ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK: WHAT DID I TEACH YOU?
Originally posted in June of 2010. My love for this film has only grown since then. Reposting here as folks were talking the film up and I realized the version on my old site has been down for some time.
Oh, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, my love for you, it is not a healthy thing. Though the callous among my critics may accuse me of simple nostalgia, and in truth there is nostalgia there, that is not the whole story. That is not the whole of my love for you, o Manhattan island turned over to ruthless convicts and grimy ne’er do wells.
The nostalgia trip works on some flicks, but ESCAPE shrugs that right off of its shining black zippers at the collarbone shirt. If anything, ESCAPE is just as visually arresting as it was some thirty years ago, where the US was staggering out of the seventies and into the eighties with a hangover and the bill collector screaming on the phone that you’re not only behind in the rent but that it’s all coming due right now. In that, it shares a great deal with the spate of near-future dystopias that populated sci-fi entertainment for the decade before and after. Whereas BLADE RUNNER became the visual template for cyberpunk and everything else, both lush and rich with decadence gone amok to decay, ESCAPE is starker, leaner, meaner. It’s the Stooges’ FUN HOUSE compared to SGT. PEPPER’S. No gentle, candy colored psychedelia, but all black leather and sweat and amphetamines. And mean.
ESCAPE is mean to its core, nihilistic and subversive from beginning to end. It’s where the totalitarian state puts all of its refuse, all the square pegs who refused to have their corners filed off. ESCAPE was black helicopters and faceless riot cops with M-16s long before that was the fashion for the future America, before these paranoid fantasies were run on the six o’clock news on a nightly basis. Before the MOVE bombing and Ruby Ridge and Waco and all those other countercultural Alamos, ESCAPE tossed us into a concrete holding cell and burned our eyes with dazzling anamorphic lens flares, painful and prismatic. There’s no happy smiley-face fascism, so all you Banksys need not apply. No room for you. The only tagging here is empty black lines without either art or soul, fueled by directionless aggression and hate.
I love you, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK. I love the trash and the broken windows at your ground floors. I love how the CHUDs come out at night, moving aside manhole covers with scrapes like gravestones on the wet asphalt. I love how the inmates, the baddest of the bad and hardest of the hard, all give the Crazies a wide berth and gives the viewer some nice I AM LEGEND/NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD pursuit and evasion thrills. Where lesser directors would (and probably have) spent an entire movie building up a threat like these guys, John Carpenter just throws them out there and just as fast leaves them on the boulevard, shielding themselves from an alley-full of molotovs.
I love your hippie radicals spouting nonsense right out of an SLA manifesto as they prepare to crash a jet, and not just any jet, but Air Force One, into the island. And yes, that’s an especially unsettling moment anytime after 2001, but even then, even twenty years before then, this is the kind of HOLY SHIT hook that producers work their entire lives for. But then, who’d have imagined that seeing the World Trade Center on the future Manhattan skyline would’ve ever marked an image as either history, fiction, or fervent wish fulfillment? Not us in the eighties, that’s for certain. Even shrouded in wood smoke and dirt and stenches fouler than that, we’re given the skyline as a monument, as spectacle. Though considered more closely, it’s a horrifying spectacle. It was easier for society to walk away from this place, this city, and throw it to the wolves, than to deal with the sicknesses that gnawed at it.
Like I said, subversive. Subversive as any big-budget action movie that you care to name. Just watch the trailer, at about :40 in, you get to see what a CONTROL SITUATION looks like.
Man, if that isn’t a quietly insouciant statement on authority structures, I don’t know what is. But that’s not all. Snake Plissken’s career, ex-war-hero and now ex-bank-robber says quite a lot too. He’s the scion of the state gone bad, reflecting the state’s corruption and ultimately made to do its dirty work. Or at least, so the state thinks.
The President is an ineffectual nebbish, valuable not because of the authority he wields but because he holds vital information. He’s the lamb that others die for, but ultimately (nearly) valueless, at least until he gets a machine gun in his hand and droolingly, falteringly mows down his tormentor, the real power, The Duke of New York. In fact, the first time the audience (thinks) that they see the President inside the prison of Manhattan, he’s being held down, tied to a squalid sink in a reeking basement and being beaten methodically, mechanically. Later, he’s used for target practice. At the end, he goes from near-psychotic revenge-killer to vapid face of the nation, unable to answer the seriousness of the events surrounding him. The Duke (played by Isaac Hayes, rest his soul) knows exactly what and why he’s doing. But then, so does Plissken and all the other men (and women) of action.
