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

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.


2 Responses to “On PUBLIC ENEMIES. Part II: Screens, Audiences, and Complicity”

  1. […] “It’s very much about human frailty and who we are when we are at our weakest.” On PUBLIC ENEMIES. Part II: Screens, Audiences, and Complicity […]

  2. […] 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. […]

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