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The Last Of The Mohicans (#110 of 7)

The Conversations: Michael Mann

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The Conversations: Michael Mann
The Conversations: Michael Mann

Ed Howard: During the course of our conversation about David Fincher earlier this year, I posited Fincher as one of the few modern American directors who fit the classical model for the Hollywood auteur: someone who makes intensely personal and idiosyncratic films, in a variety of styles and forms, within the Hollywood studio system. I’d suggest that Michael Mann is another of these rare directors, bringing personal style to the Hollywood film at a time when American directors are increasingly either independent auteurs or blockbuster craftsmen for the big studios (or, in the case of fence-sitters like Gus Van Sant and Steven Soderbergh, shuffling back and forth between the two extremes). Mann’s body of work exists entirely within recognizable generic forms: the crime film (Thief, Heat, Public Enemies), the thriller (Manhunter, Collateral, Miami Vice), the horror film (The Keep), the epic Western (The Last of the Mohicans), the biopic (Ali), the “based on a true story” social drama (The Insider).

His films, almost without exception, tell straightforward, direct stories, the kinds of stories that writing gurus love because they can be summed up in a single sentence. And yet these stories are seldom the main point with Mann. He can be a conventional storyteller if he needs to be, but his default mode—and, I think, his preferred mode—is to place the emphasis on mood, on atmosphere, rather than on narrative. He’s more interested in the accumulation of small details than he is in how they fit together into the big picture. He’s more interested in archetypes and how they feed into his signature themes than he is in crafting fully realized characters in their own right.

He also loves playing with light, color, focus, composition, with the elements of form. He’s a stylist working in a context where style is generally a secondary concern. How many big-budget action/crime films spend as much time on setting mood as Heat? How many heist pictures would rhapsodize over the spray of sparks from a welding torch, as Mann does in Thief? If most modern genre films consider style second (if at all), for Mann, in contrast, there are times when style seems to be his only concern.

Zen Pulp: The World of Michael Mann, Pt. 4: reflections, doubles, and doppelgangers

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This is the fourth in a five-part series of Moving Image Source video essays on Michael Mann, whose new film, Public Enemies, opened July 1. To read a transcript of the video’s narration, click here. For links to more episodes, click here. To read MZS’s review of Public Enemies at IFC.com, click here.

Zen Pulp: The World of Michael Mann, Pt. 3—I’m Looking at You, Miss: The Women of Mann

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This is the third in a five-part series of Moving Image Source video essays on Michael Mann, whose new film, Public Enemies, opened July 1. To read a transcript of the video’s narration, click here. To read the author’s review of Public Enemies at IFC.com, click here.

Zen Pulp: The World of Michael Mann, Pt. 2—Lifetime Subscriptions: Mann’s Honor-Bound Individualists

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This is the second in a five-part series of Moving Image Source video essays on Michael Mann, whose new film, Public Enemies, opened July 1. To read a transcript of the video’s narration, click here. To read the author’s review of Public Enemies at IFC.com, click here.

5 for the Day: Sensual Pleasures

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5 for the Day: Sensual Pleasures
5 for the Day: Sensual Pleasures

This Valentine’s Day-themed edition of 5 for the Day—written in honor of the Lovesick Blog-a-thon—focuses on moments of sexual/romantic connection between two characters. I’m talking specifically about moments that are powerful, pleasurable and memorable regardless of the presence or absence of nudity and/or actual sex onscreen (though these elements are never discouraged); moments that linger in the imagination beyond (or despite) the quality of the rest of the movie; moments whose recollection makes you smile or sigh.

