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Video Essay. John Carpenter: Master of Perspective

Who would have thought that one of America’s great poets of perspective would be hiding in plain sight?
Christopher Small, James Corning
John Carpenter's Christine (1983) is showing May 4 - June 3 and Starman (1984) is showing May 5 - June 4, 2017 in the United Kingdom.
From the start, the disparity between John Carpenter’s tastes and his impulses as an artist were obvious to even those who loved him dearly. His breakout film, Halloween (1978), arguably the most replicated movie of all-time, was derided by one side of the taste divide for its players’ full-throated embrace of still-nascent horror archetypes—those whining babysitters and their slavishly puckish boyfriends!—and celebrated by the other for stylishly transcending its origins as an artless genre project. His remake of The Thing (1982) was attacked for placing special effects on the same level as classic suspense techniques, both of which, in Carpenter’s hands, were executed to perfection and denigrated accordingly. This duality in Carpenter’s work lead many, particularly as his career went on, to push back against his perceived inclination towards silliness. 
It was a reputation that, having initially launched him into prominence as one of the few clear-eyed craftsmen of a disreputable genre scene, had now come to haunt him. Still, like any great termite, Carpenter did not let it get to him. As he burrowed on, his movies only became denser (In the Mouth of Madness), cheaper (Prince of Darkness), wackier (Ghosts of Mars), and more self-aware (Escape from L.A.). It is because of this dedication to his craft and his total lack of pretension, as well as his redoubtable skills with the synthesizer and inimitable grasp of the widescreen frame, that he is revered today by emerging directors for basically having invented the form. 
Pupil of both Hawks and Hitchcock, Carpenter is an expert visual stylist and a laid-back dramatist; nobody ever thought of combining the two. John Carpenter: a filmmaker characterized by his inclinations towards the grotesque, the low-brow, the unsophisticated and fully unrefined pleasures of B-cinema. A pulp director with the best eye for widescreen blocking this side of Vincente Minnelli. A revered director of remakes, sequels, rehashes, an Ice Cube-starring prison-break western set on Mars. Who would have thought that one of America’s great poets of perspective would be hiding in plain sight?
This video takes a number of examples of Carpenter’s mastery of perspective and wedges them together. Some of the clips point to his eloquent use of space as a way to unveil key plot points, frequently emphasizing the perspective of a single character over the larger perspective of the narrative, while others suggest other, more poetic visual schema. They Live (1988), for instance, is a satire of form as well as substance: only John Carpenter would think to satirize what he recently called a culture of “yuppies and unrestrained capitalism” by making it a simple question of shot and reverse shot.
Similarly, the end of Starman (1984), which could only be a product of this man’s mind, never fails to move me. In it, he strips away all the different layers that his film, an ever-expanding galaxy of plotlines and side-characters, has accrued and concentrates the various strata of the movie into a single perspective. Where virtually any other director of sci-fi would have ended on a more cynical kind of money-shot, Carpenter, as bold and as elegant as just about anybody, is drawn to a more tender version of the exact same thing.


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