Tag Archives: Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Public Enemies

Depp pitt

There is a lot that could be said about Public Enemies—a lot, for example, about the HD digital photography which is perhaps the most polarizing aspect of the film for many audiences. For a really insightful take on the visual style of the film, I recommend Manohla Dargis’ review for The New York Times (a review I happen to totally agree with).

I enjoyed the film. It is beautiful to look at and a fascinating rendering of the criminal underworld. It is definitely a Michael Mann film, and thoroughly comfortable in the company of his other crime classics like Heat or Collateral.

The film is about John Dillinger—an iconic American criminal in the most hardened sense of the word. The film is about his criminal behavior and his continual outrunning of the authorities (J. Edgar Hoover, G-Men, Christian Bale, and some no-nonsense Texan lawmen), but it’s also about his persona. He was a celebrity, a fashionable womanizer, a face every American knew, feared, and in some ways respected.

As Dillinger, Johnny Depp unsurprisingly hits the bullseye. Some will argue that his acting in this film is “minor Depp” and consists mainly of iconic posing, Tommy-gun shooting and simply looking suave and cool in front of Mann’s numerous high-def close-ups. But that is exactly the point. Depp’s Dillinger is incredibly self-aware and comfortable in the spotlight, if not in his own skin. The extent to which he has a stable sense of his own identity is inextricably tied to his celebrity and criminal clout. As long as he is on the run, robbing banks, and stealthily usurping the standards of class and law, he knows who he is. His image on the “Public Enemy #1” posters is exactly how he wants to conceive of himself.

Depp’s Dillinger in Public Enemies feels very similar to Brad Pitt’s Jesse James in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Both actors play these criminal icons in understated ways that emphasize visual grandeur and iconic posturing. Both films are about American crime, celebrity, and how we can or cannot relate to larger-than-life antiheroes. Both films have gun battles and death and the slow killing-off of the villainous allies and gang buddies of the central figures. Both end with the iconic men being shot from behind in appropriately dramatic (and yet almost anticlimactic) fashion.

And like Brad Pitt’s Jesse James, Depp’s Dillinger never feels completely relatable; we never get a full or deep sense of who he is or what exactly motivates his criminal impulses. All we know is that Depp, like James, enjoys being bad. He doesn’t know how to be good—though there are glimpses (subtle flinches of the eye, moments of emotion, etc) when we can see that he wants to be good or regrets ever turning to the dark side. We know he loves a woman, for example (Marion Cotillard), and that he likes baseball, movies, good clothes, and fast cars. But beyond that we are in the dark about his character—if only because he himself is not sure of who or why he is.

There are numerous times in the film where he says something about how he only cares about the now—having fun in the present. And this makes sense for a person like him. The past is full of darkness, evil-doing, and lost innocence. The future contains an almost certainly ugly end to his criminal free-for-all. The present is the only place he can exist, and that is one of the reasons why he is such a hard character to read. His identity comes only through his situation and circumstance. It is not deeply rooted. It only comes through the immediate impression he gives off to bystanders, cops, fellow criminals, and everyday people who see his face on posters and FBI newsreel footage.

In this way I think Mann’s unorthodox photography in the film makes perfect sense. People have complained that the HD digital, handheld look of the film is anachronistic and too distracting. It undercuts the believability of the 30s era milieu and brings too much attention to itself, they say.

But this is indeed the point. Depp’s Dillinger is best—indeed only—understood through the camera lenses and the perceptions of external observers. Mann underscores this by making it extraordinarily clear that this is a movie, that you are viewing these people through a camera’s rendering—a camera that is moving, present and perceptive in ways that neither you nor Dillinger could ever be. It is intrusively hyper-realistic and reveals more about Dillinger than perhaps he even knew of himself, which is the reason why a film like this is so valid and so haunting.

On one hand, the film is complicit in the maintenance of Dillinger’s mythic iconography. One gets the sense that if a team of HD digital cinematographers were sent back to 1933 to follow Dillinger around, Dillinger would glory in the attention and feel most himself in front of the hyper-attentive, deeply probing cameras. But—as with Jesse James—the conspicuously cinematic mediation of the man’s myth, especially via the sometimes brutal and unforgiving form of HD, also serves to demythologize. It unsaddles the epic story of its more romantic adornments and florid embellishments, leaving us with a dark, cold, hard-edged reality that feels far from the storybook world of gangs-and-guns adventure in which Dillinger and James would probably want to be remembered.

