Wednesday, July 04, 2007

A Few Riffs

WR: Mysteries Of The Organism

-- Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell are in Bologna for the Cinema Ritrovato, a festival of restored and rediscovered films. I've heard a lot of appetizing things about this festival (and about the food and wine in town), and it's one of the few film fests that doesn't fall smack dab in the middle of my teaching year. I'm thinking of a trip to Bologna next summer.

-- Three good Michael Mann films, all of which have aged well: Manhunter (1986), Heat (1995) and The Insider (1999). This time around, I was struck by how insistently these films are about (1) working, and (2) living, in the modern world. The dedication to work and work-related responsibility we see here is a bit different from Hawksian professionalism. It's easily capable of going too far, shading into self-destructive, even psychopathic, obsessiveness. Also, the strong sense of belonging to a collective in Hawks looks almost outmoded (un-modern) and romantic here. Even in Heat, in which the group is tight and its actions require careful coordination and mutual agreement, things are always on the verge of falling apart. When it's down to the wire, your obligation is to abandon the group and strike out on your own. (De Niro's credo is to be forever "willing to walk out in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.")

And between working and living, the former holds the upper hand. For a filmmaker who makes (nominal) thrillers, Mann spends an inordinate amount of time tracking families or romantic relationships, accumulating important detail as he goes along. (And he goes along awhile: Heat and The Insider are both over two-and-a-half hours.) This ends up magnifying the tragedies of 'living': we watch cracks appear one by one by one; damage and devastation, often direct fall-outs from work, lie fatefully in wait for families and relationships.

Where exactly does all of this take place? In the physical spaces of homes, offices, hotels, restaurants, banks, airports, cars, frequently rendered in a way that accentuates -- often with beautiful stylization using color, perspectival touches, geometries of architecture and decor -- the visible modernity of the world. Looking back, I underappreciated these Mann films when I first saw them. More on work and Heat in this essay by J. A. Lindstrom at Jump Cut.

Next: to catch up with the three Mann films I haven't seen, Thief, Last of the Mohicans, and Miami Vice.

-- Acquarello posts a list of current and upcoming DVD releases.

-- Tributes to Edward Yang by Kevin Lee and Steven Shaviro.

-- Lost In The Frame is the filmblog kept on the side by the widely-read poetry/poetics blogger K. Silem Mohammad, of {Lime Tree}.

-- Today, on July 4th, Craig Keller at Cinemasparagus puts up a post on John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

pic: Dusan Makavejev's WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971), just out on DVD.


Blogger Flickhead said...

Mann's Thief is well worth your time. After that, segue into some David Mamet: Spartan, Heist, and The Spanish Prisoner for starters.

July 04, 2007 8:42 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

I also liked Thief although I haven't seen it since the initial theatrical release. Last of the Mohicans was fun. I didn't care for Miami Vice, and will probably remember that film more for how it played havoc with traffic during production while I lived in Miami Beach.

July 04, 2007 8:47 PM  
Blogger Paul Martin said...

Melbourne Cinematheque ran a season of Mann films earlier in the year. I agree that Thief is worth catching, and I was surprised how much it had in common with Collateral in terms of style and cinematic devices.

Manhunter was my pick of his work, and has the vastly superior Hannibal Lektor. Chilling stuff.

July 04, 2007 8:57 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Flickhead, Peter and Paul.
I have a couple of close colleague/friends who are Mamet fanatics; I've seen all his films in their company. House of Games (soon getting the Criterion treatment) is especially interesting; in the Bresson book that accompanied the retrospective, Hal Hartley even invokes it as being 'Bressonian'! (A stretch, but I can sorta see what he's going for.)

Oh, just realized there's another Mann film that I haven't seen: Ali. Is it a good 'un?

July 04, 2007 8:59 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

Girish, in case you need another excuse to go to Toronto, Dario Argento and George Romero are scheduled to appear at the Rue Morgue Festival of Fear, the weekend of August 24.

