Thursday, September 23, 2010
Order Out Of Chaos
I’ve got a few bones to pick with the American Cinematheque these days and I say that as somebody who has been faithfully, eagerly going there for years, since back in the days before they made their permanent home at the Egyptian. For one thing, there was the opening night of their recent weekend tribute to John Carpenter at the Egyptian. It was an ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK/L.A. double bill featuring a Q&A with the director in between and, no surprise, the place was pretty much packed. Good for them, except when EXCAPE FROM NEW YORK started I realized that the film was being shown via digital projection. So what does that mean exactly, just a Blu Ray DVD? I don’t know, but I had no interest in seeing how it looked to find out. Now, I’m a reasonable guy but as far as I was concerned this was a very unreasonable thing so I went out to find out what was going on, but the guy at the box office had very little interest in engaging in the subject with me, instead quickly refunding my money without much comment. Sure, I could have stayed. I could even have gone around the corner for a drink and returned for the Q&A and screening of ESCAPE FROM L.A. But the vibe had sort of been killed. If you’re in a theater to see ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK if it isn’t on celluloid with the old school Avco-Embassy logo attached to it then as far as I’m concerned you’re not seeing ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK. Projecting a DVD is fine if you’re hanging out in someone’s backyard or having wine and cheese with friends at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery (annoying hipsters aside) but I’d like to think that the American Cinematheque, which should be the finest outlet for film revivals in the country would be above this sort of thing for a major retrospective unless there is absolutely no other option. But it's a fair question to ask--since they didn't make a big deal about it, is this going to be a more common occurence?
If there really aren’t any available prints, possible since EFNY is a nearly thirty year-old low-budget film without a big studio to watch over its legacy, then that’s some kind of cinematic crime. Which of course isn’t the Cinematheque’s fault but I still call dirty pool on the Egyptian’s part since they stonewalled on answering the question of whether they were showing a print on their Facebook page, burying the answer deep in a thread (saying that Carpenter approved the presentation. I still don’t care) and not even posting a sign at the box office to explain what was being screened and why. You’d think at the very least that would have been the courteous thing to do for members who were there. That digital glare coming from the screen apparent as soon as that MGM.com logo flashed onscreen (enough of a lame giveaway) was like some kind of punishment for my having gone to the trouble to show up at all. So what I’m saying is, if it has to be done, let the customer know. Maybe everyone who stayed had a great time, maybe I was the only one who complained and left. It doesn’t mean I was wrong. The one person I talked to who stayed didn’t seem too jazzed by the quality of what he’d seen and from what I heard the Sunday night screening of HALLOWEEN apparently also shown via Blu Ray. I’m glad I didn’t leave the house for that.
My other minor issue with the Cinematheque these days is how in their schedule for the Carpenter series their listing of it referred to his BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, screened on Saturday that weekend with THEY LIVE, as “a great guilty pleasure” and this just bugged me right from the get-go. What exactly makes BIG TROUBLE IN LITTE CHINA a guilty pleasure? It’s not a so-bad-it’s-good sort of thing. It’s not a film that you laugh at. It’s a film that’s exactly what it’s supposed to be, a fun and wild ride with characters you have a blast spending time with. What exactly is the purpose of deeming something a guilty pleasure, anyway? Is it meant to mitigate guilt over not watching RULES OF THE GAME instead? Is RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK a guilty pleasure? Is NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD? THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY? BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA is a massively enjoyable film that had the bad luck of being a huge flop when it was first released over July 4th weekend in 1986 (I was in camp at the time so I can’t be blamed), but the cult has only grown stronger through the years. I could believe that somebody seeing it for the first time now wouldn’t believe you if you said that it came in 12th place for its opening weekend (seriously, 12th! Even then I never got what the world saw in THE KARATE KID PART II). It’s not a perfect film, I will say that, and I could imagine a first-time viewer getting a little lost in all the hysteria onscreen. But it plays great with a crowd and I’m not entirely kidding when I say that part of me wishes there could always be a theater somewhere playing BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA. For the record, I did go back on Saturday night where a brand new 35mm print screened and it looked absolutely gorgeous (THEY LIVE wasn't a new print but looked just great), all the proof needed to show how beautiful celluloid can look and how joyous it can be to see this legendary piece of entertainment under the best possible conditions. Now, I haven’t been everywhere and done everything and it’s not Carpenter’s best film but it is just about his most successful at creating pure, unadulterated enjoyment. So is calling it a guilty pleasure for being exactly the film it should be with all the craft imaginable just a touch disrespectful, as if the Cinematheque is trying to make some sort of excuse for showing a popcorn movie?
