Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Professionalism No Longer in Control: Michael Mann’s Blackhat.

Contains spoilers.

In a key scene in 2009’s Public Enemies, John Dillinger is ushered into a backroom mob exchange where racing scores are relayed to bookies before they are announced.  “Look around you”, Phil D’Andrea (John Oritz) says to the storied outlaw, “what do you see?”

Dillinger:  “A bunch of telephones.”

What Dillinger can’t see is a newly emergent order, dovetailing in the worlds of both crime and crime prevention.  Mann positions this exchange as a quietly chilling vision of the shape of things to come; as D’Andrea explains:  “On October 23rd, you robbed a bank in Greencastle, Indiana. You got away with $74, 802.  You thought it was a big score?  These phones make that every day.  And it keeps getting made – day after day, a river of money, and it gets deeper and wider, week in and week out, month in and month out, flowing right to us.”  What is being contrasted here is traditional physical labour (represented by Dillinger and the outlaws) and a new form of enterprise which doesn’t involve work per se, but rather accrues vast profits by virtue of manipulating communication (or information) technology.  Traditional labour and capital is replaced by the flow of money and information facilitated by a communication network. 

Six years later, Mann’s latest Blackhat is an exploration of the forms that new order has taken in the 21st century, some eight decades after the events depicted in Public Enemies.  In Enemies, telephone lines were turning crime syndicates into national corporations, and the F.B.I. beginning to erode individual privacy via wire-tapping.  Blackhat is a crime procedural set against a contemporary backdrop in which the globalized interconnectedness of computers has made the flow of money and information byzantine and perilously unstable, and an omnipresence of surveillance and digital technologies means that every place, every moment, is potentially being recorded, scrutinized, and transformed into further pockets of data in an over-congested system.  As such, it continues Miami Vice (2006)’s preoccupation with the flux and velocity of globalized late-capitalism, with the sense that its freedoms of movement come at the cost of entanglement in wider, overarching systems where the product moves and the personnel are interchangeable and expendable. 

Blackhat also continues Mann’s drive to evolve a distinct cinematic language which is congruent with the digital present rather than the filmic past.  This bold endeavour, ongoing since the director’s first tentative experiment with digital cameras in 2001’s Ali, has lead Mann to produce movies which are increasingly paradoxical hybrids of Hollywood blockbuster and abstract experimental film.  This has made Mann’s entire late career something of a sustained film maudit, with each new film generating sharper critical division, more ardent championing from a cineaste minority, and increasing disinterest from mass audiences.  As such, it’s hard to write about Blackhat without engaging with its disastrous commercial and critical fortunes, and the ongoing controversy surrounding Mann’s late career embrace of digital aesthetics and minimalist story-telling/characterisation.  One thing seems clear enough, however you rate the film’s successes or faults, the most common charges levelled against it by critics were patently wrong-headed.

Blackhat was charged repeatedly with being generic, clichéd, and preposterous in its plotting, and lumbered with a miscast lead.  On paper, its plot certainly appears to justify the suggestion.  The furloughing of one master crook to catch another, more nefarious crook is a common enough device in b-movies, and the ultimate scheme of Yorick van Wageningen’s blackhat Sadak  – to flood several Malaysian tin mines in order to make a killing with tin futures – has the air of a Bond villain’s shenanigan.  It’s worth noting, however, that the scheme never actually comes to fruition.  A genuinely clichéd or generic film would have built to the flooding of the river-bed as its climatic set-piece, to be averted at the last minute by the hero.  But this plot, ultimately, has very little significance in Blackhat – once established, it fades into the background.  Even Sadak himself doesn’t seem unduly committed to it – he suggests that another, comparable scheme could be set up in a matter of months.  This underlying scheme is largely a maguffin, and the film is far more interested in the processes by which the hacker operates, and the trail – both in the digital realm and the macro-world – by which his pursuers work from tangible effects in the real world, through the code, its various re-routings across the globe, back to its source.  This mixture of micro- and macro world detection unites the cinema of Mann’s past with the technological ambience of the present century – it brings to mind Manhunter’s detailed procedural verisimilitude, and Diane Verona’s speech to Pacino in Heat (“You sift through the detritus.  You read the terrain.  You search for signs of passing, for the scent of your prey, and then you hunt them down”), in a new context of digital footprints and traces.

