Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Monday, August 09, 2010

I like big bugs and I cannot lie


Even children can get a handle on divining subtext and collective symbolic anxieties via the movies on Saturday afternoon television, especially if they're 1950's giant bug movies. I love them giant bugs... TARANTULA is tops, THEM the coliseum and even BEGINNING OF THE END the start of a full-on pawty. Of course not all the big monsters of Atomic Age America are bugs, i.e. BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS or IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA but since an old girlfriend once termed them derisively "those giant bug movies," i.e. "ugh, you're not going to stay up all night drinking whiskey and watching those giant bug movies again, are you?" I think of them that way, oh so fondly.

One of my earlier memories: I'm three, in a Philadelphia hospital for a minor operation, scared out of my wits by the cold clinical strangeness of it all and my parents abandoning me there for the night; the television in my hospital room plays EARTH VS. THE SPIDER (1959) and the older kid, a teenager I think, in the other bed insisting on changing it because I'm too young. Too young? I would have killed him if I could. The dickhead didn't understand, I was scared of the hospital and of him and of everything else and the only source of comfort, of relief from the anxiety, lay in the image of a giant black tarantula creeping around a 1950s suburban neighborhood, in glorious black and white. Nowadays I can conjecture that my feeling of powerlessness as a three-year old lost in the hostile uncaring white-walled institutional world of rectal thermometer-wielding nurses was allayed by seeing those humble creatures that man in his snobby superiority squashed, grown now large enough to tromp on man in just as callous a manner. If I was the size of the AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN (1957) I could find that evil rectal nurse and break her in twain and ditto that kid who turned the channel from EARTH VS. THE SPIDER. And I can't remember if I got him to turn it back or not, despite my pleading (I think I did, eventually, but the scene of spider walking was already over0 but I remember my outrage and horror that he would dare to change it. If I knew where that kid was today, I'd swear upon him an oath vile enough to raise the hairs on the necks of men.

It's no coincidence perhaps that the main deal breaker for me in giant monster movies is the presence of a kid, especially in the films set south of the border or in the Mediterranean, where for some reason the presence of an incorrigible angelic scamp who latches onto the visiting white scientists or cowboys is inescapable, be it Mexico for THE BLACK SCORPION or VALLEY OF GWANGI, Greece for 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH, this brat keeps me from ever owning these on DVD (there are other reasons, the cruelty and indifference visited on the Ymir or Gwangi, where being a reptile and weird looking is reason enough to be treated with callous cruelty -- it might be real but it's hardly fun, especially when the climax has the monster locked in combat with another imprisoned, abused abducted creature, a circus elephant. Things like bugs, and cephalopods however don't bother to earn our compassion, and I love them for it.

Later memory: living in mid-town Manhattan over a Pita Grill in the mid 90s; my only cure for the drunken blues was a Leadbelly CD and a six-hour SLP video tape I'd made a decade earlier of TARANTULA followed THE DEADLY MANTIS followed by IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA followed THE GIANT CLAW. My roommate had his hot Ukraine fashion models and his coke and soon his cool million dollars in the dot.com bubble, I had my whiskey (and his, when mine ran out), a 25K a year/4 days-a-week art gallery job, three tapes of Simpsons episodes, and the giant bug tape. The warmth of the whiskey making the repetitive black and white sense of authority united against a purely abstract foe as comforting as TRIUMPH OF THE WILL probably would be to Rico's Roughnecks.

I love these bugs now for their abstract destructive force. Bugs are innocent; you can't hate them even as they smash the building down upon you. They don't have the brains to be evil. There is no 5th column saboteur working for the giant bug. At the same time you don't need to have sympathy for them. And as a twentysomething struggling to stand out in New York, I longed for the kind of playing field a giant bug attack could provide. All you had to do to be a hero and shag a buxom 50s research assistant was be cool under pressure, which all good drunks are. Watching with my hand over one eye to not see double, I would cheer every attack, on either side, over and over, warm and amniotic and safe.

But they're now each in a DVD set and seen all clear and restored, and I'm sober, and so the films are missing the fuzzy static (either from UHF 'noise' alcohol, or just childhood 'fill in the blanks' imagination) they needed to seem 'alive.' They're still soothing, but not fuzzy warm soothing. You can see clearly now the sad ghost town emptiness of the sets, the smears of make-up on once-manly men of action and science, the gaffer glove left unnoticed in the corner of the frame.

So why go back? The drinking amniotic abdominal sac days are gone. Why stick with the 50s' atomic age anxiety? Having learned in THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1957) that for God there is no zero, no high or low - the life of a dung beetle equal in scope and importance to the life of an emperor, I know that my giant bug hospital moment will come again. And for me at least it's essential to have a fantasy escape wherein a common enemy unites all peoples, especially one that has no vocal chords with which to defend himself in the courts of our nation. Without such an enemy, Uncle Same must dress up its own foot in Muslim robes and blow of its own toe like that old campfire tale. More than just a symbolic manifestation of atomic and sexual anxiety, the giant bug is a good, wide target with no interest in arguing its case in court.


There is one film that I like even more now that I can see it in a theatrical aspect ratio: THE GIANT CLAW (1957). Jeff Morrow--with his hair of slick oily blackness-- is my new cranky idol. And that amazing bird / on a wire is no longer laughable, but truly psychedelic, wondrous and eternal.

Not to make this all about me, but I look at that face below, and I see a little bit of myself, and maybe, of us all, even that rectal thermometer-in-the-middle-of-the-night-trauma-inducing nurse. As the atomic bomb's loving father, Robert Oppenheimer once said, "Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." He was quoting the Baghavad Gita. He never imagined what the real destroyer would look like - that it would have turkey wings and a bobbling marionette neck. From its Shiva flame flapping, all clouds shroom apart like a flimsy sun before a soothing narcotic night.

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