NOIRISH: THE POLICE OR AGENCY PROCEDURAL

The films below are sometimes called films noirs but they make up such a distinct category that they're almost always qualified with the the sub-label docu-noirs:




House On 92nd Street



The Racket



Call Northside 777



Panic In the Streets



Border Incident



The Narrow Margin
Mystery Street



Naked City



Arson, Inc.



Loan Shark



Fingerprints Don't Lie



F. B. I. Girl



Portland Expose
A Bullet For Joey




In fact they're
all police or government-agency procedurals (or, in one case, a newspaper procedural.)  They usually feature some
highly positive documentary-type footage about the law enforcement
group involved and are sometimes shot within the
facilities of the institutions they depict.  (The newspaper procedural, Call Northside 777,
about a crusading journalist who saves an innocent man from prison, was
based on a real case and shot on some of the locations where the original incidents occurred.)

These films are designed to show the effective functioning of
government agencies or other establishment organizations, and while this sort of reassurance may have
addressed the same strain of post-war anxiety that film noir explored, it obviously did so from a completely different perspective than you find in the classic film noir, where suspicion of all social institutions is part of the general atmosphere of dread.

In the films above, the city may well be a dark and threatening maze,
but we enter it in the company of an upright guide, backed by the full
force of the official society, and we overcome the danger we face there
— we clean up the mess.

These films make up a vigorous genre in themselves and have become
fascinating social documents — but I don't think it makes any sense to
call them films noirs.

[The noir credentials of the films above are as follows . . .
House On 92nd Street
, Call Northside 777
and Panic In the Streets are part of the Fox film noir DVD series . . . The Racket,
Border Incident
,
Mystery Street and The Narrow Margin are part of the Warner film noir DVD series . . . A Bullet For Joey is part of the MGM film noir DVD series . . . Naked City is found on almost all lists of films noirs . . . the rest are included in the VCI Forgotten Noir DVD series.]

TOGETHER

In
Mexico, whenever anyone asked where my sister Lee and her kids were
from she always said Alta California.  This delighted Mexicans,
who probably think all Americans believe there is only one California,
the U. S. state.  In fact there are two others, Baja California
and Baja California Sur, both Mexican states located in the Baja
California peninsula.  Mexicali is the administrative center of
Baja California, to the north, and La Paz is the administrative center
of Baja California Sur.

At the La Pinta inn in Catavina my sister ran into a Mexican woman who
had lived in Los Angeles but had moved back because she didn't have
“the right papers” and didn't feel good about it.  My sister
remarked on how unfortunate it was that papers could keep the
Californias apart.  “I know God meant us to be together,” the
woman said, “but something has gone wrong with it.”  “Maybe we'll
all be one California again,” my sister suggested.  “I think it
will happen,” the woman said, without much conviction.

The woman seemed a bit puzzled about why someone from Alta California
would choose to visit the poorer Californias to the south. 
“Because it's so beautiful,” my sister said, ” and the people are so
wonderful.”  The woman nodded dubiously.

I suppose it's not surprising that the Mexicans' envy of American
prosperity should cause them to be defensive about their own country,
but I don't think money is the root of the issue.  It's more about
children and the future.  Mexicans worship children — their eyes
light up with almost supernatural joy at the sight of niños, even gringo
niños
The poorest of Mexicans will introduce you to their children as though presenting
movie stars.  I think when they head north, to endure the
humiliations and hardships of life in El Norte, it's not to get
flat-screen TVs for themselves but a better future for their kids.

The poverty of Mexico, at least in Baja California, south of the
tourist zone, rarely seems ugly or degrading — the everyday culture of
the nation is rich and humane.  But it's so often frozen where it
is — economic progress is coming but coming slowly.  Looking into
the eyes of their niños, many Mexicans may feel that don't have time to wait for it.

They may not realize how much they stand to lose up north.  The
idea of making grueling sacrifices for one's children is losing
currency in America, and many Americans no longer believe that their
children will have better lives than they've had.  The ragged
Mexican man walking miles through the desert country of the borderlands
to get a back-breaking, low-paying job in the United States probably
has a picture of some children in his pocket.  If you're tempted
to fear and despise him, think of that.  He may have more to give us than we have to give him.

For previous Baja California trip reports, go here.



