THE SEA


Friends disappear into darkness, vanish like smoke into
bright air. Mysteries descend like snowflakes and collect into drifts
six feet high — then melt without a trace.


There
are times when I think the ocean offers answers to unanswerable
questions:



Where do virtue and goodness go when they're lost — where
do they come from in the first place, so preposterous and inconvenient?

Où sont-elles, Vierge Souvraine — les neiges d'antan . . . les vagues d'hier soir?



At other times I think the ocean only offers an accompaniment to all
this — no answers, only consolation, a consolation that is itself
a mystery.




Be quiet anyway, and listen . . .




Readers,

     There will be no new posts for the next
week or two, then some exciting news.  Until then, enjoy the
archives and be assured that I remain . . .


   
              
              
            a sus pies,


   
              
              
            Lloydville



THE LOOK OF NOIR

It’s a commonplace of writing about film noir to see its dark, moody lighting as derived more or less directly from the German expressionist cinema of the 1920s and 1930s, best
exemplified in work done at the UFA studio in Berlin.  The proposition is logical enough — the “UFA style” had become a kind of shorthand in Hollywood for highly exaggerated, expressionistic lighting, and many of the cinematographers and directors associated
with film noir had European backgrounds, with experience working at UFA itself or in traditions influenced by it.


The proposition gets a little shaky, however, when you examine the visual style of film noir
with a careful attention to detail.  Its resemblance to the look of UFA-style expressionism is mostly superficial.  The UFA style had a Romantic quality, evoking candlelight and gaslight rather more than popping flashbulbs, stabbing headlights and glaring neon — which characterized the noir style.  The UFA influence is very clear in the Hollywood horror film cycle of the 30s, with its atmospheric, Gothic sets and lighting — but it’s less clear in the jagged edges of light, the jarring collisions of black and white in film noir.

As I’ve written elsewhere: “Lotte Eisner sees Murnau’s visual strategy [in Faust] as one which opposes darkness against light, but this is not quite right, for Faust is not a film of stark contrasts, but of chiaroscuro, of subtle gradations and complications. Light itself is in some ways the protagonist of the film, its mysterious workings and shadings offering a mystical perspective, making the characters and settings emblematic but also providing consolation and inspiration — the sense of a world animated by Spirit.”  This was true of many films in the German expressionist tradition — and was decidedly not the visual strategy of film noir.



There’s another, home-grown visual tradition that I think had a much clearer influence on the look of noir — the American tabloid crime photography of the 1930s and 1940s.  A book called New York Noir makes a very convincing case for this influence.  It collects images from the pages of the New York Daily News and most of these images echo the look of film noir far more closely than the great films made at UFA.

The visual style in question begins with the adoption of the Speed Graphic camera by the Daily News photographers in the 30s.  Its faster film stocks, along with developments in synchronized flash technology, allowed these photographers to penetrate the night for the first time.  The flash itself created bold contrasts of light and dark and helped construct the public image of the night-time city, especially its seamy underside — an image that is faithfully explored in classic films noirs.

Weegee was the most famous of the Daily News photographers — his book Naked City brought the public a conscious awareness of the tabloid style as a distinct phenomenon,
recognized directly by filmmakers Hellinger and Dassin when they bought the book’s title
for their New York police procedural movie of the same name.  But Weegee was just one of many great tabloid photographers who pioneered this style, who lodged it in the public imagination.


The great filmmakers who worked at UFA before WWII, including many who
eventually made their way to Hollywood, certainly developed and codified expressionistic lighting in movies — but I think the many, mostly anonymous photographers who snapped pictures of crime scenes for the American tabloids had a much greater and more direct influence of the look of the film noir.


The frame below, from Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, seems to be trying to invoke precisely the look of a tabloid crime scene photograph:

DALMATIANS


In the
list
I recently linked to, showing the 100 top-grossing films of all time (domestically),
with revenues adjusted for constant dollars, there are, as you would
suspect, a number of Disney classics.  Many of these films
performed only adequately on their initial release but kept making money over the years. 
Snow White was the only one to make the top ten but I was surprised to see 101 Dalmatians
at number eleven.  This is one of my favorite Disney films but I
always thought of it as a minor work, and certainly not a
mega-hit.  Apparently a lot of other people have loved it as much
as I do.




