“It’s better to be a human being than an imitation.”- John Carpenter, on The Thing
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Begin with sound. Begin with Assault on Precinct 13 (1976). A black screen, a drum machine. Credits appear in stark red block letters. A synthesizer voices a five-note pattern, a step higher here, a step lower there. A chord seeps in beneath it. What is this? It’s certainly not orchestral in any sense, and it bears more resemblance to the opening of Led Zepplin’s “Good Times Bad Times” by way of Joy Division than it does to a traditional movie score. There’s a temptation to scoff. “The creation of such a score … is at this point beyond the reach only of the tone deaf, and even there one wonders,” wrote CUNY professor Royal S. Brown in a contemporary review. And yet there’s something terrifically effective here. Tone, ambience, style. This strange, driving, droning music becomes immediately a part of the foundation of the film’s dream, of the director’s dream.
Or the famous theme from Halloween (1978): a repetitive piano ascent and descent undergirded by chords on a synthesizer. This music is also introduced over the opening credits, this time a black screen holding only an orange jack-o-lantern. It is driving, riff-based, reduced. It continues throughout the film, often reducing itself to a simple, sustained screech. As Carpenter said of the score for The Thing (1982), written by Ennio Morricone: “He saw a cut of the film and he got some ideas from that, and then I told him about keeping the score to a minimum in terms of the amount of notes and very few key changes … I wanted to have this feeling of doom.”
And space. Carpenter’s space is a contained one, a claustrophobic one. It is a space under assault. A cramped, messy spaceship. A police station under siege. Homes prowled by a monstrous killer, status as refuge inverted. A small town under assault by ghosts, a research station in the Antarctic, an abandoned Catholic church, a series of underground chambers beneath Chinatown. All these corridors and rooms, all this constriction, all these doors and windows that must be flimsily blockaded by bits of furniture.
Carpenter at his best is a lover of color, of strange saturation, of the hard, stripped-down feel of the late 1970s and the garishness of the early 1980s. The slightly artificial tones of the soundstage. His vision has a distinct look, a Technicolor sandstone quality matched with a neon sensibility of the kind Michael Mann would become known for in the television series Miami Vice. The eye of his films is idiosyncratic, bizarrely imagined. In Escape from New York (1981), the island of Manhattan that has been turned into a maximum security prison. Fearsome indeed, but incongruously lit in recurring pink and green neon. In The Fog (1980), we are given a church interior of traditional amber and dark brown wood, stained glass. But the altar cloth is a strange deep violet, and the doorway to the sacristy is cast in pale neon blue. At the end of Big Trouble in Little China (1986), we watch a mystical kung-fu confrontation, set in an underground hideout spangled with green, red, and blue neon tubes. In Halloween, we live in a world faded, reduced, as if a cold grayness has fallen over things. Assault on Precinct 13 takes place in a putty and brown police station, a color scheme later replicated in the church setting of Prince of Darkness (1987); it is a color scheme that radiates institutional decay, and also one that calls to mind, of course, Rio Bravo (1959).
It is a sensitive eye, and a controlled one. It is an eye not interested in imposing itself on the world (like the blue tones of early James Cameron, or the dead green-yellow of late Steven Soderbergh) so much as it’s interested in unearthing a sense of something.
But a sense of what? In the mid-1970s, the disillusionment of the Vietnam-era had reached its high-water mark and was beginning to fade. The raw bitterness of Point Blank (1967) or Dirty Harry (1971) or The Last House on the Left (1972) was on its way to being replaced by the popcorn-bucket scale of Jaws (1975) and the dystopia of Alien (1979). At play was a new vision of virtuosity, and perhaps virtue. This was increasingly youth-oriented, increasingly plasticized. Glossier days were approaching. Self-awareness, action heroes who delivered their signature lines purely for the benefit of the audience. Teenagers assaulted not by other depraved humans but by otherworldly beings, depravity displaced, a movement away from a notion of an understandable psychology of evil.
