A NORMAN ROCKWELL FOR TODAY


America is at war right now but you'd never know it from any kind of
personal experience, unless you're serving in the military or know
someone who is.  Most of us
are asked to make no sacrifice, there is no meaningful national debate
about the war's prosecution or aims — just a lot of
ideological posturing, on both ends of the political spectrum. 
With a volunteer army,
aided by thousands of private mercenaries, there is no direct pressure
on the nation as a nation to come to terms with what's happening. 
They are fighting the war for us, unless they happen to be our own sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, husbands, wives.



Whatever you think of the war, I think you have to admit that the
current administration has committed the one unforgivable sin for the
leadership of a democracy — sending soldiers into a war without the
broad commitment of the nation behind them.  Any war that
we, the people, don't fight together is bound to turn into a bad one and very likely into a losing one.



Look at the image above by Norman Rockwell, from a
Saturday Evening Post
cover.  The young soldier, obviously just back from the Pacific
Theater, is a Marine.  Viewers of the time would know that he most
likely is just back from Hell, from Iwo Jima or Peleliu or Okinawa — that he has
participated in unimaginable horrors.  There is no glimmer of
triumph or satisfaction in his face, just a sense of awe, of almost
bewildered hardness.  The folks who make up his audience seem to
appreciate, even if there's no way they could possibly understand,
what's he just done for them, and one thing he's just done for them is
separate himself from their world irrevocably, forever.




They seem to comprehend this — they all seem suffused with the gravity of it, they all seem to take responsibility for it.




This is so far beyond catchphrases like “We support our troops.” 
The image reflects a moral complexity, a moral tenderness, that only art can evoke — an
ideal of citizenship that seems to have vanished from our democracy.

MALE ANXIETY AND FILM NOIR


The anxious, existentially befuddled male is at the heart of
film noir
Caught in a trap that's not always of his own making, but almost always
worse than he deserves, he stumbles around in a maze with no
exit.  Sometimes he's destroyed by a powerful female, against whom
he has no defenses, sometimes he's saved by a powerful female operating
out of unaccountable charity.  In either case, the situation is
ultimately out of his control, which on some level makes each type of
female equally threatening.




Some people have located the source of this paradigm for male anxiety in the new economic status women achieved by entering the
workforce in large numbers during WWII, but this is a very superficial
explanation for the mythology of
noir.  Eddie Muller, probably the best and certainly the most entertaining commentator on film noir, points out that the good girls of the tradition are almost always working girls, while the femmes fatales are almost always looking to get something for nothing, and certainly not a paycheck for an honest day's work.


The male anxiety embodied in the tradition clearly derives from a
deeper source — the moral discombobulation of war itself, the
spiritual exhaustion this particular conflict induced, and the
inconceivable fact of the atomic bomb which raised moral issues and
created fears that the human psyche was ill-prepared to engage.




The ravaged psyches of Americans in the aftermath of a “good war”, a good war they
won, so vividly explored in film noir, in some ways says more about the nature of all wars than any works of art which dealt with the conflict itself.

ELVIS FOOD

Admit it — sometimes you just get a taste for Elvis food, for the stuff he really loved, like banana cream pie.  Tucking into an oversized slice of banana cream pie you can almost feel what it must have been like to be a bloated, drug-addled cultural icon and genius on the road to destruction, and sense Elvis’s own childlike bewilderment at it all.

Incidentally, if you live near a Marie Callendar’s, as I do, try their banana cream pie, which tastes old-fashioned somehow, like a pie you’d get served at a 50s-era lunch counter or school cafeteria.  I just know Elvis would have approved.

LORD LEIGHTON: A VICTORIAN ARTIST YOU SHOULD KNOW



Lord Leighton was generally considered the dean of Victorian academic painters.
He combined the decorative stylization of the early Pre-Raphaelites with a more photo-realistic draftsmanship, an approach which made his work popular with a wide public and influential among his fellow painters.

The painting above, exhibited in 1855, caused a sensation and
established his reputation.  An enormous, 17-foot-long work
depicting a procession in Renaissance Italy, it was admired by Queen
Victoria, who bought it.

