Ed Howard: During the course of our conversation about David Fincher earlier this year, I posited Fincher as one of the few modern American directors who fit the classical model for the Hollywood auteur: someone who makes intensely personal and idiosyncratic films, in a variety of styles and forms, within the Hollywood studio system. I’d suggest that Michael Mann is another of these rare directors, bringing personal style to the Hollywood film at a time when American directors are increasingly either independent auteurs or blockbuster craftsmen for the big studios (or, in the case of fence-sitters like Gus Van Sant and Steven Soderbergh, shuffling back and forth between the two extremes). Mann’s body of work exists entirely within recognizable generic forms: the crime film (Thief, Heat, Public Enemies), the thriller (Manhunter, Collateral, Miami Vice), the horror film (The Keep), the epic Western (The Last of the Mohicans), the biopic (Ali), the “based on a true story” social drama (The Insider).
His films, almost without exception, tell straightforward, direct stories, the kinds of stories that writing gurus love because they can be summed up in a single sentence. And yet these stories are seldom the main point with Mann. He can be a conventional storyteller if he needs to be, but his default mode—and, I think, his preferred mode—is to place the emphasis on mood, on atmosphere, rather than on narrative. He’s more interested in the accumulation of small details than he is in how they fit together into the big picture. He’s more interested in archetypes and how they feed into his signature themes than he is in crafting fully realized characters in their own right.
He also loves playing with light, color, focus, composition, with the elements of form. He’s a stylist working in a context where style is generally a secondary concern. How many big-budget action/crime films spend as much time on setting mood as Heat? How many heist pictures would rhapsodize over the spray of sparks from a welding torch, as Mann does in Thief? If most modern genre films consider style second (if at all), for Mann, in contrast, there are times when style seems to be his only concern.
Jason Bellamy: I think that’s true. Then again, I wonder if style constitutes the ends of Mann’s concerns or if instead his style obsession is merely the means by which he reaches his desired ends. Of greater importance to Mann, I believe, is mood. His films are notoriously macho, frequently erupting in high-caliber violence and chronicling the lives of men who, accurately or not, feel the weight of the world on their shoulders. And yet while it’s true that Mann’s films fit within recognizable generic forms and feature plots that can be summed up in a tagline, it’s even more accurate to say that mood and atmosphere are what Mann’s films are really “about”—at least when they are successful—and those themes tend to be more elusive and complex. The audience that “doesn’t get” Mann is the audience that doesn’t connect beyond the basic mechanics of the plot. (To borrow a line from White Men Can’t Jump, the detached Mann audience listens to his films but can’t hear them.) Meanwhile, the audience that connects sometimes treats a Mann film like a religious experience, finding heft in almost every word, gesture or composition. There’s no right or wrong here. In fact, what’s interesting about Mann’s films is the way they can entertain both the devoutly connected and the only peripherally interested. The former revels in the tantric foreplay—the moody action between orgasms of physical action. The latter fidgets impatiently for most of the picture but concludes, “At least there’s fucking!”—gunfights, usually, instead of actual intercourse.
That said, there are times when Mann becomes so focused on the elements of style that will achieve his desired mood that he gets trapped in his own toolbox—times when the ultimate effect of his technique is to draw attention to the technique itself. Then again, maybe we, the audience, have become so accustomed to Mann’s bag of tricks that we’ve stopped giving his illusions a chance to succeed on their own. When a filmmaker is bold enough to establish a distinctive style, those trademarks have a habit of taking center stage. Fans call them signature techniques and detractors call them tiresome habits. Both audiences run the risk of looking at a film so microscopically that the big picture is lost.
We’re here now to discuss Mann’s nine signature feature films, from 1981’s Thief to this year’s Public Enemies. (Reader note: Prior to Manhunter, Mann made The Keep in 1983, but due to persistent rumors that Paramount took the picture away from Mann in the editing room, not to mention the film’s unavailability on DVD, we’re not considering that effort part of his signature series. Readers with thoughts about The Keep are encouraged to share them in the comments section.) So let’s start with some discussion of Mann’s most recent film. Let me ask you this: Among Mann’s work, is Public Enemies a memorable or otherwise notable “big picture”?
EH: Well, I don’t know if it’s a “big” picture, but it’s definitely a good one (and a relatively substantial one in comparison to its predecessor Miami Vice, which we’ll get into later). I think the two Mann audiences you describe above provide an apt summation of the different approaches to his work. The obvious reason that such a personal stylist has been able to thrive in Hollywood for so long is that his work appeals to those who don’t give a damn about style but just love the action sequences (and there’s no denying that Mann knows how to craft especially exciting action). In his best work, though, the action doesn’t obscure the fact that these films are working on multiple levels at once, that there’s more going on than just a great thriller plot. With Public Enemies, certainly, I walked out of the theater thinking I’d had a “religious experience,” that I’d seen something really impressive; I was quite deeply moved. So it says something that Mann got me so emotionally invested in the story of a notorious robber and killer. Without resorting to much of the usual “oh he had a hard life” clichés, the film makes the bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) a sympathetic figure. At the same time, I was troubled by the way Mann mythologizes Dillinger as such a tragic, romantic hero. The film is all about the distinctly American mythology of the gangster, the romanticization of these outlaw figures.
Moreover, Mann’s film is very specifically about the last of the romantic outlaws, the last of the great popular criminals before crime retreated behind a façade of respectability and corporate structure, as represented in the film by Frank Nitti (Bill Camp). It’s kind of the same thing Mann did in Heat: He places these bad guys at the center of his film as his hero characters, and he sets them off against characters who are even worse, who can play the unambiguous villains. In Heat, he took some of the moral imperative off of Robert De Niro’s noble crook Neil by including the character of Waingro (Kevin Gage), a totally psychopathic serial killer. In Public Enemies, Nitti and the lunatic Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) serve much the same function, making Depp’s Dillinger seem, in contrast, like a Robin Hood-style people’s outlaw. Dillinger, not F.B.I. man Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), is the hero of the film. The real evil here is the first blossoming of organized crime, retreating from the front pages into the back rooms, and the increasing power of J. Edgar Hoover’s (Billy Crudup) F.B.I., which at times works weirdly hand-in-hand with the crime syndicates against Dillinger’s gang.
This is all interesting stuff, there’s no doubt about it, and I also can’t discount my reaction to the film’s sumptuous style and emotional arcs. It’s an affecting, nostalgic elegy for a lost era. But it’s an elegy also for a particular kind of criminal, and Mann really feeds into this idea of the romantic gangster that’s run through so much of the American cinema’s history. The Hays Code is long gone, but Mann is still following the template of so many ‘40s gangster films, building up the criminal before the inevitable tragic denouement, a reminder that crime doesn’t pay. The film implies that Dillinger is a superior type of criminal because he’s an iconoclast, striking out on his own, rather than embracing the new economic/political model for crime. That’s a strikingly American idea, American in the sense of Wild West individualism. Mann has never flinched away from the darker side of his characters (both this film and Heat include sequences in which the bank robbers use hostages as shields against gunfire) but he is simultaneously fascinated by the criminal, exalting him as an icon. There’s a scene where Dillinger bursts into the place where his prospective new girlfriend Billie (Marion Cotillard) works, punches out a customer and then demands that she come with him. We’re supposed to think, I gather, that Dillinger is a badass, and also that this is a romantic gesture from him; we’re supposed to believe, on scant evidence, that his relationship with Billie is more than just bullying and buying her fur coats.
Obviously, I have conflicted feelings about Public Enemies. It’s a fairly rich and complex film, and in some ways I’m not doing it justice by focusing on Mann’s glorification of the gangster archetype. There’s a lot going on here, and some of it also runs counter to the tendencies I’ve been talking about. So what do you think, is Public Enemies a religious experience, an ode to the outlaw criminal, a little of both, or something else altogether?
JB: I needn’t hesitate to say that Public Enemies isn’t a religious experience (at least, not for me) or to agree with you that it is an ode to the outlaw (that the outlaw is a criminal is largely incidental, I think, despite Mann’s romanticism for the gangster). But beyond that I find the movie difficult to nail down. It’s one of the best pictures of the year thus far, certainly, but that’s saying almost nothing. Perhaps a better task would be to rate it among Mann’s filmography, and in that regard I can place it no higher than fourth. (Of course, that would put it in the upper echelon of Mann films, which is nothing to sneeze at.) I bring this up because one of the things I have been wrestling with in recent weeks is the issue of whether Public Enemies suffers or benefits from Mann’s previous body of work. I’m sure most Mann fans would be quick to agree with me that Public Enemies is no Heat, for example, but then most movies aren’t; Heat is in rarefied air. On the other hand, while Heat makes it easy to take Public Enemies for granted, Heat’s complexity and heft also encourage the Mann-aware audience to recognize a deeper sensibility in Public Enemies than I’m really sure is there to be found.
On that note: Regardless of how masterful (or not) this movie is, its greatest mistake is that it saves its best and richest for last. The final 35-or-so minutes, beginning with the reunion of Dillinger and Billie after her clever escape from F.B.I. surveillance, are tremendous—highlighted by that awesome Biograph sequence that is likely to rival any 10 minutes in American cinema this year. The trouble is, well over 100 minutes go by before we sit down with Dillinger at the Biograph and watch him watching Manhattan Melodrama, which for me is the key to finally unlocking a character who until then is harder to crack than a bank vault. Likewise, Billie’s most vulnerable moments are toward the end of the picture, and perhaps the same can be said of Purvis, too.
The first time I watched Public Enemies, its opening acts were engrossing, interesting and propulsive, as Mann’s movies almost always are. Nevertheless, it had a sort of icy chill about it—and not in a good Neil “I sell metals” McCauley kind of way. I could sit here and list a dozen examples of why Public Enemies is quintessential Mann, from its romanticism of outlaws to its explosive action set pieces, but the biggest surprise for me, and I suppose the biggest disappointment, is how much of this movie is moodless, at least in Mann terms. Or am I wrong?
EH: Like you, I’d place the film somewhere in the middle of the pack as far as Mann goes, and it’s definitely hard to pin down exactly what it’s doing, so you’re not wrong there. On the other hand, I’m not sure I agree that the film is moodless, just that its mood is one of slightly distanced contemplation. Its palette tends towards grays and browns, washed-out colors, not quite the sepia of nostalgic photos but definitely a cool, aloof visual aesthetic.
I also agree that the strongest moments are concentrated towards the end. The film has an accumulative effect: It’s slowly building towards what we all know is coming, assuming we know the bare minimum about the real Dillinger. It has to end, more or less, with the scene at the Biograph and the hail of bullets, so there’s no suspense in that respect. But there are all these little moments along the way, indications that death is approaching—the film is shrouded in death—so that by the end the aura of approaching doom is nearly overwhelming. The early scenes might seem comparatively underwhelming, perhaps, because Mann is just putting the pieces in place, establishing his themes and setting everything up for the inevitability of the finale. It’s a film about impending death, and it’s structured to steamroll relentlessly towards Dillinger’s final breath, picking up momentum as it gets closer and closer to that moment.
It also becomes apparent in the brilliant Biograph scene why casting Marion Cotillard as Billie was such a good idea. She does a fine job throughout the film infusing some depth and warmth into an underwritten character, but ironically it’s that scene of Dillinger watching Manhattan Melodrama, a scene in which Billie doesn’t even appear, where the true potency of their relationship is finally conveyed. The moment Myrna Loy appears on the screen in the last movie Dillinger ever saw, the similarities between Cotillard and Loy become apparent. This resemblance, emphasized by Mann’s montage of Loy shots from the 1934 Woody Van Dyke film, recasts the meaning of Dillinger’s moviegoing habits. It wasn’t just that he enjoyed going to see gangster pictures to see tough guys on screen. He saw himself up there, and his own doomed romance as well; there’s a poignancy and sadness to the montage of Dillinger looking at Loy, pining for his own girl who got sent to prison because of him. It’s like he’s really looking at Billie, thinking about his own life and where it’s taken him, what it’s done to the woman he loves. It’s amazing how much these shots convey, largely just through editing and juxtaposition. It’s at that moment—and during the earlier scene of Billie being violently interrogated and defiantly standing by her man—that Dillinger and Billie really come alive. You’re right: Seeing Dillinger watch a movie, we get to connect to him in a way we never really did throughout the rest of the film, where he’s kept at arm’s length, an archetypal criminal outlaw, a figure of myth.
JB: Yeah, see, I think attributing Dillinger’s remoteness over the first half of the picture to some kind of myth- or mystery-making is giving Mann too much credit. I agree that there is something devastating about feeling close to Dillinger precisely at the moment we know he’s about to be taken away from us, but that doesn’t mean he needs to be such a blank slate early on. Over the first half of the film I think Mann relies too much on Dillinger’s name and Depp’s celebrity and fails to truly develop the character, to give us a reason to care. I think that half-measure, as much as anything, contributes to the feeling that Public Enemies is mostly moodless. Depp’s Dillinger doesn’t have the desperation of James Caan’s Frank in Thief, or the bottled intensity and loneliness of De Niro’s Neil in Heat, or the anguish of Russell Crowe’s Jeffrey Wigand in The Insider, or the vulnerability of Jamie Foxx’s Max in Collateral. Instead, he’s something of a paper doll, clad in the real Dillinger’s notoriousness and the real Depp’s celebrity swagger.
It doesn’t help, by the way, that many of Depp’s lines are nearly inaudible, the fault of some astonishingly sloppy sound editing. The first time I saw Public Enemies, I figured it was the fault of the theater, but then I saw it again across town and the problems were the same. There are a few instances in which Depp’s lines are somehow quieter than the lines of the person sitting right next to him, and in the first conversation between Dillinger and Alvin Karpis (Giovanni Ribisi) the dubbing is crude to say the least. These blunders don’t ruin Public Enemies, of course, but they are obstacles that make it difficult to fall under the movie’s spell. Not to mention that it’s rather shocking that a director who flip-flops between film and digital in order to achieve his desired visual aesthetic would be so careless about the audio. But I digress.
Perhaps the best way to understand Public Enemies is to look back at the Mann films that came before it. So let’s begin at Mann’s first feature film, 1981’s Thief. That picture, about a meticulous thief looking to pull one last big job so that he can leave the criminal world in favor of a new life with the woman he loves, debuts themes and devices that Mann has reused and refined many times since. So my question to you is this: Eight movies later, looking backward, does Thief strike you as a bold early breakthrough, an experimental first draft, or something else altogether?
EH: There’s no doubt, it’s a remarkable debut, the emergence of a new talent almost fully formed. Mann had worked for several years previously in television, and before that he’d made some short films and documentaries on his own, so for his first true feature, he seems entirely in control, entirely sure of what he wants to say and how to say it. There are rough spots here and there—a few odd editing choices, occasional unclear visual storytelling—but on the whole it’s a polished, self-assured film for a first-time director. And it’s also a thematically rich film, the film that in many ways establishes the territory that Mann would return to again and again. James Caan’s Frank is Neil McCauley, he is John Dillinger. He’s the typical Mann lead who would reappear in picture after picture: A man totally dedicated to his work, proud of being the best at what he does, but also desperate for something beyond the work, something special of his own. Mann’s heroes and anti-heroes are almost always consumed by the desire for a family, for normality and stability, and at the same time they know that it’s not really for them, that they could never balance the life they lead with the life they want.
Mann virtually quotes from this film in Heat, both narratively (the crooks in both films escape the cops by placing a bug on a bus bound out of town) and especially thematically. Frank, like Neil in Heat, has the idea, learned in prison, that a man shouldn’t have any attachments in his life, that he shouldn’t care about anything. But he can’t help desperately yearning for a family. He carries around a collage postcard to remind himself of everything he wants, all the elements that when put together will represent his life. He seems to think of life as something you build, piece by piece, getting the ingredients together the way he prepares for a job: Methodical, mechanical, detail-oriented. He wants a wife, so he simply lays out the score for Jessie (Tuesday Weld), a damaged woman who agrees to throw in with him. He wants a son and she can’t have one, and his prison record prevents them from adopting, so instead he outright buys a baby through his syndicate boss Leo (the wonderfully creepy, lizard-like Robert Prosky). He buys a house, too, out in the suburbs with, as his partner Barry (Jim Belushi) describes it, “pink trees.” Frank is creating a model life for himself, a façade of suburban respectability, as though he can transform himself overnight into a normal guy.
The film is visually sumptuous, of course, and in that respect too it’s a bold debut, a heist movie where the emphasis is on slow-burning tension rather than action. It’s driven by the sinister motorik pulse of Tangerine Dream’s score, and the lush painterly quality of the images complements this atmospheric music. Mann places the emphasis on process: The safecracking jobs in this film are every bit as elaborate and carefully staged as the famous heist in Jules Dassin’s Rififi. Thief opens with a lengthy depiction of a robbery job, with Mann cutting around to each participant, showing his role in the plan. It’s all carefully calibrated, each piece fitting together, each person doing his specialized job at exactly the right moment. Mann shoots closeups of the wires in the alarm box, and of the drill as it slices through the safe’s exterior, revealing the lock mechanism within. Later, he spends even more time with the film’s central robbery, the archetypal crime film “one last job” that Frank plans along with his new syndicate benefactors. The gang cuts through a safe with a tremendous blowtorch rig, and Mann lingers lovingly over the sparks flying up from the super-heated metal as it slices into the door. He captures the white-hot tip of the torch, the yellow glow of the melting metal, the white fog that drifts around the room from the fire extinguisher. It becomes sensual and stylized, not just a depiction of a practical process but a celebration of heat and light and energy in this enclosed space. This is what Mann’s films, at their best, are all about: Transcending the ordinary genre conventions of what they’re showing to get at something deeper underneath, maybe the “religious experience” you mentioned, or maybe just the human vulnerability of his tough guy protagonists.
JB: I agree. Though Mann’s detractors sometimes suggest that his obsessions with machinery and procedurals reveal some kind of testosterone overload, I think such disparagement overlooks how often a man’s profession is the backbone of his identity—especially for single men. Granted, this picture takes that to the nth degree; I mean, it’s called Thief, for crying out loud. But all those long sequences of Frank at work reveal who he is and what he stands for. Thieves in the movies who claim to be the best at what they do are a dime a dozen. Frank stands out, as does the gang from Heat, because he proves it. He walks the walk. His methods, save the improvised blowtorch device, aren’t cutting-edge. Instead, Frank gets more out of a saw, crowbar and drill than the next guy. It’s not the tools that are good; he’s good. Thus, to watch Frank is to know who he is, not just professionally but personally. (And at this point I must pause to point out that while Dillinger’s multiple prison breaks establish his cunning in the early goings of Public Enemies, I didn’t get the same window into Dillinger’s soul watching him work that I do watching Frank’s thievery in Thief or Neil’s in Heat, or even watching Jamie Foxx’s Max cleaning his cab in Collateral.)
Thief is definitely an explosive beginning for Mann, and that’s fitting because this film initiates Mann’s tradition of explosive openings. Mann is almost unrivaled in his ability to bring us into the action in the opening fifteen minutes. To be clear, that doesn’t mean we can always immediately forecast the nature of the plot (the first thematic crisis point often doesn’t reveal itself until much later), but, as if working from Neil’s stopwatch, within fifteen minutes we are hooked. To go back to the foreplay example, Mann is expert at putting us “in the mood.” In the case of Public Enemies, it’s watching Dillinger break his buddies out of jail. Here it’s watching Frank break into a safe.
The opening minutes of Thief are also noteworthy because they suggest to me that they had a significant impact on another director we’ve discussed previously, David Fincher. Most particularly, there’s the shot in which Mann’s camera enters a hole that Frank has drilled in a safe—a camera gimmick that Fincher has riffed on several times, most notably in Panic Room when the camera goes inside the lock of a door and through the handle of a coffee pot. On top of that, Thief’s slow vertical pan showing the moonlight illuminating the empty fire escapes of several buildings and then settling on the rain-soaked road below recalls the tableaux of Se7en and, for that matter, Madonna’s “Express Yourself” video. Not to mention that after the movie-opening heist we watch Frank relax by sitting on a dock and sharing a view of an almost surreal sunrise that now recalls a similar shot of a sunset from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. But, again, I digress.
Maybe the most interesting thing for me about Thief looking backward is that Frank is Mann’s most emotionally overt and sensitive criminal quasi-loner, thanks in large part to that great coffee shop scene with Jessie (which is more forthcoming, if less magical, than the legendary coffee shop scene in Heat) and the child adoption subplot, and yet it’s Frank who most deliberately, consciously and definitively gives up on his idyllic vision of typical domestic happiness. Frank’s hand is forced, of course, by Leo (and, yes, Prosky is terrific!), but when he breaks off his relationship with Jessie he knows exactly what he’s doing. Heat’s Neil, on the other hand, thinks he can get vengeance on Waingro and “go away” with Eady right up to the point that he’s running for his life, and Public Enemies’ Dillinger never actually gives up on reuniting with Billie until his life is taken from him. In hindsight, if you know Mann’s work, Frank’s abrupt abandonment of Jessie is inevitable, but at the time it must have seemed shocking and even more tragic than it plays today to folks like me who encountered Mann’s films out of order.
EH: Interesting that these comparisons to Fincher keep coming up. Both directors are definitely interested in process, though arguably Fincher uses a focus on process as a way of exploring his signature themes, while for Mann the procedures and routines of work are windows into the souls of his characters. At the same time, I think you’re right that Frank is the most naked and vulnerable of Mann’s heroes, with the possible exceptions of Max in Collateral and Jeffrey Wigand in The Insider. Mann’s characters sometimes tend towards archetypes rather than fully developed people, which can make them difficult to get close to. Frank lays bare his soul in a way that Mann’s other characters seldom do, and this makes him one of the most self-aware of Mann’s heroes as well. If Neil and his opposite number Vincent (Al Pacino) in Heat seem to yearn unconsciously for the connections and stability of family life, Frank is acutely conscious of what he lacks, and he tries to get it by following the plan he’s laid out for himself. Of course, as the most self-conscious Mann hero, he’s also the one who, once he has what he thought he wanted, realizes that he has to destroy it, and does so with the same methodical skill he applies to his safecracking operations.
