June 30, 2009

Authenticity in Public Enemies

We don't know if the upcoming Lone Ranger movie will be authentic, but another Johnny Depp vehicle demonstrates the importance of authenticity:

Review:  'Public Enemies'Though any number of name actors, including Lili Taylor as a confident sheriff and Giovanni Ribisi as gangster Alvin Karpis, make appearances, what's unusual about "Public Enemies" is Mann's determination not to have any face be an ordinary one.

A full 15 people (led by Avy Kaufman and Bonnie Timmerman) are credited with casting work on the film, and every face that appears on screen, from the members of Purvis' Chicago FBI squad to youthful junior G-men, are clearly hand-picked for individuality and impact.

Mann's attention to nominally small things, his insistence that every detail be authentic, including the clothes (Colleen Atwood is the costume designer) and the often historic locations (Nathan Crowley is production designer), lend a sense of rightness to the entire endeavor.

One of the interesting side effects of this exceptional care is to make "Public Enemies" so real it seems to transcend its period and exist out of time. Though the Depression was a major factor in Dillinger's career, we don't see or feel it all that much. What we get instead is the sense of a man whose name has lasted until now for a reason and, if the movies have anything to say about it, will last longer still.
Comment:  Apply the above lessons to any Native-themed movie. Choosing Native faces rather than generic ethnic faces gives the movie more impact. The attention to accurate details gives the movie a sense of "rightness." The movie feels so real that you willingly suspend your disbelief. You're transported out of your seat into the world on the screen.

This is how Michael Mann makes critically acclaimed movies.

Mann's movies might also make money if they weren't star vehicles: Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx (Miami Vice), Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx (Collateral), Will Smith (Ali), Al Pacino and Russell Crowe (The Insider), Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino (Heat). Only Collateral made money domestically.

Incidentally, Mann also made The Last of the Mohicans with Daniel Day-Lewis and Russell Means. Not the greatest movie, but at least it made money. Authentic movie-making plus authentic (and low-budget) cast = profit.

For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Movies.

1 comment:

Simone said...

I truly believe that having someone who represents the experience at hand is as authentic as one can get. I believe Indians should be called upon and used for Indian characters in movies and plays. We come in all manner of quantum so finding an actor that can claim various degrees of Indian shouldn’t be an issue, but being authentic to an Indian character might be. Of course then comes the issue of verifying that claim and considering if their tribal affiliations match those of the role..But I digress…lol..

Movie making is story telling. It is a person’s understanding and point of view. The teller chooses to develop or expose what sides of the story and characters he feels is important. Sometimes they are flat stereotypes that the movie maker feels is enough for the story. If we are lucky, in my opinion and preference, they are multi angled views of humanity that create a fuller story. Asking that a film to be authentic and push pass the stereo types is really asking for artistic growth from those making movies. The problem is in order to represent a specific ethnic group they must be defined and by defining them we immediately present a list of expectations attached to those stereotypes.

Perhaps it isn’t just about hiring Indian actors, who rightfully own their own definition of what it is to be Indian and should be the 1st considerations? Perhaps it is about considering whether the idea at hand dissects, explores and offers all sides of stereotypes for consideration, knowing that in the round we will see humanity not as caricatures? Perhaps the makers need to question whether the representation at hand is just a continuation and reinforcement of learned and expected stereotypes that prevent us from seeing another person as more than what we expect or are taught they should be?

Thanks for making me think…