Michael Mann’s Miami Vice

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Michael Mann’s <em>Miami Vice</em>
Michael Mann’s <em>Miami Vice</em>

Michael Mann’s stylish exercises in existentialist dick-swagger have always been off-putting to me, almost hysterical, but Miami Vice, no joke, is one of the best Hollywood films of the year. This movie materializes and soars out of a splendiferous, almost sci-fi ether (almost every image is as intense as the great waterfall sequence from The Last of the Mohicans), with none of Heat’s overblown macho posturing, Ali’s bogus high-mindedness, or Collateral’s muggy view of the world. Mann treats Miami like some dead thing, flipping it over so he won’t have to look at its tacky-pastel surface—essentially the only side of the city people who’ve never been there are familiar with. The truth is that the muggy, perpetually-nighttime Miami of the film is one that is authentically and grippingly envisioned, so deeply in fact that criticism of the film’s allegedly blank slate is almost insulting. Rex Reed, who never met a film with avant-garde proclivities he didn’t hate (during the final showdown between the cops and druggies, the barrage of bullets comes to resemble a nervous solar system of exploding stars and spinning flying saucers), has faulted Miami Vice for having no plot and for toasting seemingly indestructible characters that don’t exist in the real world, while others have griped about the questionable glances that Sonny (Colin Farrell) and Isabella (Gong Li) exchange. This all feels like a willful misreading of this subtextually loaded work: Every time Mann lingers on an actor’s intense gaze, he is considering the secret language the film’s world-traveling undercover agents use to scan their environment, and the pain and pleasure their silent tongue rouses. The shot of Farrell and Gong coasting to Cuba on Sonny’s boat (called Mojo, because he likes mojitos) is one of the most ecstatic images of the year, not just because the boat appears to coast on air toward an almost-round horizon, with Moby’s “Anthem” playing on the soundtrack, but also because it serves as a corrective to all those films that have literally (Michael Bay’s evil Bad Boys II) and figuratively (Sally Potter’s Yes) walked all over Cuba’s political nightmare. Not only does Mann understand the variety of races that live in Cuba, but he also understands the country’s haunted distance and arrested development, using it, pace Sean Burns over on Matt Zoller Seitz’s blog, as a parallel to Sunny and Isabella’s relationship. The film isn’t better than Scarface, but its style is like a vice, almost sinfully deep.

This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.

"Stay Alive, No Matter What Occurs": Sex and Survival in The Last of the Mohicans

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“Stay Alive, No Matter What Occurs”: Sex and Survival in <em>The Last of the Mohicans</em>
“Stay Alive, No Matter What Occurs”: Sex and Survival in <em>The Last of the Mohicans</em>

Spurred by this weekend’s lively and often contentious discussion of Miami Vice director Michael Mann—macho poet or flashy fraud?—I offer the following piece on The Last of the Mohicans, originally published in the 2005 National Society of Film Critics anthology The X List, edited by Jami Bernard. (Caution: nothing but spoilers ahead.) For a concise, thoughtful look at Mann’s filmography through 2002, see Anna Dzenis’ Senses of Cinema article. Odienator’s review of the movie version of Miami Vice is here. My Star-Ledger article on the original NBC series is here.

A romantic drama set during the French and Indian War, Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans is a primal epic of survival and the overpowering urge to reproduce. Reworking the same-named 1936 movie, Mann and co-screenwriter Christopher Crowe transform their literary source, James Fenimore Cooper’s chaste frontier potboiler, into a passionate tale of tough, simple men fighting and dying for land and women. In the movie’s political/historical background, Native tribes, white settlers and British and French military forces compete to control the mountains and forests, which they hope will be overrun someday by their descendants. Mohicans shows that both an individual’s goal to mate and pass on genes and a civilization’s desire to possess and transform the land issue from the same biological urge. As articulated in the original 1992 version, and deepened in Mann’s 2002 director’s cut, the major characters are driven by the need to control, protect or perpetuate their bloodlines.

The film’s central triangle sees Nathaniel “Hawkeye” Poe (Daniel Day-Lewis), the adopted white son of Mohawk warrior Chingachgook (Russell Means), competing with British Col. Duncan Heyward (Steven Waddington) to defend and possess Cora Munro (Madeline Stowe), Duncan’s presumptive fiancée and the daughter of a British colonel. A secondary triangle echoes the first: Nathaniel’s adoptive brother, Uncas (Eric Schweig) pairs off with Cora’s sister Alice (Jodhi May), then loses her to Magua (Wes Studi), a Huron warrior whose wife and child died in an attack ordered by the Munro sisters’ father, Col. Edmund Munro (Maurice Roeves).