Thursday, December 01, 2005

And The Dead Shall Vote: Part One (of two)

I'm not plugged into Showtime, given our available satellite package (and no cable hereabouts in the backwoods), but I'm eager to see the new Masters of Horror series -- particularly the episode being broadcast this weekend, which I'll alert you to here. Thanks to my good friend Tim Lucas, I can post this "heads up!" in time for some of you to savor the upcoming Joe Dante episode Homecoming, which promises to be something extraordinary -- but read on even if you know about this, as I'm getting into something relevent no one else seems to be citing.

OK, here's some excerpts from The Village Voice article by Dennis Lim (November 29th, 2005) on the Turin, Italy exhibition of Dante's latest creation.

(I must note with some bemusement that Lim lifts his article's title (an obvious one, but still) from the very first article ever printed with Joe Dante's byline on it: "Dante's Inferno", which was the title Forrest J. Ackerman affixed to the landmark Famous Monsters of Filmland article expanded from a 'letter to the editor' a teenage Dante wrote to the magazine in 1960 or '61 (listing the 50 worst horror films of all time, per 1960 standards). This was Dante's first claim to fame, predating his extensive writing for the Famous Monsters newsstand competitor Castle of Frankenstein; predating his move from his native state of New Jersey to move to California, writing for Film Bulletin (1969-73, currently reprinted regularly in The Video Watchdog) while working his way into cutting trailers for Roger Corman at New World Pictures; prior to his directorial debut co-directing (with Allan Arkush) the delightful Hollywood Boulevard and solo-directing the delicious post-Vietnam bio-weaponary horror gem Piranha and his breakthrough masterwork The Howling (both scripted by a young John Sayles); and looong before establishing himself as mainstream Hollywood's strangest edge-of-the-studio satirist with flicks like Gremlins and Gremlins 2, Inner Space, The Explorers, The Second Civil War, etc. But enough on all that...)

Now, lest I lose you, note that Lim's Village Voice article is subtitled "A horror movie brings out the zombie vote to protest Bush's war", and let's get into it a bit:

Dead man voting: Homecoming, Turin, Italy: "This is a horror story because most of the characters are Republicans," director Joe Dante announced before the November 13 world premiere of his latest movie, Homecoming, at the Turin Film Festival. Republicans, as it happens, will be the ones who find Homecoming's agitprop premise scariest: In an election year, dead veterans of the current conflict crawl out of their graves and stagger single-mindedly to voting booths so they can eject the president who sent them to fight a war sold on "horseshit and elbow grease."

The dizzying high point of Showtime's new Masters of Horror series, the hour-long Homecoming (which premieres December 2) is easily one of the most important political films of the Bush II era. With its only slightly caricatured right-wingers, the film nails the casual fraudulence and contortionist rhetoric that are the signatures of the Bush-Cheney administration. Its dutiful hero, presidential consultant David Murch (Jon Tenney), reports to a Karl Rove-like guru named Kurt Rand (Robert Picardo) and engages in kinky power fucks with attack-bitch pundit Jane Cleaver (Thea Gill), a blonde, leggy Ann Coulter proxy with a "No Sex for Oil" tank top and "BSH BABE" license plates. Murch's glib, duplicitous condescension is apparently what triggers the zombie uprising: Confronting an angry mother of a dead soldier on a news talk show, he tells this Cindy Sheehan figure, "If I had one wish . . . I would wish for your son to come back," so he could assure the country of the importance of the war. The boy does return, along with legions of fallen combatants, and they all beg to differ.

How fitting that the most pungent artistic response to a regime famed for its crass fear-mongering would be a cheap horror movie. Jaw-dropping in its sheer directness, Homecoming is a righteous blast of liberal-left fury (it was greeted with a five-minute ovation in Turin, the most vocal appreciation seeming to come from the American filmmakers and writers in attendance).

At once galvanic and cathartic, Dante's film uncorks the rage that despondent progressives promptly suppressed after last year's election and that has only recently been allowed to color mainstream coverage of presidential untruths and debacles. For all its broad, bludgeoning satire, Homecoming is deadly accurate in skewering the callousness and hypocrisy of the Bush White House and the spin industry in its orbit.

