once you’re inside, you’re on your own
A bit of a cheat, here. Technically, Escape from New York is not a fixture of my childhood the way (most of) these movies have been in this deconstruction. That is, it is not a film that I watched a lot when I was particularly young. I don't think I even saw it when it was new. I did see it on tv or cable or video when I was still quite young, but it really only became a fixture, in terms of repetition, when I was a teen.
Still, it makes the list.
And the reason is simple: parts of this film stuck with me. I'm saying this as the movie begins, and it has been several years probably since I last watched this thing, so I'm not 100% sure this is even the movie I'm remembering remembering. Some ugly, mutant-looking guy attacked Snake--that was a scene that stuck with me. Like, for years, I remembered one particular detail of the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland before I went on it again and fixed the rest of it in my memory; it was the wood door bending, and I had nightmares that included shit like that. Single scenes stuck with me a lot as a kid. Like that one--that I am sure I have written about before in this blog (though I cannot figure out where)--with the guy walking up out of the lake that I was convinced for years was the ending of the first Friday the 13th (when I had yet to actually watch the film but knew already that Jason Voorhees was not the killer in that first one). Or that sex scene from Scream for Help that taught 8-year-old me that sex did not have to be missionary...
Meanwhile, the opening of this film is a slow burn. Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is only just being made an offer and we're 20 minutes in. It's gonna be half an hour before the "action" really gets underway. Basically, the first act is a bunch of slow setup. Great character at the center, but it is still so damn slow compared to so many other movies before and since.
Structurally, it's reminding me now of the later film, Rambo: First Blood Part 2 (which I have, of course, watched much more recently than this film), setup to let us know (here, remind us there) how bad our hero is before he gets sent into hostile territory. Of course, Rambo is only sent in to take photos; that he ends up rescuing POWs is a separate thing. Snake is sent in to rescue the president (and the tape the president has with him); that he ends up destroying that tape is his separate thing. Snake Plissken fits right in with heroes like John Rambo or John McClane or John Matrix--I wonder (briefly, before I doublecheck what I already know) if Snake's given name isn't John (it isn't)--and James Bond and Martin Riggs and Pete "Maverick" Mitchell. as that masculine, late-Cold-War, hero, fighting the good fight for the patriarchy and (except for Bond, of course) American hegemony because Vietnam was a loss, the Cold War was dragging on too long and women had more and more rights every day and men needed to be men and men needed their fictional heroes to be men of action because American men are far too easily emasculated, or at least they think they are.
It was this Chock full o' Nuts bit that stuck with me as a kid. The zombie-like Crazies swarming into the building, Snake barely getting out a window. Loses his radio (and in a movie today, there would be some comic relief character there to comment on it rather than us having to notice and work out the implications on our own... Apparently, there's still a remake in the works; but it might turn out at least okay since Robert Rodriguez is supposed to be directing it), climbs a wall and the Crazies keep coming. Then, just when it could have been a fucking horror film--and I remembered it as if it were a horror film, Snake meets Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine) and the tone is lighter (even if the film is still quite dark); Cabbie isn't comic relief exactly, but he's close. He's also a second-act deus ex machina; though Cabbie tells Snake that everyone knows that the Duke (Isaac Hayes) has the president, you get the feeling that Cabbie is special in knowing stuff like that.
That I remember this film as something it wasn't intrigues me. Because, I think I invented whole movies in my head built out of pieces of other ones. Like that scene that I thought was Jason Voorhees, mentioned above, there was, for example, a movie (I missed the beginning and I was sitting in on a film class in which I was not enrolled, so I didn't know the title) about twin brothers obsessing over death and decay and time-lapse photography was stuck in my head through the 90s. Then the Internet showed up and saved me because now it was possible to search the right terms and figure out that it was A Zed & Two Noughts. Until then, it was just a memory. And, as I like to come back to Benesh and Izod (two fixture references back in phase one of this blog) from time to time, we must remember that any film is immediately altered when we take it in. Benesh (2011) tells us:
...for viewers... an imprint remains as during the film the audience members "introvert" or take in its psychic content including symbols, images, and narrative, as well as projecting personal concerns. After the film, if it is particularly "resonant," the process continues as the film "plays on" in the viewer's mind. A personal "edition" of the film is thus created and is assimilated into the psyche of the viewer. (p. 8)
The film (or our individual experience of it) is altered by what is already in our heads, and what is in our heads is altered by the film. The film becomes a piece of us and we a piece of it. So, nevermind what Escape from New York actually is (though I will talk more about that tomorrow, I am sure), what matters looking back into my childhood is what it was in my head. The darkness, the violence, the Crazies--this was a horror film. (It is possible that there was actually a film from the same time that had actual zombies or monsters overrunning a city and I conflated the two, but that also doesn't really matter so much when looking backward.)
I lose track of whole movies, too. I only recently learned the title of Heartbeeps, a weird movie about runaway robots that I am pretty sure I saw in the theater in 1981. My "seen it" list on IMDb stands at 4571 movies (and tv shows) right now, but I find movies that are not on the list all the time, obscure little movies that we rented on VHS in the 80s perhaps (I noticed just a few days ago that Chopping Mall wasn't on my list, so I added it. Memory is finite and fluid. And, outside of that movie theater (or living room) time, it is also more powerful.
I usually say it's "somewhere around 5000 movies" that I've seen. I like to round up, and given how often we rented movies in the 80s and 90s, it's probably pretty close to accurate. Every one of them--except maybe Witchcraft (trust me, ask my sisters, that movie just would not register in my brain as we were watching it)--is a piece of who I am today. Every hero and heroine is a piece of me. Snake Plissken is a piece of me. Mad Max. Flash Gordon. Richard Collier. Tripper Harrison. Laurie Strode. Johnny Baxter. Alexis Winston. Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa. Han Solo. James Pope. Vincent Vacarri. Billie Jean Davy. John Keating. Phil Connors. Every one of them. And the villains, too. The supporting characters. Every one.
And, inside me, they become something more than they were before. They mix and they mingle. And, they make life (and my dreams) very interesting.
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