Great Film: “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles”, Cinema’s Ultimate Slow Burn

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The most seismic event in cinema in 2015 was not Star Wars. We all knew that The Force Awakens was going to be a glorified New Hope retread, made by Disney for an easy billion, and somehow, we were all too happy to fork over the cash and confirm the contemptible belief of Hollywood at large that the populace cares nothing for art and everything for regurgitated franchises, so why bother with art? That was all predictable. What no film buff saw coming was the death—on October 5, by apparent suicide—of Chantal Akerman, the French-Belgian daughter of Polish-Jewish immigrants who broke ground in 1975, when she was 25 (almost the same age as Orson Welles circa Citizen Kane), with her minimalist epic Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. This film is just under three and a half hours long, and it concerns itself entirely with the title character in her apartment, making meals, cleaning up, spending leisure time with her teenage son Sylvain, prostituting herself in the most drab and unsexy way possible, and doing other tasks. And somehow, it is as infinitely, compulsively watchable as the best of the early Star Wars trilogy, if not more than—and for this alone, it is an uncanny masterpiece. I’ve only seen two Akerman films to date—this and Je, Tu, Il, Elle—yet her death was as tough a blow for me as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s. I’m almost 23. In the young, creative, brazen Akerman—her brunette hair fashionably shorn off at the chin—I see a lot of myself. She is already one of my all-time favorite filmmakers.

Jeanne Dielman is often named among the first great feminist films—which Akerman considered a narrow label, stemming from the fact that female cineastes like her were (and remain) scarce, as were (are) films about women, or even about one sole woman. This may be a feminist statement by virtue of its very existence, true, and it certainly functions in a feminine register, but to imply that that is its primary significance is insulting. Ivone Margulies’ Criterion essay identifies domesticity, maternity and the duties inherent in them as the film’s primary themes. I think the film’s central theme is something more abstract—focus. Let’s be honest: most movies don’t demand your attention, much less your thought. Not the case here. There’s a reason Jeanne’s address is in the title alongside her name: her apartment is just as much a character in this film as her, and it may as well be perceived as her fellow co-protagonist. Her place of residence is latched onto her identity aesthetically as it is socially and politically. By my count, the film contains 218 takes (estimates on Cinemetrics are slightly greater) in 201 minutes, yielding an average shot length just under a minute. All of the shots are static, with zero pans, and quite a few stretch to five minutes—not as long as the typical artsy shots of Tarr, Tarkovsky and Angelopoulos, but still rather long, thus striking a steady balance between pacing and duration. Akerman and her great DP, Babette Mangolte, construct the interior shots so that they are often at table-height, above a seat directly across from where Jeanne may be cooking, eating, etc., dropping the spectator right into her world. Even more vitally and innovatively, all but a few of the film’s shots (and I will discuss those critical few) are rectilinear, head-on, flat-planed, never straying from the four cardinal directions—north, west, south, east. They are inscribed by the apartment’s rigid right angles and thus by its sphere of domesticity. Hence, they are extremely focused. If we focus along with the camera, by film’s end, we will have a total knowledge of the apartment’s layout, and also of Jeanne’s personality as reflected by it. Indeed, focus is Jeanne’s definitive quality—focused as she is on her daily chores. It is when her focus is distracted that the film’s conflict brews.

The film opens in medias res, as Jeanne is turning to grab some garnish (or so it looks) to add to a pot. For a couple of minutes, she prepares dinner. That’s the first shot. Second shot: we look down the apartment’s main hallway. She invites a man in, takes his coat, and guides him to her bedroom. Third shot: same angle, with a light change to indicate the time change. They exit the bedroom as clothed as they were when they walked in. Fourth shot: at the door. The man hands her some cash, says he’ll return, and exits. This is all we’re given and all we need to determine Jeanne’s profession, and where lesser filmmakers would have loaded the encounter with cynicism and detached superiority, Akerman settles for a Bressonian mix of simplicity and objectivity. Fifth shot: She moves the cash into a blue-white tureen in her dining room. Sixth shot: She resumes cooking potatoes in the kitchen. To Jeanne Dielman, prostitution is just another chore that has to be done to keep up the household—just another step in the recipe. As the opening minutes proceed, her character starts to take shape. She turns on the lights when she enters a room and turns them off when she exits it, which we can take to mean she’s frugal and doesn’t have much to pay for electricity. When she bathes, she does so thoroughly, not with troubled urgency but with casual duty—as if to say, this is part and parcel of being a courtesan—with no more grace and no less stoicism than she washes dishes in her kitchen sink. The gewgaws in her dining room cabinet are curious; there’s a dog figurine, but no dog to speak of. Akerman films most of this with zero dialogue. That is a true test of a filmmaker’s talent—to harness film’s potential by communicating purely through imagery, to an international audience. You could afford to watch this film with the subtitles off.

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The dialogue and subtitles that are there, on the contrary, provide some useful background. Jeanne is a widow; her husband has been dead for six years. She has a sister, Aunt Fernande, in Canada, who informs her by letter of her isolation (comparable, as Margulies implies, to Jeanne’s economic constraints) amidst that country’s wild blizzards. Sylvain attends a Flemish school, and is starting to develop a Flemish accent. Some background on Belgium: it’s sort of a mistake of a nation, cobbled together from leftover pieces of France and the Netherlands, and there’s been a mild linguistic apartheid between the French-speaking Walloons and the Dutch-speaking Flemish throughout its history. (Not to mention, it’s been exploited for battlegrounds in too many wars. World War II is still fresh in Jeanne’s mind, as we’ll discuss later.) Sylvain’s scarf is a curious costume choice in this regard. It’s a grey scarf, with two red stripes flanking two blue stripes from a distance. If we may call white a substitute for grey, then this scarf basically puts the French and Dutch flags (same tricolor pattern, different orientations) side by side, succinctly summating Belgium’s fractured national identity, and underscoring the growing distance between him and his mother. For his age, Sylvain is very sexually naïve and has no goddamn clue about his mother’s profession. “If I were a woman,” he quips, “I could never make love with someone I wasn’t deeply in love with”—to which Jeanne deadpans, “How could you know? You’re not a woman.” Jeanne’s kin network is hence very scattered and very unfocused; one wonders if the prostitution is meant to fill the husband’s vacancy, or if it is merely a concern of Commerce—of the basic economics of making a damn living while remaining within one’s own secure domestic sphere. This push-and-pull between aesthetic/personal concerns and capitalism is just as foundational to cinema, and thus best depicted in the realm of cinema.

