Michael Mann’s Cinema of Images

Uploaded 14 September 2002

Stanley Kubrick. Eisenstein. Dziga Vertov. And ‘Kino Eye’. I mean that’s really my limitation. So my approach to films tends to be structural, formal, abstract and humanist. (Michael Mann)  [1]

Michael Mann has been a writer, director, producer and an actor on a range of film and television projects spanning a period of over thirty years. He has also been writer, director and producer on most of his own films. He has a significant body of work to his credit. And yet – curiously and surprisingly – his work has not received a great deal of critical attention.

David Marc and Robert J. Thompson’s book Prime Time, Prime Movers [2]  devotes a chapter to Michael Mann in a survey of key creative contributors to prime time American television. He is also represented in Jim Hillier’s book The New Hollywood [3] as one of the few creative personnel who shifts fluidly between the big screen and the small screen. Acknowledgement of his contribution as one of America’s great film directors has been less well documented. This, however, has been slowly changing. He is included in the recent Wallflower Critical Guide to Contemporary North American Directors [4] . And Pocket Essentials have just published a slim book on Mann in their Directors Series  [5] . There are also a number of longer essays, written after the release of each new film; Gavin Smith’s essay, written after the release of The Last of the Mohicans [6] , Richard Combs’ [7] and John Wrathall’s [8] essays, written after the release of Heat. Nick James’ [9] and Christian Viviani’s [10] essays which follow the release of The Insider. And Adrian Wootton’s [11] and Legar Grindon’s [12]  essays on Ali. There is also Jean-Baptiste Thoret’s important essay “The Aquarium Syndrome: On the Films of Michael Mann.” [13]  In addition to this, Mann himself has actively contributed to the literature surrounding his films by giving a number of lengthy interviews. Amongst these is an important early interview with Julian Fox which appears in Films and Filming[14]  after the release of his first feature film Jericho Mile; an interview with Harlan Kennedy where he discusses The Keep [15] ; a key interview anthologised in Projections 1 [16]   where Mann discusses The Last of the Mohicans; an interview in Sight and Sound [17] where he also discusses The Last of the Mohicans; and an interview with Geoff Andrew in Time Out[18]  on Heat.

What this handful of writers, essays and interviews all share is a recognition that Mann is the author of the films that he has directed. What they also share is a tendency to scrutinise the films for traces and marks of authorial enunciation, for the signature and voice of the author. And while the films certainly support these auteurist readings, there remains something else, something elusive and resistant about the cinema of Michael Mann, something that provokes Richard Combs to describe his own essay on Heat as an “interim assessment of the interim nature of Michael Mann” [19] .

The style and stylisation of his films is part of the explanation of both some of the elusive and resistant elements in Mann’s cinema, and the existence of so few serious essays, and only one book-length study, about his work. This critical neglect relates to a larger issue: the limited critical and analytical attention in studies of the cinema to the work of film stylists, and matters of style more generally. In this essay I want to make a small contribution towards redressing this imbalance by exploring critical elements of Mann’s audio-visual palette, his distinctive sound-image fusion and the ways in which stylistic elements are linked to a narrative of desire in Mann’s cinema. I also want to suggest that not only is a particularly commanding art of image and sound central to Mann’s style but that images, ideas about the image and the desire for the image are also central to the theme and content of a Michael Mann film.

The Pathos of the Photographic

The Magnificent Ambersons is one of a group of great films that have built the pathos of the photographic into their textures and made it part of their thematic material. (V.F Perkins) [20]

Films whose textual economy is pitched more at the level of a broad fit between elements of style and elements of subject. Works by Robert Altman, Michael Mann, Abel Ferrara, the Coens and Alan Rudolph provide relatively distinguished examples of this practice, in which general strategies of colour coding, camera viewpoint, sound design and so on enhance or reinforce the general ‘feel’ or meaning of the subject matter. (Adrian Martin). [21]

A number of elements characterise a Michael Mann film. To begin with, Mann is recognized as a director of genre films – specifically crime stories, and also action/adventure films. Secondly, his films are complex and elaborate investigations into character and personality – primarily focused on the relationships between men. Third, his work exhibits a continuing quest for a more epic, monumental form of storytelling, for the ever-longer story arc. And fourth, there is a realist impulse that is realized in the stories he tells and the actors he chooses to work with. However, what is most distinctive about the cinema of Michael Mann, what is most remarkable and most problematic for some, is his style and stylization. What makes his films more than just genre films is his experimental audio-visual palette – the way that images and sounds function poetically, materially, sensually and affectively.

Some early critical reaction to his work pivoted around the accusation that he was a stylist without substance. These accusations were partly tied to his association with Miami Vice and a particular reading of that series which suggested that it was only concerned with glossy surfaces and glorious images. But there are others who have found cause to compare aspects of his oeuvre to some of the greatest cinema stylists. And in doing so, they have situated his work in a lineage of the greatest filmmakers in the history of the medium. His attention to detail, his obsessiveness and the length of time it takes him to complete his films has been compared with Kubrick. His lateral tracking camera movements have been regarded as mercurial as those of Max Ophuls. His compositions, his experiments with colour, and the way in which he selects and renders architecture have invited comparisons with the work of Antonioni. And, in a recent article, in which film-makers nominate the films of their “imaginary cinematheque” [22]  Olivier Assayas positions Mann alongside Bresson, Tarkovsky, Pasolini, Visconti and Hou Hsiao Hsien

But while there are evident claims for Mann’s status as a great stylist, I also want to propose that Mann is not a stylist who simply glories in the display of style for its own sake, in the pyrotechnics of style’s performance. In a remarkable essay tracking the many practical and critical approaches to film style, Adrian Martin proposes a 3 tier model of style-subject relations.

First are those films and directors that still ‘essay a strategy of style’ in the classical sense works in which there is a definite stylistic restraint at work, and in which modulations of stylistic devices across the film are keyed closely to its dramatic shifts and thematic developments”

Second are films whose textual economy is pitched more at the level of a broad fit between elements of style and elements of subject.

Third are mannerist films..in which style performs out on its own trajectories, no longer working unobtrusively at the behest of the fiction and its demands of meaningfulness.  [23]

In this essay Martin situates Mann alongside contemporary directors like Robert Altman, the Coen Brothers and Abel Ferrara – film-makers for whom there is a “broad fit” between form and content, style and narrative, technical choices and the story that is being told. But he also goes on to say that many film-makers wander between these categories. He gives the example of Scorsese as someone whose “characteristic style virtually functions on all 3 tiers simultaneously”. [24]

This observation about “a broad fit between form and content” certainly characterised Mann’s style in the early nineties. However, Mann’s more recent approach to style-subject relations can be better described as wandering between “close-fit” and “broad-fit” stylistics, at times classical and at other times almost mannerist. Dante Spinotti, Mann’s cinematographer on four of his films, described the director’s visual processes in the following way. “It’s a little like being in front of a Caravaggio scene and changing it into a Kandinsky painting.” [25]  The Kandkinsky-like qualities Spinotti is evoking are Mann’s intoxicating passion with the painterly, expressive, plastic possibilities of the cinema, with the way that framing, colour and light can transform a room in a house or a street at night. But while images in Mann’s films can sometimes be abstracted, expressive or surreal they are almost always tied to a character’s point of view, or the mood of the narrative, and always linked to emotion and affect. When Spinotti was interviewed about the “look” of the film Manhunter, he spoke of the way the choices of colour and light were based on emotions and desire. The examples he gave were “the romantic blue” light that cloaks the lovers in the beach house, and “the unsettling purple light” invading Dollarhyde’s house in the film’s penultimate climactic shoot-out.

In his BFI book on The Magnificent Ambersons V.F. Perkins described Welles’s film as one “of a group of great films that have built the pathos of the photographic into their textures and made it part of their thematic material” [26] . Perkins positions Welles with a group of filmmakers – Mizoguchi, Max Ophuls and Jean Renoir – “notable for the way that the steadiness of the camera’s attachment to a passage seems gauged to capture movements into the distance, the dying of the light, fading of an echo, in relation to the longing to hold the moment and to escape with it outside time” [27] . Perkins is talking here quite specifically about the long take and the way it enables us to stay with an image, enter its diegetic space and hold onto it as if it was a photograph. He locates this use of the long take in the work of filmmakers whose subject matter is concerned with “time, pastness and loss”. [28] Perkins’ observations about these relations between form and affect can also be applied to Mann’s audio-visual palette. The formal choices Mann makes – his mise en scene, the length of time he holds onto an image, the use of false colour filtration and lighting, extended sequences filmed with a hand-held camera, and strikingly original music and sound scores – are composed with the deliberateness and resonance of still images. Finally, Mann’s films are also replete with this nostalgic, elegiac feeling of pathos for worlds and relationships that are disappearing and falling apart.

A discussion of scenes from three of Mann’s films – Manhunter (1986), Heat (1995) and The Insider (1999) will show how Mann configures these relationships between form and affect. These scenes show Mann continuing to experiment with the recombinant possibilities of sounds and images, whether he is adapting a novel, rewriting his own scripts or telling a true story. In doing so, these three films reveal a continuing impulse to stylisation that can be attributed to the directing presence of Michael Mann.

Manhunter: Snapshots of Disconnection

Manhunter is Mann’s fourth film. It was the film he made at the height of the Miami Vice phenomenon. While continuing his role as executive producer on Miami Vice, he pursued his love for the cinema and made a very distinctive film of his own. Manunter is based on the Thomas Harris novel The Red Dragon and has the historical claim of being the first Hannibal Lector film. It is the first of four films on which Mann collaborated with cinematographer Dante Spinotti. In his oeuvre it is the film that really starts to look and sound like a Michael Mann film.

Manhunter is about the pursuit and capture of a serial killer but this film is clearly more than just a crime story. It is also a meditation on images, vision, visuality, and the photographic. It has been called Michael Mann’s Peeping Tom (1960) and it involves a similar kind of voyeurism, a similar kind of intoxicating and deadly engagement with images that is so central to Michael Powell’s film. Images in Manhunter work on a number of levels. They function narratively as motivation, memory, evidence and clues. They are part of the fabric of the film, as material objects in the world. But most compellingly, they are present as highly expressive, often disturbing, formal compositions, emotively complicated by the way they intersect with the sound design.

One of the most distinctive features of Mann’s style is to be found in his highly expressive compositions – in particular, the way in which figures are positioned in metaphoric spaces. Mann is a master of place and location, of architecture and urban landscapes. His films are full of empty houses, lonely hotel rooms, endless oceans, dark and wet city streets at night, industrial sites, and flickering lights in panoramic vistas. These spaces have been carefully selected for their poetic and metaphoric resonances. Sometimes two people are positioned in these spaces – together but spatially separate. Quite often there is just one person alone. Manhunter’s FBI agent Will Graham is a good example of this kind of solitary figure in Mann’s cinema. His task of solving the crimes and his unorthodox method of placing himself into the mind-set of a killer, takes him on a journey that is both spatial and emotional.

There are a number of scenes in Manhunter that situate Will in such emotionally charged, metaphoric spaces. Two scenes are notable for the way they foreground the photographic as a subject of investigation.

The first scene takes place after Will arrives at the home of one of the dead families – the original crime scene. The camera tracks his shadowy entry into the house as he opens the glass doors of the kitchen and comes in flashing a torch. The low angle, torchlight and his walk up the stairs immediately associate him with the killer. He enters the starkly lit bedroom, and the contrast from dark to light is shocking. What is more shocking is what the bright light reveals – a bloodied scene of slaughter – white walls splattered with red blood. The image is both disturbing and strangely surreal – it is a crime scene but it also looks like an abstract painting. The next shot of Will alone against a white ground is minimalist and understated. His body against the white background reinforces his solitariness as well as locating him in a stark negative space. He begins reading descriptions from a forensic report into a tape-machine – words about the past – a conversation with no-one. His low, cool, measured monotone belies the emotion of the scene. He then moves into the bathroom – and its myriad mirrors begin to fracture and multiply his reflection – suggesting an emotional disturbance that wasn’t there in his voice. While he is in the bathroom the phone rings, triggering the answering machine and Valerie Leeds pre-recorded message. This scene is characterised by such spatial and temporal disjunction – we look at images from the present at the same time as we are hearing words from the past.

In the scene that immediately follows, these sound-image relationships are inverted. Will is alone once again – this time in an empty hotel room – and now we see images from the past and hear words from the present. Will watches home movie footage of the murdered family on a monitor. These images occupy the centre of the frame and they float in blackness. The darkness that frames them separates them from a living context, as well as calling attention to their materiality. They are ordinary, everyday images of a family eating breakfast, reading the paper, kids coming up to the camera and pulling faces, letting a dog into the room. Will talks to the monitor and to the killer whom he does not know yet. His words speak of afterwards – when the family in the home movie were dead. This leads to another striking composition in which Will is looking at the monitor and half the screen is black. It appears as if he is talking into the darkness, into the unknown. Visually it is a dramatic contrast to the earlier scene. As he starts to speak of smeared blood stains he finds himself unable to continue and he rings his wife. The cut to his wife is supported by a rising musical beat. She is asleep in a bedroom bathed in a blue light. The brief conversation juxtaposes his family, from whom he is separated, with the families who are now dead, amongst whom he now walks. The effect of this exchange reinforces his solitariness, but somehow the communication with his wife gives him added impetus. When Will returns to the monitor he begins to ask more questions. As his voice gets louder, the music rises and there is an epiphany in which the images start to reveal some truths to him. And so images, words, music and revelations come together in a crescendo-like moment.

This sequence has several narrative points to make about Will’s working methods. But its real resonance comes from the way it is composed and edited. Its play with sounds and images draws our attention to material fragments from the past – home movie footage and answering machine tape.

Its compositions focus our attention on absent families and what is now lost. Mann’s camera lingers over minimalist images of Will in a stark white room where a family once slept, and then alone in a hotel room surrounded by darkness. A further allusion to separated families is made with the cut to Will’s wife sleeping by herself, awash with a blue light. The contrasts from stark whiteness to shadowy darkness, from grainy, muted tones to painterly, blue light draws our attention to the formal properties of these scenes, to the way in which they were constructed as if they were photographs. These are snapshots of families torn apart – snapshots of disconnection.

What might seem surprising in a film about serial killers is the way in which images and sounds are foregrounded as poetic constructions. But it is the way these compositions function as “images in the aftermath” of what has been that underlines their pathos.

Heat: Phantom Images

After Manhunter, one of Mann’s projects was a television pilot for a series that never went into production but was subsequently repackaged as a tele-movie called L.A. Takedown (1989). The film that Mann made some time later, the epic crime tale Heat, is an elaborate retelling of this original story. With Heat Mann took a telemovie and fully developed its cinematic possibilities. Because Heat is a remake of his own work, it can be regarded as one of Mann’s most personal films. It is the film that he had thought about for some time – the film that he really wanted to make.

Heat is an epic heist film about two tribes and three couples. The first tribe is a group of professional criminals gathered around Neil McCauley (Robert de Niro). The second tribe is a group of policemen headed up by Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino). The three couples are Vincent and Justine (Diane Venora), Neil and Eady (Amy Brenneman) and Chris (Val Kilmer) and Charlene (Ashley Judd). The narrative develops by paralleling these individuals and their relationships and watching them unravel until every couple has separated. In the final sequence we are only left with two men – Neil and Vince – who meet each other in an archetypal battle to the death.

Heat is also more than just a crime story. It is a dreamscape – a poetically rendered world. Its poetry can be found in Mann’s mercurial oscillations between elaborately choreographed montage action sequences and close, intimate interior views. Mann’s vision is both panoramic and intensely subjective: he both maps the larger terrain and investigates the detail. In a key essay on Mann’s work written just after the release of Heat, film critic Richard Combs was compelled to characterise Mann as both a cartographer and a botanist. “A cartographer, with a love for the whole, abstract view, and a botanist with a fascination for how the life within it actually works.” [29]

While the pathos in Manhunter came from staged photographic moments that reminded us of what was no longer possible, Heat is awash with death and a sense of pathos from the very start. It is as if the end is already enacted at the beginning and the characters are like ghosts that walk through this dream world. This is apparent as the camera descends into the film’s ethereal, smoky netherworld of ambling trains, flickering lights and sombre music. It is also set up in the spectacular opening sequence that involves an ambush, an explosive car crash, a robbery and a shoot-out. The robbery is the work of a very close team of professional criminals, but on this job they have included a man called Waingro (Kevin Gage) who acts according to his own rules and kills three security guards. These killings set into motion a cycle of killings. At the film’s end, when Neil is free to leave, the news of Waingro’s whereabouts leads him back to the beginning and inevitably to his own death.

