Zen Pulp, Pt 3

I’m looking at you, Miss: The women of Mann
by Matt Zoller Seitz  posted July 9, 2009
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This is the third in a five-part series of video essays on Michael Mann. Part 1 can be viewed here; Part 2 can be viewed here; part 4 can be viewed here; part 5 can be viewed here.

The high point of Michael Mann's 1992 adaptation of The Last of the Mohicans is the hunter Nathaniel's jump from a waterfall, which he undertakes to better protect Cora, the Englishwoman with whom he's fallen in love. That dizzyingly purplish, much-parodied moment represents a figurative leap of faith for both of them. Nathaniel has to believe that Cora will—to quote his intriguingly passive sentence construction—"Stay alive, no matter what occurs," with the promise that at the end, she'll survive, on her own or with Nathaniel's help, and they'll be reunited, live to a ripe old age, and fullfill the scenario that Nathaniel affectionately envisions at the start of the movie for his adoptive brother, Uncas: to meet a nice woman, settle down, and have "many children."

Mann's films are often described as guy movies, and in their fascination with shiny cars, fast boats, splashy beachfront property, and violent confrontations, the description fits. But that label factors out one of the more notable aspects of Mann's filmography: the central importance it grants to the relationship between men and women, and the mix of idealization and dread with which Mann portrays love, commitment, and the comfortable domestic life.

Mann's heroes have personalities at odds with their desires. They want true love and a stable home. They are relentlessly focused on work and devoted to maintaining a personal code that defines them. But these same qualities systematically undermine, in some cases destroy, what they are theoretically working to achieve or maintain.

The same integrity that prompts Jeffrey Wigand, the scientist hero of 1999's The Insider, to blow the whistle on his tobacco company gets him fired, losing him his home, his wife, and the medical coverage he needs for his sickly daughter. The righteous scientist says he entered the shady world of big tobacco partly to build a more comfortable life for himself, his wife, and his kids. It's rather like Frank in Thief (1981) deciding to take up with the underworld sugar daddy Leo so he can retire from crime, raise a family, and enjoy a stable marriage with a woman who knows who he is and what he's done. Heat (1995) takes the work/home conflict as far as it can, spending so much time on the crooks' and cops' relationship problems that the sprawling result feels less a traditional urban shoot-'em-up than an ensemble romantic drama with crime thriller trappings: Magnolia with gunplay.

So many of Mann's films are set in the present moment and show characters existing purely in present tense that the viewer's natural tendency is to look for statements about modern life. Those are certainly present in Mann's work, especially the mix of gee-whiz fascination and deep distrust with which he views technology and mass communications and his cynical portrait of the machinery of capitalism, which grinds up and spits out individuals, from whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand to the two dumb kids in the Miami Vice episode "Milk Run" (1984), whose hapless attempt to claim their piece of the drug world's pie ends in bloodshed.

But in the end, his characters are motivated by more primitive desires. Number one on the list is love, which Mann portrays as a matter of chemistry. The spark that ignites love is lust, an animal impulse born of the need for tenderness, nurturing, and companionship. Such an impulse is nonrational, inexplicable, uncanny, and when it's satisfied, whether for a lifetime or one night, the feeling that comes across onscreen is one of pure happiness, true freedom: in short, rapture. There is no such thing as casual sex in a Michael Mann film, because for his characters, sex is a respite from everything else. The lovers' bed is a sanctuary from the oppressiveness of life, the only place where they can experience true bliss. Mann is one of the most modernist of Hollywood directors, but when the action shifts to the bedroom, he becomes a religious filmmaker.

Mann's films distinguish themselves from other entries in the big-and-shiny school of filmmaking by making their women idiosyncratic, prickly individuals. One of Mann's least likeable female characters is Jeffrey Wigand's wife, Liane, in The Insider, who cracks under the strain caused by her husband's whistleblowing and leaves with the kids. But when you consider Jeffrey's conspicuous failure to seek Liane's counsel before deciding to quit his job—an insensitive act repeated later, when he brings her to New York without telling her that they're visiting so he can go on 60 Minutes—one can see why she'd want out. (In the scene where Liane walks around their soon-to-be deserted house and tearfully recalls the spot in the backyard where one of their daughters learned to walk, notice how Jeffrey's attempts to comfort her inevitably circle back around to what he needs.)

Liane's polar opposite is Cora Munro from Mohicans. At the start of the film, she seems a dishrag in the making—a woman trained to equate a man's happiness with her own. She's treated as a fragile possession by Duncan, an English officer who pushes her to consider marrying him even though she's not attracted to him. Cora ultimately rejects the patriarchal authority represented by Duncan and her father after meeting the hunter Nathaniel Poe, an orphaned white adopted by Mohawks. Nathaniel's description of the New World as a place to start over, a place where a person doesn't have to "live by another's leave" validates Cora's own suppressed craving to run her own life—a desire that links her to so many of Mann's male protagonists.

Even at their most peripheral, Mann's women are never caricatures. Whether they're emblems of the settled domestic life for which lone wolves are ill-suited or warrior women who are lethal when crossed, Mann makes sure that we understand their positions, and acknowledge that a relationship is two people plus a pact—and that if one participant's actions repeatedly betray that pact, the other party is justified in bailing.

This is most vividly illustrated in Heat when the wounded bank robber, Chris, tries to return home to his wife, Charlene, who has previously berated him as an overgrown boy. By nonverbally warning him not to come upstairs to a house full of cops, Charlene, who both adores and despies Chris, ensures his freedom and ends their marriage. Her decision is at once coldly self-interested and profoundly generous. Chris's stricken reaction packs the director's multiple, conflicted definitions of the world freedom into one close-up.

It's an irresolvable, in some ways bleakly humorous conundrum: by doing what a man's gotta do, and often justifying their actions in service of domesticity, Mann's men wreck their own chances at long-term happiness, which might have been incompatible with their natures to begin with. In this sense, nearly all Mann films are tragedies. 

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Courtesy 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Madeleine Stowe in The Last of the Mohicans
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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.

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Author's Website: The House Next Door