Having not completed a Midnight Screening in a while, I decided to quadruple up this week with four films from Joe Dante, typically considered a modern master of B-movie gusto. I’ve chosen his less excavated films as a way to stave off the obvious choices.
After a short sabbatical in the realm of more overtly childlike whimsy with Innerspace, Joe Dante returned to his day job brokering a peace between manic comedy and subfuscous horror with 1989’s The ‘Burbs. Primarily remembered today as an early starring role for Tom Hanks, Dante’s film – his final unqualified success at the box office – is also the final film in his run of relatively straight-faced pop cinema. Come the turn of the ‘90s, Dante would pay more overt homage to the channel-surfing impudence of his youth with post-modern cinematic swindlers that would, artistic bravado aside, often leave audiences bamboozled as to how to approach Dante’s films. While Dante’s later films would dive into the non-narrative, youthful indiscretion clearly closer to his heart, the commercial success of The ‘Burbs was probably a factor of its relative stability and cohesion.
Which isn’t always to its benefit as a film. While Dante has mania in his soul, The ‘Burbs is actually relatively relaxed, exhibiting little of the effrontery circulation of tones and impulsive, incurable fixations that would undergird his later films, troublingly so in Gremlins 2: The New Batch before his reference-hemorrhaging mania would settle into its own groove with 1992’s underrated Matinee. Set within the ostensibly plain-clothes world of modern suburbia and tracking around the manicured lawns and day-glo narcissism of middle-America, The ‘Burbs settles in on Ray Peterson (Tom Hanks) who, along with his presumably retired militant neighbor Mark Rumsfield (Bruce Dern), becomes obsessively fixated on the thought that his new neighbors the Klopeks are murderers.
Somewhere in this liminal space between comedy and horror, Dante drives home his exploitation-fixation with his usually delectable directing. Obviously, this is no cash-in for him, but a passion project of sorts. The unchained camera scours the plastic forests of suburban grass with a gusto and a joie de vivre, growing more diabolical when it gleans something more overtly horrific as if by accident. Dante’s lively take on death-marked imagery even finds a home in the cinematography, with Robert M. Stevens spray-painting the film in a graininess and a primary-colored saturation that ably recalls the more outré world of exploitation cinema. One pan-in to Hanks, in particular, casts his buggy eyes and pale, baby-faced American visage in the most heretical, skeletal possible light, his eyes over-lit so that they appear to escape from his face and his head overcast in a gruesome pallor of harsh-contrast dusky light.
The voluminous spontaneity of the camera is, unfortunately, not matched by a conceptual anarchy or a delirious stylistic affair with constant tonal motion. Dante in his later or earlier period might have mutated the black comic balance into a torrid, swirling descent into mood imbalance a la Evil Dead II, but he settles instead for a relatively restrained effort whose pleasures are, if undeniable, relatively minor. Compared even to the previous year’s raging psychopath Beetlejuice from Tim Burton, Dante’s film feels downright domesticated, which, for a film exclusively about the hallowed hell of domesticated life, just ain’t right.
The final nail in the coffin – a screwy double-twist ending that sabotages the entire bite of the film’s critical suburban-nightmare – feels like a depressive concession to the film’s mainstream audience, the sort of thing a more devious version of Dante never would have given the okay to. The actors do what they can – Hanks navigates the brackish waters between passive everyman and ghoulish savage, and Bruce Dern is wonderful in the film’s most gleefully unhinged turn – but they’re like fish in an aquarium, imprisoned within the casket of screenwriter Dana Olsen aiming for a sort of middlebrow populism that doesn’t afford enough room to abscond with common sense or energize the film in a bout of genuine absurdity. It’s an acceptable comic satire of middlebrow America and its implacable need to find something, anything, to enlighten the boredom of their everyday ennui, but sometimes it seems to be playing to the very audience it ought to be sabotaging. Fine though it may be, The ‘Burbs is too content to dig its feet in to a relatively stable style of suburban filmmaking when it ought to be kicking up dirt and destroying mainstream cinema’s lawn.