In aligning with the apartment’s urban geometry, Mangolte’s camera convinces the audience to reciprocate by constructing the apartment in their own minds. One of the ways the cinematography lulls us into Jeanne’s sense of routine is by initially restricting the number of angles from which each location is shot. In the film’s first half, for the most part, we only see the kitchen from two angles: east, from the doorway, pointing to the porch door; and north, across the table, towards the counter and stove. Same with the dining room: east, across the table, looking into the main hallway; and north, gazing into the living room. (I operate under the convenient assumption that the hallway points north to the bedroom.) The bedroom is seen from three angles: east and west, across the bed; and south, on the corner of the room where Jeanne gets dressed. The exceptions occur to signal either a shift in perspective or a jolt in Jeanne’s concentration, or both. Whenever we see the dining/living room from the south, for instance, it is to reflect Sylvain’s point-of-view. This first occurs when Jeanne helps Sylvain recite Baudelaire’s “The Enemy” by memory—a very gendered moment, as while Sylvain’s male privilege gives him greater access to artistic/literary leisure, Jeanne’s interactions with language are reduced to regurgitating the contents of Aunt Fernande’s letter, which serves to make Akerman’s prolix cadences and ellipses of silence even more sexually fraught. The disconnect between mother and son is strong. Jeanne instructs Sylvain twice, “Don’t read while you eat,” yet they don’t have any productive discussions during—nor after—dinner. After, Sylvain puts his textbooks on the dinner table to study only to be forced to remove them so that Jeanne can wipe the table down. Then, when Sylvain is tucked into bed (his mattress folding out from a boxy couch in the living room), as if to make up for lost time, he blurts out all his insecure feelings about sex, which his mother has neither the patience nor the stamina to respond to efficiently.

We adapt to these regimented perspectives insomuch that when—in the second half—we view familiar rooms from new orientations, the effect is jarring. It is an immense credit to Akerman and to editor Patricia Canino that by film’s end, we’d feel very cozy in this apartment, but the journey to that end is frequently disorienting. (I’d forgotten until my second viewing that the kitchen is across from, not next to, the dining room.) For one, we’re tricked into thinking that the film is divided into three chapters for three days, when it is best viewed as a two-chapter story—each half covering an evening routine, followed by a morning routine, with the encounter between Jeanne and her third john providing a climactic coda. (In a humorous touch, it is implied that Jeanne has one john assigned to each day of the week, as with her dinner meals, hence three johns in the film.) Also, the first time the camera looks west on the kitchen—i.e. towards the hall—it indicates Jeanne’s remembering that she made the rare mistake of forgetting to turn the bathroom light off. Later that night, the east-facing camera is placed uniquely on the threshold between dining and living room—Sylvain in the latter, Jeanne in the former—to presage Sylvain reminding Jeanne to turn on the radio as she does all nights. And what to make of the fact that Jeanne sleeps facing away from the bedroom door, but has sex facing towards it?! Spaces we thought we knew are given new dimensions through such montages. Jeanne Dielman is a film better experienced than written about; it contains some of the subtlest and most effective smash cuts in all of cinema.

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As you may have gleaned by now, this is a film that accumulates its momentum from the smallest possible vicissitudes—the minor irritations that distract Jeanne from and frustrate her routine, and that build up to a catastrophe. The crack in her focus begins, I think, when she is preparing for her second john and notices a hair out of place on her rounded coiffure, which she struggles to get back into place. She never really recovers from that. From that point further, she becomes lax with her apartment’s lighting, drops objects, overcooks and runs out of food, arrives at places outside of her apartment too early and too late, neglects to put the lid on her tureen full of illicit earnings (!), makes errors in her wardrobe, etc. For all his naïveté, Sylvain’s focus starts to eclipse hers; it is he who notices in one scene that she missed a button, to her veiled chagrin. The simplest way to contextualize this shift in atmosphere is to recognize, as many critics remind us, that Akerman’s mother and aunts—the models for Jeanne—were Holocaust survivors. Is Jeanne Jewish? (There has to be some way of telling whether the meals she makes in this visual cookbook of a movie are kosher.) Was she targeted for genocide and thus traumatized by WWII? Are her isolationism, her insularity and her routines constructed to stave off and shelter herself from her trauma, and to give herself a domestic sphere of sovereignty, if not power? Is her gradual loss of focus due to the inexorable return of trauma to her consciousness, or is the trauma simply filling the vacancies in her thoughts caused by her various miniature accidents? Jeanne Dielman is in that rare tradition of postwar films (Harold and Maude is another) that manage to keep their central conflict completely latent and nuanced. It is from the total abstraction of Jeanne’s prior sufferings that it gains much of its energy.

Do not read the next paragraph unless you have seen the film. You do not want this particular film’s ending spoiled.

It is in that regard that the film’s few diagonal camera angles become salient. I counted nine diagonals total, in this film of 218 shots. Two of them are on Jeanne and her first two clients as they return to the apartment’s front door post-coitus, exchange cash, and say their goodbyes. They may indicate Jeanne’s essential autonomy as a woman to decide the parameters of her sexual relations—in particular, when they end—which liberate her just slightly enough from her rigid urban confines. Three diagonals are set on a mirror image of Jeanne as she rides the elevator in her apartment building. Mirrors of course provide Jeanne a conduit of self-reflection, which foreshadows the cataclysmic decision she makes in the film’s final four shots, all of which are oblique. In the fourth-to-last shot, Jeanne removes her clothes in front of a mirror and a framed photo of her with her husband—past and present dichotomized—while off-screen, the third john coughs. The third-to-last, which shows him and her having sex on the bed, is the film’s only downward angle; Jeanne’s body is brought to orgasm but she does not appear to enjoy it. The penultimate shot, in which all the main action is viewed through said mirror, is the film’s payoff. Where her other clients left politely, Jeanne’s third man resumes reclining on the bed, perhaps expecting more. Seeing this through the mirror, Jeanne spots a pair of scissors she left on her desk next to her husband’s photo, which she earlier used to open a gift that Fernande had promised to send her in her letter. (The gift is an ugly pink shirt that does not jibe with the deep whites, yellows and blue-greens of Jeanne’s—and Akerman’s—preference.) What happens next transforms that gift into a perfectly deployed Chekhov’s gun—a deft twist in the narrative of a seemingly uneventful film: on a whim, Jeanne grabs the scissors, and fatally stabs the third john in the neck. Coming after over three hours calculated to avoid all forms of sensationalism, this simple murder produces a staggering magnitude. Jeanne’s apartment has failed to keep her safe from the oppressions and agonies of the world beyond, and to restore her much-damaged senses of focus and security, she lashes out against the intrusive force of the john. The final, five-minute shot is of her in her dining room, alone, her clothes bloodied, breathing in and out, eyes opening and closing, head lolling once or twice, listening to the outside noises of terrain and honking, recovering from her deed. (This shot is only barely jagged; pay attention to the dresser behind her.) She has the capacity, I imagine, to complete the mundane task of covering up the murder. Then again, Sylvain is more than likely about to arrive home…

