All invasion stories are allegorical, which makes this pair of movies a perfect vehicle to debut what I hope will be a fun, immersive series of essays and considerations. Released 30 years apart, during totally disparate cinematic and political moments, The Thing from Another World and its 1982 remake are both brilliant films in their own ways, and both equally reflective of their contexts and creators. Watching the two within a few days of each other was—and I don’t mean to overstate—a nearly profound experience. John Carpenter’s later version is so different in tone, pacing, attitude, and theme from the earlier one, directed by Christian Nyby, yet also so reverent in certain sly ways, that it made me realize how a remake, when done well, can be one of the most personally expressive forms of filmmaking, even when the material is as seemingly rote as a sci-fi monster movie.
So consider “Take Two” my own personal attempt to test this notion. I want to seek out notable remakes and explore what draws different filmmakers to the same material; to see the ways in which subtle (and unsubtle) changes in cinematic technique or artistic worldview can bring out new layers in a story; and to think about storytelling generally, particularly why different images or narrative conceits lend themselves to reimagining. I’d be grateful for any recommendations in the comments.
Ergo: a spaceship, thousands of years old, lodged inexplicably in the polar tundra, and containing a monster unlike any ever seen. That’s nearly the only element in common between the Nyby and Carpenter films, though they share a source novella, Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell Jr. The earlier film starts in Anchorage, where a reporter joins a half-dozen Air Force pilots for drinks. He’s in search of a story, and joins them when a mysterious call comes requesting their help in a remote scientific outpost. Nyby was an editor on some of Howard Hawks’s most famous films, including To Have and Have Not and Red River, and some critics have argued that Hawks, in fact, directed this film in addition to his credit as a producer. I find the contention irrefutable, given that Nyby’s subsequent directorial career was relatively undistinguished, and since The Thing from Another Planet (the descriptive clause added retrospectively when Carpenter’s version came out) exhibits more than a few quintessentially Hawksian trademarks. In its expository first half, the dialogue whips by with the same vocal energy as His Girl Friday, while the leisurely narrative pace and close-quartered scenery recall Rio Bravo. This is quite simply the most dialogue-dense thriller I’ve ever seen, yet also somehow one of the most unhurried:
Indeed, it’s almost a shame whenever the Thing comes on screen; there are barely any special effects to speak of, and the eventual discovery that the alien is actually a kind of extraterrestrial carrot-man irrevocably robs the monster of any real villainous presence. But The Thing from Another Planet feels unbelievably modern in its quieter, human scenes, when relationships are established through scraps of overlapping dialogue and hectic group shots. This is essentially a snowbound Rules of the Game, made on a modest scale and punctuated by overzealously scored scenes of zombie rampage.
There’s a clever reference to Hawks’s propagandistic Sergeant York in the scene above, and without question the most awkward element of The Thing from Another World is its unrepentantly pro-military, anti-science ending. We’re made to sympathize with the no-nonsense Captain Hendry, played by Kenneth Tobey, who not only gets the sassy Hawksian gal (Margaret Sheridan) and defeats the alien, but also overpowers the crew’s madman biologist, Dr. Carrington (Robert O. Cornthwaite). The film’s famous final line—“Keep watching the skies!”—isn’t the nerd call to arms that it’s often interpreted to be; instead, it’s a warning (and plea) to future soldiers.
The motley gang that encounters the Thing in John Carpenter’s 1982 film is, tellingly, not comprised of soldiers at all. Unprepared to fight, defined by individual eccentricity, and rife with paranoia, they are instead a group of Antarctic researchers who convey a distinctly post-Vietnam level of fatigued counterculturalism. This is best seen in Kurt Russell’s comically named character, MacReady, who knows how to handle a helicopter and a flamethrower, but who also skulks around like James Dean and hides behind a big pillow of facial hair like Jim Morrison circa L.A. Woman.
The Thing borrows liberally from then-recent box-office successes like Alien and The Shining, and it’s been criticized for supposedly trampling over the insinuative horror of the 1951 version in favor of gruesome effects, but damn it all—this is one of the scariest, and greatest, horror films I’ve ever seen. Carpenter’s style is more naturalistic than The Shining’s and his setup somehow feels less contrived than Alien’s. This is fundamentally a movie about the erosion of trust within a small community, and the disgusting special effects add to the interpersonal tension rather than simply cause us to cringe, as in, say, David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly four years later. For The Thing to work, the audience needs to feel as helpless and outmatched as the crew, and so the monster’s endless variety of slithering, fanged guises—insect, dog, reptile, squirming innards, and of course, human—actually serves a structural purpose. The Thing may be the most successful visualization of H.P. Lovecraft’s approach to horror, where monsters and scenarios are nightmarish precisely because they are so inhumanly ugly, and so free of earthbound biological dimensions.
