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A Man’s Mann…

I have to confess I was not overly impressed with Public Enemies. In fairness, it was mostly down to the choices Mann made in filming the work – the high definition cameras and the insistence on shakey hand held movement. You might argue that it was a choice designed to place us in the real world of the Great Depression – to put us on the streets with Dillinger and immerse us in his world rather than the sanitised grandiose version of the 1930’s that typically finds its way on to our screens. This ignores one fundamental fact about Mann’s film making: it is no less grandiose or fantastic than those myths of times past. Mann is a film maker who works best exploring the dynamics of a masculine ideal that never existed. His male characters are drawn in the mold of a classic image that never actually existed.

I'll bet Pacino ordered the Large Ham. Overdone. VERY LOUDLY!

I'll bet Pacino ordered the Large Ham. Overdone. VERY LOUDLY!

Don’t get me wrong – Mann grounds his films in the real world. Anyone who has read any of his work knows how much insane detail he puts in there – details on the guns, for example, down to bullet size and clip capacity. I know people who observe that nobody captures a gunshot the way it actually sounds, except Mann. But his central figures are often fantastic masculine figures. Johnny Depp’s John Dillinger probably bears little relationship to the real life gangster. I’m actually waiting for a film historian to chime in, but I doubt he was that charming. The real Dillinger is a figure easily lost in all the myths and legends surrounding him.

Ignoring Mann’s fundamental strength as an action director (seriously, watch the robbery scenes from
Heat), he is a director that deals in archetypes. Almost all his leads are what you might term “men’s men” – they live hard, they die young. They do what they do and don’t know how (or care) to do anything differently. They’re lost, but they’re also aggressive – perhaps to compensate for the fact that they are so restless. Sometimes it’s literally fighting (as in Ali) and sometimes it’s fighting the system (hence Mann’s flirtation with the criminal – honour among thieves and all that).

Indeed, the only Mann protagonist I can think of that doesn’t fill this archetype (and I’m excluding The Keep from my consideration because I don’t remember it too well) is Max, the taxi driver from Collateral. He is defined by what he isn’t though, at least for the start of the film. He isn’t strong, he isn’t decisive. Sure, he’s good at his job and he’s a deft hand with the ladies, but he is – for the most part – a failure. is dream of tropic escape is just a dream, because he lacks the power to make it happen. That’s why Vincent can push him around so much – because he is inherently powerless. Until he learns to become more conventionally masculine – the movie ends on a conventional (albeit well-staged) chase sequence. It’s probably no coincidence that Max goes on a longer journey than any of Mann’s other leads. Most end up not that far from where they started; the rest end up dead.

That seems to the irony that Mann sees in modern masculinity. the world around them may change, but they cannot. The best sequences in Public Enemies highlight how out-of-touch John Dillinger is growing from his brethren. Robbing banks is outdated in the era of numbers games; his PR-friendly approach is even more outdated in the era of the machine-gun wielding sociopath. Similarly Robert DeNiro’s honorable thief cannot be anything but himself at the climax of Heat, nor can Pacino’s dogged detective. Pacino’s Vincent Hanna would have been better to stay with his step-daughter in hospital; Robert DeNiro’s Neil McCauley might have been okay had he kept driving the car with the woman he loved. However, they were all compelled to do they only think that they can do. During the famous ‘diner scene’ in Heat, both men laugh off the conventional trappings of suburbia (“barbecues and ballgames”), because their lives – while potentially short – are at least lived. There are people who make 80 years, having avoided living a day of their lives.

My problems with the Miami Vice movie: 01.) Not enough Miami, 02.) Not enough Vice...

My problems with the Miami Vice movie: 01.) Not enough Miami, 02.) Not enough Vice...

Still, Mann makes it perfectly clear that though he romanticises these larger-than-life figures, he see their flaws too. And not just the romantic ‘unable to change’ types of flaws that hint a false sense of nobility. Nope. The best episodes of his television series Miami Vice revolve around what happens to masculinity when it is threatened and lost. In Even, Crockett recalls the inability of himself or his partner to deal with the revelation that a close friend was gay. The officer in question – his masculinity shred by the rejection of his peers – goes out in a typically masculine suicide, charging a gas station hold-up. Crockett lives with his own shame quietly, and the show suggests his own overarching masculinity is a way of compensating. Crockett’s former partner, the eponymous Even Friedman, seems intent to stare death in the face. No one really talks about what happened – it wouldn’t be manly to do so – but are forced to confront their own shortcomings by running to the shelter offered by the maculine role. Men don’t cry. They shoot. In the end, Crockett internalises his own pain so much he can’t even forgive the dying Even for both their sins.

It is only in that grim decline and inevitable death that realism creeps into Mann’s work. If such men existed, they would have to die, or fade away. They could not be functional in the world of political correctness, gender equality and metro-sexuality. Strong jawed heroes like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood played never really existed – but Mann likes to consider what it would be like if they had. What if Dirty Harry had a romantic attachment that wanted more than just two hours a week and minimal conversation? What if he had a life off the job? He’d have to make the conscious choice to bump it to second place, which is the decision we never see. Because it somehow makes the movie more comfortable not to think about the wife and child sitting at home worrying while the men play cowboys and indians and cops and robbers.

Of course, such a simplistic overview of any director’s work doesn’t capture the full depth expressed throughout their films. There’s a bizarre fixation on Stephen Spielberg’s absentee fathers, for example. Mann is a rich storyteller, and one who juggles themes very well. He’s  a director in whom I have absolute confidence, even if his individual works may sometimes disappoint. These are just random thoughts that occurred to me on sitting down to watch Public Enemies. I’m sure I’ll have more when I rewatch Heat or The Insider again.

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