Cinephilia has been so distorted in contemporary movie culture that it has led to the repugnant Chilean film Tony Manero—a Cannes Film Festival selection that was also widely praised at last fall’s New York Film Festival. In Tony Manero, a middle-aged plebian named Raúl Peralta Paredes O (played by Alfredo Castro) is so infatuated with the 1977 Saturday Night Fever that he identifies with the white-suited, disco-dancing character played by John Travolta. The twist is that Raúl prepares for a TV contest featuring celebrity-impersonators while pursuing his secret passion as a serial killer. Problem is, this is not a comedy. Writer-director Pablo Larraín means to indict cinephilia as a symptom of America’s dangerous colonialism. A key scene features Raul’s blank stare at a theatrical showing of Saturday Night Fever, pathetically internalizing Travolta’s working-class anomie—but perverting it.
This could be a sign of film culture’s decline because a similar scene occurs when Michael Mann’s noxious Public Enemies climaxes with Johnny Depp’s John Dillinger in a movie theater watching the Clark Gable gangster film Manhattan Melodrama with bland detachment on his mug. Both these films misrepresent what movies offer and how a viewer receives their images and messages. Although Tony Manero is set in 1978, Raúl’s obsession could be over anything: toy trains, supermarkets or Star Wars. Larraín disregards how culture is used as an outlet for social misfits and how American pop is usually affectionately embraced.
Larraín’s grungy diatribe never lets up, not even during the pathetic TV dance trials. The only humorous moment is inadvertent: before young co-worker, Goyo (Héctor Morales) enters the same TV contest, Raúl steals Goyo’s white suit and, more neatly than his random killings, defecates all over it. But it’s really Larraín dumping on all those benighted people who bought leisure suits in response to Travolta’s embodiment of working-class aspiration.
Michael Mann’s cinephilia amounts to manure. He’s hero to B-movie geeks who pretend that they’re subverting the pretenses of serious A-movies, yet no director is more ostentatious or self-aggrandizing than Mann.
In the opening image of the Indiana State Penitentiary where Dillinger breaks out in 1933, portentously looming clouds indicate Mann’s condescension to the masses. He miscalculates the gangster genre, embellishing it as an art thing and lending cosmic significance to Dillinger’s lawlessness.
Public Enemies tries to out-grandiose De Palma’s lavish The Untouchables but pop-satirist De Palma understood genre. Mann’s just a dilettante. There’s no narrative pulse; this is a show-offy, contemplative crime movie, which means the genre is deadened from the get-go. Long sequences of Dillinger’s heists and breakouts contrast G-Man Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) in drawn-out pursuit sequences. Even the shoot-outs seem desultory rather than urgent. Not good guys vs. bad guys, but equalizing crime and virtue, chaos and order. Mann’s decision to delete music from the combat scenes (intended to win critical plaudits) creates a dull pretentiousness.
Fact is, Public Enemies is an aesthetic debacle. Dante Spinotti gives Mann his requisite gaudiness, but their digital-videography is horrendous: unnaturally ripe colors, exteriors over-bright and the interiors over-dark. The chiaroscuro has grainy shadows with drab, greenish tinge that loses humans’ natural reddish undertone.
But back to Mann’s cinephilia moment: Dillinger only smiles when watching Clark Gable advise, “Die the way you lived. All of a sudden.” That line is less interesting than the contrasting digital-video reproduction of Manhattan Melodrama’s celluloid imagery. Mann not only lacks the narrative efficiency of old genre filmmaking, Public Enemies’ look inspires the opposite of movie love.
Directed by Pablo Larraín
Runtime: 98 min.
Directed by Michael Mann
Runtime: 140 min.
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