Monday, 19 October 2009
It is a big subject with big literature, the general lines of which are established to the point of cliché, particularly the role of the femme fatale, but also its themes of transgression, fatalism, lack of character certainty, violence and moral ambiguity. I don't want to discuss these things all over again in either a political or historical context. I am however interested in why film noir still thrills.
What fascinates me is the sheer poetry of it. In what way?
The narrative to begin with. The narrative is nearly always complex, often unclear. Some evil has been done, is being done, or is about to be done. The precise mechanism of the action is of secondary importance. It is our apprehension of events that is being courted, not our reason. Film noir is never really a whodunnit. Detectives appear in the films, are often the central characters in films, but it is not detective work, not deductive reasoning that is the point. Film noir pits image against syntax, or, to put it another way, the point of syntax is image, the apparitional image. It is the figure looking in a lit doorway, at the end of the drive, throwing his or shadow on the wall behind the desk. It is the femme fatale's sexual presence not her agency. She is undoubtedly up to something but it hardly matters what. It is simply not the story. The story is secondary. It can be as minimal as narrative in a lyric poem, which does have a narrative but not one of the what-happens-next variety. It is the sensation of possibility, the apprehension of something pending that matters.
So the narrative is poetry narrative rather than novel narrative. Thats what the stock characters are about. They are the genius loci of the backyard and the mean street. The weight they carry is beyond rational or instrumental. The femme fatale is not merely a device to embody the struggle of (and with) female independence or sexuality, though it could be that as well, but, more importantly, a figure that has always been there in both male and female imagination as a dream power, a latency. A shape that is the precise dimensions of desire but never quite still, entering, looming, disappearing. Never quite to be focused.
The language of film noir is pretty formal. Its devices are rhythmical and expected, like metre and rhyme: staircase, wall, lamppost, hand, drifting light, vertigo, swing of hair, great pool of shadow, glimpse, a look away, the broad shoulder with the jacket thrown over it, swing of hip, the half-open door, desk, back of chair, desklight, cigarette, a hulking back, a craggy face, car fin and car door. These images and others like them form the stanza, the rhyme scheme, the chorus.
The lyric I as a loner
Everyone in a film noir is on the outside. If there is an insider view, the insider is already isolated. There is no real communal life. It is the world of the poet as melancholiac, as romantic outcast, as voyeur. However the central characters resolve their situations their natural state is helplessness. They are being drugged or slugged or imprisoned or puzzled. They are troubled partly because there is only ever an outside. The inside, should there be such a place, is already corrupt. 'I wouldn't join any club that would have me as its member,' quipped Groucho Marx. And that is precisely the point.
The characters are ghostlike or are in the process of becoming ghosts. Ghosts, wrote Peter Scupham, a good poet friend, are a poet's working capital. That's as true as it gets. Ghosts don't do things, they are just there, drifting about. Everyone in film noir is either being shot or about to get shot. They may not be shot finally but being on the edge of being shot is their very essence. They are all, in their way, uncanny, unheimlich. That, I think, is often the poet's sense of his own being in his or her own skin. It's all just a bit uncanny. What an odd place for consciousness to have lodged in, this Plato's cave of shadows!
Form, apprehension, sense of story rather than story, unfixed desire, isolation, haunting. Art is a house that tries to be haunted said Emily Dickinson. Yes, but the haunting takes place in a real world, a hard, mean, dollar-down kind of world, not in a ghost story.
If I like film noir It is for reasons like this.