Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Irresistible Lightness of Inception.

I approached Inception with spectacularly mixed feelings. To say that I was a never a big Chris Nolan fan would probably be putting it mildly. In fairness, I had no particularly strong emotions in either direction regarding his early pictures; it was the Batman movies, and particularly the fanatical and (in my ever humble opinion) wrong-headed canonisation of The Dark Knight, that really soured me against the work of this undeniably ambitious and successful director.

Then on the other hand, I was pretty impressed with the promotional material for Inception. Those great ominous bass blasts in the trailers really imparted a sense of excitement and occasion, and the lustrous sheen of the images suggested that the Nolan/Wally Pfister partnership had finally transcended the merely polished level of previous efforts. Thematically, Inception seemed more down my street: I've been a big fan of Philip K. Dick/Robert Anton Wilson rug-pullers for years.

So, despite my misgivings, I was getting excited, and tentatively hopeful, for Inception. A sense of occasion and excitement is something that has been distinctly lacking in 2010, in terms of mainstream Hollywood and American auteurist pictures. Nolan's latest, regardless of how it might pan out in the end, provided this year with the much needed frisson of a must-see ticket, a movie you had to see opening weekend on the biggest screen in town, that you might love or hate, that you knew you would be talking about one way or the other. So I was happy to be caught in the buzz of a must-see picture: buying your ticket in advance, slavishly reading the reviews as they accumulate online, even though you know from experience that a thousand slavering raves could still translate into a movie you hate like cancer. I was enjoying the sensation of not knowing what to expect: I might walk out shaking my fist in an irrelevant fit of curmudgeon rage, or eyeing the world with the glazed and giddy eyes of a new convert.

As it turned out, neither of these alternatives came to pass; but I was happily surprised that my reaction to Inception was much more in the latter category than the former. To begin this review, I'd like to note certain things about the film that struck me as being in stark contrast both to my own expectations of Inception, and to what a great majority of critics are saying about the film.

1.) It isn't particularly difficult to understand. The most virulent meme surrounding Inception is that it requires some kind of Mensa super-brain to begin to get a handle on the plot. I can't buy into this at all. This movie literally works overtime to be user-friendly - it patiently and explicitly lays out all the rules of the game, all the information you need, in the first half. Fair enough, a couple of little details require a greater degree of alertness than others, but there is no duplicity, no deliberate obscuration of any kind. Nolan knows he is working with some elaborate narrative conceits, and really couldn't have been more obliging in trying to make it a smooth ride for audiences. I think he has been entirely successful in this - I saw Inception first with a really non-cineaste/hipster crowd, and didn't get any impression of confusion after the screening. This meme seems to be entirely in the mind of critics who have either spent too long trying to second guess the intelligence of mass audiences, or have themselves succumbed to the depleted attention span they are constantly ascribing to the movie-going public.

2.) It isn't a twisty, tricksy film. When synopses of Inception first began to leak out, it was immediately apparent that this was a movie whose heart was firmly in the nineties - that strange decade of The Maxtrix, The Truman Show, Groundhog Day, and Vanilla Sky, when suddenly speculation about the illusionary nature of reality became as routine in the omniplex as car cases and rom-coms. It wasn't all good in the nineties, though. This was also a decade in which a peculiar mania developed for narrative tricks and gimmicks - what I like to call the Dark M. Night Shyamalan of the Soul. Considering its reality-bending premise, the big fear with Inception was that it would fall into this category - that it would hinge on some cheap, contrived, manipulative twist. Much to his credit, Nolan has completely eschewed that approach with Inception. Despite a premise with ample potential for trickery, and a degree of ambiguity which I will discuss later, this movie has a strikingly straight-up narrative. There are no big "Aha, it was really this all along" moments; the idea that Cobb may be in limbo from the get-go is an unresolved suggestion that is present from the very beginning, and is at no point hammered down as a hokey last act reveal. I'm not even sure if there is a twist per se in this movie. You're given all the clues and all the elements of Cobb's back story with Mal; whatever revelations follow are entirely logical and by no means streamlined for maximum surprise. Refreshingly, Inception's story-telling model is classical through and through; it has added a few extra floors to the bank, but the overall structure is still recognisably that of The Asphalt Jungle.

3.) It doesn't take itself very seriously. At all. This was the biggest surprise for me, and is actually the quality that I think most endeared me to the movie. Inception is a blockbuster through and through - a razzle dazzle, experience it in the theatre, race against the clock thriller that has no qualms whatever about what it's primary function is - to entertain. Yes, it certainly aspires to be a much sleeker, hipper, smarter variety of tent-pole that we are routinely saddled with, but it has no overarching ambitions to bludgeon you with philosophical insight or emotional catharsis. It undoubtedly has plenty of smart ideas underpinning the action, but remains at it's core a heist caper, a fun heart-stopper of intricate planning, unexpected complication, and inventively extended, multiple simultaneous cliffhangers. Movies like Avatar and Inception reflect a positive trend toward credible populist directors working on original properties, and both have revived a long dead art-form - the ability to show every penny on the screen, without being crass, vulgar, or dumb.

This is a point that is worth dwelling on a little, because I think that some of Inception's more ardent and vocal champions have essentially done the movie a disservice, by placing it within a context that falls way outside it's own scope and and set of goals. During the first wave of critical euphoria that greeted Inception, which was derived largely from from the web-based, geeky film community, Nolan was compared to Stanley Kubrick and David Lean, and the film itself likened to Last Year in Marienbad, 8 1/2, and Mulholland Drive.

This had the effect of saddling the picture with responsibilities and ambitions it had never claimed for itself. Detractors argued that Inception has virtually nothing valuable to say about the nature of dreams, or the dichotomy between dreams and reality. All of which would have been valid criticism, if this was actually what the movie was setting out to do. While it is certainly true that Inception deals to a certain limited extent with creativity and the film-making process, I think that Nolan's primary intention with this film was to have fun with ideas - not to lay out any kind of philosophical treatise or world-view. Inception utilizes dreams mainly to give two film narrative standards - the heist caper, and the noir motif of the protagonist staking out for a happy-ever-after ending on one last job - a new lick of paint, a 21st century freshness in the telling. (Again, I have to give kudos to Nolan this time around for maintaining a degree of classicism in his story-telling. Whereas Memento leaned very heavily on a chronological gimmick to make its story compelling, Inception simply adds extra layers and twists, and leaves the classic structure to stand on its own merits.)

Inception utilizes dreams to invent an extravagantly entertaining game to be enjoyed by both director and audience. It asks "How far can you take a premise?", and proceeds to build its multi-storey narrative as a Byzantine house of cards, or a particularly perilous game of Jenga, from the top down. It asks "How much second-guessing, how much narrative gamesmanship, can you generate by establishing a couple of ground rules or premises (dreams within dreams, implanted ideas)?" It does this largely, I suspect, for the old-fashioned hell of it. Inception's great virtue lies in its lightness of tone, its lack of pretension, and its unabashed desire to entertain. In stark contrast to the overwrought melodramatics of The Dark Knight, this movie has an exuberance, a playfulness, that is irresistible. David Thompson is a very fine writer of prose whose opinions on the moving image are as often infuriating as they are edifying. However, I think he has nailed the appeal of Inception bang to rights:

"So don’t be put off by the way millions are flocking to Inception—just study the ease with which these audiences are floating over the bits of plot they can’t follow, carried along by the witty good nature of the film. And that’s the crucial novelty".

"Christopher Nolan has tended to be a little gloomy in the past and that sometimes left him looking solemn. What really works in Inception—and means so much to the future of movies—is its grace, its ease, its happiness in being an entertainment and a game".

"As I go back to it, and we all will, I think this truth will emerge, that amid its stunning visions of Paris folding up like a clever box and cliffs crumbling like abandoned tenements, it has the panache of a comedy. Leonardo and his gang do a great job with their inane task, but it could have been Laurel and Hardy getting a piano up those steps."

