Archive for March, 2011

March 9, 2011

More thoughts on Raising Cain

by Sara Gran
Hand-colored photograph of Carl Jung in USA, p...

Carl Jung

I had an experience a week or so ago that I’ve been thinking about a lot: I was taking to a friend when the friend turned to me, with a particular angry look on his face, and proceeded to say something in a very specific kind of pissed off, sputtering tone. The moment passed, my friend’s annoyance passed, and whatever I’d done to cause it apparently passed as well. It wasn’t at all a big deal. But this moment really stuck with me –and in fact kind of shook me up–because I realized I’d experienced this exact same moment, with a different person, about a year before. And that two years ago, I’d had the exact same moment with another friend. Same facial expression, same tone of voice, although entirely unrelated people talking about unrelated topics.  I think there’s some strange psychology at work here–either I am, subconsciously, pushing people to recreate this moment with me, or I am abnormally attracted to people to are attracted to this moment, or, well, who the hell knows? I think we all have experiences like this, although they’re certainly easier to identify in other people than ourselves: the friend who always goes for the unavailable object of desire, the cousin who spoils every good job opportunity.  We have compulsions to repeat ourselves in ways that we don’t understand and don’t usually like. (When we wrote our V.C. Andrews essay Megan explained to me about some of the Freud behind this, but of course I’ve since forgotten it all, so maybe I can persuade her to do it again.)

As a writer, too, my compulsions have become apparent to me (sometimes painfully so!)–those little moments and plot lines and characters that I keep repeating, without meaning to, in my work. I think everyone who makes art in some way knows the feeling–you get a new idea and you go and you do the new idea and you put all this time and effort into it and the when it’s over you realize wait, this wasn’t a new idea! This was the same idea I’ve had for twenty years in a new outfit! I just rewrote The Bird’s Nest AGAIN!

So I was thinking about how this plays into Raising Cain. One thing everyone noticed in the comments that got me thinking was that both within the movie, and within the context of DePalma’s other movies, there’s obviously an amount of repetition here that seems well past the normal boundaries. And I wonder if in some ways he wasn’t playing with this experience, or intentionally diving into it. And–I was about to say “incidentally,” but now I think maybe this is actually the central thing here–I do suspect that’s how we exorcise these repetitive demons–by diving into them, instead of fighting them.

This reminds me of something I’ve read a number of times, although I have no idea if it’s true: James Joyce’s daughter was schizophrenic, and he took her to see Jung. Joyce said to Jung, hey, you’ll understand her, there’s nothing wrong here–she’s just like us, using this ocean of symbols and images to make sense of her world. And Jung said Well, no, it’s not the same thing, and here’s the difference: you’re diving. Your daughter is falling.

So I wonder if DePalma was falling, and decided, wisely, to turn around and dive.

 

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March 7, 2011

Raising Cain: Official Brian De Palma film club meeting!

by Sara Gran
Cover of "Raising Cain"

Cover of Raising Cain

Even after two watchings it’s hard to say for sure what was real and what was dreams in this Hitchcock homage (or deconstruction, for lack of a better work). As in many DePalma movies, time is disjointed and not particularly sticky, both in terms of the action and in terms of cause and effect. Clocks are everywhere here, but they confuse more than clarify; likewise childhood events (and the people who inflicted them, supposedly long gone) are front and center. Janet Maslin might have said it best: “Raising Cain is best watched as a series of overlapping scenarios that may or may not be taking place in the real world.” On the second watching, things were far more clear, but I’m not sure if that’s the point. Like my favorite V.C. Andrews novel, My Sweet Audrina, this isn’t a movie interested in plotting things out on a timeline and straightening them about. It’s about throwing a bunch of ideas, images, and obsessions into a pool and diving in.

There’s a lot in here from my favorite Hitchcocks, and some other favorites as well–Carter (John Lithgow), a child psychologist, has multiple personalities due to childhood abuse (Psycho). But in this case, the abuse was intentional–Carter’s father, the Norwegian Dr. Nix, was a child psychologist (Spellound) at an “institute for child development” (Oh, DePalma and his institutes!). Dr. Nix intentionally tortured his children into developing split personalities. Now Carter lives in the Bay Area (Vertigo), where he’s a stay at home dad in a nice suburban community (Orson Wells’ The Stranger), until–well, until all kinds of stuff happens. Carter’s father, Dr. Nix, who may or may not be dead, needs more children for his experiments, so Carter and his multiples/siblings/aspects go about taking some, which means killing their parents. Meanwhile, Carter’s wife Jenny runs into an old flame, Jack. In a long sequence that drifts in and out of dreams, hallucinations, and reality (Nightmare on Elm Street), Jenny and Jack make love in various places (or don’t), Carter catches them (or seems to), and Carter kills Jenny (or doesn’t).

