Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies,” which opened last week, is a terrific movie for all the traditional reasons but also for a nontraditional one — the way Mann approaches a period story with an ultramodern technology.

“Public Enemies,” as you might already know, was shot with the Viper Filmstream, a $70,000 high-definition digital video camera that creates aN effect utterly distinct from that of traditional 35mm film cameras. Viper Filmstream is potentially very jarring to audiences accustomed to the limited range of visual styles associated with stories set in certain historical eras, in this case the Great Depression.

Mann shot his last two movies, “Collateral” and “Miami Vice,” in the same style, also with Viper cameras. In those movies, while the HD cinematography was a distinguishing characteristic, Mann’s choice was not as radical — and neither was the effect. “Collateral” and “Miami Vice” take place in a modern world of gleaming LCD screens and sleek towers, and the coldly technical visual style feels appropriate to the content.

As employed in “Public Enemies,” though, the style seems counterintuitive, and it has strongly divided reviewers and audiences. Manohla Dargis of the New York Times wrote that “Michael Mann’s ‘Public Enemies’ is a grave and beautiful work of art” and called Mann “a filmmaker who’s helping change the way movies look.” Todd McCarthy of Variety, though, wrote that “the bright flaring, occasional unnatural movements and excessive detailing of skin flaws remain annoying, as does the insubstantiality of the images compared to those created on film.” But the comment perhaps most epitomic of the popcorn-buying public’s reaction to the visual style comes from anonymous commenter “OtownRog” on Jeffrey Wells’ Hollywood Elsewhere site, who argues plaintively that “Public Enemies” does not qualify as art: “The movie neither looks (HD) nor feels ‘epic’….Where’s the sheen of myth, the glow of celluloid?”

The Viper camera boasts enhanced depth of field and breathtakingly detailed compositions of nighttime scenes, revealing shapes, and nuances in the darkness that would be invisible on celluloid. But it also adds a sort of bleached muddiness to the image, sucking out the warmth and exposing dermal imperfections. Most of all it really does look like video, with that harsh and scrubbed-raw effect that we associate with home movies shot on miniDV, not big budget Hollywood films we see in theaters.

One consequence of that association is that we tend to equate the resulting visual effect with amateurishness. I think that’s why an unadventurous viewer like “OtownRog” feels robbed. “OtownRog” went to the theater to see an old Hollywood spectacle — he wanted “Bugsy” or “The Untouchables.” But another consequence is that we equate the resulting visual effect with reality. That’s what appeals to Mann about the Vipers — the sense of immersion and hyperreality.

For a huge-budget film like “Public Enemies,” this puts an extreme burden on the art department/production design, etc, because if our eyes catch one thing amiss, one hiccup that relocates us from 1933 to 2009, the game is over. And our eyes are unforgiving. For “Public Enemies” to work, we have to believe every inch of real estate on screen was built, bought, and sold in the early decades of the twentieth century. And I did — I believed it. So here’s a major tip of the hat to the production design teams and crew of “Public Enemies,” who needed to do their jobs perfectly to support the weight of Mann’s decision to shoot on video. It’s a decision that could very easily have sunk the picture — but didn’t.

There are a lot of other reasons to see “Public Enemies” (the extraordinary performances, the killer script, the elegiac moodiness that pervades it like a smell or a taste), and perhaps more than once. But even if there weren’t, the technical achievement alone makes it an absolute must-see for those who appreciate great film—and video.

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