As the director of Gremlins and Small Soldiers, Joe Dante has a mainstream reputation for kid flicks with dark undertones. But the filmmaker, 65, has a more specific following among cinephiles, who regard him as a smuggler of ideas and a connoisseur of a bygone age of moviegoing; all of his films are laced with references to old Hollywood and sly critiques of the entertainment-industrial complex. That combination is on full display in his early-career found-footage compilation The Movie Orgy—a 1968 opus culled from B movies, commercials, TV episodes and other clips collected by Dante and his producer friend Jon Davison.
Originally, The Movie Orgy was closer to performance art than a completed film. “We would start a movie, and when the movie got boring we would switch projectors,” Dante says, calling from his office in Hollywood. “All told, the show would run seven hours and it would have five or six or seven different movies interspersed with a lot of other detritus.” The presentation, which first assumed its title at NYU, became popular with students. Seizing on that success, Schlitz offered Dante and Davison a promotional tie-in. The two separately toured college campuses, where a company representative would sell Schlitz at screenings and the movie would include since-removed commercials for the beer.
You might want to brown-bag a can when a nearly five-hour cut screens Saturday 11 at the Nightingale, with Dante in attendance. The night before, he’ll appear at the Music Box to present screenings of 1990’s Gremlins 2: The New Batch and his still-unreleased 3-D film from 2009, The Hole (which, alas, is showing in 2-D).
While the Music Box showings, presented as part of the A.V. Club’s New Cult Canon series, will be an event, The Movie Orgy is the rarity. “There’s something about the communal experience of being exposed to this mind-rotting material for a long period of time that makes the audience kind of giddy,” Dante says. “I try never to let it out unless there’s a big audience to see it.”
The Orgy will unfold without an intermission—the whole idea, Dante says, is that you won’t miss anything if you step out for a second. But you might lose some sense of its internal architecture. Movies resume after being absent from the screen for long stretches. Groucho Marx in You Bet Your Life appears before younger Groucho Marx in Duck Soup. Government newsreels about what to do in a nuclear attack are intercut with a film in which radioactive locusts invade our city.
That last bit had special resonance at the time. “In the giant-grasshopper movie, Peter Graves says, ‘You can’t drop an atom bomb on Chicago,’ ” Dante says. “And this is right after the Chicago convention in 1968. That [line] would bring down the house to the point where you couldn’t hear anything for the next minute.” While Dante says Orgy is essentially a Rorschach test, the film is pointedly anti-war; one recurring theme, which can be seen in later Dante works, is the militarization of children.
Which movie is Dante most proud of? “Proud of is what you are of your kids”—he says, although he notes he doesn’t have any—“but I’m happy with most of what I’ve done up until the late ’90s. That was around the time there started to be more interference. I would’ve been happy making drive-in movies. Unfortunately, they stopped making drive-ins, so [Laughs] I’ve changed my plan there.”