Thursday, December 08, 2005
Gremlins opens with a shot of inventor and family patriarch Rand Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) walking through the streets of Chinatown. When Max and I saw the film in South Hadley, he noted the obligatory sailor crossing the street. But then there was a second sailor, and then a third, at which point I decided that director Joe Dante knew exactly what he was doing. This isn't the Chinatown of New York, Boston, or L.A. - it's the Chinatown of the movies, with all of the loaded historical and cultural baggage that American cinema carries. As Rand discovers the mogwai in Mr. Wing (Key Luke)'s shop, it becomes clear that China here is a signifier of "the other" - the promise of mystery and magic. It's an offensive connotation, no doubt, but such associations are largely the subject of Gremlins, that rare summer blockbuster that is also about something.
In his introduction to the Sandman collection The Doll's House, Clive Barker distinguishes between two kinds of fantasy: in the first, an alien frame of reference intrudes on our own and must be exercised or resolved, while the second depicts shades of reality throughout the whole world. Barker suggests that the latter is more difficult to write, which is perhaps true; however, Gremlins makes a good case for the possibilities of the former. As "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" by Darlene Love is heard on the soundtrack, we abruptly cut from Chinatown to Kingston Falls, a fictional middle-American town which serves as the "near" to Chinatown's "far."
The first credit is "Steven Spielberg Presents," which speaks of volumes more than Spielberg's brand-name value. Paul Thomas Anderson said in an interview that it was Spielberg who legitimized the suburbs; indeed, both Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. succeeded in a kind of revolutionary populism. These films clearly tapped into something, as throughout the 80's, a slew of films, both with and without Spielberg's involvement, chose suburbia as the backdrop for fantastic stories. Yet Joe Dante, unlike Spielberg acolytes Chris Columbus (screenwriter of Gremlins) and Robert Zemeckis, has a distinct vision that strays in anarchic ways from the generally optimistic work of his producer. Dante eventually subverts the entire values system of Kingston Falls and, by extension, us, the audience, who wanted to see a movie called Gremlins in the first place.
Most reviews of Gremlins upon its release cited its E.T.-meets-Alien structure, which probably led to its massive popular appeal. It's a clever idea, of course, but Dante also finds a great deal of resonance with this family/horror fusion. The scenes that introduce us to Gizmo, who is basically a walking, talking guinea pig, are designed to make audiences coo. Later, when Gizmo begins to multiply, our response is turned on its head - the little mogwai's beaming face contorts into a screaming, ugly mess as his body ejaculates slimy, squishy creatures in a way that taps directly into our collective fear of childbirth. And even before the other Mogwai transform into the titular creatures, they're more obnoxious and off-putting than Gizmo; puking, screaming, gluttonous creatures. The loveable aspects of the mogwai have been perverted through reproduction; perhaps the film is commenting on the commodification of dreams - merchandising, marketing, mass-production - that is an inseparable part of American cinema culture ("Mommy, I want one!").
The scene after the gremlins have hatched, when Mrs. Peltzer (Frances Lee McCain) must defend herself against the monsters in her own home, makes the statement behind the blending of genres clear. Every innocent thing in the house becomes a threat (Christmas tree) or a weapon (microwave, blender). Dante is stripping away the illusion of safety in the suburbs; previously, the biggest fear in Kingston Falls was the threat of financial trouble, possibly eviction, at the hands of the gleefully cruel Mrs. Deagle (Polly Holliday). But the gremlins' swift (and hilarious) offing of Mrs. Deagle, it's clear that, to Dante, there are much bigger things to worry about than bills. Obeying the rules of the mogwai, for instance.
Gremlins also has another layer of subtext in the form of Murray Futterman (the legendary Dick Miller), Billy Peltzer's xenophobic neighbor. Mr. Futterman responds to the discovery that his Kentucky Harvester is full of foreign parts by getting drunk; he is generally distrustful of foreign technology, citing experiences with gremlins in WWII. Yet later, when the gremlins attack Mr. Futterman and his wife, he is surprised and horrified. Mr. Futterman never saw a gremlin; Mr. Futterman is full of shit. He deserves what he gets.
There are also a number of pop cultural references throughout the film that serve a purpose other than easy laughs. During the serene opening scenes of the film, we see It's a Wonderful Life on TV; later, when things have gone wrong, it's Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Our dreams and our nightmares, two sides of the same coin. Once the film has become totally anarchic, we catch a glimpse of Cocteau's Orpheus and know that we are beyond logic. Chuck Jones makes a cameo, cuing us into the film's Looney Tunes sensibility. A brief scene where Rand calls from an inventor's trade show displays George Pal's time machine and Robby the Robot; we are in a world where these are not scenes from the movies, but rather, a world where Robby actually exists. The nuanced dissection of layers and layers of filmic reality is one of Joe Dante's greatest strengths; he manages the incredible feat of making post-modern movies that aren't totally smug and unbearable.
I've noticed that what most people really remember about Gremlins is the cuteness of Gizmo; seeing it again, I was really taken aback at what a rich cinematic experience it is. I haven't even gotten into Kate's (Phoebe Cates) brilliantly bleak Christmas story (which, again, was turned on its head in the sequel), or the perfection of Judge Reinhold as all-around dick Gerald. Gremlins is a film that satisfies our sense of wonder and our dread in equal measure. It's the perfect Christmas movie.