Word is that a two-disc Platinum Edition of the film, loaded with
extras, will be coming out next year, which is exciting news. 
Disney also released a CD of the soundtrack a few years ago — it's a
wonderful, light, slightly jazzy score that really evokes the early,
pre-Beatles Sixties.  It's now out of print but copies can still
be found on Amazon — and it's well worth tracking down.


Check out the film, too, if you don't know it — but just rent it, in
case you fall in love with it and want to grab the definitive edition
when it comes out in 2008.

BAD BLONDE

In the annals of Hollywood degradation, no tale is more sordid than that
of Barbara Payton.  In her earliest days in the film business she
starred in pictures opposite James Cagney and Gregory Peck — then hit
the skids and ended up in her 30s hooking on the Sunset Strip, addled
by drugs and alcohol, bloated and with a few of her front teeth
missing.  She was dead at 39.

Her spiral to the bottom seems to have started with her disastrous alliance with B-movie star Tom Neal (above), who achieved immortality as the lead in the classic film noir Detour but whose arrogance and violent temper kept him perpetually on the
fringes of the movie business.  Payton tried to leave him and
became engaged to classy but alcoholic star Franchot Tone (below).  Neal
confronted Tone one night at Payton’s home and beat him within an inch
of his life, creating one of the biggest tabloid scandals of the
50s.  Tone recovered, barely, married Payton and divorced her a
few months later — apparently because she was cheating on him with
Neal.

Payton’s career never quite recovered, mainly because she couldn’t slow
down.  A sex addict and an increasingly dysfunctional alcoholic,
she went from one bad relationship to another, and by the time she
realized that her reputation had ruined her career it was too late to
rescue it.  She proceeded down her road to oblivion with almost
manic determination, eventually selling blow-jobs on the Strip for $5 a
pop, with several arrests for prostitution and theft along the way.

John O’Dowd has written a detailed and sympathetic biography of the doomed
starlet, plausibly suggesting that some sort of childhood sexual abuse
resulted in an overwhelming self-loathing in Payton — that on some
level she willed her own destruction.  Her story can take its
place with the one Robert Guralnick tells in his magnificent two-volume biography of
Elvis Presley as an object lesson in the way American celebrity can
destroy the fragile psyches of damaged innocents.


It’s all totally heartbreaking.  You might pick up this book
looking to relish the sheer sordidness of Payton’s story — and there’s
never been a more grueling (or more responsibly researched) examination of Hollywood sordidness — but you’ll
end up touched by its portrait of an oddly appealing lost soul.

O’Dowd has a web site devoted to Payton here.

ART BABES



The self-portrait above is by Élisabeth Louise
Vigée-Le Brun, a pupil of David who worked in the late 18th and early
19th centuries.  It’s one of a series of vexing and brilliant
self-portraits in which the artist announces her babeness with
delightful and unapologetic verve.  (You can see more
of them at
the Art Renewal Center website, one of the Internet’s great resources.)


Vigée-Le Brun was the teacher of Marie-Guillemine Benoist, who painted the amazing portrait below, which hangs in the Louvre:

I discovered Benoist’s painting on Amy Crehore’s web log Little Hokum
Rag
.
  Crehore once incorporated it whimsically into one of her own
paintings:


Girlness is the central subject of most art, of course, but it has a
pure sort of loveliness when executed by actual girls — though I’m not
sure quite why that should be.

ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW


Touch Of Evil
is sometimes cited as the last classic film noir but I'd nominate in its place Robert Wise's Odds Against Tomorrow, which came out a year later. 
Odds Against Tomorrow is certainly a true noir, as well as one of the greatest films in the tradition, and its themes recapitulate the core themes of noir with elegant clarity, while at the same time looking forward to the post-noir future.

Odds Against Tomorrow is steeped in the mood of existential dread that characterizes the classic film noir
— and more specifically the sense of male impotence in the face of a
world gone horribly wrong.  It makes sense to see the root of this
dread in the global catastrophe that was WWII and in the spectre of
global annihilation summoned up by the atomic bomband
Odds Against Tomorrow deals directly with both these themes.



