Among their conventions, genre movies feature standard ways of representing gender, class, race, and ethnicity. Into the 1980s, genres and genre movies remained almost exclusively the cultural property of a white male consciousness, the center from which any difference regarding race, gender, and sexuality was defined and marginalized. In all the action genres, it was white men who performed heroic deeds and drove the narrative. In every type of action film, women and visible minorities assumed subsidiary and stereotyped roles, serving such narrative functions as helper or comic sidekick for the heroic white male. The hypothetical viewer of Hollywood genre movies traditionally was, like almost all of the filmmakers who made the movies, white, male, and heterosexual. This white masculine perspective was an inextricable part of the genre system, which was built on certain gendered assumptions. Generally, the action genres—adventure, war, gangster, detective, horror, science fiction, and of course, the western—were addressed to a male audience, while musicals and romantic melodramas (also known as "weepies") were marketed as "woman's films." This distinction bespeaks wider patriarchal assumptions about gender difference in the real world.
John Carpenter is known primarily for his slick action sequences, which have established him as one of Hollywood's most skillful directors of violence and suspense. Working mostly in the horror and science fiction genres, Carpenter also works on the scripts, special effects photography, and electronic music scores for his films.
While a graduate student in film at the University of Southern California, Carpenter made several short films, including The Resurrection of Bronco Billy , which won an Academy Award ® for Best Short Film in 1970, and, with classmate Dan O'Bannon, Dark Star , which he expanded into his first feature in 1974. Shot on a minuscule budget, Dark Star offers a blackly comic view of men in space overwhelmed by technology. Carpenter's follow-up, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), an audacious blend of Howard Hawks's western Rio Bravo (1959) and George Romero's cult horror classic Night of the Living Dead (1968), established the director as a promising young auteur. Carpenter's commercial breakthrough came with Halloween (1980), which launched a series of sequels (by other directors) and a cycle of similar slasher films. Halloween makes deft use of such techniques as the handheld camera and tension between foreground and background in the mise-en-scène to generate suspense and fear.
Carpenter works comfortably within genres, as with Halloween ; but he also sometimes mixes conventions and iconography, as with Escape from New York (1981), a science fiction action film; Big Trouble in Little China (1986), a comic martial arts fantasy; and Ghosts of Mars (2001), a science-fiction horror film. At times Carpenter's action sequences seem to transcend their narrative constraints to become pure cinema. Sequences such as the famous lengthy point-of-view shot that opens Halloween and the astronaut's chase of a mischievous alien creature through the ship's elevator shaft in Dark Star show Carpenter's undeniable command of action and suspense through rhythm, editing, and use of music.
Thematically, Carpenter's films are concerned with issues of communication and isolation. In Dark Star , as the ship's crewmen grow apart through boredom and indifference, outer space becomes a metaphor for the psychological isolation of the crew. The final images of Carpenter's remake of The Thing (1982) show the last two surviving men warily sitting opposite each other, separated by the wide-screen composition, their mutual distrust graphically rendered in the image. They Live (1988), a science-fiction action film, cleverly offers a critique of mass culture in its story of a blue-collar worker who discovers a pair of sunglasses that allows him to see the subliminal messages, secretly delivered by aliens busily stripping the Earth of natural resources, encouraging political passivity and consumerism in all forms and media of popular culture.
Dark Star (1974), Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980), Escape from New York (1981), The Thing (1982), Christine (1983), Starman (1984), Big Trouble in Little China (1986), Prince of Darkness (1987), They Live (1988)
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Boulenger, Gilles. John Carpenter: The Prince of Darkness . Los Angeles: Silman-James Press, 2003.
Conrich, Ian, and David Woods, eds. The Cinema of John Carpenter: The Technique of Terror . London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2004.
Cumbow, Robert C. Order in the Universe: The Films of John Carpenter . Metuchen, NJ, and London: Scarecrow Press, 1990.
Muir, John Kenneth. The Films of John Carpenter . Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2005.
Barry Keith Grant
By the 1990s many genre movies were attempting to open up genres to more progressive representations of race and gender, often deliberately acknowledging and giving voice to groups previously marginalized by mainstream cinema. The film that provided the impetus for this new generic transformation was Thelma and Louise (1991), about two women who, finding themselves on the wrong side of the law, lead the police on a chase through the Southwest. A big hit at the box office, Thelma and Louise is a generic hybrid of the western, the buddy film, and the road movie—three genres traditionally regarded as male. After Thelma and Louise , many genre films seemed content merely to borrow its gender gimmick, simply plugging others into roles traditionally reserved for white men. But in reversing conventional representations, these films were prone to fall into the trap of repeating the same objectionable values. The question of whether female action heroes such as Sigourney Weaver's Ripley in Alien (1979) and its sequels, Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), or the assassins played by Geena Davis in The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), Uma Thurman in the Kill Bill films (2003, 2004), and the trio of actresses in the Charlie's Angels films (2000, 2003) are progressive, empowering representations of women or merely contain them within a masculine sensibility has been a matter of considerable debate.
