Friday, 29 August 2014

Die Hard (1988)

When I was a film student at Stockholm University back in the 1990s David Bordwell paid us a visit and he also gave some lectures. The one I attended was about Die Hard (John McTiernan 1988) and Three Colours: Blue (Krzysztof Kieslowski 1993), and Bordwell presented them as prime examples of a typical American film and a typical European film. I do not remember what he said but it was the first time I had heard anybody discuss a mainstream Hollywood film in a serious manner, analysing camera angles, editing, narrative, and pointing out that there is a lot of skill involved, as well as artistic decisions to be made, even in such a film. Sometimes you were led to believe (and some still seems to think so) that whereas European films are made by conscious people, American films more or less assemble themselves, without human agency. One way to appreciate the importance of the skills and ideas of the people involved is to compare films that are similar in style and genre, rather than comparing Die Hard with Blue you might compare it to the abysmal Money Train (Joseph Ruben 1995). But it is not important to compare Die Hard to anything in order to enjoy it, or to be dazzled by the skill with which it is made. It is a great film, which is perhaps why Bordwell chose it.

At the beginning of the film there is a shot from the arrivals hall at an airport (LAX I imagine), with the camera close to the floor and with the baggage carousel taking up most of the visual interest in the film. But in the far back is a staircase connecting the floor below with this floor, and suddenly John McClane, the hero played by Bruce Willis (his first appearance as an action hero rather than as a romantic comedian), appears there, not necessarily even noticeable if you watch the film on a small screen, although the screen is sharply divided into two parts, as you can see in the image below.


This is one of the best things about Die Hard, the fine, inventive and often quite beautiful cinematography (the DP was Jan de Bont). There is occasionally a Michael Mann-ish feel to it, but it is also a good example of McTiernan's interest in texture and reflections. (Among his films The Hunt for Red October (1990) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1999) are also great.) The spatial awareness in the film is another fine thing. McClane and the thieves/terrorists run around offices, staircases, ventilation shafts and so on, and a lot of care has been taken to make these spaces coherent and the layout comprehensible. If you pay attention there are a lot of signs and tell-tales to show the characters were they are and how and where people are in relation to each other. There is for example a little business with a photo collage of naked women that some workers has put up on a wall that is seen in several scenes, to help with the navigation and show that we have been here before, and the filmmakers probably did a calculated guess that the audience would primarily consist of young men and using photographs of naked women was something that they would notice and perhaps also remember where they were.

The script, which is both witty and clever, is also important, written by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza (based on a book by Roderick Thorp I have not read). It is not just the many one-liners but the way things are introduced, or delayed, or explained. Take McClane's bare feet. During the most part of the film he is without shoes or socks, the intention being that he shall come across as vulnerable and human. He bleeds a lot, and the bare feet are essential. But why would he run around with bare feet? Because he is afraid of flying. The first scene in the film, before the credits, sees him grabbing his chair as his plane is about to land. The man sitting next to him notice that he is afraid of flying and gives him the advice to put his feet on a soft carpet and "make a fist with your toes" when he is home. So when McClane has safely arrived at his destination, the skyscraper in which most of the film is set, he does just that. It makes him feel good, for a few seconds, and then the armed men strike and he has to run and hide, without the shoes.

