Wednesday, June 21, 2017

John Carpenter Revisited: DARK STAR (1974)

John Carpenter on the set of DARK STAR
When I was about seven years old, I watched John Carpenter’s THE FOG on late night TV.  I was not allowed to watch R-rated movies, so I had to press my face against the screen of the tiny black-and-white TV set in my bedroom and turn the sound way down so  my parents wouldn’t know what I was doing.  During the third act, my heart was pounding... not just because I was afraid for the people of Antonio Bay, but because I was deathly afraid that someone would make me stop watching the movie before I could see how it ended.  The circumstances were just right that night for the fog to seep into my imagination and stay there. 

In subsequent years, John Carpenter’s other films began to make a big impression on me, one-by-one.  They didn’t just influence my taste in movies; they influenced my perspective on the world, fueling a sometimes-unhinged balance of romanticism and cynicism.  Most viewers these days seem to assume that Carpenter is a resolute cynic.  He can be.  But he’s also a filmmaker whose work doesn’t lend itself to quick, easy interpretations or intellectualization.  He’s what critics used to call a “pure cinema” filmmaker.  He tells stories through pictures in motion, plus sound, and his stories are meant to flood the viewer with emotion—not to be picked apart as metaphors, allegories, or political treatises.  (Which is not to say that his films do not sometimes function brilliantly as metaphors, allegories, or political treatises.  Ahem, THEY LIVE.) 

This week, I’m gearing up to re-watch all of John Carpenter’s movies, from DARK STAR to THE WARD.  Because I’m a writer by trade (and compulsion), I will also be writing about them.  And because I don’t like to do anything in a simple, casual way (did I mention “compulsion”?), I will also be watching each film on a double bill with a non-Carpenter film.  The pairings will not be random, but they might seem random at first.  I will do my best to explain as I go….

I’m kicking things off with John Carpenter’s first theatrical feature, DARK STAR.  “Theatrical” is a bit of a stretch, since DARK STAR is an expanded student film.  Carpenter and his USC film school chum Dan O’Bannon began working on it in 1970, and kept working on it for three years.  During that time, an old b-movie producer named Jack Harris came along and gave them a few extra bucks to expand the film for theatrical release.  The two starry-eyed film students did just that, and DARK STAR was released in 1974 to universal silence.

Carpenter and O’Bannon were undoubtedly disheartened by the film’s commercial failure… but it didn’t slow them down for very long.  Five years later, they were both being hailed as creative geniuses—for HALLOWEEN and ALIEN, respectively.  After that, DARK STAR was granted a second life on VHS as the brainchild of two young prodigies.  Naturally, the film has been viewed as a forerunner of the more-famous films.  Some people insist that the beach ball “alien mascot” in DARK STAR was the prototype for the xenomorph in ALIEN.  O’Bannon himself more or less confirmed this when he said that the rationale for making ALIEN was “If you can’t make it funny, make it scary.”  By drawing the comparison, O’Bannon also more or less claimed that he was the primary creator of the “alien mascot” sequence. 

I have always loved this little guy.

Dan O'Bannon (as Sgt. Pinback) in a tight spot.
Carpenter has refuted the claim.  Watching the sequence today, it’s easy to view it as a stylistic forerunner to the suspense sequences in HALLOWEEN.  The studied reliance on long takes, the careful establishment of geography, and the absolute faith in silence and ambient drones all scream "John Carpenter.This sequence is obviously the work of a strong visual storyteller developing his style.

A few years ago, I interviewed Carpenter for my horror doc NIGHTMARES IN RED, WHITE AND BLUE, and he told me that the great thing about film school was that it forced him to take the time to figure out why certain techniques worked.  This is something that viewers today—especially young viewers—don’t do as much, because so many movies are available to us that we rarely study them obsessively.  (Or am I projecting?  I’ll speak for myself…) I was humbled by Carpenter’s simple observation that watching movies and really studying movies, as a prospective filmmaker, is two different things.

One of the films that Carpenter studied endlessly at USC was Stanley Kubrick’s DR. STRANGELOVE, OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB.  Tonally it has a lot in common with DARK STAR, so I almost picked DR. STRANGELOVE as the second film on my double bill.  I might just as easily have picked Kubrick’s subsequent film 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.  DARK STAR is obviously an adoring mashup of these two films, fusing the satirical humor of one with the awe and wonder of the other.  The filmmakers themselves advertised this point with a pair of tag lines identifying the film as a “spaced-out odyssey” and a “mission of the Strangelove Generation.” 

But instead of harping on these comparisons (or because it’s already been done) I decided to watch a different film—the film that turned John Carpenter into a sci-fi enthusiast. In a 1978 interview on “The Slow Evolution of DARK STAR,” the director said, “I was only eight years old when I first saw FORBIDDEN PLANET, but… the young eyes that watched the invisible Id creature make its huge footprints in the sand of Altair 4 and finally saw the thing fully illuminated in the flowing laser beams would never be the same.”  In later interviews, he claimed that it was this experience that made him want to become a filmmaker—because he wanted to emotionally transport people away from their problems and mundane realities, to other worlds.  

The first time I saw FORBIDDEN PLANET was at a midnight show at the NARO Theater in Norfolk, Virginia—in a gorgeously lush CinemaScope print and stereophonic sound, and with a very enthusiastic audience.  I guess you could say that the experience was the opposite of my experience of watching THE FOG for the first time…. but the effect was the same.  The effect of all great movies on all receptive viewers (regardless of the screen size) is the same: They transport you. 

Some aspects of FORBIDDEN PLANET have not dated well, but many of the visuals remain hypnotic.  The matte painting used in the Krell ventilator shaft, for instance, is just as awe-inspiring as any digital effect in 2017.  (And surely it was an influence on the elevator shaft sequence in DARK STAR.)  I was also moved by the stop-motion sequence in which Morbius shows off his hi-tech security system…. perhaps because of how low-tech it is.  Such effects seemed exotic in the early 1950s… and now they seem exotic again, like all practical effects in a digital world.  It’s not about nostalgia for something quaint; it’s about stimulating the imagination by showing audiences something they aren’t used to seeing.

If nothing else, re-watching this film a few days ago transported me to another time: 1950s America, the heyday of science fiction cinema, and a time when so much of our collective knowledge about outer space was based on speculation.  There’s an inherent sense of starry-eyed wonder in FORBIDDEN PLANET—and that’s why the film is still compelling, more than fifty years later.

DARK STAR is, in my opinion, even more of a product of its time.  In the early 70s, science fiction movies were in a transitional phase, between 2001 and STAR WARS.  I think DARK STAR has more in common with contemporary films like SILENT RUNNING or SOYLENT GREEN than it does with with FORBIDDEN PLANET or STAR WARS.  Thankfully, unlike SILENT RUNNING and SOYLENT GREEN, DARK STAR has a sense of humor to give it some lasting vitality. 

In his book The Films of John Carpenter, author John Kenneth Muir suggests that the film was actually ahead of its time.  Muir characterizes DARK STAR as “the first slacker film,” a forerunner to the self-conscious Gen X cinema of filmmakers like Richard Linklater, Quentin Tarantino, and Kevin Smith.  Sarcasm and satire mostly overwhelm the sense of awe and wonder in DARK STAR, but the battle between cynicism and romanticism rages on in all John Carpenter's subsequent films.  

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