Wednesday, July 8, 2009

A Mann's World: Public Enemies


Michael Mann strips a classic American genre to its bare elements with Public Enemies, another fascinating use of digital technology from the director after 2006's underrated Miami Vice--- one of the first feature length movies to harness digital as a separate medium with its own unique capabilities. Public Enemies represents a more streamlined, though no less dynamic, use of digital-video and its potential to be an extension of 35mm, as opposed to a cheap replacement for it. The technique lends an incredibly intimate and immediate feel to the proceedings--- a feel that is being mistaken for 'realism.' It would be better, perhaps, to think of the technique as an embodiment of the titular public enemies' mode of living--- hard and fast. "We don't have time to think about tomorrow, we're having too much fun today," Johnny Depp's John Dillinger says early on in the film, and the urgency that the digital movie-making tools provide compliment and contrast with what on the surface seems to be a traditional cat and mouse gangster picture.

A spectacular opening sequence illustrates immediately the unique perspective toward the era that Mann will convey. An early establishing shot shows the exterior of a prison that houses John Dillinger, and the prison walls stretch beyond the edge of the frame, and seemingly into eternity. The sense of scope that Mann brings to his compositions is breathtaking in more than a few instances, and when you contrast this with the stripped-down, elemental feel of much of the rest of the picture, there is something particularly striking about the expansive depth of his frames. Public Enemies' unique epic/intimate dichotomy is typified in the prison-break that begins the movie: Mann gives us exteriors that establish the prison, and then he brings us almost disconcertingly close to the action with incredible, fly-on-the-wall handheld work. As the cops and robbers engage in battle, the sounds of gunshots and empty shells hitting the ground resonates powerfully--- this is not a movie that relishes in the violence propagated on screen. Punches sting, knives cut, and bullets penetrate the flesh in a visceral, gripping manner; a lesser movie would have embraced this kind of violence while at the same time moralizing about a sinful lifestyle. Mann's film does not fall into either of these traps.

Credit must be given to Mann and Depp for stripping away the usual glorifying elements that one would usually associate with this genre while, at the same time, avoiding Hays Code style sermonizing. It would have been so easy for Depp, a naturally charismatic actor, to instill John Dillinger with charm. A scene toward the end where Dillinger sees David O. Selznick and W.S. Van Dyke's Manhattan Melodrama, starring Clark Gable, typifies the way Public Enemies rejects Old Hollywood romanticism for a more objective, cosmic take on gangsterism. The clashing aesthetics between James Wong-Howe's stunning black and white cinematography in Manhattan Melodrama and Dante Spinotti's high-contrast photography in Public Enemies is, in many ways, the essence of the movie. In the gangster pictures from Hollywood's Golden Age, the films would romanticize their subjects--- especially in the Depression, the movies were an escape for the masses, and people enjoyed living the life of a gangster vicariously through the movies. At the same time, however, the movies had to fulfill a "responsibility to the public", and thus the main characters always got their comeuppance after the movie had relished in their immorality. Whether they were arrested, killed by the police, or killed by rival gangs, none of the screen's hoods got off scott-free, and therein lies their great contradiction: relishing in screen violence while at the same time railing against it. During the controversy surrounding the final scene of the last episode of The Sopranos, series creator David Chase illuminated this inherent hypocrisy: "The way I see it is that Tony Soprano had been people's alter ego. They had gleefully watched him rob, kill, pillage, lie, and cheat. They had cheered him on. And then, all of a sudden, they wanted to see him punished for all that. They wanted 'justice.' They wanted to see his brains splattered on the wall. I thought that was disgusting, frankly."

As Chase's quote above notes, we see ourselves on the screen, and Dillinger sees himself in Clark Gable's charismatic gangster. What's unique about this scene set in Chicago's Biograph theatre (where the real John Dillinger spent his final hours) is that Mann hones in on Dillinger's subjective impression of the film he's watching. Myrna Loy's character in Manhattan Melodrama reminds him of his girlfriend, Billi Frechette (an enrapturing Marillion Cotillard), and Depp conveys Dillinger's longing for his lover powerfully and wordlessly. An extremely telling smile comes over Dillinger's face when Gable's character in the film says "It's best to die how you lived--- all of a sudden", this sequence beautifully articulates the way we identify with art, while at the same time deconstructing the camera's inherent iconographic gaze (much like the scene in My Life to Live when Anna Karina's character watches The Passion of Joan of Arc). The use of digital film making tools embodies Clark Gable's "all of a sudden" philosophy, as Public Enemies is a movie that, like Dillinger himself, always lives in the moment.

