When Film Commentary Loses the Plot

Ever seen the Japanese giant monster movie about a gigantic rampaging X?

It’s hard being a film commentator — and this is particularly so when attempting to do an encyclopedic overview of a somewhat esoteric genre such as, say, “Giant Monster Films”.

Hard to watch every film you should watch. Hard to find a copy of every film you should watch. Hard to verify the facts…

On some occasions, critics and commentators take the easy (or inevitable) route; and it becomes embarrassingly clear to anyone knowledgeable in the field that they haven’t seen the film they’re commenting on at all. In a best-case scenario, they admit to the fact. In many instances, however, you only realise that they haven’t seen it because they make some daft statement about what it’s about — not simply repeating “conventional” errors but creating sometimes outlandish ones of their own.

I read a brilliant case of this just the other day, so stunning in its absurdity that I could hardly believe it. I only recently acquired a copy of Robert Marrero’s book Giant Monster Movies: An Illustrated Survey. The book was admirable in being the only such book in the field, certainly when it was published in 1994. But it displays many of the problems outlined above, epitomised by this hilarious statement:

Up until now, I would have to say that between Toho and Daiei Films, every possibility to create a new movie monster had been explored. But I was wrong! Can you believe that in the film X – FROM OUTER SPACE (1967), the world is threatened by a giant X! Yes, I said a giant X! I’m not kidding. The Japanese/American co-production directed by Nazui Nihonmatsu tells how a giant, rampaging X is brought back from Mars when an exploratory space craft returns to Earth.

Now, I don’t know where Marrero got his information from, but it certainly wasn’t obtained through seeing the film or even via doing some rudimentary research on it. Firstly it is called The X from Outer Space in the US — it’s real title is Uchû daikaijû Girara (which translates as “Big Space Monster Guilala”). Secondly it is not a Japanese/US co-production, though it received an American dub (a very bad one as usual) and was released there. Thirdly, the “X” is picked up in outer space, not on Mars. But most importantly, though it contains one of the strangest monsters in Japanese film history, the monster Gilala, the titular X itself, is not a giant rampaging “X” at all. Fans know Gilala affectionately as “the Giant Space Chicken” and he looks like this (here seen chasing a jeep):

gilala

To press the point further, you can watch him in action, in this montage of scenes set to the music of Damon Alexander & Ten Cent Rentals:

Marrero compounds the accuracy problem by going on to talk about another giant X monster, this time the starfish aliens from Warning from Space [Uchûjin Tôkyô ni arawaru], which he says came out the same year. Unfortunately for accuracy, not only did this film come out in 1956, but the image of the starfish monster he uses:

Warning from Space

does not reflect the contents of the actual movie, where the starfish aliens are human-sized. The giant version was only on the advertising poster and (these days) DVD cover.

Now I don’t mean to rag on Marrero just because there are errors in his book — we all make mistakes and the possibilities for small glitches in info gathering are enormous. But there was not really much excuse for these ones, even in 1994. The X from Outer Space isn’t a particularly obscure Japanese kaiju eiga; it was, after all, released in the States, unlike many others. Any random giant monster fan could have told him that “X” wasn’t a literal X. So what was he thinking?

At least he does point out that there aren’t two endings to King Kong vs Godzilla — though he also refers to the Big G as “the green giant of showbiz” at one point …

Oh, well. As I said at the start, it’s hard being a film commentator. I’ve been struggling with elusive details and the sheer volume of primary material (the films themselves) for some time, as anyone who has been noticing the progress of my Giant Monster Movie list would be aware. There is an unending cornucopia of films to be dealt with, plus a scarcity of secondary sources — or at least secondary sources that can be implicitly trusted.

Even if it were possible to view every film without going completely bonkers, many of them are simply not available. In these cases — and where you believe that the film is not a culturally or historically significant one — you tend to rely on the descriptions of Those Who Came Before. As we’ve seen, this can be dangerous. Generations of critics have fed on the false information of TWCBs, so that each subsequent commentary too often simply repeats the errors and the prejudices until they become assumed knowledge. Examples of this from the history of the King of Giant Monsters, Godzilla — certainly as reflected in the writings of mainstream critics — include: Godzilla is a big, green lizard (he’s mostly a sort of charcoal grey/brown); there are two endings to King Kong vs Godzilla; Godzilla is female; suitmation is a cheap-arse technology.

Those of us working in the era of digital technology and the internet have a distinct advantage over film writers of the past. First and foremost is the relative availability of the movies themselves. DVD has brought important (and not-so-important) films back all clean and shiny-new, with proper aspect ratio restored, random edits replaced by original cuts, and scratches and blemishes expunged. It has also inspired collectors to come forward with versions long thought lost — or films that haven’t seen the light of day for decades suddenly rising from their celluloid graves.

In many instances where older film commentary has been forced to state that a certain film is “unavailable” or “lost”, we suddenly find that a trip to the local DVD store will reveal it now re-released, a print having been found in the bowels of the Earth somewhere or a knotty copyright issue having been resolved. For example, after some 70 years we can now view the 1925 The Lost World in a version that isn’t almost too scratched and blurry to watch and which has been restored to about 93 minutes, instead of the 65-minute edit that has been the only version available for so long. Another instance of a “lost” film being at least partially re-discovered, albeit in a fragmentary form, and brought to DVD is The Mechanical Man (1921). Even a Boris Karloff film as “recent” as 1936 — The Man Who Changed His Mind — was listed as a “lost” film until re-discovered in a vault somewhere in Europe during the 1990s. My favourite example, though, is the BBC TV production of Nigel Kneale’s SF ghost story, The Stone Tape (1972). I recall attending a science fiction convention in 2001 or 2002 where one panel discussing Kneale’s oeuvre bemoaned the fact that while the show was legendary for its scare quotient among those who had seen the original broadcast, it had not been aired since then (or at least very rarely) and had never been available on VHS due to copyright problems. Then suddenly there it was, on DVD. I bought a copy from the UK and finally got to see it. It was, indeed, scary as hell. (Now, I notice, it’s out-of-print again! You have to be quick!)

Anyway, my point is that these days we have the advantage of (relatively) easy availability. In older books of film commentary it is obvious than the writer may be writing about films he/she saw at the cinema only once and possibly many years before. In some cases twenty or thirty years may have passed since they’d last set eyes on it. Does your memory stretch back that far with any real accuracy? Mine certainly doesn’t. I’m sure I’d forget how King Kong comes out if I didn’t see the film every year or so…

That’s why I have to do research. And it’s why I love DVD technology — and all the generous individuals out there in cyberspace who are willing to share their knowledge, their time and their enthusiasm in the pursuit of accuracy.

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3 Responses to When Film Commentary Loses the Plot

  1. Avery says:

    I see that you did find a copy Rob.It really is a great source of material on the subject of kaiju film history,but yes,it’s also very misleading too.I think that if you’re going to write a book on a subject,it would make sense to study-up on it well.

  2. Backbrain says:

    Marrero’s book is out of print, but I got a copy secondhand from an Amazon affiliate after you mentioned it to me, Avery. I’m more than happy to have a copy. It’s a decent resource, even if parts of it are a little unreliable.

  3. faafao says:

    i want to see the starfish poster

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