Interview: Eric Lichtenfeld Part 1 of 2: Blood and Light
This week, the western world sees the release of Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of The Fallen on DVD, a film very telling of the industry in which it swims. However, for those of us with more then two decades of life under our belts, this is a trumpet, an alarm, a loud drunk at the party of the “action” film genre, it’s a guest that reminds you how much has changed and how your style is no longer “in.” We can rest assured that the drunk is right. Action isn’t what it once was. The hardware has been replaced with software, and the hero has been replaced with the “hottie.” Spectacle is no longer flavored with primal instinct, blood, and brute force. Instead, it’s injected with pusillanimous, pixel-engulfed, stimuli. There’s no need to be bitter. Those that care about the past, present, and future of this beloved genre are still able to celebrate “action’s” timeline with the reverence it deserves through literature such as Eric Lichtenfeld’s Action Speaks Louder: Violence, Spectacle, and the American Action Movie. I had the pleasure of talking with author Eric Lichtenfeld about his book, the genre, and reactions to his chosen subject matter.
BOB ROSE: Thank you very much for reading my review.
ERIC LICHTENFELD: Oh, it was my pleasure.
BR: I can’t tell you how excited I was to learn that the author read it.
BR: You thought I had some valid criticisms about the last third of the book?
EL: I’m not entirely sure I agree completely with it, but I think it’s fair. If I can sort of distance myself from it and approach the bigger issue you’re talking about. Certainly the action movies of the ‘70s and ‘80s are the ones of my formative years, so I think there is more of a sentimental attachment to those movies then to the ones in the ‘90s, regardless of the merit of one era versus the other.
BR: Is it a matter of personal perspective?
EL: I think so. We have a tendency to write most passionately, most engagingly about the things that influenced us the most directly. Maybe I should have done more to control all of that, but I think there is probably something to that observation. This might be something else you are probably picking up on. I think the ‘80s is sort of the classical era of the genre. Whatever genre you’re talking about is going to have a “classical” period where its definition is most crystallized; is at its clearest. So from the perspective of writing about a genre you’re interested in, there is so much to unpack in that period.
BR: So the ‘80s is where the Beethoven of action films exists.
EL: [laughs] I’m glad you sort of pushed me on that a little bit. Classical doesn’t necessarily mean the best movies are in that period.
BR: Just the most definitive ones?
EL: Exactly. The genre has its strongest sense of self in that period. The way I look at genres, and not just action, is that you have an early phase where there is a lot of experimentation going on. This is particularly true of the action movie. We’re combining elements of other genres and arriving at some kind of a new formula. A lot of that you’ll look back on in the future and see as sort of a primordial ooze. Then your next phase is when the formula is figured out, when filmmakers really know how to capitalize on that formula and keep reproducing it.
BR: Like how they kept trying to remake Die Hard?
EL: Similarly. By the time you get into all those Die-Hard-On-A-Something’s you’re already into the next phase of the action movie. I would say the classical phase of the action movie is more like the Stallone films, Cobra and Rambo, those really para-militaristic exercises from the ‘80s.
BR: Including Predator, Commando…
EL: Absolutely, in the sense that Predator is a very macho movie, really focused on the muscles and the hardware. With Predator you also see the influences of science-fiction and horror on the genre, the way you’ll continue to see throughout the ‘90s. I really admire Predator.
BR: I’m a huge fan as well.
EL: I like to think of it as more then your typical ‘80s action movie.
BR: It kind of belongs to a “Men Only” club…
EL: Which is vaguely true of a lot of John McTiernan movies in particular. Another great example would be the Chuck Norris films from the ‘80s, such as The Delta Force, a classical example of the classical phase, where the genre is most “itself.”
BR: I think your book points in that direction.
EL: Yeah, and actually the point I made in the conclusion, in this edition, was about Team America. I think Team America is a great test case for this. There are two components to it. There’s the political satire and then there’s the pure action movie parody.
BR: It’s a parody of Bruckheimer and Bay films.
