From Cinema Scope #40 (Fall 2009)
By Andrew Tracy
Auteur bloat is one of the defining traits of latter-day cinephilia, with whole fleets of past and present studio craftsmen, from the competent to the questionable, being elevated high above their stations via tendentious interpretations of thematic consistency and a specious formalism that welcomes any manner of ostentatious display. This land rush on undiscovered cinema artistes goes hand in hand with the relative ease of access that Hollywood market-swamping affords. Vulgar auteurism is virtually synonymous with American cinema, after all, and as DVD shelves swell with heretofore unavailable older work now granted late access to the ever-more-loosely defined canon, many of those directors still with us have the benefit of that retrospective appreciation cast upon their current output.
The directorial “vision,” that narrow, jealously cultivated, and often speedily fallow patch of habitual tropes, is an intrinsic part of the seemingly irresistible packaging impulse that marks so much of contemporary American narrative film. The continuing case of Michael Mann is thus particularly salient, as his meticulously constructed, unmistakably personalized aesthetics were from their inception bound up with the imperatives of branding and selling. In his brief period of market-diversifying zeitgeist penetration in the ’80s, the streamlined, blue-tinted elegance of Thief (1981) and Manhunter (1986) remade the crime thriller as upscale luxury item while Miami Vice (1984-1990) brought that sensibility weekly into the living room. Yet the toniness was always part and parcel of Mann’s innate and palpable questing after seriousness, which had the ambivalent result of elevating the former while continually calling the latter into question. Determined to accurately render the texture of these specialized worlds while offering up a romantic vision of masculine conduct that has a long and honoured tradition in American art and pulp both, Mann quickly made his protagonists’ emotional and existential crises part of the décor, their stoic angst as inseparable from the films’ glistening surfaces as the finely cut suits, sleek vehicles, and overall aura of offhand opulence.
Given Mann’s trademarked style, it’s been interesting to witness the shifted emphasis in the reception of his films over the last decade, as the de rigueur, thematically oriented Hawksian invocations have become increasingly inflected with a cultural theory-influenced extolling of Mann’s now-digitized visual sheen, doubly anointing him as classic Hollywood throwback and postmodern poet. Mann’s evident disconnect with the popular audience that he has always intrinsically courted—his long record of perpetually underperforming features capped by the financially disastrous big-screen re-do of Miami Vice (2006) and barely resuscitated by the hesitant box-office progress of this year’s Public Enemies—has only made him more susceptible to cinephilic appropriation, precisely because cinephiles increasingly appear to be the only demographic who have time for him. The distinctive feel and tone, the now-standardized thematic preoccupations, the suggestive use of new media, and the increasingly farcical gravitas of the proceedings make the films both instantly readable and self-consciously rarefied, thus rendering them wide open for imaginative (or fantasized) critical extrapolation.
Yet for all this, there is still some worth in taking Mann seriously. At his best, Mann has intermittently worked towards a remarkably open cinematic language without ever leaving the province (and strength) of narrative film. Foregoing the fixed meanings of conventional cinematic grammar for a strategy of distension, diversion, and omission, Mann has, particularly in his later films, attempted to transform cinematic texture from the finely tuned articulation of his thematic and emotional elements to an autonomous and predominant element that subsumes the other two; a heightened, distanced level where immediate affect decreases in favour of a slow-building, cumulative emotional response. For all their memorable set-pieces—the front lawn shootout at the conclusion of Thief, the shotgun-blasting “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” siege in Manhunter, and of course the centrepiece bank heist of Heat (1995)—there is something of a levelling factor in Mann’s films that grants each sequence equality with all others, a certain seamless property that effects the feeling of an even texture throughout.
This perhaps provides some insight not only into Mann’s latter-day tendency towards lengthy running times, but his continuing, and continually evolving, reliance upon music. Having built much of the TV Vice’s pop iconism on its liberal use of current hits and memorably set the cross-country pursuit of Crime Story (1986-1988) to the strains of Del Shannon’s “Runaway,” Mann continued to use carefully selected musical pieces in Thief and Manhunter to emphasize moments of high drama and violent action. Yet this strategy was to change noticeably: the epic battles in Heat and the cinematic Vice go unaccompanied by anything except the deafening sound of gunfire, while the films around them are often wall-to-wall with music, the insistent, pulsating underscoring of Elliot Goldenthal and John Murphy respectively complemented by the slickly driving and professionally mournful contributions of Moby and Chris Cornell. Questionable taste aside, Mann consistently uses his musical choices to thicken the atmosphere of his dangerous worlds, to create an immersive environment which gives the ever-immanent possibility of violence palpable weight before being shattered by its explosive unleashing—a quality as inherent in the exhilarating Sam Cooke-accompanied opening of Ali (2001), as Will Smith’s Cassius Clay trains for the Liston title bout, as in the cold foreboding prior to Vice’s climactic showdown, set to the strains of nonentity Nonpoint’s po-faced hard rock cover of “In the Air Tonight.”
