Friday, October 24, 2014


It's crazy to think but we're only MONTHS away from Michael Mann's next film (January 2015)! Stylistically, Blackhat looks as if it takes place in that post-Heat universe that most people associate Mann with these days. That style of filmmaking has become so common for Mann that a lot of folks forget about or downplay the first 15 years of his filmography. 
Only in the last few years has there been a major Thief resurgence (courtesy of The Film Forum, Refn's Drive and The Criterion Collection); Manhunter will always play 2nd fiddle within the Hannibal Lector universe to The Silence Of The Lambs; I rarely hear anyone mention The Last Of The Mohicans, and The Keep might be Mann's least talked about movie (...and when it does come up in conversation it's usually made fun of).

This is where Nathaniel Drake Carlson comes in. He's an excellent voice of reason when it comes to misunderstood and/or underrated films. 
Below is his latest contribution that'll hopefully get you to look at Mann's early effort in a different light and possibly even give it another chance.

Happy Halloween. Enjoy...

Michael Mann's 1983 film The Keep is often regarded, if it is much regarded at all, as a kind of tragic misfire. And certainly this reputation makes some sense given the film's extremely troubled production as well as its apparently anomalous position within Mann's overall body of work. It is perhaps taken less seriously than his sophisticated urban crime pictures and seen purely for its surface genre it is often derided as an overwrought, rather tacky seeming sci-fi fantasy. But this easy assessment is indeed far too easy and dismissive as in its concise, potent form The Keep distills Mann's mythic interests to an essence writ very large. Thankfully a cult fan based movement has facilitated a reassessment and a closer scrutiny that is long overdue.

Based on F. Paul Wilson's far more elaborately detailed and explained novel, the film is set toward the end of World War II as a cadre of German soldiers quite literally descend upon a small Romanian community; ostensibly there to secure and guard a pass within the mountains, they settle into the town's ancient fortress which inevitably proves to be the source of their undoing as they haplessly release a demonic pestilence upon themselves and the community.

The source of the film's own undoing at the time of its release was in much dispute and continues to be now. It's clearly whittled down, one might even say savagely hacked down, from a purportedly far longer original cut. Some of this had to do with unfortunate circumstances during production (e.g. the death of special effects supervisor Wally Veevers meant a last minute radical restructuring of the film's finale) while post-production studio interference is likely largely responsible for much of the rest. Author Wilson himself evidently found the resultant adaptation of his book to be "incomprehensible". But this is not exactly fair and may speak more to what was expected than what was received. While indicators of severe cutting abound (William Morgan Sheppard's caretaker of the keep is introduced memorably, for instance, but then utterly dropped) the film can be said to benefit from its paring down and brisk pacing as that mode complements the central focus upon elemental mythology. It also provides the cast of a certain inevitability to the proceedings, an inexorable or fated end.

Superficially there's no denying that this is Mann's strangest film and it is truly strange. While the visual template seems initially drawn from Tarkovsky's windswept dreamy stateliness, it then goes on to forecast pop fantasy extravaganzas of the decade to come like Highlander and Masters of the Universe, a form that could be charitably described as garish and gauche. This broad, almost even parodic, stylistic palette applies to the actors as well. Ian McKellan, though admittedly playing the grizzled Dr. Cuza, comes off at times as channeling Ted Levine while his character's daughter Eva, played by Alberta Watson, often recalls a slightly less forbidding Sandra Bernhard in appearance. The presence of a veteran Mann performer like Robert Prosky, meanwhile, as the village's priest, calls up the possibility of a unique absurdity all its own. There is very little intentional humor too, which is risky as such a dearth can and will easily give rise to the risible in many audiences. But this is no mistake. It fits Mann's general, consistent sober tone but it also speaks to the democratic way in which he looks at his subject here, as having relevance that extends past assumed boundaries of taste or cultural acceptability, making such boundaries incidental and ultimately irrelevant. In that sense, all these disparate elements, all so seemingly disjointed or dissonant, actually are proper and germane to what Mann is doing.

