“I always feel it behind me. It’s myself. And I follow me. In silence. But I can hear it. Yes, sometimes it’s like I’m chasing myself. I want to escape from myself. But I can’t!” —Peter Lorre as child-murderer, M (1931)
There was a period in the ‘60s and ‘70s when you could barely call yourself a male movie star if you didn’t do a scene where you stared at yourself in the mirror, doing various “private” things. The device shows up before then, too, but the floodgates opened in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Meryl Streep has observed, “Often the scenes that are the most exciting, and most illuminating in film, are the ones with no dialogue…where a character is doing something alone, where the deepest most private self is revealed or explored. Exposed.”
It was morning in Paris when news of Agnès Varda’s death reached the world. On a hunch, I left the apartment I shared with my girlfriend in the city’s 5th arrondissement and walked the 30 minutes, past the hordes of tourists cramming into the skull-stacked Paris Catacombs, to reach Rue Daguerre in the Montparnasse neighborhood, where Varda had lived since 1951.
This is where Varda and her husband, fellow French New Wave filmmaker Jacques Demy, had purchased a derelict pink storefront and turned it into the production house Tamaris Films, later renamed Ciné-Tamaris, so they could produce Varda’s first film La Pointe Courte in 1954. The pair moved into the tucked-away apartment/studio complex and quickly became fixtures of the neighborhood, spreading art, whimsy, and cats around their tiny world (although the building’s exterior remained in poor shape, with paint perpetually peeling and the roof leaking).
“Dirty” Harry Callahan fought many bad guys across five films between the years 1971 and 1988, from a serial killer named Scorpio to violent revolutionaries to a gang of seaside rapists. But one of his most persistent foes lived off screen, which didn’t keep her from becoming a kind of obsession for the film series Harry called home. Directed by Don Siegel, Dirty Harry quickly became the subject of controversy and condemnation — as everyone making it no doubt knew it would, with its casual endorsement of police power and dismissal of accused criminals’ rights. But few were as vocal in their condemnation as Pauline Kael, who pinned on the series, and its star, an f-word both would have a hard time shaking. The “action genre has always had a fascist potential,” wrote Kael in The New Yorker, “and it has finally surfaced.” The review locked Callahan and Kael in a battle that would continue until both retired, leaving no clear winner at its end.
I didn’t expect to spend Thanksgiving Weekend 2018 watching ten 3D movies: marathon viewing is not my favorite experience in general, and I haven’t spent years longing to see, say, Friday the 13th Part III, in 35mm. But a friend was visiting, from Toronto, to take advantage of this opportunity, an impressive level of dedication that seemed like something to emulate, and it’s not like I had anything better to do, so I tagged along. Said friend, Blake Williams, is an experimental filmmaker and 3D expert, a subject to which he’s devoted years of graduate research and the bulk of his movies (see Prototype if it comes to a city near you!); if I was going to choose the arbitrary age of 32 to finally take 3D seriously, I couldn’t have a better Virgil to explain what I was seeing on a technical level. My thanks to him (for getting me out there) and to the Quad Cinema for being my holiday weekend host; it was probably the best possible use of my time.
You don’t find it; it finds you, most likely in the dead of night.
You can’t sleep, you may or may not be on drugs (you don’t have to be, though it’d be a lot cooler, as they say, if you were), and you’re clicking around the weirder back channels of YouTube again. You pinball from ‘80s-era NASA test footage to “36 NEW SHOWS FROM THE HELLISH MID-SEASON TV OF 1979” to the deep catalog of VHS oddities discovered and uploaded by a dedicated corps of obsolescence fetishists. It’s here, among the creepy camcorder detritus and lost video-dating profiles, that “Electric Light Voyage” has been waiting for you.
[Last year, Musings paid homage to Produced and Abandoned: The Best Films You’ve Never Seen, a review anthology from the National Society of Film Critics that championed studio orphans from the ‘70s and ‘80s. In the days before the Internet, young cinephiles like myself relied on reference books and anthologies to lead us to films we might not have discovered otherwise. Released in 1990, Produced and Abandoned was a foundational piece of work, introducing me to such wonders as Cutter’s Way, Lost in America, High Tide, Choose Me, Housekeeping, and Fat City. (You can find the full list of entries here.) Our first round of Produced and Abandoned essays included Angelica Jade Bastién on By the Sea, Mike D’Angelo on The Counselor, Judy Berman on Velvet Goldmine, and Keith Phipps on O.C. and Stiggs. Today, Musings concludes our month-long round of essays about tarnished gems, in the hope they’ll get a second look. Or, more likely, a first. —Scott Tobias, editor.]
