Sunday, June 14, 2015

Reflections on Film Noir


Having finished a doctorate, I guess I needed something to do (insert rueful smiley face), so I signed up for a MOOC on film noir, sponsored by Turner Classic Movies and co-sponsored by Ball State University in Indiana.

For those of you who don’t know, a MOOC is a massive, open online course.  These were all the rage two years ago and were supposed to transform higher education; so far, not so much, but for lifelong learners like me, they are great.  MOOCs are usually free, involve a learning management system (this one uses Canvas, which I have used before and like), can have some assessment (tests), may result in a certificate if one does all the work but usually no real college credit.  MIT and Stanford have a number of them.  The massive part refers to the fact that anyone can take the course so massive numbers enroll, although fewer finish.  This course involves four “DAILY DOSES” with links to short clips of movies, a discussion board prompt (assignment), and the weekly video lecures and readings, and a quiz if the student wants the certificate.  (I got 100% on the first one, so it’s not very hard.) 

This post is not so much about the MOOC although the experience is educational for me.   The problem with the MOOCs as a whole is making them profitable and making them credit-bearing.  Colleges have to accept them for credit first, and identity would have to be verified.  That also gets into the whole realm of accreditation.  If a college accepts it, the college has to justify that in terms of SACSCOC or one of its counterparts in another region. 

Well, you didn’t read this to a discussion of higher education policy, but because of the “fim noir” in the title. 

So far I have been led through discussions of The Human Beast (in French) M, (In German), Ministry of Fear, The Maltese Falcon, The Letter, Murder My Sweet, Mildred Pierce, and a couple of others.  We have also looked at the defining characteristics of noir but that lecture stopped short of saying “this is the definitive list. “  Noir can be seen as a style (the way it looks), a genre (the kind story it tell) or movement (what Hollywood did from 1940-late 1950s with crime dramas.  Noir was named such by French critics who gained access to American films of the WWII period (having been isolated from them for a while) and such critics noticed the difference in them from earlier films.  For one, the actors were willing to play ambiguous characters, neither all bad nor all good (gangsters or crusaders). 

The femme fatale idea of the film noir is definitely important, but “she” does not exist in all of them.  The women, in general, are willing (or if fatale—a woman living out her destiny as a negative influence on men—not just fatal as in causing death) to be as morally ambiguous as the males, and of course the prime examples are Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis in Double Indemnity and Jane Greer in Out of the Past. 

Film noir is quintessentially American, we are told, with inspirations from Germans. I think the German influence is underplayed.  When three of the main directors were German—Preminger, Lang, and Wilder—you have to see the connection. 

Yesterday, due to the heat and my fatigue from doing yard work in the heat, I watched M (and it took me a few tries because I kept falling asleep, not because of the film but because of my condition).  Absolutely fascinating.  Thanks to YouTube, I can watch it again when I like, and I really encourage anyone interested in the art of film who has not seen it (as opposed to movies for entertainment) to do so immediately. 

This is Fritz Lang’s masterpiece from 1931, and it is more like Fury (a later movie with Spencer Tracy) than Metropolis, although both are “large” movies about intimate ideas.  By that I mean M has a large cast and scope, like the other two, and like Fury, has a good bit of mob hysteria as a driving force.  Fury is a more standard Hollywood movie, though, in the way it is shot, but M stands out in its look and technique. 

I don’t know what it is called, but the lighting is flat, with shadows used only when it serves a purpose.  And there is almost no musical score, meaning there is a lot of quiet to help the viewer focus on the visuals.  Often we watch long shots of emptiness.   Odd camera angles (a later noir aspect) are used; children singing an eenie-minie-mo game about a serial killer are filmed from above, as are parents waiting outside a tomb-like school for their children to emerge for lunch.  And of course there is a bizarre shot of what can only be called a man’s crotch from the floor (he is a police officer). 

I don’t want to give away the plot, except to say it involves a city terrorized by—and I think terrorizing itself—over a serial killer who has abducted and killed (and I think we are to infer raped) eight little girls.  I couldn’t help thinking that the response of the city officials and eventually the criminals to try to catch the murderer is over-the-top, which I think is the point.   And then we could make parallels to 9/11.  How many of us have felt as if the terrorists have made us give up some of our freedoms by their heinous act? 

The movie deals with issues of justice, who is responsible for crime, and mental illness.  One could argue that the last couple of minutes are like a tacked on message.  I felt that way.  When a killer pleads that he is compelled to kill and he can’t help it, why should we believe him?  He is not a reliable witness.   That said, the film takes some twists that are logical and fascinating and it is quite suspenseful, not at all going the way one expects.  It blends police procedural with psychological thriller, and we know something horrible is going on but we don’t have to actually see it (so it’s in better taste than today’s films, which leave nothing to the imagination).  

On the message boards, there are always those people who whine about these “classics” saying they are not that good and that we should not be impressed with them just because they are classics.  That makes no sense to me.  These films are flawed but blazed a trail; they did something that had never been done before and made it work, made it memorable, and struck something deep in us.  The fact that some of the acting was more theatrical or the realism was not as precise as today seems to be their only argument.  As in the words of Newton, we are standing on the shoulders of giants, so we might as well get over ourselves and thinking we are the sum and substance of creativity and art today.  As Cicero said, people who do not study the past are condemned to be children forever.  People who do not value art of the past are children, preferring something at the Cineplex to a film that has been around 80 years and still stuns viewers. 

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