Which is to say that there is difference – all the difference in the world – between adopting clichés and subverting them, and Blackhat subverts most of the clichés of its familiar b-movie skeleton.  In how many films of this type, for example, are the majority of the leads abruptly and coldly dispatched at the midpoint?  In how many does the initiative of the heroes effectively fall apart and end in disaster?  The majority of the team wind up dead, Hathaway fails to commute his sentence, and, as an exercise in US/Chinese co-operation, the initiative only engenders fresh suspicion and distrust.  Although the blackhat villain is successfully dispatched in the end, it is merely an act of personal revenge undertaken in a brutal street fight; as in the conclusion of Miami Vice, there is little sense of catharsis or lasting achievement, only eyes traded for eyes in the murk of an on-going war.   To call the movie clichéd and preposterous does little justice to the way in which Blackhat repurposes its familiar generic structure into a cold, noirish procedural whose precise research and dry, low-ley approach lend the majority of the action an air of believability and authority.  Rather than being silly, one suspects that the film’s style – its slow, methodical pacing, lack of conventional connective tissue and characterisation, fascination with process and detail, and the frequent abstraction of its editing and cinematography – are a source of frustration and alienation to many viewers and critics.

Personally, I’m an unabashed fan of digital-era Mann.  He seems to me to be the most restlessly (and recklessly) innovative modern US filmmaker - an odd fact, considering that he is now in his seventies.  Mann’s recent work has the excited air of a director who is not so much trying to perfect his craft as discover it - with each film he has utilized familiar, generic material as a launching pad to explore new ways to view and experience the world through the digital camera.  Nobody shots modern technology and modern architectural spaces like him – nobody else even seems to see them in comparison.  Nobody shots actors in close-up with the same degree of intimacy and immediacy – Mann uses the compact mobility and “live” texture of digital cameras to view his actors stripped of the normal barriers of aesthetic remove felt in cinema, an effect which is particularly striking when applied to Hemsworth, whom we normally see in the high fantasy realm of the Marvel universe.  In Blackhat, these two elements – the modern techno-architectural space, and the intimacy and immediacy of the physical presence – are conjoined in various thrillingly abstract visual ways, as the film functions in some respects as a visual essay on the condition of modern living in which we are perpetually conjoined with screens and communications devices, and the fortunes of our physical bodies conjoined with the movement of intangible, microscopic electrical languages that move with lightning speed through a world grown increasingly porous and fragmented.

Mann’s cinema has always been regarded as upholding a Hawksian professionalism, or a commitment to the idea of professional vocation as a form of existential identity.  This idea has never been entirely clear-cut in Mann’s films, however; in their tragic, noir-influenced world, professional vocation offers his characters a way of affirming their selves, but one which also seems to negate their deepest emotional longings.  As such, they are always fighting a losing battle with time, the supreme, mystical entity in Mann’s cinema, which is always ebbing away, representing itself as an impossible ideal, an escape from the flux of professional activity, a brief interlude contemplating the ocean, or the nape of a woman’s neck.  Nevertheless, his characters have always exerted a tenacious control over their worlds.  This idea is most forcefully expressed in Mann’s first feature, Thief.  Master thief Frank (James Cann) has created a picture collage which represents his longing for a regular domestic existence.  In order to quickly achieve this dream, he has traded his self-employed independence for a partnership with mobster Leo (Robert Prosky).  Mann uses Frank’s entanglement with Leo as an allegory for the ways in which engagement with the system of capitalism erodes individual autonomy and freedom; he gains all the trappings of middle-class existence – family, home, investments, security – but becomes in the process a kind of serf.

