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By Andrew Tracy

There’s a line very early on in Jonathan Rayner’s recent monograph The Cinema of Michael Mann: Vice and Vindication that stands in marked contrast to the staid though commendably solid study that follows. Comparing Mann’s oeuvre to the framework of genre revisionism that characterized much of the ’70s “New Hollywood” American cinema, Rayner declares that

As much as its espousal of existential investigation and reflexive style from the European art film, its often deliberate frustration of the trajectory and satisfaction of classical narrative and short-circuiting of generic expectation classifies the America cinema of this era as an art cinema by default.

Once recovered from the double (or spit) take elicited by the notion of an “art cinema by default,” one can mercifully recall and readjust to the spirit in which this initially gobsmacking statement is made. Rayner is, of course, speaking of “art cinema” here in taxonomic rather than evaluative terms: if these works are not a or b, then they must be c.

But our author is playing with a bit of a stacked deck here. No matter how scrupulously categorical its use, the very term “art cinema” is inescapably bound up with notions of value, such that the works to which the term is applied are a priori elevated in the context in which they are to be discussed. And the fact that Rayner refers here to a very select group of films by a very select group of filmmakers—the usual movie-brat crowd of Marty, Francis et al., with crotchety Uncle Bob (Altman) leading the pack—as “the American cinema of this era” indicates that even this sober volume is beholden to a mythical idea of the American cinema, to an elevation of a certain kind of filmmaking above a messy, crowded cinematic reality and its transformation into a Platonic ideal of that reality.

Rayner’s very next sentence then compounds that mythology with another:

Ensuring that genres do not ‘work’ may in itself become a directorial goal: it may disenchant audiences unwilling to negotiate their subject positioning, but equally it may empower and enfranchise an audience not represented and peripheralised by mainstream cinema and its ideology.

Helpfully for the purposes of his own study, which have precious little to do with any of this, Rayner quickly gets off this track before he would be compelled to define (or find ways to avoid defining) what such an audience might be. But this spectral host of the peripheralized and unrepresented lingers throughout his otherwise grounded monograph—the faraway, so close promise of a potential mass of politically engaged viewers waiting to be activated by a rip in the syntactical fabric of “mainstream cinema and its ideology.”

The divide between academic film study and film criticism is one frequently remarked upon, but as with all such supposedly unmet and forever unmeeting twains, there’s been a quiet cross-pollination going on for quite some time. These two sentences cited above, not only existing quite comfortably side by side but the one segueing into the other, blithely reconcile two seemingly antithetical ideas: the romantic-cinephilic conceit of the individual, inimitable, and intentionalist auteur, pluralized in Rayner’s evocation of an American art-cinema-by-default; and the cultural-studies conceit of the ideologically resistant reader/viewer, devising her own meanings through the ruptures (intentional or otherwise) in the deceptively monolithic edifice of mainstream cinema.

What these apparently not mutually exclusive conceits share is an ethos, and a language, of resistance: the idea that seeing or helping others to see differently—whether through the intentions of a creator, the “active reading” of a viewer, or some combination of the two—has a political as well as an aesthetic value. As with the larger movements with which they aligned themselves, disputing, contravening, subverting or (in the most pie-in-the-sky ideal) replacing the dominant language—of discourse, of culture, of everyday life—has long been a keystone of the essentially left position from which much of the most influential and enduring film criticism and theory has emerged. And even if we must concede that, just as no girl was ever ruined by a book, no revolution was ever won (or even started) by a movie, that core conviction holds still; there would be considerably less pages filled in this magazine, for instance, if there weren’t a number of contributing critics, academics, and points in between who still firmly, and rightly, hold to it.

It’s thus that Rayner’s token nod to the radical potential of the “unsatisfactory” Hollywood text, the genre film that refuses to “work” within its generic template, finds easy echo in the polemical sallies of the film-critical set. To wit: “Blackhat isn’t a failed action movie—it’s a big-budget avant-garde film,” proclaims the title of a recent review of Michael Mann’s latest (which Adam Nayman has already raised an eyebrow at for Cinema Scope Online). It’s unclear from this header, or the article that follows, whether its author is actually conversant with much that’s being done in the avant-garde these days, in the way that Manny Farber was when he merrily impasted Snow and Akerman over Walsh, Hawks, and Fuller. In any event, the point here is plainly polemical rather than inquisitive or exploratory. Temporarily liberated from the media ghetto to which it is forever consigned, “avant-garde” here takes leave of its reality as a field of artistic practice and becomes a handy term of approbation for a $90-million thriller that—so the argument goes—deliberately fails to satisfy on the grounds of thrillerdom, rendering it “avant-garde” by default.

Whether spoken or not, this is the shared premise of the highbrow hosannas for Blackhat: that the film is not only some kind of milestone aesthetic achievement—for Mann, or cinema, or l’humanité en tout—but that in being so it is serving a vital critical function, consciously or not (or maybe both at the same time). This is a discourse that has been coalescing around Mann’s work for some time, but that only really came to the fore with the release of Miami Vice (2006), whose carefully crafted air of narrative happenstance, functional cum purely instrumental characterization, and pronounced DV aesthetic elicited a mini-slew of rapturous, Cliffs Notes cultural-theory reveries about how the movie encapsulated the postmodern predicament of our moment.

