Zen Pulp, Pt 2

Lifetime subscriptions: Michael Mann's honor-bound individualists
by Matt Zoller Seitz  posted July 3, 2009
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This is the second in a five-part series of video essays on Michael Mann. Part 1 can be viewed here; part 3 can be viewed here; part 4 can be viewed here; part 5 can be viewed here.

Michael Mann's heroes are thieves and killers, G-men and cops. They exist both inside and outside the system. Some like working in concentrated groups; others are lone wolves. But they all have certain traits in common. They are radical, sometimes fanatical individualists. They have a code of honor and stick to it. They value loyalty. respect, and professionalism and despise incompetence, equivocation, and ass-kissing.

Above all else, they prize their freedom—freedom to live in the present moment, pursue their happiness without interference, and define themselves on their own terms. But their pursuit of their biggest dreams and highest ideals invariably puts them at odds with larger forces: representatives of institutions, governments, organizations, and cartels, big guys that reflexively seek to subvert, control, or profit from the little guy, and that destroy all who resist.

The outlines of Mann's men were vividly sketched in his debut feature, Thief. Based on the novel The Home Invaders, by professional thief John Seybold, who wrote under the name Frank Hohimer, the film follows its hero, a safecracker and ex-convict, as he takes down major scores while maintaining the facade of a legitimate businessman. Frank is a former foster child who spent much of his life behind bars and is determined never to go back. He wants upper middle class comfort and respectability with all the trimmings: a wife, a child, a spacious home, and enough money to retire on—the sooner the better. But he's a little guy with a little crew. As good as he is at his trade, it would take decades of work and a lot of lucky breaks to achieve his dreams, which are represented, cornily enough, in a photo collage.

He finds a shortcut in the form of Leo, a crime boss who literally volunteers to be Frank's daddy, setting up big, easy scores, and offering many other services besides. But Frank discovers, in painful increments, that Leo's words can't be taken at face value. He lets Leo exploit his fears and dreams to the point where he gives up his freedom a piece at a time.

Mann's filmography is strewn with many equivalents of Leo and his organization, from the shady white-collar crooks who aid and then cheat Neil McCauley’s crew in Heat to the tobacco company and broadcast executives in The Insider who give the film’s progatonists, scientist Jeffrey Wigand and producer Lowell Bergman, a seemingly secure base where they can do their thing, then sell them out when their integrity threatens the bottom line. 

Mann’s movies often show lone wolves entrapped and sometimes destroyed by their own rugged code. Whether the Mann hero works inside or outside of a society or an industry, he is still forced to negotiate and ally himself with what he believes are like-minded souls, but turn out to be parasites that prosper through deceit, manipulation, and brute force. No sooner has the Mann hero gotten some hard-won action than another party shows up angling for a piece. 

The racially exclusive gangs in The Jericho Mile and the English and French military officers in The Last of the Mohicans are cut from the same cloth as the title character’s enemies in Ali: the Nation of Islam, the boxing commission, the media, and the U.S. government all want to turn the boxer into either a poster boy for their values or an example of what happens when you mouth off to power. In Mann's 1999 drama The Insider, tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand opposes Brown & Williamson's scam to manipulate the nicotine content of cigarettes; he’s fired then terrorized, and loses his home, his wife, his kids, and much of his sanity. Wigand's ally and confidant, the former counterculture journalist turned 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman, thinks he's in a position to protect Wigand, but once the story is in the can, his bosses at CBS spike it on grounds that running it would expose the network to lawsuits that could jeopardize its impending sale to Westinghouse.

The heroes of The Last of the Mohicans are Native Americans and white colonists who just want to live off the land and take care of their homes and families, but get pulled into a war between the armies of England and France, which view the natives as resources to be acquired and exploited as they see fit.  While such major characters as the adopted Mohawk Nathaniel Poe and his opposite, the Huron warrior Magua, conduct the film’s most prominent negotiations with power, the peripheral characters appear to be grappling with similar problems. A frontiersman who’s glimpsed briefly in an early sequence reluctantly pledging fealty to the crown (“England is still our sovereign”) shows up later at the siege of Ft. William Henry, bitterly concluding that since the English have no intention of keeping their pledge to let the frontiersman go home if their families are attacked, they are therefore free to break their pledge to serve in the militia.

