On PUBLIC ENEMIES, Part III: Mann’s Transcendental Cinema

This is the third 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.

If PUBLIC ENEMIES signals a new connection between Michael Mann and his audience, it’s due in no small part to his application – whether consciously, or not – of a transcendental style within the film.  I do not believe that PUBLIC ENEMIES fully achieves the sort of stark purity of image and editing that is found in a Bresson or Ozu film; but when we consider this director in the context of his own developing canon, and the larger canon of working American filmmakers, I believe there are strong signs pointing to Mann as a slowly ascending mantle-bearer of transcendental style within film.

My main purpose with this essay is twofold; first to show the way that PUBLIC ENEMIES, in ways both broad and focused, fits with Paul Schrader’s three hallmarks of transcendental style: the evocation of the “everyday”, the use of disparity in conflict, and the finale built around “stasis.”  Second, I would like to explore more specific aspects of the film’s evocation of a transcendental sensibility.

As always, a transcendental experience through cinema is a highly subjective event, but I believe that a close study of Mann’s creative choices will shed light on how this director is transforming and purifying his own way of seeing. To begin, it is worth noting that of the great American auteurs currently working, Mann’s career-long affinity for using film to build powerfully atmospheric moments of emotional and psychological intensity, combined with his equally fascinated fixation on themes of cool professionalism, death, and existentialism, places him in a position already strongly tied to transcendental style.  Those themes he typically returns to already have a strong relationship to matters of spirituality and what Schrader describes as the “Wholly Other,” or transcendental being.

Schrader identifies the first key trait of transcendental style as presenting the “everyday,” or how a film shows normal, day-to-day life as a means of becoming in touch with and expressing reality.  PUBLIC ENEMIES doesn’t show daily life in the gradual way an Ozu or Bresson film might, simply owing to the differences in subjects, but even within the scope of his topic, Mann takes pains to show the ins and outs of his gangster’s lives.  The details are thrown out along the way – frantic eating and refueling while on the run, the expression of a dying criminal, the banality of machine gun fights.  Other crime films have shown the details of their characters’ lives, but Mann differs in how he dwells on these items and moments, details that would just be texture in a lesser work.  Mann spends as much time on the wrapping of food in newspaper as he does on some characters’ deaths.  In focusing on the elements, large and small, that keep the criminals and the G-men up and running, Mann communicates the essences of these lives spent in perpetual motion.  Their lives differ from ours, but we receive a sense of what their “everyday” is like.  Not limited to Mann, it is this sense of the everyday that helps obliterate “screens,” Robert Bresson’s term for cinematic techniques and styles that worked to distance a viewer from a film.

Speaking of screens, while I don’t yet ascribe to the superiority of HD in portraying realism, I am intrigued by the notion that Mann’s use of the format might please Bresson, were he still alive, in the sense that it theoretically removes the screen most intrinsic to film itself – the emulsion and its slightly dreamy look we associate with cinema.

The second key element of transcendental style as described by Schrader, is the presence of disparity, or the conflict or potential for conflict between man and his environment, leading to a major decision. Besides the obvious physical conflict between the law and Dillinger, there is a deeper tension between Dillinger and the world around him.  The film is largely framed around whether he will leave the country or not, returning to this dilemma at key points.  He could get away but he doesn’t; he seems listless and sticks around.  He’s disowned by the mob, hunted by the law, and yet he seems disinterested in really escaping.  Mann attributes this lethargy to Dillinger’s love for the captured Billie Frechette, but Johnny Depp’s performance is cryptically low-key and hints at a deeper turmoil.  In his DVD commentary, Mann notes that Dillinger spent ten years in prison and had difficulty adapting to the technological and cultural changes that came about during his term.  It is this sort of inner conflict that Depp expresses quietly.  His alienation from the world reaches its peak as he explores the police station; confronted by the faces of his deceased gang, he seems to realize how alone he truly is – a sentiment only confirmed and justified to himself by watching Clark Gable play a last-man-standing, Dillinger-esque character on the silver screen.