Also, in the spirit of digression, one of the least remarked-upon aspects of Thief is doubtless how quirky and strange the film can be in isolated moments. The film’s overall sense of escalating dread and its moody, low-key visual atmosphere tend to be the takeaways, especially since the last shot is that dark, distanced image of Frank being swallowed up into the night on a suburban street, leaving a handful of bodies strewn around behind him. But the film is packed with odd little moments of humor and eccentric details that waft around the fringes of the narrative. Some of these are perhaps unintentionally funny or disorienting, like the unforgettably cheesy beachside interlude with a hairy, shirtless James Caan, or the way the final shootout includes that puzzling cutaway to a random woman who’s never seen before or after that point. Other moments are more intentionally amusing, like the metal shop owner who muses about his white-coated new assistant: “What’s he gonna do, discover penicillin?” Or that odd sunrise scene you mention, with a fisherman praising the glory of “the sky king.” Or Frank’s escalating outrage and hilariously inappropriate racial remarks at the adoption agency. Or, surely the funniest scene, the subtle non-verbal bargaining going on between a crooked lawyer and an even more crooked judge to get Frank’s mentor Okla (Willie Nelson) released from prison.
These kinds of diversions aren’t really what we think of when we think of a Michael Mann film, but they’re all part of the texture of his debut. When people talk about Mann, they tend to give the impression that the films are tough and violent, testosterone-driven, grim and relentless. Scenes like this, so easily forgotten and yet so important in infusing his films with vitality and life, prove that there’s more to Mann as a director than a machismo-obsessed crime/action stylist.
JB: Exactly. I mean, there’s no arguing that he’s obsessed with machismo and that his films are dominated by meditations on maleness, but Mann isn’t limited to that. When Mann does make time for female characters (perhaps begrudgingly), it’s amazing how affecting those scenes can be. Many of those moments we’ll get to later, but in Thief that aforementioned diner sequence is terrific not just because of how much it reveals about Frank but for what it reveals about Jessie. Tuesday Weld is outstanding in those ten minutes, conveying years worth of heartbreak and loneliness with a believability that reminds me of some of Julianne Moore’s best work. Frank is right: Jessie is “hiding out” in plain sight; she’s playing not to lose. Those aren’t just words; we see that in Weld’s portrayal. Her performance is crucial because it’s the key to our ability to believe that Jessie would dive into this otherwise ill-advised relationship with a criminal she barely knows. Frank gives Jessie the opportunity to reengage with life. From that perspective, it would be reckless not to follow him. It’s a complex sequence.
Yet despite the director’s deft touch when he deigns to let a female fill the screen, it’s almost impossible to imagine Mann helming a female-dominated movie, unless the ladies in question were covered in prison tattoos. That’s why it’s all too appropriate that Mann went on to direct Manhunter, which features a villain (Tom Noonan’s Francis Dollarhyde) whose animosity stems from his failure to connect with women. My impression is that Manhunter gets more chatter these days than Thief, if for no other reason than its introduction of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter character, who here is called Hannibal Lecktor. (Mann fanboys, and those still bitter over the Oscar dominance of The Silence of the Lambs, love to argue that Brian Cox’s performance here is superior to Anthony Hopkins’ subsequent award-winning one.) But for me, time has been far kinder to Thief than to Manhunter. True, the former dates itself with Caan’s hairy-chested strutting and James Belushi’s belly-jiggling running in the beach scene, but Manhunter plays like a billboard for the 1980s Miami Vice (TV) aesthetic, which in terms of both style and mood has proved anything but timeless.
EH: It’s true that, seen today, Manhunter has more than its share of cringe-inducing moments and silly stylistic flourishes, many of them stemming more from the simple passage of time than from any intrinsic fault of the film. The synth-heavy score, featuring music by Michael Rubini and New Wave guitar/keyboard duo The Reds, treads some of the same ground as Tangerine Dream’s moody score for Thief, but there are also a number of awful ‘80s-ish pop songs to date the film. Many of the upbeat pop tunes packed into the film sit uneasily against the dark mood of the material; the music often seems more appropriate for a Rocky sequel than this tense, immersive police procedural. Similarly, the sex scene between the serial killer Dollarhyde and his blind lover Reba (Joan Allen) is laughably cheesy and overblown, as are many of the other moments between this unlikely pair. What the hell was up with Dollarhyde taking Reba to feel up a tiger, anyway?
More damagingly, Mann’s stylization seems almost arbitrary at times, distracting from rather than contributing to the overall mood. If style and substance are inextricably intertwined in Thief, here Mann’s style is often reduced to a set of tics layered over the story. The periodic use of stuttery jump cuts is especially distracting, and seemingly unmotivated. These jump cuts turn the poorly staged final fight scene into a muddle of disconnected shots and unclear action. If there’s one thing we can usually count on in a Mann film, it’s compelling action, so this flubbed finale is particularly disappointing. Mann builds up to this climax with the great sequence of Reba stumbling around Dollarhyde’s home while the killer stalks her, blasting Iron Butterfly’s prog epic “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida,” which is actually used very well to lend an air of sinister theatricality to the scene. That all this build-up dissipates into such a lackluster fight scene indicates that Mann was still several years away from the masterful, large-scale battle scenes of The Last of the Mohicans and Heat.
Still, the film is interesting and compelling in other ways, and it ties in nicely with the development of Mann’s themes and characteristic heroes. Like Thief, this is at heart a film about family and the desire for family. Serial killer profiler Will Graham (William Petersen) is a family man, and his wife Molly (Kim Greist) and fair-haired son Kevin (David Seaman) appear in the opening scenes as a vision of happiness and contentment. Graham is a man who has forgotten his dark past and settled into a peaceful, idyllic existence by the seashore with his family. This idyll is disrupted when Graham learns of the serial killer nicknamed the Tooth Fairy, who is killing entire families. Graham is reluctant to return to his old job, but he does so primarily because he is disturbed by the killer’s destruction of happy families. The killer traces his prey through home movies, records of mundane happiness around the home, and Graham, following the killer without realizing it at first, grows acquainted with the victims through the same means.
As we’ve discussed, Mann’s characters thirst for a home life, for normality, for the pleasures of a pretty wife, children, a nice house: Comfort, security, safety, sexual fulfillment. Graham, unlike other Mann heroes, has these things, and wants to protect them. That’s why the worst thing the killer can do is target his family, and the worst thing that Hannibal Lecktor can do is give Dollarhyde Graham’s home address, essentially an invitation to tear apart that happy, attractive family. In this case, however, the family remains intact, and the film is framed by images of Graham’s seaside home. The film ends with an idealized shot of the family trio framed against the ocean, as the words “A Michael Mann Film” appear on the screen; it’s as though he’s claiming this family photo, this theme, for himself.
JB: At the least, Mann might be claiming that seaside view for himself. The dude loves his water shots, and in particular those shots from water’s edge that look out over a seemingly infinite ocean. The themes for Mann’s water shots vary somewhat, but this type of shot construction in particular tends to suggest promise and freedom in the view ahead and messiness and conflict behind. In Manhunter, Will leaves the peace and tranquility of his beachfront property to pursue the Tooth Fairy by attempting to enter his thoughts, so the return to the beach symbolizes that once again Will has liberated himself from the mind of a monster, and that he’s going as far away from the madness as possible. Heat, of course, uses a similar tableau in regard to De Niro’s Neil, who has an empty house looking out over the Pacific Ocean, suggesting not only Neil’s desire to “go away” from his life of crime, but also the vast uncertainty of that future. In The Insider, Jeffrey Wigand looks out over water while deciding whether or not to break his confidentiality agreement. In Collateral, Max keeps a postcard picture of an island on the backside of his visor as a way to find tranquility. And, of course, Miami Vice has water, water everywhere.
As for the stylization of the conclusion, it only takes watching the fourth part of Matt Zoller Seitz’s excellent series of video commentaries on Mann to see that the compositions and cuts are in no way arbitrary. Then again, thoughtful filmmaking isn’t the same thing as effective filmmaking, and so while Matt’s analysis enhanced my appreciation of Mann’s technique, it doesn’t necessarily alter my response to the film itself. Manhunter is so tied to the overly dramatic style of ‘80s MTV videos that I struggle to take it seriously. (There are at least three scenes in which Will, sitting alone, gets all worked up and begins shouting into the nothingness, cursing at the Tooth Fairy, and each of them is awkward.) It’s fitting, really, that the synthesizer was the iconic musical instrument of the era, because even the visuals of ‘80s music videos are somehow inorganic—a fusion of borrowed ideas and themes—and Mann’s film emulates them. Or maybe more accurately, those videos emulate Mann’s small-screen Miami Vice, and he completes the circle. In any case, Manhunter is a film that strikes me as from the ‘80s, of the ‘80s and, here’s the kicker, for the ‘80s. For whatever reason, it doesn’t translate.
Having made that argument, though, which is subjective to begin with, allow me to discredit it. I’m entirely aware that much of what I’m rejecting in Manhunter has nothing to do with Mann or the “What were they thinking!?” filmmaking conventions of the era. (Our current decade seems doomed to be remembered for its excessive and frequently pointless use of shakycam; fads rarely age with dignity.) Instead what I’m objecting to is the ‘80s itself, pure and simple. I mean, is it really fair to hold Mann responsible because the film-closing song “Heartbeat” by Red 7 hasn’t aged as well as The Graduate’s film-opening “The Sound of Silence,” or any of the other Simon & Garfunkel tunes that help make Mike Nichols’ film a classic more than 40 years later? At least in this case the ‘80s music is appropriate for its setting; This isn’t Jerry Goldsmith’s synthesized score for Hoosiers, which was hip in 1986 but seems wildly out of place now for a story set in the 1950s. Effectively there’s a degree to which I’m saying that I don’t like what the movie is about and therefore I don’t like the movie. Manhunter is soaked in the stench of the ‘80s. So I’m curious what you think: Is time the best judge of success? If so, is it fair or foul to conclude that Manhunter has a relatively short shelf-life mainly because its then-contemporary trends proved to have a short shelf-life?
EH: If you ask me, the possibility that your film won’t stand up in ten or twenty years is the price you pay for deciding to include the fads of the time as decorative flourishes. The best films are timeless and, to the extent that they incorporate the styles of the era in which they were made, they do so as part of the film’s milieu. It would be silly to criticize a film because the characters are dressed in ‘80s fashion, for example—‘80s French films by directors like Eric Rohmer and Jean-Luc Godard are filled with some now-hilarious couture, but it’s there because that’s what these people wore at that time, and as a result it’s not as distracting as Mann’s appropriation of upbeat synth-pop or his flashy MTV aesthetic strategies. It’s one thing for a film to reflect its time; that’s understandable and even desirable. It’s something else to get so caught up in “the now” that in five years your film seems more like a time capsule than a piece of art.
So while I recognize that certain things in Manhunter just haven’t aged well, it’s still hard not to pin some of the blame on Mann, who often seems susceptible to following hip trends. I like Chris Cornell much better than ‘80s synth-pop, but I wonder if in a couple of decades the Audioslave tracks in Miami Vice will seem as out-of-place as much of the music in Manhunter—certainly the Jay-Z/Linkin Park mashup is already embarrassing, as is Moby’s lame techno remix of a Patti LaBelle song. The point is, music is particularly subject to rapid dating and rapid shifts in style, so when your soundtrack is a collage of hot current tunes, you run the risk of being out of date in a few short years. Tangerine Dream’s synth score for Thief is still haunting and oddly beautiful, but the music in Manhunter hasn’t held up nearly as well.
There’s another sense in which Manhunter doesn’t work as well today as it might have upon release, and this too has more to do with forces outside of Mann’s control. In the years since this film’s release, the popularity of both the serial killer genre and the police procedural has rendered cliché many of the film’s narrative tropes. The killer and his pursuer as mirror image reflections of one another? Yawn. The killer who feels like an outcast because of a physical deformity and a lack of love in his childhood? Double yawn. Nowadays you can turn on Law & Order for comparable themes and ideas; doubtless the film seemed fresher back before Anthony Hopkins’ much more theatrical, over-the-top version of Hannibal Lecter captured the public imagination. Matt’s video essay about this film is typically erudite and insightful, but his intellectual responses to what’s happening in a scene can’t override my visceral response. He describes that shot of Dollarhyde as the villain breaking through the movie screen, an extension of Mann’s voyeurism theme, and he’s probably right, but all I can see is an awkward, goofy action movie cliché, poorly staged in stuttery slo-mo. The film is interesting and complex—not to mention memorably creepy (“do you see?”)—but it’s also kind of clunky and off-kilter.
JB: Yeah, that sounds about right. Indeed, the ubiquity of serial killer psychodramas and police procedurals must have dulled any edge Manhunter once had. On the other hand, Zodiac swooped in just a few years ago and, while borrowing from Manhunter (“Hurdy Gurdy Man” instead of “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida;” forensic examination of Zodiac messages replacing forensic examination of a Tooth Fairy message; etc.), managed to create something that I think will stand the test of time. Perhaps the lesson here is that it’s safer to recreate past eras than to try to portray the still evolving present. Perhaps Mann sensed that. And perhaps that’s what sent him all the way back to 1757 for the setting of his next film, The Last of the Mohicans.
As extraordinary a thematic leap as that seemed upon the film’s release in 1992, I find it even more remarkable in hindsight, now that Heat, Miami Vice and Public Enemies have proved that Mann was hardly over his love affair with the crime drama when he made this historical epic. Yet the most astonishing thing of all is how naturally Mann works within the genre. Sure, there are battles galore in The Last of the Mohicans, but if Mann had an urge to modernize the action in this picture, he resisted it. Mohicans is one of those films that feels vintage—in a good way—before you’re even through watching it.
Rather than force his visual aesthetic onto Mohicans, Mann made his mark in the dramatic themes: The loner hero; the object of affection who falls in love quickly and fully and brings salvation to the hero; the need of the hero to finish the fight; the largely tragic (though admittedly not completely tragic) conclusion. Mohicans has a few moments that make me cringe (that terribly goofy exchange about Hawkeye’s “reason to stay” at the fort), and it has moments that make me scratch my head (so Hawkeye was raised by Mohicans and got the same English schooling as his Mohican brother, and yet he’s the only one with an English accent? Huh?). Nevertheless, I consider this to be Mann’s third best picture. I’m a sucker for its epic romanticism and historical trappings. How about you?
EH: I can’t say I’m as enamored of this one as you are, but it’s an enjoyable film that, as you say, both feels like a Mann film (the tough, impenetrable protagonist with a makeshift family) and doesn’t feel like one (the historical setting with its relatively straightforward visual palette). Despite the uncharacteristic setting, Mann does still find a way to incorporate his signature striking images: The nighttime siege on Fort William Henry, with cannons bursting red and orange through drifting gunsmoke, is pure Mann, as abstract and dangerously beautiful as the showers of welding sparks in Thief. Moreover, the action sequences are as viscerally exciting as those in Heat. The fight where Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his family rescue Cora (Madeleine Stowe) and Alice (Jodhi May) from the Huron attack is potent and fierce, as is the later Huron attack on the surrendering, retreating British soldiers. In the hand-to-hand fight sequences, each bullet is felt as it rips through flesh, each tomahawk leaves its mark as it hits. Mann emphasizes the sickly thud of hard objects hitting soft flesh, and the battles are all the more effective for this emphasis on viscera. The film isn’t gory, really—other than Magua (Wes Studi) slicing open a man’s chest to eat his heart—but it’s also not the type of film where all the large-scale battles are chronicled from a remote distance. Mann prefers to get right in there, making us feel the violence rather than just see it.
I must admit, however, that despite the thrilling plot I have a hard time getting into the film on a deeper level. Mann’s characters often verge on the iconic, drawing on genre archetypes, but here I’m not sure he actually has much to add to these archetypes once he’s stripped them down. He’s dealing in some of the oldest Hollywood types and ideas, recycled from countless other Westerns: The “good” noble savage Indian versus the “bad” angry, vengeful Indian; the evil, slimy white men who betray their word; the hero who exists halfway between the white world and the Indian world; the independent woman who falls in love with the outcast instead of the safe, stable man she’s supposed to marry. This is admittedly little different from the way Mann resurrects noir icons in his other films, but guys like Frank and Neil have depth and individuality in a way that Hawkeye and the rest of these characters just don’t. They’re virtually stick figures propelling themselves through the action-packed plot, occasionally pausing long enough for Hawkeye to unleash one of his groaner lines, like the one you cite above or the stilted threat, “someday I think you and I are going to have a serious disagreement.” (Ooooh, you tell him, Hawkeye!) Mann apparently cut a lot of these lines out of his director’s cut, and with good reason, but ironically without them Hawkeye has even less personality.
The result is that the film feels like somewhat schematic Mann. His usual themes are there, albeit in new trappings, and purely as a narrative the film moves with a relentless, chugging pace; it’s great storytelling. Sometimes that’s enough. But I can’t help thinking that the film is hollow at its core, that it’s trying to force its themes and messages on us rather than really making us feel them through the characters and aesthetics. There are passages of bravura filmmaking here, to be sure, but the overall impression is of a solid action epic with generic (if well-acted) characters. So what am I missing?
JB: Um, nothing. Unless maybe you’re missing the point, or what I see as the point anyway. Your analysis of the film’s strengths and weaknesses is right on the money. However, I think this film works a little differently than the others. It’s true, for example, that Hawkeye lacks the depth of Frank and Neil, but it’s also true Mann doesn’t seem interested in providing him with such complexity. If it were another filmmaker, my conclusion might be that the writer/director didn’t care, or didn’t notice, or didn’t have the necessary skills to get the job done. But we know better. And so without meaning to imply that great filmmakers are flawless, and at the risk of sounding like an apologist, I think Mann is going for something else here.
The Last of the Mohicans isn’t a character examination like so many of his other films are (even if they don’t look like it at first glance). Instead it’s an ode to love and survival. It’s a romance, defined by the relationship between Hawkeye and Cora but extending to include what I see as a love letter from Mann to a time and place in which believing in survival and the future was a daily leap of faith. Thus it’s fitting that this is something of an opera—grand, passionate, tragic and, especially, musical. Though time hasn’t always been kind to his selections (see: Manhunter), Mann uses music as effectively and evocatively as any filmmaker ever has, and in that regard Mohicans might be his masterpiece. It isn’t just that the Randy Edelman/Trevor Jones score is magnificent, though it is; it’s that their magnificent score is essential. Truly, this film couldn’t succeed without its sweeping musical accompaniment.
Think of it this way: If one could turn down the often troublesome dialogue in this film and leave only the score, the sounds of battle (including those chilling Mohawk screams before the second ambush of the British) and the sounds of nature, would we miss anything? Maybe Hawkeye’s “I will find you” speech, which is the film’s Casablanca moment, but other than that, anything? More importantly, would we miss any of the meaning? Like opera, you don’t need to know the words to understand what’s being expressed. In that way the prop characters and archetypal narrative, which to some degree must be ascribed to James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 source material, are assets that liberate Mann. Hawkeye, Cora and Magua—you know them just to look at them. There’s nothing to explain, and thus the music provides the only words that count. As if to underline the point, Mann mutes the heroes’ screams of desperation in two of the film’s most gripping sequences: The aforementioned second ambush of the British, in which Hawkeye runs through the chaos to get to Cora, and the final desperate attempt to rescue Alice. The latter includes what for me is one of the most heart-wrenching moments in cinema history as Alice backs away from Magua: With the Edelman/Jones score at its emotional peak, Mann volleys between shots of Alice’s soft, gorgeous face, highlighted by beautiful but now hopeless eyes, and Magua’s visage of intensity and bloodlust that transforms into an expression of befuddlement and then one of utter indifference.
EH: What you’re getting at here is actually one of my favorite things about the film: Its often brilliant dialogue-free storytelling. The sequence you talk about with the attempted rescue of Alice is part of one of the film’s most breathtaking stretches, the climax and finale. After the verbal showdown with Magua in front of the Huron leader, the remainder of the film is largely visual, with hardly another word spoken until the final scene. The precision of Mann’s editing and filmmaking is stunning, especially during Alice’s suicide. She steps to the edge and Mann focuses on her face, as she first looks down for a long time, eyeing the fall ahead of her, thinking carefully, then looks up for a haunting closeup, her eyes filled with defiance and resignation. Mann inserts shots of Magua lowering his knife before he gestures to the girl, brusquely, just a wave of his fingers for her to come back to him; you can see he fully expects her to comply. And then she lets herself drop instead. The way Mann cuts back and forth between the two characters infuses each movement, each facial expression, with incredible import. The moment is stretched out by the editing so that the emotions and thought processes preceding Alice’s suicide are fully felt: Without a word, we understand what she’s thinking, feel her desperation, know why she’s doing it.
Mann follows this sequence with the survivors—Hawkeye, Cora, and Hawkeye’s adoptive Mohican father Chingachgook (Russell Means)—performing a kind of funeral ceremony on the edge of a cliff. Mann shoots the trio in profile, their faces nested within one another like Matryoshka dolls, the composition suggesting both that they’re united in grief, and that they’ve now formed a new, if smaller, family structure together. At its best, Mann’s filmmaking says so much without words, and the climax to Last of the Mohicans is undoubtedly an example of his best filmmaking. That the film is at other times comparatively impenetrable and generic is perhaps forgivable in light of the film’s many admirable sequences.
Of course, there’s no need to be so reserved about Mann’s next film, Heat, his return to the crime genre that kicked off his career, and arguably the most characteristic Mann film. If someone who was completely unfamiliar with Mann wanted to know what he was all about, this is the film to point them towards, the film that contains the essence of his cinema. It’s populated with some of his most memorable characters, two opposing groups of hard, dedicated men, each of them determined to do their jobs well, even if it means they lose everything. On one side, Mann places a gang of gifted crooks, led by Robert De Niro’s Neil McCauley, and on the other side are the cops who are trying to catch them, led by Al Pacino’s Vincent Hanna. It’s typical of Mann that he treats crime and crime-fighting as simply opposing professions; the film is a poetic exploration of the romance of the criminal and the attempt to balance hard work against the desire for family. It’s probably Mann’s richest, most fertile film, an epic in which every moment counts, every little detail adds to the cumulative effect of the whole.
