Monday, July 6, 2009

John Dillinger, mon amour

Despite my resolution to do nothing, and do it well, all this long weekend, I was easily persuaded to put on pants, though just long enough to take in a movie. There have not been, to date, many summer movies to which we have looked forward. Every weekend, dear A. and I still carefully check the arts & entertainment flimsy in what used to be the local Sunday paper, and we watch and read reviews, but other than the compromise of a comedy here and there, we've stayed mainly to home. The action offerings and blockbusters have been specially unappealing. Neither my husband nor I can be made much to care about robots, even when they are chasing the adorable Shia LeBeouf, or fighting with that beady-eyed beauty, Christian Bale. But we have been waiting now some weeks to see Michael Mann's new gangster picture, "Public Enemies." Today we did.

The director has a curious affinity for beautiful men, curious in so far as he is presumably straight -- as every other aspect of his aesthetic would seem to confirm. He's awfully butch. The aptly named Mann, in his ironically titled "Heat," for example, surrounded his two iconic guy leads, Pacino and De Niro, with a whole cast of handsome men -- and a few awfully talented women in inferior parts -- and then coldly shot all the best boys shooting one another in very cold blood indeed. I've noticed that film and television critics, when reviewing Michael Mann's work, tend to emphasize his light; and he does like white light and blue moods, but, while I'm in no position to question the conclusions of the true cinema students, I do think they may have misplaced the emphasis in explaining his chill. After all, in "The Last of the Mohicans," for example, there's an awful lot of color. What there wasn't, in that picture, or in any of his others I can think of, was much room for the women on screen. Oh, they were there alright -- Madeleine Stowe got second billing after Daniel Day Lewis, I checked -- but Mann's women are ancillary to his plots, which are always all about what the men are up to when the women aren't around; robbing banks, for instance, or rescuing one another and, occasionally even one or more of the girls, though this seems something of a concession to heterosexuality, and frankly an annoyance to the rescuers, and rather beside the point, which is, after all, the guy stuff: the fightin', the drinkin', the warrin', the robbin'... the bonding.

Now I'm not suggesting a covertly queer agenda. Far from it. I've never seen anything in a Michael Mann show that would so much as hint at camp or effeminacy. In the first place, he hasn't any humor, beyond a bar-room kinda joshing, and the competitive cool of the rivalrous put-down -- you know, ball-busting. And as for his much analysed monochromatics -- that "Miami Vice" light, mentioned already -- and his eye for tailoring, there is always a quality of the men's magazine about the look of his quiet, dramatic, scenes, which tend to center on his male stars in perfect furious poise, in empty rooms or landscapes, as if posed to sell cognac, cuff links and cigars. Let's call this, the "Esquire Moment." Happens in every movie. Even Day Lewis, in buckskins, could be selling a new Pontiac, if they were still making Pontiacs in 1992, when Mann lights him in contemplative profile against, say, waterfall or woods. To avoid, consciously or not, any hint of homoeroticism, there is never any emotion in these moments that can't be captured in a medium long-shot: our troubled hero, just a guy, alone. For example, picture William Petersen in "Manhunter," -- Mann's unironically retitled adaptation of Thomas Harris' novel Red Dragon, (later, of course remade into a screamingly camp sequel to "Silence of the Lambs," so that the great Anthony Hopkins could parody, in painfully tight support garments and a wig, his Oscar winning turn as Hannibal Lector, the greatest aesthete monster since Wilde's Dorian Gray.) In Mann's version, the new serial killer, the cop, and the evil, jailed genius, are all just fellas, all a little or a lot crazy, but all tough customers, measuring their cocks against one another, but with no hint of flirtation. It's just, you know, a guy thing. The gloriously bow-legged, then still beautiful Perterson, in any of his anguished, "Esquire Moments," --dewy-eyed with horrible exhaustion, could be selling scotch, rather than contemplating the slaughter of his family. Nobody looses his cool. That all happened off stage, before the movie started. Cool.

In this latest Mann movie, which we thoroughly enjoyed, the director has again spent a fortune on lovely lighting, lovely period tailoring, shinny period cars and flaming period Thompson submachine guns, and he has, again, surrounded his beautiful leads with guys, guys, guys. The amazing Marion Cotillard, Oscar winning as Piaf, here as Dillinger's moll, gets third billing, after Christian Bale's rather wooden G Man. This is only fair. Guys require gals, in a Mann picture, just not that much, so dear Marion, in a wonderfully subtle performance of a woefully underwritten part, is left to play third fiddle, as it were, to the two fellas fighting, not for her, mind, but each other. And Bale, to give him his due, is an entirely suitable Mann actor: he can handle the cool, and the guns, and he sells the hell out of the clothes, even making jodhpurs, boots and flannel look great in the opening hunting sequence as he bags Pretty Boy Floyd -- the dreamy Channing Tatum, who, alas, has little to do in his few minutes on screen but die in beautiful profile.

