These Are Dark Times
During times of crisis over the past century or so, movies have served as a source of comfort. As most of us are quarantined in our homes for the foreseeable future, we continue to plunder the seemingly inexhaustible amount of entertainment available at our fingertips.
Being lucky enough to “work” from home, I’ve sequestered myself if my basement, away from wife and kids, with an old DVD player hooked up to a small CRT television. While occasional work related duties will rear their ugly head from time-to-time, I’ve mostly worked my way through a backlog of movies I’ve picked up at used bookstores and thrift shops.
Bundled in a pack of family films was the 1993 John Goodman cult-classic, Matinee. Set against the backdrop of the Cold War’s Cuban Missile Crisis, the film draws uncomfortable parallels to our modern-day situation. Seeing two characters argue over the last box of shredded wheat at the grocery store feels especially relevant.
No Typical Matinee Idol
John Goodman plays Lawrence Woolsey, basically a stand-in for noted cigar chomping, B-movie filmmaker William Castle. While he promotes an air of confidence and success, he’s actually walking a fine line between continuing to make films and financial ruin. Seizing on the paranoia of the moment, Woolsey brings his new film about a half-man/half-ant creature to Florida.
While Woolsey is the most intriguing character, the audience surrogate is a young boy named Gene who lives on a nearby military base with his mother and brother. With his father deployed, Gene finds Woolsey to be an ideal substitute, teaching him the tricks of the trade.
As part of the strategy to promote the film, Woolsey employs two actors, one of whom is played by noted B-movie actor Dick Miller, to pretend to be concerned citizens about the smut being shown in their town. Woolsey also incorporates tricks Castle would later use, such as attaching buzzers to the seats in the theater and having viewers sign waivers before entering the showing.
Escape to the Past
Hidden within the film is the fake movie, Mant! To modern audiences it might be more of a parody, but to the intended boomer audience of the time, it’s clearly a love letter to the types of movies they grew up watching, complete with a heavy-handed “War is Bad” moral. Full of cheesy dialogue, bizarre exposition, and low-budget special effects, Mant! would feel perfectly at home on one of those giant boxed sets of 100+ public domain films that can be nabbed pretty cheap.
The Cold War tensions and film climax in parallel, causing mass panic as the screen seemingly melts away to display an atomic explosion. As the audience runs outside to their certain deaths, they discover the world hasn’t ended and relief washes over them. As Woolsey comments on the relief the town must feel, he and his partner realize it will only last until the next “crisis.”
Worth The Two Bits
Throughout the movie, the real life story is the least interesting part. Partially due to how we know it’s going to end, but mainly because Goodman dwarfs the real world plotline with Woolsey’s over the top showmanship. Being released at the height of his popularity with Roseanne, this movie is an excellent vehicle for Goodman’s talents. Sadly, it’s a shame this movie is not more widely known.
From a craftsmanship perspective, it’s hard to tell if some of the production looks phony or if it was part of trying to capture the aesthetics of the early 1960s. There’s a certain cheap quality to the look of the film, and I don’t think it’s a Meta way of making it feel more like a B-movie.
Regardless of the production values, at times like this, it’s important to realize we’ve faced larger threats, and we’ve gotten through them largely unscathed. This time will be no different. For those infected with the virus, get better. For everyone else, let’s not look this gift horse in the mouth and take some time for a much needed break. At least until the inevitable zombie apocalypse.