JB: Heat is a classic. It’s Mann’s masterpiece. I don’t keep lists, but there’s no question that it’s one of the best American films made in my lifetime. This doesn’t mean it’s flawless. (The scene in which Vincent intimidates Hank Azaria’s Alan Marciano by screaming about the “great ass” of Ashley Judd’s Charlene Shiherlis—a rant that might as well be punctuated with a “Whoo-ah!”—is cringe-inducing from start to finish.) But Heat is sumptuous, powerful, visceral and lyrical. Best of all, it’s a film that keeps on giving. I must have seen Heat a dozen times by now, and each viewing is a little different, each viewing reveals something more, or speaks to me with different intonations. Earlier in this conversation I suggested that many of Mann’s films can entertain on both a surface action level and a deeper emotional level, and Heat provides the textbook example of that. It is oozing with the moods—pathos, gravitas, ecstasy—that Mann is always carefully constructing, and yet all of that can be so easily overlooked by the casual viewer given the intricacy, force and thrills of the movie’s crime caper, which is so well done that Heat might have been a classic genre flick even if those deeper emotional levels were removed.
Given how infrequently we see balls-to-the-wall action in anything outside of a prototypical action film, it would be so easy to suggest that Heat’s emotional resonance is subtext. But that would be a mistake; it’s the other way around. The movie’s bank heist turned O.K. Corral shootout in downtown Los Angeles is on the short list of the greatest action sequences ever filmed, and it’s one of Heat’s two most iconic moments (the other being the coffee shop scene that brought Pacino and De Niro “together” at last), and yet thematically it would be more appropriate to cut that epic action sequence than to take away Neil and Eady’s intimate conversation overlooking L.A.’s sea of lights. But all this would be hard to explain to that hypothetical Mann virgin that you mentioned earlier. As Nick James puts it in his BFI Modern Classics examination, Heat is a “slippery behemoth…to define.”
EH: You’re right about how expansive this film is. It’s not just long, it’s packed with detail, with subplots and themes and little moments that illuminate the characters and suggest connections between them. As you point out, its expansiveness isn’t without flaws, either, some of them related to Pacino, who plays the cop Vincent as one of his characteristic fire-breathing, bombastic tough guys. He’s not quite a self-parody yet, but he’s just about at the peak of where he could go with this cartoonish style without verging into self-parody. And there are times when he does slip seamlessly over that line, aided by Mann’s occasionally pulpish dialogue. But then, that’s part of the character, and of the film. If there’s one thing Heat is not, it’s understated. The film has moments where it approaches the moody meandering of Thief—like that conversation you mention between Neil and Eady, which has always seemed distractingly unreal to me, the actors very distinct from the background—but for the most part its tone is operatic and grand.
At least, the surface of the film is operatic. In fact, Mann is working on multiple levels here. There’s so much going on right on the surface of the film, in its big, broadly stated emotions and themes—not to mention its action—that the subtler undercurrents can sometimes slip right by those who get stuck on the surface. A good example is the way Mann develops the parallels between Neil and Vincent, who exist as mirror images of one another, both driven professionals who have sacrificed the stability of a home life for their careers. The two men actually meet face to face only twice in the film, once in the famous coffee shop scene you mention, and again at the end of the film. But I’m more interested in two scenes that precede either of these meetings, scenes in which Mann emphasizes the connection between these men without even placing them in the same space.
The first of these scenes takes place during the failed platinum robbery, when Neil steps outside as a lookout and hears a noise from across the street, where Vincent and his men are hiding. Mann cuts back and forth between the two men in 180-degree reaction shots, as though they were together in the same room, face to face. The shots progressively focus more and more on their eyes, and this sequence creates the illusion that they are staring one another down, even though Neil cannot see Vincent and Vincent sees only a blue-tinted night-vision image of his adversary. This dynamic is then reversed for the sequence where Neil cleverly gets the cops to expose themselves at a shipping yard, while he hides high above them snapping pictures. In addition to neatly mirroring the earlier scene, this scene places the robber Neil in the cop’s role, as an investigator, gathering information about his opposite number. In effect, before Neil and Vincent actually meet, they have studied one another with voyeuristic intensity, taking turns as voyeur and subject, as hunter and prey. They’ve each gotten one over on the other, each been able to observe the other from hiding. The formalist structure of Mann’s filmmaking essentially defines the struggle between Vincent and Neil, exploring the reversals of power and control between cop and robber.
JB: You hit the nail on the head when you say that Neil and Vincent behold one another with “voyeuristic intensity.” The mirroring of those rival characters is evoked so lucidly by Mann, and has been discussed so frequently by Heat aficionados, that I’d feel foolish going into too much detail about it. Nevertheless, Neil and Vincent are indeed soul mates—two devout loners who understand one another in a way that no one else could, who are brought together precisely because of the strict adherence to their principles that keeps everyone else away. (They’d remain loners if not for the adversarial nature of their professions, which puts their otherwise parallel lives on a collision course.) The voyeuristic element of their relationship applies most obviously to the way that Neil and Vincent admire one another’s excellence, which is a strange way of actually admiring their own brilliance. They see in one another a worthy foe (at last!), and it titillates them (particularly Vincent, who at one point is said to have a “hard-on” for Neil). But the voyeuristic nature of their relationship doesn’t end there, because what’s seldom mentioned is that Neil and Vincent each have something that the other one covets. In the coffee shop scene, Neil pokes holes in the notion that Vincent could afford to have a family life and still succeed in his profession, and yet it’s clear that Neil longs for a chance to take his timecard and punch out, to not have to be “on” all the time. Likewise, Vincent, who finds his deteriorating relationship with his wife (Diane Venora’s Justine) and his affection for his stepdaughter (Natalie Portman’s Lauren) to be burdensome, wishes he had the fortitude to follow Neil’s strict code of loner conduct. He calls Neil’s life “vacant,” but at the same time Vincent admits that chasing crooks isn’t just the only life he knows, it’s the only life he wants to know.
While we’re here, it’s important to note that Mann’s mirroring shot construction does more than just establish Neil and Vincent’s similarities. It also evokes their isolation. Truthfully, in terms of the cinematography informing the movie’s themes, I think it’s this latter quality that a viewer feels most powerfully the first time watching Heat. Given that Mann had the juicy opportunity to give De Niro and Pacino their inaugural big-screen pairing, it must have taken tremendous will power on his part to refrain from using a traditional two-shot during the now famous coffee shop scene, instead always shooting over the shoulder of one of the actors and into the face of the other, but the result is genius. By never quite showing Neil and Vincent “together,” Mann further illustrates their isolation, boldly underlining that even though their conversation may provide a moment of bonding, they are still wary, hesitant and ultimately incapable of letting anyone else in, even someone they so intimately understand. By avoiding the two-shot, Mann allows the characters to maintain a safe distance from one another, as if the table between them is an endless abyss. It’s tremendous filmmaking—sharp, efficient and suggestive. Best of all, it doesn’t beg for attention. The same could be said of the eventual payoff when De Niro and Pacino do get to share the same screen, in that memorable conclusion when Neil’s life is lost and, hand-in-hand, with no more need for defenses, two becomes one.
EH: Yes, Mann’s restraint in exploring this central relationship, and exploiting the titanic match-up of his famous leads, is very admirable. He has the confidence to simply suggest things that other directors would doubtless tell us outright. The precision of his filmmaking allows him to explore themes and ideas that hardly ever bubble up to the surface of his dialogue. Instead, the accumulation of small details tells us a lot about the characters and their lives. You mention how Neil wishes he could “punch out” at the end of the day, a fine insight into his character. Mann visualizes this concept with the shots of Vincent and Neil taking off their guns and placing them on a table when they come home from work (or, I suppose, “work” in Neil’s case). This shot recurs several times, and in one iteration Mann shoots from an angle where the gun is emphasized in the foreground as Neil recedes into the background, walking away from the camera. For Vincent, moments like this symbolize a real break from his work; he does periodically get to put down his gun and become a husband and father instead, even if he’s not very good at either of those roles. Neil, in contrast, only wishes that he was putting down his gun to pick up another role for a change. His apartment is nice but empty, nearly devoid of furniture, and when he places his gun down all he has to do is stare out the window. If he’s not working, he’s only returning to an empty home, to his isolation and loneliness; Vincent at least has the illusion of a family life.
Mann is frequently able to draw out nuanced emotions from his formalist and symbolic filmmaking, using these meticulous parallels in his editing and compositions to explore the ways in which the characters relate to one another. There’s a great scene late in the film when Chris (Val Kilmer) goes to see his wife Charlene, to pick her up after the bank robbery goes wrong. She’s with the cops, having grudgingly betrayed her husband, and when he shows up outside she’s supposed to walk out onto the balcony of the apartment, to show him she’s there. Again, Mann repeatedly cuts in 180-degree countershots between Chris and Charlene, her up above on the balcony, him below getting out of his car. Mann cuts between his smiling face, a broad grin spreading as he sees her, and her stoic, distanced expression. It’s a subtle, insignificant gesture that alerts Chris to her betrayal, a simple movement of her finger, which Mann captures in closeup. We see her hand, her finger moving slightly, and Mann makes sure her wedding ring is emphasized as well—as a result, we understand not only that she’s warning him off, but why she’s changed her mind, that she still has some lingering feelings of love and loyalty for her husband. It’s another scene where Mann’s habit of shot/reaction shot cutting unites two somewhat distant figures, making it seem as though they’re looking at one another face to face. But as you say about the coffee shop sequence, it also keeps them separate, each in their own space, about to be parted for good when Chris takes Charlene’s warning and disappears from her life and from the film.
JB: The goodbye between Chris and Charlene is one of those subtle, nuance-filled moments that seem ripe for reexamination each time. Chris is the one character in the film, save Portman’s Lauren, I suppose, whose future is unpredictable, and I’ve always loved his expression after Charlene gives him the wave-off: It’s one of heartbreak, sure, and also one of fear. Kilmer handles it nicely. The role of Chris isn’t so meaty that one can easily rave about Kilmer’s performance, but it would be hard to argue that Kilmer’s ever been better. (Nick James suggests the epic gunfight “may be Val Kilmer’s finest hour in the cinema. He has never looked so at ease as he is here, blazing away with a sub-machine-gun.” He’s right.) Kilmer gives exactly what’s required of him. The same goes for Tom Sizemore, whose unique blend of affability and psychosis makes him the perfect Michael Cheritto, the loyal friend who is also a little desperate. The same goes for Dennis Haysbert as Donald Breedan, the guy newly out of prison and trying to stay straight, who in just a few scenes makes Donald so endearing that we regard his involvement in the bank heist as a tragedy even before he loses his life. The same goes for Waingro portrayer Kevin Gage, who makes the usually suicidal decision to play his character as an outright sociopath but manages to avoid slipping into camp. In more peripheral roles there’s Mykelti Williamson as Sergeant Drucker (a competent No. 2 to Vincent in an era when black characters only wore badges if they emulated Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop), there’s Wes Studi as Detective Casalas (still one of the few Native American characters in a mainstream American film who isn’t a loincloth-wearer, a mystic or a drunk) and there’s Danny Trejo as Trejo (a Hispanic character who sells out his partners but nevertheless retains his honor). And I haven’t even mentioned the women.
On the whole, Heat offers the most complex and heartfelt, if still only partially developed, female characters of Mann’s oeuvre. Portman, as Lauren, provides a generally forgettable performance in her embodiment of a character made memorable by her fate, while Kim Staunton, as Donald’s girlfriend Lillian, delivers the best performance in the film that no one ever talks about. Ashley Judd, meanwhile, ensures that Charlene’s ass lives up to its reputation; she’s good at that. But mostly the film is dominated by Amy Brenneman’s Eady and Diane Venora’s Justine, the respective love interests of Neil and Vincent who come to see the illusory nature of their relationships in dramatically different ways. Brenneman’s performance is my favorite of the two because her Eady is so absolutely normal, which makes her something of an alien. The right woman for Neil? Well, of course it’s the quiet bookstore employee and artist who is new in town; the kind of girl who is so drawn to Neil’s unblinking interest that ultimately she doesn’t hear a difference between “I’m a salesman” and “I take scores.” Soft and unassuming, Eady has no business being in this film, which is precisely why her presence in it is so brilliant. Earlier, you mentioned the “distracting” unreality of the scene in which Neil and Eady fall in love over a city of light, and you’re right, but that’s what I cherish about it. It’s dreamlike. The surrealism of the composition reflects how when any two people fall in love, they feel like characters at the center of a cinematic romance. In the first blush of passion, even these two loners get to be Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, if only for one night.
EH: I agree with you about Brenneman, who delivers one of the film’s most quietly compelling performances. Her relationship with Neil seems so unlikely, and yet the way it plays out on screen is entirely natural and fluid, even during that glistening, unreal scene on Neil’s balcony. But as you point out, she’s only one among a huge cast of great actors. It’s really impressive how well-cast Mann’s films have always been. I can think of no more than a few performances in his entire oeuvre that hit very many wrong notes, and that’s including even smaller incidental roles. Part of this may be due to the fact that he’s developed a bit of a stock company, or at least a preference for reusing actors he likes. This is true not just for big parts—Pacino, Diane Venora, Jamie Foxx—but for character actors and bit players like Wes Studi as well. Watching all of Mann’s films in a condensed period accentuates this practice, turning some of his later films into a game of Spot the Character Actor: “Hey, that’s the guy who played the Southern lawyer in The Insider!” (That would be Bruce McGill, who also appears in Ali and Collateral, and who Mann presumably met when McGill was on lone episodes of his TV series Crime Story and Miami Vice.) The jowly, soulful Barry Shabaka Henley is another particularly recognizable presence throughout Mann’s latest films, but there are countless other examples. If an actor appears in one Mann film, in whatever capacity, there’s a very good chance he or she will reappear in another.
But I don’t think the relative stability of Mann’s acting pool alone accounts for the quality of the performances he so consistently gets. Whether he’s casting a lead or a character with just a few lines, he always seems attuned to every detail, to getting everything right about the character and the performance. As a result, the characters in a Mann film always seem to have lives beyond the immediate scope of the story; rarely is a Mann film burdened with a character who’s only a plot device (though Lauren arguably fulfills that function in Heat). Even a completely inconsequential character like Cheritto’s wife (Amanda Graves) can have a moment of startling clarity, like the scene where she watches a news report of the bank robbery on TV, and Mann simply frames her hand in the foreground, holding a tin can, with the TV in the background reporting her husband’s death. Domesticity and tragedy collide within the frame, and the grief of a character we hardly know is suddenly crystallized. There are other times when Mann’s small touches aren’t nearly so important or affecting but nevertheless hit us with shards of insight into the characters and situations. This time around, I got a kick out of William Fichtner’s days-old stubble after he’d been hiding out from Neil for a while; that office looks lived-in and Fichtner’s crooked businessman Van Zant looks appropriately frazzled. Of course, there are also the two dinner scenes—more mirroring between cops and robbers—where an accumulation of details increasingly isolates Vincent and Neil from their respective friends. As the other men tell jokes, flirt with their women, bullshit and laugh, the two leads subtly draw back. Nobody’s talking shop, and one senses that’s all these guys know how to do.
JB: That’s right. Those dinner scenes mark moments in which Neil and Vincent cannot ignore their detachment. As much as they might pride themselves on their commitment and focus, there is, as Neil would say, a flipside to that coin. As for Mann’s characters in general, I agree with you that they seem to have lives extending beyond the scope of the story, which is attributable to Mann’s writing, his expert casting and, I think, his tough-to-match talent for throwing us into a story, as he does with the full-throttle heist at the start of Heat, so that we feel we’re being dropped into an already moving drama without a clue about which way the current will take us. Mann’s characters, at their best, feel intoxicatingly real to me, perhaps because they tend to be driven by their emotions rather than a screenwriter’s plot points. And yet, in addition to being archetypal at times, Mann’s characters are often noticeably unreal, too. For all his attention to detail, Mann allows his characters to say some awfully goofy things. (Insert Miami Vice mojitos joke here.) Mann’s tough guys, especially, talk like, well, like movie tough guys, exhibiting a kind of verbal swagger while saying things they have no business saying, as Neil does when he tells Eady about iridescent algae in Fiji. Mann’s dialogue isn’t overtly stylized in the way of Quentin Tarantino, but when you hear a Mann line, you know it. At least once per film a character will say something that will sound like laughable melodrama, poetic genius or something in between—a non sequitur.
I know that Mann-speak turns off some audiences, but I’m rather fond of it. I like its sharpshooter’s efficiency (“I do what I do best. I take scores.”), and I forgive its moments of excess (“I’m a needle going back to zero—a double blank.”). Heat is the film that shows just how powerful Mann’s dialogue can be. Consider the coffee shop scene (“You see me doing thrill-seeker liquor store holdups with a ’Born to Lose’ tattoo on my chest?”), Neil’s menacing call to Van Zant (“I’m talking to an empty telephone.”), or Chris’ summation of his feelings for Charlene (“For me the sun rises and sets with her, man.”). And then consider this: Heat possesses one line that is the key to unlocking nearly every lead character in Mann’s oeuvre, save The Last of the Mohicans’ Hawkeye and Collateral’s Max. The line comes when Neil and his partners discover that they are under F.B.I. surveillance. The bank job has yet to be pulled and while the reward would be high, now the risk might be even higher. Neil goes in order asking his partners if they’re in or out. No one backs down, not even Michael Cheritto, who Neil encourages to walk away. Says an otherwise indifferent Cheritto: “For me, the action is the juice.” So I ask you, is there a better way to sum up the compulsions of a Mann lead, or even a Mann film, than that line?
EH: That’s definitely a great line, and a great summation of what makes Mann’s characters tick. You’re right that with Mann, the excesses of his style can be both powerful and goofy, endearing and aggravating. I’ve always liked Neil’s strange “needle going back to zero” monologue, which is like something you’d hear in the voiceover of an old noir—I can picture it coming out of the mouth of the loner anti-hero in Edgar G. Ulmer’s super-low-budget Detour, for example. But then there are other moments where the florid dialogue is distracting, like when Diane Venora tells Pacino that he’s “sifting through detritus” as part of a lengthy and overwritten speech that she has obvious trouble getting out. It’s weird how Mann can be so naturalistic and yet also so pulpy and stylized, sometimes even within a single scene. By the same token, while the characters in Heat live and breathe far beyond the confines of the plot, in some of his other work (Miami Vice, especially) the characters tend more towards archetypes (or, less generously, stereotypes), cardboard genre constructs inserted mechanically into the narrative structure.
These contradictory impulses extend to Mann’s treatment of violence and machismo, as well. As we suggested in relation to Public Enemies, Mann is interested in the romanticization of the violent outlaw—in building him up, and in simultaneously deconstructing that image. Morally, the film tries to have it both ways at various points. The script goes out of its way to make excuses for Neil, to make it clear that people are killed at the first armored car robbery only because of the itchy trigger finger of Waingro. Moreover, Waingro is later revealed as a total sociopath who’s also responsible for a string of serial murders, a subplot with little narrative rationale other than as a way of further redeeming Neil and his crew by contrast. The robbers are portrayed as reasonable, honorable outlaws—they only kill if they absolutely have to, and they’d prefer not to. But then there’s the epic shootout in the streets after the bank robbery goes south, and the outlaws are revealed as perhaps not so honorable after all. They kill in cold blood, they don’t care about the carnage they cause (which is really over-the-top—Mann’s realistic impulses all but disappear once the shooting starts), and Cheritto even grabs a little girl as a hostage, scooping her up in his arms as he runs, using her as a shield to prevent the cops from firing on him. It’s a clearly deconstructive moment, a horrifying act meant to make the audience question its sympathies, question why they’d been rooting for the robbers before this point.
But any serious questioning makes it clear that we were rooting for the robbers because of Mann, both because the robbers are generally more complex and well-developed than the more generic cop characters (Pacino’s Vincent excepted), and because he staged the robberies in a way calculated to make us root for the robbers. Mann knows that audiences like to see complex, well-executed plans play out on screen. At the heart of the heist genre is this desire to see tough, professional men executing a brilliant crime (Rififi comes to mind again). So maybe the genre is morally ambiguous in its essence, and Mann only highlights this ambiguity more than most. In any event, the reverberations of Cheritto’s hostage-taking don’t extend very far, particularly not to Neil, who maintains his quiet self-righteousness, and who is especially lionized in the film’s long denouement, when he becomes an agent of vengeance, killing first the slimy Van Zant and then the psychopathic Waingro. Let me be clear, if I haven’t been already, that I think Heat is a truly great film. But at the same time I feel like Mann’s engaging in a bit of a moral shell game in regards to the violence and the audience’s allegiances for various characters. What do you think? Is the film simply morally ambiguous in the way it portrays the robbers, or is Mann allowing his audience to enjoy the hyperbolic violence while sidestepping its moral implications?
JB: Oh, there’s no question that Mann emotionally aligns us with the criminals, and especially with Neil. It’s no accident that during the bank heist it’s Neil who explains to the customers that he’s coming for the bank’s money, not their money. Beyond that, much of Neil’s misbehavior has a built-in excuse: He OKs the killing of the cop, but only because Waingro fucks up, and for that Neil tries to kill Waingro; he punches the bank manager and says, “Let it bleed,” but only after the manager stalls; he isn’t mindful of innocent civilians during the shootout, but at that point he’s been backed into a corner and his life is on the line. Speaking of the shootout, had Mann spliced in some shots of bystanders getting their brains blown out, rather than just showing police car windows being shattered, I could more easily argue that he’s actively critical of these criminals. Instead, all I can do is point out that Mann doesn’t suggest Neil is some kind of Robin Hood hero of the common man, as John Dillinger is portrayed in Public Enemies. Mann leaves no doubt, none, that Neil is only out for himself and that he will stop at nothing to protect his interests. As Muhammad Ali would say, Neil is baaaaaaad, man. But he’s also a badass. De Niro makes sure of that.
