For 30 years critics and even some of his biggest fans have called Michael Mann a 'stylist'. It's a tag that the director has learned to loathe, for it implies surface over substance, spectacle for its own sake and a mind steeped in fashion rather than an artist respectful of tradition.
'Stylist', Mann's critics will tell you, also suggests excess. Reviewing Mann's excellent debut feature Thief (1981) in The New York Times, Vincent Canby admonished the director for taking a hard-boiled yarn that could have belonged in the 40s – about an independent thief (James Caan) on a collision course with Big-Time Outfit operators – and aesthetic-ising the action to the point of abstraction: “[It's] pretty enough to be framed on a wall, where, we know, good movies don't belong.”
The filmmaker argues that there is nothing on screen in a Michael Mann film that he did not put there for a sound dramatic reason. “I hate gratuitous anything,” he told this writer in 1996. “Gratuitous sex, gratuitous comedy…” Still, if anything, Mann is the one major director of the last 20 years that critics do a lot of wrestling with, admiring his sheer skill in one breath, only to poke him for wasting time on turning 'trashy' subject matter (like say, crimes stories) into tough-guy existentialist workouts, delivered with a sheen of nihilistic dread.
Mann's characters tend to be Men Out of Time, Out of Line and Out of Options. It seems no coincidence that Mann's two breaks from strict genre convention, the true-story ripped from the headlines The Insider (1999), and the biopic boxing epic Ali (2001) were his only films to engage both critical and industry acclaim as their raft of awards and Oscar nominations testify (no matter that both films were by far the most stylistically aggressive in Mann's catalogue until 2006's Miami Vice). With the release of Public Enemies, the “less than meets the eye” critical clichés have been once again mobilised as just a faint dip into the print and web commentary on the film reveals: “Michael Mann is a highly imperfect director,” wrote critic Stephanie Zacharek in Salon recently, “a filmmaker who's sometimes lauded as great when perhaps he's really only a smart storyteller with good visual instincts.” Still, in a Mann film there is a sense of politics, a sense of a world outside the movie frame, a sense that things like how one appraises the world, matters. In a movie universe craven before the B.O. clout of Michael Bay, I'll take Mann's vaulting ambition every time.
“Genre” is another word the filmmaker has little time for. “…My films don't proceed from genre conventions and then deviate from those conventions. They proceed from life,” he told a biographer. As a long time Mann-watcher, I've always felt this was the real source of the schism between what the director imagines and wants to achieve and audiences and critics. Audiences anticipate thrills and action. Critics, as a rule, desire depth and want a little post-modern irony with their gangster-hero archetypes (since after-all “it's only a movie”). But Mann's characters don't follow 'movie psychology'. His characters are annoyingly inconsistent and messy and difficult (just like, well, life).
Of course it's Mann's job to sell this premise, and to be sure it's his problem if critics and fans don't buy all of it, all of the time.
For instance in Thief, Mann has Frank (James Caan) carry around a photo-montage in his pocket that represents the hopes and dreams of this former convict, who has spent almost his entire life in prison. For Mann it was an important piece of authentic research, drawn from years spending time investigating crime and prison sub-cultures. In Folsom, where Mann once shot a telemovie (The Jericho Mile, 1979) such totems like the photo-montage were commonplace amongst the convicts, a way for the incarcerated to hold onto an inner life in a place which does not allow outward expressions of vulnerability. But movies don't come with footnotes. Frank's photo-montage was dismissed by some as cheap symbolism. Since then, Mann has found with increasing sophistication, a way to remain authentic and at the same time more movie-like. Mann's style is a mix of street detail and a film form that aggressively seeks to express theme and character in a shot, a composition, in a colour palette. “I want to affect how people think and feel,” he told an American Film Institute audience in 1981. “If you want to affect people you have to become more abstract. You have to deviate from creating naturalism. The danger is that you start losing emotional access because the landscape is less familiar. So you have to do more design to get the same amount of story impact through abstraction if you were just duplicating reality.”
