Frontiers of Extinction: A Conversation About Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies”

Three critics discuss Michael Mann's most recent digital criminal cinema extravaganza.
Daniel Kasman, Ryland Walker Knight, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky
Public Enemies, the new film directed by Michael Mann and something we’ve been both anticipating and talking about for some time here at The Notebook, came out on the 1st of July, and one might be wondering why, two weeks later, we haven’t published an article or at the very least a review of what is so far the best American feature released in 2009. The answer is twofold: one, that Public Enemies, like Mann’s previous film, Miami Vice, isn’t so easy to figure. New things in cinema—and not just in regards to the mainstream—are being done right before our eyes, and figuring out how to put sound and vision of such measure into words is quite a challenge. But more accurately, our enthusiasm for the cinema of this Mann led us to talk about the movie rather than to write, led us to a conversation rather than an article. As a discussion—which took place over email—we hope you will forgive its length, and find it at least as interesting to read as we found to engage in. Participants included myself, Ryland Walker Knight, and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky.
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RYLAND WALKER KNIGHT: Just got home from my second viewing of Public Enemies. The first time was uptown at one of the first New York press screenings, where it was projected digitally for a full house of excited and engaged audience members. This second time was in the wilds of Oklahoma, screened on film for a middling audience that kept mostly silent.
In all fairness, I found the second experience much more enjoyable, and fruitful. In fact, I think the film improves when projected on 35mm—if only, though not only, for the simple fact that emulsion lends a texture that digital's clarity lines out towards a stricter representational drive. The 35mm transfer makes that document an expression, makes the film more affective. To be blunt, it helped me buy the romance better.
DANIEL KASMAN: The film’s use of digital is even more striking and out there then Miami Vice, particularly considering this is a period picture shot to look contemporary.
IGNATIY VISHNEVETSKY: Well, there really is no verisimilitude in the film. Mann has never made the mental connection that so many critics apparently have that video equals documentary.
Practices, etc. are never explained. Things simply happen, as though for the first time. Not much is even made of the location shooting, and the film is shot almost exclusively in the places where the scenes are set—the real streets, the real jails, and so on. Yet it never makes it obvious, except when the El roars past Billie Frechette's house and we can see the train through the window. It makes history more immediate, but I think that's more a question of Mann than the HD. I think he could've done it with 35mm, too—he did it in Ali. But I still prefer it in HD.
I will say that video makes the historical more vivid and also more mysterious, and not for pseudo-documentary reasons. It's simply because HD looks like nothing we know. It's like rediscovering the image. It doesn't look like our experience of the world, but neither does 35mm. It's just that 35mm has a tradition.
KNIGHT: Tradition is tricky since it's so easily reductive. To complicate things: the unavoidable one-to-one quality of Public Enemies projected in digital exposes the screenplay's simple trajectory, but the grain of the blow-up (blow-out!) transfer lends the historical lens of the film the quality of a red herring. Mann deals, as melodramas often will, in the realm of the concept: as much as story may matter, story is more a means than an end, which makes the rather straightforward narrative structure of Public Enemies that much less engaging—though more present—when the film’s image is reduced to what I am tempted to call a naive assimilation of the real. Mann loves myth, and myth exceeds the ordinary.
But I am intrigued by how present the HD image emerges from Mann's work. I refuse to name it "hyper-real" because, really, what's real about that, or, more apt, what's real to begin? The difference between the mania of Paul Greengrass and the impressions of Mann is subtle, especially here, in this constantly pivoting space of Public Enemies, but where one just goes and cuts up the world for effects, the other angles on it for a richer affective picture.
VISHNEVETSKY: It's not hyper-real, you're right. Not like Cronenberg with eXistenZ.I'd say Public Enemies is just "not real" enough to appear real, but this isn't a question of production as much as a question of the image. The handheld camera, the things we associate with HD, they're all afterthoughts. The reason it feels real is a very old fashioned one: because it doesn't think in terms of imagery. Because here, it isn't A Gun Is a Gun— it's a gun, this weird thing. I think we look for Mann in the characters because so many of his characters are the same, but if he's there, he's in the image.
