To me style is just the outside of content, and content the inside of style, like the outside and the inside of the human body. Both go together, they can’t be separated.- Jean Luc Goddard
If i had to pick one movie that was completely representative of Michael Mann’s style of direction, for me it would be The Insider. For quite some time, Michael Mann, was seen as a director, whose movies were stylish, containing some exemplary camera work, brilliant graphics, use of long shots and close ups. But then most of the movies that Mann had directed earlier were urban crime thrillers( Heat, Manhunter, The Thief), or epic period dramas( Last of the Mohicans). Heat was praised for being visually stylish, but lacking in proper content. And while critics were unanimous in their praise for Last of the Mohicans, many felt it was more an epic fantasy, nothing else, in fact one of the critics while praising its style, called it an “MTV version of the James Fenimore Cooper’s classic”. The fact is like Brian De Palma and David Fincher, Mann was seen more as a stylist, whose movies had some great visual work, and were engaging but pretty much nothing else.
The Insider was Michael Mann’s first shot at a serious subject, that was based on a real incident. It was the story of Dr. Jeffrey Wigand( Russel Crowe), who revealed the malpractices indulged in by the top Tobacco firms in US, to Lowell Bergman( Al Pacino), the executive producer of CBS 60 Minutes show where he promises to air Dr. Wigand’s testimony, live on TV. However concerned about the damage this could result to their image, the tobacco firms, pressurize CBS to edit out the interview, and in turn run a smear campaign against Dr. Wigand. Considering the seriousness of the topic at hand, and the subject matter available, would Mann sacrifice his trademark visual style or the heated exchanges the characters in his movies often have?
And that is where one of the best scenes come into the picture. After CBS edits out his interview, and Bergman is forced out of the show, by the TV bosses, Dr.Wigand is devastated. He had put everything on the line, his career, his family, his future, his reputation, and all of a sudden the world around him had collapsed. Believing Bergman to be the cause of his misfortune, he books himself into a hotel room, and sits alone. A very poignant, serious moment, and how does Mann depict it? As Russel Crowe sits alone in the hotel room, the entire background morphs into a surrealistic display of images, abstract art, whirling around with trance music playing in the background. Crowe sits devastated, a man who has lost everything, as images of happier times flash by, his wife, his daughters calling out, his nice little suburban home, intercut with a swirling mass of visuals. In a way Crowe has cut himself off from the world, his thoughts being reflected in the images swarming around him. And then Mann intercuts with images of Pacino desperately trying to reach out for Crowe. Now again consider the backdrop for Pacino’s sequence, the vast blue ocean, Pacino standing in the waters, trying to reach Crowe, the whole screen taking on a bluish hue. Pacino finally gets to the hotel staff, who open Crowe’s door, and find him in a daze. They are afraid to disturb him, and then he asks the staff to tell him to get on the “fucking phone”. Watch Crowe’s reaction here, furious, seething, says nothing, just grabs the phone, and then blurts out in rage “You manipulated me”. The way Crowe blurts out, the words, slow, but you can sense the rage, rage maybe at having been jolted out of his dream, the only hapiness he has in life now, or maybe the rage at the feeling of being manipulated.
You fought for me? You manipulated me! Into where I am now – staring at the Brown & Williamson building, it’s all dark except for the tenth floor. That’s the legal department, that’s where they fuck with my life!
That seriously has to be one of the best movie sequences i have ever seen in my life. Depicting the mental state of a person, through visuals and abstract graphics, is not an easy take. Wrongly done, it could end up as a cartoon, but here Mann perfectly balances the brilliant visual effects, with the context of what is going on. The Insider has some excellent visual moments, the first meeting between Pacino and Crowe in a Japanese restaurant, shot in dim light, camera zooming around the table, inter cutting between the 2 characters, and yet at the same time, wonderfully setting up their motivations, their characteristics. Crowe, calm, composed, thoughtful, Pacino, aggressive, hyper, crusading. The Insider to me remains Mann’s best effort to date, it is the perfect amalgam of style and substance, while the movie is visually stylish , it ensures that the visuals don’t overshadow the subject or the characters. We are as much entranced by the surrealistic images swirling around Russel Crowe in the hotel room, as we are by his fight against the corporates. It proves that one can make a socially relevant message oriented movie that can engage and entertain. And add to it, the powerhouse acting from Russel Crowe and Al Pacino, though i must say that this was one movie where Crowe actually overshadowed Pacino. Not a mean feat, considering that Pacino has a reputation for chewing up the scenery.
