The first line of my notes on Public Enemies trails downward across three lines in sloppy ink: "cut, cut, shot, grasp, speed, car, death." I've written a whole hell of a lot of shit recently and none of it have I found worth posting...or finishing...but there's something kind of awesome about this subconscious, written exhale...
I've had a taste of Micheal Mann in Miami Vice but I love this latest venture because it seems so concerned with doing things that can only be done in cinema. You're such a movie!, I kept mouthing back at the screen, which is to say that this film, just like Johnny Depp as Johnny Dillinger, likes fast things. That first line of my notes refers to a series of moments on the tail end of a jailbreak (the first jail break, that is...Yes, this movie is also a party!) in which Dillinger is leaning out of a speeding car, clenching a dying friend's wrist, and dragging him over the relentless dirt below. According to my mind and its faulty (or creative) memory of this desperate grasp, we see Depp's jaw, his eyes. We see hands and wrists and struggle. Along one of the frame's edges we see the curve and the heat from the speeding machine. We hear the roar--maybe an engine, maybe wheels on road, maybe altogether extradiegetic music--of a getaway. We see the dying man's face and the dust clouds that take him. But it's all splices and fragments--the edits so fast and the objects so close that the moment reads only in speeding shapes and anguish. In short, it's "cut, cut, shot, grasp, speed, car, death," precisely the sort of thing that happens nowhere but the movies, and only a handful of them at that.
Mann's camera also sprints at the hooves of horses, rides with a plane's propeller, and flees and dodges with the hunted. It charges through dark expanses straight into machine guns' sunny strobelights and it manically pulls and zooms as details in the distance dictate. And maybe this need for speed is to be expected from an action movie, maybe I could say the same things of the Dark Knight, but Public Enemies' obsession with unbelievably fast shit seems more a love of film (digital "film," that is) than of boyhood fantasy.
For one, Mann doesn't stop at recording cars; he cinematographically dissects their movement and then elliptically recomposes it in the editing room. The resulting picture is of speedy things told to us in a rapid, engrossing visual language and it's this breakneck--but oh so precise!--dialect for which thinking-people love him. In Mann's strongest visual sequences, like the cut-grasp-death moment mentioned above, shapes and shadows imply their particulars and simple fragments evoke their complex wholes. Textures suggest depths, worlds. It's an aesthetic that permits machine guns, gangsters, and blood baths to dance. Totally deft, totally handsome, in these moments the film bends toward abstraction but halts before reaching ostentation and, in fact, never even deviates from its straightforward narrative objectives. And boy are these narrative objectives straightforward (GANGSTERS! LOVE!), and boy oh boy are they supported by some terrifically cliché dialogue, but this duality is almost the best part: You feel Mann's love for the movies shine both through his aesthetic creativity and his strict adherence to genre tropes and age-old dialogue. Strangely, I find his streaks of aesthetic experimentation and genre convention to offer a dynamic relationship, one capable of articulating a bank robbery in terms of sun-soaked entrances, piles of steps, and gangsters in flight while keeping us firmly, almost comfortingly, within the known quantities of Hollywood drama.
And still, this movie wouldn't do what it did for me--that is, convince me it was as concerned with film itself as I take it to be--if it weren't for the last 20, lusciously reflexive minutes of this thing. We learn Dillinger will go to the movies that night, either Shirley Temple or a Clark Gable gangster pic, and we know that the police will be ready for him. That afternoon he wanders into the empty rooms of the 'Dillinger Investigations Squad' of the Chicago Police Department. Some of the detectives are out looking for him and some are listening to a baseball game in the back of the office, but none bother Dillinger as he walks past the walls of pictures of himself and his various associates over the years. He's attending what can be read as his own last picture show. Indeed, we're not only seeing Dillinger stare at pictures of himself, but Johnny Depp stare at pictures of himself, for a mug-shot looks awfully like a head-shot and both men seem oddly present in this moment, linked, somehow, through filmic frames and photographic frames and us. A few short scenes later we're watching Depp/Dillinger watch Clark Gable seal his fate in Manhattan Melodrama. If the "public enemy or public star?" theme came off a bit too brashly elsewhere (when Dillinger is slow-motion waving to photographers and admirers from the backseat of a police car, for instance), it seems natural here with Gable's dashing presence winking at Depp's and vice versa. We watch Depp/Dillinger's face register the moment in all its layered existence, so that when the film Public Enemies grinds into slow motion, consequently pushing Clark Gable and Manhattan Melodrama into slow motion, we feel an awesome, if tragic, sense of synchronization. It leaves one with the lasting feeling that all the speed and agility of earlier verses was, like this last beautifully reflexive ensemble, working in the name of the movies as only a movie can do.