Sax von Stroheim writes:
I enjoyed reading this recent interview with Joe Dante (the auteur of Piranha, Gremlins, and the great, under-appreciated William Castle tribute Matinee, among other worthy movies) in the Chicago Reader (part 1, part 2). Dante is another one of those filmmakers who, like Dan O’Bannon, came up in the late-1970s or early-1980s and tried to bring a MAD Magazine-like sense of irreverence to big budget Hollywood moviemaking. Dante did the interview to promote a Chicago screening of his first film, The Movie Orgy: a mash-up of commercials, trailers, and 1950s sci-fi movies, so that — like a schlock Intolerance — Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, Speed Crazy, Tarantula, Beginning of the End, and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers all seem to reach their climax at the same time, in the same B-movie world.
The version I’ve seen lasted about four-and-a-half hour (earlier cuts ran up to seven hours) and sitting through it is an amazing, consciousness-altering experience that I recommend to anyone who has a chance to see it. It isn’t on DVD, but Dante has been screening it around the country over the last few years.
Getting back to the interview, though, I liked what Dante had to say about the difference between practical special effects and CGI:
Those [Gremlins] movies were both defined by the limitations of the technology at the time. There are things we would have loved to have [the Gremlins] do that we couldn’t have them do. By the time of the second movie, the technology had improved to the point where we could show Gizmo’s whole body—so we could have him walking and dancing—and we had a Gremlin who could talk. Those developments opened the door for a lot of new jokes.
I think the reason why there hasn’t been a third [Gremlins movie] is that now, with the advent of CGI, there’s really no structure to what you can do. Anything’s possible. But if anything’s possible, then everything’s possible.
Well, when I say I liked this, I have to admit, I liked it because it fits with what I’ve been saying for years: the charm and appeal of a lot of old-fashioned movie magic doesn’t have to do with perfecting an illusion, but rather with taking delight in the kind of ingenuity necessary for someone like Ray Harryhausen to bring his army of skeletons to life. There’s a hand-made, artisinal quality to Harryhausen’s creatures, Rick Baker’s make-up effects, and the Gremlins in Gremlins that seems to be missing from CGI effects. My guess is that the programming process ends up smoothing out all the rough edges, but it’s the rough edges that give those effects a sense of liveliness.
Filmmakers like Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam were at their best when they were working with a physical medium. Their art wasn’t simply an unbridled expression of their imagination, but, rather, it was in the collision of their imagination with the real world — in how they managed to shape material (props, sets, prosthetics, and puppets) into a vision of a fantastic world. CGI took away what seems to me (and to Dante) to have been an important stage in the process: unhindered by any physical restraints, the fantasy worlds of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and Terry Gilliam’s Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus have no weight to them at all (see also: most of the action sequences in the fourth Indiana Jones movie).
The best uses of CGI seem to come when filmmakers adopt a set of rules to guide them in their choices. Dante’s Small Soldiers is a good example: in that movie, the CGI effects are all quite modest and restricted to making it seem like the eponymous action figures (and their enemies) have come to life.
Small Soldiers is one of the Dante movies currently available on Netflix Instant. I don’t think it’s quite as strong a film as the Gremlins movies — the lengthy action sequence that ends the movie is accomplished but wearying — but it has several great moments and it does a good job of making fun of standard Hollywood action movie jingoism. I also recommend Runaway Daughters:
It’s a made-for-Showtime quasi-remake of the 1956 AIP flick, that takes a bit of inspiration from Speed Crazy, one of the centerpieces of The Movie Orgy.