The allure of Neil and his crew can be traced back to their expertise, professionalism, strange ethics and swagger, but we can’t minimize the “one last job” aspect. Because he is so efficient at everything else, we believe that Neil will hold true to the clean and simple life he has planned with Eady, if only he can get there. We root for that. In a strange way, a successful bank heist will redeem Neil. It’s a complicated scenario. And so perhaps the best way to understand Mann’s portrayal of these criminals is to ask ourselves how we feel about the guy trying to catch them. Vincent isn’t vilified. Not by a long shot. We don’t root for his death or his defeat. But we do hope, I think, that Vincent will get there a little too late, that his aim won’t be true, that somehow Neil can get away. And yet when Donald Breedan is killed and Cheritto goes down and then Vincent guns down Neil without hesitation, we know the tragedy isn’t that these guys were caught but that they ever needed to be chased. That would suggest to me that, underneath it all, the moral message is appropriate and clear.
EH: You make a good point about the lack of civilian casualties during that shootout. My main qualm about that sequence is that, despite the massive destruction of property and what must be thousands of high-caliber rounds flying through the air, it’s all relatively bloodless and clean. I mean, at one point Vincent and Neil are firing at one another through a crowd of people, with Vincent scrambling to get the bystanders out of the way, and still all the bullets seem to be hitting buildings and cars. Neil must be a really lousy shot despite his badass ’tude. Throughout the whole long shootout, Mann mostly just shows glass breaking and pumps up the volume on the gunshots. It makes it very easy to enjoy the sequence as visceral action, and to mourn the dead robbers, but it discourages a more critical perspective on the violence depicted in the film. I think you’re right, though, about Neil’s motivations and the audience’s belief in his “one last job” dreams; all of these layers do complicate things. As you suggest, Neil is a much more ambiguous figure than Dillinger, even though Dillinger all but quotes Neil’s line about being after the bank’s money, not the people’s. Public Enemies indicates that Mann isn’t done with his love for the romantic criminal anti-hero, though that film is less nuanced in its portrayal of the bank robber as a romantic idol.
Still, as The Last of the Mohicans had already proved, Mann is hardly only capable of crafting epic mood pieces about criminals and the men who chase them. His next two films, The Insider and Ali, would on the surface seem to be more mainstream, less personal projects for the director. Both films were co-written with Forrest Gump scribe Eric Roth, who has a distinct sensibility from Mann, to say the least, and both films engage with more traditional Hollywood genre forms, moving away from the B-movies, heist pictures and thrillers that inspired most of Mann’s previous work. Instead, The Insider is a “based on a true story” drama, occasionally flirting with becoming a thriller but never quite getting there, while Ali is a celebrity biopic, a form beloved in Hollywood but not one where you often see first-class auteurs making their mark. I think it’s apparent that Mann takes these big subjects and “prestige” formats and makes them his own. He’s not always successful, and I wouldn’t place either of these films among his best, but they certainly feel like Mann films. He’s still exploring his signature themes—especially, in both these films, the ways in which men must try to balance the responsibilities of work and family—and he’s as visually acute as ever.
The Insider is the story of Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), a former tobacco industry scientist who’s been fired from his job. He is slowly coaxed by 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) into telling his story in an interview for the TV show, in the process revealing some key information about what tobacco industry executives know about nicotine addiction. This is potentially dry material, especially since much of the film’s drama is internal, centered on mental states and thought processes rather than tangible action. But Mann’s filmmaking ably probes Wigand’s introspective dilemma, capturing not only the details of the real story but the churning emotions underlying the drama.
JB: I agree with just about everything you said above, except for your assessment of The Insider’s place in the hierarchy of Mann’s work. For me, this is his second best film by far. I have no doubts about that. The only film it doesn’t top is Heat. And yet while Heat is a film that lends itself to lengthy discussion and analysis, The Insider’s power is more elusive, harder to articulate. Ballpark, I’d say I’ve seen this film six times, and—this is absolutely true—each time I see The Insider it’s better than I remembered it. More compelling. More heart wrenching. More profound. In fact, maybe I’m just now coming to grips with how much I admire it. Perhaps in the past I have doubted my assessment of its greatness because it doesn’t linger in memory like Heat. It’s not iconic. There are no milestone coffee shop scenes or exhilarating action set pieces. The Insider doesn’t swim in Mann’s surrealistic color palettes or contain instantly unforgettable dialogue. And, though finely acted, The Insider doesn’t have an outrageous performance teetering on the edge of plausibility like Thief, Manhunter, Heat, Collateral or Miami Vice. (Seriously: when’s the last time you’ve seen Pacino this restrained?) The Insider doesn’t lend itself well to AFI retrospectives, and it might have the fewest signature moments of any Mann film. Its greatness is collective, and thus a little deceptive.
As you suggest, The Insider’s plot threatens to make it dry as a bone. So many of the conversations are about science or legal red tape, and the closest Mann gets to a gunfight is when someone attempts to intimidate Jeffrey Wigand by leaving a bullet in his mailbox. But darn it if The Insider isn’t explosive anyway. To me, this is the film that demonstrates that Mann’s work is psychological before it is physical (too often people get lost in the robustness of Mann’s physical drama and lose sight of why it’s there). Just look at the star: Russell Crowe, wearing a gut, a pair of hardly-hip glasses and a mostly blank expression. In another Mann film, Crowe could play that arresting tough guy. Here, he goes inward.
Mann’s lead characters are usually the best at something (thievery, criminal profiling, marksmanship, boxing, assassination, whatever), but Jeffrey is closer to a Hitchcockian everyman. As Pacino’s Lowell sums up nicely: Jeffrey is an ordinary person under extraordinary pressure. On the other hand, Jeffrey does fit the profile of a quintessential Mann character in other ways, the most significant of which is that he’s willing to sacrifice everything he has in order to protect his own moral code. In almost any other movie about this subject, Jeffrey would be absolutely and unequivocally lionized. He’d be the little man who dared to stand up and take on the big corporations. In short, he’d be Erin Brockovich. But, not surprisingly, Mann’s depiction is more complicated. Jeffrey doesn’t choose to act so much as he is compelled to act. He has praiseworthy ethics, yes, but he is a slave to them. There are times when we can sense that if Jeffrey were capable of backing down and giving in, that’s what he’d choose to do. But he can’t. It’s not an option for him. Thus he carries on because he must, and because, like Heat’s Neil, Jeffrey can’t stand to be fucked with.
EH: Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a fine film, too. Also, I agree with you while coming from the opposite direction: I like the film, and can’t point to much concrete about it that I don’t like, but still wouldn’t really place it in the upper echelon of Mann’s work. Its greatness does seem to be ephemeral, in that while I’m watching it I’m compelled, wrapped up in the remarkable performances (another across-the-board stellar cast from Mann) and the immersive filmmaking. Afterwards, though, it tends to slip from the mind, not making any lasting impact. When it first came out, I saw it as part of an illicit sneaking-from-one-theater-to-the-next double feature with Fight Club, so I’m sure you can guess which film I remembered better. I thought my more restrained reaction to The Insider was just due to the context, that maybe it had been unfairly overshadowed, but upon revisiting it in isolation, I find it’s just as slippery, just as prone to waft away completely once I take my eyes off the screen.
Still, there’s much to admire. It’s easy to praise the performances, including both Crowe and Pacino at their most subtle and low-key, but what I really like about the film is the formal precision Mann brings to it. The insistent, probing camera captures the nuances of the performances by shoving the lens in the actors’ faces. This is a film that relies on the extreme closeup—shots of profound, nearly uncomfortable intimacy. The first time we see Jeffrey, the camera is trailing right behind his head as he walks out of his office after being fired—we see only his ear and the frame of his glasses sticking out from around the side of his face. Mann returns again and again to closeups that highlight the eyes, playing with foreground and focus, setting off a character’s enlarged profile against the blurred faces of the other people in the room, occasionally racking the focus to bring one of these other people into the image more clearly.
This especially happens with Crowe, who spends much of the film in these uncomfortably close shots. It is his decision that is at the center of the movie, his thought process, and thus Mann is constantly looking directly into his eyes, placing his face right up against the surface of the image. At one point, when two lawyers are laying out for Jeffrey what could happen if he testifies—going to jail is a possibility—Mann places Jeffrey’s face in the right corner of the frame, in closeup, his eyes peering out at the audience, as though involving them in his decision-making, inviting them to read his thoughts. It’s this intimacy with the camera that allows Crowe to underplay the externality of his character’s dilemma. We have, or feel we have, such access to his inner turmoil merely by the proximity of the camera, its habit of staring soulfully into his eyes, that we don’t need showy acting to convey what he’s thinking.
JB: Indeed, both the acting and the camerawork are understated and yet effective. Visually speaking, The Insider’s only significant flourish comes when Mann borrows from Vertigo for the scene in which a mural on Jeffrey’s hotel room wall morphs into images of his daughters playing in the garden. Beyond that, as you said, the film spends most of its time volleying closeups—not because Mann didn’t know what else to do but because that’s where the action is, so to speak. It’s fitting, then, that one of my favorite bits of filmmaking in The Insider is entirely unspectacular at first glance. It happens when Jeffrey’s 60 Minutes segment is finally aired in its totality. Lowell, returning from a business trip, is sitting in an airport, and Mann cuts away from him to show others in the area glancing up at the TV screen: An airport employee emptying trashcans, a woman braiding a child’s hair, a mother trying to ignore the hyper child gyrating in the next seat. These shots establish what Mann essentially failed to do in that famed shootout in Heat: they show the effect of the plot’s core action on the larger world.
Or should I say lack of effect? The other reason that scene is powerful is because it makes a statement about America’s relationship with “news.” For Jeffrey and Lowell, the airing of the original segment on 60 Minutes is a (Pyrrhic) victory after a long and costly ordeal. Alas, to almost everyone else the news segment is just that moment’s distraction. Jeffrey Wigand has lost a career, a marriage, a home and a sense of peace, all in the name of doing what’s right for the benefit of the common man. The common man’s response is to consume the product, and move on. Jeffrey sacrifices everything he’s ever worked for so that Americans can have 15 minutes of entertainment. A few scenes later, when Lowell makes it home and climbs into bed with his wife, she says of the segment, “You won.” “Yeah,” Lowell replies. “What did I win?” The Insider makes it crystal clear that doing what’s right takes the same amount of determination as it takes to break into a safe or rob a bank. And it’s just as risky.
All of that said, I agree with you that The Insider tends to slip from the mind. I find that Manhunter’s flaws have greater staying power than any of The Insider’s many successes. So if creating a lasting impact is a prerequisite for greatness, well, maybe The Insider doesn’t qualify. Or perhaps it belongs in another category as one of the few great films of all time to lack anything that could stand out as one of the greatest scenes of all time.
EH: Like you, I appreciated those scenes toward the end of the film that show the public reacting to Jeffrey’s supposedly earthshaking revelations with, basically, a shrug. The film doesn’t suggest this, but maybe Wigand and Lowell’s really crucial mistake was underestimating how cynical Americans have become, by supposing that anyone would be all that shaken or shocked by the idea that tobacco executives don’t have people’s best interests at heart. (Gasp!) Mann does push the point a little far, though, by condensing the timeline so it seems like the Unabomber was arrested the next day, when in fact it was two months later—it makes for a dramatic encapsulation of the on-to-the-next-thing news cycle, but even before I knew it wasn’t true, it seemed like a rather pat irony.
That dreamlike sequence you mention, where Jeffrey’s reality melts away into a memory of his daughters playing, is especially interesting in the context of this film. Its casual surrealism is all the more effective and destabilizing in a film that is otherwise so resolutely grounded in reality. The power of that scene makes me think that, while leaving a visceral impression may not be a prerequisite for a great film in general, it might be a good criterion for a great Mann film. His best films leave behind an aura in our memory long after we’ve seen them. I’d wager that even if you haven’t seen Thief lately, you’ll remember the showers of sparks during the heist sequences; even if you haven’t seen Heat lately you’ll remember the loneliness of the blue-lit scenes in Neil’s empty apartment; even if you haven’t seen Collateral lately you’ll remember the sweeping helicopter shots of a nighttime Los Angeles. The Insider largely does not linger in the same way, which may mean it’s an uncharacteristic triumph for its director, or may mean that he’s not working to his strengths.
Either way, his next film, the biopic Ali, is a return to more familiar Mann territory, stylistically speaking, even as it engages with an unfamiliar genre. It’s a surprisingly scrappy, soulful film, more concerned with capturing the mood of the time, the feel of being around Muhammad Ali, rather than ticking off the events of his life on a scorecard, the way the usual biopic does. The first fifteen minutes or so, set to a medley of Sam Cooke songs, are especially dense, exciting and inventive, an associative time-jumping collage of memories, impressions, set-up and small character moments, bringing to mind the patchwork structure of Peter Watkins’ sublime Edvard Munch. This radical breaking down of timeline and narrative drive communicates the essence of the film’s themes. Mann is making a statement, suggesting that this is going to be a film about a place and a time as much as about a man, about the attitudes and ideas surrounding Ali rather than about Ali’s actions themselves. The iconic Ali of history doesn’t appear until later, when this montage has subsided, and the dancing, darting, weaving and rhyming Ali of legend finally shows up, tossing off the famous “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” line amidst a barrage of similar couplets. The result is electric: After the lengthy and evocative introduction, we’ve been transported back to this era, and then Will Smith’s Ali bursts out in top form, fleet-footed and motor-mouthed, his persona every bit as energetic and invigorating as Mann’s filmmaking.
JB: That’s exactly right. And I’d take it even further. Yes, the Sam Cooke medley sequence introduces us to Ali in a manner that’s less explicit than most biopics but also more redolent. We hear Cooke and we watch Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, peppering a speed bag, lost in a dreamlike trance, his thoughts disjointed but vibrant. We see a young Clay’s confusion over his father’s reverence for a white Jesus Christ and we understand how Ali came to be Muslim; we see a young Clay’s reaction to a newspaper photograph of a lynching and we understand how Ali came to grasp racism; we see a not-so-young Clay listening to Malcolm X and we understand where Ali learned what it means to stand up and fight for what you believe in. All this makes for a compelling opening sequence, which is typical of Mann. But while the medley ends with Ali’s energetic “float like a butterfly” entrance, Mann’s opening act won’t take a breath for fifteen more minutes, up to and through the fight with Sonny Liston. Truly, Ali begins and thirty minutes go by before it falls into anything resembling a conventional narrative pattern.
The first Liston encounter is a piece of artwork in and of itself. In fact, all of the fights in Ali make for some of the best boxing footage ever captured in American cinema (and, yes, that’s including the touted Raging Bull). Mann takes his time in the ring, which is essential because Ali’s biggest fights were tests of endurance. In the background we occasionally hear the familiar sports film play-by-play narration, in part to keep Howard Cosell (Jon Voight) involved, but just as often Mann breaks out of the sports genre mold and lets the action stand for itself. Case in point is the moment midway through the Liston fight when, as Ali has always alleged, Liston’s gloves are doctored with a substance that blinded Ali for several rounds. Mann’s handling of this legendary sports moment is appropriate: Between rounds Liston mumbles something to his corner man who appears to do something to Liston’s gloves; exactly what, we don’t know, because the corner man’s body is in the way, ensuring that the glove doctoring episode remains the unconfirmed mystery it remains today. Then we see the effect on Ali, when he finds his eyes filling with tears. A lesser director would have made all of this more explicit. Mann makes it an anecdote for those in the know and for those paying attention.
Whether Mann is a fan of boxing, I have no idea. But certainly the fight scenes in Ali are shot for the serious boxing fan. Perhaps never before has a film captured the grace and strategy of boxing, rather than just its brutality, which demonstrates yet again that Mann’s machismo reputation is a bit overstated. Having said that, however, the excellence and comprehensiveness of Ali’s fight scenes do have a detrimental flipside, as their length sometimes thwarts the film’s dramatic momentum. In other words, like so many boxers, Mann may stay in the ring too long for his own good.
EH: I don’t really agree that the lengthy boxing sequences are to the detriment of the film. I’m not a boxing fan by any means, let alone a serious one, but even I found those scenes well-done, just visceral and thrilling, focusing on the movement of the boxers’ feet as much as their fists. More importantly, I think Mann just isn’t that interested here in “dramatic momentum,” at least not in the usual sense. The film may settle down into more of a conventional narrative after its opening half-hour, but it never totally shakes off the style of that initial montage. The film is a loose collection of moments stitched together to create an atmosphere rather than to tell a story. Important narrative details are backed into in destabilizing ways: We learn that Ali has a baby with his second wife Belinda (Nona Gaye) only when the child cries in the next room, which indicates how much time has passed, how big an ellipsis has just been passed over. Other details remain subtly in the background, and Mann needs only to show a short scene here and there to suggest all the backroom money dealings and betrayals surrounding Ali, like the way the film implies why Herbert (Barry Shabaka Henley) suspended Ali from the Nation of Islam.
In terms of Ali’s life and career, the major milestones are there, the big events that made him famous, but around these iconic moments Mann weaves an elaborate portrait of ‘60s dissent, black radicalism, the Nation of Islam, Vietnam, civil rights, all of it bleeding into Ali’s story, into his fights and his dramas outside the ring. A lot goes unsaid, a lot is skipped over. The film focuses on the fights, and on the showy personality of the man, and on the events happening around him, but it never really delves deep into him psychologically, and it seldom tries to tell a straightforward “point A to point B to point C” kind of story. The iconic moments are familiar, and Mann knows he doesn’t have to belabor them. The sad ending, the long years of decline, those are familiar too, and the film wisely ends before that point, allowing all that to remain unspoken, the subtext beneath the end credits. The film ends with Ali, not at the top of his career, already on his way down really, but nevertheless at a moment of unlikely triumph, a moment when he manages to scrape out a punch-drunk victory against George Foreman (Charles Shufford). The film’s second half doesn’t quite have the verve of the first half, as defeats both in and out of the ring plague Ali, and as Mann occasionally slips into attempts at more conventional plotting. But always the man at the center of the film keeps things sparkling.
JB: He does. Will Smith’s performance is tremendous, and yet in some ways it’s almost a letdown. This is inevitable. Smith is given the task of playing one of the most vibrant, charismatic and arresting personalities of the television age. (It is impossible to be as Ali as Ali. Even in recent years the real Ali, physically trapped by his Parkinson’s disease, often has this alluring glimmer in his eyes that suggests he knows something we don’t.) I honestly can’t imagine a more thankless assignment than to try to live up to the Greatest of All Time, and yet I can’t find a single fault in Smith’s performance. Though physically up to the task, Smith seems somehow smaller than Ali, but then Ali was larger than life. It’s an amazing success that Smith at least feels like a worthy cipher. His performance rejuvenates memories of the real thing, and that’s plenty good enough.
As you suggested, there’s a lot that Ali doesn’t cover, but it’s stunning the amount of story that’s actually weaved in here. Credit Mann for realizing that Ali’s successes and failures in the ring were on some level the most insignificant aspects of his celebrity. Ali is one of the few sports figures about whom you could say that what he did as a boxing champion was more memorable than how he became champion, which isn’t to imply that the latter isn’t one fucking hell of a good story. In the boxing scenes especially, Mann’s attention to detail is as sharp as ever (anyone who has seen When We Were Kings has got to admire the Rumble in the Jungle chapter). His use of music is powerful and familiar throughout. And in Muhammad Ali, Mann has a lead character so complex that he doesn’t have a single straight edge on which you can balance him for examination. In so many ways, this is quintessential Mann. And yet Ali is the Mann picture that I feel is in danger of being forgotten all too quickly. It’s perhaps his most overlooked film.
EH: You’re right, it’s really unfortunate how overlooked this film is. I said earlier that I don’t think it’s among Mann’s best films, but at the same time there are stretches of it where it’s damn close to being a masterpiece. Most of these are in the downright exhilarating first half, but the second half has its moments too. I get the impression that a lot of the negative reviews this film got upon release specifically cited that lengthy, dialogue-free temps mort where Ali goes jogging through an African village, but for me that was one of many high points. Here, Ali comes face to face with himself, in the form of a wall painting of him punching out tanks and planes, as though fighting against war itself. It’s a wonderful moment, and a wonderfully ambiguous one, because Mann doesn’t betray what Ali is thinking. Looking at this painting over the boxer’s shoulder, we’re not sure: Is Ali proud of what he is in the eyes of these poor people? Is he happy? Or is he wondering what he’s really done to deserve this deification, if he’s really done enough to fight for what he believes in?
The whole African sequence brings up very interesting questions about exploitation and the development of poor countries; Ali really believes he’s helping Africa by fighting there, but does anyone else? There’s that one short scene of Zaire’s President Mobutu meeting with some Western businessmen in his lavish palace, a scene that undercuts a lot of Don King’s (Mykelti Williamson) rhetoric about giving back to the African people, and helps put into context the poverty Ali sees on his jog. All of this stuff is bubbling just beneath the surface in a film that’s much more complex and sociologically engaged than the average biopic or historical picture. Again, it brings to mind the work of Peter Watkins, who has habitually packed biopics like Edvard Munch and The Freethinker with surrounding material about the political and social events of the main characters’ times. Mann doesn’t go as far, and in many ways Ali would be a better film if it had stuck to the flowing montage style of its introduction. When Mann tries to tell a more straightforward story, as he occasionally does with the underdeveloped characters of Ali’s wives and girlfriends, the film staggers. But when he keeps the film moving along briskly, its themes and ideas pouring out in kinetic bursts, the film is as fiery, as agile and quick-witted, as Ali himself.
