Sunday, June 15, 2014

Christine (1983)

When John Carpenter is likened to Hitchcock, it's not so much because he has similar narrative concerns (Halloween is his only film that truly seems like it descended from Hitch's oeuvre) but because both filmmakers have this almost uncanny confidence in the way they put together a film such that it can come across as simultaneously personal and completely designed to satisfy the consumer (this is where, I'd say, DePalma doesn't fit in). There's an unpretentious watchability to the way both of them create a series of perfect images and then piece them together in such a way as to make an even more perfect sequence. And it's true; when we think of Hitchcock and Carpenter, while there are brilliant individual shots that come to mind, it's the sequences we always come back to. It's Tippi Hendren waiting outside the school as the birds begin to gather, or the afternoon neighborhood walk in Halloween. Or, in Christine, it's the opening scene in which, like so many genre films, the villain is introduced: Christine, a bright red Plymouth Fury that possesses a mysterious, yet undeniably pure evil. Carpenter's camera saunters smoothly around the auto plant where a batch of brand new cars are being inspected. Each shot conveys something different, and when he cuts it's to give us a new piece of information or a new perspective on the spatial environment. One can almost feel the confidence he has in his images.

The fetishism of hot cars in American culture has often been equated with hot women. With Christine, Carpenter is taking this idea to a new level by actually morphing the two together. Carpenter's intention was for the Plymouth to be a character, yet more precisely, a female who, like a femme fatale, is as dangerous as she is seductive. When we're introduced to the Plymouth in the opening scene, it stands out like a beautiful women stands out in a crowd; its redness is only intensified by the surrounding white cars. And initially, it's simply a beauty, and yet by the end of the scene it has damaged the hands of an inspector by slamming down its hood, and chokes another to death when he goes inside it. Thus this car is really playing two roles: it's the femme fatale and it's an embodiment of malevolence (and don't forget this idea was born from the mind of Stephen King, who time and again uses an inexplicably sinister presence to define the mood of his work).

One of King's traits as a storyteller is his refusal to allow his characters to become swallowed up in his wild plots, and here it's no exception. After that opening scene, we're introduced to Arnie (Keith Gordon) a high school senior who, despite a knack for some pretty good one-liners, wears big glasses, is socially awkward, and has few friends-a.k.a classic movie nerd. Despite the fact that his one true friend is a flashy, good looking football player who, despite his jock-status,  always backs him up, Arnie fails to really find his footing until he comes across Christine. 

The car, now 20 years old (it's 1978) is a wreck sitting out in the yard of a mysterious old man (played by Robert Blossom, who looks an awful lot like Richard Brody--and did I mention Arnie could be taken for Ben Sachs' twin?) who's willing to sell it to Arnie for $300. Despite talking about how its previous owner died in the car, and how when his wife tried to get rid of it, it "came back three weeks later," Arnie is hell-bent on having the car. Rarely has that adjective taken on such literal meaning. 

To describe the rest of the film would be pointless since its greatest pleasure is seeing the unexpected directions the story takes. While the most accurate description of the film would be to call it an absurd horror movie that never undermines its characters, is presented with striking formal poise, and perfectly balances mood with schlock value (pretty much every great John Carpenter movie), I kept on wondering if there were deeper implications to the story. I haven't read King's novel, but based on his interest in American culture in his books that I have read, and assuming that Carpenter and screenwriter Bill Phillips are following the source material closely, there seems to be some underlying commentary going on here.

In many ways, this is a movie about America gone wrong; consider its presentation of the home, seen mainly in Arnie and his relationship with his parents. There is a lack of understanding in their home, a failure to communicate properly, which is an image often associated with the home in post-WWII America. In one scene, they are seated at the dinner table, framed in a medium shot-a classic portrait of the American family. The scene ends up with an explosion of emotion and Arnie insulting his father before running upstairs. Notice the red jacket he's wearing, exactly like the one James Dean sports in Rebel Without a Cause. In fact, Arnie and his parents reminded me a lot of the Starks from Nicholas Ray's classic. Connected to decline of the family is the consumption of products as a replacement for those values lost. Television comes to mind first, but right behind that is the American fetishism of cars and the way they replace human meaning, connection, and even morality. The logical conclusion is that a car replaces a human being all together. Despite its supernatural elements, Christine shows this horrifying possibility with alarming precision. It's a film that may very well be a whole lot smarter than it's often given credit for being.

No comments: