Friday, 2 July 2010

Thoughts on Michael Mann: "Pantheon" podcast coming next week...

Update: This podcast is up now on the Picturehouse website and should be on iTunes shortly.

Last month Jon and I recorded our first episode in our long-planned "Pantheon Series" of Splendor Podcasts. The last one was about the life and work of Akira Kurosawa, a filmmaker we are both big fans of. However the upcoming show (being recorded tomorrow) is about Michael Mann, Jon's favourite living filmmaker and one I have always been (at best) indifferent towards.

In an effort to educate me and to prepare me for this upcoming episode of the podcast, Jon lent me a stack of Mann DVDs and, over the last few weeks, I have watched every one of his films (most of them for the first time). Now, to get myself in the right headspace for the show, here is a brief summary of my thoughts on the Chicago born director.

From 'Manhunter' in 1986 to 'Public Enemies' last year, Michael Mann has famously focused on male professionals. Men who are the best at what they do and who are committed to their chosen field, usually at the expense of personal relationships. His films are technically cutting edge and meticulously researched. His films, with the exception of 'The Last of the Mohicans' and 'The Keep', always take place in cities which he shoots and lights beautifully. He is "romantic about urban landscapes" (to quote Mann in the splendid Tachen book on his work), often shooting magnificent aerial views and staging many intense scenes on rooftops.

The skyscraper is to Michael Mann what Western landscapes were to John Ford and both men share another trait: a preoccupation with the American experience (on making a living, controlling your own destiny in the face of intimidation and corruption). Like Ford, Mann is a self-described humanist, his work often looking at people from the bottom of society citing their lack of privilege and opportunity in American capitalism for their criminality (see James Caan's character in 'Thief' or Tom Cruise's villain in 'Collateral').

'Heat', 'Manhunter', 'Collateral' and 'Public Enemies' (and perhaps to some extent 'The Insider' and 'Ali') also deal with the idea of opposites. The criminal and the cop, the serial killer and the FBI agent, the proactive assassin and the cabbie reluctant to leave his comfort zone, even Malcom X and Martin Luther King. These men are often working in direct opposition to each other, but are also usually mirror images. Another unifying theme is the Mann canon (Mannon?) is that female characters are often happy to live in lavish houses paid for by their partners (often morally grey) work, yet they are generally unsupportive of their men when they encounter their inevitable moment of crisis. This ambivalence towards female characters is not too dissimilar to the work of Kurosawa, Ford or Kubrick (who Mann greatly admires and cites as an influence).

Perhaps because of the uber-masculine vibe and this lack of focus on good female characters (Marion Cotillard in 'Public Enemies' is an exception) I find that Mann is totally ineffective at directing love scenes. The mood lighting and the cheesy soft-rock music combine with my total lack of interest in what is taking place during such scenes. Whereas Mann is second to none when scenes concern gun play (stressing realism) or a meeting between two central characters (often sitting in a restaurant). Often the sound effects are louder than the dialogue and I know I am not alone in finding films like 'Miami Vice' and 'Public Enemies' hard to follow for this reason. This could support claims that Mann is primarily a visual stylist. Claims he himself rejects insisting that his visual choices are made to support the story and the characters.

'The Insider' (probably my favourite Mann film) is interesting in that it is the only one of his films in which the characters are non-violent. Al Pacino is a tv news journalist and Russell Crowe (in a much better performance than in 'Robin Hood') is a tobacco industry insider and a scientist. Yet the film opens with Pacino's character blindfolded and at gunpoint, Christopher Plummer's interviewer is later shown angrily threatening a man with a sub-machine gun, whilst Crowe's scientist responds to a potential home invasion by reaching for one of his (many) firearms (later he will subtly threaten to murder the tobacco company lawyers). This interests me because, even in a non-violent film about essentially non-violent men, Mann associates the capacity for violence with masculinity and self-worth. Jaimie Foxx's character is similarly non-violent (a cab driver) at the start of 'Collateral', yet the narrative forces him into violence through which he is able to "grow a pair" (in the American vernacular). Ultimately this side of Michael Mann makes me uneasy.

I could not say that I like Michael Mann's films. At least not all of them and none of them unequivocally. My favourites? Probably 'Heat', (as mentioned) 'The Insider' and 'Thief'. 'Collateral' is flawed in the writing but maybe his most purely fun feature. I only dislike 'Ali' and 'Public Enemies'. Both make great use of period detail and contain good performances (from Will Smith and Marion Cotillard respectively), but neither have depth, simply telling the story as we know it and adding nothing in terms of insight. But even then I would never call them bad films. I have certainly (thanks to Jon's insistence and enthusiasm) come to appreciate and respect the films of Michael Mann far more over the past few weeks and would never question his status as an auteur.

Discuss. Or at least we will tomorrow and you can hear the resulting podcast next week! Here are Jon's own thoughts on the subject.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting. Some men achieve enthusiasm, others have enthusiasm thrust upon them. It was the same with me, via Mr. Goulds. I found 'The Insider' very tense because the threat of ultra-violence is always there. I also remember the scene where Russell Crowe is driven past the car-crash, which Nick suggested is a metaphor for his character's own predicament.