Saturday, October 26, 2013

Miami Device: Paradise Regained?

On the one hand I've been working my way through back episodes of Miami Vice, which I'd also watched when it originally aired on network TV. On the other hand, I was looking through old posts at The Valve and came across this one from July 13, 2006. It's about the movie, Miami Vice. Enjoy, it won't take long.
Though I wouldn’t call myself a fan, I did watch Miami Vice back in the day. So, when the movie racked up some positive reviews (NYTimes, Slate, Salon) I went to see it. True to the reviews, it was a visually stylish action-packed cop show. Not deep, but fun; and rather different from the TV show, darker and short on Crockett-Tubbs banter and camaraderie.

But what’s it about? Sure, cops and drug deals and fast boats, hot babes tropical heat and living at the edge. But what’s driving all that? A. O. Scott observed:
Their private lives don’t take them far from the job. In his spare time Tubbs keeps company with a vice squad co-worker (Naomie Harris), while Crockett pursues a reckless affair with a drug kingpin’s wife and business associate (Gong Li), and these entanglements give the undercover work an extra jolt of intensity. By the time the final showdown with the bad guys comes around, Crockett and Tubbs have long since crossed the line that divides the professional from the personal.

But in the world of Michael Mann — a guiding creative force behind the small-screen “Miami Vice” and the writer and director of this movie version — no such line really exists. Whatever their particular jobs, his major characters tend to be men whose commitment to their professions transcends mere workaholism and becomes an all-consuming, almost operatic passion.
Could that be it? I’ll refrain from attempting to translate Scott’s insight into something like “unity of being” or even “unalienated labor,” but I want to nose around the edges.

As I left the film I started thinking about those men-guns-violence films that are deep in moral murk and work toward salvaging some kind of ethical norm. Clint Eastwood’s spent a lot of time in such films, for example, and the Godfather films play an interesting variation on the idea. But Miami Vice doesn’t seem to be this kind of movie. We’ve got the good guys depending on informants of dubious character but Crockett and Tubbs do seem firmly on the side of Good. Crockett’s affair with the Drug Lord’s wife (and head of finance) is no more than a feint toward moral ambiguity.

Another common motif puts the talented and righteous heros against the bumbling and often corrupt bureaucracy that employs them. The Sherlock Holmes stories give us a cerebral version of this motif—though Holmes was not employed by Scotland Yard—and we can again point to much of Clint Eastwood’s work. But that’s not what’s happening here. Yes, C&T very much want to do it their way, and there is a mole in the organization. But the mole isn’t in their organization, the Miami PD; it’s in the FBI. And C&T are not at odds with the Miami PD. Lt. Castillo supports them, as do their fellow officers. It’s teamwork all the way.

So I return to Scott’s notion that “Crockett and Tubbs have long since crossed the line that divides the professional from the personal.” Whence the dividing line between the professional and the personal? I cannot imagine such a line, for example, in the lives of hunter-gatherers. In those simple societies there are no professions—except, perhaps, for that of shaman—and no institutions to divide one’s lifespace into homelife and work. Though I rather doubt that life in such societies is one of unending operatic passion.

Still, let’s try this on for size: Miami Vice is a dream of a return to a primitive and undifferentiated world. If so, why realize that dream in these terms? The question is as much about our cultural moment as about the film itself.
Do I believe any of this? Don’t know. Haven’t thought it through.

It's seven years later and I still haven't thought it through. And it still seems plausible. Note my use of the term “unity of being”.

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