Thursday, March 29, 2012

demonstrative characterization, or 80s movies part 3

i was hoping I'd get to revisit this. So, John McTiernan is pretty awesome. For those not in the know, he's the director of awesome movies like Die Hard and Predator. If you've been paying attention, there's a difference between an awesome movie and a good movie, and his movies get awesome down cold. But this article is not a praise of this one director; I just came to a small realization years ago while watching Predator, and again while watching Die Hard three days ago. And I'd like to share it with you, my special friend.

Again, if you read my stuff, you know that like everyone else my age I have a soft spot for 80s movies. I recognize that there was something about that era of filmmaking that allowed ridiculous action, financial support and emotional sincerity to coexist in a creamy nirvana of filmmaking bliss. Ghostbusters, people. Ghostbusters. I am the type to whine about how they just don't make movies like this anymore, but I know I'm just being simplistic and cynical. Good movies are made today, it's true, but I know there's something good about moviemaking that was way more widespread then than it is now. Then one day I happened to watch Iron Man 2 and Die Hard in that order, and I got it. I realized something that every film director should learn before stepping up to (or rather behind) the camera: Information must be communicated at all times, and without the audience knowing it.

There's a scene in Predator in which Billy, a jungle commando, is simply walking around being all tough and shit. He and his troupe of bodybuilders led by Arnold Schwarzenegger are looking for some captured allies, so that they can get to da choppah. As Billy is walking, he grabs at a vine, cuts it open with a machete, and starts drinking from it. Pause right there. This takes like, three seconds, and it communicates a lot to the audience. About how well-trained he is. About how much he knows about his environment. About how he likes being the butt of fellatio jokes.

Searching "Billy drinking from vine" actually worked. That's Google people. 

Little things like this are all over the place in this movie. In this 3 seconds, not even enough time to be a scene, you essentially get this guy's whole backstory. Information is always being communicated. You as a viewer store it in your short-term memory bank to be used as you continue to watch the movie, because the information applies to everyone in the team, too. Arnold Schwarzenegger is the only commando to survive the whole movie, but this information you learned from Billy is useful all the way to the end because it applies. This scene actually does something for you as a viewer.

This happens a lot in Die Hard too; microscopic bits of information are always coming at you, even when it shares the frame with proper dialogue and plot. When Joe Takagi is killed by Hans Gruber, they are sharing the room with Karl and Theo. When Hans shoots Takagi, Karl hands Theo a dollar, indicating that the two had had a bet going. Again, pause. You just learned a ton:

*Nobody's worried about not having Takagi's code
*So Takagi's code was disposable
*And they still killed him
*Neither one is fazed; they've done this before
*They're dicks. I mean, they just bet on a guy getting shot

Again, this takes two seconds and you learn more from it than from most of the dialogue. It's a classy and non-condescending way to tell an action movie's story. The audience is not dumbed down for liking action.

They should have a sitcom

When I was watching Iron Man 2 the other day, I noticed that big budget action movies have changed this principle. At least the big, big names ones do, and it really because obvious to me during Iron Man 2. During a scene in which Robert Downey Jr is racing a stock car, he gets whipped by The Wrestler and has to jump into his suit. A good several seconds are devoted to nothing but a CG-gasm of whirs, pistons and clicks, with the camera rotating 360°. Nothing. Nothing, people. No characterization or information, just ... Michael Bay. So I did exactly what I was supposed to. I started jerking off. I don't think I'm comparing apples to oranges; these are both the big-budget action movies of their respective days. I'm comparing 80s blockbuster to 00s blockbuster, not Citizen Kane to Showgirls or anything. This is what movies look like now. Where information used to come at us constantly without us knowing it, making the movie indescribably engaging and giving life to characters, information is rarely communicated in the film even in dialogue form, let alone the action. It felt really dumbed down and I cried on the inside a little.

It's probably got very little to do with the 80s. Of course the best of the past will be remembered where the junk falls to the wayside. It's why in literature classes, we all read the same finite number of classics. I'm just being crotchety; good action movies are made now, and a good example is the Bourne trilogy. Excellent communication, intelligently done. I won't detail it like I did the other movies, but next time you watch it, pay attention and you'll notice it. My problem is, will Bourne get remembered, or will  Iron Man 2? That's my concern. Something has changed in the moviegoing audience and I can't help feeling like the future will be more likely to remember Iron Man 2. The fact that 3 Transformers movies even got made is a testament to this. But maybe there were people in the 80s who hated the idea of Die Hard getting remembered over ... some other, better 80s movie. I guess I'm that guy now. *Shudder*.

Gotta take the good with the bad, I guess. The Bourne movies actually give me a lot of hope. Narnia too. And Casino Royale. And ... well, heck I guess I'd be disproving my point if I go on. They're all pretty big franchises, and it says to me that there's still an audience for this kind of thing; a big one. So come on, studios. We're smarter than you give us credit for, and we can prove it. Stop making Beverly Hills freaking Chihuahua, and bring us the new Die Hard, and I promise we'll watch it. I mean, heck, it's not like the 80s ever dumbed us down and grossed millions for it, right? There'd be some pretty serious backlash from the kids who grew up on those movies if that was the case. Like, in angry video review format.

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