“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.”
The same kind of conflicts, Mann says, attracted him to The Insider, his Oscar-nominated 1999 docudrama about a censored 60 Minutes exposé of the cigarette industry. “There you have big capital in terms of Big Tobacco, and the threat of Big Tobacco on CBS causes Mike Wallace and Don Hewitt to kind of betray what’s going on inside of them,” he says. “I’m taken with the self-examination we all go through, that characters go through, when they find themselves in crisis. So it may seem on the outside like these are very different movies, but to me those are the conflicts I’m attracted to.”
When I press Mann on the subject of his many criminal antiheroes, he finally allows, “There’s a little joke in Chicago that film directors who grow up in the suburbs make comedies, and directors who grow up in the city don’t. I went to high school a mile from the high school Billy Friedkin went to.”
He also admits that one of his formative creative experiences came on the set of his 1979 debut feature, The Jericho Mile, which was produced for American network television but, like Steven Spielberg’s Duel, distributed theatrically overseas. The film, the story of Rain Murphy, a prison lifer who trains to be an Olympic runner, was shot on location in California’s notorious Folsom State Prison, with more than two dozen actual convicts in speaking roles.
“One assumes that when you confine a human intelligence, spatially, in a 3-foot by 6-foot cell, that there will be some diminishing of capacities of personality,” Mann recalls. “In my experience, just the opposite happened, particularly among these guys. The spirit to express oneself and to be an individual, and to make sense of existence and your surroundings and your life, just amplifies when that happens. All detail becomes incredibly important — the crease in your pants becomes important; how your hair is becomes important; the tattoos you’re putting on your body become important; the 2 feet of space on the second bench in the prison yard — that’s mine, you know, and if someone else sits down there, it’s not by accident.
“Frequently, you’d meet people who had committed heinous crimes; some regretted them. Often, these were people who hadn’t even completed an eighth-grade education, and the most important questions to them were the real fundamental questions: How do I view the rest of my life that I’m going to spend here? What is existence? I met really bright, articulate people who were really wrestling with these problems. So you start to feel like the world that we know — I didn’t grow up in a comfortable, bourgeois environment but the world that most of us inhabit here — is somewhat anesthetized, that we just travel through life putting one foot in front of the other, having a value system that’s only temporary, having ambitions that we may hold but put off into the future, and then when the future shows up all of a sudden, it’s, ‘Ah, I guess it’s too late. It’s never going to happen.’ It feels almost robotic. And those are very much some of the thoughts I was having in ’79, when I was in Folsom doing The Jericho Mile.”
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That sense of heightened self-awareness courses through most of the characters Mann has written since, not least of all Dillinger, who upon being asked what he wants by his lover, the French-Native American coatcheck girl Billie Frechette, responds simply, “Everything. Right now.” Indeed, the feeling that Dillinger is living on borrowed time — and knows it — permeates Public Enemies, culminating in a hauntingly beautiful scene in which he spends the final moments before his assassination, at the movies, watching the 1934 MGM crime drama Manhattan Melodrama, starring Clark Gable and William Powell as childhood friends who grow up on opposite sides of the law. “Die the way you lived. Don’t drag it out,” says Gable shortly before being escorted to the electric chair — words that capture the essence of Dillinger, as well as Mann’s abiding interest in men who live by their own codes, outside the strictures of normal society.
“What was on my mind was really a lot more textual than that,” Mann says, once more setting me straight. “It goes like this: Imagine that Dillinger is in that movie theater, in real life. Manhattan Melodrama really is the movie he’s really watching. Clark Gable’s character, Blackie, is derived somewhat from Dillinger. Dillinger was the biggest news item, second only to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in 1934. He has headlines every two days in every single newspaper. Consequently, he affected the way people wrote movies. So, now you have the real John Dillinger watching Clark Gable deciding what’s going to happen in his life now that the rope’s run out. And we know that the rope’s run out for Dillinger, and Dillinger probably intuits the rope’s run out for him, because not 100 feet away are 13 FBI agents who are going to shoot him as soon as this movie’s over.
“Imagine that situation, and imagine the resonance of Gable’s words landing on Dillinger. This really happened! So, how aware was Dillinger — and this part I could only extrapolate and project — that there was nowhere to go. And then what’s his view? Am I going to rot in a jail cell, like Clark Gable says? Or should I go out the way I lived? You never know when you make a film how much of this stuff lands. But hopefully, if you’re engaged, you know that he’s getting some answers to some questions that are on the forefront. That kind of fatalism, that facing of death as the end of a really intense life, was something I wanted audiences to be aware of before he goes out the door. It’s a bit of a cheat, because there’s no drama possible in will-he-or-won’t-he survive the ambush. So the end of the movie, the conclusion of Dillinger’s life, ought to be about something other than that. If you’re me, and you put yourself in that position, and then you check out Manhattan Melodrama, you say, ‘Wow, he had to be thinking these same thoughts.’ And they’re Rain Murphy thoughts, if you like.”