Thursday, September 22, 2011

TV Bites: Escape from New York

Isaac Hayes' "Gonna Get Some" Cornish Game Hens w/Wild Rice Stuffing

Had a rough week last week. Caught a respiratory infection from breathing too much smoke and ash in the air from the wildfires, combined with a bad allergy attack, that pretty much turned into a bronchitis. I was down for like five days. But then had to get better because it was ACLfest last weekend here in Austin. I only caught a couple of acts - Manu Chao (at an after show), Black Dub, Stevie Wonder, and Randy Newman (at a separate ACL taping). But that's all I really needed to see.

Now yesterday was the first day of this year's Fantastic Fest, so I thought it appropriate to feature one of my favorite genre films of all time. It's also part two of the September New York double bill. And boy do I love this movie. John Carpenter has sadly been relegated, I think, to being lionized by only genre film fans. And his films - statements about the times he lived in disguised as genre films - as far as I'm concerned, should be studied more seriously.

While this film was made in 1980, Carpenter first wrote the script in 1974, right after Scorsese made Mean Streets. (If I were going to make this a triple bill, the 3rd movie would be The Warriors, for sure.) So yeah, New York was a tough place in the late 70's and early 80's. A park like Union Square - which today is filled at night with people walking their dogs and playing chess - was considered utterly unsafe to enter once darkness came. That Carpenter - and audiences at that time - could believe New York City could shut down and be re-purposed as a maximum security prison - was not so much science fiction. In one interview as it was being released, when Carpenter explains that New York has been turned into such a prison in the film's future-present, the British fanzine reporter quips: "Isn't it one already?" I got to see some crazy s#!t when I was growing up, I tell you. But more on this later....

I had the great honor of meeting Isaac Hayes a little more than a year before he passed away. I flew to Memphis to attend the Stax Records 50th Anniversary Concert and got to shake his hand and tell him how much I admired his work at the after-party. His religious beliefs aside, the man made some of the best music ever. He seemed very frail when we met, but he had strong energy when he was on stage. Seeing him play live had always been on my bucket list, but getting to meet him was icing on the bucket.

Hayes' acting skills had always been tilted towards being a little campy, though that's not the exact word I'm looking for - whether here as the Duke of New York, as Gandolph Fitch on The Rockford Files, or Jonathan Kaplan's Truck Turner, or, of course, as Jerome "Chef" McElroy on South Park, directors always seemed to let him go a little over the top, and yet you could also tell how seriously he took acting. I always thought it was because he may have had trouble hiding how much fun he was having. His comedic talent and timing were right on. He is missed.

This film also marks the second film in two months to feature Donald Pleasence. He fits perfectly in this ensemble cast as much as he did in Cul-de-Sac. It's also the third movie I've written about that features the American treasure named Harry Dean Stanton.

One final comment before we get going is that you have stop and be wowed sometimes about how awesome the interwebs are. This guy has this amazing website with jpegs of articles about this movie. And if it weren't for that, I can't imagine how much digging I'd have to have done. Most of the links to quotes I set up to go to the cover of the article jpeg, so you can use that to find the exact source if you need.

You can purchase Escape from New York @ Amazon (the Special Edition is the one to get, fyi - the Blu-Ray doesn't have the commentary track or extras), and it is both home rentable and web streamable @ Netflix.


"In 1988, the crime rate in the United States rises four hundred percent. The once great city of New York becomes the one maximum security prison for the entire country. A fifty-foot containment wall is erected along the New Jersey shoreline, across the Harlem River, and down along the Brooklyn shoreline. It completely surrounds Manhattan Island. All bridges and waterways are mined. The United States Police Force, like an army, is encamped around the island. There are no guards inside the prison, only prisoners and the worlds they have made. The rules are simple: once you go in, you don't come out."

Escape from New York "was the first professional screenplay I ever wrote," recalled John Carpenter. But "no studio was interested because they felt (a) it was too strange; (b) it was too violent; or (c) we're not thrilled with the idea of NYC as a prison. But now, at this point in my career, I have a chance to make it,” he admitted back then.

He wrote it after completing his first film Dark Star, a black comedy/science fiction student film (Carpenter went to USC) he expanded into a feature after a successful film festival run into a feature. (Much like Scorsese had with Who's That Knocking at My Door? - see previous post.)

Carpenter said he was inspired to write it after seeing the Charles Bronson movie Death Wish. "I didn't agree with the philosophy of it – taking the law into one's own hands – but the film came across with the sense of New York as a kind of jungle." As well, his first visit to New York didn't live up to his expectations: "I had been in New York, which has a reputation for being a great city, but I saw the other side of it. It was a little dark and grim.,” he explained.

