Wasted Talent

”You did a good thing for a bad man,” is one of the first things that Lorenzo, De Niro’s character in A Bronx Tale, tells his son, Calogero. This is also one of the first moral dilemmas we are presented with as we witness the coming of age of an Italian-American boy in the 1960s Bronx in De Niro’s directorial debut from 1993. What is most remarkable about this personal favorite of mine is how we get to experience, similarly to what I wrote here for Boyz n the Hood, the moral ambiguity of actions that certain characters must take in order to survive in a tough environment. A Bronx Tale is a perfect example of how cinema can be a source of life lessons and how as a medium it can challenge and test the audience through the journey of its characters.

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De Niro’s Lorenzo, the local bus driver.

Based on Chazz Palminteri’s one-man play of the same title, A Bronx Tale tells the story of a young boy who must makes sense of his environment through the teachings of two very different men. One being his father, Lorenzo, and the other being the local gangster, Sonny (played by Palminteri himself). The latter takes Calogero under his wing after the boy refuses to testify against him in a murder case as the only witness. That’s when the boy proudly tells his father ”I didn’t rat, Dad. I did good, Dad. I did a good thing. Right, Dad?” and to his surprise Lorenzo gives him an answer that confuses him even more. ”You did a good thing for a bad man.” That seems to be the code on the streets of the Bronx.

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Whether you say yes or no can make a difference.

De Niro’s character is one of his most fascinating ones and one that I feel doesn’t get talked about enough. In a tribute to his late father, Robert De Niro Sr. who passed away the year this film was released, De Niro delivers one of his most nuanced performances. This is certainly no Raging Bull, Taxi Driver nor Cape Fear, as the actor puts on the clothes of a regular bus driver working minimum-wage, with the sole interest of keeping his family safe and sound and his son away from trouble. But trouble in this part of New York is inevitable for a young boy like Calogero. And De Niro’s Lorenzo knows this. His vision of the world may be limited, he may be old-fashioned and prejudiced (in Lorenzo’s mind Italians should only marry among themselves), but he’s seen his fair share of pain and suffering around him and the movie does a brilliant job of communicating this to us. In a neighborhood of crooks, yes-men and gangsters, Lorenzo is one of the few to go against the tide and follow his own path. When Sonny, as a sign of gratitude for his son’s silence, offers Lorenzo some extra money under the table, Lorenzo does not hesitate in refusing the offer despite that his own wife admits afterwards, ”We could have used some extra money around here.” De Niro’s character is one that we don’t see very often nowadays. Perhaps it’s because he’s not contemporary in his attitude. Or maybe it’s because he’s just not cool enough. And that is also why as the years go by, Calogero finds himself drifting more and more towards Sonny, the king of the streets and as Calogero himself puts it ”My God down here.”

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Sonny and the lucky kid.

Sonny is indeed the God of the Bronx. Even the local priest does not dare speak against him during confession. Unlike Lorenzo, Sonny oozes coolness and danger. His word is the Bible, and yet despite the prestige and respect that comes with being a boss, he is not the traditional boss we are used to seeing in films. He’s no Vito Corleone. He’s not a stone cold calculating machine. The fear he generates is not through actions but his words and the way he carries himself. His treatment of others is fair. He’s no bully nor psycho. And as we get to know him along with Calogero, his apprentice, we realize we are looking at him through a different lens. Throughout the run-time of the movie it becomes evident that both Lorenzo and Sonny are looked at from the same perspective – that of a father figure. They are put on the same pedestal. Working man and gangster. The lessons they teach Calogero come from different settings – one being the family home, the other being the streets – but they’re just as valuable. When asked whether it is better to be loved or feared, Sonny tells Calogero ”It’s nice to be both, but it’s very difficult. I would rather be feared. Fear lasts longer than love.” Meanwhile, Lorenzo earlier on in the movie points out, ”People don’t love him. They fear him. There is a difference.” 

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”It don’t take much strength to pull a trigger, but try and get up every morning to work for a living!”

In his directorial debut, De Niro skillfully paints a vivid picture of racial tension, peer pressure and the de facto interlinked paths of fear and love. The world around Calogero is one filled with borders between blacks and whites and where one false move can lead to drastic consequences. Being loved out here is a privilege that not many can afford. But so is being feared. And Calogero can’t seem to find a compromise between the two. The world in A Bronx Tale is a separate world on its own, where rules are different and you best learn them fast. Yet, what is most admirable about the film is how the two characters, Lorenzo and Sonny, work towards the same goal: to keep Calogero away from danger, to keep him mindful of his surroundings. Sonny does it by disrupting the kid’s illusions and telling him that his baseball idol, Mickey Mantle, doesn’t give a shit whether Calogero can afford to pay his rent or not, so why should Calogero care about his batting average? Meanwhile, Lorenzo emphasizes the opposite, namely belief in ideals. His whole mantra revolves around believing in what is right, what is good and what is inspiring to us, as he keeps repeating to his son, ”The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.”

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”You ever heard of Machiavelli?”

