Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Mission: McTiernan

I've got a new post up over at the Mission: McTiernan blog, scoot on over and check it out. Posting has been light, but rest assured that my writing partner and I are hard at work on two large scale McTiernan projects. It might be a little while yet before either is ready to be officially announced, but rest assured more odds and ends will make their way to the blog before long.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Mann Silhouette, Part 3: an Interlude

I started this project because I was struck by how frequently Mann returned to, and revised, a particular ‘move’, a piece of visual rhetoric that pops up continuously and that has been tweaked, refined, simplified and which, ultimately, becomes the heart of a certain kind of philosophy (which we’ll get to with Public Enemies, perhaps Mann’s most misunderstood masterpiece).

Having said that, no great artist can be boiled down to some kind of schematic meaning; as David Bordwell is frequently reminding us, artists tend to experiment, attempting new solutions to frequently recurring scenes (like filming people around a table). Hence, a handful of Mann films that refuse to fit my ‘silhouette’ rubric – they are nonetheless, worthy of some attention.

Despite having some fans, The Keep strikes me as Mann’s one total, outright failure. To my mind, it is the one film his detractors constantly accuse him of making - bombastic, seemingly impersonal and ultimately incoherent. The Keep ultimately stands as an attempt at a German Expressionistic horror-thriller, a genre so far removed from Mann’s comfort zone as to boggle the mind. The idea of ‘stretching’ might be one of the reasons Mann took on the project, and as a film school student, it is obvious the he was enamored with Lang and Murnau (perhaps Lewton/Tourneur as well). Coincidentally, the film is actually filled with silhouettes, although they are so devoid of interior meaning as to essentially invalidate my functioning premise.

The Last of the Mohicans is another beast altogether. Along with The Keep and Public Enemies, it’s his only period piece (although the former are both, comparatively speaking, recent history). It’s also his only film to take place almost exclusively in nature, as opposed to the urban milieu Mann usually favors. Critic F.X. Feeney has suggested that Mohicans was a conscious left-turn for Mann after several years of television work (roughly ’86-’92), although Mann shoots down that idea in an interview with Feeney. Still, the notion of ‘stretching’ comes up once again, and after five years or so of heavily researched, true-crime related TV, it stands to reason that a totally new challenge would appeal to Mann.

Mann seems most concerned in Mohicans with establishing the difference between the native settlers and the stuffy British, as well as emphasizing the unity of the surroundings with Hawkeye and his family, men who have learned to live harmoniously with nature.

Hawkeye’s interactions with the Cameron family early in the film nicely encapsulate Mann’s visual rhetoric. The camera remains fixed, the group unified in the frame, with the mother and child supplying movement and energy to the tableau – she keeps turning around to look at the table, subtly reinforcing the viewer’s eye as to the shifting center of attention; the playful child becomes a wild card, adding something dynamic to the proceedings.

Contrast this with our introduction to the British: the long take of the carriage carrying Cora and her sister as it crosses the bridge is pretty enough, with a pleasing symmetry, but is bland and static after the rowdy dinner table scene.

Here, Cora’s first interaction with Duncan is a cold, shot-counter-shot interaction around a table. Situated nicely in the middle of a field (nature vs garden indeed), Mann cuts rapidly between the two characters, keeping their faces at opposite sides of the frame (further emphasizing their ‘apart-ness). Even when they occupy the same frame, as above, only Cora is in focus, complete with a dismayed look. Duncan is out of focus (also out of touch with Cora’s feelings), and appears to be looking of screen – hence the two shot capturing his failure to look her in the eye.

Mann furthers this notion of deadening symmetry with the films many battle scenes, contrasting the freedom of movement of the Huron warriors with the ‘column’ style fighting of the British. As they line up single file, their static arrangement becomes their downfall.

