The central conflict of cinema in the 21st Century is that of the Old vs. New. Of old means of distribution, pills production and consumption versus new ones. Digital vs. physical. It’s not uncommon to hear the seasoned cineaste wail at the end of an era, seek at the death of film. Film, and by “film” I mean the 35mm photochemical stuff, is supposedly on the way out. Many argue that digital production will never match the silvered luminescence of film stock or that it can’t compete with film for sheer quality or definition.
Michael Mann has perhaps done the most to further the case of digital cinema as a legitimate, and at times superior, alternative to 35mm. Instead of trying to make digital look like the cinema of the last hundred-plus years, he’s instead chosen to embrace the differences and even benefits the new medium brings to the table. Shot on Thomson Viper Filmstream digital cameras, 2006’s Miami Vice has undergone something of a critical reevaluation in recent years and it’s now widely recognized as one of the most vitally important films of the last decade.
With Miami Vice Mann explored the distinctive capabilities of the digital medium, by stretching and experimenting with the image he produced a wholly new and entirely breathtaking aesthetic. Digital’s nighttime capabilities allowed him to use only natural light, lingering in the occupational darkness of his characters to produce a free form slice of existentialist poetry. Miami Vice managed to transcend both its blockbuster narrative and television roots through sheer force of aesthetics. Mann’s visual innovation, and the way he used it to inform his art, began to show us the capabilities of the digital medium.
With Public Enemies then, Mann’s next feature, it should not have come as a surprise that he chose again to shoot using digital, this time using the Sony F23 CineAlta. The decision to shoot a 1930’s gangster epic using the most modern of techniques was greeted with bemusement. How could he take such a classic Hollywood genre, a genre with roots stretching back over near the entirety of cinematic history, and deface it with the slick veneer of digital? Telling the tale of ‘Public Enemy Number One’ and folk hero John Dillinger, traditional thinking would have Public Enemies dutifully reproduce the look and feel of period movies or documentary footage.
Never being one for tradition, Mann instead used his newly forged digital methodology to lend the film a hyper-real sense of kinetic immediacy. Mann’s theory was that, in shooting using digital, the audience could be brought into the period rather than being presented with a nostalgic rendering of the period. The visual choices all work towards this stated aim, increased depth of field and frame rate as well as naturalistic lighting and handheld camerawork allow the viewer a sensation of authentic proximity. Some rallied against these choices, deriding Mann for creating something that felt to them more akin to television than the movies. But the movies have never been about one specific look or feel, at least not to me anyway. With Public Enemies Mann toyed and innovated and came up with a film that possesses the visual splendor and vitality to match that of John Dillinger himself.
Introduced to us in a bravura opening sequence, Johnny Depp’s Dillinger is instantly knowable as a man of immaculately precise style and action. The opening screams of Mann’s intention to overwhelm and subvert our period feature expectations. He places us straight into the middle of a prison break set piece, engulfing us immediately in the ‘nowness’ that is key to the films visuals. The digital photography peers into the shadows whilst struggling with blown highlights – it mimics the disorientating allure of the outside world to the prisoners.
There’s a notion that stars can hinder a movie by working against the filmmaker’s intention to suspend the audience in disbelief – by being larger than the character they are supposed to be playing. For a character such as John Dillinger though, you need a movie star. The part requires a man with the magnetic presence to make explicable the near-mythological status that Dillinger has attained. Like Brad Pitt as Jesse James in The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, Johnny Depp succeeds here not in spite of his legendary status, but rather because of it.
Set against Depp’s Dillinger is FBI super-agent Melvin Purvis played by Christian Bale; who despite his trademark competency is never as quite as compelling. The face-off between dedicated lawman and bank robber inevitably evokes the central conflict of Mann’s own Heat. Predictably, the combination of Depp and Bale fall short of that of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. Whilst there are no scenes that possess the same fizzing electricity that’s present Heat’s coffee shop sit down, the two pairings betray what it is that truly interests Mann.
As he has throughout his career, Mann exposes here his concern with masculinity and the male tendency to try to define himself by a code or profession. His men are of singular purpose and vision, of movement and drive. Dillinger is first and foremost a bank robber; this is how he defines himself and it is because of this that he continues along his path despite the obvious dangers. Equal and opposite is Purvis who, along with his superior J. Edgar Hoover, works with full and unflinching devotion to the law. For better or for worse, each man is unbending in his dedication to his self-definition. The tommy guns are unavoidable then, when the two distinct ideas of self-definition exist in such strict opposition to each other.
To bring us full circle we can say that running through Public Enemies is again that idea of the past versus the future, old against new. Melvin Purvis’ adoption of new crime-fighting methodology against the freewheeling John Dillinger whose daring bank robberies are no longer viewed as practical enterprise amongst a criminal fraternity moving towards the shadows. Progress is usually inevitable, and we may very well be moving towards a world where shooting on 35mm film is a novelty. In the meantime we should appreciate the range of options available to filmmakers, especially when new and experimental aesthetics allow for the production of pictures as gorgeous as Mann conjures here.
Tom is a Cardiff University Philosophy graduate from sunny Manchester. He favours filmmakers with edge and ambition, ones unafraid to subvert and disturb the status quo. This means directors such as David Lynch, Paul Thomas Anderson, Stanley Kubrick, David Croenenberg and Terry Gilliam.
Usually found in front of a screen trying to catch up on an ever-expanding watch list he also occasionally finds time to write. He tweets once in a while too: @thomasgrieve .