Saturday, July 25, 2009

New Film: Public Enemies

As a star-driven biography of celebrated anti-hero John Dillinger that the Chicago-born director shot in a number of the actual locations of Dillinger's Midwestern crimes, Michael Mann's Public Enemies, from a screenplay by Mann, Ronan Bennett, and Ann Biderman, intrinsically promises an elaboration of one of the director's most distinguishing features as a filmmaker, namely his self-reflexive emphasis on the places depicted in his films, within a genre that has found Mann at his slightest: the biopic. With Public Enemies, Mann does not manage to reverse this latter trend - though it is also worth noting that even slight Mann is better than the vast majority of new studio releases - due largely to the relative lack of stress placed on the film's real-world locales, in addition to the slow even for Mann pace and the surprising lack of verve displayed by Johnny Depp in the role of Dillinger. Michael Mann's Heat-lite (1995) could have used a little of Al Pacino's histrionics - or a bit more of Jack Sparrow.

Public Enemies opens in an Indiana state penitentiary in the fourth year of the Great Depression. In this initial location, Mann and director of photography Dante Spinotti mimetically limit their high-definition DV palette to drab blacks, whites, greys and tans, to which they will add a washed-out sky blue in a subsequent exterior of the prison. (Public Enemies's attention to color builds on Miami Vice's [2006] primary aesthetic achievement.) In this latter set-up, Mann and Spinotti opt for a strongly horizontal, static framing that the director repeats in other views of the big Midwestern sky, whereas their camera relies heavily on hand-held tight framings within the interior itself. This alteration between hand-held DV close-ups and wider angles, be it the wide horizon meeting an Indiana dirt road or the fluid steady cam that follows the bank robbers into a marble-filled Wisconsin place of business, provides Public Enemies with a visual rhythm that is further accented by a cutting pattern that remains unpredictable in its choice of future angles.

However, in visual highs like the film's first bank robbery, bathed in a warm, phosphorescent yellow, Mann's camera is not permitted to cutaway and linger on the setting, as it would so often on the Chicago skyline of Thief (1981) or that of Los Angeles in the director's masterpiece Collateral (2004). Here Dillinger and company have their "minute forty... flat" to get in and out, thereby requiring the film's spectators to get their fill of the space in the crew's short time in the bank. In this regard, though Public Enemies announces an emphasis on place that again is among the interesting features of Mann's art, it fails to add this emphasis to the film's narrative, which ultimately is the key to the Collateral's achievement in particular. Then again, Collateral's sequence of spaces, always calibrated to highlight its nocturnal views, structured the film's narrative as it moved toward daybreak, and thus according to the film's internal logic, to the picture's end. Here, there is no similar rationale, save for the non-fiction itinerary of Public Enemies's principle subject.

Nor does Mann altogether maintain his focus on procedure that is apparent throughout Thief, for example. Whereas that film opens with a lengthy safe-cracking scored with a period-defining synth soundtrack - the entire work is period-defining in the mood it establishes, and ouevre-defining for America's signature (action-oriented, Chicago- and Los Angeles-based ) 1980s director - Public Enemies rarely focuses so resolutely on the interworkings of Dillinger's profession. The primary counter-example, of course, is the extended second escape from prison, wherein Mann follows Dillinger from room-to-room as he systematically breaks free, aided initially only by a hand-carved and tinted fake handgun. The film's bank-robbery set-pieces again do not allow for the emphasis on process that many of the director's finer crime pictures depict.

Mann's focus on criminal endeavor belongs, surely, to his larger, genre-inflected treatment of American masculinity, as Lisa K. Broad notes, which itself accounts for both the drift toward myth contained in his films, and his attraction to your Muhammad Ali's and John Dillinger's, on the level of subject. Or to put it another way, Mann's films are always about American narratives, and thus about film, which is no less the case for Public Enemies as it is for any of his previous efforts. Here, the director's self-reflexivity finds some of its most direct expression in a trio of nocturnal set-pieces: his arrival on an Indiana tarmac, illuminated by exploding flares and cracking camera flashes; Dillinger's low-key, albeit spotlit escape through the Wisconsin woods; and finally, the aftermath surrounding his assassination outside the Biograph theater. In each of these passages, artificial lighting, gushing in from strong directional light sources, traces if not engulfs Depp's protagonist, recurrently in characteristically grainy - and therefore, DV-specific - images. Thus, Dillinger is transformed from bank robber into (digital-era) movie star.

