The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Month: January, 2014

The Slanted Streets of Hardcore

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Paul Schrader was a vital figure in the revitalization of the noir sensibility in the 1970s, contributing a pathbreaking critical essay as well as a string of film scripts and directorial efforts that explored the alienation and moral confusion of American men in a rapidly changing world. While the Scorsese-directed Taxi Driver is probably his greatest contribution, Hardcore, released in 1978, is the more person work for Schrader. Its plot parallels Schrader’s own biography, following a strict Calvinist from the nurturing heartland of Grand Rapids to the overloaded neon streets of California. While not hewing closely to established noir stylistics at all times, its tale of a lone moral man on a mission to save his daughter from a corrupt underworld captures the essence of noir’s investigation into the underside of American society. Therefore, Hardcore can be called a modernist film noir because of its concern with the alienation of individuals and the contradictions and even the criminality of American capitalism, expressed through color visuals that recall both the social realist grit and the Expressionist audacity characteristic of film noir. 

The film’s protagonist is Jake Van Dorn, head of a furniture manufacturing firm in Grand Rapids, whose daughter Kristen goes on a church-sponsored trip to California. When she disappears, he quickly grows disillusioned with the police and hires a private detective named Mast, who finds out that Kristen is working as a porn actress. Whether this is against her will or her own decision is unclear (Schrader). Dissatisfied with his hireling’s work, he takes on the investigation himself. While there, he encounters Niki, a sex worker with information he needs. Her overt sexuality, especially contrasted with Van Dorn’s strict Christianity, might initially mark her as a femme fatale, but by the end she is revealed to be a modernized “good-bad girl.” Desperate for a father figure–a major motif in the film–she generally supports Van Dorn despite their differences. Though her dependence on his largesse complicated the trope, she does “believe in his innocence” and gives him his sole constant companion, “[allowing] him to feel at home with her as he might with a male companion” (Spicer 92-93). Mast, the private eye, is a dead ringer for a noir detective, a working-class man with integrity, neither a saint nor a devil, who doggedly pursues justice as long as he can support himself with the pay. While the lack of a femme fatale might be used to argue against its status as a noir, Spicer notes that the lack of such a figure is characteristic of modernist as opposed to postmodernist neo-noir (162). In that way, Hardcore fits its “phase” of noir perfectly.

His character in the film, though not falling precisely into any of the male stock types defined by Spicer in his Film Noir, aptly matches this description: “the expressionist Golem, beyond rational control or appeal and yet acting with an implacable logic” (Spicer 127). He shares this description with Sergeant Bannion from Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat, and both characters lose their wives–Van Dorn before the film and Bannion while it is in progress–and have their daughters endangered during their respective films. Like Bannion, Van Dorn is not a psychologically complex character, rendered as a hulking man with stark Calvinist convictions, an aversion to sexuality, and a tendency to burst into fits of violence. He severely injures a male porn star after finding out the shapely blonde man has met Kristen on a porn shoot, shoving him under a hot shower to extract information from him. Later, he threatens to strangle Niki in their motel room (Schrader). The film takes a strongly critical look at Van Dorn, so that though he often resembles Raymond Chandler’s “best man in his world, a “man of honor,” his own moral stature declines as we see him reacting in unbridled rage due to his single-minded pursuit of his daughter (Chandler). He descends onto the “mean streets” and immerses himself in the world of vice but does not emerge untarnished like the classic hardboiled detective. One recalls Charlton Heston’s rampage through a club in Touch of Evil, proclaiming he was no longer a police officer but a husband (Welles). The personal dimension of the conflict in Hardcore, as in Orson Welles’ masterpiece, drives our ostensible hero to go further, faster than he otherwise would, revealing him to be far more unstable than the respectable surface would suggest.

Much of the narrative revolves around Van Dorn’s use of deception and disguises to find more information about his daughter’s whereabouts. In one scene, he dons a pair of sunglasses and marches into a porn producer’s office claiming to be a rivet manufacturer from Detroit with money he wants to invest in porn (Schrader). Later on, he takes out a fake ad in the newspaper in order to draw male porn stars and interrogate them. When he receives them, he dons a seedy false mustache and wig, adopting a chameleonic camouflage. Though he plunges ever further into the nightmare, and it seems for most of the film to be an easy transition. He is able to easily talk producers and actors into thinking he is legitimately interested in their business.

