ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON CASTLECO-OP.COM November 9th 2010
“Auteur, yes, but what of?”
Authorship has always been a contentious critical mode within film theory. In structuralist and poststructuralist conceptions, searching for what a mythic author was trying to say in the text, inhibited textual analysis and viewer/reader agency. In his seminal 1968 essay, ‘Death of the Author,’ Roland Barthes famously claimed that “to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author.”[i]Barthes’ primary objective was to empower the reader. Michel Foucault, however, focused on the ‘absence’ of the author as offering potential alternatives to traditional categorisation of authorship. He writes: “the function of an author is to categorise the existence, circulation, and operation of certain discourses in society.”[ii] I will explore how Mann operates and interrogates the discourse of masculinity, particularly as coded by professionalism.
The Insider is evidence that Mann’s cinema is marked by a formal and cultural ‘tense’ as linked to his historical heritage. In the watershed article ‘La politique des auteurs’, Bazin writes: “Jacques Rivette has said that an auteur is someone who speaks in the first person. It’s a good definition; let’s adopt it.”[iii] Mann’s film language speaks in the ‘past tense’, in relation to Mann’s own biography – as a US citizen whose past is strongly influenced by the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-Vietnam War struggles and the Watergate crisis. This is the United States that shaped Mann, just as it does the ‘new Hollywood’ per se.
In this conception, ‘Michael Mann’ as the historically constructed author, is simply an important method by which to view his films. Staiger finds that: “authors, then, are defined as readers’ fictional representations that participate in the readers’ interpretation of messages supposedly produced by those fictional representatives.”[iv] Foucault saw the author function as classificatory, which is compatible to Bazin’s theory of the authorial subject. The criterion of my conception of authorship in addressing Michael Mann is not to elevate films to the status of art, nor to calculate technical proficiency, but to recognise that at the beginnings of authorial scholarship one is motivated by subjective interestin a director’s work or subject matter. It is through such an initial encounter that a particular formal style, thematic concern or portrayal will interact with a historically and culturally located viewer and activate not only their curiosity but begin a dialogue between film and viewer. The latter will then begin ‘constructing’ the author in creative engagement with the given film or body of work.
Authorship in this conception is a means to see the purposive or subconscious evolution of an artist as a product of a particular set of historical and cultural contexts. Seen through this emphasis, a film’s author is a very ‘tangible’ figure far from the mythic or mystical artist of Romantic imagination. Bazin saw that the importance of the author in cinema was the vulnerability of his/her position when compared to other art forms. The ability to read thematic, formal, and historic discourse over the filmic body of Michael Mann’s work, using Bazin’s conception, speaks to the importance of studying that director as a historically and culturally ‘marked’ author both emerging from a specific time and place in Mann’s case, working within the constraints of the Hollywood studio system. This is important to consider because the primary focus for the early auteurists in the ‘50s (notably that appearing in Cahiers Du Cinema) was indeed Hollywood cinema. Bazin classified Hollywood Studio films of that period as a form of classical art (that evolved into a culturally specific narrative) operating within a strictly regulated production context. Staiger writes: “Bazin defines cinema within a set of historical circumstances and within a dialectical interrelation between spectators and cinema as object…[C]inema’s nature, then, is to know itas perceived and within historical relations.”[v]
Staiger’s account of Bazin aligns to a fair degree with Foucault’s methodology. Foucault writes: “[W]hen a historically given function is represented in a figure that inverts it, one has an ideological production. The author is therefore the ideological figure by which one marks the manner in which we fear the proliferation of meaning.”[vi] Foucault is warning that the conception of the author can inhibit critical theory because it accounts for all possible readings of the text to be framed through the author. In my opinion authorship does not necessarily inhibit the overall reading of the text, but merely can be the grounding perspective through which we frame a study of a group of works. Foucault’s landmark article ‘What is an author?’ emphasises the ‘function’ of the author. Foucault wanted to explore the different functions of using the author’s name when attaching it to a text. There are descriptive and designative functions when describing the roles of the author ––they are opposite poles, and require classification[vii]. Foucault observed the paradoxical singularity in the name of the author and found removing the name affects a broad range of the ideas associated with that author:
[I]f we establish that Shakespeare wrote Bacon’s Organon and that the same author was responsible for both works of Shakespeare and those of Bacon, we could have introduced a third type of alteration which completely modifies the functioning of the author’s name.[viii]
Mann’s films are endemic of the ‘new Hollywood’ milieu despite the temporal detachment of his films’ production; but Mann’s films ‘exist’ as historical and cultural products and are not restricted to an authorial reading. The author’s construction is complex. In asserting the author, we assign continuities and variations according to the discourse of the period within which the films are made. Mann is a unique case study because his films primarily exclude the cultural discourse of the period in which they are produced. While covering contemporary context and settings, Mann’s philosophical and thematic origins are in ‘new Hollywood’, bringing about a dislocated vision.