“Weight” indeed, rather than slickness or stylishness, might be Mann’s most distinctive quality, an evident desire to render as fully as he can the entirety of the worlds with which he deals. Observe a minor scene in The Insider (1999) in which Colm Feore’s Mississippi attorney takes a call from Pacino while piloting a plane. This barely half-minute aerial sequence, whose primary objective is to provide some connective tissue for scenes to follow, simultaneously gives some intriguing texture to an otherwise peripheral figure (he later mentions in passing his Vietnam Air Force service), while also subtly injecting visual excitement and a sense of an expansive, dynamic world into a film that is primarily about people talking on phones. The marvellously exacting scenes of Pacino and his 60 Minutes team crafting the interview segment with Russell Crowe’s whistle-blower could be read as a metaphor of Mann’s own cinematic practice. Against Hollywood’s simplistic sentimentalizing of journalistic truth-telling (the flipside of its simplistic scorn of journalistic deceit), The Insider candidly demonstrates that journalistic truth, no less than cinematic truth, is a constructed truth—and no less true for that.
It’s thus that Ali, Mann’s bizarre but intriguing amalgam of standard biopic and breathtaking visual tone poem, stands as the unlikely pinnacle of Mann’s studio-financed experimentation, a film where Mann’s self-mythologizing aesthetics find their match in a subject who deliberately set out to create his own legend. The above-mentioned opening sequence is not merely a dazzling stylistic set-piece, but introduces the primary design for the nearly three hours to follow. After focusing on the then-Cassius Clay’s solitary training regimen and pointedly displaying how that intense, purposeful focus is supplanted in public by his loudmouthed self-promotion as he bursts into the press room for the weighing-in before the Liston bout, Mann masterfully drops the bottom out of the exhilaration. As Clay continues to mouth off to the departing Liston (Michael Bentt), the latter turns around and utters a terse, pitiless threat; Smith’s face freezes, and the bustle of the packed room plummets into a menacing ambient hum. The public spectacle suddenly reveals the solitude and fear that is at the core of this curious “sport”—and in this one brief stroke Mann also indicates the split consciousness that will haunt his subject throughout.
While obviously constituting another instance of Mann’s valorization of masculine professional discipline and expertise, Ali quite movingly undercuts this perpetual theme by showing just how useless those qualities can be against the terrible weight of the world. Mann’s heroes may perpetually go down to defeat, even in victory—as in the bleak meaninglessness that lies before James Caan at the end of Thief, Pacino in Heat, or Christian Bale’s Melvin Purvis in Public Enemies—but that defeat is always tinged with romantic validation. In Ali, however, the formidable prowess its subject displays in the ring is continually contrasted to his inability to influence any of those things that most matter to him. The brief segments detailing the assassinations of Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles) and Martin Luther King are not simply sops to period context, but crucial indications of Ali’s essential impotence in effecting any of the changes he proclaims to stand for. Mann quite brilliantly encapsulates his project in a single scene of Ali shadowboxing alone on a rooftop at night, his routine suddenly interrupted as he sees the fires flaring over Watts in the wake of King’s death. Though his celebrity and his brave identification with the struggles of African-Americans places him at the centre of these explosive events, the profession which has allowed him to do so demands that he remain apart from them; and his necessary obeisance to the latter unavoidably separates him from the surging current of the former.
