Friday, December 19, 2008

Film Noir Day Four: Psychotic, Suicidal Impulses and Taxi Driver

We wrap up this session on film noir with one of my favorite questions on any exam ever. There were seven topics from which to draw two, and after Point Blank, I chose this one. At the end of today's post-o-rama, I'll share the other five roads not taken. If any of you are interested in reading more about them, I'd be happy to indulge, of feel welcome to take a stab at them yourself.

But first, the final exam question, #9:

Taxi Driver is a neo-noir descended from the 50's film noir of "psychotic action and suicidal impulse" (Schrader). Elaborate on this statement and with reference to other, similar films situate Taxi Driver as a watershed noir in the historical development of this specific tendency (between 50's and recent noir).

The “psychotic action and suicidal impulse” that marks late term noir began not with a bang but a drink, a fatal one for Frank Bigelow. 1950’s D.O.A. is the first clear example of that shift in noir from one of hopeless optimism to bleak pessimism, culminating in violence in every direction. D.O.A., like The Big Heat and Kiss Me Deadly introduce audiences not to hapless losers but to men with nothing left to live for but destruction, men who have no time for femme fatales or murder schemes, even if their respective films offer up both. They lay the ground for Travis Bickle and Taxi Driver despite never committing fully to the nihilistic tendency.

Frank Bigelow is a dead man when viewers meet him in D.O.A.; he arrives to report a murder, and when the detectives ask him “who”, he replies “me”. The flashback prior to Bigelow’s poisoning is an elaborate game of misdirection, leading the audience to wonder how he came to be a walking “dead man”, but the key to D.O.A. is the moment he realizes there is no cure. Bigelow runs through the streets in a panic, trying to escape at all costs his fate.

When Bigelow finally accepts his fate, his character shifts from the classic noir type to a man on a singular mission: to find out who killed him and why. The film can be maddening, because despite this suicidal approach, Bigelow is somehow unwilling to take his death sentence to its extreme. When threatened by Chester the first time, Bigelow caves in and turns himself over. It is as though the conceit of the film is not enough to support a narrative structure, so writers Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene find excuses for Bigelow to be afraid of injury, despite the glaring evidence that he WILL die no matter what he does.

The Big Heat’s Dave Bannion becomes the psychotic hero not because he himself faces death, but because Mike Lagana and Vince Stone take everything away from him. Bannion is trying by the best of his ability to clean up a system afraid of the mob, and as punishment his wife is killed in an explosion meant for him. When his superior officers tacitly refuse to apprehend the guilty parties, Bannion resigns from the force, sells his house, hides his daughter, and sets out on what appears to be a suicide mission of vengeance.

And yet Bannion is not fully psychotic or suicidal. He abandons the system and makes strides that indicate to Stone and Lagana that he is not afraid to die, but by the end of the film, he returns to the Police Force, comfortable at his desk. Only Debby, Stone’s “girl” actually dies to stop any of the corruption. Bannion’s suicidal impulse transfers to here, absolving him of any guilt. Dave Bannion gets his vengeance without any of the blood on his hands.

If the classical era of noir actually has a psychotic (and suicidal) hero, it must be Mike Hammer of Kiss Me Deadly. Not only does Hammer not seem to care who he offends (police and criminals alike), but he brazenly pushes forward when it is clear he is mentally incapable of grasping the crime he nearly ran into. Hammer appears to care about superficial things in life: the top of the line car, futuristic apartment, the secretary / girlfriend who does his bidding. If another man insults him or stands in the way, Hammer simply beats him into submission and moves on.

Kiss Me Deadly comes the closest to Taxi Driver in that the consequences of Hammer’s actions have a (literally) explosive outcome; one that, depending on which version you see, kills Hammer and his secretary in the process.

Where Taxi Driver becomes the “watershed” noir for the psychotic action and suicidal impulse lies within Travis’s inability to do anything but destroy (himself or others). Bickle is, to put it simply, a weapon without a direction to point in. His disgust with New York is exacerbated by driving all over the city at night and dealing with the very worst it has to offer. In his spare time he stews, going to porno theaters without release or stewing at home, a veritable sty of fast food and garbage.

Travis Bickle does not have a femme fatale to draw him in, so he creates two: Betsy, a campaign volunteer for Senator Charles Palantine, and Iris, a child-prostitute. His “Madonna/Whore” complex becomes the catalyst for a purpose, although in both cases it is wholly destructive. Travis alienates both women, but directs his anger at the men they represent.