Quite often it is said, that movie makers are a product of the environment and times in which they
They generally tend to imbibe the characteristics of their neighborhood, and that is reflected in their films. Mann
grew up in the Chicago neighborhood of Humboldt Park,
a place that was notorious in the 70′s for it’s Puerto Rican gangs, street fights, crime and violence. Growing up, in the 60′s, the movie that influenced him the most was Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove
. For him it was the kind of movie that could wow the critics as well the average audience. In fact i feel the highly visualized nature of story telling, that is feature of Mann
’s movies, does show a strong influence of Kubrick, especially the abstract, surrealistic imagery that quite often comes across. Also the fact that his counterparts in London, where he worked as an ad movie maker, were Adrian Lyne, Ridley and Tony Scott, directors again noted for their highly visual style of story telling. While i have not seen Mann
’s earlier movies The Thief, The Keep
, or his made for TV movie Jericho’s Mile
, i did catch some episodes of Miami Vice
. In reality Mann
was only the executive producer for the iconic TV series, but his distinctive style came through in it ‘s episodes. Starting out in the 80′s MTV era, where the emphasis was on style and music, Mann
bought in his own style , especially in the choice of colors used, or the 80′s rock and pop music soundtracks. As one of it’s producers remarked, this was a crime series for the MTV generation, where the emphasis was on imagery and the flow, rather on the plot and content.
Hannibal Lecter’s prison cell In Manhunter
The Serial Killer Dollarhyde from Manhunter
Much before The Silence of the Lambs, Mann bought the Hannibal Lecter persona on to the screen with Manhunter in 1986. While The Silence of the Lambs, has become the definitive Hannibal movie, and the best in the series, Manhunter to me has not got as much acclaim as it should have got. I have not seen the 2002 on screen adaptation of Thomas Harris Red Dragon, but Mann’s adaptation of the novel, was excellent for me. I feel maybe the movie suffered in comparison to Silence of Lambs, while Antony Hopkins portrayal of Dr. Lecter, was more flamboyant, more like a modern day Count Dracula, who hogs the frame, Brian Cox’s portrayal of the same character, was more subtler. Mann’s visual kinethestics come into full play, as in the scene, when the Fed Agent Will Graham( William Peterson), makes a visit to Lecter’s prison cell. The white antiseptic nature of Lecter’s cell, contrasts with the discordant colors that reflect Graham’s confused state of mind. Or the glass prism shot that shows a grass lawn at close quarters, reflecting the disoriented world in which the characters exist. Again the serial killer Dollarhyde( Tom Noonan) here is shown to have a more humane side, his love affair with a blind woman Reba( Joan Allen), whom he imagines to be the same woman that appears in the famous William Blake painting. Manhunter is a movie to be watched, if not for anything else, just to see where Mann is coming from. His belief that a movie has to be watched, and experienced, as he takes us into the dark recesses of the human mind, of people confined in their own little prisons, trying to break out.
From the stiffing, claustrophobic environments of the bleak urban landscape, Mann goes back in time, and into the open countryside in his 1992 screen adaptation of Last of the Mohicans. Based on James Fenimore Cooper’s novel, the movie follows the adventures of Hawkeye( Daniel Day Lewis), the adopted White guy who grows up as an Indian, who has to guide a team of Britishers consisting of Major Duncan Heyward, Cora Munro( Madeleine Stowe) and her sister Alice, to the safety of Cora’s father Col. Edmund Munro, the commander of a British garrison. Hawkeye has to guard the Britishers from a fierce attack led by the Huron tribe chief Magua, who has his own personal revenge against Col. Munro. And during the adventure, a passionate romance flowers between Hawkeye and Cora.
The Last of the Mohicans, is exactly the kind of movie that Hollywood quite often does well, the epic historical drama, and it has all the necessary ingredients to make it a sure fire blockbuster, passion, romance, jealousy, heartbreak, tragedy, revenge, honor. With his imposing frame, flowing looks, and his ability to slip into the larger than life kind of roles, Daniel Day Lewis, makes for an inspiring Hawkeye, while Madeleine Stowe is perfect as the fair white damsel, who finds herself losing her heart to the rugged native. Be it the shots of the North American forests, the battle scenes, the passionate smooch at the waterfall between Daniel Day Lewis and Madeleine Stowe, the camera work is brilliant. Mann proves that he is as adept at making period epics, as he is at gritty crime dramas. The detailing is excellent, the period settings are perfect taking us right back to the days of the British-French-Indian wars in the countryside. And while the Indians are the villians, Mann humanizes the main antagonist Magua, by bringing his background into detail. Don’t expect too many insights into the nature of the Franco-British wars or the exploitation of the native Indians though, this is hard core Hollywood pop corn( or masala) entertainment, and on that level it works well.
