Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Mann Silhouette, Part 3: an Interlude

I started this project because I was struck by how frequently Mann returned to, and revised, a particular ‘move’, a piece of visual rhetoric that pops up continuously and that has been tweaked, refined, simplified and which, ultimately, becomes the heart of a certain kind of philosophy (which we’ll get to with Public Enemies, perhaps Mann’s most misunderstood masterpiece).

Having said that, no great artist can be boiled down to some kind of schematic meaning; as David Bordwell is frequently reminding us, artists tend to experiment, attempting new solutions to frequently recurring scenes (like filming people around a table). Hence, a handful of Mann films that refuse to fit my ‘silhouette’ rubric – they are nonetheless, worthy of some attention.

Despite having some fans, The Keep strikes me as Mann’s one total, outright failure. To my mind, it is the one film his detractors constantly accuse him of making - bombastic, seemingly impersonal and ultimately incoherent. The Keep ultimately stands as an attempt at a German Expressionistic horror-thriller, a genre so far removed from Mann’s comfort zone as to boggle the mind. The idea of ‘stretching’ might be one of the reasons Mann took on the project, and as a film school student, it is obvious the he was enamored with Lang and Murnau (perhaps Lewton/Tourneur as well). Coincidentally, the film is actually filled with silhouettes, although they are so devoid of interior meaning as to essentially invalidate my functioning premise.

The Last of the Mohicans is another beast altogether. Along with The Keep and Public Enemies, it’s his only period piece (although the former are both, comparatively speaking, recent history). It’s also his only film to take place almost exclusively in nature, as opposed to the urban milieu Mann usually favors. Critic F.X. Feeney has suggested that Mohicans was a conscious left-turn for Mann after several years of television work (roughly ’86-’92), although Mann shoots down that idea in an interview with Feeney. Still, the notion of ‘stretching’ comes up once again, and after five years or so of heavily researched, true-crime related TV, it stands to reason that a totally new challenge would appeal to Mann.

Mann seems most concerned in Mohicans with establishing the difference between the native settlers and the stuffy British, as well as emphasizing the unity of the surroundings with Hawkeye and his family, men who have learned to live harmoniously with nature.

Hawkeye’s interactions with the Cameron family early in the film nicely encapsulate Mann’s visual rhetoric. The camera remains fixed, the group unified in the frame, with the mother and child supplying movement and energy to the tableau – she keeps turning around to look at the table, subtly reinforcing the viewer’s eye as to the shifting center of attention; the playful child becomes a wild card, adding something dynamic to the proceedings.

Contrast this with our introduction to the British: the long take of the carriage carrying Cora and her sister as it crosses the bridge is pretty enough, with a pleasing symmetry, but is bland and static after the rowdy dinner table scene.

Here, Cora’s first interaction with Duncan is a cold, shot-counter-shot interaction around a table. Situated nicely in the middle of a field (nature vs garden indeed), Mann cuts rapidly between the two characters, keeping their faces at opposite sides of the frame (further emphasizing their ‘apart-ness). Even when they occupy the same frame, as above, only Cora is in focus, complete with a dismayed look. Duncan is out of focus (also out of touch with Cora’s feelings), and appears to be looking of screen – hence the two shot capturing his failure to look her in the eye.

Mann furthers this notion of deadening symmetry with the films many battle scenes, contrasting the freedom of movement of the Huron warriors with the ‘column’ style fighting of the British. As they line up single file, their static arrangement becomes their downfall.

* * *

Collateral is an interesting, albeit small film, one which might usefully serve as a kind of divide between mid-period and late-period Mann. Heat, The Insider and Ali represent a string of masterpieces that show Mann further expanding his comfort zone into new arenas while remaining true to his own obsessions; the two films following Collateral, Miami Vice and Public Enemies, reveal a new kind of experimentation, with Mann paring down narrative as much as possible (while still remaining, obviously, narrative films). Collateral is also Mann’s first predominately digital film, after some experimenting in Ali (although bits of digital photography show up as early as Manhunter). Collateral strikes me as a transitional work – despite some well publicized script alterations, Mann receives no writing credit, and indeed the film is particularly beholden to an increasingly silly screenplay (by the scribe of the gimmicky, spectacularly inessential Wes Craven thriller Red Eye, no less). As Jonathan Rosenbaum noted upon the films release, it would have made a nice, taunt 80 minute noir back in the 50’s. If the scenario ultimately leaves something to be desired, Mann still directs the hell out of the movie, and Collateral’s ultimate pleasure is noting how a filmmaker can embrace and play with a new format – there’s a sense of constant discovery at work in the film’s mis-en-scene (it’s also his first film with cinematographer Dion Beebe, who will become as important to him as Dante Spinotti).

Mann sets up his primary motif in the films first section, as Jamie Foxx picks up Jada Pinkett Smith’s harried lawyer. Having bodies in the fore and mid-ground (front seat and back seat) allows Mann to play with character dynamics – first cutting between the two, then framing the two together, with one figure slightly out of focus, as they cast furtive, flirtatious glances at each other, and finally framing the two together as an equilibrium, a potent visual metaphor for ‘coming together’. As in some scenes in Mohicans, Mann keeps characters on opposite sides of the frame even when cutting between them. Interestingly, this maintains a sense of visual stability (the camera and cutting doesn’t interfere with their physical position within the car), while simultaneously keeping the viewer off balance (there’s an increasingly jagged force to the cuts).

* * *

The Last of the Mohicans could justify a book-length study in and of itself, and I don’t wish to undersell the pleasures of Collateral. Mann’s ‘city symphony’ contains (arguably) career best performances from Cruise and Foxx, and there is a lovely sense of isolation and disconnect as characters move through an eerily empty urban landscape. Interestingly, I get the sense that Mohicans and Collateral are most frequently cited as Mann’s best films – in other words, movies for people who don’t like Michael Mann films. That, perhaps, is grist for a later post. Up next, we tackle Mann’s first bona fide masterpiece, the exquisite Heat.

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