AK 100

PDVD_111The most imposing gift box of this season is Criterion’s $400 “AK 100,” a collection of 25 films by Akira Kurosawa issued in anticipation of his centenary next March.  Most of what’s in it are single disc editions of Kurosawa films that Criterion has previously issued with reams of extras, but there are four titles that haven’t been previously released in Region One, all from the wartime years:  “Sugata Sanshiro,” parts one (1943) and two (1945); “The Most Beautiful” (1944); and “The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail” (1945).  A review here in the New York Times.

367 comments to AK 100

  • Kent Jones

    Edo, I for one am glad that LUCKY STAR was never successfully turned into a feature.

  • john m

    Jbryant, thanks for the link! That’s a great little piece. It does sound like Kurosawa was writing it as a novel for the purpose of opening up his screenplay. A brilliant, if labor-intensive, approach.

  • Junko, Barry is right — it’s unlikely that Connelly & Mosher could’ve been leftists. For one thing, the creators of AMOS’N'ANDY, Freeman Gosden & Charles Correll, were conservative, so I doubt that Connelly & Mosher could have been much more than liberal and still worked on that show.

    There were a lot of lefty comedy writers working in TV, of course, both before and after (and occasionally during) the blacklist. Sam Moore, the openly communist head of the Radio Writers Guild, wrote THE GREAT GILDERSLEEVE in radio; Richard M. Powell, later essentially the head writer on HOGAN’S HEROES, was also blacklisted for his union activities in the 50s.

    And as far as I know the only surviving writer from LEAVE IT TO BEAVER is Allan Manings, who was also blacklisted!

  • Haha, Kent, what’s with the Mann-bashing? Ah yes, I remember we’ve discussed it before.

    To add to another line of thoughts here, is Mann a Marxist?

  • Kent Jones

    Not bashing, Fredrik – I’m just glad that Mann didn’t turn a car commercial idea into a movie.

    Actually, I think that Mann exemplifies a rather soft version of “Marxism,” 8 or 9 times removed, in which all criminals are the natural products of a Capitalist environment. It’s exemplified by the exchange in PUBLIC ENEMIES where some guy offers Dillinger his money, and Dillinger kindly reassures him (the the middle of a hold-up) that he’s there only for the bank’s money. I thought to myself: where have I heard that one before? And then I remembered. Robert De Niro says almost exactly the same thing during the bank heist in HEAT.

  • Kent, sorry. Now I get what you meant. But it looks so good I wouldn’t mind seeing it expanded.

    De Niro does say a similar thing in HEAT, some thing on the line of they shouldn’t worry about their money, it’s insured by the federal government.

    Then there’s INSIDER, all about corporate corruption, without any confirmation in the end that this was just a few rotten apples. As Pacino says in the end “What got broken here today doesn’t go back together.”

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    “Speaking French” and TV comedy series remind me of an episode of THE HONEYMOONERS in which Ed Norton decided (I don’t remember why) to make a list of Ralph’s “good points” and “bad points.” The first bad point he came up with was “Doesn’t speak French.”

    Speaking French, or with a French accent, is routinely considered “sexy” (or comically sexy depending on the context) in the American tradition. The “Pepe Le Pew” cartoon series with its wildly amorous skunk sporting an exagerated Charles Boyer accent (“I am zee locksmith of love!”)is entirely based on the premise that speaking French and sex are an irresistibly funny combination.

  • Jim Gerow

    Doesn’t that idea of just stealing the bank’s money, not the people’s, go back at least as far as BONNIE AND CLYDE?

  • Blake Lucas

    Not to undervalue capitalist critique in its myriad forms, but Barry, as an expert who talked about both shows in an essay, could you explain why THE BOB NEWHART SHOW is invariably preferred by sitcom connoisseurs to NEWHART? I like Bob Newhart in anything (and even thought he fit in well in HELL IS FOR HEROES) but I’ve always thought the later NEWHART was the far funnier, more fanciful and more inspired show.

    Or if you can link your essay I will read it…

  • Brad Stevens

    There was a series of commercials for Parisienne People cigarettes a few years back that included contributions by several major directors, including Godard, Wenders, Lynch, Altman, Polanski and Kusturica.

    http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=parisienne+people&search_type=&aq=f

  • Barry Putterman

    Blake, as we both know, one needs no expertise to talk in an essay. And mine is linked to nothing other than the universal ash heap of out of print books.

    I agree that the first Newhart sitcom is more highly regarded and I probably talked about it more in the essay since it came first and set up more things within the essay. But as to which one was funnier, I’d hate to have to live off the difference (and I know that I don’t have to cite THAT reference for anybody).

    As to WHY the first is more highly regarded, it might be related to the fact that it came first and set up more things. Or maybe it is just that for people our age, the 70s seemed a lot funnier than the 80s.

  • Johan Andreasson

    When we talk about American satire during the McCarthy era, let’s not forget Walt Kelly’s brilliant comic strip POGO, where McCarthy appeared as a wildcat named Simple J. Malarkey. Pogo also had a very experimental way of using language visually. The character P.T. Bridgeport, who ran a circus, had speech balloons that looked like 19th century circus posters, symbolizing his theatrical speech pattern. And there was the reactionary Deacon Mushrat who was so far behind his timed that he spoke in Gothic script.

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘Much as many studio directors felt that they were just doing their jobs and were surprised by critical evaluations of their work in later years. As to whether “Leave It To Beaver” actually IS a Marxist commentary, that is open to debate.’

    Thank you Barry, I understand. Stephen you have also explained so that I understand, also for information about radio writers.

  • edo

    Can any Hollywood filmmaker really be a Marxist these days?

