Thursday, July 15, 2010
A Genuine Taste For It
You should probably know that I’m a pretty dull person with relatively boring taste in things that can sometimes fall right in line with the mainstream. I think CHEERS is the best sitcom ever, to me THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY is the funniest film the Farrelly Brothers have ever made and I may as well admit that in all honesty when it comes to films based on the novels of Thomas Harris I prefer Jonathan Demme’s THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS to Michael Mann’s MANHUNTER. Demme’s film was justifiably deemed a classic so quickly that it’s allowed the hardcore auteurists out there to pick up the slack in favor of the earlier film. It’s probably helped that Mann’s career has come a long way in the past few decades while Demme’s career has gone in other directions away from the mainstream, clearly showing that the man’s interests lie elsewhere (speaking for myself I can respect someone who marches to their own drummer but still feel that Demme’s post-SILENCE career has to be one of the biggest disappointments of the past twenty years of film). THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS was of course a massive hit (domestic gross: $130 million), won five Oscars including Best Picture and so much of it has seeped into pop culture that its most famous elements have long since crossed the line into parody. In contrast, MANHUNTER, based on the novel “Red Dragon”, is the more sedate procedural, critically respected but a box office disappointment (domestic gross: $8.6 million), eschewing blatant serial killer thrills for instead attempting to truly examine how such things get under your skin and doesn’t necessarily deliver in the way you might expect. It also offers a presentation of its most famous character in a way that, whatever else you might want to say about it, doesn’t offer much interpretation for spoofing.
At least part of my preference is due to my own personal experience. Seeing THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS on its opening weekend back in February 1991 was an electric experience of the sort that I have rarely experienced in a theater before or since, where I genuinely felt a charge through the audience as if it was witnessing something truly exciting, truly memorable. That memory is certainly an emotional response for me, a feeling I retain to this day and such a reaction is not something that MANHUNTER, released less than five years earlier in August 1986 by DEG, ever goes for—it’s not so much a more intellectual approach as it is a clinical one and while it doesn’t work as well for me its best moments are there, unavoidable, in some cases unexplainable. And yet those scenes and moments never quite coalesce into a whole as effective as some of it truly is. With MANHUNTER’s reputation growing through the years along with the status of its director the film recently screened at the New Beverly for a Saturday midnight show. As it turned out, I didn’t think the movie exactly came off as ideal for the late hour—it may actually be the quietest serial killer movie ever made, the famous use of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” excepted, but even in this context getting to study some of these images on the big screen had its own rewards.
Retired FBI specialist Will Graham (William Petersen) who has the ability to think just like the killers who he pursues is talked into coming back to the job for one more case by his former boss Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) against the wishes of wife Molly (BRAZIL’s Kim Greist) to help catch a serial killer who has been snidely dubbed the ‘Tooth Fairy’ who has been known to brutally kill entire families. Graham’s investigation includes him having to meet with Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox) a brilliant psychopath whose capture was the reason for Graham leaving in the first place. As Will continues to pursue the Tooth Fairy he once again has to deal with these feelings he has been able to keep buried as his family is suddenly forced to go into hiding and the Tooth Fairy himself, actually named Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan) finds himself falling in love with a beautiful blind co-worker Reba McClane (Joan Allen) who he thinks may be his one chance at a normal life.