As much fun as it is, I can see how it may have been difficult for Fox to correctly market this film that may conceivably have been goofier than the studio would have wanted and, by extension, how it may have been difficult to get people to see it. I can imagine it being pitched as a kung fu version of RAIDERS with lots of mystical elements (and, obviously, I have as little experience with the Asian films that may have inspired BIG TROUBLE as I do with the old time serials that RAIDERS took a cue from) tossed into its own unique tone—kind of spoofy, but not really with lots of action along with the humor. But for a first time viewer it can be a little like getting thrown right into the deep end with very little getting adequately understood beyond the mumbo-jumbo and a pre-credit sequence added after the fact to try to explain a few things not really helping (it probably wouldn’t matter if you just started the movie on the first shot of Burton’s truck on the road). In truth I still kind of glaze over some plot points of BIG TROUBLE and focus on the characters, laughs and mayhem but of course I’ve seen it many times by now so I don’t really need to worry about the plot anymore. It may be flawed but it delivers a huge amount of enjoyment and there’s nothing to feel guilty about it saying that. As Jack Burton would say, it’s all in the reflexes.
I’m not even sure, can I actually summarize the plot? Truck driver Jack Burton (Kurt Russell), having recently made a shipment into San Francisco, tags along with pal Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) to meet Wang’s childhood sweetheart Miao Yin (Suzee Pai), who is just traveling to America for the first time. Members of the vicious Chinatown street gang the Lords of Death turn up out of nowhere and kidnap her sending Jack and Wang on a chase to Chinatown where they soon find themselves in the middle of a vicious gang war and a presumed encounter with the reclusive David Lo Pan (James Hong). Soon, with help from lawyer Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall), the mysterious Egg Shen (Victor Wong) and others they soon realize that Miao Yin’s green eyes have made her desirable to Lo Pan for reasons of his own which they have yet to learn and they soon set out underneath the streets of Chinatown to get her back.
Well, that’s sort of it and I know that I’ve left a lot out but, hey, you didn’t come here to read a plot synopsis anyway. Begun as a western then changed to a modern day setting through extensive rewrites (unique screenplay credits: Screenplay by Gary Goldman & David Z. Weinstein, Adaptation by W.D. Richter—he’s who is really responsible for what’s here) BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA races through many sections until exposition is spewed out so fast it can be tough to keep track of it all and eventually all you can really do is smile and go along for the ride if you’re willing. Do all the details matter? Probably not. All I know is that I’ve seen it so many times in revival screenings and on video that by this point I’m just happy to hang out with these characters. There’s so much going on in any given scene with Carpenter’s Scope frame maybe more cluttered than usual (photographed by Dean Cundey) that it’s easy to forget how much fun certain elements are ahead of time—on this viewing I found myself taking extreme pleasure in Egg Shen’s sardonic way of revealing just about any piece of information he has to dole out (“Now for some more bad news. READY?”). The enormous skill displayed in how Carpenter stages his action or even just people getting from one place to another is also something to take pleasure in.
