Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Symptom of the Universe: The Death of the Individual in John Carpenter’s Post-"They Live" Films

"I think the universe is claustrophobic," John Carpenter told Post Script's Ric Gentry in a 2014 interview. "Life is claustrophobic. Things are pressing in[...]it's a view that you come away from childhood with." That perspective is onekey entry point into Carpenter's work, one that he expanded on when Gentry asked Carpenter about the source of hisfears: "Loss of control[...]I fear absorption by other people, of my personality. This goes way back to childhood. It's sort of like 'the thing.' I don't want to be absorbed by anyone." Carpenter's reference to "The thing," the amorphous alien antagonist from The Thing (1982), his classicremake of The Thing From Another World, is also telling. That film was a major bomb upon release, so much so that it cost Carpenter the job of working on Firestarter, an adaptation of Stephen King's novel of the same name.But even Carpenterrelates his work back to The Thing, a film whose financial and critical failure significantlycontributed to hisdisillusionment with Hollywood filmmaking. 

Carpenter's concern withthe death of the individual, and the terrifying uncovering of the universe's hostile, finite nature is a potent common fixation of many of his movies. Carpenterhas mined these themes to great effect in recent works that many critics have either unfairly maligned, or treated as relatively inferior to his earlier, more elemental works. Still, while Carpenter's creative collaborators have changed over the years, and his style has become looser, and often more maximalistic, his work remains potent because of its consistent focus on individuals whose singular personalities and societal roles are threatened by what film historian Barry Keith Grant once called "a primitive Hobbesian brutality." The mixed-to-negative reception of Carpenter's recent films is, other words, also a reflection of the fickle, unsparing human condition that Carpenter singles out inhis films. 

Granted, recent efforts like Escape from L.A. (1996)and Village of the Damned (1995)have disastrous reputations, which in turn have effected and been affected by the means and enthusiasm by which Carpenter approaches his succeeding projects.This makes it harder to see the Carpenter-esque elements in works like Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992), a film that Carpenter did not originate but was rather treated as a hired hand on, orCarpenter'scontributions to television projects Body Bags (1993)and Masters of Horror (2005-2007). Carpenter has propagated a reputation for doing everything on his films, one that started out of necessity on his lower-budget films, but continued on studio films like Big Trouble in Little China (1986), which he directed, co-wrote, and scored. Viewers expect certain things from "A John Carpenter Film," especially a minimalist style,and a precise, mannered tone.Carpenter's use of signature techniques, like the Panavision anamorphic widescreen camerawork, andsynthesizer-and guitar-based score, are routinely praised. But his recent work isnot as tonally consistent as his earlier works, and that difference tends to alienate viewers. 

Take for example In the Mouth of Madness (1994), one of Carpenter's most satisfying films. Carpenter did not script--Michael De Luca is the attributed screenwriter--nor did regular collaborator/cinematographer Dean Cundey shoot the picture (Gary B. Kibbe, who has worked with Carpenter on five other projects, filmed Madness). And Madness's tone varies wildly from broadly surreal humor to creepy Lovecraftian chills once skeptical insurance investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) discovers that there is in fact a supernatural conspiracy originating out of the mysterious village of Innsmouth. But the film's unusual sensibility harkens back to Carpenter's preoccupation with the loss of individual will/personality.  

Trent, like many of Carpenter's earlier, Nigel-Kneale-inspired protagonists, is a rationalist. He reasons his way out of impossible situations, making the supernatural goings-on in Innsmouth--ex:an Antichrist-like figure, murderous townsfolk, demonic possession--impossible to accept. So it's not surprising that Trent loses his mind whenhe is confronted with a reality that doesn't make sense:the worldsuddenly becomes completely blue-tinted, driving in a straight line does not necessarily lead one in a linear path, etc. Neill cackles, and grinslike a madman throughout Madnessbecause the film's cosmic joke is on Trent. He retreats into an insane asylum at the beginning of the film in order to keep himself from being absorbed by an encroaching universalmadness. But he's eventually re-absorbed into the film's meta-text when he wanders into a movie theater and is greeted with a mysteriously re-eedited version of Madness's events that makes Neill look like a hapless buffoon. Until this scene, Trent retains some semblance of will power. But Trent isinevitably absorbed by the malevolent presence/forces that control Innsmouth, and soon the world. 