[Photos © 2007 Harry Rossi]

A CREHORE FOR TODAY

Amy Crehore recently completed the painting above for a gallery show in which artists were asked to create works that evoked a
favorite book — this one was inspired by Nabokov's Lolita
I think it's profound but wouldn't dare to try and analyze it too
closely — the artist might cut off my tongue as revenge for trying to reduce the painting to words.

More of Amy Crehore's images can be seen here.

FROM THE PACIFIC COAST TO THE HIGH DESERT

The
first time I visited Ensenada (above) in the late Sixties it was a
small, dusty
tourist town.  Now it's a big, sprawling tourist town but still
has some charm.  Above Ensenada on the Pacific coast, yuppie scum,
mostly from Alta California, the world headquarters of yuppie scum, has
turned the region into into a nightmare of condos, tourist traps and
perverted, groveling commercialism.  This is where you see the
true face of Alta California, “The Wellness State”.  The influence
of the Great Satan begins
to wear away the further south you go — only to
flare up again like a festering boil at Cabo San Lucas at the tip of
the peninsula.

On our first full day in Mexico we made it as far as Catavina, a tiny
town in a bizarre high-desert setting in the middle of the
peninsula.  (Mexico 1, the only road that goes all the way down to
Cabo San Lucas, zig-zags back and forth across Baja California, from
one coast to the other.)  The desert around Catavina is covered in gigantic, car-sized boulders
and tall cactus — like much of Baja California its landscape is
surreal in the extreme, with an effect on the psyche that can't be evoked by
photographs.

In Catavina we stayed at a La Pinta inn.  These are dotted along
Mexico 1, are run by the government and are very pleasant, with a
cantina and restaurant surrounding a small courtyard fountain and rooms
surrounding a larger courtyard with a pool.  Mexicans pay about
$57 (American) a night there — rates for tourists can rise up over
$100 a night, but my sister quickly discovered that Mexican hotel
clerks love
to bargain, especially if the negotiation is conducted with humor, so
we paid well under the tourist rate wherever we stayed.  The
clerks always seemed genuinely delighted when Lee managed to talk them
into lowering their rate, as though they were appreciating a clever
goal from an unlikely player in a soccer game.

The terrace behind the restaurant at the Catavina La Pinta looks out
over the mystical desert and has a shrine dedicated to Nuestra Señora
de Guadalupe, which puts everything into perspective.  When
driving the roads of Baja California you want constant assurances that La Morenita
is with you, and you want a chance to thank her for getting you to
wherever it is you've gotten.  This is psychologically sound,
whatever you think of the theology of it, because it reminds you to
never, ever
take Mexico 1 for granted.  It's full of surprises, most
delightful but some hair-raising.  I'll write more about Mexico 1 in a later post.

For previous Baja California trip reports, go here.


[Photos © 2007 Harry Rossi & Lloyd Fonvielle]

NOIRISH: FILMS OF INTERNATIONAL INTRIGUE

It's hard for me to imagine why anyone would find it useful to call any of the films listed below films noirs, but people have:



Contraband
Casablanca
To Have and Have Not
Notorious



Macao



I'll Get You



The Man From Cairo

They Were So Young
Mr. Arkadin (Confidential Report)



These are all
thrillers involving romance and international intrigue, where the occasional
disorientation and jeopardy of the protagonists results from being
embroiled in a foreign locale, fighting a foreign system.  The
whole crux of the film noir
tradition is that the disorientation and jeopardy take place on
familiar soil, within familiar systems that have somehow grown alien, bewildering
and malevolent.  Night and the City is by contrast a true film noir,
even though it happens to be set in London
It unfolds in a world its American protagonist knows well (though perhaps not
well enough) — his jeopardy and his doom have nothing to do with the
fact that his surroundings are foreign.

Rick in Casablanca masquerades
as a cynical, even nihilistic anti-hero who believes in nothing —
which gives him at least a superficial link with some film noir
protagonists — but he proves himself to be a knight in shining armor,
willing to sacrifice the most important thing in his life for transcendent
ideals.  If this is film noir, what the hell do you call Gun Crazy or Detour — or Night and the City, for that matter?  Film noir noir?




