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The Details: Mann and the Ear

An exploration of the increasing visual emphasis on the ear in Michael Mann's work.

As Michael Mann has ventured into digital territory—or, in some cases, into a hybrid of digital and celluloid—there has been an unexpected and unusual compositional focus on the ear. Mann doesn’t so much glamorize the cosmetics of the ear but rather makes it an intractable fact of life in so many of his images. It’s almost always there on the edge of the frame in both dialogue scenes and set pieces, either just barely out of reach of the lens’ focal length or indeed the lone focal point, a stray ear in an expansive frame. Due to Mann’s increasingly regular use of wide-angle lenses at atypical moments—a tendency that cuts across his collaborations with various DP’s (Dante Spinotti, Dion Beebe, Paul Cameron, Emmanuel Lubezki, Lukas Strebel)—there’s a heightened awareness towards objects in close proximity to the camera (and thus an uncanny feeling that there is indeed a camera). Combine that with his urge to get closer and closer to bodies, seemingly interested in one day actually merging with them entirely, and the ear becomes one of the most consistent focal points, a magnetic area of attention. There’s a head there too, but the ear is what makes itself known.

Among Mann’s troupe of ears, there’s Christian Bale’s with their glossiness and peach fuzz, Wes Studi’s with their angularity and weird rivets, Russell Crowe’s slender, symmetrical set, Tom Cruise’s and Johnny Depp’s with their perfect shapeliness suggesting half a heart, and Jamie Foxx’s with their slight stubbiness and Denis Lavant-isms. Colin Farrell’s look friendly and familiar, Dustin Hoffman’s look imposing, like they can hear everything, and on the other end of the spectrum, there are those of Nick Nolte, which might just shrivel away from hearing too much.

Before and to some extent through The Insider, Mann was still preoccupied with compressing the filmic space through telephoto lenses, a relatively standard commercial practice especially in high-stakes drama, but since, an over-the-shoulder close-up (or, for Mann, the new term should be past-the-ear close-up) of an actor is every bit a shot of that character’s face as it is a shot of the listener’s ear. We’re aware of what’s being said as much as the fact that it’s being heard. It’s possible to glimpse the seeds of this development even in The Insider: when dollying slowly across Russell Crowe’s head to glimpse the speaker attached to the voice across from him, Mann makes sure to keep the ear fixed in a third of the frame at both the start and end point.

In fact, The Insider is a key transitional film in Mann’s broader approach to composing faces, a shift that would lead directly to the prominence of the ear. Jeffrey Wigand’s development as a whistleblower subsequently shredded to pieces by corporate dishonesty ensures that it’s a fairly paranoid film, and thus Mann uses all sorts of expressive techniques to unsettle the foundations of spatial relationships and psychological verisimilitude: belatedly regaining focus on the face of an actor who has drifted outside the focal length, temporarily leaving only a murky blob of a human, framing from obtuse angles that put emphasis on certain features to make an eye, a nose, a forehead, or, yes, an ear feel larger-than-life, and posing characters against relatively amorphous backgrounds such as a dark room or a reflective pane of glass. Many of these maneuvers seem a direct result of Mann’s hyper-extension of the telephoto practice (85mm and longer are in abundance), as if he were gleefully playing with shallow depth of field, but they also guided him to a new discovery: the importance of using the face as an expressive element, and of highlighting different parts of it at various moments.

The bridge that connected this discovery to the current “rise of the ear” in Mann’s work is a winding, foggy one, perhaps not entirely capable of being rationalized. But there is a certain approach to sound that goes hand in hand with the focus on the ear. As far back as Last of the Mohicans, viewers had spoke of the inaudibility of some of Mann’s dialogue, the fact that in certain instances it would take a backseat to the more visceral sounds of gunfights, nature, flesh-tearing, and bodily movements. When digital became a part of Mann’s approach and he found more immediate ways to depict the sensations experienced by his characters, this effect was amplified, culminating in the intense whisper/boom dynamic of Public Enemies. Primarily an instinctive director, Mann’s use of this type of soundtrack is part of his compulsion towards placing the viewer in the firsthand experiences of his characters. If his characters are quintessentially human and are therefore subject to the limitations of the human body (that is, they die when a bullet hits them), then hearing is presented in a similarly truthful manner. Mann’s style is complex and erratic, swapping subjectivities on a moment’s notice, often dozens of times within a single set piece.

