Mani Ratnam’s latest film is not simply a matter of getting back to basics. It feels like a veiled response to his critics, and to populist Indian cinema, stating he can take the most perfunctory of romantic narrative situations and invigorate them with his own graceful sensibilities. Basically, Ratnam can do it better, much better. Ratnam’s last three films have been judged a lot more punitively given the participation on two occasions of big name Bollywood film stars. I have to say I’m not a fan of Guru, though Ravaan and Kadal saw Ratnam steadily return to authorial interests, some felt he had lost his touch as a director. In many ways, O Kadhal Kanmani appears benign since the romantic melodrama is not unfamiliar to us, exhausted in truth. Conversely, he appreciates the nuances of the genre than most mainstream Indian directors and O Kadhal Kanmani visualises the songs that punctuate the narrative with an economy and plausibility so often lacking from Bollywood cinema. There is certainly nothing radical about this film. Yet take the film, frame it within the sphere of the contemporary Hindi romantic melodrama and it harbours a potent radicalism from the ways in which the film’s narrative storytelling meets the demands and expectations of the film audience. Ratnam lurches back to the past, reclaiming the tradition vs. modernity dialectic, re-inscribing this most elemental and emotive of ideological lineages to a cosmopolitan Mumbai. Besides the exciting storytelling and vatic thematic vestiges is Ratnam’s consummate technical proficiency, which still put a lot of mainstream Hindi directors to shame. O Kadhal Kanmani is great cinematic nourishment; it makes you re-appreciate the value of the romantic melodrama as a form, speaking directly to the audience without entering into an overly moralistic dialogue. Ratnam has done this time again, and although he has confronted a swathe of issues in his films, shifting across genres, he is a romantic at heart, and such films have often produced some of his most exuberant, involving and satisfying work for audiences. O Kadhal Kanmani fits the mould effortlessly.
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.
|Tom Cruise as Vincent in Mann’s Collateral.|
I was going to post an entry on Manhunter, based on my enslavement to chronological film analysis, but since Collateral is a Mann film I saw again recently on Blu-ray, I was compelled to offer a closer look at a key sequence which includes the introduction of Vincent’s character and ends with him taking Max hostage as his collateral. I have selected key shots from a sequence that lasts for around eight minutes and will attempt to weave together the way in which formal elements (also genre and narrative) interact with wider contextual considerations such as authorial traits, stardom, American culture, class and politics. Many regard Collateral as a key work in Mann’s oeuvre and can be situated alongside films like Heat in its topographical mapping of Los Angeles as a transitory urban space that both alienates and displaces asynchronous protagonists like Vincent (Tom Cruise).
|Keys to the castle.|
Vincent is formally introduced to us with a medium close up of his hand punching a code into a keypad of a locked door. He completes this action with an ease that underlines his professionalism and power over technology. His open access to the urban spaces through which he drifts signifies his position as both an outsider and in this case an insider makes him ruthlessly efficient and typical of Mann’s crime protagonist who is a slave to personal integrity. The power of this action is mirrored in the following shot, which frames Vincent in the centre, signposting the star power of Tom Cruise through a noticeable pause in the narrative.
|Cruise is given…|
|…a star entrance comparable to Hanks and Crowe below.|
This interruption is significant since the gesture of Cruise raising his head and seemingly looking at us reiterates his star status and is comparable to Tom Hanks’ introduction in Saving Private Ryan and Russell Crowe in Gladiator.
|A notable star gesture: slowly raising the head.|
The ray-ban sun-glasses were popularised by Cruise in Risky Business and interestingly given the way a film stars image is predicated on past associations, in this case, the sunglasses remind us of Cruise and his long time relationship with ray-ban. Additionally, the sunglasses are a film noir trope since by concealing his eyes not only makes him look threatening but also frames him as someone who guards his privacy and inner life. The use of space behind Vincent in this particular shot is also significant since the emptiness of such urban spaces echoes his cynical perspective on Los Angeles as sprawled and disconnected. In many ways, his alienation from the spaces around him is underlined with an explicitness maintained in much of the film. The grey hair and beard while the sunken cheekbones extenuated by the fluorescent lighting constructs a ghostly image of a man. Such ghostly imagery is anchored by the choice selection of a grey suit creating a veneer of respectability to what is a ruthlessly amoral profession. We are never explicitly told about the location from which Vincent emerges but Annie’s destination tells us what we need to know, that this is a federal building and we are meant to assume he has been meeting someone. The keypad code is about power and is later reinforced when Vincent uses a swipe card to bypass the security checkpoint.
The next set of shots sees Vincent walking confidently through the federal building. A low angle asymmetrical shot establishes Vincent as a man constantly on the go who assuredly navigates his way through urban spaces. The subsequent asymmetrical shot is one of the first of many in which Vincent’s presence creates disruption within the frame. Vincent’s stealth like movement repeatedly sees him pushing into the frame, making him altogether more threatening. In terms of the doomed male protagonist often associated with the noir genre, Vincent’s ice cool demeanour situates him as a contemporary variation of the femme fatale, the homme fatale. Vincent’s presence in the federal building is momentary since he is a transient figure who finds it impossible to forge attachments, which is yet another popular Mann thematic.
|Vincent is a transient figure…|
|…who drifts through the urban milieu.|
As Vincent exits the building, we cut to a fleeting shot of Annie (Jada Pinkett) who has just exited the taxicab driven by Max (Jamie Foxx). The early crossing of paths between Vincent and Annie establishes themes of fate and chance symptomatic of the noir idiom. In terms of classical Hollywood narrative, Annie’s presence in the periphery of Vincent’s predatory gaze confirms her wider role within the plot and final section of the film. Ideologically, the space in which Vincent and Annie’s paths cross holds potential significance since it is a federal building and a place that symbolises institutional power. The exclusion of Max from such a space at this moment of time in the narrative makes apparent the class and economic divisions that exists between Vincent/Annie and Max. We later discover that Max is somewhat ashamed of his working class aspirations and is reluctant to discuss them with Vincent.
|Passing Annie on the escalator.|
In terms of incongruous shots, as Vincent makes his way down the escalator, we cut to a POV shot of the lobby. Mann seems to hold on this shot briefly but given the subjective nature of the shot, it’s as if Vincent is almost daydreaming for an instance, and by dwelling on such a detail inserts a degree of banality to his character. Simultaneously this shot also foregrounds an authorial preoccupation with filming architectural spaces that interest Mann.
|A rare POV shot.|
As the taxi ride begins, non-diegetic sound is introduced in the form of classical music, which acts as a metaphor for the jarring sophistication associated with Vincent’s character. This is unusual because Vincent is a hit man but ‘Bach’ becomes his way of signifying his cultural status within society; we are clearly supposed to view him as part of the educated, refined elite. We can interpret further that Vincent sees killing other people as comparable to somebody who has composed a piece of music; ultimately he views himself as an artist and this complicates his status as a sociopath with whom we finds ourselves empathising with on occasions. A bird’s eye view of Los Angeles as a vast metropolis is important since by having the taxicab merge into the dense urban space accentuates their inconsequential lives and sets up the theme of aloneness that troubles Vincent.
|Los Angeles as sprawled out and disconnected.|
The reluctance of Max to engage in conversation with Vincent is partly to do with how Max is represented as somebody lost in self delusion and unable to communicate the essence of his dreams. The taxicab can be viewed as a metaphor that acts as a barrier between Max and the real world. In the cab he is disconnected from reality, unable to reflect on the mundane life he leads. Vincent’s dependency on technology is a continuing theme and it is repeated through the image of the electronic tablet that he carries with him. Also, his dependency on technology is exposed later in the film when Max discards the briefcase, forcing Vincent to put Max to the test of imitation and performance. Vincent’s disillusionment is awkwardly manifested in his allegorical recollection of the dead man on the MTA who nobody seems to notice. Though Vincent desires anonymity it is dying alone that he really fears. So far I have argued against a dominant reading of Vincent as the doomed noir protagonist but once he meets Max his trajectory towards death becomes altogether clearer since it is his mirror image in the shape of Max who will be the one to take his life. Most of this sequence frames both Vincent and Max behind the glass of the car windows and the city passing them by is reflected with a clarity onto the glass producing a tactile submersion of the characters into the city. Neither of them can hide from the way a city like Los Angeles renders people immaterial.
