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.