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

Three critics discuss Michael Mann’s most recent digital criminal cinema extravaganza.
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.
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.
Finally, Kasman, you tease. There is much to think about here. I’ve seen Public Enemies twice now and it plays better on second viewing. No longer wondering about the discrepancy between what I was seeing unfold on the screen and how I was seeing it unfold freed me to appreciate what you correctly called smears (that was sharp), and the peculiar way the history inside the film is grounded and seems to vanish even as it’s being captured. Is that a property of HD? Very likely, I believe. Public Enemies is going into its fourth week in circulation and has made just over $80m domestically. Foreign BO may help to nudge it closer to $100m, but Universal still won’t make its money back on such a huge investment. This could be an interesting point in Mann’s career. Your linking Mann to Pialat might be prescient, Daniel. Mann may have to reduce the scope of his canvas and turn instead to focusing on characters in more intimate circumstances, capturing gestures and moments like few others. Give full breadth to that impressionist side of him that I see waiting to for its chance to surface. Freed from the encumbrances of mega-budgets, and the obligations of story business, this just might be liberating.
I’ve been waiting for something like this from you fine people here, and it hasn’t disappointed. I’m intrigued by Daniel’s mention of Pialat, and – at risk of drawing a dangerously superficial comparison – feel compelled to push it one step further: Bresson. In a way, Mann’s last two relentlessly mobile yet pared-down films are deeply concerned with, in Sontag’s words, “an idea about life, about what Cocteau called ‘inner style’, about the most serious way of being human”. They’re more muscular and physical than ascetic, but whatever is not necessary, or merely decorative, is omitted. Ryland refers to stories of men facing extinction, and I immediately think of Journal, A Man Escaped, The Devil Probably… Vice and PE are also deeply concerned with work, action, doing (whatever guise that assumes): framed gestures as fights against gravity… One thing about the issue of hyperreality: I normally understand a hyperreal aesthetic to be a dialogue between “realist” representation and abstraction (with the former subordinated to, or consumed by, the latter: a simulacrum of objectivity), and am not sure that Mann’s digital aesthetic wholly departs from this – it enters into it, only to push it in new directions… Anyway, a tremendous piece of criticism, with lots to chew on. Thanks, all.
Fantastic analysis. I saw this last weekend and was very impressed considering some of the reviews that I read. The crowd I saw it with seemed to really enjoy it. A thunderstorm outside caused two blackouts during it (one right before the Little Bohemia shootout no less). But most everyone stayed in their seats. I would like to add to the discussion on the HD video. For me, the digital cinematography from Dante Spinotti contemporizes the period subject matter in ways we haven’t seen before. Unlike recent period pieces like “Atonement” which shoot on film but contemporize their look by digitally color correcting, “Public Enemies” only contemporizes on a technological surface level. Sometimes, film enthusiasts forget that it is not shooting format that can determine how immersive a cinematic venture a film can be but aesthetics. Spinotti’s photography, and to an extent with the handheld camera technique, relies on photographic empathy. The color, contrast and resolution of the picture attempt to capture light realistically and thus allow for a pseudo realistic image. Thus, because the lighting scheme is relatable, we relate to the images more in ways an overly post processed image can not. Of course, digital has limitations in dynamic range and frame rate as opposed to film, but that adds to the charm of Mann’s shooting style. He is keenly aware he is using digital and not trying to emulate film at all. It is a pure digital image. Therefore, the cinematography feels like Michael Mann’s first outlet in demythologizing the life of John Dillinger. He begins on the surface and works under.
Thank you KJ, Matthew, and Shane for your incredibly rich responses! I’m glad to see the movie has connected with other as deeply as well. KJ: That’s something we were wondering too, what would a smaller Michael Mann movie look like, if he were forced to make one? I like your idea of a small, intimate focus. Matthew: I’ve heard the Bresson comparison before, both sincerely and in the “he’s no Bresson” sense, and would love to hear someone tackle the subject more specifically. You point us in the right direction! Shane: right on! Nuff said.
