Monday, December 20, 2010

Gremlins 2: The New Batch

Joe Dante has a brief vocal cameo in Gremlins 2: The New Batch as a television director, but the role he was really born to play was mad scientist. He should be in some 1950s horror film, where all the monsters are rubber and dry ice, and everyone still screams no matter how fake they look. Until he perfects his time machine, he’ll always be a man slightly out of time, but that’s what makes him such an effective satirist. He’s just slightly out of sync with reality. And Gremlins 2 is one of Dr. Dante’s more devilish experiments, an imagined world where Hulk Hogan exists alongside Rambo, while Batman shares a room with Alvin and the Chipmunks and Bugs Bunny introduces a story that includes characters based on Grandpa Munster and Miss Piggy. This is the quest for a unified theory of pop culture.

The film begins with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck squabbling over who gets to ride the Warner Bros. shield. It’s a characteristically cheeky move on Dante’s part, a sly feint that momentarily confuses the audience. Did we pick up the wrong movie? The reassuring chirps and squeals of little Gizmo soon come along to set us straight, so quickly that we don’t even realize Dante just tricked us into staring at the Warner Bros. logo for a good minute. Not that he's being a good company man here. He's just reminding us who signs the cheques. Beneath all of the film’s haphazard pop-culture references, there is some semblance of order after all. There is indeed a place where Bugs Bunny and Gizmo can plausibly and peacefully co-exist—on a legal document in some lawyer’s office listing the intellectual property of Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc.

Dante is tuned in to the signals that clutter the air. The film feels like 50 different television channels playing at once: pure buzzing information overload. Do you want narrative cohesion? Do not look here. The film is not the story, but the nonsense that flies above it like a flock of well-fed pigeons (no one escapes untarnished). The only unity in all this chaos is the monolithic corporate order that underwrites the proceedings, from the familiar shield at the beginning to the film’s fictional Clamp empire, which swallows up everything in sight and spits out a newer, shinier, crappier version of the world it is devouring. It’s an awful reality, and all we can do is live in, whether we’re eternally guileless Billy, who deals with the devil as honourably as one can or tenacious Grandpa Fred, a washed-up horror-movie host who seizes hold of the Gremlin crisis to become the reporter he always wanted to be.

The anarchic energy found only briefly in the original—mostly in the debauched all-Gremlin party in the town bar—takes over the sequel. The wildest parts of Dante’s imagination are given free rein, to good effect. All of the references may threaten to overwhelm the film, but the director is keen on pushing towards the breaking point. There’s even a mid-film interruption where the Gremlins take over the projection room and threaten to put on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Luckily, Hulk Hogan is in the audience—one ripped yellow tank top later and we’re back on track. The film abounds in scattershot satire aimed at the media and corporate culture; every scene is rife with parodies and homages, surprising visual conceits and ridiculous puns (two characters meet in a chic Canadian restaurant which seemingly exists only to provide an excuse for a chocolate moose gag).

Unlike the first Gremlins, this film doesn’t really have anything lucid to say about the world, preferring to echo the noise of modern culture rather than trying to shout above the din. This is less a coherent story than a foundation for sight gags. But if anything, it’s superior to the original. This is a lesson in kamikaze sequel-making at its finest. The small-town hokiness of the first film is roundly mocked, while the normal expectations of a sequel are avoided (cute little Gizmo spends much of the film being tortured instead of making cooing sounds and puppy-eyes for the camera). Dante dive-bombs the original, blasting it out of our memories and making the possibility of further sequels all but inconceivable. Could you follow this mess with anything other than a broom?

Monday, December 13, 2010


In hindsight, I have no one to blame but myself. After weeks of hectoring questions, I found myself frustrated and panicked. I didn’t know what to say anymore. What do you want? I don’t want anything. No, what do you want? Finally, I broke down and blurted out a confession, grabbing whatever word was closest to the front of my brain, if only to put an end to this Kafkaesque farce. In the end, they were not fishing for a specific fact. They simply wanted me to admit to something, anything. And that’s the story of how I got a blender for Christmas.

Now, I haven’t gotten the blender quite yet, but its presence is all but assured beneath that Christmas tree—courtesy of my mother, who for weeks demanded that I tell her what I want for Christmas, even though I truthfully could think of very little that I needed or desired. The whole ridiculous game feels mildly sinister, and I can’t help but suspect I have contributed in some small way to the continued global dominance of the American military-industrial crap complex. Do you ever wonder if our whole civilization stays afloat due largely to a sea of ostensibly useful kitchen appliances? I certainly do. If people were to rise up and start chopping their onions by hand, would the last teetering fragments of our broken economy finally collapse into the abyss?

