Saturday, 5 July 2014

In which I belatedly experience the cultural products of the 1980s, Part I: Die Hard

I work in the computer industry, with a lot of dudes. This means— cultural stereotyping being in this case reliable— that I end up learning about, for example, GTA 5 and Peperami, which were not things previously on my cultural/gastronomic radar. One afternoon, one of my co-workers made an offhand reference (probably a joke about exhaustion due to too much intense coding) to feeling like Bruce Willis at the end of Die Hard. And I had no idea what they were talking about. I knew of the existence of the film. That was it. They were astounded. They listed a bunch of other films from the '80s. I hadn't seen any of them. Oh, I had seen Aliens. But not Alien.

Then when I left the job, my colleague Ib bought me the film on iTunes as a farewell present. At the time I was moving into a new house, the first house I've owned, and I got a bit preoccupied and sort of forgot about it. But then this week my partner went to Canada and I had a crazy week of work involving quitting a truly terrible job and starting up as a sole contractor. So on my quiet Friday night alone at home, with my pasta and wine, I thought to myself: "This is it. Now is the time. What I need at this very moment is some escapist, unchallenging cultural experience that, viewed through the lens of time and context, will nevertheless be possible to reimagine in a way that lets me comment on culture and society, and how they have changed and developed since the film was made." As you do.

So I watched it.

My first reaction was: surprise. Surprise that it had a plot. I didn't really expect plot. I thought it would be 90 minutes of shooting, punctuated by explosions. I guess they don't pick the plot bits for the poster, though, do they?

And it's set at Christmas. Of course. What could be more American than shooting at Christmas?

Next, I noticed: Oh yeah, I remember, in the 1980s America was obsessed with Japan. So of course our business titan (whose immense wealth is the MacGuffin driving the plot) has to be Japanese. And America was also still angry at Germany. So of course the bad guys have to all be hilariously Euro, with the long hair and accents and all named Hans or whatever. Because they're 'foreign' and it's the 1980s, you know that they're all going to be killed. Really, there doesn't seem to be any plot-based reason at all for Nakamoto to be Japanese except to make him easier for the writers to kill off.

Rules of Hollywood #1: You can only kill people who are 'other'.

Another thing I noticed: We have gotten so much 'richer' since the 1980s. By which I mean, we've started pretending that everyone is middle-class unless they are actually desperately poor. The specific thing that got me thinking about this is McClane's line to his wife about how he plans to stay at the home of a retired police captain during his visit. Not a hotel. Not a B&B. This grown man is staying with a friend. Which is how life should work: you don't need to shell out money to stay in a hotel if you can avoid it. Staying in a hotel is a lot of money. Why stay in a hotel when you don't have to? Why spend that money? And yet, I don't think that line would be written into a movie today. We, as an audience, would be uncomfortable with the thought of a fictional character making the kind of normal financial decisions that anyone should be making. If he were a college kid, he could stay with friends. If he were a 'poor character' we might see him trying to get into a homeless shelter. If he were a sort of loveable loser we might see him annoying a friend by staying there too long. But a self-sufficient, fully-employed cop? Asking for a favor? From another person? If we as a culture have lost something since the film's release in 1988, this line might be a key to figuring out what that thing is.

Another class thing: the other sort-of-good-guy to get killed is cokehead negotiator Harry. He is the kind of slick rich businessman that the 1980s loved to hate. He's introduced doing a line of coke in Holly's office, at which point we know: obviously, he is going to get killed. Of course. That and the fact that he's kinda-sorta-hoping to get with Holly. Don't do drugs, kids. And don't engage in extramarital sex. Or else terrorists will shoot you. In the head.

Note: writing about race is hard. I am going to do my best in the next paragraph.

Now an interesting contrast is the way the three main black characters are portrayed. Argyle, the young limo driver character, is a sort of comic-relief stereotype. But Sgt. Al Powell, the "buddy" cop, is so much more human than his character would be if it were written today. He looks normal in a way people did in movies in the '80s, and in a way that they don't anymore. He acts in a way that is 'culturally black' while not veering into stereotype. (Cop stereotype, a bit, with the twinkies. But not black stereotype). It seems that there was a sort of '70s-'80s peak of mainstream black cultural expression in the United States, when we'd moved out of the '50s-'60s strife but hadn't yet moved into the '90s-'00s ghettoisation of black culture [citation needed].

