Thursday, 8 May 2014

Dom's Top Eleven Favourite Directors of film : Part Four

Joe Dante

As I scan across the last eight directors one thing becomes abundantly clear to me : I like self aware film makers.

As a writer and director myself ( albeit almost entirely stage based ), I can see that my own body of work and in particular the themes I explore and the style I attempt are of a very similar ideal. I write very self-aware pieces, not quite parodic but pieces that are not only quite willing to admit that what the audience is watching is not real, is in fact an entertainment put on by a group of often self-obsessed artists, but often willfully focuses their attention to that very fact. Not quite winking, but certainly twitching ever so slightly.

It's no surprise to me then, that the films I am most attracted to contain similar audience twitching, and none of these twitches are more evident than in the films of Joe Dante.

Dante made his somewhat inauspicious debut with the “Jaws” parody, “Piranha.” This was a Roger Corman cheapie that somewhat transcended it's origins by virtue of a very straight self-awareness. It was a rip-off ( as opposed to a parody ) of Spielberg's fish-film, and in fact adopted a very similar approach to that movie as James “Piranha 2” Cameron did with his only masterpiece, “Aliens.” That is to say, more of the same only, you know, more!

“Piranha” is not a good movie, nor is it particularly well-made but it set the stall out for Dante's particular style of movie-making. Somewhat similar to “American Werewolf in London” director John Landis, he recognised the absurdity inherent in the movies he was making while approaching them quite seriously. As with that classic werewolf movie, this resulted – certainly in his early works such as his own werewolf chiller “The Howling” - in horror movies that scared, yet had the wit to make you laugh alongside the chills.

Dante never quite came out and spoofed his influences, but there was always an element of anarchic parody/homage at work. Rather than have his characters wink to the audience, they were never in on the joke, often played the drama straight. ( It should be noted that he has done a lot of TV work over his career, including genuine ( and genuinely funny ) spoof show “Police Squad,” another piece of work that kept the characters admirably straight within the spoof framework, again meaning it was only ever the audience who seemed to be in on the joke. )

Dante's biggest, and it could be concluded most popular film, remains “Gremlins.” Written by Harry Potter director/producer ( and “Home Alone” director ) Chris Columbus, “Gremlins” is a twisted, dark little tale, technically a horror movie but one with a grimy sense of humour, aware of it's own absurdity even as it digs in to scare you. What Dante brought to this film was the clarity to understand that horror and humour can work together in one movie ( it's not for nothing that Dante cameos in several John Landis movies ), but he also brought a little impish sense of mischief to proceedings too. While the film plays “straight” for the audience, at least until all hell breaks loose, there is a feeling that Dante in some ways identifies with the Gremlins themselves as opposed to the cutesy ( and brilliantly realised ) Mogwai or even the human protagonists.

He often puts the audience to the test, and there are so many background gags throughout this movie that it's worth only pointing out one, the time machine gag, and then demanding that you go back and watch the films again to find the rest. It's worth it.

Dante proves entirely in sync with both the writer's technophobic sense of righteous anarchy ( it may seem trite now but Columbus slyly targets small-town politics and class within the film, from the struggling, techicially blue-collar protagonists, to the bankers and miserable money lenders ( the film is set at Christmas, and one can see both Dante and Columbus nodding to and homaging other popular Christmas classics throughout, both subtly and with the occasional sledgehammer ) causing misery within the town ) and with producer Stephen Spielberg's evident delight at trashing his own far more whimsical small town and suburban sensibilities.

With “Gremlins” and “The Howling” before it, Dante also showed a great skill with incorporating special effects both practical and optical into his films, something he continued to practice throughout his career.

It has been noted on the IMDB that Spielberg originally wanted Tim Burton to direct Gremlins. One can only shudder at the thought of that faux-Gothic fan of concentric circles and pantomime would have brought to this film – one thing I am positive that would have disappeared is Joe Dante's spirit and sense of joy, of fun.

