Zen Pulp, Pt 4

Do you see?: Michael Mann's reflections, doubles, and doppelgängers
by Aaron Aradillas and Matt Zoller Seitz  posted July 15, 2009
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This is the fourth in a five-part series of video essays on Michael Mann. Part 1 can be viewed here; part 2 can be viewed here; part 3 can be viewed here; part 5 can be viewed here.

Manhunter (1986), written and directed by Michael Mann, is best known for introducing Hannibal Lecter, author Thomas Harris's most famous creation, to movie audiences, and for its then unusual choice of hero, an FBI profiler who catches killers by imagining his way into their psyches. But it's also notable for how it distills one of Mann's fascinations: the notion of commonality, meaning the ways in which seemingly distinct people can reflect each other, blur into each other, replicate one another's stories or problems and otherwise show themselves to be part of a continuum that they are not even aware of.

The movie's antagonist, Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan), considers himself a freak and nourishes a deep resentment of suburban nuclear families, which appear, through his eyes, to be living the idealized life he fears he can never have. After studying and then consulting with the imprisoned butcher Lecter (Brian Cox), he refashions himself as a destroyer, a Grim Reaper figure who will spread fear through the world by murdering the representatives of so-called "normalcy"—husbands, wives, and children—in their own beds. The film's protagonist is FBI agent Will Graham (William L. Petersen), who catches serial killers by constructing a psychological profile of his quarry and then immersing himself in it, Method-actor-style—a technique that led Graham to capture Lecter but cost him his sanity. The film's two-sided-coin approach has many equivalents elsewhere in Mann's filmography. The director's work is rife with doppelgängers, doubles, and reflections, concepts that are established in the film's screenplays and defined by Mann's filmmaking.

Mann and Christopher Crowe's script for The Last of the Mohicans, for instance, places two frontiersmen in literal and figurative opposition. The movie's hero is Nathaniel Poe (Daniel Day-Lewis), an Englishman who lost his family to frontier bloodshed as a child but is fundamentally at peace with himself, the land, and his new identity as an adopted Mohican. His dark double is Magua (Wes Studi), a Huron who has sworn to kill the English colonel responsible for his own family's death. Where Nathaniel has fully embraced another culture and seems free of neuroses, Magua is pure coiled rage, a revenge seeker who only pretends to be loyal to the French and the English as a means of furthering his mission. Mann's 2001 biopic Ali (credited to Eric Roth and four other screenwriters) is likewise filled with supporting characters who, like the hero, hate the very idea of being owned by anything or anybody: the fighter's various wives, all of whom have differences with the hero or his colleagues and aren't shy about saying so; Ali's best friend, Malcolm X, who tells the champ that he wants to publicly express his sorrow and anger at racist violence but has been silenced by the Nation of Islam's boss, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.

But Mann's doubling and reflecting doesn't just occur on the page. The director also conveys commonality through his visuals, deploying reflective surfaces and carefully composed frames to subliminally reveal the primal connection between characters that seem, on first glance, distinct and different. One of Mann's most important tools is the close-up, which he deploys with conceptual flair.

Consider the variations Mann rings on the classic shot/reverse shot pattern, which assigns each character a side of the frame and always keeps them there. The more conservative end of the scale is represented in the famous coffee shop exchange from Heat, written and directed by Mann. The scene affirms the similarities between thief Neil McCauley and cop Vincent Hanna in their dialogue. But the very traditional compositions assert the characters' fundamental opposition, keeping the cop on the left and the robber on the right, even when we're seeing the backs of their heads.

But the writer-director adds a layer of complexity in a moment from 2006's Miami Vice. The scene likewise depends on a shot/reverse shot conversation between two parties, only this time the two parties are actually three people: Jose Yero (John Ortiz), the representative of a drug dealer the undercover cops want to infiltrate and bust, and Crockett and Tubbs (Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx), separate individuals whom Mann's compositions treat as one unit. When the detectives sell their cover stories to Yero, Mann puts the bad guy frame left but keeps both Crockett and/or Tubbs frame right. When he cuts directly from Crockett to Tubbs, the men's heads overlap, establishing their oneness. A more unsettling version of this technique can be seen in Manhunter, in the prison encounter between Lecter and Graham. Mann puts the FBI agent and the cannibal center-frame; when he cuts between close-ups, the characters seem to bleed into each other, confirming Lecter's taunt that they're "just alike."

