Progress Not Perfection: The Work of Ariel Schudson

The Myth of Macho: John Carpenter’s Westerns

This piece was written as a part of my weekly column on about masculinity and the cinema, Myth of Macho. The original piece can be located at the online magazine site here.

It is no secret that director John Carpenter is a Western fan.  From the Arts Guardian to CraveOnline’s very own Witney Seibold, the genre’s influence on his work is well documented. However, Carpenter’s Western ain’t your mama’s Western. His work focuses on ideas of authority, masculinity and the territorial other. And while many other directors centered on these ideas as well, their lens did not explore these concepts in quite the same fashion. Each study of masculinity that unfolds before his camera is one that, while certainly nodding at his forebears, makes itself distinct. How so? He had very little choice. By the time Carpenter got his hands on celluloid, Westerns were passé, no longer popular. However, he never forgot cowboys like Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) from John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) who was nothing if not head-strong and certainly walked his own path, or films like John Sturges’ Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) which paired up gunslinger and lawman side-by-side.

John Carpenter has been making films since the 1970s. From the original Halloween (1978) and Escape from New York (1981) to The Thing (1982) and Christine (1983), his films have laid the cornerstone for horror cinema, action and ideas of the masculine hero. Other films, like Starman (1984) and In the Mouth of Madness (1994) played around with ideas of science fiction and the supernatural (respectively) but still have created a space where men have been able to explore aspects of their own being and personalities, for better or for worse, in whatever form it may take. For over 30 years, John Carpenter has been what you would call a “man’s man,” a label generally reserved for old-school figures of classic cinema. If the shoe fits, however…

Carpenter’s films have a flavor of the past in each one. Snake Plissken, hero of Escape From New York and Escape From L.A. (1981, 1996) has remarkable aesthetic similarities to John Wayne’s character in True Grit (Henry Hathaway, 1969), and much has been written on the connections between Howard Hawks’ classic Rio Bravo and Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. Even a film likeThe Thing, while summarily claiming to be a reinterpretation of Howard Hawks’ classic sci-fi flick, The Thing from Another World, has a structure that brings it closer to a frozen and claustrophobic Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969) than the average sci-fi film.

But Carpenter has never made a straight-up western. They have always had to be covered up in something else due to the fact that, at some point, ten-gallon hats and six-shooters weren’t sexy anymore. But the thing is, Westerns have never left. The Western themes of good guy versus bad guy, justice and revenge, territorial conflict, race and ethnic disjuncture, all put together in one little bundle and tied up with a yellow ribbon? These still insert themselves in modern works. Look at Rian Johnson’s most recent film, Looper (2012). Look at Quentin Tarantino’s fantastically controversial but wonderful Django Unchained (2012). The Western impulse has never left. In fact, it’s returned with a vengeance (pun intended). The popularity of television shows like “Deadwood” and “Justified” is not a fluke. The masculine desire to see men do right is actively present. To be Gary Cooper at High Noon (Fred Zinneman, 1952), defending what and who you love, or to explore your own internal feelings on justice and violence when it comes to being a man like Jimmy Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962)… these are not things that disappear as quickly as private detectives in a noir film. It is why the Western thread continues and it is why it is so highly embroidered into what we know to be modern American masculinity.

John Carpenter was highly aware of what traditional Western narratives entailed: there were big group-on-a-mission films like The Professionals (Richard Brooks, 1966), solo cowboys flicks where they leave a situation the same way they come in like Shane (George Stevens, 1953) and “unintentional buddy” cowboy films like Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1959). In Carpenter’s world, he uses a little bit of each to showcase the characters and the story itself. Paired characters like Napoleon Wilson and Ethan Bishop (Assault on Precinct 13), John Nada and Frank Armitage (They Live), and Jack Burton and Wang Chi (Big Trouble in Little China) engage in certain kinds of hyper-masculine performances within the context of each given narrative. These performances, interwoven with a cinematic awareness of their ethnic identities, surroundings and state of autonomy are what we’ll be discussing for this week’s Myth of Macho.

When you set foot in the Carpenter-scape, not only have the slide guitar and ocarina been replaced by the electronic sounds of Carpenter’s own music, but ranching disputes, six-shooters and bar brawls have given way to racial discourse, semiautomatics and alien invasions. Carpenter’s theories of relationship development and brotherhood have a strong foundation in the films of the Old West. “Cowboy economics” involves a certain kind of partnership, for better or for worse. More importantly, it usually involves working in or around a situation that one or both parties are not keen on. Films like Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962), and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1966) are all examples of classic Westerns featuring this kind of behavior. The rest of the films pulse out from these associations, functioning as a result of them; these bonds serve as the filmic glue. Carpenter’s connectivity is no different.