KASMAN: There's this unforgettable low-angle, handheld shot of Marion Cotillard getting up from her chair, fiddling with the radio, and then walking the length of her apartment to answer the door. Why do I remember this shot and why does it feel like no shot I've ever seen? I want to fall back on the digital clichés—that everything is more present. But I was thinking about that during the scene where Depp is giving Cotillard the fur coat, I thought "this seems more present but there is no realism, no factuality in the space or the material I'm looking at right now." What's going on here?
VISHNEVETSKY: I remember the shot you're talking and it feels immediate not because we can see all the details of her home, but because we can also see right out the window. What's on the other side of the glass (El tracks, I think) seems as tactile as what's directly in front of the camera. I can't think of a moment I've seen that's felt more real in a while, and it's completely false: a period train car set up on an abandoned set of elevated tracks.
KNIGHT: I can't tell you why that image speaks to you so, but I can say that I remember it well, too, and that it hovers unlike plenty of other handheld shots in the film. Mann’s image-making is, at bottom, expressive. However, the digital aspects fudges this expressivity because of the will to realism that video inherits. Its tradition is born from home movies, from proximity. We're used to the mediation of a machine, doubled by the groans of a projector (INLAND EMPIRE clunks us on the head with this at its very beginning), so this new medium makes a new film star, makes the film star vulnerable, and, we come to realize this Mann-brand of digital imagery makes history more suspect.
KASMAN: Using Johnny Depp in the film is a good example of the film’s pared down expressivity, he’s a kind of shortcut that does not require psychology or melodrama. You say a new film star (in digital), but I might disagree. Mann hangs Depp digitally on the cultural mosiac of Dillinger's American legend; he's almost a stand-in, and he's marvelously cast—imagine DiCaprio, who was the original star for this film, and the whole picture crumbles because Depp brings with him something external to the project, something of an image (that word again) in his filmic stardom that resembles what we collectively (generally) imagine of Dillinger. Which is why Depp is given practically nothing to work with in the film (which is not the same as saying he has nothing to do!).
But to get back to your point, I don't think this is a new digital movie star, I think Mann is using digital photography to bridge a gap between a specifically filmic thing (Johnny Depp) and something impossible to conjure up, history (John Dillinger). It's a fascinating and, in this use, primal idea. Part of the power of the ending, with Depp smirking at Manhattan Melodrama, recognizing so much, is, I think, that we suddenly are slapped, front and center, with how much Public Enemies relies on the digital image of Depp to say something about the figure (and lifestyle, and ethos) of Dillinger.
VISHNEVETSKY: I think that sequence at Manhattan Melodrama is more or less the moment when you realize that the film has been mistitled, and there are no "enemies," just Dilllinger. Purvis, Hoover—Dillinger made them, too. Same thing when he walks into the Bureau office at the police station. The film is about Dillinger's persona, totally: the way it shaped the whole world.
I think there's something Utopian here, too: you live a life, and at the end they let you see the effects of everything you've done. You experience yourself.
"To become immortal, and then to die."
KASMAN: I love Clark Gable's line in Manhattan Melodrama that could have been written by Mann in 2009 (or for Miami Vice): "die like you live—all of a sudden." I love that Dillinger is looking at Gable—who, on film, looks a million times better than Depp on video—and thinking to himself that he made that image, Dillinger made Gable’s image of a gangster in Manhattan Melodrama.
VISHNEVETSKY: That scene in the Biograph is the sort of thing that would probably take up a few sentences in the script. "INT. BIOGRAPH THEATER - Dillinger watches Manhattan Melodrama"or something like that. But it runs for several minutes, and I think it's one of those emotionally direct moments that I've come to associate with Mann. He usually makes them dialogue scenes, cutting between the two people talking. There's a whole tradition here: Jamie Foxx and Jada Pinkett Smith in Collateral, when she ends up giving him her number, for instance. The famous scene in the coffee shop in Heat. But here it's no longer thought of as two people. It's an image communicating with another image.
Mann certainly hasn't abandoned emotion, which is the sort of thing people get accused of when they delve so deep into the image. In fact, emotion is all there is to the scene. But I think he no longer needs character quite the way he did. There are many moments in the film he's able to construct without "characterization"—such as Dillinger's friend dying in the car after the shoot-out. It's a strong moment, and it doesn't matter if we know anything about their relationship or even the guy besides the fact that he's Dillinger's friend.
