

2. The writers and film-makers are stupid and do not watch the news, read the paper, or understand the first thing about the laws of thermodynamics.

3. The writers and film-makers think the audience is stupid and do not watch the news, read the paper, or understand the first thing about the laws of thermodynamics. (The film's reviews suggest that many critics don't.)

4. The writers and film-makers, especially the producers and executives, don't give a shit what you do or don't know, just as long as you buy a bloody ticket.

But there is a severe flaw in my bitching. Why should this movie be considered from an SF perspective? "Science fiction" was definitely not the intention of Total Recall. Sure, it's based on a good idea by Philip K. Dick (most of his ideas being good), but "We Remember It For You Wholesale" 2. was only the inspiration (and the excuse) for this flick. Total Recall is nothing more than a reasonably straightforward, dumb action movie full of "neat" special effects and futuristic bits to enhance the excitement (and the plot as well). This was its objective and, as a dumb action movie, it has largely succeeded. Piles of action, stacks of gunplay, a decent pace, a good soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith and the obvious charms of Arnold Schwarzenegger (or oblivious charms, as is your choice). So, apart from it being totally stupid, once they used up Dick's original story (and most of that within the first twenty minutes), what is left to criticise in Total Recall?

Some of the answers lie with the director Paul Verhoeven who has shown himself to be a capable story-teller and an intelligent film-maker, more so with his Dutch language features and less so with Robocop. It has also been shown that Verhoeven needs inspiration to be interested in the Hollywood bullshit. In searching for inspiration, he sets about shocking and unsettling the American audience (or making them drool over what grisly bit he can splat onto the screen next). Describing him as "as subtle as a baseball bat in the face" would be unfair, especially when I can think up something like "an M-16 with chainsaw attachment".

Of course, this is what the producers, and the studio, want from Verhoeven and for the picture, especially for an Arnie picture. It is, in their greedy little eyes, the current formula for a cinematic success with a video success to follow it up. Fast and furious gratuitous violence in a nice, light, high-tech, mecha-weapon wrapping. Mmmm, enough to make your mouth water.

This is just the formula that they wanted for Predator 2. As much a remake as it is a sequel, it is set in the near future for three apparent reasons; to up the violence using more vicious weaponry, to pull in the techno-freaks, and to set up a nastier future scenario for Predator 3 and Predator 4 and so on. "Pump this one for as much as you can boys, the feeding is good". With the right formula, who needs a story? Predator 2 has a plot so mind-bogglingly simple it ends up being little more than a series of violent and bloody events tied together with a piece of string that's there only in order to call it a feature film. I must admit that a number of scenes have some style. Then again, it would be hard to botch the job when you allot Ridley "cool dude" Scott's photographic, audio, and editorial techniques from Alien to the most appropriate scenes in the Predator 2 script. We should commend the director, Stephen Hopkins, for doing fair impersonations, but that is what directing is often all about. As they say: "All's fair in love and film-making." 3.

Now, all this "nastiness in the Big City" may be attributed to Hollywood's "complex" understanding of that American artform and virtue: the hero comicbook. Comics have been getting greater public attention over the last several years, particularly because of the cult success of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986), which did have a large role in the Batman movie being made. Such success inspired the studios to look at what is "hottest" and most commercial in comics. That got them the writer/artist of Dark Knight, Frank Miller, for Robocop 2. Miller's writing often deals with cold hard futures, with cold hard people resorting to cold hard solutions. This can be turned into impressive work in the comic medium, but often, in the medium of motion pictures, it can be too close for comfort. Comics have a knack of allowing self parody that, within film, tends to look like maliciousness for the sake of satisfying the sadistic twelve-year old that resides in many adults, or hearing the shocked gasps of startled audiences. But this is what Hollywood, and a sizeable proportion of the cinema/video audience, want. However, I feel they will eventually tire of this sensationalist gore when they become desensitised to this "comic" approach to "sudden impact" violence. "Oh gee look, that poor man is about to get gutted by a very large drill bit . . . and yep, it looked just the way I thought it would."

This should not be considered an attack on the influence the "comic art" can have on film. I do criticise the studios' preconceptions of what a comic entails and how to apply it to cinematic storytelling, though some film-makers do get past Hollywood's comic insensibilities and follow their own comic style ideals. For instance, the approach Sam Rammi employed in the "techno-gothic" psycho-hero monster-romance Darkman. It was still a rather callous film, like the ones already mentioned, but Darkman did succeed, more or less, in developing the sense of satirical humour the violence-rich comic often intends. Though Darkman is a blatant fusion of Phantom of the Opera and Batman, its style is likely to have been inspired by the EC horror comics which were, in turn, likely inspired by the classic Universal horror flicks, such as Frankenstein (1931), Dracula (1931), and Wolfman (1940). It seems clear that Darkman took inspiration directly from such films, particularly the portrayal of the hero as a tragic figure, being "damned or cursed for evermore". This has been predominant in Darkman's coming closer to having an authentic hero than other comic book movies of recent times. Batman's hero was on the verge of being nonexistent and Dick Tracy's was far too self-conscious. Other films mentioned in this article rate little remark in this respect, being, simply, in the guise of the hero (that is, without going through any of the journey of the hero) means very little goes below the shallow watermark of frivolous mind relief. Sadly, this is a common feature of the comic book hero, be he in comics, literature, television, or cinema.

