Women in Film Noir VI – Containment of the Subversive Representation of the Domestic Sphere

Harvey’s position (explored here: V) regarding the subversive representation of the domestic sphere is flawed. Though Harvey is correct to note that the domestic sphere is often represented as poisoned or tense, as in Mildred Pierce when the unemployed Albert Pierce gets constantly undermined and nagged, the representation of the domestic sphere is far from subversive. In film noir the poisoned atmosphere is always qualified by some represented or implied transgressive act. In Double Indemnity the poisoned, stale domestic sphere is attributed to the evil of the destroyer Phyllis Dietrichson. The Dietrichson household is loveless primarily because they married, not for love, but money. Phyllis admits she married Mr. Dietrichson after his first wife died because she wanted a roof over her head. She also bitterly remarked that divorce was out of the question because all of his money is tied up in the business. Phyllis’s poisoning of the domestic sphere also extends to Mr. Dietrichson’s first marriage. Phyllis was a nurse for Mr. Dietrichson’s first wife who died of pneumonia. Lola Dietrichson (the daughter of Mr. Dietrichson) witnessed Phyllis attempt to murder the first wife by opening up all the windows and stealing all of the covers (thereby increasing the chance the first Mrs. Diestrichson would die from pneumonia). Therefore the domestic sphere’s poisonous atmosphere is attributed to the excessive lust and social ambition of Phyllis. Rather than communicate that it is the institution of marriage that is corrupt, Double Indemnity and film noir articulates that it is the individual who is responsible for the poisoned domestic sphere. The individualization of social problems is a recurring motif in Hollywood. As Theodore Adorno asserts:

Even a radical film director who wished to portray crucially important special developments like the merger of two industrial concerns could only do so by showing us the dominant figure in the office, at the conference table or in their mansions. Even if they were thereby revealed as monstrous characters, their monstrousness would still be sanctioned as a quality of individual human beings in a way that would tend to obscure the monstrousness of the system whose servile functionaries they are.[1]

That is, even if a director wishes to portray a social institution as corrupt that portrayal would locate the corruption in the heart of an individual. This individualization of institutional corruption or contradictions inherently obscures the system behind the corruption. Double Indemnity, like Adorno’s hypothetical film, represents the corrupt domestic sphere as being determined by the qualities of an individual human being (Phyllis) rather than the contradictions inherent in the institution of marriage.

            Harvey’s second assertion that film noir facilitates the consideration of alternative “non-repressive” social institutions is also incorrect. In Mildred Pierce an alternative to the traditional patriarchal marriage is shown but the viewers are left without doubt that it is not viable or desirable. Mildred Pierce’s marriage to Monte Beragon – motivated by a desire to climb the social ladder – is non-conventional because Mildred is the “bread winner”. This reversal of traditional gender roles is presented visually through Mildred’s structured hairstyle and masculine dress-suits. The consequence of Mildred assuming the masculine role is that Monte feels emasculated. Consequently Monte conspires to undermine Mildred and does so by bringing about the downfall of her business. Therefore the “alternative” system of marriage, in which the woman controls the relationship, is shown in Mildred Pierce as being corrupt and doomed to failure. Harvey could argue that this is not the alternative to marriage implied in her article however, even if we accept this, Mildred Pierce still presents an alternative to marriage as being worse than traditional marriage. Furthermore there seems to be no ground to assume that any further alteration or alternative to the institution of marriage is going to be argued for positively in Mildred Pierce. Mildred Pierce’s resolution reaffirms my reading that film noir supports the traditional institution of marriage over the increased independence of women in the domestic and work spheres. When Mildred leaves the police interrogation room she is met by her first husband Albert who takes her arm and leads her through a massive archway into the sunrise. The message being that, although traditional marriage has its negatives, it is by far the best system available to society for the production of well-rounded individuals. Rather than criticising the traditional institute of marriage, Mildred Pierce reaffirms its place as the most natural and beneficial framework of society. Therefore, Harvey’s assertion that film noir promotes alternative institutions for the reproduction of social life is wrong.


[1]               Theodore Adorno, ‘The Schema of Mass Culture’ in Theodore Adorno, The Culture Industry, (London: Routledge, 2001), pp. 61-97, p. 66.

