Friday, May 10, 2013

ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK: The Carpenter Classic Gets An Epic Screening in Hollywood

- Last weekend, I had an amazing movie-going experience. Here in LA, there tends to be so much cool film stuff going on that it's easy to be overwhelmed by it all. That overabundance of riches is all the more apparent this May, when two competing, geek-centric film fests are taking place - Entertainment Weekly's Capetown fest, and The LA Times' HeroComplex event. The caliber of events that both fests are holding this year is pretty off-the-charts, but one in particular jumped out at me. Escape From New York. Kurt Russell Q&A. Oh. Hell. Yeah.

ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK is one of my favorite movies ever. Here's what I remember of discovering it as a kid: I remember reading a videogame review that pointed out a certain game's Escape From NY-style visuals. Hmmm ... what was Escape From NY? I hadn't heard of it. Soon thereafter, I sought out a VHS copy of the movie from my local video rental store. I found one, and I was immediately captivated. The cover art - of an eyepatch-clad hero standing heroically in front of the Statue of Liberty, in some kind of dark, apocalyptic scenario, sent my imagination reeling. Before I even saw the movie, I had a feeling that this ... this was awesome.

And the movie was exactly as awesome as I'd hoped. I quickly learned that the eyepatched hero was Snake Plissken, and that Snake was pretty much the baddest mofo on planet earth. I also paid attention to the name of the director of the film - John Carpenter. Whoever this guy was, I wanted to see more. Over the years, I've become a massive fan of Carpenter and his filmography, and it all traces back to Escape From NY.

Seeing the movie on the big screen, newly-restored, was flat-out awesome. Carpenter's movies have a certain something that makes them feel timeless, despite relatively low budgets and f/x constraints. His movies are all about atmosphere in a way that most modern movies don't concern themselves with. Carpenter is the all-time master at creating cinematic worlds that wholly immerse you. They are dark, there are dangerous and ominous things going on - but there's also a streak of pitch black humor and social satire that runs through his work.

So many of today's big action movies want to be all things to all people - it's rare that they carry with them the unique vision of one person. John Carpenter's movies are nothing if not iconoclastic. His semi-warped personality bleeds into every one of his creations. Sometimes that makes for moments that are cheesy, absurd, or just plain weird - but mostly, Carpenter's films have an auteurism that you rarely see in modern genre films. Even the music ... man, the music! Carpenter scores many of his films, and the results are some of the all-time best and most badass movie scores. Escape From New York's score is so kickass ... I remember literally going back and rewinding that old VHS tape multiple times to "watch" the movie's end credits, just to hear the score in all its glory. Again, it's all about atmosphere. Carpenter did these minimalist synth scores that just bleed badassery. As soon as you hear the synth tones from Escape From New York's iconic theme, you know exactly the kind of movie you're about to see.

That same minimalist attitude colors many of Carpenter's movies. Everything tends to be economical, from the dialogue to the shot selection. It has the effect of making everything feel painterly, iconic, larger than life. And larger than life is exactly what Kurt Russell is in Escape From New York. The movie needs no lame "origin story" for Snake Plissken. No, our antihero arrives fully-formed. We get hints of his backstory ("Snake? Heard you were dead."). But only hints. Carpenter wasn't big on being overly expository. He left things to your imagination. And that lack of detail made Snake all the more badass. He was mysterious, and yet at the end of the day, we knew the most important things about him - like the fact that he was not a man to be messed with. More than that, Snake's nihilistic attitude colors the whole film and its punk, anti-establishment message. When Snake is first recruited to serve on a last ditch mission to save the President - stranded in the island prison of Manhattan - Snake is warned that a failure to save the President could bring about world war. "I don't give a &$#& about your war. Or your President." says Snake. Classic.

Kurt Russell is pitch perfect in this movie - one of the all-time classic and iconic performances in the Badass Hall of Fame. And the movie is bursting at the seams with awesome performances. The legendary Lee Von Cleef as the Warden of Manhattan Island is just so damn good, it hurts. The movie universe sorely, sorely missed him and his unmatched presence. Every interaction between him and Russell is just quietly earth-shaking. At the movie's end, when the Warden makes an offer to Snake to come work for him ("We'd make a hell of a team."), you can't help but imagine the potential for gravitas-infused Russell/Von Cleef team-up in future films. But of course, joining with "the man" wouldn't be in character for Snake. And while some movies would take that sort of sequel-bait and run with it, Carpenter's film gives us the ultimate f-you, middle finger sort of ending that few, if any, films of today would have the guts to go with.

