The City in Fiction and Film, week 13

936full-all-that-heaven-allows-posterWeek 12

Returning from the holiday break, we picked up and built on some strands from the end of last semester – moving from the rubble of The Third Man and Passport to Pimlico to postwar urban development (foreshadowed in Bicycle Thieves), and extending our thinking about the relationships between built environments and individual/group psychology. For the first couple of weeks we are looking at US suburbs, this week in All That Heaven Allows (Sirk 1955) and next week in Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (Siegel 1956) and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) – we might get some glimpses of Truffaut’s adaptation in later weeks, as we move onto postwar European and British development Alphaville (Godard 1965), The Model Couple (Klein 1977) and JG Ballard’s High-Rise (1975).

We began with an array of statistics to get some sense of the extent of – and transformations wrought by – the US post-war economic boom as war-time industries retooled, the growth of the suburbs and related expansion of and easier access to credit, and the development of a new consumer and corporate culture.  Some very broad strokes:

  • In 1945, 40% of Americans owned their own homes; relatively few families owned a car; shopping was done in neighbourhood groceries; and aeroplane travel was for the military, the wealthy and the occasional businessman.
  • In 1960, 60% of American owned their own homes; many families owned more than one car; groceries were bought at supermarkets in shopping malls; and TV had replaced films and radio as the major source of entertainment.
  • Between 1947–1960, the rise in average real income was equal to that in the previous half century;  GNP increased by 250%; and expenditure on construction increased ninefold.
  • By 1960, per capita income was 35% higher than the boom year of 1945.
  • By the mid-1950s, 60% of the population enjoyed a secure middle class income ($3000-10,000), twice as many as had done so 25 years earlier, before the Depression.
  • In 1946, there were 6 TV stations in the US; by 1956, there were 442.
  • In the mid-fifties, 66 % of US homes had a TV; by 1960, 87% (and 75% of American families owned their own car their own washing machine).
  • At the height of European emigration to the US in the early years of the 20th century, 1.2 million arrived every year; during the 1950s, the same number of people moved out to the suburbs every year – 18 million in total – as 13 million new homes were built, 11 million of them in the suburbs.
  • By 1960, a quarter of the American population lived in the suburbs.
  • Suburbs were typically whites-only (and when racial segregation in housing was ruled illegal, other methods were developed to keep suburbs whites-only).
  • Suburbs were generally arranged in a class hierarchy – the further away from the city, the bigger the lot/house.
  • There was a boom in sales of consumer goods and domestics appliances – which saw electricity use triple during the 1950s, with advertising revenues increasing 400% between 1945 and 1960, three times the money spent on higher education.
  • There was a massive increase in automobile usage, with the number of cars in the US increasing 133% between 1945 and 1960.
  • There were also government road-building activities: in 1956 Congress appropriated $32 billion to build 41,000 miles of highway, and the Interstate system was developed.

All this affluence surely made people happy? Not really. Eisenhower’s placid decade was also a time typified by an array of deep-rooted anxieties. Again, in broad strokes:

  • the cold war
  • anti-communist hysteria
  • nuclear dread
  • the Civil Rights movement
  • the Kinsey reports into human sexuality
  • dull conformity: endless identical tract homes in the suburbs full of the same consumer durables; the need for men to ‘fit in’ in new corporate workplaces; women pushed out of the workplace in favour of returning veterans and into the home to raise nuclear families
  • isolation: destruction or loss of extended kinship networks and communities in old urban centres, changes in access to urban resources
  • increase in alcoholism, dependency on tranquilisers, psychoanalysis and a major revival in Protestant christianity – all of which can be seen as methods of coping with and adjusting to circumstances rather than trying to change them

These transformations – affluence and anxiety – can be observed in the culture of the time, as well as being evident in the ways the period is remembered (which includes being misremembered, consciously and unconsciously).

From this admittedly sketchy sketch of suburbs – William Chafe’s The Unfinished Journey, the source of many of my stats, is a good place to begin reading more detail about the scale and consequences of these transformations – we turned to the question of genre. More specifically, what is melodrama?

Melodrama emerged as a stage genre in the wake of the 18th century bourgeois revolutions – in France, America, Haiti – and with the rise of capitalism. As feudal structures/hierarchies were destroyed, so tragedy’s emphasis on people of rank – e.g., Hamlet, Othello, Lear – was replaced by the sentimental drama of the bourgeois family. But such sentimental stage dramas inevitably lack ‘heroic dimensions, overt excitement’, ‘cosmic ambition’ and ‘violence’ (Gledhill 17) – and made up for this deficit by taking on some characteristics from popular theatrical traditions of spectacle, performance and music to become melodrama (French: ‘song’ + ‘drama’). Theatrical melodrama also adopted Gothic fiction’s often Manichean outlook – in Europe, this typically pitted good bourgeoisie against evil aristocrats or good proletarians against evil bourgeoisie; in the US, which likes to pretend it doesn’t have a class structure, this opposition was more typically between good rural folk and evil city folk. Theatrical melodrama also increasingly emphasised ‘unpremeditated feeling as an index of moral status and social value’ (Gledhill 24).

In relation to film, Linda Williams argues that melodrama – ‘a modality of narrative with a high quotient of pathos and action’ (51) – should not be regarded as a ‘specific genre’ but as ‘the fundamental mode of popular American moving pictures’ (42):

the basic vernacular of American moving pictures consists of a story that generates sympathy for a hero who is also a victim and that leads to a climax that permits the audience, and usually other characters, to recognize that character’s moral value. This climax revealing the moral good of the victim can tend in one of two directions: either it can consist of a paroxysm of pathos (as in the woman’s film or family melodrama variants) or it can take that paroxysm and channel it into the more virile and action-centered variants of rescue, chase, and fight (as in the western and all the action genres). (58)

The meaning of melodrama has also changed significantly when talking about film. As far as Hollywood was concerned, until the 1970s:

‘melodrama’ meant action thrillers with fast-paced narratives, episodic story-lines featuring violence, suspense and death-defying stunts. Dastardly villains, heroines in peril and daring adventurous heroes populated these films … Cowboy films, gangster films, crime thrillers and horror movies were typically labelled ‘melodramas’ in the trade press. … what Film Studies has come to regard as ‘melodrama’ since 1970 are films with more words than action, inactive male protagonists, active and even domineering female characters, and anything but clear-cut and easily identifiable villains [and it is this version] of ‘melodrama’ that is now in general circulation, having been adopted by Hollywood filmmakers, reviewers and journalists since the 1970s. (Mercer and Shingler 6)

John Mercer and Martin Shingler also offer a useful discussion of the key characteristics of the Hollywood family melodrama (the kind of film made by Sirk, Nicholas Ray and  Vincente Minnelli that is now often conflated with the entirety of melodrama):

