By Isaac Butler
There’s a moment in Michael Mann’s Heat that strains almost all credulity. It’s the film’s in-all-the-gin-joints-in-all-the-towns-in-all-the-world moment. DeNiro’s Neil McCauley is about to go in for his last big score, only to find out his driver (Danny Trejo’s… uh… Trejo) can’t do it. The heat man. They’re onto him. Neil goes back to sitting with his crew in a diner, trying to figure out what to do, when he looks over into the kitchen and sees Dennis Haysbert’s Donald, a minor character whom we see earlier trying to go straight and do right by his woman now that he’s on parole. Neil, it turns out, did time with Donald, as did the rest of Neil’s crew. Within a minute, he’s talked Donald into joining them in the heist. Problem solved.
This coincidence has to happen for one major plot reason: Neil has to go do the heist for the rest of the movie to happen, and someone who knows all the details of the heist has to be kidnapped and tortured into spilling the beans so that the cops can be alerted to it.
What are we to make of this moment? It’s so close to ludicrous that I actually misremembered it originally, thinking that Neil tracks Donald down on purpose and convinces him. Which would be, when you think of it, an easy “fix” to this dramaturgical “problem.”
That is, if you see it as a problem. It certainly could be viewed as one. The coincidence is just so bizarre that it’s tempting to simply look at it as a moment of sloppiness on writer/director Mann’s part, a moment when the needs of the story couldn’t be solved without a bit of expedience on the screenplay’s part.
This scene was brought to my mind this morning by, of all things, this piece in Vox responding to Sunday night’s Game of Thrones. Something happens in the episode—multiple somethings, actually—which writer Jen Trolio dislikes. Her response to it is to assume maximal bad faith sans evidence on the part of the creators of the show:
The follow-up to last week's excellent "Hardhome" felt like showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss saying, "Welp, we always do something big in episode nine to lead into the season finale, and we have to top that insane White Walker battle in terms of getting people talking, so let's go with burning a child alive and putting Dany in grave danger before letting her fly away on a dragon." I get the sense they're starting to focus too much on crossing off plot developments from a checklist rather than weaving them into the story organically.
This is a fairly new opinion for me; back when Ned lost his head, or "merriment" devolved into massacre at the Red Wedding, I didn't come away thinking, "Bring on the internet outcry!" And perhaps I'm prone to this line of reasoning simply because I'm well aware of Game of Thrones' history with internet outcry. But more and more, it seems like Benioff and Weiss are trolling fans and baiting critics with fodder for hot takes — especially in instances when the events of the show wildly diverge from what happens in the books.
Oh, creators. Roland Barthes tried to kill them off and David Foster Wallace tried to resurrect them (sorta) but both men’s efforts pale in the face of the internet and the way it has changed the creator-audience relationship. We hear more and more from creators these days, we hear them on podcasts, we read interviews with them online, they appear at panel discussions of their work, they record commentaries for their films, they write on their blogs, the tweet angrily at people who’ve crossed them. They are very, very present and we have more access to their thinking about their work than ever before.
These days, the intentional fallacy isn’t a fallacy. It’s a reflex. It’s very, very hard to resist, and the effort it takes to resist it can, at times, interfere with the reading of the text at hand.
So what are we supposed to do?
If we can’t fully escape intention’s gravity, maybe we should try something else. If there’s no way out but through, let’s just assume—if only as a thought exercise—that everything in art is a choice and every choice is done in good faith. The choices might not work, but maybe we can, for a moment, stop assuming they're all mistakes or done for shitty reasons.
Take our poor diner scene from Heat. If we read this coincidence as a choice done for a good faith reason, what we see is the way that coincidence and chance operates throughout the film. Heat is a film propelled by coincidence. Waingro—the thrill killer who drives most of the plot of the film— survives the first act of Heat simply because a cop car drives by just as Neil and Trejo are about to kill him. Meanwhile, Pacino’s Vincent Hanna happens to be the lead detective on both Waingro’s serial killing and stopping Neil’s bank robbery, a coincidence without which the ending wouldn’t work.
We can also see in this moment, this seeming writerly mistake in the diner, the roots of Neil’s undoing. Neil, the consummate planner, so perfect at what he does, and so devoid of humanity that his apartment has no belongings in it, has grown increasingly desperate in the film as his humanity has been reawakened by love. So desperate that, instead of throwing away the forthcoming heist as too risky, he casts about and hires the first friendly face he sees to come with him. He does this despite being told that Hanna is onto him by both Trejo and Hanna himself.
Perhaps we’ll entertain this line of inquiry and decide against it, as this review of Brian Catling’s The Vorrh does with regard to the novel’s treatment of its fictional Africa. Perhaps we’ll end up disliking the moment anyway, but this kind of essayistic approach to art almost always yields more fruitful results.
Besides, do we really want to keep living in the world these kinds of bad faith assumptions lead to? I like Christopher Nolan as much, if not sometimes more, than the next guy, but I still don’t want a world where everything is filled with Nolanesque thematic sign-posting and dialogue that interprets and explains the work for you. If we treat every moment of mystery or buckling against the tropes of the well made as a mistake, that’s what we’re asking for, boring art that over-explains itself and leaves no room for the viewer. As both an artist and a critic, I want to work to create that room. The art—and the criticism—written in that space is so much more interesting and enriching for all involved.