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.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Heat (1995). Part 1: Both Sides of The Law.

While he was directing his debut Thief, and later producing Miami Vice and Crime Story for television, Michael Mann conducted on-going and in-depth research into the private and professional lives of law enforcement officers and criminals. As he put it himself: "I like to move through a subculture until I feel the colors and patterns and tones and rhythms of the lives of the people and place." Mann's hands on approach brought experienced operators from both sides of the law into the acting fold: Dennis Farina and John Santucci both had small parts in Thief, and larger roles in Crime Story. Farina had been a Chicago cop for eighteen years, and Santucci a skilled jewel thief. It was within this extended fraternization with the law's enforcers and truants that Mann discovered the genesis for Heat. Chuck Adamson, another veteran police officer, was an old friend of Mann whose experiences on the beat formed much of the template for Crime Story. During the sixties, Adamson had shared a coffee with a thief named McCauley; the pair enjoyed one another's company, despite an acute awareness that an encounter under different circumstances could prove fatal for one of the two men. Later on in '63, Adamson was called to the scene of an armed robbery, and shot McCauley six times.

This simple enough anecdote, an insight into the shades of grey that inevitably inhere into even the most adversarial relationships, seemed to haunt Mann, and gradually developed in his mind into what is for many people the quintessential Mann narrative: the story of two lonely, driven men who occupy opposing sides of the law, and who, despite extraordinary differences of character and temperament, recognise in one another both a mutual dependence and an essential similitude. Contrary to the interpretation of Heat frequently espoused by the critic David Thompson, the purpose of this dynamic was by no means to suggest an moral equivalence between the two characters, or even to suggest that they are particularly alike in most respects. Rather, as Mann said himself: "I heard that the detective had some kind of rapport with McCauley, and that was the kernel of the movie. It would be trite to say that they were the flip side of the same coin. McCauley and Hanna share a singularity of intelligence and drivennes, but everything else about their lives is different." Heat was thus about a rapport, an empathy, and a respect between two adversaries, predicated on a shared, perhaps emotionally debilitating commitment to their perspective vocations.

Again, as with Frank in Thief, we can read these characters in variety of ways. They share with Frank the same contradictory mixture of intense self-affirmation and self-abnegation and defeat. We can read them as expressions of the perennial American myth of rugged masculine individualism, transposed onto the complex, impersonal urban architecture of the postmodern world. We can see them as cops and robbers proxies for the experience of the artistic vocation, in a manner which explores the inherent alienation of artists and others who possess a particularly intense absorption in their work, and the close proximity of this absorption to forms of obsessive compulsion and autism. Mann has referred to McCauley as a "highly-organized sociopath", and Hanna as "extremely dysfunctional". Their relationship in Heat is a battle of prowess, a cat and mouse game, and, as Sergio Leone described Once Upon a Time in the West, a long and stately "dance of death."

Mann is known for working slowly and spending a long time in research, but of all his projects, Heat probably had the longest period of gestation. Some form of the script seems to have existed since 1986. In 1989, Mann shot a compressed version of the script in two weeks as the low budget television movie L.A. Takedown; it was a proposed pilot for an NBC series which never materialised. (I can never bring myself to watch L.A. Takedown, since it has been so thoroughly bettered by its later incarnation. The Al Pacino role is played by an actor called Scott Plank, who apparently gives a pretty decent performance, despite possessing the most unfortunate surname imaginable for a thespian.) The precise details of how the script evolved are unknown to me, but by the time it reached the big screen in 1995, Heat had blossomed into arguably Mann's most complex, ambitious, and nuanced script. Working within an elegantly precise three-act structure, Mann had branched out around his two central protagonists, weaving a complex tapestry of secondary characters and domestic sub-plots. While no-one would classify Mann alongside Chekhov as a delineator of psychology, or suggest that his dialogue has quiet the muscular sonorities of a David Mamet, he had nevertheless done a stunning job of fleshing out close to twenty characters, and turning the typical prioritization of genre cinema towards plot mechanics and action on its head. In Mann's script, the characterization, the interaction of the secondary characters, and the languorous, contemplative moments, were as crucial as the action set-pieces, and the final film attains an extraordinary fluidity in the way it moves between alternately romantic, melancholy, and kinetically violent registers.

In its journey from NBC to Hollywood, Heat had also acquired an immense ensemble cast, and orchestrated an unprecedented casting coup: the first together on-screen pairing of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. The significance of this was two-fold. For movie lovers, De Niro and Pacino were emblematic, iconic figures of the extraordinary creativity and artistic integrity which had characterised the New Hollywood movement of the seventies. American cinema experienced something truly remarkable in that decade, which each successive generation has only served to render more unprecedented, and more worthy of our rueful nostalgia. Establishing themselves in roughly the same years as Nicholson, Hackman, Hoffman, Beatty, and Warren Oates, De Niro and Pacino had nevetheless carved out the greatest niche in the mythos of naturalistic American movie actors since Brando created the template in the fifties.

