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September 01, 2004

Moviegoing: "Collateral" and "We Don't Live Here Anymore"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

It had been four months since I last went to see a movie in a movie theater -- my longest stretch away from movie theaters since I became a moviegoer, back in the late '60s. Who needs movie theaters these days? DVDs are convenient and adequate, movie-theater audiences no longer know how to behave, corporate multiplexes make me feel like data that's being crunched ... I was feeling pretty smug about staying away from movie theaters, if truth be told.

But over the weekend the August heat and humidity KO'd the apartment's air-conditioners, so the time had come: it was off to the multiplexes for The Wife and me, to see Collateral the first evening and We Don't Live Here Anymore the next. And y'know what? It wasn't so bad, really. There was some rude cellphone behavior, but not too much. The theaters' staffs were pleasant. The films themselves were beautifully projected, with sound systems that weren't too, too crushingly loud. The print of "Collateral" was so pristine that I watched it convinced that I was watching a digital projection. Imagine my filmbuff chagrin when I learned I was wrong.

The pictures themselves? Well, the air conditioning deserved an Oscar. "Collateral," a Michael Mann thriller, wasn't half-bad ... for a Michael Mann movie. By which I mean that I enjoyed it more as something to analyze than as something to be enjoyed. I'm duty-bound to report that The Wife loved the film, and that the rest of the audience seemed perfectly content with it too. But for me, the movie was a case-study in how a good B-movie premise can be overwhelmed by production values, star power, and heavy-handed directing.

collateral taxi02.jpg Two movie stars, in a cab, acting.

I have to admit that I have a problem with Michael Mann, none -- none! -- of whose movies I've liked; some voice in me screams "pretentious TV director" the moment his films begin. Though he's obviously talented and competent, I find his work studied and oppressive; I think of him as Michael "Watch me direct!" Mann. And I find his meanings and his approach as banal as what might be found in a car ad. I should have enjoyed his version of "Last of the Mohicans," for instance: sweeping romance, hurried and breathless sex, well-costumed history, and Madeleine Stowe in a major role. What's not to love? But I had a hard time sitting through it.

I did find "Collateral" more bearable than the Michael Mann usual. Much credit goes to a shrewdly conceived and executed B-movie premise that you've probably heard about -- hitman (Tom Cruise) hires nice-guy cabbie (Jamie Foxx) to drive him around L.A. on a series of assasination assignments. Credit to the decent performances, too: Cruise did his demonically-charming baddie surprisingly well; he's like a roguish, human version of the Terminator. And Jamie Foxx gets some firstclass warmth and audience rapport going.

But that ol' Michael Mann drear had me feeling under the weather in no time. Striking angles, impressive lighting, careful control of tone -- but why such a belabored approach to what's basically a hardboiled two-hander? (Mann used to love using Tangerine Dream to compose scores for his movies, if you know what I mean.) What's sometimes wonderful about crime stories, for my money, is that they have no obvious "importance"; they just are what they are. But Mann can't help himself. He can't not direct with the kind of sumptuous solemnity that's usually meant to signal that something metaphorical is occurring; you go on the alert for weighty statements about the nature of America, at the very least. Mann seems to direct with one eye on the critical monograph that he expects to be written about the film.

Interesting to learn that Mann filmed much of what takes place in and around the cab on HDTV, while shooting the rest of the movie on film. The HDTV footage works out OK -- mostly. Some of the video footage is moody and effective; some of it's a little grayed-out and distancing. But some of it, I gotta say, looks flat and dead -- no better than an episode of "Cops," and anything but fictionally convincing. During these shots, you're thrown out of the made-up situations and find yourself watching documentary footage instead. You stop being concerned about the characters and find yourself wondering, Hey, what are Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx doing in that cab together? And why are they pretending to act?

A maybe-this-is-just-me musing? What I mostly spent the movie thinking about was the plausibility question. I simply wasn't buyin' a lot of what the movie was sellin', although the script (by Stuart Beattie) struck me as savvy and well-turned. Well, there was a third-act development that had me raising an eyebrow, but since the audience generally seemed to have no problem with it, I rolled with it too. Still, I struggled with much else, and I wondered why. Plausibility is a problem I almost never have with unpretentious B-movies. Watching them, I accept without protest that I'm in a make-believe, fairy-tale-like world where unlikeliness is just a fact of life. Melodrama? Coincidences? Bring 'em on.