JB: Well, if the critics wanted straightforward, they got it with Mann’s next film, Collateral. Starring Tom Cruise as a hitman named Vincent and Jamie Foxx as a cab driver named Max who becomes Vincent’s unwilling accomplice on a night of executions in Los Angeles, this would seem to be a return to form for Mann. But not really. Despite Mann’s reputation for adrenaline, this is his only outright high-speed thriller—a movie that puts pedal to the metal except when navigating turns, and sometimes even then. Collateral has a chilling heavy in Vincent and a charming hero in Max, and both of these characters fit the Mann mold in the way they self-identify with their work and seek nothing short of perfection. Nevertheless, Collateral isn’t stuffed with subtext like Thief, Manhunter or Heat. Its appeal is on the surface. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Collateral may be Mann’s simplest film thematically, given its plot-centric rollercoaster structure, but it’s hardly a paint-by-number thriller. Collateral announces itself as something special within its first thirteen minutes as Mann delivers yet another intoxicating opening. This one begins with a very brief introduction of Cruise’s Vincent and then cuts to a busy taxi station where Foxx’s Max slides into his cab for his nightly shift. Max wipes down the dashboard and the steering wheel with disinfectant, checks the cab’s blinkers and slides his ID into the plastic holder, making everything just so. Over the next few minutes we see snippets of his late afternoon rounds and a stop for gas. And then, just as the sun is setting, Max picks up a lawyer named Annie, played by Jada Pinkett Smith. What follows are ten minutes of textbook character development that are made spiritual by Mann’s deft touch and some sublime acting from Pinkett Smith and Foxx. As Max and Annie talk, with Groove Armada’s “Hands of Time” playing in the background, Mann hypnotizes us with these night sky exteriors that make Los Angeles seem like a city with charm—not the easiest thing to do. Annie’s cab ride sets a mood of romance and peacefulness that the rest of the film takes great pleasure in defying.
EH: While I’m with you on the pleasures of that opening sequence—one of the best stretches in Mann’s whole career, if you ask me—I don’t think the rest of the film is any less substantial just because it’s more action-packed. Sure, on its surface the film is one of Mann’s most propulsive and plot-based, not to mention his most visually sumptuous. It’s an edge-of-the-seat nighttime thriller, marrying nail-biting tension, Mann’s postcard ode to LA’s city lights, and the character-based drama between Vincent and Max. You earlier described Jeffrey Wigand as “a Hitchcockian everyman,” a designation that applies even more to Max, who is thrown into an unexpected adventure in much the same way as Cary Grant’s Roger O. Thornhill in North By Northwest, or countless other Hitchcock heroes who suddenly find themselves in way over their heads.
If this was all there was to the film, I might agree with you that it was a fun ride but not necessarily prime Mann. As it is, I’d call it his best film, the perfect expression of his macho romanticism. Objectively speaking, Heat is a richer, more complex film, but it doesn’t make me feel like this one does, it doesn’t give me the chills I get during that opening cab ride or the ghostly scene where Vincent stares down a yellow-eyed coyote. We’ve spoken a bit about those who find a “religious experience” in Mann’s work, and this is the one film he’s made where I get that feeling myself the whole way through, where I’m just swept up in its dark beauty and emotional depths. The film’s surface is visceral and exciting, but it’s all built around a much more typically Mann-like introspective core: The relationship between Vincent and Max as the latter drives the former around on his bloody errands.
In this respect, the much-praised opening is more than just a languid mood-setter. In addition to setting up the climax and establishing the warmly colored LA setting, it creates a positive vision of Max’s character, which will soon be broken apart with ease by Vincent. Unlike Annie, the hitman sees right through Max’s assurances that driving a cab is only temporary, that he’s got something bigger in the works. With Annie, Max is confident, he’s together, he sells it; he seems like a guy on his way up, and we believe what he says, too. Vincent isn’t buying it: He sees a guy deluding himself, treading water, and he cuts through Max’s bullshit. We see Max first through Annie’s eyes, and we like what we see, but when we see him through Vincent’s eyes we realize that he’s not what we thought he was. It takes this killer to push the hero out of his comfort zone. Throughout the course of the film Max builds himself up into something different, redeeming himself by incorporating, ironically, aspects of Vincent’s character: His bluffing showdown with Felix (Javier Bardem) and his thugs, his decision to crash the cab, overpowering the cop when he realizes Annie’s in trouble, his final gunfight with Vincent. He redeems himself by becoming a man of action, not just an action hero but a man who’s willing to do something rather than simply waiting around for it to happen.
Of course, it’s very like Mann to locate a metaphor for a man changing his life in violence and action. Far from being simply an action blowout, the film is primarily about Max’s character, about how Vincent shakes him up into taking another look at his life. Most action movies at least nod to this kind of character development; with Mann, it’s the whole point.
JB: Interesting. I agree with you that the action is set up to examine its effect on Max, North By Northwest-style, I just don’t find the depth here that you do. Or maybe I just don’t thrill on it as you do. I’ve seen the film three times now and I’m sorry to say that its power diminishes with each viewing, except for those enchanting first thirteen minutes. Perhaps that’s because the first time I saw Collateral, Max’s transformation was given an added boost of excitement by what for me was Jamie Foxx’s coming out party. This is the film, and more specifically the showdown with Felix is the scene, that gave me my “Holy shit, Jamie Foxx can act!” awakening. This was before Ray, Jarhead, Miami Vice or The Soloist, of course. Now, with Foxx’s talent appreciated, Max’s transformation isn’t as overpowering because it can “only” be about Max. The showdown with Felix has lost that meta effect that it had the first time around. (Out of Nowhere Aside: How is it that Meryl Streep is immune to this kind of withering appreciation? She’s a fine actress, don’t get me wrong, but I’m flummoxed by the critical community’s ability to be awed by her almost every move. Shouldn’t we be taking her for granted by now?)
I think the tug-of-war between Vincent and Max might have more staying power if I agreed with you that Vincent sees through Max’s façade. He doesn’t, at least not until they visit Max’s mother in the hospital—a very strange and implausible diversion designed specifically so that she can expose Max’s fraudulence. The evidence that Max is deluding others and also himself is tidily served up to Vincent on a silver platter so that even the dimmest of goons (or moviegoers) could see Max’s bullshit for what it is. Because Vincent doesn’t have to work very hard, his exposure of Max doesn’t have the same gripping tension of, say, watching Cruise’s Lieutenant Kaffee exposing Colonel Jessep in the courtroom of A Few Good Men. That quibble aside, the Vincent-Max relationship is dependably effective in another equally important way: We believe that these two dissimilar men form an entirely unjustifiable comfort with one another over the course of a very strange night.
Without that convincing bond between Max and Vincent, Collateral would flop. And that brings me to a way in which Collateral does continue to work on the meta level: Tom Cruise. So much of Vincent’s success as a complicated heavy can be traced back to our understanding of the typical Tom Cruise role. It’s the knowledge that Cruise is performing “against type” here that makes Vincent so chilling and captivating. At the same time, it’s our comfort with Cruise as a portrayer of “good guys” that allows us to believe Vincent wouldn’t just put two bullets in Max’s head at the very beginning of the story and move on. To imagine other actors in the role is to think of ways they wouldn’t work. De Niro, for example, would be too cold. Our expectation of his badassness would make any fondness for Max seem out of character, spoiling some of the film’s juicy moments, like the time that Vincent shoots down the detective played by Mark Ruffalo and then looks at Max like an impatient husband waiting for his dawdling wife to get in the car. Cruise isn’t known as an actor with tremendous range, but he makes Vincent credibly complex.
EH: It may be common to appreciate Foxx now—although the trend should have started with his role as Ali’s drunken corner man Bundini, his first collaboration with Mann—but he makes Max such a fully developed character that I still find his performance stunning each time I watch this film. But stunning in a way where I forget I’m even watching a performance: He’s just that natural, that believable, as an LA cab driver in an incredible situation. You’re right, on the other hand, that Cruise’s performance is all about the meta thrill of watching Tom Cruise play such a chilly bad guy for a change. That such an improbably warm and complex relationship develops between Vincent and Max over the course of the film is just one of the ways in which the film digs deeper than its action surface. These are both Mann’s most allegorical figures—the nihilist, jazz-loving, philosophy-spouting hitman and the dissatisfied average man who keeps pushing his dreams further and further into the future—and his most specific and fleshed-out. The rapport between Vincent and Max, and between Cruise and Foxx, is remarkable, a low-key comfort with one another that at times nearly overcomes the antagonistic situation they’re in to become something like friendship.
This is especially apparent during one of my favorite interludes, the scene where Vincent takes Max to a jazz club, and the duo sit down for a long chat with the trumpet player Daniel (Mann regular Barry Shabaka Henley again). Collateral is the only Mann film on which the director didn’t also receive screenwriting credit, which makes it tempting to suggest it’s a less personal film. In fact, Mann seems to have been as involved in the script as he was on any of his other projects, rewriting it extensively and even coming up with lengthy histories for his characters, giving the actors background information about who they’re playing. This is especially apparent in the jazz club scene, where Vincent’s love of the music seems deep and completely genuine; he almost becomes someone different, more relaxed and open, when he talks about this music. This scene is deceptively quiet, a moody diversion during which Vincent subtly uses his conversation about jazz to advance his philosophy of improvisation in life and work. Of course, subsequent viewings eliminate the surprise of the scene’s denouement, but the knowledge that Vincent is going to kill Daniel by the end of the scene only deepens the meaning of their conversation. We see that Vincent has real affection for this man, that he enjoys talking jazz with him, that’s he genuinely awed and touched by the man’s story of playing with Miles Davis—which has obvious parallels to Max’s failure to follow up on his own dreams.
That the hitman kills his mark anyway is an obvious indication of what’s going to happen to Max by the end of the night; Vincent may be growing fond of his driver, but it doesn’t mean he won’t eliminate his only witness. But beyond its repercussions for the plot, this scene is just lovely, as much about simply creating a mood as all the helicopter shots Mann inserts of the LA streets from above, Max’s cab a tiny box moving through a vast neon-colored grid.
JB: Indeed, LA’s neon skyline and labyrinth of buildings makes the city a noteworthy character in Collateral, with Mann’s camera suggesting that this urban cityscape is as lush and worthy of reverence as The Last of the Mohicans’ frontier. In his subsequent film, Miami Vice, Mann is even further enchanted with the relationship between setting and story, occasionally seeming to use his human characters as mere tools to demonstrate the vastness of their environs, rather than the other way around. More than any other film in Mann’s oeuvre, Miami Vice is a mood picture. It has a plot, yes—a rather complex one, actually—but it’s so buried, so inscrutable that Mann doesn’t seem to give a shit whether we follow along or not. Way back at the beginning of this conversation I suggested that Mann’s films can please both the surface-obsessed and the subtext-minded at the same time, but Miami Vice might be the exception to the rule. It possesses one of Mann’s largest (and loudest) shootouts, behind only the showstoppers from Heat and Public Enemies, but I can’t imagine that late-in-arriving gunfight is enough for the moviegoer who wants his/her plots as explosive and as forthright as a stick of dynamite.
Before we discuss this movie further, I should note that I’ve seen exactly zero episodes of the TV series from which the movie draws its name and character inspirations. But I have a suspicion that’s a good thing. If Don Johnson’s Sonny Crockett was scarred in childhood by watching his father mugged by a drug dealer or some such thing, Mann doesn’t seem to have any interest in exploring it. The characters in Miami Vice are as loosely defined as any you’ll come across in a film that spills beyond two hours and hardly ever leaves its two star characters. Colin Farrell’s Sonny and Jamie Foxx’s Ricardo “Rico” Tubbs are felt more than they are understood. Mann plunges us into their world—in the director’s cut, quite literally: the opening shot is just under the water’s edge—and lets us see if we can find our equilibrium without the usual plot exposition that plays as overtly as GPS.
EH: You make it sound like such an admirable approach, and I guess in a way it is, but Mann’s disinterest in such niceties as plotting and character makes Miami Vice a rather difficult film to appreciate. There’s trusting the audience to find their own way through a plot, and then there’s Mann’s approach here, which is to scrub away virtually everything that would provide some kind of reference point. His characters are ciphers, and his plotting is so blasé that it’s virtually impossible to care about what happens next. So what’s left? Staring at the sights, basically. Miami Vice is the action film as tourism. We’re tossed into a pretty locale, with attractive, blank-faced people doing exciting things—racing boats, having gunfights, conducting drug deals, dancing at nightclubs, having photogenic sex—with the tropical blue of the water and the glowing red of the city’s lights providing a scenic backdrop.
The best moments of the film have a kind of mechanical urgency, like pistons pumping—you can see things fitting together, complex plans set in motion, lines of communication stretching out and crossing like spider webs. When, early on, Sonny and Rico get a call from an informant, it sends them into action, but a weirdly static and modern kind of action. Mann frames them in a two-shot on a roof, the brightness of the city behind them, as they each talk separately on their cellphones, putting things together, gathering information, sending out orders and inquiries. It’s a great scene, capturing a whole web of action and activity even while the two heroes remain perfectly still; they’re together in the shot but working independently, isolated from one another by their individual phones.
As ever, Mann’s visual style is suggestive and evocative in ways that go beyond the glossy surface. But, in this case, maybe not very far beneath the surface. Here, for once, Mann’s shorthand comes at the expense of anything deeper, anything that probes these characters beyond the most superficial levels. Sonny is a mystery: His most prominent traits are his growly voice and his mutton-chop facial hair. We get no sense of him as a cop, or as a person, so it comes as a non sequitur when Rico suddenly seems concerned that Sonny is too absorbed in his work, that he’s getting too deep undercover—he’s not acting any differently than he has all along. Sonny is all surface, and so is Rico, though Jaime Foxx at least pulls off a human performance. Colin Farrell is like a robot who’s being fed lines randomly pulled from pulpy genre novels. He recites his lines, spits out these clichés, seemingly without comprehending their meaning, without his mouth and his brain making a connection at any point. Sonny: “Why do I get the feeling everyone knows we’re here fifteen blocks out?” Rico: “Because everyone knows we’re here fifteen blocks out.” It’s like a parody of bad crime fiction writing, but it’s all so deadpan, so completely without humor, so self-serious, that it’s hard to take it as intentional parody—or at least not successful parody. That’s true of the film as a whole, as well.
JB: I can’t say that Miami Vice ever struck me as parody, but I have no substantial comebacks to your other criticisms. You found quite a few obstacles preventing you from falling under the movie’s spell and I can relate, because I found those obstacles too. The first time. The second time I watched Miami Vice the movie was hardly without problems, but their effect was negligible. I’m not entirely sure what the difference was; maybe those mojitos take a while to enter the bloodstream. In any case, upon second viewing, Miami Vice gave me a feeling. Was I enthralled? No. Was I forever held in its hypnotic trance? No. To some degree my experience was reminiscent of Kevin Nealon’s bit about his thought process watching porn: “Interested. Interested. Very interested. Not so interested. Bored. Tired. Interested. Confused. Very interested…” and so on. Whereas Collateral’s effect has waned for me with repeated viewings, Miami Vice’s has increased. The reason might be that, as with porn, I stopped factoring the plot into my enjoyment. Is that a backhanded compliment? Maybe. Nevertheless, I am affected.
Can I give high praise to a movie in which Farrell uses a curiously untraceable accent, in which Gong Li as Isabella is mostly incomprehensible and in which John Ortiz plays Jose Yero with a colorfulness approaching the camp of ‘80s TV? I can. I can because there’s something enticing about being asked to find these characters, rather than having them delivered to us. I can because that photogenic love interlude in Cuba is breathtaking to look at and heartbreaking to feel, because the sum of the movie’s forward motion instills us with an awareness of the impermanent; Sonny and Isabella’s love cannot last. I can because the movie’s exquisite exteriors are hauntingly romantic and romantically haunting.
We should probably talk about the last part, because this is the first (and so far only) movie that Mann shot entirely in digital video, after dabbling in the digital format in Ali and Collateral (and before using it again in Public Enemies). As someone who didn’t connect with Miami Vice, tell me what you think: Is Mann distracted by technology in this picture (is this an experiment?)? Are those who rave about its moody digital cinematography distracted by technology? Are they seeing things that aren’t there? Or does Mann’s use of digital justify itself? Put another way, how would Miami Vice be a different picture if it had been shot on 35mm?
EH: Well, the use of digital video isn’t really why I find the film a disappointment. True, it’s Mann’s first entirely digital movie, but Collateral was mostly shot in the format as well, other than isolated interiors here and there. I don’t think it’s a case of Mann experimenting with a form he wasn’t familiar with; he’d shot a lot of digital footage before Miami Vice, and he’d continue to use it extensively on Public Enemies. It seems apparent that this isn’t a novelty for Mann. He’s one of the few filmmakers—along with David Fincher and David Lynch—who’s seriously using digital video not just to achieve a cheaper replacement for film but to create a unique aesthetic, a distinctive look. For that alone, I admire Miami Vice, but unlike in the other films where he’s used digital video, in this one I feel like the flashy beauty of the visuals is all there is.
Maybe Mann did get caught up in the romanticism of his images, though that wouldn’t really be a phenomenon unique to digital video. The film is packed with scenes that seem to be there primarily for style, for “cool”—like the shot of Isabella dramatically exiting her private jet, adjusting her sunglasses, striding purposefully away from the plane. There’s lots of striding purposefully, actually; everyone walks and dresses like they’re on a fashion runway, like they can’t wait to show off their cool new jacket. This mirrors Mann’s own visual style, his look-at-me aesthetics which for once take precedence over character, theme and story—offloading cargo from a boat at a pivotal point becomes an exercise in admiring the pale blue lighting beneath a bridge, and arguably little more. At his best, Mann uses style as atmosphere, setting and mood, as a way of telling his story. Here, the style threatens to overwhelm the substance; the film feels empty and so there’s little to leaven Mann’s stylistic excesses. I don’t think this is a specifically digital problem. In fact, the film Miami Vice most reminds me of is not any of Mann’s other digital features but The Last of the Mohicans, at least in terms of the treatment of the characters. These tendencies have always been present in Mann’s work; Miami Vice is just what happens when the director embraces the most glossy aspects of his style to the exclusion of everything else.
JB: But what about the last question: Let’s talk digital versus film. Is this a notably different movie if it’s shot on 35mm?
EH: I’m sure it would be different, but not, I don’t think, enormously so. Mann hasn’t drastically changed his filmmaking to adjust for digital, but he definitely grasps the different strengths of this medium as compared to film: The unreal brightness and clarity of night scenes, the crisp colors, the slightly rough, hazy quality of the image. There’s a scene early in the film where Sonny and Rico’s informant has just learned that his wife is dead, and the camera takes on the informant’s perspective. He’s looking at Rico, and then Rico’s face blurs and goes out of focus, and the camera jogs slightly to the left, looking out at the busy highway, right before the grieving man decides to step out into traffic. In some ways, this is a typical Mann shot, an example of his penchant for silent visual storytelling. But it’s also an example of the film’s digital style, in the somewhat harsh look of the highway, the high-contrast lighting, which lends the shot an unsettling quality. The shot isn’t inconsistent with Mann’s general style, but it’s obvious that Mann has conceived this image specifically for a digital aesthetic.
This is at a micro level, of course, but I think that’s where the major recognizable change can be seen in Mann’s post-digital filmmaking. His films have always been about the small touches anyway, and digital allows him to achieve specific effects and looks that he otherwise would not have been able to capture. But is it an entirely new aesthetic? Would the film be unrecognizably different if it was shot on 35mm? I think the answer to both questions is no.
JB: On this point, I’m with you. Something that has surprised me in the aftermath of Public Enemies has been the significance attributed to Mann’s alternating use of digital and 35mm, as if it’s one of the defining characteristics of the movie. Hogwash. I don’t want to suggest that the topic isn’t worthy of discussion or that there isn’t a difference between the two, because there is; a difference considerable enough, in fact, that the average moviegoer can usually point out the result, even if they don’t have a clue (or care) about the method. Nonetheless, I think the importance of Mann’s digital aesthetic is routinely overstated (and overanalyzed), and in this regard Miami Vice is the prime offender, as it seems the picture’s most ardent fans are almost incapable of going more than three sentences without saying the word “digital” in detailing their admiration.
Perhaps this latter observation, which is tongue-in-cheek but not entirely untrue, just confirms your earlier suggestion that Mann’s style in Miami Vice overwhelms his usual substance. This isn’t to say that style can’t be substantive, and I’m confident that isn’t your argument. Instead, I think your comment observes that Miami Vice has a narrower appeal than Mann’s other films. It is more than a coffee table book of pretty pictures, I’m sure of that (you might disagree). But it isn’t as multifaceted or as substantial as Heat. Your comparison to The Last of the Mohicans is apt, because these are the two Mann films in which the dialogue is of least consequence; and they are also the Mann movies that most require an audience to be open to visual romanticism. But now I’ve drifted from the point.
The reason I think the digital hoopla is overblown is because Mann has a proven track record of getting the aesthetics he’s looking for out of 35mm. I understand that digital video captures color and lighting differently than film. I respect that the eerie purple sky that memorably hangs like a backdrop in one scene—behind Sonny and Rico but at the forefront of our attention—wouldn’t have the same exact effect on 35mm, and I suspect the same is true of those haunting lightning shots. But, one way or another, Mann would have found a way to get his desired effect. (Same exact look? No. Same effect? I sure hope so.) For proof, just think back to all those washed-in-blue interiors in Manhunter and Heat. Had those shots been achieved in the fledgling phase of digital video, I’m afraid to think that even today the conversation about those motifs might have more to do with the technology that created them rather than their overall consequence. When the subject of CGI comes up, I have often said that I’m not a special effects guy, I’m an effect guy. I don’t care about how the job gets done; I’m interested in the end result. The same rule applies to digital filmmaking. Or should.
