Two Dissolve writers keep the Escape From New York conversation going...
Scott: Tasha, let’s start with our hero Snake Plissken, played by Kurt Russell, because I feel like the themes, politics, and general attitude of Escape From New York flow from him. This was the first of Russell’s five collaborations with John Carpenter to date, establishing one of the great director-actor partnerships in modern cinema, and building off the director-actor partnerships between John Ford and John Wayne, and especially between Wayne and Howard Hawks. Carpenter offers Russell as an avatar of a particular kind of masculinity: gruff, fiercely individualistic, deeply suspicious of authority. And while Russell’s characters are never precisely the same from movie to movie—the steely Snake is miles away from his cheerfully gregarious Jack Burton in Big Trouble In Little China—they’re generally loners, unwilling to allow anyone, from ideologues to love interests, to keep them from rambling along.
Since Carpenter’s point of view is in solid alignment with Russell’s antihero, that makes the politics of Escape From New York hard to pin down—which can get frustrating, because the science-fiction premise implies so much about crime and punishment in America. Though the film is set in 1997, it was released in 1981, which was “a most violent year” for crime in New York City, if the movies are to be believed. Between this real-world contemporary problem and the fantastical ganglands dreamed up by movies like The Warriors two years earlier, Carpenter imagines a future where Manhattan itself becomes a sprawling prison, cut off by an unscalable wall and bridges pocked with explosives. The key point about this prison is that there are no guards: Everyone must fend for themselves, including scrambling for food drops in Central Park, and there doesn’t seem to be any official concern for the prisoners’ safety. If they get harmed, who cares? They’re criminals.
But beyond feeling some revulsion for this basic situation, Carpenter’s attitude (and Plissken’s) is hard to pin down. Do you see Escape From New York as simply anti-authoritarian (or maybe libertarian?), Tasha, or do you have another read on it?
Tasha: I found the film’s anti-authoritarian streak and profound cynicism about government pretty unmistakable. Plissken is just criminal enough to look like a cool-as-ice outlaw, but his actual crime is glossed over. (Or more accurately, cut from the film for pacing purposes. It’s a deleted scene on the DVD release.) Besides, it’s clear he just stole a bunch of money from a faceless mega-bank in a daring, well-orchestrated heist: In movies, that ranks pretty close to “stealing bread to feed a starving child” or “taking medicine to treat a dying lover” on the Perfectly Acceptable Crimes Committed By Romanticized Rebels scale. The real monster here is New York Police Commissioner Hauk (known villain Lee Van Cleef, c.v. The Good, The Bad And The Ugly), who really seems to enjoy punishing Snake for stealing by making him take on an impossible job in a terrifying setting, with micro-bombs in his neck to guarantee his death if he fails for any reason. Hauk comes across as a slaver and a power-hungry sadist, backed up by endless implacable heavies toting blasters and wearing reflective, face-obscuring armor: He’s more Darth Vader than practical problem-solver Zachary Garber in The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three, even though he’s situationally much closer to Garber. The situation turns Snake into a victimized underdog scrabbling to survive by his wits. There’s no question for me whose side Carpenter is on.
The pro-outlaw bias is in the writing, the iconography (like those shiny black reflective masks on the guards), and in Van Cleef’s glower, but it’s also deep in Russell’s performance. Did you notice that no matter how much he smirks or swaggers, he always looks sad? Given that he didn’t look nearly as tragic in other films of the era, I think he was injecting some extra soul into Snake Plissken, who to me feels like a wounded butterfly trying to play bad-ass, like all the tough-guy banter is a thin costume, and he knows it. Look at his desperate eyes when he finds out about the explosives in his neck, or when The Duke twists the knife in his leg, or when he’s fighting in the boxing ring, or when he gets the explosives deactivated: This is someone who’s legitimately shocked and wounded by the awful things the world does to him. He reminds me a lot of Harrison Ford, who pulled the same trick as Han Solo and Indiana Jones—both capable, smarmy, well-equipped heroes, but with mighty world-weary, vulnerable eyes. Compare this to John Wayne’s steely glare, or your dead-eyed Jason Stathams of today, and there’s a world of difference. Nothing against Statham, but he consciously plays his roles as if he honestly doesn’t feel pain, and doesn’t care; Snake is accessibly human by comparison.
And Carpenter and the film have a similar sympathy for Brain (Harry Dean Stanton), Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine), and Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau), who all have shaky loyalties and questionable sanity, but come across as more relatable and sympathetic than the quavering president they’re all trying to save. They’re in a terrible position, forced on them by an uncaring state that’s ready to write off all criminals as equally unsalvageable garbage. And it seems significant that we don’t know what crimes they committed either—we aren’t invited to judge their pasts, just their present. Am I wrong here? Do you see the “urban terror” represented by wild-in-the-streets bad guys like The Duke as balancing out the sympathetic characters? Do you really think the film might be promoting “Let ’em all kill each other and God can sort it out” as an answer?
Scott: I definitely don’t think the film is promoting “Let ’em all kill each other and God can sort it out,” which is the attitude of the state. And I think we can agree that Carpenter holds the state in contempt. That said, I like your point about the film withholding information about what crimes these prisoners have committed, though I’m not sure that makes them more or less sympathetic—or if that’s even the point. On the one hand, not knowing what they did on the outside allows us to see them as victims of the system; on the other, the “crazies” leave the impression that many of them are barbaric, almost inhuman. I don’t think it’s any great leap to say that Carpenter pins the blame for this situation on the state, which doesn’t care enough to protect its prisoners and maintain order, though Escape From New York does reflect an era when NYC crime rates were at their highest, and it no doubt deliberately stokes those fears in the audience. If New York City was already so crime-ridden, why not just turn Manhattan into a sandbox prison?
Though it wouldn’t have been possible for Carpenter to give a richer impression of prison culture without robbing the film of forward momentum, I think the film could have done more to support such an provocative premise. The idea of an open-air Manhattan prison, where convicts build their own worlds and hierarchies without influence by the authorities, is rife with possibilities that Carpenter doesn’t exploit. This is a science-fiction/action movie that ultimately leans toward the “action” side of the equation, whereas a film like Carpenter’s They Live better elucidates its science-fiction world and feels much more pointed and substantial politically. (To some extent, that may be the difference between the libertarian, all-purpose rebelliousness of Escape From New York and the more sharply leftist, anti-Reagan politics of They Live.)
So what do you make of the cinematic qualities of this film, Tasha? It’s been a few days since I re-watched it, and that simple Carpenter synth score continues to echo through my brain. Very 1980s, but very effective, and it makes me believe that the simpler a movie score is, the better, especially if it has a few memorable notes as a theme. I’m also a huge admirer of Dean Cundey’s photography here and elsewhere. (Because Halloween II is such a letdown from the first one, his exquisite lighting of the hospital—let’s christen it Chiar O. Scuro Memorial Hospital—has gone largely unheralded.) Escape From New York succeeds in making St. Louis look like Manhattan by staying close to the streets and lighting it with patches of darkness and wreckage. The Warriors again comes to mind here: A Manhattan populated only by prisoners would be far less populated than the Manhattan we know, so Carpenter and Cundey light it as a nocturnal wasteland that’s tense with the possibility of violent confrontation.
Tasha: That synthy, ticky Carpenter score is so reminiscent of his indelible Halloween theme. It’s such a signature of his 1980s films in general, as distinctive and instantly identifiable as Woody Allen’s opening titles. Even if Escape completely lacked music, though, I think we’d identify it pretty quickly as a Carpenter movie, for a number of reasons. One is the film’s straight-faced, bleak sense of humor, starting with the New York processing station’s cheerfully monotonal P.A. announcement (by Jamie Lee Curtis) that all prisoners have the option to “terminate” and be cremated on-site rather than going to the city. That’s such a beautiful little piece of world-building, both implying that a non-zero percentage of people would rather die than go where Snake’s about to go, and that the state a) doesn’t give a damn, b) is perfectly willing to help them out, and c) considers this a mechanistic, bureaucratic, normal-day-at-work process. The cynical smirk there approaches They Live levels.
But where I really see Carpenter’s hand at work is in the griminess of the movie, and the sheer percentage of runtime that consists of people running around under cover of darkness. That grime is a Carpenter signature—his worlds are never shiny and polished—and so is that deep blackness you mentioned—not day-for-night blueness, but the kind of lightlessness that really conceals what’s going on onscreen. (I suspect it helps cover up any flaws or cheapness in his set-dressing, props, and costumes, lest they look too grimy.) Films like Dark Star, Halloween, Assault On Precinct 13, Halloween III, Christine, and more all rely heavily on scenes of people lurking in the dark, sneaking into places they aren’t supposed to go, stalking their victims, or otherwise disturbing the night when they’d probably rather be someplace brightly lit and warm. The unfathomable, often secretive darkness in people’s minds and souls is a longtime thematic obsession of Carpenter’s. Sometimes it’s more literal, as in Halloween III or They Live, where friendly faces hide incredibly evil intent. But often, it’s more metaphorical: In Escape, it’s implied that New York is heavily crowded with wild-in-the-streets murderers, but that the president’s arrival has them all holed up and waiting to see what will happen next. It’s a nice excuse for underpopulating a film that can’t afford a cast of thousands, but as you say, it also suggests that every dark building, dim corner, and unlit alley is an ungaugeable, unreadable threat. They could all be empty, or packed with killers just waiting to emerge. Both the dimness and the explanation combine into a smart case of perpetually suggesting more threats than this story, or budget, can actually produce.