In the film everybody takes it for granted that the bad guys are terrorists. But there is some confusion. "What kind of terrorists are you?" Mr. Takagi asks, accusingly, after they have taken charge of his building. "Who said we are terrorists?" answers their leader Hans Gruber. This is one of the things I like best about the script. These men are thieves masquerading as terrorists, and when people think they are terrorists they treat them with some level of respect. Then those who thought they were terrorists become disappointed when it turns out they do not have a noble goal, they just want to get rich. There is a funny scene in which Gruber demands the release of imprisoned members of Asian Dawn and his partner looks at him quizzically. "Asian Dawn?" he says. "I read an article about them in Time magazine." Gruber replies with a shrug. In today's climate it is unlikely that somebody who calls himself a terrorist would be regarded with an element of respect in a Hollywood film but here even a terrorist is seen as preferable to the money-obsessed men. This is a film about duplicity, fakery and greed, and there is a post-modern aspect to the film and these men; pretend-terrorists not bothered with ideals but only with money and a setting which is all glass and transparency yet hardly anything is what it seems to be, nothing refers to anything solid. The men are not terrorists, Ellis pretends to be McClane's friend yet is not, Holly pretends to be Ms. Gennero but is Mrs. McClane, the Japanese Mr. Takagi has lived in the US all his life. The only thing real is McClane's bleeding feet. (A difference from 1988 and today is that back then it was the rise of Japan that was on peoples' minds in the US, today it is the rise of China. Had Die Hard been made today it would perhaps have taken place in a building called Huang instead of Nakatomi.)

Having a vulnerable hero like McClane was in line with the times, coming as it did right after the first Lethal Weapon (Richard Donner 1987) with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover as troubled cops who also bleed and suffer, Gibson's in particular. That film and many others before it, including 48 Hrs. (Walter Hill 1982) but going back further than that, had at its centre a mismatched duo, often a white and a black man. This would not work in Die Hard with its premise about one lonely man, but in a nod to that tradition there is still a buddy element. Sergeant Al Powell as the (black) policeman who first arrives at the scene of the crime and then develops an emotional bond with McClane over the radio. Their scenes together are also very well-written, and surprisingly moving.


But the one thing in particular that makes Die Hard such a great film is Hans Gruber, played to perfection by Alan Rickman. He is a ruthless thief but also clever, funny, good-looking and able to show compassion; the filmmakers clearly likes him, as do many who have seen the film (there are plenty of celebrations online). He has several of the best lines. Part of the appeal is also that unlike most other characters in the film he is neither stupid nor a weasel. Compared to Holly's co-worker Ellis, Hans is not such a bad guy and the police, the FBI and the media are all portrayed in a very unflattering light. But all the same Hans too is a fraud and a killer, and in the end he must die. He might be, as he says, "an exceptional thief" but he is not better than the rest. He is not even a terrorist.

The reason why Hans and his men attack the Nakatomi building is that its vault contains stocks worth over 600 billion dollars. That is what he is after. The vault has seven different locks or security measures which they have to work their way through, one by one. In the end the doors finally open and Hans and two others watch in awe as the interior of the vault gradually appears before them, while the music playing is the last part of Beethoven's Ninth symphony, called An Die Freude. It is like a religious scene, of these men seeing the light. But it is only money and that scene might be the apotheosis of the entire film, and capturing the greed and emptiness of the 1980s. The whole film is a battle between a working-class guy and both the system (such as FBI) and high capitalism. Bordwell does not approve of talks about films capturing the Zeitgeist, but I would like to suggest that Die Hard is a strong contender for being such a film.

The opening of the vault.

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In Japan, Beethoven's Ninth is traditionally played at New Year celebrations but whether that influenced the filmmakers I do not know.

Friday, 22 August 2014

The Guest Writer #2: Sofia Åkerberg on The Petrified Forest and Revolutionary Road

The blog has a new feature, the occasional guest writer, somebody who is given complete freedom to write about whatever he or she wants, and in whatever way they choose, with my job only to proofread it (and perhaps add an image, or a fact or a figure for clarity). The previous guest was Barry Putterman. This time it is Sofia Åkerberg.

Sofia, who lives in Arboga, Sweden, writes one of Sweden's best film blogs, Rörliga bilder och tryckta ord, which covers not only film but also literature, with a particular emphasis on fantasy and science fiction writing. The blog is in Swedish only but here she of course writes in English.

***

The Petrifying Suburbia by Sofia Åkerberg

What does Bette Davis and Kate Winslet have in common, apart from the fact that they were both born on a Sunday, both on the fifth (April and October) and are both two degrees removed from Kevin Bacon (via Mary Steenburgen and Eli Wallach, respectively)?

