Sunday, January 25, 2009

Hollywood as Salon

I have a colleague who believes that Michael Mann is a great artist. He has called him one of the greatest living filmmakers, and has written a book about his work. This is a serious film student – what I call a serious film student. You ask him about Ozu, Kiarostami, Bresson, Tarkovsky, Cassavetes, Dreyer, and he knows that these are the great artists in the history of the medium. Then he adds Michael Mann. I do not expect universal agreement, even among the handful of people I consider serious film students, regarding the delineation of the list of great filmmakers. The important thing is to distinguish generally between the class of visionary artists listed above and the group of celebrated hacks and technical showboats more typical celebrated in the mainstream: Hitchcock, David Lynch, the Coen Brothers and the like. As I am more inclined to put Michael Mann in the second group, he seems like a particular odd selection to add to a list of important film artists.

I once asked my friend, “You mean the same Michael Mann that directed Last of the Mohicans and Heat?” “Yes,” he replied. “The same Michael Mann,” I continue, “who made Miami Vice and that movie where Tom Cruise is a blond-haired assassin and Jamie Foxx is his down-to-earth but streetwise cab driver?” He tells me that this movie is called Collateral and says that the light in it is like nothing he has ever seen on film. This is where I want to begin. I am willing to believe that the lighting in Collateral is interesting, but is that enough to make Michael Mann an important filmmaker? It is still a fairly hackneyed premise (that of dragging the everyman unwittingly into the dark underbelly of society in order to give him a glimpse of what life is really all about) propelled along by two of the most hackey actors alive, yes? Sven Nykvist isn’t interesting because he shed some virtuoso light on a few of Woody Allen’s more mundane and unfunny movies. He’s interesting and important because he lit Bergman and Tarkovsky.

The point is that light has to do something. I remember my only visit to the Frick in New York City principally for Vermeer’s painting known as: Officer and Laughing Girl. Never have I been so struck by light in a painting. But Vermeer’s light is more than technical virtuosity. It has narrative and perceptual functions. I am not going to attempt a lengthy interpretation here, but suffice it to say that Vermeer uses light to tell the story not to color it. More importantly, his mastery of light conveys time and space in a way that no other painter has matched. The experience of light is much of what it means to see a Vermeer in person. (For more on the subject of light as a means to create narrative and time, I suggest reading Moving Pictures by Anne Hollander. Not that I am an authority on “Art History” texts, but for whatever its worth, her book is the best I have read about painting.)

So often lighting in film or cinematography in general, is just the director of photography unleashing his technical mastery upon a film that does not necessarily warrant it. Moreover, maybe his technical mastery is not all that interesting by itself anyway. If you took a song by the Nickelback and let Yngwie Malmsteen solo over it would you suddenly have a masterpiece? I would say you would not, because they are terrible and he is all glitz and show with no substance. Likewise with Michael Mann, I cannot imagine how even two cinematographers (it took one Dione Beebe and one Paul Cameron to shoot it) could make an otherwise mainstream hack job into a work of art.

This Michael Mann conversation happened years ago. I only think of it now because I caught the last hour of Manhunter on some movie channel a couple nights ago. At first it was kind of nice to see such a slow-paced film until it became clear that the pace was being used to create suspense. I think I was reading the Video Hound when I came across the suggestion that Stalker was slow-paced to create suspense. This comment made sense to me at the time, because I could not imagine a film that would be slow-paced for that reason. Slow pacing is its own “reward” as it were. Slow movies are not slow just so the viewer will be on the edge of his or her seat waiting for something to happen. That seems to be exactly why Manhunter is slow, not to teach the viewer to be patient, but to play off the viewer’s impatience. I also thought the movie was shot well. It has a unique look it terms of contrast and depth. There are also some nice exterior shots of sunrises and sunsets. If cinema where only beautiful photography! Unfortunately, cinema is often hackneyed stories and clichéd techniques. I will not belabor this argument with a point by point account of each successive film cliché. It is enough to say that there is a final showdown in which the police detective crashes through a bay window in slow motion landing in the arms of the serial killer. A shootout ensues in which the killer has to be shot in the chest about a dozen times, presumably because it is especially difficult to kill evil.

It isn’t as if I needed to sit through it to reach a conclusion on this director. I have seen the aforementioned Last of the Mohicans and Heat as well as Ali, and I have understood all three to be pretty standard genre works. Mann is beloved in the industry so he always has a nice budget for cinematography, sound, locations and big name actors. The result is always a typical movie its type. They look and sound slick and professional, the actors chew up their scenes like they are on a reality show (because apparently we think that’s what constitutes good acting), and the stories are predictable, palatable and satisfying to their projected demographic of filmgoers who expect a little something more but not too much.

The question of who comprises this demographic is an important one. The film scholars worth reading tend divide film between art and kitsch. I have done this for about ten years, but I am starting to understand that it simplifies the issue, and thus draws attention away from the problem. It is one thing to say that some films are art films but most films are mass-produced kitsch. It is easy for the person who is saying it, but more often than not it is divisive for the one hearing it. Many people consider themselves film aficionados precisely because they like Mann, Hitchcock, the Coens and the like, and hate Bridget Jones’ Diary, Star Wars and superhero movies. These folks tend to get indignant when you tell them that these two kinds of films are ultimately the same thing. A better analogy is in order. Though it will probably do little to make friends among those who admire Hitchcock and the Coens and those who admire Ozu and Tarkovsky, it has the advantage of being a bit more subtle than the binary.

There is a sector of Hollywood that functions as the Salon in Paris functioned in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I would not say this is the work of a particular studio, but is rather an attitude adopted by certain producers, directors and filmmakers. Another term for them that I have used in the past is “Oscar fodder.” From Gone with the Wind to No Country for Old Men and all the Godfathers, Schindler’s Lists, Forrest Gumps and Brokeback Mountains between, these films are distinguished by technical mastery and serious intention. These are the titles that the Eberts, Maltins and Kaels champion a film art. These are the works that the average filmgoer considers to be something more important than a mere movie. And they are better than the latest Indian Jones movie in certain stylistic respects. What they lack is unique vision. They subscribe to a certain body of techniques and those who stray too far from the boundaries of this body are summarily locked out of the Salon.

There is a word for this kind of art: Academic. In Art History they use this term to describe the art that is produced once formerly visionary and revolutionary techniques are accepted into the mainstream and taught. The end result is always that such techniques become stale for they are bereft of their organic impulse. Style and vision are not taught, they are developed by individuals almost always in opposition to that which has been taught. Academic art tells us nothing we do not already know. It shows us nothing we do not already see. I would suggest that we are at this point with cinema, only it does not happen with generations or with movements. In contemporary film a director with nothing to say, someone like Quentin Tarentino, will go to see a film by a great artist like Wong Kar-Wai. He will then extract certain stylistic attributes of Wong’s movie and peeper them into his latest stupid heist movie or his latest bad-ass-who-cannot-be-killed movie. These always look beautiful, and the pint is that they merely look beautiful. They encourage one to judge them as “well done” and it is in one’s ability to tell when film is executed properly and professionally that he or she feels reassured. It matters little whether or not the narrative has a reassuring message, though it most often does.

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