Friday, July 17, 2009

Mann's Plight

Public Enemies (Michael Mann, US, 2009) - Not quite full-on art house fare, but definitely not your average shoot-em-up, Public Enemies is something of a conundrum. But it's to Mann's credit that it's an immensely watchable conundrum, one which permits (even encourages) the viewer to get his or her vicarious outlaw thrills while reserving a conspicuous detachment for the reservations of the super-ego. I've lately been interested in a personal retrospective of Mann's work, prompted in no small way by this release and also by the fascinating essay by Matt Zoller Zietz on Musuem of the Moving Image site, but for whatever reason haven't done any re-watching aside from Miami Vice, which is a different ball of wax entirely.

Anyway, I'm convinced that Mann is a serious filmmaker, a dedicated and highly capable auteur, albiet one of occasional lapses in taste. For my money, he errs just a bit too far on the side of commerce, but in these troubled times, we've got to take what we can get, right?

Yes and no. His latest functions almost as an excercise in re-fetishization of gangster-movie tropes - the added crispness of digital technology enhances practically everything, from tommy guns to muzzle flashes, big sleek automobiles, and dark felt. Depp's Dillinger is the quintessential man of action, with just enough charisma held in reserve to make for a damn fine performance. He's got the ratio of mystery to obviousness just right, and he's tons of fun to watch. The rest of the performances are top-notch as well, although Bale's portrayal of Purvis was just a little too mannered for me. Cotillard was near perfect, delivering a three-dimensional character from a bare-bones script that's too reliant on conventional dialogue.

But otherwise, (as has been duly noted elsewhere) the script is remarkably unconventional. It's episodic, with the scenes stacked together with an urgency that is rythmic far more than rational, giving the illusion of narrative propulsion without the substance to hang it on. Instead, we're kept interested entirely through Mann's careful maintenance of mood, and if you're willing to go along with it, it has plenty of rewards in store.

Getting to the question of what, if anything, the film is really about, I have to say I was initially perplexed. I've long felt that Mann's secret strength was the way he contrasted the thrill of the hunt with the loneliness of the kill. That is to say, his films are almost exclusively concerned with driven men, obsessives on a mission (and a very macho one at that), but they achieve an admirable balance by depicting the resultant isolation of such quests. In Mann's universe, the hero's are the stoic seekers, but there's a sense of loss, of regret, over the fact that even when they get what they're looking for, it's never quite what they expected. What begins as a swaggering indiffernce to the trappings of conventional, ordirary life becomes a dead-end in solitude and a longing for what might have been.

That same dynamic is at play here, even in a stripped-down, essentialized form. And this may be the master key to the larger thematic depths (if they are indeed there, I'm still not sure). Much is made of the forget tomorrow, living-for-today ethos that Dillinger espouses. He's almost completely unique in this respect, and ultimately, it's the engine that drives him. All of the other criminals are motivated by other forces - they have long term plans, escape routes, etc. Or, as in the case of Baby Face Nelson, stone cold psychos. The same is true of the law-enforcers, who have goals and ambitions. Dillinger is a Romantic, and in the end, a tragic one. He lives totally, viscerally, in the present. He lives by a code, honoring his friends and punishing those who step out of line, chivalrous to women, and respectful of his adversaries. But he has no regard for the past, expressing breezy indiffernce when Billie remarks that she doesn't even know him (I was raised on a farm...etc.) The point is, for Dillinger, the right now. Even when he expresses some consideration for the future ("The only thing that matters about a man is where he's going..." and "I'm going to die an old man in your arms"), there is a sense that these are just platitudes. Dillinger emphatically has no long-term plans, and his character achieves a necessary depth when some ambivalence about that fact surfaces. The inner conflict isn't really ever developed, but then, this is a film of suggestion and subtley when it comes to metaphysics and character. But it is there, seen when Dillinger is compelled to comfort Frechette and when he remarks, not long before his demise, that "where I'm going I'll have to go a lot farther than Cuba." It seems like maybe Dillinger is smartening up and getting ready to retire, but there's too much deliberate vagueness in such a pronouncement for it to be taken at face value. Dillinger has no interest in running away and living quietly, even for his lovely Billie, and his unwillingness to play it safe is his undoing. He's high on the moment, and for a little bit, so is the audience.

Mann could have gotten more mileage out of such ideas, but the fact that he came this far is impressive and encouraging. There's more work to be done in the hazy zone where big-budget Hollywood and Art meet, but it's nice to know that somebody is there toiling away.

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