heat

I’m Taking Six Months to Rewatch ‘Heat,’ the Holy Grail of Guy Movies

Why I’m not the first dude to attempt a minute-by-minute breakdown of Michael Mann’s masterpiece

A long 24 years before we made jokes about men going apeshit for Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino made an indelible mark on Dude Cinema by co-starring in Michael Mann’s 1995 neo-noir Heat. We didn’t have the online hype machine we do now, yet the celebrated actors’ first movie together since The Godfather Part II — and their first time sharing an actual scene — occasioned true excitement, and this enthusiasm carried through to make Heat a lasting part of the crime film canon.

What about this heist drama makes it a must-watch for the boys?

Aside from the sheer force of the marquee names, you’ve got an impressive and often surprising ensemble of committed weirdos — Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Jon Voight and even Hank Azaria, plus cult favorites Danny Trejo, Henry Rollins and Tom Noonan. The film elevates the classic cop-and-robbers dynamic into rich and atmospheric opera, achieving the polished legitimacy of “serious” art. There’s pulse-pounding action, but also great attention paid to how men abandon or fail the women in their lives because of an obsessive approach to work and personal masculine ethic. It’s based on a real-life burglar and detective; its mood is immersive, lush, almost dreamy. Heat captures the city of Los Angeles in unforgettable frames, for an epic runtime of 170 minutes. 

It is, shall we say, a journey.

Maybe it was the sense of scale that led me, in a haze of pot smoke, to come up with a long-term, Heat-based project. It’s always fun to livetweet movies, I thought; what if, during quarantine, I livetweeted Heat at the steady pace of one minute per day?

Viewed like this, the movie would take six months to watch to completion — perhaps as long as any shelter-in-place order remains in effect. The idea of dilating a film to the point of “crushing slowness” was inspired by the artist Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho, a video installation which appropriates and stretches Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho so that it would take you from one midnight to the next to see the entire thing. I liked the meditative absurdity of this approach for Heat, especially as it offered the chance to riff on the kind of minutiae that film bros faithfully dissect.

As of today, I’ve spent over a month making my way through the film’s opening 35 minutes, considering each apart.

Hilariously, I had never even imagined that Heat scholarship may have already delivered a far more prestigious antecedent to this dumb Twitter thread: Upon my launch, I was informed that Australian film journalist Blake Howard wrapped up a podcast called One Heat Minute in the summer of 2019, on the high note of a final episode featuring Michael Mann himself, no less.

What were the odds?

Where Heat worship is concerned, I guess the answer is roughly 100 percent: the movie is gloriously excessive, and so are the men who study it. Thankfully, Howard gave me his support and blessing, and I now have a great podcast to listen to when my mission is over. 

What have I learned from a leisurely if close rewatch of Heat as we sit through a global pandemic?

For one thing, routine is always a comfort — no matter how silly. Every night, after work, I take real pleasure in settling in to advance the plot another 60 seconds, then thinking too long and hard about how to convey (in witty fashion) what the moment contains.

I’m also realizing that this ritualism, this molecular attention, is part of how dude movies become ingrained in the collective male consciousness. Heat concerns a cast of men who fundamentally cannot change what they are, even if they dream of another life, and this narrative logic predicts the guy compelled to watch it again and again, in a circular loop of forensic analysis, hoping to break it down further. If Heat shows us “guys being dudes,” we are likewise guys being dudes in devotion to it.  

The result is that even as I feel myself delving deeper into the exquisitely Hollywood world of Heat, locating the strangeness and freshness of details I’d always overlooked, I’m hearing from those who are already on that level. These fans will quote relevant dialogue to me without looking it up, anticipate what’s coming next and share their preoccupations with this character’s tic, or that one’s motives.

When you treat these elements as essential choices within a craft, you start to regard the whole as a well-oiled, finely calibrated machine, and that, no doubt, is a cardinal joy to be had from Heat: It thrums along like a motorcycle on the empty freeway. You might have the route memorized, and the destination is fixed, but it is the passage of this time that matters.