Monday, June 26, 2017
I'm in the new summer issue of NOIR CITY with a couple of different articles. First up is a look at Bruce Springsteen's NEBRASKA, an album that was both inspired by neonoir (like Terrence Malick's BADLANDS) and which would itself go on to inspire neonoir (like Sean Penn's THE INDIAN RUNNER). The album itself is about as noir as any piece of music ever made.
Next up is a look at the different film versions of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's brilliant 1947 novel THE BLANK WALL. This masterpiece inspired two incredible adaptations, Max Ophuls's THE RECKLESS MOMENT (1949) and the 2001 THE DEEP END, directed by David Siegel and Scott McGehee.
As always, there's a lot of great stuff in this issue, including the launch of a new regular feature called "The Dark Page" exploring contemporary crime fiction, written by a wordslinger who knows what the hell he's talking about, the great Eric Beetner.
Get your issue today by becoming a contributor to NOIR CITY.
Thursday, June 22, 2017
(above: Dorothy Hall and Judith Wood in WORKING GIRLS)
Tonight I got a chance to see the 1931 Dorothy Arzner rarity WORKING GIRLS courtesy of the Chicago Film Society. I went to see it, frankly, because I have been interested in seeing a Dorothy Arzner picture for a while. Arzner is famous today for being the only woman who was a major director in Hollywood's early days (her directing career lasted from the 20s into the early 40s), and also being the first out lesbian to command such a role. Her life and career have been chronicled in several books, notably DIRECTED BY DOROTHY ARZNER by Judith Mayne and BEHIND THE SCREEN: HOW GAYS AND LESBIANS SHAPED HOLLYWOOD 1910-1969 by William J. Mann. I've read quite a bit about her, but what none of the books could really to me is what kind of director she was. In other words, sure she's important, but how good was she?
I'm happy to report that WORKING GIRLS is hilarious. (The showing tonight was a rollicking success.) The film is a light comedy about two sisters, May and Dorothy Thorpe (Dorothy Hall and Judith Wood) who move from Indiana to New York to find jobs. They take residence in a hotel for women with a strict policy on gentlemen callers, but they soon get into a series of relationships with, among others, a rich playboy (Charles Rogers) and a professor (Paul Lukas).
The movie was written by Zoe Akins, from the play BLIND MICE by Vera Caspary (the author of LAURA) and Winifred Lenihan, and the dialog throughout is sharp and funny. May and June are classic opposites, with May being emotional and daffy while June is a world-weary wiseass, and most of the laughs in the picture come from their interplay. The biggest laugh in the movie comes when June tells May, "Aw, you're just jealous because I know how to tell a fella 'yes' and 'no' at the same time."
Azner's handling of her actors is smart and sensual. She lets both Hall and Wood have libidos, and she also lets each character have her own response to her sexuality. Hall's romance with the playboy played by Rogers has real sexual heat to it, while Wood's relationship with the professor played by Lukas is sweet without being sappy.
This central cast is surrounded by a lot of snappy female characters. Dorothy Stickney as Loretta, the nosey doorkeeper at the women's hotel, is part busybody and part trusted confident to the Thorpe sisters, while the other girls at the hotel pop out in vivid character parts that are cheeky in a pre-Code kind of way. For instance, there's a running gag about one girl who's always spending the night with her "aunt" in Jersey. "You oughta meet a man like my aunt," she tells her friends.
There is, however, a serious subtext to all this frivolity, as these young women are forced to navigate a world with strictly prescribed gender roles. The scenes involving sex, including a scene late in the film that nods toward an unplanned pregnancy, are handled deftly, with sensitivity and nuance. While Azner and her editor, Jane Loring, never skimp on laughs, they're up to more than just good times here, and a lot of scenes do double duty as romantic comedy and social drama. Likewise, an early scene in which the ladies of the hotel throw a gender-bending dance party is both goofy fun and also a fascinating moment in the history of queer cinema, a secret hiding in plain sight.
Given Arzner's place in the history of early cinema there is a danger of entombing her in her own importance. Let WORKING GIRLS be a corrective to that inclination. Arzner deserves to be studied and researched, yes, but she also deserves to be watched. This movie is hell of a lot of fun.
(above: Dorothy Arzner)
Tuesday, June 13, 2017
In the new issue of MYSTERY SCENE, I interview Film Noir Foundation founder and president Eddie Muller. We discuss his new show NOIR ALLEY on TCM, his work rescuing forgotten films, and the meaning of the word "classic."
On news stands now, check it out.
Wednesday, May 31, 2017
Director Tsai Ming-liang's 1997 feature THE RIVER took a few years to find its way to American audiences, only appearing in New York in mid-2001. It's kicked around on muddy home video ever since, but tonight I got to see a vibrant 35mm print of the film courtesy of the Chicago Film Society.
The film tells the story of a young man named Hsiao-Kang (Lee Kang-sheng) who takes a quickie job on a film set, floating as a dead body in a filthy river for about a minute. Soon after that, he develops a mysterious pain in his neck. The pain gets progressively worse, until pain becomes the dominant force in his life.
We meet his parents. His father hangs out in bathhouses, seeking anonymous sex with young men. His mother is having an affair with a pornographer. They sleep in different rooms in their home. Tsai has an elliptical style that refuses to explain things to us. The isolation of these three people from one another is so complete that it takes us a while to link them to each other. I think it was nearly an hour into the film before I understood how the stories of these three people connected.
