Against the Flow of Time: Michael Mann and Edward Hopper

Tim Groves and Costas Thrasyvoulou


Richard Combs claims that Michael Mann’s films have an opaque or self-enclosed quality that frustrates interpretation.[1] One reason for such resistance is that Mann’s cinema is often busy and restless. His work shifts constantly between realism and abstraction, the epic and the intimate, the kinetic and the reflective. As Combs suggests, Mann’s films are about transformation or becoming. This is particularly true of his style, which operates “poetically, materially, sensually and affectively.”[2] To experience the style of a Mann film is to live in the flux (to paraphrase Combs, or Jean-Baptiste Thoret on Miami Vice) as it unfolds, moving within and between its various registers and the range of stylistic devices Mann deploys.[3] This style can seem elusive. How do we, for example, say everything about the images and sounds of Ali or The Insider?

The analysis of Michael Mann’s films is therefore an incremental process. In this article we hope to make a contribution to it through a comparison between some aspects of Mann’s work and that of the American artist Edward Hopper. Mann does not appear to have been directly influenced by Hopper. Rather, it is our contention that they have an elective affinity. They are both realist artists who transcend that style: Mann positions himself as a realist filmmaker and storyteller, but his films contain many abstract moments, while Hopper has been classified as both a realist and a visionary.[4] They belong to a long history of American artists who capture a longing or despair in American lives that contradicts and subtends the national ideology of optimism. Mann and Hopper emphasise the relationships between characters and spaces in their work. Both men portray a range of lonely figures that are juxtaposed with a consistent set of visual motifs: the ocean, the window, and the anonymous places of urban life. These figures are often framed in a pensive moment, as they reflect quietly on their circumstances. Accordingly we will explore (albeit in a somewhat speculative manner) the melancholic sensibility and visual traits in the art of Mann and Hopper, as well as their remarkable capacity to capture singular moments in time.

Mann and Painting

Before we discuss the links between Mann and Hopper in more detail, it is useful to first consider Mann’s relationship with the medium of painting. Painting has influenced his visual style for individual films. He conducted research into nineteenth century landscape painting and eighteenth century portraiture when creating the look of The Last of the Mohicans.[5] Mann has also incorporated paintings into his films at significant points. For example, in The Insider Jeffrey Wigand sits before a large painting of a lone rider on horseback in his hotel room (the figure might be a messenger like Paul Revere) while the censored version of his story is broadcast on Sixty Minutes. Afterwards Wigand turns and stares at the painting. The image transforms into a vision of Wigand’s children playing in a yard as both character and audience become aware of his isolation and what he has lost by becoming a whistleblower. Early in Ali we see the boxer’s father painting a mural of Jesus as a white man. Later in the film Ali encounters a mural of himself in the backstreets of Kinshasa on his daily run as he prepares for the Foreman fight. It is a dramatic demonstration for both character and audience of Ali’s importance as a cultural figure: the most famous man on the planet at that moment is an African-American.

Figure 1: A Bigger Splash (1967) David Hockney

Figure 2: Portrait of Nick Wilder (1966) David Hockney

More broadly, a number of Michael Mann critics have remarked upon the painterly quality of his visual style. Christopher Sharrett connects Mann’s work with that of David Hockney, Eric Fischl, and Robert Longo.[6] David Hockney and Ed Ruscha were both prolific photographers of Los Angeles who used their photographs as source materials of their paintings.[7] (Mann of course is well known for his distinctive cinematic re-imaginings of Los Angeles in Heat and Collateral.) Hockney and Mann have a preference for clean, uncluttered compositions. They both employ block colours and a certain sterility in their representations of contemporary, typically linear, houses. [Figures 1-2] Ruscha was drawn to a “diversity of formal compositions, architectural style, and geometric divisions.”[8] These traits are also evident in Mann’s films. The similarities between Mann and Ruscha can be seen in a shot in Heat when Donald Breedan arrives at his minimum wage job at a diner. [Figures 3, 4-5]

