Sunday, August 9, 2015

Michael Mann Watch: The Keep (1983)

So, a few days ago, pal JuanD posted something to Facebook about German electronic musical combo, Tangerine Dream, and - knowing neither Juan nor I had any better plans for Saturday, I got us all fired up, as I'd recently seen that Amazon Instant was offering up the 1983 Michael Mann opus, The Keep.

I didn't promise the movie would actually be good.  I'd seen it before.  But if you're looking for an extended mix and meshing of the finest in early synth odyssey and forgotten tone-poem movie making, well, my friends, have I got a commercially unviable flick for you.

The first time I saw The Keep was some point circa 1988.  I'd actually heard of Tangerine Dream thanks to a sci-fi book I'd read a year or so before (The Architect of Sleep) in which the first-person narrator was a fan of the band.  I'm thinking that I saw that name come up prominently and stuck with the movie.  In an era when most of what was on the radio was by Guns N' Roses and Janet Jackson, I didn't have a lot of Tangerine Dream immediately available to me, and this was the first time I'd actually heard them.  It's also possible I also saw the name of Miami Vice and Manhunter mastermind Michael Mann listed as director, but I don't remember when I knew the movie was his work.

If you've seen The Keep, it's kind of remarkable that I gave up an evening of my life watching the movie (and loved it), but back then, I had no real preconceived notions of what a movie should be.  Around that same time I recall watching My Life as a Dog, first with English dubbing and then with subtitles, on two consecutive nights, and agreeing with my brother that it worked much better with subtitles.

Later, I'd ask other people if they'd ever seen the movie, and realized that the completely random viewing on a local UHF channel that led to me seeing the movie meant I was one of very few people who'd seen it.  In college I met people who knew it either by reputation or because of the Tangerine Dream connection, but can't recall anyone who had seen it (though I suspect JAL had watched it, and I'm just failing to recall).  The studio has more or less disavowed the movie.  It's not really been available since VHS, and even the version available on Amazon is in SD.  When I saw the movie a few years ago at The Alamo, we weren't watching the 35mm copy the studio sent around for rentals.  We were watching the only copy the studio owned, and they so didn't give a shit about it, they were sending it out for viewings.

From this trailer, you get some interesting history.  Pretty clearly, the studio thought this was going to be a prestige movie.  It seems the movie may have been shot in 70mm, and they felt they'd assembled an all-star crew and cast.  It was going to be a horror movie for grown-ups.

But that's not really what shook out.

1941, a German regiment rolls into a small Romanian village to hold a pass through through the mountains.  Their leader, Woerman (Jurgen Prochnow, whom Jamie did not recognize, but whom you surely will),  sets up camp within a fortress at the center of town.  Thinking out loud to the caretaker of the keep, he says something along the lines of "well, this is built totally backwards.  It would be easy to get into here, it's built as if you're... keeping something... in".

And, indeed, they are.  Soldiers unwittingly open up the walls, and out comes... something, and a whole lotta Tangerine Dream music.  Soldiers start getting killed, and Prochnow, demanding a move out of the village, instead, is sent reinforcements from those guys who never fail to escalate a situation and make it way, way worse, the actual S.S., and their trigger-happy commander, played by Gabriel Byrne.

Meanwhile, Scott Glenn is magically summoned to the keep, and Ian McKellan in old-age make-up (done extremely well...  he basically looks here how he looks now),  plays a Jewish historian with a knowledge of the keep, and is thus employed to help dig up the mystery despite his failing health.

It's probably interesting to note that the original novel did not feature a semi-abstracted demonic creature, but a vampire.  This is Romania, after all.

Anyway, it's mostly Michael Mann mood lighting, Tangerine Dream scoring, some fairly decent FX and a plot that's oddly plodding for a shortish movie.

I do think The Keep is a horror movie for adults.  There's assumed knowledge of the atrocities of the Third Reich, of actual history, of men making moral compromise for what they think is the greater good, of the blindness of adherence to dogma, etc...  It just... I'm not sure it works all that well, but I like the effort.  I also happen to think movies like Sorcerer are a pretty good idea, so use that as your measuring stick.

A couple of glasses of wine and snifter or two of scotch in, after the movie, Juan and I had a sprawling conversation about what could and never could be made in 2015 Hollywood in comparison to whatever forces drove Paramount to fund and support The Keep.  Or what a modern audience would even do with a movie that looked or behaved like this, complete with Michael Mann lighting, pacing, character flatness, etc...  Hell, even lingering beauty shots of boats crossing the Black Sea at dusk would be suspect in a sci-fi/ horror/ fantasy film.

I have no shame in my sentiment and nostalgia for that kind of movie making.  The accountants driving current studio projects might not get it, the algorithms sorted out for what the average 24 year old wants to see might not allow for shots beyond a certain length or of a certain type, all carefully controlled and watched with a stop watch by some functionary in a screening room.  Scripts can't hit the greenlight stage unless they follow explicit rules re: exposition and formula, and I absolutely include Oscar-bait pictures in this category.

This is not the era of the auteur in Hollywood.  That's borne curious fruit in previously unimaginable efforts like the Marvel Universe, but it's also left a generation unable to express itself on the big screen in any meaningful way that doesn't have a formula that includes "pre-awareness" somewhere in the decision making process.  Fortunately, we've had the small screen pick up the slack.  And the YouTube window for the Millenials.

Fortunately, Mann was working in an era where auteurism was a valued commdity by both the studios and the public.  Not every effort was going to be a gem, and it's hard to call The Keep a victory, but it's at least an interesting attempt.  Interesting enough that I still return to it, again and again, in a bit of disbelief that it ever got made.


Matt A. said...

I'm not sure if this was brought up with the last time you posted about this (I don't know how many years ago, but The Keep was on Netflix at the time), but there's just something about having Nazis be the "protagonist" of a film, even if they are setup just to be fodder for the monster. It seems like nowadays, any time a Nazi gets on screen, it's for the "we don't need a reason to kill them because Nazis are evil" purpose.

The League said...

Well, something I'd forgotten is that there's a pretty clear distinction between the Wehrmacht soldiers and the SS. Technically, sure, they're all working for Hitler, but the first guys to roll in are just regular foot soldiers who are just caught up in this thing. Prochnow's character is very clearly the even-handed pragmatist trying to get through this war he's caught up in. It's when the SS shows up and, under Gabriel Byrne, starts acting like the SS, that you really get the "well, if these guys get killed, no harm, no foul". So, while I agree with you, the movie does subdivide the Nazis into semi-sympathetic and not-at-all-sympathetic in a way that's somewhat more nuanced than the Indiana Jones approach to Germans.

J.S. said...

I don't know if this new movie will be any good, but here's a guy who's a possible up-and-coming auteur in Hollywood...

The League said...

Started watching "Birdman" this weekend. Going to finish it tonight. Hopefully will have something to say about this guy soon.