EH: Well said. I think there’s a danger in talking about the technology behind movies: You risk losing sight of the movies themselves. It’s inarguable that Mann uses digital video to achieve a very non-filmic look in his recent work; it’s recognizably digital and calls attention to itself. But what matters is what Mann does with these images, what emotional and thematic resonances they have, how they express what he wants to express in a given scene. I would hate to think that those who admire Collateral do so primarily because of its lush, otherworldly beauty rather than for the way that beauty informs the film’s deeper significance. The problem with Miami Vice is that, too often, there’s little to talk about beyond the technology, the surface of the image.
I agree with you about Public Enemies, too. Mann makes excellent, substantive use of the contrast between digital video and film, but the emphasis should certainly be on what he does in the film itself rather than how he shot it. To that end, why don’t we return, now that we’ve discussed the remainder of Mann’s career, to his most recent film, which we touched on way back at the beginning of our conversation. Considering everything we’ve said about the interplay of substance and style in Mann’s work—and the varying balances he’s struck between surface and subtext—where do you think Public Enemies fits into this discussion? Is it, as I’ve suggested about Miami Vice, a film where the surface gloss disguises an inner hollowness, or is it more like Thief and Heat, where scratching the surface reveals untold depths underneath?
JB: If there are untold depths to Public Enemies that rival Heat, I’ve yet to find them in two viewings. Earlier in this conversation I called the film moodless by Mann’s standards, and I stand by that. In fact, revisiting its predecessors has only managed to drive that point home. Public Enemies is a solid film, to be sure, and I adore the final act, but it doesn’t get under my skin like Mann’s other works. When we started this conversation I would have unhesitatingly placed it ahead of Collateral and Miami Vice simply because I’m more fascinated by its narrative. Now, I’m not so sure. One of the things I love about Mann’s films is their ability to haunt me. Alas, a few weeks removed from seeing Public Enemies, its spell has worn off. That’s not a criticism, just an honest observation.
Public Enemies might actually be a deeper film than Collateral and Miami Vice, but Miami Vice, for all its inscrutability (or maybe because of it), calls to me. Perhaps in one or two more viewings I’ll have decided that there’s nothing deeper there, that it’s all surface entertainment, but for now I find it harder to shake the image of Sonny and Isabella in Cuba than any of Dillinger and Billie. At this point the only film in Mann’s oeuvre that I’m confident I would place behind Public Enemies would be Manhunter, which hasn’t aged gracefully and is a challenge to take seriously. But here’s the extraordinary thing about Michael Mann: He doesn’t make bad movies. If Public Enemies winds up ranking eighth on my list of Mann’s nine signature films, the gap between eighth and fourth is so miniscule that Las Vegas would call it a push.
To get back to your question: Is Public Enemies hollow? That doesn’t seem like the right word, but in some sense I think it’s true. I wonder if perhaps this Mann effort has too much plot for its own good. Somehow the movie doesn’t seem as psychological or as emotional as Mann’s other works. And, sure, I might be foisting more meaning onto Miami Vice than is really there, but at least in that case I’m confident about where Mann thinks the meaning lies waiting to be found. In the case of Public Enemies I find myself looking for the deeper substance and, other than the Biograph sequence, coming up empty. I think it’s well-made and well-acted, but I don’t feel it. I wish I did.
EH: Interesting. For me, though Public Enemies has its problems, and doesn’t have the lasting impact of Collateral, Thief or Heat (my personal troika of favorite Mann films), it’s a dense, substantial film, and in that respect a welcome return to form after Miami Vice. One of the things I find most compelling about the film is its prolonged engagement with mortality: The film returns again and again to the moment of death, and the moments immediately preceding death. Right at the beginning of the film, there’s an extended sequence where Dillinger looks into the eyes of one of his dying gang members, who’s holding on, being dragged by a car, fading away with each second. The moment is held until the man’s eyes go distant and dark and empty, until his grip on Dillinger’s hand slackens, and then he’s dropped and falls away. It’s the first of many intimate confrontations with mortality. Later, Dillinger faces the same moment again with his friend Red Hamilton (Jason Clarke), having a last conversation with his friend as Red grows paler and paler, his eyes closing to reddened slits, his mouth drooping open. Dillinger’s opposite number Melvin Purvis gets a confrontation with mortality of his own, after Baby Face Nelson shoots one of Purvis’ G-men. Purvis comes upon the man in the hall, looks down on him, and the man lives just long enough to gurgle a garbled word or two before his eyes also go blank.
Death is everywhere in this film, and not just in the generic sense where bodies drop during gunfights, like all those cops who presumably die during Heat’s big shootout. Here, death is intimate and slow, and there’s time to consider it, to linger over its details, to say one last goodbye. This is in one sense melodramatic, like the old Shakespearian tradition of the death speech, but Mann’s approach is so quiet and emotionally true that these moments are instead poignant and deeply personal, glimpses into the end of life and how these men deal with it. The theme emerges most prominently in the film’s centerpiece, the one face-to-face confrontation between Dillinger and Purvis. The two men discuss what it’s like to look death in the face, to be that close to a man as the life leaves his eyes; they’ve both experienced this, and it’s ultimately what binds them together, even as the different ways they cope with it separate them. This is an ephemeral, metaphysical moment, something hard to define, and by capturing it and lingering on it, Mann brings a kind of rough spirituality into his film. It’s a film about death, all leading up to that final death scene. It comes as no surprise, after all the other death scenes in the film, that Dillinger’s final moment is similarly conceived. The outlaw gasps out a last few mumbled words, gibberish to the audience but picked up by the special agent who leans over into the frame in closeup, obscuring Dillinger’s bloodied face, listening to his final whispered words. The film emphasizes the importance of capturing this moment, the moment when a human life disappears forever.
That for me is the essence of the film’s deeper significance. These scenes, and the parallels between them, hold the whole film together around a hard core of death. It’s interesting, actually, that Mann has made so many films about outlaws and crooks and other men with violent, dangerous lives, but only in this one does he really delve into the nature of how these kinds of men would deal with death. In that respect, it’s a worthy addition to his run of crime films, and a moving, powerful experience in its own right.
JB: Well, you sure make it sound good on paper. But, personally (and I realize we’re into especially subjective territory here), calling this film an examination of or meditation on death seems like, at best, the result of a mathematic deconstruction of the scenes. Not to belabor the point, but in a film so full of death and so supposedly fascinated by it, shouldn’t I feel something with each death? More importantly, shouldn’t I feel that Dillinger feels something? That moment at the start of the film in which the guy is being dragged by the car? It’s powerful in terms of establishing the inherent danger of Dillinger’s line of work. But just a few seconds later Dillinger is throwing a culpable goon out of a moving vehicle with little hesitation. We can infer that the first guy was a close friend and the latter guy wasn’t, but to us in the audience both victims are anonymous Dillinger associates. I’m not arguing that Mann needed to give us their backstories, just that he needed to find a way to unlock Dillinger’s psyche so we can experience these deaths through him. Think, for example, of what Steven Spielberg does with Tom Hanks’ Captain Miller in the opening seconds of Saving Private Ryan—focusing on that trembling hand struggling with the canteen and peering into Miller’s soul through Hanks’ vulnerable eyes. From that moment on, we identify with Miller, understand him. By comparison, Dillinger is mostly impenetrable.
That said, maybe I’m coming at Public Enemies from the wrong angle. Maybe my awareness of its genre similarities to Thief and Heat has me thinking that the movie intends to unveil in Dillinger and Purvis the kind of depth that can be found in Frank, Neil and Vincent. Instead, maybe this movie is closer to Miami Vice, believe it or not, in that Mann isn’t trying to draw me within his lead characters so much as he’s trying to place me within their world. By those standards, Public Enemies succeeds in that I find it consistently interesting. But, the final act excluded, it’s just that—interesting. That’s enough that Public Enemies remains one of the best cinema experiences of the year thus far, let me be clear about that. Alas, I can’t help but be disappointed that the movie isn’t more hypnotizing, scarring even. I said earlier that Cheritto’s line in Heat, “For me, the action is the juice,” is the skeleton key that unlocks the driving force behind the majority of Mann’s characters (Dillinger certainly included), and I think Heat also includes the scene that best illustrates what it feels like to connect with a Mann film. It’s the diner scene between Neil and Eady. One moment she’s asking him about books and he’s talking about metals, and the next thing you know they’re gazing over Los Angeles, lost in light and passion. At its best, Mann’s cinema is as thrilling as new love, so I wish I could say that Public Enemies sticks with me like memories of old romances. Instead, Public Enemies is to me what Duncan is to Cora in The Last of the Mohicans—honorable, just not unforgettable.
EH: Well, there’s no arguing what you do or do not feel in a film. Personally (there’s that word again), I found Public Enemies affecting and emotionally satisfying—maybe in a different way than the romance of Neil and Eady in Heat, though. That’s the thing about Mann. His best work, whatever intellectual pleasures it may have, is more about feelings, about moods and impressions. These things can at times be fleeting, hard to grasp, and they inevitably make it hard for Mann’s admirers to communicate what moves them about his films. You can see that throughout this discussion, in the places where we disagree about the merits of one film or another: We might agree about what the film is doing, but there’s an ineffable something that separates us in our appreciation or criticism of the film. Call it mood, call it a “religious experience,” call it whatever you like, but Mann’s best films transcend their surface stories, digging into the profound depths of his characters and themes. This is arguably the single thread that runs through all of his work, a desire to push beyond the surface of the story to something further, whether it’s the metaphysical noir of Heat or Thief, the introspective examination of the thought process in The Insider, or the use of violence as a metaphor for change in Collateral. Mann’s films are rarely just about what they seem to be about on the surface. He’s an obsessively probing, substantial filmmaker who’s never content to simply tell a story when he can make us feel something instead.
Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler.
Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.
Review: Martin Margiela: In His Own Words Celebrates Secrecy as Fashion Power
Reiner Holzemer’s adulation of his subject feels most credible because he spends a lot of time focusing on the clothes.3
A major reason behind Maison Martin Margiela’s appeal was the French luxury fashion house’s embrace of secrecy and anonymity. The company’s eponymous founder stopped doing interviews or allowing himself to be photographed as his brand grew in popularity throughout the 1990s. Seating at his runaway shows became available on a first-come-first-serve basis. The runway models’ faces were often obstructed by veils and masks. The labels on the fashion house’s clothing bore no name, only four white stitches. Even Margiela’s stores lacked signage and weren’t listed in the yellow pages.
Keeping in line with this commitment to counter the cultural injunction of hyper-presence, Reiner Holzemer’s documentary Martin Margiela: In His Own Words comes to life through Margiela’s narration, though all we see of the Belgian-born designer are his hands and the subversive artifacts that comprise his oeuvre. We don’t see what Margiela looks like, only what he makes. This self-imposed obstruction points the film toward a less conventional direction, preventing it from becoming an all-to-familiar fashion hagiography rife with talking heads. And the effacing of Margiela’s face replicates the conceptual framework of the designer’s own practice while also forcing the film to inhabit a self-reflective sphere.
That sphere, which allowed for Margiela’s ethics to emerge and blossom, was one of crisis and contemplation in the wake of self-centered ‘80s excess. And those ethics involved a critical, playful, and at times even a mocking stance vis-à-vis the fashion industry’s tendency toward ephemerality, feminine objectification, and wasteful luxury, all while profiting from them. In sartorial terms, that meant that Margiela’s models wore dry-cleaning plastic bags atop their garments; that collections were staged at such locations as a subway stations and a Salvation Army; that the models’ necks were accessorized with colorful ice jewels that, as they melted, stained the garments; and that the red paint applied to the bottom of models’ heels just before the start of a runaway show led to catwalks looking like a Tarantino bloodbath.
Margiela is obviously not the only designer to instill meta-critiques into fashion spectacle. Jum Nakao’s shows have featured elaborate gowns made out of paper that the models rip at the end, and Alexander McQueen’s ready-to-wear collection from 2001 included impossibly sexy models in hospital headbands and a Leigh Bowery-esque masked figure surrounded by moths. The latter show remains a classic example of fashion doing two presumably antithetical things at once: protesting the sale of bodies as high-priced goods by selling bodies as high-priced goods. Holzemer’s documentary makes the case for Margiela’s revolutionary ethos to be understood as akin to Andy Warhol’s and establishes his critical approach as less of a trick than a genuine life principle that’s guided him from the start, as a child fabricating kooky wigs for his Barbies, to his divesting from his own company in 2009.
Holzemer’s adulation of his subject feels most credible because he spends a lot of time focusing on the clothes. The images of collections and the occasional animation of sartorial sketches serve less as evidence of glamour than of technique—or how abstract principles such as ecology and honesty take shape in the materiality of the garment, its design, and the assembly process. A contextualization of the artist’s approach to his craft escapes boring biographical expectation (we’re introduced to Margiela’s childhood midway through the film) and allows us to see—at the level of the fabric and its mise-en-scène—how the designer borrowed from Rei Kawakubo’s deconstructive aesthetics, Pierre Cardin’s theatrics, Jean Paul Gaultier’s rock concert atmosphere, and Brigitte Bardot’s unflappable femininity.
Holzemer doesn’t shy away from exploring Margiela’s commercial failures, such as his critically panned collaboration with Hermes. The director is smart to, once again, let Margiela’s creations do the talking, which here means exposing the fashion critics at the time as simply unable to see the sophistication in the presumably simple. The juxtaposition of Margiela’s subversion with Hermes’s aristo-bourgeois classicism was supposed to produce some kind of scandalous monster. The collection was instead received as a buzz-killing disappointment for its restraint. But as its delicately trimmed coats and Gilda Hayworth gloves prove, the extravagance lay in Margiela’s refusal to provide what audiences anticipated and what critics prescribed. Once that model became unsustainable the designer chose consistency over compromise, rejecting the vulgarity of fast fashion and perpetual visibility. The kind of classy exit that separates ethics as mere rhetoric from ethics itself.
Director: Reiner Holzemer Screenwriter: Reiner Holzemer Distributor: Oscilloscope Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Boys State Presents an Aptly Dire Microcosm of American Politics
The film suggests that our political system is a popularity contest that functions for no one but those jockeying for power.3
Initiatives to get young people involved in politics are often organized in service of a given party agenda, but the “non-partisan” Americanism of the American Legion’s Boys and Girls State programs differentiates them from groups like the Young Republicans, while somehow also managing to make the blind enthusiasm of youthful politics even more off-putting. Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’s Boys State offers a skeptical take on the eponymous summer leadership and citizenship programs. A disconcerting mix of a Boy Scouts outing and Model U.N., the Boys State program, based on the evidence presented in the film, appears to be less an educational tool or a communal gathering of like-minded youth, and more an indoctrination into a cultish fetishization of American power politics.
McBaine and Moss predominantly focus on four boys participating in the Texas iteration of the annual gathering in which, as the opening-credits graphics inform us, such dubious luminaries as Dick Cheney and Rush Limbaugh also participated in their youth. While the program’s participants are overwhelmingly white, able-bodied, and conservative, the four boys who rise to fake-government power don’t quite fit that stereotyped Texan mold: René Otero is a black, liberal Chicago transplant (“I’ve never seen so many white people in one place in my life,” he confesses at one point); Steven Garza is Latino, and was inspired to get into politics by Bernie Sanders; Ben Feinstein is a Reagan-worshipping arch-conservative with two prosthetic legs (he had meningitis as a child); and Rob Macdougall, a breezily confident white boy who publicly plays the right-wing All-American, privately harbors pro-choice convictions.
After the program’s 1,100-plus participants arrive in Austin—all clad in the same white uniform shirts, like members of a religious mission—they’re randomly split into two political parties, the Federalists and the Nationalists, in reference to the constitutional debate of the 1780s, though the particulars of that nation-founding conversation play no part in how each party is meant to behave. Instead, each group organizes and forms a contemporary party platform, and, using the actual facilities of the Texas state government, runs candidates for governor against one another. This, presumably, is how it came to pass that in 2017, the year before the documentary was filmed, Texas Boys State voted to secede from the Union.
One might be tempted to conclude that the Nationalists won the mock gubernatorial election that year, but, again, the party names mean nothing. Indeed, Boys State shows the entire program as a form of social conditioning that compels its participants to talk without saying very much at all, and teaches them how best to make cynically calculated power moves. The worst culprit in this regard is Ben, who arrives fully formed as a self-styled political wheeler and dealer, and who, despite espousing some conservative convictions, mostly sees politics as a zero-sum game of self-fulfillment. Elected as the Federalists’ state chair, Ben runs his party by the mantra that “you have to find divisive issues in order to differentiate yourself at all.”
In such moments, McBaine and Moss capture the way teenagers can be adept at obliviously, even innocently articulating the subtext of the politics of corruption. After confessing he gave a stump speech misrepresenting his true views, Rob explains with a final note of uncertainty, “That’s politics…I think.” Few of these kids really have a fully formed idea of their own political identity: The purportedly left-leaning Steven, while achieving unlikely popularity among a body politic almost unanimously against background checks and immigrant rights, professes an open admiration for Napoleon Bonaparte. In his final pitch for governorship he even quotes the French emperor who displaced a democratic republic.
Boys State initially looks askance at all this naïve politicking, mixing a sympathetic view of the teens with ironic commentary, delivered by judicious cuts to interviews or metaphorical images that undermine the sentiment of the prior scene. After a visibly nervous Steven, uncertain of his political platform, rises to the occasion with a primary debate performance that’s surprisingly fluid and honest-sounding but absent of detailed policy proposals, there’s a cut to a racoon outside the debate hall diving headfirst into a trash can. Point taken.
At the same time, however, Steven’s rise through the ranks of the tumultuous Nationalist party—a concurrent plotline sees René, the group’s chair, doing battle with racist party members want to see him impeached and removed for declining to move forward with a secession platform—gets plotted as something like an inspirational tale, the American dream in miniature. It’s easy to identify with the humble Steven as he forms an inchoate political voice, but the way that voice only reflects the crowd’s own pleasurable ideal of itself back to it constitutes a development more tragic than the documentary appears to realize.
In assembling Boys State as a rise-to-the-top narrative, the filmmakers dull a potential critical edge that might have allowed them to ask more pointed questions about actual policy, history, and political science at this camp. If women have nominally been full participants in U.S. politics since 1920, then why does the American Legion train politically interested youth to address only the (often frivolous and always underthought) concerns that arise from homosocial teen groupings? But even if it sometimes emphasizes the individualized drama of a political contest over such critical matters, Boys State presents a fittingly dire microcosm of American politics, suggesting that our political system as an exclusionary and essentially contentless popularity contest functions for no one but those jockeying for power.
Director: Amanda McBaine, Jesse Moss Distributor: Apple TV+, A24
Review: Sputnik Toils in the Long Shadow Cast by Ridley Scott’s Alien
Sputnik is an egregious missed opportunity that bites off more formulas than it can chew.2
Ridley Scott’s Alien has cast a long shadow. Certain images in the film conjure an unshakeable terror of violation, which is afforded a brutal catharsis when one creature, suggesting a cross between a tapeworm, a snake, and a phallus, rips its way out of a man’s ribcage in one of the most brutal “births” in cinema history. Many movie monsters since have been compared to the various creatures of Alien, just as virtually every slasher movie owes some form of allegiance to Psycho. Egor Abramenko’s Sputnik is already at least the second film to riff on Alien this year alone, after William Eubank’s Underwater, and it adds one promising gimmick to the body-horror formula: The alien here is a symbiote rather than a parasite, entering and exiting its host over and over again. The violation is ongoing.
Sputnik is set in the Soviet Union in 1983, and Abramenko subtly allows us to feel the pall of the Cold War as it’s entering its death rattle. It’s cast in lonely, shadowy hues, and the soft, warm, and grainy cinematography un-showily suggests that the film has been beamed in from the analog era, in the tradition of Andrew Patterson’s The Vast of Night, also from this year. The Soviets are concerned with heroes to keep morale up, and cosmonaut Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov) will do nicely. He’s returned from a space mission that’s vaguely defined by the filmmakers, which is an evocative touch that suggests that when heroes are needed by a society the specifics of their aspirational accomplishments hardly matter. Something happened in space though: A shadow drifted over Konstantin’s vessel, and his fellow cosmonaut is now in a coma. Konstantin has amnesia and is being held in a bunker presided over by Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk), who’s pressing scientists to solve the mystery of the time he lost in space. Semiradov recruits a doctor who’s in hot water for unorthodox measures, Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina), in an effort to crack Konstantin.
Sputnik’s first act is eerie, strange, and unusually character-centric for a monster movie. The film initially suggests many episodes of The Outer Limits, in which the audience was chilled by the implications of what happened to characters who ventured into outer space. And Abramenko doesn’t tease the audience as long as one might expect: Soon, Semiradov reveals more details of the situation to Tatyana, inviting her to watch Konstantin in his holding cell in the middle of the night, when he convulses in his sleep while a creature gradually crawls out of his mouth. This sequence is unnerving, showing the creature’s emergence partially from the point of view of laboratory cameras, lending the event a patina of casualness and “reality.” The creature itself is, in design, beholden less to Alien than to the mutations of that film’s prequel, Prometheus, as it’s pale and amphibian in nature, suggesting a miniature manta ray or hammerhead shark, with little legs and a gelatinous tail that is, of course, so very phallic.
Like the various otherworldly beings of Prometheus, Sputnik’s monster is disappointing, timidly designed for the sake of a supposed, greatly overrated notion of believability. It doesn’t seem especially plausible that a tapeworm creature would evolve, seemingly overnight, into the metallic praying mantis colossus of Alien, and this irrationality, coupled with the primordial design itself, is terrifying. By contrast, Sputnik’s wan creature ushers forth a series of anticlimaxes that ripple through the film. After the alien’s symbiotic relationship with Konstantin is explained via amusing pseudo-science, Sputnik changes formulas, becoming a story of a special man who must be saved from evil military industrialists. At times, Abramenko even seems to be visually quoting Ang Lee’s Hulk.
