Saturday, August 31, 2013

In praise of Michael Mann

Why Michael Mann is a terrific filmmaker

From MovieMaker Magazine. Copyright 2000.
By Rus Thompson

A search on the Internet turned up nothing about Michael Mann’s private life. Is he married? Does he have children? Where does he live? What does he do for fun, besides researching and crafting his meticulous, extravagant films? I want to know these things, because in each and every Mann film—from the made-for-TV The Jericho Mile up through The Insider—concerns about family, marriage and relationships drive the central protagonists. Their professions—whether criminal or legitimate—provide the modus operandi, but it is their concern for the safety of loved ones that forces these men (and they’re all men) to commit themselves to a course of action.

That action—obsessive and extreme—is the film.

There is no other director working today for whom domestic tranquillity provides the subtext for such hyper-masculine activity. The need to protect and ensure family consumes these uber males: Peter Strauss’ imprisoned runner in Mile; James Caan’s uncompromising Thief; William Petersen’s driven detective in Manhunter; Daniel Day-Lewis’ frontiersman in The Last of the Mohicans; Robert De Niro’s crook and Al Pacino’s cop in Heat; Russell Crowe’s whistle-blower in The Insider. They are in a race to keep hearth and home safe from threat, or they are haunted by their inability to keep a marriage together. The sanctity of family togetherness is a reality or, perhaps, an unattainable ideal. In the case of The Jericho Mile (1979), Strauss’ character was sentenced to life because he murdered his father to stop him from abusing a stepsister. He sprints 90 miles a week around a makeshift prison track as if trying to outrun the grief. In the movie’s pivotal scene, he recounts the heartbreaking memory of his father carrying him around on his shoulders all day at a seaside boardwalk, and you sense his wish that life should have stayed that way. I suspect that Mann made the whole movie to put that one scene on film.

In Thief (1981), Caan’s ex-con-turned-businessman carries around a postcard-sized collage of his American dream: wife, baby, house, best friend. He buys it, piece by piece, with stolen money, and then reacts with a Zen-like brutality when the dream crumbles.

In The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Hawkeye (Day-Lewis), motivated by revenge against the French who slaughtered a friend’s family, is always in the company of his adoptive Mohawk father and brother. The film—Mann’s most romantic—conveys a near mythic, unspoken strength in the bonds that develop under extreme circumstances. In the final scene, Hawkeye and his lover (Madeleine Stowe), having vanquished the evil Magua (Wes Studi), stand on a ridgetop looking across the vast panorama of a new America, the first family of the wilderness.

Manhunter (1986) and The Insider (1999) both offer heroes who make a last stand in the name of familial responsibilities. Manhunter’s brilliant detective Will Graham (Petersen) can’t fail in his pursuit of the psychopath who slaughters whole families any less than The Insider’s Jeffrey Wigand (Crowe) can cave in to threats from big tobacco, a failure of integrity in the eyes of his two daughters. And underscoring the battle of wits in Heat (1995), there is the issue of two men at a crossroads in their respective love lives. Vincent Hanna, the cop, is destroying his third marriage with his workaholism, while Neil McCauley, the criminal, tentatively begins a relationship with a woman who knows nothing of his background.

It’s a very serious business for Michael Mann, this domesticity. The details of love and marriage are treated with the same scrutiny as the elements of police work, which is why his films are nearly humorless. One is only tempted to smile while watching a Mann film during, say, the giddy run of an audacious set piece (the central shoot-out in Heat; the laser-beam vault robbery in Thief; the deciphering of the killer’s note to Hannibal Lecter in Manhunter); or at that moment when a specific sound or piece of music finds the emotional locus of a scene (the lone mandolin that accompanies Wigand’s arrival at the courthouse to give his damning testimony; the tomahawk’s rush through the air in The Last of the Mohicans). The “fun” in Mann’s work is to be found in his craftsmanship; his deep inspections of the psychology of main characters; and in the gorgeous landscapes—interior and exterior —his men must negotiate.

Mann once described the neighborhood he grew up in—a rough area called “The Patch” in Chicago—as “very masculine and very heterosexual.” Filmmaking was considered something only a “fairy” would do, so Mann, who was an English major at the University of Wisconsin, went to the London Film School, where he spent seven years shooting commercials and documentaries. His short, Janpuri, won a Jury prize at Cannes, and he eventually found work in the US. writing scripts for the ’70s TV series Police Story and Starsky and Hutch. The Jericho Mile was his first film, made for television, and shot entirely on location within Folsom Prison, winning Mann a DGA award for Best Director. His next film, Thief, was a stunning theatrical debut. Shot on watered-down streets in his hometown, it featured a mesmerizing score by Tangerine Dream and a remarkably singular point-of-view.

Thief introduced audiences to Mann’s idiosyncratic style, which combines a European attention to formal space and design with an American sense of lush self-indulgence. His craning, tracking camera movements have been compared to the work of Max Ophuls (La Ronde, Le Plaisir, Lola Montes) and his characters’ quests have an abstract single-mindedness shared with Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le Flambeur and Le Samourai. But his fondness for throbbing synthesizer soundtracks is as American as disco. His interest in idealistic loners is as classic as Capra. His respect for professionals and their arcane rituals of male bonding are reminiscent of Hawks. His color schemes throb like a Vincente Minnelli musical. This is, after all, the director who gave us the “pastel noir” of Miami Vice.

