19 August 2006

A Conversation After Miami Vice

My friend K. and I saw Miami Vice a couple days ago, and had somewhat different reactions.

K: My head hurts.
M: Oh?
K: I was trying to put the pieces of the plot together.
M: Oh. I didn't bother.
K: And was the movie in English?
M: Sometimes it was in Mumble.
K: What was up with all that, "We've got the intel from the sec about the four mil kil drop."
M: It was the fetishization of jargon to evoke a kind of hyper-verisimilitude.
K: Ah.
M: And make you trust in the filmmaker's knowledge of the milieu they're presenting.
K: Right.
M: And make you think that the reason the movie doesn't make any sense is because you just don't get it.
K: Well, I just don't get it.
M: I really liked it, though. I thought it was kind of like what might happen if Stan Brakhage had made an action movie.
K: Meaning?
M: It's all about the color, the light, the sound, the shape. The only way to access these particular colors, lights, sounds, and shapes was to utilize the props of an action movie, but the plot and characters are not really what the movie's about.
K: So I spent the whole time watching the stuff that's not important?
M: Right, which is why you didn't like it.
K: I liked it. I guess. I just couldn't follow it.
M: Because it was subversive. It subverted your expectations. You went in expecting an action movie, not Michael Mann's version of The Passion of Joan of Arc.
K: Wait, I thought it was some other guy making an action movie.
M: Well, it could be, but I was thinking about the faces.
K: The faces?
M: There's a lot of attention to faces.
K: Uh huh. But The Passion of Joan of Arc is silent.
M: Right.
K: And the dialogue in Miami Vice is insipid.
M: Right. But the point of the dialogue is to evoke the sense of an action movie.
K: This action movie makes no sense.
M: And that's the point. So the dialogue has to be insipid, or else you'd be trying to get information from it.
K: But I did try to get information from it!
M: Which was a mistake. That's why you have a headache.
K: At least Colin Farrell was nice to look at.
M: I thought everybody was nice to look at.
K: Why, because they were colors and shapes, not characters?
M: Actually, because some of them are really pretty damn beautiful people.
K: It was nice to see Gong Li smile. I don't think I've ever seen her smile before in a movie.
M: She has a lovely smile.
K: And I liked all the strong women. My favorite moment was the one where the woman cop says to the guy, "Here's what will happen: I'll put a round at whatever-hundred-feet-per-second into your medulla," or whatever. I loved that. Even if it was just color and light. But the writing was pretty bad overall. Michael Mann needs to use different writers.
M: He writes his movies himself, I think.
K: Then what happened? The Insider wasn't badly written.
M: And Heat was pretty good, and certainly coherent. He tends to go for the overly-dramatic hardboiled dialogue, but he's perfectly capable of writing a comprehensible movie when he wants, which is why I think he was aiming for something different this time. He got tired of the same old action movie formulas, he wanted to explore a different aesthetic experience, a movie that never tries to explain itself, but he could only get the funding for that if he promised to make a big action movie, so he did. He just made one that doesn't try to explain itself, that can't explain itself, that's full of the basic elements of the most ordinary action flick, and that is all about evoking an affectual response in the viewer, rather than a narrative or logical response.
K: You're not serious.
M: Not entirely, no. But I liked the movie. I was actually, well, enthralled.
K: Because you didn't try to make sense of it.
M: Right.
K: There are times when I'd really love to live in your world.
M: It's full of existential crises, but not a lot of headaches.
K: I've already got the existential crises, so it might be a nice change.
M: There's a reason the first album that ever made a strong impression on me was Stop Making Sense.
K: So that's your aesthetic credo?
M: No, I don't have a credo. It's just something I thought of and so I said it. It's probably not even true.
K: Because nothing is true.
M: No, I'm sure some things are true.
K: Like that Miami Vice doesn't make any sense.
M: I don't know. We might have missed something.
K: Might have.

We drove through the rest of the night in silence, noticing the color and light and shapes all around us, without trying to make sense of any of it at all...