If the HTMl gremlins don't goof things up, here's the website.

July 04, 2007 9:04 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Peter. It's the weekend before classes start back up, and might be a good excuse to get away.

July 04, 2007 9:19 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Girish, Mann's The Insider was for a long time in my personal top 20. It's in keeping, as you note, with Mann's thematic emphasis on men being defined largely by their professions, to the unfortunate exclusion or detriment of all and everyone around them. I love The Insider particularly because of its narrative structure; it begins by setting up a sense of objectivity, allowing Lowell Bergman, Mike Wallace, and the other folks at 60 Minutes to present themselves as the embodiment of impartiality. And, then, over the next two and a half hours, it brilliantly dismantles this supposed objectivity. In addition, the film has two clearly distinct acts; the first, which makes us think the film is about Big Tobacco, and the second, which turns the film into a story about CBS and capitalism. I also think it's beautifully filmed.

Another thing that really impresses me about this film is something it shares with Heat: a great performance by Diane Venora. While her roles in both films are relatively small, I find the performances to be pitch-perfect. Mann often gets a little short shrift from critics who don't buy the macho schtick of his male characters (the thing is, I don't think Mann buys the schtick either; that's part of the point of his films), but his female characters are particularly strong or, at least, well-rounded -- and I'm not sure if this is always appreciated in criticism on his work. Venora's very skilled, in my opinion; I didn't recognize her the first time I saw The Insider, she was so absorbed in that role. His women, though adversely affected by the lives of their husbands and lovers, always seem to be better, more admirable characters.

And I agree -- Mann is deeply preoccupied by modern life, as you note -- and by modernity and modernism (one of his favorite films is Resnais' Marienbad). I'd recommend Last of the Mohicans, if only for the last 20 minutes alone. I won't spoil it by telling you what happens, but those minutes have almost no dialogue at all, and it's impressive what Mann does with the silence.

July 05, 2007 2:36 AM  
Blogger David Lowery said...

I love Mann's films. Even quote-unquote failures such as Ali or Miami Vice (or The Keep -anyone see that one?) are more fascinating than 90% of the "good" mainstream movies out there. Collateral is a perfect piece of thriller cinema. The Insider is indeed his best film (a toss up with Heat, maybe, but not by much).

And The Last Of The Mohicans is simply one of the best action adventure movies ever, in my opinion. Outside of his usual contemporary urban contet, it's more difficult to recognize the tried and true Mann tropes -- but they're all there, and more glorious (and gloriously archetypal) than ever before. The film also has what is, for my money, one of the best romantic scores in motion picture history. Do check it out. The last 20 minutes are, indeed, killer.

I think Matt Seitz put up a really great review of it sometime last year that pretty much sums up why it's such an outstanding film.

July 05, 2007 3:14 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks for your comments, Michael and David.

The Insider is my favorite of the Manns I've seen; Heat is close behind. Manhunter is a surprisingly good film, and I appreciated it so much more this time around than when I first saw it as just another thriller 20 years ago. It's good to know that Ali has its merits too...and I'm eager to see Mohicans.

July 05, 2007 6:51 AM  
Blogger girish said...

David Pratt-Robson of Videoarcadia has a new post on Oliveira's The Fifth Empire. And one David P-R has aced Filmbrain's screen capture quiz series (a perfect score, 12 weeks straight). Surely our filmblogosphere is not big enough to contain two David P-R's? So, congrats, David!

July 05, 2007 6:58 AM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Girish, another thought: it took me a few views of Heat to notice this, but the sound design is really effective; the aural ambiance of the restaurants, offices, banks, etc. heightens the sense of physical space. When I think about De Niro meeting Amy Brenneman at a restaurant bar or Pacino and De Niro's meeting, I can hear the clattering of glasses and plates, muffled conversations in the background, and other ambient noises. I remember the sound as much as, if not more than, the dialog or action.

