Sunday, November 24, 2013

Long Time Coming

I love Michael Mann's movies. It's hard not to think of him as one of the most interesting and knowledgeable directors alive. All filmmaker's work differently, but If you ever wonder what a director does on set, look for footage of Mann at work. One sees him in action and immediately thinks that's how you direct a picture. I could go on about talking about Mann the director, but I don't want to digress from the original intent of this post, which was to talk briefly about a cinematic failure I recently mended. That is to say, despite being an intense fan of Mann's work, I had never seen entirely (and thus never seen) his crucial 2001 film Ali. Now, when I say it's crucial, I don't mean it's necessarily good. Rather, I mean the film marked the radical shift Mann made in the new millennium. He started experimenting with digital, his style became less formal, his storytelling less classical, etc. 

A lot of people didn't care for Ali when it was released. It wasn't the grand, fully developed biopic they were hoping to get of such a legendary American figure. And I imagine when it was released, its unusual pacing, ambiguous storytelling, and, as Roger Ebert felt, its feeling of incompletion, was all the more jarring considering that no one had seen Mann make a film like this before. But seen in light of his work since, especially, Miami Vice and Public Enemies, it makes a little more sense. Again, that's not to say the movie's good. I'm not quite sure what I think of it. It certainly feels like an experiment on Mann's part, and consequently I can't help admiring it for its boldness. Who would think of making Hollywood's first major biopic of Muhammed Ali to test out new styles in filmmaking and storytelling? Consider, for example, the first twenty-six minutes of the film. Mann spends ten of them with a gorgeous opening by interlacing images of Ali at various times of his life with shots of Sam Cooke (played by some no-name, David Elliot, who does a pretty great impersonation) performing at a darkly lit night club. Playing almost like a music video, it's a fantastic opening, introducing us to the era of the 60s without telling us anything. Mann, I think, is more interested in the feel of the era.

What he does next for the next sixteen minutes is interesting. Without any real idea of who Ali is, Mann gives us a drawn out fight between him and Sonny Liston. It's fairly important-Ali's first major championship-but it has the feel of a climactic boxing showdown. Mann seems to be saying he has little interest in conventional boxing narrative devices. He seems to put his all into this opening fight. It's a gorgeously shot, intense battle with great accompanying music. Contrast that with the closing fight in which Ali takes on George Foreman. Mann's music choice is much less visceral, and the fight itself, partly due to Ali's strategy, is fairly dull and uneventful.

Other parts of the film play out in a more straightforward manner. Mann dutifully gives us key parts of Ali's life outside the ring, such as his relationship with Malcolm X and his blunt refusal to go Vietnam. Yet so much of the film comes to us in strange fragments. Characters are introduced at random and rarely are they well developed. Scenes at night feel like a dream, and Mann, as always, seems to let moments linger to focus on the world around the characters. It all gives the film a very unusual, messy, and sometimes pure feel. I think people wanted a Muhammed Ali movie and what they got is a Michael Mann movie. Outside of the The Keep it's probably his weakest film, but also in a way one of his most interesting. 

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