Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Do Movies Dream of Dark and Twisted Themes?

          In the beginning, Film Noir was defined through the characteristics of classic Hollywood cinema; as it’s opposite or film negative. As Noir filmmakers continued to challenge Hollywood’s values, a new set of principles began to emerge. These principles intensified and evolved until so hard-boiled, they formed the foundations of a new genre. The genre comprised an alternative technique, i.g., voice-over, flashback, subjective point-of-view, chiaroscuro lighting, sense of hopelessness and predetermined fate, psychologically unstable characters, and the presence of a femme fatale or black widow. These techniques were used to subvert classical Hollywood cinema and it’s perpetuation of the American myth. The genre championed a new realism birthed out of the traumatized post-war psyche. A darker realism than that of the Italians. A realism that would soon find itself cold and blind, unable to fathom silver linings.
          The Neorealist seemed to create under a motto encompassed by a quote from James Joyce, “Let the world be as it is and learn to rock with the waves. Remain radiant in the filth of the world”. Only suckers are fooled by such words in the world of Noir. If a character tries to live that they end up dead, or worse, left to live and suffer the endless filth. Noirs depict narratives of inner struggle, the human battle between good and evil within. One visual example is Fritz Lang’s TheBig Heat made in 1953. The femme fatale is scolded early on providing a visual representation of the evil within her which creeps out to the surface. In the end, she does good, but dies pretty side up with all her ugliness buried in a mink. In Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, made in 1955, Robert Mitchum’s knuckles have ”LOVE” and “HATE” tattooed across them. He preaches about the struggle between love and hate while acting out the same battle against Mother Goose.
            Noirs set you up with idealized individuals and then flip the audience on their backs, punishing them for believing in single dimensions. Many of the idealized characters are women, as in DoubleIndemnity or Out of the Past, but things never end up as the main character thought. In The Maltese Falcon, the detective is ethically compelled by his world grounded in truth in a world full of liars. The cognitive dissonance of society is present in every beat. This is an important theme of Noir and above all other symptoms is the most important. A sense that there is something wrong with the world and the hopelessness one must cope with when facing it. The gumball whores with a heart of gold are quickly chewed up, leaving us with real solid ones, like Lorraine and Tatum in Billy Wilder’s 1951 satire, Ace in the Hole.
          Made right after his huge success Sunset Boulevard, this film bombed. They couldn’t even fool audiences under the title The Big Carnival. The reasons are probably best described by Molly Haskell, it’s a “Noir in broad daylight”. This film delivers a harsh critique of the media and American public with sharp wit and economic precision. Wilder, the man with a mind full of razor blades, never intended to send along a spoonful of sugar as he demanded a complaining Kirk Douglas to give it “both knees”. The only crimes involved are own greedy and gluttonous sins. If you don’t understand what Wilder is “up-to”, then you probably spend the entire film looking for a hero and are left disappointed. Sure, the bad guys end up no better off than where they started but nothing is learned, they just play out a pathetic self-fulfilling prophecy and then move on to the next circus. Tatum can call out all the phonies and embroider truth just like Lonesome in A Face in the Crowd. But they have no redeeming qualities, they knew who they were before and they prove it to the audience by the end.
          The Noir in these cases are not in the images on the screen but, as Haskell put it, interior. “Inside a mountain tunnel where a man is trapped and suffocating, and inside the mind of a reporter rotting from accumulated layers of self-induced moral grime.” She suggests other filmmakers of the fifties were also hiding their darkness in broad daylight. Filmmakers like Hitchcock, Ray, and Sirk. The main difference, she asserts, is the saeva indignation, or fierce indignation, with which he satirizes American culture. This shows the rapid progression of Noir from a mere alternative style of shooting, but a genre with alternative themes and intentions. Ebert points out, and I agree, that “it’s easy to blame the press for its portraits of self-destructing celebrities, philandering preachers, corrupt politicians or bragging serial killers, but who loves those stories? The public does… Instead of blaming the journalist who masterminds a media circus, he is equally hard on sightseers who pay 25 cents admission. Nobody gets off the hook here.”
