Mike Figgis: Attention must be paid.
Mike Figgis is a director whose films I always look forward to seeing. And even when they don’t quite work I’m always fascinated by why they didn’t. He is a director whose failures to me are often more interesting than other filmmakers successes. Why? Because they dare more and he is always trying for something different in the way he presents his stories on screen. And the things he tries, even when they fail, I find both intriguing and artistically unique in all kinds of ways. Before becoming a filmmaker he was a musician and played keyboards with several groups in his native England. And the visual as well as the narrative pattern of his films seem to follow the form of a musical composition rather than a literary one. So that even when his films are adapted from literary sources (Strindberg’s Miss Julie (1999), The Browning Version (1994) or Leaving Las Vegas (1995) the musical underpinning is quite apparent. And I like it because it makes the film interestingly unpredictable and seductive too. Quite often he composes the background music for his films which makes the connection more direct.
The films of his that I think are the most successful include Stormy Monday (1988). This was his first film to get a wide international release. I was mesmerized by it but not for conventional reasons. I actually had to look at it several times to realize why I liked it so much. The main reason for me was the mood that it set and authentic feel milieu. The next is Internal Affairs (1990). That wasn’t hard to figure. It plays like a nifty cop thriller on one level but on a more sub-textural level it is a corrosive study of sexual manipulation and evil with thought provoking questioning of the male ego (machismo). Richard Gere’s performance in the central role of Dennis Peck is to me one of the great overlooked performances in contemporary cinema. He is ably supported and even challenged by Andy Garcia explosive performance as his professional and personal rival. Leaving Las Vegas (1995) is justifiably hailed as his best film with career high performances by Nicholas Cage for which he received the Academy Award as Best Actor, and Elizabeth Shue who forced everyone to reassess all their opinions of her as an actress with her turn as a troubled prostitute who falls in love with a self destructive alcoholic. It was a film that was made on a small budget by Hollywood standards. But Figgis does such terrific things with that limitation that this film could serve as a model to other directors who find themselves in a similar situation. Timecode (2000) is an experiment I wished had turned out better. Still I admire the attempt. Using digital technology he tried to tell four continuous stories all taking place at the same time. And rather than use cuts he divided the screen into four parts and shows them all unfolding simultaneously. But as I said, I don’t think that it quite worked. But I felt that it was the start of an interesting way to reconstruct the standard model of storytelling on screen. What I wished is that he had taken the experiment further in another film perhaps because with Timecode he had gotten so close. But so far he hasn’t. Still, who knows, maybe he will in the future. One Night Stand (1997) is another film I wish worked better than it does. But damn, I still like it. A) Because it gives Wesley Snipes and Natassja Kinski the best and most attractive roles in their careers. And B) because of what he was trying to do with the story, especially the end that doesn’t pay off dramatically the way it should. Still in its details I think that it is beautifully worked out but there’s just too much missing to make the whole dramatically satisfying. Liebestraum (1991) is another film I feel that way about. I like it but it misses in its intent. Still I’m glad I saw it. And that’s the way I feel about all Mike Figgis films. Because successful or not he is a director to whom attention must be paid if you’re at all interested in art of film.