Surface structure and deep structure

Much has been made in our classical analysis of the distinction between surface structure and deep structure. Yet these terms are merely spatial metaphors to direct attention to a disparity of dramatic movement, to a cognitive tension, or a difference in emotional patterning or intensity. In some ways, however, Die Hard behaves as if it knew about this purely heuristic distinction. For instance, it constantly alludes to its surface texture, by staging a quite extraordinary play on 'glass'. In fact, one way to define 'spectacle' in Die Hard would be to say that it draws some of its most memorable effects from the splattering and shattering of glass - the big plate-glass windows that McClane has to smash to push out the body in order to draw the patrolman's attention to the fact that not all is what it seems at Nakatomi Plaza; Gruber ordering one of his men (in faulty German) to fire on the glass in order to make of it a carpet of splinters which will cut McClane's feet to bleeding shreds; the blood and brains of Tagaki clouding the glass partition and blocking McClane's view. Glass also provides some intense sound effects throughout, and there is even a Roy Lichtenstein-inspired pop art picture of a shattering pane of glass on the wall in Holly's office, shown twice - the second time accompanied by the crackling sound of machine-gun fire.

Similarly, with respect to the narrative's deep structure, our argument has been that it is there that the story's Oedipal logic unfolds. 'Ho-ho-ho,' the film says, not only to Oedipus, but to patriarchy, and gives us Father Christmas instead. The fact that one of the reviewers should ask, 'Why Christmas?' suggests that he cannot have watched the film all that carefully. In fact, Christmas is crucial in at least two distinct ways. It is, as indicated, the season for family reunion and reconciliation, motivating McClane's return to Holly. It is also a culturally overdetermined holiday season (white, first world, Christian), and there is something distinctly óff-key in the Nakatomi Corporation having an elaborate Christmas party (a fact which the film acknowledges musically when it cross-cuts between Bach and Handel at the Nakatomi reception and rap music in the limo). Christinas in sun-baked LA always carries a surrealist touch, with snow-powdered Christmas trees, an incongruity verbalized in the opening scene mostly by Argyle, whose limo's in-car entertainment consists of hip-hop and rap, and who is suitably facetious about 'white' Christmas music: when asked by McClane: 'Don't you have some Christmas music?', he answers 'This is Christmas music.'

But Christmas is even more pervasively embedded in the visual, verbal, and thematic texture of the film, functioning as a semantic resource in several distinct registers. An explicit reference, for instance, is Gruber's delight that the FBI is making him a Christmas present by shutting down the electricity, which 'lights up his tree': Gruber expects a miracle, and it occurs when the lights go out and the last door of the safe opens, like an Advent calendar on Christmas Eve. More oblique, but hardly to be missed, is McClane's practical joke on one of the villains, the intellectual Fritz. McClane helps himself from Fritz's bag to cigarettes, lighter, a machine gun, and a walkie-talkie, then dresses the dead body up as Father Christmas, having first emblazoned his teeshirt with the words 'ho-ho-ho', before sending him down the elevator as if it was a chimney ('Father Christmas coming down the chimney'), a visual pun that is once more activated when McClane plunges the explosives down the ventilation shaft and it lights up at the bottom like a fire in the hearth. One additional element of the (Anglo-American) Christmas ritual is worked into the narrative: it seems as if by taking off his socks, McClane had 'invited' Father Christmas to fill his stockings, so that the magic objects he needs for his fight against the robbers/terrorists are in fact his Christmas presents.

In other words, the signifier 'Christmas' is both a 'sliding signifier' (see below) and at the centre of a culturally, visually, and cognitively rich seam of meaning, which the film (in terms of script and mise en scène) exploits in order to give a special texture and resonance to the actions. In the family reunion drama, Christmas acts as a element of verisimilitude; in the LA setting, it provides an atmosphere of dissonance, alerting us to the ethnic theme; in relation to Gruber and McClane, it adds dramatic irony to the fairy-tale motif of donors and helpers; for McClane it is the occasion for practical jokes at his enemies' expense, and for the mise en scène it motivates one of the metaphoric uses of the spatial configuration unfinished building/unfinished business (elevator shafts and ventilation ducts/terrorists to be dispatched); finally, the socks/stocking allusion contains an irony directed at McClane's emotional immaturity, while the Father Christmas references sarcastically comment on the patriarchal quest of the hero, in search of a new foundation for his fatherhood and masculine identity.

0 0

Post a comment