Carpenter was one of many ‘80s directors who wore their affinity for ‘50s cinema proudly and obviously; a similar obsession with berserk science, high-concept effects bonanzas, and breezy political awareness can be seen in the work of Joe Dante, Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, Joe Johnston, John Landis, and others, though The Thing exhibits none of those directors’ zaniness. Instead, Carpenter takes Hawks and Nyby’s basic plotline and removes the madcap pacing and romantic subplot, relocates the action to the southern hemisphere, and leaves his camera to linger on the desolate landscape in his early scenes. The narratives and small physical locations of The Thing from Another World and Rio Bravo informed Carpenter’s earlier films like Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween, yet in The Thing, ostensibly his most direct homage, he almost literally rips up the script and starts again; his film is a grim existential nightmare more indebted to Agatha Christie and Samuel Beckett than to Hawks’s warm professionalism. The Thing has suffered critically in comparison to its forebear, but it’s long overdue for reconsideration. Rather than a nihilistic and perverse remake of a beloved camp landmark, it’s a technically flawless acknowledgment that the rules of the horror genre changed as the Cold War lost its novelty. Given Carpenter’s professed love for Hawks’s work, The Thing might even be best appreciated as a reflection on the limits of artistic influence.
John Lingan lives and writes outside of Washington, DC. He blogs at Busy Being Born.
Review: That Was Something Lays Bare the Ephemeral Desires of a Lost Youth
By the end, the lesson we’ve learned is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft.
Film and theater critic Dan Callahan’s witty debut novel, That Was Something, chronicles the young adulthood of Bobby Quinn, a gay Midwestern transplant who’s just moved from Chicago to Manhattan to attend New York University. Retrospectively, it examines his obsession with the two leading players in the story of his early days in the city in the late 1990s: the enigmatic Ben Morrissey, an irresistible fellow student destined for fame in the art world, and the mysterious Monika Lilac, a dramatic and performative slightly older cinephile whose devotion to silent films is emblematic of her entire character. “I was looking for the keys to the kingdom, and I found them or thought I did in Manhattan screening rooms, in the half-light and the welcome dark,” Bobby declares to the reader in the novel’s opening, and so begins a provocative—and conspicuously wine-drenched—narrative that serves both as a paean to a bygone era and an emphatic testimony about how we never really leave behind the people, experiences, and places that shape us into who we are in the present.
For a fleeting period of time, the lives of these three characters become intertwined and united by their shared passion for the cinema—and for each other. While Ben and Monika enter into a tumultuous romance, Bobby watches from the sidelines as he privately explores his own sexuality, mostly in dalliances with anonymous older men who he meets at bars in Chelsea, having learned to offer himself up “as a kind of virgin sacrifice.” Throughout, Callahan’s frank descriptions of Bobby’s early sexual experiences are a welcome departure from metaphor, while still seeming almost mythical in the way that Bobby recalls them, just like how all of the liminal moments in our lives—the moments in which we cross a threshold and permanently abandon whoever we had been before—seem to mark our personal histories almost like the transitions between the disparate chapters of a novel.
Bobby has been deeply in love with Ben ever since the two met for the first time in a common area of their shared dormitory at NYU, and Ben keeps Bobby only barely at arm’s length—sexually and otherwise—throughout the dazzling weeks, months, and even years of their relationship as young men. He constantly reminds Bobby that they would probably be lovers if only Ben were gay, which is obviously music to Bobby’s ears, fueling many of his private fantasies. And Bobby is also the prized subject of Ben’s budding photography career, often photographed in the nude, and both the photographs themselves and the act of bringing them into the world blur lines of sexuality and masculinity as the friendship between the two young men deepens and becomes increasingly complex.
Callahan cocoons his characters in what feels like a time capsule, capturing them at their most beautiful and glamorous and then presenting them to us as if on a stage—or on a screen, which the characters in the novel would agree is even more intimate, even more akin to a grab at immortality. Other characters drift in and out of the central narrative in the same way that one-night stands and people we’ve met only at dimly lit parties can sometimes seem blurry and indistinct when we try to recollect them later, but the love story that Bobby is most interested in sharing with the reader is that of a queer young man’s obsession with his larger than life friends during a time when everything for him was larger than life.
