The Aquarium Syndrome: On the Films of Michael Mann

Here [the Santa Monica Pier] at dawn, is one of the most insignificant shorelines in the world, just a place to go fishing. The Western World ends on a shore devoid of signification, like a journey that loses all meaning when it reaches its end. The immense metropolis of Los Angeles peters out here in the sea like a desert, with all the nonchalance of a desert.
– Jean Baudrillard [1]

The aquarium syndrome: when the island is no more than an outline, a contrivance. All is breakaway and exteriority on this impossible island that is a goldfish bowl. And we find our mouth stuck to its glass wall. We spend days dreaming about the world in front of us, but we know that emerging from the water would be fatal. Then, we remember this ocean that we have never known, the space of our ancestors. It often happens that we believe another, possible world exists – a world where there will be neither walls, nor glass nor artificial rocks. But what we see beyond, from our glass cage, looks like another aquarium: bigger, but in the end identical. Then, after a while, we learn to live with it. Some abandon all vague impulses to leave; whereas others, through weariness, resignation or simple lucidity, end by dropping to the bottom, leaving to everyone else the task of living with their remains. Remains of the dead.

Cracks and Loneliness
Judging by the critical reception to Michael Mann’s films since 1981 – the date of the appearance of his first fiction feature opus, Thief – critics have avoided this major American filmmaker of the last two decades, have let him just slip away.

Appearing on the film scene in the ‘80s with this debut, a passionate thriller, Mann has since made six films including Manhunter (1986) and Heat (1995) – which is, with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992), one of the best American genre films of the decade. With The Insider (1999), Mann undertook a very personal and disenchanted re-reading of the film canon of the ‘70s – dedicating to its passing a melancholic, politically sublime work on the contemporary illusion of counter-power. [2]

What is an insider when the outside has disappeared? What is the periphery when the centre extends to the horizon? How to live in an aquarium when we desire the ocean? So many questions in the mind of Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) – a militant journalist taught by Herbert Marcuse – at the moment when victory (i.e., the broadcasting of the report exposing the tobacco industry) seems to have been achieved. “What got broken here doesn’t go back together again”, he confides to Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer), his long-time collaborator, before leaving CBS forever and removing himself – literally in the film’s last shot – from a world that has become unrecognisable. Former passionate militant and dissident, from now on a figure whose protests are in the past – Lowell, “in not seeing the cracks to come”, will have lived the Fitzgeraldian experience: “The realisation of having cracked was not simultaneous with a blow, but with a reprieve”, writes the author of The Last Tycoon in his book The Crack-Up.  [3]

All Mann’s work is built on this experience of people growing old and, marked by time (the history of the cinema as much as of America), receiving directly, or in an après coup, some shock that produces the crack in which their melancholy begins. Mann’s films carry these cracks (whether old, recent or new) along like a wave that, in due course, dies on the cliff – belated, splendid proof of the sea’s violence. Figures taking on all the problems that America has not been able to resolve over time – in The Insider, Lowell is at once Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward, Frank Serpico and Joe Frady from The Parallax View (1974) – Mann’s characters have to endure their last, agonising breath alone, after the battle. The trace of epic Americans still sticks to their skin, those creatures of transhumance who founded the country; and especially the myth of the solitary hero, those ‘men without women’ (Hemingway), from Natty Bumpo (The Last of the Mohicans, 1992) to the Great Gatsby via Ethan Edwards (John Ford’s The Searchers, 1956): born, living and dying alone.

In Mann’s films, as acknowledged by Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) to Eady (Amy Brenneman), the young woman he falls in love with in Heat, the hero is not lonely – rather, he is alone. He follows in the tradition of his predecessors (Sam Peckinpah as well as Ford), but without the trace of a shadow to follow. His world is neither that of deserts nor falling down houses, but crystalline waters, freeways and skylines, empty warehouses and airports. In these spaces, man is forever in transit (spatial, professional, emotional: Neil and Vincent live with their partners but a trifling incident is enough to expel them), somewhere between an absent origin and a non-existent tomorrow. This describes Frank (James Caan), the hero of Thief, whose destiny seems controlled by the obsessive quest to be a father (illustrated by his many efforts at adoption; Okla [Willie Nelson] also serves as an absent father figure, dying in the middle of the film) and the contemplation of a crumpled photographic collage that he carries with him like a second skin. A clichéd image of an intimate utopia where he has assembled the necessary elements for his happiness: the Father (Okla), the couple (the outline of a woman’s face that hasn’t been filled in), and finally the family (the black and white photo of a woman holding a child in her arms). This is what it is to be a “deportee from the island towards the fringe, exiled from his native land”. Similar to Moby Dick’s Ishmael as described by Pierre-Yves Petillon: his “‘I’ is fragmented and effaced but it is still this shift and this effacement, torn between recapture of the origin and the drift of traces, which is at the heart of great American fiction”. [4] This also describes Neil, who tells Eady about his origins (“My mother died a long time ago. My father, I don’t know where he is. I had a brother somewhere”) and his future dream of the Fijian islands with their iridescent algae.

