Critical notations on the new GODZILLA

I went to see the Godzilla reboot yesterday with Anne-Marie and A, and we all enjoyed ourselves, especially A, but I do have a few critical thoughts and feelings to share.

  1. Director Gareth Edwards and writers Max Borenstein and Dave Callaham, and their collaborators in special effects, get right one of the essential points from the original kaiju movies, which is that many of these “monsters” are sympathetic characters. Most of what they do, they do not out of malevolence, but simply as a result of their natures: they mate and breed, hunt and feed, and fight other animals that they see as threats or rivals. People are largely irrelevant, which may be what also makes them terrifying even as you can also sympathize with these creatures simply trying to survive and reproduce.
  2. I also appreciate how the new design for Godzilla references the classic “person in a suit” while also updating the character for contemporary aesthetics and expectations. There is one shot of Godzilla where he takes in a big breath and exhales that prompted A to remark that he looked like a person, which to me, was just perfect. The “humanity” of Godzilla is important to acceptance of him as something other than just a “monster.”
  3. Like others, I thought about Pacific Rim (2013) a number of times during this film, and, on the whole I enjoyed last year’s movie more. I found the creature designs to be more interesting, and, I suppose, I also liked the spectacle of having the giant robots as well as the giant monsters (although as A pointed out to me, the kaiju in Pacific Rim are alien while the ones in Godzilla are terrestrial). Mostly, I think that my reaction here has to with the difference between remaking an existing work and creating something new from familiar material. Guillermo del Toro made something new and the larger universe of his film is richer and more interesting than that of the new Godzilla.
  4. Another important difference for me was the fact that Pacific Rim featured two people of color (Idris Elba’s Stacker Pentecost and Rinko Kinkuchi’s Mako Mori) in the principal cast, while Godzilla defaults to the far more common young white male and his white family for the primary human characters. Indeed, even though the story starts in Asia and Japan is given a central location in the narrative in a nod to the source material, somehow a white American (or EuroAmerica) family has narrative prominence in Godzilla. Anne-Marie also made the good point that the primary family relationship, and loss, for the white guy protagonist in Pacific Rim (Charlie Hunnam’s Raleigh Becket) is a brother, not a wife and kid or even a parent. This is a less common dynamic for these kinds of films.
  5. For me, the most interesting, and underused characters in Godzilla are Ken Watanbe’s Dr. Ichiro Serizawa and Sally Hawkins’ Vivienne Graham. The story of Serizawa’s decades long pursuit of Godzilla seems more interesting to me than the monster/disaster movie spectacle we get at the end of his pursuit. As far has Hawkins goes, I’m not sure that her name is mentioned once in the film or that we are told that she is also a scientist. But she seems to be Serizawa’s partner in the search and I want to know more about that (I gather that this is the focus of the prequel comic). Both Watanabe and Hawkins are charismatic actors who draw your attention when on screen, and I was more compelled by them than I was by Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Elizabeth Olsen did not have much to do, but I am interested to see her as the Scarlet Witch now).
  6. Obsession with Godzilla is also a narrative through line for James Stokoe’s “The Half Century War” mini, and, honestly, as far as contemporary re-imaginings of this story goes, it is hard to do better than what Stokoe did with that book (I wrote about the way that Stokoe adapted Godzilla for comics, particularly his roar, for PopMatters).
  7. I left the theater with an uneasiness over the reworking of the origin story which removes American culpability for creating the kaiju as a result of the testing of nuclear bombs in the south Pacific. The original Godzilla (1954) picked up threads of anger and resentment among many Japanese for the American use of nuclear weapons in World War II and the subsequent occupation. This is also an important reason for Godzilla being a sympathetic, even, ultimately, a heroic, character: he, too, is a victim of the American bomb. There is a brief acknowledgment of Hiroshima in the new film between Serizawa and Admiral William Stenz (David Strathairn), but that only served to remind me of what has been lost in the new telling in terms of being a critique of American militarism and nuclear weaponry. Now, at worst, the American deployment of military and nuclear force just seems stupid or ineffectual rather than existentially threatening to ilife as we know it (I am drawing on Anne Allison’s Millennial Monsters, University of California Press, 2006, for the gist of this interpretation of the original Godzilla).
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On my new film/research project and lessons from COMIC BOOK CITY

As I’ve documented before, while “finishing” with Comic Book City, I started work on a new film project, one based on selected writings by J.B. Jackson. Most of the work I’ve done so far has involved going back to Jackson’s essays and drawing out major themes around which to make my film, or films, but as of yesterday I’ve also started to shoot video.