The film strongly implies that one of the reasons that Van Dorn is so adept at dealing with the underworld is his background in business. When he marches into the producer’s office, his bearing is so natural as to seem unaffected. At one point in the conversation, the producer asks why, if Van Dorn has such a thriving and honest American business back in Michigan, he would be interested in the pornography industry. Schrader here draws the worlds of the Grand Rapids furniture business and the sex industry almost together, juxtaposing the “honest” businessman with the sleazy showbiz magnate and finding them on good speaking terms (Schrader). Van Dorn is wealthy and ruthless, described as an “angry man” by one of his friends.

Thus the film takes the noir critique of greed and wealth, desires wisely rejected by Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon and foolishly coveted by figures like Detour’s Al Roberts. Here, the morality is far less starkly drawn despite Van Dorn’s “hardcore” Christian values. These values, however, appear to be corrupted by a capitalist obsession with property, causing a contemporary critic to wonder “whether his strongest motivation for finding his daughter is to recover Lost Property” (Feitshans). Indeed, his attitude toward Kristen, and the film’s as well, treats her as an object to be recovered. She has little screen time and her motivations remain opaque, with Van Dorn rarely speaking about her. The film thus critiques the depravity of the porn industry and launches a broader criticism of capitalism in general, showing the legitimate and illegitimate, honest and dishonest, as intimately linked. No matter how much of an alien he is to the libertine citizens of the “mean streets,” he talks the language of money and violence just as well as they do. This directly recalls the social critique of Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat, as well as The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.

In addition to mirroring the noir concern with entrenched corruption both monetary and sexual and featuring a psychologically disturbed, often violent male protagonist, the film also adopts many of noir’s visual strategies while transposing them into a world of color. For the first segment, set in Grand Rapids, noir’s characteristic dark shadows, claustrophobia, and low-key lighting. Numerous establishing shots help acquaint the viewer with the Grand Rapids milieu, giving us snowbound streets, churches, and parks. Interior shots in this segment are tight and somewhat cramped, but the effect is homey rather than claustrophobic. Once the action moves to Los Angeles and the Bay Area–notably, after a rainy scene–the film becomes a color noir par excellence. Strip clubs and brothels are bathed in searing red light, night scenes feature heavy shadows, and the setting moves from clean middle-class houses to motel rooms and tiny shops crammed full of erotic products. The final scene, which takes place in San Francisco, makes full use of the city’s famous hills, giving us eerie wide shots of slanted streets laced with rain and detritus. As Schrader himself noted, in noir, “oblique and vertical lines are preferred to horizontal. Obliquity adheres to the choreography of the city, and is in direct opposition to the horizontal American tradition of Griffith and Ford” (Schrader 57).

Often, the camera dwells more on the setting than the characters, establishing environment rather than character as the primary focus of the story. This gives us a sense of determinism reflecting Van Dorn’s Calvinist Christianity. While characters rarely communicate orally about their emotions, the intensely alienating visuals gives the audience a sense of wandering through a dream world. Indeed, the streets are overflowing with sexual fantasy, which, unlike in the repressed noirs of the 1940s and 50s, is on full display. Overall, the visual strategy of Hardcore aligns with its “distorted, morally ambiguous universe,” a world of waking dreams and pervasive fantasies from which no one seems able to wake (Spicer 47).

In its exposure of a corrupt, male-dominated, sex-crazed world, its evocation or direct use of many noir character types, and the visual strategy it employs, Hardcore makes for a strong modernist neo-noir. Fittingly for the writer and critic who penned one of the foundational essays on the subject, it exhibits not only fidelity to the standards of the cycle but also creativity in their application. By tapping into his own biography and drawing a powerful connection between the Calvinist notion of predestination and noir’s fatalistic universe, he creates a film that disturbs and upsets. It questions the boundaries between Puritan and libertine patriarchy, showing the violent and cash-laden men who strive after women for one reason or another. At the end of such a long sojourn in the figurative inferno, Schrader’s film ends on a note of muted redemption, recognizing that, though all might seem well, no one in the ordeal is emerging unscathed.

Works Cited

Chandler, Raymond. “The Simple Art of Murder.” Atlantic Monthly 1944.=

Feitshans, Buzz. “Hardcore.” Rev. of Hardcore, by Paul Schrader. Cinéaste 9.3 (Spring 1979): 48-49.

Schrader, Paul, dir. Hardcore. 1979. Columbia Pictures. DVD.

Schrader, Paul, “Notes on Film Noir,” in eds. Alain Silver and James Ursini, Film Noir Reader. New York: Limelight, 1996. 57.