Of course the success of “Gremlins” would ultimately lead to a very belated sequel, but before Dante could dig into what could be classed as his most “Joe Dante” movie yet, he had the opportunity to make a couple of extraordinary sci-fi movies in “The Explorers” and the excellent “Innerspace,” a film which once again showed off his skill at incorporating comedy into a larger, straighter genre piece, as an over-the-hill pilot is miniaturised and accidentally injected into the body of a neurotic hypochondriac. The pairing of a deadpan and charming Dennis Quaid with the manic off-the-wall volume of Martin Short was inspired, and despite almost never sharing the screen, Dante managed to create an incredible chemistry between the two. It helps that when Martin Short is reacting in-character onscreen, he was reacting to lines fed to him offscreen by Quaid.

My own personal favourite of Joe Dante's movies, and the one which introduced me to him, is the often under-rated Tom Hanks vehicle “The 'Burbs.” This is technically a black comedy, though gentler than that title might imply. Essentially a broad satire focussing on a small, male section of a typically American cul-de-sac community and their increasingly bizarre behaviour as they cope with self-perpetuating paranoia about Tom Hanks' new neighbours, what really keeps this film moving is Dante and writer Dana Olsen's sly eye for the oddity of suburban obsessions and mores.

Focussing entirely on Tom Hanks and his two partners in crime, Rick Duckomon and the brilliantly straight sociopath Bruce Dern as they discuss their generally unseen new neighbours the Klopeks as though they they are discussing horror stories around the camp-fire, the film slowly coils into a sharply satirical swipe at the “average American” ( each character represents a particular American trope, from Hanks as the straight family man, through Duccomon's fat, wife-hating slob, and into Dern's paranoid and still-at-war ex-Nam veteran ) and their response to a possibly “alien” infestation. It's not for nothing that the Klopeks are foreigners

Taking a swipe at Spielbergian suburban terrors such as “Poltergeist” and whimsy's such as “E.T.” the film presents itself as a suburban horror movie, even as – befitting a strangely family oriented comedy – the horror never really shows itself outside the characters own paranoia.

As with all Dante movies there is a fine line in “The 'Burbs” between satire, homage, and parody and not all of it lands comfortably, in particular in it's straight up wacky comedy or slapstick sequences. More at ease with satire and homage, judging his in-jokes carefully to add to the impact of the movie, Dante shoots the film in a slightly hyper-real manner that rarely seems out of place, and shows an instinctive understanding of the main thrust of the script, that is no matter how odd these people seem as outsiders, it is really the insiders who are perpetuating the “crazy.”

A wonderful moment early in the film has Tom Hanks and Rick Duckomon petulantly daring each other to ring their neighbour's doorbell, only to have one of the Klopeks appear at the door to pick up a newspaper from the step. Dante instantly switches viewpoints to show the suburban insanity from this young man's point of view; the equivalent of stepping into the wrong bar and having its patrons stop what they're doing and stare at you. This is followed by what may just be my favourite scene in cinema.

 Note the use of Ennio Morricone's "My Name is Nobody" choonage here; pitch perfect. As with most of his films, "The 'Burbs" is scored by the peerless Jerry Goldsmith, who's incidental music can be heard tinkling around the edges of the above scene.

What works wonderfully about this film is the way in which it presents itself as a straight comedy-horror while taking time – in particular through a secondary character portrayed by a strikingly confident and it has to be said attractive teenaged Corey Feldman, who spends his time watching the events unfold as though watching a movie – to quietly comment to the audience that while they may be watching a film, this could just as easily be us the characters are talking about.

Unfortunately, due to being both a smart and genuinely good film, “The 'Burbs” flopped and has been Dante's poorest reviewed film yet ( despite having “Loony Toons Back in Action” at the arse end of his resume ).