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Women in Film Noir II – The Importance of the Hays Code

Continuing from my previous article concerning the representation of women in film noir in this article i will set out an analysis of that depiction utilizing Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of capitalism and the desiring machine. As i noted in the previous article Hollywood inscribes the two central female figures as examples of appropriate and inappropriate desire. The destroyer is an example of desire without limits. The redeemer is conversely an example of desire within the (acceptable) limits. The articulation of the limits of desire can be seen as a prime function of the Hollywood desiring-machine. A desiring-machine is a social body which produces, codes and articulates desire. Desiring-machines also install identities by articulating how, why, when and what those subjects will desire. Deleuze and Guattari explain ‘The prime function incumbent upon the socius1, has always been to codify the flows of desire, to inscribe them, to record them, to see to it that no flow exists that is not properly damned up, channeled, regulated’.2 Therefore the production of archetypes is integral to the process of the desiring-machine because it allows a social body to articulate the acceptable limits of desire. This need to regulate the construction and representation of desire is further facilitated by Hollywood’s use of repressive structures such as the Hays Code. The Hays Code, named after its principle author Will H Hays, written in 1930 and adopted in 1934, stipulated what Hollywood films could and couldn’t show. The main intention behind the code was the reaffirmation of traditional moral ‘standards of life’.3 Molly Haskell explains:

In its support of the holy institution of matrimony, the [Hays] code was trying to keep the family together and (theoretically) protect the American female from the footloose American males who would obviously flee at the first opportunity, unless he was bound by the chains of the sacrament, which Hollywood took upon itself to keep polished and shining.4

As Haskell notes, one of the central aspects of the Hays Code was the attempt to ensure that institutions such as marriage weren’t disparaged or insulted. The code achieved this by explicitly requiring films not to ‘infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing’.5 Any character who transgresses these traditional sexual and social norms is structurally required by the Hays Code to be punished and repressed in the film’s resolution. Carmen, in The Big Sleep, is an example of this censorship. The consequence of Carmen’s inappropriate sexuality and promiscuity is her institutionalization. As well as being placed in a mental institution, Carmen is removed from the film’s denouement completely. Carmen is not permitted by the Hays Code to have a positive resolution; Carmen’s ending is complete censorship. The Hays Code is therefore an integral element in the construction of film noir narratives because it informs how transgressive behaviour has to be dealt with.

1 The socius is a social body or organism.

2 Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Capitalism and Schizophrenia, (London: Continuum, 2008), p. 37.

3 Will H Hays, ‘The Motion Picture Production Code’, in Richard Maltby, Hollywood Cinema, Second Edition, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), pp. 593-597, p. 593.

4 Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape, (London: The University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 21.

5 W H Hays, ‘The Motion Picture Production Code’, p. 595.

The Fog and the Return of the Repressed Other

 

The Fog (1980)

 

The free motif of shattering façades in The Fog is an interesting and important one as it communicates a central issue of the films digesis. Exploring the symbolic nature of a shattering façade we note that it seems to indicate the return – and a violent breaching – of the repressed. Glass keeps the cold and various other elements, such as rain, from entering a house. Glass is a barrier to the elements of the wild; when a glass ruptured those elements are felt. Glass, windows and other barriers symbolise the the things we put up to separate and to keep out those elements of our personality, past and character that we wish hidden and repressed. When a glass, window or other façade is broken it tends to symbolise a fracture or return of the repressed. In The Fog we see several ruptures such as glass windows shattering, shattering dials and crumbling stones. The crumbling stone is the most explicit of all the happenings as it overtly uncovers, or exposes, the filthy secrets that the small Californian coastal town was built on.