Many people read THE RIVER as an allegory about urban loneliness and isolation, or they read it as a political statement about environmental issues like pollution and public health. I don't disagree with these readings, and I think the film is smart enough and deep enough to support them.
For me, though, THE RIVER is about mostly about the body. We think of ourselves as distinct from our bodies when in fact we are not. (I say "my body" as if the implied "me" has some existence removed from the body which is thinking these words and typing them on a computer keyboard. I am nothing but a body.) THE RIVER is a film that unfolds with very little dialog. We are mostly watching bodies in motion, and those bodies, in one way or another are tending to their needs and desires. We see people eat, clean themselves, have sex, attempt to endure or alleviate pain. And we don't just see a bit of these things. These things are what the movie is about. (Tien Miao, as the father, gives a performance utterly devoid of self-consciousness: devouring bowels of food, pissing, masturbating. He surrenders his body to the director.)
When we meet Hsiao-Kang, he is young, healthy and handsome. He runs into a pretty girl he knows, and she's the one who takes him to the film set. After he's washed himself multiple times, complete with scrubbing his skin with a toothbrush, he and the girl have sex. Sex in this movie emerges suddenly, the body asserting itself without a connection to character or plot. The shocking sexual encounter that concludes the film has been read by some as a comment on character, and I suppose it must be, but I experienced it as a culmination of the film's emphasis on the body. Scene after scene has a physical manifestation. The characters debate no ideas, seem to have no thoughts. Life is reduced to the desires and needs of their bodies. The more Hsiao-Kang is consumed by pain, the less he seems connected to anything else. (It is fitting that his ailment is neck pain, which is as maddeningly indistinct as it is excruciatingly painful. If he was covered in sores, for instance, it would be grosser, but it would have less impact. This crippling pain in his neck seems to be inside of him. Which, indeed, it is.)
THE RIVER is the best film I've seen in a long time. It shows a director fully in command of his craft and fearless in the execution of his vision. Unsettling, terrifying, and even, at times, mordantly funny, it culminates in a perfectly ambiguous ending. It is a film to seek out.
Note: THE RIVER is something of a sequel to Tsai's first feature REBELS OF THE NEON GOD, which features Hsiao-Kang and his parents, though does not focus on them exclusively.
Tuesday, May 16, 2017
I have to file a strong dissent on this one. While Nicholas Ray’s THEY LIVE BY NIGHT is pretty much universally loved by critics and scholars of film noir, it’s a movie which has always left me cold.
The film starts strongly, with a much admired helicopter shot of three escaped convicts hightailing cross-country with a kidnapped motorist. They ditch their hostage and his car once it blows a tire, and they take off on foot. There are two older men — seasoned cons — and a much younger man, a kid named Bowie. The kid has a bum foot, so the older fugitives leave him behind a road sign and tell him they’ll send help. Once night has fallen, help arrives in the form of a girl named Keechie — the tomboy niece of one of the convicts. When the boy meets the girl it’s pretty much love at first sight.
These opening scenes all work. Bowie is played by Farley Granger — film noir’s resident misunderstood youth — and the convicts are played by Howard da Silva and Jay C. Flippen. That’s a killer trio by anyone’s estimation and all three are excellent — especially da Silva as a blustering, one-eyed mass of insecurity named Chicamaw ‘One-Eye’ Mobley. One-Eye doesn’t much like that the papers use his nickname, which he resents. He likes it even less when they start referring to the kid as the leader of the gang.
If the movie had stayed with the conflicts between these three mismatched criminals, I probably would have enjoyed it. Alas, it doesn’t. Instead, it focuses on the romance between Bowie and Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell), and this is where it loses me. They fall for each other right away, have some discussions about their screwed-up childhoods — Bowie explaining how he wound up in jail for murder, Keechie expressing contempt for her degenerate drunk of a father — and then, in short order, they get married and take off for a honeymoon. Unfortunately for them, both the cops and Bowie’s convict buddies are hot on their trail.
Because the relationship between Granger and O’Donnell sits at the center of the story, how you feel about it determines how you feel about the film as a whole. THEY LIVE BY NIGHT is essentially a juvenile delinquent romance utilizing the film language and tragic fatalism of noir to help it tell its story. There’s nothing wrong with that combination on paper, but the young lovers — Keechie in particular — have been softened considerably from Edward Anderson’s source novel, THEIVES LIKE US. The resulting romance is the same old soppy Hollywood melodrama full of soft-focused, dewy-eyed close-ups and page after page of yearning speechifying. And I’ll be honest, I just find O’Donnell to be a lot to handle. She’s a regular fixture in noir, but she’s usually cast as a dollop of creamy innocence. Her work here isn’t as syrupy as her turn in SIDE STREET, but it’s pretty bad. More than almost any other actor I can think of O’Donnell embodies the female-virgin ideal that one finds in a lot of movies from the forties and fifties. One of the great virtues of noir, however, is that you don’t usually have to spend much time with this kind of emotionally-stunted woman-child. One of the reasons that noir has emerged as the most durable genre of the classic era is that it doesn’t worship at the altar of sexless virtue, and Cathy O’Donnell always seemed to have wandered in from Louis B. Meyer’s imagination.
(The notable exception to the argument above is her work for William Wyler on dramas like THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES and DETECTIVE STORY, leading me to think that the fault rests with the writers and directors rather than O’Donnell herself.)
