Sunday, October 17, 2010

John McTiernan: la maitre du cinema d'action by Claude Monnier

Here's the introduction to Claude Monnier's book on John McTiernan. I typed each line into Google translate and let McTiernan's cinema act as the invisible third party translator. I realize this isn't the best way to do something like this but I had no other options. That being said, I'm pleased with the results and plan to continue with the rest of the book. Additionally, I'm sorry for the unintentional hiatus. Rest assured, more great content is coming. My co-pilot (the ever articulate and invaluable Dan Gorman) and I have begun the introduction to our very own book on John McTiernan (which we hope will also be posted on senses of cinema) and I'm working on an extensive post on The Thomas Crown Affair. So stay tuned.

-With Predator and Die Hard, I'm still experimenting... Learning... It's understood that all films have camera movement. But Bertolucci is able to shoot a scene without its technical effort being noticed. Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. It is music for the eyes and brain. Many men have actually spent their lives honing their skill in this art...

-Today, you've made Predator and Die Hard... and they've done well. But as a filmmaker, what would you like to achieve in the future ?

-I told you ... (He moves his fingers). Music! There are maybe twenty seconds of Die Hard where I achieved an image that has the intensity of a dream. It's a very small percentage, I grant you, but I hope it will grow along with the estimation of my work. And I'm still in the learning stage. With Kubrick and Bertolucci, a good half of every movie has that intent and purpose.

--Extract from an interview with John McTiernan by Catherine Esway and Chrisopher Gans, September 1988.

Introduction: The Journey of John McTiernan:

When Predator was released in August of 1987, young fans of Action/Adventure cinema knew that John McTiernan was no ordinary filmmaker. The first thing that impressed us was his direction of actors, especially Arnold Schwarzenegger. For the first time in his career, the former bodybuilder was seen as a believably human hero in the tradition of John Wayne. A filmmaker that can transform Schwarzenegger... this is a sign that does not deceive! The second thing in the film that really impressed us was the last part of the film: The lengthy fight between Arnold's Dutch and the Predator. Silent and barbaric... Man and beast... The absence of dialogue, the sense of space, the atmosphere and uncompromisingly allegorical reflection on barbarity, all of which suggested filmmakers like John Boorman, Sam Peckinpah and Robert Aldrich.

A year earlier, this young graduate of the American Film Institute seemed to take the path of the independent filmmaker with his adventure/fantasy, Nomads. He suddenly changed course and decided to offer his talents to the Hollywood film industry, taking advantage of a popular genre among teenagers: the action movie. Though these films offered muscle and destruction, one could see an interesting correspondence between the themes in Nomads and Predator: the invisibility of monsters and the violation, upheaval and/or destruction of territory. This was the path McTiernan was to follow.

In September of 1988 The Crystal Trap (Die Hard) arrived in France. It was still an action movie, only this time in an urban area. At first, the film didn't seem very original to me. It seemed like McTiernan had sold his soul. Earlier that summer in America, the film had been a surprise blockbuster. Later, I realized that I did not respond to McTiernan's vision for the wrong reasons. Indeed, the young filmmaker had achieved an even more brilliant feat than before: turning his lead actor (here the comedian from the TV series Moonlighting, Bruce Willis) into a virile action hero with an endearingly cranky view of the world but with the intelligence to maintain McTiernan's thematic interests of territory and invisibility. The film was a commercial failure France. Only when the film reached video did it became a classic action film.

Today, as then, what impresses me most about Mctiernan is his mastery of cinema. Understanding this is the key to his superiority over his brethren in the genre of action cinema: to create such a cinema worthy of the masters De Palma, Spielberg and Hitchcock. With Predator and Die Hard, McTiernan made the most of a rowdy and popular cinema, which was an obligatory passage for young filmmakers of the era. Indeed, after the decline of adult and subversive cinema of the 1970s, which seemed to happen all at once with Cimino's Heaven's Gate failure, the triumph of the fantastic tales of Speilberg and Lucas and the era of the reactionary Ronald Reagan, the Hollywood filmmakers of McTiernan's generation had no other choice but to work in the field of entertainment for teenagers. The archetypical action film of the 80's, Rambo (First Blood, 1982) was probably the initiator. Though it was hardly subtle about it's intent, it offered a dramatic formalist like McTiernan opportunities for audiovisual experimentation which cannot be denied. Better yet: through its integration of action and dynamic use of space coupled with narratives which concerned the battle between good and evil, the action movie was just the modern equivalent of 1950's Westerns, which brought doubt to McTiernan's classical cinematic values during his childhood. In the beginning of this filmmaker's career, one shouldn't underestimate the importance of the Producer of Joel Silver. With 48 hours in 1982, Silver had launched a new genre, the thriller of urban destruction, which still carries its fruits today. Die Hard is the perfect epitome of the style and strength that come from mixing the sensibilities of Silver (Frank Lloyd Right with explosions) and the visual genius of McTiernan.

