Directed by Pablo Larraín
Runtime: 98 min.
Directed by Michael Mann
Runtime: 140 min.
CINEPHILIA, MEANING “love of cinema,” has been well served by the extraordinary range of good films released so far this year. As usual, it’s not the big hits or consensus favorites that make a film-lover want to go back to the movies; it’s the films most critics ignore first time around (but that you might catch belatedly on DVD) that confirm why movies matter.
The richest films so far in 2009 still await a courageous distributor after knockout premieres at local festivals: Julián Hernández’s Raging Sun, Raging Sky, an astonishing epic exploration of desire which reclaims the cinematic passion misunderstood since Scorsese’s 1980 Overwrought Bull. André Téchiné’s The Girl on the Train took on France’s multiculti confusion by reattaching its needy characters’ disconnects.
The rest of the half-year’s best fought the custom of highly promoted disposable product by offering meaning: Jan Troell’s Everlasting Moments found beauty, profundity and art in family life’s pressure cooker. Gtz Spielmann’s lonely man tale, Revanche, took the darkness cliché out of film noir.Through archival footage,Terence Davies’ Of Time and the City recreated mid-20th century Liverpool as the birthplace of his sensibility. Sacha Gervasi’s Anvil:The Story of Anvil corrected the mockumentary, finding heart in two guys who believed in the art of heavy metal.
Pierre Morel’s Taken, a streamlined action/family movie, was short, sweetly brutal and moral. Henry Selik’s Coraline used oddly beautiful, almost tactile, 3-D animation for a story about childhood anxieties to mature effect. Kyle Newman’s Fanboys saw through the immaturity that rools film culture to the deeper need for friendship.
Brillante Mendoza’s Serbis observed the struggle for individual fulfillment in a family-run porn theater; it was an inspired, self-contained critique. In Doris Dorrie’s Cherry Blossoms, a widower’s pledge to his wife and search for identity revealed social complexities that the similarly plotted Up sentimentally cartooned. And Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen’s live-action cartoon revived the awe of movie watching.
But the finest American films so far are Benny Boom’s Next Day Air, a serious comedy about what money does to community, it’s the best August Wilson movie we’re ever likely to get. Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor’s Crank 2: High Voltage is an action sequel that ramps-up the culture of over-stimulation. Its bizarre, disorienting satire of action-movie ruthlessness was also auto-critique, avantgarde enough to deserve showing at the Whitney Museum. All these films had overlapping themes and a common effort to make cinematic sense of life.They also expose the lies in this week’s new releases Tony Manero and Public Enemies.
Cinephilia—the smart-about-movies concept about the love of film—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 middleaged 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. Saturday Night Fever itself doesn’t have much critical standing, yet it remains popular for its working-class humility. It’s shocking how easily some critics and programmers swallow anti-American rhetoric. One of Raúl’s victims mentions, “Pinochet has blue eyes,” and the dictator’s name not only pushes buttons for limousine liberals but also their contempt for lower classes (despite SNF evoking the neorealist empathy of Fellini’s Variety Lights). Raúl isn’t a cinephile; he’s indifferent to coming attraction posters of Luna, Chinatown, Grease and Aguirre,The Wrath of God. Yet critics willingly accept Larraín’s notion that a psychopath who can’t comprehend a film’s clearly stated humanist message is proof of Imperialist evil.
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.
There’s more truth in YouTube clips of that hilarious Japanese TV show where celebrity lookalikes impersonate the We Are The World music video. But Larraín emphasizes the drabness of life in Chile, a political ploy recalling the glum naturalism of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (but lacking empathy like the 1987 Brazilian film, Hour of the Star). Leftist cinephiles consent to whatever odious premise an anti-American pessimist throws at them. (They avoid the irony that Alfredo Castro’s resemblance to Al Pacino as Scarface’s Tony Montana confounds this film’s thesis.) Larraín surrounds his sociopath with a troupe of desperate low-lifes who operate a dingy cantina. Raúl sexes mother and daughter co-workers and destroys the stage to remodel it like the SNF dance floor—in between his murder sprees which Pinochet’s police squads conveniently overlook.
Larraín’s grungy diatribe never let’s 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, shits 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. Anyone
who expects Public Enemies to be a gangster movie with Cagneyesque bravado should prepare for a long slog before entering Mann’s backward B-movie vision.
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. But the millennium no longer celebrates
nose-thumbing anti-heroes; today’s gangsters are well integrated into
the mainstream. Mann neglects establishing Depression-era folk heroism
(aside from a chic selection of vintage jazz recordings); rather,
Dillinger/Depp’s defiance is just gussied-up B-movie existentialism.
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. Technical flamboyance meets spiritual
aridity. Mann’s B-movie cool is never as hip or craftsmanly as
Tarantino’s. Mann takes emotion out of gangsterism. His no-hope
gunfights avoid a rooting interest; we’re put in a cynic’s position
watching history play out— even though Mann’s J. Edgar Hoover–bashing
(portrayed by Billy Crudup) rewrites history with smug hindsight. Every
scene’s strangely aestheticized, not dramatically involving, as if Mann
was stepping back and observing his own masterly canvas.
Fact is, Public Enemies is an aesthetic debacle—almost as unwatchable as the deliberately low-fi Tony Manero. Dante
Spinotti gives Mann his requisite gaudiness, but their
digital-videography is horrendous: unnaturally ripe colors, exteriors
overbright and the interiors over-dark.The chiaroscuro has grainy
shadows with drab, greenish tinge that loses humans’ natural reddish
undertone.The nightclub scene where Dillinger meets his amoral moll
Billie (Marion Cotillard as ludicrously miscast as Gong Li in Mann’s Miami Vice) is
so underlit it resembles brown-out.Yet when Mann gets extra-fancy, he
turns Dillinger’s extradition from Florida to Indiana into bleached-out
sepia (also to win plaudits).
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. It glows, like the full-color Tales of Hoffmann extracts in Francis Ford Coppola’s B&W digital-video Tetro—proof of
the true aesthetic richness we’re losing in the digital revolution.
Mann not only lacks the narrative efficiency of old genre filmmaking, Public Enemies’ look inspires the opposite of movie love.