Once Escape from New York's plot actually gets moving, there isn't that much that actually happens. Snake (Kurt Russell) meets Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine), Cabbie takes Snake to Brain (Harry Dean Stanton). Duke (Isaac Hayes) shows up. Snake, Cabbie, Brain, and Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau) flee, get to Duke's and find the president (Donald Pleasance) but Snake is captured and forced to fight Slag (Ox Baker). They all make a run for Snake's glider on top of the World Trade Center, then head for the Queensboro Bridge to get off the island. People die, Snake and the president get away. The end. Basically.
There isn't much to say about the plot as it is. There's room for strange interpretations of meaning, but with John Carpenter behind the film, it feels like it would be me inventing meaning where he put none. As far as implicit meaning, Escape from New York feels like a response to gang violence in New York in the 1970s, an outlandish extension of the reality, people being afraid to walk the streets of New York.
I mean, maybe. It occurs to me that I know more about gangs in New York in the 1970s from movies than from outside movies. But, cinematically or historically, there were definitely a lot of disenfranchised young men in the 60s and the 70s, and that meant gangs grew, revolutionary organizations grew. Hollywood echoed that. Escape from New York takes the crazy notion that gangs will take over New York and twists it. Like America saw the 400% increase in crime (from the voiceover intro) and said, fuck it, let the criminals have the city...
Which is also a more specific, cynical echo of "white flight". Note, of course, the big gang leader in New York, Duke, is a black guy. Law-abiding citizens have fled. The city belongs to the criminals.
This is the easy meaning. It's obvious. It's also shallow, simplistic.
The detail that got me yesterday was Snake's first and last lines. See, if you read this blog a lot, you know I love to come back to the topic of identity and the creation of identity, and the interpretation of identity. My own. But also the characters in any given film. How does a character see themself? How does that impact the impression that others get? There's a running joke in this film that everyone thinks Snake is already dead. (In the jokier sequel, the running gag is that everyone expected him to be taller.) Snake is an idea more than an actual man. An expired idea, living on borrowed time (somewhat literally). Because he's the protagonist in an 80s action film, he's also a very up front, alpha male kind of guy, taking charge, acting on instinct, doing what he wants to do. He is defined by these actions and doesn't feel like a guy who has much of an inner life. But, that is why his first and last bits of dialogue struck me yesterday.
We first see Snake being led by guards through a hallway. He doesn't speak. The film cuts back to the action with the president' plane. Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) goes in to retrieve the president, but Romero (Frank Doubleday) tells him to leave if they want the president alive. No specific demands yet, of course. (Hauk says, "They don't want anything yet. By the time they figure out what they want, it'll be too late." The ticking clock of the film is the Hartford Summit; the president was supposed to attend. The nation is at war. The president playing a MacGuffin cassette tape will potentially end that.) But, that doesn't stop Hauk from immediately bringing in Snake once he is back off the island.
Snake sits down at Hauk's desk, puts up his hands for his manacles to be removed. "I'm not a fool, Plissken," Hauk says.
Snake replies: "Call me Snake." And, there's a little bit a of a hiss to it.
Hauk reads Snake's file. "S.D. Plissken. American Lieutenant. Special Forces Unit. Black Flight..." Etcetera. Later in the same conversation, Snake wants the pardon before he goes into New York. Hauk says, "I told you I wasn't a fool, Plissken." Snake reminds him, "Call me Snake."
JUMP CUT TO:
The end of the film.
Snake promised, when they put the explosive capsules in Snake's neck as insurance against him fleeing in the glider, "When I get back I'm going to kill you." Snake has gotten the president out, Snake has asked--though his purpose is not immediately clear--the president a question to decide what happens next. He asks the president how he feels about the people who died getting him out. Rather impersonally, the president replies, "I want to thank them. This nation appreciates their sacrifice." Snake's mind is made up, but we won't really know what he's decided until a few moments later. (Snake has given the president the wrong cassette, and Snake will destroy the MacGuffin tape as he walks away.) Snake passes Hauk as he leaves.
Hauk asks, "You going to kill me now, Snake?"
Snake replies, "I'm too tired. Maybe later."
Hauk offers him another deal, a job. "We'd make one hell of a team, Snake," he says.
Snake looks at him. "The name's Plissken."
Now, on the one hand, it's just a power move, something cool for Snake to do. Call him Plissken and he tells you to call him Snake. Call him Snake and he tells you to call him Plissken. There's not much of a character arc to Snake Plissken. He doesn't change. So, it's difficult to support the argument I will now try to make.
The real reason Snake wants to be called something else is because he's a changed man. He acted in Hauk's office like he didn't care about the president, didn't care about the country, didn't care about the war. But, in his brief time with Cabbie and with Maggie--hell, even that moment with the woman in Chock Full o' Nuts--Snake has seen humanity at its (and here's the real stretch) best, and at its most basic. The people on the island are surviving. They have stage shows, they have their leaders, and they even have their own version of the real world's criminals--the Crazies who live in the subway tunnels. New York is a microcosm for the larger world. Like the ending of Lord of the Flies, the smaller war is just an echo of the larger one. By learning to care--even if he doesn't really show it outwardly--about New York folks like Cabbie and Maggie, Snake has invested himself in the thing he isn't supposed to care about. And, then they die.
And the president doesn't really care. Hauk doesn't really care. They just want their tape. They want their leverage for the summit.
The problem is, Snake cares now. So, he switches the tape. Interestingly--and slightly counter to my argument--Snake would have deliberately brought both tapes, would have had to plan to ask the president about those who died saving him. Snake, then is less a man, more a force of nature. He is the arbiter of justice, in his twisted fashion. Judge, jury, and executioner. He decides that the war continues. (At the end of the sequel, he decides that the modern world needs to take a step backward, lost all of its electronics. It's bigger, and it's sillier.) Snake was effectively an anarchist, in it just for his own selfish urges. Plissken cares about the world, and will ruin i, even destroy it, to save it, to make its people human again.
In running away from the everyday problems, they lost touch with their own humanity. And, so did Snake. But, in New York he finds it again.