Five years later, Carpenter had a contract with Avco/Embassy, with whom he just did The Fog with, to develop a film of The Philadelphia Experiment, but either didn't want to do it or got frustrated writing it, and suggested to the producers that they let him do Escape from New York. Carpenter brought in his USC pal Nick Castle to rework the script with (Castle played "the Shape" aka Michael Myers in the first Halloween). Carpenter credits Castle with bringing in much of the humor of the final script, including coming up with music hall sequence.

As they rewrote the script, Carpenter had Kurt Russell in mind to play the part of Snake. They has recently worked together on the TV movie Elvis, and both had such a good time and mutual respect for each other, they'd become lifelong friends. Russell was also still looking for a role that would really let him put his early career as a sweet-faced All-American kid behind him. By 1979, now 28 years old, Russell had already amassed a massive list of acting credits in television and movies, from a lead role in a TV Western series when he was 12, through his late teens in Disney's The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (and its two sequels). He considered a career, like his father, playing baseball, but while playing in the minor leagues received an injury which prematurely ended his aspirations. But it was his collaborations with John Carpenter which began with Elvis (which got him an Emmy nomination), Escape, and then The Thing which really allowed Kurt to develop a new adult screen persona.

"My brother-in-law, Larry Franco, who co-produced Escape, told me about this futuristic movie John had been talking about and added that John wanted me to play a guy named Snake. I wanted to read the script right away," recalled Russell.

(I should take a moment here to note that there was a lot of nepotism, of sorts, going on in this film. Not only was co-producer Franco married to Russell's sister, but Russell's wife at the time was Season Hubley who makes a brief appearance early in the film, and of course, Adrienne Barbeau was then married to Carpenter.)

The associate producer of the film suggested Lee Van Cleef for the role of Hauk, the Police Commissioner. Carpenter met with him and immediately knew he was the right person for the role. But then he had to fight for him. As co-producer Debra Hill recalled, Avco/Embassy "wanted Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster or William Holden – stars who are insurance policies for foreign sales. But, using actors that way is a such a common ploy that audiences resent it."

When I first read the script for Escape, I was undecided about it,” Van Cleef admitted. “I did want to work with John Carpenter, but I had a few questions. I accepted when John said he wanted me to play the Police Commissioner with my earring on.... The only changes I made were alterations of speech patterns, to make them sound more natural for me.”

When we started planning the movie," Russell said, "John and I started to work on Snake's character, develop it more... As we talked about what made Plissken tick we found ourselves coming up with a characterization that was very similar to what Clint Eastwood was doing in the old Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns... All of a sudden, it became clear what we should do with the movie. We had Lee Van Cleef as a cop.... I said, 'Look. Eastwood fits Plissken, so let's have a little fun with it for people who are aware of the similarities.'"

I think Escape has a lot of Spaghetti Western feel to it," he continued, "a real Sergio Leone style. There are a lot of long, lingering looks. Snake, however, is more enigmatic that Leone's 'man with no name.' In fact, Snake is much more like Van Cleef was in those movies. He's not the kind of character who wants to be an anti-hero, he's forced into the role. Not only that, but he doesn't even want to be around people. Plissken disproves the old adage 'no man is an island.' Snake is an island. He would be perfectly happy if he could live alone without having to deal with anybody.”

And like Eastwood, gruffing up his image led Russell to international fame as an action hero. "Ultimately, he's my favorite character. He's the most complex," said Russell of Snake. "It's the most cynical ending in motion picture history, probably. But I needed to do a movie like that to be able to go on to have the kind of career that I have had. And I had to have [John] direct the movie. I had to be lucky enough to have all those things happen. And I had to be fortunate enough to have someone want me enough that he would fight for me."

"I think Snake Plissken represents the other side of America – the unpatriotic, patriotic side of America," noted Hill. "The kind of character we all want to be but are afraid to be. He's a guy that doesn't want to be told what to do. He's an anti-hero, and I think that's what makes America love him so much."

I think Americans love outlaws. They love outlaws. They've always loved outlaws. They always will," said Carpenter. "There's a soft spot in our hearts for bad guys. I have a part of my personality that loves outlaws and outsiders and anti-heroes, and I truly have a problem with authority. And any chance I can get to belittle authority – I love to do it, you know? I just can't help myself."

"Kurt Russell is Snake Plissken as much as John Carpenter is Snake Plissken," stated Hill. "I mean, they are two sides of Snake Plissken. And that's John and Kurt. And they are very, very connected."