Realizing this, Frank regains his autonomy in a flurry of cathartic violence, blowing up his house, his businesses, his entire middle-class existence, and abandoning the aspirational goal represented by the photo collage.  Where precisely this leaves Frank is a question mark hanging over the conclusion of Thief, but the film nevertheless allows its protagonist to exert a degree of control over his world, in opposition to the system.  This idea is repeated in the images which bookend The Insider: Crowe’s Jeffery Wigand walking out on his secure and lucrative job with Brown & Williamson, and Pacino’s Lowell Bergman walking out on his with CBS.  In his more recent films, however, it is arguable that this sense of control over ones destiny is gradually ebbing away from Mann’s protagonists: a sense that their commitment to professionalism is no longer sufficient to assert self-determination and autonomy in the face of the system.  Think, for example, of Farrell’s Sonny Crockett, the most hollow and joyless of Mann protagonists, returning with a weary thread to the trenches of the unwinnable drug war in the last shot of Miami Vice.  The ebbing away of professional control becomes more pronounced in Public Enemies.  However competent a bank robber, Depp’s Dillinger is fundamentally out touch with the changing technological structure of the world through which he moves.  No matter how good he is at what he does, his way of life is palpably at the end of its rope.  He lives in a vanishing frontier America, a wide, stratified place with ample spaces to run and hide, but technology is rapidly vanquishing the frontier, connecting and narrowing its spaces, tightening like a noose around the old outlaws.

Something of this elegiac spirit, this sense of professionalism at the end its rope, carries over into Blackhat.  This new film is set against a system which is so complex, interconnected, and decentralized that nobody can exert effective control over it – not the national law enforcement agencies, and not even the nationless outlaw blackhats who operate outside, but not unconnected with, the system.  This seems to be part of the metaphorical design of Blackhat’s final set-piece, where Mann stages the battle between his blackhat antagonists against the orderly flow of a torch-bearing parade.  The marchers appear largely unaware of the battle in their midst, and the blackhats absorbed in their conflict to the point of being oblivious to the marchers (notably, Sadak is presented as a solipsist: “When I stop thinking about something… ceases to exist”), but the struggle causes a disruptive chaos in which orderly abstraction invariably breaks down into tangibility and vulnerable flesh.  An earlier scene moves smoothly from a row of blue-collar tools on a table to Hathaway and Lien (Tang Wei) working at their laptops, a contrast which recalls 2001’s iconic segue from bone-cudgel to spaceship.  These primitive tools become his final weapons of choice against Sadak, a blunt rejection of the former battlefield of distant keystrokes and anonymous code.  Blackhat’s protagonist Hathaway is a genius coder, but he wants out of this vocation: his aspiration is to be a modest blue-collar worker, a repairer of TV sets and garage doors.   It seems as though the Mann protagonist, in the winter of the director’s life, is finally ready for the “regular-type” life which seemed so impossible to Pacino and DeNiro in Heat, at least as an alternative to a world where professional vocation no longer facilitates control and autonomy.  Whether or not Hathaway achieves this escape remains open to question.  Unlike many prior Mann protagonists, he doesn't have to abandon the girl, but Blackhat’s fantastic last shot invokes the spectre of the Panopticon, and seems to waver between the exhilaration of escape, and the suspicion that anonymity and escape may no longer be possible.

It is difficult not to associate this idea of professionalism no longer in control, the professional code at the end of its rope, with the increasingly fraught fortunes of Mann as an auteur operating within the Hollywood system.  Blackhat may well be the last time Mann ever gets to play around with a blockbuster budget, and his fascinating tight-rope walk between the multiplex and art-house at an end.  But if these movies thematically represented a drawing-in of deterministic forces, of mortality and the gravity of overarching systems, artistically they still assert a freedom and self-determination, even if it is, in a classically Mann fashion, a self-determination that ultimately cements its own self-destruction: a director who abandoned his mantle as a master of filmic perfectionism, to embrace the aesthetic possibilities of a new technology with all the gusto of somebody only at the beginning of their career.

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