We are pleased to offer an excerpt from the August 2022 edition of the online magazine Bright Wall/Dark Room. Their theme this month is "1987." In addition to the excerpted essay below by Frank Falisi on "Innerspace," the new issue also features pieces on "Raising Arizona," "Broadcast News," "Near Dark," "Withnail & I," "Law of Desire," "Prince of Darkness," "Maurice," "The Brave Little Toaster," and an episode dedicated to "Ishtar" on the BW/DR Podcast.
The camera eye transforms the human body. Whether by photographic lens or pixelatic rearrangement, the camera eye affords the human one the occasion to watch a cinematographic subject’s size shift. This phenomenon is called ‘zoom in’ or ‘zoom out,’ but there’s really no reason not to call it by its more colloquial name: growing and shrinking.
On August 12th, 1987, the camera eye sits at a medium length away from its subject. It sees the room the subject sits in, the shelf of family photos, the desk the subject occupies, the flag in the right of the frame. Ronald Reagan is talking but not saying anything, clutching papers in his hands, ostensibly the speech he’s delivering; he will not look at them once in the 15 minutes it takes for him to deliver this speech. It’s fairly standard Presidential Address fare: “Tonight I want to talk about some of the lessons we’ve learned” and “I also want to talk about the future and getting on with things.” Whether on a TV set in 1987 or a laptop screen in 2022, Reagan is smaller than life in this frame, addressing the “recent congressional hearings on the Iran-Contra matter.” He looks turkey-necked and shrunken in a blue suit the size of a Buick Grand National.
And then someone notices, or the camera does, because it begins to zoom in on Ronald Reagan. He begins to grow, at least proportionally, inside the frame. It’s not an incidental growth: the president is now recapping some of the findings of those investigative procedures, and the effect produced by the close-up, by the growth, is increased intimacy. “Our original initiative rapidly got all tangled up in the sale of arms, and the sale of arms got tangled up with hostages,” he says. If he were smaller, maybe this line would clang like the no-language that it is. But Reagan sells it, in no small part because he dominates the frame at this point, every inch the Hollywood cowboy.
“As I said to you in March,” he goes on, directly addressing an imaginary ‘Fellow American,’ which is to say, the cinematic spectator: “I let my preoccupation with the hostages intrude into areas where it didn’t belong. The image—the reality—of Americans in chains, deprived of their freedom and families so far from home, burdened my thoughts. This was a mistake.” The president has now implicated the spectator: to double-guess Reagan’s actions is now, logically, to advocate for more American hostages, to not be big enough to get distracted by a sense of wrathful duty. And just when it seems like the balloon might pop, the camera zooms out again, shrinking Reagan away but strategically, not diminutively. The spectator breathes. Reagan breathes. The buck has stopped, or at least shrunk to the point of being forgotten.
A month and 12 days before Reagan addresses the nation regarding his involvement in the Iran-Contra Affair, Innerspace opens in cineplexes all over the country. Innerspace tells the story of two men, Tuck Pendleton (Dennis Quaid, handsome corndog), a hot-shot Navy aviator who has a problem with authority, and Jack Putter (Martin Short, poodle Bob Fosse), a meek and hypochondriac supermarket clerk whose social life primarily consists of visits to his doctor’s office. It’s Dean and Jerry: Tuck’s always soused on scotch but not soused enough that his on-again, off-again girlfriend Lydia (Meg Ryan, doing a Michelle Williams in Venom impression) doesn’t find him irresistible, as most characters in the film do. Tuck’s masculine, able, a good soldier but not good enough not to question orders and go a little rogue when he has to. Tuck is everything Jack isn’t—Jack obsesses over every sniffle or pimple, won’t assert himself, demures when a female coworker stands him up on date. Tuck is a man’s man; Jack isn’t even a man.
The Jerry and Dean thing is only the set-up, the tradition to be tensionized: after quitting his commision, Tuck is working with a clandestine outfit that’s finally cracked miniaturization technology, one that’ll shrink Tuck and an experimental biocraft down microscopic-style and inject him via syringe into a lab rabbit. Why miniaturization? It’s military weapons mongering being sold as the noble adventure. Obviously, there’s a shadow ops group trying to acquire the shrinking tech (to sell it on the black market), and before Tuck can be injected into the rabbit but after he’s been shrunk, the shadows ops folks attack the clandestine science lab. In the ensuing chase, a quick-thinking lab scientist injects the contents of the syringe into the asscheek of a man on his way out of his doctor’s office. This man is obviously Jack, now twice the man he used to be.
