Michael Mann's "Public Enemies" (2009)
"There must be mutation, swifter than iridescence, haste, not rest, come-and-go, not fixity, inconclusiveness, immediacy, the quality of life itself, without denouement or close. There must be the rapid momentaneous association of things which meet and pass on the forever incalculable journey of creation: everything left in its own rapid, fluid relationship with the rest of things.
This is the unrestful, ungraspable poetry of the sheer present, poetry whose very permanency lies in its wind-like transit."
- D.H. Lawrence talking about Walt Whitman in his intro to the New Poems, 1918
Michael Mann's Public Enemies is liquid, ephemeral and present. Every moment happens "all of a sudden". It's not the past or the future but the perpetual now we care about, ever-changing, dynamic, and through the eyes of Michael Mann, the greatest living Hollywood filmmaker, gorgeous, intricate, LOVEly. You care, honestly care, about his images, it's a love-affair in a way, physical and tactile. Nevertheless, the images, and the vision behind each image, changes so quickly, you can't hold on to it. The unstoppable forward motion, like in life, leaves you unaware of the moment, because it's replaced by something else as soon as possible.
The movie ends with a shot of a door closing, inconclusive. None of the bank robberies or the prison escapes are as operatic as in some other works by Michael Mann. The finale leaves us with no meanings, nothing to hold on to, no grand narratives to explain it all. Compared to Miami Vice, Public Enemies feels unworked, incomplete. This, I think, is a great direction for Michael Mann, fitting perfectly with his style. Life offers, or promises, no human conclusions, but only a perpetual moment. It's a "curve, which flows on, pointless" as D. H. Lawrence once wrote.
Have I been describing the life of John Dillinger, or the movie called Public Enemies, I do not know... There are all these concepts floating around in my mind, all these things I'd like to write about, but after seeing the movie twice, it's hard for me to try to make any "unifying" comments. The movie is too vast, and too alive for me. So I'd like to share some things other people wrote:
"It's the way these events occurred in this unique life that was so short but so dynamic, and so intense, dedicated just to living right now for the moment is really what kind of fascinated me in doing it." says Michael Mann in a video interview on Screen Rush. There's another interview with him you can see at ITN and one at the Guardian site (where he says he doesn't "look backwards very much").
Talking about the shooting of Public Enemies, at The Auteurs, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky quotes D.W. Griffith: "What's missing from movies nowadays is the beauty of the moving wind in the trees." And he argues that Mann recently "left behind grammar for expression." I agree, and this is why I think the last three films, Collateral, Miami Vice, and Public Enemies are his greatest, a whole new direction...
Here is how Manohla Dargis begins her review in New York Times:
"Michael Mann’s Public Enemies is a grave and beautiful work of art. Shot in high-definition digital by a filmmaker who’s helping change the way movies look, it revisits with meticulous detail and convulsions of violence a short, frantic period in the life and bank-robbing times of John Dillinger, an Indiana farm boy turned Depression outlaw, played by a low-voltage Johnny Depp."And Keith Uclich of Time Out New York commits the perfect commentary:
"It might sound damning to say that the film resembles a bullet-riddled carcass just barely clinging to life, but it’s exactly this ephemeral sensation, which Mann sustains for the entire two hours plus, that distinguishes Public Enemies."Roger Ebert talks about "compulsions" (a beautiful word to pick, to talk about a Michael Mann movie) but then explains "why it is not quite a great film" by adding: "I think it may be because it deprives me of some stubborn need for closure." At least he's honest! Art has moved away from that need for closure years or centuries ago...
Scott Foundas, in the best review I read about Public Enemies, writes:
"Visually, Public Enemies seems like the summation of something Mann has been steadily building toward ever since he first incorporated video-shot footage into the dynamic opening training montage of Ali in 2001. Where digital methods have gradually become the industry standard by simulating the dense, luxuriant textures of film, Mann embraces video precisely for the ways in which it is unlike film: for the hyper-real clarity of its images, for the way the lightweight cameras move through space, and for its ability to see sharper and more deeply into his beloved night. At every turn, Mann rejects classical notions of cinematic "beauty" and formulates new ones. The sounds and images rush at you, headlong, and before you can fully get a handle on them, something else takes their place. (...) those robberies are brisk, expedient affairs rarely lasting more than two minutes each. Where Mann staged the heist sequences at the center of Thief and Heat as a kind of grand opera, Dillinger's are closer to proletariat street theater."
Zach Campbell also sees what is happening, and desribes it with extraordinary ability:
'...people as apparitions moving around, or as nodes in, a network "in the air." The figural dimensions of human beings in Mann are phantasmatic, mysterious, he doesn't much strike me as a corporeal (or perhaps more precisely: a kinesthetic) filmmaker. These are not characters who have psychologies, they are psychologies. They are not bodies, they have bodies. Maybe.'
And again D.H. Lawrence: "The quick of the universe is the pulsating, carnal self, mysterious and palpable. So it is always."