My intention is to use moving images to interpret, comment on and reconsider Jackson’s work. In interpreting his writings, I want to show them in practice, or how landscape looks from the perspective of his essays. In commenting on his work, I want to draw attention to gaps or silences, or unarticulated implications of his writings (one example that I was working with this week while out with the camera was the role of nature or non-human agents in the making of landscape). In reconsidering his ideas about landscape, I want to place his work in contemporary context. I think, for example, that Jackson’s celebration of car culture in the United States bears revisiting in light of how that culture is changing and how the landscapes associated with that culture have also changed in the past 30 years.

I had the idea for basing film and video work on J.B. Jackson’s writings a number of years ago, stemming from my teaching of Landscape in Sight (Yale University Press, 1997) and Everyday America: Cultural Landscape Studies after J.B. Jackson, eds. Chris Wilson and Paul Groth (University of California Press, 2003) in my upper division cultural geography seminar. In particular, I have been thinking about “The abstract world of the hot-rodder” (1958/59) in audio-visual terms for awhile, and also as a work that would be interesting to re-examine in light of changing relationships to modes of transportation in the United States.

Despite this history, I did the work that would become Comic Book City first for a number of reasons, I think. I wanted to do a longer form film, and it still isn’t clear to me what form this film is going to take, or even if it is going to be a film or films. I also wanted my first major academic work in moving images to not only be “feature length”, but also, essentially, straight-forward in terms of design and execution. So, I think, at some level, I understood I probably needed more experience before turning my attention to the J.B. Jackson concept, though I don’t remember making that as a conscious choice.

Whatever the case, I think that the experience of making Comic Book City will be important to my execution of the current project.

First, it helped me to gain confidence in my ability as a filmmaker. Finishing and screening that film, putting my work “out there”, was invaluable in moving me forward to take on what is, I think, a more creatively ambitious work.

Second, I went into making Comic Book City not knowing what I might end up doing with it, especially in terms of peer review, but as a conventional “feature length” film, I at least had a finished product that was simple enough to manage. What I learned from my experience is that working in non-traditional forms like film and video poses challenges for peer review and for publishing, but that it also opens opportunities for connecting across disciplines and that there is a sense of freedom that comes from working outside of traditional formats for scholarly work in geography. In short, ultimately, I was able to do with Comic Book City what I wanted to do, no need to negotiate with publishers about open access or making the film available in other formats. The experience of bringing that film to fruition was liberating, and I think I needed to be set free before returning to thinking about J.B. Jackson.

Third, while I am planning collaborations on the soundtrack, in the field, I am planning to be a one-person crew for most of what I do here. This is mostly question of mobility and being free to work opportunistically, something I wasn’t able to do when conducting interviews and going to specific events for Comic Book City.

Along the same lines, I am not planning on working with human subjects on this project. This will actually make this film more like my non-film work, which has dealt primarily in the interpretation of texts rather than with informants.

I’ve also been thinking about form and how I want to experiment more with “modular” structures. I realized in putting together Comic Book City that the documentary could be broken down into pieces, and I have made many of those pieces available on Vimeo, but that is more incidental than planned. Here I am thinking of an almost fully flexible work, one that could be presented as some kind of a whole, but also as fully realized “modules”. That may change, but editing Comic Book City opened my mind to a number of possibilities that I want to play with more (I am also being more immediately influenced by having taught Jim Jarmusch with my Geography and Film students last Spring).

Most of all, making Comic Book City affirmed for me that, while I still enjoy and want to do traditional forms of writing, film and video are the media I most want to work with, especially in further developing my interests. I don’t think I would be pursuing, for example, insights from Actor Network Theory or notions of affect in papers in the way that I am in film and video. There are many areas of theory in cultural geography that I relate to more meaningfully and creatively in audio visual terms than in words, which is to say, I think I have more of an original contribution to make in my fields as a filmmaker than as a writer.