The director's analytical eye for composition is showcased most strikingly in Manhunter, his most analytical film. The shots and cuts don't just move the story along. They deepen it, commenting upon the action, suggesting similarities and differences between characters, and most of all, drawing parallels between the voyeurism that drives both Graham and Dollarhyde and the voyeuristic impulse we indulge by watching films like Manhunter. This last idea is conveyed in the scenes of Graham watching home movies of the families Dollarhyde slaughtered. There are four levels of perspective operating at once, enclosed within each other like layers of a nesting doll. Level one is the unseen family members who shot the films in the first place. Level two is Dollarhyde, who first saw these films while working at a film-to-video transfer lab. Level three is Graham, who's watching the movies on tape to discern how Dollarhyde planned the murders and what might have made him choose these particular families. Level four is the viewer, who experiences the other three layers while viewing Manhunter.

The film is itself a mirrored narrative, dividing its attention between Graham and Dollarhyde and then, in its final third, letting Graham recede so Dollarhyde can take center stage. It's no coincidence that we finally get a good look at the killer after Graham has accessed the buried part of himself that understands Dollarhyde; nor is it accidental that whenever Graham has a eureka moment that reveals Dollarhyde's essence, we hear rage welling up in his voice. Dollarhyde represents the hideous aspect of Graham that the agent must channel, confront, and defeat in order to defend the domestic paradise that Dollarhyde threatens, and from which he must ultimately separate in order to live in peace with his family.

This notion is articulated through countless images of reflective surfaces: mirrors, window panes, tabletops. Three of the film's most introspective, dramatically pivotal moments place the hero in front of mirrors. The first occurs in the home of a murdered family: Graham is in the bathroom when the answering machine goes off and he hears the dead mother's voice. This moment gives Graham the extra kick he needs to jumpstart his profiling skills. The second mirror scene occurs in an airport lounge. The answering machine message replays in his head, signaling that Graham has begun to channel the killer's mindset. When Graham addresses his reflection, he's not speaking to Dollarhyde but to the killer inside himself. The third mirror scene occurs in an FBI conference room, as Graham grasps the final puzzle pieces required to catch Dollarhyde. When he touches his reflection, it signals the start of his final separation from the beast within.

The mirror motif also comes through in two sex scenes: a comfortably intense tryst between Graham and his wife and Dollarhyde's seduction by his co-worker, Reba, which shakes the killer to his core. Dollarhyde's relationship with the woman—who, in a Frankensteinian touch, senses the sweetness within him because she is literally blind to his appearance—is the event that ultimately leads Dollarhyde to lose control, get sloppy, and expose himself to capture. His night with Reba destabilizes him, causing him to hallucinate an affair that does not exist, impulsively kill the object of his rage, then decide to murder Reba as well. Thus Graham's fear of losing his loved ones to dark forces (including the ones rattling around in his own subconscious) is acted out in microcosm by Dollarhyde, who might have had a shot at domestic paradise with Reba if he were able to control the beast within himself, the same beast Graham channels to catch Dollarhyde.

In the film's final action sequence—which intercuts Dollarhyde's preparing to murder Reba with Graham and the police rushing to catch the killer—Mann's meticulously constructed pattern of visual motifs converges, putting Graham and Dollarhyde in the same space for the first time and bringing the film's fascination with voyeurism to an explosive climax. Scored to Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida"—a '60s rock warhorse whose cheesy organ solo acquires Phantom of the Opera solemnity—the sequence starts with Dollarhyde smashing his fist into a bathroom mirror, then plucking one of the shards to use as a dagger. The contrast between the FBI agent and his quarry is the contrast between hopelesslness and hope. Graham, though profoundly troubled, can at least look at himself in the mirror. Dollarhyde can't—especially now, at his most pathetic, evil, and self-destructive moment. By driving his fist into the glass, he chooses violence over self-knowledge. He doesn't just shatter the mirror—art's most elemental symbol of self-investigation—he prepares to use its shards as weapons against Reba. (Dollarhyde's self-willed, figurative blindness is answered by his terrified prey: as the psycho drags the woman out of the living room and into the kitchen—the place where you go to carve up meat—she desperately drags her hand across Dollarhyde's giant, movie-screen-shaped wall photo, as if trying to escape into an image she can't even see.)

Outside the house, more reversals of both perspective and expectation. Earlier in the film, Graham tried to walk in Dollarhyde's footsteps at crime scenes, to understand the mentality of a man who invades homes to do evil. Now the positions are flipped. It's Dollarhyde's domicile/sanctuary that's being invaded, but Graham is a good intruder hoping to stop evil. Cut back to the kitchen to reveal a primal tableau: a conflicted brute pressing a onetime lover and potential mate against a kitchen table, mustering the gumption to wield a shard of mirror he couldn't bear to look into. Dollarhyde's psychic immolation translates Graham's ongoing, internal struggle into a climactic setpiece: the home, ideally a good, even holy place, is being threatened from within by an evil force that must be destroyed. Thus Graham's pursuit of and attack upon Dollarhyde mirrors Graham's attempt to expunge the evil within himself.