  • a focus on the conflicts and tensions of a middle-class family, in which social and economic concerns are registered but are typically secondary to the focus on personal emotional trauma
  • the audience is invited to sympathise with protagonist (who is often also cast as a victim) and to project their own fears/anxieties onto him/her
  • the portrayal of a psychological situation will be pretty direct – there will be no recourse to monsters to express repressed material as in Invasion of the Bodysnatchers or ghosts as in Festen (von Trier 1998)- and the viewer is likely to be able to identify with it from their own experience
  • there will be evidence of Freudian repression, of psychoanalytic symptoms and of the return of the repressed – Freudian psychoanalysis was a familiar part of US popular culture well before the 1950s, and sometimes, as in All That Heaven Allows, its terminology is explicitly evoked
  • the mise-en-scène will have a symbolic or coded dimension
  • expressive music will be used to heighten the emotional impact
  • the film will often culminate in a happy ending – but when it does, the happiness and/or the ending-ness of the happy ending will be unconvincing. In Stella Dallas (Vidor 1937), the working-class Stella (Barbara Stanwyck) is able to give her daughter an upper middle class life, but is shut out from it and will never see her daughter again. In All That Heaven Allows, middle-aged, middle-class widow Cary (Jane Wyman) is finally free of her (awful) children to be with the younger, working class Ron (Rock Hudson), but he is injured, reduced to an infantile state as someone she must care for as if she is his mother (despite the ‘erection’ under his blanket); outside the window, the yonic lake is frozen and the deer who wanders up as a potential symbol of new life is also clearly not a wild creature, independent and free, but one who has been domesticated by Ron (like Cary). Also, the society’s – and Cory’s awful children’s – disapproval of their relationship has not disappeared. Such ambiguous/ambivalent/double-coded endings seem to recognise that the problem/contradiction at the core of the film cannot be so easily resolved. They invite the viewer to read the film against the grain

As we mentioned Freud, we also quickly sketched in some very basic Freudian ideas (we will do more with this material in the level two module on genre and the fantastic):

  • large parts of human thought remains unconscious
  • the human mind expends considerable energy suppressing or repressing certain thoughts and ideas (particularly around sex and aggression)
  • repressed thoughts and ideas often sneak out in dreams, nightmares, slips of the tongue and artistic activity (the return of the repressed)
  • the unconscious, however, is not simply a ready-and-waiting place for repressed desire – it is produced by the very act of repression
  • the tripartite mind: the ego as the fluid product of the conflict and tensions between the id (basic drives around sex and aggression, etc) and the superego (internalised social codes of behaviour); Dr Jekyll (ego) want to chemically realise the angelic part of human nature (superego) but unleashes instead the Mr Hyde (the id)

And then onto Douglas Sirk specifically – his background in interwar Berlin’s leftist creative community, his German and especially his Hollywood films (a contract director who had little choice over what films he made, but found ways to work against their clichéd material; the major melodramas with producer Ross Hunter at Universal), and his belated designation as an auteur in the 1970s (in part aided by his ability in interview to talk a strong leftist game in describing – or claiming – what he sought to achieve in his movies). Since his ‘discovery’, the following characteristics have been discerned in his films:

  • he depicts the material American dream not to celebrate it but to critique it
  • his visual style subverts his clichéd, conservative narratives
  • he uses parody and excess, not for comedy value but to create a distance between the viewer and the film
  • this distance is also the product of his preference for medium-shots and long-shots over close-ups so as to keep the viewer from getting too caught up in the characters’ emotions
  • he also uses long-shots and creates frames within the frame to ‘stage’ events – to make them seem overtly theatrical and staged, thus working a low-key Brechtian alienation effect
  • he uses sets, props and shot construction to create graphic effects
  • he uses mirrors to double, distance and reveal – also uses windows and screens
  • he uses colour and props expressively

The remainder of the class was devoted to discussing a series of questions posed before the screening.

  • How does the film represent different spaces (e.g, suburb vs countryside, the country club vs the Andersons’ party, Carry’s house vs the Old Mill House)?
  • What does the film say about: youth, maturity, respectability, class, duty, desire, convention, passion, romance, community?
  • How does the film depict masculinity and femininity? What does it say about gender?
  • How does the film use colour (especially reds/browns and blues) expressively?
  • How does it use specific objects (spectacles, the TV, the teapot, screens, windows, the deer, Xmas trees, etc) expressively?
  • Does it have a happy ending? What undermines the happiness of the happy ending?

One of the things we focused on was the use of colour. Cary’s decision to abandon her widow’s weeds for a red dress when she goes to the Country Club suddenly changes how other people see her – she is hit on by a married man. Her children – who are every bit as awful as the children in Make Way for Tomorrow (McCarey 1937) and Tokyo Story (Ozu 1953) – struggle to cope with the idea of their mother having  desires, being sexual. Her daughter Kay (Gloria Talbott) starts whom the film rather mocks for her book-learning and appeals to reason); significantly, once she falls in love with a boy and they get engaged she  also wears red – even as she tells her Cary, who at this point has abandoned Ron for the sake of her awful children (who are awful), that at least she had not really loved him. As her awful child, dressed all in red, spouts blithely spouts this, Cary is framed by a bitterly ironic vase of red roses. (It is some small comfort to know that Gloria Talbott will just a few years later marry a monster from outer space.)

The film also uses a range of reds and browns to signal physical and emotional warmth. Domestic interiors are red/brown against the cold blue of the night outside – almost like the conventional tinting of a silent movie – except in scenes when Cary is being berated for her ‘inappropriate’ romance by her awful son Ned (William Reynolds). Then, Cary is always posed against a warm red backdrop while Ned stands in front of a cold blue backdrop – an expressive lighting scheme that makes no realistic sense in terms of the physical space, light sources, lightbulbs, etc.

In the key scene, when the awful Ned walks out on his mother, the expressive use of props is also evident. Ned strides to posture in front of the fireplace, wittering on his patriarchal nonsense in front of a wall that has already been compared to an Egyptian mausoleum in which Cary is entombed (Cary has just suggested he put a screen in front of the fire, as if to block her passions). He leans on the mantlepiece where his father’s trophy used to be displayed (there has already been a row about Cary referring to it as part of the clutter she has taken down to the basement – a good place for repressed material to be stored). Throughout their conversation before and after this moment, the strong vertical lines of a screen has separated the film screen, with one of them either side of it, cut off from each other. Going even further, when Cary asks ‘let’s not this come between us’ (meaning her relationship with Ron) this is what the shot actually looks like:

vlcsnap-2011-12-28-15h26m55s98

Expressive mise-en-scène or what?

