This is the last in a series of three texts that define me, following a prompt I was once asked. There was a book, a painting, and now a film. Enjoy!
Directed by Michael Mann. 1995, 170m, 2.39:1 aspect ratio.
I didn't know what it was yet.
In the summer of 2000, I had only just discovered film. The first I'd seen were silent comedies and a few fun classics by way of my parents. Then I saw my first picture in a theatre, and the next, and another– all with my friend Jason, who liked action movies.
American actioners are at their heart celebrations, almost innocent in their Manichean dichotomies of good and evil, a secular sort of worship of American individualism, problems solved through kinetic ballets of destruction. I was entranced by the hypnotic dream persistence of the moving image, but I wasn't being exposed to art. These were strictly diversions. You remember the summer of 2000: Frequency, Gone in 60 Seconds, The Perfect Storm, Gladiator (the latter is legitimate art– but that's a subject for another day). We were picking out populist fare at Blockbuster and Hollywood Video (remember perusing those aisles?), awash in the early days of searching out our definitions of what was "good."
My friend picked Heat because he thought it was an action movie. The cover made it look like one.
In those days, only five years after its largely ignored theatrical release, Heat was not the vaunted classic it is today– particularly stateside. Mann is more lauded on the other side of the Atlantic, where his brand of brooding stoicism, character-based emphasis, fidelity to verisimilitude, and intellectual demands on the audience for some reason go down more easily, perhaps due to antecedents like Jean-Pierre Melville and Franceso Rosi. There are plenty of places now, two decades later, to read about why Mann's masterpiece stands alone, and I'll avoid duplicating those theses here (see below for a few choice essays and interview). I want to tell you what it felt like.
Heat is not an action film. Everyone remembers the bank heist and resulting street shootout, in which the bullets fired sound different than all other movie bullets; in which the geography of downtown LA is maintained as the group moves down 5th Street from Flower to Figueroa; in which, unusually for the time, there is no music; no slow motion, to this day a bold formal restriction; but that's really it as far as "action." That and the opening armored car heist.
What was the rest of this three-hour film doing, sitting there in front of my eyes on Jason's big-screen television?
He quickly lost interest and went upstairs to play video games. Bless his heart. I remained, intrigued. Alone. Like all great films, Heat is about loneliness, and I wonder sometimes if it is best seen solo. I sat there as scene after scene played before my uncomprehending adolescent brain. Why wasn't there any action? I could tell the actors were skilled, that there was a pedigree of quality in the film's execution, though I yet had no vocabulary for that. What were all these scenes of just people talking or being silent?
Having seen only two or three or four mainstream summer blockbusters, I didn't understand what I was looking at. Heat is a collection of mostly soft-spoken dialogue scenes revolving around self-awareness and the conflict of interest between personal and professional aims. I may have been someone raised on paintings, literature and classical music, but I was still fourteen. Self-awareness was a concept my physiology could hardly conceive of, and things like the sacrifices of professionalism or the conflict between who one is and who one wishes to be... It was all rather beyond me, and crucially, beyond my scope of expectation for how a movie might communicate, and at what degree of complexity and nuance. Mostly I was confused. But something kept me watching.
Two hours into the three hour picture, I began to believe.
I was interrupted by a school dance. We went, and came back– one of precious few junior high school dances I ever attended– and something clicked right before, and afterwards when I started up the film again. I'll never know if being out in the world and struggling with new feelings of vulnerability and attraction had anything to do with it, but it's certainly possible.
In the scene where Al Pacino listens in on the phone as Ashley Judd silently waves away Val Kilmer, in one of cinema's most achingly meaningful and multitudinous gestures (and certainly the scene in the film least comprehensible to a teenager), and especially as he subsequently phones his colleagues, it hit me:
This film is no different than any symphony by Mozart or Vivaldi, no less than any Caravaggio or Tolstoy or Vermeer. It was not any less in skill or thoughtfulness than those vaunted works I'd grown up around. This was Art. High Art. I finished the film transformed. This was not entertainment. It was about human nature, how people treat each other, and what we can learn from by watching and reflecting. Even the violence was different from the offensively cavalier playfulness in many a four-quadrant action-adventure blockbuster; here it was consequential, painful, unpleasant. As it should be. Like the art I'd consumed, but not like many films I'd seen thus far, it understood the size of death.
On subsequent viewings I would develop a deeper appreciation of the film's expansive grasp of Los Angeles and its enormous tracts of hidden lives (no other director filming LA more thoroughly disregards its entertainment industry), the film's prodigious and unparalleled formal rigor, unusual sound design, effortlessly coded mise-en-scene, the wisdom of its writing and that operatic ending, a swelling, sweeping moment of understanding following the collision course of two contrapuntal forces who know what they want, but know they can't have.
It is monumental.
It is a somber and elegiac dreamscape of lonely men who define themselves by their jobs and suffer accordingly, who seek domesticity and are thwarted not by others but by themselves, their own identities, all played out on a backdrop as central as any of the characters, by a director who understands the geography of spaces and the impact a City– living, breathing things that cities are– can have on our souls. With the possible exception of Mulholland Dr, it is the most effective and accurate portrait of the state of mind called Los Angeles that I know.
But all that would come later. On that day in summer 2000, a door was opened. It's one of my favorite memories.
More on Heat:
Thanks for reading!! Click for parts three (East of Eden) and two (Antonello da Messina) of this series.