Saturday, August 15, 2015

#213: Assault on Precinct 13 (John Carpenter, 1976)

I've been staring at my computer screen blankly for the last hour, trying to figure out how to start this post. Often, it's the movies I love the most that are the hardest to write about. And I love most John Carpenter films, especially his great '70s and '80s run from Dark Star to They Live. I'm a huge fan. His first two decades of work gave me many formative childhood and teenage memories.
Even though he's made popular hits and cult classics, he still doesn't get the respect and reputation he deserves. Like fellow genre travelers Joe Dante and George Romero, he's been ill-treated by the Hollywood machine in the last 20 years. These guys should get mentioned alongside Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, Altman, and the rest of the American heavy-hitters who made their initial splash in the late '60s and/or '70s, and they should get more chances to make more movies their own way with the resources, scripts, and actors they choose. In a lot of ways, they're tougher, stronger, and sharper filmmakers than the guys who hog all the attention (and it's always guys who hog all the attention -- I have a separate but somewhat related rant about great women filmmakers of this era getting to make less films than their male peers, which is still a major problem even if things are slowly improving).
Assault on Precinct 13 is a lean, tough, exhilarating, suspenseful thriller with a great use of atypical Los Angeles neighborhood location shooting, physical space, silence and noise, spooky electronic music, and a skillful and intelligent eye that knows how to turn low budgets into a plus instead of a minus. I wish I could live in a world where movies like this came out every week.
Assault on Precinct 13 was Carpenter's second film. It followed Dark Star, a burnout existential science fiction comedy that plays like Jacques Tati, Cheech & Chong, Stanley Kubrick, Ishiro Honda, and a group of acid-fried surfers had to make a film together for a thousand bucks and it somehow worked, and preceded his first huge hit, the instant-classic horror film Halloween, for a long time the most financially successful independent film ever made, which led to Carpenter's intermittently successful but often troubled relationship with Hollywood. Precinct 13 shared Dark Star's scarce resources and Halloween's effective use of silence and physical space to create tension and suspense, and it shows how much of an innate filmmaker he was even at this early stage. He knows how to do a lot with a little.
Carpenter's favorite director (and one of my favorites) is Howard Hawks, and he modeled this film on the Hawks template of an unlikely group of heroes, including a cool, tough-talking woman ("the Hawksian woman" eventually became a film studies term), having to band together to face a difficult challenge. Hawks made films in several genres, particularly the western, the screwball comedy, and the film noir, and he returned to this template again and again, proving its classic durability and flexible molding to any genre. The Hawks film Carpenter is most indebted to here is Rio Bravo, arguably Hawks' greatest western, in which John Wayne's small-town lawman has to face a siege with only Dean Martin's drunk, Walter Brennan's crippled old man, Ricky Nelson's naive young gunslinger, and Angie Dickinson's card cheat for assistance, though Laurie Zimmer's performance here owes much more to Lauren Bacall in Hawks' To Have and Have Not. Assault on Precinct 13 is, at its core, a western given a fresh coat of paint as a suspense thriller with action and horror elements and a relentless murderous street gang taking the place of outlaws on horseback.
In Carpenter's version of the Hawks template, six members of the Street Thunder gang are gunned down by police. The gang may be racially diverse, but they are homogeneous in their worship of nihilism, revenge, and murder. They're bad guys who don't care about their own lives or anyone else's, but the cops gunned them down without much justification. A group of fellow gang members decides to hit the streets and kill some people -- it doesn't matter who -- to satisfy its blood lust. Meanwhile, precinct 13 is moving to a new location and will only be open for one more night. New lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) has to spend his first day on the job babysitting the mostly deserted station, directing anyone who stops in or calls to the new precinct. The phone lines and electricity are being shut down the next morning.
He's not too thrilled about it, but he rolls with it. Bishop is a black lieutenant in a mostly white force. The film doesn't belabor this point, just subtly highlights it in a few lines of dialogue. He's joined by the secretary, Julie (Nancy Loomis), and a dispatcher?? (hinted at but kind of unclear), Leigh (Laurie Zimmer), as well as a few on-duty officers. A few hours into the shift, a prison bus hauling some criminals to a high-security facility several hours away makes an emergency stop due to one prisoner's serious illness. These prisoners include Wells (Tony Burton) and charismatic murderer Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston). They hold them in the handful of cells in the mostly abandoned precinct. Through a series of intense and nutty events, the street gang lays siege to the precinct, and police and criminals alike have to band together to stay alive.
A reporter once asked Howard Hawks for his philosophy on what makes a movie successful, and Hawks famously replied, "A good movie is three good scenes and no bad scenes." This is a pretty accurate description of Assault on Precinct 13. We get the ice cream truck scene, the siege on the precinct, and the trapped victims building a plan and fighting back. Three great scenes. In between, we get an atmosphere of silent dread, character development, tension building, dry humor, a skilled balance between quiet moments and intense action, and an avoidance of clunky exposition and over-explanation. No bad scenes.
I'm also a big fan of Carpenter's cast of working and character actors in this film. I'm confused and baffled by the numerous reviews that mention how the movie works in spite of the clunkiness, shittiness, awkwardness, and/or mediocrity of the performances. When it comes to general movie opinions (or anything, really), I'm continually reminded that I don't understand where many of my fellow human beings are coming from aesthetically, and they probably feel the same way about me. We live in the world together and interact with each other, but each of our inner lives are separate apartments impermeable to any other person. It's surprising that any of us make connections with each other, especially us highly irritable introverts. This was a long, digressive way of saying that I find so many professional Hollywood acting performances overly slick, emotionally sterile, and disconnected from life, while so many nonprofessional and character performances in low-budget and independent films, despite or most likely because of their occasional awkwardness, lack of polish, and/or limitations, feel so honest, emotionally moving, interesting, funny, compelling, and cinematic. I think we're brainwashed into thinking the polished, the slick, and the professional are superior to the raw, the awkward, and the natural. Life is awkward. Living human people are fucking awkward. I like awkward.
You know what's not awkward, though? Carpenter's direction of this movie. He's damn good and so is this movie, and it was a thrill to see it again. It had been too many years since I last gave it a spin, and it gets better each time. I would also like to point out that this is a movie that is unafraid to kill children, which, as I've said before, is horrible in real life but awesome in a movie. Weird fact: the kid who gets shot in this movie (Kim Richards) is Paris Hilton's aunt. She was a child actor in the '70s who had a natural, unaffected delivery and seemed like a real salt-of-the-earth type (the magic of Hollywood) but is now a reality TV star on one of those Real Housewives shows. All of our lives are weird, but some people's lives are really, really weird.

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