Darkman is, clearly, far from perfect, but it does have refreshing qualities, the most notable being the pace-setting comic quirkiness. Darkman succeeds in recreating the style in which the comic book operates, and does so better than its contemporaries. Batman, other than the Gothic decor, borrowed more from the camp TV series than any of the comic portrayals. Dick Tracy lovingly recreated the frame set-ups and the appropriate 2-dimensional nature of the characters, 4. but Dick Tracy missed the point of the comic experience, that is, the comic's dynamic. The action (in the popular action comic) is not created within the frames but between the frames. The immediate experience of the comic is the moving image the reader creates between one frame and the next; from the arm raised in a tight fist, about to strike, to the victim of the blow flying out the window. The images within the panels are the storyboards, presenting the action from A to B. Being so comicstrip-orientated in its flow, Darkman has the storyboards virtually flashing past as the film speeds along. This approach seems to use many of the story elements of the comic book; gag writing, juxtaposition, merging of styles, surrealism, over the top performance, badder than bad, meaner than mean. And in this respect, Darkman was fun while it lasted. However, this can bring its own limitations, such as an encompassing artificiality, little or no room for suspense, and a daft plot. Yet these do seem to be features of the popular comic book; these and the prevailing sense of superficiality.

That distinct and prevailing superficiality is part and parcel of what the producers want. It is also what the studios want, and what the investors want. They want the superficial, escapist, high-tech, gung-ho, violent and bloody action movie, with the comic book hero. That's also what a discernible number of ticket-buying customers want. And for all their money, that's what they'll get - the rubber-suit monsters they have been craving since the Creature from the Black Lagoon crawled out of the Amazon River. But now it's retrofitted and hardware-equipped to keep ahead of what is, just barely, socially acceptable in current affair programs. As I mentioned earlier, Total Recall, Predator 2, Robocop 2 and other recent rubber-suit action movies may, one year, be on the way out. But for now they are too hotly in demand to be ignored by the account executives. So, for the time being, science-fiction and storytelling will remain in the hands of the thugs (except for Total Recall's last quarter, where the story was in the hands of Neanderthals). Although these thugs may be talented, and probably have better films in them, as long as the cheques keep coming they'll choose to remain thuggish.

Let's admit to our prudish and peace-loving little selves that all this evisceration, on the point of a shining carbo-molybdenum blade, and incineration, by an exploding phosphorous projectile, is all rather unsurprising. Why should our beloved science fiction genre be considered artistically free from tampering by film-makers, hungry for commercial success? The law of Hollywood states that commercial success leads to respect and acceptance by the studio peers. In other words, if your film is not a monstrous hit then you must have done something wrong. This rule applies as much to SF as to any other genre or style. Why should you expect otherwise? Why hide the truth that there is simply a guy in the rubber-suit, expecting to be paid for his services? Why did you assume that the film was wearing a rubber-suit for any purpose other than to satisfy your voracious hunger for novelty? Grow up guys. This is the real world!

But why all this concern over these nasty movies, with icky monsters, butch heroes and things? It isn't important when you allow your senses, hungry for more visuals, to sweep further afield and encapsulate those films, within science fiction and fantasy, that are pushed aside from obvious view by the snarling, dribbling rubber-suit monsters. And as long as films like Akira Kurosawa's Dreams are out there, films like Total Recall and Darkman are small worries indeed. Time can show a film's value, and though time is not an accurate form of cinematic appraisal, I think it will be found that a film like Dreams will grow in significance while Arnie flicks, and the like, will move further into the wee hours of insomniac TV. Despite Dreams having no linear plot, no distinctive and active protagonist or antagonist (at least not in the traditional hero/villain moulds); despite a number of the eight dreams/stories being, intentionally, left unfinished, and some of the circumstances unexplained; despite the sometimes rather heavy-going pace, and the continual need to reorientate your viewing position; despite all this, Akira Kurosawa's Dreams is true storytelling. As long as films like Dreams continue to preserve the intuitive and intellectual exploration of myths, then what's the real threat of a few rubber-suit monsters? You may laugh, but the sincerity that the sensei Godzilla encapsulates is more at home in a film like Dreams than in a Hollywood sci-fi action blockbuster. Indeed, in a shot of Mt Fuji exploding towards the end of Dreams, I half hoped he would come stomping over the rise screaming and making poignant gestures. But who knows, it's hard to tell when almost everything is wearing a rubber-suit these days.


NOTES
1. I think it is safe to assume that the film-makers had no real idea what they were inferring with a dream world. It was interesting, for a while at least, to come to an understanding that there was no intention that Quade's paranoia make any sense.

2. This short story was first published in F&SF, April 1966, and helps to illustrate how far science fiction cinema tends to lag behind its literary counterpart. Personally, with films, we are yet to see the end of the forties pulp fiction, in attitude at least.

3. Eleven years after Alien, and a guy in a "rubber-suit" is still the most popular type of non-human antagonist. But it makes good sense; the audience will do a much better job of hating something humanoid, as they can apply a human state of mind to it. It can then be considered evil and deserving of hatred. Try hating a giant cucumber with claws, and beady little eyes, hell-bent on conquering the world. Predator 2 also wins the "Gargoyle" award for best shot of figure with gargoyle. You just can't make a rubber-suit movie, these days, without a pseudo-deco-gothic gargoyle in it somewhere.

4. The style of Dick Tracy was almost certainly intended for a self conscious viewing; almost Brechtian in its attempts to be seen as a performance on a screen. It didn't so much demand a suspension of disbelief, but more a critical eye on its own comicness. Especially the persona of Tracy, a man who stalls and stammers when pushed to take steps out of his 2D heroic stance and express feelings - a character who succeeds at being a hero and fails at being a human.





Originally appeared pp. 60-66, Eidolon 4,March 1991.
Copyright © 1991 Robin Pen. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with kind permission of the author.


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