Figure 3: Heat (1995) Michael Mann

Figure 4: Beverly Glen (1965) Ed Ruscha

Figure 5: Normandie (1965) Ed Ruscha

Mann has also been linked to abstract art. Anna Dzenis, following Mann’s early cinematographer Dante Spinotti, has associated Mann’s visual style with that of Wassily Kandinsky.[9] Kandinsky was renowned for his use of colour symbolism, and was also an important theorist on the topic. [Figure 6] He contended that colour had an “emotive” function, and that each colour had its own “values” or ideological connotations.[10] As Adrian Martin has argued, Mann’s films employ colour coding to “enhance or reinforce the general ‘feel’ or meaning of the subject matter.”[11] Manhunter is a key example of this strategy. Dzenis observes that Spinotti referred to the look of Manhunter in terms of “the way the choices of colour and light were based on emotions and desire.”[12] White, for example, has a narrative connotation of death: it is the dominant colour of one murder scene and also of Hannibal Lecktor’s cell. However, it is also associated with plenitude. Dollarhyde’s slaughter of entire families facilitates his transformation into the Red Dragon, while Molly Graham wears white in her husband Will’s dream of domestic tranquility (which occurs while he is looking at photographs of the crime victims). Thus, one of Manhunter’s themes, the proximity of death and wish fulfillment, is expressed through the use of a single colour.

Figure 6: Gelb Rot Blau Kandinksy

Mann combines both the realist and abstract tendencies of his work in a rare intertextual moment in Heat. (As David Bordwell says, “Michael Mann acts as if no other crime movie has ever been made.”[13] ) It occurs when Neil McCauley returns to his seaside home after the initial heist. He places his gun on the table and stares at the ocean, his back to the camera. [Figure 7] This scene is based explicitly on Alex Colville’s Pacific (1967) [Figure 8] As with Manhunter, Mann uses a blue filter, but the tone is noticeably different. Mann says this about Colville’s painting:

Figure 7: Heat (1995) Michael Mann

Figure 8: Pacific (1967) Alex Colville

Within it [was] somebody who was involved in some life of aggression and action and yet [there was a] contrast within the mental state because here was a moment of inner loneliness, and it didn’t dictate something instead it posed a question. [It] didn’t inform with a statement, it posed a question what is this man thinking? What is he imagining? And it said something about his circumstances and his condition which was a condition of loneliness.[14]

Neil McCauley is a key example of Mann’s thematic interest in the ageing white male in contemporary society, or what Thoret has identified as the “Aquarium Syndrome.” [15]  Moreover, this scene has become iconic: a still from was used as the cover of F.X. Feeney’s book on Mann, a project that benefited from interviews with Mann and access to his personal archive. [16]

Edward Hopper

Figure 9: Nighthawks (1942) Edward Hopper

It is now time to turn to one of Colville’s formative influences: Edward Hopper. Several commentators on Hopper have argued that his work has a cinematic quality. His visual style has influenced directors such as Chantal Akerman, Todd Haynes, Alfred Hitchcock and Wim Wenders. [17]  Sheila Wagstaff claims that Hopper is, “A compulsive director who uses the language of film to hone the structures of his scenes to the bare essentials at the same time as packing the emotional intensity tighter as a dramatic agency.” [18] In this respect, Hopper’s paintings have clear affinities with film noir, Nighthawks (1942) [Figure 9] being a famous example. He often employed the oblique shapes of light and shadow we associate with noir lighting techniques in paintings such as Conference at Night (1949) and Sun in an Empty Room (1963) [Figures 10-11]. These techniques heighten the poignancy of people captured quietly contemplating their position in life. Thus, Hopper’s paintings can seem like “arrested narratives of movie stills.” [19] Consequently, our engagement with the subjects of his work frequently involves a process of narrativisation: we speculate about the circumstances of his characters, we situate them within a (life) story.[20]

Figure 10: Conference at Night (1949) Edward Hopper

Figure 11: Sun in an Empty Room (1963) Edward Hopper

Mann and Hopper 1: Melancholy Lives

Figure 12: Automat (1927) Edward Hopper

Hopper and Mann share a pessimistic sensibility that might be called melancholic. Hopper’s work is renowned for its portrayal of the loneliness of urban lives. Automat (1927) [Figure 12], for example, depicts a young woman sitting alone in a café where even interactions with staff are unnecessary. [21]

