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Excerpts from Deconstructing the Mystique

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From Chapter 9:

The Mythmaking Apparatus

To sustain an ideology, there needs to be a system of myths. Let us examine this concept. We hear over and over, by the rank and file in the system that the industry gives the people what they want, hence, what culture critic Michael Parenti calls “the myth of cultural democracy.” Why not? If you believe you are living in a democratic society, naturally, you will believe that there is a cultural democracy in existence. In other words, people get what people want from the movie industry.

Why is it that The Aviator (2004) gets wide distribution and Silver City (2004) is shown in a handful of theaters? Is it because the people wanted it this way? To be sure, the conventional wisdom would dictate that if a population was given the same kind of a product long enough, it would eventually want that product voluntarily. This way the myth of cultural democracy would sustain itself.

Market control alone does not make and keep the industry powerful. What is in these movies that repeatedly brings people back into the theaters and the video rental stores? What’s in the product? Some of the obvious answers are, sex, violence, and comedy. However, the system needs more than  titillation to sustain itself. Let us look at some American myths that stay alive vis-à-vis the media (i.e., film industry).

The Best of Both Worlds

Americans love to believe that anything is possible. As Marty McFly proclaims in Back to the Future (1985), “if you set your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.” How many times have you heard that from your parents, teachers, presidents, movie characters, and friends? This myth works as the backdrop for what culture critic Robert Ray calls   “the myth of inclusiveness.”

Americans are led to believe that it is possible to have a hero who is both violent and sensitive. Rocky (1976) gives us a character who works as muscle (bad debt collector) for a second tier loan shark, but he is also a sensitive man. Rocky only resorts to violence when necessary. For example, in the opening scene of the film Rocky beats his opponent to a pulp in the ring because he (the opponent) cheats by butt-heading Rocky, who plays by the rules. So Rocky is violent, but like a war hero and not a gangster anti-hero. Rocky also owns little pets, helps the bums in the streets and loves Adrian (the love interest) tenderly, he is a lover and a fighter.

Rocky’s sensitivity is a manifestation of Marlon Brando’s character in On the Waterfront (1954), a boxer who is a misfit and works as muscle for a corrupt union leader (gangster), but cares for pigeons and can love a woman with tenderness. The Western’s reluctant hero in the classical form is a man of violence who is a misfit, but upon intervention of the town’s people, he reluctantly, while disguising his sensitivity, resorts to violence, killing the bad guys and saving the innocent citizens.

The system propagates an American imagination that prefers individuals who are rebels, outlaws, masculine, and yet humanitarian. In Casablanca (1942) the American hero, Rick, played by Humphrey Bogart, is an outlaw night club owner who does not play by anybody’s rules. However when his old (European) flame arrives in town, accompanied by her  anti-fascist, resistance fighter husband, Rick does the right (moral) thing and breaks his isolationist stance. The tough American helps  the feminized Europeans fight against evil. Rick is the quintessential hero representing the all inclusiveness that the American imagination wants to own.

The examples of the dichotomic hero are ubiquitous in Hollywood, and its manifestation is also present in the so-called independent films.

The Horatio Alger Myth

An ideology that has individualism at its center needs tales of successful individuality. Hollywood knows that America can be defined by perceived realization of dreams.

In this realm, one can argue that no one individual has been more instrumental in creating a framework for Hollywood scripts than Horatio Alger, Jr. (1832-1899). Alger wrote juvenile novels about heroes who had to pick themselves up by the bootstrap, and “make it.” Alger’s heroes were news and shoeshine boys who worked hard, played by the rules, and were rewarded with success.

As Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia suggests, “Because of the subject matter of his books, Alger’s name became identified with the American ideal of rising from poverty to success through self-reliance and hard work.” In other words the Horatio Alger myth is the American Dream.

Drawing from his immigrant uncle’s stories, director Elia Kazan’s  America, America (1963) portrays a young boy’s passage to America and working as a shoeshine in hopes of making it and upon success, bringing the rest of his family to the land of opportunity. The last scene of the film shows the hero as a shoeshine boy who after finishing a shine looks at the next customer and happily says, “hurry up people are waiting” implying that his family members (Future success stories) are waiting.

The Horatio Alger myth is kept alive to sustain a powerful and often brutal system of capitalism. The film industry and Television often interact and overlap. One of the most popular so-called “reality” shows on Television today is NBC’s The Apprentice. The premise of this show is to give 16 contestants, some with college education and some without, a chance to compete for a job as an apprentice to billionaire American Donald Trump (embodiment of the Horatio Alger myth). The winner of the competition is granted this dream job at a salary of $250,000.00.  The official web-site for the show claims the following:

The Apprentice premiered January 8, 2004 and immediately became a cultural phenomenon, scoring the highest ratings for any new series introduced in 2003-04 season and outscoring every established series in the key adult 18-49 category except American Idol.