1995 saw Mann returning back to his favorite urban crime genre, with his highly stylized rendering of the classic cops and robbers tale. Heat got the maximum attention for the two lead actors, two actors who dominated and scorched up the screen, from the 70′s onwards with their sheer intensity, their acting styles, their charisma. Two performers who by themselves had the habit of chewing up the entire scenery, dominating every frame of the movie, two people who answered to the name of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. With movies like Taxi Driver, The Godfather, Dog Day Afternoon, And Justice For All, Raging Bull, Scarface these powerhouse performers had redefined acting, created their own niche, and hit a level that would be quite hard to touch. Heat was billed as the “Clash of the Titans”, while Pacino and De Niro had earlier appeared in the second part of the Godfather trilogy, they had no scenes together there. Heat would be the first time, they would appear face to face. Now putting this kind of an effort is sort of a double edged sword, the movie could either end up as a memorable classic or it could turn out to be one big clunker( the other Pacino-De Niro collaboration Righteous Kill was that). Mann fortunately does not let the reputation of his co stars awe him over, while giving ample space to Vincent Hanna( Al Pacino), the obsessed, hyperactive cop and Neil Mc Cauley( Robert De Niro), the cool, calculative robber, Mann ensures that the support characters get ample space too be it Mc Cauley’s associate Chris( Val Kilmer), Hanna’s neglected wife Justine( Diane Venora), his step daughter Lauren( Natalie Portman). What actually pushes Heat a notch above the standard cops and robbers story, is the vast amount of gray that Mann explores. Hanna is not the White hero, in fact there seems to be nothing really heroic about him. He is neurotic, insecure, fidgety, and his personal life is one royal mess. His wife from a 3rd marriage feels neglected, he has a strained relationship with his step daughter, and only his work life keeps him going along. Not that the personal lives of other characters are any better, Chris has a stormy relationship with his wife Charlene( Ashley Judd), and she seeks refuge in an extra marital affair. Ironically its Neil, the reclusive loner, who has a fulfilling love affair with a graphic designer, who is unaware of his real identity.
The much awaited Pacino-De Niro encounter, makes one of the best scenes in the movie, where the two characters meet at a restaurant. Interestingly for two people who are constantly at loggerheads, on the opposite side of the law, who have no love lost for each other, their encounter is quite civil. In fact it seems more like a tete a tete, than a fiery, no holds barred fight, that we expect it to be. But this I feel where Mann scores, he puts it across that the men have a sort of hidden respect, just that they are not on the same side. The difference in their outlook, their own lives, shows up in the moment, when each tell about themselves.
Vincent Hanna: My life’s a disaster zone. I got a stepdaughter so fucked up because her real father’s this large-type asshole. I got a wife, we’re passing each other on the down-slope of a marriage – my third – because I spend all my time chasing guys like you around the block. That’s my life.
Neil McCauley: A guy told me one time, “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.” Now, if you’re on me and you gotta move when I move, how do you expect to keep a… a marriage?
The obsessed cop, with a screwed up personal life, and the cool robber, who is smart enough to know when to get out. Hanna is the man who believes in going on even when the ship is sinking, his ethics in that sense are old fashioned. Mc Cauley on the other hand, believes that when the ship sinks, jump out, he does not believe in going on and on. It is the way these 2 characters are delineated, that to me is the greatest strength of Heat. Something i believe was lacking in American Gangster, while Denzel Washington’s character was well developed, Russel Crowe’s character was too sketchy to generate interest. Heat also has one of the finest action scenes picturized, a gun battle between the cops and the robbers on a crowded LA Street, that lasts for around 10 minutes, bullets flying around, pedestrians cowering under fire, glass windows shattering, no music here, just the sound of the gunfire and the cars, giving the whole sequence a raw, realistic feel, it gives you the feeling of being right there. One brilliant shot, shows the car windows being shattered one after another by the bullets, excellent. Also the climax shootout at the airport, is again shot brilliantly, with the shaded lighting, and the final shot of the plane zooming over.
There is quite a lot to cover i feel about Michael Mann, his style of storytelling, his visual aesthetics, his characterization. I would be having a look at Mann’s movies this decade- Ali, Collateral and Public Enemies( have not yet seen Miami Vice, the movie), some time later.