Archive for the Reviews – Film Category

John Knox: Film Critic

Posted in Faith/Spiritual, Fun, Reviews - Film on May 8, 2012 by N.W. Douglas

A couple of years ago I took a class in the history of the Scottish Reformation, which centred on John Knox’s voluminous accounts of that upheaval. Instead of writing on yet another of Knox’s dry theological pieces, my professor allowed me to submit a final paper in the form of a pair of film reviews written in an approximation of Knox’s voice and style, discussing a topic that was near and dear to Knox’s heart. I’m posting it here for fun after seeing Victor Morton’s and others’ jokes on Twitter about #TheologianFilmCriticism. Without further ado:

What follows is a speculative piece that attempts to borrow the distinct voice of John Knox as expressed in his many writings, and imagine what it might say in response to seeing two films of a similar subject: martyrdom.

Dear brothers,

Fear not any reports of my backsliding; nay, slay the very thoughts as they enter.  Have you no faith in our Lord, who watches with loving care over every soul who flees from heresy and death?  Have I not proven my deepest devotion to our true King, our Almighty God, and to our struggle, watered by the blood of our dearest friends and warmed by the flames of that unquenchable hope that God set within me, and others, for the advancement of his Evangel in Scotland and the world?  Do you think he would allow myself to fall into the abyss at this late hour?  Though I am but mortal and as ever tempted and prone, as in my worst days of papistry, to fall deceived by the Father of Lies, so our Lord is good and gracious to deliver me, and chasten me, and hold me above the rot that consumes so much (emanating from Rome, its source), such that I might be a good professor to all of you.  So do not pay mind to that which is being bruited from here to St. Andrew’s.  Indeed, I was seen by many at the ‘cinema,’ where I first beheld what the commonalty call ‘moving images,’ but I have not cast in with the Antichrist, nor Sathan. I shall explane all in this letter.

My first conviction in this matter, before even nearing that hall, was to order against its profit, certainly through the avoidance of Christ’s own, and we hoped, of all the commoners. The graven image is not to be worshipped, said our Lord, and such strong clear proclamations from His word must needs have settled any remaining query.

Still, some of our brothers, laden with insight of such worldly matters as the use of moving images for the crude and temporary placation of the folk, undertook to persuade those of us in sole pursuit of the advancement of Jesus Christ’s banner in this land, to stay our admonishments, and our swords, and labour to meet these diabolical creations as moving paintings crafted for God’s good pleasure, to deliver the word and its good lessons in a manner appealing to the common man.

Upon beholding these suspicious crafts in their entire luster, I became aware of how desirable their experience must seem to the common man, who lacks for wisdom and means to receive correction, whether by his illiteracy or his simpleness.  And so my opinioun did change.  Surely as the scriptures attest to their own necessary value to reprove and rebuke, we may take these images, suspect as they are, and put them to similar use.  Though I do not give the images or those who partake of them my blessing, neither must I condemn them outright.  Some mysterious fruit is being borne here.

If these images are yet golden calves, let each man attendant watch his own fate carefully, and that of his brother, and flee accordingly at the first signal of malicious intent.  For it does not profit us, friends, to test the patience of our God Almighty, even as he lovingly withholds his judgement; rather his lenience is all the better for his servants to act as one mind in pure and holy obedience and render these images unto ashes, as with all temporary things.

I will now offer you my opinioun on two of these ‘moving images’.  One is vile; the other will be useful for instruction, particularly to those of us who have been squeezed by the presses of Rome.

A Man For All Seasons (1966) Directed by Fred Zinnemann

As much as this work bruits a noble report of that wretched traitor More, one of Satan’s chief agents in the history of England, it is wholly satisfying to impart to you, brothers, the news that Fred Zinneman’s artistic decisions that cannot be understood as anything but efforts to encourage the wolves in their blind stumbling, and for the persecution and dolour of Christ’s true kirk in England, are themselves blunted and turned by the great hand of our Lord, who returns such attacks against his flock to his enemies sevenfold.  To cite one such passage from the work: the opening images, which show naught but statues — demons and gargoyles — give way to the sight of a rich gold chain hanging limply from the fat neck of that pig Wolsey.  What a summary of the Roman kirk: slothful, hideous, sweating and stinking in their chains of power!  How appropriate that this psalm for one of Satan’s agents, for the bruited depth of his valour and reported strength of his conscience, should undermine the Papists in its very first moments!

