A Four-Pack of Carpenter

Update:  There’s a great article on this very retrospective by Benjamin Strong on the Moving Image Source titled “Morning in America.” He positions this retrospective as genre readings of the Reagan 80s, yes, that’s it!

As if you need any more proof that the BAM’s film programming is far and away the best out there, check out the just finished Four-Pack of Carpenter series. These folks are good…very, very good! What I would have given to have been in the BAM for eight hours consuming all of this 35 mm magnificence. It’s probably better that Matt “old gold” Gold didn’t tell me until after the fact, cause I would have just been depressed for four days straight.

4-Pack of Carpenter at the BAM

4-Pack of Carpenter at the BAM

The four films by John Carpenter they showed are Big Trouble in Little China (1986), The Thing (1981), They Live (1988), and Escape from New York (1982). Now, I just got done praising the programmers, and I stand by that, but I for one think Big Trouble in Little China and They Live are kinda weak spots in the line-up. Big Trouble in Little China is one of those beloved Carpenter films (for many a favorite) that I never really cared for or understood why so many people liked it so much. I mean let’s be honest, if you are going to have a small retrospective of Carpenter, the four films would have to be Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, Escape from New York, and The Thing —am I right? Of course I am, Halloween, while not my favorite (that would be an even tie between The Thing and Escape from NY), has to be Carpenter’s most perfect film. It framed the aesthetic, pacing, and camera angles for a whole decade of horror films, and it features unbelievable performances by both Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasence. In fact, I watched it yet again recently and remain amazed just how well it stands up in every way, it’s the Carpenter film.

Now, I know They Live is going through a renaissance of sorts as of late and I’m all for it, fun film and a great plot concept with the consumer/message zombie/monster thing. Yet, it pales in comparison to the pure philosophical genius of The Thing, or the brilliant plot frame and post-apocalyptic setting of Escape from NY. In fact, I think Big Trouble in Little China and They Live are lesser Carpenter because they move into the intentionally corny, a facet of his film making that by the time we come to a film like Escape from LA renders it unwatchable. Carpenter’s films were always a bit comic book and hokie, it’s one of the things I love about all the movies in my 4-pack. It just seems by the time he got to Big Trouble in Little China the move from horror/sci-fi master to mediocre b-comedy was complete, and the latter didn’t really wear to well on him (with In the Mouth of Madness (1995) being the one exception).

OK, I’ll admit it. This is really just hair splitting, I understand that, I would have gladly gone to all four films with butter-drenched popcorn, Coke, and Dots in hand, greedily stuffing myself while consuming the true beauty of 35 mm Carpenter. This caddy response may be a result of my intense dejection that I wasn’t at the BAM to witness all this first hand. At the same time, we have to maintain a standard for our b-movies, or else everything just becomes artistic schlock 🙂 And as an unintentional side effect, this post has helped me figure out a perfect life for myself: I would run UMW Blogs on the side, and attend and blog every film being shown at the BAM on a regular basis for the rest of my natural life. That, my friends, would be heaven. Sometimes I miss Brooklyn, but I always miss the BAM Cinematèk (looks like the got ride of the whole Cinematèk thing, and are just going with BAM Cinema now–glad they dropped the elitist European name with accent, this is America damn it! We invented film!!!).

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8 Responses to A Four-Pack of Carpenter

  1. Andy Best says:

    So much to talk about – Carpenter … ahh …

    Alas, my mind is currently out of order just thinking back to those movies. I actually rate They Live higher than you Jim, buts that’s because all my life up to seeing it, I was thinking about the premise of They Live (unaware of the movie) and thinking – where is this movie, life demands it. I was more than happy to find out it was Carpenter who did it.

    A JC (hee hee great coincidental initials) four pack for me would have to be The Thing, Escape From New York and Assault on Precinct 13, in that order, no matter how much we like the others … then it’s between Halloween and They Live for the last spot. With me controversially picking They Live.

    I watched Friday 13th (very first one) just yesterday (came two years after Halloween). I wasn’t very impressed. I was, however, tickled to see that the scene I remembeed where the guy gets killed from under the bed with the arrow was Kevin Bacon!

    Ah … The Thing.

  2. Mikhail says:

    What, “I have come here to chew bubble guma nd kick ass . . . and I am all out of bubblegum” is not pure philosophical genius?

    There are so many great ones by Carpenter that picking 4 is really tough. What about Christine or Starman. Sure, They Live is a dark horse, but it is a crowd pleaser. If I were to curate the 4-pack, I must say that I would likely include that one but I would also throw in Assualt as well. All 4 moviues chosen (plus Assault) don’t readily fall into a pre-existing genre like some of his other films do (Halloween and Christine, especially). I tend to think of those as genre films first and Carpenter flicks second. Not so with all 4 in BAM’s lineup. Maybe that’s the thinking?

  3. Reverend says:

    @Andy

    I haven’t watched Friday the 13th in a long while, but I taught both Halloween and Friday the 13th in a slasher section of a course, and I think the whole class agreed how much better Halloween was. I mean it is little things about Halloween, like the match book from the bunny club that Donald Pleasence finds on the first victim in his pursuit of Michael Myers.

