The mystery illness I’ve been fighting off-and-on for well over a year now (and which may very well simply be stress (which seems— (wait! rabbit hole!))) returned this weekend, and so, in between naps, I used Netflix and iTunes to curate a miniature film-fest. The theme of the festival was John Carpenter and/or Kurt Russell (with exceptions (to be explained)) and included the following films (in the order watched) (and none of which I had previously seen):
• Big Trouble in Little China (1986 by John Carpenter and starring Kurt Russell)
• The Thing (1982 by John Carpenter and starring Kurt Russell (and a moustacheless Wilford Brimley!))
• Robocop (1987 by Paul Verhoeven)
• Stargate (1994 by Roland Emmerich starring Kurt Russell and James Spader)
• Escape from New York (1981 by John Carpenter and starring Kurt Russell)
• Escape from L.A. (1996 by John Carpenter and starring Kurt Russell)
• The Thing (2011 by Matthijs van Heijningen)
I have been a huge fan of John Carpenter’s They Live (1988 starring “Rowdy” Roddy Piper) ever since I accidentally saw it on the Fox 42 Late Night Movie sometime in 1994, though I don’t think I learned what it was called until probably ten years later. I was talking with a colleague (whose opinions on film and music I hold in high regard) the other day about it, which is, in part, what prompted this mini festival in the first place, and he suggested that They Live would have been better if Kurt Russell had starred in it. Not knowing any of Russell’s work with Carpenter, I could neither agree nor disagree, but something about his assertion didn’t feel right. Now, after seeing four of Carpenter and Russell’s collaborations, reacquainting myself with Jonathan Lethem’s book/essay on They Live (entitled, appropriately enough, They Live), and remembering that Slavoj Žižek has quite a bit to say about the film (in part that it is one of the greatest leftist films to ever come out of Hollywood), I can say this: Kurt Russell would have been entirely too movie star for They Live, and would have lent it a completely different sense of irony and camp (I mean, just look at Big Trouble in Little China and Escape from L.A.!) than the decidedly working-class irony and camp lent to it by professional wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy.
Before I continue: It has occurred to me that my mother is likely reading this. Mom, yes, I am writing about film, but please notice that I am not writing about film in any technical way: I do not know anything about lighting, or setting up shots, or what they’re called, or editing, or really any of that stuff. I might be able to identify a wipe or a dissolve, but I couldn’t tell you what they mean. I am writing about film from a literary/cultural studies perspective; I am qualified to do that. I am not qualified to write about film from a film studies perspective, and it is my lack of technical knowledge (and, obviously, a degree in film studies) which disqualifies me. Also, I love you and I got your Valentine’s letter today, so thanks!
Mostly, I just wanted to present some notes I took in my head as I watched these seven films, but this seems to have turned into something made of paragraphs. I suppose the obvious thing to do would be to write one paragraph per film. Let’s see what happens. Warning: Even though I hadn’t seen any of these films before this last weekend, I’m going to write about them as though they have been seen (I mean, they’re (nearly) all 20-30 years old), which means there may be spoilers.
Big Trouble in Little China is fun and silly and attempts to present Russell as a truck driver, but he’s entirely too pretty to really pull it off, which is fine, because the film isn’t trying to be a serious piece of cinematic realism (what with its giant green fireballs and mythological Chinese demons). I don’t mean to say that there aren’t pretty truck drivers out there, either, but I’m aware that it’s a difficult life that wreaks havoc on the body in ways most people would rather not consider, and I would imagine that maintaining Hollywood Pretty in truck stop restrooms is not easy.
That same colleague mentioned above and I also talked about The Thing. What he said he loved about the film was how Carpenter refused to let the viewer ever know for sure if Russell’s character had been infected or not. Said colleague seemed pretty convinced he had been. Again, I’m not so sure I agree. Carpenter does a pretty effective job of both cluing the viewer in to who’s been compromised without also making it obvious (who the dog touches). Russell also unambiguously passes the blood test. It isn’t until the very end that there is any ambiguity about Russell’s status, and that’s when he and the last guy simply decide to wait where they are, which is exactly what the thing had been doing for the 100,000 years before being extracted from the ice. Also, the special effects are awesome and gruesome and disturbing.
Robocop doesn’t exactly fit the theme of my mini-festival, but it doesn’t not. I feel as though Verhoeven probably took a couple of cues from Carpenter. Robocop and Escape from New York share an awesome post-apocalyptic vibe and, strangely, a bad-guy with a high-pitched laugh. Also, Verhoeven’s use of TV news and commercials is reminiscent of similar things in both Escape from New York and They Live.
If I had seen Stargate when I was 13, it would have been the best movie ever. Russell manages to pull off suicidal father and military man by never moving his face or really ever saying much. Had he smiled (and at this moment, I wonder how much Russell’s (goofy?) smile resembles that of the character Plucky Purcell in Tom Robbins’ first novel Another Roadside Attraction), he likely would have ruined his entire performance.
I should have used the Escape From films as bookends? I liked that Escape from New York had a slightly more serious tone despite its also campiness. Its indictment of U.S. politics and (east coast?) culture are reminiscent of They Live. I read on Wikipedia that the script was written in response to the Watergate scandal. It’s oblique, but not opaque. The physical portrayal of the president made me wonder when we last had an obviously overweight chief executive. I just looked at Wikipedia’s list of presidents: Taft was huge; Hoover may have been a bit chubby.
Escape from L.A. is an indictment not only of the City of Angels but also of the film industry and especially of the so-called moral majority (I think one could make a fairly convincing argument that Carpenter at least knew about if not has read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood), but probably that’s been said a million times. It’s also an indictment wrapped in camp (the cars! a revolutionary leader named “Cuervo Jones”! Pam Grier in drag in drag!) which adds bite to the satire. Snake Plissken is obviously the one-eyed king in the land of the blind.
I should have used the different Things as bookends? No. So, the 2011 The Thing is supposedly a prequel to Carpenter’s film, but the things that would make it a prequel are haphazardly tacked on at the end and make almost no sense. The film is effectively a showcase for better special effects but contains almost none of the serious psychological tension of the original which would have made those better special effects worth the time and money it cost to make them. I will say this though, the frantically waving tentacles and the way the one infected character rubbed his face on and then into the other, non-infected character’s. . . .
A good essay writer would now use that image to say something about all the films, about how they were all about the culture wars, or multi-culturalism, or how science and society often rub each other the wrong way, and ultimately, how we can’t help but infect one another with our ideas and ideologies, but these are just notes, and this is just a blog, and I’m not a film writer or even a serious student of film–I’m just a guy who watched a bunch of films between naps during a recurrence of the mystery illness this last weekend.