After The New Batch was released with palpable disinterest, if not hostility, on Dante’s part, the director made the decision to kindle his more personal interests with an ode to the bravado and ostensibly-microwaved but actually-deeply-felt showmanship of his forebears, most notably William Castle. A man after Dante’s own heart, Castle had a killer instinct for infernal taunts and the ecstasy of the cinema at its most public and communal, turning ostensibly trivial flights of fancy into devious suggestions, and weaponizations, or society’s nascent fears and anxieties. Matinee is the story of a pseudo-Castle named Lawrence Woolsey (played by John Goodman in the role he was probably born to play) and his trip to the coastal town of Key West, Florida to premier his new film Mant!. It’s also an inspired, gee-shucks paean to the value of cinema at its most populist. If it broadcasts its infatuation a little too loudly and broadly (broadness always being Dante’s albatross post-Howling), well, playing to the rafters is how Lawrence Woolsey would have wanted it.
Although Matinee doesn’t avoid the morally-questionable hucksterism of Castle’s particular brand of cinema (with Woolsey at one point staging a protest to attract attention to his film), it doesn’t trounce all over this form of carnival-barking publicity. Depicted by Goodman as a genius of propaganda with a generally affable appetite for his own success, Woolsey isn’t tricking the public so much as extending the personalized pseudo-fiction of the cinema screen out into the more physical world with his own gallant, fictionalized speeches. In Matinee, fiction and fact bleed together in spirited, if a little labored, ways that lack the free-associative panache of Dante’s other films but nonetheless deserve points for sheer passion; like a Woolsey production, Matinee has little interest in coursing through the sands of subtlety. This is an obvious production, and it’s proud to be obvious.
And, largely because it marinates its naïve nature in a long-missing cinematic innocence, Matinee off-handedly manages to transform treacle, sentimentality, and overbearing moralizing into a form of self-aware aesthetic. The film-within-a-film Mant! is vastly too broad to be mistaken for a legitimate atomic-age delight (although the promos for Mant! starring Woolsey as a Castle-or-Hitchcock fable-weaver are delectable). But this only allows Dante to cunningly sneak Matinee, itself, into the theater as a ‘60s-styled exercise in melodrama, casting this more overt form of grandstanding cinematic emotion as a lighthouse searching for the heart that had long been set adrift in the murky swamp of the world. Nicholas Ray, the greatest proprietor of melodrama that served as the architecture of a collective cinematic dream world, would have to tip his hat. Matinee itself, not Mant!, is the film that owes its heart-on-its-sleeve spirit to the endlessly awe-struck world of cinema in the early ‘60s.
The film also deserves credit for upturning narrative convention in a second-half that palpably delights in tangentially pursing various happenings around the Mant! premiere, resting and excavating new nooks and crannies of the theater rather than eschewing these spaces in a hurtling rush toward a prepackaged conclusion (as most films would have). This allows Dante the liberating freedom to explore the space of the theater as a playground for fear, desire, hope, and devastation. He also gets to imbibe in a nearly incalculable array of tilted, Dutch angles here, the likes of which hadn’t been seen in nearly three decades (but which would stage a ridiculous second-act reunion tour in the back-half of the ‘90s, culminating in the mystifying Battlefield Earth). Tilting the camera like this is hardly the most stylistically audacious gesture, but then Matinee is an ode to stylistically questionable films that succeeded on the shoulders of their own self-driven make-a-buck insouciance rather than because they really knew what they were doing.
