Books: Cultural Amnesia — Michael Mann |
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Michael Mann (b. 1943) is a director famous mainly for giving his films, no matter how violent their subject matter, a soothingly diffused and pastel look, as if their contentedly vacationing audience were wearing sunglasses even at night. Though Mann had already made movies before he became executive producer of the globally successful Miami Vice, it was for the brushed and powdered episodes of that television series that he first achieved the full development of his characteristic look, which made a hero out of Don Johnson’s tailor and turned Florida into an advertisement for itself. Like most film directors with an early history of earning their keep in television, Mann was obliged, however, to learn that the look of the thing came second to the story. (One of his first jobs in show business was writing scripts for Starsky and Hutch.) As a consequence, his feature films, pretty as they are to look at, are invariably made coherent by a strong narrative line, and not just by their tasteful mise en scène. Manhunter, for example, is by far the best plotted of the Hannibal Lecter movies, and would be recalled now as the benchmark for the franchise if it had not been sunk in advance by the comparative anonymity of its leading actor. (Later on—“ironically,” as they say in Hollywood—the film’s obscure leading man William Petersen became, as the face of CSI, one of the most recognizable actors on Earth.) The look of movies helps to form the stock imaginative patterns of the world, and to that extent the director often really is the formative influence. This remains true even though, in the main production centre, there is scarcely such a thing as a successful commercial movie which is not a collaborative venture controlled by a studio that can fire anybody concerned, the director included. Just as the atmospherics of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner now affect the appearance—and even, through the music of Vangelis, the soundtrack—of any movie made anywhere whose subject is the future, so do the atmospherics of Michael Mann’s Heat affect the look of any movie made about crime: other directors, whether working out of the United States, Latin America, Europe or Hong Kong, either go with him, towards glamour, or go against him, towards grunge, but they always have his look in mind. What concerns me here, however, is not what happens to the pictures, but to the words. By definition, they are not in a universally appreciable language. But are they in English either? The answer has large implications, especially for international politics. If the troops who come to bring you freedom can’t understand even each other, you had better hope that they know what is meant by a white flag.

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Let’s violate his ass right now.

THE INFORMER IS being unforthcoming. The informer is on parole. Hard-driving police captain Al Pacino and his faithful sidekick grow impatient. The sidekick suggests to Pacino that they punish the uncooperative informer by arresting him for violating his parole. “Let’s violate his ass.” That’s the way the sidekick says it. Did you get it straight away? Confess.

An extremely advanced foreign student of English might have enough information to realize that “let’s violate” is cop-talk for “let’s arrest him for violation of parole” and that “his ass” is a standard jive-talk way of saying “him.” But a merely advanced student—advanced enough to know all the words in the sentence without even consulting a dictionary—might forgivably conclude that the angry sidekick and the angry captain are on the point of sodomizing their uncooperative informer. The merely advanced student would translate the line accurately and get it hopelessly wrong. (There is even the chance that a slightly less than merely advanced student, educated by correspondence in some region of central Asia where any version of a horse can buy a bride, would fail to realize that “ass” is the American version of “arse,” and so get the impression that the two cops are about to commit bestiality with a valuable animal belonging to the informer: but let’s leave that one out.) It follows that there is more to translation than transliteration: you need the whole cultural context. It also follows that American cultural imperialism is so powerful it doesn’t need to care whether you have absorbed the cultural context or not. It just wants you to see the movie.

British and Australian audiences—to name only two English-speaking markets for the American mass media—are in the position of merely advanced students. For them a line like this might as well have a subtitle. I myself, when I first saw Heat in 1996, had been absorbing the American mass media for fifty years at least. I had seen hundreds of cop shows in which the words “violate” and “parole” had been used in close connection. But when I heard “violate” without “parole” I had to stop and think—not an activity that Heat otherwise encourages. It is a highly enjoyable movie. (I mean as opposed to a lowly enjoyable movie like Where Eagles Dare, in which the fun comes from the stupidity.) Michael Mann’s movies are well planned and look very good. His years in the glossy sweatshop of Miami Vice gave him a feeling for compressed narrative and a mastery of pastel composition transferable to any setting, including the morgue. Both qualities are well on display in Mann’s Manhunter, the first and by far the most interesting film that draws on the dubious charm of the serial killer Hannibal Lecter. Mann is a director who can make even cannibalism into a fashion statement. With Heat he attained his apotheosis. Unlimited mayhem never looked so balletic. The gun battles are sensational: rather more sensational, one is bound to reflect, than any gun battle could ever be in real life, where a flak jacket would not be enough to protect Al Pacino’s head if even one bank robber were shooting at him with a pistol. In the film, Val Kilmer and Robert De Niro both shoot at him for minutes on end with automatic weapons. Fusillades of bullets swerve around his head by magic. In real life he would have only his admittedly formidable hairpiece to keep the hurtling slugs out of his brain. But the director isn’t transcribing life, he is choreographing its myths, and especially the myths of male conflict: Mann is a mano a mano man. He thinks in battles. In a Mann film, even when the hero is alone on screen with a telephone, he battles with the telephone.