But when a genre story gets the full-dress treatment, as it does here, I often find that I start balking at the contrivances, even quarreling with them, and in a dopily-demanding way that just isn't like me. In this movie, for instance, I even rebelled against the film's premise. I mean, why in the world would a pro hitman hire a cabbie to drive him around on his errands? Even if he isn't a driver himself, wouldn't he at least have the sense to dial up a hitman limo service? Of course, this shouldn't have bugged me; I should have been willing to grant the film its premise. But I was bugged nonetheless. I guess I'm less generous watching an A/B movie than I am watching a true B movie. Watching a B picture, I go with the flow. Watching an A/B picture, I want to know why we should accept what we're being offered.

One other reflection concerned the overproduced-small-idea thing. When I first noticed (in the early '90s) that overproducing tiny ideas had become a major trend in popular culture, I clucked and disapproved. It was wrong, and that was that; people should grow up and get their acts together, etc. Incidentally, I wasn't alone in reacting this way. I once talked to the ad great Milton Glaser about ads and computers. He was eager to make the point that computers are dangerously-seductive tools that are lowering the quality of advertising, because they enable people to get their ideas up on their feet too damn fast. Leaping into production -- and giving that production a high level of gloss -- has become too easy and too fun, Glaser thought. People swing into action 'way before they've finished honing their concepts, the upshot being lots and lots of overstuffed, half-baked semi-ideas.

But as time has passed, I find myself wondering about this. It's certainly true that we're surrounded these days by a lot of overdone non-ideas, and why not bitch about it? On the other hand, audiences have gotten accustomed to a certain level of overproduction. They've come to expect it -- and perhaps the time has come for fogies like me to adapt to the new realities. And perhaps one genuinely good consequence of recent developments has been that whimsical, silly, and small ideas are getting more of a chance at life than they once had. I like a lot of inconsequential ideas; god knows they can deliver as much pleasure as big ideas can. And now, since it's become relatively easy to mount anything in a full-dress kind of way, charming and mischievous ideas can find a kind of media expression that, practically speaking, they never could before. So ... isn't this a development to applaud?

Not that any of the above has anything to do with these two movies ...

The other film The Wife and I took in was the infidelity drama We Don't Live Here Anymore. Michael Blowhard sez: Flee screaming! Now!

we dont live here.jpg Marital misery, the way only lit-fiction knows how.

The film was adapted from a couple of Andre Dubus short stories, and if that doesn't clue you in to the nature of the project, I don't know what will. Dubus, who died a few years ago, was a talented, diligent, award-winning guy, a worthy writer of austere and grueling short stories. Or make that "short fiction" and not "short stories," since Dubus wouldn't have recognized a story idea if it fell on him. I'm being generous here, by the way; there's also the disagreeable possibility that Dubus thought that the kind of thing he wrote was superior to storytelling. He was, in any case, one of those serious writers who isn't about to let not-having-a-story-idea get in the way of doing a lot of painful and heavyweight writin'-writin'.

The film's set in a Northwest college town and concerns two young academic families, both of them miserable in a perpetual post-grad sort of way, and all four of the parties toying with infidelity, as academics will. As The Wife said: "Academics! They've got too much time on their hands." Self-consciousness ... Spats ... Bicycle trips through wet woods ... Silent recriminations ... Betrayals ... The occasional once-we-had-hopes-and-dreams flashback ...

The Wife and I would have split after 15 minutes had it not been for the firstclass air conditioning, and for the fact that the movie gave us a case of the giggles. Cool as watermelons and whispering idiotic jokes to each other, we were able to make it through the film in a good mood.

I suppose you could praise the film by saying that it avoids cheap melodrama. You could also say "alas" to that, and spend time thinking about how very closely related "cheap melodrama" and "storytelling" seem to be. Watching the film, I amused myself thinking about the film's act structure. Was it ...

  • Act one: guilt. Act two: misery. Act three: anger.

Or, maybe it was ...