The work endeavours to sully the good memory of King Harry, of course an early friend to the cause that binds us.  No man is without fault, and yet as each tree is known by its fruit, so the branch that bore the dear young Prince, who departed our company hastily and not without little grief, should not be so castigated and burnt in such falsehoods as are proffered here.  The king, who in his time and through what wisdom was granted him realized the need for separation from Rome, is here cast as a saucy fool, a braggart, a petulant child-king (the artists, were they seeking such a waif and monarch in one person, need only have turned their faces north).

What gives greatest offense is not the lowered record of a friend of Christ’s evangel, but the piety attributed to the plot’s central figure, that traitor More.  That such malevolence and unyielding devotion to the Roman Antichrist is refashioned as the most pure and gracious of spirits to be found in all the realm of England, and even, (the artists presume, though we shall not speak for them), the isles themselves, is enough to sicken the heart of any good and faithful soul so beholden to its sight.  Nowhere to be seen is the devil that laboured to destroy Tyndale, to corrupt the minds of the commonalty with twisted tracts and soothing lies, the butcher who even sought, unknowingly, but no less damnably, to prevent the very birth of good King Edward by holding King Harry to the hypocrisies of Rome.

Further condemnation may be heaped on the opulence of the images themselves; the richness of the locations and robes belies the artists’ intent to revel in excessive colours and pleasures.  To look upon these sights and sigh with delight takes too much attention, I fear, from the contemplation and adoration of our Lord himself, and merely replaces one idol for another.  I fear for the commonalty, who look upon these images and desire the wealth in one scene after another.  Flee to His word, and seek the Lord there!

Ignoring More’s stubborn loyalty to Rome, the virtuous watcher may suffer a twinge of sympathy for the Chancellor, if only in recognizing the press in which a righteous, convicted soul is placed for obedience to his conscience.  Were More replaced with any one of Christ’s true martyrs slain these last long years, it should be a work of great encouragement and truth.  As it is not this, brothers, I beg you to cast it out of your midst should it find shelter among you in any form.

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005) Directed by Marc Rothemund

As much as that irreconcilable wreck above is symptomatic of the impurity and hypocrisy of the Roman kirk, here is a work of images that many of Christ’s own in this land, and other realms; that all who have toiled these long ages for His evangel may seek as sustenance for the weary spirit.  For in this account, (which, it is agreeable to note, works less powerfully through its images than through its words) there is to be found a most affecting display of courage and love for Christ himself and his Gospel, unto the cruel hands of death and the greater glory of God.

This exemplary lesson in martyrdom must be tempered, however, by its flowering in a young woman.  One must be careful of the admiration that swells at seeing the girl, made inappropriately large by the projection, remain unconquered in spirit and in mind, lest that admiration remove any attention from our worship of Christ.

The plot details the brave efforts of this girl, Sophie Scholl, to profess the truth of Christ, and the wrongdoing of her Nazi oppressors, to her own people.  I confess I felt more than a little kinship with her, so closely does each image follow her journey through courts and jails, that tumultuous path of righteous imprisonment that many of us have known in our time, and by which many have perished for the advancement of the true kirk.

Here, captured in moving images, is the experience of God awarding his servant grace under pressure.  And how my heart swelled to see her exercising her pure conscience in the face of Sathan’s attacks, of resisting the evil conduct of her rulers and remaining loyal to God alone.

Standing before her persecutors, she proclaims the truth to their sneering faces just as a woman of God should: quietly, humbly, sure in its strength.  To her butchers, she says “You will soon be standing where we stand now.”  And lo, the historical record does indeed indicate her prophecy came to be.  Any work that so purely shows God’s spirit at work in one under the most dolourous of circumstances deserves to be commended.

I must make mention that, as stated in the film, the girl is closer in persuasion to Luther than to our good friend Calvin, but this is not a major flaw.  She resists the godless persuasions of her captors with as much skill as any of our number might, and our mutual agreement on major doctrines (though she never states her views of Rome, we can gather from her conduct that they are wholly good and satisfying), is more than can be said about that other work I have written about.

