' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Escape from New York (1981)

Friday, October 28, 2022

Friday's Old Fashioned: Escape from New York (1981)

Though John Carpenter originally wrote “Escape from New York” in the mid-70s, it took a few more years to find financial backing and distribution through a triumvirate of independent production companies, the filmmaker indicating that no major studio had wanted to touch it. Maybe that’s not surprising, but I can’t imagine a better Pitch Meeting Movie than “Escape from New York.” As in, what if Manhattan Island was just one big penitentiary, Air Force One crashes there, stranding the President, and a rogue (named Snake![with an eyepatch!!]) has to sneak in to rescue him? Like a lot of cult classics, or maybe just classics, I’ll let the scholars and Carpenter devotees hash that demarcation out, Carpenter’s 1981 film benefited from such independence, utilizing its small budget to the fullest. True, 41 years after its release and 25 years after it was set, Manhattan as Prison has not come to pass, and much of the technology on display, like the opening computer graphics, look primitive by present-day standards. But weirdly, or perhaps not at all, the retro look is beneficial, Steampunk as a kind of IBM5150Punk, or something, one of those movies where the lo fi vision of the future evokes the future as being worse than the present, as if in so much ostensible advancement, everything has regressed. Except for nuclear war, I guess, or the threat of it, lingering over the movie as much as the micro-explosives injected into Snake’s neck and waiting to detonate in 24 hours if he doesn’t get the job done, with the President on the way to a peace summit when his plane is hijacked and needing to recover a cassette that can prevent annihilation by atom bomb.

If the traditional action, especially as “Escape From New York” culminates, is something of a rote letdown, it nevertheless succeeds by virtue of atmosphere and world-building. Ernest Borgnine’s Cabbie, still driving a taxi through unlit streets as the name implies, comically encapsulates how even in the face of the end of life as we essentially know it we are somehow programmed to stick to what we know while the Statue of Liberty recontextualized as a guard tower, with Carpenter wrangling permission to film there at night, feels eerier, frankly, than end of “Planet of the Apes” (which the movie’s poster quotes), emblematically evoking the golden door as closed and locked and the lamp as extinguished in the face of a completely dark borough across the way. Location shooting in East St. Louis neighborhoods burned out from a 1976 fire, meanwhile, utilizes visual evidence of the very late 70s desolation Carpenter cited as inspiration for the desolation of “Escape from New York” in the first place.

It is Russell, however, who stands out by not standing out, despite that name and that eyepatch, so much as blending in, keeping us at an emotional arm’s length, not inviting us in, not straining to play to much of anything except moment-by-moment survival and disinterest in everything else. A year later Rutger Hauer would play a so-called replicant, a genetically engineered person, in “Blade Runner” with more humanity than Russell does as an actual human, the former’s monologue about attack ships on fire and C-beams glittering near Tannhauser Gate bringing tears to your eyes while the latter’s being mentioned as having flown a Gullfire over Leningrad is treated like nothing more than putting up drywall at the new McDonalds. All this quietly lays the groundwork for the conclusion, one foreshadowed in the movie’s most memorable image, Snake finding a chair amid all the rubble and plopping down. He may as well be taking a seat at the edge of the apocalypse.

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