How did Chantal Akerman pull this off? These three and a half hours of a woman doing chores are seriously accessible, never boring, always gripping, and paced perfectly. Much of it is still a mystery to me—even while whatever is in this film that may be called technique is about as straightforward as Mangolte’s camera. It should not go with my saying that credit is due to Delphine Seyrig, the late, legendary Lebanese-born actress who commands almost every frame of this film playing Jeanne. Her performance does not for one second rely on anything overt to seize our attention and ease the narrative’s formalist difficulty. She works entirely within Akerman’s minimalism, channeling and creating her entire character with the quietest of gestures, interacting with the household as a narrative agent in its own right, and allowing the aura of tension around her to build up in increments. Every acting choice she makes is deliberate but never forced. This is one of cinema’s greatest performances, as well as one of its best marriages of actress and director. Jan Decorte, as Sylvain, matches Seyrig in all his scenes, bringing an appropriate note of leery, pasty-faced, smug sexual anxiety to the proceedings that in effect make him an efficient Oedipal foil to his mother and her johns. (This is Decorte’s only noteworthy film role; he has done most of his work in theatre and has also been involved in Belgian politics.) Whoever did the sound design also deserves citation; all of this film’s aural cues—from the radiator hums and exterior street sounds to the baby who only cries when Jeanne is nearby—are intentional, percussive, and immaculate. All things considered, though, the true star here is and will always be Akerman. With Jeanne Dielman, she gave herself a strict experimental challenge and executed it flawlessly, with aplomb—and that is enough for a masterpiece. As much as we crave the spectacle and bombast of franchise films, I think we underestimate our capacity to appreciate when film reflects back to us our lives as we live them, with all their blunt monotony and banal distractions. This is what makes Jeanne Dielman significant. We can neither ignore nor neglect her, because we are her. Something tells me that overall, women would understand that better than men.

In memory of Chantal Akerman, and the victims of terrorism in Brussels, the Middle East, and all over.

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Great Film: “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles”, Cinema’s Ultimate Slow Burn

Great Film: “Landscape in the Mist”, The Greatest Film You’ve Never Heard Of

Landscape in the Mist is elemental. It begins with two kids, an adolescent girl and her younger brother, walking towards a train station. They are unsupervised—a bizarre sight in the U.S., yet a familiar one in Europe, and as it turns out, we’re in Greece. The girl, Voula, asks her brother, Alexander, if he’s afraid; he says no, and they’re off. In two long takes, we see them head to the platform, but they’re interrupted by an adult and just miss boarding the train. We’re later given to understand that they’ve been told their father is in Germany, and they’d like to go meet him. Minutes later, they return to the station, in what at first feels like a total retread of the opening scene—only this time, there are no adult obstacles, and they board the train without conflict. This one simple change creates an exhilarating sensation. These two kids are indeed unafraid. They’re motivated, and we’re more than thrilled to join them on their journey, whatever the nature of it. Few if any films have as indelible and as effortless a hook as this one.

More through mood and implication than through dialogue, we learn early on that their mother told them on a whim that their father’s in Germany. In reality, she doesn’t know who the father is. Voula overhears an uncle speak to the effect of this—dismissively, talking to a railroad officer, while toying with knobs in his power plant—and accuses him of lying. Does she believe he’s lying? Or is she in denial of what her uncle says, and preferring to cling onto the myth of having a father? It doesn’t matter. We believe in the myth, too, because it’s what gives these scrappy young kids—and this film—their drive and their will to live, not to mention that film is myth. Landscape was made in 1988, in the twilight of the Cold War, but geopolitics mean nothing to our two protagonists and don’t discourage them. They may as well mean nothing to us, either. The USSR was on the verge of dismantling for good. Not unlike Kieslowski—who would move from his native Poland to France in The Double Life of Véronique one year later—this film’s director, Theo Angelopoulos, gazes westward. Horace Greeley’s urge to “Go West” applies well to the Europe of this time. For these kids, that urge is primal, and we root for them without thought. They are innocent, unadorned, precocious, and beautiful. No setup need be contrived to make them likable to an audience. We can jump into their lives and their travels without a second wasted.

You don’t need to be a film expert to understand why the train is the most critical symbol in all of cinema. Film as we know it owes its existence to the railroad industry more than anything else. Lynne Kirby’s Parallel Tracks, a two-pronged case study of the railroad and its rôle in developing early cinema, is a useful primer on this subject, and I will not sully it by summarizing it. (I used it extensively for my Haverford senior thesis.) So when Angelopoulos shows several interludes of Voula and Alexander riding trains through the Hellenic country—sitting in the aisle, sans tickets, cold and lonely, thinking of what they would say to their father—he’s cluing us in on how their journey is, among other things, a journey through film. The ever-forward movements of people, vehicles and film reels are one and the same in Angelopoulos’ eye, and this is the proper viewpoint. Landscape—like all, not most, all great films—is a commentary on film and hence on itself—its fallacy, its fragmentation, its sense of coming into these lives at a random moment in time, for a random length of time, only to capture an unsatisfying sliver of an eternity. Look at how keenly Angelopoulos isolates and calls attention to each of the bare bones of film production: theatre costumes hanging off a bus roof just like clothes hang off bodies, a violinist who steps into a restaurant to perform the film’s main musical theme for Alexander, a building floor plan in front of which one character holds up a scrap of film found in a pile of trash. That scrap shows a few frames of the title landscape, shrouded in mist, and we’ll see them again later, not as a separate film but as apart of this story. Like the floor plan, Angelopoulos here reveals his story’s structure: it’s a Möbius strip, allowing us to glimpse across at where the end will circle back around to the beginning.

It makes sense, too, for Voula and Alexander’s cinematic journey to intersect with cinematic journeys of past. A biker named Orestes meets them by chance on the road, takes a liking to them, and decides to guide them to the border. He’s an update of a character from another Angelopoulos film, The Traveling Players, a four-hour historical epic in which an acting troupe traverses Greece putting on productions of the show “Golfo the Shepherdess”, which are ceaselessly interrupted by WWII, the Communist coup and lesser quibbles. (The troupe itself is a modernization of the cast of characters from the Oresteia.) We of course see the troupe again here, and they’re in even worse shape than in the first story. They hold an open rehearsal for the two kids on a beach, and they don’t even get beyond their show’s prologue before the news comes that they’ve lost their venue. Later, to Orestes’ chagrin, they pawn their costumes. You see, interruptions are crucial to Angelopoulos—pitch-blackly comical interruptions that stop narratives before they can end, that mercifully stop narratives that seem to never end, yet that initiate their own Sisyphean process by which a story is repeated and dragged out for an eternity. (Compare to the kids trying to retell the Book of Genesis, then admitting, “This story will never end.”) The director’s writing partner here is Tonino Guerra, who also wrote for Fellini. Into this framework, Guerra inserts a jarringly random scene in which Voula, Alexander and Orestes watch as a helicopter lifts a large stone hand out of a bay. This is of course a riff on the opening of La Dolce Vita, in which a chopper, while transporting a statue of Christ across town, pauses above a rooftop to give the paparazzi a chance to flirt with the sunbathers. Here, the statue is reduced to a single appendage, stripped of all religious context and irony, opaquely and pathetically reaching towards land it can never grasp. The erosion of history is inexorable.

