Retro Review: Deck the Halls With Splatter Cinema: GREMLINS Invade the Plaza Theatre!!!

Posted on: Dec 10th, 2012 By:

Splatter Cinema Presents GREMLINS (1984); Dir: Joe Dante; Starring: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates and Hoyt Axton; Tue. Dec. 11 @ 9:30 p.m.; Sun. Dec. 16 @ 3:00 p.m.; Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

One of the most notable aspects of the classic Warner Brothers Looney Tunes series of cartoon shorts is that while they were created for the enjoyment of children, they were written to also entertain those parents accompanying their kids to the theater. They’d frequently wink at the audience, breaking the fourth wall and commenting on the ridiculousness of what was transpiring. Few directors have the right touch to pull this off in live-action filmmaking the way that Joe Dante does, and fewer films succeed at this to the extent of GREMLINS.

From his more cartoonish collaborations with Allan Arkush (HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD, ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL) to his somewhat more restrained horror features (PIRHANA, THE HOWLING), Dante’s modus operandi is to pepper his films with sly humor that acknowledges the fact that we’re all watching a movie. In the hands of some, it could come off as condescending—a kind of “look at us: we’re intentionally making a bad movie, hyuk hyuk!” attitude. But Dante loves this stuff too much to be condescending. In his hands, it all comes across as gleeful subversion; he seems to say that it’s okay to have fun with this medium and the things we love about it. That it’s okay to throw in a special appearance by Robby the Robot for a laugh because who doesn’t love Robby the Robot? That casting Dick Miller in every movie you make and frequently crediting him as “Walter Paisley” (his character from A BUCKET OF BLOOD) is fine, because Dick Miller is a legend and A BUCKET OF BLOOD is fantastic! More than even Tarantino, Joe Dante is the movie nerd’s movie nerd. His films take the attitude that they can have fun with established movie tropes because you should be having fun, and nothing is more fun than the movies.

Which brings us to GREMLINS. Like the classic Warner Brothers cartoons (hey, there’s Chuck Jones in the bar scene!) and Dante’s previous work, it blissfully screws with expectations about what you’re watching. And what it’s playing around with is Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Like E.T., the film is about a small-town kid who winds up taking care of an adorable, otherworldly creature, gets in over his head and madcap antics ensue. The first twist to the formula is that Billy (Zach Galligan), unlike E.T.’s Elliot, is college-aged, pursuing his old high school crush (Phoebe Cates) and still living with his folks. But still, that’s not such a departure that it necessarily alters the story dynamic, right? I mean, after his dad (Hoyt Axton) presents him with a precious little Mogwai named Gizmo, even if he breaks the final two of the creature’s three rules (1. Keep him out of bright lights. 2. Don’t get him wet. 3. Never feed him after midnight.), how bad can it get? It’s a Christmas movie, for crying out loud!

GREMLINS' Gizmo is darned cute when he's not wet. Warner Brothers, 1984.

Things can get really bad.

Rather than the film conforming to the E.T. template by having a force from outside threaten the poor little guy and his human pal, and eventually giving us a warm and affectionate send-off, Dante and screenwriter Chris Columbus have Billy make a couple of boneheaded mistakes and potentially doom the entire town. Thanks to Billy, an army of scaly, green and ugly little beasties are running about the place and gleefully killing and eating townspeople just for kicks. Gremlins are gruesomely killed in food processors and microwaves. Phoebe Cates recounts a horrific story about her father’s death. Nobody is safe. It’s almost as if Dante knew that the movie-going public would see Gizmo looking like a little bipedal pug and making high-pitched Howie Mandel noises and generally being so adorable you can barely stand it, and bring their kids to unwittingly witness THE MOST VIOLENT PG-RATED FILM OF ALL TIME. Okay, maybe INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM has it beat, but not by much, bucko. Instead of the heartwarming and heartbreaking farewell of E.T., Billy’s family gets chewed out at the end as a proxy for the entirety of Western Civilization being a bunch of jerks. And all the while, you can practically hear Joe Dante, standing just off-screen, laughing himself half to death.

Predictably, parents were horrified. One of the teachers at my high school refused to let her kids see the film because the Gremlins “were obviously demons from the pit of Hell.” Outrage from Responsible Parents over the violence in this (and yes, in TEMPLE OF DOOM) is what led to the establishment of the PG-13 rating. But kids? Kids ate this up. They ate it up like pancakes covered in ice cream. Because even if the Responsible Parents didn’t get it, the kids did. And the Irresponsible Parents (like mine, bless ‘em) got that this was all a huge, happy joke.

