Sunday, May 06, 2012

Screening Log: Good Scientist Edition

            Heavy screening log this week, folks. Some very interesting and great movies out there for New Yorkers to check out. Film Forum has Celine & Julie Go Boating (seeing this afternoon), IFC Center has The Connection (seeing Wednesday), and Film Society continues its retrospective of Turkish cinema. In news that is wholly awesome, Roger Ebert liked and linked my latest video essay to his Facebook and Twitter followers. Validation! I will also say on my continuing rants about digital projection, that I was not a big fan of the new 4K scan of Bonjour Tristesse at Film Forum. This is another Sony DCP, and like Dr. Strangelove, they tried to recreate film grain. It’s less distracting than it is in Kubrick’s film, but it’s another missed opportunity.

-Shakes the Clown, 1992. Directed by Bobcat Goldthwait. 35mm projection at 92nd Y Tribeca.
-Bonjour Tristesse, 1958. Directed by Otto Preminger. Digital 2K projection at Film Forum.
-Four Nights a Dreamer, 1971. Directed by Robert Bresson. 35mm projection at Brooklyn Academy of Music.
-Elegy, 1971. Directed by Yılmaz Güney. 35mm projection at Film Society of Lincoln Center.
-Yol, 1982. Directed by Serif Gören and Yılmaz Güney. 35mm projection at Film Society of Lincoln Center.
-Gojira, 1954. Directed by Ishirô Honda. 35mm projection at Japan Society. 

           Many, many, many people have written on Gojira, also known as Godzilla, the famous monster movie that has become a classic, for both good and bad reasons. I don’t want to write a full analysis of this post-war horror story, but at least one aspect of the film fascinated me, which is the role of the good scientist.

            One of the most famous roles in American cinema is that of the mad scientist. From the early Frankenstein film to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, scientists in American cinema have always seen as abusive of power. And when they aren’t in horror stories, they are often seen as weak or unable to relate to people on a regular basis (see: Hawks screwball comedies or George Stevens’s Vivacious Lady). Often science and the abuse of it is what leads to so many science fiction horror films in classic American cinema, and the scientist himself is to blame.

            But Godjira never places blame on the scientist—instead they are somewhat the heroes of this story. There are two important scientist characters: Dr. Yamane (played by Takashi Shimura, best known for his work with Akira Kurosawa) and Dr. Serizawa (Akira Takarada). Yamane leads the team to find out more about Godzilla. When he reports back to the government, he asks them not to kill the monster, but research it. His plan is noble: Godzilla has survived the radiation from Hydrogen bomb testing. Perhaps if they can find his secret, then humans too will be able to survive such horrible devastation. Not one wants to listen to him; they just want to kill the deadly beast, but their plans to destroy him fail every time.

            But enter Dr. Serizawa, who first seems like a villain of the film. Late in the film, we learn about the evil diabolical machine he has been building—a device that removes oxygen from water, thus killing all aquatic beings in its vicinity. But Dr. Serizawa doesn’t want to use the so-called “Oxygen Destroyer.” He pleads, “If my device can serve a good purpose, i would announce it to everyone in the world! But in its current form, it's just a weapon of horrible destruction.” Can you imagine a scientist in an American film talking like this? Except for maybe the scientist in The Day the Earth Stood Still, such noble thoughts is often left to the common man. Godjira is a highly political film, but I’m fascinated on how it refuses to turn its scientists into power-hungry mad geniuses. They are sensitive to the future of the world.

            Ultimately, Dr. Serzawa uses the Oxygen Destroyer, but not before burning his notes, and killing himself in the process. He says it is so the two star-crossed lovers can be together, but you get the sense that he knows if he lives, he will be forced to recreate the weapon. As the son of two scientists, I’ve always been fascinated by how often the community is ostracized in American film, and I’m curious to see how this plays out in the American version, Godzilla: King of the Monsters!, which I hope to catch soon thanks to the recently released Criterion edition of the film. I’m willing to place bets now, that such forward thinking is reserved to Raymond Burr, than the heroic scientists of this tale. 

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