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 na├»ve 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.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Literary Interlude:

'Like the celebrities who would follow, Gatsby was a symbol of twentieth-century America, where so many were discovering the fairy's wing on which to found their own unreal reality. Decades later, advertisers would invent a motto to accompany the symbol. It came from an oft-shown television commercial of the 1980s featuring a soap-opera actor pitching a pain reliever. 'I am not a doctor, but I play one on TV,' he said. In the same way Gatsby might have said, 'I was not an Oxford grad, but I played one,' or President Reagan might have said, 'I was not a president, but I played one,'... In a culture of personality, playing one was just as good as being one, which threatened to make us a faux society of authors without books, artists without art, musicians without music, politicians without policies, scholars without scholarship.'

Neal Gabler, 'Life: The Movie'

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Polanski's Ghost:

The first thirty minutes or so of Roman Polanski’s ‘The Ghost Writer’ contains some of the most assured, most precise, most exciting filmmaking that I’ve seen all year. We are clearly in the hands of a master here, as Polanski sets up a kind of culmination of all of his thematic concerns in a seemingly effortless manner (that this may in fact possibly be his final film is an unfortunate coincidence). The dialogue free opening is a marvel: a large ferry looms into view, as we cut to an interior shot of the ship. Cars begin exiting, slowly inching around a parked, unmoving vehicle. Attendants begin directing traffic and peering inside the vehicle. Cut to an empty ship, the SUV still motionless. A tow truck removes it, while investigators peer through the windshield and search the undercarriage for bombs (three minutes in, and already a reminder that we live in a post 9/11, post Iraq invasion world). Cut to a limp body washed up on a beach, motionless as waves crash around it: an evocative use of emptiness to suggest death, an overwhelming sense that there is an absence.

We are quickly introduced to Ewan McGregor’s ghost writer (never named in the film, and referred to only as ‘The Ghost’ in the film’s credits) and his agent in a restaurant. As they converse, Polanski refrains from the insufferable ping-ponging effect of shot-counter shot; instead, he lines people up behind his speakers, these figures creating a sharp straight line leading into the background of the shot. A minor detail, perhaps, but consider the effort in assembling these extras, directing them, and choreographing continuous action in the visible background: all of this instead of simply pushing the camera in for tight close-ups of faces.

Polanski moves immediately from the lunch scene to McGregor entering a publisher’s headquarters for an interview (the set design of the building’s foray, all glass and intersecting planes, would delight Assayas). Entering a room with a clearly displeased book editor, Polanski does several things very quickly: the screen is black as the shot begins, the camera placed squarely on McGregor’s back. As he walks away from the camera, light enters the frame, as well as a figure. Without cutting, the camera momentarily pushes in on this new character, before promptly stuttering to the right, introducing another new character. Again, without cutting, the camera pans right once more to reveal a third figure, this one recognizable as McGregor’s agent from the previous scene. It’s a brief sequence, but a highly suggestive one. Polanski has made several things clear with his mise en scene – this world purports to clarity and transparency, yet it is an illusion (the irate editor for one, also the fact that the actual meeting takes place not in the crystal clear world of panes of glass, but behind closed doors, in a windowless room). The precision of the framing is equally suggestive – more than a fascinating bit of manipulating offscreen space, it implies a fundamental instability. Within a certain confined (even claustrophobic) space, the frame can always fluctuate to reveal something new and unexpected (a powerful visual metaphor for the narrative mechanics of a thriller).

McGregor is assigned to begin ghost writing a political memoir for ex-British Prime Minister Adam Lang (a thinly veiled stand in for Tony Blair, embodied with an admirable mixture of bombastic self-awareness and aw-shucks-why-me ignorance by a very game Pierce Brosnan). McGregor travels to the politician’s private island sanctum under the auspices of interviewing Lang, only to become gradually immersed in, then enveloped by, and ultimately consumed in a vague conspiracy involving all sorts of pseudo-Haliburton/Middle East/extraordinary rendition escapades. The notion of private corporations, in conjunction with the US Government, manipulating world events is nothing particularly new. Again, what is fascinating is how Polanski marshals the pat topicality of the screenplay into a compendium of his own personal obsessions. Lang’s island stronghold is one of the great sets of recent cinema – a modernist fortress of sorts (complete with its own media/communications center), it represents a key duality, as well as a particularly dark Polanski joke. Each room of the house is equal parts wall and window. The visual dichotomy is clear: encased, McGregor is allowed glimpses into the outside world (Polanski makes great use of the symmetrical possibilities of the design, a solid gray filling half of the frame while the other half reveals an expansive view of the beach/ocean), but only glimpses: the island is gray, gloomy, foreboding and largely off limits. Polanski’s joke (one that sticks in the throat) is simply this – the vision of a world beyond the walls reveals only another prison, be it one that is larger than his current cell. Ultimately, McGregor’s Ghost is entrapped by a series of enclosing environs, and while some might be larger than others, they lead, inexorably, to the same fate.

* * *
McGregor’s ‘Ghost’ is another in a long line of passive Polanski protagonists. Even when they are investigating, and they almost always are, inevitably the Polanski hero stumbles across something bigger than himself - something that he thinks that he can control, yet ultimately proves far too grand to master. I’m thinking of Nicholson’s Jake Gittes, Depp’s Corso, Hugh Grant’s Nigel, Polanski himself as the hapless Tenant Trelkovsky, Adrien Brody’s Szpilman. Each character initiates, sometimes aggressively and usually against their better judgment, various mysteries and intrigues (even sometimes seemingly solving them, to a point), only to be crushed by the cruel vicissitudes of fate. The Pianist is particularly affecting in this light, as the context is neither supernatural nor a bit of existential ennui, but world historical events that crushed millions. Polanski’s origins have lead to a very specific, clearly defined world view. McGregor’s final destination in the grand, master narrative of political affairs is to remain nameless, his minor victory destined to be lost in a sea of powerful people manipulating events to their own liking.