Callahan’s previous book, The Art of American Screen Acting: 1912-1960, demonstrates the author’s talent for dissecting the subtlety and nuance of the many nonverbal ways in which the icons of the screen communicate with one another, and here too in That Was Something is close attention paid to the power of performance. The novel is also a story about falling in love with a city, even in retrospect—and even after the version of the city that you originally knew is gone forever. And in the familiar yet always poignant way in which the sights and sounds of a lost New York typically wriggle their way into a novel like this one, the city is at first a backdrop before it inevitably becomes a character.
Monika Lilac hosts a silent film-themed party at her house during which the guests have been cleverly instructed to pantomime their communication to one another rather than speak out loud, and to write out any absolutely necessary dialogue on handmade title cards. At the end of the party, the various revelers—wearing only their underwear, at Monika’s command—all together “streamed out into the night and ran like crazy” through New York City streets while being pummeled from above by heavy rain, not caring at all who was watching. And Bobby, from the vantage point of years in the future, recalls:
In any other place, we might have been harassed, arrested, or the object of wide-eyed stares. Not in Manhattan. And that has its flip side, too. Because Manhattan will let you do whatever you like, at any time of the day or night, but it won’t ever pay attention to you. You can be world famous, and Manhattan still basically doesn’t care, most of the time. And if you aren’t world famous, Manhattan regards you at several ice-slicked levels below indifference. And sometimes, on less wonderful days and nights, some attention might be welcome.
In a blurb on the novel’s back cover, Wayne Koestenbaum describes That Was Something as “The Great Gatsby on poppers,” and there’s definitely something of Nick Carraway in the voice of Bobby Quinn as he looks back at his disappearing New York and the people who populated it, the ghost of a city that disappeared forever the moment he looked away. Callahan’s novel enters the canon of the queer roman a clef—as well as the literary New York novel—by mixing vibrantly realized memories of a fleeting youth, ruminations on the origins of desire, and a deeply felt nostalgia for the way things once were into a cocktail that tastes exactly like growing up and growing older in the same city in which you were once young. And the hangover after a night spent knocking them back in the dim light of a Manhattan dive, as anyone who still occasionally haunts the haunts of his youth can tell you, is always brutal.
Bobby is now many years older as he narrates That Was Something, his desires tempered or at least contained by realistic expectations of how and in what ways they might be satisfied, and his relationships with Ben (now famous) and Monika (now vanished) are either nonexistent or else greatly demoted from the centrality that they had once firmly occupied in the narrative of his life. But there’s still urgency in what Bobby is telling the reader. In the novel’s brilliant final pages, we come to realize that the act of looking back at our younger selves is both masturbatory and transitory, mostly an exercise in framing. Bobby has been explaining how age has made him wistful about his moment in the sun, but then he’s suddenly remembering a fantasy that he once enacted alone one afternoon in his dorm room, back when he was still a virgin—and back when all of his fantasies were about Ben Morrissey:
I entered another place with my mind. It felt like what stepping into the past would feel like now, maybe. It was forbidden, and I was getting away with it. … Looked at from the outside and with unsympathetic eyes, it would be pitiful and grotesque, maybe even laughable. So why am I still so certain that something else occurred?
The lesson we’ve learned by the end of That Was Something is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft. Just think of all that film that ends up on the cutting room floor during the editing process, to be forgotten and swept away with the garbage after the best take has been safely delivered. Only with the benefit of hindsight can we wipe away the shame and growing pains of early stabs at love and failed expressions of desire and instead render the past beautifully, artfully, just as the cinematic film frame limits our perspective so that all we can see is what the director has meticulously manufactured specifically for us. The equipment that made the image possible in the first place has been painstakingly concealed, so that all we notice—all we remember—is whatever ends up remaining beneath the carefully arranged spotlight.
Sometimes a great novel, like a great film, can at once transform and transport us, offering a glimpse into a lost world made all the more beautiful by the distance it asks us to travel into our hearts and minds. At the end of one of the last film screenings that Bobby attends in the company of Monika Lilac, she says wistfully to him, “You know, you’re downhearted, and you think, ‘What’s the use?’ and then you see a film like that and it speaks to you and suddenly you’re back in business again!” And the film they’ve been watching, she has just whispered to Bobby as the credits rolled in the emptying theater, was the story of her life.