Carpenter’s early films track this shifting. They participate in it; they help push it forward; in subtle ways, they also resist it. But unlike the work of a director like John McTiernan or Richard Donner, which distinguishes itself through a smoothly enveloping technical facility, Carpenter’s films are idiosyncratic. The best of them feel like Carpenter films. They are straight-line momentum and acerbic, almost ridiculous dialogue; they are strange creations, expertly made B-pictures; they practice an intentional matching of high and low that would become such a great factor in the cinema of subsequent decades. The sense of doom in them is representative of the moment: we might call it the end of the dream of the 1960s, we might call it the rise of Reagan.
Return to the films themselves, and see how they are composed by someone deeply attuned to light and shadow, to the arrangement possibilities of the screen. Watch an early sequence in The Fog. A minor movie, but a remarkably beautiful one. There is a character in the darkened wheelhouse of a small boat. The power has been shut off. Unbeknownst to him, murderous ghosts have boarded the ship. The door behind him opens; he believes it’s one of his friends entering the compartment and does not turn around. In the light that shines weakly in through the doorway, we see that it is not a friend at all. The door closes. The room falls back to darkness, except for a white light shining on the character’s face. That face is suspended in a nothingness, a third of the way across the screen, in the seconds while we wait for him to die. It is a vision of isolation, of doom, marked around its every campy edge with a technical virtuosity.
There are countless examples of this kind of use of light and darkness in Halloween, a movie that is a joy to watch for no other reason than its camera work. Think of the continual use of framing to create suspense, the belief that the entirety of the screen holds possibilities. We come to feel that every empty space is a potentiality; we wait for it to be filled by the image of the killer. This feeing is relentless, inevitable. Watch Michael Myers pursuing Laurie Strode across the street. He is a small figure on the screen, but there is something terrifying in his walk, in its purpose and force, and in its very ordinariness; there is something terrifying about the darkness and the pale blue light, about the distance itself. It is a film about a human filled with the void, relentless, unstoppable; it begins with a famous sequence, a murder shot through the eye-holes of a Halloween mask, committed by a boy. Isolation. A world seen through an aperture suspended in darkness.
In Assault on Precinct 13, a group of cops and convicts are trapped inside a precinct station by a street gang bent on their annihilation. In scenes of building tension, gang members surround the precinct station; they stand unmoving, staring, threatening; a moment later, they have disappeared. We see an identical shot, but the street is empty. In Prince of Darkness, the homeless population of Los Angeles is being controlled by Satan to assault a group of scientists holed up in a church; the initial vision of this horde is of motionless beings, standing and staring up at the windows. They are zombies, but zombies that invert the tradition begun by Night of the Living Dead (1968): instead of relentless movement, they are given relentless stillness, in the place of hunger they are given impenetrability. The final image of the ghostly plague-stricken pirates in The Fog is of them standing motionless in the church.
This achieves its most perfect pitch in Halloween, which derives so much of its tension from the shots of Michael Myers simply standing and staring. There is a terrific force in this presentation of existential threat as something implacable, silent, motionless. Laurie Strode glances out the window of her high school and sees Michael standing across the street behind his car, wearing his mask, staring back at her. This image of the motionless killer is repeated throughout the movie, each time building tension. At the end of the film, Michael is shot and falls backwards, presumably dead, off the second-story deck of a house and lies unmoving on the ground. And yet, what is the final vision of him? The patch of ground where he lay, empty. Carpenter notes, in an interview: “In my experimentation at USC I discovered some tricks that can make people real uneasy. Silence makes people uneasy.… Audiences get real uncomfortable when it’s quiet.”
