Thursday, February 03, 2011

Tales from the Office of Unforeseen Atomic Events

So I was searching the net for appropriate screen grabs from Matinee (1993, directed by Joe Dante) and I came across the above still over at The Eternal Sunshine of the Logical Mind. I commented on Bob's post a couple of months ago, but I neglected to comment on the still. It's the perfect summary of the kind of nostalgia at work in Matinee. In the movie, John Goodman's character, one Lawrence Woolsey, is a huckster, a small time b-movie producer along the lines of William Castle. He's got creditors after him, his girlfriend is fed up with his eternal adolescence, and he's opportunistically taking advantage of the fears generated by the Cuban Missile Crisis to prime the pump for his new movie. While the movie views him with a great deal of affection, he's not a particularly admirable character. He's a small fry in a big pond. Except, that is, when his shadow is cast on the movie screen. Then, he becomes huge. As a metaphor for how the romance of grade-z monster movies lured an entire generation of kids to the old movie palaces, it's ideal. The movies? They were crud. But in our MEMORIES of those movies, whether seen on the big screen or half seen on late-night TV, they were always bigger and better.

Curiously enough, this phenomenon seems to have overtaken Matinee, too. I remembered it being better than it actually is. Oh, the stuff that I love is still there. Dante's catalogue of in-jokes is still a treasure trove, and the parodies of movie culture from "Mant!" to "The Shook Up Shopping Cart" are creditably faithful to their inspirations while also being credibly awful. It's the coming of age stuff that seems stale.

The story itself follows new kid Gene and his brother to a new school in Key West. Their dad is stationed at the naval base, and has pulled blockade duty around Cuba. Gene is a "monster kid." He's the kind of kid who read Famous Monsters of Filmland like some people read the Bible. He recognizes the shills Goodman's character has hired to protest his film and wheedles himself next to him. I presume that Gene is a proxy for Dante himself, who famously got his start writing for monster magazines. The spectre of the Cuban Missile crisis hangs heavily over the film, including a memorable nuclear dreams sequence. This sequence is echoed by the big climax at the Saturday matinee where all the movie's plot threads get tied up in a tidy not. The problem with this is that Dante's kids aren't all that engaging. They are TOTALLY outshined by Goodman, and by Dante's own love of movies. Once upon a time, that was enough for me. Hell, it's still enough. I still love the movie, but I think there's some nostalgia at work there.

But not totally.

The thing that really sells the movie for me is "Mant!" the film within a film. Most films within a film are pretty awful, but "Mant!" is a dead on re-creation of a Big Bug movie from the late fifties/early sixties, even down to the music cues. Hell, it even has actors from 1950s sci fi (Dante regular Kevin McCarthy being prominent). Sure, it's played for laughs, but it's not too far off the mood of something like The Beginning of the End or The Deadly Mantis. And, hell, it has MUCH better special effects than those movies.

I was disappointed when Matinee finally appeared on DVD a few years ago. The old laserdisc version had the complete "Mant!" as an extra, but it's absent on the DVD. Fortunately, nothing is lost forever in the internet age. Here's the complete Mant! on YouTube. Enjoy.


Ivan said...

Dr. Morbius,
I couldn't find an email for you, so sorry about putting this into the comments--

Congratz! You have been awarded the Stylish Blogger Award
Please visit:

And thanks for being awesome!

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Ivan! Thanks!