Stories of misunderstood youth were, of course, a specialty of Nicholas Ray. He directed KNOCK ON ANY DOOR in 1949 and then made the ultimate 50s teen rebellion flick, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE in 1955. These films are interesting and important, but they’re also relics of their time in a way that Ray’s noirs of the same era (IN A LONELY PLACE, ON DANGEROUS GROUND) are not. His teen pictures are rendered campy by the movie conventions of their era, while the noir pictures still play for adults and still have an edge. The exception to this is THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (his debut film) which tries to have it both ways. There’s no denying that Ray broke ground in the area of onscreen youth angst with this material, and THEY LIVE BY NIGHT is certainly an antecedent for REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE.
But, god, is it soppy.
Sunday, April 23, 2017
Chicago is a great town for cinephiles, and one of the most rewarding resources available to the local movie geek is the Chicago Film Society. Programmed and projected by Julian Antos, Becca Hall, Rebecca Lyon, Kyle Westphal, and Cameron Worden, the CFS is dedicated to showing movies on film, often in rare or vintage prints. When I first moved to town they were still showing movies at the old Patio Theater, but they made the switch a year or so ago to the auditorium of Northeastern Illinois University. While I miss the musty charms of the Patio, the great hall at NEIU gives the proceedings a college film society aura that adds to the sense of fun. Of course, the venue wouldn't matter if the films weren't interesting, and the CFS schedule is always an excitingly eclectic blend of genre films (westerns, musicals, noirs), rarities and obscurities (silents, overlooked classics, exploitation flicks), foreign films, and the occasional notorious flop presented for reconsideration.
The Chicago Film Society has, for my money (and more specifically for my $5 per screening), the most distinctive personality of any movie appreciation collective in town. Staff members are current or former projectionists at Doc Films, Block Cinema, the Gene Siskel Film Center, and Music Box, which means that the CFS is what you get when a bunch of hardcore film junkies get together and decide that the city needs another weekly jolt of movie love. Hall and Westphal are the public faces of the CFS and their pre-show presentations of the films are good-humored, charmingly geeky, and deeply informed.
The CFS's new season schedule has just been released, and it's got me excited to spend some warm summer nights at the movies. Highlights include Robert Mitchum's 1958 hillbilly chase picture THUNDER ROAD, Masahiro Shinoda's 1964 man-out-of-prison yakuza flick PALE FLOWER, Andre de Toth's 1953 men-under-seige western LAST OF THE COMANCHES, and Claudia Weill's 1978 feminist comedy GIRLFRIENDS.
There's a lot more. Here's the complete schedule of events.
Saturday, April 8, 2017
I didn’t grow up in the forties or fifties, so I didn’t discover B-movies in their original form, as the second features stuck behind classier A-movies. Nor did I discover the world of film noir the way people did in the sixties and seventies, through the midnight movies on TV that transfixed the generation of noir geeks before me.
No, I was born in 1975, which means I came up in the eighties and nineties. Appropriately, then, I discovered noir in the distinct fashion of a Gen Xer: I found it at the video store. There’s more to this story, though, a personal twist.
I was brought up in a devout Southern Baptist house where certain movies were forbidden. It’s tempting to go for simplicity here and say that R-rated movies were forbidden, but that’s not exactly true. Only certain kinds of R-rated movies were forbidden. Anything with sex. Sex in movies was bad. Totally bad. Every time. No sex. (Even PG-rated sex scenes could change the climate in our family den. Once a bra slipped off, the air would get thin, and I would feel the sense of bodily danger you get when you know God’s wrath is about to fall.) Anything with a lot of cussing was also forbidden. You were allowed one F-word in a movie. Maybe two. After that, things got a little tense.
Violence was okay as long as it wasn’t overly gory. Dirty Harry laying waste to a bunch of punks? Cool. Slasher flicks (which, of course, might also run the risk of featuring nudity)? Not cool.
Dutiful son that I was, when I was sent to the video store to pick out a movie I tried to avoid all of the aforementioned pitfalls.
When I was home alone, however, I was a deceitful little sleaze. I would, on occasion, sneak out to the video store to pluck some forbidden fruit (fruit that I returned as soon as possible to avoid any late fees).
Enter AFTER DARK, MY SWEET. 1991. The poster for this film — and thus the cover for the video box — was a picture of Jason Patric and Rachel Ward engaged in sweaty physical congress. The title sounded like direct-to-video sleaze. I vaguely remembered Siskel and Ebert saying the movie was great, but greatness was not on my mind. The possibility of seeing Rachel Ward naked was on my mind.
I secreted the video into the house and watched it when no one was home.
I learned two things about AFTER DARK, MY SWEET that day.
1. You don’t really get to see Rachel Ward naked. I would love to act like that didn’t matter to me, but it did. I was disappointed. Simply as a consumer engaged in a capitalist enterprise, I felt I had not been well served. I had, after all, paid money for the expressed purpose of seeing Rachel Ward naked.
2. AFTER DARK, MY SWEET is a masterpiece. It’s the best film noir of the 1990s, and one of the best films, period, of that entire decade. As a human being experiencing a work of art, I was transfixed.
Jason Patric (whose sweaty ass you do get to see, natch) and Rachel Ward are both beyond great. Patric’s character Kevin “Collie” Collins, disgraced former boxer and psyche ward escapee, was sort of my first anti-hero, or, at least, he was the first anti-hero I ever saw where I was pretty sure that what I was seeing was a man scraping up some last vestige of his willpower to do something that no one would understand. He tries to save Ward’s boozy widow from a goofy kidnapping scheme cooked up by a degenerate ex-cop named Uncle Bud (played with exquisite seediness by Bruce Dern). By the end, Collie dies face down in the dirt, gut shot by the woman he loves, but it’s all okay because he did it all for her.