COMIC BOOK CITY: screening, new video, downloads, “The making of”

Here is a round-up of recent news related to Comic Book City:

I screened the film at Graphixia 2013: Comics & the Multimodal World at Douglas College in New Westminster BC. Read about the screening here.

Before and after that screening, I added new artist and writer interviews on Vimeo. You can now watch all of the creator interviews from the film online via the Comic Book City album on Vimeo (UPDATE: you can watch the entire film at Vimeo now, too). The most recent additions, Graham Annable, Sarah Oleksyk, and Dylan Meconis, can be viewed here:

 

 

 

You can also download a copy of the film from the film blog on TypePad to watch, use, or share.

Finally, I made a “Making of” feature on Storify.

COMIC BOOK CITY updates: screenings & video excerpts on Vimeo

Since writing about “Finding an Audience“, I’ve added a new screening announcement and also have begun to post excerpts from the film, starting with the interviews I conducted with author Sara Ryan and artist Steve Lieber. You can view the inteviews below or on Vimeo.

 

Finding an audience

I’ve written previously about Comic Book City being rejected by film festivals and, taking off from a post at the Raindance blog, I’ve also written about working in an academic mode and how that may put my film in a different frame than those used by festivals when evaluating of submissions.

In thinking about the last several months of trying to secure formal review and screening opportunities for my film, I should thank Elliot Grove for his Raindance piece. That blog entry, followed by a couple of rejections from festivals that I had had some hope for, prompted me to think more critically about who the potential audience for Comic Book City might be.

While I had already given thought to submitting the film to conferences and journals in film and media studies, and that, at some point, I would try to negotiate opportunities to screen the documentary at a geography venue, it was not until the aforementioned retrenchment that I started looking closely at comics studies events.

I initially focused on festivals for the simple reason that film festivals are set up to exhibit films. Most academic conferences, let alone journals, are not. In addition, acceptance into a film festival struck me as a kind of peer review that would be readily understood by colleagues and administrators on my campus, which will have value to me when I finally decide to apply for promotion to full professor.

However, if that route is a dead end, obviously I need alternatives, and as recently announced, I seem to have discovered that a significant part of the potential audience for the film is with comics studies scholars.

As I’ve suggested before (see my response to Grove above) I can understand why festival programmers/selectors are not finding Comic Book City to be appropriate for their events. My mom, (yes, my mom) remarked after watching the film that she could see how if someone were not already interested in comics (or Portland) that the documentary would lack appeal. The film doesn’t have a conventional narrative structure (in fact, I think of it more as creative non-fiction than as a documentary, but the latter is better shorthand for most purposes). It doesn’t address a critical social or political issue. It doesn’t tell any stories about the triumph of the human spirit (at least not in a significant or highlighted way). It has an experimental visual design. The themes that it explores – place, creative process, the spatiality of different media – are fairly abstract. Which is all a way of saying that the academic roots of the project show. If I were a festival programmer, I don’t think I would see the film as something that would sell tickets or passes, or that would contribute to my event’s reputation in ‘the industry’.

While most academic conferences are not organized for film screenings, what they do have are specialized audiences, and I suspect that with Comic Book City, I need to find those audiences, that is, the people for whom the film has intrinsic interest. I am grateful for the interest shown so far by my colleagues in comics studies and only wish that I did not have to wait until May for the first conference.

I am showing the film, and have shown related works, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license. Ultimately, I want to release it, and significant parts, into the wild and let the larger audience find it in their own time and own ways. Refereed screenings, like the ones I have coming this spring and summer are important to me, though, not just for the base professional reasons I’ve already noted, but also for the opportunity to watch and discuss the film with an interested audience, which, I imagine, is what any filmmaker wants for their work.

Call for participation: film project on the work of J.B. Jackson

I am starting a new film project, one focused on interpreting the writings of landscape scholar J.B. Jackson. I am interested in using and incorporating audio commentaries from others who work in landscape studies. You can see a more detailed call for participation here. You can also contact me for more information.