In Assault on Precinct 13, a film that has been closely compared to Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo(1959), the central figures, Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) and Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) begin the film as prisoner and guard, in a police precinct (Precinct 13) that is just shutting down for good. As a result of the building being attacked by an outside gang, the two men are forced to ignore their dominant/submissive roles in order to defend the precinct and the people inside. Not only does Carpenter flip the social concept of what a hero is in Precinct, but he also explores the meaning of personal bravery.

Two primary issues of consequence are raised in Assault, dealing with Wilson and Bishop and their own identities. Carpenter’s message here seems to be, not only can you not judge a book by its cover, but perhaps you should take stock of your own pages before you attempt to read someone else’s transcript. Wilson is the criminal who has broken with commonly held ideas of the delinquent persona by defending those around him even though he really has no need to do so. While we are informed that Wilson is a “major criminal” and extremely dangerous, we are told these things by the same people who are behaving in a criminal fashion themselves: abusive men, taking advantage of their own positions of authority to do as they please.

What we are told is that he’s killed a bunch of men and yet he’s “not a psychopath” and he’s “not stupid” (although, as Wilson says about himself to the cop, he “is an assh*le, can’t take everything away from me”). But was there a reason why he killed those men? We don’t know. Was Wilsonreally as dangerous as the police say he was? Their reliability seems a little… sketchy. We see more violence from them than from Wilson himself. Just because someone wears a badge doesn’t mean they are to be believed, says the Carpenter-scape.

Bishop is the one who must come to terms with his own heroism and relate it to Wilson: they are both men on the outside who end up on the inside together. When we meet Bishop, the titles on the screen read “West Los Angeles.” The film itself begins in “Anderson, California, a Los Angeles ghetto,” with a shoot out. What we see is that Bishop’s home is quite a ways from that opening shot. Bishop gets into his car, begins to drive, establishing via walkie-talkie conversation A) his policeman status, and B) his newness to the job. He gets assigned to the Anderson Precinct and when he reacts in confusion, saying there would be nothing to do at a precinct being shut down, his commanding officer asks him, “You want to be a hero your first time out?” Bishop replies in the affirmative, to which he gets the deadpan response: “There are no heroes anymore, Bishop, only men who follow orders.”

When Bishop arrives, he gets into a conversation with Leigh (Laurie Zimmer), one of the women there. He tells her that he grew up four blocks from the station. Leigh looks at him and says, “Your father or somebody obviously got you out of Anderson early enough.” Bishop looks her straight in the eye and says, “No one took me out of Anderson when I was a baby. I walked out myself when I was twenty.” Because Bishop is part of the “force” and the authoritative body, he is seen as civilized. It is even the way that he sees himself. He has removed himself from Anderson, taken himself to West L.A., and is no longer part of the ghetto-criminal world that he was raised in. However, no matter what he does, he will always be different. As the film moves forward, he begins to see this.

As the sun goes down, what was supposed to be a dull assignment for Bishop turns into a “hot night in the old town tonight.” A man runs into the station for protection, terrified, but unable to give details to Bishop. The audience, however, has seen the horrific cause of his fear. Just previous to his arrival, the silent and nameless mass of thugs associated with the criminal activities in the beginning of the film killed his little girl and the man fought back. Shortly after the father’s arrival, the precinct comes under siege by the same nameless, voiceless mass. They wanted revenge and they’ll do anything to get it.

When it becomes a matter of being “civilized,” and the people inside the precinct are willing to do whatever it takes to stop the attack, including give up innocent people to be physically destroyed, Bishop realizes that maybe the roles assigned out by primarily Upper-Class White Male power figures are not all they’re cracked up to be. Bishop orders Wilson and the other prisoner, Wells (Tony Burton) to be unchained and given guns, and they are able to join in with the defense of the Precinct. It is at this point when Wilson and Bishop’s relationship begins to grow and they form a bond. Wilson points out that Bishop has saved his life twice. Bishop chalks it up to wanting to keep “everyone alive.” The chaos of the attack creates a relationship between the two men that neither one ever considered. Rejecting the positions assigned by the larger world, the two men stand solidly with each other as defenders of the vulnerable and symbols of strength.

For Bishop, this was natural behavior, it was the reason he went into law enforcement: the pursuit of justice. However, he now aligns that definition of justice with the ethics of Wilson, a man who simply works for what is right over what the “law of the land” is. For Wilson, the reasoning is more complex. But he states it quite simply when Leigh asks him why he stuck around. He says that one of the things a man should never run from “is a man who is helpless and can’t run with him.” Wilson represents the old-school cowboy ethos. He has the gait, the sayings, the hairstyle, and the mannerisms. Bishop balances that out with his own complicated relationship to law enforcement, local environments and ethnic politics. By forming a relationship with Wilson, Bishop, by proxy, becomes a kind of modernized cowboy due to Wilson’s teachings.