One last note, regarding Sophie Scholl’s pictorial splendour, or rather, it’s lack: it appears very dull; very gray and without colour.  This must be celebrated, as it draws the attentive watcher’s mind to the words being spoken, not to the idolatrous beauty so obvious in More’s work.  The ears may listen closely to Sophie’s answers, and the mind, undistracted by papist opulence, may offer thanks and praise to God even while still in a viewing.

This second work I commend to you brothers, and so approve of its spread among out kirk.  There is much truth to be learned from it.  Though my cautions about the ‘cinema’ are not yet fully allayed, there is clearly some excellent progress being made towards purifying it for the work of Christ.

Amen.

Of Gods And Men

Posted in Faith/Spiritual, film, Reviews - Film with tags , on March 10, 2011 by N.W. Douglas

The following was originally written in October 2010. I have revised it slightly for publication here. Of Gods And Men opened in limited US/Canada release on Feb. 25.

Prior to seeing Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men at the VIFF last year, I had read a few positive reviews from its screenings at Cannes.  The reception in Toronto and New York was no less encouraging thanks to positive pieces penned by Michael Sicinski and Glenn Kenny, both of whom are well-known for their insight, scrupulousness, and grounded opinions of any film, whether prestigious or not.  These are not fellows who will offer knee-jerk praise to any Palm-baiting arthouse flick that makes it over here.  The advance word was very good, to say the least.

I mention this in order to talk about a couple more reviews that were filed from Cannes, both somewhat negative and similar in one specific way.  Both Michael D’Angelo and Matt Noller criticized the film for being, in Noller’s words “somber and respectful to a fault: the Cannes equivalent of Oscar bait.” D’Angelo unenthusiastically described it as “mass hagiography.” Watching the film, I couldn’t help but reflect on these words and the assumptions behind them — especially the hint of an attitude that seems to automatically roll its eyes at works that approach subjects of intrinsic gravity with reverence.  As a film about men who gave up lives of comfort, romance, and eventually their blood for the spiritual path to which they felt called, a certain amount of seriousness should be expected.  Faith, religion, doubt, and death are all “heavy topics,” and a film that tackles them, as this one does, is bound to be “somber” in places.  Why all the fuss?

I’m frustrated by this seemingly detached way of viewing and dismissing a film that deals with difficult subjects as “too reverent.”  The implication of this complaint is that Beauvois’ respect for his subject somehow morphs into a technical flaw in the film’s storytelling. “Beauvois is less interested in humanizing the monks than in sanctifying them” writes Noller, while “Of Gods & Men never sets a foot wrong, but neither does it challenge the viewer to feel anything but passive admiration,” says D’Angelo.  “Good” people doing good things. Ho-hum.  Compounding the situation is the fact that Beauvois has made an intensely detailed film, materially and intellectually, about religious devotion (which may or may not make either critic uncomfortable, though wondering about that reads too much into brief comments) that does nothing to coerce the viewer to take one side or the other (Christian or Muslim), but also doesn’t leave plenty of room for the atheist to make moral claims about the problems of religion. It takes great pains to portray its characters’ faith in action while avoiding adopting any religious opinion (including atheism) as a worldview for the apparatus.  Its reverence is almost anthropological in nature; full of deep respect for the way a long-held tradition inspires courage in its adherents.

Of Gods and Men is an inherently “spiritual film,” in the sense that most of its scenes seem haunted by a spiritual presence.  I do not invoke these terms to describe something vaguely intuited during the film, but to give weight to a presence, even a character, that is rooted in the religious identity of the subjects.  What’s intriguing is how this presence is evoked not necessarily through obvious formal choices, but through performance and character.  One monk tells a young woman of how he used to be in love with a woman, until he encountered “a greater love,” which he followed into the monastery.  Later we see this man’s loving care of the villagers around him, whom he heals and binds, acting in the manner of Christ.  The words of the monks tell us how God is moving in their lives, but this sort of interaction is never physicalized in a supernatural way.  Everything that happens is internal, both on the screen and off.