Through the work of film theorists such as Staiger, Stam, and Gerstner we have seen a resurgence of interest in developing a workable methodology to account for the author in film.[ix] Staiger summarises the position whereby authorship is reconfigured and ‘transferred’: “Thus, the author is reconceptualised as a subject having an ability to act as a conscious analyser of the functionality of citations in historical moments.”[x] In the long wake of critical theory’s post-structuralist shift, any conception of the author must allow that such a figure’s position within discourse is reliant upon the reader. Just as this work is in sharp contrast with the continuing tradition of the populist biography-fuelled film review, recent film theory’s appreciation and reappraisal of authorship is also sharply delineated from both ‘original’ 1950s auteurist criticism and late-‘60s and early-‘70s structuralist-auteurism. Authorship here either denotes a “re-tracing a film to its origins, to its creative source” nor “of tracing structure (not a message) within the work, which can then be assigned post factum to an individual director, on empirical grounds.”[xi] The latter structuralist attempt at a ‘scientific’ auteurism was akin to a veil that sought to disavow the subjective and Romantic origins of authorship in favour of a kind of empiricist appropriation of film authorship. Robert Stam ignores the empirical conception of authorship as he writes: “Most contemporary auteur studies have jettisoned the romantic individualist baggage of auteurism to emphasise the ways a director’s work can be both personal and mediated by extra-personal elements such as genre, technology, studios, and the linguistic procedures of the medium.”[xii] Moreover these extra-personal elements can be a prevalent cultural or historical worldview that manifests itself in the work.
Back to the Future: Mann & New Hollywood.
Up until The Insider (1999), Mann’s work did not evoke the immediacy of filmmaking inspired by current events that so marked seminal ‘70s new Hollywood films such as All the President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976) andNetwork (Sydney Lumet, 1976) or Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation(1974) and Apocalypse Now (1979). The Insider has a contemporary and specific historical context in the late 1990s, but it uses the formal and representational connections of the ‘70s paranoia sub-genre as a means to illustrate the story and thematic links relating to institutions and corruption. In particular, The Conversation has come to be seen as a metaphor for the United States in a period of heightened cultural, political, and moral ‘existential’ crises in the face of the defeat in Vietnam and the Watergate Scandal leading to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. What David Cook classifies as the ‘morally bankrupt Nixon-era’ was indirectly reflected almost universally within this era’s filmmaking.[xiii] The innate trust given by the people of America had been shattered, and they began to treat established institutions with suspicion.
The Insider can be categorised alongside the films that established the format of the Watergate-era espionage and political thrillers because the film uses formal means and narrative arc reminiscent of the paranoia sub-genre. The general structure of the paranoia thrillers features the conspirators (or conspirator) working to verify and uncover the lies perpetrated by the government/corporation/system. But instead of the United States government (or corporate system as metaphor for the government), Mann’s focus is a literal corporate conspiracy.
