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The Noir City: A Cosmic B-Movie

sanqunetin1946carchase The Noir City: A Cosmic B Movie

My shadow’s the only one that walks beside me
My shallow heart’s the only thing that’s beating
Sometimes I wish someone out there will find me
‘Til then I walk alone…

Green Day – Boulevard Of Broken Dreams

The origins of this post lie in a book I found in a used bookstore a few months back: The Cinematic City edited by David B Clarke (Routledge 1997). This is an academic book with a collection of essays on the “relationship between city and cinema”, which contains some fascinating essays on the noir city. The central thesis is that the modern metropolis is so large and diverse, that inhabitants’ experience of  the modern city is alienated.  This experience of modernity has shaped the cinema’s portrayal of the city as a place, and the cinematic city is a place as real as the physical entity it represents.

Having never been to the US, I realised that through my love of film noir, I ‘know’ the cities as Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and San Francisco as a virtual stranger, and that even for those living in these cities, they experience their city as strangers:

Whereas the social and physical spaces of pre-modem society formed an intimately related, lived totality, modernity brought about their colonization by a thoroughly abstract space, which ensured their fragmentation and disjuncture. A world that was once perceived ‘as a living whole’, so to speak, could no longer be experienced as whole or complete… The ambivalence of the stranger thus represented the ambivalence of the modem world. Time and space were no longer stable, solid and foundational. Hence, the experience of modernity equated… [with ] the world as experienced by the stranger, and the experience of a world populated by strangers — a world in which a universal strangehood was coming to predominate . It was within such a world that the virtual presence of the cinema was to find its place (Clarke page 4)…  In the arena of the noir city, protagonists must confront both the strangeness of others and the strange otherness within – as film noir’s scenarios of disorientation and dislocation challenge their ability to chart an identity (F Krutnik page 89).

6 Comments

  1. Wow Tony, that’s quite a passage there by Krutnik. I needed to read it twice to process its essence. I do agree though that you needn’t visit the US to understand so much that is conveyed by the intricacies of film noir, which brings nuances of city life to the fore. Again, a probing piece here.

  2. Sam, the book is VERY academic and I have quoted only the most approachable text! Krutnik’s essay is titled ‘Something More than Night: Tales of the Noir City’ and is to my mind one of the best ever on this theme and really deserves a wider audience.

    To paraphrase the essay’s opening sentence: “The noir city is a shadow realm of crime and dislocation in which benighted individuals do battle with implacable threats and temptations.”

  3. This excerpt is as penetrating a definition of the noir city as anything I have read and indicates several, though not all facets of modern civilization which is the backdrop of the equally “real” virtual noir city:

    – pre-modern society had a well defined, interrelated and ordered set of values resulting in an intimacy in contradistinction to the “fragmentation and disjuncture of modern cities, a microcosm of civilization in “toto”
    – disorientation there are no clear identities and all is grayed including clear “good and evil” in the past demarcated
    – thus the fragmented effects universally are manifested as disjointed time and space. The terrain of the cosmos is framed largely by these developments ,so it seems.

    “The central thesis is that the modern metropolis is so large and diverse, that inhabitants’ experience of the modern city is alienated”

    The quote above alluding to diversity, the foisted doctrine rammed down our throats, has been a factor apparently in the formation of this strangeness and alientaion, when possibly intended as a doctrine hopefully engendering cohesiveness. Or was it intended so ?

    – I think the laconic “strange otherness within” communicates to innumerable scenarios that noir and other film types depict
    – the ambivalence of the stranger is as a result of this process .Yes, a population of strangers in a strange land. Strangers in microcosmic realities, little realities, a part of the macrocosm of the now existent universe
    – Noir as a film expression would as a matter of course would find its place.

    [Cont...]

  4. The central thesis is that the modern metropolis is so large and diverse, that inhabitants’ experience of the modern city is “alienated”.

    Is diversity such a desirable quality that is being somewhat “shoved down upon us or does it produce a contributive factor to alienation???

  5. A penetrating analysis there Edward, which deftly explores the manifestations of alienation and ambivalence in film noir.

    Interesting question you pose: Does diversity reinforce alienation?

  6. http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/MRC/cinematiccity.html#general
    The Cinematic City is an excellent and ,yes, a encyclopaedic reference on noir books, directos, and films, and has a compendious selection of essays on Fritz Lang as well. I found this article stimulating and would like to share:

    Weber, Horst.
    “Eisler as Hollywood film composer, 1942-1948.” (composer Hanns Eisler) Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television Oct 1998 v18 i4 p561(6)
    UC users only
    “Hanns Eisler’s migration from New York, NY, to Los Angeles, CA, was a significant move as he was to achieve substantial success in Hollywood. He wrote the music for eight motion pictures between 1942 and 1948. Only his work in ‘Hangmen Also Die’ has been analyzed to date and there is no research on his work in the other seven films although some of them were important productions. A reconstruction of Eisler’s creative process in writing music for his Hollywood pictures is presented.” [Expanded Academic Index]

    This article appeared referenced in Cinematic City and tracks Hanns Eisler’s muusical scores between 42 and 48, spanning the war years.He migrated to LA and provided the music for Hangmen…He was successful in Hollywood and was only “studied” in this film. This rings home to me the quality centeredness,and consummate art entailed in combining quality elements so very characteristic of Lang in breathing life to the darks of listory, glarin glight in this instance on the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich which cyulminated in the massacre at Lidice.