Thursday, July 2, 2009

Johnny Depp in Public Enemies

Mrs. Sgt. Tanuki and I saw this last night. We'll see Johnny Depp in anything, even if it doesn't look good, and this looked good.

I enjoyed it. I came away with my usual feeling about Michael Mann films (not that I've seen them all): that he's a master of visuals and violence on a par with Scorsese, but he doesn't try nearly as hard to convince us that there's something socially or artistically redeeming besides the visuals or beneath the violence. Whether that makes Mann or Scorsese the more honest filmmaker is something I think is open to debate, but I do tend to feel a bit uneasy with myself after enjoying a Michael Mann flick. And I did enjoy this one.

A couple of interesting links. Here Elliott Gorn tells you how historically accurate the film is or isn't. I like this line:
Good historical movies can't be entirely accurate (though Hollywood publicists constantly invite us to hold them to that standard, hoping that we'll mistake verisimilitude for history).
"Mistake verisimilitude for history": great phrase. True. But I will say that the verisimilitude of this film was dazzling, and very pleasurable.

This review by Stephanie Zacharek made me perk up for a minute, because she calls it
a folk song rendered in visual shards instead of notes, hopscotching through parts of the Midwest as it follows Dillinger's numerous bank robberies and evasions.
Is she right? The folk song that immediately jumps to my mind, because its subject appears briefly in the film, is "Pretty Boy Floyd" by Woody Guthrie. (Here's Guthrie singing it, and here's Bob Dylan singing the bejeezus out of it.) And if this is any indication (and I'm game for questioning whether any song to which we can attach an author can really be called "folk" - let's give credit where credit's due), then a folk song about these events would have had a less ambiguous take on Dillinger. Either he's a hero or a villain, a Robin Hood or a repentant sinner, or perhaps even all of that, but whatever, you wouldn't have to wonder much what the song thought, or wanted you to think.

But I did wonder through this film exactly what we were supposed to make of Dillinger. And I think that's kind of the point. Certainly that's the point of Johnny Depp's performance, which is closer to the vest than he's played in ages. There's that wonderful little speech he makes to Billie, where he sums up his life in about twenty-five words, then says, "What else do you need to know?" Well, everything, and maybe nothing. Maybe nothing can explain him; maybe nothing more than the Zen-like, Wang Yangming-like direct action approach to life that Clark Gable hints at in that last speech in Manhattan Melodrama ("die like you lived, all of a sudden"). Mann shows Dillinger watching this, and he gives a little smile of recognition, and then he goes and gets shot. But is that all the movie's trying to do with him?

I guess it's all about brands of ambiguity. I'm afraid I made it sound there like I think folk songs are simple, and they aren't: the expression is usually simple, but there's psychological complexity to make your head spin, moral profundity to make your heart sink, and enough resonant ambiguity to stun a Tuvan throat singer. But I came out of this film unsure of how I felt, and unsure if that insecurity was an artistically productive one.

But I sure as shooting enjoyed it.

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