Thursday, January 3, 2013

Year of the Dragon

(Michael Cimino, USA, 1985)

An overheated mess of a movie, but no less glorious for it.  YOTD is Cimino's take on the cops and robbers genre, and it barrels along at breakneck speed for every one of its 134 minutes, cramming social commentary, racial politics, spectacular action sequences, and febrile melodrama into the mix.  It's a sprawling, rococo hybrid of a film, part crime epic, part damaged-alpha-male character study, part ripped-from-the-headlines social novella.  The film manages to demolish any formal structure you might attempt to impose on it, behaving like a bull in a china shop (apologies for the pun), but its virtues are powerfully redeeming and well worth parsing. 

YOTD came out only five years after the debacle of Heaven's Gate, Cimino's previous film.  Considering the Chernobylesque fallout of that 1980 flop (a brilliantly radical epic that was basically shat upon by the critical establishment), it's kind of amazing that Cimino cobbled together the funds to make another movie, especially one with a reported budget of $24 million.  In 1985, this was far from a modest cost, and the fact that Cimino found not only the money but the nerve to get back on the horse after the disaster of Heaven's Gate strikes me as heroic (although possibly not as heroic as it likely struck Cimino, who has always been a shameless self-mythologizer.)

Even so, the damage wrought by Heaven's Gate-gate is palpable.  Cimino hadn't exactly lost his nerve, but does seem to have misplaced his equilibrium.  The movie feels rushed - not just in its frenetic plotting, but in it's utterly bizarre lapses in taste, rhythm, and even common sense.  Granted, this is part of what makes the film so compelling; it's an auteurist's dream, full of tics and wrinkles that can only be the product of its famously obsessive and idiosyncratic director.   There is plenty in YOTD to sneer at it, and 1985's audiences and critics did so with apparent alacrity.  The model-cum-actress Ariane, cast in the entirely thankless role of the successful Chinese-American TV newscaster, is lacking all but the most rudimentary acting chops, and even the scene-devouring presence of Mickey Rourke isn't enough to distract from her obvious deficiencies.  How did Cimino, the director whose inspired casting of Isabelle Huppert and Meryl Streep, manage to botch this one so badly?

These and other burning questions must, unfortunately, remain unanswered.   There is plenty in the film that comes across as almost brazenly formulaic; one imagines that surely Oliver Stone (who co-wrote the screenplay with Cimino) and the director were aware of how shopworn it would be to have Rourke's grizzled Captain White shout to one of his querulous subordinates "fuck their civil rights!"  And yet it does happen in the film, along with several other lines seemingly torn straight from the pages the Good Cop w/ Bad Attitude playbook.  Rourke fights with his bosses.  He fights with the mobbed-up Chinatown bosses.  He fights with his wife.  He just doesn't give a fuck.  We are reminded over and over that he is a good cop but he doesn't know when to stop, a point sometimes stated verbatim in the dialogue, apropos of nothing other than an apparent suspicion by the filmmakers that the audience must consist entirely of amnesiacs. 

It would be easy to toss all of this extraneous text-based junk into Stone's court and forget about it, but that would be giving a pass to Cimino that he doesn't quite deserve.  His sense of control is unmistakable, even as the movie approaches a shambles. When Cimino is really cooking, the movie takes on the familiar widescreen splendor and baroque yarn-spinning that had become, over just three films, his trademark.  The compositions, whether static or mobile, are always jam-packed with meticulously curated detail; the interiors of the sets vibrate off the screen with authentic filigree and the thrown-together detritus of life.  He wrangles stupendous feats of acting from his best performers: Rourke's portrayal of the tortured and monomaniacal Stanley White transcends the banal scripting and catches fire.  It's as jagged and intense as anything Rourke has done before or since, and it's free of the preening affect that he has a tendency to slip into.  And somehow it all hangs together, orchestrated with obvious relish by the director, who doesn't seem so much oblivious to the movie's flaws as weirdly compelled by them.   It's as if they form a springboard for his more esoteric tastes and indulgences.

