Dana Bubulj: Sculpture, Film, Shadows, Art

Their work, words and wonder

Category: Film

Impressions of ‘Public Enemies’ (2009)

This was on the telebox the other night and I wanted to write something brief about its camera&etc work that struck me. Both as a note to myself as I found it interesting and to wake up this languishing blog. When I initially saw the posters for Public Enemies, I was quite excited. Depp & Bale in 30s get-up, with gangsters and tommy guns – that sounded quite the draw. I didn’t get around to it and it fell off the peripheries of the map, as is so often the case.

Theatrical poster

I hadn’t noticed the director at the start of the film, Michael Mann, but despite that was throughout the film regularly thinking about his 1995 film Heat, which was a much more compelling viewing, perhaps because the characters were given far more emotion with which to work. Working from non-fiction does not preclude characterisation. In fact, I’d argue that given these people are apparently such big things in the American consciousness of history, they should be human. Obviously they’re not played for larger than life, instead a more real, world-weary greyness, but there shouldn’t really be more emotion in Bale in Equilibrium. The silent looks of welling tears can only be used *so* much before they look a bit bizarre. 

Also oh god the camerawork, it was so distracting. Digital hand-held cameras with little to no soundtrack except diegetic snippets of music from the era, particularly with a sparse script, left me cold. Rather like a Van Sant film than what you might imagine from the premise. Actually, that comparison seems more apt now I come to edit this post. From my paper-scrap scrawls mid film to the draft of this, I looked at one or two easy-to-find reviews online and was struck by Douglas Messerli referring to Depp’s turn as “balletic”. As a film of set pieces, it might have been more effective using entirely diegetic sounds/recordings over their live action. Or even using the news reports of the time – like a montage effect but with less cheesy-80s connotations.

Did I want a blockbuster, action-packed and adrenaline-pumped? Not particularly, but some life would have done – even if the protagonists were intended to seem so tired. It all seemed a bit flat. Contrast with a quiet character like George Smiley from Tinker Tailor Soldier SpyHe says little and yet remains quietly compelling. Am I just naturally more drawn to Gary Oldman? Hm. He works in contrast to the more emotional characters, particularly near the climax of the film. At the climax of Public Enemies, or rather, the multiple catch-release shoot outs, I was periodically looking at the clock going “well, there’s an hour of the film left, so clearly there’s no danger here”. The deaths of the surrounding characters were meaningless to me because they were not given a chance to exist for us as an audience.

You know what I think the most effective scene of that film was, tellingly? It was at the theatre, with Dillinger watching Manhattan Madness, and truly feeling, I think, a connection to the idea of a character that no longer existed in the world. Both him and Purvis, the script is at pains to point out repeatedly, are perhaps more comfortable in the older days of chasing criminals through orchards, without the science and the morally conflicted methods of the new Bureau. Had the film wanted to go down this route more and make a point about the shifting paradigm, then yeah, it’d be more focussed. As it was, it was too emotionally detached. The love between Dillinger and Frechette (Cotillard), didn’t bring any dynamic either: there were early warnings to avoid the women because blah blah old trope of attachments are dangerous, but it isn’t delivered. There’s no real arc to speak of, and it watched like a historical document rather than bringing that history to life, which with some more innovative use of archival sound, it could have, compellingly.


Moonrise Kingdom and Voyeurism (some thoughts)

When last up in the ford of Oxen, I finally got to see a film at the Ultimate Picture Palace, a lovely small cinema that I’ve got to explore more, as it is warm, friendly and seems to key into a more antiquated film experience, which in some ways was appropriate given that the film, Wes Anderson‘s Moonrise Kingdomwas set in 1965 in a remote New England island.


The colours were beautiful: vivid and pure saturation, and of course it was shot excellently. I had initially been wary of seeing it, mainly due to being bored during The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, also my enduring feelings about hipsters (which are to hit them with sticks). But this aside, it was good to see at not-exorbitant prices, *though* some of the interactions between the central child actors made me want to die while watching them.

