American Movie Classic: John Carpenter
By Kent Jones
America doesnt have so many great directors to spare that it can afford to let John Carpenter fall through the cracks. Should that come to pass, and it almost has, hell have the last laugh: the work will speak for itself. But how did he come to be so marginalized? The common wisdom is that Carpenter went into a precipitous decline after the glory days of ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 and HALLOWEEN, but can anyone really back up such a snap assessment? Is there any other kind of assessment in current film culture? Examine his oeuvre carefully and youll realize that he has one of the most consistent and coherent bodies of work in modern cinema, in which the triumphs those two early slam dunks, THE FOG, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, THE THING, PRINCE OF DARKNESS, THEY LIVE, and IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS far out-number the minor or problematic films. Hes never done anything to be ashamed of. Hes never made a dishonest film or even a lazy one. Even his Universal-ly ignored remake of VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED is beautifully crafted, with a brilliant opening 20 minutes in the bargain.
I would say that Carpenters marginalization is due to something less easily identifiable and much sadder, over which he has no control. Whether we like it or not, we attune ourselves to norms and paradigms in filmmaking as they shift like tectonic plates, making unconscious adjustments in our heads about how to watch films and see them in relation to one another. And without knowing it, many of us do something that we often revile in others: we make allowances for fashion. There is no doubt that the fashions of American cinema have shifted thousands of miles away from John Carpenter. Hes an analog man in a digital world, who measures his own work according to criteria of value that few people pay attention to anymore.
Carpenter stands completely and utterly alone as the last genre filmmaker in America. There is no one else left who does what he does not Hill, not Cronenberg, not De Palma, not Ferrara, not Dahl, not even Craven, all of whom pass through their respective genres with ulterior motives or as specialty acts, treating those genres as netherworlds to be escaped to, museums ready to be plundered. When we speak of genre films today, we are basically talking about a precedent set in Europe by Melville and Leone, standardized by Hill with THE DRIVER, banalized by Kasdan with BODY HEAT, and made into an artform by Tarantino a little over a decade later. In other words, the meta-genre film, which rose from the ashes of the genuine article after it was destroyed by the increasingly reductive economic structure of the business. Beyond late-night cable filler, genre exercises are now a matter of either cannily exploiting (Craven) or greedily satisfying (I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER) the demands of young audiences. Most of the great genre films of the last twenty years UNFORGIVEN, AFTER DARK MY SWEET, NEAR DARK, BLUE STEEL are isolated gestures, just like everything else in American film right now. Its a situation that effectively nullifies the give-and-take with an audience necessary for the survival of any genre. The one thread that everyone follows at the moment, the only common currency, is currency itself. Until the structure of the business changes, all other trends or tendencies will be nothing more than fodder for the Arts and Leisure section. The only other recent development, irony, already seems to be on its way out. In a moment when isolated gestures are proliferating, why not behave as Carpenter does, remaining content to work in the manner of an Ulmer or a Siodmak, whose artistry is focused on satisfying genre conventions and the demands of narrative, and whose loftier preoccupations are filtered through said conventions? Why not behave as though events like INDEPENDENCE DAY and INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE never happened, as though there were still a vast popular audience tuned to the niceties and subtleties available within genre formulae? Perhaps what makes Carpenter such an unpalatable figure for so many people is the fact that he came out of the same film school generation as Coppola and Scorsese with nary a trace of Europeanism in his work. Carpenter may be the only filmmaker who learned from auteurism, who benefited from it, and who ignored its key tenet of the director as central event, divorced from commercial and industrial considerations. Theres something moving and yet a little off about his humility, the sense that he truly relishes the image of the artist locked into a system, satisfying its demands and complying with its rules.
Paradoxically, its these historically obsolete, self-imposed limitations that have allowed Carpenter to stay true to himself. His patient, spatially precise, and exquisitely troubling films have a reclusive air about them, as though they were the work of a man who lived by the heraldic codes or the teachings of Epicurus. While his contemporaries have been endlessly mythicizing old stereotypes and, in the process, draining them of whatever juice they had left, Carpenter has been able to swim effortlessly from one bewitching generic variation to another. He understands that a genre amounts to more than its iconography, that it can transcend itself only when it sticks rigorously to its own rules. Which leaves him unable to do something as outrageously and thrillingly inflated as MILLERS CROSSING, but then hell never have a HUDSUCKER PROXY, either. His recent VAMPIRES is an attempt to beat Rodriguez and Tarantino at their own game, and in the process he cultivates something that is actually quite foreign to him: total mayhem. But even here, Carpenter sticks to his guns by making James Woodss hunter into a sociopathic crusader with a band of followers who take evil at face value. In one sense, his films feel like pieces of scrimshaw or model schooners built in bottles lonely, gorgeously solipsistic enterprises. In another sense, with the task at hand utterly precise and clear, he is able to communicate with his audience with a clarity that few of his fellow filmmakers can muster. Occasionally, as in THEY LIVE or IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, he is able to sneak in an act of subversion and speak more directly to contemporary affairs than anyone else in American commercial cinema. In other words, in the same spirit with which it used to be said of Edgar G. Ulmer or Phil Karlson, John Carpenter is an auteur.
