Twenty years ago today, I went to the movies and the course of my life changed forevermore.
To be certain, that is not an intentionally provocative overstatement—it is simple fact. The film was Michael Mann’s Heat, and the three hours I spent watching it that afternoon represent a temporal juncture, if you’ll permit the fanciful notion, between the me that was and the me I became thereafter. Heat is not my all-time favorite movie—though it certainly ranks high on the list—but I’d be hard-pressed to think of one that carries more emotional weight for me. I don’t even revisit it all that often; it’s a bit like a photo album that you cherish—that you’d be devastated to lose—yet seldom take down from that high shelf in the closet: You needn’t thumb through it regularly to appreciate what it represents; you simply take solace from the knowledge that it’s up there, safe and sound—a mnemonic repository where nostalgia can be compartmentalized lest it keep you from the necessary and inevitable business of forward motion.
I did re-watch Heat, however, in preparation for this post, and it’s as searing and suspenseful as ever. Maybe more so, in fact, as age and experience have allowed me to appreciate its emotional nuances and masterful storytelling in ways that were impossible in 1996. (I also got a thrill out of recognizing many of its L.A. locations—places I’ve passed more times than I can count in the fourteen years I’ve lived out here—some of which have changed considerably in two decades, and some that are frozen in time.) For those who may not remember, Heat was quite a big deal upon release for its on-screen pairing of two legendary thespians, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, in what was essentially a grand-scale cops-and-robbers epic drawn from copious real-world research writer/director Mann had conducted over the course of his career. By the nineties, action was already taking precedence over characterization—and that’s only worsened in the CGI era (I don’t care how many esteemed year-end top-ten lists they make, those Fast & Furious movies—all seven of them—are beyond dreadful)—but Heat stands, both then and now, as a testament to the power of old-school storytelling by a master of the craft: It takes its time to bring us into its morally complex universe of deeply flawed, empathetic characters on their inevitable—and tragic—collision course with one another. As a director, Mann’s stylistic flourishes have occasional tendency to date his films (he’s responsible, after all, for that pastel-infused Miami Vice aesthetic that defined the color palette of the eighties), but, save for perhaps a few oversized flip phones, Heat exists in a timeless world unto itself; to spend an afternoon there is to visit a Los Angeles unlike the one you can actually visit, and unlike the one you’ve seen in other movies. Heat is, very simply, something spectacular to behold—every bit the classic both history and the culture have come to deem it.
It’s strange for me to think of Heat as a classic, much the same way it’s personally disconcerting to watch a child you held as a baby graduate from high school: You can’t quite fathom where the hell the time went. I recall the day I first saw the movie as clear as last week—it was bone-chilling but clear, not snowy—yet I’m forced to concede that at this point it is almost as old now as The Godfather, Part II, Pacino and De Niro’s previous shared screen effort, was upon Heat’s release! And in 1996, Godfather II seemed very, very old to my young eyes.
Heat’s narrative structure is what Blake Snyder, the late innovator of the set of storytelling precepts known as Save the Cat!, would categorize as Institutionalized (as is The Godfather, by the way). Now, I’ve observed quite a bit of confusion over at the official Save the Cat! website as to what, precisely, constitutes Institutionalized: Whiplash, for instance, is a “Mentor Institution,” like Training Day and The Devil Wears Prada, and not, as Snyder’s successors have inexplicably asserted, a Monster in the House. For those interested in further elaboration on this genre, I refer you to Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies, but let me supplement what Snyder has to say about the subject with this: Institutionalized stories are typically about characters with equal and incompatible loyalties to two different groups/organizations/establishments; they must choose one by story’s end, and thereby sacrifice the other for it. In Heat, De Niro cannot be a professional thief and have a personal life—the dogmatic discipline of the former makes no allowances for the sentimentality, the unpredictability, of the latter: “You wanna be making moves on the street,” he advises protégé Val Kilmer, “have no attachments, allow nothing to be in your life that you cannot walk out on in thirty seconds flat if you spot the heat around the corner.” Likewise, Pacino can’t be a devoted husband and an indefatigable robbery-homicide detective—in the world of the story, those are mutually exclusive commitments, hence the reason his third marriage is on the rocks when we meet him. In the end, an emboldened De Niro attempts, against his own better wisdom, to have it all; Pacino, on the other hand, makes the overt choice to sacrifice his marriage so he might take down De Niro, effectively pledging fidelity to one institution (his job—his addiction to the chase, really) over the other (his family). Consequently, Pacino prevails—at a cost, of course, but Institutionalized stories are always about the price we pay for the choices we make:
“The real lesson, and what these tales teach, is the peril of not paying attention to that voice inside” (Blake Snyder, Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies, [Studio City: Michael Wiese Productions, 2007], 224).