Fox’s American Idol is the same kind of show, except the prize is the coveted chance at being a singing pop star (i.e., American idol). These success of these two shows prove the Horatio Alger myth is good for business.

The Myth of Patriarchy as Natural Order

The system is designed to normalize patriarchy, and the proof is in the pudding (i.e., movies). When examining most films that are manufactured within the system, we discover an implicit structure to assure that most audiences believe in patriarchy as the natural order of things. Patriarchy is modeled after a household in which men dominate women, economically, sexually and culturally. By extension most societal institutions which are dominated by men would want to remain patriarchal. The war film genre, for example, is the most explicit celebration of patriarchy. Depiction of a patriarchal institution whether in a celebratory manner or neutral approach will always suggest that patriarchy is the natural way of the world.

Even when a war film has a woman as a military hero such as Courage Under Fire (1996), she has to act like a man to be a hero. In this film that employs one of America’s most successful “sweethearts” in Meg Ryan, the feminine becomes masculine and kills many of the unnamed faceless members of the enemy to save her fellow soldiers. In A Few Good Men (1992) Demi Moore as a career Navy officer (lawyer) plays the supporting role to a slick renegade  lawyer, played by Tom Cruise. While demonstrating resolve, tenacity, and intelligence, she has to defer to the Cruise character, because he is smarter, slicker, and ultimately masculine enough to win the case. In GI Jane (1997) which Moore also co-produced, she portrays a resilient woman who is determined to prove to the Navy that she too, can be a combat Navy Seal. She pumps Iron, beats up a few guys, drinks Whisky, and withstands misogynist torture by her commanding officer to prove that she too, can be a man.

Romantic comedies follow a similar logic. You’ve Got Mail (1998) is a patriarchal love story masquerading as David vs. Goliath battle between big business trying to put the little shop out of business. Meg Ryan is the proud owner of a small bookstore, which is facing extinction by a large chain headed by Tom Hanks. They become electronic pen pals and of course at the end get together bypassing the ideological issues in the story, because “love conquers all.” In this film the Tom Hanks character never loses his dominant position. Instead it is the emotionally vulnerable Meg Ryan character that has to get her agency (empowerment) from Tom Hanks. He is in charge from beginning to end.

Comfort with Authority

Censorship in Hollywood has its own conventions.  In 1922 Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA) established a code, famously known as the Hays code (named after the director of MPAA). For nearly three decades the code was strongly enforced, mainly to regulate the sexually charged imagery of films and language of screenplays. Most players in the industry happily obliged. However, many directors and writers who were making films, that are now known as film noir, creatively worked around the Hays code and produced some of the most critical movies of American film history. The Hays code was officially dismantled in 1952. However, for the most part the industry has remained a conformist institution.

In this age of major conformity, self-censorship is the code. The average screenplay must have a simple plot so all demographics can understand it without thinking about it. Conventional wisdom in Hollywood conveys that to foster “thinking viewers” is bad for business. Moreover, the screenplay must either explicitly or implicitly have anti-intellectual themes. Dreams and juvenile tendencies in a story are highly rewarded. Most screenplays are apolitical, in fact, many are anti-political. Movies about politics are bad for business.

There are films that push the self-censorship envelope, however in the end the system will allow the filmmaker to only go so far. There is a glass ceiling that all bold filmmakers sooner or later hit. Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987) starts out as a realistic drama about insider trading in Wall Street and has captivating scenes where the dialogue (co-written by Stone) criticizes the dominant ideology.

In a daring scene, The corporate raider (bad guy) Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas, speaks to the Charlie Sheen character, Buddy, an ambitious young man who has made a Faustian deal with Gekko. In a factual tone, Gekko proclaims:

The richest 1% of this country owns half our country’s wealth, five trillion dollars. 1/3 of that comes from hard work, two thirds from inheritance, interest on interest accumulating and from what I do: stock and real-estate speculation. It’s bullshit. You got 90% of the American public out there with little or no net worth. I create nothing, I own. We make the rules, pal. The news, war, peace, famine, upheaval, the price of a paper clip. We pick that rabbit out of the hat while everybody sits out there wondering how the hell we did it. You’re not naïve enough to think we’re living in a democracy, are you Buddy? It’s the free market and you’re part of it.

  

Aside from this unusual scene, the film boils down to a dichotomy of good (i.e., Buddy, Securities and Exchange Commission, the capitalist system) vs. bad (i.e., Gordon Gekko, and other bad apples). The premise of “a few bad apples” allows the system to remain intact. Th movie tells us that it is not the system that creates a widening gap between rich and the poor, there are a few bad apples, and at the end justice will be served. As it happens in Wall Street, Gekko gets his due. The film becomes a morality tale of “crime does not pay” with a simple plot, and the anti-intellectual barrier emerges, hence discouraging the audience to investigate and interrogate the system.

