Sunday, February 24, 2013

'Die Hard' Retrospective

On today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema I examined the Die Hard series. Here is a look back at some notable elements of the series.

I. The Original John McClane
John McClane, the hero of the Die Hard series, now ranks with Dirty Harry Callahan, John Rambo, and Indiana Jones among the great characters of action cinema and actor Bruce Willis has become a familiar staple of action pictures. But when the original Die Hard was made this was not the case. In the mid-1980s Bruce Willis was best known for his role on the TV show Moonlighting and this is an element of the original Die Hard that is often lost on contemporary audiences.

The casting of an actor who was not generally associated with action movies was perfect in this case, as McClane was a different kind of hero than the characters that were popular at that time. The heroes played by the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone were indestructible and unflappable supermen but McClane was a man of human dimensions who got frustrated, cursed, and was often injured. The filmmakers of Die Hard pushed their character to physical and emotional limits, making him much more accessible and heroic, and that is at the root of what makes the first Die Hard work. Unfortunately, these elements waned as the series continued.

II. The Craft of Die Hard
The action genre is often derided by academics and critics as stupid or juvenile. It certainly can be; such is the nature of spectacle. But one of the underappreciated elements of the original Die Hard is how well made it is. John McTiernan is a crafty and intelligent filmmaker and with Die Hard the director and his crew proved that action movies can demonstrate as much filmmaking skill as an art film or a piece of Oscar bait. The cinematography makes great use of widescreen compositions, often trapping John McClane in claustrophobic spaces or exposing him and diminishing his stature in the frame. Sound is used similarly well. The bulk of the picture involves John McClane creeping through the corridors of the building and long stretches of tension are punctuated by crashes of action. Sound and image come together in the editing process and the rhythms of this movie play like a piece of music. The periods of tension gradually get shorter and action scenes occur closer and closer together until the film gets to its finale in which action is compounded through cross-cutting.

Although the Die Hard brand is synonymous with calamitous action, McTiernan’s filmmaking skill is best observed in the opening expository scenes. The first twenty minutes of Die Hard establish all the major characters and the geography of the building, laying it out in ways that make spatial relationships understandable. The filmmakers do this while also introducing the characters, so that the audience subconsciously picks up on the design of the building while focusing on the actors. This is smart moviemaking and it distinguishes Die Hard from other action movies and other motion pictures in general.

III. The Music of Die Hard
Michael Kamen composed the music for the first three Die Hard films and his score to the original is among the great action soundtracks. Unfortunately it hasn’t been made regularly available. (From time to time specialty labels release limited editions of the soundtrack album on CD, most recently in 2011when La-La Land Records issued a 3500 unit run that sold out within a few days.) Kamen’s score is an example of a composer who was in on the filmmaker’s joke. He recognized the mischievous and irreverent elements of John McClane’s character and the score reflects this with musical flourishes that recall Loony Toons and Hanna Barbera animation serials, bringing a lot of humor to the action.

Kamen’s Die Hard scores incorporated classical music for a similar purpose. Director John McTiernan steered Die Hard away from a serious story about terrorism and toward lighter popcorn entertainment and so he suggested that Kamen integrate the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony into the score. Renny Harlin used music to a similar effect in Die Hard 2; since the director is Finnish he had Kamen include “Finlandia” by Jean Sibelius in the finale of the picture.  For Die Hard With a Vengeance Kamen used an arrangement of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” as the theme for the villains.

By the time the series picked up with 2007’s Live Free or Die Hard, Kamen had passed away and scoring duties went to Marco Beltrami. The new composer utilized some of Kamen’s signature Die Hard themes and Beltrami’s music is one of the better elements of the newer sequels.

IV. Violence
The regard for violence in the Die Hard films is unique to this series. Hitherto, the presentation of violence in Hollywood action cinema was quite often bloodless. This is consistent with the unwritten compact between an action filmmaker and his audience: violence will be offered up for enjoyment but it will never come at the cost of pain. (This is the opposite of the compact between a horror filmmaker and his or her audience.) But the violence in Die Hard often included blood, both on the part of the villains and the hero. That made the violence startling and added to the visceral nature of the film.

This isn’t to say that the violence of Die Hard and its sequels is not problematic. These pictures raised the bar for the level of violence in action films (Die Hard 2 is said to have the highest body count of any action film released to that point, at least when the victims of the plane crash are figured in.) but as much as they broke from the Schwarzenegger model, they maintained the casual attitude toward killing. Whenever movies come under fire for violence, critics and politicians often target horror movies in which violence is depicted as bloody and painful. Less often criticized are movies like Die Hard in which violence has little or no consequences and the hero is able to kill with legal, moral, and psychological impunity. Die Hard is no more or less guilty of the glorification of violence than most other action films and the moral justifications for violence are firmer in the original Die Hard than a lot of other action movies, including its sequels. However, if cinematic depictions of violence are going to be a matter for debate among critics and audiences then the carefree attitude toward violence exhibited by movies like Die Hard ought to be at the forefront of that debate.