* * *

Collateral is an interesting, albeit small film, one which might usefully serve as a kind of divide between mid-period and late-period Mann. Heat, The Insider and Ali represent a string of masterpieces that show Mann further expanding his comfort zone into new arenas while remaining true to his own obsessions; the two films following Collateral, Miami Vice and Public Enemies, reveal a new kind of experimentation, with Mann paring down narrative as much as possible (while still remaining, obviously, narrative films). Collateral is also Mann’s first predominately digital film, after some experimenting in Ali (although bits of digital photography show up as early as Manhunter). Collateral strikes me as a transitional work – despite some well publicized script alterations, Mann receives no writing credit, and indeed the film is particularly beholden to an increasingly silly screenplay (by the scribe of the gimmicky, spectacularly inessential Wes Craven thriller Red Eye, no less). As Jonathan Rosenbaum noted upon the films release, it would have made a nice, taunt 80 minute noir back in the 50’s. If the scenario ultimately leaves something to be desired, Mann still directs the hell out of the movie, and Collateral’s ultimate pleasure is noting how a filmmaker can embrace and play with a new format – there’s a sense of constant discovery at work in the film’s mis-en-scene (it’s also his first film with cinematographer Dion Beebe, who will become as important to him as Dante Spinotti).

Mann sets up his primary motif in the films first section, as Jamie Foxx picks up Jada Pinkett Smith’s harried lawyer. Having bodies in the fore and mid-ground (front seat and back seat) allows Mann to play with character dynamics – first cutting between the two, then framing the two together, with one figure slightly out of focus, as they cast furtive, flirtatious glances at each other, and finally framing the two together as an equilibrium, a potent visual metaphor for ‘coming together’. As in some scenes in Mohicans, Mann keeps characters on opposite sides of the frame even when cutting between them. Interestingly, this maintains a sense of visual stability (the camera and cutting doesn’t interfere with their physical position within the car), while simultaneously keeping the viewer off balance (there’s an increasingly jagged force to the cuts).

* * *

The Last of the Mohicans could justify a book-length study in and of itself, and I don’t wish to undersell the pleasures of Collateral. Mann’s ‘city symphony’ contains (arguably) career best performances from Cruise and Foxx, and there is a lovely sense of isolation and disconnect as characters move through an eerily empty urban landscape. Interestingly, I get the sense that Mohicans and Collateral are most frequently cited as Mann’s best films – in other words, movies for people who don’t like Michael Mann films. That, perhaps, is grist for a later post. Up next, we tackle Mann’s first bona fide masterpiece, the exquisite Heat.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Andre de Toth's Springfield Rifle:

The instant streaming boom has lead to a few interesting things, one of which is the dumping of old, forgotten B Westerns by the boat load. Not unlike the studios slipping in auteurist gems amongst actor-centric dvd box sets, Netflix Instant is gradually accumulating a nice library of underserved genre-specialists. The infancy of the technology is also leading to some extreme aesthetic distortions, which we’ll get to in a moment.

The obscure object under consideration here is Andre de Toth’s Springfield Rifle, a quick, no-frills, frequently brutal western-thriller. I’m no de Toth specialist, but at least a handful of his films are essentials – Ramrod, Day of the Outlaw, Crime Wave and Play Dirty spring immediately to mind. De Toth’s universe is as physically jagged as it is emotionally crippling, with multiple agendas playing out against an unforgiving landscape – de Toth’s landscapes being as integral to the physical and philosophical motivations of men as they are to the films of Boetticher, Ray and Mann; that is, the landscape becomes something of a character in and of itself.

The perennially over-valued Gary Cooper lends his unmovable granite visage as a Union officer who goes undercover to infiltrate a group of horse thieves; they are raiding Union horses and selling them to the South, who in turn hope to amass a huge cavalry that will ultimately crush their opponents to the North. In typical de Toth fashion, our hero is shunned by his commanding officers, his son and ultimately his wife – in a stunning reversal, a Union officer first introduced as a heavy is revealed to not only be in on the undercover plot, but becomes Cooper’s only ally. Of course, once this reversal is made clear, he is gunned down, leaving Cooper once again alone, in over his head, and without evidence of his mission ( interesting that every espionage/cop thriller of the last several decades has in effect already been anticipated by this modest oater).

