Archive for Film Noir

Film Noir, Physics, and the Futility of Existence

Posted in Biographical, Literature, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on July 5, 2017 by telescoper

Last night I decided to treat myself to the umpteenth viewing of a DVD of the  classical film  Double Indemnity. It’s a great movie that repays repeated viewing and is historically important for many reasons, not least because when it was released in 1944 it immediately established much of the language and iconography of the genre that has come to be known as Film Noir , which I’ve written about on a number of occasions on this blog; see here, for example.

After watching the film I had a look on Twitter to see if I had any messages and saw a thread about how modern physics inspires, in some people, an all-pervading sense of existential angst.  In the light of that discussion I decided to use my morning off to rehash that old post and add a few embellishments.

It’s difficult to define exactly what turns a film noir, but there are some common characteristics. First the male lead protagonist is far from the dashing romantic character portrayed in mainstream Hollywood fare. Often a troubled and dysfunctional character, cynical and hard-bitten, distrustful and alienated, the classic noir anti-hero is often a private investigator or in any case a loner who lives in a kind of moral vacuum. To counterpoint this, the female lead is usually a femme fatale, glamorous but duplicitous, sexy and dangerous, manipulative and assertive. There are definitely shades of Macbeth in that the female lead is usually a more compelling and impressive personality than the supposed hero. The inversion of stereotypical roles also serves to hold a “dark mirror” up to society, an effect which other elements of these films also strive to achieve.

The plots usually deal with the seedy side of human life: crime, betrayal, jealousy and revenge, much of it sexually motivated. Narrative strategies involve repeated use of flashbacks, first-person voiceovers, dream-like sequences, and unresolved episodes that emphasize the overall lack of moral direction. The photography is dominated by high contrast lights surrounding the protagonists with dark, threatening shadows while odd angles and unbalanced framing produce unstable, disorienting images. The chiaroscuro lighting makes even mundane encounters seem charged with danger or erotic suspense.

di6

This is a still from Double Indemnity which shows a number of trademark features. The shadows cast by Venetian blinds on the wall, the cigarette being smoked by Barbara Stanwyck and the curious construction of the mise en scene are all very characteristic of the style. What is even more wonderful about this particular shot however is the way the shadow of Fred McMurray’s character enters the scene before he does. The Barbara Stanwyck character is just about to shoot him with a pearl-handled revolver; this image seems to be hinting that he is already on his way to the underworld even before he arrives in the room.

Noir settings are almost exclusively urban: the resulting iconography consists of images of dark night-time cities with rain-soaked streets reflecting dazzling neon lights that intrude into the picture and fracture the composition. Interiors are almost always cramped and claustrophobic: dingy hotel rooms, night clubs or even the backs of taxi cabs. The dark outside world presses in on the characters and is full of danger. Soundtracks often include jazz in the bebop style from the late 1940s or early 1950s, with its jagged melodic lines and stuttering rythms, emphasizing the psychological instability displayed by the characters and settings.

The protagonists are trapped, perhaps just by mischance, in an alienating lonely world, usually a night-time city, where they are constantly in danger for their lives. The chaotic, random violence of this world gives rise to feelings of persecution and paranoia and a sense that life is absurd, meaningless, without order or purpose, and governed by contingency rather than design.

Much has been written about the origins of Film Noir, but it does seem clear to me that, although it is essentially an American style, it owes many of its roots to European existentialism, a point further reinforced by the fact that many great movie directors of the noir period (including the great Billy Wilder, who directed Double Indemnity) were in fact European emigres.

Anyway, I digress. What I wanted to say really was that during the course of watching all these wonderful films from a bygone age it struck me how much the language and iconography of modern cosmology shares this existentialist heritage. Our new standard cosmological model is full of references to the “dark” sector (dark matter and dark energy) which dominates the energy budget of the Universe, but which not just invisible but also unfathomable. The cosmos is lit by garish starlight from small islands of luminosity embedded in this sea of darkness. Long chains of bright galaxies stretch across space like rows of streetlights whose glare fractures and disturbs the celestial dark. We cling to a precarious existence on a tiny rock that is surrounded by danger. Even the stuff from which our atoms are made is completely overshadowed by alien matter. The universe is oblivious to us and we are irrelevant to it.

