Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Summer of '81: Escape from New York

In John Carpenter's landmark action film, the year 1988 sees a whopping 400 percent increase in America's crime rates.  A result is that, by 1997, Manhattan Island has become a maximum security prison...housing all of America's offenders.  

The city is one giant "dark zone."  The waters around the island are mined.  The bridges out of the city are blocked off, and Lady Liberty has become but a disembarkation point, a processing station for new prison inmate where they are (mercifully?) given the option of immediate termination rather than incarceration. 

This last bit of detail involving the Statue of Liberty  is wonderful visual and contextual symbolism: the beautiful statue that once welcomed immigrants to America's shores now oversees a journey to perpetual exile and punishment.  The American dream, as Carpenter's They Live (1988) suggests, seems truly dead.

Some critics at the time of the film's release called Escape from New York "utterly cynical" and noted that it presented a "corrosive, pessimistic view of humanity," (Kevin Thomas, The Los Angeles Times).  

Others, like Joseph Gelmis noted that Carpenter's visuals were "provocative," and recognized  that the Carpenter film offered "an escape" from "ordinary entertainment into the hothouse  humidity" of viewer "paranoia" (Richard Corliss, Time Magazine).  

Another way to read that last sentence is this: As in the case of all good speculative writers and filmmakers, John Carpenter gazed at some troublesome signs in the world around him and imagined what the future might look like, given certain present-day trends.   All true works of art -- and this goes for horror movies, action movies, literature and theatre -- reflect their historical context to a large degree, and the same axiom is true of Escape from New York

So what exactly were those trends?  What was Carpenter seeing  around him, in the culture, in 1980 and 1981?
A computer diagram of Manhattan Island Prison.

Well, the crime rate in America had steadily been on the rise since the early 1970s, but was at all-time peak in the early 1980s (though it steeply declined starting in 1993).  

The most highly-concentrated areas of crime in America were inside modern cities, largely because of the population density and the pervasive economic disadvantages of many denizens.  

In 1980, America was also suffering an economic recession and locked in the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

At the same time that crime was skyrocketing in 1980, America boasted the highest-documented incarceration rate in the world.  

In other words, we not only had more crimes committed here, we had more people going to prison for them (especially drug crimes, which form a disproportionately large percentage of our inmate population, to this day).  

In 2010, still, we incarcerate more criminals than any nation in the globe.  One in American eighteen men is in jail at this point, or being monitored under house arrest.  So this trend, unlike the crime rate, did not abate after the 1980s.

Studying these trends from the standpoint of 1980, however, it must have been tantalizing to imagine what might occur in the future if the crime rate and prison rate continued to increase at such a blazing rate; if all things remained equal.  Were we destined to be a country of crime and violence, managed by heavily-armed, helmeted and uniformed policemen?

Instead of building prisons -- especially with deficits and economic recession to deal with -- would we pick a pre-existing, geographically isolated area like Manhattan Island -- and convert it into a giant, inescapable jail?  

It's a brawny, imaginative, and scary concept,  and John Carpenter was also reportedly influenced by the 1974 film Death Wish, which he didn't much like, but which nonetheless depicted the modern American city as a "jungle."  This was a vibe the director reportedly sought to emulate in Escape from New York.

He succeeded wildly, and though Escape from New York is not a horror film, it features passages of palpable terror and surprise jolts.  Most of the film occurs in impenetrable night (like Halloween [1978]), and dangerous, barely-human "Crazies" roam Manhattan's streets, bursting out of floor boards and chasing people down darkened alleys.  Courtesy of Carpenter's pulse-pounding soundtrack, the film is perpetually intense, and punctuated by great bursts of violence and rousing action.

If one purpose of film is to transport the audience to a new world, one unimagined and unreal (but nonetheless believable), then Escape from New York succeeds wildly, landing us in a future that might have been, but thankfully wasn't.  It's a great dark, dystopian fantasy.

"Get a New President"

Ronald Reagan + Margaret Thatcher = Donald Pleasence.

Escape from New York tells the story of a decorated veteran and criminal convict, Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), as he is transferred to Manhattan Island Penitentiary.  

Before Snake goes in, however, a national crisis occurs.  

Forces of organized labor (now deemed a terrorist organization by the police state....) hijack Air Force One, and fly it over restricted New York airspace while it is en route to the Hartford Summit and the President's meeting with international enemies, the Soviet Union and China.  The plane crashes, but not before the President (Donald Pleasence) lands safely inside the prison in an escape pod.

Unfortunately, forces of New York's tyrannical ruler, the Duke (Isaac Hayes), capture the President and use him to negotiate for the release of the entire prison population.  The President  happens to be carrying a critical cassette tape on the subject of a nuclear fusion breakthrough, one which could end the war, finally, and involves no less than "the survival of the species." Ao he can't simply be left in the City at the mercy of the Duke.  