Films out of the ‘new Hollywood’ moment are a reaction to Vietnam and almost all US films dealing with the lasting and continual crisis of masculinity can be seen as originating from this point. The Vietnam War’s affect upon the people of the United States was, “not merely global or military but political, cultural, and psychological as well, penetrating the deepest interstices of the entire society which three decades later, has yet to fully recover.”[xiv] Boggs states that this period is “a zone of contested meaning … [and the] struggle over historical interpretation … is far from concluded.”[xv] Michael Mann’s point of departure is his construction of gender, but especially masculinity. Susan Jeffords writes:
Presentation of gender must be historically localised in order to read accurately its permutations of the general structure and representation of gender in Western culture…[I]t can provide insight into the ways which the structure of gender is both maintained as a general frame and altered in relation to specific cultural circumstances. In particular, production is altered to validate, and secure what I call here a ‘remasculinisation’ – a regeneration of the concepts, constructions, and definitions of masculinity in American culture and a restabilisation of the gender system within and for which it is formulated.[xvi]
The two male protagonists in The Insider emerge from divergent cultural paths, and in Geoffrey Wigand’s (Crowe) case (an affluent, upper middle class, middle American) it is not explicated as specifically as it is with Lowell Bergman (Pacino) (the street savvy, Journalist radical-come TV producer whose leftist politics are worn on his sleeve). Wigand’s morality and identity is the focus of his portion of the narrative, while Bergman’s specific ‘cultural circumstances’ are most important in his character’s make-up.
Mann creates a film that is strikingly ‘out of time’, in that the exact chronology of the film and the temporality it portrays is not anchored to the historical context that the event portrays. At the beginning of the film Mann introduces Wigand in his departure from The Brown and Williamson Tobacco Company after being fired. Mann punctuates his exit by framing the security guard informing the intangible pervasive system/other of his movements. Sharrett states: “Mann’s bleak vision is shared with, say, the … films of the 1970’s, which saw civilisation at a dead end but could not posit an alternative vision.”[xvii]
Mann anchors The Insider to ‘new Hollywood’ by portraying the co-protagonist Bergman as the crusading ‘new Hollywood’ journalist in the mould of Woodward (Redford) and Bernstein (Hoffman) from All The President’s Men. In discussing the potential exposé of his insider relations, Wigand’s research about Bergman reveals connections to the ‘New Left’ via having studied at Berkeley with German Marxist and Freudian philosopher Herbert Marcuse, and writing for the radical Ramparts magazine. In two separate meetings, before the 60 Minutesinterview is recorded, Mann uses Wigand to prompt a number of important points about Bergman’s place in history, when he asks:
Bergman charts his motivations for working for CBS with his leftist background by stating:
I still do the tough stories, 60 Minutes reaches a lot of people.
Bergman’s reply places Wigand’s own desire for an exposé of the Tobacco Industry alongside those tough stories, and within that espionage framework. Mann uses another one of their conversations to get Bergman to explain his personal influences and to contextualise his origins as the period of ‘new Hollywood.’ Mann uses Bergman as a tool of nostalgia, looking back to radical journalism and political, cultural and social turbulence of the ‘60s and ’70s, that he emerged from to reminisce and to sharply contrast the ‘90s context.
BERGMAN: Marcuse…yeah…he was my mentor[xx]. He had a major influence on the New Left of the late 60s, and on me personally.
WIGAND: Next to your father?
BERGMAN: My father? What the hell’s that got to do with my father?
If we then establish that Mann’s specific cultural and historic origins are illustrated in the formal qualities and thematic philosophy of the ‘70s and this is represented directly through his characters (Bergman particularly in this film), instead how can we better distinguish his authorial position? During the 1968-1980 period American films began to speak about different hallmarks of the deconstruction of the American image, and especially the crisis of masculinity. The primary example is Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) in The Conversation. Caul personifies and literalises contemporary American xenophobia and paranoia: his profession divides him from reality and it is his devotion to being technically proficient is the reason for his isolation, which in turn causes him to misinterpret the situation that he is recording. Caul’s story is the quintessential paranoia tale because his professional surveillance techniques are sabotaged and used against him.