I understand Anderson’s attraction to making adults act like children and children grown up and serious, and the inherent whimsy and true-to-life-ness that this often has, but I don’t feel the need to watch two twelve year olds undress and awkwardly snog. I kept seeing them (perhaps unfairly) as Sally and Glen from Mad Men in my head was another jarring aside, but this seems to be a personal association. But yeah, their love story: of initial attraction of two children who don’t seem to fit in with their peers/siblings and decide to run away together is something the audience watching can key into as nostalgic escapism. But, as is so often, it is the gaze in which lies the problem. Can a film do justice to early sexuality? Is the medium so inherently based on voyeurism that it is impossible to explore without being so bodily removed from the play of the characters?

“Leave it to Wes Anderson to turn… half-naked children groping at each other, bleeding, talking about hard-ons—into something that feels at once playful, tasteful, and bracingly real.” – Asawin Suebsaeng @ Mother Jones.

No one is doubting the truth of the scene. Truly, the interest in one another’s bodies and the awkward exploration is ‘honest’, and true to their respective ages.

When reading around for this post, I came across a comment on a review that also keyed into some of my thoughts on the film:

“I totally agree that it was a relatively “honest” depiction of that kind of thing, but the question becomes whether or not we need a visual depiction of it… if it’s a movie for adults, then it is (actual…) children pushing boners into each other for adult eyes… This isn’t a particularly subversive paragraph in Bridge to Tarabithia or whatever. This is fetishized childhood for people who haven’t been children in decades.”

The first part, I’m not going to address. If things were only made due to need, then where would we be? Well, function and form would become more intrinsically linked which may please the more Marxist of artist craftspeople and that could be interesting, but beside the point! The audience of a Wes Anderson film is never going to be a young audience seeing their own lives: it is an audience of escapists, of those after the Peanuts-esque childhood with adults that have their foibles exaggerated like a caricatured chin.

“Didn’t you ever snog a boy or girl at that age?” a friend asked, after the film. Beside the point.

The film is made to key into our, the viewers’, childhoods, using characters as avatars. However, unlike book characters, where relating to character experiences can be easier due to not being so bodily excluded from the scene, Moonrise Kingdom just felt voyeuristic. The awkwardness of the character interactions, much like in Life Aquatic, is made more so because of the inherent voyeurism of the camera, which is unrepentant and cold in its pans. Perhaps I would have felt less like an intruder in their world if the camera had been more sentient. Perhaps that’s the point. I certainly am not arguing for cinema not to make you uncomfortable, but there are things perhaps to be unpacked further.

I said earlier that perhaps film was a bad medium to access such things. Maybe given the business surrounding it, it’s harder. Television is a better way to talk to younger audiences, and I think Skins is probably a good example. It caused such havoc when it started, as a brash, youthful take on sex, drugs and youth. But it spoke to the teens that age, so much so that I’d argue that with each iteration and new cast, it loses its older audience to gain a new one, reaching that point and having its own, current issues.

Final thought, which is in no way a conclusion, but a petering out of time before the wrong side of dawn

“The film… has a rapt quality, as if we are viewing the events through Suzy’s binoculars or reading the story under the covers by a flashlight.” –  Kristin M Jones @ Film Comment

I quote this because I like the idea of the ubiquitous binoculars serving as a focus. It could have been more awkward, if the adults searching for the runaways had character internal character development, or at least, a less shallow one: some of the adults do identify with the children – notably the policeman, played well by Bruce Willis, who is having a messy affair with Suzy’s mother. The un-comfort of the adults finding the children in flagrante (ish) could have worked to counterpoint the natural desires of the children. But the audience, I feel, is meant to relate to the mature (and yet inexperienced) children, laughing at the folly of adults. Which I can get behind, but still, thoughts. Hm.

I’d definitely be happy to discuss it more and this post is mainly a way for me to gather thoughts together. If you’ve opinions, feel free to share in the comments below.

Suzy Bishop & her binoculars.