In Heat, the most sensational battle of all is the hamming contest in the coffee shop between Pacino and De Niro. These two actors have never faced each other on screen before. Each actor knows that this is the shoot-out the audience has been looking forward to for years. Each actor fights with his best weapons. Al Pacino’s standard weapon is to SHOUT AT RANDOM. Elsewhere in the movie he employs it freely, but in this key scene he abandons it. Robert De Niro’s standard weapon is to repeat a line half a dozen times with slight variations of emphasis. “Clean up and go home,” he tells Ashley Judd. “Clean up and go home.” Hypnotized by this mantra, Ashley Judd cleans up and goes home to Val Kilmer, so thoroughly has her will been sapped. De Niro’s power of repetition is a tried and tested standard weapon. A standard weapon, tried and tested, is what it is. Tried and tested. Tried and tested. But in this scene he abandons it.

In the coffee shop, the two knights of the screen have taken off their helmets and laid aside the axe and mace. They have upgraded their weaponry. They are about to go nuclear. They will fight in close-up. Pacino fights with ruminative pauses and a new, noiseless smacking of the lips: a deadly weapon. De Niro fights with a new pout. It is not as extreme as Val Kilmer’s pout, but Val Kilmer was born pouting, like June Allyson: Val Kilmer can’t not pout. De Niro’s new pout is a vestigial, almost subcutaneous pout, a pout more thought than deed. He is proving that he can pout without moving his lips. He also looks sideways without moving his head. He looks sideways only with his eyes: a new subtlety. (All modern screen actors look sideways as much as possible while speaking. There is one called Michael Madsen who will face away from the camera while speaking, giving you a close-up of the back of his head.) Gradually you realize that Pacino and De Niro, like the characters they are playing, will both walk away from this battle. The fix is in. The two characters they are playing respect each other. But the characters could not possibly respect each other as much as the actors playing them respect each other.

Pacino and De Niro have each grown used, during a long career, to acting any interlocutor off the screen. They have met at last only on the tacit understanding that they will act each other on to the screen. Exactly measured by the number of close-ups, their mutual respect will be made exhaustively manifest. The outcome will be a draw. But they have to make it look good. Making it look good, indeed, is the only reason for doing it. Making it sound good is a secondary consideration. To prove this, each man reaches for the deadliest weapon of all: silence. Personally I find this a relief from the dialogue, which isn’t bad, but is not very good. In the age of The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon, a similar exchange would have been over and done with in a minute at most, with each actor delivering a line memorable forever. But that was then, and this is now. Now the actor does not deliver lines. He delivers himself, usually like a truck full of eggs being unloaded one by one. Heat has a structure, and each of its carefully assembled component scenes has a mood. What it lacks is lines, and why not? It is after something bigger than verbal quotability. But in that case, why throw in a line like “Let’s violate his ass”? The only conclusion you can reach is that nobody knew it was difficult.

Nobody knew, or nobody cared: it amounts to the same thing. In films, dialogue is a secondary source of narrative, not the primary one. If this seems a cause for grief, it can only be said that there are bigger things to grieve about. (A film has to star Steven Seagal or Chuck Norris before it begins to pose a bigger threat to the language than yellow journalism.) When a semi-literate film-maker proclaims the supreme importance of structure, it might sound like opportunism: but literate film-makers proclaim it too, and are not likely to be wrong. That capable screenwriter William Goldman has written entertaining books to demonstrate how even the most entertaining film can’t be written like a book. If the story is not first worked out to make cinematic sense, no amount of excellent dialogue will save it from going straight to video. For those of us who will see any film that Ashley Judd appears in—the definition of star power—Kiss the Girls is a must. The procedural police dialogue is of the highest class: anything Morgan Freeman gets to say once you want to hear twice. But the story is out of shape, so the movie was a box office dud. In Wag the Dog, the dialogue is even better: it is up there with the scripts of pre-war screwball comedy, which is as high as you can go. The film, however, would have joined Kiss the Girls on the long shelf of modern flops if the story had not been so satisfactorily worked out. Quite often the process of making the story work will marginalize even the cleverest writer, and even more often make him or her part of a team, any member of which can be unknown to the others. As S. J. Perelman pointed out in his valuable Paris Review interview, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s personal tragedy in Hollywood centred on his deadly knack for failing to spot, at the time, that he was not the sole author of the script he was working on, and for being devastated when he found out later. Though there are writers with star power—Robert Towne when he doesn’t want to direct, Joe Eszterhas when he can stay under the top, Richard Price, Tom Stoppard and David Mamet all seemingly without fail—the practice of calling in extra writers is unlikely to change. Nor is a star director necessarily the author, though he might strive to be thought so. A successful movie is usually its own author, like a little city. My favourite example is Tootsie, which I admire as a whole and in every detail, especially from line to line. Like thousands of Tootsie fans I can practically recite the dialogue from start to finish. But I have met very few among my fellow devotees who can name its writers, and I am not even sure that I know all their names myself.