And of course, the clunkiness isn't entirely novel.  From The Deer Hunter onward, Cimino's biggest flaw has always been his penchant for drippy, overblown melodrama.  Well, that, and his apparent lack of an adequate cliche-sensor.  His films are littered with double-underlined metaphors and set-pieces that don't quite know when they've outstayed their welcome.  Even Heaven's Gate, in which he substituted graceful, grandiose image-making for the schematics of the screenplay, still suffers from a kind of febrile excess.  (Does the final battle really have to be that long?  Do we really need to see that last surviving immigrant blow her brains out?  Really, Michael?)  But this has always been accompanied by his genius for detail, a counterbalance to his excess in its zen-like concentration on the nuances of a set's decor, the lingering gaze of an actor, the majestic swing of the camera around a crowded room.   All of that is there be to enjoyed in YOTD, if you look past the stuff that doesn't work. 

Which brings us to what YOTD is supposed to be about.  In his previous film, Cimino had depicted an America that was cannibalizing itself, a degraded and chaotic state that was still fighting for its identity.  And in this film, thing's haven't changed all that much.  The modern America, in Cimino's vision, is still the same roiling stew of blood, corruption, romance, and power.   The difference, simply put, is television.  A world of raw materials - soil, gunpowder, fire, sweat, etc. - has been replaced by a world of images.  The pecking order of corporate bosses and their bureaucratic water-bearers remains basically unchanged, but appearances have shifted radically.  Public relations and corporate infotainment are the perfect handmaidens to unaccountable power, and Stanley White, who is, of course, transparently a do-gooder, despises this.  True heroes, like White - and Cimino is a great believer in the American myth of individual self-creation - now must work in the shadows, burrowing beneath the artificial veneer.  The villains have outsourced their cruelty; they work out of boardrooms and city offices, marked as baddies because of their willingness to compromise with evil.

In the film's climatic showdown, a breathless car/foot chase around the port of New York, White finally manages to corner his chief nemesis, Joey Tai.  Tai, fatally wounded, asks White for his gun.  White, beside himself with rage and exhaustion, has a moment of clarity, and hands Tai the pistol so that Tai may die honorably of suicide.  White despises Tai, but suddenly he recognizes their basic affinity; both men are unable to compromise, fanatically selfish and singular in their quests.  White wants to fix the world, and Tai wants to be king, but neither of them is living in the right century. 

There is a nostalgia in this worldview that borders on the atavistic, and it is part of Cimino's enduring fascination that he seems to openly embrace it.   While there is more to his movies than the heroic American loner, there is an abiding skepticism about society that can be felt across the director's body of work.  Heaven's Gate was praised by many (especially in retrospect) for its clear-eyed critique of American class divisions.  It's true that the bad guys in Heaven's Gate are classic one-percenters, but it's also true that the movie's protagonist is a rugged, white-male individualist, himself descended from American aristocracy.  The immigrant community, meanwhile, is depicted in a light that is hardly flattering; they appear mostly as carousers, unwise and unreliable, and they very nearly turn on each other.  The beginning of The Deer Hunter is deeply rooted in the community, but it is the individual character of Michael who winds up as the true subject of the film - another rugged, if tragic, individualist.

But all of that still doesn't quite capture the nuance of these stories.  For now, it's best to say that Cimino's attitude towards the individual's role in society is appropriately complex.  Recall that Averill is among the most passive of Western heroes (he hardly does anything until the very last minute, and even then all he does is survive the climatic battle.  When we see him again, he seems to have reverted to some kind of soul-deadening aristocratic life of leisure.)  Rourke's White, for all of his piss and vinegar, manages to get loved ones and colleagues killed in his maverick quest for justice, and winds up, after letting the main villain kill himself, powerless to stop the overall rot of corruption in Chinatown.  Cimino's lone heroes are tragic lone heroes, and their true nemesis, it seems to me, is actually Fate.  Averill cannot escape his class, any more than Rourke can escape his.  Both men fail to prevent or end the violence they fling themselves into, and both men are obsessed with their inability to play a larger role in the immense, tidal exertions of history.