Mann’s approach to stylisation is most evident in Heat’s kinetic action sequences. Three major set-pieces structure the film and these sequences are larger-than-life epic battles. The film’s opening ambush is matched by a spectacular, concluding cat-and-mouse game of hide and seek amongst large airport containers with planes flying intermittently overhead. At the centre of the film is a ten minute long shoot-out in the streets of Los Angeles. This elaborate shoot out begins with a bank robbery and spills out onto the streets. The street battle is a complex formal construction – a tour-de-force of montage and tracking shots. The music by Elliot Goldenthal sets up a percussive beat that gets progressively louder. The pace of the editing starts to quicken creating an accelerated rhythm. A series of lateral tracking shots, right to left, then left to right, follow Neil and his tribe, and separately Vincent and his troop, as they prepare to do battle on the streets. The battle combines close-ups down the barrel of machine guns with long shots of street scenes – continuing the interplay between the intimate and the panoramic. Police cars form barricades in L.A. streets, cars smash into each other, and supermarket trolleys become war zones. Incessantly loud gun-fire shatters car windows, brings down men and causes a hysterical scatter effect amongst civilians on the street. This particular sequence marks a half-way point in the narrative after which everything is about revenge and consequences, but while its narrative place is evident, its length and excessiveness invite audiences to recognise its bravura construction.

Mann is as masterful at depicting the fragility of human relationships as he is at choreographing epic montage sequences. Even the dialogue in this film is full of figurative images and mythical allusions.Vincent’s wife is almost lyrical when she tells him why their relationship is falling apart. Framed in darkness, her speech is like a performance: ” You don’t live with me, you live among the remains of dead people, you sift through the detritus, you read the terrain, you search for signs of passing, the scent of your prey, and then you hunt them down. That’s all you’re committed to. The rest is the mess you leave as you pass through. What I don’t understand is why I can’t cut loose of you.” When Vince and Neil finally meet face to face their words are imagistic in similar ways. As well as talking about their work, they also share their dreams. Vince describes “.sitting at this big banquet table and all the victims of all the murders I ever worked are sitting at this table and they’re staring at me with these black eyeballs because they’ve got eightball haemmorages from the head wounds” Neil responds by talking about his own dream. ” I have one where I’m drowning and I got to wake myself up and dreaming or I’ll die in my sleep.” Vince asks him ” You know what that’s about?” Neil replies “Yeah – Having enough time.” This talk of dreams between these two leonine men verges on the Shakespearean.

But the images that resonate most affectively in Heat are the intimate exchanges between couples. Two scenes are particularly noteable for their expressive use of colour and light, their elegiac music of longing, and the emotionally suggestive patterns of editing. The first scene takes place very early in the film. It is about a coming together, a falling in love. Neil and Eady are on the balcony talking. They are enveloped in a warm orange light and the city at night is illuminated behind them. The exchange is shot with long lenses so they are separated from an abstracted background as if they are in a world of their own. But their happiness will be temporary and this is already underlined by the suggestively sad music.

The other scene that takes place later is about a separation, a falling apart. Charlene has been tricked into setting a trap for Chris. He arrives at the apartment to which he has been summoned and she walks out onto the balcony. He looks up at her from the street and smiles. She looks at him for what seems like forever and then signals him to leave. The two faces awash with blue light are framed separately, but the alternating pattern of editing connects them visually and emotionally. There is, however, a more devastating series of shots to follow. Charlene walks back inside into the warm light of the room, and there is a cut between her and a tight blue-lit shot of Chris’s face in the car as he drives away. This final image of Chris’s face has the spectral appearance of a photographic phantom, and it reminds me of the words of Tom Gunning: “..that such images could display the iconic accuracy and recognizability of photographic likenesses and at the same time the transparency and insubstantiality of ghosts seemed to demonstrate the fundamentally uncanny quality of photography, its capture of a spectre-like double.” [30]

The blue-lit spectre-like quality of Chris’s solitary face driving into the unknown is reminiscent of so many other characters in Mann’s cinema: an image of a face on the edge of a precipice.

The Insider: Grains of Truth

As his work has continued, Mann has become increasingly interested in stories about real people and real situations, although this impulse to the real has been present from the very beginning. Mann’s very first film Jericho Mile (ABC, 1979) was actually set inside Folsom prison and prisoners were employed as actors. In Thief (1981) and Crime Story (NBC, 1986-88) he used ex-police and ex-cons as story consultants and character actors. But his interest in the really true and important story has been most compellingly realised in The Insider. The source of The Insider was a Vanity Fair expose article written by Marie Brenner in which she reported the true story of whistle blower Jeffrey Wigand and his relationship with Sixty Minutes journalist Lowell Bergman who wanted to broadcast his story.

And yet even in this true story, in which there are facts to be told, Mann’s story-telling is still drawn to the poetic heart of the characters and their perceptions. The first shot of the film is instantly enigmatic. We are immediately placed inside the point of view of someone whose eyes have been covered with a blindfold. This subjective point of view is reminiscent of the opening scenes of both Manhunter and The Keep (1983) The sequence shifts between interior views of the threads of the blindfold and external views of a military-run country. The sounds and the music of this Middle Eastern country are loud and commanding. Very soon we find out that the man behind the blindfold is Sixty Minutes reporter Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) trying to score a difficult interview. The scene functions to let us know what kind of reporter he is as well as what lengths he will go to get an important story. It gives us a sensuous, impressionistic sense of this foreign country. And it also introduces a key metaphor about blindness and concealment in a film where so much is hidden and so much remains unclear.

The Insider contains as many striking set-pieces as you would expect from a Michael Mann film, but here they are primarily tied to a character’s point of view. One of the great accomplishments of this film is the way it visualises the interior life of Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe). The anxiety that Jeffrey feels finds form in the things that he looks at, the scenes that he visualises and the sounds that he hears. When he plays golf at night at a practice range, the golf range is a surreal, artificial space, awash with blue-green light. The green is like an abstract painting, dotted with white balls that are gathered up by a robotic machine driving around in circles. Jeffrey is in a heightened state of paranoia, and this is constructed formally. The sounds of golf balls being hit and of lights being turned off are excessively loud. A ball comes flying into the net in an extremely elongated gesture. Everything in the scene – colours, lights, sounds, people – are exaggerated, elliptical, hyper-real.

There are many other scenes in this film that communicate these feelings of anxiety and paranoia, but one in particular appears as if it is a dream. It takes place as Jeffrey is being driven home after his deposition in Louisiana. Through the car window he sees another car burning in the distance. The music is loud and operatic and a voice is singing. Inexplicably and mesmerically there is an image of a car ablaze in the night and it is hard to imagine a more apt or poetic metaphor for Jeffrey’s current woes.

But just as Manhunter and Heat told a story of two men and their complicated relationship, The Insider is also interested in the growing bond beetween whistle blower Jeffrey Wigand and Sixty Minutes reporter Lowell Bergman. Bergman’s struggles to get to know Wigand and to tell his story on Sixty Minutes are plagued with obstacles. The relationship between the two men gets played out in a soundscape of fax machines and telephone conversations, but most impressively the ticking of the Sixty Minutes clock is the sonic beat that underlines Bergman’s own struggles to air Wigand’s story. While Bergman does not share some of the hallucinatory images that characterise Wigand’s psychic world, there are still some striking scenes in which Mann envisions his circumstances. One of these is a scene in which Bergman paces up and down in the shallows of the seashore screaming into a mobile phone before he drops it into the water. The other is a moment full of bitter pathos as Bergman, a fragmented and watery figure, adjusting the collar on his coat, disappears through a series of revolving glass doors into the grey city streets. It is the last image of the film.

The Desire for Images or Images of Desire

Some of the greatest films in the history of cinema are about images and the desire associated with images. Films as provocative or as eclectic as Peeping Tom (UK 1960), Blade Runner (USA 1982), Rear Window (USA 1954), Blow Up (UK 1966), Blow Out (USA 1981), La jetee (France 1962), Under Fire (USA 1983), The Year of Living Dangerously (Australia 1982), Smoke (USA 1995)Killing Fields (UK 1984), Badlands (USA 1973), 400 Blows (France 1959), Thelma and Louise (USA 1991), Apocalypse Now (USA 1979) Letter from an Unknown Woman (USA 1948), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (USA 1969), The Shining (UK 1980), Philadelphia (USA 1993), Proof (Australia 1991) and Memento (USA 2000) all have moments where they engage with issues and questions about the relationship between the still and the moving image.

Michael Mann’s films can be added to this list. They can be read, in some cases, as meta-texts – texts which not only choreograph elaborate images and sounds, but also engage in a dialogue about images and their construction. In a number of Mann’s films the image itself is at the centre of character’s trajectories. Images are linked to desire, to dreams, to wished-for situations, hopes and longings. They are also linked to the death of those dreams, things in the past no longer possible – memories and mementos. And, in a number of cases, we are invited to reflect on the way images are also capable of duplicity and deceit, and can be used against the grain of their original intentions.