The closing sequence of Inception is easily my favourite thing Nolan has ever shot. Its one of those seamless, graceful fusions of performance, movement, and music. The astonishment on DiCaprio's face echoes our own shocked realisation that this has been a simple old story all along. After all the labyrinthine twists, the layers and the abrupt transitions, you find yourself in one of the simplest, oldest stories of them all: somebody trying to get home. And my favourite thing, in the whole movie, is the moment where Saito, having been lost for a lifetime in a limbo of illusionary being, takes about a second to orient himself to the complete reversal of his reality and age, and immediately makes the call. Its just pure storytelling; an apotheosis of hokum; the beautiful friendship of Casablanca re-dusted for a very brave new world indeed.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Guilty Pleasure: Oliver Stone's The Doors part 2

Oliver Stone cannot really be said to belong in the first rank of great contemporary American film-makers. Although he has continued to pursue a fascinatingly adversarial politics through the medium of documentaries, his directorial career has arguably been hugging the ropes since Alexander. There is no doubt that the courage exhibited on September 11 deserved a uncomplicated cinematic eulogy; yet it seemed somehow deeply disappointing that Stone should be the one to direct it. It was more like Spielberg or Ron Howard territory, and hardly seemed apt for a once energetic maverick who had always railed against the mainstream narrative. W. only compounded the sense of a director who had lost his edge: a film of potentially raw relevance that vanished in the brisk smoke of its own ephemera. His last completed project, a belated sequel to the wonderful eighties mascot Wall Street, looks from this vantage far more like a work of funding convenience than passion.

Even at his peak, Stone never quite made the first rank. In the late eighties and throughout the nineties, his work had a frenetic pace, a vividness, that could produce something like the energy and fluidity of Scorsese at his best. (Both men were at different stages of their careers chronic cocaine addicts; it is likely that this drug's particular effects on the nervous system contributed something to the raw, sweaty, jittery intensity that characterizes both film-makers at their most vigorous.) Writing on Natural Born Killers in the New York Times, Janet Maslin nailed the director's signature style: "Mr. Stone's vision is impassioned, alarming, visually inventive, characteristically overpowering." Perhaps overpowering is the operative word. Even at his best, Stone's energy lacked the vital degree of focus and concentration to make him one of America's really great directors. JFK is in many respects an astonishing performance; but in the final analysis there is too much energy, too much persuasion, too much passion in the picture. It overwhelms both its subject and its viewer.

Yet, for all this, Stone was undoubtedly a vital, fascinating presence in American movies, and he had set for his cinema a grandly ambitious goal: to develop, from picture to picture, a sustained, deeply personal exploration of America's recent history. To this end, he dissected the Vietnam conflict in a trilogy ( Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, and Heaven and Earth), presented the Kennedy assassination as a richly mythologised fall from grace in JFK, charted the beginnings of the conservative counter-revolution in Nixon, and explored that movement's apotheosis from a lateral perspective in the Reaganomic morality tale Wall Street. 1991's The Doors slots neatly into this tapestry of modern American history. It explores a facet of the sixties youth culture that was fortunate enough to avoid the trauma of Vietnam, but whose imagination was nevertheless distinctly coloured by the first properly interactive, mediated war; a facet of the youth culture whose explosive politics were to a large degree predicated on a brief, foolhardy rejection of the whole political reality and paradigm as it then stood. Stone's impressionistic rumination on the fast life and times of Jim Morrison unabashedly celebrates the hedonistic aspects of the sixties social revolution: his mythologised singer/outlaw undergoes a Dionysian adventure of self-discovery (and self-immolation) which is predicated on the constant transgression of boundaries and limits, and is most certainly not built for longevity. Neither glossing over or explicitly condemning the ravages of excess, The Doors is content to get high off the rough, exhilarating flames as Morrison's ship rises in the swell and goes just as swiftly to ground.

Stone's intention is never to explore what made Morrison tick as a person, or to look too deeply at the more prosaic realities lying behind the music, the iconography, and the mythic excesses. The Doors is not merely about printing the legend, but basking in it. After a beautifully lit preface and invocation set during the recording of An American Prayer, the movie begins with the aftermath of the fabled Indian accident in the New Mexican desert in 1949. And Stone plays it as fable - it is depicted as Morrison, and not the rest of his family, publicly recalled the incident. Whether it really happened that way, or was he confabulating, or deliberately embellishing, is unimportant. For Stone, it plays as a super-hero's origin story, and from that moment on, Morrison is Superman - or, at any rate, the kind of cultural superman Stone wants him to be. There are no hurdles to be overcome, no growing pains, no formative experiences - the movie merely cuts directly to the mid-sixties, where Morrison is now a prototypical latter day beatnik, strolling down the highway to met his destiny with a book in hand, and a look of questing curiosity on his face. Riders on the Storm barely misses a beat.

Interestingly, this shocking elision of the whole of Morrison's upbringing is in many respects fairly congruent with how Morrison himself lived his life. As soon as he had established himself as the Lizard King with the Doors, he effectively cut off his ties with family, claiming at one point in the press that his parents were dead. Later in the movie, he claims that his birth must have "happened during one of my blackouts", but in reality, Morrison cultivated his mystique carefully by consigning most of his past into a similar oblivion. That Stone should collude with his subject in this kind of personal myth-making bothers a lot of viewers. They see the role of the biographer as one that should demystify, should look at the man behind the screen. But the element of wilful fantasy in The Doors was was what made the movie so appealing to me as a teenager, and to a large degree, it's why I still have a lot of affection for it, despite its many flaws. Rock stardom is built on fantasy - built on the fact that the star himself performs a fantasy, and his fans partake vicariously in the fantasy through the star. And if The Doors is little more than Kilmer playing out his Morrison fantasy - as a proxy both for Stone and the audience - then this nevertheless seems to me to be perfectly congruent with the subject matter. An integral part of how we construct both cinematic fantasies, and fantasies of media stars and icons in general, is through the elision of dead time, through the cutting away of extraneous material, and through a sense of an identity that is carefully constructed, and seems to emerge fully formed when the cameras start to flash. After seeing Morrison on Kerouac's open road, we cut once again to Venice Beach, where a still-mobile Morrison emerges, in Roger Ebert's words, like "a young god from the sea." His subsequent courtship of Pamela (a fairly convincing but out of her depth Meg Ryan) is a total fantasy, which seems to have no antecedent prior to Stone. It is nothing more or less than a reverie of how they might have met one another, inspired by the song Love Street that plays over the soundtrack.

The Doors concentrates essentially on three facets of Morrison's persona: on the singer as a narcissistic sex object and celebrity; as a morbid, mystical would-be poet, pursued by peripheral visions of dead Indians, and infatuated with the notion of his own death; and finally as a gargantuan booze hound, self-sabotaging clown, and all-around selfish prick. When the movie jells, it moves with seamless, propulsive momentum. At that point in his career, Stone was very interested in moving away from linear, classical styles of editing that take their cue from the script and the progression of the action or plot. (During post-production on JFK, Stone hired advertising editor Hank Corwin because his "chaotic mind" was "totally alien to the film form.") Like Scorsese, he was tremendously excited by the energy of popular music, by a type of film-making where the music, and the actual editing rhythms themselves, determine how the action progresses, how the movie moves from one scene to the next. The Doors encapsulates these ideas perfectly. Even outside of concert/recording scenes, there's scarcely a moment that isn't scored to song. At its best, the movie utilizes the adrenaline seduction/surrender of popular music to articulate a life cresting a wave of chaotic abandon. The concert scenes themselves are skilfully executed, mixing a strong sense of documentary verisimilitude with an added cinematic quality that captures the drama of each individual performance.

All that said, The Doors is far from perfect. Despite Stone's obvious affinity for LA and the sixties counter-culture, there are quite a few moments where the details don't quite ring true. The handling of period is quite variable. Meg Ryan's speech about discovering that everything is beautiful on her maiden LSD voyage is a case in point. Now people certainly did speak that way in the sixties, but it feels almost a little lazy and obvious - like a writer whose only experience of the decade was via a couple of viewings of Woodstock. Similarly, the band's composition of Light My Fire feels rushed and very phony: "F-sharp, A-minor, its Jazz!" Kyle MacLachlan enthuses artificially. The thundering obviousness rears its ugly head again in the Warhol scene, where we are told that "Andy says everybody is going to be famous for fifteen minutes", ONLY THE MOST OBVIOUS FACTOID IMAGINABLE about Warhol.

