Friday, April 16, 2010

1995: Heat (Michael Mann)

1995: Heat (Michael Mann)
Ask me to choose my favorite post-seventies crime film, and this is it.  I think it's Mann's greatest accomplishment.  I also think it's our greatest crime epic, post-Godfather.  So why do I like it so much?        

a.  Location work

First off, I love how it treats one of my favorite aspects of the first noir cycle, a real interest in location work.  I gravitate towards realism.  And there's a profound effect that comes with the choice to shoot in actual locations that's missing for me in the more artificial and heavily art-directed neo-noirs.  After all, noir was spearheaded by jaded Europeans, who having fled their countries, arrived in Hollywood wanting to tell the truth.  Part of getting at the truth for them was taking a more realistic approach to filmmaking.  So Mann's work here, particularly his interest in shooting in actual locations, connects Heat for me back to these earlier films.

b.  Formal rigor

Often relegated to B-film status, Mann takes the crime film and gives it the most artful of all presentations.  There's a specificity in every shot, every cut, and every camera movement.  And Mann has a Kubrickian control, a conception of craft, and attention to formal detail unmatched by anyone currently working in Hollywood.  One of the more appealing aspects of the first cycle of noir films is their formal audacity and achievement.  By creating such a highly formal work with Heat, Mann once again offers a connection between his cinema and this past tradition. 

c.  Existential noir

Rather than take the more poular post-modern approach to noir, Mann steers clear of irony, narrative gymnastics, and pop-culture references to deliver a work with the goal of existential weight.  This tone feels more in line to me with the first cycle of noir films than the tone coming out of the post-modern cycle that began to appear in the seventies.

d.  Modern treatment

But Heat is certainly not a mere re-tread of the first cycle; Mann definitely updates the tradition and gives it a new feel.  His most major contribution is the way that he deals with sound/music.  Most of the films from the first cycle had symphonic scores.  Mann takes this tendency and replaces it with minimal, electronic music.  His film also relies much more on natural sounds than the early noirs.  Just listen to the way Mann makes sound the driving force during some of the key moments in the film, how he accents the big trucks in the first set piece or the guns in the famous heist scene.  By being so loyal in other areas but by making such a radical departure in his treatment of sound/music, Mann both upholds and moves the noir tradition forward with his work.    

It's a taste thing, I realize.  But for me, when it comes to updating noir, Heat is the perfect paradigm for a new direction.  I simply think it's a marvel.
Other contenders for 1995:  From this year, I still have some things to see.  These include:  Maurice Pialat's Le Garcu, Carl Franklin's Devil in a Blue Dress, Jacques Rivette's Haut bas fragile, Charles Burnett's When It Rains, Arturo Ripstein's Principio y fin, Hou Hsiao-hsien's Good Men, Good Women, and Manuel Poirier's ...A la campagne.  At some point, I need to revisit Gus Van Sant's To Die For and Todd Haynes' Safe as it's been too long since I've seen either of them to know where they'd place on this list.  From this year, I really like Claude Chabrol's La ceremonie, Martin Scorsese's Casino, Noemie Lvovsky's Oublie-moi, Takeshi Kitano's SonatineBenoit Jacquot's A Single Girl, Larry Clark's Kids, and Mathieu Kassovitz's La Haine.  I love Jean-Luc Godard's JLG/JLG. And my closest runner-up is Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man.

10/19/11 I watched Maurice Pialat's Le Garcu.  There's such a natural heft to Pialat's cinema.  And when it's at its best, it's grinding into terrain that is so rich, human, complex, and honest.  Pialat's final film might not be my favorite of his, but it's still a very strong work.  

12/9/12 I watched Charles Burnett's When It Rains.  At times, you might feel watching this short film that it's among the most amateurish things you've ever seen.  But Burnett straddles the line and by the end delivers the Bressonian punch he's after.  A difficult film to find but certainly worth seeking out.

5/30/15 I watched Noah Baumbach's Kicking and Screaming.  Baumbach.  It's funny at times, familar to my own life and intermittently playful and likable.  But he can also be a little meandering, irritatingly verbose and emotionally cheap.  Glad I saw this though.  Feels like an important piece of the American indie story in the 90s. 