Matinee is a little too conventional, with an A (or B) plot encircling a boy and his relationship with Woolsey that sweetly explores the notion of director-as-public-father-figure but never does much with this trend. But, flaws aside, it never devours itself with the winking post-modernism that has subsumed cinema’s earnestness in a cloud of drunken irony. Instead, Matinee’s brand of post-modernism is, if anything, glad to be lame, obvious, and old-school. The film’s heart is in the right place, and amidst the sea of thieves that is cynical corporate cinema in the modern era, it has the gall to propose that heart is at a premium. Maybe, it ponders, the sleeve is a better place for the heart than hidden under your shirt and locked within the skeletal vise of your ribs.
As an ode to the inherently cinematic nature of fear of the unknown, Matinee investigates the self-propagating myths that latched onto not only film but the human mind, running amok with innocence until worrying became a canvas upon which social fears ran wild. In cinema, if nothing else, people like Lawrence Woolsey found an avenue to literalize the spidery prism of unknown fear into the more corporeal, explainable model of a man-turned-ant. In Dante’s film, this gesture was fundamentally a kind-hearted one, not the devious shuck-and-jive it initially seems to be; giving the public an ant to be frightened of ultimately saved them from their more nebulous nightmares. In Matinee, the theater is where the heart is.
Small Soldiers, one of Joe Dante’s later-period commercial misfortunes, was yet another alternately dexterous and lead-footed social commentary from a director whose clout with audiences was, apparently, quickly wringing itself dry. Which is a shame, for this more concussive version of Dante’s cinema-as-toy lexicon at least manages two things mostly unbeknownst to the tentpole-cinema world: a wry, wringing sense of social subterfuge and a devilish skill at spontaneous social chaos. Especially in light of the release of Saving Private Ryan by Steven Spielberg (Dante’s de facto mentor and the Virgil to Dante’s, well, Dante) not a few weeks afterward, Small Soldiers retains the sense of exuberant mischievousness that Spielberg long ago lost upon selling his soul to the devil in exchange for “serious” status at the cinema. Fortunately, while Spielberg was courting godliness, Joe Dante was still delighted to tour the more distorted realm of hell; Dante would rather be the devil than make a deal with him.
While Ryan programmatically shifted between war-sermonizing and war-demonizing and ultimately became war-trivializing, Small Soldiers at least preaches its war-as-commercial theme (vastly more provocative than Spielberg’s war-as-hell one that inadvertently became a commercial) with a smirk rather than scowl. This tale of two rival toy factions (the militant, imperialist, macho Commando Elite and the Gorgonites, peaceful misunderstood monsters after Dante’s own heart) is simple, overly broad, and less wittily rambunctious than Gremlins, but the fable-like tone is never less than amusing. My devil refrains probably are overstated; Gremlins was a devil. Small Soldiers is more of an imp, but as Gremlins itself proved, even an imp can lash out when you’re least expecting it.
Take the cunning but not malicious voice talent, with the Commandos voiced primarily by weary, weathered actors who once occupied The Dirty Dozen (their aged demeanors oddly sell the notion of mindless submission to war-mongering until it takes your youth from you). The Gorgonites bear the wily, crazed anxieties of the Spinal Tap crew who voraciously marry cartoon-zest to a quiet longing for freedom and relaxation. Certainly, they’re all more effective than wet-blanket live-action star Gregory Smith, although a young Kirsten Dunst is more effective as a romantic interest with a rebellious edge.
Small Soldiers plainly aspires to be something of a disfigured rapscallion like the Gorgonites themselves, although when it all devolves into a suburban wartime sandbox toward the end, it uneasily perches it somewhere between that aim and the more carnivorous, corporate bombast of the Commandos themselves. The satire of the toy industry is muted relative to the ideal version of itself, but the occasional invective hits, as does the spinal-severing directing on Dante’s part that evokes and skewers the gluttonous over-indulgence with which most American war moves are filmed. The expressive fluidity of the toys themselves, an amalgam of Rick Baker’s effects and CGI, also invoke the heart of the conceptually-similar Toy Story, twisted into devious oblivion here.