The Men Who Knew Too Much
The ‘two protagonist’ structure of The Insider departs from the traditional structure of the paranoia thriller and is important because it encompasses both spheres of the paranoia thriller in one film. The narrative focus is a constant shift between Bergman’s journey of crusading journalism uncovering the ‘corporate malfeasance’ of the tobacco industry while deconstructing the moral objectivity of modern media, and Wigand’s journey to not only reveal his ‘insider’ information about the tobacco industry but the consequences of his morality.
The first act of the film introduces Wigand and charts his attempted exposé of the tobacco industry, and the second concerns the battle for Lowell to see the story aired without censorship despite CBS’ reservations.
In effect, with one scene (and even one line) Mann traverses the archetypical paranoia-thriller plot outline of the films made during the ‘new Hollywood’ moment. If one was to examine The Conversation from the point in the film where Harry Caul is not able to exchange his recordings directly with his employer (Robert Duvall), his story is almost identically replayed within the Driving Range scene in The Insider. Both Caul and Wigand are frustrated with not being able to deal with their employers/former employers in the way that they would like, and both have to regain their composure when they realise that they are being watched. The surveillance motif common in the paranoia thriller is heavily referenced in this scene. Both men experience the ‘double takes’ of the impossibility that they are being watched and up until the very end of their scenario there is a hope that they can control and insulate themselves from their paranoia. Until, finally, their impotent reactions leave them helpless and without closure.
Wigand is at a driving range late at night. He is trying to alleviate the tension caused by his most recent meeting with the Tobacco Company. He believes that speaking with Bergman is the catalyst for this pressure from his former employer. Wigand is tense and this tension is chaotic. Mann constructs the shots with multiple cameras that surround Wigand, capturing every static gesture, all of his stilted motion translates to an inability to focus and accomplish his goal. As Wigand begins to centre himself to the task, the camera pans across the black driving range to the illuminated tee-off platform. Mann shows the viewer that only one other person is there. This other man is focused; his swing is fluid and before Mann shifts the viewer’s focus back to Wigand, this other man reveals that he has been watching Wigand. Wigand composes himself and he strikes the ball successfully into the darkness of the range. Once again, he practises his ritual and again is technically fluid as he strikes the ball; all of the anger in his eyes begins to dissolve. But in completing his stroke he realises that he’s not alone. The other man continues to look in Wigand’s direction at the end of every stroke. Wigand’s focus has gone; instead, he is concentrating on this other man. Initial curiosity reverts to stoic realisation because the manner of this other man is suggestive of someone watching him. The other man’s dress is nondescript but his plain grey suit, white shirt and black tie insists the anonymity of a government agent. Mann begins capturing the point of view of the other man, and unlike the continually dynamic perspectives of Wigand’s paranoia, the other man is filmed from a static camera, slowly tracking behind this other/observer. In opposition to Wigand’s unkempt and uneasy manner, the other man is calm, clean-cut and purposefully returns Wigand’s gaze, almost acknowledging that he is watching him. As this exchange occurs the last ball the other man strikes is caught in the nets at the end of the range. At the point of this realisation, the lights dim and the driving range closes. Wigand uneasily enters his car and is out of breath, eyes wide. He tries to affirm his paranoia by staring straight out the window even though the cars are parallel. In one last glance, his antagonist stares him down, affirming his suspicions and forcing a restrained confrontation. Wigand takes one of his golf clubs and threateningly stalks out of his car with the intention to assault his antagonist.
WIGAND: Stay away from me … You stay away from me!
Wigand is helpless, his statuesque figure standing, watching the exit of the other man from the car park; the lack of closure punctuates how Mann captures the essence of the paranoia thriller captured within this scene.
