"Neo-Noir" "Neo-Noir" The characters in film noir ...

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:52

    "Neo-Noir" The characters in film noir smoke, but they don't have to; the genre itself smokes for them. It smolders and fumes. The city, seen in long-shot, in black and white or in desaturated color, looks like a dying campfire, its pinprick lights shimmering like embers. It's fun to trace the influence of noir past the era when noir was at its peak: from roughly 1941, when John Huston's superb screen version of The Maltese Falcon soared into theaters, to 1958, the year of Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, arguably the first full-blown, postmodern, self-consciously elegiac neo-noir. Evil is an extraordinary film for many reasons, not the least of which is its ability to convey passion and spontaneity through exuberant camerawork and cutting, even though its characters are creaky pulp archetypes and its bring-down-the-bad-cop storyline is as prefab as a diner. In other words, it makes up its mind to be excited about its plot even though there's not much to be excited about, then convinces us to be excited, too. (I've always contended that Brian De Palma owes his whole career to that film, much more so than to any of Hitchcock's?but that's another story.) Thereafter, noir would be seen not as an authentic piece of cultural flotsam washed up by ugly American undercurrents, but an attitude, a choice of voice, a style.

    That's the animating principle behind "Neo-Noir." This Film Forum series is partly inspired by Detours and Lost Highways: A Map of Neo-Noir by critic and historian Foster Hirsch, who helped choose the movies on the schedule. Trying to locate the noir influence in the lineup and identify its exact essence is a gas. The level of difficulty varies from film to film. It's easy, for example, to extract and label the noirness in Chinatown (1974; April 2), or John Dahl's playful double hit of semi-satirical noir, Red Rock West (1992) and The Last Seduction (1994, both March 17-18). (The latter's insatiable femme fatale, Linda Fiorentino's Bridget, stubs out her cigarette in an apple pie, reducing the subversive agenda of the entire genre to one comic-hostile gesture.) But it's often more interesting to contemplate how (and why) noir got into a movie that theoretically didn't need such elements to be engrossing.

    Often the answer is as simple as, "The director or screenwriter loves noirs and always wanted to make one." Is this explanation defensible? An amazing percentage of the time, the answer is yes, because noir is just so damn watchable?and because its proud history demands exuberance and craftsmanship from filmmakers who might otherwise fall back on bad habits.

    There are plenty of bad habits on display today. To judge from some of the filmmakers who emerged in the 90s, film schools either have forgotten to teach composition and the theory of montage, or the students just plain don't give a damn. Students copy images from ads and music videos directed by other film school grads who copied the same; or they copy movies directed by filmmakers who came from the worlds of advertising and music videos. But there's no sense of dynamism and urgency; in the work of plagiarists and impressionists, there rarely is.

    For viewers who are starved for a great-looking story told in pictures, the noir influence is a sweet thrill, or, at the very least, a relief. The genre's artificiality and ritualized, inevitable plotting free filmmakers to have fun with the images. They don't have to worry about being "realistic" or pledging allegiance to contemporary attitudes and visual cliches. And they don't have to stay a step ahead of unimaginative mouth-breathers who think the only point of moviegoing is to prove you can outguess the plot. Filmmakers can concentrate on textures, emotions, sensations?all the stuff that gives cinema the potential to be art rather than mere entertainment.

    Just as importantly, in a moviegoing era where enforced happy endings are the norm, noir remains the only genre in which a tragic (or at least ambiguous) ending is not just tolerated, but expected. If it's noir, you know there's an excellent chance the hero will die and evil will triumph. Once a filmmaker has established that, he or she is free to play around, secure in the knowledge that as long as the story is sexy, complicated, violent and fun to look at, halfway intelligent viewers won't come away feeling betrayed.

    You can see grimy traces of noir in Alan Pakula's mysterious, doom-laden paranoid thriller The Parallax View (1974, Feb. 21-22), and in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs (1992, March 12-13) and Pulp Fiction (March 5), with their brooding widescreen compositions, giddy bursts of violence and endless tough-guy posturing. Film Forum repertory programmer Bruce Goldstein observes in his introduction to the series that neo-noir is "the only genre that boasts a prefix, as filmmakers have increasingly transposed those atmospheric elements that typified one of the cinema's favorite genres...to the stressed-out present day, so successfully as to banish any sense of the hybrid."

    That last bit isn't true: Most noirs made after 1958 don't banish any sense of the hybrid. On the contrary, they embrace their hybridness and let the seams show. Sometimes this attitude represents a surrender of sorts, because the seams are too obvious to disguise. Such is the case with Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye (1972; March 1-2), which mates the voluptuous detective fantasies of Raymond Chandler to a half-satiric, half-melancholy vision of Hollywood in the 70s. (It's the first noir I can think of where smoking is treated self-consciously, as a noir affectation and a physical addiction. Elliott Gould's Philp Marlowe is helplessly addicted to nicotine, just as film directors are hopelessly addicted to noir.)