Leighton also did works in a style that might be called magical
photorealism, like the one below, which reminds one of similar images
by Bouguereau:

He could also, like Bouguereau, be frankly sensual in a more naturalistic mode:

Like Alma-Tadema he did vexing evocations of the ancient world:

His historical paintings could have strong narrative and theatrical qualities, like this one, Dante In Exile:

On top of all that he produced some fine portraits, like this famous image of the explorer Sir Richard Burton:

All around, Leighton was really cool.

BLUE TROUT

Sometimes after a long day of writing my mind is gripped by strange ideas about food — strange in the sense that they don’t involve Swiss cheese and crackers or peanut butter sandwiches or frozen meatloaf dinners.

One day, as it happened, I was reading a piece by Mr. Ernest Hemingway about trout fishing in Europe. In it he described a method of cooking trout he had encountered in Switzerland at rural inns. It involved boiling the trout until it turned blue in a liquor made of water, white wine vinegar, bay leaves and red pepper — not too much of any ingredient in the water, says Mr. Hemingway, without further elaboration.

This is not the blue trout described by M. F. K. Fisher, which involves placing the trout live into boiling water, unless the Swiss innkeepers were holding out on Mr. Hemingway, but it sounded fine.

I remembered that my local supermarket sometimes offers fresh
rainbow trout, so I headed over there late at night and found one
handsome specimen in the fish department. I brought it home, filled up
a large pot with water — it was a large trout — emptied about six
ounces of white wine vinegar into the water, added six fragrant bay
leaves and a light sprinkling of cayenne pepper, and set it all to
boil. When it was bubbling I slipped the fish in.


I turned the heat down and simmered the trout for about fifteen minutes. In
fully boiling water, ten or less would have been more than sufficient. I
tested the fish using a method recommended by an old edition of The
Joy Of Cooking
— which is to separate the meat from the bone of the
spine at the thickest middle section of the fish. When the meat there
is tender but no longer translucent, the fish is done.


I ate the fish with drawn butter, as Mr. Hemingway says the Swiss did. “They drink the clear Sion wine when they eat it,” adds Mr. Hemingway, but they don’t depend on the beverage department of a supermarket for their wine. I made do with a perfectly respectable Pinot Grigio by Bolla, cheap, dry and light.  I keep looking for the clear Sion wine, though — Sion, pictured below, is the primary wine-producing region of Switzerland:

Even without the Swiss wine, the result was a meal of almost unimaginable delicacy. Trout is delicate anyway, and the light seasonings in the water only emphasized the subtlety of its taste. It all resonated on the tongue like a memory of food — insubstantial and fleeting.

NOIR AND EXISTENTIALISM


Tony D'Ambra, on his informative
films noir
web log, questions my recent post on
The Genealogy Of Noir for not paying sufficient attention to the influence of European Existentialism on the
style.  I think he's got a valid point here, though the subject is
complicated.  Existentialism itself was influenced by Poe, via
Baudelaire, and Hemingway's proto-existentialism, expressed most purely
in his early short stories, directly influenced
film noir — and of course these short stories preceded the seminal writings of Sartre and Camus.



The influence of Hemingway on
noir is of course most distinct in Robert Siodmak's The Killers,
based on the Hemingway story.  The story was published in 1927 and
reflected a bleak view of human virtue, which is shown to consist
largely of facing death with stoic conviction.  This decidedly
unromantic attitude was clearly a product of Hemingway's experiences in
WWI, and resonated precisely with the mood of the generation which had
just fought a second world war.


We can't see the existential dread that informs
film noir as simply a product of Europe, an import, even though, as D'Ambra points out, many of the crucial filmmakers in the noir tradition were refugees from the European
catastrophes of
the 30s and 40s.  This view wouldn't explain the extraordinary
popularity of the form with American audiences for almost two
decades. 
Film noir must
have reflected anxieties buried deep in the post-war American psyche,
aroused by the sheer horrific spectacle of total war on a global scale
and by the unthinkable reality of the atomic bomb.


Although Siodmak's film softens Hemingway's story by giving us a
positive, resourceful guide through the moral maze that ultimately
destroys the Swede, the film approaches the condition of pure
noir
because Lancaster's Swede is the star part in the picture — it's his
bleak fate we identify with, not that of the successful insurance
investigator played by Edmund O'Brien.



