Friday, July 03, 2009

Michael Mann: The Logistics of Action

The following post is a contribution to the excellent Michael Mann blog-a-thon going on at Radiator Heaven.

Even though director Michael Mann has embraced the vagaries of technology with wonderful and illuminating results, it's nice to see that he hasn't succumbed to the post-modern style of editing and framing the muscular portions of his films; i.e. all those discombobulated, half-a-second-long shots that comprise so many action scenes today and represent a step backwards for concise and logical storytelling. I can always tell when a film plans to go down this wretched path. The opening car chase scene in "Quantum Of Solace" for example.... a car chase that sprays across the screen, full of shiny images, wincing faces, loud noises and a complete lack of spatial reference. I could feel myself slumping down lower in my seat after 90 seconds, wondering how I would ever make it through a film so spliced and diced within an inch of its life. If this is the continuing procession for all action films for the next ten years, then count me out.

And then there's Michael Mann and his 1995 masterpiece, "Heat". Featuring the greatest bank heist created on film so far (and a scenario that would frightfully play itself out in real life one year later), not only is it an exhilarating example of adrenaline film making, but it stands as my personal watermark for how every action film should be conceived.

It stands by two rules: 1. Allow the viewer to understand the setting. What makes this shoot-out in "Heat" so bracing is it's placement of good guy and bad guy. Watching it, we understand exactly where everyone is in relation to the buildings and people around them.

Through his use of over-the-shoulder tracking shots and cleanly developed medium shots, the image isn't distorted and we're allowed to see from behind the various shooters, giving us a panoramic view of the carnage being unleashed on poor downtown Los Angeles. Perhaps the most striking example of this is when Val Kilmer runs up behind a car and begins to unload on the crowd of police cars ahead of him. As he ducks to reload, Mann's camera patiently waits with him as he reloads and then re-emerges. The setting fits perfectly with the action.

2. Give the viewer a spatial sense of how the image effects the characters. If the first rule isn't in place, then the characters feelings, actions and placement must be transferred through editing. Thinking of the old trick of editing- if one were to cut to the face of a woman expressionless, then to a bright summer sky, then back to her face, the viewer may infer that she's happy to be taking in such a sunny visage. Compare the same sequence of shots with a black, ominous sky and our preconceptions may be vastly different for this woman. The same applies here. If an action scene is cut into a nauseating array of shiny images, loud noises and confusing design, then the viewer can become distressed and forced to accept the set-piece as something happening without any real foundation of cause and effect. In "Heat", every action has a counter-action and the viewer understands exactly where these actions come from. As Neil McCauley and his gang try to make their escape in their car, the bullets coming from outside:

Have disastrous (and logical) repercussions inside:

But Mann's attention to physical detail doesn't belong at just the halfway point. "Heat's" conclusion, filmed in an airport storage yard at night time, probably posed an equally difficult challenge. Instead of morphing into a shoot-em-up, the finale is full of quiet tension as the epic cat and mouse chase between DeNiro and Pacino ends with the same lucid intelligence that it started with.

The demise of DeNiro is told through light, sound, camera placement and viewer recollection. There's a very important reason Mann gives us images of planes coming and going and those runway lights brightening the area. For a thief who lives his life through mechanical diligence, its a fitting way to go out. And for Mann, it's not hard to see a bit of the obsessive concern that plagues all of his criminal anti-heroes. Whether its maneuvering through the locks of a safe, diverting their violent paths for the soft touch of a woman or slugging it out with heavy artillery, I'm just glad I can savor the clean images that tell every story. Can't every action film take place in 1995 before the slice and dice method became predominant?


Joseph said...

Great article. That's why I love Heat so much.

Unknown said...

Excellent analysis of this famous action sequence! You really nailed what makes it work and why it continues to be an impressive bit of filmmaking. As you point out, Mann doesn't edit the hell out of it and shoots it in a way that you always know where you are and who's who -- a very rare thing in most of today's action films. And he's still continuing to create this cleanly choreographed action sequences as evident with PUBLIC ENEMIES.

Thanks for this post and I've added to the blogroll.