When Jack Burton swings the Pork Chop Express into a tiny alley where he and Wang fully get swept up into things it’s a pretty obvious backlot set as if Carpenter doesn’t want to deal with any kind of reality at all here more than he has to, having fun creating this immensely stylized, foreign world that the American Caricatures of Jack Burton, Gracie Law and Kate Burton’s Margo Litzenberger of the Berkeley People’s Herald find themselves in the middle of. And through the slivers of mysticism are miles and miles of quotably addictive dialogue (Don’t you want to hear more of what Jack Burton spews into his CB when he’s out there on the road? I know I do) and just about everyone in the movie with lines gets to say something which at the very least gets me to smile if not laugh out loud. Kurt Russell as Burton with his John Wayne-twang remains a surprising performance in how completely willing the actor is to look like a total idiot, never really wanting to accept how “out of place” he is and yet at the same time the actor has possibly never been more likable. Of course, when he’s finally given the chance to be ultra-cool it happens to be when he’s got lipstick slathered all over his face and Russell has my eternal respect for being willing to do that. Burton doesn’t understand the strange world swirling around him (“China is here”) but he does develop a certain appreciation of what he sees as the pillars of heaven are shaken while remaining completely and totally himself, an individual at sea in a very strange place—may the wings of liberty never lose a feather, indeed. Never without something to say or another glance to toss at somebody there’s probably not another Russell character I’d rather hang out and have a beer with—let’s face it, Snake Plissken probably wouldn’t have much use for you and me. Carpenter never seems to take any of this seriously, while at the same time treating this universe of Chinese mysticism with total respect. The pacing really is nonstop through every scene so by the time the film reaches its huge showdown climax it always gets a massive smile out of me.
The enjoyment is there in every single scene with every bit of invention from all involved and let me be clear: I do love this movie which has a genuine desire to entertain, a complete love of cinema without a bit of cynicism but looking at things from a screenplay point of view there are a few small problems I have. John Carpenter’s films have always been somewhat emotionally aloof with the exception of STARMAN and maybe even PRINCE OF DARKNESS but this seems to go with his rock ‘n roll approach to things. The more I think about it the more the steady, tub-thump rhythms associated with his movies in the scores he composed make his pacing seem like that of a metronome. In BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA once the film hits the ten-minute mark that metronome is instantly sped up and kept there for the duration, making things move fast but maybe it could have used a little more variation in the pacing and honestly, every now and then I do wish that it could just ease up for a moment or two. To use one of the most famous examples from the 80s blockbuster formula, BACK TO THE FUTURE is a pretty shallow movie as well but Marty McFly’s attempts to get his parents together give it an emotional hook for people to follow and I’m not sure that BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA really has that. Dennis Dun’s Wang speaks convincingly about his relationship with Miao Yin but considering her abduction is the reason the entire plot is taking place she’s never a real character, given next to no actual dialogue and it’s almost easy to forget just why everything is actually happening (on the DVD commentary with Carpenter and Russell the two men allow that any criticism saying no one ever seems in jeopardy is kind of valid). Even the bad guys never come off as all that evil, as much as the dialogue tries to convince us otherwise.
While watching it this time I also felt the desire to have a little more screen time between Kurt Russell’s Jack Burton and Kim Cattrall’s Gracie Law to allow those two an extra chance to spar with each other and maybe set off a few extra sparks. The chemistry they display in their scenes shows they could do it but Carpenter never seems to want to pause for this sort of thing. I don’t really care about clarifying the plot anymore but I would like to spend more time with the characters and considering the running time is 99 minutes it probably wouldn’t damage things too much. It’s all subjective of course but the deleted scenes on the DVD feature a few extra bits that I honestly think would have helped the film and made these characters even more fun to hang with if they had been included (for one thing, I like when Jack Burton pauses in mid-conversation to compliment Margo on the paper she works for). W.D. Richter’s screenplay for the 1973 comedy SLITHER (containing much of the sort of dialogue in this film and which deserves to be much better known than it is) also has engaging characters mixed up in a plot that seems to go in circles and it’s lots of fun too…but while watching BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, a film I’ll freely say in casual conversation that I love, it’s just good enough that I can’t help but wish it had something extra to make it just a little more satisfying.