    Anyway, I think Mann clearly knows his Marx in that his films do present worlds that are shaped by market forces, but they’ve never been polemical on that score, and they’re a far cry from being incites to revolution, which I guess one might count as a failure to take risks, though I personally wouldn’t.

    Rather than being subjects of his concern in themselves, it seems to me that the institutions of capitalism and the bureaucracies of the state in his films form part of the network or grid through which his characters pass like blips on a radar screen. This grid is always papered over with layer upon layer of surface detail and streams of coded activity, so that the transactions underneath don’t reveal themselves. Moreover, the grid is always transforming itself. It constitutes a mutating, open system (i.e. history) rather than a closed set of circumstances.

    I don’t think it’s ever as pat as his characters being “natural products of a Capitalist environment”, because their personalities have also been shaped by a lot of other factors as well. Every Mann character, even the marginal ones, such as Ruffalo’s narc in COLLATERAL, has pages of backstory. And, usually, they emerge out of a very specific social historical context.

    Most importantly, they have freedom of choice and conviction, qualities which make them less products than individuals trying to hold onto a sense of their integrity, of who they are and who they want to be.

    If capitalism is the underlying substructure of it all, that is a feature born more out of necessity than anything else. Mann is making films in a capitalist world. If you’re a director that has any interest in how people define themselves against social forces, then you’re sort of forced to negotiate with that frame of reference. Even ignorance is a form of acknowledgment.

  • edo

    It’s also worth pointing out that John Dillinger actually did declare, “We’re after the banks money, not your money,” during a robbery in Greencastle, IL. So this was less an instance of Mann imposing an interpretation on the character than laying bare a certain aspect of the man’s personality and his intelligence. Gestures like that are part of what made Dillinger into a Robin Hood figure.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Thieves always claim they’re just robbing the rich, or the bank (which is the same thing). W.C. Fields in POPPY, when his daughter Poppy chides him for scamming everybody in sight, tells her: “We steal from the rich to give to the poor.” “What poor?” she asks. “Us poor,” he replies. You can’t be more cynically candid. I don’t think there was a Marxist statement there though.

  • Thomas

    “Doesn’t that idea of just stealing the bank’s money, not the people’s, go back at least as far as BONNIE AND CLYDE?”

    That´s Bert Brecht in the late 20s

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘If capitalism is the underlying substructure of it all, that is a feature born more out of necessity than anything else. Mann is making films in a capitalist world. If you’re a director that has any interest in how people define themselves against social forces, then you’re sort of forced to negotiate with that frame of reference. Even ignorance is a form of acknowledgment.’

    Edo, that is true. It is idea of hegemony that Gramsci describes, that it is not enough for capitalist to have social structure that allows profit to be maximized, because social system must reproduce condition under which profit can be made at all. Economic and non-economic sphere exist in dialectical relationship, influencing and reproducing each other. Mann is showing this in his movies even if has not read Marx or Gramsci.

  • Joseph McBride

    I don’t have any specific knowledge of the offstage politics
    of Connelly & Mosher, but their work on BEAVER makes them seem on the enlightened and not timid liberal side. Few outright radicals could slip through the cracks to work openly in Hollywood in those years. Connelly & Mosher met up in the New York ad biz. As a kid I used to watch AMOS ‘N’ ANDY with pleasure (with our African American housekeeper, who also greatly enjoyed it), and I would go around doing imitations of George (Kingfish) Stevens, whom I admired for being a smart operator and a droll rogue. At the same time I was passionately in favor of the civil rights movement. Maybe I was naive, and I haven’t seen the series in a long time so am not up to speed on how it seems today, but others have noted that unlike most roles for blacks in those days, the ones in AMOS ‘N’ ANDY (partly because they were seen in an all-black milieu) were mostly professional in nature, giving the characters some dignity and more social status than they would have had in stereotypical servant roles. I just saw them as funny people. Andy may have been a buffoon, but he was charming, and we had many white buffoons in those days too. And Amos was an upstanding citizen. The women were strong characters. So the show presented a balanced portrait of its dramatis personae.

  • Joseph McBride

    I could empathize with Joe McCarthy in 1954 because that was the time the Wisconsin liberals (including my parents) were conducting their unsuccessful “Joe Must Go” recall campaign (shortly before the Army-McCarthy Hearings did him in). My parents put a “Joe Must Go” bumper sticker on our station wagon, and I thought they meant me. So I would keep surreptitiously tearing off the stickers as fast as they could put them on. My father became convinced that our Republican neighbors were doing it, so one day he put a new
    sticker on the car and waited in the window to see what would happen. He was mortified to see his six-year-old son skulking up to the car and removing the sticker. So I knew what it must
    have felt like for Joe McCarthy to have people want to recall him.

  • Tony Wiliams

    AMOS N’ANDY also ran on BBC TV in the late 50s and was very popular in South Wales. We all loved the characters, especially “Lightning” and never looked on them in a racially condescending way. Buffonery is color blind and nobody looked down on Northerners after seeing coemdians such as George Formby, Frank Randle, and Dougie Wakefield – to name but a few.

  • Kent Jones

    Edo, Mann is extremely well-read, probably knows his Marx and his Gramsci – when I met him he was quoting Fanon and he managed to rattle off several other titles for the crowd, unprompted. I suppose you’re right, his films are not polemical. Nor are they calls to revolution. I do find them extremely schematic though, albeit in a cleverly veiled way. I think he does a better job of perpetuating the old idea of the gangster as romantic outsider than anyone, coupled with an extremely seductive form of self-pity that is, for me, the least appealing and most pandering side of his movies. I know what you mean by invoking the idea of his characters as blips on the late-capitalist radar screen – that’s one side of the imagery. The other side is that every favored character is shown to romantic advantage as they move coolly across rooms and through cities at night, all their best moves under the most favorable light preserved by the editor – while the schmucks like the guy who beats up Billy Frechette or the guy who narrowly escapes at the beginning of HEAT are sweaty grotesques with bad skin shown in oppressive close-ups. There’s always a stand-off between two noble types on either side of the law, both romantically doomed and caught in the “machinery,” both smart enough to know it and ready for a beautiful death. I’ve seen PUBLIC ENEMIES a couple of times, and the past comes powerfully alive in that film. On the other hand, the more I ponder it the more I think it’s romantic mush.

