Wednesday, October 18, 2006

135. Halloween Roundup (6):
If I Were a Carpenter

I'm not entirely sure it's all that much fun being John Carpenter. I don't mean as a person; for all I know, life is a cheery affair for him, filled with warmth and love and so on. And I also don't mean as a "Master of Horror" (as Showtime calls him, one among a number who directed a series of more-or-less Tales from the Crypt for the channel)--at least, not exactly. You know, that "Oooh, it must be scary being you!" gag interviewers pull on professional Gothicists. I'm just thinking of the need to keep at it, regardless of vocation, while dealing with a bright past, a mushy middle, then ... What? Fingers crossed, hopes springing eternal? Or just made-for-TV short subjects? And then there's the issue of a long life and a short rope: How many more of these things, one wonders, can Carpenter manage? I just saw "Cigarette Burns," his Showtime entry, and it seems to be, if not spelling out the terms of a weary capitulation, at least gazing at the long walk down the dark corridor, with the distance receding but never disappearing, and the end, while always in sight, seen not in relief but exhausted surrender.

A collector of rare films (played by Udo Kier; now there's another tired fellow-traveler; still, he manages to keep that doll's-eye glisten while talking his way around his accent, oily charm mingled uneasily with just-below-the-surface panic) asks a movie-theater director, Kirby Sweetman (I kid you not) to find a print of a short film, Le Fin Absolue du Monde, which purportedly turns its viewers into homicidal/suicidal maniacs. This is meta-narrative at its unwholesome "best": a short film about a short film about death. End leading to end. Carpenter does a good job of capturing the insistent demands film makes on the cinephiliac--culminating on Udo Kier's final sacrifice for--well, not art, but the art-lover's wish to be overwhelmed by art, to enter it, to become it. I will not give away the moment--not that it's something you should look forward to--but be warned: Like all Grand Guignol exhibitions, this one is at once supremely silly and thoroughly damning, as always a haymaker, but also a sucker punch. "Cigarette Burns" indicts the viewer, laughs at--while feeding--the voyeur, and discourses with surprising clarity on obsession.

So I'm still left with an image of John Carpenter slogging through what has become a Halloween fog, filled with princes of darkness, ghosts, things, body bags, and the damned, all cradled in the mouth of madness like one last bitter treat--and way in the background, the first King of this long cinematic trail, Carpenter's Elvis, "slumped up against the drain," as Springsteen puts it, "with a whole lot of trouble running through his veins." "Cigarette Burns" proves Carpenter can still name that tune, while piercing our ears with excessively high notes. A nasty little business, but it seems the only one he has.

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