As they readied to shoot the film, SAG, the actor's union went on strike. And while the production had a waiver to continue moving forward, because of another contractual obligation, they had lost the person they all desperately wanted to play the part of Brain. "We had originally wanted Warren Oates as Brain,” recalled Hill, “but the actor's strike forced him into a bind with another contract. We were disappointed, because the role had been rewritten to fit Oates. Naturally, this situation made Harry Dean Stanton insecure, so John had him work closely with Adrienne. She understood the problem, and helped reassure our Brain..”

The film became a traveling roadshow, as the production criss-crossed America for locations. They only, in fact, briefly shot in New York (like Mean Streets), and that was primarily on Liberty Island.

"We were the first film company in history allowed to shoot on Liberty Island, at the Statue of Liberty, at night," noted Carpenter. "They let us have the whole island to ourselves. We were lucky. It wasn't easy to get that initial permission. They'd had a bombing three months earlier [by Croatian Freedom Fighters], and were worried about trouble. But we were good tenants. We were extremely careful, and cleaned up our messes afterward."

Some of the shooting was done in and around Los Angeles. But they also traveled around New York, and to Atlanta, New Jersey, Illinois, and of course, St. Louis, where the majority of the film was shot.

St. Louis had experienced a devastating firestorm in 1976 which destroyed blocks of their downtown. The city was so broke at the time and had pretty much just written the blocks off that it barely needed any set dressing to look dystopian.

"The city officials literally turned over the city to us," Carpenter said. "They'd shut down 10 blocks at a time to help us. I was told they hadn't hosted a major film for 15 years; they don't even have a real film commission, just a Department of Tourism. They let us trash it up, and do anything we needed." The train station set was once one of St. Louis' great architectural landmarks, but was then rotting away. "I was told it's the biggest roofed-in area in the world. We walked in and said, 'My Lord! We don't even have to dress it!'" Thankfully, today it's been restored and serves as a mall/hotel/entertainment complex (of course).

Around this time, the city of St. Louis was in such economic trouble that garbage was only being irregularly picked up, so the debris the production scattered every night was barely noticed. However, the president's jet plane (the production bought it at a salvage yard and cut it up in thirds) was noticed (PDF) by the locals.

While everyone involved was nervous about whether audiences would take to Snake Plissken, as Carpenter has noted, "It was a real turning point in America when we made it. It was the beginning of whole new decade." As they were finishing the film, Mad Max was released in American theaters, and dystopian futuristic anti-heroes became a mainstay of Reagan era films.

I can't finish this post without mentioning the special visual effects that were done for this movie. When you watch it, be aware that there were no computer graphics at this time. All those effects were done by animation by Roger Corman's New World Pictures effects team. The director of photography on the visual effects was a young up and comer who dreamed someday of making his own films... James Cameron. For the computer effect of the glider landing on the twin towers, they built a miniature New York and put glow-in-the-dark tape on the cardboard buildings to make it seem like a computer. Very well done.

Speaking of young up and coming directors, there are two characters in Escape from New York who were named as "tip o'the hats" to two filmmakers Carpenter greatly admired at the time. The spiky-haired and -toothed fellow (portrayed brilliantly by Frank Doubleday) is named Romero, and the young medic who gives Pliskeen his shot of poison capsule neck things is named Cronenberg.

At the time of the film's release, Carpenter told one interviewer: "George Romero.... I think he's excellent. And there is another filmmaker who has yet to have a big hit, but he's made several good films – David Cronenberg. I really think he's sensational! I think those two guys are probably the best. It's a really personal vision of the world. Whether it's crazy or it's happy, it's really them.”


I remember going back to New York in the early 2000's and walking from East 14th Street all the way up West 67th Street at midnight. The streets were filled with people, and I never felt unsafe for a moment. A Bruce Springsteen concert was letting out at Madison Square Garden. 42nd Street was all Disney-fied and filled with tourists shopping. Crazy. Such a contrast to when I grew up there in the 1970's. I'd say at least half the people I knew had been mugged on the streets. There were huge swatches of the city that looked like photos I'd seen of Post-War Berlin. You had to develop a certain attitude, a street-wise education to survive it. You just walked around the dead or passed-out bodies on the sidewalks. I remember a TV public service ad that ran constantly of a young child calling "here kitty, kitty!" in a dark hallway and then we see it's a huge rat. The announcer came on urging that if your child can't tell the difference between a cat and a rat, they should call some number.

As I mention above, it was not so far-fetched at the time to believe that the way it was going that by the 1990's, the government could just put up some bars and turn the island into a prison. It already felt lawless. How much different was it within the walls of Rikers Island than outside on Manhattan Island then? No so much.

