Saturday, January 24, 2015


Last night I went to the movies with my fiancee in hopes of finally watching Blackhat. But to my surprise, the screening was cancelled because no one bought tickets to the show before we had the chance to purchase ours. Now...the theater we went too was the kind of theater were patrons are more prone to support the latest bi-monthly Kevin Hart project or a throwaway trashy thriller like The Boy Next Door (the movie my fiancee & I ended up watching). But this still adds to all the negativity surrounding Michael Mann's latest film (almost all the reviews are negative and/or snarky).
Listen, I understand people's skepticism about this film (...kinda). Mann's last few efforts have been either misunderstood (Miami Vice) or problematic (Public Enemies). And Chris "Thor" Hemsworth as a computer hacker? Eh, I get it. But if we can buy the 300lb version of Forest Whitaker as a samurai hitman (Ghost Dog) or a puny framed Ryan Gosling as an ass-kicking baddass (Drive), why can't we accept Hemsworth as a hacker?
So in an effort to try and counter all this negative press, I'm sharing a piece that was originally posted by PINNLAND EMPIRE contributor Nathaniel Drake Carlson on his facebook page a few days ago.
Also make sure to read his recent piece on Mann's The Keep (R.I.P. Edgar Froese)


(I'll see you all in 10-15 years at a nearby upscale repertory theater when film comment suddenly decides that all of Michael Mann's post-Collateral work is suddenly misunderstood & underappreciated)

As noted earlier I loved this and found it a quite thrilling experience (both thematically and aesthetically/viscerally). In truth, I would have been surprised if I had not given my own predispositions toward what Mann is doing here. Still, I have little doubt that what I appreciated most was much of the reason why many others have been put off. It is or can be an assertively alienating picture, but that's not a mistake or an error in judgment--it's the inevitable result of this narrative mode and the formal experiments Mann is conducting. Because this is most certainly an experimental picture for Mann. It's an attempt to find a way of fusing his early style with his later or more recent one--not so much a middle ground as whole new form and that alone is sufficiently impressive. The fact that he pulls it off so splendidly makes it even more so. He does this I think by very wisely establishing the picture with one mode (that of the later mode, flatter and more muted all around) and then using that as equivalent to a narrative "slow burn" before things explode into his more famous High Mythic style. It's a fascinating choice once you recognize it as it works well to shift between the modes and find a way for them to co-exist. It's hard to imagine how such an attempt at integration or fusion could work otherwise. The late Mann style, with which this movie starts, is really perfected here to a kind of peak point and made me think most of his superb early 00's CBS series, Robbery Homicide Division. These two are closest in accomplishment and this feels like the natural progression or extension of that. In both cases, character and plot as well as visual scheme are pared down and flattened so that there are only the most minimal pronounced elements and all is cast with equal prominence against the same canvas (a not incidental and also apt analogy for the cinematic screen). It is its own kind of iconography to be sure but far from the Baroque expressiveness of earlier days (or the latter half of this picture). The sketchiness of characterization equates to an essentialism that contributes to the mythic as well. It's how Mann has found a more modern and less ostentatious way to communicate those same core principles and ideas that have suffused all of his work. But rather than the immediately palpable thrill of it, it's a slow, evenly paced sinking in, a truly hypnotic form that smuggles across its contents in almost subliminal, subconscious fashion. 

The specifics of Mann's formal compositions always amaze and compel and find an appropriate way to complement his ideas, but the radical nature of the overall formal and narrative accomplishment here matches that. The ultra subdued flattening or evening out subsumes all narrative detail and character detail to the primacy of an undisturbed surface, a steady flow (a template inaugurated with the now famous bravura opening sequence in Ali). All that is recognized as mattering or not mattering exists then as subconscious detail, recognized as primary or ultimate detail. Again, what matters to Mann however is keeping the surface level and all distinct detail functioning on a level below that, a more foundational level. This is also the level, the source, of the archetypes and it's a subtle means of linking the modern to pre-modern as well as establishing a perspective which accommodates both, accommodates all. It's a perspective of ultimate abstraction, the far reaches of where to go with any narrative form. Then of course this steadiness flares out in sudden flashes that are also superficially flattened, the space between objects rendered superfluous, irrelevant. And yet the impact is still felt, transmitted, transmuted.

The shift back to Mann's more famous mode of more obviously heightened expression is gradual and nuanced but it is there and I really do think he's trying to explicitly work out a way to keep both modes relevant and vital. He doesn't ever shift fully out of the new back into the old--it's not as schematic as all that--but he does emphasize the difference in register, in tonality or scale. Those measurements are also abstractions but they're more clearly discerned and related to the objects on screen, the character's experiences as such, the "plot". So you get the extraordinary forced angle image of Hathaway's cell phone majestic and obtuse, not dissimilar to the 2001 monolith. And the very brief image of a skyscraper seen by Viola Davis's character at a pivotal moment. The mythic or iconographic signifiers are more legible as well here within this context though their reality, their truth, has always been with us. It's just more clearly understandable in the latter section of the picture when talk and tech and complex details are swept away by pure motion, pure movement, the expressivity of visceral emotions, all those things that the first half has kept in check and subdued (all this still exists only and ever as streaks of color against the sky, against the screen, and Mann never lets us lose focus on that either). Hemsworth himself is Mann's idealist alter ego writ large and complete with Mannian accent. It's suddenly clear why he is a perfect casting decision as someone more supposedly appropriate superficially would be incomplete for the character as Mann sees him, someone who must represent both intellectual acumen and physically demonstrable strength or sheer presence. This requirement too is a "superficial" one but Mann makes us realize how little is diminished and how much can be enhanced by decisions made on this level, taking all implications fully into account. It's not subtle though but nor is it meant to be. The romantic angle functions in a similar way, shorn of all pretext and reduced to the purity of essence yet again. Interestingly it recalls the Scott Glenn-Alberta Watson relationship in The Keep which was severely truncated with or without Mann's involvement but most definitely functions as mythic component regardless. Here he seems to have embraced that particular super succinct presentation as formally apt.

The narrative itself eventually culminates in a confrontation both climactic and dialed down, our attention diverted as fast work is made of the opposition. And this is fascinating and revealing as well because here yet again we have this most familiar trope of so much contemporary pop cinema, the antagonists revealed as dualist mirror image inverses of one another and yet virtually equal in a an anti-social or sociopathic disconnect (another recent example of this being Fuqua's hugely underrated and similarly unappreciated The Equalizer). The villain in this case is made as minimalist as all the rest--his monetary motives being so familiar as to be almost incidental, a pretext again to something more foundational, at once simpler and more vast, an elemental figuration. He is made distinct by the motive for his violence and his underlying ideology (e.g. "When I close my eyes everything else ceases to exist"). Hathaway, meanwhile, is a figure of similar existentialist solitude but (as with McCall in The Equalizer) capable of being reached by love and motivated by it even if that results in a rush of torrential vengeance or justice doled out with presumed due force. He exists as a solitary figure with all allegiances understood as inevitably transitory ones but he is more interested in removing himself than others, the assertion of an ultimate freedom. So we get the final awesome set piece in which Hathaway attempts just such an assertion, dressed in white against a white airport wall, calling up the emptiness of the canvas with the implied fullness of all possible meaning. It's an appropriately formal and aesthetic act of being blanched out, white upon white, or, to be more precise, a nihilist erasure set against the ultimate. It's the kind of move described beautifully by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky as "so hard-boiled existentialist that it verges on mysticism."

-Nathaniel Drake Carlson (Januray 21, 2015)


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