Monday, May 21, 2007

The Crime Film

There is a wonderful conversation between Chris Fujiwara and Mark Roberts at the Japanese site Flower Wild. I cut and pasted the entire text into a Word document and printed it off; it runs to about 25 double-spaced pages. Lengthy but all eminently worthy reading.

The conversation ranges widely: 'thieves' and 'theft' in cinema; the phrase "film noir"; Jacques Becker; Hitchcock; postmodern nostalgia; comparisons of citation in Tarantino and Godard, etc. It's spread over three pages: one; two; and three.

Here are a few of the juicier bits:

CF: “I have a problem with the phrase "film noir," for I'm not sure what it really is. Maybe in Japan and France, people can talk about this genre more precisely, but in America film noir became more of a marketing tool — and a very important one — because it was one of the ways that repertory movie theaters in the United States managed to stay alive. They found that audiences were drawn to these so-called film noir, crime or mystery thrillers, films with actors like Humphrey Bogart. Actually, Bogart was one of the stars most strongly associated with the American repertory-theater movement, since the Brattle Theater in Cambridge was the place where they revived "Casablanca" in the 1960s and thereby helped that film become well known again. So, for me as an American, the phrase "film noir" has a certain association with marketing.”

[…] “Perhaps film noir is a concept whose main meaning might be of making a genre film as an art film. It's worth remembering that the art film itself is a concept that hardly existed in the 1940s, in America, when these films were made. Nobody had this concept. People made experimental films but for the most part a movie was something that was shown in a theater for a mass audience. Sometimes it's said that "Citizen Kane" (1941) was the first American art film. So, it does seem that there was a kind of transaction, back and forth across the Atlantic, in which the French saw "Laura", "The Lost Weekend", and "Double Indemnity" — all of which were made in 1944 or 45, but weren't shown in France until 46, after the war — and they said: "these films are amazing, they're very black, we'll call them film noir." Eventually, the Americans got wind of this and they started making films that were a bit more self-conscious both visually and aurally. I think that had to do with a certain awareness of the ways the French appreciated these films. A film like "Kiss Me Deadly" (1955) reveals that very clearly. This is a film made by somebody who is quite sophisticated with respect to visual design, which is something we can see in many films later described as film noir.”

[…] “That's probably a key moment in film noir, that dream sequence [in Dmytryk’s “Murder My Sweet” (1944)]. However, it's not true either to say that a dreamlike atmosphere defines film noir. Jacques Tourneur, for example, is now considered one of the great noir directors, and his films don't really use dream sequences. There's one in "Cat People" (1942), but that's it. There are no scenes that are filmed in this distorted fashion that Dmytryk used in "Murder, My Sweet". Tourneur always films everything in the same style, which is very realistic, yet also quite poetic. We could say something similar about Otto Preminger, also considered one of the masters of film noir, mainly because of "Laura". All of his films are very direct, very much on the level of reality as the real. There would never be a dream sequence in a Preminger film. It would be an outrage to his system, his sensibility. So, these things make me tend to question the concept of film noir.”

[…] “There are a number of films by Becker that might be compared to film noir. "Falbalas" (1945) is about a fashion designer who falls in love with a girl, becomes obsessed with her, and finally goes berserk. Almost any other director making a film on this subject would have treated it in a very different way. Becker's treatment is quite beautiful, but very straightforward. Becker isn't really in love with madness for its own sake. He's interested in madness, as many artists are, but he doesn't see it with any false glamor. He doesn't use it as a way to make the film more interesting or do something different with the camera, something a little crazy or erratic. It's like what I mentioned before about the "level-ness" of Tourneur and of Preminger. Becker is the same. When these directors make a movie, they don't put its parts in hierarchies. They don't say: "X belongs to fantasy and Y belongs to reality, so I'm going to shoot this one way, and that another way," or "I'll use two styles to show that one type of person or way of life is better than another." They decide they're just going to show things. Becker's approach is similar.”

[…] “It's interesting how in "The Wrong Man" that false accusation opens up an entire world that Henry Fonda didn't realize was there. He didn't realize there's a legal system that one must pass through when accused of a crime, that one must find a lawyer, stand in line, and all sort of things, just to go to court. There's a phrase from Orson Welles, perhaps in "The Stranger" (1946), which Welles attributed to Emerson: "Commit a crime and the earth is made of glass." I think Hitchcock is one of the people who takes that phrase and makes it the principle of an entire film, but in "The Wrong Man" it goes even beyond that. Here, you don't even have to commit the crime, you only need to be accused of the crime, and then the world is made of glass.
 There's something fundamental about American cinema in that kind of assertion. To the extent that we agree that film noir exists, or that we could call this cycle of crime movies "film noir", all of them really show how the world is made of glass. This means two things: it means that it's very breakable, fragile, that you could fall through at any moment, but it also means that you can see through it, that surfaces are meant to be seen through. So in the films of the 1940s, we find a series of beautifully polished, composed, and fantastically elegant ways of shooting scenes — we see this in the work of John F. Seitz, Billy Wilder's great cinematographer, and it appears literally at the end of "The Lady from Shanghai" (1948) of course, when the mirrors are shattered. All of these people devoted such fantastic talent and energy to creating the image of a world that's made of glass.”