Reflection, Transparency, Disturbed Optics
In a world where ‘any space whatever’ is the norm, squared, monotonous – henceforth cartography in its least concrete fragment – the Mann character will have to resign himself to the finitude of his vital space. But he must above all re-learn to invest in a possible fiction. An example of this is found in the magnificent sequence from The Insider, in which Wigand (Russell Crowe) checks into a motel room, reinventing through hallucination another space (nature and water as opposed to glass and concrete) which gives him access to a vision of his daughters. The windows, the glass walls, the mirrors, all the crystalline surfaces that enclose, partake in the mise en scène of this terrible transparency which affects individuals as much as the milieu. It is the modern environment in all its obscenity – mineral, artificial, reflexive – this mise en scène of transparency never stops showing man his true reflection. These are recurring images in Mann whenever characters mark time: from Will Graham (William Petersen) busy in an icy labyrinth as he carries out his investigation (Manhunter), to Lowell confronting his own reflection in the large, glass window of the bureaucratic goldfish bowl of CBS after the decision not to broadcast Wigand’s testimony (The Insider). Disturbed optics, the supreme Mannian plastique, always give form to the world’s aporias. Wherein the (postmodern?) alterity focused on the figure of the double, which appears in his films as early as Manhunter (Will/Freddie Lounds [Stephen Lang]), and reappears notably in the traits of the Neil/Vincent Hanna (Pacino) couple in Heat.

We thus understand Mann’s preference for optical effects and his systematic refusal of digital. With Mann, the window is not undulating, not losing its shape when liquefied. It is broken, like a fishbowl that has fallen to the ground. The blue screen, with its deliberately artificial and old-fashioned look, the cool veneer sensation of figures that he achieves – these often set the background for his characters. He forever emphasises the world’s artificiality, its absence of depth, and especially the prefabricated nature of modern desires. Never actualised, such are for Mann the products of this trompe l’oeil architecture, like the monotone and geometric topography: nearly an Epinal image, too polished and brilliant to be true, a postcard received from a place that doesn’t exist. Early in Heat, for example, a night-time panorama of Los Angeles is the background to a long conversation between Neil and Eady. In front of this luminous and urban scenic view (“city of lights”, says Neil), both share their desires – to build a close knit family, to leave for the Fijian islands – but there is a sad note, defeated, resigned, just like children who one day understand that the stars that illuminate the sky cannot be reached.

An Anachronistic Filmmaker
For a long time regarded as a decorative filmmaker (the TV series Miami Vice, which he produced from 1984 to 1990, largely contributed to creating his reputation as a recycler with a gift for a high-tech, commercial aesthetic), Mann has, from his first appearance, occupied a very singular position in the centre of Hollywood – which, at the end of the ‘80s, underwent an enormous aesthetic and political metamorphosis. He was at the turning point of the epoch, with its associated changes in American cinema – the mourning of classicism (the end of Mannerism) and its inverse (the demolition enterprise of the ‘60s), and especially the resistance to the centripetal force of the Great Goldfish Bowl, television. Mann has succeeded in clearing the way for an original path, that of the true ‘insider’ – between those who, as Jean-François Rauger once noted, marched directly into the Reagan era, the “neo-simulation of the ecstatic form, and the repression, at full speed, of the advances of the preceding years”, [5] and those key filmmakers of the ‘60s (Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, John Carpenter, Brian De Palma) who maintained at arm’s length a cinema of the body (when it had not purely and simply disappeared: what is left of John Frankenheimer, Sidney Lumet and William Friedkin?). [6]

On one side, a custodial cinema of a past, a filmic memory that is prolonged without being reproduced; on the other side, a cinema of special effects, plagiarising and piling up quotations (everything from the past is worth pillaging: take Hitchcock). For Steven Spielberg, George Lucas (creator of the visionary THX 1138 [1971]), John Badham and friends, the cinema of the ‘80s metamorphoses by wearing the dead skin of the classics. This aids the emergence of a digital cinema in which characters are henceforth dependent on special effects, on a cinema of simulacra based on a pure, serial reproduction of the classical gestural code, whereby the actor’s body is no longer a postulate but a mercenary law (on this subject, cf. Westworld [Michael Crichton, 1973], Blade Runner [Ridley Scott, 1982], Monkey Shines [George Romero, 1988], even Carpenter’s They Live [1988] and The Thing [1982]).

Although he has only directed six films in eighteen years, Mann belongs to the ‘60s mavericks of the cinema of protest. He was born in 1943, the same year as Michael Cimino, one year after Scorsese, two years before Terrence Malick and five years before Carpenter. But – and this is the ambiguity of his journey – while his colleagues directed their first films, Mann made politically engaged documentaries such as 17 Days Down the Line (1972), which related the travels of an American reporter in Biafra and Northern Ireland. It was only in 1981 that he decided to go behind the camera, precisely at the moment when America sounded the death knell on its golden age. Hence the following paradox: coming to cinema too late (if one considers him as a contemporary of the key ‘70s filmmakers) or too early (if one regards his cinematic project as pre-empting the televisual aesthetic of the decade to come and announcing, from his ‘80s debut, the neo-classical movement that will continue to century’s end), Mann was from the very beginning an anachronistic filmmaker.

Although still hesitating on the stylistic plane (between a high-tech, dehumanised treatment of space and slow-motion effects directly borrowed from The Wild Bunch [1969]), Thief offers evidence of an astonishing maturity, as much in its aesthetic (already very assured) as in its subject (already very Peckinpah): an aging burglar, struck with fatigue and the desire to settle down. A debut fiction feature that sealed the collision between a visceral, melancholic cinema – in short, a cinema anchored in the past, still looking through the eyes of the dead (precisely Peckinpah’s eyes) – and a digital, disembodied universe, close to pictorial abstraction. Somewhere between the ‘80s television aesthetic and the cold style of Bret Easton Ellis’ novels. Thief is finally the bastard child of American hyperrealism, of an artificial America steeped in minimalist design, but on which the wind of modernity will blow – as is clear from the central, problematic place of the couple in his work, and especially the tension between action (deriving from the genres – film noir, political fiction – from which it draws certain figures) and contemplation (mostly associated with the sea).

