ACIDEMIC Journal of Film and Media

Death Driving Ms. Henstridge
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Erich Kuersten

2001 saw the premiere of one of the funniest reverse-gendered sci fi westerns of the early 1980’s,-- John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars. It’s set in 2017... on Mars, of course, which has been settled by rugged frontiersmen shot out from earth or subsequently born there, who mine the redness from the rocks for riches, and work on changing the atmosphere to oxygen (it's currently breathable, but makes you dizzy quick without a "breather" tube under your nose). Mars has a matriarchal government which is in the process of investigating a mining “incident.” This involves lots of flashbacks to Natasha Henstridge and Pam Grier in black leather coats. They ride on a cool black train out to a remote mining town called Shining Canyon, there to take custody of suspected felon Desolation Williams (Ice Cube).

 The skies are always jet black, the sandy, hilly ground is always deep red; add some sexy cops and robbers and you got yourself a party. The events of the investigation, which involve alien possession and cops and crooks teaming up for "dominion" are related via a loop-de-loop flashback by the sole survivor of the ordeal, Lt. Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge). She is rebellious, this one. She's got the Snake Plissken part, She pops little white pills (called "clear") that make her hallucinate; she mouths off against her commanding officer (Pam Grier), and the matronage.
Just from this description you should be able to tell that this is a great, so-behind-it’s-ahead-of-its-time movie. The same quality for which it will be revered one day is the quality for which it bombed. 
Revered as he is in France and Germany, a lot of American critics still think Carpenter’s films are cheap and dumb, a sentiment Carpenter is seldom quick to deny. But though the vanishing American auteur may rightly dismiss the metaphorical and symbolic richness of his own work (as befits his laconic character), this habit on the part of the so-called American "intellectual" critic smacks of insecurity, as if they remain terrified to call something art unless it has the Emma Thompson in a period gown stamp of approval.  The French might take the time to psychoanalyze our junk cinema, but our own respected critics wouldn't dare. As Roland Barthes once noted “To be a critic by profession... is to elevate one’s blindness or dumbness to a universal rule of perception...’I don’t understand, therefore you are idiots.’" (1)
It's true that on many levels Ghosts of Mars fails as art or science fiction, and as a comedy it is simply too deadpan; the fascist satire of Paul Verhoeven’s misunderstood Starship  Troopers is glaring and trite by comparison. But as a revisionist Jack Hill-ish, Walter-Hillish, Howard Hawksish homage/satire  on Howard Hawk's Rio Bravo (1959) it succeeds quite well. The trouble is, no one is looking for a movie like that, except me and maybe you.... soon.

The film's true greatness is revealed during a scene where Ballard describes describing an investigation of a strange noise outside the jail. In the flashback we watch as Ballard stunnedly relays the tale of watching in horror as a miner slit his own throat in a locked, parked truck while she hammers on the door without. A few seconds later her fellow cop, Jericho (Jason Statham), appears at her side, asking what happened. As Melanie relates the story of the dead guy in the truck, we actually flash back within her flashback to replay the guy in the truck scene, as it just happened, now in double flashback voiceover! It's a triumphant triple flip! 
In one fell stroke Carpenter wipes the line between intentional and unintentional humor clean away.
Carpenter the auteur--like most iconoclastic American auteurs-is both intellectual and anti-intellectual--a true Yankee whose innate grasp of irony and symbolism is counterbalanced by his disdain for intellectual posturing. This is not a man who highlights his accidental brilliance in thick markers, ala Wong Kar Wai, nor a meticulous craftsman whose perfectionism creates its own sense of spontaneity ala Hitchcock or Kubrick. Rather Carpenter's work drunkenly staggers in between these two camps, professionally and capably serving lowbrow stories and letting the genius spring up in the floorboard cracks. Thus he amply fits Godard’s statement that "Americans have the kind of simplicity which brings depth (2)."  With Melanie's triple flashback the film takes itself around the deck for a nicely Brechtian respite, ala the "Madison" dance in Godard's Band of Outsiders. Wrenching us free of the story's tension as it doubles back on itself, it's as if for a second the serpent swallows its own tail and disappears. (As if to further the Godard comparison, the very last shot of Ghosts shows Ice Cube breaking from character to sneer directly into the camera, antithesizing  Anna Karina or Belmondo in Godard’s early work.)
Of course one can argue the Ghosts Vs. Godard, the auteur vs. "crateur" comparison and get nowhere. In Godard's films is there a carefully planned out script? No; he is making it up as he goes along. Are for example, the sudden on/off eruptions of soundtrack music in La femme est la femme some sort of avante garde disruption, or did he simply not know how to use a sound mixer? The answer is "blue." Similarly, the answer to the question of whether Carpenter's movie intentionally or unintentionally funny is "red."
In deference to his symbolic father, Howard Hawks (himself an icon of the French new wave), Carpenter is known for the care with which he maintains an "invisible" directorial style. Notice the ease with which Hawks throws any hint of realism out the window with his later comedies such as <i>Gentlemen Prefer Blondes</i> and <i>Man's Favorite Sport?</i> and so too does Carpenter deliberately break the rules of film language; there is plenty of overdone narration, confusing flashbacks, and pointless dissolve jump cuts. One must assume, based on Carpenter's well-established technical skills, that he is intentionally trying to offend, arousing the ire of the film school stuffed shirts in true iconoclastic fashion. 
Then there's the howlingly inane dialogue, which probably reaches its peak with the soon to be classic line "What would happen if we blew up the nuclear power plant? There'd be a big explosion, right?"  To ask whether these lines are intentionally funny or not is to miss the point, one might ask the same thing of the profound non-sequitors of Yogi Berra. To ask a Yogi whether he is an enlightened sage or a fool only proves that you yourself are not, as yet, the former, but most definitely the latter. The enlightened one realizes there is no difference between the two, except in the perceptions of those still squiggling in the web of illusion.
Carpenter's sense of humor has been established as notoriously sly (witness for example, the show-stopping, nine-minute brawl between Roddy Piper and Keith David in They Live) and are frequently misunderstood at the time of their release. In a 2001 interview he reminisced for example, about the critical failure of his Big Trouble in Little China back in 1986: "They weren't sure if Big Trouble was a comedy. They didn't get it, because their expectations were of an action film… if you play something really straight people laugh at it. They think it's like, 'How can you be so corny' (3)?"
Possibly Carpenter's humor is so deadpan it takes decades for the audience to catch up. Big Trouble in Little China is now a beloved cult classic after being rediscovered on video and cable. Now we "get" it. Perhaps it is because of Carpenter's rep as a "master of horror" that both China and Mars inherently carried a set of expectations at the time of their release, and expectations are something Carpenter is always happy to confound. They expected Jamie Lee Curtis and a chainsaw, he gives them goofy dead pan Saturday matinee escapism. Thus these films are ripe for "discovery" on Saturday afternoon cable, where there are no expectations at all.