Spicer, Andrew. Film Noir. Harlow, England: Pearson Education Limited, 2002. 47-162.

Welles, Orson, dir. Touch of Evil. 1958. Universal Pictures. DVD.

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Film Noir Series: Brick (2005) and Conclusion

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One of the more memorable characters from Rian Johnson’s film Brick is Kara, played by Meagan Good. She is an actress with her high school’s theatre company, and as such is always seen under a layer of makeup and costume. Each time she wears a different costume, from a cabaret outfit to kabuki getup. What’s remarkable, however, is that the film takes place over several days, making it truly absurd to think that she is going to perform in that many productions. Her presence is not only somewhat ridiculous, but also a sign of how arch we have gotten in the latter days of noir. Where Body Heat and Blade Runner took noir to more decadent and dystopian areas, respectively, Brick feels like a highly elaborate high school theatre production of a noir, possibly directed by Max Fischer.

The central conceit of Brick, as you might have guessed, is that it takes a noir hardboiled detective story and transplants it into a high school setting. Our private eye is a jilted teenager named Brendan Fry (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), eternally truant and prone to spout torrents of 30s-esque slang. When his former girlfriend is killed, he plunges into the world of underage drug trafficking, sniffing the trail until it leads him to the Kingpin–just “the Pin” for short–who lives with his mother in a somewhat grungy 1960s-era suburban house but manages to run an elaborate, militant drug ring from the basement. His various affectations, including a suave coat, walking cane, and a desk with an ugly fishbowl perched on it, are rendered ridiculous the moment we see his mother serve him a freshly baked cookie or hear him rave about how great Tolkien’s descriptions are. He is played by Lukas Haas, who along with Gordon-Levitt is one of the few actors to come off as both absurd and strangely natural. Many of the other characters are merely the former, which makes the film feel more like a training exercise than a real film.

At the same time, I don’t want to denigrate it too much. There are some genuinely exciting scenes and Johnson’s low-budget style, which recalls the zoom-heavy 1970s, charges the film with enough energy to stop it from grinding to a halt. While I don’t think its archness benefits the story, it has strong enough stakes to keep the audience engaged. Its somewhat uncritical absorption of film noir tropes, however, makes it oddly retrogressive when it comes to politics, especially gender politics. It truly does come off like a story that should have been told several decades ago, and its failure to adequately question the genre’s traditional relegation of women to supportive good girls and black widows is a painful drawback–one it seems to share with the other two postmodern noirs we’ve seen.

Of course, it is obviously self-conscious of the tropes it is employing. Its female characters are pushed into the static categories of film noir not because of some malice or reactionary politics–one would hope–but because it is hewing faithfully to a certain narrative pattern. Why is it doing this? My guess is that the director genuinely likes noir and wanted to make a contribution to the genre, but used the high school angle to add a new twist to the hoary narrative skeleton he is using. This kind of uncritical appropriation, in which the past becomes an undifferentiated mass that can be “sampled” in order to arouse emotional responses in cine-literate audiences, is typical of postmodern filmmaking and not particularly progressive. The results can be outright reactionary, and at times one wonders whether this layer of nostalgic Vaseline filmmakers smear over old stock stories is present because of a lack of historical understanding. Noir just becomes another signifier, another old box of symbols we can drag out of the attic and air out time and again, mixing and matching eclectically to make it “new” each time. The problem is that the ideology and politics (especially sexual politics) of noir are rarely interrogated to their core. Of the films we’ve seen up to this point, Chinatown is the only one that manages to scrape the surface of this problem, and considering that its director is a statutory rapist on the run from the law, I don’t know if we should turn to it for any kind of insights into how noir can be freed from its dependence on patriarchy.

In many ways, noir has the potential to unleash progressive aesthetic and political energies from filmmakers who work with it. Its traditional suspicion of American capitalism, its abrasive cynicism about the bourgeois “American Dream,” and its grim picture of how society has ossified and degraded under the cannibalistic control of the ruling class are all noble and could be channeled into truly revolutionary art. Because the genre is unrelenting in its male-centredness and, to a lesser but surprising extent, Orientalism, it exhibits a contradictory character that only makes sense when you consider it within the broader context of American bourgeois society. Being films made by men and about men, the male experience defines the horizon of most noir pictures, thus limiting the expressive potential of an “orthodox” retelling of the same old theft, sex, and murder stories.

