Wednesday, 13 July 2011

‘What are these things?’

They’re Gremlins, Kate. Just like Mr. Futterman said.’

Gremlins was released in 1984 right in the middle of Ronald Reagan’s eight years. Its use of puppetry and animatronics seems to preclude serious critical treatment, but it’s actually a striking lament of many of the political and cultural features of its time.

On one level this is a B-Movie about Small Town America being besieged by monster invaders. At the point at which Billy (Zach Galligan) has fed the Gremlins after midnight, setting the stage for their metamorphosis via pods, Invasion of the Body Snatchers plays on Billy’s TV while he sleeps. Stripped of any didactic McCarthyist message that those films espoused, the film seems to be merely a pastiche of these elements played up for comedy.

With Mogwai comes great responsibility. I cannot sell him at any price.

We begin with Billy’s father Rand Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) going into a Chinese shop full of bric-a-brac and curiosities, and his attention is drawn to the Mogwai. The proprietor, a prototypical vision of ancient Oriental wisdom, is adamant that he not be sold. His Grandson (dressed in traditional Chinese clothing and a Yankees cap), protests, ‘Grandfather, we need the money!” and sells Rand the Mogwai in secret.

The boy acts as a mediator between Orientalism and the West: He is privy to unique and exciting commodities not available to the Western market, and has naturalised Capitalist values to the exclusion of familial authority, selling a cautionary tale waiting to happen as a commodity against the wishes of his grandfather.

You know what? I bet every kid in America would like to have one of these. They might even replace the dog as the family pet. The Peltzer family pet. This could really be the big one.

Rand furthers this commodification: The boy sells the Mogwai in a one-off transaction, ignoring any potential consequences. Rand, upon learning that the Mogwai duplicate when exposed to water, sees endless opportunity. It is significant of the particular cautionary tale told within the film that it is at the point of generation, that is of the Mogwai as potentially a mass market commodity, that things begin to turn. Gizmo’s offshoots are malevolent or at least mischievous to begin with, and are constantly searching for the conditions in which they can metamorphose. As a one-of-a kind the Mogwai is cute and entertaining; as a reproducible commodity it tears the society depicted and its social conditions apart.

The classic cautionary tale is one of the protagonist making a bargain. This bargain then spirals out of control, often giving the opposite of what it initially promises. Gizmo is identified as a commodity in waiting, a wealth creator who turns into a wealth disruptor, a destroyer of property. That this happens by a process of metamorphosis represents a coming of age: from ideological promises of new opportunity to the reality of downturn and deterritorialisation.

It’s not a stretch to imagine Kingston Falls to be near Detroit, with the climate, post-industrialism, precarious labour: ‘My husband’s just got a new job and I’ve took up some sewing on the side, but we don’t get paid for two weeks. I was wondering, couldn’t you just hold off a couple weeks on the rent?’ says a woman with her two children. Mrs. Deagle replies: ‘Mrs. Harris, the bank and I share the same purpose. To make... money.’ Not to support a lot of... deadbeats!’

‘Rand Peltzer’s the name: Fantastic ideas for a fantastic time. I make the illogical logical.’

Rand is the kind of entrepreneur who creates reinventing-the-wheel products for household problems that weren’t there to begin with, the kind seen on TV Infomercials. Machines that crack eggs for you, fly swatters that spin like propellers, a ‘smokeless ashtray’. They rarely work. There’s a great unexpressed melancholy to the pursuit of his fortune through his inventions while his wife struggles to keep the family together. ‘Ya know you should just buy orange juice in cartons. It’s a lot easier,’ says Billy’s friend Pete upon seeing Rand’s juicer malfunction. In reality, most entrepreneurial opportunities are already foreclosed decades and centuries previously, even if Rand were a more competent inventor. There is a tragic always-already defeated aspect to this pursuit that challenges Neoliberal ideology of opportunity.

Reagan’s America, in which entrepeneurship and making one’s fortune were trumpeted, presented itself as the land of opportunity, in which everyone’s Million was to be made with hard work and a good idea. There was nothing to lose. Gremlins depicts the sharp end of this vision, in which lack of start-up capital sends families into increasing leveraging of their own economic stability, more often than not without reward.

There is another scene in which the narrative is carried by what is on the television within the film: when Billy comes home to find his mother crying, she explains, ‘Oh it’s nothing. Just a sad movie.’ It’s A Wonderful Life is playing, particularly the famous revelatory scene in which James Stewart’s George Bailey runs down the street, the point at which his depression is spirited away Scrooge-style, in which life is affirmed. After some prodding, Lynn explains that Mrs. Deagle, the patrician landlady who presumably the family owe money to has called. Bailey’s suicide attempt is motivated by financial ruin. She is cutting an onion, an unmentioned but ready alibi to explain her crying.