The attention here is on Carter and his father–but I found myself most interested in two minor characters. The first was Carter’s own daughter, Amy. Carter has a video-camera baby-monitor set-up via which he can watch Amy, and we can watch him watching Amy. Remember, Carter was tortured by his father into developing multiple personalities, and now his father wants Amy to experiment on. Watching Carter and Amy through the video monitor is creepy and terrifying because of what could happen–but nothing really does. Carter, as far as we see him, is a great dad. And in the end, the personality that rises to the top of Carter’s psyche is the mysterious Margo–a Kali-ish kind of mother figure who will (and does) kill to protect children. What exactly did happen to Amy–did Margo and Carter protect her, or did the other personalities have their way with her?

The other character who really entranced me here was Frances Sternhagen as Dr. Lynn Waldheim (Spellbound again), a  doctor who’d worked with Carter’s father. In a beautiful long tracking shot, Dr. Waldheim explains the story of Dr. Nix to two policemen as they walk through a municipal building to the morgue, veering off into wrong turns at every chance.  I can’t say what it was about her, or her character, or the story–but somehow, in some sense, she was the lynchpin that made this all come together.

I also want to say this: for reasons I don’t understand, the near-to-final scene of John Lithgow, in an elevator, wearing a wig, a trenchcoat, and no shoes, holding up a bag of groceries to cover his face, is one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen. I don’t know why John Lithgow’s feet are so terrifying but trust me, they are.

March 7, 2011

la reina ha muerto

by Megan Abbott

The main character in my third book, Queenpin, which is about to come out in Spain, was heavily inspired by the tumultuous life of  mob courier Virginia Hill, née Onie Hill, a.k.a. Virginia Norma Hall, a.k.a. Virginia Herman, a.k.a. Virginia Oney d’Algy, a.k.a. Virginia Gonzalez, a.k.a. the Flamingo.

I wrote the book exactly four years ago and somehow never came upon this terrific glamour shot that Cultura Impopular located for this interview:

virginia hillFour years after I wrote the book, she still intrigues me.  One of ten children born, as legend has it, to an drunken marble carver and mule salesmen, she left home at 17 and moved to Chicago, where she made some very dangerous friends.

If remembered at all now, it’s as a gang moll, Bugsy Siegel’s girl, the one for whom he named the Flamingo Hotel. But she was more than that (and nothing like the Annette Bening character in Warren Beatty’s heavily sanitized Bugsy). An extremely powerful mob courier for what used to be called “the syndicate,” she shuttled hundreds of thousands of dollars in the 1940s and early 50s, to Swiss bank accounts and back.

It was a dangerous business too, and her end was not pretty. (A case of questionable suicide at age 49.)

You can see her testifying at the Kefauver hearings here, at 0:43 (omerta, indeed):

She was also highly quotable, declaring to an eager press corps at one point that she had more fur coats than any woman in the country.

Gloria, the mob courier in my book, is in many ways much softer than Hill. When reporters tracked her down in Paris to give her the news that her lover Bugsy Siegel had been murdered in the home he bought for her, Hill reportedly replied:

“It looks so bad to have a thing like that happen in your house.”

March 4, 2011

dream (il)logic

by Megan Abbott

Now and again, I go through phases—frequently as a result of poor (yet legitimately pharmaceutical) choices—of bad dreams.

I am in the middle of such a phase (including an especially terrifying one involving angry squirrels). And it’s a real drag right now because I’m revisiting one of my favorite true crime books, the highly contested Black Dahlia Avenger by Steve Hodel. A retired LA cop, Hodel  devotes hundreds of pages to proving that his father, George Hodel, is not only the killer of Elizabeth Short, AKA “The Black Dahlia,” but possibly scores of other women in Los Angeles in the 1940s (and earlier, and later).

I have conversations with folks about this book at least every few weeks. It seems there are many of us who are haunted by its particular blend of truthiness, utter throw-the-book-across-the-room implausibility and the humming ring of real, and deeply haunting, truth.

Going back to bad dreams, though—well, this book gives me very bad dreams. It’s a disturbing, exotic and strange world George Hodel lived in—doctor, lothario, friend to surrealists, decadent. And Steve Hodel renders it well.  (Do read Craig McDonald‘s wonderful Toros and Torsos novel and the book Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder for more on this world.)

