The Casablanca (Curtiz 1942) haikus

cnsmovie_casablanca_15Apologies for yesterday’s premature post. Let’s try this again. With the full set.

He runs a saloon.
Left politics left behind.
A woman, of course.


We had Paris but
He had the certificate.
Hmmmm, transit papers…

Rick, Ilsa: I’m black!
Nazis here, Jim Crow back home.
Screw ‘As Time Goes By’.

Let’s do it! For love!
Then plan to flee together.
Psych! Get on the plane.

Queered by Rick’s scheme,
Fates entwined like lovers’ limbs.
Beautiful friendship.

The City in Fiction and Film, week three

tumblr_l30hu35gF41qz6k9qo1_1280Week 2

One of the issues in designing a coherent new programme is working out at which level, in which module and when in that module (in relation to the other modules) to deliver certain kinds of material. When we designed the BA Film Studies twelve years ago, we decided to concentrate a lot of the film theory and critical theory in a compulsory level two (i.e., second year) module, whimsically entitled Currents in Film Theory. On the new BA Literature and Film Studies, in which students will encounter literary theory as well as film theory and critical theory, such a module seemed inappropriate, so part of our design process involved deciding what of this kind of material students needed to encounter and how best to divide it up between modules and levels.

All of which is a long way round to saying that today’s class involved an introduction to semiotics, ably supported by the first chapter of Jonathan Bignell’s Media Semiotics: An Introduction, still by far the best book of its kind – and I’m not just saying that because he used to teach me. (There will some structuralism, Marxism and feminism soon.)

By the end of the lecture, we had covered these terms/ideas from Saussure and Peirce:

diachronic vs. synchronic
langue and parole
the sign is arbitrary and conventional
sign = signifier + signified
the referent
syntagmatic vs. paradigmatic
symbol, icon and index
denotation and connotation

There was, as always, much exemplification through the medium of cats. (Back in the day, it was always trees, but over the last couple of decades this arboreal hegemony has fallen to a relentless feline insurgency – probably something to do with the internet and the ‘mind-control’ parasite Toxoplasma gondii.)

We’ll nail down these terms with a test at the start of class next week. A revision aid can be found here.

We looked at three texts this week – John Huston’s film of The Maltese Falcon (1941), Edgar Allan Poe’s story ‘The Man of the Crowd’ (1940) and Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘Street Haunting: A London Adventure’ (1927).

The vagaries of timetabling mean that each week the screening comes before the lecture, which is normally not a problem, but the challenge today was to come up with screening questions that are basically asking questions about semiotics without using semiotic terminology. Such as:

What kind of man is Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart)? How do we know these things about him? How does he differ from Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan)?
How do we know Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) is gay?
How do we know Kasper Gutman (Sidney Greenstreet) cannot be trusted? Is he also gay? Is Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr) his lover?
How many roles does Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) play? How does she imply these differences?
How does Brigid differ from Iva Archer (Gladys George)? How do they both differ from Effie Perrine (Lee Patrick)?
How do we tell Lt. Detective Dundy (Barton McLane) and Detective Polhaus (Ward Bond) apart? In what ways does Polhaus resemble Sam Spade? In what ways does he resemble Dundy?

Although we did not get to work through all these questions in detail, it became very clear very quickly how much information is conveyed by costume and manner. We were obviously in the realm of signs – of signifiers and signifieds, of denotations and connotations.

When Miles walks into the office and finds Spade interviewing Brigid, the contrasts between the two men are clear and shape our understanding of each of them in relation to the other. Spade is in a tailored suit with subtle stripes, buttoned up with a precisely knotted tie; his manner thus far has been similarly professional, slightly patronising. Miles, a taller and slightly gangly figure, wears a baggier suit, unbuttoned, his shirt and tie not as neat; he makes no effort to conceal his sexual interest in Brigid, seating himself on the edge of Spade’s desk. Archer’s desk faces the window, Spade’s the door. He lacks Spade’s composure, his air of competence; Archer’s death, then, comes as little surprise.

