Classical analysis the opening

In keeping with the points listed under 'Method', we shall concentrate on the logic of the actions, trying to combine elements of the Aristotelian model with those of the structuralist one. For many of the considerations just mentioned, the openings of films take on a privileged role, being in a sense that part which sets up the terms of the system. They pose the enigma, the dilemma, the paradox, to which the film as a whole will appear to give the answer, the resolution. Openings of classical films are somewhat like manuals. The manual is what one finds when unpacking the box of a new appliance. It belongs to the package, but it is also at one remove from the package: a metatext, to use a word one would not normally employ for a manual. Similarly, the opening of a film could be regarded as a special case of a meta-text. It is separate from and yet part of the narrative, in that it usually establishes setting, place, and time, as well as introducing the main protagonist(s). But it is also a kind of meta-text in the sense that by introducing us to the rules of the game, it shows us how a film wants to be read and how it needs to be understood. In this regard, the opening is also different from a manual, which is usually a text about an object, while the opening of a film is made of the same 'material' as the object itself. In fact it is, for most viewers, indistinguishable from (the rest of) the film. To mark the special textual/ meta-textual status of the opening of a classical film, critics have had recourse to a number of metaphors. For instance, the opening has been considered as a 'compression' or 'condensation' of the film. Another term is that of mise-en-abime - literally, a plumbing of depths. Originally derived from medieval heraldry and baroque picture puzzles, the term hints at a particular type of self-reference, a 'drawing attention to itself. Applied to an opening sequence, it designates the economy of mean(ing)s with which a Hollywood opening prepares the stage and often presents (in a different form or code) the whole film in a nutshell.

It is this effect of compression or enfolding of a larger unit in the opening which made Thierry Kuntzel turn to Freud's analysis of dreams in his essay on The Most Dangerous Game (1932, dir. Schoedsack and Cooper) (Kuntzel 1980) and a similar one on M (1932, dir: Fritz Lang) (Kuntzel 1978), which he collectively called 'The Work of Film' (Le Travail du film). If we think of a dream as a text, its typical feature is that it can seem a very ordinary story, visually coherent and even logical, except that the very ordinariness serves to disguise another level of meaning, where unconscious fantasy material is being negotiated. On the other hand, a dream may consists of very vivid scenes or violent set pieces but make no overall sense at all. These tensions between the overt and the covert meaning of the dream led Freud to posit a number of transformational moves brought about by the unconscious activity he called dream-work. The main moves Freud described under such headings as 'condensation' and 'displacement', 'screen memory' and 'wish-fulfilling fantasy', 'representability' and 'secondary elaboration'. Taking our cue from Kuntzel's use of Freud for the overall framework, but combining the terminology of Propp, Lévi-Strauss, and Bellour as well as Freud, we shall be looking at the film's opening. Not least in light of the opinion of one reviewer that the opening scenes were 'tentative and unfocused', it will be instructive to put his judgement to the test.

2.3.3. Entry (into the film, entry into the fiction, entry into the characters)

The opening of Die Hard lasts from the moment John McClane lands in LA, walks through the lobby, and witnesses another passenger being welcomed by his wife or girlfriend to the time he collects his baggage and is picked up by the Nakatomi chauffeur, Argyle (with whom he has a discussion about his family, Christmas music, and the size of Argyle's expected tip), before being dropped at the entrance of the Corporation headquarters. The sequence is thus bracketed by two arrivals (at the airport and at the Nakatomi Tower), but these two visual rhymes are prepared and punctuated by a whole series of 'brief encounters': with the passenger on the plane, the stewardess on the way out, the blonde woman in white hot pants who for a moment he thinks is smiling at him, the black chauffeur Argyle, the security guard, the Nakatomi CEO, and finally, Holly.

Not only do these encounters between two arrivals structure the sequence into smaller units of action, charting a sort of narrative path for McClane, they are also designed to give us a lot of information about McClane as a character: even though travelling on a plane, he carries a gun, he has the roving eye for the ladies (and they for him), he is disappointed that Holly thought herself too busy to meet him in person (hence the mistaken welcome from the blonde), and that - compared to his status as a New York cop - she is clearly an important person in the corporation if she can send a chauffeur. In the conversation with Argyle, McClane gives us the gist of his central problem (he is separated from his wife and does not like it) and the way he intends to resolve it (by joining his wife and little daughter for Christmas, the ideal family occasion in a season of peace and reconciliation). McClane's most bulky item of luggage is a giant teddy bear, which foreshadows a 'Father Christmas' theme that is to become important subsequently (see below). In order to close off the opening scene even more, and mark it as a self-contained unit, a kind of complete mini-narrative, Argyle, who has been discussing McClane's marital situation and the chances of a successful reunion, says to McClane as he drops him: 'and now we get the music playing and they live happily ever after - but just in case they don't, here's my telephone number. I'll be waiting for you in the car-park.'

2.3.4. Repetition, alternation, and reversal

Already in the opening we note a number of formal repetitions, such as the series of encounters with secondary or even apparently irrelevant characters, expendable in that some are one-offs and seem to contribute little to the plot, and yet indispensable in other respects. For apart from telling us something about the main protagonist or giving him an occasion to tell us about his motivation and goals, they also exist in order to alert us to the principle of repetition itself. In one case, as we shall see below, McClane's encounter with the passenger next to him, his utterance spells out - albeit in riddling or highly coded fashion - the terms of the narrative's resolution. The principle of repetition as alternation and reversal is rehearsed twice more in this opening. Once when the passenger, in response to McClane's puzzled look after receiving his advice about what to do in order to avoid jet lag, answers: 'Trust me, I've been doing it for nine years', a phrase which McClane repeats - with a slight, but significant variation - immediately after, in response to the Asian-American's puzzled look, upon seeing McClane's gun on his shoulder-holster, as he stretches to get his jacket from the overhead luggage hold: 'Trust me, I've been a cop for eleven years'. The second verbal exchange of the opening is built exactly like the first. When Argyle, nearly missing him, greets McClane by apologetically saying to him: 'It's my first time driving a limo (as chauffeur)', McClane repeats the sentence, reassuring Argyle that it also is his first time riding a limo (as passenger)'. Again, beyond signalling McClane as a wiseacre and smarty-pants (who is heading for a comeuppance), the verbal repartee 'draws attention to' (acts as a mise-en-abime of) the principle of repetition.

0 0

Post a comment