Zen Pulp, Pt 1

Vice precedent: Michael Mann's existential TV drama
by Matt Zoller Seitz  posted July 1, 2009
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This is the first in a five-part series of video essays on Michael Mann, whose new film, Public Enemies, opens July 1. Part 2 can be viewed here; part 3 can be viewed here; part 4 can be viewed here; part 5 can be viewed here

Owing more to 1960s European art cinema than to any television dramas being made at the time, Miami Vice superimposed ripped-from-the-headlines details about drug smuggling, arms dealing, and covert war onto a pastel-noir dreamscape and gave American TV its first existential drama. The show was born when Brandon Tartikoff, NBC's entertainment president in the early ’80s, scribbled “MTV cops” on a cocktail napkin and asked Hill Street Blues producer Anthony Yerkovich to turn it into a show. The phrase reads like a glib marketing label, and at the time it probably was.

But Yerkovich and executive producer Michael Mann (a veteran of Starsky & Hutch, Vega$, and other faintly nasty prime-time cop shows) took it further, thanks in no small part to the importation of Mann’s distinctive sensibility, buffed to a fine sheen in his 1981 feature film Thief. It was the most aggressively cinematic drama made up until that time—a visually musical series where style, mood, and imagery were often more important than plot; a place where actors and filmmakers could play around like musicians, noodling and jamming.

Like all series, Miami Vice was a team effort, enlisting such resourceful filmmakers as Thomas Carter, Rob Cohen, and Abel Ferrara, as well as actor-directors Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul—stars of Starsky & Hutch—and Vice cast members Don Johnson and Edward James Olmos. But the guiding sensibilities belonged to Yerkovich, who oversaw the scriptwriting, and Mann, whose sensibility as both dramatist and visual stylist provided Vice’s creative foundation. Looking back on the show’s signature themes, situations, and images, Vice is so clearly set in Mann's world that it seems a nexus point in his career. Everything he’d done before fed into it and nourished it; everything he’s done since reflects upon it, raids it, or builds on it.

***

Born a working-class grocer’s son in Chicago, Michael Mann studied filmmaking in London in the early 1960s, then eventually found his way into network TV. His directorial debut, the 1979 TV movie The Jericho Mile, the true story of a convicted murderer named Rain Murphy who became an Olympic-caliber runner, won Mann a Director's Guild of America award for his work behind the camera, plus three Emmys, for film editing, Mann’s screenplay, and Peter Strauss’s lead performance.

It’s significant that during Mann’s stint at London’s International Art School, he split his interest between documentary filmmaking and advertising; his style, which had just begun coalescing in Mile, seems strongly influenced by both. The Jericho Mile is rooted in harsh physical reality, embellishing every scene with little details that seem the product of a reporter’s notebook: the various ethnic groups jockeying for supremacy in the yard, the dense jailhouse slang, the system of bribery and barter that determines who gets conjugal visits and when. But the advertising Mann is present as well. The running sequences are little music videos that revel in the spectacle of bodies in motion, tracking Rain and his competitors around the prison’s circular track, cranking the volume on music that probably would have been the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” if Mann could have afforded it, and cutting to rock-solid two shots and brief, slick inserts that could double as camera-ready magazine art. It’s a commercial through and through, selling determination and focus and the seductive blur of human bodies moving through space.

But it’s important to note that Mann is no ordinary salesman. He’s fascinated by media age capitalism and its effect on daily life—an interest vividly illustrated by an early scene in which a group of stony-faced felons watch The Price is Right and erupt in applause when a contestant unexpectedly makes a few hundred dollars. Mann’s slick surfaces encase a deep and persistent ambivalence about the need to buy and sell things and a curiosity about how the pursuit of the things we don’t have can retard emotional and moral development.

Who defined Miami Vice? Series TV production flips the feature film model upside down. In the self-contained two-hour movie, the director is the boss, originating or overseeing every significant aspect of the production. On television, it's the creator and executive producers who play God. Although Yerkovich created the show's world and characters, and Mann executive-produced, the decision to prize picture and sound over the written word tips the creative balance toward Mann—a filmmaker whose preference for the visceral is powerfully illustrated in a sequence from episode five of Season 1, “Calderone's Return, Part 2,” a dialogue-free montage scored to Russ Ballard's “Voices,” showing Crockett and Tubbs headed to the Bahamas on a mission of revenge, their grudges illustrated in flashback snippets of outrages perpetrated by Calderone in preceding episodes.

Mann never personally directed an episode of the show, but his preferred tone, rhythm, and creative emphases defined the essence of what we think of when we think about Vice. The advertising part of Mann’s sensibility is encoded in the show’s brooding slickness, its fascination with clothes, cars, boats, buildings, and bodies as objects worth contemplating apart from their narrative function.

Mann, who is said to have reshot an entire scene in his 1999 film The Insider because he didn’t like the color of an actor’s tie, pushed hard for an innovative and unique feel. Rather than using traditionally orchestrated instrumental music, he insisted that much of the show be scored with Jan Hammer’s pulsing synth work—in the same sonic wheelhouse as Tangerine Dream’s score for Thief—and with then-current, often expensive-to-license pop music. He micromanaged the series’ color palette, even issuing a now-legendary edict, “No earth tones.” And he urged each episode’s writers and directors to let compositions, cuts, and music bear the weight of the tale’s emotions.