Vincent’s rage or white male angst is familiar to us from films like Taxi Driver and Falling Down and as he continues with his allegory of the dead man on the MTA, we cut to a shot from the front of the cab looking at Vincent behind a plastic/glass barrier that separates the driver from the passenger. This image acts as visual reinforcement of the animalistic qualities inherent in Vincent and momentarily he becomes almost caged behind this plastic/glass barrier. Moreover, such an image of containment reiterates the disruption Vincent brings with him.
The theme of mirror images gains momentum, resonating in the editing which matches the framing of Vincent and Max while creating a more intimate mood by moving closer to their faces. This synchronous pattern of editing is important since Vincent is also gaining the confidence of Max by getting him to ‘open up’ about his aspirations but this never happens in its totality given the way Max is embarrassed by his own shortcomings. In some ways, Vincent acts as an inadvertent force of liberation, awakening Max from his false consciousness and asking him to question his subservient position in the system. Unfortunately, it is not possible to read Vincent as a political entity since he is a sociopath motivated by an innate sense of self-loathing.
Having reached his first of many temporary pauses in his odyssey through a nocturnal Los Angeles, Vincent changes persona again and this time propositions Max. The way Vincent flashes the cash in front of Max momentarily positions him as the slimy capitalist exploiting the hapless proletariat. Max is easily lured by such opportunism, reiterating yet again the submissive nature of his character. Vincent’s seduction of Max with money seems to add weight to the argument of his status as contemporary equivalent of the femme fatale. However, his manipulation of Max is predicated on money not sex typical of the femme fatale in classical noir cinema. In the universe of Michael Mann, male protagonists, especially those shown in conflict with one another, typically seek out a mutual understanding based on professionalism, integrity and self-respect. Male bonding, which in many cases can occur without characters meeting, is another central authorial obsession that has its seeds in this first of many antagonistic conversations between Vincent and Max.
|Vincent seduces Max.|
Now that Vincent has charmed Max, he asks him to park around the back and exits, leaving to meet his first target. Yet again framing is crucial as the city is extenuated, its domineering presence eclipsing their lives and attesting them to be at the mercy of the urban space. Max turns to look at the briefcase whereby its significance as a plot device is underlined and doubly objectified as a symbol of Vincent’s status as a transient figure. While Max waits for Vincent, he eats a sandwich and dreams. The want to acquire the Mercedes Benz, an elitist symbol, is a foolish aspiration since Max is a dreamer. We later discover when Max visits his mother in hospital that he has been fooling her with the notion that ‘Island Limos’ is a business reality when in fact it is an unrealised dream. The shot of the business card is particularly significant when juxtaposed to the Mercedes brochure, as it is a complicated bind of vacillation that hinders Max from elevating himself out of a disempowering social predicament.
|Max settles down for the ride.|
The next series of shots sees Vincent stoically making his way to the first target. As he walks past the apartments, Vincent looks into one of them through the expansive glass window and we someone lying on a bed watching television. This depicts Vincent’s gaze as omnipotent and since this level of transparency is in essence an extension of the theme of power, we also realise Vincent does not care about invading the private space of others. He does so without any sense of shame. An oppositional reading of this particular combination of shots is that Vincent’s aloofness means he regards himself to be intellectually superior to those around him. However, such aloofness merges with arrogance that problematises the morality of Vincent’s unsavoury decisions. The asymmetrical framing is particularly distinct as Vincent yet again pushes into the frame with the city this time bearing down on his resolute figure of Vincent. Next, the composition offset by the indifferent facial expression to the right of the frame is tied to the disorder that Vincent is about to unleash.
|Vincent stalking his prey.|
Cross cutting between Max and Vincent sustains dramatic tension and slowly builds suspense but it is also used to draw attention to the ideological differences that exists between the dynamic and imposing figure of Vincent and the passive and docile figure of Max. To reinforce such differences, Mann cuts to shots of Max munching away on a sandwich and reading his brochure, suggesting Max is duped by the trappings of a capitalist system to ever become what he wants, relegated to taking pleasure in the comforts offered to him by his safe and reassuring routine; he is not only oblivious to Vincent’s sinister character, he is oblivious to reality.
