Posts tagged ‘Los Angeles’

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 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