Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Joe Dante, part XI: Or how I learned to stop worrying and love the mant


Our director tells a story of childish things, and makes the case for why they don't need to be put away.

Directed by Joe Dante
Written by Charles Haas and Jerico Stone
With John Goodman (Lawrence Woolsey), Cathy Moriarty (Ruth Corday), Simon Fenton (Gene Loomis), Omri Katz (Stan), Lisa Jakub (Sandra), Kellie Martin (Sherry), Jesse Lee Soffer (Dennis Loomis), Lucinda Jenney (Anne Loomis), Robert Picardo (Howard, the theater manager), Dick Miller (Herb), John Sayles (Bob), and James Villemaire (Harvey Starkweather)

Spoiler alert: mild

Matinee is charming—charming as hell, in fact, thanks to nearly everybody involved, but above all to John Goodman in the role of Matinee's peripatetic film producer Lawrence Woolsey, who amounts to both the driver of the film's plot and the grand explicator of its themes.  And while "charming" is just about all Matinee ever is, "charming" is nonetheless something of a surprise in this context.

So credit Matinee with being an outlier, if nothing else: it puts paid to the notion that Joe Dante couldn't direct a nice, genial, character-driven comedy without turning it entirely into a wacky cartoon.  Yet it's still very much the case that Matinee ends up in a far zanier place than most directors would dare to bring it.  Altogether, it's a pretty compelling combination—a tender little pseudo-coming-of-age tale, alongside a worshipful paean to the B-movies of a bygone age, set against the apocalyptic backdrop of impending global thermonuclear war.  And all three disparate strands wind up tied quite nicely together by Matinee's slapstick-and-metafiction climax, which, against all odds, feels as earned and satisfying as anything Dante ever put his name to.

But while Goodman's Woolsey may be the draw, Matinee is not his story, exactly, even though it revolves around this demiurgic figure rather more than you'd likely expect—or, indeed, necessarily even want, considering that the character is most effective when seen from the low-angle point-of-view of his childish fans.  No, Matinee is the story of one of those childish fans in particular.

And that would be Gene, a Navy brat moved from base to base along with his mother and little brother, and presently finding himself once again in the process of rebuilding the rudiments of his childhood, now in Key West in 1962.  This being a Joe Dante film, and us having seen Explorers a hundred times, it is not terribly surprising that Gene is a big, big fan of sci-fi cinema—the cheaper and crappier the better.  And therefore it is inevitable that we first meet the lad at the Strand, Gene's local movie house.

Of course, period pieces are almost only ever set in 1962 for one reason, and the world outside Gene's theater may soon become just as radioactive as all the worlds within.  Yet even as Gene's never-seen dad deploys to the blockade around Cuba at the orders of President Kennedy, life goes on, as it must—and Gene goes to school, makes friends, and even meets a nice little leftist girl, who loudly proclaims that duck-and-cover drills are just security theater for stupid people.

So let's all remember to point and laugh when she's crippled by flying glass, while we can still ambulate out of the fallout zone under our own power.

But she does have a point.  The end of the world is in the air, and Gene's not the only one who smells it.  There's Woolsey, too, who has decided that the most appropriate place to premiere his new atomic mutation horror, a ripoff of all sorts of things (but especially The Fly) called Mant!, is at the Strand, where his audience can get front-row seats to the real armageddon that, previously, his isotope-based pictures had only made dimwitted allegory.  Over the course of thirteen days, or thereabouts, the lives of Woolsey, Gene, and Gene's new peers cross and double-cross, until they all intersect at the Strand, during what turns out to be one of the most catastrophic opening screenings you'll ever have the pleasure of attending.

