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Daily Reads: Michael Mann on Digital Innovation and Diversity, ‘The X-Files’ as a Love Story, and More

Daily Reads: Michael Mann on Digital Innovation and Diversity, 'The X-Files' as a Love Story, and More

Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.

1. Michael Mann On His Career, Innovation, Dialogue, and Diversity.
Veteran director Michael Mann (“Heat,” “The Insider,” “Collateral”) can reasonably be described as one of Hollywood’s most progressive, groundbreaking mainstream directors, and as a result, has garnered a fairly passionate cult of fans and supporters. In honor of the big retrospective of his work at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri spoke with Mann about his career in advance of a longer discussion that occurred last night.

How different do you think a film like “Heat” might be if you were to make it today?

There are sections of “Heat” that would probably have a different iteration, and there are some sections that would be exactly the same. But I don’t know that you could get something like “Heat” made today as a feature film. Something of that size and scale, and shooting for over 100 days, you’d be hard pressed to set that up. Because, though people characterize “Heat” as a crime thriller, that’s the last thing it is, at least in my mind. It’s a very formally structured drama, and its structure is a character-driven dialectic of Hanna [Al Pacino’s character] and McCauley [Robert De Niro’s character]. Its plot is driven by a crime story and a police story to a certain point, and then it breaks into a kind of chorus. In that chorus, we see slices of these different people’s lives. The fuguelike nature of the narrative is what was so exciting to me. When you’re with McCauley, you are subjectively immersed in his life, and you want what he wants, his expectations, his ambitions — his heart is your heart. You want him to get away. When you’re with Hanna, you want him to intercept McCauley, and you want him to achieve what’s driving him. That the two of them know and like each other while they’re headed for a lethal collision, and that they’re two of the only people who are like each other in the invented universe of this movie, that’s the construction. It’s brutally rigid construction. There were other story tangents that I might have gone off on. There was at one point a fence played by John Santucci in a scene — but this kind of structure is a harsh mistress, so I cut it.

I was interested to read not long ago that German Expressionism made a big impression on you when you were young. What was it about those films that appealed to you?

When sound came in, cinema took a couple of steps backwards. It became filmed theater. Before that, to express content without sound, the drive impelled visual form and montage — in films like “Nosferatu” or “Faust,” for example, by [F.W.] Murnau. It was adventurous cinema, and I was very taken with it when I first got interested in film. When I was doing “The Insider,” trying to make a suspenseful drama from two hours and 45 minutes of people talking, the first thing I did was go look at Carl Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” Nobody shot the human head as adroitly and expressively as he did.

2. Close Encounters: The Return of “The X-Files.”
In case you haven’t heard, Fox has revived “The X-Files” for a six-episode miniseries. Though some critics haven’t been big fans of the revival, many have enjoyed seeing their favorite FBI agents on screen again (especially after the Darin Morgan episode). For BFI’s Sight & Sound Magazine, Keith Uhlich explores how “The X-Files” is a love story at its heart.

Ask people about “The X-Files” and it’s likely they’ll fondly recall the earlier years while dismissing the later ones. The break-up points are never entirely the same. For some it was when the series stopped filming in atmospherically misty Vancouver and moved production to sun-baked Los Angeles. For others it was the moment, different for everyone, when the show’s overarching narrative (which dealt with the alien colonization of Earth, but was interrupted for large portions of each season by a number of standalone “Monster of the Week” episodes) became too convoluted for its own good. For still others, it was after season seven, when Duchovny split, frustrated by the rigorous filming schedule and angry with Fox for holding out on profits, appearing in only half the episodes of season eight and one instalment of season nine; those years showcased a new pair of agents, John Doggett (Robert Patrick) and Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish), toward whom many fans were decidedly ambivalent, if not outright hostile. Multiple answers, none of them definitive – kind of like an X-File. But reactions cut the other way, too. In the run-up to the new series a few devoted X-Philes (the official moniker for fans) have voiced their appreciation for the latter seasons. Some have even spoken of their love of the much maligned second theatrical feature, “The X-Files: I Want to Believe” (2008), which was more concerned with intimately scrutinizing the Mulder-Scully relationship than providing “closure” to the labyrinthine narrative that Carter and his collaborators devised, not always elegantly, over a labor-intensive decade. Though mainstream appeal has waned, the cult persists. For a number of reasons, I’m one of those who proselytize for the series in toto – peaks, valleys and plateaux. One among many: “The X-Files’s” fascinating role in blurring the line between cinema and television – always a touchy subject, especially at a time when so many think-piece writers and social media posters sound off defensively about how TV is so good now. In the mid-80s and early 90s, shows such as “Miami Vice” and “Twin Peaks” brought to American television a unique aesthetic sensibility, always eye-catching and at best profoundly evocative, that seemed closer to the silver screen than their predecessors. “The X-Files” built on their example. In several interviews Carter has talked about how he and his creative team approached each episode like a movie. Though the average shooting schedule was only eight days, Carter and his producers ceded as much creative leeway to the writers, directors, special effects artists and other key crew as possible. Admirable in some respects and quixotic in others, this meant that the team had to work long hours over 11½ months to produce between 20 and 25 such installments per season. (And Carter has also said that if he wasn’t thinking about the following season during his annual two-week holiday, he’d already be behind when he came back to work.) Given these factors, it’s incredible that the show’s quality remains so consistently high. Even the weakest episodes have at least one striking element: the season three installment “Teso dos Bichos,” with its infamous batch of killer kitty cats, is widely regarded as a nadir, but still features one of Mulder’s funniest moments (“Ladies first,” he says to Scully before they enter a muddy underground tunnel). And what often goes unmentioned in discussions of the series is that, in the era before showrunners like David Chase (“The Sopranos”), Matthew Weiner (“Mad Men”) and “X-Files” alumnus Vince Gilligan (“Breaking Bad”) were king, this was one of the few long-running TV productions where the original creator/executive producer guided it the whole way through. Michael Mann left “Miami Vice.” David Lynch departed “Twin Peaks.” Joss Whedon took a back seat on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” But Carter (minus a brief period during contract negotiations for season nine) stayed on. Every decision made in the series, for good and ill, bears his imprint.

