NO EXIT

“What we all dread most,” said G. K. Chesterton’s detective priest Father Brown, “is a maze with no centre.”

The mood of existential dread that gripped the American psyche in the wake
of WWII was largely unconscious, and so it expressed itself in
irrational ways — in the hysteria of the Communist witch hunts, for
example, and in the mythology of the film noir,
which characteristically sent an impotent man into the heart of a
nightmarish moral labyrinth from which there was no escape.

There was a variant on the classic noir paradigm which sent a cop or a government agent into that same dark underworld, but he was armed with the positive values of the official
culture and backed by its official institutions — he not only escaped from the labyrinth, he straightened it out, brought it into the light and broke its evil spell.

The first film of this kind, and a model for all the rest, was The House On 92nd Street
from 1945, an F. B. I. procedural about the uncovering of a Nazi spy
ring operating inside the U. S. during WWII.  It had a
quasi-documentry approach and was obviously designed to reassure
Americans that their government had the issue of existential dread well
in hand.  It’s a taut, entertaining thriller, with fascinating
location photography,  but its celebration of the F. B. I.’s
omnipotence and infallibility couldn’t, even at the time, have been a
profound assurance to people who felt that something had gone terribly
awry with the world — something that the Allied victory in the war
hadn’t really set right.


This feeling was addressed but not answered in genuine film noir,
which is what gave the form its power — turned its image of the urban
labyrinth into an enduring variation on an ancient myth.
Interestingly, the terrifying image of the maze with no center, and no
exit once entered, can also be found I believe in the best films of
Frank Tashlin — all comedies.

In The Girl Can’t Help It and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?,
Tashlin offers a satire of post-war American culture which also has no
center and no exit point.  These movies mock modern media from within the
modern medium of film, which is itself mocked, deconstructed, leaving us
with no reliable perspective from which to judge any of their judgments.
They savage the modern rat race but also savage anyone who tries to
escape it.  In Tashlin’s vision, as in film noir, American culture is a maze which can’t be navigated, in which every passage circles back on itself.



In
Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?,
for example, Tashlin attacks modern advertising and product placement
on television, then proceeds to plug his own earlier film
The Girl Can’t Help It
within the new one.  Tashlin’s films are funny but deeply
disturbing.  Their vision of America is profound and just as noir as the dark streets of the great films noirs.  The fact that Tashlin’s darkness is rendered in garish, overheated
Color by Deluxe is just one more of the radically disorienting ironies
of his method.

[For more on The Girl Can't Help  It, go here.  The image of the labyrinth in film noir is discussed helpfully in Nicholas Christopher's book Somewhere In the Night.]

A VINTAGE CELL-PHONE PHOTOGRAPH FOR TODAY


This
is Alan Fraser, an old friend from the newsgroup rec.music.dylan, which
I was once heavily involved in but have long abandoned (it got too
creepy.)
It was Alan who answered the first question I ever posted
there, around 1998, seeking track information for an import Dylan
collection called
Masterpieces. Alan is the world's foremost
authority on Dylan rarities — officially released but rare or obscure
recordings. Here's a link to his invaluable web site database:

Searching For A Gem


Alan
is also a fan of sci-fi and has passed along a lot of great book
recommendations in that genre. I never knew what Alan looked like until he sent this picture — he
lives in England — but I imagined his jovial smile almost exactly . .
. it's just there in what he writes, in his cheerful helpfulness. He was
the guy on the newsgroup who always answered the question of a first-time
poster with good-natured seriousness, even if it was a question that had
been asked a million times before.

THE RETURN OF STORYTELLING: A MANIFESTO AND PREDICTION


Storytelling has been degraded in our time by
corporate entertainment, which wants a mathematical formula for stories
that even a studio functionary can understand.  Hence the
“character arc”, which reduces a human being's story to a geometrical
figure, and the “hero's journey”, which reduces it to a grocery list of
plot points.

The heart of any real story, however, is mystery.


