Figgis: Internal Affairs (1990)

Internal Affairs was Mike Figgis’ third film, and his first big blockbuster, and it’s every bit as gorgeously atmospheric as Stormy Monday, his breakthrough release. As the title suggests, it revolves around the Internal Affairs Division of the LAPD, where a pair of new recruits, Raymond Avilla, played by Andy Garcia, and Amy Wallace, played by Laurie Metcalf, are charged with bringing down one of the most elusive corrupt cops – Dennis Peck, played by Richard Gere, who leans heavily on his sidekick, Van Stretch, played by William Baldwin. Since Raymond is especially new to the IAD, we learn about its processes through his eyes, as Amy takes him through the different strategies for navigating the most hated division in the LAPD.

Like Stormy Monday, Internal Affairs is driven by mood and space above all else, despite featuring a considerably more complicated narrative. Yet where Stormy Monday was obsessed with ambience, the shift from Newcastle to Los Angeles produces something more like immanence – a volatile circumfluidity of space that brims with a new kind of connective potential. At times the film feels set at the very moment that the Santa Ana Winds start (or end), as heat hazes and cool winds converge on Figgis’ mise-en-scenes, which surround his characters with vast swathes of unruly space that the film often struggles to properly process.

In fact, we don’t see a true establishing-shot until the final sequence of the film, even though it’s clear from the outset that we’re in Los Angeles. While Figgis’ early shots do establish location, they’re always a little too tight to count as establishing-shots, as if the space of the film were so amorphous that Figgis had to make an additional effort to rein it all in. The camera can never get far enough away to establish a truly omniscient perspective but it can never get close enough to breach the hazy immanence that surrounds everything either. Instead, we remained poised right where that immanence is most visible – or rather, most palpable, a tactility that perpetually flows in front of the camera as bodies, traffic and smog.

This thickened and intensified spatial field is always shimmering in the foreground, and is the main medium that Raymond has to navigate in his quest to bring down Peck. As that suggests, working for the IAD is a perceptual as much as pragmatic task, since the hardest thing to see in Los Angeles, as the film puts it, is police brutality, which is everywhere and nowhere. Working for the IAD requires a kind of augmented perception – a capacity to simultaneously see the LAPD in its broad strokes and in miniature. Raymond describes this as “looking for strange”- looking for whatever eludes perception in the vast metropolis at any given moment.

Since most of the police work is done by men, this results in long gazes between men that coincide with the haunted synth refrains of the score, which was composed by Brian Banks, Anthony Marinelli and Figgis himself. Figgis’ involvement makes sense here, since the music is as much a part of the direction as it would be in a John Carpenter film, perpetually evoking those perceptual thresholds at which the IAD and the LAPD come together. These long gazes, and preternatural pauses, stretch the action out to almost two hours, as Raymond and Avila stare at each other for longer and longer, trying to discern a new kind of signal hovering in the ether between them. The more they look, the greater the distance seems, and yet the closer they appear to be as well, as they glimpse a new kind of remote closeness, or networked intimacy. Although they’re clearly the two main characters, their rapport makes the rest of the film feel like an ensemble drama, since it subsides so heavily on the space between them, which animates the nodes and connections between other characters as well.

From the outset, Peck has the upper hand here, since no actor could rival the preternatural quality of Gere’s stare at this point in time. During the 80s, American directors became more anxious about the future of the male gaze, falling back upon a series of lush genres, from the erotic thriller to neo-noir, to contain, control or at least historicise it. One strand of this anxiety sought to intensify the male gaze until it approached the prehensile stares of gay cruising. This moment began in the early 80s, with William Friedkin’s Cruising and Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo, and Gere reaches a kind of apotheosis of that intensified gaze here, a decade later, with a capacity to stare down other characters that seems almost superhuman, even as it turns the gaze back upon himself and renders the exchanges queer.

Yet whereas Gere’s character is still overtly soliciting sex in American Gigolo, here he has reached a more post-human potentiality – more a radiant hub than a conventional character, Peck is increasingly caught in tenuous thresholds between different parties, and defined as a node in a network more than as a discrete figure in and of himself. He’s nearly always positioned, or positioning himself, between two other characters – we first see him at home with an enormous hand-held phone as he maintains a conversation between his wife and ex-wife. In fact, he has eight children by three wives, but still maintains an incredible serenity, a calm and stillness that drives the body language of the other characters as well, all of whom seem prescient they can tap into this emergent connectivity if they just settle into as calm and receptive a pose as possible – if they just lock their gazes onto Peck in the right manner.