Without any interest for his own well-being, Bickle pushes forward to realize his goal of being a psychopathic killer. His rage at Betsy redirected at Palantine, Travis comes to believe that his act will have major repercussions, fixing a world he has no use for (and evidently no cure for). When he fails, instead of trying to adjust his mindset, the suicidal Bickle storms into the brother where Iris stays, killing Sport, her pimp, his boss, and the john with Iris in an outburst of blood and severed limbs.

Bickle, who sustains injuries in the shoulder and the neck, fully intends to kill himself as Iris screams beside him. Her salvation was not part of his plan, if he truly had one, and a lack of ammunition is his salvation, though he clearly has no use for life. The police, storming into the aftermath of Travis’s rampage, find him “shooting” himself in the head with his finger. Bickle, the suicidal psychopath, has finally lost it.

If there is any question that the epilogue to the film, which finds Travis back in good health and lauded as a “hero”, sullies this climax, consider the final moments of Taxi Driver. Bickle, who appears back to “normal”, drops Betsy off in his taxi and drives away. He catches something in the reflection behind him, and the “normal” fa├žade drops. Adjusting the mirror, Travis sees only himself. His rehabilitation was not complete; the cycle will begin again, and next time it may not end happily.

A curious side effect of the psychotic action hero occurs less in neo-noir and more to this day in action films like The Punisher or Death Wish. The lone hero, which traces itself back to pre-noir detective films and has its own watershed moment with Dirty Harry, is a spin-off of this psychotic action and suicidal impulse. It continues to appear in neo-noir or noir pastiches like Sin City, but the current crop of post-classical directors seem to be more fascinated with revisionist takes on pre-1950s noir conventions.

And that's it for the exam. Other questions included:

3) Discuss the image and function of women in Fritz Lang's The Big Heat

4) Discuss Orson Welles' use of expressionist visual techniques in Touch of Evil, then compare the black and white noir aesthetics of Touch of Evil with the neo-expressionist use of colors and light in Taxi Driver.

5) In what ways is Chinatown a nostalgic homage to film noir? In what ways is it a revisionist neo-noir?

6) Explain why post-WWII Vienna is a particularly apt setting for the noir story of The Third Man? How does it serve to reveal and explore noir themes (male identity crisis, systemic corruption, and personal betrayal)? How does the set-piece chase sequence through the watery sewers of Vienna fucntion as a metaphor for the film's over-arching themes, and, more generally, as archetypal signifier of one of noir's most basic psychological motifs?

7) The set-piece opening sequence in Touch of Evil is famous. Explain why. Explain also why it is often considered as an exemplary utilization of cinematic techniques.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Film Noir Day Three: Point Blank

Today's entry comes with a serious SPOILER warning. If you have not seen John Boorman's Point Blank, there is no point in reading this post. It discusses major plot points, one large-ish twist, and the ending of the film, as well as a possible interpretation that would ruin the first time experience of the film.

You have been warned. Continue if you a) have seen Point Blank, or b) think you'll be okay.

Question #8:

About his film Point Blank, director John Boorman said that "one should be able to imagine that this whole story of vengeance is taking place inside [Walker's] head at the moment of his death." Explain.

(note: during editing the first paragraph, which sets things up a little bit, was cut in order to fit the two page limit. I have not been able to locate the earlier draft, but this should not hinder your ability to read the essay)

Only upon viewing Point Blank a second, third or fourth time does the construction of Boorman’s first act make sense. If Walker is in fact dying, the initial flash of memories will be chaotic, even if Boorman must also catch the audience up quickly. Viewers need to learn (if not understand) that Walker and Mal are associates, and that Lynne, Walker’s wife, betrays him. In rapid succession, these jagged memories bleed together, until Walker’s imagination takes over.

As an audience, it is more convenient not to ask why Walker is not bleeding as he crawls out of Alcatraz, or how he could survive the swim (which is impossible, according to narration which accompanies his “escape”). Boorman weaves a series of disorienting sound bridges and flash forwards as Walker returns home, most notably the “footsteps” sequence, where the sound of his feet continue well after it is clear Lee Marvin is no longer walking.

The first true key that the story is happening in Walker’s mind comes the morning after he finds Lynne dead, when the abstract style of editing moves from disorienting to hallucinatory. Walker (who to this point has not spoken to anyone other than a man named Yost), washes his face off in her bathroom, and finds a bottle of perfume he broke the night before sitting on the shelf, untouched. He breaks it again, and walks back to Lynne’s room, only to find the bed empty. No sheets, no pillows, no Lynne; only a white cat.

Inside the living room, Walker opens the shades to find Yost in the driveway, but the sunlight drives him backwards, into a suddenly empty living room. Walker is alone, living in the world of his mind, reminded in flashes that this fantasy cannot continue indefinitely. By the time Stegman’s stooge arrives, the house is back as it was. Walker’s imagine is not permanent, but it is nevertheless powerful. The quest for vengeance is a personal one, yet he includes other characters, but always ones connected to Mal or Lynne.

