I’ve been thinking about movies that have made me cry, and the oddest, perhaps most unexpected one on the list is Stephen Spielberg’s Gremlins, a “horror comedy” that came out in 1984. My crying over Gremlins became a part of family lore, though I think it’s been forgotten now and maybe should stay that way. I was teased relentlessly for years about it. However, Gremlins certainly makes me recall a time when tears were no stranger and I did not suffer dry eye in the least.
In 1984, I was, in fact, prone to frequent crying. As I look back over my journals from that time, I think that it might have been the worst year of my life. At age 24, I was in a hell of a mess. I had recently graduated from a fancy college with artistic aspirations, but was underemployed as a proofreader in a law firm where the lawyers were not allowed to even eat lunch with the underlings. It was a demeaning place and one where I had nothing in common with anyone. I outlasted three fellow proofreaders—a yakety-yakking young married woman with buck teeth and total self-satisfaction, a 400-pound guy who breathed heavily in our tiny office and licked the edges of his mustache, and a redneck girl who often came in with bruises from her country music–singer boyfriend and regularly snorted cocaine in the office bathroom.
Much to my surprise, I was also having an affair with a married man whose indecision about what to do twisted my life back and forth and round and round. A feminist, I couldn’t believe that I was involved in such a thing, and then one day my father made the unbelievable announcement that he was leaving my mother for another woman after twenty-seven years of marriage. My mother was devastated.
So I had plenty to cry about. But it’s also true that something about Gremlins tapped into my grief and fear, into my sense that something had gone terribly wrong with my life, maybe in the whole world. I remember also crying during that time period as I watched Poco, Little Lost Dog (1977), about a pup trying to find its way home through the desert after a car accident separated him from his people, and Sybil (1976), about a girl with multiple personality disorder caused by her mother’s years of terrible abuse. In all of these movies, some creature, animal, or person faces violence, misunderstanding, and/or loneliness. Perhaps that’s more obvious in Poco and Sybil, but it’s also true in Gremlins.
Gremlins is supposed to be funny, but while I sat in the darkened theater with my married boyfriend, I felt akin to someone in a crowd of people laughing as someone fell on the ice and broke his back, or someone stuck in the corner of a George Grosz painting filled with ugly, bulging faces. The supposedly evil gremlins, for me, retained too much similarity to the cute, cuddly mogwai Gizmo, who, after all, was their source. They were ugly and destructive, but they in no way merited the violence visited on them by the humans in the movie. In the famous kitchen scene, now often deleted, in which the mother of the main character slaughters three gremlins, including cooking one inside a microwave, was just flat out brutal. The movie, of course, was playing on the stories that had recently gone around about ignorant people trying to dry off their wet Chihuahuas and other small pets in microwave ovens, so it invoked a truly terrible and sad phenomenon. Live creatures boil from the inside and then explode when subjected to microwaves. I was horrified that anyone would think this funny, and yet I was in a large room with dozens and dozens of people roaring with laughter.
Already, I identified with the aliens, with those who don’t belong. Already I was worried at the human attitude about all other life forms. Already I knew that, in spite of all my (failed) ideals, I wasn’t any better than the laughing goons around me. Gremlins also taught me in a very odd way about the seriousness of comedy, about the desperation so often thinly veiled in its lines and images.
Go ahead, laugh. It’s sorta funny.