KASMAN: In a way it's unfair to focus on this Biograph scene because it is so specifically the locus of emotion for the movie. More interesting is the other scene you mention, because it doesn't rely on the intrinsic potency and poignancy of Depp-as-Dillinger facing an image of Gable-as-Gangster moments before his death. I agree that Mann's moving away from character but as is evidenced in the Biograph scene, he usually needs something to hang emotions on; which is why the death in the car is almost scary in how affecting it is because we barely know these two men, the filmmaker giving us the barest shorthand of their companionship and friendship. I was very moved by the Biograph scene but I found it more interesting due to Mann's interaction with the film playing, slowing Manhattan Melodrama down, showing us different parts of the movie, a montage of Myrna Loy, etc.
VISHNEVETSKY: Yes, the slowing down shows a certain intelligence, an understanding of the image, that I think has been ascribed to Michael Mann through faith, but here becomes demonstrated. As Daniel Gorman pointed out in comments in another article here at The Notebook, we tend to think of Mann as one thing or another—"Hollywood" or "avant-garde”— and we attack or defend him based entirely on one of those positions. And we tend to think of images as "hollow" (if we don't like them) or "abstract" (when we praise them), but Mann understands that the image is more than just plastic.
KASMAN: He is working in the realm of "glance" cinema, catching a brief look of movement in time, and whatever he seems to catch becomes poignant. In this regard, if Miami Vice seemed far out, Public Enemies’s even further. Ryland, you mention the conventionality of the narrative arc of the new film, but despite the lack of the sloppy, every-which-way-ness about Miami Vice, Public Enemies is, I think, even more opaque: we are given even less characters, even fewer events, even less melodrama, even less distinct locations, charisma, Grand Facts. And we are left with gestures. I picture this film (and Miami Vice) as a pane of glass, smeared with color: as Ignatiy points out about Tony Scott, watching these recent Mann films is us watching a screen. I think this is where some audiences and some very smart critics have problems with Mann's digital work, that they are trying to push in when they really should be viewing across. The smear of movement we see in this film when its digital camerawork is projected on film—which is how I saw it—really can be seen as a literalization, materialization of this concept.
VISHNEVETSKY: I agree with this assessment of the script: the plot is even harder to describe here than in Miami Vice. Rarely has so much happened in a movie that can't be summarized. I don't remember a single critic, for instance, mentioning the scene where Depp watches Manhattan Melodrama. I think it's the real climax of the movie, not his death afterward.
I wouldn't call either Public Enemies or Miami Vice confusing, though: each film has as clear a plot as it wants to have. Does Public Enemies need to be "clearer"? We don't really need to know why Giovanni Ribisi keeps appearing or anything about Purvis or Dillinger. We don't really need to know his relationship to the dying man, except that they're good friends—the death, as it is filmed, is enough: the sweat on his face and the way he's crumpled in the back seat of the car. If it wasn't for that half-second shot of the underside of Marion Cotillard's foot as she lies in bed, I don't think I would've understood the romance.
KNIGHT: I'm not arguing that Public Enemies is any more literal or legible than Miami Vice in terms of story, but that it's built in a narrower framework that points one way, given its historical "duty," and that I find the every-which-way of Miami Vice a better attitude with which to marry Mann's story ideas (or abandonment thereof) with his ramped up aesthetics. That's my utopia: a mutable one, what Istvan Csicsery-Ronay calls mutopia.
KASMAN: A narrower framework is right: this is a movie where we learn not just how a car actually rolls over, but what that sounds like. I don't see any less mutability in this film than Miami Vice, it's just that that film is colored around the edges, a world exists out there, and this film has no off-screen space what so ever, people live on the edge of oblivion. Purvis walks off camera and his fate is decided by a title card: quit a year later, died by his own hand.
