Thursday, August 13, 2015

Movies You Already Should've Seen: GREMLINS

at 1:00 PM
Get out the fruitcakes, because Christmas has come early this year. Get out the Christmas Ham, because it's Christmas in July. Get out the menorah, because it's July but it's cold as Christmas - in the middle of the year. GREMLINS.

Directed by: Joe Dante
Written by: Chris Columbus

GREMLINS in one sentence:
Yourself: Even in 2015 I spotted a man escorting his young daughter from the theater near the 50-minute mark.

Golem: In this god game, it's your job to help little green-haired creatures traverse mountains and valleys.

Here's a story about me and GREMLINS:
Yourself: In the Gentry family we have a special tradition: every Christmas Eve we argue about whether GREMLINS is a Christmas movie. The verdict - Mom: No way. Dad: What is gremlins? Younger brother: Sure if you say so. Older brother: hates movies. For the record, it is the greatest Christmas movie known to man.

Golem: This was on TV a bunch, but I never paid attention. Imagine how different my life would be if I had only listened.

Get the plot bitching out of your system:
Yourself: Billy goofing off with his neighbors and family is a lot of fun, and I guess I would've enjoyed more of that in the "Gremlins go wild" portion of the film. Judge Reinhold never shows up a second time, making his early cameo feel oddly weighted. Most of the gang we visit in "meanwhile..." vignettes (Corey Feldspar wielding a slingshot, Dick Miller getting flattened by a bulldozer (which, per GREMLINS 2, was not a fatal incident)). Absent Billy, these omniscient-view snapshots feel suspended above the story. At the cost of character development, they lend scope and immediacy that creates a disaster movie feel.

The Christmas-cliche bank drama ("I can't pay my mortgage, have a heart, etc.") never gets explicit resolution either. The ostensible villain at the onset, bank manager Mrs. Deagle, makes a very early (and very unforgettable) exit. That's symptomatic of the movie's decision to resolve the dilemma of a nice town with a corrupt heart by destroying the nice town. It's a structural twist and dead on thematically.

I never realized this was written by Chris "Home Baby's Day Out Alone" Columbus. That sorta makes HOME ALONE that much hackier. I kinda assumed it had been written by Dante, but turns out he doesn't write.

Golem: For a horror movie, not many people die. Mrs. Deagle's death marks an important point; since Mrs. Deagle is herself a villain, her death carries meaning with it. So, that's satisfying, but the first death comes to Mr. Hanson, the kindly and helpful biology teacher. His sin is being thoughtless and oddly abusive with the mogwai given to him. The movie maintains a motif about pets (Barney vs. Gizmo vs. mogwais vs. Mrs. Deagle's cats), and maybe Mr. Hanson plays into that. He does introduce the practice of using animals for experimentation. But we're not given much to work with.

That said, GREMLINS is a kids' movie (...I think - it's at least a mostly-fun movie at any rate), so it's not the lack of deaths itself that gets me. It's that one of the two deaths in the movie could've been better. There is a syringe planted in his butt, for what it's worth.

And the bar scene - while genuinely entertaining throughout - also slightly overstays its welcome. But that's like, if I absolutely had to think of something that bugged me. There's also the small role Gizmo plays in the climax, pulling open a window, in proportion to how much time the scene spends building him up. I watched him zoom around in a toy car for a few minutes, which is fun, but it came without much payoff.

Yourself: On the editing of the bar scene, I could do without the FLASHDANCE reference. It's funny, but unoriginal and unnecessarily dates the movie.

The aesthetic is basically:
Yourself: A Hollywood history lesson. GREMLINS is so deeply entrenched in filmic tropes that it would take an essay per scene for me to poorly explain the atmosphere. The film opens with a mysterious glimpse into a pulp-Chinatown, stuffing shots with exotic trinkets cast in crimson light and layers of mist. It moves on to a lively daylit village caked in snow, bustling with sweatered and scarved Middle-American White Folks (I'll take MAWFs over WASPs anyday). We get a haunted house with canted lens and elongated shadows. A teenager's bedroom covered in movie posters. A packed theater shot from the front, wide-eyed patrons flickering under the projector bulb. A rowdy barroom shown with quick cuts and dollies.

The tone is sort of a bachelor's Christmas weekend. The family arrives and the whole gang is in good cheer and spirits; too many spirits and false cheer make things ugly; after everyone's stormed out, you flip on some cartoons.

