Thursday, August 13, 2015

The undressing of 'Gremlins'

Films are celebrated for different reasons, even when they use the same theme or plot-line. Some are treasured for being original, but originality is hard to get. That's why directors go for clichés. Why they win if they're used well and lose if they're used to the point of overkill.

Occasionally though, clichés aren't taken in: they're subverted. True, cliche-subversion in itself overused, particularly in this postmodern, postcolonial world where subversion is the norm. Still.

Joe Dante directed Gremlins in 1984. He directed its sequel in 1990. Both subverted every tradition and norm in the film book. Both are hailed and won praise and critique. Not hard to see why.

Like the best works of art which aren't original but still manage to reach out to audiences, these two provoke questions. They ask us, "If this is a theme used over and over again in the cinema, how can it be inverted?" Not surprisingly, Gremlins became just about the most "inverted film" out there. Since its sequel celebrates 25 years this year, it would be relevant to examine some lesser known aspects to both films.

First of all, the question "What are these films about?" can't be answered by glancing through them. At the outset both are about the "corruption of self" brought on by alien contact. Audiences would have adored the first half of the film, where an American family (the Peltzers) adopts an animal (Mogwai) called Gizmo, bought from an antique dealer. It lives under three rules: no bright lights, no water, and no eating after midnight. As everyone knows however, in films rules exist to be broken.

When the first two rules were broken and Gizmo spawned more of its kind, viewers would have laughed. When the third was broken, and when that spawn transformed into vicious creatures ("gremlins") that can and do kill, they would have fainted. People thronged to see a "family film". What they got was a "family film in parts", with multiple definitions for "parts".

But this isn't everything. Critics pointed out that the film reinforced ethnic stereotypes. The "gremlin" as such is a hybrid of African-American and hippie culture. At times, this turns out to be a wild and even racist take on immigrants in the United States, a point acknowledged by audiences and critics alike.

Reading the film like this would defeat purpose, however, which probably explains why both Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael (two of the most popular reviewers back then) avoided it. A more incisive reading (or "undressing") of both films would mean assessing what differentiates one from the other. For that though, one would first have to assess what's common to both.

A good starting point would be this extract from the essay "Gizmo: The Model Minority":

"Some critics have alleged that gremlins portray a grotesque caricature of African Americans, which would not be surprising in the viciously racist era of the 'welfare queen' and the crack epidemic, which was beginning to capture the nation’s attention in 1984. In 'Ceramic Uncles and Celluloid Mammies', Patricia Turner has criticised the film for imbuing the riotous ne’er-do-wells with the equivalent of blackface, as they feast on fried chicken and break-dance while wreaking havoc"

That "grotesque caricature" provoked people to condemn the film's message. But to extrapolate and call it racist would be stretching things too far. Certainly, how the monsters behave reflects how some middle-class Americans looked at minorities and their (desperate) attempts at assimilation. But beneath this "Us v Them" dichotomy, there's another dichotomy, based not on ethnicity but on class. Put simply, the creatures turn into deviants who despise the same milieu they came from: middle-class bourgeois life.

What is "middle-class" and "bourgeois" about the Peltzers? Technology and its (un)reliability. From blenders that squirt out juice to shavers that sprout cream all over, it shows bourgeois life at its weakest. "Without music," Nietzsche wrote, "life would be a mistake". One suspects bourgeois life in the 20th century would be as castrated without technology, which the gremlins themselves realise when they tamper with a chair-elevator and send an old woman flying to her death. Literally.

Put it in another way. The cherubic Mogwai are corrupted by the bourgeoisie. They turn into monsters that raise hell against their own "creators". How? By "spitting" at their way of life, as shown in the scene where a gremlin blows his nose on the Peltzer’s curtain. "Like Jean Renoir's Boudu expressing his contempt for bourgeois life by wiping his shoes on a bedspread," Kael would later comment. Apt.

The same can be said of the sequel, on a different level. In both films the gremlins don't just rebel against bourgeois life. They reflect what they rebel against. How they're portrayed best exemplifies this: in the first film, set in a community that privileges uniformity over individuality, the gremlins all look the same. In the second film, in terms of looks and behaviour, they're different from one another. As with New York itself.

So much for the commonalities. What of the differences? Firstly, Joe Dante got more creative control with Gremlins 2: The New Batch. One can of course argue that his vision "held sway" over the first film as well. After all, Chris Columbus' original script (which had Billy as a miscreant who mistreats Gizmo) was darker than Dante's final product, which was more of a black comedy. The "change" in-between had to be made by someone. That someone had to be the director.

But with Gremlins 2 Dante went "beyond" black comedy. He parodied the original and poked fun at it (one of Billy's colleagues, for instance, questions the logic behind the "Three Rules", only to have a gremlin slap him in defiance). Above all, he caricatured its characters to their most basic level.

Take Christopher Lee. Until then he played characters who couldn't redeem themselves and hence had to be killed (a legacy of his role as Dracula). In Gremlins 2, he's a manic researcher called "Doctor Catheter". Halfway through, at which point the story turns chaotic, he hints at redemption. Ready to aid our heroes and thus achieve redemption, he opens a safe to get some weapons.

And then, he gets zapped by a gremlin who's turned into a bolt of electricity. Just like that.

Not surprisingly, both films hold different messages. If what get's affirmed in Gremlins is the notion that technology cannot and will not "hold on" all the time, then towards the end there's a resolution, with the antique dealer (Mr Wing) lecturing the Peltzers on the evils of technology. What Mr Wing doesn't realise, of course, is that it was technology that was used to kill the gremlins.

What of the sequel? There's a message, yes. But a resolution? Hardly. Halfway through, the plot loses any sort of coherence. This is seen best in how the monsters make an appearance from outside, by bullying the projectionist who's projecting Gremlins 2! True, like its predecessor, Gizmo appears in the 11th hour to kill off the monsters and emerge as the "hero".

Okay, maybe not as ridiculous as you THINK it is
But it's different here. In Gremlins he rode a remote controlled car (how he did it is anyone's guess), a symbol of technology, and leaped onto the last gremlin, opening a curtain to let some light in and melt him. In Gremlins 2, he makes use of another aspect of Western society, more derided and at the same time as venerated: pop culture. That explains his cherubic imitation of John Rambo, as he kills a gremlin with a rubber-band, paperclips, and a pencil. And yes, it's as ridiculous as it sounds.

If at the end of the first story Gizmo reverts to "Oriental purity", in the second story he reverts to "Western decadence". While Gremlins indicts the West, the sequel embraces it. By that time Gizmo can't retain his purity: Mr Wing is dead. The scene of him listing out the TV channels he wants to watch to Billy is thus the "ultimate" triumph of Western openness over Eastern conformity. Viewed this way, the final scene, where a security chief gazes in horror at a love-struck "she-gremlin" before "giving in" to her, doesn't only affirm bourgeois decadence. It affirms chaos. Uncertainty.

With no resolution.

In Gremlins 2, a gremlin who acquires the ability to talk after drinking one of Doctor Catheter's potions has this to say about what he and his troupe want:

"The fine points: diplomacy, compassion, standards, manners, tradition: that's what we're reaching toward. Oh, we may stumble along the way, but civilisation, 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 civilised."

And towards the end, when the "Brain Gremlin" gets everyone to sing "New York, New York", we agree with what Billy's neighbour admits: "These guys aren't bad". But no one could have allowed them to take in what civilisation "worked so hard to accomplish". Not even a quirky director working in Hollywood, who made pop culture turn on its head in two of the most deliciously entertaining films ever made.

So he killed them. Just like that.

Written for: The Nation INSIGHT, August 14 2015