October 8, 2010


October 8, 2010

This week, I saw “Matinee,” a 1993 homage to all of those cheesy monster flicks that terrified me when I was a child. I remembered enjoying the movie when it first came out and wouldn’t have thought to see it again, except that Joe Dante, the director, was on-hand to introduce the film and participate in a q & a afterwards.

I enjoyed “Matinee” immensely, not the least because it accurately portrayed what it was like to go to Saturday matinees when I was a kid, complete with popcorn tossed in the air, tee shirts soaked with soda pop, and boys running wild in the aisles.

“Matinee” takes place in November 1962. The country is in the throes of the Cuban Missile Crisis when Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman) rolls into Key West, Florida to premiere his latest grade-z production, “Mant” (half man, half ant).

Even though the residents have more serious concerns to deal with, they line up to see “Mant,” partially because of Woolsey’s promotional efforts, including a staged protest against the film and his promise of an enhanced movie-going experience. He wires the seats with buzzers, amps up the sound, and hires a guy dressed in an ant suit to troll the aisles.

More importantly, the movie provides an escape from the military build-up that's happening off the not-too-distant shore.

“Matinee” contains two movies within the movie. The first is about a shopping cart that magically comes to the rescue of its owners when they are about to be robbed. The second is “Mant,” which is actually a seventeen-minute standalone film.

“Matinee” features several tantalizing snippets from “Mant,” framed by Woolsey’s adventures leading up to the premiere and the stories of several teenagers gripped by the very real fear of annihilation.

One scene pokes fun at the “Duck and Cover” drill that was a staple of my public-school education. An alarm would ring, and we would congregate in the hallways or huddle under our desks with our faces to the floor and our hands over our heads.

One girl, a misfit with parents who are early hippies, refuses to kneel down, protesting that the exercise is futile in the face of a massive nuclear attack that would peel off everyone’s skins. She gets detention for her trouble.

Meta-fiction, fiction about fiction, is very popular in these post-modern times, and “Matinee” contains a fantastic “meta” example that surpasses almost everything I’ve seen on paper or film.

The balcony of the theater where “Mant” is being shown is about to give way because too many kids have congregated up there to get the full effect of the terrifying transformation of a shoe salesman into a fifteen-foot mutant ant.

The building needs to be evacuated. Woolsey realizes that, if he stops the film entirely, he’ll have a riot on his hands. So he loads up a substitute reel that simulates fire licking through celluloid with a nuclear explosion in the background.

The effect is so life-like that the kids scramble safely out of the theater and someone calls the fire department. But once the seats are empty, Woolsey simply turns off the projector. No flames, no mushroom cloud. Just a blank screen.

What a perfect way to demonstrate his skills as an impresario without destroying the joke or calling attention to how cleverly Dante has manipulated the narrative.

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