Robert Ryan's character is an aging WWII vet whose capacity for
violence is no longer needed — is a bewildering liability in the
post-war world.  He has a sense that his best days are past, that
he has no place in society, and this fear un-mans him, all but destroys
his relationship with a woman who truly loves him but whose ability to
earn more money than he can fills him with shame and self-loathing.




Harry Belafonte's character is also a war vet, but as a black man his
sense of impotence in a white world is even more intense.  The
Ryan character suffers from deep psychological wounds — the Belafonte
character has a handicap in a racist society that nothing could possibly cure . . . the color of
his skin.  He's a jazz singer but addicted to gambling, to finding
the one big score that will enable him to tell the white
nightclub owners he works for to kiss his ass.  His gambling, however, has wrecked
his relationship with his wife and made him incapable of being a true
father to his daughter.  Assaulted from without and within, his
sense of himself as a man has imploded.




These two characters are brought together for a crime caper by a crooked ex-cop, who incarnates the assumption in
films noirs that corruption is universal.



The shadow of the atomic bomb is omnipresent in the film — to a greater degree than it is even in
Kiss Me Deadly, another classic noir which makes a clear connection between its bleak mood and atomic-age anxiety.  In
Odds Against Tomorrow characters
refer to the bomb on several occasions, and the explosive climax of the
film references it visually and metaphorically.

When the subtext of a tradition like film noir
gets as close to the surface as it is in this film you can be pretty
sure that the tradition is just about played out.  Film noir didn't disappear after
Odds Against Tomorrow, but it became something else — neo-noir, which is always, at least in part, a commentary on the old form in its less self-conscious incarnationBut by centering
the psychological dread of a character like Belafonte's in a particular social
problem like racism, the ground is prepared for the politically
conscious films of the Sixties and onward.  True noir, while
always attuned to social ills, and always political in that sense,
trafficked in a more existential brand of hopelessness. 
Odds Against Tomorrow, which was financed by Belafonte himself, looks forward to a time of action.


Belafonte gives a terrific performance in the film — he's appealing
and incredibly cool but hard-edged.  His rage and resentment don't
seem ideological or didactic but deeply personal.  Ryan's
performance as the washed-up thug, whose racism is just another mask
for his impotence, is one of the best of his career, with a creepiness
that's also touching, and all the more creepy for that.




The film is beautifully shot, mostly on location in Manhattan and in
Upstate New York — and yet a few annoying, pretentious zooms remind us
that the end of the classic
noir
style is at hand.  Apart from that it's a brilliant film on every
level — maybe Wise's best — and it certainly belongs in the
classic film noir canon.  In fact, I think you could say that, like Ryan's aging boxer in Wise's The Set-Up, the film noir tradition goes out here with one last improbable, bittersweet triumph.

THE HOLLYWOOD END GAME


The lesson of the chaotic chart above, as Cory Doctorow of
Boing Boing
observes, is that Hollywood studio executives could make equally
rational choices about what movies to make simply by rolling
dice.  They have no consistently reliable knowledge or instincts about what
audiences want to see.




A relevant list
of box office earnings over the years expressed in real dollar amounts
shows only one film made in the last quarter century among the top ten
Titanic.  That's doubly instructive since Titanic,
a film about commitment and female empowerment cast in the terms of a
Victorian melodrama, violates almost every tenet of the current
Hollywood wisdom about “what audiences want”.




What's going on here?  Hollywood executives aren't stupid, the
corporations who employ them are presumably interested in serving their
market.  I think that Hollywood has simply given up.  It
senses that it will not be part of the future of entertainment but it
lacks the energy to remake itself for a new age.  Executives are
interested in making as much money as possible in the short term by
releasing the safest product they can imagine using the outdated
paradigms and then retiring in style.  After all, if all your
peers in the industry are just as clueless as you are, as the chart
above seems to indicate, then you have no real competition.  What
incentive do you have for taking chances?


[Note:
The Birth Of A Nation
almost certainly belongs in the list of the top 100 box office champs
linked above but at this point there's no way of ascertaining exactly
how much money it made.  The film was released in most parts of
the country on a "states' rights" basis, which meant that a distributor
bought the right to exhibit the film in a certain territory for a fixed
sum and then kept whatever profits he earned himself, with no
obligation to report them to anyone else.  Louis B. Mayer made his
first fortune distributing the film in New England -- then helped
create the Hollywood cartel which virtually monopolized film
distribution in America, assuring that no new entrepreneurs could ever
again make money the way he did when he was starting out.  This
illustrates the basic principle of American corporate capitalism --
"Free market for me, rigged market for you."]

