August 5, opening night of Dante's Inferno at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles brought with it an unexpected surprise, the news of which rippled through the long line of eager movie-heads waiting outside before show time like a cool breeze (which would have been nice too, I suppose). In between closing Tuesday night and a few hours before opening for the first night of Joe Dante’s film festival on Wednesday, Michael Torgan and company had obtained an auditorium’s worth of new seats (well, new to the New Beverly—they came from the recently shuttered Mann Festival Theater in Westwood) and had them installed and readied for an onslaught of butts. New Bev regular Clu Gulager, standing next to me in line as he did so often last year for Dante’s Inferno I, was assured by midnight movie maestro Phil Blankenship that the original seat designated the Clu Gulager seat (along with the plaque dedicated to the actor screwed onto the seat itself) had been saved from the trash and was available for Clu take home. The plaque was apparently detached and being readied to be placed on the new seat at front row, middle section, far right corner, where Clu can almost always be found.
As the audience filed into the cinema and began scoping out the best seating positions, it became clear that the New Beverly had overnight become a noticeably more comfortable place to camp for a five or six hour double feature (with attendant Q& A). First, the seats were almost decadently cushy on the tushy, especially compared to the old stalwarts which they had replaced. Second, Michael opted to decrease the total amount of seats—the new configuration was estimated to be around 220, down from what exactly I cannot be sure—and consequently increase the amount of leg room in each row by, I’d guess, at least a foot. Practically first-class cabin seating compared to what we’ve been used to! And finally, two words: cup holders!
Joe Dante was his usual jubilant, sharp-witted self introducing The ‘burbs, the first of the evening’s two features, and if you weren’t already convinced of it, seeing him up there and in his extreme movie geek element sure made you glad to see him back at the front of the New Bev. In between features, both of which were graced by the presence of Bruce Dern, Bruce Dern himself graced the audience with a half hour or so of hilarious stories and moving tributes to Dante, director Michael Ritchie (Smile) and Elia Kazan, his mentor and director of his first movie, Wild River. The Q&A proved without a doubt that Dern, sharp, salty and funny as hell, would be a great subject for a one-man monologue show, preferably with Dern onstage as himself-- he’s that entertaining. (By the way, if any one of the faithful in the first few rows who was shooting video of this terrific session has uploaded it somewhere, I’d appreciate a heads-up so I could feature it in this column. My camera battery crapped out right in the middle of the intro to the evening given by New Beverly special events coordinator Julia Marchese.)
The sparkling new print of Dante's Tom Hanks-starring comedy literally popped off the screen-- audible gasps were heard from the audience when the bright stars behind the Universal logo made their first appearance. Nor did the movie disappoint. The ‘burbs (1989) is one of Dante’s most popular movies, behind the Gremlins duo, yet it was one of the most critically roasted upon its release. (Dante relished recounting New York Times film reviewer Vincent Canby’s words on the movie—“The movie is as empty as something can be without creating a vacuum.”) Contrary to the views of Canby, and even a voice or two overheard in the New Beverly lobby at intermission, I think The ‘burbs is a hilarious comedy of paranoia and fear of the Other which, thanks to the way it goes about telling this story, never lets us rest too easily on the point of view of any of the characters, either the bored band of neighbors (Tom Hanks, Rick Ducommun, Bruce Dern) who unite to poke their noses into the mysterious goings-on in the basement of the haunted-looking two-story sitting next door to Hanks’ house; their relatively levelheaded wives (Carrie Fisher, Wendy Schaal) who nevertheless get swept up in their husbands’ escalating madness; or even the mysterious, possibly cannibalistic Klopeks (Henry Gibson, Brother Theodore, Courtney Gains). Jonathan Rosenbaum’s reading of the movie is right on the money, I think— Dante turns a Hitchcock/De Palma-style visual examination of voyeurism on its head. There is no voyeurism in this cul-de-sac, because everybody’s always watching everybody else, and everybody knows it. (One of the neighbors, mullet-headed Corey Feldman, even goes so far as to invite all his best buds over to watch as their neighborhood goes up in flames. Seated in lawn chairs and slurping up ordered-in pizza, they turn this previously quiet cul-de-sac into a drive-in movie theater of cruelty eagerly gobbling up one hell of a show, a blockbuster trampling of civility, civil rights and common sense.
