Tuesday, August 01, 2006
Is Michael Mann the Terrence Malick of testosterone?
In his excellent review of Michael Mann's MIAMI VICE, the NY Times's A.O. Scott dubs the movie "an action film for people who dig experimental art films, and vice versa." He references the film's almost non-narrative visual poetry as reminiscent of Stan Brakhage.(FULL DISCLOSURE: I crib and share some ideas from Scott's review. You can read it in full here: http://movies2.nytimes.com/2006/07/28/movies/28vice.html You might need to register or use bugmenot.com) I never thought I'd be writing this, but MIAMI VICE has proven to be the most enjoyable and satisfying film of the summer.
Perhaps my enjoyment is due to the lowered expectations of blockbuster season. Perhaps it's due to the increasing dearth of challenging and adult films in the mainstream marketplace. Nonetheless, Mann and DP Dion Beebe have crafted a work that defies and subverts expectations throughout.
Before hooking up with Beebe for COLLATERAL, Mann's oeuvre was distinguished by a cool visual formalism, summed up best in THIEF and MANHUNTER. It was on the latter that he began a collaboration with Dante Spinotti that would continue in THE INSIDER and HEAT. MANHUNTER's style can seem dated by today's standards (it's quite reminiscint of the televised MIAMI VICE), but INSIDER benefitted from its rough, documentary look and HEAT featured a solid amalgam of this roughness and the patented Mann stylization.
COLLATERAL continued this evolution of visual style, with Beebe pushing it further with his use of digital video. In the previously mentioned films, the visual style was one of the main attractions, but it always served fairly dense plots. COLLATERAL disrupted this pattern by employing a fairly simple plotline but placing the visual language firmly in the foreground. Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx were more than engaging, but the establishing of mood, the modern metallic noir hell of nighttime L.A. was king. Beebe complimented alternatingly smooth and grainy camerawork with subtle suberversions of cinematic language; note the meeting between Foxx's Max and Javier Bardem's Felix, where the basic shot/reverse shot is twisted:
It's appropriate that the jazz club band plays a cut off Miles Davis's BITCHES BREW, for subversions like these shots would serve notice that Mann, like Davis, was entering a mid/late career transformation.
That transformation reaches it's first full fruits in MIAMI VICE. Many reviews have noted that the film's plot is flimsy. It's not an unintentional choice on Mann's part. There is a subtext dealing with dual identities and, as Scott notes in the Times review, men whose entire lives are their jobs, but this is only part of the mosaic on display. Mann and Beebe fully embrace the subversion of technique in VICE, and the results are often stunning. Beebe alternates bewtween wide vistas, featuring boats skipping through the water and sports cars cruising the highway, and intimate closeups. Much of the action is given a tense immediacy from these closeups, engaging the viewer in the raw brutality on display. But it's in the love scenes that this visual intimacy reaches its (ahem) climactic heights. The sexual coupling between Tubbs and Trudy is an assemblage of abstract closeups of hands and skin. When Crockett and Isabella embrace on the Cuban beach, their faces are but blurred shapes set against a sharp panoramic view of the ocean behind them. Later, when Isabella embraces Montoya in bed, they are placed abnormally low in the left hand corner of the frame, the dark jungle night behind them enveloping the two lovers.
The performances range from serviceable (Farrell) to sublime (Foxx and John Ortiz), but they are at the service of the visuals all the way. Mann and Beebe find the perfect actor for their design in Gong Li. Her Isabella is a creature of stunning beauty and mystery, seemingly an extention of the visual poetry on display.
This embracing of poetic visual formalism is in stark contrast to the hyper editing beats and acid washed cinematigraphy of many modern American action films. It's as if Terrence Malick decided to make shoot 'em ups instead of brooding dramas. It's a fascinating artistic evolution, and I look forward to seeing where Mann goes next.