6 comments:

  1. All of Mann's previous films -- save for The Keep -- provide the same transcendent experience that you encountered in Vice. His cinema has always been preoccupied with sound and image, editing and rhythm, and can best be described as hyper-realist.

    His previous films, however, always connect the hypnotic visuals to coherent stories, respectable dialogue, and quality acting -- all elements that Vice sorely lacks.

    Oddly enough, while I went into this movie ready to love it, I ended up hating it; while others I've encountered, many non-Micael Mann fans, fully embraced it. I can only encourage them, and you, to go back to his earlier films and see what you're missing. Watch Thief, Manhunter, Last of the Mohicans, Heat, The Insider, Ali, and Collateral -- in them, you will recognize the same transcendent moments hinted at in Vice, except these moments are even more (a)effective in these films, because they're wrapped in a fully realized stories. Because Mann focuses his energy exclusively on imagery, Miami Vice is sub-par Michael Mann.

    Signed,

    Obsessive Michael Mann Fan

    p.s. If Mann wanted to "experiment" with the genre, did he need to spend 130mil to do it?

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  2. From David Thomson's entry on Mann in the _New Biographical Dictionary of Film_:

    "By the late nineties, Mann had clearly moved further ahead. _Heat_, it seems to me, was one of the best-made films of the decade, by which I mean that the need to look and listen closely was constantly rewarded. But even that richness of texture could not overcome the thematic triteness - the jungle prowled by cops and crooks alike. What more did it need? Less attitude, less deep-seated respect for these loner men, a more intricate tracing of how money works. Something of the same could be said for _The Insider_ - it was riveting and very well acted (though Al Pacino was allowed to be lazy in both films). But its view of different kinds of compromise was too pat. I think Mann needs better writing than he has been getting. But no-one does film with a better touch."

    Basically, MV is a film where he's done the exact opposite of everything Thomson wants...

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  3. I adore Heat (saw it three times in the theatre, which may be a record for me), and liked The Insider and Collateral. I haven't seen Thief or Ali, and didn't mind but didn't really get much from Manhunter or Last of the Mohicans. Miami Vice is, it seems to me after one viewing (hence, grain of salt necessary), a departure in that it is particularly incoherent, which I wouldn't say of the other films. Heat, for instance, is complex, but it all fits together just fine. I'll be curious what I make of MV on a second viewing, and see if there are things I missed that help the plot hold together more. (In some ways, I kind of hope there aren't -- the incoherence was part of what I found interesting in the movie, perversely enough.)

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  4. Actually, Mann's adaptation of F. Paul Wilson's The Keep is quite incoherent, and a clear exercise in style over substance, much like Vice. Sadly, it's not on DVD.

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  5. I don't know. The plot of Vice made about as much sense as most cop-action movie plots, and the personal/emotional arc seemed indistinguishable from any other "undercover cop gets in too deep" movie ever made, even "The Fast and the Furious," which is I guess why I wasn't paying much attention to the plot. Having the advantage of watching it in Miami, I was trying, unsucessfully, to catch recognizable local scenery. All I recognized was the Atlantic ocean.

    I did, however, come out of the movie with an overwhelming desire to drink a mojito...

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  6. Your conversations are really interesting. Has anyone ever told you how interesting your conversations are?I mean, they're more interesting than my conversations. After I saw Miami Vice I had a conversation, too. It wasn't as interesting as your conversation, though. It went something like this:

    Me: And what the hell is this guy doing.
    Not Me: Watch out.
    Me: I see him.
    Not Me: Slow down.
    Me: I'm going the speed limit.
    Not Me: Watch out. Watch out.
    Me: Stop screaming.
    Not Me: Oh my God. Oh my God.
    Me: Hold on.
    Not Me: [unintelligible]
    Me: [expletive deleted]

    Like I said, not as interesting as your conversation, but still, it was a conversation, and I had it with someone, and it was just after we saw Miami Vice.

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