stevengharms.com

Sententiae viri ex temporibus duobus

I Saw “Collateral” the Other Day.

Recently I saw the film “Collateral”. It is a very good movie and will easily fall within my top five for the year (and, unless the next six months produce many more amazing films than the first produced, it is likely to remain there). The film is definitely worth the cost of a matinee admission and might even be worth that 9.50 prime-time gouging (10.75 if you use Fandango).

I have thought about the film quite a bit over the days since I saw it and I should like to discuss the film from a perspective generally not afforded to reviewers in the standard newspaper review format. Instead of addressing the basics (plot, acting, etc.), I should like to emulate Pauline Kael and discuss the film stylistically and philosophically. Thus, at risk of being branded an auteur theorist I shall stake that my real interest in the film is as a product/philosophical statement by the director, Michael Mann.

I will then give cusory treatment the pedestrian points of the actors' performances, and then address the overall plot. If you are interested in these aspecst of the film, read just about any other review at any other site.

Mann, as master-director of the small spaces

Mann has come a long way and is really starting to treat us to some amazing filmmaking. I thought that his last major action film, “Heat” was too ponderous, too long, and insufficiently well-edited. The movie was filled by intense, amazing episodes bookended by refractory periods followed by ovelong stretch of boredom and irrelevant tangents.

It was a forgivable mistake: I think that perhaps he felt that if he gave a lot of space to acting legends Pacino and DeNiro, he would be rewarded by their making every frame captivating by the magic of their chemistry. Mann, like most of us, bought the hype around these two actors who are still very mortal and need a director to bind and focus their energy (Seen DeNiro on Saturday Night Live? It was up there with Charles Barkley).

But I mentioned intense, explosive episodes in the film. What were they? The best scenes were the close, intense, personal dramatic spaces where DeNiro and Pacino were in each others' faces involved in psychological and verbal cat-and-mouse. When the framing is tight, the physical space limited, Mann knows how to extract the pure, egotistical passion out of a “Great Actor” and make it burn itself into celluloid.

Mann refined this skill of directing in these spaces with “The Insider” which featured great dramatic matchups: - Crowe v. Pacino (dialog about Pacino’s (“Bergman”) Frankfurt School pedigree) - Pacino v. Everyone else in the film (especially the network bosses) - Gina Gershon v. Rip Torn (hilariously)

This is hallmark number one of the best of Mann: close, tight, dramatic interaction in a microcosm with tight camera work and tight framing (I should think that his skill in this matter would translate well to a foray into stage direction of something like “Huis Clos”).

I shall now move on to the second stylistic technique of his: a philosophically powerful and communicative use of lighting.

Mann, as a student of lighting

To understand Mann’s masterwork use of light in “Collateral” as a tool for explaining the world of the film, its philosophy and its characters we must trace his learning to use this powerful tool. We shall begin on the small screen.

Think about the following visual pieces: “Miami Vice”, “Heat”, “The Insider”. What do all of these films have in common. Great lighting - especially at night! I said we would undertake a chronological study, think about “Miami Vice” for a moment.

If I think of Miami Vice I immediately think of a white Ferarri on a rain-slicked street reflecting ambient blue neon and street lighting. Think of any scene from Miami Vice (generally the opening 10 minutes) and you see dancing girls in a red and pink neon vertigo at the hilt of 80s fashion (or evil menacing guys in blue neon).

We know that this must be the case as the atmospheric effect was canonized so in the Grand Theft Auto: Vice City video game. It’s the half-life afterimage of all those episodes. If you’ve played the game you know that Tommy’s club is the Platonic form of the Miami Vice nightclub.

In short, “Miami Vice” was high intensity neon lighting.

{ For the record, while still under 10, I loved the show, we used to watch it every friday night after Taco Night festivities. Mmmmm. }

If I think about “Heat” I think of the blinding floodlight scene on the airport grounds. Man is learning how to flood the camera with light in dark spaces. He’s studying how to unnerve and offset the audience by forcing them to drown in big, gasping draughts of luminosity (notably, not neon, Mann’s palette is not restricted in this sense).

Mann explores more conventional lighting in “The Insider”, but this time of using the broad wide end of a baseball bat to hammer the audience, he uses the subtle scalpel of darkness and small room lighting to eviscerate the mental breakdown Russel Crowe’s Wigand character is facing. When I think about “The Insider” I recall the dark basement where Russell Crowe slowly unraveled under his burdens lit onnly by a cheap desk lamp.

