Puppets Behaving Badly

Joe Dante probably didn’t do his studio career much good by surgically removing the cute factor from “Gremlins 2: The New Batch,” his 1990 sequel to his Spielberg-produced hit of 1984, “Gremlins.” This time around, Gizmo — the adorably wide-eyed fur ball of the original film — has become a vengeance-crazed Rambo, complete with red bandanna and high-tech crossbow. Surreptitiously released by Warner Bros. on Blu-ray a few weeks ago, “Gremlins 2″ remains wildly funny and wholly unpredictable — an exercise in free-form cinema that can stand proudly with the Olsen and Johnson “Hellzapoppin'” and the collected works of Bob Clampett (even though it’s Chuck Jones who contributes the title sequence). My New York Times review is here, along with a brief account of “The Space Children,” a late (1958), suspiciously liberal take on the Red Menace science fiction films of the 50s. Jack Arnold, its director, may have been better known for “Creature from the Black Lagoon” and “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” but the left-leaning sentiments of “Space Children” are a reminder that Arnold began as an assistant to the great documentary maker Robert Flaherty, and had his one brush with Oscar when his “With These Hands,” a reconstruction of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire produced by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, was nominated by the Academy in the Best Documentary Feature category in 1951. I wonder what happened to this 52-minute film, which features Sam Levene, Arlene Francis, Joseph Wiseman, and Arnold himself in the role of “Communist Agitator.” Does the ILGWU keep an archive?

Not so incidentally, Joe and his “Trailers from Hell” colleagues are lauching a Kickstarter campaign to keep their far-too-diverting website — a celebration of coming attractions trailers, with commentary by filmmakers who will be highly familiar to readers of this site — up and running for the foreseeable future. Their proposal — almost as entertaining as the site itself — can be found here.

68 comments to Puppets Behaving Badly

  • Alex

    In my experience who vehemently dislke B&W films generally are not student who simple prefer collar Sirks and Premingers to B&W ones, they’re students who due judge film via their capacity to supersize the video game experience to whom discussions of the relative aesthetic merits of B&W and color are, for the most part, irrelevant.

  • Peter Henne

    I’ll venture to say that the concern expressed by several here is appreciation for film aesthetics persisting in the culture. Movies are still enormously popular; but if black-and-white movies are neglected, where does that leave any talk of aesthetics? If Barry were pulling for big-band jazz to have an equal footing, I would have no qualm with that since jazz like film has made such a sweeping contribution to American culture. I think there is a need for a cultural heritage to thrive in the present, and not get wrapped up entirely in niche audiences, which is where Barry’s idea of islands seems to take us. Granted, some pieces of that heritage seem to be central, while others like gas lamp styles look peripheral.

  • Alex

    Which is to say that … in my experience students who vehemently dislike B&W films generally are not students who simply prefer color Sirks and Premingers to B&W ones. They’re students who judge film via film’s capacities to supersize the video game experience and for whom discussions of the relative aesthetic merits of B&W and color are, for the most part, irrelevant.

    Interesting that some regard Big Band music as Jazz. I thought Jazz was what Goodman’s sextet played in wee-hour jams after the Big Band disbanded. But, then again, I’ve always thoughr Jazz really got started when Bebop trounced Swing, so I’m biased against the considerable body pof opinion that see Big Band music –or at least quite lot of it– as Jazz.

  • Barry Putterman

    Of course, the definition of what Alex considers to be the real deal is “modern jazz.” What preceded it is called “traditional jazz.” You could, if you cared to, call the studio system era of American movies (which was dominated by black & white) as “traditional,” and everything from the “New American Cinema” of the 70s as “modern.”

    Any “modern” jazzman understands the cultural heritage he or she belongs to and knows how deeply engrained the music of Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins and Earl Hines (just to name a few) is in what they do even if what they play doesn’t sound anything like Armstrong or Hawkins or Hines.

    By the same token, one would hope that any “modern” filmmaker knows how deeply engrained Ford and Hawks and Walsh are in what they do even if their films don’t really look anything like Ford’s or Hawks’ or Walsh’s.

