MATINEE (Dir. Joe Dante, 1993, US) – Cold War Creature Comforts

The A Bomb

Joe Dante is by far the most mischievous of the filmmakers spawned by exploitation maestro Roger Corman. Unlike his contemporaries Dante has made fewer films. His oeuvre is characterised by a darkly satirical edge and his nightmarish representations of American suburbia have run contrary to the mainstream. Consider the way he smuggles a creepiness about Reagan’s America into a populist film like Gremlins but all with a sense of anarchic fun. Dante’s mischief did him no favours with the studios so it was lucky directors turned producers like Spielberg shared such zany and cartoonish tendencies. Both Gremlins and Innerspace were backed by Spielberg and Amblin. Dante’s finest satire is his 1993 film Matinee and it is a terrific genre film that deals with three of my favourite cinematic themes; childhood, politics and cinema. The backdrop is the cold war era and the Cuban missile crisis. As tension between America and Russia escalates, a small town in Key West Florida anticipates the arrival of B movie horror director Lawrence Woolsey (a riff on Hitchcock and played by John Goodman) with his latest shlock flick Mant (a man who is exposed to radiation and an ant). A young boy Gene, whose father is part of the US navy assigned to defend American waters, is a lover of cinema especially bad horror movies. Gene prefers his movies to girls and when Woolsey comes to town Gene confesses an unhealthy love of the horror genre. Dante juxtaposes the imminent threat of the atom bomb to the way cinema offers fictional solutions and escapist diversions; it’s a potent satirical combination since Woolsey’s horror creation Mant is an anxious manifestation of nuclear radiation. Woolsey makes no excuses for the way he exploits and benefits from the pervasive climate of cold war anxiety, producing films that are hyperbolic and demented. The local cinema, owned by a neurotic manager, has only one screen and caters to mostly the adolescent school kids who converge on the screening of Mant turning the auditorium into a controlled chaos. Woolsey’s plans of self promotion involves placing buzzers under seats, using his own state of the art Rumble-rama and getting the town’s delinquent to don a rubbery Mant suit. In case you’re wondering, yes, all three succeed in convincing an observant cinema chain owner to invest in Woolsey’s taste for theatrics. Dante’s nostalgic depiction of cinema going is one to be savoured as it is the cinema theatre that becomes a microcosm of the town’s various social, political and personal dilemmas. The ending is also powerfully self reflexive demonstrating with great fun the way audiences can be duped so easily by the most seductive of illusions. Also watch out for the terrific cameo by director John Sayles.

UDAAN / FLIGHT (Dir. Vikramaditya Motwa, 2010, India) – Breaking Away

Most of the comings of age melodramas originating from Indian cinema have tended to have any emotional discourse corrupted by all manners of cinematic hyperbole. This gamut of unpleasant exaggerations have included parents as one dimensional caricatures, the urgency to equate adolescence with sexuality – resulting in the traditional and deliberately overplayed falling in love scenario which leads to an illogical series of song and dance sequences, the need to overpopulate complex emotional situations with too many characters, the derisory notion that comic relief is enough of a presence to sustain the argument for entertainment value and lastly and most importantly, the financially motivated presence of stars who bring with them potentially disruptive star baggage and connotations. Like Ishqiya, Udaan is yet another directorial debut and it is surprisingly assured in many ways. The director Vikramaditya Motwa has worked previously before as a scriptwriter and assistant to both Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Anurag Kashyap who also shares a credit as producer and co-writer. Whilst songs are included, they are not signposted in any particular way except for perhaps the final one which is when the film suddenly spills over into sentimental celebrations. Udaan is a coming of age film, thankfully rejecting many of the traits I have outlined above and allowing the narrative to deal strictly with the intelligently depicted relationship between Rohan, a teenage boy, and his abusive and controlling father. When Rohan is expelled from a prestigious boarding school in Simla, his return back home leads him on a journey to discover what exactly he wants from life. At first Rohan’s father comes across as the typical patriarchal disciplinarian with a fixation for rules and authority but their fractured relationship eventually reveals a man who cannot love anymore and who views his two son’s as a burden rather than a lifelong embrace.

It’s not hard to determine what exactly makes Udaan work well as a film – a good, solid script with strong characterisation. If we were to come across a character like Rohan, played brilliantly by the relative newcomer Rajat Barmecha, in another mainstream Indian film then he would be lacking the inner life and psychological depth needed for us to experience and attempt to understand the confusions brought upon by adolescence. Additionally, by giving Rohan aspirations to become a writer, it gives the film an added literary weight and makes the conflict between arts and engineering much more charged, thus constructing a kind of battleground on which we witness an ideological clash between the values of tradition and the iconoclast reverberations of youthful creation. Critically Udaan was well received upon its release and has won many awards though most of those are invalidated by the sheer sham of Indian film award events and ceremonies. Whilst Rajat Barmecha is the main lead and gives a compelling performance, he is equally well supported by two of India’s most prominent TV actors – Ronit Roy and Ram Kapoor. I think this was a wise casting decision because star baggage would have simply distracted from the thoughtful narrative and characterisation. Udaan is a fantastic youth film with a universal morality at work; it’s hard not to like.

NORWEGIAN WOOD (Dir. Tran Anh Hung, 2010, Japan) – Chaplinesque Connections

I’m not sure if it is the writer Haruki Murakami or director Tran Anh Hung responsible for the cinematic allusion to Chaplin’s 1936 masterpiece Modern Times in which the little Tramp inadvertently takes up the cause of the proletariat by picking up a flag which falls off the back of a vehicle. It probably isn’t deliberate on the part of both artists and in many ways the intransigence of Toru Watanabe in the sequence from Norwegian Wood offers a stark comparison to the animated pantomime of the little Tramp. Additionally, Toru’s distance from the political turmoil of the Sixties might suggest disaffection but in both instances they are two people who could easily be swept up in the throes of historical change and transform into agents of political change. What interests me about the two sequences which are separated by such a period of time is the way in which film makers today unconsciously recreate images from the memories of cinematic past, refashioning them without knowing into a ghostly present.

1). Modern Times (1936, Dir. Charlie Chaplin) – The Leader

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2). Norwegian Wood (Dir. Tran Anh Hung, 2010) – The Beatnik

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