[VoxSpace Selects] Michael Mann – Elevating Genre Cinema

Michael Mann- One Story Through Various Lenses

Genre film is a colloquial term used by many to define a film that follows a particular kind of a format, be it horror or action or sci-fi, etc. As cinema evolved, the rules associated with genres became more and more clearly established. A lot of critics look down on these kinds of movies, due to their belief that these movies are too basic. I don’t really agree. As Marcia Landy said, “But the general characteristics of the genre set limits on the individual genre film, which renders it simpler for the audience to follow.” This kind of rigid structure allows a film-maker to deal with complex ideas without losing the audience’s attention. Michael Mann is an American film-maker who excels at making films that would be categorised as genre cinema and elevating them to a level of ‘Great Cinema’.

So, a common misconception would be that there isn’t enough thematic depth in genre cinema. The assumption would be that, because of the constraints of a genre, the film-maker might not have the freedom to really explore a thematic idea to his logical conclusion. This could be true for a lot of film-makers, but never with Michael Mann. He is that kind of a film-maker who is never lost in the movies that he makes. He is in the front and centre of every movie he makes. If you take his entire filmography, you can see two very clear recurring thematic elements in his films.

Two Sides Of The Same Coin

When there is a crime in any society, it needs to be curbed, but also understood. How can you stop something that you don’t understand? So, the point is, if the good guy needs to stop the bad guy, he needs to be able to think like him. But the question arises- where do you draw the line? If absolute morality is not an option, where does ‘moral relativism’ stop from being the right thing to do. These are questions raised in a lot of his films like Heat, Manhunter, Collateral and Public Enemies. Each of these movies is about two extremely capable men on either side of a moral quandary trying to pull the other to their side.

I always think of a scene in Manhunter where the protagonist, Will Graham, has a verbal spar with Hannibal Lector, but cannot stop himself from complimenting him. There is a weird sense of respect that he has for this monster of a human being.

Or the iconic scene in Heat where Robert De Niro and Al Pacino sit across from each other in a restaurant to discuss how they are going do their job. This particular scene especially stays in my mind because, throughout the film, Al Pacino’s character never really opens up with anyone, not even his life. But he feels absolutely comfortable to tell this thief (Robert De Niro). This tells us that while they are on the opposite sides of the law, they really understand and respect each other immensely; but would not hesitate to murder the other person when it comes to their job. This also shows the film-maker’s admiration towards a person’s duty than to the institutions they belong to.

David Vs Goliath

Another huge theme that is pretty evident in a lot of his work is the idea of an idealistic person going against a system that has wronged them. Michael Mann in his politics is pretty left-leaning and anti-authoritarian. Movies like The Insider, The Last of the Mohicans or Ali place you in the shoes a wronged man and his journey to conquer his oppressors. My favourite out these films is Ali, which follows the various trials and tribulations that Mohammed Ali had to go through to keep his dignity while trying to keep his career afloat.

These films do not show a film-maker depending on genre tropes to make a cheap film. They show a master film-maker at the height of his powers using the genre tropes to explore themes that are very important to him in a palatable way, thus elevating genre cinema.