Pacino was a lean, lanky, cherub-faced kid with an air of street-savvy; back then, he was as comfortable with composure and austerity (The Godfather Part 2) as he was with demonstrative physicality (Dog Day Afternoon). De Niro was harder to pin down. In his early years he appeared as a blank slate whose only common denominator was a certain air of purpose and drivenness in performance. He could do a kind of weedy klutziness very well, and also a quality of power, of suppressed ferocity, with an equal faculty. He combined these contradictory qualities as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, in what remains his most shattering performance. As the seventies passed into the eighties, he had gathered about himself a fearsome legend of obsessive dedication, of physical plasticity and protean disappearance into character. His stock-in-trade, as with the young Brando, became playing volatile, insecure, inarticulate men.

Also, as De Niro and Pacino possessed a special resonance to American cinema in its last truly robust and artistically rigorous period, they had also developed a mythic stature within the crime genre. A fresh-faced Pacino had played a hipster cop fresh out of the academy in Serpico (1973), and laterly the more wizened, world-weary variety in Sea of Love (1989). On the other side of the law, he had played Brian de Palma's cartoonish Cuban ubermench Tony Montana in Scarface, and his older, more contemplative and soulful Hispanic cousin in the same director's Carlito's Way. De Niro, unlike the majority of major American movie stars, tended to steer towards flawed, if not pungently unpleasant characters, and thus spent most of his time on the wrong side of the law. In the seventies, his star took flight as the small-time hoodlum and eternal hustler Johnny Boy in Mean Streets; he played a virile, brill-creamed Vito Corleone for Coppola, a paunchy, petulant Al Capone for de Palma, and also took the lead in Scorsese's nineties crime epics Goodfellas and Casino.

For these reasons, it was particularly apt that these two actors should embody Mann's battle of prowess between two aging, obsessive, and preeminent professionals. It added a charge to the eventual encounter in the diner which had a rich resonance outside the drama of the movie. As their characters circle around one throughout Heat, De Niro and Pacino had hovered about one another for years, both in terms of professional stature, and iconic roles in American cops and robbers movies. The eighties and the nineties were to a large degree a twilight of the idols for the seventies auteurs. When De Niro and Pacino made Heat, their titanic stature was still more or less intact, but both, also, were on the slide: Pacino into exaggerated self-parody and the unfortunate status of an in-joke, and De Niro into a perhaps more lamentable condition of sheer disinterest. The sly sparring and defiant expressions of dedication to vocation expressed in the diner scene are thus both "a mythic moment", as David Denby asserted, and a sad reminder of the many years yet to come between these great actors and the height of their prowess.

To be concluded shortly.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Divorcing the Mob: Gomorrah and the Deglamorisation of Organised Crime.

Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah (2008) is a searing, quietly seething polemic against the toxic influence of the Camorra mob on all sections of society in Naples. Dating back to at least 1471, the Camorra is the oldest criminal organization in Italy, and remains an insidious, all-pervasive presence in Naples, particularly in the high-rises and slum-areas that Gomorrah concentrates on. Much of its power, and explosive volatility, derives from the fact that it has never been a coherent, centralized organization. Differing from the pyramidal power structure of the Mafia, the Camorra is a loose, horizontally organized confederation of families and mobs. This means that bloody feuds are rifle within the organization, and it remains particularly difficult to combat: according to the testimony of Camorra boss Pasquale Galasso, “Campania can get worse because you could cut into a Camorra group, but another ten could emerge from it.”

Gomorrah articulates this pervasive, hydra-like social corrosion of the Camorra through a multi-generational quintet of interrelated narratives, concentrating on the fortunes of a group of low to mid-level players, in a style not dissimilar to that employed by David Simon in The Wire. Toto is a thirteen year grocery boy who is just starting out in the gang-fraternity; in a striking initiation sequence, he and a group of youths are shot at close range while wearing bullet-proof vests. Marco and Ciro are a pair of slow-witted, hapless would-be gangsters in their adolescence, whose cartoonish conception of criminality is derived chiefly from de Palma’s Scarface. Don Ciro is a terse, timid middle-aged Camorra delivery man who brings money to the families of imprisoned gang-members, dispassionately doing his rounds in the blasted, crumbling housing blocks that form the film’s primary milieu. The bosses remain tangential, incidental figures, and in this way Garrone conveys a strong sense of the Camorra as an inescapable net stretched around every facet of Neapolitan society and social life; a contagion or a cancer that dovetails neatly with the plot involving toxic pollution.

I found Gomorrah to be a puzzling experience as a viewer and critic. It is undoubtedly commendable as a social document and galvanizing polemic. More than that, it’s a faultlessly directed and acted film. Garrone resolutely avoids glamorizing or excessively egging-on his subject matter; his approach as a film-maker is admirably controlled and clinical, and his utilization of the multi-strand narrative is a model of clarity and cumulative effect, in stark contrast to the convoluted jigsaws of Guillermo Arriaga and his elk. Nevertheless, at the end of the movie, I didn’t feel particularly incensed, or depressed, or inspired to any large degree. Instead, Gomorrah got me thinking about the strange, contradictory relationship we have maintained with mobsters on the screen, and the competing demands of social responsibility and cinematic art.

