Noir of the Mind

And so we come to the end of our saga of film noir, and we end it with this nice little Scorsese film, Shutter Island. It is a neo-noir in the Nolan vein, with a focus on identity, memory, and psychology that connects it to Memento. It would be all too easy to point out the similarities between Shutter Island to the classic and modern noirs; instead, let’s talk about the reasons Shutter Island is not a noir.

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Now, what sets Shutter Island apart most from the other noirs is the big reveal at the end, and this is for two reasons. The first is that, Memento possibly aside, none of our noirs were psychotic fantasies. Certainly other films had subjective view points, but Shutter Island is the first to make the audience question everything they saw in the film. Was the storm actually happening? Did they actually put Teddy on the ship? Did Teddy actually see the Mark Ruffalo down on those rocks, and did he just have a conversation with himself in the cave? The second reason is that in most of our film noirs, especially the classical era films, it is not the mystery of the crime that drives the story. We see how Phyllis and Neff kill Mr. Dietrichson, and Harry Lymes is revealed to not be dead only about half way through The Third Man. In the older films, the twist served the film; in Shutter Island, the film seems to serve the twist.

This, I would argue, makes Shutter Island less Noir-ish. In most of the classic noirs, the world is what’s important. Young Charlie is shown that evil can thrive, even in her small town; Margie learns something similar in Brainerd. Holly Martin is shown true nihilism in Harry, and Jake Gittes stares into the darkness of society as he is dragged away at the end of Chinatown. Film noirs almost universally share a world devoid of an overarching meaning, and most of the narratives consist of characters coming to understand this.

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"Do I look like Bogart if I crinkle my face like this?"

It is not so with Shutter Island. Instead, the world that Teddy/Andrew constructs in his head is much more nihilistic, it seems, than the world out side of it. In the constructed world, there is an evil plot to experiment on the insane; in the real world, the psychologists are really just trying to help. It may be that Shutter Island does have some of the problems that Teddy sees in his constructed world; however, because we are guided by Teddy’s subjective view point, we can only surmise and never actually know what it really is like. This is not a negative, though. Indeed, the film is very powerful if read as saying that the nihilism in noir comes from the interior, not the exterior. Shutter Island, then, might just be a metaphor for the specific type of film making that goes into Film Noir: a person has to creates a meaningless world and throws a hero into it. Maybe Wilder, Hitchcock, et al, need to spend some time on a psychologists couch.

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Gandhi never died; he just became a psychologist.

To be fair, the “real” world of Shutter Island does seem bleak; Dachau and the triple murder of the children seem to point that out. However, the doctors question the truth of what Teddy’s firing quad memories at Dachau, and the murder is attributed to Teddy’s wife’s own psychological issues. Both of the darkest elements of the film are both, in a way, written off as products of mental issues. I would say that while Shutter Island is a noir, it is a noir of the mind, and not a noir of the world.

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623 Words of Me Complaining Under the Guise of Academic Film Criticism.

The queen of weirdness, at least on our syllabus, is Blue Velvet. It is filled with those moments when you just go “huh? what did I just see?” and leave you thinking about the film hours after it is over. However, many noirs have these moments. My personal favorite is that balloon salesman in The Third Man. He is given so much screen time, and I’m still not really sure why. Fargo too is painted with a coat of the weird, as seen in details like the accordion poster on Scotty’s door. Why is this obviously fake poster of an unpopular musical instrument placed in the center of the frame? These are little moments, but they really add to the universe these movies construct.

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On a semi-related note, I started to watch Twin Peaks. There is a lot of weird in Twin Peaks.

It’s probably wrong to read too much into these little weird moments, but I’m going to go ahead and over analyze it anyway. Most film noirs have a sense of nihilist absurdity; the world is pointless and that combined with Human’s desperate desire for sense makes reality nonsensical. The plot trope of searching for capital T-truth—which I’ve talked about before—and the fact that it is never really found by anyone, is a narrative metaphor for this absurdity. Young Charlie becomes cold and cynical when she sees the absurdity, Walter Neff becomes introspective and melancholic, and indeed, pessimism is a fair reaction. However, the moments of weird—the balloon-man, the accordion, that thing on Jeffery’s wall—are almost an optimistic reaction to it. They acknowledge the strangeness of realizing a lack of meaning, and have fun with it. When our desire for meaning is met with a random picture of a polka player, we’re able to laugh.