Week 14

Core critical reading:
Mercer, John and Martin Shingler, Melodrama: Genre, Style and Sensibility. London: Wallflower, 2004. 38–77.
Recommended critical reading
AlSayyas, Nezar. Cinematic Urbanism: A History of the Modern from Reel to Real. London: Routledge, 2006. See chapter 4, “Cynical Modernity; or the Modernity of Cynicism.”
Biskind, Peter. Seeing is Believing How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. London: Pluto, 1983. 250–333.
Fishman, Robert, Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia. New York: Basic, 1989.
Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. London: Gollancz, 1963.
Gledhill, Christine. ‘The Melodramatic Field: An Investigation’. Home Is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman’s Film. Ed. Christine Gledhill.London: BFI, 1987. 5-39.
Hapgood, Lynn. Margins of Desire: The Suburbs in Fiction and Culture, 1880-1925. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005.
Hilliker, Lee. “Hulot vs. the 1950s: Tati, Technology and Mediation.” Journal of Popular Culture 32.2 (1998): 59–78.
Klinger, Barbara. Melodrama and Meaning: History, Culture and the Films of Douglas Sirk. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Nicolaides, Becky and Andrew Weiss, eds. The Suburb Reader. New York: Routledge, 2006. Especially Chapter 10, ‘Critiques of Postwar Suburbia’.
Spigel, Lynn. Welcome to the Dreamhouse: Popular Media and Postwar Suburbs. Durham: Duke University Press, 2001.
Williams, Linda. ‘Melodrama Revised’. Refiguring American Film Genres: Theory and History. Ed. Nick Browne. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. 42-88
Recommended reading
Probably the first satire on suburban life is George and Weedon Grossmith’s *The Diary of a Nobody (1892).
The struggle to live in the suburbs and the meaninglessness of suburban living is central to James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce (1941), Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road (1961), John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” (1964), J.G. Ballard’s Vermilion Sands (1971), Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985) and Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm (1994). Sue Kaufman’s Diary of a Mad Housewife (1967) is set in Manhattan but nonetheless offers a feminist critique of the gender relations more normally associated with the suburbs.
Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959), based on her own family’s experience, is about the desire to move from the overcrowded, run-down city to the suburbs – and the lengths to which suburban Americans went to keep out people of colour.
Recommended viewing:
There are film versions of Mildred Pierce (Curtiz 1945), A Raisin in the Sun (Petrie 1961), The Ice Storm (Lee 1997) and Revolutionary Road (Mendes 2008). Suburban alienation and dysfunction is also explored in The Reckless Moment (Ophuls 1949), Rebel without a Cause (Ray 1955), Bigger than Life (Ray 1956), The Graduate (Nichols 1967), The Swimmer (Perry 1968), Targets (Bogdanovich 1968), Safe (Haynes 1995) and American Beauty (Mendes 1999).
Far from Heaven (Haynes 2002) reworks Sirk’s film, introducing questions of race and sexuality that films of the 1950s could not deal with directly; Todd Haynes also directed a television adaptation of Mildred Pierce (HBO 2011).
More comical visions can be found in Mon Oncle (Tati 1958) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (Hughes 1986).

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The City in Fiction and Film, week five

Ratcatcher_filmWeek four

This week, a lot of people, mostly children, died.

That is, this week we watched Ratcatcher (Lynne Ramsay 1999) and read chapters 5-7 of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life (1848). And we did so through a (more or less) structuralist lens, so as to consolidate and build on the semiotic theory and terminology from the last couple of weeks.

So we began with revisiting the relationship between parole and langue, and thinking about how the latter structures the former. Borrowing from Lois Tyson’s not-entirely-accurately-subtitled Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide (1999), we looked at how utterances such as

tree appears green
Susan is tall
dog runs happily
clouds roll ominously
wisdom comes slowly

share the same parts of speech

noun, verb and descriptor (adjective or adverb)

and the same rule of combination

subject and predicate

So we moved from surface phenomena with very different meanings to the structures that make them comprehensible. We then refreshed our memories about the syntagmatic and paradigmatic axes of language, turning once more to an example from the first episode of Sherlock, in which Holmes is confronted by the word

RACHE

scratched in the floor by the victim. To fathom its meaning he changes paradigm, trying other languages until he finds one in which it is a word (‘revenge’ in German). And then he returns to English and scrolls through another paradigm, letters that could be placed at the end of the sytagm to make a word, until he comes to L and spells

RACHEL

So once more, the relationship between surface phenomena and the (potential) structure(s) underpinning it are made clear. After which we returned to some key sentences from our Sherlock and ‘The Blue Carbuncle’ examples from last week

‘How did you know I had a therapist?’
‘This hat is three years old. These flat brims curled at the edge came in then.’
‘his wife has ceased to love him’

and reconstructed Holmes’s reading of connotations in terms of the codes on which they draw, the myths they reiterate and the ideology they construct/articulate. (For the time being we are leaving ‘ideology’ dangling a little, defined as nothing more complex than ‘knowledge in the service of power’, which is already turning out to be more complex than I thought this simple definition would be…). So again, we move from surface to structure.

Next we turned to some new material, beginning with a brief description of Vladimir Propp’s formalist analysis of Russian folktales in Morphology of the Tale (1928), which finds the same recurring structure of 31 narrative ‘functions’ and seven character types in all the tales in his sample. We also thought about some of the problems with such methodologies – the violence they do to the narratives under consideration by treating the surface level of detail as somehow irrelevant, the violence that is done to narratives to force them to fit a predetermined pattern imposed by the critic. (One student was quite familiar with Propp, having encountered him on A-level Film Studies and being required – to my quiet horror – to undertake  a Proppian analysis of Fight Club (Fincher 1999), which is of course structured exactly like a centuries old oral tale from another culture thousands of miles away. Others had  heard of Joseph Campbell and the monomyth – undoubtedly the fault of George Lucas – but fortunately it didn’t seem appropriate to get into it too much in class, because it would have taken a while to get through the fundamentally racist logic underpinning the method. Maybe next year, in the module on genre theory and fantasy.)

We then took a look at James Damico’s 1978 description of the structure of a film noir:

Either because he is fated to do so by chance, or because he has been hired for a job specifically associated with her, a man whose experience of life has left him sanguine and often bitter meets a not-innocent woman of similar outlook to whom he is sexually and fatally attracted. Through this attraction, either because the woman induces him to it or because it is the natural result of their relationship, the man comes to cheat, attempt to murder, or actually murder a second man to whom the woman is unhappily or unwillingly attached (generally he is her husband or lover), an act which often leads to the woman’s betrayal of the protagonist, but which in any event brings about the sometimes metaphoric, but usually literal destruction of the woman, the man to whom she is attached, and frequently the protagonist himself.

This structure – derived from James M. Cain’s novels The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) and Double Indemnity (1936), but already broadly familiar from, for example, Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1892) and Zola’s Thérèse Raquin (1867) – can be found in Double Indemnity (Wilder 1944), The Woman in the Window (Lang 1945), Scarlet Street (Lang 1945), The Killers (Siodmak 1946), The Lady from Shanghai (Welles 1948), The Postman Always Rings Twice (Garnett 1946), Out of the Past (Tourneur 1947), Pitfall (De Toth 1948) and Criss Cross (Siodmak 1949), and with variations in Murder, My Sweet (Dmytryk 1944), The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (Milestone 1946) and The Blue Dahlia (Marshall 1946). It mutates and collapses in In a Lonely Place (Ray 1950) and is anticipated by The Maltese Falcon (Huston 1941).

