By the time I'd arrived in Los Angeles from Southern Oregon in 1987, I was already a card-carrying member of the Joe Dante Fan Club. (Well, I would have carried a card if I’d had one, and if there had actually been a Joe Dante Fan Club, but I didn’t because there wasn’t, but if there had been…) Of course I’d seen Gremlins several times, and though I enjoyed its parodic take on Spielberg-filtered horror and fairy tales, it wasn’t my favorite Dante picture. I remember catching Dante and makeup genius Rob Bottin on NBC’s Tomorrow show with Tom Snyder in 1981 promoting The Howling, their stylish and innovative take on werewolf mythology (and werewolf movies). Shortly thereafter saw the movie on a double bill with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre at a local drive-in on the edge of some very deep woods. It was the perfect setting for my first exposure to Dante’s satirically inventive, movie-maniacal sensibility, and I was hooked. Soon after I sought out his first movie, the delightfully inexpensive Hollywood Boulevard (1976), which he co-directed with Allan Arkush, and began to suspect I’d discovered a director whose perspective could reflect my own movie-riddled mania while leaving room for the sort of subtextual contours—political, emotional, sociological-- that, as the previous four years of my college life had encouraged me to see, could make the movies live and breathe on another level.
I loved all those movies, but it was Dante’s maligned, seemingly misunderstood Explorers (1985) that really got its hooks into me. In telling the story of three boys who start receiving mysterious messages, apparently from outer space, and build a spaceship out of an abandoned Tilt-a-Whirl car in order to find out who’s sending them, you could feel Dante wrestling with a life of movie-fed expectations, the beauty and silliness of childhood, the looming responsibilities of adulthood (where not much of that beauty and silliness seems to have survived) and the hope that it might somehow all add up to something more than random chaos and hopeful transmissions winking out in the twilight. The denouement of Explorers, an out-and-out rebuke to the quasi-religious hosannas paying customers had become accustomed to in the wake of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. The Extra-terrestrial, was taken by most audiences as a disappointment at best, a pointless betrayal at worst, and the movie never connected with the summer crowds for which it was marketed. But ultimately it doesn’t feel like a movie that should. It’s one of those movies about which I feel almost unreasonably protective, that feels as if it was made for me. And I know now there are a lot of us who feel that way.
Cut back to Los Angeles, 1987. My best friend and I came upon a notice in the newspaper that Joe Dante would be giving some sort of lecture at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on the history and legends of horror and science fiction in Hollywood, and of course we had to go. I remember very little of the lecture itself other than it was engaging and full of clips Dante had brought along (perhaps from his personal collection), and that I had mustered up the courage to stand up and ask him a rather generic question about Explorers. And the only specific thing I remember about the appearance is something I’m likely to never forget. At one point Dante veered away from his notes, took a breath and proclaimed that, as great as it had been to see some of the wonderful moments he’d gathered for the presentation on the giant screen of the Academy’s theater, it would be a real shame not to take full advantage of the opportunity to put the screen to really good use. At that point the lights went down and, for no other reason than that he could and that he wanted to see it himself, the director unveiled the ending of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in all of its widescreen glory. This was the first time I’d ever seen Leone’s masterpiece, one of my favorite movies, on any screen other than my TV, and here it was in this majestic setting, just because. Joe Dante was now no longer simply a director whose films I really appreciated. He was now something akin to a personal hero.
By the time I was a kid reading Famous Monsters of Filmland religiously, Dante, not much older than me, was already writing reviews for the revered Castle of Frankenstein magazine and was on his way to a filmmaking career that many dreamed/hoped might also be in waiting for those of us who shared his obsessions. Dante has always seemed like one of us (one of us!), an original talent simpatico to the monster legends emanating from the back lots of Universal Studios and every other budget-deprived genre production facility with only energy and inspiration, and precious little money to spare. And this week, in celebration of the razor-sharp, hyperkinetic cinematic hall-of-mirrors that is the oeuvre of this wonderful filmmaker, the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles running a four-day tribute called The Atomo-Vision of Joe Dante, each night hosted by Dante himself, which will be a rare and welcome opportunity to see some of his peak achievements on the big screen.
The festival opens up tonight with a dream double bill of Gremlins (1984) and its certifiably insane sequel, the Godfather II of all sci-fi/horror/comedy mashups, Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990).
Then tomorrow night, the Cinematheque presents an advance screening of Dante’s newest movie, the zombie-romantic comedy hybrid (or zom-com, for those of you who like rhymes) Burying the Ex, which stars Anton Yelchin (Star Trek: Into Darkness, Only Lovers Left Alive) as a young dude with dating problems— after his overbearing type-A girlfriend (Ashley Greene) is killed by a bus, he starts dating a girl more suited to his temperament (Alexandra Daddario), only to find out that his flattened ex isn’t about to let a little thing like being dead excuse him from his previous proclamations of eternal devotion. Dante will introduce this screening as well, and the movie will be followed by a Q&A with Dante, Yelchin and Daddario.
Friday night brings Dante’s hilarious horror comedy The 'burbs (1989) back to the big screen, in which restless vacationer Tom Hanks becomes increasingly, irrationally obsessed with what’s going on in his mysterious neighbors’ basement. The ‘burbs is paired with Matinee (1993), a brilliant homage to the B-movie huckster spirit of showmen like William Castle. Dante’s Castle is Lawrence Woolsley (John Goodman), who brings his newest Atomo-Vision classic Mant (Half man! Half ant! All terror!”) to a Key West, Florida promotional screening during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. It’s hard to imagine a more lovingly detailed tribute to the spirit and substance of the movies, and the era, which shaped the filmmaker he would one day become, and as such Matinee ranks with Explorers among Dante’s most personal work.Speaking of which, Explorers (1985) screens Sunday night alongside Innerspace (1987), Dante’s delightful, spectacular wrinkle on Fantastic Voyage, in which another sort of explorer, Lt. Tuck Pendelton (Dennis Quaid), volunteers to be shrunk down to microscopic size as part of a scientific experiment, only to be accidentally injected into the body of a hapless grocery clerk (Martin Short). It’s been said a lot, but this time hilarity does, in fact, ensue-- it's probably Short's finest hour in the movies.
These double bills are hard to argue with as prime samples of this director’s very personal movie madness-- a specifically analog and encyclopedic dedication to the art and craft of film and its history born of an age where true movie love had to be sought out on late show spelunking expeditions and dangerous trips to downtown grindhouses. The Atomo-Vision-fueled cinema of Joe Dante is a treasure chest full of unique pop pleasures— I’ll be at the Egyptian Thursday and Friday, and maybe even Sunday too, to dig in along with my daughter, who under her dad’s caring tutelage has learned to love Joe Dante’s movies almost as much as he does. I hope you can be there this weekend to revel in them with us.
For further reading on Joe Dante, here are links to interviews I conducted with the director, one from 2008 and one from 2009 as well as to my eyewitness account of being in the audience for a rare screening of The Movie Orgy!