Paranoid ranting? Just shut up and get yourself a goddamn Magic Bullet and make me some delicious salsa in three seconds, you say? The defense begs to differ, and would like to call to the stand its chief witness: Gremlins, that 1984 yuletide classic depicting the complex relationship between mass-marketed movie toys and the people who love them.

The person in question is Billy, a hard-working bank clerk supporting his inept inventor father. The toy is a little creature called a mogwai, which father brings home to Billy as Christmas gift. That’s our introduction to Gizmo, the original Gremlin and an atom bomb of sweetie-pie adorability, a godless mixture of Ewok and Tribble. Defy him if you can. (You can’t.) But if you can get past the ready-to-be-merchandised qualities of the film, there’s actually a lot of bleakness lurking around here. Yes, obviously, this is a silly film, but there’s also a dark, strangely serious aspect to it as well. It sets out to remind us how truly depressing and downright awful the holidays can sometimes be.

The film takes perverse pleasure in reminding us of the lonely few. “While everybody else are opening up their presents, they’re opening up their wrists,” say the sulky, proto-emo Kate, Billy’s love interest. Turns out her father died in a freak chimney accident on Christmas Eve, dressed as Santa and loaded with presents. No, Virginia, there isn’t a Santa Claus. He broke his neck bringing presents FOR YOU.

Amazingly, this was written by Chris Columbus, whose career in Christmas films would trace a descending arc from this point, moving on to Home Alone before hitting bottom with the odious Christmas with the Kranks. Much credit for this film’s sharpness lies with director Joe Dante, a cartoon satirist with a keen eye. Aside from crafting moments of skewed beauty out of this deformed kid’s movie—dig the lovely use of both sides of a movie screen featuring Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs—Dante gives the film a bit of sting simply by making the violence as convincing as the comedy.

There’s something rather satisfying in seeing Billy’s mother kill the evil Gremlins with the aid of a variety of kitchen tools, most notably the microwave she uses to explode one of her tormentors. The anti-social eight-year-old boy in all of us is engaged by the prospect of blowing up things in the microwave, while the middle-aged parent no doubt appreciates the efficiency of the appliance (mere seconds until your enemies are reduced to goo). Such is the ambivalence of the sleekly modern kitchen. Does that microwave make cooking as easy as pressing a button? Will a Mix Master change your life? If you’re beset by little nattering Chinese demons, the answer to these questions just may be yes.

Like our own appetites, the demons are quite harmless when held in check, but dangerous once turned loose. Rules—broken as soon as possible—are created to keep the demons under control. Gizmo is the good child, always well behaved, but the other Gremlins are like greedy little brats, devouring everything in sight and always demanding more. If you’ve seen Dante’s Matinee—and you should, it’s excellent—you might recognize the crowd of Gremlins in the movie theatre throwing popcorn around, screaming and laughing. That same scene reappears in Matinee, but the monsters have now been replaced with children. Hard to say which version is more terrifying.

But the Gremlins aren’t just naughty children. The film uses them as all-purpose signifiers of mayhem. Problem with your car? Gremlins. Television signal fuzzy? Gremlins. There’s an anti-consumer rant going on here, but it’s not about how we’re too greedy—it’s about how what we consume is crap. This is the joke behind Billy’s father and all his ridiculous inventions. He’s essentially creating things that don’t work to fulfill needs no one has. His smokeless ashtray spews smoke thicker than a tire fire. His coffee machine spits out a hearty caffeinated gelatin. His juicer simply spits, period. Who asked for this garbage?

This applies to the Gremlins as well—they’re just as much useless gizmos as any of the other inventions, and like anything mass-produced, quality declines quickly. The first Gremlin, Gizmo, is a wonderful novelty. But the next batch is rowdier, less cute, and just not as good, frankly. The awful truth of advanced consumer society is that producing junk is better than producing quality, because junk encourages more consumption while quality satisfies demand (always a bad thing when your whole economy rests on producing more than you can ever need).

This is the dark side of Christmas giving— pointless novelties, dubious devices, all waiting for us as we begin to consume and consume around the clock. The season creates appetites not based in hunger but habit, demands without necessity. We ask for things not because we need or even want them, but because we’re expected to ask for things. And rising up to meet this useless demand is equally useless supply, an army of crap invading our cupboards and closets through hundreds of gift-wrapped Trojan horses.