Look, I’m a Junior Vice President by 23. By the time I’m 25 I’m gonna have Mr. Corbin’s job. By the time I’m 30 I’ll be a millionaire. Look at you, You’re practically supporting your family. The world’s changing Peltzer, you gotta change with it. You gotta be tough.

Success in Reagan’s America is represented by Judge Reinhold’s character, a colleague of Billy’s at the bank. His positioning as a villain is achieved by Billy implying his selfishness, but Reinhold’s short contribution to the film amounts to a resistance to family exploitation. While Billy supports his family, specifically his father’s ‘living the dream’, with his work at the bank, Kate (Phoebe Cates) works nights at her family’s bar ‘So they don’t have to pay anyone a wage.’ ‘Well I think that’s swell!’ says Billy. ‘Yeah it’s real swell, if you like working for nothin’!’

Gerald represents deterritorialisation against financial entanglement with family in small-town America behind his yuppie exterior. Gerald represents the lucky few success stories in 80s America which were and are held up as systemic successes, but also renders visible the bondage which Billy and Kate unconsciously suffer. Reagan’s rhetoric ambivalently co-opted this desire of the left, to abolish to some degree bondage to the family.

This bondage is as a result of two distinct projected images their parents are in hock to; Rand’s modern striving to complete in the global market as an individual, and Kate’s father’s communitarian desire to run the sort of ‘good honest’ bar that chain businesses, the dialectical turn of economic liberalism, are doing away with. This conversation ends with Kate’s father sending her to give a table a round of drinks on the house.

These goddamn foreign cars they always freeze up on you. American machinery don’t do that, our stuff can take anything. See that plough I had it 15 years, fifteen years and it’s never given me any crap. You know why? Kentucky Harvester. It ain’t some foreign piece of crap you pick up these days, that’s a Kentucky Harvester. Damn foreign cars.

Billy and Kate’s parents represent two sides of the same coin in mid-air; that is to say in ideological play, in 1984. Mr. Futterman manifests a projection of industrial America wounded and dying at this time. He is a constant stream of embittered xenophobia, crucially always towards foreign products and not people. Later on, drunk, he explains that he took his plough for a service and is told that it has previously had replacement foreign parts put into it, invading the internal workings of his machine. This is a reference to the first meaning of Gremlin: the industrial tinkerer goblin:

Gremlins. You gotta watch out for those Gremlins cos those foreigners plant them in our machinery, stop them working .It’s the same Gremlins that brought down our planes in the big one. That’s right, World War Two. Good ol’ Double-U Double-U Aye Aye. You gotta watch out, cos they plant Gremlins in everything. In your car, in your Stereo, in those little radios you put in your ears. In your watch, they got tiny Gremlins for your Watch!

This Gremlin myth was widely distributed as the cause of Allied plane crashes. Futterman posits a microcosmic iteration of this same battle against foreign sabotage, waged within the confines of his plough, where globalised machine parts disrupt it. The Gremlins’ disruption works in reverse: Again it is only when Rand reasons that these Chinese creatures be globalised as a self-perpetuating commodity that their potential for sabotage is unleashed.

From Global (often China) to America – Industrial. From China to Global via American ideology – Consumer. The Mogwai are interpellated by Rand are a postmodern consumer product in their proposed mode of distribution through marketing. This postmodern aspect is already manifest in the Mogwais’ behaviour, what seems to make them so amenable to this mode of commodification.

Gizmo is fascinated by media; he watches television, sings along to a keyboard, he is able to understand any conversation he is privy to and react accordingly. He supersedes Barney as a pet, something Rand expresses explicitly. Gizmo is unlike any other animal and yet instantly signifies all endearing qualities: He is furry, he’s always got his best smile on, he’s preternaturally gifted at many things – can play the trumpet, drive a toy car. He even waves an American flag at one point, ‘Patriotic little fella ain’t he.’

Barney and Mr. Futterman form a corollary of obsolescence. As Industrialism gives way to Monetarism, Futterman to Gerald; tradition gives way to new, Barney to Gizmo. In the beginning of the film Billy and Barney are inseparable. Barney goes to work and hides under Billy’s desk with him. This stops abruptly and without mention after Mrs. Deagle’s threats, but this coincides with Gizmo’s introduction to the family, whereupon Barney retreats to the background, whining passively as Gizmo takes the limelight, unable to vocalise his frustration. Dogs ask for unconditional, familial love and offer little in return for entertainment compared to a Mogwai.