  • nicolas saada

    Kent, I discovered John Milius DILLINGER and found it impressive, taught, fast moving and I think as good as Siegel’s BABY FACE NELSON. That said, if we talk about politics, CASINO and THE DEPARTED strike me as two political films about surface and class. I am not sure I really enjoy the obvious politics of films that just present themselves as such. they are often limited, or at worse just describe what they enunciate. The best recent example being WHITE RIBBON. It’s YOUNG MR LINCOLN shot by Liliana Cavani. A nightmare.

  • nicolas saada

    I actually like other films by Haneke, but this very one did nothing for me.

  • Mathieu

    I’m surprised the Michael Mann LUCKY STAR commercial was brought up, but not the vastly superior Nike advertisement he did: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s6joglwxWuo

    Utilizing parts of the 16 minute unbroken violin tune that pulsated in the end showdown of ”The Last of The Mohicans”, Mann once again shows one of his biggest strengths, the pure essence of men at work; driven, perfectionist, letting time around them slip away during their drive (notice the changing seasons in a minute long span). I don’t consider this advertisement as a diversion, a holiday, but rather a part of Mann’s continuing impressive artistry and thematic concerns. I feel the same way about Wes Anderson’s American Express commercial, which I believe someone already mentioned here.

    Nicolas, sorry but I can’t really tell how you rate ”Casino” overall as a work. After constant viewings, I am becoming more and more convinced that it is not only one of Scorsese’ great masterpieces, but one of his most open and profound works; needless to say I think it is about much more than just surface and class. His movies have always dug deep on the issues of loneliness, and I believe that he sees his protagonists as men who carry this loneliness into gambles, for love, class, security, status, and the gambles extend into his own filmmaking (the how far can these characters go to affirm their worth and my films and personages will still be relevet and accepted). ” Casino” seems to resonate with all these problems in such a bold way, and it is very gutsy in the way it utilizes dual narrations to have people commenting on one another while we’re seeing the actual truth through the images. I think it’s his WILD BUNCH, his go for broke epic, and that capitalism and its pitfalls is only one of its many parts and critiques.

  • Mathieu, I mentioned Wes Anderson’s commercial, and I agree with you that it, and are Mann’s, is an extension of his feature films, just as Roy Andersson’s and Bergman’s commercials are inseparable from their “real” films. The NIKE commercial could be the opening scene from THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS (with Daniel Day-Lewis running through the forest chasing a deer) superimposed on the football field.

    Edo, I wouldn’t call Mark Ruffalo’s character in COLLATERAL marginal, but I do agree that so many of Mann’s character, be the marginal or not, have obviously been thought through so that they’re more than just extras, but wellrounded characters. (Preston Sturges does the same.)

    Kent, I agree that Mann’s films can be schematic, and I’ve always disliked the Weingro character in HEAT (it strikes be as virtually impossible that he would be able to escape from the parking lot, that’s the major flaw in HEAT and if I ever meet Mann I must ask him what he was thinking.)

    Thematically I think COLLATERAL is one of Mann’s most interesting films, with its severe criticism of modern life. The theme of the movie seems to be that we live in a world when people can die alone in the subway without anybody noticing. And the scene with the wolves is magical, and can be interpreted in different ways, but perhaps it is nature passing by, glaring at “civilization” and then disappearing.

    And yes, BABY FACE NELSON! I’ve finally seen it. What a film! Brilliant!

  • edo

    I don’t see those as ‘sides’ to Mann’s imagery, so much as internal contradictions. Dillinger is at once a blip and a big close-up. If he is romantically advantaged on the one hand, he’s also hopelessly naive, even childish, an irony which does not escape Mann who puts the necessary words in the mouth of Red just as he’s dying.

    Yes, there are heavies in Mann’s films, such as the white supremacist beefcake in MIAMI VICE and the FBI beefcake in PUBLIC ENEMIES, but in neither case does it seem to me they’re around simply to boost the stature of the ‘good guys’. The latter, for instance, might make Purvis look noble for a few seconds in that Purvis halts the interrogation and gets to act gallantly by carrying Billy out of the room while the beefcake is shamed, but it’s implicit in this scene and in the earlier scene of torture that Purvis gave the general directive to use such tactics in the first place. He didn’t stop Billy from being beaten, just from being beaten more badly. So as I understand it, the scene is about a bureau divided against itself and no solution is proposed. The beefcake remains in the detail. He hasn’t even been punished.

    Meanwhile, the Waingro character is not really comparable to the beefcake, because the two are not parallel types. Waingro is more analogous to Baby Face Nelson, as both of these psychotics throw their respective counterparts Neil and Dillinger into relief as the more professional thieves. They are also figurations of evil and wanton violence, where I don’t believe the beefcakes (FBI or Aryan Brotherhood) are.

    So, if nobler is really the word, yes, Waingro and Nelson do make their counterparts look noble in a certain sense, but I don’t believe this is the rote function they serve for Mann. Rather it’s more about how their presence in this universe forces the question of right and wrong, of true justice, to come to the fore where it can’t for our antiheroes Neil and Dillinger. Waingro and Nelson are seen as characters who are truly reprehensible, not only as criminals, but as people.