But it’s not only the surface imagery of cosmology that resembles that of a noir movie. The existentialist trend runs deep. Cosmology seems to be abandoning the idea that there is a design behind it all. The idea that there is a single explanatory principle “a theory of everything” that accounts for why our Universe is the way it is and why life is possible within it, is losing ground to the idea that there is a multiverse in which all possible laws of nature are realised; we just live in a place where life happens to be possible. I’m not at all convinced that it is a good route for science to follow, but many cosmologists seem to be accepting this kind of thing as the best we will ever do to explain the Universe.

The physicist Steven Weinberg summed up the way this view of the Universe challenges us:

It is almost irresistible for humans to believe that we have some special relation to the universe, that human life is not just a more-or-less farcical outcome of a chain of accidents reaching back to the first three minutes, but that we were somehow built in from the beginning. … It is very hard to realise that this is all just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe. It is even harder to realise that this present universe has evolved from an unspeakably unfamiliar early condition, and faces a future extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat. The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.

In an interview he put it thus:

I believe that there is no point in the universe that can be discovered by the methods of science. I believe that what we have found so far, an impersonal universe in which it is not particularly directed toward human beings is what we are going to continue to find. And that when we find the ultimate laws of nature they will have a chilling, cold impersonal quality about them.

The influential American horror writer Howard Phillips Lovecraft (known to his friends as “H.P.”), wrote a letter in 1919 that argued much the same:

As you are aware, I have never been able to soothe myself with the sugary delusions of religion; for these things stand convicted of the utmost absurdity in light of modern scientific knowledge. With Nietzsche, I have been forced to confess that mankind as a whole has no goal or purpose whatsoever, but is a mere superfluous speck in the unfathomable vortices of infinity and eternity. Accordingly, I have hardly been able to experience anything which one could call real happiness; or to take as vital an interest in human affairs as can one who still retains the hallucination of a “great purpose” in the general plan of terrestrial life. … However, I have never permitted these circumstances to react upon my daily life; for it is obvious that although I have “nothing to live for”, I certainly have just as much as any other of the insignificant bacteria called human beings. I have thus been content to observe the phenomena about me with something like objective interest, and to feel a certain tranquillity which comes from perfect acceptance of my place as an inconsequential atom. In ceasing to care about most things, I have likewise ceased to suffer in many ways. There is a real restfulness in the scientific conviction that nothing matters very much; that the only legitimate aim of humanity is to minimise acute suffering for the majority, and to derive whatever satisfaction is derivable from the exercise of the mind in the pursuit of truth (from Letter to Reinhardt Kleiner  (14 September 1919), in Selected Letters I, 1911-1924 edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, pp. 86-87).

I’ve thought about this quite a lot over the last few years and am gradually finding myself more and more in agreement with Lovecraft. I would say further that that one of the few things that make life bearable is the futility of existence. Futility is very reassuring. If all the shit that happens in this world were designed to serve some higher purpose then that really would be terrifying. And even more reassuring than its futility is the knowledge that we will soon return to dust and be quickly forgotten.

Here’s  Weinberg again, from the same interview quoted above:

…if there is no point in the universe that we discover by the methods of science, there is a point that we can give the universe by the way we live, by loving each other, by discovering things about nature, by creating works of art. And that — in a way, although we are not the stars in a cosmic drama, if the only drama we’re starring in is one that we are making up as we go along, it is not entirely ignoble that faced with this unloving, impersonal universe we make a little island of warmth and love and science and art for ourselves. That’s not an entirely despicable role for us to play.

Inspired by this, I’m going to make a point of existence not by doing science nor creating a work of art, but by making a nice cup of tea.

