VHS Revival explores the social relevance of Carpenter’s dystopian classic
Snake Plissken is one of the great American antiheroes. Everything about the character screams iconic, from his pirate eyepatch and cowboy snarl to his sneering distrust of all things authoritarian. Snake — who would become the inspiration for the first truly cinematic video game in Metal Gear Solid — is an amalgamation of heroic archetypes, a caricature who appeals to our basest fantasies, who approaches his valiance with an outward unwilling that speaks to our cynicism towards authority, questioning the very definition of heroism in a political context. The part of Snake would go to Kurt Russell, who was something of a silver screen veteran by 1981 with 15 movies to his name, but it was his collaborations with Carpenter that made him a cult favourite in the minds of a generation, the actor going on to star in some of the filmmaker’s most fondly remembered movies in 1982‘s The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China (1986). At a Q&A screening for Escape from New York at 2013’s CapeTown Film Fest, Russell would cite Plissken as his most iconic character, revealing that he wasn’t even first choice to play the role and describing how Carpenter would fight tooth-and-nail to land his man, leading to a decades-long friendship that is still going strong today.
Just a few years prior, Carpenter would have lacked the stroke to fulfil such strong and ultimately inspired convictions, but by 1981 he was one of the most sought-after filmmakers in the business thanks to a low-budget revelation that would become the pinnacle of the slasher genre. Halloween, another feature buoyed by an emblematic figure, would generate such a hefty return from its meagre outlay that producers were bound to sit up and take notice. The film would be followed by atmospheric supernatural horror The Fog, another low-key affair produced by long-time collaborator Debra Hill. That particular movie’s success (an estimated $21,300,000 on a budget of approximately $1,000,000) would convince distributors AVCO Embassy Pictures to come aboard as co-producers for Carpenter’s next movie, a high-concept dystopian vehicle that, much like his racially unifying urban western Assault on Precinct 13, was driven by the innovative filmmaker’s sociopolitical responses. With an increased budget of $6,000,000 — six times what Carpenter had worked with previously — the possibilities were mouthwatering.
According to an interview with Carpenter taken from the Director’s Special Edition VHS tape, the screenplay for Escape from New York was written in the mid-70s during Nixon’s Watergate scandal, a time when a post-Vietnam America began to view politicians in a much more cynical light, and actually set about running their president out of office. In the movie, Snake is a former soldier at odds with his nation’s government, a fact punctuated by a deleted scene that sees our antihero captured following an attempted robbery, which ultimately leads him to the role of reluctant saviour. The scene was eventually cut because it painted Snake in a more sympathetic light, the character having to choose between a friend and capture, but Carpenter wanted a pure antihero utterly free of sentiment, an ice-cold warrior shrouded in mystique. Snake is opposed to his nation’s police state incarnation and feels he is owed for his sacrifices, the same which have left him on the run and eking out a living on the periphery of modern society. Ultimately, he is a man without country.
Bob Hauk: It’s the survival of the human race, Plissken. Something you don’t give a shit about.
This was all very timely, but the fallout from the war and a plethora of damning Vietnam movies had seen America openly criticised by loyal patriots in a manner that was unprecedented, and the movie’s premise was a touchy subject for Hollywood producers back in the mid-70s. “No studio wanted to make it,” he would explain, their message to him being, “‘Well, you know: we’ve beaten up on the president enough. We can’t have this kind of dark view.'” In hindsight, it’s easy to see why the movie was banished to commercial purgatory with the violence surrounding the civil rights movement and social upheaval still fresh in the memory. Capitalism was deeply wounded by society’s decades-long struggle for racial liberation and the sense of injustice and togetherness it inspired, so much that corporate America made a concerted effort to significantly reduce democracy, leading to underfunded public schools, joblessness and the kind of gross financial disparity that sees more than 40 percent of the nation’s wealth owned by the richest 1 percent.
Escape from New York has one of the simplest and most intriguing set-ups of the entire genre, one that is arguably more relevant than ever. It’s 1997, and crime has risen by four-hundred percent. The once great city of New York has become a maximum-security prison for the entire country and escape is impossible. On the eve of giving a speech that will prevent all-out war, the US government’s imperialist president (Donald Pleasance) crash-lands in the lawless prison state of Manhattan Island after his plane is hijacked by radicalists fighting for basic human freedoms, and with such a short window to retrieve him, not even the army can help.