Like Will Graham and Lowell Bergman’s secret ocean hideaways in ‘Manhunter’ and ‘The Insider’, the ethereal connection with the sea is an ultimate desire for independence from a society that has imploded and lost touch with humanity. The mourning of a way of life that is no longer possible and subject to the inevitability of historical change is brilliantly captured in the final shot of Mann’s historical epic, ‘The Last of the Mohicans’. Having overcome the formidable Magua (Wes Studi), Hawkeye (Daniel Day Lewis) stands majestically, looking out across the landscape as if their collective journey has literally taken them to the edge of the world, mourning and signalling the death of an ancient society. The sense of nostalgic yearning for a bygone age that flows out of the final sequence confirms Mann’s fascination with characters who reject the new society, one that seeks to destroy, fragment and bring death. Both Vincent in ‘Collateral’ and Neil McCauley in ‘Heat’ are criminals but Mann does not seek to advocate how their death is crucial for reinstating some kind of status quo, but instead, says that death for those who transgress the social order is the only definitive and absolute means of ensuring their adherence to a moral code is preserved indefinitely. Both Neil and Vincent would rather choose death than become subsumed into a deeply conformist society, and by choosing death they choose to make a pessimistic statement that underlines their rejection of today’s bankrupt postmodern life. However, this rejection seems also to be a symbol of male anxiety as both Vincent and Neil are dispatched by their male counterparts. In ‘Heat’ as Neil McCauley is dying, Vincent’s touching gesture of holding his hand, squeezing it tightly, cries out as a testimony to Mann’s recurring interest in male relationships that are forged in a deeply professional context, but almost always resulting in some kind of metaphysical displacement that is strangely uplifting.
I echo D-Kaz’s thanks, guys, and add another @ Omar above me here. Everything is appreciated. It’s always heartening to have such thoughtful readers express themselves in such thoughtful ways! The only thing I think I can add right now is that, at bottom, it starts from the fact that I find Mann’s movies simply thrilling. They’re definitely movies, as my friend Martha says/wrote. They are just another part of the continued argument for seriousness within something as superficially entertaining as Ho’wood product: as much as they offer fantasy and escape, they also force you to think about the roles of fantasy and escape, to say freedom, in cinema—and in life. (Of recent note, this finds a blockbuster apogee, I’m mostly alone in arguing, in those Gore Verbinski Pirates movies—another series about frontiers, freedom, the species and its twinned evo- and devolution, and extinction.)
For all you Michael Mann fans. Here is a 5 part series of video essays from Moving Image Source that highlights keys aspects of Mann’s career- from Vice, to the women in his films, to the dichotomy of cops and criminals. They’re superbly edited and very enlightening. Here is part 1. The links to the other 4 parts are on the right of the page.
I think a number of the comments were over my head, but this was an interesting discussion to read about. I very much enjoyed PE as both my first Mann film and the first I’d seen in a theater for quite awhile. It’s not a perfect film, but a very good if not a great one. Strangely enough, films like PE that are based on real people/events always seem more ‘fake’ to me ‘cause I know I’m not seeing the actual people. Does anyone else have a similar feeling?
That’s an interesting reaction, Josh S. It’s true that fiction often feels more real than “fact” — or at least, because we know it’s false, we are more certain of it, instead of something supposedly “true,” whose veracity we end up constantly doubting (maybe that’s why so many documentaries end up bogged down in the need to reinforce their own “realness?”). On the other hand, though, it’s always seemed to me that Mann (like Fuller behind him), when interested in “true stories,” is more interested in the way the people in them are already “characters” more than in telling “the truth.” I’d recommend taking a look at some of his other films based on historical / journalistic material, like The Insider and Ali, which, incidentally, also happen to be some of his greatest films.
(“Fuller before him,” that should say. Though “behind him” actually seems like an even better choice — like there’s a ghost rooting for Mann.)
There is something fascinating about Mann’s use of history and ‘fact’ in PE. In a way Mann uses the clearly established historical record as an excuse to avoid the usual mechanics of plot and dramatic ‘punctuation’. The story is already known, what matters is the telling. He has pared down the exposition, the pseudo-Freudian ‘justifications’ of a characters putative motivations (all too common in conventional biopics) to almost nil. This results in two interesting effects: the odd flatness of the movie and a pervading sense of detachment. The movie lacks clear hierarchies, the rooting interest in Dillinger as ‘hero’ is muted at best. I cannot recall a recent movie that seems so ‘plotless’ in retrospect. There are events, but no scenes. What I do remember are sequences of images burned into the reptile part of the brain. There are emotions attached to the images, but they remain almost primordial. If there is s singular scene in PE it must be the Little Bohemia forest gunfight. Mann does seem to have an obsession with this motif: Manhunter, Last of the Mohicans, Miami Vice all have pivotal sequences that occur in forests (I’m sure I’m missing something here, haven’t seen The Keep yet). The forest functions as labyrinth, fortress and trap. Yet the total effect of the forest gunfight is not ‘mythopoetic’ (the mythological and cultural baggage attached to forests must be vast) it is more like phenomenology. The detail of the moment, contingency, something fleeting beyond the frame. The upshot of all these impressions and resonances is still puzzlement. I have to see PE a second time. I am still not sure if this is Mann’s best film or his very worst.
