Cinema Station

Mike Figgis: Attention Must be Paid

November 22, 2011
Leave a Comment

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.


Henry Bean and Two Good Crime Pictures

August 17, 2010
Leave a Comment

Henry Bean

Before Pulp Fiction made extinct the kind of slick crime pictures of the 80’s (though Michael Mann continues to chew on their remnants in digital form), Hollywood produced two very good ones: Internal Affairs (1990) and Deep Cover (1992).  They both happened to have been written by Henry Bean. Though now, Bean has turned to independent dramas and a focus on directing, I aim to salute the crime writing of his past.

Internal Affairs

“How many cops you know, huh? Got nothing. Divorced, alcoholic, kids won’t talk to them anymore, can’t get it up. Sitting there in their little apartments, alone in the dark, playing lollipop with a service revolver?”
-Dennis Peck, played by Richard Gere

Internal Affairs, directed by Mike Figgis, stars Andy Garcia and Richard Gere. They both play cops: Garcia the internal affairs Latin do-gooder, Gere the excellent-cop with four ex-wives and his hands in drug and prostitute money. These forces collide in Bean’s screenplay, a seedy L.A. tale full of sex and deception. The character he builds in Dennis Peck is a ruthless villain as attractive as he is repulsive; he’s funny and sadistic and Gere owes screenwriter Bean his best role ever.

Still playing in the world of straightforward storytelling, what seems so refreshing in Bean’s creation is the relationships: Garcia’s lesbian partner, their interplay as well as growing affection for each other, the pathetic William Baldwin and his beat-up-not-so-innocent wife, Garcia and his wife, her sexuality tortured and ignored while he works too hard, ripe for someone like the animal that Gere plays to come in and take advantage.

There is a great scene in the last half of the picture where a fellow criminal comes home to find Gere screwing his wife. Gere smiles and unapologetically moves around the scene of the incident, the wife (a stiff European-type) is embarrassed but turned-on.  The husband says, “I could kill you,” speaking to either of them or both.  Gere throws him a gun and taunts him to shoot “the tramp”. The gun goes off. We don’t know who’s been shot. Suddenly Gere says, “That’s my foot.”

Henry Bean created something in Internal Affairs that will always linger with me, a kind of simple, hard crime picture I wish still got made.  Specifically, he constructed in Dennis Peck a character that will revel in the bliss of evil forever, even if only in my imagination.

As a side note, Figgis’ work on this film should not be ignored.  I admire him for the later, more experimental direction he took his career. But Figgis will always be Stormy Monday, Internal Affairs, and Leaving Las Vegas to me. If it was the 1940’s and I was the head of Warner, I’d confine him to the world of noir.

Deep Cover

“This is the greatest night of my life. Terrible, terrible, but great.”
-David Jason, played by Jeff Goldblum

With Deep Cover, Bean spins a drug yarn.  Honest cop Lawrence Fishburne gets recruited to go undercover.  His goal is to work his way from the bottom to the top of a narcotics ring.  Along the way he meets a dealer/businessman played by Jeff Goldblum.  Like the Garcia/Gere relationship, this is the highlight of the film, different than the other but equally complex.

Fishburne, solid, under-appreciated and misused as he often is, plays the least interesting character of the two: he gets lost in the world of crime, sees the hypocrisy of the law, and falls for a woman on the wrong side.  He is the arch but not the spice of Bean’s screenplay.

At the beginning of the film, Goldblum is just a businessman stuck in a world of rich thugs. But, in the film’s best scene, he transitions into a true criminal. When they discover that their ultra-violent boss is actually a police informant, Fishburne and Goldblum end up stuck in a limo with him in a car chase from several squad cars. I won’t say anymore; you can watch the scene.

By the end of the film, it’s hard to tell whether I want Goldblum to die or not. After the turn, he grows more and more sadistic, but his evil is too much fun to watch. Again what seems fresh in Bean’s work is not the originality of the plot but the interactions and depths of the characters.

What Henry Bean so clearly provided in these two cop classics was the opportunity for good actors to take on great roles.  Never have either Goldblum or Gere been better and it is the duality of attraction and repulsion that Bean breathed into the script that allowed them to exist.