Occasionally there are films that get away with criticizing the source, and almost always they are disguised as comedies. Wag the Dog (1997) is a comedy about the systematic manufacturing of disinformation by the political apparatus. The screenplay of Wag the Dog is co-written by David Mamet, the author of 1988 Tony-winning play Speed the Plow (a direct assault of Hollywood and its ways).  

Robert Altman’s The Player (1992) is another example of indictment of Hollywood as big business. The film exploits the suspension of disbelief and uses real life Hollywood stars with their cameo appearances to comment on the industry. Altman, a true American auteur, remains a voice of dissent within the system. John Sayles is another director who is able to independently fund his projects and make films that are critiques of dominant ideology and its agents of authority. His science fiction drama The Brother from Another Planet (1984) foregrounds race relations in America. City of Hope (1991) is about dishonesty and deception in American Politics. His latest project Silver City (2004) further examines the increasingly deteriorating democracy in the US.

Star making and Glamorization

To make something glamorous is to make it attractive and enviable. The system creates stars that we envy, and this process of manufacturing stars creates a dichotomy of “love and hate.” We love the stars because they shine brighter and have better lives than us, so we envy them. Conversely, when they are down, we are happy.

From the early days of cinema, the movie star has been an integral part of the film industry. And there exists a star system within the system. The star system serves the industry in multiple ways: it creates glamour, it manufactures models for emulation, and it captivates the imagination to colonize the mind resulting in a kind of distraction where the consumer is consumed.

The star making process is a staple of capitalism. Athletes, businessmen, even politicians can be stars. Individuals to emulate, envy, and dream about. The embodiments of the American dream, the heroes of a society made up of “important” individuals. If the star system did not exist, the illusion of “self importance” would lose its luster. Star system works to create a belief that we too can make it, and make it big.

In a recent 2005 Nike commercial, director Spike Lee, a star and a star maker, appears wearing the new “Jordans” (a pair of Nike basketball shoes). The slick commercial features NBA superstars, and the implication is that the shoes matter, and if you buy these shoes, either you can make it as an NBA star, or at the very least play in these shoes and fantasize about being an NBA star. After all the shoes will make you a better player. The commercial goes on about the previous stars who have used these shoes and have made it. At the end, Spike Lee lifts a pair of shoes and the camera zooms in on them while Lee utters “who will be next? Will you be next?”

So what do we know about a star? The public is not privy to a star’s personality off-screen and that kind of information is communicated vis-à-vis media outlets such as the internet and Television celebrity gossip shows and so on. There are conventions of mediations that the media outlets follow. A star’s image is not a random collection of information from different sources.  Historian, Richard Dyer, writes in his book Stars, “The star image represents an attempt to manage, mask, or displace some of the contradictions inherent in the dominant ideology; it renders fundamental problems unproblematic, defuses possible threats to the dominant ideology, and makes social-class issues appear to be personal ones.”

Eurocentrism

In a world that is multicultural Eurocentric thinking and teaching still remains the “natural” way of things. Eurocentrism envisions the world from a single privileged point. Eurocentrism defines the world in a binary form. That is to say the superior “West” and the inferior “other.” In Hollywood as a cultural mediating machine, the flattering of the West and unflattering of the rest of the world is done implicitly. The animated feature, Aladdin (1992) tells the kids that out there in the East there is a “barbaric world,” implying the West being the non-barbaric (civilized).

From the early days starting with D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones Series: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1980), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1983), and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. And the Mummy series: The Mummy (1932), The Mummy’s hand (1940), The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), The Mummy’s Curse (1944), The Mummy’s Ghost (1944), The Mummy (1999), and The Mummy Returns (2001), Hollywood has been showcasing the exciting Western “knowledge” which comes to rescue the Eastern “past” from erasure. The hunky American archeologist who happens to be handy with a gun saves the day.                                      

 The Last Samurai (2003) is about a US cavalry officer who joins a small band of Japanese Samurai rebels who are fighting the good fight against the emperor. The Euroamerican hero, played by long-haired Tom Cruise, learns the Japanese code of honor and teaches the last Samurais how to fight to win. In turn he (the American hero) becomes the ultimate Samurai and leads the last of Samurais to victory. The Last Samurai is a reaffirmation of the post World War II narrative written in history by the US. That is the reason Japan became an economic powerhouse was due to the teachings of the occupying US after the War. 

Kingdom of Heaven (2005) is yet another Eurocentric attempt at fixing history to fit nicely with the notion of Europeans as the benevolent good guys. Set in the time of the second Crusades Kingdom of Heaven plays with history in spectacular fashion, and while maintaining a political correctness creates a spectacle that has a European center. Often in a battle between history and Hollywood, history comes out the loser. The spectacle will always win due to the mystical nature of cinema.

The Future

In the twenty first century with the project of globalization American film industry has a firmly established hegemony. Economically, there is no competition on the world stage to fend off the blockbuster films that come out of Hollywood and colonize the consciousness of populations around the globe. The practice of advertising within a narrative by placing a product and displaying it conspiciously to the audience known as product placement, has become a convention in the industry. The Men in Black series (1997 and 2002) is an obvious example of product placement where a particular brand of expensive sunglasses is displayed throughout the film as the special government agents (stars Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones) put on the glasses during their memory erasure and other operations. In effect this product is a main character in the movie. At one point in Mr. Deeds (2002), a crude remake of the Frank Capra classic Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), comedic star Adam Sandler enters a well known fast food restaurant. This long scene is unrelated to the narrative and it is obvious that it is inserted in the movie to act as a very long advertisement for that specific fast food restaurant chain.

Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (1998) is a sophisticated critique of practice of advertising within the text of shows. The inventive and visionary story depicts a possible future setup by globalization’s media corporations. The story is about a Television show whose star, Truman, played by Jim Carey, is adopted by a corporation at birth and is placed in a make belief town where everything is homogenized and pacified. Throughout the show the actors conspicuously display different products while the camera zooms in on the product, and deliver a sales pitch inserted in the dialogue.

Globalization has forced the major studios to become entities of multinational corporations. The giant cable company, Viacom, owns Paramount studios, along with MTV, Showtime pay-TV, and the world’s largest video rental chain. AOL, USA’s largest internet company owns Time Warner (the owner of Warner Brothers, HBO  and Time magazine). Rupert Murdoch’s Fox owns Fox network with its Television affiliates, Twentieh Century studios, and continues to purchase Cable and film companies in order to expand further. The Disney empire owns its own cable channel, Touchstone  studios, Miramax, and ABC network. Columbia is owned by Sony. Consequently the process of conglomeration has created a new version of the old vertical integration. The independent movie theaters are closing down and multi-screen chains are invading the exhibition realm. Currently no government in the world can challenge this stranglehold of the marketplace.

 The big budget big return formula used for blockbusters has created a culture of homogenization where form (i.e., explicit sexual scenes, big explosions, special effects) dominates content (i.e., story, dialogue, and plot). Blockbuster movies are packaged to appeal to mass audiences and are devoid of thought provoking and controversial themes.

On the other hand the digital technology is giving hope to  independent filmmakers. With a small budget and creative talent a filmmaker can give audiences what they are starved for. A parallel universe of independent cinema can permeate within the next few decades. The only challenge to such a universe is the exhibition outlet. It remains to be seen how people will respond to the globalized pre-packaged cinema in the long term. Hollywood can colonize minds for a period, but humanity is resilient and will fight back.

From Chapter 12:

FILM NOIR

At the end of World War II the French people having had their cinema infrastructure devastated by the War had an insatiable appetite for movies. The U.S. movie industry was too happy to supply the French market with their entertainment products. This meant a barrage of movies from Hollywood entering the marketplace. In America as well as the outside market the musicals, melodramas, in other words, the song and dance and big romance were popular. However, amongst these films were many movies that resembled the Gangster genre films, but were not exactly gangster films. Many of these films were based on American crime novels written by men like Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Raymond Chandler, to name a few. The French translations of these novels had been quite popular and due to the black covers of the French versions had been dubbed Serie Noir.

The French critics discovered common elements in many of these films and began to analyze and theorize about these dark films. They found a name for this collection of films-which they deemed as a genre- film noir, paying homage to Serie Noir. While there were some “A” movies that were noir, the majority of noir films were what Hollywood used to call the “B” pictures.

Arguably, in nearly two decades of exciting filmmaking in Hollywood, starting with Rebecca (1940) and Citizen Kane (1941) and ending with Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), the world was given a collective gift of cinema par excellence. With film noir, in this epoch of creativity, the dark side of America is scrutinized, scandalized, and exposed in a quintessentially American way.

While we can consider film noir as American in content and presentation, stylistically we can find German influences in almost all noir films. That is the German expressionism with low-key lighting creating shadows, fatalistic designs, claustrophobic spaces, and a sense of entrapment and desperation for the characters.