Snake gets sent into the penitentiary by glider to retrieve the President and the crucial cassette tape.  The survivor has just 24-hours to do so before capsules in his neck (implanted by his captors...) explode and kill him.  Once inside Manhattan, Snake teams up with an old Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine) who "knows everyone in this town," a treacherous but brilliant old colleague, Brain (Harry Dean Stanton) and his his "squeeze," Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau), a devoted bodyguard and beautiful woman.

But getting the President out alive isn't going to be easy.  

"Only Prisoners and the Worlds They Have Made..."

Snake lands in enemy territory.

One of the most perpetually fascinating aspects of Escape from New York involves the Carpenter comparison of the world inside the prison to the world outside, in larger, future America.  

Specifically, America of 1997 -- as envisioned by Escape from New York -- has become a restrictive police state, and the country is locked in a perpetual, seemingly-never ending international war.  

The war, in fact, seems to be an excuse for some draconian law enforcement policies, and the refrain "we're still at war" (spoken by Hauk [Lee Van Cleef]) is used as a kind of blanket explanation, rationalizing away much.   

We get much of this information through visuals, and through brief snatches of dialogue.  The "terrorist" hijacker of Air Force One says this, for example: "Tell this to the workers when they ask where their leader went. We, the soldiers of The National Liberation Front of America, in the name of the workers and all the oppressed of this imperialist country, have struck a fatal blow to the fascist police state. What better revolutionary example than to let their president perish in the inhuman dungeon of his own imperialist prison."

That line suggests much political commentary about the country America has turned into.

But Carpenter artfully sets up a parallel between the film's two rulers, The Duke of New York, and the President of the United States.  Donald Pleasence's character -- whom the actor freely admitted was created as an amalgam of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher -- is strong with stagecraft and public speech, but cowardly when confronted with real personal jeopardy in New York.  Worse, when he is "tested" by Snake following his escape, the consummate politician evidences simply token regret for the fact that people died to save his life and free him from the Manhattan Penitentiary.  

All the Chief Executive can offer are a few hollow words about "the nation" appreciating their sacrifice.  The nation?  What about him, the man and president?  Rescued by people dismissed as criminals and thrown away by society at large?

Snake gives the President a fair chance to review his experiences in NY, and thus revise his law enforcement policies (throwing away whole cities worth of American citizens...) but the President does not rise to the occasion.   He's going to be on TV in a few minutes, after all, and he's really busy.

In Snake's eyes, this behavior ultimately makes the President no better than The Duke.  Both men  use harsh tactics, just on vastly different scales.  The Duke threatens people with a machine gun; the President with a breakthrough in nuclear fusion that could end the world.  

The Duke does not reciprocate the loyalty of his people, and when he sees a chance to escape from prison alone, he takes it.  Similarly, the President evidences no regret for the fact that Maggie, Cabbie and Brain died in the attempt to rescue him.  One man is a criminal on a personal scale (the Duke); the other is a criminal on an international scale.  One man rules a real prison, the other man rules a country, a metaphorical prison, perhaps.

The 1996 sequel, Escape from L.A. would go even further with this notion of comparing America to a prison; with a fundamentalist, religious-right president (from Lynchburg, just like the late Jerry Falwell...) banishing Muslims, atheists, smokers and meat-eaters (!) from Christian America proper to the breakaway island of Los Angeles. 

I Thought You Were Dead: Snake Plissken as Carpenter Anti-Hero

I heard you were dead.

When I wrote my monograph, The Films of John Carpenter, I expounded at great length about the John Carpenter Anti-Hero, and the numerous examples we see throughout the director's film canon.  

These anti-heroes are, in brief: Napoleon Wilson in Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Snake Plissken in Escape from New York and Escape from L.A., MacReady in The Thing (1982), John Nada in They Live (1988), Trent in In The Mouth of Madness (1994), Jack Crow in Vampires (1998),  and Desolation Williams in Ghosts of Mars (2001).

What can we say about these men?

Well, the Carpenter Anti-Hero is often a noble outsider and criminal  whose reputation precedes him. We see this explicitly with Snake.  Everywhere he goes, men admire him, know his reputation, and greet him with the comment "I heard you were dead."  He is a legend, then, in his own time.  Before he was a crook, Snake was a decorated war hero.  This is important, he once believed in America enough to serve in her military; but something change.  Something disappointed him and Snake left the system.  Hauk is downright fascinated by Snake and his outsider status, and by film's end, even offers Plissken a job.

Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) in Assault on Precinct 13 is also the subject of intense curiosity to members of the establishment class, including his jailer, Starker (Charles Cyphers): "You're not a psychopath. You're not stupid," he says "why did you kill all those people?" This question allows us to understand that Wilson -- like Snake -- is not simply a run-of-the-mill thug.  Desolation Williams in Ghosts of Mars is very much the same space: a noble criminal with an uncompromising set of ethics and a legend built up around him by society.  These are men who left society-at-large to make a statement.

