Posts tagged ‘guests’

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

Advertisements
February 28, 2011

dark eyes glowin’: meet Craig….

by Megan Abbott

I met Craig McDonald after reading his terrific first novel, Head Games, which was nominated for Best First Novel Edgar Award (as well as the Anthony, Gumshoe and Crimespree Magazine awards). The first in his series, Head Games introduced us to McDonald’s recurring hero, pulp novelist and Hemingway pal Hector Lassiter, a true adventurer who cuts a swath across the mid twentieth century.

Since then, he has published two magnificent follow-ups, Toros and Torsos and Print the Legend. Just a few weeks ago, his latest, One True Sentence (the title, a nod to Papa), which brings us into the glimmering, orgastic world of 1920s Paris, hit bookstores.

Craig has also published two definitive collections of interviews with crime authors, Art in the Blood and Rogue Males. In fact, I’d read Craig long before I knew him, having come upon his remarkable interview with the notoriously tricky subject, Mr. James Ellroy. We’ve met many times since (and Craig interviewed me for Mystery News, a rare treat for me). I must say that no one is doing what Craig is doing, or doing it so well—his novels are sprawling tales that masterfully combine the “high” and “low” markers of mid-century America—from pulp novels to high modernism, from surrealism to film noir—showing how they are always-already inextricably linked.

We are so lucky to have a post from Craig today…but first he indulges us in our questionnaire (and we are delighted to have Rip Torn made a repeat performance, a la The Songwriter).

1. what is your greatest fear?

Helplessness.

2. what is your favorite way of spending time?

Creating.

3. what is your most treasured possession?

An early hardcover of the ltd. edition sent me of Head Games by Ben LeRoy and Alison Janssen. It was the first piece of my own published long-form fiction I got to hold.

4. when and where were you happiest?

To date, Scotland, October, 1996. We married there, then spent days tooling around the Highlands.

5. what is your greatest indulgence?

A first edition of Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls.

6. where would you like to live?

To my own surprise, I’m thinking more and more about Florida. I’m actually getting tired of Midwest seasons.

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

Wit.

8. how would you like to die?

I’m honestly hoping for some escape clause. I can’t fathom a world without me in it. That’s not ego, but simple personal experience talking.

9. what is your secret superstition?

The number 13, and not necessarily tied to Fridays. I’ve sustained bitter losses on the 13th of various months.

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

I had a dream in which my maternal grandfather, who set my reading tastes and fiction writing interests, said he loved my first-published novel that was dedicated to him. He died on Nov. 13, 1980. The book appeared fall of 2007. Worst nightmare? I had a too-vivid imagining of something terrible happening to one of my children. That actually fueled a plot point in Head Games.

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

That’s a heavy rotation, and usually tied to something I’m writing. But most stubbornly? Jim Croce’s “I Got A Name.”

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

Read: I’ll usually crack open Eye of a Cricket, by James Sallis.

Watch: Alan Rudolph’s Songwriter. That film never fails to make me smile.

Listen: Something singer/songwriter-driven. Probably Tom Russell, or maybe Kris Kristofferson. Right now, I’m on Glen Campbell/“Galveston” kick. Who can explain these things?

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

A new view, a notebook and a pen…good music.

14. what’s something you never told anyone?

That’s the stuff that ends up in the books, and I’m not prepared to run a highlighter over it.

Follow Craig on his blog, or on Twitter.

February 24, 2011

Satan’s Day Care

by djtafoya

I’m just endlessly fascinated by the way pseudoscience, hysteria and fears about the breakdown of society and the loss of innocence periodically come together in a kind of perfect storm of insanity. Anyone remember crack babies? How about the Mad Gasser of Mattoon? Lately I’ve been reading about the Ritual Abuse Panic of the 1980’s and 90’s.

One day in 1983, a three-year-old named Matthew Johnson told his mother that Ray, a worker at the day care he attended, could fly.  He went on to say Ray had thrown another child to lions, that he chopped off a baby’s head and set it on fire, molested a goat, conducted rituals with elephants and witches, taken the children on trains and planes and made Matthew drink blood. Rather than being treated as a fanciful tale or a bizarre or even alarming fantasy, Matthew’s story became testimony at the longest, most expensive trial in California history.

The McMartin Preschool investigation and trial, which lasted from 1983 until 1990, is a fascinating exemplar of a whole class of so-called ‘ritual abuse’ cases of the 1980’s. All over the country, police, prosecutors and child-welfare advocates investigated, charged and convicted dozens of day care and preschool workers, teachers and parents of molesting hundreds of children. The abuse supposedly involved Satanic ceremonies by ‘sex rings,’  and the daily sexual and physical torture of children that went on for months or years, all without parents suspecting that their kids had become the sex slaves of Satan’s minions.