Innerspace is the fifth feature film directed by Joe Dante, sixth if you count Dante’s co-direction on the 1976 B-Movie collage collision, Hollywood Boulevard. Joe Dante is a man from Morristown, New Jersey who directs movies like Innerspace, movies that vibrate. They’re sugared and smart, perfect little universes of genre written as celebrations of what genre does—which is to say, encourage artists to engage in repetition, that most valuable tool of cultural creation, until a new clarity about being alive emerges—while asserting a plastic-enough relationship to all the expectations and contrivances genre brings such that the newly arrived-at clarity might be acted upon in real time. The movies swing.
This swinging, this tendency towards joy in articulation and critique of execution, is especially vital for a filmography that begins as Falwell’s Moral Majority does and proceeds in earnest through the years dominated by Reagan and Bush Senior. Dante was a disciple of Roger Corman, got his start thanks to that great schlock poet and steadily worked for hire, cycling through Warner Bros./Paramount/Universal during a period in which America’s accelerated shift towards neoconservative snarls went nuclear. “Joe Dante movies,” then, run concurrent to the militarized rhetoric of Nixon’s “Law and Order” given deadly literalism in Reagan’s policy of “Make America Great,” as deadly a collation of racist, homophobic, anti-labor policies the country had seen to that point. That Dante’s purest ambition was to render Tex Avery elasticity as an achievable reality in scope of a statuesquely cruel 1980s America is, therefore, no surprise.
Among Dante’s troupe of collaborators is one Steven Spielberg, who also works steadily through this unique ‘80s spin on American apocalypse, who conceives of wonder and hope in opposite—though complementary—directions as Dante. Spielberg’s support manifests, perhaps, as a means of helping make the movies he himself could not author, movies unbound from conscriptive auteurist (read: mainstream) visions. Dante’s first solo feature, Piranha (1978), was targeted by Universal; the studio sought to halt that film’s distribution under the pretext of it being a ‘Jaws ripoff.’ At Spielberg’s insistence, the legal action was halted, and Piranha was released. Spielberg would hire Dante to direct one of the more successful sequences in Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), and would go on to produce Innerspace through his own Amblin Entertainment.
It’s not that Spielberg and Dante necessarily enjoy contradictory careers, though the differences are obviously stark. In 2022, the former is fresh off one gargantuan remake of a classic Hollywood musical and is currently scripting a to-be-released memoir film of his own ‘Hollywood story.’ The latter enjoys a committed (if modest) role as a historian/producer/programmer at Trailers From Hell and its podcast, The Movies That Made Me. The latter retains his critique of Hollywood as capitalist HQ, calling out Disney/Lucasfilm’s ripping off his Gremlins via Baby Yoda, who remains, obviously, a massive merchandising success story.
If Spielberg is perhaps a necessary figure in New Hollywood’s attempt to restore some element of intentional (read: auteristic) artistry to mainstream American cinemas, the risk of letting art and commerce share the same bed is palpable; for every A.I. or West Side Story, there’s a Saving Private Ryan (laundromat for American imperialism), another Indiana Jones movie (mostly boringly racist except when they minimize Nazism as cartoon villainy). Hollywood remains a story of who makes it and why they do. Dante never hired a personal publicist. Spielberg screened E.T. the Extra Terrestrial (1982) for Ronald Reagan at the White House, whose main criticism was that the end credits were too long, that Spielberg should cut the extensive labor credits and reserve them for industry screenings.
For his part, Dante doesn’t seem anxious of where he is or isn’t. In a 2021 conversation stashed away on Criterion’s Blu-ray release of The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), Dana Gould asks if Dante can detect Jack Arnold’s presence as an author in the film, what auteurism might mean to being a working artist. Dante references the authorial stamp of studios, mainly, how a Columbia picture might differ from a Paramount one. And then he says, not quite unrelatedly, “There’s a million things that go into making a movie. And the fact that any movie turns out to be a good movie is a miracle.”
