Finally found another decent John Carpenter movie; Escape from New York isn’t exactly great, but it’s entertaining and intermittently thought-provoking.
It’s especially interesting in light of all the women-in-prison movies I was watching recently. The plot (Manhattan Island turned into a huge isolated prison in a miliaristic/crime-ridden near future) seems more-or-less lifted from Stephanie Rothman’s Terminal Island, about a similar quasi-fascist solution to crime.
Terminal Island does use a smaller, less well-known island to house its prisoners, of course. But the real difference is in the gender politics. Terminal Island is Rothman’s vision of feminist revolution and utopia. The island is under the fascist/feudal control of a white guy and his black vassal; women are owned and exploited for labor and sex, while most of themen are just exploited for labor. A group of outcasts captures the women, and together the multi-ethnic, multi-gendered revolutionary force overthrows the patriarchy, instituting a low-tech paradise of communitarian equality and peace. The end.
Escape from New York is also obsessed with patriarchy and pecking order, but there isn’t any feminist utopian vision. Indeed, there are hardly any females in the movie, period. For a quasi-mainstream, quasi-exploitation director, ohn Carpenter is really, really uninterested in women as sexual objects. There are only two women in the movie; one literally falls down a hole and disappears as soon as she tries to kiss Snake (Kurt Russell); the other lasts a little longer, but doesn’t actually do a whole lot more. Instead, we get to see the leather-clad Snake wrestle big sweaty men or exchange meaningful glances with Lee Van Cleef.
The whole movie, in fact, is one long male-dominance ritual. In part, this is played straight — Snake is a man’s manly man; super-violent, super-tough, speaks in a whisper, and constantly sneers, doesn’t give a shit about anybody, except that he is decent at the core…etc, etc. Anyway, Snake’s the hero and he beats everybody up and screws over Lee Van Cleef; so yeah, he’s super-cool dominant male archetype, hooray!
At the same time, there’s a lot in the film that can be read as a satire of the male pissing-match. The plot revolves around the President of the U.S., whose plane crashes in New York. Snake has to get him out — but before that happens, the Pres is abducted by the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes, doing a big bad blaxploitation thang.) The President, alpha-dog in his own bailiwick, is tortured and brutalized — given an object lesson in macho maleness. Not unexpectedly, he crumples, constantly shaking, whimpering, shouting on command “You’re the Duke of New York! You’re A number 1!” Even while being rescued, the President remains thoroughly cowed; he never helps or offers any assistance; Snake has to drag him around like some useless…well, some useless woman, right?
The only point in the movie where the President takes any kind of initiative is towards the end. He’s on the top of the wall, about to escape to freedom. But instead of going quietly, he grabs a machine gun, and starts laughing maniacally as he shoots the Duke, who’s stuck down below. “You’re the Duke of New York! You’re A number 1!” he squeals in a high-pitched mocking voice. It’s like Lord of the Flies, or something; except the inclination isn’t that the President’s inner-caveman has been let loose, but that this is who he really is anyway, all the time. That’s macho posturing, and it’s what it means to be President — shooting people who don’t have a chance, mocking them, and then turning around and having the rest of the world pretend like nothing happened.
Of course, you could also argue that the President’s problem isn’t that he’s a man, but that he’s not enough of a man — if he’d been cool when he shot the Duke, that’d be fine. Still, it’s a pretty great take on the Presidency (better than that crappy Tom Clancy movie — what was that called? Air Force One?) I bet this is a favorite Frank Miller movie — it really reminds me of his best stuff, where the extreme machismo teeters on the line between sincere appreciation and parody.