Monday, April 14, 2008

"American Cinema" Anniversary Blog-a-Thon!: Michael Mann - The Far Side of Paradise

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of the "American Cinema" Anniversary Blog-a-Thon being coordinated by Adam at Film at 11.

MICHAEL MANN (1943 – )

FILMS: 1981 – Thief. 1983 – The Keep. 1986 – Manhunter. 1992 – The Last of the Mohicans. 1995 – Heat. 1999 – The Insider. 2001 – Ali. 2004 – Collateral. 2006 – Miami Vice. 2009 – Public Enemies.

For more than twenty-five years, Chicago-born Michael Mann has been making films and producing television programs. He is highly regarded by film critics and cineastes but largely unrecognized by the public at large. And yet, he is responsible for producing one of the most popular television shows of all time: Miami Vice. Like fellow filmmaker Stanley Kubrick (of whom Mann greatly admires and is sometimes compared to), Mann likes to oversee and control every aspect of his films and push the boundaries of technological innovation in order to achieve his vision. Like, Kubrick, he has a relatively small but memorable output: nine films (with a tenth on the way) that contain similar thematic pre-occupations and stylistic motifs. That is not to say his films are derivative. Mann has worked in several different genres: the horror film with The Keep, the period drama with The Last of the Mohicans, and the biopic with Ali. He is perhaps best known for his work in the urban crime thriller of which five of his films could be classified as such.

Mann’s films are obsessed with the common bond between men and the notion of professionalism between them. The protagonists in his films are the very best at their respective professions: from Frank (James Caan), an efficient safe-cracker in Thief to 60 Minutes producer, Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) in The Insider. These men are loners who have little time for families and personal relationships. This is perhaps best summed up with Neil McCauley’s statement in Heat: “I am alone. I am not lonely.” Family and material items only get in their way or cause the downfall of a Mann protagonist. Each one is driven by an all-consuming goal, often in the form of a dream that drives them. In Thief, Frank hopes to create a family and retiring from a life of crime. Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) in Heat dreams of retiring to Fiji to see the iridescent algae that only come out once a year and light up the night. Vincent (Tom Cruise) in Collateral must fulfill his contract and kill five key witnesses in an upcoming indictment against a Latin American drug cartel. Mann protagonists are dreamers and idealists. Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) in The Insider believes that telling the truth about the addictive substance in cigarettes will change things. Lowell Bergman believes that a network TV program like 60 Minutes can still tackle challenging stories and make a difference.

In Mann’s films there is always a key scene between two people in which they tell each other their dreams and personal philosophies. The conflict that each Mann protagonist faces is when their individualism collides with the desire to preserve a relationship or their family. It is a battle between their hearts and minds, between what they feel and what they think. In Thief, Frank’s feelings for his girlfriend, Jesse (Tuesday Weld) clouds his judgment and he becomes indebted to the Mob. Only when he cut himself free from these feelings and applies cold logic does he prevail. During the course of the narrative, Mann protagonists are forced to make a life-altering decision that will determine their fate and inevitably push their dreams just out of reach. If they remain true to their personal code then they survive as Frank does in Thief when he rejects all familial and material trappings in order to break free of the Mob. If Mann protagonists betray this then they are destroyed as are both Neil in Heat and Vincent in Collateral when they fail to realize their goals as a result of deviating from their desired course of action. They often sacrifice their dreams when they acknowledge and embrace their aloneness. In Heat, Hanna (Al Pacino) when realizes that he cannot be with Justine (Diane Venora) because he is consumed by his job, he is then free to catch Neil.

Mann’s films are often remembered for their distinctive visual style. There are several colors that he uses in every film that symbolize specific meanings. Blue represents romance and safety. In Manhunter and Heat when the main protagonists are home they are shown in rooms bathed in blue light. No harm will come to them in these spaces. Green is equated with danger and death. In The Insider, when Wigand golfs at night and threatened by a mysterious man, the lighting of the scene is an eerie green. The interior of Max’s cab in Collateral is green once Vincent enters it as are the alleyways of the first two hits on the assassin’s list. Red, to a lesser degree, is also associated with danger and death. In the climatic bank heist in Heat, two cops hide behind a red truck and Hanna returns to his hotel room to find his daughter, Lauren (Natalie Portman), in a tub filled with her blood. In Collateral, the exterior color of Max’s cab is red. Finally, gray and white represent authority and conformity. In Manhunter, Hannibal Lecktor’s (Brian Cox) prison cell is completely white which enhances his intimidation over Will Graham (William Petersen). Vincent’s dominating presence in Collateral is enhanced by his gray suit, his striking white hair, and facial stubble.

Mann’s films also pay particular attention to architecture and a sense of place. It is used to enhance or reflect the mood of his characters. His films are full of empty houses, lonely hotel rooms, endless oceans, and dark city streets. Mann’s urban films are populated by hi-tech buildings that are Spartan and impersonal by design, like the prison that houses Lecktor in Manhunter or Neil’s home in Heat. Characters inhabit clean, uncluttered spaces with large picture windows that often offer a view of an expansive body of water. Water represents a place of relaxation (Manhunter), a search for identity (Mohicans), and a place of refuge (The Insider) for the Mann protagonist. Thief takes place in Chicago, which resides near a lake, Will and Molly’s house is on the beach near the ocean in Manhunter, a river features prominently in Mohicans and Lowell Bergman’s vacation house is also on a beach near the ocean in The Insider. They are quiet places that the protagonist can go to think and make crucial decisions that will affect their lives.

The most common criticism leveled against Mann’s films is that they tend to favor style over substance – a charge that the filmmaker understandably bristles at as he explains in an interview with the L.A. Weekly:

“What I try to do – I mean try, because you don’t get there all the time – is to have impact with content . . . If I have an ambition, it’s that, in The Insider, I had violence – lethal, life-taking aggression – all happening psychologically, all with people talking to other people . . . So then, the excitement for me as a filmmaker was the challenge of making suspense and drama involving life and death in which everything I’m shooting is only a human face.”
In Mann’s case, the style of his films is also the content. He is a visual filmmaker who tells stories in his films with an economy of dialogue. Therefore, the way a character is framed in a scene and the color that saturates a given scene says more about what they are feeling or even thinking than any words could.


  1. Excellent look at one of my favorite directors...informative and extremely interesting.

  2. Thanks, man! I was happy to contribute to an update of Andrew Sarris' influential tome, AMERICAN CINEMA. I love that book.