Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

“I Heard You Were Dead”: What the Career of John Carpenter Demonstrates about the Nature of Legacy

I write all my fiction to movie soundtracks.  Instrumentals only—lyrics in my ear are too distracting while I’m trying to compose words, and I usually wind up tuning that noise out entirely, in which case:  What’s the point?  At the beginning of a project, I’ll choose a good mix of selections from movies that represent the tone or theme I’m going for, then compile a playlist that cycles in the background—turned up just enough to register but not actively listen to—for as long as it takes to complete the manuscript; that playlist serves as an aural compass, or “temp track,” keeping me in touch with what the world I’m creating should look and sound like at all times.

Just the other week, I finished the first draft of what will be my debut novel, Escape from Rikers Island.  The influences on EFRI are too numerous to quantify, but include novelists Richard Price and Elmore Leonard, as well as filmmaker John Carpenter.  In both title and premise, Escape from Rikers Island owes a great creative debt to Carpenter’s exploitation thrillers Escape from New York and Assault on Precinct 13.  His movies, love ‘em or otherwise, have a look and feel all their own, owed in part to his eerie, synth-driven soundtracks; he is one of very few directors who’s scored most of his own movies, so writing EFRI to his music seemed like a no-brainer.

As fate would have it, right around the time I began the draft, Carpenter released his first album of original material, Lost Themes, so EFRI got a soundtrack of its very own, with music I now almost exclusively associate with my work of fiction rather than any specific film of his.  One of the cuts, “Vortex,” even became, to my mind, the novel’s unofficial theme song:

John Carpenter is touring this summer to promote Lost Themes and its just-released follow-up, Lost Themes II, and I went to see him perform last month at the Orpheum Theatre here in Los Angeles with my friend and fellow horror enthusiast Adam Aresty.  Adam is a burgeoning master of horror himself, having written the literal bee movie Stung (now streaming on Netflix), the chilling short story “Recovery” (which evokes—and I mean this as the highest compliment—Ambrose Bierce’s 1890 literary classic “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”), and the brand-new sci-fi novella The Communication Room.  Don’t take my word for it, though:  Sample for yourself some of the free fiction on his Web site, including one of my favorites, the James M. Cain–style noir tale “Wrought Iron”.  If you like what you read and you live in the Los Angeles area, perhaps consider coming out to Book Soup on Sunset Boulevard on Tuesday, August 2nd at 7:00 p.m. to hear Adam read from The Communication Room.

Screenwriter and author Adam Aresty (photography by Tae Kwon)

Screenwriter and author Adam Aresty; photography by Tae Kwon

Over the course of the show, Carpenter and his band played a mix of classic movie themes—Escape, Assault, They Live, Big Trouble, Halloween—interspersed with original compositions—“Vortex,” “Mystery,” “Distant Dream,” “Wraith,” “Night.”  Carpenter himself is a fascinating, unpretentious, well-spoken man, as any of his DVD audio commentaries will attest (no one records better commentary tracks, and the ones he’s done with frequent collaborator Kurt Russell are the cream of the crop), though he does on occasion have a tendency to come off as a bit curmudgeonly, and I say that from firsthand experience, having seen him speak at screenings at the Egyptian Theatre here in Hollywood.  But he couldn’t have been in better spirits the night we saw him at the Orpheum, bopping to his own beats behind the keyboard at center stage, finding the humor in his horror (he cautioned everyone to be careful driving home before playing the last selection of the evening, “Christine Attacks (Plymouth Fury)” from Christine), and by all evidence reveling in the spirited energy and enthusiasm radiating from the crowd.

Listening in succession to all those dread-inducing themes that helped define the childhood of everyone in that packed house, performed to nicely edited montages of their respective movies on a screen mounted over the stage, it occurred to me that Carpenter is enjoying more than a mere career renaissance at this moment.  The audience had come, myself included, to celebrate his many culturally prominent films—and he’s made his share.  Like so many of the New Hollywood movement, he was on a winning streak in the early years of his career, producing genre classics like Halloween, Escape from New York, The Thing, Starman, and Big Trouble in Little China before directing a string of commercial and critical flops.  It looked for a while as though Carpenter’s star had dimmed—like his best work was behind him all too soon, and that he would be relegated to the footnotes of popular culture.  And unlike my pen pal Wes Craven, Carpenter never found a generation-defining crowd-pleaser like Scream later in his career to reaffirm his cultural relevance, his lofty position in the pantheon of horror masters.  He’d become that guy who’d made a few entertaining flicks some years back, sure, but what had he done for us lately?

