David O. Russell is such an odd cat, isn’t he? The movies are uneven and often perilously close to sentimental, but I’ve enjoyed every one of them. I think he thinks in moments rather than stories, rather like a poet; perhaps this helps explain my attraction. What I remember, a couple weeks after seeing this during a rare trip to the multiplex with Wendy, isn’t the satisfying rags to riches narrative promised by the trailer, or the pedantic little essays about being yourself and staying true to your dreams, but the little quirks and eddies off to the side of the story, most of which are narratively or thematically necessary, but nevertheless the best parts of the movie. The taciturn Haitian plumber who comes to stay, the fake snowstorm outside the Texas toy shop, the paunchy and enraged would-be auteur QVC presenter, the homespun no-frills shooting range next door, the outrageously inappropriate wedding speech, Bradley Cooper’s mesmeric scansion of QVC’s commercial rhythms (OK, that last one is thematically necessary), and many more. Like Silver Linings Playbook, this movie pretends to be about a lot of Important Things, but it’s the weird little baubles strung on the string of its story that really catch your eye. I could do a whole thing here about America and better mousetraps and cable TV and second wave feminism, but I’d rather just think about Joy’s mother and the Haitian plumber poking their heads into a room, each with a bowl of soup joumou.
In my yoot it seemed obvious that cinema auteurs fell into two categories: then (chiefly for me Renoir, Keaton, Murnau, Lang, Wilder, (Anthony) Mann, Fellini, Hitchcock, Godard, Antonioni, etc.) and now (Haynes, Lee, Almodovar, Lynch, Scorsese, Coen, Kar-wai, Haneke, etc.). It’s weird to get old and realize that one of the finest films of my “present” is twenty years old this year.
Speaking of art and time, let me also take a moment to mention the importance of patience. Mann wrote his first treatment of Heat in 1979. Good work takes time to develop, but good work lasts. I saw this first in a second-run movie theater in Houston in 1995 and I saw it again on HBO last night, and it’s lost none of its potency.
Heat is one of the best ten policiers of the second half the twentieth century, which puts it in the company of The Godfather, Chinatown, Touch of Evil, Sunset Boulevard, North by Northwest, and Blade Runner. It is so perfectly paced and edited that despite its length (170 minutes), its grip on the viewer’s attention is never loosened. We are moved inexorably from mood to mood, theme to theme, character to character, as the film’s web of associations, correlations, contradictions, tensions and releases (good guy/bad guy; intimacy/loneliness; coherence/chaos; instinct/cognition; commitment/freedom; etc.) draws ever tighter around us. It is deeply Classical in its symmetries, its pathos, its obsession with timê. Its final peripety comes in the form of a cell phone call from Jon Voigt. I’d love to watch it with Alexander Pope, sharing a box of Milk Duds.