And Rachel Ward taught me things about women that, at 17 years old, I didn’t know I needed to learn. She was lovely and leggy, but what made her fascinating was a sadness, a deep-seated knowledge that most dreams don’t come true. The moment she starts talking in the film, mocking Patric’s fumbling attempts at polite conversation — mocking, really, the whole idea of polite conversation — you can’t take your eyes off her. You get why Patric wants to save her, and also why he thinks she can save him. She’s the only person he’s ever met who understands his loneliness. In a way — in a beautifully noir way — they do save each other.
The film wasn’t arty, but I was aware of the director, James Foley. I was aware that I was watching a movie with a vision. Was it his?
Maybe, though it’s probably more correct to say that Foley brilliantly realized Jim Thompson’s vision. Ah, yes, I also discovered Jim Thompson that day in my family den. Who was the guy who wrote this story that was the saddest, most romantic, most thrilling thing I’d ever seen? Revisiting the film many times over the years as my love of Thompson’s novels grew, I realized that the scenes with Patric and the creepy psychologist played by George Dickerson are the most spot-on interpretations of Jim Thompson’s work that have ever been put onscreen. People think that Thompson’s novels are about psychos, or about violence. No, they’re about the last slender thread of decorum stretching and stretching until it turns translucent and you can see right though it to the terrible truth that will be unleashed the moment it snaps. AFTER DARK, MY SWEET gets that. It gets that beautifully.
Saturday, April 1, 2017
Few films have influenced my own writing as much as Paul Schrader's 1979 thriller HARDCORE. It stars George C. Scott as Jake Van Dorn, a Grand Rapids businessman and faithful Calvinist, who, as the story begins, sends his only daughter, Kristen (Ilah Davis) off on a church youth trip to California. Van Dorn is a single father and he loves Kristen, but the film doesn't go out of its way to convince us of this fact. There are no big scenes between father and daughter in the first fifteen minutes of the film. This omission is important because of what happens next. Van Dorn gets a call from the the youth group in California telling him that Kristen has gone missing.
The rest of the film follows Jake in his attempt to find his daughter. He hires a sleazy detective named Mast (played by the 1970s' most important character actor, Peter Boyle), and within a few months the detective comes back with horrific news. He has found Kristen, on film in a cheap 16mm underground porn film. In perhaps the film's most famous scene, he leads Van Dorn to a porn theater and shows him the movie to make sure that the girl in the film is indeed his daughter. Van Dorn watches the film like he's being tortured, which, indeed, he is. In tears, he demands that detective shut off the projector.
When Mast fails to find Kristen after this initial revelation, Van Dorn plunges into the squalid underworld of sex and vice himself.
He haunts porn stores and brothels and massage parlors. He's berated by hookers and beat up by bouncers. The cops are of no use to him. Finally, he decides to pass himself off as a fledgling film producer. He meets a millionaire porn king (Leonard Gaines) and hangs out on the set of a porno. Eventually he finds a prostitute named Nikki (Season Hubley) who says she can lead him to his daughter.
The heart of the film is the relationship that develops between the middle-aged Calvinist from the Midwest and the LA sex worker. What's interesting about these scenes is that the film doesn't swerve into the kind of cliches that we might expect. The two don't fall in love or into a sexual relationship, nor does Van Dorn set out to save Nikki. She's along for this ride for the money, and he's using her to find his daughter. There's a kind of weary respect that grows between them as they accidentally fall into debates about religion, sex, and morality.
At one point, Nikki asks him, "How important do you think sex is?"
"Not very," he says.
"Well," she says, "then we're just alike. You think it's so unimportant that you don't even do it. And I think it's so unimportant that I don't care who I do it with."
HARDCORE is a spiritual brother to TAXI DRIVER, which Schrader also wrote, and both films owe something to the screenwriter's obsession with John Ford's THE SEARCHERS. All three films are about repressed men seeking to rescue young women locked in sexual slavery. Of the three films, HARDCORE is the one that is most interested in what the young woman has to say. Unlike the other two films, when HARDCORE reaches the end of its journey, the young woman in question gets to speak for herself. When Van Dorn finally smashes his way through the underworld and finds his daughter, she unleashes a torrent of abuse on him. In a way that the other two films never considered, HARDCORE at least ponders the possibility that the girl might not want to return to the world of decent people and mainstream society.
This is probably a good place to say that HARDCORE is a flawed film. Schrader is an idiosyncratic filmmaker, which is his greatest attribute, and this film could not have come from anyone else, but it's often clunky in its execution. Stalwarts like Boyle and Gaines are terrific, but a lot of the supporting performances are stiff and little awkward. Some scenes go on too long, making and remaking a point that we've already gotten -- even the famous scene in the porn theater, for instance, goes on to such an extent that you're wondering why the hell Van Dorn doesn't just get up and leave. Likewise, the violent ending is overdone, with Scott rolling over the denizens of the underworld like a bulldozer. Is there really no professional criminal in California who can stand up to this potbellied businessman from Michigan?
