Thursday, June 3, 2010

Title Sequences: Die Hard (1988)

Much like Predator, the title sequence of Die Hard is not a discrete, self-contained movement (McTiernan wastes no time before jumping into the meat of the story); so instead we might treat this 'sequences' entry as an example of McTiernan's deft handling of exposition and lean, no frills storytelling. Die Hard follows Predator as an example of McTiernan's then present fascination with vertical lines of movement, but also introduces a succession of cramped spaces - in fact, McClane's progression in the film is really a series of movements from one claustrophobic interior to another. We are introduced to a hand gripping an arm rest, as the camera moves up to reveal a figure seated next to the hand, then moving back slightly to reveal John McClane, settling on a two shot with McClane and the man seated next to him (McTiernan favors two shots for much of the film's opening section, mirroring his handling of the group dynamic visible in Predator). After some banter between the two (in which McClane is instructed to 'make fists with his toes', the operative part of the phrase being 'make fists'), people begin de-boarding. We might not at first make much of the sudden influx of movement and bodies into the frame, but in retrospect it becomes clear that McTiernan has already begun his series of cramped spaces. Note how careful he is to briefly anchor the camera for a long shot of McClane getting up from his seat: a figure in the foreground partially blocks our view of McClane, and figures invade the space from the left of frame, as well as movement behind - essentially a straight line of people receding into the background of the visible space. McClane removes an oversized teddy bear from an overhead compartment, which leads us to -

A long shot interior; as people remove luggage from the baggage claim, figures exit an escalator in the distant background of the shot. McClane becomes visible, recognizable, thanks to said oversized novelty teddy bear. McTiernan briefly cuts to a closer shot of McClane before then cutting to a new scene, the inside of an office building. Mr. Takagi exits an office and walks to an balcony overlooking a large lower level (the camera follows in an unbroken tracking shot). As Takagi greets the gathered crowd (a king greeting his subjects), a figure enters the lower level from the upper right of the frame, cuts through the crowd, and exits frame left, the camera slowly moving away from Takagi to gradually zoom in on the solitary figure. The woman enters an office and phones her children. As they talk, the camera tracks around the character's back, revealing a row of photos of the children and, lastly, a family portrait including McClane. Upon settling on the portrait, the woman swivels in her seat, finally facing the camera (as a young girl asking Mommy if Daddy will be home for Christmas). This is Holly McClane (Gennaro)

In a brief five minutes or so of screen time, McTiernan has introduced several major themes, as well his overriding visual strategy: tension (the gripped hand); a marriage on the rocks, separated geographically and visually; an emphasis on cramped spaces, as well as McClane's concurrent fear of confinement (a crystal clear suggestion as to why his marriage seems to be in danger of falling apart). Interestingly, McTiernan's framing of McClane in the distant background of the baggage carousel mirrors the introduction of Holly, she of the lone figure cutting across the crowd that has gathered under Takagi. Both are isolated, alone, going against the crowd, yet visually linked to each other via McTiernan's distancing effect. As the film returns to the airport, McClane witnesses an exaggerated reunion between two lovers - an overt display of joy and affection that contrasts with his own taciturn remove, as well as foreshadowing one possible reunification scenario with his own wife (we aren't surprised when it doesn't go so well).

Keeping with the notion of McClane's travelling to successive confined spaces, he is greeted by a driver and ferried into a limo. There's some nice, understated banter between McClane and the driver (Argyle!) that suggests McClane's down to earth, everyman persona (the scene also reinforcing the fish out of water theme - 'it's my first time in one', as he proceeds to sit in the front seat, as well as some quick exposition and an explanation of his and Holly's estrangement)

McTiernan's director credit appears soon thereafter, effectively ending the title sequence and the parameters of these 'title sequences' posts. But a couple of additional quick notes: several establishing shots of Nakatomi Plaza, from the perspective of the limo approaching, establish a kind of a cosmic predetermination. In looms on the horizon in all of its vertical glory, cutting through the frame like a knife. It's visually isolated, the only skyscraper in view. McClane's entrance to the Nakatomi lobby suggests a couple of contradicting visual cues: brightly lit, with ample windows and space, McTiernan still places the camera low to the ground, a slight bulging of the image allowing us a view of the ceiling. Suggestion: the illusion of space is just that; the building is simply another entrapment. As McClane walks from the lobby to a bank of elevators, the camera tracks along with him, still low to the ground. A slight fish angle lens still continues to show the ceiling, as well as curving the edges of the frame inwards as he walks under a kind of divider that instantly covers the top half of the frame, essentially obliterating the top half of the image and further restricting the space McClane is allowed to occupy (visually and physically).

The arrival of the terrorists is like lightning - there is virtually no introduction. Within several seconds of their arrival, they've already gunned down two people (both in the lobby, retroactively infusing the initially off-putting space with a concrete violence). Initially framed together, they are a group of men on one single minded mission. While not the good guys, they do resemble the team from Predator (tight knit, visually grouped together, moving as one unit with a perfect precision). They also represent the intrusion of a parallel narrative strand, intruding upon the domestic crisis drama that we've been introduced to.

This is McTiernan's complete mastery of cinematic space. 'Thanks for the advice'.

1 comment:

  1. just came across your site - mctiernan's always been one of my favorite, and one of the most under-rated, directors.

    are you writing the book still / any updates? dmickb[at] would be interested to hear!