Monday, March 18, 2013

TEXAS NOIR: An Introduction


Attitude is everything.  In regards to film noir, attitude defines the entire genre.  The very mention of the words "film noir" invokes imagery and sounds which are familiar to the world of noir storytelling. A reference to “Westerns” conjures up thoughts of stilted language, gunfights, and the expansive outdoors. “War” creates images of battles and grime and grit. Noir is a world of compromise, of unsavory actions and murder, of mystery and darkness. Noir created the anti-hero. The word “noir” translates literally as black in French, fitting as the inspiration for these films in the United States – where the genre was perfected – were the early French filmmakers. Black is most definitely the key hue of film noir, both as an exterior aesthetic and a description of these characters’ hearts.

Film noir has grown throughout the decades, flowering under the umbrella of dramas, then crime dramas, and ultimately transforming into a substantial genre in and of itself. The dark alleys, rainsoaked streets, dangerous dames and tough-talking scoundrels are only a few of the difinitive details of noir in cinema. Defined as “-“, film noir had its strongest days in the 40s, in those years following World War II. Films like The Maltese Falcon, Kiss Me Deadly, and Double Indemnity – considered to be the penultimate film noir – shaped the early days of the genre. For decades filmmakers would work under the guise of these pictures, defining and re-defining the subgenre as it grew into its own skin.

What could arguably be considered the high point of film noir came thirty-three years after the birth of the genre with the 1941 Humphrey Bogart potboiler, The Maltese Falcon.  It is Roman Polanski’s 1974 masterpiece, Chinatown. Centered around the Los Angeles water crisis of the fifties, just about the time the City of Angels was exploding culturally, economically, and structurally, Chinatown is a landmark film and a pure masterpiece. And within the story of Jake Gittes and his investigation into corruption and murder are those archetypes, those traits which define the very core of noir filmmaking. There is Gittes himself (Jack Nicholson), the private detective and reluctant anti-hero, the femme fatale in Faye Dunaway’s Evelyn Mulwray, the moral corruption, the hard-boiled dialogue. Chinatown is the template for film noir, and solidified the genre as an individual idea in cinema. But of course, as time passed, filmmakers found different arenas for noir storytelling.

Think about Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s 1984 groundbreaking sciece ficiton epic (though it was dismissed mostly at the time); while the film is firmly cemented as science fiction, all of the elements are here to consider the film a noir. It is a crossover, pushing the archetypes of film noir into a new genre and a new direction. These days, sci-fi noir is a solid subgenre with films like Blade Runner, Gattaca, and Dark City to its credit. In 2002, Rian Johnson (Looper) took noir storytelling into high school classrooms with the experimental and intriguing Brick, starring Joseph Gordon Levitt this time as our anti-hero. These films take the classic formula of noir and change locations and time periods to tell a different story in a familiar fashion. The classics found solace in certain settings, but the genre evolved and flourished within transformative atmospheres.

Most of the classics are set in New York and Los Angeles, large metropolitan areas where these seedy characters could flourish under the neon lights and inside the broken-down structures of a city wrought with crime. But late in the 1970s, moving into the 80s, another region in the United States was being uncovered and noir was finding a new setting. The state and the region had been around for some time in Hollywood, mostly in Westerns. But there was a noticeable shift in ideologies brought on by a few films late in the decade full of seismic cinematic change. Texas was blossoming, evolving from a world of dusty saloons and outlaws and sheriffs into a world where just as many dark secrets could hide in plain sight as they could in any bustling metropolis. Secrets and space began to define the world of Texas Noir.

But how do you define a subgenre from scratch? Where to begin? First, there must be enough of the genre tropes in place for Texas Noir to stand on its own two legs, but there must also be a new set of rules, appearances, and ideas in place. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here; before we take on the fight of defining a subgenre let us take a look at what Texas had been in Hollywood in the decades leading up to this shift in ideas.

Texas had been synonymous with the Western for decades upon decades in Hollywood, and rightfully so. The Western genre belonged in the high plains and dusty towns of rural Texas, one of the last frontiers. Texas was crucial in the career of one Marion Robert Morrison, who would take the name John Wayne and rise to stardom in the Western genre. Some of John Wayne’s most famous and legendary films took place in Texas, including Stagecoach, The Searchers, and True Grit, the film which nabbed him his only Oscar statue. Beyond John Wayne, the Western genre was wildly successful in the middle of the twentieth century as America found escapist fun in films like Rio Bravo, High Noon, and Shane. There was very little room, oddly enough, for much more to do in Texas beyond the Western. The 1956 film Giant showed a little more of the Texas landscape and its history. The Rock Hudson Elizabeth Taylor epic also starred James Dean in one of his three roles. While its roots were firmly set in the Western genre, the romance of Giant and the romantic celebration of the Texas countryside stretched beyond the genre.

