Archive for January, 2010

On PUBLIC ENEMIES. Part II: Screens, Audiences, and Complicity

Posted in film, Reviews - Film with tags , , , , , on January 22, 2010 by Nathan Douglas

This is the second essay in a three-part series on Michael Mann’s PUBLIC ENEMIES (2009). Part One discusses ENEMIES’ role as a thoroughly “Mannian” work, completely at home in his filmography and rife with his familiar themes, while pushing them into a more emotionally tumultuous direction.  Part Two focuses on the film as evidence that Mann is engaging with his audiences as direct participants.  Part Three examines PUBLIC ENEMIES’ relationship to and embodiment of transcendental style.

The death of John Dillinger is as poetic as any of Mann’s signature sequences, but it strives for something new on Mann’s part: involving the audience as characters in Dillinger’s story, and the meaning of that story.  The typical Mann ending promises moody beauty and exquisitely pitched editing wrapped up in moments that leave the audience entranced, but essentially passive.  This makes sense, as the worlds that Mann chooses to show tend to be closed off little fiefdoms that the average viewer could not relate to. And considering the subject of PUBLIC ENEMIES, one would be forgiven for assuming the same situation is present here.

This conversation* about Mann’s filmography mentions a moment in THE INSIDER where we, the public, get screen time for brushing off Jeffrey Wigand’s testimony, finally aired after so much strife and loss.  Within that moment, a subtle comment is made about the disposability of important information — and the disposability of sacrifice — in a media-saturated culture.  Within the final ten minutes of PUBLIC ENEMIES, Mann achieves a similar result by juxtaposing the relationship between Dillinger and his onscreen counterpart in MANHATTAN MELODRAMA, and the relationship between Dillinger and us, the adoring public.  As others have pointed out, Mann’s treatment of Dillinger’s final screening plays out as a prophetic and cathartic moment for the gangster, by summarizing his life and predicting his downfall.

Let’s take a closer look at the scene in the theatre.  It is constructed mainly of close-ups of Dillinger’s face, and alternating close-ups and wide shots of the theatre screen.  As the scene unfolds, Mann moves closer to Dillinger’s face with every cut, bringing us into an intimate space with the gangster.  By bringing us so close to Dillinger, his guard down, we enter some sort of sympathetic space.  At the same time, Mann is slowly cutting in closer and closer to the movie screen (framed over Dillinger’s shoulder) to demonstrate this sort of audience-subject relationship happening within the film itself.  The film world becomes closed off to anything outside of Dillinger’s eye line.  At Clark Gable’s penultimate moment in MANHATTAN MELODRAMA, Mann goes in tight for a grainy close up to catch the line “Die the way you lived, all of a sudden; that’s the way to go.  Don’t drag it out.”  This is, of course, advice that resonates with Dillinger.  What I find most interesting about the scene is the way Mann works us into such a close and familiar space with Dillinger in order to watch him receive meaning from the screen in front of him, and how this is really preparation for the payoff of our own relationship with the screen-portrayed Dillinger.

Once MELODRAMA has ended and the countdown to Dillinger’s death begins in earnest, we cease being passive and become part of the proceedings ourselves.  Mann shoots the killing as an assassination in which we are complicit: he takes our omniscience and condemns us for it.  Witness the drawn out shots looking back at Dillinger and his killers sneaking up.  We know what’s going to happen, but Mann makes us feel damned for knowing and not saying anything.  Building off the intimacy he crafted inside the theater, Mann seems to be daring us to try and break the fourth wall.  The anticipation is made even more agonizing by inserting a following shot centered on Dillinger’s back – now, as Matt Zoller Seitz points out, we become both detached and identified with Dillinger.  Any betrayal of him will hurt us as well, and Mann pushes harder by making this particular shot play in slow-motion, a device that Mann usually reserves for crystallizing small character moments that really communicate their essence and struggles within a few frames.  And when Dillinger finally turns around for the last time in his life, the camera dollies into his eyes, widened with surprise and hurt – it seems he’s looking at us, not his attackers.  If Godard is right when he calls every camera movement a moral judgment, then this movement is one of the most outraged.  “How dare you,” cry Dillinger’s eyes.  As an expression of celebrity’s tragedy and the mob’s fickleness, it is elegantly succinct, and for myself, wound up and caught in the moment, it’s electrifying.