But a story of a special man must be fixated, as Hulk was, with the psychology of said man. Konstantin’s anguish at being invaded, and the weird elation he might feel at discovering that he can control his interloper, are glossed over by Abramenko. Sputnik’s third act is a rush of formulaic action meant, perhaps, to compensate for the interminably repetitive and impersonal second act, which is mostly concerned with reinforcing a set of foregone conclusions. Incredibly, the central notion of the film—of an alien that symbolically rapes its host over and over—is relegated to an inciting incident. Sputnik is an egregious missed opportunity that bites off more formulas than it can chew.
Cast: Oksana Akinshina, Fedor Bondarchuk, Pyotr Fyodorov, Albrecht Zander, Anna Nazarova, Vasiliy Zotov Director: Egor Abramenko Screenwriter: Oleg Malovichko, Andrei Zolotarev Distributor: IFC Midnight Running Time: 113 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Interview: Alejandro Jodorowsky on Psychomagic, the Theater of Cruelty, and More
The maverick filmmaker discusses working with the tarot, the surrealist moviement, and more.
At the age of 91, maverick Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky has made his first ever documentary, Psychomagic, a Healing Art. In many ways, it’s a companion piece to his recent self-reflexive and semi-autobiographical films The Dance of Reality and Endless Poetry, in which Jodorowsky inserted his present-day self into the narrative of his own boyhood and youth. Where the earlier films show Jodorowsky arriving at private rituals and symbolic acts to deal with his own issues, Psychomagic expands his sphere of influence to include men and women who find themselves in a cul-de-sac of existential distress.
Essentially a daisy chain of case histories, the film allows Jodorowsky to demonstrate the unconventional psychotherapeutic techniques he’s developed over a lifetime spent studying various psychological systems and an astonishing variety of Eastern and Western spiritual practices. As you might expect from the man behind El Topo and The Holy Mountain, it can be a wild ride, full of sometimes totally bonkers, even grotesque imagery, yet also betraying Jodorowsky’s full-blooded compassion for the vicissitudes of human suffering.
Ahead of the VOD release of Psychomagic, I had the opportunity to speak with Jodorowsky via Skype. We touched upon a far-ranging assortment of topics including working with the tarot, Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, the “last days” of the surrealist movement, and the films of Dario Argento and Luis Buñuel.
Early in your new documentary you mention your work with the tarot deck. How did that contribute to your development of psychomagic?
For me, the tarot isn’t magic that let’s you see the future. It’s only a language to open the unconscious. That is all. It’s to work with the dreams like Sigmund Freud worked with dreams. My films help me to speak about dreams, and put you on the table [in a tarot spread]. I use tarot to do that. But, in order to do that, I needed 50 years of working with the tarot, learning how to memorize the tarot deck. I memorized every line, every color, every meaning. [Jodorowsky proceeds to give a quick three-card tarot reading.]
Psychomagic techniques seem to involve a dreamlike, poetic logic. How do you arrive at the specific details of the treatments?
When you’re working with me, first I make your genealogical tree. You have the son, you have the partner, the father and mother, the grandfather. Then I know where you are, what formed you. And then, when I know that, I will not experience you in a psychoanalytic way, an intellectual way. That is for psychoanalysts, who take dreams and teach you what is real life. I am different. I take what you think with the reality and I put it into the image of the dream. I use the language of acting, not speaking, doing things you never did before. New things. I am breaking your psychological defense with an image to go do something. I will say, “Paint your beard gold and kiss a woman, or a man, who has silver hair.” I will say that’s an image. That will open to you the unconscious, something you will discover. That is the work of psychomagic.
With most of the participants in the film, all we see is their short-term response to the treatment. What made you follow up with the woman who had throat cancer after almost 10 years?
What I did in the theater was an experience. Because I had a theater. I had to pay to have that theater. Because every healing I do is free. I’m not a psychoanalyst, so nobody paid me. It’s free. Because I had a big theater, and in Chile I am very well known, I will have a conference in the theater. Five thousand people came. And then I decided to make an experience. I didn’t know if collective thinking, like quantum theory says, could change reality, if we have a group of people who do the same thing. Can we heal this woman? She thinks she will die very quickly. And then I take the woman and I make the experience. And then I didn’t speak with her. And then, when I made the picture 10 years later, I wanted to know, because I never repeated it. In order to teach healing, you need 5,000 doctors! It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I wanted to know, with thinking, do we or don’t we have the power? The cancer, they say we cannot heal that. I don’t know if they fought the cancer for years because it’s a big, big business, and they don’t want to find the solution. That I don’t know. When healing becomes a business, it cannot heal for me. Healing is an act of love. You have to take the person in your arms. The psychoanalyst doesn’t take you in his arms!
And then I get a telephone call from a friend of the woman, a student of mine. I asked him if she had died. He said no, she’s alive. I asked if I could make an interview for the film. She tells how the experience was. She said it was very good. I don’t know if it was a placebo. Placebos can be good also.
Yes, if it works, it’s good.
But it was only an experience that I did once. I can’t find 5,000 people for every person who has an illness.
Psychomagic includes short clips from many of your earlier films. Do you see this film, and the therapeutic work it illustrates, as an encapsulation of your entire career?
From the theater I came to the “happening,” improvised theater, the theater of action, then to psychomagic. I came to it. I didn’t create it. But, in all my pictures, I was searching for something. I respect very much the industrial movies. Movies from the beginning were an industry. Their goal from the beginning was to make big money. And then they discovered Hollywood and all that. But there was not one real truth, one real feeling, it was acting feelings. The show must go on! But for me movies are not a show, they’re an art.
What is art? It’s open for the person who does the work, new horizons, they will open the human soul. That’s what I did in my pictures. I started to put real things into the picture. Reality says, “Problem! I am having problems with my mother, problems with my father.” I was telling it all. Step by step, I was coming to introduce my real life into the pictures. I was having problems with my father in Endless Poetry, and I was shooting, and suddenly I jumped into the picture! Psychomagic is only real feelings, not an imitation. And that’s what I was searching for. I put examples in my pictures, saying I am speaking always of the same thing, but in an artistic way. I show a guy closed in a tower [in El Topo] and in Psychomagic I show a guy breaking pumpkins. I did that in El Topo, but in a metaphorical way, not directly. And then I show in my film that it was the same position, but in another language: artistic language, therapeutic language.
Can you tell me something about your encounters with André Breton and other surrealists in the Paris of the 1960s?
I will speak about that in my third film. It’s a trilogy: The Dance of Reality, Endless Poetry, and Essential Journey. That’s number three. I hope, if I am alive, because I am an old person, to start it in January. The script I’ve done already. I am very happy with it. I speak about that time, until I started to be a movie director. I stop there. In it, I am going to France to work with the surrealists, with the theater of Marcel Marceau, with the philosopher Gaston Bachelard. I have those three worlds.
My mind was opened with philosophy. With surrealism, I think I am the last surrealistic moviemaker who’s really surrealistic. But I am a little step farther, because surrealism doesn’t show, doesn’t explain. It’s the mystery of something you don’t understand. That is surrealism. A dream image you don’t understand, you have no need to explain that. In the art I do, you know what you’re doing. It has a finality. It has to solve your problem and come to felicity. Felicity of life. That’s what I feel with the idiotic love story. Love is not like love with a star. Love is love. We need to show what love is. Tell the things that are true, make you go to happiness. Not an idiotic happiness, not Disneyland, a real internal life. Happy to be alive. I am alive. It’s fantastic. What an incredible thing. Art has to give you with possibility to be what you are, not what the moviemaker is. Not what the actor is, you. It’s complicated, no?
Speaking of surrealistic filmmakers, what do you think about the films of Luis Buñuel?
He was a surrealist, yes, but he’s too realistic for me. He was a real person, in the real. And for me the pictures have not only a meaning, they’re a painting. You can shoot something like that [mimes different angles], traveling shots, etcetera. Everything speaks. Buñuel’s show only one point of view. He’s sitting and everything is in the size of someone sitting. But he doesn’t go out [he mimes leaving the Skype frame], he doesn’t make other things. Hollywood discovered camera movement. Camera movement is fantastic! I need to have Buñuel in Hollywood and that would be good. He could show a deep meaning but with greater freedom of form.
When you worked with Claudio Argento on Santa Sangre did you know anything about the films of his brother Dario?
Yes, I like them a lot. He was a guy who doesn’t give too much importance to the script. He can be not logical. The pleasure to shoot something that’s weird! And I liked that. No message, no meaning. Very aesthetical.
Do you have a favorite film of his?
I am very old. I don’t remember the names. I’ve seen it a lot of times, this picture. He goes into a building, he goes inside the house.
Deep Red. Profondo Rosso.
Yes! Profondo Rosso. Fantastic picture. A film like that, for his time, he made explosive cinema. Because it was the film of a director. Generally, in the industrial film, the director is an employee. The studios are surveying the script. You aren’t free with the script. You need to shoot what’s right there. Because, when you’re free, you make the script to start the picture. But in the middle of the picture you can change whatever you want and put new things in. Because there are magic things that happen when you’re shooting. In Santa Sangre, when the father commits suicide, the naked father, it was in Mexico, in the street. A very old woman was singing, drunk. There were a lot of bars there. I said, “Go find me this drunk woman, because it’s the music I need for that suicide.” And then he will kill himself, but in the image there’s a real song of a person who’s really suffering. And it’s fantastic, like that. You need to be free. When you make the picture, the director is the poet. In Hollywood, the poet is the money. More money, more happiness. I say, “No.” More poetical, more artistical—that is good. Like the tarot, that isn’t a business. I know I’m crazy, but you need some crazy person in the generality, then somebody will use it in another way.
We certainly need more people in the world who are crazy in that way.
Yes, because crazy people aren’t crazy. They’re just using their mind in another way. And it’s very interesting.
How closely did you collaborate with David Lynch on your King Shot project?
He was very gentle with me. He said, “Maybe we can make a picture.” But my project was so crazy. Maybe I wanted to shoot in Spain. I wanted to do what I always do. But he had a little company at that moment. He was not able to have the money to do that. So, since I didn’t have the money, I didn’t do it. It was too expensive.
What can you tell me about your time with Arrabal and Roland Topor in the Panic Movement?
That was really a fantastic moment in my life. Because we were accepted within the surrealist group. That was the end of surrealism. A lot of surrealists were into politics. They were Trotskyists. Into the Romantic realization of the woman, not the real woman. Arrabal, Topor, and I were searching for absolute freedom. The artist needs to be inside the play, for example, inside what you’re shooting or playing. You need to be inside, in your body. You are there. Not out of the work. You need to go farther than the intellect, farther than the unconscious. Farther than the religions. You need to find the panic. Panic isn’t fear, panic is the totality. You need to find what a man is in totality. And then, if you are an artist in totality, you need to be a painter, dancer, mime, cinematographic creator, marionette. All the things I did. Because it’s the totality. Searching the totality of expression, that’s what we did. It wasn’t a movement, it was only three persons. And we called it a movement. We wanted to show that culture was fake, was an illusion. Because three persons will go into history as a movement that doesn’t exist!
Your performances sound a lot like what was called “happenings” in other countries or what the Vienna Aktionists were doing with their films. Would you say that’s accurate?
No, the happenings were going on in the milieu of painting and sculpture. It was a way to develop the plastic arts. I made ephemera. Ephemera is not that. Ephemera is a kind of theater, psychoanalysis, dreams, surrealism. The language of art, with meaning. Happening is an expression of freedom, but only freedom.
So the performances were closer to what Antonin Artaud was talking about with his Theater of Cruelty?
I was a big admirer of The Theater and Its Double. I started from there. He opened my eyes. In Fando y Lis, you have a little influence of Artaud. I had a theater play of Arrabal, with Fando y Lis, but I didn’t use the play, I used the memory I had as director of the play. With a lot of violence coming from Artaud. And then in El Topo, I had a Japanese Zen Master, Ejo Takata. Zen meditation, not like a hippie, real Zen meditation. Seven-day meditating without sleep. I was sleeping every night for 30 minutes, that’s all. Terrible, incredible! I brought this experience to El Topo. Because Artaud made the Theater of Cruelty. When you see the cruelty, you are open. But then I didn’t want any more cruelty. I decided I wanted to make the encounter with our self, make the cathedral [forms a steeple with his hands]. You are a cathedral. You aren’t a butcher. You’re creating the sacred. Some religions are fanatical. But I read the teachings of the Buddha, and I think there’s something more true than Artaud.
Is it true that René Daumal’s novel Mount Analogue was an influence on The Holy Mountain?
Yes. I love René Daumal, because I love his teacher. He had a great teacher, who was Gurdjieff. And in that novel, Daumal is speaking about his experience with Gurdjieff. More than surrealism, Daumal took it a step farther: The Great Game [a “counter-surrealist” journal founded by Daumal and friends]. He started to choke himself to see how it was to almost die. He was searching for stronger things, real metaphysical searching. I wanted to do his unfinished novel, Mount Analogue. He never finished it because he died very young from tuberculosis. But the family didn’t want to give me the rights. I said, “Well, I will make my own Holy Mountain!” What I directed depicts Daumal’s book. It’s a group that goes with a teacher to find immortality on a mountain. That I took. Then I developed my ideas.
So, at the end of the film, when we see the making of the film, when you turn one camera on another, was that a way of opening it up to the interpretation of the viewer?
I never thought of it the way you are saying now. Maybe, yes. I went to a real mountain in Mexico. I brought a tiger, a monk, actors, all that. And the Mexicans told me it was dangerous. Why? “Because there are tempests, and when there are tempests, you can die. Be careful.” No, I will go, because it’s beautiful, the weather is so fantastic. I shoot what I shoot, and when I finished shooting, the tempest came. And then we started to run in concert, to get off the mountain, because it was dangerous! I was running and I slipped and [mimes rolling down the mountain]. But I had a hammer and [mimes jamming it into the ground]. “No! I don’t want to die, I need to finish this damn picture!” I am making a picture. Like this, I will finish. This is the end of the picture, because it was the real end. It wasn’t as good, but I put in reality into my film. I wanted to make real things, and that, for me, was a real thing!
We’re making a picture. It’s not a comedy. There are real sentiments, because all those people I found were not actors. Every person I showed had the problem I show in the picture. Real people I used, real tiger! I’m not a Hollywood company making fake everything. I asked Hollywood that I want a stampede of tarantulas, big spiders on a body. They made fake ones. So we went out and bought spiders and had their fangs cut out. We made up the body and then we used the spiders. Real spiders came out there. And the person who did that, also myself, never liked spiders! There he was, suffering something enormous with those spiders!
Are you currently working on any new graphic novels?
Graphic novels. That is my industrial business. Because I have The Incal, Metabarons, Sons of El Topo. That I am doing all the time. That is normal for me, because I have a big imagination. If I didn’t have imagination, I would die. I am taking a step farther than Psychomagic with Psychotrance. It’s a kind of literature, but at the same time you’re reading, I’m giving you exercises. It’s mixing a lecture with exercises to inspire what you do, the impact of having a trance. With drugs, you have a trance. I say no drugs. We can do it without drugs. How to do it like this. Not only meditation. Go farther than meditation. Go immediately to what you are when you’re not intellect. What is in you? You don’t need to take LSD. You don’t need to take ayahuasca. Because those are dreams. I am saying do the same thing I do in movies. In movies, in a century of fake feelings, I am making real feelings. In a culture full of drugs, psychological drugs, I am putting in a real hallucination, guiding how you can do it.
Translation by Pascale Montandon.
Interview: Kate Lyn Sheil on Calibrating Her Performance in She Dies Tomorrow
Sheil discusses how she situates the specifics of work within such an ambiguous and allegorical film.
Amy Seimetz’s She Dies Tomorrow is of obvious relevance in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. The film, which had been set to premiere at this year’s SXSW, grapples with the contagious nature of despondency and angst in a contemporary milieu that so often seeks to minimize or ignore them. These amorphous feelings prove to be an inexplicably transmissible disease passed from character to character, each of which stops in their tracks and calmly declares, “I’m going to die tomorrow.”
That She Dies Tomorrow doesn’t buckle under the weight of its heady themes and supernatural premise is a testament to how the performances ground the film in reality. In the film, Kate Lyn Sheil stars as Amy, a surrogate character for the director who quietly yet urgently probes the boundaries of the anxieties that ensnare her. Sheil, who commands the most screen time, captivates as she wields her mastery of minutiae. She’s capable of precisely executing small physical gestures to convey forceful intent.
It’s merely the latest in a line of exciting and unpredictable performances from Sheil, whose prolific presence in the New York independent film scene spans from working with early mumblecore pioneers like Joe Swanberg in Silver Bullets to partnering with boundary-pushing luminaries such as Robert Greene on Kate Plays Christine. She’s equally as revelatory appearing briefly in a short film, the latest Alex Ross Perry project, an episode of House of Cards, or working through the very ethics of her trade as herself in documentary format.
I caught up with Sheil prior to the digital release of She Dies Tomorrow to discuss how she approaches conveying such potent interiority, her long-term collaboration with Seimetz, and how she situates the specifics of work within such an ambiguous and allegorical film.
What are the ripple effects of Kate Plays Christine in your work and career, given that it’s such a meta performance about the nature of performance?
I worked with a director afterward who said that he wanted to work with me after he saw Kate Plays Christine because it made him feel like I would be honest with him if I didn’t like the way that he was directing me. And I was like, “Oh, no, you’re mistaken. I probably will not say anything at all and just try and toe the party line.” Because that movie plays with what is real and what is fake, I feel like there could potentially be a misconception that I yell. Which is…not the case. Your guess is as good as mine.
That scene where you really snap was staged too, right? It was something Robert Greene invented to see what would happen when you felt boxed in by the experiment.
Yeah, it was scripted, essentially.
Is the movie at all a window into the way you work?
I think I spoke honestly about some ways that I approach acting roles in Kate Plays Christine, while lots of it is scripted, embellished or made up to create a narrative arc. I think there are moments that I speak truthfully about the way I do approach a role. I, personally, would never go to Sarasota and think that I had to interview people in order to play a part correctly. But I think I talk about my—I hate to say it—“process” in a truthful manner at a certain point, and that’s how I would [do it]. That’s probably how I approached this movie. Amy wrote this role, and then the best that I can do is just to try to find ways that I relate to the character and use substitutions to think of times when I maybe felt analogous.
Part of what makes Kate Plays Christine so fascinating is the way the camera allows you to externalize the process of thinking and deliberating. Was that at all helpful for She Dies Tomorrow?
Yeah, that’s all that’s all Amy’s writing though. That was baked into the script from the earliest stages of it. She wanted the character to be very physical in the way that she was exploring that house and touching things in a way that, at least from the outside if someone were to catch you doing it, it doesn’t seem like normal behavior. But when faced with the enormity of this thing, normalcy doesn’t really mean anything anymore.
Amy Seimetz has said that the tactile details of touching the house came from her own experience grappling with the weird mix of emotions that arose from her becoming a homeowner. How do you find your way into this compulsion that’s so visceral and unique?
It’s Amy, she wrote it for me, and then she creates an environment on set where—I don’t want to say it’s not difficult, because I certainly was afraid the entire time that I maybe wasn’t doing as good a job as I could. I didn’t want to let Amy down. She creates an environment where you can sort of slip into it. We’ve known each other for such a long time, and we’ve worked together before. I love the way that she directs me. She’s not precious with me at all. She will quite literally show me what she wants if I’m not getting it. [laughs, mimes direction] “Okay, that’s what I’m supposed to do, cool!”
The beginning of the film is largely free of dialogue. How much of what we see was scripted or pre-planned versus discovered once the camera rolled?
Not much of an element of discovery once the camera starts rolling. Amy is pretty precise in her visuals, and she has worked with Jake Keitel, who shot the movie, for like 17 years now. They share a brain in certain ways in terms of lighting the shots. Because that element is so important to her, there really wasn’t much of the “go with the flow, we’ll just find it in the moment.” There’s a level of precision to it, which I like and appreciate. But that’s not to say that she doesn’t give you as much room as you need to emotionally find the scene. But, in terms of physicality, she really has planned it out pretty precisely beforehand.
Was that at all different from Sun Don’t Shine? Since that was such a scrappy, on-the-go road movie, did really planting your feet in a location change the nature of your collaboration with Amy at all?
With Sun Don’t Shine, yeah, certain things are obviously outside your control if you’re shooting outside. But also with that, the economy of the way that she approaches making the movie, she still has a scrappy sensibility. That’s my favorite thing because I think if you know how to make a movie for no money, then you can use those skills and continue to apply that to whatever budget you happen to be working with. She had everything on Sun Don’t Shine so precisely planned out in terms of how to shoot the car because she and Jake didn’t want it to become monotonous. In a way, that required a great deal of precision too. But then, of course, for that movie, you’re shooting in Florida in the middle of summer. There are just variables. I got very sick when we were making that movie, so there are scenes where [they] had one thing in mind. And then she’s like, “Okay, you’re just gonna be sitting because you can’t do anything.”
Since you mentioned that Amy and her cinematographer share the same brain, do you feel the same kinship with her or other directors? A lot of your work comes from collaboration with people like Amy Seimetz, Alex Ross Perry, Robert Greene, among others, with whom you share a social circle. How does the process of working with them, where you might be more involved at the ground level of a project, compare with something where you’re brought in through a more traditional casting process?
I love working with all the people that you just mentioned, and I think it’s very lucky that I happen to know people that, by my estimation, are incredible. It’s so wonderful to work with them because there is a shared history and a shorthand. It just so happens, as I said before, that I like their work a lot, so it’s more bang for your buck. Not only do you get to work with friends, but you get to be in a project that you’re probably going to like or would like, even if you had nothing to do with it. But, at the same time, there’s something really something very fun about showing up to a set and just trying your best to execute the thing, do your job and then go home at the end of the day and it’s not your old, close friends. There’s something nice about both.
What’s the best way to describe your relationship to that extended Kim’s Video orbit? Muse, co-conspirator, something else entirely?
I’m so close to it that it’s hard to think of what to call it. But that place meant everything to me. It’s where I feel like I got my education in film. I think my life would be completely different if it hadn’t existed. It truly does mean so much to me. Surprisingly, though I don’t think any of us truly saw it coming at the time, a bunch of people who have worked there at a certain time actually started making their own projects. I feel very fortunate that I was around at that time. And it’s nice to make movies with people [for whom] the impetus is a love of watching them. That’s a very joyous experience.