Goldfish Bowl (or Television) as Laboratory
In contrast to the filmmakers of his generation who, for the most part, began by making student films (De Palma and Carpenter, for example), Mann waited a long time before directing his first fiction, a little like how Ford waited for The Searchers or Anthony Mann for The Naked Spur (1953) to come along in their careers. His school was not the Roger Corman studio or film training editing room but television, which established during the ‘80s the true laboratory within which he tested the essential mythological and plastic elements he would develop on the big screen.

Save for two telemovies which he directed, Jericho Mile (1979) and L.A. Takedown (1989), Mann’s television journey comes down to the writing of two pilot episodes for Starsky and Hutch, the series Crime Story (which he produced from 1986 to 1988) and especially Miami Vice, TV paragon of ‘80s America. With its policemen dressed in Cerutti suits and Hawaiian shirts, its ultra-sophisticated atmosphere, its constant work on clichés (sunsets on Florida beaches, pink flamingos taking off in slow motion: all generic) and its recurring interior designs, Miami Vice invented the dominant aesthetic of the era. A flashy, kitsch vision of America, identical to the one that seduced Tony Montana (Pacino), the poor Cuban refugee disembarking at Miami in De Palma’s Scarface (1983). All through the ‘80s, as he directed three films, Mann never ceased returning to television. There again, he sharpened his skills, as evidenced in his second telemovie L.A. Takedown, the first, impressive sketch for Heat.

For him, television was above all an experimental space, an immense reservoir of forms, motifs and styles from which he has partly constructed his idea of cinema – understanding, before some others, that to return to something is not to appropriate it. While certain individuals took a stand against the small screen and decided to ignore the images that it created, Mann chose to explore the cinematic possibilities of this form (and particularly all its high-tech imagery), refuting the pessimistic report from Serge Daney in 1988: “Television will not be the final stage of storytelling but a moment in its survival before the return to the big screen, swollen with the hormones of decoratively casual, hyperreal folklore”. [7] Mann has been the victim of this accusation of being a decorative filmmaker since his first feature. But for him, the cinema was never the place of a resurrection or the locus for a revival of televisual syntax. The fetishisation of technique, with elaborate machines, computer screens, and subjective views of electronic equipment (War Games [1983], The Terminator [1984]), which, under the influence of television and video games, invaded the cinema at that time, is totally absent from his films.

With Mann we find, at the two extremes of technique, the human and only the human. This is shown in an exemplary way in Heat, where Vincent, hiding out in a surveillance van, meets Neil’s look on a surveillance monitor. Anticipating their face-to-face meeting, a shot/reverse-shot is enough to erase the entire technological apparatus that separates a straightforward meeting between two men. In the end, these many detours via TV have allowed Mann, over the years, to forge a unique style (although today it is still rare to see a filmmaker working with such an assertive style). It is the mark of a great filmmaker when form fits perfectly with content (story), developing the material and transforming it into a plastic crucible. If the movies that he directed throughout the ‘80s represent qualities of their era, then with Heat (1995) – the first great post-classical work – Mann undeniably reached the point of artistic maturity.

Repairing the Broken Line: Mann and Peckinpah
A great admirer of Peckinpah’s films, it is no coincidence that Mann chose James Caan, the crazy hero of The Killer Elite (1975), to incarnate Frank, the central character of his first film. Thief, and even more so Heat, show signs of Peckinpah themes, beginning with the obsessive fear of old age (the loss of time) that troubles most of his male characters. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) informs most of Thief; The Wild Bunch sets up, in its manner, the seminal structure of the ‘outlaw bunch’ led by Neil in Heat; and The Osterman Weekend (1983) anticipates the revelations of The Insider: the impossibility for John Hurt, Lowell or Wigand of occupying an ‘insider’ position in a world that has become a goldfish bowl.

How to repair the broken Peckinpah Line (and, more generally, of the political/experimental cinema of the ‘70s), taking into account the aesthetic of the coming decade? As Gilles Deleuze said of the renewal at work in American fiction: “The other way of beginning again (…) is to take up the interrupted line, to join a segment to the broken line, to make it pass between two rocks in a narrow gorge, or over the top of the void, where it had stopped”. [8] In his debut with Thief, Mann returns to the opening sequence of Peckinpah’s The Killer Elite. But whereas, in that film, Caan placed explosives in a federal building (a logical explosion), this time, armed with a blowtorch, he begins by tracing an incandescent line on the door of a stronghold room, behind which there lies a handful of diamonds.

Peckinpah and Mann: a history of soldering. Soldering: to bring together scattered fragments, rebuild some elements (here, the beginning of the story) from ruins, and finally enable the rebuilding of a line between two parts, two projects that time has separated, two segments that form a line, or a lineage from which a new fiction will be born. But as with all lineages – even though it has the brilliance of a diamond – what unites Mann with Peckinpah never ceases being problematic.

