New aesthetic form in Michael Mann's 'Public Enemies'

There was a time when those of us who considered ourselves ‘cinema purists’ couldn’t imagine that the aesthetic standard of celluloid imagery would ever be supplanted by video technology.

Johnny Depp as John Dilinger in 'Public Enemies'

Johnny Depp as John Dilinger in ‘Public Enemies’

Film has a kind of glow, a polish—it’s the shine that originally earned movies the nickname “the silver screen.” This luminosity is literally created by light: celluloid film images are made by exposing various-sized, light-sensitive particles (which are suspended on the film in an emulsion surface) to reflected light. The result is that whether it’s rendered in shades of gray or color, film imagery possesses a unique “distancing” quality.I think of films as diverse as “The Grapes of Wrath” (shot in black and white, set in the 1930s) and “Star Wars” (a full-color space extravanganza). Whatever the time period of the narrative—past, present, or future—films like these, shot on celluloid, have a certain formality to them, a majesty of presentation. We all know that films look better in a theater than on TV. That’s not just because the screen is bigger: it’s that the film itself makes the images more luminous. Video, on the other hand, offers a “nowness” that celluloid emulsions somehow do not, and cannot, match. Think of the video footage of Neda, the young protester in Iran, who was captured on video dying on a street in Tehran. That imagery possessed an immediacy that resonated with shock around the world. The matter-of-fact flatness of the video has something to do with the image’s “realness”—there was nothing pretty about it. Had the scene been shot on celluloid, the effect would have been different: less immediate, more emotionally aloof. The difference between celluloid film images and video images is like the difference between poetry and newspaper reporting. One is refined, enriched, even stately. The other, fast, blunt, immediate.Video and film each have had their own strengths, but the “now,” newsy quality of video retrievals collided with my nostalgic love of film emulsion, and that’s why I couldn’t see video ever achieving the aesthetic level of celluloid in narrative motion pictures. Well, it’s time to reconsider! I have now seen Michael Mann’s brilliant gangster narrative, “Public Enemies”, twice. It is one of those breakthrough cinema experiences, like “Citizen Kane,” that offer something so aesthetically innovative that I was compelled to return to fully grasp the artistic techniques at play. In his account of John Dillinger’s bank-robbing days of 1933-34 and crime agent Melvin Purvis’ hot pursuit, Mann brings digital high-definition video forcefully to the screen, and in ways that I could never have imagined. Using the Sony F23 CineAlta camera system, “Public Enemies” unfolds in a display of color and light and image definition that is nothing short of exhilarating. The opening scene sets the artistic standard for what is to come. Dillinger (Johnny Depp) arrives at a prison to stage a break for some of his incarcerated men. Dressed in black and filmed in extreme long shot, Dillinger and a cohort approach a vast, monochromatic cream-colored prison wall that, except for a barely visible patch of cumulus clouds, dominates the screen and the two minute figures coming toward it. The image has the striking look and feel of a de Chirico painting. A reverse-angle shot shows the two men entering the prison passageway, their movements framed in alternating patches of darkness and light as doors open and close. The image definition is so sharp that it is possible to see the texture of paint on the walls. Then as the break occurs, Mann turns to low-key sepia-toned lighting to contrast with the violent chaos. Mann is a former director of television commercials and it shows in his dynamic quick-cut editing of scenes and in the variety of camera compositions used in a scene. (Mann has final cut of all his films and often operates the camera himself.) In bank robbery settings the camera is placed in opening high-hat positions to reveal the ornate ceilings; then the camera will often take a bird’s-eye view of the action below. Sharply oblique camera angles in scene after scene are a Mann trademark.Most memorable of all is the way the digital high definition camera can convey reflected light and provide its own commentary. In a scene in which Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) pursues and kills a criminal in a fruit orchard, the halated light off leaves and trees ironically recalls scenes from Impressionist paintings. In a lovemaking scene between Dillinger and girlfriend Billie (Marion Cotillard)—conveyed in a jump-cut montage—the characters and setting are bathed in the blue-white light of exterior street lamps which is refracted abstractly by the splash of raindrops against the window pane. Mann’s artistry for turning digital imagery into mood is on full display here.So too, are “Public Enemies”‘ night scenes. Sharpness of image definition and depth of field are always challenges for location night cinematography; but Mann does wonders with the film’s numerous exterior night locations. A scene in which Purvis and his men attempt to overtake Dillinger at an isolated Wisconsin lodge occurs largely in heavy woods, the agents hovering in shadows beneath the trees. The degree to which the digital camera can penetrate and define with absolute clarity the shadowy images is remarkable. The streams of white light and wafting smoke captured in a machine gun shootout at the lodge offer a pyrotechnic display unlike any I’ve ever seen on screen.In making “Public Enemies,” Mann opted for digital high definition video for the very reason I once thought it could never achieve the aesthetic appeal of film imagery—its “nowness.” In interviews Mann has stated that in telling Dillinger’s anti-heroic, Depression-era story, he did not want the distancing, nostalgic look conveyed by conventional emulsions. Rather he wanted the viewer to have a sense of 1933 happening in the present, a visual “now” style which he said might suggest a “hyper-reality.” That style is as compelling as the narrative it underwrites. And having seen the movie a second time, closely studying the way the digital high definition camera can be used to create a new, uniquely expressive form of screen art, I must confess I can see a real future for it in movie theaters. With “Public Enemies,” Michael Mann has paved the way.

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