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Thursday, February 5, 2015

Carpenter Craft

This month, BAMcinĂ©matek pays tribute to legendary director John Carpenter with a full-career film retrospective and a selection of his favorite film scores.

Jamie Lee Curtis in The Fog. Photo courtesy AVCO Embassy Pictures/Photofest
By R. Emmet Sweeney

He came of age in film school at the same time as the Steven Spielberg/George Lucas “movie brats,” but John Carpenter is generally excluded from triumphal histories of 1970s New Hollywood cinema. Yet Carpenter’s genre reinventions have become as equally influential as those of his cinĂ©aste brethren. While Lucas and Spielberg tried to supersize the 1930s adventure serial, Carpenter took the professionals-on-a-mission films of Howard Hawks and fractured them for the Reagan era. He developed a style of slow-burn—precisely choreographed widescreen features that were irresistible tension-and-release machines. But while Jaws and Star Wars appealed to all audiences, Carpenter’s subversive streak led to films deeply suspicious of the American dream, creating entertainments that stick in your throat.

John Carpenter was born into an artistic family on January 16, 1948 in Carthage, NY. His father Warren was a musician and teacher who moved the family to Bowling Green in 1953 after accepting a position teaching music history and theory at Western Kentucky University. After a few years of college at Western Kentucky, John transferred to USC to study filmmaking, where he co-wrote the Oscar-winning short The Resurrection of Broncho Billy (1970).

Carpenter would drop out of USC to complete production of his first feature, the absurdist space-madness comedy Dark Star (1974), written with future Alien scribe Dan O’Bannon. Shot on a shoestring with blinking cardboard sets and an alien made out of a beach ball, it skewers self-important space opera three years before Star Wars. His first fully-funded production was Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), a siege film loosely based on Hawks’ Rio Bravo in which a black cop, a white convict, and a no bullshit secretary hole up in an isolated prison to fight off a gang attack. Carpenter shows a mastery of the wide Panavision frame, making it a film of constricting horizontals: of shotgun barrels and gang members strung along a street like holes in a belt.

Halloween. Photo: Compass International Pictures/Photofest
Then came the depth charge of Halloween (1978), conceived with Assault’s assistant editor Debra Hill (a producer through Escape From New York), which was well funded enough for Carpenter and DP Dean Cundey to play with a Panaglide Steadicam rig, which patiently tours the well-appointed bourgeois interiors soon to be sullied by Michael Myers.

Carpenter and Cundey then made a string of creeping-dread classics dependent on groups dissolving from within—collapsing the Hawksian ideal of creating a family out of the professional unit. The Fog (1980) pitted a collection of outcasts against leprous ghost pirates, out for vengeance for past colonialist sins. Escape from New York (1981) forces apolitical nihilist Snake Plisskin (Kurt Russell) to play nice with the authoritarian US government as well as the crazies on Manhattan island prison. (In the jokey, underrated 1996 sequel Escape from L.A., Plisskin turns into something of an accidental revolutionary). In Carpenter’s The Thing (1982, adapted from the same novella as the Hawks classic), an Arctic research team discovers a shape-shifting alien, and paranoia destroys them. It’s the first part of a loose “Apocalypse” trilogy that also includes Prince of Darkness (1987; Satan will end the world) and In the Mouth of Madness (1994; HP Lovecraft-inspired bestsellers will end the world).

The box office failure of The Thing led Carpenter to take assignment jobs, including the efficient if impersonal Stephen King killer car movie Christine (1983), and the beautiful alien road movie romance Starman (1984), in which the NSA is the villain. They Live (1988) provides his most explicit political statement, with aliens turning the Me Generation populace into literal consumerist zombies. It is urgent, blunt force pulp commentary that has Rowdy Roddy Piper slugging complacency in the face.

A narrative of decline has emerged around his post-1980s work, but that is why retrospectives like this are so necessary. The gonzo super-natural Western Vampires (1998) and Ghosts of Mars (2001) are gloriously scuzzy throwbacks to his Assault days, while The Ward (2010) is an elegantly composed haunted psych ward movie that entraps its inmates inside low-angle tracking shots.

Carpenter has retained his subversive vitality, taking archetypally American weird tales and investing them with a destabilizing dread.

R. Emmet Sweeney writes a weekly column for Movie Morlocks, the official blog of Turner Classic Movies, and is a regular contributor to Film Comment.

John Carpenter: Master of Fear runs from Feb 6—22.

Reprinted from Jan 2015 BAMbill.

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