Now the Warhol scene itself opens up a whole kettle of worms. Overall, I quite like the scene - it captures brilliantly the feeling of being a feted rock star, floating around soaking up booze and attention, with the skewered world of fashion firmly at your feet. The camera work is great - you can almost taste the booze, and feel your head going. And I don't really mind that the ambience is a little more like a nineties club inspired by the Factory than the Factory itself. (The Warhol milieu is most effectively evoked in Mary Harron's wonderful low-budget gem I Shot Andy Warhol.) As perhaps an even bigger fan of the Velvet Underground than the Doors, my one major gripe with Stone's movie is its absolutely shameful treatment of Nico.

Nico was undoubtedly a hot looking woman, but she was as far from the kind of vapid eye-candy Stone conjures up as you could possibly imagine. She had a strong, formidable, intelligent presence that held its own with any of the male rock icons. She wasn't assembly-line, average model type-beautiful, she was striking, in a manner that could be as eerie and austere as her voice. That Stone reduces her to a particularly bimbotic groupie, clad wholly out of character in a short skirt and fishnet tights, is inexplicable and inexcusable.
(One last thing on the Warhol scene: has anyone else noticed that when Jim is about to go in to meet Warhol, he appears to met himself on the way out? Its a weird little detail; I can't find a reference to it anywhere else.)

Flaws aside, The Doors still has a lot going for it, and much of that comes down to a literally astonishing lead turn from Val Kilmer. The whole cast, for the most part, are excellent, but all the major characters have essentially the same role: the Doors themselves, like Meg Ryan's Pam, are played basically as dutiful boy-scouts who can't tame Morrison and can't quite cut loose of him either, and ultimately can't save him from himself. Among the smaller parts, I love Michael Madsen's surly turn as Jim's drinking buddy and trouble-making hanger-on Tom Baker, and Michael Wincott's appearance and three packs a day voice make his Paul Rothchild an utterly believable creature of the LA music scene. But it's Kilmer's picture through and through. Like Dustin Hoffman's performance as Lenny Bruce, the role required the imitation of a public figure both in his private life and as a stage-performer. Kilmer nails every detail: the alternation of his speech between soft, stoned whisper and gravelly, fire and brimstone baritone; the irresistible energy and narcissism of the "young lion" period gradually giving way to the lack of focus and occasional mean streak of the later years.

Having lost the run of itself somewhat in the middle, The Doors ends on a strong, surprisingly affecting note. Incongruous in the midst of a children's party, a bemused and contemplative Jim sees a vision of himself as a child. The loss of our own childhood and youth is something we often see externalised in the sad decline of our idols. The American male idol seems particularly prone to these tragic falls from grace and beauty: Brando and Presley, Michael Jackson, Mickey Rourke, and others spring to mind. Morrison's story echoes this rise and fall in fast-forward. Oliver Stone's mediation on his legacy has drawn much criticism for its mythologising approach, but a large part of the attraction of figures like Jim Morrison lies in the fact that their lives were partially mythical anyway, and their identities remain inextricably wedded to the iconic aura they have created around themselves. Ray Manzarek has been particularly critical of the film, but it is arguable that his vision of Morrison - as a sensitive poet destroyed by the rough beast of his own fame - is itself just an other myth of a different stripe. Val Kilmer's unruly, unfettered force of nature feels closer to the Greek inscription on Morrison's tomb - "according to his own daimon" or "true to his own spirit" - and that's why The Doors remains a great rock n' roll movie, a dream spun in the rich darkness of the Californian sun.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Guilty Pleasure: Oliver Stone's The Doors.

Part 1: drinking with number 3.

(This part is mostly backround stuff - I'll be discussing the film properly in the next post.)

The late sixties gave birth to and defined a new cultural archetype: the rock star. There had been rock and roll stars before that, and a hell of a lot of musicians who behaved like rock stars. But in the later part of the sixties, the concept solidified into a distinct look, a distinct lifestyle, and a new mystique and mythology of heroic, life-threatening self-indulgence. The rock star was an archetype woven out of a variety of historical precedents, including the legacies of the Byronic poet/rebel, the bohemian hipster cliques of the Jazz and Beatnik fifties, and the strange cults of the beautiful, youthful corpse that had flourished in Hollywood around figures such as James Dean and Rudolph Valentino. The possibility of premature death is crucial to the mythos of the rock star; there is an air about it that is similar to the Spanish bullfighter, if you replace fighting a bull with living on a day to day basis with an insatiable appetite for whiskey bottles, blow-jobs, and whatever narcotic happens to float its way within arms reach.

The rock star idea embodied a distinct look and attitude. It was a mixture of paradoxes: somewhere between an aristocrat and a thug lay the look that Keith Richards aptly labelled "elegantly wasted." Its sexuality was a paradoxical mixture of surly masculine bravado and androgynous high maintenance, a combination that would have gone, by the time of the hair metal bands of the eighties, into the stratosphere of high camp. Psychedelics imbued the rock star with aspirations towards a kind of mystical or mythic aura, but it was all subsumed into the idea of living perpetually on a precipice, into an adolescent fatalism that is well evoked by the chorus of the Blue Oyster Cult's seventies staple (Don't Fear) The Reaper. It was a very Californian, and more specifically a very Los Angeles phenomenon: a nightside mythology for a town whose wellsprings have always been fame and excess, and the liminal territories where sunny wish-fulfilments become tarnished nightmares.

If you fed all of these elements into a computer programme, or some kind of Platonic blender, designed to yield up the prototypical rock star, it would probably produce something like Jim Morrison. Morrison grew up as an itinerant military brat, moving with his family from base to base around New Mexico and Southern California. His father was Admiral George Stephen Morrison, who would later command the U.S. Naval forces during the controversial Gulf of Tonkin Incidents which lead to the Vietnam war, making father and son ideal candidates for a zeitgeist-defining Oedipal clash in the latter sixties. As a child, he allegedly witnessed the aftermath of a road accident near an Indian Reservation, an incident Morrison later embellished into a personal mythology of shamanic possession.

In 1965, Morrison washed up on Venice Beach, and quickly gathered about himself a much homelier looking, but virtuosic group of musicians who formed the Doors. Within a year, the band were playing at the legendary Sunset Strip rock club the Whiskey a Go Go. An early instance of Morrison's unpredictable stage theatrics got then fired, but ultimately immortalized in pop culture history. Peaking on an acid trip during their performance of The End, the singer improvised a succinct and mildly obscene summary of the plot of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex. Like fellow tragic youth icon James Dean before him, Morrison had drawn on his own fraught familial experience to articulate a universal generational conflict. And herein lay much of the potency of the Doors, circa America in 1967: at their best they almost unconsciously recast a ubiquitous sense of social upheaval and chaos into the dream logic of myth and apocalypse. According to Lester Bangs' critical but affectionate summary Jim Morrison: Bozo Dionysus a Decade Later: "In the end, perhaps all the moments like these are his real legacy to us, how he took all the dread and fear and even explosions into seeming freedom of the sixties, and made them first seem even more bizarre, dangerous, and apocalyptic than we already thought they were, then turned everything we were taking so seriously into a big joke midstream."

The Doors rapidly became one of the biggest rock groups in America, an unusual cross-over phenomenon that encapsulated both mainstream appeal and something of the darker, underground gravitas of groups like the Velvet Underground. Much of the mass appeal came down to Morrison himself, who had quickly fashioned a template, an image and a persona, that innumerable lead vocalists and poseurs would attempt to tap for generations to come. Physically, Morrison had a remarkably symmetrical, high check-boned visage, framed by a mane of studiously tousled dark hair; it gave him the look of a spoilt, fallen cherub that fitted his Rimbaud/Baudelaire pretensions to perfection. His baritone voice had authority rather than range, and derived its impact more from actorly charisma than musicality. In performance, he lacked most of the basic rudiments of conventional stage-craft, but developed instead an explosive sense of dynamics, a poised, mesmeric slouch before the mike which is now a staple shape in the arsenal of the front man. He was the first of the pioneering rock stars to intuit the true morbid undercurrents of the emerging rock mythos, having provided in The End, When the Music's Over, and Five to One an unintentional preface and commentary on his own eventual demise and canonisation.

