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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.
Carson Lund

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.

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