EIGHT MORE RANDOM FACTS


Responding
to my post
EIGHT USELESS FACTS, Paul Zahl writes to say that he's not
actively blogging at the moment but that if he were he'd offer the
following eight random facts about himself, plus one bonus fact:




Here are the eight facts:




     1. I spent an afternoon once with Jacques Cousteau.




     2. My wife and I got caught in the middle of a
gun fight between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants in
Bethlehem. In fact, Mary was able to duck just in time as an off-course
bullet went right over her head.




     3. Ten days ago I spent the night in the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.




     4. I asked John F. Kennedy for his autograph
when I lived around the corner from his house, and he gave it to me.




     5. As a child in New York City, I lived across
the street from Marilyn Monroe when she was married to Arthur Miller,
and my Mother would point them out to me on walks when I was in my
stroller.




     6. I produced a movie about blue-collar Protestants in a small town in Northern Ireland.




     7. I acted in two movies that were directed by Lloyd Fonvielle.




     8. My favorite movie of all time is
Matinee, directed by Joe Dante.



     9. Optional extra fact:  I presented
Stevie Wonder with his doctoral hood when he became a Doctor of Music
at the University of Alabama in Birmingham.




The films directed by Lloyd Fonvielle he mentions were 8mm efforts done when we were in high school —
The Journal Of Jonathan Harker, in which Zahl portrayed Count Dracula, interpreting him as a crazed Presbyterian, and The Fruit At the Bottom Of the Bowl, an unauthorized adaptation of a Ray Bradbury short story in which Zahl portrayed a debonair murder victim.



Zahl was not an easy actor to work with.  He had his own version
of “The Method”, which involved shutting himself in a closet between
takes and singing
In Darkness Let Me Dwell
I did not feel that this technique aided him in his interpretation of
his roles and our quarrels on the set were legendary.  We never
worked together again, though the two films we did make have since
become celebrated as lost cult classics.




[Meanwhile, Tony D'Ambra of
films noir has posted his eight random
facts
here, and Amy Crehore of Little Hokum Rag has posted hers here.]

UMBERTO ECO ON CASABLANCA


Robert Nagle of
Idiotprogrammer posts this interesting quote from Umberto Eco on Casablanca:



Casablanca is not just one film. It is many films, an
anthology. Made haphazardly, it probably made itself, if not actually
against the will of its authors and actors, then at least beyond their
control. And this is the reason it works, in spite of aesthetic
theories and theories of film making. For in it there unfolds with
almost telluric force the power of Narrative in its natural state,
without Art intervening to discipline it. And so we can accept it when
characters change mood, morality, and psychology from one moment to the
next, when conspirators cough to interrupt the conversation if a spy is
approaching, when whores weep at the sound of 'La Marseillaise.' When
all the archtypes burst in shamelessly, we reach Homeric depths. Two
cliches make us laugh. A hundred cliches move us. For we sense dimly
that the cliches are talking
among themselves, and
celebrating a reunion. Just as the height of pain may encounter sensual
pleasure, and the height of perversion border on mystical energy, so
too the height of banality allows us to catch a glimpse of the sublime.
Something has spoken in place of the director. If nothing else, it is a
phenomenon worthy of awe.”




I think this comes close to explaining the unclassifiable nature of the
film (which I touch on briefly
here)
— a quality shared by many collective works of art, like Gothic
cathedrals, for example, which have a mysterious, chaotic unity even
though they were built by many hands over many generations following
only the most general and ever-shifting plans. 
I would suggest, though, that Ingrid Bergman is the central vault of
Casablanca — the stunning core phenomenon around which the other disparate elements cohere.

EIGHT USELESS FACTS





I
guess this is sort of the blogosphere version of a chain letter, but
someone got the idea of posting eight random facts about himself on his
blog and inviting eight other bloggers to do the same, and urging each
of the eight other bloggers to invite eight additional bloggers to join the enterprise.




