Thursday, December 3, 2015

John Carpenter, part XX: Give me back my molecules!


Memoirs of an Invisible Man is a film that only rarely rises above the simple playing-out of its premise—but, in doing just that, still offers a great deal to enjoy.

Directed by John Carpenter
Written by Robert Collector, Dana Olsen, and William Goldman (based on the novel by H.F. Saint)
With Chevy Chase (Nick Halloway), Daryl Hannah (Alice Monroe), Michael McKean (George Talbot), and Sam Neill (David Jenkins)

Spoiler alert: moderate

After four years doing almost nothing—fully six years after the failure of Big Trouble in Little China led him to swear off studio filmmaking altogether—John Carpenter returned to the mainstream, with his most mercenary effort of all.

Now, I say "his," like this film actually belonged to anybody.  But Carpenter himself claimed no possession: this is not, as a movie he directed would typically be, John Carpenter's Memoirs of an Invisible Man.  In fact, Memoirs defies your attempts to find its author.  It is based, in the first instance, upon the novel by H.F. Saint, the rights to which were soon purchased by Warner Bros.  This was where one Cornelius Crane "Chevy" Chase entered the picture, and if any single human must be said to be responsible for what resulted, I guess it must be him.  It's certainly not its original writer, William Goldman, nor its original director, Ivan Reitman: both of them backed out at top speed when they realized that, this time, the noted comedian didn't want a comedy.  It's not Robert Collector and Dana Olsen, Goldman's successors and Chase's pawns in his bid find the story's invisible heart.  And it's definitely not Carpenter, who, innocently wandering the Warner lot one day, found himself caught in a trapper's net, and was told to direct it... or else.

At least, that's the story that makes me smile, because it's fun to imagine Chase as Pierce Hawthorne, marauding across other people's puny feelings, forcing poor auteurs to make his vanity projects for him.  (When reporters asked what he hoped to gain from the enslavement of notable directors, Chase cried out, "I'll be a living god!")  Unfortunately, if you go to the effort of looking for real explanations, you'll find only boilerplate.  Still, Chase's outright lies about seeking Carpenter out "immediately" due to the director's dark sensibilities seem believable, given Chase's goals.  Obviously, those goals weren't borne out: Memoirs wound up a broad, invisibility-based comedy after all, with thriller, romance, and science-fiction modules attached.  And the boring truth about Carpenter's motivations is surely summed up in the words, "it was a paying job that no one else particularly wanted."

But wait!  If Memoirs' only real author is the corporate entity that financed it, that doesn't necessarily mean there's anything wrong with it.  It only strongly implies it.  And the fact is that Memoirs is a deeply anodyne thing, a work of little apparent ambition for anybody, except of course for ILM, who used it as a testbed for new CGI.

"Anodyne," however, is not at all the same thing as "bad."  Indeed, it can often overlap with "very good," particularly where skilled craftspeople are involved, and we have not, in 1992, reached the point in Carpenter's career where he traded his craft for cigarettes and magic beans.  To be clear, Memoirs is good.

But if Memoirs does have one central problem, it's that it's a lumpy grab-bag of stuff.  It never commits to any one genre or even a general temperament, keeping its options open about what kind of film it wants to be, even as the closing credits roll.  And it certainly never comes close to the kind of prodigious scope or elegaic atmosphere it needed to earn its pretentious title.  So that's where craft comes in.  Even when the screenplay swings wildly between moods, the film itself never evinces a problem in tone, because Carpenter's here to buffer out the joke scenes, action scenes, and (too few) existential scenes, all with an assured hand.

Memoirs opens with noirish affectation, as our man breaks into an electronic store to videotape his story, thereby faintly justifying his movie's title.  Nick Holloway is his name.  He's invisible.  Proving this with special effects, he goes on with his tale.

Once, Nick was a man of high finance.  Though yuppie scum, he retains a sufficient decency—or at least a sufficient Chasian charm—to make a serious erotic impression upon a certain Alice Monroe.  She gently rebuffs his offer of casual sex in favor of longer-term potential, however, and he drinks himself silly.   Thus when Nick arrives at Magnascopic Labs the next day, he's hung over as hell, and excuses himself from a boring science-capitalist slideshow to go lie down in somebody's unattended office.  As he slumbers, a fire starts in Magnascopic's control room, and some manner of super-scientific apparatus malfunctions.  Everyone evacuates—except for our unconscious hero.  When he finally rouses, hours later, he wakes into the film's single triumph of production design: a jagged nightmarescape of office space floating in the nighttime void, still the Magnascopic building in substance—but now with random swathes of it rendered transparent.