KNIGHT: We might say that the image moves away from us. It's no secret the scenes that soar are the least human, the most violent and abstract. Even that action you remember is more about the movement than what's happening. Exposition isn't a part of Mann's arsenal, so to speak, but, since he keeps swindling somebody in Hollywood for funding, he has to do some story business. On this end, though, I mostly get a kick out of how hard he tries to push the story to the brink of opacity, to bring it up front as an array on that pane, although he's no Gursky; nor the twice-cited Pollack (in Miami Vice); nor even the brash De Kooning, though equally sentimental; nor some kind of Hollywood Brakhage as some critic wrote in 2006; no, Mann's more pivotal, he's almost like Calder, but the mobile hangs guns and spins blood-red spots in circles, pushing the second dimension into a third with the help of some light (bulbs and lines) and a few million dollars. His anti-heroes scuttle as best they can, and look good trying, but luck runs out, like time, always. There's got to be a parallel to Mann's adventures in Hollywood, and how he swindles studios for financing his weird ideas of movies—and his past-tradition ideas about masculinity, and how we men keep that myth alive whether we want to or not.
KASMAN: I have to disagree with your rather romantic notion that Mann is some wild man, an avant-garde-ist who gets lucky to get funding because his interests stray so far from the mainstream. Only Miami Vice—a busted, problematic production—and this film even remotely suggest this. Evolution seems more interesting to me than this rupture you are posing: because Mann does like characters and story, as least as of Collateral.
With these last two films he reminds me a lot of Maurice Pialat, making a movie of snippets of a longer, richer, more continuous and "whole" film packed, conventionally, with all those things; they may not be here, but I think they most definitely fascinate him. The question Mann's rhetorically asking, perhaps after the Miami Vice fiasco, is "can I suggest all these conventional things that make movies run and totally streamline them by paring them to the basics, speeding them up to an extreme degree, and then making the movie about speed so as to facilitate audience acceptance of the experiment."
KNIGHT: Let’s not overplay this, the films are opaque but it’s not that Mann avoids the actual—part of the thrill of his films is the attention to physicality, to discrete actions, to effects, even, of and in the world—but that he's out to frame gestures rather than disclose events. Like any great artist—if we agree he is such—he's a builder. And the intractable, delimited history that lent this project its funding leads one way and builds but one kind of coliseum. Luckily, Mann knows how to fill this arena with limbs and violence.
KASMAN: Limbs and violence and video—it’s interesting to compare Miami Vice’s final shoot-out with those of Public Enemies. I think we were all startled in 2006 with the sharpness and specificity of the noise of Vice’s finale, and of the ejaculating muzzle flashes that the digital photography picked up so well from the darkness. (If the former film was shot digitally, like Collateral, so we could see into the depths of the night, surely Public Enemies was shot digitally so we could see what tommy guns really look, sound, and feel like.) But to return to the main difference between the action: squibs. There's a lot of lovely crackle and lightning in the Miami Vice fights, but in Public Enemies you see the bullets hit dirt, break windows, pound flesh, and pulverize trees. Tactility is something we talk about Mann achieving with these digital films, and the movie is filled with gestures and discreet actions you can feel: Depp checking his watch, holding onto a dying man's hand, looking into a dying man's eyes (has anyone here ever see someone die on-screen like they die on-screen in Mann's digital world? The death of the last of Depp's buddies in the car must be a new milestone for death on cinema.) The scar on a man's face, everyone's lousy complexion. A popular hero as nothing but flesh in movement. The even greater heightening of the physicality of the gunfights in this film (including a great deal of visible breath on camera) gets to the core of this.
KNIGHT: Right—gestures rhyme and accrue, just like bodies, and bullets keep flying. If the firecracker finale of Miami Vice felt loud and large, the action scenes in Public Enemies are both more frequent and yet more visceral. When Baby Face Nelson shoots out a window, and we watch from behind his head as the gunfight fire light shatters the frame, we can almost feel the shards scrape our skin. When John Dillinger falls shot, our eyes tell our body we fall, too. It's like outside: when it rains, you rain. Mann, we find, tells us how to see thrill in its harried imprecision. Thus we remember that seeing is more than one sense, is a world—of gestures, of glass, of hurt and of gain—combining and aligning.
VISHNEVETSKY: It’s not just gestures though, Dillinger is just a man—or an image of a man—too. What I think makes him heroic for Mann is that he ends up feeling his own image, in the Biograph theater. This also happens in the scene in at Bureau headquarters.