The third main black character is Theo, the only non-European baddie. He's the computer expert, and surprisingly the only bad guy to (presumably) survive. Because he wears glasses, he can operate a computer— only people wearing glasses can operate computers in the 1980s, and computers always have ridiculously over-designed displays, for instance a graphical representation of the status of all seven locks in a vault, or arrows creating a flow chart connecting three pieces of information that viewers don't even really need to see:

I was surprised that Theo wasn't double-crossed by Hans and shot once the vault was opened. Maybe it's because I've seen a couple of Batman movies, and that always happens there. But no: Theo is fine. He is a mashup of two stereotypes and therefore doesn't really rise above stereotype status himself, but he moves through the film with a sort of grace that made me want to see the whole movie remade from his point of view: Who he is, how he got there, what he's going to do with the money.

So things have maybe not moved onwards and upwards in terms of class or race relations since this movie was made.

What has gotten better? Sexism. A major plot point is that John and Holly are estranged because she got a job, and moved across the country for it. A woman! With a job! Always causing problems. To be fair, the movie actually treats this very sensitively: Holly is a skilled executive, but isn't shown to be unreasonably consumed by her job; John didn't refuse to move to California with her out of some kind of male entitlement, but rather because he was invested in his own career. It does play up a little more than necessary the significance of Holly going by 'Ms' and using her born name. I get that this is done as a shorthand, a stand-in for their separateness and then reunion. And I have a feeling that it's more a product of the sexism of the time than the sexism of the writers/directors. So while I don't love those bits, they're certainly not nearly as cringe-making as they could be, and they're in the service of illustrating a reasonably functional, if currently strained, relationship.

What else has gotten better? Gay rights. While there are no overtly gay characters in the film, there are a number of lines where a character uses the phrase "up the ass" or "f*cked in the ass" as a dysphemism for shame, embarrassment, or failure. In order for this phrase to work, it assumes that this is a bad thing, this is something that no real man would want or put up with, and that to have this happen would make a person less of a man. Any character saying this in a film made today would be a kind of over-the-top cowboy. Which I suppose, you could argue, these guys are. But they're the main characters in the film, and I don't think main characters would say that anymore.

An interesting counterpoint to this is Bruce Willis' sneaking around throughout the film. He sneaks like a real person: it's awkward and a little bit effeminate. I love that. Even at a time when gender norms were in some sense more heavily policed, they were in another sense looser and more flexible. Maybe it's just production value? But I like that McTiernan didn't insist on a more manly sneak from Willis.

*     *     *

Broadly speaking, as I get older, I find it more and more difficult to enjoy a film that I think is pushing (deliberately or inadvertently) an agenda that I think is making the world worse.  (This is why Jurassic Park is so bad: Oh, the neurotic lawyer? Inept, and eaten for comic effect. The fat guy? Bad, and also eaten for comic effect. Oh, and those are the two Jewish actors, if not characters. Re-watching that movie as an adult I was appalled at Spielberg's conflation of physical attractiveness and moral goodness, and his inherent conservatism. I think these are through-lines in his work. But that's another post.)

Hence the verdict: I am, surprisingly, and aside, obviously, from the anti-Japanese and anti-European sentiments, largely on board with the agenda this movie is pushing. It's important to help the people you love do things that let them develop further as people (Holly), sometimes you make big mistakes in relationships (John), but with some dedication those mistakes can be overcome if both people work toward it. I like that even though it's a bit of a damsel-in-distress plot, Holly doesn't ever sit around needing rescuing, she is running the company the whole time, even when that means representing a bunch of hostages. I like that John is legitimately working-class and isn't bothered by Holly's success, just by their separation. (And it even passes the Bechdel test, albeit with two fairly inconsequential scenes.)

I like— sorta— that the theme is Ode To Joy, which is an extremely European tune. I don't like it as a soundtrack, because it's super distracting and obvious and not-right in a lot of places. But I like that it humanises the bad guys, because it is their music. Contrary to all expectation, when they trick the FBI into cutting the building's power, which allows them to open the final vault lock, the music swells and we cheer for them. The bad guys' plan has worked and we share their moment of glory. This is the kind of human moment that I think would destroy Hollywood and yet make us all kinder, more humane people if our fiction routinely worked like this.

And it's in Die Hard, for god's sake.

Next: Ib has suggested that I watch Alien, immediately followed by Aliens.