Hooboy, am I tired of arty movie critics. You know, the ones who talk about Fellini and Rigatoni on National Public Radio, in low gaspy voices that sound like asthmatics on Quaaludes, so you’ll know they’re intellectuals and dreadfully earnest. Me, I’m going to study real movies, for Americans: movies with grit and diesel fumes to them, and maybe some home fries, and application to everyday life. I mean the masterpieces that shaped this country: Godzilla, Mothra, The Blob, Killer Shrews, and Rodan the Reptile Bat. (Actually, I thought Rodan was a sculptor. Maybe he was a reptile bat too.)
Now, if you go to Europe, they will get arty on you. Like as not, they’ll screen some grainy black-and-white atrocity about two tiresome people in love, and some reason why it won’t work, and their sighs, and significant expressions, and soul-searching, and agonies, and eventual suicide. It will probably be based on an unnecessary novel by a French existential philosophe. You’ll end up wishing you had never been born, and probably get drunk afterwards. The message will be that life is insecure, and unreliable, and sad sometimes, and doesn’t make a grain of sense.
I bet you needed a French director to tell you that, didn’t you? Only the Frogs would need a thousand years of intellectual posturing to learn what any C&W band knows at birth. Besides, if you want insecurity, Godzilla teaches that at any moment you can be stomped on by an enormous dinosaur. Maybe I’m just a country boy, but that seems like enough insecurity for everyday use.
If you want a movie up to the eyeballs in textured meaning (that’s critic talk), watch Killer Shrews. It’s real American Art–art you could sell at a NAPA outlet, forty-weight, with detergents and a discount if you buy it by the case. Great movie. See, there were a bunch of scientists on this island, maybe in the Fifties. They were experimenting with Radioactive Gunch or something. It’s what scientists all do. They spilled it on some shrews.
Now, a shrew is about two inches long, and eats 27,000 times its weight in bugs every fifteen minutes. You can see that a big one would be a problem. Well, the Gunch made these shrews grow. Big shrews.
Trouble was, the movie had about a twenty-cent budget. The best they could do for giant shrews was to get collies and put shrew masks on them. (So help me: Watch it yourself.) You’d have an expendable character pursued through the woods by a herd of deadly shrews, all wagging their tails. There was no audio editing. Sometimes you could hear the shrews saying, “Woof woof.”
Then there was Jaws. I didn’t see it until last year, so maybe my experience with computer animation has prejudiced me. Everybody had told me about how terrifying the shark was and how they all had nightmares for weeks. (That’s a good reason to pay seven dollars for a movie ticket.) To me, ol’ Jaws looked like a rubber raft with teeth and a pole-axed stare, as if someone had put chloral hydrate in his last drink. And he ran into things, clunk. I was afraid the poor stiff might get blunted.
Artwise, though, I figure America hit a pinnacle in about 1957, when The Blob debuted, or debutted, or anyway came out. A meteor or space ship or something was zooming around the universe and crashed in Alabama, it looked like. Space aliens must have quality-control problems. They drop like flies, mostly near trailer parks in the South. Anyhow this one was full of slime. It jumped onto your hand and then dissolved you, and got bigger: Slime writ large.
For most of the movie a nomadic schwudge (I think that’s how you spell schwudge) of sociopathic jello oozed around ominously (note the alliteration: it’s literary), dissolving people. You’d see some guy in a vulnerable position, maybe under a car working on it. The camera would cut to gelatinous evil, urgle blurg, glop. Then to the guy under the car. Then to urgle blurg. The tension became unbearable, closely paralleling the cinematography. In a thousand theaters girls clutched their boyfriends extra tight. Those guys still eat jello in gratitude.
By the second reel the Blob was well on its way to metabolizing small-town America. One night it was eating Joe’s Diner. Someone discovered that it didn’t like being sprayed with fire extinguishers. (How smart was that? Who does like it?) It seemed that cold was the soft underbelly of intergalactic slime. Fortunately Joe’s was in the only town in the country in which everyone had three fire extinguishers. They all came out and extinguished at it, and it chilled to death.
Then the movie ended. Good thing, too. It gets warm in the South, come morning.
There was a movie called I Was A Teen-Age Werewolf, but I never got to see it. In fact, there was a whole slew of movies about teen-agers who turned into various disagreeable things, a distinctly minor metamorphosis. In fact, teenagers being what they are, most parents wouldn’t have noticed the advent of a werewolf. (I was inspired later in high school to write an autobiographical screen-play called I Was A Teen-Age Breast Pump, but I had to abandon the idea due to a shortage of material.)
However, the apotheosis of nuanced paradigmatic fin de siecle in the genre of le filme atrocieuse (I made that up. Am I a critic, or what? ) was Godzilla. He was a bedraggled tyrannosaur, displaying signs of autism, who repeatedly came from the sea, breathing fire, and ate Tokyo. You could set your watch by it: Every Saturday afternoon at the Glebe theater, chomp, chomp, chomp. Godzilla was an allegory of unreached potential. He could have gone to a shipyard and worked respectably as a welding torch, but, no, he had to eat the city. Here we have a literary subtext on the repudiation of conventionality and society’s inevitable punishment of the rebel. (He got chased into the sea where earnest-looking scientists dissolved him with oxygen bombs.)
Millions of kids, throwing popcorn boxes in Saturday matinees across America, learned from Godzilla lessons about the inexorability of fate, and about insecurity (at least in Tokyo)–not to mention how to sail a popcorn box for maximum range.
If that ain’t Art, I don’t know what is.