The two father figures in A Bronx Tale are at first sight polar opposites. The way they think, the way they act and the way they go about life couldn’t be more different. Yet their teachings compliment each other and help Calogero fill in the gaps. That is remarkable. Nowadays movies tend to stick to one train of thought because it is less risky and offers easier answers for the audience to grasp. A Bronx Tale, however, refuses to do so. The movie purposefully confronts Lorenzo and Sonny’s worldviews and makes us reflect on our own convictions and beliefs. The whole secret is finding the balance between the two teachings. Love and fear. Black and white. Working man and gangster.

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”I don’t understand, Dad.”

Once Upon a Time in Quentinland…

As the European release of Tarantino’s latest movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, looms over us during these warm summer days, and as the writer-director himself has been generously handing out interviews left and right stating that this may very well be his last cinematic work (it is no secret that Tarantino had always wanted to limit himself to ten features, retire and dedicate the rest of his life to writing about film and for theater), I began reflecting on what I will miss the most about one of the most unique voices to grace the silver screen in the last thirty years. The answer in itself surprised me. As I sat down and rewatched for the sixth time my personal favorite of his, Jackie Brown from 1997, I realized how profoundly Tarantino’s work has resonated with me and my peers for different reasons.

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The blaxploitation icon herself, Pam Grier, playing Jackie.

First thing that pops to mind when one thinks of QT is blood. Lots of it. Blood, action and the endless, perfectly colorful dialogue that elevates his movies from simple entertainment to something much more special. Something that has a distinctive ring to it that many have tried and still try to this day to emulate. Yet, nobody has ever come close to perfecting it the way Tarantino has done over the last few years, especially in his recent dialogue-heavy Hateful Eight, where eighty percent of the movie takes place within the confines of one single location, turning the movie into something almost identical to a theater play.
But… blood and dialogue do not work unless you have characters that make you care about those two elements. If you do not care about a character, then his death will not affect you. At the same time, if you do not find the character itself interesting, then why should you care what she or he has to say? That’s what I’ll miss most about Quentin: his characters, and the world they inhabit.

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Hanging out with Louis and Ordell.

Jackie Brown may be Tarantino’s least popular film mainly due to the fact that people like to label it as the least Tarantino film the writer-director has made to date. After all it’s QT’s only adaptation (from Elmore Leonard’s crime novel, Rum Punch), how can the characters be his? It seems like a tricky question to answer, yet every time I watch Jackie Brown I find myself completely sucked into a world that can only be described as a world out of Tarantino’s mind. In fact, if a first time viewer were to ask me which Tarantino film he should start from, I would immediately point to Jackie Brown. Not because it’s hip or because I want to be a snob in not recommending the likes of his more popular works such as Pulp Fiction or Kill Bill, but because I truly believe that the essence of what makes a QT movie so special and vibrant can be found in his 1997 vehicle, where each quality of his is on full display.
Yes, the film can feel slightly constrained when compared to his other movies, perhaps due to the respect Tarantino wanted to show to the source material since there is almost no action involved, little to no blood and zero inaccurate historical reconstructions. You will not find Hitler’s head popping off here, nor will you have to sit through Biblical lines recited by the one and only Samuel L. Jackson as he prepares to execute his next victim, nor will you need to worry about watching characters blow each other to pieces like in Reservoir Dogs and Django Unchained. Instead, what you will get is exactly what Tarantino considers to be his favorite kind of movie, namely what he calls ”the hang-out” movie.

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De Niro having the time of his life.

Characters are the true obsession for QT. By now everyone knows that you do not improvise lines in a Tarantino film as every single line that is on the page has the purpose to support the character speaking those lines. Every line, every monologue or speech is meticulously planned out according to the character’s backstory that only Tarantino himself is aware of. Before ever setting pen to paper, Tarantino envisions each character and the character’s place in what fans like to call Tarantino’s universe. In Jackie Brown, as stated before, this universe is not so clear as it is still Elmore Leonard’s territory. But Tarantino does a brilliant job of merging the two worlds together.
The titular Jackie, played by Pam Grier, was in fact a white chick in the novel. Her storyline and motivations somewhat different from the cinematic middle-aged black woman, once the most beautiful girl on the block, now a tired, heartbroken flight attendant of Cabo airlines, a regular victim of unfriendly circumstances and a simple pawn in the hands of a pimp and arms dealer (Samuel L. Jackson). Jackie is, more than anything else, the defining creation of Tarantino, who puts the novel aside and decides to empower the unlikeliest of protagonists, turning Jackie into a smart con artist, ready to do anything in order to get her revenge on the ones that set out to hurt her. However, unlike Uma Thurman’s sword-swinging Widow from Kill Bill, and well before Melanie Laurent’s ambitious Shoshanna from Inglourious Basterds, she relies on wit rather than physical talent and resilience to reach her objective.
In Django Unchained Tarantino took the chains off a slave’s feet and handed him a rifle to blow the heads off of those that tried to unjustly exert their power over him and his family. In Jackie Brown Tarantino goes against all conventions and gives Pam Grier, the queen of 70s blaxploitation cinema whose stardom had faded away as cinema moved on from the genre in the 80s and 90s, the keys to one of the most intriguing and inspiring female characters in movie history.

