Debating John Carpenter

Recently, I got into a disagreement with @ComTrackStars on Twitter about the artistic merit of John Carpenter’s Escape from LA. (UPDATE: To be sure this is clear, the @ComTrackStars is tied to two people, Mike and Max. Mike is the one with whom I was actually debating, whereas Max holds views closer to my own.)

It started with an earlier tweet, but this sums up the point of contention nicely:

Context

John Carpenter
This is Good John Carpenter. Not Good John Carpenter is actually scarier-looking.

I tend to judge movies with a loving eye, but as the years have gone by and I’ve had a chance to judge freshly, I’m not a particular fan of Escape from LA nor a vast majority of Carpenter’s late work. I love his earlier work, but his latter efforts were lacking enough that his name no longer draws me to the cinema.

His early stuff remains classic. Halloween established a sub–genre of film, for goodness’ sake. Its inheritors and imitators evolved into reductio ad absurdum arguments against that genre, but the thrill of the original is there still because of its subtle exercise in restraint with gore. (Although I do have some reflections on my different reaction to Laurie Strode’s decisions since becoming a parent. Primarily: anger.)

Assault on Precinct 13 is trash, but made with a love that evokes the best memories of the blaxploitation genre. You can tell it was made for virtually no money, and actually marks a first exploration into human nature that he would later flesh out with the immortally–classic Escape from New York.

And there is of course his absolute masterpiece, The Thing. There is nothing I can write about it that hasn’t been said before, so the one thing I will say is that it’s one of the few remaining horror films that actually leaves me terrified during the final credits.

More Context

None of this discounts his other work, including another classic collaboration with Kurt Russell, Big Trouble in Little China. You could always spend time with Starman or get a thrill from Christine.

What do these films have in common? They are all good, if not great, demonstrations of a director in command of all his faculties. The performances are strong, the stories are inventive and fun (even the scary stuff) and if I see one of them on TV late at night while I’m scanning the channels, I’m stopping and watching.,/p>

The minimal soundtracks from these films are effective and even produce themes that resonate through the years.

To Each Their Own

Now, I’m a “to each their own” guy.

Unlike geeks who think that the everyone should like what they like exactly the way they like it, I have no problem if someone were to say to me, “You know, I like John Carpenter too, but Escape from New York isn’t as good as Halloween.” I’d disagree, but I get it.

In fact, recently Craig had a great Moment of Nerd Rage about the geeks and nerds who insist the way they like things is the only way to like things. (Listen to Episode 3 of Words With Nerds: “The One Where John Sings” here.)

Tommy Wiseau, with football.
I *will* say that Escape from LA is decidedly better than The Room.

I get it. Vive la différence and all that. However, even as a fan of John Carpenter (early works, at least) there’s no way I could claim that his later work is as strong as his earlier.

While you can go back to Assault on Precinct 13 and knock its charmingly hokey set pieces or blocking, or even poke the holes in Halloween, you recognize it as the early work of a director working on a limited budget with limited experience. There’s still enough “right” to overlook a lot of what’s “wrong.”

But through the late 1970s and 1980s you can trace a director growing in skill. His films got progressively more complex and entertaining. The characters became more multi–dimensional and the themes more layered. As shown in Big Trouble in Little China, even his playfulness was more focused.

Right around the time of They Live, he started to show a regression. I wasn’t really able to spot the turning point as They Live until I re–watched it not so long ago. I had thought that maybe In the Mouth of Madness (which I saw in the theatre on a date because apparently I thought that was a good idea) was the point at which he had started to decline, but it was obviously earlier.

He disregarded his learned subtlety and you can feel the sense of fun leave the celluloid. Whereas the works I pointed to as his highlights were all infused with “that certain something,” his later works feel like derivatives of his own broken ground. In the Mouth of Madness has a Pirandello–esque high concept to it that buoys it for a while, but to me it plays mostly as an aging champ taking one last shot at a prize–fight before dropping to the exhibition circuit.

As for Vampires, it has some terrific elements and enjoyable parts even though it deviates horribly from the book. But the ending falls apart completely. I’d be more willing to entertain it as a viable latter–day Carpenter film beyond Escape from LA, though.

Escape from LA, for whatever charms it might have, is a re–hash of the original and its social commentary is clumsy (as it was in They Live). So while I understand differences of opinion, I’m not sure how this could be seen as equal, much less superior, to his earlier works.

Invitation for Comment

Bruce Springsteen
“Me ‘n Jenny, we’re gonna go to the car park and release some mediocre albums, whoa-whoa-whoa. Born In the USA and Tunnel of Love are the only good ones, whoa-whoa-whoa.” (Image Credit: Rolling Stone, harbinger of hippie-minded mediocrity for decades)

Maybe someone disagrees. I know for a fact that someone who lurks on this blog agrees with me strongly (and perhaps thinks I’m too kind to Carpenter here), but I’m open to arguments against my position. It’s questionable whether you’ll persuade me, but I’d be legitimately curious as to how Escape from LA could be viewed as anything but a dissatisfying exercise. Even without qualifiers, it’s definitely not his best.

Post Script: I also know exactly where some of the regular peanut gallery is going to go with some of my comments and all I’ll say is: predictable. And to the lurker who won’t say it directly: Springsteen was never that good to begin with.

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