Saturday, July 03, 2010

Is Die Hard art?

I have loved movies from a very young age, since I was 6 or 7. My dad would take me to the theater almost every week. Among the first films I remember seeing were Back to the Future Part III, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Warren Beatty's wonderfully strange Dick Tracy. I loved these films, each and every one, for their ability to open my mind, to show me strange and exciting places and possibilities, to transport me to a different world that made the one I returned to more wondrous and magical. And the whole experience of going to the theater captivated me. The smell of popcorn, that one, eternal moment when the lights go out and you can hear the whir of the projector starting up and the first few cues of music that meant that the show was about to start. There was also something very powerful about the communal aspect of going to see a film. I felt that I was somehow very, very alone there in the dark and that no one could quite understand or comprehend what I was seeing. Yet I also felt like I was sharing this experience in a deep way with my dad and the people sitting there with us. Is this combination of being very alone yet at the same time being deeply in communion with others not somehow a reflection of life itself?

I remember, early on, that I truly and deeply loved films in a way that transcended other things that were fun or exciting. Perhaps this was the first time I experienced the difference between what I wrote about in my last article, that elusive line between art and entertainment. There is nothing wrong with entertainment, certainly, and sometimes we just need to have a bit of fun, both children and adults. But in that theater I felt like I was having more than fun. I felt like everything was possible and that life was a truly joyous thing. I thought these films were beautiful, even though I wasn't able to articulate this feeling or without even fully comprehending what the word "beauty" meant. (But maybe because I didn't feel a need to define it I knew what beauty truly is. Our logical mind is a wonderful thing, but it can cloud our perception of reality an awful lot. Children often understand things in a pure, unfiltered manner, similar to that of the sage and the philosopher).

As I grew a bit older I started frequenting the local video store and made quick friends with the affable hipsters working there (in hindsight they seem the spiritual soulmates of Kevin Smith's characters from Clerks). They would introduce me to different films from various genres and I would also pick my parents memories from great films from their youth. Since they grew up in the 70's, the silver age of Hollywood, they could introduce me to some of the greatest films of all times. I watched The Godfather, Deliverance, All the President's Men and The French Connection all at a very early age. (My parents were liberal souls who didn't worry about any of these films affecting me adversely. The only film they would not allow me to see was The Exorcist, a decision I thank them for to this very day). One time I rented Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein from the video store and after having watched five minutes of it I marched back in anger, demanding another film because this one was (horror of horrors) in black and white! The friendly hipster on duty dared me to give the film a try and promised me that if I didnt' like it I would not only get a full refund for the film but I could rent my next film for free. Such an offer is too good to resist for a lad of eleven and soon enough I was not only loving the film but also marveling at the strange beauty of black and white photography. Mel Brooks, strangely enough, opened to me the world of classic cinema, including the marvelous American films of the 40's and 50's that to this day remain the cornerstone of my love for film.

A scene from Mel Brooks' magnificently photographed Young Frankenstein

During these formative years I did not discriminate between films. They were all wonderful. To debate the variying qualities of films seemed to me a kind of madness, an affront to the gods. Movies were wonderful and that's all there was to it. Yet one film in particular made me question this assumption, made me think that perhaps some films were, in some strange way, better than others, better made, more powerful, more interesting as works of art. That film was, somewhat ironically, John McTiernan's Die Hard. I was too young to see Die Hard in theaters when it came out but I distinctly remember the night we watched this film at my house on TV. I think I must have been around 11 or 12. My grandparents came to visit and after dinner we were all sitting in the living room, my folks with some drinks in hand and I with a big tub of popcorn eagerly awaiting the film of the week to start on channel 2 (back then there were only two television channels in Iceland). The film turned out to be Die Hard and as the story unfolded and the action kicked in I literally forgot I was breathing. I sat there with my hand poised over my popcorn, not daring to make a sound or a move lest it somehow break the spell I was entranced in.

I had never seen anything like it. Die Hard somehow made me realize that films were a kind of craft and that some of them were made with more care and attention to detail than others. It was at this point that I became fascinated with the art and the craft of films. I began devouring books on the subject and I started my own film collection. I would meticulously tape films that were shown on TV to VHS (not an entirely legal operation but buying films on VHS was extremely expensive and the selection was miniscule back then), making sure to hit the record button a millisecond after the logo of the production company popped up. I kept a folder which included all the relevant information on the films I had. They were alphabetized by title but I made sure to include the running time, name of the director, lead actors and a short plot summary. I also included my own star rating (out of four, much like sir Leonard Maltin, that fountain of film information whose film guide I have bought every single year since I was 13 years old). When all was said and done, I had a collection of about 500 films.