He is also the widescreen master of contemporary cinema. With the exceptions of DARK STAR and his terrific TV Films (ELVIS, SOMEONE IS WATCHING ME, and two episodes of BODY BAGS, the trilogy he produced for HBO), everything in his oeuvre from ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (76) to VAMPIRES (98) was shot anamorphically, and the 2.35:1 aspect ratio is a shape that he clearly understands and feels at home with. Along with Minnelli in his Fifties melodramas and the Resnais of LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD, Carpenter is one of the only filmmakers who bring the shape to life, just as the 1.85 aspect ratio becomes a living entity in Spielbergs work and 1.33 does in Murnau and Lang. The Scope frame is often associated with deserts and windswept vistas, a matter of volume, value, spectacle, and touristic epic sweep. Not to deny David Lean his place in history, but in comparison to Carpenter his immaculate craftsmanship is alienated and plodding Alma Tadema to Carpenters Homer.
One of the glories of Carpenters oeuvre is watching the thrill he gets out of adapting the Scope frame to a variety of topographies and climates: the blankest, most desolate urban wasteland at night (ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13); the tree-lined streets of a small Midwestern town (HALLOWEEN); the luminous beachheads and rolling hills of coastal northern California (THE FOG, VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED); the snowscapes of British Columbia and Alaska standing in for Antarctica (THE THING); the inside of a dank, dilapidated church (PRINCE OF DARKNESS); the saddest, most pathetic sections of L.A. (THEY LIVE); the monied sections of San Francisco (MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN); the reddish, sun-parched flatness of the Southwest (VAMPIRES). STARMAN, the most thematically maddening film Carpenter ever made, might also be his most sheerly beautiful. Supposedly an act of atonement for his starkly frightening, commercially disastrous remake of THE THING and one of his biggest hits, STARMAN feels like a piece of New Age hokum fifteen years after its release.
But its also a serenely concentrated road movie, a childs vision of America at night without the Spielberg glow, from the rolling greenery of Wisconsin to spacious western truck stops to the hushed, gorgeous light of Arizona. The revolting plot mechanics are almost redeemed by Carpenters very private sense of decorum, in which the action of any scene is carefully filtered into the visual tone of the setting and the overall arc and pace of the film: he never spotlights an actor or an object within the frame for any longer than the pace will allow, and one is always left with the impression of a field of interlocking actions rather than prized moves or compositions. Carpenter never attempts the kind of exploratory, digressive moves within a scene that were the hallmark of his hero and alleged role model, Howard Hawks. And the lack of relaxation and breathing room can get a little oppressive at times particularly in ASSAULT ON PRICINCT 13, where the action is preternaturally straightforward and the acting almost nonexistent. But in STARMAN his extreme economy offsets the gooey mid-Eighties modishness, while said economy is in turn offset by the charm of Bridges's precise awkwardness and Allens wide-eyed beauty. And Carpenter doesnt cheat in an area that most directors would have whimsically fudged their way through: when the alien arrives in Allens house, she is genuinely terrified at the possibility that she is face to face with real evil.
STARMAN actually contains one of the most beautiful passages in Carpenters oeuvre. After Allens Jenny has been shot, the alien carries her away to a mobile home that is being driven west. He works his healing wonders, all acted without a shred of sanctimoniousness by Bridges. Carpenter cuts with equal measures of discretion and rapture to landscapes of muted, almost austere beauty as the truck passes through them and night gives way to morning.
The scene is fairly typical of Carpenter: ingeniously calibrated and rhythmed, nicely textured, with a strange coordination between people and inanimate objects. Its the sweet flipside of the presence of evil on Halloween eve in Haddonfield, Illinois, signaled through the sudden appearance of a partially hidden figure in the corner of the Scope frame, or a slight pan that makes the frames edge into an unexpected locus of fear.
HALLOWEEN, still Carpenters biggest moneymaker, looks more impressive with each passing year: a perfectly coordinated succession of counterpoints between slow lateral tracking movements, subjective forward moves via the Panaglide, and sudden vertical jolts within the frame (the killer jumping onto the car, lifting up the hunky boyfriend), in which every object and every street-corner is perfectly described, the human action serving as a form of punctuation. In fact, much of Carpenters cinema is close to a realization of the dream of directors in their dotage like Fuller and Fellini, who wanted to make films about objects, devoid of people.