Yet for fans of the flawed-but-kind-of-brilliant, HARDCORE is a great film. As I said at the start, I think this movie influenced me more than most of the films I've seen. It is both overtly religious and wildly seedy. You can practically feel the filmmaker torn between these two worlds. The thing that people remember about HARDCORE, of course, is the descent into the world of sex-for-hire, but the scenes of a close knit religious community at the start of the film have a special kind of power for me. Schrader knows this world, comes from it himself, and his feel for it is deep. The scenes of Christmas dinner--with an elderly relative bemoaning the secularism of the television's holiday programming while a couple of guys debating at the kitchen table cite Bible verses at each other--as well as the brief scenes of the church youth group striking off for a Christian youth conference, all of this feels exactly right to me. It's different from what I grew up with among the baptists in Arkansas, but it is familiar in the truest sense of the word, in the sense that there's a family resemblance between strict Protestant churches.
Although Schrader wrote TAXI DRIVER, that film is filtered through Scorsese's tortured Catholicism and his obsession with sacrament and penance. HARDCORE, on the other hand, is Schrader through and through. It is about frosty Protestant repression surviving a deep dive into the steamy muck of a world without rules. In TAXI DRIVER, De Niro's Travis Bickle is a man tormented by his desire for sex, which he finds filthy and corrupt. Scott's Jake Van Dorn, on the other hand, is not tormented in this same way because he's not tempted in the same way. He's horrified by the flesh markets, and although he is weary and battered, he remains as resolute as a knight on a quest. Thus, in its weird mix of seriousness and salaciousness, HARDCORE is something truly special, a dirty movie about the triumph of repression.
Monday, March 13, 2017
THE CROOKED WEB is a good example of how classic noir was smothered to death by the oppressive conventionality of the 1950s. With a sharper script — with one major change in focus — it might have been something interesting.
The film stars Frank Lovejoy as Stan Fabian, the owner and operator of a Los Angles hamburger stand. He’s dating one of his pretty carhops, a chirpy blonde named Joanie (Mari Blanchard). As the film opens, Joanie introduces Stan to her ne’er-do-well brother Frank (Richard Denning). He’s a loudmouth who brags to his sister and Stan about a scheme he’s concocted to recover some gold in Germany. He offers to let Stan in on the deal, and Stan accepts. Later, after Stan drops off Joanie, she meets up with her “brother.” They embrace in a passionate kiss.
This great set-up is followed hard upon by the first big reveal of the plot. It turns out that Joanie and Frank are actually cops who are trying to nab Stan for a murder he committed during the war. They want to get him to Germany where he can be arrested by the German police.
This big switcheroo came as a real disappointment, I must admit. For the first fifteen minutes of the film, we don’t know anything about the subterfuge of Joanie and Frank. When they lock lips for that kiss, the movie seems to be off and running toward being something really interesting.
Instead, what we get is a thoroughly unadventurous crime story, with Joanie and Frank as our brave protagonists and Stan as our squinty-eyed bad guy. The plot meanders around once it gets them to Germany, with Stan eager to recover the loot and Joanie and Frank trying to edge him into the daylight so he can be caught by the cops. Our stalwart heroes, however, are a pretty lackluster crime-fighting duo. Just to crank up the suspense factor, the script has Stan discover them not once but twice in compromising positions. It does nothing to help the already languorous plot to have them keep getting caught doing the one thing that can blow their cover. What kind of idiot undercover agents make out on the job when they’re supposed to be posing as siblings?
Neither Denning nor Blanchard bring much to their underwritten roles, and the film makes a common mistake (common to films of the era, anyway) by stacking the deck constantly in their favor. They’re the good guys. That’s all there is to know about them. They don’t have any salient characteristics beyond being the good guys. Their tendency to smooch at ill-advised times goes unremarked upon and exists entirely as a plot device. They’re simply the bland stand-ins for law and order.
The only spark in the movie comes from Frank Lovejoy as Stan. An excellent actor better seen in THE SOUND OF FURY and THE HITCH-HIKER, here he’s a surly presence, nervous in his quiet, restrained way. The one interesting scene in the film comes at the end when he is taken into custody and discovers that Joanie has deceived him. In full view of the cops, he slaps her across the face. She cries and says, “I deserve it.” In a better film, this scene would be tied to a nice ambiguity—that while Joanie and Frank are the good guys, Stan is the one being betrayed (think Hitchcock’s Notorious). Here though, it’s just tacked on at the end and has the feel of a sexist cliché.
THE CROOKED WEB illustrates the mindset that had become predominant in crime films by the mid-fifties. Perhaps as a result of the Hollywood blacklist (and by ‘perhaps,’ I mean, ‘almost assuredly’), film noir had started to die a slow death. As a genre, it had always unfolded along the margins of the industry — in the B-units and at the smaller studios — but as the decade wore on it came under more scrutiny. Films that explored “deviant characters” or tied crime to social conditions were forbidden. There was more pressure to make films about heroes rather than anti-heroes. THE CROOKED WEB would be interesting if it was about Stan, but by 1955 it pretty much had to be about boring ass Joanie and Frank.
Monday, February 27, 2017
Above: Joanne Woodward admires her Oscar while husband Paul Newman regards his "Noscar" during his decades-long Oscar losing streak
Here's why the Oscars are worse than useless: Giving out competitive awards for art reduces art to a horse race. "The Oscars" is just the world's biggest reality game show, turning every film except one into a "loser." MOONLIGHT won, so LA LA LAND lost, but why in the name of all that is holy are these two films in a competition with each other in the first place? Was LA LA LAND the better film for the few minutes that its creators were on stage thanking their families and coworkers? Did it suddenly stop being the best picture released in 2016? Did MOONLIGHT suddenly become the best? No, because one director's love letter to the Hollywood musical and the other director's poignant exploration of race and sexuality were not trying to do the same thing. They are separate works of art, and though some people have tried to make them into proxies for larger cultural arguments the truth remains that the films themselves are self-contained works, both years in the making, and neither attempting to capture the current zeitgeist.
