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A Letter from John Carpenter on “The Thing” – January 2, 1983

Thursday, April 6th, 2017

In 1983, shortly after the release of his film The Thing, I got a letter from John Carpenter about the film.

John Carpenter‘s 1982 version of The Thing is now considered a masterpiece, something I’ve always thought, but when it first came out in the Summer of 1982, roughly at the same time as Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, audiences opted for the cute little Reese’s pieces eating alien over Carpenter’s relentlessly nihilistic vision of a visitor from outer space, and the film was almost universally reviled by critics – proving, once again, that when a work is ahead of its time, it can almost be assured of an uncomprehending, hostile reception.

Carpenter had argued with Universal, who produced both films, that pitting them against each other would have disastrous results, suggesting that the release be delayed to Halloween, which of course is the title of Carpenter’s iconic 1978 indie film, which was shot for roughly $300,000, and went on to gross more than $70 million worldwide. But Universal insisted on putting the two films out within weeks of each other, and Spielberg’s film took off, while Carpenter’s film languished.

As Carpenter told one interviewer about the film’s initial reception, “I take every failure hard. The one I took the hardest was The Thing. My career would have been different if that had been a big hit. I don’t think the studio knew what kind of movie they were getting. I think they wanted Alien, a crowd-pleaser. And it was way too ferocious for them. They were upset by the ending—too dark. But that’s what I wanted: Who goes there? Who are we? Which one of you is real? The movie was hated. Even by science-fiction fans. They thought that I had betrayed some kind of trust, and the piling on was insane.”

In the Fall of 1982, I was teaching film at Rutgers University, and as part of my fall class schedule, I wanted to run The Thing in 16mm CinemaScope format, but figured it was out of my budget range. Nevertheless, I called up Universal’s non-theatrical booking agency in Manhattan, chatted with a young woman there who was as enthused about the film as I was, and eventually negotiated a rental price of $100 – a fraction of the going rate – for the class screening.

At the same time, I mentioned to her how disappointed I was in the poor critical reception the film was receiving, and asked if I could have John Carpenter’s address so that I could write a letter to him in support of the film. In those much more egalitarian times, this was no problem, and she gave me Carpenter’s production company address, and I dispatched a letter to him giving my thoughts about the film, and various related topics, on December 15, 1982.

On January 2, 1983, I received a lengthy response from Carpenter, which I’ll quote most of here – with the note that for many years, I considered this letter lost, until it surfaced only a few days ago at the home of a friend in New Jersey, where apparently I had left it one evening. (Parenthetically, I’m a terrible archivist; I once had a signed letter from Orson Welles, no less, and lost that, too!)

But in any event, here is what Carpenter had to say to about the film, and horror films in general: “My favorite Gothic directors are Roman Polanski, Mario Bava (simply for style alone), George Romero, Terence Fisher and James Whale. Each of these directors brought a personality and a style to the horror film. I’ve always thought that Freddie Francis was a better Director of Photography. William Castle was more a producer / entrepreneur.

You asked me about the issue of cinematic violence, which is really, I feel, the issue of stylistic realism. Sam Peckinpah popularized the ‘too real effect’ in The Wild Bunch [1969]. Human beings don’t really die with little blood bag explosions popping out all over the place, but the effect soon became a kind of realism used widely in movies and even television; you shoot someone, you pop a couple of blood bags here and there.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and even Halloween didn’t use this stylistic realism. The brutal, sadistic killings were suggested, sparing us any enjoyment of the sadism. We’re voyeurs, true, but there’s a point to which we want to be thrashed around in that dark corner of our minds.

The Thing was a monster movie, meaning simply that the protagonist was ‘an other,’ non-human alien. I felt that in order to convince the audience that The Thing was real, stylistic realism was in order. [Special effects artist] Rob Bottin came in to me with a concept of the actual visual manifestations that seemed to coincide with the amorphous, non-evil-acting ‘otherness’ reality that had to be a part of The Thing.