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Jackie is smart and practical.

James Brown sang ”It’s a man’s man’s man’s world…,” which seems like the soundtrack that Tarantino listened to right before adapting Leonard’s novel because of the environment Jackie has to deal with. And here is where I disagree with most QT critics who argue that Tarantino likes to manipulate his female characters to the extent of reducing their power position (the example that is often pointed out is Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character of Daisy Domergue in The Hateful Eight, a character that is violently mistreated, often for laughs, by her male counterparts over most of the movie’s runtime); there is no manipulation in Jackie Brown. Jackie is the one calling the shots. And she is fooling every man that steps in her way.
It’s not a coincidence that the film opens up with the melody of Bobby Womack’s street anthem ”Across 110th Street,” where one of the line reads ”Across 110th Street / Pimps trying to catch a woman that’s weak.” Grier’s flight attendant is trying to cross that very same street while avoiding the traps set by men like her coke addict ex-husband, the arms dealer she works for (Samuel L. Jackson), his associate (Robert De Niro), an ATF officer investigating her (Michael Keaton) and eventually, the bail bondsman (Robert Forster) that falls in love with her.

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Jackie will not back down.

Let’s go back to the idea of a ”hang-out movie.” Tarantino has often said his favorite films are films where you just want to hang out with the characters as long as possible, where the viewer experiences a feeling of understanding and thrill with the characters on-screen. The movies he mentioned on numerous occasions to support this argument are two major ensemble pieces: Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo and John Sturges’ The Great Escape. Both films are characterized by the presence of film stars of great magnitude such as John Wayne, Dean Martin, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson, and a sense of camaraderie among these characters. Like most Hollywood movies from that era, the moments you cherish the most in Rio Bravo and The Great Escape are those where all major characters share scenes together and you get to experience the classic star power of that time.
In Jackie Brown, like in most Tarantino films, you get scenes where characters exchange lines of dialogue about regular life and the mundane activities that characterize such life. But they do it so effortlessly that you are immediately transported into another dimension, where the mundane (who can forget the conversation about cheeseburgers in Pulp Fiction?) becomes cinematic. In one of the first scenes of the movie,  Ordell and his partner, Louis (played by Robert De Niro who is clearly having the time of his life playing a genuine fuck-up) sit in the living room, watching a TV show for gun aficionados and talking about how much money one can make off of selling guns in the US. The atmosphere is so genuine, as well as the conversation, and most importantly, each character fits perfectly the reality that Tarantino has created for them. That is what sets QT apart from every one else.

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Even a regular cup of coffee tastes exquisite in a Tarantino movie.

Think of all the times you told yourself or a friend while exiting a cinema theater, ”I liked the movie but some of the characters just didn’t work for me,” or ”I just couldn’t buy into that character, you know?” That is not the case with Tarantino. His world, and whatever follows afterwards, like the story or the main plot of the film and the twists and turns that happen along the way, are completely dependent on the characters that inhabit it. And even though most characters that appear in QT’s filmography seem to be so over the top (just think of Samuel L. Jackson’s ridiculous ponytail in Jackie Brown) they remain grounded in the film’s reality and are, oddly enough, fully believable from a viewer’s perspective.
Tarantino’s fetish for weird, over-the-top appearances (did anyone forget the gimp in Pulp Fiction? or Eli Roth’s skull-crushing Bear Jew in Inglourious Basterds?) comes with total commitment to the character’s development that include the character’s origins, motivations and flaws.
An example of this in Jackie Brown is De Niro’s character of Louis Garza, a man with an absurd horseshoe moustache who’s just been released from prison for bank robbery. The whole irony of the film works around the fact that Garza is incredibly stupid and has a hard time managing the simplest of things, including hanging up a telephone. Yet, even with the little screen-time this character has, Tarantino paints Garza as a deeply proud criminal who does not tolerate insults (eventually resulting in his downfall) despite his constant shortcomings as the associate to the movie’s main villain. When someone insults his intelligence and questions his criminal record, Louis is genuinely hurt. At each rewatch, I find myself pitying this idiot more and more as I figure he is just having great difficulty adapting to the life of a free man. In other words, even though he appears as this clownish figure, a supporting sidekick meant to deliver the laughs and be the butt of the joke, De Niro’s Garza reveals himself to be a deeply troubled character. This is screenwriting 101.

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”Is it this aisle, Louis? Louisss?”

