Saturday, October 22, 2011

Nomads (1986) by Claude Monnier

At long last here's our translation for Chapter 1 of Claude Monnier's book on John McTiernan: "Le Maître du Cinéma d’action". Honestly, I had almost given up on this but when I saw how heavily reverenced our translated introduction was all over the internet, I decided to finish this one. Happy reading!


McTiernan made Nomads outside of the studio system. Perhaps originally intended as a calling card to other studios (hence his selection of the at-the-time popular genre of fantasy and horror), but also an expression of his uneasy personal feelings about the people in California. Coming from the old East Coast, he was unnerved by the artificial character of Los Angeles and its mass of people without roots. Before long, he felt detached from the people and the city. His two main characters in the film, anthropologist Charles Pommier (Pierce Brosnan) and Flax the nurse (Lesley Ann Down), were certainly written with this in mind. But in the film, McTiernan pushes the strange feeling of the city and the people in it to the point where it becomes a nightmare.
Nomads tells the story of an anthropologist pursued by a tribe of evil spirits from the Great North. Before dying, Pommier casts a spell on the young nurse treating him. Uncontrollably, she begins to envision the last few months of his life in great detail and intensity. This strange occurrence lends the entire film an atmosphere of madness. Indeed, nomads appear in the eyes of Pommier and no one shares Flax's visions. Real or not, these events are experienced by both characters in a hallucinatory trance-state. This isolates them from the rest of the world. Loneliness and nervousness permeates the film, the defining image of the film may be when Flax wakes up on a deserted beach, scared and alone.

From the beginning, the narrative is based on a schizophrenic principle. We are witnessing, in very concrete terms, the splitting of Flax's personality. It happens suddenly: before she knows what's happening she is deprived of her own existence. Where she goes, she no longer sees reality. She looks in a room and her subjectivity reverts to that of Pommier in a different room altogether. The location changes but the tracking of the camera keeps pace with the previous shot. Thanks to the fluidity of this transition, the viewer experiences the same disorientation as the young woman.

The other element in this complexly structured narrative is paranoia. With Flax, it arises from her colleagues at work misunderstanding her strange behavior. With Pommier, the paranoia begins on the doorstep of his new home. He becomes intrigued by a black van and a gang of thugs who roam the streets at night, as well as violent graffiti on the back wall of his garage. In the middle of the night, when Pommier first discovers the graffiti with his flashlight, it's incredibly discomforting. The gloom which enshrouds him symbolizes the darkest corners of his subconscious. This moment anticipates the cinema of David Lynch, specifically the first half of Lost Highway. Here we have a house of modern architecture which is gradually invaded by savagery (McTiernan returns to this theme in Die Hard).

On the floor of his garage, Pommier discovers old newspaper articles which describe horrible crimes committed in his new home. The mobile camera and the disorienting crosscutting reflects the panicked state of Pommier's wife when she learns what her husband has found. From the moment in the garage onward, Pommier is confident that the thugs are trying to kill him. He then decides to follow them with his camera as he once did with the tribes of Africa or the tribes in the Far North. But the experience that he brought back from these journey's are meaningless in Los Angeles. Only when he realizes this does his reason waver.
His descent into madness is illustrated in two remarkable scenes.

The first occurs when Pommier enters an abandoned convent through a sordid back alleyway. Inside, he's given a disturbing religious warning by an elderly nun. She then leads him down a series of dark corridors and he follows with his flashlight. Then, it seems as though the corridors extend into infinity, an impossibility given the the size of the building. Suddenly, young, evil nuns run in and out of the rooms along the corridor. Some have their breasts exposed, some have fangs... They seem to materialize inside the madness of our hero. This sequence, which indeed turns out to be a dream, is actually a dazzling journey inside Pommier. It has a surreal and frightening atmosphere that evokes Fellini, a film director McTiernan particularly admires.
The second scene stunningly evokes the paranoia of the hero and the dreamlike quality of the film. Pommier and his wife stand atop the roof of a skyscraper in downtown Los Angeles. In an attempt to forget their recent traumas they admire the magnificent panorama of the city, while talking about their future plans together. The sky reflects the quietude of this moment, with its calming, milky radiance.

