The Fourth of July weekend was the epicenter of the new film releases: major studio films are timed to be released in June, July and December. Lots to choose from but, for me and a friend, the agreed-upon movie to catch during the holiday was Michael Mann’s PUBLIC ENEMIES.
I once heard the great experimental filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky say that the reason he doesn’t want to do narrative films is because they can be like mounting a camera on a dog’s head as it trots down an alley, sequentially checking out one trash can after another. Biopics frequently run into this danger in concept and execution.
Biopics are tricky. Rookie directors tend to favor them (e.g., Ed Harris’ POLLACK, Kevin Spacey’s BEYOND THE SEA, and I must admit in film school I had this dream of lensing a Frances Farmer biopic but the Jessica Lange movie beat me to it), probably because a newbie director would find the task easier knowing that dramatic development and narrative drive are already built into the story. In the Industry, having the lead in a biopic is usually considered an Oscar Role: a double-edged sword since it usually guarantees an Oscar nomination, yet too often an actor will give the majority of his talents to mimicry at the cost of real acting in the performance.
The worst biopics are usually cradle-to-tomb biographies; while those that focus on a personality during a chapter of his/her life have the focus and depth to create a viewing experience with cognitive pleasures.
PUBLIC ENEMIES was of the latter, and the creative team put together a film that really chimes with all the potential of a good biopic. For a guy who started making features in the 1970s, Michael Mann’s work has a strong shot-count that speaks to the contemporary audiences of mall movies, with appropriate kinetic camera action necessary for good box office today. There’s just a whole lot of talent up there on the screen — and as an ex-Chicagoan I must commend the art direction, especially the re-creation of Depression Era Lincoln Avenue and the Biograph Theatre, where John Dillinger caught his final movie.
[While on the topic of biography, my first film at the Biograph was a midnight movie of Truffaut’s JULES AND JIM in the 1980s.]
I was intrigued enough by Marion Cotillard’s performance in PUBLIC ENEMIES that I rented the DVD of LA VIE EN ROSE; and every bad thing you can say about a biopic is crystallized and exhibited in this opus.
There are some time-jumps but they don’t comment on each other; surveying Piaf’s life from cradle to tomb also means that supporting characters come and go without being developed or even signified. It truly is a movie made in the camera-on-the-head-of-a-dog style. But what made the experience agonizing was how the film was knee-deep in clichÃ©s (cinematic, dramatic, representational). I wanted to bail after 10 minutes, again after 29 minutes, again at 50 minutes. I finally couldn’t take another second about an hour into the film.
Once a friend was riding with me as I was driving around Austin doing errands. The NPR jock was playing French pop music that morning. After 5 or 6 tunes from the car radio my friend said, “France is the only culture that can make music sound more cloying than a Gay Men’s Chorus.” While Piaf was great, I think the term “cloying” perfectly embodies the immature approach of LA VIE EN ROSE.
The most exciting revelation over the holiday was GO FORTH, a Levi’s commercial screened at the multiplex in Houston before PUBLIC ENEMIES. It was only 60 seconds (five of the eight movies I have listed as favorites on my Facebook page run under twenty minutes) but it expressed the totality of this moment’s American experience. Beginning with the image of a half-submerged neon sign spelling AMERICA flickering to life, Cary Fukunaga (the director of SIN NOMBRE) has created the first Obama Era cinema experience, using imagery that brings home the feeling of our current epoch, with an audio counterpoint of the voice of Walt Whitman reading his poem America. It can be viewed on the Levi’s website or at YouTube.