Systematic inclusion of graphic violence or sex or whatever may enhance a film, or may destroy it, or simply relegate it to pornography or exploitation. [That being said], there should be no restrictions, other than the intentions of the director.

Your idea of the ‘the icon’ is a sound one. Movies carry our mythology now [emphasis added]. Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster is as much as legend now as Prometheus. Perhaps The Thing could be seen as an examination of exactly what constitutes ‘humanness.’ The creature itself is just simply non-human, but like a cancer, it grows and takes us over, distorts, ravages. It isn’t gory, at least not to me.”

Carpenter closed with the thoughts that he was especially fond of the films of director Luis Buñuel, and the films The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake, Invisible Invaders, The Big Sleep (the 1946 version, please) and Los Olvidados. I’ve always been grateful that Carpenter took the time and effort to type such a long letter in response to a total stranger at the time, and that he so carefully and perceptively articulated precisely what he was up to with The Thing, which was based on John W. Campbell Jr.’s novella Who Goes There?, and first brought to the screen by Howard Hawks as The Thing from Another World (1951).

Carpenter, of course, is a big fan of Howard Hawks, with excellent reason, and his first real feature, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) has distinct debts to Hawks which Carpenter readily acknowledges. Hawks’ version of The Thing is a brilliant film, but it has an upbeat, optimistic ending – as all Hawks films do – as a ragtag group of dedicated survivors pull together to defeat the threat of a hostile invasion from outer space. Carpenter’s film offers no such assurances, and as such is more in tune with the noirish temper of the present day era, in which “every person for themselves first” seems to be the governing principle.

So, if you haven’t seen The Thing, do so now, but only in the proper CinemaScope ratio; in addition to Bottin’s astounding and thankfully pre-digital special effects, the actors Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Richard Dysart and Keith David – superb performers all – have seldom had better roles. Then, too, Bill Lancaster‘s astonishingly bleak screenplay and dialogue for the film make a distinct contribution to the proceedings. The production of the film was by all accounts grueling, but the end result is more than worth it. And so it’s nice to see this letter again after some thirty years (!!) and have a chance to share it with the readers of this blog.

A special thanks goes out to David Dutcher, who found this letter, and sent it on – thanks, Dutch!

How Francois Truffaut And Jean-Luc Godard Changed Cannes

Sunday, May 15th, 2016

Cannes, 1968: Claude Lelouch, Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Louis Malle, Roman Polanski

The Cannes Film Festival today- it’s going on right now – has turned into such total glitz and glamour that it’s become a shadow of what it used to be. It was always a marketplace, but it was also a place of ideas, where revolutionary ideas in the cinema were discussed, and sometimes put into practice.

In the industry journal Deadline, which is not really known for historical coverage, preferring to focus on the here and now of the movie business, there is nevertheless today a short but remarkable essay on Cannes 1968, when the festival was shut down by a group of directors who refused to buckle under to governmental interference in the arts.

As Ali Jaafar writes, “before there was Occupy Wall Street or Nuit Debout, there was Paris, 1968. In a revolutionary year—think the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, Bobby Kennedy’s assassination—May was a particularly revolutionary month. Student protests in the City of Lights against capitalism, consumerism and traditional values, some say emboldened by their victory in re-instating the much-cherished head of the iconic Cinematheque Francaise, Henri Langlois, after he had been briefly dismissed by the De Gaulle government, took over the city on May 3, Red Friday.

Within days, the trade unions had joined in, millions of people around the country were demonstrating and France was brought to the verge of standstill. In Cannes, meanwhile, life was—initially at least—proceeding as normal. The 21st edition of the world’s most prestigious film festival kicked off on May 10 with a restored version of Gone with the Wind. As the protests spread across the country, however, so too did the enfants terribles of French cinema, Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, who hit the Croisette with one goal: to shut down the festival.

On May 13, the French Critics Association issued a statement calling on those present to demonstrate in solidarity of the students, protest against the heavy-handed tactics of the police, and demand the festival be suspended. Festival founder and longtime president Robert Favre le Bret refused. As a concession, he offered to cancel parties and cocktails. That wasn’t enough, however, for the impassioned leaders of the French New Wave, one of whom—Claude Lelouch—actually reported for revolutionary duty in Cannes on-board his private yacht.