Bergman’s character encapsulates the honourable necessity of Woodward and Bernstein in making the public aware of the greatest governmental and institutional betrayal (the Watergate Scandal), and it takes the comically cynical portrayals of the media in Network and gives them a real world context. The pivotal scene in the film for Bergman is the discussion between himself, Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer), Don Hewitt (Phillip Baker Hall), and Eric Kluster (Stephen Tobolowsky) about whether or not 60 Minutes will be airing Wigand’s exposé. Bergman is incensed as he stares out of the window of the high-rise to street level, seeing the commotion of commuters and traffic. In a way Bergman is longing for his street journalism origins but cannot yet escape the security of his position within the 60 Minutes institution. He turns to face the office as Kluster enters, and proclaims the corporation’s objective to create a precautionary cut of the exposé in case they cannot air the full episode containing Wigand’s interview. Bergman reacts by quoting from a dossier that outlines a possible corporate merger, which he hypothesises is dictating CBS’ decision to air the story. Bergman begins to soliloquise about his role as an investigative journalist to unearth ‘insiders’ for their stories and then the hypocrisy of their decision.
BERGMAN: You pay me to go get guys like Wigand, to draw him out. To get him to trust us, to get him to go on television. I do. I deliver him. He sits. He talks. He violates his own fucking confidentiality agreement. And he’s only the key witness in the biggest public health reform issue, maybe the biggest, most-expensive corporate-malfeasance case in U.S. history. And Jeffrey Wigand, who’s out on a limb, does he go on television and tell the truth? Yes. Is it newsworthy? Yes. Are we gonna air it? Of course not. Why? Because he’s not telling the truth? No. Because he is telling the truth. That’s why we’re not going to air it. And the more truth he tells, the worse it gets!
Bergman’s idealistic conception of the media’s immunity from corporate tampering is completely destroyed. Bergman finally comes to the realisation that he’s no longer working for Ramparts, he is not supported for his radical journalistic practices of the past, because the content of his stories can affect the interests of the corporate entity that until now has tacitly governed the production. Don Hewitt replies to Bergman’s rant with none of the ‘new Hollywood’ sentimentality of crusading and radical journalism:
You are a fanatic. An anarchist. You know that? If we can’t have a whole show, then I want half a show rather than no show. But oh, no, not you. You won’t be satisfied unless you’re putting the company at risk!
BERGMAN: C’mon, what are you? Are you a businessman? Or are you a newsman?! … “Put the corporation at risk”…? Give me a fucking break!
Bergman’s final proclamation deflates instantly as Wallace proclaims that he too believes that an alternate episode not featuring Wigand’s interview should be prepared. Bergman’s despondency is etched on his face. This initial compromise is the precursor for surrendering to a wholly corporate media enterprise. In Mann’s globalised world of the 1990s, corporate media interference has become a reality.
The driving range scene posits the inescapable reality of the commonplace nature of the invasion of privacy that the ‘70s thrillers feared. The ‘new Hollywood’ connection is felt strongly here because Wigand is represented using the generic referencing of the loner, paranoid characters of the ‘70s films. Mann’s authorial technique and historical invocation can be seen in the film language used to depict Wigand and Bergman. The ‘tense’, though which Mann constructs his men, bespeaks ‘new Hollywood’: Wigand shares the same loner characteristics of Harry Caul, and Bergman is framed with the same intent as ‘Woodstein’ from All The President’s Men. The contrast between the thriller films out of ‘new Hollywood’ and those of Mann is that the films of the ‘70s characterise the pervasive ‘system’ as governmental or an institution acting as a metaphor for the government. The world Mann is portraying only briefly alludes to governmental involvement; its focus is upon a society dominated by the globalised and corporate system and what kind of men struggle within its mechanisms.
Such temporally dislocated contextual origins, whereby ‘new Hollywood’ – style films are being made ‘after’ the period is deemed to have passed, means that Mann’s work is anachronistic in complex ways, particularly in offering a very different vision of the USA to the dominant masculinity that Susan Jeffords describes as typical Reagan-Era ‘remasculinisation’. Mann’s films, rather, feature on-screen men entrapped by professionalism and rendered through a mode of acting and performance built through multi-layered intertextual referencing and affect.
To be continued in …
What Makes a Mann?:
Part 2 – Masculinity & Heat
[i] Roland Barthes: ‘The death of the author,’ from Image-Music-Text, Fontana: London, 1977, first published Paris 1968 in John Caughie (ed), Theories of Authorship: A Reader. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981) pp 213.