One of the most striking aspects of Gomorrah, for international audiences at any rate, has been its blunt rejection of the various degrees of romanticism, identification, or ambiguity which have characterized representations of organized criminals in the past. In its opening sequence, a massacre which tellingly takes place in a tanning salon, Garrone indicates that his mobsters will be far more Paulie Walnuts than Michael Corleone. Gomorrah’s mobsters, when we encounter them, are for the most part ugly, narcissistic, and resolutely tasteless individuals, who possess none of the august sanguinity of Coppola’s iconic gangsters. And this, of course, is the pivotal part of Gomorrah’s strategy as a movie: it seeks to document and condemn the consequences of organized crime, and move as far as possible away from the contradictory allure which seems to inhere in other crime cinema. This, naturally enough, became something of a critical by-line for the movie. According to Scot Tobias at the A.V. Club: “Say this for Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah: It succeeds in siphoning every ounce of glamour out of gangster life”; and Roger Ebert: “The film is a curative for the romanticism of The Godfather and Scarface”.

It certainly struck me, while watching Gomorrah, the extent to which charismatic and sympathetic sociopaths form as innate a part of our cultural heritage as boy meets girl stories. You become very aware of them, by virtue of their absence in Garrone’s movie. The reasons for this abiding fascination are complex and multifaceted. On the one hand, the cinema has always provided us with the opportunity to identify with, or vicariously experience, a variety of activities and choices which we are compelled to eschew and condemn in real life. Wes Craven has often utilized evolutionary psychology to explain the paradoxical appeal of horror cinema. He argues that since aggression was so instrumental in making us an adaptive, successful species, so a small part of our brain remains in that reptilian, amoral, pre-civilized mode, and craves sensations that our societal superego can’t sanction. Tarantino expresses a similar sentiment, with characteristically less eloquence, when he said that violence was deplorable in real life, but “cool” in movies.

On the other hand, I think people are intensely fascinated by contradictions, and contradiction forms the major kernel of our abiding mobster obsession. The ability of gangsters to lead double lives – to be ordinary loving, familial creatures in one situation, and cold-blooded sociopaths in another – persists, from The Godfather to The Sopranos – as a major component of our popular mythology of the mob. If one traces the representations of organized crime – from the Godfather through Goodfellas, to contemporary television milestones like The Sopranos and The Wire, we begin to see that the mob mythology has been constantly evolving, investigating its own assumptions and validity, and moving perhaps inevitably towards a movie like Gomorrah.

It is important to note that none of Gomorrah’s significant predecessors unambiguously celebrate or glamorize mafia life. The Godfather, which we now tend to regard as a highly aestheticized depiction of organized crime, is nevertheless a movie with a strong moral outlook. Viewed as a bildungsroman of Michael Corleone, the Godfather movies represent an excoriating depiction of the corruptive poison of patriarchal and political power, both in the family unit and American society as a whole. Nevertheless, as a condemnation of crime, the moral shrinks in the face of painterly beauty, Machiavellian intrigue, and Shakespearian, operatic passion. The tragedy of the Godfather movies are experienced through the Corleones themselves, and not their victims. In this sense, the Godfather remains a romanticized experience of the criminal underworld, and this, no doubt, is why real Mafiosi enjoy it so much. (Something very similar happens with anti-war movies like Apocalypse Now, which apparently generals and military people adore.)

Goodfellas represented a major move towards greater realism. Narrated in a sprawling, episodic fashion, it couldn’t have been less a Greek/Shakespearian tale of power, corruption, and redemption if it tried. Scorsese’s mobsters, for the most part, were foul-mouthed, hedonistic, and emotionally stunted thugs. Many significant aspects of the Sopranos, including the tasteless wardrobes and intellectual paucity of Paulie and Christopher, the messy randomness of the violence, and the prevalent tone of black humor, derive ultimately from Goodfellas’ considerable contribution to the mob mythos. In stark contrast to the Godfather, which stressed the cohesive bond of familial attachments, Goodfellas depicted its criminals as wedded ultimately to the adrenaline of committing crime, the luxuries resultant form it, and, in times of stress, concerned strictly with their own self-interest. And yet, while Goodfellas does much to deglamorise the mobster in comparison to Coppola’s treatment, the ambiguities not only remain, but become even more pronounced. Everything I’ve just written can be easily inferred from Goodfellas, but actually experiencing the movie is always more a matter, for both audience and director, of identifying totally with the world of the mobsters, and becoming carried away by the reckless adrenaline rush of their amoral activities. If Goodfellas condemns its mobsters by implication, it also derives all of its energy and momentum from them; Scorsese’s attitude seems to be like that of the smart kid in school, who knows the trouble-makers are going nowhere, but can’t help but admire their high-spirited truancy.

The ambitions of David Chase’s The Sopranos are difficult to adequately summarize. On the one hand an exploration of the uncertainties and surreality of family life at the postmodern turn of the century, The Sopranos is also simultaneously a homage to/commentary on The Godfather and Goodfellas. As self-consciousness was endemic to postmodern culture/social life, The Sopranos was the first major crime saga to depict mobsters who were hyperconscious of their mythic representations on the screen, and the first to contain within itself a hyperconsciousness of the unsettling contradictions and ambiguities in our fondness for mob anti-heroes. Chase never tried to revolve these contradictions, but rather heightened them, and rubbed our noses in them. We were never allowed to attain any degree of comfort or closure in regard to our feelings towards those characters. The Sopranos expressed a very Faulknerian vision of the world, as a place whose dominant genre or mode is never fixed, but constantly shifting between differing registers. In this way, Chase’s mobsters were alternately lovable, tragic, funny, pitiful, and utterly deplorable, in a fashion that never resolved itself, and allowed Chase to imbibe both the mythic grandeur of the Godfather, and the deflating black humor of Goodfellas. In consequence, his notorious cut-to-black non-ending is a particularly apt conclusion to such a vision of the world in which nothing ever ends, or ever resolves itself to the finality of clarity.