In 1983 the police, acting on the suspicion of a mentally-ill woman named Judy Johnson, panicked the entire town of Manhattan Beach with phone calls and letters suggesting that their kids might have been molested by the McMartins and their relatives and employees. The calls triggered an avalanche of accusations and prosecutions in which children were badgered, coerced, bribed and threatened into making false accusations against their caregivers, teachers and parents. That the ‘testimony’ was largely the sort of ridiculous fantasy characterized by Matthew’s tales of planes, trains, submarines and elephants was rarely an issue for the authorities, who urged doubters to ‘believe the children.’

A 1995 book by Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker called Satan’s Silence gives an excellent survey of the panic, its victims and the precursors and likely causes of the episode, which found leftist feminists like Gloria Steinem and Andrea Dworkin in league with reactionary Christians who believed Satan was trying to turn children away from God, citing evidence like the “’Wicca Letters,’ a document whose origin and content were remarkably like the rabidly anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” and which purported a Satanic plot to corrupt America’s preschoolers.

The ritual abuse panic had it all –false memories, rumored suburban sex cults, anatomically-correct dolls, multiple personality disorder, even fraudulent ‘facilitated communication’ that allowed profoundly disabled people to join in the craziness. The parallels to Salem’s witch hunts of the 1600’s are almost too perfect, right down to the search for ‘Satan’s marks’ on the bodies of victims, echoed in the disturbing, scientifically-faulty examination of children’s genitalia for signs of abuse.

The fallout went on for years, with lives and careers ruined and falsely accused people languishing in prison for ten or fifteen years before the authorities finally freed most of them. Janet Reno, who participated in two ritual abuse cases as a Florida prosecutor, went on to order the attack on the Waco, Texas compound of David Koresh because she thought child abuse was going on inside.

I was reminded of all of this the other day after reading about the reconsideration of people sentenced to long prison terms based on medical testimony about ‘shaken baby syndrome,’ which may turn out to be false. I think the impulse to believe deeply in things that are sketchy, unlikely or even demonstrably untrue is deeply ingrained in our psyches, and that impulse comes out most strongly when we feel frightened, marginalized or under siege by forces beyond our control. I’m just an armchair psychologist, but I don’t think you have to look too far to find a lot of examples of people reaching farthest for the most ridiculous explanations when they feel wronged by dark forces.

February 24, 2011

servile masses, arise, arise!: meet Dennis

by Megan Abbott

Today we bring a post from novelist Dennis Tafoya, the author of two dynamite crime novels, Dope Thief and The Wolves of Fairmount Park.

I first met Dennis at the Mysery Writers of America Edgars Award ceremony, when Dennis was a Best First Novel honoree.

Our paths have crossed many times and every time we find ourselves wending down dark and occasionally (as in: always) wooly paths to our secret obsessions, such as the Zodiac killer, UFOs and George Hodel’s house:

We begin with Dennis’s kind compliance with our blog questionnaire, below.

We are lucky to have him visiting him today for many reasons, including learning about his predilection for peanut butter parfaits—that fact alone earns him a hug.

1. what is your greatest fear?

Sharks, followed by spiders. Just seeing a spidershark would kill me.

2. what is your favorite way of spending time?

Laughing, especially with my kids. They’re hysterical.

3. what is your most treasured possession?

I’m terrible at holding on to stuff. I have a box full of little things my kids gave me over the years with painted rocks and things, so I’ll go with that.

4. when and where were you happiest?

Other than boring suburban dad stuff about my kids, I would say getting off the train in New York to sign my book contract. I felt like I really belonged in the city for the first time.

5. what is your greatest indulgence?

Barbecue from Virgil’s on West 44th. Alternately, the Peanut Buster Parfait, from Dairy Queen.

6. where would you like to live?

I don’t think one place is going to do it for me. I love the city and the desert and the ocean. I think given endless resources I’d go back and forth between New York City, Martha’s Vineyard and Vegas.

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

It’s some combination of tough-minded smartass and essential kindness. It’s rare, but I just find it irresistible.

8. how would you like to die?

Of really, really old age. I want to live long enough that people are shot up with medico-nano-bots that keep us young and healthy forever. I want to live long enough to find out how everything turns out.

9. what is your secret superstition?