These three examples show Mann has spent a lot of time exploring the lighting palette in many different wavelengths his particular excellence may be, however, in his use of high-intensity lighting.

Man’s study of high-intensity lighting

What are the properties of high intensity lighting? I have three cases.

[1.] When used as the exclusive source of lighting (think an office building), it drains faces of color. Recall in the sadly ill-edited and too-often-skipped-over “Joe versus the Volcano” Joe’s (Tom Hanks') diatrabe against fluorescent lighting, describing how it leeches the life out of him. Shanley did right using fluorescent to leech Hanks into pallor (to be contrasted by the lush natural lighting when he reaches the tropics).

[2.] When mixed with regular lighting, high-intensity lighting high-lights (moderate pun intended) the gritty reality of the objects of our world. High-intensity lighting (not in the dark) makes things seem extra-brite™, perma-brite™, hyperreal™. Just like the fluorescent white in your toothpaste or drycleaning that make the white whiter than white, the high-intensity pallette of Mann brings out the grittty grit of a gritty scene.

[3.]Yet when in a mostly dark space, high-intensity lighting (due to his high diffusion) makes things blurry, unclear, but electric. Something about the gradient between the blackness of dark and the hyper-lit-ness of high-intensity light addles a perceivers brain such that everything seems a crystal clear haze.

Under our “high-intensity lighting rubric” let us classify a few examples of Mann’s work.

In “Miami Vice” he used powerful man-made lighting at high frequencies (neon) to highlight man’s artifacts in the dark (use 3). These are summed up in the nightclub where everyone drunkenly swims in an atmosphere of fluorescent pink taffeta air.

He also implemented use 2 in the classic “Miami Vice” poster. Ferrari, Crockett, Tubbs, Streetlight, ambient high-intensity lighting. The Ferrari is whiter than white, the suits intricately patterened, Don Johnson’s shirt pinker than pink.

Man’s technique showed man’s artifacts (the club, the Ferarri, the coke baron’s leather and neon “office”) in their recently-produced, least-entropic, most inherently sexy moments. This technique, perfect for Miami of the era, gave us excessively artificial light highlighting execssively artificial, excessively expensive assets in their most perfect (and thus artifical) state.

Over time, however he has moved to using excessively artificial light to highlight matter closer to its natural state, where entropy and decay have set in. In “Heat” we see a transition, glorious artifacts at their zenith (Pacino’s Home, use 2) and artifacts in their decay (the grounds of the initial robbery of the armored car, again use 2). It’s as if Mann remembered all the difficulty of using use 2 in Miami (“Damn, this sidewalk still looks gritty, run water on it!”) but instead of fighting it, accepts it, beguiles it, and invites it to show itself. He also enjoys working with the extreme difference of floodlight versus night. “Heat” is Mann learning to love dirt, and thermodynamics.

In “The Insider” man learns to love and mold the sharp contrast between light and dark - chiefly with normal-intensity lighting (although the court scene in Louisiana is over-fluorescent to highlight Wigand’s sapped and drained life, he never quite lets go of this favorite shade!).

Thus we find artistic hallmark of Mann part two: use of high intensity (neon, fluorescent) light against characters or gritty surfaces preferably in sun-abset (night) or sun-obscured settings.

The semiotic effects of these two chief stylistic properties are what I should like to examine in the next section. What does this lighting palette and tightly-framed camerawork code for within the mind of the audience? Now that we can perceive the elements of Mann’s style, we can analyze their application in the culminating masterwork “Collateral”.

What Mann’s high intensity lighting communicates visually

So what is the upshot of this unnatural lighting arrangement in the dark? The lighting creates a different world, it manufactures an artificial “tiny space” in which (we have already determined) Mann excels at directing his characters.

Thus his two artistic hallmarks portray his characters in a tiny space, lit unnaturally by manufactured radiance (radios, neon billboards, the hyperlit fluorescent light pollution beaming outside of corner stores). In sum these “styles” serve to sever our characters from “The World” and to enwrap them in “Their World”.

But what’s so important about that? So what if he makes a small stage? It’s not just that he creates a small stage, (heck “Friends” was 5 people out of the masses of New York City). Mann’s small world is not a subset, it is a severed subset, a postmodern island cut it off from “Our World” morally.

Like a visual Baudrillard, Mann eradicates the link between his characters and our reality, our petty bourgeois morality, and us ourselves. We’re going to a morally relativist Oz, Toto, and the light and camera proximity will visually arrest us (pun!) and help us forget to not remember that we’re in a parallel moral universe.

