Saturday, August 8, 2009

"As They Say In Italy These Days, Take Off The White Gloves!" Public Enemies, Number One

In the opening, it's four years into the great depression, we're at the height of Dillinger's bask in transgressive, soon to be vestigial glory and he's paying a visit to Prison. He's being thrown back in to the place that gave him his backbone, that introduced him to the folks that would stick by him when his own pops didn't know any better than raising him by the knuckles. The cops, by the nightstick. But here it's not Dillinger's face that resonates the years behind bars, but a limp-struck elder inmate peg-legging a package down the assembly line with grit and determination. On his face is the law's reign, the penitentiary's manipulative grind, the years lost as a pliable doll for experimental normalization. What's in the box is his way out, and like in all other Mann films, from Thief to Heat to the Insider, it's who he's sharing it with that makes its potential success viable.

Thus, Dillinger ain't there to do time, but to keep the clock running, it's a jailbreak. The box has guns, and the inmates have manpower. If anyone falls out of line it's not just their ass but everyone they're running with. Someone in on the break but out on the way to do things wails on a guard despite Dillinger's calls for restraint, leading to a gunshot and a near-botch that makes the ordeal messier than it should have been. Like many a Mann film, the objective is done, but not without damage. It ends with Dillinger dragging an inmate who's been shot in the back out the door of his car, reading each other's eyes, acknowledging their mortality and letting go.

In the following scene Dillinger leaves a safehouse/farmland, his coattail, collar desperately pleaded with by a girl that lives there, she doesn't want to stay, she wants him to take her along. The place is broken down, it's in the middle of nowhere, and she'd rather be on the run from the law than living a destitute and meandering existence scraping by like a shovel at a cemetary. Nothing more really needs to be said, the prisoners were clamoring to get the fuck out, and the first people they meet on the outside don't feel much freedom either.

First time I saw public enemies I had just come out of a friend's college graduation party where in the course of an hour or so I downed three or four mojitos before venturing forth. Hazy, uncomfortable, and with couldn't care either way company, it was a genuinely unpleasant experience that caused flaw-baiting to be my M.O. The digital cinematography came off shaky and drained and left me nauseous (i'm pretty sure that was an half-drunken side-effect, because this time the images burst forth with searing clarity). Also, I made the mistake of reading the first 60 pages of the book the movie's based on, which was stupid, because the movie gets its thrust from Mann and everything that name brings to mind. It felt underwritten, schematic, and even disingenuous. According to the person who's book the movie's source material is apparently indebted to, it is (as well as wikipedia). But that's besides the point, and more to the point, whatever you're looking for. It's there. Maybe not in the most labored exposition, but still there.

Let's take the use of Ten Million Slaves as a theme song. Otis Taylor grew up playing the banjo, but for a time dissociated himself from it when finding out its African roots were misappropriated by whites through bluegrass minstrel shows. The banjo is heavily featured on the song, appropriately, about uprooted, shackled Africans and their grounded, lost homelessness. It's told by a narrator whose dire modern circumstances are combated by reminding himself that it was worse for his ancestors, but still is well aware of the prospect that in the end he's all alone. Mann is meticulous in his set-ups, it most likely was not just used because the song has the refrain "don't know where they're going, don't know where they've been" and retires at lone wolf despondency. The film is underpopulated by black characters except for a backup breakout inmate and a safehouse owner, but the film's focus on an increasingly blurry forward motion where the law reigns on neither side of the coin and spins deliriously out of control brings up something more far-reaching. That it was once a slave-owning country is something I don't think is lost on it, that the opportunistic pursuit of pawns is the order of the day, that the crime networks are poor kids shackled by the prison system and written out of societal acceptance into a den of confidants is also something I don't think is lost on it, it's all even cheekily referenced in a courthouse sequence with a precautionarily shackled Dillinger leading to farcical, guilt-baiting proclamations by his lawyer each with a twinge of the real.

Partially disserviced, maybe a little. Purvis in real life was a fair-haired, womanizing southern charmer with a black manservant, his own pad in a time where all his partners were cooped up six to a place, his own horse at a stable and an aristocratic sense of entitlement. He was a joker in the depression's face, a skillful goon on the right side of the law, and could have been a different kind of worthy equal to Depp's characterization of Dillinger. I was sad those aspects of him were overlooked but came to terms with what Mann gave us instead. Bale's Purvis is dark, gloomy, with just enough sharp insight to both notice the overhwelmingly gaping holes in J. Edgar Hoover's superficially taut but wholly inept force and not be swallowed up by them. He is constantly failed by his men, and his superior wants nothing of him but a photo op and a tighter grip...on power (according to the book speculation arose that that desire went unrequited for Purvis as well).

Both Dillinger and Purvis require men who are not just loyal but on the same footing with an eye for what they can't account for, so that when they've got your back they've got your head too. Baby Face Nelson's foul, selfish erratics put Dillinger and others in danger. Dillinger's whole gangster scene is being bought out by reconfigured criminality, the gameplanning associates setting their sights on a monopolization of the gambling empire with shut outs mirroring the survivalist industrialism that widened the income gap in inventive new ways (anti-trust, shmanti-trust!). On the side of Purvis, he has to call in older, experienced gents to see the job through, even then he's continuously faced with potential disillusionment by a case whose real-world ramifications have dwindling import when it comes to who he's has chasing but serious concern when it comes to who he's chasing them for.