And since we watched the latter just a couple of weeks back, we were able to see how well – or poorly – it matches Damico’s narrative structure, and the violence that needs to be done to the film in order to make it fit.  Which was a useful exercise in reminding us that surface is as important as – if differently important to – structure. (Damico also gave us the opportunity in passing to think about how genre definitions work to privilege certain texts and marginalise others,  reorganising our understanding of groups of relatable texts rather than telling us some fixed truth about genre. But that was me wandering off topic a bit.)

From shared narrative structure we moved onto structuralist thinking about binary oppositions – and to run through this idea we left the city behind for a while and headed out west, as Jim Kitses’s Horizon’s West (1969) contains that fabulously useful (if problematic) discussion of the western in terms of the generative conflict between wilderness and civilisation (and 20 other related oppositions).

And (finally) this brought us to the series of oppositions I asked the class to think about while watching Ratcatcher:

city vs. country
urban tenements vs. suburb/new estate
male vs. female
adults/parents vs. children
rich vs. poor
English vs. Scots
freedom vs. confinement

The class were pretty quick to spot the ways in which most of these categories map onto each other, linking the urban tenement with varieties of confinement and the new estate out in the countryside with freedom: playing on piles of garbage vs. playing on a construction site; flats off shared stairwells vs. individual houses with interior staircases; outside loos and tin baths on the kitchen floor vs. fully plumbed inside bathrooms; the view out of the window onto a dirty dangerous canal vs. the view out of the window onto a rather improbably golden field; looking out of windows vs. climbing out through windows; etc – all  of which is peculiarly echoed in the odd digression about the mouse launched into space finding a new home safe from the cruelty of young boys among a community of mice (which is surely a Clangers homage).

And then there were the wealthy English represented by the received pronunciation of the television news reporters commenting on the dustmen’s strike and the filthy conditions the people of Glasgow endure vs. the actual characters whose lives disrupt this patrician colonial perspective upon them.

Then we turned to Mary Barton.

Chapter 5 begins with a passage that introduces two key oppositions: appearance vs. reality and the individual vs. the mass. Gaskell’s narrator describes the working class Mancunian men who defy middle class expectations (and the tendency to lose particularities when you homogenise people as members of a class) by being skilled mathematicians, botanists and entomologists (and should we doubt it, she invokes a partially-remembered record of botanist Sir JE Smith finding himself dependent on a porter and a hand-loom weaver for advice on a rare specimen he sought).

Margaret Legh brings her friend, Mary Barton, home to meet one such amateur natural historian, her father Jacob. It seems odd at first, but this encounter, focalised through Mary, throws out scientific imagery in favour of something more alchemical, comparing Jacob to a wizard, speaking of the uncanny, the cabalistic, the mysterious. Having just hinged the credibility of her fictional account around a real historical event, Gaskell switches genres, drawing on something closer to the gothic romance. Opposing science and superstition in this way reinforces the common cultural opposition of masculine rationality and feminine fancifulness. In the following pages, a recently widowed woman is described as lacking foresight when she borrows heavily so as to be able to bury her husband, and Margaret, who is losing her eyesight, faces a similar charge because she continues to take in sewing – especially since there are a lot of deaths this winter, which involves sewing black cloth with black thread, straining her eyes even further. Mary’s own romantic fantasies of marrying the wealthy mill-owner’s son (who is courting her but with no such honourable intention) in the hope of finally being able to provide properly for her own unemployed father is contextualised, at the end of chapter 7, in terms of reading too many cheap romances and is described with reference to the Arabian Nights and in terms of building castles in the air.

But we have leapt ahead.

On meeting Jacob, Mary is told the story of how one day he bought from a sailor a scorpion, apparently frozen to death, that when placed without thinking in front of the fire came to life (Jacob managed to kill it by putting it in a pan of boiling water, and then preserved the remains). This peculiar anecdote – for which the chapter up until that point is merely laying the groundwork – leads nowhere in narrative terms, but introduces further oppositions (fire and water, hot and cold, life and death, and once more appearance and reality). It also foreshadows events: the chapter will end with a perilous fire that burns down the mill, and in chapters six and seven Ben Davenport and Joe and Will Wilson die of cholera, burning up with fever.

Soon after the anecdote, there is a paragraph describing a winter so cold that it is impossible for poor people to find liquid water – the icy landscape is deathly, and it seems as if it will go on for ever, a kind of inverse of the scorpion story. And it is the cold that freezes the standing pipes which prevent the fire crews from being able to bring the blaze under control. This paragraph leads into conversations about mourning and death (and economics) and blindness and insight and darkness and light.

The crowd who gather to witness the blaze are described as a mindless, unruly mass – for all her sympathy for the poor, Gaskell seems terrified of the mob and despises working class political organisation and action. But a mass in which, once more, individuals are made to stand out – Magaret and Mary in particular. And there is a curious parallel between the crowd behaving as an unconscious mass, impelled here and there by a kind of mindless subordination to a collective desire for spectacle, and Mary, who in their midst faints – loses consciousness.

Chapter 6 returns to the crowd, when Mary’s father, John Barton, on a mission of mercy is made furious by the apparent unconcern of the people he passes. And yet at the same time, he recognises that he is being unjust, that he cannot tell the first thing about them or the realities of their lives just by looking at them.

The main oppositions in this chapter map class difference onto verticality (and reinforce it with warm/light/dry vs cold/dark/damp).

Barton is summoned by a friend to the aid of Ben Davenport, who has been out of work since the mill burned down. The mill-owners, the Carson family, talk about the need to tighten their belts, but frankly they are glad the fire happened – they are insured, their machinery was out of date and needed replacing, and as the market is not that good, they are relieved to not have any expenses, such as wages. The mill-workers, on the other hand, have nothing, and many are starving. Barton descends into the narrow well between the the filthy street and the housefrony, into which mud and sewage is leaking, and from there down another step into a cellar room that never gets much light (the windows are broken and stuffed with rags, anyway); the mud and sewage is also seeping up through the floor. There is no fire, nor is there any food for the children. Davenport is near death. His desperate wife, who still suckles one of her children even though he is too old and she is barely able to produce any milk, is repeatedly described as death-like, cadaverous. Davenport is spoken of as having sunk down in the world; later, he will sink into death.

Barton’s mission of mercy takes him first to a pharmacist – the night-time shop-windows are full of commodities, perfectly lit to make them seem even more desirable, and again there is a sense of a fantastical world parallel to all this misery – and then the next day to the Carson’s house, which is brightly lit, with blazing fires and plentiful food and drink.

Carson bemoans his loneliness – only the youngest of his daughters stayed home to keep him company the previous night, and this morning the others are all also late to rise after their late night out at the assembly rooms. The youngest daughter puts her hands over her father’s eyes, mocking Margaret’s impending blindness, just as Carson’s loneliness mocks the isolation of so many of the working class characters.