Lighting as allegory to Mann’s tiny world and its morality

Like the protagonist in “Collateral”, Max (Jamie Foxx), we are now taking a ride with Vincent (Cruise) and Mann into a postmodern world free of our Sunday School / Categorical Imperative / Pre-School notions of right and wrong. What does our acceptance of this world do to the action of the plot?

The world-severing by light has an important visual role in communicating the morality of the characters thereincontained (as “Heat”, “Collateral” and “The Insider” are all, at heart, morality plays).

Imagine Kant’s conception of morality as a lighting choice. Kant believed in universally true moral precepts in choices against which all people at all times can be judged moral or immoral. Is there no lighting source more like that than the fixed unfiltered natural light of the Sun? The sun exposes naturally, clearly, evenly. This belief may lead one to have an interesting re-interpretation of Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” - filmed 100% in natural light.

{Aside: Yes we can replace a sun with stage lighting, and the sun doesn’t technically illuminate evenly. I’m not talking about science and optics, I’m talking about perception, so please remember I’m talking about art, not science}

Yet I already mentioned that Mann takes the sun out of the equation and replaces it with his mastery of ambient street light, or neon. Why?

Mann wants to tell us visually that our our characters' morality (encoded by the lighting) is not absent, it is 100% manufactured and shown by man-made lighting. Think about a neon light, one can get it in any shape (a flamingo to a Bud Light ad) and it’s born of a strange magic - glassy cyllinders pumped full of inert gasses quickened by the electric current).

The characters have moved into a moral realm where the only rules are the relativist ones that people make (like neon tubes, any shape, flavor, form), where any moral choice can be legitimately questioned and where the moral north star, natural light, the sun (quite literally) is gone.

He wants to say that our characters are moral unto themselves but never moral in light of each other’s beliefs or “The World” outside. Mann’s created world is a moral colosseum. When the mores battle it is between mouthpieces for those ethoses or occasionally superficially between some vague moral precept that the mouthpieces have heard the “The World” or “The Public” (us) believes in. As Baudrillard said but these precepts exist only as nostalgia and any reverence for the precept comes out of honor for the nostalgia, not the precept itself.

{ We see this in a less refined degree in “The Insider” where “The Public” as abused by the cigarette companies, exist only in the periphry. The real level of betrayal and interaction exist between “The Corporation” and “The Insider” or “The Network” and “The Reporter”. }

The battle for determining valid moral choices versus immoral is left to the characters in this tight space riffing Right vs. Wrong like jazz musicians. Is it any surprise that we find Vincent talking about adaptability and Darwinian Eradication, confessing a love of jazz music, and repeating the catchphrase “You’ve got to roll with it” ?

It is worthy of note that the action of “Collateral” is one night, one period in which the moral lighthouse vanishes, allows chaos, and then returns as the chaos is restrained.

Setting

If you grant that the action takes place in a moral hyperspace outside of our reality, you may find yourself saying “that couldn’t happen here”. As Mann cuts the mooring ropes between our world and the morally ambiguous boat (er, cab) - universe of Vincent and Max, we, as the audience, can choose to stay firmly on the dock and stay emotionally detached from what we see.

Mann doesn’t want that, he wants us to climb aboard and take the ride, he wants us to “Roll with it”. His primary means for getting us to along is by tricking us with the setting.

Having addressed two stylistic talents of Mann: mastery of the small space and the use of high-frequency lighting, I should like to discuss the setting, almost a character, of The City of Angels?

So on the one hand “Collateral” occurs in a mental space, in a post-moral universe, a dialog on what an agent, a human, a person with a will (and a weapon) can choose to do moral or immoral things. Yet “Setting” is about physical things, buildings, roads, parks. How can the physical also be the mental.

Thus the need to film the movie in Los Angeles. This city exists both in a mental space “LA-the-idea” and a physical space “a city at GPS coordinates such-and-such”. This is a tricky bit of semiotic slight of hand that Mann perpetrates on us like a grand master.

