by D.W. Lundberg

Monday, July 14, 2014


Last week's post took a lot out of me. I've said it before, but it takes a tremendous amount of brain power to focus all my extra energy and attention on one particular type of film or filmmaker these days, especially with the stresses of work (two jobs!) and family (four kids!) taking precedence so much of the time, and picking apart the films of M. Night Shyamalan was no exception. What it did, however, was get me thinking of other directors' most recognizable trademarks - those nuances or specific camera techniques repeated again and again throughout their cinematic oeuvres. Whether big (Spielberg's Looking Wide-Eyed With Wonder At Some Off-Screen Presence shots) or small (Hitchcock's cameos), directors do love sticking their personal stamp on things. If they didn't, how else would we know who directed what?

Once a staple of late-'80s/early-'90s action cinema, John McTiernan has long since disappeared from the spotlight, mostly due to his nasty run-in with the federal government (well, that and Rollerball [2002]). For a while, though, he was widely considered king, with Predator (1987), Die Hard (1988) and The Hunt For Red October (1990) entrenching themselves forever into the public consciousness. To this day, critics and film scholars continue to sing McTiernan's praises, in particular David Bordwell, who speaks on his blog about the director's penchant for "unfussy following shots" and "tightly-woven classicism." And while it's true that McTiernan's style may seem positively old-fashioned compared to today's smash-and-grab editing techniques, like many filmmakers, he wasn't above cribbing from himself on a regular basis.

Take his preference for the axial cut - a series of shots in which the camera suddenly moves closer to or further away from its subject, along an invisible line drawn straight between the camera and the subject. Axial cuts, like inserts or close ups, are meant to impart important narrative information to the audience, and date back to the earliest days of film. Now, however, they are rarely used, so it's only natural that they should call attention to themselves. Watching Red October again the other day, I was reminded of this (and Bordwell's article on the same), and how they stand out among the generic dreck that currently invades our multiplexes.

Most directors, you see, will often resort to the aforementioned insert, whip pan, or even - horror of horrors! - '70s-style zoom to close in on a particular object. Cutting the shot so that it rapidly moves closer to that object, on the other hand, is a much more energetic way of siccing your attention on something. At the climax of Red October, for example, Marko Ramius (Sean Connery) and Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) head down to the sub's missile bay to stop the saboteur from purposely setting off a torpedo. But they're ambushed from higher ground before they can get there:

The above example, by the way, also features prominently during Bordwell's blog post. (The screen captures, meanwhile, are my own.) So does this series of screenshots from Die Hard, in which John McClane (Bruce Willis) finds just what he needs to thwart the terrorists and rescue his wife:

But Bordwell is too busy regaling us with the history of the axial cut to push the point even further. For Die Hard With A Vengeance (1995), McTiernan not only brought some much-needed humanity back to the franchise, he also brought his favorite editing trick along with him. Here, McClane licks his wounds after failing to bring Simon Gruber (Jeremy Irons) to justice. Our hangover-afflicted hero is finally able to down some aspirin when he notices the print on the bottom of Simon's bottle - the name of the bad guys' super-secret rendezvous point on the U.S.-Canadian border! At last, McClane has his man!

Finally, for his uber-classy remake of The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), McTiernan tries his hand at a different sort of trick. After the climactic heist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, insurance investigator Catherine Banning (Rene Russo) goes to meet the elusive Crown (Pierce Brosnan) at the Wall Street heliport, where they originally planned on running off together. There, she spots a man in a bowler hat standing on the edge of the dock:

Only it isn't Crown, it's his point man, assigned to return the stolen painting and nothing more. Banning betrayed her lover to the police and now she pays the penalty for it. To show her isolation, McTiernan pulls a reverse axial cut, yanking the camera back, back, then back again, until she's literally dwarfed by the surrounding buildings:

It's a neat little capper to the scene (like a stanza in a poem, if you will), but hopefully not to a long and illustrious career in motion pictures. If this report is any indication, we won't have to wait much longer to find out.

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