I am talking about this weirdness for a reason, and a Memento related reason. In terms of weirdness, Memento is like Zooey Deschanel. At first, it seems really strange, maybe to the point of being off-putting—hey, this girl is Elf is really quirky and interesting—but then once you see it for a second or third time you realize that its, well, frankly, not really all that different—oh, now she has a show on Fox based on how quirky and interesting she is; well, at least she understands capitalism. Yes, Memento does have a structure that is undeniably cool and probably accurate in how it portrays anterograde amnesia. But it seems that beyond the structure the movie is not really weird at all.

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See, just the weird, quirky, girl next store...with eyes you could get lost in...

For example, in the beginning of the movie (which is the end of the story) Guy Pierce has two scars running parallel on his left cheek. These are extremely noticeable, due to frequent close ups and reaction shots to Guy’s face. And of course, eventually we are shown exactly how he received those scars. It’s the same thing with the writing on the back of the cards, the gun, the different characters, the beer that the man laughs at; everything receives its explanation. There is nothing left for the audience to question or to really talk about after the movie is over. The movie is like doing a puzzle, but saving the corner and edge pieces for last; it is a longer and more complex path toward creating a big picture, but in the end the picture is the same.

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Oh my gosh, why does he have those scars! I hope the movie shows me exactly how.

Now, I’m not saying that this A) makes Memento a bad movie or B) not a film noir. There are plenty of film noirs that took themselves very seriously but were still excellent. Chinatown made sense, as did Klute, and they weren’t that weird. Most of the older films, too, had very few strange moments. I guess all I’m trying to say is that if you want your world to be cold and absurd, its always good to toss in the inexplicable.

Ways of Speaking

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But the movie barely even takes place there!

 

Closer to the end of Fargo, Carl, after being beaten by Shep, calls Jerry Lundegaard in a fit of rage. He screams the instructions at Jerry, telling him to meet at the rooftop at the agreed time. The call is both serendipitous and disastrous for Jerry; Carl’s anger keeps an eavesdropping Wade from discovering Jerry’s complicity, but it also leads Wade to his death and destroys Jerry’s last chances at escaping his bungled plot with his family un-harmed. Despite realizing the import of the phone call—a realization conveyed by William H. Macy’s excellent acting—Jerry still ends the conversation with “Okay, real good then.”

In the earlier, classical noirs, most dialogue can be characterized as either sharp or attempting to be sharp. Holly Martin never minces words, and always has a retort at the ready for Major Calloway. Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson casually lob innuendos at one another, playing with words in language in clever ways. Even the dialogue that comes off as stilted, such as the “my little friend” conversation in the beginning of Gilda, it is still attempting to achieve that edged, fast-moving feel. This sharp dialogue carried over into the modernist era of noir, as evidenced in the sno-cone “Don’t you want to lick it off” scene between Matty and Ned early in Body Heat.

It is not so with Fargo. Characters speak slowly, and with heavy midwestern accents that would immediately frustrate a New Yorker. Lines are repeated multiple times, and even in heated situations characters refuse to doff their masks of politeness. It makes the characters seem vapid and unintelligent, and indeed, many of the characters are unable to fully grasp the events unfolding around them. Lou the police officer, for example, fails to realize that DLR stands for Dealer plates, only confirming the expectations of his accent and politeness.

In a way, this sort of transgression of dialogue in Fargo marks it as a Post-modern noir. The Coen brothers, obviously aware of the noir influences on their film, made a conscious choice to have the characters be from this specific region and have that specific dialect in response to the snappy dialogue of its ancestors.

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Frances McDormand channeling Clint Eastwood

 

The true transgressive character of Fargo, then, is Marge. She speaks in the slow, overly polite manner that dominates the film. Yet, she is clearly one of the few characters who understands what is happening in the world around her. She unravels the crime with fairly minimal effort, and takes down a dangerous psychopath, all without forgetting her manners. With Marge the simple lifestyle she leads is presented as a choice. She has chosen to live in this small town, and to marry a kind if simple husband, and to work with a sometimes inept police force. This is a reversal from the older Noirs, in which the characters lived in fast-talking cities and were attracted to intelligent and sharp women.

