Friday, March 30, 2007

Classicism and Modernism in the Digital Age: An Essential Piece of Criticism

From Jean-Baptiste Thoret's illuminating criticism of Miami Vice, one of the most evocative and important cinematic achievements in recent memory:

"The classical/modern conflict, essential in Mann, takes here an unexpected turn and puts Miami Vice undoubtedly at the origin of a new cycle in Mann’s work. The question is no longer, as in Manhunter (1986) or Heat, to evaluate what between two worlds is similar or different since, if disparity remains, it is in a negligible manner. From this point of view, classicism with its strong events (hold-ups, shoot-outs, marked positions, etc.), its simplification of the stakes and its resolution of an initial given situation is consumed: the leak in the heart of a governmental agency that launched the narrative will never be identified, the romance between Isabella and Sonny appears suddenly on the way and finally takes the upper hand, while, at the end, Montoya vanishes. From modernity and from American cinema of the 1970s, Miami Vice has kept a problematic rapport to action, between deflating (how many dismissed sequences and aborted conclusions) and overheating. But there is also the feeling of a complex and illegible world, in which it has become impossible to interact if not in a peripheral manner (the release of Trudy from the claws of the Aryen brothers, the elimination of Yero, etc.).....

How can man hold on in a disembodied world, so transparent but ultimately so opaque? The disappearance of the human, its dematerialization in the heart of an urban universe governed by technology, and thus its capacity for resistance, constitutes one of the central themes of Mann’s cinema and finds in Miami Vice its most accomplished extension. Here, the only point of view capable of reversing the flux is in the Sonny-Isabella axis. When their eyes connect, immediately the world recedes and the flux subsides."

Many others have offered a wide variety of approaches to Michael Mann's masterpiece, but this criticism is a significant starting-point for a new analysis and understanding of cinema in the digital age. It articulates new technology as it relates to cinema and narrative, which I believe to be a crucial realm of cinema and media studies to which I soon hope to contribute. As Deleuze notes, cinema doesn't create a representation of a world or an idea. It is its own world. And Michael Mann understands this in relation to film technology as no other filmmaker does.


Pacze Moj said...

I finally found a blogger who thinks Miami Vice is freakin' awesome... more, write more!

Ted Pigeon said...

If you want to read more blog writing about Miami Vice as praising as this, check out the blogs, My Five Year Plan and The Projection Booth. Both feature excellent reviews of Vice that are far more detailed than anything I have written thus far. I am, however, writing about the film for a research project in my Media Literacy class. As that develops more, I will be posting more about it here, so stay tuned!

johanna said...

I'm glad you posted this. I like Mann a lot, always have.

I was torn by the film for one crucial reason: as a kid, I loved Miami Vice, but being a wierd kid I thought the best part -- the heart and soul of Vice was Edward James Olmos. Not able at that age to distinguish between the actor and the character he portrayed, I naturally fused them into one. The film let me down because of that fact.

I had to buy myself a milkshake after that...sniff.

Ted Pigeon said...

You bring up an interesting point, Johanna. I remember reading a post on the cinema of 2006 at The House Next Door. Matt Zoller Seitz said something to the nature that Michael Mann's career was building to that one film, that he wouldn't have been able to make that film in the way that he did had it not been for previous successes.

I think Matt is definitely onto something. I read that Universal invested something like $150 million to make that movie. And Mann essentially made his own movie, his own vision. That vision was not conducive to mainstream filmmaking in the slightest, which is why the film didn't light the box office on fire, despite its narrative being familiar in both its title and its narrative conventions (cops and robbers, drug wars).

But Mann deliberately uses those conventions to turn them on themselves, thus forging new images in the process. He used the show (a hit in the 80's) and his storied career as a way to finance the film, but then he went ahead and made his ultimate personal project. And I fully believe that Miami Vice represents the beginning of a (hopefully) new movement in cinema; one focused on images, constructing and consuming images differently. Mann proves that the digital age can represent the beginning of the end of terms like "film language." Mann's images refuse to be categorized and pigeon-holed. They express and convey feelinggs of all kinds, creating new violence, new sexuality, and new feeling as made visible.

johanna said...

That's an interesting point, and I see what is being said for the most part in terms of the culmination of Mann's style (it can be said of several good directors) but two statements are registering as contradictory, namely this:

Mann proves that the digital age can represent the beginning of the end of terms like "film language."

and this:

Mann's images refuse to be categorized and pigeon-holed. They express and convey feelinggs of all kinds, creating new violence, new sexuality, and new feeling as made visible.

it would appear that the latter is the reason that the former can not be true: even Dada created a new language and a new approach to it. (Had enough people been interested, we'd have some interesting culture as a result of it.)

I do see Mann, though, as an emotional cognitive vs. a cerebral cognitive.