Michael J. Anderson's Michael Mann feature-film taxonomy:
Career Peaks: Collateral, Heat
Exceptional Films (Just Below Peak):
Miami Vice, Thief, The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Manhunter (1986)
Good (If Comparatively Lesser): The Insider (1999)*, Public Enemies
Sub-par: Ali (2001)
Haven't Seen: The Keep (1983)

* Note: I have not seen The Insider since shortly after its initial release, and as such, trust my judgment less in its case than in that of any of the others. I guess I would say that The Insider is at least "good," where I will rank it for the time being, and quite possibly even "exceptional," though my instinct tells me that it does not belong among the "career peaks." But that's all it is, instinct.


Lasse W. Jensen said...

As always a fine analysis.
One question that has nothing to do with Public Enemies: What are your reservations about The Insider? I would place it up next to Collateral and Heat.

Michael J. Anderson said...

Lasse, thank you for the comment. As you will notice, if you read the "note" I have added to the end of my post, The Insider is the film whose quality I am least equipped to judge at this juncture. What I would say is that its treatment of a consciously self-important subject gives me some pause, though I also enjoyed the picture quite a bit at the time of its release. So, in other words, The Insider deserves the asterisk I have just added.

Lasse W. Jensen said...

Ok, that makes sense. I suggest you watch it again because it is really exceptional and watching it after Collateral and Miami Vice actually made it even better for me. It has a quite different vibe than any other of his films in that it uses many of the same means but to a much different end. It also has an extremely elegant use of deep focus and the scene where Russell Crowe's character plays golf and finds out he's being watched is probably my all time favourite Mann-scene.

I am a bit more fond of Public Enemies than you are. It seems like Mann is the first director in history who - due to his artistic and commercial reputation combined with his unique vision - has the possibilities of making avantgarde big budget Hollywod films and really screwing with what's expected of this, in many ways generic, type of film. His films since Collateral are almost subversive in the way they take Hollywood-formulas and highlight everything that is normally killed by continuity editing (time, space, cuts, camera movements) while deconstructing what is normally all that's left in a big budget Hollywood crime film: the plot and the characters (that take a backseat to the style of his films).
Collateral made the style pop out within the very classical framework of an American crime-story while Miami Vice (his next best film, imo) deconstructs the whole framework (both plot, characters and genre) in a way that is almost reminiscent of early Godard while demonstratively highlighting the film's style. This way Miami Vice, being a remake of his own tv-series, feels almost revisionist. I see Public Enemies as a clear continuation of this agenda and I think it succeeds in many ways in this regard.

Anonymous said...

I've never read such pretentious nonsense in my life. Somebody has to to purge the Internet of these amateur, overwrought, noir and blanc critics.
As for the movie, it's simple---
The Return of a Horse Called Mann.

Michael J. Anderson said...

Dear Anonymous,

Thank you for your extreme lucidity. Just a couple of questions: one, where do you most sense this pretentiousness? (It might be helpful for me so that I can avoid the same mistakes in future.) Two, what is a "noir and blanc" critic? Does that mean I am black and white in my view of the film, which actually was relatively mixed, or is this part of the pretentiousness bit with my review not being black and white. Either way, wouldn't that also mean that you're at least slightly pretentious for using French in your ad hominem attack?

Also, I couldn't agree more that the internet needs to be freed of amateurs with opinions... especially those with Master's degrees in Cinema Studies, who are done with their PhD course work in the same field, and who have been published on Michael Mann's work in the past. If only we could find more qualified opinions to write free, web-only pieces, the world would be a much better place...

Michael J. Anderson said...

And Lasse, thanks for your fine response. I do need to see it again.

Lasse W. Jensen said...