The point is, I cannot possibly read this book before I go to sleep.  Instead, I am watching Larry Sanders, or reading The Believer’s first-rate film issue (more on that in the days to come). But it reminds of conversations Sara and I have had about the possibility of “directing” our own dreams (and about lucid dreaming). Can one “will” bad dreams away—or more pointedly set the stage for good ones?

This is all a long (sleepless) way of saying, speaking of surrealism, I got a postcard in the mail from my dad:

The caption is “Gadget Dance, 1936,”  and it’s Depression-era timestamp is significant. But the main thing is, I smiled very widely when I got it, and have placed it above my computer.

This picture, like so many of those Busby Berkeley musical numbers from the 30s, are sometimes what we think of when we think of dreamscapes. So my goal tonight, is to dream my way into this.

Personally, I want to be the washing machine girl in the back, with the balloon bubbles. (Who can tell me what the girl behind the oven and next to the radio is supposed to be? Jack, I’m asking you!).

March 4, 2011

Luscious Collisions: the third of three reflections on noir

by Shannon Clute

In the previous two posts I’ve enumerated some of the principal characteristics of noir, and maintained that if we approach these films with an open mind and a supple methodology we can’t help but see how consistently and self-consciously noir demonstrates these characteristics.

To recap some of the salient points from those posts (and build upon them), films noir often stage tribute shots to one another in ways that simultaneously reinforce the visual style and reflect upon it: these careful framings of frames generate narrative action and a de facto critical commentary upon that action.  Likewise, these films often stage the collapse and collusion of the narrative and the extra-narrative in ways that similarly constitute critical self-reading (what I’ve referred to as auto-exegesis).  We’ve discussed that tendency in terms of the death of Welles’s Quinlan in Touch of Evil (and, we might point out, the death of noir more generally: it’s not an accident that film starts with an explosion and then precedes to blow apart all our expectations about noir (nor is it any wonder, then, that most consider it the last noir of noir’s classic period)).  We could likewise point to the ways Sunset Blvd. turns itself, the movie business and Hollywood history inside out.  Examples of such self-reflexive moments abound in noir, and if we aren’t hip to them, we’ll find our own critical reflections have already been “plagiarized by anticipation” by the films themselves (for more on the term “self-reflexive”, see the comment thread to my first post below).

If that is the narratology of noir, its philosophy is something else.  While noir is consistently playful in the former arena, it is most often deadly serious in the later (though it can be comically serious, as in the case of the poodle breaks Johnny Clay’s will in The Killing, or the monkey funeral that fundamentally alters Joe Gillis’s lot in Sunset Blvd.).  In yesterday’s post I explored noir’s surprisingly consistent world view, maintaining that noir is a particular form of absurdist existentialism, wherein noir players come to understand both their own complicity in the crime (sometimes the bigger Crime, existence itself) and the absurdity of their action as part of their inability to remain inactive.

Now I’d like to briefly consider what all this allows noir to do. What comes of these postulates?  What are the resultants of such an equation?

If we understand noir only as a visual style, as so many have, we will see that it spread out quickly but thinly on the surface of other contemporary films styles—covering them with a superficial darkness.  Those noir-stained films have not, generally speaking, endured.  Yet those are the films scholars will point to if they’re interested in saying noir is just a style (not a genre, not something more).  Those are the films that have allowed some scholars, interested in seeing noir as a short-lived and easily containable mid-century phenomenon, to say just that.  And those are the trappings of style that made noir an easy target of parody in film and literature, from the forties onward.

But if we think about noir as a substantial and nuanced philosophical position, and a film style that has an uncommon ability to allow filmmakers to reflect upon their stories and the means they use to tell them (uncommon because such gestures are fundamentally a part of noir, and need not feel like an obtrusive aside), then we see that noir served as a narrative, technical, philosophical template for a wide variety of films, and continues to do so today.

Directors with an understanding of these more substantial characteristics of noir have been able to make substantially noir films out of material that by all appearances should have little to do with the noir universe: science fiction tales of human “replicants” in a high-tec future (Blade Runner); high school melodramas set in a contemporary Los Angeles where teenagers speak like 1930s gangsters (Brick); a case focused (if focused on anything at all) on a cheap rug purloined from an unemployed surfer Dude (The Big Lebowski).  When directors drill deep into noir’s philosophical foundations, and build upon them with appropriately self-conscious pilferings from noir’s visual library, the result is a series of truly luscious collisions.

