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Last night, I attended a screening of Public Enemies, Michael Mann’s retelling of the final months in the life of the Depression-era bank robber and working-class hero John Dillinger.  As a cultural artefact and an example of the new digital cinema, the film is a fascinating if problematic iteration of an emerging cultural tendency towards overdetermination and a pathological need to reveal the world in all its detail.  The film, as an aesthetic experience, is deeply frustrating.  The script is economical and propulsive, while at the same time it allows for enough space to effective engage with ideas of celebrity and the necessary role of violence in the maintenance of order.  Across the board, the performances Mann gets out of his actors, especially Stephen Graham as a cackling, sociopathic Baby Face Nelson, are compelling.  The period recreation is convincing and the film makes an extraordinary stab at realism by shooting in many of the locations across the American Midwest where the events recounted in the film actually took place.

The problem lies in the fact that Mann shot the film digitally, as he did with his last film, the laughably bad Miami Vice.  Had he shot Public Enemies with the same care for composition and lighting that are needed for celluloid, something Mann is in fact very, very good at (see Heat or Manhunter if you don’t believe me), this could have been a truly great film.  As it is, it just looks cheap.  Not gritty and realistic, just cheap, unfinished.  This kind of digital aesthetic can be and has been used very effectively, in films as diverse as Cloverfield and Che, but here the off-the-cuff cheapness and inconsistency of the whole affair – and a few of the scenes are stunningly beautiful – seriously undercut Mann’s attempt at historical truth and his striving for mythic resonance.  Maybe this is an indicator that filmic convention hasn’t quite caught up with the technological changes and that it will be some years before old-fashioned people like myself will be able to accept period cinema told without the warmth and depth of film.  On the other hand, maybe the film points, to a larger problem (or consideration, if we want to use neutral language) with digital media.  Ignoring entirely the question of quality – at points, the film looks like it was shot with a cell phone, and a cheap one at that – and the still-unsolved problems of digital cinema – the artefacting, the choppy movement when the lighting is less than ideal, the lack of real depth of field – the film renders the world in excessive detail.  Mann’s cameras render the world flat, uninteresting and completely exposed, stripping out the shadows, revealing the hidden and robbing the world of its mystery.

In a pleasing moment of syncronicity, upon arriving home, I ran across the following quotation from Robert Frank, the great Swiss/American photographer whose 1958 book The Americans gutted the American mythos of the 1950s, showing, over the course of only 83 images, that Americans were not contented suburbanites living the good life of the post-war boom but were something altogether darker and more interesting.  Frank, speaking about the rise of digital media, said in a recent interview:

There are too many images.  Too many cameras now.  We’re all being watched.  It gets sillier and sillier.  As if all action is meaningful.  Nothing is really all that special.  It’s just life.  If all moments are recorded, then nothing is beautiful and maybe photography isn’t an art anymore.  Maybe it never was.

The Americans: Parade — Hoboken, New Jersey (1955)
The Americans: Parade — Hoboken, New Jersey (1955)

From a man who turned the everyday life of America as a corporate entity in a stunning work of art, from a man whose vision of America is as influential as that of Elliott Erwitt or Walker Evans, this is more a requiem for a lost aesthetic age than a mere criticism.

Turning our gaze outward, it is interesting to note that the late French cultural critic and philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote a good deal about the problem of overrepresentation and overdetermination in a media-saturated world, which he captured in his enigmatic  yet highly evocative phrase ‘microscopic pornography’.  He writes, ‘This is what we have forgotten in modernity: subtraction brings force, power is born of absence.  We have not stopped accumulating, adding, raising the stakes.  And because we are no longer capable of confronting the symbolic mastery of absence, we are now plunged in the opposite illusion, the disenchanted illusion of profusion’.[1] There is an argument to be made that Public Enemies takes this disenchanted illusion and transforms it into an aesthetic strategy, perhaps a historical-film analogy to contemporary horror film’s tendency to show too much, too be too generous in its telling.

