Despite grossing nearly $26 million at the box office in its opening weekend, Michael Mann’s most recent film, Miami Vice, a remake of the 1980s television series, turned out to be neither a commercial nor critical success. Box-office returns fell sharply in the weeks that followed the opening. The movie was widely panned by reviewers, many of whom cited an incoherent narrative, a lack of chemistry between costars Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell, and a departure from the campy style of the original series as grounds for their disappointment. A handful of critics, however, found treasure in the other men’s trash, with Peter Travers (Rolling Stone), Scott Foundas (The Village Voice) and A. O. Scott (The New York Times) leading the pirates’ charge. For the most part, those who claim to have enjoyed the movie talk about things like its “visual miracles,” and “visceral impact,” or its thematic treatment of loss, loneliness, and impossible love, which Travers calls “lived-in and achingly real,” or else some combination of the two.
In Mr. Scott’s piece, however, something more is at stakesomething more, that is, than simply offering opinions on the visual and thematic merits of the film. Which is not to say that he doesn’t offer these opinions in the meantime. His final judgment is neither more serious nor more sophisticated than those of the others, and is perhaps best summed up in the final sentence: “This was not a job that anyone needed to do, but then again no one could have done it better.” But it’s the means by which Scott arrives at this conclusionthe technical language he uses, the erudite collection of artists and artworks he invokes, the deeply reflexive structure of the argumentthat suggests Scott’s main concern is not to tell us whether we should see the movie, but to offer an entirely new context in which to talk about not only this, but perhaps any film.
Scott’s piece is laden with phrases from art history and philosophy textbooks. He describes shots as “painterly compositions,” and lauds Mann’s “formal ambition.” When he calls the entire effort “frequently sublime,” it’s much more likely that he means the word in Kant’s or Lyotard’s sense than in the colloquial one, where it’s merely a refined synonym for “really great.”
Equally unavoidable in Scott’s discussions are terms from technical film language. Scott talks about “set-pieces” and “meticulously choreographed” movements. Scott makes sure we know that the film was shot in high-definition video, and calls attention to its capability for “depth of focus.” The camera moves, he says, “with leisurely, voluptuous sensuality,” and if this isn’t precisely technical language, the very fact that he uses such words in describing the cinematography means he’s paying pretty close attention to the technique itself.
Scott’s references also draw heavily on the history of art and film. Though he sometimes contextualizes the movie amidst the mainstream, some of the more crucial elements of his argument derive from more eclectic invocations. Scott writes, for example: “Some of the most captivating sequences have an abstract quality, as if Mr. Mann were paying homage to…Stan Brakhage.” What Scott calls Mann’s “quixotic devotion” is said to “transform the film into a dazzling (and sometimes daft) Wagnerian spectacle.”
If the sound of Brakhage’s or Wagner’s name in a review of a movie like this one, from a director like Mann, in a publication like The New York Timeswhich is to say, a mainstream movie from a mainstream director in the third most widely read newspaper in the countrystrikes our ears as discordant, it’s with good reason. What business does Mr. Scott have talking about avant-garde cinema and opera, film aesthetics and camera technique in this contextespecially when he doesn’t care to explain a single term along the way? Did he forget which movie he was writing about? Or which publication he was writing for?
No. He hasn’t forgotten. In fact, this discordance, this juxtaposition of high discourse and common venue and subject, is completely intentional. Scott fancies himself a judge of art and an historian of filmthat much is clear. But if his desire were to be an art-critic or a film scholar, to know with certainty that each and every technical reference and historical allusion hit its mark with every reader, he could certainly do so. But he probably wouldn’t be writing about Miami Vice and he definitely wouldn’t be publishing the majority of his work in The Times, which he does. Here’s why.
A. O. Scott wants to write about movies that normal people actually see. Of course, the vast majority of those movies aren’t all that good, and most critics hoping to write about what they perceive as Art in a way befitting of Art wouldn’t go near themexcept to say, perhaps, that they’re irrelevant, superficial, ornastiest of all“commercial.” But Scott wants to eliminate the gap between audience and critic. He’s fighting against the mutual resentment that flourishes between mainstream audiences and film reviewers—best articulated perhaps by a sophomore in high school wearing dirty sweatpants and Reeboks who tells his mom, upon hearing that such-and-such critic said the movie he’s planning to go see is awful, “I don’t care about those guys. Whatever they hate, I always like.” I’ve never seen a film critic publish those exact words in regard to audiences, but it’s not hard to imagine them saying them to each other in private.
A. O. Scott doesn’t want to be the one ruining our fun. He doesn’t want to be the one to say that our favorite Will Farrell movie is not worth seeing because the plot is conventional, or that it makes no sense, or because Will Farrell plays the same character in every movie. Instead, he wants to tell us that we have a right to enjoy the movies we do, even if they don’t quite attain the status of Great Art. All he asks, it seems, is that we make an effort to understand why we like the movies we like and hate the movies we hate. He wants us to actively engage with each and every movie we see.
For Scott, active engagement with film means enlightened discourse. It means talking about movies the way art historians talk about art, or how music theorists talk about music. It’s as if he thinks that by writing about movies like they were high art, he might actually lift them up a bit closer to it. A. O. Scott, like the rest of us, enjoys watching cool dudes in slick suits doing awesome shit, but he’d much prefer if we talked about “Miami Vice” as a “dazzling Wagnerian spectacle” or an “action picture for people who dig experimental art films.” Simply by mentioning a name like Brakhage’s, Scott drastically shifts our viewing angle, turns senseless, incoherent action sequences into an avant-garde exploration of the technical possibilities that huge budgets and high definition digital video cameras open up.
But I think Scott is a little presumptuous in believing that his average reader is going to care enough to look up references like Brakhage and Wagner, realism and naturalism. Maybe he thinks that his quick pace and authoritative tone will seduce even the unknowing reader, will flatter them into believing that they’re on the inside, and that enjoying the full benefits of insider knowledge means getting up to speed on all the unfamiliar terms. Or maybeand this I find hard to imagineScott doesn’t care a wink for those who lack the requisite erudition to fully grasp his work. Those who get it, the Scott of this scenario would imagine, are the ones who’ll want to read my work; those who don’t can read about movies elsewhere.
But if you believe- as I do- that Scott does care, that he sincerely wants to raise the level of discourse surrounding popular movies with the hope that it might actually change the films of the future for the better, then perhaps we might see his failure to slow down for the reader’s sake not as presumptuous, but merely as a little indulgent. A. O. Scott loves movies. But he loves writing about movies at least as much. He takes great pleasure in the criticism itself, sometimes to the point of leaving the audience and even the film behind. Scott suggests that the characters in Mann’s films frequently cross the line between the professional and the personal, and that with Mann himself, quixotic personal desires sometimes stand in the way of his making “relevant” filmsa term by which Scott seems to designate those films that do need to be made, films whose value goes beyond the fulfillment of the audience’s or the director’s immediate gratification. I think the same might be said of Scott himself. Professionally, he wants to write criticism that changes the way people think about films. Personally, he just wants to speak in his own voice about the movies he loves and hates. Perhaps, privately, Scott suspectsjust as we mightthat nothing he writes will ever really change the course of cinema. If this is the case, then we might just say of Scott- as he has said of the film and its director- that the irrelevance of his project makes the quixotic devotion to it seem perversely heroic.