Posts tagged ‘out of the past’

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
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.