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.

NH10 (Dir. Navdeep Singh, 2015, India) – Hindie Urbanoia

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The quartet of Anurag Kashyap, Vikramaditya Motwane, Madhu Mantena and Vikas Bahl founded Phantom Films in 2011. Since then Phantom has produced a notable slate of Hindie films with differing mainstream sensibilities. Films such as Lootera, Queen and Ugly have featured popular Indian film stars. This has been balanced out with edgy scripts, new directors, genre vagaries and unconventional narratives. NH10 released this year, holds comparably interesting ideas, although not everything gels cohesively as it should. The narrative involves a young, urban middle class Indian couple, Meera (Anushka Sharma) and Arjun (Neil Bhoopalam) who reside in Bangalore. One day, Arjun takes Meera on a road journey to a villa he has rented for her birthday. However, en route they become entangled in some of the more unsavoury politics of rural India such as an honour killing.

Some critics have suggested the parallels with a contemporary British horror film Eden Lake, which is evident in some respects, but at work here is the concept of urbanoia that typically pits middle class urbanites against the treachery of the rural. Horror writer James Rose has written extensively on urbanoia in regards to another British horror film, The Descent. Nonetheless, Rose traces the origins of urbanoia right back to the 1970s and films like Deliverance. In fact, NH10 is a postmodern text, recalling such films as Straw Dogs, The Last House on the Left, and Eden Lake. NH10, like The Descent and Eden Lake, which subverts the tropes of urbanoia, also frames the narrative through the perspective of a female anti-hero. In many ways, NH10 is far more intriguing as an unconventional star vehicle for Anushka Sharma than it is as an example of Indian urbanoia. Sharma, a co-producer on the film, attempts to step outside the narrow mainstream roles that have defined her career so far, taking on an alternative female character. While this appears to be a bold career move, the problem with such progressive stardom is Sharma has never been a particularly good actress. Nonetheless, the final badass fight back that she unleashes in the last third of the film points to a gawky physicality that Sharma exudes best when performing.

In ‘Ambiguous Journey to the City’ Ashis Nandy talks about the complicated ideological contestation between the city and the village, which he argues has been imagined and re-imagined in Indian cinema: ‘certain core concerns and anxieties of Indian civilization have come to be reflected in the journey from the village to the city’ (Nandy, 2001). Nandy contextualises this ostensibly politicised narrative in the initial framework of partition, suggesting it is a troubling once since the void between the urban and rural is marked by an epoch of suspicion, fear and ritual. The interaction between the urban and rural in the context of urbanoia is decidedly adverse and a similar idea plays out in NH10. However, the imaginary monster often posing the main threat is refashioned in the form of a feudalistic, hierarchal matriarchy. Not only is the village positioned as the other, but also its suspicion of outsiders, in this case the urban middle class of Bangalore, is denied an exclusive misogyny since Meera is accosted by one of her colleagues in a presentation for having it easy because she is a woman.

The troubling gender politics of the rural harbour an ubiquity also evident in the supposedly progressive urban Bangalore, which makes Meera’s final stand, fuelled by revenge, as a resolutely personal one. A concern with NH10 is that the film comes perilously close to demonizing the rural, offering what is a generalised view of the village as lawless, unfriendly and territorial. Nonetheless, many urbanoia films take a similar stance so NH10 may simply be reiterating the conventions. Another pertinent trope, which marks this out as a horror, is Carol Clover’s final girl theory, and this is where the film seems most explicit in terms of recalling the traditions of the slasher genre, since Meera recognises she must slay the monster if she is to survive and achieve some personal catharsis. Interestingly, the gender politics at work in the finale are very timely indeed, offering female audiences with an affecting Indian female anti-hero, somewhat of a rarity in mainstream Indian cinema, who dispenses violence against the men of the village that reverberates into the real national concerns of rape, harassment and misogyny directed towards women. Is Meera a growing attempt by Indian cinema to rework the angry young man construct as a means of accounting for the shift in gender politics, giving rise to the angry young woman?

Navdeep Singh showed great promise with his rural noir Manorama Six Feet Under, released in 2007. NH10 certainly marks him out as a director who understands genre cinema. One a final note, the songs in the film are misplaced and completely unnecessary and although their inclusion does not overly impact on the film, it seems a little odd why they have been included given the genres of horror and thriller seem unable to accommodate for such artificial devices of melodrama. Ultimately, NH10 works best as a B-movie with an inviting ideological subtext. The film was a sleeper hit and a sequel has been talked about which could develop further the angry young woman trope.

Sunrise / Arunoday (Dir. Partho Sen-Gupta, 2014, France/India)

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Director Partho Sen-Gupta talks about the oneirophrenic space, a space that is both hallucinatory and metaphysical, realised in his latest film Sunrise with an audio-visual clarity, hauntingly rendering grief as eternal. I can’t remember the last time I saw a film that used rain with such cinematic dexterity, enveloping the screen as not only an elemental motif, but also articulating apocryphal convulsions, pointing to a depravity with which no one can contest. The rain, a conjectural metonym, nearly swallows up Inspector Joshi (Adil Hussain in one of his darkest roles) who spends his nights obsessively searching for his missing daughter (kidnapped ten years ago) in the sordid back alleys of a merciless Mumbai. Synchronously, the rain, iconographic of film noir vernacular, is deployed with a Freudian intensity, crafting a discombobulated ambiance, reminiscent of Claire Denis, in which it is impossible to see where reality begins and delusion ends. As the film progresses, Sen-Gupta bravely relinquishes a cinematic orthodoxy which can suffocate a film, so that a visual schizophrenia becomes a signature, fragmenting time and space, disrupting classical notions of sound and editing, imagining a terrifying nightmare shared between Joshi, his wife and the spectral figure whom he is hunting.

While neo noir is a genre with which Sunrise has an aesthetic affinity, it is also an anti-genre film in many respects, contesting expectations, pushing the fragmented gaze of the spectator out beyond the frames. The kidnapping and trafficking of children into prostitution forms the wider social framework but this issue is never politicised and remains connected to the story so that the humanist aspects are intact. Futility, despondency and fatalism are concurrent in Joshi’s futile search, resonating noir idioms, while the oblique ethereal figure that Joshi sees in expressionistic form functions as a metaphor for depravity, a projection of nightmarish recesses inscribed with the angsts of the city. However, it is trauma, grief and loss that defeat Joshi, classic horror tropes, leading to a psychosomatic displacement juxtaposed to a troubling nostalgic introspection. It ends with Joshi in a kind of metaphysical limbo; a slave to his memories. Overall, it’s a dark and unsettling film that confounds expectations and goes into an altogether more unconventional direction which is pleasing to see.

I think this is director Partho Sen-Gupta’s second full-length feature. He debuted in 2004 with Hava Aney Dey (Let the Wind Blow) that I have yet to see. Sunrise is deservedly receiving critical acclaim and has appeared at many prestigious film festivals including most recently Tribeca. I hope it gets a UK release and one can foresee Partho Sen-Gupta developing into a very promising director indeed.

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.