Crossing the Line

It’s not worth getting into any lengthy comparison of John Carpenter’s VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED with Wolf Rilla’s. Why kick a film when it’s down? “It’s not his worst film,” observed Fiona, kindly, but the only response to that one are not kind, so I’ll refrain. Although writer David Gerrold did come up with a put-down that’s so acid and perfect I can’t not quote him.

“Carpenter (n): one who works with wood.”

It was Ambrose “Bitter” Bierce who remarked that for each of us there exists an insult so apposite that, once applied, it will stick forever. “Our enemies have but to find it.”

In fact, the film has numerous nice touches, it’s just that whenever you look at the way the original movie (or the book) handled things, the nice touches aren’t as nice as the earlier ones.

A key moment early on illustrates the weaknesses running through Carpenter’s vision. The town of Midwich has been knocked unconscious by some mysterious force. The authorities, headed by Kirstie Alley, determine the perimeter of the strange knockout bubble, and draw a line on the rad marking the border. A bold soldier in gas mask steps forward, with a rope around him so he can be dragged back to safety if overcome.


He walks slowly forward. Topples. Is dragged back to the point of safety, and revives.

In terms of incident, this is much like what happens in the Wolf Rilla show. But Rilla keeps his camera on the safe side of the line. With the observers, we watch the pointman proceed forward, our anxiety synchronised with theirs. By respecting the line, Rilla makes the threat seem more real. We feel, in a way, that if he tried to film from OVER THERE, the operator and focus puller would collapse into coma, the lens tilting slowly down to gaze at the road surface until the magazine ran out. Even though in other scenes he’s swooped all over Midwich in a camera crane, recording the plague of narcolepsy. For THIS scene, the line matters.

And of course, Carpenter is all over the place, following the lone soldier as he walks into danger, as if he were a character or something, jumping back to the actual characters, just shooting the shit out of the scene but without the strong focus that comes from a strong idea, or from asking (drum roll) Mike Nichols’ Three Questions.

What are the Three Questions? Any of you know?

15 Responses to “Crossing the Line”

  1. Ha! No, that’s definitely not right.

  2. Jonathan Says:

    All I know is his three types of scenes – negotiation, fight, or being completely hairless. I mean seduction.

  3. Meredith Brody Says:

    Well, I got TWO: “. I only have two questions of any piece of material: ‘what is this like in life?’ And then, when you get down to the moment or the scene, ‘what is this really like?’ Throw away the conventions and the assumptions: when this happens in life, what is it really like? And then the question for the camera is, where is it to show what it’s really like?”

  4. Meredith Brody Says:

    AND Google gave me this, again from the horse’s mouth: ” And looking back, because I did teach acting for a while, we figured out over a long time that there only were three kinds of scenes in the world—fights, seductions, and negotiations.”

  5. Meredith Brody Says:

    (He said that one more than once!)

  6. The three I’ve been quoting for ages — and which were maybe somebody else’s misquotation of , but it’s still good — are —

    What’s it about? Who’s it about? What’s it like?

    This gives you subject/theme, viewpoint and metaphor, which in turn makes it clear that the guy crossing the line in a gas mask isn’t the main character and the camera should be watching him from safely behind the line.

  7. The fourth question is of course “Where’s Elaine?”

  8. As for that “line” —

  9. “Blocked” ? HELL!

  10. What is Carpenter’s worst film? I guess it must be a latter one, since up to Starman (which I dont have much time for), he was almost batting 1000.

  11. Haven’t seen The Ward.

    Ghosts of Mars, Escape from LA, Vampires all struck me as awful. I don’t really remember how bad Memoirs of an Invisible Man is. Stuff like Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness definitely have some merit.

    Was Christine the first real misstep? Again, I don’t remember it to well…

  12. Escape from L.A. was dreadful. I really liked Vampires.

  13. Jack Lechner Says:

    Christine is perfectly serviceable. And don’t forget They Live, which is a cracked masterpiece.

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