e premte, 29 qershor 2007

This Made My... (You Know the Rest)

Thanks to all who have contacted me or expressed their views about my article, "Yippee-Ki-Yay," a modest consideration of the action movie's greatest one liner. The piece was published on Slate earlier this week.

The most fascinating response was this counter-proposal, posted by Timothy Noah, who writes Slate's fine column, "Chatterbox."

Call me old fashioned, but I think Lichtenfeld should show more respect for Clint Eastwood's "Make my day." Even though I never saw Sudden Impact, the Dirty Harry movie it was uttered in--I only saw the trailer--I rank "Make my day" as the greatest action flick one-liner of all time. Admittedly, in the quarter-century since its introduction "Make my day" has lost much of its freshness, and the phrase was sullied by Ronald Reagan when he used it to threaten veto of a tax increase in 1985. But there's a reason Reagan and various others co-opted "Make my day." It was and remains a small masterpiece of economy.

Imagine a tough cop saying to some violent punk, "You're doing me a favor by forcing me to act in self-defense because I will actually enjoy killing you, something I wouldn't have the opportunity to do otherwise, given the rules imposed by the law and by my profession, not to mention the ethical consensus imposed less formally by civilized society--rules that I am compelled, grudgingly, to obey." Kind of a mouthful, right? "Make my day" communicates all this in a three-word Haiku. As a bonus, those three words perfectly express the uniquely warped psyche of the Dirty Harry character. Yes, "Make my day" is an expression of individual derangement and egomania rather than a summing-up of the collective American mythology. So what? This is an action movie we're talking about, not some damned folk song.

I saw the first two "Die Hard" movies when they came out, and, to be honest, I don't even remember "Yippee Ki-Yi-Yay motherfucker." I think probably that's because the line was so clearly improved on later when Arnold Schwarzenegger said "Hasta la vista, baby" in Terminator 2. At any rate, compared to "Make my day," "Yippee Ki-Yi-Yay motherfucker" is downright loquacious, and action movie heroes are supposed to say as few words as is humanly possible. It's also less exhuberantly fascistic, and let's face it, we don't exactly want our action movie heroes to be card-carrying members of the ACLU. "Yippee Ki-Yi-Yay motherfucker" is "Make my day" with the pathology washed out of it, and where's the fun in that?

I loved this. And as I later told Mr. Noah, both "Yippee-ki-yay" and "Go ahead, make my day" resonate with me--which must make me a renaissance man.

e martë, 26 qershor 2007


First, a programming note. For you L.A.-area types, I’m having a book signing and reception for Action Speaks Louder tonight. Come down to the Borders at 1360 Westwood Boulevard at 7pm. As one of John McClane’s former foes might put it, “Failure to comply will result in a penalty.”

And now a reaction to McClane’s latest…

When Air Force One opened in 1997, Hollywood’s long cycle of Die Hard clones effectively ended. A decade later—almost to the day—the Die Hard franchise returns with a fourth installment: Live Free or Die Hard, a.k.a Die Hard 4.0 a.k.a. Die Hard 4, a.k.a. Die Hard 4: You Mean They Actually Made a Die Hard 4?

In the movie, Bruce Willis returns as Detective and technophobe John McClane, now teamed up with whiz-kid Matt Farrell (Justin Long). They join forces to battle cyber-terrorists trying to do something very bad with computers (actually, McClane is the force; Matt is more of a stiff breeze).

Willis played a lone-wolf in the first two Die Hards, but buddied up with Samuel L. Jackson in the third. The only thing noteworthy about the partnership in Live Free or Die Hard is the age difference—mainly because it is part of both a small, recent trend and a long tradition. Justin Long is to Willis what lanky teen James Francis Kelly was to Stallone in Rocky Balboa, what the young mercenaries are likely to be to his John Rambo, and what Shia Le Beouf’s character will probably be to Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones.

Cynics may say that these young sidekicks are being injected into these weathered franchises to make them relevant to young revenuestrea—that is, audiences, who have no longstanding investment in these properties. I see it another way. These young tagalongs serve as an excellent source of hero-worship. Their eyes become our eyes. In fact, in at least one scene from Live Free or Die Hard, Long does not play Matt Farrell so much as he plays the justification forMcClane’s speech about what it means to be “that guy.”

Vain? Sure. At the same time, however, this hero worship, this business of the younger revering the older, is one long cherished by American movies. Westerns such as Shane and The Tin Star come to mind, as do their darker cousins, Pale Rider and Unforgiven. And as action movies such as Die Hard are direct descendants of the Western, it seems that Live Free or Die Hard goes an awful long way to come back home.

Still, a nod to the cynics. Much of the cast is a little too fresh-faced. This is particularly true of the villains. Their leader, the young, remarkably well-shaved Timothy Olyphant (who sounds like Bill Paxton, but somehow looks like nobody) lacks seriousness much as Brandon Routh did in Superman Returns. Likewise, his accomplice, played by Maggie Q, is as much a non-presence as was Lois Lane when played by Kate Bosworth.

