' ' Cinema Romantico: Parsing Miami Vice: Screen Shots on the Figurative Wall, Part 3

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Parsing Miami Vice: Screen Shots on the Figurative Wall, Part 3

Parsing Miami Vice: Screen Shots on the Figurative Wall is Cinema Romantico’s sporadic pseudo art exhibition in which we peruse frames from Michael Mann’s Miami Vice (2006) like the paintings they pretty much are.

Back in July, My Beautiful, Perspicacious Wife and I attended the Chicago Art Institute’s John Singer Sargent exhibition, appropriately titled John Singer Sargent and Chicago’s Gilded Age. Sargent was a painter known predominantly for his portraits, though this exhibition encompassed other aspects of his work, and he was often hired by those for whom the Gilded Age was particularly beneficial As such, many of the portraits, I learned, emphasized clothing and accoutrement as much as the sitting person’s expression or visage.

Michael Mann got his start writing the pilot episode for Aaron Spelling’s “Vega$”, a city Mann praised in Lynn Hirschberg’s excellent New York Times 2004 profile of the director, offering it the sort of compliments one might have bestwoed upon Gilded Age Chicago. And the Reagan Years were nothing if not their own sort of Gilded Age, and Mann’s small screen version of “Miami Vice” took flight in the 80s, a show where Mann, as Hirschberg noted, banned earth tones. “He can spot the wrong tie in a sea of extras,” Hirschberg wrote, “and will park a boring white car next to a snazzier baby blue model to enhance the mood. ‘Adding white always makes color burn a little,’ (Mann) has said. '’I got that idea from a 20th-century British painter.’”

Mann’s movie version of “Miami Vice”, shot in high def, was grainier and moodier than the TV show, though Mann still lingered over the benefits, if accompanying dangers, of a different kind of privilege. When the movie’s detectives working deep undercover find themselves face to face with Arcangel de Jesus Montoya (Luis Tosar), kingpin of a vertically integrated multinational drug cartel, and his accountant Isabella (Gong Li), in the back of an SUV, Mann briefly lingers over shots of each character’s wristwatch, a timekeeping emblem of power and wealth. Later, in a sequence at his compound near Iguazu Falls, we glimpse Montoya in his master suite, relaxed in bed, wearing just a pajama top and boxer shorts, smoking a cigar, supremely looking the part of a big shot, which Mann shows in long and medium shots to ensure we get the full picture. Eventually, however, in conversation with Isabella, Mann cuts to a close-up.

My favorite Sargent portrait in the exhibition was that of ‘Miss Priestley’ (c. 1889). The placard indicated that Sargent was as taken with Miss Flora Priestley’s dress, as well as the flowers she was holding, as he was her actual visage. And yet the visage is what struck me. The arched eyebrows, the superciliousness with which she is looking away, the slightly opened lips, as if she is about to say something snide; it’s as if the face is telling you that she could not care less what she is wearing or holding in her hand. As I looked at ‘Miss Priestley’, I kept thinking that if I was in the editing room, I would have been imploring for a cut to a close-up. 

As I looked at ‘Miss Priestley’, I kept thinking of this close-up in “Miami Vice”, and how Montoya is looking away, a la Miss Priestley, though in this case you can feel the fire of his eyes, as if the red-hued backdrop is smoldering coal feeding into his optic furnace, directed at someone rather than dismissing everyone. Tosar was a Spanish actor with whom I was unfamiliar going in, but casting your gaze over this close-up for a good long awhile, it’s not hard not to think he must have been handpicked by Mann simply because of his formidable eyebrows and coronal mass ejection eyes, readymade for a cinematic portrait remodeling gilded as ravenous sin.

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