    For me, the sequence in which Purvis avenges the deaths of the two men he has lost at Nelson’s hands to be incredibly harrowing and beautiful. It achieves a dire frisson of righteousness that one wants to call almost classical – an eye for an eye.

  • When I saw PUBLIC ENEMIES, I got the feeling Mann didn’t particularly like Purvis, but that agent Winstead (imposingly played by Stephen Lang) was the hero, if there were any. Winstead came across as clean, incorruptible and fair, and he also know a hell of a lot more of catching criminals than Purvis, or anybody else on set.

    Nice to see that Mann brought Lang back, I hope he now also will use Dennis Farina again.

  • edo

    “There’s always a stand-off between two noble types on either side of the law, both romantically doomed and caught in the “machinery,” both smart enough to know it and ready for a beautiful death.”

    I am kind of perplexed by this statement, Kent. This is true in all of ONE of Mann’s films, that being HEAT, and there it’s debatable whether “noble” is the proper way to describe Neil McCauley and Vincent Hanna.

    In PUBLIC ENEMIES, you can certainly call both characters noble, but you can hardly call the situation a stand-off. The scene which they share together is not pivotal in the way that the analogous scene in HEAT is. And Purvis does not himself slay Dillinger. More fundamentally, Dillinger is not defined as a character via his relationship to Purvis, and Purvis is not defined via his relationship to Dillinger.

    There are of course three other Mann films based on the opposition of two characters: MAN HUNTER, THE INSIDER, and COLLATERAL. Only the first of these features two men on opposite sides of the law, but you can hardly put the relationship between the profiler and the serial killer on the same plane as that between the cop and the criminal. Different genres. Moreover, in MAN HUNTER, the characters never lay eyes on each other or even talk. Dollarhyde is a world apart from Graham, and Graham from Dollarhyde. They seem to inhabit their own universes.

    In THE INSIDER, the opposition is less linear and more about setting up a contrapuntal sort of relationship between two voices speaking from very different worlds. It’s two dramas interweaving rather than one drama formed out of collision, and the men are allies on the same side of the law.

    In COLLATERAL, the opposition is different again. Nodal entities crossing paths.

    Of all three, I guess THE INSIDER is the closest we get to “noble” men communing together within that nefarious “machinery”, because COLLATERAL and MAN HUNTER certainly don’t have much if any of that.

    Anyway, what is “caught in the ‘machinery’, both smart enough to know it and ready for a beautiful death,” ” supposed to mean? Where do we see this in Mann’s work? Most of the time, Mann’s characters are caught up in themselves more than whatever “machinery” there is, and if they do die, it’s usually their own contradictions that lead them to that point. If HEAT is your paradigm, where’s the “machinery” there? Is it the justice system maybe? Capitalism? Los Angeles itself? Is this the “machinery” of the world system we’re talking about? I guess this applies, but then are you implying that Mann just milks this for all the moody angst it’s worth? That his characters are just facile Christ figures or martyrs for their times?

    Seeing Neil McCauley that way has a certain grandeur to it I suppose, but that scene is grand enough, I think, as it is, as just this moment where two people connect, where they can connect. I don’t think Mann is so mystical. He makes films about people desperate for love, intimacy, human connection, or the very possibility of such vivid experiences. Call them “romantic outsiders” if you like, but does that really fit Jeffrey Wigand or Max for instance? Aren’t these just normal guys under extreme circumstances? I think there’s a very lovely, buried, even soft-spoken side to Mann that’s not emphasized enough.

  • Kent Jones

    Edo, I think you see far more complexity and nuance in Michael Mann’s films than I do. That’s why my terminology is so general – “noble,” “machinery,” and so on. For instance, the idea of Dillinger as at once a blip and a close-up seems to me a vague hint, to you a clearly intended and fully expressed idea. As for your question about Christ figures and martyrs, I’m sorry to say that I don’t think that’s so far off. As I see it, he is primarily interested in machine gun fire, clothes, architecture, the way people look when they start firing an automatic weapon, cities at night, etc. The “thematic material” makes it possible. That’s what I see, more and more. I did used to like his films much more than I do now.

    “YOUNG MR. LINCOLN shot by Liliana Cavani” – I can’t wait.

    Mathieu, not to speak for NS, but he loves CASINO.

    Mathieu, not to speak for Nicolas

  • Not to throw any more gasoline on the Michael Mann bonfire (sure to extinguish itself soon enough), but I was startled, when I finally caught up with “Public Enemies” on Blu-ray, by how intellectually thin it was. Mann just seemed to be passing along the most naive romantic clichés about the “good outlaw” – forget “Bonnie and Clyde” and Brecht: they go back to Walter Scott – pumped up with a gauzy sentimentalism that would have had the audiences for “Public Enemy” and “Scarface” howling in the aisles. John Milius is no Marxist, to say the least, but his Dillinger is a product of carefully delineated social and economic conditions where Mann’s is just a fashion magazine postulate – a pouty male model who seems to have jumped out of nowhere (certainly not the rural Indiana of the 1920s!) with a fully formed clothing sense and an acute knowledge of what his best camera angles are (although the real Dillinger certainly knew how to play to the press, as Edo’s quote about the Greencastle robbery demonstrates).

    The Marion Cotillard character exists only to guide the audience to an uncritically admiring point of view, and the action precedes with stunning predictability through the standard Dillinger Stations of the Cross, building to that absurdly (and almost literally) self-mythologizing moment (hey, with this mustache I kinda look like Clark Gable!) at the Biograph (an institution itself insanely glamorized in the film, as I can personally attest from the hundreds of hours I logged there in its pre-renovation days). The equivalence drawn between the FBI and the Mafia is facile and sophomoric (ooh – government and big business work hand in hand!), though it was amusing to see the Christian Bale character being pilloried in “Public Enemies” for exactly the same behavior – wiretapping, brutal interrogations – for which he was canonized in “The Dark Knight.”