Keeping that in mind, a certain scene late in the picture inspired a curious effect in me as I watched.  Somewhere during one of the monks’ communal prayer times, I felt compelled to close my eyes as they prayed.  What’s fascinating to me about this compulsion was not that I felt like I too needed to pray along with the characters, but that I had an inexplicable sense that closing my eyes would actually allow me to “see” the scene in front of me “better”, or perhaps, more clearly.  I did close my eyes, briefly, and certainly felt like I didn’t miss anything by doing so.  Indeed, I think I had a brief moment of perception where I felt in tune with the monks on screen, with the rhythm of their lives and their worship, such that this late scene of religious devotion invited me to participate.  I sensed that I what I was seeing and hearing was not the whole picture, that something else on another level entirely was going on, and that closing my eyes might bring me closer to seeing it.

The whole film is conventionally narrative, but punctuated by regular interludes showing the monks at chapel together, chanting and praying.  These moments become a ritual within the editing, allowing Beauvois to shape the film into something approaching a liturgy.  This cycle of prayer and praise sinks in over time, easing the viewer into the film and pointing them towards the Holy.

I believe that Beavois’ evocation of a sense of the Holy is also result of a phenomenology closely attuned to the monks’ faces and bodies, both individually and collectively.  Or to put it another way, if Beavois is deploying a spiritual or transcendental aesthetic, it’s one that hews closer to Rossellini than to Bresson.  The film’s formal asceticism only extends as far as the sparseness of its subjects’ lives.  If Beauvois’ frames seem bare, it is because of the settings he’s capturing: outside, it’s uncomplicated mountains, deserts, and fields; inside it’s sparsely furnished rooms of people with few possessions.  The images seem devoid of distraction because that is precisely the world these monks have created for themselves — Beauvois is ultimately operating in a tradition of historical realism that recalls Rossellini’s own picture about monks, The Flowers of St. Francis.  Beauvois’ monks, like Rossellini’s, are miles removed from Bresson’s inexpressive “models;” and like Rossellini, Beauvois spends most of his time meditating on the human face in flux, not set in stone.  There is a rich humanism humming under the surface of both films, a deep respect for each man as he struggles with doubts.

The film is intriguing in its refusal to follow Bressonian models of transcendental filmmaking, or to dabble in Bergman-style expressionism.  Except for one shot — a praying monk backlit by dusty rays — Beauvois avoids the sort of austere flamboyance that spiritual and existential dramas have typically indulged. And except for a climax of flat close-ups of each monk listening to a cue from Swan Lake, Beauvois also eschews the visual purity favoured by Bresson (and even this, Beauvois’ most Bressonian moment, is dominated by cathartic music; a choice that, diagetic source or not, is a direct affront to Bresson’s values).

If the film speaks to our time, it does so by addressing the gap between Christians and Muslims, particularly in taking steps to care for and humanize Muslim believers from the perspective of its protagonists – that is, from a peaceful, loving worldview rooted in the specific traditions of these Christian monks.  Beauvois avoids trying to reconcile Islam and Christianity as equally viable paths within a fundamentally secular world – indeed, the issue is never raised — but instead focuses on how the two might respect each other while gently affirming their own exclusive creeds.  A deep respect is preserved between the monks and the villagers, with neither side feeling compelled to shuck their beliefs and convert.

The final shot is a masterful summary of faithfulness in general, for both sides involved.  It’s a wide shot of the monks and their kidnappers, Muslim extremists, marching up a mountain into a snowstorm.  The monks walk gracefully to their fate; the would-be killers go matter-of-factly.  There is no judgment to be found in the framing; it is just a simple statement of the faith dynamics that drive these two groups.  One will love and keep dying for that love, regardless of who’s pulling the trigger; the other will keep killing, as they believe they must.  The viewer may pick sides but Beauvois’ staging doesn’t force it.  It’s a fitting end to a film that coolly examines faith tested by doubt and decision-making.  It’s a moment of facts, not opinions.  It is a moment of natural reverence, of understanding the gravity of what’s about to take place.  It needs that breath of anticipation, of waiting, in order to register an effect.  If there is no holiness to be found in that moment, then it’s all a waste of time.

Maybe that’s what the naysayers were looking for. And they can keep on looking. This is one of those rare films that observes the religious experience and does not blink. It does not preach.  It simply records. If one can’t help but feel reverent, then so be it. This is about as unobtrusive as a film about this subject gets.

