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.


  1. I'm really glad you keep hitting on the special relationship these films have with music. Though some critics have been quick to note the use of classical music in Die Hard (Beethoven, and more impressively, Bach!), few (if any) have been willing to contextualize these choices beyond their occurring in a big-budget "action" film (which is indeed a rare aesthetic choice). The truth is that McTiernan often uses classical pieces (Mozart in Last Action Hero, Brahms in Die Hard with a Vengeance and Ravel in Basic, as noted by Ignatiy Vishnevetsy earlier in this blog's history), and I suspect it has more to do with McTiernan's approach to editing, composition and film space than it does decoration or mood (as I would argue the case is with filmmakers like Kubrick or Coppola). In other words, it's there for a reason!

    For instance, Die Hard with a Vengeance has always struck me as a very operatic film, not just in terms of it's scope, which is massive and seemingly ever-expanding, but also in terms of its compositions. Think of Targo hopping off the front loader during the gold heist, and then seemingly conducting the machines with his hands (he is framed almost diminutively in the lower right hand side of the frame, as though he were standing in front of a tableau), in the same fashion Mickey Mouse "conducts" the waves in the "The Sorcerer's Apprentice". Also throughout the film, spaces are often alluded to by a character's eyes before they are fully constructed objectively, for the audience. Think of Zeus Carver near the climax of the film, as he's lowered into the bowels of that cargo ship while strapped to the top of the bomb. Behind him we see the hatch doors close, rack focus, his eyes quickly but deliberate trace everything around and below him before he exclaims "You're gonna to blow it all up?!" The next cut to Simon walking down a flight of stairs to McClane and Carver preserves the perspective and dynamism of the previous shot, but then quickly and elegantly expounds upon Carver's tracings from moments earlier. In this way, the eyes are unusually informative throughout. Think of the first phone conversation between Walter Cobb and Simon near the beginning of the film: At one point Cobb's eyes dart upward and the camera reframes his face in kind. Ditto when John McClane is talking with Simon on the payphone near Gray's Papayas. My point is that these brief allusions to surrounding space are not dissimilar from how a classical (or jazz musician for that matter. Remember when we first see Zeus he is listening to Thelonius Monk) composer will allude to a main theme before fully revealing it and later creating (for lack of a better term) variations on it. In all of this let's not forget that John McTiernan's father was indeed an opera singer and McTiernan himself has a theatrical background.

  2. Even further yet, there is the matter of the endless parade of supporting characters in the film, each possessing a unique and memorable voice, line, mannerism or moment. There's Joe, Connie, Walter, Ricky, Targo, Katya, Charlie, etc, etc. There's even that guy who cheerfully exclaims "Otto doesn't speak english, do ya, Otto?" after watching Otto kill a police officer (another memorable supporting character in his own right) I love that guy!

    There was fascinating (if not apocryphal) thread on Rollerball's IMDb page detailing some of John McTiernan's ideas behind his editing choices. I can't find it now (maybe you can have better luck?) But basically the person who posted it claimed to know McTiernan and had spoken to him back in the day about what Rollerball was supposed to be. According to this poster, McTiernan wanted to experiment with editing the film together as though it were a symphony, and colors were to represent tone, motion was to represent something different and characters movement in the frame and their dialogue something different, yet. It was a fascinating read and I wish I would find it.

  3. Haven't been able to find the thread. I've been looking for quite a while and I can't see anything.

    You're right, music is intergal to McTiernan in two senses of the word:

    (1) As you've said, his films often resemble music. Die Hard With A Vengeance, yes, is like opera, Predator is like a steady drumbeat, The 13th Warrior, which I've always thought of as a fragile & leaner Predator, is so obviously something done on a mandolin, and The Thomas Crown Affair uncannily resembles a samba. Their specific movements, like symphony pieces, are both individual (providing something new) and building on the ideas of the previous section (constructed, classical). Basic, for example, is designed so that it has a mixture of exposition and reconstruction; the parallel narratives building upon each other, playing off each other.

    (2) His films use music as a channel for movement. As I mentioned in the post, his choices of sound reverberate with their visual counterparts, enhance them (like any good music cue). He'll often use this to launch us into a situation without any frills... I'm thinking the opening of DHWAV, in particular.

  4. "…I've tried to have the style of every film I do match the story, like a selection of instruments, perhaps… like how you would play a particular piece of music…"

  5. I found the thread: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001532/board/thread/125847266?d=140215873&p=1#140215873

    Email me at hood.charles [at] gmail.com. I'd love to chat about all things McT.

    Here it is, copied and pasted:

    As a fellow fan and long-time admirer of McT's, I have an interesting perspective b/c I was working for producer Charles Roven at the time the notorious "Rollerball" was being made... which of course involved McT illegally contracting a wiretap on Roven, which McT later lied about to the FBI and was subsequently convicted and sentenced to prison for.

    Previously John had discussed a rather crackpot notion of experimental editing he wanted to explore -- to begin applying a compositional technique of "visual music" to his cinematography: Treating visceral movement, timing and cuts as the equivalent of a classical conductor's orchestrations -- using pieces of footage as if they were instruments. While such an abstract theory is fine and dandy for a low-budget indie filmmaker to explore as a side hobby with his own dime, it seems foolish and irresponsible for a large-budget Hollywood hiree (bored and restlessly itching for a challenge) to gamble studio investments so frivolously.

    After Thomas Crown, MGM offered their library to McT for a remake of his choice... he picked "Rollerball." I was skeptical for numerous reasons, one being McT's referencing the already-decayed XFL extreme sports franchise (anybody remember that?) as his inspiration, which seemed like a weak basis for his frame-of-thought (reality TV was already becoming a cultural cliche). Nevertheless, MGM was desperate for any potential hit, so the Rollerball contracts were signed and money started getting spent fast.

    When the resulting footage was disastrous, MGM panicked and Roven was expected to salvage the project in any way possible. There were many arguments, much misery and constant indigestion. It is my opinion that 1) McTiernan had applied his "musical editing" concept while directing Rollerball (never having gotten official permission to treat the project as a $100+mil "experiment"), and 2) he was so frustrated by other people's disgruntled concerns (their box-office worries battling his creativity) that he over-reacted in arrogance which led to his career downfall.

    If John wasn't arrogant, then his wiretapping of Roven (and lying about it) sure seems like the behavior of a corrupted, spoiled ego that had grown resentful of the smaller minds he felt "forced" to cooperate with. While he was wrong to commit the crime, he had been foolish earlier by pursuing Rollerball in an eccentric manner virtually dooming it to become a clusterf%#k.

    Sad to see a genius self-destruct (McT was one of the greatest adventure directors of all time), but that sad reflection is merely a POV of universal tendencies within our human nature.