“Is it too bright for you?” Michael Mann asks as I take the seat across from him in his Santa Monica office, the late-afternoon sun streaming in through the wall-to-wall windows behind him. Since the last time I interviewed Mann, on the eve of the release of 2007’s Miami Vice, he has rearranged his office furniture so that his back is toward the panoramic view of the Santa Monica skyline and whoever is seated opposite his large glass desk is looking into the light. Mann notices my squinting and looks around for a solution, but the translucent shades are already lowered as far as they will go. “Ah, you’re stuck,” he says in his steel-cut Chicago accent.
A little retinal damage seems a small price to pay for an audience with Mann, who gets this critic’s vote as the most consistently exciting and innovative Hollywood filmmaker of the past decade, and whose 2009 John Dillinger biopic, Public Enemies (newly available on DVD and Blu-ray), ranks among his finest achievements. It is, I noted upon the film’s release last summer, a period gangster movie entirely unencumbered by the stiffness and obvious artifice that attend so much period filmmaking — an uncommonly vibrant, immersive experience that seems situated, like much of Mann’s work, at the intersection of commercial cinema and the avant-garde, of public entertainment and private obsession.
“The ambition was to place myself in the present of 1933 and to try to make that present as vivid as it would have been in 1933,” says Mann, who also adapted the Public Enemies screenplay with co-writers Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman from Bryan Burrough’s sprawling nonfiction book. “I wanted that intensity of experience, as if Dillinger is alive and seeing it, and to some extent we’re in Dillinger’s shoes. I find that exciting. That’s the journey I want to go on if I’m imagining myself in another life, or watching a movie. I want to believe this is happening.”
It is a feeling Mann intensified by shooting Public Enemies on high-definition video, a technology the director has been experimenting with since the dynamic opening montage of 2001’s Ali, and which he more fully embraced during production of the 2002 TV series Robbery Homicide Division and the feature films Collateral (2004) and Miami Vice. While much of the discussion of digital technology as a substitute for celluloid has centered around the ability to make video look indistinguishable from film, Mann has wholeheartedly embraced HD for its own proprietary qualities. Onscreen, the action rushes by in violent jolts and swooshes — the way, I wrote in my review, “things might look if Dillinger were still robbing banks today, his exploits captured by camera phones and broadcast over YouTube.”
To these eyes, Mann is at the forefront of formulating new ideas of cinematic beauty in the digital age, though you don’t have to search far on the Internet chatter boards to find some film purists deriding the look of Public Enemies as “ugly” and “cheap.” The panic of some aficionados of representational painting when confronted with the first abstract expressionist canvases comes immediately to mind.
“Primarily, I like the depth of field and some other intangibles I can’t quite put my finger on, but you know them when you see them,” says Mann, who initially planned to shoot Public Enemies on film before executing a side-by-side comparison with his longtime cinematographer Dante Spinotti. “It’s not an analogue of film — it’s totally different. Just like when they first used steel in architecture, initially it was to make buildings that took their form from masonry buildings, even though they didn’t have to. You didn’t have to have a pediment on the roof, but a lot of early modern architecture, particularly in New York, did.
“The advantage of the technology is in a search for its own aesthetic, not to try to duplicate what you can do on film. If I’m going to do that, I may as well shoot film.”
What I remember most about Mann from our previous encounter is his aversion to explanations and interpretations of his work, and the efforts of critics like myself to back him into an auteurist corner. When I suggest that the story of Dillinger (played in Public Enemies by Johnny Depp) and his FBI antagonist, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), seems a logical continuation of Mann’s careerlong interest in professional criminals and professional lawmen (Thief, Manhunter, Heat, Miami Vice), he counters that what really fascinates him are social mechanisms and characters at an existential crossroads. In the case of Public Enemies, he notes, “There’s this Darwinian kind of crush between two forces entering society at the same time. One is organized crime moving into a corporate-capitalism kind of phase: white-collar crime, prostitution, invasion of trade unions but primarily gambling. On the other side, you have J. Edgar Hoover’s innovations, such as the centralization of data, using the new technology that was available, like long-distance telephones. Hoover was doing exactly what Scotland Yard was doing in a country the size of Illinois, so it’s a major accomplishment to do it in the continental United States.”
Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes