Thursday, February 19, 2009
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
At an early point in Manhunter (1986), FBI investigator Will Graham falls asleep while studying a series of grizzly crime scene photographs. While he dreams of his wife Molly, a little girl seated next to him sees the photographs, and becomes upset. When Graham awakes and frantically gathers the pictures, the child’s mother and an air-stewardess look at him with thinly veiled suspicion and disgust. The scene is effective for two reasons. First of all, in showing Will dreaming ardently of Molly’s love and acceptance, while at the same time fundamentally alienated from the world of families and children, the scene neatly encapsulates the extent to which Graham has come to parallel or merge with his quarry, serial killer Francis Dollarhyde. Secondly, it captures in miniature much of what makes Manhunter such a subtly unsettling film, even after it has reached a conclusion, which, at least on the surface, seems almost Spielbergian in its sunny optimism. While most serial killer thrillers, including highly touted examples such as Silence of the Lambs and Seven, tend to stress the Gothic otherness of the serial murderer, Manhunter plunges into an unnerving hinterland between the safe haven of ordinary life and the violent wilderness that threatens it. Manhunter contrasts the world of safe, happy family life with of that of the psychopathic, covetous outsider, and maintains its unique tension and unease by holding these alternate worlds in such close, fragile proximity.
As in Heat and Collateral, Manhunter dramatises Mann’s preoccupation with the conflict between antithetical combatants, where the moral agency must frequently absorb some characteristics of its opposite in order to prevail. Mann remains fascinated by oppositional contrasts, and dialectical conflicts whose opposing forces begin to merge with and mirror one-another. In Heat, Vincent Hanna’s dedication to his job is predicated on a genuine empathy with the suffering of families who have lost loved ones as a result of violent crime. Ironically, however, it’s his dedication to protecting this domestic sphere which alienates him completely from domesticity in his own life. Consequently, as Roger Ebert put it in his review of Heat, Vincent and his quarry “occupy the same space, sealed off from the mainstream of society, defined by its own rules.” In persistently pursuing this irony, Mann’s cinema re-states a perennial, almost mythical theme in American cinema, going back to John Ford’s greatest westerns: what is the ultimate cost of protecting civilisation from the wilderness that constantly encroaches upon it?
In both The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Ford evokes John Wayne as a guardian/protector figure who remains fundamentally excluded from the world whose values he defends. In The Searchers,
Manhunter establishes its concern with security and protection with an image which appears very early in the film, and is alluded to again at the conclusion. Working with his son on their
As in the placid frontier cabin which frequently bookends the western, Graham must abandon the world of civilisation, and descend into a violent, male-dominated wilderness. The question of whether he will be able to fully return hangs over the rest of the film. Graham is called out of retirement because of his special gift: an uncanny ability to get inside the mind of the serial murderers he pursues. His ability is akin to that of an artist or an actor; by retracing the steps of the killer, he gradually assumes the psychotic “mindset”, in a process similar to an actor getting into character. Unlike his colleagues, Will understands psychopathic crime, in Freudian terms, as an enactment of wish-fulfilment, or an expression of the killer’s most deep-seated dreams. (Interestingly, as in Thief, Manhunter associates deep longing with images, this time both still photographs and home videos.) His gift for empathy, however, borders on schizophrenia, and he has already crossed over into the deep-end in his pursuit of Hannibal Lecktor. Will’s perilous decision to return to work, as in the case of Vincent Hanna in Heat, is largely a matter of self-sacrificial nobility; however, there is also subtle suggestion that he is also drawn to a certain darkness within his own mind. As Lecktor suggests in the brilliantly executed interview sequence, Will has troubling dreams of his own, and may derive his ability for empathy by possessing some essential similitude to his prey.
The bulk of Manhunter then takes place, as I suggested earlier, in a hinterland or liminal zone between the film’s overarching spatial and thematic oppositions: between domestic sanctuaries that dovetail with the antiseptic dread of hospitals and prison cells, and the heightened primary colours and weird lunar landscapes of Francis Dollarhyde’s living area. What is fascinating about Manhunter is that it suggests the possibility of traffic in both directions, and establishes Graham and Dollarhyde as neat, inverted mirrors of one another. When the film’s attention transfers midstream to Dollarhyde, and we observe his shy courtship of Reba, there is a genuine, albeit transitory, possibility that he might attain a degree of mental normalcy and happiness. Graham, in contrast, is in danger of going in the opposite direction, and crossing over from empathy into a total identification with the wilderness. With a much greater effectiveness than the deeply overrated A History of Violence, Manhunter evokes a troubling darkness which threatens the domestic world from both without and within.
