Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Michael Mann: an A-Z

Public Enemies is out this week, and in some sort of celebration, a few brief reflections on its Director in the form of an (at times very stretched) A-Z:

A. is for America
It can be argued that the grand theme in Mann's mature work is a study of America itself, its evolution, flaws and institutions. In Last of the Mohicans, he depicts the struggles between other competing Nations and peoples as a fledgling country seeks to define itself through violence, War and sacrifice. Hawkeye, in that film's scheme, is the first American, a man with a foot in two separate cultures, preparing to start a family in an entirely new culture partly of his own invention. In Heat, amongst many other things, we see a study of the modern American city and the relationship between crime and law enforcement therein. Mann shows us how much this effects dozens of people across several social strata - from the wives of cops and bank robbers, to white Collar criminals and suicidal teens. The Insider is about modern corporate America and its relationship with the media - it may be his most vital, thematically topical film. Jeffrey Wigand is just a man struggling with the morality of his work (for a corporation) as is Lowell Bergman. Ali is explicitly about America, about the 60s, the civil rights movement, the Nation of Islam, the FBI (even, in the Director's Cut, the CIA in Africa) - it shows and contextualises Ali's relationship with all these forces, revealing his singular importance in American popular and political culture. Collateral is another study of urban America as a melting pot of competing tribes (Hispanic, Korean, African-American). Miami Vice is about American borders and America as policeman - International crime leading to bloodshed on Americas shores means American agression abroad (again, very topical), and again a report on tribal differences (here we have South American drug gangs and White Supremacists). Public Enemies, like Last of the Mohicans and Ali, looks to be at least partly about the making of modern America.

B. is for Blue
Blue has an emotional resonance for Mann which he relates thematically to the stories he tells. I'm not sure what it "means". I could speculate, but nobody can be sure. Mortality and an awareness of such? Loneliness? A masculine awareness of the need for the family unit, domesticity and meaning? I doubt Mann himself really understands why hes drawn to the colour, and he generally resists thematic readings of his work in any case. But he knows how to make it look beautiful. He generally favours a cold blue tint, and some of his films don't even really contain much of it - Ali and Last of the Mohicans have much warmer pallets than some of his other work, as most period dramas tend to do. But its omnipresent in Heat and Miami Vice and makes telling appearances in just about everything else. Most notably used in scenes where men gaze into blue spaces of sky and ocean.

C. is for Crime
In a recent Guardian column, David Thomson (whose critical abilities have declined alarmingly in the last few years, even if he still writes beautifully) basically argued that Mann was not a genius because he makes "Crime Movies". That is, films which rely on a boyish enthusiasm for outlaws and action and the facile notion that criminals and policemen are actually alike under the skin, and which ignore the reality of crime and the impact and traumatic effect it can have on its victims. Which is a disastrous over-simplification, and a condescension to Mann's work (altough Thomson does acknowledge him as a "Master" in the way he builds sequences). But it cannot be argued - Mann's career has been dominated by Crime as a genre. He made his name writing cop shows for television, made his debut as a Director on a crime movie, had his greatest popular success as the Producer of a cop show on television and his greatest critical success for writing and directing an Epic crime film. Since then he has made another crime movie and another cop show for television. How much of his life, with his devotion to research and mastering any subject he addresses, has been spent interviewing cops and career criminals? This is a world he knows and understands. And like David Simon or David Chase, he knows he can tell stories about the way we live now through the prism of the crime genre. Heat, for all Thomson's wit, suggests that DeNiros Bank Robber and Pacino's Cop are alike, but then it has the characters identify what exactly it is that separates them. They both live by codes. But whereas DeNiro's McCauley's is based on survival, self-preservation above all else, Pacino's Hanna is motivated by a sort of civic interest. "If its between you and some poor bastard whose wife you're gonna turn into a widow, brother - you are goin down." he says. In the end, Hanna's code proves the stronger, his skill as a hunter outmatching McCauleys compromised survival ethos. But Heat is, like Collateral and Miami Vice, a film about the difficulty of personal communication in a modern world crowded with the apparatus of communication. It is also a film, like them, about men with guns. Mann layers his work, which is perhaps the key to its ability to reward multiple viewings.