So, fragmented as it is, the story is by essence told in vignettes, which are paced with extreme care across just eighty-five takes (give or take a couple) in a hair over two hours. I could wax rhapsodic about any one vignette. Instead, I’ll focus on three, which stand out as some of cinema’s greatest set pieces:

#1: The horse. Like all journeys, Voula and Alexander’s involves experience, learning, coming of age. Film often portrays such things through sentiment and cliché. Yet, the lessons that these characters learn in this narrative are often painful and challenging, and Angelopoulos does not shy away from them. This is clear from one miniature mortality drama, in which the kids stumble into a town and find their path crossed by a carriage dragging a dying horse behind it. The horse’s suffering moves Alexander to tears. Meanwhile, a jubilant wedding party goes by, dancing, drinking, laughing, unaware of a life coming to an end nearby them. (Weddings are a big deal to this filmmaker, too.) They’ll never know that they could’ve witnessed this animal’s death, yet it is telling that Angelopoulos includes them in the scene, as he refuses to let their oblivion stand as an excuse to their ignorance. We must be vigilant, he seems to say. We must understand and never deny that there is death amidst life. Voula and Alexander understand that, and they take the time to mourn the horse and exhaust their grief, even when it hurts. The way Angelopoulos melds and juxtaposes these two spheres of feeling—joy and agony—is ingenious. 

#2: The truck. [Trigger warning.] The people who the kids encounter on their odyssey run the gamut from humane and genuine to vile and predatory. At the low end of that spectrum is a truck driver who the kids hitch a ride from in a rainstorm. The driver’s a creep—that much is made clear rather quickly—but that’s little preparation for the scene when he pulls off the road and orders Voula to get out. She senses something afoot and runs away, but the driver outruns her, carries her into the container, and rapes her. The incident takes place in one long static shot on the back of the truck, which has a tarp covering it. We see nothing. The truck itself looks hideous, but if you were flipping the channels and coming upon this scene and taking it out of context, you wouldn’t know what was going on. Nothing seems to happen. Cars keep driving. Alexander leaves the truck and calls for his sister. Two of them pull to the curb, and a brief exchange occurs between their passengers before they get back on the highway, oblivious to the trauma occurring nearby them. Our suspicions are only confirmed after the truck driver reemerges from the container, unfazed yet unsatisfied, followed by Voula, bleeding from the legs and stunned. There’s a case to be made for this being the best depiction of rape in cinema—not for the purity with which it fulfills the Hitchcockian ideal of leaving the trauma off-screen to make it even more terrifying, but for its perfect demystification of rape as a real-world issue. We as the audience are the drivers on the highway, absorbed in mundane banality. Somewhere in this world right now, as I write this and as you read this, someone is likely getting raped, and we may well never know a thing about it.

#3: The dance. Voula’s innocence protects her, somewhat. She’s been hurt physically, yes, but she cannot yet fully register the significance of her trauma, as she does not yet comprehend sex. Neither she nor the film dwell on her rape; she and Alexander abandon the truck driver and keep on heading north, pressing towards the border, eventually reuniting with Orestes. The assault is only referred obliquely, in two more scenes. The first is set on a beach, on which some furniture is set. Nearby speakers are playing a Western punk tune—of course, since as the kids go further west, so does the music. Orestes invites a hesitant Voula to dance with him, and he barely does a two-step before she is moved to run away and collapse in tears. One might think that she’s struggling to trust him because of what she has endured. But when one listens to what Orestes tells a concerned Alexander right after, another shade of meaning is added to the scene: Voula is in love with Orestes. The pain of her trauma doubles the pain she feels amidst falling in love with her guardian, and Voula—once an innocent blank slate—is transformed into a character of enormous depth and palpability. This is not least because—and I think she knows this—her romance with Orestes is doomed from the start, as he is older and intends to join the Greek army soon, and the later scene of their final parting is shattering. Oh yeah, and there’s that second scene, when Voula runs into a figure that has been called the antithesis of the truck driver, the other end of the moral spectrum, a figure of charity and honor. This scene, which I better not spoil, portrays a complex scenario of misunderstanding with little dialogue and provides a tremendous emotional payoff.

Landscape is among the rare breed of film that’s so good, you cherish all the small details: the way a snowfall slowly freezes everyone in a town, the way Yorgos Arvanitis’ camera and Yannis Tsitsopoulos’ editing juxtaposes columns on a train station platform with mammoth smokestacks, the haunting motif of long roads curving off to the right and disappearing in mists of fog and darkness. You wonder about all the little people captured on film and where they are today and what they might be doing right now if they’re still alive, as if this were a documentary. That long row of cars driving along Thessaloniki Bay as the stone hand broods over them—who are their drivers? Where did they come from? What errands are they on? Where did they go? Such is the power of this film, to seem like life even at its most fantastical moments, to make you imagine the abstract and unknowable. Even this film’s principal actors have a touch of obscurity to them, at least here in the U.S. Stratos Tzortzoglou (Orestes) has had a solid acting career, yet Tania Palaiologou (Voula) has only had a few other roles, all of them in Greece, and this is the only known film role of Michalis Zeke (Alexander), on whom the Internet hardly has any information. All three give dynamite performances here. It’s astonishing how much these young actors put their bodies into the task of fleshing out the lumbering gravitas of the journey, and the physical toll of time. It would be an honor to get in touch with any one of them today. As for the late Angelopoulos, he was and remains honored in Europe—having won the Silver Lion at Venice and the Best European Film Award for this—and has been championed by the likes of Scorsese and Kurosawa. In the U.S., he is criminally unknown; no film of his but this one has been distributed in U.S. theaters. I imagine he felt that neglect. Observe the scene where the violinist plays the main theme (by Eleni Karaindrou), and the owner of the diner kicks him out midway, favoring economy over art. A rude interruption, indeed, even if he gets some applause from Alexander. Film buff or not, you owe it to yourself to watch this movie.