You can hear from the people in this video that New Yorkers were pretty fed up in the 1970's. New York was hit by three forces which caused massive changes. The first was white flight. Hordes of middle class white Americans (but also middle class blacks) began to flee the city in favor of the suburbs. A move that started in the post-war years, but increased as things like integration of public schools, and anti-discrimination laws allowed blacks and other minorities to move into what were traditionally white neighborhoods. Losing the tax base of middle class earners, combined with the second change - a crippling national economic crisis (much like today) - led to a wave of urban decay and neglect. The third was massive corruption in the police force which allowed for a massive rise in street and drug crime. [Because none of these factors are in play in any significant number in our current economic crisis, this is why, in my opinion, regardless of what some people may think (pro or con), we will not see a rerun of New York of the 1970s today. But perhaps in other cities?]

In an article about the time, James Wolcott quotes Village Voice reporter Vivian Gornick from 1972 describing the subways:

"The platform was indescribably filthy; the tile walls surrounding the staircases were streaked with years-old dirt and the graffiti of a thousand greasy marker pens.... The floor was littered with the overflow of the trash cans that stood vaguely about: candy wrappers, orange peels, leaky milk cartons, prophylactic wrappers, torn nylon stockings, pellets of chewing gum, discarded junk mail, globbets of spit. The lights in the ceiling were crusted over with webs of dirt that threatened, momentarily, to fall onto the heads of the passengers."

A New York Magazine article written in 1970 describes the lives of a pair of typical street criminals living in the Lower East Side:

"The billboards are in Spanish and in every store window a red sign screams “How do you know you don’t have V.D.?/ ¿Cómo sabe Ud. que no tiene enfermedad venérea?” The old-law tenements are crumbling, collapsing, burnt-out hulks. Their windows are covered with tin and plywood and their roofs are ripped away so that the sunlight floods into the upper stories like shrapnel.

"When Hector [21] and Louise [17] aren’t mugging their neighbors, they live in these buildings, moving easily from a deserted tenement on Avenue D to another south of Houston Street, near the Bowery. Always a few steps ahead of the wreckers or the Board of Health, they squat their way across the Lower East Side like spiders, spinning a chaotic web, leaving bits and pieces of themselves in each apartment. Sometimes they stay a month, sometimes only a few days. As they leave, Hector and Louise set fire to the building, and as their house and with it their past burns, they head for the next block.

Photographer Allan Tannenbaum writes of the era in the introduction to his excellent 1970s New York photo essay:

"Dirty, dangerous, and destitute. This was New York City in the 1970s.... It seemed as if the entire infrastructure was in decay. Political corruption, sloppy accounting, and the cost of the war were killing the city. Times Square, the crossroads of the world, was seedy and sleazy. Pimps, hookers, and drug dealers owned the night there. Crime was rampant, and the police were powerless to stop it. Random killings by the "Son of Sam" made New Yorkers even more fearful. The parks were in decay, with litter and bare lawns, and it was home to muggers and rapists. When the proud City of New York had to beg the Federal Government for a financial bail-out, the President said no. The Daily News headline said it all: 'Ford to City - Drop Dead.'"

But from within that crumbling infrastructure, some of the last great creativity in this country fomented. Punk, hip-hop, disco, street art, performance art. It was the last time, as noted in Wolcott's article, "when artists’ lofts were inhabited by actual artists."

To get a good understanding of it all, I can't more highly recommend a great way to spend 60 minutes of your time, than to watch this excellent BBC documentary on the New York music scene of the 70's. Really informative and entertaining.


"We brought in a caterer to make sure everyone ate well," said producer Debra Hill about the making of Escape from New York. "The cooks Juan and Burt, would go shopping during the day, and prepare Cornish game hens, roast beef – great stuff – even burritos. They served about 120 meals a night, and were always prepared if we brought in 30 more extras for gang scenes."

So... Cornish game hens, eh? Well, it so happens that "Chef" Isaac Hayes in his cookbook, Cooking with Heart & Soul, has a recipe for Cornish game hens. And, you know what? According to Hayes, his recipe was supposedly a fool-proof aphrodisiac for après dîner lovemaking. In fact, he believed in its seductive powers so much he dubbed it his "Gonna Get Some" Cornish game hen recipe.

"This is the dinner I like to cook for someone special," he wrote, "when I hope that after dinner ends, the evening is just beginning!"

Hayes enjoyed playing The Duke of New York and working on the film. "Memories of working on that movie burn in my mind still. Fond memories," he said. "I just had fun being the master villain. You know, because the master villain can do no wrong. You can raise your hand if you wanted to, and if you raised it in a certain way somebody's head could get chopped off. I loved playing that. The power.... And lo and behold, the poor beat-up president, he went crazy. He just took me out. So, I got my comeuppance."

