Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The 25: Part 3: Big Trouble In Little China

(The twenty five is an examination of the twenty five films that made me a cinephile. These aren’t necessarily what I consider best movies, nor are they necessarily my favorite. Though in some cases they are both. Instead these are the films that made the biggest most indenialable impression on me. Films that if they hadn’t hit a certain way at a certain time I would not be the same film goer that I am today. They’re the twenty five.)

So, now that I understood that movies where made and a director made them (I know this is simplified, trust me, but I remain a staunch auteurist so just work with me here) It was only a matter of time before I became a fan of one. I suppose you could argue that I was a fan of Hitchcock first, and that Man Who Knew Too Much/Birds double feature certainly led me to viewing many of the master’s films, there are two things wrong with this.

1) Hitchcock was foisted on me, I saw a documentary about him first, then saw his films. In other words I was prepped. Carpenter I had to discover independently.

2) Then as now I almost thought of Hitchcock in terms of a genre rather then a director. When I went to the video store there were Western’s, war movies, and Hitchcock pictures. I wasn’t really consciencely exploring an artist’s work yet. Just wondering what I should grab for the night.

Carpenter is a filmmaker who seems to be going through a mini backlash right now, with younger film fans especially wondering what all the fuss is about. I’ve got to call shennanigins on this, Carpenter’s not a perfect filmmaker. Indeed just as he was the first filmmaker I ever really loved, he was also the first to let me down. By the time I was old enough to see John Carpenter movies in the theater they weren’t worth seeing (Though in all fairness, I’m really hoping The Ward knocks my ass out, and Cigarette Burns is just as good as his eighties work (Pro Life not so much). But he is a great one. True he make his films with the confident sturdy steps of a craftsmen rather then the flailing of a virtuoso. But just because he isn’t showy doesn’t mean he’s not an intelligent valuable filmmaker.

Take Big Trouble In Little China. Certainly it’s a movie that’s regarded fondly, both by the general public and cineastes as the pinnacle of a certain kind of 80’s excess filmmaking. And while it certainly is that, though in terms of wit and imagination it puts many of its fellows to shame. As dated as Batman feels Big Trouble is fresh you could put it in the theater today and it would still play, though everyone would be confused by lack of shitty CGI and the fact that the movie has an actual color palate beyond the grey of most genre films.

And that’s still not doing justice to what a smart innovated film Big Trouble really is. It’s a mash up film, a full generation before that was supposed to happen, beating Kill Bill to the punch by twenty odd years. Mixing old serials, The Yellow Peril pulps, Five Fingers Of Death, The Shogun Assassin and Howard Hawk’s and mixing them into a frothy exhilarating brew. Taking imagery and recontextualizing it for its own nefarious ends.

It is in short, a complete fucking blast.

But that’s not all. Few give credit for just how narratively clever Big Trouble is, without once drawing attention to itself. It is after all a movie told completely from the perspective of the sidekick. After all it’s Dennis Dung’s Wang who gets the girl, fights the big bad, and saves the day. Russell’s Jack Burton, gets his ass kicked, complains, and looks goofy.

It’s a keen bit of postmodernism, that far from being clever for its own sake, serves the story and subtly comments on the ethno centricism inherent in pulps. For all the talk about it just being a dumb cheesy pleasure Big Trouble In Little China has a lot on its mind. Lets see Raiders Of The Lost Ark top that.

Of course this wasn’t on my mind at the time. At ten I can pretty much say without a doubt the thoughts this movie brought up weren’t “My that’s a clever deconstruction on narrative convention and racial politics in genre fiction.” It was probably somewhere more along the lines of “OhmyGodKurtRussellisthecoolestanddidyouseethepartwheretheguywiththehatexplodedandIthinkyoucanseeboobsinthebackgroundofthatonescene.”

My point is that Carpenter is able to layer things so well into his films, that he often misses out on the credit. If you can catch the nuances in his work great, but he’s not going to lead you by the hand and place them front and center. The story always comes first.

And that’s why I started to follow Carpenter, from Big Trouble, to Escape, to The Fog, to The Thing. He is like I said, the first filmmaker I was ever consciencely a fan of. I've been one now for about fifteen years, and I’ve loved every minute of it. So thank you Mr. Carpenter. Thank you very much.


Conventional wisdom says you should never meet your heroes. I’ve been lucky so far. As everyone who I’ve met who I’ve admired has been at least cordial, and sometimes truly wonderful. So I thought I’d go ahead and relate a time when meeting one of my heroes kicked ass.

Carpenter was having a tribute to him at The Aero Theater in Santa Monica (Which is truly an amazing cinema. If you ever get a chance to go. I don’t know if I can quite rank it over the New Beverly, but trust me, if its not the best theater in LA, its certainly the second best.) I was trying to make it to the double feature of The Fog and Christine, but tickets where sold long before I got there. I picked up tickets to the next days Escape Double Feature, and decided since I’d driven all the way out to Santa Monica I might as well enjoy.