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Ten Slow Films Worth Slogging Through

One of the most common complaints I hear from others when they watch the “art” films I recommend is that they are “too slow.” Indeed, it seems that our increasingly hyperactive, fast-paced culture considers any film paced slower than a John Grisham novel to be impossibly languorous. Thus, it’s an uphill battle to win over converts to such films as Flight of the Red Balloon (which I reviewed earlier this week), or anything from directors like Terrence Malick or Gus Van Sant. Still, I think that if people try to sit through and attend to the beauties of these films, they will find them ultimately rewarding. Film as art (as in any art form) requires active attention and openness on the part of the audience. There are a lot of wonderful films out there that require some patience to sit through, but that reward the viewer immensely. Here are just a few (ordered by year):

Diary of a Country Priest (1954) – Robert Bresson
Bresson is one of the most widely acclaimed French auteurs, but his films are among the hardest to watch. They are about as far from the conventional Hollywood narrative as you can get. Still, there is a striking authenticity and meditative realism to the mundane worlds he portrays—especially in this beautiful film about the everyday struggles of a young priest in rural France.

Scenes From a Marriage (1973) – Ingmar Bergman
Though it is broken up into segments, this 167 minute domestic drama seems to go on and on, and in true Bergman fashion, it is an arduous, methodical descent into nihilistic flagellation. Nevertheless, the performances and themes here are utterly compelling and strikingly rendered by one of cinema’s greatest artists.

Paris, Texas (1984) – Wim Wenders
Like Gerry (see below…), this classic Wim Wenders film provides a captivating “wandering through the dessert” experience. It’s a dry, dusty, subdued sort of existential western. Harry Dean Stanton plays a broken down man, wandering the Texas landscape in search of himself. There are few words in the film, and even fewer conventions of Hollywood storytelling. But it is a memorable experience nonetheless.

Down by Law (1986) – Jim Jarmusch
This is a challenging film. More a mood piece than anything else (set in the Louisiana bayou), Down by Law eschews traditional plot and character development in favor of visual and sonic oddity. Quirkiness rarely makes for a compelling two hour experience, but this film is an exception: it’s a joy to watch. The unexpected trio of John Lurie, Tom Waits, and Roberto Benigni are unforgettable in this film—one of Jarmusch’s best.

The Thin Red Line (1998) – Terrence Malick
The challenging thing for audiences who watch The Thin Red Line is that they’ve watched too many war movies, and the understanding is that a war movie should be exciting, action-packed, and emotionally-wrenching. Personally I think Terrence Malick’s film is as emotionally-wrenching as any film I’ve ever seen, just not in the traditional ways. Give this complicated film a chance. It’s one of the most beautiful ever made.

Gerry (2002) – Gus Van Sant
This film pushes the limits of even the most patient filmgoer. The whole thing is essentially a silent observation of two hikers (Matt Damon and Casey Affleck) who get lost in the unforgiving desserts of the American Southwest. There are scant more than a couple dozen lines of dialogue to be found in its 103 minutes, nothing like a “plot” to speak of, and yet—and yet—something about Gerry is utterly spellbinding.

The Son (2002) – Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
“Slow” could be a designation given most all Dardenne Bros films, but they are all worth sitting through. The Belgian filmmakers have a way of withholding any catharsis for the audience until the final moments of their films, and never is this more clearly exhibited than in The Son, a beautiful relationship portrait of fathers and sons.

The Five Obstructions (2003) – Jorgen Leth and Lars von Trier
There were a number of Lars von Trier films I considered for this list (Dogville, The Element of Crime, etc), but I settled on this film—a documentary jointly made with Jorgen Leth—because, well, I think it needs to be seen. I’m actually not sure how anyone could call this film “boring,” but the sheer conceptual headiness of it is certainly unpalatable to many. Still, Obstructions is totally unique and features a stunning “twist” ending—if you make it that far.

Into Great Silence (Two-Disc Set) (2007) – Philip Gröning

This film is the exact opposite of “commercial” cinema. It is nearly three hours long, pretty much silent, actionless, and repetitive. But it is a documentary about the ascetic life of monks, and as such, it should be a challenge to watch. But if you let yourself be still, silent, and contemplate just what it is you are watching, then Into Great Silence can become more than cinema. It can be a truly worshipful experience.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) – Andrew Dominik
The most recent addition to this list goes to last fall’s Jesse James “biopic,” which turns out to be more a phenomenological contemplation than a narrative of the famous bandit’s life. Indeed, the 160 minute film leaves many wondering “when are the great shootouts and action sequences going to come?” Answer: never. But instead, you get an immersive, mood-driven photo essay; and again, a wonderful coda sequence at the end.