Thursday, July 1, 2010
Last of the Mohicans (1992) A Film by Michael Mann
If there's ever been a film that has made me itch for the hypothetical notepad and pen that I never keep while watching films, it's Michael Mann's The Last of the Mohicans. What's so interesting about the film for me is the way that almost everything about it feels traditional, old-fashioned, typical, yet something is subtly off about it. There lies a particular intrigue in Mann's moment-by-moment visual filmmaking plugged into the facade of a big-budget romantic costume drama that made my critical faculties run wild. Mann embraces the traditional Hollywood epic format, passed down from Lean, only to infuse it with his own distinct, and distinctly modern, sensibility, favoring, like a great impressionist, the key moments rather than the general sweep. And all this with a big melodramatic story adapted from an 1826 James Fenimore Cooper novel that feels ripe for a dull rendering: in primitive North America, the French and the British engage in a bloody war for control of the colonies, while a fierce Indian tribe lead by the vengeful Magua (Wes Studi) betrays the British to capitalize on a long-standing anger towards Colonel Edward Munro (Maurice Roëves). Meanwhile, a separate tribe of Native Americans called the Mohicans, which has been whittled down to a measly but prideful three, tries to negotiate for their freedom, with one orphaned settler named Hawkeye (Daniel Day Lewis) falling in love with the British colonel's daughter Cora (Madeleine Stowe).
Obviously, this results in major conflicts, like the awakening of an age-old rivalry between Magua and Hawkeye, the perpetual endangerment of the Colonel's two daughters, or the skepticism and resultant hostility of the Colonel towards her daughter's chosen suitor, which of course runs counter to his conventional notion of who she should marry. But Mann seems oddly and compellingly indifferent to his material, less interested in following up on its sentimental potential than he is in using it as a broad window to transcendence. One can sense his impatience during any number of the film's more theatrical scenes, like he's just gnawing at the bit for the actors to get on with it so he can toss off another emphatic set piece. And Last of the Mohicans is nothing if not a flurry of immaculately staged large-scale battle sequences achieving the kind of savage poetry that Sam Peckinpah regularly practiced. Mann's camera becomes a feisty participant in the action, flailing around as if it's dodging the dangerous whiz of bullets and spears, and it is edited to be disorienting, oppressive, and enthralling. As visceral as it is though, it never becomes pure spectacle for its own sake because Mann makes sure to almost subliminally implant the sequences with extreme emotionality, cutting momentarily to the heroic desperation of Day-Lewis or the fearful expressions of the Colonel's daughters. I haven't felt this particular kind of chest-pumping excitement and emotion in a film in a long time.
The film is refreshingly not very character driven, preferring to let them act more as archetypes: the noble savage, the vicious Indian, the beautiful, defiant love object, and the conservative British officers. On one hand, this could come across as shallow and uninteresting, but Mann's clearly working in postcard cinema territory. He understands the lack of visible depth in his characters to be symptomatic of the died-in-the-wool tale he is telling, and of greater importance is the acute sense of time and place he captures with such astounding authenticity. Dialogue and dramatic exposition are clearly not Mann's forte, and nothing better to hammer that home than to literally downplay the voices, suffocating them in the mix so that they're just another democratic ingredient in the mise-en-scene. Technically, we shouldn't empathize so strongly with Hawkeye and Cora in light of how few scenes of serious bonding they actually have (and even what does exist is temperamental and meandering), but Mann lets them come alive through their actions. Even when they have their big first kiss, he seems more smitten with the movement of their entwined bodies, the way they rock back and forth and contort in the moody orange light, than he is with what's actually happening. As if to accentuate the point, when their lips first meet his camera misses the contact, denying the audience the expected payoff immediately. In Farber's terms, Mann is like a termite disguised in white elephant territory, using the Hollywood epic as a palette through which he can discover these tender, explosive moments. He's a filmmaker who understands and reflects our times, consumed as they are by transience and fleeting emotions.
Instead of trying to commit to language all of the stunning individual instances in Last of the Mohicans, I felt it would be most suitable to reflect it in a series of images. Here are some of the shots that spike the senses while experiencing the film and prove Mann's superb visual instincts.