In the name of accuracy, Mann and Yerkovich consulted experts on both sides of the law, paying meticulous attention to real-world law enforcement acronyms, street slang, legal statutes, and the fine points of drug importation and distribution. At the same time, though, Miami Vice flaunted its unreality, its movieness, every chance it got, from the much-noted wide shot in the pilot episode showing Crockett in a phone booth beneath a neon sign that appeared to be floating in space to the lengthy crane shot in 1985’s “Milk Money,” which frames cops and their prisoners in a motel room window, then pans very slowly to reveal a nightclub on the corner, a real locale lit so that it looks as spectacularly artificial as a studio set.

The city presented on the show was ultimately no more “real” than the title locale of Casablanca, a film that Vice, in its glamorously grubby way, often resembled—a global way station, a port city where people came to make a fortune and remake their identities and where international political forces—the CIA, the FBI, the Medellin Cartel, the IRA, the Yakuza—wrought havoc with individual lives. The weekly body count made real-world, mid-’80s Beirut or El Salvador seem like Club Med. Crockett, Tubbs, and their fellow officers rarely went a week without shooting several people and having several more killed on their watch—often innocents too naive or stupid to realize their dreams were unattainable. The show's depiction of violence is Exhibit A in the case for Mann as an irreconcilable mix of reporter and huckster. Depicting the impact and aftermath of violence, Vice was at once empathetic and glib. The bloodshed was grotesque and lovely. It meant everything and nothing. And by next week, it was usually forgotten.

The series’ frank fascination with drugs, sex, and street violence marked it as rare network show not suitable for kids (which of course made it catnip for many young viewers). The front-and-center fashion parade and the often tiresome weekly TV format, with its lame banter, buddy cop dynamics, increasingly thin scripts, and contrived musical guest stars—and cutesy touches such as Crockett living on a boat with a pet alligator named Elvis—took some of the edge off.

But the characters’ cultural sophistication and authentic-seeming world-weariness restored it. Mann’s comfort with racially diverse casts, evident from The Jericho Mile onward, was likewise present in Vice. The underused Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas) never got as many meaty storylines (or as cool a car) as Crockett; the blogger Lance Mannion once likened him to Tonto. But he was still a rare African American lead who displayed wit, righteous anger, and moral intelligence—a tough, sensual black man, moving through a thriving multicultural universe, one in which ethnic and language barriers fell before the lure of sex and money. One of Vice’s most praiseworthy and least noted qualities was its acceptance of a patchwork society as a given. Rather than take the documentarian’s route and fill up each hour with little lessons on tolerance, it put on its ad man’s hat and showed beautiful black, white, brown, and yellow people getting it on. Vice was one of the most frankly sexual series in commercial TV history, notable not just for the frequency of Crockett and Tubbs’s hookups, but the varying degrees of intensity they invested in them. On Miami Vice, as in life, sex could be currency, recreation, or a real means of connection, depending on the circumstances.

Twenty-two years after its premiere on NBC, Mann wrote and directed a big-screen remake of Vice starring Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx in the roles originated by Johnson and Thomas. Rather than confine its action largely to Dade County, the film sent the now federally deputized Crockett and Tubbs all over the hemisphere on an undercover mission to bust open a powerful drug cartel. The violence, while characteristically ugly-beautiful, was doled out rather sparingly, irritating viewers who expected more bang for their buck. The tone was simultaneously more expansive and introspective, owing more to the woozy visual poetry of Terrence Malick and Wong Kar-wai than to the hyperkinetic cop cartoons manufactured by action mogul Jerry Bruckheimer (who gave Mann his theatrical start by producing Thief). And in contrast to the show’s classically styled, often locked-down, 35mm cinematography, the new Vice was shot mostly handheld on high-definition video, with jumpier cutting and more brazenly arty juxtapositions.

At the same time, though, the situations and themes are strikingly consistent with Mann’s other work. Mann’s vision is compelling and conflicted. His is a world of trendy clothes and music and buildings which, whether old and decrepit or shiny and new, never fail to be beautiful and are often located on beachfront property, the better to contrast his characters’ in-the-moment struggle to survive and acquire against nature’s indifference to their wants. His 30-year filmography, examined here and in the next four chapters of this series, is a hall of mirrors, reflecting the artist’s past and future back on themselves. Mann’s world shows men and women struggling to be captains of their own fate, even as institutions, businesses, and national governments—and their own devoted loved ones—define their striving as selfishness or push for a piece of their action. It’s a world of doppelgängers, doubles, and perverted reflections. It’s articulated through an arresting style that fuses B-movie schlock with an inner-directedness that channels Michelangelo Antonioni, Akira Kurosawa, and Yasujiro Ozu. It's a cinema of Zen pulp. Mann is its master. 

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Courtesy Universal Home Entertainment
Philip Michael Thomas and Don Johnson in Miami Vice
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THE AUTHOR

Matt Zoller Seitz is a writer and filmmaker whose debut feature, the romantic comedy Home, is available through Netflix and Amazon. His writing on film and television has appeared in The New York Times, New York Press, and The Star Ledger, among other places. He is also the founder of The House Next Door, a movie and TV criticism website.

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Author's Website: The House Next Door