It was actually not until I saw The Godfather part II a couple of years after seeing Die Hard that I realized that films were art with a capital "A" in much the same way as the masterpieces of painting, sculpture and music. That film was a form and a medium through which people could create something so extraordinarily beautiful and transporting, touch on such complexities of human emotion and experience, that viewing them could literally make us better, make us somehow transcend ourselves. I think the fact that I grew up in an extremely non-religious household had something to do with how seriously I took art. If we have no other way of transcendence then art becomes a very powerful thing indeed. I no longer think that it can carry us all the way to the heights of who we can become. For that we need communion with the divine. Yet art carries us an awful long way and for me films were the main means of transportation to realms of beauty and truth.

Since then I've discovered films that have spoken to me in much deeper ways than Coppola's Godfather film and certainly affected me more profoundly than Die Hard. But it was an American action film from the eighties that opened my eyes to the craft, the techné of cinema. Die Hard is, in many ways, a crude film, one filled with violence and questionable language. It often fails to transcend its genre, relying on spectacle and explosions rather than saying anything deep or meaningful. But perhaps because of this honesty in face of its limitations, this lack of pretension, this giddy, rough joy in what it is, warts and all, it becomes something great. Maybe it even becomes art. Films like Die Hard are so decidedly American, so rough around the edges yet filled with such energy and vigor and joy that it's impossible not to be inspired or swept up by them. They are the direct descendants of the Western, the most purely American of genres, in much the same way that rock n'roll is directly descended from the blues. And couldn't we accept that rock n'roll, done well with a sense of wonder and joy, is art, much like action movies can be?

There is one thing we should consider, though, and that is that a person who only listens to rock n'roll or only watches action films is a poor person indeed. Even though these things may be art they can only be so in the context of the developing history of the art form they are a part of. Even though a person may be inspired and touched in all sorts of ways by either Springsteen's Born to Run or a film like Die Hard I believe they only scratch the surface of what makes these works interesting if they stay within the boundaries of their respective genres. What makes Born to Run a great album is not that it is just great rock but rather that it is great music, period. The same with Die Hard. If the film were only good as an action film it really wouldn't be much good at all, just like The Godfather wouldn't be all that impressive if it were just good as a crime film. But the only way to recognize this transcendence of genre into the territory of art is to love and study the art form, not just the genre.

To this day the jumping-off-the-roof scene still freaks me out. I've scene the film untold times and to this day I always think he's not going to make it.

I am not saying that Die Hard stands as one of the great cultural achievements of the past century. (Maybe it will. Who knows? Only time can tell such things). But I am certain that it is not just entertainment. It stands as a very interesting film filled with humor, adventure, sly satire and wit. It affects us on an almost primal level, in the gut rather than the head, much like blues, jazz and rock n' roll, those great American musical genres. It works its magic like a good pulp novel, often telling its story in much more simple and effective ways than more "serious" literature could, using what seem to be obvious archetypes to explore subtle dimensions. To dismiss action films as entertainment and not art is like claiming that only serious, highfalutin European classical music is art while other musical genres remain somehow "lower" art or not art at all. Or to say that the works of Chandler, Hammett, and Conan Doyle are not art. If a person says such a thing he is telling you something about him or herself you'd rather not know.

God knows that most action films are terrible. Whether or not the majority of such dreg qualifies as art is a discussion I have almsot zero interest in. Maybe, as a part of a form and a genre, but if so then they are not only bad art but horrible art, which in some ways may be even worse than bad entertainment. When entertainment fails it is only boring. When art fails it is a kind of betrayal. But many films, including action films, transcend any genre, any definition, and inspire us to learn more about different kinds of film, about the craft and art of cinema. In spite of the limitations of story and character they touch on elements of heroic poetry and myth, saying subtle things in large strokes. Die Hard sparked in me a love for movies that has been one of the most defining and wonderful aspects of my life and for that it will always hold a special place in my heart, with all its faults and all its limitations. No form of mere entertainment, no matter how effective, could have such an effect on us.

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