Quite a lot as it turns out. To be specific, these two fine actresses have both played the character Gabrielle Maple in The Petrified Forest. The American playwright Robert E. Sherwood wrote this piece in 1935 and only a year later it was made into a movie, directed by Archie Mayo. Here, Davis was flanked by not only Leslie Howard but also a swarthy and intense actor in the beginning of his career by the name of Humphrey Bogart (both of Howard and Bogart were repeating their performances from the stage).

At the beginning of Revolutionary Road, both the book from 1961 by Richard Yates and the movie from 2008 by Sam Mendes, Kate Winslet's April Wheeler is also playing Gabrielle in a production of The Petrified Forest staged by the community theatre group the Laurel Players. But the connections between The Petrified Forest and Revolutionary Road run deeper than a mere enactment of the same play.

Gabrielle Maple is the daughter of a dirt poor owner of a service station in the middle of nowhere, i.e. the Arizona desert. Despite the uplifting sign announcing “Last Chance!” this place offers absolutely no chances for Gabrielle. While the college football player and hired hand Boze tries to pick her up (to no avail), Gabrielle reads François Villon and dreams about a real life, an exciting life, in France (where her war-bride mother is residing).

Enter hitchhiker Alan Squires, a penniless and failed writer whose only goal at the moment seems to be to traverse the North American continent. It turns out that he and Gabrielle have a lot in common, or at least that Gabrielle wants them to have a lot in common. He talks about ambitions, life and death in a way that the young woman has never heard before. His eloquent self-hatred, cultural refinement (nice going with that T.S. Eliot quote, Alan) and lugubrious disposition represents an irresistible appeal to her.


 When Revolutionary Road premiered there was a lot of talk about how Frank and April Wheeler were the sad continuation of the characters played by Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic. What if, instead of one of them drowning in icy waters, Rose DeWitt Bukater and Jack Dawson had had the opportunity to survive together in suburban Connecticut? I would like to think that a more apt question that Revolutionary Road tries to answer is: what if Alan and Gabrielle had managed to create a life together?

After an enchanting romance in New York, Frank and April Wheeler does everything by the book when it turns out that a baby is on the way. They buy that adorable house in western Connecticut which naturally is close enough to the big Apple so that Frank can commute each day to the same company that employed his father.

Frank and April might do everything by the book but the important thing to them is that they do not live by the book. They see suburbia for the sham that it is, its hopeless emptiness, and Frank acquired his boring job at Knox Business Machines as a joke more than anything else. In order to maintain his identity he does not want to have a job that might be even remotely interesting while he figures out what he really wants to do with his life.

But four years on the same page and the joke is wearing pretty thin. Frank still tries to maintain that he and April are different, more aware, better, that their neighbours while April has realised that they are exactly like them. And unlike her husband, she decides to take action.

Like Alan and Gabrielle, Frank manages to woo April with self-deprecating wit and beautiful words, making her think that he is “the most interesting person I've ever met”. But unlike Gabrielle, April gets an opportunity to realise that there is nothing behind the sarcastic façade. Alan and Frank are two men lost in a rational world, without a definite purpose apart from a vague desire to do something that will make their mark.

Since Yates (and, thereby, Mendes) gives Frank more time to unveil his character than Sherwood gives Alan, we are able to realise that the man is somewhat of a smug jerk. As soon as he is opposed, be it by his wife, a temporary guest or the roommate of his mistress, he lashes out. The fights between him and April are truly vitriolic and we even understand that he is no stranger to throw a punch or two. April tries to secure Frank’s humanity by offering him an opportunity to find out what he wants to do with his life, but in reality, her determination emasculates him. He is no more fit to be a kept man by a capable woman than was Alan (who was supported by his publisher's wife for a while).