Return to his scores. In their malevolent, relentless repetition, they both focus and enhance a vision of existential solitude. In They Live (1988), we open to a focused, repeated, bluesy riff (composed with his frequent musical collaborator Alan Howarth) reminiscent of the intro to Cream’s “Spoonful.” In The Thing, Morricone’s single, repeated bass note begins at the end of the title sequence. It is a throbbing, a demented heartbeat. It leads us into the first bleak shot of the Antarctic. There is the feeling of Poe here, in the rhythm, in the tone:
During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.
This stillness and isolation, this sonic reduction, is mirrored and enhanced by his constriction of space. Within the first five minutes of his films, we have often been pulled into claustrophobia – the inescapable island prison of Manhattan, the darkness of the mask that Michael dons, the boat surrounded by the fog, the tight passageway in which a group of gang members are slaughtered, the isolating Antarctic. We have been given a repetitive score that is tied to that dark restriction; we have found ourselves in a compressed location that will continue to spiral in tighter and tighter around us.
Of the imaging of the monster in The Thing, what gets commented on is the strangeness and gore of the effects: the head that sprouts legs and begins to crawl, the ropey tentacles and arachnid arms that burst out of bodies; what does not get commented on is the intentional obscurity of the abilities of the monster. As it does in the best film noir, the obscurity of the events, the exact resistance of the plot to causal understanding, becomes an inextricable part of the texture of the movie. “I wanted to have this feeling of doom.” The Thing is all flesh and bloody eruptions, claws, demented dog heads, stringy red vines; the horror comes exactly from the obscurity of the process, its inaccessibility. We do not know, and cannot know, what is happening. Nor can we quite know the rules of its operation: it can eat you and then reproduce you, slimily, from inside itself; it can also infect you and take you over from the inside. Sometimes it appears in the image of a man; sometimes, as in the climax, it appears as a kind of tortured, emerging, never-complete, unpronounceable: half a man’s twisted face, a replicated dog emerging from a cavity, a series of dimorphisms.
With his characteristic self-awareness and humor, Carpenter has one of the characters say of it: “I don’t know what the hell’s in there, but it’s weird and pissed off, whatever it is.”
The most frequent mode of these films is the siege.
Assault on Precinct 13 opens with members of a street gang in L.A. being assassinated by the police. The gang vows vengeance. They lay siege to a precinct station that is in the process of being shut down by the city; inside the station are trapped a police officer, several secretaries, a father whose daughter has been killed by the gang, and several prisoners. (It was made at least in part as an homage to Rio Bravo.) The gang members slowly and inevitably push closer and closer, the avenues of escape are blocked, one after another, until the protagonists are trapped in the basement, nearly out of ammunition and facing a final assault.
Prince of Darkness, while a distinctly lesser film, proceeds along the same basic lines. A priest discovers a mysterious vial of swirling liquid in a run-down church, and calls in a team of scientists and graduate students to investigate it. The vial turns out to contain Satan’s essence, trapped there long ago, which is in the process of beginning to escape. As the scientists realize this, the church is slowly surrounded by the horde of silent, motionless, homeless people under the thrall of the increasingly powerful prince of darkness.
In The Thing, the band of scientists in the Antarctic are trapped on a base in which the monster is both outside and inside; they are slowly killed off until only two remain, both unsure about whether the other (and possibly even themselves) is an actual human or the monster, and both knowing that they will not survive the encounter. In Escape from New York, this reduction takes the form of a character stranded in a world in which he is the only outsider: the President’s plane has crashed into the island of Manhattan, which has been turned into a maximum security prison. Our protagonist is blackmailed into sneaking onto the island to rescue the president, and becomes the only outsider, the only sane man, in a world of insanity. In They Live, this story is replayed when the protagonist finds out that the alien race is controlling the world and living among us, disguised as humans. When he finds the sunglasses that show him what’s happening – the subliminal messages, the aliens walking among us – he realizes that he is stranded, alone in a now-incomprehensible and violently antagonistic universe. In The Fog, it occurs when the citizens of a seaside town are beset by a fog rolling in off the ocean. In this fog are ghosts that deal violent death; as it rolls forward the town is under threat of being entirely eclipsed.
