It’s a Mann’s Worldby Jenny Schlenzka
Miami Vice the TV show (1984–89) gloriously celebrated surface. The producers chose vibrant colors, exquisite fashion, and cutting-edge editing over complex dialogue or suspenseful plots. Their choices drew millions to the small screen. In that sense, Miami Vice the movie is true to the original. It remains compelling for its breathtaking style. Stylistically, however, Miami Vice the movie is a product of the year 2006. Only the setting, the two main characters (Tubbs and Sunny, embodied by the charismatic Jamie Foxx and the unforgivably lame Colin Farrell), and their jobs as undercover cops are residue of the original.
More than 20 years later, director Michael Mann still makes the surface vibrate, albeit through different means. Whereas the TV show used MTV aesthetics—abstraction, jump cuts, non-linear editing, and a musical flow of images—the movie benefits from the exclusive advantages of the cinematic medium of our era, digital video. Instead of making a digital image look like film, Mann embraces the new aesthetic and experiments with it. As a result, in its weaker moments the movie looks like reality TV, but in its most glorious sequences, especially during the urban night, the screen becomes an Abstract Expressionist painting come alive. A centerless image that only refers to itself. Purely light and color—two blurry green dots, a flickering red light.
All of Michael Mann’s films deal with the aporia of modern masculinity. They reveal men who have lost their family authority and hence seek power and distraction in their professional identities. These men wander a cold and deceitful world. Thus Sonny Crockett leaves his wife and son in the first episode of Miami Vice and begins his modern odyssey.
In order to survive, the protagonists in Mann’s films have to be cool, untouchable, and on top of their game. Mann’s first film, produced for TV, The Jericho Mile (1979), already carries the nucleus of his complete body of work. In it, the inmate Murphy (Peter Strauss) survives the unforgiving reality of a maximum security prison by running laps in the prison yard and withholding any display of emotion.
Although not physically imprisoned, Sonny and Tubbs, like Neil (Robert DeNiro) and Vincent (Al Pacino), the two main characters in Heat (1995), exist within their emotional armor, unable to maintain meaningful relationships with their lovers and their families. Coolness is the cause of their loneliness, yet only coolness keeps them from becoming slaves to their unrealizable desires and passions. They are truly connected only to their jobs. Work is where they find new identity, control; in work they know how to act, be they cops, gangsters, or thieves.
In Mann’s world, desire makes men vulnerable. His heroes’ desires are—like the collage of objects that Frank (James Caan), the hero in Thief (1981), assembles from magazine cut-outs—media-imposed and therefore deceptive and estranging. Frank dreams of a woman, a child, a house, and a car. When he naively tries to turn his collage images into reality, he becomes a slave to a crime boss and almost dies. Murphy, the main character in The Jericho Mile, insists that his incessant running has no objective (“I don’t train—I just run”). As soon as he decides to start training to qualify for the Olympics, all hell breaks loose and his controlled environment shatters. Mann tells us that having no love, no longing, no dreams is the only safe path to follow.
Mann’s films could be regarded as nihilistic if not for the subtle glimpses of hope that appear on the surface of his images. Release is to be found only in movement—the aspect that separates cinema from all other art forms. In Miami Vice people are constantly in motion. Sitting comfortably in their sports cars, speedboats, helicopters, and airplanes they embody the old American desire for a nomadic life. While Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis) darts through New England’s untouched nature in The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Murphy makes life in prison bearable through non-stop running and Sonny and Tubbs appear to be at peace with themselves only during their impressionistic car and boat rides. It is the incessant movement of cameras, images, and characters that saves these men from silence, immobility, and death.
Mann’s protagonists either hunt or flee. The ones that flee run from themselves. Mann shows them only in places of transition—hotel rooms, empty houses, airports, parking lots, dockyards, locations that allow no orientation or attachment. (Mann sets all of his films in sprawling 20th-century cities like Los Angeles or Miami, never in New York’s clear-cut 19th-century grid.) Only the female characters seem to have a place to go. Sonny’s love object in the movie, Isabel (Gong Li), is as lonely and lost as he, yet she lives in a house that has traces of a life (the ultimate example being the photos of her family). It is the women in Mann’s world who intuitively sense what life is worth living for. (Obviously Mann is not the best source for learning about the dilemmas of being a woman at the turn of the millennium.)
Then there are the hunters. Manhunter (1986), Mann’s most stylish film, is his first exploration of the complex relationship between the hunter and the hunted. FBI agent Will Graham (William Petersen) has to leave his family in order to hunt down a serial killer nicknamed “the Tooth Fairy.” Whereas Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans guns down deer from a safe distance, Will must enter the mind of his prey—the mind of a psychopath—in order to catch him. At night Will creeps into the victims’ empty houses and studies the traces of blood on the floor. He drifts away from his own fragile self, merging with the psychopath’s processes. Even though he captures the Tooth Fairy, Will’s apparent return to idyllic family life is deceiving. He has delved too deeply into his own soul and learned that the killer’s perverse thoughts are not foreign to him.
The various law enforcers in Mann’s films all go through similar transformations. Sonny in Miami Vice and Vincent in Heat both realize that their antagonists are their mirror images. In Heat’s famous final shootout on an active runway, Vincent feels closer to Neil than to his own family. While trying to hunt down the criminal, Neil escapes his own reality, only to discover that the man he pursues is the same person he flees: himself. “The other is me” and Rimbaud’s “Je est un autre” are two sides of the same coin.
In addition to his various examinations of movement through space, Mann also explores—as his characters continuously transform—movement through time. He investigates the motion at the core of Becoming. Most characters in Mann’s films develop a desire to overcome the Self and become the Other, a concept represented through ubiquitous and obsessive observation of the Other through binoculars, night vision devices, or cameras. The notion of a shifting identity is one of the most interesting aspects of the Vice TV show. Sonny and Tubbs, who during their countless undercover missions fluidly transform into dealers, pimps, and drug smugglers, surrender the idea of pure and fixed identities. Throughout the show, the line between their cop and undercover identities increasingly blurs. This is an ongoing development that peaks when Sonny loses his memory at the end of the fourth season and is thoroughly consumed by his undercover identity.
Mann, unfortunately, does not explore this theme in his film version of Miami Vice. In fact, in all of Mann’s pictures only one person is able to truly transform and overcome his old Self: the Tooth Fairy, the serial killer in Manhunter. When the Tooth Fairy is finally caught—shot dead by Will, the detective—his body lies motionless on the floor, and the blood that pours out of his back forms two red wings. In his death the Tooth Fairy becomes his fantasy identity, the Red Dragon. In this powerful scene becoming is realizable because in death there is no longer any notion of depth and identity.
John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) is an early cinematic example of nomadic drifting presented as modern existence. As the film progresses, the five-year-long search by Ethan (John Wayne) for his relative gradually loses its objective and becomes its own reason for being. Sonny and Tubbs are Ethan’s successors. In Miami Vice’s many car scenes, the purpose of the drive often vanishes and the two detectives don’t patrol; they cruise. The loss of direction, in The Searchers and in _Miami Vice,_pushes the image towards abstraction. Ethan and his only companion ride through a highly modern and minimalist winter landscape devoid of coordination, action, or desire. In a sequence from the film that accurately captures the atmosphere of the TV show, Sonny and Tubbs sit in their Ferrari driving through an urban nightscape. Fragments of modern structures reflect on the windshield as the two men visually merge with their surroundings. For a moment the narrative stops and the image becomes pure surface. Two men, their vehicle, and a vast, estranging space—the perfect Michael Mann shot.
Jenny Schlenzka just completed her masters thesis on the TV show Miami Vice for the cultural studies program at Humboldt University, Berlin. She is currently in New York assisting Klaus Biesenbach, MOMAs film and media curator and chief curator for P.S. 1.