I would like to hear your thoughts on Heat.
Oh boy, it’s actually kind of hard to describe my particular choice of Heat for that list. Most of the films on that list were chosen out of instinct. I first compiled a shortlist of films and then narrowed it down so that the ones I ended up picking were the ones I couldn’t bear to leave out. (It was especially difficult to leave off anything by Tsai Ming-liang, one of my favorite filmmakers, but The River, The Hole, and Vive l’Amour kind of split the vote. And anyways, the real Tsai masterpiece is all of his films stitched together to form the greatest film about longing ever.) And in a lot of these cases, it’s been a while since I’ve seen the film, so it exists in my memory as this mere impulse, a remembrance of something I felt at the time that I may or may not be able to recall completely.
I think Michael Mann is a very important director but one who is largely misunderstood (although there are quite a few cinephiles who rightly worship his work). If you click here and scroll down to a comment by Ryland Walker Knight, the idea of Mann as a filmmaker not unlike Claire Denis, a particular favorite of mine, really resonated with me and made everything sort of click for me. Arguably, Heat was a pivotal film in his body of work, and everything after it would be featured on a list of my favorite films of that year. Perhaps like Denis, Mann is a filmmaker of “moments,” then. If asked to explain why I love Denis’ Beau Travail, I would point to its ending (the last shot, really) and how it makes sense of everything that came before it. (Just typing that now, it occurs to me that there’s something very “organic” about both filmmakers, the way the parts relate to the whole in a rather cellular manner.) Similarly, there’s this shot of Val Kilmer in Heat near the end that I find really mesmerizing, as I find so many of the shots of Los Angeles. And then the ending, with Pacino and DeNiro squaring off… Mann is seemingly one of the few directors who really captures the texture of even the air or the feel of Los Angeles nights. It’s very textural and tactile.
Also, there’s not a whole lot of overtly masculine narratives that really, really appeal to me, but a few directors can do this well. For whatever reason, the cinema of, say, Nicholas Ray is so incessantly macho at times that I feel a little distanced from it. The fact that Ray was bisexual is something that I don’t think really matters here, but it’s certainly an interesting factoid that complicates things. (I’m watching most of Ray’s films through a retrospective here in D.C. over the next few months, and I hope to come around some more on him. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I like a lot of his films a great deal. I just feel a lack of personal connection the way I do with other filmmakers.) Howard Hawks is one guy who does masculinity in a way I find really appealing, and it’s probably safe to say that there’d be no Mann if it weren’t for Hawks. Another director Mann reminds me of is Johnnie To, one of my favorite directors working today. There’s something wonderfully fatalistic about Hawks, To, and Mann, though it’s never cynical or nihilistic. To’s Exiled (my favorite of his films) is very Mannian, I think!
Hawks’ films got to explore masculinity in the way they did because they were mostly adventure films, taking place outside of society proper. To and Mann are late capitalist directors who focus on the dead-end hopelessness of life today, the way there’s really no way out. This is largely what makes DeNiro’s character so appealing. I see a lot of movies where we’re supposed to cheer for the bad guys, or whatever. In fact, I just watched Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break, which actually reminded me somewhat of Heat, but I had some problems with it. One of them is that the antiheros of that film, Swayze and his crew, are completely unappealing to me. (I guess my favorite character in that film is Gary Busey’s character, oddly enough.) There’s a world of difference between Point Break and Heat, and though I’d have to see the latter again to say exactly what it is, I vastly prefer the conception of masculinity presented by Heat.
Mann is one of those directors I really, really love, but I haven’t been able to articulate why I love him as much as I’d like to (which means I should go and watch all his movies again). Surely, there are moments (the opening of Ali) that are pure cinema at its finest. I think everyone realizes that on some level. But I also think the pieces do fit together really well. I was actually surprised when I first watched Heat a few years ago. I just think it’s kind of perfect. Not only that, but it’s a great mood piece too.