Michael Mann is one of my favorite film makers. I have yet to see every film he has made, but every time I see one he has done, I find new things to appreciate. While I am usually hesitant to use terms like “best” or “most favorite” in general, I have a passion for his work that I have a difficult time matching elsewhere.
It’s difficult to know where to start with someone who has such a long body of work and is already so recognized, appreciated, and prolific. Ultimately, I want to try to define a certain synergy that Mann gets in his films that summarizes why I feel the way I do about his work, and why I like it so much. I honestly could spend entire posts on single films of his – analyzing, appreciating, breaking down, studying. You get the idea – I like Michael Mann!
The first Michael Mann movie I ever saw in many ways could be a direct explanation for why I am so hopelessly into film today. When I was 15 years old, my Dad took me to see “The Last Of The Mohicans.” Again, the impact of this film, and my continued appreciation of it is too broad for this post – suffice it to say, I was transfixed. It is something that became sort of a joke with friends of mine, because of the undying obsession. A personal identification and personality fit with the film is no doubt a reality for me on many levels – still, even as I have aged, matured, become a jaded film watcher, and more cynical in general, it’s as if when I go back to this film, I only appreciate the things I love about it all the more.
Michael Mann storytelling contains an incredibly fluid balance of intense, emotional, powerful, sweeping romanticism, coupled with an appropriately dry, organic, minimalistic, non-presumptuous and pragmatic realism. I believe it is this coupling and this actual dichotomy which makes his films as powerful as they are.
From the perspective of direction, there is a distinctive quality to his films that I believe is worth delineating. The way he uses the mix of sound, photography, lighting, acting, and dialogue to weave an intensely romantic and yet realist texture, and somehow enables to do a large degree of this in almost every film of his, explains why I watch his films with bated breath.
For example, the story in Last of the Mohicans is as operatic, over the top, epic, and dramatic as that of any romantic film ever made – yet, what Mann accomplished in the realm of realistically recreating a historical period, has very little since been matched or surpassed. While I have my own musings and reasonings about what “romance means,” and what is true to life and not, some consider the romance in a film like Mohicans silly.
I am of the opinion that real life is most often far more emotional, intense, epic, dramatic, and romantic than any story or film – and equally often far more absurd even in its most realistic moments. I believe this is partially why I love Mohicans so much – it achieves an emotional intensity I rarely see in films, and it does so on a kinetic level that is rarely seen elsewhere.
What matters to me as a creative artist is not so much always the exclusive and individual settings of a story, as much as how far the actors and film makers go to sell the script.
This is what I enjoy about Michael Mann’s films – no matter what the script is, he chases after the emotion and contextual human believability in each piece. He has an inherent simplicity and belief in the emotion and passion inherent in life’s adventures and experiences, and he somehow manages to chase after it full hilt while avoiding the stickiness factor that so easily entraps. I believe it is simply taking the emotional elements of a story very seriously, and keeping them front and central with little pause or attempt to use established cliches to force them into our circumference for acceptance. Life is intensely passionate and emotional, oftentimes even more so than a film. There is a “Just Do It” feeling to his feelings in his films and his approach to romance that I love.
Here’s where I believe he partially is able to do this so effectively – Michael Mann loves atmosphere, and he loves realism, and he loves the mathematical chaos present, relevant, and transient in all reality, and also present in the conflict of all emotion. If one studies Michael Mann lighting, dialogue, work with extras, scene-setting, pacing, and more, he achieves an explosive and engrossing reality that oftentimes is never found in films with far bigger bandwidths and budgets.
Michael-Mann atmosphere also has a general melancholy, restraint, and mellowness that feels more in keeping with reality than many other heavily textured film environments. One of the most difficult things in film making is convincing people they are watching real life and not a film. Oftentimes the things we put the most effort into in our films, including dialogue, lighting, atmosphere, sound, and photography can actually do better than anything else in our film to signal the viewer that they are watching a production, rather than an organic entity. Sometimes our directing simply ends up as a set of organized hooks on a stage that yell “cue” and “cut” to every experienced movie goer. I suppose this is partially where the term “over-directing” comes from.
Sometimes directing must go towards making a scene feeling non-directed. In my estimation, Michael Mann is a genius at this.
One of my favorite quotes with regards to creativity is this:
“A skilled writer mixes in just enough boring, because boring is the dark matter of the reality we emulate.”
Many Michael Mann dialogue scenes have an organic reality and simplicity to them. They have a pacing and a backdrop that don’t feel like the scene began with the first frame we see (audio, cue, Action!), or will necessarily end with the last one we see. Oftentimes conversations are interrupted rhythmically as they are in real life, or are interspersed naturally with the environment they take place in.