Race, ethnicity, and nationality are commonly stereotyped in genre films, sometimes together. African Americans have traditionally been cast in supporting roles as clearly recognizable types. Except for such subsidiary and subordinate roles as maids, black faces also were largely absent from Hollywood movies. Issues of race appeared, safely coded within generic conventions, particularly in the western, which on the surface relegates the topic more safely to the nation's past rather than the present. Asian Americans have been largely absent from genre movies, as were Latinos until West Side Story . Since the 1990s, generic Arabs have been depicted in action movies as terrorists, as in True Lies (1994), Executive Decision (1996), and The Siege (1998). By contrast, Russians are friendlier in Hollywood movies following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war, as in The Hunt for Red October (1990) and Enemy at the Gates (2001).
Outside Hollywood, there were separate but parallel Yiddish and black or "race" cinemas. The height of Yiddish film came in the 1920s and 1930s, and black cinema peaked in the 1930s and 1940s. Both were institutionalized forms of cinema, with their own stars, directors, exhibition circuit, and audiences, and both were organized along generic lines similar to Hollywood. There were, for example, black melodramas, musicals, and westerns featuring African American stars. Hollywood, too, tried all-black musicals such as Hallelujah (1929), Cabin in the Sky (1943), and Carmen Jones (1954) as well as dramatic films such as The Green Pastures (1936). The practice of segregating casts by race was a reflection of the segregationist and discriminatory practices of the era in which they were made.
Encouraged by the success of Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), a cop film featuring two black detectives (Godfrey Cambridge and Raymond St. Jacques), a cycle of blaxploitation films followed. The term blaxploitation was coined by the trade paper Variety to describe these films, which appeared from the late 1960s through the mid-1970s. As the civil rights movement gained momentum and became more militant, many black viewers rejected the more accommodating images of established black stars like Sidney Poitier (b. 1927) and Harry Belafonte (b. 1927) and welcomed the newer action movies with more macho black stars, such as ex-football Hall of Famer Jim Brown (b. 1936) in films like Black Gunn (1972) and Slaughter (1972). Richard Roundtree (b. 1942) became famous as the suave black detective John Shaft in Shaft (1971), billed as "the new James Bond," as did Ron O'Neal (1937–2004) as Superfly (1972). Pam Grier (b. 1949) in Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974) and Tamara Dobson (b. 1947) in Cleopatra Jones (1973) applied the same formula to female characters. The question of the extent to which blaxploitation was politically progressive has been a matter of debate, but the films did pave the way for a cycle of "salt-and-pepper" buddy movies beginning with 48 Hrs. (1982) and the wider acceptance of black action stars such as Wesley Snipes (b. 1962) and Denzel Washington (b. 1954).
Although black cowboys existed on the frontier, their history has been suppressed by the predominately white iconography of the western. One of the most popular genres of race films was the western, with the first possibly being The Trooper of Troop K (1917), with black star Noble Johnson (1881–1978). In the late 1930s Herb Jeffries (b. 1911) appeared in a series of independently produced all-black musical westerns including The Bronze Buckaroo (1939) and Harlem Rides the Range (1939). In 1960, Ford's Sergeant Rutledge starred Woody Strode (1914–1994) as a cavalry soldier being court-martialed because of his race. During the blaxploitation era several westerns were made, the most notable being Buck and the Preacher (1972), directed by Sidney Poitier, about white bounty hunters looking to return former slaves to work on southern plantations after the defeat of the South in the Civil War. Starring Harry Belafonte along with Poitier, Buck and the Preacher employed many conventions of the genre while foregrounding issues of race relations. But for the most part, blacks had been absent from the Hollywood western—an absence so complete that it can serve as one of the major jokes in Blazing Saddles , which stars African American actor Cleavon Little (1939–1992) as a black Bart with his Gucchi saddlebags. Posse (Mario Van Peebles, 1993) overtly challenged this mythic erasure. It opens with a black man speaking directly to the camera, presenting the entire story in flashback, a framing device borrowed from Little Big Man (1970), an earlier revisionist western, here featuring Strode, an iconic actor who had appeared in several of Ford's westerns, including Sergeant Rutledge .