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The Materiality of Die Hard

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Last night I had the privilege of watching Die Hard on the big screen at the Filmopolis Christmas Party. A great night, with an even greater film. Die Hard is one of those films that you can watch repeatedly, and rarely strays from perfection. Despite containing now tired Hollywood clichés, it has aged remarkably well, and is now considered the quintessential Christmas film (on which I noticed last night the falling paper at the end of the film beautifully analogous to snowfall; hence the ‘Let it Snow’ song at the end). In watching the film, particularly the “TV Dinner” bit, I was reminded of a 2010 blog post by Geoff Manaugh (on the brilliant bldgblog) about the relational architecture of the film. The post itself spoke to many of themes I explored when I was working on the geographies of parkour, and is still a wonderful take on the how the film Die Hard espouses the malleability of how we use architecture. But 5 years on from that post, and having now seen the film countless times since, there are many other ways in which the film can be utilised to explore architectural and material geographies (yes, there will be spoliers).

The Nakatomi building (the real life location which I visited myself, albeit too briefly) is ‘infested’ by both John McClane and Hans’ thieves. In the film, the building itself is still under construction, so the beta state of the architecture is amended and related to by the human actors that scurry around attempting to evade capture, plant explosives or break into vaults. Smashing through walls, hiding under tables as shields, using office chairs and computers as explosives, the human agents of the film utilise the blurred edges of the architecture as a means to achieve their end goal. But right from the start of the film, it posits materiality as the main protagonist. John has a conversation with his fellow passenger as tdownloadheir plane touches down in LAX about how best to cure post-flight anxiety. The unnamed passenger suggests ‘making fists with your toes’, barefoot on carpet. Something John does when he eventually makes it to Nakatomi. To his pleasant surprise, it works. Indeed, the very fact that he is barefoot is part of the suspense of the film. In one of the most infamous scenes (one that is visceral in its simple, direct reference to pain), Hans, knowing John is barefoot, instructs his henchman Karl to ‘shoot, the glass’! The floor becomes a carpet of scattered shards of jagged glass; and the rapid-fire camera shots of John’s bare feet, his pained expression, the exit door and the field of broken glass between them, is a masterful piece of cinematic directorship. Yet the power of the scene also stems from the fact that John himself has previously quipped to the stuffy LAPD chief “who gives a shit about glass?”. Oh, the irony John! The connection between the bare flesh of his feet on the carpet immediates the healing power of ‘simple’ materiality, yet later on in the film, becomes a harmful protagonist.

article-2170612-0050A8A600000258-813_634x886But more than his lack of shoes, the steady discolouration of John’s vest from bright white to muddy brown as the film progresses is another marker of the importance of materiality, particularly clothes. John’s vest becomes a visual barometer of his increasing despair; the dirtier it gets, the more desperate his situation becomes. It is no coincidence that he finally removes his vest in the scene in which he instructs Al on what to say to his wife upon his death. While picking glass out his feet, John tells Al to say to wife “I’m sorry”, then using his shirt to bandage his lacerated soles. The intermingling of human and material agency was striking. Clothes are also used to extenuate particular character traits. Hans comments on Takagi’s tailored suit (which he subsequently ‘ruins’) to emphasise his faux-social stature as a ‘classy terrorist’. Also, John comically uses the sweatshirt of a dead henchmen to tell the criminals that ‘now he has a machine gun’, giving us a glimpse of just how cocky he can be in the face of such immense danger and peril. Also the Rolex watch that Holly has been given as a bonus becomes an agent of suspense in the final scene as Hans grabs it to stop himself from plunging to his death. It is only in removing the watch that Hans falls, and John and Holly are finally safe. What that symbolically says about the social utility of financialised incentives and the ultimate terminal futility of work-based bonuses’ I don’t know…

All in all, Die Hard is a film that continues to speak to the changing geographies of architecture and materiality. I have been engaged recently in the agency of objects as part of a wider subversive process; and with the philosophies of Ahmed, Badiou, Heidegger and others swirling around the synapses of my cranial neurology, the representational geographies of material agency in Die Hard were glaringly obvious. Die Hard is a film that continues to reveal new narratives and themes to explore, despite being nearly three decades old. Yes, it’s the best Christmas film of all time, but it’s so much more.

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Author: Oli

Human Geographer at Royal Holloway, University of London

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