This, I think, is the great psychological achievement of PUBLIC ENEMIES, when measured against Mann’s other films.  He is beginning to engage his audience on a more direct and personal level.  His previous films are masterpieces of creating a world to see and a mood to feel, and if we’re lucky, gradually inhabit.  But we only get so far into them before pressing our noses against a plate of glass.  PUBLIC ENEMIES keeps this system largely in place, and then shatters the barrier with one tortured glance.

When Dillinger falls, so does the camera, our world spinning out of control as he does.  It is the marriage of the adored and the adoring.  We betray those we worship, until their absence throws our axis off.  As a commentary on the relationship between the celebrity and the crowd, it’s a more powerful lancing of the audience than THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES, which has the character of Bob Ford to be the audience’s surrogate.  The death of Jesse James is moving, but comes from a gradual undermining of his celebrity, his image in the eyes of Bob Ford poisoned slowly over several years.  This is a valid, and powerfully presented reflection of celebrity deterioration over the last few centuries.  Where PUBLIC ENEMIES differs is in its reflection of the instant perils of celebrity, perils that are unique to the digital era.  A few moments of weakness uploaded to Youtube can lay waste to one’s reputation in a matter of minutes, as effectively as Winstead’s bullet meets Dillinger’s cheek.

But that shot; that movement.  The camera’s physical expression of shock and realization is something we’ve seen before, but rarely as effectively as it is seen here.  And the key to that is found in Mann’s use of establishing layers of audience-screen relationships, revealing the power of cinema through showing cinema, in a way that words fail to truly describe.  It’s self-reflexive without being self-aware; as though some part of the psyche of the act of film watching – of seeing, hearing, and understanding – has been laid bare.

PUBLIC ENEMIES doesn’t change everything, but it has changed enough to mark a significant moment in Mann’s career, and his most important in a decade.  He could have easily coasted on his talent, crafting more richly atmospheric worlds like HEAT or COLLATERAL, those closed off spaces that alternately enchant and chasten.  Instead, he has pushed himself more and more into engaging both art and the audience on a level deeper than even many exceptional film experiences.  Maybe I’ve spent too much time meditating on this work, but I believe that PUBLIC ENEMIES is Mann’s first real effort to revitalize cinema itself: with this film and this last scene, he has carved out a fresh take on direct cinema within the American narrative.  Far from the groans of the naysayers, PUBLIC ENEMIES demonstrates that Michael Mann has most certainly not lost his mojo.  He’s only just finding it.

*The actual page is missing, probably due to the recent move of The House Next Door from Blogspot to Slant Magazine.  Until the real page is posted again, I’ve linked to a Google Cache of the article.

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On PUBLIC ENEMIES. Part I: Charles Winstead, Mann’s Man

Posted in film, Reviews - Film with tags , , , , , , on January 13, 2010 by Nathan Douglas

This is the first essay in a three-part series on Michael Mann’s PUBLIC ENEMIES, written mainly over the summer and early fall of 2009.  Part One discusses ENEMIES’ role as a thoroughly “Mannian” work, completely at home in his filmography and rife with his familiar themes, while pushing them into a more emotionally tumultuous direction.  Part Two focuses on the film as evidence that Mann is engaging with his audiences as direct participants. Part Three examines PUBLIC ENEMIES’ relationship to and embodiment of transcendental style.