I walked down to the beach and about an hour later as I was coming back, I noticed about a half dozen people gathering around a black town car outside the theater. Talk about timing. Carpenter comes out, with a gruff pitch perfect “What do you assholes want?” as soon as someone had the balls to mention signing, he smiled and said he’d be happy to, adding only a “One per customer guys I’ve got to get inside.” I had Big Trouble In Little China and Assault On Precint 13. I went with Assault as I figured he saw it less. I shook his hand told him my name He was nice enough to personalize my copy. I asked half jokingly, if he needed an intern and he gave me a smile and a “You and everybody else kid.” Then moved onto the next guy.

I hung around just happy to be hanging with the guy. He was charming and personable with all his fans and as it began to thin out I mustered up the balls to ask him to sign Big Trouble too. Not unfriendly he asked “Why should I kid?” To which I responded, it was my favorite movie he ever made. He stopped considered, and said, “Well that’s a pretty good reason.” And signed Big Trouble as well.

If that had been the end of it, I would have been more then happy. But it wasn’t.

When Carpenter really impressed me was the next night. I came for The Escape double feature. After a great Q&A I went out for a cigarette and saw Carpenter getting MOBBED. If you’ve never been to The Aero, it has this kind of outdoor lobby, its basically the theater at the back of you, then two long walls and an open entrance to the street. Carpenter was in the middle. And the entire thing was filled with fans trying to get at him. Dozens if not a couple hundred people all pushing and shoving trying to get their stuff signed.

It looked kind of like this.

I’m mildly claustrophobic and just looking at the crowd nearly gave me a case of the screaming memes. But to Carpenter’s ever lasting credit far from losing his shit and screaming for everyone to get the fuck away from him. Which I almost certainly would have done. He calmly waited it out, signed something for everyone in the crowd, and was never anything less then gracious.

So here’s to Carpenter, a great filmmaker and a true class act. Like I said before, he was my first favorite director, I doubt I could have picked a better one.


Unknown said...

Nice post! I love Carpenter and most of his films. Even ones I don't care for I still admire the care and craft that went into them. While I don't think BIG TROUBLE is his best film, it's my fave and the one I love watching the most. It never gets dull and I still have fond memories of catching this film when it first played in theaters back in the day and then memorizing all of the dialogue when it finally came out on video.

There is just something about this film that gets me every time - the snappy, Howard Hawks-esque banter between Jack and Gracie, the grizzled, Yoda-like wisdom of Egg Shen, and the way Carpenter pays loving homage while good-naturedly poking fun at kung fu films. Great stuff.

Franco Macabro said...

I feel pretty much the same as you about carpenter. I was a fan of his films, even before I knew who he was.

The Thing was the first film to truly truly scare me. I must have seen it when I was about 10. My uncle said, here is a movie you have to see! I was terrified of it, but I couldnt take it off. I also loved it.

Same experience with Escape from New York, which I saw in the theaters when it was first released. i was a child (my dad took me to see all sorts of horror movies even though I was just a child) and the dark world of Escape from New York scared the living wits out of me.

But speaking of Big Trouble, I recently re-watched it this week (your review was a strange coincidence!) and I still enjoy it every step of the way. The visual effects are awesome, the mid air swordfights are still spectacular, and the movie has this ghost story vibe to it that I love.

Upon watching it, I realized one of the things that Carpenter is really good at is building up story through dialog. I like how the characters talk a lot about how they feel, bulding up the spooky vibe saying things like "Hey Jack, Im chinese and even I dont want to believe it...but its true. Chinese Black Magic" I love that!

Long live J.C., not a perfect filmmaker, but when he hit the mark, he really hit the mark.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ JD Yeah its just one of those films that works full tilt. What really got me this time was how good James Hong is as David Lo Pan. He's funny, cool, charming, exasperated, and genuinely freaky at a couple of moments its a great performance.

@FC Yeah that is a very cool element of Carpenter, he can ratchet up the suspense without you noticing it.

Unknown said...

The Film Connoisseur:

"Upon watching it, I realized one of the things that Carpenter is really good at is building up story through dialog. I like how the characters talk a lot about how they feel, bulding up the spooky vibe saying things like "Hey Jack, Im chinese and even I dont want to believe it...but its true. Chinese Black Magic" I love that!"

Me too! This is something that isn't mentioned much when people talk about his films but Carpenter is the master at conveying exposition dialogue in an engaging. Most of the time, in so many films it can be boring and tedious but in his films... maybe it's the way the characters say it or something but I'm always riveted. Like in BIG TROUBLE when Wang and Jack and trapped in Lo Pan's place and as they're trying to figure out what to do, Wang explains to him a little bit about Chinese mythology. Great stuff.

Bryce Wilson:

"What really got me this time was how good James Hong is as David Lo Pan. He's funny, cool, charming, exasperated, and genuinely freaky at a couple of moments its a great performance."

Indeed! Like the bit where he talks to Jack and Wang when they're in wheelchairs and for a moment he looks over to the monitors and sees Gracie and co. arrive and says, "Now this really pisses me off!" It's this sudden outburst that makes me laugh every time.

Franco Macabro said...

Agree JD, Carpenter is really good at that, its a tool that comes handy when your story is huge, and you don't have the budget to show it all. Characters just start creating mental images, through the words they use. It works wonders on the imagination!

My favorite Lo Pan quote is "In deed!" or when he says "Nothing you can understand!"