Photos by James Hjertholm (jameshjertholm.com)
People really love John Carpenter. From those of us huddled high up in the gods (or as Americans call them, the nosebleed seats) to the chosen few with a front-row view, there is a buzz of real anticipation. The lights go down, a band walks on, and the applause begins. Not for the band, though. The applause is for Assault on Precinct 13, The Thing, Escape from New York, Halloween, They Live. I bet a few nostalgics were even applauding The Fog (sorry, not I: even 12 year old me thought that enchanted mist appearing on radar was dumb, no matter how many zombie pirates lurked within it).
And at the center of it, the man himself: the trademark mustache, long white hair, black clothes and playful grin. Not many directors get to bask in such direct, wordless admiration as they revisit what amounts to almost their entire working life. Nor does he shy away it. You get the sense that John Carpenter is sharing his films and music with the enthusiasm of a fan rather than a creator. There is much impish fun to be had in horror, as he demonstrates when the entire band dons matching black sunglasses during their rendition of the theme to They Live.
There is a fundamental question lurking around the concert hall this evening: does the music stand up on its own? The large screen that acts as a backdrop for Carpenter and the band gives you something of a hint: the music is accompanied by clips from his films, but rather than functioning simply as support for the music, the visuals end up dominating attention. During songs from his Lost Themes albums, the screen remains blank, reinforcing the feeling that something is missing.
Is that such a scathing criticism of Carpenter’s musical output? Or is it instead a testament to how well his music combined with his movies? My own problem with the Lost Themes is that they fundamentally misunderstand the appeal of his soundtracks. Yes, the trademark synth sounds are there, but at least in the live setting, the guitars and drums detract from the alien, inhuman quality that we admire in his earlier work. And when you do add guitar and drums to John Carpenter, you can either sound like Mogwai (great) or like, well, a John Carpenter cover band.
Perhaps the problem is exactly that his music has been so influential. We have seen it transmuted over the years in a variety of interesting ways, to the point that there isn’t much that he himself can add. But at the end of the night, despite some irritation with the guitar playing and the drum levels, the main thought in my head was that I need to watch a lot more of JC’s films.