The hallmarks of these sieges are their inevitability and implacability. They are nightmares of humans alone in the world; the characters’ spheres of physical movement are bounded, and this boundary is being pushed inwards; they are existentially isolated, beyond the possibility of communication, faced with a horrific, alien, uncaring force that is bent on their annihilation.
But what is this force?
Return to Halloween, fundamental to the horror genre and, I think, often misread. Here, the reduction in a classic horror movie mode: a group of people, killed off one after another. And the world, as it often is in horror films, is reduced to that most familiar of locations, the family home. None of this is new in Halloween. What is different and new is the characterization of Michael Myers.
In Carpenter’s vision, Myers is a human being who is akin to a force of nature (or un-nature). This is a departure from what had come before. In the film’s obvious antecedents, the killers, while demented, were generally given recognizable psychological characteristics – they talked, they schemed, they openly desired. Carpenter’s contribution is to shear off nearly all of these characteristics, and push his killer toward an almost complete implacability. His focus is on the question of the dehumanized human; the stillness and isolation of his horror is interior, a state of Michael’s being. In Halloween there will be no tortured scenes like the one that closes Psycho, in which we’re given a recapitulation of the psychological construction of Norman Bates. Instead, we are told by his psychiatrist that Michael is “purely and simply evil.” It is almost as if Carpenter has taken the alien from The Thing from Another World (1951), or the pulsing, ravenous jelly from The Blob (1958), and put it into the form of a man.
But the significance here is in the quiet modifiers: nearly, almost, akin to. This is what the standard readings of the film miss, I think: in Carpenter’s vision, Michael Myers is never completely not human. The psychiatrist is wrong; Michael Myers is not understandable as a force of pure evil.
What do we make of the expression of the little boy in the opening sequence when his mask is pulled off by his parents? Is this a face of pure, inhuman evil? What do we make of Myers’ face when Laurie Strode pulls off his mask at the end of the film, immediately before his psychiatrist blasts him back and away and out of the house? The most notable thing about the latter sequence is how young he looks, how confused, how innocent. This is not, physically, some snarling monster of a man: it is a blond baby-faced youth. Or consider the fact that this is also a man with a sense of humor – how else can the scene in which he walks into the room with a sheet over his head be read? It is a man with a kind of curiosity, or perplexity – how else can we read the moment when he pins his victim to the wall with a knife and then stands and regards the body, tilting his head from one side to the other in a way that nearly every one of the sequels will feel the need to replicate? He is thinking something in that moment; the gesture is clear.
But this goes further than his appearance and gestures. As Robin Wood has pointed out, Michael has retained some sort of human connection, however twisted, to his sister. He takes her headstone from the cemetery; he waits until a girl of approximately his sister’s age (not, significantly, Laurie Strode) is alone, and then kills her. He creates a ritual scene: the headstone is placed on a bed, and the dead girl is laid out before it. This is not the result of the kind of mindless void attributed to him by his psychiatrist.
His relationship with Laurie Strode is important in this respect. He watches her throughout the film, but she is not the initial object of his violence. That is, he does not attack her until she intrudes on his private memorial. There are questions raised by this. Would Michael attack Laurie Strode if she did not go into the house where he has staged the memorial? Was it the case that he meant her to enter the house and see the memorial all along? And why did he go through the trouble of staging the memorial at all, instead of simply kicking down her door at the beginning and dispatching her? His other two victims, similarly, are also killed when they enter the house that he has claimed as his own; they are killed, it seems, for intruding, rather than because of who or what they are. Regardless of the answers we find to these questions, we are forced to admit that there is thinking here, there is desiring, there is some connection to the past and to memory.
These are not, to make the point clear, the actions of a force of mindlessness. But who is it that characterizes Myers in this way, and whose mission it is throughout the film to annihilate Myers? His psychiatrist. This is a strange and surely significant twist: the man who is supposed to know the most about him gives a reading of him that is not supported by the things that we see in the film. The psychiatrist is misreading events.
