Dillinger No Dilly-Dallying Pillager

1 Oct 2013: Public Enemies (DVD, 2009, Michael Mann)

Though at times I find myself wishing for more characterization from his films – again we have the mostly inexplicable instantaneous romantic attraction between a male protagonist (John Dillinger) and his subsequently peripheral female love interest (Billie Frechette) – and altogether more of what characterization really does, which is to offer with space and time and rhythm a depth and reality to people and actions that even the most period-accurate set details and historical research can’t approach, I still find myself appreciating and responding to the work of Michael Mann. The action setpieces are still expertly staged and exhilarating, moreso than the work of anyone else in the genre, and he seems to have discovered a just-as-unmatched visual flair to his digital photography that somewhat redeems the format from the dour and increasingly conservative perspectives of film purism. The capture of motion and light (and darkness) has an eerily more direct feel to it here than the albeit beautiful and perhaps in most cases superior texture of film can achieve, where a wide lens is not only bringing a broader scope into focus but also still distinguishing its foreground objects and shadings as sharply as telephoto. One feels reluctant to spend much time discussing this, since the frequent skeptic’s response to Mann is that he’s all about surfaces and images at the expense of deeper content – see my first sentence – but (as his typically erudite commentary track suggests) this does produce a distinct effect on the viewer that is no less powerful or meaningful for its unidentifiability than the body language and vocal inflections that can’t be seen in transcribed speech. The story, and the concentration on action (prison breaks, firefights, police-station torture, even filmgoing), like Miami Vice (the film) before it, comes across more immediately and viscerally because of how it materially hits the viewer. Mann is no Kieślowski, who expertly manipulates the medium of film as such to produce magically insular immersion in its imagery that mirrors the mental content through which to absorb a particular mood and emotion, but this is because his goals are much different; he wants to coherently capture with jitter, agitation and photographic individuation an unsettling need for spontaneous response and momentum that distinguishes itself from automatic routine. That said, I think his approach could be augmented by better screenwriting and editorial pacing to counterbalance such bursts of change – even with an excitement-craving figure like Dillinger – with the resting states of relaxation and thought. It might push the length of the film beyond normal limits – facing as ever the typical pitfall of commerce overriding art – but could very well push the work into classical epic territory.

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