For the past four weeks I’ve been spending my Wednesday mornings basically back where I was from July to October last year – in a university film class. It’s an interesting crowd. There’s everyone from film buffs to education students, those who watch many films a week to those who probably have never watched anything before 1990 and struggle to watch one outside class each week. I’m of two schools of thought here. Sure, I’ve always loved films, but I’ll freely admit that my knowledge is lacking in certain areas, particularly in horror. I’ve always watched plenty, so much so that it’s become an ingrained part of everyday life. As a kid, the only television show I regularly watched was The Simpsons, because we were always watching films instead. Sometimes they were the same films, everything from On the Town to Mermaids to O Brother, Where Art Thou?; sometimes we were discovering something new. Whatever it was, life was so inextricably linked to that continuous discovery and then repeated infatuation with a film.
But back to the film class. This week was centered around film noir. These classes are all interesting, because you’re getting a whistle stop tour around 100 or so years of film history in 13 weeks. Some of the choices of focus are debatable. For instance, the first three weeks have been German expressionism, science fiction and noir, three genres that are closely related. The former heavily influenced the latter two, all of which came of age during different political contexts. It’s interesting to watch reactions to these pieces of history, these discoveries of new films, of ideas and techniques different to what one’s seen before. Noir is born out of a time before films could be overt in their sexuality and violence. They’re a stark contrast to the bare-all nature of mainstream cinema today, where little is left to the imagination (not that much is there), and little is going on between the lines. Noir is dark corners, repressed desires, and anxiety.
There’s plenty going on between the lines in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, of course. The film was billed as a “shocking, suspense-filled masterpiece of love…and murder!” *gasp!*, except by today’s standards, it’s perhaps only suspense-filled. By today’s standards, it’s challenging, as it requires the audience to fill in the blanks between fade to blacks that hide anything remotely salacious. In an early scene, Walter is seen comforting Phyllis as she cries on a couch in her home before the scene cuts, returning to a moment later in time where Phyllis’s hair is mysteriously messy and Walter is enjoying a post-coital cigarette (the Hays Code is in full force here). But the mysterious, the rougher explorations of class and reality and psychology are nonetheless interesting. Noir is the intellectual, the adventurous, the high-art masquerading as the low-art.
It’s a stark contrast to Edgar Ulmer’s Detour, a much more ramshackle and rough film. Godard’s saying about all a film needing is a girl and a gun couldn’t be more true than it is here, it’s indeed built on no more than that. To call it unfussy is an understatement – it quickly slips into a sparse, slickly crafted take if dubious morals and quickly escalating sticky situations that are bound to end badly. At just over an hour long, it passes by in a momentary flurry of a vitriol-filled road trip. Ulmer’s femme fatale, an abrasive powerhouse played by Ann Savage, is threatening and hypnotic, making the potential danger in associating with her very real. While it adheres to similar conventions of Double Indemnity, there’s something about the assembled-on-a-shoestring (it’s commonly said to have been shot in a week) presentation that feels more raw and realistic, less stylised than the former.
Reach retrospective noirs, however, and there’s a sense that with the dismantling of the Hays Code and the removal of the historical context that the essence of the genre is lost. Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential has the sex and the violence that Hays Code era films couldn’t have dreamed of, its preoccupations no longer lurking behind a curtain to be discovered. The overt is ultimately less intriguing. L.A. Confidential is not about the post-war anxiety and paranoia that plagued noirs at the time. It’s not about the lower middle class, struggling with the dark side of the American Dream. It has the money and the power, so what’s left to explore?
Consider the three films together, and how exactly film viewing has changed becomes clear. Once reliant on imaginations to run wild and interpret the gaps themselves, now films are able to bare all. We’re not willing to look, to consider the parts lurking behind the rest, to deal with ambiguity and multiple meanings. The act of discovery is gone, and modern cinema killed it.