Thursday, June 4, 2009

Movie Review: Memoirs of An Invisible Man (1992)

This week John Kenneth Muir and Joe Maddrey have been discussing late-era John Carpenter films on their blogs, examining Ghosts of Mars and Vampires respectively. As part of the discussion, the fact that Carpenter’s theatrical films since They Live (which basically means everything from 1992 forward) have met with reactions ranging from apathy to disdain has come up frequently. These have included Memoirs of An Invisible Man, In the Mouth of Madness, Village of the Damned, Escape From L. A., Vampires, and Ghosts of Mars. Honestly looking at just the titles you would think that he had an amazing decade. A tribute to Lovecraft, a remake of a classic with a Carpenter spin, a sequel to one of his greatest films, a reworking of his Assault on Precinct 13, and adaptations of two GREAT genre novels. The problem is that they all fail to reach the heights of his earlier efforts, and the frustrating part is it’s hard to nail down exactly why (with the exception of Village of the Damned which is just uniformly awful). The best way I know of summing up the problem is that while they are all solid three-star entertainment (with the exception of Village of the Damned which is just uniformly awful), they are missing some indefinable piece that leaves them feeling like an empty meal rather than a Big Trouble in Little China type feast. In order to continue the exploration of this phenomenon begun by my comrades in cinematic arms, I’ve decided to look at my personal favorite of the era (prepare to call me crazy) . . . Memoirs of An Invisible Man.

Okay let’s just get this out of the way first – I’m probably the only one on the planet who would rate Memoirs of An Invisible Man as the highlight of Carpenter’s post-They Live career. Many call it a non-Carpenter film due to the perceived departure from his regular themes and trademarks. This is not “John Carpenter’s Memoirs of An Invisible Man,” he doesn’t do the music, there are no regular Carpenter players (e.g. Peter Jason), etc. But does this really qualify it as a non-Carpenter film? I don’t think so. In my mind the superficial (albeit important) elements mentioned above are not nearly so important as the motivation behind the enterprise. As Joe Maddrey points out in his review of Vampires, Carpenter is often inspired by films and film experiences he grew up on (e.g. the Westerns of Howard Hawks). His style recalls those films of his youth (with modern sensibilities), and one can sense his joy in telling these tales that echo those that led him into filmmaking in the first place. He is a person who lives and breathes the moviegoing experience from another era, and masterfully translated that passion into a body of work that peaked somewhere in the mid-80’s.

This is not to say that nothing he has done since They Live is without value or merit, simply that no film since has caught fan imagination quite as successfully. Joe chalks it up to changes in audience tastes, and I’d venture to say he’s spot on in that analysis. Carpenter was most successful in focusing on suspense and portraying interesting characters. In our current era the focus is more on straight gore, quick cutting, and noise. Not that there isn’t a place for that (I like a noisy spectacle now and then myself), but it’s not Carpenter. His post-They Live output has felt like an attempt to keep his style intact, while uncomfortably pulling in current trends (the Masters of Horror episodes from Showtime are good/sometimes painful examples of this). The results are interesting, but never truly satisfying.

But I digress. Returning to why I think Memoirs qualifies as a Carpenter film, it’s because it recalls his love of films from his era. If Vampires is a play on Red River, and Ghost of Mars a play on Rio Bravo, then Memoirs is certainly Carpenter’s tribute to Hitchcock. It is nothing less than North By Northwest meets The Invisible Man, with Chevy Case as Cary Grant, Daryl Hannah as Eva Marie Saint, and Sam Neill as James Mason. In a nutshell it’s a wrong man, cross-country chase, featuring visually dazzling set pieces, an expansive orchestral score, and an undercurrent of humor. They even get on a train at one point. Having read the book (I’ll touch on that more in a moment) I can tell you that this Hitchcockian approach was developed for the movie, and I have to believe that’s what attracted Carpenter to this project. So with Memoirs I’d argue that Carpenter is doing nothing less than what he has done with so many of his movies, by adapting a version of a film favorite into another genre (sci-fi) perceived more agreeable to modern (circa-1992) audiences. So his name being absent before the title notwithstanding, this is most definitely a Carpenter film in the most important sense.

Having established the proposition that this is indeed a Carpenter film at the basic level (even if some of the familiar trappings are absent), I feel it wise to look at the strengths before exploring why it fails to attain classic status. So here are a few to ponder:

#1 – Chevy Chase: Chase took some pretty hard knocks for his performance in this, and for the life of me I can’t quite understand the harshness. I think the majority of the time his delivery works, and he seems truly weary of being the invisible man, having found out it’s not as fun as one would expect. This film really did him in though (with a little help from his talk show), but it’s a solid performance and I would have enjoyed seeing more of this side of him. Aykroyd and Murray got shots at drama, so why not Chase I ask you?

#2 – Sam Neill: In my mind Neill is the film’s unexpected gem. He is both suave and sinister and knocked the ball out of the park. Just watch the part where he has to pretend Chase has him at gunpoint with his arm behind his back, and you’ll see how invested he was in making it work. He was on the radar before this, but in my mind this was the beginning of his road to Jurassic Park and stardom.