Filmmaker and composer John Carpenter

Filmmaker and composer John Carpenter

But something remarkable happens once you’ve been around long enough, once you’ve made it through that mid-career slump that affects so many commercially successful artists:  Over time, audiences completely forget about the creative misses in your repertoire; they only remember—and care to celebrate—the hits.  Nobody thinks of Memoirs of an Invisible Man or Village of the Damned or Ghosts of Mars when Carpenter’s name in invoked; rather, they recall Michael Myers scaring holy hell out of them, or Kurt Russell’s one-eyed antihero (“Call me Snake”), or Roddy Piper and Keith David’s five-and-a-half minute slugfest over—get this—David’s refusal to try on Piper’s sunglasses in They Live.  Such shared cultural touchstones are what Carpenter’s name now conjures.  This is as true of art as it is of the artist:  Both Star Trek and The X-Files are now rightfully regarded as groundbreaking science-fiction series; no one dwells on the fair share of misfire episodes both shows produced.  Careers, oeuvres, presidencies, marriages, sports teams—all are evaluated, for the most part, on their totalities rather than any one victory or defeat.  Legacies are about how you did in the long run, and even trying and failing on occasion counts for something in the final appraisal.

That’s an important lesson we could all stand to keep in mind about our own failures:  Even though they often (usually) far outnumber our successes, no one in the end really commits them to memory.  My father, for instance, was an objectively controversial man who had a singular knack for alienating loved ones; he was also kind, exceptionally bright, and laugh-out-loud funny.  It’s been almost fifteen years since he passed, and I’ve noticed a wonderful trend at all the Christmases and family gatherings that have been held in that time:  Everyone has a John Carlin story, and they’re all told fondly, with great humor.  People recount with delight the outrageous things he said and did, and hardly anyone even recalls—certainly not with any lingering bitterness—some of his more contentious qualities.  Time does have a way of forgiving our shortcomings, even if only posthumously.

And so it pleases me that, like the hero of Escape from New York himself, reports of Carpenter’s premature demise have been greatly exaggerated—that while we commemorate his canon, he continues to augment it in ways both welcome and unexpected.  I’ve written before about the influence Spielberg and particularly Lucas have had on my sensibilities—theirs were some of the first movies to shape my receptive imagination—but while they were celebrating American dreams (E.T.) and idealistic heroes (Luke Skywalker), Carpenter was depicting American nightmares (Halloween) and disillusioned antiheroes (Snake Plissken).  Both Carpenter and Lucas/Spielberg were recasting the same fantasy and sci-fi influences of their upbringings in their own image, they simply made them serve altogether different worldviews; the former’s cynicism tempered the latter’s optimism.  I’m grateful to all of them for allowing me to see the world through their eyes; we need more Luke Skywalkers and more Snake Plisskens (in reality, I mean—not the cinema.  Please:  No more remakes or sequels).

"Welcome to the human race" (Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken)

“Welcome to the human race”:  Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken

Perhaps it’s unfair to categorize Carpenter as cynical, just because he trades in horror and dystopian science fiction.  As a teenager, I can say it wasn’t cynicism I responded to in his work so much as a genuine renegade spirit, one unquestionably emblemized by Snake Plissken but evident in so many of his movies.  One of the things that contributed to my disenchantment with the business of screenwriting was that you have, necessarily (or so they insist), these managers and agents who weigh-in endlessly on your material—what you should be writing, how it should be written—and the thing is, they’re not offering suggestions; they’re issuing marching orders.  And there we are, young and eager-to-please, and they know this about us, and use it to keep us in line.  And I’d hit a point where I stopped trusting their counsel, for all sorts of reasons, and wanted to follow my own instincts—yet still lacked the courage to do so.  It was right around this time I saw an hour-long interview with Carpenter on Robert Rodriguez’s The Director’s Chair, where, among other pearls, he had this to say:

“I’m here for a short period of time on this earth, and, by God, I want to do it the way I want to do it.  And it may not be what you like and what you want, but fuck you.”

That’s vintage Carpenter right there—his Hawksian ethos of go-it-alone individualism expressed with blunt simplicity, same as his filmmaking style.  And it was everything I needed to hear at that moment in time:  After too many years spent as the dutiful, deferential screenwriter, I needed to channel my inner Snake—my inner Carpenter—once again.  (Turning forty certainly played its part in that:  You do stop giving a fuck what others think of you at a certain age.)  To that end, Escape from Rikers Island has been the happiest artistic experience of my life.  When I was in college, I had the freedom to creatively explore any subject I wanted, but I brought no discipline to the table—no craft.  Later, I had the skill set, but I was hamstrung by all the opinions—the shouting voices—telling me to write this but not that, to write it this way but not that way.  With EFRI, I’ve had the best of both worlds:  The autonomy to write it the way I think it should be written, and the confidence in my craft to know I could transpose precisely what I had in my head onto the page.  And maybe the book will never find a sizable readership—no one can control what does and doesn’t catch fire—but if I fail, I fail doing it my way, and I can live with that.  To fail doing it somebody else’s way is the worst kind of defeat.

