Michael Mann and the Art of the Close-Up

Michael Mann likes to shoot a lot of footage. He will put the camera anywhere. Behind the back, behind the ear, he doesn't just want us to get inside the actors' heads, he wants us inside them. If he could, he'd suck us into their brains and spit us out onto the New Jersey turnpike two hours later. Watching the flawed but glorious Public Enemies, I savored Mann's shots, scooping them up like a kid's last few spoonfuls of Count Chocula.

Mann isn't the only guy who knows how to shoot a close-up, of course. Guys like Sergio Leone practically make a sport of it, holding on shots of his actor's eyes as if he were trying to hypnotize us. And in a way he would.

Stanley Kubrick saves his close-ups for the most disturbing of moments. Paul Thomas Anderson loves to zero in. Tarantino smacks us up against the lens. Wes Anderson likes to frame things as if nothing should ever be moved or touched. The Coen Brothers have an amazing knack of getting us just close enough to see how much of an idiot we're watching on screen. The surprised, vacant look of, say, George Clooney in O Brother, Where Art Thou? is healthy dumb fun. And Jonathan Demme has been pretty fearless in this regard, using the close-up and movement in a way I initially found unnatural but now love. However, few have used the power of the close-up as effectively as Julian Schnabel in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. He really raised the art form there.

I tried thinking about some of my favorite close-ups in the movies and the truth is it's an impossible list to form. The last shot of Michael Corleone at the end of The Godfather Part II always comes to mind. There's a brief shot of Richard Harris in Unforgiven, right when Little Bill asks him for his (final, hidden) gun. It's always stayed with me for some reason. Michael Mann's close-ups tend to stay with me more than most. I think the purpose of a great tight shot isn't just to look pretty, it's to bring you deeper into the story or what the character is thinking.

After Public Enemies, if you're in the mood for another Michael Mann flick, consider one of his least-celebrated efforts, Miami Vice. It's not a great movie, but it's much, much better than people give it credit for. Anyway, there is this great little scene where John Ortiz (who has come a long way since playing Carlito Brigante's not-so-bright punk nephew) reveals to Luis Tosar's drug lord that Gong Li has been betraying him. You never see Tosar's face and you never need to. Mann pushes the camera slowly into the back of his head underscored by a slow rumble of menacing percussion. It's like Spielberg's trick of not seeing the shark. You can only imagine what Tosar is thinking ... and wonder at what he is about to do. It's supremely effective for a very simple reason. Namely, nothing is scarier than our own deranged imaginations.

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Dre writes weekly for Film.com. Email him!