The demise, of course, was as swift as the apotheosis. Lester Bangs opined that the band had said everything they had to say on the first record, and were essentially floundering thereafter. This is certainly an overstatement, but once the Doors had fully mined their initial burst of creativity on The Doors and Strange Days, they never again exhibited quite the same degree of purpose and energy. Hunter S. Thompson's "wave speech" from Fear and Loathing eloquently evokes the brilliance and brevity of the sixties counter-culture explosion:

"And that, I think, was the handle - that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn't need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting - on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum - we were riding on the crest of a high and beautiful wave...."

"So now, five years later, you can go out on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark - that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back...."

After '68, the wave for Morrison was palpably in recession. His drinking had by then thoroughly crossed the crucial line separating youthful, romantic abandon and pure, crippling alcoholism. The on-stage theatrics had descended into a boozy, shambolic ghost of their former selves, and the Doors' latter gigs (and their aftermath in the law courts) played out like a farcical redux of the Square Community's long war of attrition against Lenny Bruce earlier in the Sixties. By the end of the decade, it was clear that not everybody was going to make it out at the other end of the first great Renaissance of the rock star. On September 18, 1970, Jimi Hendrix was found dead in a flat in Notting Hill, London; he was followed 16 days later by Janis Joplin. Morrison took to teasing friends that they "were drinking with Number 3." He gained weight, and grew a thick Manson-like beard. The Doors had recorded LA Woman, their last record with Morrison, in large part a bluesy, battle-weary hymn to the City of Lights, when Jim fled with his long-suffering girlfriend Pam to Paris in March 1971, never to return. His Number 3 joke had been uncannily prescient, as his death in Paris rounded off the mystical 27 Club of sixties rock icons who had all crashed along the road of excess at age 27.

After that came endless revivals, and eventually a burgeoning Morrison cult which seems to afflict idealistic young adolescents with a particular intensity. (In 1981, Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugarman published the first Morrison bio No One Here Gets Out Alive, a work of unabashed idolatry that effectively became the gospel of the cult. For many youngsters, No One Here Gets Out Alive became what On the Road had been to Jim himself - a book that was to be absorbed and imitated, a talismanic field-guide on how life itself should be.) The fact that the Morrison mythos doesn't really survive too much sustained adult scrutiny is, to my mind, hardly the point. For a lot of young kids, including myself when I was growing up, Morrison and the Doors operate as a cultural gateway drug par excellence, a significant stepping stone to harder, more substantial substances. The Doors crystallise an incipient tendency in young people towards bohemian, or poetic, or philosophical pursuits, and provide in Jim an icon, an indelible image, to hinge these aspirations and fantasies on.

This kind of iconography, of self-mythologising through the channels of contemporary media, is frequently misunderstood as something shallow or insignificant. In point of fact it remains a very powerful and fascinating cultural currency, a McLuhanesque fusion of medium and message. Personal iconography is an important facet of almost every art-form, but in the realms of movie stardom and popular music, it is virtually the lifeblood. The movie star and the rock star are both entities for whom physicality and personal magnetism are as important a constituent as technical accomplishment. Bob Dylan once said that when he first saw Elvis Presley, he knew that he would never work for anybody, would never have a boss. The reaction was visual - as much as Presley's talent was inspiring, there was also the crucial fact of how he looked, how he carried himself, and how you felt when you saw him. Iconic images have a peculiar power to influence and crystallize our own sense of self, a point expressed eloquently in Patti Smith's recollection of seeing Edie Sedgwick for the first time: "The first time I saw Edie was in Vogue Magazine in 1965. You have to understand where I come from. Living in south Jersey you get connected with the pulse beat of what's going on through magazines.....It was all image.....She was like a thin man in black leotards, white hair and boat-necked sweater. She was such a strong image that I thought, "That's it." It represented everything to me, radiating intelligence, speed, being connected with the moment."

Oliver Stone's 1991 movie The Doors has drawn extensive criticism, both from critics and the surviving Doors, for its larger-than-life, mythologising approach to the Morrison story. Ironically, for a film that is certainly leaden with flaws, this aspect may actually be its greatest strength - an awareness of the degree to which mythology, image-making, and narcissistic fantasies play such an integral rule in what rock music really is, and how it communicates its message to audiences. Similarly, Stone's fetishistic attraction to Morrison's self-destructive habits - few movies have depicted slugging straight from the bottle with such gusto - is a truthful reflection of the fact that rock heroism, like any outlaw mythos, is largely predicated on our ambivalent fascination with reckless excess and self-destruction.

Continued Shortly.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A Strange Kind of Miasma: The Keep (1983)

(I haven't done anything with this blog for ages, so I thought I'd try to get back into it with a quick look at the dizzying highs and lows of Michael Mann's notorious "lost" WW2 horror movie.)

Since all of Michael Mann's films have a strong quality of the subjective and impressionistic about them, it is interesting to speculate how effective his often dreamlike style would be in the context of more non-realist, or fantasy based, genres of film. Similarly, as a director almost unparalleled in the cultivation of atmosphere, and particularly in atmospherics of unease, tension, and looming violence, the horror movie seems like a particularly apt genre to capitalize on Mann's flair for for piling on dense, suffocating cinematic mood.

Of course, we already have a Mann fantasy/horror movie, but it comes in the rarely seen, frustrating, and tantalizingly incomplete form of 1983's The Keep. From the perspective of right now, Michael Mann working in the kind of supernatural/magic realist territory we tend to associate with Gulimare del Toro seems like a prodigious anomaly - a freakish blip in the career of a director who has otherwise proven exceptionally focused on pursuing specific modes, milieus, and ideas in his cinema. But back in the early 80's, with only one theatrical feature under his belt, Mann was a sufficiently unknown quantity that his career could have went off in any direction. The direction it did take at that point was leaden with promise - a young director who had really hit the ground running with an assured d├ębut, highly respected source material in the shape of F. Paul Wilson's novel, and a dream cast - and yet the result was a financial and critical disaster that almost totally scuppered Mann's career. The studio weren't happy from the get-go, and chopped the movie down, if legend is to be believed, to roughly half the length of Mann's original cut. Critics couldn't resist unleashing the punning potential in the title (Keep away from The Keep! and You can keep The Keep!) and author Wilson decried a work that was "visually intriguing, but otherwise utterly incomprehensible." Mann moved on to one of the most lucrative and zeitgeist-defining phases of his career in television, and The Keep itself seemed to disappear back into the strange, misty miasma from which it had emerged.

But not quite. As anybody who has spent an inordinate amount of time watching horror movies of variable quality will tell you, ancient evils are never wholly vanquished. There is always some tremor of vitality, some faint possibility of a resurrection, left in the monster when the credits roll. Though it has yet to be graced with a proper DVD release, The Keep has acquired a small but significant cult following, it's legacy transmitted through faded, relic-like VHS copies from back in the day, a preferred liserdisc edition that preserves the film's often stunning widescreen compositions, and innumerable bootleg and pirated versions.

Keep cultists fall into different categories. The movie has a strongly nostalgic aura for a lot of viewers who first imbibed the Keep as youngsters in the eighties. Horror movies were a big mainstay for children of the remarkably less media-savvy VHS era; the horror icons who adorned the video covers, including Freddy, Jason, Pinhead, and god knows how many others, were to a large extent a far more recognisable brand and talking point than actual flesh and blood actors. In some respects, as a creature both stereotypical and atypical of its time, The Keep taps this nostalgic vein brilliantly. It reminds you of a time when the audience's limited awareness of the movie/critical industry, coupled with the vagaries of video distribution, made renting movies from the video store a very unpredictable experience, a little like the grindhouse theatres eulogised by Tarantino and Rodriquez. The horror section indiscriminately mixed up anything from the big Wes Craven Hollywood franchises, to surreal, mind-bending European fare like Argento's Phenomena and Jodorowsky's Santa Sangre, to, incomprehensible and operatic supernatural horror set during the Second World War, and scored to retro-futuristic perfection by Tangerine Dream. The Keep often feels like a hypnagogic fever dream of VHS era signifiers, awash as it is with inchoate memories of offbeat horror movies, the stylistic excesses of music videos, and more lasers than a Jedi street riot.