Exploring how Manhunter dramatises these oppositions and inversions leads to a consideration of style. Style remains a highly controversial issue in relation to Mann’s filmography, to such an extent that Mann himself appears distinctly uncomfortable, or even defensive, when discussing his films in relation to style. This is perfectly understandable, when one considers that a very lazy critical shorthand has developed around Mann in mainstream film criticism, which basically suggests that Mann made his name with a flashy and stylised television phenomenon in the eighties, and continues to pursue an aesthetic of style over substance in his movies. (As an aside, it is pretty dispiriting to observe the extent to which mainstream newspaper and magazine film journalism has become dependant on lazy critical short-hand and studio press releases. Following the critical fortunes of particular films on web-sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, you begin to suspect that modern films are marketed with a stock of phrases and ideas, which a lot a critics utilise more or less like stencils.)
The whole idea of style over substance is itself largely a false dichotomy, predicated on an negative connation of style as a matter of ostentation and ornamentation. Ostentation and excessive ornament are better understood as a type of style, rather than a definition of the word itself. A film-maker’s style is better appreciated in two senses, both as a characteristic methodology which is sustained, and evolved, throughout each of his/her films, and also as the manner in the film-maker utilises the full panoply of formal cinematic devices to express the film’s content. Mann is an eminently stylish film-maker, in that he conceives cinematic form and content in an almost indivisible, holistic fashion. His films blur both foreground and background, and technique and meaning. This is why they are particularly rewarding after multiple-viewing; after the story has been absorbed, you begin to appreciate how composition, architectural milieu, colour, and a variety of other formal/tonal components combine to achieve the overall effect.
Manhunter is very good example of this holistic approach to film-making, and its continual marriage of form and meaning is extraordinary. In the afore-mentioned interview scene, Mann shots both Graham and Lecktor through the bars of the sparse white cell, gradually bringing them into an identical frame, and increasing the cutting speed from one to the other. This is one of a variety of devices throughout the movie which leads to a mounting sense of disorientation and loss of identity. The tiger sequence with Reba, justly celebrated for its remarkable tactility alone, also manages to refer to Dollarhyde’s obsession with Blake, to the perilous nature of Reba’s relationship with him, and to the potent suppressed violence which seems to co-exist with Graham’s tenderness as a husband and father. On this subject, perhaps most striking of all is the scene where Graham takes his son to a supermarket, in order to discuss his history of mental illness in relation to his work. This juxtaposition, once more combining the quotidian and the sinister, manages to make the arrangement of products on a supermarket shelf both eerily unfamiliar, and faintly absurd.
In Heat and Collateral, Vincent and Max attain a degree of empathy and respect for their perspective adversaries, and seem to experience a certain mournfulness upon vanquishing them. For Graham, however, no such sympathy is possible or desirable; he must utterly destroy his doppelganger/opponent, for the stability of the community and his own fragile sense of identity. The conclusion of Manhunter is thus one of suitably kinetic violence: Graham crashes through the glass which has been so pervasive as a thin barrier throughout the film, and Dollarhyde attains the wings of the dragon, albeit in a manner which emphasizes his mortality rather than the divinity he aspired to. Unlike Ethan Edwards and the various protector-figures alluded to earlier, Graham gets to return to his domestic idyll, seemingly intact and well. In the final scene, the camera lingers on his scared and weary face just long enough to threaten otherwise, but it’s probably a red-herring. The return to the
Monday, February 9, 2009
Thief (1981) is Michael Mann’s first theatrical feature. Despite being a very fine film, and featuring easily the most remarkable performance of James Caan’s career, it’s not widely remembered by general audiences today. Viewed from the perspective of Mann’s subsequent work, it seems extraordinarily mature for an opening salvo. Thief tentatively stakes out the primary visual milieu of virtually all the directors subsequent work, which in many respects is the quintessential concern of noir cinema: an exploration of the alternatively seductive and dehumanising characteristics of the nocturnal urban environment. it establishes familiar Mann themes which have been so widely discussed as to barely warrant commentary: its principal conflict is waged between the demands of an extreme form of masculine individualism and commitment to personal vocation, as against those of domesticity, emotional security, and the more stable and integrated spectrum of society. As such, all Mann’s subsequent movies can be viewed as increasingly sophisticated additions and variations on the groundwork established with such unusual clarity of intent with this first outing.