Following the box-office breakthrough of the Spielberg-produced Gremlins (1984), Dante begins a run of films that are classically plasticine genre efforts—space operas, action films, horror flicks—but ones that hum with a deep contempt for American conservatism, late-stage capitalism, and, indeed, the notion of mass media culture itself. Explorers (1985) paints the childlike wonder of E.T. as a fundamentally unstable designation, always corruptible by American exceptionalism and usually siphoned off as a pipeline to military recruitment. The ‘Burbs (1989) follows monster movie conventions to their logical conclusion, makes suburban Tom Hanks tug at them until he flips out, outing white male heteronormativity as the be-all movie monster.
By the time Phil Hartman coos, “I think World War II is my favorite war,” while watching a WWII movie from the safety of a suburban couch in Small Soldiers (1998)—a film literally about the US military smuggling weapons-grade techn/ide-ology into mass-produced children’s toys—Dante’s project is clear: to make art (let alone live) in a country that uses periodic culture wars as vehicles to wage real violence on people outside the ruling class, critique must be smuggled in among the low and base (that mode most frequently resistant to incorporation). A future has to be smuggled into the body.
Made in the space between Explorers and The ‘Burbs, the mechanism of Innerspace—sci-fi shrinking movie—affords Dante a golden opportunity to metaphorize/metastasize a realizable alternative in the American body circa 1987. Via Tuck Pendleton, a conventional theory of American/cinematic masculinity is literally shrunk away and forced into a diminutive, submissive action role. This only works if Dante establishes a cinematic texture of outsize masculinity, and the film’s pre-shrinkage opening does so: on the morning of the big secret experiment—and set to the not-entirely ironic strains of Jerry Goldsmith—Tuck kisses a scientist long and deep and not entirely consensually (but she definitely wanted it, his smirk confirms). Then Tuck takes a Polaroid with a beaming, lab-coated fan, cooly high-fives another. Tuck is fancifully masculine, an ultra-action hero.
Quaid is frankly a little too good at this, his shit-eaty grin not quite mellowed into the flannel dad of The Parent Trap (1998), and registers mostly as fratty. It’s riffing The Right Stuff (1983) but maybe over-anticipating Great Balls of Fire! (1989); until Jack (and so, Short’s) welcome sweetness enters the frame, alternatively understated and adenoidal, the movie doesn’t click. So long as the film allows this strain of performed man-ness to run amok, it participates as an unactivated object. Dante’s experiment, really, begins as the plot’s does: at the point of shrinkage, liftoff. Until that point, Tuck is the hero he thinks he is. A body—say, Ronald Reagan talking about “Born in the USA”—might misread the text, might willingly celebrate an unwilling cultural object.
During the interview, writer David Kamp asks about Bruce’s motivation surrounding the physical transformation that took place between Nebraska (1982), where Bruce looks like a guy who read Flannery O’Connor short stories in a barn in Colts Neck, New Jersey (he was), and Born in the U.S.A. (1984), where Bruce looks like a guy who moved to the Hollywood Hills and began pumping iron (he did). Bruce will demur initially, mention wanting to stay healthy as he grew older. Of the ensuing muscles, he says: “I had a body that just kind of popped in six months.” But then he goes on, confessing (or maybe realizing): “‘I’m a man now.’ I remember my father at that age. There was the idea of creating a man’s body to a certain degree.”
In 1987, Bruce isn’t in Colts Neck or Los Angeles, but rather in transition. Tunnel of Love, his eighth album, is written at the intersection of his collapsing marriage to Julianne Phillips and increasing professional difficulty with longtime collaborators in the E Street Band. Lyrically, the album is stuffed full of songs that atomize notions of masculinity that have heretofore felt basically Springsteenian: what if true love isn’t a work that partners do, and so, isn’t a conceivable salvation after all (“Tunnel of Love”)? How long a life can be lived trying to convince oneself of one’s survival (“Tougher Than the Rest”), and when will the inner voice uttering the possibility of self-armageddon actually let up (“When You’re Alone”)?
The metaphors poking at Bruce’s terror of committment (to commit, “Spare Parts” posits, is to be left open to attack, vulnerable to the pop and then the depression) and ruptures in standable identities (forget crisis of masculinity, this is full-on crisis of conciousness) come to a literal head in “Two Faces”: “Sometimes, mister, I feel sunny and wild / Lord, I love to see my baby smile / Then dark clouds come rolling by / Two faces have I.” This is, of course, the plot of Innerspace.