[...] MR: “There's a sense in which there is no longer an industry. It's no longer possible to just make B-movies in the same way. Everything is supposed to be a blockbuster. Directors are now in a different relationship with post-industrial Hollywood. We find people like Quentin Tarantino, who seem to fantasize about being studio hacks from another era. [...] It seems that Tarantino wants badly to be a B-movie director, perhaps because that would be the signature of real artistry. The ideal seems to be the director who was working under extreme institutional and budgetary constraints, and yet made brilliant movies. If somebody can do that type of film very well, then they must be a very fine director. The irony in the case of Tarantino is that he probably has carte blanche to do whatever he wants now. Yet, what he wants, it seems, is to be a man without the means to do what he really wants.”


* * *

Coincidentally, I dived into some film noir watching and reading last week, and was stunned by the amount of solid writing on noir that's out there. (Why am I surprised?) I'm in the middle of James Naremore's 1998 book More Than Night: Film Noir In Its Contexts, and it's amazingly good; Jonathan Rosenbaum put it on his shortlist of basic cinema books, along with books by Bazin and Manny Farber. Also, the four Film Noir Readers, edited by Alain Silver and James Ursini, are eclectic and plentiful in their coverage, mixing journalistic and academic essays. And they don't just spotlight current writing on noir, but also include early and important French pieces by Nino Frank (who is often credited with coining the term), Jean-Pierre Chartier, Raymond Borde & Etienne Chaumeton (the surrealist authors of the first book on noir in 1955), and Claude Chabrol. Reading all this makes me realize how naively unproblematic and narrow my notions of film noir had been. I will report back after I've digested a small fraction of this mountain of noir writing.

On the viewing front, I just did a series of strong Otto Preminger noirs including Fallen Angel, Where The Sidewalk Ends and Whirlpool. What struck me most about these films were the incredibly long takes, complex blocking strategies, and ingenious reframings. This is highly choreographed camerawork, but not at all flamboyant. You have to be alert and really look to notice it. Also, I finally caught up with Robert Siodmak's Phantom Lady (1944) last night--a brilliant film! (Why isn't Siodmak better known and written about, I wonder?)


* * *

A couple of links:

Robert Koehler reports from Cannes at Film Journey.

Dan Sallitt has started a new film blog.


* * *

Your thoughts on the Fujiwara-Roberts interview, film noir, etc.? Feel free to share.

47 Comments:

Blogger Daniel said...

Thanks for the Fujiware link girish, looks like a lot of content there!

Siodmak's Phantom Lady is fantastic isn't it? Superb shadow photography, that crazy jazz sequence in a storage locker, and the gorgeous Ella Raines (who??). There is a lot in Siodmak's filmography to recommend, but one my favorites was a film he did upon returning to Germany, a serial killer film set during the Third Reich called The Devil Came at Night (1957).

May 21, 2007 2:25 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Daniel, that jam session scene was "far out"! And thanks for the tip on The Devil Came At Night, which I hadn't heard of.

I was just flipping through another of my recent acquisitions, Edward Dimendberg's (excellent) Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity; it has a nice, meaty treatment of Phantom Lady.

May 21, 2007 3:17 PM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

I'd recommend reading Cornell Woolrich's Phantom Lady -- one of his best novels.

May 21, 2007 4:43 PM  
Anonymous Darren said...

"Siodmak's Phantom Lady is fantastic isn't it? Superb shadow photography, that crazy jazz sequence in a storage locker, and the gorgeous Ella Raines (who??)."

Daniel, have you seen Preston Sturges's Hail the Conquering Hero? Ella Raines, in that film, is one of the most beautiful women I've ever seen. And funny. And charming. I just added Phantom Lady to my queue.

May 21, 2007 4:52 PM  
Blogger Maya said...

Once again, Girish, you've steered us to a fascinating treatment of the most Prometheian of themes. I'm only about halfway through the Fujiwara/Roberts discussion, but, got absolutely excited regarding their treatment of Hitchcock and the examples they used to amplify their thesis. I'm surprised they didn't specify Psycho, perhaps with one of the greatest double blinds pulled off by a director ever. You get all caught up in Marion Crane's theft, all that money rolled up in that newspaper, and voila, that whole story gets tossed into the trunk of a car backed up into a bog. Then the movie becomes what it really came to be.

One of these years you really must try to make it to Noir City where the genre is worshipped at the temple of the Castro Theatre.

May 21, 2007 7:16 PM  
Blogger Maya said...

So having finished the conversation, I am back with a few more thoughts. First, this is exactly the kind of film writing I love, more a discourse between impassioned enthusiasts, each bringing their own to the table to share and compare. This is ultimately why I favor the interview format much more than simply writing about a film. I like tempering ideas, rather than enshrining them. It's also why I prefer the online shade of journalism.

As I've really only been fully engaged with film writing for a little over a year, windburned from the centrifical force of the learning curve, I can only envy individuals like Fujiwara and Roberts whose intelligence is informed by years of experience in this field. I try to picture myself five-ten years down the line when I've maybe caught up to the rest of you a little. I'm still exhibiting all the backstage niceties of an Eve Harrington before revealing fang and claw and the dire necessity of fastening a seat belt.

