Monday, July 6, 2009
Public Enemies: Replaying the Greatest Hits
I have often found filmmakers and musicians to be kindred spirits in their endeavors. Due to the sheer number of films that any of us have seen in our lifetime, there comes a certain time when the same plot points and story turns occur with more frequency. At that point, what becomes more important in watching the movie is the point of view, not merely in its themes but visual presentation through cinematography and editing.
When a director revisits subject matter over the course of several movies, we often see auteurist-themed articles where film writers attempt to sum up a lifetime of work by examining recurring themes and visual motifs. Many of these articles, while offering terrific insight into their subjects, sometimes forget to train a critical eye towards each individual film, instead becoming somewhat self-congratulatory that they can declare a director a visionary merely because they can connect the dots between their work.
Often, a director's body of work is more complicated than that, comprised of highs and lows that demonstrate filmmaking is not an exact science where artistic vision is absolute above all other factors that may work against the success of a film. Filmmaking is often an uphill battle where the original artistic vision is often compromised by any variety of elements during the process. Film is also a medium of happy accidents and moments that were never planned.
Musicians can play the same notes over and over again at different times in their lives. However, the circumstances surrounding any given time they play the notes change. They can be more inspired one day and our ears hear something beautiful. Another time, they can play the same piece dispassionately and that moment will be quickly forgotten by most who listen to it.
Most of the reviews for “Public Enemies” have been about Michael Mann, with the debate almost exclusively centered around his vision as a director. This often results in the perceived chasm between those who “get” Mann and those who don't. So, I must pronounce that I consider Michael Mann a great director while simultaneously stating that I believe “Public Enemies” is Mann coasting well within his comfort zone. My view is that any of the visionary directors throughout film history are never inspired every time out, as much as we would like to believe.
As I watched “Public Enemies”, I could not help but start listing previous, superior Mann works this movie reminded me of. There were significant lifts of storylines and moments from “Thief”, “Manhunter”, “Crime Story”, “Heat”, and both television and movie incarnations of “Miami Vice”. Not relegated to Mann films, it also reminded me of “Bonnie & Clyde”, “The Untouchables” and “Road to Perdition”. Granted, there are not a whole lot of original ideas out there particularly in the cops and robbers genre, so movies with similarities set themselves apart through directorial point of view. And this is where the problems of “Public Enemies” lay.
I am becoming increasingly concerned that Mann is employing a pseudo-serious style to cover up the lack of a point of view. “Public Enemies” has quite a terse, “just the facts, ma'am” approach to it. John Dillinger's backstory is delivered in a couple of quick mini-monolgues. The backstory of Melvin Purvis is defined strictly by the last criminal he killed. Billie Frechette is a hat check girl in the big city and that's about it. Not one looking to be spoon-fed pop psychology level character development, I still expect a film, at least, to hint at who these characters are through their actions during the course of the film. The problem is these characters are blank slates. There isn't much going on behind the often serious staring we get.
This isn't the first time this issue has arisen in a Mann film, as one can look back to his last film, the dramatically inert “Miami Vice”, and wonder if Mann is gambling on the whole vision thing happening sometime during the filmmaking process and losing on that bet. “Miami Vice” was based on a television series that, while dated and a bit ridiculous at times, was dramatically effective during its peak years. There was a genuine male friendship explored between Crockett and Tubbs that more than made up for some of the cop show cliches employed to have every hour reach its conclusion.
“Miami Vice”, as a film, decided to keep all the cop cliches, completely dumped any recognizably human behavior from its characters, and then proceeded to present itself in such a self-important style that I consider it one of Mann's worst films. From the very first moments of that film, Crockett, Tubbs and actually their entire team engage in Olympian-level brooding and posturing that would put any modern rap video to shame. We are supposed to accept the heaviness of their lives, but are given no reason that what's happening during the time frame of the film is any different than any other moment in their lives.
Mann's concept of machismo plays a part in any of his films, but “Miami Vice” was all about this behavior without any insight. Seriousness in any film needs to be earned, not merely a state of mind to occupy to distract from the fact that the narrative elements of “Vice” are cop movie cliches piled up in a flat stack. It is more ridiculous that the movie wants us to take the relationship between Crockett and Isabella, the drug kingpin's wife, as anything deeper than attractive guy wanting to get it on with an attractive woman. Meanwhile, I am wondering why a cop is being that reckless, unprofessional and stupid over a woman who seems no more special than the attractive bartender he talks up at the beginning of the film. If a man is going to be driven to engage in self-destructive acts over a woman, you better sell it like “Double Indemnity” or it just comes across as wishful thinking from someone like Mann, who wants to convince you his characters are Living on the Edge.
These wish-fulfillment moments pop up in “Public Enemies” as well. Although “Enemies” is certainly more watchable than the boring “Vice”, I could not help but think that Mann had a large canvas and then produced only doodles in the corners. The love story in the film seems to be from how we perceive love stories happening in old films. (Mann even uses an old Clark Gable/Myrna Loy film to sell unearned emotions at the end of the film.) Except, if you watch some older films, female characters in genre pictures were given sharper dialogue that showed individualistic qualities rather than being portrayed as mere orbits around the more hard-driven male characters. Previous Mann films such as “Thief”, “Heat” and “The Last of the Mohicans”, though they would never be embraced by feminists, didn't have this reductive an attitude towards relationships.
