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Weekly Alibi Lizard Lit 101

By Devin D. O'Leary

MARCH 9, 1998: 

David Kalat's Critical History and Filmography of Toho's Godzilla Series

McFarland & Company Publishers are little known outside the circles of academic and film fanatic society. Their books contain few, if any, photographs or illustrations. Their book covers are, more often than not, unadorned black library binding with uniform gold lettering. Their books are expensive, and you aren't likely to find them in the corner bookstore. So what makes these texts so special? For years, McFarland has been fanatically dedicated to the art of film. Far from stuffy subjects and musty verbiage, though, McFarland chooses to toss its small stable of authors into the oft-unexplored corners of cult cinema and obscuro television. Thumbing through the massive McFarland Performing Arts Catalogue, you'll stumble across subjects from Spaghetti Westerns to "The Andy Griffith Show," from Christopher Lee to television weathercasting. Whether it's Paul Blaisdell, Monster Maker: A Biography of the B Movie Makeup and Effects Artist or Television Horror Movie Hosts: 68 Vampires, Mad Scientists and other Denizens of the Late-Night Airwaves Examined and Interviewed, McFarland lavishes the same intelligence and attention to detail that others expend on examinations of Jean Cocteau and Francois Truffaut.

By way of sample, let's take a look at A Critical History and Filmography of Toho's Godzilla Series. Yes, the title may sound like some stolid film school thesis--but it's all about Godzilla! Author David Kalat, like most McFarland authors, is a master of his admittedly limited field. If you wanna know giant rubber monsters from Japan, Kalat is the man to turn to. This heavily footnoted 267-page textbook runs down the finer points of every single Godzilla film ever made (from 1954's Godzilla to 1995's Godzilla vs. Destroyer). While some may find little of merit to study in the oeuvre of a skyscraper-stomping reptile, Kalat finds deep sociological significance in every flattened superstructure and intense cultural conflict in every monstrous mano-a-mano. Kalat begins each chapter (one for each of 25 films) with an in-depth accounting of the film's plot. He then tosses in a wealth of behind-the-scenes facts and a heavy analysis of the film's social and temporal significance.

The book itself is divided into four parts, each representing a distinct stage in the Green One's evolution--from the somber nationalism of the 1950s 'Zilla thrillers to the goofy penny-pinching of the 1970s. Godzilla fans certainly have much minutiae to chew over here, as Kalat explains in painstaking detail the creation of each script, the construction of each Godzilla suit and the box office performance of each Godzilla flick. Some of Kalat's observations may come across as fan-boy niggling, as when he harps: "Tokyo is not the only city attacked in Godzilla movies, although some lazy reviewers did not bother to watch long enough to realize how many of these movies are actually set in Okinawa, Kyoto, Yokohama and other places." For the most part, though, his observations are lucidly and believably set forth. That Godzilla was originally intended as a critical attack against nuclear power is no surprise to anyone. Kalat takes pause, however, to ponder the unique Japanese perspective on nuclear annihilation, noting that, "The Japanese government refuses to allow the use of nuclear weapons against the monsters. In past films, nuclear weapons were foregone in favor of some kind of electric fence. ... For American viewers, whose real-life society constantly threatened the deployment of nuclear weapons in its defense, the strenuous avoidance of such a defense in the Godzilla films seems bizarre. Americans never faced firsthand the consequences of nuclear war, and could rationalize the proposed use of their superweapons as a necessary evil. The Japanese had no such luxury."

By the time Kalat reaches Godzilla vs. Destroyer (the final Japanese-produced Godzilla film in which the great Green One is finally terminated and his image subsequently sold to an American company for a big wad of money), you may just shed a tear (as did I) for the loss of this treasured cultural icon. Although I look forward to Tri-Star Pictures' Americanized take on Godzilla, after reading A Critical History, I realize just how heavily tied to that tiny South Pacific Island the green Goliath is. Perhaps one day, he will return to its rolling hills, its majestic cities--and stomp them into rubble. (McFarland & Company, cloth, $48.50)

Columbia/Tri-Star's feature film Godzilla will open to eager American audiences on May 20. To receive a McFarland & Company Publishers catalogue, write: McFarland, P.O. Box 611, Jefferson, N.C., 28640. Or call (910) 246-4460.

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