The preoccupation with images begins, in a small way, in Thief. There is a scene in this early Mann film (aka Violent Streets) that involves Frank (James Caan), recently released from prison, and the woman he desires Jessie (Tuesday Weld). They are sitting together in a diner talking, when Frank produces a collage of images that he made while he was in prison. This collage represents what he wishes for in his life – the desire for family and human connection. It includes real people who are important to him and representations of others who he hopes for. He shows this composite image to Jessie, and explains it to her simply by saying “That is my life”. She has a hesitant reaction to it, asking him where he found all the images. To her they seem like dead people. He tells her that she is the woman in the picture. He sees it as a map, a template, an image about a dream, an image that sees life as a series of disparate elements that can somehow be brought together. And there is even an epiphanous moment in the film, where Frank walks along the beach with Jessie, their adopted son and a friend, as if his dream image has been accomplished. But this is not the film’s conclusion – it is a temporary reprieve from the inevitably tragic ending. It turns out that this carefully composed image of desire will be finally unattainable.

This play with images finds its apotheosis in Manhunter. The film is littered with still images, family photos, photos of crime scenes, home movies transferred to video, and photos fabricated for newspapers. FBI agent Will Graham studies these photos and home movies in order to find clues that will lead him to the killer of these families. It is, in fact, two family snap shots that his colleague Crawford shows to him that convince him to take on the job. And it is these images, amongst others, which he tries to read and interpret – like clues or evidence. He uses these images to engage and re-enter the past and the experience of others. These very same images, however, are also memories and mementos of what is now no longer with us – happy families in all of their innocence.

Images also have another narrative function in Manhunter. The serial killer Francis Dollarhyde works in a film processing lab. And it is in this lab that he has selected his victims from the films that have been sent there for processing. Dollarhyde is clearly using images for transgressive purposes. The television sets screening only static in his house are further evidence of his prismatic and distorted perspective. In Manhunter, what is perhaps most unsettling is the way that images transcend their original purpose and context and are used in ways beyond ordinary imaginings. The way that the function and meaning of images change in Manhunter can be explained by the sense that Barthes invokes “that the reality offered by the photograph is not that of truth-to-appearance but rather of truth-to-presence, a matter of being rather than resemblance.” And the being and presence of one moment becomes something entirely different in another moment in another’s head and heart.

When Mann came to make Heat he was interested in making a crime story that extended the boundaries of the genre. And while Heat certainly tells the story of a heist-gone-wrong, it is also a film in which the two central characters spend a lot of time tracking each other, following and pursuing each other and engaging in various kinds of surveillance strategies. In fact, in a film in which everything seems to be leading to the face-to-face meeting of Al and Bob, what is noticeable here is that they actually meet each other as images first through various imaging machines. For Al it takes place in a factory stake-out inside a truck filled with high-tech surveillance equipment. When someone on Al’s team inadvertently makes a noise, Robert looks directly at the truck and at Al, and although he can’t see him, it is as if an exchange has taken place. It is Al who sees Robert as a heat sensor image – his captured image looking directly at him. Shortly after, Robert takes tele-photo shots of Al and his team in an industrial landscape from the top of a container. He then uses these images to find out information of his own. It is this cat-and-mouse game of tracking and knowing through images that takes place in the first half of Heat, before the critical face-to-face meeting. It invites us to consider images as particular ways of knowing, particular forms of knowledge.

When it comes to telling the expose story of The Insider in sounds and images, Mann portrays two men whose relationships to the construction of images couldn’t be more different. As a reporter forSixty Minutes, Lowell Bergman is in the business of telling stories with images. The mise-en-scene of his work-place is littered with monitors, and questions about the truth of those images are raised on a number of occasions. A pointed example is the footage of the 7 CEOs of tobacco corporations and the public broadcast of their deceptive declarations on television. Lowell’s struggle to have Jeffrey Jeffrey’s story told is tied up with his idealistic notions about the truth power of images. For Jeffrey, however, his desire to have his story told and broadcast is a desire to be seen and heard, to have his story publicly acknowledged, particularly to his children. In different ways, The Insider shows that many of our experiences are mediated through images. When Jeffrey has his breakdown and the mural in his hotel room comes alive, the images on the wall transform into memory-images of his children. These are children whom he is currently unable to see – and so they are images of desire in a very real sense.