Walker’s ability to infiltrate The Organization, for that matter, hinges on the presence of Yost, who is in fact Fairfax, the third member of the operation Mal is willing to kill to get back into. Fairfax facilitates Walker’s ability to get home, provides him with information Chris could not possibly know (the whereabouts of Brewster), and appears to have his own agenda, providing a possibility of two vengeful spirits. Fairfax, like Walker, is supposed to be “dead”, as Carter and Brewster put it.

Nowhere in Point Blank is Walker directly responsible for the death of those who wronged him: Lynne overdoses on sleeping pills, Reese falls from a penthouse suite, Carter is shot by an assassin, and Brewster is killed by Yost / Fairfax. Walker roughs up some of Carter’s men, injures Stegman, and goads Chris into trapping Carter, but he is only unintentionally involved in Carter’s fall.
At the end of the film, after a “love scene” that demonstrates Walker’s conflation of reality with fantasy (a Walker/Carter/Lynne/Chris series of rollovers in bed), Brewster brings Walker to what we assume is Alcatraz to finally get his money back. Walker obscured in shadows, watches Fairfax and the mysterious assassin kill Brewster and call out for their spectral partner.

Even as Fairfax leaves the money for Walker, he does not re-emerge. As the audience asks themselves “well, where did he go?” the camera rises to show the actual Alcatraz across the San Francisco Bay. Walker went to Alcatraz, or rather, he never left.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Film Noir Day Two: High and Low Art Revisited

For today's discussion of film noir, we'll be headed back into some territory covered earlier this fall about "high" and "low" art, but from a broader perspective. Instead of making judgment calls about what qualifies, we were asked to look at how film noir exists in both categories at once.

Question 2:

According to James Naremore, "film noir occupies a liminal space somewhere between Europe and America, between high modernism and 'blood melodrama,' and between low-budget crime movies and art cinema." Illuminate this assertion using specific examples of films studied in this course.

The curious space that film noir occupies frequently straddles high and low art captured the interest of French Critics. Frequently helmed by foreign directors (often of German or Austrian descent), what Americans considered "crime pictures" were, in fact, packed with deeper meaning. They often expressed concepts familiar to European modernists, or made oblique references to psychology or literature American audiences were missing. Films like Touch of Evil borrow extensively from the camerawork of men like Fritz Lang, and of the inventiveness in European cinema. The psychological drama occurring between Walter Neff and Barton Keyes in Double Indemnity was not lost on French audiences, even as Americans fixated upon Barbra Stanwyck's blonde wig.

At the same time, the elements of low art attracted the surrealist critics in France. It was not merely the subtext of the films which fascinated them, but also the brutal violence, sometimes exaggerated, but always present. Post-classical noir continues this trend, and noir in all of its forms exists somewhere in the nebulous region which is both high and low (not coincidentally the title of Akira Kurosawa's early Japanese neo-noir).

Touch of Evil, which borrows so heavily the cinematography of European cinema is at the same time a film dwelling in sleaze. Mike and Susie Vargas, an interracial couple on the border between US and Mexico, share a kiss so explosive it kills the driver of a nearby car. The two events are not directly linked, but Welles chooses to have his first cut in a three minute take make the implicit connection between one and the other. Janet Leigh's Susie spends much of the film either being menaced by thugs or in various states of undressed. Marketing for Touch of Evil, considered to be a hallmark of high art, fixates upon the salacious aspects of Susie's kidnapping, asking "what did they do to this woman?"

Because of the scandalous nature of homosexuality at the time, a number of films in classical noir tend to skirt around the subject, making sly references or jokes about characters. It is abundantly clear now that Waldo Lydecker of Laura is a homosexual, but because of production codes, the film must maintain some ambiguity, even if it was likely evident to audiences at the time. The same can be said of Mike Lagana in The Big Heat, who is awoken by a man in a bathrobe inside his home. While noir never explicitly states the sexual preferences of these men, it does exploit the scandalous nature by making them significant characters.

Similarly, psychopaths tend to appear frequently in film noir, whether it is Chester in D.O.A. or Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Chester is not merely some thug sent to rough up Frank Bigelow; he is a full on sadist who takes enjoyment beating up people, and openly challenges Bigelow to try anything with violent repercussions. And Chester is merely the henchman of a crime lord who calmly sends Bigelow to his death! Travis Bickle has a considerably slower burn, but his violent outburst at the end of Taxi Driver is more chaotic and bloody than any film in the classical era. At the same time, Martin Scorsese films his rampage and its aftermath in a unique and artful manner when compared to modern crime films.