    And I’m still not convinced that the digital artifacts that are randomly strewn throughout the film – the distracting strobing in the action scenes, the electronically boosted lighting in some of the interiors – constitute a coherent style artfully deployed by a master filmmaker as much as they are the unhappy by-products of Mann’s well-known rushed, chaotic production methods. These are mistakes that have been fetishized into statements.

    Unhappy is the land that needs a hero; unhappier still is the national cinema that needs an auteur so desperately that we’ve made one out of Michael Mann.

  • Barry Putterman

    The very last thing on my “to do” list would be entering a debate about Michael Mann. However, I don’t think that Dave’s point about the fetishizing of the romantic outlaw as political statement can be made often enough.

    The central author of THE PUBLIC ENEMY, John Bright, actually was a Communist Party member, and the corrupt environment that the gangsters emerge from and thrive in is strongly drawn by Wellman is typically economical ways. However, they never let that stand in the way of a clear-eyed understanding that Tom Powers is a thoroughgoing, if charismatic, s.o.b. Indeed, a mature understanding of the environment would almost inevitably lead to to that depiction of the gangster. And almost the exact same thing could be said about Siegel’s brilliant BABY FACE NELSON.

    By the way, if we are going to get into the social structure and politics of CASINO, shouldn’t somebody mention MR. CORY?

  • nicolas saada

    Mathieu, CASINO is one of my favorite films of all time. It is hugely political, and one of the few films of the past fifteen years to address politics in such a complex way: race, class, money, media…

  • Kent Jones

    Dave, I can’t put my finger on it, but I’m getting the sense that you don’t want to “take that ride” with Michael Mann. I guess I had a wee bit more tolerance for the movie than you did, but I have to agree that Depp’s Dillinger is camera-ready at all times. I would also say that I found the romance between Depp and Cotillard as fully unconvincing as the one between De Niro and whatever-her-name-was in HEAT.

    Barry – what you said about THE PUBLIC ENEMY. The point you make about “a mature understanding of the environment” is a good one. That is something I do not feel in the cinema of Michael Mann.

    Nicolas, it’s been a while since I’ve seen Milius’ DILLINGER, but you’ve got me eager to take another look.

  • nicolas saada

    Dave and Kent, you should both know that Michael Mann is God over here too: articles, covers (Cahiers du cinema), essays and books.I really like THE INSIDER, although it’s a “put him on the phone” movie. I think what fascinates the french critics here is the gloss which we can’t provide and sometimes trie to in the most ridiculous way (I won’t name the horrendousfrench thrillers “a la mann” that I’ve seen lately).

  • dan

    Allow me to join the choir and sing the praises of CASINO. In my opinion, the last great fiction film made by Scorsese, and one that, for reason that have always escaped me, is still the most underrated of the great American films made in the 90′s. Credit should also go to Ms. Schoonmaker for her dazzlying display of rhytmic editing in the film. I miss James Woods, Can’t understand why he had to leave us for Celebrity Poker. Or maybe it was the other way around…
    Dave, I agree wholeheartedly with every word you wrote about Mann. I never quite got the reason behind so many important people’s high admiration for him, or maybe just never felt any kind of need to dig deeper into his films. Again, no dissrespect for his admirers, It’s just that his incredibele lack of humour always leaves me cold.

  • edo

    Kent, people are always seeing different things. But I wonder. How does one leave the door open for the possibility of nuance in assuming a laundry list of characteristics a priori, as if they were the basic, ur-Mann experience? The paradigm for you seems to be HEAT, as it does for many people, but then you take the derived concepts and apply them to, well, everything else he’s done. Personally, whenever it gets to the point where I find myself making generalized statements, like, “there’s always a stand-off…” and these statements fly straight in the face of empirical accuracy (is this set-up even in this or that film?), I try to reel myself in. You have spoken more eloquently than I ever could against the essentialism that has plagued much American film criticism – the essay you published in Rouge on the subject is deeply affecting whenever I read it, and these days I treat it as a sort of guide for my own writing (that, and Bazin’s letter In Defense of Rossellini) – and yet I detect a whiff of that in your reaction here, when you accuse Mann of “pandering”. Can we really chalk up all these choices to pandering? Even if, in the end, he’s no better than you think he is, I still feel like there should be a better way of talking about it. For me, to speak of pandering is to embrace a certain type of, yes, post-modern skepticism of which I am very leery. Even where pandering exists it’s usually more than just that, as in the case of Quentin Tarantino. For a long time I adopted and accepted the idea that Tarantino was just pandering. Then I saw INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS and couldn’t figure who he had made that film for. I summarily concluded he must be only interested in himself and movies. Ultimately, I liked the film.

    However, as much as I hate to admit it, your reaction and Dave’s does, I think, point to a kind of deficiency in at least Mann’s crime films, one that may diminish with time but that’s inescapable now: that is, they lend themselves to and don’t manage to escape a certain way of talking about genre cinema. I feel like all the criticisms you and Dave have make a lot of sense. I see where they’re coming from, what sort of frissons inspire them, and I think it really comes down to taking Mann at the level of certain, simple, time-worn constructions he employs, and, in the process, perhaps losing sight of how oddly he regards these constructions.

