7/8/09

Wonderful Clouds

Public Enemies is a little short for a Michael Mann film and the ending is satisfying, which threw me. But it runs deep with the qualities that made Heat and Miami Vice resonate and confound. It's shot in digital, and it's beautifully loose. The cross-cutting is Mann's tribute to Godard's A Bout de Souffle (Breathless); the storyline a tip of the hat to Pierrot Le Fou. The big machine gun sounds that jump the cinema's broadcast levels could be a nod to Arthur Penn's infamous sound mix for Bonnie And Clyde but other (real) film critics attribute this to Mann's determination to mix his own movies despite the fact that he's going deaf. And it's true that the dialogue is muffled at key moments but after so many takes on the gangster flick, what is there really left for these characters to say? In a classic New Yorker cartoon a woman proclaims, "I don't care what Socrates thinks: I want to know what he feels!" I'm of the same mind with Mann. Never mind the width: feel the quality.

Public Enemies feels good -- or rather, well. The digital lens picks up skin, wrinkles, make up, faces: you can touch this film better than anything in 3-D. When a lone informant angsts over her betrayal of Dillinger in a crowd, you can pick her out of the line-up. But the lens is also drawn to clouds and fields, and the contrasting aesthetic thus revives Mann's noirish shorthand, giving the movie's characters the stark choice between sweaty proximities and an untouchable, epic landscape. When moviemakers began working with digital I thought it would be the end of cinema. Now I'm thinking it's a beginning: a return to the days when movies were lensed rather than storyboarded, and before the mis en scene got swallowed by the design department.

The story is The Untouchables deconstructed -- or The Black Dahlia put together right. Nobody knows Billy Crudup's Hoover is gay, but the audience does, and Mann's camera catches the white flash of his eyeballs as he greets Christian Bale's Purvis. Bale gets to act and not carry the film, telegraphing George W (Oliver Stone sought him for the biopic role). Depp plays it cool and wins: it's nice to see him dialling it back. Marion Cotillard is luminously pretty and real, surrounded by jugheads and thugs that more than recall Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy. The underbelly of James Ellroy and Chinatown is just a stone's throw away.

The references would swamp a lesser filmmaker but Mann keeps them submerged. In the pig-headed manner of Howard Hawks, he mines the prosaic until it becomes flinty poetry. His stated purpose (storytelling, detail) is pursued so obsessively that it becomes romantic folly: more real than real, more cruel than cruel, more beautiful than any of the characters is permitted to acknowledge. This isn't period filmmaking: it's a full stop. A jerky, nouvelle vague watershed -- the feeling man's shoot-em-up. And a great romance, too. Stare at it long enough, you all might notice.