It is interesting to note that in The Wire, which is most like Gomorrah in terms of intent, we continue to experience mixed feelings about the criminals. The reasons for this are two-fold. First of all, The Wire is similar to Goodfellas in that in attempts to view criminality entirely from the inside, without any explicit authorial judgment. (It differs in that it also views the other side of the law with similar verisimilitude and detail.) Secondly, The Wire operated principally as humanistic journalism, and had a sufficient duration to develop a complex overall societal picture, in which the most contemptible villains are the lawyers, commissioners, and politicians who lack the integrity or courage to change an inherently rigged game.

Gomorrah is also, in essence, a work of righteous indignation and humanistic journalism. Its failure to really impact, to be a truly great film, may lie ultimately in its lack of humanistic detail. The communities in The Wire, hard-pressed though they were, were nevertheless alive with the energy of finely delineated character, and of colloquial language and humor. The housing blocks in Gomorrah, in contrast, are entropic, purgatorial spaces, delineated with all the formal austerity of a John Pierre Melville or an Antonioni. Nevertheless, I think Gomorrah is film that may rise in my estimation with a second viewing. Gorrone’s technique occasionally yields striking dividends, and certain key sequences, particularly those which bookend each of the significant characters, have an understated, devastating power which grows long after the movie ends. However my estimation of the movie may change, I suspect that it will not supercede the longevity of The Godfather and Goodfellas as works of art, despite its keener sense of social responsibility; Gomorrah may represent the logical conclusion of a long process of demythologizing the mobster, but it will not be the end of our fascination with what The Asphalt Jungle called the “left-hand form of human endeavor.”

Monday, April 6, 2009

Legends of the Fall: The Last of the Mohicans.

In one of the best scenes in Miami Vice, Sonny and Isabella dance passionately in a night club, unaware that they are being intently observed by John Oritz’s envious and volatile gangster Jose Yero. It’s a big turning point in the movie: the pent-up emotions that have simmered throughout Vice’s purposefully sluggish pace suddenly erupt, and the various characters must relinquish their tight-lipped masks of nonchalance, and reveal their true natures. In this sense, Sonny and Isabella’s dance encapsulates the movie’s essential emotion: the kinetic charge, and close proximity, of passion and violence. These are themes that Mann had already essayed in his 1992 feature The Last of the Mohicans, an operatic, elegiac song of love and death set against the backdrop of the French and Indian War of 1757.

Mohicans is a historical romance/adventure movie, and as such its setting and ambience make it an anomaly in Mann’s filmography. Outside of Mohicans, Mann has worked, roughly speaking, in two specific genres: crime drama and true life/biography. (The forthcoming Public Enemies is a combination of both.) What remains a constant in all these movies, both visually and thematically, is an iconic exploration of contemporary life via the omnipresence of modern architectures and technologies. (Even Ali feels strikingly modern in its style and execution, including as it does the earliest of Mann’s experimentation with HD digital technology.) Mohicans is thus an initially puzzling experience for many aficionados of the director’s work; envisioning Mann without synthesisers and sodium streetlights, without the cool modernist sheen which has become so much his signature, is a little like watching a John Ford movie without horses and dust.

I was myself a little slow in coming to Mohicans, largely due to a dislike or suspicion of the modern historical adventure picture. Mel Gibson’s Braveheart and The Patriot have always struck me as broad, bombastic exercises in melodrama, dubious history, and outdated celebration of nationalistic fervour. I appreciate that Gibson is a canny and very capable popular filmmaker, but for my money his martyrdom sequence in Braveheart is among the comically overblown I have ever seen on film. Mohicans, needless to say, is an entirely different beast. Its passions are heightened and operatic, but never quite bombastic, and instead of nationalistic rabble-rousing, one finds a subtle rumination on the grand promise and deep tragedy of the American frontier.

In the last essay on Manhunter, I was discussing the dichotomy between civilisation and the wilderness in Mann’s movies. Civilisation is contradictory quality in Mann’s world. On the one hand, it offers the potential for stability and domestic happiness, and yet so many of Mann’s protagonists are drawn to a more rugged existence outside of the societal mainstream. Civilisation possesses many perils: the threat of sterility, mendacity, and the kind of corporate dehumanisation that Mann critiques so trenchantly in Thief and The Insider. Mann’s attitude towards modernity is thus complex and contradictory; his gleaming cityscapes are both extraordinarily beautiful, and deeply sterile and lonely places. The best way to view Mohicans in relation to the rest of Mann’s filmograhy is as an evocation of the American frontier as an Edenic wilderness prior to the urbanised, corporatized world of Mann’s other films. To put it more precisely, it is an Edenic wilderness which is in process of being civilized, ironically enough, through struggle and violence. The trio of Nathaniel, Chingachgook, and Uncas are clearly presented in the introductory scenes as a prelapsarian ideal of roaming independence, decency, and piety for the natural world. It is part of Mohicans tragedy that this ideal is not destined to survive, either for the characters as individuals, or as a prevalent way of life in the future America whose birth pains form the film’s backdrop.

