6 November 2016

I Saw John Carpenter Live!

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As John Carpenter and his band launched into their live rendition of the theme from his ghostly masterpiece The Fog, some genius thought it'd be a good idea to turn on the smoke machine. And they were right. It was fucking genius. Seeing Carpenter play that piece of music with footage from the film projected onto a large screen behind him, while mist slowly descended over the room, was one of the many highlights of the Liverpool gig that I saw him at on the 28th of October. I can't say that any ghost-pirates appeared from the fog this time, however it's been so long since I last ate any fruit that it wouldn't surprise me if I had fucking scurvy at this point. Getting into the gig had proven to be more of a ball-ache than I'd imagined thanks to Google-maps providing the wrong location, one Taxi-driver refusing to take us because “he'd be fucked by the Hackneys”, and then finding ourselves stuck outside the most badly organised venue that I've ever been to. People with paper tickets were allowed straight in whereas those with E-tickets had to stand outside until twenty-minutes past the gig's original start time for some reason. To quote a fellow E-ticket queuer; “it's like we're the working class and this venue thinks it's the fucking Titanic”.

John Carpenter is without a doubt one of my favourite directors of all time, and in my not so humble opinion, is one of the most influential film-makers of the last fifty years. Known for his horror films, Carpenter claims he got into the business in order to actually make westerns, which might explain his choice of cast for the unmatchable Escape From New York. You have The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly's big-bad Lee Van Cleef, The Wild Bunch's Ernest Borgnine, Pat Garret And Billy The Kid's Harry Dean Stanton, and of course there's Kurt motherfucking Russell. For a start, his Snake Plissken looks like the coolest-ever Western anti-hero crossed with a bloke in a biker bar from the future that's most likely to throw the first punch. And by 'future' I am specifically thinking of 1997 in which this movie is set, meaning that as well as being a perfect depiction of a dystopian future, Escape From New York is also one of my all time favourite period dramas. Russell himself however has since decided to single-handedly keep the Western genre afloat having appeared in two this year alone. The first being the under-seen Bone Tomahawk and the second being Tarantino's The Hateful Eight with the latter essentially drawing its biggest influence from Carpenter's own classic 'what-the-fuck-am-I-seeing-athon' The Thing.

On the night I saw Carpenter live, his show opened with the theme to Escape From New York and my mind exploded like I'd been given twenty-four hours to rescue the President and I'd decided to take my time. I mean, have you heard his theme to that movie? It's like one of the best film scores ever. If that's how this man was opening his show then how the fuck was he going to follow it?! As a movie obsessive and full-blown geek, seeing Carpenter only a few feet away was probably like how a religious person feels when they see the Pope. Except better because the man I was looking at was famous for creating some of the cultiest cult movies of all time, and that's way more impressive than wearing a dress, talking about magic, and enabling pedophiles. As Kurt Russell was projected behind the band lamping some fat bloke in the back of the head with a wooden bat with nails in it, everything began to become a bit surreal. Carpenter has more classics under his belt than most men have anything below their belt and yet that's all he is.. a man. One single human responsible for everything from Dark Star to Starman via Christine. It just doesn't make any sense that a single human could be capable of such consistent brilliance. I know humans-- I am one.. we're shit! Not only that but as I saw him play, he seemed to be dancing just like I do... which is badly.. but in his case it was cool as fuck because unlike me, he's John fucking Carpenter.

Following on from his first song, the band launched straight into the title music to Assault On Precinct 13. It's weird to be enjoying a live gig in which the background visuals show a little girl being shot to death as she buys some ice-cream. But fuck it. Ice-Cream vans are expensive and so had she not been brutally gunned down, I'm sure she'd have only been ripped off. Assault On Precinct 13 is another example of Carpenter's love of Westerns, having been influenced by Howard Hawk's Rio Bravo. Both films feature a sheriff and his gang slowly bonding as they attempt to defend a building that they're stuck in, from a bunch of gun-toting fuck-nuggets that are trying to shoot their way in. However Carpenter's film doesn't feature one of the creepiest fucking smiles I've ever seen as Rio Bravo includes a moment in which John Wayne attempts to show affection like a man being double-fish hooked by a gloveless sewage worker. This film also shows a control of genre that would become one of Carpenter's defining traits as like watching a menopausal pole-dancer with a knife, Assault On Precinct 13 is stripped down to its bare essentials for an entertaining but tense experience.

