A Mann Among Us
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Has Michael Mann redefined the cinematic close-up? That question, along with a few others, nagged me after a recent screening of Public Enemies in Toronto. First, some context. I have long admired Mann’s artistry. There is drama in his unironic flourishes — the final moments in Heat or The Insider before the end credit roll when Moby’s music fills the air and the characters take one last look around before the screen goes black. There is precision in his mise en scene, a compositional control that rarely goes over the deep end of mannerism, when style only serves itself. He is not afraid to marinade cinematic moments with lingering stares, contemplative glances, and longer takes that follow characters in their moments of crisis, joy, confusion, or pain. One way Mann accomplishes this in-the-moment presentness is with the extreme close-up. If you haven’t seen Public Enemies and don’t want anything spoiled, then this serves as my warning that spoilers lie ahead.
While much of the early press on Public Enemies has emphasized its historical subject matter, Mann has spoken a little about his technical and aesthetic choices. In an interview with Ain’t it Cool News, Mann discusses the function of the close-up in his films. One passage is particularly informative:
I look for where or how to bring the audience into the moment, to reveal what somebody’s thinking and what they’re feeling, and where it feels like you’re inside the experience. Not looking at it, with an actor performing it, but have an actor live it, and you as audience, if I could bring the audience inside to experience. It became critical in THE INSIDER, because the ambition was to make a film that was as suspenseful as I knew, and dramatic as I knew those lives really were. And, it’s all talking heads, but the devastation, the potential devastation to [Jeffrey] Wigand and Lowell Bergman was total annihilation, personal annihilation, suicide–all that was in the cards for these guys. And, yet, it’s all just people talking. So, that kind of began an exploration into how I could bring you into experience in as internal a way as I could.
For Mann, the close-up is a ticket to a character’s soul, their inner subjectivity. The closer the camera gets, the closer we are to their thoughts.
A Pair of Subjectivities
The close-up has always been used for emphasis. They portray the emotion on someone’s face or clarify the presence of an object. We might even say that it’s the most cinematic of shots, since it affords an intimacy and immediacy that is rarely found in the other arts. But can a close-up convey character subjectivity?
Kristen Thompson offers a fascinating essay on the nature of subjectivity in cinema, which can be found here. She notes that “the more imaginative [filmmakers] have shown immense creativity in trying to convey what characters see and think.” She isolates two kinds of functions that emphasize character subjectivity: perceptual and mental subjectivity. As she puts it, both functions suggest being “with” the characters as opposed to merely observing them. Perceptual subjectivity offers a visual or aural connection to what a character sees or hears. Point-of-view shots or point-of-audition sound not only places the audience in the scene, but in the head of a character for a given time. There are countless examples of effective POV shots, but POA sound seems much rarer, if only because they are harder to spot. The Do Lung bridge sequence in Apocalypse Now is a good example. An American sniper loads his gun and takes aim at the trees, where a vocal Vietnamese sniper is perched, hidden by the dark. The U.S. sniper focuses his ears on the Vietnamese’s taunting voice then fires. The trees go silent. In the moment leading up to the killshot, the din of ground activity fades away and the acousmatic voice becomes the solo aural element on the sound track. We hear what the sniper hears as he strips away layer upon layer of sound until he aurally spots the tree sniper.
Mental subjectivity, in Thompson’s view, goes a step further by offering fantasies, dreams, and other image-sound elements that are experienced by only that character. The numerous gags in Throw Momma from the Train where Owen (Danny DeVito) fantasizes about killing his mother are good examples. Without framing the fantasy, DeVito convinces his audience by playing the scene through. Only then does he cut back to the beginning of the sequence and we realize that the second half of the sequence was a figment of his imagination.
But the Do Lung sequence could also qualify as mental subjectivity since the U.S. sniper is specially trained to hone in on particular sounds — that technique is fairly unique to him. If we heard the same sequence from Willard’s position, we might not hear the same focused sound. In this respect, Thompson’s definitions are by her own admission fluid and ambiguous: “Filmmakers can create deliberate, complex, and important effects by keeping it unclear whether what we see is a character’s perception of reality or his/her imaginings.”
By all accounts Michael Mann works in the gray area between these functions. Films such as The Insider, Ali, and Public Enemies are intimate character studies even if the subject matter of each is expansive. The Insider is as much about the news business as it is about the personal struggle of Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe). It isn’t surprising, then, to hear Mann discuss that film in docudrama terms with lots of talking and exposition. He attempts to overcome the dryness of this approach by personalizing the story, thereby bringing the audience closer to Wigand, in three key sequences.
Immediacy and Despair
We are introduced to Wigand at the beginning of the film through a series of fragmented shots. Mann captures a birthday celebration in the B&W chemistry lab through a glass partition. Wigand’s profile appears in close-up, out of focus, as the party continues in the background, out of ear shot. He packs up his briefcase with haste, then exits the office. Cut to Wigand in the elevator. The camera is perched on Wigand’s shoulder, inches from his ear. We’re only slightly off Wigand’s own eyeline, a pseudo POV shot. The doors open and Wigand exists — the camera holds its position. We move into the lobby still attached to Wigand by Mann’s fly-on-the-shoulder camera. As he approaches the floor security guard, we cut to a wider shot of Wigand passing the guard. Mann slows the film down, stretching the moment, giving an impression of Wigand’s own stunned numbness to the situation.
Later in the film, following a contentious meeting with Brown & Williamson chairman Thomas Sandefur (Michael Gambon) and B&W legal counsel, Wigand leaves corporate headquarters in a rage. He calls Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) from a pay phone to blame him for the way the company was treating him. Framed again extremely tight, Mann’s camera is inches from Wigand’s face. In this way, Wigand’s enraged state is expressed with the extreme close-up. It’s made even more jarring when we cut to Bergman’s, who is framed in medium long shot, while Wigand is right in our face.
It’s also interesting to note that during the B&W meeting, Mann incorporates the on-the-skin close-ups into his shot reverse-shot compositions.
These two uses of the extreme close-up aim to bring us closer to Wigand’s inner subjectivity, to be on his skin — if not totally in his thoughts. I would even suggest that the tight framing also leads to a kind of compositional clostrophobia, where Mann’s camera seeks to make us feel Wigand’s pain. It’s not necessarily a POV shot, since both sequences utilize relatively objective camera angles, which are positioned outside Wigand’s body. We also don’t get much POA sound in either case. Instead, Mann uses a particular camera technique — bringing the camera close to the skin — in order to satisfy the need for inner subjectivity.
It’s not an altogether new technique, either. The Dardenne brothers achieved a similar effect in Rosetta. The rather grim tale of a young Belgian girl’s struggle with poverty and social alienation utilizes the same sort of on-the-skin camera to further bring us into her world. At times, we’re locked on her face and experience the world around her only through sound.
To express the enormity of the Normandy invasion in Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg offers surprisingly few establishing shots, and instead relies on a few well-placed extreme close-ups. The most notable example comes after the battle, as Horvath (Tom Sizemore) remarks, “That’s quite a view.” Close on Miller’s helmet, he raises his head, takes a swig of canteen water, and takes in the sight: “Yes it is. Quite a view.” Spielberg’s camera moves in closer until Miller’s eyes are the only thing in focus. Only then do we cut to a series of wider shots of the beach. Again, the close-up emphasizes the connection between character and audience without taking the form of a traditional POV shot.
The final example of character subjectivity from The Insider is one of Mann’s only forays into mental subjectivity. Late in the film Wigand is holed up in a hotel room, his wife and children having already abandoned him. He’s all but given up, seated in a chair, unshaved, disheveled. A hotel employee attempts to get him to answer a telephone call from Lowell, but he’s drifted off into a daydream. Lisa Gerrand’s hypnotic voice primes the viewer for an unexpected fantasy that unfolds around Wigand. A pastoral mural on the wall behind him begins to morph into his old backyard, where his two children are playing. He turns to face them as the two girls stop and stare back. The moment is broken when we cut back to the hotel employee, who is still on the phone with Lowell, saying “He doesn’t seem to be listening.”
It’s a relatively short daydream, but a bold move on Mann’s part to include such a whimsical touch in an otherwise button-down narrative. It works because we’ve been primed by the various close-up techniques to expect a glimpse into Wigand’s psyche.
Public Enemies continues Mann’s close-up technique on a more visceral level. Instead of portioning out the device, he composed much of the film in a deliberately tight fashion. One film critic went as far to say that he dispenses with the use of establishing shots altogether! For the record, there are a few scattered throughout the picture, here and there. But the critic’s point is well taken: there are far fewer master shots than in any conventional actioner, including the Bourne series, which is anchored by a series of sprawling city shots with legends indicating the location.
Chicago itself is presented as a disjointed city; the Biograph theatre floats somewhere in between Dillinger’s hideaway and the Bureau’s HQ. The bank heists remain coherent, but verge on the indefinable. According to the filmmakers, Mann expressed a desire for immediacy in order to move beyond the period niceties of 1930s Chicago. As Roger Ebert noted in his review of the film, “Mann redressed Lincoln Avenue on either side of the Biograph Theater, and laid streetcar tracks; I live a few blocks away, and walked over to marvel at the detail. I saw more than you will; unlike some directors, he doesn’t indulge in beauty shots to show off the art direction. It’s just there.” In fact, Mann wants you to think that the detail is on their faces.
In the same Ain’t it Cool News interview, Mann mentions the psychological importance of the extreme close-up in the film:
So, with Homer, outside the bank, and he sees that police car drive up. There’s a close-up–it’s something you can only do in hi-def–I’ve got the lens right here, and you’ll just see the focus shift to right to the stubble, and then I’m heightening that and color timing by raising the contrast just when we get there. So, you really feel you’ve gone right into Homer, and you can feel his awareness just climb up. There’s no nervousness, there’s nothing. But, you see he has totally taken in the arrival of the cops outside.
Again, in Mann’s view, the closer we get to the skin the closer we can absorb that character’s emotional state. We not only see the sweat begin to bead, but we might also begin to sweat ourselves.
We don’t get any closer than with Johnny Depp’s vivid portrayal of Dillinger himself. He plays Dillinger close to the chest, but that’s where Mann’s camera can peel away the hardened exterior to reveal his cheek scar, his five-o’clock shadow, and a range of muted emotions that are exclamation points in close-up. In the film’s final minutes, the close-up is combined with a pseudo POV shot of the fatal bullet that enters the back of his neck and exits under his right cheek. As he lies dying on the sidewalk, Mann returns to the on-the-skin shot one more time to see Dillinger in a much more vulnerable light. Ironically, we’re so close, yet we still can’t make out what he’s saying.
Returning to my original question — has Michael Mann redefined the cinematic close-up? — I don’t think so. Mann is an ambitious filmmaker who often seeks to refresh cinematic conventions if only to tell very familiar stories. The close-up remains a choice in the filmmaker’s bag of tricks to emphasize. But I would argue that even a long shot can emphasize character psychology, if placed in the hands of a talented filmmaker.
Mann’s close-ups are interesting because few other directors today portray subjectivity this way. They have become a signature Mann shot. With The Insider we witness Jeffrey Wigand’s crisis with a macro lens, while the rest of the film remains detached and cool. I would argue that Public Enemies erases that borderline between close proximity and objective control. By placing the audience in the immediacy of Dillinger’s present, the close-ups lose their emotional edge, their ability to read character subjectivity, and we are ultimately left with mannerist excess.
At certain points the close-up can emphasize character psychology, to bring us closer to their skin. But we’ll never be in their skin.