And by the way (totally off the Mann-point(s)):
Could you do a similar rating of Tony Scott's films? I'm looking to get into him but I really don't know what's better and what's worse in his oeuvre. It strikes me as surprising that anyone sees him as an auteur (of quality), but the article about Deja Vu that you linked to is very interesting. I have never befor considered watching any of Scott's films, though I believe I saw Enemy of the State at the pictures when I was a 12-year-old Will Smith-admirer.(I'm going to watch Domino regardless as I'm about as Kiera Knightley-obsessed now as I was Will Smith back in the days).

Michael J. Anderson said...


Any similar accounting of Scott's career would be necessarily less complete given the gaps in my viewing of the director. Having said that, here is how I would rank his films: the one full masterpiece is Deja Vu (2006). Below it I would place, topping the exceptional category, Domino (2005), and then, in no particular order, True Romance (1993), Crimson Tide (1995) and Enemy of the State (1998). Top Gun (1986) and Man on Fire are also not without their merits, though each is far from perfect, as is The Taking of Pelham 123, which is perhaps the least of those I have mentioned, though again still of some interest.

Matt Singer said...

Haven't seen PUBLIC ENEMIES yet, but your continued adoration of the absurdly overrated COLLATERAL blows my mind. You copped to not having seen THE INSIDER in a while -- when was the last time you saw COLLATERAL? I rewatched it last month and found it to be just as uneven as in 2004, back when it was all the rage with the Mann-iacs. I mean it's a decent movie, well-acted and well-shot, but its combination of implausibility and pretentiousness keeps me from putting in the same category as HEAT or THIEF.

Michael J. Anderson said...

It has been probably three years since I saw Collateral in its entirety, though I have shown clips of it in my classes since. The important thing to keep in mind, however, is that I had an infinitely greater capacity to understand Mann in 2004 than in 2000, less because I learned something about Mann in the interim - Collateral really did this work for me - than because I came to my film-viewing maturity in the year's between, where I could be assured of my initial judgments (having finally understood what it meant for something to be film art). In other words, I finally developed a level of taste.

I stand by "Collateral" for its added-value use of urban nocturnal landscape, continuously secured in Mann's choice of locations and camera placements, all within a countdown structure that, speaking to the film's internal coherence, required a very specific moment of conclusion (dawn).

On the matter of its being "over-rated," really its only the auteurists who hold Collateral in high-esteem. Though that leads me to wonder, what recent American films or especially filmmakers, Matt, would you say are underrated, given that you love to assail me for liking 'off' Michael Mann, Tony Scott and Clint Eastwood films (I'm thinking Blood Work here)? Do you have an equivalent figure in your own private canon?

Matt Singer said...

First of all, I love Clint Eastwood; as I recall, I was a bigger fan of his World War II films than you were. It's just BLOOD WORK that I find terrible. And I'm not alone on that -- it's got a 53% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, so at least half the people writing about the film think you're crazy, not just me. (COLLATERAL has an 86% rating, so it's not just the auteurists who rate it highly, either)

As for your defense of COLLATERAL, I'm not entirely sure what "added value" the picture has just because it's shot in Los Angeles at night. So because it was shot in LA at night it's all right that nobody notices the fact that this cab is driving around town with a completely busted windshield and a dented, cracked, BLOODY hood? Seems to me like Mann's take on L.A., as voiced by Tom Cruise's character, is much the same as Paul Haggis' in CRASH -- what is your opinion of that movie?

You know I think there is absolute value in looking at filmmakers' careers, and discovering how their films fit together and speak to one another. But I know that there are filmmakers who someone could argue in auterist terms for that you dismiss, simply because you don't LIKE them. Kevin Smith's movies -- even the terrible ones, and yes some are terrible -- all speak to their author's ideas about life. But you dismiss a guy like Kevin Smith because you just don't like his movies. I seem to remember you including an insult aimed at Kevin Smith (and fans of his films) in one of your old website bios.

Now I'm not suggesting Kevin Smith is a filmmaker of Clint Eastwood's stature, or, yes, even Michael Mann's. But I am suggesting that you act like the only auteurs out there are the ones you like; and I don't think that's true. Hell I thought Manohla Dargis made a very convincing case for Michael Bay as an auteur in her review of the odious TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN. As for my own taste-inflected auteurs, how about Brian Neveldine and Mark Taylor, authors of the underrated action films CRANK and CRANK: HIGH VOLTAGE?