Suddenly, panic strikes Pommier: He sees the ponytail of one of the nomads sticking out from behind a collapsed umbrella. A closer look reveals that it's a false alarm: It's only a female tourist. Then, through subtle staging and camera movement, a real nomad (their apparent leader) appears beside Pommier. As the nomad menacingly moves from beside Pommier to between him and his wife. Pommier, in panicked desperation, kills the nomad by throwing him off the side of the building. A high angle wide shot reveals the full city plan directly below the skyscraper as the evil spirit plunges to his death. This shot anticipates identical images found in Die Hard (Hans Gruber falling), Last Action Hero (Jack Slater falling from a destroyed elevator) and Die Hard With a Vengeance (Zues Carver and John McClane falling from a tow-line onto a boat). This might suggest that this particular image is one McTiernan is obsessed with and is perhaps a source of nightmares, much like the nun sequence earlier in the film, which McTiernan has said was an actual nightmare of his.

These moments clearly illustrate the importance of dreams and their effect on the psychologies of characters in McTiernan's universe. But their are other elements of Nomads which also anticipate future works, like the theme of territory.

The city of Los Angeles is indeed portrayed as the isolated basement of the world. Some props call attention to its artificial nature (plastic trees) and certain images accentuate the geometric aspect of the city (one of the first shots in the film is a panorama of the city at night, as well as the modern architecture of Pommier's town house). Dark skies which contrast the illuminated streets, strongly suggest an almost palpable violence. When Pommier follows the nomadic tribe in his car through the neon arteries of the city, it feels very much like a real ethnological documentary on the nocturnal habits of Californians.

McTiernan's ability to articulate the size and configuration of a given space is illustrated both in the exterior scenes as well as inside Pommer's apartment. Slow tracking shots which meticulously (and acrobatically) follow the couple navigating their new apartment allow us to psychologically feel the space and makes the eventual invasion by the nomads all the more effective. The final siege of the nomads feels like traumatic violation of territory, very similarly to the night invasion of the Wendol cave in The 13th Warrior or, Die Hard, with McClane and Gruber both protected and entrapped by the skyscraper.

In the final scene of the film, we see that Flax and Niki (Pommier's Wife) have fled Los Angeles. They drive past real trees, which are a comforting sight for the two embattled women. Then, suddenly a nomad begins to follow them on a motorcycle. The figure eventually passes them and turns around. The masked nomad unveils himself, it is Pommier. A crane shot moves diagonally to reveal a sign that reads "Entering California."

The feeling of being trapped in a given space which is at once immense and also claustrophobic seems to fascinate McTiernan. This theme runs through all of his films. In Nomads, it seems related to an anthropological perception of life, a desire to detect primitive behaviors in the civilized world.

After dreams, madness and the violation of territory, primitivism is the other major theme of Nomads. It will be developed further in Predator and The 13th Warrior, while appearing more subtly in his other films.

This theme stems from McTiernan's fascination with the conflict between civilization and primitive culture. Indeed, the first two shots of Nomads, and by default the first two shots of McTiernan's filmography, is a slow zoom into the darkened face of a hooded Inuit. This darkness gives way to street-lit cityscape of Los Angeles. This juxtaposition seems to imply that the superstitions of the primitive world is about to infest the culture. The invisibility of evil beings, another characteristic of primitive beliefs, is not only the primary attribute of the nomads, but also of the predator in Predator, of John McClane in Die Hard, of the sorcerer in Medicine Man, of Simon Gruber in Die Hard With a Vengeance and, perhaps definitively, of the Wendols in The 13th Warrior. In this context, it's interesting to note the symmetries which occur between Nomads and McTiernan's later films: Pommier is attacked by men who turn out to be demons, while the Vikings were attacked by demons, which turn out to be men! In both instances, we feel McTiernan's almost palpable fear of losing control, and sinking violently into the lowest instincts of humanity, like Dutch in Predator or McClane in Die Hard. But in these two films, this regression into barbarism seems a necessary evil, whereas Pommier's journey in Nomads is much more dark and tragic: Near the driveway of his home, Pommier kills one of the nomads by beating him mercilessly with a tire-iron. He then quickly retreats back into his house and looks at the body from his bedroom window. He then takes off all his clothes and climbs into bed, where he begins to make violent, beastly love to his wife. In a cruel irony typical of McTiernan, the scientist who arrogantly photographed the savage tribe has now himself become one of them. Pommier succumbs to the vengeance of the primitive spirits, probably those of the countless victims of colonization, whose godless and unpunished crimes Kipling called the "White man's burden".

