THE KEEP (Dir. Michael Mann, 1983, US) – Atmospheric Exegesis

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Given Mann’s consolidation as perhaps American cinema’s greatest film auteur does a film like The Keep hold any bearing on his reputation today? What can the film tell us about Mann that we don’t already know? The Keep is the film that Mann has rarely acknowledged. It had a troubled production history and Mann’s original 3 hour plus rough-cut was eventually submitted as a 2-hour version. As a result of negative test screenings, Paramount took to cutting the film down to 96 minutes, all without Mann’s consent. One can certainly reason why Mann has sort of disowned the film. Apparent from the studio cut is the incoherence of the narrative structure and although I would argue logic is not a necessity for a narrative to function and communicate, here one can readily notice sequences have been excised purely for a cruel commercial necessity. This is no way makes the film’s narrative difficult to follow but one wonders at the logic of Mann’s greater narrative design. Nonetheless, The Keep is still an inexplicably mesmeric work as Mann’s cinema has always relied on a taut visual literacy embedded in the bold architectural aesthetics.

Primarily, what makes The Keep a point of fascinating authorial enquiry is the film’s status as a supernatural horror, the only occasion when Mann has ventured into this genre territory (although this complicates Manhunter’s genre status). But horror is only one vagary in a hybrid genre address that also draws on tropes from the war film, the holocaust sub-genre, and the thriller. However, it is the supernatural horror aspects that are resolutely vivid, tapping into a corpus of ancient European mythological folklore manifested in the archetypal signifiers such as the priest, the protector-warrior figure or talisman, the princess, the scientist or boffin and of course the demonic entity and monster. Horror archetypes of this nature offer the film a certain genre logic augmented by an expressionist design. Much more significant in terms of real world ideology is the politics of World War II and the Holocaust which forms the backdrop to the film. However, suspicion abounds if the studio did away with the so-called extraneous narrative material that probably would have helped to draw out a clearer ideological schematic between Jewish historian Dr. Cuza (Ian McKellen) and the Nazis. Instead what we are left with is a sort of crude symbolic tryst that is merely decorative and fails to serve a deeper ideological ferment.

In many ways it is instructive to treat The Keep as resolutely atmospheric work and this is where the film is at most communicative in terms of stylistic explication; Tangerine Dream’s discombobulated score, the tenebrous cinematography by Alex Thomson and the categorically ingenious production design by the altogether legendary John Box (who had also worked on The Sorcerer – Mann’s film feels like the ideal cinematic brethren to Friedkin’s now reclaimed masterpiece), synchronically create an aura of cabalistic dimensions that are played out in the appositely augural ending. I really hoped we would have seen a director’s cut by now but that may never come to fruition given Mann’s more than solid reputation. However, given the cult following The Keep has attracted over the years certainly raises hopes that one day it will be reconstituted but for now we have to be satisfied with reimagining what could have been rather than what is.

THE MAGNIFICENT 7 (Dir. Antoine Fuqua, 2016, US)

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What if you got the opportunity to rework a contestable classic but had nothing to say? This is pretty much what The Magnificent 7 feels like. One can probably imagine the creative heads that cooked up this idea stemmed from the certified stone cold image of Denzel Washington as a mysterious gunslinger on a horse cloaked in black; an irresistible cinematic construct indeed. But that’s where this idea should have ended.

Fuqua’s re-imagining is a lamentably inert, mechanical Western that refuses to take a breath. Washington’s intro is ace, conjuring a laconic rhythm that Fuqua should have tried to mirror in the rest of the film. Asking that a director slow it down seems like a prosaic request to make these days but even if this was the case then that typically means having something good enough to explicate to fill those silences. Consequently, characters cultivate insubstantial psychological depth, relying on the debatable vestiges of parody. Fuqua may not be the most rousing of filmmakers yet Training Day spasmodically articulated a promise to grow. However, it did not take long for us to discover Fuqua is just as parochial in his approach to big budget high concept cinema as his contemporaries. Perhaps then it would be erroneous to set him apart, deploring his authorial limitations as singular in a cultural practice of artistic habituation.

A paralysing inertness arises from a half-baked script that lingers thoughtlessly on how best to regurgitate a litany of genre clichés. While the elemental simplicity of Kurosawa’s original idea marked The Seven Samurai as a classic, what Sturges got spot-on with his hip Hollywood updating, regardless of the detractors, was the accent on epic moments, something which is altogether absent from Fuqua’s lacklustre updating. The Magnificent 7 may foolishly signal diversity and progress in Obama’s post racial make-believe, but the tired, one-dimensional stereotyping reeks of a regressive cinematic imagination, infecting the lumbering narrative trajectory. Not only does the film refuse to develop the promising austerity tinged ideological machinations alluded to in the opening but points to a political acquiescence rendering both the racial and economic politics of the film a banal afterthought.

