Scott Ellington's Blog

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Public Enemies

Michael Mann’s commentary for this film is the definitive example of authorial intent exceeding the elastic limitations of the cinematic medium.  Public Enemies is an excellent film, but the commentary tenders layers of context that did not (probably could not) be brought to the viewer’s attention within the 2hour limitation and the cost constraints of the film.  Delivered by an expert filmmaker whose phenomenal familiarity with the material presented is nearly unsurpassed makes for magical depths of association and knocked me on my ass.  It didn’t hurt to find that Mann’s encyclopedic creative sensibilities pulled meaningful parallel speculations out of plausible places.

A drunk midwestern, middleclass kid robs a grocery store for $50 in 1923.  He’s sent to prison for 10 years, leaving it with a graduate degree in bank robbery courtesy of a mentor named Walter Pierpont who imbues the kid with a kind of sophisticated, methodical, rigorously military discipline that will elevate the student to the exalted national status of Public Enemy Number One for the 13 months of freedom on which the movie concentrates.  And yet the day of the independent career bank robber (just like Butch and Sundance) is absolutely done, not only because J. Edgar Hoover and the Bureau of Investigation says so, but because the end of prohibition means that the smartest elements of organized crime have moved beyond their ususal suspect activities (like harboring the high-profile gangs of independent bank robbers) to various forms of low-profile legitimate corporate criminality.  So the extra-ordinary audacity and public relations acumen embodied in the Dillinger organization is threated in its prime from both sides, leading directly to an historic outcome that’s related in a film about it 70 years after the fact and lovingly mirrored in the gangster movies Dillinger loves to watch…one of which makes it into Mann’s movie.

It crossed my mind as Mann described Hoover’s appointed Dillinger-ender, Melvin Purvis, that that very Southern gentleman’s Gman career and cultural tradition were profoundly mismatched, especially in context of Hoover’s mandate to get Dillinger by any means necessary.  While the film and commentary go so far as to strongly suggest that Purvis’ misgivings about the job and its executive director (later in the film) prevent him from doing the job to the fullest extent of his native ability, I’d like to go a step farther.

The threat Dillinger posed to national security justified Hoover’s strategies; arrest the target’s relatives for indeterminate periods of unlawful detention while subjecting those persons of interest to cruel and unusual forms of interrogation and exercise whatever forms of information gathering and monitoring of American citizens may be deemed necessary to achieve the agency’s goals.  So the movie was an interesting biopic about the end of Public Enemy Dillinger, but the realer public enemies were Hoover and Purvis.  And, thinking back, it seems that a remarkable variety of threats to national security are cited fairly continuously as ample justifications for extra-legal activity by heroic SuperPatriots who turn out increasingly swiftly to be incredibly slimy scoundrels.

I’d like to see Purvis and Dillinger team up to rid the world of Hoover, McCarthy, Nixon, Reagan, Rumsfeld, Bush, the FOX News Team and Bush…Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson and whoa.

Maybe that’ll be Luck.

And nobody contextualizes network neutrality (and cocksuckers) as clearly as Tim Wu, in my experience:

Crudely paraphrased:  Google’s approach to wireless internet is like America’s approach to the imposition of democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq; noble-sounding motives devolve into unlawful detention and torture.

25 Sep 10 Posted by | Uncategorized | 4 Comments

I, Spartacus LOST

Having now completed my second pass through the inital season of Spartacus:  Blood and Sand, I know that there are two commentary tracks (kinda hidden on disks 2 & 4) for episodes 5, Shadow Games, and 13, Kill Them All .  These tracks contain quantities of information that provide fragments of exactly what I was looking for, helpful indications of the intents of the storytellers.

I’d like to thank Sam W for posing questions of my last post that led me to look for more interesting answers to the uncertainties we share regarding this television show.  Some of those answers emerge from the commentaries, and lead to more interesting questions.

I think Sam’s primary objection to this television history was the frequency of incidental carnage visited on people whose casual placement in the narrative is uniformly insignificant.  Perhaps I overstate Sam’s case by saying the show’s wanton and computer-enhanced exhibition of contempt for human life is a very reasonable objection that earmarks an entertainment aimed at vicious morons.  Maybe that’s an understatement.

I had faith in Steve DeKnight that greater value was embedded in this tale than that.  I still think so.

In Gossford Park, the hierarchical order of relationships between masters and servants is central to the revealed development of characters.  In this television show, the hierarchical inequality of all mankind is gradually revealed to be in bitter conflict with values expressed in the narrative, composition, lighting, score and with the ever-expanding, labyrinthine personal agendas of each of the major and minor characters.  And the deeper I venture into the complexities of this version of Spartacus, the greater and more interesting are, to me, the embedded references within the tale to trials of conscience, the development of consequences, interpersonal agendas in conflict; and exterior references/riffs/homages to putatively-objective versions of history, previous versions of this story, I, Claudius, Paradise Lost, The Sopranos and Angel:  Not LOST, which I find more than merely interesting.

Let’s Get To Work and Kill Them All before the next round of informal negotiations with the AMPTP.  Perhaps I’m overreaching, slightly.

25 Sep 10 Posted by | Uncategorized | 5 Comments