Monday, February 8, 2016

Heat (1995)

Director: Michael Mann
Writer: Michael Mann
DP: Dante Spinotti
Editor: Dov Hoenig, Pasquale Buba, William Goldenberg, Tom Rolf
Score: Elliot Goldenthal
Producer: Michael Mann, Art Linson
Starring: Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Val Kilmer, Ashley Judd, Diane Venora, Amy Brenneman, Tom Sizemore, Kevin Gage, Danny Trejo, William Fichtner, Wes Studi, Ted Levine, Mykelti Williamson, Natalie Portman
Distribution: Warner Bros.
Length: 2 hrs. 55 min.

McCauley gets the film's titular line: "Don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner." Heat lives on a kind of individualistic mythology, where your work defines you, and it's therefore respectable to deny your attachments. The film's scale places its impassioned professionals on a mythic plane; but, it's a plane where no one survives.

It has a subplot featuring a character dealt a difficult position in life, who eventually attains the monumental significance the camera affords to other characters. He's a paroled ex-con who works at a fast-food restaurant, exploited by his employer. McCauley offers him a chance to join his team, and he accepts. We want him to accept; why shouldn't he? He did his time, but the world utterly fails him. When he takes his chance and finally strikes back at his boss, it's cathartic. Unfortunately, it doesn't last, and we're forced to ask whether he was better off being consumed in the film's cosmic battle if it was by his own choosing. And we know that what he really deserved was a third option.

The dream of professionalism that Heat lives out is one that tears characters away from intimacy and domesticity. It makes for an interesting comparison with Mann's Manhunter, in which the main character's professionalism both preserves and threatens his domestic life. On the one hand, his work unveils a darkness masked by the complacency and naivete created by domesticity; on the other hand, unveiling it allows domestic relationships to be founded on more stable, less ignorant ground.

In Heat, the characters are drawn into professionalism for its own sake. They're invested in their work, but removed from any reason to do it. Like Manhunter, Heat finds value in domesticity, but professionalism reveals ugly truths that threaten it; unlike Manhunter, Heat doesn't see its characters manage to turn their professionalism against those truths. When the film comes to a head, they've realized this inconsistency; one of them is consumed by it, the other's fate is left more or less ambiguous.

Compare Heat to The Passion of Joan of Arc, one of Mann's favorite films: like Joan, the characters aspire to an ideal that lets them believe in their own effectiveness; like Joan's judges, their absolutism about their ideals prevent them from being effective before it's too late. But Joan's ideal is that she acts in service of something greater than herself, and when the "heat" comes for her, she faces it head-on. For the characters in Heat, the ideal is self-aggrandizing individualism.

The film understands that believing in something makes you feel powerful, because it means your actions matter. It also understands that power is only worth what you apply it too, and that everything is part of a chain of relations; if you make yourself feel powerful by cutting off all relations, it's never going to last.

In Heat, you can choose to ruthlessly protect your position, or decide that you're willing to die for something (or someone) else. You can't have both. Heat doesn't make much of a commentary on this concept; rather, it uses it to intersect passion with loss. The end result is elegiac, a film that captures the most extreme states of human emotion in both their dazzle and their brevity.

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