An academic’s perspective on film festival submission: take two

Earlier this week Peter D. Marshall, via Twitter, linked to Elliot Grove’s post at the Raindance Canada site on, “16 things that film festivals hate about filmmakers“. Reading Grove’s list I gained some additional insight into some of the mistakes I have made in submitting Comic Book City to festivals, but also how the culture from which I am working, academia, is different from that of film as an industry.

In general, Grove’s advice reads as pretty sensible, essentially telling filmmakers to, “be professional, don’t make a festival’s job harder than it needs to be.” Substitute “article” for “film” and “journal” or “publisher” for “film festival” and, with some minor changes for context, the advice would still make sense.

At the same time, there is a clear implication that a film festival is necessarily an industry showcase, that the purpose of holding a festival is to provide films and their makers with exposure to people looking to buy and hire. When films and filmmakers are “discovered” at a fest, the festival solidifies its position in the industry. What unites everyone is this commercial purpose (see Grove’s comments to “#14: Filmmakers who don’t understand the role a festival”).

As someone who undertook filmmaking as part of my scholarly work, I do not share this commercial purpose. As a result, my submissions are lacking in areas related to publicity (see Grove’s #10 and #12). I do not have PR skills, nor do I have the resources to hire people to do that work, and I did not think about publicity during the making of the film anymore than I would have with a journal article, which is to say, I didn’t think about it at all. The area where this has put me in the most awkward position in relation to festivals is in provision of high resolution images for catalogs and advertising (#10). I have done what I can with the online press kit function in Withoutabox, and I have an IMDB page, but both are minimal. When it comes time to announce screenings, I do have social media I can use – like this blog and the production blog, for examples – but my social network, and networking, is likely not up to the standard advocated by Grove (see #11).

In one sense, lesson learned. On my next project I will at least know to produce a few high quality stills for use by festival organizers. In another sense, while I want my film to be seen, I do not see my film as an entrée to the industry. For me, festival acceptance constitutes a form of peer review. Whether and what an “industry person” might do with Comic Book City is beyond me, but that doesn’t make a festival screening meaningless either. It just doesn’t have the meaning assumed in Grove’s advice to filmmakers.

This would seem to make me guilty of #14, but I’m not sure that a festival’s purpose can be reduced to, “Together, the festival and filmmaker hopes that you get ‘discovered’ ie: that someone gives you a cheque. That way, we can both say ‘this is the film that was discovered at Raindance – enhancing both of our press kits.”

For one thing, many festivals include categories of films that would not normally be seen as ways to break into the industry or to have someone cut you a check. There clearly is a function of festivals that relates to filmmaking as art, and not as commerce, to access to audiences, but not necessarily access to the industry.

I think that these distinctions matter in terms of the performative aspects of festival submission that Grove focuses on. The advice in his post seems most relevant to filmmakers who have commercial aspirations, but are more curious for those of us without such expectations.

I still agree with the general sentiment that it is in a filmmaker’s best interests to not make a festival programmer’s job harder than it needs to be, but the limited resources that Grove points to for why filmmakers should have good publicity materials, and thick social networks, would seem to apply equally to, if not have more salience for, individual creators, especially those working with minimal personnel and finances, if not as, essentially, one-person shops.

As I discussed in my previous post on submitting to festivals, I am learning to read between the lines when looking at how a festival is represented. Many festivals, as implied by Grove, place a heavy emphasis on the idea of “discovery” and on connections to industry and industry celebrities. I have decided to sidestep such events, even where they would seem to be promising in other respects (size, location). Others frame what they do more in terms of providing an audience, and bringing films to communities that otherwise miss out on, particularly, unusual or less commercial offerings than in terms of being places where filmmakers can “make it”.

Obviously, Grove is on-point for most festivals when he writes, “Your job is to deliver a pleasing and entertaining film, and if you attend the festival, to be available for interview and Q&A sessions after your screening.” On the other hand, there should be room for a film to be, “challenging and interesting”, too, or where what constitutes “pleasing and entertaining” has a wider meaning than “commercial potential”.