I like how you point to Mann's stylization of color; he does a similar thing in Miami Vice. As in Heat, he relies heavily on blues, blacks, whites, and grays, often to great dramatic effect (particularly in a scene late in the film involving Colin Farrell and Gong Li at a a beach house). His color palette is often very striking.

July 05, 2007 1:42 PM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

Off topic: three Budd Boetticher films tonight (Thursday) on TCM. (

July 05, 2007 2:05 PM  
Blogger Ryland Walker Knight said...

Miami Vice has only ever gotten better with each viewing. It puzzled me at first and then I went into the wilderness for a month. By the time I was back in "civilization" I was convinced it was a great movie. But it had failed at the box office so there was nowhere to see it again until it came out on DVD. I cannot wait to see it in a theatre again all loud and gorgeous 20 feet tall.

Overall, Mann is one of my favorite directors making movies right now. There has never been a Mann film that hasn't moved me, if only in one or two instances. Even that prolonged training sequence in Ali has its shining moments, despite its length. Or the cafeteria scene between James Caan and Tuesday Weld in Thief is a perfect example of his understanding of how people reckon living with one's self with another person; the covenant of love. To play that against the relationship between Val Kilmer and Ashley Judd in Heat would be a ripe pairing. He makes astoundingly smart movies. And I think when the time comes Miami Vice will be recognized as some kind of modern, to say post-9/11, American classic. Its spatial recognition of affect is breathtaking. Plus, Gong Li sure is pretty. And so is the film! Makes grain-heavy DV work. It succeeds in almost every facet where Collateral ultimately failed itself. But that movie is worth watching if only for the first forty minutes when Jaime Foxx meets Jada Pinkett Smith, and then his first encounter with Tom Cruise; it goes off the rails after the car crash and doesn't recover, or follow through on its premises.

Anyways, yeah: Mann is dope. Glad to read your thoughts, Girish. Look forward to the next batch.

July 05, 2007 5:46 PM  
Blogger aaron said...

Have to second Ryland on MIAMI VICE, a film I could swear I didn’t care for all that much upon seeing it opening weekend, but its deep and profound sense of alienation kept calling me back to take another look before it left the second-string theaters a few weeks later. That viewing, of course, was a revelation, though I haven’t actually checked out the “Director’s Cut” on DVD. Mann enthusiasts seem to be torn over this new version, with some for, and some tired of Mann tinkering with his films for home video. Is it worth it to check it out?

I keep meaning to go back and catch up on (very) early Mann (his telefilm THE JERICHO MILE; the first episode of “Vegas”, which he scripted; and the aforementioned THE KEEP) to try to see if he indeed was working with these predominant themes (professionalism, alienation) even then.

July 06, 2007 4:27 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, Michael, Flickhead, Ryland and Aaron.

Still kicking myself for missing Miami Vice in the theaters. I didn't realize about Mann's tinkering with films for video release, and thanks for those tips on early Mann, Aaron.

July 06, 2007 6:34 AM  
Blogger girish said...

-- Zach asks: "I'm curious about people's reading habits, how they feel they've changed with the advent of websurfing. As much as I love my computer and all the Internets it's really reconfigured my time management when it comes to devoting time to reading print. It's not that I read much less print, it's that I read it in smaller chunks of time."
-- Nathan Lee on Peter Greenaway in the Voice.
-- Darren on early Lynch.
-- David Bordwell files a second dispatch from Bologna.

July 06, 2007 6:49 AM  
Blogger Daniel said...

The extended cut of Miami Vice for DVD is worth it for an even better opening sequence, but squanders much of its improvement by playing a terribly inappropriate pop song over the beginning of the climatic gun fight.

It is a marvelous and strange film, although I still find it a dramatic failure even when its aesthetics are so energetically experimental.

July 06, 2007 11:15 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Daniel, just curious: is the original theatrical version not available to see anymore on the DVD?