12/2/21 I watched Joao Cesar Monteiro's God's Comedy.  It's my first experience with the Portuguese filmmaker's work.  It reminded me of Moretti yet a little darker, a little less political and a little less funny.  I look forward to seeing more of Monteiro's work as he's clearly a cinephile who is bold and unafraid to take the medium into challenging places. 

3/11/22 I watched Frederick Wiseman's Ballet.  Not one of the more involving Wiseman films for me.  Sure it has some extraordinary passages but I never felt like I knew anyone all that well.  

7/17/22 I watched Mark Rappaport's From the Journals of Jean Seberg.  This essay bears interest in the way it examines stardom and the splintering of an important figure in the history of film.


  1. Your argument for HEAT here Jeffrey, is utterly magnificent. I'm not a huge fan, but you are in a vast majority here by regarding this film as a masterwork, which is more than fair enough. I have still included the film among the runners-up, as there is enough excellence in a number of ways worthy of mention.

    My Own #1 Film of 1995:

    La Ceremonie (Chabrol; France)


    Safe (Haynes; USA)
    A Self-Made Hero (Audiard; France)
    Babe (Noonan; Australia)
    Sense and Sensibility (Lee; USA/UK)
    Fallen Angels (Kar-Wei; Hong Kong)
    Gabbeh (Makhmalbaf; Iran)
    City of Lost Children (Jeunet; France)
    Lone Star (Sayles; USA)
    The Addiction (Ferrera; USA)
    The White Balloon (Panahi; Iran)
    The Kingdom (Von Trier; Denmark)
    Seven (Fincher; USA)
    A Close Shave (Park; UK)
    Apollo 13 (Howard; USA)
    Toy Story (Lasseter; USA)
    Land and Freedom (Loach; UK)
    Nixon (Stone; USA)
    Dead Man (Jarmusch; USA)
    Clueless (Heckerling; USA)
    Heat (Mann; USA)
    Leaving Las Vegas (Figgis; USA)

  2. I would certainly agree with you on all counts! I know he made a concerted effort to shoot in locations that had never or rarely been shown on film before and it gives the film a freshness as he doesn't rely on the stock, cliched shots of Los Angeles.

    I also love how Dante Spinotti shot the hell out of this film. It looks great and use of blue filters in certain scenes is incredible. Most impressive is the choreography of the action sequences, esp. the famous bank heist. I really love how Mann doesn't play any music over the shoot-out, instead letting the near-deafening sounds of the gunshots take over. I remember seeing this is in the theaters when it first came out and being struck by how jarring it was. The gunshots actually sounded like the real deal and not the Hollywood sounding ones you usually get.

    And, of course, you get the classic meeting of the acting heavyweights with De Niro and Pacino. Amazing stuff. A film that actually lived up to the hype, unlike their later pairing RIGHTEOUS KILL which was horrible.

    This would definitely be my fave of the year and I also agree with you on DEAD MAN, incredible film.

    But as for Mann's best, I still think that THE INSIDER is his finest moment.

  3. I'll never forget the first time I saw this. I was a student at the University of Kentucky and actually skipped a class so I could see the first show of it the Friday it opened. The excitement at seeing Pacino and De Niro together, in a Michael Mann film no less, was incredible at the time and a lady in the theater asked if I had been waiting for this my whole life as well. I was absolutely blown away by the film and it remains a favorite. I think The Insider might be Mann's best film but this is his most special work to my eyes. Thrilling, moving, epic and impossible to take your eyes off of, I have probably watched Heat more than a dozen times since that first experience but it never loses its edge for me. The fact that I still get chills during certain moments, Pacino racing down that Freeway after De Niro to Moby's Joy Division cover to that stunning final shot, speaks to just how mesmerizing and powerful Mann's direction and his actor's performances are. Heat is one of the great films as far as I am concerned...great, great pick Jeffrey.

  4. Sam, thanks so much for the kind words! That means a ton.

    I definitely really like your pick, too. What incredible tension Chabrol's able to create.