Television was kind to Mann. Besides Vice, he also produced the memorable but short-lived Crime Story, two miniseries—Drug Wars: The Camarena Story and Drug Wars: The Cocaine Cartel—and the movie LA Takedown, which he later remade as Heat. He brought a toughness and professionalism to his TV plots, while exploring the inner psyches of his cops and crooks. He developed rich supporting characters, a love of electronic scores and ambient rock, and a tendency to let his scenes play long. This last trait is a favorite of Mann’s critics. Both Heat and The Insider contain passages where characters are doing nothing more than thinking. There are scenes when the glances between lovers grow repetitious. There are build-ups to important, defining moments that take so long you forget where and why things got started in the first place. And there are times when Mann’s musical tastes fail him and sequences are drowned in a bath of noise. All of these charges can be rightfully leveled against The Keep (1983), a film so seriously awful one wonders how Mann ever recovered.

After returning to his TV roots to produce Miami Vice, he quietly adapted Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon into Manhunter, introducing the lucky few who saw the film to Hannibal Lecter (Brian Cox, in a less histrionic, more eerie interpretation than Anthony Hopkins’ in The Silence of the Lambs). Manhunter was one of the best, most underrated films of the ’80s, and it continues to enthrall with repeated viewings. It’s a crime thriller that pays respect to the procedural details of investigative work, while also sensitive to the recently healed emotional condition of the detective, Will Graham, who is plagued and motivated by issues of guilt and conscience.

What makes this film so intensely disturbing is that the killer (movingly played by actor-writer-director Tom Noonan) craves the normalcy Graham already has—love, children, home—but knows he has no hope of attaining it. That self-awareness turns him into a monster.

Manhunter was Mann’s first collaboration with cinematographer Dante Spinotti, which proved to be a perfect marriage of baroque stylists. Spinotti’s masterful recreations of time and place on The Last of the Mohicans rival John Alcott’s compositions in Barry Lyndon, but Mann’s requirements are much more kinetic than Kubrick’s. The camerawork alternately dazzles and quiets. The film combines a ’90s zeal for cranes and dollies with a painterly appreciation of nature. Spinotti’s vision, like Mann’s, is both muscular and aesthetic.

The film retains James Fenimore Cooper’s simplistic, mythical attachment to a frontier code that was outmoded even in 1826, when he wrote the novel, but that still fits right in with Mann’s concerns. Hawkeye’s sense of personal justice and loyalty is all that matters in a world on the brink of revolution. Survival of the few is as important as the survival of the many. “If he had been born 100 years ago,” wrote Michael Sragow about Mann in an article for Salon, “he’d have followed Jack London’s path, not just into bare-knuckled journalism but also into transcendent evocations of the beautiful and the wild.”

The Insider is Mann’s most fully realized creation. The movie bears the clean architectural lines of a David versus Goliath plot, but with a messy, full-bodied story of divorce, secrets, betrayals, and injustice. The luxurious visual textures he weaves would be mere decoration without the substantial weight of real life to deepen the context. A favorite Mann shot is the group of friends or family or colleagues gathered around a table deciding what course of action they should take next.

When that action is realized, even though it comes down to a single man to see it through, there is a loyal fraternity backing him up. The Insider is enriched by the complicated friendship that develops on-screen between Wigand and Lowell Bergman (Pacino).

Mann has said that he was one of the few graduates from his high school to go on to college. The awareness of that rare opportunity is perhaps what ennobles the professionalism and authenticity of his work. Whether it’s robbing a bank, ferreting out a killer, or producing a segment of 60 Minutes, Mann pays homage to “process.” He is never sloppy. He respects the skill and experience that get his characters to where they are. That quality is what makes the mid-picture shoot-out in Heat so galvanizing. De Niro and his crew operate like a military-trained unit. You root for them because they are so good at what they do.

I saw Heat at a summer matinee. It was one of the few movies of the past decade from which I emerged carrying the electricity of the film with me. In the bright glare of a city intersection, the cars and chrome and pedestrians seemed to sizzle. I felt like I was a character in the film, alive to any sensory event. The movie crackled with a vitality that was born in the real world, not in the movie world. The feeling was even more apparent with The Insider. The movie’s hand-held roughness (Mann operated the camera for about a third of the film) gave it a broadcast news immediacy, but it was the film’s brazen artistic passages and the fact that it was stuffed with the fullness of life which made me not want to let go of it.

I’m beginning to fawn, so stop here if you want, but Thief and Manhunter are two of the better films of the ’80s, and Heat and The Insider are among the few excellent films released in the ’90s; Michael Mann may be the best big budget A-list director this country has to offer. He combines Scorsese’s manic energy, Malick’s becalmed metaphors, Spielberg’s impeccable craft, and Stone’s nervy obviousness in a package at once grand and graceful, meaningful and meditative. His films are generous gifts waiting to be opened. To most of us, the mystery of his private life remains closed.

MovieMaker Magazine, Los Angeles, CA

Copyright 2000 MovieMaker Inc.


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