At his most comfortable with deadline structures and severely fixed passages of time (Snake Plissken has 24 hours to get out of New York and L.A., Michael Myers has to be found before Halloween night is over, the Starman has to get back to Winslow, Arizona, to meet his fellow aliens, the PRINCE OF DARKNESS team has only a small window of opportunity to keep the devil out of this world), Carpenter has a tendency to turn every space into a grid (or, in IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, the accumulation of spaces throughout the film). ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 might be the most severe action movie ever made. The severity of the design is so extreme that it takes on a real purity, never more so than during the extraordinary shootout that climaxes with silenced bullets quietly hitting glass, venetian blinds, and, most bewitchingly of all, stacks of bureaucratic paper sent flying through the air (theres something deeply satisfying about the ptt-ptt-ptt sound the bullets make as they strike). ASSAULT is supposed to be inspired by RIO BRAVO, to which it bears the same kind of relationship as a Di Suvero sculpture does to Van Goghs sunflowers. Homage becomes abstraction, and an entirely new object is created in the process. Nothing could be further from Hawks than this expertly mechanized standoff between the ragtag, makeshift band that assembles under the banner of good and the shadowy, perfectly synchronized, seemingly endless army of pure evil, a sudden threat that materializes out of nowhere and leaves its first and most lasting impression with the sudden shooting of a little girl eating an ice cream cone.
Anyone whos seen the film will never forget this moment, which is immediately branded on your consciousness. Everything about the scene is clear to the point of transparency: the plot mechanics, the horizon lines of the ghetto at dusk, the heavily singularized acting, the evenness of the pace (and of Carpenters typically spare synthesizer score), and the quiet burst of the gun with its long silencer held by a languorously extended arm, quickly followed by the sudden bloom of red on the girls chest and the blank surprise on her face as she crumples to the sidewalk. Theres something uniquely disturbing about ASSAULT, with its blunt opposition of moves and countermoves. The film has the undiluted force of a terse, savage two-note guitar break. Its an odd starting point (DARK STAR being a kind of false start, filled as it is with Dan OBannons high school prankishness, but an ingenious film nonetheless), and its punishing concentration appears to originate from something mysterious, troublingly personal. Why create such a blunt instrument? Its easy to see why ASSAULT was rejected by American audiences on its first release: Carpenter needed the human ballast of Jamie Lee Curtis, the mature Kurt Russell, or the total-pro hamminess of Donald Pleasence. THE THING, PRINCE OF DARKNESS, and, to a slightly lesser extent, VAMPIRES also move in this stripped-down direction. They share a tone unique in the cinema: hermitlike, unadorned, genuinely terrifying, and genuinely terrified.
Cocteau advised all artists to happily imitate their masters, which would eventually open the door to personal expression. Its a fascinating lesson to study Carpenter and his Hawks fixation, his use of groups tough women, and task-oriented action, and then to realize how far apart the two directs are. If theres any filmmaker that Carpenter resembles at all, its Jacques Tourneur. Both are genre filmmakers with an innate sense of visual beauty that saves even lesser films, like ANNE OF THE INDIES or BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA; acting is low on the totem pole for both of them; both are temperamentally fixed on the perfection of an exact tone or line in Tourneurs case its laid over the action, while in Carpenters case its blended into it. But whereas Tourneur cultivates the supernatural and is preoccupied with the mystery of drives and impulses (Simone Simons longings in CAT PEOPLE, Mitchums self-destructive attraction to Greer in OUT OF THE PAST), Carpenter is one of the few modern artists whose subject is the contemplation of true evil, or to be more precise, the stance that people take when they come face to face with true evil. Among the most tiresome contemporary clichés is the banality of evil, the idea that it exists within all of us and can be sparked by random events thus the serial killer as object of God-like veneration. For Carpenter, evil is horrifying enough even if its outside of us; his characters never court evil, but simply recognize it, which is the moment of absolute horror. His films are filled with moments of paralyzing immobility, of dry-mouthed discomfort brought about by the realization that there is something new and awful in the world. Its completely foreign to Hawks, where all the energy goes into the beauty of people in action, and the conflict is nothing more than a useful MacGuffin (although its very close to Marlowes contemplation of Canino in THE BIG SLEEP). In Carpenter, there is a unique mixture of dread and awe, followed by the time taken to sort out the two and muster up self-preservation.