Escape from L.A.hasa similarly off-putting sensibility, especially when compared to its comparatively sober predecessor,Escape from New York (1981). But again, that difference is motivated byEscape from L.A.'s concern with the phoney, preposterously over-sized nature of Los Angeles. Filmed on a combination of studio back-lots and real-life earthquake sites, Escape from L.A. treats viewers to such garish sights as Kurt Russell, as iconic antiheroSnake Plissken, playinga high-stakes game of Horse;Pam Grier,as the trans-sexual gang leader formerly known as "Carjack Malone," flying aroundon a hang-glider; and Russell pursuing Steve Buscemi while surfing a massive computer-generatedtidalwave with Peter Fonda at his side. That last item can be read asa sarcasticmeta-comment about the film's tone. Plissken may not be surfing over a shark like Arthur Fonzarelli did in Happy Days, but he is jeering at anyone that expects anotherEscape from New York. 

Laughingin the face of stacked expectations, Escape from L.A. cynically anticipates a theocratic future where undesirables who have committed "moral crimes, including"prostitutes, atheists, runaways," are deported to Los Angeles. It's a god-less setting where hapless guides, like Valeria Golino's happy-go-lucky survivor,eitherdie or disappearat random.Still, Plisskenremains a free agent by refusing to align himselfwith either the despotic U.S.President(Cliff Robertson),or Los Angeles's equally merciless/duplicitous leader Cuervo Jones (Georges Corraface). Plissken sees a future ruled by Jesus freaks and plastic-surgery-enhanced pseudo-anarchists, and chooses to save civilization by re-setting it back to a pre-technological age. This is not the happy ending viewers want, but it is probablythe one they deserve. 

Escape from L.A. isa charmingly vicious projection of Carpenter's disillusionment (he scripted the film along with Russell and long-time producer/collaborator Debra Hill). Like Trent, Plissken serves as a Carpenter stand-in: when asked if he's Snake PlisskenPlissken growls "I used to be." Buscemi, who plays a wannabe talent agent/wheeler-dealer, similarly nettles Plissken/Carpenter: "You're a legend and all, but last couples years, it's like you've fallen off the face of the Earth." Here's Carpenter confronting his critics, the ones who would rather sweep under the rug thefilms that don't match their impossible standards/expectations. It's a blunt, loud, and aggressively confrontational action-comedy that pushes buttons while condemning viewers for not doing enough to stem the surging tide of superficiality that continues toplague popular American culture and politics. 

Viewers expecting/hoping for Carpenter's softer side should revisit his Village of the Damned, a heart-felt rehash of the 1960 adaptation of John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos. Unlike the 1960 Village of the Damned, Carpenter and screenwriter David Himmelstein's remake champions a character whose strength stems frompersonal loss. The death of Dr.Alan Chaffee's firstwifemakes him sympathetic toDavid (Thomas Dekker), a sad, alienated member of the blonde-haired, hive-mind-united aliens that befall the ocean-side village of Midwich.Alan (Christopher Reeve) is, in that sense, differentthan the earlier Village's clinical, Quatermass-likeprotagonist, played by the characteristically commanding George Sanders. 

When David and his fellow aliens were born, they were innately paired off. But David's mate died in childbirth, ruining the group's pre-destined plan, and leaving him alienated from the group. That addition to the original story puts a uniquely Carpenter-ian spin on events: if you can be paired off before birth, how can you distinguish your needs from the group's requirements? Alan and David consider that question in a tender scene at the Midwich cemetery; abright blue sky overlooksthe headstone of David's mate-to-be, casting a discordant pallor over the scene. It's a touching moment, one where the actors' unspoken chemistry effectively makes the film's case for empathy and inter-personal identification. 