Even when noir spends much of its time dwelling in the low end of the art spectrum, as in Kiss Me Deadly or D.O.A., it introduces novel concepts for the style. Both films deal directly with fears of radiation poisoning to different ends. A film like The Big Heat, which is unquestionably misogynistic, still contains implicit condemnations of the Nazis and gives the best character role to Debby, the smarter-than-she-acts moll of gangster Vince Stone.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Film Noir Final Day One: From Noir to Neo-Noir

As promised last night, for the next few days I'll be sharing some thoughts on film noir, courtesy of the final exam for the class. Unlike the last exam, this was a better opportunity to look at the style/genre/movement in a broader context. Accordingly, I had the chance to cover a little more ground on parts of the exam and the ability to really hone in on Point Blank, something I'll share with you guys on Thursday.

To start off, we'll take Question 1, which reads thusly:

Give a brief overview of the development of post-classical or neo-noir (from Touch of Evil to the present). Isolate and explain at least three elements of neo-noir that are characteristic, yet differ from the elements of classic noir.

After Kiss Me Deadly, which French critics considered the "final" classical era noir, there exists merely a two year gap before the birth of the post-classical era, thanks to the perennially ahead-of-his-time Orson Welles. While Touch of Evil retains some of the hallmarks or noir (black and white photography, a murder mystery, and a fixation upon the "lower class"), the film begins changing elements understood to be mandatory for the style.

What Touch of Evil began was a reflexive quality towards the classical era, one that Wilder toyed with in Sunset Boulevard. The post-classical (and later "neos") are aware of the existence of classical noir and do not feel the need to adhere to any or all of the conventions which made a film "noir". There are three key distinctions between "classic" noir and "neo" noir, all linked inextricably to the first wave of "film school auteurs"; directors not of the studio system but instead products of the experience of film.

Revisionism of the past began around the same time that neo-noir truly returned to form, the 1970s. While not unique to neo-noir, it became chic to take conventions of the classical era and openly question them on film. Chinatown is perhaps the first example of post-classical noir functioning as revisionist cinema, something that became a hallmark of almost all neo-noirs.

While Chinatown takes place in the 1930s, Roman Polanski and Robert Towne's film is clearly a product of the post-Vietnam / Watergate mentality. Classical noir involved some degree of criticism towards authority figures (particularly Double Indemnity and The Big Heat), but in the end good always triumphed over evil and the balance was restored. Our hero, often the criminal, went to jail for his crime.

Post-classical noir revisionism removed any sense of "right" or "wrong" from the equation. Take Jake Gittes, a man so disillusioned that he has turned his back on the police to be a private detective sniffing around in other couples' laundry. When even Jake cannot accept the twofold crime of Noah Cross (land theft and incest), his revived idealism is again crushed. Unable to convince his old partners that Cross, a powerful member of Los Angeles' public and social society, is stealing water and his granddaughter/daughter in Chinatown, he watches helplessly while Evelyn Mulwray is gunned down. Noah Cross, rich and powerful, gets exactly what he wants. Evil is systematic, and will always triumph, for good is weak. This opened the door for future neo-noirs to revise, tweak, or even outright contradict elements of classical noir.

Touch of Evil and Chinatown also revise another key element of noir, now one so linked to neo-noir audiences come to expect it in "film noir": the "idiot" protagonist. Classical noir frequently included a protagonist down on his luck that finds himself wooed by a femme fatale and suffers the consequences. Towards the end of the classical era, characters like Dave Bannion in The Big Heat challenge this, but neo-noir often exaggerates the ineffectiveness of the lead character to extremes. While Gittes is a fine example of the protagonist who knows practically nothing from the beginning of the film to the end (and when he thinks he knows something, he is mistaken), he is merely the tip of the iceberg. Consider characters like Red Rock West's Michael Williams or Kiss Kiss Bang Bang's Harry Lockhart, characters so inept that they wander from place to place, often making their predicaments worse by getting involved.

Finally, neo-noir, a product of filmmakers who studied film, is rife with elements of pastiche. It is not enough merely to revise elements of film noir; neo-noir must also continually reference films, through direct references or in subtle visual cues. Martin Scorsese continually draws on films from the past in his films, whether it is lifting images from Godard in Taxi Driver or directly referencing The Wizard of Oz or The Trial in After Hours. A film like Lawrence Kasdan's Body Heat relies heavily on reminding audiences of the classic era by giving William Hurt a fedora, or the Coen Brothers' Miller's Crossing, which lifts wholesale images from the end of The Third Man. Neo-noir must simultaneously remind us of the past, all the while revising it, often parodically.