3. “Making a Murderer” and the Shame of Wisconsin.
Netflix’s ten-hour true-crime documentary “Making a Murderer” captivated the public at large with its depiction of miscarried justice that happens far too often in this country. The New York Review of Books’ Lorrie Moore examines “Making a Murderer” and Wisconsin’s reputation for the weird.

Wisconsin is probably the most beautiful of the Midwestern farm states. Its often dramatic terrain, replete with unglaciated driftless areas, borders not just the Mississippi River but two great inland seas whose opposite shores are so far away they cannot be glimpsed standing at water’s edge. The world across the waves looks distant to nonexistent, and the oceanic lakes stretch and disappear into haze and sky, though one can take a ferry out of a town called Manitowoc and in four hours get to Michigan. Amid this somewhat lonely serenity, there are the mythic shipwrecks, blizzards, tornadoes, vagaries of agricultural life, industrial boom and bust, and a burgeoning prison economy; all have contributed to a local temperament of cheerful stoicism. Nonetheless, a feeling of overlookedness and isolation can be said to persist in America’s dairyland, and the idea that no one is watching can create a sense of invisibility that leads to the secrets and labors that the unseen are prone to: deviance and corruption as well as utopian projects, untested idealism, daydreaming, provincial grandiosity, meekness, flight, far-fetched yard decor, and sexting. Al Capone famously hid out in Wisconsin, even as Robert La Follette’s Progressive Party was getting underway. Arguably, Wisconsin can boast the three greatest American creative geniuses of the twentieth century: Frank Lloyd Wright, Orson Welles, and Georgia O’Keeffe, though all three quickly left, first for Chicago, then for warmer climes. (The state tourism board’s campaign “Escape to Wisconsin” has often been tampered with by bumper sticker vandals who eliminate the preposition.) More recently, Wisconsin is starting to become known less for its ever-struggling left-wing politics or artistic figures — Thornton Wilder, Laura Ingalls Wilder — than for its ever-wilder murderers. The famous late-nineteenth-century “Wisconsin Death Trip,” by which madness and mayhem established the legend that the place was a frigid frontier where inexplicably gruesome things occurred — perhaps due to mind-wrecking weather — has in recent decades seemingly spawned a cast of killers that includes Ed Gein (the inspiration for “Psycho”), the serial murderer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer, and the two Waukesha girls who in 2014 stabbed a friend of theirs to honor their idol, the Internet animation Slender Man.

4. Celebrating “The Silence of the Lambs'” Use of Subjective Camera.
This Sunday is the 25th anniversary of Jonathan Demme’s critical and commercial smash “The Silence of the Lambs.” Though the film has many wonderful qualities, especially stellar performances by Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey explores its use of subjective camera.