Figure 13: Sunlight in a Cafeteria (1958) Edward Hopper

In Nighthawks the diner functions as an urban oasis for its characters. Characters in paintings often appear disconnected from each other, such as in Sunlight in a Cafeteria (1958) [Figure 13]. “In Hopper’s works communication always seems to be difficult and at times impossible.” [22] Although Hopper depicted couples in his work, these figures appear to derive little consolation from intimacy. For example, in both Summer in the City (1949) and Excursion into Philosophy (1959) [Figures 14-15] a figure looks down despondently at the floor while a lover sleeps. The mood of such paintings involves, as Iversen rightly claims, more than “post-coital sadness” or the despair of a failed relationship.[23]  Instead, these characters are rapt in thought, as if contemplating past weakness or future failure; they seem to experience an existential gloom or anguish.

Figure 14: Summer in the City (1949) Edward Hopper

Figure 15: Excursion into Philosophy (1959) Edward Hopper

In this respect, it is significant that Hopper’s subjects are often shown in a particular state, one of waiting. His figures are found “adrift on reverie’s surface”, but this arguably provokes uneasiness in the viewer. [24]  This may be due to the quiet desperation of the lives of these characters. Iversen claims that, “their withdrawal from life is partly voluntary, their solitude self-imposed.” [25] Perhaps there is something uncanny about figures whose only form of empowerment appears to be a capacity for introspective retreat? Is this the source of our anxiety?

The melancholy of Michael Mann’s films can be discerned in various ways. For example, as Thoret argues, Mann’s male characters are often ageing figures burdened by disappointment or failure.[26]  At the beginning of Manhunter Will Graham lives in retirement from the FBI because of mental and physical wounds sustained in the capture of Hannibal Lecktor. In Collateral Max has spent eleven years driving a taxi, while his nemesis Vincent appears increasingly aware of the futility of his own existence as a hit man. Thoret proposes that Mann’s men are trapped in a metaphorical aquarium. They “spend days dreaming of the world” in front of them, but they “know that coming out of the water would be fatal.” [27]  In Thief a photographic collage represents Frank’s idea of a perfect life – a wife, a child, liberating his mentor from prison. Max keeps a photograph of a coral isle in his taxi to provide tranquility. In Heat Neil is determined not to return to prison after long periods of incarceration; he dreams of escape to Fiji.

There are resonances between Hopper’s interests in the conditions of urban life and what Sharrett calls Mann’s elegies for “a lost era subsumed by a cruel technological present.” [28] Although Mann’s men display superior skills and dominate the terrain they inhabit, they are also increasingly anachronistic figures who experience a sense of “hyperalienation.” [29] They are out of time: the phrase “time is luck” is used on several occasions in Mann’s films. Thus, Frank’s autonomy is threatened by the corporatization of crime in Thief. Chingachgook and Hawkeye struggle with imperial encroachment in The Last of the Mohicans. In The Insider Wigand and Bergman are unable to preserve their integrity within a corrupt corporate environment. Near the end of the film Bergman tells veteran Sixty Minutes journalist Mike Wallace “What got broken here doesn’t go back together again.”

The socio-economic or cultural isolation of Mann’s male characters has a corollary in their difficulties in forming or maintaining personal relationships. To some extent this is unsurprising because Mann’s men are defined by work. Emotional detachment is an indication of their professionalism, even a requirement. As Neil says in Heat, “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in thirty seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.” Thus, he leaves his partner Eady at the end of film when Vincent appears, while Vincent’s (third) marriage disintegrates in the course of the film because of his dedication to the pursuit of criminals rather than communicating honestly with this wife Justine. This type of withdrawal has its apotheosis at the end of Thief. Frank sends his wife and child into exile, thereby killing his inner life in order to render himself capable of wreaking revenge on Leo and his gang. Instead, these men are more likely to develop a psychological bond with, or tacit respect for, a rival or double: Will is paired with Lecktor and Dollarhyde in Manhunter, Neil and Vincent in Heat, Wigand and Bergman in The Insider, Max and Vincent in Collateral.

