Thursday, October 29, 2009

Public Enemies by Michael Mann

I consider cinema to be both an art form as well as a medium of experience and provocation. Film lovers may differ in their appreciation of a film. Some consider the style, formal dexterity and virtuosity as more important. Others consider the message and the emotions a film can provoke to be primary. Most fall somewhere in the middle.

Public Enemies is a gangster film made by a director who is trying to further the frontiers of film art. There is nothing new, absolutely nothing about the human condition that is illustrated by this film. And moreover, if you watch this film with the expectation of an emotional involvement, you will again be sorely disappointed.

When we recently watched Au Hasard Balthazar, one of the fellow spectators found the film pretentious because, according to him, the director was merely indulging in exhibiting his formal expertise and the film did not raise any important questions. I consider this kind of viewer expectation to be valid, but to look for provocation and lessons in every event is a peculiar kind of narcissism as well.

It is important to meet a film on its own turf. To appreciate a film for what it is trying to do, rather than to be gratified when it fulfills one's expectations (even an expectation of depth), is, I think, an important milestone for a film lover.

Au Hasard Balthazar, for example, is a film about suffering, and in a way, everybody already knows that life can be tough. But Bresson is saying it in a way which is new. Like a painting, or a poem which expresses a familiar sentiment, it is therefore not important for what it depicts, but in how it depicts it.

Public Enemies could not be farther from the Bresson film in its film language. Michael Mann uses gunfire as a brush on his palette. He uses elegaic music, dark hues, operatic sounds, echoing shots in open spaces, reflection and brilliant contrasts, wide angle lenses, and so on, to create a visual feast. There is only a hint of a narrative in this film, which is one gunfight after another, and of a bunch of policemen chasing an iconic law breaker.

To meet a film like Public Enemies at its turf is to try to see what the director is trying to do, and then to judge whether he has been successful or not. In my book, formal experimentation is an admirable quality in itself, and if it works at least at some level to create something which can elicit a "Wow", it succeeds. The opening jailbreak sequence in the Michael Mann film is just one such instance which succeeds spectacularly.

This is a film which needs to be seen on a big screen with a sophisticated audio system. The themes raised by this film (the love of the outlaw, the seduction by a demonic force, the bravado of a life lived in the moment) are mundane as compared to the visual and aural artistry.

I was disappointed that Giovanni Ribisi was not given more screen time, but that is a small gripe.

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