This approach tends to move critics to contradictory responses (often in the same review): thus, Mann's pictures are read as everything from realistic, to operatic, to baroque.
Perhaps another clue to finding access to the unique mystique of a Michael Mann movie is in an admission he once made to one interviewer when he explained that he “did not have any talent for making things up.” Instead, like an investigative journalist (a profession he admires) Mann finds whatever dramatic insights he can only after thorough and highly detailed investigation into a certain subject. He makes no apology for this kind of seriousness. For him his so-called genre movies, Thief (1981), Manhunter (1986), Heat (2005), Collateral (2004), Miami Vice (2006) and now Public Enemies (2009) are serious movies about serious things, all of them steeped in research across every level of the filmmaking experience (historical, professional, psychologically…he frequently tells interviewers that what he wants most from actors is “immersion”). Interviewed in 1996 about Heat (1995), he told a reporter that it was “first and foremost a drama”. Curt and intense in conversation, Mann explained that the gunplay, the high body count, the plot, soaked in precise procedural facts of life about busting banks and tracking criminals, were merely details.
As is now well known, Mann based Heat on a true-life encounter between a cop and a professional criminal. The cop had been tracking the crim, a high-line thief, for some time when they bumped into one another. Instead of a gunfight, the pair exchanged chit-chat and shared a coffee. It emerged that there was a kind of rapport. The cop, Mann's pal Chuck Adamson, admired the guy's professional stoicism. This is, of course, the basis for the famous scene played between De Niro, who played the thief, Neil McCauley and Al Pacino's cop, Vincent. What mattered to Mann was how little this human contact between predator and prey impacted on their individual fates. In movies, so often rooted in aspirations and hope, such encounters are freighted with sentiment; they are supposed to make a difference to lives, outcomes. In life Mann found it didn't. The next time Adamson saw McCauley, coming out of daylight payroll robbery, he shot him dead.
From this slim premise Mann was able to spin a three-hour movie, due in no small part to the fact that he was able to incorporate about 20 years of accumulated knowledge concerning crime sub-cultures (on both sides of the law). Of course it happens that Mann has found in Life an archetypal yarn of obsessive men who are what they do. It's a story of limited lives and the importance of Work. And as such it tends to drive certain viewers up the wall –especially women – who see much macho-hero worship in all of this (never mind that a Mann movie goes against 21st century tradition, and dying actually means pain and blood). It doesn't help that, sprinkled amongst Mann's hard-boiled dialogue is a lot of psycho babble; the director's character's tend to express emotional tumult in the kind of distilled shrink speak favoured by self-help authors.
Still, I've always been sceptical, even suspicious of Heat's detractors on this basis. What Mann's naysayers seem to be object to most is Mann's seriousness. To desire ambition, intellect and emotion in a crime story seems to embarrass them. But, in a cinema, both independent and mainstream, of glib ironists, such an approach remains startling (Tarantino, Ritchie, anyone?)
It is too early to contemplate how commentary will evolve on Public Enemies. But for fans it contains some great Mann moments. There is a beat always in a Mann film in which the anti-hero in some way arrives at a spiritual plain (Mann's characters are self-aware, another no-no in today's cinema of fluid identity). Often it has to do with work, a job well done. It also has to do with Fate. It has no “depth” beyond what it is doing true, other than Mann's extraordinary ability to allow access to the inner life of the character through a precise arrangement of filmic elements – no small thing. Usually it's a moment that is shared exclusively with the audience. In Public Enemies, it comes when John Dillinger (Depp), after leading the FBI on a merry chase sneaks into a police station. Unrecognised, he takes in the charts, and boards, maps and mug shots that attempt to explain his criminal exploits. Right before him, in forensic detail, is his life of crime. His story.
Yet, we know with a fine dramatic irony, that it is far from the truth. This scene comes near the end of the film and we've lived the excitement with Dillinger and no amount of 'data' can ever be true to what we have seen and heard. In a stunning and subtle turn, Depp produces the slightest of wry grins. We know as he does, that knowing the facts alone can never be the same as being there and living it.