We enjoy gangster pictures. And what better way to celebrate the 4th of July weekend? than with one of the few truly American cinematic genres (the other two, of course being westerns and musicals, funnily enough.) There are few American directors now working better suited to this material than Michael Mann. He knows his way around heartless bastards, cops and robbers. He does this kind of sustained mayhem better than almost anyone else. He clearly relishes the fedoras, the snappy slang and tough talk, the money, the murders, as do we. As I said, we enjoyed the picture. How could we not? Mann, again, does this kind of thing manfully well. But he does have a problem, this time.

Johnny Depp is the greatest actress of his generation. That's a compliment, in case you thought otherwise. Christian Bale, on the other hand, is handsome, talented, versatile within his range, but his range, to date, has all been within a strictly defined baritone. His strengths are strongest in reserve. He clenches, he simmers, he smolders wonderfully. He acts with his eyes, not his face. His Batman, for instance, is most convincing when noble, no easy thing, and least interesting when he doubts himself. He never seems, in the part, mad, as in street rat crazy, as Michael Keaton clearly played it for Tim Burton. Bale's Batman is just manfully pissed off. Bale's vulnerabilities are boyish, most effective when being resisted, as they have so superbly been since "Empire of the Sun," when he was in fact a boy, and where he established himself as a tough in what might have been a toff role (it was a little British schoolboy he played so marvelously against type in that movie, after all.) Even at his most tragic, as in "The Machinist," where he starved himself to play the perfect, hollow-eyed insomniac, Christian Bale is never more, nor less, than butchly baleful; he might die, but without a whimper or a hint of self-pity. He can be fascinating to watch, but never play-acts, never plays to the audience or winks. That was what made him so riveting as serial killer Patrick Bateman in "American Psycho," his brilliant choice to not be camp, in a very camp movie, to play a psychotic like a leading man -- Carry Grant with a chainsaw, just a little dead behind the eyes. That is what Bale does best, what he is, a superbly subtle leading man; handsome, inventive, and weirdly forthright, even when he plays against type.

Johnny Depp is not only the most beautiful man making movies nowadays, he is also the most subversively androgynous beauty in film since Marlene Dietrich, or Garbo. He seems to relate to the camera, not as the great film actors from Spencer Tracy to De Niro have done, as an adversarial presence to be ignored or resisted, but as an admirer, a lover, a conduit for deserved admiration, even adulation. He understands the camera, as the great female stars of yesteryear understood it: it is his only rival for our attention when he is on screen. But the movie is just a distraction. Whatever the shot, whatever the action, whatever the scene, no matter with whom, the camera is Depp's slave, as, by extension, are we all. He isn't a selfish actor. He plays beautifully with Cotillard, for instance, giving her our focus in almost every scene they have together. But the camera is his, and even with so strong a presence as hers, it seems obvious that focus is entirely his to give, or reclaim, as he is inevitably the most fascinating thing on the screen, no matter what is near him. This is why, I think, mature, masculine audiences can be a bit ambivalent in their appreciation of him, why, at almost exactly my own age, Depp has yet to lose his charm for teenagers, females and fags. His beauty is perpetually adolescent, as is his sly, antic, often anarchic humor. He seems untroubled, in even his most standard, serious roles, by gravity. His grace is balletic rather than athletic. He is strangely weightless, even, as in "Public Enemies," when he's playing the heavy. And he understands, as perhaps no other actor has in more than a generation, perhaps not since the screen goddesses of the Golden Age, that he is always fucking with us, in every sense, no matter what else he happens to be doing on screen.

This presents a rather unique challenge for a film-maker like Michael Mann. Depp is so obviously adaptive, so easily and eagerly made other than gorgeous by his directors, his friend Tim Burton indulging this giddiness more than any other, that it would not seem to require much to make of this chameleon something as simple as a tough guy. Obviously, he can wear the clothes. He looks great in a blue spot. He can believably fire a gun, jump on a running-board, seduce the hatcheck girl with a few terse lines, die bravely, so what's not to cast him as John Dillinger? But I wonder Mann didn't anticipate just how easily Depp can and all but inevitably must escape the restrictions of any story, however predictably constructed. And so he did, if only briefly, here and there, from "Public Enemies."