This sense of immediacy suits the movie's period elements particularly well. The digital actually allows Mann to focus on details that would perhaps seem irrelevant in a typical period drama--- the speedometer on an antique car, the logo on Zenith radios, the text imprinting the barrel of a Tommy gun. So, while the digital lends a decidedly modernist feel to Public Enemies, at the same time it fleshes out the details in a more unique way, and the Depression-era feel more alive in this movie than it usually does in period pieces. Michael Mann has taken an era that feels distant to movie-goers and brought it to life in the most organic way imaginable; the period details never call attention to themselves, and that actually gives them more power than movie's that do call attention to their art direction. The way the movie handles the past is one of the things that makes it among the most singular movies released by a major studio in recent times.

It's such a unique work in an overcrowded genre that when the traditional plot-elements of a cat and mouse gangster picture come into play, they feel especially banal. We would assume that, at this point in motion picture history, it would be something of a given that law-enforcement authorities would pursue our main characters; but Public Enemies, as so many movies of this kind before it, feels the need to weigh down the heart and soul of the story with a contrived police procedural. Scenes that would be considered characteristic of the genre feel particularly out of place when put along side the intoxicating, pulsating imagery in the Dillinger narrative. The FBI jargon, endless bureaucratic corridors, men in suits, and mundane details of the investigation led by Melvin Purvis (a stern but engaging Christian Bale) bring an element of familiarity to this otherwise idiosyncratic picture. These sequences (along with a money laundering subplot) bog down the audience and disrupt the momentum that the movie has going for the sake of semantics. It's these overly-familiar elements that ultimately hold Pubic Enemies back from being one of the best movies of its kind.

So, while Public Enemies may not be a 'great' movie (and really, who cares about such superlatives?), it is a fresh, bold, and exciting one. It may have some dull stretches, but the film's inventive sequences (of which there are many) make it a more than worthwhile effort. Michael Mann has taken an old genre and given it a face-lift, and in a deeper sense than simply the aesthetic--- the film takes a unique, non-judgmental stance on its main characters. He strips away cinema's romantic gaze, while at the same time providing lush, intoxicating imagery. In terms of Hollywood film makers working with digital technology, Michael Mann is without equal--- and Public Enemies, like Miami Vice before it, shows that Mann will be on the forefront in pushing the medium forward.

11 comments:

Adam Zanzie said...

Oddly enough, the digital photography was among the quibbles that I had with "Public Enemies", an otherwise admirable film. The only time when I thought Michael Mann used digital effectively in recent times was with "Collateral" because, since most of the film was set in a taxicab, it really illuminated cablife. But the modernity of digital really threw me for a loop when watching "Public Enemies", a film that was supposed to be set in the 1930's, and frankly, I longed for that more old-fashioned look in "The Untouchables" (which, to be sure, is one of De Palma's most overrated movies, but his attention to detail with it was astonishing).

However, you brought up something that I never thought of before: that the digital seems to enhance things like the car's speedmoter and whatnot. That never occured to me, but then again I've pretty unfamiliar with the aspects of digital. I'll need to check out Lynch's "Inland Empire", I suppose, in order to fully understand the technology. Much like Ebert is with 3-D, I have a hard time tolerating digital- but your praise of its use in "Public Enemies" is giving me second thoughts!

Depp's stoicism as Dillinger definately secured it as one of his best career turns- the only other performance of his that probably tops it is "Ed Wood" (which is also my favorite Tim Burton film). Bale, too, gave an interesting performance, though I can't help but feel sorry for him because, just like with "The Dark Knight", his performance is undeservedly overshadowed by the other actor.