To his horror, Nick realizes that he's been turned invisible too.  Because this is 1992, so have his clothes; as distinct from Invisible Man '33, in Memoirs, we won't have to think about our protagonist's penis.  At least, not constantly.  (Which, to my mind, involves certain tradeoffs.)

Standard-issue G-men soon arrive, led by maverick dickhole David Jenkins.  Posing as rescue workers, they take this invisible man into custody—for about sixty seconds, anyway, before Nick overhears their conversation, mostly concerning his impending vivisection.  And so, with this foolishness crammed awkwardly into the dialogue, Nick flees.  Jenkins pursues.  The rest of the film involves their game of cat-and-invisible-mouse—but it finds its groove when Nick, holed up in his friend's beach house, has occasion to meet Alice again.  He reveals himself, and his transformation; despite this, they resume their romance.  Jenkins, naturally, resurfaces to interrupt their fantastic courtship.

The idea that Chase reached out to Carpenter specifically gains some traction once you realize that, basically, this is Starman.  Fortunately, Memoirs splits enough differences with Carpenter's only well-received studio picture to avoid ever being described as a beat-for-beat retread.  On one hand, Memoirs jettisons the one thing that made Starman special: while there isn't anything overtly wrong with Memoirs' own paranormal romance, it's also clearly not the driving force of the film, either, and Carpenter pushes nearly all of it into the third act, where it must compete with the paranoid thriller already in progress.  On the other hand, Memoirs improves upon Starman in nearly every other way it possibly could.  (But, importantly, not in music: Shirley Walker's score, a Hermannesque machine created without Carpenter, is as predictable as anything Memoirs offers, though it might be more likeable, if one could reasonably interpret it as an unmotivated homage to Cape Fear '62—rather than what it is, which is an inconsistent yet blatant rip-off of Cape Fear '91.)

Nevertheless, Memoirs has no occasion to indulge in Starman's condescending social commentary, and this is good.  Better yet, this time the Evil Government subplot (which is the worst thing about Starman, and is still the worst thing about Memoirs) isn't 100% perfunctory.  It hovers around 80-90% instead.  It's already an improvement because it makes more sense that the government would try to acquire an "invisible agent" (nice callback, screenwriters) than it does to try to murder an alien ambassador.  But more to the point, Memoirs casts Sam Neill as its chief thug, and what could be better than that?  I'm a sucker for anything that showcases Neill's surliness and/or mania; Memoirs does both.  Although the CIA's operation here immediately walks up to the edge of "literally unbelievable ineptitude"—and never steps back—Neill's presence remains enough to convince you that Nick faces a legitimate threat.

Yet would one give their eyeteeth to see Neill play the titular role in a more straightforward riff on H.G. Wells' invisible supervillain?  Oh my, yes.

Even so, Chase is swell, too.  He's at his best when Memoirs is an outright comedy, and it's probably good that his handlers pushed the film into goofier territory—could the line "Give me back my molecules!" be uttered in a serious movie?—but Chase handles every turn well enough.  Particularly memorable are the moments where the sad-sackery that Chase always wanted intersects with Carpenter's own sometimes-mordant sense of humor: disconnected as it is, the bit where Nick absent-mindedly saves a woman's bag from a purse-snatcher is practically the best scene in the movie.  Even Chase's voiceover isn't too hamfisted.  Yet despite his warm and humane performance, Chase's ego is apparent in almost every frame.

The exhibitor would like to assure you that this is the movie about the invisible man.

Oh, maybe that's cruel.  Whoever made the call—whether it was Chase, desiring as much limelight as he could snatch, or Warner Bros., concerned about a bloated special effects budget, or the director himself, earnestly trying to find the best way to connect the audience to the story—the very first thing you'll notice about Memoirs, is that, to us, our invisible man retains a certain opacity.