If Tuck is one face, the cocky old-school rattle of Buick GTXs and smooching at the rock show, the great gambit of Innerspace is to literally bury him in the body of its second face, a five-foot-seven Canadian Looney Tune. Jack Putter, erstwhile supermarket clerk, is introduced sitting on the examination table at his doctor’s office, hair floofy, expression dazy and fried. He’s just described a recurring nightmare to his doctor, and it’s so deeply stressed him out that he falls off the table, rocks up and knocks down a tray of instruments. “The problem is,” his doctor offers, “medicine is not what you need, Jack. What you need is rest and relaxation. I think you need a total change of scene. Maybe a nice vacation. How does that sound?”
Instead, Jack gets injected with a syringe full of a man: he’s forced into a science fiction film. His conception of self—neurotic, weak, “un-manly”—is already morphing, right down to his sensory agency. First, Tuck hacks Jack’s ear canal, can hear what Jack hears and talk to him, too. Then, Tuck hacks Jack’s corneas. It’s Being John Malkovich (1999) at the drive-in: from his confined cockpit, Tuck watches a screen that feeds him what Jack sees. The eye—Jack’s, but also Tuck’s, also ours—has become part-screen and part-window, something to be projected onto, something to see the world through. In Innerspace, the eye becomes the site of the cinematic apparatus, the spectator the actor-watcher.
Innerspace collides two manifestations of masculinity—Tuck the über-bro, Jack the nebbish—and nests them together in an act of pure cinema, a film literally made in the editing room. Strictly through the montaging of moving images, it appears to the spectator that the body of Dennis Quaid (a full-sized man) inhabits a small cockpit inside the body of Martin Short (a second full-sized man). Cinema becomes the language to layer these men and all their implications, montage the chisel by which walls previously thought solid become porous.
“You know what’s weird?” Jack asks Tuck, the two taking a brief moment of rest after they dance together, before the film’s plot goes full Avery. “You are seeing parts of my body that I will never get to see…the gastric mucosa. Intestinal villi. Pulmonary alveoli. Faraway places with strange-sounding names.” It’s delivered with odd wonder by Short, who imbues his insides with the same yearning he has for a life beyond doctor’s offices and supermarkets. It’s part-joke, to hear the floofy Short say these Latin body names, but it’s also the sentiment of being a body in a world that has assigned that body a role. It’s Springsteen’s “Sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode,” both an adenoidal overload and a cavernous depression.
What it does narratively is instigate Tuck—who can see out Jack’s eyes—to see who he’s dealing with: he urges Jack to go to the mirror so he can see what Jack (and so, Tuck) looks like. “Is this you?” Jack says of a photo hanging on Tuck’s apartment wall. And then they’re looking at each other in the mirror, at the same time, through the same eyes.
The effect of all this formal cutting diminishes any border between the two men; Innerspace practically begs for a queer reading—Tuck enters Jack through the ass!—but specifically in the sense that it uncouples the possibilities/limitations of a ‘man’s body’ from dominant historical traditions via acts of pure cinema. The action hero lives inside the nebbish, who might at any moment become a participant in the same noxious traditions, as Jack does when he begins taking instructions from Tuck on how to talk to Lydia: “Don’t let her take control over the conversation. Be aggressive, dominate her. Don’t be a wuss-puss—be me!”
But the action hero is also in the body of a woman, which is to say, in Meg Ryan; when Jack (using his lips and Tuck’s insistence) kisses Lydia, Tuck’s pod is accidentally shuttled between bodies via saliva. Jack’s crush on Lydia is played for laughs, as the nested men compete for her affections: “God I can’t believe how hostile I feel toward you right now,” says Jack. “Because I’m stimulating your adrenal gland, pal” says Tuck, scribbling on an Etch A Sketch-looking screen depicting—what else?—Jack’s adrenal gland. Jack’s already wearing Tuck’s jacket, driving his hot rod; now he’s crushing on his crush, who’s kissing Jack because she recognizes Tuck, somewhere in this body, whoever it is; it’s not quite a ménage à trois, but it’s very nearly a Reagan-era Design For Living (1933), and it all gets messier when Jack (/and Tuck) has (/have) to impersonate the Cowboy (Robert Picardo, the Doctor himself), a black market weapons dealer brokering a deal with that shadow ops group to sell the shrinking tech to the highest bidder overseas.