V. John McClane in New York
Die Hard With a Vengeance moves the action to New York City, where John McClane is a police officer. New York City is the setting for (too) many movies and television shows but Die Hard With a Vengeance is one of the better examples. A lot of pictures are set in New York for no apparent story reason; New York is a generic backdrop for big city locations and a lot of pictures set in New York could just as easily be set in Chicago, Los Angeles, or New Orleans without any impact on the story. But the filmmakers of Die Hard With a Vengeance not only set the action in New York City but also capture the local flavor. Distinct New York locations like Central Park and Wall Street come into play in the story and many of the extras and supporting players, especially the New York municipal workers, have a distinctly Big Apple feel. This makes Die Hard With a Vengeance the only picture in the series that has a distinct sense of place.

VI. The Digital Dilution of Spectacle
Twelve years passed between the release of Die Hard With a Vengeance in 1995 and Live Free or Die Hard in 2007. In the interim, the culture shifted into the digital age, radically changing moviemaking technology. In retrospect, Die Hard With a Vengeance was a swan song for a certain kind of action cinema. The first three Die Hard movies were made at a time in which everything on screen had to be done practically, even if it was done with miniatures or film compositing. The limits of technology imposed boundaries on what filmmakers could do and those limitations actually benefitted the movies by keeping filmmakers tethered to reality. The advent of digital moviemaking allowed for unlimited possibilities but that plasticity changed how audiences related to what they were seeing. The sterile look inherent to digital effects eliminates any sense of grit or reality and throughout the action genre set pieces escalated into absurdity. Moments like John McClane destroying a helicopter with a car are undeniably spectacular but they also lack the grit of the first three movies. Filmmakers have outdone themselves to the point of becoming counterproductive. The more outrageous the visuals, the less the audience believes what they see.

VII. An Analog Hero in a Digital Age
The filmmakers of Live Free or Die Hard had a significant challenge. Not only had it been twelve years since the previous film (and almost two decades since the original), but the social context that John McClane sprang from was gone and the character risked being an anachronism. However, the filmmakers smartly turned these challenges into assets by using the technological elements of Live Free or Die Hard to accentuate McClane’s heroism. Throughout the series, John McClane is at odds with the system; in Live Free or Die Hard that becomes literal. Automation can be overwhelming, even for those who are tech savvy. By making McClane an analog hero in a digital age, the filmmakers of Live Free or Die Hard discovered a way to reinvigorate the series and keep the character relevant.

VIII. The 007 of Plainfield, New Jersey
The allure of John McClane is his humanity. This is the lynchpin of the entire series. But with each successive Die Hard sequel that humanity was diluted. Some of this was a matter of stardom. In the quarter century since the first film, Bruce Willis transformed from a primetime TV star and into a Hollywood action hero; Willis became a badass movie star in the mold of Schwarzenegger and Stallone and he eventually costarred alongside them in The Expendables films. The dehumanization of John McClane was also a byproduct of serialization. Conventional wisdom says that sequels must be bigger and louder than their predecessors and as the stunts and set pieces escalated, McClane became a two dimensional, mythological figure. Just as when James Bond launched into space in Moonraker, John McClane and the Die Hard series ceased to resemble the original concept and the charm wilted away.

IX. Why the World Needs John McClane
Examining the decline of Die Hard and the John McClane character between the original picture its most recent sequel may be dispiriting but it is no different from what has happened to virtually every character subject to serialization from Inspector Clouseau to James Bond to Hannibal Lecter. And however John McClane may have ended up at the hands of careless filmmakers or cynical Hollywood executives, there is an important place for characters like him. Academics and film critics sometimes dismiss action films as little more than fluff and quite often they are. But there is a virtue to popcorn entertainment. As Joel McCrea’s character learns in Sullivan’s Travels, there is a value in lifting the spirits of the audience. Life is hard, people need relief, and movies like Die Hard provide that. Viewers also need heroes, someone who represents our ideals and who fights for what is right. Not every hero has to take on a skyscraper full of terrorists. In daily life heroism is small and easy to overlook. This is why stories are so important. As hopeless as life can seem, an inspiring story can restore faith, at least for a little while. One of the virtues of action films is their ability to affirm a positive vision of masculinity in which heroes defend worthy ideals. Whether that hero is Atticus Finch or John McClane, the hero of a good story has value for the audience and the culture.

Friday, February 22, 2013

'Die Hard' on Sounds of Cinema

On Sunday, February 24th Sounds of Cinema will feature a retrospective on the Die Hard series, including reviews and music from all five films. I'll also address some of the side issues to these films, including the appeal of the John McClane character and the ways he evolved over the course of the series.