    In other instances, the tone of the movie suggests the filmmakers want us to admire the seams and think about the weirdness, even ungainliness, of what they've created. Consider a subgenre amply represented in Film Forum's series: the samurai noir movie, wherein the smoky, retro settings and glamorously fatalistic mood of American noir are teamed with the Japanese legend of the wandering masterless samurai, or ronin. There are at least five titles on the calendar that fit this description: Michael Mann's existential heist movie Thief (1981) and Walter Hill's existential car chase thriller The Driver (1978, a double bill on March 6); John Woo's The Killer (1989, March 8), John Boorman's Point Blank (1967) and Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai (1967). All share certain elements?a tough, weary, alienated antihero who just wants his money and his freedom; a vision of the city as slick, dark, depopulated purgatory; plotlines that involve a loyal soldier's betrayal by his master and father figure; and final bursts of violent action that obliterate the hero's enemies without suggesting that justice has been done.

    To a degree, even Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) deploys elements of the ronin story: Travis Bickle's master was the U.S. military, which betrayed him (and other soldiers) in Vietnam and then dumped him into civilian society, whereupon he devoted all his energies to training for a nonexistent war and feverishly searching for someone, anyone, to protect.

    As is typical with any film series, a few of the choices seem questionable. Mike Figgis' debut feature, Stormy Monday (1988, April 3-4), looks and sounds great, but it's a hollow, posturing figurine of a movie, one step above from the kind of soulless film-school hackwork I despise. Only the cocktail lounge soundtrack and ice-slick photography make it worth a second look. (That and Melanie Griffith's skin-tight cocktail dress and long, bare legs.) Sam Raimi's 1998 thriller A Simple Plan, double-billed with Fargo (1996, March 29-30, is terrific, but I don't really see the noir in it, unless any plotline involving stolen money and greedy friends automatically qualifies as noir. It owes more to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and, before that, to Hawthorne and Poe.

    The March 24-25 double feature of Sonatine (1993) and Fireworks (1997), from Japanese tough-guy auteur Takeshi "Beat" Kitano, also seems like a mistake. It's as if the programmers erroneously traced Kitano's influences through Tarantino to Jean-Pierre Melville and Jean-Luc Godard, and then to Welles. The line probably goes back through Schwarzenegger to Lee Marvin and then to Samuel Fuller. In any case, Kitano's willful weirdness defies easy categorization; so does his love of seedy cops-and-robbers stories and sadistic bursts of violence. As a writer-director-producer-star, he's like a combination of Charlie Chaplin and Chuck Bronson.

    And speaking of Fuller, since when does The Naked Kiss (1964, March 10-11) qualify as noir? Like much of Fuller's work, it's blotto tabloid sensationalism plus personal obsession. It has bold black-and-white photography, and a plot featuring an on-the-run hooker and a secret child molester, but that doesn't equal noirishness.

    The series' omissions are just as fascinating to contemplate. Oliver Stone is noir to the bone, as indicated by the backroom conspiracies and seamy societal underbellies of JFK and Nixon. Yet he's represented here by U Turn (March 7), his most self-conscious paean to noir and, perhaps not coincidentally, his least interesting movie. As Armond White mentioned last week, Walter Hill is sorely underrepresented in this series. And the programmers ignore sci-fi, including the obvious choice of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, which arguably has benefited more from its ongoing film noir obsession than any other genre. I'm thinking of everything from Scott's original Alien to James Cameron's Terminator to the Mad Max trilogy.

    Of course, you could probably program a three-month series with nothing but sci-fi neo-noir movies. For that matter, you could fill a whole calendar with nothing but action noirs, or noir parodies, or even historical quasi-noirs (Pauline Kael described Kenneth Branagh's Henry V as an "epic noir," and the recent Elizabeth was very neo-noirish in tone). Such second-guessing ultimately points up the seductiveness and elusiveness of this topic. Neo-noir seizes the attention like a cigarette lit in a pitch-black room, and then, when contemplated, evaporates like smoke.