Mann’s most recent film – the biopic Ali (2001)- acknowledges that the story it is telling about the famous boxer Muhammad Ali already exists as a well-known visual record in the world, in the historical memory of photographs, newspaper stories, television reports, biographical films and documentaries. Mann even employed Ali’s personal friend and photographer Howard Bingham as a consultant. A production still shows Mann holding up a famous photograph as a key point of reference in the shot he is composing. The film tries to be true to real people and real events, so we do see Ali’s close friendship with Malcolm X, sports reporter Howard Cosell, and a number of wives and we do get to watch key fights replayed blow by blow. The film that Mann has made, however, tries to move beyond this visual record, to create a much more impressionistic re-telling of ten years in Ali’s life. We are also placed inside the ring, with cameras on the boxers’ heads and get strangely vertiginous feelings as a sea of faces and Nikon cameras flash incessantly around Ali forming a vibrant palette of colour, shape and tone. Ali himself made a prescient observation about the way images occupy our lives, when he was asked about his conscientious objection. “I know where Vietnam is,” we hear him tell a reporter in the film, “it’s on the television.”

Images are central to the cinema of Michael Mann. They tell so many different stories, trying to get to the very heart of characters and their perceptions. They are about a love for the texture of the medium, for its material, plastic qualities. They also self-reflexively make us think about the way those images have been constructed and how we might read and interpret them. This is film-making that delights in its own processes. It is also film-making that keeps inviting us back to the cinema in so many ways.


[1] Julian Fox, “Four minute mile,” Films and Filming, (1980): 20.
[2] David Marc and Robert J. Thompson, Prime Time, Prime Movers (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1992), 231-240.
[3] Jim Hillier, The New Hollywood (London: Studio Vista, 1993) 99-121.
[4] Nick James (ed), The Wallflower Critical Guide to Contemporary North American Directors (London: Wallflower, 2000).
[5] Mark Steensland, Michael Mann (UK: Pocket Essentials Series, 2002).
[6] Gavin Smith, “Mann hunters,” Film Comment 28, no. 6 (1992): 72-77.
[7] Richard Combs, “Michael Mann: becoming,” Film Comment 32, no. 2 (1996).
[8]  John Wrathall, “Heat,” Sight & Sound, (1966).
[9] Nick James, “No smoking gun”, Sight & Sound, (2000).
[10] Christian Viviani, “Lacarriere de Michael Mann”, Positif, (2000).
[11] Adrian Wootton, “The Big Hurt,” Sight and Sound 12, no. 3 (2002): 16.
[12]  Legar Grindon, “Ali,” Cineaste 27, no. 2 (2002): 32-4.
[13] Jean-Baptiste Thoret, “The Aquarium Syndrome: on the films of Michael Mann,” Senses of Cinema, May-June 2002,http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/01/19/mann/html (July 2002).
[14] Fox.
[15] Harlan Kennedy, “The Keep,” Film Comment 19, no. 6 (1983): 16-19.
[16] Graham Fuller, “Making some light: an interview with Michael Mann” in Projections: A Forum for Filmmakers, no. 1, eds. John Boorman & Walter Donahue (London: Faber & Faber, 1992).
[17] Gavin Smith, “Wars and peace,” Sight and Sound 11, no. 7 (1992): 10-15, 45-46.
[18] Geoff Andrew, “Mann to man”, Time Out (1996): 16-17.
[19] Combs, 10.
[20] V.F. Perkins, The Magnificent Ambersons, (London: BFI, 1999), 68.
[21] Adrian Martin, “Mise en scene is dead: or the expressive, the excessive, the technical and the stylish,” in Film – Matters of Style, ed. Adrian Martin, Continuum 5, no. 2 (1992): 90.
[22] Olivier Assayas, “La cinematheque imaginaire,” Cine-regards, (July 2002).
[23] Martin, 90-91.
[24] Adrian Martin, P. 91
[25] Les Paul Robley, “Hot Set,” American Cinematographer, (1996): 46.
[26] Perkins, 68.
[27] Perkins, 68.
[28] Perkins, 68.
[29] Combs, 17.
[30] Tom Gunning “Phantom Images and Modern Manifestations” in Fugitive Images: From Photography to Video, ed. Patrice Petro (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995): 47.

About the Author

Anna Dzenis

About the Author

Anna Dzenis

Anna Dzenis is a Screen Studies lecturer and researcher who has taught at La Trobe University, Victorian College of the Arts and RMIT. She teaches screen literacy, screen criticism, world cinema, film history and theories of visuality. She is a scholar of photography and cinema and brings these two disciplines together in her teaching and research. She is co-editor of the online journal Screening the Past, and has published essays in Senses of Cinema, Screening the Past, Lola, Real Time, Metro, The Conversation, 24 Frames: Australia and New Zealand, The Oxford Companion to Australian Film, and The Routledge Encyclopaedia of Films.View all posts by Anna Dzenis →