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Look at how Psychotic this man is, and take note. I use it in my next paragraph.

 

There is one problem, though. In the scene in which Marge is talking to the handcuffed Gaear. She is monologue to the characteristically silent Gaear, and eventually says “There’s more to life than a little money, y’know that.” This seems to be the one scene in which Marge fails to understand what has happened in her snowy town. The camera cuts to a close up of Gaear and the audience is reminded of what was revealed in the State Trooper murder scene: that Gaear is not interested in money as much as he is in causing pain and destruction. He kills on a whim, and, judging by the gory ways he carries out his homicides, he thrills in the violence of it. This is why Marge notes that it is hard for her to understand how money and greed could have led to the crimes committed: because she cannot see that there is a far darker force at work.

Weird Movies Leading to Weird Blog Posts

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I admit it, I cheated. Although it wasn’t on purpose. I had no idea that the David Foster Wallace essay I was going to read was going to be on a film I would watch for a movie class just three weeks later. And that that film would be Blue Velvet, which is a film that is probably best watched with little prior knowledge. I consider this cheating because Wallace gives a lens through which to watch Lynch’s films by defining the term “Lynchian” as “a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter.” This idea was in my brain as I watched the movie, and I was denied the pleasure of—perhaps–coming to a conclusion like it on my own. It also gave me an idea of what to expect, so I wasn’t as creeped out/shocked/surprised as I could have been. Oh well. (The essay, which is titled David Lynch Keeps His Head and is mostly about Lost Highway, is great as a reader, but awful as a writer, mostly because I spent the whole time reading it wishing I could write that well about anything).

As I was leaving the screening, someone commented that he/she had no idea what to blog about. I said that I could write a hundred blogs on the movie.

Noir Element in Blue Velvet: The Femme Fatale. The most obvious example is Dorothy, specifically in the scene where she convinces Jefferey to hit her. She doesn’t have the sociopathy of a Phyllis or a Matty, but in some ways she is worse. She is not fooling Jefferey, or making him believe in a false love. Instead she is revealing depravity that actually existed inside of him.

However, the Jurassic Park-Sandy is a far worse Femme Fatale, because she represses Jefferey’s depravity. This is what enabled a person like Frank to exist in Lumberton: the general (and perhaps willing) ignorance of any sort of dark side of humanity. One of the men working with Frank was in the police department, an occurrence that would take a large degree of either incompetence or naivete, unless the townsfolk simply refused to see any badness. Then it would be easy for a criminal to become a functioning member of society. Sandy is a Femme Fatale because she leads Jefferey to forget anything he learned from Dorothy and Frank; she is the Robin that eats the Beetle. Eating the beetle takes the insect out of your sight, but also makes it a part of your interior, where it is more difficult to remove.

What exactly does the Grandmother eat in the last scene?

Noir Element in Blue Velvet: Neon “lux.” In the first scene in which Dorothy sings Blue Velvet—which is more like a “first look” than the film’s real “first look” in the apartment—she is bathed in blue artificial light and framed by two blue squiggle neon lights. This clues us in that 1)she is some sort of Femme Fatale and that 2) Jefferey is going to take some sort of illumination from her. Of course, from Kiss Me Deadly and other films we know that the illumination offered by “lux” (I might be switching the terms) is shallow and untenable without the illumination from “lumen.” However, as I mentioned above, in this film the “lux,”–an illumination that reveals Jefferey’s violence and depravity—seems more real than the “lumen” that apparently is offered by Sandy.

Typing “Blue Velvet Theories” into Google lead me to a feminist article on the Oedipal Aspects of the film, a film forum whose members recommend watching Inland Empire at 2AM for the best effect, an essay on postmodernism in BV that quotes David Foster Wallace in the first sentence, a blog that links to a J.G. Ballard essay on the film, and a fashion blog named Blue Velvet (there are no other mentions to Lynch on the blog, so the name might be coincidental; however, the faces of many of the models on the site are creepy).

Someone else said, after the movie was over, “so it was all a dream?”