Now, this all sounds amazing as hell to me, and it's a treat to see Dante and his work in the limelight. As a lifetime (literally, as I read that Famous Monsters "Dante's Inferno" article at age seven) fan of Dante and his work, the conceit of the man who so perfectly parodied CEO Ted Turner in Gremlins 2 taking on sociopath Coulter is irresistable; seeing Dante regular Picardo (a fixture of the director's films since essaying the role of lycanthropic "Eddie" in The Howling: "Let me give you a piece of my mind...") as a surrogate Rove is even more appealing; and that Dante has embraced and elevated the cultural currency of his favorite genre and built so firmly upon the bedrock laid by Abel Gance (read on) and George Romero at this point in our national decline is even more exciting.

In his full article, Lim shows a little savvy in citing how "zombie flicks, with their built-in return-of-the-repressed theme, have always served as allegories of their sociopolitical moments (as demonstrated mere months ago by George A. Romero's prescient pre-Katrina class-war nightmare, Land of the Dead)", which is glib but accurate as far as Romero's influence goes. Prior to Romero and his collaborative partners making Night of the Living Dead in 1968, only Abel Gance embraced the walking dead theme with any "sociopolitical" intent. Thankfully, Lim goes a bit further, citing the source for Homecoming, "Dale Bailey's "Death and Suffrage", a 2002 short story that puts a morbidly literal spin on the idea of the dead being used to pad the Chicago voting roll... The film also owes something to the low-budget 'Nam-era Dead of Night, in which a "Monkey's Paw" wish brings an undead veteran back to his family home." Bob Clark and Alan Ormsby's understated gem Dead of Night aka (and on DVD from Blue Underground as) Deathdream is indeed relevent, as is the reference to the classic short story by W.W. Jacobs. In fact, like Night of the Living Dead, the underrated and rarely-screened (until this DVD release) Deathdream was one of the precious few Vietnam War films made during that conflict, at a time the studios avoided the subject completely (save for John Wayne's pro-war The Green Beret, 1968) leaving it for allegorical westerns (Soldier Blue), biker flicks (The Losers), and cross-genre fare like Billy Jack.

Still, there are closer unsung parallels between Homecoming and lesser-known horrors. In the scope of the mid-1980s The New Twilight Zone revival series Dante himself contributed episodes to, William Friedkin directed a highly effective adaptation of Robert McCammon's 1984 Masques short story "Nightcrawlers" (broadcast Oct. 18, 1985), in which a Vietnam vet is plagued by lethal telekinetic materializations of the war and fallen comrades he left behind.

But before all these, Abel Gance, the man who made the classic silent epic Napoleon, invented this war-fueled walking-dead genre with not one but two versions of his original feature film J'Accuse. Gance did so with a point: to attack the horrific human toll of World War I (in the case of his first J'Accuse, completed in 1919 and featuring soldiers who subsequently died in the trenches), and later, via his 1939 remake, to try and stop what became World War 2.

It would seem that Dante is channeling Gance a bit of late, given the content of his film and his uncharacteristically angry statements to Lim:

But Homecoming, very much a movie on a mission, casts aside metaphor -- it derives its power from its disconcerting literalness. The zombies do not represent -- but are -- the unseen costs of this futile war. Implicit in the film's unapologetic bluntness is a sickened urgency, an insistence that this is no time for subtlety. ...Though Bush is never named, Homecoming tailors its provocative scenario to accommodate a devastatingly specific checklist of accusations, from the underreporting of war casualties to last November's dubious Ohio count. As if in defiance of the Pentagon's policy to ban photographs of dead soldiers' coffins, Dante's film shows not just the flag-draped caskets at Dover Air Force Base but their irate occupants bursting out of them. "There's a lot of powerful imagery in this movie that has nothing to do with me," Dante says. "When you see those coffins, which is a sight that's generally been withheld from us, there's a gravity to it. Even though there's comedy in the movie, there's something basically so serious and depressing about the subject that it never gets overwhelmed by satire."

As I say, Dante's statements to Lim are unusually pointed, and worth quoting in full:

"If you're going to code the message, which is the way horror movies have always done it, that's fine, but it's not going to reach an audience like a movie that's overt, and this is not exactly subtle," says Dante. "Somebody has to start making this kind of movie, this kind of statement. But everybody's afraid -- it's uncommercial, people are going to be upset. Good, let them be upset. Why aren't people upset? Every minute, somebody's dying in this war, and for nothing. To establish a religious theocracy in Iraq? It doesn't seem to me quite worth it."

...In any case, as Homecoming suggests, there are ways in which the current administration is essentially beyond satire. The nuttiest attitudes the film ascribes to its ruthless Republicans are scarcely more extreme than anything Dick Cheney or Karl Rove has been credited with. "Have you seen Network lately? Everything has happened," Dante says. "And Arthur Hiller's The Hospital, which was also [written by] Paddy Chayefsky. They wanted to make the picture as outrageous as possible, so they tried to think of the most impossible situations, like going into an emergency room and having somebody say, 'You can't get any care until you fill out these forms.' And it's all come true!"