    This talk about the “romantic outsider” would fit, for instance, with a more conventional gangster film, but PUBLIC ENEMIES is so off its axis I find it difficult to chalk up Mann’s choices to letting an old engine take care of itself. Mann never consciously violates convention, but it also seems that he’s never very conscious of the various conventions he invokes as conventions! When I see the conventions working in his films, say, this tendency to throw up some grotesques against his heroes, it always strikes me that the conventional aspect is incidental (there’s always also a more derived, real-world aspect to it – those grotesques in MIAMI VICE aren’t pulled from other movies so much as Mann’s own research into Aryan Brotherhood). What really interests him in these moments where characters are moving through space or meeting across tables or what have you is a getting at a state-of-mind, an attitude toward life, how it feels to move through a particular time and place.

    If Mann’s films were presenting an objective portrait of a mobster as, for instance, Walsh does in the incredibly romantic THE ROARING TWENTIES, then I’d say the criticisms might hold, but in that film the gangsters are instantly coded from the outside as “product of capitalist environment wreaking havoc”. In Mann, it’s much more pragmatic. What drives this one, specific guy named John Dillinger? Oh and by the way he also robs banks. Mann could care less about what drives “gangsters” writ-large.

    What this all boils down to for me is saying Mann’s films embrace a certain idea of subjectivity to immerse us in what his characters think and feel. They’re not studies through a microscope as one often feels with the classic gangster films like THE ROARING TWENTIES or SCARFACE or THE PUBLIC ENEMY. Camonte and Bartlett are really ‘mythic figures’, where Mann’s Dillinger is more like the preface to a myth, the living spirit from which a myth arises and makes it authentic. That to me is part of the great, beautiful significance of the scene in the Biograph and PUBLIC ENEMIES as a whole.

    Does this entail Mann romantically advantaging his characters? Sure. But what’s really wrong with this? Again, if he were just grafting romantic flourish onto a classical ROARING TWENTIES-type edifice, which is I guess what you and Dave are saying, then that would indeed be shallow, but I don’t get the sense that he is. I think it’s the other way around. He goes to genre whenever he needs something to support what he’s really trying to do as with the caricature of Frank Nitti, which is, for me, the weakest part of PUBLIC ENEMIES. Where the look at the FBI, at Purvis and Hoover, is for me more elusive and hard to pin down, one really can chalk up the Nitti bit to convention. Still, I see this as no great failing, because the syndicate itself is more the point than Nitti, and that structure is handled well. I think Mann has quite a mature understanding of the “environment”. It’s his characters who are at a point limited and can’t manage all the angles.

  • edo

    Barry,

    I agree in principle, but we should probably be distinguishing between gangsters and bank robbers. Mann’s film is certainly aware of that distinction. For this reason, the comparison to THE PUBLIC ENEMY doesn’t work for me. That film was released two years before Dillinger and Nelson hit the scene. And Capone was already in prison by the time SCARFACE hit theaters. Films like THE PUBLIC ENEMY and SCARFACE are reacting in part retrospectively to the effect that organized crime had had on America during the twenties. They are also reacting more immediately to the effects of the great depression of course. These two phenomena then get sort of conflated along the way, such that Camonte seems the epitome of a certain kind of delirious capitalist deception.

    My point is the comparison is a difficult one to make because it imposes certain expectations on Mann, who is portraying a different kind of person. Nelson by all accounts was extremely violent, and Mann doesn’t fail to show that. Dillinger was charged with only one murder during his time as a bank robber, but it hasn’t been proven beyond a reasonable doubt whether that he even participated in the robbery in question. Of course, the fact that he didn’t commit murder doesn’t excuse him for the many crimes he did perpetrate, but I’m not so sure Mann is doing that, so much as just taking it as a part of who this man was. Dillinger was conscious of what he was doing, and from a certain point of view, Mann’s point of view, he was doing it as honestly as he knew how. That is, he was being quite true to what he knew. Mann’s Dillinger is thus on the one hand very self-aware, and, on the other, disarmingly, frighteningly not. He doesn’t seem to have any motive for robbing banks. I mean, money, sure, but money is more a means. Dillinger is a quite immature person. We know Mann knows this, because Billy and Red basically come right out with it again and again. Moreover, Mann himself has said that what most fascinated him about Dillinger was how he had “no ideation of the future.” So I’m not sure this immaturity should be projected back onto Mann.

  • Barry Putterman

    edo, as I said, the very last thing on my “to do” list was to get involved in a debate about Michael Mann. So, where did I go wrong?

    Basically, all I meant to do was second Dave’s point about the outlaw as romanticized “political” hero and didn’t intend my remarks to be directed at Mann in particular.

    Indeed, Mann’s film comes out of a different tradition than THE PUBLIC ENEMY and that is part of what Dave and I said, I believe. Mann’s film belongs to the mode established by BONNIE AND CLYDE, and the maturity level of the protagonists, the filmmakers, and the intended audience for these newer films is, I think, a debatable issue.

  • edo

    Barry, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have addressed the post directly to you as I wasn’t trying to debate you so much as the comparison itself which Dave had already invoked using different words. My bad. And, of course, all of this is debatable.

  • Barry Putterman

    edo, I think you raise an interesting point about Dillinger being a singular bank robber as opposed to the protagonists of SCARFACE and THE PUBLIC ENEMY who are part of the organized underworld.

    What I would say to that is that the two earlier films are within the world view of the economic Depression of the 30s, as you point out. But the BONNIE AND CLYDE mode comes out of the financially secure 60s when the concept of “liberating” money from the corrupt “establishment” became fashionable. Hence both the historical bank robbery and contemporary bank heist movies came into vogue.