I say that in purposeful jest to emphasize their Promethian distinction between theft and citation, which I found fascinating, cruxed as it was in the issue of context. Comparing Godard to Tarantino was a thrillingly controlled folly. I guess my take on context lies within Xicano aesthetics. Which is to say, that when a context--through the vagaries of time and public preference--have diminished if not downright died, then all is up for grabs. Either the original material can be re-contextualized or the old context can be nostalgically yearned for. There are different ways I look at that. Among the Maya, and most other Amerindian groups for that matter, there is a concept that what is creative in the collective human soul is finite. There's only so much to go around, in other words. Among ceramicists, for example, when you go to gather your clay, you sing, in hopes that you can summon some of that creativity to channel through you, through the whorling conduits of your fingerprints, into the object you're trying to create. I often feel like that when I sit down at the computer. "If it be thy will," I whisper as I petition for inspiration. The point remaining that there is only so much to go around. So what do the Maya do with their beautiful ceramics? Eventually, especially when they were buried with their owners, the ceramics were ritually "killed." Usually a hole was drilled into the bottom of the vessels. That's because the energy that was summoned that went into the pot--what the Maya called the c'hulel--needs to be released so that it can go back out there to answer somebody else's prayer. Respect should be granted the owners of these objects who have the grace to responsibly kill their pots. So, I guess what I'm trying to say by that analogy is that the death of context is requisite for the birth of new, revitalized contexts. Nostalgia for an original context might serve no one in the long run, preferring repetition over innovation.

Now another slant on this from my upbringing in the Americas is the Xicano aesthetic of raquachismo, which is the idea that if you are poor and have nothing, you can take the debris of your life--bottle caps and broken dolls--and turn them into lustrous assemblages of art. The Haitiaans are famous for this. As are Latino groups. This is nearly political art because it turns a lack of equity into creative advantage.

So returning to the slippery meme of theft/citation, I likewise apply these ideas to this ongoing metathrash about the arbitrary heirarchies of print journalism and "blogging" journalism. Usually I just keep away from these false dichotomies because it's hard enough to come up with words to write beautifully about a film without having to give them up in some kind of bristly self-defense. No less than a week or so ago Anne Thompson had one of the headline article in Variety. Posing as someone from Bloggers Anonymous, she hooked her piece by starting out: "My name is Anne and I'm a blogger." All in all her assessment was fair, critical of bloggers who fail to meet requisite standards of journalism, and critical of the gatekeepers who have built-in biases against bloggers. One thing she wrote, though, really stuck with me: she said that some bloggers create original content but "most riff on other people's blogs." I think I know her intention in that statement, but, something in it also rankles. Because one of the key things about online journalism that I love, in contrast to the few print gigs I've endeavored, is that online journalism allows you to write within the social weave that hyperlinking creates. Case in point, this very conversation that Girish has pointed to that allows us to amplify an already fascinating discussion. It is precisely this egalitarian playing field that democratizes film journalism and, for me at least, makes it immeasurably more attractive.

And I waste time saying that only to counter Andy Kaufmann's odd comment that he doesn't know whose writing to trust among the plethora of bloggers. Why is that any different than not knowing who to trust among print critics? Surely it just comes down to the writing and whether or not the writing itself attracts an audience?

Returning to my Amerindian analogies, you aren't a shaman unless the community says you're a shaman.

Recently Richard Schickel opined at the L.A. Times--more in blogging about books than film, but same diff--that "Criticism — and its humble cousin, reviewing — is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions of a book (or any other cultural object). It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author's (or filmmaker's or painter's) entire body of work, among other qualities."

Now I respect Schickel as well as the next man, but, I find that comment fraught with peril. But then for someone who loves the democratization of the press, elitism would stick in my craw, wouldn't it? But more importantly, because the criteria he's promoting, like the criteria Anne was promoting, are valid and trustworthy criteria. It's just that I don't understand how any of these elitists could have achieved their station if not for writing and writing and writing, developing their craft, accumulating their knowledge, day after day, month after month, year after year, written piece after written piece. What always stuns me is the underlying assumption that bloggers will never learn from their experience and will never better themselves to become better bloggers. What stuns me is the notion that "blogger" carries some kind of journalistic taint. One almost suspects a classism at work.

Again, I wax longwinded on this because the idea that citation is theft is a curious and intriguing one for me. Is it a theft for Girish to have pointed to this other article and to have lifted such hefty quotes from it? By stealing this fire, hasn't he given us all a little more warmth and a little more light? And will it remain true all these years later and all these variant cultures later that such an act, such a theft, will ultimately be punished by some alleged higher-ups?

May 21, 2007 8:35 PM  
Anonymous Thom said...

Girish - great post, and for me very timely since I"m getting pretty close to the advent of film noir over at my blog. I particularly appreciate all of the recommendations for good writing on the subject.

Maya - I'm glad to read your comments about the slick switch of focus in Psycho because I'm always drawn to follow that stolen money (sometimes even all the way thru the flick, remember that final shot?) until Arbogast shows up.

May 21, 2007 8:43 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

I was able to see some key Robert Siodmak films in the 70s. One of my favorites is The Suspect with Charles Laughton. Nowhere near as good, but I saw it anyways, was Custer of the West with Robert Shaw in the title role.

His brother, Curt Siodmak is primarily famous for writing horror movies.

May 21, 2007 9:03 PM  
Blogger Maya said...

Oh my gosh, Thom, you've made it to Film Noir? Time waits for no man, eh?