Review Bag V: Late December Gumbo

Posted in film, Reviews - Film with tags , , , , on December 23, 2010 by N.W. Douglas

Sonny (2002) Nicholas Cage

Given the recent swell in attention to Cage and his most extreme performances, real or fictional, and my own somewhat morbid appreciation for such displays of commitment, it was impossible to turn down the opportunity of seeing his one and only work as a director.  That film is Sonny, a low-budget yarn from 2002 starring a still-rising James Franco as a young, reluctant New Orleans gigolo yearning to escape the trade, and his domineering pimp mother, after his stint in the Army fell through.  If needed, the performance could be best summarized exactly how you’d hope it would be with Cage directing: Franco doesn’t play Sonny; he plays Cage, or a compendium of Cage roles evenly spread through one scene after another.  Between the hair, the costumes (including black leather jackets and police blue-and-blacks), and the camera angles, Franco IS Cage in seemingly every heavy dramatic role he appeared in between 1980 and 2000.

It’s all there in some form: naked, post-coital tantrums, volcanic arm flailing, TV-smashing and curtain ripping intimidation, table throwing frustration, head-pounding freakouts, and a climactic, drunken stumble through the red-light district.  It isn’t wall-to-wall craziness, though.  It’s fascinating to watch, as a peek into Cage’s larger artistic sensibility, and as a work in context of Cage’s later roles in the same decade, especially Bad Lieutenant.  In fact, if Sonny does anything, it seems almost a marriage between Abel Ferrara’s depravity and Herzogian spontaneity, summarized best in a sequence where Franco, in cop-role play, services a client according to her perverse wishes, complete with a slowed-down shutter, low-end ambience, and Franco’s Keitel-esque expression of disgust.  In the next scene, after tearing apart the room, Franco gets his just payment from the frugal housewife, who throws a crumpled bill at him only to watch it do a little loop-de-loop before landing short of the target.  It’s the sort of unintentionally funny little moment that you can imagine Herzog seeing and thinking “That’s my man.”  Late in the picture, Cage himself shows up as Acid Yellow, a gay pimp who wears a Liberace jacket, hangs out with Technicolor green and red poodles at the bar, and brandishes a cane sword.  Cage says on the commentary that he was contractually obligated to appear in the film, and Acid Yellow was the smallest role he could give himself, but with today’s appreciation for his most bizarre roles, even this tiny one has more than enough gusto to deserve inclusion in the strange performances of Nicolas Cage.

That is the only real appeal of sitting through Sonny, the promise of Cage going off the deep end as a director and an actor.  As drama itself, it can’t quite make the transitions between melodrama and something more affecting actually work; it’s setting and fidelity to that setting (see Brenda Blethyn’s deluxe Southern Belle treatment) keeps it locked firmly in a world of garish, greasy theatre; as messy and emotionally boring as its endlessly running mascara.

I haven’t yet mentioned the cinematography of Barry Markowitz, who did his best to light on what appeared to be a tight schedule; the broadly slapped shadows and sweaty, honey-brown tones do the most heavy lifting to set the film in 1981, making the image itself feel like a product of that time; nor Clint Mansell’s tasteful score (and Cage’s equally tasteful use of Bach among others), which are both notable.  But this is mostly an “interesting failure,” one that goes off the rails later than expected and still fails to transcend that promise.

Alice In Wonderland (2010) Tim Burton

The less said about this, the better.  Just that any film that makes me want to embrace Marxist theory as a prescient explanation for this sort of soulless, mass-produced, late-capitalist derived trash — pardon me — is kind of an evil film, indeed.  There is not one drop of imagination in this garbage, remarkable considering the source material (though I have no great love for that either), resplendent to someone’s malformed taste in its faux-plastic coating of digital effects.  Linda Woolverton’s script is a colossal bore, opting for yet another “Here Comes The Messiah Figure” outline that, well, you know what happens.  You’ve seen every other movie these last few years where someone’s prophesied to come kill whatchamacallit with the whatsit.  The only real surprises the film holds are: 1) to what variety will the Cockney accent be ignored in favour of other English accents, particularly where small talking animals are concerned, and 2) to what degree will the digitally animated March Hare’s (pictured above) insipid lunacy raise my blood pressure?  Answers: not enough, and too much.  I was hoping Burton would close the film with five minutes of break-dancing Mad Hatter (a la the 2003 remake of Zatoichi, to take another beloved cultural property that got fresh eyes and an unusual closing dance number), if only to take the film’s undercurrent of madness to its fullest end.  No such luck.  Alice’s madness isn’t that at all; just calculated, factory-made silliness.  Yuck.

