From the early American frontier to the contemporary streets of Miami, Michael Mann’s approach to storytelling and filmmaking are defined by atmosphere, attention to detail, and orchestration of complex themes contextualized by equally intricate scene constructions. As an artist uses a paint brush to create a painting, Mann uses specific filmmaking techniques to craft portraits of men and women in perpetual motion in worlds bound by varying code of ethics, desires, and existentialism.
Michael Mann’s protagonists often find themselves at odds with societal constructs in their pursuit of happiness. What defines this happiness can shift between their utmost wants and desires of their attempts at fulfilling a respective duty. As Mann’s protagonists consistently showcase, they are bound by a personal code of honor reflective of their view of the world and informing us who these people are without having to over explain specifically how aforementioned constructs have shaped them as human beings. How do these ethical codes apply to a world or institution when conflicting with their pursuit of happiness? Without verbally asking the heavy hitting questions, his films have characters ponder their existence among an ever-changing ocean of uncertainty.
When the characters do speak, it’s often not in a manner to which we can relate. They speak in broad terminology, giving a universal feeling to their ethos and pathos but are also known to divulge information in specific tongues that may seem alien to ours. But the characters understand what they’re saying and that’s all that matters.
The approach to duty and detail is a trait Mann shares with his characters as the director is known for his rigorous film-making style. Mann once fired an entire art department during the filming of Manhunter and took over the entire department. Cited as a perfectionist, every piece of the project needs to fit together as he sees fit. It’s Mann’s world and we’re all just his participants.
Miami Vice in the 1980s shaped the style precedence for an entire decade but also introduced audiences to Mann’s brand of existentialism. Through unconventional use of visuals and sound, particularly modern music, melodramatic introspection is key to understanding his work. Plot mechanics are lost in the shuffle of work that best represents his modus operandi. The film adaptation of Miami Vice floods the screen immediately with a pulsating sequence in the midst of a sting operation as club goers surround our soon-to-be-named protagonists. Mood and music cues lead audiences along through a partnership for the ages as Crockett and Tubbs maneuver their way through an undercover case spanning continents. Do the logistics make total sense? Not entirely. But you trust what these men are doing and why they do it. You understand the affirmed sense of duty and philosophies at play. A beat by beat story breakdown might fall apart under severe scrutiny, but the movie feels right. Mann’s acute focus on atmosphere and mood warrant a different perspective on his radically obtuse approach to storytelling.
One cannot mention Mann’s recent preference for shooting his films on digital cameras and an unorthodox use of said technology. Often cited as a mistake on the director’s part, Mann’s use of digital is candid and what we consider a specifically un-cinematic standard of film-making – as if the director was unaware of what he was doing. This was the man who made Heat and The Insider back-to-back. It’s safe to say the experimental use of digital cameras is not an accident. The look of his modern films is less to feel like your typical movie and intended to draw you in closer to his canvas. Public Enemies isn’t interested in resembling Heat as much as it wants to set the audience alongside Dillinger’s morality. Collateral captures a neon lit side of Los Angeles unseen to many filmmakers at the time. Ali captures a documentary style feeling thanks to Mann and Emmanuel Lubezki’s attempt at understanding the potential of digital cameras. Yes, his use of digital feels more informal than what we’re accustomed to, but it helps develops the type of films Mann is invested in making.
Mann is ultimately a director interested in empathy. By peeling away a layer of traditional cinema with his modern digital era, he allows us a new gateway into contemporary works of art. We aren’t just watching events unfold onscreen anymore. He’s planting us directly into the worlds of which he is the master. His protagonists are in perpetual motion in an attempt to maneuver through the organizations and constructs which create frameworks for his ever evolving portraits.
Perhaps the best example of this methodology is personified in Michael Mann’s most popular film Heat. After a cat and mouse game spanning through all of Los Angeles, Neil McCauley and Vincent Hanna have had coffee together, they’ve shot at each other, and have finally come to end a vicious cycle brought on by their constructed identities. In his kindred spirits final moments, all Hanna could do is extend his hand to hold onto the only other man who understood him.
It’s perhaps the most under valued aspect of the director’s work: his everlasting empathetic tendencies. Michael Mann never asks you to like everyone in his features – there are some truly despicable characters that plaster the walls between law and order in his works – all he asks is that you walk away with a deeper understanding of who we are as people and how our actions define us. It’s a hell of a thesis to carry over nearly a dozen films. Maybe his new age digital aesthetic isn’t always wholly successful but you’d have a hard time denying it didn’t continue an evolution of Mann’s approach to understanding people on their pursuit to happiness.
Featured Image: Universal Pictures