De Toth’s mise-en-scene is masterful, and the use of the full frame to contain two different (and oppositional) kinds of movement, extreme horizontals and verticals, is not only startlingly audacious but also a fascinating formal metaphor for Cooper’s dual existence. The fact that the film involves huge numbers of horses creates an interesting dynamic. De Toth will keep his camera back at a distance, the better to observe huge herds of animals grazing – it is in these amassed shots that we realize the sheer size of the Confederates’ ultimate goal, obliterating one’s enemies through sheer numbers. Conversely, de Toth anticipates scope photography while filming lines of horses in movement. Throughout the film, de Toth frequently starts a scene with a slow pan, usually from left to right, first introducing the space and setting, as well as character’s spatial relationships within it. As the film progresses and the action ramps up, the movements become so quick as to induce whiplash – in an attempt to reproduce the movement of the horses, while also keeping in mind numbers and a sense of scale, de Toth tracks the camera along side the animals, eventually catching up to a human figure, then passing them by to finish the movement at the head of the herd.

As impressive as these formal dynamics are, de Toth ultimately seems to value vertical, downward movements even more. While not as refined, thematically, as the much later Day of the Outlaw or Play Dirty (a physically grueling trek that puts Herzog’s Aguirre to shame), the treachery and inherent danger of an unforgiving nature is still readily apparent in Springfield Rifle. The film begins with Union troops moving horses through a snowbound pass, assuming that it is so dangerous that the raiders would be insane to follow, never mind that the terrain could also kill them before they reach their destination (reach it they do, only to find a band of outlaws waiting for them - treacherous indeed). Later, Cooper escapes his tower jail cell, de Toth emphasizing the extreme distance with long vertical lines from the tower to the ground; the finale of the film finds Cooper chasing his friend and commanding officer, now revealed to have been a traitor all along, down a rugged mountain side, each man careening wildly down steep inclines and ultimately hurling themselves from great distances. One is tempted to attach some kind of psychological interpretation to these ‘leaps of faith’, one man trying to evade capture at all costs, the other attempting to catch his adversary no-matter-what.

The great critic Fred Camper (one of the few who have dealt with de Toth in any kind of serious way) writes, ‘De Toth's great theme is betrayal--not single betrayals by individuals but networks of betrayal that implicate most of his characters. In de Toth's moral universe, the majority are susceptible to compromise, and the minority who remain pure… wind up dead or otherwise ruined, their lives altered forever by the treachery they've survived. Indeed, the phrase "None Shall Escape" could serve as a motto for de Toth's entire oeuvre. Born in Hungary, de Toth directed several films there and elsewhere in Europe before emigrating to the United States in 1940--on a ship, as he recalls, that sank on its next voyage. It's hard to know how his worldview originated, but perhaps it had something to do with coming of age amid the complexities of Europe between the wars, and having witnessed and filmed the 1939 German invasion of Poland.’

While Springfield Rifle has a happy ending (the traitor is caught and the plot revealed, Cooper is reinstated, given a medal and reunited with his wife and son), it’s hard to believe in it – there are so many tacked on happy endings in Hollywood films of every era that one is inclined to dismiss the final two or thee minutes of any given film. It’s hard to imagine anyone surviving unchanged in de Toth’s universe, where even nature itself has stacked the decks against us. Cooper’s victory must ultimately be hollow: one of his friends dead, the other revealed to be a traitor to his country, and his family left to survive the remainder of a Civil War.

Unfortunately, the technical limitations of this still new streaming technology reveals itself the most during camera movements – even more vexing as de Toth reveals so much with this contradictory visual scheme. The horizontal pans become blurred and choppy, and swaths of color betray clumps of digital artifacts, with tree leaves becoming square-ish bits and flowing water congealing into a morass of blue and white streaks. Granted, even HD streaming films have similar issues, and there is no doubt that whoever owns the rights to Springfield Rifle couldn’t give a shit as to how it’s shown (if you queue up anything that starts with a ‘Starz Network’ logo, you are guaranteed a sub-VHS visual presentation). But these gripes are perhaps grist for another post. Technical deficiencies aside, it’s still essential viewing.