Subjective camera is nothing new; throughout the history of cinema (and particularly in the canon of thrillers and horror), directors have used point-of-view to show us what a character sees, and how and when they see it. So the innovation is not how Demme and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto use their camera to show us what protagonist Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is seeing – although there is plenty of that, with the camera taking on her perspective in a Quantico fight training session, after she shoos the deputies from the autopsy room, as she looks down on the bug experts playing chess, as she discovers the story of Buffalo Bill’s latest victim on a student lounge television. Such moments – usually bracketed by reverses of Clarice looking, or reacting to what she’s looking at – are common cinematic language. But the most interesting of these shots go a step further, and propel us into Demme’s primary flourish. When she surveys the holding area outside the block of maximum security cells that house Dr. Lecter, the filmmakers end a full 360-degree pan around the room by landing on orderly Barney (Frankie Faison), who addresses her by speaking directly into Fujimoto’s lens. Her rough, jangly POV shot down that terrifying hallway, facing forward then glancing to the side, again lands on another person (Lecter this time, standing at attention in his cell), who speaks straight into camera. And continues to. When most filmmakers shoot one-on-one dialogue scenes, they either frame their subjects looking slightly off-camera (as though the other character is just out of frame), or they place the camera over the other party’s shoulder, making the speaker’s focus even clearer. What Demme does, in scene after scene of “Silence of the Lambs,” is drop those distancing devices and place his camera directly in the middle of the conversation: his characters/actors speak straight into camera, as though it is the other actor, and he reverses to show the other actor doing the same. It’s initially a jarring effect, simply by virtue of unfamiliarity; we’re used to off-camera eyelines and over-the-shoulder shots, so it’s unnerving for a filmmaker to flip the script. But it’s never done arbitrarily, or even immediately. In several scenes – Clarice’s first sit-down with boss Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), for example, or her analysis of the case files late in the film with classmate Ardelia (Kasi Lemmons) – we begin in conventional compositions, over-the-shoulders and two-shots, only moving in to straight-on close-ups once the characters have made intellectual or emotional connections.

5. “Bunheads” Was the First “Gilmore Girls” Revival, With Added Dance Numbers.
You may have heard that Netflix is reviving “Gilmore Girls,” Amy Sherman-Palladino’s popular series about single mother Lorelai (Lauren Graham) and her daughter Rory (Alexis Bledel). But did you know about Sherman-Palladino’s other cancelled-too-soon series “Bunheads”? The A.V. Club’s Gwen Ihnat examines “Bunheads” as the first “Gilmore Girls” revival, but with added dance numbers.

By the time a showrunner becomes a household name, they’re usually known for a diverse legacy of shows: The wide sitcom stables of Norman Lear and Garry Marshall, Aaron Sorkin’s line of walk-and-talks, the many kingdoms of Shondaland. Amy Sherman-Palladino, however, is still primarily known for one show that ended nine years ago. But that one show was legendary. After cutting their teeth on sitcoms like “Roseanne,” Sherman-Palladino and her husband Daniel Palladino took a fateful trip to to the east coast, stopping over in the small town of Washington, Connecticut. Charmed by her surroundings, Sherman-Palladino was inspired to create “Gilmore Girls” and the idyllic New England village of Stars Hollow. The show revolved, Mayberry-like, around the goings-on in Stars Hollow, particularly the lives and loves of its resident innkeeper Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham) and her daughter Rory (Alexis Bledel). Affection for “Gilmore Girls” and anticipation for its upcoming Netflix revival can be traced back to two roots: Graham’s performance as Lorelai, and Sherman-Palladino’s hilarious, pop-culture-literate dialogue. Scripts for “Gilmore Girls” were notoriously twice as thick as the average hour-long TV episode, requiring the cast to speak extremely fast while playing off of one another. Graham shimmered as Lorelai, who rarely paused for breath between bon mots. Sherman-Palladino left her own creation following some failed behind-the-scenes negotiations during the sixth season; one year later, “Gilmore Girls” was no more. She tried her hand at a more standard sitcom in 2008 (“The Return Of Jezebel James”), then set up “The Wyoming Story” at The CW in 2010. The latter series never made it to air, though its small-town setting, prodigal-child protagonist, and supporting turn from former Stars Hollow inhabitant Rose Abdoo might have struck a chord with the “Gilmore” faithful—as would her next production. “Bunheads” also took place in an idyllic small town (Paradise, California), and featured a thirtysomething woman dealing with the adolescent girl (or four) in her life. The show wisely drafted from the supporting ranks of “Gilmore Girls,” casting Abdoo, Liza Weil, Sean Gunn, and, most importantly, Kelly Bishop. (Alan Ruck, the villain of “The Wyoming Story,” came along as well.) There were the familiar soundtrack guitar strums, “la la la’s,” and impossibly cluttered yet charming living spaces, too.

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