Tuck uses the experimental bioship inside Jack’s face to stimulate Jack’s facial nerves, such that Tuck/Jack’s body now has a face that looks exactly like The Cowboy. It’s at this point that detailing the plot of Innerspace is a little like reciting the plot of Duck Amuck: “By the time various villains also get miniaturized or semi-miniaturized,” Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, “the characters have essentially taken over the movie.” The bravura effects sequence of Short’s/Picardo’s face in Cronenbergian undulation is again more stacked men, or rather, more stacked man bodies—a dissolution of essential selves into Looney Tune scramble. It’s not a cohesive theory of masculinity or gender more generally, but maybe that’s the point: past ‘cohesion,’ the movies let us unglue and experiment with being alive.
Again, Dante invokes purely cinematic techniques: he blocks Picardo’s body moving around the frame, Short’s voice dubbing the dialogue, cutaways to a cockpitted Quaid annotating the whole thing. ‘Purely cinematic’ means, maybe, something like practical magic, the illusion of a reality made possible through elements of framing, dubbing, editing. Innerspace’s goopy, drippy latex sets and props are fully deserving of the praise (and Academy Award) they garnished, but on the grounds of what they are, not what they aren’t; at no point in praising the practical effects of Innerspace is the 2022 viewer incited to fully condemn Computer Generated Imagery. Movie magic is movie magic; the fact that any magic exists in this world is a miracle.
Indeed, Dante would employ CG images to great effect in Small Soldiers, the sublimely uncountable, irreal digital renderings of that film’s villains a perfect emotional match for the endless proliferation of American militarization and their endless wars. Rather than fetishizing practical effects as somehow inherently cinematic, the cinema of Joe Dante invites a viewer to register what happens in the operation of movie magic, to react to something like an effect affect. Small Soldiers is a joyous cultural object (a film!) under assault by forces simultaneously real and ephemeral; it contains the presence of the non-object inflicting violence on the natural world. Innerspace is bodily—hyper-bodily, even—and in the way it upends expectations surrounding size, it suggests similar chutes and ladders for emotion, identity, for existence.
In his review of Innerspace, Ebert wrote, “There is a sequence involving the heart that has an uncanny reality to it, as if Quaid’s capsule has been combined with actual footage of a beating heart, taken with miniaturized cameras.” It hasn’t, but such is the effect of showing human eyes corporeal magic. The blown-up shrinks the inevitable, and the miniaturized grows the possible. The effect scales humanity.
Innerspace isn’t about masculinity as an imprisoning body. It doesn’t theorize strategies for undoing a country identified with the image of an old Hollywood cowboy selling patriotism while pocketing profits from illicit weapon deals, spinning those profits into funds for a US-backed, right-wing militia movement intent on destabilizing the real movement of socialism in Nicaragua. Innerspace isn’t about Iran-Contra because movies aren’t about things. Movies contain the history of their making; that which they reflect is what “about” means, maybe.
Instead of being about the very real horrors of being alive, Innerspace contains in it a plasticine theory of irreality, a melting and remelting theory of identity and body that might re-bubble history in real time. The cinema of Joe Dante, one part film history and one part historical critique, contains destabilization—of gender, of capitalism, of authority over people and bodies—and it expresses its contents in acts of pure cinema. There is an uncanny reality to this rendering, a repetition of “Talk about a dream / try to make it real” that shrinks horror until it fits in the body, doesn’t overpower, doesn’t depress. The camera eye transforms the human body.
The process is slow, a zoom-in that lasts a lifetime. In the video for Bruce Springsteen’s 1987 song, “Brilliant Disguise,” the cinematography nearly matches the movements of Ronald Reagan’s Iran-Contra speech. Over the duration of the text, the camera moves closer and closer to the body, in inches. Unlike the Reagan footage, it doesn’t dolly out, doesn’t hem how it grows and shrinks its subject; the camera isn’t covering lies or filming fantasies, just documenting true feelings of revulsion, self-doubt, depression. It contains these words, makes a visual world of them. It contains, also, the process by which they might be wiggled, destabilized: in song, in melody, in the peculiar way a human lip invites another human lip to fantasize, to dream.
This is a real future, this is the people’s business. Cinema is a body that just sort of pops.