Critic: 'Public Enemies' is a terrible indicator of how America has retreated from one of its greatest inventions--the movies.





On a Wednesday night in San Francisco, opening night, in a theater no more than half full, the truth was as inescapable as rain at a picnic. Johnny Depp just wasn't cutting it. He wasn't even making the attempt. Once again, Michael Mann had poured his nearly liquid talent over a gangster picture without ever thinking to ask himself why. That oddly vague title Public Enemies--why isn't it called Johnny D. or just Dillinger?--was turning into a startlingly detached and affectless movie. And the digital coverage, as elected by Mann and his photographer Dante Spinotti, was such that you couldn't even see the stuff happening. Public Enemies isn't a rapture of bodies breaking open, dropping to the ground and coupling in motel rooms--it is a blur. It's like the Michael Jackson rehearsal video for the concert tour that never would be when compared with the feral litheness of any of those great videos made when he was still free and uncaptured.

When the gangster film sinks into being merely a genre, a mine for nostalgia, period clothes, and 30s jazz, then it's exhibiting fatal symptoms. It has allowed itself to be prettified when it should be authentically shocking. If you look at the original Public Enemy (1931), there's that scene at the breakfast table with Mae Clarke as the rather sour-faced mistress and Cagney as the grumpy hood. What's he going to do? you ask yourself. He sees the grapefruit--we see it, too. Oh no, you say, he'd never do that in a movie! But he does it. He takes the cut fruit and jams it in the woman's face. It's one of the ecstatic moments in the gangster film, utterly shameless, in that our childish urge to be outlaw is summoned to the screen itself, and it is our energy that makes Mae's face sadder still. Take that! Fuck you, America!

The thrust of that last line--insolent yet full of camaraderie--is crucial. The American movie has always been about rapport: the unity of the packed house, us and U.S. all together, the huddled mass and the unreachable screen in wondrous harmony. The gangster film is unique in Hollywood in that it takes that aspiring "us" and gives it a whole range of fresh and dangerous dreams--you wanna see Tommy gun bullets meeting a body? You wanna see the banks blown apart? You wanna see the grapefruit hit the girl?--and then sneers in the public's face at the ridiculous "happy" and "positive" ending where law and order is restored and the huge illicit thrill is allegedly buried. The gangster film whispers in our ear, don't expect censorship or law and order to look after you. This thing called film is a very dangerous drug, but here it is for a quarter....



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