Many critics have tended to place Thief, and its close thematic relative Heat, within a French tradition of psychologically and existentially sophisticated genre cinema, based around the detailed exposition of a central heist and its messy consequences. This is accurate enough, but it is perhaps better to envision Thief as the culmination of a chain of influence which begins in American popular cinema, flourishes in
The next major innovation in the heist movie came via Rififi (1954), a picture made in
The greatest marriage of French and American sensibilities comes in the austere and magisterial work of Jean-Pierre Melville. Both John Woo and Quentin Tarantino have cited Melville as a major influence, though neither seem to have imbibed much of the characteristic restraint and understatement of his movies. Melville regarded classical American cinema with a kind of boyish reverence, and fashioned from its basic mythic archetypes and patterns a uniquely sober and iconic style of genre cinema. The French component in the heist movie, in tandem with how French criticism crystallised the concept of film noir generally, was a question simply of highlighting the elements of deterministic, existential pessimism already intrinsic to the world of the American pulps. Few were perhaps as well-equipped in temperament and background to channel such ideas as Melville. His participation in the Resistance provided him with an indelible, first hand experience of a world of meticulous subterfuge, where divided loyalties, betrayal, and a sense of one’s personal mortality, were all-pervasive realities. Le Cercle Rouge (1970) is the classic French heist movie, outdoing Rififi’s seminal centrepiece for duration, suspense, and sheer methodical detail, and refining the tripartite structure of The Asphalt Jungle into something as unyieldingly formal and precise as an equation; the red circle of the movie’s title seems to refer the action of the film as a tragic, implacable net of causality in which the characters are hopelessly immeshed.
In interviews, Mann tends to downplay the influence of other films on his work, stressing instead the importance of research and a knowledge of the real-life milieu of criminals and law-enforcement agencies. Nevertheless, whether the relationship is intentional or otherwise, the works of Huston, Dassin, and Melville form the natural stylistic and thematic precursors to Thief and Heat, and provide a model for an intellectually weighty variety of crime drama which Mann builds upon.
Thief concerns an accomplished safe-cracker and ex-convict named Frank. Working independently with a small crew of trusted friends, Frank is a highly successful jewel thief who operates both a bar and a used-car lot as fronts. In terms of character, Mann develops Frank as a brilliant case study in how people are conditioned and shackled by past experience. Frank has already been traumatised by his childhood, in state-run orphanages, but it is his years in prison which ultimately define his personality. While incarcerated, he developed as a survival technique the ability to attain at will a state of almost Zen-like self-negation; a condition of complete emotional dislocation which divests his life and personality of all meaning, but nevertheless renders him fearless and psychotic enough to survive in a harsh and violent environment. (This is, in many respects, a more extreme version of the austere survival discipline Neil McCauley has adopted in Heat: “Do not become attached to anything that you can’t drop in thirty seconds flat, when you see the heat coming around the corner.”)
The other chief pivot of Frank’s character, also developed in prison, is the postcard sized photo collage he has made as a symbolical representation of his dream of a better life. Despite his obvious affinities with the world of criminality, and his obsessive dedication to his craft as a thief, Frank longs for a life of domestic tranquillity and security, and his collage depicts all the trappings of this ideal: wife, children, and leafy suburban house and garden.
Frank’s collage encapsulates what is both sympathetic and unnerving about his character, in that it illustrates the sincerity of his desire for a better life, coupled with an almost sociopathic belief that an idea can be pursued in a single-minded fashion, with no recourse to the complexities and contingencies of real life. A fatal aspect of Frank’s individualism is that he sees the world unfailingly as an extension of his own will, and thus when he sets about attaining his domestic ideal, he does so with almost the same degree of mechanical simplicity with which he has assembled the collage. (I suspect that this must refer, in some oblique fashion, to the tendency of particularly obsessive and driven artists to identify with an aesthetic world over which they have complete control. This point shouldn’t be overstated, but I do think that Mann’s protagonists do represent a romanticised, though certainly not uncritical, exploration of aspects of his own psychology. Federico Fellini had a series of wonderful sets built for La Dolce Vita which emulated real locations in
It is worth noting that as much as Mann’s films deal with characters that identify to a compulsive degree with their vocation or career, the characteristic malaise of a Mann protagonist is actually the longing to escape that vocation. In Manhunter, Will Graham is a brilliant psychological profiler, whose expertise and ability could save literally dozens of lives. However, he has retired, and is reluctant to return to work, because the process of identifying with killers shatters his sanity and sense of selfhood. He really longs to be with his wife and son, a domestic ideal evoked, in quintessential Mann fashion, by lush, cool shades of blue, and the close proximity of the ocean. In Heat, Neil dreams of escaping to
Frank has been dating a down-to-earth waitress named Jessie, and plans to marry her and have children. He has promised that his criminal career will shortly come to an end, believing himself, in the archetypal style of so many sympathetic criminals in noir thrillers, to be a couple of big scores away from retirement. In his haste to actualise this retirement dream, he reluctantly starts working for a gangster called Leo. The chief momentum of the plot kicks in, predicated on Frank simultaneously setting up a big score for Leo, and organising his future life with Jessie. The problem, however, is that Frank’s life, both domestically and professionally, becomes increasingly and inextricably bound up with Leo. When Frank and Jessie are unable to adopt a child, Leo intervenes and provides a mother who is prepared to sell them her child. Meanwhile, Frank discovers that working for Leo has brought him to the attention of the police, who demand a cut of the take from the robbery.