It diminishes both films to compare them so directly and the two directors are different enough in their basic approaches that it really seems pointless--one imagines Mann and Demme not having enough in common to carry a conversation over dinner, let alone taking source material that shares certain characters and approaching them in the same way. In comparison to Demme’s much more humanistic approach with the Bernard Herrmann-like power of Howard Shore’s score, MANHUNTER is much quieter, introspective as if its trying to force us into paying attention to what’s happening—its opening credits are just a few steps close to being totally silent as if reminding the audience to listen (and look) closely for the next two hours. MANHUNTER has appeared in several different versions over the years including a single network airing back in the nineties which nonsensically retitled it RED DRAGON: THE PURSUIT OF HANNIBAL LECTER in order to capitalize on the growing Lecter popularity. The different cuts (even reading up on the film I can’t tell how many there really are. Four? Five? Six?) seen on tape, disc and cable in addition to the original theatrical release are par for the course for Mann who never seems to tire of tinkering with his films past the point of theatrical release (I imagine him at home right now, recutting some section of THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS for a new Blu-Ray release. Does he work on old STARSKY AND HUTCH scripts too?). Since I’m not an expert on this film like some people are I couldn’t state all the differences but I certainly noticed that the 2001 Anchor Bay DVD I’m checking out as I write this for reference is missing what for me seeing it at the New Beverly was a key point of dialogue spoken by Will Graham, providing a point of clarity to his feelings on who he’s pursuing (“As a child, my heart bleeds for him. Someone took a little boy and turned him into a monster. But as an adult... as an adult, he's irredeemable…”) so the whims of Mann in reworking his films clearly know no end of frustrations. The degree of obsession his films express makes this understandable but no matter what, MANHUNTER, watching it at home or at the New Beverly, is always MANHUNTER. It’s a work that at times reaches almost masterful levels yet I constantly feel at a distance from it as if a silk screen is in the way preventing me from reaching some further understanding of it all.
Maybe Kubrick is an obvious point of comparison in its portrayal of obsession but more than that the film puts me in the mind of William Friedkin and not just because Petersen had just starred in TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. the previous year. Actually, it’s not even that the style of MANHUNTER feels all that much like Friedkin but there is a certain attention to detail as well as the basic idea of observing process which causes certain moments to stick out—those crime scene photos left out on the plane so the young girl gets an unfortunate look at them is one, or Graham somehow trying to focus on the grass in front of him after the trauma of his meeting with Lecktor--but I feel distanced from the cool style, stark angles with architecture to match, the overwhelming feeling of Blue & White that screams some of my least favorite traits of the eighties (I never got into the MIAMI VICE TV show all that much back in the day either—maybe I’ve got a mental block to this type of thing) along with some music that works great and some that is, for me, the worse the decade has to offer such as the song “Heartbeat” over the end credits, for one. It causes me to mentally check out on occasion, wondering if this is deliberately elliptical storytelling or if we’re just missing a reel of vital info, searching for that extra layer just as I get lost in gazing at those birds flapping behind Petersen in one of his reveries as the character gazes at his wife. Part of Mann’s M.O. seems to be to avoid the expected suspense at certain points and the late appearance of Joan Allen’s surprisingly forward character throws us just as it throws Dollarhyde—we don’t know what to make of this expression of seeming warmth any more than he does. Elements like this mean that I always feel like I’m studying MANHUNTER more than watching it. This isn’t a bad thing at all but there are points where I wonder if there aren’t a few drawbacks.
The fractured narrative of MANHUNTER, screenplay adaptation written by Mann, includes not introducing its ‘villain’ until nearly the halfway point but even if the already incarcerated Lecter/Lektor character didn’t happen to become much more famous later on (in a film which used the spelling of the character from the original novel), it’s possible that the Tooth Fairy would still be overshadowed by the handful of appearances of Dr. Hannibal Lecktor as played by Brian Cox. With only a fraction of the screen time Anthony Hopkins had in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, a performance which became legend by the end of that film’s opening weekend, Cox brings a chilly force to his few minutes, a power that is unexplainable in its own way—several years after I first saw this film for the first time on cable just about all I remembered was the calm, chilly power he has in casually getting Will Graham’s home address during the phone call scene. If it were his only appearance it might be considered one of the best one-scene performances of all time but his earlier meeting with Graham is almost as powerful in how the two actors play it (his third scene, where he and Graham confer via phone late in the film, isn’t at all bad but doesn’t feel quite so essential to me, maybe because the narrative has moved past Lecktor by that point). The humor of this character, tossed off as he places a stick of gum in his mouth feels almost offhand, just as any of the spare pieces humor in the film does, like the technician who offers, “You’re so sly, but so am I,” when making a discovery, which I know was once said by Phil Hartman on an episode of NEWSRADIO.
