' Cinema Romantico: Inadvertent Aerial Transcendence

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Inadvertent Aerial Transcendence

In an interview with Oliver MacMahon regarding “Runoff”, director Kimberly Levin talks about the way in which she and her filmmaking team pulled off the all-important recurring shots of a bi-plane dusting crops. She explained they needed several takes from a trio of set-ups, yet had no way to communicate with the pilot whose plane only held enough fuel for forty-five minutes, a blip of time in movie-making land. Still, they made it work, and Levin reverently deemed it “forty-five minutes of serendipity.” It made me think of another shot in a different film involving a plane.

Michael Mann, I suspect, is anti-serendipity. He has been termed a good many things in his quality-laden filmmaking career but one label that often seems to apply above all others is this: meticulous. He is finicky in his craft to the point of extreme notoriety. There is an oft-repeated claim, such as here by the esteemed Matt Zoller Seitz, that on “The Insider” Mann re-shot an entire scene because he didn’t care for the actor’s tie. It’s that sorta meticulousness. Like, you’re surprised to find out he didn’t invent a time machine to film “Last of the Mohicans” in 1757, space-time continuum be damned because authenticity matters more and the Fort William Henry needed to be the Fort William Henry.

“Miami Vice” might have been Mann at both his most meticulous and his most maddeningly out of control. His budget spiraled and his shooting schedule mushroomed as he sought to achieve his vision, causing divisiveness among the crew and cast, even making its star, Jamie Foxx, take his ball and briefly go home. A crew member quoted by Slate for a story involving the torturous process was quoted as saying how the film “was being written essentially by Michael on the fly. … That kind of indecision becomes a systemic thing. It’s hard, at the last minute, to make deals with vendors, rent a plane, to close down a freeway.” Rent a plane. Ah yes.

There’s a sequence in the film wherein our main characters, deep undercover, are transporting drugs up from South America and into Miami aboard a plane. To do so, they “pancake”, as Mann tells us on the film’s director’s commentary, by bringing their plane so close to another plane in mid-air that it looks like one aircraft on radar. It’s a snappy little sequence. None of it, though, compares to its capping shot, that of the plane, soaring above the Floridian swampy marsh and toward a horizon consumed by an immense and immaculately splendiferous thunderhead, an image that has nothing to do with anything, really, but is so elementally staggering the only proper response is breathless adoration. It’s a shot founded on the Zen principle that if one were to dissect it then it would cease to be Zen.


So, how did Mann render this shot? Did he have a copy of the weather forecast, a camera locked and loaded and a plane and pilot at the ready for a moment when a rainstorm might unleash? Did he just fly around and around for hours, waiting, hoping, and re-fueling mid-flight? Did he manipulate the atmosphere with some sort of weather machine he built from scratch in his basement? He’s Michael Mann! He must have found a way to bend nature to his will. Or, for once, were the circumstances of majestic cinema beyond his control?

If you don’t remember the artwork for Bruce Springsteen’s 1980 “Hungry Heart” single it featured The Boss himself with a just-kicking-it look on the Asbury Park boardwalk. Behind him, to the left, is a woman propped up on a bike as she leans into a phone booth, making a call. Her back is to the camera. We can’t see her face. Her identity is a mystery. At least, it was a mystery. That woman, Annmarie Solimini Adderley, it was revealed in a story for The Coaster Online that did the investigative work, had no idea she was being photographed or even any idea Bruce was there. It just happened. It’s accidentally iconic.

On the “Miami Vice” director’s commentary, Mann offers no comment on the shot. It glides by unmentioned. And so I like to think that maybe there’s nothing for him to say. Maybe those thunderheads were the cinematic equivalent of Annmarie Solimini Adderley, in the right place at the right time. Maybe even the meticulous Michael Mann, stickler of sticklers, can occasionally be the recipient of a few minutes of serendipity.

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