May 21, 2007 9:03 PM  
Blogger David said...

This is great--thanks a lot.

I was especially glad to see them cite (cite!) Shack Out on 101, a brilliant, brilliant z-noir I had never heard of and happened to see last week. One thing I think catches a lot of noirs is their emphasis on role-playing and deception, and what makes Shack Out on 101 so great is how it spends the entire first half in a hamburger joint surveying the ways the customers and workers (including Lee Marvin in one of his best roles) and the ways they tease and play with each other in public, and becomes a hell of a lot more serious one-on-one (one of my favorite scenes in a noir is that out-of-nowhere comic diner scene in, I think, Where the Sidewalk Ends, for the same reasons). In the second half it becomes a semi-incomprehensible paranoid cold war suspense thriller in which everyone's "real" identity is revealed, but it's the first half that gets me--far closer to reality than most noirs even though nobody's who they really seem to be. In so many ways it recalls Tarantino's Death Proof (though it's better), but the film I'd really like to see it on a double bill with is La Collectionneuse.

I haven't seen Phantom Lady, but Siodmak definitely did some underrated noir work--the escape scene in Criss-Cross is nearly Lewis-worthy, and the flashback structure in The Killers is maybe the only one I like from the classical era. But he also did some awful work; Cobra Woman is a lot of fun, but it looks like the production design was done by Fischer-price.

As for Godard and Tarantino, whether it's related or not, it reminded me of a digression Kent Jones went on in a Cinemascope review of Clean last year (http://www.cinema-scope.com/cs19/spo_jones_ourmusicclean.htm):

"Simply put, Assayas represents, more powerfully than any other filmmaker, an idea of cinema that poses a threat to those who embrace the once new and now old idea of cinema we’ve all grown used to. This is, of course, the idea that begins with Renoir (and which was subsequently backdated to the Lumières), blossoms with neorealism and the writings of Bazin, and explodes like a fireworks display with the nouvelle vague. The idea has been perpetuated through the writings and the memory of Serge Daney, and, above all, through the monumental presence, not to mention the collected works, of Jean-Luc Godard.

Those who see Godard’s documentary and ontology-based idea of cinema as the last aesthetic stop can find comfort in the work of Kiarostami, Tsai, Wong, Apichatpong, Hou, Omirbaev, not to mention Garrel, Akerman, the Straubs or Gianikian/Ricci Lucchi (known on the festival circuit as “the nice Straubs”). On a good day, when they’re in the mood, they’re able to see merit in Denis or Desplechin. But they can find no merit in Assayas."

May 21, 2007 9:28 PM  
Anonymous Thom said...

Maya - "Oh my gosh, Thom, you've made it to Film Noir? Time waits for no man, eh?" Yeah! and it won't wait for me, as the Stones sang. Gettin' fairly close to the noir; gotta fight another war first, though ;)

May 21, 2007 11:06 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

(more general comments, not specifically related to the Fujiwara / Roberts interview.)

I'm more annoyed with too much focus on film noir. Not that I don't like the actual films, I do, and sometimes very much so. But I think we over-emphasize noir in our current depiction of American film history.

I think the over-emphasis on noir gives a falsely positive impression about what our film history actually was. Noir allows us to pretend that the Hollywood studios allowed more ideological and artistic freedom than they really did allow. Also, noir gives us in the present too much freedom to seperate the good crime/gangster films of that time from the many more numerous bad ones. During the heyday of noir, the viewing public didn't see these movies as individual art works, but more like we view crime dramas on TV (which is in fact where noir went).

There's too little critical reflection (except perhaps from Naremore) on why noir literature and film died so abruptly just after both forms were achieving their second highpoint in the mid-Fifties. Lastly, there's not enough contemplation on how noir was a part of a worldwide phenonmenon (Simenon's roman durs being just one example, but many others worldwide: Patrick Hamilton's Hangover Square, for just one) that continues as a literary force largely OUTSIDE the US today (Hans Werner Kettenbach, Massimo Carlotto, Gene Kerrigan, Jean-Claude Izzo and many others).

May 21, 2007 11:38 PM  
Blogger Damian said...

Good stuff, Girish. I love film noir, but I don't know nearly as much about it as I'd like to (even though I did write a fairly lengthy analysis of Kasdan's "Neo-noir" film Body Heat recently), so I shall have to read those works you've mentioned when I have more free time. I certainly like the pieces that you've highlighted. :)

May 21, 2007 11:47 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Flickhead, Darren, Michael, Thom, Peter, David, Alex, Damian -- Thank you, guys!

So much good comment reading here...

Michael, those are wonderful stories about Maya ceramics (and their 'death' being put to 'collective use') and raquachismo! Fascinating...

And re: Schickel's comments, I noticed that Chuck has a post at NewCritics in response.

Re: theft and citation, it's funny--I was thinking the same thing when I was citing excerpts from the Fujiwara-Roberts interview. When I was putting the post together, the paranoid side of me put both the original interview and my excerpts into Word documents and did word counts on both; it turned out I was excerpting about 10% of the interview, which seemed sort of conservative and not-outside-the-norm. I figured if that if the 10% whetted people's appetite to check out the other 90%, my job was done. I also knew that David at Greencine would probably pick it up and give the interview more exposure. So my conscience felt ok about it. But it's funny--I was thinking about the same issues as you were...