However, what worries me more about “Public Enemies” is Mann's inability to convey the souls of characters. If the choice was to make this less of a historical biopic with little backstory and attempt to make “in-the-moment” cinema, I believe he failed. Steven Soderbergh's “Che” was all about the process of becoming a revolutionary while dispensing with the personal details, but the process was fascinating, de-romanticizing the biopic's tendency to rattle off the accomplishments of a man or woman, acknowledging that the recollection of true-life events are not as tidy as movies make them out to be. “Che” even reinforces this by withholding any close-up shot of Benicio del Toro until the very end of the movie, treating him as one man that is still not bigger than the revolution he was responsible for.
In “Enemies”, Mann resorts to ponderous close-ups of very, very serious men that are, once again, meant to convey the heaviness of it all. Except there's little to no context to these moments or anything else that happens. This is a movie where stuff just happens. Banks are robbed. People are shot. Johnny Depp furrows his brow and we are supposed to accept that as depth, particularly if literal-minded music is playing during the shot. We get a slight sense that Dillinger does this because, to quote from “Heat”, “the action is the juice”. Some may argue that it is enough, but I saw “Enemies” a week after seeing “The Hurt Locker”, which is a movie that devotes itself to that subject with more a critical eye on the psychology of men than Mann's film ever attempted. “Public Enemies” doesn't stack cliches as flat as “Miami Vice”, but there is little here unfamiliar to those steeped in the crime genre.
The Melvin Purvis character is more ill-served by the material with Christian Bale becoming a near non-entity in this film. Stephen Lang, who has less dialogue and screen time than Bale, comes closest to actually portraying something bubbling beneath the surface stoicism of the other lawmen in this film. What's even more bothersome are the potential character moments thrown away. Particularly, the moment during the Little Bohemia shootout (SPOILERS!) when Purvis and his men accidentally riddle innocent people with bullets, killing them. Yet, this moment is thrown away with a slightly less-stoic expression on Bale's face and completely forgotten later.
Though I found the depiction of some of the more questionable tactics of the FBI interesting, I often found Mann's handling of that material to be somewhat clumsy and self-contradicting. He attempts to reconcile some of the more immoral acts with a “men gotta do what they gotta do” sensibility that reminds me of the same pandering to both sides of the political fence from the Mann-produced “The Kingdom”. It is reflective of a film that really doesn't want to commit to anything than mood and unquestioned machismo. Why bring up the subject of FBI tactics if he isn't willing to engage it in any way? For all the daggers tossed in the direction of “The Dark Knight” for its often misinterpreted take on terrorism and anti-terrorist tactics, that movie seriously engaged the subject as moral dilemma rather than inconvenient moral slip-ups to look the other way from as “Public Enemies” does.
Though I actually believed the HD cinematography in both “Collateral” and “Miami Vice” created a new interesting aesthetic, particularly in how they captured nighttime, I had to admit that I found some of the cinematography for “Public Enemies” to be distractingly cruddy at times. Surprisingly, almost all of these distracting shots were daytime shots. Mann used Dante Spinotti, who did top-notch work on both “Heat” and “The Insider”. However, I don't know if Spinotti ever shot HD before. (Dion Beebe shot “Collateral” and “Vice”.) Some shots appeared muddy-looking, with over-filtered color correction (not even matching shot to shot within the same scene) and bizarre filtering that looks like someone took the sharpening tool in Final Cut Pro and cranked it up all the way.
The sound mix also throws away some of the dialogue, often with the music overwhelming it. Gunshots, however, are mixed loud and clearly. The look and sound of the film sometimes come across as a filmmaker intentionally degrading the technical quality in the name of experimentation. When did experimentation necessarily mean that a movie has to look and sound ugly at random moments? I can understand not wanting to have the aesthetics of a car commercial like the work of Michael Bay, but a little consistency would be appreciated. If he wanted to make the whole film look and sound like that, it would be more understandable. But, most of the movie looks passable, which makes these other moments look and sound like mistakes. It feels like Mann was doodling on the technical side of things as well, expecting a consistent mood to make the tone of the story and images feel coherent.
To go back to my original notion on musicians, Michael Mann feels like he's playing the same notes, but with less inspiration, as well as less self-introspection. These periods occur often during any director's career, where they push their most unconvincing notions from their early work to the forefront because that's what they believe qualifies them as being an auteur. In this case, “Public Enemies” finds Michael Mann playing the part of Michael Mann minus the bullshit detector found in his earlier films.
I would compare Michael Mann most to Wong Kar-Wai, whose earlier films such as “Chungking Express”, “Happy Together” and “In the Mood for Love” demonstrate the yearning and messiness of love, but whose later films “2046” and the somewhat painful-to-watch “My Blueberry Nights” reflect a more myopic viewpoint on similar material. Like Mann's recent films, they are somewhat naïve in their depictions of human interactions and seem to compel us to accept their world view on face value, not realizing their perspective often comes across as belonging to someone who has shut themselves off from certain aspects of the world. Michael Mann, Wong Kar-Wai, Wes Anderson, Woody Allen and David Mamet are all examples of talented but insular filmmakers who I believe should metaphorically step outside every now and then. Their most derivative (of their own work) films often feel like you're visiting a theme park based on their filmography.
“Public Enemies” feels like minor Mann, playing notes that will drift away from your memory as soon as the piece is finished. I find it difficult to consider it anything more than a riff when earlier movies such as “Thief”, “Collateral” and his two masterpieces “Heat” and “The Insider” are unafraid to break the Mann spell of cool and get under your skin. “Heat” and “The Insider”, in particular, truly examine the male code and the grasp for integrity in a corrupt world through action and emotion rather than feeling that the surface is revealing enough. Sometimes, it isn't there no matter how hard you look and no matter how much you wish it to be that way.
"Public Enemies" was viewed at AMC Loews Lincoln Square.