To end it here, I chose Jackie Brown to make my argument because it is one of the few works by Tarantino that is not wrapped up in some sort of genre (unlike his later work that ranges from martial arts cinema, to war movies and westerns) and thus, allows most viewers to easily grasp the essence of what Tarantino is all about. Despite it being an adaptation of a famous novel, the writer-director and Hollywood native manages to do wonders in terms of character-building. The interactions always feel genuine, the motivations always seem real and instinctive, and the world these characters inhabit is as palpable as they come.
Nobody knows if this is the end of the road for Tarantino. According to his retirement policy he still has one movie left in the tank after the release of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but just like with the twists in his movies, QT is a bold, unpredictable provocateur. Whatever path he’ll choose, it will make sense. Judging his work has always been difficult, and critics have always found pleasure in targeting his use of language, blood and violence, but despite all of this noise, Tarantino is one of the few people in the business who has remained true to his vision, sometimes even going a little bit over the top (not that it is a surprise by now), and for that, as a viewer, I am extremely grateful. Over the years I have had my own doubts about some of his movies; The Hateful Eight irritated me, Kill Bill annoyed me, Death Proof bored me, Inglourious Basterds rubbed me the wrong way on my first watch, and yet here I am, genuinely saddened at the thought of a cinema deprived of QT’s hang-out movies. If this is Tarantino’s last dance, it’s been groovy.

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And women’s feet, obviously.

Black on Black

When the late John Singleton, who passed away a week ago after battling a series of strokes, directed his first feature film, Boyz n the Hood, thus becoming the first African-American director to be nominated for an Oscar and the youngest nominee (24 years old – 22 at the time the film was shot!) in that category in the history of the prestigious awards ceremony, the public was caught off guard. It was 1991. Los Angeles was soon to become a dystopian war-zone following the 1992 Rodney King riots. LA was in the spotlight, for the wrong reasons, and here he was, a young, black film director from the streets, making a voice for himself and giving voice to those that had not had the right to have one up to that point.
It is important to keep in mind, that almost 3000 miles away, in the far away city of New York, there already was a young, black film student turned director shaking things up. His name was Spike Lee, but Spike, unlike Singleton, was interested in many things simultaneously, and often his work was filled with rage, stereotypes, regret, and most importantly, thematically it was all over the place, thus making it difficult for most everyday audiences to really grasp the world Spike was presenting to them. Do the Right Thing was Spike’s major hit, but its ferociousness, its in-your-face attitude made it somewhat inaccessible for its time. On the other hand, Boyz n the Hood, Singleton’s entry ticket to Hollywood, was easier to digest, like a personal diary made available to everyone. And that is what I want to focus on: how John Singleton made the black experience of growing up in South Central Los Angeles accessible to audiences.

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Young black men out to change the world. From left to right: John Singleton, Cuba Gooding Jr, Ice Cube and Morris Chestnut.

The black experience in the East Coast had been covered in great detail in crime dramas often disguised as blaxploitation films going all the way back to the 70s, when all of a sudden films that would normally be told from a white perspective were taken apart and reconstructed from the angle of a minority. Films like Coffy or Shaft introduced to worldwide audiences proud members of the black film community such as Pam Grier, Gordon Parks and Richard Roundtree that went on to become cult figures in the genre. But, unfortunately, that’s all it was – a genre. And as fun and enjoyable as they were, such films, neatly wrapped in style and action, often failed to convey a larger message about the actual circumstances these characters found themselves in.
Thus, by the end of the 80s, when producers started to take more chances on cheaper, independent films over blockbusters, younger talent emerged – film students from a minority, a marginalized community, like John Singleton that had stories to tell, who insisted on these stories to be told truthfully, were finally offered a chance. This meant only John Singleton could direct Boyz n the Hood, a hood film about a group of young men growing up in South Central LA, a territory infested with drugs, violence, police brutality and street gangs. It was time to shine a light on the black experience in the West Coast, where slowly but surely, black culture was starting to emerge from the ashes mostly through rap music with artists such as NWA and Tupac leading the way.
In one of the first scenes of the movie, Singleton makes the perfect introduction as a black filmmaker; Tre Styles, our protagonist, at this point an 11-year-old boy, after showing boredom and making unnecessary remarks in class, is challenged by his teacher, a pretty white redhead, to stand up in front of the classroom and conduct his own lecture. Young Tre without a second thought rises to his feet and proceeds to walk up to a big world map. He points to the African continent and says ”This is where y’all are from. Where everybody’s from.” The class is in shock. What is this kid talking about? We’re not from Africa, we’re from South Central. Singleton immediately turns the tables around and proves to be in the driver’s seat. This scene is his announcement that the movie that you’re watching is not meant to be watched while munching on popcorn – it is meant to be seen with an understanding, because you might learn something new, something challenging that you, just like the teacher and the rest of the classroom, did not see coming.

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Kids confronted with a bloody reality.

Another aspect that makes Boyz n the Hood accessible is its simplicity in storytelling and the way Singleton uses as a clear reference point Rob Reiner’s hit movie from 1986, Stand by Me, only this time, the director turns the story of four socially-marginalized kids from white-washed Oregon into the story of four black boys from South Central. In Stand by Me the turning point takes place when one of the boys asks, ”You guys wanna go see a dead body?” and the frightened gang follows the friend to the where the body is hidden. In this case, the dead body represents a secret, and a deadly one too, as it is not supposed to be revealed to anyone because then the killer might come out of hiding.
In Boyz, however, when one of the boys, Dooky, asks ”Y’all wanna see a dead body?” the others casually reply ”Yeah. Okay.” When the bullet-riddled, blood-soaked body is revealed to them, they impassively look at it, with the only remark being that it stinks. Here, a victim of a gang shooting is a trivial object, like a souvenir taken from the local context of South Central. The sight of it, even for boys aged 11 or 12, is nothing remarkable. It doesn’t evoke any feelings besides physical disgust. A dead body, unlike in Stand by Me, is no mystery, and this is the first sign of Singleton taking matters into his own hands; he introduces a brand new way of seeing things, as if to say, ”I’m supposed to feel sorry for a bullet-riddled corpse? I’ve seen worse.”