D. is for Digital
In his determination to utilize new technical innovations in cinematography, Mann is something of a visionary. Parts of Ali were shot digitally, and they have a raw, harsh beauty in what is otherwise a more conventionally visually pleasurable celluloid production. Mann then made sure that his short-lived TV Series Robbery Homicide Division was shot exclusively digitally. It is at times a surreal look at modern Los Angeles in all its eclectic beauty, particularly that city's canyons and art deco architecture and grafitti and freeways as they appear at night. Digital photography captures light after dark in a way celluloid is denied, and hence the milky glow over a megapolis at midnight is recast as a cloudy purple canvas. Collateral transfers Robbery Homicide Division's aesthetic to cinema, and as such is at times hypnotically beautiful. Then there is Miami Vice, a swooningly, ravishingly beautiful showcase for digital photography. From digital grain to the pin-sharp resolution of just about any sequence, it is an unabashedly sensual exercise in photography, and a study of the sky above Florida, and how muzzle flashes are pretty in the night, and how the dull flatness of urban street-lighting has its own beauty and poetry if you look at it right. And yet some actually thought it "ugly". The same people who howl at the notion of a period film (Public Enemies) shot digitally, I think.

E. is for Ensembles
Mann attracts amazing casts for all his movies. Familiar faces everywhere. His leads are generally the biggest and best. Both heavyweight, high calibre thespians and Big Movie stars. DeNiro and Pacino, obviously. Daniel Day Lewis, Russell Crowe, Will Smith, Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Colin Farrell, Jamie Foxx. His movies are filled with talent even in the small roles. Because people want to work with him. The likes of Denis Haysbert and Jermy Piven, both pre-tv fame, in Heat. Javier Bardem and Mark Ruffalo in Collateral. He's viewed as a major director, and good with actors. He gives them good stuff to work with. Neither Pacino or DeNiro have had a scene as good as their coffee table chat in Heat since that movie. Russell Crowe has never ever been as good as he was in The Insider, ditto Will Smith with Ali and even Tom Cruise in Collateral. Daniel Day Lewis flirted with movie stardom in The Last of the Mohicans in a way he never had before and Mann seemed to make it work, to make him see the artistic value in it all.
Mann makes these actors better, draws gold from them. Mario Van Peebles, dragged from the Direct to DVD ghetto for Ali and proving Mann right in a few short scenes, is just further proof of this. Wings Hauser - Wings Hauser! - in The Insider is a more startling example. Part of the reason is his perfect casting - when he takes a gamble (Gong Li in Miami Vice, for example) he has to make it work. But its the perfection of all those faces in those small parts that really registers. Heat is the best example. Tom Noonan and William Fichtner and Hank Azaria all feature briefly but unforgettably. Jon Voight, unrecognisable, but incredible. Tone Loc and Henry Rollins, slipping into the ensemble like veterans. And they all just add to the tapestry, the portrayal of a modern insane city in all its variety and ugly humanity...

F. is for For Whom the Bell Tolls
Every film-maker has his unmade passion projects. Mann gets attached to a lot of material, partly because he is busy as a producer and partly because he is in great demand. An adaptation of "Gates of Fire", Stephen Presfeld's novel of the Battle of Thermopylae, which has presumably capsized following the success of 300. A film about the murder of Litvenenko. Before Public Enemies came together with unseemly pre-Writers Strike haste, he had been hovering around an Untitled Period Noir set in Hollywood of the 40s and 50s, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. The budget was reportedly prohibitive and nobody would finance it. He has been linked with DiCaprio before. Firstly on a James Dean biopic in the 90s (Mann was linked to a couple of biopics before he settled on Ali - the other being Ferrari with Robert DeNiro), and secondly on what is supposed to be his dream project - an adaptation of Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls". Setting aside DiCaprio, with his little-boy-playing-grown-up-looks and manner, an actor I have never really appreciated, as Robert Jordan, Hemingway and Mann is surely a perfect fit. Both terse, masculine storytellers with weaknesses for moments of unexpected poetry and pure stylistic indulgence. "For Whom the Bell Tolls" sounds like a Mann film - a love story in a War zone, a focus upon a man who is brilliant at what he does and alone because of that, a handful of brutal action sequences, some amazing scenery for Mann's camera to faun over. Consider though, that in Sam Wood's mediocre 1943 adaptation, Jordan is played by Gary Cooper, then imagine DiCaprio in any role Cooper ever played, and the casting quandary becomes plain. Any of Mann's other recent Leading men - Depp, Bale, Farrell - would make a better Jordan than DiCaprio.
I would in fact suggest Mark Ruffalo to play this bruised Jordan, nearing his life's end, finding love in the most unexpected place. He has the necessary sensitivity and the machismo, and he is a fine actor. Though possibly not a big enough star.
And this will, if it ever actually happens, be an insanely big film with a colossal budget. Mann may need a star to back him up...

G. is for Gunfire
The central gun battle in Heat is the greatest shootout in cinema since The Wild Bunch, a terrifying, riveting assault on the senses but also a surgical account of the movements, advances and retreats of two opposing groups of men involved in a running gun battle in a modern urban environment. Mann understands the power of gunfire. He concentrates on the visceral shock of it, the booming muzzles and flashes of light, the sudden yawning maws of silence which rise up when the gunshots fade away. After the longest stretch of that battle in Heat (the technical advisor on which was Andy McNab), in the absence of gunfire we can hear sirens and screaming above the City's usual ambient noise, and there is a small shock to the realization that this madness - a scene from a Warzone, really - has all taken place in the midst of a normal day, in midtown Los Angeles. Mann's insistence on realism and verisimilitude makes it all frighteningly authentic, As are the shootouts in Collateral and Miami Vice. Key to the impact, however, is the sound design. The Heat scene is deafening, with each gun sounding different and the noise echoing off the glass and concrete of the city's manmade canyons. In Miami Vice, the final shootout is slightly more stylized, with the beauty of the muzzle flashes being captured with a disturbing sensual charge by the digital cameras. The climax of Thief opts for some lovingly edited slo-mo of its carnage, combining realism and poetry in one sequence. Last of the Mohicans, too, handles its violence beautifully, with a strange contrast afforded between the gutwrenchingly intimate brutality of most of the Natives - all tomahawks and scalpings - and the clean, if thunderous precision of the rifles used by the Mohicans and the Redcoats. In short; with Mann, gunfire is lethal, but surprisingly beautiful too.

H. is for Home
Which would be the city of Chicago. Mann has a strong Chicago accent, and its perhaps the toughest sounding and most obviously urban of American accents (alongside Boston and the Bronx) - all flat hard vowels and bitten off consonants. Having origins in Chicago could explain the fascination with crime, I suppose. It probably does account - to a certain extent - for that authorial voice, too. A certain terseness, a hardboiled quality to the concerns and the characterisations both. Elvis Mitchell wrote a piece in the New York Times some years back grouping Mann together with fellow Chicagoan Writer-Directors David Mamet and William Friedkin as the "Chicago Macho School of Crime FIlm", which is a cute idea but stands up to little scrutiny (altough Mann and Mamet do have shared concerns). He has made films there - Thief is set mostly in Chicago, as are much of Crime Story and some of Public Enemies.

I. is for Inluence
His style is so singular and so beautifully achieved that attempting to imitate it is to invite disaster. But still some try. Stephen Gaghan in Syrania, Olivier Marchal in 36, Andrew Lau and Alan Mak in Infernal Affairs, Peter Berg in The Kingdom (co-produced by Mann), and even Soderbergh in Traffic all go for the steeliness of some Mann. His thematic concerns are so focused and obvious that any attempt to address them would come off like outright plagarism, which 36 and Infernal Affairs both do. His biggest influence is in providing the visual template which now dominates commercial Hollywood cinema. He, alongside fellow London Film School alumni Ridley Scott, Alan Parker and Adrian Lyne, influenced by their work in advertising, basically created the precisely shot, crisply (over)lit look of much 1980s cinema. Mann brought the aesthetic to television with Miami Vice while Lyne and Scott gave it mainstream Hollywood acceptance in films like Fatal Attraction and Black Rain. Taken up by commercially savvy producers Simpson and Bruckheimer, that look has since been pushed to its limits by the likes of Tony Scott and Michael Bay, while Mann has moved off in many other directions..