The Petrified Forest starts with a discussion on the miserable state of the republic (the great depression and dust bowl doing their bit) while a sign behind the bar claims that “Tipping is un-American”. However, this is not the kind of revolution that goes on inside the house at Revolutionary Road. A revolution is in its essence a fundamental change of power and during the time we get to follow Frank and April the power surges from Frank to April, back to Frank, only to pass over to his wife yet again. But regardless where the power lies, Frank is never truly satisfied.

When April has control he tries to take it back. But as soon as he has got his trophy he does not know what to do with it. The same goes for his wooing of April – winning her was a great achievement but he does not know how to handle the prize once he got it. In this way, Frank's mistress Maureen becomes a new Gabrielle who is as easily impressed as April was the first time they met. She makes him feel like a man again, enabling him to conjure up images of lions and eagles.

Despite how the story turns out, The Petrified Forest ends on a more positive note. Perhaps some would call it delusional. But we are still left with the impression that Alan does more good for Gabrielle when dead than alive, although she might not see it right there and then. She is alive and still able to pursue her dreams which is more than can be said for either April or Frank when we take leave of them. Maybe the complacent 1950s in reality was more demoralising than the great depression.

Friday, 15 August 2014

George Sherman #2 Some links

Earlier this year I wrote about George Sherman, the great yet completely unknown director. This brief post will provide some links to what others have written about Sherman (I have not included short reviews of a single film). I have not found much, and if you know of anything more, please let me know.

The only thing I know about Sherman, other than his films, is that he was not a tall man. Here is a photograph from the set of The Treasure of Pancho Villa (1955), one of many films Sherman made in Mexico.

Gilbert Roland, Sherman, Shelley Winters and producer Edmund Grainger.

Some links then. First to an article by R. Emmet Sweeney about a couple of Sherman's films. Second is an article by Dave Kehr about Sherman's earliest work, on the series of films figuring the Three Mesquiteers. Here is an article by Julie L. Mellby at Princeton University about Sherman and Leon Trotsky. This is an amusing short post about a tree that appears in Sherman's Reprisal! (1956) and here is Mike Grost's collection of references from and thoughts about Sherman's films.

Those who want to do in-depth research on Sherman, his papers are at the Margaret Herrick Library.

The scene in War Arrow (1953) when Elaine Corwin (played by Maureen O'Hara) suddenly appears in a glowing white dress in the otherwise grey and dusty surroundings. 

More posts about Sherman are forthcoming, so stay tuned.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Lauren Bacall (1924-2014)

The cover that made Nancy Keith, Howard Hawks's wife, suggest he cast Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not (1944).

Hoagy Carmichael at the piano, while Bacall and Bogart glance at each other across the room, in To Have and Have Not. Howard and Nancy called each other Steve and Slim, which is why Bogart and Bacall call each other that in the film.



The atmosphere is just amazing in the film, as a mood piece it might be Hawks's most successful, although it is not his best film.

Bacall, Bogart and Hawks then worked their magic again in The Big Sleep (1946). As so often with Hawks the plot is treated as unimportant; the chemistry and the interactions between humans are what matters.



Ten years later, after several films, she appeared in Written on the Wind (Douglas Sirk 1956), one of Sirk's most distinguished films. Here is a short scene with Dorothy Malone, they play sisters-in-law.



Yet another 10 years later she was with Paul Newman in Harper (aka The Moving Target Jack Smight 1966), a film that is self-consciously aware of its predecessors, such as The Big Sleep (which was also highly self-conscious, but in a different way).



This clip is from The Walker (Paul Schrader 2007), one of her last films, in which she played against Woody Harrelson.



As a bonus, click on this link and you can see Edward Murrow interviewing Bogie and Betty in their home, in 1954. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/archive-lauren-bacall-and-humphrey-bogart-speak-to-edward-r-murrow/

Now she has died, a few weeks before her 90th birthday. She was wonderful, and never more so as when she sang with Hoagy Carmichael in her very first film. So here is another scene from To Have and Have Not.