Baudrillard extends his argument about this paradoxical poverty of excess into the larger world and implicitly argues that the world as we know it is too visible, too well known for our own good: We are no longer in a system of growth, but of excrescence and saturation, which can be summed up the fact that there is too much.  There is too much everywhere, and the system cracks up from excess’.[2] Ours is, in a word, a world of hyperdensity, one in which people suffer from ‘an over-proximity of all things, a foul promiscuity of all things which beleaguer and penetrate’.[3] Baudrillard employs a number of techniques, phrases and metaphors to describe and critique this situation.  At turns, he writes of a ‘sidereal era of boredom’ and of ‘horizontal madness’,[4] looking always to something better: ‘Let us hope the random universe outside smashes this glass coffin’.[5] In The Transparency of Evil, he links the increasing banality of the world to the effects of technology: ‘We have left the hell of other people for the ecstasy of the same, the purgatory of otherness for the artificial paradises of identity.  Some might call this an even worse servitude, but Telecomputer Man, having no will of his own, knows nothing of serfdom.  Alienation of man is a thing of the past: now man is plunged into a homeostasis by machines’.[6] For Baudrillard, the rise of information technologies, at best a paradoxical form of plenty, serves as a primary illustration of this tendency.  In In The Shadow of the Silent Majorities, he writes,

We are in a universe where there is more and more information, less and less meaning … Everywhere information is reputed to produce an accelerated circulation of meaning, a plus-value of meaning homologous to the economic plus-value which results from the accelerated notion of capital.  Information is given as creative of communication, and even if the wastage is enormous a general consensus would have it that there is in the total nonetheless a surplus of meaning, which is redistributed in all the interstices of the social fabric … We are all accomplices in this myth.  It is the alpha and omega of our modernity, without which the credibility of our social organisation would collapse.  Yet the fact is that it is collapsing, and for this very reason.  Just where we think that information is producing meaning, it is doing the exact opposite.[7]

Bringing this insight to bear on our ongoing discussion of the unofficial record of the modern, rationalised city, in a novel extension to his neo-Romantic urge to reenchant language, Baudrillard writes in praise of a familiar form of unofficial, symbolic language as part of his critique of the contemporary urban experience, which he sees increasingly dehumanising: ‘The urban city is also a neutralised, homogenised space, a space where indifference, the segregation of urban ghettos, and the downgrading of districts, races, and certain age groups are on the increase.  In short, it is the cut-up space of distinctive signs’.[8] Baudrillard refers throughout his work to the practice of graffiti as a means of humanising the modern city, writing for example, ‘Graffiti covers every subway map in New York, just as the Czechs changed the names of the streets in Prague to disconcert the Russians: guerrilla action’.[9] In his famed Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard compares graffiti in the subways to ‘Symbolic ritual of incision and marks’[10] and makes explicit a theme in many of his works by writing, ‘Only the wounded body exists symbolically’.[11] Here Baudrillard recalls forcefully Michel De Certeau’s enigmatic statement, ‘Haunted places are the only ones people can live in’.[12]

In an age where technology allows us to strip more and more of the veneer off of the fundamental mysteries of the world, our films, like all of our art, would do well to remember this.

[1] Baudrillard, The Conspiracy of Art: Manifestos, Interviews, Essays, trans. by Ames Hodges, ed. Sylvère Lotringer (New York: Semiotext(e), 2005), 114.

[2] Jean Baudrillard, The Intelligence of Evil or the Lucidity Pact, trans. by Chris Turner (Oxford: Berg, 2005), 191.

[3] Jean Baudrillard, The Ecstasy of Communication, trans. by Bernard and Caroline Schutze (New York: Semiotext(e), 1987), 27.

[4] Baudrillard, Conspiracy, 109.

[5] Jean Baudrillard, The Illusion of the End, trans. by Chris Turner (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), 88.

[6] Jean Baudrillard, The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena, trans. by James Benedict (London: Verso, 1993), 58-59.

[7] Jean Baudrillard, In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities or the End of the Social, trans. by Paul Foss, John Johnston, Paul Patton and Andrew Berardini (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2007),99-100.

[8] Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, trans. by Iain Hamilton Grant (London: Sage, 1993), 76.

[9] Baudrillard, Symbolic, 81.

[10] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. by Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1981), 112.

[11] Baudrillard, Simulacra, 114. He calls back to archaic societies with this image of the marked body: ‘The savages knew how to use the whole body … in tattooing, torture, initiation – sexuality was only one of the possible metaphors of symbolic exchange, neither the most significant, nor the most prestigious, as it has become for us in its obsessional and realistic reference, thanks to its organic and functional character’. Baudrillard, Simulacra, 115.

[12] Michel De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, vol. 1, trans. by Steven Rendell (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 108.