A sublime little mini-movie horror-show involving disfigured, disgruntled Barbie-parodies and a girl disrupting the forced gender-stereotyping of her toys is the best moment, and would that the whole film achieved that high level of thorniness. It reflects Dante’s more vested interest in sequences than whole films (something that would flower fully in his edifying, underrated final failed-blockbuster five years later). There’s a valid claim of messiness somewhere here, but remember that Dante’s brand of messiness is more inspired and self-reflexive than the stultifying Saving Private Ryan ever could be.
Looney Tunes: Back in Action
Finally, Joe Dante’s tentative, torrid affair with the movie-going public and the box-office erupted in his first outright box-office flop, resulting in Dante’s divorce with the mainstream cinematic world. Trapped in development after the gargantuan success of the antiseptic, trivial gloss-over that was Space Jam, Back in Action somehow failed to break even commercially upon release. Perhaps Michael Jordan was the Midas touch for that not-so-venerable mid-‘90s exercise in corporate multi-tasking, despite Jordan’s cringe-inducing performance in a film that only intermittently enlivened itself beyond torpor. Trying to append the Looney Tunes’ incurable brand of free-associative anarchy and wily spontaneity to a relatively straight-laced sports narrative was definitionally a miscalculation. Which is why, long-vested in the not-wrapped-so-tight nature of animated anarchy, Joe Dante valiantly decided not to trespass on linear narrative and instead to fully embrace the moral panic and the pandemonium of the Looney Tunes at their most ribald and riotous.
In other words, Back in Action is legitimately good, but its clearly-infatuated-with-itself deluge of whimsical non-sequiturs and anti-narrative restlessness is vastly less sedate and sedentary than Space Jam, and thus less capable of resting its case as an easy film to digest. Delectably indulging in madcap lunacy and gamely slathering the screen in idiosyncratic, garish colors, Dante’s Back in Action is implacably oblong and distorted along lines that the Termite Terrace crowd might have appreciated in the ‘30s when dreaming up Looney Tunes to begin with. A deviously clever little exercise in mixing and matching styles when Bugs, Daffy, and Elmer Fudd race through paintings by Munch, Dali, Seurat, and Toulosuse-Lautrec is the obvious highlight, but the scene also suggests the wider film’s willingness to fantasize and exhale copious abstractions that refuse the narrative simplicity its corporate masters might have promoted.
Winkingly finding Dante at his most spirited and rambunctious, the kaleidoscopic camera clearly intimates the director’s lively joie de vivre at paying homage to not only his childhood heroes like Chuck Jones and Tex Avery but the unholy entropy of the Marx Brothers at their most libidinous and devilish. Using human hero Brendan Fraser as the stunted, meaty beefcake he is, Dante vertiginously pummels him and douses him in the kindling fire of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck at their most open-ended and manic. Even better, the film tacitly pays tribute to the melding of high-art and low-brow that was Warner Bros. animation at its most unique. In an oddly touching, off-hand way, it also silently suggests the essential dialectic of Bugs and Daffy as polar opposites who nonetheless flock to each other because they, in their gallant indiscretion and slippery malleability, feel kinship in a world that, for Bugs, is a weight to press on to others, and for Daffy, is an anvil always resting just overhead.
Fittingly, the whole spirit of the film is both daffy and buggy, morphing its failure to crystallize around a central narrative into a prism that refracts the essentially uncontainable nature of the Looney Tunes themselves: narrative, with all its tendentious logic, cannot contain these carnal forces of havoc and bedlam. Dante wisely plays up (or is that down?) to the Looney Tunes, rather than trying to rein them in to the middle. Although it fails to match the pugnacious highs of Robert Zemeckis’ indomitable Who Framed Roger Rabbit (clearly the model here, rather than the sleepy Space Jam), Back in Action replicates Rabbit’s precarious existence at the intersection of capricious chance and glowing, divine energy. Like that film, Back in Action manages to turn cotton-candy inanity into a genuinely vivid art installation.