Lancaster, after all, is the one who gets to put his arms around
Ava Gardner, for which going to Hell seems a small enough price to pay
– and once you start thinking in those terms, you're already caught up
hopelessly in the maze of the
noir's dark city.

COKE FLAG


I painted the image above on the wall of a farmhouse in Vermont
sometime in the late Sixties.  For some reason the owners of the
farmhouse decided not to paint over it and so it has survived for going
on 40 years, as I just discovered via this photograph of it, taken by a
friend last Sunday when he was visiting the place.




The design is kind of cool, even if the draftsmanship leaves something
to be desired.  It still sums up what the Sixties felt like to me
at the time, when the idea of being patrotic about American culture
made more sense than being patriotic about the American state.

CASABLANCA: THE ACTRESS AS AUTEUR


Casablanca

is a genuinely miraculous film, one of the few Hollywood masterpieces
that really was created by committee.  The script incorporated the
work of six principle writers, who had lots of editorial
supervision.  One of the film's most memorable lines, “Here's
looking at you, kid,” was reportedly contributed during filming by the
actor who spoke it, Humphrey Bogart, and supervising producer Hal B.
Wallis wrote the famous last line, “Louie, I think this is the
beginning of a beautiful friendship”, which was added as a wild line
after principal photography ended.




If the film has a nominal
auteur
it would have to be Wallis, who organized the collective that made the
film and generally had the last word on what became part of the final
product.  Jack Warner, the head of the studio, made only one
creative suggestion — to cast George Raft in the Bogart role, an idea
that would have made the film the instantly forgettable potboiler it
might easily have become.  Wallis talked Warner out of the idea,
but he had some bad ideas of his own, including turning Sam into a
female African-American — but Wallis himself got talked out of these ideas in
turn.


The film's director, Michael Curtiz, was known as a great “director of
scenes”, with a sure sense of pacing, but he spoke English badly and
apparently had no sense of story construction.  It was Wallis who
“constructed”
Casablanca.



One of the delights of the film is its multifaceted quality.  The
play it's based on provides the milieu of the story and some of its
dramatic highlights, but has none of the elements that make the film an
enduring classic.  The screenwriting Epstein brothers provided
most of the witty dialogue and writer Howard Koch pushed its political themes
to the fore, but I would argue that it was another writer, Casey Robinson, who didn't
receive credit, who supplied the glue that made
Casablanca cohere.



It was Robinson who wrote the principal love scenes between Bogart and
Bergman, developing Bergman's character into the emotional center of
the film.  He gave Bergman the opportunity to supply the film with
its heart.  Without Bergman's performance the film would be
nothing more than a diverting programmer with an admirable “message”.




The sheer acting craft on display in
Casablanca
is stunning, but most of it is just that — craft.  Bergman brings
an emotional commitment to her role that's of a different order. 
She suggests an inner life that is mysterious, complex, fully
rounded.  It's through her eyes that Bogart becomes sexy, that
Henreid becomes admirable, that the dangers of Casablanca become real.




The film's narrative promises much in the way of romance and intrigue and
adventure, but Bergman is all those promises fulfilled.  Audiences
loved Bogart and accepted him as a romantic leading man because he held his
own with Bergman in this film, tried to expose himself to her
emotionally on her level and often enough succeeded.  Study his expression, his eyes,
in the very brief close-up of Bogart taking his last look at Bergman's
face on the airfield — it's devastating, a moment of total
exposure.  By the same token, we recoil at Henreid's Victor Lazlo
because he never opens himself to Ilsa, because he stands on idealism
and form even when gazing into her miraculous eyes.


Roger Ebert has pointed out how Bergman could paint an actor's face
with her eyes — we can see her trying to penetrate his being, and in
the process she gives him being.  It's the alchemy of romantic love incarnated.  We instinctively despise any
leading man who doesn't treasure her for this, we instinctively admire any leading man who does.




The ending of
Casablanca is
morally thrilling, glamorizing virtue and sacrifice, but it would be
little more than a literary gesture without Bergman's presence, without
Bogart's appreciation of her presence.  His sacrifice of it breaks
our hearts over and over again because we feel it as our own
sacrifice.  By that point in the film she's become every great love that anybody has ever lost and
we hate to see her go — always have, always will.  Ingrid Bergman
is the true author of the miracle of
Casablanca.

