A Long Blather About Intertextuality, Actors, and the Movie Heat

Warning: this got rambly! Don’t stress out: it is not assigned reading and there will not be a quiz.

Okay. About a year ago, I blogged about intertextuality in books and music. I.e., the way we bring every book we’ve read to every new book we read, and make connections; the way our enjoyment and appreciation of Jane Eyre is liable to affect our reading of any book about a lonely person going to live and work in a remote and mysterious house, for example. Or the way, if you’ve listened to a lot of Dvorak, some parts of John Williams’s movie scores are going to sound pretty durn familiar. (There’s probably some other word for “intertextuality” when it relates to music, but I don’t know what that word would be.)

Well, this week I’ve been thinking about intertextuality in TV shows and movies. (Again, maybe there’s a better word for it in this context?) There’s an aspect of intertextuality that comes into play in movies and TV constantly: the actor aspect. You know what I mean. If there’s a character you love on one TV show, and then that show ends, but the actor starts playing another character on another TV show, it’s pretty normal behavior for you to go try out that other TV show, hoping the love will continue, isn’t it? And maybe your feelings for the new character will be tempered by your feelings for the old character? Is it possible that if I didn’t already love Lindsey McDonald on Angel, I might be a little less forgiving of Eliot Spencer on Leverage (both played by Christian Kane) for his derogatory girl comments? (Of the “What are you, a girl?” or “You scream like a girl!” ilk. Blech.) And it works the other way, too, of course — sometimes the new character is a relief. I may be the only person on earth who feels this way, but I like Seeley Booth so much more than I liked Angel (both played by David Boreanaz).

My most recent rewatching of the movie Heat, written and directed by Michael Mann, is what got me thinking about all of this. Heat is a depressing movie, for a bunch of reasons. It’s depressing and violent and horrible in the story it tells, and it’s depressing to watch as a woman, because this is a movie where the power and the agency, for the most part, are with the men. The white men, to narrow it down more. Despite this ickiness, I love this movie. I love it, it just captures some part of my soul… so when I find little things inside it that seem like narrative inconsistencies, I’m eager to find explanations other than that the movie itself is flawed. I love it so much that I want it to be structurally perfect.

Here’s the structural thing that was bothering me during my last rewatch. [NOTE: if you’re a fan of Al Pacino and/or Robert De Niro and you haven’t seen this movie, STOP READING NOW. Go watch it, then come back. You’re in for a treat, and I don’t want to spoil it.] The movie takes place in Los Angeles and it’s structure is basic cops-and-robbers stuff. Vincent, played by Al Pacino, is the boss of the cops, and Neil, played by Robert De Niro, is the boss of the robbers. Neil, your classic really-bad bad guy, tells Eady, his new girlfriend, that he’s originally from the Bay area. Eady, who is doe-eyed and naive and honest, doesn’t challenge this, and tells Neil that she’s from Appalachia but went to design school at Parsons. Neil asks where Parsons is, and Eady says, “New York City.”

Here’s the thing. Neil has the world’s most screamingly obvious New York accent to anyone who’s ever heard one and has any memory for regional accents. Now, I can believe that a bad guy gangster type from the streets of New York hasn’t heard of Parsons. New York is so full of schools and museums and theaters and parks and EVERYTHING that I expect practically no one, no matter how “from New York” they are, knows everything that’s available there; and Neil doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who can list art schools off the top of his head; and it’s not like he had to ask the location of the Empire State Building or even the Flatiron Building. If Neil is actually a New Yorker, as his accent attests, his ignorance regarding the location of Parsons is believable to me. On the other hand: maybe, if Eady has never been outside Appalachia (or ever watched a gangster movie), we can excuse her for not recognizing a New York accent. BUT, she went to school in New York. So I find it hard to excuse.

As I sit here trying to decide what to think, here are what I consider to be the options: (1) Neil is lying about being from the Bay area, and Eady has a bad ear for accents. (2) Neil is lying about being the from Bay area, and Eady is gullible, and/or naive for not picking up on it and challenging him. (3) Neil is lying about being from the Bay area, and Eady suspects it, but is so lonely that she’s willing to be with a guy who lies. (4) Neil is telling the truth about being from the Bay area, and the movie itself is flawed for allowing a disconnect between where the character is from and where he sounds like he’s from.