A couple of links:
-- The redoubtable Andy Horbal kicks off his new blog Mirror/Stage with a post called "Film Criticism in "the blog era"".
-- David Pratt-Robson has another new post (on Lang, Ferran, etc) and yes, I can confirm that he indeed is the David P-R of Filmbrain Quiz Winner fame.

July 06, 2007 1:25 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Girish (steeping in for Daniel, if I may), both the theatrical release and the director's edition are available on DVD, but I checked with Netflix, and Netflix only has the director's edition. I saw both versions (one in the theater, one at home), and prefer the director's edition, save for the extra music towards the end. The difference in run time is only 7 minutes, and Mann doesn't cut out or rearrange scenes; he added an opening sequence, as Daniel notes, and another one in a restaurant/cafe -- both, in my view, help clarify the narrative. Other than that, the versions are the same as far as I can recall.

July 06, 2007 4:47 PM  
Blogger Ryland Walker Knight said...

Whoa whoa whoa. A preemptive apology for a rare flying off the handle moment: Sorry dudes, but the theatrical cut is perfect. The director's cut only muddles and literalizes a lot of what makes the theatrical cut so great. The new opening? No way. The theatrical opening is just about as great a movie opening as imaginable. Also, the music cues aren't as spot on in the director's cut. After watching my DVD of the theatrical cut with a friend of mine, he said, "Probably the best use of bad music in a movie, ever." And I have to agree: I'm not a big fan of a lot of the "hard rock" songs but they work perfectly with the affect of the scenes. And the Moby remix and the Jayz/LinkinPark/FelixDaHousecat/NinaSimone medley are pure dope.

The one I'm mad about losing is the theatrical Last of the Mohicans. Where's that Irish pop band over Hawkeye's climactic running/climbing sequence? Man, Mann...

July 06, 2007 5:31 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Michael and Ryland.
That's good to know that both versions are available; I'll probably watch the Netflix version, at least to begin with.

July 07, 2007 7:04 AM  
Blogger girish said...

-- Jim Emerson tells a couple of interesting stories from the "Cinema Interruptus" conference he conducted in Boulder in the spring.
-- Noel Vera on Jacques Tati's Playtime (and Kubrick's 2001).

July 07, 2007 7:09 AM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

Thanks for the mention, girish.

I wrote a little something about Miami Vice.

I love Manhunter, liked The Insider and Heat (talking of female characters, Kilmer and Judd there are one of the most vivid and complicated couple I've seen in a Mann movie, and their final scene together is a heartbreaker), not too crazy about Collateral (the directing is terrific, but Cruise isn't impressive and the premise is silly), need to see Thief again. There are stunning moments in The Keep, but the ending is a bit, uh, rushed to put it kindly. My favorite might be Last of the Mohicans, possibly his most openly emotional work (and while we're into professions, Hawkeye's seriousness about his sharpshooting skills must be noted).

He's pretty good, one of the better filmmakers around.

July 07, 2007 9:40 AM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

I read The Keep in high school and from what I remember, the ending was both rushed and predictable with a handful of cliches, so if it's only rushed in the Mann film that's an improvement. ^_^

July 07, 2007 10:58 AM  
Blogger Ignatius Vishnevetsky said...

I think MIAMI VICE is a masterpiece. The best American film of the century so far? Very possibly.
It's cinema as an ideal of reinvention--not just of a previous time (the gaudy 1980s reinvented as the gaudy 2000s) or a format (television as a feature film) or a genre (a drug trade actioner with no drugs, an action film were the rifles make cap-gun sounds), but on an even more basic level: the familiar becomes foreign simply by being described. I didn't realize how strange drinking out of a glass looked until I watched MIAMI VICE.

July 08, 2007 2:33 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Hi there, Noel, Tuwa and Ignatius.
Ignatius, those are very intriguing comments you make about Miami Vice. (Also enjoyed reading your interview with Usama Alshaibi about his documentary Nice Bombs.)

July 08, 2007 7:31 AM  
Blogger girish said...