An interesting compare/contrast blog would be young Charlie and Jefferey. Both are innocents living in a small town, whose world views are warped by the immorality they are exposed to. However, Young Charlie keeps what she has learned, and Hitchcock leads the viewer to believe that she will forever be aware of the darkness in humanity. The banality in the ending of BV reveals that Jefferey is going to, instead, repress/ignore what he has learned.

 

A Vague, Muddled Discussion of Why I Disliked Body Heat

Body Heat, as discussed in class, is one of the first “Postmodern Neo-Noirs”–that is, one of the first movies to be self aware of its noir qualities. It’s plot is a light tracing of Double Indemnity, with sex added in bulk to remind viewers that we are, in fact, in the 1980’s. Ned is a double for Neff, amoral, gullible, and masculine. Matty Walker is a post-1970’s Phyllis, more diabolical, more intoxicating. Ted Danson and J.A. Preston act as Keyes split in two, the friend and the unbending law enforcer. The connections run through the entire movie, giving it definition. The problem with the film, though, is that it is not clear what this homage is trying to say. I know this blog isn’t meant to “review” films, but bear with me—thinking this through will help me in understanding the next films we watch.

Oh, I understand, the lighting is low and looks like chiaro scuro! Clever.

In Body Heat, many of the references to early noirs just sit there, winks with nothing behind them. Take for example, Matty Walker. She is supposed to be the Femme Fatale character, and she succeeds in filling out the role. She manipulates every man in the story, uses her looks and femininity for her own ends, is appropriately cold in the beginning and then warms up to our weak male protagonist as the movie proceeds; there is not much in the movie that makes her stand out from the stock description. And that would be fine, if the reference had a point. But it is only descriptive; there is no criticism or re-imagining of the character type. She is shown to be the victor in the final shot of the film—the opposite of Phyllis’s fate– but it’s not for any real purpose. I don’t feel like I should hate Matty, or should be happy that she out-thought the police. I don’t feel anything for her really. The same thing goes for Ned; I acknowledge that he is gullible and inept, but I don’t pity or hate him. He just felt like a type.

Oh, and she gave him a fedora because this guy always wore a fedora. Kasdan is just so smart.

The reason I’m writing about this is because I’m starting to think context affects the way I watch films, and that context is one of the reasons I disliked Body Heat. We’ve been talking about these character types and narrative strategies so much that Body Heat‘s straight forward presentation of them made me feel like I was reading a text book, or that I was watching a film made by someone who was in our class and wanted to show off what he/she had learned.

That being said, if I had seen Body Heat in 1981, with a decent but not precise knowledge of film up until that point, I might have loved it. It would have felt fresh to bring back the strategies of 40’s cinema. I would have recognized that the film was playing with types I knew existed, but had never really thought about. But when I watch it now I want the film to play with and challenge my knowledge, not just reference it.

In other words, I can't wait to watch this guy's movie.

Fear in a Handful of Dust

Then you will know the truth, and the truth shall set you free – John 8:32

During his first meeting with Noah Cross, Jake Gittes is insulted by the older man and gets up to leave. Cross tells him to sit back down, saying that “You [Gittes] may think you know what you’re dealing with, but believe me, you don’t.” Jake smiles, laughs, and tells Cross that “that’s what the district attorney used to tell me in Chinatown.”

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Chinatown tip #1: Anyone who eats fish with heads is evil.

For Noir protagonists, truth is primary. Young Charlie kills her uncle in her search for the truth, Holly Martin kills his friend. Mike Hammer is shown a type of truth by Christina in Kiss Me Deadly, and spends the rest of the movie searching after it. Johnny, in Gilda, knows the truth about Gilda, and becomes obsessed with keeping it from Ballin. Even Walter Neff, our weak male protagonist par excellence, puts telling the truth of higher importance that escaping to mexico.

In Chinatown, Jake Gittes is no different. Certainly he is motivated by his reputation, and eventually by his feelings for Evelyn, but his primary mover is the desire for the truth. For instance, in the scene in which the truth of Katherine’s parentage is revealed, Gittes is almost manic in his slapping of Evelyn. He does suspect her of murder, but what motivates him in his violence is primal, deeper than betrayal.