And yet symbolic power is still power, and in the film’s conclusion at 1974’s “Rumble in the Jungle” Mann beautifully illustrates how Ali’s physical skills can transcend the mercenary ring and profoundly affect the spirit of a mass movement. With the legendary Foreman match already mythologized in Leon Gast’s documentary When We Were Kings (1996), there’s an initial feeling of anticlimax in Mann’s decision to conclude at this well-known milestone. Yet Mann devotes far more attention to what goes on around the ring than what transpires inside it. The legendary rope-a-doping is accorded far less importance than Ali’s pre-fight training run, a gorgeously filmed sequence which crystallizes the film’s insistent but beautifully underplayed theme. As Smith runs through the streets accompanied by children invoking that unforgettable chant (“Ali, bomaye!”), he stops in pointedly employed slow motion in front of a wall where his graffitied, gigantic countenance has been immortalized, swatting down tanks and jet fighters with his gloves. Unable to wilfully intervene in the most pressing arenas of his world except through negation (in defying the Draft Board), in Zaire Ali sees how his circumscribed, essentially meaningless victories in the ring can infuse untold millions with genuine hope and inspiration. The final fade-out of Mann’s film earns the right, on the vastly disproportionate scale of its enormous budget and award-oriented aspirations, of comparison to Klein’s on-the-spot documentary portrait. As Klein wonderfully shows a classroom full of Harlem youths role-playing Ali’s victory over Liston, illustrating the genuinely profound social ramifications of this exemplary figure, so Mann at his conclusion, characteristically, pulls back: it is not just Ali’s rope-climbing victory stance that is celebrated, but his communion with the ecstatic crowd that surrounds him, the people that give the ultimate meaning to his forever-solitary contests.
The contrarian impulse that seems to define so much current cinephilia has thus duly been performed, with the unlikeliest, most evidently compromised material made to serve as its executor’s defining testament. Yet the challenge with a filmmaker like Mann, whose circumscribed but genuine artistry has been developed wholly through commercial cinema, is not to blind ourselves to the commerce but to determine how it interacts with, infuses, the projects he undertakes. Mann’s uniqueness is that he evidently still believes himself to be making films for a popular audience even as his increasingly abstruse visual, narrative, and performative strategies relentlessly work against conventional audience identification. Yet even as Mann has increasingly muted the downstage melodrama of his films, seeking to blend it into the evanescent textures that surround them, his inescapable reliance on these generic tropes dictates that his efforts will always remain firmly lodged within the boundaries of convention.
As The Insider ably demonstrates, these boundaries can, when utilized both imaginatively and cogently, yield first-rate serious cinema. But to defy them in means while doggedly abiding by them in essence is neither a subversion nor a culmination of the popular medium, but an eccentric tangent straggling away from it. The big-screen rehashing of Miami Vice fascinatingly combines Mann’s market-driven self-cannibalization (already well on display with 2004’s ludicrous Collateral) with his gorgeously flighty and hazily motivated textural conceits. With Colin Farrell’s Droopy Dog moustache and the first-billed Jamie Foxx’s inevitable Rochester-like relegation to second fiddle immediately sounding the note of forlorn self-parody that will resonate throughout (our director is clearly a man out of time when his supercops invoke The Eagles as part of their super-cool banter), Vice is both a joyless drudge and a quite astonishing cinematic conversation piece, the narrowly defined “best” and unadulterated worst of Mann at both of their extremes. Vice’s dazzling seas, skies, and clouds assert themselves immediately from the strangely eerie underwater opening (restored on the film’s DVD release) in a manner quite unlike the immaculately irresistible lifestyle porn of its televisual forebear; yet these fleeting grace notes are tied to a narrative that crucially mistakes skeletally rendered clichés for terse understatement.
Just as any sense of “character” seeps away from the updated Crockett and Tubbs beneath their surface sheen of masterful professional competence—and the sentimental inverse of that steely frictionlessness manifests itself in the hilariously passionless liaison between Farrell’s posturing sadsack and a phonetically hobbled Gong Li—so the careful attention devoted to limning the grungily realistic and evocatively atmospheric details of the film’s undercover milieu allows the scenario’s larger possibilities to evaporate. The passingly mentioned revelation that our heroes’ primary target (an unblinking Luis Tosar) imports narcotics as only one facet of a globalized trade in all manner of contraband wares (arms, electronics, etc.) might be intriguing if it were seriously pursued at any other point during the film. But Mann has always been too narrowly focused to truly elaborate on the political implications of his scenarios. The distant frame which he so often places around his action is primarily an emotional one, the better to highlight the pathos of his solitary heroes. The Insider and Ali are as politically resonant as they are because Mann’s intensive investment in their protagonists’ respective moral agons inspires him to chart how those struggles play out in actuality. The Baudrillard-derived, postmodernized readings lavished on Vice, meanwhile, do what so much of this brand of commentary does: fabricate political implications absent the onerous task of political commitment, or at the very least political perspective.