J. is for Jaunpuri
At the start of his career, Mann made a few shorts, the most celebrated of which is Jaunpuri, an abstract experimental work. He also made the (lost) 8mm short Dead Birds and 17 Days Down the Line, a short documentary about the American working man. All this before he found an actual way into the industry through writing for television, and none of it available for viewing today. Mann classifies Jaunpuri, which won awards at a couple of Film festivals, as an "embarassment".

K. is for The Keep
And speaking of embarassments...
The Keep (1983), based on F. Paul Wilson's novel, is the great mystery in Mann's filmography. Unlike anything else he's done, it is unavailable on DVD and relatively little seen. It tells the story of a group of Nazis who occupy an ancient Romanian fortress and unwittingly unleash the evil force which has been held imprisoned there for centuries. It appears to make references to the Holocaust and the roots of Fascism, but is unequivocally a mystical horror film with a big dumb creature in a bad suit at its heart. This is a shame, as this physical manifestation of the creature, known as Molasar, comes to dominate and spoil the last act of the film, when the first half has been quite promising. Mann establishes a taut, eerie atmosphere through photography, a fantastic Tangerine Dream score and some brilliant production design. Much of the film seems to refer to German Expressionist cinema, especialy the design of the keep itself, and some of the lighting schemes, which makes sense, as Mann has claimed it was Pabst's 1925 Joyless Street which first inspired him to a career in cinema. The film features some brilliant scenes - an amazing slow, endless pull back away from a Nazi soldier into an enormous underground cavern, alien stone constructions visible in the dark, for one, and some nice work from a young cast (Gabriel Byrne and Jurgen Prochnow alongside Scott Glen and Ian McKellan), but finally its execution is not at the same level as its ambition. Any horror film which attempts to locate the fascist impulse within the human heart and incarnate it within it's monster had better have a good, scary monster capable of bearing the strain. Molasar is that until we actually see him, when we realise that he looks like an action figure. The climax is a generic light-battle without any tension or excitement. There have been rumours for years of a Director's Cut version on DVD, but nothing appears forthcoming for this, the black sheep of Mann's body of work.

L. is for List
Mann contributed a list of his favourite 10 Films to the last poll by "Sight & Sound". You can find the longer version, alongside his typically verbose, erudite comments, here, but this is the resolutely Classic list:
Apocalypse Now (Coppola)
Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein)
Citizen Kane (Welles)
Dr. Strangelove (Kubrick)
Faust (Murnau)
Last Year at Marienbad (Resnais)
My Darling Clementine (Ford)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer)
Raging Bull (Scorsese)
The Wild Bunch (Peckinpah)