David, I'm a big believer in saving old issues of film mags and lately I've been going back to old issues of Cinema Scope, which I have all the back issues for. Sometimes, I end up either overlooking certain pieces or not being quite aligned and ready for them when I'm reading the current issue, and it can be a revelation to go back and rediscover them months or years later...

And speaking of Siodmak's Criss Cross, I watched it for the first time last night. What a textured film, with so many elements in play; I was feeling particularly sensitized to the film because of the Borde/Chaumeton noir book I've been reading. The (surrealist-influenced) language of the book was clattering around in my head as I was watching it...

Alex, those are excellent points! I feel conflicted about it too. When I discovered all this noir writing, my first response was excitement and gratitude. My second response was: there's something skewed here. Why only noir and why not all the other richly deserving genres/periods/filmmakers that are languishing for lack of attention?

And thanks for those Euro-noir names, none of which I know.

May 22, 2007 10:23 AM  
Blogger girish said...

via David Hudson, Dennis Lim at IFC:

"My favorite film by an American director so far — although it was shot and financed in Italy — is Abel Ferrara's "Go Go Tales," screening out of competition as a midnight selection. A wild and wildly allegorical comedy, it's set in the course of one long, eventful night at the declining Paradise Lounge strip club."

[...] "The charmingly sleazy cabaret ambience evokes "Killing of a Chinese Bookie," but with its overt melancholy and warm communal vibe, this could almost be Ferrara's "Prairie Home Companion," ending not with a graceful fade-out but on a note of crazy defiance."

[...] "Joel and Ethan Coen's skillfully directed adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel "No Country for Old Men" is, without a doubt, their best since "The Big Lebowski." It's also shaping up as the most overrated film of the festival."

May 22, 2007 4:12 PM  
Blogger girish said...

A couple of framegrab-driven posts:
-- Pacze Moj at Critical Culture on Ozu's My Wife That Night (1930).
-- Shahn at Six Martinis on the gorgeous modern decor of Norman Z Mcleod's Topper (1937).

May 23, 2007 6:53 AM  
Blogger girish said...

I've been meaning to link to (and keep forgetting) this interesting round-table discussion on sequels at David Bordwell's.

May 23, 2007 8:50 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Not online, alas, but there's a good, lengthy essay on Tintin in the latest New Yorker by Anthony Lane, his customary (and irritating) smart-aleckery held in check...

May 23, 2007 3:32 PM  
Blogger girish said...

A cool little trivium from Borde & Chaumeton's A Panorama of American Film Noir 1941-1953:

"In 1937, Charles Vidor signed The Great Gambini, a movie that pushed pure deduction to its furthermost limit. It included, in the final sequence, a sort of challenge to the spectators: they were invited to find the solution in two minutes, during which time the hands of a clock appeared on the screen and, in an inset, a run-through of the main scenes."

May 23, 2007 3:39 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

"Why only noir and why not all the other richly deserving genres/periods/filmmakers that are languishing for lack of attention?"

It was and is a useful version of history for much of the 1970s film-maker generation (Scorcese, Coppola, Friedkin, De Palma, etc)and those who are too wedded to them. It gave them this secret heroic, manly past (even if that past was mythical). Most of these guys couldn't really do great work outside of the crime / gangster / thriller / war genres. Ignoring everything outside of those genres allowed them to seem greater than they are. See Scorcese's history of American movies, where everything outside of noir and Westerns is close to entirely ignored (Allan Dwan captures more of Scorcese's time than Chaplin and Lubitsch combined).

I.E., most of these guys thought they learned the lessons of neorealism and Cassavetes, but their life works prove that they never had a clue.

If we see American film history with noir being a massive aspect (which, during it's historical moment, it simply wasn't) then that makes these guys look very good because they do make good (and sometimes great) thriller or crime pics. If we see American film history as much more diverse, then many of them look limited artistically. When you have an American film history that more accurately highlights big budget literary items, musicals, drawing room comedies, Jerry Lewis/Frank Tashlin and so on, then you also have a film history where Elaine May, Mark Rappaport and Albert Brooks are the true geniuses of the 1970s and Richard Linklater is the voice of the 1990s/2000s, as opposed to Tarantino.

May 23, 2007 4:11 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Great points you make there, Alex!
Lots of food for thought. I think we DO need to view film history in a more diverse manner, rather than be skewed by certain well-reputed filmmakers (like those you mentioned from the 70s) who worked in clearly masculinist genres...

May 23, 2007 7:07 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

I thought Rosenbaum's chapter on Elaine May in Essential Cinema was very interesting, though I haven't yet seen most of her films.

May 23, 2007 10:47 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Tuwa, I've seen just two, The Heartbreak Kid and A New Leaf, both of which I like a lot.

May 24, 2007 7:00 AM  
Blogger Zach Campbell said...

A propos of nothing in this particular comment thread: Killer of Sheep soundtrack blog post here!