THE GENEALOGY OF NOIR

American Gothic


In the broadest perspective, film noir belongs in the long tradition of American Gothic fiction, that dark vision crystallized in the tales of Hawthorne and Poe.  A kind of counterbalance or reaction to American optimism, this tradition can have an almost savage quality, as though the decision to explore the shadowy realms of the American psyche has led to a determination to follow that path to its uttermost end, to the absolute limits of nightmare.



D. H. Lawrence saw in this tradition a desire to ritually enact the decay of European culture as a kind of psychic prelude to the birth of a new culture.  Leslie Fiedler saw the darkness at the center of so much American art as the product of a stunted manhood, which embraced despair and death because it could not find its way to maturity.


However the tradition is explained, it must on some level reflect the enduring contradiction between America’s ideals and its actions.  The nation’s founding document, announcing that all men are created equal, was written by a man who owned slaves.  In the gap between a radical, transformative announcement such as this and its author’s actual life, corrosive subconscious anxieties are bound to breed.


The Genre Of the Grotesque


Europe’s own literal effort at self-destruction in WWI, and the anxiety this produced in a nation that both rejected the old world and still looked to it for guidance, led to a curious new genre in American movies, reminiscent of Poe — the genre of the grotesque.


In this genre, grotesque figures, deformed or mutilated, enacted tragic scenarios of revenge against the “normal” world, in a vain attempt to assert a private nobility, a private honor.  This genre made a star of Lon Chaney, who specialized in tragic grotesques, and is often read as a precursor to the horror film of the 30s, but it was really something else — a way of dealing with the images of death and disfigurement associated with the Great War, a way of expressing the fear that civilization had been deformed by the conflict.  Audiences of the 20s could not help but have associated Chaney’s misshapen characters with the mutilated veterans of the battles in France.


This genre died out with the coming of sound, mutated into the campy Grand Guignol of the classic horror film, but it’s worth noting it here because it represents the same sort of coded response to WWI that the film noir represents to WWII — a way of nursing wounds that nominal “victory” had not healed.

Crime Drama


The underworld crime drama of the 30s was a response to the Depression and to all the social ills it spawned and exposed.  It allowed us to enter the underworld of American society — to revel in the destructive rebellion of underworld thugs, expressing a rage against the system felt by many, while still containing them within a conscious code of values which demanded their death, which still posited forces of order and decency which would prevail in the end.

Hardboiled Detective Fiction


A variant on the crime drama was the pulp detective fiction of the 30s and 40s which sent a knight errant into the dark streets, the moral chaos of American life, in search of truth and rough justice.  Such fiction most often involved a mystery to be solved, and its solution constituted a triumph over the moral chaos.  Pulp detective fiction allowed us to take a brief vacation on the wild side in the company of a guide who was sure to get us home safe again.

Noir


Film noir, as it evolved after 1945, in the wake of a war America participated in fully, sending millions of its young men and women into the fray, and in the wake of the sheer unimaginable fact of the atomic bomb, drew on the traditions of the crime drama and hardboiled detective fiction, but it became something different.

It lost its faith in the forces of order and decency, and in the reliability of its protagonist guides.  It posited a moral maze which had no logical solution, no center and no exit points.  It
offered the frisson of pure existential dread without an easy cure.

Fiedler’s spiritually stunted males became easy prey to strong women — femmes fatales who could destroy a man at will.  (In film noir, a strong woman might just as easily save a collapsed male, but purely as an act of generosity — not because the male deserved saving.)

A protagonist in a true film noir might find himself fated for destruction by a corrupt justice system, by an innocent mistake, by a malevolent coincidence or by some dark inner compulsion which he can’t
control.  In all cases, he finds himself in a labyrinth with a compass that has lost its pointer, a thread that runs out short of escape.

Near Noir

There are many films called noir today which don’t really fit the definition offered above.  They are variants of the 30s crime drama, docu-noirs like The House On 92nd Street, for example, which may borrow the expressionistic visual style of the true noir but ultimately validate the agents of the state who will set things right in the end.  There are also a number of noir-inflected detective mysteries, like Laura, for example, which give us a reliable guide through the moral maze and bring us safely out of it at the end.