What happens at the end is unshakable. It’s tragic, it’s beautiful, I haven’t figured it out, and I don’t think I want to. Are Voula and Alexander in Germany? Eden? Both? Their ideal versions of either? Have they left reality and entered the myth of cinema? Or where they ever in reality to begin with?

This film is available for free on Amazon Prime, with English subtitles.

Great Film: “Landscape in the Mist”, The Greatest Film You’ve Never Heard Of

Great Film: “Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould”, An Essential Meditation on Film as Medium

Should film exist? Is film an antithesis—if not a destruction—of art? It has threatened painting, theatre and literature with obsolescence, just as recording technology has dragged us away from classical music towards the (I admit) less refined genres of rock, pop, etc. Some would argue that film democratizes art, that it allows for an exchange of perspectives across space and time without the barriers of discipline, privilege and well-educated condescension; others, that film preserves what ought not be preserved. Theatre has shown essential disdain for filming technology because it is meant to be a life experience among actors and audience—ethereal, singular, unrepeatable, not entirely memorable, what Mikhail Bakhtin called a “once-occurrent Being-as-event.” The late great playwright Sarah Kane proclaimed, “Theatre has no memory, which makes it the most existential of the arts.” By contrast, cinema is memory—perhaps a memory too perfect for man. It makes history laughably easy; it has turned actors from skilled laborers into celebrities. If we contrast “existence” with “essence” (never mind whether one precedes the other), then film may purport to be an “essential” art in the sense that it is man’s greatest opportunity to be immortal, to attain the height of nature, yet film may as well be a mockery of nature, a conceit, a cheat. Theatre stabilizes narrative in one place and time, and there you have to be to view it. You can see a filmed narrative anywhere at anytime, but at what cost?

The life, work and philosophy of Glenn Gould are indispensable hand grenades to this discussion. Gould (1932-82) was a Canadian pianist best known for his Bach interpretations. In April 1964, he made the still-controversial decision to retire from concert performances for good and distribute his music only through recordings. Overtime, he expanded on this practice, limiting his communication with fans of his music entirely to the media—film, print, radio, telephone. He was a recluse, but not to the extent of shunning the masses as Salinger did and as Pynchon does. In fact, his rapport with the media was voluminous. He was candid and sincere about his approach to music, he demonstrated a broad academic mind in a brainy but relatable way, and he showed a wry self-awareness towards his unusual work ethic. The fifth of François Girard’s Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould shows two Goulds; the pianist Gould fields questions from the interviewer Gould. (This is based on a real-life self-catechism that he wrote for High Fidelity in 1974.) In this soliloquy, he justifies the most critical decision of his career thusly: “The ideal audience-to-artist relationship is a one-to-zero relationship. […] The artist should be granted anonymity. He should be permitted to operate in secret, as it were, unconcerned with or better still unaware of the marketplace’s demands, which […] given enough indifference on the part of enough artists will simply disappear. Given that disappearance, the artist will then abandon his false sense of public responsibility, and his audience or ‘public’ will relinquish its role of servile dependency. […] They’ll make contact, but on a much more meaningful level.”

That’s a dynamic bit of writing, and it takes talent and cojones for a filmmaker and an actor to translate it to filmic dialogue—and translated as brilliantly as it is here, it’s fraught with meaning and deserves scrutiny time and again. Where most artists have seen technology as a threat, Gould embraced it. (It’s a shame he didn’t lived to see the Internet; it would’ve fascinated him to no end.) It would be plenty to say that he saw recorded sound as the equalizing force by which mentor and protégé, old and young, rich and poor, and giver and receiver could “make contact” on the same “level,” yet the film goes further than that. The soliloquy suggests, with much chutzpah, that the ways in which technology is often suspected of ruining art are not abuses of art inasmuch as they are abuses of technology—that tech not only has the potential but is meant to defy arbitrary standards of marketability, not to facilitate them. In characterizing the media—and hence the film—as “zero” (viz. zero-dimensional), it confesses the solipsism inherent in having a man interview himself, yet that alone hints at that man’s willingness to question every one of his own beliefs, to butt heads with his own alter ego, to cancel himself out and make that “zero” feel authentic. I’ve seen few films confront the paradox of their medium—the tricks of the eye; the defiance of history, memory and their decay; the ability to do the impossible and reflect nature in all of its zero-like intangibility—as meaningfully as this film does. The genre of the biopic has not produced that many good films—as life is often too broad and complex to perfectly fit the focus and commerciality of cinema—and 32SFAGG is often brought up as an example of how to do a biopic, and rightly so. This is how Gould would’ve wanted to be depicted: in cinema, told without convention. Look at how proudly the film wears its cinematic badge in its title. It earns all of that pride.

The film is exactly what its title says: thirty-two vignettes in the life of its subject. It never tries to cohere as one uniform narrative because the rhythm of life does not work that way. The structure is a riff on Bach’s Goldberg Variations, of which there are thirty, bookended by two arias. Indeed, the film is keen on fleshing out cinema as a corollary of audio editing, on which Gould was able to (re)construct his piano interpretations to his liking—in a way, to mime reality and temporality, to copy God’s essential-natural creation, not just in His apparent perfection but also in His (let’s face it) random, arbitrary lunacy. (I’d add that Gould and God are only two letters apart, but that’d be a stretch.) In the sixteenth episode, “Truck Stop,” Gould listens to three mundane conversations at once at the title location, his ears rearranging the voices into a Bach-like cantus firmus. By the next episode, he has developed this concept into his radio documentary, The Idea of North, which juxtaposes nostalgic Northern Canadian voices into similar polyphonies; this was a prelude to musique concrète and thus to electronic music. Language here is not as important as the innate musicality of human voice—the basic, unreadable God-like beauty of sound. Robert Altman is considered the forerunner of melding voices in cinema, yet I’ve always found his hodgepodges of dialogue shallow and self-indulgent, even patronizing, rushed in their execution, jam-packing too many half-baked characters and plots, expecting the audience to follow them all and insulting its intelligence in the process. Girard’s (read: Gould’s) use of this method is far superior: he eases us in with one voice, lets it carry on for a while, then adds another, then a third, and he makes their words casual enough to be poetic yet ethereal; they can afford the mishmash. Bear in mind, too, that this is all in the service of not the speakers but rather the one silent figure—the listener, the conductor, the musician. It uses language but does not depend on it, as its focus is on the music.

