Archive for John Carpenter

Crossing the Line

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on July 11, 2018 by dcairns

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?

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Sham Rock

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology, Television, They Live with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 7, 2017 by dcairns

Fiona’s been researching the works of legendary TV/movie screenwriter Nigel Kneale, so she got me to run HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH, which I believe I saw at my school film society when it was about a year old, and which I dismissed as tosh at the time. I learned at some point that Kneale had been involved — he wrote a draft but then took his name off the film — and sympathised with him. John Carpenter, apparently, is a big Quatermass fan, but the film got compromised, by Dino De Laurentiis and others, and director Tommy Lee Wallace, who reckoned that “60%” of Kneale’s script remained, ended up with sole writing credit (which seems a bit shifty of him, though if the sometimes irascible Kneale was unwilling to even touch the film with a nom de plume, what else could they do?).

Well, I was definitely right about the film back in 1983 or so. The lead roles are colossally underwritten — surely the unconvincing way they fall into bed together is part of Wallace’s 40% — in a film featuring robots, it’s even more of a problem than it normally would be when your main characters behave like automata programmed with a pianola roll of clichéd genre behaviour. The villain’s plan is completely absurd and worse, not scary. The only actor having fun is Dan “Nice shootin’ son” O’Herlihy, but his eccentric monologuing seems to have been cut to the bare bones, which is tragic since it robs us of additional lipsmacking and leaves the motivation for his elaborate scheme largely unexplained.

Of course, Kneale’s raison d’être as a fantasy writer was his ability to invest absolute conviction in potentially absurd ideas, but something is way off here. Fiona learned that the bit of stolen Stonehenge used as MacGuffin was not part of Kneale’s putative 60% contribution, but an addition by the production, who felt it was in the spirit of Kneale’s work since he had just used stone circles in the final Quatermass series. In the movie, Irish novelty mask manufacturer O’Herlihy (see also the unpleasant but offscreen Irish industrialist in Kneale’s The Stone Tape) is planning to reestablish the pagan roots of Halloween by implanting microchips with bits of henge silica, fit them to rubber masks, and send out some kind of subliminal signal in his TV commercials which will cause the wearers’ heads to erupt with cockroaches and snakes. Well, if Kneale was responsible for 60% of that guff, I can only assume we’re talking about a percentage of the letters of the alphabet, suitably rearranged.

Indeed, this site informs me helpfully that Kneale was thriftily repurposing an old TV script of his, The Big, Big Giggle, in which a TV signal causes teen suicides, rejected by a BBC in fear of imitative behaviour issues (not altogether unreasonably, though holding television responsible for the actions of people with mental health issues is always slippery and unsafe). Already it looks like Kneale’s idea is more disturbing, shorn of the ridiculous bug-head stuff, and convincing enough to cause TV execs to actually worry that it might, in a way, come true. It’s still voodoo television, and the henge-chips don’t really make it sillier, so I’d even allow that aspect of it, but the bugs are a step too far.

Kneale also apparently wrote the automata henchmen (or hengemen, if you will), which somehow fail to be creepy at all in the finished film, and are pretty damn implausible given the state of 1980s cybernetics, or even contemporary cybernetics. In the movie these guys are mainly used to add gory and unnecessary (in plot terms) deaths, which Kneale hated. But the movie was never going to go into production without a bunch of set-piece killings. Film history was not on Kneale’s side, even if the history of Samhain was.

But OK. Dull as the human interactions are, rote as the conspiracy investigation is, ludicrous as the conspiracy itself turns out to be, and entirely empty of meaning as the film itself is, it does have a few pleasures. The attractive widescreen is one of the few connections with Carpenter’s original film (glimpsed on TV sets — also we hear Jamie Lee Curtis’ echoing voice from factory tannoys). There’s one good BOO! moment early on, repeated to lessening effect. Carpenter and Alan Howarth’s electronic drones are lovely: somehow the crudeness forced on Carpenter by early synths enhances his music rather than detracting from it; somehow the marriage of 35mm anamorphic widescreen and pulsing electronic tonalities is just wonderfully RIGHT.

Carpenter, who as co-producer must share some of the blame as well as credit, admires Kneale but has never been very comfortable in the domain of IDEAS, which are what Kneale is all about. PRINCE OF DARKNESS is a beautifully-photographed rendition of what a Kneale concept would be like if it didn’t have a concept. The big exception, of course, is THEY LIVE, a rather wonderful genre mash-up which blends Phildickian paranoia with the establishment dread of Kneale’ Quatermass II. Joe Dante, originally touted to direct, who seems to have suggested Kneale in the first place, thrives on eccentric ideas, the more the better, and often involving TV, the media, toys. Indeed, the conspiracy at the heart of LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION carries an echo of Kneale’s Big, Big Giggle. But even Dante may have struggled to keep Kneale on board — now there was a man used to getting his own way. Or, if he didn’t always get it, he could certainly point to the fact that when he did, the results were usually sensationally effective and successful. And when he didn’t, you got a head full of cockroaches.