Forests — a good observation. We tend to speak of Mann in relation to cities, to architecture, but there’s certainly an attitude towards the “natural landscape” that’s specific to his work, though I’ve always found it in the daytime skies (looming at the beginning of Public Enemies) and in bodies of water (lakes, oceans, etc.). The Keep is all forests, by the way — forests and castles.
Yes, I do agree with the repeated thematic emphasis on “natural landscape” which you mention: Beginning with ‘Manhunter’ (1986), the image of the sea has become a crucial and expressive thematic motif in the oeuvre of Michael Mann. In ‘Manhunter’, Former FBI Agent Will Graham’s (William Petersen) affinity with the sea (he is trying to rebuild his life and family at his beach house) illustrates the ideological relationship between nature and society; this co existence between man’s want to retreat to the idyllic pleasures of life and the pressure to forge an identity within contemporary urban society is an uneasy and problematic concern for both Will Graham and the antagonist of the film, Dollarhyde (The Tooth Fairy). Though Will Graham’s desire to exist on the fringes of contemporary society is purely idealistic, it perhaps suggests how the motif of the sea foregrounds the loneliness and alienation that many of Mann characters experience. In many ways the sea becomes a source of rebirth and stillness, providing an alternative to the catalogue of urban sounds that consume individuals like Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) in ‘Heat’. Towards the end of Mann’s 1999 film on the American cigarette industry, ‘The Insider’, Television producer Lowell Bergman’s (Al Pacino) temporary expulsion from the CBS news organisation ends with him retreating to the ocean for a period of extended self reflection so that he can try and exorcise the guilt he feels for the personal failure towards Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), somebody who he has coerced into telling his story about the illegal practices being secretly conducted by a major American cigarette corporation. Even an urban crime film like ‘Collateral’ (2004) in which the narrative unfolds over one night in Los Angeles, the motif of the sea resurfaces, this time appearing in the figure of an island on a postcard that Max (Jamie Fox) keeps in his Taxi. On this occasion, the postcard provides Max with a premature escape from the reality of his mundane existence, but the postcard is an artifice as blank as the city in which he drives and to which he has become an unknowing victim of alienation.
I also noticed the following similarity between PE and Manhunter: One of the strange peculiarities with an auteur is the increasing regularity with which they begin to reference their own films. A discernible pattern emerges that can eventually be traced through the complex fabric of intertextuality. In ‘Public Enemies’, having captured and imprisoned Dillinger, Purvis pays him a brief visit and the two warmly exchange glances and dialogue. This stand off or should I say moment of close scrutiny and mutual appreciation echoes the first meeting that takes place between Will Graham and Dr Lecktor in Mann’s 1986 film, ‘Manhunter’. A similar meeting also surfaces most famously in ‘Heat’ between cop and criminal whilst in a film like ‘Collateral’, the antagonism is continuous. As Dillinger and Purvis size up one another through the stillness of the prison bars, one cannot help but be reminded of the frightening similarities between Graham and Lecktor as extenuated through the identical symmetrical framing and juxtaposition of shots. However, no such similarity exists between Dillinger and Purvis; the reflection of Dillinger finds its clearest and most tangible affinity in the peripheral character of Winstead as it becomes evident through the film’s narrative that Purvis’s undying loyalty to the establishment and in particular J Edgar Hoover marks him out as slightly effeminate and as an uncomplicated symbol of conformity.
Great article Danny. I wasn’t particularly interested in this film until I read all that – thanks. Christopher
Okay — I love Michael Mann — Heat, Last of the Mohicans, The Insider: all brilliant — but this movie was boring, uneven crap with a great performance by Johnny Depp. It’s almost painful inaccurate from a historical perspective, is horribly paced, and gave no insight into either Depp’s or Bale’s characters. It. Was. Beyond. Boring. There is no deep, hidden meaning behind this movie. It’s junk, plain and simple, and Mann should apologize to all of his fans.