    Thanks, Sam! Always a treat having you here.

  5. JD, wow, what an excellent addition! I agree with you on all counts, too. And I particularly like what you say about the freshness of the locations, Spinotti's work, and Mann's choice to go without music during the heist scene.

    Totally with you on this one. Thanks so much, JD!

  6. Jeremy, what an excellent post! You and I are completely on the same page when it comes to this one. I love everything you say here and get excited thinking about HEAT, just reading your excitement. Glad to know this one has some other fans. It's a towering work to my eyes.

    Thanks, Jeremy!

  7. I love Heat as well. Its been interesting watching the reputation of this film grow through the years. I don't remember as many people loving it through most of the 90's. Well my favs of 1995......

    1. Seven
    2. Heat
    3. The Usual Suspects
    4. La Ceremonie
    5. 12 Monkeys
    6. Casino
    7. City Of Lost Children
    8. Fallen Angel
    9. Dead Man
    10. Apollo 13.......M.Roca

  8. M Roca, you bring up a great point. It does seem that HEAT has grown in reputation since it first came out. And I'm hoping it will only continue to grow in stature. I really think it's something special.

    Thanks so much! Always great to have you here.

  9. Well, I love Mann, he's one of my favorite directors, but I don't think nearly as highly of Heat as everyone else does. Don't get me wrong, it's a very good movie with some great scenes, but I think everything he has done since is better. The Insider, Ali, Collateral, Miami Vice and Public Enemies are astonishingly impressionistic, they exemplify not only new ways of telling stories but of exploring the image itself, and I don't get that at all with Heat. Heat is a very much an expansion upon a classical model inspired mostly by Melville and Hill Mann seemed to have in his head, and I feel like it wasn't until he discarded that model he could make his most extraordinary films.

    My choice would for 1995 would probably be your runner-up. Dead Man is just an incredible film, and my favorite of Jarmusch's.

  10. You won't hear any arguing from me! Heat is one of my favorite crime films of all time, and in fact one of my favorite films of all time period. Pure poetry in motion. Your breakdown of what makes this film so great was fantastic to read Jeffrey, kudos. I agree on every exceptional point.

    This was an awesome year, too. While my favorite is clearly Heat, 1995 produced a handful of bona fide masterpieces: Todd Haynes' Safe, Jarmusch's Dead Man, Kusturica's Underground and Linklater's Before Sunrise, all of which are films I hold dear.

    I also really like Godard's JLG/JLG, Kassovitz's La Haine, and Soderbergh's The Underneath from this year.

  11. Doniphon, I'm a huge fan of Mann's, too. I can't say I share your opinion of some of the later works. But I know you are not alone in those feelings.

    There's no doubt that his style really shifts after HEAT and becomes much more "impressionistic" as you mention. But some of those later films don't have the same purity and cleanliness of form that really appeals to me here. I also am not as emotionally involved in some of the later work as I am with HEAT. The last film of his that I really love is THE INSIDER. After that, his films just ring a notch below for me.

    Great to have your take here, Doniphon. And always awesome to hear from you!

  12. Drew, great to hear from you and thanks so much for the incredibly kind words! We're totally on the same page with this one.

    From your list, I still need to see UNDERGROUND and THE UNDERNEATH. And I like BEFORE SUNRISE, although a little less than the others I mentioned.

    Thanks, Drew! Always great to hear from you.

  13. Late getting to this one, Jeffrey, but I can't miss an opportunity to second one of your selections! HEAT has long been my favorite Michael Mann film, although I do go back and forth with The Last of the Mohicans. I don't consider it quite as highly as you - in terms of it being the best crime epic since The Godfather... Goodfellas, anyone?! LOL - but your analysis of its strengths and style is outstanding. Definitely a "go to film" in terms of just putting on a movie for enjoyment.

    My only close contender would probably be Jim Jarmusch's DEAD MAN, which is a film that I'm still not sure I completely know what to make of, but I adore it nonetheless.

  14. Dave, great to hear from you! And I really appreciate your kind words. HEAT is definitely one of my faves.

    Thanks, Dave. Always great having you here!