Monday, December 13, 2010

Gremlins


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.

2 comments:

Dave said...

Great review and explanation of why Christmas is hell for so many people. Next year, don't ask for THINGS ask for events. My mom never wants new stuff, so I send her to an opera every year.

Joe Wet Cow said...

Dave! Thanks for stopping by. I like your point about asking for events. There's a limit to the amount of junk I can tolerate in my life, but one can never have enough experiences. I might have to try that next time.