These films are diagnostic, not curative, showing us the underworld as both entrancing and morally reprehensible, ultimately destined for exposure and destruction. Or, as the later films seem to say, maybe not. But I believe that these films fall on one wrong side of the equation or another. With noir, either corruption will be checked and gradually fought by the noble ones or there is no hope and the forces of evil will overwhelm. Far better, I think, to say that we need to understand where these oppressions and paranoias originate– certainly not from blonde sirens–and how they might be ended. If there is a truly Communist film noir, I have not yet seen it. That said, this remains one of the more exciting and aesthetically developed Hollywood styles, and is worthy of study if only for its unusually clear-eyed assessment of how bleak and bankrupt the bourgeois male world is.

Film Noir Series: Blade Runner (1982)

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Blade Runner is the blueprint of a postmodern film noir. Its 2019 Los Angeles is a rain-soaked hive of skyscrapers and massive industrial complexes belching fire into the sky. None of the human characters appear to cultivate meaningful relationships. At the beginning of the film, we see Deckard engaging in a conversation with a Japanese ramen shop owner, tripping over himself in miscommunication. Japan appears to have taken over the world right on schedule, judging by the enormous smiling geisha billboard, kanji and hiragana scrawled all over the walls, and an atmosphere that evokes Tokyo during a rainstorm more than Los Angeles. Considering that we’re due to catch up with the timeline of Blade Runner in only five years, I think we have some work to blacken the sky.

The reason this film aligns so well with postmodern sensibilities is twofold. First, its thematics are concerned around duplication, simulacra, difference, and memory, with its plot taking place in a corporate-dominated LA with no social solidarity. Everyone is just a customer or salesperson, or working for the state, which appears to have abdicated all responsibilities other than using violence to keep the market going. In other words, it’s a postmodern, neoliberal utopia, a “bricolage wonderland,” if you will. Secondly, the film’s style is an amalgam of eclectic matter taken from numerous styles. Rachel’s clothing and Deckard’s garb both recall 40s noirwhile the Tyrell Corporation skyscrapers appear to be Mayan temples, drawing on both Orwell and Chichén Itzá. Every building appears to be designed for maximum spectacle, and the ground level of the city is a throbbing mass of bodies clutching umbrellas surrounded by glitzy glass and dilapidated apartment complexes. All of this is portrayed with few if any exterior establishing shots, cutting from interior to interior. This gives the film a subjective edge similar to other noir, a dreamlike quality that insinuates itself through the narrative.

My initial reaction to the film came when I watched it about three years ago. At that time, I was thoroughly awed, which I now suspect was partially the result of the film’s commitment to sensory overload. This time, however, I found myself alienated by the film’s treatment of its Asian characters and paranoid treatment of Japanese “invasion.” In addition, you could certainly read the Replicants as a new slave labour supply necessary for expanding an imperialist capitalism that depends on extracting value from colonies, but the film’s mélange of disarticulated elements tends to muddle and obscure any critique it might be making. This time, the shadowy cinematography and flashy lighting were certainly alienating, which is to the film’s credit, but I also found it excessive–in an uninteresting way. Where two years later Terry Gilliam’s Brazil would stick a razor-sharp knife into the heart of bureaucratic oppression and technological disaffection, this film is rather less sure of itself. Its message is messy: we are all constructed copies (or simulacra, following Baudrillard), free-floating packets of memories and meaning that we can, through some existentialist exertion of will, turn into meaningful lives. It is an ambitious attempt to raise questions about human life and the boundaries between artificial and natural, but I am not convinced it follows through on most of the threads it dangles. Ultimately, though this is an excellent example of the turn that noir took in the later 20th and early 21st century, I am considerably less fond of it than I once was.

 

Film Noir Series: Body Heat (1981)

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Lawrence Kasdan makes an ideal person to direct a postmodern remake of Double Indemnity. He was a participant, along with George Lucas, of ushering in the contemporary blockbuster-driven, nostalgia-saturated, sensory-overload era of cinema, writing the scripts for Star Wars episodes five and six. As the studios were snapped up and consolidated under the umbrellas of corporate behemoths and the revolutionary fervor and  auteur model of filmmaking the studios desperately adopted in the late 60s, studio films began to consolidate around a sleeker aesthetic. Body Heat is a film of the 1980s, orange fireballs and all, but it is at least a highly intelligent and competently directed piece. It takes the essential plot of the classic Double Indemnity–a sexually confident woman ensnares a man into helping her murder her husband for money–and makes it more explosive and explicit. It is a quintessential neo-noir, a pastiche of stylistic tropes and plot points from earlier films. Other than one scene where characters fill an entire room with tobacco smoke, much to the delight of my class, there is little in the way of jokes. Body Heat is more a loving embrace of old noir than a spoof or satire.