Dan Callahan’s That Was Something is now available from Squares & Rebels.
Blu-ray Review: Peppermint Soda Gets 2K Restoration from Cohen Media Group
Diane Kurys’s poignant debut powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth.
Diane Kurys’s Peppermint Soda is like flipping through a young girl’s diary, capturing as it does snippets of the small-scale tragedies, amusing hijinks, and quotidian details that define the lives of two Parisian teenage sisters over the course of their 1963-to-‘64 school year. Through a delicate balancing of comedic and dramatic tones, Kurys’s debut film taps into the emotional insecurities and social turmoil that accompany the awkward biological developments of adolescence with a disarming sweetness and subtlety, lending even small moments a poignancy that shuns overt displays of sentimentality or nostalgia. As evidenced by the opening title card, in which Kurys dedicates the film to her sister “who has still hasn’t returned my orange sweater,” Peppermint Soda’s authenticity arises from its specificity, both in its characters’ tumultuous inner lives and the detailed rendering of their friends and teachers, as well as the classrooms within which they passed their days.
Structured as a series of loosely connected vignettes, the film bounces between the introverted 13-year-old Anne (Eléonore Klarwein) and her outgoing, popular 15-year-old sister, Frédérique (Odile Michel), who both attend the same strict, bourgeois private school. While Anne’s concerns often verge on the petty, be it her frustration at her mother (Anouk Ferjac) refusing to buy her pantyhose or at her sister for preventing her from tagging along to social gatherings, Kurys depicts Anne with a uniquely compassionate eye, mining light humor out of such situations while remaining keenly aware of the almost insurmountable peer pressures and image-consciousness that are the driving forces behind most irrational teenage behavior.
Some scenes, such as the one where Anne’s art teacher ruthlessly mocks her drawing in front of the class, are representative of the emotionally abusive or neglectful relationship between Anne and many of the adults in her life, and throughout, Kurys understands that it’s how Anne is seen by her classmates that most dramatically affects her state of mind. In the heightened emotional state of teenage years, the sting of simply not having a pair of pantyhose can be more painful than a teacher’s overbearing maliciousness. But Peppermint Soda isn’t all doom and gloom, as the bitter disappointments of youth are counterbalanced with a number of droll passages of Anne gossiping and goofing off with her friends. Particularly amusing is a conversation where Anne’s friend confidently, yet with wild inaccuracies, describes sex, eventually guessing that boy’s hard-ons can grow to around six feet long.
In Peppermint Soda’s latter half, Kurys seamlessly shifts her focus toward Frédérique, broadening the film’s scope as current events begin to shape the elder sister’s political consciousness. Everything from John F. Kennedy’s assassination to a classmate’s terrifying firsthand account of the police’s violent overreaction to a student protest against the Algerian War lead Frédérique to slowly awaken to the complexities of the world around her. But even as Frédérique finds herself becoming quite the activist, handing out peace pins and organizing secret meetings in school—and much to the chagrin of her mother and her sexist, conservative teacher—she’s still prone to fits of emotional immaturity when it comes to her boyfriend.
It’s through these frequent juxtapositions of micro and macro concerns, when the inescapable solipsism of childhood runs head-on into the immovable hurdles and responsibilities of adulthood, that Peppermint Soda most powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth. Yet the sly sense of whimsy that Kurys instills in her deeply personal recollections acts as a comforting reminder of the humor tucked away in even our darkest childhood memories. Sometimes it just takes a decade or two to actually find it.
Peppermint Soda is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Cohen Media Group.
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing
If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt.
If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt, because we’d much rather give birth in a tub while surrounded by murderous blind creatures than have to once again write our predictions for the sound categories. As adamant as we’ve been that the Academy owes it to the nominees to air every category, which they agreed to after an extended “just kidding,” it might have given us pause had the sound categories been among the four demoted by Oscar. But no, we must now endure our annual bout of penance, aware of the fact that actually knowing what the difference is between sound editing and sound mixing is almost a liability. In other words, we’ve talked ourselves out of correct guesses too many times, doubled down on the same movie taking both categories to hedge our bets too many times, and watched as the two categories split in the opposite way we expected too many times. So, as in A Quiet Place, the less said, the better. And while that film’s soundscapes are as unique and noisy as this category seems to prefer, First Man’s real-word gravitas and cacophonous Agena spin sequence should prevail.
Will Win: First Man
Could Win: A Quiet Place
Should Win: First Man