Friday, 8 August 2014

A film from every year

People always ask me about my favourite films, sometimes in general and sometimes with specifications (best Japanese film, best film with Myrna Loy) and I answer as best as I can. I also like to make lists, as many do. Some frown upon lists, finding them demeaning and distortionous.* And they can be, if done badly or taken too seriously. But as a service to anybody who wonders about my favourites and as an excuse to make lists, they will be a more regular feature on Fredrik on Film from now on. Different kinds of lists, with different aims.

Today's list is chronological, featuring my favourite feature fiction films from (almost) every year since 1913. Before 1913 films were rarely of any great length, and the few that exists I have not seen. Neither have I seen any from 1914, as far as I can recall. (Unfortunately I have seen very few films from the 1910s in general, but those I have seen have in general been good, not least those by Cecil B. DeMille, who is undoubtedly one of the best filmmakers of that decade. Perhaps the best, together with Victor Sjöström.) But here is the list in full. I have tried to choose only one for every year but accept my apologies for those years when it was impossible to do so. It was especially hard in those magical years after World War 2.**

1913 Ingeborg Holm (Victor Sjöström)
1914 ?
1915 Regeneration (Raoul Walsh)
1916 Intolerance (D.W. Griffith)
1917 Thomas Graal’s Best Film (Mauritz Stiller)
1918 Old Wives for New (Cecil B. DeMille)
1919 Don’t Change Your Husband (Cecil B. DeMille)
1920 Erotikon (Mauritz Stiller)
1921 Tol’able David (Henry King)
1922 Phantom (F.W. Murnau) Nosferatu (Murnau)
1923 A Woman in Paris (Charlie Chaplin)
1924 Sherlock Jr. (Buster Keaton)
1925 Tartuffe (F.W. Murnau)
1926 Faust (F.W. Murnau)
1927 Sunrise (F.W. Murnau)
1928 The Last Command (Josef von Sternberg) A Girl in Every Port (Howard Hawks)
1929 Asphalt (Joe May)
1930 The Big Trail (Raoul Walsh)
1931 M (Fritz Lang)
1932 Shanghai Express (Josef von Sternberg)
1933 Design for Living (Ernst Lubitsch)
1934 Twentieth Century (Howard Hawks)
1935 Hands Across the Table (Mitchell Leisen) Toni (Jean Renoir)
1936 Partie de campagne (Jean Renoir)
1937 The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey) La Grande Illusion (Jean Renoir)
1938 Holiday (George Cukor)
1939 Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir)
1940 His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks)
1941 Stormy Waters aka Remorques (Jean Grémillon)
1942 In Which We Serve (David Lean) Cat People (Jacques Tourneur)
1943 Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock) Changing Trains (Hasse Ekman)
1944 Laura (Otto Preminger)
1945 Brief Encounter (David Lean)
1946 My Darling Clementine (John Ford) The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks)
1947 Odd Man Out (Carol Reed) Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur) Black Narcissus (Powell & Pressburger)
1948 The Fallen Idol (Carol Reed) Letter From an Unknown Woman (Max Ophüls) Force of Evil (Abraham Polonsky) The Red Shoes (Powell & Pressburger) Rope (Alfred Hitchcock)

The Fallen Idol, with a for Reed typical angle.

