Movies for the Resistance: Escape from New York

(Welcome to Movies for the Resistance, a weekly column intended to showcase films with particular pertinence for 2017. One of the fundamental purposes of art in general, and movies in particular, is to serve as a spiritual armory: bringing hope, timely lessons and shared experiences when times are dark. They can move us to positive political action, lend insight to the inexplicable, and sometimes just give us a moment to remember that we’re not alone. I’m hoping to embrace as many genres and subjects as possible here: nothing is out of bounds and the plan is to vary the content as much as I can. But all of them are chosen for the same basic purpose: to support, comfort and inspire as we enter a troubling new phase in our nation’s history. We’ll showcase a new film every Tuesday.)

Starring: Kurt Russell, Donald Pleasence, Lee Van Cleef, Isaac Hayes, Adrienne Barbeau, Ernest Borgnine and Harry Dean Stanton
Directed by: John Carpenter
Running time: 99 minutes
Rating: R
Year of release: 1981


Resistance starts with iconoclasm: the belief that the people in power don’t have your best interests at heart. Hollywood loves to lionize the lone hero, the gunslinger, and the guy who doesn’t play by the rules. But studios have a tendency to waver when the crunch comes: finding ways for the outsider to join the collective, save the world and finally be validated for his or her principles. It’s easy. Just stop the evil businessman, vanquish the corrupt leaders, and enjoy a bright new dawn.

John Carpenter carries far more philosophical conviction in his films than most studio wonks, and he understands that happy endings don’t always apply when The Man calls the shots. His works remain defiantly iconoclastic in part because they view the entire system as corrupt, and that uprooting that corruption may be impossible. He delivers heroes who don’t necessarily want to change anything. They merely speak the truth to those who would hide from it. “Check those who think they have the final word,” they tell us. “Make them feel the pain and the misery that they’ve inflicted on the world. And don’t let them tell you that everything’s all right when your eyes and ears scream how wrong it all is.”

This notion appears in almost all of his films, even those that don’t feel overtly rebellious. Consider movies like Halloween or Christine, whose protagonists are defined – and to a large extent saved – simply because they’re more aware of their surroundings than those around them. Laurie Strode spots that weird guy hanging out behind the hedge. Leigh Cabot thinks there’s something odd about her boyfriend’s car. Stevie Wayne does NOT like the look of that piece of driftwood. Those heroes who don’t fit that mold (Jack Burton, we’re looking at you) are quietly mocked for their ignorance, and Carpenter makes sure we know they triumph in spite of their ignorance, not because of it.

Which brings us to S.D. “Snake” Plissken (Kurt Russell), one of the director’s favorite creations and the only one he consented to helm a sequel for. No other figure expresses such clear contempt for the levers of power. No other protagonist so cheerfully spits in the eye of those who hide their venal corruption behind precedent and apathy. He starts out a part of the system he comes to despise: a soldier in some retro-future war who casts his uniform aside when he comes home and takes up robbing banks.

That makes him part of the problem, or so he’s told. Not the corrupt figures overseeing his country’s descent into dystopia. Not the faceless “United States Police Force” guarding a Manhattan Island transformed into the nation’s only maximum security prison. Not the soft, corrupt President (Donald Pleasence) mouthing empty platitudes to hide the barbarism in his heart. Snake, and those like him, are the losers: pawns turned victims turned criminals turned supposed pawns again.

Plissken stands out from the faceless hordes herded into New York only because TPTB find him useful. When Air Force One goes down in Manhattan Island, they tag him to find the President and bring him back. They plant explosives in his neck with a 24-hour fuse and promise him a pardon if he does the job in time: secure in the knowledge that he’ll dance to their tune so long as they keep him on a tight leash.

Needless to say, he has a few surprises for them.

The remarkable thing about Plissken is his complete lack of principles. This is no tough guy with a heart of gold, no noble outlaw fighting for some piece of the American Dream. He lives only for his own survival: an anti-hero in the purest sense of the word. (“I don’t give a fuck about your war,” he snarls at Lee Van Cleef’s tough-guy warden. “Or your President.”) Carpenter pokes a little fun at his bravado, aided by Russell’s tongue-in-cheek Clint Eastwood impersonation, but it’s clear that this man holds nothing in his heart deserving of our sympathy.

At least at first. But as the movie goes on and we get a good look at the savagery around him, one admirable feature emerges: his honesty. Like many of Carpenter’s protagonists, he notices what others can’t or won’t. He doesn’t pretend that the monkeys outside the cage are any better than the monkeys inside. He doesn’t ignore inconvenient facts just because they make his life harder. And he actually keeps a tally of the human lives lost in his little escapade… even the ones he didn’t like. The response he receives when he reminds those in charge of that fact tells us everything we need to know about the reality the rest of this world is happy to deny.

And that honesty gives him strength… not to build something better or right any wrong, but just to stick it to some people who dearly need to be stuck. You don’t get to look away from this, you sons of bitches, he tells them. You don’t get to throw blood in my face and pretend your hands are clean.

He never wavers from that. He never breaks. And he’s happy to bring the heavens down around him if it means forcing those in charge to confront their own hypocrisy. In a world this compromised, it’s the only virtue worth celebrating. Power corrupts. Truth is the antidote. And if the masters of the universe don’t like that, it only takes one nasty bastard in the right place at the right time to correct them.

The eyepatch is optional.

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