Fervor was spreading as the three musketeers of Godard, Truffaut and Lelouch set about disrupting the festival, enlisting members of the jury—including Roman Polanski—and filmmakers, some of whom like Carlos Saura even had their own films in the festival, to the cause. During one heated debate, Godard lost his cool, screaming at someone against cancelling the festival: ‘We’re talking about solidarity with the students and the workers and you’re speaking about travelling shots and close-ups’ . . .

When the festival tried to go through with the screening of Carlos Saura’s Peppermint Frappė against the wishes of the filmmakers, Saura and leading lady Geraldine Chaplin, along with Truffaut and Godard, tried to grab hold of the curtain in front of the screen to prevent it from opening; hanging on like leaves on a tree. There were fist fights. Godard lost his glasses while Truffaut took a tumble.

Eventually, Le Bret relented, reluctantly, and cancelled the festival on May 19, five days before its intended close. Cannes would never be the same again. The following year, a new section was introduced, Directors’ Fortnight, that would become a showcase for radical, daring and revolutionary voices . . . ‘We started Directors’ Fortnight because we wanted to have a festival inside the festival. Cannes did not agree to change some of the regulations,’ says Pierre-Henri Deleau, who ran it for three decades.

‘The first year, we didn’t even know we had to ask for permission from the French customs to allow 35mm prints into the country, so the first two films we had scheduled were delayed. We didn’t even have a catalogue. Just a poster with the names of the films. But, to our surprise, it was a big success. So we kept on doing it.’

Over the years, the selection of Directors’ Fortnight, or the Quinzaine, would continue to seek to push the envelope, whether in terms of showing creatively bold films or simply films from countries never selected for a major festival before. ‘We showed the first films from Cuba post-revolution, for example, or Asia and Latin America. Back then, the competition was quite conservative,’ says Deleau.

‘It was always France, Germany, Spain, Italy, the US and the UK. The selection was like diplomacy. You have to remember in those days there were only three unions: the producers, distributors and exhibitors. There was no voice for the creators and directors. We wanted Directors’ Fortnight to represent the fight against censorship.’

As for the long-term legacy of 1968, there is no doubt that the events in Paris, the country as a whole, and Cannes that year, changed the festival, even if not ultimately exactly the way the great agitators initially envisaged. Ironically, the political fight may have contributed to the eventual breakdown in the friendship between Truffaut and Godard. Godard’s strident declarations and behavior marked him out as a genuine political radical, in contrast to Truffaut, whose main concern was, and remained, cinema.

‘Truffaut was never political,’ says Deleau. ‘He always refused to be associated with one specific party. Ultimately, 1968 was not a revolution. It was not even the beginning of a revolution. It was a happening. The festival did change over the years, in some ways for the better, especially under Gilles Jacob when it became the festival that was choosing the films in selection, and not the producer countries.

But what happened in 1968 could never happen again today. Now, it’s all a question of business and promotion. There are too many films. How can a critic see 70 or 80 films? The real power isn’t in the hands of the director or the producer anymore. The people selling the films are in charge.'”

Yes, today Cannes is a commercial market above all else. But then again, things that go around come around, so to speak, and every so often, the cinema – like all the other arts – reinvents itself. Perhaps something like this, at another festival, with other directors who refuse to accept the status quo of the comic book movie DC / Marvel Universe present may eventually assert itself.

In the meantime, this article, and the events of May 1968, serve to remind us that film has always been torn between two polar opposites; it’s a business, and it’s an art form. Right now, the business end is winning. But as history has shown us time and again, all overblown regimes eventually collapse under their own weight, and commercial cinema has always been – as Jean Cocteau once put it – “a little overripe.” What will happen next is anyone’s guess, but as long as the struggle between art and commerce continues, and the underlying tensions remains, change is always possible.

You can read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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