An extended opening and an even longer protracted ending means a middle section goes missing. Typical emotional investment by the audience never transpires. Instead relationships, characters and emotions are given to us in digestible bite size anachronisms, amounting to a type of corrosive creative contempt. Such contempt is mirrored in an altogether familiar aesthetic, stylistic monotony. Infuriating hyper edits, a terribly uninspired score by James Horner, stock action sequences and misplaced quips delivered with unusually poor comic timing by Chris Pratt may appear like minor quibbles but the culminating effect is a totalizing self-aggrandizement evident in contemporary popular culture. However, critical observations of this kind are not uncommon for high-end Hollywood cinema. If so, then how can the Western like Science Fiction, one of the few genres that accommodates for a transposition of anxieties, where genre subversion has flourished, come across as incredulous and oblivious to such faculties?

Since this reworking of The Magnificent 7 retains the title and the thrust of the narrative, then why abandon the original theme music for a completely redundant and forgettable score by Horner? I am not sure if this was down to an issue to do with rights or the distracting penance for nostalgic affectations but in my opinion Fuqua should have blasted Bernstein’s mythical music all over the place. At least give us some nostalgic satisfaction. Not only does the absence of the original theme music explain the lack of the requisite gratuitous money shot in which we dispiritingly never see our magnificent seven riding together but points to the absence of spectacle which a film of this scale should have been aspiring to, at least in spirit.

The film opens with a flawed panning shot, moving from left to right, an attempt to draw on the mountainous milieu of the American West and Frontier imagery. But what should have been a shot that lasted for much longer takes place hastily, striking a tone of artistic impatience. This instance points to the wider disjointed design of the film, problematizing the increasingly populist critical position often chosen when big budget Hollywood films fail to deliver, labelling them as passable, great fun, mildly diverting and so on. Even the mammoth shootout at the end is feebly conceived, the problems of filming a half-decent action sequence writ large once again. I should also briefly mention the villainous Bart Bogue; an apparition that lingers indistinctly, dwindling into a puddle of cowardly piss which may be wholly representative of the whoring capitalist tyrant archetype but fails to offer concrete oppositional ideological threat – it is all rendered as cinematic bluster.

If anything The Magnificent 7 is a star vehicle for Denzel Washington (with the long sideburns Washington is a ghostly reincarnation of Henry Fonda’s Frank from OUATITW) and the likely success of the film at the international box office is a continual reminder that he is probably one of the few American film stars who can still pull in a loyal crowd of filmgoers and justify being labelled bankable. Part of me hopes the film does well at the box office. We might get more Westerns. However, if they are all going to be as derisible as this then maybe we should stop right here.

HELL OR HIGH WATER (Dir. David Mackenzie, 2016, US)

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With a title straight out of a Sam Fuller film, Hell or High Water is a delicious neo-noir Western, or a ‘film soleil’ as film writer Adam Batty pointed out to me, unexpectedly emerging as one of the most political films of the year. The political sensibilities of Taylor Sheridan’s very brilliant script tap into a bankrupt American culture. Truly, this is a flea bitten, austerity world sympathetically drawn out through a sinewy, fatalistic narrative so the loathsome political iconography of banks, foreclosures and mortgages aggregates to an undeniably prescient and antagonistic context. As brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) shoot their way through a series of bank robberies so that they can raise enough money to save their mother’s ranch from being swallowed up whole by a demonic bank, the real monster of our times, one cannot but help feel they are strangely justified in their actions.

While Hell or High Water has a brooding ideological subtext, the film also deals in many of the familiar conventions of the Western genre, notably the archetypal buddy bromance between Texas Rangers Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham), played out with a piercing beauty all of its own. Director David Mackenzie seems to understand and explicate the psychology of men better than most directors of his generation. And in some ways Hell or High Water is a continuation of Starred Up (2013), pausing to probe at male deficiencies with a suitably philosophical gaze. In addition to all of this, you also get Jeff Bridges, the cinematic personification of self-effacement, expressing a distinctly classic Texas drawl. Hell or High Water, along with The Hateful Eight, reminds us yet again the Western genre is perhaps the one genre that can live and breathe in any era.