[Last year, Musings paid homage to Produced and Abandoned: The Best Films Youve Never Seen, a review anthology from the National Society of Film Critics that championed studio orphans from the 70s and 80s. In the days before the Internet, young cinephiles like myself relied on reference books and anthologies to lead us to films we might not have discovered otherwise. Released in 1990, Produced and Abandoned was a foundational piece of work, introducing me to such wonders as Cutters Way, Lost in America, High Tide, Choose Me, Housekeeping, and Fat City. (You can find the full list of entries here.) Our first round of Produced and Abandoned essays included Angelica Jade Bastin on By the Sea, Mike DAngelo on The Counselor, Judy Berman on Velvet Goldmine, and Keith Phipps on O.C. and Stiggs. Over the next four weeks, Musings will continue with another round of essays about tarnished gems, in the hope theyll get a second look. Or, more likely, a first. Scott Tobias, editor.]
Its generally accepted that John Carpenter wasnt a personal filmmakernot personal in the way that Martin Scorsese, only five years his senior and Italianamerican from the start, was. Carpenter grew up movie-crazy in the 50s and 60s. He wanted to make Westerns exactly at the moment when that became an unrealistic career goal. His heroes were Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles and, above all, Howard Hawks. Its been nourishing to listen to Amy Nicholsons wonderful eight-part podcast Halloween Unmasked, still in progress, and to hear Carpenterusually oblique in interviewsopen up about his boyhood in the Jim Crowera South. He mentions visiting an insane asylum during a college psych trip and locking eyes with a prisoner who spooked him. That may be the basis for killer Michael Myers but, by and large, this was a guy who wrote what he dreamed up, not what he knew.
Thats not to suggest Carpenter didnt develop his own signature style. When he arrived in Los Angeles in 1968 to attend film school at USC, he reinvented himself, transforming from a Max Fischerlike creative wunderkind (he was a rock guitarist and high-school class president) into a laconic, bell-bottomed cowboy who listened more than he spoke. He was too cool for nerdy Dan OBannon, who worked with him on Dark Star. He was too cool for Hollywood itself, even after hed succeeded there, rarely mingling socially and turning down projects like Top Gun and Fatal Attraction.
But the cool act was a bit of smokescreen. I once asked Carpenter about it, and he owned up to a private sense of pain in regard to his work. I take every failure hard, he told me in 2008, singling out the audiences abandonment of The Thing, a remake of his favorite film (one that actually improves on its source). The movie was hated. Even by science-fiction fans. They thought that I had betrayed some kind of trust, and the piling on was insane. Even the original movie’s director, Christian Nyby, was dissing me.
Carpenter would rebound from that 1982 commercial disasteras well the indignity of getting sacked from Firestarterby playing the game even better. He directed Jeff Bridges to a Best Actor nomination on Starman (thats as rare as a unicorn for a sci-fi performance) and, just as things were turning golden, blew all his capital again on 1986s Big Trouble in Little China, which was rushed and subsequently buried in the massive shadow of Aliens. You try to make a studio picture your own, but in the end, its their film, Carpenter said in our interview, the Kentucky rascal turned bitter. And theyre going to get what they want. After that experience, I had to stop playing for the studios for a while and go independent again.
This is the pivotal moment in Carpenters career, the one that fascinates me the most. It should fascinate more people, given what the filmmaker did. Divorced and with a two-year-old son, Carpenter is, at that point, 38 years old. Hes already feeling like a Hollywood burnout, with a decade of ups and downs to prove it. The solution was a pay cut, a big one: Prince of Darkness, financed through supermensch Shep Gordon and Alive Films and released in 1987, would be made for a grand total of $3 million, the first title in a multi-picture deal that guaranteed Carpenter complete creative control.
Scrappy but never chintzy, Prince of Darkness is the most lovable of movies. On the surface, it has all the cool minimalism a JC fan could ask for: elegant anamorphic compositions (Gary Kibbes muscular cinematography adds millions more in production value), a seesawing synth score, a one-location siege structure akin to the directors Assault on Precinct 13 and The Thing. The movie also has Alice Cooper killing a grad student with a bicycle. It has a swirling canister of green Satanic goo in a church basement.
Critics, by and large, were unkind. In a representative review from the New York Times, Vincent Canby called it surprisingly cheesy, singling out first-time screenwriter Martin Quatermass for particular scorn (he overloads the dialogue with scientific references and is stingy with the surprises), not realizing that this was a pseudonym for Carpenter himself. Would it have mattered? Released days before Halloween, Prince got clobbered by the gig Carpenter turned down, Fatal Attraction, still surging in its sixth weekend.
But below the surfaceand still a matter for wider appreciationis the film that Carpenter dug himself out of his psychic hellhole to make: his most personal horror movie, starring a version of himself. Prince of Darkness is about watching and waiting. In a way, its a romantic view of the auteurs own time at school. Its a movie about the evil that stares out of the mirror (i.e., yourself). Like all of his films, it arrived under the possessive title John Carpenters Prince of Darkness. In my mind, that apostrophe is actually a contraction: John Carpenter Is Prince of Darkness. And Prince of Darkness is him.