“When I saw Jaws I thought ‘Uh-oh, these guys understand what I and my contemporaries are doing. And they have the money – and the talent and skill – to do them bigger and better’.”
– Roger Corman, from the documentary Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (based on the book by Peter Biskind)
Recently my friend Megan Cohen reintroduced me to Susan Sontag’s pivotal 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp’”. It seemed just the right time for me to once again see those words as I’d been pondering them of late, whether I was conscious of it or not. I think it had a lot to do with watching Man of Steel as well as going to The Castro and seeing that they recently screened the R. Kelly’s cheeseball “Trapped in the Closet” series.
In the case of the latter, it’s a great example of how camp requires a level of ignorance on the part of its creator. Make no mistake: R. Kelly’s redundant, melodramatic “hip-hopera” was created with the belief that he was making something no less than an Orff-level masterpiece. This is apparent in the presentation of the first five chapters on his album TP.3 Reloaded, the bad-soap opera-quality of the first three videos, and the wonderfully overwrought one-man show enacting Chapters 3 and 4 at the 2005 Mtv Video Music Awards. He might have wanted people to believe he was creating Art with a capital “A”, but he wound up creating a piece so laugh-out-loud hilarious that Groucho Marx would have been envious. By being so serious, it made its shortcomings all the more funny – that, my friends, is quintessential camp.
With the parodies by “Weird Al” Yankovic, Saturday Night Live, Jimmy Kimmel, and MADtv, to name but a few, one could argue that “Trapped in the Closet” was low-hanging fruit: Kelly took himself so seriously and was so blind to the project’s shortcomings that he made himself an easy target. But in the hiatus between the release of Chapter 3 and the Mtv performance, the worst possible thing happened: R. Kelly became aware of the camp nature of his creation. When the video for Chapter 4 arrived, it was markedly more (intentionally) humourous in its tone. All subsequent chapters have reportedly (I stopped watching after Ch. 7) taken the melodramatic story of infidelity and included rednecks, midgets, prostitutes and a host of soap opera twists – none of it funny. Kelly drained all the entertainment value out of his own creation by failing to realise exactly why it was so entertaining.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with intentional camp – John Waters has based his entire career on it; Charles Busch, I dare say, has turned it into high art. But one could argue as to whether or not those works are actual camp, so much as satire of what camp entails. As I said: great camp requires an ignorance on the part of its creators. It’s why the cringe-worthy misogyny of Neil LaBute’s remake of The Wicker Man is so funny – it has Nic Cage in a bear suit punching women.
What has this to do with our topic for today? Not a damned thing, I just had it on my mind. Art does that to me.
If anything, today’s film could best be described as an homage to a genre. An homage is interesting in that it rewards one’s encyclopedic knowledge of a genre whilst making it fresh and new for those unfamiliar. It can fall into any number of sub-genres, including parody, which is why it is best done by an artistic possessed of both a sincere affinity and critical eye. When done right, you get The Hudsucker Proxy, Airplane!, I’m Gonna Get You, Sucka!, Kill Bill, Django Unchained, and Galaxy Quest. When done wrong, you get the Seltzer/Freidberg movies. (I refuse to link to their work, so just look them up and cringe).
Knowledge of genre is one of the things that often distinguished the movies of Guillermo del Toro. So when it was announced that he was making an Americanised tribute to the “kaiju” – Japanese monster films that included creatures like Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan – and “mecha” genres – also Japanese, this one involving people occupying giant robot suits: Macross, Voltron and the like – there were few other film-makers better suited for the job. And
In the year 2013 the Earth is attacked by invaders. Not from the sky, but from a dimensional rift at the bottom of the ocean floor within the Pacific Ocean. The creatures – named “Kaiju” by the Japanese – are grotesque monstrosities the size of skyscrapers that destroy everything in their wake. To combat the beasts, the governments of the world create Jaegers: equally gigantic nuclear-powered battle machines operated by two pilots.
One of the best pilots is Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), who retired in 2020 after the death of his co-pilot, his brother. But with the recent increase in Kaiju attacks and the urging of his old commander (Idris Elba), Raleigh is back in the Jaeger game. But with the threat greater than ever before, will even the best pilots in the world be enough?
Whilst watching this flick I began having flashbacks to my childhood. Flashbacks to watching episodes of SpectreMan after renting the tapes from Captain Video. Flashbacks to going through the entire Godzilla library – from his battle with Mothra to King Kong to even Bambi. Flashbacks of watching Robotech and the original Transformers series with unrestrained glee. I’m guessing Guillermo del Tero must have had those same sort of flashbacks recently, because he gets the details right whilst still adding his own spin.
Between the clichéd story and stock characters, I should have hated this film with every fibre of my being. Instead I had a blast. Like the aforementioned good homage films, del Toro’s film is well aware of the conventions of the genre. As such, it hits every one and exaggerates to over-the-top effect: the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, square-jawed hero; his gruff commanding officer; the tough girl who wants to fight so badly and will eventually fall for the hero; the rival who gives the hero shit at every opportunity; quirky scientists; the early death that makes our hero swear to never fight again; the secrets – they’re all here.
The difference is that not only does del Toro know they shouldn’t be taken too seriously, but even if you did, he pulls it off better than those whom he’s acknowledging ever did. I’m far more keen on effects that can be created in-camera than CGI, but every now and then I’ll see it used to appropriate effect: to service the film rather than show off due to lack of story. The big robo/alien battles (which I saw in proper IMAX) are – despite the melee on-screen – executed with refined level of skill that knows how to hold its audience’s focus whilst still dropping their jaws. This is a welcome relief from the little-boy-smashing-action-figures-together mess of the Transformers movies and Man of Steel.
The performances are equally “good enough”. Idris Elba once again proves himself a better actor than the script he’s given, as does Kikuchi Rinko; Charlie Hunnam need only have blonde hair and a chiseled jaw; Ron Perlman does his Ron Perlmaniest; and Charlie Day’s voice continues to be nails on a chalkboard.
Though an “original” story, Pacific Rim wears its lineage on its sleeve like the formed sword of a robeast-killing, lion-formed mecha from days gone by. It trumps its predecessors in technical prowess, whilst recycling their convention as a means of tribute. Very few modern blockbusters are as self-aware without being annoying; and even fewer are this much fun.