Colm Feore’s performance as Gould, in my book, is arguably cinema’s greatest portrayal of Asperger’s syndrome, which Gould is speculated to have had, and which I’m convinced he had. I have Asperger’s and have studied it, so I know what I’m talking about. The depiction of those on the autism spectrum in film at large has most of the same horrendous issues as its depiction of all minorities. Chiefly, films tend to define our identities entirely within the prism of our being autistic; stereotype us as socially inept geniuses; and view the central experience of autism as essentially tragic, marked by bullying and doomed to seclusion, if not redeemed by an all-too-easy Hollywood happy ending. Rubbish. Having said all that, please forgive me for branching out to portraits of potential Asperger’s—to work on which the lens of autism theory can be extrapolated—and risking a misdiagnosis. The fact is: I connect with Feore in this. One of the most common misconceptions of Asperger’s is that us Aspies don’t understand social behavior. We do; it’s how we behave in response to it that makes us different. We don’t often jibe with the tacit social rules that people rely on to act, react and interact. This attitude has its pros and cons. Feore’s work proves that Gould truly knew the role that music and sound took in society—namely, the way people interacted with their aural selves—and he reveals this in long, circuitous, literary passages of mono- and dialogue (of which the above is a useful example) that he makes accessible and riveting. His line deliveries are firm, forthright, rapid, verbose, a little aloof—as is natural with Asperger’s—yet also inflected with enough mystery, stoicism, and (when appropriate) playfulness to hold the audience’s attention, even if not everything is grasped. Such work demands and rewards multiple viewings.

The challenges of playing Gould are formidable. How can one evoke so much intellectual passion from such Aspergerian rigidity and peculiarity? Feore accomplishes it through old-fashioned acting—through the deployment of his entire body and his absolute commitment to the role. The third chapter, “Forty-Five Seconds and a Chair,” is just that: a forty-five-second slow zoom in on Gould sitting in a chair, his posture perfect for a pianist, while an excerpt of his recording plays on the soundtrack. Curiously, Feore is not seen playing piano once in the film, which makes sense: who could command a piano like Gould? As it is, Feore doesn’t need that embellishment. In that one take, we can feel him conjuring the exact mood of Gould at the piano. All that’s lacking, really, is his fingers on the keys, but we can imagine that, and the brief scene—pointless in lesser hands—is made gripping by the inconspicuous force of its lead actor. 32SFAGG embraces its fragmentation, its perception of life in separate spheres as opposed to in wholes. In chapter nine, “The L.A. Concert,” we see Gould backstage preparing for what will be his final public appearance, soaking his arms in scalding hot water (as he did in life), and we trust that Feore made sure the water was that hot during filming. It’s only in the remainder of the chapter that we realize—in seeing Gould interacting with some fans, weirdly but with enough steadiness to demand esteem—that in those seconds cleansing himself, he silently reached his decision to shun concerts. The image and the thought, what is seen and heard, are often detached if not disharmonious in this film. The poignant tenth chapter, “CD318,” shows us the inside bridges of Gould’s Steinway as he plays his onstage swansong on it, and there’s an uncanny sense that we could add this visual neatly to that of him sitting ramrod in the chair from before. The film is a puzzle, made for us to solve.

It may be bizarre for me to use the word “disharmonious” in praise of a film about music, but Girard made his film that way to underscore the extent to which music and infinite other things are spliced up and reorganized in the media. The eighteenth segment, “Questions with No Answers,” is a series of shots, mostly from Gould’s point of view, in which interviewers ask him the banal inquiries of the easily digestible pop entertainment industry. Gould is off-camera; we of course don’t hear his answers, but the questions are so banal that we can assume he can’t answer the questions in any way that would appease the narrow-minded pop media he faces. The questions provide enough—plenty, even—for a narrative progression, which sees the interrogators getting increasingly frustrated and befuddled with their subject’s tenacity, to the point where one of them asks upfront, “Are you homosexual?” Multiple segments after show Gould on his own, answering unheard questions on his own terms, but generously. Question and answer don’t depend on but rather complement each other, and their clichéd structure is jazzed up and given new life. There’s something else, though: the audience here sees private moments that no one in the world really ever saw, of the pianist alone in his home or in one of many nondescript phone booths, as secluded as he wished to be, bundled up in his cap, jacket and gloves. It feels like we’re watching something sacred—a genius mentally at work—but it doesn’t once feel like we’re intruding because the film and Feore are so warm, so inviting, always intriguing—and because what is seen does not matter as much as how it all stems from and complements what is heard. With Gould gone, all that remains of him are his sounds and ideas, and some images, which I’m guessing are not as valuable as the sounds. The research that Feore must have done for this role is baffling, and it pays off because of how much trust he and Girard place in the voice, music and oral wisdom of Gould to blossom into cinema.

There’s much more—so much more that I was considering reviewing each one of these thirty-two short films as sovereign standalone works and may yet still do that. There are vivid, appropriately abstract animations—including one that depicts, succinctly and hauntingly, Gould’s growing dependence on prescription drugs; a mystical death announcement; moving reifications of Gould’s dream to see the Arctic; a vibrant reading of a personal ad; a startling, out-of-left-field mini-stock market drama involving a Saudi oil tycoon that Gould gets mixed up in by accident; and documentary recollections from those who knew Gould in real life, of which this is my favorite: “Today, I had a customer phone me up and say, ‘Can you come tomorrow to tune my piano?’ Glenn Gould used to give me two or three months notice, and I respected that. And I’m very thankful for knowing him.” The film concludes with Feore’s voice-over stating that the Voyager Golden Record, which NASA sent into outer space in 1977 to communicate the existence of Earth and humans to potential outsiders, includes Prelude and Fugue No. 1 in C major from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier as played by none other than Gould. It’s a fitting honor for one of music history’s greatest men and most inspirational Aspergerians—to be able to connect, through recording, to life forms we may not yet know of; to make them an audience and an equal to man; to communicate what earthly life and nature are like in all of their imperfections and colliding fragments. And if we make another record like that, this film better be on it.

Great Film: “Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould”, An Essential Meditation on Film as Medium

Great Film: “Heat”, A Tragedy of the Masculine

With this essay, I kick off what I’m planning out as a series of reviews of what I consider Great Films. In the tradition of the late great film journalist Roger Ebert, I’m putting together my own canon of films that have contributed significantly to my identity as a film buff, an artist, and a person in general. A designation as a Great Film indicates an A+ grade, which supersedes any and all prior assessments.