That’s where Snake comes in, a former war-hero-turned-crook who is promised total immunity if he can pull off the job, though our protagonist is understandably dubious while led through a military stronghold like a man heading for the punitive hot seat. Snake is a fabled figure, looked upon with quiet awe as he is taken to meet Hauk (Lee Van Cleef), a cunning government lackey tasked with convincing Snake to acquiesce. Hauk is aware of Snake’s reputation, and he knows recruiting him is an impossible task. The first chance Snakes gets he will abandon the mission and set about escaping, which is why the government secretly inject him with a microscopic explosive that will puncture his main artery if he is unable to return with the president within twenty-four hours. This is another kick in the guts for Snake, another reason to distrust the powers that be. In that moment he represents the common man — downtrodden, lied to and cheated, overcome by a sense of frustration that is quickly subdued by design. Here he is tasked with sacrificing himself for the privileged when only a few hours earlier he was deemed unfit for society. It is those double standards that have transformed him into the sneering ogre of ambivalence we see before us.
By the time old wounds had healed and Escape From New York was finally ready to go into production at the turn of the ’80s, another political scandal was on the horizon, one that influenced the entire premise of the movie, and in particular Donald Pleasence’s self-serving president. 1979 marked the beginning of the Iran hostage crisis, a three-year diplomatic stand-off between Iran and the US which saw fifty-two American diplomats and citizens held hostage, their eventual release coinciding with that of the movie, as well as former movie star Robert Reagan’s first term in office. This kind of political anarchy is at the core of Escape From New York. The movie’s villains are less the evil miscreants society has them pegged for, more a savage rabble forced to subsist by any means necessary, and parallels can be drawn between Manhattan’s ruling class and that of the so-called free society existing beyond the prison walls. Both take by force and rule through fear, with a military-controlled hierarchy that crushes the little man for the sake of personal prosperity.
President: God save me, and watch over you all.
As bold and ambitious as Carpenter’s dystopian imaginings were, Escape From New York‘s prison system was not too far detached from reality either. The 80s was a rough decade for low-income minorities thanks to the systematic dismantling of workers’ unions and the implementation of a global model that could farm out man hours to low-income countries. As unions crumbled and globalisation soared, America played host to the yuppie Wall Street generation and the class divide grew ever bigger. This was further exacerbated by the US government’s continued ‘War on Drugs’, begun under Nixon and emphasised by Reagan’s return to American values, leading to a campaign that was sold on the promise of protecting the young and underprivileged, but which actually targeted those lower income families by tightening laws on minor drug possession and putting more poor, ethnic fathers in prison, a move which lead to broken homes, a lack of parenting and education, and ultimately crime. All of this while laws on powder cocaine possession, an affluent drug exclusive to the wealthy elite, were loosened. On the subject of American society under the Reagan administration, Carpenter explained, “All of a sudden, this became a world of a whole lot of greed, and the streets became dangerous once again.”
Escape From New York‘s maximum security prison reflects those dangers, the movie’s depiction of Manhattan a dystopian nightmare of poverty, greed, gang colours and graphic violence, a lawless environment ruled by Isaac Hayes’ enigmatic revolutionary The Duke. Visually, the movie is a sprawling, modern incarnation of the Wild West, Snake’s ‘man with no name’ wandering the ruthless desolation of a landscape bleeding with danger and depravity. Lurking in the sewers are the prison’s bottom feeders, a parasitic mob reduced to cannibalism in a dog-eat-dog environment, while a decaying Manhattan’s big players, reminiscent of the blaxploitation hoods of the previous decade, operate within a savage political system punctuated by decadence and debauchery, the gang’s leaders cruising the city streets with chandelier-tinted opulence.
Bob Hauk: Remember, once you’re inside you’re on your own.
Snake Plissken: Oh, you mean I can’t count on you?
Bob Hauk: No.
Snake Plissken: Good!
Snake is chosen for his stealth skills and relative anonymity, but there’s hardly a face that doesn’t recognise him. Whether it’s the charming, yet ultimately self-serving Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine), former war buddy from the outside and egocentric abandoner Brain (Harry Dean Stanton) or his immediately enchanted and trusting squeeze Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau), Plissken is viewed as an almost mythical figure, so elusive and bound to the realms of folklore that most of them imagine him dead — a running joke owing to Carpenter’s legendary wit. With Escape From New York, Carpenter paints a picture of Dickensian grotesquery as sleazy, late-night cabarets entertain the city’s street dwellers and severed heads adorn pikes on the violent scrapheap that is Broadway. Carpenter may have been nearing mainstream popularity at the peak of his powers, but he never sacrificed his rebellious nature. He composed his works through a rebel’s lens.
