Monday, 26 January 2009

Lecture Six: Godzilla Has Left The Building – And How He Got There

How real is real? In an age when disaster seems to exert a specific influence over our collective imagination, the question may seem uncaring – and yet we deal with the spectacle of disaster on a regular basis. In the late 18th century Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg – a friend of the British painter Thomas Gainsborough – revealed to an astonished public his Eidophusikon: a mechanical theatre of special effects offering ‘MOVING PICTURES, representing PHENOMENA of NATURE.’ Visitors would faint when confronted with such realistic recreations of storms and high seas and de Loutherbourg’s most famous creation: a scene of Satan arraying his troops on the fiery banks of Hell, based on a passage from Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost.

Throughout the 19th century, the public was placed inside Panoramas, Dioramas and Cycloramas where they witnessed realistic and lifelike reconstructions of battles, scenes from history and the majesty of the natural landscape inside specially constructed spaces which harnessed painting, modelling and sculpture, spoken-word, sound effects and music to heighten the illusion.

During the 20th century, many of these same effects had become systemized within the visual language of cinema and in the structural thrust of urban architecture. From the shopping plaza to the Cinerama screen, what constituted the ‘real’ was increasingly influenced by cultural conventions. But what happens when something comes along that seems too big for the cinema screen and threatens to destroy the tall buildings of the modern city?

First appearing in Japan as Gojira in 1954, Godzilla went on to become the first monster of the atomic age. However, by the time he came to the West in 1956 he was a very different creature. The assumptions we make over our fantasies of destruction instil within us a cultural double vision. Is Godzilla a radioactive monster created by science, a prehistoric freak of nature or just some guy in a rubber suit jumping around on a miniature cityscape? Such questions take on a completely new meaning in an age of CGI, DSLR cameras and Photoshop.

Suggested Reading:
Juhani Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin: The Architecture of the Image, John Wiley and Sons, 2005
Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, Wiley Blackwell, 1991
Stuart Galbraith IV, Japanese Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films: A Critical Analysis of 103 Features Released in the United States, 1950-1992, McFarland, 1994
Susan Sontag, ‘The Imagination of Disaster’, from Against Interpretation, Dell 1969 (NB: this link is to a PDF of the essay)
Peter Biskind, ‘Pods and Blobs’ from Seeing is Believing, Pantheon, 1983
Ken Hollings, ‘Tokyo Must Be Destroyed’: Dreams of Tall Buildings and Monsters, Images of Cities and Monuments, Digital Delirium, (A & M Kroker, eds), McMillan, 1997 (NB: this link is to an online version of the essay on the CTHEORY website)

Related viewing:
To get some idea of how cultural factors can alter our sense of what is real, compare the original Japanese trailer for Gojira with the US trailer for Godzilla: King of the Monsters!

See also the entry 'Catching Up With The Bourbaki Panorama' by clicking here.

2.00pm Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Top Image: A scene from Toho’s Gojira in 1954: Godzilla attacks the Tokyo rail system.

Bottom Image: A drawing by Francis Burney of the Eidophusikon: Satan gathers his forces before the Palace of Pandemonium.

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