To be sure, thinking of film noir as a genre is problematic. Writer/director, Paul Schrader who wrote the screenplay for Taxi Driver (1976) (considered a neo-noir film) notes, “Film noir is not a genre. It is not defined, as are the western and gangster genres, by conventions of setting and conflict, but rather by the more subtle qualities of tone and mood.” However, a genre can also be looked at by its stylistic conventions, thematic narrative structure, and its collective mood. Conversely, the noir films were not made in a canonized manner like the western genre to fit a particular formula.

Indeed, the noir films can not be easily recognized as  members of a cohesive group. Director Martin Scorsese talks about it on a personal level,” Growing up these films were part of my reality, day by day. I was affected by them. I grew up in a world that images of film noir reflected: night life, people drinking in bars, gambling, and so on.” So whether considered a genre or a historical period, film noir occupies a space all its own.

Film Noir Form and Content

In Hollywood many films have a clear separation of form and content. That is form supports content or vice versa. In film noir form and content are integrally connected. For example in an action genre, form is everything and the plot, premise, dialogue are just supporting ingredients. To give pause between cars blowing up, people getting killed, and lovemaking taking place, there is a simple dialogue here and there so the audiences can catch their breath. Not so in film noir.

Since film noir is heavily stylized and shows more than it tells. Many scholars view the collection as a historical aesthetic movement. Furthermore, many noir films go against the grain and shatter previous assumed expectations. Hence, the reliance on looking at its form rather than content to define film noir.

Thematically, film noir examines the role of the individual within a diseased modern society. The issues of noir films are alienation, entrapment within a powerful industrial system, paranoia, fatalism and inevitable doom of mankind. In a sense, one can argue that film noir is a psychological examination of modern man’s existence. And along the way it thrills the audience. Film noir forces the viewer to think and grapple with its themes. Viewing a film noir is not a passive experience, rather, it is active and sometimes quite disturbing. The characters of noir live on the edge and take the audience along with them.

To show a noir hero (anti-hero) as an alienated loner in a dark world, dark alleys are integral locations. To show a shadowy character, low-key lighting puts shadows on the character’s face. To display despair, the hero looks out (into the oblivion) of his lonely apartment window into a dark rainy night. To create a gritty realism noir goes into the streets at night, with the help of wide-angle lenses to give us a deep-focus cinematography. To clue us into the narrative, noir uses hero’s voice as narrator with a nihilistic tone. To conjure up psychological twists the noir film uses flashbacks and convolution of scenes. Stylistically the noir narrative is a merger of form and content.

The Noir Hero

For many people around the world the quintessential film noir hero is the alienated private detective in a trench coat. However, a close examination of the “genre” reveals that the private dick hero such as Philip Marloe of Raymond Chandler pulp fictions is only one of many noir heroes or rather, antiheroes.

Charles Foster Kane, the hero of Citizen Kane (1940) is a millionaire loner who is just as alienated as the Insurance salesman, Walter Neff, played by Fred MacMurray, in Double Indemnity (1944) who wants the big score. In Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Frank Chambers, played by John Garfield, is a drifter who arrives at a small California roadside café and gets trapped into a murder scheme. The hero of Sunset Boulevard (1950), Joe Gillis, played by William Holden, is a down-and-out screenwriter. In Pickup on South Street (1953), Richard Widmark plays a New York city pickpocket, Skip McCoy, who lifts the wrong purse. The hero of Hitchcock’s Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) is a black singer, Johnny Ingram, played by Harry Belafonte, who gets involved in a robbery to get the big score and pay off his debt to a dangerous hoodlum.    

What the noir heroes have in common is that they are not winners, and smart enough to see the big picture, yet desperate and trapped into nihilistic situations. The noir hero is cynical and aware of the sordid aspect of human nature. More importantly the noir hero is a vulnerable human being and not a caricature composite of mythical characters.

The Noir Women

The cinematic language of noir is masculine. That is the script and visual trajectory of its narrative are presented from a man’s point of view. Therefore the role of women in film noir is defined in relation to the men of noir. The binary of good and bad applies to the noir woman. She is either the socialized morally behaving woman or the male castrating, sexy, bad girl. Needless to say, the genre’s emphasis is on the bad girl, known as femme fatale.

From the historical perspective there is ample evidence why women of noir are portrayed as they are. During the World War II while men went to war, many women had to leave the kitchen and enter the workforce. In other words women were becoming significant contributors to the economy. The emergence of women as socioeconomic empowered members of American society threatened the male dominance that men had enjoyed in the past. The anxieties that former breadwinners were feeling of women taking their place, and eventually dominating them, what psychologists refer to as “fear of castration” is reflected upon in film noir.

