Note: This is a post that’s crossed over from The Matinee. Ryan, my friend, messaged me and asked me to write a column for him about a film or something specific about how I revisited something for it gain value for me. After mulling it over and thinking about it all I came up with this little gem. So while Ryan’s off watching baseball and enjoying his vacation take a seat with me here (and over at The Matinee) and soak in my voice instead of his as I talk a little about my feelings on the dirty world of Michael Mann.
Michael Mann and I, after many years of troubled discussions, are friends. I don’t mean real friends. I’ve never met the man — if you’re reading this Michael, we can meet up for drinks and talk it out — but I’m talking about cinema friends. You know the kind of relationship where he makes movies and I go to my local theatre and enjoy. However, it wasn’t always this way.
Way back in the 2000s, when we were still awaiting sequels to The Matrix and was asking ourselves why we ever wore Hammer pants, I started delving into the world of cinema. Like most of the people — you reading this included I guess — I started with what I knew. That being movies of Tom Cruise, which led me to a little known film for me; Collateral. This eventually led to Miami Vice and further down the line to Heat.
These three films had two very important things in common in for me: they were all made by Michael Mann; and I hated each and every one of them. I’m not talking about that weird feeling you have with a movie when you feel you ate something bad and your stomach sat between you and your enjoyment of the movie, or when you feel like you didn’t get it and question your very right to hate a film. I’m talking about truly disliking it.
I gave it a few years and with the internet in my ear reminding me that Heat was a masterpiece — I know the internet lies, but can it be this wrong? — I decided to revisit Mann’s work and I couldn’t be more surprised by the reaction. I’m sure by this point in the article you’ve already figured out that I now adore each and every one of these films. More to the point I sort of figured out what it was I missing the first time around That being the correct eye for Mann’s work.
In the film community and among friends you’ll be pushed in the direction of many an auteur being told things like “must see” ,“resonant”, “brilliant” and “only one like it” and left to fend for yourself. What most of these people tend to forget when writing this little cinematic guide into the world of film history, modern and past (if that makes any sense to you), is that sometimes more important that watching a film is watching it with the right context.
Michael Mann, more than most filmmakers, is someone who visually represents his world as if they were dragged through the muck. Being a filmmaker who loves the cops and robbers world (which is also a commonality in the three films I mentioned above) his films are always about that darker parallel world that most of us only get a glimpse of on the evening news. However, as we watch Lt. Hanna chase down Neil McCauley down a runway, Tubbs break a man’s hand to reach the other side of dance floor, or Max freak out at a dead body on his car; we are watching all sorts of muck on-screen. So why shouldn’t the frame always feel as dirty.
The ever growing discussion of Mann’s work tends to float towards the side of digital cinematography. At this point I’m stepping slightly outside of my depth. I have an interest in photography, but no degree or credits to my name. Regardless though, as I ignore my unqualified status, it’s obvious that along with this technological push forward in 2004/06 with Collateral and Miami Vice Mann is making his own world a new.
In Heat the film took it’s pause constantly. We had moments of Lt. Hanna just sitting and having a drink laying out his day, or when he eventually sits down next to McCauley at the diner making everything take a pause and so did the film, with a very static look and feel. In Miami Vice and Collateral we’re almost never static. The frame is always moving, even if just slightly. Just like those stories we’re never stopping as it seem there’s always another incident around the corner.
Even the way Miami Vice begins; we’re in the club — an energetic world — and we get a phone call from an old informant who brings us into an ongoing incident that needs attention now. This world is a world of fast movement, where most times we don’t get that moment of peace where we can perfectly frame a shot it has to be now, even if in super close up or in the dark of night where the camera makes things look even more dirty than before. It’s spontaneous and ever-growing. Like the film itself.
With this new idea of how to really look at Mann’s works I feel like Neo himself, like I’ve cracked the code. Suddenly everything just locked into place. More to the point this meant that not just the work of Mann, but many other filmmakers made a lot more sense to me. I started to appreciate films not just for the cookie cutter worlds I had grown to expect, but as their own worlds that I had to actively engage with. Or as my friend and co-host on my podcast likes to say, “I crossed over into full-blown film snobbery”. Take it as you will, but the film became less about (though it still remained important) the dialogue and the action and more about the editing and the feel. Movies became an experience again. Many will tell you that seeing Battle Cruisers open Star Wars as being an experience; I feel Mann’s ability to show and not show at the same time in Miami Vice is also an experience that’s just as valuable.