There is a direct analogy in this to the tendency of critics to see in Halloween that which becomes a central aspect of the slasher films in the 1980s: the connection between sex and death such that the killer is acting like a repressive conscience, and killing teens because of their sexual activity. In Halloween, sexual activity is incidental to the death of his first victim: Myers kills her to use her body in his tableau. This is the key fact, not that the victim is on her way to visit her boyfriend – Michael has already stolen the headstone, which indicates that he’s waiting for a victim to pair with it. Similarly, the sexual activity of the couple that he kills is narratively incidental to their deaths. There is nothing verboten about it – the film tells us that they do it all the time. They are killed not because they have sex but because they have intruded on Myers’ ritual – had they gone to a different house to fool around, they would still be alive.
All of this is not to say that there isn’t a connection between sex and death in the film, but that the connection is clearly between Michael Myers’ own feelings of sexuality and his inability to countenance them. If we want to read it in these terms, the film is actually fairly clear: Myers as a child has sexual feelings for his own sister, which he cannot handle; when he sees her with her boyfriend, he puts a mask on to try to cover those feelings, and then kills her. But he can never overcome the trauma of those feelings, or of the event, so when he breaks out of the mental hospital he returns home to set up a reenactment. He sees Laurie Strode with the boy she babysits, a teenage girl/young boy scene that is familiar to him, and becomes obsessed with her. But he does not kill her, or even initially try to kill her. Instead, he kills another similarly-aged girl, in order to set up his reenactment, or apology, or attempt to reify the crime/horrific impulse that has haunted him all these years. When people intrude – first the couple, and then Laurie herself – he tries to kill them. In the meantime, he is pursued by his psychiatrist, who is incapable of understanding any of the human drive or subtext of all this, and wants simply to declare him (and his urges) as evil, and to wipe them from the face of the earth.
In terms of Carpenter’s vision, what’s important here is that the stillness is internal, the horror comes at least in part from the vision of Michael’s humanity compressed so far within him that he has become almost (but never completely) inhuman; the forces of authority misread the situation, and attempt to suppress to the point of destruction the small (if horrific) human urges that are left.
Sieges, isolation, suppression, innocence, power as destructive, the human as the only thing that can stand against the void of the universe. The questions surrounding these notions in Halloween are the central questions of Carpenter’s work. As he said of The Thing: “It’s better to be a human being than an imitation, or let ourselves be taken over by this creature who’s not necessarily evil, but whose nature it is to simply imitate, like a chameleon.”
His protagonists are often where they are because of accident, happenstance.
In Assault on Precinct 13, the protagonists are caught, through no fault of their own, in the middle of a war between a revolutionary-minded street gang and the cops that murdered a number of the gang members in the opening scene. In The Prince of Darkness, the scientists are drawn unwittingly into the attempt of Satan to free his father; in Escape from New York, Snake Plissken is forced into the struggle between the forces of authoritarian law and the prisoners who are resisting those forces; in Big Trouble in Little China, Jack Burton is dragged into a war between two opposing Chinese gangs and the spiritual forces they fight for; in Halloween, Laurie Strode is caught in Michael Myers’ attempt to restage his initial act of violence; in They Live John Nada stumbles accidentally into the knowledge of the aliens’ existence.
A corollary to this happenstance is that virtually all-powerful forces in Carpenter’s universes are corrupt.
The cops murder the gang members in cold blood to start Assault on Precinct 13, and other than the protagonist Ethan Bishop, the cops are mostly snarling sadists. But the gang members are no better. The seemingly idyllic coastal town in The Fog was actually founded on an act of treachery and murder: the film opens with an epigraph from Poe – “Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream?” – that only makes sense if we apply it to the erroneous feeling of the town’s citizens that they are living a life based on the small-town American values of industry and virtue. And arrayed against this corrupt vision are, of course, a band of the murderous ghosts. In Escape from New York life on the prison island of Manhattan is brutal and chaotic, but so is life of the world outside, in which a clearly fascist state is headed by a lying, sniveling President of the United States of America.
In Prince of Darkness this is taken to a philosophical extreme: the film at first seems to be one in which a group of scientists will be thrust into the middle of a battle between the Catholic Church and Satan himself. But as events roll forward, it becomes clear that the problem is more complicated. The conceit of the film is that God is evil, and that Jesus was actually an extra-terrestrial who came to earth and managed to defeat God’s son, Satan, imprisoning him and starting the Christian religion to keep us safe until such time as we could develop the technological capacity to understand the true nature of the world for ourselves. That is to say, we are a community of beings living under a hostile and malignant order, and we have only our notions of action and community to protect us. All of this is brought to a culmination in They Live, in which what has come before is made explicit: we are occupied by a race of aliens, who use their control of the media to keep us conforming and consuming. The world of prosperity and order around us is an oppressive fantasy, constructed by power itself.
In each of these films, the heroes survive, or attempt to survive, by asserting themselves as free humans against this power.
This brings us to the Western.
Like the protagonists of Westerns – who are frequently condemned to extinction by the movement of history – Carpenter’s protagonists are often doomed. And like the protagonists of the Western, what his protagonists have to offer against this assault is only their code of action.
But it’s also clear that Carpenter’s films adopt some elements of the traditional Western while explicitly rejecting others. They reject the basic dialectic of cowboys as good and Indians as bad, as well as the dialectic of the advance of civilization over/against the indigenous, or natural, or uncivilized. Instead, they are interested in the idea of the resistance of power, in all its incarnations. Importantly, Carpenter takes from Howard Hawks (and from the history of the American West, if Wallace Stegner is to be believed) the idea that the most central struggle is not that of the atomized individual: the highest values are those of community. Carpenter’s stories are often about the rugged individualist sacrificing himself for the good of the small, close-knit group; it is this group – rather than the individual himself – that is itself the protector of the values of humanity that are under threat from both the forces of order and the forces of chaos. (We are, of course, back to the central notion of the siege film.) So the cop, the death-row inmate, and the secretary form bonds that see them through the siege of the precinct house; so the two surviving men at the arctic station sacrifice themselves to prevent The Thing from gaining access to the wider world; so the scientists fight and sacrifice to protect each other and humanity against the emergence of Satan’s father; so John Nada fights and dies to free the world from the aliens that have enslaved it.
It is clear that Carpenter’s world is a man’s world. There is not a single female character in The Thing. Nor is there in Dark Star (1974). His stories are about outsiders (men) who believe in love, yet for whom love is not available; they are men for whom camaraderie is the most noble of the relationships. Is it too much to say that his films represent an attempt to expunge women, and the feminine side of men, from the world? Halloween might hint at this, of course. But I think it’s more fair to say that they represent an examination of, and a belief in, a set of deeply “masculine” qualities. Masculinity is, for better or for worse, one of his primary subjects.
And his vision of masculinity is leavened by second sight, by a fine cutting irony.
Susan Sontag, famously, was “strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it.” She wrote her essay on the difficulties of campiness – a sensibility in which the aesthetic, the artificial and the innocent, prevails over the serious, the dignified – in a moment (1964) when the two seemed oppositional.
Carpenter appears at the moment when our notions of serious art and camp art are beginning to be muddled. The artificial is the new virtuosic. Or, if the two are not yet completely unified, it is possible to ride the line between them. The answer to the size of things (Jaws); and to the increasingly referential, absurd inversions of the world (the actor Reagan becoming the iconic Most Powerful Man in the World); and to the radical increase of artistic facility and its almost industrial production (Carpenter, like many of the members of his filmmaking generation, was a product of film school): the answer to all of this was that it was the high/low distinction in art that was naïve. To insist that on some level the gaudy aesthetic is more central to our experience than the serious (in Sontag’s terms, to insist that “style” is more revealing than “content”), is, from the 1980s on, no longer a sensibility but a statement about the world.
Carpenter sees this, participates in it, and has the extraordinary ability to use it as a critique.
So, in They Live, we have a professional wrestler cast as the main character – a man who plays the character of Rowdy Roddy Piper cast as a character in a movie who is a blue collar, “real” man – who discovers a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see through the disguises of the world. What does he find? That we have been invaded by aliens, who live among us unseen, and who force consumerism on us through subliminal messages as a way to keep us enslaved. A campy vision and a campy movie to be sure: when Piper gets into a fight with his friend, we’re treated to a mock-professional wrestling show in a back alley, complete with a suplex or two. And yet how better, in 1988, to represent the world?
This wry humor, often favoring the ridiculous, appears in most of his films, and animates several of them. It is nearly always directed at its own use of trope, not so much a counteracting of the elements of the film as a complicating of them. There is Michael Myers donning the costume of a ghost in Halloween, posing as a character he’s just killed, wearing that character’s glasses over the sheet he’s draped over his head. It is in some sense ridiculous, and in the hands of another director might serve as a break in the fearsomeness (did he struggle to find the eye holes in the sheet as we all do when we first throw it over our head?), but here it feels like just another piece of the texture of the film, a way in which the absurdity of the world is envisioned, an enhancement of the terror.
Significantly, this faint self-mocking is often applied to the very masculinity that undergirds so many of his films. His is a masculinity that shades towards camp, one that often slyly and joyously cuts the legs out from under the presentation of men in the more mainstream action movies of the 1980s. Consider the repeated riff in Escape from New York: every time a secondary character meets Kurt Russell’s one-eyed swashbuckler Snake Plissken, they involuntarily say “I heard you were dead.” It is at the same time a winking acknowledgment of the silliness of the macho construction of the action-movie hero and another element of a typically cockeyed world.
Or consider the joke that opens Big Trouble in Little China, the most openly comedic of these films, delivered again by Kurt Russell, this time playing the swashbuckling truck driver Jack Burton. It’s a piece of extraordinary writing in which a character trumpets his own promenading masculinity and then manages to undercut it in the final line, setting up the thematic movement that will power the entire film:
When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, looks you crooked in the eye, and asks you if you paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol’ Jack Burton always says at a time like that: “Have you paid your dues, Jack?” Yessir, the check is in the mail.
There is, in the end, the question of their value.
Ours, particularly in filmic terms, is the moment the 1980s created. We are immensely drawn to sentimentality and the fetishization of childhood on the one hand – from the current cycle of nostalgia stories, to the radical elevation of the prepubescent comic-book movie, to our fascination with animated stories for and about children – and on the other to the belief in the power of wealth, the importance of power, and in the combination of these in the spectacular individual. Our irony is but a thin veil over our self-seriousness. We are deeply immersed in the cult of the neoliberal self. We stumble over one another to find and anoint heroes.
Carpenter’s vision – of doom as silence and isolation; of evil not as inherent but as falseness, as imitation of the real human; of protagonists who loathe power; of the established order as almost necessarily hiding corruption; of the individual caught between larger forces and finding refuge in community; of the notion that right conduct consists in the assertion of common humanity – is a bracing alternative to this. His status as an outsider carries over, and our cinematic world is in need of outsiders. His is a vision grounded in a unified formalism, and a vision that believes in the connection of the artistic and the ethical.
It is a popular cinema of opposition, an attempt to smoke out the horrors of the world and to bring the forces of repression into view, an attempt to present a human defense against those forces. As Kurt Russell’s MacReady says, “This thing doesn’t want to show itself, it wants to hide inside an imitation. It’ll fight if it has to, but it’s vulnerable out in the open. If it takes us over, then it has no more enemies, nobody left to kill it. And then it’s won.”