Mann’s self-proclaimed documentary imperative, his often remarkable attentiveness to (certain aspects of) the real world is inextricably bound up with the prevailing fiction of realist art, the autonomy and singularity of the individual protagonist. And as such, he unerringly skews toward the ultimate validation of that figure, even in defeat, rather than investigating how the social and political matrices surrounding him (and it is always a him) contrive to delimit the arenas in which he can act. There are any number of accomplished filmmakers whose artistry is founded on a studied neglect or genuine ignorance of the social and political, but it is Mann’s pretensions to, and remarkable familiarity and facility with, the textures of his demarcated real world(s)—not to mention his relative freedom to undertake only those projects that he wishes—that continually frustrates when he too often reverts to the easy outs of romantic fatalism.
This is another of the regrettable legacies of vulgar auteurism. Many of the old studio hands to whom Mann is often compared honed their mastery with ostentatious grittiness, nihilism, and violence as a substitute for the fully achieved works they were so often contractually (or for some, intrinsically) prevented from even attempting. More than any other nation, the majority of great American narrative cinema past and present rests upon evocative fragments rather than fully achieved works. And where the cinephilic celebration of these fragments once constituted a bold challenge to staid and respectable notions of artistic achievement, nowadays these precedents are all too often evoked to inflate the half-baked or stillborn products of a considerably freer climate, regardless of the financial imperatives that still beset it. The special pleading that so often enters into the critical parsing of contemporary American filmmakers finds less and less justification as the dedicated cinephile’s access to world cinema continues to expand.
It’s thus amusing and somewhat sad to see so many of the same voices still struggling to sing Mann’s praises for the dispiritingly enervating Public Enemies, claiming to find echoes of Murnau in the purplish mud of its digital nocturnes and grand tragedy in the preordained fate of its blankly rendered antihero. Johnny Depp’s Dillinger, blending the worst aspects of the actor’s smirking self-regard and the director’s ever-more curious notion of tough-guy ethicism, is a dreary cipher in a snappy fedora, whose concise self-summation to his intended beau Billie Frechette (a gargoylish Marion Cotillard)—“I like whiskey, baseball, fast cars, and you”—testifies less to his steely straightforwardness than to his existence solely as a series of posed surfaces. Mann’s once commendable dedication to rendering character through action, through the studied deployment of professional expertise, has become steadily detached from the inner life with which those actions are supposed to fuse. It’s not only that the beautiful, moving purity of expression which Mann once achieved in Rain Murphy’s (Peter Strauss) prison-bound race-running in his made-for-TV debut The Jericho Mile (1979)—still his best film, the content restrictions of its medium aside—has become calcified by self-aware repetition. Ironically, as Mann fastidiously devotes attention to the minutiae of his designated environments, their presence onscreen becomes ever more vaporous, immersion giving way to perpetual indistinctness.
This was already evident in Miami Vice, and Public Enemies continues the downward trend, with the additional handicap that its period setting offers far fewer of the (partially) compensatory visual pleasures afforded by Vice’s ultra-modernity. Actually, Public Enemies is a bad fit for Mann entirely, appearances to the contrary. While the cross-country Dillinger-Purvis duel seems an almost too-perfect re-creation of the cops-and-crooks faceoff in Heat, Dillinger’s robberies have none of the precise, military regimentation of De Niro’s crew. These are strictly grab-and-dash affairs, and Mann’s intermittent attempts to elevate Dillinger’s unthinking bravado into fine-grained professionalism (at one point having him boast to a crowd of newshounds, with ostentatious reserve, that he can go through a bank in 45 seconds) ring feeble.