On the flip side, the film'saction/scare scenesare even moreemotionally rewarding than they are in the originalVillage of the Damned. Kibbe's wide-angle cinematography makes the film's more sensationalsequences--particularly three massive explosions--immediately satisfying. And Carpenter's tense direction, combined with editor Edward A. Warschilka's rhythmic cross-cutting, makes scenes like Dr.Verner's (Kirstie Alley) self-vivisection, and a hapless janitor's reluctant suicide shocking despite their utter preposterousness. Carpenter and his crew deserve considerable praise for dredging up scares from scenes whereblonde-wig-clad children stare hard at people until they eitherstick their hands inboiling water, or jump off ladders. And the tense, blood-less rehash of the original Village of the Damned's iconic "think of a brick wall" climax is just as tense thanksto Reeve's enthrallingperformance. It's a genuinely impressive alternate take on Wyndham's novel. 

Ghosts of Mars (2001), a western-inspired science-fiction/horror hybridthat is often unfavorably compared to Carpenter's essential Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), should similarly be reconsideredif only for the way Carpenter rebukes an intolerant monoculture through a playful nesting doll plot comprisedof inter-sectingflashbacks. The film, which was co-scripted by Carpenter and Larry Sulkis, beginswith a flashback that encompasses several supporting character's inter-related narratives. A military policeunit, led by Lieutenant Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge), tries to pick up and transfer notorious prisoner Desolation Jones (Ice Cube). But Ballard's team returns to base with only two people in tow, making her story an accounting of herfailure. Several times, we see events from varioussecondary characters' perspectives, including Jones, and Sergeant Jericho Butler (Jason Statham).  

But these flashbacks don't just establish the treacherous nature of subjectivity. Instead, the film's
inter-locking flashbacks serve to establish the film's main conceit: a group cannot last without respecting and cultivating each individual member's experiences. This is especially striking since Ballard is forced to protect one assimilating/colonizing force from another. She represents a matriarchal human society that is almost as intolerant as thebody-snatching ancient Martians that posses human settlers and lead them in a murderous revolt that levels Earth's Martian colonies. Ballard inevitably learns to side with Jones, a typical Carpenterian loner who knows that Ballard's promises of protection will not save him from her society's harsh judgment. Despite his heroic actions during the film, Jones is still a criminal. The film's flashback structure serves to remind viewers that Jones's perspective is just as valuable/reliable as Ballard's. 

The Ward (2010), one of Carpenter's best recent films, also concerns the necessity of group camaraderie. Set in a mental asylum in the 1960s and scripted by Shawn and Michael Rasmussen, The Ward follows Kristen (Amber Heard) and her search to discover who is killing off her fellow patients. The Rasmussens' scenario plays out like a whodunit whose twist ending can be seen from a mile away. But Carpenter's canny direction draws attention to group dynamics, and the systematic way that Kristen's fellow inmates disappear. Patient tracking shots, and brownish-black lightingreveal the confines of an already claustrophobic setting. In one such tracking shot, Carpenter film Kristen and her fellow patients huddled in their respective shower stalls. Each woman is hunched over, as if they were shielding their bodies from each other. This group shot parallelsan early shot of Kristen as she's admitted to the asylum: her shoulders are hunched in both shots, making the shower scene a powerful reminder of the universality of individual alienation. 

Carpenter is not, however, the only creator responsible forThe Ward's successes. The Rassmussens' script is particularly rewarding once you focus on the way they thematically establish the importance of film's obvious conclusion, like when Kirsten takes one of her fellow inmates hostage, but only after asking her to trust her. The Ward is, in that sense, a John Carpenter film since it reflects his personal belief that humanity is, as he says in the above-mentioned Post Script interview, "trapped in the years we're going to live on this planet." But while the expression of Carpenter's personality may change from project to project, recent efforts like The Ward prove that hisoutput is just as vital as ever.  

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