Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Turn it up, Bring the Noize: Public Enemies


There are roughly one and a half... maybe two scenes of any real heat in Michael Mann's Public Enemies (as I didn't realize I was making a shitty Michael Mann pun as I wrote that, I hope you'll forgive me). I say "and a half" as a way of mediating the unease I feel in labeling these scenes as such, as they are all quickly and gracelessly defused moments after they're lit. One (more or less) of these scenes finds Marion Cotillard, as Dillinger's love interest Billie Frechett, cuffed to a chair in the Chicago Police Department as a big ol' brute of an officer tries to beat some confessions out of her with a stiff back hand and, at one point, a phone book. For the first time during the film's two-hour-plus running time, my noodle began buzzing. Was Mann finally giving us the ugly climax of what had seemed to be a film-long investigation into the bureaucratic hell made of law enforcement with the advent of Hoover's FBI and its dehumanizing, incompetent, vicious tactics born more out of personal insecurities than respect for the word of law? Would we finally see some sort of dialogue regarding the reasons that, as a nation, America lifted John Dillinger and not the Good Guys up to the status of Folk Hero as we faced the (1st?) Great Depression? No such luck, as immediately before our slobbering oaf of a law enforcement agent is able to lay Billie out with a haymaker to the kisser but good, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), like the hand of benevolent God, is able to intercede (right as the brute is rearing his right arm back, natch) and, more, carry the quivering dame to safety. The only other scene I'll mention right here is near the film's final minutes, as Johnny Depp's John Dillinger is enjoying his final film at Chicago's Biograph theater before meeting his demise outside its doors. The film's Manhattan Melodrama, a movie I admit to basically not knowing anything about and also admitting to know wanting to see a whole lot more than I want to see Public Enemies for a second time. As the film plays, it becomes apparent Dillinger is finding himself, his own worldview and, finally, his own coda in the characters onscreen- "What's life but losing it", "It ain't worth it if I can't live how I want", all of that. Of course, this scene is ruined by the film's overbearing score- a score that ruins a frightening amount of scenes, truth be told- and the fact that this moment lives only as one, confined little moment. It does nothing to encapsulate, clarify or make beautiful anything we've learned about Dillinger up to that point, and it doesn't even carry over to lend a sense of tragic fate to Dillinger's assassination mere moments later.

In honesty, there are a few other scenes I could list in a like manner, but the fact of the matter is that all of them- from Dillinger seeing his own news clippings and the pictures of his deceased comrades on the walls of his very own investigation bureau, to the look of despair and guilt on Purvis' face as he allows a wounded bank robber to be tortured for whereabouts, to the numerous bank heists and shootouts- are sabotaged from the start, doomed to sink into the indifferent and pretty empty spectacle that is the bulk of this movie. My friend Eric told me that he saw the crew, out n about his Chi Town neighborhood, when they were filming the final, fateful scene. They shot it outside of the real Biograph, but to make the scene fit they still erected entirely new '30s-style buildings and scenery on the spot. That, along with the last two scenes I spoke of, are instructive, at least for me, with what's ultimately the problem with the film. It mistakes trivia and triviality as realism, the indistinct and the faux-verité as the gritty, and, perhaps most fatally for this particular work, the historical and the mythic. Let me be clear, though- it is not the obvious use of digital photography (here running the visual gamut from "very ugly" to, for a surprising amount of the film, "sleek, streamlined and really quite nice, actually") or even Mann's kinda-trademark, sorta-shakey cinematography (is this a trademark of his? Having only seen, like, Collateral, I realize that's a kinda irresponsible claim to make, but I get the feeling that it's at least partly correct) that make me feel that Mann was aiming for a work of historical, gritty realism... ok, it's not just that. It's also his lack of any real stylistic or tonal flourishes, his unwillingness to allow any of the character's neuroses and hidden motives (hidden, of course, from even themselves) to bubble to the surface and become actual themes, and his weaving of the myriad historical nuances, figures and events into one of those nearly impossible to follow Factual Tapestries that usually leaves one chomping at the bit to run home to Wikipedia and find out just who the hell Baby Face Nelson was and which character in the film was supposed to be him. I admit I'm not really an opponent of this particular sort of narrative, as it often leaves room for viewer's reasoning, knowledge or, barring that, thirst to gain this knowledge to kick in, but the fact of the matter is Public Enemies plays, more often than not, less like a thrilling gangster film and more like one of the fastest-paced, most confusing advertisements for a book on the subject I've ever seen. Rarely did I fully grasp what was going on, where it was going on, why and with whom it was going on- indeed, I thought the film was ending about 20 minutes sooner than it actually did when I mistook a gunned-down gangster to be Dillinger himself.

I fear I have wondered into the realm of the technical and narrative gripe... BUT WAIT! I have more gripes. What I'm trying to get to with all this is that Mann has crafted a work that is, among other things, preoccupied with the depictions of the crime and times of John Dillinger in a historically accurate, unromantic fashion, and this particular style becomes at least underwhelming and at worst moth-ridden and downright unsalvageable in the face of the structure and content of the film. The thing is, the other aspects of the film- the acting, the writing, the dynamics between cops and robbers- lack that grittiness or psychological realism. Indeed, they're almost embarrassingly underfed- Depp's Dillinger is played like an only-slightly-subtler Jack Sparrow, allowed to swagger and rumble and live the high life while strapped with dialogue so quick-witted and perfect that any guy in the theater who has ever attempted to smooth talk a woman should be waxing indignant at the falsity of it all. Look, I can respect this image of the ideal, infinitely suave, devil-may-care-and-I-actually-mean-that male figure... I just can't respect it when it's passed off as objective reality, as the traits of a goddamn historical figure ferchrissake. It's The Man With No Name given a name, a date of birth and death and a place in our history texts- there's nothing admirable about that, in my estimation, and there's little that's joyful about it either. There's gotta be something churning underneath the hood of this John Dillinger, something that gives him a reason to rob banks and seek thrills and vow his never-ending love to Billie moments after meeting her... just don't expect to find it anywhere within Public Enemies. The result is a character (and performance... I suppose laying out my reasons for my relative antipathy towards Johnny Depp recently is an activity for another day) so slight, forgettable and underfed in motive and humanness that one gets the feeling that Dillinger plays a bit part in his own story. Sadly, there's nothing else to pick up the slack- Bale's Purvis is too tepid and, frankly, uninspiring to stand a chance against the bravado image of Depp robbing banks in all black and a Beretta in each hand. Cotillard's Billie is given all of about 15 minutes of screen time, begging the question as to why this slight and rather odd relationship merited becoming the film's central emotional pillar. The fact is, there's nothing really great and nothing really that bad here- it's all just mildly palatable and empty, like a friend's collection of vacation pictures. It indeed seems best to describe Mann's work here as a sort of artistic and historical tourism- a work preoccupied with scribbling down facts and figures and taking a snapshot of the scenery with no attempt at grace or a deeper, lasting meaning. He delivers a work that aims for little and delivers little and invokes the spirits of Film Noir Past at its own peril. What you get through the experience is the image of Johnny Depp toting a tommy gun as he rides through the streets on the side of an old Buick and, truth be told, some really impressive gun sound effects (really, 1930s weaponry has never sounded better)- what you leave the theater with, though, is the nagging question of why all of that didn't pack the kind of power and lasting impact it shoulda.

Public Enemies (2009, d. Michael Mann): 2/4

"I have read in La Nouvelle Critique under the byline of Francis Cohen that Stalin was literally the greatest scholar of all time, since he was the receptacle of all the knowledge in the Communist world. I'll properly refrain from denying Stalin the personal and historical excellence that these films attribute to him. But what I am able to see after a moment's reflection is that I am being asked to accept as real an image of Stalin that rigorously conforms to what the myth of Stalin might be, or had better be!
No construct of the mind could better satisfy the demands of propaganda than this one. Either Stalin is a genuine superman, or we are being presented with a myth. It is not my purpose here to argue whether or not the idea of a superman is a Marxist one, but I will venture to say that myths function aesthetically in the same way for the Western bloc as for the Eastern, and that, from this point of view, the only difference between Stalin and Tarzan is that the films devoted to the latter do not claim to be rigorous documentaries.
" - André Bazin


Gorga said...

Not having seen this film, and having even less desire to do so after reading your review, I still gotta comment on how fascinated I am with the reality/mythology/narrative concept you've brought up.

Do you think all, or nearly all, bio-pics propagate mythology in this way?

RoQnRollMartian said...

That's kind of a question I've been struggling with myself. I think, on some level, bio-pics can never help but be myth, since every one will always have a certain subjectivity behind it in terms of how the person is portrayed, what events in his life are shown and how, etc. The extent to which the auteur kind of puts direct input into the positive/negative/ambiguous/legendary way the figure is portrayed varied, obviously, and I think sometimes it backfires. I'm thinking of the recent "Control" which tried, I think, to be a sort of demystification of the romanticized view of Ian Curtis, yet kind of just became a reinforcement of this romanticism, as the portrayal of Curtis as a kind of depressed, misanthropic loser was exactly the figure people idolize precisely because people idolize Ian Curtis for being depressed, misanthropic, a loser par excellence. Meanwhile, a movie like "24 Hour Party People," in that same vein, I feel is infinitely more successful because it understands that what it's doing can be nothing but myth-making, so it has fun with it.
All that said, I'm sure there are ways to make movies with a bit more of a dispassionate viewpoint that offers a more or less historically accurate and kind of biographical account without falling into the extremes of either hagiography or hit piece. I suppose it's also a little hard to talk about, as myth is something of a fluid term. I also have a bit of a notion in my mind that maybe all film (and all art, for that matter) is always myth, drawing from reality and the outside world but always removed from the realms of fact.