Isaac Hayes is similarly iconic as The Duke of New York ("A-Number-One!"). The music when he is first introduced, pulling up in a lampshade-emblazoned pimpmobile, is so good. The Duke is just a classic villain. Donald Pleasance as the President is also fantastic ... arrogant, slimy - giving credence to the movie's ironic sense of 80's-style attitude, in which the President is viewed as a puppet with one finger on the big red button and one eye in the vanity mirror. Harry Dean Stanton, meanwhile, is also great as the manipulative rival of Snake's, Brain. And of course, the great Ernest Borgnine lends just the right amount of left-of-center pulp-weirdness as genial sidekick Cabbie.

I will say this. Watching the movie on the big screen, for the first time in years, I was struck by Adrian Barbeau's character. She is unapologetic in her alliance with the scheming Brain, even though she was apparently "given" to him by the Duke. But even though Barbeau has a relatively small amount of screentime, she is such a badass. Here in 2013, I've seen a bunch of recent action movies where it's considered a big novelty when a female character kicks ass alongside her male counterparts (Iron Man 3, anyone?). But in Escape From NY, Barbeau mounts a daring last stand against the Duke and his men that Carpenter stages as completely par-for-the-course. Basically, Carpenter takes it for granted that a woman can be just as badass as Snake Plissken if called upon. Why have movies of today seemingly reverted to the point where it's once again a big deal for women to hold their own?

Overall though, watching Escape From NY at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood just left me completely giddy and geeking out. While many movies and videogames have aped the style of Escape From New York over the years ("Doomsday" is basically on giant tribute, as is the recent "Lockout"), action movies that capture Carpenter's dark sense of humor and social satire - or his emphasis on atmosphere and mood - are rare in today's movie marketplace. So many action movies of today are concerned with sensory overload that they don't know how to properly pace themselves, to properly build tension or a sense of dread and foreboding. Few films capture the iconography of a Carpenter film. And few if any action movies have ever been as iconic or as badass as Escape From New York, and even fewer action heroes have been as iconic or as badass as Snake by-god Plissken.

So to then see Snake himself, Kurt Russell, live and in person to do a Q&A with EW's Geoff Boucher - it was a real treat. Russell is nearly as elusive as Snake himself, and he rarely does interviews or publicity of any kind. It's probably kept him from being in the kinds of big, iconic roles that fans want to see him in, to some degree. I mean, I always wonder how in the hell there's not a badass action movie starring Kurt Russell out every year. There was Tarantino's Death Proof, sure. But that was the exception. Still, Russell's relative absence from the limelight made the talk with him that much more compelling. To hear his stories about being a child actor, about working for Walt Disney, about his stint as a pro baseball player - all pretty fascinating. Of course, the best part for me were the stories and anecdotes about Escape From New York and about John Carpenter. Hearing about how Russell created the character of Snake (he tried to talk in a whisper, thinking that Snake wouldn't care if someone heard what he was saying or not), was really, really cool. Now, do I agree with Russell's assessment that he's now too old to play Snake? Hell no! To me, an older and more grizzled Snake would be badass as hell, and I'd love to see one more "Escape" adventure with Carpenter at the helm. But like Russell, I agree that a remake, which has unfortunately been rumored and discussed, would be a questionable idea. Russell is so iconic in the role - no one else could fill those boots.

But Boucher did a great job with the Q&A - I'd call it podcast worthy. It was a lengthy, informative, funny discussion with many great anecdotes from Russell. While it can be easy to be cynical and jaded here in Hollywood, this was the kind of evening that made you remember why you love the movies in the first place. Hearing a legend and a childhood hero talk, to be in that room with fellow film fans, to see Escape From New York on the big screen - it was an epic night indeed.*

*Well, except for one thing. And that one thing was Entertainment Weekly and sponsor TNT's decision to subject the crowd to the FULL season 3 premiere of TNT's Falling Skies prior to getting to see Escape From New York. EW and TNT severely overestimated the crossover appeal of the two properties, and, sorry to say, but the Falling Skies episode was sort of painful to get through - made even worse by the fact that few if any in the audience were actual viewers of the show. Then, they did a full cast Q&A afterwords, and while, sure, it was cool to see the likes of Noah Wylie and Moon Bloodgood in person - WE WERE THERE FOR ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK AND KURT RUSSELL. Not a good way to shoehorn in some other random thing to a crowd that could, for the most part, care less. Lame.

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