It Happened One Night (1934) Frank Capra

Watching this for the first time in about six years, I was struck by how easy it is to slip right into the rhythm of the film’s chemistry; Gable and Colbert really are electric.  What also surprised me was how much I no longer care for Gable’s childish treatment of Colbert, or more specifically, how many times Capra and writer Robert Riskin go back to the same well regarding that dynamic (her ineptitude and helplessness on the run), and particularly the film’s uneasiness with how to balance out Colbert’s headstrong ways with some rather contrived bits of idiocy on her part.  Oh yes, she gets him back at times, but the balance still feels rather one-sided, which perhaps is to be expected for 1934.  Contrast that, though, with another classic from the same year, The Thin Man, which features a couple equally blessed in charm and wit, and better suited to complementing each other.  And while in that film Nick Charles is indeed given an edge in competence of a sort, that superiority is solely relegated to matters of his detective profession, not general life skills.  To go back to Capra, yes, I understand that Colbert being on the run and unable to take care of herself is part of the point, being a spoiled rich heiress and all; but I find the frequency with which her ineptitude is highlighted makes for less interesting comedy than the alternative and generates enough of a (fine, I’ll say it) sexist tone that makes this second viewing just a little bit tarnished.  I guess ignorance really is bliss.

While I’m getting that out of the way, I’ll also mention how odd the final act seems, not just in comparison to what passes for romantic comedy today, but for how it kind of sucks the air out of the balloon, so to speak.  On the one hand, I appreciate how Riskin’s script eschews an easy sentimental reunion once Gable sees Colbert driving away with her father; at the same time, the film seems to run out of gas at this point, the instant that they are separated for more than a day.  Their last real scene together finishes 27 minutes before the film ends; the rest is a somewhat plodding walk to the finish line (save for a great scene with Gable and the father) where the moral and legal mechanics of reuniting them are closely detailed.  And as much as I appreciate the efforts to build an airtight case for the leads to be reunited (this section seems as much a justification to moral watchdogs, given the constrains of Colbert’s marriage/remarriage), a lot of the tension drains flat out of the picture.  I fear too much time passes between the leads’ last big scene together, and that wonderfully concise image of the bedroom sheet tumbling, to give that last shot all of the energy it needs.

Nevertheless, the film remains brilliantly witty and it’s one of Capra’s better balancing acts between comedy and drama; just witness the feather-light steering from clever banter to tender silence in the swamp scene; notable also is Capra’s trademark attention to the Depression, little details that are tossed in at just the right moment to keep the context relevant.  And Joseph Walker’s cinematography is as lush as ever, achieving a noir-like intensity in the many nighttime scenes.  Even if I’d give the edge to The Thin Man for its couple’s dynamics, this is still a fine film; as far as romantic comedies go — at least as vehicles for getting attractive people to fall in love with each other for our amusement — this is still the one to beat.

Happenings Elsewhere

Posted in Faith/Spiritual, Reviews - Film with tags , , , on October 15, 2010 by N.W. Douglas

I promise that I have some new posts coming soon.  This year’s edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival ends this evening.  I saw five films, and not one of them was a dud.  Recaps are on the way.

In the meantime, hop on over to Christianity Today Movies, where I talk about Letters To Father Jacob one more time.

Review Bag IV: Three Men On The Brink (Ray, Ferrera, Romanek)

Posted in Faith/Spiritual, film, Reviews - Film with tags , , , , , , , on August 4, 2010 by N.W. Douglas

Shattered Glass (2003) Billy Ray

The first viewing was satisfying, the second was refreshing, and now the third time proves ever more the charm.  Quietly released in 2003 and soon after forgotten, Billy Ray’s dramatization of the outing and fall of Stephen Glass — a wunderkind writer for The New Republic who fabricated dozens of stories in whole or in part, and was fired in 1998 — is holding up very nicely.  The plotting always impresses me; it’s lean, subtle, and guided with a steady hand through several layers of flashbacks, lies, and supposedly objective narrative.  For such a static, indoors-set film, the choice to shoot it in scope seems puzzling at first, but the results speak for themselves: Mandy Walker’s images are sleek and satisfying, and beautifully framed on just about every straight line to be found in an office setting.

