Sunday, May 16, 2010

Thoughts on Joe Dante: Matinee and more

Truth be known, I've never been a huge Joe Dante fan. Though I have only seen a few of his films, and many of those not for some time, I made a point - when I read Jonathan Rosenbaum's praises of it - to check out Small Soldiers, which Rosenbaum describes as a savage, sly and subversive satire of the military. It may be that, but it seemed more like a histrionic "junior Spielberg" slapstick action comedy loaded with genre in-jokes, to me; I found it kind of grating, and it didn't move me to check out the rest of his cinema. When I briefly interviewed Dante about his shot-in-Vancouver "zombies-vs-Republicans" Masters Of Horror provocation The Homecoming - back before I knew what I was doing as a writer, so that the review actually saw print after the Vancouver screening of the movie - I kinda ended up giving him bemused shit for not having zombies disembowel and eat then-president George W. Bush, a payoff I had taken as a given. (I'll post that article below, since it's never been online in its full version).

While I'm most curious about Dante's upcoming 3-D film The Hole, also shot here, and hope it gets decent representation theatrically, the real news this week is that Dante's 1993 film Matinee, starring John Goodman, has just gotten release on DVD. This, too, is mixed news - but not because the film is anything less than a masterpiece. What Small Soldiers didn't do to make me want to check out all the rest of Joe Dante's films may well have been done last night, by Matinee. It's a brilliantly conceived and presented piece of Cold War metacinema starring John Goodman as a William Castle figure, rigging a theatre to give extra shocks and surprises to a young audience of horror fans come to see a sold-out screening of his film mANT! - about an ordinary guy turned radioactive giant "man-ant" mutant. The action of the film takes place during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which Dante uses to give exploration to the relationship between real-world fears and the role of horror cinema in helping us process them. The film is also one of the most honest and likable representations of young people that I've encountered - usually American genre movies dealing with high schoolers end up getting things very, very wrong, emphasizing sex and drugs and cynicism; Dante is much, much better at depicting his characters as real people with real emotions and a certain innocence as to how they express them - something I rather remember being an aspect of Gremlins, too.

The bad news, alas, is that, as good as it is, Matinee has been given a completely indifferent presentation by Universal, who ignored Dante's wealth of possible extras - including a complete version of the film-within-a-film, mANT!, which previously appeared on the Laserdisc. This is gone into at some length by DVD Savant's Glenn Erickson, in an interview with Dante online. (Erickson also reviews Matinee here, for those who want to know more about the film).

This absence of extras is sad news indeed, and probably bodes ill for all upcoming DVD releases - as distributors get more and more excited by Blu-Ray, any movies NOT yet on DVD are likely to be given short-shrift and pumped out without commentaries or extras of any sort. In the case of the Matinee, which certain cinephiles have been waiting a long time for, this really does seem a shame. Before I'd seen the film, I was rather skeptical to read in the interview Dante's hope that the film might be released by Criterion - it seemed an unlikely match - but in fact, it would be a very, very good thing for Criterion to do: this is a film every cinephile should look at, and worthy of a far more respectful treatment.

Meantime, for the first time ever appearance of my Joe Dante article, which ran in a mangled version in The Nerve Magazine, missing the last sentence (my Shakespeare-meets-zombies joke, years before Pride and Prejucide and Zombies started that particular highbrow/lowbrow literary mashup trend) and with a caption that many found in horrible taste.

...and now I think I'll go rent Gremlins...

Guts, but No Intestines:
Joe Dante’s Homecoming

I was drooling to see Joe Dante’s Homecoming. Soldiers killed in Iraq and shipped home in coffins break free and rise up against neoconservatives and the religious right? From the minute I heard about it, I was hot to see George Bush, Ann Coulter, and Jerry Falwell, all of whom are lampooned in the movie, disembowelled and eaten by war dead. I figured that both the inner logic of the genre and a powerful need for cathartic, bloody justice among liberal viewers made such scenes necessary; and what better fate for Bush than to have his intestines ripped out and chewed on by undead veterans, perhaps while he gurgles “stay the course?” Imagine my surprise, then, when viewing the film at the Vancity Theater, to discover that there isn’t a single intestine on view, and that Bush and Falwell escape uneaten! (Ann Coulter does get shot in the back of the head, but even there – you don’t get to see her brains). It seemed a shortcoming, and I had to ask Joe Dante about it. He chuckled.

“I don’t think that having the president dismembered is really what we’re looking for, here. It’s not about hanging people from trees, as much as it often is on the other side; it’s a sort of wake up call… It’s such an obvious polemical movie that a lot more time is spent on politics than on horror, and of course that’s been a bone of contention with a lot of horror fans, because they go, you know, ‘if you got a message, send Western Union’… but that’s part of the appeal of Masters of Horror, to me – you’ve got 13 episodes, 13 different directors, and people have different things on their minds.”

