WHO is he?

American film director, screenwriter and producer who has made 10 features since his transition from television to cinema in the early eighties. Michael Mann is noted for his early foray into and championing of digital cinematography. Mann’s experiments with digital cinema utilise both the extreme physical mobility and the sense of tactility and immediacy that the medium provides.

What are his films about?

Themes

Mann’s films regularly feature multiple brooding male protagonists — usually on opposite sides of the law — who cross each other’s paths only to discover that they aren’t as different as they appear. What results is an ambiguous moral fabric in which Good and Evil are inseparably intertwined. Although the women in his films often occupy the periphery of the narrative, they are the spiritual forces that bind the often nihilistic male protagonists to life. They become the reason these men attempt to rise above their situation and find meaning in their existence.

Style

A singular mix of disparate film genres — codes of male honour and dignity from Westerns and a morally messy mesh of human interactions typical of Film Noir — characterises the cinematic output of Mann. Handheld cinematography in shallow focus, off-center compositions in which characters occupy the edges of the frames, an abundance of artificial light within the shots, over the shoulder editing for conversation scenes, a combination of pulsating and operatic film score and an acute sense of geography are some of the recurring elements in these films.

WHY is he of interest?

Mann is perhaps among the last of modernist film directors in Hollywood whose films exhibit a consistency of world view and moral sensibility. Unlike contemporary genre cinema where nothing grave is at stake and every emotion is pre-decided for the audience, Mann’s films present a universe that’s as complex as our own and whose protagonists face crises of spirit that are not very different from our own.

WHERE to discover him?

Arguably the most typical Michael Mann film, Heat (1995) is a cat and mouse game involving a gang of men on a spree of bank jobs and the crew of law enforcers that is on its tail. Mann’s film is a wrenching modern-day tragedy, anchored by brilliant performances by Robert de Niro and Al Pacino, in which two tormented men must eliminate each other with the full knowledge that they would be losing themselves in the process.