His Big Trouble in Little China did much to aesthetically shape my childhood. I’ve watched it regularly over the years, and thus I had one of the finest theatergoing experiences of my life when L.A.’s American Cinematheque screened it last weekend. Nothing quite like seeing an immaculate print of a 25-year-old favorite in a packed house of hundreds of enthusiasts even more steeped in the film than me — and then having the director himself emerge for a Q&A. Sadly, he had to endure a load of mouth-breathing questions like, “If Wang’s mind and spirit had aligned, would he have been able to cut the bottle in half?”, but he proved to be as cool as I’d suspected from listening to his DVD commentaries, a venue in which he effectively became my first filmmaking teacher.
I didn’t see 1974’s Dark Star, Carpenter’s student film, until the mid-2000s, unfortunately for me. Watch it, and you obtain the key to the Carpenter-at-his-best cinematic sensibility: minimalist yet striking designs, pulsing synthesizer scores, small budgets used creatively, undammable currents of goofy humor, and plenty of moments of genuine freakiness. Hammered together out of $60,000, a beach ball dressed up as a maneating alien, and a hallway repurposed as an elevator, this remains Carpenter’s only more-or-less straight-up comedy. I defy you not to appreciate that final “surfing” shot.
1976’s Assault on Precinct 13 I find perpetually watchable, despite — or maybe because of — its being basically a seventies-upped Rio Bravo. Who can fail to applaud the bravado of removing the point-blank little-girl-with-ice-cream-shooting for the ratings board, then splicing it right back in again? Despite having seen it theatrically, I forget Jean-Francois Richet’s 2005 remake almost entirely. At the Big Trouble screening, Carpenter claimed credit for the idea of change the bad dudes from a “multiracial street gang” into a scrum of corrupt cops.
Everyone already knows about 1978’s Halloween, no doubt the highest return on investment to Carpenter’s minimalism; he used what, a couple houses, a knife, a sprayed-white Ronald Reagan mask, and three keys on his keyboard? I used to enjoy playing the Atari 2600 tie-in.
You find Carpenter’s core, I say, in 1981’s Escape from New York. When I realized the same dude did both it and Big Trouble, I knew I had to learn much more. Using a few crumbling blocks of East St. Louis, he crafted perhaps the most striking dystopian vision I’ll ever see. Many qualities emblematize the movie’s triumph of the handmade, especially the fact that, for the wireframe “computer graphics,” Carpenter’s team built and shot an actual, physical model of New York city, all black but for reflective-tape-lines at all the edges. Also, from Wikipedia: “Carpenter originally wrote the film in the mid-1970s as a reaction to the Watergate scandal, but no studio wanted to make it because Carpenter proved unable to articulate just how this film could relate to the Watergate scandal.”
Escape from New York’s sequel Escape from L.A. came in 1996, and oh lord, did Colin-12 get psyched about it. People seemed to regard the movie as a disappointment, and with its big-budget baroqueness, it does depart from the feel of the original. But how empty could it be if I still remember it, and clearly, fifteen years on? At the time, I took every event’s mirroring of every event in the original — Snake gets a real virus in N.Y but a fake in L.A., he rides a glider into N.Y. but a submarine in L.A., he gets into a cage-fighting match in N.Y. and a basketball-throwing challenge in L.A., the de facto ruler of N.Y. drives a car with a chandelier on its hood and the de facto ruler of L.A. drives one with a disco ball on its trunk — as a mark of shoddiness. “Did they just forget what happened in the first one?” I wondered. But to appreciate Escape from L.A. you must accept that it satirizes everything — especially Escape from New York.
(Fifteen years separated Escape from New York and Escape from L.A.; fifteen years separate Escape from L.A. and the present moment. Carpenter mentioned his and Kurt Russell’s perpetual readiness to work together, if presented “the right material.” Could Escape from Detroit loom far off? You wouldn’t even have to do much set dressing, as I understand it.)
Starman, from 1984, has a stark early-eighties feel and gets close to some rich ideas about the line separating identity from perfect impersonation, but it backs off from them in a Hollywood-y enough way that it has to count as a missed opportunity. Same with 1992’s Memoirs of an Invisible Man, a showcase for then-advanced effects — not Carpenter’s way — that neither explores the everyday complications of invisibility that Adam Cadre says H.F. Saint’s source novel does nor uses Chevy Chase to his fullest. I recall 1995’s In the Mouth of Madness having the same problem, though it non-uses Sam Neill, an actor whom I “like” but whose presence in films actually signals negatively about those films.
Vampires, from 1998, has a lot of individually interesting qualities, including but not limited to James Woods’ performance as a weary, embittered vampire hunter. I doubt you could call it “actually good,” but Carpenter and co. made it with so many down-and-dirty, rough-and-ready techniques and tricks — I don’t remember any CGI at all, real or fake — that the director’s commentary track, which kicked off the informal “film school” that is now my life, offers a wealth of information on how to do it all yourself. I also remember the movie drawing accusations of misogyny. Roger Ebert wrote that main hooker-girl’s wardrobe “displays the precise 2.2 inches of cleavage that Carpenter's heroines always display, as if just that much and no more or less comforts his libido.”
My previous Carpenter-related filmgoing opportunity came a decade ago, with Ghosts of Mars, practically a remake of Precinct 13 — though more fun than Richet’s — and so, in effect, practically a remake of Rio Bravo. It thus dresses, like most of Carpenter’s pictures, in modern genre drag to hide the western it really is. Big Trouble began its life, — under the steady screenwriting hand of Buckaroo Banzai director W.D. Richter, Carpenter’s old school friend — set in San Francisco’s Chinatown of 1870 rather than San Francisco’s Chinatown of 1986. I think the hybridity of secret westerns works for Carpenter, though part of me just thirsts to see him go all-out with a straight-on Hawks homage.
(I haven’t seen or have forgotten Someone’s Watching Me!, Elvis, The Fog, The Thing, Christine, Prince of Darkness, They Live, Body Bags, and Village of the Damned. Any suggestions, Carpenter-savvy readers, on which I should soonest visit/revisit? Should I get excited about his recent comeback, The Ward?)