Here are the rules:

1. We have to post these rules before we give you the facts.
2. Players start with eight random facts/habits about themselves.
3. People who are tagged write their own blog post about their eight things and include these rules.
4.
At the end of your blog, you need to choose eight people to get tagged
and list their names. Don’t forget to leave them a comment telling them
they’re tagged and that they should read your blog.




For some reason I got nominated by flickhead, so here goes:

1.  I once played baseball in Yankee Stadium, back in the early
Seventies, in the old park, before it was remodeled.  I won a
contest hosted by George Plimpton in which fans were asked to write in
telling why they wanted to play ball in the House That Ruth
Built.  The winners played an abbreviated exhibition game before the
regular game against a team of former Yankee all-stars.  I wore
Thurman Munsons's uniform, came to bat once and faced Whitey Ford on
the mound — he was lobbing them in underhand to Joe Garagiola behind
the plate.  I grounded out to Mickey Mantle who was playing first.

2.  I have always hated the Yankees and rooted for the Mets.

3.  I have crossed the North Atlantic three times in the dead of winter on a freighter.

4.  I feel guilty about how much I love boxing.


5.  I was born on the stroke of midnight.  My mother had to decide which day would be recorded as my birthday.

6.  The first word I ever spoke was “light”.

7.  I always eat strawberry shortcake on my birthday — always.

8.  I think oysters are the food of the gods but I never eat them
in months without r's in them.  Right now I'm missing them
terribly.

And my nominations of other bloggers are:

Amy Crehore of Little Hokum Rag

Tony D'Ambra of films noir

Robert Nagle of Idiotprogrammer

Andre Soares of the Alternate Film Guide

Tom Sutpen of If Charlie Parker Was A Gunslinger



Xeni Jardin
of Boing Boing

Paul Zahl of PZ's Picks



Burke Hilsabeck of The Hefty Section



I realize this is all kind of silly, but
flickhead's post led me to
some interesting blogs I didn't know about, and maybe mine will lead
you to some, too.

NOIRISH: THE LATE-CYCLE CRIME MELODRAMA

The following films are sometimes called films noirs, but I don’t think they really belong in the category:

They Drive By Night
High Sierra
The Asphalt Jungle
Key Largo
Railroaded
Shoot To Kill
The Big Heat
Tough Assignment
Illegal
Force Of Evil

These films are better appreciated as late-cycle variants of the 30s-era crime melodrama.  They’re very specifically about the underworld of crime — they assume an overworld of decency and order.  They allow us to participate vicariously in the transgressive behavior of often romanticized criminals, or to penetrate their world in the company of a righteous guide, a righter of wrongs.  They don’t, like the true film noir, posit a world where everything seems to have gone horribly wrong.

Glenn Ford’s character in The Big Heat certainly has his dark night of the soul, when it looks as though his whole world has gone noir and that there’s no way out of it.  But just at that moment his pals on the police force reassert their decency, a bunch of old army buddies rallies to protect his child, and all is set right in the end.  Gloria Grahame’s character, the only person in the film besides Ford who seems to have any balls at all, dies heroically, defusing her challenge to the general collapse of manhood around her.

The idea of a city government in the grips of a corrupt political regime was a staple of the 30s-era crime drama.  In The Big Heat this corruption has become virulent and all-pervasive, but in the end it’s just as thoroughly vanquished and dismantled as it routinely was in the 30s-era films.  The Big Heat, like a lot of crime dramas that are identified as noir, flirts with the dark vision of the true noir but stops short of embracing it.

Compare They Drive By Night with Thieves’ Highway.  Both are dramas about corruption in the trucking industry, both feature working-class protagonists who fight against this corruption.  But on a psychic level the two films play out in entirely different universes.  In
the earlier film, They Drive By Night,
corruption is a social problem which courageous
proletarians can overcome.  In the later film, protagonist Richard Conte is snared in a web he doesn’t understand and can’t get out of except with the help of a fallen woman.  The center of the earlier film is struggle, the center of the later film is a mood of existential dread.  It’s precisely in its sensitivity to this mood, in its atmosphere of moral ambiguity and bewilderment, that the true film noir separates itself from the Depression-era crime melodrama.