M. is for Music
Manhunter, arguably Mann's most complex and faultless film in other respects, is damn-near ruined by its music. Not Iron Butterfly's "In-a-Gadda-da-vidda" which makes for a creepy, hypnotic soundtrack to the final confrontation, or some of the electronic instrumentals, which just add to the mood of foreboding. No, I mean some of the soft-rock by the likes of Shriekback and the Prime Movers, which play as iredeemably dated and jarring in a modern context. The use of Audioslave in both Miami Vice and Collateral approaches similar territory. Mann loves to cake his films in music, as it plays an important role in that impressionistic effect he's seeking. His first two films both make use of terrific Tangerine Dream scores, and he would have great success later on when he stuck to these electronic-oriented instincts. So Heat's combination of Elliot Goldenthal's near-ambient score with instrumentals from Moby, Michael Brook and Brian Eno is brilliantly sympathetic to the modernist feel, and Miami Vice combine's John Murphy's subtle work with Moby (again), Mogwai, King Britt and Blue Foundation to similar effect.
His other two period films are more traditional. Last of the Mohicans features a classic score by Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman, which is responsible for much of the films epic emotional sweep. Ali, however, relies mainly on use of vintage soul music in its American scenes, switching to Salif Keita when the action shifts to Africa. Interspersed throughout is a score by Lisa Gerrard, who also worked on The Insider.
Mann is brilliant at cutting to music. The opening sequence of Ali, a non-linear trip through the making of the young man in question and the run up to the Clay-Liston fight, is all set to Sam Cooke singing "Bring It On Home to Me", which is also intercut with the footage. It may be the best passage in all Mann's work. The use of "Iguazu" by Gustavo Santaolalla in The Insider is also fabulously judged to reflect the mental and emotional turmoil of Russell Crowe's Jeffrey Wigand. Then there is the transcendence of Moby's "One of these Mornings" in Miami Vice over shots of a speedboat cuttng across the ocean into an azure horizon.
All this without even mentioning the use of Del Shannon's "Runaway" in Crime Story or the revelatory score by Jan Hammer for Miami Vice, several selections from which were international hit singles...

N. is for Notes
The best book on Mann for me is FX Feeney's "Michael Mann" (Taschen), which is a beautiful coffee table tome, full of stills, on-set photos and research pictures. But also, thanks to the quality of Feeney's critical thinking and writing, an illuminating guide to Mann's work, explaining and questioning in just the right amounts.

O. is for Outlook
As in Landscape. Mann has a brilliant eye for landscape photography, and is possibly the best director of modern architecture since Antonioni. He knows that the architecture of a character's surroundings can speak for that character, can help us understand and feel how they feel. Consider the strip at the bottom of the runway at the climax of Heat and how it suddenly becomes an elemental arena of white light and white noise and two souls stripped back in combat. Or the beauty of the primordial forest in Last of the Mohicans, a system through which the three Mohicans move comfortably, until it provides a natural theatre for the operatic death of one at the end. Or the interior of Dollarhyde's house in Manhunter, which perfectly expresses his delusional state of mind. Or the freeway in Miami Vice where John Hawkes' Alonso looks beyond Crockett and Tubbs at the bleak beauty of Miami, its pylons and power lines, its purple night sky, thinks about his family dead because of him, and decides to step in front of a lorry.

P. is for Photographers
Donald Thorin was the DP who alongside Mann created the gritty, neon-lit world of Thief. He has never really lived up to that in his subsequent career and nowadays he tends to shoot mid-level medium budget comedies like Head of State and First Wives Club, altough one would imagine it was his work with Mann that attracted John Singelton's attention and got him work on Shaft (2000).
Mann is tough on DPs. Demanding, hard-working, he knows more about their field than they do, and is relentlessly perfectionist. He also picks the very best, so if he works with a young DP then their earlier work should be checked out at the earliest possible opportunity. The experienced Alex Thomson shot The Keep, fresh off John Boorman's beautiful Excalibur and Nicholas Roeg's Eureka, which tells you all you need to know about his reputation within the industry. He would go on to work with the likes of Michael Cimino and David Fincher (on Alien 3).
Mann's longest and most fruitful relationship with a DP has been with Dante Spinotti. Together they made four films in a row, from Manhunter through to The Insider, each visually sophisticated and lovely in its own way. Spinotti has returned for the digital photography of Public Enemies, having struck up a relationship with Brett Ratner in the interim (definition of sublime to ridiculous, for me) for whom he shot the vastly inferior Manhunter remake, Red Dragon.
The beautiful Ali was shot by Emmanuel Luzbeki, possibly the world's leading contemporary cinematographer, and he lived up to his reputation with his work for Mann. As did Dion Beebe, the talented Australian responsible for the brave digital experimentation of Collateral and Miami Vice.

