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PSU Why Is out Of the Past a Case Study for Naremore in This Discussion Questions

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5 OLD IS NEW Copyright © 2008. University of California Press. All rights reserved. Styles of Noir The visual style of film noir is often associated with low-key lighting, unbalanced compositions, vertiginous angles, night-for-night exteriors, extreme deep focus, and wide-angle lenses. These and other noirlike camera effects have been discussed in a well-known essay by Janey Place and Lowell Peterson, who do an excellent job of explaining how certain familiar images of the 1940s and 1950s were created. But Place and Peterson base their analysis on a small sample of films, and several of their generalizations seem questionable—for instance, their claim that “camera movements are used sparingly in most noir films.”1 All the stylistic features they describe can be found in pictures that have never been classified as noir. By the same token, relatively few can be found in a certifiable hard-boiled classic such as The Big Sleep, which creates its night-world of rain, mist, and smoke entirely within a studio, with the camera always at eye level. A somewhat Hitchcockian thriller such as The Big Clock is closer to the model Place and Peterson seem to have in mind, but the most effective scenes in that film are designed to convey the diffuse, fluorescent lighting of a Manhattan office building during working hours. Notice also that much of the action in The Big Clock is based on long takes or sequence shots requiring complicated camera movements— as when Ray Milland secretly enters the kitchen door of a luxury apartment, discovers a dead body in the living room, rearranges the evidence, retraces his steps through the kitchen, holds a brief conversation with a man in the hallway, and exits via the elevator. Historical film noir is in fact a more stylistically heterogeneous category than critics have recognized. Certain famous noir directors (Orson Welles, John Farrow) moved their cameras a great deal; others (Edward Dmytryk, John Huston) relied on cutting between dynamic compositions; still others (Howard Hawks) were straightforward, almost invisible storytellers who avoided baroque flourishes. Although the available film stocks and camera technology had a strong influence on style, and although there was a broadly shared notion of what “mysterious” or gothic films should look like, there were no hard-and-fast rules for noir imagery. Dark crime dramas such as The Big Sleep, The Big Clock, The Big Steal, The Big Heat, and The Big Combo may have had a good deal in common, but not so much as we commonly think at the level of photography. Our collective memory of noir style probably has less to do with a camera technique than Naremore, James. More Than Night : Film Noir in Its Contexts, University of California Press, 2008. ProQuest Ebook Central, Created from psu on 2020-08-02 18:03:42. Copyright © 2008. University of California Press. All rights reserved. with a kind of visual iconography, made up of what Geoffrey O’Brien describes as “a nexus of fashions in hair, fashions in lighting, fashions in interior decorating, fashions in motivation, fashions in repartee.”2 As we have seen, however, Raymond Borde and Étienne Chaumeton placed relatively little emphasis on such things; instead, they stressed the emotional or psychological effects of noir, arguing that latter-day pictures such as Death Wish and Dirty Harry, which are quite different both politically and visually from the studio films of the 1940s, amounted to a kind of “rebirth” of the form.3 In contrast, a great many subsequent critics and viewers have understood film noir chiefly as a way of dressing actors, designing sets, and photographing urban life. Many of its supposedly essential motifs—which were created not only by photographers but also by costumers, art directors, and production designers—have managed to persist, undergoing subtle transformations and returns in contemporary movies. In certain respects, these archetypal images help to maintain a sense of continuity with the old studio system, but they also enable filmmakers to produce new forms through quotation or allusion. Jean-Luc Godard and Martin Scorsese evoked them in some of the most innovative pictures of the 1960s and 1970s; Bernardo Bertolucci and Roman Polanski used them to create retro-styled historical films; and in succeeding years, many directors have transformed them into a vehicle for nostalgia and parody, available to anyone who wants to engage selfconsciously with the traditions of American cinema. Later in this chapter I discuss retro stylishness and noir parody, which link the present with the past in complex ways. Before approaching these matters, however, it seems necessary to address another, somewhat related question: how has film noir managed to become a “neo” commodity, in spite of the vast technical and cultural changes that have occurred in the movie industry since 1945? In other words, how do the many noir styles manage to reproduce themselves and at the same time evolve into different forms? In my view, the answer to this question lies in iconography or fashion as much as in camera technique. A complete answer, moreover, involves the changing look of America itself. Edward Dimendberg argues that the style of Hollywood crime pictures was profoundly influenced by the shift from “centripetal” to “centrifugal” forms of urban development in the period between 1949 and the present; the traditional metropolis, he notes, “with its fabric of neighborhoods, familiar landmarks, and negotiable pedestrian spaces,” gave way to “an increasingly decentralized America knitted together by highways, television, and radio”—resulting in the apparent demise of classic noir, and its rebirth in “centrifugal” movies of the postmodern era.4 I would agree, but in order to impose reasonable limits on my own discussion, I need to bracket the issue of the actual city, along with the general history of technology and its relation to film style.5 In the first section of this chapter, I want to focus on a specific technical revolution: the film industry’s shift from black-and-white to color photography, which affected one of the most common signifiers of “noirness” and our general perception of the world. BLACK AND WHITE AND RED [I]f you are above a certain age, you tend to think that real movies are black and white.