GODZILLA

I didn't see Godzilla when it played in the theatres here, and I don't plan to rent it unless I hear that Vicki Lewis takes her shirt off somewhere in the movie. Still, the fact that the Godzilla fable was made yet again into a movie is significant even if the movie itself is not.

Hollywood movies are America's national dreams, subtly expressing hopes, fears and desires which we can for some reason not honestly express otherwise; and as such they can be interpreted just like dreams.

Godzilla is actually a Frankenstein variant, as are Jurassic Park and Alien and any number of lesser rip-offs like Gorgo or Mighty Joe Young. In all these fables, we are attacked by a monster which we ourselves create either by accident or on purpose. Godzilla is created by nuclear contamination. The Alien is retrieved from space by a greedy corporation for purposes of economic exploitation. In Jurassic Park a scientist resurrects dinosaurs to satisfy his own pride. Frankenstein builds his monster for pretty much the same reason.

What Hollywood is telling us by making these movies, or if you prefer, what the public is telling itself by making these movies popular is that down deep we acknowledge that some aspects of our society create monsters. And then one day we look around and wonder where all these monsters came from.

Some of these monsters are pretty obvious. We enjoy unprecedented prosperity, but the cost, which we prefer to ignore, is the destruction of environment. We like having cheap copper, but we don't want to think about the acid runoff that poisons streams near the mine. We like the fact that we each have our own personal cars, but we don't like to think about greenhouse gases. We build massive flood control projects to make swampland arable, to keep rivers navigable, to generate electricity; but those very projects ensure that the floods which do break free are massively destructive.

Some of the monsters are less obvious. A business becomes more efficient and more profitable when it maximizes its human resources. In plain english, that means middle managers play mind games with the workers in order to get the most work out of them for the least money. When one in ten thousand goes berserk everybody wonders why, when they should wonder why so few. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution it has been standard practice for those above to increase pressure on those below, and on paper, worker anxiety has been good for the GDP; so management trainees attend seminars in order to learn the latest techniques on how to turn up the steam. Managers have their employees compete with each other for pay increases, bonuses and promotions. They manipulate productivity records and post them for all to see in hopes of shaming the less productive into working harder. They foster jealousy. They encourage overtime among salaried workers so that they become estranged from their families in favor of their company. They demand "bottom up" loyalty to a company which the worker knows would lay him off the minute he is percieved as a financial liability.

All these practices create anxiety, and all these practices are pretty standard in the American workplace, making paranoia as much a by-product of American culture as carbon monoxide. The vast majority of us manage to handle the pressure, but the more pressure there is, the more people are going to crack; and the trend has generally been toward more pressure rather than less. Therefore we get more monsters of our own creation--disgruntled Godzillas mutated by pollution of their psychological environment.

That was fun. Let's interpret another recurring movie. How about Die Hard, and its countless clones. In this genre, the official authorities with their swat teams and negotiators are unable to stop the bad guys, and some tired reluctant hero citizen steps in and saves the day. This premise carries a number of typically American themes--distrust of authority, the notion of self-reliance, belief in the nobility of the common man.

Compare similar themes in Robocop, Brazil, Bladerunner, 1984, Soylent Green and their ilk. Over and over we see the fear of gigantic social institutions.

How many post-apocalyptic movies are made every year? Mad Max, Waterworld, The Postman, A Boy and His Dog, and a thousand B-graders like Cherry 2000 and The Piranha Women in the Avacado Jungle of Death. All of these movies accept as their premise that our massive global infrastructure has broken down. The popularity of the genre is our suspicion that this infrastructure, for all its scope and power, is fragile and somehow untrustworthy.

Every movie in the Rocky series always has within it the same theme, a man's struggle to maintain his internal identity as his external circumstances change drastically. The Rambo movies all portray America as being ungrateful to those who have sacrificed for her, summed up in the famous quote, "All we want is for our country to love us as much a we love it."

What do all those vampire movies mean? Where do war movies come from? How come movie preachers are always crooked? Movie scientists aren't very much like real scientists. Could those portrayals be telling us something else, something about the public distrust of science or does it rather mean we fear that technology is progressing too rapidly? How come in the movies skeptics of the paranormal are always wrong? How come movie racists are always Southern? How come space aliens one year are all violent bad guys and in other years they were all benevolent and cute? Who are this year's bad guys, anyway? It used to be that all the bad guys in the movies were always nazis. Then for a while they were always Arabs, then there were a couple of years when the bad guys were always survivalists. Then religious zealots. Let's not forget the psycho Vietnam vet period. Why does it seem like every movie criminal these days has a political agenda? When did that start? How have those criminal agendas changed over the years? It's as if each season Hollywood picks one bad guy and that year all the movies have the same bad guy. I think that means something. What do you think?

That is in a nutshell how to play the movie interpretation game. Assemble a big pile of popular movies and isolate those incidents, elements, characters, premises and images that pop up over and over, especially those that occur over a period of several years or generations. I think this will give you a more truthful picture of basic American attitudes than any poll.

RTJ--8/1/98


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