If MOONLIGHT won because Academy voters wanted to send some vague message about inclusiveness, then it really only proves the point that the Oscars are bullshit. MOONLIGHT is a great work of art. It didn't need a shiny gold man to be a great work of art.
At this point, the most notable thing about the Oscars is how wrong they are. We could add up all the great films that didn't win the Oscar for Best Picture and we'd have almost all of the greatest movies ever made. Cary Grant never won a competitive Oscar, and neither did Judy Garland. Since they might be cinema's two greatest performers, does this make sense? After years of not winning, John Wayne and Paul Newman finally did win Oscars, but does anyone really regard TRUE GRIT and THE COLOR OF MONEY as their greatest performances? Do many people consider SCENT OF A WOMAN to even be a passably good movie, much less Pacino's best performance? Is TRAINING DAY really the keeper from all the leading performances that Denzel Washington has given?
The answer to all these questions is no, yet the Oscar myth creates a counter-narrative in which competing marketing campaigns decide which work of art had more merit, all for the benefit of a flashy television event, the real purpose of which, like the Super Bowl, is to sell soap and beer during the commercial breaks. The awards themselves have a longer history, with their roots stretching back to a promotional scheme cooked up by Louis B. Mayer, a scheme that first morphed into a status symbol (industry bragging rights in a one-industry town) before becoming modern television's biggest waste of time.
Like I said, though, the awards show is worse than useless, it's reductive. It diminishes, for the sake of money, artists and works of art. The movie business is already volatile enough mix of art and commerce (of "movie" and "business"). How about we just skip the show next year and go to the movies?
Wednesday, February 22, 2017
I posed a question on Facebook the other day. It went something like this:
"Kind of bored with podcasts lately, so I've been listening to more audiobooks. Here's my question: Do you consider that you've read a book if you've only listened to it? It's such a different experience that I don't know. Thoughts?"
I got quite a few responses, with the majority coming down to say that, yes, of course you've read a book if you've listened to a book. Some people were very adamant on this point, and there was some good-natured debate with dissenters.
These results strike me as interesting for a few reasons.
One, it is clearly not true that reading a book and listening to an audiobook are the same thing. You've read a book when you've read a book. To say that you've read a book if you've listened to an audiobook would be like saying you've read Hamlet because you saw it performed onstage. Reading is an active experience where your own limitations as a reader effect the text in terms of pacing and comprehension. Every reader reads a book in a different way. When you listen to an audiobook, you're listening to someone else's interpretation of a text. It is a mediated experience in which other people shape your reception of the text.
Also, when you read, you're looking at words, closed in the experience of the book. When you listen to an audiobook, you're looking at something else. (I was listening to an audiobook of the Russell Banks novel CLOUDSPLITTER yesterday on the train to work. The woman across from me was putting on her makeup. She's now a part of my memory of the scene of John Brown and his sons easing their wagon down a steep mountain pass.) I listen to audiobooks while doing lots of things: driving, washing dishes, shopping. I cannot do those things when I'm reading because reading requires more of my attention and concentration.
Two, audiobooks are a unique art form, a postmodern hybrid of literature and radio. Some audiobooks go so far as to use music cues and sound effects, and actors and producers decide where and when and how to put emphasis on words and phrases. A good actor can redeem a weak book as surely as a good actor can redeem a weak movie. Someone like audio all-star Edward Herrmann could make a phone book sound interesting. This is not the same as reading a book, where the writing is pretty much the whole show.
Three, people want credit for having read a book. This was something I noticed in the responses. We're all a little defensive about audiobooks because we don't want anyone to suggest that we didn't really read THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV.
What is fascinating to me about this is that I didn't mean to imply that audiobooks are a lesser art form than literature, just different. I come to praise the audiobook, not to bury it. Listening to a group of words and reading a group of words are distinct experiences because they utilize different senses. I read CLOUDSPLITTER years ago when it was first published, and now I'm listening to it read by Pete Larkin. It's a different experience, more passive for sure but no less interesting. Larkin's performance shapes characterization in ways that my mind did not. There's no value judgment in noting that reading is harder than listening. Of course it is. Audiobooks interpret the text for you; they do some of the heavy lifting. Perhaps this helps account for our defensiveness about audiobooks. But I think it is more instructive to simply view a book and an audiobook as distinct pieces of art (as different as the text of a play and a production of a play), and we should think more about what audiobooks are and what they're doing.
Thursday, February 16, 2017
I've been commissioned to write a piece on the film adaptations of one of my favorite authors, Georges Simenon. This is exciting because it gives me a reason to go back to one of noir's deepest wells. The romans durs of Simenon are some of the richest works of the 20th century--tight, muscular stories that move rapidly and yet often tell stories of loneliness and sadness, isolation and despair.
The impetus for this piece on Simenon's film adaptions is the recent re-release of Julian Duvivier's PANIQUE, the 1946 movie version of Simenon's 1933 THE ENGAGEMENT OF MISTER HIRE.
While I've got Simenon on the brain, I thought I would link to a fun photo essay over on Crime Fiction Lover. "Maigret's Paris" is a look at the locations that inspired Simenon's most famous creation, the police commissioner Jules Maigret. Simenon's Paris is one of crime fiction's richest locations, like Chandler's Los Angeles or Doyle's London. Check out the photo essay, and see if it doesn't make you want to curl up with one of the good detective's adventures.