I'm in agreement with the principle that noirs are sometimes overdeveloped as a presence in film history--it's almost like we have a few monolithic classical genres that get mentioned over and over: noir/crime, western, musical, and melodrama. What of--indeed!--drawing room comedies (thanks, Alex), or period films of many kinds; literary adaptation films as a kind of genre themselves. I also feel that usually when we talk about these genres, their "rules," their strengths or weaknesses, we end up focusing only on, say, Hawks' and Cukor's and Ford's contributions--never the work of, say, Lew Landers or William A. Seiter or Norman Taurog. Now I'm all for the celebration of various great masters at appropriate times, but insofar as we speak of a genre (a through-line in commercial cinema or a compendium of stylistic-thematic-iconic tropes) we should strive to remember the unfashionable folks who made the majority of the genre pieces in question ... again, it's a matter of not leaving narratives of film history to a few convenient signposts--"the greats"--or in the case of noir's possible overestimation, the strong, urban, masculine genre as this central presence in commercial cinema ...

May 24, 2007 9:42 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Zach.
And holy cow--what a wonderful present, the dyno-mite Killer of Sheep soundtrack!

May 24, 2007 11:55 AM  
Blogger Alex said...

"I also feel that usually when we talk about these genres, their "rules," their strengths or weaknesses"

I'm always wondering if we speak about genre too much. I think we've been trained by the over-focus on noir to constantly view achievement as violating genre convention.

May 24, 2007 12:08 PM  
Blogger Zach Campbell said...

Alex--very much so. It's a bad rut we've kind of gotten into, as a film culture, emphasizing the "transcendence" of genre. Papers are written as to whether or not John Ford defies all Ideals of "The Western" or if he is in fact constrained by them ...

May 24, 2007 1:11 PM  
Blogger girish said...

A coupla links:
-- Several good posts at Dave Kehr's in the last few days: Cannes coverage, 3-D films.
-- Chris Cagle's collection of his posts, all on films from 1947.
-- Ignatius at Sounds, Images on textures, e.g. the walls in Dreyer's Joan.

May 25, 2007 6:39 AM  
Blogger Chris Cagle said...

Girish, Thanks for the link to my 1947 project; I'll be surveying plenty of noir by the summer's end.

If you want some suggestions for revisionist noir scholarship (the bibliography is immensge, I know!), I've always found the following useful:

- Paul Kerr, "Out of What Past?" in Kerr, ed. Hollywood Film Industry. Written in 1979 and still a powerful rebuttal to culturalist readings of the genre

- Marc Vernet, "Film Noir on the Edge of Doom" ijn Copjec, ed. Shades of Noir. A contrarian argument that film noir does not exist as a distinct phenomenon.

- Thomas Schatz, Boom and Bust, pp. 232-39... a nice blending of standard and revisionist takes on the genre in a solid, standard history of the decade's cinema.

Meanwhile, I'll have to read Dimendberg's book. It looks great.

I guess the upshot of the revisionism is that it leads me to think of noir as several related but distinct phenomena.

May 25, 2007 9:51 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Chris, thank you for those suggestions. I appreciate your taking the time.

I didn't know of Shades of Noir, and just put in an ILL request for it. And I noticed that Marc Vernet had an essay on "openings in film noirs" in one of the Silver/Ursini volumes.

May 25, 2007 10:11 AM  
Blogger celinejulie said...

Thanks Girish, for the link to Fujiwara-Roberts conversation. I have gained a lot of interesting information from reading it, especially when they talked about Rivette and Ruiz. I have no knowledge in film noir, but am very interested in it. I think I have seen no more than five film noirs so far. I still have a lot to learn about this.

Some of my thoughts about film noir:

--Thai cinema has at least one film intentionally made in film noir style. It is THE DUMB DIE FAST THE SMART DIE SLOW (1991, Manop Udomdej, A-). I think it is quite well-made compared to other Thai films.

--Though I like MINORITY REPORT, I also like what Toni Schlesinger wrote about this film in villagevoice.com. It is in an article called MINORITY RETORTS, which appeared on the issue of July 3-9, 2002:

"Doesn't Mr. Spielberg know that you have to be born noir—the world's at an angle, no one can be trusted, especially your parents. Noir isn't something you can just learn. It comes from having a terrible childhood—like mine (my mother was a drug addict!)—or Philip Dick, whose mother moved them around because they didn't have any money and then there were all those cats. Though I suppose a person could become noir in adulthood from a war or massive depression. But anyway, does Mr. Spielberg think that by using a bleach bypass and getting rid of blue skies that abracadabra—everything's going to be noir?"


--Tony Rayns wrote in TIME OUT FILM GUIDE in the review of PORT OF SHADOWS(1938, Marcel Carne) that the French had their own film noirs. He also mentions PORT OF SHADOWS and PEPE LE MOKO (1936, Julien Duvivier) as examples. I haven't seen these two films, but I like one French film from 1940's because of its gloomy atmosphere: SUCH A PRETTY LITTLE BEACH (1948, Yves Allegret), starring Gerard Philipe and shot by Henri Alekan. I don't know if it can be called noir or not, but I just wish I could see it again.

--Is there any film noir, or any film, in which the heroine is lured into crime or deception by a male character? I think I'd like to see this kind of films because I really like HOUSE OF GAMES (1987, David Mamet), a con film in which Joe Mantegna lured Lindsay Crouse into some kind of deception.

--I wished I had had much more knowledge in film noir when I saw A PLACE AMONG THE LIVING (2003, Raoul Ruiz), which I guess might be some kind of mocking on film noir conventions. I like A PLACE AMONG THE LIVING very much, but I think I'm far from understanding the real greatness of this Ruiz film. Watching A PLACE AMONG THE LIVING with no knowledge of film noir made me feel as if I watched SCARY MOVIE without prior knowledge of SCREAM.