[ii] Michel Foucault; ‘What is an author’ From language, counter memory, practice, Basil Blackwall, Oxford, 1977, (first published, Paris, 1969) in John Caughie (ed), Theories of Authorship: A Reader. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981) pp 284.
[iii] Bazin, “La politique des auteurs,”45.
[iv] Janet Staiger “Authorship Approaches,” Authorship and Film, David A. Gerstner and Janet Staiger (eds) (Routledge: New York, 2003), pp 45.
[v] Staiger “Theorist, yes but what of? : Bazin and History,” 103
[vi] Foucault, “What is an Author,” 221-222.
[vii] Foucault writes that the importance of the author emerged from a need to validate scientific texts. Fiction distributed orally (folk/fairytales/myth) was never restricted in the same sense. The means of authorship in the scientific sense was to denote a specific theorem or proposition. Literary anonymity became a puzzle to solve; literary works were dominated by sovereignty of the author. Scientifically the labelling of an author attests to the validity of the author, and is technically appreciated by contemporary colleagues. Then there was a reversal so that Art becomes obsessed with authorship while science seeks to transcend the ‘subjective.’ [Michel Foucault; ‘What is an author’ From language, counter memory, practice, Basil Blackwall, Oxford , 1977, (first published, Paris, 1969) in John Caughie (ed), Theories of Authorship: A Reader. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981)]
[viii] Michel Foucault; ‘What is an author’ From language, counter memory, practice, Basil Blackwall, Oxford , 1977, (first published, Paris, 1969) in John Caughie (ed), Theories of Authorship: A Reader. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981) pp 283.
[ix] Staiger and Gerstner are responsible for compiling the new studies of authorship in Authorship and Film, (Routledge: New York, 2003) and Stam wrote a very useful summation of authorship in the wake of post-structuralism in he and Toby Miller’s Film and Theory: An Anthology, Massachusettes: Blackwell Publishers, 2000.
[x] Staiger, “Authorship Approaches,” 49.
[xi] Peter Wollen, Signs and meaning in the cinema 3rd. ed. (London: Secker and Warburg, 1972) pp 167.
[xii] Stam, “Introduction,” 6
[xiii] David Cook, Lost Illusions 1970-1979. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002)
[xvi] Jeffords, The Remasculinization of America: Gender and the Vietnam War, 51.
[xvii] Christopher Sharrett, “Michael Mann: Elegies on the Post-Industrial Landscape,” Fifty Contemporary Filmmakers, Yvonne Tasker (Ed), (Routledge: London, 2002) 255.
[xviii] Pam Black writes that Ramparts was a New Left magazine that started modestly in 1962 as a San Francisco quarterly Catholic literary magazine, which evolved into a politically engaged magazine that championed the Black Panthers and opposed the Vietnam War, along with publishing the first conspiracy theory about the Kennedy assassination. Ramparts also detailed how the CIA used University of Michigan academics to train South Vietnamese officers in covert police methods, and published Che Guevara’s diaries with an introduction by Fidel Castro. The icons of the NEW Left wrote for Ramparts, including Susan Sontag, Noam Chomsky, Seymour Hersh, James Ridgeway, Pete Hamill, Abbie Hoffman, and Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner. Pam Black “Ramparts”. Folio: The Magazine for Magazine Management. . . 15 Nov. 2008. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m3065/is_4_33/ai_n6077583
[xix] The Insider (Michael Mann, 1999)
[xx] Douglas Kellner describes the importance of Marcuse to the radical political culture in the USA of the period: “Herbert Marcuse …[was] a philosopher, social theorist, and political activist, celebrated in the media as “father of the New Left.” University professor and author of many books and articles, Marcuse won notoriety when he was perceived as both an influence on and defender of the “New Left” in the United States and Europe. Consequently, he became one of the most influential intellectuals in the United States during the 1960s and into the 1970s.”[Douglas Kellner “Herbert Marcuse: Biography,” Illuminations: Critical Theory Project.http://www.gseis.ucla.edu/faculty/kellner/Illumina%20Folder/kell12.htm]