As well as the basic set-up for Assault On Precinct 13 though, the other thing that Carpenter has often adopted from Rio Bravo's director is the use of Hawksian women; a trope in which women essentially give as good as they get. In fact, despite usually featuring some cool as fuck, macho, male characters, his movies are generally hugely feminist which even includes his exclusively sausage-gendered movie The Thing. Well, that's if we're to assume that the alien in this movie represents woman-kind, due to its ability to absorb the DNA of men in order to produce a similar life force that could alter their way of existence. In which case, you have a film in which a gang of blokes sit around battling with each other for the position of alpha-male before attempting to defeat their more crafty female nemesis with sheer dumb force... and a phallic-shaped stick of dynamite. The film also begins with two men unable to shoot and therefore being outsmarted by a female-creature that's taken the form of a dog, which, like my step-mother, would technically make it a fucking bitch. This might therefore also explain why the Liverpool gig featured as many women as it did guys, with Carpenter being one of the few film-makers intentionally making movies for the titted-half of humanity that don't just happen to be fat men.

No matter what gender the people watching were however, I think we were all pretty excited when Carpenter and his band played the theme from The Thing. Especially considering that it had originally been composed by the sound of the Spaghetti West himself, Ennio Morricone. However perhaps the moment that the most people lost their shit was when the opening riff from They Live began to play. I've seen Alice Cooper hang himself live on stage and I've seen Rammstein blow huge blasts of fire with flame throwers attached to their mouths. However I'm not sure I've ever seen anything quite as exciting as when this song began and the sixty-eight year old John Carpenter and his band popped on a pair of fucking sunglasses. In another act of genius for the night, the screen behind them depicted the hidden signs from the movie, “Obey”, “Conform”, “Consume”, whilst being perfectly timed to the beat of the music. Not only did this highlight the ever relevant social satire of a movie that becomes worryingly more prophetic by the day, but I'm pretty sure it also provided some subliminal commands for us to start heading over to where the merchandise was being sold. I don't know if the people going to the stand to pay their hard earned cash for replicas of the sunglasses from They Live were aware of the irony or not.. but I'm pretty sure that I absolutely don't regret buying a pair.

And in reference to They Live, throughout the whole show Carpenter was chewing what I can only assume was bubble-gum, and based on how fucking phenomenal his gig was, I'm pretty sure that he was there to kick some ass. At least I hope he was because it was Liverpool, and anybody not prepared to kick at least a little ass is at risk of being mugged and fucking shivved. As much as the Western genre might have been what got Carpenter into the game, there's no doubt that most people associate him with the blood and violence of his horror movies, and for good reason. Ignoring the Romero inflections of Assault On Precinct 13, there's also his genre defining gore effects on The Thing, his love letter to H.P Lovercraft with In The Mouth Of Madness, and according to his introduction to its theme on the night, Prince Of Darkness is his tribute to horror icon Dario Argento. Oh and on top of all this, I think we can all agree that with Christine, Carpenter made a film about a dangerous car that bursts into flames that's even scarier than being offered a lift home from Paul Walker.