Michael J. Anderson said...

Matt, so I am wrong for liking Blood Work because of its low Meta Critic rating, but you are right about Collateral being overrated due to its high Meta Critic rating? What is the standard here, you?

Second, I'm just not in the business of working out the career preoccupations of filmmakers, yes auteurs, for whom I have little taste or favor. I have a pretty limited amount of time to work on this site, especially at present, which generally limits me to writing about films and filmmakers I care something about. However, I do appreciate Dargis doing this sort of thing with Bay - which was precisely the point of the Pelham 123 post that offended you so much.

Third, a broken windshield is not in this case the difference between a great film and a failure.

Matt Singer said...

>>Matt, so I am wrong for liking Blood Work because of its low Meta Critic rating, but you are right about Collateral being overrated due to its high Meta Critic rating? What is the standard here, you?

Not a matter of wrong or right. Just pointing out that I am not the only one who doesn't care for BLOOD WORK and that you (and "the auteurists") aren't the only one/s who like COLLATERAL.

>>Third, a broken windshield is not in this case the difference between a great film and a failure.

No, but it is indicative of the absence of care taken with some elements of the story. If you really want me to list all the ways in which the film's narrative doesn't make a whole lot of sense, I'd be happy to.

And I wasn't offended by your PELHAM post, merely using it as a jumping off point for discussion. Even if I disagree with some of the thoughts contained within (like, say, that DEJA VU is one of the best American films of the decade -- YOU SAID IT!), I love when people argue for "disreputable" filmmakers. After all, you're talking to the guy who did a massive auteurist paper on Ed Wood back in our grad school days.

Michael J. Anderson said...

I stand corrected on Collateral's popularity. I was so immensely surprised by the film that I wrote an essay on the film - and then was surprised again when certain of my favorite Film Comment-types put it on the year end "top ten" list. I didn't even have the guts to do that initially. So, my memory is a little more personal in this instance. Obviously, I know that few people like Blood Work.

Ultimately, we seem fixated on different qualities of this film: you on plot holes and details that strain credulity? (I guess, I'm not trying to put words into your mouth) and me on what I see as Mann's primary interest, namely the look of the film's city-scapes. I was reading Bazin a lot at the time, which led me to notice how the film's locations were continuously calibrated for certain visual effects, and how the loss of this effect at dawn meant the end of the narrative. It was an ideal place to do a little applied theory. I still think it is, as is Deja Vu.

And yes, Matt Singer is nothing if not a defender of the indefensible, whether Ed Wood, Gymkata or Neveldine/Taylor (I'm with you the most on this one). What I would was asking you do is to defend the semi-defensible, a Tony Scott who might be entertaining on a non-ironic level, but who surely couldn't be anything more, right?

Matt Singer said...

>>I was reading Bazin a lot at the time, which led me to notice how the film's locations were continuously calibrated for certain visual effects, and how the loss of this effect at dawn meant the end of the narrative.

And I suppose that's there. And I think we all admire when a director has a really creative visual way to convey an idea. Where we differ on this movie (and a lot of movies, I think) is how much value I place on the story. If a movie does something really bold visually, or if you feel it conveys some sort of personal point of view, you are more willing to forgive some narrative hiccups; generally speaking, I am not.

>>And yes, Matt Singer is nothing if not a defender of the indefensible, whether Ed Wood, Gymkata or Neveldine/Taylor (I'm with you the most on this one). What I would was asking you do is to defend the semi-defensible, a Tony Scott who might be entertaining on a non-ironic level, but who surely couldn't be anything more, right?

I think what you're saying is that I'm too quick to champion total garbage, but too unwilling to look at less garbage-y garbage. Perhaps; I definitely adhere to the philosophy that an abject disaster is way more interesting than a mediocrity. And I guess I do find a lot of T. Scott's films just that: well made, stylish, but underwhelming despite the auteury bite you and other critics have done such a nice job unpacking.

Mike, the movie I really want to read your thoughts on is THE HURT LOCKER. I loved it, Rob hated it, where did you fall? Bigelow is definitely someone you can sink your auteurist teeth into too. Not literally though, your wife would not approve.