With Die Hard, McTiernan truly became one of my favorite filmmakers. To the point of literally dreaming about his unfulfilled projects like his remakes of Robin Hood and Captain Blood with Alec Baldwin or after that, Edgar Rice Burrough's Princess of Mars with Tom Cruise. The film that was to follow Die Hard was an adaptation of the comic strip Sergeant Rock, with Schwarzenegger. Though this dream did not exceed any stage of development, McTiernan realized many of the same "humanist" ideas in the context of a war movie with The Hunt for Red October, inspired the bestseller by Tom Clancy. McTiernan enjoyed a bigger budget and an all-star cast, courtesy of Joel Silver. His idealistic vision of Soviets and Americans working together contrasted by his themes/motifs such as invisibility and the struggle over territory (the rural farm that lives in Captain Borodin's dreams being symbolic of the ideal America) brought the film more depth and realism.. The film was a great success worldwide, thanks to its rigorous narrative, aesthetic beauty and its mature view of the Cold War. It was 1990 and in the course of three years McTiernan had truly dazzled us with Predator, Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October. He was among the ten best paid film directors in Hollywood and among the very first names considered by producers to helm larger blockbusters. His next two films however, were both failures and threatened his position in Hollywood.

In 1991, McTiernan continued his collaboration with Sean Connery and made an exotic romance in the vein of Mogambo, The African Queen and The Last Days of Eden. Released in 1992 as Medicine Man, McTiernan as before in Predator, filmed in the jungle. But this film was a warm and humanistic one, with the quest against cancer and no "bad guys" among the protagonists. I think the mixed reception of the film can be explained by the lack of conflict and drama and subsequently, the lack of real action. Even today, Medicine Man remains totally unknown by the public.

One critic aptly compared the film to Akira Kurosawa's Red Beard. Perhaps this was McTiernan's secret ambition that guided the making of the film (and other films). The subtext which drove his selection of projects (eg Treasure Island and Red October). To make up for the failure of Medicine Man, McTiernan agreed to make what was supposed to be the big blockbuster of the summer of 1993, Last Action Hero. The film was to be both a fantastic action/comedy as well as an ironic critique of Hollywood action films (complete with its absurdities and bad taste). The films deliciously artificial and massive approach to California (populated by rock stars and supermodels) is countered in by its approach to the violent and immensely dirty New York City. This contrast gives the film added dimension and weight. In spite of its flawless pace and virtuoso direction, the public seemed to find the mixture of genre's indigestible. McTiernan had again failed.

McTiernan then returned to the Die Hard franchise, despite turning down an offer to direct Die Hard 2. For every other director, this would be an easy opportunity to cash in, for McTiernan, this was an opportunity to experiment wildly! In contrast to the sleek sophistication of the first film, McTiernan gives the third John McClane adventure a chaotic, almost documentary form. While wholly fulfilling the expectations of action fans by providing shootouts, explosions and wonderful stunts, the film is mostly a lesson in the use of cinematic space and movement and how they can create emotions within the image. Die Hard with a Vengeance was an enormous success and allowed McTiernan to peruse his most ambitious project yet, an adaptation of the bestseller Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton (a dark adventure about an Arab emissary who travels into Viking territory). This was not only McTiernan's favorite theme, but also a deeply personal one. McTiernan had built a viking ship as a teenager and one of his first films, The Demon's Daughter, concerned a Viking saga (the film is as of this date unreleased). With confidence, he continued with the experiments of Die Hard with a Vengeance, heavily utilizing a handheld camera and using a lot of natural lighting, both of which work to give them film special character. Unfortunately, the film displeased early test audiences and the film was butchered by producers and retitled The 13th Warrior. Such meddling was useless. The film was released a year late, in the Summer of 1999. Though it was clearly a masterpiece, the film was met with indifference from the general public. However, the film retains some of its distinctiveness by placing the "true heroes" (Buliwyf) in the background, as they're observed by the narrator (Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan). As for the mise en scene, it remains intact: we're thrust into the heart of these characters, each of whom are so completely immersed in the films universe, that it takes on the air of an interactive video game. Interestingly, this idea can be found right in the Hollywood theories of Andre Bazin when writing about Jean Renoir: The movie screen should not be a shield, but a mask that helps us move through the world of the film!