Joel Cairo’s card smells of gardenias. He is small and feminised, his costume dapper, his hair neatly oiled curls. He wears gloves to keep his hands soft; he fiddles nervously with his cane, constantly positioning it near his mouth, suggesting some kind of oral fixation. His accent is exotic, as are the overseas places he has visited – and his surname. It is difficult to tell how much of his ‘deviant’ persona from M, which had been a hit in the US, is carried over, but it is clear that The Maltese Falcon – like many American crime films – uses queerness to connote wrongness and villainy. Some of this is evident in the corpulent Gutman, too, with Wilmer just the latest in what appears to be a succession of young men he picks up to work as his henchmen (and catamites?). However, there is an intriguing countercurrent at work. Perhaps it is the appeal of the exotic, perhaps just the brilliant performances of Lorre and Greenstreet, but neither character is particularly loathsome – and both in various ways are quite likeable.

We also noted the importance of transience and anonymity again in the representation of the city: Brigid goes by three names and at least that many personas; no-one knows their neighbours or lives in a discernible community; the closest thing to a friendship we see is between Spade and Effie (boss and employee).

Walter Benjamin says that Poe’s ‘A Man of the Crowd’

is something like an X-ray of a detective story. It does away with all the drapery that a crime represents. Only the armature remains: the pursuer, the crowd, and an unknown man who manages to walk through London in such a way that he always remains in the middle of the crowd.

We began with the moment in which the narrator first spots this mysterious man – whose appearance is a parole (speech-act) which the narrator struggles to filter through the available langue (sign system):

As I endeavoured, during the brief minute of my original survey, to form some analysis of the meaning conveyed, there arose confusedly and paradoxically within my mind, the ideas of vast mental powers, of caution, of penuriousness, of avarice, of coolness, of malice, of blood-thirstiness, of triumph, of merriment, of excessive terror, of intense–of supreme despair.

And then we took a step back to the start of the story, in which the narrator describes looking out at the crowd on a London street, abstracting himself from it, presenting himself as some kind of disembodied neutral observer, who fantasises about his ability to see without being seen. For two pages, he divides the crowd into distinct groups, and distinguishes between them by their costume, demeanour and behaviour, producing a catalogue of types, descending from the respectable professional classes down through clerks and swells, gamblers and pickpockets, prostitutes and drunks. The narrator reads the character of these people from their appearance; and the author persuades us of its accuracy and truthfulness through his careful selection of signs (words) for their denotative and, perhaps more importantly, connotative powers. No wonder, then, that ‘the man of the crowd’ comes as a shock, an epistemological limit that might undermine the certainty with which the narrator has described everyone else.

We also had a think about the following:

How does the story express the anonymity of life in the city?
How does it contrast day/night, different districts, different social or economic classes?
Who is the man the narrator follows?
What does the ending mean?

Virginia Woolf’s essay does some similar things. We thought about the connotations of the place names she includes:

the area between Holborn and the Strand
Oxford Street
Waterloo Bridge

Some of them retain similar connotations; others, such as ‘Brixton’, which then evoked a middle class suburb with green spaces, connotes something very different now. (Next semester we will look at some Windrush era and post-Windrush representations of London.)

Woolf begins by talking about the very personal connotations of items in one’s own room, where

we sit surrounded by objects which perpetually express the oddity of our own temperaments and enforce the memories of our own experience.

But there is an important slippage between this investment of personal meanings in a bowl or a stain on the carpet, and the connotations for readers. For the narrator, the bowl recalls the holiday in Mantua where is was purchased. For the reader, the buyer’s fond memory of the woman who sold it reeks of English class condescension, and the bowl connotes wealth, because who but the well-off could afford to spend a summer in Italy?