John was searching for a gimmick to really make the Duke an eccentric figure," Hayes recalled. And Carpenter said to him, "'Different people have habits, like Bogart tugging his earlobe, things like that.' I had been given three facial scars by make-up, and asked John, 'What if one of these slashes severed a nerve, so I'd develop a twitch?' He agreed, and I adopted a spasmodic twitch, which was like a signal for the Duke's emotional excitement." But he only twitches when he sees Snake.

Now, to be technical, according to the USDA (PDF): "A Rock Cornish game hen or Cornish game hen is a young immature chicken (usually 5 to 6 weeks of age), weighing not more than 2 pounds ready-to-cook weight, which was prepared from a Cornish chicken or the progeny of a Cornish chicken crossed with another breed of chicken."

According to her obituary: "A Saturday Evening Post article from July 1955 credited Mrs. [Alphonsine "Therese"] Makowsky with coming up with the idea to breed the Cornish game chicken, a small bird with short legs and a plump, round breast that she had discovered in a book.

"The Makowskys began cross-breeding the Cornish game cocks with various chickens and game birds, including a White Plymouth Rock hen and a Malayn fighting cock, to develop the Rock Cornish game hen - a succulent bird with all-white meat, large enough for a single serving.

"The Rock Cornish game hen (often referred to as Cornish game hen) was meant to be a temporary substitute for the guinea hen, but it became so popular that orders for the guinea hens plummeted

So, Mr. Hayes.... It takes 21 ingredients to make your special chicken dish? Could you imagine the size his spice rack was, ladies? Seriously, this is more like some kind of potion than a recipe. So maybe it does have magical powers. Let me know how it works out for you (please, no photos).

Oh, and the reason he made four chickens for two people, Mr. Hayes wrote: "Well, you never know how big an appetite you and your guest will have!"

As always... cook, watch, eat, and enjoy!

Isaac Hayes' "Gonna Get Some" Cornish Game Hens w/Wild Rice Stuffing
from Cooking with Heart and Soul, by Isaac Hayes
Click for Printer-Friendly Version

Serves 4

4 Rock Cornish Game Hens
2 tablespoons fresh sage, chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons curry powder
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon lemon pepper
salt and pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons soy sauce
4 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 cups wild rice, rinsed several times
1/2 cup raisins
1 tablespoon tarragon
1 teaspoon five-spice powder
1 teaspoon fresh basil, chopped
1 teaspoon celery seed
1/2 cup pineapple chunks in light syrup (I cut chunks in 1/2)
1 teaspoon butter
1 can mandarin oranges, canned, with syrup (11-ounce)
1/4 cup maple syrup
1 teaspoon grated orange zest
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/3 teaspoon cinnamon

Preheat Over to 350*. Wash and dry hens.

In a small bowl, combine 1 tablespoon sage, 1/8 teaspoon curry powder, allspice, lemon pepper, salt and pepper. Gently pull the skin away from the breast of each hen, being careful not to tear the skin. Rub the spice mixture under the skin. Gently replace the skin. Rub the soy sauce over the hens.

Please the hens in a roasting pan just large enough to hold them. Add 1/2 cup water to the pan. Cover and roast for 30 to 45 minutes. (Note: I found 45 minutes to 1 hour, you want internal temperature of chicken to be 180*F, when pricked juices should run clear.)

In a medium saucepan, heat 4 cups water to boiling. Add the wild rice and raisins. Stir in the remaining 1 tablespoon sage, the remaining 1 teaspoon curry, tarragon, five-spice powder, basil and celery seed. Cook for 45 minutes. Just before the rice is done, and the pineapple and butter. Cover and set aside.

In another saucepan, combine the mandarin oranges with syrup, the maple syrup, orange zest, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Heat slowly to boiling. Add 1 tablespoon of the sauce to the cooked rice. Set aside.

When the hens are done, stuff them with the rice mixture and return them to the pan. Brush with some of the orange sauce and bake until glaze browns.

Serve with the remaining orange sauce on the side.

Escape from New York Screenplay
The Escape from New York/Los Angeles Page
The Official John Carpenter Page
The Isaac Hayes Official Page

Escape from New York (the Special Edition) DVD
Escape from New York: New Expanded Edition [Original Film Soundtrack] CD/MP3
Cooking With Heart & Soul, by Isaac Hayes
Very Best of Isaac Hayes CD/MP3


  1. Just wanted to mention that if you make a pilgrimage to Memphis to see all the Isaac Hayes memorabilia at the Stax Museum, you can't miss stopping for maybe the best Cornish Hen you'll ever have @ the Cozy Corner.