Showing monster love for monster movies

Even then, despite my addiction, despite being a child, it was hard not to recognize how paradoxically boring these films could be. Indeed, perhaps it's that shared sense of sitting through monster movies that often resembled endless toy commercials that led to "Pacific Rim's" so-so opening weekend box office.

On the phone recently, when I asked del Toro to justify his love for the genre, he made an eloquent argument:

"I grew up at very strange time in Mexico. I was born in 1964, and there was this explosion of Japanese pop culture in Mexico, which continued for a while. I grew up watching (Japanese giant-robot shows such as) 'Gigantor' and 'Ultraman.' I'm old enough to have seen several Godzilla movies on opening weekend. There were all these bootleg Godzilla toys in Mexico.

"And I think I wanted to make 'Pacific Rim' to explain why I loved all of that stuff. I think it's because there is no real correlation between most kaiju films and the real world. You don't worry about gun violence or human violence. They're never about evil. Kaiju are so large, they are cosmic, forces of nature, and there is no such thing as a good tornado and a bad tornado. For a child, that is a world so out of proportion. But also adults in that world are out of proportion. Which is no dark existential thing, but joyful.

"Take into account that I am a strange man, but because of kaiju films I have this enormous appetite now for scale, for glee, for juxtaposing the largest details with the smallest details. Kaiju movies make me smile."

Then again, he has a $180 million kaiju film to justify.

Much harder to explain is why anyone would sit for hours watching the older, glacially paced stuff. Which, indeed, is I how I spent the first day of G-Fest: at the G-Fest movie marathon at Park Ridge's Pickwick Theatre, surrounded by middle-aged men with young sons, everyone in Godzilla T-shirts and cargo shorts. The man beside me unfolded himself across several seats and slept through a Gamera picture, only waking at the end to watch a giant turtle slowly drag a giant bat up the side of a volcano. "The X From Outer Space," which features a shrieking chicken monster, moved so sluggishly that it was like watching the day unfold outside a kitchen window. A few people got restless. And yet, as the camera panned over an obviously fake rocket, the kind of thing most audiences would jeer, the room grew quiet.

This audience likes scale.

Afterward, as we waited for a midnight screening of "Pacific Rim," I chatted up attendees, asking why they liked giant-monster movies. Lees had told me the appeal — which he never entirely got himself, he admitted — is "likely a personality thing, best appreciated by the kind of person who can suspend disbelief." But the Pickwick audience had far more specific reasons: A child psychiatrist from Los Angeles who brings her 26-year-old autistic son each year to G-Fest told me the aggression in a Godzilla movie appeals to "generally unaggressive personalities." An older man from Texas said that these movies reminded him of his childhood trips to drive-in movies with his father. And Roberto Heredia, 18, of River Forest, said earnestly that: "Godzilla is the most Shakespearean character who is not a Shakespearean character, because he destroys because he must, because he has no choice, not because he hates us. It's just what he does."

Everyone has his reasons.

In line for popcorn I met Martin and Pam Arlt, a married couple in their 40s from Ann Arbor, Mich.; she's a school social worker, he's a geneticist. "You like this stuff because you grew up with this stuff," Pam said to Martin.

"But I outgrew most things," he said.

"It's a childhood thing," she insisted.

"Maybe a certain kind of childhood, at a certain time," he relented, "when movies seemed like they were made by hand, when you could admire the craftsmanship of people who made things from scratch."

"You miss the soul," I said.

"The cheesy soul," he corrected.

 

It would be easy to dismiss this as purely generational nostalgia, a sad refusal to let go of one last childhood thing. And certainly, walking around G-Fest a couple of days later, strolling through the model-builder's room, the dark conference rooms where fans showed homemade Godzilla films, you were encouraged to never let go. I was reminded how hard it was once to be a Godzilla fan, waiting for the movies on TV, hoarding the handful of Godzilla trinkets that trickled into the United States.

It would be easy to dismiss if it wasn't for all the kids at G-Fest, many of whom said they were there because they wanted to be.

And often for familiar reasons.

With one big difference:

Unlike many of their bashful parents — never have I had more people refuse to give me their names — they seemed to own their obsession and to pay it a kind of cheesy homage. Late on Saturday, just before the costume parade, the changing room was bustling with children climbing into homemade kaiju: Mel Semenfelder, a 5-year-old from Long Island, N.Y., was crammed into a Mechagodzilla suit made of cardboard, washer-dryer piping and a bucket. "Yes, I'm OK, I'm OK," he said quietly, eyes peeking through a slit in the neck, his mother cracking up. Abbie Scott, 12, of Indianapolis, was fitted with a silver Gamera costume she designed using cardboard, duct tape and football shoulder pads; she had blinking rockets on her wrists and a top-heavy turtle head that her father fixed to the back of her shell with another piece of tape.

A Norman Rockwell portrait.

On my way out, I ran into Nolan Hidaka, 10, of New York City. He trudged slowly through the hotel lobby in a small Godzilla costume that his father, Arnold, 50, a former Chicagoan and graphic designer for the Smithsonian Channel, had made for him.

Arnold started with the head, using the foam cast that Nolan had been fitted with after he broke his arm last year. Impressed with the craftsmanship, Nolan asked for the rest of the Godzilla. Arnold, being a father, agreed. They were in Chicago, Nolan told me, just to show off.

"This thing, it's heavy on me," Nolan said, "but it's comfortable."

Sounds familiar.

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli

CHICAGO

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