Don't be fooled. The caroling GREMLINS aren't here for good cheer. Warners Brothers, 1984.

Unfortunately, GREMLINS wasn’t originally released at Christmastime. Fearing that they had nothing to offer for competition during the summer of GHOSTBUSTERS and (again) TEMPLE OF DOOM, Warner Brothers rushed the release of the film and pushed it up by six months. It’s a shame, too, because despite the absolutely epic violence of the film, it’s practically the perfect Christmas movie. Let’s face it: the best Christmas entertainments are fueled by a perverse viewing of Things Going Wrong. Would IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE be what it is without spending the vast majority of the film watching everything that could possibly go wrong in George Bailey’s life go even worse? Would HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS be as enjoyable without watching the Grinch attempt to ruin everybody’s life? Santa Claus in MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET may just actually be insane. RUDOLPH, THE RED-NOSED REINDEER runs away from home and hangs out with a bunch of losers and reprobates. There was that YEAR WITHOUT A SANTA CLAUS. It’s not A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS without watching Chuck’s life spiral into a void of existential dread. Christmas is a time for joy and merriment…and bloodshed and death.

…All of which makes GREMLINS the perfect choice for Splatter Cinema to screen at the Plaza Theatre this month. Even if it doesn’t seem to make sense at first (Spielberg produced it! Its hero is a little fuzzy critter!), sit back and enjoy one of the few Christmas movies to fully embrace the notion that over-the-top violence can be joyful.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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Kool Kat of the Week: Playing with Scissors, Dreaming of Unspiralled Stairs and Hiding Plastic Spiders with Jeffrey Butzer

Posted on: Mar 28th, 2012 By:

Jeffrey Butzer with accordion. Photo credit: Melissa J. Butzer.

Cinematic. Haunting. Minimalist. Unique. Perfect.  All of these words could describe Jeffrey Butzer‘s eclectic sound rendered with such unusual instrument choices as accordion, toy piano and glockenspiel. The motto of his live shows might be “expect the unexpected” in the best possible way, and his previous recordings and videos, solo and with bands The Bicycle Eaters and The Compartmentalists, have attracted praise from Canadian film director Guy Maddin (THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD) and film critic Roger Ebert. In other words, if all you know about Jeffrey is his Charlie Brown Christmas tribute show (read our article about it here), you’re in for a real treat at the release party for Jeffrey Butzer and the Bicycle Eaters’ new 7-inch HIDING PLASTIC SPIDERS (The Great Big) this Saturday night March 31 at The Earl.

ATLRetro caught up with Jeffrey recently to find out more about HIDING PLASTIC SPIDERS, the influence of Spaghetti Western scores and scissors on his unique sound, and what it was like to wake up Roger Ebert in the middle of the night.

Just the title HIDING PLASTIC SPIDERS suggests a story behind the music. What’s on it, how did you come to write the songs and is it true it will be on red vinyl?

This might not be as mysterious as a back story as one might want to hear, [but] the title refers to something my wife and I did when we first met. We worked together, and at our job we had a bunch of magnetic spiders that were a promotional item for a film and we would hide them from each other. It is a fond memory of us getting to know each other (13 years ago, now). It is on red vinyl; it looks like a Jolly Rancher.

This is the first release as Jeffrey Butzer and the Bicycle Eaters, these are all songs that I came in with the basic structure and melodies, and they “fixed them up.” Kristin [Jarvis] and Chad [Shivers] are amazing with melodies and counter-melodies. Eric [Balint] is like a secret weapon; he knows just what to and not to do and the right times. And William [J. Brisby] has played bass in almost every project and has never missed one single note. That is not a joke.

What was it like recording with a band and a producer?

It was wonderful. I’ve known Luci, the producer, for a very long time, and he is patient and a perfectionist. He slows me down in a good way. He really excels at everything he tries. He’s an amazing photographer, musician and a great dresser. And recording with a band in the past has been impractical. Normally I multi-track the parts, then bring in other musicians after the fact. On this, it was really nice being able to record with most of us in the room; it added a nice mood to the record.

How did you hook up with Gea who directed the video of Case of Unspiralled Stairs ?

I’ve known her for several years; we are both big film enthusiasts. I liked her artwork and asked her if she wanted to do a video for the record, and thankfully she did and it turned out really great.

So Roger Ebert posts the video for “Case of Unspiralled Stairs” on Facebook and says “I woke up in the middle of the night. Jeffrey Butzer had sent me this. That was the perfect time to view it. My mind was still halfway in dreams.” How cool was that and was that the response you had hoped for from it?

