Miami Vice

Miami Vice ★★★★★

One of the main differences between film and digital is the way that distortions to the image (grain in film, noise in digital) develop. Film grain is the result of silver crystals in a film strip's makeup being exposed to light. It's an inherent part of a filmed image's structure. In theory, digital could be shot without any noise whatsoever, because the silicon sensors that a digital camera uses to capture light don't inherently create distortion. Instead, noise comes about when there is either insufficient data (light) reaching the sensor, or the internal electronics of a camera interfere with the sensor (which is in modern digital technology increasingly becoming a non-issue.) I bring all this up because I think it's important to understanding how Michael Mann's digital photography is inexorable from the aesthetic purpose and meaning of Miami Vice. There are so many points in this movie where Mann deliberately over- or under-lights a scene in order to blow out the digital noise, refracting the city lights and glow of the twilight sky into a liminal space between the movie's world and the viewer.

I knew that about Miami Vice before I even watched it, because this movie has taken on a sort of extended meaning in a certain type of film discussion. It had the kind of critical disappointment that can retrospectively be reframed as being so cutting edge it hadn't been caught up with yet. (Vice released in the US almost a year before David Lynch's more obviously experimental Inland Empire, I think there's a genuine possibility that had it come second its look would be far more understood as purposeful.) To many people it's been reconsidered enough to be the high water mark for mainstream experimentation, a big budget abstract masterpiece that belongs alongside Heat and Thief as Mann's most triumphant work. As someone going into it with that frame of reference it could never end up being as good as it was in my mind, but damn if it isn't close.

Narratively Miami Vice the most logistical movie ever made about drug smuggling, forgoing action scenes almost completely until two-thirds into the movie in order to focus on the methods and process of moving from one place to another, and the vehicles used to perform that task. Crockett and Tubbs are untrustworthy sorts even without the deliberate separation of the digital look, and their job consists of obscuring their true natures to other liars and thieves. But when they get in a plane or a speedboat, the veil lifts and the entire world bends to conform to their inner emotional state. The best pair of shots in the movie happen on either end of Crockett and Isabella's cuban sojourn: first when the two of them cut together through the golden waves of late afternoon, and then when Crockett returns to Miami alone, the storm clouds roiling overhead as his boat kicks up a turbulent wake. When the car goes down the highway fast, when the cargo plane is dwarfed by the enormity of the clouds and sky, Miami Vice is truly breathtaking. It's full of sexual imagery, (I can’t count the number of times characters talked about dropping/swapping/exchanging their “loads”) but there are two scenes of a man and a woman groping each other in the shower that are romanticized rather than eroticized — the soft image and lingering embraces look like how you imagine sex to be before you’ve had it, a place that’s warm and safe and right.

I think this is a fantastic movie, and I think it's an important movie, and the fact that I'm nowhere near the first to see that makes me optimistic that it'll be an influential force in the next wave of digital filmmaking. However, I can't help but look at its acceptance as, more cynically, an attempt for people daunted by the increasingly franchise and property driven industry to maintain the idea that an auteur can push the boundaries like this even with an existing IP. Maybe The Last Jedi was Miami Vice, maybe Blade Runner 20149 was Miami Vice, maybe Dune will be Miami Vice, maybe there's hope for art still. Maybe not.

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