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.
* * * * *

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.
* * * * *

Moment: Dick Miller driving a cab in InnerSpace.

* * * * *

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.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Blood Diamonds are Forever

Hey, Blood Diamond, your new poster is cooler than the Giant PhotoShopped Heads on the A-style poster... It's also laughably literal and silly, but that's okay. That's why we like Important Hollywood Issue Films! BUT! how easily do you think we forget the iconic cover for the uncompromising literary exposé Master of the Game?!

Oh, Blood Diamond we are not so fickle with our conflict diamond melodrama! We shall not soon forgive this swipe from such a distinguished man of American letters as Sydney Sheldon!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Nashville Black: Robert Altman's Short Goodbye

Robert Bernard Altman
1925 - 2006

I guess I never really forgave Mr. Robert Altman for what he did with Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye. I don't understand it. I don't understand why Altman, one great chronicler of the American voice would sap the pleasure and beauty from another's story. The dreary film mangles a classic plot, sneeringly reconfigures a great character of 20th century literature, and seems a mean-spirited rejection of the vitality and richness of Chandler's writing. Why? Didn't Robert Altman like detective stories?

For me, there is not a more poetic and mystery-filled Altman film than McCabe & Mrs. Miller, perhaps his only film that could be called visually beautiful. There is not a more deeply-felt, acid, contemporary Altman comedy than MASH. And for me, there is not a moment in Altman more perfect than Tom Waits and Lily Tomlin as Earl and Doreen Piggot, who have spent all of Short/Cuts screaming at each other, getting deliriously shit-faced together. It's a scene of four unique American storytellers - Altman, Carver, Waits and Tomlin - united in four-part harmony to sing one song, a chorus that takes advantage of their respective talents for bitter satire, minimalist, working-class poetry, sloppy, boozy bathos, and fuzzy-pathetic character delineation. It's a triumph, and Altman is holding the baton.

* * * * *

My girlfriend told me that when she met Altman, she took the chance to tell him how much she liked his crazy, all-kinds-of-funny Prêt-à-Porter. Altman looked pleased, and told her "Thank you. I like it too."

When discussing the vicious critical rejection of the film, he more than once said that "all your films are like your children..." And you think you know how that line will end, but Altman has something more-true, more-funny, more-cruel to say: "...all of these films are like your children and you tend to love your least successful children the most."

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You do not need me to summarize Altman's career, list high points, or call him the greatest-whatever. Your best source will probably be the Times blog obit. GreenCine Daily is assembling the best 'net tributes. Premiere's got a working man's quickie guide to key Altman titles up already. I'm sure Harry Knowles was crying as he wrote his tribute, and God bless him for it, though it includes an anecdote about gorging himself on spinach.

Robert Altman was an iconoclast who did not compromise, spoke his mind, got in fights with studios, and sometimes shot himself in the foot by being a garrulous old bastard. There's integrity in that, and there is folly. The same thing might be said of most of his films.

Hey look: is this the only Altman farewell not to use to word "caustic"?

* * * * *

I cannot unpack exactly why I like McCabe & Mrs. Miller, for I love Westerns, and it is an uncanny, perhaps nasty un-Western. And there is MASH, that most loveless of peacenik war comedies. Popeye simply by rendering E.C. Segar's world accurately, becomes a children's film so grotesque children will want to look away. And we may find that Nashville is a musical that hates music, though it finds rhythm and song in dialogue and life-cycle. Altman did not explore these genres because he loved them, was obsessed by them, or had a technician's interest in deconstructing them. He tore genre filmmaking a new one because he did not trust the lulling powers of escapist entertainment. I don't cotton to that, but I can't deny that in the process of ripping apart these genres, he often built new beasts, strangely muscled and natural in movement, if furred in drab colors.

For the amount of crankiness in the man's work, there is an equally long list of things he loved, and which his films celebrate. His movies like the working class in dreamland, the man of power in meltdown; the light witnessed by early morning drunks; jokes of all kinds, stupid and smart; the tragedy of everyday doldrums; the ugly, ugly countryside, and uglier metropolis.

And the sublime, those Great Themes uniting all the work, which the academic rag-picker will someday scrounge from the lowliest "Combat!" episode, and bring down from the mountains of Nashville, Short/Cuts, Brewster McCloud: The mysterious gulfs and understandings between men and women; the sound of human speech blanketing a planet; the chaos and surprising connective tissue we move through in our daily lives. Almost to a one, his films simultaneously capture the sprawl of a nation, and the claustrophobia of our private, perceived realities. That is my experience of Altman films, from the Nashville-wide, to Secret Honor-small; be they Brewster McCloud-nuts, or 3 Women-gossamer, Altman's movies achieve the auteurist's dream: they are one.

I still don't forgive The Long Goodbye.

But as Poopdeck Pappy says in Popeye, "You was disobedient when you was two and you're still disobedient now." Mr. Altman is survived by more than 40 disobedient children, and they will continue to exasperate and delight us.