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Out to conquer the world.

After its opening act where the characters are introduced at a young age, the film skips to seven years later, when the boys are in their late teens, and by that time, in South Central you’re expected to be a man, have a family, put bread on the table and act like a grown up. And while a director like Spike Lee is more interested in the flavor and oddity of each character, Singleton’s priority as a director is to tell a story. Most of the characters that are in Boyz resemble each other in many ways; they all have similar backgrounds, fears, regrets, but above all, they all have one goal in common – to get out of there.
Because while Spike’s Brooklyn is a place where the characters feel at home despite many threatening factors such as neighboring gangs and ”nigger-hating” police officers roaming the streets, Singleton’s LA (ranging from South Central to Compton) is a hellhole that everyone wants to run away from. Even the most basic, primitive characters such as Doughboy (wonderfully played by a young Ice Cube) have as their dream neither gangbanging, nor drinking ’till late, nor screwing the most beautiful girls in the area; their dream is to be better, to the point that they can fly out of a place where, as the opening line to the movie states ONE OUT OF EVERY TWENTY-ONE BLACK AMERICAN MALES WILL BE MURDERED IN THEIR LIFETIME. MOST WILL DIE AT HE HANDS OF ANOTHER BLACK MALE. Singleton’s characters are simple and easy to understand, driven by the same thirst to elevate themselves above life-threatening mediocrity.

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Danger around the corner.

Finally, Singleton’s real secret in telling this personal journey of growing up in a tough environment is his understanding of what a general audience wants in a way that will allow him to keep their attention all the way through. In other words, Singleton, unlike Spike Lee (who, lets be honest, loved to light firecrackers in people’s faces with his thought-provoking, twisted and controversial films) at the age of 22, knew exactly how to make a conventional movie, one that despite its difficult subject matter would not stir controversy but welcome viewers with open arms, broadening their vision of what it meant to really struggle in marginalized working class America.
Singleton many times argued that to him Boyz was structured like a Western, meaning it was structured like the oldest tale in the book – a tale filled with moral dilemmas, life lessons and dramatic turns that will lead to an inevitable end. Boyz does just that, with the bandits being the gangbangers that go looking for trouble as they cruise down the street and police officers making death threats to common citizens, the cowboys being the young protagonists desperately trying to take care of their loved ones and protect them from the bandits, and the wise sheriff, who in this case is represented by Tre’s father, Furious (a fantastic Laurence Fishburne), a man who watches over the neighborhood and has come to accept one absolute truth: that African-Americans need to stick together and be aware of their strength as a unit, rather than their strength as individuals.

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Under a father’s supervision.

In most Westerns, the cowboys eventually have to accept their darker survival instincts if they want to defeat the bandits, yet in Boyz Singleton desperately fights this convention, ultimately making his characters suffer and choose different approaches in dealing with the same nagging problem, which is the burden of life in the neighborhood. The question whether a cowboy will become a bandit depends on many factors, and Singleton makes sure to highlight each one of them: love and supervision from relatives, education, a balanced sense of justice, one’s own values and priorities. Like any good director, or artist for that matter, Singleton does not try to put all of his eggs in one basket; instead he makes sure to truthfully depict the many faces of South Central and the many ways one can go about living one’s life in such awful circumstances. This may seem like the obvious thing to do, but numerous movies that thematically tackle street life, street crime and the margins of any society prefer to take the easy way out and put the blame on the system, on a higher power, on the evil eye that watches over us. In Boyz, the 22-year-old film director doesn’t follow suit: he furiously rows up against the stream because the story deserves to be told the right way.
After the movie’s incredible financial and critical success, Singleton’s career did not take off the way everyone imagined. The films he went on to make, from the likes of street melodramas like Poetic Justice to mindless blockbusters like 2 Fast 2 Furious, did not reflect his incredible skill as a director and storyteller, but that is even more of a reason to celebrate the nature of Boyz n the Hood, a hood film that allowed audiences from all over the world to truly grasp a (small) part of the black experience in modern-day America.

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At the end of the day, we’re all looking for the same thing.

Real Lonely

Last time around I talked about Michael Mann (here) I focused on the Chicago native’s ability to entertain audiences with the sheer brilliance of his visual style. What I didn’t do, and what I plan on doing now, upon concluding a marathon of his entire filmography (starting from his 1981 directorial debut, Thief, and ending with his recent misfire about the hacking underworld, Blackhat), is to have a look at what really lies at the core of the director’s body of work. We all know and love him for his memorable camerawork, his hyper realistic shootouts resulting in some of the best sound design to ever grace the silver screen, his ability to capture the beauty of big cities at night, be it Miami, Los Angeles or Chicago, and his overall rediscovery of the crime genre. Yet, oddly enough, when asked about this idea of his films belonging to the crime genre, Mann answered coldly ”I don’t make genre films, I make dramas,” which is a valid response considering his films, if studied closely, are all about relationships and love. That’s it.

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A filmmaker who is definitely not afraid to get his hands dirty.

Relationships are hard to define, and most of the time cinema, especially Hollywood productions, have a hard time creating convincing, realistic portrayals of two people interacting with each other in an intimate way. How many times do we hear an audience member walk out of a film saying ”Yeah, I just didn’t buy that whole love story” or ”That was okay, I just wish there was more to A and B’s relationship, you know?” Better yet, how many times have we seen in the last decade or so, films that made us truly care about characters’ relationships? Very few, I’d say. And that’s why Mann is a fascinating director to watch; most of his films are considered macho features, male-oriented with male protagonists that are either on the good or the bad side of the law, cops and robbers, vigilantes and crooks, honest workers and corrupt yes-men. At first sight, female characters are few and their screen time is considerably limited compared to their male counterparts. However, their importance is priceless. One could even go as far as to say Mann’s male characters depend on women. Without these women, Mann’s protagonists have nothing going for them.
Let’s start with Thief, the story about a jewel thief who gets into trouble with a mob boss, where Frank (a post Godfather Jimmy Caan) is desperately trying to make sense of his own life. Amidst all the violence, all the robbing, all the swearing and drinking, there is a very tender story about a man who, raised as an orphan, uneducated, an ex-convict, wants to have something to show for his own existence. When he’s not stealing diamonds, he’s busy chasing Jessie, a young, timid restaurant clerk. Soon, Frank builds his whole life around his wife and child and they become the focal point of the movie itself. In other words, what initially set out to be a stone-cold crime flick about a man who finds himself in a tight spot slowly turns into a story about a man and his family, his everything, who must escape the violent reality they live in. Jessie is Frank’s ticket to safety, proof that there is something truly worth fighting for.

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Frank desperately fighting the system for the sake of his family.

Skip to Manhunter, 1986, where the protagonist is a straight arrow, a former FBI man, Will Graham, whose life has been a mess ever since he caught the most dangerous criminal in recent history – Dr. Hannibal Lecktor. Here, Mann places his protagonist in a spot where he is forced to walk a fine line between being the antagonist, as his method of investigation is based on getting inside the mind of psychopaths and serial killers (which eventually resulted in him ending up in the psych ward for some time), and that of a hero, hailed by newspapers as the man who stopped Lecktor and looked upon by his son as this imposing, admirable father figure. Manhunter is thriller 101, the precursor to every other major bloody Hollywood flick (think Silence of the LambsSe7en or even Gone Girl), mainly due to the fact it is very much aware of what makes tragedy worth caring about; Will’s job is likely to put his family at risk, as his wife keeps telling him to back off and to not get involved with another serial killer case; he eventually soon becomes responsible for the fate of his loved ones. In other words, his family and his relationship with his wife is the only link that separates the investigator from total insanity, resulting in the following tagline ”Enter the mind of a serial killer… you may never come back.”  It is not a coincidence that at the start of the film we see Graham, along with his son, build a wire fence around a spot on the beach where turtle eggs have been laid; the film is more about the constant anxiety of protecting our dear ones than it is about catching some psycho killer as one would deduce by reading the movie’s premise.

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At the end of the day, it is all about coming back home.

In 1995 Mann made arguably his greatest film to date, his magnum opus, Heat, where the lives of a bank robber and a cop chasing him get intertwined.  What follows is a legendary game of cat and mouse, of shootouts, action and violence, but at the core of it there’s the element of relationships all over again. Love as the ultimate downfall and salvation. It is difficult to talk about this movie as every time I rewatch it I notice something different, things seem to align in a new, fresh way each time I press play. The premise to Heat is the famous quote ”Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner,” with most of the characters ultimately fighting off this strict mantra, their feelings clashing with their profession, be it that of the criminal whose duty it is to leave everything behind once the cops start chasing you, or the policeman whose duty it is to leave everything behind once the chase is on.  After all, when I think of love in Michael Mann’s Heat, I think of two relationships; Val Kilmer and Ashley Judd’s and Al Pacino’s and Diane Venora’s. Both relationships are troubled for different reasons. Val Kilmer’s character is a bank robber who ends up losing all the money he makes gambling in Las Vegas and Reno, while Ashley Judd’s character is an ex-call girl turned housewife who wants some stability in her young, newly wed life. There is a tragic disconnect between the two, with Kilmer admitting to De Niro’s character ”The sun rises and sets with her, man,” when asked if he’d be able to cut off ties with her if the situation required it. The two want to make things work, at all costs, but they don’t have the right ingredients. They want to be better, but they can’t. Or simply don’t know how.

