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 Roƫves). 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.


Iammine78 said...

Hi Carson,

I'm new to your blog and, I must say, quite impressed. It helped, of course, that you decided to highlight one my favorite films from an American director in the '90s. The film is nearly twenty years old and I hope, at some point, it reaches the appreciation it deserves. By and large, Mann is truly a visual storyteller at the core. In the majority of his films, dialogue is important in the context of getting him to the next set piece or visual exposition. I've read numerous times that Mann is quite intentional in the use and placement of music in his films, going so far as having the music firmly chosen before cameras even roll. Coincidentally, "Mohicans" is one of the very few films where he employs a strict, orchestral score (to a rousing effect, no less). It plays a considerable role in providing the chest-pumping excitement you referenced. My only theory is that he opted for straight orchestration in order to help provide, as you describe it, the traditional and (somewhat) old-fashioned feel. Equally valuable to his films is the overall use of sound. The first image you posted (of a gunshot) directly relates to a commentary of Mann's '95 film "Heat" I read yesterday. The article goes to great lengths to highlight Mann's ability to create a signature sound for his style that's largely connected to the sound of a gun shot. If you haven't yet read it, I've posted the link below. If you haven't the seen the film, it'll still be a good read as no spoilers are present. The other observation worth pointing out rests in the climax/finale that Mann often uses. In almost every film the last 15-20 minutes carries little, if any dialogue. It is during this coda that Mann employs his full visual arsenal, with the thundering support of both music and sound. On a final note, I'd encourage you to check out "The Insider". Not only is it my (just by a notch) favorite Mann film, it also boasts the finest performance of Russel Crowe to date. Thanks again for sharing...

Carson Lund said...

Thanks so much for commenting Iammine!

"Mann is a visual storyteller at the core"

This is about as true and straightforward a statement as one could make about Mann. It's interesting to hear that most of his films utilize dialogue-free climaxes and endings; something I haven't noticed, but I also haven't seen enough of his work. In Last of the Mohicans, it's unbelievable the way that Mann invests so much power in his final images alone. The last 30 minutes could have eschewed sound altogether and still been affecting.

Surprisingly, Heat and The Insider are two of his movies I've yet to see, so I don't want to read too much about them. They seem to belong to a category in Mann's oeuvre that is more generally likable, more frequently regarded as "classic" genre efforts. Last of the Mohicans is hit-or-miss for a lot of people because it's rather rough around the edges, and sometimes loses the Mann flair in favor of generic Hollywood motifs, but I think its finer moments are among his best achievements as a filmmaker.

Iammine78 said...

Hello Carson,

Thanks for getting back to me so quickly. I'm a bit of a night owl, with many nights spent reading, listening to music and the periodical late night movie. I fully understand and respect your decision to not read much commentary regarding the two Mann films I mentioned. Selfishly, I hope you get to both sooner rather than later simply because I'd love to hear your thoughts. Thankfully, I'm pragmatic with the realization that it may take some time. All the same, I hope you share your thoughts on both when the time comes.

In the haste of my previous post, I neglected to point out a sister detail (so to speak). Not only does Mann have a tendency to end his films with little dialogue, he also begins many with the very same tactic. As you can attest, "Mohicans" certainly utilizes such an approach. There are exceptions but, by and large, you'll notice this narrative structure used consistently.

At the end of the day, Michael Mann comprehends (to the bone, joints and soul) what it means to be a director of film. Consequently, I can't decide if he's just not that good with dialogue (overall) or if he's just not interested in it enough to give it the attention that someone like Tarantino does. He'd rather show us what his characters are doing as opposed to what they're saying (or at the very worst, have them tell us what they're doing). I do hope Mann hasn't given up on 35mm entirely. While his wizardry has brought incredible images through the handling of digital, I much prefer his 'film' cameras from days gone by.

Sorry for dragging this out, but another item to share came to mind. Quite often, Mann's films are fairly violent. His approach taps in to a technique that, I'm fairly certain, is unique among mainstream American filmmakers. In the midst of such violent images, we're never left with a sense of gratuitousness. In fact, we're rarely left with a sense of the reverberating repercussions of such violence (and when he does touch on the consequences, it's fairly fleeting). What makes Mann's use of violence so damn visceral is how he captures the full 'reality' of it, the very moment it happens. As a viewer you feel, in your gut, every gunshot, every bullet entry, every weapon against flesh and the environment itself that your body can't help but to respond. Thanks for indulging my long post. I'll find time to read over all of your entries as time allows.

Carson Lund said...

Thanks for continuing to share your thoughts. I never have a problem with long comments. In fact, I welcome them.

What you say about why Mann is such a visceral director of violence is precisely why I brought up Sam Peckinpah in context of the battle scenes in Mohicans. Filmmakers too often don't seem to register the impact of violence, using it instead as pure narrative gimmickry. Mann makes it feel disgusting and brutal, but miraculously still adrenaline-pumping.

I agree with you that I prefer when directors embrace the beauty and warmth of film, but to me Mann is one of the most interesting practitioners of digital. There are only a handful of directors who have done unique work with the potential of digital (think in Collateral, how Mann achieves a uniquely pastel look with his digital cameras.) In that sense, I fully endorse his move to this new kind of cinema, for in order to survive, there must be some who exercise it in artful ways.

I look forward to more of your comments. The easiest way to browse my site in its entirety is through the index sorted by directors, which can also be found on my sidebar.