There is no point complaining about the working conditions in an industry which must resolve so many powerful forces if it is ever to produce art. Better to be grateful that it sometimes does. The first credited writer on Shakespeare in Love is probably still cursing Tom Stoppard, whom we bless, because he made the film a delight to listen to. But not even the first credited writer was really the first writer, who was, or were, an uncredited duo: Caryl Brahms and S. J. Simon, joint authors of No Bed for Bacon, a comic squib from the days before Penguins had picture covers. Stoppard never read the book, and probably still believes that some of the ideas he inherited from the first credited writer (the idea of Shakespeare practising his signature, for example) were not lifted from it, along with the basis of the plot. It scarcely matters, because the real first writer of the film was Shakespeare himself, and his co-opted spirit energizes the whole thing: Shakespeare in Love really does make language the true hero of a film, just as he made it the true hero of a play. Film scripts are developed properties, and their written origins can lie far back in time. (Some of the properties are remade over and over: that perfectly shaped late Cold War thriller No Way Out, with Kevin Costner and Sean Young, was built to a verbal template already perfected before World War II.) The confusion arises from the too-persuasive fact that since The Jazz Singer films have used words, and those of us who love literature are always looking for the author of them, because the films we love have words we love too. But if words were as important for the people who make movies as they are for us, those same people would be trying to write books. Filming a documentary in Los Angeles, I met George Peppard at a charity event and made the fan’s standard mistake of trying to impress him with one of his own memories. In Breakfast at Tiffany’s, he had the privilege of delivering one of George Axelrod’s most intricately crafted speeches: three short lines that captured the elegance of Capote’s novella, compressed it into a small space, and demonstrated why Axelrod was the first-choice Hollywood scriptwriter of his time. Remembering, as I had always remembered, the precision with which Peppard had hit the stresses, I tried it on him. “I’ve never had champagne before breakfast before. With breakfast, often. But never before before.”

Peppard had forgotten he ever said it. In retrospect, it is hard to blame him. He was in the movie for his face and his acting, not for his sensitivity to language, which, had he let it rule his head, would later have kept him out of The A-Team and its attendant retirement money. At least, when he got something good to say, he showed that he knew it by saying it well. In Indecent Proposal, Robert Redford, in full control of the movie, delivered a speech that pitiably ripped off one of the most cherishable moments in Citizen Kane. The pastiche he permitted himself to deliver was miserable stuff; he must have known it was; but he was working on the principle that he didn’t have to impress me. He just had to look as if he might impress Demi Moore. In screenplay terms, the heist made sense. None of this means that the words in movies never count. They can: sometimes a single line can sum up the whole screenplay, but only if the screenplay exists as an experience that can be summed up. In Bullitt, the central conflict between the characters played by Steve McQueen and Robert Vaughn takes the whole film to reach the point where it can be epitomized in a single word. McQueen says it. The word is “bullshit.” In the version edited for television in Great Britain, that one word was snipped out by a blockheaded censor. All you saw was McQueen saying nothing. You could call it a momentary return to silent movies, but it was no return to purity. A good picture had a tiny but vital piece of its heart taken out of it with a pair of scissors. Years later, when Bullitt was on TV again, the contentious word had been magically restored. So the words do count, after all. They just don’t count the way we would like them to, as if nothing else did. But they don’t in life, either.

What we call a good movie is the product of collective talent. Occasionally it is the product of collective genius. In Singin’ in the Rain, the absolute concentration of an entire popular culture at its most powerful, every line of dialogue, and each line of every lyric, is as good as it could be from one end of the miracle to the other. Both in its book and in its songs, it is the best writing by the best writers for film musicals there have ever been, and in order for those writers to even exist, Broadway and Tin Pan Alley had to work like factories on a double shift for more than half a century. But not a word would mean a thing if the people on screen didn’t look the way they do while singing the way they do and dancing the way they do. It is hard to imagine the movie without Arthur Freed, its producer, or Stanley Donen, its director, or Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who concocted its marvellous story; but it is impossible to imagine it without Gene Kelly. Not even Fred Astaire would have fitted the same spot, because the character has to be absurdly good-looking. Gene Kelly was an absurdly good-looking man who danced sensationally well, as well as acting well and singing well enough. It took the whole of America, including all of its modern history, to produce one of him. Because he was there, the cast is there, and the immense confluence of productive effort is there, and all those unforgettable words are there. As it happens, Singin’ in the Rain is the one film that comes close to the writer’s ideal of being written into existence: the whole thing started from a single line, which in the end even turned out to be the title. It was a writer’s dream: a film born from a phrase. But Gene Kelly had to be born first. The right face in the right place at the right time in the story—it means that the movies, in their essence, are still silent. In Heat, it has to be Natalie Portman who tries to kill herself, and Al Pacino who discovers what she has done; and all with scarcely a word spoken. The hardest thing for a literary critic to accept about the movies is that the writing in them is finally beyond analysis, because a large part of the writing is in genetic code. Finally, if the casting is right and the emotion is unmistakable, it doesn’t matter what the characters say. They can say “Let’s violate his ass” and we will pretend to understand, because we have already understood.