Q. is for Quotes
"I'm a disco guy" - Yero, Miami Vice
"Your criteria are so far up your ass, they can't see daylight!" - Frank, Thief
"It is in your nature to do one thing correctly: Tremble." - Dollarhyde, Manhunter
"Graham: I know that I'm not smarter than you.
Lecktor: Then how did you catch me?
Graham: You had disadvantages.
Lecktor: What disadvantages?
Graham: You're insane." - Manhunter
"Duncan: There is a war on. How is it you are headed west?
Hawkeye: Well, we kinda face to the north and real sudden-like, turn left." - Last of the Mohicans
"McCauley: What am I doing? I'm talking to an empty telephone.
Van Zant: I don't understand.
McCauley: 'Cause there is a dead man on the other end of this line."- Heat
" I gotta hold on to my angst. I preserve it because I need it. It keeps me sharp, on the edge, where I gotta be." - Hanna, Heat
" Sorry? 'Sorry' does not put Humpty Dumpty back together again." - Felix, Collateral
"Yo, homie. Is that my briefcase?" - Vincent, Collateral

R. is for Research
Mann likes it. He wants to know what his characters ate for breakfast, where their clothes were made, and where they bought them. He becomes an expert on the subjects of each of his films. He shoots on location when he can. He expects his actors to be good with their guns, and mostly they are. This all goes back to the weeks he spent with Cops riding in Squad cars and out on patrol when he was first writing Starsky & Hutch. He stayed in touch with many of these men, interviewed many from the other side of the law, and all of that knowledge became the basis for everything he's done in the crime genre since. Which doesn't mean hes stopped interviewing and researching. If anything, he seems to do even more now he has the means. Imagine the amount of research that must have gone into Ali or Public Enemies...

S. is for Style
"I don't like style. Style is what happens when form is orphaned because content left; its good in commercials. My attitude is that the audience is a highly sensitive organism sitting there in a dark room and everything has an effect." - Mann
Olivier Assayas, a fine and influential Cahiers du Cinema critic before he began directing, has placed Mann alongside Bresson, Tarkovsky, Pasolini, Visconti and Hou Hsiao Hsien in a high rank of cinematic grand stylists. This does not seem like hyperbole to me. Mann is probably the greatest stylist working in contemporary cinema. The strange paradox of his methodology - and his reputation - is that he is seen as a great realist, for his "method" approach, for his perfectionism. And yet often he is dismissed as a stylist, which is probably where the testiness of the above quote comes from.
What is his style and how is it defined? Well, he keeps his often handheld camera mobile, and is never afraid to let focus drift a little into abstraction. He often deliberately sets up his establishing shots this way - a quick cut to a surface we cannot recognise, only given context by a crawl or a pan. The undoubted lyricism of his style is often to be found in these moments. Miami Vice, perhaps his most rarified piece of art cinema (while also a movie about undercover Vice cops) is full of instances where the camera drifts away or Mann cuts away from the central action. Crockett and Isabella sit in a Havana bar, an open doorway behind them, and mid-conversation, Mann cuts to a shot of the feet of children passing a car's shiny hubcap outside that doorway.
He has defined his style as "classical" and also professed a desire for a "you are there" experience for the audience. The classicism is apparent in his handling of dialogue scenes, which he normally shoots in a traditional two-shot with a pair of close ups, as in the coffee shop scene in Heat. The immersive side comes from the detailing - obsessive, impossible to ignore - and the intimacy of his shot choices and acute editing. This is most obvious during action scenes, when a shaky, adrenaline-pumping current enters the film, the mix of precise masters and handheld cutaways, the flowing and unostentatious moving shots and the perfectly timed editing combining to give a sequence a powerful visceral charge.