Aiming to powerfully root these sensations in physical sources, Mann shifted towards wide-angle lenses, which, when viewing nearby objects, have a tendency to lend enormous tactility to those objects, making them as perilously close as they appear. The ear, when placed in front of this wide-angle lens that refuses to reduce deeper space to complete formlessness, therefore becomes a vivid part of its larger environment (an effect that is particularly pronounced in Public Enemies and, in some cases, the pilot of Luck). A shot of an ear with the cumulative flatness and sharpness of both digital and wide-angle lenses is quite distinct from a shot of an ear set against the shallow scope of The Insider; the former feels external, as if the ear is interacting with the world that surrounds it, while the latter feels internal, a representation of the sounds of a man’s mental landscape. Mann is now seeking to place his bodies in the context of their respective environments while maintaining a sense of firsthand experience, so his camera is positioned a close as possible to both the human and that human’s view as possible. The dividing line between these two areas of attention, of course, is the ear, one of exactly five vital pathways to the physical world. For the characters in Mann’s recent do-or-die dramas, it might be one of the most crucial.

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The Details is a column that catches the small within the big, focusing on the individual elements that make cinema so expressive.

This article makes me want to watch Reservoir Dogs again…
oops, i never realize it before..thx for the analysis , MUBI
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Really cool analysis. I’m with Algitya, I’d never noticed that repeating visual in his movies. Although, when I’m watching Mann’s movies I do often get a visual sense of deja vu, but I normally attribute it to having seen the movies multiple times
Algitya and Nathan, it’s an easy thing to miss because it’s only a small step away from a traditional shot-reverse-shot framing. But it’s the frequency with which Mann makes sure that the ear is visible, as well as the way his shorter focal lengths render its shape and texture particularly clear, that makes his camera placement something more than a mere convenience.
i always suspected Michael Mann had an ear fetish, this article confirms it! this certainly is one of Mann’s trademark shots, one i’ve admired for some time. he uses it quite extensively in “Heat” too if i remember correctly, particularly in the downtown shootout sequence, much in line with the shot of Bale above. nice observations, keep it up!
Excellent conclusion about the difference of the medium’s affect of an internal/external interaction. While the ear is quite prominent, I’ve always considered these obtuse angles were framing ‘communication’ rather than something physical, and you’re emphasis of bodies in space seems to be quite related when one considers the nature of communication is what perhaps overtakes the physical space (which motivates the shallow depth for me, as well as his disinterest in physical order and this shifting of narrative levels/“subjectivities” you’ve mentioned). Very interesting, this definitely makes me want to investigate his work more.
I recently noticed this style shot/framing appear in Robert Wise’s “The Andromeda Strain” (1971). Wise even uses split diopters so that both subjects during a dialogue scene are in perfect focus (therefore giving them equal importance/presence within the frame and also producing a heightened level of attentiveness to the dialogue). By consciously drawing the audioviewers attention to the subjects ear in the foreground, which is reciprocated through the shot-reverse-shot, Wise cleverly emphasizes the importance of information and the views that are being exchanged between the two characters.
Great find Antoine! It looks like Mann was inspired to create an almost exact replica of this shot in “The Insider.” Did Wise also use a horizontal dolly across the back of the head? I’d say that Mann is equally about “emphasiz[ing] the importance of information and the views that are being exchanged between the two characters.” Although he doesn’t use a split diopter, I was suggesting that a similar effect is being achieved through the digital medium with its relative flatness.
No, there is no horizontal dolly used in these shots as the split diopter only works in very fixed and constructed situations, the vertical lines in the architecture are cleverly used to ‘disguise’ the split in the focus which causes a slight blurring, so any camera movement would give away the optical effect. I totally agree that Mann achieves this sense of ‘deep focus’ through his clever utilization of high-definition cameras with their innate ability to render a great range of focus that is only heightened when coupled with wide-angle lenses, as evidenced throughout Mann’s early forays into HD, “Collateral” and “Miami Vice” and used to absolute perfection in “Public Enemies”.
Duly noted, Antoine. I was forgetting the technical specs of the split diopter.

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