🎬 #33 There Are Only So Many Choices.
The thing about being alive is that you want to do everything and see everything before you die. But that’s impossible. And that’s not something that should be demotivating or bad. Taking films as an example, it would be great to see every great film ever made, but then different people think different films are great for different reasons. And even if you could watch them all, there wouldn’t be much time for anything else.
This is a good thing, discovering pieces of art for yourself is brilliant. Even if you’ve been sent in a certain direction by books or some idiot writing a newsletter about a certain film, the feeling of really connecting with something good is a joy, as if it’s made just for you. And the brilliant thing is, you don’t have to follow anyone’s guidance, you can choose what draws you in, whether it’s listed as one of the 1000 films to see before you die or as one of the worst films ever made. The ability to choose what you watch, what you experience, what you learn, might be life’s greatest gift.
And choice you’ll find is the foundation of all good storytelling - it leads to many of cinema’s most memorable scenes. The ability to make hard choices under pressure is the true test of a character. That’s what leads to drama, comedy and conflict.
The two films this week I’ve chosen have an explicit moment of choice that I want to talk about.
So happy choosing, happy viewing.
FILM ONE: HEAT [The Free Choice]
1995 Dir Michael Mann
You’ll find a lot written about this masterpiece of a crime epic. But I’m going to focus on my favourite scene in the film. It’s not the incredible shoot out that is still the gold standard nearly 30 years later, nor is it the heist that opens the film or the unforgettable moment of tenderness that ends it.
Heat is largely the story of men, specifically two, and the choices they make. All these choices carefully curate a very specific lifestyle and life view. A philosophy that is opposing but symmetrical and complimentary - one hand in another. The cop and the robber.
Neil McCauley [the robber] played by De Niro, is a man who’s life view he sums up as so…
“Don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.”
He relays this advice to Chris Shiherlis [played by Val Kilmer] within the first 30 minutes of the film, while they’re both sitting in his empty house, devoid of anything he can’t leave behind. So far, this is a man who lives by his own strict rules.
And he continues this way until the one thread that he's left loose on his perfectly tailored suit jacket of a life is dangling in the wind - wild and unruly. It hangs tantalisingly at the corner of his eye, an unconnected neuron firing, failing to make a satisfying, meaningful connection - a meaning from which to move on from, a mission unbuttoned. All of this playing out against the miracle that he is a free man - a man literally on his way out of town - in his own words he’s ‘home free.’ All he has to do is live by his own strict rules that he’s been following and yet he doesn’t.
This is where the scene in question comes in. Driving to the airport, McCauley and his girlfriend Eady enter a tunnel and everything I tried to articulate above is brought to life vividly in near silence. This is perfect filmmaking to me - the interior life made exterior, thought manifested, wordlessly, into action. A perfectly timed micro movement of the face, an adjustment of the head, witnessed by a lens bathed in the perfectly timed glow of mercury vapour lamps as they enter the tunnel from the dark LA night. He is literally illuminated. This is the most cinematic lightbulb moment that you can imagine. Beautifully paced with a back and forth in the edit, one shot on Neil, one on Eady, before arriving at the fulcrum of choice the entire film hangs on. Neil pulls out of his perfectly constructed lane, breaks through the lines that his life has been coloured neatly within and into the unknown. The joy of breaking his own rules apparent in his wry smile ‘I just have to take care of something.’ The slow, floating and thoughtful Elliot Goldenthal score interrupted by the screech of tires as Neil careens into his choice. In a film filled with memorable moments even this one stands out as something remarkable.
TL;DR why should I spend 2 hr 50 mins of my precious life watching this? The definitive crime epic has a scope beyond the action, a scale of meaning made possible by the conflicting life philosophy’s of the men in the film and the course that choice sets them upon.
*Available for free on Netflix, Amazon and Disney Plus.
Fact: Mann maintains that the timing of the glow from the tunnel lights was serendipitous.
FILM TWO: SHAME [The Date Choice]
2011 Dir Steve McQueen
Steve McQueen’s Shame is bookended by choices, two scenes that happen in the exact same setting with the same action. The film is a study of a sex-addicted man and a look to see if he can make a different choice in the end. The fact the film begins and ends with one scene reflecting the other is a common structural theme. McQueen employs various cinematic choices throughout; cyclical blocking of action and character’s movements, literal reflections, the same action happening in the same setting - all tell us the theme of the repetitive, trapping nature of addiction. It’s not a cycle that’s easily broken or escaped.
This is summed up viscerally in the scene with Brandon, played by Michael Fassbender, and Marianne, played by Nicole Beharie. They meet in a hotel room after sharing a pleasant date. In fact their date is the first time that we find Brandon genuinely looking happy. Instead of going home with her, the date ends not with the promise of sex, which dominates his life, but with the promise of something much better - a relationship. Something that, until this moment, feels out of reach for the character.
What starts as a potentially romantic later-date idea, a getaway in a nice hotel, quickly turns. As things get intimate with Marianne, who Brandon clearly cares about, he’s unable to perform. The intimate handling of the moment and the refusal of McQueen to dissect the tension with edits, lends it an uncomfortable realism. Acted wonderfully by the two actors who find themselves in the throws of passion, dashed by the fact that Brandon actually likes this person, rather than just wants to sleep with them. But that doesn’t have to be the end of it. If Brandon made a different choice to relax and talk it out, things might have been different. But he falls back on the behaviour he knows. He turns cold and Marianne leaves. An edit later and he’s performing perfectly with a prostitute in the same room, reenacting the moment he longed for, but couldn’t quite make happen. The only difference being that this time it’s with someone he doesn’t care about.
Sean Bobbit’s icy cinematography somehow imbues the same space with a totally different characteristic, what was once a room filled with feeling is now a white glassy cube, devoid of any. Brandon chooses the emptiness of self-destruction yet again.
TL;DR why should I spend 1 hr 41 mins of my precious life watching this? McQueen’s and Fassbender’s follow-up to Hunger is executed with grace and style while maintaining a ‘cold light of day,’ non-judgmental look at the impacts of sex addiction and the helpless sense of having no choice in the matter.
*Available for a small rental fee on Google Play, YouTube and Apple.
Fact: For a scene showing the character urinate, Fassbender did it for real on cue, three times - that my friends is a dedicated professional.
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