Archive for ‘philosophy’

May 23, 2011

Quincy & Columbo & the Cassandras of television: more influences on Claire DeWitt

by Sara Gran
Columbo, as he appeared in volume 7 of Case Closed

Image via Wikipedia

The world of TV detectives is too huge and wonderful to cover in a blog post or two, or even a lifetime. So I’m going to focus on just a few here today. And while all police work is interesting, we are about to enter the most fascinating sphere of police work–the world of forensic medicine.

Oh, Quincy, the Cassandra of TV! And Columbo, his darker twin, sans houseboat. What Quincy and Columbo have in common is this: they always know the solution to the mystery, and no one ever believes them. Cassandra, of course, was a figure from greek mythology: Apollo granted her the gift of prophecy, but cursed her so no one would believe her (in another version of the myth snakes licked her ears clean so she could hear the truth)–just as, apparantly, Quincy and Columbo were cursed. Interestingly, though, these hexed states led to different trajectories–and, as all of us have a little Cassandra in them, interesting takes on how this archtypical human condition of knowing-but-ignored might play out.

In Quincy”s case he is thwarted, as we all know, by the internal authority figures of the LAPD and the Coroner’s Office. People outside of his immediate circle (and, in fairness, those closest to him at the coroner’s office) understand that this is a wise man more than capable of solving the mystery at hand. But that Leiutenant/Father/Priest/Authority-Most-High just can’t se it! The Emporor with a new set of clothes, the King corrupted by power–what the fuck is this Lieutenant’s problem? Quincy is always right! Eight years and 148 episodes and the Lieutenant could not overcome his ego, his desire to cling to his version of the “truth,” like Hitler in his bunker, even as all evidence of that “truth” crumbled around him. He could not put the truth before being right. What a valuable lesson for us all.  No one had the nerve to speak the truth except Quincy. Despite the formulaic plots and the melodrama there was a purity to Quincy’s mission, a knight-in-shining-armor quality, a sense of a men with an impossible mission who, knowing the impossibility, went on nonetheless because this mission was the right thing to do. We can’t say that about many people.  There’s that crazy old woman who sits on the corner and protests the war. There’s that one guy holding a picket sign in front of the drugstore because they screw their employees and he got fired like five years ago and no one cares. The old hippie who lives in a bus in the woods because he didn’t want to pay taxes that would go to napalm Vietnam. Underneath the allure of the houseboat and the ladies and the jazzy casual slacks, that is Quincy–that despised voice of sanity so rare and pure that those around him judge him insane.

Columbo’s path, as we all know, was different. Quincy yelled and screamed and railed against authority (and I think we all know, like Chevy Chase in Foul Play, what Quincy was doing to get the smell of formaldehide out his nose once he retired to his houseboat). Columbo took a more sly and, dare I say, wiser approach. Although to be fair Columbo faced a different set of challenges–he had a reasonable degree of support within the LAPD, if I remember right (weren’t Quincy and Columbo in LA at the same time? Did they know each other?). Columbo always knew who did it. But everyone who he met–especially his own High Priests, the wealthy and powerful men of Los Angeles–thought he was an idiot. But of course, Columbo never yelled or screamed or faught authority head-on. Instead, he used people’s misperceptions to his advantage, dissembling, confusing, and creating a haze around his work. there was something witchy about Columbo and frankly, something very feminine–the way he handled authority was a stereotypically female way of dealing with strength. This is also a tool opressed minority groups have used to deflect attention away from their strength. Columbo walked into a room of rich and powerful men and, dismissed as a fool, overheard everything and let no clue slip his gaze. Like the court jester who’s lowly position enabled him to speak the truth without directly challenging the Emporer, Columbo used his lowly position to get closer to the ground, where the snakes would be more likely to clean his ears. Did anyone ever believe Columbo? It didn’t really matter. By the end of every episode he hard proof, proof even the Big Hollywood Producer couldn’t make dissapear. No one had to believe in Columbo.

Might I be so bold as to suggest that Quincy wanted to believed, while Columbo wanted the truth to be served? That Quincy, while clearly in service to the truth, was also in service, maybe just a little, of his ego? Those of you who were eager young anarchists in the eighties and nineties (some of us still are!) might remember a book called TAZ, or Temporary Autonomous Zone. Hakim Bey, the author, argued that challenging the structures of authority head-on was a waste of time. You have a revolution and then ten years later the “revolutionaries” are just as bad as the people they revolted against. Instead he suggested ignoring authority, and creating Temporary Autonomous Zones–places where one would be free to pursue the truth as one sees it without asking for permission or waiting for the answer. Might I be so bold as to suggest that this was exactly what Columbo did, and exactly what Quincy did not do? And I think, but can’t say for certain, that Columbo was happier.

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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