Yesterday, Justin wrote about Gremlins 2. I did not know he was going to, but it fit right in to a bizarre convergence of circumstance. The original movie had been on my Netflix queue for several weeks, or at least long enough that I can’t tell you what particular incident prompted me to want to watch it again. It finally came to my house earlier this month, but was not immediately viewed. Meanwhile, Justin sent a draft of his latest novel for me to read, and, while I shouldn’t go into any details, it very much reminded me I had some Mogwai and Gremlin action waiting to be revisited.
So I popped in the DVD and was immediately struck by how much of Gremlins I’d forgotten, or perhaps never even noticed. Was the last time I’d watched it really when it first released in 1984? I knew it left an impression on my fragile little mind, but I don’t believe I ever looked at it with the overblown sophistications of an adult viewpoint.
Yes, you can run screaming now, I’m about to engage in overthink. I did the same thing with Empire Strikes Back not too long ago. It doesn’t mean I enjoy the movie any less, nor do you have to agree with me. Just click away, and there will be an end to the horror…
Sorry about that. Humungus moment. Anyhow, if you’re still here, it’s your own damn fault. Let’s get socio-political ’bout Gremlins.
In the 1980’s, the zeitgeist of America was that we were a land under siege, and a lot of the movies of the time reflected that. Oh, you had your occasional feel good flick like E.T. where the “foreigner” was friendly, but in general I recall a nation feeling like it was being squeezed on one side by the Evil Empire of Communist Russia, remorseless, infectious, and implacable… and on the other side by the inhumanly efficient robot people of Japan, who had proven (horror of horrors!) to be better at our beloved Capitalism than us. And if it wasn’t the outsiders invading and destroying our way of life, then we were self-destructing from within as corrupt officials and street gangs ran rampant and unchecked.
In Gremlins, you have a barely intelligible foreign immigrant introduced into traditional, smalltown America who seems harmless at first, but then multiplies into an amoral horde destroying everything in its path. If that subtext is too subtle for you, the movie generously provides the character of Mr. Futterman and his running commentary on how foreigners and their products are the cause of everything wrong with the world. Seriously, watch the movie and see how many times he starts a sentence with “Goddamn foreign…”. He’s the one who brings up the concept of gremlins, a concept Billy later embraces by uttering the line that titles this article.
Futterman: “Y’know they’re still shippin’ them over here. They put em in cars, they put em in yer tv. They put em in stereos and those little radios you stick in your ears. They even put em in watches, they have teeny gremlins for our watches! “
Gremlins are not native to the good ol’ U.S. of A., nossir, it’s those damn foreigners that are responsible.
And yet, the Mogwai is found in Chinatown, rather than being some Japanese creation as the 80’s zeitgeist would predict. Nowadays this would make perfect subtextual sense, because China is our new national nightmare, a combination of both 80’s Russia and 80’s Japan that we furthermore are so economically tied up in we were actually afraid to release a Red Dawn remake with China in the role of the aggressor because it would potentially offend them. Ironic that Futterman would have a Nixon poster on his wall, considering who arguably paved the way for all that to happen.
A prescient look into the future, or an accident? Well, all the above said, I’ll side with accident on this one. In one of the early drafts (from which the novelization was written) the Mogwai/Gremlins were genetically engineered by aliens, but this was wisely chucked from the film in favor of a more mystical flavoring. After all, you’re talking about creatures that have rules like “don’t feed them after midnight”, something that’s bad enough if you consider time zones, but would be absolute nonsense to a space traveler.
From a Hollywood standpoint, if you wanted crazy mysticism in the 80’s, you looked no further than China. Japan was all skyscrapers and business suits and robots. China was strange prophecies and ghosts and sorcerors with mismatched eyes.
Big Trouble in Little China and The Golden Child are movies that dipped into this well, but Gremlins had them both beat by a couple of years. This, I think, probably has a lot more to do with the choice to have the Mogwai be a Chinese import.
Interesting side-note, there is actual Chinese folklore in play here, it just doesn’t have a mouthpiece like Futterman to hammer it home. Mogwai is actually Cantonese for “devil”, “monster”, or “evil spirit”:
“According to Chinese tradition, mogwai are certain demons, which often inflict harm on humans. They are said to reproduce sexually during mating seasons triggered by the coming of rain…”
So the whole “don’t get them wet” commandment isn’t just arbitrary. How cool is that?
Anyhow, Gremlins shows us China’s at fault for destroying America. Or does it? The mystical old man doesn’t want to sell the Mogwai, it’s his Americanized son who goes behind his back to sell Gizmo to Rand Peltzer, the American entrepeneur, because they “need the money”. Rand’s whole career is also a contradiction of Futterman’s ravings, since the Peltzers have a household full of homegrown Made in the U.S.A. gadgets that need no gremlin to malfunction in spectacular ways.
In fact, how about this? Show Gremlins to a modern, conservative American audience, and maybe some might see a filthy horde of jabbering foreigners tearing apart Christmas after we stupidly let them into our homes.
Show Gremlins to a modern, conservative Chinese audience, and maybe some might see it as a cautionary tale against embracing the corruptions of rampant consumerism and Western pop culture. The old Chinese man shows up to chastise the Americans at the end for their society of carelessness and greed, and gets a round of government-sanctioned applause.
But then, that moment also shows how things have changed, because there’s nothing but dark irony now in the idea of China lecturing anyone on being irresponsible and destructive with nature’s gifts.
You can read political messages into just about anything if you try, and despite Futterman’s exhortations I’m not going to insist Gremlins was meant as any kind of deep allegory a la Invasion of the Body Snatchers (even though that movie was such a huge inspiration they go so far as to show a clip from it). And even if there were an allegory, it’s either out-of-date or ludicrously psychic.
I’m just sayin’, there’s a Disneyland in Hong Kong now.
They’re watching Snow White… and they love it.