In some respects, Thief could be read as an extreme parable about the struggle between individualism and society. It’s Frank’s desire to lead an ordinary, family-based life which leads to his Mephistophelian pact with Leo, and the beginning of the complete erosion of his status as an independent, self-governing operator. The deal with Leo is a kind of extreme version of a social contract; Frank gets a home and a family, but with them comes a boss, and a fatal entanglement within a corrupt system of bribes and mutual favours; the system, according to both criminals and cops, of “how things are done.” Leo changes from being a kindly and paternal figure to one of pure malevolence, asserting aggressively that he “owns” Frank. Frank, in turn, realizing finally that he cannot achieve his dream on his own terms, falls back on the mental habits he acquired in prison. He dispassionately disassembles his long cherished dream, piece by piece, in an extraordinary eruption of sustained, cathartic violence. He cuts Jessie and their child completely from his life, sets fire to his businesses, and kills Leo. The question remains, however, after Frank has vanished into the dark horizon of the film’s denouncement, to what extent Mann intends Frank’s complete lack of compromise to represent a heroic apotheosis, or the self-defeating actions of a character that is psychologically damaged by his past.
Scored with perhaps the most strident rock music Mann has ever utilised, there is much in Thief’s bravura, Peckinpahesque final shoot-out to suggest the former. A frequent criticism labelled against Mann is that his movies represent a more thoughtful, but nevertheless dated and adolescent fantasy of uncompromising machismo struggling to retain its individualism within a complex, corporate, post-feminist society. To read Thief in this manner, however, is to ignore the nuanced and ambiguous nature of Mann’s protagonists, and the predominant element of tragedy in his work. I have read a number of commentators who have interpreted Frank in Thief and Neil in Heat as figures whose tragedy lies in their temporary deviation from their personal and professional codes. The tragedy, it seems to me, lies more in the codes themselves, which prevent these characters from forming permanent and meaningful attachments, and, ultimately, from being happy. The feminine and the domestic sphere represent a genuine ideal, and a possibility of a saner, happier world, in Mann’s movies. It is part of the particularly noirish ambience of Mann’s cinematic universe that his characters are only very rarely able to attain this ideal. They are heroic, after a fashion, but in more tragic and nuanced fashion. Frank regains a kind of sovereignty at the end of Thief, but he has done so at the cost of destroying a dream which could very well have been salvaged in some fashion, and by first raising, then callously abandoning Jessie’s hopes for a happy future. His actions are at once impressive and sociopathic, both self-assertive and self-defeating. As he strides from Leo’s place into Thief’s abrupt cut to black, he does so into a world which corrodes his soul, and for which he longer possesses an imagery of transcendence or redemption.
Thief is something of a lost gem. Michael Mann has made vastly superior pictures, but he has never written a better script; Thief’s dialogue possesses an absolute knowledge of its milieu, and a brilliant, street-smart lyricism. James Caan has never acted so well; the café sequence with Tuesday Weld has all the rugged, bruised tenderness and poeticism of Marlon Brando’s scenes with Eva Marie Saint in On the Waterfront. He is matched by some brilliant support, particularly from the recently departed Robert Prosky in the role of Leo. For Mann enthusiasts, Thief’s chief fascination lies in the presence of all the thematic, and much of the stylistic, hallmarks of the director’s later work. Mann’s recent experimentation with digital cinematography and increased depth of field urban compositions is prefigured in this debut's preoccupation with capturing the ambience of the nocturnal city at its rawest and most three-dimensional. The themes of Mann’s movies, inextricably bound up as they are with the nocturnal architecture of his visual palette, also begin here.