Figure 16: The Insider (1999) Michael Mann

As with Hopper’s paintings, the fragility of relationships at key moments in Mann’s films is shown through visual composition. For example, the increasing discomfort between Will and Molly Graham in Manhunter is expressed by their spatial position during a conversation on a dock: they each occupy a similar spot in their half of the frame. In The Insider Wigand and Bergman stand along side each other after Wigand’s court deposition [Figure 16]. They are satisfied, but not ebullient. Their restraint hints at the problems to come in terms of both their relationship and the attempts to broadcast Wigand’s story on Sixty Minutes.

Mann and Hopper 2: Transparent Walls

Figure 17: Room in Brooklyn (1932) Edward Hopper

Figure 18: Office in a Small City (1953) Edward Hopper

Hopper’s use of windows in his painting is a major feature of his mise-en-scene of waiting. He was a consummate painter of rooms. [30]  He employed windows to motivate his compositions, often using them to facilitate his expressionist lighting techniques. As Wagstaff contends, Hopper “throws light into their interiors with a penetrating beam as unwavering as moonlight or sunlight, high-keyed and relentless.” [31]  Rhomboid shafts of light illuminate his rooms, enabling us to observe his characters on the surface of contemporary life as they sit on a bed, drink a cup of coffee, or work in the office. Windows provide a notional view of the exterior world, such as in Room in Brooklyn (1932) or Office in a Small City (1953) [Figures 17-18], but they also confine his characters. “Hopper’s windows appear as the only access to the outside in an otherwise imprisoning interior – a point of connection with the public domain that only serves to underline the overriding sense of separation.” [32] This can be seen in Eleven A.M. (1926) [Figure 19], Room in Brooklyn, Morning Sun(1952) [Figure 20], Office in a Small City, City Sunlight (1954) [Figure 21], and Hotel Room (1955) [Figure 22]. Each of these paintings depicts a single figure who is watching or waiting.

Figure 19: Eleven A.M. (1926) Edward Hopper

Figure 20 Morning Sun (1952) Edward Hopper

Figure 21: City Sunlight (1954) Edward Hopper

Figure 22: Hotel Room (1955) Edward Hopper

The function of windows in Hopper’s work has parallels in Mann’s cinema. Mann’s use of architecture and urban settings to emphasize the alienation of his characters has been compared to that of Antonioni.[33]  He chooses the spaces in his films “for their poetic and metaphoric resonances.” [34]  As the concept of the “Aquarium Syndrome” in Mann’s work suggests, windows and glass feature prominently in his films. Thoret argues glass often fragments the frame in Mann’s films, acting as both “container and insulator.” [35]  Sometimes the aquarium gives a (false) sense of security, such as in two scenes at the Graham waterfront home early in Manhunter. In the first, Molly Graham and Jack Crawford sit in front of a window overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, the setting sun backlighting them. As the camera moves towards the horizon, there is a vague sense of foreboding. The film cuts to Will and Molly in bed, this time bathed in (blue) moonlight, the ocean behind them [Figure 23]. It is a conspicuously romantic moment, but Will uses it to announce his decision to abandon domestic tranquility and return to profiling work.

Figure 23: Manhunter (1986) Michael Mann

On other occasions in Mann’s films windows function as a transparent boundary between the aquarium and the world beyond. When they occur we become aware of the characters’ loneliness, dissatisfaction with life or desire for transformation. Neil gazes at the Pacific in the scene from Heat we discussed earlier. There is a similar moment in Miami Vice when the police visit a rich criminal at his lavish waterfront home. Sonny Crockett’s attention wanders away from the conversation for a few seconds. He stares through a large window out at the ocean. Is he bored? Is he thinking of the opportunities to shed his identity that working undercover will bring? Does Sonny envision Isabella, a woman without borders, before they have met? In The Insider, Jeffrey Wigand gazes at the sea while trying to decide whether he should testify in Mississippi. A mandolin plays softly on the soundtrack. As he considers crossing the Rubicon, he is thoughtful, anxious, hesitant and, above all, uncertain as to what to do or how the future will unfold.

