Monday, July 6, 2009

Dying Breaths: Some Thoughts on Public Enemies.

I ain't gonna marry, I ain't gonna settle down,
I ain't gonna marry, I ain't gonna settle down,
I'll be around until the police shot me down.
Jimmie Rodgers.

The electrifying final segment of Michael Mann's Public Enemies derives much of its charge from our awareness that we are watching John Dillinger's final hours. As in the final sequence of David Chase's The Sopranos, the steady air of impending catastrophe, of precarious mortality, makes a sequence of seemingly mundane events crackle with an electric tension. Our foreknowledge of the folk outlaw's impending doom gives his final acts a unique sense of focus, and the quality of a vivid epiphany. In many respects, however, this quality applies to the movie as a whole. Public Enemies, in essence, is an impressionistic record of the final months of John Dillinger, seen largely through his own eyes. With the stunning immediacy of its constantly roving cameras, the heightened sensitivity of its HD imagery to minute detail and the brilliance of natural light, its noteworthy lack of establishing shots, exposition, or backstory, Public Enemies plays out as a brisk, breathless epiphany of of life lived entirely in the present moment; life lived, as in Clark Gable's crucial dictum from Manhattan Melodrama, “all of a sudden.”
Yet, for all its propulsive motion and immediacy, Public Enemies is potentially Michael Mann's most subtle, sombre, and contemplative work. This film is haunted to its core by the bare fact of human mortality, in particular by what happens to the face and body in precisely the second that a person dies. Beginning with Walter Dietrich in the opening prison break, Public Enemies returns again and again to the final look the dying give to their living comrades, to something intense and wholly beyond verbalisation which passes through the eyes during the split second in which the person was there and then is gone forever. Dietrich (James Russo) has been fatally injured in the Crown Point getaway; Dillinger (Depp) holds his hand and he is dragged slowly along as the getaway car begins to pull away. Dietrich smiles with reckless, outlaw gusto, and looks very intensely into Dillinger's eyes. Then, in a transition which occurs almost too briskly to register, the eyes become glazed, and loll back lifelessly; Dillinger lets go, and Dietrich's body falls away into a plume of rising dust. (You need to see the movie more than once to realize how remarkably Russo plays this tiny scene.) Public Enemies follows a recent sequence of American popular art works, including the final episode of The Sopranos, No Country for Old Men, and to a lesser extent The Assassination of Jesse James, which have explored human mortality in stark, subtle, and highly original ways. Quoted in Jeffrey Wells' Hollywood Elsewhere, veteran critic F.X. Feeny argued astutely that “Mann is contemplating mortality in this movie, more directly and philosophically than ever before – and doing so in the Ernest Hemingway sense of action as philosophy.”

Public Enemies is a re-articulation, in bold twenty-first century technology and cinematic aesthetic, of archetypal American mythic materials. Its basic story follows a classic pattern: a charismatic, much-loved outlaw is finally brought low by a hired gun, by a company man who somehow better exemplifies the spirit of the times to come, where the folk outlaw embodies the receding, mythic past. This is the same deeply resonant pattern we observe in the stories of Billy the Kid and Jesse James: an outlaw who appears an almost supernatural force of nature is finally proven to be mortal, and his killer must live with the knowledge that though he has vanquished the legend, he will always be regarded as so much less than the legend. With this in mind, Public Enemies partakes of the same mythic intuition which informs all the great western elegies: that prior to the arrival of modernity and the corporatised, capitalist way of life, America was once a frontier where people could pursue an adventurous, individualistic path, and larger-than-life characters abounded.
The western elegy shows the slow, subtle encroachment of modernity onto this mythic frontier, and celebrates the dying breaths of the older, mythic order. In Public Enemies, Johnny Depp's Dillinger is a man who is palpably out of time. As the movie progresses, we begin to see that despite all his courage and indomitable character, he is nevertheless a figure completely at the mercy of larger historical forces, an awkward hindrance to an emerging order in both the spheres of crime and crime prevention. Dillinger is rendered an anachronism both by the development of more sophisticated, scientific methods of crime prevention via J. Edgar Hoover's emergent F.B.I., and the increasing organisation and corporatisation of crime. Public Enemies gives us a fascinating glimpse into a time when all the most basic staples of contemporary crime prevention were extraordinary novelties, and we witness the brilliant initial ingenuity of tracing the location of criminals via the sale of a jacket, and primitive wire-tapping that plays on vinyl records.
Working in tandem with this, the Chicago Outfit is becoming an increasingly sophisticated and corporate organisation; in one brilliantly succinct scene, Phil D'Andrea (John Oritz) shows Dillinger the future technological face of crime, in the form of backroom in which gambling scores are relayed to bookies before they are announced; all Dillinger sees is “a bunch of telephones.” Mann's conception of Dillinger can summarised in a couple of points. He is, as this scene brilliantly evokes, a figure out of time, but one who nevertheless constantly seeks to elude and escape time, by living so intensely in the present moment. He is a person with a singular relationship to his own myth. I think one of the things that fascinated Mann about the Dillinger story was the complex relationship between real and movie gangsters, the way both eagerly feed off one another, making the line between myth and reality increasingly blurred.
In the case of Depp's Dillinger, we must infer everything about his inner life via his physicality and facial expressions. Everything he does outwardly is to a large extent the performance of myth. He talks constantly in the cadence of movies; his wooing of Billie Frechette ( Marion Cotilliard) is filled with the stylised, empathic bravado of movie stars, ending as it does with What else you need to know' s and Now, whatta you think of that' s. (This is not to say that Dillinger's constant performance of his own myth is not to a large degree an expression of his inner character. The two are indelibly linked, and this is why the scene in the Biograph is so brilliant, and crucial to an understanding of the character.) Dillinger's passionate self-belief and absorption in his personal myth could easily render him a foolish, blustering figure, but the sheer conviction with which he plays out his role is somehow deeply impressive. This is a career highlight for Depp, and one of the most charismatic, complex, nuanced turns I've seen by any actor in ages. Depp plays Dillinger as a man with an absolute conviction of having a personal destiny, coupled with an awareness that this destiny is not amenable to a long life. Throughout the movie, in a variety of subtle ways, Depp expresses an acceptance of this destiny which is alternately ecstatic and mournful.

I think that the final act of Public Enemies is the greatest thing both Mann and Depp have ever done. In the police station and the movie theatre, Dillinger sees two alternative ways of envisioning his life. The wall of the police station records his life from a cold factual, historical perspective. As the deep, mournful blues of Blind Willie Johnson cut in and out of the soundtrack, Dillinger registers that all of the pictures with the exception of his own are stamped Deceased. He knows that he will be joining his friends, sooner rather than later. In the Biograph theatre, watching Manhattan Melodrama, Dillinger sees a record of his life expressed in the language that he has always lived it: the language of myth. It is almost impossible to convey the brilliance of Depp's acting in the close-up shots which show his reactions to the movie: the mixture of deep happiness and pain that accompanies his recognition of Billie Frechette in Myrna Loy; the sense when Clark Gable utters the line about living and dying all of a sudden that Dillinger is serenely satisfied with his life, that living out this myth without compromise has been good enough. (It is important to stress that these are just interpretations; the wonderful thing about the scene is that it is endlessly suggestive, and leaves everything to the audience. The way Mann samples specific scenes from the movie, and raises the volume on lines which are particularly poignant to Dillinger, cut right through me; I don't know anything else that expresses so brilliantly the way movies communicate directly to us, and the way their mythic representations intertwine with our lives.)
Public Enemies has received every kind of review under the sun. It has proved equally divisive with audiences, although I suspect a majority have been appalled by its digital aesthetic and bored by its austere, minimalist approach to character. It's not Heat in the thirties, nor is it anything like a return to the more direct form of story-telling that Mann practised in the nineties. If anything, its more like Ali and Miami Vice in the thirties. Like Ali, Public Enemies never presumes to explain its central character, but rather encourages the audience to experience the world of that character through his eyes. Like Miami Vice, Public Enemies utilises state of the art digital video in a confrontational manner, in order to break down the barrier between cinema and direct experience, and to further explore a cinematic aesthetic of pure immediacy. What Public Enemies is is a radical overhaul of how period movies are made; a subtle, haunting rumination on mortality and the relationship of life with art that really takes a couple of viewings to fully absorb; finally, a reckless, fascinating example of deeply personal, arthouse filmmaking undertaken at the level of blockbuster mega-budgeting. It may die a death in the box-office, but it's built to last. What else you need to know?