 

The repression is not individual in The Fog. The guilt is social, the repression social. In most basic terms the repression is of the “other”. The town was approached by a Danish leper colony whose leader offered a sum of money to be allowed to establish a settlement near by. The town leaders shuddered at the thought of the settlement near by. On a foggy night they drew the leper’s ship onto some rocks causing them to drown. The town built its church will stolen money from the Danish leper’s ship. The destruction of the “other” and the immoral act of enabling this has come back to haunt the present. All American towns can be said to have built themselves upon the destruction and exploitation of indigenous and imported “others”. The fog in the films’ digesis seems to represent a return of the repressed and dominated and the film symbolises the social-psyche’s collective guilt concerning the brutal repression and exploitation of the “other”. Collective guilt is played out in the small coastal town’s terrifying plight against seemingly immortal revenging ghosts [similar to the “Furies” of Ancient Greek Mythology]. The use of fog as a carrier of the returning “other” is also an interesting choice. The fog seems symbolic of the unconscious itself. An ungraspable, untouchable dense something which hides our deepest fears and concerns. As I have noted this sense of the unconscious and repressed resonates through the entire film.

 

Regarding the Kuleshov effect we can see how it relates to the production of meaning in The Fog. In the film we see how the ‘effect’ produces a shock in the audience. The film relates two images creating the connotation that a “ghost” uses a spike to ram into a fisherman’s eyes. We never see this gruesome act however the non-seen act is still communicated because the we link the two acts by their close proximity.

 

The Function of Chiaroscuro Lighting and Analepsis in Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity (1944)

Double Indemnity is a classic film noir. The film noir is a hard genre to define, but it is commonly said to be a collection of Aesthetical Principles and a more cynical outlook during and after WWII.1. Double Indemnity starts with non-diagetic music which installs a sense of urgency and action that mirrors a speeding car. The editing is smooth, as each cut dissolves into another, ensuring a clear understanding that time and space has moved in a linear fashion. The establishing shot of Walter Neff’s workplace stunts this fluid action, the camera then pans right, slowly following Neff into an office; which, conversely to building drama and frenetic action, constructs a sense of suspense. The editing, although linear, manipulates clock time, as the frame speed and scene change slows down as he enters the insurance building, this technique is the editing of a frames’ rhythm between shots. What this editing technique does is change the rhythm and pace of our perception, ensuring we gain a sense of drama and suspense.

 

In film noir lighting is an important aesthetical principle as this give clues to the characters’ function. As Neff enters the office we only see thin bars of white light, projected across his chest, as if he was in a jail. As he switches the light on, the room is flooded with white and all shadows are removed. This technique is called Chiaroscuro2, the artful use of shades in black and white photography. This technique gives the viewer clues about the nature of Neff’s actions; that he is seeking redemption, bringing himself out of the shadows metaphorically, in the form of a confession, into the light. This functions as an instantly identifiable trope which helps the viewer to understand Neff’s character and narrative function as the Male Protagonist – a key component of the film noir. The understanding of characterisation is essential in Classic Hollywood cinema; the opening scene unmistakably uses generic conventions of the film noir to construct Walter Neff, from the lighting of the set, his bare and uninspiring office, the mise-en-scene, and the continuous motif of lighting a match between his finger and thumb.

 

In film noir the narrative is always centred on partial redemption and rationalisation of the male protagonist’s actions. In Double Indemnity this is done through the narrative technique of analepsis, or the flashback. The narrative device of analepsis is a classic film noir device which critic Schrader tells us creates a sense of ‘an irretrievable past, a predetermined fate, and an all-enveloping hopelessness’3 this outlook is culmination of the pre-war depression and WWII. As Walter Neff starts his confession the camera focuses on his face with a medium close-up. The camera position is mimicking the relationship between police and suspect, and although he’s talking into a voice-recorder, we can assume that we are meant to be placed in that moralising position. The combination of chiaroscuro and analepsis gives Double Indemnity a dark, unsentimental vision of America and in this way Billy Wilder’s Film is a classic film noir.

 

1. Michael Walker ‘Film Noir: Introduction’ in Ian Cameron (Ed) The Movie Book of Film Noir. (London: Studio Vista) 1994 PP 8-38

2. Billy Wilder was earlier in his career a German Expressionist, and the expert use of Chiaroscuro is most likely due in part to this fact.

