Friday, March 25, 2011

The Mann Silhouette, Part 2: Manhunter

Posing one or more characters against an expanse of space becomes increasingly important to Mann, and will gradually begin to take on more and more existential importance (particularly in the later works, as we'll eventually see). Here, we have a variation on the initial silhouette shot in Thief. But Mann has complicated the visual rhetoric. The placement of Petersen's Will Graham and Farina's Jack Crawford is important, as they are visually unified (in the same shot), but placed at opposite sides of the image, with their backs to each other. Crawford is asking Graham to return to the FBI and resume his profiling job, Graham is reluctant to place himself and his family in harm's way. Both men are visually overwhelmed by the horizon.

Another variation on the above shot, as Crawford briefly visits with Molly Graham. Again, both figures are together-but-separate, and Mann further emphasizes their rigidly oppositional stances with the vertical and horizontal lines of the bay windows.

Mann follows the previous scene with a shot of the empty night sky. This is, if I'm not mistaken, his first stab at this kind of shot - it's not motivated by narrative, nor does it contain any characters. It's certainly moody, and that alone might justify its inclusion. But I think there's more to it than that, and this is in fact Mann's (perhaps not yet fully conscious?) initial attempt at poetic abstraction - the implacable night sky, uncaring and indifferent to the human drama playing out beneath it.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Mann Silhouette, Part 1: Thief

This was originally intended not as a series of different posts, but one large, in-depth essay, exploring (almost) all of Mann's films together. However, a few Blogger limitations have reared their ugly heads, so instead each film will receive its own, specific entry.

The genesis of this idea came, quite naturally, from watching Mann's films, over and over again, and realizing a certain stylistic unity. Obviously, you might rightly suggest, as all the great directors exhibit some kind of consistency from work to work. But in this case, it is really a matter of a specific move that he has continuously returned to, this move, this gesture, growing in complexity and meaning as his oeuvre has advanced.

This is an early scene from Michael Mann's first film, Thief. James Caan enacts what we infer to be a daily ritual, sitting with a friend on the lakefront in Chicago. This is really the birth of the 'Mann Silhouette', although in this context it reveals the limitations of Mann's early style. Simply put, it is graphically appealing, with a simple, immediate design and symmetrical precision (a precision that Mann will never fully abandon, even in his later work, and which metaphorically adheres to his admiration of stoic professionalism). As we'll see below, however, Mann isn't interested in just simple aestheticism -

Two frames from a scene that lasts several minutes - this comes from much later in the film, as Caan's life has spiraled out of control. It's a pivotal moment in the film, a moment of reflection, summoning courage and bracing himself for what must come next. It also represents Mann's first, seemingly instinctive extrapolation/expansion of the silhouette technique - it's now something like a close-up, more personal, and now informed by a specific context. It is the character (not the last) saying nothing, in terms of dialogue, and Mann telling us everything with his images. The objectivity of the camera and the subjectivity of the character conflate into a moment of visual/narrative awareness.