Mann’s men often find the sea on the other side of the looking glass. Frank says in Thief that the “sea is our divinity.” It is often a refuge in Mann’s films. In Collateral Max looks at a photograph of a coral isle to preserve his equilibrium. The first and last shots of Will Graham in Manhunter are of his life by the ocean, and his dream sequence shows his work building boats. On other occasions the water is a goal or destination. Neil dreams of Fijian lagoons in Heat, while in Thief Frank and his new family wander along the beach after a successful heist. However, as Thoret states, “For Mann the sea is the canonical image of impossible journeys, those that everyone dreams about but no one is able to take.” [36]

Can we postulate an “aquarium syndrome” in Hopper’s work? He frequently painted solitary people who are noticeably demarcated from, or dwarfed by, the world on the other side of the glass, as in Morning SunOffice in a Small City and Hotel Room. Gail Levin argues that, “Even when … other figures are visible, the central characters are psychologically remote, existing in a private space of dreams and contemplation.” [37] This is also evident in Sunlight in a Cafeteria: a woman sits reading, bathed in light coming through a large window. She ignores the man who may be about to speak to her. Interestingly, many of Hopper’s most relaxed and optimistic paintings, such as The Long Leg (1935) and The Martha McKean of Wellfleet (1944) [Figures 24-25], depict nautical subjects. (He spent a good deal of time living and working in Cape Cod.) In Rooms by the Sea(1951) [Figure 26] a door opens directly on to the water; it is an image that could appear in a Michael Mann film.

Figure 24: The Long Leg (1935) Edward Hopper

Figure 25: The Martha McKean of Wellfleet (1944) Edward Hopper

Figure 26: Rooms by the Sea (1951) Edward Hopper

Windows and glass do more than allow Mann’s characters to ponder the horizon of possibilities, they also operate as literal and metaphorical mirrors in his films. “The windows, the glass walls, the mirrors, all crystalline surfaces that enclose, . . . this mise-en-scene of transparency never stops showing man his true reflection.”[38]  In Manhunter, Dollarhyde places mirror shards in the eyes of his dead victims to ensure the reflection of his own desires [Figure 27]. In the same film, Will Graham stares at his reflection in the rain-covered window of a diner after sending his family away and states, “It’s just you and me now, Sport.” The remark is directed at both Dollarhyde and himself. If Graham has the capacity to identify serial killers it is because he resembles them so much, as Hannibal Lecktor tells him during a confrontation Mann filmed in a sterile white cell, placing the actors in identical positions in relation to the cell bars.

Figure 27: Manhunter (1986) Michael Mann

The mirror also enables Mann’s men to meet their doubles. For example, in Heat Vincent watches a spectral image of Neil on a surveillance camera at the scene of a planned robbery. Soon after, Neil reverses the gaze as he lures Vincent and his team to some industrial land and observes them through a telephoto lens. The balance between the characters is then established in famous coffee shop scene. De Niro and Pacino are dressed similarly and positioned so as to resemble each other as the film cuts back and forth during their discussion. For a few minutes these ageing lions, aware that they are nearing the point of no return in their lives and their professions, cease stalking each other and instead reach a measure of understanding and respect.

Mann and Hopper 3: Moments in Time

Mann and Hopper share an ability to capture key moments in their characters’ lives that bespeak both a personal story and a broader comment about their position within contemporary society. The capacity of both artists to represent this melancholic singularity is achieved largely through style. Despite the obvious differences in their respective styles, Hopper and Mann display some common traits. Hopper is a cinematic painter whose compositions often have a deceptive simplicity. Michael Mann is a painterly filmmaker whose stylistic choices often consist of “one or two strong elements” in the shot.[39]  Hopper’s characters frequently seem posed for the audience, as if they don’t quite belong to their environments. Mann often shoots his actors using a shallow focus that has the effect of situating his characters on the surface of their surroundings. “Hopper’s paintings do not report an actual event in the world but rather stage a re-imagined event in narrative pictorial terms.”[40]  Mann regularly shoots on location but gives the material a hyperrealist quality.