PUBLIC ENEMIES is a curious beast.  Billed as a big-budget period film starring movie idol Johnny Depp, Michael Mann’s latest may be the first Hollywood film to spend great amounts of time and money focusing on a minor character who says little and doesn’t make an entrance during the first third of the plot.  Just as COLLATERAL was the “Tom Cruise as bad guy flick” that wound up more memorable for Jamie Foxx’s breakout performance, PUBLIC ENEMIES is supposed to be about John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) on the run from G-man Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale).  And it does an admirable job of following this thread, with all of the fury that a Hollywood production may bring to bear. The only problem lies in the realization that this cat-and-mouse backbone is all surface games, a bullet-riddled vehicle that hides the key to this puzzle in plain sight.

The name of this key is Charles Winstead, played here by veteran actor Stephen Lang.  The film is well under way by the time he makes his curiously staged entrance: the camera films his shoes stepping off of a train, the sort of shot that’s been used in too many films to immediately identify a character as some sort of badass.  The camera booms up to reveal Winstead surveying the platform with icy blue eyes, flanked by a couple of black-coated, hard-faced goons (one of whom, by the way, is a silent Matt Craven, who I wish would return to larger roles).  Surrounded by steam, grim expressions firmly in place, they are angels of death and Winstead is their Michael: humorless, professional, and deadly.  In PUBLIC ENEMIES, they are the quintessential “Mann Men” – the driven, autonomous, unyielding types who get the job done.

That PUBLIC ENEMIES doesn’t place its true Mann men as the main characters is one of the greater curiosities of this rich film, and one of the departures from Mann’s established storytelling style (though as we shall see, it’s not so much a departure as an augmentation).  While PUBLIC ENEMIES covers much of the same ground as previous Mann fare, it signals an evolution in the way this fascinating auteur explores his most recurrent themes, and for my money, confirms that Mann is the most interesting American director working today.

Much has been written and said about Mann’s technical choices for PUBLIC ENEMIES.  It is not my intention to spend too much time discussing those decisions, except as they relate to my analysis of Mann’s thematic development.  Certainly, I think Mann’s artistic direction here is as strong as anything else he has made, and, as expected, he succeeds in presenting a picture charged with a personal energy generally lacking in Hollywood cinema.  Shooting hand held offers a special freedom to the gifted director, and Mann continues to develop the loose visual aesthetic that first appeared in THE INSIDER.  Like Kathryn Bigelow’s THE HURT LOCKER, and unlike so many of his younger peers (cough, Peter Berg), Mann uses his powers for good: his period setting jumps to life with the added spontaneity of the shaky-cam, placing the audience as participants in the onscreen drama.  PUBLIC ENEMIES’ aesthetic demonstrates the difference between a genuinely living film and a film trying to feel alive.*

Thematically, PUBLIC ENEMIES is difficult to pin down.  Even after two viewings and many hours spent thinking on it, I find it to be an unusually slippery fish.  Michael Mann does not make simple films, and PUBLIC ENEMIES does not disappoint in complexity, but the collision of familiar Mann themes and more rote, inscrutable choices makes for a tough nut.  There is a lot going on in PUBLIC ENEMIES; it’s more richly dense than MIAMI VICE and less telegraphed than COLLATERAL or THE INSIDER.  On the surface, it seems to be closest in lineage to HEAT, but I expect that’s more a case of Mann indulging his essential themes, which were so brilliantly encapsulated and defined in HEAT.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, I believe Charles Winstead is the Rosetta stone to this puzzle, especially relating to how he illustrates Mannian philosophy.  That he is the most important character in the film doesn’t negate the work of the leads, which provides the framework for Winstead to unlock the door.  To fully appreciate how Mann uses Winstead, we’ll have to take a quick look at this director’s major themes in his previous works.