Real events were indeed catching up with Homecoming before it was completed. "It was only when we started shooting that Cindy Sheehan emerged," Dante says. "It was weird, because everybody said [of the war mother character], 'Oh, you based that on Cindy Sheehan!' It was just a coincidence, but I guess it was inevitable that somebody like that would show up."

Dante says the lead roles were initially offered to better-known actors, who all turned them down, but Masters of Horror "happened to be a situation where nobody had any veto power over the material." ...To his surprise, Showtime executives didn't flinch when they received the script. "I can't conceive of any other venue where we would have been able to tell this story: You can't do theatrical political movies; people don't go to them. You can't do them on television, because you've got sponsors," he says. "Michael Moore's last picture made a lot of money, but he was vilified for it so much he's practically in hiding."

Dante hopes Homecoming functions as a wake-up call -- not so much for politicians but for filmmakers. "If this spurs other people into making more and better versions, it will have done its job. I want to see more discussion," he says. "Nobody is doing anything about what's going on now -- compared to the '70s, when they were making movies about the issues of the day. This elephant in the room, this Iraq war story, is not being dramatized."

"You don't have to be a rocket scientist to see what a fucking mess we're in," he continues. "It's been happening steadily for the past four years, and nobody said peep. The New York Times and all these people that abetted the lies and crap that went into making and selling this war -- now that they see the guy is a little weak, they're kicking him with their toe to make sure he doesn't bite back. It's cowardly. This pitiful zombie movie, this fucking B movie, is the only thing anybody's done about this issue that's killed 2,000 Americans and untold numbers of Iraqis? It's fucking sick." While gratified by the warm reception to Homecoming in Turin, Dante says he's eager for the right-wing punditocracy back home to see it: "I hope this movie bothers a lot of people that disagree with it -- and that it makes them really pissed off, as pissed off as the rest of us are."

Go, Joe!

Tim Lucas has already written up Homecoming on the Video Watchblog, and that post is
  • here.

  • Tim at least mentions Gance and his seminal anti-war walking dead classics; most have not, nor are they likely to. J'Accuse remains largely ignored by both mainstream and genre film fans, historians, and researchers; even George L. Mosse's insightful Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memories of the World Wars (1990, Oxford University Press) misses Gance's revelatory horrors, though they are of profound relevence in Mosse's chosen subject.

    For both versions of J'Accuse, Gance mobilized his own genuine outrage, horror, and anger at the wartime arena and rhetoric of his respective eras. For the 1919 version, Gance conceived and executed a stunning tableau in which a delusional, dying soldier's vision of the dead of the trenches rising from their graves and the battlefields to march on the living and stop the war concluded an otherwise non-fantastic WW1 drama. For his sound era remake, alarmed at the mounting threat of the Third Reich and spineless rhetoric of the body politic, Gance revised his 1919 opus to create a tale in which a survivor of WW1 cries out to the war dead to march upon the living and stop the coming war.

    Gance's unsung masterpiece can be tough to track down, but it's well worth the search. Given the likely interest Joe Dante's latest may doubt stir up, I urge you to scour the internet and get your hands on a video copy of J'Accuse as soon as possible. You'll be amply rewarded, and your eyes will be opened to something astounding.

    More on those video releases, and more on J'Accuse, tomorrow!

    -- Continued tomorrow --

    A few bon mots my Jamiacan (VT) amigo HomeyM offers that I want to share here:

    Tidbits from this month's Harper's Index:

    *Percentage discount that Venezuela's Hugo Chavez has said he will offer poor Americans on oil and gas purchases: 40

    *Minimum number of Americans who have signed up so far at the Venezuelan embassy in Washington: 140

    *Percentage of U.S. women who own vibrators: 46

    *Number of journalists killed in Vietnam during 20 years of war there: 63

    *Number killed in Iraq since March 2003: 71

    *Estimated number of pro-terrorism websites worldwide in 1998 and today, respectively: 12; 4,700

    *Amount Americans spent last year on "fantasy football": 2,079,000,000

    *Number of consecutive years that the U.S. median income has failed to increase: 5

    *Number of consecutive years that the percentage of Americans living in poverty has increased: 4

    "The more you try to resist a lesson, defending yourself against your stuck point, the more you will be driven into the corner you're so desperately trying to avoid."

    Wolfe Lowenthal, There Are No Secrets