Writing for the New Yorker web site, Richard Brody has a thoughtful essay entitled “Godzilla’s Gray Credo.” He enjoyed the new movie, but his piece is mainly a list of things that disgruntled him. Since those are precisely the things I loved, I thought I’d write a response.
First is his assertion that “the giggly delight in [the monsters’] design, is completely absent.” Huh? Not for me.
The second “problem” is that Godzilla has no overtly sexual overtones, and therefore cannot properly terrify us, for it holds no “lurid fascination that reaches into forbidden or unconscious zones of pleasure or pain.” Sex is indeed a preoccupation of horror movies, but Godzilla movies have never been about horror. Like movies about volcanoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis, they are about the terrifying awe we experience when confronted by natural forces much larger than ourselves. This lack of concern about sex is one of the things I found refreshing, even liberating, as a kid and a teenager. Being gay and closeted I had ample daily experience with “forbidden or unconscious zones of pleasure or pain.” Sex, all of it heterosexual, also saturated movies, TV, and books. Homoeroticism only surfaced in those horror stories Brody is celebrating, and they mostly used the taboo in a cruel and sleazy way that didn’t produce insight, but policed viewers into conformity through fear. Not something to celebrate Mr. Brody!
Building on his argument about sex, Brody continues, “In the absence of a human realm with recognizably tangled inwardness, the shudderingly vast quasi-religious kick that this “Godzilla” offers…[is] an empty religiosity: grandeur without depth, complexity without insight, mystery without resonance.” – Hmmm. The “human realm.” This reminds of me a scene in “Enter The Dragon.” Bruce Lee is teaching a kung-fu student about understanding the nature of reality when he holds his hand up and says, “It is like a finger pointing to moon.” The kid looks at Bruce’s finger and gets a bop on the head as a reward. “Don’t concentrate on the finger, or you will miss all that heavenly glory!”
I think the real horror story here is watching introspection turn into narcissism. Godzilla movies have always been a corrective for this by bopping us on the head to stop our navel gazing. “Look to the world around you, and remember that it is greater than you are!” is the message. How can that be empty, or lack depth and resonance? I think the answer lies in how one approaches religion. Brody seems to live in a monotheistic world where God is only concerned with people: in short, a Christian world. But Godzilla comes from a Shinto (meaning Pagan) and Buddhist tradition. Where Brody wants only to look inward for meaning, Godzilla pushes us to look outward, for everything we see is charged with a power we must respect. I think both approaches are essential, as embodied by the philosophy behind the Yin-Yang symbol, which evokes the essential play of opposites that together build the universe. It frustrates me that such capable thinkers as Brody value one side, but not the other. This is a form of hubris, and a kind of cluelessness.
So Godzilla is not “quasi-religious,” it’s religious – just not in a Christian sense. That “quasi” irks me, becomes it implies a certain chauvinism. To wit, Brody also says this, “[Godzilla’s] scale may feel Biblical, but it doesn’t risk the crises and ecstasies, the sheer moral turbulence provoked by existential menace (cf. “Noah”).” Full disclosure, I haven’t seen “Noah.” But I know the plot, and the “moral turbulence” Brody speaks admiringly about comes from a twisted story where a “good” and “loving” God destroys the people he created for unspecified moral transgressions. The Biblical account does not spell these out, so we are forced to project something into the void. In so doing we justify God’s action and save his reputation. This in turn leads to that “recognizably tangled inwardness” that Brody so appreciates. Indeed, the transgressions we project onto the people of Noah’s time are often sexual in nature, so we are also back to Brody’s “forbidden or unconscious zones of pleasure or pain.”
Godzilla does not trade in such nonsense. Man acquires great, in fact god-like power through his technology, and unleashes it into the world for his own purposes. But it doesn’t stop there. The unintended consequences come back to haunt us, and in so doing remind us that we are not the only game in town. Godzilla is fantasy, but it reflects the way the world actually works. Radiation poisoning and environmental degradation are no fun, but giant monsters are – they are the “spoon full of sugar that helps the medicine go down.” And that medicine is a healthy dose of humility. And by humility I don’t mean free-floating guilt or shame. I mean a mature awareness that our actions have consequences that we will have to live with. This approach to life leaves plenty of room for feeling good about ourselves, by the way, because we don’t need a constant struggle to “redeem” ourselves. Which means we don’t have to anguish over masturbation, etc. We merely need to take care not to fuck things up. (Easier said than done, I know, but still.)
The Biblical story is also fantasy, but does it reflect reality? Only if you believe that God creates natural disasters in order to punish mankind for its sins. Which is ridiculous. No, it’s the Noah story that is gray, empty, and offers no insight. Give me the thrilling spectacle of a 400-foot radioactive dinosaur battling Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms amongst the skyscrapers of a modern city any day. Or, to paraphrase Bruce Lee – “It is like a finger pointing to Godzilla…………”