Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Miami Vice

My alternative canon #10: Miami Vice

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Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell in Miami Vice

Note: I’ve often discussed my favorite movies on this blog, but I also love films that are relatively overlooked or unappreciated. For the last two weeks, I’ve been looking at some of the neglected gems, problem pictures, and flawed masterpieces that have shaped my inner life, and which might have become part of the standard cinematic canon if the circumstances had been just a little bit different. You can read the previous installments here

The most striking quality of the movies of Michael Mann—who is probably the strangest living director to be consistently entrusted with enormous budgets by major studios, at least until recently—is their ambivalent relationship with craft. It’s often noted that Mann likes to tell stories about meticulous professionals, almost exclusively men, and that their obsession with the hardware of their chosen trade mirrors the director’s own perfectionism. This is true enough. But it misses the point that for his protagonists, craft on its own is rarely sufficient: a painstaking attention to detail doesn’t save the heroes of Thief or The Insider or Collateral, who either fail spectacularly or succeed only after being forced to improvise, and their objectives in the end aren’t the ones that they had at the beginning. This feels like a more faithful picture of Mann himself, who over the last decade has seemed increasingly preoccupied with side issues and technical problems while allowing the largest elements of the narrative to fend for themselves. It’s often unclear whether the resulting confusion is the result of active indifference, uncompromising vision, or a simple inability to keep a complicated project under control. The outcome can be an unambiguous failure, like Public Enemies, or a film in which Mann’s best and worst tendencies can’t be easily separated, like Blackhat. And the most freakish example of all is Miami Vice, which is either a botched attempt to create a franchise from an eighties cop show or the most advanced movie of the century so far. But as Mayor Quimby says on The Simpsons: “It can be two things.”

I’ve watched Miami Vice with varying degrees of attention perhaps a dozen times, but I’m not sure if I could accurately describe the plot. The script and the dialogue seem to have arisen like an emergent property from the blocky, smudged images onscreen, which often threaten to push the story off the edges of the frame entirely, or to lose it in the massive depth of field. Frederik Pohl liked to describe certain writers as fiddler crabs, in whom a single aspect of their work became hypertrophied, like a grotesquely overdeveloped claw, and that indisputably applies to Mann. These days, he seems interested in nothing but texture: visual, aural, thematic. Digital video, which allows him to lovingly capture the rippling muscles on Jamie Foxx’s back or the rumpled cloth of Colin Farrell’s jacket so that you feel like you could reach out and touch it, was the medium that he had been awaiting for his entire career, and he makes such insane overuse of it here that it leaves room for almost nothing else. The film unfolds only on the night side of the city in which it supposedly takes place, just as it appears to have shot roughly half of a usable script. (This isn’t necessarily Mann’s fault: Foxx abruptly departed toward the end of production, which is why the last scene feels like a bridge to nowhere.) As with The Night of the Hunter and Blue Velvet, Miami Vice is one of those movies in which it can be hard to tell the difference between unintentional awkwardness and radical experimentation—which is inevitable when you’re forging a new grammar of film. It looked like a failed blockbuster, and it was. But you could also build an entire art form out of its shattered pieces.

Written by nevalalee

June 17, 2016 at 8:15 am

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

“We’re standing at the tip of a very interesting triangle…”

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"We're standing at the tip of a very interesting triangle..."

(Note: This post is the thirty-second installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 31. You can read the earlier installments here.)

When it comes to conveying information to the reader, extended dialogue scenes are both highly useful and a potential pitfall. On the one hand, you’ll sometimes find that there’s no other way to narrate certain material, especially for events that fall outside the scope of the novel itself, which is the case, for instance, with the account of the Dyatlov Pass incident in City of Exiles. When handled judiciously, it’s often the best option for filling in backstory, which can better be covered in a few paragraphs of conversation than in an extended flashback—although here, as always, you need to tread carefully. On the other hand, a conversation that occupies most of a chapter can seem artificial or contrived, as when Dan Brown’s characters spend page after page delivering undigested exposition on dubious historical events. Long dialogue scenes, by definition, constitute a break in the action, and they can quickly grow tedious, especially if several occur in succession. Worst of all, they can disrupt the fictional dream, once the characters cease to talk naturally and turn into mouthpieces for the author’s ideas.

The Icon Thief contains perhaps five or six chapters that consist mostly of dialogue. Part of this is due to the constraints of conspiracy fiction, in which characters are often called upon to narrate events that occurred years or centuries before, and not always reliably. I can also credit, or blame, the precedent set by Foucault’s Pendulum. As I’ve mentioned before, Umberto Eco’s novel—which still remains one of my favorite books—is something of a cul-de-sac for unsuspecting young writers: his characters don’t just talk at length about convoluted conspiracy theories, but do so for hundreds of pages. Eco gets away with it because he’s a genius, and because the underlying material is usually fascinating, although even I tend to skip most of the chapters on the history of the Jesuits. But skeptics from Tom Wolfe to Salman Rushdie have objected, and not without reason, at the lack in Eco’s work of anything resembling an ordinary human conversation, and although I hope I’ve since managed to exorcise most of his influence, it didn’t stop me from indulging in a few long, talky scenes that clearly owe a lot to his example.