How does this permeate within the noir convention? To begin with the femme fatale is fetishized and glamorized. In Double Indemnity (1944), femme fatale par excellence, Phyllis Dietrichson, played by Barbara Stanwyck, is introduced with a low angle shot. She looks down, from the upstairs level, at a libido driven small time Insurance salesman, Walter Neff, played by Fred MacMurray. This is how the original screenplay introduces the femme fatale:

 VOICE      What is it, Nettie? Who is it?      Neff looks up.UPPER LANDING OF STAIRCASE ““ (FROM BELOW) 

Phyliss Dietrichson stands looking down. She is in her early thirties. She holds a large bath-towel around her very appetizing torso, down to about two inches above her knees. She wears no stocking, no nothing. On her feet a pair of high-heeled bedroom slippers with pom-poms. On her left ankle a gold anklet.

Later, when she comes down the stairs to meet Walter Neff:

 STAIRCASE (FROM NEFF’s POINT OF VIEW)Phyllis Dietrichson is coming downstairs. First we see her feet, with pom-pom slippers and the gold anklet on her left ankle. CAMERA PULLS BACK SLOWLY as she descends, until we see all of her.  

By seeing the film, it is evident that director Billy Wilder follows the script closely. Barbara Stanwyck is the archetype of femme fatales. She is presented as powerful and intimidating. She uses her poisonous sexuality to trap the man to do the dirty work she needs. That is to kill her husband, so she can claim the double indemnity clause in his life insurance. The femme fatale’s dominating desire coupled with her intent on destroying men speaks of the fear men have felt of the empowered woman who just might not need the man anymore. She uses her sexual allure to trap the man like a spider trapping an ant. Ultimately, when she has had her way with him, she is ready to discard him like an empty pack of cheap cigarettes.

During the classical era of film noir (1940-1959) the genre continues to showcase the tough menacing women of steel. Since Hollywood is a patriarchal institution, it is no wonder that the femme fatales were always punished in the noir films. In a sense the femme fatale is a male fantasy.

Let us consider film noir as a temporal “genre” or “stylistic” mode of filmmaking, and feminism making inroads in institutions of power. The newer films that are considered postmodern film noir, or postmodern neo-noir, display the femme fatale with a new twist. In Body Heat (1981), which is essentially a remake of Double Indemnity, the femme fatale, played by Kathleen Turner, destroys the men, and gets away with the money. In Last Seduction (1994), Linda Fiorentino plays a spider woman who is relentless in her ways, and upon discarding of her patsies (men), using her weapons of sex and psycho-masochistic language she gets away with it all.

In Hollywood women of noir are either obedient good girls or dominating spider women who get punished in the modern era and get away with murder in the postmodern era. This is Hollywood’s feminist face; there is only one kind of empowered woman, the sexy domineering evil woman. We used to kill her off at the end. Now we let her get away with it. That is “progress” in Hollywood.

Film Noir: The Creative Paradigm

The noir films were mostly what the industry used to call the “B” pictures. That is movies done with low budgets. This economic factor alone forced the noir directors and producers to be resourceful and creative in making films good enough to get them noticed by the “players.” Let us look at the environment that gave birth to this creative phenomenon:

1.      The film noir projects were given to unproven directors, who had talent but were not established enough to be trusted with the “A” pictures.

2.      The budgets for these films were low. Therefore the films had to be made on location and not at the sound stages and on the elaborated sets that were used for musicals, westerns and so on. Consequently, the crew had to shoot in the streets, with unproven actors, and challenging lighting conditions.

3.      The Hays censorship code was enforced, so explicit depiction of sexual activity, brutal violence, and use of drugs, and homosexuality, was prohibited. So the directors had to be creative in “suggestion” of such activities within the narrative. In the story of The Big Combo (1955) there are perverse sexual themes which director Joseph Lewis depicts with uncanny vision and creativity. For example, in one scene the mob boss, Mr. Brown, played by Richard Conte, walks up to the sexy society woman, Susan Lowell, played by Jean Wallace, and starts kissing her neck. Meantime the camera slowly zooms in on a close-up of Jean Wallace’s face While Richard Conte’s head starts to go down screen, disappearing altogether. Then we only see the close-up of Jean Wallace with her eyes closed clearly taking immense pleasure from “something.” This of course created uproar with the censorship board. But they had to allow the scene to be included, because technically the scene does not violate the censorship code. After all showing a close-up of a woman with her eyes closed does not violate the code.  

4.      The screenplays for many of these films were rooted in American hard-boiled fiction of writers like Hammett and Chandler who spoke of the alienation of the ostracized detective with a special cynical kind of realism. Film noir language has a specific style of its own: hard-boiled, witty, direct, and terse.

