Wednesday, March 28, 2012

High Octane: An Interview With Author and Action Film Expert Eric Lichtenfeld


Action is a vital ingredient to today’s Blockbusters.  It’s a universal language that crosses all cultural boundaries.  People all over the world love to watch fistfights, car chases, and shootouts.  Unfortunately, such things often come at the expense of character and story, which is why genre has been largely dismissed by critics and cineastes in the past.  Over the last decade or so, that perception has been slowly changing. A handful of well-made actioners have shown critics just what the genre is capable of in the right hands.  In addition, a few historians have been proactive about pointing out the genres merits to their peers.


Photo by Juliet Turback
One such fellow is Eric Lichtenfeld.  He is the author of ‘Action Speaks Louder: Violence, Spectacle, and the American Action Movie.’  It is one of the few, if not the only, scholarly tomes ever written about the genre.  It isn’t simply an extended list of its high points, but a true reference guide.  It identifies and examines the underlying themes common to most action pictures.  It also puts things into historical perspective.  Being the action junkie that I am, I sought out Mr. Lichtenfeld so I could pick his brain a bit.  I ended up getting much more than I’d bargained for, as he proceeded to school me on my beloved genre.

   

Scott Wilson: In 1987 and 1988, Joel Silver produced three films that are now considered timeless classics of the action genre (Lethal Weapon, Predator, Die Hard).  Why did they stand out so much from other such films in the marketplace at the time?  What made his productions at the time so special

Producer Joel Silver


Eric Lichtenfeld: Great craftsmanship. And because great craftsmanship is timeless, these movies aren’t as dated as a lot of their contemporaries seem to be. (Okay, Mel Gibson’s hair and sunglasses are a little dated, but I’m talking about the big picture.) 

Take the last confrontation between Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman in Die Hard. The “showdown” or fast-draw sequence has always been a staple of action movies and Westerns. But the one in Die Hard is constructed in a sophisticated way. Every time the editors cut, the new shot changes our understanding of the action, of the characters, of the story. What is Hans thinking? What is McClane thinking? What is Holly thinking? The editing keeps that dynamic so fluid, so engaging. Die Hard is one of the rare action movies to have received an Oscar nomination for Best Film Editing. It’s for a reason.

Image from the "showdown" that ends Die Hard.


Also, in the movies you cite, the heroes and their relationships felt more “real” than the ones in many of the era’s other action movies. Gibson, Willis, and even Arnold Schwarzenegger deliver genuinely credible performances. And they’re vulnerable. You believe that the people on screen are actually experiencing the things we’re seeing—and we’re seeing some pretty outlandish things. I heard once that Zefferelli knew he had found his Hamlet when he watched Mel Gibson’s near-suicide attempt in Lethal Weapon. And I’ve always thought that Predator marked the moment in Schwarzenegger’s career when he began to loosen up in front of the camera, when he started to come across as more human. 

Mel Gibson attempts suicide in Lethal Weapon.


Scott Wilson: The 1980’s were the golden age of action cinema.  What was it about that decade that nurtured the genre in such a way that produced so many classic films?

Eric Lichtenfeld: That’s a complicated question. Every genre has a “golden age” or a classical phase. For the action movie, it was the 1980s—in part because action filmmakers had to spend the previous decade—the decade of its birth, really—experimenting and figuring out what the genre was going to be. By the time we got to the ‘80s, the elements were really starting to cohere. 

Also, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger came into their own as action heroes, and they were the first stars to belong primarily to this genre. Sure, Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson and others had toplined action movies in the ‘70s, but they were already stars when the genre started taking form. In fact, the stardom they had earned in Westerns and war films helped make the action film possible, and were a bridge for audiences between those earlier genres and this emerging one.
But with Arnold and Sly, we had action stars who truly belonged to the action film—and who were incredibly iconographic. That particular quality can’t be overlooked (Literally.) Their musculature was iconic of a “hard body” ideal that really informed much of the 1980s. 

Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger


The ‘80s also bore the mark of a certain “us-vs.-them” mentality, which was spurred along by the presidency of Ronald Reagan (a former movie star) and his rhetoric of the Soviet Union as an “Evil Empire.” That was a natural fit with the action movie. So there was a fusion between what was going on in action films and what was going on in the culture. 

And the last thing you have to consider is what came after the 1980s. By the early ‘90s, one of the genre’s new trends was to take a satirical, self-aware look at itself. And for a genre to be self-referential, it has to have something concrete to reference. Usually, that “something” is the genre’s golden age.

So when you put all of this together on a timeline, it seems almost inevitable that the ‘80s would represent the classical era of the action movie—but of course, it’s always easier to see that in retrospect than at the time.

Scott Wilson: As much as I love action films, it seems to be an inherently right wing genre.  Is it possible to make an action film that espouses left wing or progressive liberal values?  Has it ever been done?

