When I see Johnny Depp jangle his spurs and draw down on witless security guards spouting “gimme all your money” in a down home Southern drawl, I’m sure I will let out a little sigh of pure happiness. These sighs communicate one thing and one thing alone: God, I’m glad to be at the movies right now.
Obviously, there is never any guarantee about whether or not a movie will fulfill your expectations. Hell, sometimes it’s better, at least more interesting, for it not to fulfill your expectations. But there are certain movies that, based on the talent involved, just look too good to doubt, and Public Enemies looks like one of those movies. Michael Mann is one of the most scrupulous and passionate filmmakers working today, and no matter what he has coming out, I know I have to be there as soon as possible to observe.
But I’m excited about this movie for a number of other reasons. One is the chance to see Johnny Depp play a true outlaw without a hint of irony; I’ve never seen him play the rougish, untethered bad apple from the mold of George C. Scott and Robert Mitchum. Another reason is the chance to see Depp square off against Christian Bale; these are the two most imaginative, original character actors working today, and getting to watch them share a scene is sure to send chills up the spine of every audience member, at least the ones who know them as more than just Captain Jack and Batman. And the third is the anticipation about how well the film will do in a time of the year where tastes are geared more toward shapeshifting robots. Public Enemies clearly has the stuff to kill at the box office (Depp against Bale in an action movie, directed by the Miami Vice guy), but I wonder if it is squandering its Oscar hopes by opening so early? Or if it is just too serious, and Transformers 2 might kick its ass with staying power? Ah, we shall see.
But another reason that I am anticipating Public Enemies is because it will mark one of the first times that a big budget, epic Hollywood period piece has been shot using the High Definition format. I say one of the first and not the first because that pesky David Fincher also shot Zodiac and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button using the Thomson VIPER Filmstream camera, one of the most high end HD cameras available and the same camera that Mann also used to shoot not only Public Enemies but Collateral and Miami Vice as well.
Why am I making light of this? Because this is an important moment in Hollywood’s continuing exploration of the High Def format as a vehicle for cost effective filmmaking. The debate over film vs. digital has raged on over the years, but in the beginning there were only a small pocket of filmmakers who were willing to use the High Definition format for their projects. For every Robert Rodriguez, there were 100 studio executives exhorting the supremacy of 35 mm film and sending young filmmakers eager to work with a more cost effective tool back to Circuit City with their tail between their legs.
High Def has gained a lot of traction with filmmakers, though. I mentioned Zodiac and Button as High Def movies, but others like Superbad, Apocalypto, Deja Vu, Superman Returns, Knowing, The Spirit, and Get Smart have all been shot using the High Def format. Guys like Steven Soderbergh and David Lynch have declared their love for digital cinematography and have shot films like Bubble and Inland Empire using not cumbersome film cameras, but simple, compact equipment that looks like something you could purchase at Best Buy.
Digital cinematography has become extremely pervasive in the independent film world, opening up doors for young filmmakers that few would have thought possible two decades ago. Film has always been the standard, and the costs attached to buying, shooting, and processing it, whether it be 16 mm or 35 mm, has always been a bit more than most without a toe in the studio world could bear. There will always be a debate about which format is better, and even the filmmakers who have used the High Def format haven’t gone all the way with it: guys like Fincher, though they shot most of their movies in High Def, will still go back to traditional film cameras for certain scenes, such as the slow motion murder sequences in Zodiac. Some films such as 28 Days Later have been shot using lightweight digital cameras but then blown up to 35 mm later on. And with some HD productions, I honestly have not been able to tell that it was not shot on film. This may be an indication of how High Def and digital cinematography are more of a cost saving technique and less something that can add a new artistic element to the story.
Mann is a different case. There is a highly noticeable difference between his HD films and an HD film like Superbad. Just looking at the trailer for Public Enemies, or the entirety of Miami Vice or Collateral, you can see that these movies look like they were shot on video. The depth of field extends further, there is a kind of jagged grain to the actors’ movements, the details in skies and trees simply look different. I’ve heard that Mann intentionally underlights his scenes so that the VIPER, which can pick up extensive detail even in low light situations, can add a more realistic visual tone to a scene. Perhaps that is why his version of High Def belongs in its own category–because he isn’t just trying to save money, but opening up a new dimension in his film.
People use the term ‘documentary realism’ a lot when they want to talk about a film’s believable, true-to-life energy. This is generally just another way of saying that the filmmaker chose to use a handheld camera a lot. Michael Mann will go handheld sometimes, but it won’t take over the visual experience of his films. Yet they feel more like documentaries than anything else on the market right now. I suppose the bold choice is no longer just to use HD, but to actually try to use it in a way that complements your story.
Miami Vice and Collateral were very easily complemented by Mann’s technical decision as they sought to present a brutally mundane portrait of, in the former, the rough and tumble lives of Miami cops and, in the latter, an unforgiving night of the soul in urban Los Angeles. When I heard that Mann was going back to the 30s and making a period piece about John Dilinger’s life on the run, I was excited, but one question sat uncomfortably in the back of my mind: is he going to shoot it using High Def?
Apparently, once certain filmmakers use the format once, they don’t want to go back. Seeing the period in Mann’s HD was incredibly jarring the first time. Think about the way directors have depicted the 30s, 40s, and 50s throughout cinema history. Can you think of three decades to which our visual perceptions are more rose-colored? When I think of those times, I think of movies like The Good Shepherd, where everything is very smooth and seems to have just been touched by the hand of a set decorator. The Aviator springs to mind too, where Scorsese actually emphasizes how our visual idea of the 30s is completely dictated by the films we have seen.
Public Enemies is probably the first film that I’ve seen that is going to give me that period in a way I have never seen it before, and it is going to feel far more believable than the approach that would be taken with a tradional 35 mm film camera. This will be an important movie on a visual level because it might finally indicate how the High Def format can be used to unveil different dimensions in the story or present viewers with a version of a period that they have never seen before.
So when Johnny Depp jangles his spurs and jabs his tommy gun in the face of some innocent bank teller, I will, on one hand, be writhing in cinematic ecstasy simply because of the coolness of what the actors are doing. On the other hand, I will be nodding my head in appreciation for the originality of how they look doing it.