Judging by the moral and philosophical influences and themes of noir, the protagonist’s search for truth is symbolic of the search for a Truth with a capital T. The search for meaning, a cause, an unmoved mover. The protagonists, in searching out crime and evil, are searching out a reason for this evil, a justification or retribution for it. In The Third Man, Holly takes his stand against the nihilism of Harry Lime, just as young Charlie does in Shadow of a Doubt. In these classical noir’s, the capital-T-truth, while not proven, is at least hinted towards: Harry and Old Charlie pay for their crimes and the perspective on the world is re-aligned along the lines of conventional morality.

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They celebrate dragons in Chinatown? How twisted that place must be!

Not so in Chinatown. It may be a result of the defunct production code, but Jake’s search for Truth is the first to end in absolute despair. The woman he loves is dead, her daughter in the hands of a incestuous rapist. The city is going to die of thirst, and the people who can save it are instead choosing to stuff their wallets. Even the most basic of elements, water, seems evil; it kills two men in the film. When cross says that Gittes doesn’t know what he is “dealing with,” Cross is talking about the capital T-truth; Gittes believes he will uncover a decent world, one in which the muderer will be revealed and appropriately punished. However, this is not what he finds; the real world is one in which the murderer wins, and corruption is intrinsic. The capital-T-truth Gittes uncovers is that his opinion on Chinatown is not indicative Chinatown, but of all of Los Angeles. And in that way, Chinatown is the darkest movie we’ve seen, despite taking place in such a sunny place. 

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This man has played one too many dark roles, methinks.

Darkness and Corruption

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Remember me when I am gone away,

Gone far away into the silent land;

When you can no more hold me by the hand,

Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.

Kiss Me Deadly references Christina Rosetti’s sonnet “Remember” multiple times. I don’t know if this is an element adapted from the Mickey Spillane novel, but either way it was included, and thus has an importance to what takes place in the film. The poem is beautiful; it consists of a speaker addressing a lover, telling him/her how to deal with the speaker’s eventual death. It is sad, but also hopeful. It is not immediately clear how this poem interacts with the events in the film. Kiss Me Deadly is concerned with the universal decay of the American society, as seen in the sprawling, dangerous city, the nihilism and decadence displayed by all of the characters, and the unleashing of the nuclear destruction at the end of the film. How can a personal poem about love survive in such a world?

Remember me when no more, day by day,

You tell me of our future that you plann’d:

Only remember me; you understand

It will be late to counsel then or pray.

Of course, the irony that the world presented in the poem is not the world presented in the film–and that this irony is lost on all of the characters–is probably the point. It is a sign that the world that Hammer inhabits is devoid of poetry. In the scene when Carver reads the poem aloud, Hammer treats it only as a tool. The poem is just another clue for him, one that leads him to a new act of violence. Any beauty or aesthetic value is non-existent; function is all that matters.

Yet if you should forget me for a while

And afterwards remember, do not grieve:

For if the darkness and corruption leave

A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,

The poem’s treatment of death provides another criticism of the world of Kiss Me Deadly. The body count is gigantic. In the first ten minutes the first character we meet is killed, and Hammer unravels the mystery through violence, moving from corpse to corpse until the audience is numb to death. Eventually death seems a non-event; when Gabrielle kills the main villain at the end of the film, it barely registers to the audience, because they just saw the main villain’s face for the first time. I don’t even remember his name. Only the unleashing of nuclear holocaust can rouse these characters and get them to consider their own mortality, and Hammer and Velda do in the surf. The poem’s careful, sweet consideration of death has no place in a world where violence is almost always the first course of action.

Better by far you should forget and smile

Than that you should remember and be sad.

Much as the the poem’s view on death is unable to exist in the world of Kiss Me Deadly, it’s idea of love, too, is stifled. Sexuality is used as either a tool or a plaything; women come on to Hammer within seconds of meeting him, and he receives them with open arms. Hammer and Velda’s relationship is the closest the film comes to portraying any sort of love, whether romantic or humanistic, and it is characterized as a business partnership, in which they use their bodies for gain. Again, it appears that a nuclear event is the only thing that allows Hammer and Velda to consider their relationship as something more than a sexual and monetary practicality. The emotions in Rossetti’s poem are unthinkable in this version of Los Angeles. The poem acts as a window into another, happier world, but it is a window the characters are unable to look through.