    These are interesting issues and you have nothing to be sorry for there is no bad involved. It is just that I am not prepared to say much of anything about PUBLIC ENEMIES in particular.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Bary, do you think that a 2009 movie can be described as “belonging to the mode established by BONNIE AND CLYDE” forty years earlier? Has that “mode” remained unchanged? I don’t want to get involved in a Mann discussion any more than you do (and I haven’t even seen PUBLIC ENEMIES yet!) but I’m just curious.

    As for “maturity levels” I’m sure we all can safelly place ourselves above the “protagonists,” but the filmmakers? Wouldn’t that be a bit presumptious? And the notion of an “intended audience” (whatever that might be) and its dubious maturity seems likely to open an unpleasant can of worms.

  • edo

    Yeah, I’m not sure BONNIE AND CLYDE and PUBLIC ENEMIES are of the same ilk. More time separates those two films than separates BONNIE and THEY LIVED BY NIGHT or GUN CRAZY. And BONNIE is really a piece of conscious, new Hollywood revisionism, while PUBLIC ENEMIES seems rather unique.

    Esthetically, as I’ve said, I think Mann is closer to Malick and Denis than most of his peers in Hollywood. And Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at The Auteurs has in turn invoked Johnnie To as a point of comparison. I can see what he means, but these comparisons don’t really provide one with a frame of reference. You have to build a frame of reference around these comparisons, which is why it’s not so great to start from them. They’re esthetic categories, abstracted from how these films are produced, distributed and thus made accessible. One wonders whether Mann has even heard of Denis. They’re such worlds apart.

    Still, perhaps this is less of an issue in today’s world as films are less and less associated with the places they’re seen.

  • Barry Putterman

    You know, I’m really gonna have to take another look at that “to do” list.

    So, returning to original intent, my point was about criminals romanticized as political outlaws. THEY LIVE BY NIGHT and GUN CRAZY may be less distant from BONNIE AND CLYDE in terms of release date than PUBLIC ENEMIES is, but neither is working the revisionist side of the strret that edo mentioned.

    BONNIE AND CLYDE established a connection between the romanticized notion of of the outlaw hero in the movies with the larger notion of “outlaw culture” in the youth movement of the 60s. Certainly there have been all kinds of developments in the forty plus years since the release of BONNIE AND CLYDE, however kind of fashion sense and camera ready consciousness that Kent points to in Mann’s film seems to me to be a direct descendent of the Bonnie and Clyde clothing craze of the 60s.

    Again, I think that all of these aspects are interesting topics for discussion. And frankly, I’m not at all sure what kind of worms would come out of the cans.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Barry, I meant that I felt uncomfortable about the idea that somehow we are intellectually “above” the so-called intended audience.

    Also, I wonder if “fashion sense” and “camera ready consciousness” are sixties and post-sixties inventions or whether they might not be just a movie thing that existed in those thirties movies just as well.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Barry, worms can come out of cans for any reason, it happens all the time, but then there’s always the option of not opening the can.

  • Johan Andreasson

    I’m far from an expert on the subject but I would guess the fashionable romantic outlaw has been with us since at least romanticism in the early nineteenth century.

    Michael Mann is not to blame for this.

  • Barry Putterman

    Jean-Pierre, it looks to be a tad too late to think about not opening the can.

    I don’t know that I either would or did endorse the idea that we are “above” the so-called intended audience. Neither do I feel that I have to rehash all of the historical developments in the American film industry that has led to the targeting of younger audiences or the influence that BONNIE AND CLYDE had towards redefining its genre.

    I would agree that the fashionably romantic outlaw has been with us for a long, long time. No doubt most cultures dating back to pre-historic times have had their Robin Hood figures. And there is no blame involved in Michael Mann working within the context of the industry as it exists.

    For all I know, everyone here may ultimately come to appreciate PUBLIC ENEMIES as highly as edo does. My point, such as it is, is that the image of Dillinger as presented through the casting of Johnny Depp is reflective of the youth culture’s version of the romantic outlaw just as much as the previous castings of Lawrence Tierney and Warren Oates are not.

  • Mathieu

    I’ve already gotten into two or three lengthy Michael Mann debates here, and a few more on the a_film_by site, and no matter what is written or how long the prose, everybody’s mind (pro or con, but mostly con) remains firm, unchanged. I’m not sure what else I could write to not make it seem like ‘Groundhog Day’, but I nevertheless want to make a few points, and take some of the load off of Edo’s admirable shoulders.

    For starters, it is perfectly legitimate for all the Mann detractors to give their opinions and arguments against him, but please, let’s not get crazy here in stating that Mann is God in critical circles. Nicolas claims that he is thus in France with the likes of Cahiers du Cinema. I don’t believe one single solitary film of his has ever made a ‘Cahiers’ top ten list for any year. He is also not nearly as well regarded as Eastwood, De Palma, Scorsese, not even as well regarded as Shyamalan! Furthermore, the exact sentence by Nicolas was ”Mann is a God here too” presuming that he would be in North America. From what I can recall, ”Public Enemies” got incredibly mixed reviews (and that’s being generous) ”Miami Vice” was pissed on, as was ‘Ali’. Besides “The Insider” Mann’s other 90s films didn’t make any kind of splash, and were virtually non-existent in the decade’s roumd-up. This may seem like a useless bunch of stats to some, but for a director who gets so vilified for being an overrated ‘autuer’, seriously, where is this phantom love coming from? I don’t doubt that he has fans that are very passionate about his work, and he certainly enjoys some clout in the industry, but please, let’s not lose out heads and inflate his reputation (this phantom reputation, by the way, is what gets most of his detractors angered at him, witness the recent Cinemascope article about him).

