Monday, June 14, 2010

McTiernan Lives:

If you’ll take a look at the lower right side of your screen, you’ll notice a new ‘essentials’ link (listed conveniently in alphabetical order): allow me to officially introduce Mission: McTiernan. The brain child of yours truly and the estimable Mr. Jake Barningham (and, update, now including the participation of The Auteur’s regular, Sounds/Images proprietor, friend of this here blog, and all around nice guy Ignatius Vishnevetsky), the site is dedicated to, well, John McTiernan, and all things McTiernan related. Spurned on by an early morning screening of The Thomas Crown Affair (recently anointed with a stunning blu ray release), the idea hit us like some foregone conclusion – why on Earth had no one done this yet? Furthermore, why hadn’t we thought of such a thing before now? Despite some box office success, and the occasionally favorable critical notices, no one had, to the best of our knowledge, ever thought to consider McTiernan as an auteur – as if the visual qualities of Die Hard, The Hunt For Red October, DHWAV, and Predator (to name his biggest hits) had nothing to do with him, or, conversely, that those same qualities simply disappeared in films like Basic, The Thirteenth Warrior or Rollerball (to name his biggest commercial/critical disasters).

Nevertheless, during that fateful viewing of Thomas Crown, the revelations came quickly – alternately tight and loose compositions, a propensity for location shooting, an emphasis on converging lines highlighting the horizontal, rhyming placements of figures and objects over separate images, taunt, seemingly effortless editing – it became startlingly clear that this was a major work, criminally under seen and undervalued, as if forgotten (or, more precisely, never heralded in the first place). McTiernan’s ability to navigate the fickle world of large-budget studio filmmaking has led to some undeniable commercial and artistic successes, yet the inevitable downside is equally visible – in Hollywood, you’re only as valuable as you are profitable. The mission became clear: to revisit, rewatch, and in some cases re-evaluate the McTiernan oeuvre, as well as tracking down those unseen (his first feature, Nomads) as well as those lost to that curious limbo of commercial misfires/genre oddities (Medicine Man and Last Action Hero).

On a more personal note, it’s clear to me that John McTiernan was in fact the first director that I recognized as an auteur. Long before the term became a part of my vocabulary, I had nonetheless already realized, to a small degree, what a ‘film by John McTiernan’ was. I had the good luck to see both Predator and Die Hard in theatres in their original releases (1987 and 1988, respectively), and it would be an understatement to suggest just how much of a formative influence this was for a young me – clean and crisp, a lack of fussiness, with solid yet simple narrative through lines (usually of the men-on-a-mission type) that were always subservient to the precision of the image. It must have been around the time of Hunt for Red October that it was somehow brought to my attention that it was a new film by the director of these personal favorites (I hasten to add that these were films that lingered, as the ability to rewatch, to revisit and somehow possess these various movies on video was still a few years away in my home). With the exception of Nomads, and, years later The Thomas Crown Affair, I’ve managed to see every McTiernan film on the big screen at least once, if not several times. I’ve grown up with McTiernan, and erected my own Sarris-like pantheon around him. As a younger man, any and all action films were measured against McTiernan’s accomplishments; I find myself now measuring most any film against McTiernan. Visual grammar seems to no longer exist in big budget studio releases, and by and large, people don’t seem to notice (see also: the rapturous acceptance of Shutter Island)

The point here is not to force comparisons of McTiernan to Hitchcock, or Ford, or Hawks, nor Bresson, Mizoguchi, Mann (Anthony or Michael), Godard, Brakhage or Ozu. The point is, however, that while these filmmakers have had reams of ink spilled on their behalf (and rightly so), an accomplished artist like McTiernan languishes largely in critical obscurity. To that end, we are simply attempting to redress the balance, if only to a small degree. Our focus has started small, with a smattering of screen grabs highlighting visual symmetries/correlations, some thoughts on the very (very) beginnings of several films, a brief visual essay, and a typically idiosyncratic appreciation by Mr. Vishnevetsky on the ‘basics of Basic’. We’ve found a French interview with McTiernan never translated into English (once again, they’re a step ahead – see also James Gray) that Mr. Barningham was kind enough to post, doing as much proof reading as possible. The site is a work in progress, and we hope to steadily amass more material, including more visual essays and, eventually, full length audio commentaries for key films. I’m not entirely sure that the end product is going to somehow magically revitalize McTiernan’s career, nor am I naïve enough to think that our modest endeavor is going to secure him a place in the annals of film history. But we will have tried, at the very least. We love John McTiernan, and we want you to love him too.

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