' ' Cinema Romantico: One Perfect Moment

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

One Perfect Moment

It might seem strange to consider Tony Gilroy’s “Michael Clayton” (2007) in conjunction with Wim Wenders’s “Perfect Days” (reviewed yesterday), even if, like me, the former is a movie you are thinking about all the time. “Perfect Days” is a contemplative drama in which nothing much happens. Indeed, nothing much happening is the point. It is a portrait of mindfulness, of a man, Hirayama (Kōji Yakusho), fully aware of and present in the moment, and how he seeks to remain that way each successive day. “Michael Clayton” is a fast-moving crime thriller with a jigsaw plot structure and an eponymous character (George Clooney), a law firm fixer, who is anything but mindful, his mind always churning instead, eternally on the clock, evinced in the opening scene’s early morning consultation. He is dealing with familial strife stemming from a deadbeat brother, and a bar business that went bust in part because of his deadbeat brother, and a mob debt on account of the bar business that went bust, and trying to wrangle one of his firm’s lawyers who has gone off the deep end, or maybe just come to see the light, making a case against his biggest client who, in a way, Michael starts making a case against too, all of which comes to a head during a fateful drive through the country roads of upstate New York in a car with a bomb wired to the GPS by two corporate hatchet men who are tailing him, or trying to, and trying to find the right moment to trigger the explosion. 

The contrasts extend further than the narrative too, and to the character, the performance, the framing. Hirayama is frequently seen alone in “Perfect Days,” but he is not alone, whether reading in his small apartment by lamp, or eating alone at a noodle bar, a picture of contentment. In images of Michael Clayton alone, on the other hand, he is the furthest thing from. When he’s sitting at a police precinct, waiting for the off-the-deep-end attorney he is struggling to corral, Clooney puts his chin on his hand, staring into space, and you can practically see his mind on everything. One of my three-hundred favorite moments in the whole movie is when Michael is in his office and on the phone with a client and says “Let me get a pen,” even though we can see he already has a pen in his hand, and as he momentarily lowers the phone, pretending to go find a pen, he comes across as a bone-weary man trying to steal a moment for himself in a world that won’t let him have it.

There is one moment ostensibly confounding moment in “Michael Clayton,” “the case of the three horses,” as a Roger Ebert Answer Man column put it the year of the movie’s release. This moment occurs at the climax, when Michael is driving around upstate New York, and suddenly pulls off to the side of the road, and gets out of his car, and ascends a small hill, all because he is riveted by the semi-surreal sight of three horses all on their lonesome in the early morning light. It’s true that Gilroy has planted little seeds in the narrative to make this make literal sense for the message board-styled critics, but it’s also true that you could not so much interpret this moment a thousand different ways as project what you think this moment means a thousand different ways, as Googling “Michael Clayton horses meaning” will attest. But a movie is only “exactly what is shows us,” as the esteemed Ebert also once noted, “and nothing more.” And what we have is an unmindful man who, for the first time all movie, becomes fully aware of the moment, and only the moment, and as his car going up in flames over his right shoulder illustrates, that newfound mindfulness saves his life. 

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