Achilles
has no character arc — neither do Alice of Wonderland or
Hamlet of Denmark.  What they have in place of a character arc is
the illusion of an irreducible, inexhaustible inner life — in short, a
character.


Here's a wonderful quote from Stephen
Greenblatt's recent biography of  Shakespeare,
Will In the World:



“Shakespeare found that he could immeasurably deepen the effect of his
plays, that he could provoke in the audience and in himself a
peculiarly passionate intensity of response, if he took out a key
explanatory element, thereby occluding the rationale, motivation or
ethical principle that accounted for the action that was to unfold. 
The principle was not the making of a riddle to be solved, but the
creation of a strategic opacity.  This opacity, Shakespeare found,
released an enormous energy that had been at least partially blocked or
contained by familiar, reassuring explanations.”




This sums up what's
wrong with Hollywood filmmaking today.  Anything you tell the audience
to feel they don't have to feel, because they know you'll feel it for
them.  In a Hollywood film today, for example, it's extremely reassuring to be introduced to a little girl with
no legs whose lifelong dream it is to climb Mount Everest, because you
know that at the end of the film she will, by the use of artificial
limbs or even by dragging herself along with only her arms, get to the
summit.  The only issue is how it will happen.  It becomes a puzzle
rather than a story.


But in trying to figure out why Hamlet is behaving the way he's
behaving, and never being given a coherent explanation, you
mysteriously internalize his experience.

Once a character has a legible “arc” she is no longer a character — she's an arc . . . a shape, not a person.



Understanding this is like possessing the storytelling
equivalent of the secret of nuclear fission — it's the key to a
radical new phase in popular entertainment, which I expect will unfold
in the next two to three years as the Internet gradually erodes the
corporate grip on distribution.




It will at any rate at least be possible to tell real stories again –
stories that engage the inner experience of an audience.  It will seem
incredibly new and exciting — though it's as old as Homer, as old as
the oldest storyteller Homer learned his stuff from.  But that's the
thing about stories — the great ones always seem brand new, even when
you know exactly how they'll come out . . . because they're like
emotional chain reactions that happen inside you, not like lines on a
geometrical chart.  It's the difference between E=mc² written on a
piece of paper and what happened
on the test site at Los Alamos.


THE SUNDOWNERS


Kierkegaard once remarked that many of the greatest human virtues, like loyalty and faithfulness over time, are almost impossible to dramatize, which is why there are legions of great dramas about adultery but hardly any about good marriages.

A drama about a good marriage has to deal with subtleties, with crises that don’t lead to disaster, with everyday acts of love that don’t erupt into shattering passion.

And yet . . . is there anything more suspenseful than a good marriage? Is there any murder mystery more intricate than the process of accomodation, of creative sympathy and adjustment which keeps a good marriage alive?


Fred Zinneman’s The Sundowners, from 1960, is a movie about a good marriage — about the accumulation of small dramas, never quite reaching a climax, never quite being resolved, that hide within the miracle of a good marriage.

Set in Australia in the 1920s, it’s about a family of itinerant sheep drovers.  It’s filled with spectacular location photography and has a few suspenseful action sequences, but at its
heart are a hundred and one things that don’t go wrong, when they should.  The father and mother of a teenage son who make up the family don’t change in the course of the film — they have no “arc”, to use a bit of terminology from modern Hollywood storytelling, which turns
characters into geometrical shapes.  We just watch scene after scene in which they struggle to remain who they are — two married people deeply in love with each other, deeply committed to each other.

We watch the compromises they make, their acts of forgiveness, their miraculous triumphs of sympathy and empathy, their well-worn joy in each other.

Then suddenly . . . nothing happens.  They endure.


As the couple, Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr give miraculous performances, quiet and understated — you need to watch them carefully to see the deep currents flowing between them . . . but they’re there, especially in their bedroom talk, where you get glimpses of a grown-up sexuality that mainstream filmmakers rarely portray, probably because they’ve never gotten closer to it than passing a copy of Anna Karenin on their way through a Barnes and Noble bookstore.

