It’s a small moment, and perhaps of significance only to me. It occurs near the beginning of a car chase sequence, as McClane and Zeus race against time through Central Park. The camera is tracking along side the car, keeping up with its high speed. Then the camera lingers, and as the car speeds out of frame, the camera does an odd, slightly upwards pan that simultaneously turns into a zoom of sorts, traveling across the field of vision to another car, this one racing along side the park on the street. It’s a brief shot, with an abrupt movement that McTiernan cuts away from quickly, getting on to other business. But there is something in that moment, some strange truth… it has always struck me, even on a first viewing over a decade ago, and continues to confound me after countless viewings. It’s not exactly obtrusive, and it’s over too quickly to be disruptive, either narratively or aesthetically. I think, in retrospect, that the moment is the first time I became aware of what a director (that is, a good one) actually does. Let’s examine it in the context of the film proper:
1. McTiernan has a clean, crisp aesthetic sense, with a keen eye for precise spatial choreography. It’s one of several things that link him with Hawks. Once McTiernan cuts to the next shot, we are completely aware of what we are looking at, as well as this second car’s proximity to the first.
2. Paradoxically, this one shot, however, is the exact opposite of ‘clean’; as the telephoto lens zooms in, the film becomes blurred and grainy (the movement is far too quick, and far too brief, for traditional focus pulling).
3. Consider the number of options at hand for handling this kind of chase/spatial configuration: one could pan to the front of the first car windshield, then pan left, then cut to the second car - the continuous panning motion would link the spaces together; or, eschewing any whiplash camera movements, one could build a camera mount that would travel at some distance in front of both cars, with panning movements to the left or right focusing our attention on a specific vehicle at a specific time (the Frankenheimer trick); or, the ‘modern’ way of linking space, involving extreme close ups of faces, with fragmented bits of cars-in-motion, perhaps with one establishing wide-angle helicopter shot (Tony Scott can pull this off, while Michael Bay and his ilk cannot).
4. We might consider the possibility that this particular camera movement was, in fact, some kind of second unit mistake.
I like this fourth option the best, although there is, of course, no way to know with any certainty. If it is in fact the case, one must wonder why McTiernan would choose to leave it in. There is a violence to the moment quite unlike anything else in the film, a moment where the camera literally looses control. This is, to my mind, a beautiful visual correlation to the nature of the scene at hand, as McClane and Zeus are, themselves, constantly teetering on the edge of control. Their situation is tenuous, and the camera itself follows suite. We are also allowed one, fleeting glimpse of abstraction. The creation and inclusion on this abstraction is, almost literally, the guiding hand of the director.