Wollen claims that, “Hopper oscillates between an aesthetics of clarity and vision on the one hand, and an aesthetics of darkness and gloom on the other.” [41]  Light is obviously the dominant factor of these approaches but it does more than position figures within spaces in his work. Hopper’s use of light also has a metaphorical function. In Nighthawks, for example, the dark shadows that surround the characters are almost tangible: we have the impression that just beyond this haven of light the city threatens to engulf its inhabitants. Indeed, one of the customers seems to be at risk of disappearing into the shadows. A solitary female patron in Automat sits in front of a large window at night. Her gaze, posture, and physical separation are all indicative of her lonely burden. Perhaps more notable, though, is the darkness behind her: it seems to overwhelm her. Margaret Iversen asserts that the window in Automat “is a metaphorical image of her mood of dejection and inward reflection”, and that the reflected ceiling lights of the café hint at “the vertiginous lure of nothingness.” [42]

As well as representing his subjects’ moods, Hopper’s use of light also metaphorically figures the position of the spectator. There are no characters present in either Rooms by the Sea or Sunlight in an Empty Room. Instead, both paintings contain large, bold shapes of sunlight entering ostensibly through an aperture. Such paintings do more than represent the mood of a particular space. Rather, they are “an occasion for our meditation.” [43]  Sometimes we occupy the site of the absence figure. In Rooms by the Sea the warmth of sunlight and the tantalizing proximity of the water seem to offer a sense of freedom and optimism. Sheena Wagstaff argues that Sunlight in an Empty Room encourages us to search for the light source. The result is that, rather than substituting ourselves for the “missing” human figure, we might meet Hopper himself:

Through our intuitive tracing of the light’s origin, we are led to feel the artist’s own presence and subjective relationship to the scene, oscillating between identification with our “actual” presence looking into the room and the artist’s self-reflexive embodiment as light source. [44] However, what do we make of the shadows in the painting? If Wagstaff’s thesis is correct, then do they show us Hopper’s gloom? Or, if we see despair, is it our own?

As Wollen suggests, Hopper’s work utilizes the power of light and shadow. It is important to remember that Hopper’s paintings “bring together two separate but interpenetrating domains where the pale yellows of the interior light and the cool blues of the exterior co-exist.” [45]  Let us look again at Summer in the City and Excursion into Philosophy. As we argued earlier, the paintings depict a moment of existential reflection in the lives of the character sitting on the edge of the bed. What is also noticeable in both paintings is that this figure dwells partly in sunshine, partly in shadow. Perhaps they are caught between the past and the future, or perhaps this juxtaposition symbolizes the figures are on the cusp between the spiritual and the worldly.[46]  Do we choose the darkness or the light?

Figure 28: Heat (1995) Michael Mann

Michael Mann uses a range of stylistic options in his work, often deploying one or two choices in a shot to intensify its effect. As we have noted, he has an interest in contemporary architecture and glass surfaces, as well as a penchant for colour coding. Mann’s other stylistic traits include geometric compositions (Manhunter, Heat), highly kinetic action sequences (HeatThe Last of the Mohicans), and a distinctive use of music, especially ambient, industrial and techno styles (ThiefManhunterHeatThe InsiderCollateral). While style obviously has a narrative purpose in Mann’s work, it also operates, as Dzenis suggests, on perceptual, affective and poetic levels. Let us return to an example of the “Aquarium Syndrome”: Neil McCauley stands in front of a window staring at the ocean [Figure 28]. Steven Rybin contends that at these points in Mann’s work “a kind of existential angst seems to take over both … [the character’s] mood and the mood of the film.” [47] This is perhaps because style contributes so forcefully to such moments. The false blue filtration dominates the scene, hinting at his frustration and yearning, while the glass and window frames enclose him.

Figure 29: Heat (1995) Michael Mann

Mann also achieves an existential mood in his films through the cumulative effect of stylistic elements. At the very end of Heat, Vincent pursues Neil through a group of large containers located on some waste ground and eventually shoots him. During the sequence the shots are structured variously around the red and white containers, the bodily movements of both characters as they search for their prey in the dark, swift cutting, bright runway lights, Neil’s shadow, close-ups of Vincent, and shots of Neil lying wounded in a crucifix position, while towards the end of the sequence Moby’s performance of “God Moving over the Face of the Water” commences on the soundtrack. Thematically, the pursuit plays out like a game of chess with the containers as the board. The match concludes only when Neil checkmates himself – as he moves to shoot Vincent, the latter sees Neil’s shadow and fires first. As Neil lies dying, he reaches out to Vincent, who takes his hand [Figure 29]. This gesture recalls a Pietà glimpsed at the start of the film, and it marks both the consummation and severance of their bond. A shot of Vincent shows tears in his eyes as Neil dies. Affectively, the sequence is neither triumphant nor cathartic. Instead, the viewer experiences a “feeling of dissolution,” an ineffable sense of loss that this epic film has ended thus. [48]