A Hatful of Hateful

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 19, 2016 by dcairns

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To Edinburgh Filmhouse, to see THE HATEFUL EIGHT in 70mm, complete with overture and intermission.

Last 70mm opportunity was THE MASTER, which it was hoped would be projected at Filmhouse — they were promised a print from London. The London cinema put their best projectionist on the job. But for the press show, they handed it to someone with less experience, since it was only critics, only the people whose verdict might help bring the public in… and he wrecked the print. So no Edinburgh 70mm of that one.

I’m not really a film snob, though watching TRUMBO recently it was obvious to me that for certain kinds of period feel it’s always going to be superior. And the look of Tarantino’s film (apart from, surprisingly, one flickering shot at the start — not sure if this was a projection problem or a filming issue) benefits from the rich, fine grain of Super 65mm Cinerama. But as to the projection, were it not for one tiny scratch and the “cigarette burns” signalling reel changes, I wouldn’t have known it was film and not a DCP. Still, those little imperfections have a nostalgic value.

I have simultaneously been impressed and amused by the last couple of Tarantino films, while also finding them wildly offensive. A lot of negative reviews on this one made me suspect I might really hate it — more violence, more dubious use of racial epithets, more over-extended talk scenes. In fact, I didn’t find it quite as obnoxious as INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS or DJANGO UNCHAINED. It wasn’t about the Holocaust or slavery, is the simple reason why. It does purport to deal with race in America, however, and like its predecessors it comes up against the limitations of genre cinema in addressing complex, serious real-world issues. It doesn’t manage to highlight these problems in the way that IB arguably does, which might be that film’s redeeming trait (if we leave aside the funny bits and tense bits and clever bits), but its failure to bend the rules of the Tarantino universe to incorporate a coherent state of the nation address did not, for me, result in a film more unpleasant than DJANGO UNCHAINED.

Those who were incensed or bored by the film’s excesses do have my sympathy, but I got to that point two films ago, so I’m less upset about this one.

In the spirit of kindly critique — since I went with very shaky expectations, I don’t feel outrage is appropriate — I want to offer some thoughts on how the film might have succeeded better at some of its apparent goals.
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(ONE)

It feels like Tarantino has been trapped by his cool title. He’s compelled to populate his wide frame with horribly obnoxious characters. Yet while every single one of the protagonists of RESERVOIR DOGS was a career criminal, several of them were at least somewhat likable some of the time, and there were certain gradations of nastiness. Fiona, who first saw the movie on VHS, was snarling “Shoot him!” within five minutes of Mr. Blond’s appearance.

If this seems like I’m calling for the film to use more conventional, hence more boring characterisation, maybe I am, but would RESERVOIR DOGS be improved if Harvey Keitel were shown laughing at a woman being beaten, or if Steve Buscemi were a virulent racist? Wouldn’t the tension of HATEFUL 8 be increased if Kurt Russell were less brutish, Samuel Jackson less psychopathic? Wouldn’t everything get better if the characters weren’t all so SIMILAR? It’s my view that if you’re going to spend most of three hours shut in a room with a small crowd of characters, the more varied they are then the more entertaining the experience will be. Making them all variations on the cold-blooded killer model seems wasteful.

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(TWO)

Yes, the N word. And the repeated woman-punching. The explanations Tarantino has offered for his infatuation with that particular term do not satisfy. But he may believe some of them. I felt it was a bit ridiculous to protest the word’s inclusion in DJANGO UNCHAINED, given the social context — it was more worthwhile to protest the film’s falsification of that context (the fantasy of “Mandingo fighting,” for instance). But there’s one use of the word right at the end of DU, where the word is used as punchline to a Lone Ranger reference, which is pertinent here, because Tarantino is now using the word as punchline to jokes in which Samuel L. Jackson is the butt. (And I worry about how history will regard Jackson for his participation in these two films.)

As with the “humour” around Jennifer Jason Leigh’s frequent pummelings, it’s probable that Tarantino intends us to find this comedy uncomfortable. But it isn’t the comedy of discomfort you might find in, I don’t know, WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? The jokes are played straight, and it’s up to the audience to find them difficult IF the audience is sensitive enough. Straightforward racists and misogynists can just laugh.

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(THREE)

The films Tarantino admires include many taboo-busting, challenging movies from the seventies. He also likes lots of exploitation movies which gleefully present shocking and distasteful scenes. He wants to replicate the WTF factor of these movies, but either he knows he can’t get away with some of their excesses, or doesn’t wish to go there. His attempts to combine serious, shocking cinema with frivolous, shocking cinema seem foredoomed to me, because the two justifications he uses, “What? I’m making a serious point, here,” and “What? It’s only a bit of fun!” do not in fact reinforce each other, they cancel each other out. To use a western analogy, it’s a bit like the man accused of stealing another man’s horse, who says “I don’t steal horses, and anyway, you have a lousy horse.”

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(FOUR)

This is the second film (RESERVOIR DOGS being the first) Tarantino has made which essentially remakes John Carpenter’s paranoia/cabin-fever chiller THE THING. Here he even has the wintry locale and the same leading man and some of the same music. One character even accuses another of acting paranoid, a term I sort of doubt was common parlance at the time the story is set. The question of how historically accurate the film is meant to be, or feel, is frankly unanswerable, with “Completely” and “Not at all” both seeming possibly valid interpretations of the filmmakers intent.

The sense that QT is running out of ideas is exacerbated by the familiar play with time, which here mainly amounts to a long-ish flashback designed to explain and recontextualize the set-up we encounter at Minnie’s Haberdashery. In fact, the flashback supplies almost no important information we couldn’t guess (the mystery I was most concerned with — how the door got busted — is unaddressed, unless I missed something). The main point of showing this sequence seems to be to reveal that the people killed before the story begins were all lovely and innocent. Minnie, who we have been told hates Mexicans, seems a wholly delightful person, in a mixed-race marriage herself, and she betrays no prejudice when dealing with a Mexican character in the flashback. The suspicion grows that the stuff about her barring Mexicans was essentially only included because Tarantino couldn’t resist a racist joke.

Tarantino has invoked Agatha Christie, an odd reference since the only clear whodunnit does not arise until after the intermission, and the question is answered within what felt to me like twenty minutes. What I’m saying is, the film is not structurally as interesting as other QT movies have been (though I recall DJANGO UNCHAINED essentially plodding through its narrative in chronological fashion — have I forgotten something?)

I felt when I saw TRUE ROMANCE, a non-linear QT script straightened out and played in sequence by director Tony Scott, that QT’s stuff didn’t stand up to the clear overview provided by a chronological ordering. Had the film used the script’s “answers first, questions later” approach, I might have been less bothered by Christopher Walken vanishing from the story after killing the hero’s father, and I might have been less bothered by the hero generally causing death and destruction to other people wherever he goes, out of sheer idiocy. I like to think I would still have been quite bothered, but maybe a bit less. Getting dropped into the middle of a situation deprives you of an overview to be judgemental with — “you can’t see an environment when you’re in it” — and you just have to watch the characters attempt to deal with the situation. You can relate as soon as you understand the basic urgent situation. So the missing heist scene in RESERVOIR DOGS really helps — the problem of Tim Roth’s critical injury is allowed to outweigh his participation in an armed robbery, and his betrayal of his gang.

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(FIVE)

Roth (doing a mix of Terry-Thomas and what seems like David Puttnam) and Michael Madsen are back here. In each QT film, rather appealingly, he uses his clout to restore to prominence a star who has fallen by the wayside. Here, with a kind of full-circle inevitability, he rescues Madsen, whom he had initially boosted with his first feature. The eight are a patchwork of actors QT has mostly used before, with Jennifer Jason Leigh as standout new-to-the-fold star. I’m glad to have her back, but not sure I want her back like this. Though she does some nice physical stuff, scratching her head after removing her hat (because hats make your head hot and itchy), extruding a tongue to catch snowflakes. Odd, this emphasis on the tactile in a character virtually indifferent to extreme pain. Daisy Domergue’s ability to shrug off atrocious bodily harm is probably the best claim the movie has to be “like a cartoon,” as composer Ennio Morricone has said. But KING-SIZE CANARY is shorter. I could watch it twenty-three times during THE HATEFUL 8.

Walton Goggins is doing Burton Gilliam’s performance from BLAZING SADDLES. He doesn’t try to make Jackson sing “De Camptown Ladies” but he might as well.

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(SIX)

Here I get into spoilers, maybe — I won’t tell you what happens but you might guess some of it from my discussion of what doesn’t happen.

Is this a state-of-the-nation address, as Tarantino has claimed? I think if the ending had more of the horror of THE BIG SILENCE, we could buy that. I mean, it’s unpleasant, nihilistic and blackly ironic, but nothing about it is likely to disturb QT’s core audience. Had the sheriff made a deal with the bandits, killed Samuel L. Jackson, and ridden off happily into the sunrise, we would have been upset, despite the Jackson character’s frequent unpleasantness. We would have felt something wrong. But Tarantino doesn’t really want to distress the viewer in that way, so his films are only ever going to flatter his constituency — their knowing laughter is always going to be the correct response.

Like I say, I got more enjoyment out of this nasty, brutish and long film than I expected. Kurt Russell and Jackson and Roth and Leigh kept me entertained, and there’s something to be said for lingering over group dynamics in a single space for a looong time.