Michael Mann or melancholic modernity

Immense megalopolises where individuals get lost, cold systems where characters are simple cogs, professions in which men exhaust themselves: Michael Mann takes a sharp and melancholy look at the contemporary world.

Jean-Baptiste Thoret

Cinema historian, critic and documentary filmmaker, Jean-Baptiste Thoret has become a figure of French cinema, appreciated for his critical vigor, his sharp biases and his seductive analyses, which rely on the history of forms to support a clearly political proposition. If he knew how to win the hearts of his aficionadosit is also by his style: his jacket Army, his machine-gun delivery and his long inspired digressions which end up becoming the very heart of his conferences, widely consulted and relayed online. Specialist in New Hollywood, whose aesthetic he analyzes gore the light of images of Vietnam and Zapruder filmJ.-B. Thoret has a predilection for genre films, in which he often sees the work as a return of the repression of American history, a key to reading explicitly stated in his collective Zombie Politics (Ellipses, 2007). His interest in a corpus long despised by critics who have since largely found their place at university, also led her to work on Dario Argento, and more broadly on Italian cinema, and for several years direct a collection of DVD titled Make my day restoring honor to certain forgotten or unloved films, taken from the drawers of Studiocanal.

It is rich in this background and in an already old reflection on Michael Mann (see the beautiful issue of the magazine Panic which he dedicated to him in 2006) that J.-B. Thoret published a rich work on one of the most important American filmmakers of the last thirty years, which he highlights, over the 350 pages that make up the book, rich in careful iconography , extreme consistency and a unique ability document the contemporary.

A filmmaker of his time that is to say always a little in advance

This is indeed one of Mann's most valuable qualities in the eyes of J.-B. Thoret, who celebrates the director's ability to take the pulse of his era by capturing the forms and effects on individuals of late capitalism.

This desire is manifest in the subjects addressed by the filmmaker (a drug cartel in the era of globalization in Miami Vice in 2006 or the effects of computer hacking in Hacker in 2015), but also shines through more deeply in its staging choices and its formal biases. J.-B. Thoret thus shows how the renunciation of 35 mm in favor of digital from Revelations (1999) does not stem from a naive desire for modernism, but from a motivated and meaningful choice. The digital cameras of the period in fact offer Mann both increased mobility but also, in the very imperfection of their images, a magmatic form visually supporting one of the director's obsessions: the engulfment of the individual in an encompassing system from which he can no longer escape. J.-B. Thoret recalls here that the choice of digital at the time offended a number of spectators and professionals put off by the grain of the image, which made him say, with Serge Daney whom he likes to quote on every occasion, that being the time of his time, for a filmmaker, actually means being always a little ahead.

The grain of the digital image – Ali (2001)

Mann's thought writing in and through images, the relationship of the characters to space plays an essential role and the choice of settings proves, from this point of view, eminently significant. This is the case with the cities he chooses to serve as the setting for his stories. New York, a vertical city still governed by the opposition of the center and the periphery, the filmmaker thus chooses to substitute Los Angeles for the filming of Collateral (2004). This horizontal city, where there is neither hierarchy nor center nor summit, films like an almost futuristic megacity, empty of any human presenceis in fact the image of the network, by nature infinite, of which the cynical character of Vincent (Tom Cruise) is a chilling emanation, he who is described as a professional machine, a sort of Terminator in a gray suit, a executive of crime (p. 177).

Los Angeles, network city – Heat (1995)

It is undoubtedly in this same visual quest of a supermodernity (according to Marc Aug's formula) that Mann then turns to Asian metropolises in a film, Hacker, which precisely presents the individual as a simple cog in a system of flow that goes beyond him. J.-B. Thoret recalls here that, if Michael Mann is reluctant in interviews to give his films any political dimension, the filmmaker nonetheless has a past of activism, which led him to leave his country for the United Kingdom in the 1970s. by refusing to commit to Vietnam (but also to attend a film school there) and that he was a reader of the French theory. His character's library hackerwhere Foucault, Lyotard, Derrida and Baudrillard appear, would in this sense constitute a coming out almost too obvious ideological (320).

The genre film as a Trojan horse to unsettle the viewer

If Michael Mann's films always fit into the harmless mold of genres: action films (The solitary, Heat, Collateral, Miami Vice), historical film (The Last of the Mohicans), trial film (Revelations), biopic (Public Enemies, Ali), the understanding of the world that it offers its spectators in fact supposes a pessimistic exposure of the relationships of domination between individuals, combined with a visceral distrust with regard to the institutions (prison, legal, social, etc.) which J.-B. Thoret sees the origins in Thoreau of Resistance to civil government (120).