By the end of the film, it is clear that while perhaps nothing has changed in regards to how the outside world sees the two men’s relations (prisoner and guard), they interact on a much deeper level. Their justice is levied on a personal scorecard instead of that of the larger society. Through this experience, the two men have learned that the lone cowboy ethic also involves a strong partnership where each man has learned to think for themselves and estimate justice and virtue on its own terms and not on what another may inform you.

Carpenter works the Western theme into other films as well, like the science-fiction/action piece,They Live (1988). A film about the anxiety of modern culture and media, this film is the story of John Nada (“Rowdy” Roddy Piper), a Man From Nowhere, who arrives in Los Angeles as part of his journey. While working construction and living at a small homeless camp, he begins to meet people and form relationships, most significantly with the man who helped him find the camp, Frank Armitage (Keith David). One day he discovers a pair of sunglasses that reveal that the world has been invaded by alien forces that are taking over all aspects of human existence. Upon this discovery, Nada’s mission becomes the prevention of complete alien takeover.

John Nada’s drifter status harkens back to any number of Western heroes from Shane (George Stevens, 1953) to the Sergio Leone films, where Clint Eastwood’s character was the Man With No Name. In They Live, the hero’s name is John Nada, which, in Spanish, means “nothing.” While this film takes place in metropolitan Los Angeles and has a heavy science-fiction lilt, our hero is still a drifter and he is still a Man With No Name. You can’t get much more Western than that.

They Live is a film that places emphasis on the individual over the masses. Much like AssaultThey Live works on the concept that the independent-minded man and individual thinker has more copper in the bank than the nameless, faceless others. Much like Bishop’s superior telling him that there “are no heroes anymore, only men who follow rules” just before he saves the day, Nada has to work through a grip of people telling him to shut the hell up and siddown before he can get anyone on his team. In order to convince his friend Frank that the aliens really are taking over, he has to have a truly epic battle in an alleyway, just to get him to try on the sunglasses and see what Nada sees. In addition, this battle isn’t just about the glasses. It is about changing Frank’s way of thinking. As a transient, Nada is used to the flexibility of individualism and his masculine identity is based entirely on life on his own terms. He doesn’t have to think for anyone else but himself. Frank, however, has a family that he sends money home to. The fight to see the truth isn’t just about putting on a pair of sunglasses, it’s about Nada trying to help Frank change the way he thinks and sees the world at large. Aliens are taking over the earth. It will affect everyone.

Things in They Live are extreme and over-stated. This serves (literally) a larger purpose. The actor playing John Nada, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, is a wrestler. His masculine dimensions and capabilities clearly overshadow the rest of the cast. The fight scene with Nada and Frank goes on for a little over six minutes and is widely known to be one of the longest (and most awesome) fight scenes of all time. The dialogue, more often than not, is large and performative, announcing the speaker’s intentions and/or existence in a way that goes beyond anything that would be deemed “normal.” The most famous and beloved line from the film, spoken by Nada as he is chasing after aliens with a huge gun, is stated matter-of-factly in a bank. As I write it, I must note that it truly is as ridiculous as it sounds but it works perfectly: “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass… and I am all out of bubblegum.”

Nada’s one-liners are genuinely spectacular and mirror the high-testosterone intensity of a Bruce Willis Die Hard quip or Arnold Schwarzenegger film. The largeness of the dialogue, extreme activities and featured players of this film bolsters the masculine dynamic of the film. This movie is about being a man and what that means within the Carpenter world. Big jobs, big dimensions, larger than life, saving the world… this is part of the male frame of reference. But Carpenter also shows points of weakness. Nada does not recover immediately from his fights. His body is damaged. He is not some superhuman organism.

His relationship with Frank is balanced. They depict two sides of male development and how one can come to grasp the other one’s abilities and “see” things from another perspective. Frank fights Nada all the way, but eventually puts on the glasses and assists him in the struggle against the forces of evil trying to take over everyone’s mind. He realizes that to be of any help to his family or himself, he must learn a different kind of self-reliance: one that includes independent thinking and critical analysis for survival. Nada, on the other hand, learns that, while going it on his own can be good, people need people. Male friendship and bonding is highly important, especially in an environment where not much can be trusted.

