More Than Meets The Mogwai

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

"Miami Vice": The Dutch Oven (directed by Abel Ferrara)

The bloody, unrelenting imagery and inimitable brand of New York grind-house sleaziness apparent in Abel Ferrara’s first two features (I’m subtracting the porno here, not because it’s insignificant, but simply because I’m not familiar with it) would seem to make Ferrara an unlikely candidate for primetime television, but keeping in tune with the unpredictable nature of those films, he found himself helming two episodes of “Miami Vice” in 1985 for executive producer Michael Mann. It’s been quite a while since I’ve seen his first season episode, “The Home Invaders”, but I seem to recall that his second and last, “The Dutch Oven”, was the better one of the two, but still entirely compromised and hampered down by the fact that Ferrara was working with an established cast and crew already set in their ways of working together (and having major success in doing so).

If anything, these exercises gave Ferrara the opportunity to hone his craft significantly with much larger budgets than he had been accustomed to (save for, maybe, Fear City) and establish a certain degree of credibility that surely would have eluded him had he continued on with his underground opuses, and refused these forays to Hollywood. And, of course, as he once told an interviewer, all he had to do was mention “Miami Vice” to get a good table at a restaurant.*

Originally airing six days before Halloween in 1985, “The Dutch Oven” marked a narrative departure in the series, as it followed the moral quandary of one Detective Trudy Joplin (Olivia Brown), a peripheral character in most of the episodes who must struggle with the decision of when to put her badge away when she’s off the job, after being confronted with Adonis, a suave drug dealer acquaintance (played by Giancarlo Esposito, marking his first time working with Ferrara) of David (Cleavant Derricks), an old flame that she’s just begun to relight. The predictable results being that she’s unable to split these two sides of herself, but does the right thing anyway in setting up a sting operation with Crockett (Don Johnson) to nail the conniving Adonis, even if it means the termination of her relationship with David. An overblown scene with Lieutenant Castillo (Edward James Olmos) serves to highlight Trudy’s professional attitude towards the whole affair, as he allows her the chance to leave the case because “she’s too close”; she vehemently refuses.

[Incidentally, this scene reminded me of how terrible television acting can be, and not even a talented filmmaker like Ferrara can curb the short time schedules and bad habits of the principal actors. If, for any reason these episodes stand out awkwardly in Ferrara’s filmography, it is because of the lack of depth in performances such as these, hardly the degree of intensity that he’s able to encourage and propagate in his more personal projects.]

The real tour-de-force of the episode, however, is the pre-opening credits before Trudy must shoot a rip-off artist after a high-speed car chase through the neon streets (which ultimately results in the clichéd dilemma of the “loose cannon” cop being reprimanded for his/her so-called inattentiveness and recklessness “on the job” – the less said about this plot constraint, the better!).

But, back to the opening moments, before the Jan Hammer credits: for casual viewers of the series (like me), seeing blue face paint and a bleached blonde wig applied to the actress who portrays Trudy doesn’t mean a whole lot, so we’re led to believe that she’s simply a prostitute. Following this, there’s a brief mosaic set to a pop song with such lyrics as “Women who sip champagne / Women who feel no pain / Women in Discos / Bringing Man to his Knees” over several elaborately dressed hookers eyeing potential johns, with Trudy remaining indistinct between them until Crockett pulls up to set the undercover ruse in motion. Is it entirely unreasonable to believe that this brief scene, which lasts only a minute or two, can somehow carry the rather Ferrara-esque notion that certain men will trick themselves into believing that they’re in control of the women they believe they're exploiting, when just the opposite is true (consider the exchange between Adonis and Trudy much later on, in which he explains how Trudy is playing both men – or perhaps, all three in David, Crockett, and Adonis -- in order to obtain what she wants); in other words, could this be foreshadowing similar thematic territory that Ferrara would later mine in his masterpieces of the 1990s, in particular New Rose Hotel? Obviously, a scene like it was probably in Maurice Hurley’s teleplay, as that’s the way television must work in order to be efficient, but Ferrara’s roving camera eye seems to convey all of the above in a manner that manifests the possibility that an intelligent auteur can leave his distinctive mark on a program transmitted through the glass teat.

*Portion of the interview in question -- from the British Horror Magazine “The Dark Side” -- reprinted in Brad Stevens’s indispensable study of Ferrara, “The Moral Vision”, published by FAB Press in 2004.

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