Check here after the broadcast for a blog post of additional commentary.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Is ‘Compliance’ the Answer to ‘Zero Dark Thirty?’

In preparation for my End of 2012 Wrap-Up episode, I came across Craig Zobel’s film Compliance. Based on several true incidents, the manager of a fast food restaurant receives a phone call from someone claiming to be a police officer. The caller tells the manager that one of her employees has stolen money from a customer and instructs the supervisor to interrogate the employee in a manner that gets increasingly degrading. Compliance is a tough watch and it has some significant shortcomings, particularly in the ending, but it is also a fascinating dramatization of deference to authority a la the infamous Stanley Milgram experiment.

Compliance makes for especially interesting viewing in light of the controversy over Zero Dark Thirty. Critics of Kathryn Bigelow’s latest film have gone so far as to compare her to Leni Riefenstahl, the director of the Nazi propaganda film The Triumph of the Will. (I would argue that Riefenstahl’s reputation as an apologist for evil is greatly exaggerated, but I’ll leave that for another day.) The attacks on Bigelow hold that Zero Dark Thirty excuses the use of torture by Americans and even suggests that it led investigators to the location of Osama bin Laden. This accusation is not supported by the content of the film. Zero Dark Thirty does depict torture but the plot does not connect torture to finding bin Laden. It isn’t until the prisoners are treated humanely that they provide useful information. That fact has been lost in part because the torture scenes are so strong but also because many of those critiquing the movie haven’t bothered to watch it.

Defending her film, Bigelow remarked that “depiction is not endorsement. If it was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time.” This statement is true but it is also unremarkable. Of course depiction is not endorsement. If it were, Schindler’s List would be the most anti-Semitic film ever made. For a culture that spends so much time absorbing stories this should not be a controversial idea.

The resistance that Bigelow has run up against is partly rooted in viewing habits. Audiences have been conditioned to expect stories to present overly simplistic moral conflicts and to spoon-feed that simplicity to viewers in unchallenging, bite-sized portions. When a film like Zero Dark Thirty comes along and does not overtly spell out the moral lesson it is sometimes more than mainstream audiences—and critics—are prepared to handle.

Resistance to Zero Dark Thirty is also rooted in liberal frustration with the Obama Administration. Although they ended the use of torture techniques, the president and his associates have failed to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay and chose not to prosecute those who advocated and carried out torture policies. This, and the failure of the mainstream news media to keep torture in the public eye, has left the arts as the only place in which American audiences can reckon with what was done in our name. In the same way that the infamous Nixon-Frost interviews gave the disgraced president the trial he would never receive, art is the only remaining venue to correct the public record.

But the filmmakers of Zero Dark Thirty did not set out to make a film about torture. The topic comes up in due course but the point of Zero Dark Thirty is to immerse the audience in the hunt for Osama bin Laden and capture the frustration, danger, and moral ambiguity of being on the frontlines of a covert war. The filmmakers succeed in doing that and at its best Zero Dark Thirty is a harrowing thriller. The critics and politicians attacking Zero Dark Thirty are not angry with this film for what it is. They are upset with the film for what it isn’t.

And this is why Compliance is such an interesting film. Like Zero Dark Thirty, Zobel’s picture elicited a polarized reaction from audiences, but this may be the picture that critics of Zero Dark Thirty have been looking for. The movie is bleak and uncompromising but more importantly Compliance is about the very thing that Zero Dark Thirty is unable to depict: the way people defer to authority and how a quest for justice can breed unjust behavior. The design of Zero Dark Thirty is, to use Bigelow’s words, a boots-on-the-ground experience. The story unfolds from the point of view of those in the trees of counter-terrorism and so neither they nor the filmmakers can see the forest. More simply, Zero Dark Thirty is about what and how. Compliance, by contrast, is designed so that the audience observes how an otherwise moral person becomes a tool of exploitation and how the victim submits to the illusion of authority. This gives the movie a broader point of view that allows the viewer to ask more fundamental questions about why people act the way that they do.

As a critic I spend a lot of time bemoaning the lack of interesting or challenging films. Especially in the cinematic wasteland that is the first quarter of the year, it can be very dispiriting to sit through movie after movie that was made with cynical contempt for its audience. Whatever the shortcomings of Zero Dark Thirty and Compliance, these films were made by highly skilled filmmakers who sought to challenge their viewers. Attacking these pictures and the people who created them because they make us uncomfortable does a disservice to everyone. It discourages filmmakers from taking on challenging material and it distracts critics and moviegoers from the kinds of discussions these films intend to incite. Part of art’s function in society is to unsettle our collective assumptions. Compliance and Zero Dark Thirty do that and they should be praised for it.