Carpenter doesn’t always portray the strength of men in order to showcase his masculine concepts. Sometimes he mixes it up a bit. In Big Trouble in Little China, Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) wants to be the John Wayne character that he was clearly modeled after, but there’s a problem: he’s stuck in a martial arts film. When was the last time you saw the Duke do kung fu? While Burton is clearly no slouch when it comes to being a man or even being successful at saving the day in a tight squeeze, it is not always on purpose. His masculinity may outweigh his ability in certain arenas, however in many ways… that is his ability. Jack Burton is a professional man.

Big Trouble is a Western shot as a martial arts film. It began as a Western, but was then adapted by W.D. Richter, the man who directed The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai Across the Eighth Dimension (1984), and it became something else entirely. Trucker Jack Burton rolls into town as he usually does in his trusty steed, the Pork Chop Express (a big rig truck), for a little gambling and fun. He ends up going with a friend, Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) to the airport to pick up his fiancé. While there, they end up getting mixed up with the Chinese mafia, a woman named Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall), who is trying to protect another woman arriving at the same time as Wang’s fiancé, and eventually ancient supernatural forces in Chinatown.

Like John Nada in They Live, Jack Burton is another drifter. To paraphrase another great film, he is the epitome of “a loner, a rebel.” While Kurt Russell may have patterned his speech and swagger after John Wayne, the character of Jack Burton is no John Wayne. Jack Burton sees himself as the man who can clearly give life advice to all other men in the world. Not only does he think he is suave and attractive to women, he sees himself as completely dependable in a conflict. Jack thinks that, as a man, it all comes naturally to him. As we soon find out, however, this is not the case. Not only does love interest Gracie Law shoot him down for the better half of the film, leaving Jack mildly confused, but his companion Wang proves to be the better fighter in almost every circumstance.

Much like Lone Ranger and Tonto, Duel in the Sun (King Vidor, 1946)The Searchers (John Ford, 1956), and other Western features, Big Trouble is a film that brings up ethnicity in addition to defining masculinity. On the commentary track for Big Trouble, during one of the heavy supernatural scenes where we first meet the characters of Rain (Peter Kwong), Thunder (Carter Wong) and Lightning (James Pax), and see Jack and Wang freak out, Russell and Carpenter discuss some of the issues that came up when the film was released. Carpenter said, “The Asian community was pissed off at me because I was white, and they said we were using the terrible stereotypes… go[ing] back to Fu Man Chu and all those terrible things. [They asked] ‘Where are all the [Asian] doctors and the lawyers in the movie?’” Then Kurt Russell makes a very salient point. “I don’t think I had ever seen an American movie with the roles reversed. The lead guy in this movie was Dennis Dun [Wang Chi]. He was the lead guy. He knew all the kung fu, he knew the terrain, he was the man who knew Indians [italics mine]; Jack, the American, didn’t know anything. He thoughthe did… I was the buffoon!” Carpenter returned with, “Yeah, I don’t think they saw it that way. All the way to the release they were on us about it. They thought we were exploiting them, like Uncle Tom stuff.”

As Russell so keenly notes, it is not Jack Burton who is the major hero of the film, it is Wang Chi. He “was the man who knew Indians,” meaning that he was the man who could get them through any bind at all because he knew the language. Russell’s analogy to Westerns was not accidental. The partnership between Jack and Wang mirrored the traditional old-style partnership between the cowboy and his Indian/Native American companion. Only this time, the Indian/Native American companion was far more skilled than the cowboy. They had switched roles.

The strength of the film lies in the fact that these men need each other to make it work. Like Nada and Frank, like Wilson and Bishop, it is the partnership that keeps the momentum going (even though Jack’s battle skills are sorely lacking, his dedication to the cause is not). Wang knows that Jack Burton is… well, Jack Burton. The thing about Jack is that while he may not be able to get his knife out in time to participate in every fight and while he may only kill the enemy by accident (“It’s all in the reflexes”), he is the personification of the Carpenter Cowboy. His profile fits the bill: transient, freethinker, exuberant and exaggerated dialogue, and, most importantly, strong personal values.

Big Trouble is an east-meets-west film. It is a film where we update our thoughts about what is personal success and what makes a man. Wang doesn’t strut his stuff, and yet he kicks ass. Jack Burton is his polar opposite. Are either lesser for that? No, but perhaps there is a space in the middle where they meet, which is why they partner up and form a team. It seems that the masculine impulse (according to Carpenter) is about fighting for a strong sense of self entwined with a strong sense of justice and a deep respect for individual thought. But oddly enough, this cannot be achieved in solitude. For Carpenter, virility is about creative control, life on your own terms and being able to share that with others. While Carpenter may favor the one over the many in the narrative, he uses that as an example of what we should all strive to be. It is what a Real Man is. This is Carpenter’s Code: think for yourself. That makes you a cowboy.

Hope you enjoyed your time on the range this week. Remember: your brain is a muscle… pump it up!

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