I love this movie so much that I’m eager for one of the first three options to be true, even though it means reinforcing the already plentiful patheticness of the women in the movie. I would prefer to dislike Eady than allow for the movie having a structural flaw, no matter how small.

Good grief. If you’re still reading, give yourself a pat on the back for patience and perseverance in the face of extreme boredom. Because WTF does this have to do with intertextuality?

Well… why do I love this movie so much? Why do I need it to be perfect? It’s about death and despair and failed relationships, well-presented; it’s well-acted, through and through; Dante Spinotti’s cinematography is beautiful; it’s populated by a group of brilliantly-written assholes. But doesn’t it also have to do with the movies I’m bringing with me when I sit down to watch? Goodfellas, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Casino, Godfather I and II. Using The Godfather to transition over to the Al Pacino side of things: Glengarry Glen Ross. Doesn’t it have to do with two awesome badass actors known for playing badass characters, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, facing off in one movie, one as the robber and one as the cop? (Did you notice how in my four options above, I didn’t include the option that De Niro played the part wrong? Unthinkable! It must be someone else’s fault, right?!) If you’ve watched some or all of the movies above and then seen Heat, think for a minute about how long it took you to understand the characters of Neil McCauley and Vincent Hanna. Didn’t you come to the movie open to them, already sort-of knowing them, prepared to appreciate them? Didn’t you feel like you understood Vincent Hanna the minute you saw Al Pacino walk? And I do think I would admire this movie in a vacuum; but I can never really know for sure, because I watch it, every time, in the complete opposite of a vacuum. De Niro and Pacino come on screen and I’m already thinking of them as tragic bad men with frakked-up lives who behave terribly but who are going to fascinate me for the next three hours. They are enormous actors in my brain space, too enormous for me to watch them in a crime movie and see them with fresh eyes.

I could write a whole other posts about all the reasons I dislike Eady as a character. She’s so naive and helpless, and then so shocked to discover Neil is a bad man (when the signs are all there, IMO). But I actually think part of the reason I dislike her so much is that she’s bearing the brunt of all the intertextual knowledge I bring to the movie. She’s playing opposite a huge personality, and sometimes I almost feel frustrated with her for not noticing that her boyfriend is a natural progression from Vito Corleone, Travis Bickle, Jake La Motta, and Sam Rothstein. But of course she doesn’t know that. There are (presumably) no Robert De Niro movies in her world, and anyway, her boyfriend is Neil McCauley, not any of those other guys. Plus, there would be absolutely no problem if she did live in the real world, where there are De Niro movies, but didn’t know who Bickle, La Motta, Corleone, or Rothstein are. Lots of people don’t and it doesn’t make them naive. Plus, naivety doesn’t have to be a bad quality. Maybe I’m too hard on Eady, or hard on her for the wrong reasons. (After all, weak or stereotyped characterization is not the fault of the character!)

(Related question: when Neil and Vincent watch gangster movies, what movies do they watch? Because, some of the best gangster movies aren’t available to them, because Robert De Niro or Al Pacino are in them, and that would be too… hard on their brains.)

(And related comment: just as I believe the author is dead, I believe the actor is dead. We could bring actors’ personal lives into the discussion of any movie, too, but it doesn’t really interest me to do so. I care about characters, not actors.)

So. Heat is a web of connections for other reasons, too — including other actor reasons (Val Kilmer, Jon Voight, Natalie Portman, Wes Studi) — but this is already too long, so I’m stopping here. I’ll just say that I would love to talk to the person who’s watched Heat never having seen De Niro or Pacino in one of their more badassish roles before. What is Heat like if you’ve only ever seen De Niro in Brazil or Stardust or Guilty by Suspicion? (Would his role in Stardust be so funny if I weren’t so used to watching him play bad guys?) Also: young people out there? If this interests you — by which I mean, intertextuality, not necessarily this rambly, wordy post — this is the sort of thing you can study in literature or film programs in college and grad school. HAVE FUN.

Next week: a short post.