    Kirikou and the Sorceress Directed by Michel Ocelot AN intriguing work of self-conscious primitivism, the French cartoon feature Kirikou and the Sorceress is an antidote to contemporary cliches in animation?namely, cliches that stem from the desire to be as much like Disney as possible. I happen to enjoy most Disney cartoons, but that company's blockbuster features have been so stylistically influential and so successful at the box office (the two go hand in hand) that it's been hard for other animators to make a cartoon feature that doesn't look and feel like a variant of the Disney formula. That's why, last year, I championed South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut and the Japanese fairy tale Princess Mononoke over Disney's Tarzan and The Iron Giant. Though the latter were exceptional works of craftsmanship?and The Iron Giant was a really special movie, historically astute and morally sophisticated?they both were basically variations on Disney. What audiences need now is to be shaken up and challenged, told that there's more to animation than whirling computer-assisted compositions, "empowering" kid stories and hummable tunes. Kirikou is another step in the right direction, though it's not as sustained and energetic as some other mold-breaking cartoon features that have come down the pike recently. Director-cowriter Michel Ocelot, who was raised in West Africa, retells an ancient folktale about the title character, an infant who came out of his mother's womb walking and talking and itching to do battle with an evil sorceress who enslaved the village. Kirikou disregards the warnings of his loving mother and joins his uncle on his bid to fight the bad woman.

    What follows is an escalating series of confrontations between good and evil; the confrontations are fascinating because, in the manner of Aesop, they are primarily verbal and literary in nature?a series of conversations about what makes a person good or evil. The film's setting has contemporary, metaphorical resonance: this is an Africa where nature has been poisoned and the men of the village have been largely exterminated. The cause here is evil magic, but it might as well be war, famine, environmental catastrophe or AIDS.

    Despite the richness of its conception, I don't think Kirikou quite works. The style is probably too rigid. Aiming for a storybook quality that suggests folk-art murals and the paintings of Douanier Rousseau, the director deliberately flattens out depth of field and has most of the action occurring from left to right and right to left, with the characters often seen in profile. I guess he wants us to think of Egyptian figures or wood carvings, or perhaps the theater or puppetry. But the effect is somewhat monotonous, and the stilted, fairytale-to-a-fault dialogue doesn't help. (It's like Scooby Doo for cultural anthropology majors.) Still, there are a few images that will stick with me for a long time?the emergence of Kirikou from mama's womb, chattering cheerfully; the sandblasted bleakness of some of the landscapes and, most of all, the sorceress' minions, huge fetish figurines who move like robots made of wood and chant their demands in unison ("We want the magic hat!"). They're uncannily chilling, as only nightmare images can be.

    Framed Last week, Armond White made a compelling and original case for the misappreciation of The Hurricane. However, I disagree with his premise that it's a noble film with passages of greatness that has been wrongly persecuted by white liberal critics. In fact, I think it's a clunkily directed and fairly shameful piece of white liberal propaganda that (accidentally, I'm sure) diminishes the accomplishments of its black hero. Rubin "Hurricane" Carter's great accomplishment was in reshaping himself behind bars through a staggering act of willpower and commitment: he transformed himself into an activist, a well-read man, a scholar, a passionate writer and a self-constructed symbol of unjust suffering. This was no mean feat, yet to watch the film, one would think Carter was notable mainly for having inspired other people to free him, and for learning to trust the white man again after hating him for years and years. (How many times do we have to hear other characters telling Carter that not all white people are devils? What, exactly, is the intention of such dialogue? To educated bigoted black viewers? Or to reassure guilty whites that they're not complicit in the fate of unjustly imprisoned black men, because they're among the good guys?)

    It sounds like hairsplitting, but I think the difference between Carter's life story and the film's presentation of it is the difference between doing something because it's worth doing and doing it because it might pay off big someday (i.e., with freedom). The film suggests that Carter's accomplishment was in inspiring others to free him, yet I believe the film should be saying that even before other people were inspired to take up his case, Carter had already triumphed, because he remade himself with very little help from others, and virtually none from the system that imprisoned him.

    I also fail to see the point in defending the dramatic license of a film that completely fouls up what should be its central theme: the pervasive corruption of the criminal justice system by racism. The script creates a composite character, an Inspector Javert-like character named Det. Della Pesca, who hounds Carter his whole life. No such person exists. The filmmakers have defended this maneuver by pointing out that composite characters are inevitable in historical dramas. It's a defense of staggering stupidity. Can't they see that by encapsulating a quarter-century's worth of institutionalized racism in one fictional character, they inadvertently endorse the "one bad apple" defense of conservative apologists for bigotry?

    So much of The Hurricane seems devoted to letting the white criminal justice system, and white people in general, off the hook. It tells them, in various ways, "You're not the problem. We know you're decent. The real problem is bad people." Say what you want about Spike Lee's Malcolm X, at least it gave its black hero proper credit for his willpower, intelligence and self-determination, and refused to let whites off the hook for racism, injustice and genocide.