Holding On

Steven Rybin argues that Mann has the ability to extract “small details from a world and then amplify them, marking certain images and sequences as stylistic events that suddenly ask for our attention in the midst of a story.” [49] One of the consequences of such “events” is that we risk slipping our (narrative) anchorage and losing ourselves in the flux of Mann’s style, destined, like his characters, to struggle with the currents. Conversely, these instants in Mann’s work also provide temporary stability amidst the flow. Dzenis contends that Mann’s stylistic choices “are composed with the deliberateness and resonance of still images,” and suggests that his films have a photographic quality.[50] The same is true of much of Hopper’s work.

Several writers have maintained that there is a strong relationship between photography and temporality.[51] The photograph holds or fixes the subject as an image, attesting to the person’s presence at a particular point in history. As we view the photograph, we are reminded of the passage and infirmities of time. Photographs often become suffused with nostalgia and melancholy for what has been lost or what might have been. These qualities of photography offer us a productive way of thinking about Mann and Hopper: some of the most evocative and powerful moments in their work function like photographs. The images of Hopper and Mann capture a specific milieu, providing us with a sombre record of lives marked by time. Moreover, as with photographs, these images have the capacity to awaken our emotions. How can we look at Automat without feeling sympathy for this unhappy young woman? Doesn’t Excursion into Philosophy provoke disconsolate reflection on our own failures?

Let us consider another of those moments in Mann’s work that function more on an affective, existential or metaphorical level rather than in terms of narrative. While Max is driving Vincent around in Collateral they happen upon a pair of coyotes who are, like themselves, wandering the streets of Los Angeles at night. Audioslave’s Shadow on the Sun starts on the soundtrack. It is a striking scene visually and aurally. The encounter seems to resonate with Vincent in particular. Does he ponder his future as a predator? Is he an anachronism, a wild animal trying to survive in an environment where he doesn’t belong (he complains repeatedly about L.A. in the film)? What would he do if he didn’t kill people for a living? There is also something unsettling about this event for the audience that is perhaps figured by the reflection of the coyotes’ eyes in the car’s headlights and the rising intensity of the music. Like the instant in time recorded in a photograph, this freakish occurrence is radically singular, never to be repeated. Even as it unfolds it seems as if it is already slipping from our grasp.

This moment, like the others in Mann’s work we have discussed, reminds us that if Hopper’s figures are seen waiting, then Mann’s male characters hover in an existential limbo, “somewhere between an absent origin and a non-existent tomorrow.” [52]  Wounded by the past, they crave a future they cannot actualize. They are urban descendants of Ethan Edwards, restless figures who roam the nondescript spaces of contemporary life, such as “hospitals, hotel rooms, roadside cafes, vacant lots, airports, warehouses, [and] empty apartments.” [53] Mann’s men may, like Hopper’s characters, possess a degree of self-awareness, but for all of their skills they remain trapped in a present that is on the cusp of disappearing. Dzenis writes that Mann’s films contain a “nostalgic, elegiac feeling of pathos for worlds and relationships that are disappearing and falling apart.” [54] The melancholic pictures of Michael Mann and Edward Hopper allow us to hold the “fragments of a fallen world” in a brief but poignant embrace before they are washed away. [55]


