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The Insider (#110 of 5)

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.

Taking All the Fun Out of Vice

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Taking All the Fun Out of <em>Vice</em>
Taking All the Fun Out of <em>Vice</em>

The TV show Miami Vice is a relic of the 1980’s, a weekly descent on a fancy speedboat into a pastel-colored Heart of Darkness full of sex, drugs and, worst of all, macho posturing. Filmmaker Michael Mann and series creator Anthony Yerkovich took NBC boss Brandon Tartikoff’s description of “MTV Cops” and built a show around it; the title has become synonymous with Reagan-era excess. Mann’s theatrical visuals were edited for maximum adrenaline; entire set-pieces played out as short films cut in sync to the songs of the era; the sense of stylistic overload was leavened only by fleeting references to current events.

When Vice became the latest in a line of TV shows scheduled for movie upgrades, it came attached to the show’s master stylist. Back in the day, Mann’s sole purpose was to bring an 80’s movie into your home every week. Now, freed from the content restrictions of NBC censors, I expected to see what Vice might have looked like if HBO were doing TV series back then. Either Mann was going to give us a jolt of 80’s nostalgia, reminding us why the show was so terrible yet compulsively watchable, or he was going to play it straight, upping the angst quotient and macho bullshit, muting the color scheme, and reminding us why you can’t make a ho into a housewife.