I’m not sure if John Carpenter ever actually spoke the oft-reproduced quote: “In France, I’m an auteur; in Germany, I’m a filmmaker; in England, I’m a genre director; in the U.S., I’m a bum.” But as an Old West newspaperman once advised a certain U.S. senator: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Besides, those words sound like something Carpenter would say—or, if not him, one of his swaggering, mullet-haired, tough-guy alter egos. It’s certainly true that Hollywood never quite knew what to make of this tall, lanky Kentuckian with his healthy distrust of corporate America and his colorful, trucker-bar repertory company, keeping him around only so long as his brand of subversive B-movie mastery continued to generate healthy returns on investment.
It’s been nearly a decade since Carpenter last directed a proper feature (2001’s Ghosts of Mars), which makes BAM’s Carpenter mini-retro, comprising four films from the director’s most prolific decade—the 1980s—an especially welcome reprieve. How better to spend Labor Day weekend than fleeing from a New York that has become one giant maximum-security prison, fending off unfriendly ETs in the wilds of Alaska, or saving San Francisco from the evildoings of a 2,000-year-old demon? Like his USC film-school classmate George Lucas, Carpenter first showed his ingenuity during his student years, when he began piecing together his debut feature, Dark Star, a Dada proto–Star Wars still fondly remembered for its beach-ball alien and Descartes-quoting nuclear bomb. By the time of his first professional feature, Assault on Precinct 13, Carpenter was already in possession of a fully developed Hawksian/Marxist worldview in which men were men, women could more than hold their own, and The Man or Big Brother or someone like that was doing his best to keep the underclass under.
The Thing (1982) was Hawks again, even if Carpenter’s version owed more to John W. Campbell Jr.’s short story and to Carpenter’s own abiding interest in the duality of man than to the 1951 movie. A flop upon its release (by Universal, two weeks after Spielberg’s E.T.), this spatial masterpiece of desolate Arctic vistas at odds with close-quarters claustrophobia has since been hailed as a high totem of modern horror-making. There remains something deeply unnerving about Carpenter’s ambiguity as to whether the movie’s shape-shifting alien is distorting its hosts’ personalities or merely revealing something of their primal selves.
The subsequent Big Trouble in Little China (1986) is a far more enjoyable mash-up of classic Westerns, Saturday-morning serials, and Chinese wu xia than any of the Indiana Jones movies, with Kurt Russell in full bloom as Carpenter’s de rigueur hard-drinkin’, hard-gamblin’, wise-crackin’ loner hero—a bowling-alley John Wayne. When I was all of eight, this seemed like just about the greatest movie ever made, and like much of Carpenter’s work, it has aged well. In the devious Reaganomics send-up They Live (1988), the present’s so scary, you’ve got to wear shades—or else how to tell the real people from the bug-eyed alien invaders walking around in human skin, getting richer while the poor get poorer? (There are also billboards, magazines, and television programs encoded with subliminal messages like “Buy,” “Conform,” and “Watch This.”)
Ultimately, They Live is a film about two ways of seeing—contenting oneself with surface appearances (“taking the blue pill,” as the Wachowskis would call it two decades later) or daring to look at what lies beneath. Likewise, there are two ways of seeing Carpenter: as a proficient genre director or as a kind of blue-collar shaman, waking us up to the all-too-real horrors of the modern world and its many threats to individuality and consciousness. He is what the late Manny Farber deemed a termite artist, nibbling away at the borders with his seemingly innocuous, low-budget quickies, unnoticed by most—which is, after all, the best way to stage a revolution.