Problems of Membership: Loner, Couple, Group
In all Mann’s films, the risk of fracture between parents and children is a continuing line. Vincent and Lauren (Natalie Portman), his lovely step-daughter in Heat; Wigand separated from his daughters in The Insider; Will and his son Kevin (David Seaman) in Manhunter; and even Chris (Val Kilmer) threatened by Charlene (Ashley Judd) with the deprivation of his son Dominick (Andrew and Brian Camuccio), also in Heat. In Mann, the family (of arms or blood), even as it is strongly desired, inevitably leads the individual to his ruin, and everything opposes its constitution (like the traps of the plot, or the physical isolation produced by space or personal history, as with Frank’s criminal past in Thief). This is the drama of Frank, pre-eminent Mann character, balanced between a frantic individualism that he knows is his only means of survival (not to care about anything is his credo) and his desire, despite everything, to create a family (however artificial) with Jessie (Tuesday Weld). [9]

In the same way, does not Neil end up repeating his mantra (“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”) as soon as a possible line comes together, as soon as an embryo of a family is born? I refer to the family formed with Vincent at the time of the magnificent face-to-face encounter filmed in shot/reverse-shot, as if both have refrained from sharing the space of the frame, weighing up the risk of appearing together in the same shot; or the family formed with Eady (to whom he says, “You have a tight family, I can tell”), broken in the end by his desire for revenge: acting against the couple by choosing instead to pay his debt to the group and settle his score with the traitor.

We understand, then, why the couple, ‘degree zero’ of the family, occupies such a central place in Mann; and why, especially, it resists with such difficulty the trials of separation. Take the literal disappearance of Liane (Diane Venora) in the middle of The Insider, or the key sequence in Heat where Justine (Venora again) reproaches Vincent for not telling her about his pain. “You live among the remains of dead people”, she tells him, reminding us of the images of the human heads (his cell companions) that Frank sticks onto the image-collage of his happiness in Thief. To which Pacino replies – later, to his brother in arms, Neil – “My life’s a disaster zone”. This is a truly modern nightmare; the couple that has failed to merge two lives, only increasing their solitude (Frank and Jessie in Thief, Neil and Eady in Heat). This tension between individual and group underlying Mann’s work probably finds its best expression in Heat, beginning with the long discussion between Neil and the members of his group, when he asks them to choose between their family and the group by taking part in one last job. In this film, all the narrative crossroads (from the gunfight following the bank robbery to the final face-to-face confrontation between Vincent and Neil) originate in the dilemma of the family/group. It is for his woman that Trejo (Danny Trejo) decides to betray his friends; against Eady that Neil chooses to go back and kill Waingro (Kevin Gage); for her husband that Charlene lies to the police. Mann thus extends one of the major preoccupations of Peckinpah, whose film oeuvre provides evidence of the terrible abandonment of the couple: this can be noted in the evolution of the male characters from The Wild Bunch (Pike [William Holden] and his gang) to the 1971 Straw Dogs (the couple exists but ends up being destroyed) all the way to Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia, a terminal film in which the couple (Bennie [Warren Oates]/Elita [Isela Vega]) is no longer able to constitute itself. Mann draws from Peckinpah (his first period) and works on the possible conditions for a soldering.

In Mann, there is a repetition of motifs and themes or (as they say in fashion) the ‘insistence of the stitch’: it is surely the aim of Heat to copy and remake the last sequence of The Wild Bunch. In fact, in Peckinpah’s film, Deke (Robert Ryan) arrives too late and can only gently touch Pike’s dead body, his brother-in-arms still hooked up to a machine-gun. Mann, as if unhappy with this meeting so greatly desired but missing – as if in the belief that certain film moments could, despite everything, be replayed – offers this encounter to his two heroes: Vincent finally clasps Neil’s hand. Their looks intersect (in shot/reverse-shot) before a mid-shot, containing both of them, records the abrupt end of their reunion. Finally there is a cut to a more distant, static shot, leaving Vincent (viewed now from the back) to share the last seconds of the man who has chosen to sink to the bottom.

Aquarium I: Mann Space (City)
Today, Mann is one of those rare filmmakers (alongside Lodge Kerrigan and the David Cronenberg of Shivers [1975], Rabid [1977] and Crash [1996]) whose films succeed in delivering a vision of modern, urban America: those impersonal places, the freeways, suburbs, uninterrupted traffic, the America that Jean Baudrillard calls magnificent and sidereal. This is a world of railway yards, neon signs that flicker day and night, a world that seems resigned to the omnipresence of glass and concrete. Mann renews from film to film, with a rare obstinacy, this cold, blue, geometric aesthetic – although it is sometimes broken up by an unusual graininess, or a lack or order that creeps into the system. Predominant here is the transformation of spaces into non-places (as per Marc Augé): hospitals, hotel rooms, roadside cafes, vacant lots, airports, warehouses, empty apartments (in Heat, Neil’s apartment resembles a glass cage separated from the Pacific ocean by a large, glass window) – all are subject to a sort of hyper-geometrisation of the frame, inherited from the Don Seigel of The Killers (1964) and Dirty Harry (1972), [10] and of the formal experiments of Michelangelo Antonioni in Red Desert (1964) and Zabriskie Point (1970). As Christian Viviani has noted: “The obsessive straightness of the urban landscape (…) makes room for a horizontal display (mostly marine and desert) glimpsed across the many windows that Mann keeps for the architecture that is linked to the couple or the family.” [11]

The obsession with lines, glass walls and ultra-modern interiors turn those who inhabit these worlds into pure simulacra, similar to the hologram rooms of some installation videos. In fact, what kind of people could live in these places? How to refind the centre in a space that keeps turning you into a satellite? How do we resist disembodiment (it is impossible to keep count of the shots in his work of characters drowning in the décor, hardly visible behind windows, encrypted in closed, transparent spaces – extending, on a global scale, the psychiatric cell of Dr Lecktor [Brian Cox] in Manhunter)? What is played out is not, as in the films of Stanley Kubrick or Vincente Minnelli, the struggle between environments (which drive people crazy) and characters (who go crazy), but the attempt, by all possible means (narrative, optical, plastic…) to create, within such disembodied spaces, a possible human relationship.