T. is for Television
Mann is still referred to in media profiles as "the creator of Miami Vice", which shows just how deeply that show embedded itself in the cultural consciousness. It was revolutionary - stylish, big budget, well written and with an attractive cast and some great locations. Miami itself was the protagonist, and it came off as beautiful, contradictory and fascinating. Mann's original brief - "MTV cops" - was more than fulfilled, and one of Miami Vice's legacies was in its use of pop music. The justly celebrated scene of Crockett and Tubbs in preparation for a violent confrontation driving through the city outskirts at night to the tune of "In the Air Tonight" by Phil Collins was like nothing television had ever seen before in its stylistic confidence, cinematic ambition and slickness.
He had enjoyed his first notable success as a director in television, too, when his TV movie The Jericho Mile was such a popular and critical success.
Mann surpassed Miami Vice with Crime Story, his next televisual venture, and something of a masterwork. Following one cop's obsession with bringing down a single criminal and spanning years and US states and dozens of major characters, Crime Story was a HBO epic before such things existed. Inspired, in its approach to a long arcing narrative, at least, by Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz, it was more stylized than it's elder brother and less successful (especially after it was moved into direct competition with Moonlighting). It was also more courageous and experimental in it's bold visual palette and terse narrative. The cliffhanger ending to Season One is one of the riskiest, most audacious gambles I have ever seen a TV show take - and it works.
Over the next few years he shot Heat-prototype L.A Crimewave and produced two "Drug Wars" mini-series, before returning to TV in a more complete sense with Robbery Homicide Division in 2002. Basically a series following a character not unlike Heat's Vincent Hanna and his squad, it was shot almost completely digitally, and as such is a crucial step in the journey Mann has made with the use of digital photography in his work. Cancelled after only a handful of episodes, its a sporadically brilliant show, if a little generic and subtle for a modern audience.

U. is for Underappreciated
Mann is a director who seems to inspire extremes in people. You either love him or hate him. Critically, the story is much the same - none of his films, except for perhaps The Insider, has ever received unanimous critical praise. Many critics praise his technical ability yet criticise his work as either pretentious or slick and empty.
His work has never been recognised by the Academy. The Insider received multiple nominations but no major wins. A film like Heat, now rightly recognised as a Modern Classic, received a mixed reception and garnered no Oscar nominations. He is controversial, in a way, his mix of an arty sensibility and a definite, deliberately high-minded aesthetic with popular genre cinema seeming to annoy some cultural commentators, as if he should decide on either the multiplex or the arthouse. While the true glory of his work is the fact that it would be comfortable in either venue.
But then he has his vocal acolytes - the web is full of Mann-fans rhapsodising about his work. Yet I feel he has not quite received his due, in America at least, as a major artist, and probably, since Scorsese's quality control slipped and
alongside Malick and P.T. Anderson, the greatest working American director, with a handful of classics in his body of work.

V. is for Variety
Mann's work as a producer has seen him produce a Scorsese period film (The Aviator, 2004), alongside Mario Van Peebles' Badasssss! and Peter Berg's The Kingdom. It makes sense that since his own body of work as a director is so unified and thematically central, that his interests would lead him to other subjects and styles in his career in production. He also makes the occasional advertisement for a ridiculous fee...

W. is for Women
A reputation as a resolutely "male" director sticks to Mann. Continually making films in a traditionally male genre - crime - only adds to the weight of this. And yet, and yet - Mann's films are full of strong, indominatable women, going their own way, doing what they believe is right, often suffering for it. Take Madeleine Stowe's Cora in Last of the Mohicans, choosing her own man, fighting for her life, always proud, always courageous, every inch a match for Hawkeye. Or Gong Li's Isabella in Miami Vice. If it wasn't for Crockett's deception, she would be in full command of their affair, and as it is, she makes all of her own choices and is never less than a lioness, never moreso than in her fury at discovering his lie. Or Tuesday Weld's Jesse in Thief, who enters into her relationship with Frank with her eyes open, knowing exactly what she can expect, and wanting it enough to go for it anyway. Mann, it seems, is a romantic. Love affairs in his world are often doomed, and more profound in their ecstasy and suffering as a result. So his women fall in love, follow their hearts and suffer for it. In Heat, three women love three men, and all of them make a sacrifice by the story's end. The story may be the men's story, but the women play a massive part in it, indeed they drive it. Ashley Judd's Charlene allows Chris to escape at a personal cost to herself, despite the rocky status of their marriage. Diane Venora's Justine lets Vincent walk away after coldly acknowledging their problems, and though she needs his emotional support, because she understands what drives him. And Amy Brenneman's Edie goes against her better judgement and agrees to leave with Neil, only to watch him follow a vendetta to his own death, leaving her marooned, bereft.
Miami Vice may be, alongside Last of the Mohicans, Mann's most romantic film, and at its ending Isabella has lost almost everything - her livelihood, her security, her reputation. Yet the film's emotional climax is in her pain at losing Crockett, in the sadness of their separation. In their last scene they cling to each other and he says "It was too good to last" and we see what Mann the romantic really makes of love and its tragedy in such a pitiless world. In such a world, any woman who risks losing everything must be seen as a strong character.
Plus - and this is no small thing in Cinema - he knows a classy dame, and a real beauty, when he sees one. Gong Li, Madeleine Stowe, Tuesday Weld, Marion Cotillard...