But Mann's eye is just as acute here as it is everywhere else in his oeuvre. And what's most impressive about that is the way in which his eye for images goes beyond obvious powerhouse visuals such as the bravura opening sequence or Cuza's grand procession with the talisman toward the end (specific shades of Tarkovsky again, this time the candle walk in Nostalgia). Indeed, Mann's understanding of the vast power of images and sound is seen just as well in subtler scenes such as Cuza's examination of his hands after his healing via the power of Molasar, the entity heretofore imprisoned within the walls of the keep. Of course in all of this Mann is crucially abetted by the Tangerine Dream score, another element singled out for either praise or scorn depending on the audience. Its synthetic electronic ambient is an anachronistic presence to be sure as is the prevalence of billowing smoke machine mist and harsh backlighting which often makes the set indistinguishable from that of music videos of the era. But the presence of such stuff works to emphasize the heightened reality of the situation--this is a fantasy after all, not a newsreel documentary, and these elements complement the tone and themes while providing a dislocating, almost even alien quality.

It may very well have been the blunt approach to addressing mythic concepts which turned off audiences of the era and produced the chilly reception with which The Keep was originally met. A similar fate was waiting to meet Ridley Scott's Legend, another film blatant about its conceptions of a good/evil binary conflict/interdependence. Star Wars dressed up the subject more in the tropes of its specific pop mythmaking, partly as diversion but also partly as evidence that its real interest in this subject as subject was comparatively shallow. Meanwhile, in Carpenter's Halloween, only Donald Pleasence's Dr. Loomis cared about the way in which Michael Myers incarnated an abstraction (the Shape as Evil equation); beyond that the horror was direct and immediate, less mediated by an intellectual engagement with its central concepts and ideas. In The Keep that engagement is unavoidable and yet the pop fantasy elements may have worked to dissuade those who might have otherwise made the effort. But Mann's own engagement with his subject is profoundly serious and earns a commensurate effort on our part.

The Keep blends a wide variety of mythic models from the more easily respectable to the all too easily disrespectable and in so doing illustrates what is common to them all and how each form brings out different aspects of that commonality. Scott Glenn's mysterious drifter character Glaeken evokes familiar vampire motifs, especially in a scene in which his reflection is absent from a mirror in his room; later we see (in a very nice, subtle, almost missed moment) that the mirror has been taken down and turned to face the wall. He is also presented as a figure of romantic fantasy, capable of the immediate seduction of Eva. This is rendered in what amounts here to a quickie montage sequence but again that's fitting as what's important is the romantic essence of that relationship and especially Glaeken's instruction to Eva to dream. We have already been told that the keep produces nightmares in those exposed to it. The dream like atmosphere of the film itself counters and accommodates both poles or states of being. But the mythic aspects of the events and characters are actually more aligned with a metaphysical pitch than that of any one specific familiar mythic or religious model. Specifics of Christianity and pre-Christian paganism are evoked but there's also a pronounced emphasis upon something else, other or alien, unspecifiable as it remains an unknown. The laser light show finale in the emptied out landscape of smoke and light which signals Molasar's end is shot very much like the defeat of Darkness in Legend (Scott's film shared DP Alex Thomson); on one hand, it may be read critically as a tired trope of 80's pop cinema staging but it may also be understood as a proper aesthetic staging as in either instance it is about a confrontation that results in an exiling or repression/suppression of a prominent threat. The abrupt end to Mann's film in which the threat is subdued and the village suddenly comes back to life may be another victim of cutting but here too the outcome is appropriate as it serves simply (in fairy tale elemental fashion) to depict the reversal response to Glaeken's warning about the threat from the keep spreading out into the village (this is matched nicely during the end credits by the reverse movement back up and out of the pass into which the opening sequence descended). And though Molasar as embodiment of evil may seem obvious it is deceptively so as the clearest definition of what Molasar is we only get from his pledged antagonist Glaeken who describes him as "what was repressed within the keep". However, given that, the emphasis upon repression can't be overstated. And it's misunderstood by the majority of the character's themselves who are always only looking at the situation via their very small, limited perspectives and yet then assuming their read is thoroughly definitive and inviolate. Even a character as sympathetic as Cuza does this when he justifies to Glaeken his willingness to aid Molasar by saying, "What's happening in the world is worse than anything he'll do", to which Glaeken simply responds, "He is the same".

The nuance exists in the detail work. There is a flux to the definition of what constitutes evil. This provides an irony that inflects and gives dimension to what otherwise might seem like solid unassailable absolutes, ideas made too familiar and drained of their resonance, their power. Evil as a concept is broad, containing much, understood differently and its presentation is therefore effectively unclear. Both Glaeken and Molasar exist as recognizable spiritual composites; in part this is due to a strategic conspiring on their part which plays to other characters' existing attitudes and assumptions but it's also a fitting analogue for their actions and behavior, for what they do and are. Ideas of corruption, power and the fantasy of salvation, of harnessing an evil and ostensibly transforming it into a good, exist here in rotation. While Molasar on occasion fits the form of a purely and obviously demonic evil, he is also a possible Golem figure, bringing the promise of destruction upon the Nazis. He is also deeply suggestive of the Old Testament God, traveling in a pillar of smoke and clouds (foreshadowing the equally diffuse mythology of TV's Lost) as depicted in Exodus. He is, in this form, pure power and force. It is as this manifestation that he carries Eva to safety and away from the threat of the German rapists whom he decimates. This may be a ruse to secure Cuza's gratitude and allegiance but it is still accomplished with a tenderness redolent of love--this, in turn, is reminiscent of the inverse scene in Dennis Potter's Brimstone and Treacle in which the malevolent central figure brings a comatose girl back to consciousness via his raping of her (the rain falls upon the just and upon the unjust...). As this unyielding pure force, one more defined by its remote and absolute inaccessibility to finite knowledge, a chance is provided to address and alter the Abraham-Issac narrative by turning upon and directly confronting the divine like guiding presence. When Molasar demands that Cuza sacrifice his daughter, Cuza responds in heroic fashion: "Who are you that I have to prove myself by killing my child?" This mobilizes the strength and fortitude that Cuza had previously sought purely from Molasar.

All this thematic richness cascades over the embankment of religious or even self-evidently mythic discourse and into the realm of the more clearly secular, demonstrating its applicability there. The friendship between Prosky's Father Fonescu and McKellan's secular Jewish doctor is presented as a model of camaraderie and gracious mutual exchange, yet Molasar's influence finally is seen to enflame a religious antagonism between them where none existed before. It is significant though just how much of an emphasis there is in terms of defining the specifics of comprehension and intellectual orientation. Cuza tells Fonescu right from the beginning, "You believe in gods, I believe in men," while Jürgen Prochnow's Woermann states equally early on, "The real nightmares men have made upon other men in this war." An intensive conflict also develops between German army officer Woermann and Gabriel Byrne's Kaempffer, an SS representative. Kaempffer translates the source of the evil as something particular and "real", in this case the threat of disloyal partisans killing his soldiers and creating a practical, observable effect. But Woermann finds a parallel when he accuses him of having "released the foulness that dwells in all men's minds." The evident historical analogue is thus clearly established, whether it be the evils of fascism or that of the SS (who, not insignificantly, have their own associations with the occult). In this examination of perspectives and perception it is telling that both these characters accuse each other of being subject to fantasies or sentimentality. The suggestion implicit within the film, however, is that such accusations, while not entirely inaccurate, are similarly inadequate to address what they are referencing even while they are all inextricably wrapped together. Mann's greatest accomplishment with this presentation of heightened horror and absolute Evil may actually be its hidden sophistication and adeptness at taking and treating its subject seriously.


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