If you grew up in’80s America, there’s a strong chance Joe Dante played a major role in your childhood. His films — particularly “Gremlins” and its sequel, “Explorers” and “Innerspace” — were big budget adventures with a dark sense of humor and a cockeyed view of America. Since 2003’s “Looney Tunes: Back in Action,” Dante has been working in the independent scene; he’s currently trying to get “Labirintus,” about an underground maze, made after suffering financing hiccups.
In the meantime, you can see the bulk of his CV with “Joe Dante at the Movies,” a series running through August at BAM. Running through his career of hits and buried treasures (we particularly recommend 1993’s “Matinee”), it includes rare chances to see 1968’s “The Movie Orgy,” a five-hour battering ram mash-up of old movie trailers, and his celebrated TV work (including his two films for Showtime’s “Masters of Horror” series) on a big screen. Also included are films by other filmmakers that Dante admires, including Albert Brooks’ “Modern Romance,” the W.C. Fields’ film “It’s a Gift” and 1971’s “Cold Turkey,” the only film made by TV legend Norman Lear.
We talked to Dante about the politics of his films, his nice version of Donald Trump in “Gremlins 2” and working outside of Hollywood.
All of your films have a political or subversive streak to them, but two of your earliest ones, “Piranha” and “The Howling,” were written by John Sayles. His own films are openly, passionately leftist. Was that streak what brought you together?
It may be one of the reasons we clicked. John’s a very thoughtful guy, even when he takes work-for-hire jobs. I don’t see him doing any right-wing movies. But all films are political, whether you mean it or not. There’s a bias in films. There’s a point of view; there’s a morality. Some of my favorite films are by right-wing directors, but they had a certain humanity that transcends that. But people don’t necessarily want to see movies that are about politics anymore. They don’t mind politics in a movie, if it’s couched in something else. Politics work better on television: “House of Cards,” “The Newsroom.” There have been some great political films made in the ’60s and ’70s. But I don’t see that coming back.
Sometimes politics are popular when done comedically, but it’s hard to do that now since the world right now resembles a cynical satire.
One of the movies they’re showing in this retrospective is “Idiocracy,” which was only made 10 years ago. It’s like we’re living in it now. I made a picture for HBO called “The Second Civil War” in 1997. It was a satire. Most of it has already happened. More of it is happening as we speak. It’s about the governor of Ohio, who tries to succeed because he doesn’t want refugees brought into his state. Who could have known that was actually going to be the situation? It’s very hard to do satire now, particularly with Mr. Trump. Satire is dead. There’s not a way to satirize the situation we’re in now. [Laughs]
I keep hoping that Trump supporters discover Elia Kazan’s 1957 film “A Face in the Crowd,” about a demagogue, and realize it’s really happening.
We can only hope that what happens in “A Face in the Crowd” happens now. [Laughs]