What most stuck out on this viewing was the open ending: TNR editor and Glass-inquisitor Chuck Lane reading off the titles of various Glass stories he believes were cooked, while Glass remains silent, indicating that each title listed was indeed fabricated in some fashion.  The scene jumps back into Glass’ little narrated world that began the film – a sort of journo-dreamland in his head where he’s contentedly waltzing around a convention – before being pulled back to reality, sharply, by Lane’s voice: “Steve?”  Glass looks up and the image cuts to black.  On the one hand, it’s a simple reinforcement of the flimsy fantasies that Glass has cooked up – he’s deluding himself as much as he’s trying to fool us – and only the hard voice of Lane, the true journalist, can shatter the illusion.  Lane defeats Glass one last time.  This is an effective and understandable reading of the film and its stated themes.

At the same time, I wonder if Ray is quietly commenting on the subjective nature of narrative filmmaking itself, and especially that of film narratives that are “based on a true story” or “true events.”  After all, the title of the film refers to Stephen himself, so the uttered “Steve?” and subsequent silence from Glass almost seems like a veiled admittance that the very film that contains it is itself “fabricated in part,” however small or necessary the changes may be.  In fact, one might begin to question the ethics, if any, of docudrama filmmaking, especially in how the end result of such endeavours often results in a condensed “record” that replaces (or outright creates) the public’s perception of the real incident, which may or may not have already been specially crafted by various media outlets.  It is this, Ray’s focus on a storyteller — a facts-based one by profession, but a storyteller all the same — justly condemned for his falsehoods,  that allows the film, caught in its own tension between truth and fiction, to fold back on itself.

The audience is left in a similar position to Glass’ colleagues, who chose to disbelieve the evidence of his lying because they liked him so much, except the only relationship viewers have with the film’s “heroes” is through the virtuous portrayal of Chuck Lane; Peter Sarsgaard’s acting is efficient in quickly establishing Lane as a no-BS truth-teller and allying him with the viewer, while the audience grows irritated with Glass’ shenanigans.  But like Glass’ friends, we too are placed in a position of epistemological bias, and once Lane has won the day, the viewer that is convinced of his own objective sight (established by Ray’s navigation of perspectives; by beginning with Glass as a sympathetic if somewhat irritating kid and ending with him as the king of weasels, slain by the righteous Lane) may find it hard to return to a more balanced view of these determined people, seeing both the truth-tellers and the liars in all of their humanity.

How many novels does Stephen Glass have to write before he’s redeemed and maybe even appreciated for his supposed gift for fiction making?  Can this film, with its condensed account of the events, be blamed for writing Glass’ story sort of like Glass might?  By all accounts and the assurance of involved parties, Ray’s reconstruction sounds accurate.  But it will never be perfect.  I wonder what real-world consequences have been added to Glass’ plate because this film exists and tells the story in this particular way.  And what that might mean for docudrama type films in this age; its own ability to entomb certain accounts of incidents bolstered by the all-seeing, all-remembering networks that make up our daily lives.

Bad Lieutenant (1992) Abel Ferrara

It’s a slog.  It may be one of the most rewarding slogs in it’s genre — it leads to a climax that proves genuinely affecting, depending on your tolerance for the miraculous — but that doesn’t make it any easier to watch.  Ferrera treads a fine line between exploiting the sordid situations of his anti-hero — see how far I can go with this bit of depravity! — and allowing them to shock, horrify, and browbeat the viewer into harboring absolutely no hope for the salvation of the Bad LT (Harvey Keitel).  By the time Ferrera lingers over a long heroin-shooting scene, all feelings, including revulsion, seem to have fled the picture.  For both the (resilient) viewer and the LT, only numbness remains.  For any other film, this would be the appropriate point for declaring the picture dead.  Not here, though.  This vacuum of feeling is Ferrera’s secret weapon.