  • Act one: they argue. Act two: they rehash. Act three: they argue about arguing.

In other words, "We Don't Live Here Anymore" (sigh: that title -- doesn't it have "literary fiction" written all over it?) is like "Wonder Boys" minus the zooming-around-town hijinks; or like "Affliction" minus the Old Testament grandstanding. (Since I skipped "In the Bedroom," I can't make a crack about that film.) It's wan misery, pure and simple, over and over -- someone's Bergmanesque and idiot idea of "the truth," I suppose. Done as wildass absurdism, it might have amused. Done for humane literary profundity, it was about as entertaining as a traffic jam. The Wife was betting that one of the characters would develop a terminal illness, while I was gambling that one of the couples' children would die senselessly. Alas, no such luck -- illness or death would have required too much cheap action, I guess.

The film's pleasures include a cute college-town setting -- nice craftsman bungalows! -- plus a lot of resourceful and impassioned acting. Naomi Watts looks incredibly pretty, and is quite an actress too. She seems to have erotic mischief built into her wide, shining eyes and into the turned-up corners of her mouth -- but then she crumples convincingly into blotchy, pink-blonde despair. I love watching Laura Dern too, whose combo of intensity and goofiness I find winning, not least because it resembles The Wife's spirit; both women combine the emotional, the ridiculous, and the touching in ways I can't resist. Both women bump into things a lot, too, and also get flustered easily. Hmm, I wonder if this is a type.

The guys -- Peter Krause (breezily self-centered) and Mark Ruffalo (hesitant and guiltstruck) -- did well too. As a matter of fact, the film's acting featured a lot of the joy, ferocity, and commitment that I adore; I really, really love watching actors rip it up and show their stuff off, and god knows these four did just that. But, next time: some real material, please? Serious and grownup doesn't have to mean juiceless and inert.

Here's an interview with Naomi Watts. Here's one with Laura Dern; here's another. A brilliant insight from Dern, who's talking about Andre Dubus' writing:

I found the writing to be brilliant and sad and the women were very interesting and multi-faceted and all of those interesting things but not passionate. From what I had read of his, it seemed like there was a lot of disassociation or intellectualism of experience.

Amen to that.



posted by Michael at September 1, 2004


Re: Your skepticism of the Collateral plot...

A very similar phenomenon has cropped up in computer games recently. As certain games have tried to use better technology and bigger budgets to create realistic physics, artificial intelligence, and supremely detailed environments, a lot of players end up seeing the flaws more than adoring the advances.

For example, it was a very exciting development for gaming to have a world in which you could pick up everyday objects from the environment like, say, a plunger, and throw it across the room where it would make a sound in 3D space, thereby attracting the attention of a guard or someone so you could sneak by undetected. But when I throw the plunger, it might make a dull "clunk" sound--the same one that a box or a coin or a bicycle makes. (Who can expect the developers to make customized audio for every different object in the game... not to mention every possible surface they could collide with!)

But this inconsistency shatters the illusion. The verisimilitude of some aspects raises the bar so high that the shortcomings--completely excusable in a game released a year previously, or in a different genre--are aggravating.

It happens with artificial intelligence, as well. There's a game (called Deus Ex, if you care) which touts AIs that respond to pretty subtle changes in your behavior. And many of them do. At the same time, you can walk up to your boss' computer--while he's sitting in front of it--hack into it and read his private (uber-classified, because he's director of international counterterrorism or somesuch) email and he hardly seems to care.

As a former game developer, I know that you can't expect a design team to fill out every possible eventuality with custom content. But you also can't blame the player for expecting such when his curiosity is rewarded in some places and not in others, arbitrarily.

