Wael Khairy delves into the world of director Michael Mann, presenting two very different yet intrinsically linked films you can watch in full here...
Michael Mann probably understands the interdisciplinary field of environmental psychology better than any working director. He recognises the intimate interplay between humans and their surroundings. Factors in the environment have an effect on behavior, psyche and identity and Mann, fully aware of this, exploits it in his films with the audience, his characters and the environmental surroundings of both in mind. Miami Vice is as much about the city as it is about the story and the characters within the city or film. The same can be said about the Chicago portrayed in Thief and Public Enemies, but it is the director’s visual presentationof Los Angeles that speaks volumes of his perceptive understanding of time and space. Rooms and how they are decorated have a direct impact on our brains, and Mann uses the visual medium of filmas a dynamictool to express that. Of course he manages to pull it off on a much bigger scale by taking advantage of a city’s emotional impact on the viewer to express the heart of the story being told and the characters that dwell within them.
Michael Mann’s career reached a peak with his 1995 epic, Heat, which is more or less a more complete and much better polished version of what he considers a rough draft in the form of a TV movie, L.A. Takedown. Many have described Heat as the single greatest Los Angeles crime epic ever made. It is hard to argue otherwise for Mann managed to achieve what so many fail at. Instead, of filming Los Angeles as the backdrop of the events unfolding on screen, he merges the city with its characters and puts both in the foreground. The lonely male protagonists in Heat wander within the emptiness of an alienated land.
Los Angeles is an overpopulated city, yet it is depicted as a silent milieu of isolation. Mann provides us with a canvas of the great city, only one we’ve never laid eyes on before. A car driving through an empty highway, flickering city lights of a silent night, an empty apartment reflecting an endless ocean, airport runway lights fading to complete darkness; it’s all there to inject the viewer with a mood much similar to what the characters feel throughout this tragic journey.
Visually, Heat is treated like a film noir and so we wind up with a neo-noir. The conventions and elements of that genre are crystal clear from the hard-boiled detective to the urban setting, the interplay of lights and shadows in the final scene to the neon lights of the dark corners of an urban city. However, there’s certain uniqueness to the mood and feel of the film due to the icy-blue palette apparent in the atmospheric tone. Michael Mann used many paintings as inspirations to the look of the film, most notably with the shot of Neil facing the ocean in the background with a gun on a table in the foreground which is strikingly identical to Alex Colville’s 1967 painting Pacific.
“I love Los Angeles.Eighty per cent of it is unexplored. People who make films don’t go out into the city. They think they do but they don’t.You just drive down the right streets and you’ll see images of alienation. But they are beautiful images of alienation. They become paradoxical but they present themselves to you.” - Michael Mann
While Heat is Mann’s quintessential Los Angeles film, Collateral is his exploration of the city’s darker side. In many ways both films serve as extensions to the feel and atmosphere of an everyday city like Los Angeles. Like the former, the two main characters in Collateral are loners desperately trying to find their place in a city that has turned its back on its people. Mann uses similar wide night-shots of the flickering lights of an endless cityscape. Cars isolated from the rest of the world flow through the freeways in silence. One of the cars driving through Los Angeles at night time is a taxi containing the protagonist cab driver and antagonist hitman. Mann shot all of the exterior scenes using digital video because he believes DV reacts much better to low-light shots than film stock. The result is a look so unique and unfamiliar, there’s a sense of being there on location.
The mirroring parallels with Heat are both textual and visual. Textual in the sense that Vincent (Tom Cruise) acts like the efficient Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) and when they talk about their history, it becomes clear that both share the same childhood. McCauley ends with “I got a brother somewhere.” Now in terms of visuals, they both journey through the streets of Los Angeles dedicated to what they do best. They also share the same cinematic fate at the end for they meet their demiseat transportation stations, one at LAX and the other in a subway train.
That is not to say Mann had nothing new to express about Los Angeles. Through his alternative vision we see the real politics and sociological aspects of L.A. on screen. Instead of showcasing the hot summer beaches, we drive by the consistent black neighbourhoods, Korean nightclubs, and Latino shops of the city. Watching Heat or Collateral is as close as one could get to actually being there, because the viewer experiences the sad beauty of the city through Mann’s signature stylistic approach. The nature of both films is different, but the feel and look of the city matchesbecause Los Angeles has the same isolating effect onboth set of characters. One thing is for sure, film fans from all over the world will make a tourist spot out of the ‘Fever’ Jazz Club featured in Collateral as they did with the ‘Kate Mantilini’ restaurant from the famous dinner confrontation in Heat. Michael Mann will go back to his TV roots for his next venture into Los Angeles with his HBO series Luck.