    Or the awesome first scene where Michael sees his sister having sex. Or when Jamie Lee Curtis is baby sitting and the original The Thing is on the TV (which is a far inferior version to Carpenter’s 🙂 ). Yeah, Halloween may be a genre film, but it is one of those genre films that pushes an idea out so perfectly that a whole generation of b-movie makers can only emulate it, until it is finally put to rest by hacks like the Wayans brothers in Scary Movie.

    Assault is a must, and I know I am being nit picky here, but mustn’t we have a standard? 🙂

    @Mikhail

    I’ve been waiting for your reply here, this post was written for you. I know you are a huge They Live fan, and I do respect that. It’s you who made me re-visit it and re-appraise its value, so you were an early visionary on this one. It is a good film, and I am definitely being a bit of a purist in my post: the b-movie elite! However, you bring up a good point about genre bending, Escape from NY and The Thing are both kind of scifi/action/horror films, no one real genre, and Big Trouble and They Live are kind of comedies, the logic does work as a four-pack, and as usual the BAM is far smarter than me.

    Also, I’m not sure Halloween needs anymore “recognition,” it is certainly one of the top 100 films of all time, and everyone who watches film has probably seen it, but I just feel it often gets overlooked as a masterpiece and pigeon holed as a moment. It’s both in the best possible ways, it is also responsible for an unbelievable conservative reaction in horror films over the next decade that literally prey on women. So, there may be a few reasons they dropped it.

    Assault is and isn’t a straight genre film, however. Rather more of an emerging subgenre film. Napolean Wilson is kind of a stock, comic book caricature who is always asking for a cigarette (I love that). But he is also a foil to the intense level of senseless violence throughout that film. I think Assault may be the first true modern urban jungle movie that leads directly to something like Boyz in the Hood (the two are very similar in my opinion). Far earlier than most of the ones we commonly attribute like The Warriors, Fort Apache, The Bronx, etc. It is another moment for defining a subgenre, and so maybe that is how I would pitch the marriage of Assault and Halloween for my 4-pack: the birth of the Slasher and Urban Jungle film (with the caveat of course that Mario Bava really invented the Slasher film, Carpenter just perfected it 🙂

  4. Mikhail says:

    There is no love like Bava love. Good golly, I miss BAM and arguing with you about movies.

    Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think They Live is a great film. I like it because it’s fun (call me Pauline Kael). And since I haven’t seen In the Mouth of Madness, They Live is the last Carpenter film I found to be at all worthy of my attention. It succeeds on the level of camp, more than on any other, and explores themes that are probably more salient today than they were in 1988 (even though the object of the film’s paranoia is as external as it can be (aliens from space), whereas today we feel more threatened the forces that aim to surviel, pacify and control us from within).

    If the aim of the 4 Pack was to feature those films of Carpenter’s that have made a real contribution to our idea of what American movies are all about, I would probably not argue for the inclusion of They Live, as fun and campy and giddy as it is. Still, it’s a hell of a lot of fun to watch — even moreso with you.

  5. Andy Best says:

    hey guys – allow me to rant on about my ‘for sure’ Carpenter top three.

    So, Escape from New York, Assualt on Precinct 13 and The Thing.

    What amazes me about those is the creation of a space. What Carpenter does is build a limited space that is defined only by the character’s immediate, and oft surreal experience within it. Exposition or explanation is kept to the minimum, a title at the very beginning perhaps. However, both the meaning of the external world and the internal world of the characters are deftly explored, and reflected in, the space seen in the movie.

    Things don’t have to be explained away or linked, you can just experience it through the characters, who themselves are never stand ins for ‘perfect narrators’ or what have you. He manages to do all this as well as his brilliant manipulation of the medium culturally … the dialogue, his music, the iconography, his exploration of genre conventions etc.

    Right, that’s it. I’m off to organise at screening of all three (i’ll have to make do with DVDs and a small arts venue mind you.) Bye!

  6. Reverend says:

    @Andy

    Brilliantly said, bravo! I have more to add, but I’ll wait til your comment sinks in entirely. I think you nailed the best of Carpenter.

  7. Scott Leslie says:

    Jim, I gotta say, usually when you start in on the B-Movie thing I kinda tune out. I love movies but B-Movies have never really been my thing. But while I never really got into Carpenter, I do remember having enjoyed Assault on Precinct 13 at one point long ago. So based on this post I watch it again last night.

    Rev, I apologize for ever having doubted you. Not only is it simply brilliant piece of filmaking (and why Darwin Joston didn’t get an Oscar for his portrayal of Napoleon Wilson, one of the all time cool bad asses of film, I will never know) it helped me understand (some) of why you seem so high on these movies. There is just so much good cultural critique, observation and film references woven into the art design and other choices in this film, plus they are damn fun to watch. I think in Carpenter’s case a lot of it is clearly intentional (I love how in the final scene 2 cops ride up on motorcycles, just in case the Western/Rio Bravo thing wasn’t obvious before) but I’m beginning to understand just how rich these previously dismissed (by me) films really are.

    So, I have a while to go before I manage to get rid of years of built-up film snobbishness, but this will teach me to ever doubt The Bava again.

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