The Contemporary City –

as represented in Michael Mann’s ‘Collateral’

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Introduction 

In this presentation I will be discussing how the contemporary city is depicted cinematically in Michael Mann’s 2004 movie, “Collateral”.

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I will look at the film from the point of view of  Supermodernity, non-places, and the loss of identity in an impersonal built environment. I will demonstrate how these architectural themes are supported by or complement by cinematic ones, from lighting and composition to characters and narrative.

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Synopsis 

Collateral is an American atmospheric neo-noir crime thriller directed by Michael Mann and written by Stuart Beattie. It stars Tom Cruise cast as a contract killer called Vincent and Jamie Foxx as Max the taxi driver.  It is a thriller that takes place over one full night, in which Vincent forces Max to drive him around Los Angeles to complete five assassinations.

The architectural portrayal of Los Angeles in the movie must be seen in the context of the director’s previous work.

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Space, not time, drives Mann’s crime cinema and offers an alternative vision of the crime genre [1].

Temporal dynamics dominated the genre with films like Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984), John Woo’s Hong Kong crime films of the 1980s, Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992), and Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000).

Also, while these crime films reaffirm place and identity, Mann’s film stylistics, architectural representations and narrative reveal an alternative voice that denies place and identity [2].

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His crime films display buildings, bridges, roads, and other structures as key elements in his mise-en-scene, suggesting the “non-place” of Marc Augé’s supermodernity. 

What is Non-Place?

In 1995 Anthopologist Marc Augé coined the term non-place for architectural space that “cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity” [3].

Non-places separate people from their identity creating mass groups, such as commuters, passengers, shoppers, consumers.

They  induce physical and virtual sameness and soullessness, and Augé sees the points where large numbers of people collect, such as airports, retail spaces, motorways, putting “the individual in contact only with another image of himself” [4].

Sameness on a pervasive scale makes the essential quality of supermodernity excess: too many events, too many structures, and both filled with too many individuals stripped of their identity.

Architectural Supermodernity

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Augé’s reader is to understand this term only in relation to modernity and post-modernity. Though they are contemporaneous in reference, super modernity differs from post-modernity.

Postmodern architecture began between the 50s-70s and is said to be heralded by the return of “wit, ornament and reference” to architecture in response to the formalism of the International Style of modernism.

Post-modernity sets up the observation point for seeing contemporary material conditions as “Supermodernity”, the new human and global condition of “excess” or “overabundance” of time or events [5], of space, and of identity. Take the salient features of modern material reality, exaggerate them beyond the wildest dreams of the Futurists, and you have Supermodernity [6].

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Opening Scene

The film opens with a scene at a generic airport, filmed at LAX, Los Angeles International.

A man dressed in grey, with grey hair, wearing sunglasses indoors, seems to bump into another similar character, but the camera makes it evident that they switch bags in secret. Later we find out that one of them is Vincent, a professional killer, who just picked up his instructions.

It was not by chance that director Michael Mann chose an airport for his opening sequence.

Like most public spaces of the modern city, it is a location devoid of character, impersonal and cold, thus a non-place.

Mann’s crime film consistently evokes elements of Augé’s theory on Supermodernity.

His storytelling emerges from the same spatial sensibility, and the built environs of his mise-en-scene determine his narrative decisions.

Architectural non-place drives the narrative of this film, specific to his style [7].

Mann’s crime films often spend the first 10–30 minutes with arrival of the main character in a non-place, and that space determines their action. On a more detailed level, space defines characters.

His 1995 movie Heat opens with images of a commuter train and station to establish architectural design as generating attitudes and understanding of Neil, the bank robber.

In the absence of narrative context, possible at a film’s outset, the environs, and their design, frame the visual experience. The hospital, in Heat’s second scene, provides another allusion. The hospital alludes to a non-place, in which inhabiting the space determines the individuals: commuters and patients. Neil “inhabits” the space, but his determined movement sets him apart from the excess of other patients [8].

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Our movie then moves on and soon Max and his cab are introduced. After dropping off prosecutor Annie he picks up Vincent, unaware of the latter’s plans for the night.

For Mann buildings or structures often form transition spaces between Act I, the set-up, and Act II, the confrontation.

In this case it is the taxi, or in the case of Heat, bookstores and restaurants.

