Monday, April 21, 2008

Joe Dante's Inferno at the New Beverly: Gremlins 2

A certain sense of childlike wonder and optimism existed amongst the post-Star Wars baby boomer filmmakers. Steven Spielberg is the most obvious example and the sentimentality of most of his films make me either want to puke or mourn that pulpy premises like Jurassic Park were carried out as children's films instead of halfway gritty fare like Duel or Jaws, my two favorites.

Hey look, someone put the whole movie on the 'tube!

Joe Dante's boomer moviegoing years were spent in the b-movie junk drawer, and as a happy result he became a sort of mutant Spielberg: sentimental but cynical, and unmarred by the temptation of mainstream respectability. Both directors are very much crowd-pleasers, but Dante's relationship with his audience is far more whimsical and mischievous. The only Dante-esque gag in Jurassic Park (and gags are Dante's forte, not Spielberg's) is when Samuel L. Jackson's arm lands on Laura Dern's shoulder. I'd much rather it'd have been Joe Dante's Jurassic Park.

Dante was also a student of horror far more the Spielberg. Duel was a thriller, Jaws was mainstream high-gloss horror adventure and Poltergeist's scary scenes were directed by Tobe Hooper as Steven indulged his fetish for magical old people. Meanwhile, Dante got his start cutting trailers for Roger Corman before directing a parody of Jaws, the junky and funny and gruesome Piranha (being remade in 3-D, oddly.) He followed with another no-nonsense horror genre entry, The Howling. By contrast, Spielberg spent the late 70s escaping the disreputable "horror director" stigma with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1941 and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Then in 1983 their careers crossed paths in the most appropriate of ways: Spielberg chose Dante to direct a horror-oriented segment of The Twilight Zone: The Movie while he himself chose to direct a nauseatingly cute segment about magical old people.

They must have spent a long time discussing classic cartoons, of which Spielberg is a pronounced fan and collector. Dante's love goes a bit further than that, making cartoon logic (and gags, natch) a frequent staple of his films. His Twlight Zone segment is, after all, about an evil boy who turns reality into a cartoon.

He's not an animator-turned-director, but the influence is so strong his films somewhat deserve mention in the same category as his American contemporaries in that directorial subgenre, like Tim Burton, Frank Tashlin, Mike Judge or Savage Steve Holland. Well okay, Looney Tunes: Back In Action was an actual melding of the two mediums, but much as I love Dante I can't bring myself to watch that.

Animation means to invoke life. So what else is good for invoking life into, other than drawings?


Hence the titanic collaboration of Spielberg and Dante, Gremlins. The warm fuzziness of E.T. meets the malicious intent of Dante's monsters. The cartoon anarchy of one director runs rampant in the small town Capra coziness of another. Magnificent.

The most telling detail of their creative pairing is this: Gizmo, the lovable "good" Magwai, was initially to transform into the lead evil Gremlin, Stripe. Spielberg stepped in at the last minute and realized Gizmo was too cute. According to Zach Galligan in his Deadpit Radio interview, one of Dante's creative impetuses for the project was the ol' switcheroo - make the kids fall in love with the cute creature, and Steven Spielberg's name, and then...!

This film and it's sequel had me obsessed from about age 8 to 12, no exaggeration. I have never been and probably will not ever be as in love with any film and it's sequel for the duration and intensity those movies inspired. Which is why I was delighted to see Gremlins 2: The New Batch on the big screen at the FABULOUS New Beverly Cinema last week.

And Dante was there for Q + A! How fucking rad! The New Beverly continues to delight. I didn't know he'd be there, and having learned more or less everything about the Gremlins films that was humanly possible over the years, I couldn't think of a question until afterwards: Were there other voices considered for the talking "Brain Gremlin," besides Tony Randall?

I realized listening to the Q and A that other nerds listen to commentary tracks too. One kid was particularly bad, asking questions specific to information revealed in the DVD commentary of the movie, and then finishing Dante's sentences. Sheesh.

The only significant thought he shared regarding the film which wasn't mentioned on the DVD and couldn't have was - and take this with a grain of salt, it's heavy - that he "made Gremlins 2 to make sure there wouldn't be a Gremlins 3."

Wow. That implies he regarded the production as a hostile action...but it's not hostile, it's a rollicking good time. The context of the comment was the self-parodic nature of the sequel, the deconstructive humor...

....Which ranges from slight:

- Characters point out logic holes in the 3 "rules" of the gremlins
- A "bat gremlin" breaks through a window, leaving the Batman logo
- One gremlin tattoos another with the Warner Brothers logo
- Gremlins often look at the camera

....To snarky, as when Phoebe Cates parodies her famous "Christmas speech" from the first film with a demented equivalent centered around Lincoln's birthday...(Dante shared another story unfit for DVD use regarding that original speech; that Jeffrey Katzenberg kicked his seat during a screening and exclaimed "you sick fuck!")

....To CONCEPTUAL, as when the fourth wall is broken, spectacularly, by momentarily tricking the audience into thinking the film itself has broken in the projector, and then we suddenly see the shadows of gremlins on the white screen making shadow puppets, as if they're in the projector booth. Dante even wanted actual theaters to be rigged with gremlin puppets in the projector booth for when people turned around! Then Hulk Hogan yells at them, and says to us, the audience, "Sorry, folks. Won't happen again." Seriously.

And boy, this is fun to see in a real theater. Brought the house down!

There is also some parodic dialogue at the end of the film regarding the marketability of Gizmo, when the Turner/Trump hybrid "Daniel Clamp" (played flawlessly by John Glover) forsees a whole line of Gizmo merchandise. According to Dante, a movie making fun of it's own marketing was still verboten in 1990. Now it's practically de rigeur.

What all this means is that Dante wasn't trying to make a BAD movie, it's just that he couldn't take the idea of a necessary sequel seriously one iota. If the first film was 50-50 horror and comedy, the second was more like 95-05 in comedy's favor.

All things considered, Gremlins 2 is Joe Dante's best movie. Why?

First of all, a truly witty fantasy/comedy is a rare thing and I hadn't seen one play to an audience so well since seeing Pee-Wee's Big Adventure at the State theater in Ann Arbor, Michigan. With this kind of movie, if you're in for a penny you're in for a pound. Every joke plays at the same tone of humor, and hits its target.

Second, none of the goofy self-parody humor is disruptive. Even as a kid I didn't feel as though the mockery of the first film was berating - it felt more like a fun celebration of the Gremlins mystique. There was even a special video/vcr version of the theater gag, which was delightful.

If there's one film that was primed for nonstop Airplane! style gags, it was the sequel to Gremlins, as if the bar scene from the original were extended into the entire second and third acts. The gags and details fly so fast I even managed to catch a new one: a dentist's office plaque belonging to one "Dr Farb" of the original, Little Shop of Horrors fame.

Thirdly, Dante's bent towards "live action cartoon" filmmaking is the perfect fit for a puppet show. This was 1990, when animatronics and practical makeup effects were at their peak and the tide hadn't yet turned toward CGI, post-....hey, waitaminit, post JURASSIC PARK!

Nearly every scene with a puppet manages to blur the line between reality and the animation of the puppets treats us to pure nonverbal filmic storytelling. So too does the brilliant music of the recently departed Jerry Goldsmith, whose score runs nearly the entire length of the film and helps support that magical, lyrical stream-of-consciousness style.

In summary, the film opens and closes with Chuck Jones animation of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig. Welcome to Joe Dante's wildest untethered imagination.


1 comment:

Andrew Wickliffe said...

Chip -

Email me thestopbutton [at]

(I remember seeing G2 in the theater same day as Dick Tracy).