The Austrian psychiatrist Hans Asperger once characterized the condition that he called “autistic psychopathy”—and that we today name in his honor—as “the extreme end of masculinity.” I imagine that this is why—despite my growing concern for the representation of women in cinema—I still have an affinity for particularly masculine films, which take, as their primary theme, what it means to be a man, and the various pitfalls of testosterone: silence, isolation, obsession, temper. My awareness of these pitfalls is twofold, as I have experienced heightened forms of all of them; I register them as a man, and as an Aspergerian. There’s been discussion in my family of the Films Every Guy Loves: The Godfather I and II, Jaws, Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, The Shawshank Redemption, The Professional, Scarface, Chinatown, Citizen Kane and various films by Leone and Scorsese come up often, and to that list, I would add Snatch, Training Day, Oldboy (the original), Seven Samurai and, of course, Heat. I am convinced, in fact, that Heat is the best on the list, in its encapsulation of who men are, and not least in how they contrast with women. I am tempted to go out on a limb and call Heat a sort-of Asperger’s 101 lecture, but that would be pushing it. For now, I will call it my go-to film for probing the essential extremities of masculinity, and the tragedy of them.

I’ve just made some weighty claims—I’m nothing if not a contrarian and a devil’s advocate—so let me outline a distinction I like to make between a “perfect film” and a “masterpiece.” The two are not interchangeable. I can recognize The Godfather, for instance, as a perfect film, in that the construction of its narrative strikes a kind-of Nash equilibrium that would be ruined if any part of it were altered or rearranged. But I cannot recognize it as a masterpiece, in that on every viewing, it appears to me as too callous and hubristic, too self-aware and self-important, even too simple for its own good. Similar goes for Citizen Kane, which to this day demands immense credit for its formal innovations, but which nonetheless has its dated, awkward beats, such as Kane’s rushed-over first marriage and the outrageous conceit of the frame story. (There’s no way she could’ve heard him whisper “Rosebud.”) I thus understand why many call them the Greatest Films Ever Made, but I cannot join in that consensus because those films do not connect with me on a personal level as deeply as Harold and Maude and Persona do. Heat is not a perfect film; it has its flaws, and I will get into them. But it is a masterpiece because of the magnitude of what it accomplishes in terms of theme, story, character and artistry.

Heat, directed by Michael Mann (whose second-best is nowhere close to this), is a cops-and-robbers epic, but is it good versus evil? Al Pacino, who plays LAPD R.H. detective Vincent Hanna, and Robert De Niro, who plays main thief Neil McCauley (a real-life figure), share first billing and are clearly meant to be co-protagonists. Is there more focus on Hanna? Are we meant to root for Hanna? Perhaps, but I’m on my fourth viewing and the focus seems to be more on Neil and his crew. Of the police characters, only Hanna is given substance, as well as a crucial love interest, Justine (Diane Venora). Most of the rest of this vast ensemble is on the other side of the law. What’s more, Neil is of the classic antihero stock. Most if not all of cinema’s great antiheroes live by a personal code, and Neil’s is my favorite: “You want to be making moves on the street?” he quotes an old cellmate. “Have no attachments, allow nothing to be in your life that you can’t walk out on in thirty seconds if you spot the heat around the corner.” The film critic David Thomson has praised De Niro for playing Vito Corleone with “Asperger’s-like distance,” and Neil’s social asceticism is too emblematic of that to be called merely masculine. Friendships to him are unstable, volatile, guilt-inducing, too vulnerable; Neil may be a villain, yet I feel like I know him.

Masculine films are often criticized for falling into the trap of designing their female roles to serve the central male-dominated stories. Most of the women of Heat do exist as love interests, but they are not without their own senses of agency, self-interest and self-preservation. Witness how Justine, Hanna’s third wife, puts up with her first husband’s total absence and the emotional toll it takes on her daughter, Lauren (a young Natalie Portman), and how calm yet brutal she is in the way she counteracts Neil’s frequent absence, in the film’s most blackly comic scene (“You do not get to watch my fucking television set!”). Also witness how Charlene (Ashley Judd), late in the film after shit has hit the fan, uses her wits to maneuver herself, her infant son and her husband—Neil’s henchman Chris (Val Kilmer)—just barely out of the LAPD’s grasp. If both women are doomed to see their lives through the prisms of the men they marry and fuck, then at least they have the knowledge and chutzpah to work with and against those men to their advantage. Can we agree, too, that men often construct their lives around the women in them? Recall the bartender in The Shining and his toast to women: “Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.” Un-P.C., yes, but here, it’s apt. Hanna is a workaholic, forced by duty to alienate wife and stepdaughter, yet he’s still trying to make at least one marriage work. Chris lives to pull off heists and gamble all his earnings away, at the expense of a family he loves to death. They need the very women that they desert and betray the most. They are the quintessential male parasites.

Neil understands that he’d be the same if he was involved with a woman, and that’s part of the reason for his code. He exists to steal, whether he targets bearer bonds in an armored truck, jewelry in a shipping container or cash in a bank vault. He’s a criminal; he doesn’t really trust anyone, much less a woman, to trust him. Yet, not even he can escape the lure of romance. Not surprisingly for such an XY film, Heat is not always secure in how it portrays its women, who are at times given clunky dialogue. Much of what Justine says would work okay as poetry but comes off as pedantry when spoken: “You don’t live with me,” she tells Hanna. “You live among the remains of dead people. You sift through the detritus, you read the terrain, you search for signs of passing, for the scent of your prey.” Charlene, in the meantime, is often used as a vessel for clumsy exposition. “You’re a child growing older,” she gripes to Chris. “We’re not making forward progress like real grown-up adults living our lives because I married a gambling junkie.” (Not that Venora’s and Judd’s deliveries hurt.) It is thus all the more intriguing that Neil’s woman, a bookstore clerk named Eady (Amy Brenneman), is written without flaw. Casual, blunt but rather cool, appropriately ephemeral, she meets Neil by accident and initiates the conversation, and Neil reciprocates out of courtesy, if not out of pity. He has to; hell, it’s what I would’ve done. Ubiquitous as it is, love is too demanding a subplot for cinema; not even the three hours of Heat are enough to encompass the development of a romance. Amidst its glimpses into marriages striving and fracturing, Heat gives us one genuine love story in Neil and Eady, and it gets away with it because it is clear that those two are just dating, mutually interested but taking their time—and that’s plenty risky for Neil.

The care and precision with which Neil and Eady are created and linked is further evidence that Mann’s script identifies more with Neil as an antihero than with Hanna as a hero. Yet, theirs are not the only strong characterizations. Heat earns its running time in spades not least because small roles that lesser filmmakers would have written as lazy ciphers are fleshed out, given dimensions and, when necessary, their own love interests. The film here transcends the crime drama to emerge as a panorama of L.A. criminals, in various stages of life, falling deeper into their trade and dealing with the consequences. Donald Breedan (Dennis Haysbert), an ex-con out on parole and trapped in a fast food joint, hints the audience to what could be in store for Neil and company if they do time in prison and try to redeem themselves afterwards with a legitimate job. It’s not much; the appeal of thievery is the access to fast cash and the potential for a life that’s better than Breedan’s. He has a woman to encourage him to stay straight, but the powerlessness of his workplace gets to him in the end, and a chance reunion with fellow Folsom vet Neil is all it takes to lure him back into crime and initiate his downfall. Trejo (Danny Trejo), Neil’s driver, is at the center of one of the film’s most raw, agonizing moments; stuck to the floor of his house by his own congealed blood, he learns that his wife is lying murdered (likely raped, too) in the next room and decides right away to throw in the towel on life. The film’s most vile presence, Waingro (Kevin Gage), is depicted as a trigger-happy opportunist and a serial murderer of underage prostitutes—a misogynist in the worst sense. Critically, he operates as an antagonist not to Hanna but to Neil; his actions greatly assist Hanna’s investigation and are the key impetus of Neil’s tragedy.