In Mann, the work on space combines an impressive use of short focal length and out-of-focus effects (giving the impression that individuals are on the surface of their environment, rather than dissolving into it), an absence of perspective (in the literal as well as figurative senses), and lastly vast emptiness, accentuated by his preferred format of CinemaScope. The many glass surfaces that fragment the frame turn it into something like a glass jar, but also set up a place of confrontation between a feeling of enclosure, of claustrophobia even, and the sense of an infinite openness. The aquarium syndrome is both container and insulator. “Glass facilitates faster communication between inside and outside, yet at the same time it sets up an invisible but material caesura which prevents such communication from becoming a real opening onto the world” (Baudrillard). [12]

Thus the sensation of gravity, this tendency to reverie that has characters like Frank (in Thief’s second sequence) contemplating the sea for a long time. There are finally those beautiful moments where a character detaches himself optically from his environment, withdrawing from a moment in time in order to wander in an indistinct zone, floating, almost ethereal (see the sequence already mentioned from The Insider where, on the hotel room wall, Wigand watches the animation of his dream-screen). In order to change the world, it is sometimes enough to change focus. “Why does melancholy require exterior infinity? Because it is boundless and void expansion. (…) The sharper our consciousness of the world’s infinity, the more acute our awareness of our own finitude” (E.M. Cioran). [13]

The true Mann place is clearly Los Angeles, with its enormous buildings reaching to the sky (downtown), the checkerboard layout of the city, and the abrupt horizontality of the Pacific. In the American city, just as it was in the American films of the ‘60s, the spaces were once “any space whatever” (just as Deleuze describes such spaces in Lumet and John Cassavetes), but they were lived in. Dirty, kitsch, rudimentary but also very elaborate; each place reflecting something of the personality of those who live there, from the lower-class slums to the bourgeois apartments. People still make connections with one another, couples still fall apart, and stories are born there. With Mann, spaces are from now on undifferentiated. Nothing distinguishes the hotel rooms from the private apartments. It is the dominant urban landscape of the ‘90s: everywhere the same architecture, geometric, transparent and crystalline, crushes men and isolates them. The environment is therefore no longer the breath of man, but a bubble that threatens to suffocate everyone.

Aquarium II: Mann Horizon (Sea, Desert)
If all Mann’s characters – remember that he adapted James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans – are individuals who are alone rather than figures who are lonely, it is because the dialogue with nature, its elements and force, has been broken. Nonetheless Mann posseses – as if seeking to exorcise the modern undifferenciation of spaces – a will to refind the monumentality of elements, through the recurring representation of the sea (and its variants: tap water, rain water, bath water that keeps running) – the key element of great American literature. This is the sea that once ruled the relationship between the explorer and his environment – Huckleberry’s raft in the Pacific that Ishmael described in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick:

There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath; like those fabled undulations of the Ephesian sod over the buried Evangelist St. John (….) Thus this mysterious, divine Pacific zones the world’s whole bulk about; makes all coasts one bay to it; seems the tide-beating heart of earth. Lifted by those eternal swells, you needs must own the seductive god. [14]

The use of the sea, always present in Mann’s films, perfectly indicates his project, which is concerned with reinventing a contemporary mythology from the earliest American fiction, whose survival he tracks. As Frank says to a fishing friend in Thief, the sea, after all, “is our divinity”. It is in this movement between two poles that we can recognise the things that are so central to Mann’s cinema. Between the glass and the sea, the open space and the desert, the memory of death and the need to move forward, Mann’s films patiently lay down the foundations of a great post-classical cinema.

The empty frame that is so characteristic of Mann is inherited from the great spaces of the Western, without losing the mythic weight that only a handful of individuals still try to maintain (the Fijian islands, which Neil dreams about in Heat, are like a metamorphosis of a lost wilderness). But what happens to the epic scale of the desert in the middle of the Los Angeles blocks? How to hear the silence when the sounds of the city rule? What finally remains of the peaks of Monument Valley when the world goes to sleep, as men depart on their toboggans to live in the suburbs? “Here [the deserts] are not part of a Nature defined by contrast with the town. Rather they denote the emptiness, the radical nudity that is the background to every human institution. At the same time, they designate human institutions as a metaphor of that emptiness and the work of man as the continuity of the desert” (Baudrillard). [15]

In Mann’s films, the deserts have disappeared but left immense, empty spaces in the city centre – irreducible distances that man can no longer cross. Now, everyone goes around in circles, like nomads unable to move anywhere, torn between never-ending straight networks of roads and glass buildings. There is an architectural coldness, a formal minimalism, as much in the composition of the frame (for Mann, the shot is organised around one or two strong elements – plastic, kinetic, scenographic) as in the choreography of the action. In Thief, after their adoption attempts fail, Frank and his partner are shown the door by a security guard. Walking through a room where the offices look like so many aquariums, a long shot situates the couple in a glass labyrinth, formed by the transparent walls separating the offices from each other. In Mann’s films, glass functions as a plastic extension of the solitude of individuals. The transparency upholds the illusion of communication, but in the end what is evident is the impermeability of spaces: we are all like Frank and Okla in Thief, forced to communicate in a prison visiting room, acting as if the window does not exist (the same can be said of the face-to-face of Vincent/Neil in Heat; and the meeting, separated by a window, of Will and Lecktor in Manhunter).