    Talk of aestherics is eternal. It appllies equally to the traditional and the modern. However, the modern is simply of more vital importance to the culture than the traditional. That is inevitable. The issue of health care is of more immediate concern than that of slavery. So more people are concered about Obama and Romney than they are Lincoln and Douglas.

    But Lincoln and Douglas are not disappearing from their centrality to our culture even if fewer people are studying what they did and said. And Armstrong and Hawkins and Hines and Ford and Hawks and Walsh aren’t disappearing either even if fewer people gather to listen or watch. The cavalry is still marching outside the window in FORT APACHE and we shouldn’t be alarmed because nobody makes films about the cavalry anymore.

  • Rick K.

    I doubt if there are many current movie directors (worth their salt) that aren’t also movie fans, who end up tangentially influenced by those movies which had made an impact of them during their formative years. In fact several directors have talked about this at length … Scorsese, Spielberg and others … even past masters like Hitchcock (citing Griffith and Lang) and Welles (“John Ford, John Ford and John Ford”).

    It’s always of tremendous interest for us film fans when the directors themselves do speak of this, so when we watch their movies, we can draw comparisons, then smile and nod as we absorb the screen images, confirming our newfound insight into the workings of an artist. With the assist of two favorite websites, a blu-ray player, TCM and perhaps some alignment of the stars, a few puzzle pieces fell into place this past week. Of course it was Dave’s column which sparked a look at GREMLINS 2 on blu-ray, which coincidentally occurred not long after taking a look at a movie called THE GAMMA PEOPLE, which I had recorded from TCM in weeks past. Then, as fate would have it, Joe Dante himself stepped up to the platform on his Trailers from Hell with the trailer from … THE GAMMA PEOPLE.

    Wish I could say that it was my own perception that revealed the curious correlation between the two films, but it was actually Mr. Dante himself who spoke of his admiration for GAMMA and of perhaps its influence on his own work during the trailer commentary. That said, I have much more affection for GREMLINS 2 than I have for GAMMA PEOPLE, which remains a total head-scratcher for me, yet so offbeat, filled with conflicting rhythms and striking moments, that its tonal affinity with GREMLINS 2 became immediately apparent (once Joe pointed it out!). The GAMMA trailer is actually very well assembled, and considering that the film is from 1955 (which is just BEFORE Hammer and others started making inroads on this type of fare) appears to be something of a innovator, although the film itself is a total oddity … not necessarily a bad thing.

    Joe also reveals that GAMMA was the first 16mm print he ever owned, certainly a momentous occasion for any film fan, especially in those pre-video days … mine was the Castle Film condensation of ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN which, over the years I must have had in every conceivable format, from 8mm silent, sound, 16mm vhs, laser, dvd, and now there’s a blu-ray due for release this fall! Of course I’m not a filmmaker, but wouldn’t be surprised if some remnant of that allegiance doesn’t pop up from time to time (… oh Chick!).

  • mike schlesinger

    Amusing exchange from last night’s BUNHEADS, in which Sutton Foster (in her 30s) encounters her dance students prepping for an “ugliest feet” contest:

    Foster: “Wow, Thornton Wilder shoulda mentioned the creepy side of small town life.”
    First student: “Who?”
    Foster: “No one. He was in Menudo.”
    Second student: “Who?”
    Foster (giving up): “Okay, I’m gonna go be old now.” (leaves)

  • jbryant

    mike: That reminds me of a Conan O’Brien piece from a few weeks back that had Corbin Bernsen promoting the Museum of Old Pop Culture References, designed to help today’s young viewers understand “the dated pop culture references made by comedy writers in their 30s and 40s.” Examples included Dan Quayle, Milli Vanilli, M.C. Hammer, the Thighmaster and John Wayne Bobbitt.

  • It seems to me that it should be possible to get a rough empirical measurement of how popular black and white films are by tracking revivals, rentals and streaming. Other variables could be added.

    Very likely industry people have some say in keeping black and white movies available; Scorsese, Joe Dante, Bridget Fonda (a dyed in the wool cinephile) to name a few who come to mind have some clout, and they’re aided by a few critics and scholars along with the international cinephile community that taken together makes a respectable interest group.

