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 JERICHO MILE (Dir. Michael Mann, 1979, US) – Out of Time

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Mann’s exceptional staging of action sequences often amount to an orgasmic visual and sensory poetry. Mann’s action is not dirty but graceful. It has a kind of scholarly attention to detail made implicit in the micro gestures of his characters that amplify a grand psychological schemata. In 1979 Michael Mann was 36 when he co-wrote and directed The Jericho Mile. This was a TV movie for ABC that Mann was inspired to make when he was in Folsom State Penitentiary researching to re-write Straight Time (1978) for Dustin Hoffman. Mann would spend much of the 1980s producing popular TV crimes series such as Miami Vice and Crime Story, using television as a basis to develop and test out ideas which he would in some cases return on a larger cinematic canvas. Perhaps the most notable example is L.A. Takedown (1989), a TV movie which would re-emerge as the epic crime saga Heat in 1995.

In The Jericho Mile, Larry ‘Rain’ Murphy (Peter Strauss) is the forerunner to the archetypal Mann protagonist: a male loner, habitually a professional criminal and proletariat, unyielding to the powers that be. In fact, there is something inherently spiritual and ancient in the Mann protagonist; articulating a contempt for normal life while adhering to an unbreakable, punishing moral code. Serving a life sentence in Folsom State Penitentiary Murphy has resorted to distance running in the prison yard, an act he has perfected so precisely and rigorously, the administration at the prison notify the Olympics distance running team of Murphy’s exceptionalism. Mann portrays running as a kind of expiation ritual for Murphy, explicated through a corporeal figuration in which the body, notably through slow motion and rhythmic editing, becomes magnified as both defiantly spiritual and political. If running is one of the few actions the state cannot regulate, Murphy’s refusal to stop running is a conventional manifestation of the rebellious anti-authoritarian prisoner often witnessed in the genre of the prison film.

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The Jericho Mile is a work cloaked in the repertoire of the American prison film, professing Mann’s preliminary and assiduously subversive capacity to navigate genre cinema. If the auteur theory is dead and no longer holds the validity it once had, engendering a sickening proselytisation of mostly white dead directors, then it becomes almost sacrilege in these overly testing times of film criticism to put up a reasoned defence of Mann’s authorship without being razed to the ground by a profanely persecutory tide of reactionary debate typically instigated by hack culture. The mere mention of the word auteur is certain to raise enough dread to vanquish those directors who may have been immortalised in the past. But Mann’s work does owe a substantial debt to the legacy of American genre cinema and he may in truth remain one of the handful of directors including Martin Scorsese who have continually sought to refine thematic and aesthetic preoccupations in the hope of inadvertently living up to the auteur myth.

The Jericho Mile lacks an aesthetic finesse and technical proficiency, which can be partially attributed to the relatively low budget of the production compared to Mann’s later films. Nonetheless, a considered glance points to cursory stylistic signifiers such as the classic use of an exacting asymmetrical/planimetric framing Mann would nurture exponentially into an abiding theme of transience; characters floating through the non-spaces of super-modernity and habitually sutured into urban architectural landscapes – an expressionistic totem of his crime films. But like so many of Mann’s later protagonists, Murphy is out of synch with society; he is literally moving against the grain. And it is the equation of time, usually not having enough of it, and in this case, time as a source of oppression which rings true in the final act of The Jericho Mile. When Murphy throws the stopwatch, a series of slow motion edits amplify the act of ideological resistance, thereby articulating a refusal to not only stick it to the man, the powers that be, but stressing the rule of no attachments, later emerging as a defining trait of the Mann protagonist.

One can read further into the merits of this ideological sentiment, establishing a proletariat exhortation of the outsider and the repudiation of assimilation and the surrendering of a specifically ancient notion of moral integrity. The prison board does not let Murphy run, and they were never going to, because he refuses to repudiate the social circumstances in which his crime took place. Doubly, Murphy cannot do this as it would mean having to compromise his view of the world. The sense of self worth and integrity the Mann protagonist guards against is also demonstrated in the sequence that sees Murphy burn Dr. D’s (Brian Dennehy) stash of money. The burning of the stash is in retaliation for the murder of Stiles (Richard Lawson), a black inmate, and Murphy’s sole friend. Since Mann’s next film Thief (1981) is manifestly connected to The Jericho Mile, the eponymous Frank (James Caan) is very much how Murphy would have behaved had he made it back on the street, and when Murphy burns the stash, it is another act of defiance that is played out again at the end of Thief when Frank destroys what he has built over the years. In both cases, there is a patent notion the Mann protagonist cannot be at peace until a kind of requisite equilibrium is restored and this can at times mean the neutering of materialism.

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Folsom, an intense microcosm of racial and ethnic fidelities, is the the connective glue, bringing together Mann’s crime universe, and in The Jericho Mile. In Folsom, Mann depicts an intense gang rivalry, often a key feature of the American prison genre, contested by the inter-racial friendship between Murphy and Stiles who is killed by the white gang for his refusal to become a drug mule. In some respects, and though Murphy resolutely remains a loner, he later emerges as a communal force, creating a united front amongst the varying gangs, the hispanic and black gangs eventually coming together to oppose the ruling hegemonic white prison gang. Murphy’s act of running is far more political than emotional, personal than mutual, enunciating an extraordinary catharsis which soars as Murphy races round the prison yard to the blinding guitar riffs of Sympathy for a Devil. It is a Mann refrain, one filled with a melodious, organic and beguiling cinematic sleight of hand.