This also applies to many of the more minor villains and some of the FBI agents. These generically attractive aand unmarked faces make one long for the original Die Hard, Superman, and others—fantasies, yes, but ones that felt more populated by adults, and therefore more real. In Long’s case at least, the Die Hard franchise is well served by the shot of youthfulness he brings to it. After all, the movie has to do something to balance the fact that its main appeal is a nostalgic one (as is that of a new Rocky, Rambo, Superman, or Indiana Jones).

Not what Erica Jong had in mind by "Fear of Flying."

But Live Free or Die Hard offers up its nostalgia in an unexpected way. While the return of JohnMcClane surely resonates with lovers of great 1980s fare, Live Free or Die Hard is much more rooted in the 1990s.

The villains are that familiar type: the government employee—nay, former hero!—gone wrong. The film reinforces this visually, as the terrorists kill while wearing FBI uniforms. Pushing this convention of the American turncoat terrorist to its most subversive extreme, the villains use edited footage of U.S. presidents to issue their demands. (Imagine a video ransom note.) Also consistent with 1990s villainy, the bad guys have turned tocyber -terrorism not out of politics or ideology will, but because, apparently, there is money in it. They are mostly white. They are mostly American.

There are a few exceptions: an Eastern European or two (judging from their age, perhaps they were supposed to be part of that Nakatomi thing, but didn’t get on the truck in time), and Maggie Q’s martial artist Mai Lihn. Though only vaguely Asian, the character stands out against the whiteness (not to mention blandness) of her comrades. In so doing, she is a throwback to the exotic villainess of film noir, another genre that sired the action film.

But then there’s the FBI: a cornucopia of races and hard-to-pin-down ethnicities. It is so ‘extremely ‘90s PC it is actually funny. Or it would be. After all, when a movie is this macho, and its explosions, shootings, and beatings (of which more than one is administered to a woman), are rendered with such abandon, it is sad to then see such obvious caution.

Much has been made of the film's—or more accurately, Twentieth Century’s Fox’s—caution. During post- production, Live Free or Die Hard was edited to trade an R-rating for a PG-13. This did not thrill the Die Hard fan base, but even this tamer version is plenty brutal. What is more noticeable is the relative lack of profanity. Indeed, f-bombs are about the only things in the film that don’t eventually explode.

But this is not what weakens Live Free or Die Hard the most. Vying for that distinction are the meager villains (typing, no matter how hard, just isn't very cinematic) and the film's style. The sets seem to be a succession of riffs on the headquarters of 24. The photography is heavy on contrast and light on the suppleness of the first film, or the shrewdly crafted urgency of the third. None of this is helped by the somber color palette, at times spanning the whole spectrum between blue-grey and charcoal. Even while not taking itself too seriously, it is still sometimes too somber.

But some of the action is inventive. And though McClane's one-liners don't crackle this time around, McClane sometimes reacts as if he were a moviegoer himself. (Simple lines such as "Oh-ho-no" went over surprisingly well with the audience.)

In the end, this Die Hard may not earn much cheering. But a "welcome back" won't be out of order.

e enjte, 21 qershor 2007

The Republican Field: A Land of Men?

Lately, I've had action heroes on the brain: John McClane, Indiana Jones, Republicans.

Of course, the heroic comportment of the Bush administration and the Republican candidates shares something fundamental with the heroism of our big-screen tough-guys: it is totally fictional.

Vital to how a hero holds himself are authority and manliness. And while the suggestion that Republicans project these attributes more effectively than Democrats is not exactly groundbreaking, I am continually amazed at how the media helps such Republicans blur the line between reality and roleplaying.

Political blogger Glenn Greenwald has taken a hard look at, and a wide view of, this phenomenon. In a particularly disturbing piece, he starts with a narrow focus: the posturing of Fred Thompson and the response to it by MSNBC's Chris Matthews--one that suggests Matthews is charting a trajectory from talking head to Thompson groupie.

Be warned: It's bizarre. How bizarre? Let's just say that if you thought the dance of politics and media couldn't get more homoerotic than Jeff Gannon, then in the words of Bette Davis
(appropos of everything), "Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy night."

One other item: This Tuesday, there will be two places to look for me. For those of you in Los Angeles, I'll be signing copies of my book,
Action Speaks Louder: Violence, Spectacle, and the American Action Movie at the Borders Books & Music in Westwood (1360 Westwood Blvd.) starting at 7pm.

For those of you in the world, Tuesday will also be the day my first piece for Slate.com will be published. The article reveals which one-liner is the greatest in action movie history--and why.