  • Alex

    Barry Putterman, Thanks for the useful clarification. (Still, it don’t mean a thing if it’s still got that swing.)

    On “‘You could, if you cared to, call the studio system era of American movies (which was dominated by black & white) as “traditional,” and everything from the “New American Cinema” of the 70s as “modern,”” I think this is about true for the U.S> cinema, with the caveate that around 1975 we move from the “New American Cinema” into a devolution, largely one of or progressive Kidpix childishness and action spectacle incoherence(and the small belssing of the “Indies”).

    Rick K. On “”””movie fans, who end up tangentially influenced by those movies which had made an impact of them during their formative years,”” I’ll complicate thinks with Orson Welles’ remark to the effect that film director used to have lives and a knowledge of literature but no longer have anything to draw on except ear;ier movies. (It’s like the critique of post1960 Am fiction to th effect that writer used to have lives and now they have Crative Lit degrees and niches.)

  • skelly

    Funny, following this discussion and reading the various Sarris tributes I come across this reference regading Sarris on David Bordwell’s site:- “He talked fast, interrupted himself, and, finding few recent movies to praise, celebrated Max Ophuls and Jean Renoir. He delivered enigmatic observations like, “All movies should probably be in color.”

  • Marilyn Moss

    Rick, the Orson Welles remark reminds me of something the great George Stevens said when he returned home after a few years in Europe during WWII. He sat in a screening room and asked to see what he had missed during his time away…after watching a good enough sampling of recent releases he became sad and disappointed…he saw films that were to him derived from earlier films –nothing new and innovative…and that was back in the mid-1940s!

  • Barry Putterman

    Well, of course, EVERYTHING used to be something and now is something else. Our culture used to be about manufacuting products for use and now is more about storing and sharing information on the internet. In other words, a shift from creating something external to reflecting on something internal. So, it would stand to reason that the arts would react to that by becoming less about what people do in the world and more about self-involved analysis.

    But I better not take this too far or I will lead us all back to posthumanism. And my doctor advises against that.

  • mike schlesinger

    jbryant: Indeed. If you look back at the great movie comedians of the past, most of their films seems to exist in a time vacuum: Keaton, Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy, Fields, Chase, et al generally avoided contemporary jokes and references (the great exceptions being WWII and to a lesser extent the Great Depression), and thus their pictures remain as fresh as ever. The one person who did traffic in that kind of humor was Bob Hope, and while his films–at least the early ones–remain funny, they’re filled with one-liners that now draw blanks even from people who know the era quite well.

  • “The one person who did traffic in that kind of humor was Bob Hope, and while his films–at least the early ones–remain funny, they’re filled with one-liners that now draw blanks even from people who know the era quite well.”

    That’s true of Woddy Allen’s early films too, some are even specific to place. For example, I saw “Sleeper” in both NYC and Los Angeles, and the audience in L.A. didn’t get the joke about Albert Shanker.

  • Mark Gross

    While it’s certainly true that many of Bob Hope’s one liners from the 1930’s are no longer funny, one joke from his first big hit THE CAT AND THE CANARY, has become uncannily contemporary.

    “DO YOU BELIEVE IN REINCARNATION?”

    “DO YOU MEAN REPUBLICANS?”

  • Michael Dempsey

    If memory serves, Bob Hope’s line in “The Cat and the Canary” is set up this way:

    He and Una Merkel are exploring a room in a scary house. She tremulously asks, “Do you think the dead can come back to life?” and he says, “You mean like the Republicans?”

    But in any version, this is a bullseye.

  • mike schlesinger

    Of course, the classic of all classic lines in that film is:

    “Don’t big empty houses scare you?”
    “Not me. I used to be in vaudeville.”

    That actually was in a Sunday NYT crossword puzzle some years back.

  • Barry Putterman

    On other occasions, Hope was more sanguine about his theatrical career. In MY FAVORITE BLONDE he boasted to Madeleine Carroll that in in the previous year ” I almost made enough to pay my taxes.”