July 17, 2013
Several weeks ago, the night before an early screening of "Pacific Rim," I could not sleep.
In the middle of the night I woke up and realized that I had been dreaming of the neon-colored images from the movie's trailer. I could not say why, exactly, other than that filmmaker Guillermo del Toro's "Pacific Rim" is about giant robots fighting a war against giant monsters and, despite being in my 40s, I have always had a thing for giant monsters.
Even as other childhood obsessions — "Star Wars," baseball cards, Judy Blume — collected cobwebs, for reasons I never quite comprehended I have remained embarrassingly devoted to monstrous spiders, radioactive lobsters and fire-breathing pituitary cases, preferably the Japanese brand.
So much so that, though "Pacific Rim" has been in theaters less than a week, I have seen it three times. So much so that my morning Internet routine now includes a scan for news about next year's "Godzilla" reboot.
Believe me, I would prefer admitting to an "Everyone Loves Raymond" obsession before admitting to a Japanese monster fetish. Nevertheless, last weekend, on a lovely summer day, I found myself in a hotel in Rosemont, holed up in windowless conference rooms at G-Fest XX. It's the world's premiere gathering of fans of Godzilla and other large monsters, or "kaiju" in Japanese.
I had hit rock bottom.
But for a reason: I wanted to understand why I still liked this stuff.
G-Fest, which has been in Rosemont most of its two decades, now draws about 2,000 fans annually; they buy from Godzilla collectible dealers, meet with kaiju film actors and show off homemade kaiju costumes, a relatively intimate get-together by comic book/geek culture convention standards. And so, on Saturday afternoon, I found myself watching as a man in a giraffe/lizard costume, J.D. Lees, the 58-year-old Canadian schoolteacher who founded G-Fest, battled slowly with a younger man in a gorilla/insect costume, Krys Baioa, a 23-year-old from Milwaukee, who, a decade ago, found his purpose in life at G-Fest. They were making a kaiju fan film for the festival, miming their way through combat moves in front of a green screen.
When I arrived, Baioa was lurching at Lees, who accidentally toppled backward, falling with a squish on his thick foam tail. The crew rushed in to help. Cameraman/Elmhurst native Billy Dubose shouted, "Cut!" Baioa's muffled voice could be heard behind his mask: "You OK?" he asked, staring into Lees' long dinosaur face.
"I can't see; it's awful," Lees said.
I stood to the side and watched with Sheri Baioa, Krys' mother. She has volunteered at G-Fest for years. Nearby was a model city ripe for destruction, its traffic cone-size electrical towers waiting to be knocked over. As big a fan of kaiju movies as I am, I told her I couldn't imagine going this far, spending time making a kaiju film.
She nodded sympathetically. "I know," she said, "but it happens."
She explained that her son got into giant-monster movies as a child, and at first she didn't understand the obsession or the appeal of the movies: "All he wanted to do was watch 'Godzilla.' He would tie a jump rope to his shirttails and say that it was his tail-tail. He was so obsessed, I thought he might have psychological problems. I called my health insurance company to see if they covered (treatment) if it got worse than this. He talked about Godzilla like Godzilla was a childhood figure other kids would know, like the Tooth Fairy. We had to explain that Godzilla wasn't real.
"I hoped for it to go away, but it didn't go away. So 10 years ago I heard about (G-Fest) and took him. I was worried that I was only making the problem worse, but I wasn't."
Krys, who chuckled at his mother's old worries about his childhood mental health, told me later that the first time he walked into G-Fest, he began crying. "Until I was 12, I was a disconnected Godzilla fan. I thought I was alone," he said. Eventually, a couple of years ago, inspired by their trips to G-Fest, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in man-in-suit acting roles. Despite the ubiquity these days of digital movie monsters, he has carved out a modest niche, appearing in short films and working at Disneyland as a character escort, shepherding Mickey and Donald around the park, expecting someday to climb into a character suit himself.
His mother is proud.
Wow, I said, as we watched the filming. What is it about giant monsters?
"To be honest," Sheri said, "it's such a part of our lives now, I've never stopped to think about that."
A confession: When I was 8, I didn't skip my best friend's birthday party because I was sick, as I instructed my mother to explain when he inevitably called, wondering where I was. On that Saturday afternoon in the late 1970s I was home, with the shades drawn, watching "Destroy All Monsters." It was there, with the weekly "Creature Double Feature," that I caught the kaiju bug, sitting through the camp of "War of the Gargantuas" and "King Kong Escapes," enduring the punishingly tedious plots of "Godzilla vs. Megalon," and "Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster" just to gape at 15 minutes of large dioramas being kicked apart by men in rubbery, dead-eyed costumes.
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."
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