First off I’d also like to commend everyone for an interesting and thoughtful discussion; I’m glad to have chanced upon it. I myself finally got to see ‘Public Enemies’ yesterday and, unlike many of the comments I’d heard or read about the movie, did not at any point apprehend any of the shallowness or pointlessness that seemingly afflicted many viewers. On the contrary, from the very beginning I felt that Mann was working from a very different level, and that his aims were more than simply translating ‘Heat’ onto the Depression era. I’ll begin by supporting the observation that the evolution of technology plays an important role. I myself see it from the following perspective: the anti-reactionary development that resulted in a ‘war on crime’; a war heavily based on (blind) faith on the benefits of progressive scientism. Result? The broadening of federal jurisdiction, advancement of communications and surveillance technology, and the institutionalization of a taskforce capable of taking advantage of these (which in the 50’s would give us the CIA). Don’t forget that Hoover went on to use the FBI in order to collect information of possible ‘un-American’ activities during the McCarthy era. The other development related to technology is the growing influence of mass media. Not only would this make possible the dominance of popular culture, but more specifically, it would make manifest particular tropes and archetypes that represent the desire for recognition entrenched in the general populace: the ‘outlaw’ or anti-hero, in this case the ‘male’ anti-hero. That Mann makes the epistemology of the ‘image’ the basis of this struggle by elevating the image itself to the foreground – by forcing us to re-acquaint ourselves with the nature of the ‘image’ and its meaning in relation to ‘moving images’ – is nevertheless highlighted by the presence of the themes I just mentioned, though we should include the question about the nature of ‘masculinity’ and ‘individuality’ as well. On the surface one could feel a certain air of ambivalence with regards to the characters and the events themselves; you could not really make out where Mann stood in relation to what he was letting us see, which is always a good thing in my book (let the viewer decide for his or herself). For example, could we say that he approves of Dillinger’s counter-cultural stance, despite the results, or is he more interested in demythologizing the ‘anti-hero’ genre itself? So I agree that, even less than in his other movies, he is less interested in the phenomenological artefacts on screen – the costumes, weapons, or technological equipment in themselves, or Depp acting as Dillinger – than on the gestures, the signification behind the referents. Sure, these are still important, maybe even more so than in his other movies now that he’s finding a new way to get beyond to what these ‘things’ represent (which reminds me of Kandinsky’s own development to abstract art, or Picasso’s, to name some examples of artists working on other mediums) in a way that can still resonate with a general audience. But the ambivalence could probably best be understood in terms of the modern/postmodern dialectic. In this case, Mann is going through the postmodern motions of dealing with narrative and artistic representation by foregrounding ontological questions about ‘what is real?,’ which then serve more as a basis from which to get to the more fundamental (from a postmodern sense) epistemological questions: can I apprehend what is real, and how do I go about discerning truth from falsity? Even the scene in the theatre reveals more nuance. Perhaps less than an attempt to demonstrate that all this time he has been working on the level of the, so to speak, “deconstruction of the image,” Public Enemies seems to want to make us – the audience – self-aware of ‘our’ complicity in the creation and perpetuation of such archetypes (and the very real social and institutional events that these produced). After all, keep in mind that Hoover and the ‘G-Men’ were involved both in a ‘war against crime’ as in a war for the ‘hearts and minds’ of a public too eager to mythologize a group of people not adverse against placing them – innocent bystanders – in-between themselves and the bullets being shot by ‘law-enforcement’ officers. Laws, I might add, that are ultimately sanctioned by that very same public (and the audience). And one could even question the honesty of that romantic notion of ‘living outside the law’ that Dillinger and those like him use to justify their lifestyles—“lifestyles” borne more out of financial necessity but sustained by psychological necessity. You could say that they were more a product of historical contingency than free and rational deliberation. That desire for freedom, glory, and immortality are thus more symptoms of a deeper spiritual enslavement than the other way around. Even more tragically, these in turn come to be used as superficial signifiers of ‘freedom’ that are just as interchangeable as any other self-imposed title. That there is a bit of self-delusion if not madness involved in the overt identification with these cultural values was evident in the scene where Dillinger promises Frechette a care-free life outside of crime. It’s hard to tell whether he seriously believed what he was saying, or was saying that just to convince Frechette to keep him company, thereby vindicating the very purpose of his masculine life-style filled with danger and easy money. Even bad boys need a mommy to tell them that they’re really good boys after all. Either way, one could get a sense of Dillinger as a blindly ‘driven’ character – more by the image of himself as a free and infamous outlaw – barely reconciling himself with the shallowness of his own life. Hence the need for violence in order to assert his own status. Like when he beat up that guy trying to pick up a coat, you could say that he was more interested in asserting his virility than in protecting the ‘honor’ of Frechette, which didn’t need any protecting at the time. The same could be said of his ‘unthinking’ display of manliness when he told her to “wait outside for me” in order to discuss ‘business’ with some of his ‘associates.’ Through this behaviour, and the promises he made her, promises that he failed spectacularly to meet, he demonstrates that he is more caught up with himself than with anyone else, including Frechette. Even when watching Manhattan Melodrama he seemed more enamoured with the projection of himself as someone willing to die for his own (ultimately empty and socially conditioned) principles (think of him as a fool suffering of ‘false consciousness’) than with the prospect of being locked up and sentenced to death (the ultimate fate of Clark Gable in the movie) and what that would mean for Frechette. So I would question the observation that Dillinger ‘created’ Clarke Gable’s ‘Blackie’, and say that that scene in particular demonstrates the dialectic paradox which is the pivot upon which the whole movie rests: the tension between reality and representation. After all, it could just as well be said that Dillinger is himself a creation of previous archetypes of the outlaw which were prevalent at the time, and upon which he rested in order to justify his actions not only to the ‘public’ but probably even more so to himself. But that scene in the theatre is also making us complicit in this process. (We should neither forget that it was his idea to send Frechette into what turned out to be an ambush.) Which is what I believe explains, and justifies, the creative licenses that Mann took with the ‘facts’. It’s as if he is purposefully challenging the audience to look behind the surface of the image, both visually and thematically. Even the last images of the movie – Dillinger whispering to the agent, and the agent diligently going to Frechette to reveal the contents of the message – is more directed at us than for the sake of narrative closure. The whisper never happened. And in a movie so conscious with the dichotomy of image and reality, and the effects of the popular mythologization of outlaws on society (Federal laws and jurisdiction across the States, the FBI, wire-tapping) and culture (making possible Michael Mann’s own successful career, beginning with the Miami Vice series), that whisper is more ominous and tinged with a foreboding of what is to come than may at first seem – i.e., the last romantic cry of love from a man ‘unwilling to give up his principles’. It also alludes to the moment when Dillinger seduced Frechette (and as such does come across as a cliché). It could just as well be the moment when we, the audience, were willingly seduced by a false representation, whether of freedom or masculinity or whatever it is that attracts us to these types of stories.
Kristiaan, Good to see the topic still attracts discussion — and at such length (and I think we’ll be talking Public Enemies ‘til the end of cinema). The idea that Dillinger finds validation for his actions in images is a good direction. I don’t think whether they’re true or false really matters — a dishonest image is just as true as a an honest one. It seems, more and more, that Public Enemies is a history of the image, or the relationship between images — because Dillinger is really just an image, relating to and through images. In that sense, the film seems unthinkable before the present.
I’m so lucky I found this discussion. I’m a huge Michael Mann fan. This has been a truly interesting read. When I first saw Public Enemies, I was definitely disappointed. I thought it was boring, shallowing and nothing compared to the genius I had seen before in Thief, Collateral, Heat, Last of the Mohicans and, my personal favorite, The Insider. I thought Public Enemies was a pretty lame attempt at revising Heat in an old 30s way. And frankly, the DV freaked me out. Then, I saw it again the same night. The second viewing is definitely better! I’d like to add that it is one of the more, yes, experimental action pictures of our day. I can’t say I love it as much as some of you, but I can say that I love Mann’s work. One of the great things that Hollywood has done for independent filmmakers is make the “shaky cam” and “DV” look more accessible for audiences. I truly believe that DV is the future. Like any great painter, you need many palates. With new technology, we are seeing a definite revolution in cinema. Public Enemies rings true that belief. David Lynch once said something about DV being scarier than film, and I believe that. It’s one of the perks of the digital look, I guess. I’ve always loved Michael Mann’s camerawork in any movie. It is more physical and identifiable than most movies. When people get punched, the camera moves with them. When people run, the camera runs too. Even in The Insider, the camera seems to be weirdly placed right next to their ear. As a filmmaker, I love this look. The image is real, and you can tell. Public Enemies is an enigma to me. It isn’t instantly great to me, yet, it sticks with me. There is something new and vibrant about it. Just the fact that he chose to shoot it in his Digital Video format in the 30s seems fascinating to me. He is without a doubt a very poetic filmmaker, and I’m glad people are talking about him online. Mr. Vishnevetsky, I’m glad you think it’s one of the great American films. I believe it is important too. Truly jealous you got to visit the set.

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