|…of a better life.|
The surprise elliptical cut from Max munching on his homemade sandwich to the subjective point of view of Vincent’s first victim crashing down on the hood of the taxi cab is both startling and disorientating. The use of ellipsis is crucial in terms of withholding key narrative information from us as an audience and sustaining the enigma of Vincent’s character. One of the other motivating factors why we are not shown how Vincent kills his first victim is because Vincent does not care about the who, the how and the why, he is only interested in completing the job. It is civilians like Max who are forced to deal with the consequences of the aftermath. Therefore, Vincent’s vacant and apathetic ideological perspective is supported by the use of elliptical editing.
Max finally comes face to face with the destructive Vincent and his immediate reaction of bemusement soon turns to abject horror. He gets out of the cab, looking at the body then up to the window. Studying the demeanour of Vincent as he approaches, Max realises his predicament. Such a moment contradicts the theme of mirror images since Max and Vincent share very little, if anything, in common. In fact, this stand off between Vincent and Max is familiar to us from various film genres as it serves as a common narrative device. In this case, Vincent uses the threat of violence to coerce Max and it is the first of many times we see him raise his gun. Vincent is a prototypical Mann protagonist since he will allow nothing to come in the way of his professionalism including any sort of compromise. In terms of star image, Vincent is perhaps the one role that Cruise has played in which he refuses to elicit our sympathies yet it is one of Cruise’s fiercest performances. Playing against type for an international star such as Cruise can result in box office poison but it also means associations stars bring with them can be challenged in more openly subversive ways. Vincent is one of Cruise’s most memorable roles and it came at time in his career when he had become open to more problematic unconventional characters while being prepared to subvert his star image as he had proven in Eyes Wide Shut, Magnolia and Vanilla Sky.
|Vincent gets serious.|
The only way Vincent can continue on his trajectory unhindered is by acquiring the complicity of Max in his crimes. Max becomes a witness and distant observer to the crimes perpetrated by Vincent and this is the first of many deaths he witnesses, failing to intervene. Max attempts to distance himself from what he has just witnessed but Vincent realises he is a liability. It is only much later when Vincent shots dead the detective Fanning (Mark Ruffalo) does he finally react, denouncing Vincent as nothing more than a ‘sociopath’ and crashing the cab. The title of the film needs discussing in relation to this first sequence since it could be interpreted in two ways. Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, after the first hit, Max becomes Vincent’s collateral in case anything should happen. Secondly, and more ideologically, collateral is often seen in the media in relation to the term ‘collateral damage’ which in terms of war and especially those perpetrated by the west means ‘incidental damage’ that occurs from a targeted action. In many ways, it is within the context of contemporary discourse on the notion of collateral damage that we should read the actions of Vincent and the amoral attitudes he espouses.
|Max as collateral.|
As the taxicab pulls away down the side street, the soundtrack changes to a more techno-synth beat which we have heard before in films such as Manhunter and Heat and which is often the heartbeat of the obsessive police detective. The trajectory of Vincent is clear now and so is his destination – death. Such a a thematic statement is counterpointed to the introduction of Detective Fanning who we assume will be the one to take down Vincent. In terms of genre coding, this narrative junction re-establishes a familiar conflict characteristic of the crime film; the cop vs the criminal. Another point to mention and which probably needs more exploration is the way Mann’s films over the years especially his most recent films have quickened in terms of editing. It would be interesting to complete some kind of look at the average shot length, comparing his recent films to earlier ones. Both Collateral and Public Enemies were co-edited by Paul Rubell who has also worked on high concept blockbusters such as Transformers which adhere to a hyper-editing rhythm. Nonetheless, given Mann’s discernible authorial stamp, he still succeeds in pausing to survey the urban milieu with such adventurous clarity. Clocking in at just 120 minutes, Collateral also makes for one of Mann’s leanest films.