It is because of that numbness that the film’s climax registers with scalpel-like accuracy, and painful intensity.  Numbness is destroyed by realization, by inner conviction, and by trickles of grace.  Ferrera plays the LT’s breakdown completely on the nose, and yet still it feels understated.  It’s difficult to evaluate Keitel’s performance on a simple “good/bad” scale; surely my generation, for whom sarcasm is a sacrament, would scoff at his animalistic moans as “overacting.”  There is a sliver of truth in that view.  And yet when he groans under his sins, I can see into the abyss with him.  I can feel the weight crushing him.  Few performances that I’ve seen have so clearly, so painfully, so poignantly expressed the world of a man who by his own reckoning (and probably most of the audience), is completely beyond hope.  A viewer who is spiritually tuned into the film will understand that there is no way to overstate the anguish of a lost soul, a realization that gives the scene and its antecedents, and the film as a whole, an overwhelming and perhaps undeserved power.  It shouldn’t be any other way.  After ninety minutes of filth, the last thing you’d expect would be an invasion of total, scandalous grace.

One Hour Photo (2002) Mark Romanek

Fine.  I was tense.  I was in suspense.  But let’s get one thing clear.  This is not Kubrickian.  This is not Hitchcockian.  What it is, is just plain sadistic, without any of the psychological depth that Kubrick would bring to the table, nor any truly thrilling formal approach that would accompany Hitch.  It’s sadistic in the sense that Romanek’s sterile visual scheme, his lingering (but not long) shots of William’s sad puppy expressions indicate to me a director more interested in toying with his strange specimen of a character than revealing him.  Well, I’m not playing.  This is porn for people who enjoy watching pathetic, awkward souls go off the deep end.  Is he or isn’t he a pedophile?  Oh look he’s watching the kid!  Look he has a hospital-clean, sparsely furnished apartment!  Psycho!

Maybe I wouldn’t be so angry about it if Romanek didn’t try to have his art-film cake and eat it too.  There are techniques used here that belong in a more humanist examination.  Take the aforementioned “lingering” takes: many shots of Williams’ somber face seem to go on a bit longer than your typical Hollywood picture, and, as they linger, seem about to invite the viewer, acclimated to briskly paced-cutting, to get comfortable and peer closer at the sight.  I think there’s a certain timetable to how observation of long shots work, which involves the viewer realizing after about thirty seconds or so that this shot is going to be longer than usual; that there must be something more to it.  At that point, the viewer’s perception of the shot resets and begins combing the image for details; the viewing effort exerted by the viewer increases in order to meet the curiously protracted shot length on its own terms.  If the viewer is game, the more active engagement rising from the “reset” helps the viewer to glean some sort of meaning, whether they project it or actually “get” some of the director’s intent.  One Hour Photo seems poised to take advantage of this technique, except the decision to linger — but not to wait (or to put it differently, to tease in an art house kind of way) — destroys any chance of the viewer getting to spend some sort of realistic, organic time with Sy; and make no mistake, in a film as sewn up in pre-ordered creepster character clichés as this — the stiff walk, huge glasses, fussy neatness, the stunted social skills, that damned empty apartment, his art-department pristine wall of photos, and on and on it goes — the only hope we have of connecting in a human-to-human sense with the man would be through a sense of having shared real time and real moments with him.

In a similar sense, I would chalk up the failure of Williams’ performance to really affect me as another casualty of Romanek denying us the time we need to get to know Sy, however blank he might be.  It’s difficult, and in this case I’d say impossible, to genuinely engage with Williams’ blankness while watching from a mental framework wherein each slightly longer-than-usual-shot is under girded with the expectation that this boring face will soon be replaced by another image anyway, so there’s little point in trying to connect with it.  I’m not convinced that Williams’ performance even has any real depth, but the stunted editing eliminates any possibility of an open-ended result, and subsequent interpretations.

So that’s what the film isn’t — actually insightful on any human or formal level — but there are nice Fincher-esque close-ups of film being developed and bright PTA-style shots of store aisles, and the overall feel of a train derailing in slow motion for the sick amusement of all us normal folk — thank heavens we’re not weird like Sy the Photo Guy!  And it is strange to see how Sy’s wall of pictures, however silly and overblown it comes off in the movie, visually anticipates Facebook, Flickr, and other digital means of sharing thousands of personal moments with entire strangers.  Sy had to steal his clients’ memories in order to put together his wall of obsession; eight years later we offer our most intimate selves freely and even assemble the collage for him.  Make of that what you will.

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

Posted in film, Reviews - Film with tags , , , , , on January 22, 2010 by N.W. 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.

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

Posted in film, Reviews - Film with tags , , , , , , on January 13, 2010 by N.W. 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.