What cinematic nuances can get an audience of such acquired taste and connoisseurship as Americans buzzing? Christian Seiersen hazards five guesses.
“This is Sparta!”— 300
Half the audience may have believed Sparta to be the name of a new budget supermarket, but there’s no denying the Spartan King’s roar of defiance tingled spines, raised hairs, and, most importantly, kick started Gerard Butler’s Hollywood foray. Faced with the endless waves of the Persian army, Leonidas opens proceedings with a well-placed boot that sends the make-up laden messengers flying down a pit. An act that has spawned countless online imitations, including pop princess Britney Spears in the place of the messengers, it embodies the American love of a good ass whoopin’.
I am of course no authority to question Spartan architecture, but said pit seemed slightly out of place next to the refined and classical city of Sparta. However, in a land where a lifetime membership to LA fitness comes with the shield, ’s finer details are mere frivolities. The Spartans, for example, seem to have discarded the lengthy prose of their literary Greek counterparts, such as Homer, in favour of sharp one-liners that veer more towards a 70’s cop show. When faced with the Persian threat of, “Our arrows will blot out the sun”, one of the soldiers replies, “Then we will fight in the shade”. That cat’s got claws.
Conveniently-placed pits, slow-mo six packs and an enemy leader with the voice of a Decepticon Transformer, what more could the American audience want from a film?
Training Montage — Rocky IV
District 9 and the Apartheid, Avatar and American colonisation, both political undertones were achieved with a degree of subtlety by their respective films. However, rewind back 25 years, and suggestion is no longer required.
Having won scores of high-profile bouts, grunting boxer Rocky Balboa is recruited for his biggest one yet, the Cold War. His on-screen nemesis is the monstrous, crew-cut clad and generically-named Russian Ivan Drago. No implications there then. But wait, there’s the famous pre-fight training scene still to come, which is heralded in each of the five Rocky films with a blaring of inspirational trumpets. This time Rocky swaps the stairs of Philadelphia for the howling winds of rural Russia and is forced to train by carrying wood and performing pull-ups on the wooden rafters of a barn. Now and again the camera will cut to Ivan’s routine, hooked up on various leads, surrounded by scientists and, ooh what’s that, a cheeky injection of an un-named fluid? You cheating Russian devil!
Needless to say, the steroid-fuelled powerhouse that constitutes Drago is overcome by some good ol’ fashioned American grit. In doing so, Rocky goes on to earn the acclaim of the previously hostile Russian crowd and rounds off his propaganda performance with a tear-jerking speech on how similar the two sparring countries are. With such innovative and political use of the classic Rocky training montage, it is no wonder the film was the most financially successful sports film of all time.
Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield—Pulp Fiction
A match made in the twisted mind of Quentin Tarantino, rarely has a duo owned the American screen like Jackson and Travolta. This is Samuel L. at his pre-Snakes on the Plane finest, crazy as hell, but with a religious twist. Think carrying a ‘Bad Mother*****’ wallet and quoting the Bible. Beside him was Travolta, never too far from the dance floor or a line of cocaine, but retaining that charming naivety. A trait that led to an accidental head shot and earned him a symbolic death on the crapper.
Whether it’s the argument over cleaning pieces of brain from the back seat of a car or the severity of foot massages, you would do well to find a self-respecting American who doesn’t know at least one Vega-Winnfield quote. Their dialogue is a showpiece for the continuous banter that is exhibited in such a strong friendship and, coming from a team of mob lackeys, is sheer genius.
The subject matter is run of the mill, but the pair treat such trivial matters with the same gravity as a life and death situation. On the way to collect a debt, a situation where the presence of guns is a given, what matters are they turning over in their head? A “Royale with Cheese”, need I say more?
“I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.”—The Godfather
A prime advertisement for the detriments of a trilogy, The Godfather brought the Family onto the big screen. Led by Marlon Brando’s jaw-line, the dialogue is dynamite. A throaty accent, gesticulating hands and idiosyncratic phrases- such as ‘fingering’, create a whole new world and lend a romanticism to gangster life. In America, mob wars were a distinct reality—especially during the prohibition—and giving the audience an insight into this deadly game of chess is what the film was made for.
If you take Brando’s character, Don Corleone, his words are never direct. Everything he says has implications, like waking up to the sight of your severed horse’s head. The don is responsible, but his ties to the act involved the mere mumbling of a phrase. As a result, an aura is created around the character, who controls all but rarely get his fingers dirty. The puppeteer.
So we arrive at the godfather of phrases, the offer that can‘t be refused. Everything is again implied, and ‘offer’ promises benefits for both sides, but the context and delivery say otherwise. Their mantras may have been adopted by a new era of pseudo-gangsters, but the original family remains an elegant cut above the rest.
“Storming Dunkirk, Omaha Landing”—Saving Private Ryan
Some Americans will be quick to credit their country’s decisive intervention in WWII, and what better evidence than the sight of Tom Hanks leaping off a U-Boat into the bloody waters of the English channel. Spielberg earns his stripes as a man for the action sequences with his shuddering camera work, occasionally submerging underwater, and gritty set-pieces. There is no Rambo, tearing through enemy lines. This sequence terrifyingly approximates the realities of war and how life rested on a thread for every soldier—it didn’t matter who you were. One minute a radio operator was lying next to you, the next he was a corpse.
The scene used extras from the Irish reserve army, and, in some cases, real-life WWII amputees. It has received historical acclaim for its accuracy and is a welcome relief from the reality-defying offerings that line Hollywood screens. Bullets zipping through the water, searching for cover behind the beach defences and the sprint to the safety of the sandbank. If this intensity and individual heroism doesn’t get the adrenaline pumping, then there is no hope.
What I appreciated most, and large swathes of the American audience will too, is that the film does not hide behind anything. This is no pro-American spiel, this is the most realistic depiction of war. And, for people who found it hard, there’s always films with Schwarzenegger throwing grenades at Russians.
How Theatrical! is a series on the pleasures of a theatre that go beyond cinema itself.
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