LOTM’s concern for the making of a future nation is a persistent undercurrent to its primary function as a romantic adventure. This theme is signalled most prominently by the chief obsession which seems to preoccupy most of the main characters: procreation, bloodline, and progeny. As Matt Zoller Seitz points out eloquently in his essayStay alive, no matter what occurs”: sex and survival in The Last of the Mohicans: “In the movie’s political/historical background, Native tribes, white settlers and British and French military forces compete to control the mountains and forests, which they hope will be overrun someday by their descendants. Mohicans shows that both an individual’s goal to mate and pass on genes and a civilisation’s desire to possess and transform the land issue from the same biological urge.” This idea is expressed in its most extreme form in the figure of Magua, who envisions the ending of Colonel Munroe’s bloodline as the ultimate revenge, and in its most melancholy form in the figure of Chingachgook, whose sorrow that his people will not see and participate in the future forms a keynote for the movie as a whole.

The making of a nation is also signalled by the complex melting pot of combatants who are embroiled in the films central conflict. The French and Indian War is waged between the Old World colonial powers of France and England, who in turn form opportunistic alliances with the settler and native populations. Mann presents his Old World characters primarily as a critique of the venal, mercenary, and hypocritical aspects of civilisation. The English and French generals distinguish themselves from the supposed “savagery” of the New World by virtue of a set of high minded ideals of honour and propriety, each of which they are prepared to sacrifice in the name of self-interest.

In contrast, the frontier settlers are a robust, honest, family-orientated community, who seek a land where they might live a modest, self-sufficient existence. Most tragically in LOTM, the native Indian characters face an intruding enemy which seeks to remake the wilderness in its own image. They face the disruption and extinction of a complex, age-old society and way of life which is intrinsically in tune with the natural world, by the imposition of a New World which is the order of commerce, urbanization, and modernity. In his speech towards the end of film, Nathaniel encapsulates much of this dark shadow side to the American dream, and the danger for Native Indians of succumbing to the worst vices of their oppressors: “Would Magua use the way of the French and the English? Would the Huron make his brothers foolish with brandy and steal his land to sell for gold to the white man? Would Huron have greed for more land than a man can use? Would Huron sell the furs of all the animals in the forest for beads and strong whiskey? Those are the ways of the English, and the French traders, and their masters in Europe infected with the sickness of greed. Magua’s heart is twisted; he would make himself into what twisted him.”

The sad resonance of this speech derives from our awareness of how much loss of tribal culture, environmental exploitation, and greed would come to pass in the America of the future. In this sense, LOTM is a melancholy legend of America’s fall into modernity from a prelapsarian ideal of lush, unbounded wilderness, lovingly evoked by Dante Spinotti’s extraordinary cinematography. At the same time, there is much about LOTM which is buoyant, celebratory, and romantic. It posits the birth of America as a time of immense contradiction, promise, energy, and struggle; at one point Cora comments that the whole world is on fire, speaking to the amorous and martial passions which swell and intertwine throughout the film. Contrasting Duncan and Cora, Mann emphasizes two very different methods of interaction between the Old World and the New. Duncan envisions the wilderness as a backward colony to be remade in the “higher” values of his own culture; Cora, on the other hand, through her courageous, adventurous character, and her romance with Nathaniel, comes to appreciate the New World as something that must be engaged with on its own terms. As she tells Nathaniel, the frontier is “more deeply stirring to my blood than any imagining could possibly have been.”

In this contrast, LOTM finds a redemptive note to off-set Chingachgook’s sorrow at the end of the film, where he, Nathaniel, and Cora gaze into the future, into the impossibly distant, transformed world of LOTM’s audience. Much of the future America will be characterised by the hypocrisy and greed of the Old World, and much of Chingachgook’s world will truly vanish; but the romance of Nathaniel and Cora speaks to the possibility of understanding and integration between individuals of vastly different cultures, and the subtle birth of new cultures via such marriages. Lost in the impersonal drift of history, there is nevertheless Chingachgook’s powerful assertion: “The frontier place is for people like my white son and his woman and their children. And one day there will be no more frontier and men like you will go too, like the Mohicans. And new people will come, work, struggle. Some will make their life. But once, we were here.”

No consideration of LOTM is complete without some reference to its justifiably acclaimed climatic set-piece. The hilltop battle sequence, scored so magnificently by Trevor Jones, is a revelatory fusion of music, staging, choreography, acting, and editing. According to Madeline Stowe, “The best directors I’ve worked with have always had a strong sense of music and movement. Those two things are inseparable. And Michael used them so effectively in LOTM, particularly during the last ten minutes of the film. Sometimes I’ll turn the channel and there’s the movie, and I can honestly say those last few minutes always fascinate me. Its one of those rare instances when image, music, and drama work effectively.” Clive James once commented that cinema, in essence, is still silent; the final looks exchanged between Jodhi May and Wes Studi are among the best silent cinema of the modern period, and the sequence as a whole is surely one of the purest, grandest pieces of opera in popular American cinema.