Though he was in the middle of post-production for The Thirteenth Warrior, McTiernan enthusiastically threw himself into a remake of The Thomas Crown Affair by Norman Jewison. Though risky, the film showcased the eclecticism of its author as well as his talent as a "actors director". Often in his films, underestimated actors are given a perfect role which helps to crystalize not only their character, but also the film itself, as is the case here with Rene Russo (as it was for Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger). The film distinguishes itself from the Jewison version by emphasizing the world of painting over the world of money. Which lends the film a surprisingly subtle and elitist tone. It is, in fact, the most "adult" story McTiernan has told to date. But his staging is what's truly brilliant, returning to the sublime sophistication of Die Hard. The elegance of his camera movements which submerge his characters into the action creates a stunning visual ballet which is every bit as recognizable as the style of Martin Scorsese. It's only with hindsight that we realize that the mid to late-90's were as artistically brilliant for McTiernan as his late-80's
films. And despite the respectable critical and commercial success of The Thomas Crown Affair, McTiernan's status in the industry was about change dramatically. Since these films, McTiernan has been able to arouse only suspicion among Hollywood producers. Both for the commercial failure of his films but also their stylistic daring.

So, McTiernan began the 2000's by embarking on a second remake of a Norman Jewison film, Rollerball. The goal this time was far more radical than in Crown: an unofficial remake of Spartacus, by way of Trumbo and Kubrick. The first third of the film is almost entirely in a foreign language, without subtitles. The disorientation of our American Hero (Chris Klein) negotiating Central Asia becomes all the more palpable. Apparently this was so disorienting to the producers, that they significantly edited the last part of the screenplay (the revolt of the "slaves") and re-edited the completed parts of the film to more resemble "Slap Shot". Like flossing your teeth with a rock... Released in 2002, Rollerball was rejected completely by the public as well as the critics. True, the final film leaves much to be desired, particularly because of the mediocre acting and unbearable music: two defects not typical of McTiernan. However, there are certain elements here that further demonstrate McTiernan's unique style. He injects these characters with a sense of urgency and danger, like Welles' Mr. Arkadin. Another interesting element is that the film is openly anti-capitalist, even Marxist in the way it draws attention to class struggle in the final sequence. An American blockbuster that is also openly Marxist, we must recognize that this is not common!

After the debacle of Rollerball, McTiernan made a more modestly scaled military thriller, Basic, in 2003. On paper, it was an ideal vehicle for John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson. But nothing's that simple. Though the film was a direct homage to Kurosawa's famous film, Rashomon, with it's survey of a mutlitude of conflicting viewpoints surrounding a murder, it was so sophisticated, verbal and ironic that it failed to find an audience. It's possible though, that this rejection is rooted in something Truffaut brought up when discussing Hitchcok's Stagefright: That the public isn't as receptive to flashbacks because they betray the truth of the image and belies deception by the director. And when we know that Basic consists entirely of these types of sequences.... But one could believe that as time passes, appreciation for Basic will grow, as it has for other McTiernan films... Beauty and intelligence are often best viewed in hindsight.

In contemporary Hollywood cinema, the status of McTiernan is singular. He never had the ambition of Coppola or Scorsese. He never had the commercial success of Speilberg, Cameron or Zemeckis. And he wasn't a subversive b-filmmaker like Carpenter. He was always offered a large budget, like another contemporary, Tim Burton. In fact, his turbulent career is not unique in the annals Hollywood, far from it. Though it is a bit strange that such a popular filmmaker is so often bullied by his producers. McTiernan has no empire nor production house, which might explain his "politically fragile" place in the industry right now. Moreover, his vision of action cinema, closer to Robert Aldrich, is full of a type of wit and impertinence, which is growing increasingly out of fashion.

A critic from Cahiers du Cinema once wrote about McTiernan: "He's probably not an auteur, but he's a great craftsman". In this book I will try to prove that is both an auteur and a great craftsman!


  1. Is 'stage director' what Google Translate gave you for 'metteur en scène'? If so, it doesn't mean stage director, it's the term usually given as the opposite of auteur: i.e., merely a professional, journeyman director, without evident 'personality' expressed in the resulting film. Someone who merely 'gets the job done', executes the scene in the script ... a craftsperson rather than an artist. So this book is claiming he is both a craftsperson and an artist, which makes more sense in the context.

  2. Mr. Martin, first let me thank you for stopping by! It appears that indeed, "metteur en scene" was the term translated into "stage director." I thought it might have alluded to something like what you're suggesting, but I didn't want to mess with it as I'm still pretty unfamiliar with the language. So would an acceptable translation be "craftsman" as opposed to "stage director?" Input is always welcome.

    Thanks again, by the way, for stopping by. It's pretty nice finally having our first comment (and since you're our first comment in over a year, I hope you'll forgive our slow response time?) The chapter on Nomads will be posted by the end of next week. Care to proof read it for us? ;)