With the meaning of the Red Dragon and its relation to Dollarhyde that the novel took its title from (for the record, I’ve read the books of SILENCE and HANNIBAL but never this one so all I have to go on is my perception of the film) feeling like it has been de-emphasized in accordance to its removal from the title (the existence of certain stills indicate how much was really shot to tie into the mythos) it seems to mean that when Dollarhyde’s death pose recalls the look of the Dragon doesn’t have as much resonance as it probably intended to at one stage. The point of MANHUNTER appears to be observing the process of how these characters studiously move through this case to a point where its no longer safe for their own stability, but Mann as director also somewhat makes it about his own experimentations with structure, with periods of silence and oblique jump cuts in the climax (not as noticeable in the print as it’s always been on video for me, but maybe it was the late hour). He’s not interested in the machinations of the plot as much as examining what this is all doing to the character of Will Graham as he studies this case of a killer who invades white upper middle class households. It’s a world that I imagine Graham would like he and wife Molly to be a part of, but it’s not something he’s able to do and his tiny beachfront house with no backyard (how the Tooth Fairy seems to gain access to each of the homes he invades) feels appropriately like a place to hide out from the world. Mann prominently focuses on the trauma that the lead character once went through and is now going through again, feelings he articulates to his son played by David Seaman in the strangest supermarket scene ever shot and even if it didn’t contain the most distracting continuity errors in the history of film it would still feel like these several minutes are more about the Kubrickian prominence of the cereal boxes behind William Petersen more than anything the two are discussing. It doesn’t help but the child actor playing the son isn’t particularly good either (among other non-actors distractingly sprinkled throughout the film) and it occurs to me that all of the strengths and weaknesses in the film are best exemplified in this one scene. A foreground we desire to pay attention to in danger of being overwhelmed by a background that for reasons which come off as mysterious makes its presence known whether it should or not. It winds up revealing the best and worst of what Michael Mann is capable as a director, all in what would in most other director’s hands be a simple dialogue scene. I’ll gladly state that I worship at the altar of HEAT, THE INSIDER as well as parts of COLLATERAL and don’t wish to hear from anyone saying otherwise…but there are times in some of his other films where the flaws that result in spite of (or is it because of?) his obsessive quest for perfection are impossible to ignore. They’re just as clear in the frame as those damn cereal boxes.
Petersen delivers a strong conviction to the character, bringing the viewer into his eyes and selling the scenes where he does nothing but talk aloud, piecing together the puzzle, not something every actor could pull off without getting bad laughs. Greist and Farina both strong support, Tom Noonan’s inherent oddness as Dollarhyde barely seems to warrant calling him a villain…he’s just somehow other, compulsively watchable every single second he's onscreen. Stephen Lang (one of the best things in Mann’s PUNLIC ENEMIES is enjoyably sleazy as Freddy Lounds and Joan Allen is greatly effective in her relatively brief screen time, making me wonder what her character is like when she’s not suddenly finding herself in a serial killer thriller. Chris Elliott turns up briefly as one of the FBI analysts (in an interview years later he confessed to feeling bad that his presence may have caused some unfortunate laughter), Benjamin Hendrickson brings some intriguing officiousness to his brief portrayal of Dr. Chilton (an extra Chilton scene exists, just not cut into the film) and Frankie Faison, Barney the orderly in the three Lecter films with Hopkins, is seen as Lt. Fisk. A number of bit players seem to be non-actors, some more distracting than others in their appearances—this is one of those areas that I think Friedkin succeeds at more.
Even if I feel somewhat resistant to it, the nature of what Mann and cinematographer Dante Spinotti achieve with their framing of these stark images is at times impossible to shake and reminds me of Tarantino’s comment spoken once at the New Beverly that when Michael Mann went all-digital we lost him as an artist. Whatever my feelings on its drawbacks, the film’s approach to the serial killer format has been influential—I’m no fan of the TV show CRIMINAL MINDS but I see much more MANHUNTER in there than SILENCE (For the record, I haven’t brought up Brett Ratner’s RED DRAGON, the film that remade this with Hopkins because, really what’s the point?). Taken on its own, MANHUNTER exists as a record of Mann’s style in development on its way to greatness which hadn’t revealed itself yet. If there’s something in there I don’t respond to it may be me, it may be the film. It may be my own expectations or even limitations. Or maybe I just haven’t looked closely enough yet. But, like every film I encounter, I can only really judge what I see with my own eyes.