Sunday, March 8, 2009


It’s hard to know where to begin with Zach Snyder’s Watchmen. This film has nuclear mushroom clouds, Martian landscapes, a shimmering blue Ubermensch in full frontal CGI, and probably the only sex scene you’ll see this year that takes place on board an Owlship. Snyder has a cinematic style that seems fatally dispossessed towards the reptilian brain functions of an adolescent boy, and Watchmen is the R-rated Citizen Kane of his peculiar sensibility. As an adaptation of an acclaimed comic book, it carries a lot of baggage to the screen, and many reviewers have expressed diametrically opposed perspectives on its relationship to the source material. For some, the movie is a slo-mo drenched dumb-down; to others, a victim of its own slavish fidelity to the Moore and Gibbons original.

First and foremost, I think it needs to be pointed out that Watchmen is a pretty close translation, and many of its biggest problems actually stem from Alan Moore’s writing. I read Watchmen when I was about 15, and yes, I thought it was absolutely amazing. It’s a wonderful book for precocious kids. However, revisiting it as an adult was a bitter disappointment, and I could barely get past the third issue. Watchmen displays a knowledge of American history that seems to have been gleaned from looking at a documentary about the sixties and a few Time/Life magazine covers. Its politics, while in no way objectionable, are extremely platitudinous and simplistic. Republicans, the Vietnam War, and nuclear genocide, it tells us, are all Very Bad Things. I’m not arguing against any of this, but I think I acquired about as penetrating a grasp of American history and politics via Oliver Stone’s The Doors movie.

Worst of all, Moore’s characterisation, which Rolling Stone bewilderingly called “staggeringly complex”, is a small step above soap opera, and his dialogue is among the most wooden and contrary to human speech I have ever read. (Back in the sixties, Stan Lee wrote more natural sounding dialogue for the Thing than any of Watchmen’s plodding soliloquies.) I think that Watchmen’s stature as some kind of masterpiece is an inexplicably virulent cultural myth. It’s both denigrating to superhero comics as an art-form, and brazenly hypocritical, to suggest on the one hand that Watchmen elevates the super-hero to the status of literature, while at the same time overlooking literary inadequacies in it that simply wouldn’t fly in any medium other than superhero comics.

Anyway, I guess that rant serves to begin this review with a note of sympathy for Snyder. Yes, some of his stylistic excesses mar the tone and intent of Moore’s original, but Watchmen is nevertheless a very faithful adaptation. Snyder translates Moore’s abysmal dialogue directly to the screen, but what else could he do? Had he embellished it, the fanboy purists would no doubt have declared a fatwa, and critics would have had further fuel to accuse him of dumbing Moore down. It’s a tough gig for poor Zack, patiently staking a path through the differing tastes of rabid fanboys, general cultural pundits who believe the myth that Watchmen is the Ulysses of funny books, mainstream critics who are leery of caped crusaders, and studio execs who are even more leery of blue cocks and Fox lawsuits. Give Zack a break - it’s a miracle this strange shambles made it to the screen at all.

Ok, having given Zack a break, lets move on to the Watchmen movie proper. Is Snyder really a hack director? Well, he pretty much is, but in a kind of semi-inspired, Ed Wood kind of way. Only a superhuman hack would score a Vietnam scene with Ride of the Valkyries. (Snyder has a weird habit with musical cues of either a) picking something completely inexplicable and unexpected, or b) picking the most mind-numbingly obvious thing you could possibly think of. Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah belongs in the former category, Valkyries in the latter.) On the subject of music cues, Watchmen features more Songs that Should Never be Heard in Movies Again than almost any other soundtrack I’ve ever come across. All Along the Watchtower doesn’t even belong in a Hendrix bio-pic, at this stage of the game.

Zack’s biggest Achilles heel, however, is his treatment of action. At the slightest suggestion of physical activity, the adolescent/reptilian brain takes over. Many people were wondering if eighties Cold War paranoia would have any relevance to this generation; ironically, it’s probably less of an anachronism than Matrix style bullet-time trickery. Snyder is so fatally addicted to this kind of thing that he actually shots an attempted rape sequence with slo-mo and “awesome” whoosh sound effects. The fight scenes in Watchmen feel like Adam West’s Batman choreographed by the Wachowski brothers, and are like nothing else on earth. They are so divorced from actual physical combat that the final smackdown between our heroes has the ambience of a 21st century reboot of the Three Stooges. (Nolan should direct that; he could really make it gritty and “grounded in reality”, by filming it in Chicago.)