"Didn't we say that Arensberg was a lunatic?"

When dealing with a series of long dialogue scenes, the author has a number of options. Above all, he needs to cut them down as much as possible, which I tried to do in The Icon Thief, although I imagine a lot of readers would argue that they still go on too long. He can parcel them out gradually, interspersing them with chapters of more conventional action, or he can replace them with expository prose or indirect dialogue, although this is often a case in which the cure is worse than the disease. And when all else fails, he can at least set the conversation against an interesting background, and vary the setting from one scene to another. You often see this in movies, which like to stage talky moments with the characters standing, say, on a rooftop for no particular reason. (In Miami Vice, the backdrop is so gorgeous that it’s hard to focus on the dialogue.) And you often see exposition delivered in the middle of an action scene, although this can backfire as well: crucial details of the plot of L.A. Confidential are explained while the characters are dangling the district attorney out a window, and although it’s a great scene, it takes a couple of viewings to fully process what they’re saying.

Chapter 31 of The Icon Thief was heavily revised with these points in mind. I knew that the material was strong—it’s the scene in which I lay out the argument, not altogether seriously, that Marcel Duchamp was working as an intelligence agent in New York—but the staging presented a problem: in the original version, Maddy and Ethan discuss this over lunch, which was a bit too similar to a later scene in which they do much the same over dinner. It would be best, I decided, to get them out of the office, and fortunately I hit on a reasonable excuse: Ethan could give Maddy a quick walking tour of Duchamp’s former residences in New York, all of which were suspiciously close to the homes of the art patrons John Quinn, Walter Arensberg, and Walter Pach. (I may have been inspired by the scene in JFK in which Jim Garrison takes his colleagues on a similar circuit of Oswald’s haunts in New Orleans.) Rewriting the scene posed a bit of a problem, since by then I’d moved from New York to Chicago, meaning that I had to fill in my notes with some help from Google Maps. Still, the result is a chapter that is substantially more interesting than the same information conveyed over lunch. And there’s much more of this sort of thing to come…

Written by nevalalee

January 24, 2013 at 9:50 am

Cinematic comfort food

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Last night, my wife and I were getting ready to watch The Next Three Days, which we’d rented from Netflix, only to be confronted by a frustratingly common occurrence: the disc stalled in our player, then died. The problem, weirdly, seems to be that movies released by Lionsgate (including Mad Men, alas) are incompatible with our LG Blu-ray player, an issue that has been widely noted but not, to my knowledge, fixed. Faced with the prospect of a movieless night, we frantically checked our on-demand queue for a backup option, and while we nearly went with Die Hard With a Vengeance—a revealing choice in itself, as you’ll see—a sudden inspiration and a quick search led to the following question: “Want to watch Speed?”

Which, of course, we did. And it was great. It’s always a pleasure when a movie you haven’t seen in years holds up as well as you remember, and Speed is still stunningly good. (Looking back, it’s clear that it came out at just the right time in the history of special effects, in which stunts could be cleaned up digitally, but were still reliant on old-fashioned manpower. These days, I suspect that a lot of the big moments would be rendered in CGI, much to the movie’s loss.) And the evening’s resounding success made me reflect on the role of cinematic comfort food, which, for lack of a better definition, is any movie that comes to mind when somebody asks, “Well, so what do you feel like watching?”

But maybe we can do better than that. The essential characteristic of movie comfort food is that it’s ideally suited to be seen on television—which, in fact, is where we often see it first. It’s a movie that can be watched multiple times, even internalized, without any loss of enjoyment, to the point where we can tune in halfway and know precisely where we are. It generally features appealing actors we might not necessarily pay to watch in a theater—hence the fact that Keanu Reeves stars in at least three classic comfort food movies (Speed, Point Break, and my beloved Bram Stoker’s Dracula). And it tends to tell clean, simple, satisfying stories that are exciting without being overwhelming: escapist action or comedy, not intense violence or suspense.

Occasionally, a movie that fits these criteria crosses over into the realm of art, as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan does for me. For the most part, though, these are movies that might not make our list of the best movies of all time, but still occupy a special place in our hearts—perhaps because they’re often movies we first saw as teenagers. For me, they include Sneakers; any of the great Nicolas Cage trifecta of ’90s action movies, especially Con Air; the vintage Bruce Willis movie of your choice; and more recently, and inexplicably, Michael Mann’s Miami Vice, which may hold the record for the movie most often found playing in the background in our house. You’ll probably have a list of your own. And while these aren’t all great movies, I wouldn’t want to live without them. Or Ghostbusters.

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