Aquarium III: Sea
Approaching the plastic economy of Takeshi Kitano’s work (see the first, programmatic sequence of A Scene at the Sea [1991], where the young deaf-mute, having exited frame in a garbage truck, finally extracts the object of the narrative, a broken surfboard), Mann’s films testify to a constant concern for purity, and a similar fascination for the sea that brings back such a coda, signalling appeasement and serenity. A purity that becomes an “echo of the interior silence of bodies” (Baudrillard), a masterly form of male melancholia.

Privileging electronic instruments and synthetic sounds, the music essentially happens in two modes: either a sudden lyric flight, which comes to split the image with the sense of a missing presence; or a simple sheet of sound/noise, hardly audible at first, but quickly destined to overwhelm the image (from this point of view, the treatment of gunfire on the soundtrack is exemplary). It is sometimes a sonorous shadow ready to burst into shot (the method of rupture that we find again in the sequence which precedes Wigand’s deposition in front of the tribunal of Kentucky in The Insider); sometimes a wave, rising up in the depth of the frame, swelling until it explodes. This musical presence (muffled but heady) that fuses with the image, as the past fuses with the present, heralds a frequently tragic outcome and partakes of the melancholic weight of the images – melancholia as a ground swell.

In Mann’s America – identical to Peckinpah’s vision in The Osterman Weekend – the interface exterior/interior has disappeared. At the same time as they enclose, encircle and isolate individuals, the omnipresent glass surfaces feed the optical fantasy of an ‘outside’. To pass from one side of the glass window to the other means nothing; what is needed is to break it (at the end of Manhunter, Will rushes forward towards the window of the killer’s goldfish bowl-apartment and shatters it). But beyond this first goldfish bowl, another appears. In Mann, the décors, characters and situations are often based on reversibility: the windows separate as much as they connect. We are never sure of our position: are we in or out of the goldfish bowl? (This is shown in a dazzling sequence of Heat where, in a play of reversed optics, Vincent and his team are themselves watched and photographed by Neil.) “Everywhere the transparency of interfaces ends in internal refraction”; in Los Angeles “everything connects, without any two pairs of eyes ever meeting” (Baudrillard). [16] In Heat, the central gunfight takes place in the heart of Los Angeles. Mann replays the typical configuration of the Western (Indians encircle a wagon situated in the centre) but reverses the positions: from now on, outlaws occupy the centre while lawmen (the row of police cars) are relocated to the periphery.

If a distinction between the exterior and the interior no longer holds, how do you withstand the cataclysm of spaces, so that they can be public, professional and intimate? It is under the pressure of the exterior that the family unit is enveloped in water from all sides (literally: in Heat, Lauren’s failed bathtub suicide and the death of Michael [Tom Sizemore] near a pool). But it is also around water that couples try to reconnect, as shown in the long beach sequence in Thief where Frank and Jessie celebrate the success of their burglary, the last shot of Manhunter (Will, his wife Molly [Kim Greist] and Kevin form a united family again at the shoreline), or the image of Lowell, after CBS has refused to broadcast the report, withdrawn to a Bahamas beach in The Insider.

At the same time, the sea is an impenetrable horizon, a simulacrum of flight from a world where no one can escape. For Mann, the sea is the canonical image of impossible journeys, those that everyone dreams about but no one can take. It is the fantasy of encounter or relaxation, pictures on walls (paintings of sailing ships decorate the walls of the offices of CBS and Vincent’s hotel room in The Insider) –but the salvation that the sea offers is only mental.

In The Insider, Mann turns the spatial illusions that reflect more than they communicate into a political principle: the geometric forms in the frame are a plastic extension of a world that is not human, but controlled and abstract – recalling some key films of the ‘70s (cf. the very inspired use of décor in the final sequence of The Parallax View). The night golf sequence in The Insider pays specific homage to Alan J. Pakula’s films. It is thus a question of taking up the tradition of the conspiracy – as a structure of politics and power – that arose in post-war American cinema, reaching its peak in the mid ‘70s. A large, diffuse organisation directed by individuals or groups that are never identified, the criminal conspiracy becomes the paragon of a world where man’s sole relationship with others is based upon surveillance and manipulation (cf. the many paranoid thrillers with their procession of control apparatuses: The Anderson Tapes [1971], The Conversation [1974]…). This leads to a depersonalisation of enemies and a diffusion of stakes, of which we can no longer determine either the origin or the end.

But I argue that Mann’s artistic project does not return to the cinema of the Watergate years. Rather, he tries to study the effects of this era: tracing its origins and testing some of its hypotheses. The narrative of The Insider is organised into three parts: the first, ending with the meeting of the Sixty Minutes team and the bigshots of CBS, stays within the bounds of its genre. Lowell, knowing the territory, conducts his investigation just like Woodward and Bernstein. The stake of the story seem clear and, thus, the film’s trajectory seems preordained: to bring together sufficient proof against the seven big manufacturers of tobacco, who denied their knowledge of the addictive effects of cigarettes in front of the American justice system and concealed their deliberate intention to prevent all scientific research aimed at reducing its harmfulness.

At the end of this first part, The Insider is clearly a descendant of All The President’s Men (1976), Three Days of the Condor (1975), The Parallax View, Network (1976) and even Serpico (1973) – all the films in whose footsteps Mann seems to be following. In Lumet’s Serpico, Pacino already tried to denounce corruption in the police force. But while the extent of the corruption has few boundaries (the responsibility extends rapidly to the town council of New York), it will continue to exist. Frank Serpico, who expels his friend just as the system expels him, will, in the end, find a position external to the system (The New York Times) in order to triumph. In 1973, when the film was made, the stakes were real (denouncing police corruption) and the interface outside/inside still functioned. The film ends with a close-up of Frank sitting on a quay with his dog and luggage. Then, while the credits roll, a slow zoom backwards reveals the presence of a cargo liner in the background. Pacino gets up and, as he heads towards the boat, an inscription on a box reveals to us that the real Frank lives somewhere in Switzerland. The presence of the sea, the port, the obligation to leave the territory (i.e., the limits of the corrupt system) refers here to the idea of exile. What Lumet’s film gives us is neither more nor less than the American figure of the nomad: leaving here in order to rebuild elsewhere. For Mann, twenty-five years have passed since then – and this possibility of removing oneself from the system (in order to fight or flee) has disappeared.

What The Insider records is the appearance of this (invisible) fissure in the conspiracy cinema of the ‘70s. A fissure sensed by Ned Beatty as an industrial tycoon in Lumet’s Network who, in the middle of the film, summons Howard Beale (Peter Finch), a TV agitator, and lectures him in these terms:

You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and people. There are no nations. There are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no Third Worlds. There is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems. One vast interwoven, interacting, multivariant, multinational, dominion of the dollar! (….) It is the international system of currency which determines the totality of life on this planet. That is the natural order of things today: that is the atomic, and subatomic and galactic structure of things today. And you have meddled with the primal forces of nature. And you will atone. You get up on your little twenty-one inch screen and you howl about America and democracy. There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT and AT & T and Dupont, Dow, Union Carbide and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today.

Thanks to Wigand the insider (a metamorphosis of the Deep Throat character in All the President’s Men), Lowell succeeds in penetrating the mysteries of the system. This system (Brown and Williamson and the other tobacco manufacturers) is like an island that has enough invested on the inside in order to then attack the outside. From this point of view, Lowell’s investigation is not dissimilar to that of the Hoffman/Redford pair in Pakula’s film, for whom the fight can only be organised from a position outside the system (most often, the media), whether the political, police or institutional system. The same is true in the case of failure (Warren Beatty cut down at the end of The Parallax View) – always retaining this idea of a delimited structure and, as a consequence, the possibility of leaving. For Lowell, a journalist from the old school (from the ‘70s, in fact), there is no doubt that 60 Minutes, the brightest light in CBS’ program schedule, is the natural place for such an assault – the heart of which is the free (almost divine) speech that, once delivered, weakens the system. [17]

Then, the film brutally seesaws, as the network’s lawyer (Gina Gershon) calls in Lowell and his team in order to announce to them the management’s decision not to broadcast Wigand’s testimony – because of the financial links between CBS and Brown and Williamson. In the middle of a meeting room (which looks like a gigantic aquarium), the well-oiled schema of the first part breaks down, coming to a close on this weak reply from the lawyer, as she once again opens and closes a door: “We’re all in this together, we’re all CBS”. [18] Relegating, in a single phrase, the old duality inside/outside (indispensable to all strategies of counter-politics) to a mere vestige, the lawyer sounds the death knell for the political structure at work in conspiracy films of the ‘70s. When the boat holds at once the master and his slave, when the externalisation of the system is no longer possible, there is nothing left but to disappear. To die, of course … but outside the aquarium.

But of what revelation is Wigand the bearer? What scandal is the 60 Minutes broadcast ready to divulge? What are the hidden secrets of “Tobaccogate”? First point: tobacco is harmful. Second point: the manufacturers know it. So what has changed since the paranoid thrillers of the ‘70s? In All the President’s Men, Three Days of the Condor and Serpico, it is a question of letting everyone know a piece of information known by only a few. In The Insider, it is a question of bringing to the greater public information known to all of us. Henceforth, what is a secret when everyone knows it? What is a conspiracy in the age of complete transparency? Mann’s film documents the schizophrenia that overcomes the world when evidence becomes itself unpronounceable. How to re-inject secrecy into an obscene world? Pretend like we do not know how to enjoy what we already know; avert, through lying and absurdity, the complete disappearance of any stake.

Is There Life Beyond the Aquarium?
The becoming of Mann’s characters is a phantasmal becoming: the infra-red image of Neil in Heat, absorbed by the black of night; the final disappearance of Lowell in The Insider. At the end of Heat, a chase ends on an airport runway, stage for the final encounter. The face-to-face confrontation between Vincent and Neil takes place in the middle of small metal cabins and concrete blocks: an ordinary amphitheatre that takes away some of the grandeur of this tragic duel. Then, the illumination from floodlights (guiding the take-offs and landings of planes) appears. The space suddenly reconfigures itself: it is no longer the men who arbitrate the fight, but only the light (illuminating the adversary’s hiding place). Thus two spectres confront one another, slipping from one shadowy zone to another, overexposed, each one fighting not to become a ghost.

Similarly, at the end of The Insider, Lowell goes, one last time, into the goldfish bowl of CBS to tell his colleague that he is leaving his job. While Wallace chooses to stay in the system (going back into the newsroom), Lowell turns his back, walks through the revolving glass door of CBS [19] , and returns to the outside world. He turns up the collar of his overcoat and leaves the depth of field as his movement is slowed down. Lowell looks like an opaque form, with imprecise contours, fixed on the glass like someone who has died. Like an insect pinned in a glass case, he is almost transformed into a ghost – before a lateral camera movement literally erases him from the frame. The cult of transparency leads ultimately to opacity. Life is not possible outside the aquarium.