BLACKHAT (Dir. Michael Mann, 2015, US) – Moments, Impressions and Aesthetics

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Defining moments in films can go unnoticed since the visual expressionism of most filmmakers is relatively provincial, acquiescing to broader commercial empathies. It is not right to reduce or distil the essence of Mann’s films to mere moments, as this would make the claim his films work fleetingly and intermittently. Moments can also be interpreted as marks of distinction attributed to an auteur as formidable as Mann whose films are some of the most authentic, aesthetically striking and thematically cogent genre pieces to have emerged from the mainstream of contemporary American cinema. There are two moments in question in Mann’s latest film Blackhat that are framed outside the periphery of genre, and which would constitute as authorial slight of hand. The first is when hacker Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) is released from prison and pauses briefly on a runaway before boarding a jet. The second sees FBI Agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) gunned down by zealous paramilitary bagman Kassar on the streets of HK (Mann is one of the few directors who finds an aesthetic beauty and apotheosis from action sequences). Time and space are the two dimensions linking both moments, imbuing a transience and solemnity often affiliated with the urban universe of Mann.

The first moment framing Hathaway in a series of slow motion edits as he looks of into the distance is interspersed with a classic Mann visual trait, the asymmetrical composition, with the camera lingering slightly to the left of the urban male loner so that negative space fills the frame, creating a disruption which in this case could be viewed as Hathaway staring into the existential void or clearer still the abyss of cyberspace which is infinitesimal. Mann’s interruption of the logic of classical narrative cinema with such an authorial articulation punctuates and contorts the linearity of time so this moment becomes a defining point of reference rather than just an attempt to assert stylistic consistency. Such discontinuity is also philosophical since the very existence of Mann’s male protagonists is predicated on time: the time to think, to act, and above all, the time to live and die. What if we reframed such moments as in-between moments? Those extraneous micro details typifying realist cinema or the bits that no audience member would be interested to look at for a few fleeting seconds since it distracts from ignoble narrative pleasures. Kent Jones in his monograph (1999) on L’Argent (Money, 1983) argues the cinema of Bresson is a compendium of ‘impressions’ of life as recalled by the director and captured on film. Being impressionistic suggests something altogether deleterious these days, superficiality perhaps. Would we dare make the implication that De Sica was an impressionist, and that even the cinema of Mann is about framing impressions? Remarkably, Mann has referred to his cinema as a realist one. If authenticity, extended years of research, is proof that his films pulsate inorganically and demonstrate a noted aesthetic dexterity then it works aggressively to mask the realist argument, which inexorably gets displaced.

The second in-between moment is realised more sparingly than the first, occupying a more familiar Mann visual milieu, an urban topography, this time of late night Hong Kong. When Kassar and his men gun down Agent Barrett, Mann cuts to Barrett framed in a low angle medium close up, her body riddled with bullets and her lifeless eyes wide open. The next shot, from the POV of Barrett, is a vertiginous high angle shot of a glistening HK skyscraper reaching into the night skies. Framing Barrett’s death through the image of a tall building, Mann connects her death to that her of late husband, a victim of 9-11, and again contorts linearity so that a poetic visual metonymy surfaces. In both junctures, time is the enemy, the most ephemeral of contests in the Mann cosmos.

Blackhat is in many ways Mann’s first truly ‘global’ film, unfolding chiefly in HK and Jakarta. Both of these urban spaces are never positioned as alien environments and seem on many occasions inseparable from the American city streets of Chicago or Los Angeles. If a post-globalised urban context holds no barriers for Mann’s cops, criminals, outsiders and anti-heroes then cyberspace as a site for granting a precarious anonymity, so often craved by Mann’s urban male loners, is at stake, emerging as a contest in which Hathaway must confront his double and mirror image, the eponymous hacker. Such opposition educes Manhunter, Heat, Collateral and Public Enemies in which mirror images as an authorial preoccupation is taken to its logical conclusion, the shattering of the double and its final elimination, which in the case of Blackhat plays out with an erudite genre equivocation, hinging emotively on revenge. It could in fact be the most benign of all Mann’s endings since the world of crime is a digital one: undetectable and immeasurable unlike the tangible ‘scores’ of traditional urban crime.

This narrative departure is not a complete break from Mann’s authorial traits since time still matters. Yet in the past, Mann’s urban loners who know their time is up such as Neil McCauley in Heat or Vincent in Collateral, the doomed noir trajectory, means their existence is also hinged on adherence to a moral code that advocates a no attachments policy. But Hathaway goes the furthest to reject such an ideal since his escape at the end is with Lien (Wei Tang). Imaginably Mann’s male protagonists are that much freer in a post globalised world; that they can disappear and become invisible since time and space have become that much more fragmented. In this context Blackhat is closer to the narrative finality of Manhunter (note the parallels between Jack Crawford and Captain Dawai in terms of their roles as meditators) and The Last of the Mohicans. It is in the vagaries of transience that remains an absolute veracity about Mann’s work.

1992 and the release of The Last of the Mohicans is significant in terms of determining the point at which critics started to take Mann seriously. It was one of the few occasions that critics came to a consensus on a Mann film. Perhaps Heat is the film that brought wider mainstream acclaim and recognition but the mixed critical responses to Blackhat reiterates the fate of films like Thief, Miami Vice and most recently Public Enemies, misconstrued films that have grown in stature. The commercial failure of Blackhat lies with Universal who never pushed the film, botched the marketing and subsequently dumped the film. What makes Blackhat and every Mann film so exceptional is the exacting precision of the framing, composition and combination of shots; there is alchemy to his work, a rapturous aesthetician absent from the mainstream of American genre cinema in desperate need of resuscitation.