Just one classic example of this is the scene in Last of the Mohicans where the party of survivors from the ambushed British column (Hawkeye, Uncas, Chingachgook, Heyward, Alice, and Cora) arrive in Munro’s headquarters room. The conversation within this inner chamber is still followed by the environment of a fort in chaos – and this goes beyond mere sounds and visuals of cannon, war, and fire – aides come and go and often interrupt the conversation of the main characters and protagonists, some interact with those who are maintaining stores and wares in the fort, and a couple times a person on screen responds to a character off screen who is saying nothing of much importance. Overall, we still get the official, gut-wrenching and dramatic thread of the story loud and clear, but we feel we are watching a real event unfolding in real time. Not every piece of dialogue is clear, rhythmical, or paced like a page on a script – again, this reflects real life where we don’t always get what people are saying at first glance. While this may sound like film making 101, if you watch and study Michael Mann’s films, and really pay attention, you will realize he is constantly doing things like this with what seems almost effortless.
The movie HEAT is another brilliant example of this – sometimes the dialogue of the detectives and bank robbers is so nuanced and so full of jargon from their respective fields and perspective and experience on them, again, one feels as if one is watching real events with real characters – one has to really listen to the characters and watch them to discover fully what their words mean. Michael Mann uses atmosphere and sound and restraint to make statements. There are so many moments in Mann’s films – moments that you can see an enormous amount of what is going on between characters, with such minimalistic words and speaking – you often don’t even have to hear what they are saying to know.
The same thing is true with regards to most of Michael Mann’s photography and lighting. He has a beautiful, organic approach that is heavily injected with intensely beautiful composition – if you know movie lighting, you know Michael Mann is fascinated with lighting that is hardly noticeable, almost untraceable, or simply not there at all. His films contain some of the most natural lighting I’ve ever seen – even the scenes that are carefully lit, still tiptoe the borderline between being studio lighting or, mere reflections from light down the hall, or a possible feathered diffusion from an overhead flourescent bank. His lighting is wonderful, but it’s almost not there at all.
His fascination with cutting edge digital technology and natural lighting is a study in and of itself. In Public Enemies, Collateral, and more, he took new steps in using digital technology to use silhouettes in dark buildings and the interruption of a roaring handgun spitting flame on a dark disco floor to not only first time, never seen on screen before effect, but he did it with intense dramatic effect. He harnesses the limitations of reality and finds the mind’s eye drama that is inherent within. The scene at the end of HEAT where Pacino chases De Niro across the airport landing strip and into the alternating lights is another example of using a naturally altering light setting to add tension and beauty to the story.
Not once when watching his films do I find myself guessing where and what angle the strobes are set up and aimed – this is something I do almost without thinking when watching films, but when I’m watching a Michael Mann film, it’s a trick to even imagine how they are lighting a particular scene, if at all.
Last of the Mohicans is also an amazing study in natural photographic frame placement and composition. So many points throughout Last of the Mohicans are framed in such beautiful ways as to look like paintings straight from 18th century America – yet our eyes deceive us once again and we realize we are watching “real” events with “real” characters and they just happened to stand/pause naturally in a certain way in a certain shot that felt like a moment suspended in eternity. Along with this, the staging of the principals often reflects their varied struggles and emotions – the shot of Hawkeye, Cora, and Chingachgook at the end of the film on the cliff is a wonderful example of this. Another phenomenal example is the two opposed parties in the fort, the British superiors, and the colonial militia, as they engage in final confrontation in Munro’s headquarters… if one was to freeze the frame, it looks like a painting from early Revolutionary War political meetings. This all happens without a breath of feeling forced or unnatural – it just organically unfolds in a manner that almost slips past one’s notice.
Oftentimes the intense moments of conflict in his films are so incredibly visceral. The ambush/massacre in the third act of Mohicans has yet to be paralleled in any historical epic I’ve seen – the street gunfight after the bank robbery in HEAT, the same. Intensity is a constant and undeniable character of his film making, and is present in all his work.
The list for examples in each of these things I highlight goes on, and on, and on from his prolific portfolio. As I stated at the beginning of the post, I am barely introducing one to the subject… one I expect to enjoy as long as I am alive.
Michael Mann is the kind of filmmaker and creative artist I aspire to be – epic and intense emotion restrained by lyrical beauty and organic reality, coupled with moments of roaring, visceral ferocity that make time slow down on its own in their frequency.