EL: Before that, really I think it’s a parody of Chuck Norris movies. It’s a parody of Delta Force, of Navy Seals, which is not Chuck Norris but which was made in that vein.
BR: Red Dawn maybe?
EL: A little bit, sure. That was the mode that really influenced Bruckheimer and later Bay. You have a very ‘80s satire in Team America. Now, if you think about how old Team America’s target audience was in the 1980s, there is really no reason that parody should work, except that we have this ingrained idea in us that when we are talking about the “action movie,” that is what we are talking about.
BR: While I’m a fan of it, you can argue that Team America wasn’t financially successful with the target audience at the box office…
EL: Sure, well it’s a very offensive action movie with puppets; it had a stacked deck working against it. [laughs] I think what Team America is proving is that when we think of the “action movie,” what springs to mind is the archetype from the 1980s, and everything else, everything that came later, is a response to that. In the ‘90s and beyond, they became half-serious action movie, half-satire or parody. You see it in horror a lot, with Scream and films like that. You see something similar to that in the action genre. As far as all the Die-Hard-On-A-Something’s go, in the ‘90s you were already into that.
BR: The classical period was already over.
EL: Right, and the films were responding to the classical phase.
BR: Mainstream American movies, with a studio-sized budget all seemed to be much more clearly defined back in the 1980s and early 1990s. Now it seems we have two genres in mainstream film, with action or without action. Either there is a huge budgeted action behemoth or a tiny small budgeted independent film. There’s no in between. Predator, Die Hard, Rambo 2 are clearly defined action films. Today with films like Spiderman, Wolverine, Transformers they seem watered down, trying to span too many genres and are basically just giant “catch-all films.” I realize that is a broad statement, but I think there is validity to it. Would you agree with that?
EL: Yes, as you say, that is a broad statement, but I think there is a lot of truth to it. What’s happening is a kind of polarization. What has happened with the action movie is the budgets have gotten bigger, the standings of the films have grown, and they are more summer/holiday-tentpoles and less anything else.
BR: They are a big stew of everything you could want in a movie.
EL: Yes, and I think the reason we are seeing that is because of CGI, which allows your action movie to take on the more science-fiction, super-heroic, fantastical elements that makes the movie safer for a larger audience. Fewer movies get to suck up more and more oxygen. What has been disappearing for a while is the mid-size R-rated action movie.
BR: Would you consider Die Hard now, in 2009, a mid-size movie?
EL: Yes, I would. Die Hard is a really interesting example because if you were to go back to 1988, the movie was made for $27 million or so.
BR: Which now is a mid-size budget.
EL: Now? Actually it’s almost a small budget. [laughs]
BR: District 9 was made for $30 million, so that “smaller” film is the same price now as Die Hard, a huge film, was then.
EL: Right. One thing they have been saying for a long time is it’s very hard for studios to make $60 million movies. The budgets are very small or very large. In 1988, $27 million, it’s not chump-change, but it’s not a huge amount of money. More significantly, Die Hard was released gradually. It opened in only a couple of cities the first weekend, expanded the second weekend, and then went wide. You would never have that today. Today, by the third weekend, your movie would be close to done at the box office. Die Hard was a smaller production, released in a smaller way, and I think part of that is because Bruce Willis was not a movie star yet. He had a few movies that didn’t do well, and he wasn’t even that popular as a public persona at the time.
BR: He was unknown to the public?
EL: It wasn’t that he was unknown; it had gotten to the point where his popularity was waning. He wasn’t a movie star, he was a TV star, and people liked him on Moonlighting. But he started to acquire a reputation as a party boy, and as Die Hard got closer to release his, “star” was starting to decline. These were things that Fox had to navigate its way around, and obviously they did it extremely successfully.
BR: Sure, Die Hard defined a genre and his career.
EL: Trying to imagine something like Die Hard would be very difficult in today’s climate because you have larger movies and the technology allows them to reach a broader audience. What you can do with “light,” for lack of a better word, now, you had to do with “blood” then. We’re talking about spectacle, which is the driving principle of the action movie. All these stories are structured around spectacle, so doing that with blood certainly narrows your audience to a certain extent.
BR: Now it’s opened up to everyone, we don’t have to have blood.
EL: Right, and also because of changes in distribution and the relationship between studios and the theaters: how many movies are in circulation, and how long they get to play. All of these things, and budgets, are factors in how the genre has morphed to try to appeal to as broad an audience as possible in the shortest time frame you can get away with.
BR: You’re a great writer, you’re an intelligent guy, you have a Master’s. Did you get a lot of confused looks when you set out to write this book?
EL: [Big Laughs] Wow, great question. I started working on the book when I was still working on my Master’s degree and I got a lot of different reactions. It was really interesting. I got people who were unabashedly excited, because it was about time these things got the scholarly or intellectual validation that they wanted them to have. I got a lot of raised eyebrows, particularly in my department. I remember someone seemed to be excited that I had a book contract and asked me about the book. I asked him “Do you like the genre?” and he said “I did when I was thirteen.”
EL: I got a lot of that. A woman in my department asked me if I was interested in this subject because I was otherwise insecure in my masculinity. [laughs] But probably the most interesting reaction was from older people. Fathers of my friends would ask me, “Are you talking about this movie? Or that movie?” Actually, it wasn’t limited to the older set, but people would ask me these things and you could tell these were movies that were personal favorites of theirs and they were very protective of them. Obviously, what I was going to talk about was going to be determined by how I defined the genre (action is a pretty broad category) and frankly, how much space I had to play with, which was based on what the publisher dictated. People would ask me, in almost a challenging way, like they were trying to challenge me to a fight, about the movies they thought should be in the book. “Why aren’t you talking about this? Why are you talking about that?”
Everyone knows what a western is. Everyone thinks they know what horror is, action has been a little more amorphous. So it was interesting to see how invested people were in “their” titles. Was I going to include them? Was I going to treat them right? Generally speaking the reaction was positive. People liked the fact that the treatment that had been given to westerns, film noir, and to science fiction was now being given to the action film.
BR: They deserve that validity. Eli Roth has argued several times, even on FOX news, that American horror films are usually a by-product of the “horrors” of the current administration. Films like Last House On The Left, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre are born out of the fear and frustrations of Vietnam. Films like Saw and Hostel being born out of the Iraq war, even the “lame” horror films of the ‘90s show the lack of those fears. Roth was basically saying that the genre of horror has never rightfully gotten its due in how it accurately reflects society’s fears. I think what you do here, very successfully, is show how the action genre reflects society.
EL: Thank you.
BR: If horror shows us what are fears are at a given period in history, then does Action show us the inverse of that?
EL: I think they probably do the same thing in the sense that horror shows us what our fears are, but also what our ideals are, even if those ideals are a little bit skewed. Horror is fundamentally about the disruption of the normal by the abnormal. So if the abnormal is what we’re afraid of, then the normal is what we idealize. The virginal girl who destroys Freddy or Jason is this cultural ideal. So if horror shows us our fears, but also what we idealize, then action does the same thing. We define ourselves based on who we are, but also based on who we are not. The villains of the action movie signify what it is we fear, and the hero signifies another kind of ideal. I think they, horror and action, use slightly different means to achieve similar ends.
BR: In your book you discuss a lot about how terrorism is shown in action, which is most certainly a fear we had when certain movies were being made. A fear of who we aren’t.
EL: Yeah, and these fears are layered. Go back to the ‘80s, the classical phase, and take something like The Delta Force. Yes, it’s a fear of terrorism, but beneath that it’s a fear of “the other.” Cobra, which is not ostensibly about terrorism, and where the villains are white, is the exact same thing though. It’s not just fear of terrorism, it’s fear of “the other.” Even though the villains are a bunch of caucasians running around.
BR: They’re still not part of the Rockwellian society that is idealized?
EL: Yeah, they are clearly shown to be abnormal, practically on a biological level. I think I wrote about this in the book, how “other” the villains in Cobra are. As far as the connection between the genre and culture and politics goes, I would say it works both ways. The movies reflect the culture, but I also believe that the culture reflects the movies, in the sense that these movies are our modern day mythology. They are based on mythological forms and structures that go back, in America, to a time when there wasn’t even an America, to the 1600s, and of course they have roots and antecedents even before that. So when you look at what’s happening in the culture and in politics, very often, it seems to be conforming, not to a Lethal Weapon per se, but to a lot of the mythology that a Lethal Weapon has inherited and is expressing. Think back to the Natalee Holloway case, the blond high school senior who disappeared in Aruba. Or just generally, think back to whenever there is a white girl in trouble…
BR: Like JonBenet Ramsey?
EL: Yeah. Whenever there is a white girl in distress, often times you will see this kind of counter-coverage about how we only talk about it when white girls are missing. We never talk about it when African-American or other minority children are in danger.
BR: The white girl being the idealized princess in our society.
EL: Right, and that goes back to that captivity narrative that is so embedded in the action film, and in the western before that, and back and back and back.
BR: Like in The Searchers and such.
EL: Exactly, exactly. So yes, I do think movies reflect our culture, I also think the culture reflects, not the movies themselves, but the mythologies on which the movies are founded.
BR: Ronald Reagan mentioned Rambo while addressing the nation, or the Star Wars missile defense program. Movies do have an effect.
BR: This is a simple question, a huge question, but I have to ask, what is your favorite film of all time?
EL: Oh, wow. I don’t believe you can ask a film person what their one favorite film is. I know it should be an easy question but I take that question so seriously that I would never ask it of myself or give a straightforward answer. There is such a huge body of great movies to choose from, and there are also so many different ways to parse the question. Is it, what do I think are the greatest, most magnificent, movies ever made? Or is it, what are my personal favorites based on memory, nostalgia, sentiments and all that?
BR: Based on your life experience, your film knowledge, and your own taste.
EL: An intersection, a sweet spot between all these different ways of construing the greatest films ever. This is how I’ll answer the question: the movie that made me fall in love with the movies was Superman.
BR: Would you consider that a film within the action genre?
EL: If it were made today it would be. In 1978 not exactly, but it is certainly in that boy’s-adventure mode for sure. All these genres exist on a family tree. This I think is the more interesting question: “what is the movie I have a crush on right now?” What is the movie that I get really fascinated by, interested in, and think about for a couple of weeks or months? It’s not necessarily the greatest movie or one of my favorite movies, but one I find fascinating at the moment. Not necessarily a current movie; it could be 50 years old. In cinema, like anything in life, we feel our crushes very acutely. I like to think of it like that.
BR: What is your current cinematic crush?
EL: Right now I don’t know if I have one; it kind of comes and goes. [laughs]
BR: As far as crushes go, when I first wrote you I mentioned I had just watched Brannigan, and you seemed to not be too enthusiastic toward the movie. I’ll admit, I didn’t hate it.
EL: Strange movie, I didn’t hate it. What I think is interesting about movies from that era is that it doesn’t look like the action movies that would come later. Brannigan really illustrates what I was talking about before. Brannigan, in the context of the action genre doesn’t really know what it is, because the genre hasn’t really been defined yet. So Brannigan is sort of borrowing and playing with elements from the past and from the present, but in retrospect it’s still in that very hazy place.
BR: While watching Brannigan I kind of fell into that rut of a mindset that you get, with the intense editing and action of new movies, sometimes you forget that old action films can be just as intense and you’re not prepared for it. When he explodes through that door at the beginning of the movie, kicks it down and barrels in, it threw me back, because I wasn’t expecting it. It felt like something I would see today.
EL: I’m heartened by the fact that craftsmanship from 35 years ago speaks to you that way.
BR: Oh it does, I can watch Predator and it will metaphorically “kick my butt,” more then say if I watched G. I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.
EL: Predator is an exquisitely crafted movie. What I often say about Predator is that I find the movie oddly touching. The reason for that is if you look at the elements that make it up, you have Schwarzenegger who is a star, you have commandos in keeping with the paramilitary vogue of the ‘80s, you have the monster…
BR: Even a man-on-a-mission scenario.