3. P, Schrader. ‘Notes on Film Noir’ in B.K, Grant. (Ed) Film Genre Reader II ( Austin: University of Texas Press) 1999 PP 119-221 P220

Ford’s use of John Wayne’s Star Persona in The Searchers

The Searchers (1956)

John Wayne’s star persona, in John Ford’s The Searchers, instructs the viewer insofar as much as it builds expectations about the character he portrays; Ethan Edwards. The importance of John Wayne as a star is captured in the title sequence at the beginning of the film; John Wayne’s name is much larger than his characters, although normal and expected in most Hollywood films, this seems to be indicative of the Hollywood star system that invests more heavily in the actor rather than the actual character.1. Viewers come to a Hollywood text expecting the same tough, charismatic, paternal John Wayne they see in his countless Western and War films; though in the guise of a different character he continuously embodies the attributes of American Culture seen as positive and inspirational.2.

In The Searchers the director Ford subverts this expectation as he manipulates our trust and identification with John Wayne. Wayne’s character Ethan is an overtly racist character, this is a continuous motif of the film, and his actions after finding an Native American grave support this. The scene starts with the traditional continuity editing technique of Match-on-Action; this ensures the movement of the riders between two cuts to different scene locations seem smooth. Ethan shoots the eyes of the uncovered dead Native American, indicating the bitter hatred and anger he has; this act dams the dead warrior to an afterlife, according to his beliefs, wondering the wind and never reaching his Heaven. This violent act, signposts the nature of the journey Ethan is wishing to undertake; he wishes to take revenge on Native Americans beyond death and into the afterlife. This eternal vendetta indicates the mistrust Ethan has in the Western vision of the afterlife and judgement – Eternal Judgement is meant to be Gods.

The play on Wayne’s star persona also helps to create a tension when Debbie comes over the hill to see him: the normal expectation is that he will save her, though he pulls out his gun to shoot her. This is the reverse that you expect from a John Wayne character, and in many ways Ford’s use of Wayne helps the critical vision of the film. Due to the popularity of Wayne we automatically associate with the central protagonist Ethan, but are constantly challenged, through his racist outbursts and violent action, to question our association with him.3. We are also, due to the foregrounding of his racist ideology asked questions about the inherently racist genre of the Western.4. The conflict which arises due to his overt racism can only be effective if it was at first an institutional part of the genre itself. Fords use of generic characterisation and the star system indicates his understanding of Hollywood film as a genre itself, which is more prominent in the Post-Classical Hollywood films such as Deadman.5. Furthermore this understanding ensures Ford can, within generic restrictions of Hollywood and the Western, make political and social observations on the way America conceptualises its present and past.6.

 

1. M, Pramaggiore. & T, Wallis. (Ed). Film a Critical Introduction, (London: Laurence King Publishing, 2007). PP 355-372

2. D, Thomas. ‘John Wayne’s Body’, in I, Cameron. & D, Pye. (Ed) The Movie Book of The Western, (London, Studio Vista, 1996), PP75-87

3. P, Cobley. Narrative, (London: Routledge, 2006) P69

4.  R, Maltby. ‘A Better Sense of History: John Ford and the Indians’ in I, Cameron. & D, Pye. (Ed) The Movie Book of The Western, (London, Studio Vista, 1996) PP34-49

5. Deadman. Dir Jim Jarmusch. Miramax Films, (USA) 1996.

6.  S, Hall. ‘How the West was Won; History, Spectacle and the American Mountains’ in I, Cameron. & D, Pye. (Ed) The Movie Book of The Western, (London, Studio Vista, 1996) PP 225-261

A Review of a Combat Scene in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now (1979)

 