Posted by: Chris Floyd on September 1, 2004 5:24 PM

Chris -- That's interesting, I had no idea. It suggests that someone really ought to do a study of those things that seem to encourage people to enter into a fictional world and mindset, and those things that don't. Like you, I suspect that piling on a lot of literal-minded elements (greater realism! star power!) doesn't always result in a better experience. I wonder why, though. Any ideas? Maybe expectations get heightened, and once they are the work is then found to be lacking? A swipe people take against modernist architecture is similar. Modernist architecture uses geometry, instead of the forms of traditional architecture. But it seems to age very badly. One reason might be because the geometrical shapes (planes, voids, lines, etc) implicitly ask you to compare them to the ideal, and so your impression is that they're lacking. Where traditional architecture ages much better, because (among other reasons) it isn't asking your mind to instantly compare it to some Platonistic ideal. It is what it is, and we seem willing to find its imperfections lovable, and even to embrace them. Where imperfect modernism just seems like a failure, and kind of depressing.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 1, 2004 10:52 PM

"Getting into" the fictional midset seems to require an acceptable fantasy. The mind says "Okay, it's just a fiction" and that allows you to enter into it more fully. If it presents itself to be real then any unreality breaks it. Why first-person views are so diffcult to pull off.

Posted by: JL on September 2, 2004 8:09 AM

It's why the rather paleological special effects of the original King Kong are magical, and modern special effects are mostly tedious. The obvious artificiality of the older effects drew you into a dream state, while the almost-but-not-quite-unnoticeable effects of modern movies turn out to be mostly distancing.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 2, 2004 9:37 AM

Forgot something. I read that "We Don't Live Here Anymore" was originally adapted as a screenplay back in the 1970s. One would assume that this would be in some way visible. Was there anything interesting (even in a derisive way) about the 'time-traveling' nature of the story?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 2, 2004 9:39 AM

It's really interesting, the way some techniques, technologies, and strategies seem more prone than others to throwing you into a waking-dream state, isn't it? Or are we fooling ourselves? Does it not matter what the technique or technology is, so long as it's informed by some imagination and spirit? On the other hand, Chris' point that as you get closer to perfection some of the magic may drop away seems like a sensible one. Hmm. Hey, maybe art, in any case, can be thought of as a mix-and-match bag of tricks for creating receptive waking-dream-type states, and then having make-believe (but oh-so-real-seeming) experiences there.

I wouldn't have guessed that "We Don't Live Here" had originally been scripted back in the '70s, although it does make sense. But academics ... Not that I interact with many these days, but don't they always seem to lead the same kind of life, no matter what the decade? At least since 1955 or so. I may have been a little unfair to the movie in one sense: it's a triumph of scrappiness and resolve, and certainly very skillful. God bless the team for putting it together: $2 million, lotsa commitment and skill. Too bad about the gloomy, high-minded material though. Always a question for me: who is it who loves this kind of stuff, whether reading it or watching it? I mean, I accept that there's some kind of audience for it -- obviously that's the case. And what the heck, maybe they really enjoy this stuff. I have a very hard time leaping into that mindset, though. Any thoughts from anyone about who these people might be, and what exactly they get from this stuff?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 2, 2004 10:26 AM

Also, ditto on the quality of "We Don't Live Here Anymore." I had to gladly leave after 20 min cause of a stomache aliment. Wither it was the peanut butter M&Ms or the raging blandness on screen, I'll never know.

Posted by: JL on September 2, 2004 5:59 PM

You have more tolerance than I do, Michael. I wanted to stab someone after I came out of collateral. No movie has left me dangling such as that one.

Posted by: Neha on September 3, 2004 7:55 AM

We Don't Live Here Anymore totally seemed set in the 70s. The women didn't have jobs, or careers or aspirations or anything. They were just there.

Posted by: nushustu on September 3, 2004 9:43 PM

"In The Bedroom" had a very straightforward story arc. Could have been an episode of "Law and Order", except told from the murderer's viewpoint I guess. I thought the lit'rary stuff worked effectively give the potboiler story depth. (And double the length of the movie). I left thinking the combination of agonized overthinking and primal murder/revenge plot was pretty effective, especially since the characters likely would have been overthinking things in such extreme circumstances. Probably helped that nobody was an academic.

Posted by: MQ on September 6, 2004 3:12 AM

Except that Dern says "disassociation" instead of "dissociation." God, that drives me crazy.
What did you think of "Vanity Fair"? Some liberties taken with the story. And some anachronisms, such as having Becky sing a Tennyson poem set to music, when Lord Alfred was a child at the time (he didn't become Poet Laureate of England till 1850). Movie starts off with a sung Byron poem, which at least is in the right time frame.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on September 11, 2004 11:38 AM

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