For all its intensity and death and deadlines, Escape From New York often feels pretty leisurely, as Snake carefully picks his way around the scene of the president’s crashed plane, looking for clues, or explores a series of dingy, debauched basement rooms, following a tracker, or shares a moment of conversation with a woman trapped far from her safe space. That’s another Carpenter budget-stretching trick: Talk is cheap on film. But it helps suggest a grueling, comfort-free world where there really isn’t much to do but fight, wander, or wait to die. (Or watch a drag revue singing sarcastic songs about life in the NYC prison.)
One last Carpenter signature: Those faux-CGI readouts early in the film, showing an overview of prison-Manhattan, and the glider’s POV as Snake comes in over the Twin Towers, and the mockup of the president’s plane crash. Those are the painstakingly detailed work of John Wash, whose how-I-did-it interview with Art Of The Title remains one of my favorite things on that site. It’s just so striking to me how much work went into practical effects made to look like CGI, when these days we’d obviously just use CGI. Wash worked with Carpenter on a number of his films, helping create their odd retro-futurism.
That’s a long answer to a simple question, but do you have any further notes about familiar Carpenter moves here?
Scott: I think you cover it pretty thoroughly, though not enough can be said about Carpenter’s ability to work around a tight budget. The premises for Assault On Precinct 13 and Halloween are simple enough that they could be carried out cheaply and efficiently, but Dark Star, The Thing, and this film all have premises that would worry most financiers. Carpenter follows a grand cinematic tradition, from German Expressionists to Val Lewton, of covering up budgetary limitations in shadow, though he’s able to add some creative effects to the inexpensive atmosphere. (The Thing has some of my favorite effects in any movie, and you’re right to single out the faux-CGI in Escape From New York, much as I worry that modern audiences might unfairly find them tacky for imitating effects that did not yet exist.) Never once have I watched Escape From New York thinking that the film didn’t adequately represent the city, even while I know Carpenter only shot there for a day (on Liberty Island) and includes the bare minimum of landmarks and signposts to situate the audience. He makes it just comfortable enough for us to play pretend.
Another Carpenter hallmark worth pointing out: He’s a great entertainer, and he wants the audience to have a good time. Movies like Escape From New York and They Live have premises that could be taken very seriously—and I believe are serious in their anti-authoritarian message—but he’s not so highfalutin as to cut a second from that epic Roddy Piper/Keith David fight scene in They Live, or not include a shot of Michael Myers driving a station wagon through the background in Halloween. This time around, I really enjoyed Ernest Borgnine’s role as a cheery cabbie who, as Keith’s Keynote put it, looks like he never left the city after it was cordoned off. He just adjusted to a new situation. (This raises the question of currency and commerce in the prison, but Carpenter doesn’t get around to answering that.) Maybe my favorite Carpenter-style gag in the film has Borgnine chatting up Snake while lighting a Molotov cocktail and casually tossing it out the window to beat back a pack of crazies. All in a day’s work.
What about you, Tasha? Any standout scenes or moments for you? And where do you put Escape From New York in the Carpenter canon? For me, it’s still a tier below my favorites (Halloween, Assault On Precinct 13, Big Trouble In Little China, They Live), because the world of the film still seems underdeveloped, given the wealth of possibilities for social and satirical commentary. But it’s not far off.
Tasha: I’m going to resist any efforts to make me actually rank Carpenter’s films, though I will say They Live is always going to be a personal favorite, for sheer goofiness and that ridiculously long fight scene: Snake’s unwanted throwdown with Slag (Ox Baker) in Escape definitely brings back memories of Rowdy Roddy Piper and Keith David duking it out. And on the other end of the spectrum, Carpenter’s Vampires is one of the worst films I’ve ever seen, even apart from some really exceptionally creepy misogyny and exploitation. There are my bookends: Fill ’em in as you like, commenters.
But speaking of standout moments, it seems appropriate to close with a few words about the ending, which I don’t think is nearly as bleak as Keith reads it. His Keynote suggests Snake has doomed the world by destroying the cassette tape with the fusion formula. But that information had to come from somewhere, and presumably whatever scientist made that tape for broadcast is still out there. The whole plot to rescue the cassette tape more so than the president doesn’t entirely hold together, but within the context of the film, it seems to me that all he’s done is ruin the president’s big photo-op moment, which he certainly deserves. As screen revenges go, it seems pretty petty—but then, Snake is, let’s remember, a small-timer who gets rescued more often than he rescues himself, and who hears, “You? I thought you were dead!” as a greeting more often than any other. Half of his vengeance is just in surviving such a stacked situation, and the other half, to me, amounts to little more than a humiliating public prank. For such an epic setting and setup, Escape From New York has a comfortably small-time hero, and an equally small focus. That’s part of what makes it so endearing: Big town, big challenge, big stakes… but approachably small and personal in the storytelling.
For more on Escape From New York, check out Keith’s Keynote on the film’s predictions about urban calamity. And on Thursday, Nathan returns with Carpenter and Russell’s return, 15 years later, for Escape From L.A.