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Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Cinéma de L'homme

There's a great scene in Predator when Mac (Bill Duke) wrenches a gatling gun (affectionately named Painless) off fallen comrade Blain (Jesse Ventura) and unloads 400 rounds per second into a patch of jungle in an attempt to waste the monster. The rest of the squad, led by Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) scramble into position beside Mac and join the exercise with appropriate gusto, firing off their weapons in a screeching arc of ballistic jungle clearing not seen outside the wet dreams of McDonalds executives. A stampede of bullets cut through the jungle for a good five minutes, inter cut with close-ups of the happy commandos grimacing with a hint of requited pleasure escaping through their expressions. Eventually even the magazine capacity of the movie guns are spent and the squad is left standing over the remains of the jungle admiring their handiwork. The self-congratulatory posing is short lived as a scout reports back to inform them that they've hit nothing.

The scene is deliciously ridiculous for a number of reasons. What kind of military platoon on a covert jungle mission lugs around a gatling-gun as part of their armament? Obviously the same platoon who only moments before have annihilated a guerrilla compound in the old skool A Team style, despite Schwarzenegger's assertion at the opening of the film that they're "a rescoo team, not asassaans." Then there's the way the squad stride in and follow Mac's lead without realising that they're not really going to be able to add much to Painless' destruction and they'd probably do better to sit back and save the ammo.

The scene says a lot about the tastes of mainstream moviegoers in the mid eighties and ultimately a lot more about the mindset of America. in that period (with a heck of a lot of obvious spill over into the 21st century). As the director John McTiernan (the director of the Die Hard Trilogy, the excellent remake of The Thomas Crown Affair and who is slowly turning into Walter Matthau) notes in his audio commentary on the DVD, at the time there was an almost pornographic desire to see images of arms with biceps the size of sheep firing huge semi-automatic weapons into other people. Compromising, he decided that the squad's blitzkrieg should hit nothing but air and foliage, denying the audience the ejaculatory release of seeing bodies mowed down but still giving the punters what they wanted. In the commentary he uses that decision as justification for removing himself from the Columbine/media violence debate. Unfortunately for McTiernan he's got no leg to stand on when one considers the various scenes of gore and violence that fill Predator and his subsequent films. He might have shown the balls to discuss the issue rather than deluding himself that he isn't a part of it.

Ahhh, Predator. No one in the mainstream Hollywood system makes films of its ilk anymore and that's equally disappointing and reassuring.

Reassuring because overt phallic displays of firepower have been dropped in favour of Kung Fu. Even films like the first Matrix which feature a lot of gunplay are acceptable because it's goreless and the whole thing is set inside a video game. Assuming you're not out of your mind on mushrooms it's unlikely you'll see that kind of violence as a way to resolve disputes in the office. Anti-media violence pundits may disagree with me, but in Hollywood there's been a improvement in how on-screen violence is portrayed. Saving Private Ryan is a good example. After witnessing the first twenty minutes of that film I promised myself that if I was ever found myself riding the surf in a US Army transporter onto the beach at Normandy I'd jump over board (secreting inflated arm rings on my person well before) and paddle to Portugal. As is often the case however, Spielberg almost ruins his film by suddenly draping it with the American flag in the final reel.

On the negative side there is the sobering fact that no one working in mainstream film today can direct as well as McTiernan did on Predator. Despite the inherently ludicrous nature of the subject matter the film is expertly crafted. The camera moves from actor to actor composing them as characters inside an environment rather than cut outs against a neutral background. Suspense is built up by breaking long tracking shots with quick, shorter cuts before flowing back into the longer almost liquid shots. Of course, there are a few directors working in Hollywood who, like McTiernan, know what they're doing. Names like Soderbergh and Singer spring to mind, but the talented few are dwarfed by the hordes of the talentless pumping out weak muck like The League of Extraordinary Gentleman and A Man Apart. Ironically they're films made mostly by the generation who grew up watching and idolising the work of directors like McTiernans.

Less seriously it's also disappointing to note that the forces of political correctness have expanded themselves a little too far and made great manly films like Predator largely a thing of the past. Such scenes of masculine competition such as the arm wrestling tiff between Dutch and Dillon (Carl Weathers, who was to appear in the glorious Action Jackson the following year) are nowadays greeted with sniggers from a well informed audience who see such things as the result male insecurity. The world may have changed too much for a line like: "bunch of slack jawed faggots! Chew this and you'll become a sexual tyrannosaur just like me!" to be uttered without eliciting a pious letter of disapproval from groups such as The Concerned Housewives of Remurea, rather than being accepted as a funny line revealing much about the character who said it.

A final item of interest to file away under "Only in America": It's well known that both Jesse Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger have entered politics, becoming the governors of Minnesota and California. What's less known is that Sonny Landham who played Billy the Native-American tracker (and who was assigned a bodyguard on the film set to deter him from starting fights with the local Mexican populace) ran a thankfully unsuccessful campaign for governor of Kentucky in 2003. Who's next for the corridors of power? Carl Weathers? Or, in our own little political armpit, Paul Holmes as MP for Auckland Central? I'm sorry. You're right, that's not funny and more than a little sick.

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