MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN
**/**** Image A- Sound B+ Extras C
starring Chevy Chase, Daryl Hannah, Sam Neill, Michael McKean
screenplay by Robert Collector & Dana Olsen and William Goldman, based on the book by H.F. Saint
directed by John Carpenter
JOHN CARPENTER: THE PRINCE OF DARKNESS
FFC rating: 6/10
written by Gilles Boulenger
by Bill Chambers In John Carpenter: The Prince of Darkness, a new interview book by Gilles Boulenger, John Carpenter says that you don't see the possessory credit on Memoirs of an Invisible Man (i.e., "John Carpenter's Memoirs of an Invisible Man") because the film is not 100% his, but rather the product of studio interference he knew full well would take place prior to signing on. ("Warner Bros. is in the business of making audience-friendly, non-challenging movies," Carpenter declares.) Boulenger doesn't ask his subject how he stomached accepting the project--funnyman Chevy Chase's darling, which Chase had shepherded through an abortive incarnation to be directed by Ivan Reitman and scripted by William Goldman before Carpenter climbed aboard--despite his misgivings, since he obviously did it for the A-list boost and the last time he did that (Christine) felt tormented about it for years after. ("When there is no connection between the movie and my inner soul, I get lost and I walk through it.") You'll find that's the pattern of Boulenger's Q&A: Carpenter feeds his interrogator provocative morsels, and they go untested because Boulenger has a set-list he wants to get through. (It's the spontaneous follow-up question, the willingness to confront, that tests an interviewer's mettle.) I fear we may have another Laurent Bouzereau on our hands, for Boulenger's favourite query--he uses it over and over again--is also his most reductive: "Do you recall one telling anecdote about the shoot?"
Like Christine, Memoirs of an Invisible Man (henceforth Memoirs) is a mechanical but not necessarily bad film, the relative anonymity of it actually proving that Carpenter isn't the limited artist his calcified idiosyncrasies would suggest. The problem with the project from the word "go" was well documented by Goldman in his hefty tome Which Lie Did I Tell?: Chase wanted to use Memoirs as a platform to illustrate "the loneliness of invisibility." That's like stating you want to make a werewolf movie to show the agony of sprouting fangs and fur at the chimes of a full moon--and I don't think Chase saw the irony of courting an invisible demographic, so tunnel-visioned was his desire to forge a career path away from comedy with Memoirs. (Reitman left because he thought he'd signed on to do a typically-slapstick Chase vehicle.) What comes of this are painful impositions of pathos on the material: Not five minutes after becoming invisible (wrong place (a sauna), wrong time (a spilled cup of coffee short-circuits some lab computers)), Chase's Nick Halloway discovers an Achilles Heel for the "freak" label, as if he's been The Elephant Man all his life and not the kind of comfortable business-school graduate who winds up a mid-level Wall Street executive.
The best reason to see Memoirs is for its groundbreaking special effects: The film is full of early CGI that dazzles today for its modesty. A magical love-on-the-lam scene in which Nick's transparent form refracts the falling rain to the astonishment of his girlfriend (Daryl Hannah) invokes the intergalactic romance of Carpenter's Starman while exposing the obnoxiousness of Daredevil and the modern multiplex spectacle, whose computer effects have a depersonalizing aesthetic complexity. Boulenger accurately observes the Dali quality, corroborated by Carpenter (who otherwise doesn't "get a lot of kicks from painting"), of Memoirs' celebrated jigsaw building, which looks like a practical. But such is unfortunately the legacy of so many films--nice CG!--that you indeed wish Carpenter had aspired to more. Here's a picture that was finally a perfect match for Carpenter's latter-day obsession with quantum theory and he buries the scientific elements of the story under the blockbuster paradigm of action and F/X, if entertainingly so.
I read Boulenger's John Carpenter: The Prince of Darkness during Thursday's blackout, and it certainly gave me a hankering for the cinema of Carpenter--to the degree that spinning Memoirs was the first thing I did when the electricity returned. Alas, as a commercial for Carpenter's work is the book's prime utility; remaining an aloof cross-examiner throughout (you're taken aback when Boulenger exhibits the confidence to aver that Prince of Darkness is Carpenter's scariest movie), Boulenger digs only deep enough to reaffirm the reader's appreciation of specific Carpenter films. Carpenter's responses tend to need massaging--he can be brusque and self-deprecating, contradictory and indecisive, incapable of or unwilling to place his pictures in an auteurist or autobiographical context. It takes prodding from Boulenger, in one of the author's finer moments, for Carpenter to acknowledge that Christine depicts the teen years as Carpenter lived them, though Boulenger misses other experiential echoes, such as the resonant link between Carpenter's chilling memory of the teenagers he knew who would shoot black people on their porches for fun and the misanthropic astronauts who detonate whole planets out of sheer boredom in Dark Star, Carpenter's directorial debut. I can't condone skipping John Carpenter: The Prince of Darkness altogether, mainly because it puts several nagging rumours (who directed Halloween II?, for instance) to rest in one convenient volume, but it's the definitive guide to the director strictly by default.
Note that the book includes an amusing, informative foreword written by long-time Carpenter collaborator Tommy Lee Wallace, plus a 25-page insert of colour stills, some of them rare, all of them vividly reproduced.
Memoirs of an Invisible Man arrives on DVD from Warner Home Video in a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer without sin. Contrast is crisp and shadow detail breathtaking. Grain fluctuates, however, in accordance with primitive scanning techniques to transpose a digital image onto celluloid. (Also be prepared to witness the sight of Patricia Heaton's face before she had it surgically elongated.) The Dolby Surround soundtrack is absent of subwoofer usage and perhaps seizes fewer opportunities than it should have to throw the Invisible Man's voice around the room.
Disappointingly, a three-minute block of "outtakes" keeps hidden the film's notorious alternate ending (discussed briefly in the Boulenger) involving the birth of Nick's child, though it does unearth a dream sequence that panders to Chase and Carpenter fans alike in showing Nick surrounded by lingerie-clad nurses as evil doctors prepare to operate on him with butcher's utensils. A featurette--"How to Become Invisible: The Dawn of Digital FX"--is, at four minutes, too brief to contemplate, while a fruitless credits listing and the film's theatrical trailer round out the disc. Originally published: August 17, 2003.