Made long after the Motion Picture Production Code was dismantled and the MPAA rating system was enacted, Body Heat is free to represent sexuality and the human body with a frankness that does not need to rely on repressed suggestions in mise en scène to convey its meaning. The noir tropes thus function differently in this lurid color environment, where scenes are bathed in red glow and piercing light instead of shades of grey. Its subtropical Florida setting and use of erotic reds suggest an unsteady decadence or overgrowth. Where consumerism is implicated in moral corruption in the 1953 film The Big Heat, here it has become overripe and absorbed into the film itself, which features copious Coca-Cola product placement. Fog diffuses the red glow of tail lights, the sun blasts through the windows of the diner, and, for some reason, no one has air conditioning. Leaving aside the question of why these people would live in Florida without air conditioning, it creates the same stifling explosiveness that would later fuel films like Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. When scenes do employ the classic noir chiaroscuro, it portends a kind of doom, the darkness desaturating the normally striking colors and plunging us right back into those smoky 1940s hotel rooms. The entire film exists in a timeless space that is constructed more through reference and aesthetics than realistic detail. If asked what time period this film took place in, I would reply “in film noir times,” since the precise time matters to the film far less than the fact that it is a time ripe for transgression, snooping, cigarettes, and stylish headgear.

Does Body Heat succeed? It does when it manages to crack open the conventions it borrows, exploring in greater detail the nature of its characters’ desires. Corruption becomes more tangible, violence more sickening, and the sex, while remaining erotic, is put up on the screen rather than left to our imagination. While I would maintain that its nostalgic indulgences count against it rather than for it, it is more than the sum of its references and makes noir relevant to the Reagan era, even if I think its reliance on what came before it is too uncritical to make it work all the way.

Reject Despair: The Role of Critics and Art

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Still from Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera

In my recent writing on The World’s End, Wolf’s Rain, and others, one of my recurring criticisms has been that these works embrace a cathartic and nihilistic despair. Especially in the case of the former, the film argues, on the one hand, that people are free to be self-destructive–that this is the very premise of freedom–and so instigates the destruction of innumerable human lives and centuries worth of technological progress and cultural richness. While it could be argued that his intoxicated gesture is being criticized by the film, that its rosy picture of post-apocalyptic agricultural bliss is too rosy and should be read as satire, I don’t believe that this is the most likely read of the film. Similarly, I have attempted to conceive of these works, which are often admirable in other ways, as criticisms of the contemporary nihilism that pervades our society. Unfortunately, I believe that these works are sincere in their advocacy of of embracing not just human finality but annihilation. These stories focus so intently on the private struggles of a few isolated individuals that they neglect to notice the social aspect of their stories. The apolitical, often mystical or supernatural, nature of the apocalyptic narratives churned out by Hollywood, the game industry, and television, are often as much about the liberating fantasy of being the last one standing, the fear of social contact and rejoicing in Dionysian delights of the end of history.

Since I believe that criticism of art should take place on a political level and on a Marxist basis rather than only on an aesthetic level, it is important to analyze why these sorts of works have proliferated. For me, despair is the operative word. “The world revolutions failed or mutated into totalitarianism,” this sentiment goes, “so we had all better stop trying.” Revolution degrades into “resistance” or further into the stupidity of “ethical consumerism” and, in other circumstances, individual terrorism. These are hopeless protests against hopelessness, to paraphrase Ross Wolfe, ineffectual but comforting. People often shake their heads at suicide bombers and wonder how one could be persuaded to give her or his life in such a destructive fashion. But I see that the same logic is operative in the imperial centers of the West, where postmodern thought, for all its apparent sophistication, embraces a kind of suicidal logic. At one point, I even joked with a friend of mine that I was untroubled by the thought that humanity would all die out. It would be good for the planet after all. As time has worn on, I have rejected this idea: of course human extinction is a virtual certainty at some time in the future, but it is insane for any species to so easily give up on itself.

We need to understand our current position in history. The failure of the Left in the last century has left the capitalist exploiting class in a position of extreme power. Immediate prospects for revolution have dimmed to specters, and despite a growing global economy the privations of the vast majority of the population cannot be alleviated. This does not give Leftists of any stripe, including media critics, the right to give into despair. We must redouble, triple, quadruple our efforts to build a real mass movement that can seize power from the capitalists and usher in a more hopeful age in human history. Neither blind optimism nor the reigning defeatism are acceptable. Rather, we must evaluate the task before us and put all of our efforts toward ending this unbearable situation.