More voyeurism: Dollarhyde's immense, rectangular bay windows amount to a de facto movie screen, a canvas projecting Graham's psychic torment. As the agent advances toward the soon-to-be crime scene, he's (figuratively) standing outside himself—a moviegoer powerless to halt the worst-case scenario unfolding on the screen. "Stop it," Graham says twice, addressing himself as well as Dollarhyde. Dollarhyde reacts as if he heard Graham's admonition, glancing into the mirror shard and then looking away in shame.

Then comes the sequence's first jump cut: Dollarhyde raises his head (spasmodically, thanks to lopped-out frames) sees Graham for the first time, hurtling toward the bay windows. Dollarhyde is a spectator hypnotized and paralyzed by the movie taking place in the woods; Graham is a viewer leaping through the screen from the other side, hoping to prevent the horror about to occur indoors. Graham crashes through the glass, and for the first time, the two characters—both emblems and individuals, spectators and participants—inhabit the same space, the same frame. The movie isn't big enough for the both of them. Dollarhyde grabs the intruder—his opposite, double, doppelgänger—slashes his face with a mirror shard, and hurls him out of frame. Then comes a flurry of repetitive, disorienting jump cuts of Graham falling, rolling, settling, one of many such volleys; there are more jump cuts in the climax of Manhunter than in the rest of the movie put together. Combined with sudden changes in film speed (fast, regular, and slow-motion) and screen direction (left to right, right to left), the disruptive cuts make it seem as though the film is disintegrating before our eyes, shredding in the projector. This movie is having a nervous breakdown.

Dollarhyde shoots out the lights, blinding the movie, plunging the audience into darkness. Then he too breaks through a screen—the wall photo Reba clawed at; but where Graham was a savior leaping through a screen to rescue an innocent, Dollarhyde is a cornered beast lashing out against society's guardians. As he stands in the living room blasting cops with his shotgun, the director batters us with still more disruptive jump cuts. The jagged edits and sudden speed changes work at deliberate cross-purposes with the continuous music, undermining a coherent perception of time and space. This nightmare is happening endlessly, continuously, right now. As Dollarhyde turns to stomp back into the kitchen, the camera zooms in from outside the house; the viewer flies past (or through) the shattered window glass (the "screen"). We enter the Dollarhyde home, the Dollarhyde horror show, like Graham, but more cautiously and only after a braver man has gone through first.

When the exhausted Graham finally musters the strength to raise his pistol and unload it into Dollarhyde, the gunshots have unreal (animated) muzzle flashes and make sci-fi/thunderbolt sounds—another clue that this is both a metaphysical and physical contest. The killer's fall unleashes great, rumbling echoes: a giant has been slain. His blood spreads out in wing shapes, a conscious visual callback to an earlier scene in which Dollarhyde admired a slide of William Blake's painting "The Great Red Dragon and Woman Clothed in Sun." A killer obsessed with "evolving" into a higher state gets his wish.

The monster is dead. Night ends. The sun rises. Graham escorts Reba the could-have-been mate (double of Graham's own wife, who for all her tenderness, is blind to the severity of her husband's struggle) away from the psychic battlefield, toward daylight. The film's renewed embrace of natural sound and normal continuity signals a return to "reality." The nightmare is over. The story is done. Graham's inner conflict is resolved.

The home invasion sequence ends with a shot of Reba and Graham embracing in front of Dollarhyde's house. This shot is the culmination of the three aforementioned Graham-in-mirror shots. Taken together, the images chart the incremental defeat of Graham's inner Dollarhyde. In the shot of Graham in the bathroom mirror, the hero's true foe (Will Graham) is solid. In the airport lounge, Graham addresses a fuzzier reflection, which between the glare inside and the rain outside is only half visible. In the third mirror shot—the one where Graham puts the pieces together and separates from Dollarhyde—we see him talking to himself (and placing his palm against the window glass), but we cannot see his reflection. At the end of the movie, when the agent embraces Reba, there's no mirror, no reflection, no self-address, just a brief exchange:

REBA: "Who are you?"

GRAHAM: "Graham. I'm Will Graham." 


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Courtesy Touchstone Home Video
Russell Crowe and Al Pacino in The Insider, directed by Michael Mann
Photo Gallery: Zen Pulp, Pt 4


July 2-26, 2009 Michael Mann


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San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, the founder and publisher of Rockcritics.com and the host of “Back by Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.

More articles by Aaron Aradillas

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