The law-and-order side hews closer to Mann’s comfort zone, as J. Edgar Hoover’s (a bizarrely effete Billy Crudup, blurring the line between faithful representation and outrageous mannerism) nascent FBI haltingly attempts to knit Ivy League privilege, old-school know-how and newfound technological prowess into a streamlined crime-fighting operation. Mann scores one of his few, minor coups with his refreshingly understated depiction of the Feeb’s then-state-of-the-art, vinyl-recorded wiretap setup, foregoing the quotation-marked condescension that so often hangs about Hollywood representations of early 20th century modernity. Further, this attentiveness leads Mann towards a thread which could potentially have enabled him to find his way through his story’s elegantly unfocused morass. The mirror image of law enforcement modernization in the sophisticated wire-service operation run by the Mob (represented by Vice’s John Ortiz, in satisfyingly slimy mode)—both of whom regard Dillinger’s desperado antics as a thorn in their side—is entirely predictable, but also thematically viable in a sort of sub-Langian way. At this late date, the well-worn story of Dillinger’s pursuit and assassination is less interesting than the assortment of forces that allowed it to enter into the annals of popular myth, and a filmmaker as well-acquainted as is Mann with the functions of institutionalized protocol—though only rarely critical of it—would seem to be ideally equipped to illustrate how this small-time gunsel was allowed to become another of America’s legendary monster-heroes.
Yet script and star obligations inexorably pull the film back towards Depp’s opaque Dillinger and his colourless moll, whose supposed grand passion is intended to provide the film’s primary pathos. If Mann’s filmic attitude towards women can be charitably described as old-fashionedly chivalric, it is unsurprising that his films have always functioned best when his female characters can be effectively shucked in favour of masculine drama (and the one Mann film where that old-fashioned chivalry does constitute a satisfactory narrative core—1992’s The Last of the Mohicans—is derived from a correspondingly retrograde source). Accordingly, the foregrounded romances of both Miami Vice and Public Enemies can be read as signs of Mann’s essentially rudderless conception of both, not least because uniquely female attributes and charms rank quite low in Mann’s chaste cinematic eroticism.
If the Farrell-Gong Li dalliance could at least be relatively painlessly absorbed into the attractively risible texture of Vice, no such salvation is afforded the Depp-Cotillard affair. Mann’s infelicity with such direly trite material is a kind of unintentional Brechtianism, an exposure of its industrially sanctioned falsity. The absurdly protracted denouement at the infamous Biograph Theatre screening of W.S. Van Dyke’s (terrible) Manhattan Melodrama (1934), wherein Dillinger projects his would-be romantic apotheosis upon Clark Gable’s nauseatingly sentimentalized hood and Billie’s temporary soothings upon Myrna Loy’s divinely sharp nose—an indiscriminate elevation of any-old Hollywood trash to legendary dimensions that corresponds with the film’s uncritical celebration of the impoverished Dillinger myth—is so palpably unable to support the haggard two-and-a-half hours that precedes it that one’s impulse is more towards sympathy than scorn. Committedly, dourly purposeful absent any cogent purpose, Mann’s handsomely appointed waxworks finds an appropriately static end.
The few critical corners that have stubbornly, if rather half-heartedly, attempted to convert this stillbirth into another unearned triumph are not misrepresenting the film so much as perpetuating the unfortunate fiction which much of Mann’s reputation has been built upon. The auteurist delving after the personal in the midst of the facelessly industrial has perhaps inevitably yielded the vulgar auteurist notion that the industry and its strictures do not exist—that in Mann’s case, the jets and speedboats and minutely reproduced period settings are felicitous bursts of visual rapture rather than a heavy-duty, almost military marshalling of equipment and people. Mann’s virtues are intrinsically bound up with his command of, and subservience to, the industrial-army mode of filmmaking; and more often than not, they emanate directly from the muted worship of technological (or sartorial) affluence.
This is not necessarily a problem; after all, this year’s The Girlfriend Experience, Steven Soderbergh’s first halfway interesting film in years, scores many of its points because its minimal budget and ostentatiously fractured narrative, when coupled with its maker’s privileged ease of access to luxe surroundings by dint of being a rich and successful man, create an evocatively ambivalent charge. But Mann’s ever-mustier romanticism, yoked to what now amounts to no more than a peculiarly mannered, cosmetically austere treatment of cinematic texture, yields only puzzlement and enervation. Mann exists in an uneasy half-world: a popular filmmaker without a popular base, a rootless avant-gardist whose halting experiments are bound up in a celebration of wealth and privilege, a documentarian who cannot function outside the most retrograde of romantic clichés. That Mann has cumulatively earned the right to serious consideration should not dispel any one of these facets, nor should the popular cinema in which he functions—which still remains the Rosetta Stone through which nearly all critical operations are undertaken—be regarded absent those nakedly mercenary qualities on which so many of its perplexing beauties are founded.