Thursday, January 28, 2010

In the interests of breaking up monotony, a dash of substance

Michael Mann: Cinematic Visionary or Overrated Hack?

My rule of thumb is simple. Directors who make movies I love are awesome. Directors who make movies I hate are crap.

Which makes Michael Mann horribly difficult. To wit:
Public Enemies (Boring, characters unlikeable [How do you make Johnny Depp unlikeable!?!])

Miami Vice (Like, but only ironically; if Colin Farrel and Jamie Foxx weren't reinventing Don Johnson and Phil Michael Thomas' Crockett and Tubbs I wouldn't care)

Collateral (LOVE)

Ali (Hate, too long)

The Insider (Boring, predictable)

Heat (Hate, good action, awful dialogue, relies too much on Deniro and Pacino as icons, also too long)

The Last of the Mohicans (Like, saved by the soundtrack and DDL)

Manhunter (LOVE, saved by Peterson and Cox)

The Keep (Haven't seen)

Thief (Haven't seen, music by Tangerine Dream)
Mann has ONE film I love without qualification. One. Normally, that relegates him to the crap category with an even-a-broken-clock-is-right-twice-a-day caveat.


He does Collateral so well. Shots are sparse, dark, and absolutely capture Los Angeles in a Blade Runner-esque dystopian vision using only location and natural lighting. Music perfectly suits every scene (I especially love the night club shootout). Colors are somehow muted while still conveying LA's neon gilt.

Granting a smidgen of hyperbole here, I would venture to say he's technically flawless in every single one of his movies.

And yet they all suck.

Mann has two irritating habits qua director: (1) Inability to kill darlings, and (2) Mind-boggling screenplay choice. Collateral is tight for a Mann film, clocking in at 2 hours. Did Ali, Insider, and Heat all really need to be 160+ minutes? Did we really need each one of those scenes exposing the characters to be...exactly what we already knew them to be? And the writing in Collateral is superb; it's hard to believe Mann liked the script. There's a serious clash of worldviews, existential angst, excurses about music (which always point back to the main ideological clash), a sympathetic main character and a charming villain (how novel!). In Collateral, Mann's technique serves a fantastic story. Most of his films feature an orgy of detail, technique for the sake of technique, and feel like a love letter to film-making rather than a conscious effort to entertain.

I am simply at a loss.

And for the record, every time David Fincher makes another movie, I feel him slipping into the Mann zone.

On Cynicism

The opposite of faith is not unbelief. It is not even doubt.

It is cynicism.

The subject of much fashionable derision from our intellectual elite, C.S. Lewis is a large target because he has such an incisive grasp of human beings. His Screwtape explains the benefits of cynicism to a young tempter:
But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armor plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy; it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it[.]
Lewis is most clever because he recognizes that cynicism is rarely socially acceptable unless it is humorous. Only the wholly deranged or the truly sycophantic willingly subject themselves to rancorous tirade after tirade. But wait. What if our interlocutor entertains? Well, then. All is forgiven; (s)he's so goshdarn funny.

In this way, cynicism obscures the mature happiness brought on by a serious search for the Good, the True, and the beautiful, replacing it with infantile giggles and meanness at the expense of...whom or whatever. A social pressure is brought to bear against the very idea of serious human living, and this pressure--in the form of a joke no less--releases those of us who laugh from the hard work of virtue because it is, after all, so silly.

Atheist-turned-Catholic(!) Jennifer Fulwiler recommends this as a step to finding God:
Commit to a period of time during which you'll fast from all sources of cynicism: give up watching TV shows and reading websites that make jokes at other people's expense (even if it's about celebrities or politicians); try to change the subject or say something positive if such conversations come up in person; avoid making cynical jokes or comments yourself. You might be surprised at how much this fast will transform your heart.
Mrs. Fulwiler assumes I might want my "heart transformed." How cute. And by cute I mean naive. If I wanted anything like that, why would I spend all my money rewarding stand-up comics and Hollywood writers and pop stars and talking heads for belittling it?