According to Schrader, the disparity builds to a sudden and powerful release, and in PUBLIC ENEMIES we can easily identify that release within the death of Dillinger.  What’s more interesting is how Mann achieves “stasis,” the final and most important element of Schrader’s theory.  The final scene – a prison-set meeting between Charles Winstead, Dillinger’s killer, and Billie, Dillinger’s love – coasts on the lingering effects of the previous scene and its release, but also preserves a sense of a frozen moment begun when Dillinger falls to the sidewalk and mutters his last sentence.  As Winstead relates Dillinger’s words to their intended recipient, the stasis thaws somewhat (and Mann violates Bresson’s rule against audience manipulation by bringing Elliott Gould’s insistent score into play), but enough is maintained in that final image of a prison door shutting, bolstered by the preceding image of a grieving Billie, stone-like in her lack of expression.  Stasis allows the viewer to “read deep emotion into the inexpressive faces and cold environment,”1 and that is exactly what PUBLIC ENEMIES’ final moments seem to be aiming for, a sense of encroachment and imprisonment, but more importantly, a deep sorrow that transcends psychological and physical realms.  Personal experiences and readings will vary, but the sense of emotion that Billie hints at and the viewer completes, along with the simple finality conveyed by a closing door, are powerful indications of how much Mann has embraced a transcendental style. These are open and cathartic images, entirely dependent on a viewer’s immersion in the emotional moment, but tremendously moving for those who give themselves over to the work.

To call PUBLIC ENEMIES a work of transcendental style on the same level as Bresson or Ozu would be misleading, but the way it embodies and embraces such a style within its own structure deserves to be highlighted.  To that end, I would like to offer a few more observations of how the film achieves a transcendental effect apart from Schrader’s theory.

In his essay “Devotional Cinema,” Nathanael Dorsky highlights a kind of cinema tied up with spiritual expression:

The word “devotion,” as I am using it, need not refer to the embodiment of a specific religious form.  Rather, it is the opening or the interruption that allows us to experience what is hidden, and to accept with our hearts our given situation.  When film does this, when it subverts our absorption in the temporal and reveals the depths of our own reality, it opens us to a fuller sense of our world and ourselves.  It is alive as a devotional form.2

As with Schrader’s theory, PUBLIC ENEMIES contains moments that match Dorsky’s description, even if the whole does not.  The most important element of Mann’s film in this regard is what Dorsky calls “nowness:”

Nowness is always…nowness.  Every moment of time exists in the context of nowness, the eternal now.

Being able to experience nowness and experiencing it in a work of art allows you to participate directly with the very heart of that work and its maker.3

Mann achieves a superficial “nowness” by shooting a script that never literally revisits the past, and keeps its exposition brief.  Everything there is to learn about a character’s past is delivered quickly through bursts of dialogue.  On the other side of time, Dillinger expresses the nowness of his own life by exclaiming “We’re having too good a time today. We ain’t thinking about tomorrow.”  Only in the very last scene does the script make a specifically noted callback: “Bye bye, blackbird.”  Otherwise, it is a relentless machine pushing forward while avoiding much foreshadowing.  On a formal level, the editing is equally propulsive, but the use of quick cuts serves as a reminder that time is always changing, and yet the events onscreen keep unfolding in the present.  Mann’s men of action always live and move within the present, caring little  for past or future.  They are always in their own state of nowness, leaving Mann to keep up.

In regards to how PUBLIC ENEMIES’ rough visual style facilitates a more transcendental effect, a couple of approaches are worth considering.  On the one hand, it is the viewer’s own familiarity with Mann’s more flamboyantly expressive visuals that helps make PUBLIC ENEMIES play as a more stripped-down, purified exercise that tilts towards Bressonian sparseness, particularly found where Mann repeatedly points his camera: the human face.  Viewers introduced to Mann through PUBLIC ENEMIES will have a reduced awareness of just how far his aesthetic has been distilled, and perhaps a reduced experience of ENEMIES’ asceticism.

On the other hand, there is something deeply compelling about Mann’s steady focus on faces.   PUBLIC ENEMIES is dominated by the human face, including and especially during the gunfights.  Sean Burns commented that the film is one without establishing shots, and even if it’s factually inaccurate – such shots are present – in the grand scheme of the film’s experience, their presence is rarely felt.  Most of PUBLIC ENEMIES is shot from the eye-level of an average man’s height (or so it would seem), and framed in such a way that the eyes of the onscreen faces match up exactly with where we would see them in real life.  Many of the group shots are marked by stony, inexpressive visages that draw us closer to each character in the frame while allowing our attention to focus on the one face that isn’t functioning as human wallpaper.  I’ve read complaints about the hand camera that mention how it seems to remind the viewer of home-movies.  Home movies are shaky, yes, but they are also primarily about the faces of those we love.  In a strange sense, might that association aid the sense of familiarity, of getting to know the faces of these cops and robbers?

