[This essay was originally published in a brochure produced on the occasion of the Wexner Center for the Arts’ October 2010 Joe Dante retrospective.]

Throwing a Termite in the Works

“The most inclusive description of [termite] art is that it feels its way through the walls of particularization, with no sign that the artist has any object in mind other than eating away the immediate boundaries of his art, and turning those boundaries into conditions of his next achievement.”—Manny Farber

It’s a shame that Manny Farber—one of America’s most distinctive and idiosyncratic film critics—changed his primary trade from writing to painting just as Joe Dante’s directing career was getting underway. In “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art,” a much-debated essay from 1962, Farber argues for the virtues of the “eager, industrious, unkempt” energy of “termite artists” like Laurel and Hardy, Sam Fuller, early Howard Hawks, and Don Siegel. Farber lamented the absence of this type of work in the contemporary cinema of the day, which was more indebted to the “masterpiece art, reminiscent of… enameled tobacco humidors” of the “white elephant artists” (such as Tony Richardson or François Truffaut) that critics usually fawned over. Things haven’t changed much since, which makes Joe Dante’s anarchic, boundary-devouring films such a vital (and anomalous) part of the landscape of modern American film.

One of Dante’s specialties is building up a recognizable movie-genre world within his films and then releasing a termite-ish frenetic force that turns the movie into a perpetual-motion machine of gags, satire, and liberation. There’s often a moment in Dante’s films—from the bar scene in Gremlins to the Area 52 scene in Looney Tunes: Back in Action to almost the entirety of Gremlins 2: The New Batch—where the narrative falls away in order to revel in deliriously purposeless mayhem. And it’s hard not to see the various havoc-prone “Mant” characters in Matinee as a relative of the termite! Dante has referred to these elements, which don’t advance the plot yet are often his films’ raisons d’être, as “doodling in the margins.” It’s no surprise to find out that Dante initially studied to be a cartoonist: his films are uniquely redolent with the antiestablishment irreverence of Mad Magazine and the anarchic release of classic Warner Bros. cartoons. (The Looney Tunes cartoons probably represent the defining example of “termite art.” Not only was Farber unfashionable enough to be one of the first people to champion these cartoons over the more their more prestigious contemporaries at Disney, but he was surely aware that the nickname for the Warner Brothers animation studios was “Termite Terrace.”)

After graduating from the Philadelphia College of Art (where, after being told that cartooning was not a serious profession, he studied film), in 1974, Dante put his obsessive movie mania to work as a film reviewer and managing editor for Film Bulletin magazine. Along with recent Wexner Center guest Peter Bogdanovich, Dante is one of the few American film writers to move into a career as a director (a phenomenon much more common in France). But unlike Bogdanovich, who wrote retrospective profiles of the titans of classical Hollywood cinema, Dante’s beat was the considerably less reputable terrain of genre and drive-in fare. If Bogdanovich’s métier was John Wayne, then Dante’s was Lee Van Cleef. (From 2002 to 2006, Video Watchdog magazine regularly published a column, Fleapit Flashback, that reprinted Dante’s collected film criticism.) This deep—almost curatorial—knowledge of and love for movies and their history is an energizing element throughout all of Dante’s films. Going beyond a connoisseur’s name-dropping, Dante uses these referential elements to situate a film’s characters in the same world as the viewer, provide a running commentary on the film’s primary action, or even create a reflective distance between viewer and film.

Like so many others of his generation, Dante’s entrance into filmmaking was through an apprenticeship with the skinflint exploitation producer/director Roger Corman. Initially brought in as an editor of trailers and features, Dante talked Corman into giving him a chance to direct a picture, Hollywood Boulevard (1976). From there, Dante kept working on increasingly larger and more ambitious projects until Steven Spielberg took him under his wing and produced Dante’s first studio films: Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), Gremlins (1984), and Innerspace (1987). But even in the technically elaborate Spielberg-produced films, Dante evidences a go-for-broke termite-ish energy that belongs to an earlier era of Hollywood or to more renegade productions, like Corman’s. Along with his fellow Corman travelers Jonathan Demme and John Sayles (who cowrote Piranha and The Howling), Dante maintained an element of political subversiveness in even his biggest projects. His studio films might not foreground this as much as Demme’s or Sayles’s do, but it’s present in the impudent, satirical chaos that’s unleashed within them. There’s a great throwaway moment (so many of Dante’s best moments are throwaway ones) in Gremlins where the title characters, who have come to represent countless forms of the Other over the course of the film, are likened to political agitators as the radio DJ announces, “The Marines are standing by and they’re going to turn the hoses on [the Gremlins].”

It stands to reason that Joe Dante’s most articulate champion, Jonathan Rosenbaum, would be an acolyte of Manny Farber’s. In his thoughtful review of The ’burbs, Rosenbaum makes the remarkable observation that Dante has “an ability to make different movies for different audiences at the same time.… [He] gives his audience at least two movies to choose from.” He goes on to point out that with Gremlins, audiences can “enter either the idealized Capra universe or the irresponsible realm of the monsters who seek to undermine it; in Innerspace one can identify with the adventures and attitude of either the pilot or the neurotic.” In films like Explorers or Gremlins, Dante is remarkably adept at building a mainstream, Spielbergian universe, full of the wonders of the movies, but then unleashing a sardonic, termite-like sensibility that undercuts the foundation of the societal and movie-conventional structure. In The ’burbs, one of his most radical studio pictures, Dante performs the ultimate no-no and makes his protagonists (including Mr. Everyman himself, Tom Hanks) increasingly unlikeable and so alienates the audience from the actions of the film’s “heros.” Dante’s tendency to offer up multiple points of identification coupled with his talent at adding disruptive elements that productively prevent his films from being seamless experiences are some of the most exceptional aspects of his work. But they also account for why he is so out of place in contemporary Hollywood. (There’s no more natural candidate than Dante to direct a live-action Looney Tunes movie, but Warner Brothers executives had such an uninformed grasp on their property that they actually asked Dante, “Why does Bugs have to say, ‘What’s Up, Doc?’”) A useful point of comparison on how to get ahead in modern Hollywood is Tim Burton. While Dante’s work is dangerous and expansive, generous and impudent, Burton’s biggest films have become increasingly toothless and insular.

Rosenbaum has noted that despite never taking the now-ubiquitous “A Film By” credit in his movies, Joe Dante is one of the most personal filmmakers working in Hollywood today. Dante himself says that “the hardest thing is to make a movie that reflects your personality.” His demurral of a possessive directorial credit seems born out of both a humility that shares the credit for the film with his fellow crew and cast members as well as a desire not to call attention to himself—so that he can get away with throwing in all the rogue elements that give his pictures such distinctive vitality and personality. But, alas, the antiseptic stainless steel environment of modern Hollywood has, more than ever, become an inhospitable place for the termite artist.

© The Ohio State University/Wexner Center for the Arts. Reproduced by permission.