Newcomers to the movie fall into three categories. Some dismiss it outright as an embarrassing train-wreak, while others regard it as an undervalued masterwork whose major flaws are most likely a product of aggressive studio mauling. Finally, the third group maintain a little of both perspectives, and enjoy The Keep as a mammoth cult oddity, a cultural artefact of almost otherworldly strangeness. Viewed by any standard cinematic criteria, The Keep is an endlessly intriguing mess, a film that veers unevenly between peak moments of visual and atmospheric brilliance, and troughs of overwrought, campy folly. It has ambition to burn: on a thematic level, it seeks to turn the standard horror dynamics to serve an exploration of weighty issues and more distinctly metaphysical terrors. The horror locked in the Keep (spoiler alert, for what its worth) is the horror that resides submerged in all men's souls, the latent will to power and capacity for evil than can usurp even the most seemingly noble aspirations.

On an aesthetic level, the film is bolder still. Interviewed at the time, Mann described his intentions for The Keep: "I'd just done a street movie, Thief. A very stylized movie, but nevertheless stylised realism. You can make it wet, you can make it dry, but you're still on a street. And I had a big need, a big desire, to do something almost similar to Gabriel Gabriel Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, where I could deal with something that was non-realistic and create the reality." Creating an internal dream logic and a heightened, deeply stylised dream reality was thus Mann's primary rationale for the Keep, and the result is a film as studiously artificial and aestheticized as the silent Expressionist horrors of Murnau and Karl Theodor Dreyer.

Much of the cult fascination that surrounds The Keep derives from the fact that it does genuinely achieve a unique look and tone. Constructed in a giant stele quarry in Wales, with interiors shot at Shepperton Studios, the film's visuals make bold use of striking, minimalist set designs, a desaturated palette of greys (for the Keep itself) and whites (for the village), all lit by vintage 'Twenties arc lamps that created, in Mann's words, "a kind of Albert Speer-Mussolini monumental quality." Mann threw out all conventional wisdom with regard to period pieces, and scored The Keep with Tangerine Dream at their most mesmeric and ambient, creating at the films heart a weird fusion of German Expressionism and 80's futurism. (The combination of period and modernist ambient music also adds to the compellingly odd vibe of Herzog's Aguirre.)

The results of all this are mixed, but quite often hit the mark stylistically. There is more evidence of Mann's budding genius as a visual stylist to be found in The Keep than in the overall vastly superior Thief. The opening is magnificent: a jaw-droppingly long plunge down mist shrouded mountains and trees drops the audience into the middle of a military convey. Mann intercuts the arrival of the German Wehrmacht troops in the village with remarkably sharp, detailed close-ups of Jurgen Prochnow's eye-line, and abstract, eerie compositions of rock faces and skylines. There are many such eye-opening directorial flourishes throughout the movie. When a greedy German soldier burrows into the interior wall of the Keep looking for silver, the camera frames him hunched over a precipice, and then pans slowly back, and back, until he is a tiny speck in the darkness, and the still moving camera gradually traces out a Lovecraftian abyss of staggering proportion. The shot is completely unexpected, and a brilliant flourish of audacity and imagination. Even the Keep's sex scene, cheesy though it may be, strikes me as having a weird beauty: with its icy electronic soundtrack and detached, precise compositions, Mann plays the scene less as a passionate romantic encounter, and more as weird, austere religious ritual.

Yet, as often as it works, The Keep falters and its excesses overwhelm. There are occasional lapses into amateurism, where dialogue is comically stilted and artificial. (The scene between the silver-grabbing soldiers before they are dispatched is a good example of this.) This kind of effect is well known to devotees of poorly dubbed Italian horror movies, but it seems somehow less forgiveable in an English language picture. The cast, overall, are quite variable. Jurgen Prochnow impresses me the most; his sympathetic, regretful Nazi remains believable throughout. Sir Ian McKellen, on the other hand, gives an uncharacteristically shrill and grating performance. Scott Glean is fine in a kind of extraterrestrial David Carradine way; Alberta Watson is likewise perfectly watchable, albeit not with a whole lot to do outside of deducting her truly extraordinary eyes from the special effects budget. Gabriel Byrne is memorable chiefly for his haircut.

This brings us to a big question: how much of the Keep's major flaws are a result of drastic studio cutting? Would an extended director's cut result in a markedly superior film? We can't tell, or course, but I suspect the answer to these questions could very well be in the affirmative. The Keep never adequately fleshes out either the village or the military occupation of the citadel as settings for the action. Similarly, the progression of the action itself feels truncated, unwieldy, and without a proper flow. The basic fact that Molasar is a kind of vampiric entity who is gradually acquiring wholeness through killing the soldiers is presented elliptically at best; I think I had to see the movie a couple of times before I even got that. (At least one Molasar attack seems to have been cut completely.) Most tellingly, Glaeken Trismegestus, who has top billing in the credits, and whom Mann described as the main focus of the film, is almost entirely chopped from the studio cut. His role is essentially reduced to that of otherworldly stud and deus ex machina.

With all this material missing, it's difficult to see how the film could have came together successfully, whatever its virtues or vices. A more fleshed out version of The Keep, with its melodramatic excesses placed in greater context, and spaced out by more of the slow-burn atmospherics that distinguish the studio cut, could be a different proposition entirely. Or not. As it stands, The Keep may be a frustratingly speculative experience, but it is an ideal cult film: a slightly hermetic, forgotten guilty pleasure with an utterly unique aesthetic, a sincerely ambitious film that falls somewhere between brilliance and high camp. With the current fascination for eighties electronica and surreal nostalgia prevalent among the hynagogic and hauntological music subcultures, The Keep's cult gravitas seems more likely to grow than diminish. I would love to see an extended cut, but is seems unlikely to materialize any time soon. Hell, even a decent DVD or Bluray transfer would be nice, but Mann himself has more or less washed his hands of the film, and Paramount seems to have no interest in releasing it in any format.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Dying Breaths: Some Thoughts on Public Enemies.

I ain't gonna marry, I ain't gonna settle down,
I ain't gonna marry, I ain't gonna settle down,
I'll be around until the police shot me down.
Jimmie Rodgers.

The electrifying final segment of Michael Mann's Public Enemies derives much of its charge from our awareness that we are watching John Dillinger's final hours. As in the final sequence of David Chase's The Sopranos, the steady air of impending catastrophe, of precarious mortality, makes a sequence of seemingly mundane events crackle with an electric tension. Our foreknowledge of the folk outlaw's impending doom gives his final acts a unique sense of focus, and the quality of a vivid epiphany. In many respects, however, this quality applies to the movie as a whole. Public Enemies, in essence, is an impressionistic record of the final months of John Dillinger, seen largely through his own eyes. With the stunning immediacy of its constantly roving cameras, the heightened sensitivity of its HD imagery to minute detail and the brilliance of natural light, its noteworthy lack of establishing shots, exposition, or backstory, Public Enemies plays out as a brisk, breathless epiphany of of life lived entirely in the present moment; life lived, as in Clark Gable's crucial dictum from Manhattan Melodrama, “all of a sudden.”
Yet, for all its propulsive motion and immediacy, Public Enemies is potentially Michael Mann's most subtle, sombre, and contemplative work. This film is haunted to its core by the bare fact of human mortality, in particular by what happens to the face and body in precisely the second that a person dies. Beginning with Walter Dietrich in the opening prison break, Public Enemies returns again and again to the final look the dying give to their living comrades, to something intense and wholly beyond verbalisation which passes through the eyes during the split second in which the person was there and then is gone forever. Dietrich (James Russo) has been fatally injured in the Crown Point getaway; Dillinger (Depp) holds his hand and he is dragged slowly along as the getaway car begins to pull away. Dietrich smiles with reckless, outlaw gusto, and looks very intensely into Dillinger's eyes. Then, in a transition which occurs almost too briskly to register, the eyes become glazed, and loll back lifelessly; Dillinger lets go, and Dietrich's body falls away into a plume of rising dust. (You need to see the movie more than once to realize how remarkably Russo plays this tiny scene.) Public Enemies follows a recent sequence of American popular art works, including the final episode of The Sopranos, No Country for Old Men, and to a lesser extent The Assassination of Jesse James, which have explored human mortality in stark, subtle, and highly original ways. Quoted in Jeffrey Wells' Hollywood Elsewhere, veteran critic F.X. Feeny argued astutely that “Mann is contemplating mortality in this movie, more directly and philosophically than ever before – and doing so in the Ernest Hemingway sense of action as philosophy.”