“Culture – as an autonomous arena of wavering meanings and self-displacing identities – is the cynical response of capitalism to the limits that class relations in a wage-labor system place on individuality: “Ideologically, we see the same contradiction in the fact that the bourgeoisie endowed the individual with an unprecedented importance, but at the same time that same individuality was annihilated by the economic conditions to which it was subjected by the reification created by commodity production.”

–Teresa Ebert, Task of Cultural Critique

As a critic, I have often been one-sidedly focused on the aesthetic rather than the political, the affect and experience of a work of art rather than the conditions under which it was created. Mass art is a contradictory beast: made by the few for the many. Every work of art we see today is the product of an industrial society where the commodity reigns. Of course, analyzing a work of art as an object of history and the creation of a bourgeois society is not enough; Anatoly Lunacharsky discusses at length the role of judgment in criticism:

Criticism presupposes an expression of judgment about a work. According to Plekhanov, it would appear that a “real” scientific critic a Marxist critic must have no opinions or judgments about a work. It is altogether apparent that this constitutes monstrous narrowness; this fallacy crept into Plekhanov’s system because Plekhanov, carried away by his polemics, presented a crude “objectivism” to counter the ridiculous theories advanced by sociologists of the subjective school.

No, a critic must express judgment. Research into the social roots of a given work of art is most important to him; it is difficult for him to appraise a work without this knowledge. (Of course this method was unknown to Pushkin; even Belinsky, who dealt with this problem brilliantly, did so very seldom). After that, in social criticism, comes the question of the function of a given work–what role it should have played according to the author, what role it actually did play during the author’s life and in the epochs which followed.

On Pushkin as Critic

Both sublime beauty and the ability to unite people in opposition to exploitation: these are the twin poles of what I look for in any work of art. Without politics that are conducive to people’s revolution, beauty is at the service of the elites and expropriators. Without beauty, the grandest Marxist truths are disarmed. Beauty is an incredibly persuasive weapon in the hands of a true revolutionary movement. My basic message is: reject despair, reject unfounded fantasies of victory, reject postmodern defeatism. Without rigorous opposition to these corruptions, the role of a critic is shrunken down to that of a dabbler in beauty and trifles, rather than the most passionate advocate of the true and great. At times criticism can sound like cynicism, but despite having to use dark palettes to tell its stories, criticism cannot succumb to the notion that what we see around us, and who we already are, is all there can be. That is not true freedom. Freedom is freedom to change, and the first step toward such freedom is to see that one is a captive in the first place.

Film Noir Series: Chinatown (1974)

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Chinatown is at the vanguard of the modernist neo-noir, part of a movement within American cinema to revive and refashion the tropes and styles of film noir for a new historical period. Although most if not all of the film noir we have seen so far has been set in either the present or immediate past, this is a period piece. Rather than being a direct commentary on present social conditions or psychological stresses, neo-noir becomes concerned with defamiliarizing the past. Polanski’s film simultaneously romanticizes and criticizes the milieu it adopts. On the one hand, it lavishes attention on the period detail of its setting: Jake Gittes’ dandyish suits and new Venetian blinds, sleek black cars with running boards, erotic red interior decorations in restaurants, and magnificent mansions all form part of its appeal. In its visuals, it celebrates the darkness and destabilization of the classic noir while adding color. Characters’ faces are often broken by sharp shadows, including from those requisite Venetian blinds, and compositions tend to deny us full information in favour of creating a sense of paranoid dread. This sense is familiar for Polanski, whose films, from Chinatown to The Pianist, often work wuit a sense of mounting frustration and confinement.

Andrew Spicer’s read on this newly invigorated breed of noir is that it was part of a broader “neo-modernist” intellectual movement in the late 1970s and early to mid-1970s. This was a period that, “looked back to the great period of experimentation with film form in the 1920s but was much more prepared to engage with popular culture and demonstrated a ‘cooler,’ more detached and ironic attitude toward the possibilities of radical change” (133). A rapidly shrinking film industry coincided with the rise of a more academic treatment of film history, as well as the new rating system, producing a diffuse but powerful movement of new “auteur” filmmakers who employed formal innovations and experimentations with tone and story content. For Chinatown, this is evident in some of the strange cuts, Steadicam shots, and alienating wide shots that contrast with tightly packed interior locations. It is also a product of the 1970s, and its narrative can be interpreted as an indictment of the nation that could produce the Watergate scandal. Instead of looking boldly to the future, it contemplates the present and searches for its origins, explaining the present through the lens of a somewhat romanticized past.

