Wednesday, May 21, 2008

It's All in the Reflexes: Why I Still Love John Carpenter

I’ve got John Carpenter on the mind a lot lately. More so than usual, I mean.

The Alamo Ritz is screening BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA this week as part of their “Big Screen Sci-Fi Classics” and pretty much everyone I know is going, even though we’ve all seen the film countless number of times. I saw it the other night with a group that included Terror Thursday’s Zack Carlson, Spanish filmmaker Eugenio Mira (in town specifically to see INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL at the Alamo), Media Licks’ Kayla Kromer, and numerous other Austinites of note. There’s no real question as to why the film is being screened or why we’re going – it’s a terrific fucking movie – but rather the question as to why BIG TROUBLE, which has found a large and appreciative audience on video and cable, wasn’t a hit in the first place. As a Carpenter fan from way back, I was there opening weekend, when it came out of the 4th of July ‘86 weekend with a slew of other new films (PSYCHO III; THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE; ABOUT LAST NIGHT; UNDER THE CHERRY MOON) that also flopped, with BIG TROUBLE the lowest grossing of them all. When a film flops they usually blame the marketing, but BIG TROUBLE had an excellent poster (replicated and parodied many times since), a great tagline (“Jack Burton is in for some serious trouble and you’re in for some serious fun”), and a trailer that I know made me very psyched when I first saw it and I think still plays quite well. I suppose it’s worthless to go back and figure out why BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA tanked (OK, this might not have helped); it happened, it can’t be changed and folks have caught up to it, but man it would have been really nice if it was a hit way back in ’86, because Carpenter sure could have used it then. Hell, he could still use it now.

It’s weird how Carpenter has become one of the grand old men of the genre while back in the day he was something of a polarizing figure within it. His work appealed mainly to the younger set (that’s me!), while the traditionalist (yes, the genre has traditionalist) rejected him as a filmmaker who favored special effects over content. I think over the years that theory has been pretty much laid to rest, with such films as BIG TROUBLE, PRINCE OF DARKNESS (a picture I disliked when I first saw it back in ’87 but has seriously grown on me) and especially THEY LIVE and THE THING have undergone serious critical reappraisal over the last few years. About ten years ago, around the release of VAMPIRES, Kent Jones had a very nice piece in Film Comment that called Carpenter the last genre master in American movies and I guess did a bit to help his reputation, but GHOSTS OF MARS, a brilliantly goofy movie, still got stiffed by the critics and wasn’t that big a hit. That’s actually something that holds true for Carpenter after all these years – 30 years later, HALLOWEEN is still his biggest grosser – which I would think (or hope) keeps him humble but I guess also keeps the major studios and big projects at bay (that and the whole “creative control/final cut” business Carpenter usually demands). The guy is a “fan favorite” and not necessarily an audience favorite or critic’s favorite for the most part, but his work holds up so much better than many of his contemporaries (the sold-out audience at BIG TROUBLE was loving it big time) that I get the feeling that Kent Jones won’t be the only one who’ll be writing appreciations of his work as the years go by.

While watching BIG TROUBLE last night, it occurred to me that Jones is indeed quite right about Carpenter being an auteur, as every shot in the film is so uniquely his that you can’t imagine the film to have worked with anyone else behind the camera (I also can’t imagine any other filmmaker of the period cutting to close-ups of two warriors as they fly through the air swinging swords at each other). Every Carpenter film has such a specific look and feel that goes beyond Carpenter’s distinctive music and the widescreen photography (of which Carpenter is one of cinema’s true greats), but a tone that’s at times a bit distant and cold, yet strangely draws you in. And in an unusual, Carpenter is a very commercial filmmaker, though I think it has more to do with his filmmaking talents than for any of his films being overly warm or fuzzy-friendly. Carpenter has almost always made a point of identifying with outsiders, criminals and numerous other anti-social misfits, but you love these characters regardless and it’s one of these things that’s not only made his films endearing to me but also adds to the fun; Carpenter is more than happy to raise a middle finger to the establishment like many of his characters do and who can’t admire that? Oh, and his scores rock like crazy. Can’t leave without mentioning that.

Sadly, Carpenter hasn’t made a feature since GHOSTS OF MARS (which is brilliant!), while his two episodes of Masters of Horror are not regarded as being among his best work (this despite the fact that a character in Pro-Life is named after me, a very nice tribute from pal Drew McWeeny) and it’s looking like there isn’t anything on the docket anytime soon. Luckily, many of Carpenter’s films are worth looking at again and again (though I have to admit that VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED isn’t one of them) and if he goes out on GHOSTS there’s still an excellent legacy of films here. But Carpenter will certainly be back and I suspect he’ll kick ass once again in a way that will remind everyone that’s he’s still one of the best we’ve got. The wait’s gonna be a bitch, but knowing Carpenter, it should be worth it.

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