Free lunch, the human imagination and a lifetime of John Carpenter Movies

A still from John Carpenter’s Big trouble in Little China which I am using with no permission what so god damn ever

There is a great essay written by Dr Richard E. Cytowic, printed at the back of his successful book The Man Who Tasted Shapes, called “free lunch and the human imagination”

In it, the incredibly interesting Dr Cytowic waxes metaphysical about the idea that the human brain uses pretty much the same physical resources whether it’s engaged or bored— whether it’s having it’s greatest idea, or farting. He discusses how it is that while patterns of energy use change across the brain depending on cognitive activity, the net energy usage is almost constant, and so therefore it costs no more “energy in” in terms of glucose and electrical impulses to write an opera than it does to take a shit.

With this, Dr Cytowic — who really is a charming dude — makes a really nice case for the idea that imagination is a part of physical processes in the universe which we have yet to understand.

It’s possible that I just really like this idea — it conforms to a lot of things about the universe that I have found to be the case. It’s certainly probable that he mentions farting and shitting less than I do while I’m paraphrasing him. But either way it’s one of my favourite ways of trying to explain why I find imagination so important, and why I often feel our language is structured to devalue it, despite the amounts of money we traditionally pay for it.

Yeah, I thought he was dead, too but you know what? It’s very hard to say anything bad about this movie. Just try.

It’s also likely that I value imagination so much because I grew up in Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s which were periods of time and place in which imagination not only had no value in day to day life for ordinary people but it was in fact a burden. Intelligent young men quickly became bitter alcoholics and intelligent young women disappeared into the Magdalene Laundries: a gruesome country with a serious child abuse problem which was very much locked into a postcolonial process of beating the imagination out of its children.

And so imagination seemed subversive: certainly it was seen as a problem by authorities and so in the late 70s and early 1980s Punk and the street Aesthetic was such a powerful force in visual design running from the VHS store to the Album cover. And indeed nostalgia for these times and the types of movies that survive from this time is understandable to a degree. The post apocalyptic aesthetic became this great signifier of counterculture and this strange meeting place for so many people back then:

But what so many people seem unable to discuss in the nostalgia for this time is how *so little* back then was actually any good at all. People talk about “movies you got on VHS back in the day” as if there was no texture to it, as if it was all one, blue lit, high extravaganza of trashy culture.

Was it, though? It really didn’t feel like it at the time.

These were not just some other movie at the time: these were John Freaking Carpenter movies and nostalgia will never recapture the pure inventive craftmanship that distinguished them from a sea of dross

There was a particular type of film made between say, 1970 and 1990 that was a product of the mainstream english language studio system, but only in that is was attempting to *get in* to that system as efficiently as possible, and had so made some truly genius moves in terms of production design and getting ideas to screen.

These movies were all over the place: you can call them “cult movies” but this is simply the idea that people liked them — the term is meaningless over a decade like the 1980s, you might as well say Top Gun was a cult movie. But more than that: the term cult movie implies that the only reason to appreciate these movies is to participate in a club, a gang, a society that remakes the rules in order for these films to be any good: a fragile fan club that rejects objective reality.

I resent the idea — frequently put about — that John Carpenters movies fall into this area, and I am fucking tired of having these discussions. I object to referring to his movies as cult or B or any qualifier simply because I think of them as some of the greatest movies ever made and that’s that.

Okay bundle up guys, pack the kerosene.

And you know: it’s easy to prove this by jumping straight in with his straight up masterpiece, The Thing. It’s particularly easy to take the perfect movie — a movie so incredibly important for how a generation not only came to see movies but also themselves as social creatures — and beat someone over the head with it. And you know, I’m trying to write more so maybe I just will devote a few thousand words some day to how that film changed my life.

But today, I’m not going to. Because finally after all these years people understand that this movie was past compare, so you can discuss that one among yourselves. The thing is something that is a pure bolt from the blue, a movie that leaves me envious of anyone who hasn’t seen it.

And I’m not gonna discuss other strokes of beloved Genius like Prince of Darkness or Dark Star because people understand the great sense of intellect and humor behind the darkness, and it’s easy to discuss how great these barnstormers are. Again, perhaps I’ll get to them soon, I do feel that I owe them at least an essay for being so formative, so amazing to watch and watch again.