Depp's cool is never less than hot, however languidly he's playing. There's a febrile heat, wholly sexual, in even the safest scene between dudes, as in his brief confrontation with the FBI stiff, Bale, who finally gets Depp's Dillinger safely, if temporarily, behind bars. In a Michael Mann movie, their jabs at one another should play, as written, like fighting words, and so Christian Bale does play it, just as the director probably suggested, all clenched jaw and quiet resolve. But Depp's Dillinger, unlike the dandified lummox of historical record, doesn't crack wise, rather he purrs.

When Bale's Melvin Purvis smugly asks Dillinger, "What does keep you up at night?" The script gives Dillinger a funnily flat answer, but when Johnny Depp deadpans "Coffee," he follows the punchline with an almost involuntary twinkle, and so despite the mustache, or maybe inspired by it, he looks almost kittenish when he meets Bale's eye. In scene after scene, dreamy-eyed after making love to Cotillard, planning the next heist, or just resting in bed before a shoot-out, Depp is never rigidly still, there is always at least the potential for emotion, movement, sex, tears. It is a feminine energy; receptive, playful, even maternal, as when he desperately tends to what is obviously a friend's fatal gunshot wound. The stoicism is, like Garbo's, always assumed out of kindness rather than pride and, again like Garbo, it is the camera that is allowed a fleeting glimpse of anguish, pleasure or fear. From the camera, Depp hides nothing, from us.

His intelligence, like Dietrich's, is cunning and quick, largely physical, so that sarcasm, wit, even assumed weariness, is expressed as much by the shape of his shoulders and the line of his gesture as by anything he actually says, it is always self consciously deployed for effect, as just another means of seduction, as powerful as his hooded smile, or the graceful way he smooths his hair. Again like Dietrich, the audience is allowed to see that Depp's mind is always working, weighing possibilities, looking for the fun in what he's doing, that his superiority to the material is meant to communicate not disdain or rejection, but a wicked, and friendly mischievousness that is the opposite of distancing himself from the story, rather it is a way of inviting the audience to enjoy the movie with him, at another, less straightforwardly illusionary level. It is an inclusive impulse, a feminine irony that wants us to like him, even in an unlikeable character, a predictable story, or pedestrian movie. He may be in a gorilla suit, but he lets us know he's in there, hot and happy.

What is a Michael Mann to do with such a person? The director has otherwise cast, cut and scored his film just as if, say, Christian Bale was John Dillinger. What else could he do? Mann, for all his gifts, hasn't the vocabulary to play with such presence. Realistic, even bombastic actors, like Pacino, Mann can handle beautifully. He gets those guys. He knows how to can a ham. But what to do with Depp? It would seem that Mann has used whatever of his options seem the least disruptive. (I for one would love to see the takes of Depp that Mann doubtlessly rejected.) As a result, Depp doesn't quite pop as he usually does. But he is still Johnny Depp, so almost no scene is played by him strictly as written, or presumably quite as Mann may have intended. Depp's Dillinger, as a result, can seem strangely soft when he's clearly meant to be menacing, just as he can look devilish during the most predictably tender moments in any movie. Whatever glamour Mann might have intended in his gangster, Depp's regularly trumps it, so that we aren't so much fascinated by Mann's unlikely folk hero -- a regular guy with a hellbent for leather devil-may-care, -- as by a genuine star, playfully being uncharacteristically... well, common.

The moment in the film that not even Mann can avoid, much as he must have hated the way Depp played it, comes when poor Marion is hustled away to be brutally tortured by the cops, caught in a trap set for Dillinger, and Depp's tough guy must let her go. Back behind the wheel of his car, driving away to save himself, Depp is allowed, briefly, a full range of emotion. He starts the beat with all the stoic fury of a traditional Mann actor, but then Depp is alone with the camera, his tight grip on the steering wheel slackens, the mask is allowed to slip. Christian Bale would fight back these tears, quite properly, playing a thug like Dillinger, but Depp's face changes almost from frame to frame, he shares with the camera every welling thought, from despair to vengeance, to love, and finally resignation. The mask is resumed, or nearly so. It is a masterfully complete performance, lasting just seconds. Mann can't cut away from it without losing the scene entirely. Depp slips in a moment of genuine, passionate tragedy and, while wildly out of keeping with the character as written, and the film, it is a bravura quick turn, a star's close-up, a moment worthy of Garbo. Well worth the price of admission, just that.

Though as I said, we really did enjoy the film.

1 comment:

  1. Oh dear. This, being my first sub-literate comment from our old friend Anonymous, I think it ought to be preserved, don't you?