SECOND CHANCES

CHRISTOPHER FUNDERBURG

Despite their reputations, some films and filmmakers just don't do it for us. This series, Second Chances, follows our attempts to find greatness where we've previously failed to see it; to actively make an effort to appreciate esteemed artworks for which we currently have a distaste (or feel indifference.) We'll give cult favorites like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer another shot and dig deep in the filmographies of beloved auteurs whose appeal baffles us (like Federico Fellini) - and with a little luck, maybe we'll even end up as newly-minted fans...

 

The Subject: Escape from New York

Initial Resistance:

It doesn't come up much here at The Pink Smoke, but I am a bona fide John Carpenter apologist. Sure, like any right thinking human being, I love Halloween, Big Trouble in Little China and The Thing. I also have been preaching the gospel of They Live for at least a decade before doing so became de rigueur - I remember as a youth getting ridiculed for having the poster on my bedroom wall. But it goes beyond that: not only do I freely admit to enjoying Ghosts of Mars and Prince of Darkness, I think In the Mouth of Madness is damn near a masterpiece. I believe in my heart - and God himself can vouch for this - that Sam Neill deserved a Best Actor in a Supporting Role Oscar for his work in Memoirs of an Invisible Man.

My friends will tell you that I compulsively make toasts to "the shitters of the world, 1979" and John Cribbs will attest that he recently had to disabuse me of the notion that another friend of ours not having even heard of Christine was "the craziest fucking thing in the history of the human race." Obviously, I can't defend Village of the Damned or The Ward...but I would be open to hearing someone defend them. I could be won over to sympathy on their behalf.

So it might strike you as nutso, dear Pink Smokist, that I think Escape from New York kinda sucks. I've only seen it once and only once, the same number of times I have seen (and will ever see) Body Bags. For comparison, I've even seen The Fog and its overabundance of poc-marked Tom Atkins a half dozen times. Kinda weird, right? For most Carpenterinos, Escape completes the holy tetralogy with his unassailable classics, Snake Plissken carved into the Carpenter Mt. Rushmore alongside Michael Meyers, Jack Burton and R.J. MacReady. My distaste for Escape is probably even enough to call into question my Carpenter-loving credentials altogether, so abnormal is my aversion to his goofy vision of a prison island over-run by cheeseball, one-note gimmicks characters and puerile nihilism.

"Goofy?! Cheeseball?!"

Yeah, we need to address this about Carpenter: in general, his films are heavy on the cheese. Sure, they're frequently supposed to be cool, but they're cool in that deeply uncool way that appeals to teenage boys of all ages. They're not Lee Marvin or Steve McQueen cool, they're "sunglasses on Godzilla" or "Boba Fett in a turquoise prom tuxedo" cool. His movies are full of goth zombies and drooling monsters and kung-fu brawls and pro wrestlers and Stephen King stand-ins and bikers in leather vests and Alice Coopers. I love them, but they're like a 15 year-old's gleefully defanged ideas about violence and horror and "insanity."

His two absolute best films, Halloween and The Thing, manage to tamp down on the cheesiness more than any of his other work (although it should be noted that The Thing features a sweat-band-sporting Stevie Wonder enthusiast roller-dancing to a giant boom-box, as well as computer chess) but let's not pretend Carpenter's isn't a man capable of putting on a kimono and shutter shades to help him pretend a Steenbeck is a keyboard while lip-syncing in the music video for one of his film's eponymous theme-songs. He is that man.

Unsurprisingly, his greatest character, Big Trouble's Jack Burton, manages to embody the tension between silliness and awesomeness that characterizes Carpenter's work: Burton's overflowing with bravado and smirking one-liners, but screws up top to bottom throughout the film and has to be bailed out constantly. Dennis Dun as Wang serves as the yin to Burton's yang, a dorky little hopeless romantic Chinese restauranteur who breaks out the katanas and uzis and jumps forty feet up for airborne sword-fights.

Burton's unearned self-confidence is the film's central joke: the swaggering John Wayne imitator who can't even get his knife out of his boot during a sprawling melee. And then, whammo!, he whips a knife into Lo Pan's forehead right when you least expect it. He's as stunned as we are. Awesome. It almost plays like self-awareness on Carpenter's part: the cool filmmaker who's secretly a big ol' lovable dork. One of the reasons Carpenter's seemingly incongruous sentimental alien romantic comedy Starman works so surprisingly well is that its sweetly dorky protagonist with his adolescent awe of cars and food and women actually plays right into Carpenter's strengths.

More than any other Carpenter film, Escape from New York relies on its coolness to carry it. And it needs to be real, adult coolness, not jejune virgin coolness. Plissken is supposed to be the ultimate badass, a stone killer whose reputation for ruthlessness precedes him. The dying shell of Manhattan is supposed to be seedy and scary with the perverted, genuinely depraved tenor of Times Square in the 80's smeared from Innwood to Tribeca like a venereal disease. And it just doesn't work. Plissken ain't cool, he's no Charles Bronson, no Clint Eastwood, despite secondary characters' insistence otherwise.

The Doogie Howser synthesizer score, the silly "hobo + biker + Meshach Taylor in Mannequin Two: On the Move" costumes, the stilted dialog - it all undermines the "coolness" on which the film hinges. I recently idly Netflix'd its sequel Escape from L.A., and that film's deeply sad ideas about coolness are even more pronounced (e.g. sewage surfing with Peter Fonda and a half-court shootout...to the death!) but of a part with its predecessor - their style comes across less as the "Quantum zombies in muscle cars!" kind of cool that can be found in Carpenter's most charming work and more of the "dad with a backwards baseball cap and a lime-green fanny-pack" variety.

The nerds have won so many pop cultural battles that the line between Carpenter's goofball cool and "Robert Duvall as Macklin holding up a mob poker game" cool have been blurred - Carpenter perhaps more than any other filmmaker has benefited from this shift in cultural definitions and his Snake Plissken has become a classic cinematic icon within that context (also, to be fair, it has allowed his delightful They Live to fully reap the glory it deserves). I just don't buy it. Plissken and the world he inhabits aren't cool, not really; they're John Carpenter cool - and it might be the only time in the master of sci-fi/westerns' estimable filmography that it's an inexcusably bad thing.

Reasons for Reassessment:

Let's talk a little about Connoisseur Syndrome, shall we? It's a phrase I've been using for years to describe the aesthetic phenomenon where someone, say a critic, becomes so entrenched in their area of expertise that they begin to prize their subject being "different" as a positive quality in and of itself. Think of a cheese aficionado who has supped on so many blocks of cheddar and swiss and brie and camembert and feta and gouda that when a morbier comes along with its line of ash down the middle that they get excited. Because their cheese has ash in it.

This is the same impulse that leads some critics to praise something like Don Van Vliet over the Archies (relax kids, I'm not saying that as an absolute, plenty of people just like the music) or champion a less familiar work like L'Eclisse as superior to a canonized classic like L'Avventura or even praise primitivist art because they're just so worn out by experiencing excellent style and technique combined with high-minded theory that Guisseppe Andrew rapping with his grandma has more impact on their exhausted-by-excellence psyches.

This isn't a critique of knowledgeability or a suggestion that the types of advocacy I've just outlined can only come from a single impulse or are even wrong. But becoming an expert (or an enthusiastic amateur) doesn't just inform your tastes, it has the potential to warp them.* I think most critics are at least subconsciously aware of the Syndrome and struggle with it, but more than a few have gone full Richard Brody and done things such as penned absurd essays where they extoll the endless virtues of Cassandra's Dream because they're up in Woody Allen's piece.

A factor in Connoisseur Syndrome's is the avid consumption, even overconsumption, of the object of their connoisseurship and that can easily lead to certain favorite tastes being worn out. If you drink your favorite vintage of wine with dinner every night for weeks on end, it will begin to lose its impact. Eat too much morbier and it will just seem like you're eating cheese with ash in it.** The same thing can happen with movies. I've seen Big Trouble no less than sixty times - probably more. I can even tell you about the intricacies of its commentary track like when Kurt Russell and Carpenter forget about the movie and starting discussing their sons' youth hockey leagues.

I'm not sure what I'm even seeing and feeling when I watch that movie now, so thoroughly have I experienced it, again and again, over the course of decades. To a similar extent, when I watch Halloween or The Thing, I'm more likely to focus on minuscule details like Ben Tramer's activities in the hours preceding his sad fate in the sequel or ruminate on why the tubby doctor has a nose-ring - that is, I'm not really experiencing them as they are designed by Carpenter to be primarily experienced. I've worn out three of the four faces on Carpenter's Mt. Rushmore. I still enjoy them, but in an undeniably muted capacity.

So that leads into my three motivations: 1) As a canonized classic, Escape from New York probably deserves another shot. As a Carpenterino, I also feel guilty having given the universally despised Escape from L.A. a second go and not the venerated original. 2) As a connoisseur of the man, I'm kinda interested to see a Carpenter film that might be a little different and a little off-model. 3) I've exhausted a lot of his classics and maybe, juuuuuussst maybe, I'll like Escape this time through and have a new Carpenter classic to wear out. On an even more hopeful note, loving Escape might conceivably re-charge my enthusiasm for his work and make me want to dig in anew with fresh eyes. Imagine a world in which I could talk myself into watching Body Bags again and actually be excited for it. That's a called a utopia, my friends.

 

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* True story, got this idea for Connoisseur Syndrome while reading Victor Eremita's (aka Soren Kierkegaard) Either/Or. I'm pretty learned.

** I love morbier. It's seriously delicious. At TIFF 2012, I had a long and satisfying conversation with a stripper who asked me what my favorite cheese was. I ultimately settled on manchego by virtue of its versatility. But morbier definitely came up. Her pick was some African camel cheese I hadn't heard of. Connoisseur syndrome: it can afflict any of us, from the king to the lowly street sweeper. Seriously, non-cow cheeses are objectively inferior to cow-based varieties. Some sheep cheeses are really good, though. I seriously thought about telling her paneer was my favorite type, but I don't think that's reasonable since I wouldn't eat it by itself. That would have been like picking romano or something.

 

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