It might be more appropriate to instead consider his later work, which people tend to be slower to praise or defend. The poorly received Ghosts of Mars and Vampires have given me many an hour of Pub conversation explaining to people how they simply do not understand the movie, and that to take John Carpenter Movies and say “it’s all dudes” or “these dudes are a bit misogynistic” is like saying “those superheroes look a bit gay in those pants”

We noticed, mate.

And as someone who criticises movies frequently for being all white men or whatever, I’ll definitely write in future about the movies where it’s all white men and that’s good, and you know that will include the thing as it’s main structure.

But I digress:

Speaking of looking a bit gay, there’s me in a very impromptu snake plissken outfit with the man himself

Because you see it’s like this: either you understand comics, and you understand popular culture, and you understand John Carpenter, or you’re not making the necessary strides in understanding, and you’re never going to. I genuinely feel sorry for you: but I’m not gonna discuss these movies in order to point out all the things that everyone else has noticed about them that makes them genius.

Nope:

Instead I’m gonna own my love of a Carpenter movie that has gotten me into so many arguments in bars it’s just not true. And that’s VAMPIRES, a movie which I clearly remember catching a DVD copy of back when I lived in dublin, thrown into the audience at some horror festival or other.

And you know, Immediately I finished watching this movie I had my first argument about it, which ended with me very simply going “I don’t understand that attitude, the fact is, if this movie was made in 1972 and nobody ever heard of it and it was dubbed from Italian you’d love it, you pretentious hipster cunt”

And it’s tempting to leave the argument there. It really is.

But you see here’s the thing, gentle reader.

I’m always unsurprised when people who refer to John Carpenter movies as cult movies and who talk about them like they’re some kind of classic candy bar or retro hair color say they don’t like later movies like Ghosts of Mars or Vampires; I think that not only are they missing the point but they are missing the thing that genuinely places these movies above horror canon and into the area of Sagas, of Epic Narratives of the 20th century —

It’s like: we’re here again. This is the same bunch that fought the thing. The same bunch that tried to analyse satan. We’re back on the edge of rational, shared experience and the team is going bad. Hell, maybe the team always was bad.

Not your friendly neighbourhood delivery service

There is something about the broken down, ugly chemistry between Lee, Baldwin and Woods. It’s entirely possible that none of this film is acting and everyone in it is in fact just improvising based on their own warped personalities but the stench of moral ambiguity and nihilism is high, from the very first establishing shot of a skewered vampire dragged out of a nest jump cutting to a short skirted sexworker entering a motel room.

McCready for all his reliability was a nasty drunk and probably a terrible human being. Snake Plissken was not a nice guy for understandable reasons. But these are desperate, sweaty men who will stop at nothing and as the movie continues we realise that in the larger picture, humanity is in the wrong and so are they. Malik — a piece of production design that went unappreciated in the post Blade vampire era — was a convincing dark foil to their ambiguity.

And so sure: Carpenter is as usual delivering an outrageous script that effortlessly builds a convincingly unlikable world and pits a couple of unlikable people against it. And as usual that feeling you get from someone writing the soundtrack and directing the movie and writing the entire thing — a genuine feeling of returing to a comfortable bar — this is truly a John Carpenter movie

Because Carpenter is talking about the comfort and the hell that is getting the work done. He is talking about the personalities and the cynicism and the sense of half failed purpose that comes from fighting a material evil in a corrupt world. While at one level his movies may be all power chords and explosive concepts, at a very separate level, he is making films — just as the more obviously auteurish contemporary Dave Cronenberg did — that are genuinely exploring pop culture in all its loneliness and gregariousness and its success and failure.

And while people rarely cite the man’s work as feminist praxis, and often make what is in my opinion bewilderingly stupid assertions about his films and gender, and his films and patriarchy, I do believe John Carpenter has more to say about masculinity — more real things to say — than practically the entire contemporary American landscape.

That’s what’s great about all of his movies and what in the end makes VAMPIRES into the great movie that it is — this is a movie about men, about hunters, and about how that idea changes us; and so it is a deceptively deep movie which is far more than the sum of its parts.


NOTE: Okay you know, this is a little shapeless but I wrote it almost a year and a half ago so I think it’s just gonna get published today no matter what. And Mister Carpenter, if you ever wind up reading this? Happy Birthday mate, 80 this year right?