Bright Light! Bright Light! or How I Learned to Love Microwaves–#5

Joe Dante is one of the nicest and most knowledgeable guys you’ll ever meet in your life. From the first time he ever programmed a festival at the New Beverly in 2008 (discussed here by the inimitable Dennis at Sergio Leone & the Infield Fly Rule), I knew he was one of the “good ‘uns.”  Realistically, I had known this since I was a kid, but I reserve judgement on someone’s person until I get a chance to meet them (if I get that good fortune- which is rare- but in LA…it happens). However, Joe is absolutely golden. But I really should’ve known that since this was the man who gave us Matinee (Joe Dante, 1993), a film that has a lightly-disguised William Castle-like character (and I’m a huge Castle fan) and is dedicated to the undying love of cinema. I also should’ve known this since I remember seeing Innerspace (Joe Dante, 1987) with my mom in the theater as a kid and thinking it was one of the coolest movies ever, adoring the Sam Cooke song, and thinking that is this was what movies were about, I wanted to see ALL OF THEM all of the time. And yes, I’m a huge fan of The ‘burbs (Joe Dante, 1989) as well. I was so very pleased to get to see that at the New Beverly a little while ago as well.

But, as we are all aware, the erudite Dante made a Christmas film. And it is not just any Christmas film, it is the Christmas film.

5) Gremlins (Joe Dante, 1984)

One of my friends is probably the ultimate anti-Christmas-film person. He’s down with the food, but the “happy happy joy joy” stuff and any kind of religiousness? Keep that the hell away from him. It’s just not his style. But he loves Gremlins. He really, truly adores this film like it was going out of style. And considering some of his other favorite directors are Tod Solendz, John Woo and Werner Herzog and he believes that Salo by Pasolini is a staple…this is saying quite a bit.

He’s not alone, however. Gremlins  is widely considered a classic. And I think it’s generally because not everyone likes Christmas in its Joyful Portrayal. See, every bright room has some dark time, and to many people (myself included) the dark time is, in many ways, a great deal more interesting. In fact, if you were to take a look at the other “classic” Christmas films, they are all a bit dark, which leads me to question why we have so much trouble recognizing that. I mean, to be completely honest, It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946) is a film about a guy who wants to commit suicide. How cheerful a theme is that around holiday time?

Polish Gremlins poster. I love Polish posters.

A man I wrote about a few entries earlier, Bob Clark, has dipped into the “dark time” of the Christmas room twice, with Black Christmas and with A Christmas Story (Bob Clark, 1983). While the latter film is more comedic, it has more edge than a straight-up, feel-good comedy. Most of the film centers on the gun that the child-protagonist wants, and how his parents think that it will “shoot his eye out,” not to mention the rest of the dark things that happen to the young members of the cast. Are we supposed to injure children in Christmas films? Heh. Well, maybe in my kinds of Christmas movies. As long as they’re accompanied by the right balance that Clark gives us (which he definitely does, in Christmas Story– if you haven’t seen that one, see it).

Gremlins has monsters in it. And lord help me, I’m a sucker for a monster movie. I don’t care what season it is. And, more importantly, it has the significant interplay between human, monster, and sympathy. The things that will always get me. You put those things in a film, and more often than not, I’m YOURS. Then you add humor and a dark view of the holidays??? SOLD!! Gremlins has been on my list for these reasons and always will be. People can try to knock it, but they will always fail. In my mind, it is an essential. It wouldn’t be the holidays without it!

Santa with a Machine Gun–#4

I realized after revisiting my last Christmas favorite, I really dig Christmas-themed films that are shot in/around Los Angeles and where Los Angeles plays a key role. Ok, so clearly a good chunk of the films made are filmed in Los Angeles. Of this I am clearly aware. However, what I am speaking of is the group of films that make it a point to mention the city, continually referring to it and positioning it, visually and narratively, as a character within the film.

One of my very favorites amongst these that also uses the Christmas theme is also one of the most beloved to many other folks I know.

4) Die Hard  (John McTiernan, 1988)

While I have seen this film many times, I finally got the opportunity to see it on a big screen a few weeks ago and I was blown away. It was the perfect example of how a film changes completely in the transition from small-to-large screen. I argue with people all the time about theaters and supporting them and how necessary it is, but seeing Die Hard on a big screen, in 35mm, just drove that point home even moreso.

I could give you the standard spiel about how you notice more within the film on a big screen or how Die Hard is an action movie so it has better resonance and power bigger, but those are things you probably are aware of. The basic truth is that films were not created for small screens. They were made for the cinema. Therefore, whether you are watching them projected via 35mm or some digital manner, they should be seen the way the artist intended their work to be seen.

You wouldn’t hang an authentic Van Gogh painting in the local McDonald’s, would you? It would be inappropriate. Television is a different thing. That was created specifically for the little box. In that, it works perfectly, and it is platformed absolutely to its advantage. But as we start losing theaters, we start losing the possibility of seeing films like Die Hard on a big screen and that is a real tragedy.Seeing this film in all of its glory, large and in charge, was like seeing it for the very first time. I sat there and I thought: well, I may not celebrate Christmas, but the fact that I’m getting to see this, on a big screen, and it’s so exciting, and shot so well…this is my Christmas. John McClane is my barefoot Santa! Hurrah!

In general action films get me pretty happy, but this time I was practically exploding with cheer and good will towards the whole theater. It’s a celebratory film and the Christmas aspect of it adds that extra layer that makes it just that much more suspenseful. It would still be a good movie without the season’s greetings, but that makes it a great movie.