I know you kind of scoffed at the word “process” earlier and put it in scare quotes…
Yeah, but…I used it! [laughs]
Well, we can just caveat that. I know your training as an actress primarily came from a theatrical background at NYU. She Dies Tomorrow is about the farthest thing from a theatrical performance: The film opens on a shot of your eye, and meaning gets conveyed through how your pupil moves. How did you learn to communicate in these micro moments? Did it involve “unlearning” any theatrical training?
Yes and no. I feel like it’s all the same skill set. And then, of course, when you get in front of the camera, you learn to adjust and have a relationship with the camera also. Rather than acting for an audience, you’re trying to be present with your fellow actor, more present in the moment. If there isn’t anybody else there, which is largely the case for my stuff in She Dies Tomorrow, the camera’s your audience. I haven’t acted in a play in a very long time. I miss it, personally. I left school, and I never wanted to do to theater again. I was obsessed with movies, and I still am. But at a certain point, maybe a few years ago, I was like, “You know what, it would be fun to do to do a play!” But, I mean, I still struggle with it. I feel like a lot of my close friends who are actors talk about it too. I still walk away at the end of some days being like, “I was too big, or I was too aware of the camera. So I tried to be small, and I think it was too small.” You still have these anxieties about that exact thing, calibrating your performance to the medium.
As an actress in a film like this, do you feel the need to “understand” the rest of the film like the nature of the contagion or the impressionistic transitions? Or is it a matter of performing your part and trusting that the rest of the film will fall into place around you?
I think it’s important to make it make sense for you, but I don’t think it’s important for me to understand the structure of the entire film. But it’s always very important for me to know what I’m doing to understand where, in particular, I’m coming from. I definitely trusted that Amy was doing something great with those parts of the movie. When she told me that’s how the movie was going to proceed, that it was going to expand and extrapolate in that way, I was very, very happy. I was happy that there were going to be other people for the audience to sit with for a while. And I also love those scenes. The dinner scene, I think is so funny. Everything in the movie is wonderful, but [that’s what is] coming to mind right now. I like the way that those scenes bounced around with my scenes and recontextualize my scenes to a certain degree.
I’m always fascinated with this duality that to communicate something existential and widely recognizable, it’s often rooted in such personal and intimate performance. How do you manage the balance between the general and the specific, especially in a film like She Dies Tomorrow that has a more allegorical or representational edge to it?
I think that certain things are just outside of my control. The most that I can control is to try and make the character specific for me and then I can’t get too caught up in thinking of the overarching themes. I just try and stay in my lane, stay focused and make it specific and individual. But if the person directing movie is creating something allegorical, then hopefully my performance lends itself to that goal.
What are your thoughts on the meta element of anxiety and death premonitions being contagious? Do you think the screen is porous enough that the audience could, or should, catch it? By the end of the film, I was wondering if I would end up saying “I’m going to die tomorrow” like all the characters.
We’re obviously living in such a strange time right now that Amy never could have anticipated. Hopefully what people would feel more than anything is recognition, or that some experience that they’ve had is being reflected back to them. Hopefully that would make someone feel better potentially, less alone or less crazy. Something like that. But I mean, the movie is about ideas being contagious. So, maybe.
It was so interesting to watch in the back half of the film where, for certain characters, you can tell that the ability to express and verbalize their anxiety helps them manage it. Maybe that’s the more constructive takeaway.
Yeah, there you go!
Interview: Seth Rogen on An American Pickle and Reconnecting with His Roots
Rogen discusses collaborating with Simon Rich, how the film enriched his understanding of Judaism, the exhibition prospects of comedy in the streaming era, and more.
It’s been over two decades since Seth Rogen made his small-screen debut in Freaks and Geeks, though one could be forgiven for assuming he’s been in the business much longer given all that he’s accomplished since then. He wrote for the acclaimed shows Da Ali G Show and Undeclared in the early aughts, before then breaking out in front of the camera in two comedy smashes released in the summer of 2007, Knocked Up and Superbad, the latter of which he co-wrote with creative partner Evan Goldberg. Rogen helped usher in the still-dominant Apatow era of big-screen comedy, a reign that not even the North Korean government could topple with the cyber-attack launched in response to his 2014 Kim Jong-un assassination satire The Interview.
While Rogen’s on-camera appearances have waned slightly over the past few years, his creative output hasn’t, as he and his partners at Point Grey continue to ramp up production across film, TV, and streaming. Their latest effort, An American Pickle, holds the distinction of being HBO Max’s first original narrative feature to premiere on the platform. But it also portends a distinctly more mature and reflective shift in Rogen’s own work as the cinematic face of exuberant millennial prolonged adolescence nears middle age.
The film stars Rogen in dual roles as Ben, a contemporary secular Brooklynite app developer, and Herschel, his devoutly Jewish great-grandfather who emigrated from eastern Europe and reemerges in the present day after being brined in a vat of pickles for a century. Neither the film or the characters in it dwell much on the absurd premise, and An American Pickle blossoms into a silly but sweet tale of misunderstanding and reconciliation between distant generations that share little other than a bloodline.
I chatted with Rogen on the eve of An American Pickle’s release. Our discussion covered how he collaborated with writer Simon Rich, how the film enriched his own understanding of Judaism, and how he envisions the exhibition prospects of comedy in the streaming era.
I saw Knocked Up as a teenager, and now it weirds me out that I’m older than you were when you made it. While working on it, were you aware that it might become such a generational touchstone for millennials? How do you feel about it now that it’s almost like a period piece?
I think when you make a movie you never truly know how it’s going to be received, honestly. Watch Hearts of Darkness, that’s a good lesson in that! There’s people on the set of the worst movie you’ve ever seen who think they’re making a masterpiece, and there’s people on the set of a masterpiece thinking that no one’s going to watch or see it ever—and even if they do, they’ll hate it. It’s not uncontrollable, but it’s hard to control and almost impossible to do with some sort of consistency. To that end, I’m glad that people still like any of our movies. The fact that any of them are viewed as remotely relevant in some way is lovely. You really don’t know what’s going to stand the test of time until time has passed, really.
I ask about that film partly because I feel there’s an interesting evolution we can chart from there to An American Pickle, which has an insight and understanding that feels like it can only be conveyed by learning and living. Is this the kind of film you could only have made at this point in your life?
Yeah, I think it’s definitely born of an older brain. Especially the themes of grief and how to process things we learned as kids, how we may have rejected those things even though they might add value to our lives, those themes are much more prevalent in my life as I get closer to 40 than when I was in my mid-20s. The idea of making a movie about grief and reconnecting with my roots was not prominent on my radar! [laughs]
There’s such poignancy to the way the film shows how past generations, be it through religion or some other factor, are better equipped to handle grief and hardship. Has any of that been valuable, pandemic or otherwise, in your life?
Yeah, I think religion specifically. My wife’s mother passed away earlier this year, and her uncle, actually. I’ve just seen with that specifically. Judaism has actionable protocols that do help. At one point in my life, I would probably write off all of it and say there was nothing helpful I was ever taught about religion. Now as I get older, I can cherry-pick and say you can take elements of this and apply them to your life as you find them helpful. Not all of this was born out of fooling people. Some of it was born out of truly trying to help people.
You’ve obviously done quite a bit of writing yourself on other projects. When it comes to something like An American Pickle, do you mostly just stay in your lane as an actor and let Simon Rich tailor the script to you? Or are you still involved in some writerly capacity?
I’m definitely still involved in some writerly capacity. I respect the writer and know their name is the one that’s on it ultimately, and they have to be able to stand behind all of it and take ownership over it. But I try to be constructive! I just try to help and support the ideas that I can. I try to acknowledge it and say this isn’t what I would do, always, but I’m not the writer! I try to respect that.
This film was originally geared toward theaters and is now going directly to streaming on HBO Max. In your mind, does the method of distribution affect the work you make? Or are you a platform agnostic and a laugh is a laugh on a big or a small screen?
We definitely make some films that are geared more toward a big-screen experience, in our minds at least, and some we are much more comfortable with that not being the experience. This being the perfect example of one of those! We understand that if we intend to keep making films for theaters, then they have to earn that right to be in a theater. Not every film automatically is granted that at this moment, and we understand that those are different types of films sometimes. It’s not always based on budget or anything like that. Good Boys, although it wasn’t expensive, is a movie we were confident would do well in theaters. There are some more expensive movies we would not be as confident that would be the best place for them. It’s an active conversation, but I do think some movies are better geared towards a cinematic experience and some towards a streaming one.
It still strikes me as crazy that so much data shows comedy is one of the genres people most want to view at home instead of in a room full of people.
I think people just like comedy! But to me, some of the greatest experiences I’ve had in a theater, I don’t think of the action movies I saw. I think about when I saw There’s Something About Mary or South Park in theaters, the Jackass movies, these wild experiences where you can barely hear what’s happening. Those are my favorite moviegoing experiences, and I think a lot of people feel that way.
Any chance you’d do a This Is the End sequel? It’s a movie I’ve thought about a lot over the last few months each time celebrities try to center themselves in the dialogue around a moment of crisis.
Not a sequel, specifically, but we do talk about building on the genre of famous people playing themselves interacting with supernatural situations. There maybe is more to be done with that.
Review: The Secret Garden Is a Pale Imitation of Its Enchanting Source
Its emphasis on the achievement of the individual is practically antithetical to the conclusion drawn by Frances Hodgson Burnett.2
Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, the story of a young girl who opens herself up the possibilities of human compassion after rejuvenating a garden and caring for her sickly cousin, has resonated with readers of all ages since its publication. And it’s clear from the brooding start of this latest cinematic adaptation that the filmmakers seek to amplify the book’s darker themes. A title card announces that the turbulent post-World War I India that newly orphaned Mary (Dixie Egerickx) finds herself in has been ravaged by a series of violent conflicts, and director Marc Munden initially does a fine job of mirroring the girl’s confusion and insecurity over losing her parents in the uncertainty of her surroundings.
Once Mary moves to the Yorkshire estate of her uncle, Archibald Craven (Colin Firth), the filmmakers also gesture beyond the novel’s thematic borders by having multiple characters—including Craven, who’s still grieving the death of his wife, and his infirm son, Colin (Edan Hayhurst)—face a collective trauma that leaves them unsure of how to deal with their feelings. Unfortunately, the film fails to deliver on its initial promise of branching the story out into bold new emotional terrain after the narrative begins to diminish many of the characters and aspects that made Burnett’s book such a stirring vision of morality.
The secret life and death of the woman who was Craven’s wife and Colin’s mother is only a minor part of the book, but this adaptation pushes this mystery to the narrative forefront and vastly yet uninspiringly expands on it. In a departure from the novel, this rote mystery plotline largely centers on Mary, which only makes her quest feel conspicuously insular and self-serving. This emphasis on the achievement of the individual is practically antithetical to the very conclusion drawn by Burnett in the book: that enrichment and satisfaction is a shared experience that comes through something as simple as human kindness.
The focus on Mary’s plight in the film comes at the expense of capturing the idyllic beauty of the titular hideaway, whose function ultimately feels like an afterthought; it’s but a convenient plot device that exists solely to help Mary solve a problem that very much defies her efforts until the last act. Imbued with the power to cure ailments and react to people’s feelings like a sentient being, the garden offers a dose of fantasy to the film, and, predictably, it’s been rendered with a heavy dose of CGI that makes it feel cold and soulless, never eliciting the sense of calm that the characters feel while gallivanting its grounds.
As in the book, Mary learns to overcome her selfishness by helping to heal Colin, but where Burnett’s story slowly detailed the increasingly invigorating power of Mary and Colin’s friendship and mutual affection, Munden fails to show how Mary’s sleuthing ignites her spirit of generosity. It feels like a cop-out when Colin is healed by the garden’s mysterious properties, causing him to praise Mary for showing him that real magic exists. In lieu of pluming the emotional states of the characters, the film resorts to a whimsical, otherworldly fantasy element as an easy resolution. It’s the sort of fantasy that Burnett didn’t need to make room for in the book, because it recognized something more profound: that real magic isn’t necessary in a world where human beings possess the capacity for compassion.
Cast: Dixie Egerickx, Colin Firth, Julie Walters, Edan Hayhurst, Amir Wilson, Isis Davis, Maeve Dermody, Jemma Powell Director: Marc Munden Screenwriter: Jack Thorne Distributor: STXfilms Running Time: 99 min Rating: PG Year: 2020
Review: Psychomagic, a Healing Art Is a Moving Look at Therapeutic Interventions
The film could stand as a fitting encapsulation of the themes that have run throughout Alejandro Jodorowsky’s work.3
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s first documentary, Psychomagic, a Healing Art, is a moving, visually striking exploration of the unconventional psychotherapeutic techniques that the filmmaker has developed over a lifetime of reading tarot cards and studying various psychological systems and an assortment of Eastern and Western spiritual practices. After a brief introduction, during which Jodorowsky lays out the major tenets of his technique, we witness a selection of individual case histories. The format for these therapeutic interventions varies only slightly: a preliminary interview describes the issues at hand; the particular treatment is undertaken, an activity that seems pitched somewhere between ritual and performance art; and then a follow-up interview permits the participant(s)—some of them are couples—to describe the therapy’s impact on their lives. These episodes are often intercut with a thematically or pictorially related moment from one of Jodorowsky’s earlier films, as though to emphasize the continuity of his vision from narrative cinema to documentary.
Throughout Psychomagic, individual treatments unfold according to a dreamlike, poetic logic. Many of them involve the participant undergoing some sort of symbolic death and rebirth. Often this entails nothing more radical than stripping off one’s old clothes and donning new ones. Sometimes it means reenacting the moment of birth through what Jodorowsky calls “initiatic massage,” a hands-on bit of dialogue-free theater. But the most intense version of this psychic renascence on display here starts with burying a suicidal man up to his neck in the Spanish desert. A glass dish (replete with air holes) covers his exposed head. Slabs of raw meat are spread over his “grave,” and a wake of vultures come to devour the uncooked flesh. Then he’s dug up, cleaned up, and dressed up in an expensive-looking new suit.
Later, there’s a section given over to “social psychomagic,” ritual manifestations that most resemble mass demonstrations. One of them, known as “the Walk of the Dead,” a protest against drug war fatalities that features large groups donning traditional Day of the Dead skeleton costumes, could have been lifted straight from a similar scene in Endless Poetry. Although, on this occasion, at least, Jodorowsky himself doesn’t make that connection.
One segment, involving a woman suffering from throat cancer, comes perilously close to making false claims for the powers of psychomagic but luckily skirts the issue entirely through some well-deployed disclaimers. Jodorowsky invites the woman on stage at a conference with 5,000 attendees, to see whether or not their combined energies can help or heal her, and without making any promises. It’s never entirely clear whether or not she’s cured, but 10 years later, she’s still alive. Nor does she claim in her follow-up interview to have been cured. The “experiment” merely “opened a door” for her healing process to begin.
What most shines through all the therapeutic interventions detailed in the Psychomagic is the scrupulousness of Jodorowsky’s compassion and his deep-seated desire to render whatever assistance he can. As he mentions at one point in the documentary, he never charges money for these treatments. Whether or not the 91-year-old director makes another film, Psychomagic could easily stand as a fitting encapsulation of the themes of suffering and transcendence that have run throughout his entire career.
Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky Screenwriter: Alejandro Jodorowsky Distributor: ABKCO Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Sunless Shadows Is a Wrenching View of Patriarchal Power in Iran
Mehrdad Oskouei’s documentary is striking for the way its subjects describe horrific forms of violence in the plainest of language.3
Mehrdad Oskouei’s Starless Dreams is striking for the way that it unhurriedly paints a portrait of its subjects, a group of teenage girls at a juvenile detention center in Iran, before then shocking us with matter-of-factly stated admissions of murder. At first, you may find yourself trying to determine the documentary’s reason for being, alongside wanting to know the girls’ reasons for being incarcerated. We sense that the film is supposed to have a cumulative effect, built on prolonged observation followed by intellectual reflection—until we hear one of the girls say, point blank, that she killed her father. Her no-nonsense statement is in chilling lockstep with the lack of prudishness to Oskouei’s line of questioning throughout Starless Dreams. Whether he’s asking the detainees for their names or details about their traumas and crimes, his disembodied voice maintains the same level of cool.
Sunless Shadows, Oskouei’s second look at the same detention facility, initially focuses on its subjects describing horrific forms of violence in the plainest of language. When a girl remembers the abuse she suffered, all that matters is her words. Redolent of Claude Lanzmann’s approach, Oskouei strips his images to their barest bones as his subjects openly speak about their traumas, as if trying to avoid aestheticizing their pain.
In Sunless Shadows, though, Oskouei eventually digresses from this no-frills approach. By design, the film lacks the astonishment of Starless Dreams, suggesting a great story being told anew and now given over to a sort of formula. A similar relationship can be drawn between Joshua Oppenheimer’s harrowing The Act of Killing and its follow-up, The Look of Silence. Order is the essential culprit in both filmmakers’ attempts to take a second look at the same subject matter. The first film takes advantage of the emotional possibilities of shock or fright, but the force of an unexpected blow is difficult to repeat. By the time we come to the second film, we’re already literate in and, in some ways, inoculated by the banality of evil.
At times, Oskouei also uses a more readily recognizable setup for his interviews. Although most of sequences here take place in the girls’ dormitories, with them sitting haphazardly on the floor surrounded by their bunkbeds, Sunless Shadows is punctuated by interviews with the girls’ mothers, who are also incarcerated (and on death row), and scenes where each girl enters a room and looks straight into the camera to address the family member they’ve killed. These moments bring to mind a reality TV confessional, and their gracelessness is replicated by sequences where the girls’ family members are presumably watching this footage and crying.
The film rekindles the aura of Starless Dreams more faithfully when it doesn’t try to dress up the scenario that links them—patriarchy as an interminable metastasis—with forms that deny the dramatic sufficiency of the girls’ accounts. Theirs are stories of parent-child relations mediated by chicken-carving knives, of a father driving to the desert with the intention of pummeling his daughter to death, of sons fighting tooth and nail for their mother’s execution, unless she pays up. Overtly calculated mise-en-scène in this context feels like an affront.
It’s refreshing, then, when Oskouei harkens back to the core of his project, the ultimately futile killing of the father, the acting out of the unthinkable, the avowing of the unsayable. He does this when he allows language do the talking by itself and when he reduces the cinematic encounter to a matter of language: sincere questions followed by disarming answers. As when the filmmaker asks one of the girls, “Is killing difficult?” To which the girl answers, unwaveringly, “At the time you feel nothing, except for the joy of having done it.”
Director: Mehrdad Oskouei Screenwriter: Mehrdad Oskouei Distributor: Cinema Guild Running Time: 74 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Song Without a Name Boldly Confronts a Legacy of Marginalization
The film is strikingly fixated on exploring loss and pain on an intimate and personal scale.
Georgina (Pamela Mendoza) wakes up in the early hours of the morning to walk with her husband, Leo (Lucio Rojas), into Lima from their shack in a coastal shantytown on the outskirts of the city. Because she has few alternatives, her late-stage pregnancy doesn’t deter her as she sits in the street selling potatoes to passersby. It’s only natural, then, that when she hears a health clinic’s radio ad offering care to pregnant women, it sounds like a godsend. But once Georgina gives birth to her daughter, the clinic whisks the child off for some supposed medical tests, shoos her out the door, and then seems to vacate the location entirely. In an instant, her life is upended, but as Song Without a Name sensitively makes clear, the indigenous Georgina’s degradation is an all too familiar one in Peruvian society.
Though Melina León’s feature-length directorial debut is set in 1988, it appears as if it’s been beamed from an even earlier time. Its images, captured in boxy Academy ratio, are visibly aged, its faded edges and conspicuously distorted elements bringing to mind an old photograph. As a result, the scenes depicting government officials disregarding the needs of the indigenous Georgina gain a grave sense of timelessness, a feeling emphasized by the lack of period-specific markers amid the ramshackle houses. The events become detached from their specific historical backdrop, suggesting nothing less than the perpetuity of disenfranchisement.
In Song Without a Name, the only person who lends Georgina a sympathetic ear is Pedro (Tommy Párraga), a journalist who, as a gay man, understands what it means to be an outsider, though he initially tries to pass her story off to someone else, as he’s reporting on a paramilitary death squad whose handiwork he observes early in the film. And just when you think that León is going to steer the film into the terrain of a conventional investigative thriller, she remains fixated on exploring loss and pain on an intimate and personal scale, through the despair on people’s faces as much as through the formal touches that reflect it.
The film’s backdrop is tumultuous, and the characters have to move on from the kidnapping without truly wanting to because they need to eat, to pay for the roof over their heads, to live. In a haunting moment that evokes how tragedy diminishes the connection between people, Georgina mournfully stays in bed as Leo goes to work alone, but not before he leaves a handprint on the window, barely visible in the black and white of the frame.
León depicts anguish in such stark, all-encompassing terms that she risks overplaying her hand at times, like one scene that positions the closeted Pedro and his lover, Isa (Maykol Hernández), on opposite sides of a thick line of tiles that’s only made more prominent by the camera’s distant position. But mostly, she weaves an atmosphere that borders on ethereal through the jerky distortions of Georgina walking home at night and the ease with which certain pieces of Pedro’s investigation seem to fall into place. León channels Georgina’s devastation to particularly powerful effect in one long take where the mother is taken out of the clinic but continues pleading and crying, unseen, from the other side of the door. Across the minute-long shot, Georgina is determined not to go away, and the scene fades to black with such painful slowness that she seems to be prolonging the transition through force of will, beyond the point where the audience might normally look away.
Cast: Pamela Mendoza, Tommy Párraga, Lucio Rojas, Maykol Hernández, Lidia Quispe Director: Melina León Screenwriter: Melina León, Michael J. White Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
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