Not surprisingly, we first see these more substantial neo-noir experiments in France—in the work of exiled American directors such as Jules Dassin (think Rififi), then in the New Wave.  This trend then boomerangs back to America, in even quirkier but no less noir experiments such as those I’ve highlighted above.  Clearly, such profoundly noir neo-noir experiments have erupted in other places and other genres, and I hope readers of this post will give their own thoughts on titles that should be added to this list (and why).  But it seems to me, in ways that I’m still trying to understand, that the history of noir—and certainly the history of understanding noir—is a Franco-American affair.

In this spirit of ongoing investigation, and in the interest of opening that investigation to a larger public, I would like to conclude by offering up one more of the insights into noir that Richard Edwards and I articulated in the course of our podcasts.  It is rudimentary by comparison to the others I’ve appended to my posts, but it is one that constituted an important early insight into some of the themes I’ve explored above (and continue to explore):

~ Luscious Collisions

Despite its reputation as an American film style, noir owes a great deal to German émigré directors: Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, and Otto Preminger came over to America with a European sensibility, and changed the way Hollywood told the hard-boiled stories.  In the making of Rififi, we get the reverse trajectory—a Hollywood filmmaker, Jules Dassin, working in France due to the Blacklist in the United States, bringing with him the American attitude, in order to make an American-style, hard-boiled film within the French film industry.  The result is a film full of luscious collisions.  –Richard Edwards

There’s no greater such collision than a scene in a nightclub when Viviane (Magali Noël), the club’s singer, performs a song that explains what “rififi” means.  As she’s singing, there’s a screen in the background onto which is projected an image of a cobblestone street, and behind the screen is a man in a suit with a hat and a cigarette in his mouth dancing an interpretive dance that acts out the action of the lyric of her song. It’s hard to imagine an American noir would ever contain a scene—and it’s a crucial scene to the film—with an interpretive dance that acts out a definition of a slang term that is the title of the film. A truly luscious collision, and the highly stylized vision of noir that will prove crucial to French crime directors such as Godard.  Indeed, it’s hard to imagine Breathless without a precedent like Jules Dassin’s Rififi. –Shannon Clute

March 3, 2011

“I made a mistake, once”: The second of three reflections on noir

by Shannon Clute

The noir universe is often considered to be fatalistic, or more broadly nihilistic.  I believe it is more accurate to see that world as existentialist, for a simple reason that has vast implications: to be fatalistic is to accept one’s situation; to be existentialist is to recognize how one’s agency has created one’s situation.  It may sound like a razor-fine distinction, but the thinnest blades cut the deepest.

When we first feast our eyes on the abundant misery of noir’s drama, we see broken players, or players bending until they break.  For reasons I addressed in Tuesday’s post, we can’t help but revel in the particular pains of noir.  But over time that revelry would create a real hangover if there were no other nuances that kept us coming back.  Two of those I discussed already: noir’s overt self-consciousness and its deeply quirky, highly self-referential humor.

To these we must add a particular philosophical stance—one that is, once again, marked by profound self-awareness.  It is what distinguishes noir from westerns, war films, and straight domestic melodramas.  It is likely what made this dark body of films resonate so deeply with American viewers in the wartime and immediate post-war years.  Granted, it was easy for most to recognize they weren’t living the Technicolor suburban dream Hollywood was starting to feed them, and that alone might explain some of noir’s popularity .  But in the wake of two wars that scarred the world forever, everyone was feeling some measure of guilt.  Everyone felt complicit.  Noir let them suffer, and go on, in ways they felt they should.

A lot has been made of noir as a visual style—an outgrowth German Expressionism and French Poetic Realism, once immigrated.  These are compelling arguments that any fan of noir should explore.  Less has been made, by film scholars at least, of the equal contribution of American hard-boiled writing to the creation of noir.  That is a lacuna that must be filled, and one we have often addressed in our “Out of the Past: Investigating Film Noir” podcasts.  The types of stories noir told, the idiom in which it told them, the characters that populated these stories—they were all distinctly American.  German Expressionism was just that until it ran smack into the pulpy world of mid-century America.

But in that collision was an alchemy that created a hitherto unknown essence, at once ethereal and very worldly (for more on the alchemical moment of collision, see the entry on The Killers at the bottom of this post).  I would maintain it is the very essence of noir.  It is noir’s philosophy, and it is surprisingly fleshed out, surprisingly nuanced.

For want of a better term, I have called it existentialist.  That’s a fairly descriptive term, as long as we understand what branch of existentialism we’re discussing.  In noir I don’t see Kierkegaard or Nietzsche or Heidegger.  I see something closer to Sartre and closest to Camus, and it’s probably no wonder French critics were the first to see coherence in this dark body of works coming out of Hollywood at the time, and to give it a name—film noir (a term they coined, we must remember, because of the well known imprint from Gallimard called Série Noire, which specialized in hard-boiled American fiction).

