Saturday, April 14, 2007

Pee Wee and the revival of Film Noir

Lately, I have noticed a renewed interest among film makers and audiences in Film Noir, a loosely-defined film genre that Wikipedia describes as, "...a cinematic term used primarily to describe stylish Hollywood crime dramas, particularly those that emphasize moral ambiguity and sexual motivation."

Here are a few quotes from classic films of the genre that can help one appreciate what it means to be Noir, and why Noir can be a very funny color:

A classic from Bogey in The Big Sleep:
Humphrey Bogart, speaking of Lauren Bacall: She was worth a stare. She was trouble.

From The Big Steal:
Jane Greet: Stop calling me Chiquita. You don’t say that to girls you don’t even know.
Robert Mitchum: Where I learned Spanish, you do.

From Crack-up:
Claire Trevor: You can’t expect to dodge the police indefinitely, George. Wouldn’t it be smarter to go to Cochrane and get this thing out in the open?
Pat O’Brien: Just about as smart as cutting my throat to get some fresh air.

From Ace in the Hole:
Jan Sterling: I don’t pray. Kneeling bags my nylons.

From Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, in what may be the greatest declaration of alienation ever captured on film:

Pee-wee: There's a lot of things about me that you don't know anything about, Dottie. Things you wouldn't understand. Things you couldn't understand. Things you shouldn't understand. You don't want to get mixed up with a guy like me. I'm a loner, Dottie. A rebel.

The Wikipedia volunteer author goes on to describe the origins of Noir:

"Hollywood's classic film noir period is generally regarded as stretching from the early 1940s to the late 1950s. Film noir of this era is associated with a low-key black-and-white visual style that has roots in German Expressionist cinematography, while many of the prototypical stories and much of the attitude of classic noir derive from the hardboiled school of crime fiction that emerged in the United States during the Depression."

Though this seems like a pretty clear definition of a film genre with a definable origin, hardly anyone can agree on what Noir is, what films qualify as Noir, or even if it is a proper genre at all. Is it simply a stark visual style, or must it include storytelling that focuses on society's dark and gritty elements (materialism, lust, or crime)? Or will we only ever know Film Noir as a story of a loner-detective who struggles to pay his rent and keep his lusty secretary at a distance to protect her from his personal pathos, featuring heavy first-person narration and lots of smoking?

Sub-genre of Classic Noir (The Maltese Falcon or Double Indemnity) include psycho-noir (David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, Sin City or other Frank Miller graphic novel adaptations), Sci-fi Noir (anything from Philip K. Dick) and a salad of post-classic and foreign-Noir categories. There is even a noir-parody category that couldn't be mistaken for any other kind of comedy (any adapted Elmore Leonard, Steve Martin's Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, or Leslie Nielson's The Naked Gun).

While unmistakably Noir, recent releases Brick and 13 Tzameti don't clarify the definition of the genre; in fact, they probably obfuscate it further. And though neither can match the pathos of Pee Wee as he hunts for his Bicycle Thief, they are rich in stark human emotion and tragic character motivation, and ably bring Noir forward in time.

I'll write about 13 Tzameti first, and tackle Brick in a future post.

Watching 13 Tzameti reminded me of the first time I saw Silence of the Lambs; I wanted to look away but couldn't. This film was showered with awards on the 2005 Festival circuit, and deservedly so. In 13, Georgian director Géla Babluani literally puts a price on the souls of men, and his characters gamble with those stakes. It is gripping, and audiences can easily sympathize with youthful Sebastien, played by Babluani's brother George, who unknowingnly tags-in for a dying criminal in a macabre game of death that he is forced by his "sponsors" to play to its conclusion. Sebastien is an innocent victim, but his tragic weakness is his pursuit of a fast and easy payday, and he, like Faust, must give the devil his due.

If you put 20 goths kids in a dark room, took away their meds, and asked them to come up with the ultimate metaphor for alienation and materialism, they'd be hard pressed to beat Babluani's game in which men play Russian roulette in circle-jerk fashion for betting sport, with the winner/survivor taking the pot. Babluani makes his audience unsure whether Sebastien is better off living through each torturous round of the game, or dying to preserve his soul. As he is handed a revolver and ordered to load, spin his cartridge, and aim at the head of the man in front of him while the man behind him does the same, Sebastien, who is not a killer, must decide whether to hasten the death of the man upon whom his gun is trained by shooting quickly, or wait until that man has discharged his weapon, possibly eliminating other contestants from the game, and postponing for precious moments his own murderous act. As he loads, spins, and repeats, Sebastien can only hope that he'll be lucky enough to survive the game with a fraction of the humanity he started with; the financial rewards for which he entered the game become meaningless. Max Von Sydow's chess match with Death in The Seventh Seal seems like a Sunday bridge club compared to this, and though 13 Tzameti comes close to being a parody of itself, Babluani makes it work by steadily increasing the film's visual and emotional intensity without letting up for even a single light moment.

To be fair, there were times while watching 13 Tzameti that I felt like the victim of an elaborate practical joke because of the outlandish nature of Sebastien's circumstances. And suggesting that watching this or any noir film helps audiences seriously consider their priorities is like playing the game in which kids decide whether to freeze to death or be burned alive; one simply can't choose between these crazy extremes. But the world seen through 13's Noir-colored glasses is undeniably absorbing, as long as the viewer doesn't allow disbelief to cloud those glasses up. In the words of Film Noir's reigning king Pee-Wee Herman confronting his nemesis:

Francis: Pee-wee listen to reason.

[Pee-Wee cuffs his hand around his ear in a listening motion]

Francis: Pee-wee!
Pee-wee: Sh! I'm listening to reason.
Francis: You'll be sorry, Pee-wee Herman!

Don't listen to reason, just enjoy 13 Tzameti at a visceral level. But be sure to eat dessert first.


Anne / Shneaky said...

Film Noir has always been a personal favourite of mine - just ask my husband who despairs of me and really can't see what I rave about - and I love the fact that it's quite difficult to define.
I'll look out for 13 Tzameti here in England, it sounds interesting.
Good luck with the site and I look forward to reading many more erudite critiques!

Rob said...


Thanks, credit to Pee Wee for helping me understand Noir! ; -)