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.

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