Saturday, September 22, 2012

Two Parts of a Sublime, Lonely Triple Feature

266) Samsara (2011) Dir: Ron Fricke Date Released: August 24, 2012 Date Released: August 24, 2012 Date Seen: August 25, 2012 Rating: 4.5/5

268) Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990) Dir: Joe Dante Date Released: June 15, 1990 Date Seen: August 25, 2012 Rating: 4.25/5

Imagine my disappointment when I watched Compliance between the two aforementioned films, eesh. 

Anyway, I spent the evening at the Landmark Sunshine recently. I was mostly alone, though I did see some friends a few rows ahead of me at Samsara, and was lucky enough to meet up with some others for Gremlins 2. But it was a lonely night at the movies, sitting in crowded auditoriums for two films and then a fairly empty one for a final third. It was also great fun, if that makes any sense. 

It probably doesn't, so let's go with that assumption, and explicate from there, or whatever.

Samsara is fairly similar to Baraka except that Fricke's sophomore feature is much more about the slow, encroaching effects of time on man-made stuffs. Sky-scrapers, sculptures, subways, all of the monuments we make to artificially pay homage to nature: all of these things age. The subtle cracks in the eyes of humanoid statues, the slow trickle of rainwater down a leaf, the fault lines in a rock-wall, the intricate works of spiritual art we ritualistically make and then undo--it's the cycle of life, according to Fricke. 

I prefer Samsara to Baraka for that reason: here, we are focused on the role humanity plays in our destinies, and how nature subtle-ly, often imperceptibly undermines that limitless sense of agency. I originally complained that Baraka does not show human hands manufacturing their own environments, a minor qualm that nevertheless bugged me when it came to that film's Holocaust Museum footage. We did that; that was us. Don't just show me dead bodies, give me the sense that human hands did that to other human bodies. The cosmic scope of Fricke's tantric first film irked me a little. Which is why it's great to see that Samsara is, to my eyes, all about reconciling what we can do and what nature does to us. We build, we create, we struggle to commune with nature, as in that one fantastic scene in Samsara with the German performance artist. And in doing so, we find our own way. It's not always an easy process, obviously. But as hokey and New Age-y as this sounds, I believe in that vision of cycles of creation and renewal.

I'm glad I saw Samsara alone in a crowd. I liked being able to find my way into the film while periodically looking around in awe at a small group of people watching and silently absorbing these truly fantastic images. I'm similarly glad I got to see Gremlins 2 with some friends, and not a big crowd. It's a fun movie, maybe even a smart movie, but I don't want to be surrounded by the sound of other people laughing when I watch it. First-run that might have been fun, but as people smarter than me have pointed out, people's perception of older films has changed. 

If I may be allowed to generalize for a moment (everybody's doing it, doing it, doing it): the NYU Kid crowd that the theater's midnight movie programmers pander to love them some '80s nostalgia. In fact, Gremlins 2 was hyped up before both my preceding screenings of Samsara and Compliance by theater employees that expected and even encouraged audience members to groan at the very thought of seeing Gremlins 2. I mean, jinkies, a sequel to a goofy kids film?! Unthinkable that you could enjoy it without being brain damaged, right? Or how 'bout the smug little introduction another too-young theater employee gave, the one where he snarked off that there were more people in our single auditorium than had ever seen the film first-run? this what getting old feels like?


Don't answer that.

Anyway, I saw Gremlins 2 and I loved it. I was offended when I tried and failed to explain to my friend Sam why I loved it on the subway because I don't agree with him that it's an incoherent comedy. The gremlins in the film embody the personalities that uptight yuppies like the Daniel Clamp (Smallville's John Glover) crave but have no idea how to cultivate. So Clamp is and isn't like Donald Trump: he's an oblivious mogul, sure, but he's more airy-fairy, head-in-the-clouds than he is actively malicious. Clamp's not, in other words, as bad as either Forster (Star Trek: Voyager's Roberto Picardo), his vile enforcer, or Maria Bloodstone (Haviland Morris), a micro-managing, social-climbing exec. I think that throws people, that and the fact the gremlins are largely unaffiliated with one side or another throughout most of the film's plot. But they don't need to be. They're agents of chaos: of course they don't belong to one team or another.

If Gremlins was a comedy at the expense of the myth of the cozy Rockwell-esque American suburbs that has helped to foster soul-less commercialism, then Gremlins 2 is about a future where the still mostly direction-less corporate culture has taken over without any real idea of what to do now that they're in control. Forster bullishly enforces inane cubicle etiquette while Bloodstone tries to get ahead by making the right friends. Meanwhile, Clamp, a guy I like to think of as evil Wes Anderson, calls the shots without having a clue about what's going on in his Trump Tower-esque building. Case in point: nobody realizes that experimentation is going on on the Gremlins until its too late. 

So so so: the "new batch" of the title are gremlins that, like the monsters of the first film, nihilistically play along with and invert the values of whatever happens to be the prevailing culture. They're still  movie-quoting punks for the most part, parroting everything from Batman to Marathon Man, and that suits Dante's style just fine. I'm behind on my Dante viewing, but for my money, this one is pretty side-splitting. Anyway, the new batch then, as is given a voice in the perhaps too heavy-handed TV interview between Grandpa Munster and a yuppy-gremlin hybrid, are now the joke-y inverse version of Clamp's yuppies. While the yuppies want culture, and substance, the Gremlins are full to bursting with a certain low-brow personality. They don't need to become high-brows to be more than ersatz personalities, but they do it anyway as Dante's way of mocking the worse tendencies in yuppies. 

Still, Clamp isn't really a bad guy. He sees a model for the kind of simple, down-home-sy suburb that the Futtermans call home--and he likes it! There's nothing wrong with that, per se, though one can't help but wonder if history will repeat itself (as Dante jokingly suggests throughout Gremlins 2) and that even the Futtermans' Smalltown USA will go back to being a good idea ruined by its witless, but well-meaning residents.

All of this to say: it was a lonely night, but I kinda like it that way sometimes.

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