Giant was more of an open examination of the people who inhabit the large ranches and thousands of acres across the largest state. The sky only ended once it met the flat horizon of vast openness. If we were to stretch back one more era in cinema history, perhaps we could call Giant the birthplace of Texas Noir. But from here, including Giant in the equation feels like a bit of a reach. Regardless, Giant was important in moving forward Texas as a land of cinematic opportunity. There was more to do in such a large land. It was almost as if the Western genre opened up on itself, and instead of the heroes and villains, the camera focused on the commonfolk in the town. These characters of Texas Noir, their families were in those saloons and blacksmith’s shops of the Old West. Perhaps a few of them were relatives of the villains.

The Last Picture Show changed everything for Texas. Peter Bogdanavich’s seminal 1971 masterpiece is about what happened to the Old West, and it signaled a new era for films in the state. Here was the dying wasteland of towns formerly seen as bustling Western outposts, dreams no longer riding on the backs of horses fighting the evil Native Americans. But The Last Picture Show was not so much a leading film for Texas Noir as it was a way to move from the old to the new. You can never get far from this film without mentioning Easy Rider, and the way these two films signaled the death of certain eras, both cinematically and idoelogically across the country. There would always be people in the hopeless towns like Anarene, Texas, and so the focus may have narrowed to these people in these desperate situations. And with this we inch closer to the birth of Texas Noir.

Stay tuned for the next installment of TEXAS NOIR: Defining the Subgenre

Monday, March 11, 2013

SILENT CINEMA: The Battleship Potemkin (1925)

The Battleship Potemkin is most certainly a film that is known more than it's seen.  The name itself transcends anything the film is or has ever been.  It is arguably more famous for a scene in a film sixty-two years later, but I am getting ahead of myself.  This early, raw film still manages to pack a punch as a piece of propaganda which must have seemed dangerous to those in power back in 1925.  Directed by Sergei Eisenstein, Battleship Potemkin got him in some hot water upon its release and was banned in certain countries - even the U.S. - for quite some time.  As antiquated and sometimes stilted as it may seem to modern viewers, the picture carries with it the revolutionary overtones found in any number of films these days.

The film itself is just over an hour and it involves a mutiny and a demonstration.  First is the mutiny, where a swarm of Russian naval officers overthrow the tyrannical ship captains after refusing to accept old rotten meat.  The slabs of beef hang there with maggots crawling across them, but the ship's doctor - a part of the "system" of rulers as separated by their dark coats, insists these maggots are merely "fly larvae that can be brushed away."  The strong-willed seamen do not agree and revolt against those in charge in extended and well-choreographed scenes aboard the ships decks.  The names of these actors playing the seamen or the captains are not important and are not played up as important from one another; these men are the faceless masses, representing two sides of a revolt.  Eisenstein is sending a message through the angst of his sailors.

The mutiny makes its way back to the shores through the use of a red flag raised aboard the battleship.  This red flag is the only color in the film, and is a crude stained-frame flag;  nevertheless, the technology is bold for 1925.  The members of the seamen's homeland in Odessa spot the red flag and carry their own demonstration into the streets.  This revolt is not as effective as many are massacred at the steps of Odessa.  While welcoming their sailors back from the ocean a line of troops with bayonets open fire on the masses and here we are privy to a few more defined faces.  This massacre leads us to what has become the most famous scene thanks to a little creativity from Brian DePalma.

In 1987, Brian DePalma's The Untouchables had a now famous scene where a mother's baby carriage is clipped and rolls slowly down the stairs amid a hail of gunfire and stray bullets between cops and crooks.  This scene is a direct nod to Battleship Potemkin, where a slain mother's carriage rolls wildly down the steps in Odessa.  The sailors arriving in the train station in The Untouchables is yet another wink to Eisenstein's film.

As I mentioned in the beginning, The Battleship Potemkin is less a structured film in the way modern audiences recognize films today (although, what does that really mean?) and more of an experimental piece of propaganda meant to incite revolution where it was needed.  It is less about structure and plot and character than, well, than your typical newsreel.  But the controversy behind the film and certain striking imagery have made it a legend.  In the way Eisrenstein could explore themes through imagery seems obvious today, but in 1925 the idea was a new form of art.  He may note have been a revolutionary in the world itself, but he changed the way we see films for the rest of time.