So what does Snyder do right? Watchmen’s set designs and digital effects are often quite stunning to look at. I think he actually has a genuine talent for creating eye-popping comic book tableaux. The justly celebrated credit sequence, the first shot of Dr. Manhattan against the Martian landscape, Nite Owl’s dream of embracing Silk Spectre in the shadow of an atomic explosion – these compositions have a surreal, Pop Art majesty that really lifts the movie out of its fog of expository chatter and slo-mo marathons. I thought Tyler Bates’ersatz-period score was a great idea, and I couldn’t get enough of it. (As a Michael Mann fan, I’m probably incapable of disliking ambient, synthesizer-based soundtracks.) Despite the harsh comments earlier, I didn’t really hate Watchmen. I don’t think Snyder’s ineptitude is on a par with someone like Bret Ratner or MacG; it’s quirky enough to be endearing and almost interesting. A good case in point is the instantly notorious Hallelujah-scored sex scene, easily the most weirdly camp sequence committed to celluloid in god knows how long. I’m almost certain that it’s deliberately played for comedy, but that just makes it all the more incongruous. Amid all the scowling earnestness, it’s like the film suddenly morphs into Team America for a scene. Little oddities like that, combined with a sincere and quixotic ambition, accumulate to give Watchmen a certain kitsch appeal, and a hell of lot more character than the interminable conveyer of "awesome" Iron Man-type movies Hollywood keeps feeding us. And Billy Crudup does some of the best voice acting since HAL in 2001.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Midnight Movies: Carnival of Souls and Cult Cinema.

Harold “Herk” Harvey made only one feature film in his lifetime, and Carnival of Souls (1962) may constitute one of the most tragically short-lived American directorial careers this side of Charles Laughton. By now a thoroughly discovered “lost gem”, Carnival followed a fairly archetypal trajectory for a future cult film: shot in just three weeks for an estimated $33,000, it disappeared without a trace on its initial release, and gradually found its audience via late night television and the burgeoning midnight movie circuit of the 70’s. In 1989, it received a limited run in art-house cinemas, and in 2000 this once forgotten drive-in curio gained the ultimate stamp of legitimacy: a lavish release on DVD on the Criterion Collection label. Though shorn of some of its obscurity, Carnival of Souls is nevertheless one of those rare films which will always feel like a personal discovery. It possesses the requisite mix of kitsch, artiness, and other-worldly strangeness that makes a true cult film.

Defining cult cinema is an exercise to which you could devote an inordinate amount of time, without attaining anything substantial or conclusive. The reason for this is plain enough: a cult film can be any type of movie that engenders a particularly zealous and devoted following. In this regard, cult doesn’t correspond to any particular genre or overriding aesthetic. The idea that a cult phenomenon comes from somewhere outside of the mainstream, or must experience an initial period of disparagement or obscurity, is no longer really a necessary prerequisite. Comic-book blockbusters like the Dark Knight are an example of cinema that possesses within its massive mainstream audience a smaller faction for whom the movie is a cult phenomenon. Similarly, television shows like Lost illustrate the degree to which smart popular entertainments can adroitly cater to both more casual and cultish audiences.

Outside of a strictly literal interpretation of the term, however, cult cinema has a specific ambience and aesthetic, albeit one which remains broad and difficult to define. In many respects, it is legitimately an outsider art-form, which venerates the wilfully individual and the grandiosely eccentric. Cult cinema flourished in genres that fell outside the pale of critical respectability, and derived much of its allure from the idea of discovering hidden gems and sheer oddities out at the fringes of culture. In so far as cult cinema is associated with kitsch, it is less concerned with a simple-minded so-bad-its-good aesthetic, and more with films which somehow manage to completely evade such normally firm qualitative distinctions.

Stemming from all these factors, the most salient characteristic of cult cinema is probably an inherent resistance to easy categorization. The best cult films blur the distinction between aspects of cinema which tend to be placed at the furthest remove from one another: between art and exploitation, and critically canonical notions of good taste and bad. This is a characteristic which is common to many great cult film-makers, including David Lynch, Dario Argento, and Seijun Suzuki; it is also to be found in spades in Carnival of Souls, a richly atmospheric and evocative B-movie described by Bruce Kawin as “an episode of the Twilight Zone directed by Ed Wood and Antonioni.”

Herk Harvey was born in Windsor, Colorado in 1925. He served in the US Navy during World War 11, and briefly studied chemical engineering before a passion for acting brought him to the University of Kansas in 1945 to study theatre. Long before he directed Carnival, Harvey was involved with a cinematic sub-genre which would itself become a staple for cult/kitsch enthusiasts of the future: the educational and industrial film industry of the forties and fifties.

After World War 11, America witnessed a massive boom in the production of short, instructive documentary-dramas which dealt with a variety of issues, particularly health, safety, social development, and sociological problems. Unintentionally stilted and melodramatic, these industrial/educational films reflect a prosperous society of many contradictions: one which simultaneously venerated suburban conformity, and dreaded the uniformity of communism; that fetishized youth and independence, and struggled against juvenile delinquency and beatnik unrest. To the post-sixties, post-Watergate culture, these “mental hygiene” shorts became comic, illuminating icons of a vanished age and value-system.