That's this Tuesday, June 26th. The date is easy to remember. Just start with the release date of Live Free or Die Hard, then subtract one.

e enjte, 14 qershor 2007

Obligatory Sopranos Posting (Because Another Day or Two, And it Wouldn't Be Timely)

I have a theory. History will be kind to The Sopranos’s series finale—certainly kinder than its fans are being now.

I know; I was frustrated, too. But the ambiguity nudged me to think not of the resolution of Tony’s story, but of what the show has always been about. Family, yes, but also memory, and the strain against how homogenized everything has become.

The Sopranos has illustrated that America's common culture is first a consumer culture. Like many of the hits that have been carried out on The Sopranos, the show's critiques of consumerism rarely came head-on. They were subversive. Scenes of mafia intrigue set at big chain stores like Staples or Home Depot come to mind. As does the moment when Carmela, advised to read Madame Bovary, replies simply, “I’ll stop at Borders on the way home.” More to the point, Phil Leotardo’s gas-station assassination may be memorable for its suddenness and the great visual gag involving the babies in the SUV as it ba-bum-bumps over Phil’s head, but the most intriguing detail is that moments before Phil is shot, he is framed against a Barnes & Noble.

To be sure, the series is littered with many other examples of how the big and soulless are juxtaposed with—nay, how they encroach upon—the individualized. And such loss is a low-grade obsession of The Sopranos. In the pilot, Tony laments how today, no one is old-school, and everyone is willing to be flipped. At home, Tony is unable to excite A.J. about his Italian heritage (the boy rejects his grandmother’s hard Italian candy), and is alone in his semi-comic interest in the History Channel.

Of course, the strongest evidence of the show’s preoccupation with the past is Tony’s “work” with Dr. Melfi (perhaps the longest-running B-plot in television history). After all, what is therapy but—on one level at least
a form of mental and emotional archaeology?

This makes Uncle Junior’s final scene in the series finale. all the more poignant. The man does not even remember that he was part of “this thing of ours.” For everything that tied Tony and Uncle Junior to each other (including murder attempts), and everything that divided them (including murder attempts), Junior filled one vital role in Tony’s life, a role filled by no one else at home or at the Bing: he was the memory. And with the memory gone, so is that which, for Tony, balances the pabulum of the modern world.

This strain is what makes the characters’ gluttony so appealing. Ever since The Godfather, gangster sagas have focused on food—both its familial connotations, and also its raw, sensory appeal. The Sopranos adds an additional charge to this convention: against the backdrop of Staples and Borders and Barnes & Noble, of SUVs and suburban sprawl, when Tony gorges, he is stuffing himself with the world almost faster than its color is disappearing.

Since the days of the Production Code, America's gangster stories have almost all been tragedies. This is certainly true of the genre's more modern classics, including Goodfellas and The Godfathers. What The Sopranos has done is take the gangster saga's requisite ruin and spread it across a vast amount of time. So, while the finale may not have been climactic, it was consistent with a trajectory the show had been plotting since the pilot. Even when lightened by comedy or punctuated by violence, the show was mournful, a stop-motion tragedy.

All of this is why the series ends exactly where it has to: at a diner
and not around the Sopranos’ table. In an almost throwaway reference, A.J. reveals that the family was going to have Carmela’s manicot; instead, they settle for the All-American generic. This is echoed by the soundtrack. The series's final song is Journey's "Don't Stop Believing," instead of the juke box selections on which Tony dwells: two songs by Tony Bennett. Once again, the generically American trumps the specifically Italian.

As for how the series ends, frustrating though the final image is, the show has never been about closure (how many story arcs have been established but never completed?). So rather than critique, interpret, or lambaste it, I focus on what it did: refer me to the past, which is what the show has always been about, rather than the future, which its characters never really had.

e enjte, 7 qershor 2007

"...Just another American who saw too many movies as a child?"

Don’t let the banner fool you. I may be a critic, and sometimes a tough audience, but I’m not a malcontent. It might be a little aggressive, I know; but I've made something of a name for myself writing about action movies. And besides, it's really just a reference to the opening credits of Magnum Force.

Reaction Shot will be a place to blast away at our sprawling pop-cultural and political landscape, or to aim with laser-like focus on the ridiculously specific. It’s all fair game: Structured argument, free association. A whole genre, a specific scene. Government, entertainment, advertising, even the marketing of breakfast cereal (just you wait). And the 1980s. Expect lots of writing on the 1980s.

This may seem scattered, but then, there's a lot to react to. And I believe that when we look around, we all feel--at least a little--like Big Trouble in Little China's Jack Burton. “I’m a reasonable guy,” Old Jack insists, “but I’ve just experienced some very unreasonable things.”

I hope Reaction Shot will be fun: at times serious, at others frivolous. I hope it will be surprising. I think it might. After all, how many people could you possibly know who preoccupy themselves with ranking the movies of John Badham? And though I may sometimes seem random, I hope you will find it relevant. On that score, if you happen to have a strong opinion on, say, the movies of John Badham, then we’ll be off to a particularly good start.