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Forbrydelsen

Posted in Television with tags , , , , on December 12, 2015 by telescoper

Over the past week or so I’ve been watching the original TV series The Killing (in Danish with English subtitles). This was actually first broadcast in Denmark in 2007 but apparently achieved a bit of a cult following in the United Kingdom in 2011 when it was shown on BBC4. That was round about the time that I basically gave up watching television so I missed it then. However, I saw the DVD box set at a drastically reduced price a few weeks ago and decided to buy it. I’m very glad I did.

Forbrydelsen,_DVD

I’ve been to Copenhagen many times in my life but this is the first time I’ve seen some familiar locations on the small screen, which added a personal dimension for me, but my main reason for doing a blog about it is just to salute it for being exceptionally good.  The Killing (in Danish Forbrydelsen: “The Crime”) is often quoted as an example of Nordic or Scandinavian Noir but that term is generally reserved for crime fiction novels rather than movies or television programmes.  The Killing definitely retains some elements in common with classic  Film Noir – a strong central female character and low-key visual style to name but two – but I’m not sure I would categorize it as “noir“. On the other hand some classic examples of film noir don’t display many of the characteristics associated with the genre either. Categories don’t really matter that much anyway, even when they are easily defined which is not the case with Noir.

The plot of The Killing revolves around the police investigation into a terrible crime: the brutal rape and murder of a young woman, Nanna Birk Larsen, who disappears after a Halloween party. Each of the twenty 50-minute long episodes depicts one day; the series has to be that long to accommodate all the twists, red herrings and false dawns, but it never loses pace or tension. That everything happens in a Nordic November means short days of grey skies and long wintry nights, establishing an appropriatelt sombre visual mood.

The complexity of the plot and the Copenhagen setting are not the most compelling things about this as a piece of TV drama, however. What stood out for me was the excellence of the acting not only from Sofie Gråbøl as lead investigator Sarah Lund but from the entire cast. The effect on the Birk Larsen family of the loss of their daughter in such cruel circumstances is portrayed most movingly, especially by Bjarne Henriksen as the father, Theis Birk Larsen.

I am so late writing about this that I don’t suppose I would spoil it for too many people if I revealed who did it, but I’ll refrain from doing it. What I will say, however, is that I was pretty confident that I knew who the perpetrator was right from Episode 1 and I proved to be right. That doesn’t mean that I’d make a great detective, just that I’ve had enough experience of detective stories to know some of the tricks writers use to throw the reader (or viewer) off the scent.

If you haven’t seen The Killing, I thoroughly recommend it. I gather there’s a second series too. I must watch that sometime…

 

R.I.P. Richard Attenborough (1923-2014)

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , on August 25, 2014 by telescoper

Late last night the sad news broke of the death at the age of 90 of Richard Attenborough (lately “Lord Attenborough”). Tributes have since poured in from around the world, both to celebrate his career as actor and director and also to acknowledge the many wider contributions of a warm and kindly human being. There was – and will remain – a very strong connection between Richard Attenborough and the University of Sussex, where I work. His connection with the University spanned four decades and was at its strongest for the period 1998-2008 when he was Chancellor of the University in which role he congratulated countless students during their graduation ceremonies.

It is very sad to lose a person so universally loved and admired, especially since he didn’t live to see the completion of the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts scheduled to open on campus next year.

I’m doubly sad in fact because I never had the opportunity to meet him, having arrived here only last year some time after he stood down as Chancellor. Though I never interacted with him personally, I shall of course remember him through his great career on the big screen, first as an actor then as a director. Much has already been said about his contribution to the world of film by people much better qualified to comment than I, so I’ll just say that I’ll remember him best as a superb actor. He was chillingly believable as the real-life serial murderer John Christie in 10 Rillington Place, a film that also included a wonderful performance by John Hurt, but I think his finest screen role was in the classic 1947 film of Graham Greene‘s novel Brighton Rock.

This is a great film, not only because of superb central performance by Richard Attenborough as the young sociopathic gangster, Pinkie, but also and more generally because it is a rare example of an authentic British Film Noir. A nihilistic central character is of course an essential noir element but the expressionistic use of lighting, deep shadows, and strangely disorienting camera angles, exemplified in this clip turn this into a classic of its genre.