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Two young lovers trying to make it work…

On the other side of the spectrum, there is an entirely different level of disconnect. Al Pacino’s character, Vincent Hanna, is at his third marriage, and this one is going bad too because again, he cannot seem to get through to his wife. His work absorbs him, sucks him dry, and his wife does not accept this. The two of them, unlike Kilmer and Judd’s young couple, are both starting to face the fact that things will most likely never work out; both are moving on in years, both are unable to function like normal human beings (she’s high on prescription drugs all the time, while he’s addicted to the sound of his work beeper) and both seem reluctant to face this problem together, as a couple. Incompetent when it comes to family matters, Al Pacino’s Hanna is convinced that relationships are nothing more but a burden in a man’s life and yet, at the same time, he keeps coming back to them. In the celebrated diner scene where Hanna and Neil (De Niro) meet for the first time, Pacino admits ”My life’s a disaster zone. I got a stepdaughter so fucked up because her real father’s this large-type asshole. I got a wife, we’re passing each other on the down-slope of a marriage – my third – because I spend all my time chasing guys like you around the block. That’s my life.” Once again, like in Mann’s previous works, what is at stake is not money, fame, success or anything of the sort; it’s the relationship. Each character seems to do everything for the sake of saving/maintaining a relationship. if you get killed running out of a bank, you won’t see your wife again. Same thing happens if a bad guy puts one in your brain. Love, once again, is a man’s downfall and simultaneously, his only salvation.

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…two older lovers failing to make it work.

The final two movies I want to mention are Mann’s ode to machismo and action cinema, namely his remake of the original television series, Miami Vice and his quite recent venture into gangster territory, Public Enemies. In the formal we witness as Crockett, an undercover police detective, flirts with a woman from the other side of the fence, an accountant for the number one drug kingpin of Miami that Crockett happens to be investigating. In the latter film, John Dillinger, America’s most notorious bank robber of the 30s, afraid of getting killed with nothing to show for his own life (just like Frank in Thief) gets involved with a young desk clerk, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard). Both films, although dealing with opposite sides of the law, show two desperate men trying to find comfort in love. One objective. Whether it is because the world has gotten too violent (as Crockett witnesses one killing too many)…

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Toying with the enemy.

…or too modern (as Dillinger is faced with a new reality where robbing banks is a thing from the past), love, and relationships yet again come into play and slowly but surely become the focal points and the dramatic anchors of both films. Both relationships are daring,  life and death situations but somehow, our protagonists, one being a smart, perhaps the smartest undercover cop in all of Florida, and the other being the smartest bank robber at the time, are willing to take a huge risk by potentially compromising their ‘business’ with something as fragile as a relationship with someone they barely know anything about. And yet… and yet somehow it all makes sense, because Mann knows how to sell it; love becomes an indispensable element of each protagonist’s arch, as it can lead to many things; failure, exposure, damaged reputation or even, as in Dillinger’s case, death. It all comes to full circle, and at the end of the day, the sun rises and sets with her.

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Bye, bye, blackbird.

Untouchable

Movies have different ways of communicating with the audience, some prefer to stick to heavy loaded dialogue, others rely mostly on poetry and metaphors, others use music and physical gags, others are founded on story and plot, and finally, there are those that target the audience with only one single element: visuals. Movies are motion pictures, they are an art form that specializes in capturing movement on camera, they are known for manipulating reality and cramming it into a digital screen that projects the image to the audience, be it in a theater or someone’s living room. However, if one were to look back at most mainstream films that have come out in the last decade or so, one will start to notice a pattern: most films focus on what is being said rather than what is being done. Directors and producers feel a lot safer when the script is the focal point of the project rather than a story, or even worse, an abstract idea because what’s written on paper will always guide in some way, some direction, be it a description of an object, tone of voice, a look, a character’s line or even a setting, as in INTERIOR – JOE’S OFFICE – NIGHT. Today’s major studios want safe options, blockbusters  that are easy to make and follow a set narrative formula which means there is an entire generation of directors who spend their time jumping from one franchise to another, from Planet of the Apes to Star Wars to Jurassic World and The Avengers,  without ever being able to clearly reveal their true identities as artists, storytellers. That is now, but what about forty, thirty, even twenty years ago? Back then  studio influence was just as powerful in some cases if not more (re: Apocalypse NowHeaven’s Gate), but there were certain filmmakers who were allowed to do whatever they felt like doing, and who were always able to make the most out of any source material. One of these talented dudes was a man named Brian De Palma, a director who based his entire career on chasing the ghost of Alfred Hitchock, and by doing so, he learned how to seduce his audiences with the simple help of visuals and nothing else.

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You will not dare to look away.

When it comes to watching a De Palma movie forget plot, forget dialogue and character, simply focus on what is on screen. The first thing one will notice is De Palma’s immediate need to drag you into his world. He often does this by opening his movies with a 5-10 minute long tracking shot, like in Bonfire of the Vanities or Snake Eyes, during which the main characters are introduced and set within one specific world. In Snake Eyes, for example, we follow Nicholas Cage as Detective Rick Santoro walking around a boxing arena, waiting for a big fight to take place. Through De Palma’s eyes we’re quickly thrown into the world that Santoro is immersed in, a world of scumbags, dealers, call girls and gangsters, who all happen to know him. Considering the traditional structure of a screenplay I doubt such an opening was written specifically for De Palma to follow. The director, instead of introducing his protagonist through various conversations and interactions, decided simply to use the camera to track the protagonist’s movements, way of walking, capturing the energy around him, the excitement in the arena building and slowly but surely building tension within the viewer’s mind, preparing him for something significant to happen in the following minutes.