As a result, Dante was finally convinced to tackle the “Gremlins” sequel. With one caveat – he did not merely want to retread old roads with this sequel. He wanted to deconstruct it completely and create an anarchic comedy that acted as it's own Gremlin, that tore itself and the original apart and created a commentary on everything from sequels in general and horror movies in particular, to the absurdity of technophobia being the main theme in a movie entirely created from technology, and even on the failings of the original “Gremlins” itself.

“The New Batch” probably can't be called a good film in the traditional sense, but it's a whole helluva lot of anarchic, bitchy fun and though doesn't quite have the mean-spirited satire of the original, certainly makes up for it in kitchen-sink humour.

Dante's career has kind of fizzled slightly, partly down to audiences moving on from the self-aware and film-savvy style he traded in, and partly down to the fact that he's now getting on in years.

He made two particularly notable movies in the nineties – the first is a brilliant, and wonderfully personal cold-war set satire and love-letter to a more innocent time, “Matinee.” And the second was “Loony Toons Back in Action.”

Please don't judge him on one movie alone.

Best Dante movie : “The 'Burbs”

Worst Dante movie : take one – fucking – guess.

Stanley Kubrick

There's been so much written about the late Stanley Kubrick by now that it's hardly worth weighing into the matter. He has been described as a genius, despite everyone hating his last movie “Eyes Wide Shut.”

He has been called enigmatic and reclusive, impossible to read. But almost of all of his films are in some way about a self-destructively obsessive male artist's interactions with the people around him. Not too hard to read into that.

He has been described as a cold film maker, yet it is his clinically surgical style which has allowed him to explore humanity in such a personal way. He has viciously satirised : pedohellia, war, violence, media, genre, and corruption.

He has been lampooned for his excessive number of “takes” per film. But almost to a tee, every actor he has worked with has given at least one of their best performances, if not their best. And his films are visually incredible. Perfection has it's price.

He could be notoriously priggish and dismissive of writers. That was their problem. His films speak for themselves.

He probably didn't have a very good sense of humour, but he found “Red Alert” - a serious thriller set around the cold-war – funny enough to turn into “Dr Strangelove.”

His female characters tend to be underwritten. But then they tend to be incredibly rounded in performance.

He should have made more movies with Peter Sellars but both of them were arrogant pricks.

He should have gotten to make more movies but he died leaving a back catalogue of some of the most interesting, barbed, angry, and intelligently made movies in American history.

Everyone tries make films just like him even if they won't admit it to themselves. Except Spielberg, and despite what you may think of the hideously awful “collaboration” between Berg and Brick, “AI” his is surprisingly close to Kubrick's vision for the movie. It's just that it's shit.

“Lolita” is too long. Whichever way you look at it, “2001 A Space Odyssey” is pretentious, soul-less, and just kind of boring. Despite it's prescient themes and discussion of violence, “A Clockwork Orange” is kitsch, dated, and when you stop and think about it, just kind of wrong about the future it was presenting. Most of his films don't have a middle act. Too many people obsess about the meanings behind films that very clearly spell their meanings out. His films are conlfictingly cynical and whimsical. He once made Scatman Crothers cry. No one should make Scatman Crothers cry. As crimes go, making Scatman Crothers cry is up there with rape.

Though he didn't rape anyone.

He pissed off Stephen King. That's a reward right there.

So that's it, really. His films were usually deep, penetrating stares at society and culture. He took his time making movies and although he could probably be accused of making the same movie once too often, there's not one ( with the exception of “2001” ) that I would not sit down and watch in a heart-beat.

As to “Eyes Wide Shut,” his last movie. It's a shame he died before he could properly defend it. I think it's a beautiful piece of art, with a very sly sense of humour, an enigmatically dreamlike quality to it, and one which has a brilliantly clever punchline/payoff.

Best Kubrick movie : hard to say, his films are all genre pieces so I'm going to flick between “Full Metal Jacket” and “The Shining.”

Worst Kubrick movie : “2001 : A Space Yawnathon”

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