Hoover's real start was as an aid to Alexander Mitchell Palmer in the late 1910's red scare that rid the U.S. of its radical bent. The Emma Goldman's and Alexander Berkman's, wobblies and suspected workers were either jailed (10,000 by 1920) or deported, the one legit candidate for a real life socialist party in the states was jailed into discontinuity. Hoover's known for his sabotage of the civil rights movement in the name of red-baiting supremacy, but his work was already done for him by the time he was ready to make a name for himself. When we first see him in the film he's almost done for, a goof with an eye for sharp threads (his men are models, not cops) and front page composition (Purvis is photo-opped into his job as taskforce leader) with no clue about law enforcement and in desperate need of a fix for legitimacy. In a bid to federalize his bureau of investigation he's going to latch onto the public zeitgeist and shift the tides against folk heroes in the making. He's rarely on screen but every appearance makes clearer his lack of interest in public security and increasing interest in the power it avails.

A key moment comes after yet another embarrassment, and this time the law isn't the other side of criminality, instead it mirrors its logical conclusion, fascism. Hoover admonishes his men and tells them to step their game up, his point of reference, Moussolini. His accent even switches into correlative German lunacy. "As they say in Italy these days, take off the white gloves!" And so continues the movie's descent into power's excess as the main goal becomes to break down the resistance, turn people against each other, and rough up whoever doesn't comply in ways that would end up in court if not for surreptitious impunity.

The movie's rep in some places makes it out to be a hollowed out bullet, with the powder depleted and the shell lodged red-dry in crumpled disuse. It's an apt metaphor for the seemingly unsensational depiction of the end of an era, one of folkloric gangsters with cultivated populist reputations, who despite not redistributing any wealth instead represented luxuriously selfish transgressions, hitting up the banks that turned people out and taking the slice only the upper crust and the powers that be could afford. Of course the myth would remain, but the direct interaction with mythic progenitors would dissolve. But the movie is vital, it's emotional, alternately charming and depressing, but never static.

Consider the central relationship between Dillinger and Billie Freschette. Her insecurities are a startlingly astute observation of class differences and even ethnic ones. She willingly dishes out her French half but hesitantly intones her Native American one. Dillinger's fascination with her leads to her fascination with his fascination, dumbfounded at its intersection with her humble and working class coat-girl trappings. Working in a nightclub and waiting on the well-to-do places her in direct contact with what she doesn't have as well as the glacial indifference and insensitivity afforded someone of her background. We don't need to see her past to gather how much damage her merely functional use in other's lives has done on her psyche.

A Mann motif from even before Thief but accentuated succinctly by Neil McCauley in Heat is the rule "Don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner." Mann being a multi-layering parallelist this inadvertently applies not just to the criminals but the cops that follow them as well, and the unfortunate byproducts, the repercussions it leaves on their immediate intimates. Here Dillinger intends to sweep Billie up into the fold, alleviating her insecurities by allowing his variation on the theme. When she points out the snobby disregard of co-patrons at a fancy restaurant to her three dollar dress and its socio-economic implications he tells her it doesn't matter where anyone's from, it's where they're going and sooner or later she's the next moment in a precarious and perilously linear game of connect the dots.

Billie isn't a cop or a criminal but like Dillinger her life was also moment to moment even before she met him. It's not entirely insightful as to the full psychology behind her decision to join a bombastically romantic brute who beats up customers to let her know her new, liberated job is to be his girl, but whether the awfully insistent stranger's violence against an impatient customer seems extendable to her is something that, to her, might have come off as besides the point and that violence, potentially, a cathartic release her precarious allegiance to coat-girl duties doesn't afford her the opportunity to experience.

Dillinger's behavior in the first half of their relationship simultaneously reeks of testy macho possessiveness and earnestly romantic devotion. But it's not taken for granted. Like Caan’s Thief pulling meathead moves on a waitress in a one-shot bid to secure the idyllic lifeplan whose dull pleasantries he fought for against the violent dehumanization of prison. Like Farrel’s Crockett holding back tears while pupil-darting insecure in a lovelocked stare with Gong Li, undergoing self-sabotage with platitudes about impossibilities. The posturing isn’t a dick-swinging writing flaw, but a central component to the characters’ construction. Mann is well aware, and his men in denial of how much bullshit their frosty, bravura exterior lets slip, what roiling, mushy vulnerabilities lay repressed for varied perceptions on getting the job done (for what? for whom?). Here Mann has Depp’s Dillinger actually break down and fucking cry for a minute. He has them swearing devotion and future promises at each other while playfully sitting in a bed of snow like it was Eternal Sunshine without the anti-Kate Winslet (in this case, Marion Cotillard) vibe in the writing.

Another way standard notions of masculinity are subverted is in the inter-male relations and the way Mann portrays them. I'm not going to full on rah rah latent homosexuality because I think that's partially a cop-out and nearly obfuscates a much larger concern, which is the complications that arise from deep yearnings fiercly held back in the face of falling on the wrong side of both gender and orientation binaries. In Thief, there's these puppy eyes between Caan and his prison mentor in the penitentiary phone booth. They try not to look away, and are constantly following each other's pupils. There's a deep love there. People who dismissed risible dialogue in Vice were missing the deep facial intonations and the repressed frustrations batted between Crockett and Tubbs. Half their dialogue is in their faces, and in those gestures are couple's spats and fraternal bonds either over separation anxiety or cocking guns. In Public Enemies there's a scene where Dillinger holds onto his right hand man as he's dying, the words imparted are of heavy import, but there's undulating breathing and tenacity in their interlocking gaze. That there might be an undercurrent of "if this were another time, another place, maybe the Roman army" is not lost, but to zero in on that as the solely legitimate explanation would be a disservice to the layers.

Finally, as regards precarious postures and their vulnerable undertow, when Dillinger locks eyes with a gangster fable's motto to "die the way you live" it's just as much scared shit, know nothing else now intuition as fully aware ascension. The movie's a fever dream, but not one that withers away once the sun peels your eyelids back. Its historical accuracy is less important than its canonical discourse with gangster lore and Mann's continued dissection of his world philosophy, and as such its ideas and the way it offers them are timeless.