ACIDEMIC Journal of Film and Media

Mom: A Jail
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Rio Bravo (1957)

 If we look at Rio Bravo and Ghosts of Mars as mirror opposites, it becomes clearer how the whole pre-oedipal scenario of the "besieged jail" taps into the death complex as well. The jail is safety and trap, where one is "held" as in a mother's arms. But if being safe inside the besieged prison fulfils our infantile regression fantasy as viewers, we are also on a very real level denied this regression in full, even in the context of the film. We are always conscious of being merely voyeurs,  intimidated sperm gazing up at the glowing egg-white screen, hammering at the screen doors of the maternal cinematic image. We despise the unloved hired guns of Nathan Burdett, the kid with the glasses at the start of Ingmar Bergman's Persona (1967) or the "lost boys" of Mars because they remind us of what we are as "socialized" adults: shut out, weened, permanently de-Edened. In the womb-like dream of cinema, these creatures loom outside the exit door, they are the unwashed and ticketless, ever reminding us that we will soon awaken and be one of them once more.
Rio Bravo of course came out in a different era than Ghosts of Mars, namely 1956: men were king of the work place, and boys grew up to be men in the shadow of gas rationing, air raid drills, and the very palpable threat of nuclear annihilation. Ghosts of Mars comes in a much different age, where women are industry captains and boys stay boys deep into their 30's. The gray flannel suited father has morphed into just another slacker loafing around the house, or one who fritters his commissions on jet skis and jaguars instead of child support.  In Carpenter's Martian future, this flip-flop of gender authority has bloomed into a full-blooded matriarchy. The "mature" women of Mars have even given up reproduction altogether; Melanie’s heterosexuality is as transgressive as her drugs or death wish. What makes this Martian inverse so interesting is how the death wish and being a "breeder" are so tied together. In effect the film is making a distinctly pro-abortion, anti-population growth statement; on Mars, reproduction is the primary threat to life.


 With the women refusing to give birth, there is no Oedipal jealousy in any way on part of the viewer, and the result intoxicating. Everyone both inside the screen and out are free to put on a human face mask and start throwing razor discs at each other without the least twinge of fear. This sense of liberation carries through the screen, making that once foreboding veil between viewer and cinematic image "crossable." When watching a great Hawks film like Rio Bravo, The Thing, or Only Angels Have Wings, the feeling of camraderie is so strong one gets the feeling they are hanging out with the actors on the set, having a beer with John Wayne and talking about the next scene. In Ghost of Mars the action scenes bear this mark especially. The stunt men, for example, seem to be having a great time. When a bomb blows and a Martian goes flying, he doesn't scream in pain so much as yowl like a professional wrestler. Everyone takes their times doing their choreographed fight moves. We hear the great, cheesy rock guitar soundtrack and we know that's Carpenter is playing on it. Everything is cool, no one is going to really get hurt.
This is the ultimate gift of this film, Carpenter does the fantasy of the death drive two steps better than anyone who came before. We are granted an arrival at the death drive's final destination, it's ultimate wish is granted, and at the same time we are lifted up over and past it. Instead of the expected placebo of genre, Carpenter delivers the real thing. The trouble is that the audience has become so used to the placebo they don't even remember what the real thing tastes like.
Usually when swept up in the narrative of a film we worry that the characters may die and so we are fooled into assuming ourselves immortal, watching from a position outside the realm of life and death. This is the same way dreams work-- in providing intense emotional stimulus, dreams intentionally keep us asleep. The emotional urgency they provide ensures we have no chance to lean back and become contemplative, thus realizing we are dreaming. Mars inverts this: we know that since Melanie is narrating, she wont even be wounded. Thus the emotional intensity of the movie is hobbled from the start. Ironically that puts us in the position of realizing that Natasha Henstridge, the actress, human, and mother, one day will die, that she already looks older than she did in Species. And we realize we too will die, that the film is itself but a brief experience. Ironically too, it is this awakening that provides the genuinely "real" escape. 
Ozu, Dreyer, Bresson, they get all the credit for being "transcendentalists" but for all that, they make dull films (I haven't even been able to drag my ass to see one). The real transcendental moments in cinema are when characters "wake up"  and realize that there is no mortality, no fear, desire, hunger, thirst  and time. They become free souls who can take a million mile journey in the time of a cross-dissolve and not even have to pretend their feet hurt. In Ghosts of Mars we are presented with the opportunity as viewers to not just admire one of these souls, but to have the option of being killed by her to awaken from the dream of cinema while in the cinema, to finally get that  "decent shave" and to live happily ever after even as a flying disc takes our head clean off.

Cube breaks the fourth wall for a sneer at the camera, Godard style

C. 2001 Screen Gems or whomever

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