Michael Mann's Collateral & Digital Cinematography

Can I just be honest? I don't really know a lot about film. I may talk big about the depths of thematic development or the meaning of cinematic style, but like the rest of us I'm just making it up as I go. But if there's one thing I know for sure about movies it's that I prefer film over digital (background info). I think digital filmmaking is good for little more than lowering costs. I love film stock. Sure, some of that love comes from the romantic part of me clinging to the nostalgic notion that it's somehow more "authentic" or "genuine," but there are objective reasons film stock is better looking than digital video. Higher color saturation. Higher resolution. I know which theaters around me haven't converted to digital projection and make an effort to visit them whenever possible. But every rule must have its exceptions.

Collateral seems to exist for no other reason than to prove me wrong in my stalwart dedication to film. It was shot entirely on digital video, and it is simply gorgeous. The silhouetted palm trees against the skyline just before sunrise. The reflection of the night lights in the underbelly of a police helicopter. The luminous glow of the sleeping city. The pitch blackness of the final showdown. These are all things you can only do with digital video.

Thanks to their advantage in low-light environments, digital cameras are uniquely equipped to portray inky, nighttime environments without losing the image entirely. This is a problem Stanley Kubrick ran into trying to film Barry Lyndon with little more than candlelight, and he had to resort to using cameras developed for NASA to shoot in outer space. He literally needed Space Cameras, and today we can do this with technology whose primary benefit is being cheaper. Whereas film stock relies on the presence of enough light to penetrate a camera's aperture and thereby expose physical stock to the reflected image, digital cameras use image sensors capable of adjusting to darker settings. Collateral is a tour de force in utilizing this unique potential, and its wonderful imagery is here to prove that obstinate conservatives like myself need to have a more open mind. Just because most people use this new medium in order to cut corners rather than push the art form forward doesn't mean it's totally without value.

So yes, Collateral is beautiful, and in a very specialized way.

It's also an excellent film because it has two awesome characters who perform their basic functions in the story perfectly. In Jamie Foxx's Max, we have a sympathetic protagonist with a solid arc: he begins the film cool and confident, but his safety net is cut out from under him and he must make the slow journey back to regain this self-assurance. We see the suave way he initially deals with his clientele, his shaky anxiety after his worldview is shattered, and his gradual buildup to become stronger than he was before. He is an everyman brought to exceptionality by the circumstances of his life.

Then in Tom Cruise's Vincent, we have an antagonist as threatening as he is fascinating: while he lets nothing get in the way of accomplishing his mission, he goes about his tasks with an air of existential calm. There appears a fundamental disconnect between the charismatic serenity of his appearance and the chaotic violence of his job. He is a man who kills people for a living and has come to terms with that fact through an ideology of subjective nihilism. He knows we're small people in a gigantic universe, and given the contradictions of subjective moral truth he has come to the conclusion that there is no objectivity outside of himself and his gun.

"I read about this guy who gets on the MTA here, dies. Six hours he's riding the subway before anybody notices his corpse doing laps around L.A., people on and off sitting next to him. Nobody notices. "

So we know it's a great movie, but what is it about? The central thematic concern is Max's imaginary island getaway and his desire to start a limo company. He is a man who has allowed himself to get stuck driving taxis for 12 years by dangling in front of himself the carrot of a better life—but one indefinitely postponed. When Vincent confronts him about the fantasmatic nature of his dreams, it pushes him over the edge. This is a film not only about the motivating power of fantasy, but also about its emptiness. If we let ourselves get lost in the constant recircling around our dreams, we lose ourselves to routine and repetition, like the dead man riding the subway in Vincent's story.

But the movie doesn't end with Max finally acquiring his limo company. The point is not that we need to stop fantasizing about the future and finally reach out and grab it, since by nature that fantasy is illusory. It doesn't exist beyond its capacity to pull us forward. Max could never have the limo company in the same way that he could never have the island getaway. The point is rather to recognize the motivating power of fantasy in spite of its imaginary nature without getting lost in the endless cycle of deferment it entails.

Part of lists: Michael Mann | Digital Cinematography
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Original review | Letterboxd review


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