In order to elude Raymond, then, Peck has to become quieter and more absorbed into the city as the film proceeds. He gets his biggest challenge when Van Stretch flips, and tries to catch him on a wire. This is the moment when the city’s inchoate network comes closest to being captured by physical media, but Peck responds by killing Raymond and staging the crime in the quietest and stillest tableaux so far. After arranging for Raymond to be shot, he positions his body on an utterly deserted street, devoid of movement even in the deep background, and with no discernible infrastructure apart from a factory selling “Fabrications.”

Beyond a certain point, Raymond and Peck both require a perceptual asset to help them continue this cat-and-mouse chase through the emergence of Los Angeles. Raymond’s asset is his wife Kathleen, a contemporary video sculptor, played by Nancy Travis, who we first meet in a quintessentially postmodern space – a contemporary art gallery, where she’s showcasing a series of naked bodies writhing across televisions that have been set up in sensuous configurations. At the same time, one of Peck’s most important contacts runs the “Galleria,” a shopping mall that is clearly based on the Sherman Oaks Galleria, one of the most prominent and popular postmodern structures in Los Angeles on the cusp of the 90s. Both Kathleen’s sculptures and the Galleria are powerful perceptual weapons, since they try to articulate the emergent connectivity of the city, its late postmodern properties, in regular time and space.

These postmodern spaces breed a very particular type of neo-noir – not exactly a resurgence of noir motifs, or a pastiche of noir films, but a new variation on the loneliness that was such an essential part of noir. This loneliness is very particular to the early 90s, and stems from the profound sense of another world “out there” just before digital networks had evolved to catch up with it. The immanent connectivity and latent digitality of Internal Affairs imbues loneliness with a new romanticism– the strangely pregnant sadness of finding yourself off-grid just before the grid was fully formulated. This anticipates the vast networked loneliness of Heat, but also clarifies what that loneliness always was – the last generation before the digital era trying to articulate a proto-digital sadness on the cusp of a fully connected world.

As in Heat, this produces a unique combination of intimacy and loneliness, proximity and alienation, that is reflected in the cold warmth of the synth score, its capacity to suggest the erotic pull of other bodies alongside a more dispersed impersonality. As in Heat, too, we see this alienated connectivity most clearly in heterosexual relationships, which are somewhat doomed from the start, because to be close to someone is to feel the alienation every more profoundly. Here, as in most of Michael Mann’s films, even the most well-intentioned men have become alienated from women, since connection and alienation have become indistinguishable, just as every outburst quickly retreats back into an even moodier quietness.

By the third act of the film, Los Angeles is nothing more or less than this quivering threshold between alienation and connectivity, as Internal Affairs starts to drift in the direction of science fiction – not by depicting the future, but by evoking the futurity emergent in Los Angeles. This science fiction inflection is inflected further through a series of Western cues, as the city is paired back to its most primal spatial dramas, and accompanied by an electronically treated Spanish guitar. Spanish language sequences also start to predominate in this last part of the film, and they remain unsubtitled, as if to translate the opacity of the film’s spaces directly into its dialogue. In any case, the film is beyond language now, and could easily play as a silent film, scored to the synth substrate, since the drama lies in the space between Raymond and Peck, which becomes vaster and more pregnant, like the preparation for a final showdown, even as they are more telepathically and mystically connected as well.

In other words, the narrative details fade away, leaving us with a battle between two men for panoptic command of the city. This effectively plays as a single tracking sequence, as Raymond follows Peck through the immanent haze of the film, only to realise just how synonymous Peck has become with it. In the first stop on this final trajectory, Raymond watches Peck as he wines and dines Kathleen in a downtown Los Angeles restaurant, but the pedestrian and car traffic in the foreground increases so dramatically that it’s as if Peck has put an entire highway of ambient sound and noise between Raymond and his wife. Sure enough, we see the highway for the first time in the following scene, as Raymond tries to tap into Peck’s slipstream, and ends up losing him, only to encounter him again in an elevator, where Peck beats him up, as the elevator is moving, much as he commands the city’s fluxes.  

This sequence culminates with the most frenetic hand-held cinematography in the film, as Raymond drowns his woes at a strip club, where he ends up having sex with a woman who turns out to be Peck’s snitch. As Peck bursts into the room, Raymond shoots him several times, but Peck just keeps on walking, grinning, invincible – until Raymond wakes up and realises that he’s fallen asleep in the strip club and dreamed it all. Even in his fantasies, he can’t shake the idea of Peck’s command over the city, or fashion a movement manic enough to escape it, so this sequence does away with any sense that he can catch up to Peck, or discern him, by moving through regular time and space. Instead, Figgis suggests, Raymond, and the film, require a new cinematic language to evoke Peck’s emergent digital connectivity.