And what about that history?  Cimino found himself in political hot water after the release of Year of the Dragon, which some, especially several Chinese-Americans, felt denigrated their community and wallowed in crass and offensive stereotypes.  It must've felt eeriely familiar to Cimino, who had also faced harsh condemnation for his depictions of Vietnamese people in The Deer Hunter.  This is, naturally, a complex and thorny issue.  While I agree with some of the criticisms of TDH, I didn't find Cimino's treatment of Asians and Asian-Americans in YOTD to be problematic.   TDH was guilty of playing fast and loose with history.  No amount of that film's dramatic and cinematic ingenuity could excuse its callousness about the fundamental criminality of the American's role in the Vietnam War.  Viewing the film again recently, I was reminded of how little of 'Nam we actually see; of all the films of that period that dealt in some way with Vietnam, TDH is the one that actually seems to be the least "about" it.  And yet that, in a way, makes it all the worse; its use of a large-scale atrocity as mere mise-en-scene for an epic psychodrama becomes a grotesque kind of opportunism.   TDH makes no attempt to come to terms with the guilt or shame of America's invasion of South Vietnam.  To be fair, it isn't telling that story, but the point is that on some level it is.

As far as YOTD goes, it has no such historical burdens.  It likely exaggerated the extent and scale of the corruption in Chinatown, but for me, this is within the bounds of permissible dramatic license.  Added to this is the fact that Cimino and/or Stone repeatedly insert, at times pretty awkwardly, several discourses on the history of Chinese immigrants in America, the long and tawdry history of exploitation and strife, and it seems as though the filmmakers are actually going to some length to broadcast their sympathies, racial-politics wise.  White is frequently accused of being a racist due to his time in the Vietnam war, but the film, in probably its deepest character work, actually portrays him as profoundly conflicted about his immigrant status (he's a "just a dumb Polack," in his own, oft-repeated words.)   He is both fascinated and almost cosmically aggrieved by the apparent chasms that exist between cultures in America.  It's as though he wants desperately to believe in the myth of America-as-melting-pot, but, as an apt pupil of history, he is all too aware of the eternal tendency towards tribalism and blood-based enmity.  The main reason Chinatown sticks in his craw is its insularity; it won't open itself up, it won't subject itself to the rigors of modernity, the way seemingly every other ethnic culture has.  This, of course, is part of his fascination with it; the cameras can't get in.  The corrupt Chinese elders speak often, with obvious disgust, about the "white press."  Because, of course, they have their own, and it's no threat; the media has yet to penetrate their inner sanctums.  It isn't hard to imagine how this must make White green with envy.

YOTD ends with a strange, desultory scene, in which White, bandaged and bloodied from his fracas with Joey Tai, barges into the stream of mourners at Tai's funeral in some manic attempt to arrest the remaining evildoers.  Tracy Liu and his old cop pal (and boss) Louis (the excellent Raymond Barry) manage to drag him from the fray, and White winds up grinning about his own inability to change:  "I just don't know how to be a nice guy."  When it was released, many critics saw YOTD as Cimino's defiant rebuke to those who had failed to appreciate the genius of HG.  In some ways, this is a perfectly cogent reading.  The parallels between Stanley White and Michael Cimino are plain enough; two self-styled heroes who "care too much" and are angrily mystified by a world that seems to prefer compromise, mediocrity, and corruption over truth, justice and beauty.  But very few critics took this reading past its surface, preferring to forget the film entirely (as so many did with HG) and sling mud about Cimino's vanity.  Because, like HG, there is a pervasive sadness about YOTD.  White is a man on a hopeless mission.  He isn't going to purge America of its rotten core, or bring the truth out into the light; the house always wins, and TV is here to stay.  There's a lovely, understated scene towards the end of the movie in which Louis takes to lecturing him on his inability to get along.  He makes a few salient points, remarking that life is compromise.  People going along to get along, in a series of arrangements.   White, wracked with grief over his recently murdered wife Connie, tells Louis that he doesn't want to argue, an in a gesture as tender as it is jarring, leans over to kiss Louis on the cheek, then rises to leave.  But before White exits the bar, he turns back and bitterly reproves his old friend: Your "arrangement" White says, is what got Connie  killed.  This isn't exactly true, of course, but he's correct to assert that corruption is a kind of arrangement, too.  Such an observation represents the tragic bind in which the hero finds himself - unable to accept the world as it is, he resigns himself to suffer for the world as it should be.  His America is pitted against America - and he means to fight to the death.

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