    Also, I often wonder, if a strong case is to be made against Mann (putting aside the bogus notion that he is an ovverated autuer who enjoys a God like status with critics), why always pick on his most recent films? I’m not fond of ”The Departed” or ”The Aviator”, but I wouldn’t use them in a discussion to attack Scorsese (I don’t wish to), if you want to discuss an artist, please use his top tier works and make it a worthwhile discussion. It reminds me of the David Thompson book where he wants to discredit Kubrick and spends literally 90% of his words taking pot shots at ”A Clockwork Orange”.

    I love many of Mann’s films, and like “Public Enemies” a great deal more that a lot of people here, but if we’re bringing up Mann as a simple thin, un-complex director, I bring up “Heat”, whose complexities perplex people to this day. So much so that it is still confused for being a film about cops and criminal being “two sides of the same coin”. Rather, the two main protagonists are opposites who connect because they are opperating in a void, carrying on their courses in an incredibly lose fashion, having to leave their codes behind to function in the modern world. Mann doesn’t romanticize either, in fact, he created a moral vacuum where actions based on emotions are made to seem weak and pitfalls, and discipline code abiding, destructive to those around. The main coffee shop confrontation is not a heroic intelectual stand-off, of rather a pathetic display where the thief will literally give up vital information to help catch him because he thinks his work is respected; the cop, meanwhile, is outwitting his opponent but being reminded of all the lives he is destroying around him to catch, basically, a dream (which he describes) that will keep repeating itself no matter how man Neil Maccualey’s he captures. Further, the film un-romanticises these men through the displays shown by other men in the film. Waingro is Neil Macaulley in its purest form, shameless, living by no code but the essence of his evil pursuits, he doesn’t analyze his deeds or give them a capitalist out (he also treats himself nice after his deeds, as witness his hotel existence compared to Macoulley’s furniture-less house). Agent Hanah may think he’s following a real code by letting the crew go for a minor charge, but his tip-off by a two rats brings his stature down, and he is left a ranting maniacal malcontent who has to play many sides to fill is existence. Van Zant is an ivy tower criminal whose displays infuriate Macualley (but who secretly envies him), and whose emotional pitfalls (getting hurt his money was stolen) both help take down Macaulley and resound profoundly in him.

    Mann sees the modern world as a place where hiding behind codes and work are commonplace, but not the true picture of his deeply conflicted and internally divided hypocritical protagonists. He leaves the morality of their actions up to the viewer, and gives them no safety net to look romantic as every action is countered. HEAT is the work that displays his complexity, and turns the genre and its ‘outsider’ posturing on its head. Mann’s characters (and he ambitiously surveys a lot in HEAT and gives them all their due and a place to speak about one another through their actions) are too much in search of an identity and corruptly asking other to bear the brunt of the failures of that search to be viewed as cool outsiders. And as I’ve said before, Mann, like Antonioni (who he should really be compared to) should not be misunderstood because he shows beautiful people, fashions, images. Look at what coldness both directors associate with that beauty.

  • Kent Jones

    Edo, your words about the piece in Rouge are gratifying and I thank you. I feel like that piece should have gone into a LOT more detail, so I’m pleased that you liked it.

    I feel obliged to say that writing a piece to be published and responding on a blog are two different types of activity, at least for me. Nonetheless, I think you’re absolutely correct to take me to task for sticking to generalities. Describing Michael Mann’s films, or anybody else’s films for that matter, is hard work. So, I guess I was just trying to summarize my sense of Mann’s films, and I did it haphazardly.

    The only side of his movies I chalked up to pandering was the self-pity. I find that his people feel kind of sorry for themselves, and I often get this odd, queasy sensation, like: “I’m just making my way the best I can in this rotten world.” However, I feel queasy about his romanticism, too. Of course, this is also a generality, but I feel comfortable just alluding to it because I’ve come away from many of his films with this sensation. I don’t bring anything “a priori” to them. I’m just describing the thoughts that go through my head when I think “Michael Mann.” All I know is that I see the same patterns, the same oppositions, again and again. Now, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that: any good artist has obsessions and excitements and scintillations of experience they kee returning to. But in Mann’s case, I always wonder: what exactly does he have invested in hunter/hunted or inside/outside? How much do they really mean to him? Mathieu sees great complexity in HEAT. I really don’t, and I find that particularly true of the encounter between De Niro and Pacino, which I’ve always found absurd, even when I liked the film more than I do now (I’ve seen it many times). The last time I saw it, I have to admit that I had difficulty making it through.

    My point of view differs a little from Dave’s. I didn’t care so much for PUBLIC ENEMIES, but I was intrigued, and I wound up seeing it three times. I think it’s an entrancing film and a strangely lulling experience, like a piece of trance music. I did not feel the subjectivity you ascribe to the film – as a matter of fact, the last time I saw it I became annoyed by the editing choices, which almost uniformly went against the grain of emotion and stuck with visual uniformity, kinetic shifts, visual grabbers. For me, the strengths of the film lie with its objectvity – the casting of all the smaller roles and some of the bigger ones, which seemed very much in line with 30s photographs (that’s also a costuming triumph), the locations (particularly that house at the beginning), the long shots, the strange immediacy of the HD images. Other than that, I find some of the interactions in the film even more absurd than the De Niro/Pacino coffee break – the scene where he sweeps Marion Cotillard off her feet, for instance, or where Dillinger supposedly gets under Purvis’ skin. And I think Mann wants to have it both ways with the romance. On the one hand, we’re supposed to think that these are two hard-headed individuals, and that she’s impressed with his money and the fur coat. On the other hand, we’re supposed to believe that they’re deeply in love. It didn’t wash with me.

    That barely scratches the surface, of course. Mann’s films are complex objects. But then, when you’re describing them, all films are complex objects, from PUBLIC ENEMIES to THE PROPOSAL.