One-Year Plan: 2014 in Reading

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Lately, I have been spending more of my time reading books than listening to music or watching films, but one would never know it from this blog. One of the mistakes I think I have made in managing The Tiger Manifesto is that I’ve neglected to write much about the reading I’ve been doing. Book reviews tend to be slightly more intensive exercises than film or music reviews because of their length, but because I don’t find laziness to be an acceptable excuse, I plan to publish much more on books in the future.

The following is an aspirational list of the books I would like to read this year. Most if not all of them are easily accessible at either local libraries or in my own possession, so my goals are manageable. I love books and spend as much time in them as I can, which hones my writing talent as well as my critical senses. With that, the list:

  1. Lenin: Selected Works, Vol. 1
  2. Mao Zedong: Selected Works, Vol. 1
  3. Frederic Jameson: Postmodernism Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism
  4. Georg Lukács: History and Class Consciousness
  5. Frantz Fanon: The Wretched of the Earth
  6. Shushaku Endo: Silence
  7. Pablo Neruda: Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair
  8. Haruki Murakami: Kafka on the Shore
  9. Karl Marx: Capital, Vol. 1
  10. Anatoly Lunacharsky: Anything I can get my hands on in English
  11. Stuart J Dowsey, Frederick Lorenzino, Fukushima Kikujiro: Zengakuren: Japan’s Revolutionary Students
  12. Domenico Losurdo: Liberalism: A Counter-History
  13. Yukio Mishima: Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea
  14. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer: Dialectic of Enlightenment

I’ll be doing more than just enjoying these texts of course: expect me to be using this blog to critically digest them and air some of my own views in public. This blog has been gradually growing in popularity–very gradually–and I want to attract some vocal criticism of what I publish so that I can learn to wrangle and negotiate, retreat and advance, and grow as both a writer and an intellectual. This is but a preview of what is to come, and I am coming into this new year with Lenin’s famous pronouncement in mind:

“With all my heart I wish that in the new year we shall all commit fewer stupidities than in the old.”

 

Thanks to fellow Red blogger Karlo Mongaya for the inspiration to create this list. Pay him a visit; he’s far more advanced than I am in regard to political matters.

Film Noir Series: Touch of Evil (1958)

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Amidst all of the dreary unpleasantness, bursts of violence, and maniacally repressed desire that they contain, not one of the films noirs we have seen so far have twisted my guts like this one. Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil is an Expressionist visual masterpiece, replete with canted angles, agile crane shots (including the first spellbinding scene that was shot in a single three minute take), and shadows so rich with ambiguity they convey a festering terror. Terror is the operative word, since what I believe distinguishes this film from the other films noirs I have covered, other than its formal ostentatiousness, is its ability to evoke fear.

The scene that is most effective in conveying this terror takes place at a motel where Janet Leigh’s character Susan Vargas–the wife of Charlton Heston’s Mexican narcotics officer–has taken refuge while her husband attempts to deal with pervasive police corruption in the city. The scene is a microcosm of the film’s overall mood: jangling music plays nonstop, windows open up only to a barren, dark desert, and Susan lies there in bed on her supposed honeymoon with only a group of drug-dealing juvenile delinquents for company. It should go without saying that this company is unwanted. The style of the piece is extraordinary; though it hearkens back to the introspective Expressionist style of the 1940s noir, it is equally apt to say that it follows the route of social commentary and realism taken by the genre in the 1950s. Extreme wide-angle closeups, Dutch angles, and looming faces frame the scene in the tiny motel cabin, and when the formal elements fail to disorient us enough, Welles plays on deeply embedded fears about the interaction between helpless white women and Hispanic (or any non-white) men. Though the narrative claims there is no rape, it gets all of the effect of it while denying the occurrence of the actual act. Commentators about modern “rape culture” could have a field day with this material.

That is only one of many scenes in Touch of Evil that plumb the depths of human vulnerabilities and corruption. The entire department is blind to Welles’ Captain Hank Quinlan’s method of achieving conviction through forged evidence. From the start, it’s clear that he relies on his instincts, which loom as large as his own figure does in the film, rather than logic for his work. As he relapses into drunkenness and finally dies, he becomes a pitiful spectacle, the strongman laid low. I suspect that on subsequent viewings my opinions of the characters in this delightfully complicated picture will evolve significantly. Suffice to say that Touch of Evil is a difficult but rewarding film, and I am sure if I were to search in the right places there would be much scholarly literature written about it.