Although the Carsons’ house is above ground, there is no great emphasis on it being higher than the Davenport’s – as in the spatialisation of class evident in sf films such as Metropolis (Lang 1927) and Blade Runner (Scott 1982) – but its vertical distinction is, as already noted, made clear at the end of chapter seven. It is part of the castle in the air that Mary’s romantic fancy builds.

Recommended critical reading
Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. 3rd ed. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009. See chapters on structuralism, Marxist criticism and feminist criticism.
Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell 1996. 79–109.
Hawkes, Terence. Structuralism and Semiotics. London: Routledge 1977.
Scholes, Robert. Structuralism in Literature. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975.
Stam, Robert, ed., New Vocabularies in Film Semiotics: Structuralism, Post-Structuralism and Beyond. London: Routledge, 1992. See part III , “Film Narratology,” especially 77–85.
Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. London: Routledge, 1998. See chapters on structuralist criticism, Marxist criticism and feminist criticism.
–. Using Critical Theory: How to Read and Write About Literature. London: Routledge, 2011. See chapters on Marxist theory and feminist theory.

Recommended reading
Novels concerned with urban poverty and class structures include Émile Zola’s L’Assommoir (1887), Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), Frank Norris’s McTeague: A Story of San Francisco (1899), Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900), Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906), Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (1914) and Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole (1933).
H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine: An Invention (1895) contains a science-fictionalised vision of class difference.
Jack London’s The People of the Abyss (1903) and George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) and The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) combine autobiographical writing with sociological reportage about living in poverty.

Recommended viewing
There is a long tradition of British social realist films about working class and lower middle class life, often in provincial towns, including such British New Wave films as Room at the Top (Clayton 1959), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Reisz 1960), A Taste of Honey (Richardson 1961), A Kind of Loving (Schlesinger 1962), The L-Shaped Room (Forbes 1962), Billy Liar (Schlesinger 1963) and This Sporting Life (Anderson 1963), all of which were adapted from novels or plays.
Later social realist films include Kes (Loach 1969), Nil by Mouth (Oldman 1997), Red Road (Arnold 2006) and Fish Tank (Arnold 2009).
A lighter tone can be found in Brassed Off (Herman 1996), The Full Monty (Cattaneo 1997), Billy Elliot (Daldry 2000), Son of Rambow (Jennnings 2007), Made in Dagenham (Cole 2010) and Pride (Warchus 2014).
Groundbreaking television series that pushed the limits of social realism are Jim Allen’s Days of Hope (1975), directed by Ken Loach, and Alan Bleasdale’s Boys from the Blackstuff, directed by Philip Saville.

Week six

The Warped World of Koreyoshi Kurahara (Criterion Eclipse boxset 28)

Kurahara_box[A version of this review first appeared in Film International 62 (2013), 54–8]

Following an apprenticeship under Toho’s Kajiro Yamamoto, and a short stint at Shochiku, Koreyoshi Kurahara joined Nikkatsu in 1954, the year the studio recommenced production after the war. He served as an assistant director on Crazed Fruit (Kurutta kajitsu 1956), Kô Nakahira’s ground-breaking taiyozoku-eiga (sun tribe film), before going on to direct a couple of films per year for the studio between 1957 and 1967, enlivening potentially formulaic material in a manner every bit as distinctive as that of his better-known contemporary, Seijun Suzuki.

XXX_Film_iamwaiting_originalKurahara’s debut film, I Am Waiting (Ore wa matteru ze 1957) – included in the earlier Criterion Eclipse collection, Nikatsu Noir – seems less like American film noir than French poetic realism. A moody, melancholic tale centred on a dockside café, it tells of the apparently doomed love between the café’s owner (an ex-boxer, stripped of his license after killing a man in a brawl) and a woman (a former opera singer, reduced to warbling in a mobster’s nightclub) he dissuades from committing suicide. Their respective backstories, however, contain the cruellest of coincidences and traps. This sense of inescapable fate is key to the earliest of the films included in this boxset, Intimidation (Aru kyouhaku 1960). Like La Bête humaine (1938), it begins with a train approaching a town, but where Jean Renoir’s film concentrates on the rails which run relentlessly ahead, crossing and merging but always driving forward, remorselessly conveying the hapless driver to his fate, Intimidation’s opening shots are misty – oneiric – with steam and condensation. Kurahara’s train races through the tunnels cut into snow-covered mountains, taking us beneath the cold heights that rise above but are inseparable from the darkness below.

Kurahara_Filmw_Intimidation_originalIntimidation focuses on the relationship between Takita, the assistant manager of a regional bank, and his childhood friend, Nakaike. Many years earlier, Takita had been involved with Nakaike’s sister, Yuki, but abandoned her to steal Kumiko, the daughter of the bank president, away from Nakaike and thus accumulate nepotistic advantages. While Nakaike is still a lowly clerk, and Yuki an embittered geisha, Takita is being promoted to the Tokyo head office, where he is to be groomed as his father-in-law’s successor. The train, though, has brought a stranger to town who threatens blackmail: unless Takita rob his own bank, Kumaki will reveal his financial irregularities and sexual infidelities. Takita hopes to take advantage of the fact that Nakaike is on guard duty on the night of the robbery. But – as an eerie dream sequence, deploying a subjective camera far more effectively than either Dark Passage (Daves 1947) or Lady in the Lake (Montgomery 1947), warns us – nothing is quite what it seems.

The economy of the film’s set-up enables Kurahara to focus upon set-pieces – such as an almost-silent heist, every bit as remarkable as the one in Rififi (Dassin 1955) – and upon unpacking, through a series of reversals, multiple layers of manipulation, revenge, humiliation and despite. Lacking the claustrophobia of film noir’s Academy ratio, Kurahara uses his widescreen format (and a frequently mobile camera) to emphasise movement through physical space, which he contrasts to the relative absence of social mobility. Depth of field, along with startling cuts along the 180° line, stress the gulf between classes. Kurahara also often favours high angle shots that strengthen the diagonal arrangement of rival characters, craning down as the balance of power alters to shift their apparent relative height. Other high angle shots seem to pin characters to the floor, as if on a dissection board. Juxtapositions within and between shots jab the viewer in the eye like a boxer, compressing information with all the swagger of Sam Fuller.