This is one of the many reasons why THE THING is so vastly different from the Hawks original. Even Carpenters admirers had a tough time with the aggressive presence of the Rob Bottin/Albert Whitlock special effects in that film, but what makes the effects resonate is the care given to the individual reactions as the Thing undergoes its transformations, and as it becomes clear that it could become anyone at any time (the very un-Hawks-like idea that Carpenter retained from the original story). Even David Clennons exclamation of Youve gotta be fucking kidding me! as he sees his former comrades head sprout insect legs plays less like a one-liner and more like the spontaneous reaction to something hitherto impossible in reality. THE THING now looks like one of Carpenters best films, easily the winner of the early-Eighties mutating-carcass competition. And it occupies a special place in his oeuvre for the sensitivity of its ensemble acting, albeit geared in one heavily singularized direction.
The many forms that evil can take, the many places in which it can appear, the infinite ways in which it can announce itself, the ease with which it can blend into the rhythms and atmospheres of everyday life this is Carpenters focus, and the moral clarity that he brings to that focus is what makes him a great director. Adrienne Barbeaus slow walk down the stairs to her lighthouse radio station, with its odd sensation of reality peeling away its skin, in THE FOG; a reanimated zombie standing before a mirror, in PRINCE OF DARKNESS, and shivering with a nameless, inarticulate longing for what lies on the other side; the world suddenly turning blue at the will and ease of a demonic novelist, in IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS these are moments unlike any others in American cinema, where the balance between legibility and fluidity, between the real and the ir-real, is perfectly achieved and held.
The political side of Carpenters cinema grows directly out of his contemplation of evil. The liberal credentials of ASSAULT, THEY LIVE, and the two ESCAPE movies have been called into question by some critics, but strict political interpretation is always a losing game when youre dealing with genre filmmaking. For me theres something so powerful about the concrete fact of urban desolation in those films an expressionist construction in the two ESCAPES (New York in particular has some of the clean, graphic power of the late-silent Lang) and a piercing reality in ASSAULT and the absurdly neglected THEY LIVE. What a shock it was (and still is!) to see Reagans America confronted head-on in a low-rent sci-fi epic staring Rowdy Roddy Piper. The premise of THEY LIVE that aliens are hiding behind human masks, enslaving America with subliminal messages and can only be detected with special glasses that are being distributed by subversive cells around the country is pretty close to Romero without the excess, a provocative metaphor for a thinly veiled reality. But what really makes the film so affecting is its feeling for the acrid tastes and smells of life on the margins, its boisterous physicality (yes, that is the longest fight scene in movie history between Piper and Keith David, with his terrific slow burn sneer), its sense of hollow, lapping desperation, its sad prole poetry. Who else had the cunning, the compassion, the ingenuity, and the efficiency to fashion an ode to the working class during such a rock-bottom, sickeningly cheerful moment in American history? Similarly, the metaphor for media saturation and paralysis in IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (the books of a King-ish writer named Sutter Cane literally drive people insane) seems a bit straightforward simply taken on its own. But the way Carpenter delineates the experience of going mad, in which a world seen through long lenses keeps ripping away its cheap surfaces to reveal more cheap surfaces underneath, is a brilliant feat of low-budget engineering and a very disturbing encapsulation of the experience of living amidst so many media and their endless supply of product.
Forget the frequently adolescent sensibility that finds its outlet in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, ESCAPE FROM L.A., and VAMPIRES. Forget the occasionally clunky orchestration of parallel events. Forget the variable success of the special effects for every STARMAN or THE THING, theres an ESCAPE FROM L.A. with its computer-game landscapes, a PRINCE OF DARKNESS with its zombies trundling down the street, or an IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS with its rubber monsters (although in that film the cheesiness of the monsters is part of the subject, and is almost overcome by the tautness of the conception). Forget the frequently monotonal characters and acting. Allowances are constantly being made for enshrined directors like Aldrich, Karlson, and Fuller, whose inconsistencies and weaknesses are forever being papered over and reconstituted as idiosyncrasies, or strengths. Why not make the same kind of allowances for this modest filmmaker who carries the phantom (and perhaps illusory- camaraderie and selfless devotion to the public of the Golden Age of Hollywood in his head? His devoted fans excepted, Carpenter is indeed a bum in America, on the one hand damned for being modest and on the other damned for not being modest enough. But if auteurism taught us any lessons at all, its that modesty and ambition, prose and poetry, the concrete and the abstract, can walk hand in hand in the least likely places. A paradox. This relic, so self-contained, so respectful of the rules that his elders were obliged to play by, makes films that are often more acutely intelligent than anything his less constrained contemporaries can manage.
Another American solitary, falling out of fashion but carefully guarding his integrity like a dusty old treasure.