Golem: A wistful, small-town Christmas under a blanket of snow. It looks a little fake, fitting in with how everyone acts a little too quaint. Contrast that with the hectic opening in Chinatown with fog and saturated lights with busy, crowded streets. When the gremlins take over Dorry's Tavern, their cigarette smoke casts a thick haze, and blue and red lighting gives a strong contrast to the visuals.

Performances to speak of?
Yourself: It probably doesn't count to say that Kate (Phoebe Cates) is still unfairly dreamy, but Kate (Phoebe Cates) is still unfairly dreamy. I could describe the performance with critic words like "earnest" and "vulnerable" but I don't know what they actually mean, except that I want to ask Kate to marry me.

When the movie calls for darkness, Kate delivers the requisite tragicomedy. Amidst all the special effects, perhaps the most lasting scene from GREMLINS is Kate's horror story about her father's demise. The Santa-in-the-chimney episode would be far too cruel to show and would run as sadistic (the sick twist is more the fare of Tales from the Crypt), but the further layer of removal allows us to take it as a sort of tragic fairy tale. Naturally, the final line of her soul-baring tale - "that's how I found out there's no Santa Claus" - that's a punchline. It is the blackly comic wink behind the entire movie. That Cates sells it so somberly with her stammering delivery and misty stare is what makes the comedy poignant. It isn't funny that our culture values collective fantasy over personal hardship.

Michael Winslow is credited for sound effects in this film. That's all they had before computers.

Golem: I felt bad that I found the dad's death story funny.

In a town of folksy folks, lots of them are fun to watch. Pete is a total twerp, Mrs. Deagle is predictably crotchety, and the lazy policemen have a good point when they mock Billy. And don't forget Dick Miller with his gremlin shtick. Pick your favorite.

A really cool shot or sequence:
Yourself: Mom vs. The Gremlins is giddy movie-making glee. For the fifth or sixth time I sat with an ear-to-ear grin on my face and I swear to god I would've cheered if Golem hadn't been sitting right next to me. It is a scene that packages, spoofs, and celebrates everything I love about horror cinema in less than 5 minutes. The scene is worth working through shot-for-shot, but I am mildly exhausted with GREMLINS at the moment (see below). Some salient points:
- How often does a character warned "Get out of there, now!" actually survive?
- The gremlins are first seen devouring mom's gingerbread family
- Watching a scared character fight back is way more cathartic than watching a tough one
- Probably one of the top 5 gore scenes ever. There is a satisfying simplicity to using the kitchen hardware exactly as designed. In fact Ebert was so worried about its realism that he admonished the movie for fear that impressionable kids would be stuffing their kittens in the microwave.
- the gladiator thing she does
- alright I'm tired

Golem: I thought this one over, and the mom-killin-gremlins sequence is the only standout in the film. That's not to say the rest of the film isn't worthwhile, but as Yourself mentioned to me, it reverses typical slasher roles by putting the hero in the role of the murderer. Upon hearing suspicious racket in the kitchen, Lynn Peltzer stalks around the corner with a butcher knife. She chops up one in a food processor, blows up one in a microwave, and in between, stabs one to death - all splattery deaths that would provide spectacle to a slasher flick, and all with creepy sideways and close-up camera angles.

If you read this scene in context of the movie references made throughout (a scene from IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE on the TV, an E.T. doll prominently featured, so on and so forth), this reversal of slasher roles is a way of standing up to the town's corruption. After all, Lynn is uncomfortably quaint and supportive of her screw-up husband (that's a harsh way of putting it, but come on - does he ever get it right?), falling into the role of wife-as-supporter. By taking a more active role, and by becoming the slasher herself, she's the one element in a sleepy town that wakes up. It's odd that the mother stands up for herself and succeeds, and it's that odd variety of thinking and acting for oneself that the town needs to get out from under Mrs. Deagle's grasp.

What does it all really mean?
Golem: The old mogwai-caretaker says, "You do with mogwai what your society has done with all of nature's gifts." He calls to mind tales about Pandora's box and Prometheus. Gizmo brings joy to Billy's life, but like Pandora's box, it comes with grave consequences, and like Prometheus' flame, it must be stolen.

Gizmo himself is emblematic of nature's gifts, and you can trace the movie's meaning through him. Taking absolutely ginger care of him is of the utmost importance, and the mistakes that lead to the gremlin invasion are understandable. Pete gets water on Gizmo in an innocent attempt to pet him. And Billy feeds the new mogwai after midnight, but only in an effort to care for them; his mistake is trusting them while they've sabotaged his clock.

