Allow me for a moment, if you will, to wax rhapsodic about one of my favorite literary organizations, that being McSweeney’s. Every quarter McSweeney’s publishes their Quarterly Concerns, which is not only one of the coolest literary magazines imaginable, and the design of the magazine is often as amazing and fascinating as the works contained within it. McSweeney’s also publishes books from obscure and long forgotten authors, as well as works from widely read and respected modern authors, often times selling these works for ridiculously cheap prices (it is not uncommon that once a month a book be reduced to $.01) and often times donating much or all of the proceeds to various charities. McSweeney’s is an organization devoted to the advancement of art and literature and I am proud to give my money to such an esteemed organization.
Several years ago Nick Hornby (of High Fidelity fame) teamed up with several other writers to produce a new semi-monthly magazine from McSweeney’s entitled The Believer. It was filled with reviews and stories and original works and Amy Sedaris giving sex advice by proxy, everything one would want from a literary magazine. The Believer also accomplished two very important things, at least in my little corner of the world. The April ’06 issue contained an interview with Paul Giamatti that was so fascinating and enjoyable I can safely call it the best interview I have ever had the pleasure of reading. The Etgar Keret interview in the same issue isn’t half bad either. But that was just the beginning, as later I would read their September ’06 issue, simply referred to as the games issue. The issue was so captivating I have no qualms in naming it the best issue of any magazine I have ever read. Thus knocking off the July of ’84 issue of Ranger Rick, a feat I previously deemed impossible.
But for all these meritorious honors, it was the video magazine included with my Believer subscription that has any relevance to this column. This quarterly magazine, entitled Wholphin, was comprised entirely of short films. While many were from relative unknown filmmakers, several were not, and the film that immediately caught my eye was The Passion of Martin, Alexander Payne’s student film while attending UCLA Film School. I was impressed with not only the story and the acting, but how well the film was directed. Payne’s laid back sardonic style was already clearly evident and it was a real joy to witness the first steps of a director I would later come to enjoy a great deal.
So you might imagine my excitement as I sat down to watch Dark Star, John Carpenter’s (Halloween) and Dan O’Bannon’s (Alien) first feature film. Originally made as a 45 minute student film while both attended USC, after its surprising success they shot an additional 38 minutes of footage, bringing the film up to feature length. Now finally having the chance to watch these two men work their magic, with almost zero interference, had me damn near giddy with anticipation.
The story of Dark Star is simple enough, 5 crew members left Earth 20 years earlier on a mission to ready other solar systems for colonization. They do this by destroying any planets that threaten to slam into their adjacent stars, which would cause the stars to go nova. But a tragic accident costs the ship’s commander his life and the monotony of their tasks threatens what remaining grip the crew have on their sanity. And that bomb that keeps threatening to detonate inside the ship’s bay really isn’t helping matters.
It only takes a matter of minutes for Dark Star to convey that it is obviously a John Carpenter film. With the distinctive synthesizer heavy soundtrack that would populate nearly every one of his future works, the soundtrack initially has such a moody feel you might get the impression the film is a thriller or possibly even a horror film. Dark Star even tries to keep this facade up for several more scenes, showing the monotony of the crew’s tasks and hinting at possible friction between the crew. Then the country western styled theme song “Benson, Arizona” starts in as the credits roll and suddenly you realize this melancholy song is clearly foreshadowing that Dark Star will follow a path quite different then what you were originally led to believe.
What might concern some of you is how painfully dated the film feels at times. The ridiculous hairstyles, facial hair, and clothes clearly stand out as beacons to the 70′s. But while the costumes might look a bit ridiculous at times, they fit in quite well with the satirical nature of the film. And since the film is meant to be at times patently ridiculous, the dated feel plays extremely well with this and has resulted in the film aging surprisingly well.
The same applies to the special effects in the film, which for the most part are atrocious. The intelligent alien that serves as the ships mascot is clearly a beach ball, yet every moment in the film is nothing short of delightfully hilarious. That Carpenter and puppeteer Nick Castle (Halloween) are able to elicit such a memorable and endearing character from a beach ball with rubber feat is a testament to the skills of the cast and crew involved with this film. And while the majority of the special effects for the film are sub-par at best, there are several sequences that are nothing short of outstanding. That these were students operating on a shoestring budget makes the accomplishment even more impressive.
Dark Star was an immensely enjoyable film, offering up unique and interesting characters, and some incredibly biting satire about the monotony of life. Dark Star effectively builds off the bizarre nature of its crew and the situations they are put in, constructing a a fascinating web of interactions for everyone involved. But even as the film nears its inevitable conclusion, Dark Star continues to both surprise you with its philosophical and humorous depth. Dark Star may not be John Carpenter’s best film, but it just might be my new favorite.