EL: Yeah, it seems like it should just be this kind of studio product, but this is why I find it so touching: it could have been just as successful while getting away with a much lower level of craftsmanship. I don’t think the film’s success ultimately hinged on its being as finely crafted as it was, but it was finely crafted because that’s what these filmmakers do. Does it matter that they aren’t making these intensely personal art-house movies that may or may not have been their aspirations? They are making a very straightforward corporate genre piece, that if made thirty or forty years earlier would have been a B-movie on the second half of a double-bill, and probably forgotten to film history. There are a lot of movies from the ‘80s that are still around with us, really thanks to nostalgia, and not because they represent any real achievement in terms of style, craftsmanship, or storytelling. Predator is extremely simple, the building blocks of it are extremely conventional, but it’s the craftsmanship that puts it over the top. The filmmakers didn’t have to do that, but they did.
BR: If anyone does that the best, McTiernan does.
EL: I think Die Hard is the greatest action movie ever made and I’ve been an admirer of McTiernan for a very long time.
BR: I’ll admit that I think Last Action Hero, directed by McTiernan, is one of the best satires of the “classical period,” as you put it, of the genre. I will get a lot of flack for that.
EL: [laughs] Last Action Hero is a perfect example of what I was talking about before. It’s in that third phase where it’s looking back and commenting on what came before. I think Last Action Hero is a really mixed bag. It doesn’t get enough credit for the good things about it. It’s a very flawed movie. However, there are positive things that get overlooked.
BR: The movie does have a cult following. A lot of fans have revisited the movie and enjoy it for what it was trying to do.
EL: I don’t even think it was entirely successful at what it was trying to do. Hudson Hawk is another movie that people completely wrote off with a terrible reputation and then years later, a small number of people revisited that movie apart from the way it was sold, apart from what the studios said the movie was and found a new affection for it. I don’t think that’s exactly the case with Last Action Hero. The movie does do what it’s trying to do; it just doesn’t do it consistently. So I think a lot of the criticisms of it are fair, I just wish at the same time people would give it credit for what it does nicely.
BR: Do you think that all of [Last Action Hero’s] failures and criticisms are, in a way, part of the satire too? People viewed the movie as an overblown, disastrous waste of time, much like how the average action movie is usually seen by most critics. It fits the stigma, its story is almost part of the satire.
EL: I don’t necessarily agree. It is a satire of this large and overblown genre, but whatever you’re satirizing you have to play by its rules. Last Action Hero is all over the place. It’s going in so many directions at the same time; it doesn’t stick to the rules of that which it is satirizing. I’ll give you an example. The animated cat in the police station. Where is that in “the action movie?”
BR: I agree, all the jokes have to do with the inhabitants of that police department are completely absurd and out of place.
EL: The animated cat doesn’t exist within the genre the movie is ostensibly making fun of. If you were to forget everything you know about Last Action Hero, forget the marketing, the hype, the reputation, just go in cold, you would have a hard time placing exactly what the idea of the movie is. It’s making fun of Hollywood and making fun of the genre all at the same time. What I think is a pity is that they didn’t make the movie they originally intended to make, which was a much darker satire simply of the genre. The original title of the movie was Extremely Violent. I haven’t read the draft, but I understand it was darker, more violent, and an even more brooding satire of the genre. I would be surprised if you found the animated cat in it.
BR: Or the T-1000 cameo, the Sharon Stone cameo, that’s not parodying the Jack Slater movie, that’s parodying the business, they should have stuck to the world of the film within a film, Jack Slater 4, as if it really existed.
EL: Yeah, you have the E.T. joke, you have a lot of references to “movies” that dilutes the power of the references to the action genre itself.
End part 1.
Stay tuned for part 2, in which Mr. Lichtenfeld and I discuss ticket prices, Air Force One, Michael Bay’s anti-intellectualism, the silly side of Rambo, his future literary projects, plus more!
Thanks for reading.
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