Most of the direction of "Public Enemies" is top-notch, but I wish Mann would get over that habit of filming two Hollywood stars in the same scene without, well, ever fitting them together in the same frame. People are always telling me about how they love that restaurant scene from "Heat" because it features Pacino and De Niro finally conversing together; I never cared for that scene, though, because Mann used an odd technique where he showed a shot of one actor, switched over to the other, switched back, and so on. We never saw Pacino and De Niro in the shot together, which made me wonder if they were even filmed together on the same day!

I got a similar vibe from the scene in "Public Enemies" when Bale's cop visits Dillinger- the only scene where the two actors are actually together (unless you count the shootout outside the theater). Mann shows a full shot of Depp, switches over to Bale, switches back to Depp, etc. We never see them in the same frame. May I ask why???

Glad you talked about the movie theater shootout while mentioning the name of the movie that Dillinger saw: "Manhattan Melodrama". I've never seen it, but I do have to brush up on W.S. Van Dyke.

Ryan Kelly said...

Have you seen Miami Vice, Adam? Collateral definitely benefited from the format, but in Miami Vice I feel he really brings the medium of digital into its own--- it's not a movie that could have been made in any other format. I would classify Public Enemies as about 85% trailblazingly original, with the remaining 15% just being genre niceties--- and as I said in the review, to me those elements really bog down the rest of the movie.

I just appreciate it when digital is used to provide a different experience than we're used to. Miami Vice, Inland Empire, Youth Without Youth, My Blueberry Nights... and to a lesser (but still powerful) extent movies like Speed Racer, RocknRolla and Zodiac all show that digital has potential to be a new medium. I love film, and I don't want it to ever die (and I don't think it will), but at the same time I don't want the medium to remain stagnant. We need to press forward.

I don't think I've ever really noticed that before, Mann filming his actors in different set ups. But I think that's just a style, Abbas Kiarostami does the same thing, and it's precisely because the other actor isn't present that Kiarostami does it (I am less familiar with Mann's methods), and that gives the director a chance to get a more intimate performance out of the actors. To quote Larry David and Woody Allen, whatever works!

And yes, to me that scene at the end positively made the movie--- as well as the brief epilogue with Cotillard's character. It really speaks powerfully to the power images have. The last 20 minutes or so made up for the previous kinda boring 20 minutes, which was filled with a lot of extraneous exposition.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Ryan:

A superb assaying of one of the most entertaining movies so far this year. I love your final paragraph where you talk about how, yes, it's not going to go down as a masterpiece of the genre, but who cares...it's an extremely entertaining movie, and certainly a contender for best of the summer. But more on that later. Here are some of the my favorite passages from your essay:


It would be better, perhaps, to think of the technique as an embodiment of the titular public enemies' mode of living--- hard and fast. "We don't have time to think about tomorrow, we're having too much fun today," Johnny Depp's John Dillinger says early on in the film, and the urgency that the digital movie-making tools provide compliment and contrast with what on the surface seems to be a traditional cat and mouse gangster picture.

This is a great way of describing the use of the digital photography -- and a great quote that backs up your claim.


In the gangster pictures from Hollywood's Golden Age, the films would romanticize their subjects--- especially in the Depression, the movies were an escape for the masses, and people enjoyed living the life of a gangster vicariously through the movies. At the same time, however, the movies had to fulfill a "responsibility to the public"--- and thus the main characters always got their comeuppance after the movie had relished in their immorality.

Yup. In my own review of the film I stated that this definitely wasn't a Scorsese or Coppola type gangster film where the first part of the film is filled with lavish family gatherings or moments of glee (mixed with insanity -- I'm thinking specifically of the famous scene with Pesci in the nightclub in Goodfellas) that make you say "hey, that life doesn't look so bad." Even though Scorsese and Coppola do eventually show the downward spiral of such a life, they spend far longer than Mann does on the "happier" moments of being a gangster.

I was too was glad that Mann didn't go for a DePalma type approach, either. The nice thing about Public Enemies is that it feels distinctly Mannish.


So, while Public Enemies may not be a 'great' movie (and really, who cares about such superlatives?), it is a fresh, bold, and exciting one. It may have some dull stretches, but the film's inventive sequences (of which there are many) make it a more than worthwhile effort. Michael Mann has taken an old genre and given it a face-lift, and in a deeper sense than simply the aesthetic--- the film takes a unique, non-judgmental stance on its main characters.