In fact, I think I’ll spend this wet Bank Holiday evening watching the whole DVD of Brighton Rock and drink a few glasses of wine to Richard Attenborough’s memory.

R.I.P. Richard Attenborough (1923-2014)

Double Indemnity – Statistics Noir

Posted in Film with tags , , , , on February 20, 2014 by telescoper

The other day I decided to treat myself by watching a DVD of the  film  Double Indemnity. It’s a great movie for many reasons, not least because when it was released in 1944 it immediately established much of the language and iconography of the genre that has come to be known as film noir, which I’ve written about on a number of occasions on this blog; see here for example. Like many noir movies the plot revolves around the destructive relationship between a femme fatale and male anti-hero and, as usual for the genre, the narrative strategy involves use of flashbacks and a first-person voice-over. The photography is done in such a way as to surround the protagonists with dark, threatening shadows. In fact almost every interior in the film (including the one shown in the clip below) has Venetian blinds for this purpose. These chiaroscuro lighting effects charge even the most mundane encounters with psychological tension or erotic suspense.

di6

To the left is an example still from Double Indemnity which shows a number of trademark features. The shadows cast by venetian blinds on the wall, the cigarette being smoked by Barbara Stanwyck and the curious construction of the mise en scene are all very characteristic of the style. What is even more wonderful about this particular shot however is the way the shadow of Fred McMurray’s character enters the scene before he does. The Barbara Stanwyck character is just about to shoot him with a pearl-handled revolver; this image suggests that he is already on his way to the underworld as he enters the room.

I won’t repeat any more of the things I’ve already said about this great movie, but I will say a couple of things that struck me watching it again at the weekend. The first is that even after having seen it dozens of times of the year I still found it intense and gripping. The other is that I think one of the contributing factors to its greatness which is not often discussed is a wonderful cameo by Edward G Robinson , who steals every scene he appears in as the insurance investigator Barton Keyes. Here’s an example, which I’ve chosen because it provides an interesting illustration of the the scientific use of statistical information, another theme I’ve visited frequently on this blog:

Brighton Rock

Posted in Film with tags , , , , on October 23, 2012 by telescoper

Last night I watched the classic 1947 film of Graham Greene‘s novel Brighton Rock. Well, I thought I should get into practice for my tough guy role as Head of School when I move down to the South coast next year. Anyway, this great film is worth watching for many reasons, including a superb performance by Richard Attenborough as the young gangster, Pinkie. But what struck me watching it last night is that this is a rare example of an authentic British Film Noir, not only in terms of the nihilistic central character but also because of the expressionistic use of lighting, deep shadows, and strangely disorienting camera angles, as exemplified in this scene.

Will we talk about the black bird?

Posted in Film with tags , , , , on October 13, 2012 by telescoper

My favourite scene from  my favourite film. Great direction, great script, great acting, and all based on a truly great novel by a truly great writer.

Not a wasted word, not an awkward phrase, and all lines delivered perfectly by actors who seem as though they were born to play these characters.

Quite. And I’ll tell you right out that I’m a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk…

Laura

Posted in Film, Jazz with tags , , , on August 30, 2012 by telescoper

Last week’s post about Vincent Price reminded me of the film that really established him as a movie actor, the classic film noir Laurain which he played the parasitic boyfriend of the eponymous heroine. If you’ve never seen the film, you should because in my opinion it hasn’t dated at all even though it was made in 1944. A song with the same name written for the film in 1945 (after the filming was completed) became a popular hit at the time as well as a favourite for jazz musicians, spawning numerous cover versions including one by the great Charlie Parker. Those of you who associate Bird with jagged bebop tunes played at a frenetic pace might be surprised to hear his take on this romantic ballad, particularly as it involves him playing with strings. The Charlie Parker with Strings session recorded in 1950 received mixed reviews from the critics, primarily because many of the arrangements are a bit bland, but while  I don’t like all these tracks, I do think Parker’s version of  Laura is a gem in which he  reveals a sensitive side to his music-making that isn’t often appreciated.