I guess Macao gets labeled a film noir because it stars film noir icon Robert Mitchum and was made right after His Kind Of Woman, which also paired him with Jane Russell and which is an actual film noir,
or at the very least a comic parody of one.  The rest are mostly
standard spy thrillers involving an innocent American caught in a web
of foreign intrigue.

I think you could make a case that John Le Carré's existentially bleak spy thrillers enter the realm of noir, or neo-noir, but the romantic adventures and thrillers above don't come close.

[The noir credentials of the films listed above are as follows . . . Contraband is included in a film noir DVD box set from Kino . . . Casablanca, Notorious and To Have and Have Not are listed on the Wikipedia "expanded list" of classic films noirs . . . Macao is among the films noirs listed in Nicholas Christopher's Somewhere In the Night . . .  I'll Get You, The Man From Cairo and They Were So Young are included in the VCI series Forgotten Noir.]

LA FRONTERA

On
the first day of our drive to Baja California we got off to a late
start — a miscalculation that led to us having to spend our first
night in Blythe, in Alta California.  I'm not sure what the deal
with Blythe is, but it seemed like a depressed and hopeless sort of
place.  We stayed in a lousy, overpriced motel and were happy to
be on our way again in the morning.  Above is a picture of a
rooster on top of a cafe in Vidal Junction, Alta California, on the
road to Blythe.  The cafe was closed and the only restrooms we
could find in Vidal Junction were some dirty Porta-Potties behind a gas
station, which was also closed.  The sight of a new moon behind the rooster cheered us up immeasurably.

If you drop more or less straight down from Las Vegas you hit the
Mexican border at
Mexicali, but we'd been told that crossing at the smaller town of
Tecate was quicker and
easier, so we veered off westward at El Centro on the I-8, then dropped
down to a smaller road that skirts the border on its way to
Tecate.  (Tecate is where the great Mexican beer of the same name
originated, though it's now brewed in other places in Mexico as well.)

It was fascinating to drive through the Imperial Valley of Alta California, past the huge
Sahara-like sandscape of Imperial Dunes and through the lush cultivated
fields beyond them.  The water that irrigates the Imperial Valley,
and makes it one of the most productive agricultural regions in the
world, comes from the Colorado River, which used to empty into the top
of the Mar de Cortés.  Now only a trickle of it arrives at the
apex of the great sea and the rich delta that used to be there is more
or less a wasteland.

The land above the border on the road to Tecate is well-watered, too,
and very beautiful.  We passed four U. S. Border Patrol cars along
the road before crossing quickly and easily into Mexico at
Tecate.  You need a Mexican tourist visa if you plan to travel
south of the “tourist zone”, or more than about 20 miles into
Mexico.  Lee had gotten hers and her kids' in Los Angeles but the
Mexican consulate in Las Vegas doesn't issue them.  I got one on
the Mexican side of the border in about 20 minutes, with no trouble at
all.  The Mexican border officials were friendly and efficient.

Somehow we managed to find our way through the teeming streets of
Tecate onto Mexico 3, which cuts across the top of Baja California and
hits Mexico 1, and the Pacific, at Ensenada.  The road passes
through high valleys where grapes are cultivated and wine made.  We
stopped at the largest of the Baja California wineries, L. A. Cetto, a
lovely establishment surrounded by a sea of green vines.

Lee and
I sampled and bought some good, cheap wines there . . .

The kids were
diverted by a pen that held burros . . .

. . . and peacocks . . .

At Ensenada we headed straight for the city's fish market, with its
extraordinary displays of seafood arranged in elaborate, artful piles.  We
had some indifferent seafood tacos at one of the small stalls lining
one side of the market, then cast about for a place to stay for the
night.

We lucked into El Rey Sol, a pleasant motel-like place with a protected
parking lot, a great little bar and a good pool for the kids. 
While the kids swam, Lee and I washed away the dust of the road with
beers and margaritas, talking to a cheerful bartender who recommended
good seafood stands in Baja California Sur, and to other travelers,
including a surfer who'd explored the undiscovered breaks of the
peninsula in his youth and was now revisiting the region with his young
family.

After the motel disaster in Blythe, Lee and I had discussed the
dehumanization of roadside inns in America, contrasting them with the
rich inn culture of Dickens' time, when inns always offered inviting
public rooms where travelers could meet and exchange tales of the
road.  All the Mexican hotels and motels we stayed at had such
public rooms, and they were always in use — just one of the many areas
in which Mexican culture reveals its humane genius and outshines its
“richer” neighbor to the north.