However, Mann's cinema is in no way didactic or militant and the critique of the capitalist system that the essayist reveals there takes circuitous routes, those of large, gleaming productions made at the heart of the Hollywood machine, whose comfortable budgets are essential to this filmmaker. perfectionist with very high technical and aesthetic requirements. If Mann targets a large audience, to whom he is used to addressing, having worked for many years for television, it is the way of these smugglers celebrated by Scorsese, which moreover do not always hit the mark, as shown by the frustration of many spectators in the face of the melancholic Miami Vice of 2006. Michael Mann's films are indeed full of disappointing epiphanies, an emblematic example of which is the escapade of Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Isabella (Gong Li) in Havana, which at first seems like a beautiful escape, out of time and far from the sordid trafficking, but which ends with the desperate revelation, made by the young woman herself, that this little paradise in fact belongs, like the rest, to the drug lord Jess Montoya.

This aspiration for a beyond, which always proves to be illusory, is recurrently reflected by the presence of fantastical images relating to an advertising aesthetic but also and above all by melancholic shots of characters with their backs facing the sea, ocean plans, to which Mann's faithful cinematographer, Dante Spinotti, gave this unique depth through his work on the color blue. Such shots deliver the key to the characters created by the filmmaker, but also produce, through their insistent return, a signature effect, which makes them real coats of arms of Mannian aesthetics (p. 103).

The advertising horizon – Collateral (2004)

THE ocean plan – Miami Vice (2006)

The Mannian character grappling with the world

Mann thus inventories, throughout his films, the effects of History and socio-economic relationships on all aspects of life, professional, romantic, existential, of individuals. It is thus in the striking opening of its biopic on the boxer Mohammed Ali who brilliantly interweaves in a ten-minute sequence a concert of drunk by Sam Cooke, the training of the young boxer, a speech by Malcolm The editing of the sequence suggests that if the boxer from Louisville was only 22 years old, he and this America which is boiling with injustices and dreams of change are on the verge of exploding together, as evidenced by Ali's concentrated look, leitmotif visual of the sequence, which fixes at the same time his ball and, in the distance, an indefinite point, the short term (his match the next day) and this existential horizon of which he is still unaware of the content. (p. 128).

But this porosity of individuals to the outside world very often takes the form of a conflict between what J.-B. Thoret calls, after Vincent M. Gaine, the vital program and the existential program characters, this opposition between what they know how to do and what they desire (p.75). If Mann's characters are professionals (title of chapter 4 of the book), these men at work who excel at what they do (robbing a bank, tracking down bandits, hacking a computer system) indeed pay a high price for this quasi-liturgical relationship to the profession since the latter always takes place at home to the detriment of their existential program (the couple, the family). In this, Mann is clearly at odds with classic American cinema, in which the individual managed to give meaning to his life through his own skill (p. 189). The filmmaker's heroes, on the contrary, exhaust themselves in quests that we immediately know are doomed to failure, which ends up bringing together apparently opposing figures like that of the policeman (Al Pacino) and the gangster (De Niro) in Heatof which Thoret underlines the numerous echo effects, on both sides of the law.

Men at work – Thief (1981)

The abundant work of J.-B. Thoret thus multiplies the angles of approach to think about the work of Michael Mann and suggest stimulating avenues of interpretation. As a historian of American cinema, the essayist shows in particular the underground connection linking the director to the New Hollywood (in which the latter did not participate since he was then exiled in the United Kingdom), but also the complexity of his relationship to classicism. But J.-B. Thoret also strives to think of Mann's filmography as a coherent whole, the work of a author. He therefore embraces all his achievements, including television, and gives its place to an atypical and unloved film like The Black Fortress (1983), a tribute to German expressionism, of which the filmmaker shares the conviction that the style does not come from dressing, but on the contrary carries a vision of the world which must be revealed to the spectator. The numerous analyzes of sequences which interweave the work are from this point of view essential to understand the work of a stylist like Mann and to highlight the echoing effects which link together certain shots of his films, but also certain of his filmic or pictorial influences. J.-B. Thoret's approach therefore oscillates between a chronological approach retracing the journey of a filmmaker who has carved his furrow from one film to another, and thematic, taking great leaps from one feature film to another according to a thought that is intended, the image , perhaps from Mann's universe, reticular.