5.      The noir films had to be sparse and artistic at the same time. These conditions resulted in the infusion of two distinctly different artistic styles. A typical film noir is a result of an intersection of Italian neorealism(see international cinema chapter) and German expressionism. In other words noir is the gritty documentary style of cinematography infused with formalistic and down beat expressions of disorder and upheaval. The famous German expressionistic film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) which is full of fatalistic themes, slanting lines, fantastic décor, and many shadows, is considered a template for film noir stylistics. One look at the most famous neorealist films such as Rome, Open City (1945) and Bicycle Thief (1947), and we can see the direct and documentary style that also exists in film noir.

6.      The influence that Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) has had on film noir must not be understated. This film does not fit any canonized description of a genre, not even film noir. However, Citizen Kane was the most innovative film of its era and by many standards it transcends time and is considered one of the most important cinematic achievements of all time. What we find in Citizen Kane, we will find in most noir films. That is tilted angles, deep focus cinematography, flashbacks, narration, shadows, and themes of alienation and doom.

7.      The urban setting was both an economic necessity and later, a real thematic desire. Shooting on location is the mandate of film noir, because noir is reality as is where is. Film noir is about urban existence so it is vital to show real cities: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, etc. rather than the unrealistic constructed sets in the Hollywood back-lots. Lighting at night for night is also very important in noir. Light and shadow are two integral parts of any noir story.

Modern Noir (Neo-Noir)

For many scholars to call any movie beyond Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) a film noir, is a folly. However, as proven by Samuel Fuller’s Underworld U.S.A. (1961), the noir stylistics and themes live on. Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) can certainly be considered film noir with a modern language and sensibility. Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) is noir in the flesh and in color. Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) is private eye noir par excellence, only without the hard-boiled language of Raymond Chandler. Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) is the manifestation of many different classic noirs both stylistically and thematically speaking.

What is different about the modern neo-noir film? The censorship code was replaced by the rating system, which resulted in depiction of sexual and violent acts in more graphic manner. Many things that were not permissible in the classical era were now becoming normalized and accepted by audiences. The modern noir is done in color, so to work with shadows in color has created a different stylistic than black and white, yet the spirit of German expressionism is in the background. The hard-boiled terse language of old noir gives way to the new realistic language in dialogue and narration. However, the new language is still terse and direct, but with modern sensibilities.

What are the commonalties of classical noir with modern noir? Thematically, the desire to hit the big score, the anxiety of modern man, the fear of strong sexual woman, the life on the streets, dark, gloomy, sense of despair, entrapment, and desperation. Stylistically, the claustrophobic spaces, dark shadows, urban setting, night for night shooting, sexy presentation of women, and psychosexual scenes. These are all common elements in both groups of films.

Postmodern Noir

Starting with Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (1981) the noir continues its manifesting existence in cinema to the present. When Lawrence Kasdan set out to make Body Heat (his directorial debut), he was not sure if he would be given an opportunity to make another film. So he wanted to be as stylish as possible. Kasdan decidedly picked a genre that would give him, in his own words “enormous license to be stylish and creative.” In Body Heat, Kasdan recreates Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) with a postmodern stamp of his own. A postmodern noir copies the classical era’s themes and styles, but erases the old moralistic lines and blurs most boundaries that existed in the 1940s and 1950s, and to a certain extent in the 1960s and 1970s as well. In the postmodern noir the femme fatale might get away with it all. She can have agency (empowerment) from beginning to end, as in Body Heat.

The postmodern noir reflects today’s confusion and anxieties with a noir sensibility. The remake of Postman Always Rings Twice by Bob Rafelson in 1981 is every bit noir, yet it has a postmodern emotional effect on the audience, especially with its sexuality. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) is a film noir disguised as science fiction. John Dahl is one director who specializes in film noir with postmodern approach, his works include, Kill me Again (1989), a derivative of detective noir with a quintessential femme fatale, Red Rock West (1993), a noir of twists and turns with the big score in the center of the story, The Last Seduction (1994), with a postmodern femme fatale, as the main character, who crosses all boundaries and destroys all the men in her path.

Essentially, postmodern noir is a resurgence of the classical noir with a new revisionist visual language coupled with postmodern dialogue that is much more ambiguous than its predecessors of classical and modern film noir are.

British Film Noir

Many German directors, such as Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder, made noir films and decidedly brought their tradition of German expressionism to Hollywood. Nonetheless, their films were part of the American tradition of film noir.

The British cinema managed to survive the war mostly intact. Therefore it continued to evolve and prosper. Prior to coming to Hollywood and becoming an institution all his own, Alfred Hitchcock made noir films in England.

With The Lodger (1926), Blackmail (1929), The 39 Steps (1935), and Young and Innocent (1937), he showed the world, especially Hollywood, the possibilities of noir. The Lodger (titled in the US The Case of Jonathan Drew) contains some daring special effects and gives birth to one of film noir’s cherished themes. That is “an ordinary man caught in a web of extraordinary events.” Later in 1940 Hitchcock made his first American film, Rebecca, which happens to be considered by many scholars, the original classical film noir. 