It was very cool! I didn’t really know what to expect. He had never really commented when I sent him videos before. I “know” him through a secret society that he and I are both members of. Along with Ken Keeler (FUTURAMA), Neil Gaiman and Guy Maddin.

Speaking of Guy Maddin, how did you meet him and get him to do alternate cover artwork for HIDING PLASTIC SPIDERS?

I scored a film called BIRDCATCHER that Guy saw, and we sort of became friends. I am going to hang out with him in New York in a couple weeks! I saw the collages that he made, and he agreed to let us use [one of] them as cover art!

When your music is paired with video, it reminds me of a lost 1950s/60s existentialist French film. Can you talk a bit about how film has influenced your sound and visuals?

Film has always been the band’s biggest influence. All the greats: Buster Keaton, Fellini, Bunuel and Penny Marshall… well, maybe not her so much. I think when I first started making music I wanted to sound like certain artists. But as I got older, other mediums began to influence my music more, especially film. The instrumental music that we make is mostly about mood, much like the film style you mentioned. So I think the approach and what we are trying to achieve isn’t that far apart.

Some have heard the influence of Ennio Morricone’s Spaghetti Western scores. Are you a Spaghetti Western fan? What are your favorite films/scores from that genre?

I’m way more into Spaghetti Western music than into the films. There are several I really enjoy. They’re so style-driven that you can really just watch scenes from them isolated from the movie. If I were to name some I like: THE GRAND DUEL and FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE. The other band I’m in The Compartmentalizationalists touches more on the genre than the Bicycle Eaters.

Scissors play a key role in your video for “Lucy 5’s Egg” and I understand you dangle them on stage as well in some of your gigs. Why scissors, and will scissors be part of this week’s show?

I wrote lyrics to a song a really long time ago that had the lines “on a pillar in the sky, a sleeping woman lies, dreaming of the garden of scissors.” I really liked the image. I wrote a screenplay and an album based on that line, and it has sort of stuck as a motif over the years.

An image from the haunting video for "Case of Unspiralled Stairs."

The toy piano, accordion and glockenspiel are unusual instruments for a contemporary musician. What drew you to them?

I like how whimsical they sound together. I never wanted to make music that is old-fashioned or heavily referenced by something from the past. But on the other hand, nostalgia interests me a lot. I first heard toy pianos used a lot by Rob Burger and Margaret Leng Tan.

Why the “Bicycle-Eaters”?

That is a bit of an inside joke. The short version is just that my friend Matt Benard, who plays bass with us, sometimes knows a guy who, in fact…ate a bicycle.

Your gigs are known to include the unexpected, but without giving any big surprises, do you have any special plans for this week’s show at The Earl?

We have a couple OF guest singers and an unusual cover song we are doing. If I tell you anymore, it won’t be unexpected. ZING!

When will your new CD “COLLAPSIBLE” be released and what can you share about it?

I’m not sure. I am hoping for a May release at the Goat Farm. It is a collection of songs played mostly with small arrangements. So far it is just a solo album. I have had a few songs floating around for a while and I record at night after my son goes to sleep. Some are new interpretations of songs I have releases before – only a few though.

I have an odd process. I always set out to make an album with a list of songs in hand. Then when I’m done, as with this one, I cut half of the songs I originally wanted on and record a bunch of new things. For this album, which has between 12-15 songs, I recorded around 35… so far.

What else is up with Jeffrey Butzer? We’ve heard you’ve done some interesting collaborations lately and even dipped into film and theatrical scoring. Any more team-ups planned with Molly Harvey (The Residents)? And aren’t you going to Poland?

Molly and I are planning some shows. Some as a duo and some with a band. Other than that, I’ve got the score for PETER PAN at the Center for Puppetry Arts that starts playing April 5. I am recording a Compartmentalizationalists album with Claire Lodge and Nico from the band Places. Then I am taking a break in June when my second son will be born!  The Poland trip has been put on hold. Hopefully later on we will still go.

 

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A Charlie Brown Christmas Is What It’s All About: Jeffrey Butzer and TT Mahony’s Jazzy Musical Tribute to Vince Guaraldi’s PEANUTS Score Comes to The Earl & The Earl Smith Strand

Posted on: Dec 16th, 2011 By:

Jeffrey Butzer channels Schroeder & Vince Guaraldi in A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS, his annual holiday show with TT Mahony.

