To Catch a Thief
All art aspires toward the condition of music, wrote Walter Pater at the dawn of Modernism, codifying a tendency of his particular era as if it were general law. For no more than a hundred years after he set down this rule, artists rejoiced in (and struggled against) the urge to create self-sufficient works, which, responsible only to their own inner motions, might float free of the everyday. Gravity has since then grabbed us back, with a vengeance; once more, and too well, we understand the pull of patronage and social function. But those who gloat at this return to normality might at least nod toward the achievements of Modernism, which include the collective creation known as the movies.
At their highest level of abstraction, the movies (as distinguished from film) are a delirium of bigger-than-life ghosts: figures who are overpoweringly present and yet insubstantial, impossibly beautiful and sure to suffer for their beauty. At least, that's the condition the movies used to aspire toward: the plane that Hitchcock termed "pure cinema." In our postmodern era, only a handful of moviemakers still hear that music, let alone know how to play it--which is why I've given my heart to John Woo's latest étude in lyric slam-bangery, Mission: Impossible 2.
As an antigravitational artwork should, M:I 2 takes place largely in midair; its godlike stars are forever dangling from helicopters, launching heavenward on motorcycles, plunging headlong out of skyscrapers or (in a traditionalist spirit) hanging from cliffs. Who are these vulnerable yet invincible beings? They are master spy Tom Cruise (as suave as Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief, and twice as acrobatic), teamed with master thief Thandie Newton (as beautiful and doomed as Ingrid Bergman in Notorious). They meet on a flamenco-mad night in Seville, amid blue light and flashing red skirts. They first kiss on a terrifying mountain road, inside the wreckage of the sports cars with which they were attempting to kill each other. At the movie's midpoint, within a gleaming secret laboratory in Sydney, Australia, they give voice to the torment of their consciences, in a conversation frequently interrupted by the need to whirl about and shoot bad guys or to blow the architecture full of big flaming holes.
The heroes and heroines of previous John Woo movies have also labored under burdens of guilt, which can be relieved if the star glides in slow motion through tongues of fire, in the company of a white dove. In other words, sin is expiated both by suffering and by looking really, really cool. In M:I 2, Cruise is so cool that he receives his secret-agent instructions in the form of high-fashion sunglasses. The shades (actually a recording device) are delivered to him on a splendid American mountaintop, by a missile launched from a helicopter. Subsequently, they are flung, in slow motion, straight at the audience, only to explode in midair. We mortals cannot catch the star-gear. Our fate, and privilege, is merely to watch the fragments glitter on the screen.
If you are familiar with Mission: Impossible as an old television series, or if you've seen the first of the movie versions, you will note that I've said nothing so far about teamwork and planning. Woo actually cares a lot about those aspects of life, but only as they play out behind the camera. His films are logistical masterworks, constructed to draw action out of action in seemingly endless succession--but you are never to think about the work that went into these sequences, only about the impression they give of flamboyance, energy and gaiety of invention.
Of course, as a Nation reader, you will demand more. So I will report that the music of M:I 2 is not entirely pure. There are words in the screenplay, written by Robert Towne; and these words include the bad guy's explanation that "terrorists and pharmaceutical companies" are lining up to do business with him. What's more, when the bad guy is being really rotten, he belittles women and demands stock options.
I hope that satisfies you. For myself, I'm happy to know that Tom Cruise has learned to hold his arms straight out before him, the better to pump away with a gun in each hand--just like Chow Yun Fat.
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Screening Schedule: The New Festival, New York City's biggest and shiniest annual series of lesbian and gay films, is on view June 1-11, serving up more than 150 films and videos from around the world. The great majority of them are either New York or US premieres, so I'm of no help in guiding your ticket-buying. All I can tell you is that the box office is located at 151 West 19th Street and may be phoned at (646) 638-2327. Further information may be solicited by phoning The New Festival directly at (212) 254-8504 or by visiting www.newfestival.org.
And if your appetite still isn't sated, consider "Sapph-o-Rama," Film Forum's current series of lesbian cult movies, on view through June 15. Phone (212) 727-8112 or visit www.filmforum.com.