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.

BADLAPUR (Sriram Raghavan, 2015, India) – Purgatory

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Director Sriram Raghavan fourth directorial feature Badlapur opens with a brave bit of tableaux cinema. We can’t quite figure out where to look; the frame is wide open with the camera observing at a distance everyday street life, all in a single take. A bank robbery and the violent getaway disrupts the ordinariness of the moment creating an urban tension that is never fully resolved but intrinsic to the thriller form. Badlapur is less neo noir and more urban thriller. Although one could argue the two are indistinguishable in many ways, what categorises Badlapur as a thriller is the way melodrama is constantly rising to the surface. Having said that Badlapur does still have numerous noir traits but it seems to have more in common with South Korean revenge thrillers like Oldboy and A Bittersweet Life than American film noir. Raghavan really knows his cinema as testified by his previous work and is more adept at working in such intertexts with a playfulness that doesn’t jar or feel too obvious in its mode of address. Particularly interesting is a capacity to reference an eclectic mix of pop culture; he begins by thanking Don Siegel and later acknowledging Daphne Du Maurier’s novel Don’t Look Now. Arguably Badlapur has more going on than simply labelling it a revenge thriller but the emotional thrust of Raghu’s (Varun Dhawan is inconsistently good) revenge mission is underdeveloped and the flashbacks (too few) to happier times with his wife and son are simply crass and unconvincing. Subsequently, Raghu’s thirst for revenge is contrived, lacking the necessary sense of indignation and violation often characterising classical revenge narratives. The songs are also dispensable, bolted onto as an afterthought.

Badlapur is a deeply nihilistic film though and Raghavan does succeed in getting across the way revenge creates a cloud of moral ambiguity but isn’t that a little simplistic? That revenge consumes even itself until nothing remains. Nawazuddin shines though as Liak in a delightfully comical role as a low life criminal who breezes through the film uttering the best lines and creating the film’s most rounded, involving and empathetic character. In a strange sort of way, this is a film about anti-heroes so returns to my early objection that Badlapur isn’t strictly noir. Perhaps it is then noir but only in its downbeat ending. Overall, this is still an efficient genre piece that shows Raghavan has a knack for pulling good performances out of average mainstream Hindi actors. It’s just not as brilliant as Johnny Gaddar which still remains Raghavan’s best film to date. Part of me would have loved to have seen what kind of film Badlapur could have been if Raghavan had replicated the tableaux style throughout, offering a Haneke like exercise in mainstream cinema (I’m thinking of how Cache works as a terrifying edge of your seat thriller). However, considering the categorical failure of Agent Vinod, Badlapur is a step back in the right direction for this promising young genre auteur.

UGLY (Anurag Kashyap, 2013, India)

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Director Anurag Kashyap really knows how to cast his films, finding actors (rather than working with stars) with the right level of anxiety in their faces, inculcating a strange volatility in the audience. Ugly could almost be a companion piece to Peddlers, a film produced by Kashyap and which is stuck in distribution hell with Eros. Both films are vicious tales about the city and its contemporary, hollow middle class inhabitants. Kashyap’s depiction of their psychology borders on derision, but the narrative meanders and gets caught up in the trap of trying to make all the pieces fit together especially towards the end. The story revolves around the kidnapping of a 10 year old girl but this becomes merely a device for Kashyap with which to get beneath the sordid milieu. A central métier is Kashyap’s inborn penchant for characterisation, assembling a vestige of stereotypes: the struggling actor, the depressed housewife, the desperate casting director and the embittered police chief, totaling a cesspool of monstrosity and urban depravity. Kashyap is right to take the position that his characters have created their own wretched circumstances and deserve not one shred of sympathy; he wants them to suffer as a way of expressing his own personal scorn. It also seems right that Kashyap made this film after Gangs of Wasseypur, exhibiting range but expressly reiterates a chief genre interest for urban noir that has emerged as a defining visual look. He also seems both enamored and repulsed by the Indian film industry and its systems, a theme that he has dealt with before and that resurfaces in the ridicule faced by the character of the struggling actor. Ugly is a minor work. Maybe it is a film that will stand up to repeat viewings as it certainly harbours a rawness and urgency about it that has been lacking in the past few films Kashyap has made.

THIEF (Michael Mann, 1981, US) – Proletarian Politics


Genre readings of Michael Mann’s debut feature film Thief are relatively inclined to explore both the crime film and neo noir which seem to intersect as a form of postmodern existential hybridity. Mann could have easily worked in the Hollywood studio era since he works specifically within genres. Separation for Mann from his contemporaries especially when it comes to the crime film is authorial preoccupations are lucid, intellectual and existential enough to transform the most ordinary or formulaic of situations into a kind of poetic rapture. Thief is a virtual template for Mann thematics he would regularly explore in the crime film genre. Yet in the midst of a narrative that could only be described as an urban western, Frank’s refusal to conform and to be assimilated into a much wider capitalist system of working class exploitation requires further elucidation as an early marker of Mann’s politics. 

One of the more interesting exchanges in terms of political dialogic occurs towards the end of the film between Frank, the worker in this case, and Leo, the master and boss. Having completed his final job as a high line safe cracker, Frank comes to see Leo, his new friend, for his cut. However, when Frank looks through the envelope full of cash he realises Leo’s idea of friendship is cynically unveiled as a form of ownership antithetical to Frank’s very existence. Frank’s defense of his ideological position is very revealing as it harbours a semi Marxist tone: ‘I can see my money is still in your pocket, which is from the yield of my labour’. When conflated with his ‘state raised’ background, a picture emerges of the proletariat rallying against the exploitation of labour which he must sell in order to survive and function in a capitalist American society. In many ways, this is Frank at his most political and the resistance he vigorously demonstrates to the humiliating demands of Leo, who wants to own Frank and thereby control him, is an extension of such a working class protest. Notably, Frank also furthers his argument about working class exploitation, saying: ‘You’re making big profits from my work, my risk, my sweat’. Oddly enough the tone of Frank’s criticisms concerning profits and his sweat is overly familiar in the context of corporation exploitation and most significantly the element of greed. Although Leo could be interpreted as the domineering crime boss, his conflict with Frank at this point in the film becomes an ideological one and thus can be a symbolic extension of the capitalist system attempting through initially coercion and finally violence to subjugate the consciousness of the proletariat spirit. Leo’s response to Frank is glib, condescending and politically loaded, ‘Why don’t you join a labour union?’, he says. 

Existence in the world of Mann for the male loner is defined by anonymity. By partnering with Leo, Frank realises he is jeopardising the anonymity he has struggled to protect but he is also putting at risk his belief system. Unsurprisingly, Frank’s proletarian politics become a source of ridicule. Leo feels threatened by Frank’s unwavering professionalism and deadening adherence to a strict moral code and by rubbishing his politics, Leo tries to humiliate Frank in every way possible whereby he is made into a relic in an age of corporate power. However, Frank resists. The resistance exemplified at the end appears like uncontrollable rage. Framed politically as an act of proletariat protest, the violence unleashed by Frank sees him annihilating a fragile past forged on a notion of personal integrity now tainted by Leo’s betrayal. By destroying the house, the bar and the car lot Frank’s self destruction read ideologically becomes a politicised act of symbolic resistance since he does not want Leo, the zealous corporate capitalist, to claim and exploit the ‘yield of his labour’. In fact, an indifference to conformity is what sets Frank apart but by walking away at the end sets him up as an outcast doomed to drift like the cowboy on the margins of a society that disgusts him. In other words, Frank is a worker, a stand up guy and that counts for everything in the films of Michael Mann.