That brand of existentialism is unique for many reasons, but two seem particularly relevant to noir.  The first is Sartre’s explicit dictum “Existence precedes essence” (to paraphrase somewhat selectively and recklessly, nothing is anything before it takes action).  The second is the concept of the “absurde,” best articulated by Camus in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus.  I like to think of Camus’s absurd as purposeful action in the face of meaninglessness, a recognition of the importance of one’s own agency in the act of ultimately changing nothing.

That, to me, is noir.  It is what keeps us from pitying noir heros who ultimately can’t change the world.  It’s what makes us love the scoundrels whose greatest virtue is to keep being scoundrels.  It is why femmes fatales don’t strike us as simply immoral, but as somehow determined and admirable in their recklessness.

I should say at this point that Richard Edwards and I, in our podcasts and in the book that those inspired (The Maltese Touch of Evil: Film Noir and Potential Criticism, forthcoming from UPNE in the fall, as Megan was kind enough to mention), have studiously avoided the question of what “is” and what “is not” noir.  This leads us down the path of debating style versus genre, of establishing a noir canon, and so on—well worn paths in the world of noir studies that at this point have little potential to reveal new information about noir, or help us achieve new understandings.  But because this is a blog, and blog musings are by definition rather personal, I’ll step away from my co-investigator for just a moment and offer this contentious musing.

He Walked by Night

To my mind, films that don’t evince the philosophical stance above don’t ultimately feel very noir.  These would include, above all, any films where a character set up to be a moral force within the film counterbalances or corrects the agency of a character set up to be flawed: films gris such as The Big Heat; noir-styled westerns such as Blood on the Moon or The Naked Spur; noir-styled war films such as The Third Man (which unabashedly “borrows” John Alton’s sewer scene from He Walked by Night for its own climax)—none of them are, to my mind, truly or fully films noirs.  They have all the trappings.  They may even have the proper measure of misery.  But something is amiss.

The Third Man

In the films that strike me as most fully noir, protagonists recognize their mistake.  That doesn’t mean they give up, or turn themselves in (in fact, they usually go down swinging).  But they come to understand both their own complicity in the crime (sometimes the bigger Crime, existence itself) and the absurdity of their action as part of their inability to remain inactive.   They know they will be punished, but damn it, it won’t be by something as inconsequential as another person representing order or good.  It may be Law itself, or Fate, or Desire—forces we can only understand in caps, even if they occasionally appear in an embodied form—but nothing as small as just a man or woman.

Here’s an example of what I mean, drawn from a podcast conversation Rich and I had in which we began to formulate some of the thoughts I’ve expressed above:

~ A Frenchman’s Question and The Swede’s American Answer

The Killers

Near the beginning of The Killers, Nick (Phil Brown) runs to tell The Swede (Burt Lancaster) two men are coming to kill him.  The Swede says there’s nothing he can do about it.  Nick asks, “Couldn’t you get out of town?”  The Swede answers, “No.  I’m through with all that running around.”  What we see at play in this exchange is the fundamental question of the post-war era—the question Camus poses in his 1940 essay The Myth of Sisyphus: “There is but one serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.  Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” In the Hemingway story that is the source material for The Killers, the only physical detail we have of The Swede, besides him being an ex-heavyweight who’s too long for his bed, is that he has a mashed-up face.  In a film, of course, we can’t have a protagonist with a mashed up face, for he has to have leading man good looks.  But as The Swede is gunned down and lays dying in his bed, he reaches up with his right hand to grasp the bed frame, and what we see is a prominent scar on his hand.  This is a very different sort of scar, because it doesn’t indicate that he has taken a beating.  It would seem to indicate that he has given a beating, that he has gone down fighting; and yet, he doesn’t go down fighting.   The Killers examines the story behind the scar The Swede bears; it is the story of the reasons for his decision not to fight any longer. –Shannon Clute

Sisyphus

Sisyphus

The film’s action alternates between present moments in which insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) tries to discover what happened to Ole Andersen, aka The Swede, and moments in The Swede’s past.  The film underscores the centrality of the question of suicide by making it an early plot point, and Reardon begins to really get interested in The Swede’s story when he realizes that the beneficiary of The Swede’s life insurance policy is a person who prevented his earlier attempt at suicide years before.  So the central thrust of the film is an investigation into what propels Ole to continue, or to give up.  In the post-war years, this really is analogous to the Sisyphean question.  Why does the Greek myth of Sisyphus exist?  The fate of Sisyphus, which most philosophers read as a very negative existence, is that he is doomed for all eternity to roll the rock up the hill without ever completing his task; just before he can push the rock over the top, it comes bounding back down Camus, writing from an Existentialist perspective, has an interesting take on this myth, which I think Siodmak shares.  Rather than focusing on the moment when the rock rolls down the hill, both pay attention to the instant at which Sisyphus decides to go back down the hill to get started over again—or in The Swedes case, decides not to. –Richard Edwards

This is the key part of Camus’s argument.  The absurde allows us to recognize, in the words of Camus, that “Our solitary effort, our day to day revolt, gives proof of the only truth.  Which is defiance.”  And so it’s at the moment that Sisyphus turns and looks back down at the rock that has crashed to the plains below, and decides to take that first step back down to retrieve it, that he becomes greater than his fate.  With this action, Fate is to some degree undermined.  Ole Andersen finally gets to a point where he’s just too tired to take that step. –Shannon Clute

March 1, 2011

A poodle on the tarmac: The first of three reflections on noir

by Shannon Clute

The Killing (dir. Stanley Kubrick)

Granted, there are the shadows: the men lurking beneath fedoras, their faces split by darkness like their psyches; the women flickering like a candle’s flame against a black world, all warm glow and deadly heat.  (You know them so well they feel almost like family; like sweet Uncle Charlie, you invite them in, and realize too late they’ve concocted a makeshift gas chamber in your garage and they’re trying to off your kids.)  But there are also thieves dressed like children dressing up like cowboys, putting a bullet through a gumball machine just to show they mean business.  And there are poodles on the tarmac.

Noir is a world of dark streets, but it is also a world of absurdity and humor. To speak of the one without the other is to see half the picture: it is to see the shadow beneath the fedora but not the light, to see the torch singer’s danger but not feel her warmth.  It is to assume noir is as dark as we seem to want it to be, rather than to see it as it is.

We are drawn to noir because we want to feel bad, and noir let’s us do that—beautifully.  Never was heartbreak so heartfelt.  Never was danger so charged.  But we return to noir because it makes us feel something more.  Maybe that something is a sense of optimism (that sort of hope that can only arise from the lowest muck).  Maybe it is an existential laugh, bitter but meaningful because it is born at the moment we have nothing left to hope for or to fear.

I remember when I started to see both sides of noir.  It was a sun-drenched spring day in Moraga, California, on the campus of Saint Mary’s College.  The Japanese cherry trees were in blossom.  The whitewashed walls of the chapel shone impossibly bright against the emerald green hillsides.   I would say we stood in the shadow of that imposing chapel, but I don’t recall there being any shadow that day.

I was chatting with my friend and colleague Richard Edwards, a professor of film and new media, about our shared love of noir.  We did the sort of sparring academics do before having real conversations (and academic conversation usually stops at sparring): we offered each other a series of platitudes about noir cinematography and lighting, about German Expressionism and French poetic realism, about Siodmak and Tourneur and Wilder, about Chandler and Cain.  Little by little, it became a real conversation, and before we knew it we were offering up thoughts on Peggy Cummins shooting the matches off John Dall’s head in Gun Crazy, on Humphrey Bogart rubbing his ear in The Big Sleep.  And why the hell (just what one has to wonder in the shadow of the chapel) hadn’t anyone found a way to talk about both in the same conversation and in a way that might matter—as fluidly as films noir themselves managed to do?

Peggy Cummins in Gun Crazy

Well, that did it.  Soon Richard and I were brainstorming, researching, talking.  And as you can probably guess by the length of this preamble, we’ve never stopped talking.  The result is a series of 50 (so far) podcasts on film noir (the Out of the Past: Investigating Film Noir series) and 28 conversations with authors of hard-boiled, mystery and suspense (the Behind the Black Mask: Mystery Writers Revealed podcasts).

These podcasts are our answer to the questions raised by that fateful conversation.  They are our attempt to create a new brand of noir studies that can account for the deadly serious and the wickedly humorous aspects of noir, that is fluid in its medium and methodology so it can swerve quickly when the poodle crosses the tarmac (as it does in Kubrick’s The Killing) and thereby end up in a new and unanticipated place.

The poodle on the tarmac (The Killing)

We have dubbed our critical medium the “serialized academic audiobook,” and believe that ours was the first academic film and literature analysis podcast.  But that matters about as much as what sort of car Uncle Charlie cranked up in the garage that day.  What matters is that it has helped us to see noir in a whole new light.