For previous Baja California trip reports, go here.



[Photos © 2007 Harry Rossi]

MEXICO: PARANOIA AND PREJUDICE

Before
setting off on our drive down the Baja California peninsula my sister
Lee and I did a lot of research about traveling there — online, in books
and in conversations with acquaintances who've visited the region by
car.  In the wake of our own journey it's clear that there's a lot
of misinformation floating around about automobile travel by foreigners in Mexico.

With respect to Baja California itself, a lot of this is just residual
mythology from the time when driving down Mexico 1 to Cabo San Lucas
was a wilderness adventure.  The road wasn't paved the whole way
to the cape until 1974 — a fact that thwarted my own first attempt to
drive down the peninsula in the late Sixties in a car with
insufficiently robust shock-absorbers.  For years after the road
was paved it wasn't maintained
scrupulously and supplies of gasoline along the way couldn't be
depended upon.  All of that has changed.

But some of the misinformation is undoubtedly due to plain old paranoia and prejudice.

In the whole course of our journey we were only accosted once by an
aggressive and vaguely threatening beggar.  We only encountered one
incompetent and indifferent hotel or motel clerk.  We only found
ourselves once in rooms with seriously malfunctioning air-conditioners
— rooms whose temperatures were recorded at 99 degrees on the room
thermostats and whose wall units were unfitted to reduce this
temperature very much.

All these things happened in Blythe, California, in the Imperial
Valley, before we even crossed the border.

In Mexico itself we
encountered nothing but cheerful hospitality, casual but
efficient and friendly service and good deals.  In La Paz, we stayed in large, cool,
comfortable rooms with pleasant sea views, at one of the best hotels in
town, for five dollars a night less than we paid for the grubby sweatboxes in
Blythe.

We were careful about drinking tap water but were extremely
adventurous
about where and what we ate.  (My nephew Harry, just shy of his
14th birthday on the trip, ate so many strange but delicious things in
Mexico that he kept a photographic record of them, starting with the
bowl of grilled octopus, above, that he ate con mucho gusto in Guerrero Negro on the trip down to La
Paz.)  Each of us experienced brief, mild
bouts of intestinal distress but nothing that could have been the
result of anything more than entering a new microbial environment —
something you might encounter just by visiting a different part of the
United States.

When we got back to Las Vegas we were all jonesing for cheeseburgers
and went out to an upscale burger joint here to indulge
ourselves.  I barfed it all up later that night — something that
never happened to me in Mexico.  I would say that you can get
better, fresher and more delicious food in almost any roadside
taquería in Mexico, however funky it may look on the outside, than you
can find on almost any gleaming stretch of strip
development in almost any American town.  We had really superb
shrimp and carne asada tacos at the improvised diner below, in El Rosario — a place we happened upon by chance:

It would make much more sense for Yankees to warn Mexicans
about traveling here — about the rude, uncaring service, bad deals and
synthetic food — than to listen to the warnings of fellow Yankees
about traveling in Mexico.

For previous Baja California trip reports, go here.


[Photos © 2007 Harry Rossi]

NOIRISH: THE PSYCHOLOGICAL SUSPENSE THRILLER

Below is another list of films that are sometimes identified as films noirs but that, in my opinion, really aren't:




Whirlpool



The Big Clock



House On Telegraph Hill



The Blue Gardenia



Shock



Sudden Fear



Shadow Man
The Stranger




These are all in fact what have come to be known as Hitchcockian
suspense thrillers, because Hitchcock remains the undisputed master of
the form.  In these films, ideally at least, the viewer is seduced
into a strong identification with the protagonist, a damsel in
distress or a man wrongfully accused of a crime, and shares the
psychological suspense of his or her ordeal, which includes feelings of
guilt that may not be rational and are in any case disproportionate to
the jeopardy involved.




I think they're distinguishable from the true
film noir because
they concentrate on the often aberrant psychology of an
individual and don't reflect a sense of society as a whole, or
existence itself, as deranged.  They chart passages through a
moral/psychological disorientation that is more or less resolved by the
end of the film.  The jeopardized innocents of this
tradition are often women, which also distinguishes it from the
tradition of the
classic
film noir, which tends to center on male anxieties.  These films involve an exploration of moral guilt, while classic films noirs involve an exploration of existential bewilderment and incompetence, almost always from a male point of view.