Public Enemies is a re-articulation, in bold twenty-first century technology and cinematic aesthetic, of archetypal American mythic materials. Its basic story follows a classic pattern: a charismatic, much-loved outlaw is finally brought low by a hired gun, by a company man who somehow better exemplifies the spirit of the times to come, where the folk outlaw embodies the receding, mythic past. This is the same deeply resonant pattern we observe in the stories of Billy the Kid and Jesse James: an outlaw who appears an almost supernatural force of nature is finally proven to be mortal, and his killer must live with the knowledge that though he has vanquished the legend, he will always be regarded as so much less than the legend. With this in mind, Public Enemies partakes of the same mythic intuition which informs all the great western elegies: that prior to the arrival of modernity and the corporatised, capitalist way of life, America was once a frontier where people could pursue an adventurous, individualistic path, and larger-than-life characters abounded.
The western elegy shows the slow, subtle encroachment of modernity onto this mythic frontier, and celebrates the dying breaths of the older, mythic order. In Public Enemies, Johnny Depp's Dillinger is a man who is palpably out of time. As the movie progresses, we begin to see that despite all his courage and indomitable character, he is nevertheless a figure completely at the mercy of larger historical forces, an awkward hindrance to an emerging order in both the spheres of crime and crime prevention. Dillinger is rendered an anachronism both by the development of more sophisticated, scientific methods of crime prevention via J. Edgar Hoover's emergent F.B.I., and the increasing organisation and corporatisation of crime. Public Enemies gives us a fascinating glimpse into a time when all the most basic staples of contemporary crime prevention were extraordinary novelties, and we witness the brilliant initial ingenuity of tracing the location of criminals via the sale of a jacket, and primitive wire-tapping that plays on vinyl records.
Working in tandem with this, the Chicago Outfit is becoming an increasingly sophisticated and corporate organisation; in one brilliantly succinct scene, Phil D'Andrea (John Oritz) shows Dillinger the future technological face of crime, in the form of backroom in which gambling scores are relayed to bookies before they are announced; all Dillinger sees is “a bunch of telephones.” Mann's conception of Dillinger can summarised in a couple of points. He is, as this scene brilliantly evokes, a figure out of time, but one who nevertheless constantly seeks to elude and escape time, by living so intensely in the present moment. He is a person with a singular relationship to his own myth. I think one of the things that fascinated Mann about the Dillinger story was the complex relationship between real and movie gangsters, the way both eagerly feed off one another, making the line between myth and reality increasingly blurred.
In the case of Depp's Dillinger, we must infer everything about his inner life via his physicality and facial expressions. Everything he does outwardly is to a large extent the performance of myth. He talks constantly in the cadence of movies; his wooing of Billie Frechette ( Marion Cotilliard) is filled with the stylised, empathic bravado of movie stars, ending as it does with What else you need to know' s and Now, whatta you think of that' s. (This is not to say that Dillinger's constant performance of his own myth is not to a large degree an expression of his inner character. The two are indelibly linked, and this is why the scene in the Biograph is so brilliant, and crucial to an understanding of the character.) Dillinger's passionate self-belief and absorption in his personal myth could easily render him a foolish, blustering figure, but the sheer conviction with which he plays out his role is somehow deeply impressive. This is a career highlight for Depp, and one of the most charismatic, complex, nuanced turns I've seen by any actor in ages. Depp plays Dillinger as a man with an absolute conviction of having a personal destiny, coupled with an awareness that this destiny is not amenable to a long life. Throughout the movie, in a variety of subtle ways, Depp expresses an acceptance of this destiny which is alternately ecstatic and mournful.

I think that the final act of Public Enemies is the greatest thing both Mann and Depp have ever done. In the police station and the movie theatre, Dillinger sees two alternative ways of envisioning his life. The wall of the police station records his life from a cold factual, historical perspective. As the deep, mournful blues of Blind Willie Johnson cut in and out of the soundtrack, Dillinger registers that all of the pictures with the exception of his own are stamped Deceased. He knows that he will be joining his friends, sooner rather than later. In the Biograph theatre, watching Manhattan Melodrama, Dillinger sees a record of his life expressed in the language that he has always lived it: the language of myth. It is almost impossible to convey the brilliance of Depp's acting in the close-up shots which show his reactions to the movie: the mixture of deep happiness and pain that accompanies his recognition of Billie Frechette in Myrna Loy; the sense when Clark Gable utters the line about living and dying all of a sudden that Dillinger is serenely satisfied with his life, that living out this myth without compromise has been good enough. (It is important to stress that these are just interpretations; the wonderful thing about the scene is that it is endlessly suggestive, and leaves everything to the audience. The way Mann samples specific scenes from the movie, and raises the volume on lines which are particularly poignant to Dillinger, cut right through me; I don't know anything else that expresses so brilliantly the way movies communicate directly to us, and the way their mythic representations intertwine with our lives.)
Public Enemies has received every kind of review under the sun. It has proved equally divisive with audiences, although I suspect a majority have been appalled by its digital aesthetic and bored by its austere, minimalist approach to character. It's not Heat in the thirties, nor is it anything like a return to the more direct form of story-telling that Mann practised in the nineties. If anything, its more like Ali and Miami Vice in the thirties. Like Ali, Public Enemies never presumes to explain its central character, but rather encourages the audience to experience the world of that character through his eyes. Like Miami Vice, Public Enemies utilises state of the art digital video in a confrontational manner, in order to break down the barrier between cinema and direct experience, and to further explore a cinematic aesthetic of pure immediacy. What Public Enemies is is a radical overhaul of how period movies are made; a subtle, haunting rumination on mortality and the relationship of life with art that really takes a couple of viewings to fully absorb; finally, a reckless, fascinating example of deeply personal, arthouse filmmaking undertaken at the level of blockbuster mega-budgeting. It may die a death in the box-office, but it's built to last. What else you need to know?

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Summer 2009: The Decepticons are Winning.

Michael Bay: Invading Poland in a Theatre Near You.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is doing two things at the moment: filling theatres like nobody's business, and garnering some of the most vehement, passionately antagonistic reviews in living memory. According to Roger Ebert, who has sharp claws when he gets them out, “if you want to save yourself the ticket price, go into the kitchen, cue up a male choir singing the music of hell, and get a kid to start banging pots and pans together. Then close your eyes and use your imagination”. (One of Ebert's most illustrious pans was dealt to Freddy Got Fingered: “This movie doesn't scrap the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn't the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn't even below the bottom of the barrel. This movie doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence with barrels.”) Peter Travers of Rolling Stone gave ROTF an unprecedented no stars: “Disguised as a human director, Bay is actually a destroyer of dreams. When Hasbro invented these toys, the intention was for kids to use their imaginations about what these bots would morph into. Bay crushes that imagination with his own crude interpretations that seem untouched by human hands and spirit. I know there are still 17 months to go, but I'm thinking Transformers 2 has a shot at the title Worst Movie of the Decade.”

