Despite the obvious glamour, directing a film is an incredibly difficult chore. Memoir after memoir attests to how exhaustingly nerve-wracking the job is.
You go to work before daybreak, oversee the day’s shooting - which involves solving problems that would befuddle Solomon - then finish the day watching rushes and, finally, planning for the next day’s shoot.
In between, you try to summon up a sense of creativity.
This is true for any level of filmmaking, from Steven Spielberg to Roger Corman. It’s even true of guys who have a bit of talent but who choose to work in B-grade genres.
Guys such as John Carpenter and Wes Craven.
Let’s dismiss Craven right off. Someone who begins his career directing flotsam such as “The Last House on the Left” (1973) isn’t worth much more than a footnote in film history, even if he ends up being responsible for something relatively better, such as the “Nightmare on Elm Street” series.
But Carpenter deserves a closer look, if only because he started out on a higher level than Craven. Carpenter’s 1974 “Dark Star,” which he adapted from a college production, is a bizarre kind of low-budget sci-fi story. But at least it doesn’t feature occlusive emasculation (maybe a cinematic first), joy murders and retribution by chainsaw (my last reference to Craven’s “Last House on the Left”).
Carpenter’s first major film, of course, did feature some of these gory aspects. But “Halloween” (1974), at least, offered atmosphere, too. Carpenter’s own musical score, not to mention his capable camerawork and sense of anticipation, made “Halloween” one of the first - and most entertaining - examples of the grisly mad-killer genre.
Like some people who boast a bit of talent but little imagination, though, Carpenter has spent the rest of his career jogging in place. He’s never graduated from the horror/action school, following up his early success with a succession of such films as “The Fog” (1980), “The Thing” (1982), “Christine” (1983), “Big Trouble in Little China” (1986), “They Live” (1988) and “In the Mouth of Madness” (1995).
But his latest effort, “Escape From L.A.” (which is now available on video, see capsule review), shows Carpenter at his most pretentious. As a simple example of comedy/action, starring former Disney star Kurt Russell, “Escape From L.A.” is merely watchable at best.
Yet Carpenter intends for it to be more than that. It is, after all, a sequel-of-sorts to his 1981 movie “Escape From New York” - a movie of which Carpenter is so proud he released a 1994 “special edition” that includes 10 extra minutes.
As the abbreviated version couldn’t demonstrate the depths of Carpenter’s brilliance.
And this, of course, is Carpenter’s biggest problem. Unwilling, or maybe unable, to rise above the B-grade material he is drawn to, he insists, instead, that we appreciate the good in what he does. The sad thing is that there typically is too much good about Carpenter’s films to be able to merely dismiss them completely (as we can the similarly positioned Craven).
There was, though, one film of his that demonstrates what kind of a filmmaker Carpenter might have been. In 1979, he directed a made-for-television film titled “Elvis.” That film, which was the one film that aided Kurt Russell’s transition from child to adult star, is actually the one Carpenter movie that attempts to probe the complexities of real life - as long as you consider the life of Elvis Presley to be real.
As for the rest of Carpenter’s work, well, I’m channeling the soul of The King now, and he’s telling me to break this column off. His command: Don’t be cruel.
Killer: A Journal of Murder
Don’t get the wrong idea from the title: This is no “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.” Instead, it is a serious attempt by neophyte filmmaker Tim Metcalfe to film the real-life story of one Carl Panzram, a self-confessed thief, rapist and murderer. Played by James Woods, Panzram is a real work of art, a thoroughly bad man, beyond redemption and conscious of it. The movie sees Panzram through the eyes of his long-time jailer, played by Robert Sean Leonard, a man with liberal leanings who seeks to change the system that helped create this brutal man. He does so by conspiring with Panzram to write his autobiography, which he then smuggles to a publisher. The problem with the film is Metcalfe’s inability, through either lack of money or lack of talent, to make a cogent statement about the death penalty, pro or con. The strength of the film is Woods who gives one of his patented, jangle-nerved performances. Rated R
Escape From L.A.
It’s always a bad sign when a director begins treating his own films as if they were timeless classics. John Carpenter does that with this sequel to 1981’s “Escape From New York.” It offers a bit of fun, with Kurt Russell hamming it up Stallone-style as Snake Plissken, the ultimate mercenary, sent to infiltrate “outlaw” Los Angeles on a mission to confiscate technology that controls the world’s power supply. Ultimately, though, the exercise is pointless - except for giving Carpenter and co-executive producer Russell an excuse to fill the screen with big booms, buckets of blood and Libertarian sloganeering. Rated R
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