 For its template, Ghosts of Mars lifts the structure of the western into outer space, where it undergoes a sexual and otherwise total reversal. Mars, the narrator tell us, is a colonized planet whose air is not 100% converted, and human settlers total a mere 640,000. But whereas in the 19th century "west" of Hollywood the sun seems to always shine bright on the pioneers, on Mars it is always darkest night. Where the west is won by brave men, Mars is ruled by the "Matronage," a bunch of angry menopausal mothers in gray tunics. On a sexually symbolic level, the western is a giant penis cutting a civilized swath through the savage plains, while Carpenter's "Mars-tern" is a giant vagina dentata, sucking all expansionism back into the black abyss, leaving just a roiling swell where Moby Dick’s Pequod used to be (3).
 Though a "matriarchy" might seem a good idea-Mars as a utopia free from war and other stupid man stuff-in Carpenter's vision it is also a joyless imitation of the patriarchy, with a practical coldness cloaked in feigned maternal compassion. When Lt. Melanie Ballard is first brought in to be questioned she seems ready to get racked over the coals, cockily demanding "am I on trial here?" The inquisitor (Rosemary Forsyth) tries to calm her down, saying "this is a discovery hearing" in a cold Nurse Ratchett-voice. The very sound of "discovery hearing" reeks of Oxygen channel authoritarian nurturing, but before the oddness of this scene can even register we are taking our first major flash back. Melanie's narration fades swiftly to an image of the squad of cops in their cool black jackets, in the cool black train to Shining Canyon. Melanie is second officer of the "first escort" police squad. Helena (Grier) is their leader, also a lesbian.
 The dialogue in these exposition scenes is genuinely strained and laughable, a compendium of slightly tweaked tough-talk cliché straight out of a million other films, as if the scripts of everything from 1942's Gung Ho on down was condensed into a school play. Before getting off the train Helena shouts; "I want you all jacked, ready and double-tough," but it has no authenticity. The matriarchal future has kept the worst of both worlds; the tough guy jabber still exists, but in the matriarchal schemata has become meaningless protocol. 
 After learning that they still have a few hours before arriving, Melanie pops one of her tetrahydracholoride pills, referred to as "clear," and has superimposed hallucinations of earth and ocean waves. Helena suddenly appears at her bunk, snapping her out of her trance, demanding to know if she's high. Melanie replies "for Christ's sake Helena, it's just clear."
 "I need you straight, Melanie,” Helena says. To which Ballard shoots back, "Don't worry, commander, I'm as… straight… as they come." A double-entendre!
 As Helena says slinks off, Jericho quits his poker game to approach Melanie: "I couldn't help overhearing your conversation with the queen bee," he says. Jericho's apparently thrilled to have discovered Melanie is, like himself, an actual heterosexual, apparently a real rarity on Mars.
 Thus Melanie finds herself desired by both Helena and Jericho, but Melanie meanwhile desires only escape, via drugs or death if need be (on the "dead" planet of Mars, Melanie's hallucinations of Earth conversely symbolize death). Melanie's character becomes the sole sex object of the film as well as the maternal subject. Yet this symbolic motherhood ties into her death drive as well, this being Mars. From a Lacanian model, her death wish represents (d) - the desire of the other, the phallus. Thus we as her unborn children in the viewing audience want to become death to please her, to convince her to, in effect, birth us into the mise en scene by killing us. She spends the whole movie looking over her shoulder wistfully, waiting for death/us to save her from these jerks she's with.
 Whether it is intentional on Henstridge's part or not, her flat, uninflected vocal delivery works to make her character seem as if she's dreaming, or role-playing. Her limitations become strengths; she drains the toughness from the tough dialogue, exposing the shallow emptiness of the pool, and its glassy bottom. For example as she explores the deserted town with Jericho she wearily describes life on Mars thus: "It's always cold, you can't get a decent shave, and a one year contract here equals two years earth time." It's weird to hear blonde beauty Henstridge complain about being unable to get a decent shave in a voice, that no matter how she tries, will probably never sound tough. Is she referring to her legs? Is she being rhetorical? Or have such macho signifiers been castrated of their signified, of what they would have meant in a sunlit, patriarchal western, where a shave is a shave is a shave? In the dark maternal womb of matriarchal Mars, a shave points back to the pre-linguistic nowhere land of Melanie's phallic longing, an ice cold death after a long hard day.

Next: The Playground Named DEATH!

c. 2004 Acidemic / Photos c. Screen Gems 2001

C. 2013 - Acidemic Journal of Film and Media - BFG LCS: 489042340244