Saturday, February 7, 2009

Grief On Mute (2002)

FROM THE ARCHIVES, Feb. 7 - This originally posted on, 1/28/02

For those of you not familiar with the greatest homage to New York ever to pose as a neo-western to pose as an apocalyptic sci-fi action-flick, I direct your attention to a special screening of 1981's "Escape from New York" playing at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood this Sunday, January 27th. Oops, you can't go. That's because it was yesterday. Which means you also won't be able to find me in the second row, head tilted back, mouth agape for the third and presumably last time I will ever be able to see this fine film on the big screen.

Audiences at the Egyptian are a special breed. At any given showing, a normal citizen such as myself can sit surrounded by an extraordinarily high percentage of writers, editors, producers, gaffers, studio agents and incognito moguls. This means a certain freedom from the annoyances that have made most 21st century mall megaplex outings so god damned fucking intolerable - no rif raff, no screaming babies, no hostile farting or fighting children or people talking on cell phones during the film (all endured in the last month, sometimes all at one movie). It's generally a much more appreciative crowd. But a crowd that nonetheless brings its own fawning irritations... applause at each character's entrance, loud whispers about the poor quality of the print.

So the audience cheered most of the opening credits - Ernest Borgnine, Kurt Russell, Adrienne Barbeau, big hoots and applause when Isaac Hayes' name came up. And there was laughter at dated references to 1988 and 1997 in the opening titles. People also laughed during the scene when Air Force One is hijacked by a terrorist bent on crashing the plane into New York - mostly at feeble attempts made to break down the cockpit door, the mechanics of which most Americans are now intimately versed in. But there was merely silence at the shot of a hijacked jet soaring towards the World Trade Towers. Having seen this film several dozen times, I had wondered what a 2002 audience would think of the scene. What could we think of it? Only when Hollywood inevitably makes its own version of a Sept. 11 film will any movie come as close to capturing this particular trauma. And since the Californians didn't laugh at any of the New Yorker insider jokes (like references to the 69th st. bridge), I doubt anyone felt the same muted heartbreak that I did just seeing those buildings up on the screen.

When is this feeling going to fade? After the next siege? The mechanics of mass terrorism probably dictate assaults of increasing violence separated by longer and longer intervals. Over eight years separated the first and second WTC attacks. Some of this normality is built on secret coincidences and luck we rarely have insight into and are powerless to change. The same presidential pretzel attack that formally ended the Weird Period could just as easily have gone the other way. Can anyone imagine what the last two weeks would have been like if George W had choked to death, alone and unmourned in his private chambers?

Dated science fiction is always more fun after the expiration date. Discussion of postdated errors was certainly one of the few tolerable points of the Q&A after the last picture I saw at the Egyptian (the brutal 5 hour cut of Wim Wender's "Until The End Of the World", which imagined a 1999 without internet or cell phones). But the repeated interior and exterior shots of the WTC brought to mind what has occurred in just the last four and a half months. The Afghan death toll, by all accounts, has now surpassed the 9/11 death toll. 40,000 New Yorkers, born since September 11, will rely solely on our accounts of the event. Things continue and accrue. Just in the last 139 days, Over 400 million new web pages have been posted to the internet, 33 billion photos have been shot, 800 billion emails have been sent. The relentless, hallucinatory pace of the planet would have staggered any sci-fi filmmaker back in 1981.

Director John Carpenter answered questions after the film. He talked some about New York in the 70's, casting decisions, the energy levels of a 54 year old director. When the inevitable question about 9/11 came, it was such an obvious fumble that all Carpenter could offer were vague pleasantries. What was there to say? We left the theater and emerged into the kind of noirish downpour that seemed to signify something. As of this writing, it is not known if anyone stayed for the second feature, "Big Trouble In Little China".