“The freeze frame (returning to the inanimate death-drive) meant that there are some images ‘beyond’, where movement does not continue. They can be any one of twenty-four moments of a second of recorded film. But in this moment, they are no longer ‘any one’ at all: they are in essence ‘terminal’” (Daney). [20] What the end of The Insider tells us is that there is no ‘outside’ of the system: a fish cannot leave the goldfish bowl alive (just as Okla does not survive his release from prison in Thief). It is a perfect Ford image (see the last shot of The Searchers in which John Wayne, filmed in a door frame, returns into the desert of Monument Valley, or the final obliteration of William Munny in Unforgiven). But in Mann, there is no becoming-totem, no reification, no legendary inscription in the space like Ford – only a becoming-ghostly, inorganic, as in the finale of Thief where Frank disappears at the end of one of many avenues which form the topography of American suburbia. From then on, the expulsion of the Mann hero to the outside of the enclosure does not lead to “the opening of a new world”, [21] but only emphasises his profound desire to simply disappear.

Exuberance and withdrawal are in fact two tactics for the same strategy of evasion. A fantasy of extraterritoriality: by going into exile from his land or, through a wild rhapsody, becoming someone else in the West, masked and remade, the American writer evades, escapes the confinement of a closed fiction. As well, his instant privilege is a fleeting one, where the world that he has built breaks up and vanishes under his gaze (…) already we have the trials of the picaro Augie March ([in The Adventures of Augie March by] Saul Bellow, 1953) concluding between Dunkirk and Ostende, in the debris of a world in ruin, on a long, deserted beach where the waves break “in a white foam” that erases every image. The red face of the “the tyrant” George III has faded over a long time, but the obsessive fear remains. America, which the writer from across the Atlantic must leave in order to “invent”, always ends up being this terra incognita: a vast, white surface, void of inscription, freed finally from any mastery.
– Pierre-Yves Petillon [22]


[1]  Jean Baudrillard (trans. C. Turner), America (New York: Verso, 1988), p. 62.

[2]  Editors’ Note: This essay was written in 2000 and thus does not discuss Ali (2001). The author commented in an email message: “Ali is important in Mann’s filmography because it is a sort of dream about the ‘70s and what it represents: a genuine action against the system, the possibility of resistance … Exactly as if one were to take the point of view (hopeful, almost naive) of Lowell Bergman in The Insider, whose beliefs belong to this period”. See also (warning: the translation is execrable) Thoret’s review of Miami Vice (2006), “Gravity of the Flux”, Senses of Cinema, no. 42 (February 2007),

[3] F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up (Canada: New Directions, 1956), p. 71.

[4] Pierre-Yves Petillon, La grand-route: espace et écriture en Amérique (Paris, Seuil, 1979), p. 35.

[5] Jean-François Rauger, “Juste avant la nuit”, Cahiers du cinéma no. 462 (December 1992), pp. 76-81.

[6] Editors’ Postscript: John Frankenheimer (died 2002) made his final work Path to War (2002) for HBO; Lumet (died 2011) made several strong films in his final years, such as Find Me Guilty (2006) and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007); and Friedkin, omnipresent in 2013, has published his autobiography and as well as making a powerful comeback with The Hunted (2003), Bug (2007) and Killer Joe (2011).

[7] Serge Daney, L’Exercice a été profitable, Monsieur (Paris: P.O.L., 1992), p. 121.

[8] Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet (trans. H. Tomlinson & B. Habberjam), Dialogues (London: The Athlone Press, 1987), p. 39.

[9] Recall that Caan also carries with him his role in Coppola’s The Godfather (1972).

[10] See, on this subject, Jean-François Rauger, “Visages sans yeux: Don Siegel”, Cinémathèque no. 16 (Autumn 1999). Note that in Heat, Eady designs and draws company logos.

[11] Christian Viviani, “La carrière de Michael Mann: Briser la ligne pour mieux la retrouver”, Positif, no. 469 (March 2000), p. 11.

[12] Jean Baudrillard, The System of Objects (New York: Verso, 1996), p. 42.

[13] E. M. Cioran (trans. I. Zarifopol-Johnston), On the Heights of Despair (Chicago: the University of Chicago Press, 1992), pp. 29-30.

[14] Herman Melville, Moby Dick (New York: W. W. Norton, 1967), p. 399.

[15] Baudrillard, America, p. 63.

[16] Ibid. pp. 59-62.

[17] See the way in which Wigand’s testimony is recorded by the CBS cameras: like a confessional. Wigand recounts to Wallace the inadmissible practices of his work and its secrets. The use of (soft) lighting and (lyrical) music confers the look of a high mass on this sequence: the cold liturgy of the media.

[18] Editors’ Note: The author here quotes the French subtitle of this line, which translates as: “We’re all in the same boat” – hence the imagery in his subsequent discussion of the scene.

[19] Thereby repeating Wigand’s initial movement as he leaves the Brown and Williamson building.

[20] Daney, L’Exercice a été profitable, p. 39.

[21] Petillon, La grand-route, p. 63.

[22] Ibid., p. 14.

Original French text © Jean-Baptiste Thoret, 2000. English translation © Anna Dzenis & Adrian Martin October 2013.


About the Author

Jean-Baptiste Thoret

About the Author

Jean-Baptiste Thoret

Jean-Baptiste Thoret is a film critic and historian, and lectures on cinema. He is the author of several works on American and Italian cinema, including books on American movies from the 1970s, on film directors Dario Argento and Sergio Leone, and on the impact of the assassination of John F. Kennedy on American cinema.View all posts by Jean-Baptiste Thoret →