I love you, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, for giving Lee Van Cleef another great vehicle to show off his smoldering bad-assedness. He plays Col. Bob Hauk of the US Police Force, and you can tell he got his job by killing a long line of his predecessors. Again, critics will say that “he’s just playing Lee Van Cleef” but that’s exactly what a great character actor does. So stop whining. Even so, even knowing that Hauk has everything planned out and is going to go to any length to get his way, you know that Plissken, the outsider, is going to be a half-step ahead when it matters most. Hauk is a cop who gets driven to work in a stretch limo with wing antenna (which in 1981 meant mobile phone in the car and therefore total and consummate badass), looking rested and ready, like the phantom Nixon who never came back. His entrance out of that limo is outstanding in a movie full of great entrances.
Which brings me to another thing that I love. The soundtrack. ESCAPE, like most of Carpenter’s other movies, featured a music track that he himself worked on. I’m not going to say that he’s the greatest composer ever, but he could do atmosphere. And with ESCAPE, he really hit a sweet spot that was somewhere between Kraftwerk and a kind of minimal biker-bar jukebox, all filtered through the raft of influences that was bubbling under the mainstream in 1980. It’s not fancy music by any stretch. It offers no crazed flourishes like Vangelis’ BLADE RUNNER virtuosity. Again, it’s lean and mean, fitting the look of the film perfectly.
ESCAPE, I love your Ernest Borgnine as Cabby, sitting in the audience for deranged all-male revue with an equally deranged grin on his face as the tutu-clad convicts sing an off-key ode to the city. I love how he listens to the theme from AMERICAN BANDSTAND on a collection of grimy cassettes in his ironclad taxicab, the last one in the city, so far as I could tell. It’s like a ghost of the Manhattan that was, chunky 50s lines, squat and square, not unlike Borgnine himself. And somehow, Cabbie seems to have forgotten that he’s in one of the most dangerous places on earth, instead dispensing advice like “You really shouldn’t be out in this neighborhood at night, this is a bad neighborhood” while tossing flaming gasoline at aforementioned CHUDs, all with a smile on his face.
Now if I’m blatantly nostalgic about something, it’s my love for the titles and graphics used in ESCAPE. There’s nothing that a little Fritz Quadrata and chunky square sans-serif brutalist type can’t fix. Yes, these are the information displays of the future as imagined in the past, so they end up saying a lot about the time they were designed, right? Yes, that’s pure 80s on that black backdrop with the hard-edged single-color graphics, and I love it.
I love the nightmare future that isn’t caused by nuclear war or alien annihilation or ecological devastation, but by simple abandonment or careful social planning, depending on how you look at things. Aircraft fuselages in pieces, burning on the streets picked over by human scavengers. Spy technology that the inmates can’t use so they destroy it, because it’s the only thing they know how to do. Oil drills and pumps in the middle of the NY Public Library, valuing practical energy over esoteric knowledge. Family cars with crossed rebar instead of windows. A dazzling array of glasses on thugs’ faces, all of them broken or incomplete. The street using things, but not high-tech dressed up in grit and grime, instead feeling like these things were actually scrounged and cobbled together. The only glamour comes in on the totalitarian police side of things. They get the sexy gear, the shiny plastic, the oiled weapons. The cons? They eat that stuff for lunch.
In terms of story, what isn’t there to love about ESCAPE? It manipulates simple absolutes. The worst place in the world. The shining beacon of freedom. The good guy gone bad. A ticking clock that won’t be denied. And inside it all, the secret that will keep the world in peace instead of burning in nuclear fire. And what happens to that secret? The “good guy” chucks it, knowing that the society he’d just saved (and his friends had paid for with their lives) was unsalvageable, irredeemable. Carpenter would revisit this point in ESCAPE FROM LOS ANGELES (which I haven’t seen in ages, but never felt like it had earned the kind of admiration that ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK is given.) Revisit, but not surpass. I love ESCAPE because it’s a no-holds-barred (particularly not the nail-studded club to the back of the head) action movie with a brain and a stone-cold heart that doesn’t back down from the edge that it’s marched you out to.
The greatest city in the United States is turned into a dumping ground for the worst of the worst. The President is being held hostage by a man who would release this torrent of human refuse back into the world. Our only hope for survival comes from a man who doesn’t give a damn until his life is dragged out on the line. The future is so dark that your shades are useless. Every cop in the US Police Force won’t make a difference, no matter how many helicopters and how many missiles they fire. It all comes down to two men fighting in the ring, as barbaric as barbaric gets.
They don’t make ‘em like this anymore. Luckily, they don’t have to. We already have an ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK. And I love it. If I could, I’d drive it out in a Cadillac and show that it was right about humanity, about the future. I’d give it a tour of that part of LA, you know, south of downtown where cars drive along Townsend and pretend that there aren’t tents to either side of the road. I’d take it to the aircraft graveyards outside Pima. I’d give it photostreams of cities going feral and the walls being built to encyst them and keep the rest of the world clean. We’d dine the last bluefin wrenched out of the Pacific and I’d play XTRMNTR at top volume with the top down past the Carson Gas Works and breathe in the byproducts and the smog and the smell of algae baking in the riverbed.