Not just nostalgic adults, but kids, too, will get to enjoy Jeffrey Butzer and T.T. Mahony’s jazzy musical tribute to Vince Guaraldi’s A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS this year with the duo presenting it at two Earls – first at The Earl Fri. Dec. 16 and Sat. Dec. 17 (both 9 p.m.) and then at the Earl Smith Strand Theatre in Marietta Tues. Dec. 20 (3 p.m. and 8 p.m.). All shows will feature an opening instrumental set by Jeffrey’s band, The Bicycle Eaters, and surf favorites from THE VENTURES CHRISTMAS ALBUM  rendered by Chad Shivers and Friends.

The seasonal sell-out shows of A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS are clearly a labor of love for Jeffrey, a musician/composer whose solo works tend towards the minimalism of the simple Christmas tree in the iconic Charles Schultz special. Inspired by melodic French musette, pieces on two albums SHE TRADED HER LEG (2006) and THE GARDEN OF SCISSORS (2009), both released by Lona Records, incorporate such eclectic instruments as accordions, bass drum, piano, glockenspiel and—perhaps inspired by a childhood admiration for Schroeder—toy piano. His band, the Bicycle Eaters, takes a different bend, inspired by Ennio Morricone spaghetti western scores, klezmer and gypsy, the former suggesting that their opening set will be more than appropriate for a vintage art deco movie theatre like the Strand. He’s also down a film soundtracks (Raymond Carr’s WILD IS THE WIND), collaborated live with Molly Harvey of The Residents and has ventured lately into the world of live scoring to Buster Keaton’s THE BALLOONATIC. And frankly that’s just a small taste of the musical adventures of this diverse Atlanta performer and affirmed cineaste.

Today though, ATLRetro caught up with Jeffrey to chat about A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS, what to expect at The Earl and The Strand, and what’s next for him with The Bicycle Eaters and as a solo composer/musician.

How old were you when you first saw A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS on TV and what did the show and its music mean to you when growing up?

I don’t remember a time NOT knowing who Charlie Brown was. It is like Bruce Lee, Elvis or Grandma, something that seemed to always exist to me. Growing up, it was always my favorite special. I liked how blue it was. Both literally and figuratively. Cartoon music in general affects you strangely. Like Carl Stalling and Raymond Scott with the Looney Toons, I wasn’t aware of them until I was older and started playing music. But again, it is hard to remember a time when I didn’t listen to that record every year.

How did you and TT Mahony get the idea of developing A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS holiday show, and for how many years have you been doing it?

This is year four. I approached TT after he played a Leonard Cohen/Tom Waits/Nick Cave tribute show I worked on. He is an amazing piano player, very witty , too. I had kicked around the idea of doing a holiday show in the past but never really knew a pianist that could handle Guaraldi. Robby Handley is the best upright bass player I know. Great hair, too. And here is an odd fact about TT. He can jump really, really high. I’ve told him he should find some way to compete. I once saw him jump from the ground onto the top of a Toyota.

I understand last year’s shows were packed. Were you surprised that so many adults were so enthusiastic about music from a 1960s kids TV show/Christmas LP? What kind of comments did you get after your performance?

Yes, we were hoping for the best, that our fans and friends would enjoy the show and hopefully some new faces would come out. But the response has been overwhelming. Last year we had to start doing two nights. As far as comments, the one we get the most is “Can you do an all-ages one too…for the babies?” The reason we haven’t is because. the mood we set in The Earl seems to really suit Snoopy and the gang. It is cozy, dark, and has energy almost like a rock show. We are really looking forward to adjusting it for a sitting crowd at The Strand. We love the room. It is like a miniature Fox Theatre. And playing for children will be a blast. My 2-year-old son Francis dances every time he hears “Linus and Lucy.”

What audiences can expect at The Earl this weekend?

Cookies, dancing… It is basically a big Holiday Party with 300 of your closest, newest friends.

What are you doing at The Strand to make it even more kid-friendly?

The show will not change much. We do have a kid’s choir with us at the Strand!

Why pair Peanuts with The Ventures?

Well, the albums were released around the same time for one thing. They are both classic ‘60s albums. They are both easy to dance to.

Jeffrey Butzer. Photo credit: Melissa J. Butzer.

And what about that opening set from Jeffrey Butzer and the Bicycle Eaters?

My band (The Bicycle Eaters) play Frenchy-Jazzy-Spaghetti Western-inspired instrumentals. We are releasing a limited EP at the show

What else are you and the Bicycle Eaters up to? Any 2012 gigs or recordings you’d like to tell readers about?

We almost all have children, so we’ve been laying low, only doing select shows. But we will have an official release for our new 7” at The Earl in March. I’m also working on a score for PETER PAN at The Center for Puppetry Arts. Then I have a solo record coming out named COLLAPSIBLE. Then off to play some dates inPoland.

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