One of Mann’s recurring themes involves the importance of holding to some sort of personal code.  Mann’s men are often set up with a deeply engrained body of rules for themselves that they use to ensure high quality results from their work.  Neil MacCauley, from HEAT, famously states he must have no attachments or commitments that he could not walk way from in 30 seconds if he felt the heat coming around the corner; Vincent, the hitman in COLLATERAL, spouts his sociopathic philosophy to justify his murdering: “I didn’t kill him.  The bullets and the fall killed him.”  And because Mann men are always consummate professionals and perfectionists, they need their work to define their very beings.  When the code is broken, Mann doesn’t punish the man, so much as he leaves him to his fate.  PUBLIC ENEMIES doesn’t feature much explicit mention of the codes of John Dillinger or Melvin Purvis, but it is soaked in the ramifications of ignoring such systems, whether by disobedience or by the lack of owning one to begin with.

We get the sense that John Dillinger is a gentlemanly criminal, who treats his hostages relatively well once they’ve served their purpose.  He lacks the psychotic cruelty of Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham), which alone earns some of our sympathy.  His loyalty to main squeeze Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) is apparent, but Mann doesn’t dwell on it long enough to make it especially touching.  Other than these brief glimpses, there is little to indicate a larger code by which Dillinger lives.  He drifts from job to job, floating through life in the present, admitting, “We’re having too good a time today. We ain’t thinking about tomorrow.”  As the film draws to its conclusion, the sense of Dillinger’s dithering becomes stronger.  Will he go to Cuba or Brazil?  Does he really want to do the train job?  It’s hard to tell.  His larger indecision is hinted at but never made obvious.  He refuses the foresight and propulsive rules of MacCauley, and the improvisation of Vincent or Tubbs/Crockett.  By the time he wanders into the Bureau’s office, perusing their operation with bemused interest, he seems to have reached a certain stasis.  He doesn’t want to be caught, but he doesn’t want to pursue the action that would certainly spare him. Outside of the Biograph Theatre he drifts once too far, and meets his end.

Melvin Purvis is largely cut from the same cloth, albeit with justice as his goal, not personal thrills or profit.  In his introduction, he is the consummate lawman: dedicated to following the law, unafraid to use violence if necessary.  He doesn’t mean to kill Pretty Boy Floyd, and his disappointment in killing the criminal is subtly conveyed by Bale.  J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) congratulates Purvis on the kill, an accolade that Purvis seems reluctant to accept.  As Dillinger lacks a binding code, so does Purvis when he accepts Hoover’s assignment to hunt down Dillinger.  The earnest agent spends the rest of the film serving two masters: Hoover with his image and administrative concerns, and the actual mission.  Mannian codes require unswerving devotion in order to yield fruit or salvation; Purvis, alas, divides his energies between the two and fails.  This is foreshadowed and summarized in a telephone conversation between Hoover and Purvis: the agent requests the assistance of hardened Southern agents, men who know how to hunt and kill.  Hoover resists at first, cajoling Purvis like a petulant child, but Purvis persists.  It is perhaps his only true victory in the film, a moment when he throws all allegiance to one cause – the mission – and is rewarded.  Despite this achievement, Purvis remains caught between these forces for the duration of the film.  Purvis may be driven, and he may be skilled, but he lacks the autonomy that defines the most successful Mann men.

What makes Melvin such a tragic figure, and injects PUBLIC ENEMIES with deeply felt pathos, is the fact that Purvis is a smart, capable agent defeated by a thousand paper cuts to his focus.  The tragedy lies in his awareness of his own ineffectiveness, crystallized in the moments when he watches his men die at the hands of Baby Face Nelson.  His slaughter of Nelson is a dark moment when law enforcement becomes personal gratification, and yet Mann still finds a way to twist the screw into Melvin’s stomach through denying him the satisfaction of hearing Nelson’s last words.  All he gets is a gust of breath, and silent death.

Enter Charles Winstead.  He doesn’t get much screen time, but Mann and Lang make the most of the character’s presence, and he becomes the Mannian model for the picture.  Despite being underneath Purvis’ command, he commands a respect and autonomy all of his own.  It is clear that he only follows orders because he chooses to do so.  When Dillinger escapes the Little Bohemia lodge, it is Winstead and his fellow ranger who track down the fleeing criminals.  During this sequence, Mann implements a rare slow-motion shot: Winstead does a dramatic roll, shotgun in hand, and comes up firing.  It’s the most instantly iconographic action moment to be found in the film, and it’s curiously emphasized by a filmmaker who uses slow motion as an identification device in his films (eg. THE INSIDER’s mirror treatment of Wigand and Bergman leaving their jobs).  Mann’s emphasis of Winstead’s action only strengthens his support for the aging lawman.