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The opening to Bonfire of the Vanities sweeps you for 5 entire minutes with the sizzling energy of upper class New York.

Another example of De Palma using mostly camera movements and angles to grab the viewer’s attention can be found in his systematic use of long tracking shots (6-12 minutes) at the movie’s midpoint in order to build the stage on which the climatic midpoint event (a fight, a chase scene, a murder) will eventually take place. This is mostly used to full effect in Dressed to Kill (the museum scene) and Body Double (the shopping mall). In both scenes a character is spying on another character and the single take is used for two purposes: 1) to build an elaborate map of the setting, be it a museum or a shopping mall, so that the viewer can easily follow the character’s movements and predict certain scenarios (for example, a dead end that prevents the character from escaping, or a wrong turn that will lead the character into the other character’s path); 2) to force the viewer into assuming a character’s point of view, be it the one being spied on/chased (Angie Dickinson’s character in Dressed to Kill) or the one spying/chasing (Craig Wasson’s character in Body Double). This way, De Palma has the artistic freedom to exploit one single location to its fullest potential instead of shooting multiple scenes, switching settings and time of day, distorting the viewer’s attention and awareness, following a formulaic development. In The Untouchables this method is even clearer in the scene where a gangster is trying to break into Malone’s (Sean Connery’s) home and follows him from the street, onto the window into the apartment. Had it been filmed any other way, this scene would have lost its energy and the quality of a ticking bomb, yet De Palma perfectly uses the limited space of a cop’s apartment to turn this scene into a real nail-biter.

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De Palma’s art lies in making something ordinary stand out.

As mentioned in the introduction to this post, De Palma is well known for his fixation with Hitchcock. Some might even call him a cheap copy of Hitchcock, but that would absolutely be a false claim. De Palma’s style is unique precisely because he follows certain patterns and uses certain elements that were previously introduced by none other than the man behind PsychoVertigoNorth by Northwest and Birds. Most De Palma movies use Hitchcock’s teachings to make the most out of nothing, for example, by foreshadowing a dramatic, bloody resolution like in Dressed to Kill to make the actual finale even more shocking. In Dressed to Kill the audience is bombarded with violent images showing the gruesome slaying of a middle-aged woman (Angie Dickinson) at different moments of the movie, finally culminating within the one hour mark with the full depiction of the murder as witnessed by the prostitute played by Melanie Griffith. Certain lighting patterns, like in the first minutes of Carlito’s Way, will foreshadow the character’s end but also give a sense of what is about to follow. By using different shades of purple, gray and blue, De Palma paints Carlito’s Way‘s introduction with a sense of nostalgia, a sense of accomplishment even though the movie has just started. We realize the character is dying not because Carlito says it in his voice over narration but because of the way he is introduced on screen, eyes wide open, staring upwards, right into the camera, his body being slowly pushed in a stretcher by a group of nurses, the world around him fading out, leaving him alone with his story that he’s about to tell the audience.

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A dying man staring right at us, this is Carlito’s story.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the key to De Palma’s visual seduction of the viewer lies in his untamed love for genre. You will often find yourself wondering what you’ve just watched when the credits to a De Palma film start to roll, was that a thriller (Blow Out) ? A horror (Body Double)? A black comedy (Scarface)? Or a Western (The Untouchables)? These questions are extremely valid since the director is always trying to mask his films with multiple layers of genres in order to make the most accurate representation of his own intricate vision. The scene in The Untouchables where the group of policemen lead by Elliot Ness and Malone (Kevin Costner and Sean Connery, respectively) charge a column of vehicles driven by mafia members on horseback wielding shotguns and pistols is something one would expect to see in a Western by John Ford, not a gangster movie written by David Mamet and directed by Brian De Palma, and yet that’s what makes the entire scene, and not a minute of it feels silly or unnecessary, it simply is a De Palma moment, something so unique, original and full of life that you, as an audience member, cannot help but appreciate the sheer passion that went into the production of that particular scene.

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And what about The Untouchables railway station sequence? A mix of Eisenstein and Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.

De Palma will keep making many people shake their heads in dissatisfaction, be it with his ‘male gaze’ (re: Femme Fatale from 2002 where the character played by Antonio Banderas is literally taking pictures of women from his balcony) or simply with his fixation of turning every moment into a big, loud celebration (the fireworks in Blow Out ‘s ending). This, however, should not be held against him as De Palma is one of the very few directors who is capable of making movies by using a ton of style and a grain of substance, something other fellow filmmakers (yes, I’m looking at you, Nicolas Winding Refn) are simply not up to, or at least, not on De Palma’s level. Having watched a lot of his movies lately, some with repeated viewings, it is safe to say that sometimes studying a cheap copy of Hitchcock might even be more beneficial and worthwhile than studying the real thing. Bet on it.

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Sometimes too much is exactly what a film needs.