There is a curious passage also when the narrator visits a shoe store. A female dwarf, accompanied by two regular-sized women, reveals her perfect, full-sized, ‘arched and aristocratic’ foot. Its revelation alters her demeanour, and thus that of the people in the store. At the same time, the narrator is infected by the fantastical imagery of dwarves and giants (the regular-sized companions), and this spills over into her phantasmagorical description of the often-foreign working class denizens of the area around Seven Dials and Covent Garden. It is as if she cannot bring herself to directly describe this area and the people there. And, like Poe’s narrator, Woolf’s narrator is suddenly shocked by the appearance of a stereotypical Jew, with all the long and terrible anti-semitic baggage that evokes.

Woolf also fantasises about seeing without being seen – she describes herself as stripping away the shell of her home and becoming like the pearl in the oyster, which promptly transmutes into a giant eye, capable of observing the surfaces of things, the plane of signification. As a consequence of which, I now imagine Virginia Woolf looks like this:



I also had the opening of chapter 25, ‘A Tie With a Windsor Knot’, from Ian Fleming’s From Russia with Love (1957) to hand, but time as always was our enemy – will probably kick off next week’s class with it. (My colleague teaching the Cultural Value, Literature, Film and Consumption module will be doing some work on James Bond in the coming weeks, so it will make a nice crossover; she has been working on Sherlock Holmes this week, so I will be building on that next week.)

Recommended critical reading
Bignell, Jonathan. Media Semiotics: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002.
Chandler, Daniel. Semiotics: The Basics. London: Routledge, 2002.
Monaco, James. How to Read a Film. 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. See chapter 3, “The Language of Film: Signs and Syntax.”
Stam, Robert, ed. New Vocabularies in Film Semiotics: Structuralism, Post-Structuralism and Beyond. London: Routledge, 1992. See part II, “Cine-Semiology,” on how semiotics was developed in relation to film.
Turner, Graeme. Film as Social Practice. 4th ed. London: Routledge, 2006. See chapter 3, “Film Languages.”

Recommended reading
The opening and closing pages of Nikolai Gogol’s “Nevsky Prospect” (1835) capture the bustle and variety of a modern city street.
Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925) repeatedly leaps from the mind of one character to another as they walk across London.
John Huston’s film is based on Dashiell Hammett’s hard-boiled crime novel, The Maltese Falcon (1929).

Recommended viewing
Women take on the role of detectives and attempt to make sense of the city, solve crimes or discover their own identities in Phantom Lady (Siodmak 1944), Desperately Seeking Susan (Seidelman 1985) and In the Cut (Campion 2003).

Week four



Loathe others, loathe yourself: the Gerald Kersh school of characterisation

Gerald Kersh does not like other people. Or himself. (Or cats.) Let us consider his classic novel of low-life London, Night and the City (1938).

Night-in-the-City-bookFirst, the grotesquerie of people glimpsed in passing. Harry Fabian, a ponce (i.e., pimp) living off the immoral earnings of a woman, Zoë, trails one of her blackmail-able gentleman callers to the Turkish baths. Looking around, he sees

An old gentleman, abominably naked, looking like a Surrealist vision of pumpkins, marrows and varicose veins, turned the steam on higher, and began to smack himself in the belly. Another man, young and exceedingly drunk, stood trembling under the cold shower and mumbled something about forgetting his umbrella. (57)

Kersh has a thing about booze – and about all of mankind:

Man spends the first half of his life trying to find himself, and the other half trying to lose himself. He runs in little circles, like a pup trying to nuzzle its own behind; he catches up with himself, sniffs, is disgusted, and runs away from his own smell. He fears life; he flies from it. … He can always kill himself, of course, but he never does. He lacks the courage to put his head in the gas-oven, so he says: ‘That’s the coward’s way out’ – and even thinks himself a hero for living on. … above all give him a drink. Stuff his howling mouth with the nipples of oblivion! … Anesthetise him: that is his greatest comfort – poor simulacrum; soft white maggot still unformed! (104-5)

Later, heartbroken night club owner Phil Nosseros will pour

out the brandy with the grim concentration of one who believed that truth, happiness and the consummation of human endeavour lie at the bottom of a bottle. (256)

Does Harry Fabian ever have any regrets about the life he has chosen for himself? Well, at one point he finds himself swearing to a woman ‘On my honour!’