For the fervent faithful, the inchoate promise of Miami Vice is realized in spades in Blackhat. Not only does the new film’s cyber-crime scenario make overt the surveillance-state undertones of Miami Vice, but Mann himself seems to validate the high-flying claims of Miami Vice’s vindicators by ostentatiously placing such tomes as Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition, and Baudrillard’s The System of Objects on the prison-cell shelf of Chris Hemsworth’s super-sexy super-hacker hero, the assertively Anglo-monikered “Nick Hathaway.” (The Self-Consciousness Express doesn’t stop there: Mann doth veritably describe his perception of his own practice shortly thereafter, when a FBI briefing describes the Hathaway-authored hacker code as “lean, graceful, elegant,” as against the “frenetic and overwritten” bastardization of that code by the film’s sinister “blackhat” cyber-criminal.)

The title of that last-named tract could serve as a fitting header for what we may call the second line of Blackhat defence among the egghead set (about which more below). The first line rests, to Baudrillardize again, on the simulacra or simulation of the real served up by Blackhat’s digital cinematography, which forgoes Miami Vice’s DV extremes of grainy, purplish murk and super-saturated glimmer to render our world as a wispy, near-intangible neoreality (Manohla Dargis nicely captures Mann’s visual approach here when she comments on “the ‘thinness’ of the [still beautiful] images”). There is of course no doubt that Mann has foregrounded his adoption of DV, eschewing the technology’s film-like capacities and employing a wide range of its variable visual options—from woozy-blur to super-sharp, from almost-film to almost-certainly-Handycam—within a single text. This evident intentionalism has been seized upon by assorted Manniacs in order to argue that the filmmaker’s work after his digital turn both embodies and, by embodying, comments upon our increasingly digitized world. The medium is the message, runs the argument here—to which I’d reply that texture does not necessarily equal text, nor does form alone determine film (which is what we shall continue to call these works, no matter the medium they are made on). For any filmmaker who is working to create and sustain the illusion of a cohesive narrative world—which is what Mann, a narrative filmmaker to the core, is most certainly doing, in Blackhat as in all his other films—the visual is only one implement in his toolkit; a key one, assuredly, but also only one.

And so we come to the second line: that Mann, by his self-consciously spartan treatment of his rote manhunt scenario and pallid rendering of his rote manhunters, is defying traditional dramaturgy and transforming his narrative (by default?) into a veritable system of objects. In this view, the digital thinness of the film’s images is the display of a world-machine through which Mann’s “characters” move like data streams, their loves, hates, and drives paling before their primary function as function.

Yet for a film that supposedly exemplifies The Way We Live Now, there’s a distinctly musty air to Mann’s attempts to envision our contemporary cyberreality. To these eyes, the film’s opening, CG-assisted plunge into continent-crossing circuitry—and a later shot looking up from within a keyboard as Hemsworth’s beefy fingers rattle away on it—are rather desperate, mildly risible attempts to visualize the work of computer-hacking as work; as with any other wearisome Hollywood thriller, Blackhat’s hackery is mainly a matter of a few magic-finger keystrokes and voilà. An early scene depicting the stock market going into a tizzy after the blackhat’s manipulation of corn futures betrays how retrograde is both Mann’s conception of the brave new digital world and the cinematic language he uses to depict it: while the bulk of trading these days is carried out by massive, warehouse-sized computers that make trades thousands of times quicker than the blink of an eye or the click of a mouse, Mann gives us the same old stock images of sweaty, sleeve-rolled floor-traders bellowing and having conniptions. (Were he not for the moment keeping the identity of his hacker hidden, Mann could have owned his archaicism here by superimposing his villain’s devilish face over the exchange-floor mayhem, as Fritz Lang did in Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler [1922].)

This is not to say, however, that the “system” analogy is inapt for Mann’s cinema. As Rayner perceptively points out, many of Mann’s films deal with protagonists trying to maintain their integrity and autonomy within the respective systems in which they willingly participate: the interlinked realms of law enforcement and crime, of course, but also the tribal factionalism and competing loyalties of The Last of the Mohicans (1992), corporate capitalism in The Insider (1999), the fight biz in Ali (2001), etc. But if in these prior films Mann does indeed detail how individuals can be defeated or ground down by the system of which they are a part, his is always a romantic-fatalist register rather than a truly political one. (“It was too good to last,” mourns Colin Farrell’s moustachioed moper at the end of Miami Vice, as his now-fugitive lady love hops the last boat to Cuba.) Mann’s stories are, always, ones of individual triumph and tragedy, like the mainstream cinema and ideology of which they are a part.

Yet while Mann is indeed a part of this system, it doesn’t preclude the possibility of the political within his cinema; it merely means that it is, has to be, articulated through the mode in which he works and has always worked. The aesthetic and, more rarely, the political value of Mann’s cinema lies in his intensification of the language and structure of mainstream cinema, not an abstraction, subversion, or undermining of them; on giving them emotional and moral weight, not on thinning them out to a husk. The triumphal, exhilarating conclusions of The Jericho Mile (1979) and Ali are the most powerfully political moments in Mann’s cinema because their force as finely wrought drama conveys directly and emotionally how the actions and accomplishments of an individual can become a vessel for the anger, hope, and humanity of a subjugated people (not peripheralized or unrepresented, but subjugated). If form is intrinsic to drama in narrative filmmaking, then the converse applies with equal force. And by progressively privileging the former over the latter, Mann has reduced the emotional, moral, political, and, yes, aesthetic clarity of his work to little more than an insistent ambient fuzz—occasionally suggestive of form, but ultimately coalescing into nothing.

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