ARDH SATYA / HALF TRUTH (Dir. Govind Nihalani, 1983, India)

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Govind Nihalani’s directorial debut in 1980 with the award winning Aakrosh (Cry of the Wounded) was inevitable. As an ace cinematographer, Nihalani collaborated closely with Shyam Benegal on many formative semi-realist critiques including Ankur, Nishant, Junoon and Bhumika. Benegal’s scepticism of social institutions and his sensitive representations of women, often victims of patriarchal oppression, would determine the equivalently leftist ideological machinations of Nihalani’s films as a director in the 1980s. Benegal tended to work with the same cast and crew for many of his early films including Shabana Azmi, Naseerudin Shah, Smita Patil, Om Puri and Amrish Puri, many of whom would be shared across with Nihalani in his own films.

Ardh Satya was only Nihalani’s third feature as a director and probably the one that he is best remembered for. It is also another key film from the second wave of Parallel Cinema. In some respects the use of melodrama which Benegal and Nihalani both relied on as a means of narrative storytelling raises the continuing question of the relatively undecided status of films like Ardh Satya; were they Middle Cinema or Parallel Cinema, or were they in fact both. Or was Middle Cinema a completely separate mode of categorisation and approach to filmmaking. Furthermore, the police/crime thriller moniker only adds to the complicated genre status of Ardh Satya. Because of this, Ardh Satya occupies a dubious status as an example of Parallel Cinema since the film has been claimed as critical to the development of the Bombay police/crime thriller. Though Ardh Satya marked a change in location for Nihalani with much of the film shot on location in and around the slums of Bombay (now Mumbai), thematically, the focus on the police as both a public institution and the officers who struggle to retain a sense of moral integrity in the face of corruption was a continuation of Aakrosh and would also signal a preoccupation with the police; Drohkaal and Dev would act as further evidence of Nihalani’s claim as an auteur of some considerable distinction.

The story of Ardh Satya, which means ‘Half Truth’, follows a young police officer, Anant Velankar (Om Puri in one of his most memorable roles), in the Bombay police department. Perceived as someone who is both upright and fair in his approach, Velankar discovers there are those who exist outside the law and have the political reach to manipulate the police for their own ends. One such person that Velankar tries but fails to arrest is Rama Shetty (Sadashiv Amrapurkar), a notorious local crime lord who reigns with a terrifying impunity while continuing to rule over the slum dwellers. Shetty uses his electoral support with the Bombay police and the slums to run for city council in the local elections. Velankar becomes increasingly disillusioned with the police as a potent institution for justice and his relationship with Jyotsna Gokhale (Smita Patil), a lecturer, offers respite from his doomed trajectory. Flashbacks recall Velankar growing up in a rural village in which his harsh, orthodox father, (Amrish Puri), also a police officer, humiliates his beleaguered mother. At the same time, Velankar is prevented from pursuing an ambition to become a professor, reasoning why he finds an emotional connection with Jyotsna’s intellectualism. Any attempts at Velankar confronting the lawlessness of Rama Shetty are undermined by the inherent corruption of his superiors, apathetic to the concerns of the ordinary slum dweller and more responsive to the demands of the middle class elite. Nihalani’s representation of a corrupt and complacent Bombay police acts as a wider condemnation of Indira Gandhi’s leadership and government.

Another significant element to the nightmarish tone is the substantial ideological contribution of Marathi playwright turned Indian art house scriptwriter, Vijay Tendulkar. Tendulkar was a regular collaborator with Shyam Benagal, having written the screenplays for Nishant and Manthan. The contempt for feudalism Tendulkar brought to the screenplay of Nishant is mirrored in the angry temperament of Ardh Satya. In the generational divide that opens up between the traditional values of the father (Amrish Puri) and the secular politics of the son (Om Puri), Velenkar’s rejection of his father’s marriage proposal extenuates his criticism of the way in which rural village life and its traditions simply perpetuate a status quo that aids those in positions of power, namely the ruling elite. Velankar finds it problematic to escape the shadow of his domineering father. But by taking the law into his own hands Velankar inadvertently shatters the social order, censuring his father for failing to question his own frailties as both an inadequate father and a benign police officer.

While the second wave of Parallel Cinema under the auspice of the NFDC was somewhat less angry, political and iconoclastic then the foundational years, many of the later films continued to adopt endings with a striking degree of disillusionment and fatalism, an idea of non-closure that was unconventional for Indian Cinema. Indeed what remains germane about Ardh Satya today is the urban topography of Bombay, an aesthetic motif that would leave its imprint on the Indian crime genre including Parinda, Satya and Black Friday.

Ardh Satya will be screening on Zee Classic: Sat 20 Aug 10pm