This statement nicely backs up my claim from the onset. And I love that you say "pshaw" to such superlatives (too many are thrown around these days anyway) and call the movie what it is: a great entertainment. And one that I would gladly see a second time.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Thoughts based on the comments so far: (ran out of room in my last comment -- sorry these are so long)

As for the Digital Photography debate: I love that Mann is fully embracing it. As you've mentioned so eloquently here in your essay, the look of the film adds to the immediacy that the storyline demands -- which was also apt in the undercover elements of Miami Vice's story. It's jarring, and, yes, a little bizarre to see in a period film, but it is so much more affective that a sepia tone or muted hues would be in getting across what Mann's films are all about.

Which leads to something Adam mentioned in the comments. Mann is a filmmaker who is interested in what you project on the characters. He's like the great existential French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville (who also made crime movies with "detached" protagonists) in that regard. Mann is more interested in filming faces and letting the audience fill in the backstory. I think that Mann is unlikely to change his approach to character development, and it's definitely a polarizing approach because so many film-goers do want these larger-than-life characters to share screen time with each other -- I actually applaud Mann in not giving in to genre cliches and keeping his stamp on a film that really isn't his forte (he's only made one other historical film The Last of the Mohicans and that was far from being the most accurate account of events of that time).

As always great stuff here Ryan.

Ryan Kelly said...

Kevin, you're so right--- it is definitely an entertaining picture that, for me, has only grown in hindsight. I had some quibbles with it that I discussed in the review, and am on the whole less enthusiastic about it than I am Miami Vice, but it's still an unforgettable experience in its own right. There are some sequences and specific images that are still dancing in my head almost a week later.

Yeah, he uses digital's run-and-gun sense of immediacy really effectively in his last three movies. Collateral, Miami Vice and Public Enemies make very good use of the format and prove that it has potential (though the latter two moreso than the first one). I love how you contrast the digital with the general sepia-tone nostalgiac romanticism that you see in so many period pieces (I think the Coen's simultaneously ridiculed and celebrated this in O Brother, Where Art Thou?). Though, again, I feel that the unusual approach fleshes out the era more completely--- suddenly, the 30s doesn't feel like it was all that long ago.

And I thank you for giving your take on Mann's directorial methods, a more complete analysis than I could give. I didn't honestly notice the approach but discussing it here illuminates certain little instances more--- I really loved the scene with Dillinger in jail when he's talking to Christian Bale. The camera is behind Depp's ear and between Depp's head taking up the left side of the frame and the jail bars there is an astounding amount of depth implied in an instance like that. And it does add to the existential element of his movies more, like the characters are in their own individual universes.

And, again Kevin, don't apologize for leaving lengthy comments! I wish blogger didn't cap it at like 4000 something characters, as it can yield frustration.

Adam Zanzie said...

Never saw "Miami Vice". I hadn't heard very good things about it; you're the first one I've heard to say that it was a good movie other than Richard Roeper. Even Jay Leno didn't like it!

I must not be able to recognize digital when it's used in a movie because I didn't even realize that "Youth Without Youth" was shot in digital... and I loved that movie.

bill r. said...

Very nice write up, Ryan. I liked the film pretty well, though not quite so much as you did. I agree with you that Mann does a great job avoiding sermonizing without making Dillinger out to be someone worthy of our admiration (Lili Taylor's scenes achieve a lot in this regard). However, I didn't quite see the depths in the film that you did. I thought it was a very nice piece of work that didn't offer me anything I wasn't expecting.

I did like the procedural elements of the film (it was the romance I found banal), because that's the relationship Purvis and Dillinger have. Why shouldn't that stuff be there? But I also thought too many characters failed to register, among the agents and the gang. Mann could have done a lot with his supporting characters, and outside of Winstead, he didn't do much of anything.

And I must say, that quote from Chase is alarmingly condescending and arrogant. I didn't watch The Sopranos, but it sounds to me like he had nothing but disdain for his audience, and chose to end the series by pissing in their face. And by the way, I did see the ending (everybody's seen that ending by now), and I admired it. Less so now.

