Khoi Vinh on Michael Mann, Public Enemies, and Miami Vice

Miami Vice - Michael Mann
Michael Mann’s Miami Vice

Khoi Vinh examines Public Enemies, Miami Vice, and how Michael Mann designs his narratives:

With a nearly impudent disregard for common storytelling conventions, the director has in recent years taken to gutting from his works anything and everything that might be superfluous to the forward momentum of his core narratives. He affords his characters practically no backstory or prehistory, his plots are reduced to the threadbare, and subplots are often extracted altogether. Including “Public Enemies,” his past three movies are so elemental and succinct (not necessarily in running time, but in scope) that they’re just as much like episodes within a larger series of events as wholly contained feature films of their own.

What’s left out from these movies is as important and beautiful as what’s included. They’re exercises in doing as much as possible with as little as possible, implying whole swaths of narrative information by allowing the audience to extrapolate events, details, backstories and subplots from only the barest hints of their presence. In fact, what Mann is doing here (and why I am so obviously drawn to this sensibility) is designing these stories — not just their presentation but more fundamentally their construction, too — and doing so in a way that evokes many of the very same things that thrill me about design.

Mann employs an architectural approach that establishes a plot framework but declines to fill every nook and cranny. He uses very few elements to suggest many more, and in so doing constructs a kind of environment that the audience experiences rather than a narrative account that the audience observes. This is very much minimalism and experience design at work; it just happens to star Johnny Depp, is all.

I haven’t seen Public Enemies yet, but I completely agree with Vinh’s praise for Miami Vice. Once you get past the fact that “it’s called Miami Vice’ and it stars Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx”, as Vinh puts it, you’re left with an incredibly stylish, taut and atmospheric, machismo-laden movie that is gripping pretty much from start to finish.

FWIW, I love reading Vinh’s thoughts on film. He brings an interesting, design-oriented way of thinking to the subject that always makes for some interesting insights.