I get it: Carpenter, raised on comic books like The Fantastic Four, clearly wanted very much to find a way to represent invisibility, visually.  Unfortunately, this isn't a comic book, and so he found himself limited to a device that, initially, makes itself felt as incredibly clumsy.  Between cuts, Nick oscillates between actual invisibility and nominal invisibility.  This is constant, sometimes even arbitrary.

Not just unintuitive, and not just pushy, more than anything it's a fucking cheat: you would never go into a movie about an invisible man expecting the balance of it to involve his co-stars simply pretending not to see him.  Ever since Claude Rains made himself a star with almost nothing but the power of his voice, the selling point of invisible man movies has been their spectacle.  As you watch Chevy Chase's movie instead, however, you slowly comprehend that it really is a different beast.  Yet it takes so long to become accustomed to Carpenter's formal gambit, that by the time you do get used to it, two-thirds of the film have already elapsed.  In the end, I think I wound up approving of the idea—it helps that there remains enough spectacle in Memoirs that you don't feel completely burned—but I actually want to see Memoirs again, to make sure.  (Though I don't think I'll ever like how readily Carpenter uses the cutting between reference frames to surrender the twist in Memoirs' rooftop finale, even if it was already pretty obvious.)

So, does moving on to the film's aesthetic elements mean that I've forgotten Daryl Hannah, Memoirs' co-lead?  It does.  The script calls for her to be indifferently sweet; she is; that's fine.  That's all that can or should be said.  But the backgrounding of Alice's character is part and parcel of a whole movie that, taken altogether, proves that the 1980s hardly ended on December 31, 1989.

Leaving aside the intermittent sexism, the clearest expression of Memoirs' urgent desire to be a sci-fi comedy from 1983 must be that brownface gag, featured in the very climax of the film.  (Goddamnit, Pierce.)  Even if it could somehow be excused, by purporting to be a legitimate disguise—Nick dons the accoutrements of the most heavily-sterotyped cab driver you can imagine—I'm still not sure you can separate the decent joke, "invisible man's makeup-caked floating head bobs up and down the avenue, while bystanders scream," from such an arch-racist container.

Now, I've leaned on the negatives here, because it's easy; it's harder to say exactly why, in the aggregate, Memoirs winds up a more enjoyable experience than, honestly, it probably should be.  It's genial, anyway, and that counts for a lot; the sci-fi is underplayed, but interesting; its thrills are not as low-rent as their generic origins would make them appear; its romantic gestures are pleasant, and sometimes beautiful; its special effects are, in fact, really good; and very occasionally it even manages the profundity that Chase always wanted.  But mostly, it was the perfect gig for JC: by 1992, he could do Memoirs' brand of then-this-inconsistent-thing-happened storytelling in his sleep, having made a dozen auteur vehicles where he employed essentially the same strategy by his own choice, rather than due to tensions between a star and studio.  That's lucky, too, since there's a fair amount of post facto evidence suggesting that, when Carpenter approached this film, "in his sleep" is exactly how he did it.

Score:  7/10

Retrospective note!: the eagle-eyed will notice that, with Memoirs of an Invisible Man, we skipped from part 17 all the way to part 20, leaving two whole films unaccounted for.  These, I'm sure you know, are El Diablo and Blood River, a pair of TV movies which Carpenter didn't direct, but which were based on Carpenter scripts.  We'd certainly love to take a gander at the only feature-length Westerns that the Western-loving auteur ever wrote.  However, getting ahold of them is hard.  Actually, getting ahold of El Diablo isn't hard at all, but technical issues have prevented me from watching it.  So in the interest of actually delivering content, we skipped ahead.  I'll admit right now that while we've already looked at four whole films that don't really "count" in terms of the Carpenter canon, there's still a less-than-even chance of getting back to them before the end.


  1. You're really doing this thing, man. I'm very proud and a little terrified at how well you've been able to keep up with the man's entire extended filmography. It's a mite more ambitious than that Christopher Nolan fellow.

    1. Thanks, B!

      Other than those two TV movies, I've seen just about everything now, except Vampires, still to come, and half of Ghosts of Mars, because with the assistance of Jesus and any other deity that'd like to come help out, maybe I'll finish it this time.

      I do need to circle back to Eyes of Laura Mars. And while I suppose that Carpenter's numerous shorts probably don't need a post, I might take a look at the one that won an Academy Award (!).