Further on, Vincent starts conversing and his critique of Los Angeles seems to echo Augé’s theory about non-places:

“Too sprawled out. Disconnected. … 17 million people … But nobody knows each other. Too impersonal …”

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The first murder 

This is when the movie begins for most. Vincent kills the first man and throws his body onto Max’ cab.

It’s when Collateral becomes what most people think Collateral is, an action movie about a hitman and a cab driver. Except that Collateral resists the urge to becoming just an action movie.

On the commentary track, Mann describes Collateral as “only the third act” of a story, a description which you might expect would result in a nonstop action thrill ride. And there is something about Collateral that anticipates our current vogue for realtime action movies—the cultishly adored Raid series, Snowpiercer, Mad Max: Fury Road, movies that begin in motion and never really stop [9].

But Collateral stops all the time. Even as Max and Vincent drive, they’re already analysing what just happened to them and Max demands to know more about the dead man in his trunk.

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Mann’s connection with architecture through his spatially driven narrative, gives his crime films a singular distinction, played out on three levels of design:

  • a level external to the characters’ actions, non-places like the airport, motorways, elevators
  • a level at which the architectural representations reveal a character’s interiority.
  • a level at which the architectural representations and characters interact

Architectural representations reveal a character’s interiority

Before meeting Vincent, Max drives prosecutor Annie. Stressed, she has a full night of work ahead. He stops in front of her office, and he turns around to look her in the face. He figures she needs inspiration. He gives her his inspiration: The picture of the island he keeps on his visor [10].

This picture is the only element that transforms a non-place like the cab, into a place, where dreams give strength to Max during the most challenging workhours. He keeps it hidden, almost sacred.

For Mann the relationship between architectural design and character interiority is a subtle means to make visual the inner-life of the characters. 

Architectural representations and characters interact

Architecture and narrative intersect at crucial moments of a film. The characters re-define the space (e.g., the armored car robbery and the bank robbery in the streets in Heat) or the space re-defines the characters and their situation (e.g., Max’s cab in Collateral) [11] .

Upon arriving in Los Angeles, Vincent actively denies that space should define his identity, so his presence, as an assassin, often redefines the space he inhabits [12].

Another space, the prison, absent in Collateral but present in Mann’s The Jericho Mile, Manhunter and referenced in Heat, becomes a non-place of existential self-awareness and redefinition. The non-place turns the hero into “nothing” and from there the hero begins a journey of new identity.

For Mann the prison becomes the central metaphor of Supermodernity, as they both turn individuals into “nothing. Later the film characters become heroes because the prison forces them to reclaim their identity [13].

Similarly, the cab becomes Max’ prison, after Vincent threatens his life and forces him to drive him to the next four destinations.

Symbolically, only after Max deliberately crashes the car does he become liberated and is metaphorically reborn. At that moment Vincent leaves him to kill the last victim. Having also survived the accident Max learns that the last victim is Annie and that motivates him to pursue the killer.

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Space defines narrative but also vice versa.

In some cases lighting and composition enhance the rhetorical presence of the architectural element, for example the bridge in Collateral. Its original architectural presence remains unchanged.

In other cases, the cinematic intervention needs to alter the meaning of the original space.

For example, Atlanta’s High Museum becomes Dr. Lektor’s prison in Manhunter. By rejecting its museum qualities, Mann frames the museum to fit a thematic design. For Mann, the museum becomes a prison and its prevailing whiteness and sterility amplify the absence of identity one associates with such places [14].

Mann’s filmic style coordinates the camera elements (composition, lighting, color) and built environs and uses them to frame the viewer’s position on the characters and events. The camera frames structures in a way determined to connect space and narrative. Mann takes us through structures to see characters carefully positioned within a space. He sets the professional thief in Heat (1994), for example, in his beach house so that the interior frames the view of Neil and the ocean beyond. Similar compositions appear in Manhunter and Miami Vice (2006).

Mann’s heroes usually live in beach homes, antagonists live in modern homes [15], parking garages become meeting places, office buildings become blue collar work cites, confrontations occur beneath bridges, highways become places of meditation and contemplation, and diners or bars are usually sites of negotiation and exchange.

In Collateral it is not revealed where the characters live, except in the case of the first two victims:

Ramones and Mr. Clarke, as seen in the last image. The emphasis is placed almost entirely on spaces of transition.

Mann’s crime films reveal an engagement to Augé’s Supermodernity and depict the loss of identity in the American city. An excessive sameness of non-places develops in his crime films and becomes the metaphor of life in current times.

