Film As a Subversive Mass Art: Joe Dante at BAM

matinee-joe dante

Joe Dante at the Movies
August 5-24 at BAM

It makes perfect sense for a Joe Dante retrospective to consist of the films he loves as well as the ones he made. Which is what BAMcinematék has decided to do to honor and celebrate one of the undisputed masters of contemporary American cinema. Joe Dante belongs to that pre-Tarantino generation whose love and critical understanding of cinema not only animated their careers as filmmakers but was embodied in their films. As the title of his first directorial effort suggests, Dante’s engagement with the Seventh Art has always been of a very libidinal kind. The seven hours of The Movie Orgy (1968) are a montage of sleazy attractions that are equally indebted to the popular culture of 50s America as they are to the editing philosophy of Sergei Eisenstein. Curiously, the cutting room is where the director of Gremlins would cut his teeth, working for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. What the Cormanian Factory presumably taught him, besides the craft, is that commercial cinema doesn’t necessarily equal dumb movies and that there is always room for critical thought, even at the box office. Dante’s meta-cinematographic awareness is already evident in his narrative feature debut Hollywood Boulevard (1976), co-directed with Allan Arkush, an astute satire in which the director does to the B-movie industry what Billy Wilder had done to classical Hollywood in Sunset Boulevard. Dante’s vision of cinema, in fact, owes a great deal to wave of European refugees who had invaded Hollywood in the 30s and 40s—people like Edgar G. Ulmer whose The Black Cat (1934) is included in BAM’s program. Echoes of German expressionism can be found in The Hole (2009) or even in his segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983).

Another pillar of Dante’s cinematic education was the science fiction of the 50s and its dissident offshoots like The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), which instead of blindly subscribing to the Cold War paranoia of the time, posed more universal questions regarding the finitude of mankind, and its very limited powers (quite a statement in the light of a feared nuclear Armageddon). The creature features that had populated his childhood’s matinees morphed into the anti-militaristic parable of Piranha (produced in 1978 by his mentor Roger Corman), wherein Dante confronts American audiences and bathers alike with the monsters lurking under the seemingly calm surface of society. When the eponymous killer fish is released into the waters of a summer resort, holidaymakers are suddenly turned into snacks our heroine (Heather Menzies) investigates the mystery. Her quest for the truth will lead to a shady lab where genetic experiments are carried out. One of the subtlest and most radical film about the Vietnam War, Piranha remains to this day one of Dante’s greatest creations, and along with Homecoming (2005), a most lucid examination of the domestic repercussions of wars waged in faraway lands. Whereas Spielberg’s Jaws celebrated the conciliatory safety only the white middle class patriarch can grant, in Piranha Dante’s camera hovers over the moral whirlpool into which American values are being sucked. Dante and Spielberg’s cinema is antithetical as it is complementary: not only have they stomped on similar grounds, both aesthetic and narrative, but their careers have also intersected in significant ways. After co-directing the Twilight Zone omnibus with Dante, John Landis and George Miller, Spielberg also executive-produced Dante’s biggest commercial success, the film he’s mostly associated with, Gremlins (1984). Turning a commodity of industrial Christianity, the Xmas movie, into an anti-consumerist satire without losing popular appeal was not an easy thing to pull off. But that is precisely what Dante’s greatest hit is: a sly take on that insatiable thirst for consumer goods Jesus Christ’s birthday triggers year after year.

Interestingly enough, the final, audience-friendly shape of the gremlin Gizmo was suggested to the director by Spielberg himself, whose flair for palatable creatures may have contributed in no minor way to the commercial success of the film. But while Spielberg’s accommodating optimism seems to derive from the munificence of a Frank Capra, Dante’s biting parodies are more reminiscent of Frank Tashlin (whose Martin and Lewis comedy Artists and Models was selected by Dante for BAM’s retrospective). Adventure in his films is an educational journey that delivers us from fiction—by using Hollywood’s vocabulary, Dante scuppers its value system, as in Loony Tunes: Back in Action, which opens with a heated fair-pay dispute between Duffy Duck and its corporate overlords, Dante turning the entertainment-industrial complex on its head. In his love for cinema, Dante has consistently sided with the creative forces against the technocratic and profit-driven—mindful of Corman’s teachings, though he never fenced the artistic off from the commercial. His sharp scrutiny of the American Way of Life is always served with a healthy dose of irony, as in The ‘Burbs (1989), a hilarious tale of the xenophobia on which suburbia rests, whose (imposed?) final plot twist can hardly retract the allegory. The paradoxical hostility towards immigrants, in a country almost exclusively populated by settlers’ descendants, is also the subject of Dante’s TV movie The Second Civil War (1997), where the titular scenario becomes plausible after an immigration row spins out of control. Here Dante’s poetic and political visions are superimposed in the final scene, when the Statue of Liberty, toppled, is on fire. It’s a film that feels all the more topical now that America hangs in the deadly balance between a supporter of the Iraq War and a reality-tv star turned supremacist watchdog…

After having sublimated the art and craft of so many, often obscurely talented directors, Dante’s signature has become a source of inspiration in its own right (look no further than Netflix’s latest hit, Stranger Things, highly indebted to Dante’s Explorers [1985]). Yet pastiche doesn’t do justice to his refined sense for cannibalistic intertextuality, to his critical re-imagining of cinema’s ghosts, monsters and lessons. An exemplary film in this respect is one of Dante’s masterpieces, Matinee (1993), a heartfelt homage to the B-movie impresarios and visionary mavericks, from William Castle to Roger Corman. Our hero, a small-time film distributor with a knack for promotional tricks, releases his latest flick during the Cuban Missiles Crisis. The two seemingly unrealted events will come to closely depend on each other…

Here, the director celebrates the inventive and delirious joy of cinema, in its lowliest yet most audacious forms, against the threat of nuclear annihilation. Dante distils the love that literally changed his life into a liberatory poem on the euphoric and therefore uncontrollable energy that cinema can exert on its audience. Matinee is, and will forever be, one of the most authentic renditions of what it actually means to believe in cinema. In Dante’s case, though, the love for cinema is something that propels him and his audience to action, it’s not a fetishistic obsession or an encyclopedic mania that exhausts itself into a sect. The bunker where everyone hides from irrational, manufactured fears is blown apart in Matinee to liberate the spectator from its own passivity. The marginal and the minority in his films are never self-congratulatory, but always antagonistically engaged with the mainstream. Dante’s intellectual and affective dimension can also be observed in the films he chose to accompany his retrospective, films that exceeds limits and expectations, often rescued from oblivion. Like the charming The Smallest Show on Earth (1957), about the struggle of a small movie theatre, or the back and white psychedelia of Confessions of an Opium Eater (1962), directed by Touch of Evil producer Albert Zugsmith. And again the Shakespearian slasher Theatre of Blood (1973), where a circle of critics is cruelly killed by Vincent Price, as an unheralded actor, or the magisterial A Bucket of Blood (1959), by Roger Corman.

Belatedly, Joe Dante is receiving a much-deserved retrospective which will by no means enshrine his art into an ossified monument but will liberate the almost clandestine energy that has always animated his career. A career spent serving the public and not those who profit from them.

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