Friday, 14 August 2009

Cinema In 2009 Just Got Real

Blogs have many uses, and some of those uses might actually benefit humanity. Compared to Ben Goldacre's Bad Science, or the very wonderful Daily Hate Myself, this blog often feels like it does little more than allow me to list my likes and dislikes at painful length, when not harping on about Rock Band. Last week, I whined about Stephen Sommers movies. This week, I will be rather boring about Michael Mann.

Though I don't want to do a Harry Knowles and spend the next fifteen paragraphs talking about how I'm the biggest Michael Mann fan ever so there, there's no way I can talk about Public Enemies and not admit that I am, as Canyon called me yesterday, a Mann apologist. I liked Miami Vice. I forgave Collateral its flaws. The Keep is a misunderstood and flawed classic that deserves to be seen in its full glory. Heat is the best crime film of the last twenty years. Yes, I like it more than Goodfellas, though not by much. Tracking the practically incremental alterations in his style is as fascinating to me as assessing Spielberg's late-period career reinventions, or Zemeckis' technological experiments, or Scorsese's slow descent into what would be termed irrelevance in any other filmmaker.

And yet Public Enemies didn't excite me that much. Middling reviews and a boring trailer did little to increase my enthusiasm, though part of it was disappointment with the film year so far. Only a couple of films have really impressed me: In The Loop, Kathryn Bigelow's haunting Iraq movie The Hurt Locker, the few minutes of Up I could concentrate on between disturbances by the kids behind me. Public Enemies was on my must-see list just because of Mann and Depp, but the played-out subject matter and my annoying ennui conspired against it. Case in point: it was released weeks ago, and I only saw it yesterday. This is not my usual behaviour.

For the first hour, I struggled to commit to it. Much comment has been made about Mann's decision to use the same digital processes he used in Collateral and Miami Vice (That piece being one of the most interesting articles about it), with criticism aimed at it for being muddy and ugly. Personally, I love the look of Mann's digital movies, but am aware that debate about his use of this technology in his previous films has sometimes come down to a matter of personal taste. In Public Enemies, the argument has altered slightly. It's no longer a debate about whether it looks nice or not. It's more about why Mann would use what some see as alienating and anachronistic digital photography in a period piece.

If anachronism is meant to be avoided, then surely it should be filmed in black and white on analogue film, but I do get the point. This technology is modern enough that only a few filmmakers are committing to it, and the novelty of seeing this startling and textured imagery has not yet disappeared. Shots of Depp and Cotillard (playing Dillinger's lover Billie Frechette) together in bed are dizzying, with cinematographer Dante Spinotti getting the camera in so close you can see every pore on their faces, lighting the scene with one stark light mimicking the brightness of the moon. The look of the movie is a world away from even John Milius' Dillinger, let alone the monochrome of William Wellman and Raoul Walsh.

So why do it? Partially because Mann is attempting to create a continuum between now and then. The movie already explores contemporary issues, such as the use of torture and technology to fight a threat to the nation, the march of progress leaving behind those who are unwilling to adapt, the cult of celebrity, and the narcissism of those who become addicted to the limelight. Instead of cracking out old film, Mann is saying that was then and then was now. We've barely moved on from those times, a point that is especially affecting considering that we're watching a film set during the Great Depression while teetering on the brink of our own economic collapse. The timing of this film's release couldn't have been better.

If you're going to use a historical crime setting to highlight failings in our own modern culture, why not use a visual template that is utterly modern? Plus, it is one of many aspects of the movie that connects with Mann's other movies. The visuals remind one of Mann's last two projects. The look of Billie's cell in the final scene, the reliance on technology to pursue lawbreakers, and the beautifully shot night-time raid scene are all reminiscent of Manhunter. The portrayal of a man who ended up shaping the world around him comes from Ali. Elliot Goldenthal's stirring soundtrack is occasionally reminiscent of the more grandiose moments of Last of the Mohicans. And then, of course, there are the myriad similarities with Heat.

A friend of the blog has already made an arch comment to me about how Mann has been making the same movie for the past twenty years, which is harsh but obviously not far from the truth. The parallels between Public Enemies and Heat are many, with Mann showing two "professionals" engaged in a battle against each other from opposite sides of the law. As with Heat, they have similarities. Hanna and McCauley are both perfectionists, surrounding themselves with similar professionals, whose personal lives are affected by their determination to do what they do as well as they can do it.

Dillinger and Purvis (Christian Bale's ambitious and ultimately deluded crime fighter) have a similar attitude to their work, and surround themselves with a tight group of compatriots, but they are also forced to work with people who cannot match up to their standards. Though McCauley is brought low by the failings of his team, Dillinger distances himself from the losers in his crew, and is eventually undone by events outside his influence. More surprisingly, while Hanna is never compromised by his team, Purvis is forced to watch as his team becomes ever more desperate and foolish. Billie is tortured, innocent civilians are gunned down (he is directly responsible for at least two grisly deaths), and it is late in the movie before he realises how low he is willing to sink in order to get his man.

Heat also shows the toll this life takes on a man. The most memorable scene is the beautifully played meeting between Hanna and McCauley, a scene so powerful that not even the wretched Righteous Kill could not retroactively fuck it up. (Note that Pacino and De Niro share the frame, wearing similar grey suits, though with different coloured shirts).

Their realisation that they are so similar is enough to create a bond between them. At the end, Hanna guns down McCauley, and the final shot has them sharing the frame again, Hanna comforting McCauley as he dies (and yes, I cry every time I see it). From the beginning of Heat to the end, the two characters converge. Public Enemies is different enough that the criticism that it is a remake of Heat can be dismissed, though I appreciate there is enough similarity there to raise eyebrows. While McCauley and Hanna become closer in spirit, Purvis and Dillinger start off similar and become more different, and never reach that moment of reconciliation.

