Joe Dante

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 IntoleranceAttack 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.

One of the commercials featured in The Movie Orgy

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.

Two of the Small Soldiers

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:

Paul Rudd (doing Paul Newman) and Julie Bowen in 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.

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9 Responses to Joe Dante

  1. Fenster says:

    I have had all these in my Netflix queue for some time out of respect for one of my favorites from the day: Dante’s The Howling, with a screenplay by John Sayles. I thought it a lot of fun at the time, and have seen it multiple times over the years. I thought Dante would make it Spielberg-like big but it didn’t happen. I missed a lot of what he turned out but will tap into Netflix to see what I missed. Thanks.


  2. Sax von Stroheim says:

    Runaway Daughters features a lot of the cast of The Howling (also a fave of mine). It’s no longer on Netflix Instant, but his second Masters of Horror episode, The Screwfly Solution is also really worth checking out: it’s much closer to being a genuine horror movie than anything he’s done since The Howling (he wrote it as a feature in the late 1970s, but couldn’t get money for it because it was “too dark”).


  3. Blowhard, Esq. says:

    >> 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.

    This reminds me of a Hitchcock quote, which I can’t find, about how with each film he would deliberately give himself an obstacle to overcome:
    What would happen if I kill off the main character in the first act? Psycho.
    What about a film that looks like a single shot? Rope.
    Film an entire movie on one set? Rear Window.
    Film an entire movie on a boat? Lifeboat.


  4. pollyfrost says:

    Thank you for alerting me to this. I’m a huge Joe Dante fan. Gremlins 2 is a masterpiece! And interestingly, G 2 and Matinee were written by a wonderful humorist/novelist Charlie Haas. I also really love his Police Squad! episodes, great collaboration there with Zucker and Abrams.


  5. Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

    Nice piece. Dante’s a fun talent. I’ve been wanting to see “Movie Orgy.” Maybe I’ll take a look at “Small Soldiers” this weekend. Never saw it back when it was released.


  6. joemader says:

    Ditto what pollyfrost says. I was unaware of several of these movies, but I loved Dante’s Twilight Zone movie episode where he collaborated with the great animator Sally Cruikshank, and I had a great time at “InnerSpace.” I think your comments about “material” efx vs. CGI is right on. There are exceptions of course (there always are) but I think about the differences in the first Star Wars movies (Episodes IV, V, and VI) between the big rubbery puppet version of Jabba the Hut and the flat, lifeless digital version of him. Give me the former every time.


  7. Super points and tks for the Netflix Instant recs. I miss the old days when movies were largely about the collision of fantasy with reality …. because, well, isn’t that largely what life is about?


  8. Pingback: Blowing Up the Fantasy Bubble: A Review of Kirk Hammett’s “Too Much Horror Business” (and More) | Uncouth Reflections

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