Why create a film hero who is also a criminal?  Well, as I wrote in my book, Carpenter is a real maverick, but more than that, strongly anti-authoritarian in his bent.  I  suspect that he views people who are part of the current (corrupt?) system as being compromised and therefore not entirely fit for heroism.  Now, of course, Natasha Henstridge and Austin Stoker play noble police officers in their respective Carpenter features, but they emerge as real heroes largely through their association with the criminals and recognition that Wilson and Williams can be powerful allies fighting a common evil.  

Secondly, who is a "criminal" depends largely on who writes the laws, doesn't it?  This is, similarly, the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist.  Who's to say if Snake is a criminal, or actually a protester?

But to put a very fine point on it, Carpenter  requires an "outsider" in films such as They Live and Escape from New Yorkone to pass judgment on the current establishment.  You can't fulfill this role if you are a part of that establishment  You have to be disenfranchised...outside.    

As his point of view as "outsider" suggests, the Carpenter anti-hero is universally a man who sees things differently than those around him, and usually in power.  Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) sees the United States as corrupt and bereft of freedom and humanity in both Escape films.  Likewise, John Nada (Roddy Piper) discovers the alien conspiracy behind America's consumer, yuppie culture, in They Live.  

Importantly, the "vision" of these two  characters is hampered -- or perhaps augmented -- in a fashion that visually distinguishes them from the other dramatis personae in the films. Snake distinctively adorns an eye-patch. John Nada dons a pair of sunglasses so that he can see reality as it is; the very opposite of rose-colored glasses.   In other words, form echoes content in the films of J.C.  These men "see" differently, and their visual accouterments actually reflect the singularity of that "sight." 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, through the Anti-hero's actions, some aspect of "The Establishment" is changed in a typical John Carpenter film.   The Carpenter anti-hero is one who, through often his final act, changes the shape and order of things in his world.  He overturns the corruption.  In Escape from New York, Snake judges the President as a failure, and shreds the cassette tape that could save the world...judging that America -- at least in this iteration -- isn't worthy of survival.

In Escape from L.A., Snake Plissken activates the Sword of Damocles and plunges the world into perpetual darkness, so that America can literally start over, and liberty can be re-born.

In They Live, John Nada destroys the alien satellite dish sending hypnotic signals to all human beings, revealing the world as it truly is; not through the filter of reality the alien echo chamber has created. In The Thing, MacReady destroys the arctic base, and holds the Thing at bay in the icy winter, even though it means his eventual death.  In Vampires, Crow takes down the evil cardinal in the Vatican and the lead vampire simultaneously, destroying an unholy -- but apparently well-established -- conspiracy.

Snake and his anti-hero brethren are agents of change, but in films like Escape from New York, Carpenter suggests such change can only truly come from outside the system.  The agents of change, it should be noted, are almost all Western-styled heroes  (cowboys?) who ride in, almost always alone (though Crow has a team; Williams a gang...) and soon set things straight.

Chock Full of Nuts

And in this corner...Snake Plissken

Another reason that Escape from New York works so well, 40 years later,  is that it gently but humorously tweaks its own premise, that the Big Apple is now a maximum-security prison.  

For instance, The Great White Way is still, apparently putting on musicals...just with smaller budgets.  Snake walks in on Cabbie during a theatrical performance of the uncharacteristically-happy tune "Everyone's Coming to New York." This song pointedly ribs musical tradition and the Great American songbook, but more than that, literally states the truth.  In a country of harsh, draconian laws, where Manhattan is a prison, everyone is coming to New York. Sooner or later.

Later in the film -- during an action scene, no less -- characters passionately argue about street directions, as drivers in standstill New York traffic are wont to do in real life, every day.  In particular, Maggie and Brain argue about taking Broadway at that time of night.  Broadway, it turns out, is lined by armed miscreants and Crazies...

Another fine joke is entirely visual in nature. Snake hides in a coffee shop on Broadway and 43rd street, called Chock Full of Nuts (established in 1921). Well, Chock Full of Nuts sells itself as the "official coffee of the city that never sleeps," and given the presence of Crazies and crooks, the New York of this movie doesn't seem to sleep, either.  

Better yet, the store is overrun by Crazies (coming out of the floor boards) in a matter of moments, so it is, a place, literally, chock full of nuts. The shop's residents live up to the moniker.

Why mention the humorous aspects of the film?  Well, it's harder to view Escape from New York as "corrosive," "utterly cynical" and "pessimistic" once you recognize that it also features this mitigating presence of levity.  In other words, the movie's dark view of humanity (and the System) is leavened, largely, by the wicked in-jokes that run throughout the film's veins. John Carpenter is first and foremost a popular filmmaker.  He may (and often does...) have a lot of substance to say in his films, but his movies are always going to entertain first.

In that sense, finally, Escape from New York must rank as one of the great urban blight pictures of the late 1970s and early 1980s.  It doesn't candy coat its dark speculations a whit, but its lead character, Snake, is an admirable anti-hero, and the movie boasts this subversive sense of humor about its very premise.    

These are just a few reasons why Snake Plissken is immortal, and cult movie fans have never made the mistake of believing that he is dead.

1 comment:

  1. I've always loved this movie. You have done it great justice with this write-up.


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