All the same, the reader might wonder, what do the zombies in Homecoming do, if not kill and eat people? True to the pre-9/11 short story on which the film is based, “Death and Suffrage,” by horror writer Dale Bailey – which takes gun control as its issue, since the second Iraq war was only a neoconservative/PNAC fantasy at that point – the zombies come back to vote. The year is 2008 and the decomposing vets pose a problem for politicians; at first, when it’s assumed they’ll vote Republican, they’re hailed as heroes, but when it’s discovered that they intend to vote against the incumbent, they’re herded into pens as a public health threat. (It’s one of the nice touches of the film that the zombies are forced to wear Gitmo-style orange jumpsuits). The problem is that the only way to kill them is to let them cast their ballots, and more keep arriving from Iraq every day. Finally, the government has to let the dead have their say – since, being Republicans, they don’t intend to count the ballots anyhow.

The lack of gore might confuse some viewers, but for Dante, the only truly puzzling thing about Homecoming is that it stands alone as the only movie thus far – documentaries aside – to directly deal with the Iraq war and its effects. ”I mean, don’t you think it’s a little odd that the only dramatic examination we’ve had of this thing is a zombie movie? That a fucking b-movie is the only thing anybody’s done about an issue that’s killed 2000 Americans and untold numbers of Iraqis? …The media has been so complicit in getting us to where we are that, when I took the film to Europe, they were shocked that America would make a film like this. There was, like, a five minute standing ovation – not because they thought the movie was so great. I think they’re just relieved that there are some people in the industry in America who haven’t drunk the Kool Aid... That’s one of the reasons it’s not subtle. There’s no reason to be subtle if the only movie anybody’s going to make about the subject is this one – then you might as well just go for it.”

”Death and Suffrage” author Bailey was happy to see his material adapted thus, by screenwriter Sam Hamm and Dante. “I'm no supporter of G. W. Bush or his disastrous foreign policy. I didn't have any input, though, on how the story was altered. I wouldn't have objected, though. It's nice to know somebody is willing to take a stand on this stuff! …I really liked the scene with the zombie in the diner – I think it's the best scene in the film, because it really highlights the sacrifices families who have loved ones in the service are making. I totally disagree with the war in Iraq, but I respect the soldiers on the ground enormously, and I didn't want the episode to make light of their sacrifice, so that scene really worked in that way, I thought.” The scene, in which a couple who have a son in Iraq welcome an undead soldier into their shop, at some cost to their business, has no parallel in the story and may bring a tear to the eye of sentimental zombie fans.

Dante acknowledges that the success of Syriana and Good Night and Good Luck – and, indeed, of Homecoming – are signs of “some receptiveness” to left-of centre views, “but it’s hardly a groundswell, like in the 1970’s, when there were a lot of pictures made that criticized the war.” Given the “bungling incompetence” of the current administration, the lack of an outcry in the mainstream media is deeply disturbing. “Forget about the ideology and forget about their plan to remake the world in their own image; the sheer stupidity with which they’ve conducted themselves is enough reason for them to be impeached.” They would be, too, Dante believes, without “the prop of corporate media.”

Here in Canada, where it’s more or less publicly acceptable to speak of Bush as a war criminal, to express bewilderment that nobody has assassinated him yet, and to step on his effigy on TV, it may be difficult to comprehend this, but to make a film like Homecoming in the United States right now takes guts. “There’s people who hate me. I’m a traitor, I should be hung up from a tree. You know, it’s a free country, up to now, and if that’s their opinion, they’re entitled to it, but I’ve already lost one job because of Homecoming. I can’t tell you the specifics, but I can tell you that I was up for something and I foolishly gave them a copy as an example of something I’ve been doing, and the guy who was running the place turned out to be quite a Republican. It was not the right move on my part…” Negative reviews online speak of Homecoming as a “disgusting piece of partisan propaganda,” which only makes things seem stranger, since to my eyes, however on-target it is as satire, it’s pretty mild compared to what I’d imagined.

Like other episodes in the Masters of Horror series, currently showing on Showtime in the USA, Homecoming was shot on a shoestring budget in Vancouver during last year’s teacher’s strike. There are a few local cues – Terry David Mulligan plays a Larry-King style talk show host who fawns over his right-wing guests and reads their own press announcements back to them, and Queer as Folk star and Victoria resident, Thea Gill, plays the Ann Coulter character (Dante notes that “ours is better looking;” amusingly, Coulter is depicted as having a taste for kinky sex, which somehow fits). Those of you who missed the series at the Vancity Theatre will be able to catch it as part of a box set DVD release sometime in the upcoming year, from Anchor Bay.

Even though he hasn’t made a horror film proper since 1981’s The Howling (scripted by liberal favourite John Sayles, who also penned Dante’s 1978 Piranha), Dante remains fond of the horror genre. “In times of paranoia and times of turbulence, horror movies have always been very popular, for example, during the 1930s and 40s, or during the cold war. I mean, if you want to look at societies and see what they’re thinking, look back at their horror movies. It shows you what’s going on politically.”

Here’s my vote, then, Joe: make a sequel to Homecoming and do justice to the genre. It’s not too late: have the White House itself surrounded by walking corpses, as the President, family, and staff nail tables and planks to the windows. I even have a title for it: Homecoming II: Dogtags of the Dead.

We need to see Bush eaten, Joe. It’s a consummation devoutly to be wished.

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