New releases at Netflix this morning:
Leo McCarey's Rally 'Round The Flag, Boys (If I remember right, it's in Robin Wood's all-time top 10); Hiroshi Teshigahara's Pitfall, The Face Of Another, Woman In The Dunes; Fritz Lang's The Woman In The Window; Robinson Devor's Police Beat; and a 1993 Takashi Miike film called Bodyguard Kiba 2: Combat Apocalypse.

July 08, 2007 7:38 AM  
Blogger girish said...

-- At My Gleanings: Jean Douchet's top 10 lists in Cahiers du Cinema from 1958-1968.
-- If Peter Nellhaus is reading:
Peter ~ I had no idea your dad was a translator of Brecht. Was he an academic? And your mom was a film critic, no? Have you done a post on them?

July 08, 2007 7:42 AM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

My father was an MD (Pediatric-neurologist), but he was translating Brecht even before then. His translation of Puntilla was staged in Boston with a couple of young actors better known now as the parents of Ben Stiller. I've written a little bit about my mother.

Speaking of Netflix, I tried to get the 1958 version of Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman, and twice I recieved the 1993 version. An email to the "customer service" department seems not to have resolved this problem.

July 08, 2007 11:17 AM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

I just checked out the Netflix new releases, and recommend After the Wedding which I saw theatrically a couple of months ago.

July 08, 2007 11:55 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Peter. My friend Rob Davis liked the film too, and wrote about it for Paste magazine.

July 08, 2007 7:37 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

I read Ignatius' comment and was about to say "Whaa---" then realized the century's only seven years old, and he's limiting himself to American films. Maybe, I 'll have to think about that.

July 08, 2007 11:27 PM  
Blogger Ignatius Vishnevetsky said...

I think American cinema came into its own in many ways last year with Miami Vice and Inland Empire. Both films to me represent a reconceptualization of cinema--both its conception and production--adapted to the video medium and the different relationship it creates with the material. Many people still think "celluloid" and shoot "video."
The century is technically seven years, but in many ways, we still live in the 20th--but that's not so unusual: the 19th century lasted until the atomic bomb hit, and the 20th didn't really realize it's full potential until halfway-through.
Miami Vice and Inland Empire are amongst the few American films attempting to define themselves on their own terms and not the past century's. They're not the future: they're last year, but that's still much closer than most.

July 09, 2007 2:34 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Michael Sicinski on Joe Swanberg's Hannah Takes The Stairs.

Hope to be back with a post at some point later today or tonight...

July 09, 2007 6:39 AM  
Blogger cineboy said...

Interesting take on Ratatouille at the Amateur Gourmet. What I find very interesting is that his film review has generated more comments (and lengthier comments) than most of his typical food-related posts. If you write about food, readers typically comment with something like: "oh, that sounds yummy!", but when you express your opinion about a film people want to speak up and really respond - even if they have not seen the film.

July 09, 2007 1:10 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

I'd agree re: Miami Vice somewhat, but only up to the point of America redefining cinema. They pretty much established the norms in the silent and studio era.

July 10, 2007 8:02 AM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

July 10, 2007 8:10 AM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

As for Amateur Gourmet, it's an interesting viewpoint, but aside from that moment at the window (admittedly startling but little prepared for beforehand and even less done with afterwards) I don't see that subtext much. Not a fan of the film, either.

July 10, 2007 8:16 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Tucker and Noel.
I enjoyed that post, and had never heard of the Amateur Gourmet.

July 10, 2007 9:07 AM  
Blogger Campaspe said...

I liked the Amateur Gourmet review too. I am always up for a way-out-there interpretation, provided it can be made plausible. My favorite IMDB review of all time was a guy who insisted "The Great Waltz" is an extended allegory for the Anschluss.

Noel, if you have written up your thoughts on Ratatouille I would love to read them. Mostly it has gotten rapturous praise so I am interested in hearing what you disliked about the movie. (Have not seen it yet, myself.)

July 10, 2007 12:58 PM  

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