I am especially intrigued by how Mann seems to cut into closer shots with each successive gunfight, spending more and more time on bringing the viewer into intimate space with the characters.  This is the same director who staged the blistering battle in HEAT, and here he is less concerned with the impact of bullets as he is with the expressions of those shooting them.  By putting us in this sympathetic space, Mann makes the faces and heads of his characters the planets by which the camera (and thus, the audience) orbits.  In the theater scene preceding his death, Dillinger is shown in increasingly tighter close-ups of his head, both front and back; this relationship finds its release when he falls dead, a camera seemingly anchored to his shoulder, keeping his body the center of attention while the world spins out of control.  PUBLIC ENEMIES is a long, winding journey into the Dillinger that is presented for our nearly uninterrupted observation, and this shot (accompanied for a couple seconds by a sparse, ethereal sound design) is its most precise release and purest evocation of stasis.  It lasts but moments, and a lifetime.

In closing, I would like to share more about my personal reaction to the film.  I’m frankly surprised to still be writing about it, eight months after its release, especially considering that my initial theatrical viewing (the first of two) had its share of frustrations – the slowness, the sense of pointless drift, the generally empty dialogue spoken by Dillinger in a fairly inscrutable Depp performance, – but something about the whole experience, of having so many vantage points in 140 minutes with which to observe the human face in a believably real and historical context, and especially those last few minutes inside and outside the Biograph, burrowed deep into my memory.  I let it stew for a few weeks and then had a second look, which only increased my appreciation for this picture.  Like any film-watcher with a favourite flag to wave, I can’t deny that some of my response was and may continue to be fuelled by what I perceived as a generally muted reaction from established critics.  Did they not see the film I saw, rich and buzzing with a current of spiritual life?

What did I experience?  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn best described it:

Art can warm even a chilled and sunless soul to an exalted spiritual experience.  Through art we occasionally receive – indistinctly, briefly – revelations the likes of which cannot be achieved by rational thought.

It is like that small mirror of legend: you look into it but instead of yourself you glimpse for a moment the Inaccessible, a realm forever beyond reach.  And your soul begins to ache.4

For all of my reservations towards Mann’s exaltation of Dillinger – my uneasiness with the way his crimes seem to be celebrated, the lionization of Dillinger’s free spirited fights with the law – I cannot deny that this whole work did what very few films manage: it made my soul ache.  I do not know why; perhaps for the realization of my common bond with Dillinger as an imperfect human being, or for the sense of knowing Depp’s Dillinger deeply through endless observation of the face, an intimacy afforded only by the camera.  Maybe it was seeing the powerful, vivid portrayal of someone I felt I knew passing into death.  I do not know.

What I know is that I had the sort of transcendental experience that, as always, comes unexpectedly and builds a ladder between the soul and the screen.  That, and that this experience was strongly facilitated by Mann’s directorial choices, decisions that reflect a movement towards more purified images surrounding human beings, and the interaction of those images with sound to achieve these effects, these steps – everyday, release, stasis, nowness – we identify with the dense, ever-mystifying, ever-illuminating mist we call transcendental style.  PUBLIC ENEMIES is that rare work that attains the highest, and best effect of which the cinema is capable, that artistic impact that penetrates the viewer’s soul and makes one aware of life itself.  Above all else, PUBLIC ENEMIES made me see.

1. Schrader, Paul.  Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer.  Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1972. p. 83

2. Dorsky, Nathanel “Devotional Cinema.” The Hidden God. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2003. p. 261

3. Dorsky, p. 270.

4. Johnston, Robert K.  Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue (2nd Ed.) Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing, 2006.  p.126


2 Responses to “On PUBLIC ENEMIES, Part III: Mann’s Transcendental Cinema”

  1. […] On PUBLIC ENEMIES, Part III: Mann’s Transcendental Cinema « Cinema Truth Says: March 5, 2010 at 2:18 am […]

  2. […] 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 […]

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