In the 1940s and 1950s the British filmmakers continued to make noir films and in this epoch of noir creativity, one director made some classical noir films. Carol Reed made his first film noir, The Fallen Idol (1947) as a visual translation of Graham Greene’s famous story, The Basement Room. His Odd Man Out (1947) is another brilliant noir with strong political content. Carol Reed made another very special noir film, The Third Man (1949) which employs Citizen Kane’s stars (Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton) and stylistics of slanted angles, shadows, deep focus cinematography along with actual postwar locations. He capped his film noir series with The Man Between (1953) set in postwar Berlin.

The British cinema has continued to make Modern Neo-Noir and postmodern noir films. In 1999 director Mike Hodges introduced a new form of noir in Croupier. Croupier’s mise-en-scene is decidedly noir with its low-key lighting, night for night cinematography, claustrophobic spaces, and alienated man and so on.

The role of women in this film is different. There are three important women in the film. The girlfriend who gets killed is a stand in for the hero’s (Jack, played by Clive Owen) conscience, the femme fatale who seduces him is not after destroying him, and with a postmodern sensibility is quite indifferent to everything. Finally, the other femme fatale, who traps him into involvement in a twisted robbery that goes awry, does not seduce him sexually and never intends to destroy him. Moreover, the narration of the film takes a philosophical and ambiguous tone that makes the audience get involved.     

Other International Noirs

Other than the American and British film noir, there are films made by French and Italian directors that have made their mark as great examples of noir.

The Conformist (1972) which is one of Bernardo Bertolucci’s masterpieces can certainly be considered a film noir. The Conformist is an Italian-French-West German production. This film is an abstract of all of cinema. In other words you can find the closest thing to “total cinema” in this film.

When American director Jules Dassin made the French film noir, Rififi (1954), he did much more than just making a French film with an American spirit. Rififi is considered the template for all caper/heist movies.

The Battle of Algiers (1966) an Italian political noir and Costa Garvas’s famous Z (1969) as a French political noir have given the world of cinema two of the most powerful political films that have used the noir genre to tell their compelling (based on true accounts) stories.

In 1969 Iranian Auteur director, Masoud Kimiaii, made his masterpiece film noir, Gheysar (Kaiser). Gheysar, which is heavily influenced by the noir stylistics also contains social themes that are very much Iranian. That is some of the absurdities of the old traditions and alienation that was a result of the relentless enforcement of Western modernity by the Shah the US appointed dictator of Iran. Gheysar  built a bridge between the working class audiences and the patrons of high brow art films. A financial and critical success, this film is considered one of the best of Iranian cinema’s new wave of the 1960s and 1970s.   

It would be a mistake to claim that Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samurai (1972) is anything but a film noir. This film has been the blueprint for more than one director. In 1989 Hong Kong director John Woo wrote and directed The Killer based on Le Samurai. American director Jim Jarmusch followed suit with his US-French production of Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999). Variations of this tale of “the solitary hit-man getting doublecrossed” have appeared in cinema time and again. This is part of the legacy of film noir, to be sure.

Conclusion

Whether a genre or a mode, film noir has had a lasting contribution to cinema. When the French master Jean Luc-Godard made Breathless (1959) with his loner existential hero on the run, he was decidedly paying tribute to American film noir.

Conversely, Film noir continues to influence American cinema. When one examines any modern or postmodern crime drama, thrilling or not, one finds traces of noir in it. American director Walter Hill, who is no stranger to noir stylistics, has made one form or another noir with his films. His financially successful buddy movie, 48 Hours (1982) set in San Francisco, uses the city as the backdrop of urban crime, cruelty, and harsh realities of urban existence. Most of 48 Hours scenes happen at night in dark, cold streets of San Francisco. The lighting is low-key, and deception is central to all the themes of the film. Moreover, the women of the film who have marginal roles, are derivatives of the classical femme fatale, vis-à-vis noir.   

The theme of the ordinary people getting caught in webs of deception and doublecrossing is the staple of a cinema that is attentive to social issues. The use of urban setting along with expressionistic lighting and mood of crime thrillers are all derivatives of film noir. Force of Evil (1948) criticizes the system with a strong message of socialism. Touch of Evil (1957) is a direct answer to McCarthyism and the HUAC (House of Un-American Activities) hearings.  The Coen brothers pay homage to the classical noir with their black and white film, The Man who Wasn’t There (2001).

Film noir exposes the dark side of the American dream and other modern myths and its legacy continues to examine the darkness that exists everywhere with a hard-boiled realism that audiences around the world have come to appreciate. Film noir is here to stay.  

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