All of the films listed above fall far short of Hitchcock's best work
in the form, primarily because they fail to make us full psychological
participants in the jeopardy of their protagonists.  Their
narratives may be purely Hitchcockian, beat for beat, but their
technique doesn't compel us into a deep and often unconscious identification with
their central characters.




In
Whirlpool, for example, we
first see the Gene Tierney character in a department store where she's
just done some shoplifting — but we don't find this out until a store
detective follows her to her car and seizes the lifted item. 
We're looking at the character from the outside, from the point of view of the
authorities.  In a Hitchcock film, we'd see the theft when it
happened, share Tierney's fear as she tries to exit the store without
getting caught — even find ourselves rooting for her to get away with
it.  With that identification established, we'd
feel her guilt when she's caught, and feel it as our own guilt, because we secretly hoped she'd pull the theft off.



Ben Hecht, who wrote the script for Hitchcock's
Notorious, also wrote Whirlpool
for Otto Preminger.  The latter has all the ingredients of a
classic Hitchcockian thriller — so it's highly instructive to study
why it isn't one.  It all comes down to Hitchcock's genius in
constructing identification with the protagonist, an identification
that can contradict our conscious disapproval of the protagonist's
behavior.  Preminger made one of the best of all
noirs, Angel Face, but on the evidence of Whirlpool he had no gift for, and apparently no great interest in, the Hitchcockian suspense thriller.



[The
noir credentials of the films listed above are as follows -- Sudden Fear is included in Kino's film noir box set The Dark Side Of Hollywood . . . Whirlpool, The House On Telegraph Hill and Shock are part of Fox's film noir series . . . Shadow Man is included in VCI's Forgotten Noir series . . . The Stranger is part of MGM's DVD noir series . . .The Big Clock is part of Universal's noir series . . . and the packaging of the Image DVD release of The
Blue Gardenia identifies it as "classic noir  with a feminine twist."  I don't see any point in calling any of these films noirs unless you're willing to call almost all of Hitchcock's American films noirs -- which I think stretches the definition of noir beyond the point of usefulness.]

THERE IS A WAY


Last
month I started off on a road trip with my sister Lee and her two kids,
Nora and Harry, down the length of the Baja California peninsula. 
It was a journey of great adventures but surprisingly easy and
trouble-free, contrary to some stories we'd been told about the hazards
of driving in that part of Mexico.  We ascribe most of our good
fortune to the Ghost (my trusty Lincoln Navigator) and to the kind
ministrations of Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe.


The Ghost is not a car for the 21st Century, due to its high
consumption of fossil fuel, but it is in all other respects one of the
most perfect machines for land travel ever created.  It transports
four people and assorted luggage in extreme comfort and is as reliable
as a burro, though far less truculent.


Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe is a lady for all ages.  The essence
of Mexico's own peculiar understanding of Christianity, she also
embodies the spirit of the nation.  There are improvised shrines
to her everywhere — the one above is just outside the public market in
La Paz.  She is sometimes called
La Reina de Mexico, the Queen of Mexico, and sometimes just La Morenita, the Little Darling.



Mexico has a deeply humane culture, made up of many grave and gracious
courtesies between people.  Just recognizing, however crudely,
that this system of courtesies exists is enough to open the heart of
almost any Mexican to a stranger, even a gringo.




Things
rarely work the way they're
supposed to
work in Mexico, but they work, by a complex system of improvisation
and accommodation that can't be reasoned out, only intuited. 
Traffic signs, for example, are never taken as anything more than
suggestions.  But when you stop at a crosswalk, for example, to
let someone cross the street, as the regulations require, the
pedestrian will almost always pause and nod and salute you for your
consideration, as though to acknowledge that you have not obeyed a law
of man but of God, who asks people to treat each other with dignity and
respect.




The lack
of
apparent logic
in the organization of things could easily drive a Yankee
batty, but that's because he or she would have failed to realize that
Our Lady of Guadalupe travels with them at all times in Mexico, ready
at any impasse to lean in and whisper, “There is a way.”




And there always is.

[Photos © 2007 Harry Rossi]