Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Title Sequences: Predator (1987)

We open with the vast expanse of black space, a cold void. An object comes hurtling into view; as it passes through the frame, the camera pans to follow its trajectory. Earth enters the frame, a radiant blue, as the ship begins its descent, intersecting the image of Earth vertically. The camera fades out quickly, fading back in to a helicopter cruising just above the ocean. There is a prominent horizon line intersecting the frame, cleaving the image into halves of roughly equal size. Alan Silvestri's propulsive score kicks into gear, and off we go.

While not an opening credits sequence in the same fashion as Basic or The Thomas Crown Affair (it is in fact what Jake below describes as 'an invisible wall through which the beginning of the film can be seen', as opposed to a distinct/unique movement), it does give a stunning example of McTiernan's craft. In mere moments, and with quick, efficient strokes, McTiernan sets up his key thematic and visual motifs - the notion of two concurring, parallel narratives (the alien and the commandos) and the opposition of the vertical and the horizontal (itself a visual representation of the hunter/hunted conflict). Introduced as a vertical slash against the horizon, the alien is visually rhymed with the jungle itself - all up and down lines, impeding our commando's movements, home to all kinds of unknown dangers (the commandos violently intersect with these vertical lines on several occasions; the camera itself travels up tree trunks on three occasions to reveal the aftermaths of cataclysmic encounters). There are other quick glimpses of this horizontal/vertical intersection. RJ Armstrong's Major General is introduced framed within a window; the camera cuts away from him, then back, at which point he lowers a thatched shade. The movement is one of downward motion, although as the shade lowers it reveals long horizontal slats.

We also see an early example of what will become a McTiernan staple: how he blocks and frames groups of men. Carl Weathers is introduced sitting alone, separate from the team of men he will be working with (he is also framed in an enclosure of vertical shadows). He is prone, passively waiting. Conversely, Schwarzenegger's team is unified. As they exit the helicopter, the camera holds still while each one hops of with their gear: McTiernan is careful not to separate them with cuts (with the exception of a quick, and unnecessary, cut-away to a silhouette insert). Interestingly, as the last man has left the chopper, the camera lingers long enough to show 'Dutch' still sitting, as he lights a cigar. Again, there is no cut to isolate him from his men, although his brief moment of isolation allows him a certain gravitas - we immediately understand that he is the leader - as well as foreshadowing his ultimate status as last man standing. Immediately upon exiting the chopper, Schwarzenegger's team is on the move; unlike Weathers, they neither sit by, nor do they passively wait for things to come to them (not surprisingly, Weathers is revealed to be a bad guy). This notion of solidarity versus singularity becomes a key visual motif in virtually all of McTiernan's films, The 13th Warrior springing immediately to mind.

Much like his commandos, McTiernan is a man of action, and the best there is at what he does.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Title Sequences: Basic (2003)

The interplay between horizontal planes and human forms continue in the opening sequence of Basic. Instead of an abstract color field, however, the horizontal plane is established by the image of a boat navigating a river. And unlike The Thomas Crown Affair, whose orange waves initially move from left to right and become more ambiguous as the sequence progresses, the boat has no clear trajectory. It dissolves into itself in opposing directions until it finally slinks away into the horizon. The image fades to black and the narration, which concerns the storage and selling of medical cadavers, continues: "You see, this place has always had a special way of dealing with profit... and death" The image of Connie Nielsen appears. Her face is shattered by dozens of different flashing lights. She looks mournfully at something off screen and disappears not with a fade, but with a hard cut.

As a standalone piece, this is pretty striking film-making. Another distinction this sequence has from the opening sequence of
The Thomas Crown Affair is that there is no immediate opposition between the landscape and the human form. These visual ideas exist in an arrangement that doesn't rely on their opposing one another, rather they seem to exist specifically in tandem, complimentary in a way that encourages narrative interpretation but frustrates easy satisfactions. The film, much like the boat, fades in and out of itself. It makes sense then doesn't then does again. But the images continue to inform. Slowly the viewer is stripped of their normal film-viewing faculties (much like one of the rangers in the film) and asked to depend more and more on vision. The light dances on our face the same way it dances on John Travolta's or Connie Nielsen's. It would be foolish and impossible for me to summarize the film more than I have. My best advice is to see it as soon as possible. In the meantime watch the clip below.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Title Sequences: The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)

McTiernan's title sequences are unusually instructive. Not content with hanging these important names on a self contained mood piece or even an invisible wall through which the beginning of a film is usually seen, he places them in what seem more and more to be preludes to his visual strategies and thematic preoccupations.

The Thomas Crown Affair is where I first noticed this tendency. As the film begins, a grouping of three or four horizontally configured orange fields gently shift over and under one another. These brief abstract compositions are interrupted by similarly intermittent images of a human face accompanied by dialogue. The face belongs to Pierce
Brosnan and the dialogue concerns his distrust of women and his hesitancy towards relationships. The effect of this juxtaposition is a book-ending of what seem to be representations of natural landscapes, or at the very least, McTiernan's preoccupation with horizontal lines. This repeated bracketing of images also present us with a question, albeit an increasingly ambiguous one: Is Crown trapped by these landscapes or are these landscapes trapped by Crown?

The frequency and duration of these opposing images also seem to be creating a rhythmic consistency which one assumes Crown would (and does) oppose. During the first repetition, the opposing images share a relatively comparable frame count of around 240, which work out to 10 seconds each. After this, however, the orange fields plummet to an average of 72 to 96 frames, which work out to three to four seconds. While the human portion of the pairings tend to be about 240 to 480 frames, which work out to be between 10 and 20 seconds. While these minute details may not be of interest to anyone, there's no denying the architecture and care that went into a sequence that most people are trained to ignore. Besides functioning as an overture to the film itself, I don't think it too bold to view this sequence as something of sketch which outlines and re-establishes one of
McTiernan's key themes: the extent to which (spacial, psychological, environmental) circumstances define us as human beings (and, certainly, vice versa).

Wednesday, April 14, 2010