[The noir credentials of the films listed above are as follows: Railroaded is packaged in Kino's film noir box set The Dark Side Of Hollywood . . . Shoot To Kill and Tough Assignment are packaged in VCI's Forgotten Noir series . . . The Big Heat, The Asphalt Jungle and Key Largo are listed in Nicholas Christopher's filmography of noir in his book Somewhere In the Night . . . High Sierra is listed as a notable film noir in the Wikipedia entry on the subject . . . They Drive By Night, though usually discussed as a proto-film noir, is occasionally identified as a full-fledged noir on web sites and in DVD catalogue listings.  I would argue that none of these films diverges significantly, fundamentally, from the
30s-era crime drama tradition out of which they emerge -- certainly not enough to require placing them in a new category all their own, like film noir, even when they're inflected here and there with a noirish style and tone.]

CRIME PHOTOGRAPHY

This fascinating book, Scene Of the Crime, features a collection of crime-scene photos from the files of the LAPD, from the 1920s through the early 1970s but concentrating on the 1940s and 50s.  The photographs are both disturbing, sometimes very disturbing, and beautiful.  No longer timely as records of current events, they have become instead extraordinary glimpses into vanished worlds.  They document mostly ordinary places made extraordinary by death or violent accidents.  They echo the process by which these deaths and these accidents act as a kind of camera shutter, focusing our attention on a precise moment in time, a precise locale.


Made for purely practical, forensic purposes, documenting scenes of great dramatic interest, they have no need to be dramatic themselves.  Even when they depict empty rooms, from which a murder victim has been removed, their intention to record as much of the room as possible, exactly as it is, lends them a spooky kind of power.  One is bound to ask, “Why am I being asked to look at this — what secrets lie hidden here?”

These are exactly the questions one asks when looking at the great photographs of Atget and Evans and Eggleston, which all have a forensic quality — they don’t interpret, they don’t intervene between the mystery of visual fact and the awe of the spectator.  They offer evidence, out of which we must build our own theory of the case in question.

                                                                                              © William Eggleston

There may be irony in these great reckonings in small rooms, but the police photographer and the greatest art photographers don’t need to point it out to us.  Any such attitude, such interpretation, might prejudice our eye, dull our investigative senses.

Much as I love the whimsical ironies of Winogrand, the dark ironies of Arbus, it is the forensic integrity, the humility in the presence of mystery I sense in Atget, Evans and Eggleston that I think makes them the greater artists.  There are images in Scene Of the Crime that could pass for images by Evans and by Eggleston (though perhaps not, for mostly technical reasons, by Atget.)


One comes to realize, paging through this book, that the presence of a corpse doesn’t make an ordinary place, an ordinary moment in time, extraordinary — it reveals them as extraordinary, by making us concentrate on them seriously and hard.  And this is exactly what the greatest art photographers do as well.  The fact that they can do it without the aid of a crime narrative is what makes them artists.  Take away the corpse from the image below, or imagine the figure as a drunk passed out on the floor, and you will find yourself squarely in Eggleston territory.

To see more images from the LAPD photo archives, go here.

VAN GOGH AND COMMERCIAL ILLUSTRATION


I learn from an online essay at
Harpweek
(via
Little Hokum Rag) that Vincent van Gogh loved magazine cartoons
and illustrations.  He cut them out and organized them into
categories and copied them to learn how to draw — and actually dreamed
about becoming a commercial magazine artist.  His collection
included a number of works by Thomas Nast, the great American political
cartoonist (see above), who published in
Harper's Weekly.



The essay, by Albert Boime, links elements of van Gogh's style to to the
techniques of commercial illustration in his day and suggests that van
Gogh's attention to popular visual art may account in part for his own
enduring popularity with a wide audience.




Boine also suggests that the unwillingness of academic art historians
to study the influences of “low” art on “high” art distorts the
understanding of all art.  He writes:




The
curious exclusion or strategic avoidance of van Gogh's commercial art
intentions is inseparable from the persistent valuing of his production
within the context of mad artistic genius. In effect, van Gogh has been
packaged and successfully marketed by the very forces that deny his own
marketplace preoccupation. Thus comprehending van Gogh's original
commitment to illustration and cartooning should help clarify the larger
question of his perception of the artist's social role.”