Maigret is a quiet creation, not as flashy as Marlowe or Holmes, perhaps, but no less endearing. For me, though, the real Simenon is found in the "psychological novels" like THE ENGAGEMENT OF MISTER HIRE, a book about a lonely scam artist who becomes the focus of a murder investigation. It's a tragedy, as so many of Simenon's books are, but it's also got humor (even farce) and moves like a locomotive.
That's all for now. I'm off to dive back in.
Sunday, January 29, 2017
I’ve written several novels now that deal with the varieties of American religious fundamentalism. I come by this preoccupation naturally. Born into a strict Southern Baptist family, I lived for a time on a religious campground run by relatives who saw themselves in the tradition of biblical prophets. In my early twenties, I spent a few years as a Pentecostal before I finally left the church for good. The one key insight I gained through this spiritual journey is that religion’s main selling point is authority. Life itself is hard and often unfair, and its chaos ends, for all of us, at the grave. We seek out an authority to guide us because life is so clearly out of our hands. This is why the world is full of people (professional as well as amateur) claiming to speak for god, claiming to own some small (or large) share of god’s authority on everything from life and death to sex and politics. To put it in stark capitalist terms: religion offers authority and it offers it cheap.
Of course, religious authorities have long sought to extend their influence into the political arena. This is as true in America as anywhere else, yet America has always been notable for its official skepticism of religious authority. “The separation of Church and State” is not a phrase in the Constitution; rather it is a unifying idea that runs through the document, from Article VI to the First Amendment. This separation, it should be noted, was as religious as it was pragmatic. While the framers — most of them believers in one stripe of Christianity or another — feared a government controlled by zealots, they also didn’t want to see their religion reduced to another pig at the public trough. In the political realm, they knew, religious authority is reduced to a commodity, just one of many commodities to be bartered or bought in the circles of influence.
Despite the best efforts of the founders, however, religious political power has always been a factor in American life. It was used to justify the genocide of the Native Americans and helped to condone the bondage of African slaves. It began to ebb in the late 19th century, the first victim of modernity, its authority usurped by science and art. Since marrying itself to the Republican party under Reagan, however, religious political power has been on the rise. Christianity hasn’t always made for the most natural bedfellows with supply side economics and the military industrial complex, but the marriage has been mutually beneficial.
What political value does this religious authority have in the age of Trump? If the recent executive actions taken by the president barring immigrants of seven Muslim nations from entering the United States (including the barring of Syrian refugees indefinitely) are any indication, then the answer appears to be that Christianity’s sad duty in the new order is to aid and comfort white nationalism. Religious authority gives sanction to a philosophy of "us vs. them", and so as walls go up and doors to entry are barred, American Christianity just becomes another guard at the gate.
This is a tragic turn of events. For years, leaders of the religious right have been major power players in the Republican party. They haven’t always gotten their way, but their power has steadily increased since the 1980s. Nevertheless in 2016 their preferred candidate, Ted Cruz, was trounced in the Republican primaries by a thrice married casino owner with a history of sexual assault and business fraud. In the general election, this same candidate – a man who once bragged that he has never needed to ask for God’s forgiveness — won the votes of religious constituents overwhelmingly. In some ways, this is baffling. Trump’s swagger and his narcissism, to say nothing of his lecherousness and materialism, would seem to make him an anathema to anyone who claims to live by the teachings of Christ.
But, again, religion’s main political selling point is authority, and in an age of authoritarianism, religious authority must rush to catch up. Trump beat them at their own game. He promised to torture prisoners and target innocent civilians in war zones, explicit war crimes; he promised to build walls and bar refugees; he promised to abolish an absolute freedom of religion by banning Muslims from immigrating to America and by forcing all Muslim citizens to register with the government. He leapfrogged religious authoritarians not just by promising to act without the constraint of other, lesser, authorities — like the law, American tradition, and basic common decency—but by also promising to act without the constraint of the softer Christian virtues of humility, mercy, and charity. In short, he promised to act like a man who had never needed to ask for forgiveness. Forgiveness is for people who make mistakes. Forgiveness is for people who acknowledge a responsibility to others, an authority beyond themselves.
To be sure, there was some opposition to these neofascist proposals, and to Trump himself, from some on the religious right. There were tremors of pushback in the halls of Liberty University and throughout precincts of Mormon America. But it all came to very little in the end, and now that the religious right has largely capitulated to Trumpism in theory, we’re seeing how much resistance it will raise against Trumpism in practice. With Trump’s upsets in the primaries and the election, God-hucksters like Mike Huckabee, James Dobson, and Jerry Falwell Jr. polished their brands by attaching themselves to him as publicly as possible. In VP Mike Pence — a stalwart of Christian politics, whose war on reproductive freedom and gay rights as governor of Indiana portends bad things — Trump has someone who can throw red meat to the religious right and speak its language. In all truth, though, it’s unclear how much work the president will have to do to keep the peddlers of religious influence satisfied. They’ve already proven they’re ready to accept the scraps from his table. And for his part, Trump seems to like the temples as long as they’re plated in gold and run by moneychangers.
Monday, January 23, 2017
Monday, January 16, 2017
In 1957, William Wyler's comedy-drama FRIENDLY PERSUASION won the Palm d'Or, one of those inexplicable lapses of judgement that help to demonstrate the true worthlessness of movie awards. (That it beat out Bergman's THE SEVENTH SEAL only helps to make this point starker still.) It's a film that I'm fascinated with in large part because of my undying love of its star, Gary Cooper, but the film itself is a muddled mess. It is of interest today to Cooper fans like myself, but in most other respects it has aged poorly. For its director, it is a long, long way from the triumph of THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES in 1946.