The Sundowners may not be great drama, but it’s spiritually exhilarating — something more than drama, perhaps.

ICKY THUMP


Mark your calendars — the new White Stripes album
Icky Thump arrives on 19 June.  Meanwhile, here's a video
of the title song to whet your appetite.  It seems to have been
partly filmed in a Mexican whorehouse, and the lyrics have a message
for people obsessed with illegal aliens from south of the border –
“kick yourself out . . . you're an immigrant, too.”




¡Viva Stripes!

A WATERHOUSE FOR TODAY

You could get lost in the spatial complications of this painting, Destiny
by John William Waterhouse, which take a while to sort out.  The
sorting out is part of the artist’s strategy for drawing you into the
image — as the female figure’s dream of the adventures those ships
could take her on becomes your own.  For her the ships are reflections
in a glass, for you they’re paint on canvas — dreaming makes them both
real.

NO SUCH THING


Someone once remarked that there's no such thing as a bad
film noir.  It's a strange propostion and the strangest thing about it is that it's pretty much true.



I've just watched over 30
films noirs
and none of them was anything less than a wondrously entertaining
B-picture. 
There are some clunkers that are labelled films noirs but really aren't — like Otto Preminger's Whirlpool,
for example, which is in fact a Hitchcockian suspense thriller made by
a man who had no clue as to how Hitchcock created suspense . . . but e
ven among the faux noirs, films that are noirish only in visual style, for example, most have dialogue and images that are thrilling.



I'm not sure how to explain this consistency of quality except by suggesting that
noir
represented such a release from the thematic and stylistic conventions
of the traditional studio product that filmmakers responded with an
outburst of pent-up creativity and daring.  They must have known
that they were inventing a new kind of film, even if it didn't have a
name yet, and the fact that there were no set rules for this kind of
film made it hard for the studios to wrestle it into a set
formula. 
Films noirs
were relatively cheap to make, and people couldn't seem to get enough
of them, so the studios stepped back and let the experimentation
continue — for almost 20 years.


The first film that displayed the characteristic visual style of the
noir was a fairly routine murder mystery called I Wake Up Screaming (above) from 1941.  Double Indemnity, from 1944, gave us protagonists who were morally currupt to the core.  Neither was, to my way of thinking, a genuine film noir, but Double Indemnity
was a radical indication that a change was on its way — that audiences
could accept a darker view of the world than the Hollywood studios had ever been
willing to embrace.




As early as 1945, in Edgar G. Ulmer's no-budget thriller
Detour,
the combination of an exaggerated, expressionistic visual style and a
sense of the world as morally unhinged at its core produced a template
for the classic
film noir, a vehicle for the subterranean mood of existential dread that gripped America in the wake of WWII.



None of the movies made about the war itself ever expressed as
eloquently its psychic cost to a generation of Americans as did the
movies we now call
film noirs
They crackle with the excitement of artists suddenly allowed to deal
with truths that couldn't be addressed in the official view of
things.  Corporate entertainment tends to gravitate towards the
official view of things but there are times when the official view of
things diverges so radically from the actual mood of the audience that
accommmodations have to be made. 
Film noir was one of the most radical of those accommodations.

LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN

[Note -- this post contains plot spoilers and shouldn't be read if you haven't already seen Leave Her To Heaven.]

Leave Her To Heaven is one of the strangest films ever made in studio-era Hollywood.  The tension between its text and its subtext is so violent that it can induce mild dizziness.  It’s sometimes called, unhelpfully I think, a film noir.  It’s certainly a dark film, despite its gorgeous Technicolor photography, and it deals with some of the same cultural neuroses that inform the noir tradition, but it comes at them from a different perspective — a female perspective.