In the first half of the film Dillinger is a shallow popinjay who thrives on public approval, and Purvis, who is more buttoned-down, is more than happy to milk the attention he gets after shooting Pretty Boy Floyd by attaching himself to J. Edgar Hoover, quickly adapting to his role as Eliot-Ness-style G-Man hero. At film's end, Dillinger has lost the love of his life, but has achieved a kind of immortality. He infiltrates (with no effort at all) the Dillinger Squad office in the Chicago Police Department building, and sees first-hand the efforts made to capture him. He walks through the room in what looks like a state of rapture, delighted by his importance and his ability to dodge capture even at the heart of the web. Following that, the superb finale shows him watching Clark Gable playing a Dillinger-esque gangster in Manhattan Melodrama, a smug grin spreading across his face.

Purvis, on the other hand, has seen the law compromised and broken, his own morality dented, and his partner murdered. He too is alone, but doesn't even have someone who would sacrifice their own freedom for him, and though his team is responsible for catching Dillinger, it is Charles Winstead who fires the killing shot, and he is forced to watch as this event unfolds in front of him. The look of misery on Bale's face is ambiguous. Is he sad to see Dillinger die, as Hanna is to see McCauley die? Is he jealous that he didn't get to kill his nemesis? Or is he selfishly thinking about how he has lost everything, and all he has to show for it is the tawdry sight of a corpse on a high street, a brokenhearted but noble woman left loveless by his actions, and a career that forces him to be the stooge of a boss who doesn't believe in him?

Unlike Heat, criminal and cop do not share the screen in the final moments. Whereas Mann used colour to show play up the similarities between Hanna and McCauley, in Public Enemies he uses it to show the contrast. Bale's scenes are almost exclusively rendered in gun-metal grey, filmed in impersonal concrete buildings filled with drab, unglamorous furniture. Depp's scenes are mostly brown, occasionally rich and warm, but mostly muted, as if the glamour and lushness has been drained from the screen. One short scene at a racetrack is almost sepia tone, evoking memories of the past as Bale, surrounded by metal, machinery, and flashing lights, references the inevitable future.

Nevertheless, Dillinger is aware that by maintaining the public image of a dashing outlaw he will become a legend, and Depp plays up to that subtly, walking with a confident swagger and adding an Elvis-like twinkle to his speech. In one of the film's highlights, we see how thrilled he is, after being captured by Purvis' men midway through the film, to be transported from a flare-lit airport along a gauntlet of adoring bystanders, lauded by the public as a man of the people fighting against the monolithic banks. That confident mask only ever slips when members of his gang screw up (Mann's protagonists are perfectionists, as ever), or when he loses Billie and cannot get her back without jeopardising himself. Tragically, he never finds out that she protects him from capture at the risk of her own life.

These little glimpses of the scared boy inside the man leak out more as the film progresses, just as we see Bale's frustration and confusion manifest in expressions of despair and panic. Even as his quarry lies dead on the floor, Bale's face shows no relief, merely pain, lit by another flare as Dillinger's notoriety generates one last media frenzy, the same kind of berserker rage from a public who never cared if Dillinger was alive or dead, just that the outlaw tale was being told right in front of them.

As I mentioned earlier, it took me a while to settle. Parsing Mann's choices distracted me so much I foolishly lost track of the plot and performances. After an hour the movie began to grip, but even so, I didn't expect what happened next. Good movies can make me forget my troubles, but great movies transport you out of your body. Closer to the end of the film, Mann's visuals become ever more abstract, and his lighting more and more stark. The third act begins with a motel raid that ranks with the bank raid and subsequent street battle in Heat, or the nightclub shootout from Collateral. Its impact is visceral and terrifying, battering the audience with beautifully edited sound: one gunshot was so loud and clear that it rattled my chair and drew a shriek of terror from someone sitting behind me. During this scene we see Purvis crack. Losing his partner sends him momentarily over the edge, and he abandons his search for Dillinger to go after the truly awful Baby Face Nelson. Their showdown is breathtaking.

By that point, my previous qualms were forgotten. As Dillinger and Purvis approach their destiny outside the Biograph theatre, all of the careful set-up that I had mistaken for distraction pays off with astonishing cumulative power. As the final scene unravels, with Goldenthal's beautiful soundtrack rising over Marion Cotillard's moment of heartbroken revelation, I succumbed to awestruck tears. Mann did it to me again, that talented bastard.

Yesterday I thought I was all alone in this. Critical opinion seemed to range from dismissive to strongly negative, with some blogs picking it apart for not being The Roaring Twenties. The AV Club had one of the first reviews I read, and it made my heart sink.

In a parallel with my experience during the film, opinion might be swinging back in its favour. This brilliantly perceptive second look is far more in step with my own experience (and contains way more insight than this blogpost, so do yourself a favour and check it out), and these reviews by Nigel Andrews and Manohla Dargis make me wonder whether it will be reappraised by the end of the year.

I hope so. In a year that has provided so little of interest, and some thoroughly contentious toy-movies, this is one of a very small group of films that has generated passion in me. More than that, Public Enemies actually overwhelmed me in a way nothing else has since I saw Rachel Getting Married earlier this year. If things go right, by the end of 2009 critics will have had a chance to mull over this intellectually stimulating and emotionally engaging work of art, and will shower garlands and rose petals over Depp, Cotillard, and Bale, co-stars Jason Clarke and Branka Katic, writers Ronan Bennett and Anne Biderman, and especially Mann, who just made his best film since Heat. My head is still ringing like a bell 28 hours later. Goddamn, I love cinema.

No comments: