Tuesday, November 10, 2015

John Carpenter, part XI: God, I hate rock and roll


A great central metaphor and some of the most unique "gore" ever put in a movie combine to make Christine one of John Carpenter's best.

Directed by John Carpenter
Written by Bill Phillips (based on the novel by Stephen King)
With Keith Gordon (Arnie Cunningham), John Stockwell (Dennis Guilder), Alexandra Paul (Leigh Cabot), Robert Prosky (Will Darnell), Harry Dean Stanton (Det. Rudolph Jenkins), William Ostrander (Buddy Eperton), Malcolm Danare (Moochie), Steven Tash (Rich Trelawney), Stuart Charno (Don Vanderburg), Christine Belford (Regina Cunningham), Robert Darnell (Michael Cunningham), and Roberts Blossom (George LeBay)

Spoiler alert: high

Christine is probably the single most underappreciated entry in John Carpenter's whole canon—and this includes by the man himself, who refers to the film, when he refers to it at all, as a job.  As usual, context is key: in 1982, The Thing was seen as a disaster.  It was not just the recipient of a toxic (and extremely stupid) critical excoriation; it got taken to the cleaners at the box office too.  Carpenter blames E.T. for turning audiences against the idea of an evil alien monster.  (Or maybe The Thing simply couldn't compete with the real Ultimate in Alien Terror. Jesus, Spielberg!)

Whatever the cause, it represented a severe setback: when the film adaptation of Stephen King's Christine came along, apparently it was the only work Carpenter could even get.  So, if he's bitter, it's hard to blame him.  But if Carpenter can't recognize the extraordinary thing he made nevertheless—well, that's his problem, I say. We get to enjoy it forever anyway, from the tantalizing promise of its opening scene all the way to just about the greatest last line ever uttered in a movie.

In Christine, life hasn't been kind to 17 year-old Arnie Cunningham.  At home, he's been groomed by his overweening tiger parents for three things only: academics, subordination, and unhappiness.  At school, things are perhaps not quite as poisonous in the long term, but they're certainly a lot more physically dangerous right now, as Arnie finds himself the victim of bullies who appear to have been held back a solid decade and aren't afraid to pull a switchblade on the poor bespectacled nerd in the midst of playing a cruel-but-standard game of keepaway with his sack lunch.

If there's one ray of light in Arnie's life, it's his best friend Dennis.  With him, we arrive upon one of Christine's more interesting if subtle achievements, a look at high school existence where Breakfast Club reductionism doesn't entirely apply.

Coming out two years before The Breakfast Club probably helped.

Dennis, of course, is a tall, handsome jock from the jock master mold (indeed, John Stockwell bears a resemblance to a young Chris Pine), but Arnie is an indeterminate figure, not an irrevocable geek—but surely nowhere close to cool.  We can tell that there's a real case of noblesse oblige inherent to his relationship with Dennis—rendering their friendship a little bit oppressive itself, insofar as the last thing Arnie needs right now is yet another parental figure telling him what's good for him, let alone one his own damned age.  Yet it wouldn't do to overlook Dennis' genuine affection for his less-popular friend.

We follow along with Arnie and Dennis, as they discuss the issues important to them—mainly girls, and with a slight whiff of Before Times misogyny that does, at least, have the decency to be funny.  The character-establishing moments of Bill Phillips' script for Christine are a masculine mirror of Carpenter and Debra Hill's Halloween, and this is a good thing.  Even better, it's more conspicuously written, and therefore a lot more interesting to listen to.  I prefer to think that it's better-written, anyway, and not that I'd rather hear boys prattle than girls; but sexism can be insidiously invisible to the bearer.  Either way, I can harmlessly say that Christine is the more complete of the two: even though things get started faster in Christine than Halloween dreams about, we get to know our cast better than we ever do in the film that Christine is obviously patterned upon.

It's the night SHE came home.

While Dennis is driving Arnie home from his first terrible day back at school, Arnie spies the object that shall transform Christine from a solid young adult comedy into a horror super-classic: a particular car, with a particular name, and a very particular history, which we are privy to and Arnie and Dennis are not, since they weren't around for Christine's prologue, a beautifully-effective affair set in a Detroit factory all the way back in 1957, that both relates the origins of this once-gorgeous cherry red Plymouth Fury and showcases its supernatural malevolence—without beginning to explain either.

Of course, in 1978 (seriously, it's a lot like Halloween), "Christine" is a hollowed-out wreck, barely able to move.  But Arnie loves her anyway.  And so he forks over the cash, defends his decision to his incredulous friend and outraged parents, and gets a job at local junkman Darnell's garage in exchange for the space he needs to keep and fix his bitchin' new ride.  Having now stepped out of his cage, a change comes over Arnie: he starts dressing like somebody with a sense of style (even if that style is more indebted to "1950s greaser" than anything popular at the time); he stops taking shit; and even his astigmatism clears up (it's kind of charming how this is simply acknowledged, and never recognized as an impossibility).  He also gets a girlfriend—no less than the hottest girl in the whole school, Leigh.  (How hot?  Why, she even shot down Dennis.)

And then, just as things seem to be going great, the balance tips, and they go straight to hell instead: in case you somehow avoided knowing this, Christine is alive—she even speaks, albeit only through twenty year-old rock and roll.  Tragically, Christine's very much the jealous type.  And the violent type.  When the bullies break into the garage to continue their vendetta against Arnie, and smash Christine to pieces, we discover just how violent.  In the meantime, Arnie realizes what his car really is—and this is where Arnie takes a turn from ordinary teenaged rebellion and into dickish, annihilating obsession.

Sure, that's a lot of verbiage for a plot that can be boiled down, "A boy buys a killer car that eats his love."

