Thu 09 Jul
“Public Enemies,” the new film about the notorious bank robber John Dillinger, is an amazing movie. Then again, I freely confess a predisposition to liking the work of its director, Michael Mann. I’ve seen nearly every movie he’s released, and there’s not a single one of them that I’ve found to be less than completely engrossing.
Over the course of his career, Mann has produced a taut, stylistic and often brutally impersonal filmography that seems most interested in the concept of work. His movies are preoccupied with how men (almost always men) of extraordinary skills practice their craft — and the price they must pay for doing so. “Public Enemies” is no exception, and for those who are expecting a florid character portrait set in a bygone era, make no mistake: this movie is about how John Dillinger robbed banks and about how G-men hunted him down, and only that. It is resolutely disinterested in its principal subjects’ family backgrounds, romantic histories or psychological makeups.
In this way, “Public Enemies,” continues Mann’s ongoing exploration of a stark, almost ascetic kind of narrative sensibility. With a nearly impudent disregard for common storytelling conventions, the director has in recent years taken to gutting from his works anything and everything that might be superfluous to the forward momentum of his core narratives. He affords his characters practically no backstory or prehistory, his plots are reduced to the threadbare, and subplots are often extracted altogether. Including “Public Enemies,” his past three movies are so elemental and succinct (not necessarily in running time, but in scope) that they’re just as much like episodes within a larger series of events as wholly contained feature films of their own.
What’s left out from these movies is as important and beautiful as what’s included. They’re exercises in doing as much as possible with as little as possible, implying whole swaths of narrative information by allowing the audience to extrapolate events, details, backstories and subplots from only the barest hints of their presence. In fact, what Mann is doing here (and why I am so obviously drawn to this sensibility) is designing these stories — not just their presentation but more fundamentally their construction, too — and doing so in a way that evokes many of the very same things that thrill me about design.
Mann employs an architectural approach that establishes a plot framework but declines to fill every nook and cranny. He uses very few elements to suggest many more, and in so doing constructs a kind of environment that the audience experiences rather than a narrative account that the audience observes. This is very much minimalism and experience design at work; it just happens to star Johnny Depp, is all.
If you find this argument I’m making intriguing but, like many people in these recessionary times, your theatergoing habits are in decline, then you’re in luck. “Public Enemies” is a terrific movie, but in its practice of cinematic minimalism, it doesn’t quite top Mann’s previous feature film, which is available now through the usual rental and retail channels: the box office underperformer “Miami Vice” is perhaps the director’s finest film of the past decade.
People laugh when I tell them how good of a movie “Miami Vice” is, which is understandable. It has two artistically suspect characteristics: first, a cultural legacy inherited from its original television incarnation that, while fondly remembered, is taken not very seriously at all; and second, two leading stars who have long flirted with overexposure and broad hamminess. Let’s face it: it’s called “Miami Vice” and it stars Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx. That’s enough to keep most right thinking people away.
Still, for all of the reasons I outlined above, “Miami Vice” is fascinating filmmaking, and fascinating narrative design too. More so even than “Public Enemies,” it is resolutely schematic in the way it unwinds its tale. Watch it, and you’ll notice how little is really revealed about any of its characters, how little it lingers on any of its locales or settings, and even how it seems to suggest that its sequence of events takes place immediately after many preceding events that have been omitted entirely — it would’ve made a certain kind of sense to have titled it “Miami Vice: Episode 2” instead. And yet, the film draws you in instantly, throwing you into the middle of its events and its universe, and sweeping you along with its sustained tidal wave of action. I saw it three times in theaters.
I admit though that this is not everyone’s cup of tea. A fully fleshed-out narrative can be quite comforting, and a narrative that is relentlessly withholding can be quite off-putting. All the same, I think there’s something absorbing about the ideas that Mann is playing with; they show that design thinking, which is not typically applicable to the way film narrative is constructed, can lead to truly distinctive and gripping results. I’m almost certain, too, that this kind of storytelling points to the way more and more directors will make films in the future. (Already, some film writers regard “Miami Vice” to be among the best films of the last decade.) Over time, Mann’s ideas will look more and more prescient, and and these movies will become more and more highly regarded. That tends to happen with good design.