warped ones 1Such bravura flourishes become the core of Kurahara’s style by The Warped Ones (Kyonetsu no kisetsu 1960). Reworking the taiyozoku-eiga by turning from Crazed Fruit’s privileged kids to the disenfranchised youths of the unhomely, post-war tenements, it follows the story of petty criminal Akira. Thanks to journalist Kashiwagi, he is caught pick-pocketing a tourist and sentenced to Tokyo Juvenile Reformatory, where, amidst brutality and violence, he meets another young thug, Masura. After this dazzling title sequence, the film proper begins with their release. Teaming up with the prostitute Yuki, they begin a summer of casual crime. Revenge, rape, street-fighting, murder and abortions follow, interspersed with hi-jinks, impulsive thievery, mucking around and mockery of bourgeois pastimes. Driven by Toshiro Mayuzumi’s jazz score, Yoshio Mamiya’s lively hand-held cinematography and Akira Suzuki’s snappy editing, The Warped Ones is, at times, even more exhausting than it is fascinating – as if Neveldine+Taylor had directed a mash-up of Godard’s À bout de souffle (1960) and Bande à part (1964) co-written by Jim Thompson and a young Harlan Ellison. Kurahara’s camera is constantly distracted, preferring to move through space rather than cut to reaction shots. Its gaze often drifts upwards to swirl across the collage of jazz greats decorating the ceiling of Akira’s favourite bar or, more tellingly, to flood the screen with the brilliant white blaze of the summer sun. This is not the Impressionist dappling of light found in Kurosawa’s Rashômon (1950), but light as a monumental, sublime energy: on the one hand, it suggests the transcendence of earthly conditions for which Akira yearns but lacks the patience to attain; and on the other, an oppressive weight, pinning him down, exposing his purposelessness. As with Intimidation, life presses hot and hard, and Kurahara cannot resist showing us every bead of sweat.

Although not exactly a sequel, Black Sun (Kuroi taiyo 1964) returns to this milieu. In The Warped Ones, Akira threatens Kashiwagi’s pregnant girlfriend Fumiko with a broken bottle. Gill, a black American who hangs out in the same bar, intervenes, dragging Akira away and driving him to the beach. In a totally unexpected sequence – which echoes earlier shots of Masura and Yuki cavorting while Akira rapes and impregnates Fumiko – Gill and Akira run hand in hand across the sand before plunging into the sea harmlessly to exhaust Akira’s rage. In Black Sun, Tamio Kurahara_Filmw_BlackSun_originalKawachi plays Mei, identical to his earlier Akira in almost every respect, Yuko Chishiro plays another prostitute called Yuki, and Chico Roland plays Gill, a wounded GI on the run after killing two other servicemen. The film starts with the desolate wasteland before an ominously alien-looking nuclear power station, where tiny figures scavenge for scrap. The jazz-obsessed Mei, who lives in a bombed-out church with his dog Thelonius Monk, thinks nothing of robbing these weary middle-aged mudlarks so that he can buy the new Max Roach Quartet album. When he finds Gill hiding in his squat, Mei assumes they will automatically be friends, since he loves black American music, and thus all black Americans. The culture-clash melodrama that follows (perhaps the oddest of rashamen films) plays like some demented, infernal rendition of The Defiant Ones (Kramer 1958) – part John Cassavetes, part Shinya Tsukamoto. Roland plays Gill as a feverish, distracted brute, wielding a ridiculously large machine gun, sweating profusely, mumbling and yelping his lines. Kurahara draws awkward parallels between post-Occupation Japan and the American civil rights struggle – and at one point even has Mei don blackface and whitewash Gill’s face so that they can escape by posing as street entertainers.

But all this bizzarerie ends magnificently. The increasingly incoherent Gill is obsessed with reaching the sea, which he associates with his mother and with redemption. Mei manages to get him first to a filthy, oil-slicked estuary, and then to a rooftop overlooking a heavily industrialised port. Somehow Gill gets caught in the ropes tethering an advertising balloon. He pleads with Mei to release it. And as the pursuing MPs close in, the delirious Gill rises up towards the sun, an absurd, black, blasphemous, jazz Christ.

Made between The Warped Ones and Black Sun, I Hate But Love (Nikui an-chikusho 1962) moderates and modulates Kurahara’s stylistic excesses, as one would expect of a colour vehicle for Nikkatsu’s – arguably Japan’s – biggest stars of that year, Yujiro Ishihara and Ruriko Asaoka. (Ishihara, an overnight success thanks to his performance in Crazed Fruit, played I Am Waiting’s ex-boxer and had already in 1962 co-starred with Asaoka in Kurahara’s hit Ginza Love Story (Ginza no koi no monogatari)). Kurahara’s camera remains restless, but not so unanchored that it cannot cope with sets and occasional back-projection. This time the contrived set up comes straight from a 1930s screwball or 1950s sex comedy, but the movie that ensues is more of a melodrama. Sort of.

i hate but love 1In just two years, Daisaku Kita has been transformed from a penniless poet into a radio and television star, thanks to a deal he struck with Noriko Sakakta: she would manage him, initially for free, but they would never consummate their romantic entanglement with so much as a kiss. Fed up with an unfulfilling life of constant bustling activity, and frustrated by his relationship with Noriko, Daisaku encounters Yoshiko Igawa. She has devoted her life to buying a jeep with which to aid Toshio Kosaka, a doctor in a remote village, in his work. Yoshiko insists that she and Toshio, who have conducted their entire relationship through letters, possess a ‘pure love’. Daisaku agrees on air to deliver the jeep to Toshio, so that he can experience some trace of this love – a love so different to that which he shares with Noriko. And Noriko pursues him across Japan, trying to bring him back in order to save his career from his multiple breaches of contract – at least, that is what she tells herself.

Kurahara’s road movie never becomes as achingly romantic as Godard’s Pierrot le fou (1965) or Takeshi Kitano’s Hana-bi (1997), and his melodrama eschews the oedipal intensity of Nicholas Ray. His comedy has neither the bite of Preston Sturges (although one sequence resembles Sullivan’s Travels (1941) more than slightly), nor the brashness of Yasuzo Masumura’s Giants and Toys (Kyojin to gangu 1958), although Masumura – and Frank Tashlin – would undoubtedly have enjoyed the sequence in which Daisaku and Noriko struggle through a cloacal tunnel onto the fecal mud of mountain roads. But somehow Kurahara pulls it off – his stars, especially Asaoka, are a delight – and he even manages to conclude with a shot looking up at the sun, here betokening a pure love of hope and renewal.

The light that saturates Asaoka’s Etsuko – and the entire frame – in Thirst For Love (Ai no kawaki 1967) signifies something rather different: sexual ecstasy, erotic distraction, amoral desire. Etsuko, widowed soon after her marriage, submits to the attentions of her father-in-law, fends off those of her brother-in-law, and yearns for the family’s young groundskeeper, Saburo. Despite desiring Etsuko, Saburo does not know what to make of her, and her pursuit of him is confused, impulsive, uncertain. The class gulf between them is too great for her imagination to bridge, and she becomes increasingly cruel to him, trying to make him suffer just as she (feels she) suffers. Based on a Yukio Mishima novel, and offering the perfect set-up for a film by Luis Buñuel or Douglas Sirk, Thirst for Love instead more closely resembles Shohei Imamura’s The Insect Woman (Nippon konchuki 1963) and Intentions of Murder (Akai satsui 1964) in its study of a feminisuto (but hardly feminist) woman.