The main theme of Nomads can be reduced to the vengeance of the primitive civilization. It's a dark, desperate film which occasionally flirts with pretentiousness. This, of course, contrasts sharply with the popular character of the better known films that would follow.
Here, McTiernan seems to unleash the dark side of his mind, as if to exorcise his darkest instincts before "turning the page" and starting his Hollywood career.

This recalls a story about Howard Hawks, during the time of the release of his first film in 1927, The Road To Glory. Having just watched a tragic and deeply religious work, Sol Wurtzel told Hawks: "You showed that you could make a film, but for the love of God, now do something fun!"

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Moments of clarity #1

In scenes like the cat-and-mouse Son of Man chase in The Thomas Crown Affair where we have a room filled with very animate bodies, Nina Simone's Sinnerman adds to the composition of all the other elements by creating a passage through which they can all flow, diffusely formless but remaining interconnected and attuned to one another. The dimensions of a space become evident. The song is allowed to integrate on a formal level with the images and on a corporeal level with the movement of the extras. John McTiernan's understanding of the kinaesthetic qualities of the recorded human body is most evident in The Thomas Crown Affair, where the discipline of his craft (the camera's all seeing eye) is realised onto a perfectly controllable canvas (the tight, punchy editing). The canvas of movies is figurative, and McTiernan knows that building a rhythm does not constitute a succession of antsy music cues or pumped-up whirligig editing. He understands that there needs to be rhythm within the frame for there to be any escalation of mood or understanding, or, for that matter, pleasure.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Mission tactics: The opening chase in Rollerball (2002)

The camera circles around mapping out the action; every cut and shot delineates the space, links people and objects together in our heads. In other words, when he moves from a close-up of one rider to a long shot of another in a single upward pan, then cuts across to their field of vision, with the first rider racing forward in plain sight, and then pulls out to a longer shot, we understand a certain relationship the two bodies share. It's only a simple technique, but the genius of McTiernan is that he uses this aesthetic geometry to the advantage of a scene: he's the genuine article, not just a great showman.

Composition that is not restricted to within the confines of an image, but between multiple images --in the utilisation of the tempo and flow of editing to communicate a specific understanding about, say, how we move in the world, or how an environment becomes territorial in the presence of a group of bodies. A minor but specific rhythm builds...

The editing and the camera ape the intensity of the movement on screen, almost to the point that the images seem like they might come unhinged. There are a couple of minutes of manic montage, as Cross and the other racer speed down the streets, gliding past huddles of photographers, leaping over the bizarre geometric design of San Francsico's roadways and under oncoming trucks, moments and movements which, as well as remaining totally fresh, hark back to a couple of old tactics he deploys in these kinds of situations (whip-pans to police pursuers, aerial shots - both tracking and static - and Daniel's beloved telescopic zoom, which here isn't quite as magnificent, and is half as brief, as the one in Die Hard With A Vengeance - but it's McTiernan, and, heck, we should be grateful for it). McT shapes, divides, handles the material like a conductor, in total control, even when what he conducts is under constant threat of unravelling. Immaculate as ever, the framing remains perfect: the images are banjaxed but they are never unclear.