What we have come to appreciate is that noir hides nothing in the shadows.  In fact, it lays all the evidence out on the table, so plainly that it is easy to overlook—like Poe’s “Purloined Letter.”  As the career inspectors buzz all around it, peering in shadows, roughing up the gees and laying bare the dames, it still sits right before our eyes, unopened.

What is its secret?  What does that letter say?  Well, I’m not going to presume we’ve gotten that far in the investigation.  But what I can tell you is this.  Noir is trying to help us be better readers of noir, even if it doesn’t want to give up it’s ultimate secret (just as is true of Poe’s purloined letter, or Henry James’s figure in the carpet).

By keeping our eyes open to what we see in the films (rather than to what we want to see or expect to see), what we can’t help but see is that noir is an extremely self-conscious film style.  It stages tribute shots that constitute a critical commentary on—an “auto-exegesis” of—the film in which they appear (think of Emmerich’s descent of the staircase in The Asphalt Jungle vs. Mrs. Dietrichson’s in Double Indemnity), it stages visual and aural puns that demonstrate an awareness of how it is telling stories and at whose expense (think of the closing echo between the author and the protagonist at the end of Touch of Evil, or that same film’s multi-layered sign for viewers that hangs in the blind shopkeeper’s store: “If you are mean enough to steal from the blind, help yourself”).

Noir constantly frames its own evidence and offers it up.  If we fail to weigh the evidence as we watch, or if we are so bound to one method(ology) for investigating that we fail to see that certain clues are offered up with a wink and a nod, then we’ll find we’ve found little (and will only discover too late that the joke’s on us).

We don’t claim to have the answers.  But we would argue that we have to stay flexible in our approach to noir: we have to find a method that embraces the passion and encyclopedic knowledge of fan scholars without rejecting the insights that come from the close critical reading practices of academics.  And above all, we have to appreciate that noir has already laid the goods on the table.  If we don’t try and see the way it is framing stories about reading, then we’ll find we’re the saps in the story—outguessed and outgunned at every turn.

If you want to know what all this talk means in practical terms, we’d invite you to listen to our podcasts.  We also have a book coming out in the fall that gathers together some of the insights we’ve gleaned through podcasting.  It’s called the Maltese Touch of Evil: Film Noir and Potential Criticism.  Here’s an entry from that book that gives you a taste of what we see in noir:

Touch of Evil

Heston in Touch of Evil

~ The Slightest Separation

Touch of Evil can be seen as, above all, a meditation on filmmaking. The final sequence of “Mike” Vargas (Charlton Heston) trying to record the conversation between Sergeant Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia) and corrupt Captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles), going through the muck and the oil rigs with a recording device, is ultimately a metaphor for filmmaking itself. On the set, these actors are being followed by filmmaking crews, and when Welles as Quinlan is standing on the bridge, and he hears the echo of the recording device, Welles the director is making a self-conscious pun on filmmaking. Welles knows the scene is actually double microphoned, because he is also recording the scene for us in the audience.  In the action and the mise en scène, he is exploiting these doublings and double entendres on every level in the final scenes of this film. –Richard Edwards

Ultimately the question is what options remain when a film becomes this self-reflexive? The self-conscious auteur of such a work has to write himself out of the picture in the end, for there is no where else to go.  The perfect moment of filmic punning, this double gesture both narrative and extra-narrative, is illustrated in the death of Quinlan. As Vargas follows them around, with a device to record their conversation, he gets closer and closer, until Quinlan hears a slightly delayed echo of his own voice from the device. In other words, the film stages the closing of the gap until there is just the slightest delay, the slightest separation in space and time, between Welles the director and Welles the actor, between the extra-narrative stuff of filmmaking and the narrative that is being constructed. At the moment these join, the auteur must die, and he right after he hears the slight echo of his own voice, Quinlan is killed. –Shannon Clute

March 1, 2011

last night’s spangles, yesterday’s pearls: meet Shannon…

by Megan Abbott

Shannon Clute (left) and Richard Edwards

I first met Shannon at Bouchercon, the crime fiction convention, a few years back and discovered Out of the Past, his brilliant podcast with Richard Edwards—the two a dream duo, with Shannon’s intense, fluid mastery of theory and Richard’s vast and enriching knowledge of studio history.

A decade out of graduate school, I so missed the kind of endless ruminative and riveting conversations you can get in about movies in that environment, and listening to these podcasts about some of my favorite films—well, it was better than grad school because there need be no pretense that we do not LOVE these movies. Listening to each of these lush, dark melodies was both intoxicating and invigorating. (and you will be forever convinced by their recasting of It’s a Wonderful Life as a film noir).