While occasional shots and scenes possess the still formality of Yasujirô Ozu, these are odd moments of calm in another stylistically mercurial movie, incorporating voice-over narration, interior monologues, negative footage, slow motion, extreme close-ups, stills, sound distortions, intertitles, flashes of violent fantasised action, brief flashes of colour film (bright red, of course), a conversation that suddenly jumps into long-shot and switches from audible dialogue to subtitles, and, most remarkable of all, a two-and-half minute shot in which the camera cranes around an ornate light-fitting, showing the eight people seated at the family dinner table, before moving off to one side to look down at them as they converse, and then craning around and down behind Saburo as he rises to leave, before zooming in on Etsuko, sitting at the other end of the table, as she watches him depart.

Thirst for Love was Kurahara’s last film under contract to Nikkatsu. Studio bosses purportedly found it too arty and delayed its release, prompting Kurahara to quit the studio (in the same year, Nikkatsu fired Suzuki for turning in the brilliant absurdist hitman movie, Branded to Kill (Koroshi no rakuin 1967), rather than the sane, polished and pedestrian Joe Shishido vehicle they had expected). Kurahara continued to make movies, albeit at a reduced rate, eventually transforming himself into the reliable and unchallenging director of such films as Antarctica (Nankyoku monogatari 1983), the biggest Japanese box-office hit prior to Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (Mononoke-hime 1997). But in his decade as a Nikkatsu contract director with an output as eclectic as Suzuki’s, he developed a personal style and vision every bit as striking as those of such contemporaries in the Japanese New Wave as Imamura, Masumura, Nagisa Oshima and Hiroshi Teshigahara. And by making this selection of his films available, Criterion have once more done us invaluable service.

 

Out of the Unknown: ‘The Fox and the Forest’ BBC2 22 November 1965

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Ray Bradbury

This is the first episode not to have survived (apart from its credits sequence). It is an adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s 1950 story, originally published in Collier’s as ‘To the Future’ but collected in The Illustrated Man (1951) as ‘The Fox and the Forest’.

By 1965, Bradbury was already probably the sf writer most adapted for television, and he had begun to branch out into film and television writing: he wrote the screenplay for Moby Dick OOTU Fox LISTING(Huston 1956) and, uncredited, the narration for King of Kings (Ray 1961); and for Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-62) he adapted stories by himself and others and wrote an original script, too. This familiarity with the industry might explain why, in addition to the $1000 he was paid for rights to the story, his contract stipulated he would be paid the same every time it was repeated (typically, authors received only 50% for reruns). It might also explain why it was never repeated and thus, maybe, how it did not survive.

It was directed by Robin Midgley, primarily a stage director, although he had already notched up a number of television credits, including several episodes of Z Cars.

Irene Shubik initially commissioned a 75-minute adaptation for Story Parade, but struggled to find the right writer. It was offered to Ken Taylor, and then to Ilona Ference, who turned in an unusable script that had failed to take account of the economics and logistics of shooting a television drama. Next, Terry Nation produced a script that Shubik found vulgar. It was offered to Michael Simpson to revise, but he turned it down. Finally, Meade Roberts, who scripted the previous week’s ‘Sucker Bait’, shortened the teleplay to Out of the Unknown’s 60-minute run time and rewrote Nation’s dialogue.

Bradbury’s name was undoubtedly a draw, and Shubik even at one point considered ‘The Fox and the Forest’ as a potential season opener, but it is difficult to work out why she thought there was an hour of television drama in Bradbury’s story (let alone 75 minutes).

130438The story opens in Mexico in 1938. A tourist couple, William and Susan Travis, seem a little disoriented by it all. Which is not surprising because, it is quickly revealed, they are actually Ann and Roger Kristen, on the lam from an unbearable future. They were born in the middle of the 22nd century,

in a world that was evil. A world that was like a great black ship pulling away from the shore of sanity and civilization, roaring its black horn in the night, taking two billion people with it, whether they wanted to go or not, to death, to fall over the edge of the earth and the sea into radioactive flame and madness. (189)

A time-travel technology has been developed that allows inhabitants of this dismal world of the permanent warfare state to take holidays in the past. Ann and Roger, determined not to return, have gone into hiding. But a Searcher is on their trail. They evade him, and walk right into the rather obvious twist/trap laid for them.

43437By the standards of almost any other sf writer of the period, it is pretty slim. The opening is quite atmospheric, if in that rather vague way Bradbury has; the future world from which the protagonists are fleeing is every bit as vague, just a concatenation of phrases from Bradbury’s usual shorthand dystopianism (nuclear threat, totalitarianism, book-burning); the cat-and-mouse thriller element is not particularly suspenseful, and the action scenes no less perfunctory.  Apparently, the episode follows the story rather closely, but extends it by adding on an opening section in which the protagonists kill the first Searcher sent to track them down. According to the Guardian, the opening quarter of an hour was difficult to follow, while Television Today suggested it was ‘one of the most convincing produced plays in the series’ (Ward 110).

A pre-Alf Garnett Warren Mitchell is in it.

Previous episode, ‘Sucker Bait
Next episode, ‘Andover and the Android

Sources
Ray Bradbury, ‘The Fox and the Forest’, The Illustrated Man (London: Harper Voyager) 184-208.
Mark Ward, Out of the Unknown: A Guide to the Legendary Series (Bristol: Kaleidoscope, 2004)

Film neige: noir + snow

hqdefaultIn 1952, midway between two great noir performances as a psychotic racist (Crossfire, 1947; Odds Against Tomorrow, 1959), Robert Ryan played detective Jim Wilson in Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground. Alongside Ryan and Ray, the film has pretty much everything you could want from a tough-cop-on-the-edge noir: a script by AI Bezzerides, a score by Bernard Herrmann, and roles for Ida Lupino both in front of and (uncredited) behind the camera.

Wilson is sick of the scum he encounters – and beats on, with weary resignation and twisted joy – every day. Facing possible prosecution over a too-vigorous interrogation, he is sent out of the city to help some small-town cops track the killer of a young girl through the mountains. It is winter. And in the snow, the film begins to change – morphing, like all of Ray’s film noirs, into something more closely resembling the melodramas for which he is best remembered. Wilson stumbles upon the isolated house of a beautiful blind woman. Her kid brother, Danny, is the deranged killer; she is blind because she stayed to look after him rather than going away to have an operation. And her faith in Wilson’s goodness – something he just does not deserve – redeems him.

But this generic transformation is not merely Ray’s doing. It has something to do with the snow.

The first Max Payne video game (2001) is set during the worst blizzard to hit New York in a century, and in Sin City (2005), when Hartigan (Bruce Willis) is released from prison, having finally confessed to crimes he did not commit in order to go out and commit some for real (not without good reason), snow falls, blanketing the ground. There is something very right about these images, appearing in cross-media franchises that function as compendia of American crime fiction tropes.

But snow is rare in film noir.

There is sun, wind and rain – Key Largo (1948) has all three – but very little snow.