1949 The Reckless Moment (Max Ophüls) Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis) The Third Man (Carol Reed) Border Incident (Anthony Mann)
1950 All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
1951 An American in Paris (Vincente Minnelli) Bullfighter and the Lady (Budd Boetticher) Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock) The Browning Version (Anthony Asquith)
1952 Casque d’Or (Jacques Becker)
1953 Journey to Italy (Roberto Rossellini)
1954 A Star is Born (George Cukor)
1955 The Big Combo (Joseph H. Lewis)
1956 A Man Escaped (Robert Bresson)
1957 Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick) Throne of Blood (Akira Kurosawa)
1958 Man of the West (Anthony Mann) Tarnished Angels (Douglas Sirk)
1959 Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks) The 400 Blows (François Truffaut)
1960 Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard) The Apartment (Billy Wilder)
1961 The Hustler (Robert Rossen)
1962 Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean)
1963 The Leopard (Luchino Visconti)
1964 Lilith (Robert Rossen) The Train (John Frankenheimer)
1965 Bunny Lake is Missing (Otto Preminger)
1966 Persona (Ingmar Bergman) Nayak (Satyajit Ray)
1967 Le samourai (Jean-Pierre Melville)
1968 Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone)
1969 The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah)
1970 The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci) Wild Child (François Truffaut) The Adversary (Satyajit Ray)
1971 A Touch of Zen (Hu King)
1972 Junior Bonner (Sam Peckinpah)
1973 The Day of the Jackal (Fred Zinnemann)
1974 Celine and Julie Go Boating (Jacques Rivette)
1975 Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet)
1976 Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese)
1977 Annie Hall (Woody Allen)
1978 Tree of Wooden Clogs (Ermanno Olmi) Fedora (Billy Wilder)
1979 Alien (Ridley Scott) Manhattan (Woody Allen)
1980 Melvin and Howard (Jonathan Demme) Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese)
1981 Southern Comfort (Walter Hill) Thief (Michael Mann) Blind Chance (Krzysztof Kieslowski)

Blind Chance

1982 The King of Comedy (Martin Scorsese)
1983 The Big Chill (Lawrence Kasdan) Rumble Fish (Francis Ford Coppola)
1984 A Passage to India (David Lean)
1985 A Room With a View (James Ivory)
1986 Hannah and Her Sisters (Woody Allen)
1987 Hope and Glory (John Boorman)
1988 Chocolat (Claire Denis)
1989 The Unbelievable Truth (Hal Hartley)
1990 Close-Up (Abbas Kiarostami) Trust (Hal Hartley)
1991 La belle noiseuse (Jacques Rivette) The Double Life of Veronique (Krzysztof Kieslowski)
1992 Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood) In the Soup (Alexandre Rockwell)
1993 Remains of the Day (James Ivory)
1994 Chungking Express (Wong Kar-Wai) Quiz Show (Robert Redford)
1995 Heat (Michael Mann)
1996 Nénette et Boni (Claire Denis) Bottle Rocket (Wes Anderson)
1997 Paper Airplanes (Farhad Mehranfar)
1998 After Life (Hirokazu Koreeda)
1999 Three Kings (David O. Russell)
2000 In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai)
2001 Delbaran (Abolfazl Jalili) Millennium Mambo (Hou Hsiao-hsien)
2002 10 (Abbas Kiarostami)
2003 Café Lumière (Hou Hsiao-hsien)
2004 Collateral (Michael Mann)
2005 Good Night, and Good Luck (George Clooney)
2006 Still Life (Jia Zhangke) I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (Park Chan-wook)
2007 Alexandra (Alexander Sokurov)
2008 The Song of Sparrows (Majid Majidi)
2009 A Serious Man (Ethan & Joel Coen)
2010 Last Night (Massy Tadjedin)

It is perhaps worth pointing out that all films on the list are not equally good. There are many films not listed that are much better than some of those above, that is inevitable. And consequently some directors, such as Raoul Walsh and Wes Anderson, are not represented with the films I think are their best. And before you start writing an angry comment accusing me of dimwitted philistinism because your favourite film is missing, please remember that it is possible I have not seen it, or that it stands as a very close second on its year.

A final note: Murnau's reign in the 1920s is remarkable. He was some artist.

Faust

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*Why is not distortionous a word?
** This was harder than I thought. I got a few films attached to the wrong year and has made adjustments, and some films have been replaced. On some films I have noticed that my sources give different years, such as Gun Crazy (1949 and 1950), Journey to Italy (1953 and 1954) and The Adversary (1970 and 1972). I do not know why that is, but I have had to choose which year to use. Blind Chance was made in 1981 but the Polish censors kept it from being released until 1987.