My mother was very insistent that I tell her what I want for Christmas. I was hesitant—what if I don’t want anything? What if I’m satisfied with what I’ve got? Well, tough luck, because this woman is wrapping something so I damn well better tell her what it is. I suggested a blender, and now I can see that appliance’s whole life stretched out before me, from beneath the Christmas tree to the back of my cupboard to a dumpster years from now when I finally get sick of it taking up space. Imagine my horror upon re-watching Gremlins and seeing myself in it—not in earnest Billy, or mopey Kate, or even harmless Gizmo, but in those little green goblins, gnawing their way through life.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Furies

Few directors took so strongly to heart the mythical undertones of the western as Anthony Mann. His films are not nation-building legends (looking at you, John Ford), but tragic myths of cruelty and longing, more concerned with tearing apart individuals than building up communities. Sometimes they are the twilight of the gods (Man of the West), and other times tin-plated Passion plays (The Naked Spur), but they rarely explore a specifically American mythology. Dress up his characters in togas or robes, and the action could be transplanted two thousand years in the past without a hitch.

The Furies makes its connections to Greek lore fairly explicit—right there in the title, see—and it’s tempting to view the whole thing as a cattle-baron epic starring Zeus and Hera (if Zeus and Hera were a borderline incestuous father-daughter pair instead of bickering married couple, that is). Like Greek gods, T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston) and his daughter Vance (Barbara Stanwyck) seem to exist on a different plane than the mere mortals that serve as pawns in their games. Both glow with an inhuman will. It’s there when a wrecked T.C. asks his bride for money, and in the face of rejection still drinks a toast to her—and means it. It’s there when a heartbroken Vance cries about losing the only man who ever hit her, and you see that she makes no distinctions between violence and love.

Out on the plains of New Mexico in 1870, perhaps such distinctions are a hopeless luxury, better suited to well-heeled eastern types than gruff cattlemen (and women). T.C. has built up his ranch from nothing but blood, sweat and tears—just not necessarily his own. Vance preens for daddy like a little princess, but she’s perfectly willing to play rough as well. Seemingly just to irritate T.C., she courts the revenge-seeking son of one of her father’s victims, although it later occurs to her to fall in love with the man. She willfully defies her father whenever it suits her, which is about every five minutes.

These being intemperate folk, defiance can take some rather extravagant forms. T.C. threatens his daughter’s position on the farm by bringing home a Washington-bred fiancĂ©, a society dame given to genteel political maneuvering. When the wicked stepmother dares to come between daughter and daddy dearest, the fairytale turns more Grimm than Disney, and suddenly the baffled matron has a pair of scissors stuck in her face.

Understandably, T.C. is annoyed at the permanent disfiguration of his bride, but he’s also been blind to how Vance’s efforts are the only thing keeping the ranch afloat despite his profligate ways. The man has handed out so many IOUs they’ve become a currency in the county (all sporting an image of Vance, as if T.C. were slowly spending away his daughter’s love for him). One bad turn deserves another, so T.C. hangs Vance’s only friend, as well as the only decent man who ever loved her—a Mexican squatter named Juan who has survived on the land thanks only to Vance’s influence over her father.

The hanging is a thing of beauty, a shadow play lit only by a thin sliver of light between ground and sky (the film may not be a showcase for the masterful use of landscape that would mark Mann’s later westerns, but it’s a gorgeous example of western noir). The scene is pure theatre, clearly staged to humble Vance. But she refuses to give in, and sets about to destroying her father by yanking the ranch right out from under him.

Given how casually T.C. courts disaster, you start to think he wants his daughter to take away the ranch. He approaches each calamity with a weary shrug and a sigh, as if he were finally about to be crushed, but he always walks away with a skip and a grin—failure is the man’s greatest source of energy, apparently (Huston performs some masterful emotional sleight-of-hand in conveying these shifting moods). But the daughter is no less perverse, and she seems to understand on some level that to defy her father is to prove her love (she treats his dying wish like a private joke between the two, cheerfully ignoring it). In Vance, T.C. has very carefully crafted the engine of his defeat, and it may be his greatest triumph. What would have happened had he survived on the ranch? Poverty, decline, stagnation. There is no crueler fate for a god than to become a mere man.