Monday, January 02, 2012

The Back of Beyond

As 2011 inexorably wound down to its final days and notifications of notable deaths pinged up on Twitter on an almost daily basis, at some point after Harry Morgan and before Bert Schneider, we collectively learned of the loss of writer and journalist Gilbert Adair. I have to admit that I had never been a huge fan of Adair's writing but, prompted by a lovely obituary in the latest issue of Sight & Sound magazine, I rooted around for my copy of Adair's book Flickers: An Illustrated Celebration of 100 Years of Cinema. I'm glad that I did.

Published in 1995 to mark the centenary of cinema, Adair selected 100 images - one per year, from 1895's La Sortie des usines Lumière to Tim Burton's Ed Wood in 1994 - and wrote an accompanying essay. Browsing through the book yesterday, I found myself with a new appreciation of Adair's writing. Joni Mitchell nailed it - we don't know what we got 'til it's gone. Idiosyncratic and defiantly personal film journalism is an increasingly rare commodity. I've banged on before about my frustration with the overpowering glut of generic, homogenous words sprayed online as just another cog in the marketing machine. Critical rigour and independent opinions have become subservient to the demands of Search Engine Optimization and picking the carcasses of dull press releases.

But Adair's writing is imbued with a love of film. As he writes in his introduction, film is "flickering like a great fire in the grate of the cinema screen, around which millions of us have warmed ourselves, gazed dreamily into the flames and occasionally got burnt".

I mentioned in my last post that I had watched 290 movies last year. The last one I watched was Fritz Lang's Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. Riffling the pages of Adair's book, I serendipitously discovered that he had selected that very film to represent the year 1956. It was a fine way to cap the end of 2011. This is what he had to say about it. Thank you, Gilbert Adair, and take it away. The floor is yours...
Two men sitting in an automobile. Two men outfitted in the felt hats and boxy, double-breasted suits and soberly immaculate collars and ties that, for most of us, have come to evoke the Hollywood cinema of the thirties, forties and fifties rather than any real, still recollectable time or place. This photograph, I admit, isn't "interesting"; its composition isn't eye-fetching; it might have served indiscriminately to epitomize scores of thrillers and dramas and police procedural movies made in Hollywood between, let's say, 1930 and 1960. Precisely. For it's perhaps time to acknowledge the extent to which the textural specificity of the American cinema is contingent upon what might be called its "urbanality". Putting it more crudely, it's all very well talking about The Ten Commandments and Gone With the Wind and Casablanca and Rio Bravo, but what going to the cinema during those years really meant was watching near-identical men in near-identical suits and hats sitting in near-identical apartment rooms and bars and black, bulbous automobiles; was watching movies that were, paradoxically, like nothing so much as books - books without illustrations. And therein, in a way which is difficult to communicate to the uninitiated but which no true cinéphile will ever need to have explained, can be found the medium's metallic poetry.

The film in question is Fritz Lang's Beyond a Reasonable Doubt and the two men are Sidney Blackmer and Dana Andrews. Its plot is exactly that - a plot - hatched by the newspaper publisher played by Blackmer and the journalist played by Andrews, a plot whereby the latter will deliberately implicate himself in an unsolved murder in order to demonstrate the ease with which circumstantial evidence can lead to wrongful conviction. There is, I should add, an eleventh-hour twist; but it's a twist only until the instant it's revealed; in the very next instant one realizes that the film could not have ended any other way. Jacques Rivette called it a theorem, a tabula rasa. It is, in any event, the rigorous purification of a genre to which Lang and certain of his fellow émigrés, Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger and Edgar Ulmer, had given of their best: the film noir.

There is, though, a most curious paradox in the film noir. I yield to no one, as they say, in my love of the genre and I recognize the pertinence of much that has been written about its inherent pessimism. Yet I must confess to never having found that pessimism very convincing. No one in the forties ever went to see a film noir with a sense that he was about to submit to a harrowing but salutary dose of existential nihilism (a nihilism that isn't just a matter of critical interpretation but is quite perceptible in both narrative detail and visual texture), just as no one ever need recoil from watching one on television now. Films noirs are great fun, for God's sake, great fun primarily because they never really do persuade one that the despair that they portray is ultimately a truth of the human condition - in the way that, at least while one is experiencing it, a film by Bergman does, or a novel by Kafka, or an opera by Berg. For most of us, I suspect, their fabled negativity is precisely that: a negative (in the photographic sense of the word) of the fundamental American positivity and optimism. The people who made them (and who were usually, as I've said, European exiles) loved America, just as did the people who watched them. Secretly, I believe, they were not even meant to convince.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, however, was meant to convince. As has seldom been the case in Hollywood's history, it's a film, a visually drab and unyielding film, about absolutely nothing else but its own subject. Two men in hats and suits sit in an automobile and hatch a plot, two men whose white faces and crisp white shirts stand out against the enveloping darkness like the white chalkings of a mathematical formula on a blackboard, a tableau noir.

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