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Thursday, January 7, 2016

Michael Mann: To the Limit

James Caan in Thief. Photo courtesy MGM/Photofest
By Nick Pinkerton

BAMcinématek presents Heat & Vice: The Films of Michael Mann, Feb 5—16. Michael Mann’s films combine a verbal taciturnity with a baroque visual style. They aren’t much for talking, but they’re something to see. His protagonists, the loquacious title character of Ali (2001) being an outlier, don’t have time to dilly-dally or mince words. Instead they fall back on a few tried-and-true pragmatic personal codes that Mann’s aficionados can recite, mantra-like: “Life is short. Time is luck,” or, “There hasn’t been a hard time invented that we can’t handle.”

Frank (James Caan), the safecracker protagonist of Mann’s revolutionary theatrical feature debut, Thief (1981), says what he means once, clearly, and with the intention of being understood. Largely shot on the streets, alleys, and industrial fringes of Mann’s hometown, Chicago, Thief is grounded in authenticity and firsthand knowhow—a solid relationship to the physical facts of the world—that marked '70s American action films. The dialogue is criminal argot and shop talk; the characters are drawn from local lore, police blotters, and direct experience. Cops and crooks are played by actual cops and crooks (Dennis Farina and John Santucci); the film uses working tools rather than props, from handguns to heat lances.

Running alongside Mann’s documentary impulse, however, is his presentational conception of the cinematic world, a perspective tending toward the theatrical and artificial more traditionally associated with, say, Japanese cinema. Embellishing the film with rain, neon, a Tangerine Dream soundtrack, and a few expressive camera gestures, Mann creates a half-mythological Chicagoland. In the blue-collar actioner, overt stylization was held as something suspect and sissified, ostracized to the musical comedy. Along with Japanophile Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo, released the previous year—and the launch of MTV, with which Thief’s appearance was almost exactly contemporary—Mann’s film was one exemplar of a sea change in the integration of overt stylization into new sectors of American popular culture, with Miami Vice, the television show that he produced for five seasons beginning in 1984 leading the way.

Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell in Miami Vice. Photo courtesy Universal Pictures/Photofest.
More than a mere follower of fashion, Mann understands how changing technology shapes the look of the world—he’s a gearhead with a passion for deep-dive research, which puts him in good stead with his reported forthcoming Enzo Ferrari biopic. He never neglects to show the fiber-optic strings that make the modern world work, either through the manufacture of mass media in Ali and The Insider (1999), or in its role in conducting three generations of state-of-the-art nationwide investigations in Manhunter (1986), Heat (1995), and Miami Vice (2006). (Or a J. Edgar Hoover-retro version of the same in 2009’s Public Enemies.)

Because tech is used in a practical, matter-of-fact way in Mann’s films, they don’t date like showroom productions that proudly roll out the latest model. Blackhat (2015) is perhaps unique in redeeming that often loathed subgenre, the cyber-thriller—a movie that actually gets the feel of living in the digital drift. Among major studio directors, Mann was an early adopter of digital photography, converting completely with Collateral (2004), never trying to replicate film but rather exploring the new potentialities of the digital image in both texture and the capacity to shoot action. The result—a frantic and percussive new kind of duck-and-cover screen firefight.

Far from fitting the stereotype of the cold-blooded technician, Mann makes films which fairly throb with emotion. From the lay-it-on-the-line diner scene between Caan and Tuesday Weld in Thief to its reincarnation with Chris Hemsworth and Tang Wei in a Koreatown restaurant in Blackhat, Mann has always been fascinated by the unseen, ineffable connections which draw people together from across great divides—and physical passion and emotional harmony are of central importance within his action stories. The Last of the Mohicans (1992) contains the most obvious manifestation of Mann’s Romanticism, as well as his most cogent and classical set pieces. In his late period, Mann has taken to working in impressionistically smeared camerawork, up-the-nose angles, handheld tumult—the cinematic equivalent of “loose brushwork.”

Mann’s cinema today is a liminal, margin-walking art—whether pushing a narrative as far as possible into the realm of abstraction while attempting to keep it working as a satisfying genre piece, or shooting in extreme low light-conditions as to produce a “noisy” image, pushed until it starts to break into its constituent parts. A line from Miami Vice—typically overblown, cocksure, and quite cool—encapsulates his all-in approach to each new project: “Let’s take it to the limit one more time.”

Heat & Vice: The Films of Michael Mann comes to BAMcinématek February 5—16, with an in-person appearance by Mann on Thursday, February 11.

Nick Pinkerton is a New York-based writer. His work appears regularly in Film Comment, Artforum, Sight & Sound, Frieze, Reverse Shot, and Little White Lies. There hasn’t been a hard time invented that he can’t handle.

Reprinted from January 2016 BAMbill.

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