Now, the line on Matinee (which remains, it should be remarked, one of Dante's most critically well-received films, probably thanks to the built-in bias most critics have for movies-about-movies) is that it doesn't establish any abiding atmosphere of doom around the Cuban Missile Crisis.  And this isn't exactly wrong; it's exceptionally breezy for a movie about a looming holocaust.  (And Dante's partners certainly noticed: cinematographer John Hora, in his sixth and final collaboration with Dante, sets his lighting scheme to "sunny summer day" and never changes it back, even inside the theater, whereas Dante's usual composer, Jerry Goldsmith, delivers a noodle of a score that trivializes the movie even more than the material already warrants.)  But here's the thing: Matinee knows that we know that the world didn't actually end in 1962.  And that's how the most dangerous things in Gene's immediate enviroment are just girls, and the various problems related to girls, like the stupid greaser statutory rapist who amounts to the closest thing Matinee has to a villain.

Anyway, it does everything that it needs to do with its historical moment, albeit mostly in little interstitial chunks—a mushroom cloud dream sequence; a grown woman watching home movies in the middle of the night and weeping—before arriving, with great gusto, at a finale which I won't spoil, but also can't allude to, except to rave about it.  And so it does what it must, but—crucially—without cluttering up a light comedy with a dour portrait of people spending all day watching the news from their fainting couches.  Matinee simply isn't about sullenly exploring the Cold War as seen through the eyes of children.  Rather, it's about the way that their Atomic Age fears were frozen into harmless totems by the trashy nonsense B-movies Joe Dante loved himself, when he, too, was a kid.

That's probably why it's okay that Matinee cheats a bit with history: atom-centric parables like The Fly, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Them!, and Beginning of the End (all of which Mant! references in turn) were already in the rear-view mirror by the time the Cuban Missile Crisis arrived—the Space Age was dawning, and bullshit adventures to the stars were the big new thing—and after Kennedy and Krushchev almost decided to blow up the world, the inchoate nuclear horrors that had once bubbled up as optically-printed giant spiders and conquering space brains were largely relegated, instead, to the stuff of speculative fiction that approached the possibility of World War III head-on.

But, obviously, to get hung up on film history (which Joe Dante certainly knows better than us anyway) would be to deny Matinee its single greatest pleasure, the very physical incarnation of its embarrassing genre love.  And you won't be shocked to find John Goodman playing Woolsey exquisitely to type: jolly, larger-than-life, and almost deliriously earnest about his calling.  (It is, needless to say, the film's best performance.  But while Matinee cannot boast of introducing Ethan Hawke to the world, the kids are certainly alright, so I can't suppose there's any particular dishonor in a bunch of teenagers being overwhelmed onscreen by a genuine character-acting colossus.)

Especially when Dante privileges him above everything else.

Now, if Woolsey still sounds like a sleazy pitchman, it's because he is—he hires Dick Miller and John Sayles to play family-values protestors, ginning up a ticket-selling controversy, and he demands payment, in cash, as soon as the show's begun, just in case he needs to beat a hasty retreat.  But Dante has never recognized much of a contradiction between hype and entertainment (or exploitation and art), and thus Woolsey winds up one of his very finest creations—for he is the most cogent expression of his creator's philosophy.  Woolsey unites those filmmaking binaries into a single man, who's honestly more like an idea (or an ideal) than any actual man, and who, like Dante himself, honestly believes there's something beautiful and important about watching movies where a lot of bland white guys get turned into lousy special effects.

But since I agree with Dante, what choice do I have, but to love the way he shoots the decrepit old Strand like a holy site, or the way he prepares an animated stage for Woolsey, to proclaim that he's arrived here to fulfill the epochal promise of prehistoric cave paintings with a sci-fi schlock masterpiece?  If you love movies, you too shall feel Woolsey and Dante's surge of enthusiasm for the power of cinema—even if you kind of hate actual movie theaters.  And that's an accomplishment, just in itself: for Matinee manages to make appealing and authentic a strain of nostalgia that more usually comes off to me as just an obnoxious pose.

