Tuesday, June 15, 2010


Dante's Inferno, Part Deux

By Ali Arikan
My favorite touch in Gremlins 2: The New Batch comes early. As the returning leads Billy and Kate (Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates, respectively) arrive to work at a skyscraper owned by Daniel Clamp (John Glover), a buffoonish fusion of Ted Turner and Donald Trump — he as an art-department lackey, she as a tour guide — they are greeted by an automated announcement: “Have a powerful day.” Later, the same monotone will deliver the news of a “Career Opportunity Advancement Window.” If you think this is too much, then you have never been in the sort of meetings I have to sit through (where, I shit you not, grown men try to find power-words to acrostically spell synergy). Hell, I just got an email earlier today with the subject line: “IMPORTANT INFORMATION MESSAGE.” Step aside, H.L. Mencken.

In his 1990 sequel to Gremlins, Joe Dante turns his malicious gaze from small-town America and Americana-as-dictated-by-Hollywood to a corporate Tower of Babel that represents the nadir of '80s culture: consumerist capitalism run amok as a slick surface barely hides a rotten core (the little contraptions in the building keep malfunctioning even before the eponymous creatures arrive at the scene). But Dante doesn’t stop there. His film is a satire of its predecessor as well as itself. Much has been made of the way the film sends up the very notion of sequels and other such Hollywood idiosyncrasies, but, 20 years on, its appeal goes beyond knowing winks at cineastes: it is a condemnation of modern metropolitan living. To paraphrase the classic poster which adorns so many office walls the world over, you don’t have to be a corporate wage slave to enjoy Gremlins 2: The New Batch, but it certainly helps.

Whereas the first film meticulously builds up an idealised image of a cinematic small-town Eden, only to take it down a peg or ten by an infestation of verdant varmints, its sequel has no such qualms in sugar-coating the battlefield: the Clamp Tower is more hellish before the gremlins start to wreak havoc. In fact, you just can't wait for them to go on their rampage. It's a sly take-down of the Randian hero: Daniel Clamp is the flipside of Howard Roark, and his most awesome creation nothing but a particularly tall house of cards. Gremlins 2: The New Batch implies, not very subtly, that the apparent triumph of individualism and objectivism is but a flimsy facade, a Pyrrhic victory, maybe, over our true selves.

All of which is why, despite the incessant, and admittedly hilarious, sideswipes at Hollywood, during my latest viewing, I found the film to be rather depressing (in a good way, I suppose). In fact, what the gremlins represent is not just absent-minded chaos but pure anarchy — the breakdown of societal order. They are the repressed ids of the working man, living from day to day, pissing on his dreams, relinquishing his last few shreds of pride — and self-esteem — with every pestiferous paycheck.

With a different director, Gremlins 2 could have turned out to be just another over-the-top sequel. Certainly, meta-commentaries have always been a constant staple of sequels (c.f. The New Testament – I hate it when they go PG-13!). But Dante is subversive without being cute or whimsical, two qualities that have ruined otherwise serviceable films, especially in the past few years. The IQ of both the viewers and the makers of run-of-the-mill Hollywood dross is the same as pond weed, and Dante is fully aware of this. When Robert Prosky’s late-night horror host-cum-anchorman asks the Brain Gremlin what it is that they want (and, seriously, what other film in the history of cinema has the balls to satirize the infamous 1968 debate between William Buckley and Gore Vidal), the latter responds: "The niceties, Fred. The fine points: diplomacy, compassion, standards, manners, tradition... that's what we're reaching toward. Oh, we may stumble along the way, but civilization, yes. The Geneva Convention, chamber music, Susan Sontag. Everything your society has worked so hard to accomplish over the centuries, that's what we aspire to; we want to be civilized." Funny? Sure. But just as he starts to talk, the camera cuts abruptly to a grotesque view of the gremlins at the bar as they watch the program on TV: dressed up as corporate lackeys, drunks, hookers, and other pleasant characters, and cackling with glee, the monsters seem to betray what Dante truly thinks of the human race: vermin. Funny as well as scary, cute as well as repulsive, intelligent as well as destructive. But vermin, nonetheless.

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Nice, Ali.

I actually haven't gotten around to seeing this film (I need to catch up on my Joe Dante), and have only seen parts of the 1984 original. So I don't have much to add about its anti-corporate stance.

But I am rather intrigued by what you write about the way this sequel apparently sends up the whole notion of sequels. I had previously thought that same year's Die Hard 2—a big-budget sequel that, compared to its more buttoned-down predecessor, reveled in its own implausibility and ridiculousness and made sure you knew it too—represented some kind of peak in that regard. Maybe not.
Gremlins 2 is fun, particularly Glover's loopy performance as Clamp and Tony Randall's voicework as Brain Gremlin. I love the original, but the sequel just takes the bare essentials of the plot of the first one and goes off in an entirely new satirical direction and makes it a true laugh riot. As for Die Hard 2, it's not a commentary on the brilliant original, it's just a shitty sequel by a hack filmmaker.
Well, I never said it was a commentary on the original, just a self-aware commentary on over-the-top sequels. But then, I don't think it's shitty at all. But whatever; this is about Gremlins 2.
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