The Midwest was the Hollywood of industrial film-making, with Coronet in Chicago, Calvin Company in Kansas City, and the Centron Corporation in Lawrence, KS. Beginning in 1947 with a one reel sewing lesson called Sowing Simple Seams, the Centron Corporation gradually became a giant in the field, memorably lifting the lid on bullies, gossip queens, racial prejudice, and venereal disease. Herk Harvey started out as one of the many Lawrence locals who acted for Centron, gradually becoming a producer and director for the company. Here is “What About Juvenile Delinquency?”, which Harvey directed for Centron in 1954:

One day, Harvey was driving home to Lawrence from Los Angeles when he noticed the ruins of the old Saltair Pavilion on the southern shore of the Great Salt Lake. In existence in a variety of forms since 1893, the Saltair had been conceived by local Mormon and business interests as a pious, family-orientated western equivalent to Coney Island. In 1925 it also acquired a massive dance hall, but a variety of disasters including two major fires and the recession of the lake water, coupled with the gradual emergence of new leisure activities such as movie theatres, drive-ins, and television lead to the Pavilion’s closure in 1958. Struck by the eerie ambience and rotting grandeur of the old Pavilion, Harvey was inspired to make a film “about dead people dancing in a ballroom on the Great Salt Lake.” With this simple image as his proviso, Harvey enlisted best friend John Clifford to write a script, and Carnival of Souls was born.

As well being an engrossing Gothic or supernatural mystery, Carnival is a fairly intense study of alienation, psychological detachment, and madness. It begins very abruptly, with two groups of young people engaged in the perennial fifties activity of drag-racing. The cars collide on a bridge, and one of them hurtles into the river. The title sequence establishes immediately that Carnival possesses an artistic sensibility that belies its non-professional acting and lo-fi production values: the slanting credits are sharply placed over atmospheric close shots of the river’s banks and eddying waters. One of the girls from the car, Mary Henry, emerges later on the shore in a distracted state, unable to remember how she survived the crash. Henry is somewhat overplayed by Lee Strasburg graduate Candace Hiligoss, who never really registered anywhere else on the cinematic radar. Nevertheless, her physicality is compulsively watchable, and perfect for the role; her large, oval features remind many viewers of fellow ghoul victim Barbara (Judith O’Dea) in Romero’s later Night of the Living Dead, and others of Tipi Hedren in Hitchcock’s zombie of the diminutive, feathered variety classic The Birds.

From the outset, Mary’s coldness and detachment is emphasized: she is pictured playing the organ at a factory, dwarfed by its immense and baroque structure. Later the supervisor tells her that she plays intelligently, but without any real soul or feeling. This fundamental dislocation from life is the keynote for Mary’s character throughout the film, and it is left to the audience to decide whether this is as a result of the crash, or simply her disposition all along; whether, in other words, the plot is supernatural in orientation, or hallucinatory and psychological in essence. As Mary travels to Salt Lake City to work as a church organist, the totality of her estrangement is gradually revealed. She becomes the object of neighbouring boarder Mr. Linden (Sydney Berger)’s tenacious and boorishly articulated lust. Linden is a boozy storeroom worker whose appearance somehow suggests a Pee Wee Herman with Marlon Brando’s burly and insinuating physique. While her coldness towards him is understandable, she later reveals to the town doctor that she has never had a relationship with a man, nor feels any inclination towards physical intimacy.

Clifford’s quite intelligent and compressed script also asserts that Mary is as estranged from the spiritual dimension of life as the physical. She regards her work in the church simply as a job, an attitude which seems to unsettle the simple-minded Mr. Linden. Mary’s chief preoccupation in the film is the same as that of the audience: to try to understand herself, and why she is so different. She is pursued by a sardonically grinning ghoul called simply the Man, who is very redolent of something from David Lynch’s feverish imagination. (The Man is played by Herc Harvey himself.) Having seen the Saltair Pavilion on her way to the city, she becomes convinced that it has some kind of profound significance to her condition. The audience, however, like the town doctor, is left to wonder how much of this is only in her imagination.

Though Carnival ultimately resolves itself with a supernatural explanation, in many respects Harvey and Clifford utilise supernatural conventions to explore extreme states of loneliness, alienation, and mental instability. The movie forces us to experience the world completely through Mary’s perspective. In this sense, it reminds me quite a lot of Polanski’s Repulsion; both movies plunge the viewer into an unsettling, hallucinatory, and subjective space, and feature similar underlying themes of sexual neurosis and loneliness. In Carnival’s most remarkable and dreamlike sequences, Mary becomes literally invisible to the other townspeople around her. Harvey cuts out all the sound, with the exception of Mary’s heightened footsteps. As in the common sensation reported by schizophrenics and manic depressives, Mary looks at the world as though through a barrier, with no ultimate connection to it. The everyday world of shop-keepers, families, and policemen move silently and obliviously about, in a stunning tableau that evokes a marriage of Norman Rockwell, Jean Cocteau, and Edvard Munch. In these scenes, Harvey achieves a striking subversion of the educational/industrial film, whose ambience flows into Carnival. The “mental hygiene” movies were completely entrenched in an ideology of the normative; they venerated an ideal of cohesive community and conformity, and presented the outsider in a light of lurid, sensationalistic abnegation. Carnival forces the viewer into the perspective of the outsider, consequently imbuing the community, and the daylight world of the ordinary and normative, with an air of dreamlike menace not seen again until the works of David Lynch. Harvey achieved extraordinary things with the limited resources available to him, and revealed an innate gift for atmosphere and imagery. Sadly his talent was never developed further, but Carnival’s bold mixture of art and schlock would prove widely influential in the subsequent explosion of cult/midnight movies.