Characters and functions transfer and substitute

The question of expendable characters brings us to the issue of who and what the spectator identifies with, and what, in a classical narrative, is the function of secondary characters. One way to describe them is in Proppian or Greimasian terms: instead of centres of autonomy or agency, they are relays, vehicles of transfer. They can signal a displacement, or they can be initiating a chain of substitutions. In this function they are supported by the mise-en-scene and narration, i.e. the formal elements of composition, camera placement, and attention guidance. In Die Hard's opening, the camera is noticeable by being so clearly in the service of the narrative (underlining plot-points) and narration (manipulating the distribution of knowledge). After an initial shotcountershot scene of the exchange with the passenger, edited in classical continuity style with eyeline matches, the camera seems to take on a movement of its own, independent of McClane for part of the time, and then again lending itself to his point of view (for instance, in order to trick us into making the same mistake as he), while also cleverly shifting to Argyle's point of view, the cut made imperceptible by a near-collision between Argyle and the baggage trolleys. By a threefold mimetic process of equivalence (or doubling, as Raymond Bellour would say), the camera associates itself successively with different points of view, while nonetheless keeping the movement from one place to the next extremely smooth, and managing to establish the main protagonist as focus of attention as he moves through this space. Narratively, this movement is determined by the logic of events and their code of verisimilitude: what one does when deplaning and arriving inside an airport. Figuratively, the camera movement draws attention to particular objects (such as McClane picking up the teddy bear from the luggage conveyor belt). Symbolically, it elaborates the characters' function as substitutes: the woman in white substitutes for the absent Holly, and Argyle out of his depth as chauffeur substitutes for McClane out of his depth in the world of company executives.

Twice, the camera's point of view is delegated to the main character via a close-up: once of an object, in the form of a POV shot (of the oversized teddy bear), and once of a face (of the smiling woman, itself a repetition of the stewardess's smile, who had not only seen McClane's come-on look but decided to ignore it). The second close-up connotes a situation of collusion and participation in which the spectator is implicated by way of inference: once we know more than McClane (we see what the stewardess sees), and once we know as little as McClane (we too think that the woman in the white pants is smiling at him). The shots thus give us access not only to the field of vision of the character, which may be deceptive, as in the point of view (POV) shot of McClane looking at the blonde woman, but also to the character's intention, secret plans and thoughts, which we infer via the object brought to our attention. The transfer is from camera to object, but the meaning of the shot has little to do with the object as such, because the object is itself a stand-in, a substitute: for the characters' motivation, inner thoughts, and response.

More generally, in a classical Hollywood narrative such as this one, the action progresses by involving us with the protagonists, successively and by transfer, using the film's objects as much as the dialogue, to foreshadow its future action spaces, and using its secondary characters to mirror the main ones via substitution and equivalence. One sub-category of this mode of transfer is what has been called the 'erotetic' principle of question and answer, where one scene implicitly 'answers' the previous one. For instance, at one point, Holly slams down the photo of McClane on her desk, as if to answer the blonde woman leaping into the arms of her man at the airport. Later on there are several more such ironic links, especially in the breakdown of communication between McClane and Argyle (his self-appointed, useless helper) and the intuitive communication between McClane and A1 Powell (his initially reluctant helper).

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