|Brad Pitt as enforcer/hit-man ‘Jackie Cogan’|
‘And to all those who have wondered if America’s beacon still burns as bright – tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope…’
– President Obama’s acceptance speech, 2008
Killing Them Softly revels in the cynicism of its central character of Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), a hit man who stalks the noir lit streets of an urban American society suffering from a monstrous moral and economic decadence. It’s not a fantastical decadence but one rooted in a stark contemporary reality in which the terms recession and capitalism have led to a social crisis of confidence. The absence of morality is nothing new to the crime genre but here it seems to be absolute in the way Jackie views his role of the hit man nothing more than a professional service. With Jackie, all that exists is the job. He has no external life to speak of and trades in death. He also occupies a universe of unsavoury characters that collectively represent a dispiriting American underbelly often found in some of the more nightmarish visions of America from 1970s cinema. The fact that we find no difference between the amorality of Jackie from his victims is what makes the film’s representation of American society so powerfully dark. We have no one to root for in the film and in many ways we become observers rather than traditional participators. Such an observational and at times detached spectatorial position underlines the way director Andrew Dominik chooses to foreground ideological concepts over more visceral conventions associated with the genre.
Most of the film hinges on extended conversation sequences while in the background we hear America’s transition from Republicanism to Liberalism (punctuated with speeches delivered by Bush and Obama) as a nothing more than historical spectacle, stressing the continuing empty promises made by politicians. In many ways, Jackie is a twisted metaphor for the contemporary entrepreneur and although he deals in death his violent preoccupations are a pale reflection of successive American leaders. However, what separates Jackie from someone like President Obama is the refusal to use hypocrisy as a form of persuasion. For Jackie, his profession as both an enforcer and hit man is devoid of such traditional forms of political hypocrisy; instead he deals in a reality based on choices and ultimatums, thus avoiding any potential personal guilt. In fact, Jackie is unique in the pantheon of cinematic enforcers/hit-men since existentialism is traded in for an ideological bent. Such ideological musings transforms Jackie into a vicious political metonym and repressed voice for disillusionment with the establishment that stretches back to the 1970s.
Just as The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford offers a revisionist dissemination of the western genre, Killing Them Softly also undermines audience expectations associated with the crime film genre. The plot is perfunctory and offers little variation in what we have seen before in the American crime film. Two desperate criminals hold up a card game run by the mob, resulting in the entrance of enforcer Jackie Cogan who takes on the job of resolving the crime. The film is adapted from a 1974 novel ‘Cogan’s Trade’ by George V. Higgins who also wrote The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Dominik updates the story to 2008 but such prescient political and economic parallels exist between the two eras that I doubt if the film really loses any of the 1970’s context. The Friends of Eddie Coyle, directed by Peter Yates, features one of Mitchum’s greatest performances as an ageing small time criminal who becomes an unlikely police informant. The patina of romanticism often found in some of the more celebrated American crime films is largely absent from the writing of Higgins. Dominik appears to remain faithful to Higgin’s unglamourous depiction of the criminal underworld by opting for a neo noir aesthetic echoing the dirty, bleached out look that defined films such as Taxi Driver, The Outfit and Thief. Absent also is the traditional face of the crime boss who oversees the hierarchical power structure. Such a choice means that the action stays firmly rooted in the urban milieu of peripheral low life characters typically marginalised in crime or gangster films.
The film isn’t wholly devoid of action, with a stand out assassination sequence involving hypnotic slow motion, shattered glass, shell casings travelling through rain and the sounds of Kelly Lester’s ‘Love Letters’. Perhaps the defining moments of the entire film is the final scene between Jackie and the ‘middleman’ (Richard Jenkins). Staged in a bar and brilliantly juxtaposed to a television set broadcasting the acceptance speech of the newly elected President Obama, Jackie’s cynical diatribe on the state of America as defunct, individualistic and pathologically obsessed with money may seem somewhat polemical and unexpected for a crime film but its power comes from watching A list film star Brad Pitt deliver such words, and all with an eloquence and clarity. With Assassination of Jesse James and last year’s Tree of Life, Brad Pitt certainly doesn’t need to convince the sceptics of his growing capacity as a fantastic actor and Killing Them Softly offers yet another brilliantly charismatic performance, if not, his best to date. As Jackie Cogan, Pitt is scary, charming and deeply pessimistic, modelling his washed out grungy appearance on a decrepit Elvis.
This is an angry and prescient piece of cinema that could in time be considered a masterful addition to the American crime oeuvre. One of the films of the year for sure.