Ryan Kelly said...

I don't know if the procedural element shouldn't have been there, per-se, I just don't think it was handled particularly well. The only time the scenes were interesting was when Mann was trying to show that the police, in their own way, can be as brutal as the criminals their chasing down. But I think Mann makes this point ad nauseum to the point where it's not really all that interesting.

Like you say, so many of the supporting players drift into the background, and to me that's because Mann just bites off way more than he can chew with his running time. To me, the procedural elements aren't in keeping with the rest of the movies intimate, immediate feel, which is why I object to them, not the fact that there is a procedural element. It's not like Zodiac, which had the shell on the surface seemed like a proedural, but really had much more brewing under the surface. A lot of the sequences with the FBI just felt like semantics.

You didn't like the relationship between Cotillard and Depp? I wasn't sure about it at first, but Cotillard really won me over. I wanted the movie to end after Dillinger was killed but that last scene with her was really well done, I thought.

As for the Chase quote, I don't really see the arrogance, honestly. That is what people wanted, and they were pissed when they were given a less-than-concrete resolution (IMO the last scene is pretty concrete, but I also only watched that last scene. I stopped caring about the show altogether after the first season). I remember everyone I knew who had watched the show for years and years was pissed that they didn't get the kind of ending that Chase alludes to. To me, that last scene is just flawless visual storytelling, which oddly enough is what seems to confuse people the most.

Homiebrain said...

In spite of Public Enemies' monotonous procedural element, I had a much bigger problem with the way Mann seemed to contradict his own attempts at deconstructing the myth surrounding Dillinger's exploits by demonizing the FBI in such broad strokes.

Mann was very deliberate in buffing out the sheen of Dillinger's lifestyle and made sure to point out that any glamor surrounding his exploits originated from the public's Natural Born Killers-esque love affair with their modern-day Robin Hood. He didn't need to concentrate on this for very long at all because he drew a big fat line separating the morals of the cops/robbers with the big, bad FBI. It's very inception was already tainted with evil and corruption, which isn't to say that it's near/far from the truth, but the way that he used this portrait of the FBI (and by extension, the government) as a bunch of sadistic, power-hungry nutcases versus Dillinger's posse of Joes just going to work and doing what they know wasn't a setup for a balanced dichotomy, it was just a more discrete form of hero worship by way of doubling up the efforts to make the bad guys look truly bad and make Dillinger seem good because of a noted absence of your typical villain-fare (case in point: the hilariously hammy "interrogation/torture" scene that floats more toward the former than the latter. Speaking of, it was hard not to look for Purvis' cape when he swooped into the room just in the nick of time to stop the G-Man from ruining Billie's day to carry her out, which would be unfair to say had Mann afforded Bale a bit more to work with, but I digress). In this vein, Mann's deconstruction of the mythology ended up feeling like a really disingenuous attempt at injecting some humanity into Dillinger simply by means of removing it from the G-men. This, along with the modern-day Robin Hood angle ("We're here for the bank's money, not yours.") made this seem even more transparent.

As far as Dillinger/Billie's dynamic went, I'm going to have to side with Bill, it felt pretty old-hat to me as well. Cotillard just seemed to be channeling the same vapid comare (re:goo-mahr) that got swept up in Dillinger's bad boy charm, and to top it off, she spent the entire film pissing in Dillinger's ear to change his ways 'cause he can't stop what's comin'! She didn't seem to have any other concerns, or a life outside of worrying about Johnny, and while I appreciate the minimalist approach Mann took with all his characters, I think the film ultimately imploded because of this. In retrospect, it's kind of strange how dead all the characters were in spite the vibrancy the digital format lent them, and it's even more curious considering how alive and in-the-moment Miami Vice's characters felt. I appreciate Mann's desire to introduce a fresh take on the genre, but I feel like he should have approached Public Enemies with a subtler hand.

Homiebrain said...

Wow, I really should have broken up that wall-o-text better, that tangent in the middle didn't seem quite as long when I was typing it out, oh well, I suppose there's nothing I can do about it now except point it out, goes to show what a great editor I am, amirite??

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