#3 – The effects: While they still hold up well even now, in their day the invisibility effects in this were nothing short of astounding. The opening with the chewing gum, the reveal of the partially invisible building, Chase’s run through the rain, etc., are all pretty dazzling stuff.

#4 – The music: Great score by Shirley Walker right around the time she started doing Batman. Dramatic, thrilling, mysterious, sad . . . everything it needed to be.

#5 – The premise: Who can resist an invisible man chased by government agents intent on putting him to diabolical use?

#6 – The subtext: Underlying the North By Northwest mystery/adventure type premise on the surface, the film delves into what it truly means to be alone or invisible. Neill at one point states that Chase’s Nick Holloway had the perfect profile to begin with because he had no real connections in life with others. “He was invisible before he was invisible.” It’s this theme of being disconnected from others or alienated in some way that has resonance for all of us. At some point in our lives we’ve all felt invisible, and can identify with the experiences of Holloway in regard to the frustration of feeling “unseen.”

So those are a few things the film has going for it. Not too shabby, but there are some problems as well . . .

#1 – Chevy Chase: While I generally enjoy his performance in this, I think Joe hit the nail on the head in his analysis that we of a certain generation bring some baggage to a Chevy Chase film. Critics took issue with the fact that Chase couldn’t find a comfortable balance between the humor and the drama. In looking at the film I don’t think that’s the case. The fact is, as Joe points out, that anytime we see Chase embody the slightest comic relief our minds go immediately to Clark Griswold and any number of his other famous roles. So those moments in Memoirs that attempt to lighten the mood are perhaps more jarring because we are watching Chase. Joe suggests that it would be interesting to see what a newbie to Chase would make of the film, and count me curious on that point as well. Whatever the reaction, clearly Chase’s persona had an impact on how the film was received for better or worse.

#2 – Daryl Hannah: Visually Daryl Hannah fits the Hitchcock blonde role perfectly, but she never completely sells her character. She spent one dinner with Holloway, and suddenly upon discovering he’s invisible decides she’s in love with him. Her performance works well enough not to derail the movie completely, but it’s definitely a weak point.

#3 – The subtext: The underlying theme of isolation holds the film’s greatest strength and weakness. The adventure element which drives Memoirs keeps one’s attention, but the exploration of Holloway’s break from the world of the visible is what’s truly interesting and memorable. It gives the film a bit more depth and potential at reaching classic status. When I read the book (which is great, you should seek it out) after seeing the film I was surprised at how much it de-emphasized the adventure thread and focused on Holloway’s realization that no one missed him. Truly it was about an empty suit who regained his humanity by becoming invisible. The chase story was there, but it was not at the forefront. The film, by economic necessity, of course amps up the chase and pushes the introspective drama to the background. The problem is it pushes it too far back. If Carpenter could have found a better balance in this regard, I believe Memoirs would probably end up being one of those films like The Thing that received a positive reappraisal. (Note: On a similar thread, Vampires also departed too far from the source material and suffered the consequences. Steakley’s book was fantastic and it’s unfortunate that more of its detailing of the hunters and their background wasn’t retained.)

When all is said and done the 3 chief items keeping this film down are viewer baggage regarding Chase, a lack of clear Carpenter trademarks, and an uncomfortable balance between the adventure/comedy and dramatic elements. In spite of these difficulties the film has a lot going for it, including an interesting premise, solid production values, and some fine performances. I would submit that if one can get past a few understandable biases, Memoirs of An Invisible Man can easily take a comfortable position with the better films of the post-They Live era. Unfortunately I’m betting it’s likely to remain invisible for the foreseeable future.


John Kenneth Muir said...

Hey Jim!

This is a fascinating, spirited defense of MEMOIRS. Your comparison to Hitchcock is illuminating and persuasive, I think.

Now I need to re-visit this one too...

Linking now...

Jim Blanton said...

Thanks John. I'm happy to do anything I can to bring a little love to this (in my opinion) unfairly maligned film. Like the best from the later-era it just misses the mark, but it's still mostly solid. If he could've just brought out a little more of the book it might have been great.

On the positive side of things (always about the positive), at least Carpenter kept getting decent projects after this. Poor Chevy Chase ended up in Cops and Robbersons, Man of the House, and Snow Day. The horror, the horror!

Joe said...

Great essay! I really want to like this film more than I do... I wish I could just turn off my inner Chevy Chase monologue.

The Bill Murray comparison is interesting. Why was he "allowed" to make the transition to drama and not Chase? Is it because we, the audience, always perceived a real person behind Murray's comic persona... but not behind Chase's persona?

Jim Blanton said...

Thanks Joe! I understand that difficulty. When you think about it though, the perception that there isn't a "real person" behind Chase (due to his sarcastic onscreen persona) actually fits perfectly with the shallow Holloway. It's ideal casting for his foray into drama.

Memoirs wasn't the first time his stab at comedy/drama was rejected though. Don't forget William Friedkin's Deal of the Century, which is also a bit underrated in my opinion. Kind of like Carpenter's later work, Friedkin was also hit and miss post-Sorceror (with the exception of To Live and Die in L. A. of course). Chase isn't bad in that either, and his sarcastic manner fits well with that character also.