In Apocalypse Now‘s combat scenes we are given a fragmented, disjointed view which Coppola used to communicate the true nature of the Vietnam war and every modern war. Coppola commented, in a brochure released with the first screenings, that ‘The most important thing I wanted to do in the making of Apocalypse Now was to create a film experience that would give its audience a sense of the horror, the madness, the sensuousness, and the moral dilemma of the Vietnam war. . . . I tried to illustrate as many of its different facets as possible. And yet I wanted it to go further, to the moral issues that are behind all wars.’1 In the now famous battle scene where the Air Cavalry attack a Vietcong position while playing Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries Coppola achieves that which he set out to, namely the horror, madness, sensuousness and moral dilemma of Vietnam. The choice of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries is interesting as it serves an important function in the film. The music is majestic, composed and a symbol of both heroism and riding into hell itself. The music also represents by an association with Wagner a hatred of Jews and a recent enemy of America’s Germany – the use of music associated with Germany the Americans are superimposed into the position of the traditional enemy in War films. The music basically represents both heroism and dubious moral justifications. The soldiers are heroic riding into hell, but they are here for a rather poorly justified reason. The horror of the war is indicated in the smashing of helicopter fire into the Vietcong town, the strafing of machine gun fire into the village. The madness is indicated in the personal motivation in attack; the search for a good surfing position. The insanity is also indicated by bounty for making a good shot; a large case of beer. While the helicopters are in the air, and the music remains, the editing ensures a decent level of spatial continuity is maintained, we are regularly allowed to see the helicopters in formation and every attack is shown with a corresponding target, conflict and resolution of that conflict. When the helicopters sit down we lose a sense of spatial continuity, the camera circles around a wounded victim intimating a panicked soldiers swirling terrified head filling with nerves at the sight of blood and guts. Another interesting feature in communicating the sensory confusion is when the American bombers drop napalm on a line of trees the sound waivers and drops out of existence relating the deafening madness that is modern warfare. In this battle scene we see Coppola’s aims communicated by his use of music, shot selection and composition. Marsha Kinder explains that Apocalypse Now

‘illuminates the madness and horror of the Americans who experienced it. No matter how good or how strong, everyone who was touched by that war had a change in consciousness. Not only the fighting men, but also those who experienced the war second-hand through accounts by veterans, through television coverage, and now through seeing Apocalypse Now.2

Conrad’s Heart of Darkness communicated a lost sense of rebirth (I will do a full side by side textual analysis of Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now later on in the year) and Coppola’s film also seems to communicate this. The change, or rebirth, of those who experienced Vietnam isn’t a heroic one that is portrayed after a tour of combat in many WWII films and even Westerns, it is a loss of self, a crisis and destruction of all things held to be honourable. Even returning home is impossible as Captain Benjamin L. Willard remarks “home… I knew it just didn’t exist any more”. Coppola, in Apocalypse Now, is explaining that every aspect of American culture has been infected by the loss of faith and loss of self because it journeyed into a heart of darkness either through the medium of television or through active combat.

 

1Marsha Kinder, The Power of Adaptation in “Apocalypse Now”, Film Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 2 (Winter, 1979-1980), pp. 12-20 p. 13.

2Marsha Kinder, The Power of Adaptation in “Apocalypse Now”, p. 14.

The Moral Ambiguity of The Detective Protagonist in Coogan’s Bluff

 

Coogan’s Bluff (1968)

The Western typically was a re-writing and re-imagining of America’s bloody heritage. This re-writing had the foolish Custer as a maverick hero for sometime and continually had the native American-Indian community as symbols of the dark side of ones’ psyche and as simple savages. Coogan’s Bluff and its successors Dirty Harry (1971) et al replaces the re-imagination of America’s past with the hope and dream for a better present which also returns to that re-imagination. One thing that is interesting concerning the appropriation or adoption of the individualistic western protagonist by the detective genre is the moral ambiguity of the protagonist. Robert Warshow comments that:

‘The Westerner at his best exhibits a moral ambiguity which darkens his image and saves him from absurdity; this ambiguity arises from the fact that, whatever his justifications, he is a killer of men.’.1

Essentially Warshow is highlighting that the western protagonist is always a killer and a trespasser of rules. This trait makes him attractive because he is effective in cleaning-up the sewers of a city. However his rule breaking also makes him an non-viable option as he punches, seduces and trespasses where and when he wishes and as Detective Lt. McElroy explains to Coogan “We have a system”. Essentially the switch from gunslinger to detective becomes difficult when one understands that it highlights the difficulty of the American past and American dream; to be both a rule keeper and a rule breaker. And as a detective and a gunslinger Coogan is both diametrically opposed sides at once. Coogan just can’t exist and that is just exactly what makes his character so attractive. Don Siegel’s film becomes an arena in which he can, in Coogan’s words, try “to picture it; the way it was” before and the way it is all at once.

 

1Robert Warshow, ‘Movie Chronicle: The Westerner’ in p. 475.