Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for May 26th, 2015

Blackhat and the logic of director love

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Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in Blackhat

I know what I’m doing.
—Crockett in Miami Vice

Back in January, it occurred to me, almost at random, that I wanted to see Blackhat. As regular readers know, I don’t see a lot of movies these days, but the prospect of a new Michael Mann film—his first in six years—was just enticing enough to make me consider ducking out for a few hours while my in-laws were watching my daughter. At that point, Blackhat was already a notorious flop, and it had been slowly dying in theaters for a couple of weeks, but I still thought that I might be able to catch an afternoon screening. When I did a search for showtimes, though, I found that there weren’t any, and soon thereafter, I learned that Blackhat had suffered one of the greatest third-weekend theater drops in history, just behind the likes of Meet Dave and Jonah Hex. What does this mean? Before a film is released, it’s booked into a certain number of screens nationwide, and that number is contractually fixed for the first two weeks. On the third weekend, theater owners and distributors are free to yank the underperformers. A huge drop in screens simply means that nobody, anywhere, wanted to see this movie. And while I’m used to the idea that my tastes run a little weird, it struck me as significant that the first film in months that tempted me to pay for a ticket had been met with total indifference from everybody else in America.

Having finally caught up with Blackhat on video, I can see why. Basically, if you’re excited by the idea of a particular kind of Michael Mann movie, you’ll like it; if you want to see literally anything else, you won’t. For my own part, I ate it up, mostly because my expectations, for once, had been perfectly calibrated. It’s a mess, but a glorious one: a rich slice of the familiar Mann universe, soaked in neon, rendered in nearly translucent digital video, laden with jargon, punctuated by brutal and confusing violence, and populated with smart men and mostly useless women. The locations, not surprisingly, are fantastic, especially at night: Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Jakarta, Malaysia. (I was reminded of a great reader comment on The A.V. Club about the look of Miami Vice: “It was like someone built a set of Miami and then only filmed the back of it.”) There’s a lot of plot and some nifty ideas, much of it rendered so elliptically as to be all but incomprehensible. And I kind of adored it, enough to the point where I want to see it again. I can’t say it “works,” except in isolated stretches, but I admire its attempt to take the least cinematic material imaginable—with one scene after another code unspooling across computer screens—and stage it like a grungy version of Skyfall. And the fact that no other director alive could have made it, or even conceived of it, makes it more memorable than any number of conventionally tidy movies.

Chris Hemsworth and Michael Mann on the set of Blackhat

Years ago, in my review of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, I said: “[Michael] Bay is like one of those strange extinct animals that got caught in an evolutionary arms race until they became all horns, claws, or teeth…Bay is nothing but a massive eye.” Mann has undergone a similar refinement of purpose, but instead of huge, crystalline images, he’s obsessed by textures—visual, aural, and narrative. Digital video, with its ability to render portions of the frame in startling clarity while reducing the rest to a grainy smear, is his ideal format, and it mirrors his increasingly oblique style of storytelling. Instead of giving us a fully realized character or subplot, Mann is content to hint at it, or to lay it out in shorthand, as if he’d simply shot his notes to himself without bothering to develop them further. At the same time, he’ll devote endless amounts of energy to rendering the material at the edges: he’ll become fascinated by an extra’s face, a pattern of light on a wet surface, the arcana of specialized masculine trades. Blackhat is driven by the assumption that we’re interested in the same things that Mann is, and that we’re willing to sketch in the rest for ourselves. If the characters, for the most part, feel like placeholders, it’s mostly because he trusts us to fill in the blanks. (Hence the treatment of the veteran actor Holt McCallany, who plays a U.S. Marshal who somehow feels like an essential part of the cast despite having about five lines of dialogue.)

But there’s also a sense in which my admiration for Mann’s talents allows me to see his flaws as virtues, almost to the point of dangerous indulgence. The romance between Chris Hemsworth’s hacker and the “networking engineer” played by Tang Wei is so schematic that it plays almost as a commentary on itself: we’ve seen enough love stories in movies, it implies, that we can be satisfied by the barest outline of one. It’s as if Mann took the index cards from his corkboard and, instead of writing them, merely flung them in the general direction of the actors. The result is consistent with what I expect, and I enjoyed it on that level. Yet it doesn’t excuse how wasted Tang Wei is here, or how quickly she’s reduced to arm candy, there to be pulled by the hand as she and Hemsworth escape from bad guys on the subway. Mann has been making movies for a long time—Thief, his masterful debut, was released more than three decades ago—and he’s purified his obsessions with men at work to the point of poetry. (There are times when his surname seems as loaded with significance as Matt Damon’s in Interstellar.) But he’s never been much good with women, and this is harder to excuse. I love Mann, flaws and all, and his ability to stick to a difficult, uncompromising vision while somehow convincing studios that he’s making movies for the mainstream. But the resounding commercial failure of Blackhat might mark an end to this. So perhaps it’s time for even his biggest fans to applaud what he’s done, then pause, step back, and ask how much of it is virtue and how much is vice.

Written by nevalalee

May 26, 2015 at 9:46 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

May 26, 2015 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

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