In part, that’s because Peck himself has discovered this new cinematic language – he’s already thinking in digital cinema, perceiving the world as we would now, thirty years later, with two decades of digital cinema to mediate and shape our perception of cities. Peck condenses this cinematic ambition into his main crime in the film – organising to have the parents of a wealthy businessman murdered. Peck buries the parents of this businessman behind the Hollywood sign, as if to place his crime beyond the purview of even the most flamboyant cinematic omniscience, and then signals his invincibility to the businessman himself by having sex with his wife, in his house, at the very hour that he knows he is likely to return from work.

This house represents the final perceptual threshold of the film – the point at which Peck manages to fuse physical and proto-digital space, but also the point at which the film tries most earnestly to keep up with him. For one thing, this house ushers in the first real establishing-shot of the film – a sweeping expanse, taken from a helicopter, that situates it somewhere on the Los Angeles coastline, surrounded by sand, sea and sky. For another thing, this is the most porous house we’ve seen in the film – and intentionally so, since Peck leaves the door open so that his client can discover him (and Raymond enters the same way in turn).

However, the most notable feature of this house is its vast blankness and emptiness. Everything inside is white – white walls, white carpet, white tiles, furniture draped in white sheets, and the beach and ocean abstracted to a white haze in the background – while the open-plan design further converges these white features into an ontological blankness. This is a total abstraction of the film’s opaque spatial field, a structure commensurate to the immanent haze that Peck commands. It is, like the Galleria or Kathleen’s sculptures, the digital made corporeal, a space that can only capture the spatial scheme of the film by divesting itself of even the most residual spatial specificity, and instead presenting us with a series of empty voids that look more like a James Turrell sculpture than a recognisable house or home.  

This house may be the pinnacle of the film’s project but it’s also an admission of defeat – a concession that Los Angeles can now only be understood as a spatial vacuum, a pregnant emptiness, an absence of the spatial cues that comprise analog cinema. The haze of the first two acts has thickened and condensed into a discernible structure, and continues to percolate out across a series of white spaces and objects as Peck shoots Amy and flees, while Raymond takes Amy to hospital, and makes sure she is safe, only to realise Peck is probably coming for Kathleen, since he can’t let her television sculptures stand as Raymond’s perceptual arsenal.

Sure enough, we now cut to Kathleen’s television, which reflects Kathleen walking past it, and seems to promise, in classic horror style, that Peck will also emerge in the background. Yet Kathleen simply turns the television on, flooding the screen with the whiteness of an ice hockey game. Just as the immanent haze of the city was abstracted into the white house, now Peck seems entirely absorbed into the whiteness of the screen, which is itself abstracted by Figgis’ extreme close-up, spilling over into a sequence that suggests that Peck will soon emerge from or across a series of other white zones in Kathleen’s house – the white curtains behind her white phone, the bright white cubicle of her shower, and finally from underneath her white bed, which Figgis frames in an eerily tight close-up of Kathleen taking off her shoes.

In these final scenes, Figgis fuses the whiteness of police brutality with the whiteness of those parts of the city that remain unmappable within regular film language and within Hollywood realism. Police brutality here occurs in the emergent digital margins of the city, just as it took the glitchy footage of the Rodney King video to render that brutality as visible as it was omnipresent. And Peck now appears in Nancy’s bed, commanding both forms of whiteness, right down to his shock of white hair, as Raymond tries to compensate with a more antiquated movement through regular analog space and time, speeding from the hospital downtown through a series of night roads that seem even inkier and more opaque against this whiteness.

Yet Raymond’s mobility starts to decelerate as he reaches his house, where it’s gradually absorbed back into Peck’s whiteness. Figgis anchors Raymond’s entry into the house by returning to a close-up of the television screen, where the ice hockey game is still silently playing. Raymond’s movement across the screen feels absorbed by the players moving on the screen, and while he ends up killing Peck, Figgis ends the film abruptly then and there, morphing the closing shot into a monochrome palette that restores the uncannily intensified whiteness that Raymond was trying to outrun. At the end of the day, Peck still has the upper hand perceptually, even in his death, since white supremacy and emergent digitality are both undead too, gradually corroding this final image until it looks glitched somewhere beyond the purview of the film, like a signal from the future that Figgis has received but can’t fully process.

About Billy Stevenson (892 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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