And I know I’m probably in the minority here, but I think even the movie’s famously reshot ending works in its favor. I think The 'burbs is a great example of how the director makes that movie work even though the ending was not the one intended by the writer, but instead a reshoot insisted upon (I'm assuming) by the studio after test screenings. I know many think that's the point where the movie cops out, and I kind of used to too. But last night the movie came together a little differently in my head, and I think the ending they went with helps Dante and screenwriter Dana Olsen sidestep the Serlingesque preachiness (not to mention the shift in tone) that would have come from having Hanks’ character die at the hands of Gibson’s Dr. Klopek in that hospital-bound ambulance. The way the release version ends, the modes of seeing the story from everyone’s perspective, no one being entirely right or wrong at any one given time, is preserved, and the audience doesn't get to squirm off the hook so easily. If Hanks dies, then we're right to be paranoid and all the bad (illegal) behavior these suburbanites indulge in could be justified. The movie as it is now suggests that sometimes we might be right to be paranoid, and sometimes we're just nuts, and also that even being right doesn't excuse us from our own transgressions. Hanks' self-righteous speech condemning the kind of behavior that has led to him accidentally blowing up his apparently innocent neighbors’ house seems correct in the moment when he speaks it, after it seems as if the Klopeks have been seriously misjudged, especially as it is directed toward his instigating buddy Ducommun. But it's still correct in its sentiment that the ultra-conformist suburbanites are the real monsters, even after his suspicions about mysterious neighbors have been validated. In my view, this flexibility, thrown into relief by the movie's ostensibly "happy" ending, keeps The ‘burbs complicated, whereas it could have ended up just another wacky comedy.
Michael Ritchie’s Smile (1975) is even better. It remains simultaneously biting and good-natured, perhaps the most generously spirited indictment of middle-class mediocrity ever made. The roster of lovely young actresses making their early mark in this movie—Colleen Camp, Melanie Griffith, Maria O’Brien, Joan Prather and even ex-child star Denise Nickerson (Dark Shadows, Violet Beauregard in the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory)-- provide the young human faces at the forefront of this movie’s fresh-faced teasingly affectionate, yet pointedly critical appraisal of middle American values. (The movie is also a vivid reminder that Annette O’Toole, whose movie debut this was, started off strong and has become one of the movies’ great modern beauties, the kind that doesn’t trade candor, spirit or sharpness of wit away to make room for her natural sexiness.) Putting the best face on even our darkest moments is a strategy that doesn’t serve anyone too well in this satire, from these Young American Miss competitors to the older citizens, particularly Brenda (Barbara Feldon), the frigid control freak who shepherds the contestants through the pageant, and Big Bob Freelander (Bruce Dern), a used-car salesman and pageant bigwig who is forced to face uncomfortable evidence that his personal philosophy, adopted from the pageant’s relentlessly sunny worldview, is beginning to take on water. Ritchie delivers a beautiful movie that doesn’t feel even slightly contrived, even during moments that play with our expectations and tendencies to get caught up in exactly the kind of competitive win-at-all-costs spirit that the movie so genially lampoons. Smile takes its title as social commentary and as a template for seeing the world and all its warts—it’s smart and observant like a Robert Altman film, but with a sense of empathy for even the movie’s most cutthroat competitors which cuts the inevitably bitter aftertaste like a broad, warm grin.
Coming up Friday: Joe Dante brings Roger Corman to the New Beverly to introduce and talk about the producer-director’s The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967) and a sparkling new print of Not of This Earth (1958).