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If one considers Mann’s films through Augé‘s theory, a progression from place to non-place can be noticed.

With Thief (1981) Mann begins a narrative of the American city. The decaying structures suggest the ending of place and the coming excess of Supermodernity’s nonplaces. The skyline shots of Chicago contain iconic structures which emphasize the identity of the space. Mann purposefully frames his city view to make Chicago’s identity and history (North Shore, blues clubs, State Street) distinct, emphasizing in Thief a narrative with polarities of place and non-place [16].

But in 1994, with Heat, little of the Los Angeles Mann depicts contains any “place” (we know it’s Los Angeles because the characters say it is).

Collateral and Miami Vice in the 2000s take place entirely within non-places. Miami looks no different than Los Angeles.

Film Noir Links

German expressionism externalized the mental state of mind of a character and projected it onto the mise-en-scène, creating a new aesthetic out of sets, lighting and costumes. The Expressionists were creatively involved in the production design of a film, and such a tradition is still identifiable in many filmmakers’ approach to cinema.

Such a manipulation of architecture exists in the work of Mann too, and in Collateral, he continues to use the image and context of the city especially Los Angeles as an appropriate visual metaphor for the mental state of his tough, lonely and acutely anonymous noir protagonists [17]. 

Like the best film noirs, ‘Collateral’, is a film about the city, just like The Third Man is about Vienna and Odd Man Out about Belfast.

Max and Vincent’s journey through down town Los Angeles seems like the perfect excuse for Mann to revisit his favorite architectural locations, many of which he had first photographed in ‘Heat’ [18], and to use them as a backdrop that is not simply subordinate to the narrative, but aesthetically enriching and intellectually alive.

Some of these locations are: Harbor Freeway, La Cienega Boulevard, South Alameda Street, West 5th Street, West Olympic Boulevard & South Figueroa Street, etc.

Mann’s loose crime trilogy of ‘Thief’, ‘Heat’ and ‘Collateral’ has become a striking visual map of contemporary American architecture, immortalizing the magnetic and disjointed metropolis through an equal appreciation of love and contempt for the surrounding urban landscape.

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A new age of cinema: the digital camera

Now it is time to mention one of the defining aspects of Collateral: It’s one of the first theatrically released movies shot almost entirely on digital video.

Architecture today is represented almost exclusively through digital formats: digital photography, video, CGI images, 3D models.

Collateral represents architecture in the most contemporary format for the first time: the digital HD camera.

“Michael Mann has created an atmospheric world of stark light and shadow. Contrasting the hustle and bustle of the daytime with the isolation and solitude of the darkness, Mann makes Los Angeles look beautiful and haunting at the same time [19].

Thus, to pick up the vibrant patterns of light and dark hidden to the naked eye, Mann chose to shoot nearly 90% of the film on high definition video.

Mann’s goal was to make the ‘LA night as much of a character in the story as Vincent and Max were’ [20], by utilizing HD’s ability to achieve exposure in extremely low light levels. This allowed them to film night scenes using just the existing, ambient light, while maintaining an exceptionally long depth of field.

It’s the perfect merging of style and content. Just as Psycho had to look a little cheap so Collateral needs all those skylines, all those lights in the distance. You’re constantly aware that those lights represent real people [21]—and that those real people don’t notice the horrors being perpetrated by Vincent.

It’s all a direct echo of what Vincent says, in that first scene in the cab:

“Seventeen million people. The fifth biggest economy in the world and nobody knows each other. I read about this guy who gets on the MTA here, dies. Six hours he’s riding the subway before anybody notices his corpse doing laps around L.A., people on and off sitting next to him. Nobody notices.”

Throughout the film, characters in the foreground and clouds, buildings and silhouetted trees on the horizon line, are all seen with a clarity that could not be captured on film. One such use of this depth of field occurs shortly after Vincent’s first victim falls out of a window, landing on Max’s taxi below.

Using HD’s increased depth of field on Collateral serves both aesthetic and thematic purposes. Firstly, it creates an innovative look in which background focus doesn’t sacrifice the focus of characters in the foreground [22] .

Secondly, the long depth of field also aids the narrative and character development of the film by illustrating the vulnerable and isolated situation that Max has been cast into, a situation that for the majority of the film plays out beyond his control.

This depth of field is also seen through the windows from within Max’s taxi, which having been established as a place of sanctuary for Max in his opening scene further emphasizes the effect that Vincent’s invasion into this space is having on him.

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Scene: Jazz Club Murder

Beebe’s use of light and color temperature to extrapolate character insight is seen later in the film in the Jazz club.

At the beginning of the scene, Vincent and Max are framed centrally in a long shot from the stage and both are looking towards the musicians. A strong sidelight from off-screen left illuminates Vincent’s body, leaving Max, seated to the right of Vincent, almost entirely in shadow. This serves to infer Vincent’s imposing and dominant presence over Max, but more so singles Vincent out as the sole appreciator of the music.

The strength of the sidelight, however, places one half of Vincent’s face in complete shadow, suggesting a psychological conflict [23].

This is further inferred moments later as Vincent, Max and the bar owner are seated at the table drinking, with Vincent once again positioned at the far left of the frame.

The left side of his body, however, remains bathed in the white light, the starkness of which is exaggerated by his white shirt, white skin, silver hair and grey suit. Finally, just before he kills the bar owner, he glances towards the kitchen to check that the waitress has left, and the kitchen is lit by an extremely stark, neon-green light; completely at odds with the warm, shadow-filled interior of the bar.

This serves to portray, along with the strong sidelight, the ever-present nature of Vincent’s cold, clinical and emotionless work, and his inability to gain sanctuary from it.   

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Role-Playing

Following the loss of identity in a non-place, comes the role play.

Augé and Mann suggest existing in Supermodernity amounts to role-playing.

Following the murder of the jazz-club owner, Max destroys Vincent’s documents.

This leads to the killer forcing Max to recover his list of victims from the drug lord that pays him.

Following this Max isn’t really himself; he’s impersonating Vincent, threatened, and the knowledge of playing someone other than himself gives him the ability to talk down to murderous crime lords.

The Planes and the Coyote

  • Another key aspect would be the appearances of planes. They’re up there, constantly, in the sky: Their lights twinkling, taunting Max with the possibility of escape, or maybe reminding Vincent that he only has to linger in this city he despises for a few hours more [24].
  • There’s a scene in the movie, another unexpected pause, that encapsulates this read on the movie.  A metaphorical animal, a coyote crossing the road. Max, still driving the murderer, slows down, indirectly suggesting that even this life is precious.
  • This is all in the lead-up to the Korean Nightclub scene, before the fourth murder. It’s a bad omen, but it’s also bizarrely optimistic: a reminder that none of this really matters, that Los Angeles is still a desert underneath all the palm trees. On the soundtrack, Cornell sings, “I can tell you why people die alone” [25].

 

Scene: Korean Club

“Collateral’s big interior scenes, which comprise about 20 percent of the movie, were shot on 35mm, according to Beebe the film’s cinematographer.

“It was decided early on that night-exterior scenes would be shot on HD and controlled interior scenes would be shot on film,” . “That made sense, as we were not relying upon available light levels to set our parameters [26].

By this point Vincent goes to the nightclub so he can kill Victim #4, a Korean gangster with several bodyguards. The FBI follows the taxi there—they think that Max is Vincent, and they want to take him down.

Maybe the nightclub scene is so memorable because it’s composed, almost entirely, out of raw humanity. It’s all close-ups of body parts, of arms in the air, of people dancing. It’s a scene shot on a built set filled with a few hundred people [27].

Its real location is near Korea Town and has a 7 times smaller interior.

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Final Victim Hunt Down

There is a particularly memorable silhouette scene—an action scene that plays out in silence and stillness, with the characters just silhouettes etched against the background of Los Angeles. One has seen scenes like this elsewhere: In Kill Bill Volume 1, in Skyfall.

But those scenes are trying hard to be beautiful. Mann shoots Collateral on video and doesn’t try to hide it—he seems to love the unique aspects of high-definition video [28].

The Ending

The endings of Mann’s crime films become the moments when architecture and narrative increasingly converge .

Max manages to kill Vincent on the commuter train but leaves him on the train— in a way bringing Vincent’s story of a dead traveller back to life.

Mann’s endings determine identity with a return to structures of arrival and departure [29].

His crime films are different because the heroes do not win their confrontations with the modern urban spaces, non-place triumphs over place. At best, Mann’s heroes survive the confrontation within the identity-less American city (Thief , Manhunter, Collateral, and Miami Vice), they do not effect any change and only preserve the hegemony of non-place and Supermodernity [30].