Winstead’s devotion to a code – and importance as a Mann man – can be inferred by his swift actions, and the way Mann focuses on these actions.  His purposeful pursuit in the forest, his assured restraint of a torturing agent, and his unflapping attack on Dillinger (preceded by his own planning of position) cements him as a highly individualistic, professional perfectionist: a Mann’s man, if ever there was one.  He knows the power of violence, wields it when necessary, and moderates his actions for each situation.

All of these Mannian qualities prepare Winstead for the enviable position of being Dillinger’s assassin, and more importantly, for the subsequent awarding of the highest possible honor in a Mann film: the intimacy of exclusively knowing one’s enemy in his last moments.  The peaceful bond between foes upon the brink of death is one of Mann’s distinctive marks (most noticeably depicted in HEAT) and it is the thematic intersection and grail of PUBLIC ENEMIES.  That Winstead alone bears witness to Dillinger’s final words endows him with a sort of holy experience; that Purvis is too late to partake in the collection of Dillinger’s last words introduces an overtly tragic tone, further deepened by Winstead’s rebuffing of the late-comer.  The overall effect of these events effectively pushes Mann’s familiar dying vigil scene into an even more complex (and violent) tornado of emotion than has previously been evoked in a Mann ending.  Sorrow and satisfaction flow mingled down, finding their focal point in Purvis.  The loss of respect (if ever there was any to begin with) is shattering, one more blow to a man already crushed by his impotence as a lawman.  Purvis witnessed Floyd’s last words; he went through the rite, even if they were curses spat from a defiant tongue.  But his own victory over Nelson was tainted by the gangster’s wordless exit, denying that truly Mannian closure provided by a shared experience of death.  And in Dillinger’s case, despite all his effort, Purvis failed to finish the job himself and bear witness to the final moments of a legend.  In Mann’s world, there is no worse damnation.



*A truly useful comparison of effective hand-held styles may be made between THE HURT LOCKER (2008, Bigelow) and THE KINGDOM (2007, Berg), which deal with similar subject matter and aesthetic form, but achieve vastly different results: LOCKER proves to be immersive and engaging in its camera’s freedom, while THE KINGDOM is impeded by its shaky shots.  A more relevant but weaker comparison may be made between PUBLIC ENEMIES and sections of J.J. Abrams’ STAR TREK: Mann could establish screen geography through hand-held in his sleep, while Abrams seems confused by his own coverage and works to disorient the audience, when he isn’t busy reminding us that the camera is being held by someone external to his film’s world.

“It’s very much about human frailty and who we are when we are at our weakest.”

Posted in Faith/Spiritual, film with tags , on January 4, 2010 by Nathan Douglas

So says Klaus Härö, the director of Letters to Father Jacob, who was recently interviewed by Cinema Without Borders.

Excerpt:

When we were shooting the film more than a year ago, nobody was talking about an economical crisis or recession of any sort. When the film opened in April of 2009, people all over had lost their jobs and their lives had changed, and this really hit a nerve here. We did not expect a big audience, but here in Finland we had great numbers especially for a film this quiet and still. So this is what this film is about for me: who you are when you are your weakest and do human beings have values within them. (Emphasis mine)

Interesting.  The economy hits the bricks and the filmgoers turn to something “quiet and still.”  Can you imagine that happening here?

Read the whole thing.

EDIT: Also relating to Father Jacob, a shortened version of my personal-essay-review-thing on this film has been posted at Jeffrey Overstreet’s website, Looking Closer.  You can find it here.  Thanks Jeffrey!