My first experience viewing Michael Mann's Blackhat last January resulted in a strange evocation. I was having the odd feeling, for the first time, that I was watching something that might be called a late work of digital cinema.
It makes perfect sense, of course, to understand Blackhat as a "late work" of its auteur. Mann is in the latter stages of his career. His late films, since at least Miami Vice in 2006, have become increasingly recursive (not only thematically, but stylistically and musically). Blackhat is implicitly self-referential, and rewards the attention of the committed auteurist, in ways that Thief and The Keep could not upon their initial release. The film thus functions in one way as an anthology of key Mann motifs, many of which have already been pointed out in many of the reviews and online cinephile discussion.
Yet a late work establishes its lateness not only through repetition of themes or styles. Lateness is also a kind of feeling: a feeling that one's relationship to an auteur is arriving at a kind of endpoint; a feeling that a certain kind of aesthetic has reached historical exhaustion; and an intuition that the economies of the industry will not allow certain kind of works to be made in perpetuity. This last point first: Mann's films are not blockbusters, and the substantial amount of time it takes for this director to finance and launch projects (six years passed between his previous film, Public Enemies, and Blackhat) suggests that it may be greedy to expect too many more in the future. (As of this writing Christian Bale has left the production of Mann's Enzo Ferrari biopic, putting that project in jeopardy.) Leaving a screening of Blackhat over one year ago, I had a strange thought in the back of my mind, colored in part by my foreknowledge that the film was already established as a critical and commercial disaster: I think I've seen Mann's last. These are expensive films, after all; how long can he reliably continue making them if they don't make money?
Yet the "lateness" that moves me with Blackhat, even more than the fact that Mann is no longer a young filmmaker and that his ability to make these films seems precariously connected to an industry no longer interested in indulging him as it perhaps once did, has more to do, I think, with a certain kind of aesthetic that seems to be reaching its historical limits. I find this historical "lateness" of Blackhat as a work of art to be intriguingly strange, precisely because the film continues Mann's exploration of a relatively new technology still in the early years of its adoption. I refer here to Mann's ongoing exploration of digital cinematography as a style distinct from the look and feel of film. Surely we should not be talking of lateness here: digital is relatively new, and the field seems still very much wide open. Yet the feeling persists with Blackhat that I am watching a kind of strangely dying cinema - weirdly, a dying kind of digital cinema.
On the face of it, this claim is absurd. Digital cinema is here to stay. Digital cameras and projectors are proliferating. Hollywood films are mostly shown in digital 4K formats (even when shot on film). I certainly don't mean that digital cinema is "dying" in any of these economic or technological senses. What I mean is the death of a certain kind of digital, at least within the big-budget Hollywood system: the digital film that exploits rather than hides the digital look, that explores the technology for its poetic effects and that marks its distinction from the texture of celluloid in salient ways. The strength of Mann's work in the last decade or so has been its visual canvassing of what makes digital digital, rather than using the technology to mimic (successfully or not) the texture of film. The look of Blackhat is very consistent, I think, with Mann's 2006 film Miami Vice, which also exploited the digital camera's sensitivity to light and its depth of focus.
Yet Blackhat leads me to this intuition that an important historical moment in film, or at least Hollywood, history - the exploration of what makes digital aesthetically and saliently distinct from 35mm celluloid film - is more or less at an end. This does not mean that the evolution of digital aesthetics "stops" now, of course. What I mean is that in an era in which celluloid is no longer projected on any regular basis outside of repertory theaters, the moment during which the digital poetics of Blackhat might stand in sharp relief from the poetics of celluloid film is now surely over. One of the reasons the look of Miami Vice was so striking during the summer of 2006, before most theaters made the shift to digital, was because it was playing - as a (mostly) digital work transposed to celluloid film - in many multiplexes alongside movies shot and projected on film. Blackhat, although a digital work, is now projected on digital in multiplexes in which virtually every other film - whether shot on digital or not - is similarly projected. Do the differences still register to our eyes? To me, Mann's aesthetic commitment to the specificity of digital cinema - even as his poetic sensibility across his entire career, including the earlier celluloid films, remains notably consistent - is an important part of the signature of his late work. And yet his final films are arriving at a moment in which the look of digital has worked to efface itself on various levels of production, reception, and exhibition. I am not sure if the aesthetic distinction of Blackhat "reads" in quite the same way alongside these other digital projections the way Miami Vice did alongside (and within) filmic projection just under ten years ago. If this film marks a kind of death or dying - a dying of the moment during which digital might saliently stand out, in its uses, from traditional film - it is not one that is being publicly mourned. (But did the mainstream critics and audiences mourn the end of a kind of auteur-driven classical cinema when they went to see - or didn't go see - Red Line 7000...?)
Here, then, is a strange late work which performs an odd kind of mourning: a film that feels breathlessly at the forefront of what is possible in the realm of digital cinematic artistry within the Hollywood genre system, and yet at the same time perhaps one of the last films in that system that saw in the transition from celluloid to digital an energy source for images and sounds quite unlike any we've seen previously.