Watching it again recently (because it was included in a new set of Cooper films I got for Christmas), I'm struck by the film's lack of a point-of-view. The film tells the story of the Birdwell family, a 1800s Indiana Quaker clan led by a stern-if-loving mother, Eliza (Dorothy McGuire) and a taciturn-if-mischievous father, Jess, played by Cooper. They have three children, the eldest of which is a son, Josh (Anthony Perkins) who longs to go fight in the Civil War. Eventually, the war comes to Indiana and the Birdwells have to decide what to do.
I use the word "eventually" advisedly because FRIENDLY PERSUASION takes a long leisurely amble to get to its central conflict. The war doesn't come home to the Birdwells until the final thirty minutes of the film, which means that the better part of an hour and a half is spent focusing on things like the light comedy of Cooper's attempt to get to church faster than his neighbor and an uninvolving romance for the Birdwells' teenaged daughter. These scenes are meant to establish the Quaker idyll that will soon (or eventually) be shattered by the war.
Here's the problem, though: even in these scenes of gentle pastoral comedy, Wyler and his writer Michael Wilson (whose name was taken off the picture after he was blacklisted) struggle to figure out how to present the Birdwells. The problem, as one might expect, is religious. Wyler and Wilson just don't know what to do with Quakerism. For example, one subplot involves Jess buying an organ to play in the house despite Eliza's stern opposition, in keeping with the doctrine of their faith, to the instrument. After much to do, the Birdwells end up keeping the organ, and then have to hide it in the attic to keep it from the eyes of their church. At the end of the film, the organ's been moved downstairs. What are we to make of this? Are the Birdwells ready to tell the church that the doctrine is wrong? If so, why? The truth is that the filmmakers don't care about the religious implications. The whole subplot is one extended joke, a comedy that springs from the bemusement of the filmmakers.
This disconnect carries over to the main conflict of the film once it finally arrives. Perkins wants to go fight, though his reasons for wanting to fight and the way he relates to the conflict don't seem to have any practical foundation in the life the character would have lived up to that point. Likewise, his younger brother regards the war the way a kid who's seen a lot of TV westerns might regard the war. Neither of them seem to have grown up in Quaker house their whole lives.
FRIENDLY PERSUASION is an excellent example of what we mean when we say a film is dated. Though it purports to unfold in 1862, it feels always and in all ways like something created in 1956. It's reflexively pro-war despite the fact it takes place among lifelong pacifists. Perkins goes to war, his little brother is casually bloodthirsty, and Cooper rides off with a gun to save his son -- all against Eliza's wishes and reprimands. By the end of the film, in fact, the concept of pacifism seems like little more than Eliza's annoying pet project. Eventually, she rejects it herself when she beats a rebel soldier for trying to kill the family goose, a moment that is played for laughs. The staunchest pacifist portrayed in the picture is a member of their church who is presented as a self-righteous hypocrite who throws off the constraints of his faith as soon as the Confederates show up.
I've been interested in how religion is portrayed onscreen for a long time, and it's been on my mind even more of late. FRIENDLY PERSUASION is something of a companion piece to 1941's SERGEANT YORK, which also presented Cooper as pacifist during a time of war. YORK is pure war propaganda, but at least it goes about its task more or less directly. FRIENDLY PERSUASION, on the other hand, wants to have things both ways. It is a film of gentle contempt for its subject.
PS: A quick word about Coop. He's easily the best thing about the picture. While Perkins (in his first leading role in a movie) is too Method for his own good here, Cooper controls the screen with quiet authority. The film came at an odd time in his career when, despite the fact he was in his mid-fifties, he was still resistant to, you know, acting like it. He didn't want to play a father onscreen, and although McGuire was 15 years his junior, by this point he was used to playing with even younger leading ladies. (His next film was the romance LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON in which he played opposite Audrey Hepburn, who was 30 years his junior--younger than the actress who played his daughter in FRIENDLY PERSUASION.) He also didn't like that his character wasn't roused to action sooner, and roused to much more forceful action. Despite all of this, the film gives us an unmistakable hint at the kind of performance Cooper could have given in a good movie dealing with the same subject matter. He's not dated so much as he seems to have come from a previous era, which, indeed, he had.
Tuesday, January 3, 2017
The 1945 film noir DETOUR is a movie that seems to have been made out of grit and blood. It certainly wasn't made out of money. As the crown jewel of Hollywood's Poverty Row, DETOUR is best known today as the premiere work of slumming master Edgar G. Ulmer, the penurious auteur who has since become a hero to every filmmaker who ever tried to make art on a budget.
With all due respect to Ulmer, though, we would do well to remember the man who wrote the screenplay (and original novel) of DETOUR, the fascinating firebrand Martin M. Goldsmith. A true eccentric who rejected the materialism of Tinseltown, Goldsmith was one of the key screenwriters of Poverty Row film noir in the 1940s and 1950s. He deserves as much credit as anyone for the masterpiece that is DETOUR, but his career, both in films and as a social activist, doesn't stop there.
I wrote about Goldsmith for the Summer 2016 issue of NOIR CITY. You can read a PDF of my article here. And go here to learn more about the Film Noir Foundation and how you can contribute to its effort to rescue and restore America's noir heritage.