However perhaps it's Halloween that cemented his reputation as being a lead voice in this genre, in which he made one of the most successful independent films of all time and instantly became the godfather of the modern slasher. Considering the most popular T-shirt worn at the gig that night featured a poster for this film, I'm guessing it's the one most people consider their favourite in his back catalogue too. Although Primark was selling that shirt in a sale just down the road, so it could actually be that his fans are generally just skint I suppose. Halloween is an exercise in minimalist perfection and finds the most terrifying way to do a shot. Unlike most modern horror films, nor does it simply rely on the surprise cattle-prod-up-the-arse cheapness of constant jump-scares. I would argue as well that his use of steadicam here is just as iconic as Kubrick's but minus the distracting wonder of who the fuck faked the moon landings?! With the film's villain Michael Myers, Carpenter also managed to create one of the genre's most iconic monsters, with the story being that all it took to create the look was a boiler suit and a Captain Kirk mask that was painted white. Who'd have thought that William Shatner's face could be so scary? Except you know.. anybody that's seen it since about 1998.

If anything, Halloween is the perfect example of Carpenter's influence on the landscape of cinema having had it spawn seven sequels, a shit remake, and a shit sequel to the shit remake. Although originally wanting to make westerns, Carpenter claims it was the success of this film that typecast him as a horror director, to which he quotes John Wayne, “I'm like a good whore; I go where I'm pushed”. However since Carpenter has slowed down his filmmaking to the point of borderline retirement, it seems that a hole has been created that Hollywood is desperately trying to fill.. which is something else he might have in common with a good whore. As such there have been remakes to Assault On Precinct 13, The Fog, Halloween and The Thing (Sort-of). Only this year, Carpenter successful sued Luc Besson's production company due to their The Lockout having ripped off Escape From New York. Films like Dredd, Cold In July, The Guest, and It Follows seem to have been made in homage to the man's career and each of The Purge films are pretty much just an exact cross between Assault on Precinct 13, Escape From New York, and They Live. Except in the majority of these cases, they've lacked the substance or originality of his films and so were not so much standing on the shoulders of a giant as they were well and truly in his shadow. It's just that this giant happens to be a grey-haired old bloke going nuts on a keyboard to a room of full of nerds on a Friday night in Liverpool.

And so going back to the gig, it's hard not to notice that the crowd was hardly diverse... I could probably have charged right to the front if I'd wanted due to the frail nature of his outsider fan-base. Or failing that, I suspect exposure to direct sunlight would have simply killed most people there. Although to my knowledge, at least one fan wasn't there because he was off being a Mexican genius and making movies somewhere. Earlier this year, one of the most respected directors working today, Guillermo Del Toro, started shitting out a mammoth marathon on Twitter in praise of the man we were watching on stage. It started with the claim, “When I think of John Carpenter, I am amazed at the fact that we take him for granted. How can we? Why should we? He is lighting in a bottle”, before continuing in this vein for the next two fucking days. Del Toro went on to say that “Carpenter's scores fluctuate with his films. Listen to them: They embody the spirit of each film perfectly. They are his final auteur voice”. As one of a room full of devotees listening to him play each and every one of them, I find it hard to disagree with this. This is despite his own claim that he only wrote his own music to patch over the bits of his films that he'd “fucked up”.

As the night went on, each theme seemed to take every member of the audience back to whatever point in their life they were at when they first fell in love with his work, and I think I have to admit that this was one of the best gigs I've ever been too. Like watching his Big Trouble In Little China, I have no idea entirely what it was that I was watching. At times it was silly, a little thrown together, but always cool and always fun. I couldn't have seen it on a better night either with this being the Friday before the 31st of October, meaning that it was the night that everybody was going out for their Halloween parties. So I spent ninety minutes in the company of the justifiably self-titled master of horror only to leave the gig and see the streets filled with masked monsters. Grotesque faces in the dark, fucking freaks and wierdos that were presumably on their way to do some trick or treating. Can you imagine a better way to leave his gig than like that? Admittedly it turned out that nobody was dressed up and what I was actually seeing was just scousers on their way home for the evening. However even once I'd realised that, I was still left with the same sense of terror either way. The show had begun with the band playing the theme from Escape From New York and as I realised that I was now in Liverpool after dark, that theme began to play once again in my head and I wondered how long I had before the last train home would leave me fucking stranded. Thanks for reading, motherfuckers, and see you next time.

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