Another look at ‘Enemies’

Posted by · 3:00 pm · July 22nd, 2009

Christian Bale in Public EnemiesI must say, while I’m still struggling to see the use of The Auteurs as a social networking site, it’s a smashing source of film writing. The range and intelligence of discourse there is a joy to read, and is rapidly making the site a daily essential.

A case in point is today’s superb three-headed discussion of “Public Enemies” — well-timed given that today (as noted at the Film Experience) marks the 75th anniversary of John Dillinger’s death.

I’ve said before that I don’t think the film has generally received the critical credit it deserves, so it’s a treat to read three equally well-informed writers debating its complexities, and its relationship to the Michael Mann canon, in more detail than any review I’ve read. Daniel Kasman is upfront in his enthusiasm, declaring it the year’s best American film so far. (Short of “The Hurt Locker,” I don’t disagree.)

I also found myself thoroughly in agreement with Ignatiy Vishnvetsky’s level-headed defence of Mann’s use of HD:

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 … 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.

Kasman also very precisely nails Mann’s distanced approach to character — a trait that has led many to dismiss the film as  coolly impersonal (an understandable problem that I admit I’ve had with previous Mann works, but oddly not on this occasion) — by referring to the film as an example of so-called “glance” cinema:

Public Enemies is, I think, even more opaque (than Miami Vice): 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 … 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.

It’s wonderful film writing that doesn’t demean the perspectives of those who disagree. A must-read, whatever your stance on the film.

→ 10 Comments Tags: , , , | Filed in: Daily

10 responses so far

  • 1 7-22-2009 at 4:31 pm

    Mr. Gittes said...

    I’m all for a discussion about the use of HD and what it can do for cinema. Fine. But the problems with Public Enemies lies in the very basics of storytelling. By the time Dennis Haysbert’s character in Heat is eating windshield and receiving bullets, the audience feels…something. We know that Haysbert tried. We know he wanted to be “good” and prove that to his girlfriend (or wife).

    When DeNiro asks Tom Sizemore’s character if he still wants in on the bank heist, Sizemore pauses, looks at his friends with an almost desperate gaze, and walks a little closer to DeNiro and says: “For me the action is the juice.” The audience now knows what Sizemore is all about and why he does what he does.

    I didn’t see any of this in Public Enemies. Like Fincher’s fascination with the tech aspects of Benjamin Button, I feel Mann, too, was more interested in style as well. Perhaps no one has any idea as to what made John Dillinger tick, but is it unfair or naive to ask Mann and his screenwriters to make it up?

    ” To complicate things: the unavoidable one-to-one quality of Public Enemies projected in digital exposes the screenplay’s simple trajectory… 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…Mann loves myth, and myth exceeds the ordinary.”

    That’s a problem. In my view, the audience is show the myth of Dillinger in the “now,” but not why he’s a myth in the “now,” or why, for example, he was more popular than F.D.R and Charles Lindbergh. But perhaps I care about different things.

    By the way, thanks for directing me to The Auteurs. AWESOME stuff. I’m hooked.

  • 2 7-22-2009 at 5:24 pm

    Mark Kratina said...

    Great post, Gittes.

  • 3 7-22-2009 at 6:06 pm

    Sound Designer Dan said...

    Gittes, your post makes me yearn for the upcoming Heat Blu-ray (coming 11/3) even more. Just less than 4 months!!!!

  • 4 7-23-2009 at 2:44 am

    SHAAAARK said...

    Weird. I’ve seen 15 films this year, and Public Enemies probably wouldn’t make the top ten. Not with Up, Coraline, The Hurt Locker, and Moon in existence.

  • 5 7-23-2009 at 7:12 am

    Chase Kahn said...

    The best studio film of the year so far.

  • 6 7-23-2009 at 9:56 am

    Algoresnuts said...

    This film has not received the critical acclaim because it doesn’t deserve it. This is a horribly crafted film. The editing along with the music is just sloppy. There are moments in the film where the music is on its way up, then suddenly it cuts to the next scene with music hanging where it was, then suddenly and abruptly cuts off. Just awful. The digital film looked awful. My 5 year old kid could have made a better looking film using our home videe o camera. Boring. Badly made. And sub-par acting. That is Public Enemies. Can Michael Mann retire now?

  • 7 7-23-2009 at 10:32 am

    James D. said...

    I can’t see these qualities you guys are putting into it. There are no deep meanings, no philosophy, no art in Public Enemies. What is it about Michael Mann to you people?

  • 8 7-23-2009 at 11:02 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    “What is it about Michael Mann to you people?”

    Stop right there. I’m no die-hard Mann apologist: I thought “Miami Vice” dreadful, “Collateral” and “Ali” merely dreary, and even “Heat” is a film I admire a lot more than I actually like.

    I loved “Public Enemies” because I thought, for the first time since “The Insider,” that Mann had found a story well-tailored to his pragmatic character approach. The distance worked for me because the iconography met us halfway. I totally get why people disagree, but there’s no need for broad-brush observations like that, James.

  • 9 7-23-2009 at 11:10 am

    Chris said...

    Well, I enjoyed Public Enemies a lot. Not saying it’s my favorite Michael Mann movie, but I don’t understand why I have heard some people throw around that it is one of the worst movies of the year. It is certainly not.

  • 10 7-23-2009 at 11:12 am

    Chris said...

    Besides, I always thought this movie was about the beginning of the FBI and taking down John Dillinger in his 13 month crime spree, not a biopic.