X. is for X-Rated
Mann does sex. Miami Vice has a couple of sex scenes, as do Ali and Heat. But he doesn't really seem all that interested, and there is more passion and heat in the scenes of seduction and first meeting in most of his films than in the actual bedroom scenes. Last of the Mohicans, which contains no sex, is probably his most erotically charged film. He should make a film lacking any genre tropes - no guns, no villains, no set-pieces. An emotional drama, about men and women and the way the world is now. Film it all the Michael Mann way and say something about the human condition, sex and love and laughter and all. But of course he never will. He is a Big Movie guy now, and he does them better than just about anyone else, and that is as it should be, I suppose...

Y. is for Youth
One way Mann is out of step with modern Hollywood is in the target audience for his films. They are not made for adolescent boys. They - even Collateral, even Miami Vice - are made for adults, who are willing to do some of the work themselves, narratively, emotionally. Then they are marketed at adolescent boys, the cars and guns front and centre, and people are confused. Adults don't go, adolescents do, and nobody wins. Except me. This seriousness probably derives from Mann's education - he has a Degree in English Literature and a Graduate degree (from the London Film School) in Cinema. He was never going to be McG. Altough if he was, Charlies Angels would be a lot more interesting...

Z. is for Zeitgeist
Public Enemies is released in the middle of a Global Economic Depression at a time when many in the West are angry at the banking system, which they hold responsible. So a film chronicling the brief career of a man who spent his time robbing from banks during the last great depression seems almost impossibly topical. But then Mann has always been good at skating the zeitgeist. Miami Vice arrived on TV in the 80s at just the moment America was ready for it. Last of the Mohicans gave birth to the boom in romantic historical epics over the next decade or so (First Knight, Braveheart, The Scarlet Letter etc), leading ultimately to the likes of Gladiator.

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Blogger J.D. said...

What an awesome post! You really did a fantastic job laying out many of Mann's recurring themes and motifs. I agree with your assessment of David Thomson's declining critical faculties. He really missed the boat by pigeonholing Mann as simply a crime film director. I guess he figures because a film like ALI is a commercial failure that it doesn't show his versatility? Or that with HEAT, he basically created a crime film that fulfills all the conventions of the genre while also transcending them? Oh well...

Thanks again for contributing to my blogathon. I really enjoyed your post (and the ALI one too).

11:19 pm  
Blogger daveysomethingfunny said...

How did you leave out 'For me, the action is the juice' from the quotes bit?

Outlook to landscape was a bit of a stretch too - but a good one.

9:09 pm  
Blogger David N said...

Er, "the action is the juice" used to be the quote I had under my pic, so I thought it was a bit too familiar.
I could've had 50 Heat quotes, literally...

Yeah, I cringe when I think about outlook to landscape. But it had to be done.

JD - thanks, the Mannblogathon is a great idea(especially with a lot of anti-Public Enemies stuff in the blogosphere) and I'm happy to be able to contribute.

10:47 pm  
Blogger Ross said...

Not seen Public Enemies yet, but I went to see a digital showing of Last Chance Harvey, of all things, at Cineworld Fulham Road a couple of weeks back. They screened the digital version of the PE trailer - absolutely beautiful.

7:43 pm  
Blogger David N said...

It is absolutely beautiful.

Mann is trying to change the way movies look and the way we expect them to look, and some people aren't gonna like it.

But then some people said to me that Miami Vice was "ugly". Really...

11:05 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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8:16 am  

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