This is true even of John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, the most noir of the classic detective thrillers.  Sam Spade does the right thing in the end, rejects the femme fatale
and remains true to his essentially decent code.  But he’s more neurotically conflicted about this code than the average hardboiled detective — you get a sense that he’s beginning to suspect it’s all pretty meaningless.  In that existential anxiety we see the roots of the true film noir.

There are, in addition, many films, like Leave Her To Heaven, which explore the existential anxiety of post-WWII America from different perspectives than the true noir.  These films — Double Indemnity is another of them — usually offer sociopathic protagonists whom we find both compelling and repulsive, the attitude we had to the underworld thugs of the 30s crime drama, even though their crimes play out in middle-class homes rather than on the mean streets of a city.

True Noir


In the true noir, we can identify totally with the protagonist — not least in his fated doom, or provisional salvation, in a world that has gone terribly wrong, for reasons that aren’t clear and that it probably wouldn’t help much to understand.

NOIR, NOT NOIR: DOUBLE INDEMNITY

Double Indemnity is generally seen as one of the first (and one of the best) films noirs but I don’t think it fits comfortably into the category.  It shares with the true film noir protagonists who are infected with a moral corruption that destroys them.  Unlike a true film noir, however, the film doesn’t present this corruption as part of a universal human condition, or as the result of a breakdown of humane values in society as a whole.  In the true film noir
the doomed hero is often sped along to destruction by honest mistakes or innocent choices, and just as often is given no course of positive action which would save him.  When he makes bad choices they’re frequently motivated by a position of powerlessness in the social order, particularly economic hardship or unjust persecution by the law.

In Double Indemnity, Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson live comfortable lives.  Their passion and their greed are not presented as responses to any kind of social oppression, unless it’s the sheer boredom of middle-class life.  They’re simply selfish, amoral people.

The film can be read as a critique of middle-class American life, seeing the corruption of the adulterous lovers as a product of the spiritual vacuity of their class, but to me the tone of the film is more peevish and bitchy than political.  You get a sense that Chandler and Wilder, who did the adaptation of Cain’s book, hate their bourgeois characters because they’re stupid and tacky — that it’s snobbery that ignites the engine of the narrative.  Certainly there’s no sympathy involved and no rage directed at the system which produces such people.

Made during WWII, the film taps into the creeping spiritual malaise and suspicion of civilization, as well as the sense of the existential impotence of men, that would inform the postwar film noirand it portrays one of the most fatal femmes in the entire history of cinema.  But I think these things are mostly the result of coincidence, an intuition about the temper of the times that allowed Chandler and Wilder to indulge what was primarily a personal prejudice against their social and intellectual inferiors.  To them, I think, Walter Neff’s biggest crime wasn’t murder — it was his dumb salesman’s jokes and the self-satisfied way he delivered them.  Phyllis Dietrichson‘s one unforgivable sin was the cheap blonde wig.

I’m talking here about the philosophical mood of the film, the attitude of the creators, but of course those things are transformed in the film itself, whose dark undertow of suspense and fatal miscalculation is so powerful that it transcends the bitchiness of Wilder and Chandler, evoking an anxiety far deeper than the snob’s fear of bad taste.  Double Indemnity, finally, achieves the precise effect of a nightmare, while not venturing into the precise nightmare landscape of the true film noir.

A FREUD QUOTE FOR TODAY

“Some
obstacle is necessary to swell the tide of the libido to its height . .
.  In times during which no obstacles to sexual satisfaction
existed, such as, may be, during the decline of the civilizations of
antiquity, love became worthless, life became empty, and strong
reaction-formations were necessary before the indispensable emotional
value of love could be recovered.”

This helps explain why modern American culture is so pornographic on
its surface but so unsexy.  It may be the least sexy culture in
the history of civilization.  It occurs to me that the attraction
to Victorian style, visible in sub-cultures like steampunk, may be a
nascent reaction-formation to the dead sexuality of modern pop culture.

Would downloading the Paris Hilton sex video on a steampunk computer (like the one below, courtesy of Boing Boing) be somehow more erotic than downloading it on a regular laptop? 
Would it miraculously become “naughty” instead of soul-killing?

Do we envy the Victorians for the very concept of “naughtiness”?