The excellent retrospective of Joe Dante's subversive, eccentric cinema in New York at BAM this month includes all the expected classics, which can hardly be termed "forgotten"—"fondly remembered" would be more like it—but also some intriguing and more obscure pieces: The Film Orgy, a five-hour found footage riot; several items programmed by Dante, such as Anthony Mann's The Black Book (a.k.a. Reign of Terror) and Arthur Penn's existential art film Mickey One; and also some of Dante's TV work, much of which is far less well-known than it ought to be...
Dante's episodes of cable show Masters of Horror are uniquely dark, savage affairs with strong political agendas—Homecoming (2005) was the first bit of American filmed drama to deal openly with the war in Iraq. The "serious comedy" of this all-out, take-no-prisoners assault on the Bush administration is anticipated by the tone and approach of an early HBO movie, The Second Civil War.
How prophetic can we expect a near-future satire on 24-hr news and politics to be, given that just a few years later saw "the end of history," an event that sent the United States spiraling into clinical insanity and ushered in a new and far more dangerous world? Well, the weird thing is, Dante's film, written by documantarist Martyn Burke, seems to have come true in almost every key particular. Watching it today is a jaw-dropping experience, far more so than it was when the piece was new. I guess the hot-button topics tackled in the show with a kind of gleeful-yet-angry tastelessness—immigration, outsourcing, terrorism, political polarization, mass shootings, terrorism—are still equally prominent, but their urgency has been ramped up in much the same way this film indicates.
Considering that the technology of television has transformed in the intervening almost-two-decades, thanks to Burke's journalism experience, the behind-the-scenes stuff, staged on a giant "high-tech" set with a lot of dynamic camera movement and yelling actors, still feels plausible. Dante's news team includes Dan Hedaya, Joanna Cassidy, James Earl Jones, Ron Perlman, Elizabeth Peña, Denis Leary and regular collaborators Roger Corman, Robert Picardo and Dick Miller.
Political figures include Phil Hartman as the vacillating president, James Coburn as an all-powerful lobbyist, Beau Bridges as a governor on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and another Dante favorite, the reliably nervous Kevin McCarthy. Brian Keith makes his final onscreen appearance as a belligerent general. It's a strangely bittersweet experience to see all these guys, since a couple of them died tragically young, and I always feel sad when I see old James Coburn because I'm reminded we don't have him anymore (whereas I always feel happy when I see young James Coburn because I'm reminded we'll always have him).
The melancholy isn't lifted by the fact that not all the jokes are particularly strong, but this really doesn't matter, since the film's real strength is its Strangelovian feeling of events spinning madly out of control: nightmare comedy with the emphasis, and volume, on the first word. But while everyone in Kubrick's masterpiece is a vicious caricature, The Second Civil War is a deeply humanist work, so we care about the people. I found myself tearing up when Cassidy freaks out on air and slams her co-anchor's head off the desk while snarling "There-is-no-other-news!" A slapstick version of the much-parodied "Oh the humanity!", when newshound professionalism gives way to actual human emotion. A beautiful thing.
With a flood of refugees from a Middle East crisis besieging Idaho, the film's main plotline seems transposed from modern Europe to the States. The movie makes you feel desperate, much like the news, and any laughter tends to die in your throat, just like the news. The only thing missing is Donald Trump, but Dante had already tackled the Orange Pretender in the majestic Gremlins II: The New Batch, where clownish billionaire Daniel Clamp is a readily identifiable surrogate—but no satire can really go far enough where he's concerned.