Citizen Kane (1941), visually the most significant American precursor of noir, has snow, and the climax of Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937) does get very cold, since its couple on the run are the odds-against-tomorrow-harry-belafonte-1959only fugitives ever to head for the Canadian rather than the Mexican border. And if you’ve not seen Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow recently you can be forgiven for thinking it has snow: the sound effects are so good, the icy wind cuts right through you. But in classical Hollywood, film neige, like the snow that somehow brings Britain grinding to a halt every couple of years, is pretty thin on the ground.

Why is this? Well, actually snow is relatively rare in studio-era Hollywood. It does appear in big-budget films (Way Down East, 1920), but it is difficult and expensive to shoot in cold, wet conditions and film noir rarely had a dime to spare. And when you fake it, it looks fake. However, that need not be a problem for films that are comical (How to Marry a Millionaire, 1953), fantastical (The Curse of the Cat People, 1944), musical (Swing Time, 1936) or otherwise given to artifice (All That Heaven Allows, 1955). Film noir, though, is rarely any of these things.

Snow has great noirish potential. It is treacherous, unpredictable. It can betray you, isolate you, trap you, kill you. Pursuers can track you through the snow, and it can force you into dangerous proximity to them. Banks and drifts obscure contours, conceal familiar markers. Flurries become blizzards. Visibility reduces. Cold becomes colder. Circulation slows. You begin to lose feeling. Death is never far away. It creeps inwards.

All of which makes sense in the wilderness, and even, sort of, in the older, northern and eastern cities in which, typically, gangster films – and Max Payne and Sin City – are set.

But film noir is a Californian invention. Whether it is the sultry Argentine night in which Rita Hayworth threatens to strip (Gilda, 1946), the dazzling Mexican afternoon out of which Jane Greer emerges to lead Robert Mitchum astray (Out of the Past, 1947), the hot Mexican night in which Mitchum, shirtless and glistening, is flogged with a belt, the buckle opening welts in his back, and thrown into a steam-filled engine room (His Kind of Woman, 1951), or the unseen suburban deck on which Barbara Stanwyck is sunbathing when Fred MacMurray comes hawking insurance (Double Indemnity, 1944), film noir thrives on heat.

In the heat, passions rise. Tempers fray. Everyone becomes just a little bit flushed. A little bit moist.

Snow simply lacks this erotic resonance.

So Robert Ryan, stuck overnight with Ida Lupino (and, admittedly, Ward Bond), has little choice but to sleep on the floor and wake up in a neighbouring genre; and film noir could do little with snow until it was reworked overseas and in post-classical Hollywood.

François Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste (1960) casts Charles Aznavour as bar-room piano player Charlie Kohler. Once a concert pianist, he goes to pieces when he finds out that his waitress wife slept with an impresario to get him his big break. When she tells him this, he leaves her and she commits suicide. He abandons celebrity for anonymity, and rediscovers love with another supportive waitress, Léna. They flee Paris to his family farm, where his criminal brothers are holed up, having double-crossed their gang. Truffaut sets the final few minutes of the film in a desolate, rural snowscape, wryly inverting film noir’s black:white ratio. TruffautTirezSurLePianisteLenaThe gunfight between the gang and Charlie’s brothers plays on the spatial disorientations – and slippery footing – of deep, featureless snow. Léna, of course, is caught in the crossfire, robbing Charlie of his renewed future.

Charlie returns to the bar. A new waitress is introduced. Will she too become involved with him, offer him redemption? Will it also end badly for her? The snow reminds us that for Truffaut (or perhaps merely Charlie), women are like snowflakes: they are all unique, but this only makes them indistinguishable, interchangeable.

Even bleaker is The Criminal (1960), made in the UK by exiled American director Joseph Losey. Fresh out of prison, Johnny Bannion (Stanley Baker), a cocksure working-class lad made good in London’s gangland, organises a brilliant racetrack heist; but being in love, he makes a tiny error and is promptly betrayed. When he is sent back to prison, his bosses abduct his girlfriend Suzanne to force him to reveal the whereabouts of the loot. Instead, Bannion promises it all to a crook who can break him out. He rescues Suzanne, but is followed to the snow-dusted field where he buried the money. A shoot-out leaves him bleeding to death in this dismal, grey-white, rutted landscape. As the camera cranes up and away from his corpse, his killers randomly scratch at 23-The-Criminal-360x216the frozen dirt in the hope of finding the cash – and we hit the permafrost of existence: life is not just cold, it is as hard and featureless and unrelenting as the ground on which Bannion dies.

In Fargo (1996), snow simplifies things. The ground – even the air – loses its features. The world is reduced to small towns and corporate franchises linked only by roads, phones, TV broadcasts and flows of money in a whited-out desert of the real. It is as if Chuck Jones and Jean Baudrillard had collaborated on a Jim Thompson adaptation. The Coen brothers’ caricatures of Minnesotans and North Dakotans open up the gulf between American capitalism and the kind of small-town values (decency, neighbourliness) that Sarah Palin pretends to embody. In Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan (1998), snow isolates a gently parodic small town so as to reveal the extent to which those values are a myth desperately at odds with capitalism. College-educated Hank (Bill Paxton), his unemployed brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton) and Jacob’s friend, Lou (Brent Briscoe), find a kidnapper’s plane, carrying over four million dollars in ransom, crashed in the snow. Family ties and class differences clash as Jacob is forced to choose between Hank and Lou. Hank’s wife, Sarah (Bridget Fonda), initially nice-as-apple-pie, becomes grimly determined to hang onto the cash. Violence erupts. People die. But that is nothing to her hatred for their just-getting-by lives.

jlgThe Lookout (2007) is likewise about the contradictions of the American dream. Former high school hockey star Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), brain-damaged in a car crash, has lost everything. Wintry Kansas-Missouri settings emphasise his barren existence. Bank robbers manipulate him into helping them, but the heist goes wrong. Chris must concoct and follow a complex plan to free his kidnapped best friend – the only problem is, Chris has severe difficulties with planning future actions and suffers form short-term memory dysfunction. Against a stark white snowscape, the world – bitterly, ironically – redeems Chris, almost against his will.

However, the bleakest American neo-neige is – unsurprisingly – not actually American. A Danish-Canadian-British-Brazilian co-production co-written by Hubert Selby Jr, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Fear X (2003) starts with Harry Caine (John Turturro) opening the curtains of his Wisconsin suburban tract home. Snow falls gently on the snow-covered street. A woman enters the house opposite. It is Harry’s wife. But Harry is dreaming. His wife is dead, killed in a double homicide outside the mall where he works as a security guard. The black and white surveillance footage from that day – over which Harry pores every night, desperate for any clue as to who killed her and why – fills the screen, grainy and blurred, a blue-grey world of silhouettes, shadows and snow.

Snow fills Harry’s dreams and memories. It creeps into his system, fills him from the core – twin wavefronts of despair and isolation.artikel_fear_x_2

Is it worth risking his life to get a step closer to the killer?

‘I’m not living anyway’, he replies.

[A version of this piece first appeared in Electric Sheep back when it was hard copy; but issue 8 (winter 2008), is now out of print.]