…I mean the movies that formed me and that are deepest in my unconscious are black and white, by and large. MICHAEL CHAPMAN, photographer of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Dead Men Don’t Naremore, James. More Than Night : Film Noir in Its Contexts, University of California Press, 2008. ProQuest Ebook Central, Created from psu on 2020-08-02 18:03:42. Copyright © 2008. University of California Press. All rights reserved. Wear Plaid, interviewed by Dennis Schaefer and Larry Salvato, 1984 Between 1941 and 1952, most of the purely mechanical images in the world—including snapshots, magazine and newspaper illustrations, newsreels, feature films, and television programs—were in black and white. In the same period, most of the hand-assisted or purely imaginary images—including easel paintings, billboard advertisements, paperback book covers, comic books, and Sunday cartoon strips—were in color. The camera was supposed to view things realistically, and black and white was strongly associated with empirical or documentary truth. Its power to depict major historical events and the patterns of everyday life was so great that it influenced fine art; thus one of the world’s first black-and-white paintings was Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937), which evokes the documentary or graphic feeling of both newsprint and contemporary newsreels. Despite the ubiquity of black-and-white images, the technology of color film was fairly well advanced by the early 1940s. John Ford shot his World War II documentary, The Battle of Midway (1943), in 16 mm Kodachrome, blowing it up into 35 mm Technicolor for theatrical distribution. The United States Navy made several wartime short subjects in color, and the military personnel who made training films seemed to agree that color photography was a more useful medium for reconnaissance work or medical diagnosis; it could “see” through battlefield camouflage, and, in the words of a navy medical officer, it made flesh wounds “far more vivid and realistic.”6 In most cases, however, moviegoers and filmmakers regarded Technicolor as inappropriate for the grim realities of combat. The only film genres in which color was not merely acceptable but also de rigueur were cartoons, travelogues, and musical comedies; in other words, color was associated with what Tom Gunning describes as the “cinema of attraction,” or with carnivalistic films involving fantasy and utopian spectacle.7 Throughout the period, color was also relatively expensive and commercially unproven. Despite the success of Selznick’s Star Is Born (1937) and Gone with the Wind (1939), the industry as a whole did not believe that the Technicolor process had important effects on boxoffice receipts.8According to some filmmakers, it could actually harm the more serious pictures by undermining the values of classical narrative; thus British cameraman Guy Green argued that “photography for dramatic subjects…must not be a glorious spectacle all on its own.…It must be suppressed and made to lend itself to the subject.”9 In part for such reasons, the movies in general were less concerned with the contrast of vibrant hues than with the play of light and shadow. Even projects such as Yellow Sky (1948), a spectacular western filmed in Arizona, and The Prince of Foxes (1949), an elaborate historical pageant filmed in Italy, were shot in black and white.10 Notice, moreover, that in certain quarters, black and white had long been regarded as a stylized medium—a sign not merely of realism but also of abstraction, bohemia, aestheticism, and avant-garde taste. As we have seen in chapter 2, darkness was central to modernist art of every kind. European poets such as Charles Baudelaire reveled in black moods; James McNeill Whistler entitled his famous painting of his mother “Arrangement in Grey and Black”; and the International Futurist Exhibition of 1915 featured a “black square against a white background” composed by Casmir Malevitch. In our own day, black has been described by the painter Louise Nevelson as “the most aristocratic of colors.”11 Another contemporary artist, Ad Reinhardt, seems to agree, although he thinks of black as a noncolor. Naremore, James. More Than Night : Film Noir in Its Contexts, University of California Press, 2008. ProQuest Ebook Central, Created from psu on 2020-08-02 18:03:42. Copyright © 2008. University of California Press. All rights reserved. “It’s aesthetic,” he says—unlike red or yellow, which have to do with “vulgarity or folk art or something like that” (quoted in Wodek, 193). The aesthetic use of black and white is evident in most forms of art photography, which in turn influenced the American abstract expressionist painters of the late 1940s and early 1950s —a group that includes Arshile Gorky, Willem deKooning, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, and Robert Rauschenberg. At the peak of their influence (which coincides with the so-called film noir), this group produced images that looked rather like 1930s art photos reduced to a purely graphic, nonrepresentational level. Hence the art critic David Anfam speaks of Franz Kline’s “photographic sensibility” and compares him to Walker Evans and Edward Weston.12 Anfam also notes that Kline’s interest in black and white can be related to the ethos of the New York School of street photographers— including Robert Frank, Richard Avedon, and Ted Croner—who flourished in the same period, and whose work was similarly evocative of the “chill, steely glare of a Manhattan vista” (24). In Reframing Abstract Expressionism (1993), Michael Leja goes further, arguing that Hollywood film noir belongs on the same broad cultural terrain as well-known abstract paintings by Kline, Pollock, and other members of the New York group. The “claim to significance” in both noir and the new painters, he observes, was “grounded in the presumption of a complicated subjectivity under stress, suffused in (primitive) terror and tragedy
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