In Which This Will be Screened in Atom-o-Vision
One of the most persistent questions in popular culture is, why are we attracted to scary stories? Why do we, as a public, subject ourselves to simulated terrors when the real world provides enough stress day to day? The answer’s usually boiled down to a need to feel a full spectrum emotions, to know that the terror of a moment will be released and we will go on to another day relatively unharmed. That the words on a page and images on a screen will only invoke a danger that isn’t tactically present. Such moments of stress and relief can be revitalizing, purpose driving, and even a release valve for pent up emotion, and can deemed a needed escape from the mundane anxieties of the real.
So Joe Dante’s 1993 film Matinee eloquently explicates not just the want, but the need for such experiences. How the world of the imagined can be just as tactile and necessary as the events of reality. Matinee, from a distance, can be seen as another self-aggrandizing paean to the magic of the movies. A piece of cinema for the film lovers soul, but it’s much more nuanced than that, and Dante expertly touts why films of any kind are worth love and enjoyment without tilting over into saccharine drip.
Matinee is a modest film. Spooling the yarn of teenaged Gene Loomis (Simon Fenton) as he navigates the troubled waters of adolescent life, an absent military father, and the oncoming Cuban Missile Crisis, an issue exacerbated by living on Key West. To wile away the hours he takes his younger brother Dennis (Jesse Lee) to see scary movies from his favorite director, Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman). As political tensions mount Gene throws himself in to help Lawrence screen his newest creature feature Mant! at the local cinema. Along the way romances are forged, lessons are learned, and the power of the screen saves the day.
From a birds eye view, the outline of the movie seems like another opportunity for another one of those Boomer nostalgia trips that were oh so popular in the 90s. Dante, however, is a crafty undercutter of expectations, and Matinee is a career capstone project that finishes off 15 years of consistent creative tomfoolery at every level. He’s a director who takes the fetish objects of the cinematic past and runs them through the blender of cartoon anarchy. While his compatriots of blockbuster mayhem reverently toyed with Ford, Capra, and Hawks, Dante made sure to smash those sensibilities through with the imagination of the Fleischer Brothers and Chuck Jones.
This askew sensibility doesn’t just save Matinee from being treacle nonsense, but actually imbues it with its emotional punch. The world of 1962 Key West is in some ways just as silly as the fake movies that Dante cooks up. Just as we leave the theater with Gene and Dennis the first time and into the evening air we are treated to a sickly red glow: as if the world has already been irradiated before the official word got out. As tensions mount in the town, people go to war over boxes of shredded wheat. During a Duck and Cover drill the absurdity of the practice is highlighted, no one’s safe from the nuclear blast if/when it comes.
And while the centerpiece of Matinee is the fictitious work Woolsey directs (the in universe version of Mant! gets a decent chunk of screen time), “reality” itself also conforms to the structures of contemporary films. A teenage phone call suddenly split screens like a Doris Day/Rock Hudson comedy, a hoodlum prowls the street in James Dean attire, and the populations is haunted by the images of nuclear fallout straight from a horror film.
In this already heightened world Woolsey finds the perfect platform to unleash his newest creation. The broiling atomic fear will only attract people to his latest feature, a movie that plays to and placates such obsessions. As played by Goodman Woolsey amazingly straddles the line between conniving conman and genuine b-movies artist. His tactics to get butts in seats are underhanded, but he genuinely lives for the emotional reaction he can provoke from the crowd. He’s a carnival barker to be sure, but one that realizes his work means something to a lot of people.
And so the film winds its way to the premiere of Mant! and the viewer is treated to multiple layers of cinematic chicanery. We, the viewer at home, get to watch a movie inside the movie, watch people react to said movie, and watch people react to those reactions. It’s layers of wit and bravado that capture the full breadth of the theatrical experience. The communal terror, relief, and joy of seeing something brand new.
It helps that Dante excels at making the perfect pastiche of the sci-fi films of the time. Mant! looks and sounds exactly as it should while also doling out a perfect drip of self parodic jokes for the audience in our world, but not to those in the movie. That such a balancing act can be pulled off is a testament to Dante’s ability as a director.
Even more so than that we get to experience the thrill and satisfaction of a movie two-fold. Of viewing the audience in film, and the knowledge that nuclear disaster will not come. Such emotional releases once again back up the need for stress in stories, even when we are most uncertain the lights will come on and we are still there, eager to return for another trip to a place both beautiful and strange.
Is it Weird, Overlooked, or Wonderful?
100 percent on all three counts. This movie flopped on release and was hard to find until a few years ago. It probably counts as Dante’s secret masterpiece among other, more notable features.
Odds and Ends
- Woolsey is obviously imitated after such people like William Castle and Roger Corman. But he also has a touch of Hitchcock, one of the few directors recognizable enough to promote their own movies by appearing in trailers and posters.
- Another pitch-perfect parody is the fake movie The Shook-Up Shopping Cart, a startling exact replication of Disney’s technicolor comedies of the 60’s. It also stars an incredibly young Naomi Watts.
- That Guy extraordinaire Dick Miller plays a bit part character actor who helps Woolsey. Just another fun bit of met work from Dante and the team.
- Luckily for the world you can watch all of Mant! for free and in high definition
Next Week: we go golfing with the inventive pink puffball puzzle game Kirby’s Dream Course.