Phantasmagoria: "The Keep"

The Keep plays as part of a 10-film Michael Mann retrospective at Chicago’s Doc Films on October 5th .

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A little fairy tale: wayward German soldiers occupy a cursed, abandoned Romanian fortress in 1941. Something's afoot, so they bring a Jewish scholar to help them figure out the mystery. If above all fairy tales give us images, then that's what Michael Mann intended with The Keep: images, above all. The dialogue, the simple plot — none of these really matter. It's his Beauty and the Beast rather than his Orpheus (if he has one, it's Public Enemies). The Keep could be a Fox Movietone production; the voices are mostly post-synced anyway. What matters isn't what happens, but what is shown: a man aging in reverse, trapdoors that open on to gigantic caverns, figures standing against ruins, beams of light taking shape through fog, a hand crushing a silver cross. The images are gigantic. Horror is usually a question of context; it's the art of making a door opening or a bird flying by terrifying through juxtaposition and some sense of sympathy. Here there is no sympathy, no context; you could cut a shot out and watch it on its own and it'd tell its own sinister tale. Phantasmagoria, in the most old-fashioned sense possible.

The Keep is a lonely film. It has few friends, and Michael Mann's other films seem at best like its estranged step-siblings. It's a mixture of William Blake's paintings (which would return in Manhunter), Murnau's Faust (one of Mann's favorite films), Jung's archetypes and the middle section of Friedkin's Sorceror which, through some alchemical process, are transmuted into an opaque, silvery substance. "The horror film" isn't just one thing, no more than the "comedy" or the "drama" (and many comedies and dramas as horror films in a way), but many directors approach it as a ratio of details to implications, whether the implications are about human behavior and need (as in a John Carpenter or a Neil Marshall movie) or the fact that there are more important things to worry about than fears, which can be conquered in a way the everyday often can't (as in a George Romero movie). That is, the horror in these films is more than the horrifying things presented; a "bloody knife" is more than red paint on metal. But there's also a direct horror, like the abstract terror of the color reel of Ivan the Terrible, Part II or the experience of a Kiyoshi Kurosawa movie, where one doesn't sense the horrifying through characters but through whole images of which the characters are merely elements (Tokyo Sonata operates on these principles as much as Cure). The Keep is not related to either of these approaches. It's a horror shown, not hallucinated, and constructed in exacting yet paradoxically inspecific detail. The human element has been reduced to a murmur, when in every other Mann film it's a shout. More than the "characters" (who aren't characters in the Mann sense, but maybe in way many other directors approach "character"), the film's center is the keep itself, a huge death-trap where seeing the opposite end of a room is like looking down from a balcony or a bridge; it's the opposite of claustrophobia, and in the sheer size of its spaces and the distances between figures in the images created for it (and the images here seem specifically created or constructed, and not captured), The Keep may be the only truly agoraphobic horror film, where terror isn't a question of being locked in, but beeing so visible. The horror is everywhere; it may as well be the sky.

The Keep seems to exist at the edge of Mann, and also at the edge of cinema, in the same sort of netherworld as David Lynch's Dune, Francis Ford Coppola's version of Dracula or Pál Fejös' Fantômas talkie, some place where edits and dialogue no longer matter, and cinema is a bubbling cauldron out of which rise strange visions in curling smoke. If the film is immediate in its opening, it becomes more mysterious as it goes on, giving neither questions nor answers nor even observations, like a magic lantern show.

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Mann's Work is an on-going series of articles covering the 2009 retrospective on Michael Mann, running from September 28th to November 30th at Chicago's Doc Films.

Responses

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  • Ryland Walker Knight

    A few rebuttals, I guess.

    (1) “The human element has been reduced to a murmur, when in every other Mann film it’s a shout.”

    Part of what I dig about Miami Vice, say, is precisely that nobody really raises their voice. Colin Farrell gets angry at the docks, twice, but it shocks mostly because the rest of the time he’s swallowing himself, his words, putting everything into his eyes and his posture. I think the same can be said of Daniel Day Lewis in Mohicans and a lot of what’s charming about Depp as Dillinger, whose final reel is mostly silent.

    (2) “The Keep may be the only truly agoraphobic horror film, where terror isn’t a question of being locked in, but beeing so visible. The horror is everywhere; it may as well be the sky.”

    You may as well be talking about There Will Be Blood!

  • Ignatiy Vishnevetsky

    1. I guess I don’t mean it literally, but metaphorically. For all the remoteness of Miami Vice (or even Ali or Public Enemies), I think they take the human experience (or maybe, like The Intruder, that part of the human experience that we’re not always conscious of) into account. It’s loud in the images, if it’s not part of the sound track (that’s definitely true of Miami Vice and Public Enemies). I don’t think The Keep does, and it should be mentioned that it probably has the most shouting of any Mann film, and feels the least human. That is, to show people is not the same as to think of people, and I think it’s the one movie where Mann isn’t really think about what people do, why and how it feels to be a person, with the exception of maybe the opening credit sequence, parts of which would be re-used in The Insider.

    2. I’ve never really thought about There Will Be Blood as horror, though now that you’ve raised the issue, it seems so obvious that I’m kicking myself for not thinking of that direction before. There’s certainly a lot of horror (of the Carpenterian variety) to Punch-Drunk Love.

  • Ryland Walker Knight

    —That makes perfect sense. Guess I needed some extra clause to clarify the metaphorical bent of the idea.

    —I immediately thought of TWBB as horror at the human, the horror of the human, and horror at/of the social: the threat of skepticism made violent. In fact, as one of my friends argues, TWBB is as post-human as it gets in the past decade; everything’s affect and form designed to overwhelm, to impose a will. And it finds its locus in that face of DDL.

    Part of what’s cool about Miami Vice, I find, is that its eye for the human is the same as its eye for the water, though Mann is certainly tied to plot and pathos, where we see these little people scuttling, mostly. Its heros march to gain notice in a world much, much bigger than them. The borders just aren’t there, which leaves them a shrinking space. A really convoluted paradox of contraction and expansion, which is to say that it doesn’t limit its purview to the human and its pathetic appeals to the audience. I think this is what put people off of Ali, too: though it’s engaging, it’s not about the man the way any other Ho’wood hagiographical biopic is—it refuses the pathetic appeal in a lot of ways—despite its own brand of ingratiating hero-worship. Rather, here’s a man; here’s some stuff he did; some of it changed social perceptions; mostly, though, here’s a sexual creature who couldn’t be stopped from using his body, and wit, to charm the world; but the charm isn’t the payoff, oddly; the payoff, such as it is, is the matter of will, a will few humans have—that’s the rarity. At any rate, I look forward to that film’s entry, too, my man. Hope this ramble made some sense!

  • Ignatiy Vishnevetsky

    I look forward to writing about Ali, too — it’ll be in November though — and to your rebuttals. _Manhunter_’s next.

  • Ryland Walker Knight

    Manhunter is, like, the best. Ever.

  • Ben Simington

    MANHUNTER pwns RED DRAGON.

  • Mark

    Nice piece, would love to see The Keep finally released on DVD and Blu).

  • Daniel Kasman

    If you are in the US it’s currently on Netflix Instant.

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