More recently, I was thrilled to learn that the project has led to an upcoming book, The Maltese Touch of Evil: Film Noir and Potential Criticism, to be published by UPNE/ Dartmouth College Press this fall.

In 2006, Shannon’s novel, the Chandler-esque The Mint Condition was selected as one of ten semi-finalists in the Court TV “Next Great Crime Writer” contest. More recently, Shannon began working for Turner Classic Movies and, on March 17, he will make his on-air hosting debut, about which Shannon will have more to say. TCM is damn lucky to have him, and so are we. He’ll be with us all week, folks!

1. what is your greatest fear?

Never accomplishing anything worth remembering; conversely, spending so much time worrying about never accomplishing anything worth remembering that I neglect my friends and family.

2. what is your favorite way of spending time?

Really?  Just one favorite?  How about three?  Camping with my wife and daughter; hiking in hilly regions anywhere in the world (but especially upstate New York, the Colorado Rockies, the central Apennines in Tuscany, or the Ardennes in Belgium); and, before I gave up the bad habit, smoking a nice pipe and reading a good book on the back porch (preferably a Peterson 341 system pipe with a little McClelland Tastemaster, and a hard-boiled treasure of the ‘30s or ‘40s).

3. what is your most treasured possession?

I am clearly not hardwired for these sorts of questions.  How about I narrow it to three again? First, a roughly 40-acre plot of desert in the mountains of southern Colorado that my brother and I bought with our father’s life insurance money after he passed away; second, a pocket watch presented to my great grandfather after he returned to Glasgow to repay all his creditors (they allowed him to head to America to try and make good, despite the fact he owed them big bucks: he got a shipment of bad rubber to his boot factory, and unwittingly supplied the British Boer War troops with defective boots, thus bankrupting him); a very modern flatware set in a teak box that my grandmother bought while living in New York City in the ’30s.

4. when and where were you happiest?

At the birth of my daughter. (Finally, one I can answer definitively…though there have been plenty of other highlights.)

5. what is your greatest indulgence?

Now that I’m a parent, my greatest indulgence is getting up ungodly early each morning to take about an hour and a half all to myself to write (which I’m doing this very moment)

6. where would you like to live?

Oh, now you’ve done it!  You’ve asked the question that I spend most of my waking hours thinking about (for it is so tied up with every one of these other questions: isn’t happiness a perfect place to live? Isn’t is just bound to be the next place you move?)  Mind you, this depends not only on the season, but the day, the particular quality of light, the ambient humidity, the most recent careers I’ve read about, how badly I’m needing to exercise that day, etc.  There have been several strong contenders in recent years: Burlington, Vermont; Liège, Belgium; Doolin, Ireland; Ithaca, New York; Crestone, Colorado; Rome, Italy; Chadron, Nebraska; etc.  Unfortunately, the most honest answer may be, “Wherever I’m not.”

7. what is the quality you are most drawn to a person?

Honesty.

8. how would you like to die?

Instantaneously.

9. what is your secret superstition?

I do everything in multiples or divisors of eight (was this questionnaire designed to reveal madness, or is it just me?)

10. what was the best dream and worst nightmare you ever had?

Throughout my life I’ve had a nightmare that I’m working on an old fishing vessel—wind powered, riggings and all—when the boom swings around, knocks me on the back of the head and I go overboard.  My last vision is of the moonlight playing on the surface of the water far above, all around the shadow of the boat.  My best dream?  There have been too many great ones to name “the best.”  I guess I’m only consistent in my nightmares.

11. what song do you most hear in your head?

I always have music in my head, so this is tough.  Beethoven’s 9th and the Winter movement of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons are there a lot (along with the slow parts of Vivaldi’s Mandolin Concerto in C Major).  I’m always hearing the opening bars of Gillian Welch’s “Barroom Girls.” Also, “Samson” by Regina Spektor, “I Lost It” by Lucinda Williams, “The Liar in My Heart” by the Star Room Boys.  I should stop.  It’s getting loud in there.

12.  what do you read/watch/listen to when you are feeling badly?

Chandler and Cain never fail to delight me. The Philadelphia Story, The Awful Truth and It’s a Wonderful Life usually do the trick too.  The soundtracks of sadness laced with hope (or at least defiance) would be The Star Room Boys, Micah P. Hinson and the Gospel of Progress, or Kelly Joe Phelps.

13. what do you consider to be the greatest elixir/restorative?

Sleep, exercise, or good food (in huge quantities).

14. what’s something you never told anyone?

Now that we’ve gotten this far, can you imagine me ever holding anything back?

Visit Shannon on Crimespace or go to Noircast site.