As he said this, Fabian experienced a curious sensation of misery. What was it? Was it that for the first time in his life he had become aware of the appalling burden of accumulating lies with which he loaded his soul from hour to hour – the closing coils of deceit which he spun about himself day by day? There passed through his mind a vision of life free from vanity, fiction and subterfuge … But all this passed in the blink of an eye. (204)

As Greta, one of the novel’s several women working as prostitutes, says ‘philosophically’:

All men are marvelous till you find them out. (242)

Wait, there is more than one prostitute in the novel? Yes. This is how Kersh introduces Vi, a B-girl who sometimes goes a little farther. It initially seems like she will just be a bit of background colour but later she becomes one of the viewpoint characters

She was a tall, slender, red-haired girl in a black lace evening gown. Under her rouge, one could distinguish the papery greyish pallor of the night-bird – the dead opacity born of dark dance-halls, where, in thick blue smoke and the exhalations of steamy bodies, the crude, raw rhythms of red-hot gut-bucket jazz seem to shake the blood out of women. … Vi yawned, and from between her pale, painted lips there proceeded a breath such as might come from a pathological specimen in a jar when the alcohol is evaporating. (77, 87-8)

Kersh even has a low opinion of her wallpaper

It was lined with brownish paper – mottled, sickening brown paper with stripes like the tracks of balloon-tyres in rose-pink, and wide bands dotted with circles, crosses and things like broken fans in pale green. You can get such wallpaper for sixpence a roll in the region of Somers Town; but who can sit down at a drawing-board and actually design it? (89)

The virginal and financially struggling shorthand-typist Helen lives in the same boarding house as Vi, who eventually persuades her to make a quick buck as a B-girl, just until her situation improves a little… Helen falls for Adam, the nearest to a consistently decent person in the book, but by the time they finally get it on they are both caught up in and deeply conflicted by the life, so when they make love

They appeared like enraged enemies, locked in a last desperate struggle. (154)

While Adam tries to get out, Helen finds ways to justify abandoning her sense of decency and embracing a life she previously saw as degrading. She quickly learns to use sex to manipulate all men, including the one she loves:

She kissed him, pressing her whole body against him; and in spite of the fact this kiss, and Adam’s immediate response to it, stirred up in her a veritable maelstrom of desire, she retained, deep in her consciousness, a little cold corner from which her critical faculties watched him. (177)

Later she will say,

It’s all very well talking about prostitution, but is sleeping with a man for money any worse than marrying him for money? (262-263)

Which might have passed as Kersh being insightful if he had not already made such pronouncements as

The prostitute is sentimental and unhappy. Why does she walk interminably, in utter degradation, and then give all her money to a man? Because he … is, in her consciousness, the last human being in the world to whom, by virtue of her self-sacrifice, she can feel superior, and therefore she loves him with a curious desperate love.
And now,’ thought Zoë, ‘he’s got hold of somebody else with my money.’
Rage, the hysterical rage of the prostitute rose within her. (244)

Kersh loves to elaborate upon the grotesquerie of his characters, and has a field day describing the wrestlers Fabian recruits for his newest venture as a fight promoter. There is the Cypriot, Kration, a deeply conflicted character at war with himself, as his physiognomy and follicles attest:

as soon as his mouth closed his face changed. Savagery came into it. He looked strong and ferocious enough to tear himself apart. His hair crouched low on his forehead, trying to obliterate his eyebrows; his eyebrows, colliding over his nose in a spray of black hair, endeavoured to smother his eyes; and only the flat, heavy prow of his nose kept his eyes apart – otherwise, they would have snapped at each other. Meanwhile they waited, smouldering, while his upper lip snarled in triumph over the lower, which, from time to time, jumped up and clamped down on it. Turkey, Greece and Africa waged war in his veins. Even his hair carried on ancient warfare. There was antagonism in his very follicles, and the hair writhed out, enormously thick, twisted, rebellious, kinked, frizzled and dried up. (211)