What do I mean as LA-the-idea? I mean that place that is called “La-La land”, the place where you get a breast augmentation for sweet sixteen, the place in the song “Californication”, the place the Right Wing press wants you to believe has no soul and where abortions should be as easy to get as lottery tickets, he fiefdom of Pamela Anderson served by the vassal OJ Simpson. Vincent hates visiting LA-as-city (he states), it reminds him of the properties of LA-as-idea he hates: he despises tts artificiality, for the citizenry’s lack of interconnectedness, for its love of affect and vacuousness. Cruise recounts the story of a dead man on the subway riding for 6 hours before anyone ever noticed with relish and disgust. It’s a place where the murder of Kitty Genovese occurs any day, every day with everyone too self-absorbed with their own “artificial” lives to care that real life is expiring unnoticed.

Mann is nestling morally ambiguous zones within each other. Vincent’s world fits within LA-as-Idea like a Russian stacking doll.

To what end? By beguiling the audience to come to LA (the place) and do daily things there (get in a cab) we drop our defenses and biases against LA-the-idea (assisted by Vincent speaking our distaste for us) and suddenly we’re willing to live in LA-as-idea for a while. A place where we can be closer to the Vincent and Max universe, yet still feel somewhat familiar, safe, and superior.

But if Mann can con us into coming there, a place where we feel safe and superior, he’s won the battle. The incredibly foreign (at first glance) morality of Cruise’s world is not too terribly different from the morality of the LA-as-idea construct, and our own morality is not too terribly different from LA-as-idea, therefore the difference between the moral universe we like to believe we inhabit day to day and Cruise’s world is not a difference in kind but merely in degree.

Mann conned us to get on the boat (er, cab) with Vincent and Max and by the time we realized it we could only see Mann back on the dock, the axe with which he cut the mooring line in hand, laughing as we have our “a-ha” moment knowing that we are the “other” passenger in the cab.

Let me just briefly address his filming of LA-the-city - “setting” in its traditional sense:

As my friend Mike said, nobody films LA like Michael Mann. Well said.

Somehow he makes Los Angeles seem more interesting and more hyper-stylized than it truly is. It’s almost enough to make me want to visit. Almost. LA lacks the inherent charm that is imbued in every multiply-scorched inch of San Francisco, so style must be manufactured on celluloid - with lighting and the unblinking, focused seduction of camerawork.

Think about it, how do you make the endless freeways and sprawl seem engrossing? In San Francisco you can walk from interesting sight A to sight B in a matter of minutes. How do you account for the drive-time between interesting sights of LA? Mann solves this by making the drive time interesting. “I want to show something in downtown and then something in the East side, I eat up the drive time by having heavy debate in a car.” Two birds, one stone.

Let us move on to the performances versus consideration of the set. What about the actors?

Well, Foxx (“Max”) is great and Cruise (“Vincent”) is great. This movie cemented that Cruise is a great actor in my book. Here’s the scene that won me over.

VINCENT: “Hey homey, is that my briefcase?”

Can you imagine any white guy saying that, taking that iconic word of “urban” (which is the politically correct way of saying something out of black culture appropriated by the masses) culture, homey and sounding even halfway convincing? OK, there are some guys that can make that work but … Maverick from “Top Gun”, the “Risky Business” kid? No way.

But he pulls it off - flawlessly.

Foxx is great (but if you’ve read any other reviews about the film you’ve already heard that). In the continued vein of “In Living Color” alums who prove that they can really act (Jim Carrey / Truman Show, Marlon Wayans / Requiem for a Dream), Foxx steps up and impresses. He plays a very cool customer, very realistic, very admirable, very dignified the whole way through. Even under pressure, Foxx stays on the level, never hams it up, and never overacts.

What of the action? The action scenes are well played (save at the very end where it gets a bit by-the-book hunting someone while the hunted is hiding) and give the action-film part of the audience something to enjoy. The more amazing bits of action are the scenes of banter between Vincent and Max, Vincent lays a heavy dose of “Fight Club” -esque nihilist / virtue ethics hybrid philosophy: Why aren’t you living, why didn’t you call the girl, why are you lying to yourself, etc.

While the spouting of this view isn’t particularly new (seen it in “Fight Club”) watching a person become seduced by its truth, its simplicity, and its necessary murder of the foundations of Kant’s “Golden Rule” / preschool / sunday school morality. Max accepts, rejects, accepts, wavers, and attempts to give up his moral agency through a romance with death. But Death doesn’t release him, he must choose to acccept acting as an agent in Vincent’s post-moral world.

Even if he survives Vincen’t odyssey, will his identity come with him and can he return to the moral space whence he came?

The fact that Mann doesn’t answer these question for us gives us room to grow to love the movie in the days after seeing it.

Bravo Mr. Mann.