[1] Richard Combs. “Michael Mann: Becoming”. Film Comment 32.2 (March-April) 1996), pp. 12-14.
[2] Anna Dzenis. “Michael Mann’s Cinema of Images”. Screening The Past 12 (2002).
[3] Jean-Baptiste Thoret, “Gravity of the Fux: Michael Mann’s Miami Vice”. Trans. Sally Shafto. Senses of Cinema 42 (2007).
[4] Iversen, p. 63.
[5] See Michael Mann, “Making Some Light”. Mann is known for his extensive research during pre-production and its effect on the style of his films, such as the recreation of Howard Bingham’s photographs and Ali’s fights in Ali, and the use of ninety-five Los Angeles locations for Heat.
[6] Christopher Sharrett. “Michael Mann: Elegies on the Post-industrial Landscape”. Fifty Contemporary Filmmakers. Ed. Yvonne Tasker. London and New York: Routledge, 2002, p. 255.
[7] Richard D. Marshall. Ed Ruscha. New York: Phaidon, 2003, p. 58.
[8] Marshall, p. 59.
[9] Dzenis. “Michael Mann’s Cinema of Images”.
[10]  Peter Selz. “The Aesthetic Theories of Wassily Kandinksy and their Relationship to the Origin of Non-objective Painting”. The Art Bulletin 39.2 (1957), pp. 127-136.
[11] Adrian Martin. “Mise-en-scene is dead, or the expressive, the technical and the stylish”. Continuum 5.2 (1992), p. 90.
[12] See Dzenis.
[13] David Bordwell. The Way Hollywood Tells it: Story and Style in Modern Movies. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006, p. 24.
[14] Michael Mann. “Commentary”. Heat. DVD special edition, Warner home video, 2005.
[15] See Sharrett, p. 254 and Jean-Baptiste Thoret, “The Aquarium Syndrome: On the Films of Michael Mann”. Trans. Anna Dzenis. Senses of Cinema 19 (2001).
[16]  F.X. Feeney. Michael Mann. Cologne: Taschen, 2006.
[17]  Sheila Wagstaff. “The Elation of Sunlight”, Edward Hopper, edited by Sheila Wagstaff, London: Tate publishing, 2004, p. 13. See also Peter Wollen, “Two or Three Things I Know about Edward Hopper”, Edward Hopper, op. cit., pp. 77-78.
[18] Wagstaff. “The Elation of Sunlight”, p. 29.
[19] Brian O’Doherty. “Hopper’s Look”, Edward Hopper, op. cit., p. 92.
[20] Wollen, p. 79.
[21]  Margaret Iversen, “Hopper’s Melancholic Gaze”, Edward Hopper, op. cit., p. 57.
[22]  Wollen, p. 69.
[23] Iversen, p. 56.
[24] O’Doherty, p. 89.
[25] Margaret Iversen, p. 57.
[26]  Thoret, “The Aquarium Syndrome”.
[27] Thoret, “The Aquarium Syndrome”.
[28]  Sharrett, p. 255.
[29] Sharrett, p. 254.
[30]Wollen, p. 69.
[31]Wagstaff, “The Elation of Sunlight”, p. 13.
[32]Iversen, p. 58.
[33] See Sharrett, p. 255.
[34] Dzenis, “Michael Mann’s Cinema of Images”.
[35] Thoret, “The Aquarium Syndrome”.
[36] Thoret, “The Aquarium Syndrome”.
[37] Gail Levin, Edward Hopper: The Man and the Artist. London and New York: Norton, 1980, p. 42.
[38] Thoret, “The Aquarium Syndrome”.
[39] Thoret, “The Aquarium Syndrome”.
[40] Wagstaff, “The Elation of Sunlight”, p. 21.
[41] Wollen, p. 73.
[42] Iversen, pp. 58, 57.
[43] Iversen, p. 60.
[44] Wagstaff, “The Elation of Sunlight”, p. 28.
[45] Iversen, p. 63.
[46] Iversen, p. 55.
[47] Steven Rybin. The Cinema of Michael Mann. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2007, p. 188.
[48] Sharrett, p. 255.
[49] Rybin, p. 2.
[50] See Dzenis.
[51]For example, see Andre Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image”, What is Cinema? Volume One, translated and edited by Hugh Gray, pp. 9-16, and Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, translated by Richard Howard, London: Vintage, 1993.
[52] Thoret, “The Aquarium Syndrome”.
[53]Thoret, “The Aquarium Syndrome”. It is worth noting that Hopper often ate and slept in generic restaurants and motels while travelling.
[54] See Dzenis.
[55]Iversen, p. 63.

Created on: Sunday, 12 October 2008

About the Author

Tim Groves & Costas Thrasyvoulou

About the Author

Tim Groves

Tim Groves teaches Film at Victoria University of Wellington. His research focuses on affect, subjectivity, contemporary American cinema, and horror films.

Costas Thrasyvoulou

Costas Thrasyvoulou is a student at Victoria University of Wellington. His interests include filmmaking and police procedural TV dramas.View all posts by Tim Groves & Costas Thrasyvoulou →