--Coincidentally, I just saw two films which are far from film noir but have noirish characters: A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION with the character of Kevin Kline, and LA BELLE CAPTIVE, a labyrinthine vampire film?, in which its hero looks very much like a detective in film noir.

May 25, 2007 12:07 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

I've been meaning to chime in on this thread for a while but not finding the time.

But I really appreciate celinejulie's recommendation of the Dumb Die Fast, the Smart Die Slow, a title that is actually available on VHS at my nearby video store. I've eyed it for years, thinking I should rent it just to see what it was like, but never having encountered any trusted recommendations for it I've always found something else to rent instead.

I've often noticed Rattana Pestonji's Black Silk referred to as "the first Thai noir" but not having seen the film I'm unsure what its relation to noir might be. "Noir" and "crime" are often considered interchangable, which is a problematic approach. If "noir" is to have any critical meaning outside its usage as a marketing hook term (and some of the comments above are pretty persuasive that this may be an uphill battle, if not downright impossible) then it can't just be applied willy-nilly to every film with a pistol in it. And seeing the wonderful, but in my opinion in-no-way-related to noir Country Hotel, after seeing it referred to as containing "film noir elements" makes me skeptical of the term as applied to Pestonji.

As for films in which women get lured into crime or decption by a male character (perhaps an "homme fatale"?) Some that come to mind include Raw Deal (Anthony Mann, 1948), the Spiritualist (Bernard Vorhaus, 1948), Woman on the Run (Norman Foster, 1950), maybe Born to Kill (Robert Wise, 1947) and Pickup on South Street (Sam Fuller, 1953). None of these men's crimes and seduction converge in quite the same way as in House of Games though. I wouldn't be surprised if there was a more specific antecedent.

May 25, 2007 2:54 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

"And thanks for those Euro-noir names, none of which I know."

Remember that the concept of noir was first established by the French publishing house Gallimard's long series (now over 50 years old) Serie Noire, which published both American noir literature in translation and French contributions as a seperate genre of writing - which was not how it was viewed in the US (in the US it was called hard-boiled crime/mystery and wasn't really viewed as anything intrinsically worthwhile).

So the genre is really as much (or more) European as it is American even very early - Simenon's roman durs predate much of American noir. The Euro noir movies, besides Carne and Renoir (who made the first Simenon adaptation with Night at the Crossroads) are extremely extensive. As I've argued before, noir influenced Europe more than the US.

Some things to meditate upon include:
1. the French polar, a continuing genre of French cinema (usually likened to a US police procedural, except that the polar is usually vastly more dark and cynical than the average US version).
2. JP Melville - Samourai, Red Circle, Un Flic, Second Breath, Flambeur
3. Clouzet
4. Germany's Christian Petzold (Wolfsburg, Something to Remind Me)
5. Corneau's Serie noire - an adaptation of Thompson's A Hell of a Woman
6. Tavernier's Coup de torchon - adapting Thompson's Pop. 1280
7. Three largely unknown later American noirs: Murder by Contract, Blast of Silence, Burt Kennedy's The Killer Inside Me (1979).
8. Claude Chabrol as noir film-maker (see The Ceremony)
9. Godard and Truffaut's relationship with David Goodis

May 25, 2007 5:32 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

Just a couple of points - the idea that a film transcends a genre seems condescending. On the other hand, signposts are needed only because there is no way to see every film by every filmmaker. Where I do agree with Zach is that if one is going to do scholarship on a genre, it means being familiar with more than the pantheon names. With my other favorite "color", giallo, this means starting with Mario Bava and Dario Argento, going on a path to Sergio Martino and Aldo Lado.

I forgot about that description of The Great Gambini. It sounds like it inspired William Castle, who started his career with low-budget noir.

I also think that discussions of Scorsese have ignored his own interest in other kinds of film and filmmaking with such works as Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Age of Innocence, After Hours and Kundun.

May 25, 2007 10:41 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Not to mention New York, New York and Scorsese's interest in documentaries. :-)

May 25, 2007 11:59 PM  
Blogger David said...

Let me second the meditation on Murder by Contract, a humble, brilliant noir about the greatest serial killer in the world whose only weakness is that he gets really, really neurotic around women; it also features what has to be the best most unlikely music in noir along with The Third Man, and if anyone knows where to get this song/soundtrack, I'd very much appreciate the tip.

May 26, 2007 12:57 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you--CelineJulie, Brian, Alex, Peter, Tuwa and David!

CelineJulie ~ Ruiz is a huge blind spot for me, and the fact that he's so prolific is also daunting, but one of my intentions this year is to take a little bite out of his filmography.

Brian ~ I get the feeling there have been countless, slippery attempts at defining noir, and one among the early ones can be found in the classic (and very first) noir book, Raymonde Borde and Etienne Chaumeton's A Panorama of American Noir: 1941-1953. B&C make some fine (occasionally baffling) distinctions in defining noir, sometimes opposing it with other kinds of films like the "criminal psychology" film, the "police documentary" and the gangster film. I hope to do a post on this book at some point; it's a great, entertaining, unorthodox read; highly recommended.

Alex, I noticed that Marcel Duhamel, the publisher of the "Serie Noire" line, wrote a nice, surrealist-spirited preface to the Borde & Chaumeton book.