I’ve spent so much time and words focused on gender that I’ve neglected the other pair of codependent opposites bandied about in this film: cops and robbers. One of the great strengths of Heat is its purity, its functionality. The criminals gather in L.A. They make some noise, drop some bodies. They get Hanna on their trail, and from there on out, it’s cat-and-mouse. The scope is broad and complex, but the story itself is primitive. The characters’ motivations, their raisons d’être, do not have—nor do they need—much more depth than the film reels and screens manifesting their story in pixels. The famous scene, with Pacino and De Niro having coffee, is intriguing in this regard. The more I think about it, the more this scene strikes me as a curious anomaly, not unlike Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy, in that it doesn’t really advance the plot but rather provides a poetic interlude in which actors can show off. What’s Hanna trying to do during the scene? Get inside Neil’s head? Talk him out of risking lives in his exploits? Give him fair warning? Grandstand in front of him?

Let’s face it: the scene is a conceit, one expressly designed to coddle the Godfather fanboys who sat through the film to see Pacino and De Niro duke it out. It’s an actors’ pas de deux, an upstaging match not unlike what comedians do all the time. Watch closely, and here and there, you’ll catch a glint in the eye and a small smile cracking when Pacino and De Niro can’t help but slightly break character and sit in awe at the fact that such an encounter is at last taking place. Yet, the film gets away with this, too, because it displays a refreshing honesty about how banal these archetypes are, and how tragic the people who follow them have become. There’s no glamor here, just testosterone. I mean, just listen to this dialogue. Neil: “I do what I do best. I take scores. You do what you do best: try to stop guys like me.” Hanna, reiterating the sentiment: “You know, we’re sitting here like a couple of regular fellas. You do what you do, and I do what I gotta do.” And this exchange: Hanna: “I don’t know how to do anything else.” Neil: “Neither do I.” Hanna: “I don’t want to, either.” Neil: “Neither do I.” The Pinteresque economy of this is indelible. It’s almost as if Mann is thumbing his nose at the audience, trying to make them rethink the worth of seeing these two actors in the same scene for the sake of it while the ensemble also boasts Tom Sizemore, Jon Voight, William Fichtner, Hank Azaria, etc., etc.

I wrote my Haverford senior thesis on the author John Dos Passos and in part on how his masterpiece, the U.S.A. trilogy, operates as a Cubist text, sacrificing depth to study and mimic the interplay of textual and filmic surfaces. (Props to my old classmate Charles Birkel for helping me in this regard.) Heat is a similar text. Thomson writes, in a qualified review, “Heat is a skin—taut, alert, buffed—like the look of a great athlete or a new car.” And what a skin it is. The cinematography of Dante Spinotti here is beyond criticism. Every shot in this film—every single arrangement of strobe light and night sky, interior shape and exterior expanse, minimal emotion and acute stoicism—ought to be a painting in a major museum. Simple, mundane details stick out to me on every viewing: the blue ribbon that slinks back to the ground after the armored truck is knocked over and careens through the car lot; the glass of water in the napkin that Neil leaves Eady after their first night together; the brutal cut from Waingro pulling a girl’s hair to him snapping a cap off a beer; Hanna’s ally Drucker (Mykelti Williamson) staring into space for a solid second after issuing a command to an uncooperative informant; Neil sneaking up and balancing on the edge of the backyard pool of a man he is about to murder. The film also has the distinction of having candidates for the best opening shot and the best closing shot in all of cinema.

The editing does justice to the photography. Observe the central bank robbery set piece—and the thuggish, depraved, angering automatic-weapons shootout that follows it. It opens with a prelude of Charlene and Eady starting their average days while their men go off to break the law and terrorize L.A. After the sequence, two women watch the news break, on TV, of the massacre in which both of their men were slaughtered. This double juxtaposition is a haunting stroke of genius. Lastly, the music of Elliot Goldenthal—a blend of ethereal orchestrations and unctuous electronic rumbles—makes a perfect marriage with Spinotti’s imagery. This is a quiet film (at least, when guns aren’t going off) that demands to be listened to loud, to relish every iota and nuance of sound that comes coursing through Mann’s L.A. landscape.

I don’t agree with Thomson’s assessment that the film aims to promote or even idealize Neil’s code, nor that it views “cops and thieves [as] interchangeable.” There are parallels between the two, and there are moments—as in real life—when the binary blurs; case in point, the classic scene when Neil gets to do reconnaissance on Hanna’s team, just like Hanna did surveillance on him. But ultimately, the two are distinct. Hanna is pure Pacino: pure heat, always coked up, lurking, popping up in roads, from behind doorways and around corners, unhinged yet calculated. He’s an expert cop, with a superlative eye for detail, but he’s even more a force of nature. Neil, in De Niro’s hands, is the more distinguished, less typecast presence: youngish and brazen, sophisticated, with gristle growing on him everyday, aware he should quit while he’s ahead. He’s just as intelligent as Hanna (the only detail he really fails to account for is Waingro), and it’s part and parcel of his identity to spend his whole life dodging the likes of him. Though cat and mouse sometimes see how the other half lives, the food chain remains the same.

In its study of cops and criminals, Heat is superficial and intends to be so, but it is a deep film in terms of gender—in how it dissects the grace, wisdom and constant marginalization of the feminine, and the innate Aspergerian essence of the masculine—and the entire ensemble is absent of any trace of stock character. Even Waingro’s victim is given a grieving family to expand her profile. Everyone present is human, even when they are mired in über-masculine archetypes that lead to their destruction. As for Neil’s code, I think the film condemns it. Every character arc here ends in tragedy, but the worst one, in my opinion, arrives in Neil and Eady’s final moment, in which the code is called into play. That moment is the purest Aspergerian tragedy I’ve ever seen in film, and I’m not going out on a limb in saying that.

In memory of B.B. King, whose song “The Thrill is Gone” plays in this film, and the afore-credited John Nash and his wife, Alicia.

Great Film: “Heat”, A Tragedy of the Masculine