Eric Lichtenfeld: Great question. The politics of Hollywood movies are often a little more muddled—maybe deliberately so—than they’re often given credit for being. A lot of people have called action movies “fascist,” particularly action movies of the 1970s and ‘80s. But that’s wrong. Fascism is about the merging of state and corporate power. If anything, action movies are usually fiercely pro-individual, even antiauthoritarian. In the history of the genre, how many lone wolf cops have shown up the police and city bureaucrats? Plenty. Harry Callahan comes to mind. And John Rambo was visualized with some pretty left-wing iconography.

The one man army John J. Rambo


But I’ll grant that there’s more than a hint of right wing-thinking in old-school action movies. And it becomes even easier to read them that way when action stars such as Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Willis, and Chuck Norris start espousing right-wing positions in real life. Can that be balanced out? Probably. I don’t think it’s likely, but then again, action movies are myths at their core. And myths are timeless, whereas politics are very much of the moment.

Then again, at least one critic saw Steven Seagal’s first movie, Above the Law as a loony collision of right- and left-wing politics. That was a fun thing to find when I was researching the book. In fact, a lot of my research on Above the Law was a hoot—and not just the political material, either.

Scott Wilson: Your book makes it sound as though xenophobia and racism are inherent to the action genre.  Is that kind of attitude a holdover from Westerns and old Hollywood?  

Eric Lichtenfeld: To the extent that xenophobia and racism are inherent to the genre, they are largely (but not exclusively) inherited from Westerns and of storytelling modes that precede Westerns—that precede movies entirely. 

One of the interesting things about racism and the action film—particularly in the ‘80s—is that filmmakers could tap those baser parts of the audience while on the surface, making us think that they weren’t. At a certain level, what’s the difference between the cavalry raiding the Comanche encampment in The Searchers and the Colonial Marines trying to wipe out the aliens on LV-426? Not much. Or in Cobra, which may be the most archetypal of the era’s action movies, how big is the difference between the war Stallone wages against the army of killers and an all-out extermination campaign? Almost all of those maniacs are Caucasian, but their psychosis makes them feel so other.
Movies long ago figured out that there are ways to bait an audience, to tap its sense of myth or its lizard-brain, and suggest race without showing race. It makes you wonder if that us-vs.-them sensibility is hardwired into us at a certain level, as regrettable as that may be.

The poster for the 1986 Stallone vehicle Cobra

Scott Wilson: How do you feel about Shaky Cam and so called “chaos cinema”?  Do you think such filmmaking techniques ruin action sequences?

The Bourne Supremacy is an often cited example of "Chaos Cinema"


Eric Lichtenfeld: It’s great when it’s done well… but how often is that? It takes a lot of discipline and restraint to use chaos effectively. I like a more elegant style of action; I like to understand the geography and choreography of the sequence. Often when I see one of those shaky-cam sequences, I get that the idea is to give me the sense that I’m in the middle of it, but really, I wonder if that’s a crutch. I wonder if the filmmakers just didn’t think through the sequence enough.
On the other hand, when I see an action sequence that’s clearly been designed—like in a Predator or Die Hard—I get the sense that I’m really seeing what the filmmakers meant for me to see. And when it works, I feel like I’m being guided by people who really love and understand filmmaking, not just “action.”

Scott Wilson: It seems that traditional, hardcore action films like the ones made during the 70’s and 80’s are becoming the exclusive province of straight to video/DVD.  Do you think audiences have lost the taste for such films, or do you think that studios find it more lucrative to make blockbusters that incorporate action but appeal to a larger demographic?

Eric Lichtenfeld: Demographics are a big part of this. Animation and visual effects are merging. Technology has enabled action movies to become family-friendlier blockbusters. Visual spectacle in the action movie doesn’t need the same blood and guts and hardcore violence that it once did, hence all the video game and comic book adaptations, and other high-concept action movies.

I don’t know if audiences have “lost their taste” for the old school, but I do think that the modern CGI spectacles have raised the bar so much that it might be harder for audiences to justify spending the same money on something that delivers comparatively less spectacle (even if the movie might be better!). 

But at the same time, I also think it’s about more than just the audience. It has to do with trends in marketing and distribution. In the ‘70s, ‘80s, and even into the ‘90s, an action movie would have more time to build its audience than it would today. Today, the movies have to make more of their money in a smaller window.

In 1987, Robocop became a hit without a having a massive opening weekend.  Its audience grew over time.  In today's marketplace, films don't have that luxury.

When RoboCop opened in 1987, it made 15% of its final box office gross in its first weekend. That means eighty-five percent of the money it made was still in front of it. Compare that to last summer’s Pirates of the Caribbean sequel: it made more than 35% of its money in its first weekend. That’s more than one-third—in just those first few days. The movies are burning through screens (and lots more of them) much faster than they used to—whether they’re successful or not. So if your action movie doesn’t make a ton in those first three days, it probably won’t catch up later. That’s another point in favor of the huge, glittery, CG blockbuster that (presumably) is better able to pack the theater in the first weekend.

Scott Wilson: Action films appeal to young males of all races, yet action heroes are overwhelmingly white.  This is in spite of the fact that films such as Blade and various Will Smith vehicles have shown that mass audiences can accept a hero of color.  Studios maintain that films starring and aimed at Black audiences don’t do much crossover business and don’t sell overseas.  Will this sad state of affairs ever change?

Shaft was one of the very first action films ever made, and became a huge hit.  Still, Black heroes are rarely featured in modern action films.


Eric Lichtenfeld: Have studios “maintained” that? If you want to talk about marginalization, African-American action heroes used to be found almost exclusively in blaxploitation movies, but not anymore. (In fact, in my book I have some great stuff about how MGM tried to promote “Shaft” along these lines and, at the same time, as a throwback to the heyday of classic Hollywood.)
Either way, I think your examples show that it is getting better. There may be a long way to go, but it’s better than it was.

Scott Wilson: Die Hard is, in my opinion, the perfect action film.  It’s the greatest high concept action film ever made.  Why have so many high concept action films failed to repeat its success?

Eric Lichtenfeld: It goes back to the craftsmanship, and to serendipity. The major talents behind Die Hard—and I don’t just mean the producers, director, and star, but also the writers, cinematographer, production designer, editors, composer, and others—were all operating at the top of their games. It was just one of those moments for each of them. 
Ultimately, it’s a very good story told very well. It’s well thought-through.


Scott Wilson: Do you think cineastes and film scholars have an overly snobbish and pretentious attitude regarding action films?  What, if anything, can be done to change that? 

Eric Lichtenfeld: They did. That’s changing. More and more scholars are turning their attention to action films—maybe because there’s no more room left in the more “respectable” areas of film study! But I have to say: a number of the academics I’ve talked with who are writing about action films do seem to genuinely enjoy the genre. So that’s good. 

The problem of snobbishness still persists with critics (although even there, I think they’re sometimes painted with too broad a brush). Critics and others are responsible for recognizing quality even where history tells them they shouldn’t expect to find it. Some do that, and some don’t. And so sometimes it seems like action movies, like Westerns before them, are destined to be dismissed in the present and appreciated more in the future. Even those action movies that are today widely regarded as genuinely good movies received mixed reviews at best when they were released.

But let’s face it: the action film has done its part to earn some of that dismissive attitude. A lot of these movies just aren’t very good—even though they might hold a nostalgic appeal, or represent a body of films that is significant when taken as a whole. 

Either way, how to change the dynamic is a good question. The first step is probably for filmmakers to make better action movies! Another step is for critics to recognize that some of these very simple, even simplistic stories have been told through sophisticated, quality filmmaking.

Scott Wilson: Action oriented cinema has dominated the worldwide box office over the last 35 years or so.  Do you think that audiences will ever tire of action and special FX?  Do you ever see action films going to way of westerns and musicals as some other genre takes center stage?  

Eric Lichtenfeld: The answers are “No” and a definite, emphatic “It depends.” 

I can’t imagine audiences ever tiring of action and special effects because they haven’t yet—not in the last 35 or 40 years, and not in the nearly 120 years film has been around. Movies have always been about spectacle, whether that means a CG Spider-Man, Harry Callahan’s Magnum, the tinting of The Great Train Robbery from 1903, or just about anything from Gone with the Wind. Audiences can move on from how spectacle is rendered or delivered; they can grow restless with certain technical or aesthetic standards, but that fundamental appetite will never go away.

Though audience tastes may change throughout the years, action heavy spectacles like The Amazing Spider-Man will always have a huge audience.

Will the actual genre go away? It depends on how you define it. The genre has changed so much over the years. You could argue that the movies of the genre’s golden age were “the action movie” and that the family-friendlier comic book and video game adaptations we’ve seen in recent years represent a different “genre.” Or you could argue that the action genre is so broad that it encompasses all the different trends we’ve seen over the last 40 years, and the ones we’re likely to see going forward. So while the genre may look different from one phase to the next, the movies will all belong to one family. 

I talk about this in the book, too. Compare the Universal classics from the 1930s to the slasher films of the ‘80s or the more artistic serial killer movies of the ‘90s. They may not look like they belong to one another, but there’s no question that they all belong to the genre we call “Horror.”
So in thinking about the future of the action genre—or more to the point, if the action genre has one—musicals and Westerns may not be the right model. Those genres are more specific and less elastic than action and horror.

Scott Wilson: Who is the greatest action hero of all time?

Eric Lichtenfeld: That’s a tough one. I don’t really know. What I do know is that it’s not me.

Scott Wilson: What is the greatest action movie of all time?

Eric Lichtenfeld: That’s an easier one. Die Hard.




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