And Jean-Pierre Chartier's very-early essay on noir, from 1946, is revealingly called "Americans Are Also Making Noir Films."

Also, Naremore points out the links between the Popular Front films (Pepe Le Moko, Hotel Du Nord, Le Jour Se Leve) and the noir to come. He writes:

"The term film noir had in fact been employed by French writers of the late 1930s in discussions of these [above-mentioned Popular Front] films. Film historian Charles O'Brien points out that in the years immediately before the war, the word noir often had pejorative connotations and was frequently used by the right-wing French press in their attacks on the "immorality and scandal" of left-wing culture."

Peter, David and Tuwa -- I'm not sure where I heard of it first (the Scorsese doc? I can't remember now) but I've been hunting for Murder by Contract for a while now.

And David, I was shocked to find Shack Out on 101 yesterday in my local video store!

May 26, 2007 10:45 AM  
Blogger celinejulie said...

Girish, to tell you the truth, I think I can’t distinguish for sure between film noir, criminal psychology film, or gangster film. I feel very confused when it comes to this kind of thing.

Brian, thank you very much for the homme fatale? list. I just talked to one Thai blogger about this topic, so I think I may have to quote your list when I talk about this topic further in some Thai webboards. :-)

As for Rattana Pestonji's BLACK SILK (1961), I think don't have enough knowledge about film noir to judge how much noir this film is. Hahaha. I saw this film ten years ago, and can remember it vaguely. I think this film reminds me of GOLDEN MARIE (CASQUE D'OR) (1952, Jacques Becker), because they both tells a story of a criminal's life and romantic trouble. I don't remember any femme fatale in BLACK SILK, because the heroine of BLACK SILK is very virtuous. The tone of BLACK SILK is not as gloomy as most film noirs, I guess. One good thing about BLACK SILK is that it shows a criminal life in a more realistic or dramatic manner than most Thai films that I saw. I think criminal lives in other Thai films tend to be shown in a comic way, if they are not in action films.

As for THE DUMB DIE FAST, THE SMART DIE SLOW, what I like very much about this film is the intention of the director and one indelible image. In the early 1990's, most Thai films were craps. Most of them are sloppily-made low comedy concerning teenagers or ghosts. So when someone tried to make a Thai film noir during that period, I had to admire his intention, though the result might not be as good as his intention. I think the story of this film is not really interesting. The film is not really powerful. It's just very different from most Thai films at that time. However, one image from this film haunt my mind ever since; it's the image of the femme fatale walking with her umbrella.

Alex, I like your list for something to meditate upon very much. As for Godard and Goodis, I looked into the book GODARD ON GODARD and found that Godard mentioned Goodis once in this book. In the topic 84 concerning TAWARA BEACHHEAD, he wrote:

"Of Paul Wendkos, we have already seen and quite liked THE BURGLAR, a film which is a little too aesthetic to match the original, a novel by David Goodis, a man with a fluent talent whom Truffaut ranges alongside Dashiell Hammett on his bedside-table, the proof being that he plans to shoot his TIREZ SUR LE PIANISTE, which promises 800 blows. Paul Wendkos, therefore, is a filmmaker not to lose sight of, since he for his part never loses sight of the cinema."

Talking about Goodis, I love THE MOON IN THE GUTTER (1983, Jean-Jacques Beineix), which was adapted from Goodis' work. But I don't know how different the film is from the source.

May 26, 2007 12:39 PM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

G,

I hope you picked up Shack Out on 101...Lee Marvin (as 'Slob') weightlifting with Keenan Wynn, or Whit Bissell's bit with the spear gun should have your jaw hitting the floor.

May 26, 2007 8:30 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, CelineJulie and Flickhead.
Flickhead, I didn't rent Shack but I'll be getting it very soon...

May 27, 2007 7:17 AM  
Blogger Alex said...

"As for Godard and Goodis, I looked into the book GODARD ON GODARD"

His latest Notre Musique, the girl in the Paradise sequence is reading Goodis' Street of No Return, which was made into a weird film by Sam Fuller.

May 27, 2007 9:30 AM  
Blogger Alex said...

"but I've been hunting for Murder by Contract for a while now."

Five Minutes to Live used to sell it, though it's now out of their catalog.

May 27, 2007 9:39 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Alex, thanks for that tip! I just looked it up at Amazon and found a used copy for 5 bucks...

Also, Edward Dimendberg's book (which I mentioned earlier) devotes several pages to another fifties film, Hubert Cornfield's Plunder Road. (I think Flickhead and Noel have mentioned the film in the comments here before.) It's also available used, but only on pan-scan VHS...

May 27, 2007 10:05 AM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

May 27, 2007 11:06 AM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

Plunder Road suffers greatly from the pan and scan, but it's all we've got right now. It's a good film with a strong visual sense. Also check out the DVD of Cornfield's Night of the Following Day, and watch it again for his (wheezy) commentary -- he offers some interesting anecdotes about Brando and Rita Moreno.

Another 50s/60s director worth checking out: Andrew L. Stone. His faux-verite disaster movies pop up frequently on TCM.

May 27, 2007 11:08 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks for those, Flickhead...

Cannes awards, at Greencine:

"And the Palme d'Or goes to Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days."

May 27, 2007 2:52 PM  
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