It’s a massively enjoyable cast to hang out with as they infiltrate the Wing Kong Exchange. Kurt Russell as Jack Burton (“Who?”) is a total blast, Kim Cattrall, maybe never sexier, is enjoyably feisty adding the right touch of 30s screwball flavor and Dennis Dun’s earnestness is a big help in getting us to believe a lot of what we see. James Hong, in one of his very best roles ever, displays perfect timing through all of his careful dialogue as Lo Pan and Victor Wong doesn’t have a single moment where you can guess how he might say a given line. There’s something about his very presence that though his character isn’t supposed to be a God, if that was revealed at the end I could believe it. Kate Burton (who I’m pretty sure I just spotted at the Hollywood Trader Joe’s) spits out all of her lengthy dialogue effortlessly as Margo and Donald Li’s sly likeability as Eddie, new maitre’d at the Dragon of the Black Pool (“And a whole lot more”) is the perfect example of a side character who I look forward to seeing more each time I return to this movie. Carpenter’s score, in association with Alan Howarth, is perfect for the feel of that sped up metronome with the keyboard sound being just right to combine the familiar feel of the director’s approach with this strange new world. And the main title theme under the opening credits as Kurt Russell drives into San Francisco but never heard otherwise is so damn cool and I’d almost be embarrassed to say how often I cue up the piece on my ipod just for the pure pleasure of hearing it once again.
And it’s a pleasure like that which forever sticks in the brain with BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA along with the faint vibe of the mystic heard as Jack Burton walks off into the night at the end, a vibe which stays alive every time I return to this movie. And seeing that beautiful print was such a massive treat I hope that what happened at the Egyptian on that Friday night was an aberration. Here’s the thing: I know there’s no stopping digital projection. For one thing there’s the growing number of films being shot in digital, the number of theater chains projecting in digital, the difficulty that can arise for a revival house to sometimes secure actual film prints. There’s no stopping the progress of technology for better or for worse. But beyond simple nostalgia I honestly think there might be something to the theory that something can be more pleasing to the eye when the flicker of celluloid is there that makes viewing the film that much more alive, to say nothing how it’s that much more of a reminder of what it was like to see the film when it was first released. I don’t know. It’s just a theory. But as somebody on my Twitter feed said, “I'd rather watch a terrible print of a film at a repertory screening than a Blu-Ray” and that’s the way I’ll feel until the black blood of the earth engulfs us all.
And I also have a feeling that there might be a point in the future when projecting on film may be the more specialized way of doing things and theaters that actually choose go to the trouble of doing it well will be that much more high-end as a result. The quality of film prints is still there, certain directors are still insisting in shooting on film and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’m seeing film projected at the Arclight much more than a year ago when digital seemed to be getting more common there. Just as the New Beverly does, the American Cinematheque should really make it a point to focus on projecting film just as they should strive to be the model for any type of revival cinema in the country. (I’m flashing on Gina Gershon in THE INDSIDER: “Our standards have to be higher than anyone else’s because we are the standard for everybody else.”) Otherwise it’s just, well, video projection and I’ve got a few friend’s houses I can go to for that. And since the new print of BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA that they did screen was as immaculate as it was, I say screw digital projection.
The irony in all this is something that I didn’t even point out earlier. BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA was a huge flop when it was first released way back in the summer of TOP GUN and ALIENS. Given Hollywood accounting, who knows if it’s even gone into profit by now yet the demand for it is obviously strong enough that Fox struck a new 35mm print so it could be seen as good as possible unlike how ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK was presented. But John Carpenter’s BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA has obviously lasted and it’s almost absurd just how purely, cinematically enjoyable it is, a display of its director maybe having fun in creating the world it presents in a way that was never really seen again. Even if I do have a few problems with it. And those problems have nothing to do with guilt. Besides, anyone who really does love movies would know that there should never be anything to feel guilty about them anyway. Hopefully this film will continue to last, defying the expectations of ’86, just as film itself will hopefully last and defy the expectations of all the people expecting the antiseptic nature of digital projection—or, as it should be called, video—in the future. But as Jack Burton himself would say as he turns down the chance for one last kiss from Gracie Law, Never can tell.
“Ok. You people sit tight. Hold the fort and keep the home fires burning. And if we’re not back by dawn…call the President.”