It isn’t merely Carpenter’s aesthetics from which Escape from Rikers Island takes a cue; it’s his thematics, too:  The novel is about a young police detective who’s never been his own man, never stood up against the masses, as it were, and learns over the course of the story that individualism, like any ideology, comes at a price.  It’s a story about both the merits and costs of going your own way—of having the courage to face the consequences, even when justified or necessary, of saying “fuck you.”  Only fifteen-year-olds respond to unconditional antiauthoritarianism, hence the reason those meatheaded Fast & Furious movies are so popular with that particular demographic; I wanted, on the other hand, to explore the ethical and emotional complexities of such a philosophical stance:  The protagonist of EFRI is an idealist in a cynical world, who finds his idealism tested by hardened colleagues, violent gangbangers, and, yes, even cannibalistic monsters (‘cause what’s a good story without them?).  He’s not Snake Plissken, but rather a character of my own imagination, borne from my own experiences and instincts, trying to survive my kind of horror story, one I was lucky enough to have John Carpenter score—if only for myself.

4 Comments

  1. Great post, Sean. Congrats on completing your first draft and loving the creative freedom and process. I used to write to music and don’t as much now though this post made me want to try it again.I listented to Vortex and can see how it might inform the mood of your writing.

    This is the first little glimpse of the main character in EFRI and characters hook me. I not only like the character’s arc, but I like that it’s organic – it comes from inside you. Those are frequently the stories that I zero in on because the characters feel so real. I’m excited for you and look forward to the read. 🙂

    • Thanks, Diana! My wife is less enchanted with “Vortex” (“From John Carpenter’s new album Unlistenable,” she’ll joke) and my dog leaves the room whenever Lost Themes is on — I think it gives him the creeps!

      Escape from Rikers Island was originally written about five years ago as a screenplay — we had Ice Cube attached to star and produce, in fact — but I’m actually glad now it never got made, because it is a much better novel. Even though it’s high-concept, with zombies and a lot of action, at its core it has always been about the volatile relationship — and tenuous alliance — between the story’s hero (a white detective) and antihero (a black gang leader). In a way, the story has (sadly) become more relevant (or at least more topical) since Ferguson, and the broader canvas of prose really allowed me to plumb the psychological depth of the characters and thematic complexity of their dynamic.

      My great mentor David Freeman, whom I’ve mentioned before, taught me all about the deceptively complex art of transformational arcs, and I spend a lot of time in the outlining stage making sure all the prominent characters have clearly defined arcs, and that they work in tandem like counterparts in a Swiss watch: one character arcs, thereby pushing the another character through his arc, and so on. (Kind of like in Star Wars, the way Luke’s idealism compels Han to adopt ethics, and then Leia is so taken with Han’s personal growth that she wrestles with her own reluctance to be emotionally vulnerable as she finds herself falling in love with him.) EFRI was very consciously designed in the “hero’s journey” mode — it’s a Greek underworld odyssey, basically — and if you’re going to tell an old-fashioned story in this postnarrative era, you’ve got to give it some authentic emotional resonance, and you achieve that through meaningful character arcs. So, I’m excited to get this baby out in the world and see how it plays!

      Thanks, as always, Diana, for the encouragement!

      Sean

  2. Another winner, Sean, and another post that takes me back to my youth. I am old enough to remember when VCRs were new. My cousin lived for films, especially horror movies, and we spent many a pitch black night with Laurie Strode and Michael Myers. We’d scare the crap out of each other, sneaking up with our arms raised high, shrieking “weet-weet-weet” in our teen slasher voices as often as we possibly could, which was often. We were such dorks! What a weird happy memory, huh? The movie on its own was one thing, but that piano-mega bass soundtrack? Perfection. The way you remembered your father here was a neat tribute in an unexpected place. That we remember the good and think less of the less pretty stuff is a terrific takeaway.

    • Thanks so much, Wendy, for the sweet and thoughtful comment.

      You know, I was just remarking to my friend Jeff Ritchie that I didn’t even have a VCR in my house till I was over ten years old, so the only way to see movies was either A) in theaters or B) when they aired on TV. Every October, WPIX in New York would broadcast the first three Halloween movies for the holiday, which was how we first experienced them (I was a bit too young to have seen the original in theaters). Keep in mind, this was a heavily edited-for-content version, and yet still my sister and I would sit on our parents’ bed, clutching each other as tears of terror streamed down our faces, watching John Carpenter’s Halloween! Of course, we never at any point turned it off! It was so fucking scary, but we couldn’t look away. As much of a sense of wonder as the Spielberg/Lucas movies of that era filled us with, Carpenter instilled such an equally pervasive sense of dread! And if you watch now any of the slasher films that tried to emulate what he did (like any of those hacky Friday the 13th movies), you really appreciate the skill and artistry Carpenter brought to the genre; he was, if you’ll forgive the terrible pun, a cut above.

      They were happy memories indeed. It was nice to be able to celebrate them at the concert last month — and here again on the blog. Thanks for joining me!

      Sean

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