In the movies, the past has a certain specific look. Depending on which era is depicted, the film stock is different, the grain is more pronounced, colours are graded according to decade. The ’60s have the yellow-tinted look of an old photo, the ‘80s look neon, and anything before the First World War looks like a painting, its colours burnished. If the past doesn’t look like the past, well, it ain’t authentic, is it?
We all know what the past looks like. Go back a hundred years, and the world was black and white, sped up and weirdly jerky. People talked in ornate title cards – which was lucky, because how else could you hold a conversation over the din of a dramatic piano score? Philip Larkin once wrote that sexual intercourse began in 1963; it seems that sound and colour began before that, but not by all that much, compared to the history of the world. It is strange to think that two entire world wars were fought entirely in monochrome.
Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!
If I ever were to write a GTA-themed memoir of a gamer, it’d have to be titled Driving in Cars with Criminals.
Yesterday I started watching Miami Vice, Michael Mann’s recent film update of the quintessential ’80s neon series. I’d seen it at the cinema, and while I’d enjoyed the gorgeous visuals, I’d been rather underwhelmed on the whole. Now that I’m seeing it on DVD (in a slightly longer version), I like it a lot more. Some of that is probably down to the lack of expectations on my part. (I’ve talked about my Mann-love here before), some of it may be due to the Michael Mann atmosphere: his films tend to have a strong streak of loneliness going through them, which may not work as well in a packed cinema.
It’s rare that my appreciation of a film changes from “meh…” to something better on repeat viewings. The opposite happens a bit more frequently, but it’s still fairly unlikely. But sometimes I see a movie at the cinema and something about it stays with me. SOmehow my brain knows it needs to give this film a second chance. And sometimes it’s those films that I end up liking most.
Just for the record: 12 Monkeys was a film that I needed to see two or three times to like.
And now, for your appreciation, some more Mann love:
Yesterday we watched The Insider, Michael Mann’s 1999 film about whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand, 60 Minutes and the evil machinations of big US tobbaco. I like Mann’s cool jazz style, the calm rhythm of his movies. Watching The Insider for the fourth or fifth time, though, I was struck at how much the director’s cinematic world is a male one.
Like in several of Mann’s movies, it’s not so much that there isn’t any sympathy for the women (in this case especially Wigand’s wife Liane, played by Diane Venora), but that the film’s focus always remains with the man, and as a result the women are seen in terms of whether they remain loyal to their men or not. It’s really weird – if I write it like that, it makes Mann sound like the worst misogynist ever. However, I don’t think that’s quite fair. Venora’s character in Heat (this time she’s together with the Pacino character) also decides to walk out on her man because his job is more important than his family. It’s not that he doesn’t love her, but he’s obsessed with what he does. Perhaps that’s why the films aren’t straightforward exercises in sexism – Mann’s men are obsessive-compulsive, they choose their duties like lonesome cowboys. There’s something glamorous and admirable to the male protagonists, but at the same time they’re stuck in adolescence and in the belief that they don’t need anyone else, except the other boys they play their lethal games with.
By comparison, the women live in the real world much more than the men. Things aren’t as clear cut for them. Venora’s Justine Hanna in Heat realises that she will always come second to her husband. Her Liane Wigand knows that Jeffrey (fantastically acted by Russell Crowe, by the way) will not give up his quixotic quest against big tobacco, not even for the sake of his family. She comes off worse, perhaps, than other women in Mann, because Jeffrey Wigand is so clearly doing the right thing. But there is understanding in the film for her plight.
In the hands of a lesser director and actress, Liane and Justine would simply be shrews who screw over their good-guy husbands. It’s difficult to completely shake the feeling that they are disloyal and selfish. But they have a strength and a dignity that makes us look and think twice.
But it doesn’t change that, at its heart, Michael Mann’s world is a man’s world indeed.