When I’m on a plane, I have to watch out the window as we land and take off. My watching ensures that everything will go well.

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

I have terrible nightmares. I don’t think I’ve ever had a pleasant dream, though I’ve had boring ones, mostly about work. I think my worst nightmare was somebody with a huge, misshapen head looming over my bed. I put that one in my first novel, I think to exorcise it.

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

It’s a toss-up between the “Internationale” and the theme from the Woody Woodpecker show.

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

Books: I’ve re-read The End of Vandalism, by Tom Drury, a bunch of times. It’s a great book, and for some reason it’s become like literary comfort food for me. There are some E.L. Doctorow and Annie Proulx books like that, too. Music: “Wolves,” by Phosphorescent, “NYC” by Interpol, “No Cars Go” by Arcade Fire. Movie: The Pianist, I think because it makes my problems seem pretty tame.

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

A hug.

14. what’s something you never told anyone?

Man, do I like hugs.

Follow Dennis on his blog, or on Twitter.

February 17, 2011

fancy panties and wolves: meet Karolina!

by Megan Abbott

Today, we welcome a special guest, novelist and screenwriter Karolina Waclawiak. I first discovered Karolina through “Safe As Houses: An Ode to Britain’s History in 1:12 Scale,” a fascinating piece she wrote for The Believer, where she serves as assistant editor.

The essay tells the story of the elaborate special dollhouse created by famed architect the famous architect Sir Edwin Lutyens for Queen Mary in the 1920s. The greatest craftsmen and artists of the day participated in the effort, contributing everything from a working lift and a 1923 Silver Ghost limousine to a fully stocked wine cellar complete with 1,200 thimblefuls of champagnes.

Best of all, the house includes a 171-volume library of rarely-seen, original short works written exclusively for the dollhouse by world- famous writers, from Arthur Conan Doyle to Thomas Hardy (Virginia Woolf declined to participate). The piece was haunting, lovely, like peering through the glowing windows of the dollhouse itself.  And we’re lucky enough to have Karolina herself here today….

When Sara and I started the blog, we conjured the idea of having guests, when they arrive, answer a questionnaire, and Karolina kindly complied:

  1. what is your greatest fear? Wasting time.
  2. what is your favorite way of spending time? Being outside and taking everything in. I like to observe locations and I use that in my writing. I’m a very visual person and writer.
  3. what is your most treasured possession? My lime tree and blood orange tree. I live in Brooklyn now after a long stint in Los Angeles so it’s necessary for me to be able to have some memory of it in my house at all times.
  4. when and where were you happiest? Yikes. I’ll let you know when it happens.
  5. what is your greatest indulgence? Fancy panties
  6. where would you like to live? Somewhere where the temperature never dips below 65 degrees and never hits above 75 degrees. Let me know if you’ve heard of such a place and I’ll be there tomorrow.
  7. what is the quality you are most drawn to a person? Curiosity.
  8. how would you like to die? I’m not sure exactly but it should warrant a Dateline episode.
  9. what is your secret superstition? I’m afraid of cats crossing my path. My Polish father taught me to make a scissor cutting motion after one does and spit three times. I’ve done it in front of many people so I’m not sure how secret it is.
  10. what was the best dream and worst nightmare you ever had? I used to have two recurring dreams as kid. One was awesome. One was terrible. The awesome one was based on the movie Fortress. I frequently have dreams based on movies I’ve seen. Anyway, it involved me swimming in caves. I know it’s supposed to be “best dream” and it’s from a movie about a kidnapping but trust me, constantly revisiting cave pools is pretty awesome. Worst, same dream era – I’d say age 12 – I’m wandering through a burning city where packs of wolves were being deployed to find all the children and kill them. I was alone in the city and trying to find my way out, everything was grey or on fire. Somehow I would always stumble out the other side of this place and onto my neighborhood street where it was fall and all the bright foliage was so beautiful and formed perfect lollipops of colors but they always started melting. It was the basis for the first short story I ever wrote and after I wrote it I never had the dream again. I would like to know what they both mean.
  11. what song do you most hear in your head? Upside Down by Diana Ross
  12. what do you read/watch/listen to when you are feeling badly? Oh man, Morrissey for sure. And the Magnetic Fields. I like to wallow.
  13. what do you consider to be the greatest elixir/restorative? Walking. Being in nature. Sun on your face. Everything my mother always says works. It works. Oh and sex, but she told me that too.
  14. what’s something you never told anyone? I live in an unhealthy haze of nostalgia.

Follow Karolina at @believekarolina on Twitter.