Sunday, July 31, 2005

Anti-Movie Movies

I recently treated myself to a viewing of some Joe Dante films, including the two Gremlins movies. I'm one of those people who believes that the sequel is better than the original -- Dante himself thinks so -- but both have their own strengths.

One thing I didn't hear much about on the DVD commentary -- maybe it was on a part I missed; I can rarely listen to an audio commentary straight through, even with commentators as entertaining as Dante and Zach Galligan -- was the status of Gremlins as a satire of the then-recent blockbuster E.T. The film was and still is often seen as a shot across the bow of E.T. and the over-marketing of it. Gizmo is, much like E.T., an absurdly cute, funny-talking supernatural creature who enlivens a boy's life with warmth and innocence and niceness and goodness. But whereas E.T. played all that stuff straight, Gremlins basically expects us to get so fed up with the cutesiness that we cheer when the evil, nasty creatures arrive on the scene and start torturing the little creep. (In Chris Columbus's original script, which was much more of a straight horror story, Billy Peltzer is much younger and the gremlins actually kill Billy's mother by decapitating her, so the anti-E.T. aspect, the response to E.T.'s saccharine assertion that there's no reason to fear strange creatures from another world, was even clearer.) The satire of E.T. as the most-merchandised, most-exploited movie up to that point is pretty blatant too: not only does Hoyt Axton have a line (ad-libbed) about how every kid in America is going to want a Gizmo, but the whole story has been seen as a metaphor for the E.T. craze: the cute creature seems all right at first, but then he starts multiplying, and before you know it this cute little creature has spawned a horrible monstrosity that you can't escape no matter where you turn. It was, with Spielberg's approval and gleeful participation -- he wanted to do Columbus's original, more gruesome treatment -- a rather anti-Spielberg movie.

Gremlins 2 also takes satirical jabs at a movie, but this time the movie it's making fun of is the original Gremlins, which is satirized beat-for-beat, along with its own over-marketing.

What is interesting about this is that it's not very often that a movie comes off as a negative response to, or a criticism of, another movie. There are innumerable movies that pay homage to other movies, of course; and there are movies that parody other movies; but there aren't many that actually contain negative criticism of another movie. People usually make movies to pay tribute to what they like about other movies, not to slam what they don't like. Dante is one of the few moviemakers I can think of who has done it more than once; not only the two Gremlins movies but Looney Tunes: Back in Action, which he mostly took on so he could bash Space Jam.

Howard Hawks is another director who used movies to criticize other movies, which may be one reason why movie critics fell in love with him. Rio Bravo was his answer to High Noon, and To Have and Have Not takes shots at Casablanca by replacing Casablanca's superhero resistance fighter with a regular, cowardly man, and turning the hero's attraction to the resistance fighter's wife into a comic aside. And, while this is a bit too speculative, I sometimes think of Divorce, Italian Style as a satire of the image of Italy that was being conveyed in then-popular films like La Dolce Vita; a key scene shows the characters watching La Dolce Vita and contrasts the fantasy Italy of that movie with the glamor-impaired Italy of this movie.

Any other movies that seem like responses to and/or criticisms of other movies?

No comments: