Sunday, February 17, 2013

Sunday Best: Directors of All Time #10 - John Carpenter

photo by Nathan Hartley Maas

-Assault on Precinct 13
-Big Trouble in Little China
-The Thing

-Escape from New York
-They Live
-The Fog
-Prince of Darkness
-Memoirs of an Invisible Man

-Village of the Damned
-In the Mouth of Madness
-Escape from LA
-Ghosts of Mars

Quentin Tarantino said that he plans to retire from directing soon because older directors tend to become bad.  In the case of John Carpenter, he is right on the money.  His later movies are not only bad, but they are horrible knock-offs of his earlier, better films.

However, just because is later movies are awful, it does not take away from the genius of his earlier work.  His movies tend to be raw and unpolished.  But what makes John Carpenter an expert at his craft and worthy of the #10 spot is that he is a director like no other in the mastery of tone and setting.

Assault on Precinct 13 does a great job of making LA, one of the most populated cities in all of America, feel desolate and isolated.  Despite being located smack in the middle of an urban jungle, Precinct 13 has an overwhelming sense of isolation.  No help is coming for our heroes who fight the endless onslaught of killers.  He also gets just the right tone for his hero/murderer Napoleon Wilson.  His character is tragic, comic, and dangerous all at the same time.

Carpenter is best known for creating an atmosphere of terror in his horror movies like Halloween, The Fog, Prince of Darkness, and The Thing.  In each of his horror films, the setting surrounding the action plays a key role.  In Halloween, the characters are constantly being framed by other objects in the room, creating the terrifying effect of never know where Michael Myers was going to show up.  And the safe suburban setting was turned on its head by making each house a little island unto itself, far away from help.  This isolation that we saw also in Assault on Precinct 13 was felt completely in The Thing, where the characters could not be further removed from civilization than the Arctic wastes.  And notice how deftly he tells a story with the visual aftermath of the Norwegian research base, with its destruction and frozen suicide bodies.

And it is this sense of terror that makes his most critically acclaimed film Starman work so well.  The alien who visits earth is someone with real power and is really dangerous.  And yet it is the shadowy government agency that is tracking him that bears all the signs of monstrosity.  He turns the alien invader story of The Thing (an extraterrestrial life form with mysterious powers including the ability to grow a body like a human) and tells it from the creature's perspective.

But to my mind, his best film is now and will forever be Big Trouble in Little China.  I have never seen a movie like it.  And it once again shows Carpenter's mastery of tone.  The elements in it could be taken as completely silly, thus making a screwball comedy.  Or he could have taken the direct action route and made an American Kung Fu film.  Or he could have focused on the mystical side and made an exotic fantasy adventure.  Instead, he made all three in one and astonishingly, it all works.  The character of Jack Burton adds an element of absurdity to everything that happens.  And yet he is an honest-to-goodness action hero.

Understand the tightrope that Carpenter had to walk with this character.  If you make him too comical, none of the danger would feel real.  If you make him too serious, you lose all of the absurd humor that he generates.  And miraculously Carpenter got him perfectly.  Look at how absurd Jack looks with Gracie's lipstick smeared on him as he talks to Lo Pan.  And yet you feel his sincerity of his threat as he stares at  Miou Yin's kidnappers and says, "Son of a $*@! must pay!"  You can write a character like Jack, but only a director who knows exactly the elements needed to create tone in a movie could possibly bring him to life.

And even in his truly bad films, Carpenter envelops you in the feelings he wants you to feel so that even if you don't like the movie, you can't help but be affected by him.

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