From Ali, stripped of his heavyweight title for refusing to be drafted into Vietnam, to the persecuted whistleblower Wigand to the heroes and heroines of Mohicans, who lose most of their loved ones in an orgy of butchery, Mann's individualists pay dearly for their quests. One wonders: in Mann's world, is it better to be lonely, vilified, or dead than to compromise freedom? Mann's answer depends upon when he made each movie.

The director’s early work often presents the struggle for autonomy and personal honor as an imperative worth defending at all costs, even if it means losing the people you love most and being forced to destroy everything you've built. The finale of 1981’s Thief finds Frank literally destroying everything he has and everything he loves, plus the lives of those that tried to shackle him, rather than have the terms of his existence be dictated by others. It's a jailhouse riff on the ending of Ayn Rand's novel The Fountainhead, which saw the architect Howard Roark detonate a public housing project rather than let his sponsors alter its design. At the time, some critics described this ending as nihilistic. But viewed in context of Mann’s subsequent career, Frank's rampage seems like a young man's ending—romantic and perhaps immature in its rage against Leo's machine.

But Heat, released 14 years after Thief, suggests that it is not impossible to maintain freedom and honor in a world of treachery and compromise. True, thief Neil McCauley has a Frank-style meltdown, trading the chance to retire in the arms of his girlfriend for the opportunity to kill a former crewmember who betrayed him. But although Neil's nemesis, the cop Vincent Hanna, sees some of his men die and stumbles through a damaged home life with his third wife and her troubled teenage daughter, he ultimately emerges a hopeful figure—a lone wolf capable of adapting, à la Darwin, to the strange new world he's chosen, without losing his soul. Between The Insider, which sends its two protagonists out bloodied but unbowed; Ali, which shows its title character outfoxing and out-boxing the world by means of an invented media persona; and 2006’s Miami Vice, the movie, which contrasts Crockett's wandering ways against his badass partner Rico Tubbs' stable, satisfying home life with a fellow cop, Mann appears to have mellowed with age, or at least adopted more elastic definitions of freedom and happiness.

The recent character that most strongly suggests an evolved philosophy is Vincent, the hit man in 2004's Collateral. In his hardboiled, this-man-is-an-island ruthlessness, he's the most cartoonishly archetypal of all Mann's criminals. And at times he suggests what Frank from Thief might have eventually become after that film's blowout ending, or what Neil from Heat might have turned into had he continued to abide by his “30 seconds flat” credo. But as the night wears on, we start to see cracks in his Hobbesean armor—particularly the vicarious nature of his forcing Max the cabbie to visit his dying mother in the hospital, which seems like something Vincent wishes he could do himself, but can't, perhaps because he's spent so many years being attached to nothing and nobody that he's lost his capacity to feel. At the start of the picture, he's practically a straight-up villain. By the end, he's a pitiful figure, an empty suit bleeding to death in a subway car. 

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Courtesy Warner Home Video
Robert De Niro in Heat, directed by Michael Mann
Photo Gallery: Zen Pulp, Pt 2

RELATED CALENDAR ENTRY

July 2-26, 2009 Michael Mann

KEYWORDS

video essay  |  Michael Mann  |  Hollywood  |  masculinity  |  violence  |  Miami Vice (film)  |  Thief  |  Heat  |  The Insider

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THE AUTHOR

Matt Zoller Seitz is a writer and filmmaker whose debut feature, the romantic comedy Home, is available through Netflix and Amazon. His writing on film and television has appeared in The New York Times, New York Press, and The Star Ledger, among other places. He is also the founder of The House Next Door, a movie and TV criticism website.

More articles by Matt Zoller Seitz
Author's Website: The House Next Door