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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

On John Carpenter (Part the First)

Recently, I sat down to watch Neill Marshall's Doomsday, a clear homage to John Carpenter's Escape From New York. It's all there: a steely, black-clad, one-eyed protagonist traversing into a hostile, isolated area hoping to stave off Armageddon while fending with an authority figure who's kind of a prick.

While I've been enamored of Marshall's Dog Soldiers and The Descent, I think he was wrong for this material. His strengths lie in subtly communicating character and interpersonal within the context of genre films.* In attempting to ape Carpenter, Mr. Marshall may have missed the point: Carpenter rarely has a use for fleshed-out characters and instead tends to rely on broad archetypes to keep the story moving.

Carpenter and Character

Snake Plissken. Man of few words and not a whole lot of backstory. Dude even has a tattoo of a Snake on his belly (which came first - the name or the tattoo?). Most importantly, at least for Carpenter's purposes - he comes through the story pretty much unchanged. The same with Jack Burton, or Rowdy Roddy Piper in They Live, or any member of the weird gynarchy in Ghosts of Mars.** Not a single one of them changes or evovles through the course of the story - they're all rocks flung through the variety of circumstances that Carpenter has constructed.

What Carpenter was able to do in many of those cases - in defiance of most of the rules of narrative - is make this work for his stories. Jack Burton is cool and interesting and we want to see him succeed because he's pretty glib in the face of danger. Snake just doesn't give a damn and wants to get the job done despite all the complications and conflicting loyalties. And you know what Rowdy's here to do after all the bubblegum runs out.

Carpenter's strength is taking uncomplicated, tough characters and throwing them into outsized situations. Snake just wants to go free, Jack just wants to get his truck back, and Rowdy wants a job. I would argue that as soon as Carpenter started complicating his characters with backstory and motivations it began to hurt his work (James Woods' woman-hatin'-vampire-killin'-Vatican-raised the lead in Vampires being the most egregious example).

I feel like Carpenter has been able to get a bit closer to his roots with his fairly recent stint on Masters of Horror: Cigarette Burns.*** The story was direct and the hero did have an element of back story with a dead girlfriend, but really the story was about a fairly weaselly, resourceful guy trying to find a rare film print in spite of psychotic collectors and creepy German cineastes.

(Yeah. I came down on the side of Norm Reedus - Scud from Blade II. I'm as surprised as anyone else)

Climbing back to the original idea and away from the realm of pay cable, I lay part of the effectiveness of using simple archetypes in Carpenter's casting: Kurt Russell, Rowdy Roddy Piper, David Keith... Kurt Russell some more. Carpenter has cast based on the ability for a lead to alternately look like they don't give a damn but could totally, seriously mess you up if given half a reason.

In the next installment, I'd like to explore Carpenter's use and subversion of genre - particularly with regards to Big Trouble in Little China.

*See the underlying tension between Juno and Sarah - Marshall expertly sets up the tension between these two characters at the start of the movie and lets inform Sarah's choice about Juno's fate at the end of the film.

** Laurie Strode of Halloween, Sam Neill's character from In the Mouth of Madness and the Jeff Bridges as the titular Starman are all exceptions to the rule which I hope to discuss later. But Michael Meyers is totally an archetype.

*** I still haven't checked out his other entry from the series, Pro-life, so my premise could be faulty.

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