At the heart of the film is Ellen, played by Gene Tierney — a
beautiful, narcissistic psychopath.  We’re told early on that
Ellen wrecked her parents’ marriage by her obsessively close
relationship with her father.  The minute we hear this
extraordinary bit of information our perceptions should be alerted that things
aren’t always going to be what they seem in this film — though I
imagine that it’s mostly women who pick up on it, and perhaps only
subconsciously.

Think about it.  A grown man allows his marriage to be ruined by his obsessively close
relationship with his daughter — and the child is blamed.  This
strikes me as a kind of emotional code, alluding to the phenomenon of blaming
women for the psychic and moral failings of men.

Ellen will go on in the course of the film to do horrible things — she
will murder a crippled boy, her husband’s brother, she will induce
the miscarriage of her own unborn child and she will try to frame her
innocent cousin for murder.  She becomes a monster and no rational
consideration can induce us to sympathize with her — but we do.
We do because of the coded text embedded in the overt one.

In the film, Ellen falls in love with and marries Dick, apparently
because he reminds her of her father.  Cornell Wilde is
brilliantly cast in the role.  He looks like a hunk but is a kind
of black hole on screen, with a blank face and eyes that express little
more than hurt and bewilderment.  He’s further un-manned in the
narrative, which makes him a fumbler, insecure around Ellen, easily led by
her and only too happy to retreat to the female company of her mother
and cousin, “good” women but good in a bland, smug way.


Dick has a crippled younger brother who comes to live with the
newlyweds — sleeping in the room next to theirs behind a wall so thin
that he can talk to them through it without raising his voice.
Dick doesn’t seem to comprehend why this situation makes Ellen
uncomfortable.  When the brother is finally moved out to a guest
house Dick secretly invites Ellen’s mother and cousin to come visit,
another intrusion on their intimacy, and once again can’t understand why this disturbs Ellen.  He whines out his reasoning — “I thought you’d be pleased!” — without the slightest apparent awareness of Ellen’s point of view, much less her right to be consulted on such things.

Ellen over-reacts, of course — drastically.  She lets the brother
die in a swimming accident.  But part of us understands why she
does it.  All the people around her are so drippy, so dull and, in
the case of the men, so weak, that part of us wants her to kill them
all.


This is how the deep tension of the film is created — by giving Ellen
real grievances, maddening and suffocating, while at the same time
giving her responses that we can judge as thoroughly
reprehensible.  Men are allowed to righteously condemn a woman who
sees through male weakness, women are allowed a vicarious revenge
against those same weak men.


The film starts on a train and climaxes in a courtroom, but in between
it plays out in a series of glamorous vacation homes, shot in wild,
almost lurid color.  The whole film is like a paean to the
well-decorated second home — a glossy magazine-spread celebration of
bourgeois comfort and excess.  But Ellen makes us feel the
oppression of those homes — they are for her what the urban labyrinth
is to the lost souls of film noir, and they’re lit with the same expressionistic exaggeration.

Gene Tierney was an actress of limited range but she turns up in some
of the great films of Hollywood’s golden age, radiant and unforgettable –
this film, Laura, Heaven Can Wait and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.
She had a unique quality on screen, part aristocratic, part down to
earth, always suggesting a secret that will never be revealed.
That quality, and especially it’s sense of impenetrable mystery, is
what allows us here to project onto her our unconscious approval of her
wickedness.


While not a true film noir the movie fits nicely into a category that might be called domestic noir — along with Shadow Of A Doubt and Double Indemnity,
both made around the same time.  In these films, the nightmare of
moral chaos doesn’t play out on dark city streets but in middle-class
homes . . . yet the existential dread invoked is almost exactly the
same.

THE DARK CORNER


“I feel all dead inside.  I'm backed up in a dark corner and I don't know who's hitting me.”




With this little speech, the hardboiled private-eye protagonist of Henry Hathaway's
The Dark Corner, from 1946, leaves the world of 30s pulp fiction where he was born and enters the realm of the film noir
He's lost the romantic nobility of the traditional private eye, summed
up by Raymond Chandler when describing his idea of the hero in a work
of detective fiction —
“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean,
who is neither tarnished nor afraid.”