The wealth of talent on show, many of whom big players who had worked with the director previously, is a testament to Carpenter’s growing influence, but a still relatively small budget would prove something of a challenge for creating the kind of Homeric visuals the concept deserved, particularly with the notoriously large taxes and various other fees that come with filming on location at the world’s cultural epicentre. As Carpenter himself would explain, “When we went to make Escape from New York, we only had about six-million bucks. And this was a big, sprawling futuristic world that was inside of a prison. We had to do it very efficiently and we had to do it with a big scale.”
Quite the quandary, but Carpenter is nothing if not resourceful, and movie’s such as Halloween have proven that the director works best with his back against the wall, a quality which led him to overlook the spectacular, real-life settings of New York City in favour of matte paintings and models depicting the famous Manhattan skyline — the kind that helped create the movie’s epic look. So impressive was the model of the city that it would be repainted and reused a year later for Ridley Scott’s aesthetically groundbreaking Phillip K. Dick adaptation Blade Runner, a movie renown for its towering visuals. The only real shot of New York City is one of the statue of liberty on Liberty Island. For the movie’s more intimate scenes, Carpenter would take advantage of a real-life disaster in St. Louis, Missouri, which succeeded in giving the movie its ramshackle, city-in-dissolution aesthetic. “In 1977 there was a big fire in St. Louis,” Carpenter explained. “It burned out a whole bunch of downtown. So we decided ‘hey, let’s move in there and make that New York… we shot at night, we wet the streets down so it reflected the lights, and the town let us shut off all the electricity for blocks and blocks and blocks. And we lit the city. So basically what you’ve got is this shell, an empty city with a lot of bonfires and rubble in the streets. This was a look, a dangerous, futuristic look that we created.”
All of this paints American social politics in a rather unfavourable light, giving us a land of great financial disparity which isn’t frightened to throw its citizens in jail, and though Carpenter’s vision isn’t far detached from the bottom rungs of Reagan’s conservative America, the movie is a commentary on elite conservatism as a whole. In fact, actor Donald Pleasence wrote an unused backstory for his character based on the Margret Thatcher conservatism of Great Britain, who would form strong ties with their US allies as globalisation kicked into gear, creating loopholes for deregulation that have left us facing a very real global warming crisis. It has even been said that the notorious Iron Lady wore the pants in their relationship, so to speak, and was far more aggressive in necessitating the kind of change that adversely affected the working classes of the late 20th century.
The Duke: They sent in their best man, and when we roll across the 69th Street bridge tomorrow, on our way to freedom, we’re going to have their best man leading the way – from the neck up!
This is all very serious, real-life discourse, but Escape From New York is a film brimming with larger-than-life caricatures, taking mainstream cinematic staples such as ‘cowboys at dawn’ and giving us a wholly fantastical picture that still manages to reflect modern society, one of the very reasons why Carpenter’s enduring vision has achieved such dissident cult status in the years since its release. Technically, this is classic Carpenter, with the kind of slow-building tension that makes his very best movies so special, as slick shadows stalk our reluctant hero from every darkened crevice, a threat that only we, the audience, are aware of. As is invariably the case with the innovative musician who, along with regular collaborator Alan Howarth, has given us some of cinema’s most memorable themes, all of this is punctuated by a devastatingly minimalist, trademark score, a static synth classic that syncs with the plot’s beautiful pacing, delivering a downbeat, almost reluctant aura of heroism that complements our protagonist perfectly.
But in the end this is Snake’s movie. From his ‘man with no name’ snarl to the James Bond Gadgets, he is the illustrative driving force of a film chocked full of colourful characters who are bound to a dull and colourless landscape. Plissken oozes nonchalance in the face of adversity. He is the personification of Carpenter’s own rebellious streak, an unwilling, distinctly mortal superhero who speaks for the little man without ever really speaking at all, who trudges on in spite of himself, and who succeeds in acts of heroism simply because there is no one else left to do it.