          Back then the press ridiculed the film, even though it was based on true events. When Sandra Bullock remade the film, All About Steve in 2009, she churned it into cinematic shit. There was hardly even cause for the media to mention it besides her casting of Hollywood’s latest heartthrob—but that didn’t even garner attention. Bullock didn’t give it both knees. She rewrites with a sentimental stroke. A pen filled with a sentiment for the public. She kisses the ass of the live-strong, rascal driving, jingoist motards that make me want to puke. But even they didn’t buy it! I saw it with my mother because nothing else was showing that I hadn’t already seen. If I would have known then that it was a remake of Ace in the Hole I would have asked for my money back. I hadn’t yet seen Wilder’s masterpiece. Wilder’s characters are corrupt because they represent a culture which grows more corrupt with rise of consumerism. In a day where globalization has thoroughly raped and pillaged the Earth and human spirit I have no sympathy for those existential victims who don’t take a stand with the same fierce indignation of Billy Wilder.
          If a buck can be made an American is there because Americans know, it’s better to have the blues, than nothing. This line sets up two great Noir works, the first AFace in the Crowd made in 1957 by Elia Kazan. A film where a homeless fool rises to the highest heights of American influence, as TV personality, solely through the confidence of his ignorance. The second is Robert Aldrich’s odd Noir, Kiss MeDeadly made in 1950. With ascending titles and a script full of philosophical and literary allusions it is no surprise that Godard was a fan. A woman is thrown in the looney bin for trying to conceal, to hide away the reckless doomsday device of men. Meanwhile, the self-indulgent art world is sleeping; double dosing itself with cubist abstractions without making comment on the weather, on the rising tides, or the great what’s it!
          Again, we track a character self-aware, he knows he is rotten and we get no redemption—that is unless you’re going with the original ending in which he dies with the rest of the schemers. But even then it’s cheap. He hopelessly limps from dollar to dollar and there is no gratification without a punishment, without a yearning to live. He represents some of the worst qualities of Americans, dumb, selfish, and horny for more.
          Noirs introduced the world to existentialism and black culture. Jazz numbers over dark and rainy city streets accompanied by the “Negress” singing, One of these days, you’re gonna miss me honey or I’d rather have the blues than nothing at all. Blacks act as a type of Greek Chorus to film noir. They’re never really prominent figures but are vital assets to the story. In the case of noir, there is no substitute and it is important to give credit. It is a shame their roles were more exploitative, but without this introduction who knows how long, when, and where their next break would have occurred. In The Big Combo, the film opens with jazz and a dark city. There’s a boxing ring and a woman running through the shadows from two men. These men use jazz as a weapon against a cop. They play it through a hearing aid until a drum solo becomes too painful, too unbearable that he passes out.
          And here is where Noir begins to dream. Where the villains are all blown to hell and the police officers are knocked out by jazz. When a film noir dreams, it dreams a twisted dream. That dream becomes a nightmare and that night, The Night of the Hunter by Charles Laughton. People want to debate whether this film deserves the title of noir or not—the answer is, yes. The scenes are pit against the other in high contrast—sweet scenes of youth against harshness of human nature. It is full of frightening chiaroscuro lighting throughout—like Mitchum’s shadow on the bedroom wall, or the scenes in the basement. It is an expressionistic odyssey which doesn’t fit in. This off-kilter nature alone could qualify it as noir, but it has the same interior themes as The Big Heat, Double Indemnity, They Live by Night, and many more. A Noir for children as much as Ace in the Hole is a Noir for reporters—each probably better described as a horror film in that company. But when examined closely I believe that the best description is probably a Noir fairytale or, as I like to put it, a Noir nightmare—when films dare to dream—when the genre becomes self-aware.