The hero of
The Dark Corner, played by Mark Stevens, is
tarnished by a past frame-up for manslaughter, almost unhinged by the
memory of his impotence in the situation, his sense that it will follow
him forever and destroy him in the end.  He's a tough guy, not
afraid of taking his licks but gripped by the dread of a consuming
darkness he doesn't understand and so can't control.  The film
documents what is for him essentially an existential nervous breakdown.


His secretary, played by the still luscious, pre-ditzy Lucille Ball, mothers him,
bucks him up, challenges him to get his act together.  She saves
him — but it's clear enough that she could shatter him, too.  Her
strength is a gift which he can't match.  She has, in other words,
all the power of a
femme fatale — she simply chooses not to exercise it.



The male neurosis and confusion at the heart of the film constitute a
deconstruction of the traditional figure of the hardboiled private eye,
the wisecracking knight errant of Chandler's fiction.  This
private eye is “wailing on the margin of nonentity”, in Blake's great
phrase, held back from the abyss only by Ball's unaccountable faith in
him.  You just have to imagine her losing her patience to project
yourself into the darker universe of even bleaker
noirs like Out Of the Past, where the fatal femmes rule.

ON DANGEROUS GROUND


Nicholas Ray's
On Dangerous Ground is a problematic film noir on many grounds but in an odd way it helps define the genre.  More precisely, it helps us realize that film noir
isn't really a genre at all but a way of identifying a particular
strain of post-WWII dread as it came to infect many different kinds of
film.




This strain was characterized by a sense that the world had gone
hopelessly wrong, that existing paradigms for male identity were
suddenly useless in terms of setting anything right, that women, faced
with the existential nullity of men, were sudddenly in a position to
destroy them at will.




It's this profound and comprehensive existential dread that distinguishes
film noir
from the dark pulp fiction of the Thirties, which investigated the
corruption of American society through the eyes of cynical but
personally incorruptible men like Chandler's Phillip Marlowe, or the
crime thrillers which gave us glimpses of the underworld while still
positing forces which could combat and contain it.




These popular forms took us on a tour of the wild side, the dark side of American culture, but the
film noir suggested that there was no other side.



On Dangerous Ground violates every standard rule of Hollywood storytelling, and eventually most rules of the noir
tradition.  The dream logic that propels the narratives of all
great suspense thrillers is stretched beyond conventional bounds –
just as in dreams sometimes incidents occur which make us realize, even
in the middle of the dream, that we must be dreaming.



Robert Ryan plays a cop on the edge of a total breakdown, overcome by
the sheer meanness of streets which can't be policed effectively except
by adopting the rules of the bad guys.  For his own good he's sent
out to a rural community to help with a murder investigation, but
there's nothing redemptive about the country he enters.  Bleak,
snow-covered, peopled by vicious, suspicious, isolated farm-dwellers,
it's just as soul-killing as the city he's left.  It reminds one
of the landscape of Bergman's
Winter Light — a place where the soul shrivels and dies.


But then he meets a woman, played by Ida Lupino — not the traditional
femme fatale who waits to ensnare and destroy lost men in many films noirs
. . . but a blind woman paradoxically attracted by his distant,
unengaged treatment of her.  His failure to pity or patronize her
gives her a sense of power, encourages her to trust him,
irrationally.  And that trust saves him, gives his existence some
meaning.




The film, made at RKO, was much meddled with by studio head Howard
Hughes, which may account in part for its disjointed tone.  Ray
disowned the film in later years, saying that Ryan's redemption
involved a miracle and that he didn't believe in miracles.




But the film believes in this particular miracle, and that's all that
counts.  And even the miracle fails to violate entirely the dark
vision of the
film noir,
since it presents us with a love that's possible only because both
partners in it are disabled, outsiders, in touch finally with their own
despair because they're able to recognize it in each other.




You could call it a religious film — and you wouldn't be far wrong.