Suicide rates are always highest around the holidays.

An oft-cited fact, but many things come together in Gremlins to undermine the universality of Christmas. Clothed in the apolitical garments of Love, Sharing, Togetherness, Happiness, (Who would not want these things?) modern Christmas requires capital with which to participate: Money for presents. Familial normativity implied in its version of happiness. Far from a time of apolitical plenty, here Capitalism bears its teeth: where only the productive can have happiness, and opportunity for all gives way to poverty for the losers, that being the majority.

Billy betrays this exclusivity. ‘I don’t celebrate Christmas.’ ‘What are you Hindu or something?’ he says. Christmas in Gremlins functions as a return of the repressed in many guises – Billy’s narrow worldview and entrapment in a small town supporting his family, economic inability to participate ie. Unpaid rents of Peltzer family, Kate’s father accidentally dying as a result of climbing down the chimney as Santa, Futterman’s complaints brought on by the cold causing his car to stall. ‘What’s not to like? I mean it’s a lot of fun, you know,’ Billy says sheepishly when she has explained.

As the chaos is at its heights, two consecutive quotes from minor characters dredge up the ideological nature of Christmas. ‘It’s supposed to be Christmas, what the hell is goin’ on?!’ says a police officer, ‘It’s supposed to be Christmas, not Halloween!’ a radio host. It’s a time in which economic, political and psychic factors are to be spirited away its failure to actually enact this bringing the scars of those who cannot internalise capitalism’s mandatory positivity to the surface. Mrs. Deagle turns this logic on the pleading mother previously mentioned: ‘Mrs. Deagle it’s Christmas!’ ‘Well you know what to ask Santa for then, don’t you now?’ Economic factors are always present, Santa won’t pay the bills.

They’re watching Snow White... And they love it.

The reptilian Gremlins are cultural postmodernism as much as they are economic neoliberalism. The Gremlins fulfil their role as traditional disruptors of machinery by wiring Mrs. Deagle’s stairlift to fire her out of the top floor window, wire traffic lights to show green on both so that cars crash, drive Mr. Footerman’s plough into his house. But placed into 1980s America, they develop the role of a postmodern disruptor: always play-acting as they destroy, as Christmas Carollers at Mrs. Deagle’s, as singing drunks at the bar. One gets a short dance montage dressed in leg warmers, finishing with some breakdancing; In the cinema, they make a mess but don’t outright destroy it, they fill the seats and a group get into the projector room and put on Snow White for them. They react with glee, and crucially, already know the tune to ‘Hi Ho’ and sing along with it.

E.T. as a character is similarly post-modern: putting on a flannel shirt to get drunk, watching TV all the time, but his postmodern acts are a device used to endear him to the characters and the audience to set up melodrama later on. Gremlins is a melancholic story in which characters quietly carry their psychic baggage around, only emerging to the surface when small town America’s fears of the new world order manifest themselves in the antagonists.

The Gremlins’ actions are stylized in the Bakhtinian sense of the word: always carrying a previous generic voice. They are not merely some atavistic demonic force of destruction. They critique as they go by inhabiting human actions familiar to the viewer. Their progression from machinery to household media forms (playing records, watching films) shows them to be a kind of ideological mirror in which they critique via play the defining characteristics of the epoch in which they find themselves.
Presumably we are led to believe that Mr. Futterman is correct, that Gremlins really did tamper with World War Two planes. Awakened for the first time in decades, they set to work on machinery once more. They quickly catch on, observe a new age where factories and industrial products have given way to consumer goods, household appliances, cinemas, toy stores etc. and reset their sights on disrupting this new focal point.

Mythical disruptors have always existed: Gods disrupting ancient harvests, Medieval Goblins, Industrial Gremlins, and the Postmodern Gremlins of this film. They mimic and mirror the time in which they find themselves, a grand continuation. They are the same species, represented differently in each era they arrive in. Gremlins is a postmodern fairy tale in the Brothers Grimm mould, and not just for the arbitrary rules which bring their reptilian selves into being.
You do with Mogwai, what your society does with all of nature’s gifts. You do not understand. You are not ready.