Woolsey is something more than the men Dante has based him upon, then, though Dante might object, for while the great mid-century B-producers might not have put it in such transcendent terms, I suppose it's at least preferable to imagine they shared Woolsey's sentiments.  And so he's Roger Corman, Burt I. Gordon, and even William Alland—but, of course, thanks to his dedication to the chintziest kind of circus hucksterism, he's especially William Castle, and Mant!'s fictional nature gives Dante free rein to turn its presentation into a full-on William Castle buffet, with every ass-tingling gimmick the man was known for packed into one overwrought screening.  Inevitably, it turns out that the average movie theater can't withstand showmanship of that magnitude, and  Mant!'s interlocking system of four-dimensional frights threatens to literally bring down the house upon every patron inside, especially once that greaser idiot Woolsey hired to work the overly-complicated controls, distracted by his own subplot, winds up abandoning his post to fistfight his competitor for another supporting character's affections instead.

Naturally, in full Mant regalia.

The third act crescendo is, as you might guess, a tad overstuffed: it suffers some little bit from A-to-B-and-back-to-A plotting that sets up, then abandons, all sorts of elements that Charles Haas' screenplay desperately wants to include, whether it knows what it wants to do with them or not—notably when Gene and his would-be girlfriend Sherry get trapped in Robert Picardo's bomb shelter beneath the theater, believing that the missiles are already in the air.  There's nothing to particularly dislike about this scene (certainly not the awkward rapidity with which the kids shift from horror over the fate of the human race to their own personal Adam and Eve fantasy—for how noble these horny teenagers are, willing to take on the duty of repopulating the Earth!).  But it doesn't stop it from feeling like a completely arbitrary waystation on the way to the film's real climax, once they get out less than five minutes of screentime later.

Yet what we have is a movie where everything mostly works, with even its structurally weak narrative easily pushed over the top by a director who believes wholeheartedly in his material.  (And, indeed, Matinee is often regarded as Dante's most personal film, though God knows what that means in the context of this kind of career, where you'd at least like to attribute his diminishing box office draw to his alienating auteurish idiosyncrasy, rather than just two decades' worth of misjudged commercial calculations.)

What does not work terribly well, however, is the film-within-the-film itself, which I suppose marks this out as the most heterodox positive review of Matinee ever written, since Mant! is widely beloved.  Well, if you only plug your ears with cotton balls you can almost see why: visually, it's one of the most well-mounted recreations of mid-century SF you'll ever see, from the flawed make-up effects down to the precise look of the filmstock.  (It's extremely plausible that Hora cared more about Mant! than he ever cared about Matinee.)  But if you watch it like a normal person, with your ears on, you realize very quickly how shockingly unaffectionate this parody actually seems, which might not've been so bad, except this parody is also almost exclusively unfunny.  ("Can't you listen to the man in you, and put the insect aside?"  "Insecticide!  Where?!")

These are the jokes, folks.

It's the same thing you get nearly every time there's a movie-within-a-movie, only this time, so much more of it than usual.  Now, I realize that this particular trope bothers me more than it does, apparently, anybody else—frankly, I realize I mention it a lot—but I did hope that Dante, of all people, would be the one who could finally deliver a fictional movie parody (of his favorite genre, no less!) that somehow managed to be funny while still not making its in-universe fans look like complete mouthbreathing morons.  Instead, Mant! eagerly falls right into the abyss where every attempt to make an intentionally bad movie lives, and so it is driven by a hundred too-easy jokes and one exhausting lack of dignity.

Yet if Mant! is rather inadequate, Matinee doesn't suffer unduly for its sins: for what we have here is still one awfully sweet coming-of-age tale with a bunch of likeable kids, learning to live and love under the shadow of the bomb; on top of that, it's a fan-letter from mid-century sci-fi's biggest superfan to the men who made his career possible; and, in the very end, the day is saved through a brand of movie magic as old as the Lumieres' Arrival of the Train, updated for a thermonuclear age.  It is, I admit, very easy to ask for more of Matinee; but so much of what it sees fit to give you is wonderful that the only shame about it is that it's pitched in the form of such an imperfectly good movie, rather than a flat-out flawless one.

Score:  8/10

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