Actually, Kration has no inner conflict whatsoever. Though, thanks to Fabian’s manipulations, he does have a conflict with aged ex-champion Charlie Bamboo, the Black Strangler. Kersh’s description of this ‘colossus’ is even more racialised – but the hammer is a great touch, even if I cannot quite picture the sausages:

The man whom Fabian called Strangler was a colossus. You must imagine the Farnese Hercules in ebony, dressed in a nigger-brown suit with a yellow-chalk stripe, a sky-blue shirt and a crimson tie with a greenish domino motif. He had an extraordinary head. You could reproduce it by shaving the head of a Neanderthal man, polishing it with stove-polish and then smashing up the features with a hammer. The ears no longer resembled ears – they had been beaten and rubbed into indescribable shapelessness – while the nose, a dozen times broken and never repaired, spread in a two-inch width almost flush with the rest of the face. Beneath it a pair of vast pink lips, remarkably pale and prominent and as thick as beef sausages, sucked at the sodden remains of a dead cigar. (41-2)

So is there anybody or anything Kersh does not loathe? No. Not even the earth, the moon or the night sky:

Outside, the dull moon – little, fickle satellite – trails after the advancing earth like a prostitute at the heels of a batter soldier, marching on in blind obedience to incomprehensible orders, across the desert of the skies. (276)

Coda – some amusing stuff for the film buffs out there
At one point, Fabian goes into a gentleman’s outfitters and finds himself discarding the ‘little pale green hat which he had bought only a week before: the Fred MacMurray, for which he had yearned with all his soul’ in favour of the Cicero, ‘exactly as worn by Al Capone’. The sales assistant also tempts him with ‘the Humphrey Bogart shirt, exactly as worn in The Petrified Forest’, but has rather less success when he asks ‘would you care to see the Stepin Fetchit bowtie? … the Barrymore sock?’ (240-241)

Clive Brook. Swoon.
Clive Brook. Swoon.

In an early conversation, Helen protests that unlike Vi, she’s got ‘high standards’ when it comes to men:

‘Ah,’ said Vi, with an air of infinite experience, ‘I used to talk like that, too. I used to be crazy about Clive Brook–’ (96)

And later, when Zoë admires Harry, we learn that

Robert Taylor. What women want.
Robert Taylor. What women want.

There is nothing a woman loves more in a man than self-confidence. A man who appears to know precisely what he wants, and how to get it, can win more hearts than Robert Taylor. (237)




Paris noir et noir – and hardly morbid at all

Richard Wright was cremated at Père Lachaise.


But before that happened, he used to enjoy hanging out at the Café Tournon with Chester Himes. (You could also find James Baldwin and Ollie Harrington there, and it was where Duke Ellington made his Paris debut.)

wright a

wright b







Although the management are only interested in letting you know that Joseph Roth lived there. I guess they figure the legend of an unholy drinker is bad for business. (Did you like the literary gag there?)


Somewhere on this street, Chester Himes used to have an apartment.

himes a








But when John A. Williams was visiting Paris and dropped by to see him, he found Himes had moved out, leaving the flat to Melvin Van Peebles.

We found Himes still keeping good company in the unexpected book department of Le Bon Marché, the first ever department store.

himes b

Another African-American in Paris:


And Harry’s Bar. Where Humphrey Bogart used to hang out.

harry's bar

Their margarita is a damn fine margarita…

harry's bar inside

…but it is not as good a margarita as their mojito is a mojito.