Conclusion

Mann never shoots any recognizable landmarks in Collateral.

Thus, this is a rare Los Angeles movie that seems to have something to say about Los Angeles but nothing to say about Hollywood.

The American city, in Mann’s view, is completely non-place. Film style and architectural representation negotiate a narrative from the tension between place and non-place and by Mann’s latter films, which are entirely non-place, the characters negotiate their identity within the non-place—to varying degrees of success.

This director’s crime films form a microcosm of the American city and his recent films have arrived at the central concept of Auge’s supermodernity: the excess of the American city has created a prison of supermodernity and what heroes exist attempt to defy the power of non-place only to have it kill them or expel them.

Mann’s cinema bears the stamp of a unique author, but his use of architecture also suggests textual readings of built environments as they appear in narrative films and still contains much for architecture critics and film critics to consider.

 

Reference Notes

[1] Robert Arnett 2009, ‘The American City as Non-Place: Architecture and Narrative in the Crime Films of Michael Mann’, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 27:1, p. 45.

[2] Ibid. p. 44.

[3] Augé, Marc 1995, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, pp 77-78

[4] Ibid., p.79

[5] Ibid., pp. 20-33

[6] Buck, Eric M. 2009, ‘Review of Augé, Marc. Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity’, Theory in Action, Vol. 2, No. 3, p. 134

[7] Robert Arnett 2009, ‘The American City as Non-Place: Architecture and Narrative in the Crime Films of Michael Mann’, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 27:1, p. 45.

[8] Ibid.

[9] http://www.ew.com/ew/static/longform/collateral/desktop/

[10] Ibid.

[11] Robert Arnett 2009, ‘The American City as Non-Place: Architecture and Narrative in the Crime Films of Michael Mann’, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 27:1, p. 50.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Robert Arnett 2009, ‘The American City as Non-Place: Architecture and Narrative in the Crime Films of Michael Mann’, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 27:1, p. 45.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Robert Arnett 2009, ‘The American City as Non-Place: Architecture and Narrative in the Crime Films of Michael Mann’, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 27:1, p. 47.

[17] Anderson, M. J. 2004, ‘Before Sunrise, or Los Angeles Plays Itself In a Lonely Place’, Sense of Cinema, Issue 33, October

[18] Omar, A., Welcome to the Jungle. Available from: <http://omarsfilmblog.blogspot.com/p/films-of-michael-mann.html>. [21 November 2015].

[19] Sells, M., Welcome to the Jungle. Available from: <http://www.cinescene.com/reviews/collateral.htm>. [21 November 2015].

[20] Holben, J., Hell on wheels. Available from: <https://www.theasc.com/magazine/aug04/collateral/page1.html&gt;. [21 November 2015].

[21] Franich, D., Collateral: In praise of Michael Mann’s action odyssey a decade later. Available from: <http://www.ew.com/ew/static/longform/collateral/desktop/>. [21 November 2015].

[22] Hay, J., A Long Arm first, and celebrating the cinematography of Dion Beebe. Available from: <https://jamesgillingham.wordpress.com/2014/09/03/a-long-arm-first-and-celebrating-the-cinematography-of-dion-beebe/ >. [21 November 2015].

[23] Hay, J., A Long Arm first, and celebrating the cinematography of Dion Beebe. Available from: <https://jamesgillingham.wordpress.com/2014/09/03/a-long-arm-first-and-celebrating-the-cinematography-of-dion-beebe/ >. [21 November 2015].

[24] Franich, D., Collateral: In praise of Michael Mann’s action odyssey a decade later. Available from: <http://www.ew.com/ew/static/longform/collateral/desktop/>. [21 November 2015].

[25] Ibid.

[26] Holben, J., Hell on wheels. Available from: <https://www.theasc.com/magazine/aug04/collateral/page1.html&gt;. [21 November 2015].

[27] Franich, D., Collateral: In praise of Michael Mann’s action odyssey a decade later. Available from: <http://www.ew.com/ew/static/longform/collateral/desktop/>. [21 November 2015].

[28] Ibid.

[29] Robert Arnett 2009, ‘The American City as Non-Place: Architecture and Narrative in the Crime Films of Michael Mann’, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 27:1, p. 50.

[30]  Sanders, S., Aeon J. Skoble, R. Barton Palmer (edit.) 2014, The Philosophy of Michael Mann, p.27

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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