Friday, August 29, 2014

The Great Scenes: The Last of the Mohicans and What Perfect Filmmaking Looks Like

This is the last nine minutes of the 1992 Michael Mann adaptation of The Last of the Mohicans, and it's as good an answer as any to the question of why I think film is the greatest art form. At 1:07 of this clip, the music starts, and at 1:24, the last word is spoken. The eight minutes after that is the most exciting, seductive, and breathtaking filmmaking you will ever see. 

Most (though definitely not all) good films have quality story, dialogue, and acting. Those are all important, but not the keys to great cinema. None of those are what sets cinema apart. After all, theater has each of those as well. What great cinema does is control the exact visual and sonic sensation you experience while still letting you experience it on your own terms. Three things combine to do that, and more than anything, they're what come together to create the art of filmmaking: editing, photography, and sound. Never have those three artistic elements been better used in unison than in these eight minutes.

The stunning score creates the tempo and the editing drives it. The location photography transports us to one of the most beautiful settings imaginable (taking place in upstate New York but filmed in North Carolina), but balances that setting with the savagery of the capacity for humans to inflict pain on one another. Everything Michael Mann and his team accomplish here is about absolute precision. The duration of the shots, the angles and distances of the camera, the use of filming death from above and leaps into the abyss from below, the subtle and occasional deployment of slow-motion, the way the driving nature of the music takes a break during the deaths around five and six minutes in before kicking back into full gear for the next action piece… It's all masterly composition in the most literal sense.

Every moment is an exercise in total control over what Mann wants us to see and hear, but what we think and feel comes from us. There's no exposition or explanation in anything that happens, it's all just pure action. It's the film version of shoot first, answer questions never. Mann has a gift of lingering in his direction where he tends to hold shots on characters in transitional moments for longer than other directors, and it allows the audience more of an opportunity to get in the heads of the characters. But these shots are usually devoid of dialogue, which ensures that the character's head is the only place we can go. Mann's films are almost never silent; music is far too important to him as a tool to dictate emotion, pacing, and mood. But his films are never overly talky, either. His characters are always given breathing room for the viewer to feel their situation without being talked to death about it.

Over the last 20 years, Daniel Day Lewis has become more of a star character actor, and retreated from really being a movie star. He disappears into his roles so much that we no longer know what he looks like in "normal" life. I don't know that this is ever what he looked like normally, even in 1992, but it is a wonderful anomaly in his career how much he allowed himself to be a visual star in this film, and how much Mann took advantage. Daniel Day Lewis isn't likely who people think about as a sexy, masculine, lead actor, but that's what he gives in this role. His screen presence is commanding, but not via the voice that he's used so well in his career. His physical presence just soaks up the screen.

Whenever I find myself questioned about why I believe filmmaking is the most potent art form (sometimes even questioned by myself), it's scenes like this that I go back to. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people collaborated to bring these eight minutes into existence, but we got the best out of each of them. It's that ability for the many parts and collaborators to create the greatest of all wholes that ensures filmmaking is the greatest of all arts.

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