This critical drubbing is all the more extraordinary in that it comes at time when the bulk of mainstream criticism has, if anything, largely acquiesced to a logic of lowered expectation from Hollywood. The current Bay-hunt cannot be qualified as a politically correct knee-jerk reaction, either; the first Transformers received, by Bay standards, fairly warm critical notices. The overwhelming impression out there is that, this time around, Bay crossed some inalienable line in the sand, a line which had already made considerable allowance for his brand of aesthetic bankruptcy and venal stupidity. ROTF has drawn fire not only for its monumental bone-headedness and narrative incompetence, but for what appears to be a fairly blatant blast of negative racial stereotyping, in the form of charmingly monikered ghetto-bots Skids and Mudflap. This controversy, labelled “Racistbot Gate” in certain quarters, is a tawdry tale in itself. What's interesting is that nobody involved in the film has actually denied that the characters are offensive; instead an undignified game of pass the buck ensued. Writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman pointed the finger vaguely in Bay's direction: “Its really hard for us to sit here and try to justify it. I think that would be foolish, and if someone wants to be offended by it, it's their right. We were very surprised when we saw it, too, and it was a choice that was made.” Meanwhile, the Baylord himself, with whom responsibility for the final product really should lie, made a cowardly and incoherent attempt to pass it off on the voice actor: “We're just putting more personality in. I don't know if its stereotypes – they are robots, by the way. These are the voice actors. This is kind of the direction they were taking the characters and we went with it.”

ROTF comes as the motherlode of a summer in which Hollywood has fallen deeper than ever before into a morass of geek-baiting franchises and hack directors. As all the major summer movies, with the exception of Star Trek, have registered massive fan/critical disappointment, the Dream Factory appears moribund, chasing dog tails of increasingly diminishing rewards. Everything is being resurrected, remade, rebooted; as soon a franchise is ailing, or has received the Schumacher kiss of death, the reboot is already in the works. (The logic seems to be to sooner throw away your own mother, than give up a pre-existing idea, or a recognisable brand, which has, at some point in the past, made money.) And ROTF seems like a test case, an experiment to gauge how low the bar can be set, to determine if the taste of mainstream audiences can be acclimatised to accept this absolute zero of vulgarity and inanity. As the box-office receipts and universal pans roll simultaneously in, the experiment seems to have yielded the natural next step after the critic-proof movie: an honest-to-goodness audience-proof movie. Bay's new movie seems like an open declaration of war to cinema lovers and idealists of every stripe. Look at what I can get away with, the Baylord seems to preen, God awful filmmaking, and twenty-first century minstelry!

Of course, summer block-busters are one of the less significant forces at play in the grand scheme of things. Nevertheless, they have a purpose and a value: they are barometers of mass cultural sensibility; they construct contemporary myths, and should, in an ideal world, inflame the imaginations of children and teenagers. With this in mind, its somehow deeply depressing to think that millions of youngsters this summer will unreflectively flock to ROTF's noxious brew of militaristic destruction-porn, misogynistic ogling, puerile toilet humour, and border-line racism. The Los Angeles Times reports that as of today, Transformers should have grossed about 190 million, making it the highest ever five day take for a movie opening on a Wednesday. The Decepticons are winning.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Heat Part 2: Emotion and Detachment.

The Opening.
One the main pleasures of repeated viewings of Heat is the discovery of a variety of smaller, unobtrusive moments throughout the movie which possess a significance or beauty which was not apparent in an initial viewing. The movie's opening thirty seconds are a good case in point. On the face of it, there's very little to write home about. Eliot Goldenthal's haunting, ambient score wafts in very quietly over the studio title. We see a static shot of an incoming train moving slowly through a smoggy landscape of smoke, neon, and steel. (This is, of course, the same rail system which would provide Tom Cruise with his metaphor for the disconnectedness of LA life in Collateral, and later the scene of his own demise.) Over a black background, the movie's cool, minimalist title card shimmers into view. We are then introduced to DeNiro's character Neil as he alights from the train, both in a long and close shot.

It doesn't seem like much at all, but in actuality this short passage, by a mixture of composition, design, and scoring, establishes the whole tone of the movie, which might be best described as a mood of precision and detachment, with a deep undercurrent of melancholy and longing playing at its lower frequencies. Instrumental in achieving this effect is Goldenthal's theme: it is a perfect aural expression of a subtle, but no less intense longing for emotional spontaneity and connection in a landscape which is cold, metallic, and geometrically precise.

The physical landscape in which Heat takes place is Los Angeles, which Mann and his cinematographer Dante Spinotti evoke with an otherworldly, almost sci-fi ambience recalling Blade Runner. According to Empire's Ian Nathan, “this is an urban milieu almost space-age in its abstract beauty, but emotionally desolate, a blank canvass against which the dispossessed act out their desperate dreams. Nothing anchors people – all the houses are stunningly angular, magnificent architectural vacuums free of personality.” Jean-Baptiste Therot provides a brilliant description of Mann's mise en scene in his essay The Aquarium Syndrome, which is worth quoting at length:
“Today, Mann is one of those rare filmmakers whose films succeed in delivering a vision of modern, urban America: those impersonal places, the freeways, suburbs, uninterrupted traffic, the America that Baudrillard calls magnificent and sidereal. This is a world of railway yards, neon signs that flicker night and day, a world that seems resigned to the omnipresence of glass and concrete. Mann renews from film to film, with a rare obstinacy, this cold, blue, geometric aesthetic, although it is sometimes broken up by an usual graininess, or lack of order that creeps into the system. Predominant here is the transformation of spaces into “no-places”: hospitals, hotel rooms, roadside cafes, vacant lots, airports, warehouses, empty apartments, are all subject to a sort of hyper-geometrization of the frame, inherited from the Don Siegel of The Killers (1964) and Dirty Harry (1972), and the formal experiments of Antonioni in Red Desert (1964) and Zabriskie Point (1970).”

Case Study House 22, Los Angeles, 1960, photograhed by Julius Shulman.

To Therot's astute allusions to Baudrillard and Antonioni, you could also add the cold modernist sheen of J.G. Ballard's dystopian novels. With Antonioni and Ballard, Mann shares a deep-rooted attraction/repulsion towards the reflective surfaces and straight lines of contemporary urban architecture; with Baudrillard, a fascination with the contradictory qualities of artificiality and hyperrealism. (Mann's repeated foregrounding of transitory places and channels of conveyance, such as hospitals, hotels, warehouses, etc, reaches a greater extreme in Miami Vice, and is echoed in Olivier Assaya's criminally underrated Boarding Gate (2007), a film I would recommend for enthusiasts of Mann's films.) Later in The Aquarium Syndrome, Therot asks What kind of people live in these places? The answer provided by Heat's intro is Neil McCauley, and again after repeated viewing you begin to realize how much of Neil's character is already sketched out with remarkable economy in the opening.

Alighting from the train, DeNiro's body language expresses the essentials of McCauley's character. We see a figure that is polished, precise, methodical, and interior; a perfectly austere master criminal in the mould of Jean Pierre Melville. (Later we learn that the extent of his spartan fastidiousness; his minimalist apartment is barely furnished.) In this regard, McCauley seems perfectly attuned to the steely, impersonal terrain in which he moves; however, his expression in close-up, accentuated by the soundtrack, suggests a degree of weariness and sorrow. McCauley later describes himself as “alone, but not lonely”, a description which seems, in the light of his courtship of Eady, only partially true. In the course of the movie, Hanna is forced to acknowledge that he cannot lead a meaningful life outside of his work. McCauley, on the other hand, has reached a point where persistent vigilance and personal vocation are no longer meaningful; like Jeff in Melville's Le Samouri, and Cruise's similar assassin in Collateral, he has the air of a weary ghost in the shell.

Before leaving the intro, it is worth considering briefly the title itself: heat. Heat refers most explicitly to law enforcement, to the perennial threat around the corner in McCauley's oft quoted credo. But the word also evokes passion, heightened emotion, and the complications of the emotional life; things which, in Mann's noir-tinted world, almost invariably prove as fatal as bullets. Much of Heat's time is given over to the difficulty of maintaining relationships, or, in McCauley's case, the difficulty of being without one. As Mann puts it, once McCauley encounters Eady, he is “out there with the rest of us, in the realm where emotions become complex and motivation isn't simple.” The empathy between McCauley and Hanna is in part derived from the fact that they have both avoided the messy complications of emotional commitment throughout their lives, McCauley by way of spartan discipline, and Hanna by bulldozing his way through three marriages. Between themselves, they occupy a purely masculine order which eschews emotional complexity and vulnerability, but is nevertheless a cold world, characterised by conflict, fatalism, and dead bodies.