The day I went to see Heat, I was meeting a college classmate with whom I’d recently become quite friendly. I’d like to be able to say we chose this particular film because we were drawn to its epic story and mega star wattage, but the truth is far less dynamic: We were meeting on the Upper East Side—she was coming in from Queens, and I down from the Bronx—so we figured we’d pick the movie with the longest running time to justify the lengthy subway ride! (I specifically recall—don’t ask me why—one of the other features playing at that theater was a Denis Leary/Sandra Bullock comedy called Two If by Sea, for those with really long memories.) Heat started at noon but we’d agreed to meet at the theater an hour ahead of that; I, however, barely made it in time for the twelve-o’clock showing—I’d completely overslept! (In fairness, she and I had been on the phone till nearly 5:00 a.m. the night before.)
After the movie, Kristin and I browsed the shelves of a nearby Barnes & Noble, and then went for dinner at Pizzeria Uno (both of which are still right there on Eighty-Sixth Street). We were having a good time, so we walked over to the Met, grateful for inexpensive refuge from the bitter cold, and spent a few hours strolling its hallowed halls together (just as Harry and Sally did, now that I’m thinking about it). We didn’t say goodnight until 10:00 p.m.—and then we called each other as soon as we got home and talked till the eastern horizon pinkened once again.
Five years after that day, we moved out to L.A. together. Twelve years after that day, we got married. Today we celebrate twenty years since we met on the frigid, frost-bleached streets of New York to see a Los Angeles crime thriller called Heat.
And to think I nearly slept through it!
THE GREAT UNKNOWN
In a world of ephemera, why do some things endure—why do they beat the odds over a zillion other competitors vying for longevity? Who the hell knew when we went to see Heat that it would still be the subject of cinematic fascination that it is today—that it would become, arguably, the magnum opus of Michael Mann’s enviably accomplished career? (To be fair, the movie does have its critics, as Kristin to this day still doesn’t care for it! “It’s three alternating hours of Robert De Niro mumbling and Al Pacino hollering,” she insists.) And on that same note, take my word for it when I assure you that I’ve lost count of the couples we know that have met, married, had children, divorced, and remarried others in the time she and I have been together (I often brag, in mock-egomaniacal fashion straight out of the Stephen Colbert playbook, that we’ve “won” marriage). Why? Why did we make it? Why did that ten-hour first date turn into a twenty-year love affair… with no end in sight?
I don’t know. Some things, I guess, are just well-built to start, and, for whatever alchemical reason, they resonate: Just as audiences haven’t lost interest in Heat, Kristin and I haven’t lost interest in one another. The movie that serves as ground zero for our relationship is a rich, emotionally wrought mosaic—a thought-provoking masterpiece that explores issues of loyalty, criminality, professionalism, and the codes we live by. But, for all the ruminations and emotions it inspires, for me it will always be, above all, a reminder of the simple, innocent pleasure of falling in love for the first time; it delights me that people still remember the film with the same fondness, with the same passion, that I think of the day I first saw it—January 13, 1996. Two If by Sea has long since receded from cultural consciousness, but Heat remains better than ever. So do we.