In the end though, the invasion is contained, the Chinese man takes Gizmo back again with a few lecturing words on the West’s lack of respect, restraint. All is undone. The lesson is learned. The cultural and economic conditions ongoing through the film, however, do not leave with it. Its story is entirely self-contained. For a brief moment in which the monsters are at large they interplay and mirror economic conditions. When they leave, nothing outside of the Gremlins’ moment is resolved: Mr. Futterman is still as embittered and now has his plough mysteriously crashing through his house to fuel his ranting. The Peltzer family is no better off. Mrs. Deagle is dead, the bank is destroyed, but these changes are easily foreclosed. The state of play is returned to almost exactly the point at which it began, minus some superficial destruction.

In its self-contained moment, though, the film is properly carnivalesque. Hierarchy is abolished for a short period, revealing in stark light the conditions which it briefly leaves.


JM said...

Awesome. Would you say the Gremlins are situationists of sorts, too?

W. Kasper said...

I don't remember the sequel too well, but don't the Gremlins end up playing stockbrokers and bankers? And briefly take over the 'means of production' - 'stopping' the film halfway through?

Great stuff BTW

Curtis said...

JM - politically it's hard to describe them as much more than accidental anarchists, but yeah, in the strict sence of creating
'situations', particularly the scenes in the bar, it's worth exploring.

Kasper - I avoided Gremlins 2 because as I remember it it's just too self-conscious. Futterman in particular, Kate 'spoofs' her dead father speech at one point, the Brain Gremlin. I know it's following the same line but it just seems to be pulling its head out of the screen and winking at you, particularly the Hulk Hogan scene you mention in the cinema.

The first film's appeal is the fact that everyone is melancholic to begin with; they don't disrupt serenity, the town has already been gutted by outside forces. In New York (you might say the source of those forces), the surrounding ideology is so strong that their only threat is destruction of property. Though I'll admit I'm rusty on the sequel and might watch it again some time.

Oliver said...

The sequel in a way is the best it could be. Gremlins became a big hit with kids - there were toys made etc - so the melancoly was ditched in favour of a live-action cartoon. But it's still quite a brutal cartoon. Within the crazy world of Looney Toons-style pop cultural references and the breaking of the 4th wall people still die (and stay dead) just like in the first movie and some of the mutations the Gremlins go through in the lab terrified me as a kid - the spider Gremlin in particular.

Also, you can't not love the brain Gremlin - listen to him namecheck Susan Sontag and consumer credit in his list of what the Gremlins want:

Oliver said...

P.S. zombies are often intrepeted as being 'the masses' or representing a fear of the masses. Maybe the Gremlins - with their constant eating, drinking, listening to records, watching movies - are consumers.

Phil Knight said...

Bugs Bunny cartoon from the 1940's:

"Gremlins" are fascinating: the dis-ownership of mechanical incompetence in the 1940's/50's (when Americans still possessed self-discipline) as the USA had to explain supplying inferior goods to its allies (the USSR being every bit as dependent as GB) by hoodoo-nomics, re-cooked as contemporary (80's) absence-of-impulse-control in a culture that was doing its very best to undermine what little impulse-control remained in the US populace.

Truly an example of an invented demon returning to haunt its creator.

Timh Gabriele said...

Great essay. Gremlins did always stick out for me, even when I was little, by the ways in which the world being attacked was not some emblem of an American Dream for whom order needed to be restored, but one which was already downturned (the suburbia of plastic surfaces and miserablist interiors was not uncommon in the 80s- particularly through the lens of Lynch and Burton- but Gremlins diagnosed this as an economic, not just existential, malaise).

I always saw the Gremlins as a projection of the xenophobic fears of delegitimized American laborers. Not just through the literal definition of "Gremlin", but also as a stand-in for some of the worst American stereotypes of unnaturalized immigrants- excessive drinking, incompetence in trades like electric engineering, lousy driving, organized crime/illegal gambling, hooded muggings, and perhaps most tellingly- their willingness to work long hours and holidays, thereby eliminating by proxy American entitlements. It's telling that they flock to the theaters to join in chorus with a song about the joys of work. With all the grief of the worker humans in Gremlins, perhaps the biggest insult is that the invading hordes are willing to do their work with a smile on their face.

With this in mind, the biggest insult to the original in the sequel is the fact that Billy Peltzer sketches pictures of his old hometown with some kind of warm nostalgia to comfort him from the icy alienation of city. If anything, he should feel disconnected from both environments. Though the movie does add a little bravura moment in which postmodern capital taps in to the retromaniacal impulse by John Glover's media mogul deciding that he wants to build on Billy's blueprints- not by using Kingston Falls as a model, but by building an exact replica of it.

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