Anna Dzenis has called Heat an “epic crime film about two tribes and three couples.” Throughout its duration, Heat explores both the similarities, and conflicting demands, between membership of tribal and familial units. McCauley, for example, shows an interest in tight, cohesive family units when talking to Eady, and exercises a patriarchal role within his crew, being particularly paternal towards Chris (Val Kilmer). Hanna, on the other hand, succeeds in saving his step-daughter from an attempted suicide attempt. It is characteristic of him, however, that his proficiency is in precisely this kind of life-threatening crisis situation, the kind he encounters in work, but not in the everyday domestic activities of fatherhood. His allegiance is tribal, and orientated towards hunting, and the rest, as Diane Verona observes, “is the mess you leave behind as you pass through.”

In so far as Mann conceived Heat as a drama rather than a genre piece, its most dramatically significant moments are those in which the characters make choices. Some of the choices made in Heat are long meditated over, and clearly signposted as significant moments; others are brisk, spur of the moment, and not immediately resonant in a first viewing. In the first category, you think immediately of Hanna's decision, effectively the end of his third marriage, to answer the call in the hospital, or the split second pause later on when McCauley looks from Eady to Hanna coming around the corner. (This is the most mythically heightened moment in Heat, when McCauley looks in stunned disbelief at what had been an abstract code become a reality in every detail.) McCauley's real undoing occurs earlier, however, with a different choice. Driving away from the heist scot-free, he is informed by Nate that Waingro is still alive. According to Mann, this is the point where the action moves from probability to determinism. McCauley has his dream within his grasp, but also the opportunity to settle everything neatly, to avenge his crew. The car lurches under a tunnel, and for a split second the whole screen is bathed in a bluish white incandescence. He turns back. (The lighting effect was apparently accidental, but edited brilliantly to capture the lightening speed with which McCauley seals his fate.)

It is also worth noting the choices of some of the secondary characters. The storyline involving driver Donald Breeden (Dennis Haysbert) has significantly less screen time than most of the other characters, but it is movingly evoked and acted. Breeden's relationship, along with McCauley's, is one of the few in the movie which isn't deteriorating, and you really feel for his attempts to build a modest, stable existence away from criminality. Later on, McCauley appears unexpectedly at the diner where he works, and offers him a quick escape from the petty frustrations and small, incremental victories of the “normal-type” life. Once again, a lightning fast decision is made, and a few hours later, Breeden is dead.

One of my very favourite of Heat's smaller, more intimate moments is the last scene between Chris (Val Kilmer) and Charlene (Ashley Judd). At this point, their relationship seems all but over, and Charlene has been put in a position where betraying Chris to the police is an almost unavoidable moral imperative. When the moment comes, however, she finds to her own surprise that she cannot betray whatever tie remains between them. She makes a very slight gesture with her hand to indicate the trap. Kilmer's initial expression of exhilarated happiness becomes clouded and dazed, and without fully seeming to register what has has happened, he becomes, like so many other Mann protagonists, a solitary figure disappearing forever into the far distance. The scene is wonderfully played; the ability of Charlene to communicate something so succinctly with a gesture, and of Chris to respond so quickly and instinctively, tells you everything you need to know about the world they inhabit. It is also the sweetest, most hopeful moment in Heat's otherwise leaden atmosphere of steadily encroaching doom. Heat is often interpreted as a story of men who eschew emotional commitment to women in favour of masculine camaraderie, and games of skill and prowess which ultimately prove fatal and destructive to all connected with them. However, Chris' assertion “For me, the sun rises and sets with her” is a counter-argument, a rejection, of McCauley's credo of non-attachment: “Do not have anything in your life that you are not prepared to walk away from in thirty seconds flat, if you feel the heat around the corner.” In the end, it seems justified since theirs is the only relationship with any potential “future” after the end of the movie. (Of course, whether they do have a future together or not is rendered academic by the strange magic of cinematic closure. I love the scene precisely because this wordless, ambiguous exchange is the end of their story.)

Heat is awash with death and a sense of pathos from the very start. It is as if the end is already enacted at the beginning, and the characters are like ghosts that walk through this dream world.”
Anna Dzenis.

One of the things I admire most about Heat, and about Mann's work in general, is its particular sensitivity to mood and tone; its ability to create, by a combination of scoring, mise en scene, dialogue and performance, a very specific filmic world or universe. Anna Dzenis comments on this quality with relation to Heat: “Heat is more than just a crime story. It is a dreamscape – a poetically rendered world.” This remains the most intriguing paradox about Mann's films – the obsession with realism, verisimilitude, and research, as against the sense, particularly in his crime films, that one is in, as Dzenis puts it, “a poetically rendered world.” This is particularly evident in Diane Verona's speech in Heat: “You don't live with me. You live among the remains of dead people. You sift through the detritus. You read the terrain. You search for signs of passing, for the scent of your prey, and then you hunt them down. That's the only thing you're really committed to. The rest is the mess you leave behind as you pass through.” There is little attempt to capture the cadence of actual speech here; rather, the effect is poetic, and almost akin a piece of musical score, in way it contributes to/articulates the tone and mood of the film.

As much as Heat draws from real events, and specific, concrete things which Mann encountered in research, the movie is also a carefully modulated tone poem, an exploration of the perennial male anxiety with regard to emotional commitment; a noir world in which the heat around the corner is always complex, difficult emotions, and the real danger is perhaps derived from the unavoidable necessity to open one's self up, to become vulnerable, to acquire something in life that you cannot abandon, no matter what the consequences. Thematically and tonally, Heat moves between opposing poles of emotion and detachment, as all of Mann's major characters seem caught between the alternate pull of heat (passion, connection, life-force) and coldness (sterility, conflict, detachment, the dead bodies that haunt Hanna's dreams).

This dichotomy cuts through the whole of Heat; it is evident in the movie's tendency to view landscape from a wide, abstract vantage, and human faces and bodies in extreme, intimate close-up; in Mann's attitude towards his characters, which is at once one of complete emotional engagement, and cerebral detachment. Heat's conclusion, heavily redolent in its action of the similar airport chase that concludes Peter Yates' s Bullitt, is no exception. McCauley and Hanna, both unable to attain the more rewarding existence offered by their domestic attachments, are finally drawn to their inevitable duel, to the testing of the principals each expressed earlier in the cafe scene. More than this, they are reabsorbed into the movie's steely, geometric terrain, McCauley back into the landscape from which he emerged at the beginning of the film. As foreshadowed in Diane Verona's speech, he is betrayed by a shadow cast by floodlights, a trace or a “sign of passing” rather than his own person. It is an overwhelmingly hollow victory for Hanna; for him, as for McCauley's crew, the “action is the juice”, the end an abstraction that facilitates the thrill of the chase. As J.A. Lindstrom points out in a fine essay Heat: Work and Genre, the ending of Heat leaves the quintessential Mann dichotomy between work and domesticity without any hope of resolution:
“The film's resolution offers us the grim notion that work requires abandoning those we care about; and then it will probably kill us. Choosing not to sacrifice home life will not, however, insulate a relationship from harm. Thus the accommodation to the status quo that the genre film normally offers to its audience is a bitter pill in Heat: work rules fatally, and proclaiming the importance of our personal lives will not rescue us from professional demands.”

If Heat refuses its audience a neat resolution to its thematic concerns, however, it attains near perfection in terms of aesthetic resolution. The final shot, echoing the first, is wide, equisitely composed shot of Hanna holding Vincent's hand, tempering the potential melodrama of the moment by viewing them from behind, in a pictorial, almost impersonal framing. The brilliant inclusion of Moby's God Moving Over the Face of the Waters feels like a final release of all the emotion that had been pent-up and submerged beneath Heat's polished and precise exterior; as an ending it is both melancholy and strangely exhilarating, such is its fine balance between emotive outpouring and abstract formal precision.