KNIGHT: That scene in the Dillinger headquarters bristles with fun because the hide-out game is exposed, blanched by the reality of the spectacle. We love Dillinger precisely on account of his living amongst the public, that he is, as in the first movie-theatre scene, just a man.
The flaneur stroll through his life in HQ, all the highlights arranged as low lights populated by low lifes, and all dead but him, transforms his perception of himself just enough so that seeing Manhattan Melodrama can provide the window Ignatiy described to start this thread. Walking through the HQ is still a game no doubt because he is, well, walking. He still thinks himself a director, and we still see him that way, as does Mann, despite the gravity of that wall of death. I mean, for heaven's sake, he asks what the score is—and the home team is winning.
KASMAN: Bringing up the police HQ reminds me that there's a whole side of the film we haven't talked about, which may be the only evolving plot in the entire movie: the development of the FBI, and the relationship of its development based on the activities of Dillinger and his ilk. Thinking of scenes like that eerie, alien-like telephone operator's room makes me think of the Fritz Lang side to some of Mann's films, specifically this one and Miami Vice—the way technology connects people across space, and allows (or doesn't) the people in control of the technology to draw lines around those inside their web. This theme probably peaks with The Insider, and even The Last of the Mohicans to a degree is about drawing lines around people, but both Public Enemies and Miami Vice are very focused on the evolution of policing technology in direct response to the Frontier-like vigilantes who are working on the cutting edge of crime and require advanced techniques to track and bring down.
KNIGHT: Indeed: the speed I often talk about when talking about Miami Vice applies to the speed of technology, and one of the valuable things about the historical angle of Public Enemies is that it portrays just how high-tech all these FBI tactics were back then—because they were cutting edge—and they all contribute to the evolution of our society of the spectacle, and how it traps everything. The view of the film veer towards cynicism, in that it may appear there are no new borders to find, let alone occupy, or thrive within, but I think it's a real factor. Privacy becomes such a rare commodity, its price a tragic one. At least, this is true in Mann's world.
KASMAN: How does it contribute to the society of the spectacle? What do you mean by that?
KNIGHT: That we're all open to view at all moments. Today we actively seek it out, too, with our tweets and blogs and whatnot.
KASMAN: I’m not sure I agree. I think the technology on display in Public Enemies and Miami Vice is very specifically about tracking individuals in a specific context. This isn't ubiquitous surveillance or a kind of utopian (or nightmarish) Free Information Society (which is closer to Lang's world.) These are professionals on different sides of a specific divide who need the tech, develop the tech, and deploy the tech. It has very little to do with the general public. The scenes in the movie theaters are after a different angle than this common theme in Mann, and somewhat unrelated.
KNIGHT: The ending is not a big shootout moment outside the theater, it's almost quiet, like a confirmation of what Dillinger just saw on screen, which is, as we’ve talked about, how he's seen by society. And, though it's quiet, it is, as Gable says, all of a sudden. And the product of surveillance. So many sets of eyes. These stories Mann chooses are all based around men facing extinction, no? Even Purvis, in Public Enemies, cannot handle how these structures of pursuit are changing (and forcing his hand). Keep in mind, the title of the film is plural.
VISHNEVETSKY: Mann seems to be equally interested in men facing extinction and the "contemporary world." In Public Enemies, the characters are mostly outmoded but there's also this interest in the new, the modern, as though the people who feel the changing times the most are the ones who are about to disappear. You get the sense that there's nothing more modern than being left behind or becoming obsolete. That the main way we feel "the time we live in" is alienation.
KNIGHT: That sense of alienation is a reasonable understanding of the modern, I suppose, but the thing that makes Mann's men so poignant is their desire to latch onto now. This aim is fudged by their criminal status, of course, since choosing a life of crime—on either side of the law—leaves them all the more open to tragedy than, say, writers. That is, they might lose their lives quicker, but they're a part of the world, and—I could be wrong—I think Mann seems to advocate for action above all else. He makes action films, he makes movies about dudes running around causing ruckus, and he builds this view from a mobile and participatory perspective. Even in something like The Insider there's a lot of proximity. Hell, you might argue Manhunter is all about how you touch the world. The great thing, if there is a great thing, about Public Enemies is that sense of the rush of now, and losing it—how we always will, and already have.

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