Christine is a dark romance, then, its chiefest thematic concern the way Arnie and Christine feed off each other in the most unhealthy ways.  It's a story, also, of how quickly friendship can be rendered impotent before love, no matter how true the friendship (and no matter how twisted the love).  Naturally, Dennis, alongside Leigh, will attempt to redeem Arnie Cunningham.   Unfortunately for them, Christine is a John Carpenter movie—so perhaps you'd like to take a guess how that works out.  Yet thanks to the inhuman nature of the affair, Christine winds up a potentially broader allegory, capable of referring to whatever brand of dependency issue you'd prefer: dependency on a bad relationship, on a bad crowd, on bad drugs (by the end Arnie looks like a cartoon heroin addict), or even on a seemingly-harmless hobby—say, for example, a passion for cars.  On this last, near-textual level, Christine's a damning indictment of the kind of guy who would prioritize a thing over people.

But themes are for Cunninghams concerned with making As on their dorky book reports.  Certainly, Christine grounds itself with its good-to-very-good high school dramedy and its adequate-to-very-good performances—and this is well.  But just like us, Carpenter's more interested in the visual and conceptual possibilities offered by the magic fucking car sitting at the heart of this story.  Thus it is in these sequences that Christine gleams its very brightest.

Yeah, literally.

And so Carpenter films the hell out the twenty Plymouth Furies and Belvederes which, in the aggregate, constituted "Christine."  Working in his traditional 'Scope frame, Christine is the probably the best-shot film in Carpenter's filmography outside of his collaborations with Dean Cundey—and to give Christine's DP Donald Morgan a more complete compliment, it looks better than at least three Carpenter joints that were shot by Cundey.  The searing bloody red of Christine underlines a commendable attention to lighting and color; the car looks like it comes from another world even before she starts murdering people of her own volition (while the unearthly green lights in her dashboard, popping on when she's actively evil, look even weirder).  Further, Christine may be Carpenter's single most essential use of the 'Scope format—indeed, it's one of the most expressive deployments of an anamorphic lens and its peculiar properties in all cinema.  When Christine's headlights flare to life, and the lens turns them into a single, fiery line, stabbing its way across the void like a wrathful sun rising upon a black horizon, it is as uncanny and legitimately horror-movie thrilling as any image I can name, as evocative of gleefully malicious evil as a glinting knife, without being a fraction as dully-expected.

(Speaking of gleeful malice, this is where we talk for a second about Carpenter and Alan Howarth's score, revolving around a principal theme that combines electronic creepiness with bouncy excitement, perfectly capturing the film's own half-lark tone.  It's probably Carpenter and Howarth's most abbreviated score, however, and that leaves a lot of air to fill—of course, one of Christine's great pleasures is found in its beguiling hybrid soundscape, splitting the difference between those swell Carpenterian synths and the 1950s pop which Christine's enchanted radio beams in from her home decade, all ironically-counterpoised against the wicked sight of a finback coupe murdering teens.  Christine, you know, is also a damning indictment of nostalgia.)

And this is before we even get into the real meat and potatoes of Christine, which are the amazing, cackle-out-loud-exciting vehicular stunts, most notably when Christine hunts down one of Arnie's bullies to a gas station.  Long-time readers know I am a big fan of flamesuit sequences (and aren't we all?).  Christine goes a step further—with a flame-vehicle sequence.  Careening through an exploding garage, she becomes a true chariot of fire, ultimately leaving a burning corpse in her wake.  And it is awesome.

But I truly save the best for last: Christine's amazing regenerations.  They elicit the exact kind of "how did they do that?!" reaction that only the pre-CGI era can offer.  It's absolutely mind-blowing on a first watch—and scarcely less so after you watch it a half dozen times, and in the meantime have learned, actually, it's a comparatively simple gag.  But always and forever, the Fury's self-repair routine, combined with the constant violence against her long-suffering chassis, give Christine the charge of unorthodox body horror, particularly in its semi-awkward final confrontation, where we find Christine trapped and damaged too badly to quickly regenerate, while being slowly, slowly crushed into inoperability beneath a bulldozer.  It's torture porn for the gearhead set.  And it is awesome.

But would Christine have been an even better movie had Arnie still been in the car while it was being crushed?  Oh, God, yes.

The basic concept, of course, is hardly original to King's novel; why, it had been done at least twice already on film with Crash! and The Car.  (And of course there's Duel, the obvious foundational text for all evil vehicle cinema, even though that picture does—nominally—involve an evil human driver.)

Christine's innovation is the clingy personality—and overt gendering—of its titular villain.  Meanwhile, what sets Christine apart from its source material is the brazen matter-of-factness that Phillips' ultra-streamlined adaptation and Carpenter's signature efficiency bring to the game.  In the novel, there's a big old explanation not just for Christine's powers, but also her sadistic bent, revolving around a ghostly possession and all sorts of other nonsense that I'm sure fills out a doorstopper book well enough.  But here, she is just born bad ("plain and simple," as the poster says).  This might be the script's most brilliant turn of all: it's so damned illogical that it winds up pushing Christine right up against genuine cosmic horror.  (That said, Christine's only weak moments are the ones where her powers take on an explicitly mystical bent—like when she causes Leigh to choke, apparently by using automotive telekinesis.  Truly, Christine is vastly more effective when she sticks to physical methods of human disposal; fortunately, that is her primary mode.)

Taken altogether, there's simply too much obvious joy in Christine to ever believe that Carpenter didn't care about it.  But I suppose even a motivation as crass as financial necessity can sometimes still inspire a man to do great things.  Well, whatever it was that drove Carpenter in 1983—the "job" he did speaks entirely for itself.

Score:  10/10

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