Film Noir Series: The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

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For the moment, I am going to suspend any discussion of The Strange Love of Martha Ivers as a masterpiece of Gothic intensity. I am also going to avoid much detailed analysis of its juicy Freudian symbolism–the whole film is melting candles, smoking guns, and looming father figures. This might seem strange, since those are the two most immediate reasons to prefer this film to many other films noirs. After all, though most noir films are concerned with desire and the underside of polite society, they tend to play it cool and close to the vest. Martha Ivers, by contrast, has moments of sheer hyperbole, such as the titular character beating her aunt over the head while a thunderstorm rages behind her in the window. That is not my subject for right now, however.

Instead, allow me to introduce you to Iverstown, the “fastest-growing industrial city in America,” as its welcome sign proclaims. Home to a sprawling factory complex, the kind that will no doubt condemn Iverstown to rapid decay into a “Rust Belt” city sometime around 1978, the city is owned by Martha Ivers. Though by the end she reveals herself to be a fairly standard femme fatale, Martha is first and foremost a cunning entrepreneur, taking her inheritance and expanding it tenfold. In a capitalist reading of the Parable of the Talents, she would be commended for her enterprise. She is not merely idly rich, basking in sensual delights, but what commentators in the United States sometimes (laughably) call “a job creator,” the subject of a lengthy Ayn Rand novel.

Though her inevitable death at the end of the film could be attributed to her status as a femme fatale, I believe there is another angle to this. Her husband, Walter, who has served her well as the respectable public face of her cutthroat business operations. Consider that she proves herself capable of murder, it is advantageous to her to have the law captive to her funds and will. In the end, however, Walter, an individual from the start stunted by his father, murders her. Could this be the sign of a society attempting to resolve the contradictions inherent in a figure like Martha, who is both aristocrat and industrialist, married woman and master of the market? I think it’s a possibility worth exploring in greater depth.

 

Film Noir Series: Murder, My Sweet (1944)

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Murder, My Sweet is notable as a wartime noir, one of the early heralds of the style’s ascent in the banner year of 1944. Coming out in the same year as Double Indemnity, the first film I dealt with in this series, there is considerable atmospheric and stylistic overlap between the two classic noir films. They both bear the stylistic hallmarks of the “series:” disorienting camera work (and optical effects in the case of this film) suggesting subjective rather than objective storytelling, stark shadows, intimidating staircases, sinister opulence in set design, and their West Coast setting. In many ways, however, the two films have significant differences as well. The two most obviously distinguish Murder, My Sweet from its bleaker cousin are Dick Powell’s light-footed performance as Philip Marlowe and the more conventional ending.

Powell is a delight in his role, scraping up against unsavory characters with a dry, quick wit. Unlike Bannion in The Big Heat, he lacks a freight train punch and unlike Bogart in The Maltese Falcon he is often genuinely bewildered, at a loss, or indisposed due to being drugged–though the latter also happened to the otherwise invincible Bogart. His defense methods are necessarily more verbal, especially when confronted with a huge adversary like Moose Malloy, who is none too bright but can break a man in two like a stalk of celery. Marlowe keeps his integrity and, most of the time, his cool, poking constant fun at his supposed betters. One shot of him striking a match against Cupid’s posterior is genuinely funny, and this levity makes the entire affair at once more hopeful and more dangerous. We as the audience understand that this sense of humor covers for a physical weakness. In one harrowing and hallucinatory stint under the influence of drugs, we are treated to genuinely surrealistic imagery, a rarity in the films noirs we have seen so far. I found the comedy and some of the bolder subjective distortions applied to the camera, meant to represent Marlowe’s interior state, thrilling. It was, at least, an appreciated ray of sunshine piercing through both the winter murk outside and the dark bleak cloud the other films have cast over the theatre.

The ending is less convincing than Powell, if only because it seems all too easy by comparison with some of its more tough-minded or materialistic peers. I think it works on its own merits, however, and is neither frivolous nor unearned. While, as a classmate of mine pointed out, there is a sense in which the happy ending violates some of the basic tenets of the noir mood, I believe that this slight transgression is a well-deserved one, especially when the film spends most of its time wandering through an intimidating fog. Narrative threads don’t connect in immediately obvious ways, and Marlowe is often forced to throw up his hands at the futility of it all. No one is honest except him, and I think it is at least emotionally gratifying to see that integrity rewarded for once.

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