Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Glow from the Silver Screen

Hello, dear Reader. Before we begin my semi-monthly essay on Life, the Universe, and Everything, I'd like you to go over to this link (opens in a different tab) and listen to this song. It's about 11 minutes, but it helps you better understand the topic I will discuss. You don't have to listen, but you should. It probably won't make sense, but after this post it will.

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Last year (by that I mean my sophomore year), I became obsessed with what the genre-ists refer to as noir fiction. The "hard-boiled", crime detective novels from the 1930s, classic movies from Hollywood's Golden Era, with tough-talkin' detectives with trench coats and square jaws, like Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre!

Crime noir is a weird genre. The dialogue is very different than what you might expect. It's very sparse, like Hemingway, but it's vivid, lurid and lusty (as lusty as 1930s standards can get you. It's all good, though.) Consider the first sentences from my favorite noir novel, The Thin Man:

"I was leaning against the bar in a speakeasy on Fifty-second street, waiting for Nora to finish her Christmas shopping, when a girl got up from the table where she had been sitting with three other people and came over to me. She was small and blonde, and whether you looked at her face or her body in powder-blue sports clothes, the result was satisfactory. "Aren't you Nick Charles?" she asked.
I said: "Yes".
She held out her hand. "Dorothy Wynant. You don't remember me, but you ought to remember my father Clyde Wynant. You-"

Reading crime fiction, especially by the two masters of the genre, Raymond Chandler (who's best known for The Big Sleep and his Phil Marlowe stories) and Dashiell Hammett (who wrote the above novel, The Thin Man, and perhaps the most evocative of them all: The Maltese Falcon.) Everyone knows about these two, and people usually enjoy Chandler's stories more. But I'm a Hammett fan and I always will be. Chandler portrays the pointlessness of it all, the hard rugged life, and Hammett does too, but he makes it more witty and glamorous. Not too much, though. But The Thin Man, for example, has characters going in and out of speakeasies faster than you can turn the page.

Hammett does a good job of recreating the stereotypes and fantasies we have of the era. You watch Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, His Girl Friday, all these great classic Golden-Age films with the greats: Douglas Fairbanks, Clark Gable, Maureen O'Sullivan, Lauren Bacall (who just died last year), Ingrid Bergman...If you're like me, you want to enter the fantasy. You want to become a Prohibition era detective, like Hammett's "blond satan" Sam Spade, who's always digging for the truth, if you'll pardon the pun, or or a sweet dame who's in a spot of trouble but turns out to be a traitorous beauty, like Brigid O'Shaughnessy.

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The film poster to the right looks like something from the '30s, am I right? Nope. The movie was made in 1974. It is perhaps one of my favorite movies, not just about gangsters and detectives, but of all time. I mentioned before how I really didn't focus on the pointlessness and despair of crime noir, but Chinatown does an excellent job of showing it to people. The life of Detective Gittes is hard, from tracking down murderers to dealing with dead people and an unstable woman. In the end, nothing matters: justice can never be served but with blood and revenge. "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."
The point is this: crime noir gets to show us two sides of an era: the glitzy, svelte allure of speakeasies and Humphrey Bogart, and the harsh, rough and tumble lifestyle of Jack Nicholson getting his nose slashed up.
Overall, crime noir is a good genre if you enjoy history and classic movies, and gangsters, and trench coats. As I said before, it's a hard genre to get into. There's codes and jargon for everything. It was a hard life to live back then, and sparse dialogue and snappy comebacks are a result of that. (As was heavy drinking and excessive smoking, but that's neither here nor there.) XD
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The song I had you listen to was full of sound clips from The Maltese Falcon, starring Humphrey Bogart. There were numerous other references to silent-era films and Golden Age greats. Yes, it may have seemed odd and confusing. The song is a good one, though, especially the ending: the ending shows how movies are powerful. If you've seen Hugo Cabret, you know this: the fantasies and delusions of actors on the silver screen are inspiring. We go to the movies for release, to see characters who may be like ourselves, or ones who live completely different lives than our own. We go to the movies to indulge our curiosity, to experience the thrill of seeing scenes that make us go "What if?" What if we met our lifetime love on the Titanic? What if we were all connected to a computer matrix mainframe? What if we were silent-era movie actors who were replaced by the "talkies"?
Movies are amazing things. They really are. Like books, they can show us so much more than what we know, take us to worlds afar. This is what is so amazing about media.
Fantasy would fill my life, and I love fantasy so much...

1 comment:

  1. I have to admit—I don't have much experience with noir fiction but it's getting to the point where I'm finding Humphrey Bogart's name so many places that I am going to have to get on it pretty quick. And, of course, I again have to approve of "The Friends of Mr. Cairo," because I do so love that episode.