Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Hellzapoppin'!: The Infernal Comedy of Joe Dante


At the climax of Joe Dante's 1985 Explorers, the big-eyed, pretty suburban children who have for a dreary hour and a half been constructing a functioning spacecraft out of junkheap scraps, based on dream-vision blueprints, finally come face-to-bug-eyed-face with the benevolent alien beings that have assisted from afar. The encounter with alien intelligence is not a moment of spiritual or intellectual transcendence like 2001 or Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The creatures aren't E.T. They're not Starman. They're not even Mac & Me. They're gibbering morons, brains utterly melted by constant inundation by Earth television signals. The aliens babble soundbites from movies and TV and radio, spout impersonations and seem seized by full-on pop culture epileptic spasms.

It's a nasty trick. It's a children's film full of stale concepts of wonder being suddenly deflated with cynicism, and disappointment. As a joke, it does not play: it's not funny. As satire though, it is prime cut Joe Dante. He uses his entire film to backhand bitch slap one scene in E.T., where Elliot briefs his magical alien visitor on Earth culture by showing him Star Wars toys and a plastic peanut-shaped piggy bank. Explorers is to E.T. what Marxist tract How to Read Donald Duck is to Carl Barks comics. It's like expecting to pass through the 2001 star-gate, and instead being relentlessly battered with a fistful of Harvey comic books.

If you were enjoying Explorers up to the spaceman encounter, more power to you. If the prolonged media montage assault, edited to reference avant-garde film by slicing up public domain cartoons, wrecks it all for you... more power to Dante.

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Moment: Microwave Marge battles Daffy, Lenny and George, the set of her cable TV cooking show transformed into an apocalyptic battleground. The Gremlins fling a frying pan at Marge's face, and when she pops back into frame, two gigantic sunny-side up eggs are covering her eyes. She screams and falls over. Deleted scene, Gremlins 2: The New Batch DVD. My friend Paul Rust turns to me and says "that is the funniest joke in all of movie history. You could show that to anyone, from any culture, in any time period, across the universe - even any alien lifeforms - and they would think that's funny."

I am unable to disagree.
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So much of what makes Dante's movies his own - what constitutes his cinematic style and themes to which he returns - are the very things that prevent them from soaring as genre exercises. Checklist: Dropped-in, but fully-committed Warner Bros.-cartoon-style sight gags, sound effects, physics. Incongruous movie and TV parodies, references, swipes which apparently go nowhere after basic recognition. Cloaked sociocultural satire, not nestled as morals, lessons, or asides within innocuous family films, but fully pressing and yanking at the very seams of the films' fabric. Joe Dante sticks it to the way movies work, and the way we watch them, the way we love them, and the way we let them colonize our imaginations.

"Anarchic" is the to-watch adjective for today's Joe Dante Blog-a-Thon. It's sometimes misapplied to Dante's work when writers really mean "frantic" or "crowded with gags" or even "hysterical". Anarchy is not in his attempt to capture the kinetic energy or anything-goes humor of Tex Avery (though he often does). It's in the way Dante is willing to undermine, undercut, and explode anything, even the dramaturgical integrity of very film he is making. Why? That's why it's anarchy.

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Moment: Billy Peltzer runs into the Kingston Falls YMCA, hot on the trail of the most vicious of the new-hatched Gremlins. And he sees the swimming pool.

Because the rules of this fantasy have been so cleanly established (the monsters multiply at the touch of water)...
Because it asks the audience to imaginatively play "what would happen if this took place in your town? Where is the worst place a Gremlin could go?"...
Because the film is set at Christmas time, it may be an extended It's a Wonderful Life parody... and it means any small, local bodies of water would be frozen solid...
Because this is followed by the otherworldly, poetic image of the YMCA pool suddenly at a rolling boil, lime green light spilling from the frothing, seething water...
Because in the middle of it all is a single, hilarious cutaway shot of Stripe holding his nose as he cannonballs to the bottom of the deep end...

Because of this, Stripe leaping into the pool in Gremlins (1984) is the greatest, most perfectly realized example of a staple moment in our collective film vocabulary. I think of it as the "Oh. SHIT" Moment.
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The monsters in Gremlins are born ready to imitate Bogart and scenes from Flashdance. There are days when these unfunny gags break the contract for me, and spoils Chris Columbus' otherwise pitch-perfect extended sick-joke holiday movie. Some days I think they aren't supposed to be funny, but in a way repeat the explanation of why the zombies in Dawn of the Dead want to go to the shopping mall: "They're us, that's all." What finally undoes these monsters, themselves metaphors for our own self-defeating technological dependence? A firebomb in a movie theater, where the creatures have willingly trapped themselves. "What are they doing?," Kate Beringer asks. "They're watching Snow White," Billy marvels. "And they love it!" Even mischief incarnate is undone by Disney cultural imperialism. In Gremlins 2 they're busy wasting time parodying Busby Berkeley, and are melted by a superteam of pop culture references from Grandpa Munster to Rambo III.

What makes Gremlins climax more than a hatchet job on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs? What redeems Dante's world, in which children's action figures are functioning war machines (Small Soldiers), and the power of cartoons to dominate a kid's imagination portrayed as a terrifying force of destruction and enslavement (Twilight Zone: The Movie)? Answer: with the same heart, burning in anger against all this junk culture, Joe Dante loves this stuff. Loves it all.

The man wrote for Castle of Frankenstien. He's overflowing with love for '50s sci-fi movies, monster movies, Looney Tunes, and all that adored by 14-year-old boys everywhere... especially when it doesn't match the genre. When's the best time to give Chuck Jones a cameo, or swipe images from his "Feed the Kitty"? Probably a monster movie. When's the best time to include appearances from Robot Monster's Ro-Man or The Man from Planet X? Definitely a Looney Tunes movie.
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Moment: Dick Miller driving a cab in InnerSpace.

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Those strange, incongruous "jokes", funny or not, are part and parcel of not just the Dante aesthetic, but of his message itself, and his career-long meditation on our complex relationship with popular media. Sadly, the surface and form often prevent much critical examination beyond how funny a given film was.

It is my sincere hope that the Dante 60th Birthday Blog-A-Thon, hosted by Video WatchDog impresario Tim Lucas, will go some ways to celebrating the bumpy, nutty surface of the man's films, but also sucking out the bitter caramel inside.

Happy birthday, Joe Dante. Here's egg in your eye.

For more Gremlins reading, click here for my review of George Gipe's novelization.

1 comment:

Chris Carter said...

What an excellent post. I've just been having a Joe Dante marathon of Explorers, Small Soldiers, The 'burbs and Gremlins 2 and was wondering if anyone had ever paid sufficient tribute to this warped weirdo and his eccentric cinematic vision. I think my friend Davis put it best when he posted this tribute a few minutes ago:

http://davismclellandletters.blogspot.com/2008/12/dear-joe-dante.html