Randall and Mrs. Deagle provide thematic backup to Gizmo, with Randall playing a mistakenly destructive entrepreneur (trying to be productive with nature's gifts, only failing) and Mrs. Deagle taking an approach as vindictive as possible (hoarding those gifts for herself). These are two potential abuses of Gizmo.

The whole idea is that capitalism, when it values itself over humanity, takes the resources we're given and perverts them - and we end up killing ourselves. The evil gremlins kill Mrs. Deagle.

My favorite visual comes when Billy dashes outside of the Y after a gremlin has just jumped in its pool. From outside, you see flashing green and red lights, foreshadowing the Christmas chaos to ensue. This gets at the core of GREMLINS' meaning, where a friendly idea (fun Christmas colors) becomes menacing. This is also how Kate's dad gets to his death.

Yourself: It's easy to walk away with the moral about exploiting nature, taking the movie as simple allegory, but that's fairly boring and sorta missing the point. I'm not calling the script a liar; "Don't Kill the Whale" is Billy's lesson, not ours. He lives in a world where mogwai are literally a real thing. Stopping our interpretation there suggests the creatures are an arbitrarily conceived plot device; the truth is they're the realization of the cultural homage in which the film is steeped.

Billy's room, the home of the mogwai in his world, is stacked with cinema memorabilia. It's an attic, a brain, a studio, a bastion of creativity. Gizmo lives there contentedly, watching old movies and singing his lilting song. Gizmo is film at its birth - he is original, innocent, a simple realization of natural beauty. A kid begging for a mogwai of his own carelessly splashes Gizmo with water, spawning a batch of mischievous clones not entirely as pure as their predecessor. The new generation of audience (the kids, as it were) are more concerned with having their own film than with creating it, and they receive accordingly soulless results.

The newborn mogwai are restless and selfish; they want to breed, they want to eat, they want to break the rules. The rules, restraint, and respect were what preserved Gizmo's originality; transgression creates countless monstrous look-alikes. When Billy investigates the lab where the first gremlin is born, he finds the projector stuck spinning a finished reel. Now that the hideous imitators have arrived, film is over; the blank white image on the screen signifies the void of originality that's taken its place. These gremlins are the film industry, insatiable, determined to expand for their own sake, obsessed with the basest of senses. Descending on the sleeping village, they wreak havoc through subterfuge and sabotage. The townsfolk are assaulted by the machinations of their daily lives - their cars, their TVs, their automatic-goer-up-the-steppers. It's a catastrophic implosion: the culture that created and fostered the evil critters - vacuous entertainment - is reaping the horror it has sown.

The bar scene demonstrates the gremlins' ascendancy. They've taken on a crude humanity, a mockery of the people they've supplanted. Corrupt movies - cynical, bitter, exploitative entertainment - have corrupted the people, usurping their identities and reducing them to wrinkly little stereotypes. This new population invades the movie theater to celebrate its victory over media, but they haven't quite demolished the old regime. SNOW WHITE, whose very title proclaims original innocence (and, notably, Disney's very first animated feature), mesmerizes the devolved audience. The movie refuses to stoop to cynicism - despite their hideous appearance, these twisted beings can still experience childlike wonder.

Of course, that doesn't mean they're redeemed. The gremlins are still monsters, tearing through the screen when awoken from their reverie. And the only thing a hero can do with a theater full of monsters is blow it all to hell. Demolish the cinema, demolish the film establishment, demolish the false culture - and the town is freed. That he does, but the weasel that kicked off this game - the one so gluttonous not to be entranced by SNOW WHITE - manages to survive. Gizmo, inspired by an old movie quote, flies to the rescue, teaming up with Billy to snuff corruption in it's final refuge: that emblem of shallow consumerism, the department store. Cinema is saved by recognition of the classics and a return to natural beauty.

Note to future self on watching GREMLINS:
Yourself: Yes, okay, I wrote an essay about GREMLINS. But this is my ~5th time seeing it, so I feel some sense of obligation to give it its due. In the process I developed a new appreciation for its intelligence! Next time I guess I better tie that all back to Christmas and loss of innocence.

Golem: Catch all the movie references.

Come back next week to find out what Greg and Greg think of Eddie Murphy's *first* intergalactic adventure, COMING TO AMERICA!

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